Sure you know yourself…

Dot writes: it’s strangely hard to write short stories as an English person in Ireland. Stories do best with a rich sense of context. The author at least, if not the readers, needs to know where everything is and what it looks like and how it fits together. For me that’s most easily done in Dublin, where I live, so my characters tend to walk down the roads I know and stare at the views I stare at. Their commutes take them to Tara Street and when they go to the beach it’s Dollymount Strand.

But the problems start when they open their mouths. It’s not that I don’t know any Irish expressions now. I know plenty. I know my characters will “bring” their children shopping, ask “will I put it in the press?” not “shall I put it in the cupboard?”, have a “nasty dose” when they’re ill, say it’s “Baltic” when it’s cold, bravely face the drizzle of a “grand soft day”, and fear “losing the run of themselves” or “getting notions”. If someone apologises for being a nuisance they’ll reply “ah no, you’re grand”, and they might stick “so” on the end of their sentences: “I’ll see you then so”. They probably won’t say “howyeh” when they meet their friends as they’re all painfully middle class, and nor will they say “I’m after making the dinner” because the “I’m after” construction is one of the few I knew before I got here and that makes it seems corny, even though I’ve often heard people use it.

However, this is of limited use when the topic I actually need my characters to discuss is, say, their feelings about meeting someone they’ve seen on television or the embarrassing dream they had about their mother. (Who might be their “mam” but might equally be their “mum”, and using “mum” makes me feel less as though I’m hanging a huge flashing sign over their heads saying “look how Irish I’m being”.) How do they talk when they’re not talking about Baltic weather or nasty doses? When they’re just talking English, but as Irish people?

My problem is that I know how to make the characters, where it fits, signal their Irishness, but I don’t know how to avoid signalling my Englishness. Well, I know not to have them refer to a man as a “chap” or use obscure words of Norfolk dialect, but that’s about as far as it goes. Where is the part of the Venn diagram where the overlap in the middle between things any Irish person would say and things I would say stops, and it’s just the British part on its own?

It would be so much easier to write about this country if I spoke the language.

P.S. Earlier in March this blog quietly passed its tenth anniversary. A whole decade of blogging! Happy anniversary to us.

Advertisements

What’s up duck

is

On Noah’s Ark the ducks had started a jazz band and it was almost unbearable, though perhaps marginally easier to deal with at close quarters than the African Large Mammals’ Morris-Dancing Collective (to whom, after initial resistance, Noah had yielded the use of the foredeck every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. The rhinos were persuasive negotiators). Mr Duck had recently taken up the saxophone, while Mrs Duck fancied herself as a sultry crooner. They had recruited the moorhens, the geese, the female flamingo and a coot to be the rest of the band, with, on drums, a platypus from whom they would soon part owing to irreconcilable creative differences. They practised assiduously and promised to put on a concert as soon as they were ready.

 

“Is there any sign of land yet?” Noah asked Mrs Noah, as they huddled in their cabin, doing their best to relax with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

“My budgie had a look around earlier,” said Mrs Noah, “and she says there’s still twenty feet of water over the highest mountain top and aggressive mer-people have colonised the city of Uruk.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you learn from tweets,” said Noah. “But the dove said the same yesterday about the twenty feet of water. I wish I could get off this boat. The noise is appalling.”

“The hedgerow birds’ choral singing is quite good,” said Mrs Noah, who believed in positive thinking and was also slightly deaf.

“If only they didn’t do it at dawn,” groaned Noah. “Whose stupid idea was this ark nonsense, anyway?”

“It was God’s,” said Mrs Noah.

Continue reading “What’s up duck”

The Saved

imgres

“I want to do burlesque,” said the hen. “A striptease. I’ll take my feathers off, one by one. Would you like me, like that? Would you think I looked tasty?”

The cat said nothing. Why did she have to say these things? It was the sacred rule of the Ark, the foundation on which everything rested – you didn’t eat your fellow passengers. Look, there was the lion, lying down with the lamb, not even drooling.

“Or a magic trick. Saw the head off the lady. I’ll keep on dancing. Oh, how beautifully I would dance, if I couldn’t think.”

“It’ll be over soon,” he said, without looking at her. “The waters are already receding. You can lay your eggs and raise your chicks and be happy.”

“Oh yes, of course. Repopulating the earth. The brood-mother of nations. What an honour.” She laughed bitterly.

“Look, we didn’t ask for this,” said the cat quietly. “We aren’t to blame for our luck or for what happened to the others. What kind of a world is it going to be if all we do in it is mourn?”

“I don’t want to mourn. I want to dance. I want to die of music.”

 

There were songbirds on the gunwales, blackbirds, starlings, swallows, finches, rising and calling and fluttering over each other with a constant rippling motion; below them, the sunlight dazzled on the water. There was no sail, because there was nowhere to go. Noah and his family were busy with the work of the ship, sluicing and scrubbing and tending their stores.

