Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Secret plans

A general in the US army is a little indiscreet and tells me about a plan for hit squads. Later, unbeknownst to him, I overhear a conversation he has with another military man, who is also being indiscreet, about surveillance of dissidents. The implications are inescapable. When the general glances at me, he knows I have put two and two together. I quickly realise he will decide that I must be eliminated. So I make a run for it through some complicated fortifications, together with somebody who supports me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


I like Ganache in the Willesden Herald. I'm really into him. Here is his Unpublished Cigarette Packet.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Sense of a Short Story

I feel a bit of a misery for having written a list of blunders found in short stories. Such lists are not unusual and often repeat what others have said before. However it is much harder to talk about the qualities that enthral and delight, that transport us to unknown places and stir the emotions. What is that literary flavour beyond sweet and sour, the umami that makes me want to keep on reading?

1. A sense of perfection

There is a difference between evidence of raw talent and a finished product. Without practice and the unrestrained commitment that Pavarotti put in, for example, he would still have been Luciano, the guy with a great voice but unknown to the world. It is the combination of great ability, dedication and unqualified commitment that results in that feeling like being in a jet plane when it goes for take-off, when his voice at full power takes flight, and carries us with him.

A lot of people sing in the shower, a lot of people write stories. Not everyone has the voice, for a start, but equally not everyone gives all. Sentences are not well worked; narrative is somewhat choked off, restrained.

What is wonderful is when a gift for writing is combined with technical perfection and a free flowing narrative. When it succeeds, there is nothing laboured, all is like a swan sailing across a pond, seemingly without effort. It's not because Pavarotti could hit a high note. Actually, many of us could hit that note. It's the way he hits it. Clearly we don't want half measures, we don't want errors. But the sense of a short story is not about what we don't want. It's about what we desire, what life itself seldom offers, a sense of perfection.

2. A sense of adventure

This is not about secret agents, bandits, pirates, cowboys, though they are also part of it, it's something to do with a journey, danger, hazard, perhaps conflict.

It happens that space travellers, cowboys, romantic maidens, elves and so on go on journeys, encounter hazards and conflict, but seldom will they succeed in taking us with them. No, the sense of adventure is to do with a feeling that a real person is in a real location, and we are with them, somewhere we might know, which is interesting, or somewhere we don't know, which can be even more interesting, and it's uncertain what is about to happen.

If there is a nagging thought that this is routine, that we know all this, then we fall into the "I have a life of my own" trap. As the woman says in The Ice Storm, when her lover starts to talk about his work, "I have a husband." What I seek is the feeling of landscape, of views across townscapes, of skies and the travel against weight, not weightless, where the progress interacts with a new environment. There must be  people to meet, to find out about, an adventurer alone is a hard case. He or she had better be thinking about others or else we enter the dead zone of solipsism.

3. A sense of inspiration

You could call this a sense of interest, a sense of importance, a sense of significance, a sense of relevance. It’s the feeling that we’re onto something. Whatever you call it, it relies on a theme of sufficient weight. We're busy people. We have our own lives. Unless a story is of vital interest, why spend the time to read it? It must draw us in from the first paragraph.

However, we are resistant to being told what to think. We won’t stand for it. The miracle of fiction is how it enables us to share another's vision, see things through another's eyes for a spell, to enter a partly  hallucinatory or dreamlike state. I suggest that this can occur when the writer has been inspired.

So what is it? Sometimes inspiration, like procreation, entails the fusion of two elements. You may think of these as spark and fuel. The spark is very small but active and the fuel is large and full of potential but static. The fuel is your theme, perhaps something that's been bugging you for some time. The spark is your angle, something trivial that you realise can be combined with your theme to bring it to life. That is your inspiration.

Hitchcock coined the term "the McGuffin" for something trivial that he used to build his suspenseful films around. For example, in North By Northwest and The Thirty-Nine Steps people chase around after something but we really don't care about the actual object of their pursuit. How many can even remember what it was?

