Monday, May 30, 2016

Those mean ol' Brexit Blues

                                                               23rd of June Blues

I’ve got the Brexit Blues,
I’m sick of all the fuss –
All they ever say is:
Hey, what’s in it for us?

Are we safe in our homes?
Will we be more secure?
They dangle statistics
Like fish bait to allure.

Are we being ripped off
By the fat bureaucrats?
But on each side they wear
The same grey suits and hats.

Can we make more money
And keep the migrants out?
It’s marketing bullshit
Is what they’re all about.

And the Economy
They all say it will thrive
But they’ll need our vote or
It’ll take a nosedive

Out come the insults:
Election time again!
All got vested interests -
Those women and those men.

I’ve got the Brexit Blues.
My question’s simply hurled:
You live in one nation?
Or live in one sweet world?

That’s all there is to it.
Those self interested crews –
Those jerks they just give me
The mean ol’ Brexit Blues.

Yeah, those jerks just give me
The mean ol' Brexit Blues.

It was my plan to just run this, this week.  However, a few thoughts need to be added.

First is, if you’re reading this from outside the UK it is conceivable that you might not have a clue what I’m talking about.  So some explanation is required.  UK media are currently swamped with debate, propaganda and arguments about the election on 23rd June as to whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union (hopefully I don’t have to explain what that is – life’s too short – Google it!).  The inelegant term ‘Brexit’ has been coined by our media as a shorthand for this.

My contention, as outlined in the poem, is that nationalistic self-interest vastly outweighs principle on both sides of the argument.  As far as I’m concerned the principle is simple.  Do you believe we should still have nations and that they should be separate (then vote go)?  Are you an internationalist and of the opinion that we live in one world and the sooner we stop having nations at all the sooner we might become capable of finding world peace, tackling global warming etc. (then vote stay)?  Whatever the disadvantages really are, vote according to the principle – not ‘what’s best for us’ – and then WORK towards changing things for the better.

You can probably guess from stanza 7 of the poem or from the paragraph above which way I'm intending to vote.  However for me there is a complicating factor.  TTIP.  The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement.

If you don’t know about TTIP, PLEASE Google it!  It is as far as I can see, a totally pernicious development.  Amongst its many, sleazy, utterly anti-democratic measures, it will enable big corporations to sue national governments if they make any legislation that limits so-called free trade – no matter how environmentally sound, ethical and in accordance with the will of the electorate that legislation may be.

Bad news.  And last night, in a conversation with a friend whose views and political awareness I respect, it was put to me that its imposition upon us will be inevitable if we remain in the EU.  I questioned this, was it not possible – particularly if we remain under Conservative rule – that they would be eager to sign up to it whichever way the vote goes?  Her opinion was that we would be in a better position to resist it within a single nation, than to try to tackle the ‘European Superstate’.  She might have a point there.

I will stick to my principle, but it will be galling to think that a vote to remain could equate with a result favouring TTIP.  I just hope that, in or out, a way can be found to stop it.  Check it out and if you agree, sign a petition, donate to a campaign, join a march, tell your friends etc. etc.

Damnit!  None of this is going to help me sell my bloody book.  Here’s an advert to make up for it…


The Cult Book of 2016 is picking up steam!
Don’t be the last one to know – get it now!

Comments are coming in from readers of Wilful Misunderstandings, and so far they've been well positive.  Here's a sample:

Just to say I'm so enjoying your book. I've just finished 'Moon Bar Night'. It's mind expanding. How did you come up with that? Amazing. Loved the language, characters, everything about it. Your stories are like dreams half remembered, tapping into a seam (or seeming) of the unconscious mind.  (TJ Alderson - novelist)

I'm really enjoying reading Wilful Misunderstandings!  I love the feeling throughout the stories of shifting, malleable realities, it is so much fun and encourages thinking in new ways about the world. Love it! (Emily Hinshelwood - poet, climate change activist)

Quite fascinating reading.  I'm sure Alan Moore fans will enjoy his stories. (Flavio Pessanha - Alan Moore scholar)

And speaking of Alan Moore, if you've missed it so far, here's what he had to say about Wilful Misunderstandings:

With an unusual oulipo toolkit and a feigned bewilderment at the English language, Richard Foreman strikes a previously undiscovered seam of literary inspiration in this oddly charming compilation of deliberately misconstrued everyday phraseology. Words are the essential wallpaper of our lives and our reality, and when even the word ‘wallpaper’ can suddenly become a thing of eerie, alien beauty we are made uncomfortably aware of the peculiar worlds of possibility that lurk beneath the skin of our vocabulary. A passport to a parallel planet where nothing means quite what you thought it did, this book offers an excursion to a strangely familiar place that you have never previously dreamed of. Get your shots and book your ticket today.

