Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Thursday, 25 August 2011
She brought the end of her fingers to her mouth and moistened them in her warm saliva. The whorls of her prints glistened in the meagre light of the room. But it wasn't her own outlines she was interested in raising.
His hand lay outstretched in his sleep, palm exposed. She splayed out her fingers so as to graze each pad with his. To seal her contours with his and have them sear into hers. She would not allow that we are each born with our unique stamp woven into our fingertips. The perfect match, that seamless superimposition of one upon the other, must exist. Unfortunately, even in his sleep, his was too broad for her to span with her dainty little hand.
Undaunted, she caressed her index finger downwards and began to trail the creases and wrinkles across his palm. She wasn't a trained chiromancer, yet maintained her own superstitious credo of the significance of the lines. She understood the notions of the heart, the head, the life and fate, each having their own thread. Just she couldn't unravel them to yield the centre of the labyrinth. They refused to give up their runic Braille quite as easily as the digital phrenologists claimed.
Instead the lines offered tiny windows into how sensitively a man used his fingers. Whether the ridges and folds suggested a tendency to a closed fist, a restlessly flexing tension, or a more open-handed receptivity. The portents on this one were good.
Having crisscrossed his hand enough times to make him flinch it reflexively in his sleep, she carried on down the exposed wrist. Veins and arteries picked out against his pale skin. The hair there so fine and blond as to efface itself. Unlike on the reverse side of the forearm, where it flourished like jungle vines. But here, the red and blue lines stood out like a road map. The major trunk routes of pulsing blood and the minor tracks back to the heart. She knew that a wedding band was always on the fourth finger, because people used to believe it to have a vein leading from there all the way to the love muscle itself. With such a mish-mash of venous vermicelli in the wrist, she couldn't be sure how they could have traced it so limpidly. Before the dawn of the anatomists with their scalpels.
There was always something too fragile suggested by the upturned wrist, too vulnerable. So she moved quickly on. She found herself at the elbow and wondered at the change of skin topography. The permanent fold there raised a livid red scale. Yet here was the most symmetrical set of features on the whole skin. There could you witness the cellular architecture of the human body in all its intricacy. Tiny parallelograms, each with a facility to shrivel or stretch, to concertina and overlap their neighbour. The shuffling orchestration was simply divine. She licked the elbow with her tongue in appreciation. It tasted of interrelatedness.
When she woke up, he was gone. He hadn't even extinguished the overhead light, even though it was morning and ribbons of light were streaming through the blinds. Lashing her to the sheets. Seemed like they weren't such a good fit after all.
She stared at the indentations left in his pillow. The case rucked where it had cradled his head, bearing the sunken contours from the downward pressure. More wrinkles and creases, only this time turned inside out. Lacking for the supporting body they served. The vacated lines, the abandoned seams, having opened the quarry of her own body the night before. The death mask of another potential relationship, pressed down with airless finality.
Once, just once, she yearned to wake up and find the smooth impression of a fully-drawn face still lying on the pillow next to hers. Not having to commit the features to her wistful memory, but to be able to revisit them afresh everyday, in the flesh.
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Story prompts are great aren't they? They can help get the creative juices roiling, maybe even leading to the writing of a flash for Friday publication.
Whether they're the wonderful photos offered up by Icy Sedgewick. Or the word prompts freely offered at Three Word Wednesday or by Lily Childs' Prediction Challenge and others I'm not even aware of. For someone like me who loves riffing off words, what could be better than being tossed 3 words and told to weave a tale from that?
But, I love the frisson from spotting something in my everyday life that sets off a whole chain of associations that may just end up in a story. Something that drags you away from the ordinary and demands you to don your writer face, whether it's convenient then and there or not. That live alchemy, from something equally random as word or picture prompts, but personal to me in how it leaps up and grabs me by the throat. These prompts are not sought after, nor provided with writing in mind. They are everyday details and observations, but one day your mind is just in a place that transforms them from out of the ordinary.The alchemy begins the moment they leap into the imagination and start sparking ideas.