 

“I was a temple cat,” said the cat, “in the city of Uruk, at the temple of Ishtar. The front of the temple was faced with coloured tiles of white and blue and the white steps to the gate were washed each day. The statues were gilded and the temple women wore circlets of gold wire and gold rings in their ears. Men came to couple with the women, in honour of the goddess, and to make sacrifices. They killed doves and lambs. Then the bones and scraps were thrown on the refuse heaps at the back of the temple, which grew bigger every year and stank, swarming with rats and buzzing with flies. The dark ooze seeped from the rubbish and ran down to the river. There was always sickness in the city, but the people went on worshipping Ishtar, who brought them prosperity and made things grow.”

“It sounds horrible,” said the hen.

“It was a good life for a cat,” said the cat. “There was plenty to eat and the women were kind to me. There was one I remember. She would stroke me and share fish with me when she had some. She was trying to save the trinkets the men gave her so she could buy an inn when she was too old to work in the temple – she’d put them in an old oil jar she kept in the corner – but she never managed to save very much; she kept shaking the trinkets out again and exchanging them for new sandals or wine.”

“Was there music in the temple?”

“Oh yes, lots. Voices, flutes, drums, harps. Formal music for the goddess, worksongs for cooking and washing, lullabies for the babies, story-songs for the fireside. But mostly love-songs, because Ishtar is the goddess of love.”

“Will you sing me one of the songs?”

“My singing was never encouraged. But my point is, it was always going to end. They knew it. The woman I told you about knew she couldn’t live that life forever, that her youth was passing; and everyone knew that the stink and the filth were getting worse and worse. They talked about cleaning it up, they had a lot of quarrels and arguments, but they never changed anything. So, in the end, the change simply happened. And I suppose we have to make the best of it.”

“All my life I’ve loved music. I used to like to sit at roost and hear the people singing in the evenings. Entertainers would come to the village and I’d dream of all the places they’d been to that they were carrying in their music. I’m really not suited to be the mother of all hen-kind, you know. I’m dreamy and impractical, I was always quite low down the pecking order…”

“You’ll be fine,” said the cat.

“I wonder what we’ll find to eat, when we get off the boat? I just used to follow the flock, before. I guess there’ll be loads of, what do you call it, alluvial mud, and that makes things grow, doesn’t it? And bugs coming up, like after the rains? Well, it is after the rains.”

“I’m planning to stick close to the humans. There’s always something to scavenge where the humans are.”

“Yes, all the mice and little birds and things will stay around the humans. Have you ever had a bird as big as me?”

“To be honest I was more of a mouse man. And just stealing things and getting treats from the women.”

“Don’t you want me?”

“You’re a very fine hen.”

There was a silence and then the hen began to speak once more.

“It’s going to be hard, starting again. I’m frightened but I’ll simply have to try, because there isn’t any other way. There won’t be much time to think, I suppose – the humans will be building and sowing and chopping and making, and I’ll be fussing over my chicks and learning to forage for whatever there is to eat, wherever we end up living. But I want you to promise that one day you’ll come to me, when the sun is setting, and you’ll sing me the songs of Ishtar. I’ll dance for you, and then I’ll lie down, I won’t struggle at all, and you’ll eat me all up.”

“I promise. I’ll savour every bit.”

“I’m glad we’ve had this time together.”

 

Noah’s family had finished their chores and the sons sat down to rest on the deck while the women went below to cook the evening meal. Noah had gone into his cabin. Now he came out with a dove on his hand. He whispered in its ear. Then he raised his hand and sent it forth, and it went out to search the face of the waters, looking for the first rebirth of land.

Why march?

march

Dot writes: yesterday I went on the Dublin version of the Women’s March on Washington. Current estimates are that 5000 men, women and children turned out on a very cold day to protest against the newly installed President of the USA and all that he stands for. We were marching in spirit with people in many cities in the US but also around the world -London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Nairobi, Sydney and even Antarctica.

Why protest against a president I wasn’t able to vote for, in a country I don’t live in? Here are some arguments not to:

  • I don’t have a personal grievance against Trump and am not going to be directly affected by his policies.
  • I’m a comfortably-off straight white woman. What business do I have protesting at all, against anything? Aren’t I just getting an emotional kick out of other people’s troubles and manufacturing a fake sense of grievance?
  • I should focus on problems close to home. I have no business going on this march when there are homeless people on the streets of Dublin.
  • With respect to the issues central to the Women’s March – equality for women, black people, Muslims, and LGBTQ – this is all just identity politics, and identity politics is tribalism and a scourge.
  • Protest marches achieve nothing. However big they are, they are always a minority of the people. Governments routinely ignore them.
  • Protest marches might even detract from more effective forms of political action, since they make people feel they’ve made a stand when all they’ve done is vent some spleen. The energy goes into the march, and then we all return to doing nothing.
  • The USA captures a disproportionate amount of attention in the world. Participating in events like this reinforces the sense that US politics are central and US problems are the most important, ignoring the billions of people who live in other, often grossly under-reported countries, and may be experiencing far more extreme crises (e.g. Burundi – 327,000 of the population of 11 million have fled the country in the last two years).

