18 July 2014

A nice new word

Quote of the week, with the bonus of a new word for me!
"Obviously Amazon has a very definitive point of view on what should be done in the publishing business. Those in the publishing world are not totally copacetic with it," Moonves said.

2 July 2014

The Widow Peterson

    Image: Jeff Dahl 

On Tuesdays Bilkin and I meet for chess. During our game one evening last October, I sensed the onset of a curious triangularity that now characterizes and enhances our friendship. More than curious: hence this account.
     Bilkin is a physician, one of the few intelligent men in this town and a splendid person in every respect. His wife died six years before the evening in question. She too was exceptional. Were I ever to contemplate matrimony, it would be with someone like her.
     After her death Bilkin and I grew closer. I dealt with probate for him and did what little I could to succour him in his bereavement.
     It was at this period that our weekly chess-evenings became a fixture. We use alternately his house and mine. Having taken a light supper, we bring the whisky decanter to the board and get down to play.
     This particular evening we were at my place. During supper he had mentioned his niece, which was not unusual, saying that he had bought her rather an extravagant birthday present – again, not an especially unusual statement, for he is fond of the girl and has helped her and her husband with the purchase of a flat. When I asked what he had chosen, he said, “a big bottle of Chanel No. 5,” and glanced at me in what I can only describe as a peculiar way.
     Now there are various shops in this town that sell perfume, but there is only one dedicated perfumery and it is owned and run by Mrs Clarice Peterson, the widow of the founder. Just as on Tuesdays I meet Bilkin for chess, so on Thursday evenings do I meet Clarice for diversion of another kind. Unfortunately she has no wish to speak of marriage; and, like me, she has no wish for our arrangement to become public.
     I had of course never breathed a word of this to Bilkin. As far as I knew he was, like everyone else in our little town, ignorant of the liaison. His glance, possibly, suggested otherwise; but I dared not pursue the matter.
     Once we were at the chess-table and had poured our first whiskies, I concealed a white pawn in one fist, a black in the other. He drew white. Outdoors the air was cold and fog had formed, but in my sitting-room everything was cosy. The time was a little before nine.
     Bilkin is a strong and knowledgeable player. He once lent me his copy of Das Buch vom Opfer by Vukovic, which in its English translation is entitled The Chess Sacrifice. As you are no doubt aware, this is one of the classics of the middle game, a masterly account of the psychology of wrong-footing your opponent by making what seems to be a mistake. A piece is left at his mercy: he seizes it, only to find himself horribly disadvantaged a few moves later.
     Until that evening in October, our chess had been little more than an excuse for two unattached, middle-aged men to spend an agreeable evening together, given our respective obligations not to discuss our daily work and our scant supply of other conversational topics, for we avoid religion and politics. Our play had produced only occasional flashes of aggression, and these were always followed by such questions as “do you want to put your rook back where it was?”
     The offer was invariably declined, for we played, and still play, by the rules.
     Before going on, I should perhaps explain, in parenthesis as it were, my relations with Clarice Peterson.
     I have always admired her; indeed for several years I was senselessly in love with the lady whose pretty laugh was a redeeming feature of the gatherings – drinks parties and the like – one is obliged to attend in a provincial town and with a job like mine. To these gatherings Dr and Mrs Bilkin were also often invited.
     Just after Mr Peterson’s death his widow sought my advice on a legal matter to do with the perfumery. I confess that her presence in my office, seated at the other side of my desk, had an effect on me such that I could barely understand her instructions. When she had gone, leaving only a delicious fragrance, I feverishly speculated as to how soon it would be proper for me to ask her out.
     Imagine my reaction when, that evening, she telephoned me at home and informed me that she had been aware for a long time of my feelings for her; that our interview in the office had confirmed that these were unchanged; and that she wished to invite me to her house for supper the following day.
     My surprise was tinged with disappointment, for I am something of a romantic. She had seemed my ideal woman. I had envied Peterson his luck in marrying virtue as well as beauty and had equated her with the irreproachable Mrs Bilkin; part of my speculation had indeed involved a distant possibility of wedlock.
     A lawyer is no stranger to human behaviour, but even I was shaken by her frankness the following evening. When the meal was in its final stages she gave me to understand that she had certain appetites which, in the absence of her husband, were being left unfulfilled.
