Green, Violet, Scarlet

Green

An extract from the green notebook:

The sea seems to change colour as it shimmers in the light of the evening – a film of steely blue, shades of pink and purple, green and turquoise.

This is where Isla stood at the edge of her life, the shoreline, contemplating her years, her son’s birth, her husband’s death.

This is where I came swimming in March and came out of the water blue-skinned, wracked with shivers and a coldness deep inside me… [there is a shimmer, a glitter, of pink light on the water. Are they fish? It seems unreal] … A coldness that didn’t leave my body until I woke the next morning.

This is where the serial picnicker took his first-date ‘victims’ who never heard from him again; where he took Alice, his dying wife, and where he wished he was somewhere at sea, someone else.

***

Violet

Photo #1, Berlin War Memorial: The blocks look more like a geometric pattern than a place; a piece of abstract art rather than a photograph. Serene considering what it represents. Powerfully peaceful. No sense of size. These structures could be small, they could be colossal. The blocks are smooth lavender on top, dusky cerise where the sides catch the light and indigo in the shadow, scratchy, dipping down to black in the spaces, the avenues between.

Photo #2, Pigeons in Venice:            //////////////////////////////////////≥  («that was my cat) Pigeons with their little pink feet fill the frame. Violet, grey, white, black. Their shadows double their numbers. A cool blue lens flare streaks down from the top of the picture and a faint pattern of tiny pink circles, like pink leopard-print, is layered over the top, most visible over the lilac flagstones.

***

Scarlet

When the turkeys are all killed, it’s time for the geese. Gareth carries one over and puts it upside-down into a conical bucket with a hole in the bottom so that its head and neck stick out. Below the bucket is a drain covered in blood of such a vibrant scarlet it’s almost orange. With the turkeys, Gareth stunned them with electricity before cutting their throats, but now Paul is brandishing a hockey stick, whistling as he swings it round. He takes aim and cracks the goose on the back of the head. It bleeds from its eyes and bill, unconscious if not dead, as Gareth pushes his knife into its neck and wrenches forward to rip its throat open. Its body twitches as the blood drains out and it’s long neck relaxes and contracts, curling like a snake, with its head dangling off at an unusual angle.*


*From my creative essay Birds of a Feather

In response to today’s Daily Prompt: Colo[u]rful

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Some Tips on Writing Voices

Voice – that elusive element of writing that can make or break a piece. Good voice authenticates the character, gives them a personality, an identity. It makes the text a character in itself. It carries your reader through your writing. If the character voice is clear and well-crafted, your reader will hear it as they read and they will become immersed in the world of the text.

Here are a few tips on how to write clear, consistent and creative voices that I’ve found useful.

1. Go with the flow.
I find most of my character voices come about naturally. As you begin writing, often the characters will form themselves in your mind. You can hear how they speak, their accents and rhythms and tones. Go with it. Listen to how they sound and let their voice flow out through your fingers. I know that’s a very abstract tip, but give it a try. Even if it’s not the voice you originally intended for that character, just let it happen. I find it’s better to let things develop naturally rather than limit yourself to a rigid pre-writing plan. Sometimes with this natural method the voice will magically translate from your mind to the page, other times it will completely miss the mark, but you can iron all this out later (see tip #9).

If you do hear the character’s voice then let it speak through you. But if you can’t, that’s fine, there are a few things you can do to craft it from scratch, which I’ll go over now. These are also general tips that will help even if you do find a natural voice.

2. Language.
People use different words. Their vocabularies depend upon a lot of different things: region, vocation, age, cultural identity, nationality, and the list goes on. It’s unlikely a sixty year old Eton-educated man would say ‘Wicked, bruv,’ except, perhaps, ironically. Think about the kind of vocabulary your character would have. If he’s an intellectual, he might use academic language frequently, or recite quotes; if she works on the docks, she might use vocational language and industrial metaphors. Where the first would say ‘Security, escort this man off the premises immediately,’ the second would say, ‘Haul his arse out of here.’ One example I particularly like is in Margaret Atwood’s novel Maddaddam, third book in the trilogy of the same name. The character Zeb says, ‘Once they got a hammerlock on power, they didn’t have to bother so much.’ ‘Hammerlock’ is kind of armlock, a submission move in wrestling. Zeb is familiar with martial arts, and so that aspect of his character comes through in the language he uses. Not only does Zeb have a clear, distinct voice, but this voice also characterises him. Use words and phrases your character would be familiar with.

