Flamboyant Gestures – signs of middle-age

I’ve noticed the signs of middle-age creeping in for a while: sometimes I make a little noise when I get up; sometimes I might hobble for a few steps; I might even tut at loud music. Me! Can you imagine? And don’t ask me to sit cross-legged. All of these things are fine and natural, but there’s something I’ve noticed myself doing of late that’s, well, worrying.

We have a dog. A lovely dog. Dudley. He gets three walks a day apart from when it’s just too hot for him, so we’re often out and about. Sometimes when we have to cross a road a driver will slow and flash their lights or motion that it’s OK for us to proceed: carry on, you go ahead, please do – that sort of thing. Here’s where it’s started to get weird.

There was a time when I’d simply wave a casual thank-you and walk across the road. I mean, that’s the end of the relationship, right? I’ve been given the green light by a considerate motorist to pass without fear of being knocked to the ground. But instead of simply crossing what I increasingly seem compelled to do is give a splayed-fingered, Mr Blobby-type wave and do this strange, long-legged lope across the road, as if, ye gads, I must get out of the way as quickly as possible even though my safe passage is guaranteed. It’s like some theatrical demonstration of my immense gratitude towards this considerate driver.

I’ve seen people adopt this weird gait myself and wondered what on Earth was the matter with them. It’s always come across as a bit theatrical and unnecessary. Why don’t you just walk, I thought? Why the silly dance? But now I’m doing it. And let’s face it, there are many alternatives. I could give a casual thumbs-up, maybe even from the hip. Or a cheery salute: nice one, Captain. I could even cock a finger-gun, wink and strut across the road like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever – “you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk…” etc. Dudley would love that. But for some reason Lionel bloody Blair’s taking over.

I have no idea what’s bought this on this flamboyant gesture. Flamboyant is not a word anyone would use in a description of me. Ask my wife. Ask anyone. To me, “flamboyant” suggests a cravat and stripy blazer, and I’m not that person. At least not yet. But maybe, just maybe, with a little practise and some tight-around-the-arse-fit flairs, I could be John Travolta.

Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…

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Room 204

My time on Writing West Midlands’ writer development programme

The short story

Saturday 9th April saw the final official gathering of the 2015/2016 cohort on Writing West MidlandsRoom 204 writer development programme. Having been fortunate enough to take part this year I thought I’d share my experience.

The short version is this: as a result of my time with Room 204 I’ve received effective suggestions regarding how to move existing projects forward, been encouraged to develop my writing in new areas, invited to participate in projects at their inception, and made many valuable new contacts and friends. There’s also a more general sense of being part of something active and dynamic in the Midlands region, and that this is an on-going, mutually supportive relationship. I believe any writer would find the support offered by the Writing West Midlands team invaluable. If you want to know more, read on, MacDuff!

The full story

When I received word early in 2015 that my application to Room 204 had been successful I was surprised and delighted. At that time, though, I still wasn’t sure what Room 204 would do for me, how it would work, or what would happen. I quickly came to understand the reason for this, and that it’s at the heart of what makes the 204 programme so special.

While there’s a definite framework of one-to-one sessions, invitations to events such as the launch of Birmingham Literature Festival and a free place at the National Writing Conference, the real beauty of Room 204 is that this is not a fixed, predetermined, one-size-fits-all schedule, but a unique experience for each participant. Until the team start to get to know you, have some grasp of where you stand as a writer and what you’re looking to achieve, the help they might be able to offer will not be fully apparent to either party.

The process begins with the one-to-one sessions, which were always motivating, served to broaden my horizons and yielded helpful suggestions for ways to proceed. Over the course of the programme a variety of opportunities are also presented to the group. Some of these are specifically targeted given a writer’s particular area of interest, while others are more general invitations that may appeal to anyone on the programme. These may include but are by no means limited to information about opportunities to work with schools, making submissions to forthcoming short story or poetry collections, or attending networking events in the region.

Whether you act on any of these initiatives is at your discretion, and there’s certainly no pressure to do so, but the reality is that, as with writing in general, you reap what you sow. My analogy for writing is that it’s a bit like riding a bike up a hill: once you get off and start pushing you tend not to get back on again. If you’re struggling up Alpe d’Huez (one of those little hills in the Tour de France), the Room 204 team are on hand with energy drinks, a support car and generally shouting encouragement from the roadside. Something like that anyway.

The programme has played a definite role in moving my career forward and opened up new avenues. The 2016/2017 participants for Room 204 have already been chosen, so if you’re one of them, congratulations! If you’re not but like the sound of 204, applications will open again later in the year – and as we determined at Saturday’s final meeting, a year is a short period of time in a writer’s career. In the meantime you can follow Writing West Midlands on Twitter, and should consider attending the National Writing Conference and Birmingham Literature Festival, both of which will offer interesting schedules and the opportunity to make new connections. Most importantly of all – keep writing!

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The baffling resurrection of a golden hare

When I was a kid I was given a book called Masquerade by Kit Williams. The book represented a puzzle, the solving of which would lead the reader to the location of a bejewelled golden hare. Something like that anyway. I never had much chance of finding the hare, but liked the quirky artwork.

For some reason a couple of weeks ago this book popped into my head out of the blue in what was presumably one of those inexplicable wanderings of the mind. I posted on the internet my curiosity as to whether anyone had ever found this golden hare. I deleted the post relatively quickly as I decided it wasn’t really that interesting, and thought no more of it.