I think they probably speak in the same way as a word or picture prompt, to ideas that are already bumping and boring inside your head awaiting being given birth. But it is perhaps taking them from that context in which you experienced them that adds something a little bit extra, than to say something provided precisely to jolt the writing process.
Today I have released a collection of 52 pieces of my flash fiction on kindle. As part of the fridayflash twitter community, I wrote one a week for a year, bookended by some beforehand as I learned the art and a few afterwards as the impetus wouldn't let me go even after I achieved my goal of 52 in 52. This collection is what I hope are the best 52 of the 70 or so I wrote.
In the appendix I provide the writing prompts for all but the very experimental last 5 in the collection, which were less inspired by prompts and more by the form of language and words themselves. Most prompts were quite ordinary, sights witnessed on the London Underground, or in a supermarket. One was a single word in a review of a book. Some were fundamentally embedded in the heart of the final story, others just helped me tap into long-held ideas and probably provided the skeleton to hang them on. A couple of the stories I couldn't even remember what the prompts were.
Here are those prompts. I hope you find their genesis potentially useful for coming across your own in the rich pageant that is everyday life.
Plato's Cave: Kebab houses from both when I was at University and when I moved back to London afterwards
Caritas: After attending a charity fundraising auction, where there was the prize of being a character in a Booker winner's next novel
Death Masking Love: I've always had a thing about the smoothness of the outside of a death mask and the wrinkles reproduced inside
The Caller To The Bingo Caller's House Calls 'House': After a twitter hashtag punning game, I was struck by the violence of the rhymes for bingo numbers
In The Nursery: After talking to a child psychologist about the use of play in diagnostics
Confessional: During the 2010 General Election campaign and Prime Minister Gordon Brown's gaff when he was caught describing a voter he'd talked to on camera as 'a bigoted old woman'
Captivation: I was writing a novel with a different police interrogation scene and wondered what it would be like if the suspect started withdrawing from drugs
Loss Of Function: From the phrase 'falling in love' and reading Tom McCarthy's book "Remainder" that week
Bowing Out: The image of the bulbs around a mirror in actors' dressing rooms. I don't know why that image came to me that particular week
Totentanz: I spotted the word in a review in a publication which I was only reading because it had a short piece of my own
Digging For Australia: After failing to excite my own children's enthusiasms for beach holidays
Café Sensorium: After reading a review of a restaurant in which you eat in pitch dark and are served by the blind
8 Legged Army: The tarantula is my animal totem (along with the vulture, see below). Reading about an Amazonian tribe and their relationship to the animals of the forest
Badges: I used to collect rock band badges and pin them to a split open T-shirt I never wore. I was also a cub scout of fairly limited proficiency
Cosmologist's Hangover: Thinking back to a monster hangover at University after a day of five garden parties, working my way back to my college rooms from the furthest one away, stopping off at each of the others on the way. Why this came to me when it did I don't know, as I haven't drunk alcohol for many years
Morning Assembly: I can't remember exactly, but this may have been one of those where the story proceeded from its title. Child soldiers have always been an interest since the days of the Khmer Rouge
2 Up, 1 Down: I attended Tom McCarthy interviewing an architect for his semi-fictional Necronautical Society and it, made me consider the everyday home in ways I'd never thought about before
End of The line: Come on gentle reader, admit you scrutinise what your fellow commuters are reading on the train! Something that kindle readers will prevent us from doing in the future, as there is no readily visible cover art
Deadheading: Another commuter train inspired one. A man sat near me reading a book, with two angry looking scabs on his hairless pate
Pigeon English: I can't remember the inspiration for this, but the pidgin/pigeon homophone led to the grounded bird's eye point of view
Trespass: The anxiety abounding about identity theft and credit card fraud, brought together with the internet's affording of crafting yourself a different online personality from your real life one
Cinderella's Crystal Tips: Seeing a woman's metal ring that covered two fingers between the upper and lower knuckles. It looked like a knuckleduster...
Prometheus Northbound: Looking up at map of the Northern Line during yet another interminable journey along it and the fact that during my peripatetic youth I'd temporarily lodged at about half of the places on the map
5 Items Or Less: Queuing up in my local supermarket to pay, the whole thing came to me all of a piece as I spotted a woman with 3 stars tattooed on her foot
Crazy Gulf: Having played a round with my kids, I began to think back to the props for the holes. Why do all such courses have a clown hole?
