I wanted to be able to write as clearly as Orwell did.
He is not a great novelist (he can’t really do fictional characters very well) but he is a great writer, as his wonderful short essays show. I am particularly thinking of A Hanging and Down The Mine, details of which have stayed in my mind a lifetime later. There is one description in A Hanging (about the puddle) which I don’t think anyone who has read it can ever possibly forget.
Likewise, I think the most terrifying thing in Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the torture scene in Room 101 but the explanation by O’Brien to Winston of WHY he is being tortured.
Nineteen Eighty-Four also has possibly the bleakest final line – the bleakest final four words – of any book I ever read. No point looking it up – the emotional effect only comes after you have read the whole novel.
Orwell also explained why he wrote in – no surprise – his essay Why I Write and, in Politics and the English Language, he suggests six rules for good writing:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
A 1931 Soviet poster: The “Arithmetic of an Alternative Plan: 2 + 2 plus the Enthusiasm of the Workers = 5” exhorts the workers of the Soviet Union to realise 5 years of production in 4 years’ time.
Back in December 2020, there was a review posted in this blog of a new movie based on the traditional pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. It was written by Lily, the then 9-year-old daughter of writer-performer hyphenate Ariane Sherine.
The multi-talented Lily, now 11-years-old, has been writing fiction since then and this is her latest piece:
THE BEEF OF THE THREE SAUSAGES
Once upon a time, there were three sausages: the planet-loving vegan, the intelligent pork, and the beef, who would rave about the strength of cows but was not too strong himself – especially emotionally.
Every day, the plant-based sausage would brag, “We are simply SO good for the climate! If the whole human population ate only us then the world would never need to fear for the well-being of our planet!”
And the pork sausage, pig-like as ever, would boast, “Us pigs and boars are the brainiest of the lot – and I’m not telling a porky!” And then laugh at his own ever-so-smart witticism.
As much as the beef sausage attempted to prove that he, and indeed all cows, was equally as remarkable as the other two, all he could manage was a feeble, “We are very strong!” This only earned him guffaws and taunting, and him being a gentle soul, it was simply too much for him to cope with.
Too much for him to cope with in many senses – for the other two bangers went so much further than calling him a cow. They would hit him with sharp utensils, typically a fork, but one day, it was a knife that hit his flesh.
It was plunged in by the vegan, who felt no guilt about this whatsoever – despite how strongly he felt about the fossil fuels entering the atmosphere, the beef sausage’s soul leaving the planet did not weigh him down at all.
A week passed, and suddenly he found that he would start to absent-mindedly pluck the leaves from hedges he walked by, and was even about to order a taxi without specifically asking for an electric one! But of course, he paid little notice to this – simply intrusive thoughts.
Perhaps, though, a little more peculiar, was that the pork sausage would continuously somehow get the simplest of equations drastically wrong! When he would ask to be ‘tested’ on his maths (which was only a request for compliments in truth) the vegan sausage would roll his eyes and say drolly, “55 x 4.” And the pork would reply, “215!”
Additionally, he began to question famous theories, like finding fault in one of the numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence. Of course, he paid little notice to this – for the sharpest minds would often have intrusive thoughts, and it was simply a sign of creativity, surely.
But a month later, the vegan would pull up plants, do crazy protests that climate change was a pack of lies, think thoughts that they should buy a diesel car. The most peculiar thing was that he had the strongest feeling that these thoughts were not truly his, as if he was a puppet with dictated beliefs.
Similarly, the pig would forget his times tables, put down its own species and almost WORSHIP cows, as much as the vegan would lead protests about the ‘dangerous fantasies’ scientists were enforcing into people’s minds. Both felt like they were somehow being controlled.
It was only when the trees became beef sausages and the pigs suddenly died that they realised they were being haunted by the cow they’d killed.
And such mental anguish was felt by the vegan sausage, who had committed the crime, that they burnt away the world they had tried so hard to save just 6 weeks ago.
I was talking to musical one-off Paul Vickers (aka comedy one-off Mr Twonkey) a few weeks ago and we thought it might be interesting to do a blog about how, during the COVID lockdown, he had managed to write an entire album for his band Paul Vickers and The Leg.
