Day #12767 : The Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5)

In the same way that football players endorse particular boot manufacturers and pop stars sell their favourite fizzy drinks (I assume these things still happen, I don’t really know), I would like to turn the crisp sheet of my newspaper to discover a full page ad with e.g. Jeanette Winterson advertising her favourite pen or George Saunders extolling the virtues of a certain make of desk.

For my part, when I am grown up and a fully-fledged famous author with pages and pages being written about my pages and pages, I would have no hesitation in agreeing to become the face of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5).

“Details make all the difference,” I would purr in my by-then-distinctive handwriting.

I have kept notebooks for the last 16 years.  Each has served as a place to jot down half-thought out ideas, scribble little messages, expand ideas into sentences and paragraphs and stick cuttings or wayward pieces of paper.

The ideal notebook is smart enough to care about but not so polished to give the impression it must be kept immaculate.  Part of its job is that it must be possible to make mistakes in it – making mistakes in is what it is there for.

Its pages must be welcoming – it is a mobile office to use however, whenever and wherever you want or need.  It needs to be ok with having something incongruous stuck in with glue, to have a sentence that might not work yet scrawled in it or to house a preposterous idea written with confidence in big letters.

A few years ago I bought my first Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5) during a visit to Fred Aldous, the art supplies shop in the centre of Manchester.  I was looking for a new notebook as the one I was using at the time was running low on unused pages, so I had a little flick through one of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbooks they had there.  It seemed decent enough.

But after using it for a few weeks I came to appreciate its many qualities.  Slim, with decent paper, and bound loosely enough to accommodate being fattened with stuck-in cuttings but not so loose as to feel like it might fall apart.  Then the nice touches – rounded corners, page numbers (!), a contents page (I feel no real need for a contents page, but I have found fun uses for them).

I haven’t really looked back and must be on my sixth or seventh Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook – my preference is for the ones with squared paper but blank pages works well too (for some reason, I have never found lines conducive to work).  All of which makes me, I think, the ideal face and handwriting of this particular brand of notebooks.

What would you like to see advertised and who by and why?  What kind of notebooks do you like using?  Is this how I am supposed to end blog posts, with a series of questions?  I wasn’t sure how else to wrap this one up to be honest?  It was just a bit of a vague ramble, wasn’t it?  Oh well?

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Day #12707 – The Very Best Things I Read In 2018

As I usually do at the end of a year, I thought I would set my thoughts down on some things I enjoyed reading in 2018.  I know it’s now the beginning (ish) of 2019 but the idea is the same.  In places these thoughts may be fragmentary or only semi-useful… nevertheless, here they are.

One of the first books I read last year (because it was a Christmas present at the end of the previous year) was Joff Winterhart‘s beautifully observed and drawn Driving Short Distances (2017).  Whilst examining everyday-type people, its power comes in highlighting the tiny details – winks, grimaces, tufts of hair.

David Keenan‘s novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) boasts the fantastically overblown and brilliantly specific subtitle ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.’  Keenan borrows the energy of the most hyberbolic kind of music writing and allows a population of strange characters to reverberate against one another in the claustrophobic small town setting.

Dreamlike in a completely different way, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992) cast a spell on me.  It is however going to be difficult to describe why… it had a haunting quality to it and seemed composed of thoughts which ran from one thing to the next.  Beautiful and sad, though more beautiful than sad…

Having first encountered Cesar Aira in 2017, I continued with my Aira fandom last year, and actually happened to meet another fan for the first time, which kind of confirmed that Aira was real.  All of Aira’s books proceed in strange and unexpected ways, a product of his ‘constant flight forward’ philosophy, and my favourite of the ones I read this year was How I Became A Nun (1993), which is worth it for the opening few scenes alone – a fiasco in strawberry ice-cream.

Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole (1970), a present from friend Lee, was the most terrifying thing I read all year.  A traveller is diverted to another city, one whose language and organisation are both incomprehensible and unfathomable.  Struggling to get a foothold, he tries in vain to understand the city’s food, transport, leisure, failing to get anywhere with increasing alarm.  The effect is mesmerising, suffocating, frustrating – like the character, there is nothing to which us readers can cling.

My two favourite short story collections of the year were James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man (1965) and A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) by Lucia Berlin.  Both wrote with clarity and beauty.

