Four quotations about COMEDY

American author, Mark Twain: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

British writer and comedian, Barry Cryer: “Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.”

British actor, Peter Ustinov: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

American film director, Woody Allen: “I’m thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”


What do you think?

A friend of mine in Brazil left the hectic megacity of São Paulo in the 1970’s to live a quieter life, a thousand miles or so to the north west, in the state of Mato Grosso.

While there, he got to know some native Brazilians of the Xavante people. And he brought one of them – a young man called Rubens – with him on a visit to São Paulo.

Rubens had never seen a large town before, let alone a city on the scale of São Paulo. So, before anything else, my friend took him to the top of a downtown skyscraper where he could take a proper look at the place.

The young Xavante took his time, staring out at the city, which stretches off as far as the eye can see.

He didn’t say anything. He walked across to the other side of the building.

There he looked down at the same urban scene, sprawling in the opposite direction.

Still he didn’t say a word.

So my friend asked, “O que que você acha?” (“What do you think?”)

Rubens replied, “Não vai dar certo.” (“It’ll never work out.”)


vista 4




I came across this a couple of days ago…


Joey's first alphabet 2011


It was written by my elder son, Joey. It was his first try at writing the alphabet.

Joey was four at the time. I was sitting nearby at the table, as he wrote it. And what I remember was the excitement that radiated from him as he worked at the task. It was a tricky but exhilarating journey, into a mysterious place he’d never been to before.

Remembering the mood it put him in, I’m left feeling that, when encouraging beginner writers, we should do everything possible to feed (and keep alive) the sense of excitement and adventure which comes from setting out on the journey into writing.

I may be a few years further down the line than Joey, but I’m still on that same writing journey myself.

And that sets me thinking us older writers, too, should do everything we can to keep alive the feeling of excitement and adventure…as (like Joey) we take our tricky routes into mysterious places we’ve never been to before.


Three quotations about WRITING AND PASSION

American science-fiction author, Melissa Scott: “Writing isn’t generally a lucrative source of income; only a few, exceptional writers reach the income levels associated with the best-sellers. Rather, most of us write because we can make a modest living, or even supplement our day jobs, doing something about which we feel passionately. Even at the worst of times, when nothing goes right, when the prose is clumsy and the ideas feel stale, at least we’re doing something that we genuinely love. There’s no other reason to work this hard, except that love.”

American novelist, Judy Blume: “The only thing that works with writing is that you care so passionately about it yourself, that you make someone else care passionately about it.”

Russian and Soviet poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, “If I were taken beyond the ocean into paradise and forbidden to write, I would refuse the ocean and paradise.”


What’s the difference between a story and a lie?

This comes from a book published in 1984, by the American author Paula Fox, called ‘The Servant’s Tale’:

“What’s the difference between a story and a lie?” I asked.

“A lie hides the truth, a story tries to find it,” Nana said, impatiently.

I strained to grasp her meaning.

“Don’t worry,” she said soothingly. “You’ll see it all some day.”

I understood enough to know that Nana saw what others couldn’t see: that, for her, the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.


I was sad to hear that the poet Seamus Heaney died today.

I’ve long loved the mix with which he wrote…of sharp-eyed observation, challenging thinking, musical language and an almost startling awareness of the weight of each word.

He and his friend Ted Hughes were the two elder poets working in my corner of the world as I made first, clumsy attempts at writing poetry in my teens.

When it came out, in 1982, my father gave me their anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, as a Christmas present. I was seventeen. It was quite some present – an amazing, travelling collection of poetry.

I can remember feeling new things going on inside me as I turned the pages of that book…trying to keep up with the new words, the unfamiliar names, and the range of poetic styles from all round the world and all across the centuries.

It was one of the moments when a cultural object seemed to burst open something in my young mind.

It had happened three or four years earlier when I put on the first album by the punk band Stiff Little Fingers, and dropped down into the fierce, dark guitars of the opening song.

I remember seeing Joan Miró’s strange, blue work ‘Painting’ at the old Tate Gallery as a teenager. And the world suddenly seemed bigger and bolder than I had thought.

Similar things went on as I stared my way through a season of Luis Buñuel films that was on the television around then.

I even remember a building having the same effect – the first time I looked up at the glass and bright-coloured tubes of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, aged 16.

What was bursting? Horizons? New doorways? The innocence of someone yet to leave home? I’m not sure how to put it. All I can say is that each time it felt like something opening that wasn’t going to close.

I heard Seamus Heaney reading his poems, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2002. I remember him being refreshingly bumbling (coming on the stage with his poems in a tatty old bag) and, with it, serene and tuneful.

He read with passion and care. The most beautiful poem of the night was ‘At The Wellhead’, in which he describes his wife’s shut-eyed singing and talks of Rosie Keenan, a blind, musical neighbour in the farming community where he grew up, who opened his young mind to the possibilities of music and poetry.

