Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Art For Art's Sake Part II

I have a colleague who, while always striking me as a little odd, has recently astounded me by admitting to a conceptual art project of staggering strangeness. (To me anyway.)
Before I talk about that though let me remind you of my definition of art – "It's art if the person who makes it says it's art." In the case of conceptual art you may have to substitute "does" for "makes".

I invented my own conceptual art form once. Like all of my best inventions it came to me in a flash of genius while drunk. (Let me help you out on interpreting that sentence. Something that is "genius while drunk" doesn't mean that I was drunk and came up with something that was genius, it means that I came up with something that was only genius because I was drunk.)

I found myself walking along the road from the bus stop to my house composing poems in my head. For me this is as inevitable as the drinking that preceded it. When drunk, I always compose poems in my head. When sober again I always have an incredible sense of regret that I can't remember anything about them other than the fact that they were sublimely beautiful and intensely profound.

And then it struck me. Why not do that deliberately? Compose poems entirely in my head. Polish the words until they gleam. Set the lines together like jewels in a Fabergé egg. And then, without ever having written them down, without a single other human soul ever having seen them, forget them completely. I called it "transient poetry". Boy, if only you could see some of those poems. They make the best of my written-down work pale by comparison. At least I think they do. Kind of hard to say as I have, by definition, forgotten them entirely. And the only person who has ever seen such wonders is me.
You'll take my word for it, of course.

Anyway, while I do still mock and deride a lot of conceptual art and art installations, I never do so from the standpoint of claiming that it isn't art. I only ever claim that it's bad art. Even then, I find myself with a sneaking admiration for the sheer bravado of those standing in front of the critics and saying "Hey, what do you think of that, then?"
And of course much of it I find fascinating. Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North I can take or leave but his Event Horizon was one of the spookiest things I've ever seen, all those silent unmoving figures on the rooftops. He probably wouldn't thank me for the comparison but it reminded me of the Cybermen marching up the steps in London in an early Doctor Who, or perhaps the scene from the beginning of 28 Days Later when the hero is walking around a completely deserted London.
Even things like Martin Creed's "Lights Go On… Lights Go Off", in which an empty art gallery is alternately lit up and then plunged into darkness over and over (winner of the Turner Prize in 2001), amuse rather than irritate me, especially for the bemused look the artist had when interviewed later on the news. Along similar lines was the piece by 2007 winner, Mark Wallinger, who – dressed in a bear suit – filmed himself walking around an empty art gallery.

For me these things, though they may well be risible, are nevertheless art. Other people don't even find them risible. Some people think they are terrific – and who am I to say they are wrong? You must make up your own minds about the quality but to refuse them the label "art" is just to show that you think your taste is superior, to give yourself the label "supercilious".

And my friend's conceptual art? (You knew I'd get back to it in the end.) Well you can see it for yourself at sneezecount. He is writing down the time, location and brief description of all of his sneezes. He puts them on a blog. Why? Buggered if I know. Is it an ironic comment on the trivial nature of blogs and blogging? Quite possibly. Is it, perhaps, a comment on our modern predilection to reveal intimate details of ourselves and our lives to complete strangers? I expect so. Is it something that started as a brief in-joke (like the OEDILF) and has taken on a strange and unlikely life of its own? Seems perfectly plausible. Maybe he just likes counting stuff.

Above all, is it art?

And there, I am sure, is where we may have to agree to disagree. If it gets nominated for a Turner Prize, it has my vote.

And now to my poetry bit. It's so tempting to sit here and write a poem in my head. Then forget it. Then tell you that I've finished and invite comment.

But I won't. I'll post a couple of ones that you can actually read.

First of all there is my limerick from the OEDILF, on "abstract art". This, of course, does not actually represent my view. It's in the voice of those critics who think only representational art is art.

abstract art by BobHale

A painting of nothing's not the done thing.
Ev'ry painting should represent something,
But too often, in fact,
That's the one thing that's lacked,
Which is why abstract art's such a rum thing.

Then there is this piece that was written after visiting the Saatchi Gallery. This isn't meant to be critical, simply descriptive. The question posed at the end is for the reader's contemplation. The writer has already made up his mind.

Oil filled rooms,
towers of mice,
victims of
the slice and dice
approach to art.
Schoolgirl smut,
unmade beds,
elephant dung
and bloody heads
and candy hearts.

Spiral spots,
a butcher's blade,
the dismemberments
of death displayed
in separate parts.
Cows, pigs, sheep,
a sense of balance,
raw egos that
outstrip raw talents –
they call this art?

And, on the same theme, a variation in the form of a double dactyl

Hirst D. and Emin T.
Cut up dead animals
Mess up a bed
Charles Saatchi, a man whose
Money seems limitless,
Parts with the bread.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Art for Art's Sake

I've had more conversations than I care to count on the vexatious question of "what is art?" and most have them have been conducted over on wordcraft. My view, which I admit has developed over time, is simple - if the person who made it says it's art, then that's what it is. I think that any other definition is conflating the question with the entirely different question of "what is good art?" So to those who say that Tracy Emin's work isn't art – that their beds are just as messy and untidy and they aren't art so neither is hers – I say that I think that "My Bed" is as ludicrous as they do but that it is most definitely art, just not necessarily very good art. To suggest otherwise is to reduce art to an even sillier definition – "if I say it's art, then it's art" and that's no definition at all – it's simple "I have better taste than you do" arrogance.

Anyway there are many great artists who have been reviled by their critics as much as they have been hailed by their fans – probably every artist in the history of the world, in fact. I have no problem with that – only with the converse of that last definition – "if I don't like it, then it isn't art."

Probably my most consistently artistic trip was a visit to Barcelona. It took in Picasso, Dali and, of course, the eccentric (some would say raving mad) Anton Gaudi, an architectural genius whose buildings are scattered around the city. Gaudi was by any standard an unusual figure. Born in 1852, as a child he suffered ill health which prevented much of his schooling and he became interested in observing the natural shapes of plants and animals and stones. As he grew he became a good mathematician and keen student but by no means a genius. He also developed a religious streak that bordered on obsession.
As an adult much of his work was commissioned by Eusabio Guell who was his friend and patron for many years. He died, run over by a tram, in 1926 after a life in which his fame as an eccentric but uniquely talented architect had spread around the world.
So much for the extremely potted biography. The important thing isn’t the man but his work which is what many people travel to Barcelona to see. This especially true of the Japanese who flock there in droves. There are two common theories for this. One is that they have an understanding of nature and natural forms that enables them to better appreciate the baroque nature of his work. The other is that the Palau Guell, one of his most famous buildings, featured in an advertisement for a popular brand of Whisky in Japan.
I started my cultural meanderings with a visit to one of his most impressive, though unfinished, buildings, Sagrada Familia. This is a cathedral that was started (although not under the auspices of Gaudi initially) in 1882. Gaudi became construction manager two years later. By the time of his death in 1926 only a small fraction of the Cathedral had been completed and construction - to his plans - goes on today. They are planning to finish in another twenty years or so but looking at it, it seems doubtful to me that this will be achieved.

