Thursday, 31 March 2016

Tempestuous Currents

To quote Virgil, experto credite: I believe one who has had the experience.
I used to do the same in most matters; only listen to those that had gone before, or only offer others advice based on my own trial and errors. I didn't think you should recommend anything you hadn't tried. I still don't, but when it comes to weathering storms I don't think it can be applied. You have to be your own Captain, whether it's of an unseaworthy ship or of one that will withstand whipping winds and thrashing waves. One that will either end up at the bottom of the sea or in far sunnier climes.
I've been in a rickety ship, leaving Singapore en route to Australia, that took water on board; the resident rats scampering like a chained prison gang in the opposite direction to the encroaching sea, the travellers hastily following their scurried passage. Luckily, the ship did not sink. That time. It arrived a little behind schedule and was indeed more than a little waterlogged as were its soggy passengers. Anchored in port however, it was not detained long; just a few days until a further patch job was complete, when it was considered fit to once again ride the high seas. I watched its leave-taking, conscious still of its creaks and groans as harmless waves licked its unsound structure. Health and safety as we know it today was not in force then, but perhaps in risk there's adventure. At least for the hardened crew, I'm not sure the new influx of on-board passengers would have agreed. Those who are more used to dry land should never mess with tumultuous Nature.
Modern mini-cruises have, by comparison, been tedious. You reach your destination cantankerous, only to realise that in a few hours you have the return voyage to make. You feel the swell all right in your stifling cabin with its smaller-than-average-sized bunks, whilst without this haven fellow travellers mill about, attempting to find their sea legs or stuffing their mouths. Each with their own bored expression, that same face mirrored everywhere, even when the entertainment falsely tries to jolly you along.
Ferries are a more riotous affair. Short-lived with amusing (sometimes drunken) antics. A good knees-up can be had, particularly if you're on your way to Ireland. Clapping, foot-stamping and fiddles, and a few Guinness cans tossed around; the musicians' behaviour only slightly tempered by hyperactive children racing from one end of the ferry to the other as their parents abscond their normal parental duties; and you always get two trying to imitate Jack and Rose from the Oscar winning film 'Titanic'. Arms outstretched at the prow of the boat caterwauling the Celine Dion love theme.
Yet none of these sailing arrangements can compete with traversing the Bay of Biscay, as then your fate doesn't lie in your conveyance but in that body of water, where its moods are renowned for their erratic-ism and the skies are pulled down to meet them. Tempests when they strike in this region can be vicious, as venomous as a deadly viper's bite when death seems more in sight than an antidote to its venom. The calmness that follows such a day and a night comes suddenly as if the atmosphere had never been poisoned. The boat that violently lurched now gently sways, perfectly in rhythm with the placated current, though reminders are given that the same agitation could easily be stirred. Its repose broken to unleash more aggressive activity.
I used to cower in such storms, hide from the elements whether I be on land or at sea. I abhorred thunder and was scared as well as in awe of the electrical charge that split the skies in front and above me. Those streaks of light could destroy or animate life as thunder booms and rumbles overhead, but when rain begins to fall in heavy sheets its concentrated energy dissipates. Disperses this otherworldly phenomenon to other corners of the globe, moving away until it's barely heard and there's only the sight and sound of rain. Afterwards, everything is washed and green, refreshed, including the sea which turns glassy after such forcible conditions.
Tempests issued by nature and in life will come and should be indulged: met, yet not fought.

Picture Credit: Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 2010, Yinka Shonibare. Photo taken by Stephen White.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Glossary Island