The James Baldwin story Sonny’s Blues (with its sadness leading to a jazz club redemption) and My Jockey by Lucia Berlin (one and a half meticulous pages) were amongst my favourite short works this year.  But there was also Doppelganger, Poltergeist, the final piece in Denis Johnson‘s final collection (a friendship becomes defined by a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced by a double)  and the remarkable reading experience of Triptyks by Ann Quin (a piece of work which doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, but does progress as you allow another part of your brain to enjoy the cascade of images and scenarios).  Plus Defending The Pencil Factory a one-off from one of my favourite current writers, Adam Marek (which pursues a slightly surreal premise before finding an original ending by alluding to another piece of work instead of actually finishing the story).  There were probably other great short pieces of writing that I enjoyed and have forgotten, I should keep better notes.

Last but by some means most (by virtue of me deciding this might be my favourite thing I read all year) – Man With A Seagull On His Head (2017).  Harriet Paige’s wilfully disobedient novel stubbornly refuses to fit in the template you expect.  Despite at first appearing fairly sedate, it is whimsical and unpredictable, and at times seems to hang together by a thread.  Much of it revolves around not-quite coincidences, characters not-quite meeting, loose ends not-quite being tied up.  I recommend it.

Day #12686: Writing About Writing – A Year Of Writing

So this was this year.

In February, I completely failed to mark the ten year anniversary of the creation of this blog.  But when I checked, later in the year, it turned out to be true and I had been posting things here since February 2008.

In the Spring, I finished two longer slabs of short story that had been on my plate for a while.  I will look for somewhere to publish these.

In May, I attended the Guernsey Literary Festival, but this time didn’t write anything about it here or anywhere else.  Nevertheless, it still happened.  My highlight was probably attending a workshop run by Daljit Nagra.

Towards the end of June, I started a new project that resembles a novel in size and shape.  I aimed to write one page (roughly 400 words) every week day and give it to Rach to read whilst she ate her breakfast.  The story slowly started nudging its way into existence.

In the Summer, my (informal, semi-regular) writing group set ourselves a couple of writing challenges and then met up at the pub to read them out (we also met throughout the year to discuss things in general, but there’s no section in this thing for things that happened throughout the year).

In September, I scurried away to deepest, darkest, dampest Yorkshire for a week-long experimental fiction retreat.  The course was geared towards exploring and trying new things, not necessarily working towards a thing that was finished and complete and shiny.  It was refreshing to have that impetus removed and to just spend some time playing and trying things out.  I also met a great bunch of people.

In November, I read a short story to around 40 people at the inaugural Guilles-Alles Library Fiction Open Mic night.

In December, my short story, ‘An Ambulance’ was published online by the Mechanics Institute Review.

Later in December, I completed the project I set in motion back in June and found I had surprised myself by finishing the writing of the first draft of a short novel.  This piece of work has been locked away to mature for a month or so, then I will look at redrafting it.

Day #12323 – The Very Best Things I Read In 2017

In 2017, I read some fantastic books.  I tried to look for some similarities between them, to make this piece of writing flow more easily, and was mostly unsuccessful.  But I have grouped them a bit and this first group is all ‘novels where the nature of something keeps changing’.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne (2017) has a post-apocalypse physicality, an inventive weirdness and a lot of heart.  At its centre is the titular character, a being the nature of which is as elusive as the truth of the situation is unclear.  The landscape – and the narrative – is at the mercy of numerous overpowered entities wrestling for control, such that it feels like being picked up by a wave and tossed around.

On similar unstable foundations is Ursula K Le Guin’s Lathe Of Heaven (1971), a novel about a man who can change the world through his dreams.  What makes this such an unnerving and discombobulating read is the way his dreams shift not only reality but the way reality used to be, meaning nothing can be relied on for long.  The previous pages are being constantly rewritten as the reader presses further in to the redreamt future.

Here (2014), a graphic novel by Richard McGuire never fully explains itself.  Fragmented across time, each page is drawn from a static position, the corner of a living room.  We jump backwards in time to primordial swamps and forwards to utopian futures and sometimes several time periods are scattered across a single page.  It functions as a biography of a specific plot of land and forces the reader to think about everything that has happened in the space they currently occupy.

Then there was brevity.

An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (2000) was just one of the works I read by the puckish and prolific Argentinian author Cesar Aira, but definitely the best.  Compact in its 100 pages, its scope is still vast, drinking in the wide open Pampas and filtering the landscape through the perspective of Johann Rugendas, a 19th Century German painter of whom this is a biography-but-not-really.  This is a short novel that never really gives the reader an idea of what to expect next and steals your breath as it completes its journey.

Comparatively long-winded at 150 pages, We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson was something I had been meaning to read for a while and once I did I wanted to make everyone else I know read it as well.  An unstoppable piece of American gothic, it is relentless in its energy and predictability.  Just as the passage of time goes unnoticed during a good film, you will get to page 150 without realising your progress.  There’s a film due next year apparently (wince).

