Tuesday, April 15, 2014

About writing

My writing desk in Wales

Cait O'Connor, a fellow blogger from Wales, has kindly asked that I say a few words about writing. It's part of a blog-tour cum round robin - though based on recent output, I should perhaps say a little on writer's block. 

Writing is a strange passion. One week you can't stop; the next, you're staring at a screensaver, fingers all fuddled, much to say but no way to...

And the odd thing is, there's no telling when it's going to happen.

Last week, my friend and former colleague passed away. He was one of the most genuine people I’ve known - a model of how to succeed without privilege, politics or the polished veneer that’s so easily mistaken for substance. Alan was 60 years old when he died - he'd retired three years ago.

I bet you weren't expecting that paragraph.

But then neither was I.

And for reasons I can't fully explain it is almost the last I piece I wrote.  I've drafted a dozen tributes to Alan since - each one is in the trash: too contrived; not enough structure; no conclusion of merit. Sometimes it's perhaps best to say it straight: Alan died, I was very sad, it affected me more than I realised; I think I've been trying too hard.

That last point is important.

When I studied for a degree in creative writing the most difficult process was restarting after receiving a high grade. It felt as if the only way was down - which on reflection, is a rather arrogant view of my own output. As a consequence, my next piece was often dreadful. On the positive side, the only way was then up - creative confidence restored!

All of which is a rambling excuse for the quality of this post and for not writing much recently.

I should add that the saxophone continues to obsess me; that I've lost two stones since January (can't be creative while dieting; can't explain why), have barely had a drink in all that time (whisky and writing are bedfellows), and despite all of this, have a deadline of December for a contribution to an anthology on 'Place'.

Meanwhile, Cait asked me to answer four questions; I'll keep this part brief:

What am I working on?

An anthology of Place; a book on writing in business; a response to my sons leaving home. The latter two are largely just ideas - see 'my process' below.

How does my work differ?

I like to think it's plain and honest - and it's carefully crafted, the tone especially so

Why do I write?

Because there's much I want to say - if only to myself.  And because I know of no better way to clarify what's spinning and shaping in my mind.

How does my process of writing work?

In part, I've covered this above.

More directly, I write a lot in my head; I seldom take notes; I think a great deal - getting it down requires days alone;  hours at the keyboard; words moving till the light dies.

'Word's moving till the light dies'....  Gosh, it's 10.30pm; seems an appropriate ending for now.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

After the storm

Near to my house is the beautiful cove of Abereiddy. The picture above is a stock shot from the Internet - it was probably taken about ten years ago, but that doesn't matter - the important thing is the line of the sea wall and where it joins the headland.

Compare this to the picture I took this morning.

To be fair the sea walls were removed a couple of year ago and the car park has receded a few meters each winter - but the recent storms did the equivalent of ten years' work in a night.  There was room for five cars today!

To the south is Newgale, a mile of sands backed with a bank of cobbles. The picture below was taken at Christmas.

The same spot this morning...

It's common for the winter storms to lower the sand, but in twenty years I've never seen it so denuded. A little further down, the petrified trunks of an ancient forest have been exposed for the first time in decades.

Above the usual shoreline, the putative defence is being replaced after the tide had brushed it aside.

And yet today all was calm, as beautiful and wondrous as ever - in some ways more so.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Feeling good

I did it.

And I have to say I'm quite proud of myself.

I've taken part in the NaBloPoMo (national blog posting month) challenge for each the last four years. The idea is to write a blog every day during November - more difficult than it sounds, but good discipline, and something I ought to do more.

I almost never pre-plan what I write; this year I wasn't even sure if I was taking part until half way through...  And so it's been a rambling sort of NaBloPoMo - but I've enjoyed it all the more for that. I'm aware there's been a lot of philosophy and politics - apologies, if I've gone on a bit; I guess that's because I've been clearing my mind. Then there was also scotch eggs...

But actually, I did it, and I'm quite proud of myself for another reason.

At the start of November I promised my friend and fellow blogger Michelle that if I completed the challenge I'd post a video of me playing the saxophone.

Well, last night, despite the head cold and very limited talent, I made my first ever public appearance playing an instrument.  Here's me and some fellow students, blowing our rendition of Feeling Good.


Friday, November 29, 2013

Nigella and the Gogglebox

I returned to work yesterday having recovered (almost) from this dreadful man-flu. It was good to see my colleagues again and enjoy a little office banter.

Topic of the day was Nigella Lawson and whether she's 'a lovely lady with a dreadful ex-husband who's using a court case to destroy her reputation'  or  'a coke-head and a bad role model at odds with her public image.'  I've simplified the two positions of course, but I'd say opinion was fairly evenly divided.

Frankly, I'm not taking sides but I did ponder on two thoughts on my way home.

The first was to note the relatively restrained tone of the assessments towards Nigella - in the press as well as by many of my colleagues - compared to that meted out to other cocaine users: the disgraced former chief of the Coop bank would be a good example. If the allegations are true I'm not sure there's much difference in what either was up to?