3. Research.
So, you decide one of characters is a dockworker, as in the example above. How do dockworkers speak? Do your research. If you live near a dock, go mill about (try not to look suspicious) and listen out for specific words and the general rhythm, tone and cadence of their voices. Obviously, not all dockworkers speak the same, but you’ll pick up on certain ways of speaking that people have in common. If you don’t live near a dock, watch a video or doc(k)umentary and look out for the same things. One of my lecturers said that when she’s writing a character from a specific nation or region she’ll find audio clips of conversations of people from that region and listen to them for a while to get the feel for the voice. Accent, rhythm, tone and slang can then be plucked from the ‘real’ audio clips and planted on the page.

4. Phonetic spelling.
Once you have an accent in mind, you can use phonetic spelling to allow it to speak through your writing. For example, the black Mississippi preacher in Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury announces: ‘I sees de light en I sees de word, po sinner!’ Much of the dialogue in Faulkner’s novel is spelt phonetically drawing attention to cultural and historical ways of speaking. However, though phonetic spelling can be used to illustrate a character’s accent and pronunciation, it can sometimes be difficult for the reader. So I’d advise to use this technique carefully. If it doesn’t feel right, throw it out.

5. Particular phrases.
Some people have certain phrases that they like to repeat, like the crooked Chief of Police, John Noonan, in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest always saying, ‘Well, that certainly is fine.’ The repetition gets the phrase stuck in the reader’s mind and they associate it with that character. It creates consistency and helps the reader to attach a voice in their head to the words on the page. Another example would be Syrio Forel in A Game of Thrones always saying ‘Just so.’ Again, the reader attaches the phrase to the character and they begin to hear a distinct voice when that phrase is repeated. In the latter case, ‘Just so’ is not unique to Syrio Forel, it is a common phrase among the Braavosi – a city with its own culture – so in this example the phrase is not only used to define character voice but also to enrich the world of the text with a region-specific vernacular, which in turn helps to define other characters in relation to one another.

6. Gruff/glib.
I recently revisited a chapter I wrote a while ago and came across a passage in which a character who is usually quiet, reserved and not great with words suddenly pipes up with an eloquent and poetic speech. Though I was happy with the writing, it was completely out of character. To craft a convincing voice, there has to be consistency. If a character is a blabbermouth, keep them blabbering; if they have a kind of brief and brutal poetry to the way they think and speak, maintain it throughout; if they struggle to say what they mean, make sure they don’t slip into a profound clarity of speech. In other words, keep in character. Give your characters different ways of speaking and try not to let all the voices bleed into one. If you find yourself writing something and thinking perhaps it sounds more like another character then either have the other character say it or rewrite it. Part of this will be the language they use, part will be how that character might react to an event or speech act, and part will be in the rhythm. For example, my aforementioned character usually speaks in short, terse bursts. Straight to the point. Simple sentences without undue ornamentation. Brevity, not levity.  Whereas another character, say a poet-politician (?), might speak in long, meandering sentences, fluttering, like a butterfly swaying and dipping drunkenly through the air, now here, now there, frivolously floating in over-description and flittering its coloured wings, from clause to clause, keeping the reader guessing as to where they will finally land.

7. Voice not adverbs.
Allow the voice to come through in the speech itself. Adverbs should be avoided wherever possible (though sometimes they are necessary). Over-description can often break the binding spell of reading by clouding the connection between reader and text with too many words (like the poet-politician’s excessive and frankly painful rambling). If a character’s tone can’t be guessed through what they’re actually saying, maybe it needs rewriting.

