Creative writing


Every couple of months at least, some media-appointed literary expert is bemoaning the market that exists for really bad writing. I’m not talking about the merely workmanlike stodge of Trease or Jenkins, Geoffries both, but the literary junk food that gets the Guardianistas sniffing about the things some people will read, while looking around for a copy so they won’t be left out of the loop on the latest love-to-hate trend. Seriously, just trying to read all of the acknowledged classics is a lifetime’s work: if you’re already wasting hours a day skimming through articles about Scandiwegian interior design tips and which charities are the most carbon-friendly, you really don’t have the time to spare for retouched internet fan-fiction.

Still, I digress. I was thinking about the phenomenon of vastly grossing drivel a while ago and was sure that I could remember having read something very apposite about it in an article by Hilaire Belloc, he of the lyric elegy to mowing one’s lawn with a scythe. Belloc knew a thing or two about publishing, as he’d been a jobbing writer and journalist for many years before he made his comments, but they proved very hard to find because he made them as an aside in a piece about sailing. I found this out after having checked the entire volume and finally in desperation decided that reading about yachting around South Devon in 1914 might take my mind off things.

This brings me to the real crux of this post. What I remembered as an article is really an extract from a much longer work, The Cruise of the Nona. It’s a portmanteau of commentary, reminiscences and various tangential musings, structured and bound together by the itinerary of a sailing trip around Britain and Ireland, but just a few minutes skimming through it yielded up so much gorgeous prose that it seems unfair to choose only two examples. They’re not the best, but one is the comment I had been trying to find and the other was read on the hundredth anniversary of the events it describes, so if they have pushed ahead of more deserving fellows there is at least reason behind it.

Belloc said of writing and its market:

A man is no more meant to live by writing than he is meant to live by conversation, or by dressing, or by walking about and seeing the world. For there is no relation between the function of letters and the economic effect of letters; there is no relation between the goodness and the badness of the work, or the usefulness of the work, or the magnitude of the work, and the sums paid for the work. It would not be natural that there should be such a relation, and, in fact, there is none.

This truth is missed by people who say that good writing has no market. That is not the point. Good writing sometimes has a market, and very bad writing sometimes has a market. Useful writing sometimes has a market, and writing of no use whatsoever, even as recreation, sometimes has a market. Writing important truths sometimes has a market. Writing the most ridiculous errors and false judgements sometimes has a market. the point is that the market has nothing to do with the qualities attached to writing. It never had and it never will. There is no injustice about it, any more than there is an injustice in the survival of beauty or ugliness in human beings, or the early death of the beautiful or the ugly.

Only a couple of pages earlier, Belloc was reminiscing about an experience while sailing off Plymouth in 1914 that he describes as marking “…in a sort of visionary way, the unleashing of the Great War”.

In this loneliness and content, as I sailed northward, I chanced to look, after an hour’s steering or so, eastward again towards the open sea – and then it was that there passed me the vision I shall remember for ever, or for so long as the longest life may last.

Like ghosts, like things themselves made of mist, there passed between me and the newly risen sun, a procession of great forms, all in line, hastening eastward. It was the Fleet recalled.
The slight haze along the that distant water had thickened, perhaps, imperceptibly; or perhaps the great speed of the men-of-war buried them too quickly in the distance. But, from whatever cause, this marvel was of short duration. It was seen for a moment, and in a moment it was gone.

Then I knew that war would come, and my mind was changed. The bright air was the same around me and the heartening morning wind; the happy course of the Nona, making for a known port with all in her favour and something of youth in her and all round. What that war would bring, its magnitude, its character, was veiled from us all; but the advent of it, the mass of it coming, put a new face on everything I saw and felt and heard; on the steady breeze, on the little lapping of the salt sea-water, on the strong headlands of England.

The first of these passages could have been written at any time. Publish it today under another name and it would pass for topical commentary. The thing about my little Everyman Belloc collection, though, is that such commentary can appear so close to a passage that in the events it recalls, its style, imagery and vocabulary, is so very much of its time. A voice from out of the great shipwreck of the Victorian world offers a quiet glimpse of the massing forces that would break it, much as Hardy does in Channel Firing.

Another point of interest that occurred to me while I was skimming through the author’s biography at the beginning of my book is that Belloc was an Oxford-educated Catholic writer with foreign antecedents and connections to Edgbaston. One figure from the next generation of writers, a descendent of German piano makers, would also come from Birmingham up to Oxford and make a name for himself, but that, of course, is a different story. Perhaps at some time I should analyse what it is that I find appealing in the works of twentieth-century Roman Catholics. Certainly I think that the literature departments backed the wrong horse creatively, if only in thinking of literature as some sort of competition, but these are thoughts for another day.

It’s been a busy weekend, so I have a lot of ground to cover in this post. Please excuse me if the pace seems a little break-neck.

The first piece of news is that another of my poems has been published by the ever-generous GlobalComment. It doesn’t do one any harm to be friends with the editor, but it’s still very kind of them to print this stuff. Rotten tomatoes can as usual be thrown at me here or there, whichever floats your boat.

