Flights in Airless Space


Yearning and desire are strong emotions. In Nine Avenues they take various forms. The passages here express how some of the characters live with their desire.

Ed became the organizer of the cinema club and had a busy two night program. One evening Marion called him and left a message, that she was coming back. Until then, nothing had ever been said. Marion left a long message and when she stopped speaking; there was a pause and if someone had been listening they could have inferred that she was ready to speak again; but she said nothing only the sound of the machine’s low electric buzz unsettled the room. Then she hung up: the machine clicked and whirled its small gears and in the quiet room, it seemed loud. The room was quiet again; the street lights shone through the curtains and cast a feeble yellow glow into the empty and airless room, all quiet but for the occasional sound of a passing car which drove slowly past the windows. Then it was all silent. “Then Silence”

Since the last time she saw Peter, she has not used her given name, had almost forgotten it; the name belonged to another.
At that moment it falls into place; any explanation is wasted, any attempt to fill in the time, the unfulfilled and incomplete love since they had been young, its meaning and its endurance is clear to Elizabeth.
She stares at him, more alert than reason and memory might inform her; the stare is firm but full of regret.
Peter turns from Elizabeth, he is still.
She observes his profile and the creases formed by sun and wind on his face and she imagines that she had witnessed them form over time.
She turns away from him to look ahead; his book is closed in her hands, her finger has marked the dedication page.
The park is quiet, the world is quiet now.
Elizabeth remembers thirty-five years; she can say nothing, she has nothing to say, but sit still, beside him, accepting what is and what could have been.”
“Solitary Birds”

…we had nothing but the clothes and shoes on our bodies; our minds comprised of memories vague and remote in that wide flat land. Some men had a photograph which they feared losing more than their own lives: these pictures stayed pressed inside their clothes. I did not have that luxury, when, at the end of a day, with aching back and bent legs I crashed to the ground. Only words came to me. They came in phrases; they were reminiscent of days gone by when people could talk that way, unlike the groan of the man beside me. And so it was that I called up your voice, heard you speak and put phrases together to hear again from another time what was distant to me cowering on the ground. Then to fill in your voice, with your presence, I would say softly with barely breath passing from my mouth, I would say, If you wear that dress; then immediately I was in my best suit standing at your front step waiting for you to enter the hallway and I would hold you in my eyes as you walked towards me, unable to stop a smile and I beheld you in that dress; somehow changed as though the fabric harnessed some hidden part of yourself and now it radiated to me. There you were clearer than any photograph and moving towards me as I am now moving to you.
“If you wear that dress”

Dan fell back onto the bed; Elizabeth drew him to her; their arms joined like rope, folded over and under the other. Intimacy resumed without a break. They had to use the time well, to be surrounded in and with and by the other in the few hours they have: to have taken the time, to have committed to the one, and the other.
They are obliged to manage their time well, and each week for a year they have met in the room. They enter the room happy after a hundred and sixty five hours apart. The room’s decoration does not interest them: they are consumed by each other. But after a year neither Elizabeth nor Dan has wanted to move to another permanent state: their separate obligations, to a husband and a wife; with each person’s individual trail of emotional mortgages is already too high.
After three hours, when they dress and kiss goodbye – an estranged and polite gesture, he and she contemplates separately on the way home, or back to the office, the restraints of love. It is a thought that first arises again and again as they part and take the corridor in their own steps, never daring to look behind for fear that the other is not looking either, and therefore a glance is searching the void. In the taxi, or the bus, as they go away for another week the thought becomes more acute. The resistance they resent is their fear and to replace the anxiety they wish they could be elsewhere. “Flights in Airless Space”

Guy Cranswick
7th February 2015

All excerpts ©2012 Folded Word All Rights Reserved


Novel in a Bottle


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Most products promise to make the buyer more appealing. The cologne, shoes, suit, hair conditioner, eyelash extensions are – the hopeful buyer is assured – bound to make them more appealing and attractive. People will swoon, will become helpless, mere victims to the power and effect the bearer possesses from their shiny hair.

