Sunday, 12 September 2010

I'm Turning Japanese

I've been thinking about the Japanese standards for quality, and I've come to the conclusion that I prefer them. I've long preferred the difficulty levels of Japanese videogames over their American counterparts. I'd rather sweat in an abandoned shed in Resident Evil 4 with two bullets and four zombies than be the flag-waving bullet sponge capable of carrying ten different rifles at once in Call of Duty or something. I like to be tested in a game and I like the laws of physics and anatomy to be realistic.

Game shows are the same. I do like shows like Ninja Warrior, where there are absolute standards of quality. You have to complete the course, and if you don't, you lose. It's been running for ten years, and only one person has ever completed the course in the final (which is much harder than the qualifier). For nine years, there has not been a winner. Can you imagine this happening in a British show?

I've got the X Factor on at the moment, as I type, and this would be the same. Like most British game shows, they don't pick winners, they pick best qualified losers. The twelve judged best would always make the final, regardless of how good they really are. If the 'fastest finger first' winner on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire' took two minutes and only got one answer right, they'd still go through. There are no absolute barriers to entry, no predetermined ability threshholds. The format requires that someone play and if we can't have good, we'll make do with least bad.

I think the worst of them all is 'Deal or No Deal'. There's literally no skill involved at all. Talk about a level playing field. Just guess a random number, and if your guess is beneficial, everyone tells you how well you did. Yay! Way to guess a random number! Of course, you are as likely as anyone else in the world to do well, because it is totally random but take your comfort where you can, I say. Take the credit for a sunny day, while you're at it.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Free T's and Semi-breves

Despite what I suggested in my last post, not all my endeavours over the last few weeks have been related to the poetry book, at least not directly. Thinking about it, a lot of time has been spent doing music as well.

I've always been interested in music, since the first time I heard Pink Floyd. Prior to that, I had thought of music as being an occasionally pleasant noise in the background. I don't dance, so I can't appreciate a song just for its rhythmic basis, and I'm a big fan of poetry, so I like words to communicate something more than 'I'm happy because you love me' or 'I'm sad because you don't'. An awful lot of music I heard growing up fitted into one of these two camps. I thought of music as being like gardening - a lot of people clearly get pleasure from it, but it's not for me.

When I discovered Pink Floyd, I found that music could say something meaningful, something relevant. Song lyrics could be as creative as poetry. They could say as much. They could arguably say more, given their much wider audience. Hearing Floyd made me reconsider the point of music, its power to communicate. Suddenly, I realised there might be other artists that tried to say more than 'the moon in June'. And of course there were. Bob Dylan. Lou Reed. John Lennon. Paul Simon. There were some fantastic writers out there.

So I set about learning music. I wanted to be Roger Waters. Why should there be only one? And while my first faltering steps were embarrassing (virtual re-writings of Waters' songs) I persevered. I taught myself music. I came to understand its awesome power. Music is an incredible colloboration between maths and emotion. Everything about its structure is logical; everything about its expression is emotional. Music is the ultimate synergy of the head and the heart. It's a language, a science, an art, a religion. It symbolises everything that mankind have evolved to produce. Over the last twenty years, I have written about fifty songs.

Having said this, though, I still feel a bit of a fraud for including song lyrics in a poetry book. I think it's a bit cheap to have repeated choruses in a poem, even though there are lots of poets that do it, even though many poets like Blake and Shelley have called their poems songs, even though the earliest poems of all were sung and accompanied by a lyre.

So to make myself feel better about short-changing the reader, I have given in the book a link to some songs (poems) I have recorded. They can be heard here. And over the last few weeks, I have been recording some songs that I hadn't done previously. Some of the songs were recorded years ago. Some just last week. One hasn't even been finished yet. My friend Sheena Dean, who did the photographic project I was involved with (see here for details), has a wonderful voice and will be recording one of the songs that my vocal cords just weren't able to cope with.

Here's a photo of me with the keyboards on which I wrote several of my songs:

My lovely publishers were kind enough to send me a couple of free T-shirts with the book cover on them. It is very tempting to just sit on a bus with the T-shirt on, reading the book, and see if anyone notices my face on the cover of both. But that would probably be considered crass commercialism, even by me. When it comes to the book, I'm not sure whether I'm the product or the factory...

Friday, 3 September 2010

I'm Back

Apologies, people, for my long absence from updating my blog. I've just had so much to do. I've spent a great deal of time working on the book, which is now finished!

There were times when I thought I would never be happy with it. I've spent the last couple of months in a back-and-forth with the publishers, where they send me the optimistically-named 'final proof' and I make a few changes and send it back. I have started to get obsessive about punctuation. Should I use a colon or a comma? Would a semi-colon be better? Should the sentences in my poems flow as normal, or should I be using punctuation stylistically? Should I be using punctuation at all? Maybe the e e cummings approach would be better. Or the James Joyce style, making one sentence last for three chapters. What is the 'right' answer?

I don't know, is the easy answer. That's why I've changed my mind so much. My wife could confirm that I'm never happy with anything I've done. There was always something I wanted to do differently. Should I use an 'and' or a 'but'? A 'for' or a 'because'?

So getting a series of 'final proofs' was just a red flag to a bull! Let's change a comma into a full stop on this draft, and then change it to a colon on the next! How about I drop a repeated refrain and then bring it back again? Does the publisher hate me yet? I think somehow we managed to keep the relationship cordial, but the lovely Lynsey, with her bottomless patience, has to take the lion's share of the credit. I nearly drove her over the edge, though, when I tried to change the contents the week before the book was due to be reviewed! I'd written a new poem that I wanted to get included, but was told very politely that I'd already made too many changes. Fair enough. If you're reading this because you'd got the URL from the back of my book, you may be interested in the poem I tried to include. It's below:

An Epitaph for Justice

Justice died alone
And was eaten by her cats.
After a while, the smell
Was put down to the drains
And then ignored.
Her body remains undiscovered.

Justice died of a broken heart.
She had seen what was done in her name
By those who did not understand
That the law was not justice per se:
It was just there to protect it.

She had witnessed the deaths
Of de Menezes and Tomlinson,
The attack on habeas corpus,
The detention without charge.
She had seen the policy of
'Innocent until proven Muslim',
As the war on terror itself became terror,
Wrapped up in the systematic dismantling of the right to protest.
She had seen her legacy
Squandered by scared little men
And she had cried.

And when she had stopped crying,
She had reached for a razor
And cut her own throat.

If Justice would not be heeded,
She may as well not speak.

And as she slumped,
As her lifeblood flowed from her
And her face turned blue and then grey,
The world tilted
And some of the point went out of it.

I guess maybe it was a little bleak for the book...