The Oskars

Sometimes when you write you come up with a really great sentence, which sums up what maybe you’ve written in the last five chapters and stuns you by its simplicity, elegance and quality. At the last Renegades Writers meeting I was so pleased when Misha pointed one out of mine (I had hoped someone would notice as I thought it rather good!). At the moment it is placed about a quarter way through the book, but it is so fine (self-praise is not appreciated Tim!) that it may end up the final line in the book. It is simple but sort of sums up the whole story in ten words.

A whole book of great sentences would be almost unreadable, such things need to stand out. It would be like eating the finest steak and drinking best champagne and port every day, you’d be aching for a sausage sandwich and a pint of dark after a while.

Where on earth do these lines come from? Well I suppose our virtuosity that makes us writers or artists or whatever. In the early 1970’s I read Evelyn Waugh’s books. He was a brilliant writer of English. His subjects and stories are of course a sharp critique of the upper classes, his sympathies were certainly not mine. But he was a great story teller, and I would urge you to read his books if for nothing else to appreciate and learn from his style. It is so simple that it must have taken many edits and revisions!

In last Saturday’s blog I had thought up a phrase/line as I walked up Bond Street (two streets away), which is peppered with empty houses, many boarded up. Some look like no-one could possibly live in them, then at night you can see the lights on and people do. It is some of the most deprived housing in the city. The picture I put on the blog was actually a house which a woman lived in until recently; opposite to her was another woman whose window was always boarded up. I thought they were empty so did not deliver stuff there. Then I was told that they had a feud going on and as soon as one had new windows the other would smash them again; the feud was of course over a man, who had left the women a few years ago, but they carried on regardless.

A story I am sure Waugh would have handled beautifully, though the wrong class of people. Barry from Renegades said he may use the phrase  – ‘a street with more empty houses than diamonds’ – alluding of course to Bond Street in London, the home of some of the most exclusive jewellers in the World, in one of his pieces, that would please me greatly. That quite nice little line just came to me as I was in the environment. The ‘genius’ of the writer? I don’t know, but the more we use words and read words and work with words, the more these sort of things just pop up in the brain.

Today’s photograph taken at 10.30am is of my dog Oskar, named after Oskar Mazareth, the character in The Tin Drum who through drumming remains at the age of 3, and tells the history of Danzig and his family just before and during the Second World War, through the eyes of a rather anarchic child even though by the end he is well into his teens. When his father dies he chooses to lose his power, and grows hideously. The story is told by Oskar while living in some sort of institution. It was the first book of Gunter Grass that I read and I have read most of his since then. Gunter Grass and Evelyn Waugh, two writers who have so little in common, except they both explore the history of the Twentieth Century through their characters and both are brilliant at using words.



Dawn is breaking over Tunstall and as I was pouring the water into my second pot of tea of the day a blackbird began singing just a few feet from the kitchen window. It was so loud it felt like it was in the kitchen itself. I opened the door and it didn’t fly away just continued a complex series of sounds, not quite within touching distance. It then realised my proximity and flew to the top of the gable of the house next door to continue its song. I threw a handful of porridge oats in the ‘garden’ to try and attract it back, but by now Oskar had run outside wondering what the fuss was about and was eating the oats, are they good for dogs?

Today’s photograph was taken in the nearby park at 10.15am, foggy and mild.


More empty houses than diamonds

After I had read a couple of pages of “Traitor to the Cause” at Renegades Writers, a fake autobiography of a character called Vincent, where he attends a party at John Lennon’s house in 1965 and plays the piano for him, there was a most useful discussion about what I had written and after certain amusement replaced Maria Callas singing with Princess Margaret, it felt ‘smoother’! I had written that Vincent was given a pre-release copy of Revolver which I had mistakenly thought came out in ’65 and luckily was corrected, so he will be given a copy of Rubber Soul.

