At 71 years old, and with the inevitability of nothingness before me, I am about to give up – so far as novels go – sending MS off to agents and publishers. Even if they do read the synopsis and ask to see the MS it can be a year or more before a decision on the MS is made. More often than not, after repeated sendings-out, the MS doesn’t even find a slush pile to grace. And most times I don’t receive as much as a Thanks-But-No-Thanks response to my introductory email/letter.
So, with time the least I can now spare, from January 2018 I am going to self-publish on Kindle those novels already published but which I felt, their publishers not long after publication going out of business, didn’t get a fair chance at attracting a readership.
First to appear on Kindle will be Trees: The Tree Prospectus. Trees first saw light of day as an e-book courtesy of the German company, Safkhet Publishing. That was in the October. May the following year Safkhet ceased trading and their version of Trees was withdrawn from Amazon. This new version is a bigger book, comes complete with my illustrations – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B078R5C5R2
At present I have 4 other titles to follow during 2018. 2 of them will be republications and 2 – should I not in the meantime hear back from agents and publishers – will be brand sparkling new. One of them is even bigger than Trees. And inbetweentimes I’ll leave a few spare beginnings here.
2018 is going to be busy.
Plot One. On a frost-pattered morning here in a Welsh valley the first of these plots under consideration is a weekend country house gathering, a middle-age celebration of a birthday.
One of the presents gets stolen. Probably a piece of art, or china, but there on display one moment, gone the next. Say when all the celebrants go out for a hill walk together, house locked on departure, unlocked on return. Someone asks to examine the artefact, and so discover that it is missing.
Doubt now whether the house was truly locked, but certainly not broken into. Mystery gets chewed over but unresolved. Until morning, when the artefact is back where it was.
Title I played with was Dark Side of the Moon. Possibly the name of the artefact, but doubling as the ongoing speculation, all of the weekend friends remaining under suspicion. A sub-theme was to be setting the value of possessions against that of friendship.
Possible dialogue could be – partner of birthday person speaking – “It’s back. Does it matter now who took it?”
“’Course it matters. I have to know. Else how can I trust those who were here? Trust anyone of them? Even the thief. Without knowing they’re a thief. I have to know.”
That could be the prologue. Then, with the weekend over, the friends disperse back to their own houses, own lives. The birthday person, however, and of either gender, and despite still having the artefact, or because it is still there on prominent display, becomes fixated with not knowing who could have tried to steal it. Each chapter could be an analysis, various points of view, of each of the characters under suspicion.
“Not still going on about it?”
“They were our friends.”
“Were our friends.”
Plot Two. Another Dark Side, but different. Again a weekend plot, but in a decidedly wealthier house. So wealthy that the servants are taken for granted. Except that on this weekend as soon as all the guests have arrived the servants get sent away. The guests, couples all, have gathered for a weekend orgy. Although, being of their class, the orgy is not acknowledged as such.
Over dinner guests and host do talk of promiscuity, do advocate permissiveness, mention erotic books and films, joke about pornographic scenarios and moustachioed plumbers, about bed-hopping; but the conversation of a general nature, not referring to any of those present.
Throughout the weekend however there are various secretive recouplings. All part on the Monday and the weekend is never explicitly referred to again, nor is any attempt made to repeat it. Not out of shame but out of prudence and a sophisticated unease over arousing their partner’s basic emotions. Jealousy principally, but for some a fear of pornographic lust, which might have them stepping beyond the bounds of acceptable class-contained behaviour and tapping up their secretary, their gardener, or, perish the thought, a stranger on the tube, in the lift….
It’s that repressed urge of maybe a couple of them that I was thinking maybe to explore. That repression becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Imagination, fantasy scenario overload. Imploding? A Dice Man who didn’t dare? A Zipped Up Jong?
Place Familiarity : another aspect of ageing (15th January 2018)
When younger what I wanted was to be invited, allowed into the places familiar to others – their streets, their houses, woods, fields, park. To know the places that knew them, and to know the places know the person.
Knowing wasn’t so easy.
I very soon learnt that I couldn’t know their perception of the place, what memories lurked by association in the thirty third passing stone, where their old den before last had been, who lived grumpily behind that garden hedge, the tree that had a cruel shadow….
Despite the impossibility of knowing, and being a pensioner now, I miss that I no longer have to go looking for day jobs, or go sneaking off to do removals on the black. So there’s probably no chance at all that I’ll ever open that door into that walled garden, won’t know what it’s like to work with robots in a warehouse, be a forklift driver, finger the code to go through the door that says, ‘Market Staff Only’.
Small loss maybe, in the time gained for writing and publishing, for catching up on my reading. And yet… and yet I sometimes wonder if retirement is foremost a denial of familiarity. No more workmate camaraderie, no routine breaks in the day other than those self-imposed. Could that be why some people, with a pension sufficient to meet all their domestic bills, to take them on foreign holidays, apply for any old job – security guard, shelf-filling – not so much to occupy their days or nights, but to be familiar with something other than the house they can return refreshed to?
I’m supposing that at one time or another we have all had awkward neighbours. Not just those neighbours we have found impossible to love, but the odd one or two who have been simply hateful, ridiculously aggressive, and have gone way beyond being unhelpful to performing small acts of spite. And that, a home under threat, has to be where these 2 plots had their genesis.
First plot relies on a sense of gathering menace. But begins with a silly row with a neighbour – over bins, a noisy party, a parcel lost? – the row ending with the neighbour threatening, “I’ll get you for this.”
This neighbour is completely beyond reason, beyond entreaty. “Can’t we,” our hero asks, “consign our differences to the past?”
“I don’t forget.”
The not forgetting is perpetuated by the baleful stare, the muttered threats whenever passed in the street.
“I don’t forget.”
Then come the small events – cat gets run over, a window broken, car damaged… The neighbour is confronted, unconvincingly denies it. Dog disappears, and so on.
Two possible conclusions to this plot. One could be an escalation to the murder of one combatant or the other. Or possibly the small disasters could become part of the victim’s increasing paranoia? A paranoia going way beyond the domestic.
The second home-unsafe idea is that of a respectable man receiving a letter/email/text telling him that at 12 the next day his garden hedge will catch fire, and that in 8 days time, at seven in the evening, he will die. Other daily events prior to his dying are predicted.
On every one of the 8 days things happen more or less as predicted – a window falls out, dining room furniture is rearranged, a water main bursts outside his house, etc . All taken as evidence of the letter writer’s power. Police are called, can find no culprit, doubt that the ‘events’ are a crime.
At seven on the eighth day a courier arrives with a package. The bomb squad are called, can detect no explosives. Package is nonetheless carefully opened. Under layers of wrapping is a single postcard, on it a message asking the man if he recalls a letter he wrote to a national newspaper in support of capital punishment. ‘Know how the condemned man feels now?’
© Sam Smith 21st January 2018
This is what I jotted down on the 19th November 1994: “I hate being part of a predictable process – keen recruit to become wise old hand. Always I feel that [by such processes] my identity is being stolen from me.”
I had returned to nursing after a stint as a Residential Social Worker. Just having been called a ‘Social Worker’ had gone against the grain; while having had to teach disruptive children to accept and not to fight, trying to impress upon them that they couldn’t win fighting the system, had felt like a personal betrayal. Fighting the system was what I’d been doing all my life. My own teachers had called me wilful. Bloody right.
Working back in Tone Vale Hospital I had been going from ward to ward, filling in where needed as the hospital was being closed down, grounds to be sold off, patients being moved to the ‘community’. The younger, keener nurses were competing for favoured places in the new, smaller ‘community’ units; with a few having already started their own private ‘care’ homes.