If I came to be stranded on an undiscovered island, I'd hope to find it peopled by inhabitants that epitomised words I hadn't before seen or heard; words that in my land hadn't been used for a very long time, that had, in fact, been abandoned then forgotten. Cast off to this unknown isle like convicts sent to Australia. The English then were very good at that: ignoring or removing problems. Some people might say they still are.
Usually the question asked is: what three items would you take to a desert island? Some respondents give practical answers like a penknife, a lighter and a fishing rod; others provide replies in pursuit of leisure: a hammock, an mp3 player, a Kindle Paperwhite with crisp high resolution display, whilst some make outlandish selections in expectation of a utopian state. They will reside in a Paradise where all God's creatures are non-violent and nature is bountiful. Experience harmonious living on peaceable ground. They can't imagine the ill-winds that might blow or what dangers might lurk. The potentiality of poisonous snakes, spiders, fruits and plants. Real risks don't exist in a land you've created.
Herein lies the problem, my problem with the question posed: it allows the interviewees to choose. It's a planned excursion like a billionaire renting a private island for a party of exclusive guests. It's too neat, it's too tidy. The landscape swept clean so that it closely resembles a watercolour painting. There's luxury huts and staff clothed in flowered sarongs who cater to every guest's whim. You can do whatever you want, however, whenever you want to. The surrounding seas are always calm, the sun is always shining. There are always zephyr breezes and time always goes blissfully slow. It paints an untrue picture of unmapped territory because its location has already been staked: named and impaled on the globe by another Christopher Columbus, or by someone who's read Daniel Defoe and thinks they're the next Robinson Crusoe.
All the respondent has to do is decide on which three items to pack. The island pre-exists; they don't even have to worry about how they will get there because the itinerary says by big plane, then small plane and/or boat. Creative thinking gets cancelled, but then this hypothetical question alienates life's common players because it's mostly put to the rich, the famous, those on some kind of celebrity list.
I prefer to conceptualise what sort of island I'd liked to be washed up on. That's how I visualise it: being washed up like a folded message in a screw-top bottle, never mind the reason, how or why, just opening my eyes and finding myself there: beached on a foreign shore. If there's a mainland it's not in sight, and in the sea there are floating words, bobbing like life buoys; some have run aground, and the sand is pebbled with sun-dried papers on which their definition is printed. The perpetual student in me starts to collect them, assembling them in a disorganised pile, as other more sensible exiles might gather wood for an impromptu camp fire. I will then sit down to read with my back against a palm tree until all daylight naturally fades, where under the cover of stars the sound of waves will lull me to sleep.
In the morning, I awaken to a clamorous, mocking woman standing over me, peering at me as if I were a museum exhibit. Her prattle one continuous stream, some of which I think might be insulting, as she studies me with a quizzical crow-like expression. She gives up, trudges to a marooned word and points to it, then herself; it, then herself; herself, it. I scramble to look the word up amongst my newly hoarded treasure:
hoydenish ragger: Ill-bred, rude and noisy teasing woman.
Me, she mouths, gesticulating wildly. She's a late nineteenth-century native of the type found in an H.G. Wells novel.
As I nod and smile, smile and nod, I would think that I could quite happily live in this paradisal glossary of my own creation.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Language of Natives

