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I write fiction & blog about books & films. There’s an archive of short stories & photographs. On this page, there’s a creative journal, of sorts:

Notes, etc — 2019

Translation is really a balance between elegantly communicating the spirit of the author’s tone and meaning versus the technical structure of the sentence.

Take the first paragraph of the Buddhist text, The Dhammapada translated here by Eknath Easwaran (my favourite):

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.

And this version by Valerie J. Roebuck:

Fore-run by mind are mental states, ruled by mind, made of mind. If you speak or act with corrupt mind, suffering follows you, as the wheel the foot of the ox.

And this version by Juan Mascaró:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

The same thing, more or less, is being said in three different ways. What’s more accurate? And what captures the meaning in a way that feels natural?

I can’t get behind Oxford’s ‘new translation’ of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims.

For instance, Leonard Tancock’s 1959 translation published by Penguin reads:

Whatever discoveries have been made in the land of self-love, many regions remain unexplored.

Compare this to Oxford’s ‘new translation’:

Whatever discoveries have been made in the realm of self-love, many unknown lands remain there still.

My money is on Leonard Tancock. He was a fucking genius.

Every time I re-read La Mettrie I’m stunned by his vision. If you thought Kraftwerk invented the idea of the man-machine, you’d be wrong. La Mettrie’s essays Man A Machine (1645), and Man A Plant (1648) are nothing short of sensational. You seek your truth — or you believe their lie.

It is not enough for a wise man merely to study nature and the truth. He must speak out on behalf of the small number of people who want to think and who can think. For it is no more possible for the others, who are willingly slaves of the prejudices, to attain the truth, than it is for frogs to fly.

After watching Altered Carbon when it came out on Netflix, and enjoying it’s hard boiled, pulp fiction, trashy take on sci-fi, the novel by Richard Morgan is slick and self-assured. Something of an enjoyable, but guilty pleasure.

Australian photographer, Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight is a ‘tour de force’ (did I really use that phrase?). It’s ridiculously good. I’m a big fan of stark, grainy monochrome photography, and this feels like the photography equivalent of a victory dance.

I re-watched Sliding Doors (1988) and felt disappointed. I can’t remember the film being brilliant, but I thought it was what passes for a bit of fun, intelligent entertainment. Has the film aged? Is it me? I don’t know. When I first saw it I must have been mesmerised by a young Gwyneth Paltrow. And, the device of using two parallel stories — seems like such a device of its time.

Almost Famous (2000) has some great moments, but it’s a bit of a cringe-watch because the protagonist is underage and being exposed a lot of basically dubious people and influences. If the central character was just a few years older this would be a different and altogether easier move to watch. As it is, it’s just slightly too weird. And not in a good way.

Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life (1988) reflects the author’s talent and skill. It’s a remarkably confident and slick reading experience. He’s held back on the literary flourishes of his other novels to give a first person, present tense account told from the protagonist’s point of view, in her tone and voice. The problem is that the protagonist is exceptionally uninteresting. The learning from this is simple — choose your protagonist wisely.

Geoff Dyer’s Zona (like Broadsword Calling Danny Boy) is a kind of scene-by-scene DVD commentary of the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker. It includes contextual information about the film’s production, and Dyer’s personal reflections. Anyway, all this got me thinking about the film again.

I saw Stalker late one night, when I was a teenager, and I wasn’t savvy with Soviet Cinema at the time. I wondered what the hell I was watching. The film defies many Western conventions of cinematic storytelling. Nothing much happens and its all, well... just plain weird. It’s an enigma wrapped up in an enigma.

Stalker is open to interpretation. The Zone is a kind of paranormal area, or in storytelling terms a metaphysical space of new possibility. Entering it seems to take the visitors into a kind of 4th dimension, like a Cubist painting, the space in-between space.

Stalker really is an art film. It’s not about aliens or strange places but about people and life, and the self. The landscape and industrial ruins are reimagined in a very Duchampian manner. Cinematically this whole world is akin to a ready-made: the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

A working-class character (the Stalker) takes two bourgeois characters (Writer and Professor) into the Zone, a mystical place where people go in search of The Room. And the two middle-class characters return exhausted and dirty. In a way, more working-class, more like the Stalker.

The mysterious Room is a place where people’s wishes are granted, or — more likely — where they gain an insight into themselves. Maybe The Zone has special powers, a magic of sorts, or perhaps the journey to the room is a learning experience that provides that self-knowledge?

The nothingness of The Zone provokes anxiety that leads to self-reflection — it’s a kind of mind-expanding experience. And that’s where the journey really takes place, in the mind. It’s like that other room, the cinema in-which the audience is watching this film. And when the audience leaves the cinema, perhaps their experience of Stalker will make them feel slightly different about life?

Yesterday evening, I leafed through my copy of Josef Koudelka’s Exiles. I remember being blown away by this book when I first looked through it at school.

And I was blown away, again, last night.

The book was a big influence on my own photography. I have a thing for dark, grainy photographs — the grainy glory of Kodak Tri-X (although Koudelka used East German 400 ISO movie film, pushed in the processing stage).

Street photography is very difficult.

You have to spend a lot of time walking around, constantly looking for images. It’s tiring work. Exhausting.

People look at you with accusatory expressions. What are you doing, they seem to say. In the days before digital, you’d feel the disappointment of not capturing something workable on a roll of film.

