Saturday, January 20, 2007

The writer's block

The writer spent the day quietly: watching television and reading old Sunday newspaper supplements. She read a range of reviews, recipes and reportage, completing one article and turning to the next without hesitation. When she tired of reading, the writer turned back to the television and sat staring for three or four hours: at detectives, documentaries and dramas.

Her mother brought cup after cup of sweet, hot tea, which the writer took with soft-voiced gratitude and without meeting her mother's eyes. She answered her mother's questions with short sentences or single words and did not turn from page or screen to do so.

At four o'clock, the writer stood.

"I'm going for a bath," she said. The writer was through the door and closing it behind her as her mother answered, remarking something about dinner as the door clicked shut.

Upstairs, the writer - sitting staring and still beside the bathtub - ran the water long past the point when the hot water tank emptied. When she slipped beneath the water, the writer found the water comfortably hot. It did not remain so for long. She watched the dull water shifting around her in the fading light of the bathroom. The writer picked up a magazine and read an article about a famously successful biographer's latest work. The biographer described the excitement and profound enjoyment she had gained from the project.

When the writer had finished reading, she hung her arm over the edge of the bathtub and closed her eyes. The magazine trembled slightly in her hand as it skimmed over the carpet, moving from side to side like a pendulum marking time. It fell to the floor as the writer withdrew her arm and sank beneath the water until only her face remained above the surface. She brought her hands to her head and massaged her scalp under the cooling water, before sitting up to wash her hair.

Ten minutes later, the writer walked slowly downstairs. She heard a newscaster announce the time from the front room and she stopped, her hand on the door. She closed her eyes for a long moment. When the writer entered the front room, her mother, sat on the sofa watching television, pointed the remote control past her in one darting movement. The newscaster fell silent with a click.

"One hour?" the writer's mother asked, her voice loud and bright.

The writer stopped in front of the mirror that hung over the fireplace, staring at her mobile phone on the floor. Her mother crossed the room behind her to the kitchen door and waited. The writer felt her mother's eyes on her and shifted her weight from her left to her right foot. She looked up and met her mother's stare. The older woman smiled.

"All right?" she asked, still smiling.

The writer waited, stared.

"Yes," she said, "Alright."

Her mother swept the long strings of beads that hung over the doorframe to one side and walked into the kitchen. The writer continued to stare at the space where her mother had been.

"Alright," the writer said.

She crossed the room and knelt before a dark blue rucksack, its top unhooked and hanging open. She yanked free a thin, brown notebook and stood up. The writer walked to a low table that stood against the wall with a telephone at its centre. She picked up a biro that lay next to a small, square notepad. She turned and walked to the dining table, sweeping the old newspaper supplements into a loose, untidy pile. She pulled a chair from underneath the long, darkwood table and sat down, placing the notebook before her. She kept the biro in her right hand.

The writer opened the cover of the thin, brown notebook and looked at the first page. At the top, right-hand corner was a circled number one, and in the centre three words, underlined. The rest of the page was filled with her own handwriting. Some sections had been crossed through, and others had arrows leading to further lines of smaller script, scribbled sideways in the margin. The writer stared at the page. She held her breath.

The writer turned a page, then another, and another. All were filled with her own, slightly sloping script. She turned more pages; two, three at a time, until the sheets were bare. She flipped to the end of the book, to the very last page. The writer ran her hand lightly over the smooth white surface and pressed her biro to the empty page. She began to write.

When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.
- John Steinbeck

Friday, January 19, 2007

I lost a world the other day! Has anybody found? Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

It's a long day at the Ministry. The Chief and I make a vow over coffee to be nice to one another for the day. We struggle with this throughout the day with high spirits and, at points, questionable intentions. When one feels the other is being unpleasant or cruel we are to put our hand up. It becomes a sign of appeal. My sarcasm is quashed at source by a raised hand and an early morning's promise.

My life would be dull without the Chief.

In the evening he pays me the highest compliment when, after introducing me to someone who I fall into instant animated conversation with, he insists as I leave, "She's MY friend."

Today's blog post is late as those of you up with the lark will know. I'm blaming wine, which is easier than blaming myself. If anything can stop me writing, it's booze. I have made a New Year's vow not to skip a day however, so I always have to make up the posts.

