Thursday, 22 April 2010

Cinderella's Crystal Tips - Friday Flash

His ex-wife used to say you could tell a lot about a person by their shoes.

But then Cindy hailed from the Imelda Marcos stripe of finishing school.

He himself preferred to gauge by the fingers. It's said that the whorls and swirls on them are a unique colophon. But he felt even that missed the obvious. How people wielded their extremities, was the full embodiment of their very being. How they felt the world. Truly they were pointers in the purest sense. Analogue digits. Digital analogues.

A slender few were too dainty to span him. A further spread aped callipers, surveying him like a piece of cartography. A handful, just a handful, were bucket-like, making him feel akin to clay manipulated beneath a potter's hand.

Some were clammy. Others desiccated and cracked, rasping him like sandpaper. A sprinkling smelled... divine and fair carried him away in his senses. But that only beguiled him away from his true requirement. Certainly it was a transportation that he quested after, yet to far different a destination.

There were those with long, delicate fingers. Like the veins of a leaf. Piano players all, lightly brushing his skin ivory. A caress with the pad only, as if it were an invertebrate creature lacking for the articulation of any bone within. The merest dab of pressure, apologetically excusing its trespass even as it limned it.

Then there were those with manicured talons. Fingers always part curled at the knuckles, driving the varnished keratin in to break the surface of his flesh. Being stroked like a penitent with a fraying lash. If it were mere scourging and blood he sought after, he could always shave himself with a cheap razor. Those festooned and bedecked with jewellery amounted to the same. He had no desire to be cut and polished by the facets of gemstones. Or worse, those outsized rings that ran the length between the two knuckles from midfinger to fist. Those that inevitably branded his skin with their cold steel, like a lancet. Yet their bearers were also inevitably the most ardently amenable to his need.

Others had nails bitten to the quick. Simulacra stigmata of anxiety, signposting a likely lack of conviction to carry through his request to the full. Up close, he could see those cuticles still rimmed and tainted with old nail polish. They made him feel nauseous, as he could not allow their imprecision near his exactitude demanding flesh.

For there was only ever one reach, one scope, which would fit the crystal dimensions. Match the whorls and swirls of the livid throttle outlines left by his ex-wife's diamond-like grip. Before she left him in disgust at his lily-livered weakness. No other woman could stop up his breath quite like Cindy.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Designated Driver

My mentor (tipster?) at the online wine club is on the phone to prompt me about the beaujolais nouveau. I thank him for his diligence and tell him I’m already on the case as it were. That for once, I had undertaken my own steps to secure a token sample from a local vintner’s. The insufflation down the line remained admirably even, when I explained how my circumstances only required a single bottle rather than the case he was offering.

Though this was one call I didn’t mind taking, I had assumed he would have a plethora of tinkling to address in this red letter week. Yet there were no swallowed exhalations evincing an indication of wanting to get off the line. Seemingly, since he was presently engaged on his quarterly communion with me, (as covenanted by a tick box), he felt obliged to transfuse a customary splash of his erudition. And since I carelessly remarked how I couldn’t see what all the palaver was about, we had become embroiled in a rather ill-matched debate on the fanfare reserved for the B.N. “... Of course it’s not the same as leaping in your vintage sports car and motoring down to the vineyards to ensure you took possession of it in advance of all your fellow countrymen. Entering into the venturesome spirit of it as it were ...”

Even if only to the tune of one bottle, I began to ruminate on why indeed I had succumbed to the marketing campaign, (the pop-art labels, one shade shy of dayglo), trumpeting a brash ceremonial honouring of the new crop. “It’s a light frivolous wine,” - (no, actually it’s scarce better than gargling with mouthwash) –“gulped in a festive ambience rather than quietly savoured” (why go to the trouble of chilling it then, apart from making the bloody thing palatable in the first place?)

Here he is, half tour-guide, half landscape artist, using that mellifluous tongue of his to conjure up the dreamy world of the grape, so that I encounter it in its habitat rather than vice versa. Yet I have no particular yen to inhabit these places. I am not about journeying or discovering. Simply the convenience of having bulk, quality vintages, delivered at sizeable discount right to my front door. No more hauling bags of wine, distending my arms like an orang utang, the handles staunching the blood in my fingers like pillywinks. They’ve sold me on it already, after all I’m a subscriber am I not ? I don’t need any aspirational hook, for all this maven’s sensuous patter.