Exactly a fortnight ago, I FaceTimed Paul and bandmate/co-songwriter Dan Mutch at Dan’s home.
They share a lockdown bubble in Edinburgh.
Yes, a fortnight ago.
COVID lockdown lethargy has hit me.
This is how the conversation went…
Dan Mutch (left) and Paul in Edinburgh
JOHN: So, you have recorded an album…
PAUL: Well… not yet.
DAN: We’ve written it.
PAUL: We’ve demo’d it. But we now need the rest of the band to come in… I dunno…
JOHN: So this whole idea of John, call me up and I’ll tell you how to record an album during Lockdown was all bollocks?
PAUL: Well, not complete bollocks. I thought we could talk about how creativity…
JOHN: You were just lonely. Admit it.
PAUL: I dunno. What shall we talk about? I feel like we should do something.
JOHN: Can you juggle?
PAUL: Not to any great standard.
JOHN: How are you going to get all six people in the band together to record this album? You’re having Zoom calls?
DAN: No. Just been the two of us working away on stuff, mainly.
PAUL: We haven’t seen the others for quite a while.
JOHN: You two can be creative by sitting around writing songs, but what are the other four members of the group doing?
PAUL: Pete Harvey’s up in Perth. He’s the cello player.
DAN: He has been making snowmen and he runs his own studio and does arrangements for string quartets. He had a livestream a few days ago of a piece he’d written.
DAN: Alun Thomas goes in to the gallery he works at and goes to the cellar and… is allowed to… erm…to do what he wants.
JOHN: (LAUGHS) Any more details on that?
PAUL: Well, he can play the drums.
JOHN: And the other two?
DAN: They’re both care workers.
JOHN: I did a couple of blogs in June last year with two of The Tiger Lillies. One of them was in Berlin and the other in Athens. They were able to record albums together online but, because of the variable time-lag online, the end result was out of sync, so they had to painstakingly re-edit everything after the recording.
But writing is OK? The two of you get together in your bubble or on your separate sofas?
PAUL: Yeah. But it’s what you write that’s the problem.
We tried to write an album about a cruise ship, because that’s what it felt like at the beginning of the first Lockdown. I abandoned the idea because, after the pandemic’s over, I don’t know if anybody is really gonna want to hear songs about lockdown and stuff like that.
JOHN: Well, I don’t know. The whole of the late-1940s, the 1950s and a lot of the 1960s was all films about the 1939-1945 War…
‘Paul Vickers and The Leg’ – all six band members together
PAUL: I suppose.
JOHN: But you’re screwed, aren’t you? You can’t even do virtual gigs, because you can’t get all six people together. So are both of you phenomenally frustrated? You can write things but you can’t perform them.
DAN: Doing gigs seems like a distant memory. But, if you have stuff to do, like writing songs… Well, you have more time to work on and develop them.
PAUL: And – what we’ve done – it’s a really thoughtful collection of songs. I think the album title will be Winter on Butterfly Lake. It’s not our usual kind of thing. There’s a lot of heartbreak and soft and romantic kind of songs.
DAN: It is a heartbreak album on Paul’s part.
PAUL: Yeah, there’s been some things happening in my personal life that sort of… changed things a bit. And we decided to move away from Susan Oblong songs…
JOHN: Which are…?
PAUL: Songs that are kind of angular, funky kind of songs with cut-up meanings or lots of metaphors. That had become our over-riding style, but then I thought I’m going to be a bit more honest and confessional and put my heart on the table a bit.
DAN: It’s much more personal.
PAUL: Yeah. And that’s changed the tone of the songs and they’re put together and produced in a slightly different way. It has resulted in a change of direction to some degree.
JOHN: My cheap psychology here… Is the fact that they’re more reflective also something to do with the fact you’re in isolation?
PAUL: It might be…
JOHN: Or it might not be.
PAUL: Or it might not be. But I’ve tried to be as honest as I can be.
JOHN: The words come first or the music comes first?
DAN: Both. It’s usually me playing an acoustic guitar and Paul having an idea and it sparks off, then we put it into GarageBand and keep working on it.
