On learning to read again

“Has it ever occurred to you,” he said, “that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?” (Orwell, 1984)

Do you remember learning to read? Do you remember the joy of having a book in your hands for the first time, of learning what you enjoy and cultivating a voracious appetite to find more of it?

I was fortunate enough to have that experience in three different languages, and I’m writing this to try to sell it as an experience in an age where smaller and smaller percentages of English speaking people are learning foreign languages to a high level.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the utility of learning a foreign language now that English is increasingly becoming established as the lingua franca of the world. Why bother, goes the refrain, when soon machines will be able to translate every written word for you and put it in a language you actually understand?

There’s a point there somewhere, but I fear it misses an even bigger one. It misses the notion that if you offered me my time again, offered to take away the hours of frustration, of feeling as if I’d never quite ‘get it’, offered to let me spend my time mastering another skill that might be more useful to my future, I’d politely suggest you keep on walking.

And let me tell you why, with as few hairs on my tongue as I am able to manage.

Well, first, there’s that. That neat little clause above just means something along the lines of ‘as straightforwardly as possible’ in Spanish, but isn’t it a much more interesting way to express that sentiment? And every single language has thousands of those little idiosyncrasies, and we have literature written in hundreds of languages. What a waste it would be to see all those options reduced to whatever some translator decided was its closest approximation in English. No two languages use the same idioms, the same phraseology, even the same thoughts, and to think you can condense them down to one vocabulary set like some form of Newspeak is folly.

But that’s just the practicality, and speaks little to the actual experience of reading, or indeed learning to read, in another language.

I picked up my first serious book in Spanish aged 17, in preparation for the college admissions process. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember the experience.

Immediately I became a toddler again, stumbling around confused having been handed a book that was well beyond my reading comprehension. You think you know a language, when you’re at school, when you can reasonably confidently discuss the current political climate in the target country with your classmates, but you don’t know a damn thing. Nothing prepares you for when a writer sends you sprawling for answers, for the meaning and context behind their words that are taking you completely out of your frame of reference. It’s a lived experience, and you’ll never be ready for Don Quixote, or Madame Bovary, or Faust; you simply have to let them wash over you. It’s just one of those things, you presume comfort in another language until you come across someone who’s a true master of it, someone who can play with your expectations and at the last minute pull back the curtain and reveal something completely unforeseen. It can be maddening to learn just how far you are away from that as a reader.

Having said that, do it.

If you’re even beginning to learn a language and have basic reading comprehension, go grab some books and get to work on them. The experience is different at first, but no less rewarding than doing it in English. Every other word will send you to the dictionary, and you’ll get frustrated at the lack of context, at not understanding the nuance of a phrase, of feeling as if you’re exploring an alien world, but all of that is part of the reward when it finally clicks.

You’ll experience a whole different frame of cultural cues, of reference points, of humor, which makes all of it so worthwhile. They say you have a different personality when you speak another language, and you read differently too, you find different things funny, and you learn a whole new side to yourself of which you may not even have been aware.

Some of it you can read without even that much effort. Kafka, for example, is well known for his relatively simple language amidst the infuriating bureaucracy of his works. You’re reading the same thing, but there’s just something almost imperceptibly different that makes it all the sweeter.

And all that is to say nothing of the forms themselves. Take poetry, as just one example. Haikus have translated into English from the Japanese tradition because of their relative simplicity, but there’s a whole encyclopaedia of ways of writing out there that, as Orwell noted, English simply can’t accomplish because of the relative scarcity of rhyming words. The Romance languages have these in abundance, and they are evidenced and deployed masterfully from the traditional Spanish ballad, to the French alexandrine, to the terza rima of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That’s just the languages closest to home too, there’s a whole new world out there in less familiar languages, from the complex Arabic tradition to the interesting things that can be done with the tonal variations in Mandarin.

I’m not exactly sure what I wanted to say in conclusion, other than a plea that we not limit ourselves to what is easy. There are utilitarian reasons to learn languages, and there are similar reasons not to do so, but to limit oneself to reading only in one language forever simply because it is easier than branching out is to deny oneself a great deal of pleasure. My favorite book is Dom Casmurro, by Brazilian author Machado de Assis; not one I would ever have discovered or even experienced in the same way without the good fortune of having learned Portuguese. So next time you get the urge to give up when reading in a foreign language, persevere, I promise it’s worth it in the end.


Confessions of a Failed Novelist.

This is the last piece of writing ever found by Alexander H. Cochran, a self-described failed novelist. His work was never published. 

My folks died when I could barely call myself a man. Fresh out of college and ready to face the world I was, when that truck hit ’em on the highway back from my grandfather’s funeral. They never had a chance. There was a lot of death in the air that day, I guess.

