Joe Blogs (Les Green, April 2018)

 

When I was a kid I had one of those faces that people liked, and I would often find myself being pinned into a corner while somebody spilled their life story to me, or told me their problems. Teachers felt like they needed to explain things to me, and friend’s mums wanted their kids to play with me. In the 70’s, I worked on the markets in Liverpool and I would often be press-ganged by a queue of  middle aged ladies every weekend, and they would regale me with the minutiae of their lives while the other marketeers stood around in groups laughing at me. Say what you will, but I sold more toilet rolls and scouring pads than anybody else back then.

So, people liked me. In secondary school, though, this – just like anything else that marked you out as different – became a stick to beat me with, as the older, tougher kids saw this as a good enough reason to give me a hard time. Eventually I learned to adapt and, over the years, my resting face has settled on an unreadable neutral expression (using the same logic as my friend Michelle, who has what she describes as a “resting bitch face”). I find it easy to turn my neutral glare into a scowl or menacing stare when I need to, so I sometimes pick one to make me appear disagreeable or aggressive.

When I occasionally use public transport – which I tend to avoid whenever possible – I find myself falling into some of the behaviour patterns that I follow when I’m in my car. In my car, I’m most often travelling alone because I prefer it that way, so on a bus or a train I do my best to discourage people from sitting next to me. I don’t go so far as to put my belongings onto a vacant seat or piss myself, but I do try and make myself look like the kind of person you don’t want to sit next to. So once again I pick my aggressive or disagreeable facial configuration and style it out.  It all falls to pieces of course as soon as the seats fill up around me and an old lady needs somewhere to sit, but at least I made it to Edge Hill (a reference for Scousers of a certain age).

Part of the reason for all this passive aggression is due to an unopposable rule of cosmic physics, which can best be represented by the scientific argument;

if there is a double-decker bus with 30 double bench seats, with a total combined capacity to carry 60 passengers in comfort, but none of the seats are fully occupied; when the local lunatic gets on the bus at the next stop, why does he always sit next to me?

Which brings us to the white jump board at the edge of the sandpit of this rather long run up to the actual point …Blogging.

Why do people bother? I do it for Vale Royal Writing Group because we have a blogging policy and somebody has to do it (usually me but there are other regular contributors). But if it doesn’t have an element of a formal requirement, why would a person feel the need to record details of the crap we don’t care about? I tried to do a bit of research to try and justify my rant but there was just too much of it (blogging not ranting, but sometimes these are the same thing).

I found one blog that existed purely to provide bloggers with subjects to blog about – and even that isn’t an anomaly because once I knew the concept existed I discovered there were loads of similar blogs, and many blogs that provide the tools for bloggers to manage their blogs. So, stretching the existing acceptable levels of endless loops of people disappearing up their own intimate cavities, I think perhaps I’ve identified a gap in the blogging market, for a blogger to write blogs about people who tell people how to write blogs.

Amongst all the pages and pages of blogs on fashion, make up, hair, recipes, babies, dogs, cats, books, restaurants, art, cinema, writing, music etc. ad infinitum, I also discovered that “blogger” is now an acceptable job title. I found myself reacting to that information in the same way I did when I found out that (A) a man in his 30s can earn a living riding a BMX, (B) having your own YouTube channel is aspirational, and (C) DJs are thought of in the same reverence as gifted musicians, like Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt and Ella Fitzgerald. The world has always been a bit weird but I think I’ve discovered where I want to draw the line.

In my opinion, reading a blog (including especially this one) is like seeking out the lunatic that you used to dread sitting next to you on the bus, and asking him to tell you all about himself, and what the voices in his head are telling him to do. So, in a way, of all the people on this bus that we’re on, dear reader, you chose to sit next to me. So, settle yourself in and let me tell you all about myself …

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An Exercise in Futility

 

Regardless of what you might be thinking, this isn’t a blog. Yes, I know it looks like one, and it’s certainly in the right place, but that doesn’t make it a blog. A blog has to be ABOUT something surely? (sorry, I didn’t mean to shout but sometimes emphasis LOOKS like shouting) And this is about … well, nothing. Although that hasn’t stopped me before.

