While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rock'n'Roll Rebellion

Yesterday I listed six songs that were big amongst my circle(s) of friends back when I was eleven and twelve. The list is, however, slightly misrepresentative. I wasn’t just into rap. I was, like almost everyone else at Ross Intermediate, impressed by TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’, Mariah Carey’s ‘One Sweet Day’ and Montell Jordan’s ‘This Is How We Do It’.

There is still a gulf between these artists and the ones I listen to now (according to my LastFM profile, the top five from the last six months are The Kinks, Warren Zevon, The Tragically Hip, The National, and Shearwater; that is, melodic, thoughtful, rock music).

The first reason for the differing taste is quite obvious. The National and Shearwater weren't around last century. Of the three artist above that were, I had only heard the Kinks when I was twelve, and that wasn’t on 2XS, the station that me and my peers listened to, but 2ZA (“the hits of the sixties, seventies, eighties and today”). The Kinks were for people of my parent’s generation, or older! Eleven and twelve is an impressionable age, and you can only like what you’ve heard. If I was hearing Dr Dre and Bone Thugs and The Puppies, and that’s what my peers were hearing and talking about, it’s no wonder it seemed important.

But even then, when I didn’t really know why I liked what I liked, I was being exposed to the music I would shortly adopt as my own. And it is these minor flashes of rock’n’roll amid my r’n’b years that stand out now when I look back with a nostalgic agenda:

* watching Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York during lunchtime in room 12, aged 11. I don’t remember why or even how this came to be, just watching Kurt Cobain looking miserable and hurt and the opposite of bling (though we didn’t know that word back then)

* my dad turning off the radio halfway through The Smashing Pumpkin’s ‘Disarm’ because he couldn’t stand Billy Corgan’s voice (aged 12)

* buying Pearl Jam’s Ten on cassette for one dollar from friend who won it on a radio competition (aged 12)

I would not listen to Pearl Jam or Nirvana or, to a lesser extent, The Smashing Pumpkins in earnest until I began high school, but the seeds were there before this change in scenery.

Of course, the change in scenery should not be understated. I moved from a medium-to-low decile co-ed intermediate school that had hoodies as part of the school uniform to a much stricter single sex high school where classes were streamed according to academic performance. As a result, my social circle took a jump up the socio-economic ladder, for better or worse. Suddenly, my friends were into Jean Claude Van Damme movies and The Stone Temple Pilots.

I can’t say for sure, but if you took schools and friends out of the equation, I think I would still have gravitated to grunge and post-grunge music at the age of thirteen. I was after that vein of rebellion that has run through rock since the fifties, and I got it in grunge. The rebellion was not political, but generational. Rap and R’n’B at the time was a more aspirational (I want a lot of cash and bitches) or looking down from the top (I got a lot of cash and bitches) or rebellious in that kind of racial / political way that I couldn’t relate to. But a song like Lithium, or Unglued, or Creep (by Radiohead or STP but not TLC) sounded like I felt, or how I thought I should have felt. It said: the world is shit but I have no answers. Most of these songs didn’t even acknowledge a world outside your bedroom door.

My entrée into rock coincided with my first CD player (a gift for my thirteenth birthday) and therefore my first CD purchases. This coincidence has a lot to do with why my iPod has virtually no hip hop music, and why I can feel more nostalgic about Richard Marx and Savage Garden (i.e. the most watered down decedants of Van Halen or The Beatles) than Snoop Dogg and Warren G.

Six Songs From My Early Days of Rock Appreciation

* Interstate Love Song – Stone Temple Pilots (my first CD was STP’s Tiny Music My second was the Space Jam soundtrack. When I got around to buying Purple, I knew my loyalties were here rather than with R. Kelly or Busta Rhymes)

* This Is A Call – Foo Fighters (a noisy, nonsensical gem)

* Fell on Black Days – Soundgarden (probably still in my top ten songs of all time, even though the lyrical content no longer speaks to me as it did when I was a shoe-gazing fourteen year old)

* Grind Alice in Chains (dirty, dirty music that can’t resist a Staley/Cantrell harmony in the chorus – the genius of AiC)

* Black – The song that, when I came around to playing my one dollar Pearl Jam cassette, stuck me as both sad and angry, but still beautiful)

* Talkshow Host – Radiohead (“I want to be someone else or I’ll explode”, nuff said)

A lot of the YouTube videos I’ve linked to above are for acoustic versions of the songs rather than the original. Partly because these are quite well known songs and I wanted to mix things up, but also because I really like these versions. This speaks to the next development in my musical tastes: the move away from loud, angry, (commercially successful) alternative music to something more nuanced...

Which sounds like a dissection (and playlist) for another day…

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My Hip Hop Heritage

I’m not sure how it came up* but last night Marisa sung these lines:

We used to walk down by the river
She used to watch the sun go down

Then said, “What song is that?”

I said, “It sounds like Richard Marx.”

She gave me a blank look. Names and music don’t go together for a large proportion of the population.

Anyway, I summoned up Richard Marx’s ‘Hazard’ on my computer thanks to the wonder of YouTube:

I've never thought Richard Marx was cool. He’s always been slightly above Michael Bolton on the ladder of M.O.R. adult contemporary acts. (The top of this ladder begins at ground level and descends into a deep crevasse.) ‘Hazard’ is admittedly his least cloying hit ballad (refer to ‘Right Here Waiting’, ‘Now and Forever’…) and listening to it again after howeverlong it’s been was the kind of nostalgic delight I am experiencing often in my serious twenties for my silly pre-teens.

But when the song ended, I thought about it a little more. When Richard Marx was big (1989-1994) I wasn’t into M.O.R. adult contemporary, of course, but neither was I into rock, or folk, or indie, or anything which resembles my mature music tastes. I was into hip hop.

