10 November 2012

The Story of Stewed Rhubarb (So Far)

Six months ago, when I so innocently offered the contact details of a good printer to a flame-haired Irish lady I met through a friend of a friend in some pub or other, little did I realise I was about to begin a publishing adventure that would take over my life... This is the story of how Stewed Rhubarb Press came to become a thing. I mean, an actual thing. I mean, a people-I-don’t-know-‘like’-it-on-Facebook kind of a thing.

It was a dark and stormy night in Edinburgh’s Old Town, to be precise, as most of the nights of Edinburgh are dark and stormy, it was National Short Story Day, 2012. I was performing at an event of some sort and got chatting to a nice-looking lady called Rachel McCrum in the pub afterwards. Our conversation went something like this:
RACHEL: I am thinking about bringing out a pamphlet of my poetry. Do you write any poetry?
JAMES: Yes, it’s in the desk drawer at the moment. Who are you submitting to?*
RACHEL: Well I thought I’d print one out and then photocopy it or something.
JAMES: *horrified* You know that in about 90% of cases it’s cheaper to get a professional printer to do it than to use home printing solutions? Also, it’s much less effort and there’s less risk of being accidentally stapled to your desk.
RACHEL: That sounds good. Do you also provide design and editorial services?
JAMES: Oh, I just meant you should look at all of the opti-
RACHEL: I will provide wine.
* I am aware that I could have used a ‘whom’ here, but I was drunk, OK?

Rachel McCrum and James T Harding at Stewed Rhubarb Presents... in November 2012. Photograph by John Starr.
At some point in the editorial process, specifically at 2am after a bottle of ginger wine each, Rachel suggested that other spoken word artists would like to have tasty pamphlets too. By 3am, we had purchased www.stewedrhubarb.org and placed the URL on the back cover of her pamphlet. By the time I woke up the next afternoon, the print files had already been scheduled by a printer in Gloucestershire. We were now committed.

It was fortunate, I suppose, that the idea of a no-frills poetry press wasn’t such a terrible one. In fact, it looked almost suspicious like we’d planned the whole thing and new precisely what were doing...

As it turned out, Rachel has a particular talent for harvesting talented poets from the British spoken word scene, and a rather nifty ability to arrange their words into pamphlet form. Her first catch was Katherine McMahon, whose album of spoken word with music by Fiona Keenan was crying out to have an accompanying pamphlet printed on recycled paper. Then in swift succession came Jenny Lindsay, Tracey S. Rosenberg and Harry Giles. It’s been lovely to get to know all of these exciting and talented people, though I really do want my glasses back, please – you know who you are.

So, now you know how Stewed Rhubarb got to where it is now. But who knows where it’ll end up in another six months?

Rest assured that we have plans...

Jenny Lindsay reads at Stewed Rhubarb Presents... in November 2012. Photo by Chris Scott.

2 June 2012

5 Ways to be Taken Seriously as a Writer Without Actually Writing Anything

The perennial problem of hipsters, humanities graduates, and arts administrators everywhere: how to appear to be a creative person, an artist, a writer, without ever actually producing any creative work?

We all know the lifestyle is 90% of what makes a writer a writer, but what about the remaining 10%? Here are my five top tips for being taken seriously as a writer.

Actually writing anything is recommended, but optional.

1. Avoid Literary Events Like the Plague

This may seem counter intuitive, but sometimes it’s actually better to be not seen at literary events if you want to be taken seriously as a writer.
A: Where were you when Don Patterson read at the University?
B: I was writing.
A: Why did you miss that seminar on vampire fiction?
B: I was writing.
After a while, people start to fill in your answers for you. They’ll notice you’re not in the audience at the book festival, and they’ll think. Ah, that person, always writing. What a writer. I wish I was more like them.

When this happens your mission is accomplished. Note that it is not necessarily to actually do any writing, merely to say that you were whenever an event you missed comes up in conversation.

2. Be Boring at Parties

Occasionally, it will be necessary for you to attend a literary event, so that you can tell people that you weren’t at other literary events because you were writing. While you are there, you should take advantage of your captive audience and attempt to socialise in as writerly a way as possible, that is, as badly as possible.

Advanced practitioners can combine socialising badly with letting people know they have been writing.

“Sorry I’m not very good company today, you’re the first person I’ve spoken to for weeks as I’ve been holed up in the Balmoral writing the second draft of my latest play” will go down a storm. Not only can the person you say this to feel guilty about calling you boring behind your back now that you’ve apologised, but they now think that you have written something.

