Writing 101: Be Brief.

The letter looked like just another piece of litter until I picked it up. The name on the front was written beautifully though smudges by the dampness of the ground. But the name was meaningless to me. Looking for clues I read the letter.

Simple, beautiful and heart felt. The letter was apology, and plea. The letter told of a broken marriage, a love pushed too far, of ties that should bind stretched till they snapped.

I didn’t know who had written it, but the desperation touched me. I need to get this letter to the owner, for better or worse.

That was then. I did find the author. They reclaimed the letter, with a heavy heart. As I understand it, the recipient had thrown the letter away. It hadn’t penetrated her heart in the way it had touched mine. Too much anger and scar tissue.

I wonder where they are now?

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Writing 101: Serially Lost.

I’m going to write about the loss that always barges to the front of my mind when I think about loss. This is still the case even though the loss in question happened over thirty years ago.

The being that I lost, and whose loss still leaves a hole in my heart is the dog that I grew up with. He was bought by my parents when I was four years old, and he was there at my side until I was fifteen.

In the wider world he wasn’t a special dog. He wasn’t a pedigree, but he was the dog who was there through my childhood. He was the dog who would greet me excitedly when I got home from school, the dog who would sit beside me when I was watching TV or doing homework. He was the dog who I would throw sticks for, but who would look at you as if to say ‘You threw it, you go get it.’.

And years later I realised how much I felt I owed him. I learned the strength of love, all encompassing, unconditional love, and how dogs are better at that sort of love than just about any other animal on the planet. I also learned how important it was to have someone that could listen to what you wanted to say, and they wouldn’t interrupt, and they definitely wouldn’t pass judgement on what you had to say.

When I got older Rex was getting older too. He didn’t run as far or as fast, but he still had a joy in life, in chasing cats and in finding new and interesting smells. He never got used to being left on his own in the house, and would complain vocally until one of the family was home. We suspected that it had never really occurred to him that he was a dog, and he expected human company.

Old age came suddenly upon him. He got old, and slow, and suddenly walking was obviously painful. He could hardly make it out of the door to go to the toilet. Pretty quickly we found out he had advanced cancer and my parents had the awful job of having him put down. I didn’t get to see him go. I’m never sure whether I would have wanted to, to be able to say goodbye, but I know that I will always have such strong memories of him.

Nowadays, we have another dog. It took a long time to make the decision to get a dog. A lot of thought, and one of the things that held me back for so long was the concern about leaving the dog at home during the day. Our dog gets a walk each lunchtime with our local dog walker who loves her almost as much as we do. And my daughter I can see gets as much out of her relationship with Smudge as I did with Rex.

Writing 101: A Room With A View.

On arriving at the beach the first thing to do is squeeze into a wetsuit. There are many types of beach. There are beaches for walking on with your dog, there are beaches for lying on to absorb the sun and there are beaches where you can surf.

Apparently the things that make a beach a good surfing beach all happen out in the sea. The shape of the sea floor and the prevailing tides and winds are what makes a beach have good waves. But this beach is a good surfing beach on-shore too. The fact that the wide ribbon of sand butts up against a craggy vertical cliff face gives it an insulated feel. People don’t spot the beach from the road. The people who are here know someone who knew someone else, and the word got around.

The cliff itself is magnificent when you are close up. You can see individual layers, stones and shells. Grass and small plants hang tenaciously to this surface.

The sand is golden yellow, fine and soft under your feet. Where it is wet, closer to the waterline it is darker, more solid. Walking on it leaves perfect impressions of your feet that slowly soften and crumble until the next wave washes it away.  The bay is west facing, and the sun has just passed its zenith. The afternoon belongs to me and my surfboard.

Having secured the board to my ankle I walk quickly into the sea. Salt water slides under the cuffs, wetting my calves. The immediate shock of the cool water fades quickly as the wetsuit does its job, holding a layer of water, warmed by my body, against my skin. As the water gets deeper I lower the board to float on the sea surface. Holding it, I push on. Once I’m up to my chest I jump onto the board and start to paddle outwards. The waves lift the nose of the board, but the breakers are behind me, and I can swim out to the depths easily.

Sitting up on the board, hanging my legs over each side I turn to face the bay. The sun glints on the waves and illuminates the water and the sand. Out here the cliff’s roughness is softened by distance. I can still see the layers of the rocks and soil that make up the cliffs, but not the details.