Many of the nurses I was left working with on the wards were seeing out their time; and they projected their disgruntlement and disenchantment onto me. And although I didn’t share their disenchantment with the work, nor their cynicism for the worth of the work, I did share their affection for Tone Vale, saw it as a true asylum, a place of safety. I had walked the extensive grounds – a couple of football pitches, cricket field, bowling green, parkland, chapel, gazebos – with so many patients passing through… I had, when I’d worked there previously, for a while even been known as Specialling Sam.
‘Special Observations’ meant that one member of staff had to keep the patient within arm’s length at all times. The objective was to allow the patient as much liberty as possible, even if only within the ward, while keeping them safe. Specialling a patient in the erratic throes of psychosis could have the staff on permanent edge, and individual members of staff were only supposed to special for an hour at a time. Staff shortages during the closure however meant that I could spend most of a 13 hour shift beside just the one patient.
Some patients as I accompanied them around the hospital grounds talked non-stop – paranoids voicing the current tabloid terrors – of nuclear war, AIDS, BSE, CJD, bird flu, al Qaeda, paedophiles… While the religious might seek to convert or convince me that their interpretation of their gospel was the only truth… While some patients, recovering from their recent self-inflicted traumas, wanted only silence and greenery. Round and round we walked. And walked.
That walking would be denied patients in the smaller units in town with their tiny token gardens. So too would Tone Vale’s corridors no longer be available to them: there on wet days they could still pace out their demons. Consequently, like the old nurse hands who had spent their working lives at Tone Vale, often whole families having worked there, who knew it as a community, had fond memories of both staff and patients, I too saw little advantage, small benefit to the patients in Tone Vale’s closure. But the government, in the shape of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, believed that the closure of the old Victorian asylums would save the NHS money. I couldn’t see that it would, or that society in general would benefit. The patients about to be stored in isolated bedsits and maintained on depots, visited occasionally by social worker or community nurse, certainly wouldn’t benefit.
“Each patient,” I wrote on the 9th April 1995, “carries the sickness of society. As society can’t be cured we pretend to treat the patient. The alcoholics though return to drink, addicts to their drugs, and the rest [those we ‘rehabilitate’] to society’s confusion.” Confusion internalised.
© Sam Smith 10th February 2018
Coming upon Bothwell in an Elizabethan history I straightaway found myself rising sympathetically to his defence.
The conventional history had it that James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, blew up Darnley, the then husband of Mary Queen of Scots, and married her himself. Or so accepted royal politics would have us believe.
For me – one time editor of The Journal of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry https://sites.google.com/site/samsmiththejournal/ - the fact that Bothwell died mad in a Danish castle and was buried in Norway added to his attraction as a possible subject.
I warned myself however to be on guard, because I’d been drawn to cases like Bothwell’s before. His being viewed as a wrong ‘un by those who want to appear respectable had me instinctively rooting for him, as I had for William de Marisco and Edward Bibbins Aveling (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B079S79NSD). Such imperfect characters are too easily maligned, too readily made fall guys by those who in-their-day came out on top and who wanted also to be seen on the side of the angels by history.
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was most certainly not virtuous. More of that in a moment. But first, and one unsympathetic aspect of his life, what I have yet to find out is how, other than by virtue of birth, he could have become High Lord Admiral of Scotland at age 25. Though even for that I’m tempted to forgive him. None of us can be blamed for the circumstances into which we are born, expectations placed upon us. Thereafter though…
While in Copenhagen this lusty young fellow met Norwegian Anna Throndsen, fell into love and bed with her. Which, according to then Norwegian law, said that they were now husband and wife. James maintained, later, that they had only been engaged.
Here is where regular history would have us call James a bounder, an arch-seducer of innocent maids. Anna Throndsen though was his social equal, was herself the daughter of a renowned Norwegian Admiral. So the first question that arises concerning his subsequent behaviour, and a possible reinterpretation of history, Did she pursue him to Flanders? And did he, tiring of her there, dispatch her back to Denmark to ‘plunder her family coffers’ on his behalf? Or was that her way of keeping him? Had he wanted shot of her needy presence and, at the same time, had seen a way of getting some much-needed dosh? Were Anna’s complaints about him to her family basically that he was not as in love with her as she with him?
Either way his reputation was now set and ready to be exploited at every future turn.
Which is not say that this spoilt rich boy, a previous Donald Trump say, may well have deserved his reputation. Because when seven years later James married Jean Gordon, sister of the Earl of Huntly, she divorced James but a year later because of his adultery with her servant. Eight days after his divorce he married Mary, Queen of Scots.
A continuing lusty fellow then? Or does the timing suggest such out-of-one marriage and-into-another a part of political intrigue? Was James a victim of the time’s religious and political machinations, his own manoeuvrings possibly backfiring on him? Was all this as much about court intrigue and therefore power politics as about who was doing what to who in castle bedrooms?
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, had certainly been no innocent abroad. A supporter of the Catholic crown he had fully backed Mary in her claim to the English throne. His reputation having been early set in Denmark however his every venture was dogged by whisper and rumour, much as Marisco’s and Aveling’s had been. Bad boys easily defamed by the squeaky clean, by those who had never dared go, or even been led, astray. And all this before we ever get to suspicions about others’ involvement in the murder of Darnley, Mary’s consort.
Such a book, such a life, I reluctantly decided would be too much like other books I had written. Would mean furthermore the book coming up against studiously researched histories and fictional accounts of the period, even if mine was to have been a tale motivated by instinct and sympathy.
© Sam Smith (20th February 2018)
Is it therefore one of our duties as writers to remember and remind; and at the same time to show how we dress those memories and demonstrate the unreliability of eyewitnesses. How we deliver any reminder but a matter of individual taste and imagination, breadth of vision probably being more important here than depth of vision. In achieving depth a narrowness of vision might be at play.
That though is to be aware of one's own inaccuracy of recall. We have to be even more chary when others our age try to include us in their memories, even when we weren't part of their circle: "When we were young we all..." Whatever it was they did when young I can be pretty confident that I didn't. Yet so persuasive can they be with their tale that I start to suspect my memory of being selective. But no, I was never like that, didn't dance to this, wear that, follow them. I know my shames well, and theirs was not one of them. Mine was never the self-lobotomy of the conformist to repress and belong.
One effect however of always having been boy-in-a-tree distant, estranged, is that with age comes increased disassociation. Often now I don't recognise my own body. Hand and arm are not mine. Nor, and especially, is the old fool in the mirror. All that I am now is an uncertain memory of myself.
Grief (an exercise in disassociation)
The old man, slipping in and out of chairbound sleep, passively adjusts to the changing realities. His dog, 10 years dead, was just now leaning against his left leg. On the radio a symphony’s flute solo. Between high sloping-away grass banks a grey road that must once have led somewhere, the hard voice of the announcer telling the room what is coming next...
The voice drones into sleep. He looks for the dog. Not behind him in this other unrecognisably familiar street...
The next time the old man jerks awake his neck will hurt. Painfully realigning the bones of his vertebrae he will look around the room bewildered, then check his watch, possibly decide that it’s time for tea, maybe slip back into dream.
Sparrow Attack (a further exercise in disassociation)
Dream scenarios and personalities as uncertain as pronunciation, mind’s afterimage is the initial setting: a part-cobbled entrance, line of different size plant pots, centre of someone’s universe.
Anorexic thin as fiddlestrings, she slides her talon fingers into the curled hairs on his chest. Skull smile, leer, tug.
Free of ancestry, but with mind’s anchor holding psyche in place, this semi-awareness demanding review and repetition, here under sleep-shaped hair situations have again broken out of time’s corset and he is again briefly child-vulnerable, now both father and son.
Sense of self-observation keeps him floating above the singularity of madness. He sees his outer self being attacked by sparrows. Frightened by their massed clinging-on flutter and sharp little claws he tries to break into a locked brick and flint house.
Which is when he awakes to gulls and crows shouting up the day.
