For the past month, I’ve been living back in my boyhood home, the place I left forty years ago. My mother’s been poorly and needs full-time care, so this is where I plan to be for a while, with my wife joining me in a few weeks’ time.
It’s a curious thing coming back, after being so long away, with just the occasional brief visit. In my mind there’s a snapshot of the town as it was in the 1950s and 60s. I’ve been talking to people who have lived here all their lives, gradually absorbing all the changes, and I’m beginning to feel like a photo album. I mention a shop name, or a person long gone, and watch them smile as they say ‘Yes, I’d completely forgotten …’ Funny how a name conjures up a face, or a memory, or an experience. Music does it too, I guess.
It’s prompted this prose-poem – Gatekeepers – and I think there’ll be more in the series. It’s nostalgic and reflective … but there’s a deeper layer of meaning intended too. (To set you off in the right direction, think about who else we often refer to as gatekeepers, we writers.)
When I write poetry, I want it to be read aloud. I love the sounds of words, onomatopoeia, deliberate ambiguity, the rhythm and flow of lines. I’ve just discovered a site called AudioBoo – and I think it’ll allow me to record and share an audio version of Gatekeepers. I’ll let you know how I get on and where to find it, via my Facebook page (Alain Miles – don’t forget to Like the page to sign up).
The river, we called it, but now I’m grown and travelled
maybe we exaggerated: wide enough
for paddles not for oars, green and languid
summer-shaded drifter, hobo, friend
of swans, dragonflies, rats, the big old pike
and fearless urchin-adventurers, Rich and me.
Over the garden fence, tackle and bait,
nets and knowledge – fathers’ hand-me-downs
to the bank where we balanced floats, maggotted hooks,
assessed the current, searched for hidden depth
and weed and silent darting shadows, cast
in the role of real serious fisher men.
Not all we caught was treasure: a shoe, a root,
the opposite bank, sometimes ourselves; but then
a quiver, tension, repetitive bob, and the line
jerked away upstream, our wit and strength
tested by the silver-scaled, rose-tipped
beauty, the largest landed in our small history.
Boys will be men, and nature will be tamed –
The gatekeepers move in, divert the flow: The threat of flooding needs to be contained;
Your child can’t drown now that the water’s low.
The pike’s long gone, and where we caught the rudd
A supermarket trolley’s stuck in mud.
The worst of my week on the web -- and the best Politics, poetry, and a call for compassion
Imagine. You’re a perfectly harmless despot who’s ruled the ‘island of happy smiles’ for several years. You’ve been generous to a fault. Just a month ago you gave $3000 to every family in the land .. and who can forget that you allowed your poor old uncle to purchase the prime commercial development site in the capital for just $3? There was economic freedom: no taxation! You let businesses hire cheap labor from anywhere in the world. And when the people asked for a voice, you gave them a parliament. You exercised your wisdom of course, to ensure that this did not mean the rule of the rabble. Your chosen advisers, wise and trusted friends and family members, continued to choose the right path for the country.
And yet, no matter what you gave, your ungrateful people wanted more. More freedom. More power. Jobs. The ouster of your uncle as prime minister after his 40 years of unselfish service in the job.
For weeks, they gathered around the Pearl Roundabout in their tens of thousands, chanting their demands and disrupting traffic, stopping those who had jobs from going to work. There were mistakes of course, but you were the first to admit them. For example, when someone gave the unfortunate command to fire on the demonstrators, killing three of them, you immediately faced the nation, expressed your condolences and promised a full investigation.
But still the demonstrators massed around the Pearl, calling now, unthinkably, for your removal. And finally, this week, your patience was exhausted. It was time to put an end to this madness. So you ordered the army to disperse the protesters with whatever force was required, accepted the kind offer of military support from your nervous fellow-rulers in the Gulf, arrested the ring-leaders, and put the country under curfew. No more Mr Nice Guy!
And then you decide to fix the problem once and for all. What was the cause of all this turmoil? What was the focal point? What else could it be but the 300-foot high monument, the Pearl itself? So you order it smashed.
