Just because one is capable, in debate, of winning an argument does that mean that one is right? One’s opponent could have been incapable of thinking on his or her feet, or simply not have been one’s intellectual or articulate equivalent. The argument was won that day is all.
Most of our Westminster politicians are graduates of university debating societies; or they are barristers looking for an easier life than scouting for winnable briefs. Same rules for them apply in Westminster as in court: win the argument, win the case.
Does that then mean that these debaters – the objective being to win the case regardless of the evidence – because they can regualrly win an argument that they are as capable of running an economy, organising an army, treating with other nations, seeing that their populace is housed, fed, clothed, kept occupied and the sick treated?
To emerge victorious debaters often rely more on emotion and myth, legend and prejudice, than on in-depth research, whose findings often contradict the much relied-upon-in-debate ‘commonsense’, a.k.a. myth and prejudice. Such serious research though rarely leads to good speech fodder.
Despairing of the waffle and if-you’ll-allow-me-to-finish debaters, business folk can often be found advocating running the country as if a profit and loss business. Except that a country is not a business with a bottom line or with shareholders to be kept happy and in pocket.
Nor is a country a supposedly self-contained household, to be managed as such. Although in either case good management is required.
Nor can a country be run like an armed force. Strict discipline will lead only to democratic revolt: more lassitude has to be allowed than would be in the ranks. No-one is recruited to a country; and allowances have to be made for those incapable of contributing, along with strategies evolved for how to manage malcontents. Manage being the operative word here.
Ask yourselves what improvements to human lives have been brought about through debate chamber politics, what through external campaigning, what through science and technology? Washing machines have freed more European women from drudgery than ever did parliamentary point-scoring. It has been medicine, diet, and social campaigns that have led to most people living beyond their thirties.
The argument here? Look to serious research, scientific and sociological, not to orotund speechifying.
Discuss. Supplying evidence to support your every single contention.
© Sam Smith 4th January 2020
Andrew Taylor – Adrian Henri: a critical reading Greenwich Exhange, London. www.greenex.co.uk ISBN 978-1-910996-28-7 234 pages £19.99
I left school at 16, am no academic. It was therefore with some trepidation that I dared even consider a review of this ‘critical reading.’ Because I have to say that Adrian Henri was by no means as influential on my life as he has been on Liverpool-born Andrew Taylor’s. When Adrian Henri was in his anti-war prime, creating Liverpool happenings and events, I was already getting beaten up by the London police while protesting the US war in Vietnam. I hadn’t needed Adrian Henri’s affirmation.
Andrew Taylor though is not of that generation, has grown up in Adrian Henri’s shadow. Was this book, I asked myself, his way of letting some light through?
No body of work can be separated from the life lived, and inevitably this study is as much biography as critique. Being biography, and given my age, the Introduction was enough to get the memory cells working.
First we are given a short history of Liverpool itself, the city with which Adrian Henri will forever be associated. Henri was the oldest of the band, The Liverpool Scene: Henri was born 1932, Roger McGough 1937 and Brian Patten 1946. Putting age differences aside they coalesced within the poetry, art and music scene of ‘60s Liverpool.
Ginsberg is often credited with ‘discovering’ that Liverpool, of the Beatles et al, albeit that he didn’t arrive until ’65. Ginsberg's though was more of an ordination. Nor had Liverpool been isolated prior to Ginsberg’s arrival: counter-culture influence had come internationally from the likes of Warhol, the Beats and European surrealists. Much as Henri’s own Dadaist ‘events’ would influence John Lennon’s later happy bedroom shenanigans with Yoko Ono. Indeed no matter what sixties city you had then been in those influences had seemed to come out of the air.
This is not to deny Liverpool’s unique contribution. Events there, for instance, focussed on ‘…audience enjoyment over individual gratification…’ and not silent appreciation. Participation there was expected. What this book had me realise was the influence those sixties 'events' had on me. Even though at the time they just were, a part of every bohemian scene. And for 'bohemian' read 'poor area', cheap housing/bedsits, squats maybe, with a fair sprinkling of [grant-aided] art student dropouts. Places for anyone drawn to the arts or to the counter culture, and like Henri few of us then considered separating out one strand of art from another: regardless of talent we all piled in, be it in London, Liverpool, Amsterdam, New York or Dublin.
Dadaism was in the air then. One night in London for instance Liverpudlian Martin and I, both writers manqué, both contentedly spliffed, tried to humanise the basement IBM 7090 by stuffing daffodils into its every crack and corner. So needy were Imperial College of our new computer expertise that neither of us got the sack.
This typifies the problem I had with the book, I kept getting sent off into my own experiences of that time, my own memories of artists and movements mentioned; and then pausing over some aspect of Andrew Taylor's analysis which had me review some of my own work. Especially the differences. Because what became readily apparent from those analyses was the realisation that Henri's poems were, by and large, written to be performed, mine for the page.
Fascinating as references to pop culture and poetry movements were, subtitle of the book has Andrew Taylor painstakingly taking apart Henri's poems. Antecedents are sought, influence of topography given, recent relationships noted and all are thoroughly referenced. Confident of his subject, Taylor allows criticisms of Henri to get included along with plaudits.
For any poet seeking inspiration I'd recommend a study of pages 82 to 84, where Henri's approach to poetry gets analysed.
A couple things I hadn't realised – just how much Henri had been influenced by US pop and counter-culture, and how involved Henri had been in the visual arts, even to it being his actual profession. And here I think was where I started to lose sympathy. Not that I grew a dislike of Henri, just that our experiences diverged and differences grew.
Common cause could of course still be found. A recounting of 1970s's eco-concerns had it come to me for just how very long we have been fighting this same battle. I did however find the period before these Liverpudlian Dadaists had become acceptable, and damn near respectable, the more interesting. Once they began to occupy establishment positions, less so.