So there we are.  Click on this link to Lepus Books (or go to Amazon etc. if you need to economise) and buy it.  You won't have any regrets.

Monday, May 23, 2016

He Bought Nothing

He Bought Nothing

If it hadn’t been for her appointment at the surgery that morning, she’d have gone to the market herself.  Of course he’d reassured her that finding bargains was not beyond him, after all it wasn’t exactly rocket science, was it?  She’d swallowed several curt retorts, even as they’d occurred to her in rapid succession.
Now he was back, and she had to admit he hadn’t done too badly with the veg, apart from three already browning caulis which he’d bought for pennies but which would have to be used pronto or composted.  It was when she asked him what was left of the cash he’d taken and he looked rather uncomfortable that red lights began flashing somewhere in her brain.
“Oh, well, I…  Um, I spent the rest.”
“What on?”
He flushed.  “Nothing.”
She lowered her eyebrows and looked at him levelly.  “You didn’t spend it on anything, but you managed to spend it?”
“That’s right,” he said, “I bought nothing.  There was this bloke, down on the edge of the car park, and there were loads of people there, and that’s what he was selling.”
Her frown deepened.  “What?  What was he actually selling?”
“You mean, he wasn’t selling anything?”
“That’s right.”  His eyes were now beginning to shine with enthusiasm.  “He wasn’t selling anything.  He was selling nothing.  And do you know, he made it sound absolutely amazing!  I mean, you don’t normally spend money on nothing, do you?  But once I’d heard what he had to say, I was thinking: ‘We could use some of that, we really could.’”
She folded her arms.  “I’m not really following you.  Was this some sort of gambling thing?  Is that what you’re trying to say?”
He shook his head vigorously.  “No!  Certainly not.  I’m trying to explain to you.  He demonstrated it, you see.  What nothing can do – right there, before our very eyes.  It was incredible.  I just had no idea what nothing could do.  It’s endless.  I mean, there is literally an infinite range of things that nothing can do.”
She could feel a headache coming on.  “Okay, okay…  Let’s look at this another way.  How much of… it did you buy and where is it?”
He returned her gaze with a look of pity.  “Don’t be silly.  I mean, you can’t keep nothing in a shopping bag.  It would just be an empty bag.  No.  Look, let me show you…”  He placed his hands, palms together, then moved them apart by about six inches.  “What’s between my hands?”
She realised what he was expecting her to say and stopped herself.  “There isn’t anything between your hands except air.”
He would not be thrown.  “Air, I grant you.  But if there isn’t anything else, there’s nothing.  Okay, now watch.”  He moved his hands until there was about a foot between them.  “See?  Twice as much.”  Enthused, he continued to move them apart.  “Three times as much…  Four times…  You see?  Now I’ve bought it, I can have as much of it as I want.  There’s no end to it.”
A possible fallacy occurred to her.  “Hang on, though.  If you’d done that yesterday, before you spent our money, the same thing would have been true.”
He was unperturbed.  “Would it?  Would you say that anything was missing yesterday?”
“Well, there you are.  Nothing was missing.  But today…  Today we have as much as we need.”
She felt a growing urge to scream at him, but resisted it.  "Look, I fail to see its value.  I mean, if it benefits us to have this, what does it actually do?”
“Well, if it’s endurance you want, nothing lasts forever.  If it’s help with something you’re doing, well then nothing works properly all the time.  Whatever it is, nothing does the job better than anything else can!  You just can’t go wrong with it really.”
She leaned towards him and sniffed.  “How come I can’t smell it?”
“What?  Nothing?  You wouldn’t be able to, would you?”
“No.  The alcohol on your breath.  You sound like you’ve been drinking, but I can’t smell it.”
He sighed.  “He did say it would be difficult.  Explaining, I mean.”
Hands on hips, scowling, she said: “Oh he did, did he?  Well I hope he also told you how you could take this ‘nothing’ back and get our money refunded.”
“Easily.  ‘There’s nothing to it,’ he said.  Except he won’t be there, of course.  He only comes the once and when he’s gone he’s gone for good.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Well, there we are.  Anyway, now I’m back, what’s for lunch?”
She took a deep breath.  The answer, when it came, was inevitable.