There are plenty of guide book descriptions of it and I won’t attempt to emulate them here in detail. Suffice it to say that the exterior of it is bizarre. At one end there is an extremely elaborate and naturalistic set of biblical sculptures including a huge tree on which doves are perched. Towers rise up topped in coloured balls and crosses and patterns. If ever a cathedral were required in hell this would do just nicely. At the opposite end a more cubist approach has been taken with biblical scenes rendered in a stylised and formal way by a succeeding architect based on Gaudi’s ideas.
I took the audio tour but soon discovered that inside the scaffolding and structures make it look disappointingly like a building site. Nevertheless when I looked, up the tree like branching structures of the columns were like nothing I had seen elsewhere. Their peculiar elegance of form belies a strength of structure that came from a true stroke of genius. To calculate the best load-bearing shapes Gaudi built an upside down model in string with lead shot weights. The tension stresses in the string exactly mirror the compression stresses in the right way up model so that the shapes of these columns and arches are exactly optimised for the loads they must bear.

When I had finished with the cathedral I met up as arranged with some fellow travellers - Jo, Karen and Donna, for a trip to the Picasso Museum. While the Gaudi architecture is top of most people’s lists in Barcelona, the Picasso was my number one must see attraction. We took the metro and quickly located an entrance to the museum. It was unfortunately a back entrance and we searched around for the box office. Here we found the front of the queue. We followed it back, out of the box office, through the building, across the courtyard, out through the gate and three hundred yards along the road.
There was good news though to make up for the forty five minute wait. We were there at a time when there was an extra exhibition - a further 450 caricatures spanning Picasso’s life. Had we come a week later we would have paid two Euros less but missed this splendid addition.The gallery - both the special exhibition and the regular gallery - was superb and I spent several hours wandering around it. Picasso is a “love him or hate him” figure but when you see his works in context, see how his style developed from art school experimentation to the cubism for which he is famous it all makes much more sense than when his “bloke with two eyes on one side of his green nose” (as critics sometimes put it) is viewed in isolation.

I looked at my watch and discovered that it was only a few minutes to three O’clock when we had agreed to meet up and go for a drink.

The four of us met up again and I discovered that everyone was a satisfied with the day as I had been. A couple of beers and a plate of snacks in a Tapas bar that we had spotted set us up for the next part of our tour - a trip to photograph some of those Gaudi buildings we had seen last night. Two stand out in particular. Casa Batllo has window balconies that look like eyes in alien faces and a general appearance that would fit smoothly into Rivendell. You half expect to see hobbits and elves waving down at you. Looking upwards reveals a roof of twisting fungoid chimneys and shining fish scaled ridges. Further along the road is “La Pedrera” or Casa Mila which has the same organic fairy tale appearance but seems somehow more sinister. From the ground you can just see the baroque chimneys towering above the edges of the building. Not every building in Barcelona is as interesting, much of it is an ordinary and unlovely place but a couple of hours wandering with a guide book and a camera is a very rewarding experience, even if Las Ramblas is plagued with "human statues" making money by standing very, very still. They are every few yards and, as I slalomed round them on my walk, the question of whether they were doing was art never entered my head, though I'll bet I know a few people with strong opinions on the subject.

When I had chosen this trip there were two things on the itinerary that I knew I simply couldn’t miss. One I had now seen - the Picasso Museum. The other was a visit to Dali’s house at Figueras. My four favourite artists are Picasso, Escher, Magritte and Dali. Dali above all. When I was a teenager I had one wall of my bedroom completely covered with an extraordinarily large poster of Dali’s Last Supper - and me an atheist ! Nowadays I have it more tastefully decorated with a series of smaller prints of his illustrations for Alice In Wonderland. So after a couple of days in Barcelona I moved on to the quaint and lovely town of Girona and from there I planned my trip to Figueras.
Salvador Dali was, like Anton Gaudi, either a true artistic genius or a complete raving madman. I know too little about Gaudi to have an opinion but in Dali’s case I’m firmly convinced that he was both. He was a fierce Catalonian nationalist and lived for most of his life in Figueras and examination of his paintings often reveals detail taken from the Catalonian landscape or portions of the local coastline. (As well as the nigh on universally present figure of Gala - his wife and muse.)

I took an early train, and was outside the museum at 10:15. It opened at 10:30. I was glad that I was early because there were already people ahead of me and in the quarter of an hour that remained to wait quite a long queue built up behind. The galleries occupy four flours of the building - although the third floor is devoted not to Dali but to his friend and fellow surrealist, Pitxot.
Inside, to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I adopted a simple but effective stratagem. I ignored the ground floor and went straight up to the first floor. As I had expected the majority of the people there stayed on the ground floor. There was a lot to see. There were many works that I’m familiar with from books but many others that I had never seen before. The bedroom, the first room I entered, had Dali murals on the walls and a gold coloured skeleton of an ape in the corner. The corridors were filled with smaller works (which in many ways I prefer) and the side rooms with larger ones. By the time I had was completing the left hand fork of this floor the parties of school children (some of whom had Wolverhampton accents) were already catching up to me. A number of pieces caught my eye, painted stereoscopes, a hologram of Alice Cooper, a large cross which at the touch of a button slowly unfolded into an intricate painting, superb paintings large and small. I continued on upward.

The Pitxot floor was largely deserted but this was the loss of those ignoring it rather than mine. Pitxot had a strange style. What he painted were piles of rocks but in such a fashion that when viewed from a distance they became figures - men, women, children, groups - in a variety of poses. It was clear that - Pitxot aside - the gallery was now pretty crowded so I went downstairs to the ground floor and examined the works there, including a recreation of the famous portrait of May West. The whole building is arranged in a crescent around a courtyard and the geodesic dome that tops the hall that stands between the points of the crescent lets in an astonishing amount of light to illuminate the huge Dali paintings on the walls. I was glad that I had decided to spend the whole day there rather than just the morning and it was almost three when I decided to leave and get the train back to Girona.

Back in Girona I sat in my hotels grassy courtyard and drank a couple of beers and wrote the poem that is reproduced below. What's it about? I couldn't really say. It was inspired by my Dali experience and has I hope caught a little of the spirit of it.

But is it art? (Or for that matter, poetry - we have somewhat differing views on that, too.)

Strange Empire

There are no fixed points here
In this Empire of the mind,
No guides to lead us from
The country of the blind.
The heavens hold no patterned truth.
Their mystery is a peddler's lie.
No greater world stands out of view
Hidden beyond the speckled sky.

