Self-Isolation Day 20

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Self-Isolation Day 20
Novels of Action

Yesterday I wrote that “Wolfgang Kayser suggested, a long time ago, that there were three types of novels: novels of action (the easiest to write, if you have that calling).” I hope nobody took the second half of that statement “the easiest to write” too seriously. No novel worth its salt is easy to write and not everybody can write the sort of adventure story, filled with action, that drags the reader on from page to page. Part of the difficult lies in tying the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next and this is most certainly not all that easy to do. In my own case, I tend to bring closure at the end of each chapter, and that really the worst thing I can do. Why continue reading if you already have closure?

Let us look at how a master thriller writer closes his chapters. Prologue: “I will return to my Athens as soon as this mess resolves itself.” What mess? Why Athens? Where is the character now? What is happening? Read on. Chapter One: “As a double precaution, the keyboard and the door know were wiped cleaner than Petrescu’s account” What on earth has happened now? Why wipe clean the keyboard and the door knob? Which account? Why? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Two: “Behind them, Edward Yorke’s lifeless eyes stared without comprehension at the foreman’s room and the splintered railing above him.” What has happened? Where is it all going to end? Read on. Chapter Three: “He had to move. So deciding, he opened the man’s wallet and found an address not far away?” An address? What address? Who lives there? Why is he going there? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Four: [Summary] A crack in the wall behind a refuse bin … time for a shower … throw the victim’s pants and shirt out of the window for some bum to find … Who? What? Where? When? Why? Read on. And now for the last words of Chapter Five, the chapter that explains everything. “That hook is baited.” And this is the key … each chapter ends with a neatly baited hook that leads the reader, willy-nilly, into the next chapter. You want to know what happens next, what is on the hook, what the hook is exactly, to do that, you will have to buy the book and read it for yourselves. Look up Chuck Bowie: Three Wrongs. Muse It Up Press.

Alas, I have not yet finished with Chuck. In June, 2017, he drove to St. Andrews to visit me one afternoon while I was at KIRA. We sat by the sea-shore there and chatted about his latest novel, Body on the Underwater Road. He was working out all the details and we struggled here, and wriggled there, as we computed the many possibilities. Such good fun. So, here I am, a poet telling a story about a master story-teller-seller. How silly I am. I’ll offer up a poem instead.

Underwater Road
Chuck Bowie

We met at St. Andrews, at low tide, on
the underwater road. In secret we
shared the closed, coded envelopes of thought,
running fresh ideas through open minds.

Our words, brief vapor trails, gathering for
a moment over Passamaquoddy,
then drifting silently away. Canvas
sails flapped white sea-gull wings across the bay.

All seven seas rose before our eyes, brought
in on a breeze’s wing. The flow of cold
waters over warm sand cocooned us in
a cloak-and-dagger mystery of mist.

We spun our spider-web dreams word by word,
decking them out with the silver dew drops
proximity brings. Characters’ voices,
unattached to real people, floated by.

Verbal ghosts, shape-shifting, emerging from
shadows, revealed new attitudes and twists,
spoke briefly, filled us with visions of book
lives, unforgettable, doomed, swift to fail.

Soft waves ascended rock, sand, mud, washed
away footprints, clues, all the sandcastle
dreams we had constructed that afternoon,
though a few still survive upon the page.

And that, as the lion said, is the end of the gnus.

Comment: Three Wrongs is part of the Donovan: Thief for Hire series. Adventure series follow similar patterns: the problem, the solver (shining hero), the complication (dark arts adversary), further complications, resolution: problem solved. The Arthurian Romances set the pattern for linked adventure series back in the 12th and 13th Centuries. They were followed by the literary knights of the novels of chivalry. Perhaps the most famous of these, Amadis de Gaula / Amadis of Gaul, was imitated and parodied by Cervantes in Don Quixote. The numerous books of Amadis were followed by Son of Amadis, Nephew of Amadis, Cousin of Amadis. Perhaps nothing breeds success better than success. Think of the Sharpe series from the Peninsula War or the Hornblower books, or, more recently, Master and Captain and the recent Royal Navy series from similar times. Look out for Son of Donovan … a series coming to your bookstore soon.

Self-Isolation Day 18

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Self-Isolation Day 18

So we are in the eighteenth day of our Self-Isolation. Yesterday I added a fifth book to my group around the table: The Art of the Middle Game by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov, translated by Harry Golombek. I have had this book since 1964 when it was first published in Penguin Books. Once upon a time, I played serious chess, was president of a chess club, and read widely about the game. But I have not played any serious, face to face chess since I came to Canada and the last games I played were in 1994, when I visited the Dominican Republic, although I did pay a couple of games in Oaxaca on my first visits there.