Monday, May 16, 2016


“Ladies and gentlemen, when you hear the words: ‘chance of a lifetime’, what do you do?  Shrug your shoulders and say to yourself: “Here we go again.”  Because, ladies and gentlemen, I know full well that you have heard it all before, and hear it all again you probably will.  But listen.  Listen carefully, because I guarantee you that what you are about to hear from me, you will never hear again.  Do I have your interest?  I do hope so.  Because, ladies and gentlemen, you will never see me again.  I come just the once.  And when I’m gone, I’m gone for good.
“Ooh.  Do I detect a little bit of interest?  One or two of you thinking: “Well, I haven’t heard that part before.”  One or two of you there at the back of the crowd, thought you might quietly slip away and see what anyone else has to offer.  But now you’re wondering.  And so you should be.  The chance of a lifetime doesn’t come your way that often.  You don’t want to turn your back on it, do you?
“’Snake oil’?  Is that what you’re expecting?  Waiting to find out what the ‘catch’ is…  But even there the story’s not so simple.  Recent scientific studies have revealed that the original snake oil, which was used by Chinese labourers on American railroads in the 1800s for the relief of joint pains, was in fact rich in Omega 3 – known for its anti-inflammatory properties.  So, ladies and gentlemen, deride with care.  All is not always as it seems.
“So what am I offering?  Well you may ask.  Eternal life, perhaps?  The secret means of locating your perfect partner?  Or perfection for yourself – a body that is the envy of all who see it?  Or maybe you have illness or some other travail in your family, your circle of friends, for which you seek a cure?  These, ladies and gentlemen, are the kinds of things you might expect from me.  But I have come here, once and for once only, to offer you something more valuable than any mere remedy, pick-me-up, charm or tincture.  I have come to offer you something infinitely more valuable and, moreover, something that requires your innate intelligence to appreciate…
“Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you… nothing!
“Yes.  Nothing!  Nothing at all.  But before you turn away, give it a little thought.  For nothing can provide you with eternal life!  Nothing can really give you that perfect partner you seek!  Nothing can shape you into that impossibly perfect form!  Nothing can cure all illnesses, solve all problems!  Nothing, ladies and gentlemen, can do anything!  Just how wonderful is that?  Just how much would you be prepared to pay for such a substance?  Something.  Of that, I am sure.
“Ah, now some of you are turning away.  I hear a few hoots of derision, a few jeers.  This is all to be expected, friends, for some will never have the capacity to perceive the true and eternal value of what I have to offer.  The rest of you, those who remain – you are the elite, you are the discerning, you are the ones who are reaching out for that chance of a lifetime.  Step closer.  Closer.  Closer still…
“Allow me to demonstrate its properties…”

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Creditors of Crinkle and Myxoma - Oulipo Enlarged, part 4

A last dip into N+7 (for now) as we wrap up this brief survey of Oulipo thought and activity, with a look at some offshoots and a tentative evaluation.

The Creditors of Crinkle and Myxoma - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 4


By now, it should be clear that the application of constraints/restrictions to stimulate creativity need not be confined to literature.  Hence ‘Ou-X-Po’, where X = an abbreviation standing for a form of media, as a blanket title for a slew of groups, each dedicated to developing methods of creativity within its field.

One major group is the Oulipopo (Ouvroir de Littērature Policiēre Potentielle), consisting of the creators of crime and mystery stories.  It is their pleasure to convert the plots of Agatha Christie stories into complex mathematical formulae and they are devisors of the ‘Cartes Noir’, a series of 36 playing cards ‘which allow the player to construct complex plots for detective fiction in only a few hours’.

Another is the Oupeinpo (derived from peinture/painting) which covers visual, graphic and plastic arts.  Codes, matrices, isomorphisms, rotations, superimpositions -–these and many more are amongst the constraints they have explored & developed since their foundation in 1980.

