Scenes of Hell

February 26, 2016


We did not have the benefit of a guide,
no crone to lead us off the common path,
no ancient to point the way with a staff,

but there were badlands to cross,
rivers of fire and blackened peaks,
and eventually we could look down and see

the jeweler running around a gold ring,
the boss captured in an hourglass,
the baker buried up to his eyes in flour,

the banker plummeting on a coin,
the teacher disappearing into a blackboard,
and the grocer silent under a pyramid of vegetables.

We saw the pilot nose-diving
and the whore impaled on a bedpost,
the pharmacist wandering in a stupor

and the child with toy wheels for legs.
You pointed to the soldier
who was dancing with his empty uniform

and I remarked on the blind tourist.
But what truly caught our attention
was the scene in the long mirror of ice:

you lighting the wick on your head
me blowing on the final spark,
and our children trying to crawl away from their eggshells.

Billy Collins


February 26, 2016


Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.

You cancelled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.

As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that you set us on the desolate lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades you gave my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterwards upheld your side, not mine.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I wonder whether you will remember one last piece of advice you gave me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic twenties and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.

You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterwards that the depression came down. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame any more. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time — a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.

John Ernst Steinbeck
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters


I wanted to feel the blood running back into my veins, even at the cost of annihilation. I wanted to shake the stone and light out of my system. I wanted the dark fecundity of nature, the deep well of the womb, silence, or else the lapping of the black waters of death. I wanted to be that night which the remorseless eye illuminated, a night diapered with stars and trailing comets. To be of night so frighteningly silent, so utterly incomprehensible and eloquent at the same time. Never more to speak or to listen or to think.

Henry Miller
Tropic of Capricorn

nurse Sherri

"It's going all the way up, sweetie..."

“It’s going all the way up, sweetie…”

Nurse Sherri, you may recall, went on a killing spree in the 1978 movie of that name, using a variety of instruments as weapons including needles, scalpels, and even a pitchfork – “Her bedside manner will keep you in stiches”.

Perhaps, the NHS might consider utilizing Sherri’s services? You’d see a dramatic drop in waiting list times as patient numbers fell…

In the headlines…

February 26, 2016


key to a new sexuality…

February 26, 2016


The lungs of elderly men punctured by door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn on the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To Vaughan, these wounds formed the key to a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a slaughterhouse . . . .

J G Ballard

A day in the life…

February 26, 2016

Diary_RAMSOM and MITCHELL_the last good man

Diary 25th February

White, white, frosty white across the moor this morning. Four in the AM. And colder here than a mother superior’s posterior!

Tomorrow’s forecast is for sleet, snow and rain – sleet and snow especially over the moors! I shall have to batten down all the hatches, curl up with a good book and a bottle of brandy on the sofa…better include a glass, too, with that; I’ve run out of straws.

Talking of brandy, last Sunday I sheepishly confess to drinking a veritable vat of red wine: started a little before lunch, got the bit between my teeth, as you do, and switched to brandy…Cheap Spanish brandy. I eat lunch (I think) but continued to imbibe the brandy through the course of the afternoon. Big mistake. Come supper time I was starting to nod off, had to return to my hotel room, meal unconsumed. Once there, I fell into a death-like sleep…and got a bit of a bollocking next morning.

‘Honestly, Peedeel. Drinking like that on an empty stomach. You really do need looking after. You shouldn’t be allowed out of bed without a fulltime minder.’

‘My stomach wasn’t empty,’ I replied quietly, forlornly but determinedly. ‘I eat a good breakfast…’ I knew I had because it was the last thing I could clearly remember before my mind fogged.

‘Well, it won’t do you any good drinking like that. You never had any of your meal last night…’

And so it continued. Deservedly so. Mea culpa.
The House of Lords attempted to ‘water down’ the worse parts of Ian Duncan Smith’s cuts to Employment and Support Allowance. Back in the Commons, MP’s rejected the Lords amendments (well they would, wouldn’t they) and £30 per week will be slashed from the allowances of the terminally ill and the disabled.

Priti Patel tasked with defending this onerous cutback, claimed it would ensure: “support is focused on the most vulnerable”.


More vulnerable than someone dying of cancer? Or those suffering with Parkinson’s, or with mental health problems – because that’s who we’re talking about here. People with illness or disability so serious that it makes it quite impossible for them to work!

Failing to have the guts required to introduce a bill for the euthanasia of disabled or seriously ill people in receipt of benefit, perhaps the government’s ultimate aim here is to pile on so much financial pressure and hardship that these unfortunate individuals will go off and quietly top themselves? Yes. Suicide is painless – it can also save money…
Have recently read and enjoyed Green for Danger (1945) by Christianna Brand. A script writer for the Beeb recently pinched the central idea for an episode of Father Brown. Enjoyed it immensely. See review HERE

I’d also recommend another of Brand’s books: London Particular (1955) which I read towards the end of last year. Not just a whodunit, but a great how’d they do it, too.