Everything is a lie.
The words upon the page - a lie.
The ink that stains then fades - a lie.
The hand that neatly writes - a lie.
That mind that tries to guide - a lie.
There is no mind,
No hand, no pen, no ink
No words
No matter what we think.
Everything is a lie.

There are no fixed points here
In this Empire of the stranger,
No gimballed compass set in brass
To lead us out of danger.
The turned boards, the swirling leaves,
The crystal ball, the bones that fall
Are lies that act as reason’s thieves
Wise men distrust them all.

Everything is a lie.
The stars seen through the glass - a lie.
The days and hours that pass - a lie.
The masquerades of life - a lie.
The freedom of the knife - a lie.
There is no knife,
No life, no time, no stars
No matter who we are.
Everything is a lie.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Telling Lies For A Living

I tell lies.

Probably every day, certainly every working day.

In a way I do it for a living because I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages. And each and every day I lie to my students. The degree to which I lie depends on the level of class I am teaching. I lie less to advanced classes than to beginners classes, but nevertheless I lie.

Let me clarify with a few examples.

I refer to the present continuous as a tense when I know that it's an aspect of the present tense. Ditto for perfect "tenses". By the time I'm covering the passive the class is usually advanced enough not to be confused if I call it the passive voice.

I tell lower level students learning the present continuous that in a sentence with "is" + verb the verb MUST end in –ing. For them I conveniently forget the passive altogether.

I tell students that the plural of "tiger" is "tigers" and don't mention that they might well see "I bagged a couple of tiger last week." ( I have an old edition of Partridge's Usage and Abusage with a discussion of this. He calls them "snob plurals")

I tell lower level students that "cheese" is an uncountable noun and wait until they are in a higher level to point out that we also use it when we mean "kind of cheese" so that then it can be countable. (My three favourite cheeses are Chedder, Danish Blue and Cheshire.)

Lies. All of it lies. (Including the selection of cheeses. My favourite is really Emmental.)

The reason that I am sitting here in my virtual confessional awaiting absolution for these sins is that earlier in the week I was teaching a Level 1 class. Despite its name this is actually quite an advanced level (below it are four levels – in descending order they are, Entry 3, Entry 2, Entry 1 and Pre-entry). What was I teaching? Glad you asked. I was teaching them some of the features of direct and reported speech. When and why to make tense shifts, for example.

The class was going well.

Everyone was getting it. I love it when that happens.

And then I used a grammar exercise pulled from a text book for them to use as a bit of consolidation and things started to, if not exactly go wrong, at least get a little confusing.

It occurred to me that the exercises from the book – and from every other book that I checked after the lesson – far from making things clearer, seemed designed to make things more obscure. The problem is that they are always founded on a fundamentally unrealistic task – the ability to convert sentences from direct to reported speech and worse still from reported to direct. The former of these is a skill that you may need a bit when telling someone about something someone else said – but even then the tendency is to paraphrase rather than convert, but I couldn't think of a single real world use for going the other way. Even in the former you add in lots of information that you know about the conversation that is not contained in the utterance itself.

Let me use some examples to illustrate why, with sentences ripped from their context, this task is impossible. (I'll make some slight adjustments to the questions to avoid identifying the specific text book.)

Task 1: Rewrite the following sentences in reported speech

a) Mary said, "I can't come to the party, tonight."

b) He asked, "Can you come and help me to move house, next weekend."

Task 2: Rewrite the following sentences in direct speech.

a) She told me that her mother was coming to stay.

b) John rang to say that the football had been cancelled.

Let's start with 1a).
How do we change "Mary said, "I can't come to the party, tonight." into reported speech.

If this were a lower level class they would have been taught how to change the person and that they must change the tense.

Mary said that she couldn't come to the party tonight.
But is that right? It depends on when Mary said it and when the party was/will be.

Did she say it yesterday, of a party that was last night? In that case it should probably be
Mary said that she couldn't go to the party last night.

Did she say it a week ago?
Mary said that she couldn't go to the party last (insert day of week).

Did she say it this morning about a party tonight?
Mary said that she can't come to the party tonight.
(Now there isn't even a tense shift necessary.)

There are other possibilities but what about sentence 1b)?

Did he say it to me, yesterday about next weekend?
He asked if I can help him move house next weekend.

Was it to me a couple of weeks ago?
He asked if I could help him move house last weekend.

Was it to me about a weekend that is further away but that is already identified to you.
He asked if I could help him move house that weekend.

Or ditto but without establishing when exactly.
He asked if I could help him move house the following weekend.

Perhaps he wasn't talking to me at all. Perhaps he was talking to someone else altogether.
He asked if he can help him move house next weekend.
He asked if he could help him move house last weekend.

Or maybe is friend is female and we need to substitute "she" for "he".

There are a lot of possibilities here and in real life you would ALWAYS know all the background information needed to pick the right one.

See what I mean? Stripped of all the background information that you would know in real life this task is impossible. Impossible and, I would suggest, meaningless. It simply isn't a real world skill that anyone ever needs. Yet it is the standard model in text book after text book for practising this structure.

Going the other way is even more ridiculous. Let's just take 2a)

She told me her mother is coming to stay.
How the hell can you tell from this what she actually said.
"My mother is coming to stay."
"Mom's coming next week."
"Darling, I hope you don't mind but I've invited mother over for a few days."
"Oy, me mam's 'ere tommorer and 'er's stoppin' the night!"

Who knows, what she actually said? You can't even begin to guess.
This exercise is plainly nonsense but again it's a standard model for the ESOL and EFL text books.

I don't have an answer to how to teach this. In my more advanced class we could sit down and discuss the above, albeit in a slightly simplified form, and talk about how to express your meaning rather than how to follow some kind of conversion rule. That worked as a strategy with the particular class I had last week but it certainly wouldn't work with lower level or weaker classes. They like rules. And in English Grammar most rules are lies.

I tell lies. I have to. I'm a teacher.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Preparing for the Adventure

This week's poem doesn't really fit with the main entry that I entered earlier today. It's one I wrote inspired by that book that I'm so fond of, so I've decided to add it as a separate entry.

Preparing For The Adventure

I make a list headed

“Things That I’ll Need” –

Biscuits, chocolate, crisps, more crisps

and squash to wash down the feed.

I’ll be wanting a torch

and rope and a spade,

and a bag to hold all these

odds and sods for the plan that I’ve made.

I catch the bus to the woods

climb over the fence

by the “No trespassing” sign,

crossing the line that doesn’t make sense.

I sit and I eat

and I wait for my prey,

but the forest is empty.

I sigh, and I rise to call it a day

then from the thicket

a rabbit runs past

quickly I follow to

its home in a hole - on my way at last.

I take out my spade

and dig all around.

I’m going to join Alice

adventuring deep underground.

