Wednesday, April 30, 2003
Ah, the lengths to which one will go: the interests dug up, the sudden passions revealed, the pains endured and the stupidities manufactured...
Monday evening, after I'd posted the latest set of Outremer proofs back to the States, I went to a poetry reading. Not so unusual, I do it fairly often; and no, it's not about knowing thine enemy. Hell, some of my best friends are poets. In this instance, David Constantine was the poet, and interesting enough to interest me in the series of lectures he's giving all this week. Poetry may not be my own practice any longer, but I do retain a fondness for the form, so long as it doesn't get uppity; and I could never claim any degree of disinterest, I am invested here. Fiction feeds from verse as much as it offers back; the rhythms of prose are the rhythms of poetry are the pulse of the language as it lives and breathes.
After the reading, I was taken out to dinner and then tempted to North Shields on a promise of whisky and chocolate. Tuesday morning, then, started a little blurry (damn that Belgian chocolate...); but I took the Metro back to Newcastle, walked home and spent an hour painting the back yard. Then I walked into town for my 11.30 physiotherapy appointment, to be told with much merriment that my appointment was for 2.00pm. So I walked home again, changed my clothes for the third time that morning and did another hour's painting. Then I walked back into town, suffered under Karen's iron thumbs and decided not to go home again; even that walk can pall. Whereas shop lights, as we know, can never dim. So I did some Chinese homework, and then I shopped. For pots, as it happens, for the back yard, but it might have been for anything. And so to David Constantine's lecture - on translation, and fascinating, and very much about Keats - and then immediately on afterwards to the Theatre Royal, to see 'The Gondoliers'. Straight up-and-down production, no offence in the world. G & S has never been my thing, particularly; I do musicals with relish, and opera with delight, but the bastard form, neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring - I don't really know what to do with it, how to read it, where to find the passion. Still, I was very glad to be there last night.
And today started with the first session of a morning course on M R James and the Victorian ghost story - and no, I'm not tutoring, that's Gail. I'm just a student. Then lunchtime drinking and I scurried home to do not very much before I scuttled out again, back to the lecture circuit: David C on the usefulness of poetry (and very much about Brecht), and then straight over the quad for the first Chinese lesson of the new term.
And all this self-improvement, all this home-improvement, can it really be all in lieu of Sophie? Or is at least a portion of it that more familiar displacement activity, the avoidance of work, of writing? I don't know, no one's asked me yet.
Posted by Chaz at 11:24 PM GMT [Link]
Sunday, April 27, 2003
Another week, and busy-busy still. Currently obsessed with gardening, or the little imitation of it that I can manage with small aptitude, no experience and no garden. More shopping for pots & seeds, more useless endeavours to get hold of a compost-bin cheap from the council - this is National Compost Awareness Week, did you know? Were you aware? - and dreams of a wormery, only resisted because I doubt my ability to keep worms alive & healthy. This has to be a passing fad, but I'm exploiting it while it lasts; I have primed & painted half my back yard, and am waiting for the good weather to come back so that I can do the other half. Meanwhile, I have the first chilli of the year starting to mature. I brought two of last year's cayenne-plants through the winter alive but distressed, almost no leaves on them; instead of growing new ones, as I had vaguely hoped, they've just gone straight into a profusion of flowers, and one has set fruit already. April really is the cruellest month. The poor things must be terribly stressed, hurling themselves into an orgy of reproduction in anticipation presumably of a swift demise; I feel guilty, but I can't think of anything to do to calm them down. Besides which, stressed plants produce hotter chillies...
Another set of proofs has come from America, so I have that to fall back on in the rain, detailed but mindless work, my favourite. And I'm having the odd nocturnal foray back into the novella - a couple of times now I've been steaming in my bath, thought 'I might just have a look at that when I get out, see where we are', and found myself hard at work an hour later. I'm beginning to wonder whether it's going to have anything ghostly in it at all; at the moment it seems to be shaping up to be straight and simple fiction. Which is okay by me, it can do what it likes so long as I like it, but I'm not sure how Pete-the-publisher would react if I offered him something that was not identifiably genre in any way. We may find out.
Last week's cassoulet should have been served with pickled walnuts. I threw everyone into panic & confusion in a search for pickled walnuts, tracked them down in Sainsbury's, and then forgot to serve them. Defended myself with the suggestion that it sounded fairly weird to me anyway; Jean quite rightly pointed out that brown sauce is a classic with baked beans, and this was just an upmarket version of that. So I tried it with the leftovers next day, and right she was: a fine combination. And, of course, I found a second vast jar of pickled walnuts in the larder. The cassoulet should also have been made with Toulouse sausages, but I couldn't lay my hands on them, so I substituted chorizo - good, but clearly not the same. So I was rootling around in the freezer this week, and what did I find? Saucissons de Toulouse. I'm just going to have to cook the cassoulet again, and get it right this time. Another day, another dinner party. Sigh.