8. Read aloud.
You should read back all your writing aloud, it helps you to hear the rhythm. You can then tidy up the clunky bits of prose that you will most probably find. Reading aloud is also very important for voice, whether it’s speech or narrative voice. Sometimes, especially when you’ve been writing for a while, it’s hard to get that connection with the words that allows you to see and hear and taste whatever’s happening in the world of the text. You look at the page and you just see words. Reading aloud helps turn those words back into sensations. So go somewhere you feel comfortable where you can read aloud confidently and get into character. I find it helps to approach it as an actor playing a role: get into your character’s head and try to talk in the accent that you imagine them speaking in. You’ll probably find yourself ad-libbing a little, as certain words and phrases may come more naturally to that character. This is good, go with it. Also, writing and speaking are different acts, so sometimes written speech can feel unnatural. By reading it aloud you can hear whether it sounds natural or not, and those ad-libbed bits will come across as more natural speech.

9. Rewrite.
Equally as important as the initial writing, rewriting is where you iron everything out. In terms of voice, after a little break all those inconsistencies will become blaringly obvious and you can begin to pick them out and add bits in and unite your character’s voice. As I wrote in point 1: if you follow the natural voice, sometimes that voice will slip. The rewrite is where you can go back, often with a much stronger sense of character voice as you’re more familiar with your character, and fix it all up to be clear and consistent.

I hope these tips have helped you or that you’ve found this post interesting. I find voice to be a very difficult thing to write right, and these are tips and tricks that I’ve heard or read from tutors, lecturers and fellow writers.

If you’ve got anything to add, any tips or techniques that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them so please comment below and impart some wisdom on me!


Response to Daily Prompt: Voice

 

10 Reasons I’m Excited to Become a Dad

These Buzzfeed-style ’10 things’ lists seem pretty popular, so I thought I’d try one of mine own, sweet reader.

1. Character Creation

One of my favourite parts of gaming is character creation. I’m the kind of guy who spends hours editing the appearance of my in-game avatar, and often days deliberating over their perks and specialisations. I also like to imagine their entire identity: their personality and backstory, and even a character arch. Embarrassingly, with my Khajiit (cat-man) save in Skyrim, I went onto an Elder Scrolls wikia page to look at Khajiit names and their meanings to give my character a moniker that matched the backstory I’d dreamt up for him (Ri Do J’Kaa). Sad, huh?
Well, I haven’t had the time to play any xbox recently, what with university and all, and I doubt I’ll have to time once my baby’s born… but, don’t despair! Isn’t raising a child the ultimate character creation?

2. Meet the Mini-Me

As well as being excited to mould my son or daughter into an intelligent and thoughtful poet, artist, musician, philosopher, chess GM and wizard, I’m also excited to watch it fall short of my unrealistic expectations. I jest. While I’ll try to instil in my child a love of literature, music and thinking by reading to them, playing to them and encouraging their curiosity, I won’t push them around or pressure them. Ultimately, I’m excited to meet my child and watch them develop into a person who exceeds my every expectation – even if they’re an illiterate, tone-deaf fool.

3. See How I Change

But hey, it’s not all about my baby. I’m excited to see how becoming a parent will change me. Will I become more compassionate? Patient? Confident? Dads always seem to know everything (mums, too). When we’re kids, our parents are Gods, with an apparent mastery of the world and all its workings. How will I change to fill that role, or will I just blag it?

4. Non-pregnant Partner
Though the pregnancy has been a great experience, I’m looking forward to having my bumpless partner back. There are a few reasons: I can prank her again – hide and jump out and scare her silly little socks off; we can share a bottle of wine, some soft cheese and pâté, all of which are no-nos for an expectant mum; and play-fighting, I can get my own back – like just a moment ago, she jabbed me in the ribs and pinched my nipple and there was nothing I could do. Once the baby’s out, I’m going to pin her down and tickle her ’til she wees.

5. Rediscover My Inner Child (or, An Excuse to Be Immature)
I’ll now have an excuse to romp around the playground like the big child I am: swings, slides, you name it, I’ll probably have more fun than my kid. Watching cartoons will be justified, as will using my imagination to play make-believe (which is basically what a writer does anyway), and general, wonderful silliness.