At the end there were questions for him and someone asked, “How did you become a poet?” Seamus Heaney replied, “It’s a mystery to me, happily. At school I wasn’t good at English. I was good at sums.” Then he added that there were ways in which maths still felt central. He tried to remember the mathematical formula for work. Someone in the audience helped him: WORK = FORCE + DISTANCE.

Yes,” said Heaney, with sudden passion. “And it’s the distance that’s so important. It’s no good if you just dump it down. Move it!


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown, headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.

by Seamus Heaney (from ‘The Spirit Level’, 1996)



Childhood is

“Running our schools like performance institutes is
an outrage. Rather than instilling a love of learning
we are alienating our children and our teachers.
Let’s work to bring the awe-inspiring ‘journey’ back.”
Syracuse Cultural Workers


Three quotations about STORIES

Jewish-American author, Isaac Bashevis Singer: “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t written, men would live like beasts, only for the day…”

British art critic and novelist, John Berger: “Stories are always taking things from one place to another.”

Nigerian author, Ben Okri: “Without fighting, stories have won over more people than all the great wars put together.”



A few weeks ago, I performed in a ‘storytelling marathon’ in São Paulo. A Brazilian storyteller called Dani Barros told this story. She heard it while travelling in Burkina Faso and Mali…

There was once a path which led through a forest. At the end of this path was a village, and the village was famous for a particular reason. People said that whoever went there was changed in some way.

It was a long way to the village. The path wound through the forest for many miles. And about halfway along it, there was a house where a widow lived with her son. This was good news for travellers on their way to the village. Many of them would break their journey at the widow’s house, and sleep there for a night.

That’s exactly what happened one day. A stranger came walking along the path and, when he reached the house, the widow went out to greet him. “It’s a long way to the village,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to spend a night with me and my son.”

The stranger accepted. The next day, he carried on his journey.

Several weeks went by. Then the traveller came back. “How did you like the village?” asked the widow.

“I was disappointed,” the man said to her. “I thought it was going to be special in some way. But it’s just a village in the middle of a forest. The people have very little. Nothing interesting seems to happen. So I decided to leave the place.”

“Of course,” said the widow, and the traveller went on his way.

Only a few days later, another stranger came walking along the path, and the same thing happened. When he reached the house, the widow went out to greet him. “It’s a long way to the village,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to spend a night here.”

The stranger accepted. He spent a night with the widow and her son. Then, the next day, he continued his journey.

Several weeks later, the stranger came back. “How did you like the village?” asked the widow.

“It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” he told her. “I couldn’t believe how colourful the flowers are and how tall the trees grow. Children run around freely, and the older ones look after the younger ones. Every night the villagers gather together to dance and tell stories. I felt so happy there, I’ve decided to go and fetch what I own, and go back to live there!”

“Of course,” said the widow, and the traveller went on his way.

When he’d gone the widow’s son said to her. “I don’t understand. One traveller came back and he told you he didn’t like the village, and you said, ‘Of course.’ Then the next traveller came back and told you he loved everything about the place, and you said exactly the same thing!”

His mother replied, “Well, that’s because everyone sees the world according to what they have in their heart.”

And the boy said, “Of course.”

Forest Burkina Faso 1

Writing secrets – FLYING CROOKED

I’ve been working on a second novel for teenagers. It’s a tough piece of writing (for reasons that will become apparent if ever I get to the end of it and it becomes a book.)

Recently there have been some days when I’ve flown along, covering lots of pages. But there have been plenty of other days when I expected to fly along, covering lots of pages, and actually found myself spending long hours on a single paragraph, or getting nowhere at all.

There’s an Oscar Wilde story I like. He said he spent an entire morning working on a poem, and all he did was put in one comma. Then he worked on the poem all through the afternoon, and all he did was take the comma out.

Oscar Wilde liked to exaggerate, for comic effect. But I find this story of his completely believable! Writing gets like that.

Some years ago, the difficulty…the stops and starts…and the getting-nowhere in spite of all the trying might have left me feeling dejected…perhaps pessimistic about what I was doing…probably frustrated with myself.

But I’ve been writing books for long enough now, to know that the bad days are intimately connected with the good days. You can’t afford to puff yourself up when it’s going well, or deflate when it’s going badly.

I’ve talked about this with my friend, the painter, Ed Gray. He’s described going through exactly the same good times and bad times when working on paintings in his studio. And he has a good little saying to deal with it: “The important thing is to show up.”

Sometimes I can ask myself if I’ve “shown up” for my work in recent days, and the answer is, “No.”

If I look back on recent weeks, the answer is “Yes.” And when that’s the case, I find myself feeling quite optimistic about the slowness, and the detours and difficulties along the way.

This poem, by British writer Robert Graves, has become a favourite:


The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
He has–who knows so well as I?–
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)



A thought from the British author, Philip Pullman: “Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”