In the forthcoming, eagerly awaited, excellently crafted and agonisingly beautiful Anthology 3 (son of Anthology 2, the sequel), there is a section dedicated to writing exercises, and in it the writer/collator refers to an exercise we did way-back-when that required us to write for a specific amount of time, with the aim of keeping the output as unexciting and boring as possible. Some of us were really good at it and managed to come up with terrifically dull descriptions of buying socks and listening to paint dry etc. I usually struggle to make my writing appear exciting so this was right up my avenue, and I recall describing in great (not the good kind of great) detail the pen and paper of a fellow writer. I never actually got to write anything of substance, as part of the process was to try and avoid the actual intention by putting it off with long and unnecessarily dull descriptions until time ran out.

So in the absence of volunteers for a March blog I decided to take the opportunity to (a) shamelessly promote the new VRWG anthology, Beneath the Blue Bridge (available soon in multiple formats and with a spiffing cover that other anthologies will aspire to) and (b) give you an opportunity to try this exercise in futility. Mine is set out below. If you would like to try, then set yourself 10 minutes and see if you can describe something incredibly dull. And remember, avoid getting to the point, and resist the temptation to jazz it up and make it exciting.

See you all Monday 9th for the April meeting … and Monday 30th April for the May meeting (strange but true!)

The Amateur’s Guide to Writing the Exercise Provided by Tom Ireland at the Vale Royal Writing Group October Meeting on this day of Our Lord, the Third of October Two Thousand and Sixteen

(subtitled: How to Provide a Lingering Death to a Poorly Executed Stream of Consciousness Piece, to Ensure You Don’t Get to the End Until Your MOT Has Run Out, and the Tin of Aldi Baked Beans Has Eventually Exceeded its Sell-by Date)

Luckily I can begin with a pen. There was an almost catastrophic moment when Liz was unable to begin her take on the process because she was Bic-less. Sharpie-light. Missing a Mont Blanc. Fortunately, she moved her note pad forward a modest amount – no more than two point five centimetres in an estimated Southerly direction – and a pen was revealed.

From this distance (about one metre to her immediate left) it appeared to be an A4 feint ruled pad with a spiral binder on the left side, as is common in Western languages. Of course, when writing on the traditional reverse side, the spiral binder will subsequently – albeit temporarily – be on the right side of the feint ruled sheet of A4, thus providing a degree of flexibility that allows the user to utilise their resources to maximum capacity.

The pen appeared to be either crystal or opaque with a removable cap, which had been removed, and then snugly fitted onto the ball-less end of the barrel. The barrel itself was infused with a dashing red stripe, like that worn on the uniformed leg of the soldiers of old – or like stationery toothpaste.

And at this point the 10 minutes were up so over to you …

Marginalia (by Liz Sandbach)

Let me begin this blog by quoting someone else:

“I have now discovered that making marks in books to show assent, dissent or just to highlight important passages was the norm rather than the exception way back in medieval and Renaissance times. In fact, educators of the time recommended that the best way to learn from a book wasn’t just to read it like we do now, but to physically mark passages, perhaps to stitch pieces of thread into the page to mark the important bits, or even to tear pages from the book itself: in other words, to use it as required and not just to read it, passively. We have evolved from a culture in which readers of the past literally took hold of texts for specific purposes, to one in which texts generally take hold of readers who may not be looking for anything beyond a good read.”

This fascinating peek into the history of book reading got me thinking about our modern relationship with books and how we read them.

First, let me hold up my hand and admit to writing copious notes (in pencil) in all my English Lit textbooks. And let me attest to the value of this for the learning process. But I have equally to admit that it’s never occurred to me to write comments in the margins of non-academic novels – although it may have alleviated the frustration that came from reading some of them: “If you can’t be bothered to edit it, why should I bother to read it!!” Or “You said four chapters ago that Stella had long, dark flowing locks; now she’s a blonde. Don’t you know your own characters, for f**k’s sake?” Or even, “I seriously think you ought to seek help!”