My daddy made his money in oil when I was a young ‘un, so I never had to worry about nothing from that day forward. Looking back, I like to think that was the first mark against me, as a writer. I never had to do it, never needed it to provide my next meal, would never not be alive the next day if I didn’t sell a story. I never needed writing to survive, at least not physically. But hell, maybe that’s just me making excuses in my old age.

Not that I hadn’t always wanted to be a writer, far from it. When I was going through my adolescence I could barely believe people got paid anything to write, let alone could make a hell of a living off of it if they were any good. Words had always had a strange old draw for me, they provided a kind of haven for my imagination, somewhere that worlds could be created and personalities fleshed out that were far more interesting than anyone I’d been unfortunate enough to meet in the real world, where they teach ya that a firm handshake is more important than a good story. Bullshit.

And it wasn’t that I was no good, or that I didn’t try neither. I wrote some stuff that I was kinda proud of too, but it never saw the light of day. My words were fine for me, but I couldn’t imagine how anyone else would be interested in any of the things I had to say. A curse of being even a moderately good writer is to be forced to be a great reader, and to be a great reader is to be aware of just how damn good so many others are at this writing business.

How, then, knowing the work of Papa Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Verne and Faulkner and Whitman, how am I supposed to let my thoughts out into the world and try and compete with them? Anything I could think of in a year any of them could do on a bad morning. Hell, Hemingway wrote drunk better than I ever have sober.

I tried that too, tried every trick in the book to try and get something, anything that I wasn’t sick of the sight of by the time I finished writing it. I drank bottles and bottles and bottles of scotch, and it never did nothing for me. It didn’t make me no Hemingway, just made me tired and sick and cranky.

I tried to travel myself interesting, but that didn’t work, the cultures jumbled and produced a mess, so that nothing I wrote seemed honest or believable. I even locked myself in a damn cabin out by the lakes with nothing but a typewriter, a box of cigars and some matches, but I ended up using the matches to burn the mediocrity that I’d written and hightailing it back to the city with nothing.

You might wonder why I’m writing this now. I’ve asked myself that question too. Well, I know the answer, I’m going to die soon, my heart’s finally given up on me it seems. I guess I wanted to write something honest before I went, ’cause I think that might have been the problem all along. I worked so hard to create worlds, and emulate my heroes, that I never put an honest word down on paper. Not once, in my 45 years of trying to write, did I ever write anything that I would want to represent me, that I would want my name attached to once I’m gone. That’s why I never sold anything. Oh, I had the offers, would have made a tidy sum too. But like I said, I was never in it for the money. I’d’ve only sold if I knew it was going to go down real well in posterity, not some market pleasing fiction that anyone can churn out if they turn their mind to it.

I wanted to be a novelist remembered as a great, but in chasing that dream, and stubbornly sticking to it, I failed to be a novelist at all, and in ten years it may be that nobody even remembers my name. In trying to change the world, I overreached, and couldn’t even change my own. But that ain’t to say I ain’t proud to have tried. Better to shoot for the stars and dance with the moon than content yourself with changing to please the masses. Never forget that.


Alexander H. Cochran
A Self-Confessed Failure



The sun glinted her final rays over the hills as she fled west. As she made her escape, her fingers clung promiscuously to the green meadows, knowing she was destined to slip away once more, as she did every evening. As the nightly abyss engulfed the landscape, the moon began to rise, bringing with it the tide that surrounded the small island every day, cutting it off from civilisation.

On the island stood a large abby, built two hundred years ago by those who once ruled here, and it was flanked by a small, enclosed town that provided sustenance for the monks there, and a few other amenities that had grown out of its proximity to the sea.

Every day without fail, the tide came in and isolated the small populace, making travel to and from the place next to impossible, with the result that the townsfolk had to resort to a rather bizarre schedule if they wanted to leave the town, often waking during the middle of the night to go out in search of the larger markets inland, before returning in the bright daylight to the relative comfort of their beds.

It was not often that the moon was obliging enough to bring the tides in at night, but it was not just the everyday folk who delighted when it did. Beyond those who rejoiced at a properly scheduled sleep, there were those with more sinister reasons for willing the alignment of moon and water.

In an ageing townhouse in the middle of the city, the killer sharpened his knife. Nowadays, we would call him a serial killer, but they didn’t have such an expansive vocabulary back then, nor as much competency solving crimes. People died horribly, and often, and even those who weren’t dead disappeared frequently, wandering off to begin life anew. The rare combination of the tide and the dark night provided him with just the opportunity for which he had been waiting, a time when his target had no hope of escape, even if they did see their end before it came.