In the world of short stories, I enjoyed collections by JG Ballard, Stephanie Vaughn, Stuart Evers and Mirja Unge, but there were two that really stood out.

Shortly before Denis Johnson passed away in May this year, I was recommended his collection Jesus’ Son (1992).  These are stories populated by characters on the edge, propelled by addled logic through desparate situations, yet lit up by moments of beauty and clarity.

Less freewheeling, more carefully curated was The Doll’s Alphabet (2017), the debut collection by Camilla Grudova, published this year by the fantastic Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This collection of inventive, atmospheric tales reminded me of Eraserhead – the same ubiquitous dissonance, the sense of characters trying to proceed in a world that is unpredictable and unexplainable.

And finally…

There was of course Reservoir 13 (2017), a new novel by Jon McGregor, his first since 2010.  This one follows the life of a village – its people, its wildlife, its landscapes – following the disappearance of a teenage girl.  Again McGregor delivered a piece of work which is beautiful and unique, written to a completely different beat.

Day #12039

May will see the next instalment of the Guernsey Literary Festival, with visits from everyone from Simon Singh to Jonathan Wilson to Clare Balding!  (Well, not everyone between each of those people, though maybe everyone between those people if they are all stood in one room sometime around the 11th-14th May, in Guernsey).  Anyway, a list of events can be found on the Litfest website.

I’ll be writing some pieces for the Litfest blog  and have already posted a review of Simon Singh’s ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem.’  There will surely be more writing about writing to be had, so keep your eyes peeled like potatoes.

Day #12038 – Goodreads Updates: Short Story Collections

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, FineFine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams

Shortly after I read this and recommended it to a writer friend, I wrote in an email:

“Some of Diane Williams’ sentences make my head spin – it’s like someone deconstructing their thoughts on to the page, I found I could feel my brain putting things back together.”

I probably can’t add anything more insightful now. Some of Williams’ thoughts and trains of thought are just weird and exhilirating. These are stories you have to commit too fully and enjoy.

It Was Just YesterdayIt Was Just Yesterday by Mirja Unge

This is a wonderful set of short stories which I raced through because I was enjoying them so much. The narrator of each could be the same character – they share a sense of wonder, maybe a little naivety, a raw morality. Unge presents us with a constant stream of reality, events are presented to us, simply described, one after another, as if we are not to judge but merely observe.

The Doll's AlphabetThe Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This is a wunderkammer that thrums with life – the kind of life that is a bit deathy. If it is reminiscent of anything it is of Eraserhead, the 1978 debut film from David Lynch – it’s there in the sense of displacement, sense of terror in everyday living. These are stories that somehow make a noise – the steady churn of a bleak dystopian industrial landscape – but which are illuminated with chimes of luminescent gothic ornamentation.

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Day #11983 – The Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, Volume 2 (Review, Part 1 of 2)

Last year I made a journey from around about nowish back to the 1920s, travelling through the medium of the short story (I also read Volume 2 of the Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, but this is surely a coincidence).

I’ve picked out four stories that really stuck with me and written a bit about them, the first two of which are below.

Please do note that to properly ‘discuss’ these, this might get a bit spoilerific (so SPOILER ALERT – though these stories have been in print for well over 50 years).

Roald Dahl, Someone Like You (1945)

I’m not a big fan of war stories, but this one is so simple and effective, it just punches you in the heart.

We open with two former fighter pilots meeting in a pub – they haven’t seen each other in years and conversation is slow, but as they start to drink the dialogue loosens.  We get less detail, less description and fewer long utterances as the story progresses – by the end, the whole thing is held together by short lines in which the two men seem to reveal their innermost thoughts.

The drink, delivered steadily throughout the piece, is key to the rhythm of the story and it becomes apparent that the setting is important too as they start to speculate on the fact that during the war they must have dropped bombs on places similar to the establishment they are drinking in… on people similar to those surrounding them.

He leaned back and waved his hand around the room.  “See all the people in this room?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t there be a bloody row if they were all so suddenly dead, if they all suddenly fell off their chairs on to the floor dead?”

The skill in this story, I think, is in the way that Roald Dahl reveals the characters’ troubles – it is not new information to us that men involved in dropping bombs from planes during a war would feel guilty afterwards, but he finds a new way to present this reality to us.

Rhys Davies, A Human Condition (1949)

From the beginning of this brilliant short story, Rhys Davies skilfully dripfeeds us little bits of information without spelling out exactly the occasion and the problem in which the main character finds himself.  Here is the first paragraph:

Having done the errand at the Post Office, which he had timed with a beautiful precision that he imagined completely hoodwinked those left at home, Mr Arnold crossed the Market Square just as the doors of the Spreadeagle Inn were opened.