Six Of The Best From My Hip Hop Period

* ‘Regulate’ – Warren G and Nate Dogg

* ‘Gin and Juice’ – Snoop Dogg

* ‘Gansta Lean’ – D.R.S.

* 'Tha Crossroads' – Bone Thugs-n-Harmony

* ‘California love’ – 2Pac and Dr Dre

* ‘Fantastic Voyage’ – Coolio (the only song in this list I regularly earworm these days; maybe because the original song by Lakeside was so catchy)

These were the songs that loomed large in my life as an eleven and twelve year old.

These are the songs that are attached to actual memories (going round to the house of someone I wasn’t really friends with just to listen to his copy of Doggystyle; ringing up 2XS every night for a week to try and win E 1999 Eternal).

These are the songs from the Richard Marx era I should be nostalgic about.

But for some reason, I don’t own any of the above artists albums and only have one of those songs (‘California Love’) on my iPod.

Why is this?

I’ll look at that tomorrow.

* I lied.** I actually asked, “Have you ever thought about what songs you’d like played at your funeral?” which eventually lead to Richard Marx rendition.

** For the purposes of expedience rather than deception. I’m happy to admit that I ask questions like, “Have you ever thought about what songs you’d like played at your funeral?” from time to time. So what? And yes, I’ve thought about it myself. Perennially at the top of the list: ‘Desperadoes Under The Eaves’, just so that I could look down on the congregation (if that’s what you call a collection of mixed- and non-denominational mourners a congregation) singing:

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went mm mm mm
Mm mm mm mm

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Edinburgh International Book Festival Wrap-Up

Now that I have attended literary festivals in Wellington, Brisbane, Melbourne and Edinburgh, I know there’s several ways an hour long session with a writer can go. There’s the session where the author reads for too long and leaves very little time for discussion. There’s the session dominated by the chair who has too much or too little knowledge of the author. There’s the session where everything goes well until the audience is asked for questions and there are none. There’s the session where everything goes well until the audience is asked for questions and there is an endless supply of terrible ones…

The motivation to attend most writers’ sessions is to hear the voice behind the voice on the page, and the thoughts behind the book. This was the case with me and Andrey Kurkov (see below). Often, the least interesting part of a session is when the author is asked to read from their latest work (as per Nam Le). You’ve either read it already (if you’re paying £9, you better bloody like their stuff), or it’s so hard to grasp what is going on out of context, or the author isn’t a great reader of their own work. But I’m talking about prose sessions here. The rules don’t apply to poetry…

Carol Ann Duffy
Saturday 23 August, 8pm

Carol Ann Duffy took the stage after a brief intro from the chair and proceeded to read poems for the rest of the hour. She began with two excerpts from 'The Laughter of Stafford Girl's High', and ended with the final section. In between she read poems from her collections The World’s Wife and Rapture. I haven’t read the latter, but I had experienced all the other poems on the page before. Unlike prose, where hearing is a poor cousin of reading, most poems that come to life when read aloud, when performed. This is not true of all poems (some are built for the page, some are unreadable), and not all poets are performers, but Carol Ann Duffy did a good job on Saturday of choosing her set list (continuity, variation, humour) and performing it in such a way that the audience never felt like it was missing a trick.

Nam Le
Sunday 24 August, 10am

There’s always an exception to the rule. In this case the rule is: A short story collection (especially a début collection) can’t make waves. Of course it helps if you’ve done a Tour of Duty at the Iowa Workshop and held fellowships on both sides of the Atlantic. The cynical among us might add the fact that Nam was born in Vietnam (and grew up in Australia), but his collection, The Boat, shoots down expectations that it will play up his exoticism (his word) from the very first story.

The session was actually held as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, beamed into the RBS Main Theatre in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square via Satellite link-up. The audience in Edinburgh got the chance to ask two questions, just to prove this was live and interactive, though the questions were so astute, I almost wonder if these audience members were plants by the festival, or Edinburgh City of Literature, to ensure they weren’t embarrassed in front of the newest City of Literature.

Nam Le spoke candidly and eloquently about how his stories and ultimately his collection came together. A glance at the Q&A section of his website reveals he’s been saying the similar things since March, which isn’t anything against the man, just the world in which writers are forced operate (should they desire to sell many books or at least get reviewed by the NY Times…).

I’ve already quoted one of his analogies on this blog and find myself chewing over the thoughts provoked by this session much more than any other I attended over the festival. Not bad for a freebie.

Andrey Kurkov
Sunday 24 August, 6:45pm

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian of Russian extraction who writes in Russian, though he is also fluent in Ukrainian, and Japanese (in which he trained as a translator; this almost led to him joining the KGB), and English (Sunday’s reading and Q&A was all in English) and perhaps several other languages. His most well known book is Death and the Penguin.

His session, however, fell into the ‘annoying chair who hijacks the hour’ category. When the floor was opened up to questions, I thought, “At last, the books might get discussed!”, only to discover that other audience members were just as interested in what the future holds for politics in the Ukraine—and screw any insights into the books of Andrey Kurkov!

When one audience member expressed his dismay at Kurkov’s views, delivered with his typical black humour, about Ukranian politicians (they’re nice people, but they love money *shrug*), and how, being so close to Poland, this would be disastrous for the EU, and, “Please reassure me it’s not so bleak,” I lost faith in humanity. I raised my hand to ask the next question, but someone else was chosen. My head fell into my hands, but to my surprise, the woman with the microphone asked my question. In fact, being a professional translator, she was better qualified to ask about how involved Andrey Kurkov is in the translation process (Answer: he’s has a new translator for English, who has never contacted him, which is not uncommon across the 20+ languages his work has been translated into; however some, like the Japanese translator who spent three days in Kiev visiting all the sites in Death and the Penguin, do go beyond the call of duty)…

So, the session was not a complete wash, but whenever you write this on the back of your ticket, you know something dire has happened:

When I spend a lot of time by myself, or in the exclusive company of people I have known for a long time, I find my thoughts (and writing) are quite positive w.r.t. human beings on an individual scale. But when I am surrounded by strangers I find I am a total misanthrope.