There was no science to it, but he was always identified his victim ahead of time, knowing that ultimately the time would come when he could strike. He selected the elderly, the infirm, the drifters and those who begged for alms, for mercy to be laid upon them by this religious town. He was doing God’s work, he thought, sending those in need to a better place, ending their suffering before it became unbearable.

Finally satisfied with the cut of his blade, he pulled up the hood on his habit and melted out into the night.


The Fall: A response to Laura Feasey’s Literary Lion

The sound of the wall crumbling was obvious before he saw any sign of his city’s impending doom. The sickening crunch of the wall folding under its own weight, stones tumbling down, crushing man and beast as they fell. It was heard all around the city, seconds before the collective scream of its citizens.

There was no hope for his people now, they were outnumbered by a superior force, with little to no chance of survival for anyone in the region. They had resisted too long, too well, and their conquerors would need to make an example of them.

There would be pockets of resistance, of course, brave men would die protecting their families, their friends, but it was ultimately futile. Men of fighting age would be killed, and the women and children would be taken as slaves. A generation of vitality reduced to ashes in hours.

His fate would be no different. If they didn’t kill him on sight they would take him back to their people, humiliate him, and then he would die a long, protracted, painful death. It was the way of the world. And he couldn’t bear it.

He was determined to fall as he had lived, as a king. He called for his finest purple robe, sat on his throne, and dared Death to come and take him as the flames that consumed his once great city illuminated the night.


In response to Laura Feasey’s Fall prompt

Literary Lion: Water.

Beautiful_river_landscape_in_the_fallThe river cut her way through the countryside, carving serpentine patterns through the hills and valleys as she wound her way towards her destination.

She’d been complicit in so much over the centuries. She’d kept the residents around her fed and watered by giving life to their crops, she’d helped them transport their goods and trade with the locals further along her path. She’d helped unify the people of her valleys into building the thriving trading town in which they could now lain to live. She’d been good to them.

But now she was going to destroy them.

For now she carried something much more sinister than the trade ships and fishing boats that had traversed her curves for centuries. Now she carried boats from further afield, only fair as the men who surrounded her had grown richer and more ambitious. Now they traded with men from the Far East who brought their spices and their strange scented fragrances to take home a little of the wealth of the fledgling city.

There had been threats before, invasions even, as jealous eyes coveted the newfound wealth of the city, but none had ever succeeded in breaching her high walls, nor in breaking the will of her people.

This time, though, would be different.

For this time, it was not the warriors who hid aboard the ships that brought the threat, nor the weapons they brought with them, but a far more sinister cargo that they carried, something they themselves were not even aware of.

Down below deck, the rats scattered as the doctor entered with his candle, to deal with his patient who was coughing up blood.

The usual shoutout to Laura Feasey, whose prompt inspired this post. Check her out, follow her, read her stuff, it’s great.

Literary Lion: Time


The clock sat in the corner, mocking her, as it had done for the past six months. It always feigned as if to go all the way round, and topple over, completing the full minute. But it never quite managed it. It always fell just short, sticking as gravity became too great for its weakened mechanisms.

Never quite managed to go full circle and start again. The irony wasn’t lost on her.

She didn’t know what she was expecting to happen. That clock hadn’t ever worked, really. The only reason it was still there was that it was the first thing that they had bought together to fill the empty house, and now, it helped to fill the void that he had left behind.

She wasn’t ready to admit that he wasn’t coming back yet, and so she left it there, ticking, mocking, broken. He had sometimes been able to fix the damn thing, more by luck than judgement she was sure, but it had been one of his trademarks. Whenever the clock was broken he would leap in to fix it, so there she left it, useless, hoping it might bring him striding back through the door one last time to lend a hand.

She hadn’t even said goodbye.

He’d been a victim of circumstance more than anything. One of the coldest winters on record, going at what should have been a safe speed over a country road on his motorbike, he’d happened to hit some black ice going over a hill, and was unlucky enough to have been met by a lorry that had lost its way. By all rights he should have been killed.

Sometimes she caught herself thinking it would have been better for everyone if he had been. Anything must be better than this, not knowing if he would ever wake up, not knowing if he would ever walk again if he did, not knowing, not knowing.

So she sat there, watching, waiting, and hoping. He’d worked miracles on the clock before, perhaps this one time the clock would work a little miracle on him. If the clock had taught her one thing, it was never to give up on something that seemed beyond repair. So she kept on waiting.

A more prompt response to Laura Feasey’s Literary Lion: Time challenge this week, hope you enjoyed reading.


Kalakaua's_crown_destroyedThe glass crashed over the side of the boat as he lost his footing and fell, the sound of him hitting the deck drowning out the muffled sound of the drink he had thrown disappearing into the sea, diminishing the efficacy of the gesture.