While Henri was being president of this, invited to speak at, perform at that, I was out of work in Somerset and having novels returned from publishers as uncommercial. I can recall not being impressed then by people who were getting thousand pound grants while I was having to find cash-work on the black. And while for Henri and other insiders Thatcher might have been an outrage, for us counting pennies and paying for school milk she was our bitterest enemy. Even so schadenfreude had me pleased to read here of some Henri projects begun and come to nought.
Sorry, I've done it again. The book is not about me.
The absurdism created by Henri's list juxtapositions, and his using skipping rope rhythms and rhymes, however near nonsensical these might have been, pretty much guaranteed their general acceptability. Fun does it every time. Who am I to grouch?
In the book it is Liverpool, and the district of Liverpool 8 at that, that takes centre-stage. Anyone who knows Liverpool will find this book opening new doors for them. While for those who may have known Liverpool only through newspaper headlines, this will tell of another place, one that gave artistic life to Henri among many others. Henri's however turns out to have been by no means a parochial, nor a monogamous, nor a wholly city life. The influence of his friendships and his artistic partners, continuing after their going their separate ways, for me spoke well of all concerned.
The personal has to influence the artistic. So all here, Henri's paintings, his musical adventures, their overlap, all get thoroughly analysed. Given Andrew Taylor's profession the poetry most of all. That analysis including likely inspirations, right down to where in the world each poem was written, who it was written to/about, and the season, including the political weather.
Catherine Marcangeli, Henri's last partner, said, 'For Adrian... the city is the everyday and the country is the eternal.'
Henri himself said, '...how personal content can go into a work of art and not violate its universal validity.' Which would seem to validate every single-strand confessional poem sent me. It doesn't. As Andrew Taylor's critique demonstrates Henri was a total artist, he made art.
Finally I must emphasise that my trepidation was unwarranted. Even if this falls far short as a review, I have to say that as a layperson I really enjoyed this forensic examination of Adrian Henri's life and work.
© Sam Smith 13th February 2020
Which comes first, the nationalistic we-are-the-best outlook, or the British media's capacity for over-hyping its national team's prospects? Either way little thought will be given to our sporting opponents' equal desire to win, we Brits believing that we will win simply because being Brits we are the best.
This national delusion is sustained by our media and political class. Thus does our every defeat come as a shock.
The same applies to our political dealings with other nations. Throughout the 3 years of Brexit, little thought was given to what the rest of Europe might want, how in truth they might react... Nor did any rational explanation come forth from the arch-brexiteers telling us what a 'clean break' might actually mean. Especially when our largest trading partner, because of its geographical closeness, would still be Europe.
I suppose that if Brexit achieved little else it confirmed my distrust of democracy - as practised here in the UK, ruled by self-interest and the magnate-owned media. First indoctrinate your electorate. This Brit brand of democratic government, via pressure groups and paid lobbyists, add in an unelected second chamber jampacked with cronies, and it has proved a recipe for corruption. Public discussion, such as it was for Brexit, only proceeded to demonstrate how British democracy is weighted in favour of the lowest common denominator, whose headline slogans could be shouted the loudest.
Regardless Brits will still believe that their team will win. Could this in itself be a hangover of Empire? When we were the mother country dictating terms to the colonies? And in sport patronising them? Congratulating them when they put up a 'good show' against one of the mother country's teams?
Was that how, towards the end of Empire, we allowed the evacuation of Dunkirk to become a 'triumph'? Rather than examining the very foolishness of sending an ill-equipped British Expeditionary Force against the then mechanised might of the Third Reich. Had the Brits expected the BEF to win simply because they'd been British?
With the UK about to become reliant on World Trade rules expect many more such triumphs.
© Sam Smith 25th February 2020
This is not intended as a sales pitch, more a need to tell of what it has taken for a book, in this case Trees, to finally make it into printed book form.
There is no moment I can pin down for when the book started. I was playing around with various ideas – attitudes to adoption, death – and the tale took off. In that early experimentation I mentioned a couple of trees visible from a doctor's waiting room. Re-reading the piece I decided to also tell of the two trees. And that was the real start of the book.
What the telling of those two trees told me however was how little I knew of either of them, sending me off to find out more. So did different trees, wherever mentioned, also become characters in the novel. Not in an anthropomorphic sense, but as their woody selves.
Now I have always felt at home among trees – we are an arboreal species – and I was devastated, took it personally, when dutch-elm disease destroyed all those stately elms. I had grown up climbing elms; and at the top of our road a stand of elms had housed a rookery, from where the morning and evening raucous chorus had become a part of my childhood.
I had a country boy's knowledge of trees: for the book though I needed to know more. So I bought books on trees, attended lectures on forestry, talks given by woodland campaigners... A lot of that information never found its way into the novel; the need for reforestation though being a given throughout.
What also didn't ultimately find its way into the printed book were my illustrations. I had thought at first of using straightforward photos. But being b&w they would have sat darkly on the page. So I began outlining those photos I had already taken of various trees; and I very soon found that to do that the tree had to be isolated. Separating an already photographed tree from its background, be it forest or building, became such a muddle. So I found myself cycling to remembered trees – on a hilltop, a bend in the a road – and arranging myself so that only the sky was behind each of the trees. Then I'd work on the photos at home, condensing each to a simple image while keeping, I hoped, the tree's essence.
The writing, research, rewriting, searching out types of tree – wherever I happened to be in the country – took years. But finally I had an MS ready to submit.
Only to find that a novel called Trees didn't then readily fit any category. Most big publishers shied away from the very concept. Which left me with the small independents. I found one in Germany, who agreed to publish Trees as an e-book. But it would go out with only two or three of my illustrations. I had made enough illustrations to go with all of Trees' sixty six chapters.
Waiting for an available copy editor and a publishing slot took a further few months, but in October that year Trees became available online. Only for, in May the following year, the German publisher to cease trading.
Regardless of nationality this happens a lot with small independents, one-man bands or – with hindsight in the German case – a college project which ran out of funds and steam. (College-born poetry magazines likewise often disappear after a couple of issues.)
