Thursday, 29 January 2009

Some words from Mick, John, Don and Holly

I've written a few monster posts lately...great long rambling I thought maybe it was time for a few quick quotations instead. Here are a few snippets that have caught my mind lately.

From Scottish poet Mick Imlah (1956-2009), quoted in his obituary in the 'Independent':

“ write verse effectively I think you have to be practically unconscious with inspiration”


“poetry should at least try to be exciting to read”.

John Updike (1932-2009) on writing (seen posted in a comment by Fantastic Forrest on Dave King's Pics and Poems):

"The essential support and encouragement comes from within, arising out of the mad notion that your society needs to know what only you can tell it."

From the still-living Don Paterson's first book of aphorisms 'The Book of Shadows' (Picador 2004):

“The men and women who could change everything - Nature has sensibly cursed with sloth; they accomplish nothing but tabletalk and bitwork. The mediocrities found their cities everywhere.”


“Technically, speech is a very complicated form of song."


“No email for an hour. The bastards.”

I could quote that book all week and indeed I may well be quoting it again soon. You should buy your own copies though because it's worth every penny of the birthday book token I spent on it last week. In fact have this one could I not mention it?

“Exclams are for hysterics. Ellipses are for sensitives. Colons are for bullies. Please: can we have all the punctuation, or none ...”

And of my very favourite moments from a film (and if you don't know the film then you should!). I think maybe even the marvellous Mr Paterson might like it (how dare I assume he would like anything?! And me with my devil-may-care punctuation!...). It may be a bit out of synch but you'll get the idea:

More rambling another time.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Let there be folk

Well that's quite enough from her (wee scene-stealer!). All this talk of reciting has had me thinking though...about poetry (for a change)...particularly about poetry being read aloud to an audience. There have been other related subjects around too - all the hoo-ha about that very public poetry reading in Washington D.C. the other week for a start (now that's what I call an audience!). I was particularly upset by the news that the fabulous U.S. TV satirist Jon Stewart is 'not a poetry fan' (he revealed this on their inauguration special). Damn (as Stewart would say), god damn! Then there was Robert Burns – everywhere it seemed... people with haggises all over the place (what is the plural of haggis...haggi?). Then there was Jim Murdoch writing about poetry readings. Then there was me going through all my poems...and notes about which poems have been published and heard...and sort of thinking about what to do next.

Going through my reading out-and-about notebooks reminded me how I felt when I first started reading my poems aloud... in public. It wasn't that long ago really (April 2006) but it seems AGES back (so much has happened since then). It started when I went to a 'performance' workshop at StAnza in March of that year and read out my wedding poem to the fifteen or so other poets present (it's on the website – poems/occasions or in the book – p.27). I'd never been one much for workshops but I'd got to a kind of dead end with sending off poems and people kept saying 'you should do performance poetry' so I thought 'well, I'll try this workshop and see what happens next'. I got such a great reaction from the workshop and the poet-in-charge Matt Harvey that I thought 'oh well, maybe I will give this a go then'. I had no intention of becoming a 'performance poet' but I thought I'd get out there and see how it felt.

But where to try it out? Montrose is a small town – no slams here (thank goodness...I'm not really one for poetry slams...too much whooping). There is an Angus Literary Circle but I could tell by the posters in the library that it was not going to be quite the place for me. I'd tried a writers' group (in Aberdeen as it happens) but that had been a drag to get to and quite a drag once I got there too. So where? Where??

Then I had an idea (not a particularly original idea but an idea all the same). We'd been going to the folk club in Montrose ever since we moved to this bit of Angus in 2004 and we'd been gradually getting into more and more folk music and related sounds (I suppose for us it started with the post-rave, gentle acoustic recovery period...Beth Orton etc.). Folk wasn't new music but it was new to wasn't pop or rock or disco or house or what we usually call soul. I'd never known anyone previously who was a big folk fan (or at least I'd never known that I'd known them...). There'd been the Levellers fan with the big boots who wrote reviews of 'roots' music when I worked for a what's on magazine in Leeds in the early 90s. There'd been the folkie guitar player who lived in the flat downstairs in LS12 for a while...but I'd never even heard of Fairport Convention or Martin Carthy or Dick Gaughan or any other big folk names of the past that you might mention. When we started going to the folk club in Montrose we would laugh whenever they said 'you'll all know this one..' because we never, ever did. The first time we recognised a song was when Rab Noakes played Radiohead's 'High and Dry'. We sang along very loudly that night to make up for all the other times.

Anyway, our folk club is quite a big one (audiences anything between 50 and 100 people). It has a guest act every fortnight (some fantastic musicians from all over the world and they all play for the best part of two hours) as well as a bit in the middle where local singers and musicians can come along and perform too. I started to wonder if they might let me read a poem or two in amongst the local performers...after all I loved the music (no-one loves anything quite like a new convert!), I liked the mixture of people, I liked the relaxed atmosphere (people sitting at tables with drinks - not in stiff school-assembly rows). So I started with a sleepless night ('what would it be like? Would they hate me?) and then I went and asked Ken who runs the club whether it might be know...what do you think? He said 'that would be great. We used to have people who came and read poetry but they've stopped coming so no, that would be fine.' Eek. Now I really had to do it!

I started off very nervous. The first few times I had to have a drink to steady my hand (literally) because although I'd done quite a bit of public speaking there's a big difference between speechifying (and boy, can I talk...) and reading out your own poems. These days I drink after reading (because I find my brain works better without alcohol) but to begin with I really needed the Dutch courage. For a start (in a non-poetry environment) quite a lot of people are predisposed to NOT like poetry before you even start (Jon at the back sniggering!) so it can be quite intimidating. Audiences at poetry events are generally polite but that's not the case at music events – why should they be polite to you, they came out for music not some bloody poet! I started in April 06 with the poems 'Self-help shortcuts' and 'Not flying today' (the latter mentions Kate Rusby the folk singer so I thought it might appeal to a folk music audience) and it went well enough to try it again... and again...and again...

