Young people in cafes

tapping away at a laptop keyboard

or simply texting

are ten a penny

but something you seldom see


is someone

usually a woman

(like J.K. Rowling

for example

but in this case

a young man)

actually writing

–  not typing  –

putting  pen to paper

and actually WRITING.

Titles and Opening Sentences

Ghost writers in the sky

I’m starting on an updated historical novel about Joseph and Mary with the working title:  “We need  to talk about Jesus“.

I’ve just finished a short story about witchcraft set in a 17th century Scottish village at carnival time with the title:  “Fowlis Fair” ( Fowlis is a village in Macbeth country)

My last novel – a complicated narrative about a feckless young teacher who was marooned on Ibiza with a plane-load of mostly upper-class schoolchildren and who let the school (and himself) down but came out quite well in the end – was called:  “Lucky Lord Jim of the Flies“.

And so on.

But you can spend ages trying to find a title for your writing, whatever it is.  Or for your painting. I don’t like it when a photograph of  a sunset over the sea has as its title “SUNSET OVER THE SEA.”  On the other hand, if Picasso hadn’t called his painting “Guernica” what would critics have made of it? And someone pointed out that ‘untitled’ is a title. Is “Catcher in the Rye” a good title? ” Moby Dick”?  “Pride and Prejudice”? How about one-word titles like “Departures”, “Distances”? The book I’m reading now is called ” A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In”. I think good titles tend to be a touch ironic, or metaphorical, or even poetic in some way. I’m not even sure they are all that important but you can spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to think up a ‘good’ one.
I’d be interested in your views on titles ( or opening sentences for that matter  – there’s another time-waster. Or is it? I get the distinct feeling after having read the opening sentence(s) that I’m going to enjoy this (or not).
Jane Austen  hits  the right note and tone from the very beginning: “It  is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife…..”
And similarily J.D. Salinger did pretty well in his opening to ‘Catcher in the Rye’:
” If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The same applies to the opening shot(s) of a film. After the first few seconds I know whether I can settle back and be transported for the next hour or so or keep glancing at my watch and listening to the rustling of  the chocolate eaters.

C’est le premier pas qui coûte



And Schubert. What shall I say of Schubert? That he taught me to turn a deaf ear to tittle-tattle? That he told  really funny jokes? That he must have done something wrong? Only that last one, I’m afraid, only that last one was true. But his jokes weren’t too bad either:
” When he was at the airport it occurred to Peter that  Gertrude, his usually reliable neighbour, hadn’t come round for the dog. He tried calling her on her mobile  every day but got no reply. And when he got back, a fortnight later,  what did he see waiting for him on the doorstep? “And of course you say, ‘the dog’,  and he says,   The 14 bottles of milk he had forgotten to cancel.”
That was one of his jokes. Not really funny? Perhaps it’s the way I write them. They were certainly funny the way he told them. Wry. Dry. He was fond of one-liners, he was good at themDid you hear about the dyslexic guy who walked into a bra?
He could rattle off a dozen or so in the time it took you to down your pint.

So I asked the man if I could join his aerobics team and he said it depends how flexible you are and I told him I couldn’t make Tuesdays.
We all had composers’ names: I was Mozart; my London contact was Bizet even though she was a woman. Blond. Big-boned. Wagner would have suited her better.
Where  did I meet Schubert for the last time?  Oddly enough at midday under that outlandishly huge astronomical clock in the main square with all the tourists waiting for the clockwork Jesus. Noon or midnight were the real treats when Jesus popped out followed by all his faithful, brown-robed disciples. People applauded as if they were real characters.
As usual Schubert was late, not that that worried him in the slightest. He never apologised however late he was, never explained what had kept him, just breezed in with some joke that made you smile.
When I left home, my mum said: “Don’t forget to write.” I  remember thinking: “That’s unlikely – it’s a basic skill, isn’t it?”
We were taken by Schubert  to the sleepy little town of  Strakovica  where we picked up Sibelius (and where Stevenson got the idea for Markheim, his short story about a murdered watch maker). We had a beer at Ticktalk’s, the pavement cafe which had formerly been the shop of the unfortunate watchmaker (whose murderer was never found). The sun was shining but it was cold enough for Schubert to put on his big black overcoat.
After that we went on to the very stylish glass and chrome building in the town centre where I was to give my lecture, a strangely transparent place for such secret shenanigans. At the ornate glass door, Schubert put an arm round my shoulders and said, ” If I don’t see you through the week, I’ll see you through the window,” his last and by no means his best joke.
I never saw him again.  