Certainly, part of my life involves imbibing, but I don’t intend to make a career, or a life, out of it. Sum and substance, I favour half a bottle of wine with my meal of an evening. Together with the food, I find it revivifying after the day at work here and any other disappointments requiring to be washed away. Yet I found it also has an inbuilt sedative to conduct me, with sufficient a strike rate as to make it worthwhile, into an uncontested sleep by midnight. Thereby allowing me to thread myself back into circadian life cycles. Hats off to any produce that can harvest that. Only I don’t like plonk. Call me a snob, but that’s just my gustation for you. And no, I wasn’t ever reared on the quality stuff either.

So it is not an asseveration of life, rather an antidote to it and its adulterations. BN day, supposedly toasts and heralds my new resolve, pre-empting the officially plighted one for the turn of the year. Mouthwash and then hogwash. For I can’t see anything realistically changing about my life. I could of course always just tell him this and thank him for his glorious but vain efforts. But I don’t. It helps pass a particularly slow afternoon in the office.

“Infusing the bouquet assails one’s senses. The pleasure zones scaled, each endorphin being delightfully tweaked by the grape’s grappling hooks, that lead it by its microscopic hooter. Expectantly anticipate the expectoration. Like the second coming of the sensory overload which it will inevitably form. That tidal inrush across the Hellespont of the tongue, driving inexorably toward the Pharos Lighthouse of the uvula, when with a teasing double declutch on the rudder of the jawbone, Bacchus’s marines instead wash up against your buccal shoreline. Scylla reflexively clenches her labial inlet and peforce Charybdis whirls the waves. In the choppy shallows, every inch of one’s mucus membrane becomes inoculated with the liquid nectar. Your palate fructified with the ancient lifeblood of the vine; your palette cleansed and ready to redraw the world afresh. The sap having performed its consecration, ought then to be expelled from the mouth, leaving one intoxicated even though a single drop is yet to enter the bloodstream”.

Oh he’s good alright. Apart from the wine being tailored for my tastes, was his delivery bespoke too? Could he truly be inside my head and mine alone, or was he routinely like this with all female club members according to their declared profiles? And the men too?

What did he get out of it, surely not just a desiccated coneyance of a shared liquid passion? To what end? Right now, that disembodied voice down a phone line, has a closer rapport with me than anyone else in the world. A subversive intimacy. He has less direct access than say my dentist, yet how skillfully he ingresses into the input of my mouth. He knows how to tickle and knead my tastebuds. In short, he palpates me, like ants to aphids. At the remove of a phone cable. And for his part, does he drink in any nourishment from me? What the deuce am I secreting down the line?

Friday, 16 April 2010

Mirror Portal - Friday Flash

A long involved telephone call. I’m seated on the bottom stair, handset cradled under my chin, giving Amy a draught of flesh top. Suzanne is plucking my arm, but soon takes cognizance of her place in the orchestration. I watch her storm off. Momentarily I hold the phone away from my ear, and pitch for the timpani of small armed percussive reparation. But none is forthcoming. Amy falls asleep and takes my pinioned arm with her. My distressed cabled confessant is chewing my ear off. Yet what rips out and bears aloft my heart, is the petrified image of my eldest daughter’s receding elfin form. Seeing as only empty space now resides in front of me, it’s as if she'd disappeared in a puff of disenchantment.

I wasn’t tracking her down, more trying to clear my head of phone tinnitus. Having decanted Amy from my arm into her cot, I wandered towards my bedroom. I must have glimpsed a dash of colour through the door crack, since I snapped myself back before the threshold. The hue displaced itself once again and unblocked the sliver of light that affords me witness. There she was, sat at my dressing table. In front of my hinged mirror triptych, that gateway to the source of identity. The family omphalos. For I too had sat in front of just such a mirror, a child seeking reassurance of my Mother’s continued existence, when confronting her temporary absence from the house. Jesus wept, suddenly even my pang had a pang of its own now!