Now I suppose I am a regular (though I never take it for granted – it's a music club so I still feel lucky to get the chance to read there). I do two poems a time (or more if they're very short) and it's been a great place to get used to reading in public and to try all kinds of poems (the cheekiest rhyming poem one week and the gloomiest free verse the next...then onto a cheeky free one and a gloomy rhymer!). The audience is very patient and, whilst there are one or two writers present, there are more people who are not and I do like that, I have to admit. It's an audience of folk...all kinds of's not the somewhat artificial 'audience full of poets' that you get at some events. Maybe that doesn't feel artificial to the people in those audiences but it really feels odd to me! It makes me feel closeted somehow...there's a whole world out there after all.

Over the past few years I have read a total of something like 104 different poems at the local folk club (plus a couple of repeats). I try to keep it varied and interesting and it's a very different experience to doing a show or reading of my own. For a start no-one is there specifically to hear me and I think it's quite good for a person (and a performer) to work that way sometimes. Elsewhere now I have done ten minute slots, half hour slots, whole hour slots – some at festivals, some at music clubs – and since mid 2007 I have also been performing songs with my friend and collaborator Verona as part of the whole...package on offer. I absolutely love doing the performing and I would never have got to the point I am now (wherever that is) without the folk club and its patience with English girl poets (and I am a girl there...there's plenty of people older than me!). I've heard some great music too so it's a good deal all round. Not long ago I heard poet Ian McMillan talking about his early days performing in folk clubs in the north of England (but a few years before the last folk revival). He spoke with such fondness of that time in his life and I know just how he feels. There is nothing like a good night at a folk club – intimate, friendly, easygoing, fascinating, unpredictable.

A while back I wrote a poem about the folk club and it is the one I have read there the most (generally I try and read different ones every time but now and again I think a poem deserves another go or suits an occasion). 'Folk club' is not a fancy poem but then folk clubs are not fancy places...anything but. There is good music (well played), most clubs (like ours) are not run for profit and everyone is there because they love music (plain and simple). I read 'Folk club' there once when the poem was new, once when a regular visitor to the club had just died (he was a devoted music fan) and once at the end of a year's run (the club breaks for the summer holidays). The last time I read it Verona said she could see one or two people joining with some of the words. They knew it off by heart! That was very exciting. My favourite bit is the section about chairs – yes McGuire I said chairs! Anyway, this is it...

Folk club

It's a club full of folk
It's a place you can go
It's music direct
Some quick and some slow

It's a cold, cold night
But it's warm in here
We have sounds just right
We have wine, we have beer
We have fiddles and pipes
And guitars times guitars
Accordions, squeezeboxes
Banjos, sitars
We have sweet young talent
With speed on their side
We have senior players
Who've seen a few tides
We have guests who work hard
While we all lose our cares
We listen as one
Just on separate chairs
There's the odd crunch of crisps
Sometimes just out of place
The high drama of raffle
The look on a face
A surprise now and then
If the guest loses plot
But the locals rise nobly
And fill the long slot
There are sleepier moments
Quiet songs and long days
The vigorous wake-ups
The burns and the braes
There are jokes well spun
And histories told
There is pretty much all life
Some new and some old

It's a club full of folk
It's a place you can go
It's music direct
Some quick and some slow

RF 2006

Sunday, 25 January 2009

On reciting

You know I said Small Girl had to learn a Scots poem to recite for the annual Scottish afternoon at her school? On the way to school on Friday I asked her how she was getting on with learning it (usually I have to nag her a few times about it). 'Oh I know it,' she said and proceeded to recite it to me beautifully...even sounding a bit Scottish (what's that about children making liars of you?). It was the best birthday present of the day and I thought some of you might enjoy it too so...this is what she sounds like reciting this year's poem 'Up in the morning early' by Robert Burns. I do wonder if one reason she found this one easier to remember is that this poem is listed as a song. Maybe, like her mother, Small Girl has a thing for songs after all.

'Up in the morning early'

She is so much cuter than I ever was! I didn't do much reciting as a child. In Scotland the tradition of reciting has survived (largely, but not completely, thanks to the Burns phenomenon) but in England it was very out of fashion when I was at school and so it has more or less skipped most of my generation. I did have 'speech' lessons at primary school for a while and ended up at an excruciating recital competition one frosty Saturday morning in the early 1970s. I had never been to anything like it before and I had a cold and...well...I didn't do very well. A few years back I wrote a poem about that experience and I suppose it is an appropriate one to post here today.

Frost on a frosty day

I can't remember clearly
But I think it was winter.
That would explain the cold hall,
The blocked nose,
The coughing.

But was it really a poem about snow
Or am I just thinking that
Because his name was Robert Frost
And I was something like seven
So easily misled?

I don't recall the words
But can still feel the moment,
Not being able to make clear sounds
For the coughing and constant
Nose blowing.

I remember disappointment,
All that practice
And thoughts of glory
Shattered quickly
By a poor score.

It was nothing like the Olympics on TV.
No impressive numbers,
No one from Eastern Europe
Being plucky in a leotard.
No gymnastics at all.

There was just the coughing,
A winner somewhere,
Then heading off home as slow as ice,
For chips, no doubt,
And sympathy.


Thursday, 22 January 2009

A day's a day...