Even the best street photographers only get a handful of truly great images from a lifetime of trudging about, wearing out their shoes, and patience. That’s why this collection is remarkable. It’s full of amazing images. And they’re darkly, comically resonant.

There are a few other photographers who have achieved equally great images, or better, but there’s something about the way these images have been printed that makes them extra special, the grain, the high contrast, and the deep black shadows. The marriage of art with purpose.

For me, they’re not just a great collection of images, they are part of my creative memory. And then there’s that grain. It’s always there, always reminding you that these are photographs.

I’m listening to more audiobooks these days. It’s not something I used to do. I didn’t really see the point a few years ago. It meant fiddling around with cassette tapes and CDs. Today there’s no need for all that, or using flakey hardware from another century.

These days, with services like Audible, audiobooks are just another phone app. Plus, audiobooks are much cheaper than they used to be. There are times when it’s not possible to physically read a book, when you’re driving, doing the washing up, or just walking around. It’s these moments when audiobooks excel.

They also serve another useful function. Listening to an audiobook is different to reading. It frees you up to analyse the language as you hear the story without having to concentrate on reading the text. Most Audible titles can be played in the Kindle app. You can analyse the sentences as you listen to the story. That’s actually quite a cool thing. There are times when I’m struggling with a book, and I know that I can finish it by listening to the audiobook. I tend to read more in multiple formats, switching from reading to listening. There are quite a few Amazon Kindle books, which come with specially priced audiobooks, making the combined price about the same as a paperback.

Sure — there are downsides to audiobooks. It’s faster to read a book than it is to listen to one being spoken by a voice artist. Also, a lot does depend on the voice artist. Sometimes their voice fits perfectly, sometimes it feels like he or she has been miscast for the story or the main character (especially if it’s in first person). Some of my recent audiobook favourites include: Resevoir 13 read by Matt Bates, The Great Gatsby read by Jake Gyllenhaal, All Quiet on The Western Front read by Tom Lawrence, The Dark Room read by John Telfer, The Ipcress File read by James Lailey, and Notes on a Scandal read by Jilly Bond.

I’ve recently watched Flirting (1991), a likeable coming-of-age story, Sirens (1994), and The Year My Voice Broke (1987) — all directed by John Duigan.

There’s a common theme of sensual awakening, temptation and the hypocrisy of so-called traditional values. In The Year My Voice Broke, a small town coming-of-age story set in the Australian outback, Danny’s desire will never be reciprocated. But, he has more luck in the film’s sequel, Flirting.

The Australian landscape in Sirens is a kind of arid Sidney Nolan-esque Garden of Eden. The artist’s models bathe in a secluded watering pool, echoing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896). A snake is repeatedly shown winding its way into shots, at one point slithering over a copy of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West — the references are knowingly playful.

Where Sirens is a comedy about beauty and temptation, and Flirting is about sexual attraction triumphing over racial prejudice The Year My Voice Broke is about unrequited love, and loss — vivid experiences becoming recollected memory.

The landscape is integral to the story of the Old American West, and it’s everywhere in The Big Country (1958), framing the characters within its grandiosity.

The film features the usual Western story tropes: feuding family clans, land ownership, battles over water rights, male rivalries, macho confrontations, psychological intimidation, violent conflicts, and feisty women, but no Native American Indians.

Tonally, the film falls somewhere between the American post WW2 identity story and the 1960s Counter Culture. These post WW2 stories are all about men coming home, and adapting to new environments. They’re about finding a new kind of American hero, someone who can lead the nation to a better way of life. In a world filled with injustice, the audience wants to see a humble figure who is willing to fight for what’s right.

The Big Country doesn’t have the depth of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), that film’s social conscience, it’s radical undermining of the Cowboy myth, or its brooding Film Noir atmosphere, but The Big Country is a significant shift away from the helpless homesteader being attacked by monstrous Native American Indians — with the US Cavalry riding in to save the day.

The hero, Captain James McKay, a ship’s captain, is a man out of place in the arid Cowboy landscape. He is polite, behaves meekly, wears the business suit of a city gentleman, and rejects hatred. Any outward signs of ‘weakness’ hides a capable, brave, self-assured hero, who has what it takes.

Flirting is an endearing coming-of-age film from 1991 featuring a young Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, and Nicole Kidman. The performances of Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton are very good, as is the location which effectively conveys the warped micro-world of an old-fashioned boarding school. Danny is the school’s misunderstood sensitive intellectual who falls for a Ugandan girl from the school across the lake, which, of course, raises eyebrows in ’60s Australia, where the film’s set — but it’s all kept charmingly upbeat.

I don’t think fate is a creature or a lady... like some people say. It’s a tide of events sweeping us along. But I’m not a fatalist, because I believe you can swim against it... and sometimes grasp the hands of the clock face... and steal a few precious minutes. If you don’t... you’re just cartwheeled along. Before you know it, the magic opportunities lost. And for the rest of your life... it lingers on in that part of your mind... which dreams the very best dreams... taunting and tantalizing you with what might have been.

Geoff Dyer’s Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare is hilarious. The book works best if you watched the film in your youth, and you still find yourself venerating it, like it’s some kind of meaningful childhood artefact, your personal Rosebud. The book is a kind of DVD commentary narrated by the love child of Roland Barthes and John Berger: they approach the drop zone he looks at the blinking red light, pulsating like a headache, like a warning of imminent liver failure


Colonel Turner gives the briefing as though it’s scripted not by Alistair MacLean but by William Shakespeare.