© Sam Smith 27th February 2018
When young I used to think that life, especially social life, so complicated. My every utterance then seemed to upset somebody or other. But my hope/belief was that, as I got older and learnt all the rules, faux pas would become fewer. Such naiveté. I didn’t know, when trying to be honest, how complicated any approach to another human being could be.
Which is one of the reasons why books – with their one voice at a time – became my family, my home, was where I belonged. Within a book I can lose myself in ideas and arguments, disbelief and contrary concepts. At the turn of the millennia I wrote, ‘I truly do devour books, eat and assimilate them.’
Or reject them. Because I soon after followed that declaration of hungry love with this: ‘Unless a life-view, world-view, a morality, a philosophy, call it what you will, doesn’t incorporate the reality of death then it has to be wholly invalid. Which is why sentimentality is such a lie, its focus being so narrow. Any denial of death must void its view.’
What I disliked especially, continue to despair of, is the confusing of ‘sentimental’ with ‘spiritual’. Dharma, satori, epiphanic roads to Damascus, eureka moments of clarity, connectedness, are what unites us. Not some fuzzy spirituality which only the cognoscenti can divine. Not an otherness alluded to, not some manufactured empathic emotion, not some sentimental happy-ever-after ending. If endings there are.
© Sam Smith 6th March 2018
On June 13th 2004, while living in Ilfracombe, I wrote, ‘I am owned by a huge uncertainty. My every conviction disperses under challenge.’
Ilfracombe (see apostrophe combe, boho press) was a strange time for me, its remoteness especially. At one and the same time, because so many of my novels were at last being published, and I was actually earning money as a freelance editor, I felt involved in the literary world, and yet physically out of touch. I had left so many of my contacts – on local newspapers, bookshops, library, the council, but especially on the radio – behind in Somerset. And so remote was Ilfracombe, took an hour and a half’s driving just to reach the motorway, which meant that every venture out took that much longer and cost that much more.
And I wasn’t the complete, self-sustaining author, still had to have cash-in-hand jobs. Nor was our upper floor maisonette that secure an address. In a steep street of junkies’ bedsits Steph and I yearned for some outside space of our own, a garden even. I also didn’t like being back in Devon. Having a Devon address made me a failure.
From my early teens on, determined to escape all the hypocrisies, snobberies and double standards of a Christian village and a grammar school education, I had battled and schemed to leave Devon. (see Paths of Error trilogy https://www.smashwords.com/books/byseries/21567 )I hadn’t cared much how I escaped. Although I did turn down the armed services, hadn’t wanted to kill somebody just for a change of address. Nor did I have anywhere particular I wanted to go, just so long as it wasn’t Devon.
First it was the Merchant Navy that got me away. Until that too became a shipbound and career trap. I returned briefly to Devon, then escaped to London. Which in itself was supposed to have been but another starting point in my search for a life that was to be more than a series of meaningful gestures. I stayed in London for 10 years before hooking up with Steph, then came Amsterdam and Somerset.
During our 23 years raising our daughters in Somerset Steph had missed being by the sea – she had been raised in Torquay. But unable to find anywhere affordable with outside space in Ilfracombe, after 5 years Steph and I moved to Maryport on the Cumbrian coast..
Seemed perfect at first - our Maryport terrace was our very first freehold house, and we were in hearing distance of the estuary bird life, loads of easy bike rides, plus mountains to climb. But with the coastal population being so few, it was even more remote, and with a lot less – in literary terms – happening locally than there had been even in and around Ilfracombe.
We stayed in Maryport 10 years.
Now here, top of our South Wales valley, I’m busy again. Still not sure however that I’ve made a sensible move, have done the right thing. Bike rides here are one way downhill, a long uphill back; and I miss the estuary bird life. So do I continue to be easily unconvinced, especially these days with uncertainty all about me. I can’t even be certain that this will be read, that letters, even emails I send, will arrive.
© Sam Smith 13th March 2018
Where the Poetry Library of Wales?
Answer at the moment has to be – nowhere. Wales, home of the Eisteddfod bards, does not have its own poetry library.
England has its own Poetry Library – on London’s South bank. For hands-on research it’s open every weekday except Mondays. One can even do research via its website - http://poetrylibrary.org.uk/ It also puts out a monthly newsletter, giving details of poetry events in England.
Wales does not have its own poetry library.
Scotland has its own poetry library – near the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It too is open to all-comers for research, or for general reading. Like the English poetry library it too subscribes to most poetry magazines published in the UK; as well as taking copies of poetry collections, chapbooks and criticisms published within Scotland’s border, or of related interest. www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk
Both libraries have staff eager to respond to pretty much any enquiry.
Wales does not have its own poetry library.
Peter Finch did try to get one going. When he had the Oriel bookshop in Cardiff he amassed a balcony length, floor-to-ceiling collection of poetry publications. Unfortunately he had to give it up and Wales is still without its own poetry library.
Wales does have two large general libraries, one in Aberystwyth and a tall one in Cardiff. Neither specialises in poetry. And Wales is in desperate need of a library specifically for poetry, where the works of generations of Welsh poets can be stored and, more importantly, accessed.
Personally I would like the Poetry Library of Wales to be situated in Swansea. It is in Swansea that the hoarding above looms over one of its carparks. I also find Swansea easier to get to and more culturally ambitious than Cardiff. The national Poetry Library being in Swansea would also avoid the centralising/capitalising of the nation’s culture as with our fellow nations. And as Swansea already has the Dylan Thomas Centre and theatre, plus several regular reading venues, having the Poetry Library of Wales here would seem a natural fit. Let’s leave Cardiff to politics, sport and shopping.
I would also take as a model for the Poetry Library of Wales the Scottish Poetry Library. Not only for its promotion of Scotland’s indigenous languages and dialects, but also for its design, incorporating as it does shelving capable of being moved to allow performance and workshop space.
The Scottish Poetry Library did have as well as indoor space an outdoor reading space. The one reading I did there I had to shout over the jackhammers on next door’s parliament building. Cardiff’s general library does have a performance space, but which gets interrupted by tannoy announcements. The English poetry library lacks a reading space.
Wales does not yet have its own poetry library.
When Swansea, Wales city of poetry, does become home to the nation’s Poetry Library what will give me great pleasure is seeing Idris Caffrey’s work indexed there. Idris and I started getting poems published in magazines like Borderlines and Purple Patch at around about the same time. We became friends; and when I set up Original Plus one of the first collections I published was Idris Caffrey’s Other Places.
Born in Rhayader, Welsh to the marrow, but having had to move to Tamworth for work, kept there by family, Idris’s one regret, despite several subsequent collections, was that he felt he never received any recognition in his own country. In fact he even found it difficult to get single poems published in Welsh magazines. Belatedly maybe he could get that recognition in Wales own poetry library, find shelf space if not a resting place alongside his Thomas heroes, Dylan and RS.
While I’d love to know where to go to explore and investigate the works of Dannie Abse, Mike Church, Gillian Cark, WH Davies, Menna Elfyn, Peter Finch, Bryn Fortey, John Freeman, Ric Hool, Elin ap Hywel, Nigel Jarrett, Mike Jenkins, Bobi Jones, John Jones, Peter Thabit Jones, Phil Knight, Huw Lawrence, Alun Lewis, Dave
Lewis, Gwyneth Lewis, Iwan Llwyd, Sophie McKeand, Robert Minhinnick. Rob Morgan, Owen Sheers, Fran Smith, Gareth Writer-Davis, and any others who on that day may occur to me. And that’s before one starts on the exclusively Welsh language poets, which I am unfortunately not equipped to do.
Apart from more poetry – as Swansea’s sign says – what we need now for a Poetry Library of Wales is funding, political will, a system for acquiring Welsh poetry publications, and a Swansea building to house them in.
