Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 31 December 2013

When Life Goes Missing

I don’t know whether you want to read some sort of apology or explanation after my long absence from what used to be an almost daily blog; I’m not sure I can adequately explain what’s been happening or why, either to myself or to all of you, and I’m not sure whether I should even try.

Honestly, part of me wants to draw a veil over the past few weeks, months... even the past year or two, but life doesn’t really work like that.

I have taken a tumble. I have been out of the World. My life has been so much in the grip of circumstance and of other people’s influences and of the way my own head works that some things have gone by the wayside and others have filled my time in strange new ways.

This has all been a learning curve, one of the biggest and most extraordinary of my life, which comes as something of a surprise when it comes so late. 

I remember first realising that I was separate and different, and how very peculiar that made me in a world where everybody else seemed so remarkably alike. I was a toddler and it was the first time I felt alone. This experience has been a little like that.

Today is the last day of 2013. Tomorrow, I plan to reenter the World as nearly as I can. It won’t all happen on one day, and the transition back won’t always be easy. I hope to come back stronger than before. If there was any chance of it, I’d give a little of almost anything to come back wiser, but you’ve born with my foolishness before, often and with good humour, so I’m sure you’ll forgive any future lapses in judgement.

I haven’t been saving up blog ideas, and I haven’t written a single blog since the last one I published so it might take me a little while to get back into the full swing of things, but I hope you’ll come back once in a while and join in whenever you read something you think worth responding to.

On the whole, I tend to be the sort of person who is sorry to say goodbye. I generally don’t celebrate the New Year coming so much as shed a tear over the passing of the old one. With only a few hours to go, I will not be sorry to see the back of 2013; it was a beast and it has left carnage in its wake. I plan to bury the last remaining bones tonight, drink a toast or two and look forward to a brighter dawn tomorrow.

I hope you’ll all join me.

Thursday 7 November 2013

One of Life's Little Lessons

I just read this blog by Sarah Pinborough about home comforts and growing up and I realised that I have all the things that she describes, and I realise just how lucky I am to have all the things she describes, and how very, very lucky I am to have all sorts of other things besides.

I guess I was always that person.

Sometimes I kid myself that I’m the convivial, outgoing bonfire person that Sarah claims she used to be, but I’m not, not really.

Sometimes I think that I’m horribly isolationist, insular even... I worry that I shut myself away far too much and that there are people who resent that. Perhaps it’s true.

My lit stove from today's writing chair
On the other hand, perhaps I blame too much on certain aspects of my personality when, actually, it’s OK to enjoy my own company and the husband’s company and the dort’s company. Perhaps it’s OK to sit alone in front of a roaring fire and to be content with who I am and what I have. Perhaps I am a grown-up, after all, and perhaps that’s OK, too. Perhaps I really do have what I need, and I spend too much time second guessing myself too readily on other peoples’ terms.

Sarah Pinborough makes an approximate picture of my life sound so wonderful to me that before writing this little blog I took myself off into my drawing room and prepared my stove with newspapers and kindling and logs cut for the purpose. I struck a match and thrashed around with the poker until I had my blazing fire, and my fingers were sooty and smelled of newsprint. Then I sat in a wing backed chair with my feet up on a gout stool and tossed a blanket over my legs while the cats settled in for the afternoon.

It’s a cliché, I suppose, but since I have all this, where else could I possibly want to be? And what else could I possibly want to be doing?

I’ve been struggling with two writing projects of late, but I suspect I might just get something done this afternoon.

Thanks, Sarah.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

This Shit is Driving Me Nuts!

Not for nothing, but over and over again life is made infinitely more difficult than it needs to be because of the silly shit that people just don’t bother to do. The devil, as my grandmother would have it, is in the details!

There was a terrible saying back in the day that went something like this, “When you assume something you make an ASS out of U and ME.” Can you tell one of my first jobs was in sales? I hated all that time we spent working ourselves up to close that sale, and I hated all the daft wannabe aphorisms that were concocted to back up the hype. On the other hand...

Twice in the past twenty-four hours our time has been wasted and our schedule messed about because no one bothered to do the really bloody obvious. A couple of years ago when I was at an event that was so badly organised that all anyone could do was laugh it off, someone actually suggested that the thing was outside anyone’s reasonable control. My answer to that was that it wouldn’t have been if anyone had bothered to actually take control!

Yes, I know I’m punchy, but I’ve said it before and I’ll said it again: If freelancers don’t work they don’t get paid; if we mess up we don’t get paid, or, at the very least, we pay the price in terms of hours of extra work to make up the shortfall.