With this in mind, it is curious that a new Danish beer promises to make the creative juices flow sufficiently to write a book. The premise seems to be that by drinking the beer and achieving the ideal level of alcohol in the bloodstream the writing of a novel is somehow inevitable.

As an advertising promotion, this is unusual. Writing is occasionally celebrated; it might even be respected, but, as it is a solitary business, it does not have the same veneer of dash and charisma that attaches to a musician, or singer. The notion that a talent show might choose a writer, say a poet or a short story writer, is not probable. As it is, actors are presumed to create their own lines, when it suits them, or ‘improv’ which is perceived as a sign of magical alchemy, although that is far from being assured. This widespread misconception illustrates the place of writing.

Beer promotions tended to follow the same male stereotypes; or perhaps with craft beers, they focus on the aged secrets of making the brew with its distinctive taste, it’s special ingredients: the water and hops.

I have never come across a beer, or any other wine, or spirit, that claimed its use would make the drinker an artist. It’s true other forms of artistry have come from drinking several libations. Mostly though, any artistic efforts with a few drinks are often not very good when reviewed the next day.

Hemingway made the same point in his long running feud with Faulkner. It’s not likely Faulkner wrote under the influence, not at the desk anyway. Shelby Foote said he didn’t believe Faulkner was drunk when he wrote, and Hemingway’s remark may mean he was puzzled at reading sentences with dependent clauses, and could only attribute it to drunkenness in the writer.

The ideal amount of alcohol 0.75% it is said. Where the evidence is for this is not clear. Maybe there are journals of writers, Maupassant, for instance: “Had a few bocks, then a really good Sancerre, followed up with a few more bocks, then reached peak drunk and dipped my nib in the inkwell for a good sesh at the writing desk.” That would all be in French, évidemment. Sartre could really polish several bottles but it has to be said his prose got worse for it.

If novels are written under this level of alcohol it might be timely for publishers to declare it. This book was completed between February and November 1935 with three dry martinis every day. Writers know when they have a really strong piece of work inside them and also when its not working. If the chemistry is right, it might be that they are not taking in enough units. Sure, poets like Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas went way over any allowable quota, but that’s poets. Novels are a marathon; it requires the same planning as each chapter and section. Overdo it one day and the pages are not going to come.

Should any books come from this beer there will be some groups expressing their disapproval. In this litigious and health conscious time we might see books labelled with health warnings: Please read this book responsibly. If your reading is not under control, seek the assistance of a professional.


Guy Cranswick
23rd December 2014

The Never Ending Story


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The annual gift orgy has once again come around. Books will be a percentage of the presents given this year, in any of the many forms they take now.

Many readers might like to go back to paper, parchment or some other natural product, now that has been revealed that technology is spying on the harmless leisure reader and finding out they are not finishing books. This is shocking, even deplorable.

The e-readers can detect when a book is not finished. If readers knew they were being evaluated for endurance and fortitude in completing their books they might hack the devices to send back bad data. It might be time to revive hand-written parchment or scrolls, even if just as a gift-giving gimmick. Those medieval fantasy series might boom if printed on vellum.

Anyway, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some books aren’t finished. Lots of things are unfinished, even in refrigerators and sometimes for months.
These unfinished books are titles that people think they ought to have, a status display, and they earnestly start but find, that after 500 pages of intricate storytelling, it’s all a bit much and weekend zone out of a series on DVD is the type of story telling they prefer. So the vaunted book, praised in all the right papers, is left on the shelf. Or it remains unopened in a reader.

Somehow this factoid is meant to prove that some authors are not as good, or popular, as they might seem. A similar game occurs in Hollywood with actors’ fees measured against box office: schadenfreude for the envious. But leaving a book unread is not the same as a big short fall in opening weekend receipts.

Finished doesn’t mean done, or accomplished forever. Many authors say a book is not finished, it just reached a justifiable pause at the time. Back in literary theory it’s said readers complete books, they close the circle of meaning initiated by a writer. In that sense it’s a dialog which can be continuous and intense for a period of time, and like many conversations run for years: things are put to one side for a time and then resume. Between friends conversations can twist and turn, stray and bend into other directions.