I dipped in and out of this book yesterday, playing sample games here and there. It was a joy to rediscover the movement of the pieces and to see how great minds viewed the chess board. Sharpe’s Riflemen are wonderful to watch on YouTube, but they cannot rival the two sixteen piece armies that wage battle on the sixty-four squares of the chess-board!

The Art of the Middle Game uses descriptional notation. This means that when the King Pawn takes two steps forwards, it moves from King two to King four. In descriptional notation, this becomes P-K4. If it is the first move of the game, by white, then it becomes 1. P-K4. If the opposition follows suit, then his move is also transcribed as P-K4. This gives us 1. P-K4   P-K4. And this is where the confusion arises: each side has a K-4, and a Q-4 and every other square is doubled up as well in a mirror image of army facing army. After such a long time away from the game, I found my concentration wavering in places and thus I had pieces on the wrong squares and had to start all over again. Very frustrating.

When I played chess in Spain, also back in the sixties, I was faced with algebraic notation, long in use on the continent of Europe. The eight ranks are lettered a-h, from left to right, and the eight files are numbered 1-8 from bottom to top, with ‘white on the right’ i.e. h-1 always white. This means that each square has a single, plotted designation and it is much easier to follow the game as there is no mirror imaging. In this fashion, 1. P-K4 would become e2 – e4 followed by e7 – e5. None of this changes the nature of the game, but it does change the speed and ease with which it is transcribed and followed.

I remember buying my first pocket chess set, in Boots the Chemist (!) when I was 9 or 10 years old. It is an old cardboard set with red and white squares and pieces. I still have it and I am using it now. The scrawl that I call my handwriting is still unmistakable, after all these years. That same day I bought Harry Golombek’s The Game of Chess, and I taught myself how to play, based on that book. I remember looking at the descriptional notation and not understanding how the system worked, even after days of memorization. Then, one morning, as Dylan Thomas, another Swansea Boy once wrote, ‘light broke where no light shone’ and as all the squares fell miraculously into place, the system of descriptional notation suddenly made sense to me. “Threshold knowledge is a term in the study of higher education used to describe core concepts — or threshold concepts — which, once understood, transform perception of a given subject, phenomenon, or experience” (Wikipedia). The discovery of the key to descriptional notation was indeed a threshold experience, as was the transition to algebraic notation. What a wonderful world we live in.

CV-19 Week 3 Day 3

 

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CV-19 Week 3 Day 3
A Change of Scene

Nothing serious happening with this change of scene, but this morning I put Phillip Larkin on one side and turned to a new book, Neil Sampson’s Apples on the Nashwaak (2019). This may be just the read you need in times like these. An excellent foreword locates the text of Neil’s narrative poem(s) in the long line of European narrative poetry. Neil’s introduction places his text in his own life on the land where he lives and wanders in Upper Durham, above the Nashwaak River. The text itself places us, as readers, in the long successions of repeated lives and deaths that mark the early settlements in New Brunswick, Canada. And yes, we have passed this way before, for better or for worse.

This is not a re-statement of ‘mal de todos, consuelo de tontos‘ / shared ill’s are a fool’s consolation. The colored apples on the stark tree that adorns the cover are a statement of hope, long term hope, even among the bleakness of difficulties, tragedies, and deaths. Like it or not, these things happen, and yes, there are survivors. Hopefully, there will always be survivors. And thus we must always live in hope. It is one of the threads that come through Neil’s poetry.

Only four trees are still alive.
The last of that first
generation
ponder existence and being
unable to walk
— no chance of pilgrimage —
have seeded their hope of redemption,
in Self.

Sounds like us, tucked away at home for three weeks and three days now ‘unable to walk’ outside and with no immediate ‘pilgrimage’ in sight or ‘hope of redemption’. Yet we sit here, un-suffering, following the news on television and radio, talking with friends on the telephone, reaching out to loved ones, near and far, on Skype, e-mailing and encouraging fellow un-sufferers, house bound, like us, ‘Children / hugging the chimney, // warm long after / the embers had died’.

Wait! In the orchard!
There’s One who’s come to call.
Those four pioneers
cankered with rot;
bark-skinned, limbs,
thin, draped in swags
of moss —

they know
who He is.

Enough for now, Neil. I shall read your book today and perhaps tomorrow, and then I will move on with head held high and hope in my heart. Thank you for your words. They are doubly meaningful at times like these reaching out to us with comfort, love, and understanding, and warming our hearts.