     My disillusionment – after all, the poor chap had been in his box for less than a month – was soon eclipsed. My experience of women had not been extensive; Clarice showed me that night that there really is such a thing in the world as bliss. It would be quite wrong of me to expatiate, but take it from me that no normal man could resist her.
     Long before dawn she woke me and said I should leave. She also said that she had enjoyed herself and asked why we shouldn’t repeat this weekly. I admit I felt sordid when sneaking out of the house unobserved; but, as I say, one cannot resist her.
     Since then I have come round to her pragmatic point of view. I respect her honesty. She once asked me, in our dreamy post-coital state, whether I would be jealous if another man looked at her. I thought it best to give the expected answer and said that I should not. In fact her question raised a most unpleasant pang in my breast – till then I had been sure of her exclusive affection for me. I had viewed our arrangement as secure, satisfying our mutual needs, causing no harm to anyone else, and had regarded Thursday as the very zenith, the pinnacle, the apex of my week. The prospect of being forced to share her or, even worse, losing her altogether, was obnoxious in the extreme.
     I seem to recollect that she asked me that question last September.
     Now let us close this lengthy parenthesis and return to Bilkin and our October chess game. He began by moving his king’s pawn forward two squares to e4, a move which marks the beginning of the Giuco Piano, a mild enough opening, as the Italian name implies. I responded with the expected king’s pawn to e5.
     I assumed he would proceed at once by moving his king’s knight to f3. Instead he hesitated. I noticed that he was studying the board with unusual intensity. His whisky remained untouched. He seemed to be in the throes of a debate with himself.
     Bilkin’s remark about the perfume, and especially his odd glance, returned to my thoughts.
     A moment later, without looking at me, he extended his forefinger and pushed his king’s bishop’s pawn two squares forward.
     This of course is the second move of the King’s Gambit, which in the hands of a player like Bilkin can lead to an astoundingly brutal game, the chess equivalent of a fight with crowbars. The king’s bishop’s pawn has its throat cut, if Black is unwary enough to do the deed, on the altar of a positional advantage that can become not just decisive but overweening.
     The theoretical part of me knew that I should decline the proffered pawn and instead parry with queen’s pawn to d5; or perhaps king’s bishop to c5, in order to thwart this attempt to dominate the centre. But his sudden deployment of the King’s Gambit – which rarely featured in our play – had not only unnerved me but piqued my curiosity.
     To my further consternation, something now dropped into place. He said he had bought the perfume the previous day, Monday. Tuesdays were reserved for our chess. On Thursdays I saw Clarice. If she were to enter into a similar arrangement with another, Bilkin for example, would she not wish to space the appointments? Wednesdays and Fridays, on either side of my own visits, would be unlikely candidates. At the weekend Bilkin played golf, besides which, on Saturdays and Sundays Clarice was wont to catch up with her two children and their young families.
     Had Bilkin been served his Chanel by the comely proprietor, from whom an invitation to supper had then issued with all the directness at her command?
     Jealousy assailed me as I tried to decide how to respond, for once the green-eyed monster has been roused, the victim must know whether his fears have any basis. For a brief period I became a veritable Othello, appropriate enough given that Bilkin had picked White. My Moorish king, his footsoldier already in the fray, demanded blood at whatever cost. Pawn murdered pawn.
     Bilkin looked up at me and I could not read his expression. He looked down again and placed his king’s knight on f3, the textbook response, blocking my queen from her putative dash to h4. Yes, he was using the King’s Gambit, all right: there was no longer any doubt of that.
     I tried to tell myself that my suspicion was nothing more than a mare’s-nest ... albeit Bilkin is handsome fellow, and what female can resist a doctor? He had been devoted to his wife. Even so, it had been six years since her passing; had he remained true to her memory, or had he now found solace elsewhere? With Clarice, my own Clarice?
     His peculiar glance had suggested that he knew about my trysts with her. If so, how? Had she told him?
     My relationship to Clarice was such that I doubted she would confide such a thing to me ... which implied that, if she were the source of his knowledge, he was already closer to her than I was myself.
     I answered Bilkin’s Nf3 according to the book, by moving my king’s knight’s pawn to g5. The expected reply, which would have pulled the rug from under my pawn structure, was pawn to h4. Instead, after more strenuous deliberation on Bilkin’s part, and mine, his king’s bishop lunged to c4. Thoroughly rattled, I answered with pawn to g4 – for that daring, obstreperous lunge is the precursor of the Muzio Gambit, which as I am sure you know is the subject of much controversy. White throws away his knight in hopes of strengthening his attack. And sure enough, at the next tempo he made the classical move and castled.