Turning to look over my shoulder I see a likely candidate for a wave I can ride. I sink back down onto the board, and begin surfing. Riding waves is a strange way to spend time. There are periods of inactivity forced on you, waiting for the right wave to come. There are moments of excitement, and even moments of terror as you lose all concept of which way gravity is pointing. Those who like it know that it is a magical experience. A way of connecting with nature, with its rhythms and its rules. Time after time I ride the board in towards the shore, then paddle back out to catch another wave, thrilling, my nerves singing with the joy of being alive, here and now.

Later, when tiredness has sapped my ability to go for another ride, I head back to shore. The sun is dipping towards the horizon, but still warming the sandy bay. Carrying the board away from the water’s edge I find a patch of sand, put my board down and then lie down. Being by the sea, being washed in its seemingly limitless expanse, and being serenaded by the crashing and splashing of its wave heartbeat is always a contemplative time for me. I think about how I love the sound and sight of waves, how lucky I am to be alive in the here and now. I think of friends and family, of the people who have touched my life over the years.  And I think about how I love to watch a setting sun sinking towards the sea, heralding the closure of a beautiful day.

Dream Reader: The Beginning.

I stumbled over my own feet as I hurtled, half running, half staggering towards the tree line. I couldn’t hear my pursuers, but I knew that that was just a matter of time, and while I was here, in the open I was in danger.

My legs pumped, driven by adrenaline, but still the trees seemed to edge towards me agonisingly slowly. Maybe I wasn’t hearing them because my head was filled with the sound of my panting and the thrum of the blood pumping.

How had it come to this? I wasn’t a bad guy. I hadn’t killed anyone. But still men in uniforms would be massing to find me as soon as they realised that I wasn’t home.

I began to run through the process in my head even as I continued my hell for leather sprint for the woods. They would arrive at the apartment. Not getting an answer they’ll have had to wait for clearance before battering the door down. That would have given me a few minutes.

Having swept the little apartment and realised I wasn’t hiding in a cupboard they will have gone for my tech. I’d been ready for this. The whole system was set up to cover my tracks, and as long as they had waited for back up the system would have cleaned itself up. Every user account sanitised, the plan had been to return the machine to tabula rasa. I hoped the data scrub was as thorough as I’d planned, otherwise others would be in danger too. Of course I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. The blank accounts were password protected, the discs encrypted.

After that, they would start looking for me. Of course, the street cams would help them with that. Ever since big data became a reality everyone was followed wherever they went. Everything from face recognition to gait analysis had meant that a citizen could be found even if they had left their smart kit at home. To try and evade the cameras I’d been living a lie for the last year. Every time I left home I had a small stone in one shoe. It was just enough of an irritant to make me walk a little oddly. I hoped it would be a big enough change to put the system off. Today I’d left the house in normal shoes, both feet comfortable and ready to run. I knew that once the auto-track came up blank they would start the more arduous process of pulling the files, watching me when I hit the street, tracing me from one camera to the next. It had been busy, I hoped that I’d blended in.

Suddenly my mind was back in the present. The trees were finally closing around me. At first I kept up the same pace. At the edge the trees were thin and I would easily be seen from the open ground. I needed to get deep into the brush. I only started to slow down when the dry foliage began to push back, Newtonian reaction hindering my headlong thrust.

I stopped, leaning against a tree. My breathing was ragged, and suddenly loud in this quiet place. As my heart began to slow and my panting receded I strained to hear any activity. I had no idea what my next step was going to be, where I could go. I could scarcely believe I’d managed to get this far.

And then I heard it. Apparently the drones were much quieter than the planes which used to traverse the sky before the end time. Now there wasn’t anywhere for planes to go, so the drones were the only flying objects that the city still had. And they were the sole preserve of the Goverment and Military.

It sounded quite a long way away, and looking up the trees were dense. I was probably in danger of stepping into a clearing if I made a run for it. I would be better either staying put or moving slowly. I decided to keep on moving, carefully looking at the trees ahead. The burning in my legs and the constriction in my throat were soon forgotten as I kept advancing. Now was the time to think beyond simply going on the run. I had to draw up a plan, and soon.

The drone was getting closer now, its engine note steady and ominous. Turning to try and locate it I took my eye of the path and suddenly tripped. As I arced towards the ground I saw the culprit, a thin wire across the path. Even as I slammed into the ground, I heard two people break cover and move to each side of me. Initially neither of them spoke, then the one on my right knelt on the space on my back between my shoulder blades. The one on the left leant forward and whispered “They’re very close. Come with us and don’t say anything”.