My mother’s orderly bedroom with nothing out of place. Everything personal and messy having been buried behind sober, white wardrobe doors. Over the marital bed, fundament of my genesis, a neutral, passionless landscape with a tiny cottage at its heart. ‘I shouldn’t be in here, I shouldn’t be in here’ I inhaled pantingly. ‘I’ll get caught’ I exhaled.

But then my eyes alit on the dresser, with all those personal allures of womanhood. Whisked away by the faint scents and oily emulsions lingering in the air, held in the glass at the forge. The foundry. For all that was feminine. A place of creation, beauty and adornment. I knew I must not approach, to seat myself, to touch. For this was the portal to the forbidden world of boys and sex and once seduced, my soul might be whipped away from me. I would be discovered still sat in this grotto, dusted head to foot in incriminating powders. Guilt and shame battling it out with non-hormonal rouge for incontrovertible confession written upon my cheeks. But I felt the warmth surging through me anyway. Imagining for my mother, a divine trinity illuminated in those three mirrors. Ambrosias and honeys in hand, as she peers in towards the core of her central glass, fluently kindling the two vitreous handmaidens either side with her radiance. Thrice-enhanced, I felt myself equally ordained to enter the world inhabited by my mother and her mother before her. The nine of us stretching back towards infinity.

And now, admittedly at somewhat more of a precocious age, here was my daughter undergoing the very same private initiation. I did what any proud mother would do, I checked that the decor was fitting. I didn’t have such a big heavy dresser as my mother possessed, nor could not even recollect whence I had come by the picture above the bed. The unguents were not as dense as in my mother’s day, but for all their brittleness, I felt still presented a palpable patina with which you could almost gild the walls of the room.

What was she doing exactly? She was bobbing in front of the mirror. Instinctively I pressed my torso back from the door, as she herself cringed back from the purview of the lens. At present I couldn’t get her in focus. Since I’d sat there, both as mother and tremulous daughter, I knew I couldn’t reveal myself and expose her. Yet I had to know precisely what was happening. Fortunately she dipped forward into the dimension of the mirrors again and tugged my frame back to the buffer of the door. Several times we repeated this process as if we were attached by an elasticated umbilical. That we'd never shed the toddler reins.

I gleaned she was ducking in and out of the glass’s survey, as if it was a searchlight. Trawling for a breakout. For escapees and absconders. Fugitives from familiarity. If the beam didn’t sweep you up, it meant that you’d slipped away. If it conjured you in its field, you were held fast and atomised. My daughter was too discerning to want to convene the snarled trinity of me and my mother before me. For here she was, treating the triplicated lenses as if they were sited in a House of Fun. Distorting and reassembling. Distorting and reassembling. Whose genes does she see eyeballing her from within the scope of the looking glass? I just pray that it was only the sloughing of me and my mother that she craves after and not that of her own self. For mirror narcissism is bipolar and self-antipathy gilds one of those foci.

I took my leave. I went into Amy’s room, as if to confer with her that I wasn’t going to fail her as demonstrably I had with Suzanne. She was still in the land of nod. I stood there forlornly, trying to red eye my doting behind her shielded lids. I held there staring, just waiting to harvest the emanations of attachment, but my well seemed either dammed or dried up. Now I really was marooned. Already exiled from my own bedroom, I didn’t want to creep out of here, lest Suzanne hear me and then denounce me for being close enough for spying and yet too distant to be present with her. Something was ricocheting around between me and my daughters, but sure as hell it wasn’t love.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Political Animals

So there's a General Election campaign upon us in Britain for the next month. Whoop de doo. Our quinquennial opportunity to allow politicians to pay lip service to us as they beseech our votes. Then we can each return to the status quo and studiously ignore one another. Each Party produces a manifesto of 100 or so pages with all sorts of pledges and policies. You know 95% of those pledges will not be honoured by the winning party. One also asks why the Government, which in this particular case have been in power for 13 years, haven't put these pledges into practice all the while they've been in power already? Why have they only just thought of them now?

You may detect from the slightly cynical tone of the above that I am not overly taken with Party Politics. And yet I would paint myself as an utterly political person, especially in my writing. In some ways, any deed in our daily life is a political one. If it has consequences for other people, if there are alternative options with different possible outcomes, then your choice is likely to be a political one, whether you actively sift through the alternatives or not. Even the everyday language we use is chock full of political assumptions. Love it or hate it, political correctness started out with language as its target. Those who opposed any politically determined meddling with language, overlooked that the language that has come into being is itself far from neutral.