6. Purpose/Motivation
Like many middle-class millennials, I’ve kind of drifted through life care-free for the most part. I’ve had a pretty easy ride. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, I know how lucky I am, but I’ve never really had that drive to achieve, to strike out into the real world. Living with my parents and then off to university, the real world has always been there but at a safe distance. And now it presses in, and I’m ready to meet it head-on.

7. Children Are Hilarious
They’re even funnier than cats. My eight year old cousin was over from Australia for Xmas and came up with the phrase ‘death-peeing’. When his mum and I asked what it was, he said that it was when someone hasn’t peed in three days because there has been a long queue for the toilet and when they finally pee they’re so relaxed that they die. We were in hysterics, but he told us off for laughing at such a serious issue.
I’m looking forward to hearing the crazy shit my kid comes out with.

8. Family Unit
Family ideology is used to normalise a certain kind of behaviour: couple gets married, man gets job, woman rears the kids, they get a mortgage, pay their taxes, obey the law and toe the line, and eventually raise their children to be similarly productive, obedient members of society. The obvious example is the nuclear family. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of ‘the family’ (especially the old model of productive man + domestic woman) as of course not all people want to get married, not all people want to or can have kids. But the idea of the family as a unit really appeals to me now (it would be worrying if it didn’t). My partner, our child(ren) and I will form our own family unit. A beautifully imperfect, squalling unit with all the friction of a thundercloud.

9. Love
This one is simple and saccharine: I’m excited to experience a love unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.

10. Someone to Avenge Me
And finally, and most importantly, I will have a son or daughter to avenge me; my very own Inigo Montoya.

 

I can’t wait.

Whatever Happened to Character?

When I think of the self, the subconscious self that determines the surface self, I see something like a star: a burning ball, an explosion contained by its own gravitational force. Others see a shadow, or a puzzle built piece by piece. I see a star. In the centre is the character’s core, on the periphery the lesser elements. Every single element is subject to constant change. The peripheral elements are often spat out like solar flares, other things take their places, and the star reforms itself.

The core elements are just as unstable, though more deeply rooted. For something to become a core element it must be pushed, or pulled, or drilled into the centre where it holds fast. The girl who grew up reading will have the written word in her core. The boy brought up on a farm, with pets as companions since birth, who befriended the lambs only to see them reared for slaughter, will have an aversion to violence in his core, an animal compassion; no doubt he will become a vegetarian.

In theory, the entire star’s composition can be changed, but in practice this is near impossible. The point is, though the self is unstable, it is these core elements that make up character, these deep, slightly less unstable aspects of the self that give identity its continuity, its semblance of coherence.

These days everything is so temporary, so transient, flitting in and out of our peripheries too fast to be absorbed. News, communication, fashion and fads, governments, opinions, truths. Money is made from constant consumption which both flourishes from and propagates impermanence. Attention spans are, in general, shortening, as people take a fleeting interest in this topic or that. The result is a subconscious self made almost entirely of interchangeable periphery elements – all surface activity and an empty core.

A host of hollow stars.


 

I originally wrote this as a character’s diary entry in a short story but it didn’t make it into the final cut.

Then I saw today’s Daily Prompt: Incomplete and I thought it worked quite well.

I Find Myself Slipping

So, it’s been a long, long time.

What have I been up to? Late 2015/early 2016 has been the most difficult period I’ve ever faced. During my third and final year at university, and impending parenthood, tragedies have befallen a close friend of mine and two family members.

I won’t go into detail: though these things affect me, I feel it’s not really my business to blog about the lives of my friends and family, but suffice it to say that any one of the three tragedies alone would be devastating.

In a way, my dissertation (due 16th of May) and my baby (due 18th of May) have both demanded so much attention that I have been able to focus on these two things and plough on through. Though I do find myself slipping sometimes: I talk too harshly to my partner as stress and strain manifest themselves as irritability, or I need a moment to sit, head in hands, breathing slowly and clearing my mind until there’s nothing but a dark calm.