This was, thankfully, not my final brush with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. On Monday, the last day of the festival and a bank holiday (woo-hoo), Marisa and I attended Ron Butlin’s free reading. He read a very short story and two short poems (one of which I’d previously read here). I would like to thank Ron Butlin, and all the other Ten at Ten authors (and whoever at the Festival came up with this new feature) for restoring my faith in book festivals and humankind. Honestly, sometimes you can’t beat a good reading.

So, my thoughts about the world’s biggest book festival really all boil down to this:

I would have liked to have seen more, but several factors limited the number of sessions I attended:

* the cost (upwards of £9 per hour long session; much more if you wanted to attend a workshop)

* the timing i) (a lot of events on during work hours)

* the timing ii) (a lot of other fringe/international festival events competing for my time and money)

* the nature of book festivals (see misanthropism, cynicism above and elsewhere).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Status Report: Week Thirty-Four

Week Thirty-Four – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 18,199 words (compared to 12,978 words last week) (the highest weekly total for over two months)
Average: 2,600 words per day (compared to target of 3,001/day -- so still a ways off)
Most productive day: Monday 18 August, 4,494 words
Least productive day: Wednesday 20 August, 1,156 words
Year-to-date: 548,742 words (98,789 words behind target)

I surprised myself a bit last week. I was consigned to falling over 100,000 words behind target, but an explosion of words early on in the week has delayed that indignity... temporarily

I also wrote August off as a month of doing things rather than writing things, but it seems the two are not (always) mutually exclusive.

As this graph illustrates…

… a lot of last week’s words were devoted to short fiction. That’s because I’ve gone back to the problem short stories which are holding up my collection and cut away paragraphs and pages like they were someone else’s work (sometimes I think of myself two months ago as my enemy -- it helps me be ruthless with his work) and refilled the stories with all the greatness I had to hand at the time. Of course, in two months time, the August me will be the enemy and I will be tempted to cut it all back to the roots again…

It’s like Nam Le said at his session yesterday: Writing a short story collection is like painting a bridge. By the time you get to the end, the side you started from needs another coat.

Anyway. I feel like I’m being productive at the moment. Trying not to think about what the deficit will look like after we move flats and spend a week in Greece in September.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Worksheet #2

It is two days since we went to the Tattoo and our shoes are still drying…


I just sent away a bio note for an online publication (not naming names, but it wouldn’t take much sleuthing once the new edition appears):

Craig Cliff was born in Palmerston North and currently lives in Edinburgh; since the beginning of the Scottish summer he has purchased three umbrellas.

I sent the submission on the 7th of April, 2007. For the non-mathematicians: that’s a fifteen and a half month wait for acceptance.


Edinburgh #3

We clutter under the sun
but the mourning will continue—
some things never arrive.


The lock on our front door has been temperamental this week. Some days it takes two minutes of jiggling to get the key right in. This morning I got home after another free reading at the Book Festival (Gee Williams read a story called ‘Hiatus’) to find my downstairs neighbour jiggling. We had a wee chat as he jiggled. The woman who lives above me arrived back with a newspaper and a coffee. The man kept jingling. He asked if I wanted to try. I did. We got in, eventually.


What does the above have to do with the weather? Well, I figured out why the key goes in fine some days, and is a bugger the next: rain. That is, if it’s raining, no problems. If it’s dry, good luck getting in. I’ll leave it to the chemists among us to explain the hows and whys. But I think the lock is trying to tell us something: It’s not raining, so what the F- - - are you doing going inside!

Friday, August 22, 2008

2008 Edinburgh Military Tattoo: In Pictures

Could this be a performance without rain?

In every crowd, there's a pessimist.

I mean: realist.

An entire stand of realists.

The reality...

...of summer in Scotland.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fringe 2008: Michael McIntyre

Michael McIntyre
9pm Wednesday 20 August

The venue (Pleasance One) was packed at 9pm. Status quo for Michael McIntyre, whose initial run of 27 shows over the festival sold out. He added a few more. They sold out. So it’s not like I’m spruiking a show that’s desperate for punters…

The total sell out means two things: 1) Michael McIntyre is a popular guy (check out the clips on his myspace to see why); and 2) he's already had a big month and it's not quite finished.

By my count it was his 24th show in 21 days last night and the exhaustion showed. He tried working it into his opening, claiming the tram works were to blame. This got the locals onside (I class myself as a local in this respect), and the first fifteen minutes flew by with a mix of audience interaction and forays into his prepared material. But by McIntyre's own admission, the show went a bit off the rails when he started talking to a guy down the front from Falkirk (McIntrye: "I know nothing about Falkirk. Is it big?" Audience member: "It's medium sized"). He then went off on a tangent about Scottish national dress which ran the dangerous line between hackneyed and offensive; then told a story about being punched in the face by a seventy-two year old woman with Asbergers. It sounds quite funny saying it like that, but I found myself looking at my watch and thinking 'How much of his golden prepared material will he have to sacrifice to finish this damn story?'

This is not to say the show was a total bomb. I know it's a massive reviewer cliché to refer to what the person behind them said while exiting the theatre after a show, but this really happened (not like how things "happen" to stand up comedians): the young woman behind me told her friend she'd never laughed so much in her life (except maybe at The Producers when she saw it on Broadway), that her cheeks hurt and she had worried she would wet herself at one point.

