Friday, 30 May 2008

The villanelle contest

So, I've written my entries for the villanelle contest and sent them off. There was a weird point before I checked the guidelines again when I thought you could only send one poem, and had to try and find a way of picking one without the benefit of a cooling off period after writing. In the end, I resorted to asking family (not to mention my cats, who weren't terribly helpful. Don't they know that after T.S. Eliot, they're supposed to be poetic animals?). Thankfully, I re-read the rules and decided to send a small selection. One I decided against sending, for reasons that should be fairly obvious, is below.

On Writing Villanelles

This really isn't going well
Although I do the best I can
This bloody awkward villanelle

I think, dear reader, you can tell
It hardly rhymes and barely scans
This really isn't going well

I throw the words down here pell-mell
Reduced to rhyming with Iran
This bloody awkward villanelle

Just like a sprinting man who fell
The words limp in where once they ran
This really isn't going well

This has become my rhyming hell
I wish the Government would ban
These bloody awkward villanelles

At last they ring the final bell
This villanelle can go and hang
This really isn't going well
This bloody awkward villanelle

Thursday, 29 May 2008

A bizarre thought

I've had a thought. (quick, note it down in the diary) Given that I write pretty regularly in all sorts of forms, it's actually quite a weird one. A few hundred, or thousand, years from now, assuming that we haven't all destroyed ourselves, it's entirely possible that the written word won't exist.

It sounds odd, doesn't it? But think. What is the written word? It's a tool for communication, specifically for the preservation of words so that the presence of a speaker is not required. As natural and eternal as it seems, it is, moreover, an invented tool. Given time, it could become obsolete.

The glimmerings of the mechanisms for such a change already sort of exist in the form of advanced telecommunications and cheap digital video. We are in a position where we can record language in it's spoken form without the additional business of a squiggle on a page. We could, potentially, reach the position where every newspaper's online podcast takes over from their print run, where every post it note gives way to a little recorded clip, and where everyone who thinks that 'books are boring' finally gets their way and only the visual media remain.

Ok, I'll admit this is a pointlessly out there bit of crystal ball gazing, but it could happen. Not any time soon of course, but eventually. After all, there were probably people who thought this 'printing' stuff would never replace caligraphy. It hasn't, not completely, but when was the last time you hand wrote something for public consumption? Handwriting has become the stuff of love letters, scribbled notes and shopping lists, where once it was the only available technology. I really hope writing as a whole never goes the same way.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Working on villanelles

Thank you to April Boland, who has pointed me in the direction of a villanelle competition. As a result, I've spent most of the last day or so writing them. This includes writing at some hour of the morning when the rest of the world is asleep, simply because insomnia got the better of me. I've got a couple of the things so far, plus those I've already written. Last night's turned out to be a villanelle on the difficulty of writing villanelles. Amusing enough, but probably not what I'm going to submit.

The big thing is the rhymes. I worked out earlier that you need seven seperate A rhymes and six B rhymes for a villanelle, which is potentially quite a lot if you want to avoid repetition and/or silliness (not that the latter ever bothers me) One thing I've found useful is sorting out the refrains first, then taking the A rhymes on the end and running them through the alphabet, trying to give myself a good selection. I could just resort to a rhyming dictionary, but then it never feels like MY choice of words. Incidentally, finding six other meaningful rhymes for the word 'villanelle' isn't as easy as it seems.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

History and Technology

It's likely that if I say the word medievalist to you, you'll probably have images of some reasonably elderly academic, probably with a tweed jacket, definitely with glasses, poring over dusty books (You'll probably also ask why I'm saying the word medievalist for no apparent reason). I'll admit to the glasses, as an occasional thing, but as for the rest of it...

Technology, it seems, has finally started to catch up with my discipline of choice (well, more accident really). Hull's John Palmer and his team have had their online, searchable database of Domesday Book out for a little while now, which is better than searching through the books, hoping that you haven't missed anything. Now if only Hull's university library would decide to sign up. Apparently, they're currently working on the idea that since they've got the paper version, there's no need for the other.

