Carmen and Les Mis´

August 31, 2011

OK, the rewrite is well underway, got to page 70 yesterday and today is devoted to it.  Could be finished by the end of the weekend.  It’s more fun than I had expected, adding new bits and weaving them into the old bits like a tapestry. 

Some may think that having to tinker with a novel that had been accepted by a great agent would be a disappointment but I’m not seeing it like that at all.  I like opera and musicals and am reminded of two; Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire and is usually a sellout, yet, difficult to believe, it was a failure when first performed.  It had great music and a good story but lacked that certain oomph that production qualities bring.  The same with the musical, Les Miserables. First performed in French in Paris it failed and only succeeded when Cameron Mackintosh cast his magic wand over it.   I don’t know whether it’s still running but it’s been a monster success.  Well, Victor Hugo wrote the script.  In both cases, success was achieved by giving the audience what they wanted, not what the writers wanted, but in the end both are happy and that’s why outside objective feedback is so important. 

The moral is that 99% is not good enough; it has to be 100%.  The difference is small but so important; the difference between success and failure.


Now, the rewrite really begins…

August 28, 2011

There are a number of problems with rewrites, even fairly minor ones, and the main one is that there is little scope for the creative process.  That was reserved for the original manuscript when the author is screenplay writer, director and actors combined.  Retaining the freshness of the original is, of course, essential but that is easier said than done.  Deciding how to play each scene, how to start it, how to progress the story and provide the hook, all these things are essentially creative because you start with nothing.  Not just that, but each scene has to be spare with no non-essential words and nothing off-plot.  Writing a blog is easy; it takes a few minutes to jot down 500 words but a 500 word scene can take a day.

Now, I started the rewrite yesterday.  Up to page 3 was easy but now I have to add a new scene which introduces the hero and his girlfriend; this is all new.  My original MS started with the intention that the hero would be task-orientated but about halfway through the book, I realised that he was coming out a bit characterless, like a Dan Brown hero.  So I added the girlfriend so that the hero had some kind of life outside saving the world, and then integrated her into the story.  The trouble was that she first appeared too late in the narrative, hence the need for the new scene, which will also need to be seeded here and there in the remainder of the bo0k. 

Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who cannot write to order.  I  have to have the driving need to get the words down on screen before I can write and, before that, I need to be able to envisage the scene completely.  Once I set off, I work fast but there’s more time spent thinking about it than doing it.  I mentally set the known beginning and desired end, then sleep on it, and think about it when I’m doing other things.  Suddenly, I know how it will be and that’s when the need to get it down on paper overrides the need to feed the cat, sit in the sun on a sultry Sunday afternoon and I think that moment is now.  Damn.  It’s a lovely day as well…

The English

August 25, 2011

As I roam around the streets of Carvoeiro, I’m aware that the English are the most easily identifiable; the men are tattoo´d, shaven headed and have beer guts, the women are fat and frumpy and the kids look like every parents´nightmare.  I remember back in Amsterdam that whenever I saw a bunch of men (always men) behaving in an objectionable manner, they would invariably be English.  The Dutch, who drink to have fun, could never understand it.  I also recall way back in University days that there was a Flanders and Swann song that was doing the rounds.  In these days of political correctness it would be completely unacceptable, which makes it even more delicious to quote the words below and wonder where we went wrong:

The rottenest bits of these islands of ours
We’ve left in the hands of three unfriendly powers
Examine the Irishman, Welshman or Scot
You’ll find he’s a stinker as likely as not

     The English the English the English are best
     I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest

The Scotsman is mean as we’re all well aware
He’s boney and blotchy and covered with hair
He eats salty porridge, he works all the day
And hasn’t got bishops to show him the way

     The English the English the English are best
     I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest

The Irishman now our contempt is beneath
He sleeps in his boots and he lies through his teeth
He blows up policemen or so I have heard
And blames it on Cromwell and William the Third

     The English are moral the English are good
     And clever and modest and misunderstood

The Welshman’s dishonest, he cheats when he can
He’s little and dark more like monkey than man
He works underground with a lamp on his hat
And sings far too loud, far too often and flat

     The English the English the English are best
     I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest

And crossing the channel one cannot say much
For the French or the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch
The Germans are German, the Russians are red
And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed

     The English are noble, the English are nice
     And worth any other at double the price

And all the world over each nation’s the same
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
And they practice before hand which spoils all the fun

     The English the English the English are best
     I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest

It’s not that they’re wicked or naturally bad
It’s just that they’re foreign that makes them so mad
The English are all that a nation should be
And the pride of the English are Chipper and me

     The English the English the English are best
     I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest

This is on U-Tube at


A ludicrously unproductive day

August 23, 2011

I wonder how long it will take me to have done nothing much and not feel guilty about it?  This morning it was up late as we had no ins and out in the guest house, a few emails then  a bit of reading.   The current book is non-fiction, The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin, a pop critic for a Canadian newspaper, who is equally in love with the world of Bach.  I’d always wondered how to write about music in a way that doesn’t alienate people who don’t know the music, and this man can do it in spadefuls.  Wonderful writing. 