© Sam Smith 1st April 2018 (I may be, but this is no April Fool.)
Is the one true sign of ageing, an emotional indication that is, the inability to become indignant? And could that be because, with more of life to mull over, it becomes harder to make straightforward sense of life?
Or is it that I’ve got so old I can no longer remember exactly why it was I once felt so aggrieved? The reasons yes, I can remember those, but not the strength of feeling that had me act as I did. Not that I regret any of those actions: they led me here.
Then there are those pop-up memories of odd sexual encounters; and my only thought now (no concerns at this late stage that their oddness might indicate a confining trend) is how very peculiar that particular conjoining was.
Or is this not getting indignant, maybe the tamping down of emotions while the new is assessed, the re-experiencing of one’s own life through what is happening to one’s own children, and grandchildren? Did I, didn’t I, react the same as my child/grandchild? In what way, and why, did my response differ? Was the difference within me, or was it due to the very different circumstances?
While acknowledging that these are different times, different circumstances and considerations, I am simultaneously on guard against becoming like other men who, the older they get the more they seem to hang on to that which gave their life meaning, both routines and memories. They seem always to be telling of their distant accomplishments, and then persevere at whichever way of life those accomplishments had them arrive at.
Could be that I’m not that confident because I haven’t had many accomplishments. When I was 50 my only habitual emotion was disappointment: I saw myself as a failure. Even back then my youngest daughter reckoned that my books wouldn’t be that well known until after I was dead. If then. And 20 years on there is still the daily realisation that I have failed in all that has mattered to me. My books are still not widely read, it’s still a hand-to-mouth effort to bring out The Journal 3 times a year; and, with my lack of confidence/convictions, still I struggle to know what best to do in order to get my books read.
My one hope/consolation, and faint at that, is that I could yet find myself as Herbert Marcuse did with his One Dimensional Man and end up with a bestseller way into my late seventies.
Can but hope.
That hasn’t changed.
© Sam Smith 9th April 2018
I have to confess that ,despite for over 20 years now putting together poetry collections and chapbooks for Original Plus, I am not a serious publisher. Not only do I fail in the publicity department (publicity being an essential ingredient of publication) I also fail – inevitably – regards balance sheets. Whatever they are.
I also have too much lingering respect for books, believe that they matter in what they are, matter in what they say, and not in how much money I might be able to make out of them. I did not, do not want to become party to the commodification of literature.
With Original Plus never having been intended as a commercial proposition I discount therefore my own experience as a publisher. This speculation on the future of publishing will depend on my experience of being published by others and my observations on what is currently happening in the world of books.
Bookselling is frankly at a loss. Both financially and in not knowing what best next to do.
The demise of the kind of bookselling/publishing that we had become used to in the 20th Century began with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. Although 20th Century technology had provided us with cheap perfect-bound, mass-market paperbacks, the NBA had continued to allow bookshops and publishers to make profits. Even with the uncertainties of bookshops’ sale-or-return, even with the publishers continuing with the incomprehensible tradition of publishing in hardback first, publishers could still rely on a more-or-less steady income stream, enough to indulge their unprofitable literary tastes.
After the abolition of the NBA however every single title had to pay its way. Market research became the tool whereby a book’s merit was judged; and volume sales became the goal, books becoming as any other supermarket product, getting stacked high and sold cheap
Then came Print-On-Demand, e-readers for e-books, and Amazon. Bookshops went out of business, self-publishing flooded the market, which market remains wholly unpredictable, market research now offering little certainty. The few sale-or-return bookshops that have stayed in business do so by now charging a 60% mark-up, and then paying late, if ever. (My own experience there!)
International online sales have also driven a veritable pantechnicon through foreign rights. Although the ever-increasing cost of postage has mitigated against paper books being sold and bought from anywhere on the globe.
So what’s a commercial publisher to do?
In the UK, given the empty shops on our High Streets and in our Malls, one option – many publishers having started as 19th Century bookshops – could be publishers reverting to becoming their own booksellers and opening a shop. Such a shop would of course have to sell more than the publisher’s own titles, could on a quid pro quo basis give shelf space to other publishers with shops.
With their principal competitors still being supermarket loss leaders and online spoilers (Tesco did a spoiler on one of my novels, advertised it cut price when they couldn’t possibly have had a copy of what was then a limited edition. Bastards!) each publishers shop would have to offer more than just books on shelves. Each shop would have to become a local and regular literary venue – hosting author events, open mikes, cookery demos, horror nights, mini-comicons, romance evenings, talks, etc etc. Offering something that online can’t do – a space for gatherings, for genuine human interaction, for once again looking along shelves….© Sam Smith 23rd April 2018 (typed exclusively by my left, not operated on, hand.)
Torquay, for me, is the epitome of Thatcherism; or of Thatcherism taken to its illogical extreme, the self solely serving the self.
Oddly I used to think of that Tory smallmindedness as being typical of shopkeepers, the kind who hold reactionary court behind their counters. I say ‘oddly’ because one actual effect of Thatcher’s policies – her wanting a car culture like wot the US has, her relaxation of town planning limits – was that the new large out-of-town supermarkets and stores took trade away from small local shops and there are now few corner shops remaining among Torquay’s hillside terraces and estates.
Another aspect of Tory Torquay, privately owned, free market exploited, is that property developers have run riot and houses have been squeezed into once-gardens, old quarries, any unoccupied space; and many of those hillside terrace houses have been acquired by buy-to-let wannabe entrepreneurs and split into flats. Those flats have then been let to two families. If adult members of that family have jobs in different parts of Torbay they will require a car each. That can mean four cars to a house, means that cars and vans get parked both sides of near every residential street, making them almost impassable for any vehicle larger than a van. Should there be a house fire in one of those multi-occupied houses a fire engine could well not get to the fire in time.
In such a case there will of course be a public outcry, and a relative may well do a charity swim around the bay for the benefit of the survivors. But the fire will, of Tory course, been the victims own fire-starting fault, the charity swimmer a two-day hero, and the residential roads will remain partially blocked.
Tory Torquay doesn’t approve of subsidised public transport, so there are the very minimum of bus services. Of public services of any kind. In all cases the Tory council just about reaches the legal requirements placed upon it by national government.
In Capra’s Wonderful Life there’s the alternative version of the town if the civic-minded hero hadn’t been born and where money-minded Potter had done as he wished, everything for profit. Now, even to the casual onlooker, Torquay seafront traffic seems to boast more than its usual share of flash open-top cars, their drivers, both male and female and of all ages, with false tans and bleached hair. Torquay is a for-real Pottersville, the philistines long been in charge.
What had been a swish Victorian seaside resort, the English Riviera no less, has seen its every public space become either neglected or exploited. Where there was an indoor swimming pool and the elegant Marine Spa ballroom the council (for a ‘consideration’) let a developer get his unimaginative hand on it and turn it into a concrete wasteland, now housing seaside tat.
The charming ‘rock walk’, palms and bushes floodlit summer evenings, the council ‘updated’ and effectively destroyed. While every other wheeze – intended to make money for someone or private other (first get your Tory self elected to the council) – further destroyed Torquay’s one-time elegance. Wheezes have included daytrip balloons, ferris wheel, giant palm tree, seabird cage (next to the sea – how cruel is that?), plus yet another tatty nightclub, casino – and Torquay has become less than a kiss-me-quick seaside.
Came as no surprise therefore when a spokeswoman for Torquay’s chamber of commerce appeared on national television complaining about the homeless sleeping in shop doorways. The usual shops, franchises from any High Street; along with the usual Tory inference that these ‘homeless’ were actually ‘professional’ beggars.
The spokeswoman’s complaint was that these people sleeping in shop doorways were stopping customers entering the shops. Her complaint wasn’t that, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there should be this many homeless people that the only shelter they can find in her town is in recessed shop doorways.