[Aside: I'd like to follow this woman around and see if she was a total cliché in other arenas (leave the bathroom with toilet paper trailing behind her on a big date; says unfavourable things about her boss while she is standing behind her…) but I think legally this would be considered “stalking”.]

When I thought about it afterwards, there was a tension in Michael McIntyre's show last night between the observational material and his personal anecdotes.

Both prepared and off-the-cuff observations (camouflage apparel is designed for the woods not a theatre; men tend to have a single drawer where they store things like batteries and instruction booklets for appliances they no longer own) went down well. While delivering this material, there's no real need for an "I". McIntryre's not saying "I have a man drawer", or "I think camouflage is stupid," it's implied that he is one of the many, one of "us". Classic comedy ploy; McIntyre's bread and butter.

But then when he told wee (and not so wee) stories that supposedly happened to him, he slipped into a different, less likeable persona. He was the sort of well-meaning fuck-up who gets mistaken for a paedophile or assaulted by the elderly. It seemed to undercut his authority when he went back to making humorous observation, and this might just be the reason I never worried about wetting myself and my cheeks felt normal as I left the Pleasance last night.

I did however keel over with laughter at his impersonation of Jools Holland. Probably worth the ticket price just there.

So a mixed review. Oh well, not like he has any tickets left to sell!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fringe 2008: Craig Hill

Craig Hill Makes Your Whole Week!
Sunday 18 August 2008

We walked to the Underbelly/Gilded Balloon/Pleasance Dome triumvirate last night keen to see a show, but with no idea what. We ended up seeing Craig Hill, who you might be forgiven for thinking is just a less spectacular version of Craig Cliff… sorry, I had to get that one in… But no, Mr Craig Hill is a very gay, very Scottish comedian (all summed up nicely by the fact he wears a leather kilt).

I’d say 75% percent of the show was based on audience interaction, with moments from uncomfortable (confusing a woman’s son for her husband), the hilarious (this same woman, who was from Dorset, admitting she couldn’t understand what Craig was asking), to the downright surreal (when asked what he did for a job, a man on the mezzanine replied pimp, and with further questioning it became clear he was genuine, only to then reveal he used to be a police officer!).

The prepared material was slotted into the set pretty seamlessly, though some of the jokes were a bit stale, like some of his supposedly offhand remarks with the audience. But all in all, there were plenty of laughs and it felt good to support something Scottish comedy for once (You’ve got to love his Glasgow Face, don’t know what I mean? See his show).

And a nice touch that I noticed today, Craig blogs about most of his performances here. Though as I write this, no word about last night.

Status Report: Week Thirty-Three

I let my own writing hijack yesterday’s book festival review, so it’s only far I hijack today’s status report with a bit more about the book festival…

Over the weekend I attended two Ten at Ten Sessions. These are free ten minute readings at 10am (hence the title) every day while the festival is on. I missed last Sunday’s because I didn’t know you had to get a ticket for these free readings (to do so you incur a £1 fee, though it is a flat fee so you can get as many free tickets as you want for your pound).

Saturday was Canadian poet Gary Geddes, who read three poems. Two things have stuck with me. The first was his effort to read a set in Orkney in a Scottish accent (he managed okay, expect for a few Canadian ‘oot’s). The second was when he said: “I was at the International Criminal Court at the Hague all last week, so I’ve come from crimes against humanity to Edinburgh, where the only crimes are aesthetic.” At first I thought he was referring to the architecture, which seemed a strange thing to say since Edinburgh is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. But then Marisa suggested maybe he meant the people. This makes a bit more sense, but still, not the sort of thing you say to get on side with the locals.

Sunday’s reading was by Sophie Hannah, who’s published a bit of everything (poetry, short stories, children’s and crime fiction). She chose to read the first three pages from her newest, as-yet-unpublished psychological thriller, The Other Half Lives (or something like that). The premise: a man admits to killing someone who isn’t dead. The first three pages just affirmed my opinion that it’s very hard to make prose written for the page work in as an engaging reading. I guess I was just unlucky Hannah chose to wear her crime writer’s hat for those ten minutes. Oh well.

Hijack over. Here's some graphs:

Week Thirty-Three – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 12,978 words (compared to 12,185 words last week)
Average: 1,854 words per day (compared to target of 3,001/day)
Most productive day: Wednesday 13 August, 2,411 words (the lowest ‘best’ day for any non-travelling week this year)
Least productive day: Thursday 14 August, 1,106 words
Year-to-date: 530,553 words (97,862 words behind target)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Finding The Clovis Point

A while ago I watched a documentary about the Clovis point. It wasn’t this one, but it covers the necessary points:

Basically, you start with a piece of flint and begin striking it in such a way as to break off flakes that can themselves be used as tools. In the end, you have whittled a slab of rock to a spearhead: the difference between survival and starvation for the first recorded human inhabitants of North America.

This image resurfaces in my head every time I return to novel A, which is a rewrite of the novel which was excerpted here, but never fully published. At the beginning of the year, I decided to take a quarter of the original novel, focus on that and make it a novel in its own right. Since then, I have been working away (in fits and starts), to find the Clovis point embedded in my previous manuscript.

Every time I return to this novel, I find the need to chip off something else.

And just like with Clovis, when I chip something off, these fragments become useful too. I have already written a short story based on a scene in Cambodia in the original manuscript (a country Novel A does not visit). There is also a scene in the original manuscript which was lifted from my first attempt at a novel, and is once more free to be picked up whenever I need a Beginning Of Romantic Interaction scene.