Not wanting to go the submission route again, time it takes waiting for a response, I decided to self-publish Trees as a free-to-publish kindle. I couldn't afford to self-publish Amazon's associated paperback. And with minimal publicity the kindle Trees picked up a few readers and a 5 star review.
It was shortly after that, at that year's Carmarthen Book Fair – I was there pushing Original Plus publications and The Journal as well as other of my own novels – that I met David Norrington of Wordcatcher Publishing. He looked over my stall, we chatted, and he expressed an interest in my backlist. He wanted to increase the range of his virtual store. I told him of the trouble I'd had getting Trees into print. He said to send him an MS of Trees.
The MS was sent, and David agreed to publish. First though he would like us to meet in his garden office. I was told to bring along some previous novels of mine.
It was a good meeting. David said that he was going to republish one of my out-of-print titles a month, then take on some others of mine under his imprint. David talked so much that, driving home, I wasn't sure what had just happened, just what I'd agreed to.
The first two to be republished were poetry collections. And they were really nice productions. Meanwhile I had been contacting previous publishers and making sure that copyrights were available and that they didn't mind their title[s] being re-issued. I also took as many of their entries down from Amazon as Amazon would let me, including the kindle of Trees.
So did the title-a-month drive arrive at the previously published novels. Again each updated version appeared with good thought-through covers. But as Wordcatcher continued to republish a title a month I came by the sense from David of some disappointment regards their sales and my promotion of them. I'd been doing what I could online, and although the response from previous readers was generally positive, sales were few. My difficulty was that I'd already pushed those titles on their first appearances; and their now appearing one after the other made promotion problematic.
Nevertheless with all five of the Sci-Fi series published Trees was next. David said that it'd be out before Christmas. That, I thought, took care of that year's Chistmas presents. But the proofs didn't appear. David had been having trouble with his website and was having to devote most of his time to getting that sorted. Then in the new year it transpired that he was unsure to which genre Trees belonged. Eco-fiction is new and not every bookseller has space allotted to that genre. (Check out the many categorisations for H is for Hawk.)
David's reluctance apparent I found myself having to push for proofs, send reminders... almost to the point of causing offence.
But the paperbacks did finally arrive, and Trees is now available pretty much worldwide. Albeit minus my illustrations. (A sample sheet of them below.) As to why I have gone to all this trouble explaining the history of this one book, it is because if any book of mine is The Book then Trees has to be it.
© Sam Smith 13th March 2020
PS As I said in the beginning I did mean this as a history of the book and not as a sales pitch. David however would be tearing his hair out if I didn't at the very least say where Trees could be bought. So here is the link - https://wordcatcher.com/product/trees/
The lesson I am about to deliver here is that one should never believe any publisher, or publisher's representative, or literary agent who gives the impression of speaking on behalf of all publishers, all booksellers, all readers even, when they authoritatively tell you that your work is unpublishable. Unless we have paid for publication, or been fortunate enough to attend (paying) one of those workshops where one is introduced to a literary agent at the course's end, we as writers have all known outright rejection.
Philip K Dick easily heads the Rejection League Table by his returning home once to 48 individual rejections on his doormat. Closely followed by Samuel Becket whose novel Murphy was rejected 42 times. Not quite sure what qualifies one for inclusion in this League Table, nor whereabouts I would be placed in it; but, from my first submission to a work in print, I built up 23 years of rejections.
Nor does it happen that rejections cease with the one acceptance. Take Somerset Maughan: he had his first novel published, then proceeded to suffer 11 years of rejection until his second novel found a publisher.
I'd best be clear. In my 23 years of not getting published it was not all straightforward rejections. I received a lot of encouragement from publisher's editors and readers, even got taken on by agents and publishers; but, for one reason or another, nothing of mine then managed to find its way into print. Like Boswell, 'wearied with waiting', I used to dream of finding myself a patroness like Tchaikovsky's Madame Von Beck, or like Balzac's patron, someone who would believe in my talent regardless of publication; and save me finding yet another day job.
Most of those novels written during my 23 year years of struggle have since found publishers. Some of their 'unpublishable' number even going on to win or to get shortlisted for prizes. So it goes....
Compared to J S Bach however we are all us mere beginners in our waiting for recognition. Oh J S Bach did get fêted for his organ playing during his lifetime, received some acknowledgement too for those of his compositions that he included in his organ playing repertoire. But in the 200 years following his death there were few, if any, performances of his work. He had to wait to be 're-discovered'. As did John Clare have to wait for Edmund Blunden and EP Thompson to rediscover him. And poor John Clare had spent a large part of his last years locked away in an asylum believing he'd been forgotten.
Those 23 years of mine don't now seem quite so bad.
© Sam Smith 2nd April 2020
I stopped being respectable a long time ago. Probably because it was simply too difficult. Especially growing up in a small Devon village where everyone thought they knew everyone else’s scandalous family history; and where the rules seemed to change at every social gathering, making at least one new faux pas inevitable.
I early realised that that kind of village-touted respectability was conformity with the added ingredient of self-righteousness. “Respectable folk round here.” Followed by, later when I first had long hair, “Your sort aren't welcome here.”
Mention of respectability usually has the smallmindedness of wanting-to-be-inoffensive suburbia come to mind. In my experience though this respectability, this right-on thinking, extends to any grouping. And in any grouping I seem to have managed at one time or another to have stepped 'over the line'.
Consequently beyond childhood I have never sought to subsume myself in any grouping. Certainly I have joined groups, but in the knowledge that sooner or later, and possibly unwittingly, I will break one of their rules, cause offence, and all within that group will righteously attack or turn away from me. Respectable I cannot be.
No-one with an eye and ear for the ridiculous, for the self-evidently illogical, can hope to remain respectable. And when it comes to writing any attempt to appear respectable has to be a non-starter. On the page truth must out or authenticity is forfeited. While truth itself, any kind of truth, is the very enemy of respectability.