My love of literature is born of an earlier time; a time that is now hopelessly outdated and yet romanticised, modernised in keeping with our digital age. A model I disapprove of but which apparently makes reprints of Classics much more accessible to the average reader.
Who is the average modern reader? Obviously one that cannot use their hands to thumb through pages; the pages turned with a swipe on a screen that flickers so quickly the eye fails to register its moth-like movements. A reader who has forgotten or not learned to use the once fashionable tool of the writer's trade: a pen, and who knows not how to hold or write with it. Or perhaps when shown then demonstrates a very poor, illegible hand. It's the contemporary equivalent of not knowing which knife and fork to use. Outside in.
A screen and keyboard is the present-day writer's instrument; before this it was the typewriter. There are no ink-smudged or crippled fingers, though you can get RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury); no crossing out of words, sentences or whole paragraphs, no torn up, crumpled up pages from writer's rages when it's not working out, because for that there's the Delete button. The unnecessary plot entanglements swiftly obliterated. And of course there's spell check, the red wavy line that appears under anything that's misspelled or appears dubious to the computer's brain, which for a perfectionist can be an annoyance when you know in this case you're right. It's like a teacher correcting your work who misinterprets your meaning and notes criticisms in the margin. The work you considered polished now tarnished.
I have, as many writers have, paid or otherwise, succumbed to technology. I find my writing flows if I type on a screen, but in not real time, not live as I know others do. Straight onto a online forum, with no amendment to their verbal diarrhoea. Vomiting it out with no self-censorship. My approach is slower: I draft and edit, form and re-form my thoughts on a screen document which I save and re-visit many times until I'm finished or satisfied. Only then does it get my seal of approval to be stored with the other completed pieces which may one day be published. Or they may just gather dust in a folder which years from now will be found on a memory stick.
And yet though I favour this mode of writing behaviour, I still use a pen. Everyday. Sometimes my pieces start out that way. The flow is different or better suits the mood of the work. With some people I still converse by letter: writing on sheets of paper before sealing them in an addressed envelope, and then posting to the intended recipient. I explain for those who do not know what this is or how it's done. Writing, actually writing, rather than typing is more organic. The way your hand forms words sparks a part that I feel computer-trained areas of the brain cannot access. Something older, a fossil of our evolution. And it's just nice to have a physical example or reminder of someone's actual writing: they held the implement and with it made those indelible ink strokes. And their style is individual, attributable only to them, as is their voice or physical mannerisms. The very things we love, the very things we remember.
But where would we be now without the computer? That's what the majority of people say, applying that same attitude to anything that the advancement of technology brings. I don't know, but I wonder...
Even I wasn't taught about or how to use the semi-colon and I overuse the comma; a fault I'm aware of but can't stop. And I frequently experience difficulties in knowing how to sound out an unfamiliar word: I need to hear someone else say it first, and so apologies for getting someone's name wrong are a standard embarrassing occurrence. But I love to learn and I want the challenge of antiquated language. I want to acquire the meaning of disused words so I can stash them away for future use, bring them back into circulation.
I don't want to read a novel that exists in a cloud, a space where solid form and physical touch has been made redundant. And I want to read the text as the author penned it without the corrections and standardisations to our modern-day use of English.

As published in Twelve Strikes: A Play of Selected Writings. See I Live to Read page for further details.

Picture Credit: The Novel Reader, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh

Thursday, 10 March 2016

London, Paris, New York

There are some people who realise possibly a little late in life that their pace is not in keeping with everyone else's.
Aged six, it's usually your identity, then commonly your forming views and interests. All of which are malleable to a certain degree until suddenly, without your knowing, some preferences set in for the long haul. You get more entrenched in who you think you are, what you will and won't be. Compromises become a matter of integrity and brings about fierce one-sided debates. With yourself. Regardless of if these are being asked of you by somebody else. The causal agent – their voice or their person – don't tend to feature in these arguments, even though assumptions are made about their thoughts or how they might give their responses. None of which correspond if that conversation is actualised. And don't be fooled into thinking this is a singular person's game, as long-term partners: two people, wedded or co-habiting, who've lived with each other for years and years, face this regularly occurring problem too.
Nor is it only for the principled, moralising individual, or for those considered anxiety-ridden or highly-strung. It is not a female occupation, although some would dispute that and say that this state favours the female brain. Notice the word 'some' is used instead of 'male' although the latter meaning should be implied, but then this is not a militant cry of feminism. But it should be pointed out that it was never then at its most militant against men, but for equality; in short, for a woman to be her own rightful property, to have a say and to earn her own money. To do with as she sees fit or wishes.
The feminist slant now is a little more divisive, sometimes unfairly singling out the male when it should be focused more on corporations - on the stereotypes they hold - and the images we unconsciously support or feed to one another. Our views are still gender biased and unbalanced. However, it should not be forgotten that men were champions too of grass-roots movements, and that some women did not approve. That same case can be made today.
But back to the debate about the way we relate to each other and each other's lives. Analytical politics, misunderstandings, misrepresentations and presumptions do not discriminate. They are not bound by gender, but are governed by mood and the plasticity of your brain. Your unique cranium.
As a race, we can be a very self-interested, self-directed tribe, and even more so in our interpretation of modern day. In this evolved age we like to believe otherwise, but humans are quick to judge and outwardly project. We just don't like different: those without the herd mentality. They spike our curiosity and/or inflict a contagious form of Sour Grapes: if it's good enough for me then it's good enough for them. We really have no idea what harm we cause when we pick and probe; when we try to convince others to conform or pour scorn on those that have turned away, walked away, or ran for the hills.
Maybe for a time you were one of those who tried to mould yourself to that accepted rhythm. London, Paris, New York. Your mind sprinted, your body hurried at the pace set by a series of large clock faces. You upset your own internal clock and your face became a mask like that of a plaster cast; a mask that eventually cracked as the act became less convincing.
Or perhaps the act convinced you and the mask took hold, is never removed, so that you scoff and don't recognise what you were once also like. Something jars about those we don't see our own likeness in or if our preconceptions of a person is shattered. They are something other than we thought which somehow alters how we talk to, how we behave with, and the view we have of them: it could enhance, it could detract. But the fact is: opting-out, choosing slow rather than fast, is no easy task for the person that does will have their conscience examined.

