Friday, 15 March 2013

odd of the Liver Bird

odd of the liver bird
odd of the liver bird

by Philip Lee

deus nobis haec otia fecit


eh blue which god vouchsafed this perch
so far above the ships at berth
in fervent scenes of graft or work

and did I plead for such a perk
to stand and squawk for what it's worth
a-skulking here all out to lurch

d'ye ken the gulls on yonder church
St. Nicks by name that comb the earth
like sparrows while in belfries lurk

the nightshift bats none miss the quirk
of early worms for there's a dearth
and precious nowt without a search

but micky blue to whom the beak did dirge
flew fleet and dumbly by the giant's verge

next up a passing heron heard
the windy whistling liver bird
to whom this sounded quite absurd

well hark at you disgusted said
to sit atop of all this lead
whyever don't you turn your head

in heaven's name but drop your guard
that jobless men from bars now barred
may drink to how unjust and hard

life is or like the Coogan kid
step father in that film he did
the time by art and dodge outbid

but so in awe of being over-looked
you'd only boo a goose whose gander's cooked

not so I swear by docker's hook
and don't deserve that last rebuke
nor play the drake to sleeping duck

you kick me when I'm down my luck
don't think I'd baulk to plant this duke
between the bills of any crook

that tried to take me for a rook
he's drunk who thinks a fancy's fluke
has pitched me o'er this pool of pluck

some god it was that passed the buck
from eyrie roof in reign to spook
those seamen who his rule forsook

so on the bird would plead of passing folk
if any of them knew which godly bloke

till late one night the bird awoke
amid colliding coils of smoke
to list as owl his tuppence spoke

with copper claws you craft and grope
a feather-brain on tether rope
and brazen wings you're past all hope

the myth of you is out of vogue
a specious cant your windy brogue
you're but the idol of a rogue

no god gave you this perch the globe
to watch no lord of patient Jobe
but bad king John in ermine robe

with falcon seal this borough he enrolled
in subs for which the barons pledged much gold

a moment's whistling wake was held
then dockers' hooks from decks were hurled
and ancient stories of the gulled

retold their souls from oceans pulled
and slaves transported half the world
to die in chains new lives revelled

as like from kings and queens rebelled
the empire's folk their flags unfurled
and union jacks from yardarms culled

the copper hulks turned rotten hulled
to sink while round the globe they curled
their feathers brained and nuts unshelled

thus godforsaken liver bird was penned
to roost in effigy at pier's end

Sock it to 'em!
Sock it to 'em!