     The Muzio is not for the faint-hearted. While I stared at the board, wondering whether to take the knight, I remembered his enthusiasm for Vukovician sacrifice. As his rival elsewhere, beyond chess, might I too be sacrificed? And what was chess but a sublimation of the struggle for supremacy between males?
     And this particular game, it seemed to me in my jealousy, had become an argument about, even a contest for, Clarice.
     Forcing myself to calm down, I took the knight, for it is a valuable piece and its loss so early handicaps one’s opponent, Muzio Gambit or no. I knew that I had to strive as I never had before. Our chess hitherto had been essentially recreational. No one really cared who won; sometimes we would play three half-serious games on the trot.
     This one was quite different.
     As it unfolded I drew on my deepest resources. The law is ultimately a matter of pure logic, while medicine combines science with the fuzziness of art. And at the fifteenth move Bilkin’s ferocious concentration faltered. This tiny error subsequently compounded itself and his domination of the central squares evaporated. We were level. There followed a ruthless exchange of pieces and we found ourselves, still evenly matched, in the sparse uplands of the end-game.
     Until now neither of us had spoken – out loud, at least.
     “Hmm,” he muttered. “Now what?”
     I sat back and he did the same. We smiled. There was something thin and significant in his smile, ironic, amused, that only went to confirm my fears. It was almost a smirk.
     Had he really been with Clarice last night? Short of asking either of them, there were certain lines of inquiry. I could ask her out, to a West End theatre, say, specifying a Monday performance. Her reaction would give me a clue. Equally I could try to make some sort of date with Bilkin for the same Monday and see what happened.
     More practical would be a simple watch on her house. I would have to hire a car to sit in, since Bilkin would recognize mine. I would need to park well back and use binoculars.
     I pictured myself lurking in the shadows. I saw the fog-shrouded streetlamps, the slivers of friendly light showing at Clarice’s curtains, Bilkin’s furtive arrival and his hasty admittance. I saw myself with the binoculars jammed to my eyes like a Peeping Tom; and I foresaw my feelings of betrayal and loss. How could I continue with Clarice after that? And how could I ever again have the pleasure of Bilkin’s company?
     He took an appreciative sip of whisky and returned his attention to the board.
     Which of the two did I value more, Bilkin or Clarice?
     The question was moot. All I had to do was suppress this absurd jealousy and leave my suspicions unconfirmed.
     In my youth I read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. One of his dicta stuck in my mind: “Do that which consists in taking no action” (section 147). I cannot begin to tell you of what importance this has been in my career. It is the very foundation of my reputation. When another solicitor might encourage a client into foolhardy litigation, merely for the sake of the fees, I advise restraint. Only in cases where a grave injustice has been done, and only where there is a reasonable chance of winning, do I agree that my client should consider – merely consider, mind you – going to law. Or again, in all one’s dealings, professional or private, it can be of tremendous benefit to do nothing, to wait, to reject the rash, to eschew needless contention.
     I contend at chess, for it is only a game, but in life I would rather not, especially when it comes to friendship.
     Besides, was not Clarice entirely free? Bilkin likewise. Polygamy is seen as perfectly natural in some societies.
     To cap this line of thought, I realized that my suspicions were in all likelihood ridiculous. Yet enough of them lingered in the end-game for me to sense that Bilkin was steering us towards a draw. He too may have been thinking how pleasant our Tuesdays were.
     Anyhow, he contrived, with my assistance, to trap my king near a corner. The verdict: stalemate.
     “Well played,” he said.
     Whether or not he sees Clarice on Mondays now, she is subtly changed. Her effervescence has returned in full. She seems more contented, more independent, more the woman I originally fell for. I believe I adore her more than ever and, as a result, our time together has become yet more precious to me.
     Bilkin too seems happier. He has visibly relaxed. I hear that he is less competitive on the fairway; but at the chess-table he has raised his game considerably, and so have I. My leisure reading consists of books of advanced theory. I study in depth and try to emulate the brilliance of Steinitz, Alekhine, Nimzovitch, Tarrasch, Capablanca, Fischer: because nowadays our Tuesday contests feel, to my mind at least, as if they are inspired by, and might conceivably be all about, the generous, passionate, and thoroughly delectable Mrs Peterson.