Posted by Chaz at 04:32 PM GMT [Link]
Saturday, April 19, 2003
Life without Sophie: it's a busy thing. Deliberately so. I am not an idiot.
Thursday was Jean's birthday, Stephen and Candy were coming up from London, I had been inveigled into cooking a dinner for seven. It meant I could spend Wednesday shopping, that evening cooking; I had it planned so that all the intensive work would be done by Thursday morning when Roger came to collect me, so's I could idle all of Thursday and still be entirely ready for the meal, and so enjoy the day. All of which I might have done if I hadn't decided to stretch things one stage further than was reasonable, on the Wednesday night. Main course was to be a cassoulet of sorts, of lamb and garlic and sausage; I'd cooked the meats and the beans separately, all the time-consuming stuff, I'd had a bath, I should have stopped and gone to bed. I am not sleeping, which makes me stupid; I didn't stop, I thought I'd go the extra mile and get the dish assembled. So that needed a head of garlic simmering, while I layered beans and meats. My kitchen is small and cramped, I have no space to put anything, I was feeling flustered already by the lack of room; I was wearing my bathrobe, which has these heavy dangling sleeves; I reached over the garlic-pan for the meat-pan, and the sleeve caught the handle, and the pan tipped over. And in snatching my arm away too late, I somehow managed to catch the bean-pot and knock that off the stove too, so that the kitchen floor was swamped with cooking-liquors and parboiled garlic cloves and catastrophe...
Actually it wasn't quite catastrophic, the only food on the floor was the garlic and I have lots of garlic, I buy it by the pound. But I was deeply anxious about the cassoulet's tasting thin without the addition of the bean-liquor; and it took me half an hour to clean the floor and recover calm enough to go to bed, and of course I didn't sleep, so I was just anxious and fretful all the day. No great harm, in the end: we started with a mussel salad (warm and wet, but not of course to be confused with a Mexican dry soup), enhanced in interest at least by the discovery of razor clams in the fishmonger's that day. Note to self: bizarre, but razor clams cook quicker than mussels. Next time, I'll do them separately. Then a cold salad, confit of duck with red cabbage and watercress; then the cassoulet - which I reinforced with wine, and it did not taste noticeably thin - and then my signature dessert, the chocolate crème brulée with preserved cherries. Which I bruléed with a blowtorch, and poked at uncertainly to see if it was crisping, and so got a magnificent sugar-burn on my finger. Lord, but that hurts...
And then I barely slept that night either, but when I did I dreamed of Sophie, first time since she died. That was fine, she was dead but she came back and we were both of us pleased to see her, Misha and me. Misha is doing much less well in real life; I didn't get home till late on Friday, which I think must be the first time she's ever been alone overnight, and she really wasn't happy. It's taken me twenty-four hours to get her settled; and tonight Harry had a barbecue in North Shields, and I was under some pressure to stay overnight, but I came home and am very glad I did. I like to think I wouldn't pander to the neuroses of my pet, but she is genuinely upset and unsettled and I think I owe it to her to be here...
Posted by Chaz at 11:24 PM GMT [Link]
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Ah, it never rains but it pours...
Actually, at the moment, it just never rains. This is not a complaint. Sunday I let some friends take me shopping, round the garden centres of Durham; I'm generous like that. Yesterday I was in the back yard much of the day, potting and repotting and planting seeds for what is absolutely not going to be known as the Sophonisba Memorial Garden; this weekend I have plans to paint all the high walls white. Only trouble is I have entirely knackered my shoulder; I saw Karen-the-physio yesterday, and she says I have given myself a compression injury, through injudicious use of the sledge-hammer. Just when all my bad neural symptoms were in full retreat, he sighed. I'm not sure she'd approve of my sploshing gallons of paint around, but the forecast is for continued dryness, so it may just have to be done.