And sometimes I get this feeling that I haven’t been there enough for the three people I love who are going through far tougher times than I am. This guilt grows just after I’ve snapped at my spouse, for she, too, is having a tougher time than me as she’s the one growing the human inside her.

Well, all I can do is all I can do. Wallow in self-pity or step up to the plate. I choose the latter.

Review: Sun Kil Moon, St. George’s Church

The Soliloquies He Sings

sun kil moonMark Kozelek muttered and mumbled about how bright it was in St. George’s Church, looking out at five hundred fully visible faces. The sun had not yet set and soft evening light poured in through the round-headed windows suffusing the church with feathery shadows and illuminating the audience.

When Kozelek asked us how we were doing, our response was silence, closely followed by a breath of shy laughter. Without the cover of darkness, we were unsettlingly self-conscious.

‘Fuck, now you know how I feel,’ said Kozelek.

The laughter grew confident. After that, we all felt a little more at ease.

He sat himself down at the church organ and began playing a droning three-note bass line, and just like that the gig kicked off with ‘Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here’.

The intimate and informal atmosphere continued throughout the concert. Between songs, he spoke to the audience, offering unscripted observations full of understated wit and self-depreciating comments about his own weight and age. Underneath it all was a melancholy tiredness that mirrored his music and lyrics, particularly those on his most recent albums, Benji and Universal Themes.

Kozelek’s musical career has been one of constant growth and movement ever since his slowcore band Red House Painters were signed to 4AD in 1992, through his solo experimentation with genres, sounds and styles – both under his Sun Kil Moon moniker and as Mark Kozelek – and collaborative efforts, most notably the electro-melancholic Perils from the Sea with Jimmy LaValle of the band The Album Leaf.

His lyrical style has changed over the years as well, from the poetic and metaphorical lyrics of his early work towards the gracefully frank soliloquies he sings on Benji. It is as though the youthful romanticism of his earlier song-writing has grown into something else: something older and wiser but no less beautiful. With a keen eye for detail, he finds beauty and meaning in the mundane and everyday. His lyrics unrestrainedly recount his thoughts and feelings, and this is precisely how he performs, both during and between songs. Always moving forward, Kozelek is developing his confessionalism further and beginning to experiment with spoken-word poetry, and he brought this new style to old songs that night in St. George’s Church.

Despite the development and variation in Sun Kil Moon material, Kozelek and the band managed to pull together a set from across previous LPs, along with a handful of covers, and play them as if they were all from the same album, forming one contingent whole, punctuated by the off-beat, strangely-paced spoken-word techniques and occasional punk shouts that characterise Sun Kil Moon’s most recent album, Universal Themes. At times, it was as though Kozelek was covering himself – the songs were so different from the studio versions. Instrumentally minimalist, softer and slower and sombre. Six string bass, guitar and gently-brushed drums set the background while tinkling piano lines complimented Kozelek’s Midwest American drawl.

It was a performance full of variation and improvisation, something separate from the recorded albums, just as live music should be. The downside was that he rarely picked up his guitar and chose rather to wander the stage or sit down behind the organ. When he did play guitar, as he did for ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’, which for me was the best song in the set, his playing was impeccable. I closed my eyes and rocked back and forth, drowning in that dreamy guitar.

After the fourth song of the set, he requested a moment of silence for Arthur Cave, the son of singer Nick Cave, who fell to his death from a cliff here in Brighton, aged fifteen, less than three weeks before. The sun had set by this point and the church was dark and the band and crowd all bowed their heads in the dusty silence as if each of us was deep in prayer.

‘This next song is dedicated to Nick Cave, in memory of his son,’ said Kozelek. They played a cover of ‘The Weeping Song’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Kozelek displayed the mastery of his voice, which cracked and faltered and moaned, haunting and elegiac, in what has to be one of my favourite covers of all time.