Art, any art, must question; and once asked the answers will probably be incompatible with respectability. Here the difference between academics and artists becomes evident. Biographers so want their subjects to belong, make the supposition that their subjects wanted to be respectable. O no they didn't. Would have been the very death of their creativity.
There was recently a fuss made by certain feminists over gender recognition. One of those feminists was claiming wrongful dismissal for having said that the law on gender recognition was wrong, This brought into conflict two sets of belonging – adherence to the law passed by society while at the same time espousing the exclusivity of womanhood.
Writer me, always uneasy about censorship, had no problem with the publication of her views. But the law, right or wrong, is the law: break it and suffer the consequences. Her having broken the law on hate speech it seemed odd to then to seek the protection of the law for wrongful dismissal.
I doubt either side of this dispute will find my views amenable. Nevertheless here I go treading this still contentious ground of reassigned gender.
As a nurse I met with those who had changed gender; and my nursing heart had gone out to them. Theirs had not been an easy decision, nor had their transition from the one to whichever was the other. While my own lapses from the socially acceptable have all been of my own making, they had been driven to theirs, had wanted only to be let back into the fold on their own terms. Something that the feminist excluders didn't seem to be even considering, the very real agony, social and physical, involved in sexual transition.
All that aside, having once decided that any kind of respectability was not for me, the sight of someone doing their utmost to ingratiate themselves back into the fold – after some indiscretion or drunken escapade, or they had dared once to be outrageous or disagreeable – would either sicken or amuse me. Whereas those who had no choice but to be different, for whatever reason, and who just wanted to belong somewhere... they have, despite seeming contradictions on my part, my sympathy.
Not that my sympathy makes me better or worse than anyone else. Once committed to being disreputable one has to abandon all hope of ever being holier-than-thou. There is no going back ever. One has to get used to, be amused by, one's own failures, learn to keep one's own company.
© Sam Smith 18th April 2020
Writer-to-Reader, the act of writing and the act of reading are two private acts joined publicly.
They are private in the sense that, although the physical act of writing may be being performed publicly, in a café say, the space the writer will have created about themselves, their concentration on the page/screen, the dwelling within their thoughts, the writer may as well be in a monastic cell.
While, book open before them, whether on a train or a park bench, or four tables away in the café and scrolling down their phone e-book, the reader too, absorbed as they are in the text, might as well be sitting alone in a forest glade.
Wherever either are such has to be the purest writer-reader connection.
There are intruders here however. Generally those publishers and booksellers with other motives and misleading blurbs. And reviewers who write as they read. Critics and interpreters of the text too. Then there are the reluctant students with their required reading...
Not forgetting those readers who want to join together in adulation of a book. And while such reverence for their work might initially be gratifying to the author, fandom on such a scale can very soon become psychologically restrictive. When a book becomes a bible, the words in print beyond question, its author has to defy every expectation placed upon their future work, which can skew the writing, it no longer being private.
Within fandom so too can a reader find themselves unable to express any criticism of such a work – not without calling outrage and charges of disloyalty down upon themselves. Thus do two private acts become public.
Fandom is why, often, I wait until the hype around a book has evaporated, and I can let the author, alive or long dead, speak privately into my private ear.
© Sam Smith 30th April 2020
Law is self-evidently man-made. Can be changed.
Lydford law was one that saw a man hung in the morning and judged guilty in the afternoon. Which act would have been typical of most North Devon Tories not that long ago. Providing they could spend half a day punishing someone and the other half tearing a fox or deer to pieces, North Devon Tories would have been pretty near content with their lot.
The really odd thing about laws and law-makers though is that it is the law-makers themselves who often have the least respect for the law. Take assassination and torture, illegal in most countries. There are exceptions of course, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, to name but four neighbours. Most other countries though, those who regard themselves as 21st Century civilised, within their own borders assassination and torture are against their own laws.
Doesn't of course stop the agents of those 'civilised' countries practising assassination outside of their borders. Most obvious examples here would be Russia and Israel, and again Saudi Arabia. Although I can't think of any militaristic country that doesn't indulge in extra-judicial killings. Agents of the USA even kidnap a person in one country and secretly transport them to another country in order to torture them. Torture in their case getting called all kinds of euphemisms – dark arts, water-boarding....
While assassination, extra-judicial killing, may be considered bad enough, what is most appalling about torture is that it serves no purpose. Any confession obtained under torture is worthless. Victims of torture will in the end say whatever it is they think the torturers want to hear. Frantz Fanon's writings on torture should be required reading in all military and police academies.
While any country that seeks to call itself civilised should relinquish torture within and without its borders, as well as abandon extra-judicial killing whether by poison, drone, garotte, cleaver or ice pick, there's nothing to be done about North Devon Tories.
© Sam Smith 18th May 2020
I can't say this often enough, a successful poem is a work of art. Every poem therefore should at the very least aspire to be a work of art. Thus how the poem is presented, whether it be on screen or on paper, the finished look of the thing is necessarily important.
As editor I actually enjoy opening submissions, want to find work that I can accept for The Journal, can show off in The Journal. And, if told beforehand, I will make allowances for dyslexia in a submission. Also, if informed, or italicising makes obvious, local usages are equally acceptable. But I will dismiss out of hand any submission that contains typos or blatant misspellings. Why should I be bothered with a submission when the author couldn't be bothered running their work through a spellcheck?
The most basic of all basic rules is that what cannot be misused in a poem is language. I don't mean the toying with, the deliberately experimenting with language, but the so obviously using the wrong word, an incorrect spelling. There is a craft to be mastered here, and the first throw of the pot is not good enough. If you are going to present the work as a submission then correct it, rework it, make it presentable.
Bear in mind also that all art is a form of communication, and it is equally important to not have the art misunderstood; be as clear as you are able within each poem in what you seek to communicate or convey.