3. Never Ever Give Details About Your Work

It’s imperative that the content of your work remains a total secret. If people get a hold of specific information, they will be able to refer to the work again in future.

“How is that short story about cats going, Charles?” they will enquire politely at cocktail parties. “When and where can I read it? It sounded great fun.”

This well meaning individual has thrown a whopper of a spanner in the works of your literary reputation. You are now in the position of
  1. having to remember whatever it was you made up about the story when you first told them about it;
  2. needing a non-pathetic excuse not to have finished it that doesn’t make you look like you have no commitment to writing.
If you should ever find yourself in this situation, then the classic “I’m desk-drawing* it at the moment” will get you out of trouble, but this card only works a few times before it loses effectiveness. You could also go for an extreme version of the position outlined in point four below, but I don’t recommend this as people will simply assume you’re a crap writer if you push it too hard.

Ideally, you will avoid these awkward situations altogether, by never giving details about your work.

Generic questions like “How is the writing going?” and “Where can I read some of your work?” are more easily fielded: your writing is always going well; and of course they can read some of your work. Get their email address and then never get around to sending them any.

* The desk-drawer is a technique whereby a draft of a piece of creative writing is put aside and all thoughts about it are banned. When the draft is reopened after a few weeks, the writer has a fresh perspective on it, and has developed an emotional distance which allows them to make the changes that need to be made without being sentimental.

4. Disapprove Faintly but Firmly of Publishing

This should be done very subtly, but it is imperative that you make it clear that you write for yourself only – or at least for a very select, refined audience – in order to account for your total lack of published or produced writings.

It must be a moral choice not to publicise your work rather than a practical one. This helps to avoid the implication that you have not been published simply because your work is shit.

Merely never being selected for publication, or worse, always being “about to send something” but “making sure it’s perfect before I send” are simply not satisfactory.

Actually arguing against the merits publishing is fairly futile because it will make you look as though you have been burnt and are merely bitter. It also draws attention to the fact that you have no publications.

Instead I recommend little references to writers like Pinter, Shakespeare, Lochhead etc as “commercial” or “sell-outs”. These will put successfully put forward your publishing philosophy without giving anyone the opportunity to engage with it.

5. The Golden Rule: Don’t Overdo It

In order to successful build up a reputation as a writer without actually writing anything, you must misdirect from the fact that you never actually write anything as much as possible.

The best way to do this is to allow the idea that you are a writer to infiltrate the minds of your friends and family slowly, without confronting them with it too suddenly. They will acclimatise to the idea of you being a writer without scrutinising it too much. This is ideal.

The key is subtlety. Suggestion. Misdirection.

Hopefully you will have noticed these are them themes of all five tips in this post.

Never talk about your writing. Do not make the amateur error of not making it obvious that you are choosing not to talk about your writing, however. Say that you don’t like talking about your writing because expressing your ideas aloud means you lose the impetus to write them in ink.

Do not dress like a writer. Occasionally look embarrassed at the flowing scarves and tweed jackets around you at literary parties to indicate that you choose not to do so in order to avoid pretension.

Do not make writer friends. As an authentic and very productive writer, it is good for you to spend time with normal people.

Also, they are the most likely to catch you out.

17 May 2012

How Long is Yours? - Underword: National Flash Fiction Day 2012, May 16

27ish fantastic flash fiction writers performed last night at Underword, hosted in celebration of the first National Flash Fiction Day by the bebearded Gavin Inglis.

It turned out that nobody really knew what flash fiction was, but it was the resulting variety of lengths and forms that made the evening so interesting. Some of the flashes, tbh, were just short stories to my haiku-addled mind.

My own contribution, “The Bach Prelude”, weighed in at a hefty seventy five words:

Featured on Paragraph Planet, April 20th
It looked this little paragraph would be the shortest short of the evening, but my parade was swiftly pissed on by a bloke called Roddy Shippin who spat a three-word story at the audience without a thought for my feelings.*

The third shortest short, if that’s an accolade, was Gavin’s “Sex and Death” which costs twenty five of your English words. If you are drinking a cup of tea, I suggest you put it down before you open the link.