What they have signed up to, again, is the International Medieval Bibliography. I say again because a little while ago they did exactly the same thing as with Domesday Book. They said, 'we've got the paper version, and it's not like anyone ever uses it. Look, it's been unused for a couple of months now.' Someone has obviously explained that there are stretches when no one uses the thing, but that's mostly because they spend about three weeks doing nothing else at the start of the year. So now it's back on. This has just made me very happy. Instead of slogging through 20 volumes of the paper version to find the details of a couple of decades of articles, I've been able to just put in a database search. It might not sound like the most sophisticated aplication of technology, but it's one of the most useful. It's just saved me about three hours work.

Now, if only they'd invent a robot that could do paleography, prosopography, translation, reading impossibly dense articles...

Monday, 26 May 2008

Writing Things

A quick response from the publisher, saying that they're not considering new material at the moment. At least I found out before I sent them anything more than a query. On to the next one, I guess.

Writing to a stronger plan than usual is working out fairly well at the moment, letting me concentrate more on the way I choose to show what's happening, rather than on what's going on. The only slight problem is remembering to stick to it. I almost made my main character considerably more unpleasant than he actually is yesterday, but managed to pull it back in time. Seriously flawed I can live with, totally obnoxious I can't.

I also got a poem written last night. I've decided to try writing a cluster of poems linked by a common theme, mostly to see if I can. I want to see if, instead of waiting around for inspiration, I can go out and hunt it down. Now all I need is a suitably large net. No, hang on, that's butterflies, isn't it? Not that I've ever gone butterfly collecting. They look better flying about, and they give the cats something to chase.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Things Finished

I've finished Stephanie Meyer's New Moon and moved onto Eclipse, which so far I'm finding very readable. One slight complaint with both books is that Bella, the central character, is a little on the whiney, helpless side. The books seem largely to be about a sucession of things that happen around her, rather than things she does. They're beautifully executed nevertheless, and use the supernatural elements perfectly as metaphors for the perils of growing up.

Other things I've finished in the last couple of days: Chapter 1 of the new novel, which (so far at least) is managing to be funny without losing sight of the serious story underneath. A couple of poems. A proposal to do some fairly regular writing as a columist.

I've also sucessfully managed to avoid watching Hull City win promotion to soccer's premier league. As someone who can't stand the game, but who lives near Hull, that's been quite hard work. Practically everyone else in the city has been obsessed with it for the past week or so.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Joe returns

And my idiotic cat has come home. I haven't the faintest idea where he's been hiding, only that he's looking remarkably smug about the whole thing. Still, it's good to have him back.

Joe goes missing

My cat Joe has gone missing. There's no sign of him around the farm, but equally there's no sign that something might have killed him. That is, sadly, a possibility when we have foxes in the area. I'm faintly hopeful, since the last time he went missing he'd hitched a ride on a lorry. The main worry is that someone has been flytipping on the farm. I doubt he'll have been stupid enough to go with them since he's scared of other people, but it's a worry. We're at the point where there's little to do other than wait.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

winning ugly

I've made an initial enquiry to a publisher, as I said I would. See, I do occasionally remember to do things. I forget other things though. I was just nicely finishing off chapter 1 of the new piece when my brother reminded me that I was due to play cricket tonight, forcing a hurried collection of kit from assorted corners.

I'm glad he reminded me, because I finally got to bowl. 3 wickets for 11 runs is a good return for three overs (non-cricket people will have to trust me on this), particularly since it's been so long since I've bowled that I was extremely rusty. In a way that relates to writing. It's important that you're writing not just on the days when you feel really great and inspired, but also on the bad days. A few hundred words here and there can really add up, and if you stick to the fundamentals of writing, it can still be good stuff. In sport they call it 'winning ugly' or, in my case 'lobbing the ball vaguely into the air and waiting for people to miss.'

Comment on the News

I saw this, and thought I ought to at least mention it.

'Bruce Charlton, reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, suggested that the low numbers of working-class students at elite universities was the "natural outcome" of IQ differences between classes.
In a paper shown to the Times Higher Education magazine, Dr Charlton questioned the Government's drive to get more students from poor backgrounds into top universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
He said: "The UK Government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes.
"Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes."
The fact that so few students from poor families get into Oxbridge is not down to "prejudice" but "meritocracy", he said.'