Even books, when one interlocutor has committed all they will ever say to words permanent and fixed, the other party, the reader, enters another phase of the dialog when they resume the book. A month later, a few years even, and it’s a different experience.

The words, the intention, are not the same as the previous time it was read. This is most conspicuous with those books we were all forced to read at school. In particular the plays of Shakespeare which were dreaded, but perhaps later the sonnets and the plays are understood afresh.

It’s not just books that languish unfinished. Anyone with older relatives knows they will sit down to the TV and within five minutes drift off, rousing a half hour, or later when the show is over. A friend and I thought of starting a special movie series which would comprise maybe the opening five minutes of a hundred classic films back to back in the knowledge that the typical senior viewer would put the disc on and without a doubt be battling heavy eyelids inside the first act. In my own case I never admit to not seeing several popular classics that are often quoted as I have never managed past the opening; forget the end, the opening drains away all my will, so these culturally quoted works remain unknown to me.

Really, we should all relax about endings and whether we get there or not, especially for those important books; after all, the ends don’t necessarily qualify the means.

Guy Cranswick
14th December 2014

Black Napkins


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It’s a paradox that often bad events are the material to create something, sometimes, even special. The most obvious cases are when love goes sour, when someone betrays another, or perhaps when it’s reached its end and the people drift away to find someone and something else.

It’s possible that the music genre known as the blues consists of this single cause. We all know it well, it’s been parodied to death: Woke up one morning, my woman done left me, (there’s a mule kicking in my door). With this sure knowledge it seems ridiculous that so many musicologists and film makers have asked the question ad nauseum: What is the blues? Well, it’s really quite simple. In fact, it was Son House who had the answer and it was love, or the loss of it.

One of the best books Graham Greene wrote was The End of the Affair, full of impotent rage and pathos for the love he could never have. It almost perfectly encapsulates the power that bad luck, misfortune, can have on turning out a great work.

Other much larger tragedies have been the material for great art: Guernica by Picasso is one that springs to mind; the other would be If this is a man by Primo Levi. Others have been personal, such as the swirling, vertiginous, pictures by the mentally ill Van Gogh; a man and artist struggling with internal demons and all the vexations of life.

Amongst this catalog of desperate calamity and hard luck it seems odd that a revolting Thanksgiving dinner might be sufficient to inspire a classic tune. It did. Yes.

The instrumental Black Napkins, (here is a particularly incendiary end of gig performance) was named in memory of a disgusting Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Zappa said he had had the song for over a year “but it was finally named last Thanksgiving when we were having this horrible Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Sliced turkey roll with the fucking preservatives just gleaming off it, and this beat-up cranberry material. The final stroke to this ridiculous dinner was the black napkins, sitting next to the dishes. That really said the most about the dinner.”

Black napkins and purulent, seeping, cranberry sauce. It is a dreadful image. If there had been lyrics the song’s pain might have been made more obvious which is not overt in the instrumental; though its sense of anguish, almost universal, is conveyed.

We have all sat down to a meal somewhere, tired, away from home, when the creature comforts are so important and familiar food can restore us but instead we are served some unpalatable malodorous meal: gray dry meat, peas and carrots boiled to a homogenized sludge, and jaundiced fried potatoes while an uncaring waiter grins at us and offers some cruel wish for us to enjoy the repast.

If lyrics had been written for the music it might have been too painful. During that era Zappa had turned a prosaic metaphor of love, one that hippies had used at the time, “being into….” between musician and fans and applied the present perfect tense “have been into” and made the metaphor a bland statement of fact.

As it is Black Napkins reminds us all that adversity is out there somewhere, in a diner, in a mall, a pizza shop, perhaps in a supermarket, and that all it takes is the creative mind to grasp it and transform it into something great, which will reach other people.

Guy Cranswick
22nd November 2014



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Waiting is at the center of many lives and jobs. The creative ones, anyway.

Cohorts of expectant writers, and other artists, have whiled away their time in bedsits, cafes and bars, doing nothing in particular in many places around the world. During that time they may have been exercised with a book, a picture, a song, but if they had no object, they did very little, apart from drinking, and that can be a serious task if pursued correctly.