Last night, the husband was due to take part in quite a complicated conference call across two continents. It was outside our usual office hours and dinner had to be shifted to accommodate it. The American office had told the husband the UK time for the call. No call came through. No call came through because no one in the US office had checked the time in the UK, because someone had assumed that the clocks would go back in the UK the same date that they went back in the USA. 

You know what? You can’t assume something like that, especially when it takes seconds to check. You also can’t have people sitting on their arses for an extra hour at eight o’clock at night just because you couldn’t be bothered to check the time. Of course, if the US office had given us the American time for the call the husband or I would have checked the correct UK time and all would have been well, because, you know, there’s a reason to be organised!

The inevitable shrug!
This morning, after waiting several months for a new car windscreen, a man came to deliver and fit it. Someone had ordered the wrong part, because they had assumed that because our car was a certain model we would want the heated windscreen. We bought the car from the same place we ordered the windscreen; no one asked which windscreen and no one checked the car details. The poor man delivering and fitting the windscreen has now got to return tomorrow with a new part and go through the entire process again. What’s more, we’ve got to be here so the job can be done, and we’ll be inconvenienced by the process for the second day in a row.

This shit happens day in and day out. This nonsense is a regular feature of my life, day in and day out. It is expected. People shrug. No one is surprised by these mistakes, no one apologises. This is normal.

Well, I’m sorry, but if we were as disorganised as this we wouldn’t survive very long in this business.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t make mistakes. I’m not suggesting that we’re perfect. We’re not. I most certainly am not.

I do try though. I do try to be organised, and I do try to think ahead, and I do set out to do the things that I have said I will do, on time and to a standard, and I try not to put anyone else out in the process.

It really shouldn’t be this hard to get through a day without someone cocking up and then shrugging at me, should it?

Monday 4 November 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Wow! What an extraordinary weekend!

I have just spent three days in the company of a very select band of Black Library writers and fans, and a very good time was had by all, I hope, but certainly by me.

The Belfry Hotel in Nottingham hummed with the conversation and often the laughter of a lot of very happy people who had a little something in common. I’m often surprised by how well everyone gets on, how comfortable we all are together. We are both sexes and a very wide spectrum of ages and experiences and social and economics backgrounds. We might have very little in common were it not for the Black Library and yet we find a great deal to talk about besides what brought us together in the first place. We shared and compared stories, we made new friends and we all came away from the weekend better people for having attended.

The second Black Library Weekender was special for me for two reasons in particular. The first was the kindness of friends. Several people that I have met at previous events, whom I like to think of as more than just fans, came bearing gifts. They remembered my tastes and brought me wonderful things to remember them by. It is always a little overwhelming and exceptionally lovely to be remembered in this way and I cannot say how delighted I was.

Alizabeth Bequin's shawl
The kindness of one stranger really stood out, though. A fan of the husband’s Inquisitor books brought a gift for us that was remarkably lovely. She had designed and hand knitted a gorgeous shawl, which she presented to us, in particular for me to wear. She had made it from the description of Alizabeth Bequin’s shawl. That someone should take so much time and trouble is really rather special, and I was genuinely touched.

The other reason that this weekend was particularly special for me was  my inclusion on the panel for The Pitch Factor. It was an evening entertainment event whereby anyone could pitch a short story to a panel of ‘Experts’ and the best would be submitted for possible publication by the Black Library.

It became quite clear quite quickly that it took a lot of guts to stand up and make a pitch in front of the panel and the large and baying audience. I know that I couldn’t have done it. The pitches were universally well thought out, and well delivered, and I have huge admiration for all who put their necks on the line to take part in what was after-all intended chiefly as an entertainment. I hope that those who didn’t get past the panel this year will take onboard the criticism that we offered, which was certainly intended as constructive, and I hope they will all take other opportunities to pitch and submit work to the Black Library and to anywhere else that offers the chance to be published.

It was a privilege to listen to all of you. Bloody well done to the four writers whose pitches were chosen, and good luck with your stories!

Friday 1 November 2013

Frocks and Politics

So, I’m in Nottingham and I’m in a frock. I did warn you.
Today's shirt and dress combo,
and yes, it is leather.

Yesterday, Gita messaged me on Twitter to the effect that she expected a bit of feminist politics with my blog on clothes.

Interesting, I thought, especially in the twenty-first century.