Now, it could be that Dr Charlton is making a well founded observation. After all, I'd hate to think that he'd make a comment like this without some meaningful statistical back up. I'm not in a position to comment on the science involved, and don't think that findings should be rejected out of hand just because we don't like them. On another level, I would actually like to agree with some of the sentiments: access to university should be based on merit. The British Government's drive to increase participation to 50% has led to rises in drop out rates in universities, and the continued devaluation of the degree as a measure of academic excellence.

That said, I can see several problems here. Firstly, the issue over encouraging working class Oxbridge applications is not about accepting thickies (when in doubt, revert to schoolboy vocab) Practically everyone who applies is due some very good results on their A-levels, but working class students due good results are less likely to apply there, and apparently less likely to be accepted if they do.

Secondly, am I the anomaly in his calculations? My father spent years as a coal miner. My brother is a tree surgeon. I, on the other hand, did rather better at university than students around me from better backgrounds. Not at Oxford or Cambridge, but at one of England's three great universities (apologies for the Blackadder Goes Forth reference, but it is Hull's main claim to fame). One case isn't a disproof, but it makes the point. There is a danger in careless presentation of such evidence of branding everyone who isn't practically royalty as some sort of idiot.

Thirdly, and lastly (I promise) does the difference Dr Charlton points out perhaps say more about the continued flaws of IQ tests than about the people being tested? They try to measure intelligence (or in more modern conceptions, intelligences) but still seem to be measuring education more often than not.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Incremental Progress

Some days, the best I can hope for with pieces is incremental progress; a hundred words more on this, a few hundred more on that. Today was a little better than that, because I got a first draft of an article done, while writing a little on the new novel and on the synopsis for the last one.

I'm having to re-write that from scratch, having lost the original synopsis a while back. Writing it shows the difference between the way I was writing at the start of 2007 and the way I'm writing today. The central story doesn't come through quite as strongly as in things I'm writing now. The diversions are connected in, but not integral parts of the whole. The story arc does a wierd kind of double finish that works, more or less, but which I wasn't originally intending. Writing things in their simplest form, these things are easy to see, but they're less visible in the whole thing. Perhaps that's just because the style and the characters carry things a little more there.

Cats are odd. One of mine will jump up and sit on the downstairs window ledges, waiting to be let in through the window. The other one wants nothing to do with it, and patiently waits outside the front door for me to walk round and let him in. What's worse, I do it.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

More submissions

The new novel is (just about) underway, having taken a while to plan and I'm submitting the first one to a publisher this week. I've written it here to force myself into it, since I seem to be putting it off. I suspect the fiasco with the first lot hasn't helped in that regard.

I've also been putting together a submission of poetry for a magazine and I've run into two minor problems. 1- I can't remember what I've got out there being considered by other places, having lost the place where I wrote it down. 2- I'm still self censoring, rejecting good poems simply because they aren't enough like 'serious poetry'. Still, hopefully the things I've finally pieced together will be good enough, and I don't think they're under consideration anywhere else.

Friday, 16 May 2008

On Silliness and Jargon

I've largely abandoned serious writing for the moment, or rather, I've largely abandoned writing seriously. I wouldn't want you to think that I've stopped working at the writing, I'm just trying to be a little funnier, a little stranger. Comedy keeps trying to worm its way into my prose anyway, and so I've finally given in to it. Before, I would plan out these big, serious pieces of writing and then wonder why they seemed so flat half way through. I suspect the reason is that I've been censoring myself as I go, trying to write 'properly' rather than writing the way I write best. Besides, one look at the universe suggests that laughter is the only appropriate response.

That said, I'll probably change my mind again soon enough. I'm nothing if not completely inconsistent.

On a completely different note, I have a real hatred of jargon. Much of it seems utterly meaningless, designed to demonstrate someone's 'expert' status while excluding normal people. Most of the people who overuse it seem to be doing so in place of actually thinking about their topic of choice. A few of my favourite (or rather least favourite) pieces are below, along with the source of the things and some 'definitions'.

Putting the ball in the right areas (cricket) : The bowler hasn't got a clue how to make the thing move, and so has to settle for being proud of being able to bowl straight.

Blue sky thinking (business): something to do with looking out of the window as you work, I think.

Giving 150%: someone didn't do maths at school.

Hotdesking (business): something to do with putting plastic furniture too near the central heating system, probably.

Proactive problem solving (Everywhere): apparently a synonym for being obnoxious to everyone you meet.