Nowadays, I suspect this ‘marking’ practice would be frowned upon as bad form and tantamount to defacing or vandalising books. Is this modern outlook just good manners or have we become far too precious in our relationship with books?

The author of the opening quotation also said that reading the marginalia “was like being in a book club of two but without the wine”. And I understand what he was getting at. Writing comments in a book creates a kind of ‘conversation’ – not only with the book’s author but also with future readers of the book who will discover your notes. I’ve come across some textbook marginalia that have presented me with a completely new perspective on a subject or specific passage. It changes the reading experience from being a solitary one to one where you enter the mindset of another reader and see another reader’s viewpoint. Surely seeing another person’s point of view can only ever be a good thing – widening our understanding and broadening our outlook.

So, what kind of reader are you? Do you dog-ear your pages rather than use a bookmark? Do you open out the pages and flatten the spine? Or do you prefer to keep your books as pristine as the day you bought them? I’m in the former camp and do like getting to grips with a book and am not afraid to batter it a bit. This may horrify some book-lovers of course – and each to their own bibliophile bent. But the one thing we must surely all agree on is that, for all their growing popularity, we can’t interact in that kind of physical way with e-books. And I think that’s why, for me, a Kindle will never replace the sheer joy of a paper book – even down to the lovely papery smell of it. Electronic may have its uses, but it probably would have horrified those medieval and Renaissance readers who made marks, stitched in pieces of thread, and tore out pages to carry away with them. And they’d be even more horrified by the librarian who added a caustic condemnation to the inside front cover of a returned book: “Systematically vandalised throughout by a reader, June 2010.”

 

Liz Sandbach, February 2018

VRWG January 2018 The Blue Cap Coup (by Bill Webster)

The Blue Cap Coup

Whilst the police continue to investigate the events of the 8th January 2018 at the Blue Cap Hostelry in Sandiway, I feel it behoves me to offer this version of the truth.

This was to be a special meeting of the august and revered Vale Royal Writers’ Group. Some ‘person’ had suggested that instead of taking up part of the meeting with our usual writing exercise, we should instead perform said exercise in a solitary fashion as ‘homework’ to be done in advance of the meeting.

There was therefore a degree of tension in the room even before the events as related below began to unfold. People looked from face to face, smiling nervously, trying to ascertain who had been swotty enough to produce something in advance.

The exercise itself was a cracker. Choose a character and then write a short piece featuring them – but with all their normal attributes reversed. For example, Ian Rankin’s Rebus would be a devout teetotaller who always did everything strictly by the book.

The meeting started on time as normal, with our beloved Captain Bob welcoming us all before moving on to a discussion of the exercise. And that is when two things happened that suddenly changed the whole course of the evening.

The first thing was that Bob decided that all us bad people should be given ten minutes at the start of the meeting to have a go at the exercise. (Take that, Swots!)

The second thing was that the question was posed as to whether the character in the exercise had to be fictional or not. The decision was that the character did not have to be fictional.

And that is when everything changed, and suddenly there was a nauseating sensation of tumbling from a great height as the faces around the table and the room itself seemed to wink in and out of existence until suddenly it was ten minutes earlier and…

—————————————————–

Feet were shifting under the table. Joyce looked meaningfully at Tom who shrugged and made a face, as he was often wont to do. She turned to Bob and coughed, tapping her watch.

Bob looked up from his notebook and smiled. “Oh! Have you got a smartwatch too, Joyce? I must say I do find mine very useful… once I’ve managed to tap it to wake it up!”

Joyce sighed and shook her head sadly. “It’s twenty-to-eight, Bob. Don’t you think it’s time we…”

Bob clasped his hand to his brow. “Oh, the meeting! I’m so sorry, everyone! I was just composing one of my love poems for the anthology.”