I don’t know for sure but I will confidently bet that Torquay’s Tory council, and its philistine mayor, will not have funded, will probably even have argued against, having a hostel for the homeless in Torquay, epitome of Thatcherism.
See also the Paths of Error trilogy – www.smashwords.com/books/view/545469
© Sam Smith 4th June 2018
In 1827, when Robert Peel founded what was to become the constabulary here in the UK, he said that you can have as many laws as you like but if you don’t have anyone to enforce those laws there is little point in having those laws.
The Conservative Party here used to be known as the party of Law and Order. Since their own ‘austerity’ policies however their espousement of law’n order seems to have been abandoned. Not the making of laws: their reaction to most tabloid headlines is now the making of a new law. Because of ongoing cuts to police numbers however there are few police left to enforce the new law.
So much for redundant laws.
Of law’n order what is having the most impact socially is the lack of Order. We are, here in the UK, nowadays more likely to see a full-size cardboard cut-out of a policeman propped in a shop corner, or a policeman’s photo peel-stuck to a supermarket window, than to come across a real flesh and blood – Hello Hello Hello what’s going on ‘ere then – police constable.
The sign under or beside these 2-dimensional representations of police personnel says that CCtv is being used and, if seen committing a crime, offenders will be prosecuted.
Problem there is that, as with all other CCtv prosecuted crimes, the crime will already have been committed.
So much for shoplifting. The lack of a real police presence, of the enforcing of Order, is more evident when it comes to anti-social behaviour – vandalism, graffiti, rowdyism – that a police officer being simply nearby might have deterred. Without the proximity of police personnel the anti-social behaviour escalates and, with so many other demands on limited police numbers, nothing and no-one gets done.
A few years back I wrote about this trend in my novel ‘Marraton’ - https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Marraton - I was living in Maryport then, but had already seen how ineffectual ‘Police Community Support Officers’ had been in Ilfracombe, how they had cheaply replaced Police Constables, and were – in Maryport, with austerity continuing – starting to get laid off. ‘Marraton’ is the tale of one Police Community Support Officer.
That trend has continued here in South Wales. Had me pen this poem my first year here.
The motorbikes are here again
ripping up the valley quiet
ripping up the moor
Pontycymer’s police house has been sublet
The tubby Community Support Officer
is going door to door
squashing self-help leaflets
through well-sprung letterboxes
The motorbikes are here again
ripping up the quiet
ripping up the moor
Aside from the very pointlessness of austerity policies the one real disappointment I have regards police numbers is in the calibre of our present student population. Why are these cardboard cut-out police constables not now standing guard in halls of residence? Why aren’t these peel-on peel-off policemen not now adorning bedsit doors?
If the occasional traffic cone taken home is the best our student population can do, it’s a national disgrace.
© Sam Smith 19th June 2018
The landless have as always been scratching by out on the edges. That is where those get-by scratchings – subsistence farming, mining – lead to the rituals, the confining orthodoxies of the poor. To offset those orthodoxies much there will be made of one aspect of dress – a type of hat or cravat, a style of facial hair, an elaborate tattoo even – and in sporting prowess. Something small and cheap to render the individual marginally different but not so outstanding as to attract ridicule.
Being landless, unable to afford a freehold house, the energy of the individual will, instead of décor or garden, go into their cars. Previously it might have been horse or bicycle. Any other ready identities will be taken from the team they have chosen to support, where sports shirts, scarves, and possibly other hairstyles will figure. Tattoos too. Emblems of music genres can also be used as identifiers. Weekend tribalism, to offset that which their social-economic circumstances have placed them within.
As to those of us who have made ourselves writers: to come close to succeeding as writers we have to be objective, and objectivity requires distance, and distance assumes superiority. In our analyses we can seem to patronise; and having made changes to ourselves in order to become writers the temptation is to change where and what we came from.
Even if we don’t actively seek to change society, a question we writers have to ask ourselves is – Do we describe, as accurately as we are able, the how-it-is sometimes squalor, the cheapness, the sadness of so many human lives, their smallness of aspiration? And by saying This-is-how-it-is do we then make such a way of life acceptable? Make it right? Or do we, because we ourselves have escaped (if only psychologically) cry No, and go on to ask just how many other lives are confined by this out-on-the-edges impoverishment?
If, in advocating reform, we should succeed in creating a society where the landless can actually choose where they work, what they earn, where they can live, then those working communities, that still exploited group of people, will lose their under-duress commonality. And will they then, in being made aware – by their choices – of their differences, and because no longer dependent on one another, become wary of one another? Will there then be, despite the improved standards of living, less social cohesion? Which could be why no political party of late has done much to improve the standard of living of those of us out on the hand-to-mouth edges.
© Sam Smith 8th July 2018
The most common aspect of ageing, I suspect, is the discovering about ourselves, physically, what has been discovered by most every generation before. The creeping wonder, for instance, at having acquired quite so much bodily hair. (Am I reverting to apehood prior to my extinction?) And not only the hair on the backs of arms and across shoulders, but other types of hair too – inside ears and up noses. And why eyebrows? So that those long single airs can detect changes in wind direction?
Not only do we get to resemble our old parents we even develop similar gestures – looking over the tops of our reading glasses, the way we get up out of chairs, even the odd pride we take in our unstoppable and thunderous flatulence. We can also find ourselves repeating what our aged parents used to say, for instance asking those newly met – in order to believe it ourselves? - “You know I'm over 70 now?” What we do know is the genuine fear that must show on our faces at every new piece of forgetfulness: “Am I that far gone?”
One aspect that I didn't foresee was that – when your children have all left home and you don't go out to work every day – you are no longer the centre of your own life. Even if you take yourself off for the day with just your partner you find yourself talking about your grandchildren, whether they'd like to be where you are. Or you worry about your children – are they wise to be buying that house, changing their job/partner? Or the two of you discuss what's been in the news, the latest political nonsense; and not so much how it will concern you, because you won't be here that much longer, nor even how it might effect your children, just the sad repetitive futility of it all.
In your middle age you can still feel involved with ongoing life, that you can still influence life around you. And then you find yourself at this remove, where what you do, say, carries little weight.
And this not being the centre of your own life is not a sudden lack of ego, rather it is due to an absence of becoming. You mattered to yourself when there was more to be done, that people – some people – depended on you. If only for you to be somewhere on time. Now time doesn't really matter. At your age you don't really matter. The only thing that you are to become is, firstly more dependent on others, then dead and no more. Could this awareness of not being the centre of your own life therefore be a necessary diminution of egotism, a premature acceptance of non-being?
That why all we can do now is laugh at the farts that escape us?
© Sam Smith 22nd July 2018
As a writer it is so easy to be seduced into the use, the re-use, the misuse of myth. It is such a convenient shorthand, be it of the savagery of Vikings or, here in the UK, the hardiness of Ooop-North menfolk. Colin Simms, Basil Bunting, Ted Hughes, Norman Nicholson.... all have succumbed, have placed narrative reliance on unexamined myth. (We will put aside here our politicians being seduced into stupidity by the myths of history. Especially that of 'strong leadership', when it is so obvious that politicians follow, have always followed, from in front.)
British Ooop-North writers are certainly not alone. Where observation and deduction might be better tools many US writers also travel this well-used myth-road. Some of their mythology is built about that remarkable short event, the pioneering Wild West. But there is also the later, and more widespread, school of college professor macho.
These learned gentlemen write in cod-simple vernacular, almost folksy, and of simple men, their sexual deviancy and violence, but with the occasional classical or scientific allusion thrown in to demonstrate that they themselves, their readers too, have the wider vision. Hemingway and Steinbeck may have been the precursors, writing however out of their own experience, not inventing violence for the vicarious pleasure of the unthreatened. On the other hand, as with the freak shows on some TV channels, the likes of Cormac McCarthy, H Mankell and Seigfried Larrson feel they have to focus on, to exploit the grotesque. Which is all on a par with, although in this instance benign, the US love, in both film and literature, of patronised simpletons – of Mice and Men, Benny and Joon, Forrest Gump...