Hospital Care

Earlier this week I decided to call my dentist and arrange for a check up. Well, I say "my dentist", but it seems that he isn't any more. I missed an appointment and as they don't send out either reminders of impending appointments or notifications of missed ones it was some time before I even realised. Then some more time passed and the result is that I have been removed from his list. I asked to be reinstated but they now only want private patients. As I've already paid for health care in my National Insurance (which for the benefit of non-UK readers is a non-optional payment that everybody in the UK pays) I have objections to being made to pay again.
Telephoning around other dentists in the area it seems to be a common problem. Nobody is accepting National Health service patients any more. I found one eventually but it was hard work.
When I've travelled around the world I've always taken out health insurance and so far never had to use it. I confess I did wonder why to visit the United States the policies are all for enormous amounts. My last one was for eight million dollars worth of cover. I can't conceive of anything that could happen to me that would cost eight million and yet not kill me, but that kind of sum is pretty standard.
Actually, in all my travelling, I have only once needed to make use of the local medical facilities and that was my own fault. It happened when I went on a hiking trip in Thailand and Laos. The first day of hiking was gentle and easy, no more than a pleasant ambling stroll. We set off through cultivated fields that were being watered with sprinkler systems that would not have been out of place in the gardens of a British Stately Home. We waded through shallow cooling rivers. We climbed gentle grassy ascents. We walked along dusty but well maintained tracks that wound through the trees. And, after no more than a couple of hours, we reached the Karen village that was to be our stopping place for the night.
The Karen are one of the hill tribes that populate much of Northern Thailand although national borders mean little to them and they are spread in greater or lesser degree throughout the whole region. The total population of such tribes is around half a million. The Karen people who are the largest of the hill tribes but nonetheless number in total fewer than 300,000 are subdivided into White Karen, Red Karen, Black Karen and Pwo Karen. Our village for the night was White Karen. It consisted of a group of about thirty wooden buildings, mostly raised by wooden pillars so that the floors were about four feet from the ground. Under some of the huts domesticated pigs were taking a siesta, under others there were ducks or dogs or cockerels. A group of women sat in the centre of the village weaving.

Children were playing with rather incongruous plastic tricycles and trucks in the dirt. After a few brief words with one of the village men Wit, out local guide, showed us to our luxury accommodation. It was a single-room hut with a bamboo floor. Wooden steps led up to the bamboo balcony which ran along one side of it. As is the custom we left our shoes outside and went in to set out our sleeping bags and mosquito nets. With that done everyone seemed to simultaneously realise that it was still only late afternoon and we all wandered around looking at people and animals and rather obtrusively pointing cameras everywhere until I felt sure that the villagers must think we were lunatics.

"Yes I have very fine pig. Every month many English take his picture. In England they do not have such pigs."
"Ha, your pig is fine but my latrine - everyone takes picture of my latrine."

With all the pig and latrine photographs out of the way we sat around drinking beer and waiting for dinner which we ate at a table outside the hut lit only by the light of a dozen small candles. The food was excellent but when we had eaten it we realised that it was still only nine O'clock. One or two people went to bed. The rest of us stood around talking until it became obvious that our increasingly eccentric conversation started to border on the manic and we too retired.
It would be untrue to claim that I slept badly for that would be to imply that I slept. My locally hired sleeping bag was tissue paper thin and would have been inadequate to even the mildest of chills. As the night was freezing it was worse than useless. Even sleeping in my clothes failed to generate enough warmth to allow me to fall asleep. If the temperature alone were not enough to keep me awake then the constant noise of the pigs and the frequent but random crowing of a host of roosters was certainly up to the task. Occasionally I would hear others tossing and turning or grumbling and for a the opaque square of one of the mosquito nets was lit by a torch as someone decided to try to read.
It was a cold miserable and uncomfortable night and as soon as they greyish light of dawn started to penetrate the cracks in the walls I struggled from my bag, climbed over the bodies and went outside onto the balcony. I pulled on my shoes and approached the steps. What happened next is a little vague. I looked down at the steps and noted their position and stepped down. At the crucial moment something must have distracted me for the next thing I knew I had missed the step and was pitching forward with my arms instinctively flailing up towards my head for protection. It did no good and even as I heard myself yelling, I felt my head hammer solidly against one of the pillars supporting the next building. Wit came rushing out to see what calamity had caused the scream which had woken the whole village. I could feel the warm stickiness of blood as it ran down the side of my cheek which was already turning cold with shock. Others emerged to see what was happening.
After some cleaning up and some running repairs to my injuries – during which I babbled incoherently – I started to pull myself together, a necessary task as I rapidly started to realise that my very limited first aid knowledge was about the best the group had and that my first aid kit was certainly the best stocked. I sent someone for it as I sat wrapped in a blanket, shivering and sipping at a cup of hot and unbearably sweet tea that Wit had pressed into my hands.

As we cleaned up my head we assessed the damage. Wit had initially said that he thought I would not need a trip to hospital it was clear that he was wrong. There were several small shallow cuts and grazes above my left ear and on the back of my head and two rather deep gashes - one immediately behind the ear and a second on the front of it which had torn down a triangular flap of skin which was hanging loose. It was this cut that was bleeding fairly profusely. We cleaned it up and dressed it. Meanwhile I was checking myself for other injuries. My left foot, which had twisted under me as I had fallen was extremely painful and starting to bruise. The toe felt broken. I immobilised it with bandage and tape and set about persuading Wit that while the others could walk I certainly needed at least a check up at the hospital.
Finally he agreed and when the truck departed I was lying in the back. Wit and our truck driver, Mr. Tah , were in the front. Every now and again one of them would ask me how I was feeling. I was feeling tired, hurt and very like a complete prat. The ride was uncomfortable and hot - about two hours in the morning sun over very bumpy dusty roads until finally we came to a main highway and fifteen minutes later arrived at the hospital.
I am not sure what I had been expecting but the reality was a pleasant surprise. The building was a single storey modern structure not much larger than a town clinic but it looked clean and fairly hygienic. There were a large number of Thai patients waiting but Wit overrode my feeble protestations and marched me to the front of the queue. Five minutes later a nurse had removed the dressing on my ear and cleaned it up again. She said something in Thai. Wit translated.
"She says you need injection."
"What for ?" I asked wondering if I would need to break out the sterile needle and syringe that I was carrying.
Wit asked.
"Tetanus." he said.
I was relieved.
"I don't need it. I had a tetanus shot only about a month ago."
He translated for her. She wasn't convinced but eventually decided that if I didn't want it she couldn't force me to have it. The ear was a different matter. It was obvious even to me that it needed stitches. Ten minutes later it was done and we could take a look at the foot. I hobbled into X-Ray and gasped in awe that a piece of equipment so old could still be operating. Nevertheless it was and the picture that was brought out barely five minutes later was certainly a foot although I couldn't swear that it was mine. The senior nurse examined it and explained to Wit that it was not broken, just badly bruised. She wrote out a prescription and I took it to the apothecary window. It turned out to be six prescriptions. One for sterile dressings and swabs, one for iodine solution, one for sterile saline solution and three for assorted drugs. Of these the one a day capsules were clearly antibiotics. I had no objection to taking those. The others were another matter. One packet contained aspirin sized fluorescent green square tablets and the other tiny bright orange oval pills. I asked what they were and Wit checked.
"Painkillers" was his uncertain reply.