Saint Thomas Isle

GORMLEY 001 oil

There’s this river more or less in the heart of Embra that is

well worth a visit. The easiest approach is via the Gallery of

Modern Art (itself well worth a visit); a pleasant path leads you

down through the trees and  on a sudden, lo! the level waters

of Leith. If you walk a hundred yards downstream you come

to Saint Thomas Isle and it is here, any day in June, if you

suffer from any skin disease, acne, rashes, eczema, psoriasis,

impetigo, you must stand in the water, naked, stock-still, eyes

closed, until you have counted up to five hundred (using the

standard  ‘ 1 elephant…2 elephants….3 elephants’  method of


 When you open your eyes, you will be amazed to see that St

Thomas has indeed lived up to his  famous words of hope for

humanity: “All ye who suffer, come to me, and without

making any rash promises,  I will do my best to help.”

It is best to come early.

a G

Bootes The Wagoner

Staying overnight with friends in Melbourne,  Veronica, my wife,  who usually sleeps like a log, woke me by suddenly sitting bolt-right up, as if spring-operated.

“I’ve got to do something,” she was saying more to herself than me. ” I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something.”

While I was still trying to figure out where I was and what was happening, she threw on her white dressing gown and I heard the outside door open before I could even ask what it was that anyone had  to do at this time of night for god’s sake.

I looked at the alarm clock. Its green hands indicated 2.15. How embarrassing! I thought. She’ll wake the whole  household! and I waited for next-door’s big brute of an Afghan hound to start its barking, loud enough to wake the whole neighbourhood!

Next time I looked,  it was 3.10.

I got up and looked out of the window. The street lay empty in the white moonlight.  Empty except for Veronica  standing like an angel in a circle of light from a street lamp,   looking upwards, her dressing gown pulled tight about her.

I tiptoed downstairs.

The outside door was still wide open. I began to shiver as soon as I stepped outside.

Veronica gave me a quick glance  then resumed her upward stare.  I looked up but couldn’t see a  thing.  I looked down at her bare feet.  ” You must be frozen”, I told her. “Do you know what time it is? You’ll catch your death for god’s sake!”

She barely seemed to notice my arrival.

“Look!” she said softly like you try not to disturb a bird you’ve come across singing its heart out. “Just look at that!”

I followed her gaze but  still couldn’t see anything.

“Bootes, ” she said softly and pointed.

“Look.  Bootes the Wagoner.”



No-one has lived here since the terrible thing that happened in the forties. The war had just started  and the woman who lived here with her writer husband came from Hamburg (she pronounced it ‘haybag’ which made people laugh) .

Anyhow one day the postie noticed that the parcel he’d left for her outside the door was still there and he pushed open the door  (nobody locked their doors in those days, still don’t, most of them) and went in and called out her name ( she and he were on first name terms ).

No reply.

Perhaps they had gone over to the mainland, he thought, to visit the writer’s parents in Fraserburgh more than was likely (the father had his own trawler, so folk said) and he was just about to leave was the postie when he heard a strange noise from upstairs, not a cry, not a groan but something in between, the sound you yourself might make with a bag or a pillow-case or a letter-sack pulled over your head.

So he went upstairs to that room high up on the  left (you can just see the window)  and