Postscript

Anyone who writes is inured to having his or her work pirated; so it is nice once in a while to get one’s own back.

The idea for the preceding story was stolen some years ago from here.

Alas, its author passed away in 2012, or I would have emailed him the link to this page. I lifted a copy of his text because the idea amused me; I returned to it at the weekend.

Here it is, in case the late Mr Harter’s site ever disappears from the internet.
You may be thinking of the book entitled "Nabokov" which is not, of course, by the author named "Nabokov". The book is quite interesting. Nabokov is a small Russian village not far from Moscow - an invented village of course. The novel is set in 1830; it concerns itself with the doings of the widow Petrovsky who has lost both her husband and her lover in the Napoleonic wars. She is conducting what she supposes to be clandestine affairs with both the local doctor and the local priest. They in turn are aware that each other is receiving the favors of the lush and passionate widow but never admit it. The doctor and the priest, being the only intellectuals in the village, have an evening of playing chess once a week, these matches being a thematic element in the novel. At first one supposes that the chess games are a metaphor for their concealed competition for the widows favors. It is only upon close reading that one realizes that the situation is quite the reverse; that the weekly chess games are the core, the essential reality of their relationship. Neither can afford to defeat the other permanently at chess or in love, for that would destroy the basis of the relationship. Nor can they admit that they are not "playing to win". In turn, the widow Petrovsky senses this without realizing it consciously. She appears to be playing one against the other in an erotic competition. In reality she is maintaining a relationship with an ambiguous duality. As I say, it is an interesting book. Unfortunately it is not real.

I may have absorbed enough Turgenev, Gorky, etc. to be able to attempt such a pastiche, but it was easier to transpose things to a modern setting and make the priest a solicitor. And while the result is hardly a “book”, I do think it might have become “real”.