So, I'm 42 tomorrow. As my Mum is 84 just now I feel (almost) as middle-aged as a person can feel, I think. It's quite pleasant though...I feel old enough not to care what I look like (not that I was ever that bothered on that front...) and young enough to walk for miles and miles and miles without creaking too much or needing medical assistance. I've forgotten most of my youthful mistakes and wrong turns (well, some of them) and I feel happy within myself most of the time...well, when I'm near home at least. Now I need to work on venturing out and about a bit more again (this year's project). I'm even going to be very brave and tell you what my new year's resolution is for 2009 (brave because then I have to stick to it!). It's 'less fear' (I sounds like the kind of thing young men have painted on the side of their cars). I couldn't stretch to 'no fear' (not yet) because this is a long, slow recovery apparently. Still, it is better than no recovery at all...or just making the same mistakes over and over again.

Speaking of recovery, my brother (he of the brain surgery in New Zealand) is doing very well I'm thrilled to report and he has his birthday this week too. He will even be out of hospital in time and will be 46 on the 25th which is of course Burns Day (Scottish poet Robert Burns, was born on 25th January 1759...for those of you who have somehow missed this detail). The event is usually referred to as Burns Night – perhaps because Burns was one for, let's say, the entertainments of the later part of the day - and I've always been a little jealous of my brother sharing Burns' birthday. It might be nice to have that poetic destiny thing on your side, mightn't it? My brother, of course, couldn't care less – poetry is not exactly high on his list of interests (sensible bloke). These days I hear a lot of Burns songs (going as I do to folk clubs up here) and I really love them. I have a CD of Eddi Reader singing lots of them and here's a taste of how she does it:

I even have a poem called 'Avon kiss' (in the 'love' poems section on website) which came about when I misheard the name of 'Ae fond kiss' on the radio! On a related note Archie Fisher at the folk club here this week read out some amusing rewritten versions of Burns songs that someone has been sending to him via email. They were very good and I'll try to track down a link. As for the real thing I've read a couple of the 'lives' of Burns you can buy (and there are a couple more just out) and I have (even!) tried to read some of the poems (but I do better when I hear someone else read them properly).

Even growing up in the cultural wasteland that is England I was very aware of the significance of the 25th January and Robbie Burns. I think maybe the headmistress of my primary school was Scottish because she certainly read us a Burns poem every year on that date and I shouldn't think that happens in too many English schools. Now, of course, Small Girl is in a Scottish school so she learns a Scots poem every year for the Scottish afternoon they have in Burns' honour (poetry reciting competition, singing, dancing...). She has no Scottish accent at all as yet (in fact she doesn't even have a Northern English accent like me and her Dad...she speaks like her Grandma...and the rest of the royal family...). My Mum was born in Edinburgh to English parents (does that make me a bit Scottish...I never know...) and she lived there till she was about 21. She has very little Scottish in her voice that you would notice but that's...a subject for another time...

Apart from one year in Spain I lived in England more-or-less non-stop until I was 35. Then in 2002 Mark and Small Girl and I moved to Angus in Scotland and I have loved pretty much every minute of the last seven years in one way or another. I still sound more 'Coronation Street' than 'River City' (or any other Scottish TV programme you can think of) but I can hear little bits of Scottish phrasing creeping into my choice of expression. Now and again I find myself 'going up to my bed', for example, or 'going away down the road' or asking 'can I get..?' in shops. As a linguist (or former linguist), I love hearing languages get to work and make their presence felt. Here on the east coast of the country there's a lot of real Scots about and I've found some of its vocabulary making its way into my language too. Some of the words are just so perfect - like today I looked at a crow and thought 'you know they look and sound much more like a craw than a crow'. I also like the business of calling your husband/partner/bloke your 'man'. For those of us who aren't married it gets us out of that awkward partner/boyfriend/bloke moment and once I feel comfortable saying it it will be really useful (it still feels a bit forced if I say it just now). When I first heard people using 'man' in that way up here it very much reminded me of the German I learned at school (because in German 'mann' means 'man' and 'husband') so I wrote a poem about it using bits of German (I haven't studied it since I was 18...I did A level and spent a couple of summers in Austria working as a rubbish au-pair). It's no coincidence of course but I'll leave it to someone more qualified in the history of the Scots language to explain all that (Montrose poet Raymond Vettese who writes in Scots is fascinating on the subject, for instance – I heard him lecture on Burns and Scots a couple of years back).

My 'man' poem was printed in the Scottish arts paper 'Northwords Now' in March 2007 - which was very nice of them. I notice they are on-line now as well as in print which is good as finding a copy down this way used to be quite a labour (they are based in Inverness)! And is that Hugh McMillan I see on their home page! I believe it is. World domination can not be far away now, Shug. But anyway, here is the poem in question and even if you don't know any German it should make at least some sense. It is on the 'Scottish Interest' section of the 'Poems' section of my website too (which some of you might like to visit – only 9 poems...a friendly, easy-going poems about misery or the pointlessness of existence anywhere to be seen...). It's a love poem, a language poem, a poem...

My man

My man
They say here
Like the Germans
Mein Mann

He is great
My man
How would they say it?

He works
He is warm
Sehr warm
Like a heater

He remembers
That's a tricky one
Er erinnert sich an
Bloody hell
I can remember it
Ich kann

RF about 2005

And then finally here is a present from me to me...a little bit of Karine Polwart...possibly Scotland's finest singer/songwriter (and that's really saying something because there are heaps of great ones). You don't actually see her on this clip (heavens, she would be amazing if she was that young!) but it's a good recording (unlike some of the stuff on YouTube) and the song seems kind of right for today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. Enjoy.