PAUL: I’ll have things I’ve been thinking about for a while which come to the surface and Dan will have certain bits he’s been playing around with that might fit and, once you get a melody for something like a first verse, it usually starts flowing quite quickly.
If it goes well, you can’t get it down quick enough; you’re always ahead of the game.
But, if it doesn’t go well, there’s a lot more shuffling of papers, a lot more cups of coffee and moments of… erm… of quiet contemplation.
Paul sits below and beside Dan’s inspirational black paper
JOHN: Well, what else shall we talk about? Why have you got a black sheet of A4 paper on the wall?
DAN: Ehhhhhh…. No particular reason… I like drawing and things like that. So I like putting blank bits of paper on the wall to think about what I might draw on them.
JOHN: And it’s black because…?
DAN: Somebody left some sheets of black paper round here.
JOHN: Do you actually need to get all six of you together? Surely in modern recording, people often record their individual bits separately and recordings are made in layers.
DAN: Sometimes we do that, but it’s not the same as actually playing with people. And, when we do the final recordings, then we probably want it to have gone through that kind of development with everyone playing it loads of times together because it changes things.
PAUL: Yea, the structure of things will change.
JOHN: So when might Winter on Butterfly Lake come out?
DAN: It would be good if we could get it done by the end of the year.
JOHN: And it’s solely dependant on the indeterminate lowering of the COVID threat…
PAUL: There’s gonna be a real blocked pipe syndrome, I think – All the things that people have been holding on to will be released – albums, films – How many times have they delayed the release of the new James Bond film?
JOHN: Yes, there will be oodles of $200 million films coming out next year which should have been released last year and this year. Maybe you should title your album Paul Vickers and The Leg: The Constipation Years.
PAUL: Well, when all these things come out of the blocked pipe at once, it’s gonna be messy. There will be a danger of getting lost in the sludge… Either the sludge will create a kind of social ecstasy with all these brilliant things all happening at once… or, more likely, most of it will just get completely ignored and people will move on to the next thing.
JOHN: If these Lockdowns continue for another year, what on earth are you going to do? You’ll be so creatively frustrated.
DAN: We’ll probably just carry on writing stuff for when the time comes…
Dan’s fireplace includes a lion in the bedroom
PAUL: You should see Dan’s fireplace. He had a dream where a lion came into his bedroom and…
DAN: That was it. That was it. A lion coming into a bedroom.
PAUL: I’ll send you some pictures of Dan’s fireplace… There’s no deadline for posting this blog, because… well… nothing’s happening…
…and I’ll send you a link to our Bandcamp page – and Dan and I will do you an acoustic lockdown fireside version of Slow Runs the Fox from Winter at Butterfly Lake.
“Saw my first really terrible show yesterday. What a relief after so much brilliance.”
That is what Claire Smith, esteemed comedy critic and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge, posted on her Facebook page this morning.
She is at the Edinburgh Fringe.
As a result, I really want to see that show if it ever plays London.
You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).
If you are interested in the creative process, which I am, then to see what does NOT work in a show is far more educational and interesting than to see something with no flaws which just flows.
I seldom seek out long-established, very successful acts because what is the point of being entertained by a well-oiled, flawless piece of work which can be – and is – repeated perfectly night after night, performance after performance?
Uniformity is the enemy of originality.
So I prefer to see newish acts (but with some experience) which are still developing as well as good acts which are very professional but are not yet famous in a general everyone-in-the-queue-at-the-bus-stop-knows-them way.
When success hits, acts do not need to have gone for the lowest common denominator. But they need to have found some common denominator of some kind which will appeal to a mass audience.
So, to an extent, there is a smoothing-over, blandifying factor involved.
If you see a very good, solid, professional act who has NOT yet had mainstream success, there is probably some interesting edge which has not yet been knocked off.
And acts with enough experience to be watchable but which can still be variable and unpredictable (because they are still trying out new ideas and approaches) will have multiple jagged edges some of which may or may not work or which may half-work.
Sometimes, a show is bad because a good performer has had the balls to try out something truly original which does not quite (yet) work.
