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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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What it is and what it is not

I’ve been feeling a little low about my novel-in-progress lately and couldn’t work out why. I should be feeling really positive: I’ve made more progress with it than anything else I’ve written to date, I’ve had expressions of interest in it and over the last month or so I’ve solved some problems and really settled into a groove with the writing.

And that’s the problem – the book is now, for better or worse, shaped. There is MUCH to do, both in terms of actual writing but also, I’m not saying that the plot or structure or themes are set in stone. I’m sure I’ll change many things as I write and redraft. But in finally pinning down a sense of what the book is about and what its tone is, I realise that that means letting go of some of the things it is not about and all the ways it is not going to be written. And that act of having to choose, of having to settle on certain things, is kind of sad.

When you first come up with an idea for a book, or a story, or even an article, it exists in its most perfect, ideal form. And if you never actually write it, it will always be in that form. But no one will get to read it. So I will try to push on with my imperfect book and let go of its unwritten perfection.

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February update

Just noting a few of the writing-related things I have been up to this month (which has also seen a depressing number of rejections – oh well).

On the 13th, I went through to Edinburgh for Blind Poetics, where I was a ‘featured’ performer. Now, I just assumed that the name referred to the venue, the Blind Poet pub, but it turned out that I was the only non-poet reading (and, as well as the fantastic Colin McGuire, there were a dozen or so Open Mic-ers). I felt really self-conscious about this as my stories seemed really long by comparison, but everyone was very polite and attentive. A fun night and met some nice people.

On the 16th, I read briefly at the Love Words event at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

On the 25th, the anthology A Thousand Cranes was officially launched at an event at the Arches, part of the Margins festival, reading my story The Unbeaten Track. Helen Sedgwick, Iain Paton, Raymond Soltysek and Katy McAulay also performed and a number of other people from Glasgow Writers’ Group who have stories or poems in the book were there too. It was a surprisingly good turnout (oh, the relief – at one point only 12 tickets had been sold) and quite daunting facing an audience in the large space of the Arches theatre. Some of my friends who don’t normally come along to literary events, along with my partner’s parents, came to support me, which was lovely, and afterwards we drank much wine in the bar. So that’s the anthology now officially out, complete with its foreword by Alex Salmond, and if you could possibly buy a copy that would be very nice (all proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross).

Finally, I went to London for four days this month, piggybacking my partner’s work trip and taking advantage of the free hotel room! An aside: I got the train, he got a BA flight and we left the house at the same time but I got to the hotel by the Barbican literally two minutes after he did … Anyway, my purpose in going was not just to have a Me Party like Amy Adams & Miss Piggy in The Muppets film, but to do some research for my novel in progress.

I had a brilliant time at both the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum (looking into accounts of sea voyages between Britain and China in the mid-19th Century) and then at the British Library Reading Rooms for various other matters. I am a complete library geek and this was my idea of heaven; I’d visited both places before but there was something really exciting to me about getting a Reader’s card and being able to request material from their stacks, waiting for them to be delivered, taking copious notes in pencil (no pens allowed) in the wonderful quiet atmosphere. Absolutely my idea of the perfect London trip (I also saw a great Dickens exhibition) and it has reignited my love for this project.

I’ve been working on it for a while but I feel that I finally have the shape of the story clear and have enough general research (I will still need to check various specific things as I go along) to really achieve what I’m trying to do. Getting the balance right between researching and writing the first draft has been interesting and has thrown up a lot of issues about writing historical fiction. As a result, I’ve put together, with my mate the historian Dr Ben Shepherd, a one-day workshop which will run at the University of Strathclyde on August 23rd, where we’ll be discussing that very thing (more details to follow).

Overall, quite a productive month really (I’ve also written a new, long short story and several thousand more words of novel). I hope this doesn’t sound like showing off; for me, I have to keep note of the good things as a counterbalance for the inevitable crappy feelings that I’m way behind, I keep being rejected, other people are better etc etc. Got to accentuate the positive, talk myself up (to myself) – that’s what Miss Piggy would do.

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They don’t make ’em like that anymore

Have you seen The Artist yet? Being obsessed with old Hollywood, I was worried it couldn’t live up to my expectations, but I really enjoyed it – like the films it emulated, it combined joyful elements with a good dollop of genuine angst. I miss that combination in films today. Comedy-dramas (or ‘dramadies’) are usually neither particularly funny nor actually dramatic.

Anyway – and happy new year, by the way – after the film I kept wondering about its characters and came up with a few SPOILERY ideas about where the changing trends of 20th Century Hollywood might have taken them after the end of the film. For some reason, I really enjoying coming up with plausible, fake movie ideas; a while ago I wrote a similar short story about an elderly star of the old studio system. Think I’m working towards something on this theme but not sure what it is yet. Here’s my unofficial sequel to The Artist: please let me know if you can identify any of the little in-jokes about classic movies …

After ‘The Artist’
After their first musical together was a smash hit, Peppy and George went on to enthral audiences throughout the 1930s with nine more, each with ever more glamorous outfits, spectacular settings and glorious dance routines, which provided escapism during the Depression. Although it was acknowledged that their dancing was not quite as good as that of Astaire and Rogers, fans loved knowing that the charming relationship between them was mirrored in real life (the pair married the day after their first film was released).