Gavin Inglis demonstrating the correct size of a flash ficlet.
You can find piglicker's full Underword photo set on Flickr, including a pic of me blinking seductively.
Other stories I particularly liked were “The Last Supper” by Katy Hastie, “Letters” by Mark Harding, “Metamorf” by Andrew C. Ferguson and “Kewpie” by Jane McKie, but there were too many super contributions to mention individually.** ***

It was exciting to see so many people read in one evening. The fast turnarounds (not to mention the flashy flash fictions) meant it was hard to be bored. Perhaps that sets a bad precedent: encouraging the increasing standards and decreasing attention spans of Edinburgh’s spoken word scene can only be a dangerous proposition.



* I met him afterwards and he says he didn’t do it on purpose.

** I did notice there is actually the beginning of a black mould on the ceiling of my bathroom last night. I let you guess what happened next.

*** My favourite audience member was Charlotte’s flat mate. Apart from Charlotte that is. And mum.

15 May 2012

Broke But Making Films’ “Bruised” at Write. Shoot. Cut. #3, May 14

The third Write. Shoot. Cut event took place last night at the Banshee Rooms, Edinburgh. As well as "Bear" directed by Nash Edgerton, "You're the Stranger Here" directed by Tom Geens, "Plagium" directed by Brady Hood, and “Scott Wilson – Tyncastle Announcer” directed by Jamie Wells and Pete Harper, we were subjected to the European première of Broke But Making Films’ “Bruised” and a Q&A with the producers Greg Hall and Paul Marlon, who directed and starred in the film respectively.

“Bruised” premièred at the Bootleg festival last Friday, scooping up the awards for Best Male and Female Actors for its two main parts. The more important date, though, is tomorrow, May 16, when the film will be made available to watch free on t’Internet via YouTube.

Greg Hall and Paul Marlon wrote the story collaboratively, while the words and fight scenes were improvised and developed on-shoot by the performers. Marlon is a staunch methodist (in the acting rather than the religious sense) his character alongside Clare McNamara’s fight-pimp were developed over several months before filming.

The script, of course, was fixed before shooting began. I think it was Hitchcock who said “Yes the screenplay is finished, we just have to add the dialogue.”


Paul Marlon and Clare McNamara in "Bruised".

Screenwriting and playwrighting courses I have studied on have tended to gloss over the creative contribution of others in the film-making process. It was interesting for me to see a successful film created to such a large extent by its actors, and which is far more character orientated than plot driven* – oh, and did I forget to mention it’s a film about Gypsy wrestling?

Of the other films featured “Bear” directed by Nash Edgerton was much more in my comfort zone as films go - and I certainly enjoyed it. Plot-driven as you could wish.



The fourth Write. Shoot. Cut. will be on June 11. The organiser Neil Rolland seems determined to make each programmebetter than the last – I’m a little scared to find out what he comes up with next.



* McKee enthusiasts who argue that plot and character are the same thing can frack off, frankly.

11 April 2012

My Oxford Love Story with Zulieka Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Zulieka Dobson: An Oxford Love Story is a fantastic novel, and one of my favourite books of all time. This is a personal history of my discovery of the book.

I was first introduced to Zulieka as an Oxford fresher. For some - perhaps sinister - reason, it was a custom of the residents of Staircase 13* to meet occasionally to read each other bedtime stories. We read "The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde, "The Company of Wolves" by Angela Carter, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and eventually felt we should dip our toes into longer works. I was all for The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but certain members of the group who shall remain unnamed had difficulty waiting between meetings to read onwards.

Someone suggested Zulieka Dobson, it being "the sort of novel godparents give you when you go up to Oxford" and therefore likely we would find a few copies lying about. There were indeed two copies available, a third in the college library, and it had the advantage of being available to read free on Project Gutenberg***, so we adopted it immediately.

The Penguin Modern Classics cover. (Source: which happens to be a rather lovely review of the book.)
And so, on an otherwise unremarkable evening featuring tea spiked with whisky and a bit of light-hearted musicological reading, I was introduced to Zulieka Dobson.

I was hooked from the very first sentence:
That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn board they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of that antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.
It's not the sort of first paragraph that would tempt the average slush-pile-mired intern at Curtis Brown to read on, but it had me by the balls. Notice the antiquated use of the semicolon; and the way the second sentence is longer that the average paragraph in a BBC news article.

Although the train station at Oxford has, since 1911 when those words were published, undergone a rather unflattering series of modernisations, Beerbohm's observations on the ridiculousness of not just standing on the shoulders of giants but living in their abandoned houses remain pretty on the mark. The tourists, despite their somewhat fishy knowledge of medieval train station architecture, are the ones who notice the pull of the past; those who belong to it are often entirely unaware of the fact.