Writing directly to a main theme runs the risk of becoming aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic, perhaps polemical. The trick is to write a story seemingly about the trivial one of your two elements, against a background of the main concern. This allows you to deal with what's bugging you, without seeming to talk about it at all. Without a theme, no matter how brilliant your writing, you will lose the reader. “All spark” is a bore.

Misdirection is as useful in fiction as in conjuring. Come to think of it, fiction is a form of conjuring.

4. A sense of humour

The only place this occurs is in serious writing. Anything that tries to be funny is anathema. If you take any of the well-known comic writers, or writers whose work encompasses humour, you will find that it is all presented in a seemingly serious manner. The stories of Waugh, Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, George Saunders, J. P. Donleavy, Saki, James Thurber, Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris are presented with a straight face. Even Jerome K. Jerome and George or was it the other Grossmith brother. The story is king.

All humour is incidental. In spite of ourselves, in spite of the author himself or herself, we find we are concerned with the theme, delighted by the inspiration, enthralled by the adventure and then to leaven the mixture, there is something funny. It may be when the author relents from the story momentarily, for example when Mohsin Hamid has a one-word sentence, "Yum" following on from a description of the cause of dysentery. It's something to bring you in further with the author and to remind you before you lose touch, lose heart, that this is shared experience, we are on a shared expedition of discovery. We are not alone.

While the author is conveying the story, we know only that it is an account, but with the addition of humour and later perhaps pathos, we know that we are in fact reading together, reading alongside the author and other readers. There is something more exquisite in a shared experience, (and it doesn't take much imagination to find a suitable metaphor for that), the joy is redoubled. We might not know what the author thought about certain things, but we're pretty sure we're on the same wavelength and that others will be too, when the sense of humour shines through.

5. A sense of suspense

We return to Hitchcock and recall that he said his biggest mistake was to have the bomb go off in Blackmail. As long as the bomb hasn't gone off there is suspense. Yes, we want to know what happens next but only if something is at stake. If nothing is at stake, I couldn't care less what happens next. Salesmen have a mnemonic: ABC - Always Be Closing. The worst result in sales theory is a continuation. With fiction, it's the opposite: ABC - Always Be Continuing, and the worst result is closure. The urge to settle for an ending and declare the story closed is like a siren calling the writer, the captain of the story, onto fatal reefs.

6. A sense of wonder

This is what we're left with after reading a great short story. It leaves us thinking, literally wondering. There is a completeness to a short story but it is not the completeness of satiation, of finality, it's the completeness of entry or exit, a door that opens to wonder. The beginning is a door to a secret garden and the end is the same door. We can re-enter. Somebody (?) described the sonnet as a machine for thinking. Maybe we could describe the short story as a machine for wondering.


These categories are arbitrary. I might add more later, I might change their contents. I could as easily invoke the theatrical maxim, "Make them laugh, make them cry and scare the crap out of them". I only wanted to describe what it is that I like in a short story. Having typed this far, I find I'm none the wiser. I still couldn't tell you why the stories in The Magic Barrel are so sublime, or Dubliners. I don't know what it is Denis Johnson does, or Annie Proulx, or Chekhov, or William Trevor, etc. The list is long. I am in awe of them and all great short story writers. I don't give a damn about the novel. There, I've said it. (Actually, it's not true, I love reading novels.) As near as I can describe, what I desire is a sense of perfection and a sense of adventure. The rest of the headings and comments are tentative.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Notes from Small Wonder 2012

Small Wonder 2012: Perspectives on China
with Fang Fang and Hilary Spurling

Fang Fang was asked through an interpreter at Small Wonder if China had literary festivals and live literature like this. By the way, we were a few dozen people, maybe 150 or so, huddled shivering in a draughty barn, in the back of beyond***. Fang Fang pointed out that they recently had a festival of poetry, where they had invited several British poets and bedecked a vast railway station with hundreds of large posters featuring poems by their guests and Chinese poets.