Since then, a new Sun Kil Moon album has been announced: a collaboration with the experimental post-metal band Jesu, simply titled Jesu / Sun Kil Moon. The album is set for release on Caldo Verde Records, Kozelek’s own label, and Rough Trade on the 21st of January this year.

It seems that the Nick Cave cover was a prelude to ‘Exodus’, the first single from the new album, which is available to listen to online. In the track he speaks of Cave and his son and sends his love to all parents who have gone through the unimaginable pain of losing a child. The instrumentation sounds like that of Perils from the Sea. For most of the ten-minute track there is only a gentle electro drum loop and a simple piano line that floats in dark reverb. Kozelek’s loosely melodious monologue is another step towards spoken-word poetry: a simple, straight-forward stream of consciousness, listing events, thoughts and feelings with little rhyme. Towards the end, a vocal chorus comes in, against which Kozelek sings slightly out of sync, reminiscent of the songs of Nick Cave to whom he is paying tribute.

Mark Kozelek is moving ever further from the old poetic lyricism of albums such as April, my personal favourite Sun Kil Moon LP, towards long spoken-word performance pieces. From the sound of ‘Exodus’, Jesu / Sun Kil Moon certainly won’t be as listenable as his earlier work, and won’t get near as many plays on my mp3 player, but I will be getting tickets to see him when he comes to London this summer. He is a performance artist, and the pleasure of his new music comes from the sense of in-the-moment open honesty, a feeling as though you’re getting a glimpse into his mind, that can only be fully experienced when he is there in front of you, muttering and mumbling and wandering the stage, pouring his thoughts out into the microphone.

Translation/Mutation

Pick a power:

  • the ability to speak and understand all languages
  • the ability to travel through time
  • the ability to make any two people agree with each other.

Language, of course.

I’ve written about the infinite dangers of time travel in a previous Daily Prompt. In fact, I think they recalled all the PastMaster3000s after space-time was smashed to smithereens, slivers and shards of alternate timelines flung across nowhere through nothing. Kind of like a sci-fi version of the Tower of Babel. Now there’s an idea: I could write a sci-fi series based entirely on the bible. The Sci-Fible? Then again, it’s probably been done before.

Speaking of the Tower of Babel, here’s a cheat: one could get the time travel power, go back to the building of Babel when humanity was united and spoke a single language, learn this language and use it to unite the world when one returns to the now. Viola! all the powers, baby. Kinda.

However, je disgresse. Why language? Well, there are las razones obvias (danke Google Translate), such as employment potential or the relative ease with which I could travel or move anywhere in the world. And there are perhaps more profound reasons – language playing a crucial role in the construct (verb) and construct (noun) of culture, in both its being brought about and its being. With the ability to speak and understand all languages (an ability I have dreamt about since I was a child: it was always one of my three wishes from the djinni in the lamp) comes the ability, potentially, to understand all cultures.

But the thing that I find fascinating is all the literature that would unlock itself to me, if only I had the key. Sure, there are translations, but we all know that translation translates to change; translation is mutation, and in mutation some things are lost (and perhaps others are gained). Par example:

Nasiir stood atop the tower. Below him, the Grand Bazaar was a rippling patchwork, a wailing sea of silk awnings, seething with buyers and sellers and beggars and thieves.

Now, filtered through a few translations:

Nasiir standing on top of the tower. He under, Grand Bazaar is screaming silk curtain, is a mosaic waving sea of buyers and sellers and beggars and thieves and a kitchen.

See how it mutates. The tense has changed. Where the hell did the kitchen come from? I like ‘screaming silk curtain’ and ‘a mosaic waving sea’.

Of course in this exercise the translation/mutation has been amplified as I had to give a short, notable example, but the point remains: a translation will change a text. To read a novel in the language in which it was written would, I think, be an entirely different experience to reading the translated copy.

That said, this exercise has yielded some interesting results – the translations/mutations can produce some striking lines as words are grouped together in unusual combinations. And that’s what contemporary writers should be doing, avoiding clichés and producing original, interesting prose. It seems there’s something I could learn from Google Translate.


 

Daily Prompt: A Bird, a Plane, You!