19 June 2014

The Aspens

Her mind was elsewhere, yet she was conscious of the pleasure of cycling. The bike belonged to her sister, who used it sometimes to post a letter or save a walk when visiting neighbours or the village hall.
     Before this week, Evelyn had not cycled for many years. At first it had felt odd, the more so because someone else’s bicycle, like a typewriter or sewing machine, acquires an impress of its owner’s muscles and mode of movement. Those ghostly quirks of her sister had now been displaced by her own.
     The lane was deserted. Indeed, she had been passed so far by no more than half a dozen motor-vehicles. She supposed people were indoors, eating their meals or watching television.
     Tonight the urge to get out of the house had become irresistible. She had been invited with the kindest intent, and they had tried to make her feel welcome, but it had been a mistake to come at all, still less agree to a fortnight’s stay. At the supper table, when she had announced her desire to go for a ride, she had detected faint relief. Actually what she wanted was to return to London straight away, but that would be misinterpreted. She had discovered that she did not understand her sister as well as she thought she did. Perhaps they had grown apart; perhaps there were problems in her sister’s life of which she was unaware.
     At this time of year darkness did not arrive till after nine. Evelyn had set out at seven-fifteen. Her little round watch now gave the time as five past eight, which meant she should be thinking about heading back: the bike had no lights, the sky was overcast, and this network of lanes was not wholly familiar. At the insistence of her brother-in-law she had taken an Ordnance Survey map and put it in the basket. She had some idea of the local geography, having been to this district several times before, but her travels then had been by car; and invariably Ferdie had been with her.
     She told herself she should stop thinking about him.
     Even discounting the partiality of her family and friends, she conceded that there was truth in their condemnation. Privately, in the despairing depths of the early hours, she had once gone further, perceiving her maiden self as not only pure but splendid. Bit by bit she had been undermined. At least she hadn’t let him corrupt her, as far as she knew.
     He had denied her any children and now it was too late. She would never marry again. The thought of another marriage like that ... the divorce ... better to face squarely this panorama of loneliness opening up before her. Moreover, any man who looked at her twice was bound to be damaged goods: divorced himself or, more likely, some sort of misfit. The very thought of putting herself back on the market was repugnant.
     At irregular intervals she had passed a scratchy burst of song from these hedgerows, made by some kind of small bird. The fields were vast. She had seen the outsize hose-reels for the sprinklers, which as they turned and pulsed threw out a curved curtain of rain. Here and there smallish gulls patrolled the crops, occasionally and delicately dropping down to seize something edible. Evelyn knew little about the countryside, but just now she had recognized the cry of an oystercatcher, which had surprised her, because the shore was at least five miles away: her younger nephew, during their companionable walk along the beach, had identified that bird for her.
     A derelict flint-and-brick barn passed on the left. She didn’t recognize it, or the distinctive estate agent’s board which proclaimed that the barn had outline planning permission for conversion. In fact, this whole lane was new to her. She saw then that she had been so preoccupied that she had taken scant notice of her route and was now lost. Maybe she had drifted closer to the shore than she had supposed.
     Night was coming. The low canopy of cloud already looked gloomy. Her pedalling became less confident. Was she heading in the wrong direction? How much of her stamina remained?
     She drew to a halt and opened the map but could make little sense of it.
     Biting her lip, Evelyn looked over her shoulder. The obvious thing to do was return the way she had come. Sooner or later she would reach a signpost. The map would do the rest.
     She felt a surge of admiration for the good sense of her brother-in-law. But he would, she felt, ask her where she had been. Rather than lie to him she would have to confess that she had got lost. Anyway the idea of turning back like this, at the first hint of difficulty, seemed to her cowardly and defeatist.
     She returned the map to the basket and continued, albeit less resolutely, on her way. Soon enough, on the right, she came to three pairs of semi-detached farmworkers’ cottages. Beyond them stood a pair of seven-barred steel gates, well maintained, guarding a concrete road that curved away downhill. A sign on one gatepost read “Mehetabel Farm”.
     Out came the map again. The farm was not marked anywhere, as far as she could tell, but on the low hillside to the left, about half a mile away, she could see a square-towered church and a cluster of houses. A suspicion as to the identity of this village began to grow in her mind. If she were correct, the configuration of the lanes placed her in one of two spots, the first being more likely. In that case, she was less than a mile from a road that led directly and almost all the way to her sister’s.
     She wondered whether to knock at one of the cottage doors to seek directions. Or should she ask her sister if she knew where Mehetabel Farm was? But that also would be a sign of inadequacy, and all week Evelyn had felt pitied. Although they were doing their best to conceal it, had not pity been the very reason for the invitation?
     Her phone remained in her pocket. She would go on a little further.
     Apart from the slight noises of the bicycle itself, all she could hear was the freshening breeze. A man, her brother-in-law for example, might know, or at least hazard a guess about, the wind direction; but Evelyn was city bred. “Yes,” she thought, “you don’t know which way the wind blows.”
     Where had that come from? Some deep place. A metaphor. Maybe it was time she found out.
     She came to another small settlement beside the lane, on the left this time. The first few houses fronted an open field; the remainder looked across the road to a line of tall, massy trees which she thought might be poplars. As she drew near she could hear the wind in their foliage, the rush of air swishing like water, the sea, a cataract, but of peaceful heaven rather than the tumultuous earth: mystical almost, pure, and, yes, splendid; and unbidden she envied the people who lived in those cottages opposite.
     Although she did not wish to be observed, she stopped the bike again. She had noticed something odd. The leaves, the thousands upon thousands of them, were quivering in the breeze, rapidly and at random showing and hiding their pale undersides. Each one was dangling from the slenderest, strap-like stalk. She became so lost in this spectacle of shimmer, the sound, this unexpected gift, this profound glimpse into what the real world could be, that for the first time in months, years, she was fully transported out of herself: her suffering was eclipsed, her wounded soul balmed and overwhelmed.
     Welling tears blurred her vision. Never before had she beheld such unassuming magnificence.
     Then she remembered the cottages, from which she might be seen, and her rapture, her tide of emotion, subsided.
     Her fragile state, of course, had brought it on. She’d been divorced for less than ten days. No one of robust mind would have viewed the trees like that. All the same, something had changed. Something important. Her heart had been abused; it might well be abused again, in that unknowable territory of the future, but now there could be no question of turning back.
     The guess about her location had been right. When she came to the crossroads she stopped once more to check the signpost and the map. After that, helped no little by her friend the breeze, she described an unerring line to her sister’s door.

23 April 2014

Hudson's cuckoo


At the request of the eminent biologist Dr Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1900 the naturalist W H Hudson kept watch on a robin's nest in which a cuckoo had laid an egg. In his Hampshire Days, Hudson describes in mesmerizing detail the innate process whereby the nestling cuckoo ejected its rivals – a single egg and a nestling robin. He was assisted by the young and tender-hearted daughters of the house where he was staying.