Today, I could do nothing. It's probably just tiredness on account of the not-sleeping I'm so good at these days, but I've felt like a man on the edge of a virus all day, cold and shaky and aching all over. Hottest day of the year, and I've had the gas-fire on all afternoon. If I tell anyone (apart from you, dear diary, the only one I trust...), they'll either say 'Chaz, that's called grief, pull yourself together,' or else 'Omigod, you've got SARS,' and frankly I don't need either one of these diagnoses. One is absurd (I haven't been to Taiwan for two years, two long years, I haven't even spoken to anyone from Taiwan for a month or more and I'm sure that e-mail is not a vector, but I have friends who will advance it none the less) and the other is just banal and not useful. I shall spent the day spread out on my gorgeous green sofas watching Angel videos, as I haven't yet claimed the early Buffys from Gail (my friends are most usefully exchanging their vids for DVDs, which is a technology too far for me, but it means that I get custody of the redundant tapes) and the later stuff is too harrowing. It's gone so grim & gloomy, I'm almost not enjoying series six. Sigh.
Still, I have just been asked to contribute to an anthology of Grand Guignol; that brings its own little brightness. I thought I was being such a subtle writer these days, left all the thunder-and-lightnings behind me with my youth and now I danced on the point of a pin. But hey, they want sex and blood and gore, I guess I can still oblige. I just looked up 'gore', to be sure I wasn't committing a tautology (you can get flung out of the Bloggers' Union for that, you know), and it derives from the Old English for filth or dung, the Old Norse cud or slime. Those meanings are technically obsolete, but hey, so let's recover 'em. Interesting to know how the word made that shift, from filth to clotted blood to blood in general; I do have the soul of a philologist, just not the academic patience. But apparently there's a thing called gory dew, 'a dark-red slimy film sometimes seen on damp walls, etc, a simple form of vegetable life'. Now that is worth recovering. [Definitions here, herebefore and hereinafter are courtesy of Chambers, if not otherwise credited. The only dictionary, apart from one or two of the others...]
Posted by Chaz at 03:38 PM GMT [Link]
Saturday, April 12, 2003
My Sophie-cat died yesterday morning.
It is of course inevitable, an absolute that we will outlive those who love us; it's an inherent condition of being alive, and we pass it on like a baton at our deaths. I did think, I had allowed myself to think that it would be easier when the one who died was a cat and not a person. I was wrong. She occupied the same space, in a literal and a metaphorical sense; she lived with me, she slept with me, she refined my understanding of what it is to be loved. And, of course, I adored her. Her dying has ripped away one of those skins we grow, to shield ourselves from the world; sunlight dazzles me, I flinch from textures, everything's immediate and sharp.
So what do I do last night? I go out and party. This seems to be my pattern, some kind of pack-instinct, perhaps; I did it when Andy died, I did it when Quin died, every time I lose someone who really matters. My mind crawls off into some darkened space and pulls the world in after it; my body just tries to get drunk, first alone (half a bottle of whisky, and the afternoon in the pub) and then in company. There always seems to be a party somewhere. Last night it was my new friend Joanna; I was determined to be good, and I was good. A little indiscreet, perhaps, but I don't much care about that. And I left sensibly early, while the Metro was still running, so that I didn't have to walk home from Wallsend; and then I settled down with Misha on my knee and finished that bottle of whisky, and then I went to bed. Sober. I don't know what it is about crisis, grief, what kind of chemical the body pumps around, but it kills off the alcohol in me distressingly fast. There's no law that I know of, that says you have to deal with this stuff in a state of brutal clarity, but it seems to be true none the less.
When I can work out the technology (how to slim down a massive jpeg file into something manageable, with the software that I have), I'll post a picture of my Sophie here.
In her late years, being Queen of the Undead, my beautiful zombie-cat. I suppose she's gone off now to be Queen of the Dead. The question was raised yesterday, whether people are allowed into kitty-cat heaven; we decided that they must be, at least a few, or what would shoulder-cats have to ride around on? That was the hardest moment this morning, going downstairs for the first time in many years without a cat sinking her claws into my neck, rubbing her chin on my shoulder and making polite enquiries about what might be for breakfast.
Posted by Chaz at 01:03 PM GMT [Link]
Thursday, April 10, 2003
If being a writer is all about shouting 'Me, me, look at me, look what I can do!' (and it is, believe me, it is), then keeping a weblog must be the same thing in capitals, in bold, with underlining. I have been musing on this recently - not the ego thing, we know all about that, but the process, the seeming self-examination and the artifice involved. It's doubly significant right now because I'm playing on both sides of the mirror, writing also a first-person narrative which is allegedly fiction.