Along the same lines it follows that as a writer you have to be in control of the language, not the language in control of what you are trying to say. Cliché, unless parody, will not do. Poets also have to be in control of the form (rhyme, syllable count, whatever) and not the form dictating what words they use.
And having said all that what's the betting that the next submission I open will not have even glanced at The Journal's submission guidelines and will have a poem about God in dum-de-dum rhyme. Ah well... No-one said I had to become a poetry editor.
© Sam Smith 28th May 2020
or a cursory examination of various tactics employed within social media threads.
Ad hominem is probably the primary tool there. No matter the topic under discussion, in dispute, no matter what belief you may espouse, it will be your right to hold it that will be questioned: “So a long-haired / balding lout like you thinks...” And should you claim to be neither long-haired, balding, or even a lout, that is now be what the argument will be about. So your interlocutor will already, in his or her mind, have won what they perceive as the disagreement; and winning would seem to be all that matters to the users of such tactics.
And should you attempt to justify your right to dispute, and persist with what led you onto the thread, then the original issue will this time be adroitly sidestepped with an, “And I suppose you also hold that...” putting you again on the defensive.
Other opinions/characters for you to defend will also be invented: “I suppose you want / believe / support....”
The trick is always, their aim being only to exit the argument triumphant, to find your weak spot, and then to – despite your every denial – sneer and mock.
Accusations of brainwashing (your brain, not theirs) will also be employed. And to further undermine any other argument you may put forward, a single word will be picked on and used to scorn, no matter how remote that word's association with a scandalous character or creed. Apposite or erroneous, misquotes, factoids and part-quotes will be thrown at you, all in support of their opposite view. And should you take issue with any of the quotes then in all likelihood you will be met with, “So you think you know better than...?”
At this point you may find someone coming to your defence. These, with much to say, will be the mirror opposite of the nit-pickers. Their one argumentative weapon is flow. Adopting a YMCA Born Again debating mode, a practised and smiling tolerance of all views opposite to their own, they will launch into a bright-eyed and unstoppable outpouring.
Such argumentative tactics are of course not confined to social media, are just as likely to happen in real time. Parents, siblings, classmates, teachers... If you as a young person feel that you won't become, can't be bothered to become much of a conversationalist, but you still have much you need to say, then take up, not writing, but dentistry. You can then say whatever is on your mind and they, with their mouths clamped open, can only grunt difference by way of demur.
© Sam Smith 11th June 2020
Even when younger I always felt that I was recovering from an illness when I came off night-shift, would be careful with myself. Then, somewhat older but no better off, after a few weeks of night-shift I did actually become ill enough – sleep deprived and physically exhausted – to find myself hospitalised.
Mental Health Trusts were then trying to do away with permanent night-shift workers. Their given reason was that they feared the permanent night staff had become institutionalised and were slipping behind new practices by never being around for courses during the day. So all nursing staff were made to do rotational shifts, which meant my being on nights every third week.
Up until then I'd been more than happy covering the 0700-2000 days. On those shifts the weeks got broken into three day shifts, the first from 1300 to 2000, the next day the whole 13 hours, rounding off on the third day with the morning 0700 to 1400 shift. Followed by a day off, and every other weekend covered from late Friday through to early shift Monday.
With the two sets of regular night-shifts turn and turn about, this shift system had worked well in the old Victorian asylum. In the smaller 'community' units though, having fewer staff, the Trusts had decided that it was only fair to have every member of the nursing staff on 24 hour rotational shifts.
As I said when younger and working an occasional week of nights hadn't been that much of an upset. Getting enough sleep during the day has always proved difficult, but I had managed. And I hadn't then been nursing, but babysitting long programs on Imperial College computers. In fact once I'd moved departments, to Nuclear Physics, I actually used to look forward to my nights on the 9th floor. Left to myself, and once I'd set the programs running, I could settle to work on my then novel.
Not so nights nursing on a psychiatric acute unit. Some of those nights I was lucky to snatch a break. Which eventually made me so ill that my GP got me signed off nights. And I was not the only one so aversely affected.
So it was that much of the latter part of my nursing career, as shop steward, was spent fighting cases to have other nurses excused night-shifts. And since then several studies have shown that for some of us this is now a medically accepted condition. While some individuals may prefer working just nights – suits their current situation, child care, hobbies, et cetera – for those like me our bodily rhythms will simply not adapt to the constant changing of day for night.
Despite that many NHS Trusts still advocate rotational shifts. With so few staff in the smaller units however a semi-formal swapping around of shifts has become accepted practice, leading again to de facto near permanent night-shifts.
Good to have been ahead of the game for once. Now let's see if other of my ongoing campaigns will bear fruit, in that the NHS will bring back the in-between grade, the much-missed SENs, and Wales will at long last get its very own Poetry Library.
© Sam Smith 3rd July 2020
The time-consuming practice of art – preparation, draft by draft, rehearsal upon rehearsal – needs to be subsidised. And if not by the public purse, then by the individual artist earning a wage doing something other; or by the artist's parents or partner's support. Art though must always require subsidy, has to require patronage of one kind or another; and there are not that many Nadezhda von Mecks around.
For the purpose of this piece however let us define Arts funding as the grants given out by quasi-governmental arts bodies, and begin with those given to enable the publication of poetry.
An irrefutable law seems to have grown from Arts funding, especially when applied to poetry magazines as a 'start-up' grant. This law states that the grant-receiving magazine will last just as long as the grant lasts, plus one more issue. The final, that one more issue, will be the one that demonstrates to its editors/publishers (usually a team) that their 'business model' won't now have them breaking even.
Had just one of that team chosen to start a magazine off their own bat and had looked at the economies of scale needed, at the chances of ever making a profit, and had set their sights accordingly, then the chances are that the magazine could have grown, issue by issue, from its humble stapled origins. Instead the grant-aided magazine opens with a full colour cover, perfect bound issue; and with its editors taking a fee, plus – as insisted upon by the grant-givers – offering a token payment to the contributors. Such largesse would seem designed to deceive.