I spend the evening with Bean, eating pizza, listening to music and drinking chianti. He makes me laugh, a lot, and we share an interest in the quirkier facts of the world. He listened to me talk about the West Africa Squadron for ages and managed to appear genuinely interested. He also laughed when I tell him that he has to sleep in my room this time while I take the front room, as I have become afraid of the howling window. I am also a little shocked by how much better I sleep on my small, worn out couch than on my barely year-old new bed.

Tonight's poem for Bean.
Number 254 Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore could be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird -

That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of Me.

"A vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with."
Tennessee Williams.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hell, there are no rules here-- we're trying to accomplish something. Thomas Edison

'Fear of Falling' courtesy of Devil of Neurosis over at DeviantArt

After the Singing Group last night, Kate and I watch a TV show called A Natural History of Murder, which profiles a forensic scientist who studies pollen, Patricia Wiltshire. If you didn't happen to see this rather obscure gem, it is almost impossible to describe: firstly, how interesting the subject matter of forensic work using pollen to link suspects with murders, to locate bodies and so, and secondly, what an amazing character Patricia Wiltshire is. My favourite moment was when she described Tom Cruise as 'funny little man.'

The storm arrived in the night. The howling winds produce the most alarming sounds from my window as air rushes through the gaps in the frame. Sometimes the window actually moans loudly. I know that my neighbour has the same problem because he woke me up three times hammering at his window to stop it. The result? I had nowhere near enough sleep and spent almost the entirety of today asleep.

When I wake up, I'm completely out of sync with the time and I feel so didgy by the evening that at eight o'clock I spend an hour doing yoga for the first time in ages and ration myself to drinking only water and no caffeine for the rest of the night. Outside now, at half past nine, I can hear the winds rising again and resign myself to sleeping on the sofa.

Some Joanna Newsom, inspired by my Dad. I wanted to post a track that he recently alerted me to, This Side of the Blue, but I can't find it. This live recording of Joanna on Jools Holland makes up for it, I hope. She can be an acquired taste, but I've loved her since she released the Sprout and The Bean.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not the only fruit

Tonight's image is courtesy of Ulrika Spielman over at

Working in the Ministry and Michael and I fall into conversation about the smell of oranges. He recites a poem to me.

The Stolen Orange by Brian Patten

When I went out I stole an orange
I kept it in my pocket
It felt like a warm planet

Everywhere I went I smelt of oranges
Whenever I got into an awkward situation
I'd take out the orange and smell it

And immediately on even dead branches I saw
The lovely and fierce orange blosson
That smells so much of joy

When I went out I stole an orange
It was a safeguard against imagining
there was nothing bright or special in the world.

I desperately need all the stolen oranges I can get at the moment. I am working very hard to change some things in Sarah's world. This is not proving easy at times. The more I try to change things, the shakier my world feels. Everything seems new, uncertain, ambiguous. I cling to the things and the people who I feel safest with in the world. My social life has, of necessity, shrunk a little.

At the A Cappella group this evening, I laugh more than I have for a long time. the group has fallen into my life at the best time, like a perfect, fully-formed and unasked-for gift. There is a natural positive energy that is released into the ether when people come together and sing, and I may be a fan of Jo, our teacher, for the rest of my life, for releasing the voices that some of have kept hidden. She is not afraid to stand in the centre of us and dance and sing at the top of her voice. Her courage releases ours.

Our last song is Let It Be, by the Beatles. It feels like a lullaby when the group sing. Before we go, Marie announces our first performance is to be in March. Somehow we all still laugh.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey. Lennon/McCartney

Calamity Jane, courtesy of the American Library of Congress
(Is it only me that wants to go and live in Deadwood?)

I forgot to mention the amazing knowledge of Miss Sally yesterday. We were discussing musicals, in particular a favourite to both of us, Calamity Jane and I asked Miss Sally what the name of the young officer that Calamity falls in love with was.

Miss Sally's eyes slipped sideways and far away. Then back to me.

"Lieutenant Gilmartin," she said.

Miss Sally truly is the champion of all things musical and her knowledge is unsurpassable. The Chief once challenged her to a 'Sound of Music' trivia face-off and Miss Sally didn't hesitate. She knew every single answer to every single question the Chief threw at her. We were all very impressed. Well, apart from the Chief, who doesn't really like to talk about it.