The main business of the weekend was, however, saying a raucous farewell to a friend’s ex-wife. This meant girding my loins for another interminable train journey up to London, where I was once more to be the guest of the Crimson Welshman. Like General Urquhart at Arnhem, we were beset by communications failure; but this was eventually overcome, allowing me to arrive a mere half an hour late. We were held up at Westbury for twenty minutes because some moron was trying to ride without a ticket, and got rowdy and abusive with the staff. I think I would have forgiven them for simply kicking the problem off the train while it was moving so that I could be on time; but instead they decided to be boring and wait for the police. Where’s that Agincourt spirit when you need it?

Such irritations aside, Friday night went off without a hitch. We ate pasta, drank a very nice white Bordeaux and watched The Black Dahlia. The line “haute cuisine breeds degenerates” could have been the quote of the week, but it isn’t. More about that later. I retired far later than was good for me, replete with wine and humour.

The fridge of wit at Hotel Crimson

On Saturday morning I defied the usual weekend tube closures and made it to Liverpool Street station by 11.30. Our rendezvous point for the day’s activities was the Hamilton Hall, a grandiose gin palace that was almost empty.

The Hamilton Hall, Liverpool Street

The Hamilton Hall, Liverpool Street. Sorry about the poor quality: the lighting was all wrong for my camera phone.

We rapidly established a general tone when I mentioned something I received in my e-mail last week.

A disgruntled biker makes a reluctant sale.

A disgruntled biker makes a reluctant sale.

I commented: “There are more women who like motorbikes than there are good bikes; he got rid of the wrong one.” Nicci replied with a simply immortal line: “There are some women who know the difference between a wedding ring and a choke-chain.” That’s the quote of the week right there. Nicci’s a one-woman liberation movement: she will happily take a car to pieces in a bikini top, takes no nonsense from anyone and likes cider, but still knows how to make a set of curtains. It’s good to know that my friend is in safe hands.

The beer at the Hamilton Hall was generally agreed to be rubbish, so we quickly moved on to another palatial temple to Bacchus: the Crosse Keys in Gracechurch Street. We spent a lot of time there, and I established my strategy for the day ahead by not drinking the same beer twice. This may have been slightly unwise, but they had so many pumps and so many pretty logos. I’m not made of stone.

We moved on to the Founders Arms near Tate Modern. There, in front of a view of St. Paul’s across the river, I temporarily left off the bitter and switched to Staropramen. I contacted the Crimson Welshman, who had been watching the British Lions lose to South Africa. He would meet us in the Ship and Shovell, London’s only two-part pub.

Stopping only to cast the engagement ring to Father Thames, we strolled beerily over to the Ship and Shovell. There I found my long-lost twin.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell and your humble correspondent. My expression is tailored to match his, and is not indicative of my mood.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell and your humble correspondent. My expression is tailored to match his, and is not indicative of my mood

We adjourned to the upstairs lounge, where we annexed half of the room and proceeded to continue drinking more than was good for us. I switched from the continental lager back to Badger, mainly because I like badgers. I gave myself a taste of home by trying some Exmoor Gold as well. The company were on top form, with topics ranging from all things rugby to a rendition of Monty Python’s Philosophers Song. I temporarily forgot the lyrics due to chemical synaptic decay, but recovered my composure in time to still the chorus of jeers.

After this, things get a little hazy. I know there were more pubs. I distinctly remember drinking an Austrian beer called Edelweiss, which prompted more singing. A brief discussion of the genius of Mel Brooks led inevitably to Springtime for Hitler, and I broke into the drinking song from The Student Prince, which follows Ovid in declaring wine and love to be allies.

Perhaps something a little more up to the moment will suggest the atmosphere of determined inebriation. So many beers in London, only one mouth.

We finished up in a pub somewhere, by which time I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on. We ordered some pies and built the condiments into a big tower. People always seem to do this when they’re drunk, which might explain the Tower of Pisa. Another classic theory from the mind that brought you “Graduate study programmes are extended metaphors for The Lord of the Rings“. After that we went our separate ways, tired but happy as the euphemism goes. Naturally back at Hotel Crimson we decided that the best way to start on the road to recovery was to pour some German wine down on top of that beer and watch Lethal Weapon. Brilliant plan. I passed out at midnight, and spent today feeling like death. It was worth it, though.

The last item on the agenda is the recent departure of Sceadufell to the garage to have a new stereo fitted, which leads me neatly to the subject of music. I can’t remember most of what we heard on Saturday, so I’m going to list things that were playing on my computer while I was writing this. Shuffle play is the way of salvation.

The Velvet Underground: Cool it Down (early version)
Rammstein: Engel
Simon and Garfunkel: Peggy-O
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
White Zombie: More Human than Human
Guns N’ Roses: Don’t Damn Me
Extreme: Cupid’s Dead
Robert Johnson: Kind-Hearted Woman Blues

I’m particularly pleased about Don’t Damn Me coming up, because I’ve adopted it as a kind of personal anthem and it’s so appropriate to the idea of blogging. Share and enjoy.

Later today, when I’ve had the chance to get the pictures off my phone, I shall post an account of my weekend up in the Big Smoke. Before that, however, many thanks are due to GlobalComment, who have published one of my poems under the kind auspices of the editor. It’s rare that I get as far as showing these scribblings to other people, and it came as something of a surprise to be asked for permission to publish. Any and all criticism is, as ever, gratefully received, and can be posted there as well as here. Do have a look around the site: it’s well worth a read.

The Exe at Exmouth, as I saw it when I wrote the poem

The setting for Estuary Sands: the Exe at Exmouth