One has to wonder at the reasoning behind the giving of Arts grants if all that they lead to, after issue four, is failure and disaffection.
What I don't question is the quasi-governmental Arts bodies giving huge sums to national institutions such as opera, ballet, orchestras and galleries. All are so necessary to a country's sense of itself. Which is what has me, yet again, question the glaring lack of a Welsh Poetry Library.
Another irrefutable law is that genuine artists will make their art no matter the obstacles put in their way. Which is not to say that they should never receive grants. I'd love to have had my writing life eased by an Arts grant. I'd also love to have had my magazine/small publishing life eased by an Arts grant. But I can see the Arts' boards difficulties in deciding just who of us should receive even a small grant.
The result being that Arts' boards play safe and end up giving grants only to those from their increasingly small pool of favoured artists, or to those proven deserving, that is successful, and who, being successful, don't need the grant. Or being of the establishment they give to the well-connected. Which can also grant the well-connected recipients a false sense of their worth - their art, their talent, their endeavour being now Arts Council approved.
Those adept at form-filling occasionally do win a grant. Although no grants appear to have ever been available for the simple running costs of a well-established magazine. Because any magazine must, at times, encounter subscriber doldrums, when a cash injection could have had the magazine survive another year.
If all this is coming across as sour grapes, myself nor The Journal nor Original Plus ever having received a grant, then it probably is. I don't have what I'm told is the knack for getting Arts Council grants. Although there are courses advertised on grant-applying. And a whole day's course on grant-applying can cost anything above £35.00. Food and fare not included, nor a guarantee of an Arts grant. (No grants are available for getting on to a How-to-get-a-grant course.)
Sour grapes aside, it is the institutions that are the most important. Remember the Millennial grants? I helped Fred Clarke, Arthur C's brother, fill out a 100 page grant application for the construction of of an observatory in Minehead, Somerset. As well as an observatory it was to have a science and conference centre attached, with links to NASA and to other observatories around the world. Yes, the Minehead observatory would have celebrated Arthur's achievements in both sci-fi and space exploration, but the observatory would have principally been an educational centre; and as an institution it could have attracted similar enterprises to that corner of Somerset, have been of local and of national benefit.
Fred and I knew that the scheme was in competition for the grant with similar local and inventive schemes all over the country, and we tried to work out which of us had the most chance of success, might share in the grant. None of us did. All of the millennial grant went to the Greenwich Dome, now the O2 Arena, with its life-expectancy of 25 years.
The South East gained again. What did the country gain?
© Sam Smith 20th July 2020
Shock of the new is an essential ingredient to any art form. Whether a painting, poem or symphony, it has to say Look at me! Listen! Pay heed!
Beethoven's 5th Symphony is probably the best known example. Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade another that straight away commands we listen. Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto, Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man... The opening sentence of Melville's Moby Dick, 'Call me Ishmael.' First line of Larkin's This Be The Verse, Picasso's Guernica...
But it can only work the once, when new to somebody new. How many of us regret not being able to hear again a piece for the first time, read a book again, stand in awe before a painting for the first time?
We've had our shock, recall it fondly. But what's a new artist to do? How to now make that impact? Capture the attention?
Probably easier to say what won't work, what no longer works.
The new work of old artists who haven't left their time, and who can still think it's shockingly new to bang on about sex in some form or other. That doesn't work. Nowadays most explicit sex comes across as either poor soft porn or simply old hat. The literary/film world has absorbed that, and moved on. Configurations of the sex act can still intrigue of course, and age-old aspects of sexual activity will always be new to someone – de Sade's writings for example – but not publicly, not shockingly new.
Anything shockingly new now usually comes out of an artist's very personal obsession, one that they paradoxically may not have given thought to what the public might make of their outpouring – Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman say. Indeed such authors/artists can often be shocked themselves at the public's outraged reaction. To Monet's Dejeuner al Fresco for instance.
Pop musicians and promoters can occasionally come up with a concept that will cause public outrage. But such tabloid outrage is often as false and manufactured, and paid for, as the pop industry itself. Indeed innovations within commercialism rarely lead to the genuinely new. Commercialism, that mother of mediocrity, caters always and safely to existing markets. Easiest to see this phenomena at work in Hollywood, where sequel after sequel, or poor copy after poor copy will be made of one very good film, until the sequels and predictable copies become totally vapid and meaningless – the Star Wars and Marvel franchises for instance.
Because what the shockingly new must also have is authenticity. Should be recognisably real, and never before depicted – Leaves of Grass, Animal Farm, Frankenstein, Clockwork Orange,1984, La Peste, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rings of Saturn... In literature this will be writing not to advertise the author's cleverness, but to communicate, to convey a burdensome truth. The subject too will be new, will have dug down to humanity's core, will have questioned not only what we currently hold sacred, but will have held it up to scorn. And it will have done all of that with a becoming innocence...
Get to it.
© Sam Smith 11th August 2020
‘…When I wanted to draw the portrait of a writer who used every means of advertisement possible to assist the diffusion of his works I had no need to fix my attention on any particular person. The practice is too common for that. Nor can one help feeling sympathy for it. Every year hundreds of books, many of considerable merit, pass unnoticed. Each one has taken the author months to write, he may have had it in his mind for years; he has put into it something of himself which is lost for ever, and it is heart-rending to think how great are the chances it will be disregarded in the press of matter that weigh down the critics’ tables and burdens the booksellers’ shelves. It is not unnatural that he should use what means he can to attract the attentions of the public. Experience has taught him what he must do. He must make himself a public figure. He must keep in the public eye. He must give interviews and get himself in the papers. He must write letters to The Times, address meetings and occupy himself with social questions; he must make after-dinner speeches; he must recommend books in the publishers’ advertisements; and he must be seen without fail at the proper laces at the proper times. He must never allow himself to be forgotten. It is hard and serious work, for a mistake may cost him dear; it would be brutal to look with anything but kindness at an author who takes so much trouble to persuade the world at large to read books that he honestly considers so well worth reading…’
W. Somerset Maughan was not alone.
‘…Odd, Claudine, the number of people one meets who are convinced that they aren’t like everyone else – and the need to put it into writing…’ Colette.