When asked about the epigraph to her story - it was a quote from Baudelaire - and what her influences were, she said that most Chinese writers could list you eight or ten western writers and that people recited Shakespeare and so forth. She wondered how many westerners could name ten Chinese writers? I thought Fang Fang was a bit defensive, and her prose (perhaps too literally translated for us on a screen) seemed to me to be full of allegorical sideswipes about smug outsiders looking in on a complex family society. (However, that might have been all in my mind!)

Her narrator is revealed to be a dead child at one point, looking on at its surviving family. This might be connected to her description of the move from social realism, which had been condemned by the party many years ago, to the current fashion (or was it policy?) for neo-realism, which had to contain no trace of the author's feelings. She also described this as like glass realism or zero realism (but I am not quoting verbatim).

Despite the language barrier, Fang Fang managed to inject a few bits of humour. She is very prolific. They said 80 novels, but I think they might have meant novellas, it wasn't clear. It might have been the questionable literal translation but her story came over as somewhat chaotic.

Tess chatted with her in Mandarin afterwards and I said "ni hao" and "xie xie", which exhausted my usable Chinese vocabulary, as there was no call for me to count to five. Fang Fang's contribution was only half the event. The other half was Hilary Spurling talking about Pearl Buck, the subject of her latest biography. However by happy chance, Fang Fang came from the same place as Pearl Buck and had a great interest and knowledge about her, and so that conversation (through translator) was very good.

Fang Fang recalled that when people in China first saw the Hollywood film adaptation of The Good Earth, they began by wondering why people with long noses were playing the parts of Chinese peasant farmers; but then as they got into the film, they forgot about that and were amazed to see their own lives portrayed there realistically for the first time.

Despite the technical difficulties with the simultaneous translation, and the heroic efforts of the distinguished chair of the discussion  (? Jacobson) and the translator, it was a bold and timely attempt at promoting cultural exchange in the short story world. It's not before time we showed China and its people some empathy and respect, as I think they have cause to feel misunderstood, if not hard done by. I only mean in the cultural world, saying nothing here about politics, politicians or governance.

Steve Moran

Small Wonder short story festival

Fang Fang
"Author of the year 2011" (

Hilary Spurling
Guardian: "A Life in Writing", with reference to "Burying the Bones" her new biography of Pearl Buck 

Monday, October 01, 2012

Hot from the barn

Back from fascinating day at Small Wonder. Had a chat with A. L. Kennedy. I said, "Do you mind if I call you A. L.?" She didn't mind. [That was it, that was the chat.] Tess spoke Mandarin with Fang Fang. Also said hello to Adam Marek and met up with some other people, including Camilla Dinkel from the Asham award.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fair copy

I like writing poems out longhand. When written out, they seem to demand a capital letter for each line, and who cares for what reason? For the look of them or the sense of formality, or mere caprice. Somebody gave me a fancy notebook and it pleases me to transcribe old lines into it. However, it is laborious when it comes to longer ones and I've grown lazy or the novelty has worn off after the first few.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dylan favourites

Sweetheart Like You

Series of Dreams


Things Have Changed

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday, July 02, 2012

Voices from a Hidden People

RTÉ Player: TV50 "Diarmaid O Muirithe explores the literary and poetic heritage of six areas of the country. First broadcast in 1971."

Part of a series of programmes on poetry in Irish from six regions of Ireland in the 18th century (almost all with subtitles and set to music). All children in Ireland learn poems by Raftery (or at least we used to) and others from the same era, connecting us to the ancient nature loving tradition and introducing us to the courtly verse of itinerant bards; perhaps essential building blocks of being Irish, you might even say. If you could build a model of the molecule for Irishness, there might a green atom of naturelove in tension with a purple atom of courtly verse, all circling a black nucleus of, what -?