When lives are lost and a nation’s iconic landmarks are destroyed in a wanton act of violence, the empty space left behind becomes the focus for rage. Ask New Yorkers. I fear this is not the end of the story. The Pearl lies vanquished and scattered on the ground like the Hydra, and my guess is that two heads will grow for each one cut off.
Why should I care? I’m not Bahraini and though I lived there for ten years, I don’t any longer. It’s none of my business.
And yet it is my business. Why do I write? Because I love wordcraft. Because I love to tell stories. Because one of life’s great pleasures is the stimulation that comes from sharing ideas and experiences with readers and other writers. But also because I want my stories to make an impact. I write about the dangers of closed minds and sectarianism and the futility of war.
As events have unfolded in Bahrain, I’ve been reliving my experiences in Beirut some 35 years ago when civil war was brewing. Protests by a majority underclass against a minority ruling-class: it always seems to start with jobs and money. Marches, a few deaths, clashes, protests intensify. The expats certain that everything will be back to normal by the weekend. They’re right: there’s a lull. But then it starts again, heavier weapons are mysteriously provided and Religion sweeps onto the scene. She’s disguised as Justice, blind, but carrying a book instead of scales, and her sword is not there to defend but to attack. Barricades are erected, check-points are set up. The cry goes up: ‘If you don’t kill them, they’ll kill you and everything you treasure.’ Trying to restore control, the government sends in the army, calls for military assistance from its neighbour. History retells itself.
And I started blogging and tweeting for all I was worth, to anyone who would listen. Read my story, I pleaded -- and I directed them to this extract from The Lebanese Troubles. Do you really want Bahrain to be another Lebanon, with endless civil war? And guess what. Nobody listened. Or if they did, they sent messages like this:
I should have listened to Yeats:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right.
On Being Asked For A War Poem
It was poetry -- via Twitter -- that lifted my gloom. Angela Scott, tweeting as @whimsywriting, had posted the single word ‘Doubt’, with a link. Well Doubt was certainly what I was feeling -- so I could only take a look. And this little gem was waiting for me, bringing a big smile back to my face:
Doubt’s Big Hairy Behind
Doubt tiptoes its way inside.
Before I know it,
Doubt blindsides me,
Takes me down,
Pins me to the ground
And flops its big hairy behind
On top of my chest.
I can’t move. I can’t breathe.
I spit in Doubt’s eye—my only defense—
But Doubt only grins through its pock-marked face,
And green-tinged smile, and swipes the spittle away.
He’s experienced worse.
Doubt’s got me
And he knows it too.
My gnat-like strength is waning.
My belief is gone.
I shift a little,
Make adjustments to carry Doubt’s weight.
He’s not going anywhere.
That’s perfectly clear.
So I may as well get comfortable.
What a brilliant image! Showing me that writing really can make a difference -- at least if the reader’s in the mood for listening. If this inspires you to find out more about Angela, there’s a link to her blog at the end of the post.
And then another wonderful discovery, this time thanks to Sheri Brissenden (@SHBRISSENDEN) who’d ‘followed’ me on Twitter after I’d vented about the hatred coming out of Bahrain. There’s a huge amount of guck on Twitter, but when someone follows, I always make a point of checking out their last few posts to find out who they are. I could see immediately that Sheri was my kind of Tweeter. One of her messages immediately caught my attention: “The wonderful Karen Armstrong discusses the Charter for Compassion.” I’d never heard of Karen Armstrong. But I was up for compassion.
20 minutes later, I’d thrown Doubt off and was up for the struggle again, inspired by words like these:
The Golden Rule: Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
Any interpretation of scripture which leads to hatred or disdain is illegitimate.
We’re living in a world where Religion has been hi-jacked.
We have a talent as a human species for messing up wonderful things.
The cause of all our present woes is political, but religion is a fault-line.
A lot of religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate.
It’s time that we moved beyond toleration to appreciation of one another.
I leave you with Karen Armstrong herself. Here’s to a better next week.
After my last post, a number of you went Backword – and you clearly liked what you found there. A smart, professional, attractive site for writers crafting great novels. Certainly Rapscallion is going to need something similar: a permanent gallery for its writers, a place where readers can suck in the atmosphere, feel welcome, browse, hopefully buy, and promise to tell their friends to come by. If we could find a way to serve coffee on the site, it would help. And we’re going to need a place for coats. Putting that together may be a task for another Rapscallionista, with better design skills than mine.