And last night, after seeing the Doug Johnstone and Toby Litt session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I realised I could take another swing at the remaining slab of flint and chip off the music industry aspect altogether.

Which is perhaps ironic, since I was attending the Johnstone/Litt session was because both authors have recent Rock’n’Roll novels: I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay (Litt) and The Ossians (Johnstone). But sometimes you need to see your supposed competition to see that you actually want to line up in a different event. At least this time.

Of course, having chipped off a band called The Wet Candles and its two tribute bands (The Final Flicker and The McFailures), they’re free to be used again somewhere else.

Being Completely Honest With Myself In A Not Entirely Personal Arena Moment: The reason I’ve been stopping and starting Novel A (and Novel B (and those brief moments where C and D were considered viable)) is whenever I reach a tough spot, I remember how much work the two manuscripts I have completed were. And how unfun the part that comes after completion is (trying to get published). And that if there’s something wrong with the core of the story, there’s no point pushing on till completion because it’ll probably end up in a draw with the other manuscripts.

It’s like running back into a burning house. You know how hot and dangerous it is coz you’ve been there, but you know you’ve got to save your Grandmother/Van Gogh/family photo albums.

But why do I have to save this story?

This morning I read, via the Guardian Online, Andrew O’Hagan’s comments at the Book Festival on Friday. In addition to slagging off Richard and Judy’s Book Club, he had a go at Creative Writing Students:

'When you speak to students, if you teach on a creative writing course, often what you find is that they are not interested in life at the level of the sentence,' he said. 'When you try to activate some interest, they find that slightly distracting. What they want to talk about is what it would be like to be a famous novelist.'

Every aspiring writer, whether they ever enter a creative workshop or not, has moments where they wonder what it would be like to be a famous novelist. And sure, for some students, that might be the main motivation. But unless they are exceptionally talented, they won’t ever find out first hand. Because it’s hard to craft something that makes sense to someone other than yourself. And even when you get that right, it needs to be something people would consider buying.

The explosion in creative writing courses might expedite the learning process for many writers (I know I’d still be toiling away in a much more affected, showy style if I hadn’t had regular feedback from other writers over the past few years), but it can’t provide the ideas or the desire.

I have ideas for Novel A. Some of them are embedded in another manuscript, others I’ve reeled in fresh from the deep seas of the imagination, and still more will come as I inhabit life at the level of the sentence.

And I have desire. That’s what pulls me back to the threshold of this burning house. That’s why I will, eventually, reach in and pull out the heart of my story.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shaken Shakespeare

There's no shortage of shaken Shakespeares at the fringe this year (ShakesPod, Beat Meets The Bard, Fakespeare, Funk It Up About Nothin’, Burn Out MacBeth...). You can see the logic. Start with something good, attack it from a new angle that will interest the punters - - job done. But these piggyback productions risk being defined by their chosen angle - - it's hard to outdo the bard, and even harder if you rely on a gimmick.

Which brings me to:

7:30pm 12 August 2008

Peter Fanning and John Moore like exclamation marks. They’ve had a hand in writing Jekyll! (1995), Jekyll! – The Revival (1998), Frankenstein! (2006), which the Shrewsbury School have put on at the Fringe in 1995, 1998 and 2006 respectively.

2008’s Harry! is Hamlet reimagined. The Danish Prince is now Harry, the son of a cardboard box company CEO. Ophelia is Olivia, Laertes is Laurie, Polonious is Paul... you get the picture.

Did I mention that Harry! is a musical?

At least you can’t accuse Harry! of relying on a single gimmick to outdo the bard…

Last night was the first performance, and there were teething problems. The opening few minutes were just painful: the music was too loud (there was a strange discordant blang every few bars which made me clench my teeth), and the performers were hardly audible when their mics were working (which they were not always doing). But things settled down, the lyrics became audible, the music stopped giving me flashbacks to my dentist appointment four hours previous, and the story started in earnest.

Even when his mic was on the fritz, it was clear Ben Edmunds (Harry) was a star. I couldn't help thinking this is what Orson Welles would be like in a musical (if Orson Welles could sing…). He was far and away the best performer on the stage. Only when I took the time to scrutinise the performers in lesser roles, and the chorus was it evident these were high schoolers. Sure, they're from the a prestigious independent school whose alumni include Charles Darwin and Michael Palin, so the world expects them to be a cut above your average seventeen year olds... but still, good show you lot.

By the interval, I was quite enjoying myself. The plot had kept close enough to Hamlet that the differences (box company for nation of Denmark, the fact they're singing the whole time) were nice flourishes on top of the bard's solid dramatic foundation. The second act, however, began to diverge further and further from Shakespeare.

The question of whether or not to revenge his father is not played out as an inner torment in Harry!, instead the murderous voice is given to Harry's twin, Henry. As a result, Harry is less interesting and less human that Hamlet. Fanning and Moore (the writers) sacrifice this in order to explore the art versus life / real versus imaginary divide. It makes for a few interesting visual scenes - - the twin clerks Bill and Jack (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) mirroring each other; the body of Harry Snr. appearing from a levitating cardboard box - - but throughout the second half, Harry slips further and further from focus. He certainly doesn't deserve an exclamation mark in the second act (a better title might Claud's Caper!), though Edmunds performance was still at a high level.