The account ends like this:
The end of the little history – the fate of the ejected nestling and the attitude of the parent robins – remains to be told. When the young cuckoo throws out the nestlings from nests in trees, hedges, bushes, and reeds, the victims, as a rule, fall some distance to the ground, or in the water, and are no more seen by the old birds. Here the young robin, when ejected, fell a distance of but five or six inches, and rested on a broad, bright green leaf, where it was an exceedingly conspicuous object; and when the mother robin was on the nest – and at this stage she was on it a greater part of the time – warming that black-skinned, toad-like, spurious babe of hers, her bright, intelligent eyes were looking full at the other one, just beneath her, which she had grown in her body and had hatched with her warmth, and was her very own. I watched her for hours; watched her when warming the cuckoo, when she left the nest and when she returned with food, and warmed it again, and never once did she pay the least attention to the outcast lying there so close to her. There, on its green leaf, it remained, growing colder by degrees, hour by hour, motionless, except when it lifted its head as if to receive food, then dropped it again, and when, at intervals, it twitched its body as if trying to move. During the evening even these slight motions ceased, though that feeblest flame of life was not yet extinguished; but in the morning it was dead and cold and stiff; and just above it, her bright eyes on it, the mother robin sat on the nest as before, warming her cuckoo.
How amazing and almost incredible it seems that a being such as a robin, intelligent above most birds as we are apt to think, should prove in this instance to be a mere automaton! The case would, I think, have been different if the ejected one had made a sound, since there is nothing which more excites the parent bird, or which is more instantly responded to, than the cry of hunger or distress of the young. But at this early stage the nestling is voiceless – another point in favour of the parasite. The sight of its young, we see, slowly and dumbly dying, touches no chord in the parent: there is, in fact, no recognition; once out of the nest it is no more than a coloured leaf, or a bird-shaped pebble, or fragment of clay.
It happened that my young fellow-watchers, seeing that the ejected robin if left there would inevitably perish, proposed to take it in to feed and rear it – to save it, as they said; but I advised them not to attempt such a thing, but rather to spare the bird. To spare it the misery they would inflict on it by attempting to fill its parents’ place. They had, so far, never kept a caged bird, nor a pet bird, and had no desire to keep one; all they desired to do in this case was to save the little outcast from death – to rear it till it was able to fly away and take care of itself. That was a difficult, a well-nigh impossible task. The bird, at this early stage, required to be fed at short intervals for about sixteen hours each day on a peculiar kind of food, suited to its delicate stomach – chiefly small caterpillars found in the herbage; and it also needed a sufficient amount by day and night of that animal warmth which only the parent bird could properly supply. They, not being robins, would give it unsuitable food, feed it at improper times, and not keep it at the right temperature, with the almost certain result that after lingering a few days it would die in their hands. But if by giving a great deal of time and much care they should succeed in rearing it, their foundling would start his independent life so handicapped, weakened in constitution by an indoor artificial bringing up, without the training which all young birds receive from their parents after quitting the nest, that it would be impossible for him to save himself. If by chance he should survive until August, he would then be set upon and killed by one of the adult robins already in possession of the ground. Now, when a bird at maturity perishes, it suffers in dying sometimes very acutely; but if left to grow cold and fade out of life at this stage it can hardly be said to suffer. It is no more conscious than a chick in the shell; take from it the warmth that keeps it in being, and it drops back into nothingness without knowing and, we may say, without feeling anything. There may indeed be an incipient consciousness in that small, soft brain in its early vegetative stage, a first faint glimmer of a bright light to be, and a slight sensation of numbness may be actually felt as the body grows cold, but that would be all.
Pain is so common in the world; and, owing to the softness and sensitiveness induced in us by an indoor artificial life, since that softness of our bodies reacts on our minds, we have come to a false or an exaggerated idea of its importance, its painfulness, to put it that way; and we should therefore be but making matters worse, or rather making ourselves more miserable, by looking for and finding it where it does not exist.
The power to feel pain in any great degree comes into the bird’s life after this transitional period, and is greatest at maturity, when consciousness and all the mental faculties are fully developed, particularly the passion of fear, which plays continually on the strings of the wild creature’s heart with an ever varying touch, producing the feeling in all degrees from the slight disquiet, which is no sooner come than gone, to extremities of agonising terror. It would perhaps have a wholesome effect on their young minds, and save them from grieving overmuch at the death of a newly-hatched robin, if they would consider this fact of the pain that is and must be. Not the whole subject – the fact that as things are designed in this world of sentient life there can be no good, no sweetness or pleasure in life, nor peace and contentment and safety, nor happiness and joy, nor any beauty or strength or lustre, nor any bright and shining quality of body or mind, without pain, which is not an accident nor an incident, nor something ancillary to life, but is involved in and a part of life, of its very colour and texture. That would be too long to speak about; all I meant was to consider that small part of the fact, the necessary pain to and destruction of the bird life around them and in the country generally.
Besides being a fine writer, it seems Hudson was also a fine and kindly teacher: and what lucky children they were to have him at hand. The natural world offers the percipient an infinity of situations, relationships and dramas. Meditation upon them leads at last beyond mere science to religion; this excerpt will chime not only with the Buddhist and Hindu, but with those of us trying to understand the meaning of the Crucifixion.