Despite being a raging feminist, I’m not sure I have a feminist agenda when it comes to what I wear, and I’m not sure when last I had such an agenda, and I’m not sure who still has that agenda. As far as I’m concerned I have equal clothing rights with anyone and everyone, and as far as I’m concerned everyone should have those rights. I don’t care who you are, as far as I’m concerned you can wear what pleases you.

It’s my preference not to see young, particularly pubescent and prepubescent kids sexualised in their clothes, and I might be considered a snob when it comes to the appropriateness of clothes. I’d rather not see vast quantities of anyone’s flesh on show, but then I’m not all that keen on seeing discomfort, either,  of any sort, including men in stiff collars and too-tight jeans, and girls in too-high heels that they can’t walk comfortably in.

We should all feel good in our clothes. We shouldn’t be swamped or crippled by them, and it’s a pity if they don’t honestly reflect our personalities.

My problem with wearing jeans was only that I was conforming, taking the easy route. It wasn’t to do with politics.

I am political about clothes, though, and I think there are good reasons to be political about what we wear, just as there are good reasons to be political about what we eat or drive.

In his blog, John Scalzi talked about his lack of interest in clothes from a sartorial point of view, and I get that, but I was surprised that he didn’t talk about his interest in clothes from any political point of view. I was surprised that he didn’t question under what circumstances it was possible to manufacture a pair of socks for a buck.

For me, that’s a political question I’d want to know the answer to.

The truth is that with cotton growing in the States being heavily subsidised Mr Scalzi’s probably on safe ground with his socks. Here, on the other hand, with so much cotton imported from India, sixty pence for a pair of socks would probably mean that someone, somewhere was being exploited.

My preference is to buy clothes manufactured in the EU where I can be fairly confident that fair wages are being paid and safe environments maintained for the factory workforce. I don’t want to be responsible for big carbon footprints when things that I’ve bought have been shipped large distances, and I certainly don’t want kids who should be in school working industrial machinery or, for that matter, a sewing needle, for less than a living wage anywhere in the World. I don’t want to support economies that don’t have carbon standards for manufacturing processes or for their power stations either... not at any price.

Yes, of course that means I pay more for my clothes, but I also choose to buy fewer clothes and treat them better. I’ve got clothes I’ve been wearing, quite literally, for decades. I buy what I like and what I think suits me, and I buy decent quality; I launder carefully and I trust my dry cleaner, and I know how to use an iron and a sewing needle. 

The same goes for footwear. I’ve got boots that are three decades old, still boxed that have been heeled and soled countless times; they cost me three pounds new, in a sale, and they’re bottle green suede. I kid you not.

On a cost per wear basis, I get damned good value for money out of my expensive clothes, I get to wear things that I love, I keep my carbon footprint down, and as far as I’m able to determine, no children are harmed in the making of my wardrobe, so my conscience is clean.

The next step is for clothes labels to contain information as to the origin and carbon footprint of raw materials and where and by whom they are processed. I would love to know that my frock made in Spain was manufactured using cotton grown in India and processed and dyed in China. It would be fab to be able to make that choice, too.

Thursday 31 October 2013

Clothes Maketh the Man

I just read this blog over on John Scalzi’s site and it got me to thinking.

The truth is, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’d been wondering whether there was a blog in it; I simply wasn’t sure how interesting it would be to many or most of my readers.

I love clothes. 

There, I’ve said it.

Clothes maketh the man.

Well they don’t, obviously, but it’s something my grandmother used to say in order to persuade us to dress neatly and appropriately and to care about our appearance. She didn’t need to say it to me; I already cared.

Apparently, I am a flamboyant dresser. I’ve been told that I am, so it must be true. In fact, I was told by someone, and I was so surprised that I asked another someone, and they confirmed this assessment.

I love clothes. I have always loved clothes.

John Scalzi doesn’t much. That’s cool. I get it. I also get the essay he linked to about poverty consciousness, about fitting in, about putting your best foot forward, about belonging, about how best to allocate limited resources, about speculating to accumulate. I’ve done a little of that in my time. I do a little of that every time I dress to shop or to go to the hairdresser, knowing that I'll get better service because of it.

I do so love clothes.

Just to prove it, here I am with the husband,
at a convention in jeans and a shirt,
and a jacket and boots
I’m heading off to a convention this weekend. I’m attending the Black Library Weekender. I always enjoy these events; whether I’m there in my own right or whether I’m simply accompanying the husband, I always have fun. I love the Black Library guys and the other freelancers, and I’m awfully fond of a lot of the regular readers. I’m in a form of nerdy geek heaven and I’m happy there.