Bill leered. “Is that dirty dominatrix woman in it?” he asked.

“Now just stop there, Bill,” Bob said primly. “I will have you know that I have left that embarrassing period of my life behind me. I’m more into fluffy little lambs and hosts of daffodils and murmurations of starlings nowadays.”

Joyce banged her bottle of Budweiser on the table. “We really ought to start the meeting NOW, Bob!”

Bob took a sip of his sparkling mineral water and daintily wiped his lips with a monogrammed silk handkerchief. “I don’t know, Joyce,” he mused. He looked enquiringly around the assembled writers. “Does anyone want to have a meeting?”

“Oh, for goodness sake!” thundered Joyce. “What’s happened to you, man?”

“I have become a better person,” he said.

“Bollocks!” said Joyce, as she wrestled Bob to the floor and applied a strangulation lock worthy of Mick McManus.

“But I wanted to read my poem!” he cried with his last gasp.

—————————————————–

So there you have it.

I have heard that Joyce has claimed that she was not even at the meeting, and that Tom supports her in this. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

With the exception of myself, this is clearly a deeply disturbed group of people.

If you think you would fit in, we meet on the first Monday of each month in the Blue Cap in Sandiway, except when it falls on a Bank Holiday when we slide forward a week.

Or back, depending on how we feel.

Wonky (by Les Green, December 2017)

The story was big news. The biggest news of the day. I guess if you have a 24-hour news channel then you have to fill it with something. And if there’s no war or no royal wedding, and nobody televisually significant has died, then celebrity shocks will do.

It was bad news of course in its way, and bad news travels quickly. As Terry Pratchett used to say – bad news can get up and travel round the world while good news is still putting its boots on. Which is how everybody, more or less, got to hear it at the same time.

The news came from one of his representatives. Some PR schmuck reading from a prepared statement on the steps of the famous R&D building at a secret location. Most of the announcement was just filling and waffle, but the main point, as everybody knows, was that Willy Wonka had developed type 2 diabetes.

The news divided opinion. Some were sympathetic and others not so much. By the end of the first week after the announcement, there was a growing group of outspoken people that thought he was reaping what he had sown. Some of the more radical objectors were calling it payback after the group of children that were lost and maimed during the Golden Ticket competition disaster. Whatever the opinion of the people, there was definitely something happening behind the golden gates.

At the end of the first month, we had the first announcement. All products will be re-branded to inform the consumer of the sugar and fat content in every Wonka product. Sugar was being reduced, and in some instances taken out completely. And in an effort to reduce the Wonka brand carbon footprint some of the exotic high fructose ingredients were being replaced with locally sourced alternatives.

After 2 months, stories started appearing on the 24-hour news channels, running like ticker-tape along the bottom of the screen. There were wall-to-wall reports of failing local economies that were previously dependent on the Wonka dollar. Snozberries lay on the ground, rotting where they fell, as growers felt the financial impact of losing their previously lucrative contracts. Back home however, there was better news as the Wonka brand invested heavily in using only products from the countries in which the manufacturing plants are based. In Italy, for example, you could have a reduced sugar, tiramisu mousse bar or an amoretti and coffee ice cream. In France you could enjoy a cherry and praline truffle or a crème brule ice cream.

Sales dropped of course. Using standard, every day ingredients meant that everything tasted like the products from other confectioners. And in the meantime, even though the original Wonka recipes remained secret, rivals still tried to emulate the once great candy man. As the months rolled on the Wonka portfolio grew smaller and unstable, until eventually he sold the whole enterprise – secret recipes included – to a conglomerate that included Cadbury and Nestle.

Now of course the great man himself – Mr. Willy Wonka; the famed sugar daddy, inventor, creator, purveyor of the stickiest calories and sweetest treats; portrayed by both Johnny Depp and Gene Wilder in movie versions of the Golden Ticket massacre – has now become a real recluse. This time beyond the walls, fences and security cameras of the Wonka world. There are tales of him living on a mountain range in Asia, in a temple he built, where he contemplates his part in the obesity pandemic that now affects the richer parts of the world. There are also reports that he has changed his name and appearance, and now runs a chain of health food shops. A third suggestion is that he went into a diabetic coma and subsequently died after binge eating the entire stock of Wonka chocolate – over a ton – that he had in his mansion, Wonka Land. I guess that’s another Wonka secret we’ll never know the answer to.