But that’s not the only way to win credibility and attract attention.
Yesterday, the trade press was buzzing with news of a new venture by a publisher I’d never heard of before, and which appears to be a relative newcomer – Ether Books. Go to their web page and it’s iffy. Try the Facebook fan page and there are only 7 fans, including me. But to be fair, Ether have been busy, at the London Book Fair.
This is what they’ve announced. That the future of e-reading is not the iPad or Kindle or any of the heavyweight reading devices. No, they say, it’s the iPhone.
Your groans have already reached me, in advance. Don’t these people have any respect for literature? Don’t they understand that the proper place for words is in a book? Well, just stay with me for a minute and I’ll tell you why it’s such a good idea. After a short history lesson.
A long long time ago, back in the 1980s, I had the frequent pleasure of traveling on the London Underground. What was pleasurable? Well, I’ve always loved the way London Transport – or whatever they’re called these days – arranges their passengers: sitting facing one another. We humans love to watch, but we hate to be seen watching. And so for fifteen minutes, we need a place for our eyes. In a newspaper, in a book, pretending that we need to check the route, reading the advertisements so conveniently placed above eye level. Anywhere the people opposite won’t notice that all you really want to do is study them.
I was cured of my annoying habit of trying to outstare my fellow-travellers (if it was you, then I apologize) when I first spotted, mingling with the advertisements, a poem. A Shakespeare sonnet. The next train I was on, there was another: Roger McGough this time. Then Keats. Then someone I’d never heard of. And before long, the first thing I did as I entered the carriage was to seek out the poem and make sure I sat or stood somewhere I could read it. I’d always loved reading poetry, but somehow I’d fallen out of the habit. This was a re-discovery. I bought my first poetry book for many years – a collection called ‘Poems on the Underground’. It’s still a treasured book. All the years I was traveling, I always made sure it was with me.
What someone had spotted was that there was a market for poetry in those in-between moments we all have. And that’s Ether’s brainwave. They’re not planning to publish novels for the iPhone. There will be poetry. But the headline news is that they’re planning to revive the short story – ‘the elderly aunt of the literary world: almost impossible to marry off to a publisher’ as The Guardian puts it. Launching yesterday, 200 shorts were available, from well-known writers including Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel and literary luminary, Sir Paul McCartney. But, say Ether, they’re talking directly to new writers too, to find enough material for the ‘time-poor commuters, or workers grabbing a 10-minute break’ ready to cough up between 50p and £2.39 for the privilege.
Think of it. At the bus stop. In the doctor’s surgery. Waiting for the kids to come out of school. And your phone is always with you, no matter who you are. Brilliant!
This is exactly what I meant a couple of posts back, when I wrote about innovation. Taking the new publishing media, thinking about the means we have of accessing and interesting readers, and shaping or reshaping our output to set the market a-buzzing. Interestingly, it’s a small publisher who’s come up with this idea. My experience in business is that innovation is almost always led by the small guys, because the big guys have too much invested in existing technologies, and the chain of command almost inevitably means that change is slow.
In your responses to my last post, there’s been a lot of discussion about the shape and size of Rapscallion, the command structure. What I’m sure of is that we’ll need critical mass, enough talented writers to cause more than a ripple of interest. I’m equally sure that we’ll need to be small and nimble enough to stay innovative, and to seek out market opportunities, just as Ether Books has. In the next post I’ll tell you exactly what I have in mind.
But just to round out the iPhone story, I thought you might be interested to take a look at the competition. Ether aren’t in fact the first into the iPhone market. Wattpad, for example, describes itself as ‘the world’s most popular ebook community’, and you’ll be pleased to know that all its titles are available on your mobile. Let’s take a look at ‘what’s hot?’ today – the numbers in brackets show the total of ‘reads’ then the number of ‘votes’:
Dinner with a vampire. Did I mention I’m vegetarian? (1,808,720 – 31,566)
Came home to find a hot guy in my bed. WTF?! (444,715 – 8,528)