Monday 27 January 2020

Constable's Haywain

Over Xmas one of the unfinished old poems I managed to re-write concerned Constable's "The Haywain". By chance last week I visited the scene of the painting, Flatford. They showed what an early version of the painting looked like.

In my poem I mentioned people in the field - they're in the painting. I also wrote (because it suited my poem, not because I'd done any research) that the mill had gone and only a cottage remained. Alas, that's not true. Another poem will have to be abandoned.

Much else has changed though. Trees obstruct views, and the water level's different. It remains a pleasant little hamlet.

The urinals are decorative too, with a photo of the place rather than a Constable painting. The watery scene helps people with shy bladder syndrome I suppose.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Notes about "Together"

I had this story published a while ago. I've written better stories, but I think it's neat. It does a lot in about 350 words.

Her father used to work on battleships, said how they had more than a million parts. She showed him her iPhone, saying that it had over a million parts too.
      During a punting party her mobile sinks into the river. Friends take turns to feel for it with the metal end of the pole. When they tap something hard a boy dives in, follows the pole down through the murky water and retrieves it. She shakes it out, opens it, leaves the pieces in the sun to dry. An hour later it’s fine — “it needed a clean,” she said. There’s a new message for her — from the boy, asking her out.
      Later they share a flat. While he’s off at another conference, she takes his precious bicycle apart, down to the last little bolt, puts everything into a cardboard box, adds some bits from his spares to confuse him, then gift-wraps it.
      Some people — and he was one of them — see metaphors everywhere. He liked the idea of probing the depths for a way to communicate with the person beside you, of reconstructing the present. He promises not to spend so much time studying alone or cycling on Sundays with his club. She feels guilty. Perhaps he was right, perhaps she’d not got over her father’s death.
      And yet she doesn’t help him with the bicycle. It takes him a whole afternoon. He’s drunk by the time she returns from shopping. She doesn’t like that — nowadays he only does it to stop himself getting bored or angry.
      “What do you think?” he asks. “It would have been easier with a manual but it’s good as new now. You ok?”
      She unpacks the groceries.
      “The club’s cycling to Broxton tomorrow. Maybe you could meet us there in the car?”
      She’d cleaned each little part of his bicycle with a toothbrush.
      “Follow the A14 until you see the Broxton sign,” he says. “You can’t miss it.”
      Even with a map she misses it by miles; he phones, failing to get her.

It manages to have a narrative flow while sustaining some themes -

  • Several items have pieces - battleships, phones, bicycles. Not all of them can be mended. It ends with the title "together" coming apart.
  • There are several modes of transport - punts, cars, bikes. The couple end up taking separate ones.
  • There are communication failures - first the phone miraculously works, then at the end it fails.
  • The punting and bicycle anecdotes are interesting in themselves. Why had she cleaned the parts?

Tuesday 14 January 2020


I overuse the word "but" in both poetry and prose. I'm not the only one - when I read Margaret Drabble's "Jerusalem the Golden" I noticed on page 10 that it has a sequence of sentences which hinge on "but", "but", "but", "but", "but", "but" ... "nevertheless", "however, though", "though", "and yet".

I looked up alternatives ("although", "despite", "however", "yet", "nevertheless", etc). Using them helped a little. I then resorted to using alternative phrases in my work ("Having said that", "on the other hand", "even so", "for all his wealth, he was still sad", etc).

In a book about therapy I read about the technique of replacing "but" by the non-judgemental "and" - e.g. using "he's cute and he's a scientist" rather than "he's cute but he's a scientist". This challenges the underlying thought-pattern - the root of my stylistic problem. The underlying thesis-antithesis rhythm's ok for representing disappointment and dashed hopes (which is why Drabble uses it, I guess). It needn't be used at the sentence level so often though, even if the piece as a whole is structured along thesis, antithesis, (then maybe synthesis) lines.

Using "and" instead of "but" reduces structural detail and contrast, but opposition is the most simplistic of structures. Using "and" to make lists lets the reader decide what the contrasts are.

Monday 6 January 2020

Xmas and after

I usually manage to defeat post-Xmas tristesse by writing or working, but this year writers block has kicked in early. So I've been out and about instead. With our new National Trust ticket we've started visiting places. This one, Ickworth, is being repaired.

I haven't sent many pieces off either, because I don't want to encourage even more rejections - I've already had a few this year. But at least in our household my name is up in lights.

It's become a family tradition to make a gingerbread house with windows created by melting sweets. Once we'd finished eating the gingerbread and the other left-overs it was time for me to make literary plans. I'll go to the Free Verse event in February. My recent blog posts have listed the places where I'll submit poetry and prose. Priority will go to getting my longer stories published, or on competition short-lists. My New Year's resolution is to try some simultaneous submissions. I've a few poems that are worth sending off again. At the moment I don't feel like writing any new ones. Nor do I feel like entering pamphlet competitions.
Maybe it's going to be one of my prose years ...