By these definitions, anything to do with power or status in relationships, is political. Of course there is no mandate that demands we each consider every aspect of our daily lives in this light, just as we manage not to have to think about our mortality that inevitably awaits us. But humans who live within communities and societies, act politically whether they are conscious of it or not.

So in the rest of this post, I just want to offer some moments of how I acted politically, whether in a public arena or privately during my life. The forging of me as a political animal. Most of it was done completely ignorant of any political aspect of the action. It's mainly in retrospect now that I can offer them up as thus.

When I was seven and starting proper school, my parents put me down to do violin lessons. I had never even seen a real violin, but instinctively I knew I didn't want to play it. I simply failed to show up to my lessons. I bluffed my progress back home to my parents. When challenged in the playground by a school Prefect dispatched by the music department, I misdirected him to that other boy in the school with my surname (was there one, I didn't actually know). Quite a deft piece of thinking on the feet for a seven year old. I got away with this pretense for some 18 months. When busted, my parents accepted my act of abstension, though my father was aggrieved at having to pay for 5 terms worth of music lessons I never had. So someone else picked up the bill for my resistance.

From aged 7-11, music was taught in chronological order, starting from Plainsong and ending at 1920's jazz. That was it. Stockhausen aside, apparently there was no other music after 1920. I was livid that we couldn't get to our contemporary bands at the time. When we had the end of year exam, I faithfully answered the questions, but took advantage of the delay between each piece of audio that formed the questions, to set out probability tables for the multiple choice test. Now I know I would have come near top of the class in that test, because I was such a non-rebel at school that I adhered faithfully to the work ethic (in contradistinction to the cool kids who eschewed being seen to make any effort at all with their studies, so maybe I was a rebel in comparison to them?). But my music teacher pulled me up and inquired what the number table doodles signified. I replied that they represented probability, (even though I hadn't actually employed it to answer the questions). He went ballistic and set me a punishment essay on "Why Music?" Well that was just the opportunity I needed to get on my soapbox and challenge his manipulation of the curriculum. I spent a long time composing my argument. I handed it in and readied myself to do battle with him. He merely screwed it up and threw it in the bin unread, saying I had discharged my punishment. He maintained the authority and status all throughout our clash. Salutary lesson.

School dinners were very, well school dinner like. They lived down to their reputation. I used to surrender so much of my lunch break to waiting for the supervisory teacher to vacate the hall for their own lunch, at which point I could stuff the offending victuals behind the radiator and present a cleared plate for washing (I know, there were and still are countless children round the world who are starving and would have been so grateful for what I so casually discarded). The whole process eventually struck me as ridiculous so I came up with a political strategy-cum-campaign. I challenged my parents that unless they permitted me to take in home-made meals, I would bring home samples of the pigswill in my handkerchief as proof of its inedibility (of course any additional alchemy with the scuzziness of my hanky would only embellish the proof). Eventually I wore down their resistance, but they countered that I would have to make my own sandwiches to take to school, since they would not be doing it. A compromise that both sides found acceptable. I still make sandwiches to take to work with me to this day.

