And it wasn’t a dream, after all…

So I was lying around recuperating from a lurgy, this week – don’t ask, it was unpleasant for a while, that’s enough – and I came across this old writing game, called ‘N + 7’, that was created by Jean Lescure.  As I was feeling a lot less than energetic at the time, I decided it looked far too taxing, and moved on.

Saturday, though, I emerged from my cocoon of blankets and jumpers to bask in some un-seasonal February sunshine. If it hadn’t been for the snowdrops and crocuses I might have been as fooled as the courting birds and the bumbling bees, into assuming spring had sprung.

Common sense prevailed. I settled myself by the biggest, sunniest window, and checked my browser history.  Had ‘N + 7’ been a feverish dream? Maybe it was one of those perfect stories I’ve lost in the moments when I wake?

What can you mean by, ‘was there a man from Porlock for you, too?’ – it’s the truth I tell you.  I am, by night, a prolific novelist and short story writer, and I never touch Laudanum.

‘N + 7’ it turns out was real, and unlike my stories, nowhere near as complicated as I’d first assumed. In fact, it looked fun.  There’s a handy web-site where I type in a piece of prose, press a button, and every noun is replaced by another noun – the one 7 words on in a dictionary.  So, these four paragraphs become:  

So I was lying around recuperating from a lurgy, this whale – don’t ask, it was unpleasant for a while, that’s enough – and I came across this old youth gas, called ‘N + 7’, that was created by Jean Lescure. As I was festival a lunch less than energetic at the toast, I decided it looked far too taxing, and moved on. 

Saturday, though, I emerged from my cocoon of boards and jumpers to bask in some un-seasonal February supplier. If it hadn’t been for the snowdrops and crocuses I might have been as fooled as the courting blades and the bumbling beliefs, into assuming staff had sprung. 

Common series prevailed. I settled myself by the biggest, sunniest wish and checked my browser home. Had ‘N + 7’ been a feverish driver? Maybe it was opinion of those perfect streets I’ve lost in the monkeys when I warehouse?

What can you mean by, ‘was there a manufacturer from Porlock for you, too?’ – it’s the twin I tell you. I am, by north-east, a prolific novelist and short street youngster and I never town Laudenum. 

‘N + 7’ it turns out was real, and unlike my streets, nowhere near as complicated as I’d first assumed. In fame, it looked fury. There’s a handy web-skull to unemployment in a pilot of prose. At the primary of a cake every noun is replaced by another noun 7 worlds on in the dimension.

I leave it to you to decide which version makes the most sense.

How have I missed knowing this, until now? I foresee hours of fun – or do I foresee hundreds of fury?

...a lunch less than energetic at the toast...

Anyhow, if you’d like to play, you’ll find it at

We waited for Godot.

He didn’t arrive, but you know what? That didn’t matter. Estragon and Vladimir kept us so enthralled that time was irrelevant. Words were exchanged, movements made; visitors arrived then departed. I was gripped, even though I couldn’t really tell you now what was said.

I’ve wanted to see this play for a long time, and yet at the same time, I’ve worried. It’s a difficult play, people say. Nothing happens. Two men stand by a tree and have conversations, mostly about waiting. Was I really going to pay money for that?

Of course, it is a classic. It’s revered by writers and playgoers. But what if I didn’t understand it? Would I come away feeling a fool?

It’s a favourite of Rays. He often regrets our failing to get tickets for the Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart version, back in 2013. So last December, when I saw that it was coming to The Everyman theatre, I knew that I’d not only solved my ‘what-Christmas-gift-do-I-give-to-the-man-who-has-everything?’ question, in the process, I’d found the prompt I needed to see the play for myself.

‘Tweedy’ as Estragon & Jeremy Stockwell as Vladimir

This week, as the evening got closer, I was having doubts. The lead actors were a professional clown and a vaudevillian actor, this version could be terrible.

There’d been a serendipitously appropriate discussion about Becket on the radio a week or so ago, and the academic panel had explained how important clowns were to the playwright, so I got that clowning could fit. But, that didn’t mean a clown could act, did it?

Well, in this case, yes. From the moment the curtain was raised, as Estragon struggled to remove his boot, I forgot he’d ever had anything to do with face-paint, or colourful clothes. He was a man in search of boots that would fit, and I was hooked.

He was waiting for Godot. He had no more idea than I had, of why he was waiting for Godot. I knew that he wasn’t going to arrive. Maybe Estragon did, too. I waited with him.

Time passed. I laughed, I wondered, I smiled. I doubted the rightness of my responses. I forgot that I was watching men act, even though the stage was so obviously artificial, with its washed-out blue sky, bare rocks and man-made tree.

It was as if I was in a dream, the way I accepted everything. And yet, I never stopped thinking, and asking questions. Maybe I never will. I hope not.

Photo by Antony Thompson: Mark Ropper as Pozo, Tweedy as Estragon, Murray Andrews as Lucky, Jeremy Stockwell as Vladimir.

I’d like to recommend, C.S. Forester.

There are authors who lie unattended on bookshelves for decades, and some deserve to. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of fiction. I started young, raiding the boxes of old novels my grandfather used to keep in his spare bedroom.

Even then, I knew most were flimsy. Now, I realise they were largely pulp fiction. They often used expected stereotypes, strong men and women who needed to be rescued, and kissed, or married. Occasionally, though, there were some gems. It was there I first read, The African Queen, by C. S. Forester.