In connection with our conversation, Miss Sally and her husband, Mr Alan, shared some very interesting facts about the real-life (rather than singing) Calamity Jane:

Her real name was Martha Jane Canary, and she wore men's clothing, chewed tobacco and was extremely handy with a gun. I am most impressed with the fact that she chewed tobacco and spat because I have always wanted to learn how to spit well. My brother was an ace spitter when we were children, whereas I was always left with saliva hanging from my chin, and my spitting never made the sharp sound my brother's did as it left his mouth. He sounded like a dart being fired from an Amazon blowpipe and I sounded like a toucan sneezing.

The real life Calamity has been added to my list of aspirational heroines, who I try to carry around in my mind and whose individual persona I adopt when needed. These are the women I think of most often and whose opinion (were any of them alive to provide it) I would pay assiduous attention to. This list now consists chiefly of:

La Parker (obviously)
Sylvia Plath
Virginia Woolf
and now Calamity Jane

If you have speakers on your pc and an understanding boss (if you work at the Ministry you'll be fine: the Chief is wonderful and this is all about Culture - it's what we do), then click yourself over to the Poetry Archives, where you can hear poets reading their poems, including:

I, Too by Langston Hughes

A Blade of Grass, by Brian Patten (one of my favourites)

Not Waving But Drowning, by Stevie Smith

Let me know if you find anything you like. Poetry - it's yours, and it's free!

Today's Historical Sources - Scenes from the Museum

1. A real Captain's Log from HMS Highflyer, which yielded a very unexpected surprise....

2. The report of Sir George Collier, Commodore of the West Africa Squadron

3. A series of letters belonging to Sir Henry Leeke, Captain of HMS Myrmidon.

I know it's the researcher geek in me, but there's something very romantic and utterly absorbing about these accounts and I spent far more time on them than was necessary as a result.

Mika singing 'Grace Kelly' live on Jools Holland

Monday, January 15, 2007

Siempre sucede. Goya

Doña Isabel de Porcel, by Goya
(before 1805) Oil on canvas, 82 x 55 cm National Gallery, London

Francisco Goya is today's featured artist, and a bit of a random find, as most of the Daily is, in fact. A heavy influence on both Picasso and Manet, the Spanish artist Goya is described by Wikipedia as, "the last of the old masters and the first of the moderns."

The title of tonight's blog is also the title of number 8 in a series of drawings by Goya, entitled 'Los desastres de la guerra' (The Disasters of War), the entire series of which is reproduced for you here, courtesy of the ever-democratic Wikipedia Commons. I urge you to stop a moment and have a look at the titles of these pictures for a moment, which are often as compelling as the image itself. I think there is a certain poetry about them. For example, 'Siempre sucede' means 'This always happens,' which resonates through me with a childlike finality. Other titles in this series include:

Con razón o sin ella.
With or without reason.

Para eso habéis nacido.

This is what you were born for.

Amarga presencia.

Bitter presence.

No se puede saber por qué.

Nobody knows why.

It was a busy, productive and satisfying day at the Ministry today, with the office in high, relaxed spirits. There was some teasing from the classy Dru and the gorgeous Miss Sally this afternoon, the nature of which I shall not divulge, but I managed to break even with Miss Dru by responding with base-level sexual innuendo. I've never met anyone but Miss Dru who could delight me so much by exclaiming, "How rude!" and it's impossible to get mad with Miss Sally when she's giggling - it's far too contagious.

I feel as though my commitment to what I do for a living (in the case of the Ministry, writing on cultural policy) has returned to full strength after it started to flag last year. Moreover, I have started to organize my own writing life more effectively and with more commitment than I have previously felt able. My withdrawal from social life is currently facilitating this change (and some others, I suspect).

I may not like getting up at 7am every morning to write before work, but I sure do feel better for it. Some writers write every day; some writers generate astonishing word counts every day; and some writers have full-time jobs and children and mortgages to worry about at the same time. I try to remember this in the early hours of the morning when I'm not feeling so enthused.

I bumped into my first boyfriend's brother in town this morning. A sometime believer in signs, I wonder what this means. He has a lovely jawline, I thought, as we caught up on news. In fact, I was admiring his jawline so much that I realised halfway through one of his sentences that I wasn't actually listening at all. How rude.