*This was inspired by, and based (loosely!) on, an exercise provided by Debbie Mitchell (This is the exercise awaiting you in the 8th January 2018 meeting);

Take a favourite literary character and flip their personality. So, for example, hard-drinking, maverick DI Rebus becomes a fitness fanatic who does everything by the book, Count Dracula is squeamish and faints at the sight of blood, Romeo and Juliet loathe each other. Then write a scene which features your character with his/her new traits.

Glad Tidings from Gladstone’s (by Joyce Ireland, October 2017)

The October meeting produced the usual pattern of several of us saying that, for a variety of reasons  we had no ‘news’ to report; however, those who did gave us very interesting accounts of what they had been doing recently. Around the news part of the agenda, a number read out their writings, making me feel ashamed as I am one who hasn’t been able to contribute much to the group in the past few months. So, no excuses, but I have volunteered to write this month’s blog entry; and of course it is writing.

As I write this on 7th October I am sitting in the reading room at Gladstone’s Library after a day of member run workshops. Our workshop in May was quite low in numbers but today there were just four of us; a little disappointing in having so few, but this did not affect the enjoyment of the day or the quality of the exercises and the work produced. Perhaps we shall have to cut down to one day per year. I know that those who have attended in the past have reported the experience as being first rate and worthwhile; that is in part due to the wonderful atmosphere at Gladstone’s, the reasonable cost of the day, but mostly on those qualities which epitomise our brilliant collection of writers.

These workshops were started in November 2005 (I remember it well as I was called in to have my hip repaired that week so couldn’t actually attend). Still I wasn’t needed to ensure success and was very pleased that it went so well we have been running them since, initially one per year in the autumn and then twice so that we could be here in spring also.

Now I am putting out a further request to all those who feel that they produced some worthwhile writing to please trawl through your notebooks/computers and send me a selection of that work so that it can be edited into a presentable book/let to give to the library and show them what we have been up to. If you don’t know where to send it, bring it along to the monthly meetings and give it to me, or anyone on the committee who will pass it to me. Alternatively, such pieces could be submitted to the Group’s anthology, with a note of where they were first conceived, as we always give the library a copy of our anthology.

Joyce Ireland

VRWG September 2017     Unnatural Forces                   (by Bill Webster)

Spooky pic of hand...

Photo by tertia van rensburg on Unsplash

Fellow traveller, heed me well.  My hair was not always this shocking white.  The drool from the corners of my broken mouth and the palsy in my limbs are of recent vintage too, and all bear witness to the warning I will now give to you.

There are some who think writing is a craft, an art which enriches our civilisation.  There are others who think it might be a good way to make a fast buck or two.  There are those whose working days are behind them and now have the time and opportunity to write that story or poem or novel that was always shouting to be let out.  There are perhaps as many reasons for writing as there are writers, and lo, they are legion.

But I wager that few if any aspiring writers aspire to having their wits curdled and their senses scrambled by their pursuit.

There is a tendency for writers and would-be writers to form groups.  The general idea is that they can learn from each other, although a cynic might say that what they mainly learn is better excuses for not having done any writing.

One such group is Vale Royal Writers’ Group, of which your humble scribe has the misfortune to be the Treasurer, meaning that I am honour-bound to attend most of the meetings.

Otherwise I might have missed that fateful night in September in the year of our Lord 2017, and would still be in possession of what limited faculties I had prior to then.

The principal blame attaches to a woman we will call Joan, for that is her name.  Joan had been to a fancy writing course somewhere (or so she said), and she brought us back an exercise that was supposed to help inspire us.  She called it the “What-if?” exercise.