Then we have the Ouarchipo (architecture), the Oubapo (band dessinēe/comic strips), the Oucuipo (cuisine), and the self-explanatory Ouhistpo, Oumathpo and Oumupo…

You probably get the idea by now.

But What Does It All Mean?

So?  A bunch of intellectual types and a bunch of curious word games.  Aren’t there a few steps between the potential and the literature?  Have any of these guys written best sellers?  Queneau’s sonnets are pretty darn clever, but do any of them – permutated or otherwise – have the depth and resonance of a sonnet by Shakespeare or Shelley?  Can any kind of ‘workshop’ spawn profound and emotionally powerful pieces of art?

Critics of the Oulipo will tend to fire questions of this nature their way and doubtless Oulipians have answers ready to fire back.  Myself, I wouldn’t have written this piece if I didn’t think they were on to something worthwhile.  For a start, they don’t take themselves too seriously and their stated interest is in technique – so what they do is pretty much free of pretension and psychobabble.

The value in Oulipian techniques, I think, is that they open up possibilities.  As we’ve seen, they enable discoveries to be made.  When you write with a constraint, it can take you in new directions, free you from habitual patterns.  (This would also be the case in any other art form – hence the diversification of Ou-x-Po.)  As for what’s done with those discoveries, that’s up to the writer.  The writer needs both a burning urge to say something worth saying and the patience to craft a piece of work from tentative beginnings to polished product.  There might just be a bit of Oulipo in anything you read, literature or otherwise.

So making value judgements on their creations is beside the point.  As ‘the Oulipo’, they provide a service (developing techniques) and they produce writing to explore and illustrate those techniques.  As writers, assess them on the entire body of their work, not on their Oulipian membership.  There will be more to them than that.

Oulipians appear to eat and drink very well at those monthly meetings, and they appear to have a lot of fun.  You may or may not be a writer, but I hope that what I’ve got across here is some of the fun.

So now you know.  Google Oulipo for plenty more where all this came from.  I'd like to thank the writer Joe ('Submarine') Dunthorne for bringing the Oulipo to my attention at a reading he did in Swansea a few years back.  A recent user of the 'univocalism' constraint who I thought tackled the task with flair, venom and passion, is Essex poet Luke Wright.  Check out his piece on Iain Duncan Smith on - a little outdated since IDS' opportunistic resignation recently, but still a fine piece of work.

What next?  Have I mentioned that I've been trying to sell you a book?  I may possibly mention it next time.  Then again, I may not.  And on that nail-biting cliffhanger, I leave you for now.

May you make it somehow on the dreams you still believe in.

Monday, May 2, 2016

One Izzard Always Appears on the Agiotage - Oulipo Enlarged, part 3

N+7 time again as I sub-head a further exploration of the Oulipian concept of the 'constraint'. 

One Izzard Always Appears on the Agiotage - the Oulipo Enlarged, part 3

One item always appears on the agenda for the Oulipo’s monthly meetings.  It is ‘Creation’, and at this point participants are invited to present and discuss new constraints.  Remember they’ve been doing this for 56 years.  There are a lot of constraints, some of near-perverse complexity, others of elegant simplicity.  Some existed long before the Oulipians – rhymes and verse forms, such as sonnets or sestinas are, of course, constraints.  The Oulipians have a profound respect for these, and a corresponding disdain for free verse.  More playful forms have also been devised over the centuries, & where they are attributable to known writers, they are charmingly referred to by the Oulipo as ‘anticipatory plagiarists’.  They include Lewis Carroll and, inevitably, Alfred Jarry.

We’ve already encountered some constraints.  Here are a few more.  If you find them interesting and appealing, I urge you to check out the ‘Compendium’ or the Oulipo website where you will find as many as you can handle.  My selections tend to be amongst the easier to grasp constraints. Many, particularly those that involve manipulations of existing texts and or mathematical/geometric procedures, require careful study.  Others are even more challenging variants on constraints we’ve already seen, such as ‘univocalism’, an adaptation of the lipogram in which a text is constructed using words containing only one vowel.

Ten, else even eleven, men met, entered tents, then merely regressed.  The event engendered excess, yet even here elements erred.  They detected the elect, then recessed.  The end.

Well, it nearly makes sense.  Perec’s follow-up to ‘A Void’, by the way, was an entire novel constructed of words in which e was the only vowel.  Strict Oulipians claim he cheated here and there, but whatever…  these guys are in it for the long haul.