‘…you’ve at last proved to yourself that you really are a writer, and you must prove it to the world, at least once in your life, or you will go mad from believing it all by yourself…’ Henry Miller
‘…For many years to come the world is going to be full of people competing for attention with stories of what they have suffered. And those that have suffered the least will have the most to say. It will be extremely boring…’ Eric Linklater
‘…Soon it will matter nothing to a man and his work to know that he will probably die in a ditch – misunderstood. So long as he gets the work done…’ H G Wells
‘…I feel I am landed on my 45th year as if washed up on a rock, not knowing how I got here or ever had a chance of being anywhere else… Of course my external surroundings have changed, but inside I’ve been the same, trying to hold everything off in order to “write.” Anyone wd[sic] think I was Tolstoy the value I put on it. It hasn’t amounted to much…’ Phillip Larkin (letter to Monica Jones)
‘There was one’s work to be done, and one shut oneself up in it; what else was there to do in a world that had gone mad, and was caught up in an iron grip that grew tighter by the day?’ Darius Milhaud
‘…the futility of art – a pompous legerdemain, a consumate charlatany that deceived not only its devotees but its practitioners…’ Jack London
‘Now the audience doesn’t know what it wants… and we don’t know what we want to say.’ Krysztof Kieslowski
‘I’m against government anywhere / And I show my bum to authors’ and artists’ circles.’ Kaneko Mitsudaru
So do we remain/continue writers and artists the most self-hating, self-flagellating of our species.
© Sam Smith 28th August 2020
It's my age, 74 this year, that has me believe this Tory government means to kill me. Let's look at the evidence.
This Tory government first used the pandemic to wipe out many of my more infirm coevals in Care Homes while, with their customary duplicity, claiming that they were doing their utmost to protect them.
Those several thousand premature deaths lessened the Tory government's 'Social Care' expenditure. Nor are they, the economy alone being what matters to Tories, going to stop there. Accepting that many grandparents act as unpaid child-minders, delivering and collecting their grandchildren from school, the Prime Minister himself has said that it is a moral imperative that all children go back to school.
In the schools, as in the country, there will be limited testing. Tories don't like statistics that contradict their policies and prejudices. Asymptomatic and untested children will therefore pass the virus throughout the schools while, thankfully, not suffering greatly themselves. The children will however infect us grandparents who, at our age, are fatally susceptible to the virus.
Living independently, being widespread and in isolation, our individual deaths will not be so noticeable as were the multiple deaths of those in Care Homes. Regardless, the consequence will be that the state pension bill will nonetheless be considerably reduced.
Even if we survive that ploy they can still save on the state pension. Tory ministers and Tory MPs have already suggested an end to the state pension's 'triple lock', which for the last few years has seen the pension keep pace with inflation. Remove the lock, and with upcoming Brexit causing food shortages and therefore food inflation, our old selves now impoverished, more of us will succumb to starvation and die.
“Ah,” I can hear you say, “So many reactionary old folk being prematurely deceased will affect the Tory vote. Even this bunch of right-wingers can't be that stupid? Get themselves voted out of office?”
That though these particular power-grabbing Tories will have taken into consideration. Their subsequent gerrymandering of the UK voting system will mean that, regardless of the votes cast, the Tories will remain in government for the foreseeable.
With my by then having prematurely died I thankfully won't be around to further suffer the Tories' selfish stupidity.
(Conspiracy theorists: have you noticed that although several Tory ministers and Tory MPs claim to have had Covid-19 not one has yet died? Is this statistically possible?)
© Sam Smith 8th September 2020
There are four kinds of people – builders, destroyers, those who have to live with them, and parasites. Parasites are probably the easiest to define.
The leech has some blood of its own, but never enough. The plagiarist leech needs to feed on other creatures, bloat itself to importance with their life-force. A sub-set of plagiarists, defined as fans, they too manufacture their own identity by feeding on someone famous.
Most artists are not plagiarists, are more likely thieves. Scholars only half-suspect what thieves artists are. Not plagiarists, but man o man can they come close. A re-ordering of words, a plot 'inspired by...' Formulaic writing? No, Let's call this slipstream, ekphrastic, et cetera.
Has to be said however, and whether brand spanking new or not, all do end up making something.
Destroyers are those who take a delight in simple destruction, be it by fire, bomb, or kicking apart a bus shelter. There is little that can be said about them, except that they take importance from what they can destroy and not from what they can make.
Destroyers for creative folk are usually those who sneer at anything new and untested. The self-satisfied smug of their generation they use the intellectual equivalent of the dismissive, “Young people these days...” “Call that art....”
Faced with a bombed and arid landscape a builder will first dig down and, having found water, will brick up the sides, slow circle by slow circle. The destroyer on his rampage will throw a baby or a goat down to poison that well.
Roles can be interchangeable. Builders sometimes have to be destroyers in order to create. For stone a mason must first quarry away a hill, a carpenter cut down a tree.
Roles can also be timeline interchangeable. A people can escape religious/racial persecution, move to a new country/continent, where they in turn become brutish in their persecution of the indigenous peoples. In the creation of their new country, the building of it, wells will get poisoned. Israeli settlers are doing precisely that now to the Palestinians. As the European refugees from religious persecution did to the native Americans, are still doing. Ditto Australia, Myanmar, et cetera.
As to those not parasites, not builders nor destroyers, those who simply have to live alongside them...? Nothing much to do but join with them in a weary shake of the head: “What are they up to now?”
© Sam Smith 21st September 2020
Covid-19 has served to show us the frailty and fallibility of our medical staff. Not only their need for Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), and the limits of their physical and mental endurance, but also the limits of their knowledge and expertise regards any disease new to them, how limited their capability in dealing with its effects.