I was in no position to argue as I felt the cool plastic of cable tie handcuffs close around my wrists. Then I was picked up with apparent ease and placed back on my feet. Now I could see I was between two people of my height, though the one who had held me down was almost comically stocky. Before I could take in anything more I was pushed away to one side, deeper into the woods. The combination of panicked running and having just fallen bodily to the floor had left me disorientated and I had no idea where we were in relation to where I had entered the trees. But my companions seemed to know exactly where they were going.  And within a few minutes they stopped me in a small glade. I made as if to talk before the smaller of the two men held a finger to his lips. Concentrating on the one man I didn’t notice until it was already too late that his companion had a small syringe. It stung as he jabbed me in the leg, but I didn’t have any time to react. I suspect I collapsed like a rag doll.


I have sometimes fantasised about writing. I can imagine that seeing something you have written is immensely exciting. But it is also scary. I wrote the above as it felt like something I could get behind putting on paper. At this point it says nothing about what the crimes are that mean the protagonist needs to be on the run. I read a lot of dystopian fiction when I was a teenager and young adult, and I guess that is sort of where it is going. A lot of the books I read then have dated quite badly. The worlds of 1984 and Brave New World for instance have some features which we would recognise (mass surveillance and high levels of psychotropic drugs), but lots that haven’t come true. There is always the space for dystopia fiction which draws on the societal state when the story is written. The mass surveillance of the 21st Century is something that we buy into, often entirely voluntarily, but most people would be shocked by how much we share, and what the risks are. Maybe a story called 2041, a world where the computers look after you every need, often meeting it before you have really realised it was a need at all. What are the risks.

I think the younger me reader would have liked this. And I hope they would have wanted to read the rest.

Writing 101: Three Songs That Matter To Me.

The latest blog101 challenge is to follow some other blogs and some tags. I’m guessing that others who have taken to following my blog over the last couple of days have done so as part of the same challenge. This might explain why, when I write about how I don’t have a faith, and in fact reject the notion of a faith I end up with two new religious bloggers following me. Ho Hum.

Time to Face The Music.

In the absence of a writing challenge for blogging101, I’m falling back to the writing101 assignment. This calls for me to write about three songs that matter to me. Of course, the issue with a post like this is that it is entirely reliant on the day, mood and recent musical exposure. What did I listen to on my iPod on the way to work this morning? is the sun shining (actually, yes, yes it is) etc.

So I’m going to have to go for today’s picks, with the caveat that it would probably differ in at least one track a week from now.

Song 1: Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd.

The album, also called ‘Wish You Were Here’ is, without reservation my favourite album. Unfortunately my wife hates Pink Floyd (preferring entirely disposable pop), so I tend to listen to it when I’m on my own.

I love this particular track because it puts me in mind of my time at University. It reminds me of my old house and class mates, and of my early adulthood. It reminds me of when I moved on in my musical tastes from the stuff that the radio was playing.

And when I was able to see David Gilmour live in London some years back, he walked out onto the stage, stood in the spotlight and started to play this, and the hush in the audience was electric.

So this is a song that speaks to me about my memory, about my life.

Song 2: East Easy Rider – Julian Cope.

Another song with strong memories. In the early nineties I spent the Christmas holidays in Morocco with four friends. We had gone primarily to surf, but there was also a local motorbike rental place, and a few times we hired bikes to explore the country. All but one of the bikes were 125cc trail bikes, the other was a 250cc bike with a more laid back chopper styling. One afternoon I had an hour to kill and decided to take this bigger bike for a spin on my own. I headed out of town, following the coast road northwards.  Like many coast roads this was cut into a steep descent down to a rocky shore, so as I rode along I had the Atlantic to my left, and a cliff to my right. Being late afternoon the sun was low in the sky casting my shadow against the cliff.

When I look back at the experience it was one of the points in my life when I was most at peace. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, or protective equipment, but the road was quiet and I wasn’t going particularly quickly, just enjoying the wind in my long hair, the sun on my skin and the experience in general.

As I rode along I began to sing, and this was the song that felt appropriate. It wasn’t long after the album (Peggy Suicide) had been released and I’d been listening to it pretty continuously, so that, combined with the title and the sentiment seemed to fit.