The Names: Just something about lists constituting a narrative story in themselves
Basic Geometry: Attending a poetry recital, the word 'fuselage' really resonated in my head. Once it rattled against notions of geometry, I had the juxtaposition that lead to the Twin Towers. I wrote this almost whole on the train journey home
Fairground Attraction: Knife throwing as a metaphor for hurling insults meant to wound but not mortally. At some point I hit upon twinning it with the fire swallower and that made it into a married couple
Cysters: A way of exploring our anxieties about death and abandonment, once I'd read about the calcification of an unborn fetus inside the womb
If It Were Thee: I gutted a previous short story written in the second person that had ground to a halt. Not quite sure how I hit upon the cyborg thing, but once I did then it became all about linguistic programming
The Ties That Bind: "Mr and Mrs Smith" really wasn't a terribly good movie was it? I'd always had the idea of a serial killer who invites hit men to kill him as his series. The husband and wife thing helped me realise it here
Bad Apple: We have an apple tree in our garden. Though fecund, we only get to eat about five apples a year for many of the reasons outlined in the story. We are also plagued by urban foxes and had a rat living off the fallen fruit. Uggh!
Hard Time: I can't remember the impetus for this, but I do write about being imprisoned, or held against your will quite often
Lost Sole: I stepped off a bus and saw a lone woman's shoe on the grass verge. It jolts you out of your familiar associations when an everyday object is seen out of its regular context
De-Terence: Not sure how this became wrapped around a bouncer and I know that came before the stripping away of his youthful illusions, but I can only trace the latter to my own experiences
Bittersweet: I liked the image of injecting poison into the soft centre of a chocolate. An object associated with love, used to kill it off
Knell Quaternion: This started from the story of the Indian temple girl dancer-cum-prostitute and then rolled out into being four tales involving bells
Atlas' Daughter Inherits His Round Shoulders: Just wondered what it might be like to be called in to confirm the identity of your dead loved one
The White Elephant's Graveyard: Reading on Wikipedia about the desert resting place of decommissioned military aircraft
Statutory Statuary: Saying goodbye to visiting friends and wondering when exactly to shut the door on them and getting back to a piece of writing that was calling me. Irony was of course, I ended up writing this instead
Lunar Tic: Just something about your body clock being superimposed upon by authority. My chance to spin on the werewolf story
One Billion Virtuosos And Sos: Just considering how any literate person with access to the internet is now a writer
The Forsaken: The view from the raised platform of my local station. Given a considerable literary makeover, it's not that grim!
Dead Ringer: There would have been some news story about a celebrity lookalike that would have really annoyed me. But for the life on me, I can't remember which one. There are so many after all...
Rich Pickings: The vulture is my other animal familiar. I once stared deep into the eyes of one in a zoo and couldn't begin to describe it. Since then I'd always wanted to write a story about vultures and the increasing ubiquity of child soldiers gave me the hook to hang it on
Drying Out: Another story that may have stemmed from its title, that twin meaning of an alcoholic drying out from their addiction and the drying out of the skin as we age
Assassination City: Youth knife murders are reported every month in London
Sunday, 21 August 2011
"Police seek 30,000 Rioters" according to the Metropolitan police. Even allowing for Press hyperbole, that's an incredible jump in potential prisoners at the going rate of current sentences being handed down to the rioters who have already been identified and processed through the courts.
Given that our pre-existing prison population is 90,000, were all these 30,000, or even half of that, caught and sentenced,well you do the maths. Given a prison infrastructure that is already barely able to cope with the pre-riot inundations on its scanty resources.
So that becomes one pinch point, in the deterioration of the conditions of housing prisoners due to overcrowding.
Pinch point two, is consider the effect of some 15% of the prison population all arriving at broadly the same time into the system and all for the same sort of offences. It would seriously tilt the balance and make-up of the prisoner population.