Hudson was one of my earliest influences. If you’d like to read him, try Far Away and Long Ago, or indeed Hampshire Days itself: I lived for nearly twenty years near Selborne, and his descriptions of that district still ring absolutely true.

28 March 2014

What's an author to do?

Here are sixteen quotes (verbatim, typos and all) from recent Amazon reviews of The Penal Colony.

1. Unfortunately upon reaching the end I felt unsatisfied due to the author leaving numerous loose ends. This ruined the enjoyment for me.

2. (And with a satisfying ending, too)

3. the ending left a lot to be desired, very open ended and a bit of a disappointment.

4. I always like a happy ending.

5. Not a bad story, would've been quite a bit better if it had been edited better. Also the ending, abruptly one page. C'mon...

6. Great read and loved the ending.

7. The only downside I could find was that the ending of the book was a little too quick for me and I had to read the last chapter a couple of times to see if I had missed something hence I only scored it 4 stars.

8. Well done from beginning to end.

9. I wanted more information about the end the the trip. Without giving spoilers I wanted more of the end . How the trip went. What happened ? The author could have given more there and didn't . It was an ending without a real ending if you like that sort of thing

10. It had a good ending, it was smart, and it spoke to redemption.

11. I felt short changed at the end, but enjoyed it overall.

12. A wonderful story allowing for great character development throughout and the inkling of "I wonder how he fared" at the end.

13. This was an interesting read and the first half is great but by the end it was like, enough already.

14. it is a good story though and has a pretty good ending.

15. I was glad I stuck with it, but have to say that the ending was a bit of a let down!

16. I also want to go on the record and say can you teach other authors to write endings? Yours was damn near perfect and there were no silly cliffhangers or any such nonsense, just a beautiful ending. I just don't get to read but one a year.

See also here.

8 March 2014

My way or the highway, revisited

Image: Peter Ellis 

Hat-tip: The Passive Voice

In an earlier post I wrote this about my experience of trade publishing: If an author’s sales shot into the stratosphere he was treated with shameless sycophancy; otherwise he was never allowed to forget his place. Going by what I see on the web today, not much has changed.

In a most insightful essay, Randall Wood explains this behaviour.

He divides readers into three categories. “Voracious readers” consume one book after another and seek new material far and wide. The more numerous “casual readers” buy no more than about a dozen books a year and stick to an unadventurous but generally reliable list of authors. All other book-buyers are “social readers” who, as individuals, buy few books. They respond to recommendation from a casual reader or another social reader, and buy a title because it is in fashion.

Social readers are where the money is. There are millions and millions of them, vastly outnumbering the voracious readers, who anyway are of little use to publishers because, in order to keep their book budget within bounds, they tend to buy second-hand or use public libraries. Now, of course, they can feed their habit with inexpensive and free ebooks as well.

Word-of-mouth is the biggest booster for any book. It can be rivalled only by huge external publicity (the Man Booker Prize, say, or if a book is banned or its author subjected to a fatwa). Formal promotion is aimed mainly at titles publishers already know will sell. It often amounts to little more than telling fans that a new Stephen King or James Patterson has been released.

The other new titles are, as Mr Wood says, spaghetti thrown at the wall to see if any of it sticks: to see if it gets picked up by casual readers and recommended by them to social readers.

The route to profit for a trade publisher looks like this:

Casual reader > social reader > blockbuster

Blockbusters, the economy of scale, finance the trade publishers and give them a margin with which to acquire spaghetti.

The model is only possible if publishers control the flow of new books into the market. The flow must be restricted so that the casual reader is not overwhelmed. For much the same reason, the window of opportunity for any untried book must be small. The title should disappear if it is not immediately successful, and probably its author likewise.

Self-published ebooks have thrown a spanner into this machine. Even without the lowering of prices driven by indies (publishers’ overheads leave them unable to compete), its innards are already making horrible noises: layoffs, downsizing, mergers. More and more novice authors, and not a few experienced ones, are abandoning the soul-destroying query-go-round of agents and publishers with all its expense, humiliation and delay. They have seen how much more pleasant and profitable it can be to self-publish. The queue of durum farmers in the publishers’ foyer is dwindling. They are flinging their pasta directly at the voracious readers’ wall.

Voracious readers are likely to be more experienced and hence discerning. Their recommendations carry weight. They blog, they tweet, they are on Facebook and Goodreads. The entirely new and (for a trade publisher) alarming process:

Voracious reader > casual and social reader > blockbuster

has already been seen with Hugh Howey’s Wool and E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Once newbie and mid-list authors realize that they are regarded by trade publishing as suppliers of spaghetti, the queue is going to dwindle further.