Quotes from the Ministry

1. The London Boss: "This may go some way to explaining my Eeyore-ish demeanour."

2. The Chief: "I haven't seen legs that thin since I saw a child with rickets in India."

3. Miss Sally: "If anyone should like to ask for requests, Sarah and I have a very broad repertoire."

Silence from the office.

Sarah: "I expect they're putting together a list, Miss Sally."

Oscar Peterson's 'Hymn to Freedom.' It's more than a bit beautiful.

The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid for ourselves.
The basis of optimism is sheer terror.
Oscar Wilde

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I don't want the cheese anymore. I just want to get out of the trap. Proverb

detail from 'Kim Hiding' by Kate Kretz

Have I got a cultural extravaganza for you today?! It's not a real question, and the answer is yes.

I spent a relaxing afternoon with my Dad. We popped down to Gunwharf and checked out the sales in Virgin and HMV before we went for lunch. I don't really understand why the major difference between these two stores seems to be that Virgin feel entitled to sell identical stock, and charge on average £2 more for it.

Anyhoo, they are both selling some classics off at Ker-azeee prices and I came home with DVDs of: Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Bill Murray's Broken Flowers. I haven't watched any of them yet, but will doubtless review as I go along. No cultural experience happens to me in isolation anymore, I always report it here.

In addition to the DVDs, I took the opportunity to go back to the bookshop and find a copy of Safe From Harm by Rollo Armstrong, which I bought for Kate for Christmas. It was one of those gifts that you wish you'd bought an extra copy for yourself, and as they still had them on the shelves today, I grabbed another one.

Rollo Armstrong is a man with a lot of strings to his bow. He's a founder member of dance band, Faithless, Dido's big brother, and works with fellow DJ/producer Sister Bliss as a production/remixing team AND he's a bloody good writer too. On the book's website, Rollo describes the idea behind Safe From Harm:

...Rollo Armstrong decided he was going to write a children's book, but for adults. No, actually he was going to make an album that dealt with his childhood. No, no, he was going to do both..."

Safe from Harm is, thus, an entirely original multimedia project: a book, animated short film, and album - all based on the same central story. Go to the website and check out the 'Watch' option to catch an idea of all three. Highly recommended, and Safe from Harm, the book is currently on sale in the Children's Section of Bookends, Gunwharf. You shouldn't miss it. I've just bought the album from Amazon adn will report on that as soon as it arrives.

I spend the early evening catching up on some long-winded internet procrastination surfing. There's a lot of things going on for me 'behind the scenes' at the moment, and any opportunity to drift away on the dreams and whims of others is welcome distraction. When I 'indulge' in these moments, I invariably find something uplifting and inspiring. Perhaps procrastination too, is all part of the process.

Isn't It Enough

from Rollo Armstrong's Safe From Harm

And as she talked of love that lived on after death
& spirits in the air & karma
& all the ghosts she had seen
And as she talked of Universal connections
& life's ebb and flow
& astronomy and tarot
I thought
'You fool.'

Isn't it enough -
The stars and moon
The streets and the stones
Art and movies, books and coffee
And the way we build our homes
Isn't it enough -
The love between and within us
The love that is practical & small
Tender and sometimes hardly there
Aren't we enough?

How do planes fly,
Migration, alcohol,
How did we discover olive oil, or wine -
Milk with tea.
Isn't it enough -
Virginia Woolf or T.S. Eliot
Jane Austen or Nabokov
Frasier and the Sopranos
The ants at work
Tides and clouds
Sapce, history, time
Life, every moment of it, every drop of it

Three Daily Finds

1. The story of Stetson Kennedy's role in the downfall of the Ku-Klux Klan (courtesy of Freakonomics - check out the chapter 2 summary, if you're interested)

2. The work of Kate Kretz, which move, disturb and inspire me all at once (her portrait of Angelina Jolie as the Madonna has been causing quite a stir, too)

3. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake (thanks to Pippa for the tip off on this), which you can catch a glimpse of below. I am desperate to see this, but think I've missed its England run (there were tickets left for Tuesday night but it's quite short notice!) and Oz is a but far to travel, even for a ballet. I'll settle for this YouTube clip, instead.