No, strike that 'allegedly' - it is fiction. Just that it surprises me constantly by the amount that it borrows of what's true. Most of my contemporary work has been set in Newcastle, because that's where I live and it always seemed to make sense to set my books in my own back yard; so I started writing this story of childhood and suddenly found that it was happening in Oxford, all unexpectedly. Which makes the same kind of sense, because that's where I grew up, among the colleges and crows. Only the story keeps coming back to me and asking to borrow more than that, nipping little buds of truth and pickling them in fiction (please note, I may create the metaphor but I avoid the inherent pun; this book is not a caper novel) [but please note also that I do draw your attention to the pun; wouldn't want you to think that I'd missed it. Which is the deliberate kind of layering that I'm about to talk about here, so bear with me].
I've always taken a rigorous position on first-person narrative, that it is actually straight autobiography, only that it comes from a fictional character. So it needs to follow the rules of that form (including the character's surviving the text, or how is the story ever written down?), but it also offers the opportunities of the genre (including the notion of moving on to other work; my plans for Benedict Macallan include his writing a first novel, to follow the two volumes of his life story). This leads to some interesting game-playing, but it means that I feel a discipline, a particular responsibility settling on my shoulders as soon as I start writing in the first person.
And that carries over to this, because this is still or again first-person narrative and the mood is exactly the same, that I'm creating the autobiography of a fictional character, only that character is myself and the material I work with is my life, and I borrow only a little from my imagination. Honestly. The same games go on, but the rules are strict and I do not ever cheat.
And yet the whole thing feels sometimes like a cheat, because it is still a construct, it's not the real internal fly-on-the-wall it might pretend to be. There has been work-stuff recently that I've not been saying, for work-type reasons; there is apparently pure emotional stuff that is clearly not pure, that is in fact processed. I'm a writer, how can I not write for effect?
So I have been thinking about that, and then this morning I was reading some of the not-fiction (I think I prefer that to 'non-fiction', for what should by now be obvious reasons) of James Tiptree Jr, and I found her talking about exactly the same thing. Her example is Harlan Ellison, but the condition is universal, and Tip always says things better than I do, so here it is, lightly edited for ease of reading out of context:
'When you're reading Harlan's natural, candid accounts of his life, are you really looking behind the scenes? You are not. You are looking at more of Harlan's writing, not because Harlan is being deceptive or less than candid, but because he belongs to that type whose life forms into narrative as it is being lived, so that at every act of unveiling, at putting the naked squirm of the inmost flesh into words, another level of reality forms behind and beneath, in which the living Harlan exists just one jump ahead of the audience.'
The only point I'd want to argue is that the life forms into narrative as it's being written, rather than lived; and that therefore we all belong to that type, all of us who do this for a living.
Posted by Chaz at 05:09 PM GMT [Link]
Wednesday, April 9, 2003
Back to the vet with my Sophie-cat today, and the news is not good. Her bloods are up, her weight is down; they've put her on steroids as a last throw, to try to get her eating. She is sweet and long-suffering, and quite loud if I leave her alone when she thinks I should be dancing attendance at her sick-bed; I am outraged on her behalf, because the print-out from the blood test describes her as 'geriatric', which she is not. She just looks ancient, my zombie-cat, queen of the undead. It occurred to me t'other day that there is a chance - a slim one, granted, but a chance none the less - that she might be the last and only living creature on the planet who bears the name Sophonisba. More likely it's big in Zanzibar, how would I know? It doesn't matter, in any case, she has her own uniquity and I don't need to cast about for my share in it. Sufficient unto herself, is my Sophie. Tho' she does like to sit on people, and preferably me.
Oddly, I did a lot of work today. Sometimes that's just the way it goes.
Posted by Chaz at 11:28 PM GMT [Link]
Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Q: What's brown and sticky?
A: A stick.
As it happens, this is my all-time favourite joke. I think it should be the patron joke of all writers in English. Obviously, it wouldn't translate. Robert Frost said that what is lost in translation is the poetry; in this case, because it's a joke you can't call it poetry, but what would be lost would be the self-same thing, that sense of turning the language against itself, so that a simple and straightforward word suddenly means something entirely other. Which is half the job of writing, it's a joke that acts as a paradigm for poetry and fiction and a lot else besides.
Besides which, it's really funny. Cracks me up every time I hear it, which is often, because a lot of kids like it too.