The second was a remark I overheard, claiming that to describe Nigella's drug habit as criminal wasn't correct. Excuse me - buying huge amounts of cocaine, and allegedly for her daughter too? Yes but she wasn't dealing! I can understand why someone might regard dealing as more serious, but possession of a Class A drug carries a seven year sentence - that's a criminal offence in my book. Whether it ought to be is a different issue - in the meantime see yesterday's post on truth and logic.

But much more fun than Nigella was the chat about Gogglebox.

Universally loved by everyone in the office - it's the most weirdly compulsive programme I've seen in years. The format, if you don't already know, is a fly on the wall of various couples and families watching television. This week the cameras captured their reactions to Doctor Who, the Ashes defeat, a Star Wars Movie...

The characters are all larger than life and I guess everybody has their favourite - I especially like Leon and June the retired teachers from Liverpool; Jane likes the posh hoteliers who are always sloshed. Evidently Gogglebox has proved so popular they've already sold the rights to America, and China is considering a series.

But what I find most fascinating about Gogglebox, is the uncomfortable realisation that we've come to the point where TV is so dull, we'd rather watch other people viewing it, than sit through the programmes ourselves!

I wonder if that principle could ever apply to blogs - don't bother reading the Bike Shed, just click the webcam to watch me typing... and sneezing (though not from cocaine I assure you).

 Somehow I don't think it would catch on.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Truth and logic

The other week I read a quote in passing which went something like: 'think wrongly if you wish; but whatever you do, think clearly.'  The exact words aren't important; it's the distinction between truth and logic which is.

I often meet people who say If it's not true, then how can it be logical?  The reason is important to all critical thinking, and especially to philosophy - it's not difficult to grasp, though to some it is clearly counter-intuitive.

One of the characteristics of studying philosophy is that it teaches us to evaluate arguments, not only in relation to evidence (which remains vital too), but also by reference to their consistency. For an argument to be logically sound it need to expressed in a way that the constituent parts are compatible and not contradictory.  Being logical does not mean that you are 'right' in the sense of the facts and evidence  - but it does mean that you 'could be right' in 'some possible situation'.

Let's take an examples.

George believes that the threat of prison makes no difference to the way people behave. At the same time he thinks we should give tough sentences to those selling heroin  because it might  deter young people from becoming dealers.

George may well be right in his conclusions that tougher sentences would deter drug dealers - but his reasoning is not logical.  If the threat of prison makes no difference to the way people behave, then it follows that tougher sentences would not deter a young person from becoming a dealer. The two beliefs are incompatible because in no possible circumstance can they both be true.

Here's a different slant.

Susan explained she held five dinner parties last year; at every one she undercooked the main course and on three occasions her guests suffered food poisoning - the puddings were so inedible they've become a standing joke amongst her crowd.  Despite this Susan says she's an excellent cook - she's just been over ambitious in her choices given she's had no formal training.

Now Susan is almost certainly delusional- all the evidence suggests she's a dreadful cook and ought to get the caterers in. But although her assessment may be silly and irresponsible, it is not illogical in a formal sense. That's because her view is not strictly incompatible with her attempts at entertaining - there is some possible (albeit highly improbable) scenario in which she is correct.

The test of consistency can be applied to simpler beliefs too.

For example, if I say  'all the males in Lincoln are dowagers,' then I'm saying something that is inherently contradictory (only women can be dowagers) and therefore, necessarily untrue.

We need also to watch out for the trivial - some beliefs can be logical and true - but frankly, they don't say much.

Saying 'all eligible bachelors are men,' is self evident because to be a man is a requirement of being an 'eligible bachelor' -  dropping 'are men' from the sentence wouldn't change its meaning or truth.

These are but a few examples, but hopefully they illustrate the distinction.  The key point is that logic requires our beliefs to be consistent with each other; for conclusions to be compatible with the premises.  It is possible to be logical in our reasoning but get the facts wrong and vice versa.

So why does all this matter?

Because in the real world, many things we debate are not 'true' or 'false' in the sense they can be proved. And even when there is persuasive evidence it may be disputed, the factors weighed differently, interpretation coloured by cultural or political bias...

Economic theory is a contemporary example of this - you'd think by now we could simply measure the 'facts' and determine what's the best route to achieve a given set of objectives? But in reality, extremely intelligent professors are regularly at loggerheads over the importance and implications of one statistic or another. Despite decades of study, there is no agreement akin to that in say, chemistry.

And when we come to examine issues such as 'morality' or 'wellbeing' or 'justice' then we've moved even further from any possibility of pinning down 'truth'. Here consistency especially matters in testing the compatibility of our beliefs across different but related issues. For example if we believe in freedom of information, then that has implications for our policy on the press, the internet, accessibility to government documents, etc.

The reality is that only a small percentage of our beliefs are evidence based - many more, and especially those related to our views on right and wrong, derive from a cocktail of intuition, emotion, cultural background, personal bias, self interest, ignorance, and sometimes, plain old confusion..