I resolved to throw them down the nearest toilet and take paracetamol if I was in any pain and we climbed back onto the truck.
As we drove into town Mr. Tah tried to cheer me up. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me two scars on the front and back of his forearm. They were ragged six inch strips of dead white flesh with poor wide stitches criss-crossing them.
"I have done at same hospital." he said smiling as I looked in horrified fascination at the scars.
"What did you do ? " I asked.
The truck bounced over a rut in the road as he replied in mime, raising his arm and bringing it down towards the top of the piece of metal tubing that was securing his seat to the vehicle.
"Truck roll over !" he said with equal pleasure.
I groaned and closed my eyes.

For the next few days it was obvious that hiking was out of the question so I rode everywhere in the truck, sitting at Mr Tah's side as if riding shotgun on a stagecoach. The truck, like all the others I had seen in the area, was of an unusual design. It have no cabin and virtually no suspension although it was unbelievably robust and more like a tractor in its construction. The most unusual and unnerving feature for someone riding in the front was that part of the engine consisted of a large metal flywheel which protruded up through the floor of the footwell, spinning rapidly and dangerously centimetres from my leg.
Thanks to this royal treatment I invariable arrived at the villages hours before the rest of the party and passed the time hobbling about with my camera or sitting in the shade with my guide books. I rather wished I hadn't when, in the Lonely Planet guide, I read up about the Luang Prabang hospital in Laos where I would have to get the stitches removed. It said,
"…the availability of decent medical services is practically nil… the state run hospitals are among the worst in South East Asia in terms of hygiene, staff training, facilities and medicine"

It wasn't an experience I was looking forward to but for the moment I tried to put it out of my mind.

Whenever we drove I just relaxed and looked at the scenery, the jerking motion of the transport being too extreme for photography. It was pretty rather than beautiful and pleasant rather than spectacular but naturally when Mr. Tah asked me what I thought of his country I was a little less reserved in my praise.
Mr Tah, it turned out was quite an important man locally. One day, when we were waiting, he invited me to his house to meet his wife and son. He had been leading or assisting with treks for many years as the photographs all over the walls of his home could attest. I was getting the star guest treatment. We had about an hour before the others arrived and he showed me round proudly. Even as we had driven up it was clear that he was very prosperous by hill tribe standards. It was built on the same basic principle as the huts with the main living area off the ground and reached by steps but that was as far as the resemblance went. Instead of a bamboo construction it was built mainly of wood and whereas the huts were raised about a yard this was more than double that providing what amounted to garage and shed space beneath it. It was also about six times as large as the largest hut I had seen. He invited me in and showed me the mementoes of his years as a guide. The earliest showed him as a much younger man in a black T-shirt and sporting shoulder length hair.
"You used to be a hippy then." I commented.

He grinned.
"Yes. Hippy. That was me." he said.

A few days later we said our goodbyes at the ferry crossing that would take me into Laos and a day later we were in Luang Prabang. I had been expecting somewhere horrible but it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise and the hotel proved to be an astonishing one. Brand new and ultra modern it was a labyrinthine affair of wood and stone with a central courtyard with a lush green lawn. The rooms were stylish and comfortable and complete with en suite bath and shower, air conditioning and a fridge stocked with water and beer. It gave me hope that perhaps the guide book had it wrong about the hospital – tomorrow was the day the stitches were due to come out.
So, the following afternoon, after a morning of limping sight-seeing that had taken in the Royal Palace as well as the obligatory visits to various temples, I set off with some trepidation for the hospital.
If the Thai hospital had been a surprisingly modern and clean place the Laos one was something quite different. As usual, the Lonely Planet guide book had been right in its assessment. From a distance it doesn't look too bad but the closer you get the worse you feel. Inside it was like an abattoir designed by Edgar Allen Poe and decorated by Fungus the Bogeyman. Bleeding people lay on wooden trolleys in corridors that were open to the dusty outside. The walls looked as if they had last been painted decades ago. The nurses wore dirty and mismatched uniforms. I was led to a room where there was a doctors table that could have come from the last century. Had I been there to have stitches put in I would have fled and bled to death sooner than risk infection. As the stitches were only coming out I wasn't quite as concerned but it was still not one of the pleasanter places I have been. I sat as they snipped at the stitches and looked at the painting on the wall opposite. It was of a pale and deathly looking patient in a bed with snakes, spiders, flies, rats and cockroaches crawling on the sheets. I shuddered as much at the mind that conceive of this as hospital decoration as at the image itself.
Nevertheless the stitches were soon removed, the wound pronounced infection free and I was on my way, thankful to have escaped so lightly from my mishap.

And that, I can say with relief, was my single encounter with overseas hospitals. And the cost to my insurance? Nil. All that medical treatment had totalled almost £4, not even close to the excess on the policy.

Monday, 14 April 2008

More from Samuel Johnson

Well, better late than never, I suppose. I promised to complete my alphabetic sprint through Samuel Johnson and here it is. As with the first half they are words that just appealed to me, for all sorts of different reasons, while I was reading the dictionary .

And we'll begin with one which I like primarily for the phrasing of Johnson's definition which is:

to neese: To sneese; to discharge flatulencies by the nose.Retained in Scotland.

Next time I hear someone sneeze I shall, immediately after saying "bless you" tell them that they have just discharged their flatulencies. I'll bet that impresses them.

A slightly more familiar word next though perhaps not with quite the modern meaning.

orgasm: Sudden vehemence.

So if you want to complain about something go up to the salesman, bang your fist on the counter, have an orgasm.

Next up, one of those words that I think should be revived, if only to explain the stains on the trousers when returning from the urinal (and see also the word below for "u") after an excessive splashback.

pissburnt:stained with urine

A rather bizarre offering for "q" and one where I am as puzzled after the definition as I was before it.

to quob: [a low word] To move as the embrio does in the womb.

The next one has been, with a slightly different spelling a favourite of mine since school. I first encountered it in Macbeth where one of the witches, describing her encounter with a sailor's wife says "'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed ronyon cries." Haven't a clue what it means, and nor, it seems, had Johnson, but it's a great sounding insult.

ronion: [I know not the etymology nor certainly the meaning of this word] A fat bulky woman.