This led to a discussion about whether people liked The Beatles. Around half of us were knocking round when these albums came out. I was 10 when Beatlemania was at its height in ’63. My older brother liked them a lot, I thought them OK and preferred The Beach Boys. It wasn’t until 1979 when visiting San Francisco that I really began to like them. I visited someone I’d met at a party in Chicago a few weeks earlier at Christmas (and annoyed to find she had a boyfriend!), I travelled there by train via New Orleans (which I hated) and Los Angeles (which I loved). She invited a load of friends for a meal of Mexican food and huge joints (not meat) in a room in her apartment which looked over the Bay (I had to swear on a Bible in a shop that I was over 21 to get the beer!). In my ‘honour’ they put on Beatles albums, and in that heady mix I got to like them, or was it the memory of the close attentions of a friend of hers?

In our discussions at Renegades it was obvious that the majority had little liking for them, some preferring the Stones or covers. It got me wondering why they have still such an impact, you only have to listen to Tame Impala’s album which has come so high in the best albums lists for 2012 (to me it sounds like bad outtakes from George Harrison). To my ears the Stones hardly have developed, they began as a covers band of blues music, developed their own sound along those lines, and then (rather like Oasis) continued on the same tack. Fine and I like many of their songs and albums, and they were great live when I saw them in 1973, but other than their ‘style’ have they really had any influence?

After the initial Beatlemania when they were mixing covers with their own stuff, The Beatles had the most remarkable period of experimentation and development, it only lasted 6 years, but where they ended up is a million miles from where they started, that is their strength. This was of course because two people worked off each other, loved then hated each other (sounds a bit like Renegades!), experimented, were fearless and had reached a level of sales for EMI that they could do anything they wanted, a position almost no one else has had. Then when they went solo I cannot find any quality in their music, and like the Stones just ambled along with the odd better than average track. George Harrison was the one who truly developed having been held back by The Beatles experience.

Ah well, I am sure many have written much better and knowledgably about them, but I still quite regularly listen to their albums and find new experiences every time even though I can sing along to most. If nothing else wonderful happens today then I may write about albums that live with me and get replayed often.

I have continued with the photograph a day for a year. Below is a house in Bond Street, Tunstall, where there are more empty houses than diamonds. It was taken today 5th January 2013 on a very mild sunny morning at 11am.


Never Again

Yesterday there was a posting on Facebook by an old friend of mine Carol White. It was about the death of Con Shiels aged 96, the last survivor of the Jarrow Hunger March.

Jarrow Marchers

It is remarkable how hard those people were, they marched in all weathers, down the whole of England to highlight their plight, to show the establishment that they were human beings not numbers on an account sheet. Marches also came from Scotland, Wales, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Belfast and most industrial areas. The government mobilised police and troops to stop them forcefully if necessary. They were given help by groups of workers and supporters on their journey, many with little more than the marchers.

These were people we should be proud of and celebrated, they are the heroes, their message helped create the magnificent programmes of the 1945 Labour Government, policies this Conservative Government is eroding and trying to do away with.

Let’s hope we do not have to march again.

When I was working for the FWWCP I put together an anthology of writing for its 30th Anniversary. I specially wanted to include Education by Kay Ekevall, which I was privileged to hear stridently read by her. Kay was a remarkable woman who as well as being a fine writer and activist, was once secretary to George Orwell with who she disagreed about nearly everything!


At school I knew history:
Kings and Emperors
Battles and heroes
There was something called
The White Man’s burden
We seemed to do well under it,
But the black man didn’t.

I didn’t know about
Miners and dockers:
Their work and their battles,
I did hear about Peterloo
But those Chartists were bloodthirsty rebels,
They had to be put down!

My education began when I met
The hunger marchers from Aberdeen and Dundee
On their way to London
Kay Ekevall

Today’s photograph is of St.Aiden’s Street, Tunstall at 10.30am. On the far right of the photograph and below that is what remains of the Doulton factory, knocked down about 20 years ago.




Getting into a bit of a stew

I have been making what in Stoke-on-Trent is called lobby. In Merseyside it is called scouse and I am sure has different local names around the country and abroad. It is a stew. A food whose roots are in poverty, which makes a little poor quality piece of meat go a long way with plenty of potatoes and root vegetables and, what I love most, dumplings. Why ‘lobby’ I’m not sure perhaps because you just lob into a pot what is around the kitchen. I make enough to last me about five days.