Doing that waiting in Paris in the 1920s was like being given a visa to be an artist. Sit, wait, talk, drink, wait, smoke. Repeat. And the other thing, too; really a critical reason to go to Paris, after all. It beats Cedar Rapids; no offense. It also helped that the franc had collapsed by 70% against the dollar and it was therefore cheap to wait, even with a rather bad burgundy for company.

Today’s diligent achievement oriented, but somewhat ethically protestant society, frowns on waiting: it’s assign of a dissolute soul, of fecklessness, of a lack of ambition, an inability to set goals (some of which are made ruthlessly), and as the personal coaches instruct: of not being what you can be every day.

It’s a palliative to know that a university has a course to correct this hyper utilization of time. The course is predicated on time wasting with the Internet, and will involve staring at screens for three hours and only using chats, IM and other technical media to communicate. It proclaims, perhaps with Huxley’s voice in the background, that laptops and Wi-Fi will be the only connection available. Tablets might have served just as well. A course underpinned on Wi-Fi is intriguing, but rather like joining a new age cult. The ultimate aim is to create works of literature from digital raw material through the process of doing, what seems to be, nothing at all.

This is rather like sitting in the Closerie de Lilas (when the prices were reasonable) and looking out absent mindedly on the boulevard Montparnasse and watching the traffic and pedestrians while drinking wine. Or taken another way, it’s an affront to writers. If people find out that writing is really just doing anything else or not writing in some way, everyone will want to do it. The hours are great.

Psychologically and epistemologically there are questions as to the foundations of how or why such an immersion into very large chunks of information could, or should, lead to anything. This is almost the monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare paradigm. Take a number of subjects and make them look at the Internet for hours and see if they can write a book. A good one would be preferable. Everyday logic and the ability to manage a household budget suggests that taking this course is not going to yield much on the other side.

The technological basis to the course doesn’t quite add up, either. The principal behind the program had at one time advocated downloading the Internet, a quixotic aim, and one that Arj Barker had also proposed, although in his case it was to remove all the 18+ material to protect the innocent. In this case the design is static and sedentary but equipped with a mobile connection, when the fastest growing element of online content is video and viewed and shared on mobile connections. The assumptions of creativity and distribution is already passing into history.

And while we’re on technology, it could be time to update those poor outdated monkeys with a new notebook and Wi-Fi, otherwise they have no chance at all of aiming for Henry IV Part One.

Back on the boulevards of Paris and bars of New York and pubs of London there have been many, many writers and artists waiting and drinking and getting wiser out of a bottle and some went on with their idea, which was really something, while others returned home to find something else, and still others acquired an unhealthy addiction.

If writing like anything creative was so easy and based on streamed data it wouldn’t be so hard. Three hours with a Wi-Fi connection and a laptop or Le Dôme; I know where I prefer to waste time.

Guy Cranswick
6th November 2014

The speech filler that is taking over


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Extensive linguistic research has revealed a new pattern of fillers, those little syllables that fill in the spaces while talking like polyps in the bowel or cholesterol in the arteries. Yeah-yeah. Like already, whatever. — Show me! What are they?

Is it something to imitate, or to scorn; as if other people’s speech is sliding to toward barely animal grunts? But what if it’s successful? Am I doing it the right way; or is it a sign that I need to do more to speak like that and improve my chances of a great career, of dating, of perfect happiness. Does it indicate that if I talk this way I can improve my income, and if so, by how much?

It might be hard to say. The article I read cited someone called Obama who spoke a lot of uhs, no ums, and someone called Kardashian, who may not be the president of anything at all, who used lots of ums, but no uhs. This breakthrough in publicity seeking science shows that falling to poor speech habits is no disqualification from a full and glittering career.

The more intriguing question is why this headline, which teases our curiosity and exploits our motivations, works. In the old days headlines like: ‘Vicar caught in afternoon romps’ were enough to spice people’s humdrum lives as they read about a respected member of the community being ridiculous. And it was socially acceptable to hold up such an article while on public transport.

