The twentieth of September, 2012: I knew a story with ‘and’ in it could be delightful

Advice for a writer:

“At the end of an interrogatory sentence, place a question mark. You’d be surprised how effective it can be.”

From Woody Allen’s ‘Reminiscences: Places and People’, written for the New Yorker and collected in Allen’s Complete Prose (Picador, 1997).  


The nineteenth of September, 2012: a million words

At one stage in his career, the American journalist and writer Upton Sinclair wrote 8,000 words of fiction a day, seven days a week. This was because he was a writer for the pulps (you really ought to click this link – it’s only Wiki, but there’s more fascinating stuff there than I could squeeze into a dozen Clutterbucks). A pulp writer, it was said, had to write a million words a year to turn a profit.

And this, bear in mind, was in a genre – or, rather, an industry – in which flimflam and excessive verbiage (“wordage fat”, in pulp parlance) were just not tolerated. You couldn’t pad your story out with lyrical meditations on love and mortality (although you could always just bung in another sex-scene or knife-fight). Everything was stripped to the bone. It was mostly awful, but by god it was punchy.

Raymond Chandler got his start as a writer at Black Mask, the king of the pulp magazines, making his début in 1933 with ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’. There’s a great chapter on this era – as Chandler the soon-to-be drunk succeeded the already-very-much-a-drunk Dashiell Hammett as the genre’s champion – in Tom Hiney’s biography of Chandler (Random House, 1997).

You can explore pulpworld more thoroughly at the excellent Pulp Magazines Project.

The eighteenth of September, 2012: such continuity compels respect

Naturalist RM Lockley on the ravens of Skokholm:

When I see our ravens I have a feeling, almost, that this island is not mine, but theirs. They have been here from time immemorial. They are, so to speak, indestructible, for they are believed to pair for life, and when one of the pair dies, a young bird immediately steps in to fill the gap. The ravens have been there though all the gaps in the occupation of the island by man, and will probably continue long after man has finished with Skokholm.

Perhaps this sense of permanence and continuity is behind our traditional anxious fetishization of the ravens at the Tower of London.

Lockley recalls that “it was once suggested to me that ravens might be established, by way of tame birds at first, as breeders, wild and free, on the Houses of Parliament!”. Not such a strange idea when, in these days of postmodern ecology, practically every English cathedral has its nest of Peregrines.

Anyway, this comes from Lockley’s letter to John Buxton of October 1, 1939, collected in Letters From Skokholm (Little Toller Books, 2010) – thank-you, Frin.

The seventeenth of September, 2012: This Important Part Of The Kingdom

Just a bijou Clutterbuckette today, as I’ve been very busy being nose-deep in digitised books as I research the final few chapters of my book on the history of Leeds (pre-order it now! Even though I patently haven’t finished it yet!).

Leeds Castle attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year, which would be great for the city of Leeds, if Leeds Castle was in the city of Leeds, but, of course, it isn’t; it’s in, or anyway near, the small Kent village of Leeds.

The proprietor of the brilliant Leeds guide My Life In Leeds (declaration of interest: I’m on there) informs me that the website attracts a steady stream of geographically illiterate (is there a word for that?) castle-fanciers. Fair enough; it’s an easy mistake to make.

But you’d think that the author of Annals Of Leeds, York And The Surrounding District, Containing, In Chronological Order, All The Most Interesting Events, That Have Occurred In, Or Relate To This Important Part Of The Kingdom; From The Earliest Period To The Present Time, Collected From The Works Of Numerous Authors, Newspapers, &c, &c (Joseph Johnson, 1860) would know better, wouldn’t you?

You’d be wrong.

“In this year [1139],” he tells us, “Leeds castle was besieged and taken by king Stephen, in his march against the Scots.”

He’s half right, except that the castle in question was – as you will have surmised – the one in Kent, not the one in the city of Leeds (which stood about where the Scarbrough pub is now, and was one of history’s most boring castles). If he besieged it in his march against the Scots then he was going a bloody funny way about getting to Scotland.

Besides, he’d routed the marauding Scots at Northallerton the previous year – in the Battle of the Standard – so there wasn’t any need for him to stop off at Leeds on his way home. Unless he wanted to buy some wool or something.

The siege and capture of Leeds Castle, Kent, was part of Stephen’s war with the empress Matilda. No need to drag Leeds into it at all.

So there, John Mayhall. Consider yourself well and truly bearded in your lair.

