Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

And For My Next Trick…

In which The Author’s magical career continues to develop

In The Incredible Magic Wallet I told you about a conjuring trick I was able to pull off with some train tickets. Well, I’m pleased to tell you that the magic didn’t end there.
After I posted Saturday’s blog, I went into the city centre to meet Shanara the Dippy Bint. Our rendezvous was going to be outside Waterstone’s at 2.30. We’d both forgotten that the rugby was on, so the city centre was packed with people killing time before the kick-off. Some were obviously going to make their way to the stadium, while the rest were planning to watch it on TV in a pub.
Even so, the area outside Waterstone’s is a pretty convenient spot: you’ve got St David’s Hall on one side, the Old Library on another, Waterstone’s and House of Fraser on the third side, and the pedestrianised street on the fourth. If somebody passes through that area, you’re not going to miss each other.
I was early (and Shanara is always fashionably late) so I called into Waterstone’s for a quick browse before she arrived. Once again, I needn’t have bothered. They had only two novels by Peter Ackroyd in stock, both of which I’ve read; there were two Kurt Vonnegut Jr novels (both of which I’ve read) and a collection of his essays (I’m not keen on his non-fiction, personally); there was a display of the usual pre-Xmas ‘celebrity’ biographies near the entrance, and a selection of hugely overpriced jigsaws near the counter.
I noticed one table of ‘Waterstone’s favourites’ – predictable titles like A Clockwork Orange and other cult classics. The weird thing is that half of them were Penguin titles and the other half were Random House titles. Penguin and Random House are now one vast publishing house. Things haven’t changed since I finished, with monolithic publishers paying to get their titles into the promotions and the independents squeezed out as a result. I don’t think I’ll be spending any money in there any time soon.
When I was in Cardiff for the demo against the Bedroom Tax, I’d called in and was pleased to see Jeff standing behind the counter. I asked him how things were in the shop, and he told me he’s only stuck it out because (like me) his age is against him in the jobs market.
He told me that the central ordering system is even more of a joke than it was when I was working there. Sir Alex Ferguson’s biography was the massive title of the moment, and the Cardiff shop had received fifty copies. If you think that’s crazy, bear in mind that Manchester’s Deansgate branch had had a single solitary copy. I know it’s often said that nobody in Manchester supports Manchester United, but come on…
Anyway, there was still no sign of Shanara when I emerged back onto the Hayes, so I propped up a lamp-post for several minutes before texting her to see where she was. She rang me almost immediately to say that she was ‘passing O’Neill’s.’
I thought she meant the fake Oirish pub next to Cardiff Market, less than a minute away. When she still hadn’t shown up a good ten minutes later, I remembered that there’s another O’Neill’s on the corner of St Mary Street. If Shanara was making her way from her home in Riverside, that would make sense. However, she still should have arrived by that time. Even if she’d been swept along by the tide of rugby fans, it wouldn’t have taken her ten minutes to reach Waterstone’s.
Then my phone beeped. It was a text from Shanara – the single word ‘downstairs.’ Somehow, she’d managed to walk into Waterstone’s under my nose, and without my seeing her. Considering that she had a pushchair with her, that made her feat of invisibility even more remarkable. If I ever decide to pursue a career as a stage magician, she’s first in line to be my assistant.
Oddly enough, at least one stage magician also features in Christopher Priest’s latest novel The Adjacent, which I’ve referred to a few times already. (You’ll have to read the book yourself to understand that rather odd sentence.) Probably his best-known novel, The Prestige (filmed by Christopher Nolan a few years ago) is about two rival illusionists in late Victorian London. In the introduction to the Pan Books edition of his short stories An Infinite Summer, Mr Priest explained that the inspiration for the title story came about when he was researching the life of H.G. Wells for his novel The Space Machine. H.G Wells also features in The Adjacent. I’d love to be able to write like that, coming up with one idea almost as a by-product of another, and pursuing them both to their logical conclusions.
There’s one last piece of magic to tell you about. I was on my way to the Sherman Theatre to see Headlong’s production of George Orwell’s 1984 (see How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?) I’d just come from the Pen and Wig, a pub I’ve passed literally a couple of thousand times on the train, but have never been able to find on previous attempts. On Saturday, I followed my nose down a dark lane and finally struck lucky. I think I’ve found a new pub to frequent on my occasional visits to Cardiff, with fairly cheap beer, a good crowd and a friendly atmosphere – not to mention a very attractive redhaired barmaid who’s (of course) young enough to be my daughter.
Anyway, as I emerged from Museum Place into Park Place, three young girls were walking ahead of me. They could have stepped straight out of the year 1984. They were proper old-school Goths, the sort of girls I really used to fancy when I was in my early twenties and a bit older. One had spiky black hair, big boots, and a black leather jacket with ‘bauhaus’ [sic] and ‘The Batcave’ painted on the back. There’s no way that she can remember Bauhaus as a functioning band, and The Batcave closed at least two decades before she was even conceived.
If was as if they’d stepped straight out of the Torchwood Rift and into my immediate timeline. They heard me come up behind them and parted to let me pass between them. I thanked them and looked back as I walked on. One of them was even wearing a dog collar, an item of female fashion which is the Holy Grail for me, but which seems to have vanished everywhere else. They made their way towards the Students’ Union and I lost sight of them by the phone box. Very strange…