Friday, June 29, 2012


I'm teaching a dog to lip read. Tipsy is deaf. I'm teaching her "Walkie walkie".

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


This one is past its best, very overripe.
It was a bit of a rip-off at £10, reduced to £8,
but the vendor wouldn't cut it.

The fruit has a strong fragrance that some like, though not me.
The seeds are like nuts and can be peeled & boiled or roasted.
They are starchy like potato and almost tasteless
with a texture like butter beans, when cooked. Supposedly high
in various nutrients, but don't take my word for it.

We had a small soursop, a.k.a. guanabana - or, in the Philippines, guyabano - here the other day but I neglected to photograph it. They too can grow as big as jackfruit, as I have seen them growing on a tree trained to a wall near Manila. Soursop is well-named and harsh to eat but makes an interesting juice drink. My wife loves jackfruit but I find the sweet smell nauseating.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A complaint against the weather on Midsummer's Day

It's too chilly for a wee dog who has just had her annual trim! She needs all her blankets, including Mam's cardigan. Ye druids, file this complaint.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A wood sprite escaped but armless

Oh pitiful, such an elegant sprite,
but surely the limb will regrow.
A bit quicker with the camera and I had
the story of the century.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mangosteen, guava, mango, papaya

Mangosteen. Extraordinary hard-shelled fruit.
The edible part is a bit like lychee.

Guava. The texture is a bit like a crunchy pear.

Clockwise from top left: papaya, mangosteen, mango, guava.

Friday, June 15, 2012


The ripe fruit is contained in a dry, crumbly shell like an oversize pea pod. Inside is a chain of stones robed in sticky, piquant black fruit. It has the exquisite taste used in the popular Filipino sinegang broth.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

At the Queens Park book festival

Picture of me reading at the Queens Park book festival with Willesden Green Writers' Group. Here's another one with links to some of the other readers. If I look a bit tired it's because I was working till 1:30 a.m. and then had to put together the things to read, which took me up to 4:30am.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Time Out, Carmencita

Amazon Kindle eBook: Time Out, Carmencita (a long story) by S. J. Moran. Introductory offer: Free until Wednesday 23/5/2012.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Fresh baked, best 60p value around. The bread is half way between croissant and batch loaf. It is covered in sesame and caraway seeds. It's from "Way 2 Save" in Neasden Lane, a Turkish shop, I am told. They also have branches in Kilburn and Harlesden.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Sub-titles for standard stories

1. The annoying little mannerisms of stupid people in my office

2. Old age is lonely and things ain't what they used to be

3. Prologue followed by Grandad's story from the war

4. I know how to talk like a chav, innit

5. The time I visited somebody who was dying

6. The unhappy couple go for a holiday

8. Everything is filthy round here and I am doolally

9. The remarkable person I knew slightly at college, who was terribly misunderstood.

(to be continued)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Self-Portrait - Sylvia Beach

RTÉ Player: TV50

Watching this. Archive interview from 1962 with Sylvia Beach, publisher of Ulysses, who talks about her life and Joyce, Hemingway and lots of interesting times and people.

‎"Joyce was sitting at table and Ezra Pound was teasing him..." You get the idea of the calibre of her friends!

Good to know he pronounced "book" properly! I mean in the Dublin way.

Fascinating about Hemingway arriving in her shop with wounds still not healed from the war. "Would you like to see my wounds?" "Very much." So he showed her. ... She organised a boxing match ... Hemingway broke his thumb in the course of it. His opponent was subsequently killed fighting for the resistance. ... Now she's talking about Austin Clarke. ...

Onto Beckett now. Scott Fitzgerald. Thornton Wilder. ... What an interview. Louis Aragon.

Joyce would recite Walt Whitman to her, an enthusiasm he shared with her when Whitman was not liked at the time.