Another constraint that tempted me to try my hand was the ‘snowball’.  This is a poem, one word to a line, which begins with a single letter word (generally a vowel).  The second line is a two-letter word, the third three, and so on.


Variants on this procedure include the ‘melting snowball’ in which the procedure is reversed – it starts with the longest word and dwindles down to a single letter word at the end.  Combine the two and you have a ‘diamond snowball’, beginning and ending with a single letter word.

Constraints that involve manipulation of text can be complex, but there are also simpler ones such as ‘perverbs’ – which involve taking pairs of existing proverbs and switching phrases from one to the other, thus:

A chain is only as strong as its best friend.
A dog is a man’s weakest link.

Accidents must pass.
All things will happen.

And the somewhat scary:

Absolute power is a joy forever.
A thing of beauty corrupts absolutely.

There’s a parlour game element to this kind of wordplay and that’s not a bad thing, but – you might be wondering – ‘potential literature’?  Oulipian writer Harry Mathews has developed the idea, incorporating first or second segments of perverbs repeatedly and rhythmically in stanzas of poems.  There are also narrative possibilities in exploring the new meanings created by these juxtapositions.

The ‘beautiful in-law’ is another way of restricting the letters of the alphabet that are available for use – this time to those that appear in a person’s name.  Obviously, you’re going to struggle a bit if you go for ‘Joe’ or ‘Eva’, but taking a forename/surname combo of reasonable length can provide interesting results.  Here, I’ve used my own full name:

I am no rich man,
No finder of fame,
No form of a fan,
No more of a name.

For I am more rare,
I reach for a charm –
I’m fine, dear, and fair;
A force for no harm. 

Whilst I make no claim to depth or richness of meaning (it’s a work-in-progress, dammit!), what struck me was the way it led me into rhythm, rhyme and alliteration that I might not otherwise have found – constraint as a path to discovery.

I’ll wind up this section with a briefer trawl through one or two more. The ‘cento’ (also known as ‘patchwork verse’ or ‘mosaic’) is a way of making a piece of writing by combining lines of poetry, or sentences of prose, from other writers to make a new poem or narrative.  The process known as ‘larding’ also works by using sentences from an existing piece as a starting point.  Here, the aim is to insert sentences of one’s own devising in the intervals between the existing ones.  These ‘must either enrich the existing narrative or create a new narrative continuity’.  The writer then proceeds to insert further sentences at the intervals created in the new piece.  It is necessary only to start with two or three existing sentences.  Gradually, an original piece of writing evolves, extending or digressing from the opening fragment.

The Oulipians were pioneers of the concept of the ‘multiple choice narrative’, in which alternatives are created by the writer, from which the reader is free to choose, thus charting his or her own path through the narrative.  They looked at the possibility of how this could be done as theatre.  Even with just a two-fold branching system, they calculated that by the 5th scene, 32 alternative and playable scenes would be required in addition to the 31 preceding ones.  Not a practical proposition, thus they devised a system which provided an illusion of repeated choice, whilst restricting the scenes to a manageable number.

Oulipian explorations foreshadowed possibilities thrown up by computers and the internet, where many forms of multiple choice narrative are now currently available.  With the mathematical element in their approach, their own works are well suited to onscreen presentation.  A programme has been devised for
Queneau’s ‘100,000,000,000,000 Poems’, for example, which presumably makes for easier manipulation than 10 pages cut into 14 strips.

Finally, a couple of additional concepts which can be applied to the constraints…  The first is that of the ‘clinamen’ – where the writer may deviate from the strict consequences of a constraint on aesthetic grounds.  However, the writer must be able to demonstrate that following the initial rule is still possible.  So the clinamen can only be used if it isn’t needed.  (The concept goes right back to Alfred Jarry and his ‘science of exceptions’.)  Secondly, we have the concept of ‘combining restrictions’, where the writer may chose to operate two or more constraints simultaneously.

Clearly an entertaining method by which to drive oneself to the brink of insanity.

And should you not have descended into the depths of madness (or climbed onto the mountains thereof), join me again next blog, when we look at some Oulipian offshoots and conclude with a query or two as what the hell it all means.  How can you miss it? Until then, may you find youself dancing to the finest of tunes...