Monday, 19 January 2009

A happy Billy (or two)

There are two things I've watched lately that I'd like to mention to those of you who pass by this way. Maybe you've seen the things I'm talking about, maybe you haven't but I hope so because, as always, I'm interested in your contribution. So! Notebooks at the ready – let's discuss (sorry, been reading 'Harriet the Spy' with Small Girl – in full notebook mode...).

First off is the film 'Happiness' (1998 dir. Todd Solondz) – not one to watch with small girls or indeed small boys...or indeed anyone of a delicate constitution or high level of prudishness. I watched it last week when Mark was away because I always have a whole pile of 'miserable arty films' stacked up on the freeview hard drive recorder thingamabob (they must come up with a catchy name for those machines...I call ours the 'magic box'...) and I thought it was a good chance to clear a couple from the languishing 'library'. Mark does watch these films with me now and again (and sometimes even enjoys them) but he can only take so many and you know what...sometimes after I've watched a particularly harrowing or upsetting one I catch myself wondering why I watch films like this too! Misery, cruelty, boredom, families who torture each other, people who rape children...remind me, why am I watching this again? Aren't there some reruns of 'Q.I' on the Dave channel or something?

But I watched it...because that's what I let's continue. I must have noted something about 'Happiness' back when it came out but, as I've mentioned before, I rarely get to cinemas never mind arthouse ones so I am years behind with movies. This one was on TV ages ago (maybe even as far back as last Xmas) and, since I recorded it, it has just sat on our library page...and sat...and sat...because when exactly are you in the mood for a movie about a paedophile? Not often really is it?

Of course this film is about lots of other things. It's one of those all-encompassing just-about-life movies and it really is very good – great acting, great actors, beautiful colours, clever dialogue, interesting music, interesting use of unusual music in unusual places, even an amusing and really annoying pretentious poet character who's 'living in a state of irony' (New Jersey). Have any of you seen it? What did you make of it? It really is unusual, I'd give it that much. It's stayed with me (as some films do) and I am aware of it seeping into my mind in all kinds of funny places. There are a lot of American films that do that kooky look at life (suburban or urban...this one does both in fact) but 'Happiness' takes several steps further into...kookiness...and then it really goes beyond that and into...quite a different place. Every now and again I had to stop myself - did I really watch fantastic actor Philip Seymour Hoffman ejaculating at a wall? I believe I did (or at least I watched him grimacing and then a cutaway to what definitely looked like... the product of masturbation on a wall). Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play the paedophile, by the way, he is Billy - more your run-of-the-mill stalker/crank caller. It's one of those films where you find yourself thinking the strangest things like 'is it someone's job to make the fake semen and shoot it out somehow' (at least I'm assuming it's fake semen...maybe it isn't) or did he make his own? I'm sure there's a website somewhere that could tell me the answer if I really want to know (and I don't – some mysteries are better left untouched...). His is not the only semen shot in the film either and at times it feels a bit like a very polite American 'Shameless'...with gentler music. At one point I'm sure I heard Barry Manilow's 'Mandy'...

The other thing I wanted to mention was a programme I watched before Xmas. It was the 'Shrink Rap' where Dr Pamela Connolly ('clinical psychologist') interviews her husband, the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly (I'm not going to link to his wikipedia page – who the hell doesn't know who Billy Connolly is!). I watched a lot of the last 'Shrink Rap' series and I found some of it really interesting. Sure, you could say it all feeds the obsession with celebrity, she's only interviewing famous people, it's only one step up from trashy magazines...except I think she makes a better job of it than that. I liked Dr P back when she was Pamela Stephenson in 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' and so I am well disposed towards her. Plus some of her subjects have been very interesting people (famous or not) - the Robin Williams interview/session was good and she made Salman Rushdie seem really fairly human. So when I saw she was talking to husband Billy Connolly (whose biography she has already written...twice) I couldn't resist having a wee look, now could I? It was the holidays after all.

I'm not a huge fan of Connolly's humour (I'm neither for nor against...I'm just not particularly tickled by what he does) but I do like him. I like the way he talks, the way he lives, the way he bounces through life like a great big Glaswegian rubber ball. There were some great sections in the interview/session/chat and I laughed quite a bit watching it (and I think I lost a tear or two as well). Connolly cried a little on-screen too – mostly remembering the life-changing experience of hearing Pete Seeger sing Dylan's 'Hard Rain' in Glasgow in the early 1960s. “I became another guy,” he said of the concert, “it changed me forever. I could see the tunnel...I knew light had was over and no-one was going to take advantage of me any more.”

I could quote the programme over and over (and in fact most of it is on YouTube – cut into smaller chunks - if you want to see it). He talked about his work and how he doesn't plan his comedy ideas - “they come...when I'm on there (stage). It's constantly very frightening and so my life is kind of frightening cos I really don't know...the code, you see...I don't know the pin's not till I'm challenged that I get the idea.”

One of my favourite bits, however, is about taste and you could apply what he says to art or poetry or comedy or...anything really. Here's some of it:

“As I get older I'm beginning to realise – and I wish more people would – that there are things you just don't get and you never will. Like Brussel sprouts – I don't get it that someone can actually pass them through their mouth and into their stomach. To me they are repulsive, dreadful things. And you can apply that to Picasso – some people think it's astounding and other people think it's a scribble...or Stockhausen or Mozart or Beethoven or the Rolling Stones. They say 'that's crap!' It isn't crap – you just don't get it and you never will. It's like Brussel sprouts – it just isn't for you...your chemical, emotional make-up. There isn't good and bad – there's stuff you don't get and it took me all this length of time to get there. I wish I'd known it in the first place!”