Stephen King and James Patterson will not be around for ever, alas, even assuming that they themselves are not lured into indiehood by the outsized royalties.

Bean counters at the media conglomerates that own the Big Five already scrutinize the bottom line. When it turns red, the old dynamic will be, to borrow the words of one of Randall Wood’s commenters, road kill.

3 March 2014

PyRoom and search

PyRoom is my favourite distraction-free editor, described here. Despite what I wrote back then, I do rather miss a search function. One was slated at LaunchPad, but that was in October 2009.

PyRoom produces plain text files, and these of course can be manipulated with any other text editor. I like jEdit, which I use with its XML plug-in to turn my texts into HTML and thence into ebooks.

Here’s the thing. If a file is open simultaneously in jEdit and another application, and the other application changes and saves it, jEdit can automatically detect the change.

PyRoom runs principally on Linux. A Mac version is here; installation is not for the novice. jEdit is available for the Macintosh as well.

Like the Mac’s OS X, Linux supports multiple “workspaces”. You can switch between them in various ways, including a keystroke combination, which is handy because PyRoom takes up the whole screen. If you have PyRoom open in Workspace 1, say, and jEdit open in Workspace 2 it is easy and quick to swap from one to the other.

To use PyRoom and jEdit simultaneouly, save your PyRoom file with Ctrl-S. (Saving to the desktop is easiest here.) Switch to Workspace 2. Click on the file’s icon: if jEdit is configured as your default text editor, the file opens at once. (Otherwise, right-click and choose jEdit in the “Open With” dialog.) Hit Ctrl-F and you’re ready to search. If you make no change to the file, simply go back to PyRoom and continue drafting. If you have changed something with jEdit, save the altered file, and then, in PyRoom, empty its buffer with Ctrl-W. Hit Ctrl-O and reopen the file. This takes no more than a couple of seconds. On opening a file, PyRoom puts the cursor at the end, so you should try to keep the “coal face” there: in other words, if you have odd and sods of text that you want to retain in that file, store them at the beginning. The alternative is to page-up back to your place, which is tiresome because ... there’s no search function :-)

When you need to go back to jEdit, save the file again with PyRoom and you’ll find a jEdit dialog telling you that changes have been detected.

When your session comes to an end, save the file using PyRoom (I also “Save As” on a USB stick in case the hard disk blows up). In jEdit, hit Ctrl-W (close file) and Ctrl-Q (quit) and you’re done.

This is a work-around, I know, but it does work, and needs only a few more keystrokes than a built-in search function.

To conclude, here are some PyRoom tips.

The choice of font is important. Depending how big a font is “on the body”, the text will appear more or less dense. As I noted in my other post, you can increase the line-spacing (i.e. the leading) in the Preferences, but this introduces unsightly gaps between paragraphs. It is best to keep the extra line-spacing to no more than 2 or 3 pixels.

I have tested a lot of fonts. The best professional-quality, seriffed font I have found for use with PyRoom, having an acceptable amount of built-in “leading”, is Bitstream Charter. The best professional-quality, sanserif font I have found is Droid Sans (Droid Sans Fallback looks identical to me). Both Bitstream Charter and Droid Sans [Fallback] will be found in a typical Linux distribution.

PyRoom does not support italics, bold, or smart quotes. Nor will it automatically convert ellipses, short or long dashes, etc. You can add these by hand, but that’s fiddly and time-consuming. It’s easier to keep to plain text until your draft is complete.

I use a simple set of characters for markup, as follows:

= open and close =italics= (I find this easier on the eye than the underscore character)

* open and close *bold*

" double-quotes (both opening and closing)

' apostrophe, close-single-quotes and elision marks (e.g. fish ’n’ chips)

` (U+0060) open-single-quotes (there is usually a key for this on PC keyboards)

-- en-dash

--- em-dash

... three full-stops for an ellipse

Angle brackets enclose headings and chapter breaks, e.g. < PART ONE >, < chapter break >

Curly brackets enclose other things I may need to attend to individually, such as:

{pb} pagebreak

{fl} flush this line left

{fc} centre this one

{fr} flush this one right

{e/} accented character, é in this case; others are {a"}, {c cedilla}, etc.

The regular-expressions option in jEdit’s search-and-replace dialog will swiftly help you to convert these into HTML tags and entities. The rule when “smartifying” double quotes is that each " preceded by a newline or space becomes an open-double-quote. Change these first, then the rest will be close-double-quotes. I haven’t got round to learning how to write a jEdit macro to automate the S-&-R, but it’s on the to-do list ...