In all, it was worth seeing. But I think that will be my quota of musicals and shaken-Shakespeares for the festival.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Five Things I Like Right Now

I feel like all I've been doing lately is talk about things I haven't liked. So here's five things I'm liking right now:
1. Boxer by The National
I downloaded a couple of Best of 2007 mixes in December which is how I came across 'Mistaken For Strangers'. I liked the song whenever it popped up on iTunes, but when it began popping in my head of its own accord it starting to take notice. Still, I didn't get around to owning the entire album until about a month ago (after seeing yet another National song on SwissToni's list of earworms). I listened through the album once. Then straight through again. In the first week I listened to it seven times. Now the playcount is pushing twenty. The strength of Boxer is its restraint. Musically and vocally, the tracks are subdued; no track is longer than 4:29 (the terrific closer, ‘Gospel’). Matt Berninger’s lyrics are like the highlights of a conversation or a dream - - every time you listen there's a new gem to notice: (Ada don’t stay in the lake too long / it lives alone and it barely knows you…). Forgive me if you went through this a year ago, but if you still haven't listened to this album, I highly recommend it.
2. Kurt Vonnegut
I currently have three more KV novels out of the library (Hocus Pocus, Mother Night, and Galapagos). These will take the tally to six read this year. There will come a time when there are no new Vonnegut books for me to read, and I will be sad. He's probably the reason I am putting off re-re-re-starting Novel A... I just can't get close to that voice.
3. 'The Dinner Party' by Joshua Ferris
The term 'New Yorker Short Story' has almost become synonymous with boring, but Ferris' effort manages to entertain (while still staying within conservative boundaries). Has bumped 'And Then We Came To The End' back to the top of my To Be Read pile. After Mother Night and Galapagos of course.
4. BBC's Olympic Coverage
There will be at least three (normally four) freeview channels showing the games at any one time. The coverage has a British focus, which is only fair - - but even if there weren't any Brits in the rowing, I'm sure I'd be able to catch the kiwis step up in the finals (fingers crossed). In a related moan, I can't watch video highlights on TVNZ's website because I'm not in NZ - - something to do with broadcast rights. We all know there's a whole New Zealand's worth of Kiwis living abroad, and the internet is probably their only hope of seeing Tall Ferns highlights or whatever. Surely something to sort out before London 2012.
Oh, I forgot about being positive. I guess I'm a curmudgeon at heart.
5. Candle Hat by Billy Collins
Just now I thought: ‘What about a poem?’, and this was the one that sprung to mind. Questions About Angels is in my recent batch of borrowings from the Scottish Poetry Library... I might have chosen something by Dennis Brutus if more of his poems had titles!

Monday, August 11, 2008


It rained for forty hours straight. Trains stopped running because tunnels were flooded (I would have thought tunnels were inherently sheltered places, but no). My shoes, wet since Wednesday morning, didn’t dry until midday Friday.

It wasn't the sort of week where you spontaneous see a show... even with so much on.

MacBeth Blow Out

Saturday we were supposed to go to two shows, but got carried away making a feast for three…

...that we had to run to catch the bus to make it to the George IV Bridge to see Burn Out MacBeth at 6:15pm. We got off the bus at 6:13pm. According to our cursory look at the map before hand, The Vault was just on a street running off George IV Bridge. It only sunk in when we were standing on the bridge that it was more likely the street ran beneath the bridge rather than through it. We quickly spotted the big Fringe Venue sign in a courtyard down below, but then had to figure out how to get there from the bridge. Did I mention the tour buses had just unloaded all of their tattoo-goers, who were plodding up the bridge to the royal mile? We chose to run down Chambers Street, then down an alley to get to the Cowgate, then another alley to find our courtyard. By the time we had been escorted to the Vault Annex it was 6:20pm and we were informed by the man on the door that the curtain had just gone up (I’ve yet to see a show at this festival with a curtain…) and did we want to exchange our tickets for anything else (it was the last performance of Burn Out MacBeth). All the shows on offer clashed with the aforementioned feast for three / making an appearance at birthday drinks / the other show we had tickets for, so we just walked back home.

At least the rain had stopped.

It turned out our feast for three was now a feast for two (damn poor people needing to work).

But I did see a show our second show of the evening.


Jaik Campbell – The Audacity of Hopelessness
10:50pm Saturday 9 August

This was another show I didn’t choose. I’m not trying to blame anyone, just explaining that I didn’t know Jaik Campbell stammered until I saw on a poster in the bathroom at Espionage that his show was sponsored by the British Stammering Association. Okay, I thought, so now I know this guy’s angle. I didn’t think it was that big a deal -- didn’t even mention it to Marisa before the show started -- and ultimately it wasn’t the stammering that stood between me and enjoyment. It was the fact he wasn’t funny.

Some comedians, the strength of their delivery, their on stage persona, covers the weakness of their material. With Jaik Campbell it was almost the weakness of his delivery that smoothed over the shoddy jokes. bAlmost.

I spent most of the time being bugged by his use of stuttering and stammering synonymously. Anyone who has read Black Swan Green will know they’re different beasties.

I learnt after the show that Jaik Campbell has performed more than 800 stand-up shows. It’s great that stand-up has helped with his confidence and lessened the severity of his speech impediment, but his show on Saturday never made the leap from self-improvement to entertainment.

Fringe Sunday
11am-5pm Sunday 10 August, The Meadows

More free-ness yesterday. The weather was like a 'Summer in Edinburgh' highlight package: picnic in the sun, dark clouds roll in, torrential rain, sun again, people walking in the mud.

We were lucky to have wedged our way inside the Comedy tent just before the torrential rain portion of the day. Of the five or six comedians we saw, none were so memorable that I looked them up in the Fringe Programme when I got home.

In addition to Comedy, there was a Theatre tent, one for Cabaret, and one for New Music. Then there were several outdoor stages, and plenty of buskers with nothing to construct their theatre with but the sodden grass and a ring of people. (I wonder what happened to them when the heavens opened?)

It was a pretty cool way to spend an afternoon. Definitely a lot to see. Pity the weather added an element of stress to what should have been the ultimate feel good Fringe experience.