Thankfully not all US writers have taken this over-simplistic route. Carson MacCullers managed by a puzzled occupation of Edward Hopper's straight unpeopled spaces. While Henry Miller and James Baldwin took their complex angst abroad. And not even all the Ooop-North men, men sensitive to mood and emotion, feel the need to be coarse to demonstrate that they are real. Sensitive is real.
It's not that I favour the nit-picking inner strife that gets depicted in middle-class novels, or that I want to struggle with convoluted narratives. Rather I crave the recognisable, violence included, but that it should have more than just the violence, like Turgenev's duellist muttering throughout the duel, 'This is stupid, stupid, stupid.' It's such secondary thoughts, the motives behind the motives, the weight of myths maybe, but not some easy, cartoonish description of the myth-acts themselves.
As reader, as writer, so much has happened to me, so much that I have let, have made, happen to me, much of it not of one character and seeming therefore contradictory, that what I want from reading, what I wanted to do through writing was to go some way, if not to settle the many inner conflicts, than to assign to them some form of categorisation.
I considered explaining this once in writer-general terms.
When writers are young they are by and large passive. One reason being that they can't see that anything they do will matter that much, their own selves of not much consequence. Not caring what becomes of themselves they find themselves in all sorts of situations; and not seeking to control them, distanced within themselves, they absorb. This absortion becomes a kind of recording, which at some time they feel the need to offload, if only to offer up a counterbalancing truth to the confident justifications of the doers. And from there the writing develops its own momentum, creates motivations, gets feedback, which leads to further consequences.
I knew, before seriously taking up the pen, that I couldn't succeed as a conventional writer because so little of my experience made acceptable sense. Hence my distaste for those writers who present their characters in a world complete and of a piece, just by their having tapped into simplistic myth; and by using those myths they endorse them, further contradicting both sense and experience.
Mythical me knew what was what in my past. Mythical me was decisive, acted. Real me was always lost, wondering, impulsive.
© Sam Smith 31st July 2018
Every nation state is artificial, is false. I suppose that what could be a natural, an organic nation state, would be a singular island, its sea borders undisputed. Iceland, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and Mauritius would qualify, maybe, had they not been colonised. And some of those island states colonised many times.
Being already comprised of several 'kingdoms', as well as parts of France (or was England a part of France?) Britain has never come close to qualifying as an island state. Nor has Japan, Fiji or the Seychelles, their being made up of several islands. No, most nation states are artificial, their borders and parts long disputed.
Probably the most obviously artificial present day nation state is Israel. Other than expedience it has no reason to exist as a separate part of the Arabian land mass. It certainly does not have thus far an illustrious history.
Israel was founded on fanaticism by terrorists; and that criminal mindset persists in almost every aspect of its everyday governance. Nowadays defenders of Israel's extrajudicial killings fall back on the defence that, as state representatives of the Jewish people, they have been more sinned against than sinning. Many of Israel's Stern Gang killings however predate the holocaust.
Israeli terrorists (militia?) were still at it after WW2. The blowing up of the Royal David Hotel aside, they kidnapped and hung individual British soldiers and, even as late as 1948, the Stern Gang assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations mediator and president of the Swedish Red Cross. He was hardly an enemy of the state.
The Israeli criminal mindset continues to this day with their illegal occupation of the West Bank, the fanatical settlers there employing terrorist methods to intimidate and evict Palestinian farmers and villagers. In like fashion Israeli troops and police have made a ghetto of Gaza. Consequently, together with their government's racist and divisive policies, Israel has managed to squander all the goodwill owed them after WW2.
This is not to say that every Israeli-born citizen, every ex-kibbutzer, is a criminal. As with most other citizens of most other nation states Israeli citizens have little influence over what their government enacts. A generous minority may strongly object, may disavow the crimes of the Israeli government and its soldiery; but those Israeli citizens are as powerless as those the Israeli government sends its soldiers to attack.
Like the rest of us those opponents, those malcontents, are prisoners of their birth, their national identity bestowed by those borders of the national state within which they were born. World citizens we are not.
While a few idealists did manage to set up the United Nations and the European Community, most career politicians continue to approve of borders, appoint themselves their nation's defenders. So do nation states continue to exist, to the detriment of our planet's health, and our own.
© Sam Smith 15th August 2018
In all the places that I've lived I have come across belongers wrapping themselves in their belonging, always on the lookout for more quirks of language or locale to validate their belonging. There has been an assumption within that belonging that seems to think that we, who don't belong, who stand off to one side listening to them practising their dialect and local knowledge, that we envy them their self-imprisonment.
When I was working as an editor I was passed an MS from Colin Mackay, a good writer and a very angry man. He lived in Edinburgh where every year he was forced to behold far less talented writers – TV celebs become 'authors' – being fęted in Charlotte Square.
Colin was a good writer in that he could pen a sentence, capture a detail/mood, but his novel overall was flawed. He wouldn't agree to my suggested changes or a reworking, and when I turned the MS down he tried me with another, also based on his own life. As I had suspected this work was also flawed – again by his inclusion of cliché fantasies, of incidents way beyond his experience. That he had been to Bosnia in a charity role I had no doubt. What he claimed to have happened there, told in the lascivious terminology of rape thrillers, I doubted. But again Colin would neither agree to changes nor to excise that section of his lengthy MS. So, again, I had to reluctantly decline to publish.
My suspicion by that time was that other of Colin's MS were likely to be similarly flawed, those flaws being included and kept, the whole process probably subconscious, to justify his remaining unpublished and righteously unsuccessful.
I had however shown more interest in his writing than other rejecting publishers, and Colin and I had become friends, if at a distance. We exchanged emails on writing and agreed to meet up next time I was in Edinburgh. (Enough people hate me unmet for being a white male with opinions that I do my best not to make new enemies.)
Then, apropos nothing recent, I received an email from Colin telling me that he could no longer bear to be unsuccessful and that he was going to kill himself, 'then people will take notice.' My day job not that long before had been on an acute psychiatric unit looking after genuinely suicidal patients. I impatiently told Colin not to be so childish.
The next email I got from Colin, a few weeks later, told me that he was 'that very day' going to kill himself and that by the time I received the email he would be dead. I was at the other end of the UK, and concerned now I tried to get hold of his local police to warn them. I was too late.
Nor did Colin, as was his intention, achieve fame as a result of his suicide. Well... he did, but only amongst those who knew of the black comedy of his suicide. If memory serves I think the sequence was that first he dropped an electrical appliance into his bath where, fully clothed, he had already cut his wrists. The fuses blew, the bath went cold, and he didn't bleed to death. So he decided to hang himself, but to do so he first swallowed down an overdose with the help of a bottle of whiskey. The light fitting to which he had tied the rope brought the ceiling down on top of him.
By which time Colin had become desperate to see the suicide through. I hadn't been the only recipient of his email suicide note: there were others living nearby. So he tried to cut his own throat. That didn't work. Confused now by the drink and the overdose he staggered out of his flat onto the landing. Where a neighbour screamed at sight of him, his wet clothes covered in plaster dust and blood. At her screaming Colin tottered backwards, fell down the stairs and, I think, broke his neck and died.
I write to be read, want readers. I'd had 23 years solid of rejection, so I will compromise in order to be published. (There's always a second edition.) Colin's one aim though was to become famous, to belong, had a future image of himself as unsullied author. He wanted to be in a Charlotte Square marquee only on his terms, take his place in his idea of the literary pantheon, to belong. And all that he has ended up as is the fraudulent author of a fame-seeking death, in his suicide, in the motive for his self-death, no different to John Lennon's pathetic assassin.