Earlier this week I decided that I’m bored with jeans. I’ve been wearing them since my teens. I’ve been wearing them for more than thirty years, and I wear them by default, for ease, and, oddly enough, for the sake of conformity. 

For someone who actually likes clothes that’s not really very satisfying. So, earlier this week I picked out my wardrobe for the weekend and I didn’t include any jeans. Then I updated my status on Facebook to that effect.


If the comments my status update generated are anything to go by it would appear that if a woman isn’t wearing jeans she must be wearing some form of sexually fetishistic fantasy wear... Or perhaps my FaceBook folks and convention goers everywhere just happen to see me in a very strange light.

I am taking up the gauntlet. I am leaving the jeans at home. OK, I’ll be honest, I’m packing one pair for emergencies and incase I chicken out. I’m going to attempt to prove that it is possible to be a woman and a convention-goer and to be properly attired in clothes that my grandmother would find acceptable, but that won’t make anyone else point and laugh.

I do love clothes, and I hope that by the time the weekend is over some of you will love some of my clothes too, or, at the very least, recognise that it is entirely possible to manage for two days without a pair of jeans and a shirt, even if they are flamboyant.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Q: How long does it take to write a novel?

A: Moustache!

That’s right... It’s November.

OK... It’s actually only October 30th, but on Friday it will be November, and half the population of the planet will be trying to write a novel while the other half tries to grow a moustache. Naturally, there will be a subset of people who will attempt to do both of those things simultaneously this November... and not all of them will be men.

November's activities… Not for amateurs!
I’m not entirely convinced that attempting to do either one of those things is necessarily a good thing, and trying to do either one with any degree of success in thirty days is, frankly, asking for trouble. For those mad fools who think that they can do both... well, I can only marvel at their courage and wish them luck, because they’re going to need it.

As someone who writes full-time and calls it a job, I marvel at anyone who chooses to write part-time around a full-time job while they get their writing career up and running. It’s damned hard work, and utterly admirable. It’s for the young and enthusiastic, for those who have no responsibilities, a huge reserve of energy and a very thick skin.

Frankly, I’m not sure what to think about the thousands of people who take on NanoWrimo every year for fun!

Writing is many things, and one of those many things is its own reward... when it’s going well. Writing sucks in the writer and spits out his half-digested remains. Writing is an all-consuming way of life. Writing is more than a pass-time, more than a hobby, more than the sum of its parts. Writing is a compulsion, a driving force, a necessity. 

Writing is power.

NanoWrimo is much talked about and praised and enjoyed and endured by thousands of people, some of whom are writers, some of whom take it hugely seriously and many of whom spend every waking hour that isn’t devoted to their day job tapping away at a keyboard. They spend their leisure time and time that they could be spending with their partners and families holed up in the dingy corners of lonely rooms, trying to fulfill their dreams.

It is anathema to me. 

I am disciplined. I have to be. I am commissioned to work on certain projects that I schedule throughout the year, and I deliver them to deadlines. It is my job. I do not understand how it is possible, though, for a person to write fifty thousand words in thirty days when it is not his job. It would be like me trying to run a marathon one Sunday morning without training for several months first. I couldn’t do it, and if I did somehow manage to do it, the results wouldn’t be very pretty.

The husband and I have given up a great deal over the years in order to do what we love to do, but there was always a light shining in the distance. There was always a reason to do it, a career to be had, a living to earn.

NanoWrimo doesn’t seem to me to offer a beacon. It doesn’t seem to me to offer hope. The winners are simply those who manage to write their fifty thousand words. I wonder if it’s enough. For some of you it might well be, and good luck to you. Creativity is a wonderful thing and I wouldn’t deny anyone the pleasure or the power of writing.

However, if you’re going to write, may I suggest that you have the courage of your convictions? If you’re going to write, may I suggest that you submit your work for competitions and to agents and publishers? 

Put yourself out there!

Right now, Angry Robot Books has an open submissions window for all things SF, F and WTF (Yes, you did read that right!). Take a look over here at the guidelines.

Also right now, Mslexia is accepting submissions for new poetry under the heading Troubled Minds. Look out for a new short story competition from the magazine in the Dec/Jan/Feb issue, and for the regular novel writing competition.

Hell... There must be dozens of competitions out there for writers, and lots of them must be worth taking a look at. While you’re at it, pick up a current copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to check out agents that might take an interest in your work, and read Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication.