Status Report: Week Thirty-Two

Week Thirty-Two – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 12,185 words (compared to 15,800 words last week)
Average: 1,741 words per day (compared to target of 3,001/day)
Most productive day: Wednesday 6 August, 3,782 words
Least productive day: Saturday 9 August, 315 words
Year-to-date: 517,575 words (91,715 words behind target)

In order to divert attention away from the poor performance this week, I have some different statistics…

I’ve been noticing the past few weeks how Tuesdays have been good word count days (relatively speaking) -- although this week my peak came a day later. This felt like a shift in work habits: as I remembered it, Tues-Weds-Thurs was the mid-week lull, with a big effort on non-school nights lifting the weekly tally to respectability.

But then I crunched the numbers.

Not surprisingly, Sunday is my most productive day on average, but it is followed closely by the mid-week lullers: Thursday, Wednesday and Tuesday. Saturday is way down in fifth at a paltry 2,233 words (I blame all those weekends away…)

Sunday 2,581
Thursday 2,554
Wednesday 2,416
Tuesday 2,398
Saturday 2,233
Monday 2,097
Friday 1,921

Or graphically:

I’m not surprised Fridays are my worst. I don’t have a lot of afterwork drinks or watch many dvds, but when I do, it’ll be on a Friday. Even if I do nothing, sitting in front of a Word document after a full working week is never that fruitful.

When I started this quest, I thought its merits lay in forcing me to sit down and write regardless of my mood. But what I’m finding is that it’s teaching me the various ways in which you can write whilst doing other things. I may not begin 2009 with as many words/manuscripts under my belt as I may have hoped in those heady December ’07 days, but I feel like I’ve learnt how to be productive after hours (the foreseeable future) and I’ll damn-well take advantage when I have less demands on my time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fringe 2008: Dave Bloustien

Dave Bloustien – Beastly
7.10pm Monday 5 August

You can still feel ripped off when attending a free event. You have to give up an hour of your time (plus howeverlong it takes you to get there, then get where you’re going next). Sometimes it takes a lot for these ‘free’ acts to break even / make it worth your while. Dave Bloustien seemed to know this. He made a point of expressing his gratitude to those of us who packed the tiny Kasbar (inside the larger Espionage night club cum festival showcase). He really wanted us to enjoy the show. When we didn’t laugh (audibly) at some of his jokes, he apologised for having more fun than us. It was hard not to like him.

A bit of background: Dave Bloustien is an Australian (grew up in Adelaide, now lives in Sydney) of Jewish decent who recently travelled to Africa with his wife who is a ‘Death Specialist’ (grief counsellor). And that is basically where all the material for his show came from. There were times when his compulsion to engage the crowd (‘Where are you from?’ ‘Zimbabwe’, ‘How long since you got out?’, ‘I still live there…’) threatened to derail his show, not to mention his authority to talk about Africa and the problems with various charities, but his likeability kept the crowd on his side.

His non-African material was pretty Australian focussed (not surprising as this show was first performed in Australia), but he managed to keep it general enough for the non-Austro crowd to follow.

I found out after the show that Bloustien had written for one of my favourite Australian TV shows, the sadly now cancelled The Glass House. Which makes sense given the political content of his show and the light touch with which it was delivered. He was not the most polished comedian I’ve ever seen, struggling to mix-up his set list to fit his conversations with the crowd, but he definitely made me laugh enough to break even and even make a decent hall in the tip-jar afterwards.

Which is something I’ve been thinking about lately. Some of these marginal shows that charge £5 or £10 for 50 minutes must have days where they play to only a handful of people (one of whom is probably a reviewer). Surely it’s harder to be on form in such a demoralising situation. On the other hand, Dave Bloustien’s show is pretty much ‘sold out’ (it’s free but you need tickets… there’s a couple left for this week, get in quick) for his 10 night run. This is good for the performer (more chance for laughs, more people to ask ‘Where do you come from’, less chance of feeling like you’re performing for your sub-conscious) and good for the audience (it can be awkward being the only person at a show and not finding it funny; the free performer is motivated by tips to put on a good show). A take of three paying audience members for £10 for a non-free show versus thirty audience members who tip a couple of pounds each for a ‘free’ show… Both paths involve a gamble (for performer and audience), but after thinking this through, there should be no stigma attached to ‘free’ shows.

Now if only people would tip for free reviews…

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Status Report: Week Thirty-One

I forgot to do this last night, and am about to run out the door to catch some free fringe comedy, so there’s markedly less whinging in this week’s status report:

Week Thirty-One – The Stats

Weekly Wordcount: 15,800 words (compared to 11,594 words last week)
Average: 2,257 words per day (compared to target of 3,001/day)
Most productive day: Tuesday 29 July, 4,005 words
Least productive day: Friday 1 August, 976 words
Year-to-date: 505,390 words (84,774 words behind target)

Goals for last week: Write 500,000th word on (or before) 31 July.

List of other achievements: [blank].

Monday, August 4, 2008

Fringe 2008: A Brief History of Scotland

A Brief History of Scotland – We Done Loads!
6:20pm Monday 4 August

A fifty-minute re-imagining of Scotland’s history -- sounds like just the thing for three Kiwis calling Edinburgh home. We’ll feel good when we get the in-jokes, and learn something when we don’t, right? Well, that was the reasoning.

The star of the show is undoubtedly God, also known as Sean Connery. Maximum laughs are extracted from this confluence throughout the show, but ultimately, the reliance on an invisible omniscient presence means the non-divine actors spend a lot of time standing on stage with contorted faces while the voice over plays.

Most of the sketches seemed to go down better with the Scots among the audience than the interlopers. It’s not that I didn’t get what they were driving at (except the thing about cannibalism, that went right over my head), the humour just didn’t seem that funny. Perhaps it’s a culture thing. Or perhaps there were a lot of friends and family of the crew in the audience?