Let me long be the outsider looking in.
© Sam Smith 30th August 2018
Holistic fictions are mostly Sci-Fi. Holistic in that they are about fictional characters in fictional settings by fictional authors for fictional readers, where no-one and no-thing can be taken for granted.
One such of these could be a plot with a series of false resolutions, with either the same/similar problem recurring and/or with different resolutions; or it could be a series of escalating problems. Probably the latter, the last problem creating the next problem, scientific or social.
Or, in that kind of linked piece, it could be built brick by brick with detailed descriptions of moments in the characters' lives. Or by blocks of justified prose, no more than a page, much less than a page; and built as with Undeclared War - https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/545469 - (which incidentally began as a jotting note to myself) but in this SF case done without the linking of common words, instead with character traits or with the scenes as the follow-on factors. On second thoughts the use of character traits could prove confusing for the reader. Who to identify with?
One beginning I've often been tempted by, but could never come up with a credible character, has been the man, or woman, conscripted by a jury service system to be their country's Foreign Minister, and for a 2 year stint, their civil servants also lottery-conscripted. The usual process would be, during the handover period, first an ego-gratifying media deluge – to put her/him in the general public's consciousness. While most ministers would have little to do, during our minister's 2 years they would have to deal with an important juncture in the planet's history. Future history.
Another future history could be about a people in exile on another planet, and their trying to convey to their children their loss. Double the exotica to begin with – present and past planets – and then come moves to banish them from the new planet, and their children's outrage...
© Sam Smith 16th September 2018
The classical music that I listen to doesn't have to have a visual impact. Same with jazz. It's the sounds made that matter; and I'm delighted that those sounds can come now through the black webbing of speakers. As I would have been happy in olden times for those sounds to have emerged from behind church and temple grilles. The performers, the makers of the music, do not have to be seen. Indeed their being seen can distract from the sounds being made.
It's not that some pop music doesn't appeal. I especially like that which attempts the new in new ways. Problem is so little does. What I especially have no time for is pop posturing, the affected clothes and hairstyles, the hype, the seeking of fame for fame's sake.
I can't get completely away from poetry concerns here. Because poets too, like musicians and unlike children, would also be better heard and not seen. I'll go further: I'd prefer poets not to be heard at all, but only to be silently read, voice inside the head. But if heard they must be, then their works please most definitely not read by emoting actors.
Keeping with poetry vis-a-vis music: when asking what good poetry competitions do for poetry one should consider what good the Eurovision Song Contest has done for music. For all the stage presentation is music the better or worse for the Eurovision Song Contest? Has it advanced music in any way? Or do its participants revert to jingle, ear-worm riffs? Have any winners of poetry competitions re-made language anew?
But back to my dislike of the pop industry and the affected insouciance of young male pop stars, or rather the displays of teenage surliness in 30 year old male guitarists. Even the pretence of being stoned, a drop-jawed, laconic vagueness, languid utterances from the conventionally eccentric – hair, hats and beards, leathers and tassels, piercings and tattoos. Of their time, but maybe just different enough maybe to become a fashion. That's the men. While most young women pop stars have to appear on stage, in videos, barely dressed and gyrate like poleless dancers.
Despite all their carefully wrought images I still suspect within each a vulnerable human being who, if they do manage to survive the life styles imposed on them by the sought-after fame, and they do manage to live on into greyness, then one sees these young gods become harking back old men and women afraid of a very ordinary death. And so deformed by 'cosmetic' surgery that one feels desperately sorry for them.
Which is why, when unseen, I can, undistracted, lose myself, go on a journey with a jazz soloist, or take mathematical delight in the lengthening back and forth of a string quartet's counterpoint. Providing that is, with regard to my recent Guardian piece - http://mysmallpresswritingday.blogspot.com/2018/08/my-sam-smiths-writing-day.html – there has been minimal interruptions from the human voice.
© Sam Smith 24th September 2018
A few random thoughts on my ‘calling'.
Every poem must have inner tension, a dissonance seeking to be resolved, or delineated. Such was Tomas Tranströmer's modus operandi, take two unrelated subjects and squeeze them into a singular entity. Michael Hamburger on the other hand believed that all dissonance should be avoided. Although Michael and I disagreed on that score, we did agree that the aim is to write poems, and not to theorise on the writing of poems. But here goes anyway....
Prose is from the outside looking in, is of itself transparent, the words being the frame through which we look. Poetry is the voice of the dream, carries with it a hyper-reality, and one looks from inside the poem out. This being when a poem attempts to convey the inexpressible, and becomes a reading between the lines, for what is sensed rather than known.
Then there is poetry as a filing system for perceptions, old people's poetry of acceptance; and those poets fiercely certain of what constitutes poetry – their own.
Young poets crib, old poets cheat. Squeezed somewhere in between there may be an original work.
This is not to denigrate poets. Poets are needed to unite countries, or causes. (The last Manchester bombing?) The propaganda of poetry itself however requires repeated publication. And, probably, unconscious alliteration.
In its beginning a poem, or a story, has to intrigue, has to at least hold the promise of resolution. Bearing also in mind that, believing that the purpose of art is to disconcert, in any writing I set out to usurp readerly expectations. Consequently a poem of mine has to be 'wrong' to be 'right'.
As one has to be on guard against overworking a poem, one has also to aware that at readings there is a seduction in the flattering and polite responses to the recitation of your written words that can have you believing that you have achieved something worthwhile. You participated that was all. It is the same sense of achievement that comes from a group protest. It resulted in no great advancement to your cause. You just felt better for having taken part in a group activity.
Who am I talking to here? Can there be such a thing as a full-time poet? Soldier-poet, accountant-poet, nurse-poet, doctor-poet, scholar-poet even; but never wholly a poet-poet. How could there be? Of what would they write?
And finally, is to define poetry to exclude? Is that the new PC? Poetically Correct?
© Sam Smith 7th October 2018
The one persistent fear in getting older is of dementia, be it vascular or Alzheimer's. Every memory lapse has one thinking, Is this it? Is this how it begins?
As far back as twenty years ago, while only in my 50s, I wrote, 'It's frightening not to be able to remember. To see your own [indecipherable] handwriting and to not have a clue what you were talking about.'
Every time the prospect of dementia stands before me I think, not so much of the dementing patients I daily nursed, but of poor Anne Born. Anne was a poet and at one time the go-to translator for anything Scandinavian. She gave me a lot of support when I was setting up The Journal of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry, let me use many of her translations. Older and so much cleverer than I, Anne's talents extended to several more languages. She took such pleasure in the byways and quirks of the intellect; and then came the Alzheimer's horror of having her self being taken from her day by day.
Fear of dementia may be persistent and recurring, but it has not been my only concern. Ongoing has also been the trying to make sense of this life. For instance on 9th September 2006 I wrote, 'Seeing myself as an agent of continuity, both as parent and as writer, now I have so little confidence in a future that often I see little point in continuing my existence.'
Only to write six years later, 'To have died younger than this, before the dreams were all undone, before disillusion set in, that would have been sadder than this continuing life. To not have known just this, where knowing gives one a kind of strength.'
Disillusion and fear is not something new to the old. From an early age we try to make sense of each our own consciousness, of what we think consciousness is, what memory tells us it might have been, what imagination thinks it could be. While mocking oneself for unmerited self-importance, knowing that all life is accidental, from conception through every meeting/non-meeting, infection, cure, even the accruing of knowledge; all is coincidence, where one happens to have been, thinking what, when... If only I could bring it to mind.
© Sam Smith 29th October 2018
The two ravens...
Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory,
fly over the world each day.
I fear for Thought, lest he come not back
but I fear yet more for Memory.