I have more time for some of these arguments than for others. The problem of the dominance of the US in our news media is a real one. We need to seek out news from other places and learn to care for other people, including being aware of the power of American cultural products (movies, books, films etc – many of them wonderful, humane and insightful) to set American people and American issues at the heart of the stories we use to interpret our world. We need to make sure that we feed the energy we get from marching into other forms of political action. But here are some rejoinders to the arguments above:

  • It is worth being part of international political and social movements. We are all connected, like it or not. If abuse of minorities, narrow nationalism and rejection of science come to power in one country, especially if that country is extremely economically, politically and culturally  influential, they are empowered elsewhere. We have to fight back. We have to fight while we can. It’s not true that what Trump does in the US can have no effect on me.
  • Those of us who are comfortable, who are in a position of privilege, must use that privilege to speak out for others.
  • I love the concept of marching in solidarity. We lend strength to each other. It’s like the Irish practice with funerals – you go to the funeral even if you didn’t know the dead person, because you want to support the family.
  • The ‘why are you talking about x when you should be focusing on y’ argument is very dangerous, especially in the ‘close to home’ variety. It’s a classic way of getting people to stop caring. Yes, as individuals we can’t fling ourselves into all the possible good causes – there are far too many. But if there is something we can do, we should do it, and not worry if it’s the ‘wrong’ issue. That way paralysis lies.
  • Identity politics is not something invented by the disgruntled to get one over on everyone else. It’s how politics actually works, unfortunately. It is simply the case that power and resources are concentrated in the hands of a few white men, and pretending to rise above that merely assents to the status quo. But finding your tribe doesn’t have to be about hatred. All of the arguments I’m advancing here are about how we need each other and how we’re connected. Arguing for equality is just that – white men still get to be equal.
  • Protest marches are rituals. They have symbolic weight. They are not directly effective actions, but they are ways in which we can tell ourselves who we are and what we believe and feel ourselves to be part of something much bigger. They explore a potential reality – they make the space, for a little time, in which we (a ‘we’ that can be imagined in the march) are powerful, are together, can change something. The task then is to go out and live that possible world into existence.

A Ghost Story

dark-lane

At the waning of the year I gather my ghosts. This is their time, in that dark pause, when between the bustle of Christmas and the trudge of January the memories return, drifting from familiar walls, pooling under lamps. Like the living, the dead want to be heard, but they are more confused than the living and fainter, thinner – shreds of old love and pain. I try to listen and piece them together. I give them four walls to stop them wandering.

There’s the lost child. “Mother, mother,” he calls, from very long ago. “Here I am, dear,” I say. It’s all he wants. It quiets him for a while. And then there’s the angry ghost who cries “Justice!” and makes his case to me – oh, it’s only jabberings now, and the dream he gives me of the scaffold and the noose – but there is no justice, only time. Some are faded to whispers with the centuries; some have stories I’ve tried to complete, with discreet researches in the newspaper archives. The detective side is fascinating, though I don’t like to travel and go into the city rarely. The poltergeist shook itself into nothing in the pantry when I gave it jars to throw. I swept out the glass and was glad this is such a big house, so far back from the road.

It was in the road I found some of them, chilling the hollows or rattling in the hedges, or rather they found me and followed me back. The ghosts recognize a listener. A sensitive, as some would say, though I’d almost say an insensitive, for they don’t frighten me and never have. I can comb through their pangs and terrors and stay apart. I confer a little order. It is my work now.

Continue reading “A Ghost Story”

How to Get a Hit Record in 1985

cover

Dot writes:

How to Get a Hit Record: Things You Should Know About the Pop Music Business, by Ray Hammond (Poole: Javelin Books, 1985) ISBN 0 7137 1498 0

If you want a hit record in 1985, you should know that it is all about the money. You should expect to be cheated, fleeced, exploited, and charged for the hamburgers the crew bought three years ago. You should get a clever lawyer who will make your contract just exploitative enough for the record company to accept it while still leaving you enough for a washing machine at the end of five years.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you must have the right image, which is original but exactly on-trend but not too outrageous but handsome but not effeminate but not too sexual, especially if there is a woman in your band. Consider having plastic surgery on your nose but realize you cannot be objective about it. Maybe it is your best feature after all.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you have to be in London. Sleep in your car if necessary. If you formed anywhere smaller than Glasgow there are unlikely to be more than two talented people in your band. Dump the others.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you may need to stamp on your best friend’s face. With luck, this will only be a metaphor for sacking him.