Good Times.

Song 3: Blood Wedding – Oysterband.

I wrote above that I was going to struggle to narrow this whole thing down to three tracks, and I really have. The only one that was obvious was number 1. I ended up picking this because the three ‘go to’ acts that I listen to when I don’t know what to listen to are reflected in this list. And when it came to picking an Oysterband song, there were many I could have chosen, but the one that was played at my wedding made sense.

Our wedding wasn’t anything like the one in the song by the way. No drunken uncles pissing up the walls or anything like that. And it is worth pointing out that it wasn’t our ‘first dance’. That was the far more romantic ‘Thankyou’ by Dido. But after the first dance this was the one that got the party started!

Reflections.

When I was trying to choose the tracks to write about I spent a lot of time scrolling around on my iPod, and it was a timely reminder of how consuming music has changed. I had vinyl records that required you to sit, almost reverentially around a stereo. I had cassettes which were robust in terms of being able to move the playing equipment around, but which relied on fragile tape which I was practised at repairing when it broke or got scrunched. I had CDs which were robust, and had excellent sound quality, but held only one album each. I had an MP3 CD player where you could play MP3 encoded CDs which could hold ten or more albums on a single disc. And then I had an iPod, smaller than a CD case, but holding every single CD I own, as well as downloaded podcasts and audio books. And because of that I could try different songs, test what they meant to me and write the above. It isn’t profound, but my 12 year old self would have thought it was fantastic.

Other Racers and Riders.

There were tens of songs that I would happily have included on a different day, or in a different mood. A short list:

Thankyou – Dido

Put Out The Lights – Oysterband

Mother – Pink Floyd

World Shut Your Mouth – Julian Cope

Reward – Teardrop Explodes

Love Will Tear Us Apart – Either Oysterband or Joy Division version

Duelling Banjos – Any version

Benzadrine – Thea Gilmore

She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult

Pictures of You – The Cure

Victim of Love – Erasure

Tom’s Diner – Suzanne Vega (the original, non-beatbox version, I saw her live in Birmingham, and she just walked out to the microphone and sang it without any accompaniment)

Homophobia – Chumbawamba

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana or The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

And I really could add to this list pretty much all day…

Writing 101: Unlock The Mind.

I signed up to do this years blogging 101 and writing 101 sessions on the web. And here I am.

The first writing assignment: Just Write.

Where do you start? There is a Monty Python sketch where writing is a spectator sport complete with an excitable crowd and breathless commentary. But writing obviously isn’t something done in front of an audience. It is done in your head. With an audience of one, and they are, in all likelihood your  worst critic.

The cursor flashes. Inviting you to press the keys. Taunting you with how little it has moved. But what can you put down on screen.

And does the screen help or hinder? On a screen the ability to go back, to tweak, to massage or to procrastinate are almost limitless.  The promise of being able to change not just the words, but the font, the colour and the page size can mire a user in options.  This is why when I am really trying to write, not blog, I go off-line and start writing in a system that doesn’t support those fripperies.  When talking on this subject I can wax lyrical about an old word processor ‘WordPerfect 5.1’. It had a lot going for it. It ran in DOS, so when you were using WordPerfect that was all you were using, there weren’t any other programs available to flip back and forth to. The screen when you opened a document was almost entirely blank, with just a single line of text in the bottom right hand corner which provided a word and line count. Finally, you could mark things as being of a particular style (heading, body etc) but the text on the screen changed only slightly. You weren’t invited to make judgements about the space taken up on the page, that was for the program to worry about. The point was to write words. The words would be processed into a document later, but the words came first.

Other media suit different processes. A diary or a record of thoughts and feelings might feel more natural if it is in your own handwriting, which might change to reflect your moods. Adding doodles, exclamations or scribbles give an insight into something in parallel to the words, just like non-verbal communication matters when it comes to talking with real people. But there are issues with this type of document. I read a comment once about how writing in a notebook feels like a supremely audacious action. Taking a pristine, beautiful piece of paper and saying ‘I’m important enough to defile this paper, what I do to it matters more’. I find the action of posting blog entries easier as the paper that is defiled is electronic, essentially limitless, and somehow no-one expects blogs to matter anyway.

That is all I have to say about this. Writing is something I want to do, and would like to be better at. I am aware of some of my flaws, but I think practice will highlight a lot more. I think writing, editing and learning from the process is important.