Occasionally the show managed to get it just right -- the heavily Australian-accented William Wallace, the ‘Choose Fife’ send up of Trainspotting (though it was delivered at such breakneck speed I only caught half the lines) -- but too many sketches dragged and too many hammy lines were delivered with half-hearts for me to be caught up in the half-ironic patriotism of the ending.

The venue is small (a meeting room in the Apex Hotel) but it’s the Fringe - - you can’t expect a city of half a million people to have 350 theatres. It’s part of the charm - - seeing things you might not normally in places you wouldn’t expect. But yeah, I’m glad I went to this show today when tickets were half price.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Festival Kicks Off

You may have gathered from my last post that festival time has arrived in Edinburgh. I hope to review as many of the things I see as possible -- as a record of my experience and a way of rewarding good shows with positive vibes.

Money and time situations being what they are, I’ll be going to quite a few free shows and readings… They could probably do with more positive vibes than the folks getting paid to perform, but everyone deserves an honest review, eh?

And perhaps another disclaimer is called for: I didn’t choose all the shows I’ll be seeing (heck, I don’t know what half of them are about), so they might not all be up my (or your) alley.


Today was the Edinburgh Festivals’ Cavalcade, which was basically a good old Kiwi Christmas parade, just without Santa and eight times more pipe bands. Most of the paraders/floats were tied to a festival act in some way, so there were a lot of flyers being handed out. The only decision it helped me make was that don’t want to see anything relating to the American High School Theatre Festival (a festival I didn’t knew existed until today). Even the name makes me cringe. Imagine: High School Musical performed by the kids who lap that shit up - - the one’s who were socially awkward till discovering drama/dance/whatever and suddenly ‘blossom’ into miasmas of bad taste and misplaced confidence. And the sooner kids stop wearing belt-sized fluro tutus and long white socks, the sooner I’ll reconsider my prejudices against teenage theatre.


Last night we went out for dinner (Café Marlayne – highly recommended) and happened to walk along the Royal Mile when people were queueing for the second show of the Military Tattoo. That was a lot of people.

And around the university, the place has been transformed. Think a music festival, except for comedy.

There’s still a few pockets of festival activity I haven’t checked out. But hey, it’s only the first weekend.

Fringe 2008: BBC Comedy Presents

BBC Comedy Presents
11.00pm Saturday 2nd of August

This show was the perfect way to commence my Festival experience. There’s no way of knowing which four stand-ups will be performing on a given night, or who’ll MC, but it’s a safe bet you’ll like at least one (though I’d class anyone who doesn’t like 2 or more a sourpuss… why are you even attending a comedy show if you don’t like comedy… etc).

BBC Comedy Presents acts as both a one and a half hour variety show, and a taster of comics with more to offer over the course of the Fringe. For an outlay of around £10, you can’t do much better.

The MC last night was Rhod Gilbert. His name didn’t ring a bell, but once he came on stage I remembered him from a 3 minute spot he did on Rove two years ago about luggage problems.

Funny guy, great interaction with the crowd, perfect MC. Well, he did forget the name of the first performer, so maybe perfect is too strong.

The forgotten one was Daniel Rigby, who’s performing as The Comedy Reserve for the festival. He was by far the most inexperienced comic on show, stumbling over his words a few times and often lacking the conviction to pull of some of his material. When he left the stage, he shook his head, but it honestly wasn’t that bad, Daniel. Really. You got some laughs. It was a tough spot, and you managed just fine.

Next up was Tiffany Stevenson (who’s hosting Old Rope in the Courtyard most nights this month). She was that bit more polished, and more at home on the stage and that really makes the difference. (Aside: for a show that starts at 11pm on a Saturday, most people have already had a few drinks… this can mean a lot of easy laughs if they like you, or a rough time if they don’t…). Her material stuck to the well-worn stand-up standards (white trash, relationships), which placed a ceiling on how funny/memorable her ten minutes could be without having that X factor.

Someone who does stumble off the observational comic path into much more surreal material is Dan Antopolski, who was served up next. He’s a Fringe veteran, and was another step up in polish and confidence from the preceding comic. His routine was a mixture of out-and-out jokes (with punchlines!), an odd-ball character schtick, and rap. Seeing a white comedian rap isn’t exactly new, but his ‘Sandwich Rap’ was the absolute highlight of the night for me. I think his solo show, Dan Antopolski’s Penetrating Gaze would be well worth seeing.

Finally, MC Rhod asked the audience if they liked Seinfield. One or two mumbled assent. Stunned, Rhod then asked if they liked Frasier, and a chorus of yeahs broke up. This was probably the strangest moment of the night. Rhod observed that it’s just as well it wasn’t Jerry Seinfield waiting to come on, and that Kelsey Grammar was unavailable, but thank goodness for John Pinette (who was in the Seinfield finale).

If you watch any of Pinette’s videos on YouTube you get a pretty good indication of his schtick. He’s a big bloke with a short temper who likes his food. And he is hilarious. He does, without a doubt, the best Ewok impersonation I have ever seen:

Even though he was doing Traditional Stand-up (which I criticised Stevenson for) and didn’t overtly interact with the crowd (no interrogative questions for the first row) he didn’t need to stretch himself. His material was strong and he’s obviously been living in his persona for a long time. I’d recommend his show, I Say Nay Nay, though after twenty minutes last night and half an hour of watching clips on YouTube today, I don’t know if I’ll make it myself. There’s oh so much to see!

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend BBC Comedy Presents as a way to cap off an evening / get a taste of some comedians / hedge your bets if you only go and see one comedy show.