Day Two

In which The Author tries to reschedule his train of thought

Right – NaBloPoMo, Day Two. Let’s hope the weather conditions, the wifi, and/or WordPress itself don’t put the mockers on this post, as some combination of them did last night.
First, may I apologize to anyone who’s found this because it was tagged in the NaBloPoMo blogroll. I’ve been writing this blog (in various places) for about six years or so, and there are a number of running themes threaded through it. If you’ve landed here through the mysteries of NaBloPoMo, you might be experiencing the same sense of confusion as I did when I first heard ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ by The Velvet Underground at the age of sixteen. I felt as thought I’d walked in on a frenzied jam session, and for half a minute or so I was completely disoriented by the chaos around me. Try this for size:

Let me assure you that, as with the song, there are certain fixed points in the structure of this blog, around which the rest of it revolves. (I’ve put some handy cross-references in where they’re needed.)
My friend Darren B. turned me onto The Velvet Underground when we were in school, and White Light, White Heat is still an LP I return to periodically. My most recent visit was last Sunday night, when the news of Lou Reed’s death broke on this side of the Atlantic. I cranked up the volume and subjected the Noisy Neighbours to a blast of New York junkie pre-punk rock.
Darren and I saw Lou Reed in London at the end of 1984. We paid seven quid each for tickets – which wasn’t an enormous chunk out of our student grants in those days. (Note for younger readers: back in the day, the UK Government used to give you money to go to university. Imagine that…) From the vantage point of 2013, when my friends cheerfully pay thirty or forty quid to see bands who are/were nowhere near as important as The Velvet Underground in the grand scheme of musical history, the tickets were quite reasonably priced. They were even more of a bargain when we were eighteen and heavily into post-punk and/or industrial music.
Mr Reed’s partners in crime that night included the estimable Robert Quine and Fred Maher. There was no support band. How could there have been? Who the fuck was capable of opening for Lou Reed, for Goddess’ sake? Even so, in an age when you still got change from a pound note for a pint of lager, it seemed a lot of money.
Ah yes, a pint of lager. That reminds me…
NaBloPoMo sounds great when you say it out loud. It’s the exact sound of a bottle of beer being emptied into a glass, or the glug-glug of the last bathwater vanishing down the plughole. It’s a fine piece of onomatopoeia, especially when you say it quickly. I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday, when I checked my emails fairly late in the evening. It turned out to be the online baby brother of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I had heard of the latter, mainly through Canadian Nancy, who’s taken part in it for the past few years. The idea is that you write a novel in one month, with a strict target every day. Nancy tried to rope me into it a couple of years ago. I had to decline politely.
You see, I’ve never been a great one for writing to deadlines, or writing to order for that matter. My notebooks contain countless unfinished stories and ideas for stories, none of which ever made it beyond the ‘rough notes’ stage of development. Even the Creative Writing workshop I signed up for in my second first year at university was too much of a structure for me.
Another of our heroes during our school days was Douglas Adams, most famous as the author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I met Mr Adams briefly when he did a reading and signing session at the bookshop I worked in during the early nineties. He was notorious for taking his time over his writing; he once said, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ I know exactly what he meant. I made Handing Assignments In Two Minutes Before The Office Closes For The Weekend into an Olympic sport when I was a student the second time round. The only pieces of writing which I’ve ever completed to my own satisfaction are Pit Stop, my Doctor Who/Torchwood crossover fanfic story, and Time Between, which was featured in the University of Glamorgan Anthology for 2011.
Pit Stop started as a bit of a jeu d’esprit in the pub one evening; I published the first chapter as a standalone story on an internet forum based in Aberdare. A while later, I took it into university when we needed something to workshop in our first Creative Writing session, and then it went back into hibernation. Even so, people kept asking me how the story proceeded. I was railroaded into continuing it, and finally it started to take a form I was pleased with. After several months of tinkering, I finished it and sent it off into a parallel blog where it can live, relatively unmolested, until the end of the world and/or the end of the Internet, whichever happens first.
