Keith Douglas, 24th Jan 1920 – 9th Jun 1944


“I like you sir. You’re shit or bust, you are.” – Keith Douglas’ batman, to Keith Douglas. I was twenty three when I discovered the work of the Second World War poet Keith Douglas.  I’d just completed an English degree and was worn out with novels, so for a year I read only comics and poetry.  Good comics were easy to find, but good poetry was a rarer substance.  It seemed to me that you had to read twenty impenetrable poems for every one that spoke to you, but I was fortunate enough to have time on my side.  I flitted my way through a bunch of anthologies, skipping over anything that seemed wilfully obscure or concerned solely with the poet’s ego.  I was a harsh judge, but I was on the hunt for pure, distilled language and I was determined to find as much of it as I could. How To Kill was the first Keith Douglas poem I stumbled across, jammed into a thick collection of war poetry.  It was written in such a frank style that it stood out to me as something that might have been written just that year, not in 1943.  There were no riddles and no pretence.  Douglas was a tank captain and How To Kill was about blowing up an enemy soldier.  ‘Being damned,’ he writes, ‘I am amused/To see the centre of love diffused/and the waves of love travel into vacancy.’ I found that poem a striking thing, brutally honest and sad, but it was the sole Keith Douglas poem in the anthology and I only noted down his name as one to look out for.  A few months later I was twenty four, and browsing in a bookshop while I waited for my girlfriend to finish work.  There I found Keith Douglas’ one and only poetry collection.  My girlfriend texted me to say she was held up and would be finishing late, so I bought the book and sat in the park to read some of it. I won’t lie.  To begin with I was unimpressed.  Some of the first poems in the book seemed just the opposite of what I’d liked about How To Kill.  Those, however, were poems from Douglas’ schooldays.  I’d hate it if someone dragged out and published anything that I wrote while at school, but I suppose Douglas’ were included as a way to demonstrate his development, and in the absence of enough material from his adult life.  Douglas died, like so many of his generation, very young, but the poems he wrote in what would prove the final years of his life, the poems that began to appear towards the end of the book, were among the finest things I’d ever read.  By the time my girlfriend had finished work that day, I was not only a fan, I was inspired. “And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers come back, abandoning the expedition; the specimens, the lilies of ambition still spring in their climate, still unpicked: but time, time is all I lacked to find them, as the great collectors before … Read More

AliKeith Douglas, 24th Jan 1920 – 9th Jun 1944

Ray Bradbury

AliOn Writing, Recommendations, Uncategorized

Enough now. There you have it. There are one hundred stories from almost forty years of my life contained in my collected stories. They contain half the damning truths I suspected at midnight, and half of the saving truths I re-found next noon. If anything is taught here, it is simply the charting of the life of someone who started out to somewhere—and went. I have not so much thought my way through life as done things and found what it was and who I was after the doing. Each tale was a way of finding selves. Each self found each day slightly different from the one found twenty-four hours earlier. – from Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury Ray Bradbury, who died this week aged 91, has had an immeasurable impact on my writing.  Perhaps moreso than any other writer, even though I’ve read only a fraction of his enormous fictional output.  What I have read I have greatly enjoyed, but it’s his thin book of essays, Zen in the Art of Writing, for which I am most grateful.  This book, to use Bradbury’s own metaphor for writing, was a landmine.  I stepped on it when I was writing the early drafts of The Girl with Glass Feet and it blasted apart a great many false notions I’d developed about writing.  About what it meant to write, what it was for, who it was for.  Yesterday I reread it and rediscovered its many vital lessons. A lot of books have been published with a claim on the cover that they’ll teach you how to write.  A lot of them won’t.  They’ll tangle you up with all the wrong concerns.  The vast majority of them will teach you the same old stuff about plot construction, tone, narrative voice, and so on and so on in tedious technical detail that will make you feel as if you’re building a robot, not a novel.  Don’t get me wrong, those things are important, but they’re not the starting point, they’re just aspects of final editing and technique.  Reading a hundred such books, even knowing them off by heart, will not help you develop the most fundamental part of your writing: your art. Bradbury treated writing, unashamedly, as art.  Not art in a cerebral, critic-at-the-gallery fashion but art as the first cave painters saw it: as the first artists, trembling fitfully before the first painted bison, which seemed to them to snort and and stamp along rock walls.  Art, to Bradbury, was just such a primal thing.  An expression of something fundamental to the artist’s self.  If that seems a high-falutin’ way to talk about things, please blame me not Bradbury.  This was a man who couldn’t abide high-falutin’ of any sort.  He loved Buck Rogers just as much as he loved Gerard Manley Hopkins and, it seems to me, would not let either the dogged sci-fi fan or the theorising poetry professor tell him that the two had no place … Read More

AliRay Bradbury

Stars, Turned Inside Out

AliDrawings for Fairy Stories, Recommendations

The book industry’s an odd one.  About three weeks ago I finished handwriting the first draft of my third novel, which I’ve since been typing up to see what I’ve got on my hands.  In the meantime my second book, The Man who Rained, is at the printers being turned into something glossy and pretty and ready, come January, to go out into the big wide world.  Always as a writer you’re working on something a step ahead of where it appears you are now.  I was writing The Man who Rained when The Girl with Glass Feet came out, and I hope to be writing something new when/if the novel I’ve recently started sees the light of day. All of that makes me really appreciative of those of you who’ve taken the time to read this blog, or comment on twitter or facebook or by email.  It’s preciously immediate, and that (along with the fact that you’re all such lovely people) is the reason why I enjoy sharing things with you.  For a while now I’ve been hoping to give you a new fairy tale.  It’s taking me longer than anticipated so, in the meantime, here are a few previews. The reason for the delay is the drawing of stars.  There are stars in this story, but they aren’t just orbs of fire.  They’re living beings, and working out how to portray them as such has stumped me.  Maybe I’m just burnt out with personification (The Man who Rained is all about the weather coming to life) but I’ve at least decided I want to use a certain technique to draw stars: I want to make negative images with graphite sticks and pencils, then invert them using paint software to get a luminous effect. Here’s a test run I did.  This won’t make the final cut, but it gives you an idea of how the game works.  This becomes this So maybe next week, maybe the week after, I’ll have cracked it and can finally post the fairy story.  For now I’d better get back to the typing.  My handwriting is a tangle and unravelling it is a slow process.  Some parts I simply can’t read, and I have to hold them up to the light or stare at them like magic eye patterns.  It’s fun deciphering it, but it’s slooooowww. In the meantime I want to recommend this.  I hope that Ghostpoet goes on to festoon his pork pie hat with awards, for he richly deserves them.  This is a track that writers are bound to relate to, and the album Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam is swiftly becoming the soundtrack to the pitter-patter of my keyboard.  Enjoy…

AliStars, Turned Inside Out