One of the things that we northern Europeans take a while to get used to here is fish.  Now, I can remember when the UK high streets had fishmongers, but, alas, no more.  In Portugal the fish counters in any supermarket are bigger than the meat counters and I stand fixated by the sight of great flounders, eels and rays that were dragged from the depths that morning.  Around Carvoeiro they catch mostly lulas (little squid) and you can see the boats out every night, shining their lights into the sea to attract the them.  Fresh, they are exquisite.  Non-fresh they are rubbery and hideous.  Anyway, something made me want to make spahetti alle vongole, so I went and got a bag full of clams and a few other ingredients.  Result: success even though I burnt the garlic a bit.

Celeste was here, as she is most days.  She had her hair done even though she said she thought it might be a waste of money if she dies on the operating table next month; you have to admire that kind of economic fatalism.  Anyway, she looked like a million dollars, so money well spent.   We could all fall under a bus tomorrow (though public transport here is like UK, so little chance of that) so let’s live for the moment.  That brings me back to my great achievement for the day, cooking a meal on spec just because I fancied the taste of shellfish, garlic and olive oil.  I can’t remember the last time that I could actually spare the minutes to simply concoct a meal for the sheer fun of it.  Perhaps that’s what retirement is; time to do insignificant things and find them satisfying.  I wonder when I’ll stop feeling guilty about it?

The house moving diet

August 22, 2011

Stop press!  Forget all those dieting books!  I managed to lose three kilos in three weeks just by retiring and moving house & country!  And I didn’t even notice it…and you can keep drinking!  Pass it on.

You know how it is when you move; you can’t find those little things and tend to miss them.  Little things like passports.  Bugger.  The last I saw of it was when I checked into my flight and now it has disappeared into some place where all lost passports go.  I think it’s the same place where all those little foldable umbrellas and lost keys go; a kind of Valhalla for detritis.    So, off to the Consulate at Portimao where the staff are actually very helpful.  They’re my kind of bureaucrats; they apologise for the paperwork.  Ok, it’s forms to be filled in and money to be spent but what the hell, some little passport gremlin is having a good chuckle at my expense.  They spend their lives laughing at passport photos, of course. 

One snag:  I have to get an incident number from the local police.  Now, I’ve been here three weeks and my Portuguese is minimal to say the least.  I normally manage with English, German, French and Spanish but today was faced with a blank wall of faces.  Ok, we sat down and used Google translating services which worked although it was rather slow and came up with some amusing malapropisms.  Name address, circumstances, etc, all the usual stuff.  Then we hit a brick wall.  Identification?  Who are you?  Can you prove it?

‘Well, yes, here’s my bank cards, credit cards, drivers licence.’

‘Why is the bank in Germany, senhor?’  (long explanation and I also have an account in Portugal).  ‘Why is your address on the driving licence in England?’ (long explanation).  ‘Ah, I see you also have a bank account in England.’ (Yes, and in Portugal).  ‘Do you have an address in Portugal?’ (Of course.)  Do you have your residencia?’ (no, not yet, I need a passport to do that).  Hmmm.  Furrowed brow.

I happen to be a Portuguese taxpayer as well and have a contribuente card and Fiscal number, and you would have thought that that might have impressed him; not many people pay tax here, you see, so that makes me something of a novelty.  But he still wasn’t impressed.  He clearly thought that any foreigner who contributed to his salary needed his brains testing. 

‘Photo ID?’  (I explained to him that we English feel that having an ID card is seen as an infringement of our valuable personal liberties, this in the most surveilled country in the civilised world).  He was not impressed again and started fiddling with his pistol.  I emptied out my wallet to find something that he might accept to confirm my identity but only a photo would do. Then he had a brainwave.

‘Do you maybe have a passport, senhor?’

The rewrite begins

August 20, 2011

My editor, Debi, sent me the latest report on Flight Into Darkness and has suggested some changes to improve the pace, so the rewrite begins today.  Well, maybe tomorrow.  Another rejection from another publisher with the same criticisms.  OK, OK, I got the message!

I got an email toiday from an old friend, Naomi Gluckstein.  Imagine a St Trinian’s schoolgirl who has had a career and retired; that’s Naomi.  She was a secretary at EASA and later moved to Technical Training but, at heart, she is a writer.  She’s started a blog, slightly pussycat orientated, but that’s OK, says Puggie.  Have a look:   Now she needs to dust off her two manuscripts and start putting herself about a bit.  Shouldn’t be too difficult for an old St Trinian’s girl.