There might just be a more productive way for you to spend November than growing that moustache or even than banging out 50 thousand words of fiction...

Tuesday 29 October 2013

SAD now!

So, we’ve hit another milestone in the year, and it’s all down hill into winter.

As it happens, the autumn is a pretty one, and the sun is still shining, so I’m determined not to feel blue about it. Lots of us will, though, and soon, now that we’ve turned back the clocks.

Which kinda begs the question: Why in the 21st century do we still feel the need for daylight saving?

It can’t be anything more than habit now, can it?

As someone who tries to eat locally and seasonally, I’m one of the few who still feels the passing of the year, who still feels the slow down into winter, who still gains a little winter weight, who still responds to the natural urge to hibernate. With the invention of the electric light bulb and central heating and air conditioning, and with summer fruits and vegetables being shipped in from all over the World all year round, it’s virtually impossible to tell what season it is except that it gets dark out.

One William Willet was the first in Britain to seriously advocate for daylight saving way back in 1907. He was a keen horseman and resented the wasted hours of sumer daylight early in the morning before it was time to rise. He died in 1915 before British Summer Time was introduced in May 1916.

BST was introduced in an effort to save fuel and money, and in response to Germany introducing the scheme during World War I, and some version of daylight saving has been in existence ever since. During World War II Double Summer Time was introduced whereby the clocks were set two hours ahead in the summer and an hour ahead in the winter, making the most of evening sunlight throughout the year, but particularly during harvest time when older children were expected to help bring in the harvest. 

Between 1968 and 1971 the UK experimented with British Standard Time when the clocks were permanently set to British Summer Time, but the experiment was discontinued after a three year trial period.

I have no particular problem with British Summer Time. Those long, languorous summer evenings can be delightful, after all. The real jolt happens for me in October, when the days are already shortening rapidly. When the clocks are put back in the last week of October, darkness suddenly comes crashing in at teatime, and a pall comes over me that never quite lifts until the spring. There’s a name for it in our modern times; they call it S.A.D or Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it’s rife.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but I wake up in the mornings in the dark, too. It doesn’t seem to actually alleviate that problem either.

The fact is that a winter’s day is short this far north of the equator and a winter’s day is going to be short the same distance south of the equator, and moving the day back or forth by an hour isn’t going to change that, just as it isn’t going to change the length of a summer’s day when it’s summer a long way north or south of the equator. That’s the nature of our planet and the angle of tilt of its poles.

The shortest day of 2013 falls on December the 21st. In London on that day, sunrise will occur at 08:03, long after most of us are up and about, transit will occur at 11:58, and sunset will occur at 15:53. In total, daylight will span only seven hours and fifty minutes, and most of those will no doubt be overcast and/or wet; after all, we are talking about December. Does it make very much difference whether our lights are on for an extra hour in the mornings of those wintery days or for an extra hour in the evenings? I somehow doubt it.
William Willet's Sundial in Pett's Wood
Permanently showing BST

It might make a difference to mothers walking their small children home from school, though, that it gets dark at 5pm rather than at 4pm. I know it would have made a difference to me.

The biggest difference of all would have been not to shift time around at all. I realise that we’d very probably stick with Greenwich Mean Time and my winter evenings would be as dark as they’ve always been, but at least I wouldn’t get that sudden jolt into darkness that I suffer every October.

My children are all grown up now, but when they were small they suffered terribly when the clocks were changed. 

There’s a reason why the start of the autumn half-term holiday always falls on the weekend when the clocks change. It’s because it takes kids , and some adults, too, a while to adjust to that change. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to expect young children to go through that change twice a year. I know my kids always suffered. I wonder how many good, productive school days are lost when the clocks change. I wonder how much teachers dread the weeks after those weekends at the ends of March and October. I wonder, too, how many working days are lost every year because of the clocks changing, because people arrive late to work, having forgotten to change their alarm clocks, because they’ve simply overslept, or because they take a duvet day to recover from the change over.

In 2016 we will have had a hundred years of British Summer Time. Perhaps we should mark the anniversary and then let this anachronistic practice die out.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Whatever Happened to Feng Shui?

It was all the rage a few years ago, wasn’t it?

We were all supposed to arrange the furniture in our rooms in particular configurations to optimise our creativity, to stimulate our money corner or to incorporate our happiness chakras... Or am I just mixing my mysticisms now?

Joking apart, environment can be a big part of any process, not least the creative one.