Understanding the central metanarrative (history/the humanities): Making up a large portion of the answer in advance.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

First Match

For me, the cricket season kicked off about four hours ago, when I finally got a game for a not very local evening league side. It probably sounds fairly obsessive to go wandering all over in search of something that is, after all, just a game, but it was a lot of fun. Better still, we won. I didn't get to bowl (no one recognises my brilliance!) but I did bat, managing the grand total of 3 of our 128 runs.

I've been reading New Moon by Stephanie Meyer, and it's simply amazing. I've wandered in part way through the series, but even so it's easy to work out what's going on and very, very readable.

The nice people over at Aphelion are apparently in the process of getting their archives sorted out, so hopefully in a week or two some of the poems that I've had up there are going to be available.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Aphelion May

The May issue of Aphelion is finally online, featuring my comic fantasy poem 'resolutions (of a witch queen)' written back in January about the sort of new year's resolutions fantasy's stereotypical evil sorceress might make. Suffice it to say I had far too much time on my hands. It can be found here (

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Thesis meeting

I had the annual assessment today and it seems to have gone well, apart from the comment that my thesis seems to be lacking a... thesis. Apparently, I haven't been putting it across strongly enough, getting sidetracked in the detail. That's something I'm going to have to correct, and quickly. Some good news though. It turns out that the minimum wordcount is just 80 000 words, where I had thought it was closer to the 100 000 mark. That's only 4000 words or so off where I am at the moment, and I've still got a conclusion and bibliography to get done. That makes me feel a lot less worried about the whole thing. Now, if only I could remember what my argument was.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

One long poem, one short one

A while ago I put up something about writing sestinas ( Here is one, written shortly after the blood collection people showed up at the university. They have a talent for arriving on the same day as one of our fencing practises, meaning that about half of the people there barely have the energy to move. The second 'poem' probably doesn't deserve the term, but it's kind of fun.

Giving Blood (A Sestina)
When I went out to give blood
I gave away some tiny part of life
in dripping moments spent lying still
Waiting for this fuel for other bodies
to pass from mine, exchanged for biscuits
sugared tea, and brief pride in helping

I wonder if it’s really helping
This time spent giving blood
munching biscuits
A day out of my life
spent playing at being bodies
and keeping still

I can’t think long like that. Still,
I wonder who this drop will be helping
Into which needy bodies
they’ll pour out this pint of blood
Will they smile to receive my life?
Will they get biscuits?

Soon we have finished off the biscuits
and there’s no more need for staying still
I can get on with life
And know that I’m still helping
That just by giving up this blood
I’m saving other bodies

I think about the bodies
I’ve seen in morgues, like biscuits
In neat rows, their blood
pooled in lividity, so very still
That is why I’m helping
So a few more might have life

That is why we give up life
in drips and drabs, pulled from bodies
by the nurses who are helping
Exchanged for these poor biscuits
It’s worth the price of staying still
and the weakness of lost blood

A Poem About Cheese

Wensledayle and Cheddar
Red Leicester and Brie
My favourite cheese of all of them
is cheese that is in me

random points

1- I've got my annual thesis progress meeting next week. It's not part of the assessment, but I'll no doubt face awkward questions from an early modern historian who won't quite get that there simply isn't as much evidence for the eleventh century as for the eighteenth.

2- I've got a copy of Satre's being and nothingness lying around waiting to be read, but since it's one of those books no one ever seems to finish, I don't know how far I'll get. Though why I've got this sudden interest in philosophy, I don't know.

3- There was only one other person fencing last night, and after we got bored he mentioned that he was going to be swapping a bit of basic fencing training for some martial arts tips with a friend of his, so it kind of broke down into me running him through some basic self-defence. It's amazing how few people bother to learn to protect themselves. This is, surprisingly, especially true of men. We might not suffer the severity of assaults on average that women do, but we are almost twice as likely to be attacked in some way.

At the risk of being drawn into the frankly childish 'my way is better than yours' debate, what makes me angry is the number of places still teaching complex 'first you twist the wrist that way, and then you manipulate the elbow like this' stuff. It seems irresponsible to teach someone something complicated when they simply won't be doing the level of training required to maintain the skill. It might seem irrational, and irrelevant here, to go off on one about this, but it worries me when I catch a glimpse of one of my local self defence classes practising an aikido style move that I can't make work despite a few years of training in it. That seems a recipe for getting your students hurt.