This idea of dealing with the remnants of an illustrious history is a major theme of the novel. And of course the Oxford the book describes was killed off soon after Beerbohm wrote it, making the whole novel a sort of nostalgic tribute to itself.****

Zulieka, which is more of an engorged novella than a novel if we're brutally honest, takes place back in the day when intelligence and hard work weren't that important if you were an aristocrat and when women were only allowed within a hundred miles of Carfax for special occasions like balls and boat races. At fusty old Judas College, the arrival of Zuleika Dobson, Edwardian femme fatal extraordinare, causes chaos because the sex starved undergraduates all fall in love with her immediately. It's basically the story of Samantha Brick, but set in Edwardian Oxford.

These painted illustrations by Sir Osbert Lancaster currently hang at the Randolph Hotel’s tea room. Lancaster is an alumnus of Lincoln and gifted signed prints to the Rectory, which is where I first encountered them. (Source.)
The majestically overdone purple prose and flights of magical realist fancy that festoon the novel are a delight to read. They're also acceptable, to my literary-creative-writing-trained mind, because they are satirical of the Edwardian novel. In fact, think it was my encounter with Zulieka that first turned my head away from the "pure" writing style school as figure-headed by Hemmingway.

Finding it sexist, old fashioned, and self indulgent, many of my Staircase 22 chums found is impossible to finish the book. They're completely right, of course, but there is something impossibly appealing about Beerbohm which I don’t think will die any time soon.

As Bertrand Russell was sensible enough to put it:
I read Zulieka Dobson with pleasure. It represents the Oxford that the two World Wars have destroyed with a charm that is not likely to be reproduced anywhere in the world for the next thousand years.

Footnotes

* Lincoln College's accommodation is arranged to the medieval staircase system rather than in the Victorian corridor style. Rumour had it that Staircase 13 was where Prince William stayed when he was in Oxford for interviews, thus explaining why SC13 has a more advanced security system than the other staircases. Sadly, I once asked the Rector** if this was true and he told me Prince William didn't even apply to Lincoln.

** The Rector being the head academic and general leader of men at Lincoln. The title presumably is a remnant of the days when Lincoln was a religious institution.

*** Project Gutenberg is so wonderful I cry a little whenever I mention it.

**** Beerbohm seems to have been found of meta-textual circular logic, as anyone sensible would be. In the short story “Enoch Soames” fromSeven Men, Enoch makes a pact with the Devil to travel forward in time and read about his literary legacy. Sadly the only mention of himself he can find is a dictionary article about a short story by Max Beerbohm:
in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld "Enoch Soames"—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im!

4 April 2012

Review: The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes by Chuck Zerby

I think the best way to capture this book's sense of humour, which underlies not only the book's execution but is conception as well, is through quotation. First, here is a snippet from an article I found elsewhere on the Internet:
At a recent event at the Jeffrey Amherst Book Shop in Amherst, Mass., Zerby charmed his audience by reading from the book standing up, then sitting down whenever he came to a footnote. "We completely sold out at the event, and we've had to reorder and we've sold those out," said manager and book buyer Marie Dunoford. 
Secondly, here is a snippet from the book itself:
A full-scale assault on the dignity of the footnotes was mounted in the United States [by] The New Yorker, whose urbane and unscholarly humorists were apparently hoping at that time [the 1969s] to gain respectability by pretending to be literary. [Zerby, 113-4]
Later, in an asterixed footnote on page 117:
We should note, however, the strange case of one of the New Yorker's most esteemed writer: J. D. Salinger. Franney and Zooey, his interlocking stories, first appeared in the magazine; a few pages into "Zooey" a footnote, of all things, pushes its way into the narrative, in fact sprawling across the bottom of two pages. [...] By no means do I wish to suggest that the embarrassment explains even in part Salinger's subsequent years of seclusion in New Hampshire.
Zerby's style is inspirational. Not content to simply put forward his argument, which I will come to presently, he adorns it with in-depth historical contextualisation, literary criticism ranging from the frivolous to the insightful, and lots of humour. "Why give one example when you could give eight?" may well be his dictum. 

Predictably, he uses plenty of footnotes. 331 of them, in fact.