I’ve spoken before of how I’m easily distracted. I’ve talked about the blank, black and white screen I work on when writing, rather than a busy desk top, and I’ve talked about the desk I hardly ever use, looking out onto an empty yard lest I be distracted by anything crossing my visual path, as it were.

The husband is a fish of another stripe. He has a room in which he works, and very beautiful it is too, layered with books and objects and works of art, with things to look at and play with and refer to, to distract and stimulate him every hour of every day. I have huge office envy, and no wonder.

I was mostly responsible for designing and building the husband’s room, and I helped to dress it when the time came. That was two... almost three years ago, and I followed his brief, but the time had clearly come for a change. The husband has had a flea in his knickers for a little while now where his room is concerned. He was looking for something new and different and stimulating.

This week that change happened. This week the husband and I effected a big office rejig. This week the husband and I effected an office rejig so big that it spilled over to include a big archive rejig, took a total of two whole days and included me making, from scratch, a new window treatment.

It turns out that he was right, though.

To begin with I was resistant to the husband moving his desk from a central position in the room to a position against a wall. Why would anyone, given the space and the choice, have his desk face a wall?

I couldn’t see it, until we moved the desk, and then everything became plain.

It was about focus, and it was about a room of two halves.

When the desk was in a more central position, the husband sat with limited space to move his chair backwards into bookshelves, but he could see out into the room. This was his plan. He wanted to be able to see out. The position of the desk also divided the room into the working half and the sitting half.

When the desk was moved against the wall, suddenly the husband could move his chair and have good access to the whole of the rest of the room, opening it up to him. As to looking out, when he was looking out into the room his focus was never drawn. Facing the wall covered in images, reference material, clippings etc, there were dozens of things for his eyes to fall upon: lots to take his attention and pull his focus.
The husband hard at work in his re-jigged office

His new position allowed him to see out of the room, too, if the door was left even slightly ajar, and for me to see in. His desk had previously been behind the door, making it impossible for us to connect unless I entered the room, effectively cutting the husband off from the rest of the house.

The room feels bigger, lighter and more spacious, and the furniture has more uses. The library table is in a brighter spot, under the window, can be extended easily, and is less cluttered so that the husband can use it to spread out his maps and reference materials without further cluttering up his desk. The bookshelves are more accessible, too.

We’ve all had teachers who’ve said that a tidy desk reflects a tidy mind. In our house we like rooms to grow organically until they’re in a natural state of a place for everything and everything in its place. It’s taken nearly three years, but I think that the husband’s room is just about there, now.

Since the room was completed, albeit only a few days ago, the husband’s work rate has been prodigious. Long may it last!

So, if you want to make a change, if you’re struggling with your process, if you feel a little slow or a little dull, try moving the furniture, and, if you’re not sure how why not have a look at a few style guides, or even at a bit of feng shui. 

If I was going to say a couple of things they would be that furniture should never stand against walls (yep, I know!) and that, where possible, chairs and sofas should always have legs rather than fall right down to the floor. Pictures should always be hung at eye height (you’d be amazed how many people hang pictures badly), and that you’ll need more lighting than you first think.

Don’t take my word for it, though... What the hell do I know? And experiment, because you might just surprise yourself, the husband certainly has.

Friday 25 October 2013

A Very Special Brand of Politics

I’m never quite sure how much of a fan I am of that man Russell Brand. Sometimes he amuses me and sometimes he seems witty. I rather liked one of his early attempts at a form of journalism when in 2002 he interviewed Mark Collet of the Youth BNP. You can see the interviews on YouTube (parts one, two and three).

Russell Brand with the New Statesman
Russell Brand’s latest project sees a return to politics as the guest editor on the ‘Revolution’ edition of the New Statesman this week.

As I said, I’m never quite sure how much of a fan I am of Russell Brand. I’m naturally cautious of anyone who might be considered a loose cannon, not least because I might be at risk of being one myself. I’m always a little wary of those who struggle with control and discipline as Russell Brand freely admits he has, and yet he clearly has the discipline to remain drug free, and he clearly has the discipline to work long and hard at his career. He might not always have been in control of his baser instincts, but he’s very obviously sharp of wit, clean of conscience and deeply caring of certain things.

What's more no one in his right mind takes on Jeremy Paxman lightly, and Russell Brand does it with a degree of confidence that is almost disarming.

Russell Brand is a comedian. On the surface, he isn’t necessarily the sort of man that one might think of taking seriously, and yet, in his interview for Newsnight to discuss his role as guest editor for the paper, Jeremy Paxman did take him seriously.