Prior to Covid-19 I knew doctors and nurses, from working with them, to be all too human in their variety. Yet too many off-the-cuff references to the practice of medicine persist in calling careers in medicine 'vocational.' The caring for the unwell however is also a profession, is a job done for wages, and for some doctors and nurses the wages figure more highly than any 'vocational' career. Life has given them other responsibilities, and if they can be paid more for doing something less stressful than working for the NHS then they will leap at the chance. And good luck to them.
Choosing to leave the profession doesn't mean that they didn't do their job well, nor take a pride in it. But, and as with any other profession, it is the wage that ultimately makes any job worth doing.
Oddly I found that it was the less well-paid for whom, nursing especially, was the more vocational. Nursing assistants, care workers: they it was who brought their whole selves to the job, who worried outside of work about their patient's/charges, brought in small gifts for them. Some of that 'caring' counter-productive even.
I enjoyed working with all disciples while I was nursing, even the mechanics. Mechanics being those who took pride in their knowledge and skills, but had zilch human compassion. They became quickly impatient, for instance, with any colleague who fell ill, who took time off through illness or because of family commitments. These mechanics put aside the 'unconditional positive regard' mantra when it came to poorly colleagues who had left them short-staffed. I have heard them go so far as to blame those colleagues for their illness rather than the managers/politicians for the insufficient supply of bank staff.
Mechanics, it has to be said, are very good at their job. The one type I had real difficulty understanding, well – coming to terms with – were right-wing doctors, especially when they chose to enter politics.
In the UK the NHS is paid for by everyone and cares for everyone. Yet right wing doctors invariably join the one political party hell-bent on dismantling the NHS. Granted as doctors they will benefit financially from the privatisation of the NHS, but only if their practice proves successful. Even then it seems a short-term gain, because even while working for the NHS their contracts already allow them to treat patients privately.
And while I didn't go so far as to approve some nurses setting up private care homes – sole customers the NHS/local council – I didn't doubt those nurses' professional dedication to the welfare of their clients. They were simply, and for their own betterment, taking advantage of the then Tories opening up the NHS and care system to 'internal' markets.
Vocational? Care, medicine, requires many disciplines, is complex and is staffed by individuals as complex.
© Sam Smith 12th October 2020
Did this understanding-slash-comprehension come to me from my ten years in Cumbria?
We lived on the coast, in Maryport, one of a trio of post-industrial towns, the other two being Workington and Whitehaven. Further along that Cumbrian coast is Sellafield; and further south again the old iron town of Millom, before you arrive at shipbuilding Barrow. These towns and installations circle the Lake District's kept pretty and pristine mountains and lakes, which are for most visitors the preferred Cumbria and often the only Cumbria that they see.
We in Maryport were on the coastal plain, working land, used, abused, and overlooked. It nonetheless had its own beauty. Fields and farms, tree-lined lonnings, old pits and pinnacled slag heaps, open-cast become ponds, woodland over spoil. I cycled its back roads and old railway tracks, walked its coastal path along the Solway.
That flat[ish] land had its own understated appeal; and far more wildlife than the nearby barren mountains and lakes. Every year up near Silloth was a winter field full of whooper swans. Mud flats had huge flocks of pink-footed geese, curlews lined up on the Roman ruins, while the beaches boasted lapwings and redshanks. Scrapes in wave-eroded slag was where oyster-catchers and ringed plovers layed their three eggs.
That sense of the sisterland , the coastal plain not being worthy of a visit, its being overlooked, not worthy of serious consideration, fed into my own sense of having always been overlooked. Beginning as village riff-raff, working class, my later having struggled as a writer, taking what menial jobs I could – milkman, labourer, van driver, scaffolder, background nurse – I got used to being overlooked. Identifying with the Peasant Poet, John Clare, I became overlooked even when I enthusiastically joined the John Clare Society. I could afford the annual membership fee, but not the cross-country visits to their annual Helpstone get-togethers.
Mind you by then that was what I had come to expect, that middle class assumption that, because I aspired to be a writer, that I had even set myself up as a small press publisher, had been taken on as an editor [freelance], then I too must be in some way salaried, or failing that be subsidised by a salaried partner, and I too could unthinkingly afford to come along to the annual get-togethers, afford the restaurant meal. The Poetry Society and Society of Authors likewise worked on those assumptions. Subsisting now on state pension I've had a lifetime of being overlooked.
This isn't an appeal for pity. It's the way things are, have been. All of life is an education and being everyday overlooked has turned out to be not such a bad thing. It has led me to note that the mass of any artist's work will also become overlooked. Most artists will be remembered, if at all, by just one or two of their works; and then probably not what that artist considered to be their best.
Being overlooked allows one to put aside the illusion of posterity as even a consideration and to plough on producing the work. As a nurse 'use of self in the therapeutic role' was actively encouraged. I found subordination of the ego easy, knew already as a writer that I was the vehicle of my ambition, that all of me and mine was grist to the writing mill. Product took precedence.
What has proved frustrating in being overlooked has been my prophecies and predictions failing to be heeded. In the 1970s I wrote a novel called We Need Madmen. In it I told how easy it would be for another like Hitler to take over a Western democracy, any democracy. Although We Need Madmen later went on to win prizes, it was generally overlooked.
Likewise did my poetry collection pieces fail to have any great impact when it told of, when it predicted more prison camps. There is no satisfaction in having been proved right – by, and on all sides now, populist extreme right wing leaders each with their own version of prison/refugee/immigrant camps/centres.
Nor am I unique in having been ignored/overlooked. The warnings we've had regards global warming, the planet-destructive power of unbridled capitalism, the ever-present danger of nuclear wipe-out, yet more right-wing dictatorships... I console myself, poor consolation that it is, that going back a century or more I am by no means alone in having been overlooked.
© Sam Smith 24th October 2020