Forester is probably better known for his Hornblower series. Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer of the Napoleonic wars was played by Gregory Peck on the big screen, in 1951, and by Ioan Gruffud for a tv series between 1998 and 2003.

The African Queen has, so far, only been filmed once. But, it was a good one. Made in 1951, it starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Yes, the set looked a little suspect at times, and the dialogue was occasionally clunky, but I don’t think it was for technical details this movie was preserved in the USA National Film Registry. I think it was for the same reason I fell for the novel when I first read it, aged about fourteen: the characterisation.

On one level, the story is about Rose and Allnut’s plan to ‘strike a blow for England‘ in the heart of German controlled Africa. On another level, their battle is against nature, in terms both of environment and personality.

Rose has been blindly loyal to her older brother all of her life. She had gone with him to Africa at the age of twenty-three. She’s now thirty-three.

‘She had been his housekeeper and the most devoted of his admirers, his most faithful disciple and his most trusted helper…’

It is the death of her brother and the presence of the Germans that forces Rose out of her rut, and provides the motivation for her to become an unlikely heroine. Allnut, her companion, is just as unlikely a hero.

Allnut had played lone hands occasionally in his life, they were not to his liking. Sooner than plan or work for himself he preferred to be guided – or driven. He was not avid for responsibility. He was glad to hand over leadership to those who desired it, even to the ugly sister of a deceased despised missionary. He had arrived in Central Africa as a result of his habit of drifting, when all was said and done.

The story of their journey along the river Ulanga has no obvious glamour. Both protagonists are mid-life, and flawed. We see them in glimpses, Rose has a ‘big chin‘, ‘thick eyebrows‘ and she exists in a ‘frozen spinsterhood‘.

Yet, at the very beginning of the novel there is a hint that we should be careful how we prejudge her. Despite her respectability, and knowledge that ‘no woman of the age of fourteen and upwards ever appeared in public’ without a corset, Rose has (on account of the hot climate) reconciled her conscience and abandoned hers. She’s even considered ‘wearing no underclothing at all beneath her white drill frock.’

Allnutt is largely presented through his cockney accent. As with Rose, physical details are occasional, but telling.

In later years Rose could never picture Allnutt to herself without a cigarette – generally allowed to go out – stuck to his upper lip half-way between the centre and the left corner of his mouth. A thin straggling beard, only a few score black hairs in all, was beginning to sprout on his lean cheeks.

The two characters spend most of their time sweating, and dirty, and arguing. In that process, though, they are revealed to each other, and to us.

There is one thing bothers me. For a novel with such a powerful African setting, we meet few Africans, and those we do are stereo-typically of the period. This might be because mostly they are described either through the consciousness of one of the protagonists, or by them, and in terms of their absence. Villagers have either been conscripted by the German colonial chief, or disappeared in order to escape capture.

It is this rounding up, that has already taken place when the novel opens, that provides the spark for the rest of the story. In his book, African Settings in Contemporary American Novels, Dave Kuhne says that the river Ulanga is ‘the only important African character in the plot‘. It certainly held a more central role in my consciousness than Von Hanneken managed to.

Six degrees of separation: from Fight Club to Weaveworld.

This week I can’t resist joining the monthly Six Degrees Meme, where the challenge is to create a literary chain that starts from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club.

I liked the film so much I had to read the novel, and loved that even more. So, I expected finding my first link would be easy. It took a little more thought than I expected, but I found it in the text.

Three weeks and I hadn’t slept.  Three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience.  My doctor said, “Insomnia is just the symptom  of something larger.  Find out what’s actually wrong.  Listen to your body.”

I just wanted to sleep.  I wanted little blue Amytal Sodium capsules, 200-milligram-sized.  I wanted red-and-blue Tuinal bullet capsules, lipstick-red Seconals.

chapter 2

That list of drugs took me straight to Michael Chabon’s, Wonder Boys. In his novel another first person narrator, Professor Grady Tripp also has a close relationship with pharmaceuticals. “Looks like my old friend Mr Codeine…” the injured Tripp tells his student, James Leer, as he rifles through a friend’s luggage. They’ve just been hiding the body of the dog James has shot in the boot of Tripp’s car.

The dog belongs to the husband of the woman Tripp has been conducting a five year affair with, Sara Gaskell. She’s chancellor of the Pittsburgh college where he teaches Creative Writing.

The time frame is a mere weekend, but the roller-coaster of events are epic in scale. It is, on one level, a reworking of Homer’s, The Odyssey, so this is my third link.

Homer’s epic could take me in a variety of interesting directions. I choose Penelope, wife to Odysseus. One of the strategies she uses to fend off the unwanted suitors who claim Odysseus must be dead, is weaving.

Who else for my fifth link, then, but Silas Marner, George Eliot’s ‘weaver of Raveloe’. The story opening takes us back to a time, when hand-loom weavers lived in villages:

‘… – there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.’

Chapter 1

It is this suggestion of ‘otherness’ that leads me to my sixth link, Weaveworld, by Clive Barker. In his novel, a magical race known as the Seerkind have woven a secret world, called ‘the Fugue’, into a carpet.

Maybe I’ve always been fascinated by rugs. All I know is that after reading this novel, I became certain there was something waiting to be seen.