Other tabloid specialties further down the news chain, such as, Zombie Cats from Outer Space were there to thrill and entertain the reader. Add some other angle, such as Nazis and have the art editor put a helmet on the cats and the story was headed straight for some award. One notorious UK tabloid headline involved a London bus discovered on the moon. No one believed it, well, maybe some people did, and probably the same kind of reader that did not believe in the moon landings, but I digress; the London bus moon piece was an adult comic. That style was once a viable entertainment business.

Move along and the traditional announce headline is no longer commercially good enough. Now even established and respected news publishers use click bait to induce the depths of curiosity and that means dollars. Stories are not announced, they tease about an event, or the unruly behavior of a personality, in order to incite a click.

And then, once we’ve had the hit of cheap nasty info and learnt that some person had a bad flight, sold their house for millions below purchase price, had a troubled youth, looked stunning in a dress, supports cat zombies from outer space if they resettle on Earth etc., the nausea and self-loathing kicks in.

If only we’d known all along. Everyone is now in this: business, finance, everyone pushing an agenda and science too, as they utilize smart tactics to get readers.

The eminent brain specialist Susan Greenfield has warned about the use of technologies and the manner in which brain function and attention is modified. It might be said that a corollary of Greenfield’s analysis is the surfeit of pseudo information, the spew of stuff vomited into the media that distracts but is hardly information. The plethora of channels almost makes it inevitable. It can be turned off, ignored even.

The quick hit works. It may work for a while longer. At some time it loses its effectiveness and then another technique has to be found. Who knows, it might be that the old headlines come back and the reader can choose what they want to read, rather be enticed with schlock. I know, I can’t get enough about zombies.

Guy Cranswick
13th October 2014



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At this stage of human history we have collected a lot of junk. Some is accidental, a bit like opening an old drawer and finding a bookmark you were given with that thriller you can’t read any longer. The other kind of junk is the result of bad habits and shows that people ought to clean things up more frequently.

Still typing at a QWERTY keyboard is a bit demodé but most people still do it. At The Times (London) clinging to old ways has found new life. To increase productivity management introduced typewriter sounds over loudspeakers. Either Times’ journalists are Pavlovian animals or they are so old that the sound of a typewriter actually means something in order for them to react. Imagine the productivity boost if they piped in the sounds of a pub to a newsroom.

It’s all in the past anyway. Most of that won’t mean much as quite soon most of won’t even have to type we’ll just talk to it; a bit like we talk to customer service and search engines. This situation will be ideal as it means machines will do everything for us and that leaves all that time, futurologists promised us fifty years ago to do creative things, such as read Paradise Lost or the Mahābhārat in Sanskrit.

That promise may be just too optimistic. Recent behavioral data suggests we’re more likely to slouch on the couch and do a marathon box set and streaming TV event.

This curious ramble of connections began with a book on the history of collective nouns. Collective nouns are mysterious and fun. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back to the fifteenth century. Collective nouns are typically associated with groups of animals and birds. The reason for this lies in The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It’s the combination of unusual usage from an ancient past that gives collective nouns their allure. With the spread of supermarkets and chains stores hawking and hunting have tended to dwindle as common experience in everyday contemporary life. They have in my case and local government can be really petty about medieval hunting practices.

Language requires use to stay current. In the sixteenth century, The Book of St Albans was apparently reprinted many times, which kept the lists of various fauna in the public’s mind – the elite’s mind that is. A few hundred years later and many of the nouns are still in circulation today but let’s be honest, some of them are archaic; it’s been some time since I heard one used on a conference call.

The collective noun is therefore, in desperate need of modernizing. But if you search for updated collective nouns they all tend to the snide, smart and rude as if created by knowing, but not very alert, college students who use them as a way to accuse the world of all types of corruption.
I decided to work out some collective nouns that would be useful today.
•Microbes of software developers: not intended to be critical but to assign the biological affiliations that software plays in running everything.
•Rictus of real estate agents: just too many options with this group, but their smile is the perfect visual synecdoche.
•Gloat of hedge fund managers: they don’t as well as the index but that doesn’t stop them attracting the serious money.
•Capsule of domestic robots: every home will have their own wired angels dusting and polishing.
•Intrigue of hackers: this ought to be broken down into black and white hackers, and all the others in between, but this a top level domain use.
•Deficiency of species: because it’s getting to hard to count all the expired creatures.