If you want a hit record in 1985, it goes without saying your best friend is a man. Only men are musicians, or producers, or managers, or promoters, or salesmen, or DJs, or critics, or label executives. Women may appear occasionally in brackets as an alternative. Otherwise there is a girl you might pick up after a gig, whose opinion of your single you should ask (if you remember), since her friends might buy it. Managers hate it when a musician falls in love with an intelligent woman as she might be bored while he’s away on tour and uncover some of the ways in which the manager is ripping the band off.

If you want a hit record in 1985, put all the good ideas you’ve ever had in the first 30 seconds of your demo, as it is the only part that will be listened to. Remember most people in the music business hate most of the music they hear.

If you want a hit record in 1985, find a producer who makes hits that are bought by teenagers of fourteen to nineteen. Virtually all singles are bought by teenagers of fourteen to nineteen, and virtually all successful records are produced by Trevor Horne. And a few other blokes who are helpfully listed on p. 112.

If you want a hit record in 1985, some members of the band may not be allowed to play on it. Also the producer will probably do all the mixing without you. Suck it up as you want a hit very much. Simultaneously remember that this is your record and your creative input is very important.

If you want a hit record in 1985, the most important thing is promotion. Hopefully by making the record company pay you a huge advance you will have forced them to do lots of this. Promotion chiefly means smoke and mirrors deployed in record shops, plus supplying DJs with cocaine. Adverts do not reach the target market but make the rest of the music industry think you are worth talking about. If you play on daytime TV ask to mime.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you must recognize the desperate state of the industry in which sales are falling and new technologies (such as taping from the radio) have irreparably damaged the old business models. Understand that long careers are no longer possible and you are boarding a sinking ship. But do not despair, and do not be cynical! For music is a beautiful thing. Anyway, just think what it will be like in thirty-one years’ time.

Yet another list of the top ten albums of 2016

Dot writes: what is the reason for Best Albums of 20xx posts? Sometimes I think it’s to make me feel small. I looked at the list on The Quietus, which is a dead trendy website for cool persons, and even though their list is 100 albums long I think I’d only even heard of 15 of them – and that’s heard of, not heard. I couldn’t help feeling darkly, and, I hope, unfairly, that they were showing off.

Anyway, here is my list. There were a lot of Important Records this year that I didn’t get round to, but here are ten that have given me joy this year, and maybe you’d like them too. I’m not showing off. Honest.

10. Shura, Nothing’s Real

Slick eighties-style production, catchy melodies, but lyrics that talk about vulnerability and awkwardness. And she’s incredibly loveable.

9. Christine and the Queens, Chaleur Humaine

Elegant gender-bending pop.

8. Beacon, Escapements

I bought this subtle electronic album early in the year and have found myself repeatedly going back to it.

7. Case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs

I’ve only just bought this as I heard about it through the end-of-year list in The Guardian. This illustrates the positive aspect of end-of-year lists. A female folk-rock supergroup, the brainchild of k.d.lang, now on heavy rotation in my kitchen, which is a far more sweet and soulful place as a result.

6. William Crighton, William Crighton

Australian country rock, tough, bitter and tuneful.

5. Bell X1, Arms

Bell X1 write witty lyrics with a political punch – “Let’s ask what the markets would do / Cos markets have feelings too”, the second track starts – but they also offer melodies that hook you in and moments of melancholy romance, as in the gorgeous animated clip below.

4. Braille Face, Kōya

Electronic production and oblique lyrics come together in a beautifully atmospheric album. Listening to Tim Shiel’s podcasts about the Spirit Level label has made me feel involved in Braille Face’s journey into the spotlight, and I’ve found Kōya and the treasury of songs from which it was selected productive sources of ideas for my writing, but when it comes down to it the album is just good, and would be good without any of this other stuff.

3. J.Views, 401 Days

This is another album with an involving story. It was fascinating to hear and learn about the songs as they were written, through the DNA website. The final product is unashamedly sensuous, richly textured and enchanting. All the nice adjectives.

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade

I never thought I liked Beyoncé, but it turns out I do. Such a varied and powerful record.

1. Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool

I wasn’t sure whether to put this or Lemonade at number one, but I think in the end I have to stick with my rock roots. It’s an album full of feeling but without a hint of easy sentiment.

Plus honourable mentions for:

Floex, Samorost 3 soundtrack

I fell hard for Floex this year, but for his oeuvre as a whole rather than for this soundtrack album specifically, which is why I’ve left it out of the top ten list. If I made a list of favourite tracks there would be several from Samorost 3 on it.

Chairlift, Moth

Arthur Beatrice, Keeping the Peace

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears

All Tvvins, IIVV

Bat for Lashes, The Bride

Colour Bomb, Colour Bomb