Cameron’s Christmas Message

Prime Minister David Cameron’s hypocritical and provocative Christmas message has really ruffled my feathers. So much so that I’ve taken time out of my busy balancing act of family time and strenuous studying to tell you why.

Firstly I would just like to clarify that I believe all people should be free to practice whatever religion they want and that no religion is inherently good or evil: people do good and evil things and that is very different. I am an atheist and I would never tell anyone that their beliefs aren’t true: it would be incredibly arrogant for me to say that I definitively know that God doesn’t exist as such knowledge is impossible.

Cameron said that Christmas should be a time to reflect on Christian values and celebrate the UK’s “important religious roots”. Ok, so I understand that Christmas is clearly etymologically derived from Christ (Christ’s Mass), but the holiday has evolved far beyond that. For most, Father Christmas/Santa Clause is a much more prominent figure at Christmas than Christ. Santa Claus is not merely Christian. He is a conglomeration of cultures: English, Greek, Dutch; a merging of the Christian St. Nicholas and the Norse god Odin. Many of the Christmas traditions come from pre-Christian pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. If anything, Christmas is a celebration of different cultures coming together. Regardless, the holiday has been hijacked by companies wanting to make money. Is Christmas really about Christianity or is it about consumerism? Is it a Christian holiday or a Capitalist one? This may sound cynical but it’s true and we all know it. Do we care? Not really: Christmas is a magical time, even for a skeptical atheist like me. Gift-giving, festivities with family and friends, the season of goodwill and peace to all mankind.

These ‘Christian values’ Cameron talks of are, I assume, the usual universally accepted moral values of generosity, love, selflessness, kindness etc. But I see these as human values rather than specifically and exclusively Christian (and I will discuss why this specification is provocative later on in this post). Despite the distinction, these values he would like us to reflect on are undoubtedly along the lines of: care for the sick, feed the hungry and, presumably, don’t bomb anyone. Ever the hypocrite, with his slimy sleight of hand, Cameron isn’t practising the values he preaches.

‘Mr Cameron highlighted the plight of people spending Christmas in refugee camps having fled the civil war in Syria’. After extending the UK’s bombing of Iraq to Syria in an attempt to deal with the fallout of a civil (proxy) war it helped fuel by arming and training the freedom fighters, some of whom splintered off to create or join extremist groups, Cameron’s sincerity in sympathising with Syrian refugees can be called into question. It’s as if he thinks just by mentioning the issue he will be absolved of all blame. More bombing was Cameron’s solution to the refugee crisis, and it was his solution to Isis, despite the powerful arguments against further bombing without ground support to secure the bombed targets and an overall diplomatic solution. Bombing alone will be ineffective, there will be civilian casualties and it will cost us. Only Syria can solve Syria’s problems, and that means a government democratically elected by the Syrian people. Then again, our democratically elected government ( who won by majority with a mere 37% of the vote) decided to bomb another country without its citizens’ consent.

‘“Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone,” he said’, which is quite an unusual concern considering that as a result of his government’s welfare reform poverty has increased at an appalling rate from 2,814 people dependent on emergency food aid in 2005 to 346,992 in 2013. Furthermore, thousands of people with disabilities have died after being declared fit for work and losing their benefits.

‘“Jesus said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive. It is a similar maxim that inspired our party: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs’”, said Cameron. A similar maxim? Hmm *see above*. The conservative’s austerity measures have hit the poorest hardest. An analysis of UK incomes by the Social Market Foundation revealed that the rich are 64% richer than before the recession, while the poor are 57% poorer. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the gap between the rich and the poor has been increasing and continues to do so. Despite this, top rates of tax have decreased and cuts to welfare have increased.