Donald Trump and the right-wing likes of Farage have had us look again, realise anew just how fascism comes to be, the methods it employs – displacement and distraction but two. To us onlookers Trump's tweets might well demonstrate how so many on the political right are incapable of seeing beyond the self, their lack of imagination when considering how their contradictory words and actions might affect others. Lack of imagination period, right-wingers unable to see two steps beyond surface simplicities. To Trump and Farage followers however all they hear in the barracking is the pair telling us what for. Doesn't matter that it doesn't make sense.
Self-evidently the right-wing mentality has to find a cause it can identify with, can relate to their own self or to what they consider their greater self, class or country. Then, for gratification of that self, they will inflict all kinds of cruelties on those not of that self. Israel-Palestine for instance. Or, out of an unconcerned self-righteousness, they will allow cruelties to be done elsewhere to others. Saudis bombing Yemen with US & UK arms.
Politically, mentally, economically, we are stuck in the 1920s. We still inhabit a global mess of nation states, many still selling arms and enmities to one another, with all of that otherness playing into the hands of various right-wing politicians, allowing them to build their careers on fear. Sometimes seems to be forgotten – despite the annual 'remembrance' binge – those thousands who have died in their battles, those millions wiped out in their wars. To what purpose? Another present, here in this place, would probably have come into being. What was truly saved? Lost?
Unbridled capitalism thrives on and abets these enmities, and so endangers this our one planet. We have yet to come up with a global strategy for containing capitalism, for – at the very least – making capitalism less reliant on the manufacture and sale of arms, which in its turn relies on manufactured (encouraged?) conflict. Right wing politicians however cannot exist without a loathed other.
With the global rise of the right their devotion to, their need for symbols, has once again become evident. Not so many blatant reversed swastikas this time. The logos on their banners and tattooed on their arms and shaved scalps though still have to be both angular and jagged. Wolf heads and spiked crosses remain popular, so too the KKK. Motocross bikers here in the South Wales valleys have marked their illegal and anti-social trails with jagged crosses.
It's not the vicious-minded on the right alone: the simpleminded, both right and left, have to have symbols of some kind, have to have slogans. Anyone who has been to a party meeting will know how much talk is given over to what will be shouted at protest marches, what slogan will adorn the placards. The simpleminded, unable to see two steps beyond, will take these slogans, these sound-bites, literally.
I wasn't so much happy as confident when I thought that the bungling of politicians was due to their cynical manipulation coming back to bite them on the arse. The liar Tony Blair for instance. Their kind of cynicism, call it a weary sophistication, can in itself be attractive. I was appalled therefore when I came to realise that these establishment politicos were largely honest, but depthless, and their bungling the result of their simplemindedness. Brexit for instance.
East and West we are mass media societies now, and the mass has been made simpleminded by the media, and they have helped vote the stupid into power. And what are the first acts of the right-wing stupid once in government? They imprison or kill investigative journalists, and cut state spending on education. Shortsighted simplisms become the order of the day. Circularity complete.
© Sam Smith 9th November 2018
In any crime novel one's own suspension of disbelief is the harder to sustain the more murderers one has known. Especially so with those authors like Cormac McCarthy who revel in every gory detail. The number of his books I've put aside when salacious detail has been heaped on his every other delight in the grotesque.
This is not how most murders are. What I found most unsettling about murderers is how ordinary they tend to be. Granted the murderers that I helped look after in psychiatric settings were by that time, if not permanently medicated, then they were long past any murderous intent, their killings the consequence of a previously undiagnosed mental disorder or the result of a passing florid psychosis. Or, in some cases, the killings had simply been the outcome of a misunderstanding.
Their crimes seemed to themselves to belong to someone else. The murder itself was certainly of another time, the violence excessive rather than extraordinary – a wife strangled during sex, a man stamped to death in a bar fight; while 'balance of the mind disturbed' partner and children shot, a father set on fire; themselves unforgiven.
The traumatised relatives of murder victims seem to also exist in the same state of puzzlement. That their sister/brother was the victim of domestic violence, of rape, a street brawl, a fatality in a racist/terrorist attack... has them wondering if the death had been caused by a road traffic accident would they now, the bystander, be feeling so guilty? Would they now still be feeling that they should do something about the killer? That killer living on, being kept alive somewhere, being given counselling, rehabilitated? The surviving relation's anxiety rotates about – silly seeming worries – what they should do if they meet the killer in the street? Not violent themselves, not capable – even had they the character – of vengeance, should they at the very least say something?
The more of death one sees the more ordinary it becomes; and in the end it is that everyday ordinariness of death that is the hardest to come to terms with, that is the more unnerving. Is it, for instance, the unbearable ordinariness of killing that has had more combat soldiers kill themselves on their return here than have been killed in action in both Iraq and Afghanistan? So easy to kill. So easy to die.
Goes without saying that in fiction details bring verisimilitude. Not, however, where those details are transparently gratuitous. I've been going along my shelves trying to decide... and the only novel I can find where every tiny detail of the crime and its consequences was absolutely necessary is in Jim Crace's 'Being Dead'.
© Sam Smith 22nd November 2018
With the enormous powers at humanity's disposal we need fail-safe political systems that can prevent us being governed by fools and egomaniacs. What we have ended up with here in the UK are democratic [Westminster?] politicians who represent only themselves. Never has a set of politicians proved themselves so irrelevant to their electorate's concerns as those centre stage here today. All democratic politicians, and in this country especially, so very out of touch, even with their own supporters.
Democracy isn't perfect, apologists often tell us, but it's the best on offer. Is it? We're reassured that we can always vote out any government that has failed us. Can we? Really?
An informed electorate is needed for democracy, in theory, to work. What we have here in the UK, given minority control of the media, is a misinformed electorate. So has democracy delivered up, all around the world, inefficient governance. What each has spectacularly failed to do is take the long view.
Nothing new there.
Much as the moon in circling the Earth gives us varying degrees of natural brightness we are similarly trapped, keep coming back to the same point of limited visibility: the politicians with each their flawed psychological make-up (else why become career politicians?) creating our planet's systems of governance.
What would it take to build new systems? Abstracts such as justice, equity, fairness and tolerance must needs be the basis for any system. Then we'd have to add humanity into the equation, its differences, its diversity. To start to build with humanity first, however, with human fallibility that is, would be to become very quickly lost, favour one set of humans over another, create injustice. The law, justice, must always come first.
Not universally popular these days I know, but the European Union has almost overcome short-termism, that left-then-token right right-then-token left of most democracies. And the European Union has done so by having Commissioners, appointed by its democratic governments, who set long term policies. With human rights enshrined into its rules and regulations so does Europe also have systems in place whereby aid is automatically triggered to any of its deprived areas. Environmental targets are also set for each of its national governments.
These systems do not require a politician's ego-gratifying input, only that these policies be enacted at a national level. Those politicians elected to the European parliament can of course tweak those policies, question their efficacy. But that still allows for the Commission's long term policy, the building of infrastructure.
So much for theory and principle. Unfortunately national populations are being told that they are hankering for 'self-rule', and some have believed that, have become caught up in the politicians' for-against game, politicians as champions of their made cause. Consequence being that most world citizens, choice of side made, are looking for solutions to their life problems within themselves – psychological or commercial – when the causes are outside themselves, are in the way our lives are being controlled.
© Sam Smith 6th December 2018
I'm going to assume, given time pressures, that this will be my last blog of 2018. A year that is ending somewhat differently to how it began.
When I started this year I was going to struggle on occasionally re-publishing e-versions of my out-of-print titles. Then I met David Norrington of Wordcatcher Publishing and not only have he and I signed contracts for Trees - should be out some time in 2019 – but we have set dates for 2 re-issues of poetry collections. Problems and Polemics is being released 22nd December 2018 and Rooms on February 27th 2019. I'm looking forward, blogging or not, to another busy year.