Last night, we went to visit a couple of friends, Henry and Miguel, in Alentejo.  It’s 150 km away so was a sleepover.  Alentejo is the bit of Portugal north of the Algarve and south of Lisbon; it is the size of the Netherlands and has a population of 25,000 so to say it is tranquil is something of an understatement.  The house is in a village called Reliquias (pop. 500), a rather ugly, rundown and claustrophobic place that should be idyllic but isn’t.  The access road to the village is like a farm track and was clearly not designed to impress.   

Their house was rebuilt from a few cowsheds on the side of a hill ten years ago and now consists of a sweeping Hello Dolly staircase from which rooms emerge on the way up.  At the bottom is the lounge, kitchen and dining room.  The whole edifice melds nicely into the architectural style of the village.  It’s overlooked by the village church and is absolutely traditional, even to the extent of having the salts of centuries-old cattle urine seeping up the cob walls, requiring an annual whitewash inside and out.  

Having built it, they now want to sell it and can’t; it’s a classic case of developing a better house than anything else in the area.  Miguel prefers Lisbon but I think Henry will be there forever, a village fixture, referred to in hushed tones as the eccentric Englishman in the big house; the one who lives with another man.  A Portuguese man.  Fancy.  The only gay in the village. 

Miguel, who is a history teacher, cooked Bacalhao a Bras and it was fab but it always seems to me that there is an air of melancholy about the house – the exiled Englishman who doesn’t need to work, urbane and sophisticated, in a house that he didn’t really want and can’t leave.  He’d clearly be more at home at Ascot and I suspect that probably gets Christmas cards from Camilla. 

The weather has been uncharacteristically cloudy and wet.  In August, when the clouds gather, the sky seems so heavy that you feel you could reach up and touch it.  Then it rains muddy water with Donner und Blitz, covering cars in Moroccan sand and detritis.  Then it´s over, the skies clear, it´s mercifully cooler and the fields smile in appreciation.  Back to normal tomorrow. 

Now, where is that report of Debi’s?  Oh, maybe a glass of wine first….

Doktor Mirakel?

August 18, 2011

Luis’s mother, Celeste, is out of hospital so you’d think that she’d just be pleased to be out of the company of sick people.  But, here in the Algarve, people who have been failed by conventional medicine often go to see Wim.  Wim is a Dutchman who always reminds me of an ultra-serious Swedish actor playing some Ibsen role; a world-weary frown lining his face.  He lives in a house in a field and has queues of people waiting to be zapped.  He is a follower of Hulda Clark, an American ´healer´ who was chased out of the US to Mexico where she died of cancer, having not been able to treat herself.  From my research I have found out that her basic premise is that all modern medicine is a sham to bolster the profits of drugs companies and that most illnesses can be electrocuted out of existence.  Aparently it is particulaly good at targetting viruses deep in cell DNA.  Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  It reminds me of one of the stories of ETA Hoffmann where the mysterious Doktor Mirakel turns up at the right moment to claim his next victim whilst claiming that everything will be well. 

You probably get the impression that I am rather skeptical, however, I have been to see him once out of curiosity, and he analyses overall health in a rather holistic way; he and his wife Selma chant a litany like priests at Mass, while he does the laying-on of hands.  Now, the spooky thing is that he has an uncanny ability to get it right.  When he has finished a consultation, he tells you exactly what is wrong with you, from the most pernicious viral infections to lower back pain or minor dormant ailments.  Whether he detects outward signs of sickness from movement or expression, I don’t know, but he has a vast medical knowledge and disdain for traditional medicine. 

Now, his waiting room is always packed.  The house is full of barefoot people with their feet in water, clutching onto hand-held electrodes wired up to oscilloscopes (colloquially referred to as zappers).  The cost is trivial and he’s clearly not in it for the money. 

So, does it work?  As far as I am aware there is no evidence that is not hear-say.  However, so many people can so many people be so completely misled and deluded?  Is it faith in something that they don’t understand or a sign of the failure of tradional western-style medicine?  I know of one person who claims to have been cured of jaundice and streams of others who claim miraculous cures where conventional medicines had failed. 

The danger is that patients with dangerous conditions might give up conventional treatment and put themselves in peril.  I should point out that Wim makes no claims for his treatment but allows word of mouth to pass from one to another.  He doesn’t advertise because he doesn’t need to, he simply casts his eyes around his packed waiting room for evidence of faith in his zappers.  Charlatan or quack?  Dr Miracle or Doktor Mirakel?  My inclination is to keep a skeptical open mind because the human mind is probably a very powerful thing.