Over the next few pages we follow Mr Arnold in to various pubs, slowly learning that he must be back home by a certain time and that something is weighing heavy on him, “deep inside him was a curious dead sensation of which he was frightened.”  We are given insight in to his character as he is greeted at each pub – and yet somehow the bar staff at each establishment know that he must not be allowed more than one drink, not today.  On each occasion, they take pity on him and allow him a second, yet refuse a third.  It is only after he returns home that it is made fully clear that this is the day of his wife’s funeral.

We are offered, via their words and actions, a perspective from Mr Arnold’s family, for whom the embarrassment of his appearing drunk at his wife’s funeral takes precedence.  As such, there is an effective twist at the end of the tale when we are offered a third viewpoint – that of the nurses at the hospital who exclaim:

“He must have been a devoted husband to throw himself in to his wife’s grave like that!  I’ve never known a man grieve so much.”

Day# 11964 – Self Assessment (2016)

I had a lot of fun writing in 2016.  I completed six stories which I will try to find a home for elsewhere (once they are absolutely ready to go) but I also really enjoyed trying things out and putting one word after another.

Reviewing the work I posted to Digestive Press in the last twelve months, some themes crop up – absurd notions, simple ideas with anticlimactic endings, pieces in which I tried to use vagueness as a tool not an obstacle.  I have also been making a conscious effort to use simple language and as few words as possible.  These intentions are, I think, demonstrated in the pieces I have picked out below  – these are my favourite things I put up last year:

Firstly, this poem from January, in which I had some fun resenting having to get up in the mornings: Smash The Snooze Button

Then in April I wrote this piece on the same day I demolished the shed.  It was an attempt to write a conversation in which something fantastic could be happening, but isn’t: But Not Which One

A couple of pieces from June.  Firstly, this classroom drama:  Notes On The Texture Of

And then this poem, written in Summer but thinking of Winter: Enter Your Email For A Chance To Win

In July, when the football was on, I imagined a bizarre – yet plausible – scenario: Numerous Zeros

And this one from the same month – only 52 words, but I was pleased with the effect achieved: Seems

Finally, from September, a thing that I suppose is about exactly what it says in the title : How Badly I Wanted The Hat

 

 

Day #11944

As someone who writes pretty much in isolation, sometimes it feels like the me that writes stories is an alter ego of the day-to-day ‘real life’ me.  (Hi, if you’re reading – hope your day is going well.  Remember to get some milk while you’re out there please).

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I felt this disconnection even more after disappearing from my normal life for a week in October to attend, for the first time, a week-long Arvon course.  The course was entitled Short Stories: Towards A Collection and involved me being one of sixteen students spending five days with two tutors – the writer Michele Roberts and Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press (who publish Adam Marek and Hasin Blasim and lots of other great stuff).  This all took place at The Hurst, a lovely old house in the Shropshire Hills which was previously owned by the playwright John Osborne.

Without rambling on too much about it, I can tell you that it was an excellent week spent with a group of lovely and talented people.

It is difficult to explain or describe being there because it was a bubble we inhabited for a short time, and a kind of infectious mania slowly took hold – which skews my memories of the week somewhat.  Parts of each day were spent writing in workshops, then there was time to write alone and some time spent reading work aloud.  There were a lot of conversations about writing and more specifically about writing short stories – conversations I don’t usually have.  Plus, the house had a fantastic kitchen and a fantastic library, both of which we were free to enjoy.

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My instinct was, of course, to take some pictures of The Hurst before I left, but then I decided against it, to keep it just in my memory.  Hopefully I will have chance to return in the not too distant future.  I did take one picture however:

This strange ceramic bird stands in the entrance hall – a kind of totemic welcoming party.  I identified it as a cassowary, but have no idea if this is correct or not.  Nevertheless, one of my course-mates issued a challenge in response to my picture – a 500 word story about the cassowary.

Another of my course-mates, Valerie, responded with a beautifully realised little piece of work about John Osborne’s relationship with the cassowary.  Encouraged by other members of the group, she forwarded the piece to one of the coordinators of the centre.

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In this blogpost, Natasha Carlish, who had welcomed us to The Hurst on the first day of our visit, published Valerie’s cassowary piece, and reflected on the challenges she had encountered in her first three years of working at Arvon.

What I liked about this blog post was Natasha’s reaction to Valerie’s sharing of her piece – it took me back to the final night of our time at the centre, in which each of us read some of our own work to the group.  There were – of course – some nerves, but slowly an event that had been approached with trepidation revealed itself to be a vital and victorious ending to our little week-old community.

In short, it reminded me about why we share stories – to try and make connections between our own separate realities.