So we what-iffed our way round the table.

My contribution was “What if all glass suddenly disappeared?” which I offer only as an example, but not a very good one.  Some comedian came up with “What if Donald Trump became President of the United States?” which I thought was taking things a bit far, personally.  So you get the idea.  So far, so good.

It may have been the Joan woman who started it, but to be fair to her I don’t suppose she could reasonably have foreseen the full horror of what she had set in motion.

Nor could Debbie have understood the implications of asking “What if two zombies fell in love?”

Because neither she nor Joan, nor indeed anyone else in the room – with perhaps one exception – could know what was about to happen next.

Matthew smiled, and paused.  Everyone was wondering what was coming next.  He drew out the suspense, and then just when we thought he maybe wasn’t going to say anything at all, out it came…

“What if the characters we created came off the page?”

He smiled again, in a vaguely evil kind of way.

A chill passed through the room but we pressed on, everyone suddenly wanting to get to the end of this exercise even if it meant moving rapidly on to the “News” section where everyone except the swottier types has to come up with a creative way of confessing that they have yet again done no writing whatsoever since the last meeting.

But the damnable exercise had a second part.  We now had to write a sort of flash fiction story or map out an idea for something longer based on the “what-if” we had come up with.

I am sure it was not just me, although for the sanity of my colleagues I hope it was thus.

Debbie’s zombies loved each other (in a physical sort of sense) and decomposed in the process as they literally knocked lumps off each other.  A grotesque idea at the best of times, and one that personally I think any nice girl should be ashamed of.  But then that’s writers for you.

But I digress.

Matthew smiled as he saw the reactions round the table as each person wondered whether he or she was the only one who could now see disembodied zombie body parts lazily floating around our meeting room in a subtle red blood mist and hear the weird background murmur of the characters bemoaning their lot.  And then finally what was left of them sat on either side of Debbie and used the one eye they had left between them to follow our proceedings.

Well, by the end of the exercise we had three times as many ‘people’ in the room as we had started with, but the newcomers were an unsavoury lot, dragged up from the depths of the depraved minds that had created them.

But the worst was yet to come.

David announced that he was going to read out a piece he had written in the style of some fellow called HP Lovecraft.  I assumed with a name like that it was going to be slightly saucy and would reduce the weirdness and tension pervading the room.

But no.

It turns out that HP Lovecraft is not a soft-pornographer but a purveyor of scary horror… and David’s story out-Lovecrafted the man himself as he conjured up a nightmare in words.  But of course Matthew’s magic transformed David’s fiction into reality within the room.  Even our supernatural visitors seemed to be discomfited by the elemental forces which roiled around the room and pressed on our already hard-pressed temples.

I could hardly breathe by the end, and when the meeting was closed there was not the usual dallying.  The room cleared quickly, and with audible sighs of relief as each person cleared the portal.

But as Treasurer I had to stay to do the collecting and counting… just me, and the apparitions, and Matthew.

He dropped his shiny £1 coin into my collecting saucer.  “That was a good meeting,” he said.  He looked around the room, and smiled happily.

“Please Matthew,” I begged.  “Make them go away.”

He nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “We can’t leave them here, can we?”  He clapped his hands and his body seemed to expand to fill the room.  “Begone!” he said.  “Go back from whence you came!”

For a moment the room and my legs and my stomach and my brain seemed to be made of squishy-squashy rubber.  There was a feeling of abject weakness and nausea but then as soon as I had felt it, it had gone… and there was only me and the meeting room and my saucer of shiny £1 coins and Matthew.

He looked at me anxiously.  “Are you feeling alright?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good,” he said.  “I’ll see you next time.”

And then he left me alone in the suddenly normal room, but the damage that you have seen on my features and about the person of my person had already been done and could not be undone.

So heed my warning if you don’t want to end up like me.  If you aspire to be a writer, by all means join a writers’ group.  But whatever you do, for the sake of your sanity stay well away from Vale Royal Writers’ Group.

I only hope this message reaches you in time.