A few days later we were watching Coronation Street. In a conversation in the Rovers Mary was making an ardent point in her usual intelligent but slightly batty style. In doing so she used the analogy of the book Masquerade by Kit Williams, and its mysterious golden hare.

Say what?

There is no possible way I could have somehow picked up beforehand that Masquerade by Kit Williams would be mentioned in a Coronation Street script. It isn’t some pop song that I might have heard without realising before the episode was broadcast. It’s a relatively obscure book from decades ago. Yet within days it’s in my head, then mentioned in passing in a soap opera.

How did this happen?
Or perhaps why?

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PHONO – a return to vinyl

I can’t believe you need all that stuff!

That’s what our daughter said when she recently took an interest in our vinyl collection and I dug out the hifi equipment: turntable, amp, speakers, cables which within moments were entangled. You can see what she means. Compared with the tiny devices we’ve become used to this is a lot of kit, somewhat delicate, and not at all portable. Yet despite this there’s a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. It’s all the rage, apparently. #Trending.

Once upon a time everybody bought recorded music on vinyl discs. There was no other option. Then in the early 1960s the compact tape cassette came along, and while this format gained popularity vinyl continued to rule. The 1980s saw the introduction of compact discs, offering crystal clarity. Playing a CD was like having the band in your living room, they said. We could smear CDs with jam and still they would play. We could scratch them and scratch them and still they would play. We could break them into teeny-tiny pieces and still they would play. There would be no more skipping or sticking, no more crackle or hiss. Rewind, fast-forward, pause – and just look at the size! Talk about compact. Well, the clue’s in the name ain’t it. The CD is the future, they told us. And the future is here.

Soon it was possible to buy only the songs we wanted on CD from shops such as Our Price, rather than buying an album that included maybe two songs we were familiar with because they’d been released as singles, along with a bunch of others upon which we were taking a punt. (More on that story later, to paraphrase Kirsty Wark.) Then, then, evolving from the portability first offered by the Sony Walkman and less successfully achieved with CDs, pocket-sized flash- and hard drive-based MP3 players came along, enabling us to take our music anywhere. With this combination of size, capacity, portability and choice, music consumers were in headphone nirvana. But without realising, what had we gradually traded away in exchange for all that convenience?

Returning to vinyl now after years of listening to digital formats, it’s clear that vinyl is warmer, more even, has greater depth. The music feels far more unified, a coherent body. And then there’s the physical aspect: albums have sleeves with artwork, lyrics, photos, small print information such as thank-yous and details of the studio used for the recording. Sure, CDs have covers, but they just don’t have the same tactile value as a big piece of card. And if you hold a vinyl record up in the light you can see the rhythms of the music etched on to the surface of the disc. Good luck trying that with an MP3.

In contrast to the portable formats mentioned above vinyl’s larger size and somewhat fragile nature require the listener to be in one place, and as we become an increasingly fast-paced, on-the-go, always-up-to-some-shit society that often can’t see the wood for the trees, we should surely welcome something that requires us to slow down… breathe… relax… There’s also something undeniably satisfying, indeed soothing, about a record spinning on the turntable as it plays.

Oh – you can’t pause it.

Yeah – there are some inconveniences. You can raise the needle off the record, but that’s not quite the same as hitting a pause button for an instant dead-stop. And although possible it’s far less easy to repeat or skip a track. One advantage of this, however, is the lost delight of those surprise tracks. Back in the day one benefit of buying an album containing tracks you’d never heard was that these were usually some of the best, unconstrained by the requirements of single release and radio play, and often gaining strength with repeated listens. A good example is the track Swing on Japan’s album Gentlemen Take Polaroids (click here to see Relax and Swing – a blog about 80s pop group Japan).

Also less convenient is searching for your music: there’s no box to type in – you’ve just got to rifle through the stack. But along with this comes the possibility of finding something you didn’t think you fancied or had simply forgotten about.

The thing is, I can get all this music free on Spotify.
~ Youth browsing vinyl

With my renewed interest in vinyl I went to HMV. They have so many of the records that are already in our collection, from artists such as The Smiths, The Beatles, Echo and the Bunnymen, for around £20. Given inflation over the years I guess that’s not bad: a lot of our records still have the price stickers attached, and they were mostly in the £3.99–5.99 range.

Here, too, is the lost fun of browsing miscellaneous records in a shop with the possibility of finding a surprise or gem. It’s clear that the unexpected, the potential for discovery, are key factors intrinsic to the vinyl experience. I know online music suppliers offer similar you may also like or people also bought features, but surely the determinations of a computer algorithm can’t compare with the spark of curiosity ignited by your mood in the moment.

I had expected our daughter to be a bit meh about the whole vinyl thing after her initial burst of interest. That I’d be perceived as a nostalgic fogey maligning advances in technology like some 21st century Luddite. But no, she appreciates the difference in sound too, and while she still uses Spotify while out and about or in her room, she now buys her own vinyl. For myself, I’d become largely disinterested in music, mainly listening to my beloved audio drama and podcasts. But the quality of sound on vinyl has reignited my enthusiasm for listening to music for the simple pleasure of doing so. Spinning as I type, This is All Yours by Alt-J – a band our daughter introduced us to.

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