The advent of war changed things, of course. Both stars were regulars at the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen, while George in particular – greatly affected by the invasion of his native France – threw himself into supporting the war effort, tirelessly touring the country to promote war bonds and making many overseas visits to entertain the troops. He left little time for acting, but did appear in a few patriotic films, most notably A Vichy Affair, in which he played a heroic French Resistance fighter who refused to betray his comrades under Gestapo torture, declaring: “I won’t talk!” George was also the original choice to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but withdrew due the impending birth of his and Peppy’s first child.

After two more children, Peppy revived her acting career post-war with roles in 1940s melodramas, such as George Cukor’s The Ones Left Behind, about a war widow struggling to raise her family, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. George, meanwhile, gave a strong performance in film noir Trouble Is My Business, surprising critics who did not expect the song-and-dance man to be convincing as a hard-drinking private eye. The actor explained he’d drawn on his own dark period for inspiration.

In the 1950s, cinema faced a new challenge: television. Peppy was quick to jump on the bandwagon, appearing in several teleplays including Paddy Chayefsky’s Mary, about a middle-aged spinster. George, however, regarded TV as a fad which would soon pass and refused to be involved, leading to another dip in his career as new film stars emerged.

But eventually he reconsidered and joined his wife in a very successful sitcom, Life With The Valentins, which ran for some years. While clearly modelled on ‘I Love Lucy’, it had a twist in that it was George who often found himself in embarrassing situations, to be rescued by his more sensible spouse. The couple’s three children joined them in the show and episodes often concluded with the family united in song.

By the 1960s, tastes had changed again. Work dried up for Peppy and she devoted more of her time to charity work, especially for animal rescue organisations, as she wanted to ensure that all pets would have as long and happy lives as their own dogs (all descended from Uggie). After playing Doris Day’s mother in Love, Set And Match, Peppy recruited her to the cause and influenced her lifelong devotion to animals.

While out of fashion in the US, George had an unexpected renaissance in France, where Cahiers du Cinema had long championed him as an early auteur because of his film Tears Of Love. As a result, he appeared in several French films, including a popular spy series based on the OSS 117 novels, in which he played N, the head of the secret service. The couple’s children Michel, Jean and Berenice were now grown up and had formed a music group, which had several hit records during the Summer of Love.

Peppy and George were unexpectedly back in the limelight themselves after appearing in the disaster film Airport 1974. They played a former Hollywood golden couple, divorced years before, who are brought back together as they struggle to survive a plane crash. Audiences were charmed to see them reunited on screen for the first time in 25 years and their careers were both revived. They continued to work mostly on the small screen, with many cameo roles in popular series including The Streets Of San Francisco, Columbo, Quincy, Dallas, Falcon Crest and others.

In his last years, George was retired, although he did make a cameo appearance in Indiana Jones And The Fountain Of Youth, at the special request of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who were both great admirers of his early work. Midway through the film, Indiana is given a potion which temporarily ages him into an old man, played by George – but, thanks to special effects, he was still able to outrun, out-jump and out-fight his fiendish opponents, giving audiences one final chance to see him in daredevil mode.

Peppy was very grieved by her husband’s death in 1985, but took comfort in her children and grandchildren (who included a rising Brat Pack star). She continued to work, with her long-running TV series She Sang, Murder!, about a former chorus girl who encountered, and solved, crimes wherever she went. Shortly before her death, she was awarded a honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar and gave a touching speech, accepting it on behalf of her late husband – because, she said, “he taught me that a star has to have something that no one else has”.

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Reading at Duality @ Inky Fingers Minifest

For many years I reviewed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – this year I (technically) performed in one! And at a venue the Independent called the “coolest in Edinburgh,” no less. Unfortunately the Forest Cafe is set to close at the end of this month, though they’re hoping to find another venue, but in the meantime they have a very full August programme of events, including the Inky Fingers minifest of literary readings. I took part yesterday in an event organised by Duality, run by Alec Beattie, which also included Jamie McIntyre and Gill Hoffs who’d both read at Words Per Minute last month and who I was happy to see (and hear) again.

It was quite a long slot so I read The Real And The Not Real, a fairly long story about old women and fairies. I love this story, but I’m not entirely sure if it worked as a performance piece, I hope people could follow it – being a café, there was a bit of background noise (especially earlier on in the show, when a lot of lunches were being served). However, it was certainly good practice as after this I feel I could probably read anywhere! Afterwards we went to a pub in the Grassmarket and watched Alec do a ‘Flash Fiction Mob’ declaiming a story to passers-by – one of whom had been drinking for quite some time and didn’t really get the concept …

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