Russell Brand might be an ex-junkie; he freely admits it. He might wear ridiculous trousers and his hair could probably do with some attention. I don’t really want to see acres of his exposed chest, his choice of shoes generally doesn’t impress me much and his giddy, childlike behaviour invariably puts me off watching him on the television. That's all about image though, and we might just be damned if we judge this book by its cover.

The image
It turns out, as many of us have half-expected at various points along the way, that Russell Brand is nobody’s fool. He knows what he thinks and he knows how to express his thoughts in a considered and cogent manner. There were no kneejerk reactions from him, there was no bluster and there was no dissembling.

Russell Brand would not be baited by Jeremy Paxman and he would not be intimidated by him.

On the other hand, he more-or-less failed to answer Paxman’s questions, too.

Russell Brand doesn’t claim to be a politician. In fact, Mr Brand claims to despise all politicians as entitled, duplicitous busybodies, and perhaps he’s right, because most of us have thought something similar at one time or another.

I was impressed by the interview and by how these two men sparred throughout their ten minutes together.

In the end, though, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Russell Brand has missed his vocation. I couldn’t help thinking that Russell Brand would make a very good politician, because he said only and exactly what he had come into the interview intending to say, and that’s what the most practised and the most professional of politicians always seem to end up doing. 

Fancy that.

Take a look for yourself; if nothing else, this is a wonderful performance from both men.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

In Need of a Lecture

Some weeks prove to be a bit of a challenge.

Least said soonest mended.

I hope that I’m back here for a little while, and, who knows, I might even have a little bit of something to say.

Some of the ways I spend my time when the black dog descends and I fail to be productive is to watch documentaries and tune in to Radio 4. If I simply sit in front of mindless television, I soon withdraw into my head, and that way real madness lies. So, it’s Netflix for non-time-specific stuff and Radio 4 for current affairs.

It was actually the husband who pointed me in the direction of the Reith Lectures on Radio 4.

Grayson Perry with Sue Lawley who introduced
the Reith Lectures on Radio 4
I’m familiar with the annual lectures, named for Sir John Reith, the first director general of the BBC, which were inaugurated in 1948 to enrich the cultural and intellectual life of the nation. A leading figure of the day is invited to give a series of lectures in his or her field, and this year Grayson Perry CBE, the contemporary artist and potter, and winner of the Turner Prize 2003 is talking about “Playing to the Gallery”.

Ever since the YBAs burst onto the scene in the late eighties and early nineties, and began shaking things up, the press has been up in arms about contemporary art. Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor Wood, Sarah Lucas and Mark Wallinger, to name but a few, have been praised by the British art establishment and condemned in the tabloid press. They’ve become huge celebrities, seen their stars rise, along with their prices, and are recognised as much by their faces as by their works. 

The British art scene hasn’t been so vibrant, so exciting, probably since that young upstart Turner began to exhibit in the 1790s. The British art scene probably hasn’t been so controversial since Turner in the 1790s either.

Whatever happened to drawing? people ask. That’s not real art! they exclaim. And it’s not just people, it’s critics, too, it’s the press. The arguments about what constitutes art and the loss of skills and techniques, and what should and shouldn’t be taught in art school have been raging for years. I know this, because I was in art school for three years between 2006 and 2009 and my in-laws were both in art school in the fifties. I also take a private art class, I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are practising artists, and the husband and I collect art. I have any number of conversations and even heated discussions about what makes art and who qualifies as an artist, and what constitutes conceptual art and whether it qualifies as 'real' art, and whether skills are enough to give work meaning.

I’ve heard two of the series of four of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures so far, and very interesting they are too. He doesn’t shy away from the tougher questions, or from the controversy. He attacks them head-on. He is sharp and funny, and hugely articulate, and he makes his points with conviction. He is also a very lively and unpretentious speaker.

Grayson Perry knows his stuff. He is without any obvious prejudice, and yet he nails his colours to the mast without a whiff of self-consciousness. He also tackles questions from the likes of Nicholas Serota and Will Self with confidence and humour.

The Rosetta Vase 2011 by Grayson Perry
The Reith Lectures are not always such a relaxed affair. I have heard them delivered in a much more formal, dare I say po-faced fashion, but you don’t get any of that with Grayson Perry. You don’t get any bluster and nothing is mealy mouthed. This is a man who knows what he thinks, and he knows that there are opposing views. He is assured and good-humoured and he is confident that he will be heard and understood. He is a kind of Everyman in the art world and it rather suits. him.