As for Time Between – that idea had been kicking around in my mind for several years before I started working on it properly. Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘I carry a song in my head for a long time and then it comes bursting out.’ That was pretty much what happened with Time Between. I completed it as an assignment for Creative Writing, and our lecturer suggested that I submitted it for the anthology. To my surprise it was accepted for inclusion. In my mid-forties, I’d actually had something published in a proper book, with an ISBN and everything! It means that I can legitimately describe myself as a ‘published writer’ – it’ll do for me.
I won’t attempt to write anything approaching a serious work of fiction again, with any luck. Last weekend I finished reading Christopher Priest’s latest novel The Adjacent. I’ve been reading his books for over thirty years (and we briefly corresponded earlier this year) and I know damn well that I’ll never be able to write to his dizzyingly high standard. I don’t have the imagination, the inspiration, or the ability. I’ll never get anywhere close.
I’m currently re-reading Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, and it leaves me breathless with each page. My friend Martin H. has never been a big reader (his childhood and schooldays were not happy times, and he turned his back on formal education as a result.) I’ve recommended some of Mr Vonnegut’s short stories (notably the posthumous collection Look at the Birdie) as a good place to start. Mr Vonnegut’s stories demonstrate that a great writer doesn’t need to have swallowed a dictionary, or to show off his/her erudition, in order to write humane and wise stories about ordinary people. That calls for sympathy and understanding. Both commodities have been in very short supply in my life for some time now.
Anyway, back to NaBloPoMo. According to Michelle W.’s blog:
If 50,000 words seem like 49,000 too many or you’re more interested in blogging than writing a book, NaBloPoMo — National Blog Posting Month — might be your speed: a challenge to post once every day for the entire month of November. No theme, no word count, no rules; just you, your blog, and 30 new posts.
Well, I’ve been doing fairly well over the past couple of years. Initially I was averaging a post every week, and the pace quietly increased as I got the hang of it. (Finding my way around WordPress was a bit of a challenge, which is why some of my earlier posts are a bit ‘experimental.’) If I’ve been having a good week recently, I’ve posted every day. On occasions, I’ve done two posts in the same day. Other times, I’ve gone for several weeks without doing anything at all. Have a quick look at the Foreword and Contents to see my unpredictable publishing schedule for yourself. In spite of my early dabbling in the field, I was never cut out for a career in journalism.
So – NaBloPoMo. This is a challenge I could go for. After all, NaNoWriMo was never going to happen, in spite of Nancy’s attempts to get me on board. I’ve just finished one challenge, so it’s time for something new. October was Sober October, where people were challenged to spend an alcohol-free month and raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I didn’t bother getting sponsors, unlike my friend Nicky H., but I thought I’d give her some moral support anyway.
It wasn’t the first long spell I’ve spent off the beer. I managed nearly eleven months some years ago, until the whole Xmas hassle in work sent me scurrying to the pub after work with the boys one evening. Late in 2008 and into 2009, I spent nine months without having a pint. During that time, I met what passed for my last ex-girlfriend (see New Year, New Start.) I can’t even blame my lack of judgement that time on the beer goggles which have led me down too many blind alleys over the years. Sober October? No problember!
[A digression: It was also Stoptober, where people were encouraged to quit smoking. I was exempt from that attempt at self-denial, but one especially stressful afternoon a couple of weeks ago Rhian asked me which lunatic had decided to run the two campaigns concurrently. Maybe next year they can go for the triple whammy and incorporate National Domestic Violence Month as well.]
I admit that I didn’t manage the whole month. Last Saturday I went to Cardiff and had a couple of pints with Josie, while the i turned into a Crossword Masterclass. I had a sneaky one in Aberdare when I got off the train as well, as it was pissing down and I had to wait ages for the bus. Apart from that one excusable lapse, I managed the whole exercise without a hitch.
This month is a different situation altogether. It’s Movember (as in MOustache), when men across the UK are encouraged to abstain from shaving their upper lips to raise money for another cancer charity. Yesterday, a couple of the guys I used to work with posted their photos on Facebook, before the growing season began in earnest. Well, regardless of how worthy a cause it is, you can count me out.