If you watch a truly truly bad show (and they are as rare as a police station without corruption) you can learn.
I have no urge (and no ability) to be a comedy performer, but the creation of the on-stage character and the performance interests me and – to repeat in a sledgehammer way a previous sentence – You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).
Don’t bother telling me that posting this blog was a mistake.
Which is my lead-in to quoting part of the fascinating lecture I attended today at the London School of Economics.
The lecture was titled One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking and was given by advertising man Dave Trott, who co-founded three major ad agencies – Gold Greenlees Trott, Bainsfair Sharkey Trott and Walsh Trott Chick Smith.
He was part of the creative team behind the ads Allo Tosh, Got a Toshiba?… Holsten Pils refreshes the parts other beers can not reach… Ariston and on and on… and the Cadbury Flake ads.
I can do no better that quote his introduction to the lecture.
What I’m going to talk about is specifically creativity in advertising, but it’s creativity which works wherever you find it. Edward de Bono, the man who invented lateral thinking, said: There are a lot of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.
Real creativity isn’t what you call creativity. Real creativity isn’t in art galleries. Real creativity isn’t in design museums or copywriters or what they call creative departments. Real creativity is a function of how you do your job in a surprising manner. Real creativity looks really obvious after you see it, but you couldn’t see it coming beforehand; you couldn’t get there logically.
As Edward De Bono said: Most people can’t tell the difference between style and creativity…
What’s happened to British creativity is it’s become hypnotised by complexity. Everybody’s confusing novelty with creativity.
If it’s new – if it’s a new app, if it’s a new piece of technology, a new piece of kit, a new way of doing animation – it must be creative.
Well, no, usually it isn’t. That’s shopping, That’s fashion. That’s not creativity.
Creativity is looking at something everybody else has looked at and seeing something nobody else has seen. I saw it described as:
A talent can hit a target that everybody else can see. Genius can hit a target no-one else can see.
This is actually a variation on William Goldman’s refrain “Nobody knows anything” – a refrain which Wikipedia correctly says “is repeated throughout” Goldman’s iconic book Adventures in the Screen Trade.
I often rattled on about it in much earlier previous blogs. It is often mis-emphasised as meaning everyone is ignorant – Nobody knows ANYTHING. But, in fact, it means Nobody KNOWS anything for sure in the creative process.
However experienced, intelligent and brilliant someone is, nobody knows for sure what will be a commercial – or even an ultimately critical – success.
When Michael Cimino was making his movie Heaven’s Gate, everyone assumed it would be a box-office success. It had all the ingredients for mega-success. But it was a disaster. It pretty much financially destroyed United Artists.
According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – it cost $44 million to make and got back $3.5 million at the box office.
When Kevin Costner was making Dances With Wolves ten years later, it was nicknamed Kevin’s Gate in Hollywood, because it was clearly a vanity project with no hope of commercial success – it was, for godsake, mostly in the Native American Lakota language.
It was a big critical and box office success. It cost $22 million to create and took $424.2 million at the box office.
The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring with inexperienced actors, producers, writers and directors and was shot shoddily. It was a vast financial success. It cost $22,500 to make and took $248.6 million at the box office.
Nobody KNOWS anything.
It’s a Wonderful Life – now usually high up any Best Movie Ever Made list when voted for by the public – was pretty-much director Frank Capra’s only critical and box office failure.
J.K.Rowling hawked the idea for her Harry Potter books round every big-time publisher in London and was turned down by them all. Quite rightly. No modern teenage boy (and certainly no teenage girl) is ever going to buy one book – let alone seven – about some nerdy suburban boy going to a witches and wizards school. And, if you think any adult would buy even one copy, you are out of your mind.
My point being: Nobody KNOWS anything.
My point being: Creating a work of art is not a science. The clue is in the name. It is an art.
My point being: Nobody can know for sure what will be a success critically or commercially – Not now. Not in the future.
Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, because everyone thought his paintings were crap.
Of course, in his case, they were and are crap.
But that’s only my opinion.
Which, as you may have noticed, is my point.
Nobody KNOWS anything.
