Lessons in Observation

Posted 8 March, 2008 by pengedad
Categories: occurrences, the writing life

Tags: , ,

03032008670.jpgGood observation is a skill every aspiring writer needs to nurture according the OU’s creative writing coursebook, a copy of which sits on my desk. The little details of what people do and say, the smell of city streets, the texture of seats in pubs, the colour of leaden skies, the taste of stale beer: in short, the wit to notice things that might otherwise be consigned to the wallpaper of common experience, or words to that effect. And then, of course, be able to write it all down.

The trouble, I find, with attuning to the small things is that every so often one misses a whopper.

“Do you understand the reason why your car has been immobilised, sir?” The female voice at the other end of the phone was clearly used to saying this line. She sounded polite but resolute, no doubt well-practiced in maintaining professional dignity in the face of outraged and irate callers.

By now, though, I’d gone past anger and was feeling reasonably philosophical. After all, there was only myself to blame.

“I imagine it’s got something to do with the sign I’ve parked beside that says about unauthorised vehicles being wheel-clamped,” I said.

Her tone lightened a little as we discussed the terms of my freedom.

£120: that is the cost of a lesson in acute observation in this part of town. A little steep you might think, but a lot quicker than a long weekend on one of those Arvon writers’ workshops and possibly slightly cheaper.


Onwards, Upwards, Roundaboutwards

Posted 14 February, 2008 by pengedad
Categories: interludes

What a strange thing it is to be rolling along one minute only to pitch right off the wagon the next.2263957476_8869f4dfc8_o.jpg There I am, blogging away from June to Christmas, not exactly prolific but far from idle either, and then, as the first day of the new year dawns, my cyber-muse goes up in smoke. Now, how capricious is that, I ask you?

However, I have not been doing nothing all this time. I have been turning my thoughts to fiction. I’ve been toying with this for a while, by way of pursuing a constructive and inexpensive passtime really, but had a bit of a nudge along the path when my little tale of gothic dread in Crystal Palace (the one I tried to complete in time for last Hallowe’en, remember? Oh, never mind) made it into the small but nonetheless perfectly formed “One Eye Grey“. So, I get to thinking, maybe I should spread my literary wings just a little and see what occurs with a little application. More anon.

And as the World Completes Another Turn…

Posted 31 December, 2007 by pengedad
Categories: interludes


I find it hard to believe that I’ve managed to keep this blog going until the end of the year, but the fact that I have goes some way to showing the redemptive power of liberal helpings of purple prose marinated in its own drivel, washed down on occasions (I am the first to admit it) with a dash or two of bulls**t.

So now, Soulcompost, to what heights do you aspire next year? It is only an hour and a half away, you know.

Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s an excellent question and deserves a considered answer. Let me pop a log on the fire, pour myself yet another glass of bo****ks and think about it.

In the meantime, a very happy New Year to us all. May it be a peaceful and creative one.


Posted 24 December, 2007 by pengedad
Categories: observations&reflections

Tags: , ,

I felt self-conscious asking. I always do in situations like this; don’t know why, perhaps it has something to do with broaching conversations with strangers. Irrational, silly, but a hard habit to break nonetheless. I suppose it’s the same with parties, but at least at those you can be propped up by a drink or two, something to calm the nerves and occupy the hands. Still, the clock was ticking, there was no Dubonnet to be had, and so I pressed on: “I don’t suppose you have any panetone, do you?”

The man with close cropped white hair stood up from the boxes of ‘Taste the Difference’ mince pies he was arranging on the low shelf in front of him. The sleeves of his orange jacket were pushed up to the elbows. He looked tired I thought, glad there was only an hour or so until he could get home. He pursed his lips and looked down and to one side for a moment. My question, I thought, had clearly struck him as one needing proper thought and due consideration. While I waited for his answer, I tried to make out the picture and words making up the faded tattoo on his forearm. It looked like some sort of insignia, I wondered if it was an old army memento.

“Now, sir,” he at last said, his lined face a study in solemnity and his accent betraying him as a born, or at least mostly bred, South Londoner, “what sort of product would that be?”

There was a time, I am sure, when to ask for panetone in Sydenham would have been an invitation for a slap. But instead he led me to a woman in a dark blue V-neck with fashionable glasses; you know, those old NHS plastic tortoiseshell jobs, only heavier in outline and, needless to say, most certainly not free at the point of delivery. With an official air she told me that, with regret, the Savacentre had sold out of the aforesaid Italian christmas cake. I suspected she had been trained for something like this.

As I stood in the queue at the checkout, my mind turned to the flow and change of the urban landscape. Not only through the rise or fall or refashioning of its architecture, but in the values and aspirations of its dwellers, and never more strikingly than in those those who’ve lived there long enough, I thought to myself, to have beamed with pride as Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet, or celebrated Christmas with, well, Dubonnet. And so, where once panetone might have been seen as the gastronomic plaything of poncey arty types, it is now fare for the masses.

And the masses, it would seem this Christmas Eve, have beaten me to the punch.

Soulcompost would like to wish everyone who stumbles across this blog, regardless of culture, creed, or state of sobriety, a peaceful and joyous Christmas.

Stone Cold in Catford

Posted 23 December, 2007 by pengedad
Categories: London, travels

Tags: ,

20122007559.jpgBitter, bitter damp cold. Maybe I wouldn’t be feeling it so much if I was walking, but cycling is making the air cut straight through me, snatching away my body heat as it rushes past like a handbag thief in the night.