Also, as the interview progressed, it was just enjoyable to see how happy they were together, how obviously fond Mr and Mrs Connolly are of each other (unlike so many famous couples where you can just see the complete lack of any kind of bond between them). These two have been together for years and there were real smiles for each other (and not just for the was as if the camera was hardly there). There was real adult affection and genuine consideration for each other and their children and, you know, I like to see happiness – real happiness – because, my goodness, you can't watch miserable arthouse films every night now can you?

To finish this post here's a bit of 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' (featuring Pamela Stephenson, as she was then, with Mel Smith and Rowan Atkinson in a rather nasty gorilla suit). I remember this sketch very well because it was on the vinyl LP of the show that I got for Xmas one year and used to play over and over and over. The show was on BBC TV from 1979 to 1981 (I was just in high school, just old enough to really enjoy some of the smut!) and the man behind it was John Lloyd (now the man behind 'Q.I.'). Was it that long ago? Oh yes, it was...

Friday, 16 January 2009

A goal of my own

Here's the headache post. Is it the post that's been giving me headaches...or is it that laptop and low energy light bulb cocktail that I'm sure I've been indulging in too often? Hmmm, not sure. Anyway I've worked on this a bit and I've tried to stop the whole thing getting too whiney but I'm not sure I've managed that completely. This is very much one of those 'should I really post this?' moments but so far, when I've had similar doubts, things have all worked out well in the end. Fingers crossed this is another one of those times. Most of you know me by now...I'm never whiney on purpose. And I love you all. You don't believe me...but I do.

In a recent post about Steve Martin's book 'Born Standing Up' I mentioned how Martin had worked really hard to get where he wanted in his career. Martin had one thing that comes in handy in this regard – he had a very clear career goal. From quite young he wanted to be successful as a comedy performer and, from his own account, whilst he developed his ideas and methods over time, his goal pretty much stayed the same until he achieved it (that is...if you can achieve a's all sounding a bit management speak all of a sudden). Anyway, once Martin had achieved this sought-after success he then moved sideways into other related fields (comedy acting, writing, movie directing...) but thinking about this 'career goal' aspect of the book made me think about the whole business of goals and ambitions (especially when applied to work) and some of the, let's say, issues that I have had in this area over the years. I think I'm a bit envious of people who have such a clear goal in sight – I don't think I've ever really had anything quite like that. Have you? Is life easier (or more straightforward) if you do? Or is it worse if you then continually fail to score where it matters? I really have no idea.

So to think this through I'm going to start at the beginning...well, my beginning anyway (didn't Julie Andrews once sing that we should?). When I was, let's say, a pre-adult I didn't have a clue what I would do when I grew up - although I did always assume that I would grow up (maybe that was my first mistake...). I had vague ideas about journalism and writing from fairly early on but they were so vague that they were something approaching faded watercolours in an art gallery that's closed up for a very long holiday on a street that you know used to be here somewhere (see – just thinking about clear goals brings on a vagueness attack!). In some ways part of my career goal problem was that I got the impression from very early on that I didn't need to worry about it – something would just occur to me when the time was right. There is another possibility too – maybe I just peaked too soon. What? Well, the thing is I found schoolwork really easy and came top in class...a lot...and when this happens people assume that of course you will go on to something marvellous (details to be filled later). People also assume that as you're 'so clever' you'll be able to sort this all out for yourself (and I suppose some people can). I was aware that these assumptions were going on around me when I was a kid but at the time I had no idea what it meant. I think I expected to be carried along forever on some kind of giant wave of success or something - silver cups falling into my lap on a regular basis. I didn't really think about it much but when I did that's probably what I thought. Not so clever, see?

It didn't quite work out that way of course. In fact when I used the Friends Reunited website a few years back I lost count of the number of old school acquaintances and friends who wrote 'bloody hell, I thought you'd be some high-powered business woman or something'. I never wrote anything on my FR profile about what I had done since school but just the fact that I didn't have the big show-off 'great career, mob of perfect kids' CV online really surprised people (and made them think I must have really messed up somehow, I suppose...I'm sure some of them were thrilled...). I found that all really odd when it happened though. I was only good at schoolwork, for heaven's sake! Anyone who thinks passing school exams prepares you for life outside school is...a Careers Officer, obviously. And as for Irvine Welsh and his 'If you liked school, you'll love work'...well, Irvine, with all respect...that's just bollocks, dear, and I am living proof. Catchy title for a book though I suppose.

After school I took the usual next step for kids who do well at exams (and whose parents think there is no alternative...) – I went to university in 1986...all the time waiting for the big career idea, goal or inspiration to appear. What would I do next? I had absolutely no idea. In the end I did very little studying (aimless, you see), got involved in some student politics, had a few crap boyfriends, did a few tiny bits of (I suppose you'd call it humorous )writing and waited...still no goal. It got to the end of year three and all the other arts students were heading off for law and academia and the media and...stuff and I got all the brochures and all the information (no websites then...) and just really didn't know what to do next. The opportunities a lot of the brochures promised sounded more like barriers to me - I didn't want to follow one path...I wanted all the paths! At one point I remember seeing a Careers Officer (or two) and I remember crying a lot at one of the interviews. I can't even remember why now (maybe I was tired...I always did like a lot of late nights) but I've tried and I can't recall one word of the conversation. I have always been a good crier though (a skill not often mentioned in job requirement specifications...fascists!).