Nobody dared utter a word, not even a flicker of a smirk crossed their faces as he rose unsteadily to his feet. Nobody wanted to be next.

‘Anybody else have something they’d like to say to me?’ he shouted, to nobody in particular, waiting for somebody else to challenge him. ‘Come on now, we were all so chatty a moment ago, are we scared to talk all of a sudden?’

Eyes locked firmly to the ground as no one dared to meet his gaze.

It had been a quiet evening in the docks until that moment, but that was precisely the point. You never knew what would set him off. You could bring up the same joke that he was laughing about yesterday and today it would spark an explosion. Normally, it depended how much of the fiery brown liquid had passed between his lips, but even that was no guarantee of safety.

The children had scattered, looking for somewhere to hide from their father’s sudden rage. No doubt tomorrow it would be they that would be dragged out in front of him to apologise for making him act that way, for embarrassing him in front of his friends. Perhaps he would have to smack some sense into them, to show them just how disrespectful they had been to him and his guests.

He was the head of this household, and a king can’t show any weakness. Weak kings are dead kings, irrelevant kings, and he wasn’t ready for that, not yet. He’d worked too hard to provide for these ungrateful wretches, and it was about time they showed him a little respect. They would learn, whether they liked it or not. You don’t provoke the king.

Shoutout as ever to Laura Feasey for her excellent prompts. Got me in a real writing mood as soon as I got back from my writing-limiting holiday, so very grateful for that!


Valley_road_(2446021340)There was something intoxicating about it, the thrill of the open road. An empty bottle of whisky lay next the him in the car, dulling his senses so that he barely felt the wind rushing through his thinning hair. It was lucky for him that the particular escape route he had found was so remote that nobody else was on the road, or he would have been dead half an hour ago, along with whoever else had been unfortunate enough to be sharing the road with him.

The backdrop would have been breathtaking for anyone more aware of their surroundings. The road snaked through the desert in desperates search of water and the mountains behind him pierced the blue sky, an almost laughably grand feature in an otherwise desolate landscape.

The cherry-red Camaro tore through this picturesque scene, carrying its passenger towards his destination, wherever that was. He was a passenger in his own life, for his destination was as unknown to him as it had been to those he had left behind. And besides, how could anyone with almost as much alcohol in their bloodstream as water possibly claim to be in control of their own senses?

All he knew was that he had to drive. He couldn’t even remember what it was that had made him snap, the darkness had swallowed up the last 36 hours and erased them from his memory, but it had been the final straw that had smashed his boring fucking life into a million pieces. Canvas bag, whisky, car keys, nothing else, not even a phone. There was no way back now, there was blood on his hands, whether he knew it or not, and the devastation he had left in his wake would haunt him for years to come, if he ever cared to remember.

Shoutout as ever to Laura Feasey, and her Literary Lion: Escape prompt.

Into the Woods

Woodland_English_Autumn_SunlitIt made such a difference to him, the quiet. Here, he had only the breeze for company, the breeze and his thoughts. Silence had always been his saviour; this was where he came to contemplate life, but for once he couldn’t bring himself to do so, couldn’t bring himself to process what had just happened.

He strained his ears to listen, desperate for some sudden rustle in the branches to distract him, to take him away from the inside of his own head; even the sound of falling pine needles would have been enough. But he knew none would come. He had chosen these woods for a reason, all those years ago when he had first been looking for somewhere to clear his head, and that sacred silence he had craved was now betraying him.

He regretted coming here. He’d arrived at the spot in a haze of numbness, driving as much on instinct as anything else, but now, hours later, that was all beginning to fade. Now what he’d done was beginning to come into sharp focus, and he couldn’t bear it.

He wasn’t ready to be alone with his thoughts yet, and here he was surrounded by nothing but a dark void that sucked sound from all around it. Doubts screamed at him from every angle, mocking him in a cacophonous chorus of disapproval, accusing him of what he could not bear to believe.

He rushed back to his car and sparked the ignition, just to add some noise, any noise, to silence the voices in his head. No, not the voices, it was his own voice alone, and he knew it was right.

Distracted, he didn’t notice the flashlights emerge from behind him, the noise of footsteps coming towards the car covered by the sound of his engine. The first he knew of them was the tap on the window to get him to turn his head, just enough for his pursuers to make sure they had the right man.

The sound of the shot erupted into the air, tearing through the nocturnal idyll and finally breaking the pact of silence he had held with the woods, the pact that had protected him for so long. Darkness descended once more, and with it, the quiet he had once craved. Those woods the only witness to his fate, and they would never speak.

Shoutout to Laura Feasey and her Literary Lion: Into The Woods prompt.