What philosophy tries to do, is bring some order to the jumble - to rationalise the inconsistencies and create as coherent a system of beliefs as is possible. It regularly fails of course - and philosophers are as apt to think wrongly as the next man.  But to be fair - most of them will at least try to think clearly.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

More things we desire

Last night Dylan was writing his Christmas list. It included various electronic games, a boxing head-guard and big brother crusher!  In truth, he doesn't really know what he wants, because like a lot of nine year old boys in happy and relatively prosperous families, he has everything that matters.

Later, I was pondering what presents I might fancy opening and came up with an equally vacuous list. For a moment I felt quite smug that I'm not burning with material desires. But before getting too self congratulatory, I remembered it's easy to be less-materialistic when you're comfortable.

It also misses the point about presents, which are about more than satisfying needs and desires - but that's not really my subject for today

Some years ago I met Satish Kumar and recall him saying that material goods don't make us happier.  He claimed that our cravings for the latest fashion, for washing machines and gadgets and bigger cars and patio furniture, don't lead to fulfilment - in themselves these 'things' seldom change our lives and often the constant desire (and the envy of others) can be self destructive. I buy all that (what a delicious pun).

But I don't buy the idea that the worth of material progress and possessions is a chimera. Indeed, I also remember Satish balancing his spectacles and me thinking, somewhat unkindly, try going without those!  

My experience is that there are many possessions (often long wished for) which turn out to make little difference to my life - and there others, which (often unexpectedly) have enhanced it immeasurably.  The interesting thing is that there seems to be no pattern or relationship to the cost.

Certainly, the new possession which has given me the greatest pleasure this year has been my saxophone - coincidentally, a Christmas present last year, and something I'd long desired. It wasn't exactly cheap, however, it cost less than some folk would spend on a trip to London. If I had to choose a second item it would be the coffee machine I use every day - price £180. Again, not trivial, though hardly exorbitant for the number two slot.

As a bit of potted bike shed philosophy I'd say there are three types of materialism I see.

The first is a legitimate desire for goods which genuinely improve our lives - of course, we misjudge this at times, but wanting warm and secure housing, refrigerators and computers and spectacles... are to mind reasonable aspirations in a modern world. That the distribution of these goods is unequal and unjust is an important but different matter.

The second is the desire for goods which deep down we know to be trivial. I have a homespun theory that the more heavily something is marketed the less intrinsic worth it has: cars and beauty products spring to mind; kitchen gadgets (to which I'm especially prone) would also fit. This is where Satish is right and where it's hardest to resist.

The third and most toxic form of materialism is when we measure our self worth through the goods we own. An image of the balding business executive, drooling over his bigger and faster car, is a stereotypically sad example. But it applies equally to the other end of the social scale. And it's not just a middle age crisis - for teenagers, the minutiae of possessions can acquire an importance which mystifies those of us who've forgotten what it's like to be sixteen.

In finishing, let me dismiss any idea I'm uninterested in possessions. The other week Dylan asked me what was the best thing I'd ever bought? Our house in Wales, I replied. That alone tells you something. I'd like to think that it costing less than a mid-range car today is relevant context - but in truth, it is a materialistic privilege which has given me more pleasure than any other.

Perhaps the important thing is I'd sell it tomorrow if it threatened his happiness, or that of any of my boys. Quite whether a 'big brother crusher' will do the same I'm still debating.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


My friend Satya Robin published a new book today.

I've no doubt it will be a good read, but it's interesting to me in other ways.

I first met Satya, or Fiona as I knew her then (she's since become a Buddhist monk), more than ten years ago, on a course for business facilitators. We were placed in the same 'support and challenge' group, and being a trained counsellor she was good at that sort of stuff - by far the best on the programme. And I especially remember us sharing doubts about the the direction our carers were heading - neither of us sure which way to go.

As it happened, I stuck with the corporate world; Satya became a full-time writer and a counsellor. Despite our different paths, we've remained in touch ever since -  and both choices were right I think.

Satya could easily find a traditional publisher and indeed used to have one - but in recent years she's chosen to self publish, using Kindle and a network of contacts and social media to promote sales. I'm in awe of her constant initiative and regard her as one of the best and most innovative networkers I know.

It strikes me that this approach to self-publishing is a good for all writers, new and old. In today's challenged times, even well-established authors find it hard to attract mainstream support. One option is crowd-funding through agencies such as Unbound - see here for Rory Maclean's project on Transnistria. But while traditional print still has its place, there's also one for well produced, well promoted - and well written - ebooks, that can be made available without the need to jumping quite such high hurdles.

There's a lot of bloggers and would be writers who could learn from Satya. Meanwhile, if you'd like to read the reviews and buy her book, click here.

Enough from me for today - or actually, not quite

For to celebrate the launch of Afterwards, Satya has produced a gallery of works inspired by the title - if you click the link, you'll find an image and some writing by me.