I attended a College that had no Left grouping among the students, so Right-Wing was it. Mrs Thatcher's favourite cleric resided there, a man who dismissed Christianity's bent towards helping the poor. A major Conservative theorist was there as was an architect Don who led the fight back against modernism. So the College atmosphere was quite oppressive to me (I should have done my research on the place better before applying). I couldn't understand how a supposed place of learning wasn't interested in any kind of intellectual debate and it just felt wrong that there was only one viewpoint represented (although a cursory study of the demographics of the students would have told me they were virtually all public school educated). I'd already clocked one English student who dressed a bit outre and engaged him in conversation and gleaned his Far Left leanings. When I espied a "Vote Labour" poster up in another First Year window, I went to pay him a visit. Turned out he played water polo for England and if you know anything about that sport you'll appreciate we now had our muscle in place. The Left group was a goer and I invited more people to join our ranks. We were so few in the College we opened it up to all liberal ideas, and had about 25 members out of a college population of 210. Oh how we stirred up some shit, revelling in our persecuted minority status to behave really rather provocatively. I remember because of the Miners' Strike, our college had repealed its membership of the Union Of Students who were actively supporting the strike. We called a meeting, ostensibly to debate issues such as the food and other minor irritants. As the meeting dragged on inconsequentially, gradually our opponents drifted away to dinner and so in the resultant rump, we introduced the notion of rejoining the Union in Any Other Business, which we carried by a vote, with all our members showing admirable socialist discipline of their stomachs and staying put. Oh the stink that caused, our property was attacked, messages and cartoons scrawled on the toilet walls (this was after a guerilla raid two of us mounted during the small hours of one night to secretly paint over all the homophobic and sexist graffiti there, which caused endless speculation as to who had actually done it). Even the Dons woke up to the fact that the college was split right down the middle and urged for some sort of reconciliation. Of course exams came around and focused everyone's minds and the tension levels eventually dropped. The problem with the likes of all this excitement, was when I left College, I was still looking around for such aggravation on issues, when of course no one in the real world actually gave a damn as they were all too busy earning a living. It took me two years to get with the programme of reality on that one.

One of our number in the Left Group had an Aunt who lived in the town and was about to lose her job as a hospital cleaner. This was when Mrs Thatcher was hell bent on saving public money by privatising every public service possible and offering contracts out to competitive bidding. If this guy hadn't have happened to have such an auntie, we probably never would have known about the issue. So our little group decided to undertake its first demonstration. Unlike most of the demos in the town, this was not a student-oriented one trying to engage the interest of the the residents. This was the residents reaching out to a rather small it has to be said representation of students. Did we stop the policy of redundancies and privatisation? Of course not. Little did we know it would lead to the filthy, MRSA loving conditions in hospitals today. What we did learn was that if you make a banner out of bedsheets, you really need to cut holes in it to allow the wind to blow through, otherwise it becomes impossible to wield. FAIL.

I was very active in CND (the campaign for nuclear disarmament), though I never actually joined up. Of all the issues, it was the imminent threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction that really politicised me and turned my thoughts away from football and the domestic world of my parents, out towards the larger events of the real world. Our College was near a US Air Force base and at the time security was so lax, periodically students would break through the wire and dance up and down on the wings of the planes to underline just how easy it would be for terrorists to do the same. I was advised of another trip to do this, but at the time I had broken my collarbone playing football. Now the collarbone is a funny thing. It is such a thin bone, it isn't all that painful when you break it. They can't strap you up or immobilise it because of its position on the body. If you had to break a bone in the human body, I'd say go clavicle every time. It's no big deal. But when asked if I wanted to come along for a plane dancing mission, I used the feeble excuse of my arm, even though they tried to persuade me that someone with eyesight worse than Mole's in "Wind And The Willows" had managed to squeeze through the fence. I think I was motivated by not wanting a criminal record. FAIL

In my student days I'd been on quite a few demos. Same faces, same schtick at each one. Back in London I'd been on the odd one here and there. One I did attend was a march to protest new legislation designed to penalise homosexuals and ensuring no gay rights initiatives could receive local government funding. By some improbable chain of acquaintance, I found myself marching under the "AARGH" banner - great name, great bunch of people. The acronym stood for "Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia" and consisted of graphic novel artists and writers and I seem to remember Alan Moore contributed to the comic book they produced on the issue. Anyway, however pertinent the demo and rally and bands playing to the protestors was, I had a fantastic social time among the "AARGH" lot. This was politics as sociability rather than merely just social action. Political demonstration could actually be a lifestyle choice. Of course the poll tax marches that erupted into rioting changed all that as from then all all marches had chains of police lining the route, filming us with those newfangled hand-held video-cameras. Every subsequent demo was more about whether the police could be provoked into a fight and very little to do with the issue at hand. From the authorities' point of view, they used is as a means of gathering information on the malcontents, the enemy within as their paranoia began to build on that of the miners' strike. I stopped going on marches and demonstrations. They change nothing. Goodness knows how many people marched in protest up and down the length of Britain against the second Iraq war, yet it made not a jot of difference. Instead, I wrote a whole section of my book on home-grown suicide bombers, about the lack of outlets for legitimate and peaceful opposition within our democracy. Now I'll readily admit that writing a novel is far more of a back-room step than active militancy. It could even be called cowardly, sniping there from the sidelines while people get their heads battered by Police truncheons. And such arguments are probably correct. But I'll still try and push my arguments into the public consciousness through the form of a novel, since my presence on a demonstration registers absolutely zero effect.