A couple of months after uni I ended up working at an advertising agency. Looking back (again) I'm not completely sure how that happened or why on earth I thought it would be something I would be able to do. I had to get a job (obviously) but advertising...was that the best I could do? I hated it. The only jobs I have ever been able to bear are the ones where I feel I am being of some use to somebody (and in advertising...well, a person is about as useless and surplus to requirements as ever a person can be!). But I had read or heard about writers who had started in advertising and so somewhere the vague writing idea persisted and led me into this job. Plus the pay was quite good and I had discovered serious nightclubbing by this point so I went out every weekend and most of the week and got really very good at avoiding thinking about anything at all. I think I thought I was doing important research for a novel (and who knows, I might have been but for the fact that Irvine Welsh and various others were doing the same research but...crucial difference...they were managing to write down some of it down as well...kind of important for a writer, you know...the writing...). I always remember a Chilean musician friend I knew in Spain when I was 19. He used to say to me very seriously 'if you are going to be a writer you must practise every day.' I suppose I do that now (some way or another) but I'm not sure I did back then. I always have been very easily distracted...and not many jobs ask for that in the specifications either (double fascists!).

Somewhere in this whole post-uni/pre-baby section of life I did produce some journalism (but nothing very well paid) and I think I managed OK but I also did enough to know that I didn't really want to pursue it as a career. You've really got to be very ambitious to go and hunt down journalistic work and whilst I enjoyed it I wasn't desperate to do it (and plenty of others were) and it wasn't the kind of writing that felt like what I should be doing. So instead I wandered about and did some bits of teaching, spent long periods 'unable to work due to general uselessness' and also, as I've mentioned here and there, DJed in nightclubs with a friend for a couple of years seemed like a good idea at the time. We used to meet a lot of very ambitious DJs out and about – people who wanted to be record label bosses or record producers or just rich, old, fat DJs – but although I managed to act like one sometimes I never was anything like a DJ with a goal! It was a bit like an acting role I think looking back...I tried it, talked the talk, walked the walk (hard with the heavy record boxes...this was before bloody laptop DJs!) but it really wasn't me. Nothing like. Partly I just wasn't a big enough arsehole (have you met any successful DJs? There are a couple of friendly ones but really...the rest are unbearable...). Probably the most fun I had during this period was the daft job we had in a big Leeds city centre bar on a Wednesday night. We did a night called Maxi where we ran alternative 'Never mind the Buzzcocks' style quiz nights (before the TV show, I would add) and also, now and again, put on cool karaoke (don't laugh - it is possible!). We got paid quite a lot of money too! We even talked about a new take on Bruce Forsyth's 'Play your cards right' but I don't think we ever actually got that one together. What was that about life and cabaret..?

But then things changed (too many to list), one of us had a baby (not me, at that point) and so there I was again jobless with no career road leading anywhere. I got an office job (too dull to even detail) but I ended up sitting at my desk crying for days at a time so that didn't really work out. Then I found myself coming back to writing (well to writing and nervous collapses...but you can't really make a career out of those, can you? Answer – only if 'Heat' magazine takes your picture while you have them...and I've never fancied that...). It was at this point (about 1997) that I started writing poems regularly and this then (eventually) turned into 'the thing that I do' now (as well as bringing up baby and all that). But I'm still not sure if I have any goals in this area (poetry). Is poetry an area where a person can have goals anyway? Sometimes I can pretend (to others and myself) that I do. Sometimes I even feel like I do. But do I really? I'm not sure. It's interesting. I enjoy it. I get my share of good feedback but then also I am in this 'not in the literary/not in the performance' middle place ('polymorphous', a wise man said) and I'm not sure where the goals are in this weird bit in between. I can aim to write as well as I can (and I do try to do that...of course...what other kind of writing is there?) but beyond that where do I head exactly? And how? And why? I'm still trundling along the poetry road at the moment but unlike some of you more fanatical poetry devotees, I am aware that I might change my tack at any point. For a start there is quite a lot about the world of poetry that really doesn't make it feel like home to me (the reams of rules and all their fans, the so-often-focussing-on-competition element, the sneering and snobbishness that creeps about). I hate snobbishness, more than almost anything, and it turns out that poetry has some of the world's worst snobs (common knowledge apparently – I never knew). I know, I get arseholes (or people who seem that way to you!) anywhere and not just in nightclubs. There is no perfect employment, no promised land...but I'm an idealist, always have been (again not something you'll be reading on lists of 'essentials' for many jobs!) and I can only take so many arseholes in my life. So is poetry really the best place for me? I don't know, I don't know...I float on...and on and on....and a lot of the time I don't think about how and why and I just get on with it...whatever it is. I'm only one little soul, rambling away in a blog corner after all.

Well, as you can see this just goes round and round (hence the headache)! I wonder so many things - could I have done something much better with my life so far (workwise at least)? Could I still? Are my goals my own or are they really bits of nonsense passed on from my parents (past and present)? Can a person have other goals when their main job is looking after small children anyway...or is that (in my case at least) more of an excuse or a cover-up for failure? I don't worry about all this too much...well, not all the time... after all I'm healthy, I'm not in constant danger from some kind of military or other attack, I'm not forced to do a job I hate, Small Girl is healthy, my lovely man is healthy, I look after my Mum (and vice versa some of the time) and maybe success in all those areas is more than enough...but I don't know. What is success anyway? What do you do when you have it? Everyone looks at young Jen Hadfield winning that big poetry prize this week and says 'look there's success' but does she feel that way about it (probably not...she'll be thinking about her next book or her next trip or the fact that her carpets need cleaning or something....OK, maybe the carpets is more me...). She sounded just lovely on a Radio 4 interview I listened to via Andrew Philip's Tonguefire, by the way, so gentle, so thoughtful, so long may she do well! Maybe, for me, I won all my prizes in school and now I'm destined to be more 'Jack who tries lots of trades and does OK at them' than 'mistress of one'. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe I'm just the goal-less type and therefore I've already achieved my goal. Oh, now that just sounds like nonsense. What do you reckon? Any thoughts, any stories, any goals of your own? (Because, bloody hell, that's quite enough about me...)