The one collective I left untouched is for writers. Perhaps there ought to be an updated collective noun, though as people they tend to roam alone, but it hardly needs changing and it’s not as if writers get too much of it.

Guy Cranswick
21st September 2014

Too experimental? Call a dentist


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Since the Renaissance, and more so after the Enlightenment, the west has been proud of its ability to innovate, to break free of the shackles of the past. The capacity to break with tradition implied a strong cultural impetus to innovate, and to experiment.

Since questioning and experiment, and consequently technical development, appeared to go together it looked like a virtuous circle and for over two hundred years we’ve exalted innovation and experiment above tradition – not all tradition, just the ones that seem stuffy and unnecessary.

As with all glib reasoning this is almost plausible. But then it was Louis C.K who got me thinking otherwise. Anyone familiar with the comedian’s work knows he has a particular style but the idea of experiment surfaced in his Louie TV shows. The shows have no formal narrative structure; there were no jokes, nor do sequences build into punchlines. Some of the shows ended abruptly, rather badly you might say, as if underwritten, but the stories overlapped, came and went, the characters’ individual stories made sense in fragments, not as sections, and over the course of a series it gelled.

The cross-cutting form is by today’s standards very experimental; it demands attention. Sometimes it’s not satisfying. The curious thing is that this style and format is unusual in prose, and it would be damned as experimental, but on TV, it has an audience. It may be that Louis C.K.’s viewers are all literary critics and post- structuralists, but I doubt that, as there can’t be enough of them to support the show.

The show succeeds because TV is easy to absorb and there are enough gags, even indirect ones, or through character, to make it work. The notion that it’s experimental is acceptable in a restricted set of possibilities, for instance, in a genre. And it doesn’t mean the audience of Louie have clear views on the nature of narrative comedy and story design. What it indicates is that some place for the experimental and the avant-garde is a relic. If those terms have any meaning it probably reflects on the user, their experience, and their understanding.

Look at ratings and book sales figures and it’s true that there are more viewers than readers. All that viewing experience – it’s about four hours per day per capita – so that’s several years’ worth of expertise gained has made us sophisticated at interpreting pictures. That is not to say that mainstream TV and film is experimental, it mostly isn’t at all, but every day we see more stories through edited pictures than through books and that could mean we have a wider tolerance for narratives in pictures.

At the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring, the one that descended into a riot, a spectator called out, Call a dentist! (In French, obviously). It raised a laugh and someone else in the restive theater called out, Call two dentists! Why dentists and why then? It was during the segment Cercles Mysterieux des Adolescents.

Not being a choreographer I can’t use the right terms, but during this part of the ballet there were a group of young girls, painted like dolls, moving in and out of an implied circle and making sudden movements and turning their heads up in acute angles. This distracted, almost distressed, behavior may have been a sign in Paris at the time of dental pain, hence the reason for the heckling.

Ridiculing something is the facile way to denigrate it. Cries of bizarre usually serve as that all purpose reprimand against impudence to the speaker’s sense of a torn social fabric. The audience for that premiere were rich but that does not bestow sophistication. Up to that point of the ballet they had been subjected to some savage rhythms – this at a time when the epithet ‘fauvist’ was an insult.

In a society of strict conventions the dancers’ action were probably considered lewd. Europeans have been able to perceive sex lurking in many things, even tomatoes once. The experimental part of the ballet turned their sense of social protocol upside down. The movements were not new, just proscribed in that society; but once the waltz was considered below what any moral woman would do. As for music, it has disturbing rhythms, and again, Europeans have always worried about the power of distinctive rhythms. For similar reasons Elvis Presley perturbed a wider public for his rhythmic moves, but Stravinsky was the original hound dog.