Another prime candidate for revival is

seeksorrow: One who contrives to give himself vexation.

I know plenty of those. Is there a modern term for this?

An archaic eponym is next out of the box.

thrasonical [from Thraso, a boaster in old comedy (the footnote identifies it as Eunuchus by Terence)] boastful, bragging

The next word has such a remarkably changed meaning that it caused me to burst out laughing when I read it. That's assuming that Johnson got it right, of course, which is by no means certain.

urinator: a diver, one who searches under water

On the other hand I am rather pleased that the next word is out of use nowadays although it might make a useful plot device in an episode of Lewis. (For the non-British, Lewis is a police series that was a spin off from the earlier series Morse, both of which are set in Oxford.)

vaticide: the murder of poets

Next time you have a stomach upset, it might be the occasion to use

to wamble: to roll with nausea and sickness. It is used of the stomach.

and watch the look of utter bafflement that crosses your doctor's face in response to your "Doctor I've come about the wambling."

There is no section for X so moving on to Y I'll present a word that I expect most people have come across, and one that once again I first came across in the works of the Bard of Avon.

ycleped: [The participle passive of clepe, to call] Called, termed, named.

And bringing up the rear of our romp through the alphabet is, for no special reason,

zetetick: proceding by enquiry.

And that concludes my brief taster to the Dictionary of Samuel Johnson. If you want more, and there's plenty of fun to be had in there for linguaphiles then you can get the same edition that I have in bookshops. It's edited by Jack Lynch, published in 2004 by Levenger Press and I'd tell you the ISBN if I could find it. Or you could just look on Amazon.

Friday, 11 April 2008


I have been taken to task by my brother who, finding himself with a little free time, decided to take a look at my blog and my web site. He points out that there is no mention at to be found that I even have a brother.

So here's a mention. I have a brother.

He's considered by some to be a rather odd chap, not because of any defects of personality, intelligence and appearance – he's perfectly normal in all three – but rather because of his hobby. His hobby is, in a word, spiders. In a recent phone conversation he said, "I have only two bedrooms, we sleep in one and four hundred tarantulas sleep in the other.

He takes his hobby seriously, being deeply involved with the British Tarantula Society, for whom he organises the annual show where you can see all sorts of tarantulas and buy all the paraphernalia that you need to take the hobby up for yourself.

Since the conversation where he pointed out that I haven't spoken of him I've been thinking of critters. Not just spiders but all sorts of critters. Small critters, medium critters, big critters. Friendly critters, unfriendly critters and downright hostile critters. Beautiful, plain and ugly critters. Harmless, harmful and deadly.

Having spent so much time travelling around the world – and so much of that time sleeping in tents or out under the stars – I have seen a fair few animals. Two of my trips, mere holidays really stand out as having been especially notable for the wildlife: a trip that took in Malawi and Zambia, and another to Madagascar.

I'll talk about Madagascar on another occasion but the former of these was "big critter" country. Elephant. Zebra. Hippo. That sort of thing, the usual grab bag of African trips. Some of the signage in the national parks can get quite entertaining. For example at the gate of the Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve is a large sign that says "Remember Elephants Have Right of Way!" while at the ferry crossing into Liwonde another reads "Please Respect The Crocodiles".

At the South Luangwa Park in Zambia we went for a game drive and, sitting on the roof, we bounced around the tracks and managed to tick off most of the animals in our spotters' guides including, at a distance, a couple of lions. The park is huge and criss-crossed with rivers. The roads pass over them on a mixture of wooden and concrete bridges that vary from quaint to rather ugly. As we crossed one of the concrete ones, high above a dried out riverbed, two hundred yards away stomping daintily (if such a thing is possible) across the hardened mud, were a family of elephant. We watched as they scrambled up the bank and into the trees.

Half a mile further on the driver suddenly swung off the road and shot at high speed between the trees. We struggled to see what he had seen. It was an animal about the size of a dog, with striped hindquarters. And it was moving very fast as he tried to keep up with it. For a moment it hesitated, turned to face us and with a blinding turn of speed raced under our Land Rover and away into the distance. Apart from the rounded ears its face had been very feline.

"That," explained the driver, "Was a civet. You don't often see them in the day. They are supposed to be completely nocturnal."

Our next encounter was a touch more dramatic and without any time to even point cameras let alone take pictures. We had been on a track skirting around another of the dry river beds heading for an area where we hoped to find lion. It wound down through a densely treed area before emerging into a clearing. Off on the far side, near an isolated stand of trees was a single elephant, a single, very large, full-grown, male elephant. He trumpeted a warning and began a mock charge to scare us away. We stopped. He stopped. Then he turned as if to leave us alone. Then, with no warning, he wheeled and charged again, this time in earnest. Ears flat, trunk down he thundered towards us. The driver slammed the Land Rover into reverse and shot away at a speed I hadn't known could be achieved going backwards. It's a mystery to this day how we stayed on the roof but we did and as we raced away the elephant, satisfied that he had scared us enough, aborted his attack and followed us no further.

As the day wore on we saw antelope (including the tiny Sharpe's Grysbok), more elephants, dozens of different birds that the more ornithologically inclined of the group competed to identify, zebra, hippo - all kinds of things. What we didn't see, though, were giraffes. This was quite a disappointment as there is something about those long necks and expressive faces that is indefinably amusing. Our drivers were patient, taking us everywhere that they had recently seen giraffes and then, with increasing desperation, everywhere that they had ever seen giraffes, but it was to no avail. Our route, it seemed was a giraffe-free zone. Eventually, in the failing light of evening we were forced to concede defeat.

Our campsite was a little way outside the park and we headed out of the gate happy with what we had seen and consoling ourselves for the absence of giraffes with the thought that we had three more days to search for them. Although it was by now quite dark and we were driving down the main road, most of us remained on the roof. After about half a kilometre we turned onto the rutted track that led down from the road to the river and our tents. The track wandered unevenly between the trees that brushed the sides of the vehicles and threatened to knock us off should we be too careless.

Suddenly we stopped. Our headlights had picked out something blocking the road – a giraffe. People fumbled with the settings on their cameras to compensate for the poor light. The giraffe glanced at us and then stepped into the trees and vanished without a single picture being taken. There were disappointed mumblings. Then, with a wonderful unexpectedness a miracle happened. A head bowed down from the trees no more than a couple of feet away from us. Then another appeared and another and their owners stepped out onto the road. In moments we were surrounded by no fewer than seventeen giraffes all gazing at us curiously as if they had been out all day searching for a group of human beings and had only now, on their way home, encountered one.

We took pictures of them knowing that we couldn't use flashes and without flashes the pictures would almost certainly be useless. We took them anyway. The giraffes for their part just watched the curious spectacle. After ten minutes of our looking at them and their looking at us they got bored and wandered back into the trees and we went on home to supper in a very contented frame of mind.