So what? you may ask. They're all criminals of whatever stripe aren't they? Well I'd ask you to consider the potential for a politicisation of this new intake. Many arrive into the system probably already nursing the grievances that may have partly informed their actions during the riots. At the very least many are possessed of the economic and social arguments of their circumstances, even if they don't actually credit them as motives for their behaviour. Now add the overcrowding and lack of any real resources to manage a proper rehabilitation process within the prisons and their political grievances are enhanced further.
While they may also influence some of those other inmates already within the system and to politicise them about the injustices and conditions in which they find themselves within the swollen inmate numbers. Of course their arguments may also be discounted by the current inmate population. In the same way that they regard sex criminals as beyond the pale, they may reject these new prisoners and shun any unity with them. But I think they are rather more likely to find common unity of purpose. Uniting against the prison system they find themselves housed in.
Does this crucible remind you of any other eras? We don't have the prompt of Civil Rights, Race and Ethnicity, the opposition to the Vietnam War and student protest, to anything like the same degree that the US did in the 1960s. And Marxism and Maoism and the Black Panthers are not broadly percolating throughout our prison system as they were back in the 1960s US. But I think similar, less ideological preconditions exist all the same. It will focus around the reasons for disaffection and take the form of protest, violence and possibly even riot, over untenable prison conditions as it did in America. Attica, San Quentin, Soledad, Oklahoma and Idaho to name but five.
But it may well go further. The two books I offer at the head of this post, both trace the forging of an anti-authoritarian stance and more significantly an anti-authoritarian language. This was brought about by the abuse of the prison authorities and a resistance to that by the prisoners. They refused to back down in the face of whatever abuse was being heaped on them. (Jimmy Boyle's autobiography paints the same journey, only his was undertaken in complete isolation in the Scottish prison system of the late 60's and 70s, not as part of some wider political movement). The US prisoners instinctively bucked at the violence and degradation being heaped on them and became politiicsed in their analysis of the power structures underlying it all (aided by their readings in Marx et al).
What happened was that complete unwillingness to kowtow to authority found its way back on to the streets in the US and permeated the criminal classes since some of those ex-inmates were career criminals. It's the attitude that informs US gangs. It's the language of not being disrespected, of the same demonstration of status and escalation of revenge and violence as pervaded their prison life.
We are already at that point with many of the rioters, who show no fear of the authorities, as demonstrated in their actions a fortnight ago. (hardly surprising since Britain has imported many aspects of US gang culture, see my post here). I hate to think what protracted sentences, plus politicisation at whatever informal level, will wreak on their thinking here and now in the 21st century. They will eventually be released and they may just be even more unreachable than they are now. Their baleful influence may be even more widespread when they are back in the general population.
And there will be prison protests and riots over the next couple of years. That may just be the least of our problems.
Monday, 15 August 2011
Why only now?
Is this a recent conversion after being briefed about t on the causes of the riots?
Doesn't such a statement imply a previous tolerance for street crime? That while certain strata of society predate on one another up and down our communities and high streets, with petty theft, mugging as theft with violence, all the way up to knife crime, the government have been happy to turn a blind eye to this at a strategic level. The underclass preying on one another.
Only now that criminal activity suddenly agglomerated together into the riots and looting on those same high streets last week, where property and trade themselves were attacked, has the Prime Minister determined to deal with it.
How many youths have been stabbed to death on our streets over the last decade? There has been plenty of official hand wringing, but the only action has really been taken by those in the stricken communities themselves and the police struggling to get a grip on it.
I took a look at the Conservative Party's 2010 election manifesto and other than a pledge to ensure a custodial sentence for knife crime, there is no mention about cleaning up street crime or dealing with gangs.
Therefore a tolerance for both.
The Labour Party were little better in power, so it's not strictly party political.
But I do find Cameron's pronouncements particularly odious and craven. Will we now see him with the zeal of a recent convert? Or just the payer of lip service with his fingers crossed that such criminality will not rear its head in so organised a fashion as last week.
This is the opening of that same Conservative manifesto:
"A country is at its best when the bonds between people are strong and when the sense of national purpose is clear".