Every last day of term, a swanky champagne black tie breakfast was hosted in the best suite of rooms in the College. In my final year, that room was next to the suite shared by me and my room-mate. Which means we had the second nicest set of rooms in the whole place. We had snaffled these after being at the bottom of the ballot in our second year and consigned to the smallest and dingiest set of rooms and determined to do something to avoid a similar fate in Year 3. He got elected as College Union Treasurer (he was studying economics) and I got elected as College Union Sports Administrator. Entryism! Eat your heart out Derek Hatton. Even now I can't recall what my duties were. But it did the trick and elevated us up to second place on the ballot. We were however fed up with the champagne breakfast and debauchery that always emanated from next door. So I resolved to hold a beer and sandwiches breakfast to rival it. Come dressed as a revolutionary or a prole. We bought 50 bottles of brown ale and made marmite and chocolate spread sandwiches. Drinking started at 8am and we cranked up my boombox to play lots of punk very loud to them next door. Well the inevitable happened and they started drifting away from their party and coming over to ours. The two groups mixed quite cordially, if a bit incongruously given the divergence of attire. (The photos are great). Our party was deemed the superior of the two (and the cheaper since there was no £50 ticket admission). But I couldn't help feeling we'd been blunted. I actually hurried off for my last supervision of term to be asked by the tutor who I'd come as. I explained the event and he announced himself approving of our symbolic staging. Oh well, if you can't beat the powers that be, you may as well let them join you.

At my University, you fell out of bed and there would be a drama society, a budding theatre director, would-be thespos and a free theatre ready to stage your fall. There were 17 Colleges and about 23 theatre groups. In my second year, I was so disillusioned with my academic discipline of history - not because of its political teaching ironically, but because I felt the disinterested Dons were only concerned with their own researches and had nothing to offer our hungry minds that was a new insight into our subject - I was seriously considering dropping out altogether. Instead I plunged my disaffected energies into writing plays, as my College had just opened its own new theatre space. My first play was about football hooligans, my second was about the Brixton Riots. On the basis of this deep grounding in the art form, I wrote 2 new plays in about 6 weeks for taking up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (nothing like a bit of ambition, I'd been a playwright for all of about 4 months). Anyway, just so happened the day of the Live Aid concerts, I was writing the programme notes for our plays. As the anodyne music and self-righteousness oozed from the stage, my text became more and more um critical of all aspects of our consumptive culture and the pleasure industries in particular. I opined that there was a certain irony to having the most bloated and well rewarded cultural icons, that of rock and rollers, leading us by example. Assuredly there would be a green room of massive excess backstage. If not a secret cocaine tent just to underscore the notion of imbalance of resources. I went on to dissect the Hillsborough football disaster when 98 people lost their lives just in trying to follow their football team. It was a very radical diatribe. I took it up to Scotland's first city with me, but on reading it my cast forbade me from giving the programme out. Even though one of our plays was about the ongoing miners' strike and the mass unemployment that had changed the nature of our society. I bowed to their wishes, since they probably would have pushed it to the ultimate threat of withdrawing their own actorly labour. They were probably right on the issue. But this is the febrile state Dire Straits can drive me into. I had it even worse for the Nelson Mandela concert, since I was actually there at Wembley. Feeling vindicated that I had surrendered my ticket admission fee to the cause, and then suffering the agonisising torture of having to sit through detestable pap music after pap music act and then leaping to my feet to applaud some rousing speech from a worthy on the stage. Benefit concerts? Don't get me started....