To add some extra flavour I went to a local supermarket to get a sweet potato. They had some good ones, but on looking at the box I saw they were grown in Israel. I will not buy things made in Israel because of their treatment of the Palestinians, so I had to trudge off and find another shop selling them. Another supermarket and the box said USA, well a bit better as I like America (not their political leaders or international policies), and have met many great people over there working for their communities and unions.

This reminded me of when I was about 8 or 9. My mother took me shopping and I saw some bright red sweet Cape apples, she wouldn’t buy them because they were South African and said that at least she could add something to the opposition to apartheid. She wasn’t a political person and would certainly have been on the liberal conservative side of things, but she believed that apartheid was wrong and this was her bit to help. I continued that and never knowingly bought South African products until the regime changed.

Today I still find it hard, the plight of the poor seems no better, everyone has a vote and ‘freedom’ but mass poverty precludes the majority from really being in charge. The government seems to be owned by big business, the ideals lost. So I still won’t buy South African products.

The stew is cooking well and is on slow cook for about 8 hours, with its mix of Welsh beef, Scottish potatoes, American sweet potatoes, onions from France, swede from England, okra from Kenya, parsnips from Holland, carrots from Poland, Greek olive oil, leeks from Spain. It’s a pity we can’t all be lobbed into a stew pot and come out as one wonderful flavour!

Photograph of sweet potato taken at 10.30am


10.40am. Sweet Potato chopped into 50 pieces


..and the finished lobby…



One of the people who ‘liked’ my blog has on her site music to offer inspiration to writers. I usually listen to music when I’m writing, often on 6 Music on the radio, as when I am writing I can get so lost I forget to set up another album. Though it doesn’t really inspire me in my writing I have often referenced music. When I made films I used musical structure, such as a fugue, to develop the sequence of images. The two recent short films on my website have a structure based on serial form (

Inspiration is an odd thing, where does all this stuff we write come from?

I have no hesitation and do not apologise in saying that my poetry is an exploration of events in my life, a way of working through them, and perhaps sharing them with people in similar situations such as grief, adoption, separation, depression (that makes them sound really jolly doesn’t it!).

For my other writing there are of course situations in my life and often amalgamations of people I have known. When I started Underpainting (available free on my website) in about 1994, it began as a writing exercise a group I was attending set, to write the first page of a novel, I ended up writing about 100 pages and mapping out the whole novel before the next weeks’ meeting, though it wasn’t completed until 2007 and still needs a final edit for spellings and grammar. What it did was empty my brain of the many stories and experiences that were knocking around it, and after reading hundreds of novels want to prove to myself that I could carry a story through to a form of conclusion.

I have no training as a writer, my background is in visual art, so I have little fear of error, but also hardly any knowledge of technique, style and form. My knowledge comes from my reading. At the time of starting Underpainting I was reading through the novels of Iris Murdoch and I can see her influence in working with a close group of people where all the stories are linked to each other. I was ‘inspired’ to write a novella called The Report after reading Philip K Dicks’ The Man in the High Castle and wandering around for a month or so, telling myself as story of how the situation he writes about had happened here and today.

Of course if I had any sense my inspiration would be to write to make money. However to do that ‘art’ has to be forgotten about and plot (which I hate) come to the fore. Someone like Lee Child sells millions and makes millions, it aims for the lowest common denominator with very short chapters, plenty of gun porn, violence and silly sex. He is a very clever writer like the slightly less ludicrous James Patterson, they use a journalistic technique and sell millions, but will they be remembered? Who now reads Earl Stanley Gardner, Harold Robbins or Rex Stout? They are ephemera like pop songs or fashion.

Does that make me an elitist? Maybe so.

Today’s photograph was taken at 11.30am while I was throwing a ball for Oskar to chase (who you can just see), in the nearby park, on a wet, mild and misty day.