Well our country must be at its worst. We're all in this together are we Mr Cameron? Some more than others clearly. We all had our suspicions about the unity of financial sacrifice being a sham. But now I suspect the actual sacrifice of human life and wellbeing before criminality too, had been consciously accepted that this would only apply to certain strata of society.
Thursday, 11 August 2011
Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated his assertion that "the fightback has begun".
Which begs the question as to why we need to be 'fighting back' in the first place?
For whatever reason the police largely stood by in a vain attempt to contain what was fast moving and highly mobile rioting. They ceded the shopping high streets to the rioters. So the police now need to reassert their authority and control.
For the first time in my life, I actually feel sorry for the police. They've always been detested by the demographic of law-breaking people who were rioting. But now they've aroused the ire of the law-abiding citizens who felt unprotected and the retailers who saw them standing uselessly by while their property was looted or torched. They're getting it in the neck from all sides.
My criticism of the police would centre on their complete failure to deal with the burgeoning gang culture that has taken hold of certain communities and their high streets.
We have imported the American model of gang culture, virtually lock stock and barrel, albeit with our more stringent gun laws, the knife is more prevalent than the gun, although depressingly that balance looks like it is shifting too. We have gang boundaries and loyalties determined by territory, graffiti marking those boundaries like a dog spoors lamp-posts. They have even adopted the bandana as part of their affiliations. What self-respecting Englishman would wear such an item, apart from a brief flowering during the 80's New Romanticism? Now it is de rigueur for signalling your colours.
The Americans have 30 years experience ahead of us. On how gangs act, the collective mentality, the petty and violent crime they indulge in, the relationship to drug dealing, the symbols and mores of them. I question whether our police have ever seriously sought to consult such expertise and actually get ahead of the game. I don't blame them for failing to be ahead of the game with the social media driving the fluidity of the riots. But their inability to interdict the gang structure and operations is an unforgivable major failing. They have been blighting our communities and streets for over a decade now and their ability to act with virtual impunity from the law has culminated in what we have seen this week. They attacked the shopping areas they know so well from prowling and predating them week after week after week. They knew which shops they wanted to hit, what goods they wanted to have. They'd done their window shopping previously and took advantage of the opportunity to now just take them.
But returning to Cameron's new catchphrase. That notion of 'fight back' also implies the need to hit back at an aggressor. Are we admitting that we are in fact engaged on a low level war?
Mrs Thatcher declared that there were elements of society antipathetic to it, who she dubbed "the enemy within". But her targets were specifically political opponents, both institutional and grass roots, but again this notion of an enemy as in a war.
The maxim of any military tactician is "Know thine enemy" yet not one single government has made any attempt to understand the mentality of those involved in the riots, for to do so would involve admitting to their own culpability in helping to foster them.
The accusation hurled against the US involvement in Vietnam, while some of its own cities burned and police were turning guns on demonstrating students and protesting prisoners, was how could the country prosecute wars abroad without recognising the ongoing war it had back home in its ghettoes? And now the fine upstanding governments of those well-know democracies of Iran, China and Libya are gleefully telling us to get our own house in order rather than sending our bombers over the countries of others and appealing to the United Nations top intervene to uphold the democratic right to protest.
If we can declare war on an abstract word such as 'terror', surely we can do the same with an abstract word but material reality, in 'deprivation'?
Of course the riots were not solely motivated by deprivation (see my earlier post). Just so you don't credit that I'm only bashing the political right, the Leader of the Opposition Labour Party Ed Milliband today asked "How do we have people among us who think it's OK to go and harm and despoil their communities in this way?" Because Mr socially-concerned, oh so unaware Milliband, the rioters don't feel any allegiance to call themselves a member of any community. They are without any stake in society whatsoever. The only things they take from their community are money and goods with menaces and a postcode by which to name their gangs.
Utterly clueless the lot of them. We get the politicians we deserve and the politicians get the citizens they deserve back.
Tuesday, 9 August 2011
They are not mindless, they are mindset thugs and such simplistic labelling as ever allows people to not go any deeper than the surface in response.
What is this mindset?