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Old thoughts

The hard-to-write post is still giving me a headache so in the meantime here is an old poem. It says 2005 on the website but that's when it went up there - I wrote it about ten years ago. It may seem to be about writing but it is only partly about that and it certainly isn't about writer's block or any such thing (I get life blocks not writing blocks!). Maybe it will help me get this silly post out and done...

D Days

Some days
Words appear
Like presents
I don't deserve
(Or do I?)
Some days
I see nothing
Feel less
I can't help it
(Can I?)
Some days
I watch TV
It's easy
All I'm good for
(Is that right?)
Some days
I gloom
And pick my head
It annoys me
(So why's that?)
Then some days
I write and
Write and
It never amounts to
(Nothing right?)
And some days
I just try
To be normal
But that won't work
(It never does)
So some tired days
I don't try
I just play dead
(And I'm quite good at it)

RF 1998?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Role models

I'm working on a post just now that is giving me a headache. Why am I working on a post and not some other form of writing? It's all connected. Also Mark is away so I have to get up earlier and be that bit more responsible and organised. Oh yes...just thinking about increased responsibility makes my head pound!

Anyway, while I sort myself out here's a bit of comedy I came across when I was looking for clips for my Xmas TV comedy post in December. I didn't think this was very suitable for that particular'll see what I mean.

I LOVED Dave Allen when I was a kid and I now realise he was a role model of a sort. I'm pretty sure that somewhere in my lazy, hedonistic soul I saw him on TV and thought 'he gets paid to sit there and talk and drink' (and he smoked too a lot of the time of course). I'm still working on finding the job that lets me be Dave Allen (or something like him). The headache post is connected with that too. Bear with me.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Funny boo hoo

As I said some time back in December, I usually end up reading the most unsuitable books at Xmas – books that make it even harder to 'ho ho ho' and 'isn't it all lovely?' - so this year I made a concerted effort to read something that would not clang so badly with the intended cheerfulness of Xmas festivities for the under 10s. This year I read the autobiographical book by comedian and film star Steve Martin 'Born Standing Up' (first published 2007). It is an account of how Martin became a stand-up comedian until the time he ended that part of his career and moved into films - it is in no way meant to be the full story of his life to-date or anything of the kind. I don't get a lot of time to read in the holidays (what with visitors, child-centred activities etc.) but I managed to read the book here and there, whenever possible, and I finished it today. I finished it in tears! So much for reading something a bit more 'ho ho ho...'

To be fair it's not all down to Martin. There is a lot of family stuff going on just now (like, for starters, my brother in New Zealand will be having brain surgery Monday morning their it an there any other kind of brain surgery?) and my emotions are fairly easily stirred at the best of times (never mind the worst). But still he did make me cry, Mr Martin, more than he's ever made me laugh probably as I'm not particularly a huge fan of his comedy (though I do like him...the way he thinks, what he says, how he's made his much as you can like someone you've never met). It was probably the same brother (4 years my senior) who first showed me Steve Martin 'live' shows (on video...probably) because he has always loved American entertainment and comedy in particular (a lot of 'Cheers' was watched in our house on his account).

I wanted to read the book after seeing Martin interviewed on the Jon Stewart TV Show a couple of months ago. There was something so enticing about the way he described his book that I was well and truly hooked (and I now know from the book what an experienced talk-show guest he is – no wonder he can sell a book in five minutes!). But I don't mind being won round now and again and anyway I'm glad I read it. It's a simple but at the same time very interesting read (only 217 pages) and it is completely free of all the long tales of celebrity drinking and failed relationships that we were talking about in that last epic post on biopics. This, in contrast, is a serious look at the business (or indeed science) of making people laugh as well as a study of his own route to the huge time (taking in a lot of hours working at Disneyland when quite young, jobs in various bizarre variety theatres, a lot of relentless performing, some lucky breaks and a lively, hungry brain).

Comedy is one of the subjects that interests me more and more as time goes by. I wrote about poems that dare to contain humour back on 29th October 08 and Xmas TV humour even more recently. I think humour may even be this year's subject for me (hooray, you cry, no more banging on about the song...if you're lucky). I was fascinated to read how a quote from e.e.cummings was very important to Martin and his understanding of his own brand of humour (in fact in very early shows in the early 1960s he even read poems by cummings, Eliot and others as part of his act). The quotation was “Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement”. Yeh, me too. Precise, huh?

I was also thrilled to read about his panic/anxiety attacks. I've had more than my share and they're fairly foul and phenomenally frustrating. Martin took a far more sensible approach than I did (he focussed on work and kept away from stimulants once he was aware of a problem...) but even so he shows what a complicated type of mind-mess they are - “Though panic attacks are gone from my life now – they receded as slowly as the ice around Greenland – they were woven through two decades of my life. When I think of the moments of elation I have experienced over some of my successes, I am astounded at the number of times they have been accompanied by elation's hellish opposite.” Two decades? Yes, it's been about that so far. Tiresome business.

The book has lots of clever insights and funny little details. The sadness comes in when Martin writes about his parents (a fairly standard 'no-one ever showed any emotion' story but no less sad for all fact possibly sadder for all that...). Above all though it is the story of one man's determination to succeed at that bugger of a task – amusing a crowd of people on a regular basis using just your wits and still managing to feel good about yourself (and not just taking an easy, well-worn path to the laugh). Martin learned the hard way (and is there any other?):

“The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”

And life is full of abominable circumstances, isn't it? So send your best vibes to Christchurch, NZ please...and a few other places too.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009

What a picture...