Still, here I am, peddling home at close to midnight, the warmth and seasonal bonhomie of the Cutty Sark Tavern a dwindling memory, as many miles ahead of me as behind, though now they’re all uphill. The shortcut around the back of the theatre in Catford is almost as quiet as the crypt. The orange glow from the christmas lights colours the grey, hard pavement and discarded wooden pallets left over from a day’s trading, making the street look strange, eerie. It makes me want to stop, to look along the road behind me, to the all-night kebab shop keeping a kinder light burning for the sake of late night souls in need of greasy succour.

A century ago, Shackleton’s crew, surviving off boiled seal blubber huddled together under a tarpaulin on a godforsaken rock in the South Atlantic while the man himself set off across the iceberg-riddled and barely liquid seas in a leaky bathtub to find help, entertained themselves with imagined fantastical feasts to keep their spirits up and hopes alive. Would the thought of doner, chips, extra chilli sauce have crossed their minds? Perhaps not. Maybe, even in their darkest moments, things never got quite that bad.

But, you know, there are times when a man truly arrives at the limits of his physical endurance and when, in the name of survival, the previously unthinkable becomes the only thing to do. As Shackleton must once have done, I make the hard choice…

He came from near here, you know.

Paradise Lost

Posted 13 December, 2007 by pengedad
Categories: travels

Tags: , ,

Paradise CircusI don’t get out terribly much these days but last week managed to wangle a trip to Birmingham courtesy of the ever-bountiful NHS for some much needed self-improvement. I won’t bore with the details.

I arrived in cold drizzle at New Street station, the even uglier sibling of Euston if such a thing could be possible, long after the sun had departed for some more exotic longitude. It was a joyless trudge through the damp neon darkness to my hotel, not helped by the wrong turning I took at the station’s exit. But still, my circuitous journey did at least give a chance to see the city centre at night.

Now, I am a Londonophile and I know that this may have unfairly coloured my opinion of other citys (Rome and Edinburgh excepted) over the years. I see this as a fault to be overcome, and so now I do try and look at places in their own right and resist the pull of standing them against the town that, fool though I may be, I love and call home. I am not including north London here, of course.

So it was that through the twin perceptual filters of childlike wonder and innocence I tried to take in the concrete vistas of Birmingham central. I even had another go, in case I’d got it all wrong, during my lunch break the next day. Daylight, surely, would reveal the true splendour of the place.

I remember our English teacher at school attempting to explain the meaning of the word euphemism. “It’s where you take something bad and call it something that, er, sounds better.”

“What, you mean like saying Millwall are a great team even when they’re shit so as not to get a kicking, sir.”

“No, not exactly. It’s more about making use of irony to take the anxiety away from something or to make you see it in a different light.”

“Don’t get you, sir.”

“Well, take the ‘Cape of Good Hope’, for example. It’s called that because in reality it’s a treacherous part of the world, full of danger for the seamen who pass through it.”

“Is that the Cape of Good Hope in Tooting Broadway, sir? Rough old place that is.”

A picture of Mr Edwards, fighting his desperate rearguard action against juvenile ignorance like a Welsh Michael Caine at Rourke’s Drift, came to me as I stood for a while on top of Paradise Circus. No, this roundabout really is called Paradise Circus. It’s got a shopping centre perched on top of it too, all smoky sheet glass and failed aesthetic aspiration, a testament to a brave new urban future as it must once have seemed. To someone. Somehow.

I’m sorry, Birmingham. I tried, really I did. I found your elephant easily enough, but couldn’t for the life of me see his castle.


Posted 28 November, 2007 by pengedad
Categories: observations&reflections

Tags: ,

Dunno. Maybe it’s some sort of delayed reaction to the chunky cords, a kind of psychic backlash. It’s been building up over the last couple of weeks, growing in barely perceptible stages from thought to 26112007524.jpgfeeling to urge to desire to compulsion. Hence, yesterday, I find my feet turning as if of their own accord into the emporium of the mystic that lies along the high street on the way to the Caffè Nero near work.

I have a sentimental fondness for sandalwood incense sticks though its been a long time since I’ve had any. I did light one up briefly when mrssoulcompost was pregnant with sonofsoulcompost a couple of years ago, but she had a bad reaction to the thick musky perfume and they’ve been either out of bounds or out of mind till now. It’s a throwback to a 90’s hippy thing possibly, the smell landing me straight back in a flat off Ladbroke Grove in the days when my ear was pierced, and I lived off cheap red wine and B&H and wore a cheap leather jacket to work.

But that was a long time ago. A different me. Now I feel conspicuously out of place walking up to the counter in my sensible trousers, carrying my packet of incense sticks like a teenager buying condoms for the first time.

“They’re very good, you know,” says the middle-aged woman behind the counter. She has a warm biscuity voice and long blonde hair with wisps of grey and a belt with an outsized silver buckle. “I call them the Rolls Royce of incense sticks.”

I think I smile and mumble: er, yeah. At least I don’t say they’re for a friend.

As I write this, a little part of me is back in Ladbroke Grove, and the ever so faint musty smell of damp in the study, the source of which I have yet to locate, is consigned, for the moment, to oblivion. Or somewhere like that.