Finally, the whole message is very provocative. In a time of heightened religious tension, as the leader of the nation, for David Cameron to attempt to impose a Christianity upon the country is at best insensitive and at worst inflammatory. While a small group of extremist terrorists misuse Islam to justify atrocities (just as the Ku Klux Klan misused Christianity to justify theirs), the backlash towards British Muslims has been shameful, especially from the media. Some stupid people who can’t grasp the concept that an individual isn’t responsible for another individual’s actions, or the downright racists and xenophobes who refer to acts of terrorism to justify their own vile, ignorant hatred of others, have been targeting British Muslims as if they are guilty by association. Are all Christians guilty by association for the crimes of the KKK? Or all atheists for the crimes of Hitler? No they are not, and neither should Muslims be by an imagined association to Isis. These associations are as imaginary as the borders from country to country, the distinctions between nationalities, religions, races, sexual orientation etc. etc. etc. We are all human. For Cameron to call the UK to reflect on its Christian values is to alienate those of other religions, particularly Muslims, living in the UK who are already experiencing racism and hatred. It implies a distinction of us as the Christian West versus the Muslim Other of the East. It sanctions anti-Islamic behaviour. It is irresponsible for the PM to bring his religious beliefs to his governmental position. A secular state is the only rational and fair way to manage such a multi-cultural society. Part of the issue in Syria (similar to the conflict in Egypt) is a struggle for a non-secular state in a country of diverse religions and cultures; Isis want an Islamic State.

In a multicultural modern world in which most countries contain people of many faiths, nationalities and cultures, secular statehood is even more important than ever. The extremists who hide behind Islam as an ideological armour do not want this. They want war. They want it to be clear-cut black and white. Us vs Them. And it seems that many people in the West are playing into their hands. Bringing religion into politics will only exacerbate this. Even Jesus knew that church and State should be separate.

#140charactersketch

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Hello fellow bloggers!

I have an idea for a new twitter project – #140charactersketch.

I plan to begin writing character sketches in 140 characters or less and posting them to twitter (perhaps weekly or so).

The primary aim is to practice succinct and creative character description, avoiding over-description, mundane details etc.

This idea came to me as I was pondering what to post on my twitter account and I remembered something I’d read in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. King writes:

I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like – I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you?… Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.*

Over-description can distance the reader. Reading is an active experience: you read the words and create the images and meaning yourself. Ever see a film adaptation of a book you’ve read and think of a character “That’s not how I pictured them…”? You pictured them. That’s why you felt an affinity for them, it was you who created them. The magic of reading happens inside your head and, as a writer, if you try to impose your image into a reader’s mind then that magic will be lost, they’ll resist, and it’ll make for clunky writing – over-description is dull.** We don’t want to be boring or overbearing.

The task is to be succinct and to produce a sense of recognition or understanding that is purely the reader’s. King’s #140charactersketch ‘Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe’ gives a complete sense of character. We, as readers, recognise this character, understand this character. We picture her: she is ours.

I hope to improve my character description by beginning and participating in this twitter project and I hope that some of you will participate too.

Check the #140charactersketch twitter feed and follow me at @samuelhbirnie.

I look forward to seeing some concisely and creatively constructed characters.


 

*Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) pp. 202-3.

**This is a generalisation, of course. Like everything ever, there are exceptions to the rule. Over-description may be used because it fits the narrative voice (e.g. a private eye who always reports events/characters and notes every minuscule detail) or perhaps reveals something about the character (e.g. a character who has just killed her abusive husband in self-defence might over-describe the pattern, colours, texture, history of the carpet beneath her husband’s corpse as a way of repressing the trauma or of making sense of the violence). There are no rules in writing. In fact, you (& I) should be as diverse in your techniques as possible to be able to achieve diverse and numerous effects.

A Little Light Reading 


My Christmas is going to be at the mercy of this big pile of words.

January is the end of the first semester, and these books are the readings for one of four assessment pieces (not including my dissertation proposal) all due within the first three weeks of the new year.

So, fellow bloggers, I may be cybersilent for quite some time.

These books are for an essay on Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room examining the relation between experimental form and content.

I’ve been wondering for a while now whether or not I should post my essays on this blog. Perhaps once my degree is done I will redraft all of my critical writing and upload it here. Something academic to do once my education is over, I guess.

Anywhoo, merry Christmas and peace out ✌🏼