And why not finish off with a critters poem, of sorts anyway. I wrote this a long time ago. I'll leave the original introduction attached to it to give a bit of background.


Don’t you just hate new parents. Other poems I have written have mentioned how annoying it is to be constantly hearing about their hideous offspring but there is another small problem. Normal rational human beings turn all twee and sentimental. A workmate who had a new baby felt obliged to regale us with a poem from a children’s book that was quite nauseatingly cute. It was all about a penguin and it went

Peter the Penguin likes to fish
With net and bucket he fills his dish
His little wings can no longer fly
But he uses the water like the sky
He swoops and dives and sometimes floats
And pops up under the fishing boats
He really is a smart fellow
With suit of black and bill of yellow
If you and he should ever meet
Remember what Peter likes to eat

I wrote this and distributed it as a sort of antidote.

Peter The Penguin

Peter the penguin lived on the ice
Leading a life of squalor and vice
He frolicked with the fish, and buggered the bears
With cosmopolitan preference exceedingly rare
Peter's morals were plain and simple to render
He never worried at all about species or gender
Or about size or age or inclination
It was more than just lust it was Peter's vocation
His ambition, oft stated though far from achieved
Was to try every vice that could e'er be conceived

Boris the Polar Bear didn't like Pete
He growled and he roared if they chanced to meet
The reason was plain as the sixth months of the day
Boris was straight and Peter was gay
Boris thought Pete was a dirty young pouf
But Peter thought Boris was macho and tough,
Which in itself wouldn't matter at all
But Peter found Boris both handsome and tall
And followed him here and followed him there
Peter the Penguin was hunting for bear.

Sammy the Sea Lion couldn't care less
If Peter the Penguin liked wearing a dress
He might think it unusual, peculiar and odd
But he could ignore the bent little sod
And anyway Sammy couldn't cast the first stone
For he had a secret vice of his own
He'd hang around bird's nests wearing his coat
Shuffling his feet and clearing his throat
As Sea Lions go, Sammy was dregs
He exposed himself regularly to newly laid eggs

Inspector Sid Seagull of the Antarctic yard
Found keeping the crime rate down very hard
While out nicking Sammy for 'indecent display'
On the far side of the Pole Boris was 'causing affray'
The trouble began when, encountering Pete
He buried a claw right in his beak
And emphasised further the point he was making
By trying to tear of a leg and a wing
But Sid and the (V)ice squad arrived double quick
And carted the lot of them off to the nick.

Willy the Walrus, a Judge of Renown
Cut and impressive figure in his cap and his gown
The defendants were led before him in chains
While the clerk of the court read out their names.
When the trial was concluded and the evidence heard
The Judge pounded his gavel and loudly declared
"Hard labour for Boris and six months for Sam,
But it's been clear to me since this trial began
That the innocent party is poor little Pete
Who I personally find remarkably sweet"

Sid in disgust at the verdict resigned
After giving jury and judge a piece of his mind
"This court is a farce, and if I may say
A hotbed of deplorable moral decay.
You don't understand ", he said with some gravity
"The depths of this penguin's sordid depravity"
Behind his moustache the Walrus just smiled.
By Peter's demeanor completely beguiled.
So much so in fact that he stepped from the stand
And he and young Peter left the court hand in hand*.

(*Or flipper in wing if you want to be anatomical about it.)

(Note - I am aware that I'm mixing animals from both poles here. Just assume some of them were on holiday and you'll be OK.)

Monday, 7 April 2008

The House on the Rock and other Strange Places

I know I promised more from Samuel Johnson but I'll do that next time because it occurred to me that, pretty much to the day, a year ago I was in Chicago and that was a trip that deserves reporting.

I had arrived a few days before our "convention" began so that I could spend some extra time with my hosts. In the flurry of e-mail exchanges that had set up the visit, Ken had mentioned that, if I wanted to, he would be happy to make the drive up to Wisconsin to show me his favourite museum, The House On The Rock.

I couldn't believe the serendipity of it. I had heard of it for the first time a couple of weeks earlier when I'd read Neil Gaiman's marvellous novel "American Gods". The museum is the location for one of the pivotal scenes of the novel but what struck me about it was that it sounded absolutely fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I felt sure that, in spite of a footnote to the contrary, he was making it up, or at the least greatly exaggerating it.

So, the day after I arrived, I found myself on the way up to the museum. I was like a kid on his first trip to the sea-side but there was still this persistent doubt that it could match up to either Gaiman's or Ken's descriptions of it.

I was worried for nothing. We arrived at the museum in the late morning and by the time we left it was already late afternoon. Five hours wasn't nearly enough to do the place justice and I could happily have marched back to the ticket office and paid to go round again.

So, what is it? Put simply it is a collection of collections housed in one of the most bizarre architectural structures I've ever encountered. That doesn't say much though.

Do you want to see a collection of mechanical money-boxes? There's one here. Fancy taking a look at a collection of pipe organs? You can stroll through a red-lit evocation of hell and take a look at one. Not esoteric enough for you? How about the collection of mechanical orchestras scattered throughout the attraction. And what about collections of dolls, carousel horses, cars, model trains, armour, guns, miniature circuses, oriental statues, whaling equipment, ersatz crown jewels? The full list would fill a magazine.

Everything is contained in a vast series of themed rooms that lead you through a bizarre wonderland of weirdness. There is even an indoor recreation, perhaps evocation would be a better word, of a turn of the century small town US street. Oh, yes, and a simply enormous carousel that, rather than wooden horses, has a series of mythological beasts and curious hybrids to ride on.

Oh and did I miss the most curious architectural feature? The infinity room is a long cantilevered corridor that leads out above the trees going absolutely nowhere designed so cunningly that when standing inside it, it seems to stretch out forever in front of you.

See what I mean? Every time I think I've described enough, I think of something else I need to say that I've left out.

It was an enthralling afternoon*. I wandered round with my camera taking picture after picture after picture.

Afterwards we drove into Milwaukee for some dinner and a drink in the equally strange Safe House. This is an odd theme bar decorated with posters of spy movies and the apparatus of spying which can be entered via a reception where you are asked for passwords and the like before going through into the bar itself. A pretty strange experience but one that complemented perfectly the day out at The House on The Rock.

I also wrote a whole cycle of poems about it that is much too long to put in here (they are available here, if you are really curious) that have met with some considerable approval from people who have read them and went down a storm when I performed the whole cycle (minus one poem, The Mikado and the Invisible Orchestra, which is a poem for two voices and can't be performed solo) at Wolverhampton City Voices.

Instead of repeating one of those poems here though I'll suggest that you follow the above link. Here I'll do a poem about somewhere that in it's own way was equally strange – The Hotel Trinidad in Merida, Mexico. This poem looks like a stream of gibberish and random images. It's nothing of the sort. Apart from a couple of liberties taken for the sake of rhyme it's an entirely factual description.