It has developed over the last 30 years since the last set of riots. It is the same areas in flames as before. Any Londoner could have probably predicted the most likely boroughs to experience problems. That tells me nothing significant has been done to help those communities bring themselves up to a happier state. They were communities largely thrown on the scrapheap in the 80's. Sink estates with mass unemployment and educated in sink schools that were no better than holding centres for the hours of school. Now we are seeing the children and grandchildren of those original rioters and their peers from the same estates out on the street and causing mayhem. It's hardly genetic, but when the envirinment is unchanged from that of 30 years ago, it produces the same outcomes.
What has changed over the years, is the development of American style territorial gangs, largely with knife in place of gun. it's a really depressing development and has been allowed to go unchecked over twenty years. Gangs provide the 'family' membership that their own flesh and blood have abdicated from. God knows how many fatal youth on youth stabbings and shootings there have been up and down the country but particularly in London. Carrying a knife makes the individual feel indomitable. The same indomitability they feel when through force of numbers (as the gangs join forces) they come to be in control of the streets and able to do as they please.
Suddenly instead of mooching around outside the shops and malls of a weekend, all of a sudden now they can help themselves to its stock, or destroy it for whatever perceived grudge. They are already used to petty criminality, through harassing passers by, mugging and demanding with menace. They are not being organised by any 'master criminals', nor by anarchists. If anything, they are leading and these other opportunists with their own agendas are coming to the party.
Do you recall the mass gang fight on the concourse of Victoria Station when a youth was fatally stabbed? Two gangs from outside the area, one from Fulham (South-West London) and one from South London arranged to meet and fight and came fully armed. they arrived on their bikes. So these gangs are highly mobile and as we know, communicate fluidly and rapidly. They can target and organise themselves to move about the capital & keep the authorities completely off balance. They are at present taking revenge on their haunts of the High Street, places they have spent so much of their lives at just killing time. Well now they're killing these places.
Feral is an adjective bandied about. It's clumsy but not without some pertinency. Three generations of economic neglect and parental neglect has bred swathes of completely unrestrained youth. They share nothing of your values or moral codes. Judging them accordingly wouldn't even register. they are not going to own any property in their life, so have no compunction about torching that of others. They are totally lost generations. They do not care, they feel impervious to every accusation you may care to throw at them. It simply would not compute.
This is the outcome of neither an economic deprivation nor a political protest. Banks (and by extension bankers) are not being targeted, so it's hardly the outcry borne of sophisticated political analysis. Yes shops have been ransacked, but of a certain type. Electrical goods, phone shops, jewellers, bike shops, sportswear shops - these are all lifestyle items for youth that we as society have been peddlling for decades as worth owning. They already own Blackberry's, are currently wearing Hollister or Nike; what they are helping themselves to is the latest model, the latest edition, exactly how capitalism and consumerism encourages us all to keep upgrading. Chemists and supermarkets provide the fuel of drink & pills to sustain their rampage through the night hours. Those shops that aren't relevant, such as carpet shops, get torched. There is an element of 'if I can't have it, I'll make sure you can't either', in tandem with the destruction's adrenalin pumping. And the power of being able to operate over the law and to be in control of the streets.
We reap what we sow. Generations left to drift with minimal adult guidance, with little education, without any aspiration other than gross material ones, without any sense of endangerment, without any imbued moral value or sense, without any stake in society. All they needed was an opportunity to realise their own unbridled power. After the student demos suggest the path, after the cutbacks in police numbers and the detriment to moral, here was the opportunity.
Some of us have been telling the politicians for 30 years about "Broken Britain". It got reduced to a soundbite. After the 80s riots and her re-election, Mrs Thatcher's acceptance speech pledged to do something about "those inner cities". Scarce anything has been done and here we are again, geographically if not for quite the same motivations. As the Scarman Report which came out of an inquiry into the Brixton riots of that time, still has too many of its recommendations ignored; as politicians of any political stripe refuse to face up to our society's deep-rooted problems; as we hide behind outrage and lumping complex factors into buzzwords; as we continue to face up to the fundamental arrangements of our society on ownership and ruinous consumption, then we have no hope in hell of mending anything.
These generations are lost I'm afraid. What we have to do is try and mend things to prevent the next generations going the same way.