Because there are no rules. Only taste. Which is personal. And which can and does change from generation to generation.
My point being… exactly the same as it was in yesterday’s blog.
Do what you think is right.
And tell everyone else to fuck off.
If you take my advice, though, remember…
Nobody KNOWS anything.
That might include me.
It might include you.
You can’t be sure.
You just have to go with your gut instinct and keep calm and carry on.
On my way back down from Scotland to London, I stopped off in Lincolnshire to see mad inventor John Ward, who designed and made the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards for me. We went into his back garden and there were two long bamboo canes sticking out of the grass, with large, upside-down plastic bottles on them.
“What on earth are the bottles for?” I asked.
“Moles,” he said starkly. “We had three moles digging up our lawn earlier this week. If you put a stick or a cane with an empty plastic pop bottle in the grass where the mole’s dug, then the wind rattles the bottle. Moles are blind, but their hearing is phenomenally sensitive, so it buggers up their ears. We had three moles earlier this week. I put those two bottles up the other night and we haven’t seen them again.
“You can buy expensive, sophisticated sonic devices to deter moles, but an empty plastic Coca Cola bottle stuck upside down on a garden cane is cheaper and just the same.”
We were really in John’s back garden, though, to see his new bird table, a large metal structure with holes in it.
“What’s it made from?” I asked.
John Ward’s bird table has radar and a Dalek sink plunger
“It’s the interior of a central heating oil tank,” John told me. “We couldn’t put oil in it any more because it had cracks and splits. It was going to be dumped, but I was in my re-cycling mode, so I looked at it and thought it would make a bird table.
“We’ve had schoolkids come along and sketch it for their art class because – well – it’s something different, I suppose. Drawing farmhouses, rivers and trees must pale after a while. And we had a couple come through on a tandem: I say, the man said, do you mind if we come through and take a photograph of your bird table? Then the Daily Mail came along to take a picture of it and then there was Rory, the man from the Discovery Channel.
“The first version I built was smaller scale and when the wind hit it, over it went. So this one has large holes in and instead of acting as a wind break it becomes, in effect, a sieve. The wind zaps through the holes and stabilises it.”
John used to call himself a “junkist” – because he makes things from junk.
“When people talk about re-cycling,” he explains, “they usually think of something ornamental – something you re-paint and stick in an art exhibition. I like to think of more practical things.”
Bird table with cat-scaring holes and interior restaurant area
“Do the birds like your bird table?” I asked.
“Well,” he replied, “we’ve had 18 birds in it pecking away at same time and, when that happened, there were about 7 or 8 others on top waiting to get inside.”
“And your cat?” I asked. “What does your cat think of the bird table?”
“Can’t get up to it,” he said. “It has smooth legs.”
“The bird table. Nothing to grip on to. Our cat leaps up in the air but can’t get in. And, normally, in a rural area like this, rats would go up and in and help themselves to the food too. But, with this thing, underneath, it’s perfectly smooth and flat, so they have nothing to grip on to.”
“Why doesn’t the cat just leap in the air and jump onto the platform?” I asked.
“The holes put it off,” John told me. “The cat jumps up, its paw stretches out, but the birds fly off or just sit and look, laughing at the cat. It’s like Sylvester and Tweety. And the cat’s getting a bit old plus it’s heavier than what it was. It jumps up and plops down with a frustrated, slightly angry look on its face. You’ve not seen my World War Two landing strip, have you?”
John Ward’s World War Two bird landing strip (with bath)
“Not that I remember,” I said, “and I would probably have remembered if I had.”
“I’ll get the key and show you,” he said. “It’s in the shed.”
He was born in the Isle of Man and told me he thought being a Manxman had helped him as a writer because his upbringing was British but he also simultaneously felt an outsider.
I do not have that advantage – though, born in Scotland but having lived my life almost entirely in England, I feel Scots but distanced; British but not at all English.
There is a layer of English society – or perhaps several overlapping onion-like layers – which floats.
I exaggerate, of course.
But there is a level of intelligent, sophisticated and moneyed English people who glide through life. They may not feel they have money; they may even struggle financially; but they know they have the security blanket that they are never going to fail utterly and end up in the gutter with no friends, desolate, unable to keep body and soul together.