Hotel Trinidad

Cellophane butterflies above the stone fountain;
Dismembered dolls fill the cabinet.
Reaching for sanity's climbing a mountain,
But we can't leave the valley quite yet.

Arms, legs and heads on a separate shelf -
Where did the torsos all go ?
Charlie Chaplin in cardboard admiring himself
It's clear there's something we don't know.

The inflatable Batman who stands on the stairs,
Wobbling with each passing breeze,
Is surrounded by cupboards that might just be coffins.
This psychotic place is diseased.

Torsos and fish net painted red white and blue;
A bowling ball stands on a plate;
A wraught iron pedastal supports one pink shoe;
Under the water a smiling cold face.

Rows of tights filled with sand have been nailed to a board
Above glass jars full of debris and dust.
A rocking horse body is missing its head
It seems a betrayal of trust.

How did we get here ? I can't be quite sure.
When will we leave ? I don't know.
Through the cracks in the mirror I watch my reflection

And realise there's no hurry to go.

*I have read other blogs by people who don't like The House on the Rock, who criticize it for its phoniness, for the fact that many of the artefacts are recreations, for all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons. To those I can only shrug and say that it would be a funny old world if we all liked the same things, wouldn't it?

Friday, 4 April 2008

Why am I doing this?

The new term is upon us – upon me, I suppose I mean – and I should be sitting here working on my schemes of work instead of which I'm doing this. It's just displacement activity because I lack the will to do what I have to do.

Anyway I want to get all self-referential for a minute and blog about blogs. We've been talking about them at wordcraft and one of my friends there has set up a blog just because we told her how easy it was. What though, she would like to know, is the actual point of doing so? Is it just therapy to put your thoughts down somewhere? Is it because, of all the millions of blogs out there, you are sure that people will somehow find and love yours? Is it to get something off your chest, she asks, or perhaps to get lots of comments or to connect to others?

I'm sure (I hope!) that she won't mind me saying that her new blog is on a subject that could probably be described as a minority interest. An extremely minority interest. It's about the word "epicaricacy" and while this may have generated tons of word craft discussion (such as here and here and here and at least a couple dozen other places) it's doubtful that many people would want to read a whole blog about it.

But the question of what blogs are for is interesting though it's really just the modern variation on the question that every writer in the history of literature has asked himself at some time or other: "Why do I do this?"

Take me. I write poetry, travel journals and occasional essays. Nowadays I get the odd poem stuck in obscure local writers' magazines; some of my journals made the local newspaper; I enter (but so far never win) story and poetry competitions and I perform poetry from time to time at City Voices, a monthly Wolverhampton storytellers' evening. So I have a small audience. For most of my writing life though my audience has been me. Even now probably ninety percent of everything I ever write is still never seen by anyone else. Would I like to be famous (preferably NOT posthumously)? Damn right, I would. Do I think there's much likelihood of it? Nope. Wouldn't bet my loose change on it. So why do I do it?

I have my own pet theories about why people write and they apply equally to blogs. I think it almost always starts out as a kind of therapy. People write to get something out of their system. This is why there is so much self-absorbed twaddle kicking around on the internet. If you write self-absorbed twaddle don't feel offended. I'm about to show you some of mine. People's first fumblings in writing are almost always "me obsessed" and about themselves and their inner turmoil. Let's throw in something of mine just to show you what I mean. I apologise in advance for how bad it is. I was either exactly fourteen or exactly fifteen when I wrote it.

31,536,000 Seconds

Don't wait for life because no one's coming
Don't dream too much when you're still running
Don't try too hard, don't try at all
No one will catch you when you fall.
Happy Birthday! Birthday dreams.
Happy Birthday! Birthday screams.
Happy Birthday! Birthday wishes.
Happy Birthday! Misery's kisses.
Try not to think, you'll hurt yourself.
It's easy to believe you're someone else
But the mirror still reflects your face
It's easier to just leave the race.
If you should hear the serpent's song
Though you know the tune don't sing along
The future good they said was coming
Was just the sound of dead men humming.
If you look up to the waning moon
And reflect on the fabric of the dreamer's loom
Try not to be bitter when you find out
That what you took for a victory was really a rout.
Dream alone to keep from the vision's harm.
Do not be fooled by the other dreamer's charm
Though you made it past another year.
There's a lot of future for you to fear.

Right . As you can see it's mostly gibberish but the tone is very clear. Teen angst. No friends. Unhappiness. Loneliness. It's rubbish from start to finish, of course, but that wasn't the point. Like all teenagers I did feel all those things and that poem and a thousand others like it (now mostly lost for ever, thank goodness) were therapy. Getting it out of my system. It could just as easily have been written ten minutes ago by some teenage kid (boy or girl) who dresses in black and spends a lot of time alone in the bedroom listening to doom-laden gothic metal. (And even at 51, I'm rather partial to that kind of stuff myself. May I recommend Within Temptation?)

That's how it starts and for many that's how it ends. Others though, like me, move on to the other stage – compulsion. As your writing gets better you start to write about other stuff and come to realise that with or without the personal angst the act of writing, of writing anything, is actually something you enjoy. By now it's too late to back out. You now write because you have to. The switch in your psyche has been flipped and it's locked on the new setting. You can no more not write than you can not breathe. That's how it is for me. I've been writing stuff for nearly forty years and there's no way I could possibly stop now. This new blog may well die a death as my other one did but it doesn't mean that I won't write. It means that I'll write something else, somewhere else.

What, then, is the answer to the original question? What is the point of blogs. There are two answers depending on how long you've been doing it. They are either there to ease your own troubled mind or there because if you didn't write that, you'd write something else.

And it doesn't matter if no one comments on it. It doesn't matter if no one likes it. It doesn't even matter if no one reads it. What matters is that you wrote it.

And now, because I can't just let that crappy poem stand as the only one in this blog. Here's another one, more recent, less narcissistic and, in my view, considerably better.

It has absolutely no connection with what is written above. It was written after a visit to the cemeteries and museum at Gallipoli.

In Gallipoli Museum

I saw two letters, under glass
In a room of weapons
Uniforms and photographs
And more.
I saw the fragments of the shells,
Mounted, captioned
Memorabilia of hell
And war.
The letters drew me to the day
- The calm between the storms -
When two men had tried to say,
With words that might console
If grimmer tidings came
And their name was on the roll
Of those to die.
Transcribed afresh and copied clean
Where faded ink on yellow page
Might be no more than simply seen,
And yet not read.
Each wrote of optimistic times,
Comforted his family far away
Tonight on opposing battle lines,

Tomorrow dead.

Next time: more selections from Samuel Johnson.