Levelling criticism…


If you can’t say something good about something, then don’t say it – so goes the saying or something like that. So the blog I have written about Argo I will put aside, which basically said that Oskar (my dog) could have directed it better and it was a piece of racist drivel (but it took about 800 words to say it!). It would probably have brought both a fatwa and the CIA down on me!

So it made me think about what we want from feedback and supportive criticism. I was talking to a long-time friend in Cardiff about Renegade Writers and how the critiques can be rigorous but very supportive, and how I would find it very difficult to write without the feedback I get. Members point out the faults and praise the well written. It is very easy to criticise – less easy to praise, and equally hard to accept praise. The most important thing is to criticise constructively and not personally, something I try and do.

One of the blogs I read by a student, Shannon, posted that she had some feedback that hurt her feelings deeply, she was writing very personally about grief, and her similar aged fellow students had no or very little knowledge of grief so gave poor feedback. So how much should you invest of yourself into something, to not lead to feeling a critique is criticism of oneself, rather than the work? It is something I have touched on before because in my poetry (there is a link to the left of this post) is very personal and maybe open to the criticism of being self-absorbed. Maybe categorised as arrogant in the fact that I want you to see the world through my eyes, but as ‘artists’ isn’t that what we are doing, we are arrogant enough to publish a book, sing a song, show a painting, expecting others to look, read, listen to our innermost thoughts and observations. Perhaps in my life I needed more of that arrogance and become the ‘artist’ I knew I could be? Maybe. ‘Artists’ are not always the nicest people because of this, self-belief is not a particularly ‘nice’ trait to have.

Another long-time friend I talked to over the weekend had felt let down by some friends who were ‘fair weather’ friends. I am reading Javier Marias and over the last 50 pages he has discussed how much to tell people, who to trust, whether friends or family can be trusted with secrets. In my poetry I have opened up maybe beyond what ‘you’ want to hear, I want to share my experience partly to find out about myself and partly to say to others you are not alone, others have the feelings or loneliness that you are feeling. It is not for everyone and I have to expect to be criticised for it, maybe personally criticised, I think I am strong enough to take it, but have to be prepared for it.

When I was at Art College about 200 years ago, we had regular sessions where other students would sit around your work with staff and after attempting to explain what you were doing, they would give sometimes very hard feedback. It was tough. But it made one realise what others who were not inside your head were seeing. Some students were quite disturbed by the levels of criticism they received, but it did make me able to self-start, however it also made me over criticise my own work to a point of being unable to create, until the last ten years when I am much freer, however I still find it hard to draw or paint, but writing does it for me, at the moment anyway.

Today’s photograph is in Tunstall on a windy bitterly cold bright day at about 10am.


Just rubble

Today’s photographs are from my ‘garden’ taken on a windy, snowy day at midday.


The ‘garden’ looks like soil even in this tundra-like mode of snowy windy weather. It is actually the remains of one of the now demolished local pot banks (the local name for pottery factories). At one time they were everywhere in Stoke-on-Trent. Within a few hundred yards of where I live there were large factories like Doulton and smaller ones like Keele Street and what appears to have been dumped at the back of my flat Alfred Meakin. In Tunstall at one time there would have been more than 100 different pot banks. They were the lifeblood of this area alongside the also defunct mining and steel works. The work force were families, generation after generation up until the last generation. Now, it’s nearly all gone abroad. A few small high quality factories hang on like Moorcroft in Burslem, and a couple of factories specialising in hotel and commercial wear.

Those white flecks you can see in my ‘garden’ are broken bits of pottery, I found this bit.


I also unearth kiln furniture, the bits they used to hold the pottery in place whilst being fired, cup handles, plate edges, broken moulds. It is something to be proud of, the long history of skills and artistry, now really only on show at the Potteries Museum, not where it should be in the shops! It is now mainly just rubble.

Oh to be in England…

Three photographs taken on the second day of Spring on my way to get a library book, in Tunstall at 10.15am. Very windy after a snowfall in the early hours, chilly, white sky with lots more snow to come. Last year was the warmest March on record about 20 degrees warmer than today, this year is the coldest March for 50 years. ‘Oh to be in England…”




Now I know it’s not April, but it is often misquoted as Oh to be in England now that Spring is here – here is some Browning –


Oh, to be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning

…happily ever after.


Today’s photograph is in a corridor of the outpatients block, it’s a bit like an airport. I was there for yet another visit to the prostate department to hear results of tests, got to have more in 6 months. This was at 2pm, on a bright windy cold day.

Write what you know about.

How many times have we been advised that?

It is good advice, especially to begin with. But then we need to develop our writing. We do it, we tell stories about places and people who have never existed, we’ve never been to. Google Earth has helped, I wrote a couple of chapters which took place in Venice, I’ve never been there, but Google took me to where I wanted and an online property agent had a video going round a building for sale which gave me good detail of the interior. Those are quite useful and I used the same for a home on a beach in South Carolina (somewhere else I’ve never been) it featured a few times in Underpainting, and I was able to place characters in rooms which existed.

Those are places. Probably harder are relationships. For me it would be the relationship with your own children, it is easy to watch friends and their children as an outsider, but what about that inner feeling, inner love. I remember a former colleague saying that as soon as she gave birth she immediately loved that unknown being more than anything else, without thinking about it. And yet another had great difficulty loving her two children, luckily a quite rare thing, but part of relationships.

I am now separated, I sometimes wonder why I got married, though there were times when it was by far the happiest time of my life, in my writing I have only ever used the period of slowly moving apart (on my side anyway) and loss of attachment. I would find it quite difficult to write about the inner feelings of say a couple who had happily been together a long time, as some of my friends have been.