In The Devil's Details, Zerby puts forward an argument for the continued dramatic use of the footnote. Publishers and scholars, although once heroes of the footnoting world, are presented alongside New Yorker journalists as the villains of the history of annotation, who use their positions of power to deride the footnote when they should in fact be utilising it in abundance. One by one, each of these plain-text freaks is shown to be a hypocrite, stupid, malicious, frivolous, or plain fusty. Meanwhile the analyses of footnotes in prose, poetry and scholarship ranging from the sixteenth-century Bishop's Bible through to Martin Amis's 2000 autobiography show a myriad of ways in which the footnote can add to both the enjoyment and elucidation of a text.

An especially memorable passage is Zerby's dramatisation of the creation of the very first footnote, an account detailed enough to stretch for some 20 pages. I'm sure we are all familiar enough with Henry VIII's 1538 call for Bibles "in the english tonge", but how many of us remember his caveat to exclude "any annotations in the margyn"? [Zerby, 22]

Well Zerby remembers, and he proceeds via detailed analysis of the economics of the printing business, Tudor criminology, and the technicalities of print production to describe how this dictate inspired a man called Richard Jugge to put annotations on page bottoms instead. (The story is much more complex that this. I can only recommend you find a copy of The Devil's Details and read it in full.)

This is not an academic book. Rather, it is a humorous book for academics. Or perhaps an academic book for humorists? The upshot is that there is a minimum of original research, and the argument presented is not always nuanced enough to appear seriously meant.

It's most persuasive logic, which remains tacit throughout, is simply "Here's a load of cool stuff you can do with footnotes. You should totes use footnotes and then you can be cool too."

Personally, I find this devastatingly persuasive.

You should read this book, not for a serious argument about the history and continued use of footnotes, but for the the range of footnote-themed lit crit provided, and for the humorous, annotative, scholarly aesthetic which permeates its core. For anyone interested in writing fiction or poetry (or poetic fiction, or fictional poetry) this is an excellent inspirational scrapbook and reference.

I was so pleased to read a book so exactly and confidently written in scholarly-fart-jokes tone I've been experimenting with recently. One of the reasons I started this blog, although I confess I didn't mention it to anyone at the time, is that I wanted to explore different types of reader-led writing for a specifically literary audience. Well Zerby's book really is, as tedious beginner reviewers so often say, a masterclass in academic-tinged comic non fiction.

As for the continued use of footnotes: is that even in doubt? He says, quite blithely using no footnotes for an entire post.

21 March 2012

Write. Shoot. Cut.: Film Night On March 12th & Ongoing Short Film Blog

It seems alumni of the short-film writing course I’ve just completed are in hot demand. One of my colleagues there, the film-devouring Ross McLean has already been snapped up as host of a monthly short film showcase called Write. Shoot. Cut.

Another alumni of the course, although this time from back in the day, was the writer/director of one of the six short films which made up the screening.

Gareth Peevers is the writer/director of Somebody’s Daughter, a project that was first written as the end-of-term project for the Writers’ Factory Introduction to Screenwriting Course.



The film is an intelligent response to the genre of American road horror. I was particularly interested in it because I’m exploring the idea of urban myths at the moment, and there are so many urban myths about lonely car journeys, hitch-hikers, and evil petrol pump attendants.

There’s something intrinsically horrific about car transport. The way the shell of the car is at once protection from the outside and a wall that stops you from seeing what it lurking in the car park. The way the ability to move means you can drive away from danger, but also away from protection. And that’s even before we start talking about service stations, or “cathedrals of misery” as Bill Bailey so aptly described them.

My favourite film featured was Office Romance 2.0, which is a romantic comedy about a lonely office worker and, ahem, a photocopier.



This is exactly the sort of film I wish I was writing am writing.

An interesting nugget gleaned from the post-screening discussion (each film had a representative writer or director that was interviewed by Ross) is that the script was originally written with no spoken dialogue at all. Apparently the director added some in – though quite why he did that I’m not sure.

Perhaps the actors needed speaking roles in order to get onto the IMDb?

Overall it was an excellent night, Ross’s interviews with the writers and directors were very interesting. I’ve suggested to the organisers that they consider making them available to non-attendees in some way, perhaps on their blog or on Soundcloud.

You may have noticed that this post is slightly late in the day considering the event was on March 12. I beg the StAnza Poetry Festival as my excuse.

If you’re liking what you’re reading you should learn about upcoming screenings and follow the excellent Write. Shoot. Cut. blog. www.write-shoot-cut.com The next Write. Shoot. Cut. screening will be on April 2 at the Banshee Rooms.

The Screen Academy Scotland, which is some complicated autonomous hybrid of Edinburgh Art College and Edinburgh Napier University, runs several courses that you should look at if you’re interested in writing for screen.