If I was you, I’d listen to this. You don’t have to be interested in art to understand what this debate is all about; you’ve been on the periphery of this argument for twenty-five years, if you’ve bought a newspaper during the past couple of decades, and I’m betting that you probably have. I'm also betting that you, too, just like everyone else, come with an opinion, and that it couldn't hurt you to listen to an inside point of view. You never know, you might even be a little bit surprised by some of what Grayson Perry, who is, after all, a very skilled potter, has to say.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Got a Feeling

On days of heightened emotion... massively heightened emotion... I wonder whether writing is the best outlet.

On days when all I can do is cry and howl and rend, I wonder whether it’s fair to share my feelings... I wonder whether it’s fair to me; I wonder whether it’s fair to the present me to try to express in words what I find so consuming, and I wonder whether it’s fair to the me in the future should I ever try to remember what this was like... and I wonder whether it’s fair to you.

I wonder whether it’s fair to the work or to the memory of the feeling.

When there is an ocean of emotions, when they overwhelm me in ways that it is almost impossible to give any kind of voice to, I wonder whether it can even be done... I wonder whether words come close to being nearly enough to convey what it is I’m feeling or how or why.

It can’t be done... I know that it can’t, and I’m bereft all over again.

It might be true, for me at least, that not all feelings are for sharing, but it shouldn’t be true that I don’t have the words to express myself.

This isn’t fiction, though.

Fiction is so much more clearcut, so much neater. Fiction has to make sense. This doesn’t. 

This accumulation, this history, this reaction, this utter grief doesn’t drive a story, doesn’t activate a plot, doesn’t describe a character... it just is.

And this is my pain, today.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Look Who’s got The X-Factor!

I’m not much of a Saturday night television viewer. It’s usually date night, and if it’s not, you can pretty much guarantee that the husband and I will be entertaining or being entertained. 

I have watched a few episodes of X-Factor on catch-up, though.

I knew this kid. He was at school with the younger dort. He was a funny little thing, quick-witted, outgoing, full of energy. He and the dort went all the way through primary school together, and then to different secondary schools.

He popped up again when they found themselves at the same youth theatre company and in the same sixth form.

Josh and the dort at the school prom
I always liked Josh. He was the kid who was unembarrassed to call me Nik. He had the stones to use my bathroom when Lily’s wasn’t free, and he was the kid who brought his drunk mate round to my house when he needed looking after. He was the boy who turned up, unexpectedly for lunch on Easter Sunday, happy to accept the extra Easter egg that I kept in the cupboard just-in-case. He’s the kid who’ll always stop and speak if he sees me in the street, and who still visits regularly for no particular reason.

It’s not just talent that will get you somewhere, although Josh has plenty of that. He and the dort regularly acted and sang and danced together in musicals produced by the local youth theatre. Of course talent is a requirement, but hard work and a big personality help, too, and a bucketful of charm and confidence, and more than your average shot of intelligence.

I always had a feeling that Josh would do OK. I thought he might go into musical theatre, but I wasn’t surprised when, back in the spring, the dort said she was getting on a train to London to meet Josh and his new band in their cramped little flat. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he was making ends meet, tending bar and stretching his tips to keep the band going.

The little bugger was tight-lipped when it came to auditioning for the X-Factor, though. The process must already have begun the last time he visited and I had stern words with him about his future, and urged him to take some classes and find some direction for his talents. It turns out that he already had. 

Kingsland Road with Josh second left
It turns out that with his buddies Connor, Thompson, Matt and Jay, Josh formed Kingsland Road and broke the back of the X-Factor challenge, making it through the early rounds to boot camp and then to Gary Barlow’s house in New York.

Last weekend Kingsland Road featured in the first of the X-Factor live shows, and they acquitted themselves really rather well. Whatever happens now, and I hope it all works out well for them, Josh, the little dude I remember from when he really was a little dude, has got his foot in the door. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s well on his way to becoming a pop star, because he always had the X-Factor. They say that birds of a feather flock together, and I can’t help thinking that he and the dort were always made of the same sort of stuff.

Maybe, one day, I’ll see him on the stage in one of my favourite musical roles. Who knows, perhaps after his pop career, he’ll go on to have that career in musical theatre after all.

Good luck to Kingsland Road. I might be biased, but it looks to me as if they’ve got a decent shot at winning this thing!
Here's the band singing I'm Your Man for 80s Night on the X-Factor