Every week, our local ‘news’paper, the Cynon Valley Leader, has a trawl through the archives and prints some photos of bygone days – long-demolished buildings, football teams, works outings, school classes. Looking at some of them, it seems as though moustaches were pretty much compulsory for a few years when I was a kid. Fair play to my Dad; he must have been one of the few Valleys men who made it through the 1970s without looking like a member of Brotherhood of Man (or someone from a Danish porn film.)
So, I’m afraid that Movember is a non-starter for me. But NaBloPoMo (I love typing that; it’s even better when I read this back aloud to myself) is a challenge I can rise to. I think I can manage thirty posts in thirty days, with no word limit and no restrictions on style or content. The only condition is that I have to read what some other participants are writing, in return for their reading mine, and leave the odd comment as well. That could be a problem in the Library, where the server seems to block access to many blogs (including my own) because the content filters are set to CHASTITY BELTS ON AND LOCKED. I’ll do my best, though.
You see, apart from a few close friends, hardly anybody ever leaves a comment on what I write anyway. Back when I first started blogging (it wasn’t here, and it had a different title in those days) I wrote a long piece about the British novelist Jack Trevor Story (see I Want to Tell You a Story.) I said that sometimes I felt a bit like Jack himself, sitting at his typewriter, staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for inspiration to dawn. Like Jack, I had no idea whether my words would be read by a couple of million people (his regular Saturday column in the Guardian would reach that potential audience, after all) or a couple of dozen.
I get a lot of hits on my blog – sometimes as many as seventy or eighty in a single day – but how does that figure translate into actual readers? It’s very difficult to know. The search engine might bring them here when they want something entirely different. There’s no way of telling how many people just walk in, look around, and go away again, to use a pub as a metaphor. Some people might just be looking for general information about Aberdare, or photos of the Boys Village near Aberthaw – a remarkably popular topic, to judge from the search terms – or, most bizarrely, the words ‘Helen Wakeford nude.’ Helen Wakeford (now Bowen) was the Students Union branch president when I was a student the second time around. She was highly amused when I told her about that. Anyway, I swear I never saw her naked, and even if I had I certainly wouldn’t tell you about it here!
When I worked in retail, we used to measure ‘footfall’ in the shop; in other words, we knew how many people walked through the door in the course of a trading day. (There was a magic eye on the door that counted people coming in.) The challenge was in converting the visitor into a customer. On my last three visits to the shop where I used to work, I’ve left empty-handed on two occasions. That’s a 33.3% conversion rate, pretty poor for a large bookshop. (It might help if they actually stocked anything worth buying!) I wonder how many other similar ‘failed conversions’ they have from day to day. (I very nearly typed ‘on a daily basis’ there – it must have been a brief flashback to those much-loved management clichés.)
Even when I get a ‘like’ on here, some of them appear literally within seconds of my hitting the Publish button. There’s simply no possible way that anybody could have read what I’d just written and liked it within that tiny interval of time. Like everything else in Cyberspace, the blogosphere seems to be full of bots and malware programs, doing their Siren best to lure the unwary to the rocky shoals of system crashes. I’m pleased to report that the good ship Ubuntu sails through most of these perils unscathed, even if its captain does occasionally get sidetracked by the temptations on offer (see From Russia From Love and Computer Love.)
Anyway, back to NaBloPoMo. This is more or less what I wrote last night, before everything went supine and WordPress apparently published it, even though it had vanished without trace when I checked back a few minutes later. It’s Day One’s post, but on Day Two. Who knows what excitement awaits us for the next four weeks? I’m looking forward to the challenge, personally. It seems like a good way to explore what other people are up to, in a fairly structured and methodical manner, rather than just hoping to find something interesting.
I’m looking forward to discovering that there are other people out there, also in the Jack Trevor Story situation of wondering whether anyone actually does read their stuff. Furthermore, I might finally start using social networking in the way it was intended – meeting lots of new and diverse people from across the world – rather than just keeping in touch with people I already know. Wish me luck!