She watched the Germans arriving ... "The tears were streaming down our cheeks." A German soldier demanded her copy of Finnegans Wake from the window of her shop. She refused. He came back later and threatened to confiscate all her stock when he found that FW was no longer in the window. She moved everything out and hid the stuff in an empty apartment. Very brave! They came back and found the shop gone, name removed, shelves removed. shuttered.

She got a writer called Gordon Craig out of detention by appealing to the Gestapo. Later they arrested her and took her away, complained about her having a Jewish assistant in the shop and so forth. They were rounding up all Americans in the city and detained 400 of them at the city zoo. There were armed guards up above us and we were below in what we called The Monkey House...(not verbatim).

‎...moved to another prison for 6 months. ... on and on, fantastic interview. Retreat of the Germans - "shooting at us".

They machine gunned the people in the town while retreating. "We had to lie on our stomachs" ... later stretchers taking wounded away. "We were liberated by Ernest Hemingway .... I heard this big voice shouting Sylvia, Sylvia!"

...and he wouldn't stay for tea. He said, "Oh no, I have to liberate the cellar of the Ritz!"

Friday, January 06, 2012

Watching the Late Late Show - 1971

RTÉ Player: TV50 - celebrating 50 years of Irish television

About 11:00: Eamonn Andrews is dead wrong about the BBC being above censorship during the war. George Orwell was one of the censors, as point of interest. His war diaries about his work in censorship are quite interesting.

If you want to see Sir Matt Busby, the famous Manchester United manager, he comes on after 14 mins. Talking about George Best etc. ‎"a secular saint".

He has an idea for a transfer window (there is now one) but in the closed season to create more stability and less panic. Does the present transfer window mean players play for one team at the start of the season and a different one at the end? I don't know enough about it but that sounds wrong.

"Air-ay" is Éire. Nostalgia for people being able to smoke on the panel. I know it's bad but there is also something good about it, something, I don't know what. You will say, "no, nothing" and you'll be right.

Next up Trevor Howard criticising David Lean very wittily but acerbically.

Matt Busby and Trevor Howard looking for a match to light up. "Dingle had 52 pubs and nowhere to eat."

Gay Byrne to Trevor Howard: "Did you or did you not say that Irish people are only interested in drinking?" "No they are interested in other things." "Like what?" "Well, you should know."

A funny lady. Real trooper, type you hardly get now. a. days. Barbara Kelly

At least these interviews are getting somewhere, not the utter tripe you get now with Graham Norton etc.

‎"Helen threw a bicycle at me when we were at Cambridge and I said that's the girl for me. I had to marry her and get my own back." Trevor Howerd

Gay does ask some tactless questions. "Would you believe your husband Helen, if he turned to you and said you're beautiful?" Ouch. But wait for this. Wait till you hear Matt Busby. Gay: "What about you Sir Matt, do you ever tell your wife she's beautiful?" "Yes. Every morning. You have to use tactics as well!" (And he goes on to conjure the whole morning conversation.)

Next up Jack MacGowran, Beckett's favourite actor. Both Eamonn Andrews and Jack MacGowran left working for Hibernian Insurance in Dublin on the same day. (!)

Aw man. Best art story ever.

Three smokers out of four on the panel. Man oh man. Jack too.

Brilliant mime by Jack MacGowran, under protest. It's sewing. You have to see it. Hard to explain. Hilarious.

We may get a song from Jack from a Sean O'Casey play. And now Peter Sellers. It's unbelievable.

Sellers is on fire. His Italian is a masterpiece - a story about the Pope...

He was first one to be defibrillated - in the world - dead for 2 minutes in L.A. Oh man he's so funny. i rate him with Milligan now.

We're promised mind reading and quick change act from Sellers in the next part. Can it get any better?

MacGowran on Lorca ... and Polanski

Vaguely remember seeing this quick change before

I probably saw that whole show before when it was on. I was 17 in 1971. But the only thing that produced the smallest atom of deja vu was the quick change setup.