This last week, I went to the Sohemian Society for the first time and I think that layer was visible. The Society is ostensibly a celebration of the culture and history of Soho, which has always had a Bohemian element to it. But Soho overlaps into Fitzrovia and both those areas attract interesting people. Perhaps half or more of the audience, though, had never heard of the Sohemian Society; they had come along specifically to see the speaker that night.
Before the talk started, a couple of women behind me were chatting about the actress Dulcie Gray, whom they had known; the very amiable man who sat next to me turned out to be the editor of a very exclusive reference book; the speaker that night, Andrew Barrow, had written a biography of Naked Civil ServantQuentin Crisp whom he and others in the audience had known.
Of course, grim reality enters into everyone’s life. Dulcie Gray died earlier this month aged 95 and, alas, was mostly forgotten by Middle England. The very exclusive reference book edited by the man next to me – like all reference works – is under an economic sword of Damocles held by Wikipedia and the internet in general. And Quentin Crisp died twelve years and one day before the Sohemian Society meeting, now just a footnote in English social history, perhaps even seen as a fictional character in some long-ago gay film – Didn’t he appear in that chest-buster scene in Alien?
And then there are the melancholic memories of what might have been but never was. The would-be Icarus characters who might have flown through English artistic life and might even have missed the sun but who never even took off.
It is about his brother Jonathan Barrow, who was killed with his fiancée in a car crash just a few days before their wedding in 1970. Jonathan was aged 22 and, a few days after his death, Andrew found the manuscript of a very bizarre novel Jonathan had recently finished writing.
In The Queue, Jonathan included several mentions of head-on car crashes and, in a another scene, there was another dark premonition of what actually did happen after his death. The church booked for his wedding ceremony did become the venue for his and his fiancee’s funeral.
Their funeral was just a few days before the day on which they had been going to be married.
Judging by the extracts read by Andrew, The Queue is wildly surreal, featuring a cast of humans, animals and hybrids.
When Andrew showed the manuscript to Quentin Crisp shortly after Jonathan’s death, Quentin said: “Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. He could have played head prefect at Eton. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.”
The Observer has said the book treads the thin line between “brilliance and total barminess”.
The Independent on Sunday says it is “a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous … with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals”.
That would be the hens and stoats and toads and suicidal owls, a central dachshund called Mary who is an alcoholic drug addict and extremely promiscuous, a spineless hedgehog, a human sheep old enough to remember Disraeli and a fish specially-trained by the police for “complex underwater retrievals” which gets lost down the drain in a dirty bookshop in Soho.
Not your normal novel, then.
Though very English.
Someone in the audience asked Andrew if he thought it would have been published if Jonathan had lived. The answer was yes, almost certainly, because Jonathan (who had a job in advertising) knew lots of publishers.
Jonathan Barrow, it seems to me, was one of those people who would have glided through life; he seems in retrospect to have had a wonderfully artistic and creatively fulfilling future ahead of him, gliding through English society.
But, in a handful of seconds, his timeline stopped.
It can happen to anyone.
Ars longa. Vita brevis.
The sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head, held by a thin thread.
Andrew Barrow has now had Jonathan’s book published.
And his own book Animal Magic – about Jonathan and about The Queue – has also been published and been described as “a funny, dark memoir. Think Tommy Cooper describing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”
Which may be a good description because, in his youth, Andrew tried to be a stand-up comic – mostly, he says, by nicking Tommy Cooper’s gags.
He admits he was awful.
But he himself is almost as interesting as The Queue.
He is intelligent, sophisticated, witty and a good writer.
Country Life magazine described Animal Magic as “Deft, witty and poignant”.
The Lady wrote: “This book ultimately belongs to Jonathan, and it is testament to his sibling’s skill that he appears here so vividly, his supreme peculiarity preserved”.
To the Sohemian Society, Andrew Barrow said: “If just one reader writes to thank you and say they enjoyed a book you have written, it makes it worthwhile. You hope to make them laugh. If they laugh and cry, that’s even better.”