In retrospect the premiere is considered one of the great events in western culture because of the innovation. Yes but, we say now, because the experimental exists within a highly conventional set of rules. The dancing and the music were experimental to that audience due to the way they lived and their social mores.

Imagine someone whose diet consists of peanut butter sandwiches. One night they go out for a pizza and the remove all the topping and only eat the crust and sauce. The experimental element (to them) were the black olives and the basil leaves and the artichoke hearts on the pizza top.

In fiction what is now called experimental is very narrow and historically misses the antecedents. So-called experimental fiction may change perspective; it might emphasize one thing over another; it may have more piquancy than a peanut butter sandwich. It may not be successful in the sense of fulfilling conventional experience. It won’t be new, not really new.

When the modernists evolved their works they did so reacting against a body of work they found stultifying. Often they went back several hundred years to use some idea or a technique which they reintroduced. Within the times these innovations looked experimental. They weren’t, not really; it has been done before, or there is a parent for some style. More experience will remove the urge to call something experimental. But if a book seems too experimental, it’s probably time to see the dentist.

Guy Cranswick
1st September 2014

Has a bright imagination


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It’s often said that school days would be better if they taught things the kids wanted to learn; things that are relevant to students. The premise here is that kids would be attentive and enjoy school. It is, of course an asinine platitude.

If that idea was adopted into a scholastic program elementary schoolchildren would learn nothing but finger painting, while junior high school students would only learn how to seduce the other students. The logic in the second half, holds even for English public school.

School should be what it is: tedious, frustrating, and occupied by intermittent negotiations with awkward teachers who seem hell bent on making ones own life difficult. In short, it is a preparation for a career and the workplace. Imagine the shock of moving into the workforce if school had been only long balmy halcyon salad days? A person would be completely unprepared. In my first real job I was convinced everything after kindergarten had been a waste of time. Well, it was an advertising agency. Sort of.

The whole tiresome experience can be re-lived by reading over a report card. Teachers must think they have a chance at posterity when they impose their judgement on a child. It’s probably a statistical fact that most report cards are only as good as the term in which they were finished. In other words, the failings of youth – and their opposite strengths – don’t last throughout life. If that weren’t the case, it might be wise to give up at about twelve.

It’s in this context that Charlotte Brontë’s school reports have been released by The British Library. They are not flattering. She was a child, so that they are hardly evidence of some incendiary force of a brilliant mind. The only reason we have any interest in these documents is that she wrote a classic. It would be odder if she had a report that said, “Charlotte creates stunning characters of emotional depth and her syntax is quite a joy as she employs the subjunctive mood with real grace. It is a shame she does this in geometry”. No, she was quite ordinary.

This is a type of sport. A famous writer’s reports are exposed and what is discovered! The genius wordsmith was apparently quite mediocre, at least in the view of the teacher. The purpose of this exercise is opaque. This is the literary equivalent of the famous model/actress no-make-up selfie. Without the magic of cosmetics she is not so pretty.

On the same level it is similar to that ancient question about giving hundreds of monkeys a typewriter in order to see if they’d create anything like a Shakespeare play. They might come up with The Merry Wives of Windsor because it’s rubbish. Never, to the end of time could they write King Lear, but most humans couldn’t either. It’s probably the greatest tragedy in English and it starts with a dirty joke. That requires some creativity.

Reviewing Charlotte’s school reports we should have some perspective. Although Charlotte’s teacher didn’t rate her writing skills very highly, it’s not as if the authorities at the time had mastered the most basic elements of a healthy life. This was a time when public health policy didn’t know anything about water borne disease. The Brontës suffered directly from this ignorance as family members died from typhus.

Her teacher did not have the final word on judgement or truth. For the writer that may be the best lesson from school because when the teacher scribbles in the report card, it’s like sending an emerging writer a reject slip. It’s real life practice.

Thank you for allowing me to read your term paper, ‘The Causes of the Civil War’ and although we liked it very much it doesn’t meet our needs at this time. We wish you every success in your writing career.
Yours sincerely,
Editorial Board

Guy Cranswick
12th August 2014