It's on my mind this afternoon because of the weather. Bizarrely, we're having a really good spell, weeks of clear skies and sunshine and barely a spit of rain. So there I was out in the back yard watering my herbs, and thinking 'What's warm and springy? The spring!' and feeling altogether too pleased with myself. Good weather doesn't always equate to good moods, but good work usually does, especially when it's nearly over. I'm in my last week of tutorials for the university, one this lunchtime and one this evening, one more tomorrow and I'm done; the proposal for the next fantasy novel is back with my agents, and this time I'm fairly sure it's finished (been working on that fairly solidly for the last few weeks, but I haven't really been able to discuss it here, on account of one of my editors is known to read this weblog...); most of my booked gigs are behind me now, which leaves me free to work on the novella for PS Publishing. Technically I haven't written much yet, just a few thousand words; but because it's a novella, I can think of it in terms of 'not far to go now, then'. Another twenty thousand words, give or take; and hey, I can write a thousand words a day, easy, get it finished by the end of the month...
Actually, that won't happen. Work emerges at a rate disproportionate to its length; a thousand words a day is bottom dollar for a novel, but quite rare for a short story, and a novella is much more a long short story than it is a short novel. Besides which, I'm deliberately taking my time; Pete said 'I don't care what you write, as long as it's the best thing you've ever written', and I don't want to disappoint him. Slow and careful, then, and try to keep on loving it as I am doing at the moment. Technically it's a ghost story, but I said from the start that I thought it might turn out to be one of those ghost stories that don't actually have a ghost in them. What it is, or what it seems to be at the moment, is a book about being haunted. Different people, haunted by different things: memories, loss, dreams, regret. And a homunculus in a jar, we don't want to be too metaphysical here. Metaphorical, absolutely (it's called 'Being Small', and it has half a dozen sections and each of those is also called 'Being Small', just to underline how laden with meaning and subtext it all is) and metafictional, undoubtedly (it has a dedication, like all my books - but in this case the dedication is written by the narrator, not by me) but the only proper response to metaphysics is not to talk about it. My old English teacher once asked us for an essay on the subject, and I declined to do it, and saved my skin with a half-hour argument in class about how inappropriate it would be. One of those few petty triumphs that I cling to, from the slough of despond that was my schooldays. I still have trouble understanding anyone who actually enjoyed school. And yet, of course, some of my favourite reading is old school stories, from Tom Brown to Stalky to the Chalet School. I guess there's still a part of me that wants to go back and get it right next time; we call this living in fiction, and eschew it, and do it anyway.
Posted by Chaz at 04:25 PM GMT [Link]
Tuesday, April 1, 2003
My Sophie-cat has been really ill for the last ten days or so, and spent much of last week in hospital on drips & drugs, on the very edge of death. A fine example of home diagnosis at its worst: I knew her teeth were bad and suddenly she wasn't eating, so she went in for dental work. Fortunately they always do blood tests before they give an anaesthetic, at my practice; and so they found that her kidneys were shutting down on her. And managed to arrest that, but by Friday she was still very weak and listless and unhappy, so they said 'maybe she just doesn't like being in hospital; take her home for the weekend, Chaz,' which I interpreted as meaning 'have a last couple of days with her, bring her back on Monday and we'll put her to sleep.'
Saturday, I nearly yelled for them to come and do it anyway, not to wait till Monday. Friday night she'd been wonderful, out of her box and straight into the kitchen for a snack, a whole plateful of turkey before bed (I'd had friends for dinner, and cooked Mole Poblano; turkeys are big birds, and there was loads left for Sophie. Which was one reason I'd cooked Mole Poblano...); Saturday she didn't eat a thing all day, and spent most of it sitting in shadowy corners with her face turned to the wall. She was dreadfully hesitant on her feet, and I hated myself for being so indecisive, not to accept that she'd had enough. But I'm a perennial procrastinator, and she'd just started a new course of antibiotics, so I thought I'd just give them another 24 hours to kick in...
...And then came Sunday, and she spent half the day with her face in her food. Never much at once, and partly I think it was the sheer temptation of variety, as I shuttled treats under her nose, but she did at least eat, and I started feeling hopeful.
Then Monday. She was due back at the vet's at 3.00; and all morning she wouldn't eat at all, and my spirits crashed again. By two o'clock, I was sure it was all over bar the mourning. At half-past two we'd started waiting for our lift, only it was a little late arriving; at a quarter to three, Sophie jumped off my knee, wobbled into the kitchen and started eating. It's natural perversity is what it is. I could've throttled her, except her neck's so scrawny, where would be the fun?
And when we did get to the vet, he was actually kind of impressed with her strolling around the surgery as though she owned it, given how weak she'd been before. So we are still a household of three, where I really hadn't expected that to be true any more; and Sophie now has her special pills and her special food, and the entertainment is to try to make sure that (a) she does eat it and (b) Misha doesn't.
Posted by Chaz at 10:02 AM GMT [Link]
© Chaz Brenchley 2002/2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.