 

 

CV-19 Week 3 Day 1

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CV-19 Week 3 Day 1

So, yes, I am starting the third week of my self-imposed isolation. I am also in the first week of an imposed provincial State of Emergency. What I was doing willingly before, self-isolation, has now become law, self-isolation by edict.

It seems a minor change, but it isn’t. Whereas before I was happy not to go out, now the very prohibition makes me want to go out. Yes: I now want to be out there, wandering the now-empty streets, shopping in the now-closed stores, and visiting the newly locked and barred bars and restaurants.

This situation reminds me of the word-games we used to play as children in which you were given a word which you mustn’t use and then you discovered that you really, really wanted to use it, simply because you had been told not to. One such banned word, in my childhood, was bloody. All the grown-ups used it, but it was forbidden to the little children. Bloody hell, we thought. Or bloody nice weather, we said to friends of our own age. Then, if our parents caught us using the forbidden word, out came the carbolic soap and it was mouth wash time again. Yuck: I have never forgotten the taste and smell of that carbolic soap.

We devised schemes for getting round the prohibition. I guess children of all ages devise schemes for breaking down prohibitions. That’s why so many soldiers in WWI used to ‘break out of barracks’ as they resisted the imposition of nightly curfews with their locks and keys. “Oh we’re breaking out of barracks,” they would sing, “as we have done before.” Then came the other verses. “Take his name and take his number.” “Up before the CO.” “Forty days in prison.” Back to bread and water, as we have done before.”

So, when my mother took us to the butcher’s shop one day, we were all primed. “Look at all that bloody meat” we cried out , shrieking with laughter and rolling all over the saw-dusted floor. My mother was furious, but we were spared her wrath as the butcher, and his other customers, found it so amusing.

But CV-19 (Corona Virus \ Covidis 19) is not so funny and the punishments are much more drastic than a simple carbolic soap mouth wash session. That said, the itch to break the prohibition is so much stronger now that the law is provincially enforced and not self-imposed. That said, these are rules well worth following. Nobody wants to catch this and, much more important, nobody wants to be responsible for passing it on to somebody else, especially if that somebody else is in the target range for a serious, perhaps fatal, bout with the virus.

Funny old world, eh? And some funny old people living in it.

Outrageous Fortune

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Outrageous Fortune

When the Black Dog descends it is difficult to see beyond the latest slings and arrows. Everything hurts and everybody hurts you. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But they do. They gouge into the brain, splinter the mind, and leave us gasping for air, mouths open like landed, stranded fish.
How do we stop the hurt? We hurt ourselves more, much more, and then what they do to us can never ever be as bad as what we have done to ourselves. That cut-throat razor, that pop-gun with the cut cord, that carving knife, that finger stuffed into the electric socket … why, they ask, why did you do it? Head down, in silence, I know the answer, but I will not tell them.
They send me to doctors with fancy names who ask strange questions that I fudge or will not answer. They take my family’s money and then write reports and say that ‘his behavior is quite normal for a child of his age’.
Have they checked the scars on my mind, the black holes in my heart? Does the local priest who tells my parents that all is well also tell them about what happens in and out of church, in and out of school? I think of the city watch walking on the castle walls: “Nine o’clock and all’s well!”
Hurt yourself, I say. Hurt yourself so badly that nobody else will ever again be able to hurt you.

Le Pont Mirabeau

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Le Pont Mirabeau

Beneath Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
and so does our love
must I be reminded yet again
that happiness always follows pain

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Hand in hand let us stay here face to face
while beneath the bridge of our arms
like flowing waves our gazes interlace

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Love flows away like waves that flow
love flows away
hope fills us with dismay
and life passes slow

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Days and weeks flow by bye bye
along with former loves
and past times that did fly fly fly
they will never come back again
Beneath Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Comment: It’s hard to give up on this. The poem has stayed with me since 1962 (58 years). A slight variant on an earlier version. Sorry, Guillaume.

Le Pont Mirabeau

Le Pont Mirabeau

Beneath Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
and so does our love
must I be reminded yet again
that happiness always follows pain

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Hand in hand let us stay here face to face
while beneath the bridge of our arms
like flowing waves our gazes interlace

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Love flows away like waves that flow
love flows away
hope fills us with dismay
and life passes slow

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Days and weeks flow by bye bye
along with former loves
and past times that did fly fly fly
they will never come back again
Beneath Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Comment: I spent the school year in Paris in 1962-1963 and I have always wanted to translate Le Pont Mirabeau from French into English. Today, I found both the time and energy to do so. It’s not a great translation, but it is mine. It also contains new revisions from an earlier post but note that the links in the earlier post no longer function. Click on the link above to get the French original.