Happy long term relationships do not always make interesting plots and I have found in reading writers find them hard to make interesting, look at Arnold Bennett in the Clayhanger trilogy, the third book is far less interesting when the protagonists have got together. No wonder fairy stories finish with ‘…and they lived happily ever after’, happiness is actually quite boring. If we look at our own happiest periods in relationships they are probably periods when feelings of safety, calmness, certainty are to the fore.

What brought these thoughts on has been reading Orkney by Amy Sackville, a beautifully written novel about a ‘honeymoon’ and the strange relationship between two people. The writing is poetic without being complex, it combines myths and legends and memory, with the reality of a situation the first person narrator fails to understand or foresee. Quite a wonderful book.

Choosing my mind wanderings…

ImageOn such as chilly day I decided to use a photograph taken two years ago in France on a roasting hot day in my friends garden, lunchtime with home grown tomatoes, fresh bread, olives, cheese, rillette and wonderful Pelforth Brune beer, hoping soon warmer weather will arrive!

So why is it so pleasing to have a piece published by someone else?

In the latest issue of The Centrifugal Eye is one of my poems, Macbeth at the Writers Group, was chosen for publication, and that has made me very happy! It is hopefully quite amusing, certainly when I have read it that is the reaction I have got. It was primarily written for performing, there are great opportunities for using a number of voices, some double entendre and points that attendees at a writing group would appreciate. I enjoy performing and have no qualms about reading to any size of audience, if I had any ability to memorise lines then I could have been an actor (hmmhmm) or not.

I was very pleased a couple of years ago to have another piece in The Centrifugal Eye, A Tale of the Children I Never Had. Again a piece that I initially wrote for performing. One day soon I will record these and put mp3s on my site.

I wanted to be published by The Centrifugal Eye as I could see it had a high standard of writing, it was obviously somewhere that people serious about their output were happy to be published, and it was looking for something a little out of the ordinary, which I hope these two works could be seen as.

A couple of weeks ago I put an interview with the editor Eve Hanninen as a blog. I was interested in the process she worked through and in her background as a poet and illustrator. Perhaps I was still amazed she had chosen my work. That choosing creates a warm glow to me as the writer, a feeling that I am not just writing for self-gratification, someone has seen worth in my mind wanderings, especially when they have a very personal meaning as with Tale, which was initially written when I was going through some therapy at Mind in 1998 and finding it hard to explain to the therapist who had 5 children why I had no wish to be a father! The final version is massively different, partly because I lost the original when I lost a usb stick with all my writing on and no back up or print outs!

Being published gives all writers a boost, as does being chosen to exhibit for an artist. We may try and show a ‘cool’ outward reaction as if it is an everyday event, but inside we are delighted, and who hasn’t turned to the pages and read your own work? It is a natural reaction, we all look for praise, in the same way we do as small children. Now all I need is someone to take up one of my novels, perhaps I should start trying.


Learning the steps…

ImageToday’s photograph is a panorama of part of the wall around the wreck of my ‘garden’ taken at 10am on a white cool day.

A couple of months ago I was asked by a friends son to ‘teach me everything you know about film making’. That is quite a task. He has already made a few short films which are very interesting and have a unique ‘voice’ of their own. So our online discussion (he lives nearly 200 miles away) has been about films he has seen and that has encouraged me to watch some that I hadn’t considered watching, such as Hugo, which I thoroughly enjoyed as at the heart of it is the story of Georges Melies. Having watched that I can see how it would encourage anyone to want to make films, Melies’ films were magical, he created films which not just filmed what was around but created a world of wonder (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTEODB_s87M).

So where do we start in any art form. There are of course the technical considerations, when I was starting to make films in the early 70’s video was very basic, so it was all film based. I began using Super and Standard 8, I preferred Super 8 as I used long single shots and I liked the film ratio, Standard 8 (which was half a 16mm film) was too square for what I was looking for and you could only shoot a total of around 2 minutes before the film had to be turned round. When I moved to 16mm the costs of stock were much higher, something that the digital filming now has almost removed from the equation. But the most important aspect of learning about film-making for me as with all the other art forms I have been involved in was watching films and reading about how film-makers created their work. I saw everything I could and a friend and I ran the college film society, I don’t know how many actually liked our choices, but we showed all sorts of films and were able to watch them over and over again (this is before VHS or DVD!).

It is no different in any other art form, if you want to paint then go and see paintings look how the artist has used their materials, the brush strokes, the development from drawings, sketches and so on. Then learn how to handle brushes, palette knives, paint, canvas. In my writing I use the reading I have done for years and years and go back to passages to see how the writer has worked an idea up.

One of the classic pieces to study in film is the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps-v-kZzfec). It’s influence can still be seen after almost 90 years, if you want to learn about editing this is the piece to watch and analyse, it still has a remarkable power, which is due to Eisenstein’s artistry. It is also good for writers to study. Just look at the variety of points of view in one short scene, the changes of feel from exultation to tragedy, the use of ‘minor’ characters to enhance the effect.

In her blog today Shannon (a writing student at Kansas) writes about the importance of learning the basics of writing a sentence and how some of the other students complained that this was too simple (http://shannonathompson.com/2013/03/19/relax-read-how-to-write-a-sentence/). I was pleased to see how she felt that this was like learning how a painter needs to use a brush or as I have noted in the above how a film-maker needs to learn the basics of editing. These are the building bricks of what we do, of course we want to subvert them to develop them, but before we can do that we need to know what we are subverting.


Today there is a photograph in two versions, no great thoughts! The first is the original as taken, just processed to be smaller in size. As I was doing this I was intrigued by the shapes on the tree root, I put it through the black and white filter, taking all tone away and liked the effect, making a shape like some ancient dead animal rather than the rather sexual overtones of the original. It was taken at the car park in Tunstall next to The Wheatsheaf at 10.15am on a bright mild sunny day.