4- I've come across the national archives online latin course, and learned more in a couple of days than in the last three years. For anyone with a sudden urge to learn their declensions, it can be found by going to the national archives' page ( I think) and typing latin into their search box.

5- One of my cats has taken to going to sleep in the flowers just outside the window to this room, he's currently curled up behind something I can't remember the name for, presumably waiting for something edible to wake him up.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A Photo

It's been a few posts since I last put up a photo, so here we go. Again, it's from my back garden.

This is probably the last one until I remember to get some new batteries for my camera.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Submissions 2

It's strange, the feeling that comes immediately after submitting something. As well as the usual ( 'What have I done? It's awful... AWFUL I TELL YOU!') There's always the feeling of anticipation, wondering what the editor will think. Of course, since editors are such busy people, by the time a reply normally comes I've not only lost that feeling but also completely forgotten that I sent anything in the first place. This is my first short story submission for a while, so hopefully I'll get a positive response. Even if I don't, it seems better to make the effort to send the stuff out than to just sit on it and wonder.

The thing with plans

One good thing about planning writing in greater detail is that it lets me see that something isn't going to turn out that well before I've put in months of work on it. My attempts to rework the novel idea that I'd just started have shown me that it's fairly unsalvageable. The trouble is, I'm now left in a bit of a gap while I try and think up something better. Still, I'm sure something will come along.

Whether it will be serious or not I don't know. A lot of what I'm reading at the moment is from the darker end of the fantasy spectrum (and woe betide that I should ever write prose outside it) but I'm beginning to suspect that I'm at my best when attempting to make fun of the universe. Still, the surprise should be interesting.

Monday, 5 May 2008

A minor rant

In the absence of much else to write, it seems like an awfully good moment to mention one of my pet hates: idiots who scribble comments in the margins of library books. I'm raising this now because I'm reading Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, and it seems that there's more in pencil than in print.

Now, I'm not a fan of doing this even when the books are mine to write in, because I tend to think that extra notes kind of impose my earlier impressions on my current attempt to read the text. I get really annoyed though when someone chooses to do it with a book that isn't even theirs. My biggest complaint isn't just on the graffiti front; it's that most of the people who write these comments seem to be imberciles with a talent for stating the obvious. To take just one example, next to Bararbas in the Dramatis Personae they've written 'The Main Guy!!' (apparently this is where all the spare exclaimation marks go.) Why they should feel the need to point this out (and why they don't know the word protagonist as, I presume, some sort of English student) I'll never know.

The worst part is that after a while you get used to filtering this stuff out, so that on the incredibly rare occasions that someone has made a helpful observation, you miss it. I'm talking about little things like corrections to Hull's copy of the old translation of Domesday Book made by the team who put together an electronic database version. Or occasionally someone will put in a note pointing the way to an incredibly obscure article. Of course, I'm mostly just being grumpy because I don't like reminders that everyone else has read the thing before me.

On a slightly lighter note, Brandesburton cricket club got off to a good start to the season on Saturday when we beat Flamborough. Well I say we, but I wasn't playing, not having been picked for the first team. That's fair enough, except that there's a good chance of not being picked for the seconds either. The firsts have acquired a new spinner from somewhere, which would mean my demotion in most clubs, but I have a suspicion the second team captain will prove very attatched to his existing spin line up (especially since he's one of them). Given the additional collapse of the evening league side, it might be time to start sounding out other clubs.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Estella's Up

Firstly, this month's edition of Estella's Revenge is up, and as usual it looks well worth reading. My article, 'A Sense of Place' is in there, so of course I would say that. But really, it is.

Secondly, Hull Uni Fencing team's final training session before exams resulted in yet another injury. Our outgoing president took a hard hit to the mask, which knocked it back hard enough to rip open his eyelid and leave a large swelling over the eye. Since the eye was swollen shut, he spent the first few seconds worried about damage to the eye. Thankfully, it mostly looked to be just the sort of swollen eye a boxer might suffer. Of course, thanks to a miscommunication on the initial accident report form, it went down as 'poked in the eye with a sword'. We must look like the most accident prone group out there at the moment.

I've just started reading Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, and so far it's good.