As featured in Twelve Strikes: A Play of Selected Writings. For further details, visit I Live to Read page.

Picture Credit: Clock Explosion, Salvador Dali

Thursday, 3 March 2016


Anna, a remote hamlet somewhere in Europe, is constructed on, over, and around water. Its governing body and the lives of its peoples ruled by a shimmering lake. A lake that mirrors every building, every happening, so that everything impermanent or solid has a twin, a double.
Above and beneath the surface confusion reigns as each inhabitant is lost in their own reflected bubble; each as they try to juggle singular or family life attempts to track their own reflection and that of the mirrored hamlet. There is a disbelief above and beneath that what they've seeing is the same image and not a separate concern; that both villages and its peoples are not shadows of or each other's equal as one must surely be a collective imposter. But which one?
That is a question that has, for hundreds of years, been much ruminated upon, debated about and yet never resolved. It's an argument that runs through the course of both their ancient histories in oral and printed form in a language that resembles French, but which frequently breaks into what sounds like Italian and then again into American-English. The origins of their dialect has never been explained or explored since their policy is to repel rather than attract holiday-makers or cultural tourists; the few that have by chance found this obscure hamlet are made welcome but are not encouraged to stay long. Although it is interesting to note that tourists when they come are not as enamoured either with their reflection or what Anna represents: a large mirror.
The weather in Anna is much like anywhere else. It follows an established pattern whereby the conditions change as the seasons intensify or fade. In the winter, there's often a bone-chilling wind; in the spring, the winds die and the water appears more clear and less opaque; in the summer, the strong sunlight refracts to produce a rainbow of rays, a dazzling display of Southern lights; and in the autumn everything is gilded red-gold.
There is a café, a combined post office, bank and grocery store, a bakery, an authentic Italian trattoria Just Like Mama Makes! Est. 1848, a school, a tavern which doubles as a guest-house, a hairdresser's with a florist next door, a dentist who doctors and a doctor who dentists, and a mediaeval-style building with modern interiors where citizens go in and out through a revolving door, choosing to travel to the various floors in glass elevators or on moving stairways. The reflected image, regardless of which twin you feel you're in or looking at, boasts the exact same.
Visitors have complained Anna's peoples are insular and yet the fisher-folk will invite you out in their boats to net the morning's catch, proud to show their self-sufficiency and the inexplicableness of this place and nature; no fisherman when asked knows how or why the lake always teems with fish of the sort you expect to find in an deep, deep ocean: herring, pollack, cod, whiting, and even sometimes crustaceans. They never fish beyond a conservative quota and yet this small lake, compared to the world's oceans, remains plentiful, despite that, in effect, its having to feed, as the villagers believe, two co-existing hamlets that coincidentally share the same air, the same space and the same name of Anna.
However, visitors are right to insist on the population's standoffishness; they are not given to question what they do not need to know, what does not concern them. It is not disinterestedness, but an overriding consumptive quality: the usual human inclination to display curiosity in others used-up; spent instead on observing only themselves, their actions, and those that infiltrate their otherwise normal monotonous lives.
And yet Anna, though it's the only village I know of this nature is by no means the first of its kind. There was, according to a Cuban writer brought up in Italy, once a mirrored city, whose inhabitants were in a similar consumptive state, which was invisible to the gaze of many travellers, insomuch as there are those who refute the existence of Anna when she's there, right there, on the lake.

Credit: A tale in homage to Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
Picture Credit: Bruge Reflections by P. R. Francis