One thing that I watched over the holidays was the film 'Ray' about the singer and musician Ray Charles. It's not a new film (it came out in 2004, directed by Taylor Hackford) but it's one I've been meaning to see for ages and one good thing about the Xmas holidays is the chance to catch up on some TV and films. I do watch biopics now and again (most often music-related but not always) and I'm not even sure quite why I do! They can be very disappointing – tale after tale of drinking and drugtaking and upsetting the family - and yet still I keep trying them. They are a bit of a lazy viewing experience I suppose but that makes them perfect material for the end of the busy Xmas season (she said...making excuses). And it could be worse...I could be watching 'Celebrity Big Brother'...and I'm not...well only one programme so far...Terry Christian surprisingly funny, Tommy Sheridan desperate to improve his terrible image and be a regular guy, lots of women talking too much about what's new, you say...

But back to real talent! I loved all the music in 'Ray' and Jamie Foxx (no relation) did a great job in the lead role so I felt it was a biopic well worth watching despite the obligatory 'musician takes drugs, wife screams at musician for taking drugs, musician has lots of affairs' scenes. After all Ray Charles was a heroin addict for twenty years and had children by 10 different women (at least...) so it would have been stranger to ignore some of his extracurricular activities perhaps. The team behind the film were obviously great RC fans so the idea of Ray Charles as musical genius came through very strongly and it did make me want to listen to more of his music (especially the livelier stuff where he does wonderful things with the piano!). Charles himself was involved with the film (although he died before it was released) and I think that, whilst it had its clumsy moments, overall it was interesting and it was particularly good on what it was like for him in the early stages of his career. He managed to succeed (and succeed resoundingly) against quite a lot of odds and the film doesn't do at all badly at getting that over to the audience.

One of the problems I find with biopics in general is that they can feel like they're running a race sometimes. It's like the film makers get too keen and try to get in as much as they can from the subject's life and so they pack in too many scenes and end up with a frenzied, hectic end-product with no pauses for thought. One perfect example of this was the more-or-less Carole King biopic 'Grace of my Heart'(1996 Allison Anders). Its main character was not called Carole King but its 'Denise Waverly' had a very similar career path through songwriting and record releases. The film was a real let-down because it was in such a hurry that the scenes just seemed to fly by and it almost felt like I could hear a whistle and a shout of 'next stage of life, new boyfriend' every ten minutes. It must be really weird to watch a film like this about yourself...whole years crashing by in short segments, nervous breakdowns and marriage breakdowns and drug overdoses going off like flashguns all over the place. The sort-of Supremes biopic ('Dreamgirls' 2006 dir. Bill Condon) was equally overpacked (and overlong) I felt. By the time it got to the later sections of the film I found it very difficult to care less about any of the characters no matter how grasping or virtuous they were. It was just too much (some great performances though).

For other reasons I was disappointed by 'Walk the Line' (2005, dir James Mangold), the Johnny Cash biopic. All Joaquin Phoenix as Cash seemed to do was take pills and fall over. Likewise Jackson Pollock in 'Pollock' (2000 directed by and starring Ed Harris) – drinking and driving, drinking and driving...didn't he do anything else? You know that the subjects of these films did abuse pills or alcohol but do you need to see it over and over in the films? It isn't that interesting to watch and isn't there anything else to say? One reason I liked 'Ray' was that the drug use didn't dominate the film – it was there but the music was more important and the film made that very clear.

So which are your favourite (and least favourite) biopics? They can be about musicians or artists or writers or scientists or politicians or...anybody. Have I missed any really good ones? Which should we all avoid at all costs?

p.s. I have, of course, seen Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath in 'Sylvia' (2004 dir. Christine Jeffs) – but we always seem to be mentioning SP so I have not done so this time! Well until now...I didn't think la Paltrow did a bad job, considering. Fairly dull tale though with no poems to break up the misery!

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Only words

I had decided to slow down on the YouTube clips but then earlier this week we were listening to last year's Chumbawamba album 'The Boy Bands Have Won' and there was a song on it begging to be passed on to you all. I plugged this album quite a lot last year but I'm carrying on because it really is a brilliant and interesting album. One of the reasons we've listened to it quite so much is because Small Girl loves it too and asks for it all the time (which means we listen to it in the car quite a lot – her other requests being the 'Annie' soundtrack, anything to do with 'High School Musical' or a Disney readalong 'Little Mermaid' CD).

The song I'm playing you today is possibly my favourite track from the album (Small Girl likes the funnier and/or livelier ones). This one features guest vocals from English folk singer Roy Bailey and he's not a singer I've listened to a lot but on this song he just gets it SO right. It is a beautiful song written about not very beautiful things. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Aim high

So...I wasn't going to post today (sleepy, could be helping my friend cook...) but then I had a look around and everyone is posting like crazy so I thought I might join in after all...with a poem at least. Here is one I wrote a few years ago. There are so many stories involved in it that I couldn't even begin to list them! I think I'll just let you all fly your own paths instead. I will tell you that it is linked with this year's resolution (see post below) which is kind of making its way out into the world. A painful birth.

If you like the poem it is also on a postcard (using the above image as background).

Free at last

Just maybe I'm a balloon
Rubbery surface, taut skin
That would explain all the hot air
The floating business, the holding in

A leftover plaything
From a fun day or fĂȘte
Perhaps tied to a pushchair
All thoughts on escape

I pull and I tug
Because upwards feels right
So light, I feel empty
My string thin but quite tight

If I ever break free
I will lose sight of ground
I will fly high, flit quickly
I will never come down

RF about 2006