The fourteenth of September, 2012: sailors who die full of beer and stories

Today is my birthday – thank-you – so what better way to celebrate than with a great big singalong to a song written by a man who is not only a lot older than me but also a lot deader than me?

That man is, or was, Jaques Brel,  and it’s really just as well that he’s dead, because otherwise, even leaving aside all the legal paperwork that would have to be re-done, Dead Belgian would have to change their name. To Belgian.

Dead Belgian are a band from Liverpool who play Brel’s songs. This is Amsterdam. Sing along if you know the words! And, if you don’t know the words, they’re here!


Brel’s version is here.

I came across the band when we took Liars’ League Leeds to the muddy, faintly shambolic but all-in-all massively enjoyable Beacons festival near Skipton earlier this summer. They were just marvellous.

It seems that they don’t only do Jaques Brel: this is them doing a Jake Thackray song. They may technically have been in breach of trading laws by not performing this song under the collective sobriquet Dead Yorkshireman but oh well.

The thirteenth of September, 2012: I’d rather call old Thomas Hardy up

This is a gaunt waste in Thule:

(Photo from Sash Alexander)

These are some Alps:

(Photo by Sandro Vannini/Corbis)

And here are the sand-dunes of Scheveningen:

(Photo by pinktigger)

The connection? Well, they’re all listed in Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native (1878) as instances of landscapes that mankind might, in future, value more highly than such conventionally scenic spots as Heidelberg, Baden, and “the vineyards and myrtle-gardens of South Europe”. These are landscapes that, like the fictional Egdon Heath, “appeal to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming”.

Demonstrating, at the age of 38, a somehat adolescent predilection for morbidity, Hardy goes on:

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter… The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the mournful sublimity of a moor, a sea or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.

I can see why many people can’t bear Hardy (though I still think he’s great). In any event, I’m sure we can all agree with the critic Holden Caulfield when he says: “I like that Eustacia Vye.”


The twelfth of September, 2012: a two and three zeros

I don’t know a great deal, I’ll admit, about science fiction. As a kid, at the point where I would have got into it if I was going to get into it, fate directed me towards eight-inch-thick swords-and-sandals fantasy epics instead (it was my brother that took care of the eight-inch-thick Asimov trilogies).

But I’ve read a little Lem, and some William Gibson, and a lot of Vonnegut, and a couple of other things here and there, and when (as related, grippingly, in the Clutterbuck of the tenth) I came across Connoisseur’s SF in a secondhand bookshop I felt a hankering too powerful to resist. Kind chance saw to it that I had the necessary £1.50 in my pocket, too, so there we were.

Most of the stories in the book take what you might call a scientific approach to science fiction – not in that they’re technically very involved (they aren’t – they’re all from 1965 or earlier, which helps in that regard), but in that they ask a question and then want, immediately, with no shilly-shallying or literary faffing about, to answer it.

The premise of each of these stories could be summed up in a single ‘what if…?’ sentence, which makes them what I think of as being a very pure sort of sci-fi. Maybe, indeed, this is what makes them connoisseur’s sci-fi.

So here are the authors (in order of appearance), and here are their questions.

1. Alfred Bester: all right, a tough one to begin with, but something like – what if people could travel not through actual history but through history as they imagine it?

2.Frederik Pohl: what if advertising became the most powerful and dangerous force in the world?

3. Kurt Vonnegut: what if an effective anti-ageing serum existed?

4. Theodore Sturgeon: what if it were considered deviant and criminal to want to be alone?

5. Jack Finney: um… what if, during the US Civil War, two men travelled into the future to steal an aeroplane from the Smithsonian?…

6. JG Ballard: what if a city were so overcrowded that people actually had no concept of what ‘open space’ was?

7. Isaac Asimov: what if schoolchildren were taught by machines instead of human teachers?

8. Eric Frank Russell: what if humans conquered new worlds not by using logic but by being deliberately irrational?

9. JT McIntosh: what if cloned humans acquired equal legal rights?

10. Fredric Brown: what if the world were suddenly and irreversibly deprived of electricity?

One of the answers Brown gives to that last question, incidentally, is that some of us would miss the lightning.

What was the point of this little exercise? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m being reductionist for the sake of it; I do think that the genius of these stories is in the formulation of the question and in the desire to answer the question rather than in the answering of the question.

While we’re on the subject of the future, here’s one more line from Nabokov’s The Eye that I’d like to note down:

What did I care if this letter would indeed travel across a remote mountain pass into the next century, whose very designation – a two and three zeros – is so fantastic as to seem absurd?

The Eye was written (in Russian) in 1930.