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Story Engine

Story Engine
Story Engine

Churning hot air and the ether of e-fonts in its turbine, the Story Engine goes into hyper-drive. No longer is it enough for authors to package-up well-turned novels with fully-rounded characters in harmonious plots. Nowadays, character has to be spat out over min. seven vols.; plot extruded and cut into NBC House-bites (a modern novel skim-reads more like the extended treatment for an episode); and crafted writing gives over to pellucid style and “voice.” Indeed, whatever its timbre, a modern author's sarnd has to incorporate the gum-chewing, side-of-mouth rant of a Smart Alec on CiF (Come-off-it it's Free). While kerosene and steam explode in the heat and vortex of jet burners; it's chocks away as the modern serial novel reaches escape velocity two paras after leaving the tarmac. XL5 is off its trolley, Robbie the RoboWriter at the helm, Meccanoids and Clangers asking for his eta.
Where did all this spring from? Was it predicted? Who's the suspect, eh? George Orwell, writing in the late Nineteen Forties caught a glimpse of the future that is now showing. In his dystopian novel, 1984, he envisaged a totalitarian society where proles (the proletariat) are addicted to Victory Gin and porno/crime thrillers. These “novels” are not written by authors, but 'composed' upon machines that print-on-demand to formulae. The hero's girlfriend, Leila, is one of the middle-class Party-maids charged with programming the story engine; trusted by her controllers as immune to its corrupting ideas. For Leila has no creative input, there is no need. Demand is determined by market forces, and algorithms built-in to the machines produce the variations in character & plot to keep the novels just that bit different from each other. In fact, using an unexplained technology (Chaos?) best-sellers are regularly turned up. In 1984, even hit songs are produced by machines, though again Orwell doesn't go into detail about exactly how.
Surely we are not there yet? Surely 1984, which used to loom at us from around the corner - I'm one of those old farts who remember Punk Rock starting out in 1976 – is still some ways off? In fact, nowadays the future is a rather benign mirage, dimming and getting further off as time rolls on. We've almost erased its otherness. And anyway, today we ARE the future! Look at our technology! We have Search, Edit and Translation keys, customised Spelling, Grammar & Thesaurus Apps.. At the flick of a finger, we employ Meat Grinders, weasel-word weeders, Style & Format wizards. Why, we zonked writers sit tablet in hand parked on Mulholland Heights calling up ambient noise to transport us to the souks of Marrakesh or the icy wastes of Anarctica. But, Hey, composition is still in the hands of the individual, right? Writers get to be producer, director, camera operator & star rolled into one. The author is still the coolest dude to be, innit? Wronk!
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Munro split in 1958. Angela Carter never got to write any of the bestsellers she had in her. And Gore Vidal has joined Pan in the foothills of Olympus. The dream is over. Nowadays, even well-off authors are wage-bond labourers contracted to produce only what they are certified to know. Sorry, fellows, quoting Pink Floyd this early in the millennium, but Welcome To The Machine!
Previously on Goodreads... (back in the future) a nasty spat broke out between two contributors over a definition of the term dystopia. The details of the dispute, of how the 'red, red kovvy' ran and ran despite the efforts of Kofi Anan, are not pertinent here; however the barney threw up some interesting sub-threads. One of these related to the work of Winston Smith: Leila's boyfriend and hero of 1984. He toiled in another division of the vast Ministry of Truth, not producing works of fiction, but editing (fictionalising) back copies of The Times. It was his job to find, alter or delete old articles and reports which contradicted Official History or current Party Policy. Slips of edited-out text were dropped down a tube which, Winston believed, fed the fires of a basement boiler room. Little did he know, of course, the tube was not a good place to get rid of evidence he was cheating the system. Another layer of editors checked the falling slips on behalf of the Thought Police.... and so on. My point? On the Goodreads site, it is possible for a contributor to post an offensive remark unmoderated. Dozens of people may comment on it before for the originator goes back and alters or deletes the offensive words as though they had never been written! When the resultant narrative (called a 'thread') is read back, it has a middle and an end, but no actual beginning! Like the poems of Sappho, the original remarks can only be reconstructed from the quotes of others! But surely Goodreads' servers keep a record of everything deleted, altered or not?
Access to information is the way of the beast, power resting in the hands of those with the most knowledge. At the same time, the printed text withers away and we enter an era in which everything becomes fluid. At the lowest level, it's rather like we never invented writing at all. We're headed back to something more akin to oral tradition. Dozens of different versions of a story may circulate at the same time, multiple copies generating a canvas of infinite possibility. Thus Aeneas may die in the sack of Troy, or escape to Carthage, or even head straight on to found Rome. On the next level up are meta texts you may subscribe to; they are recapitulations of threads with the biggest contradictions resolved by arbitration, and the least left as incongruities. A simple example would be where a character is portrayed as being utterly evil in some sub-threads and misunderstood in others, cf Richard the Third. This generates a narrative line where the character's ambiguities are emphasised. But as everyone in the group may erase or cut and paste, who may retrieve the source code? At the upper level, there are the Master files, available only to Moderators. Every keystroke is recorded, requiring a special parser to trawl through the binary texts, sourcing conflicts, identifying common themes and predicting trends. Rather like being able to read texts in the ancient Latin, Greek & Aramaic originals, these Reading Room Keyholders are a small but powerful gang.
Fan fiction has of course played a huge role in creating Story Engines which recycle character, scenario and even plot to produce new works. Of course, much of what is created thus is naïve pastiche, comic parody or simple dross. Those writers who manage to attract a fan-base of their own are able to stake claims on the swelling ground. Lucy Hocking is the prime example of this, a member of multiple Trekky/Buffy clubs she artfully carved out a franchise-free pitch for her gothic/teen/campus novels. Fans download her speedily drafted vols, editing the spelling, grammar and continuity errors her daytime job doesn't allow time for. If she is ever stuck for a plot idea, she has only to open her comments box and Fans earn much kudos (though not many scudos) from her open acknowledgements. In under two years, she is able to sell-out to a conventional publishing house, ditching her fan-based Story Engine for the usual troupe of agents, editors and the other groupies Fame & Fortune is eager to supply.
Fan fiction isn't that new, Trekkies and Dr Who fans have been sharing their words since the early 70s. Nor is live group writing. Many years ago, I went on the road with a theatre company - an outfit that made a new play each performance by brainstorming ideas from its audiences. At the start of the show, they performed a quick sketch to get the audience in the mood and posit an idea. Straight after, they came out of character and set up a flip chart in the middle of the stage area. Then they asked the audience how they thought the sketch should continue. Every single word the audience threw at them was written up on the chart, and in the process skilfully creating a plot. Finally the actors invited members of the audience to come on stage and help perform the play that they themselves had come up with. For the actors, every performance was a gruelling test of creative response, improvisation skill and sheer patience. You would think it a miracle how they could go on doing a different show every day/night. Yet, spending a few days with them, I began to see there was a formula behind their way of working and that each show was, in more than one sense, no different than the others. The lack of an author's hand combined with the collective subconscious of the audience produced a kind of scatological romp of a show. For example, a youngish lad in the audience shouted out, “the policeman farts!” He was then asked to play not the policeman, but the policeman's fart, wafting across the stage and knocking out the robber.
After the show, I told my friend (one of the company) how funny and original it was. He replied, “Oh yes, the fart. Usually get that two or three times a week.” Though I was still stunned by it, my friend's six months on the road had shown him most everything an audience could come up with. As an engine of creativity, the public mind is, well, unsubtle in its predictability. It seems the shared, live nature of such story telling lifts and transforms the dynamics of a schoolroom snigger to an acceptable form of public enjoyment. Just as the chance to have rubbed e-shoulders with Lucy Hocking boosts her audience; contributing something you believe is original (to her spelling, her grammar, her plot-lines) and thereby share her glory, allows you to enjoy participating in her success.
So what do I say in conclusion? Write your own?
Story Engine
Sock it to 'em!