The homosexuality legislation I mentioned above, had been introduced as a MP's private Bill , ie done as an individual initiative, not through the auspices of the Party. I wrote to the shithead MP who'd raised it and he wrote back to me saying if I had any concerns I ought to address them to my own MP and not bother him as he had his own constituents to attend to. This is despite the fact he had introduced a law that affected people outside his constituency, couldn't quite follow the logic of that. But in the end none of us need have worried, since despite Parliament being full of ex-lawyers, they can't actually draft any legislation to save their lives and like so many Acts that pass into law, his had so many holes in it that it became unworkable to try and actually penalise homosexuals and it just drifted into disuse until a new Labour government repealed the bill. I had another encounter with unworkable law when my father was up in court for profiting on insider trading knowledge by buying shares in a company he knew was about to be bought out, as the information had come ti him from a client who wanted to sue one of the parties in the deal as they had squeezed this guy out of the action. So I attended the public gallery of Knightsbridge Court (my Dad resplendent in his bow tie, among the drug dealers of the All Saints Road who were the normal defendants at this courthouse. I had previously done jury duty and pronounced myself content with the buttressing of an individual's rights, so impressed was I with the whole jury process and the seriousness with which one's peers adhere to their civic duty. My father's trial offered a whole differing set of responses. In one of the trials I sat on as a juror, it was a drug case and the language bandied about were 'eighths' and 'quarters' and the street value of such amounts. Here were stockbrokers and lawyers talking telephone numbers. It didn't matter if it was a witness for the prosecution or the defence, all seemed to come from another world entirely. You could see the jury's eyes roll at the way these people casually talked of deals of hundreds of thousands of pounds. I would have convicted every person there testifying. My father was found guilty (rightly or wrongly I still can't say for sure to this day, so wooly was the wording of the legislation he was being tried under). The Judge agreed for he said he ought to have a custodial sentence, but since the offence had taken place in the early days of the legislation, when no one really quite knew how it was supposed to work, he would just fine him. Of course the fine was a fraction of the amount the legal bills my father was charged and thereby lay the real punishment. It's a cliche, but the justice system is only as good as the amount you can afford to spend on your defence.

So does this all strike you as the CV of a politico and agitator? Someone hell bent on changing the world? No, me neither. In early middle age, I am now content to conduct and wage such battles on an intellectual level, through a more considered treatment as a novelist. I do still hold it to be a very important act to cast one's vote, seeing the history of resistance and protest that won that right to vote from the exclusive possession of a landed aristocracy. In 1994 there were 3 elections within a period of about five weeks. They fell just before my wedding and a deadline on a collaborative piece of work I was doing in the theatre. Unfortunately we no longer lived where we were registered to vote. Twice I dragged myself back across London in order to honour the hard won right to put my cross in a box, but by the time of the European Elections, just three days before my wedding, I conceded defeat and failed to make that third and final ballot. It remains the only time I have never cast my vote. But now, all I do is enter the polling booth and write "None Of The Above" thereby spoiling my ballot paper, but at least registering my disillusion with what is on offer within our political system. The ultimate in symbolic and probably also futile acts.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Deadheading - Friday Flash

This is one of the pieces I'll be reading next Wednesday at the OCADA gallery in Oxford. It's quite intense but is ideal for performance.

He depressed the rocker switch. The purring susurration started up. The hair clippers weren't in his hand though. It was too soon for that.

Apprehension of the incipient thrum always set his mind a throb. So he was customarily compelled to leave them on the floor, while he modulated his own quickening pulse.

Yet the welter of tension was perennially italicised for him.

The metal tines were palpating the slip-on plastic ones of the number 1 cut. Like a humming bird's wings, the metal couldn't be seen moving. Only the clumsy lurches of the thicker prongs cresting them.

The electric cable was twitching with pent up flux.

The body of the clippers, where the electric motor was housed, was percussing the pile of the carpet like a bull pawing the ground before a charge. And in turn the carpet was revving up the undercarriage, bearing it atop the tips of its fibres, like worker ants.

The tipping point, when friction’s stranglehold is overcome, sees the cable snake and flare like a cracked bullwhip and wrenches the clippers on to their side. The timbre of the tines changes, more like an angry hive now. He picks up the trimmed shears.

His breathing hastens. No matter how much he composes and prepares, he cannot override the electrical trigger in his brain. Something to do with the resonance of physical memory. It remembers amplitudes of current. Any electrical device serves for jump leads to accelerate his heart.

He crouches there, holding the clippers in the palm of his hand, unbuttressed by any curled over fingers. He has to stay as even as possible, until he brings down the stroke of his respiration once again. The clippers oscillating against the skin of his hand. Bench pressing his flesh. He's aligning for their periodicity, so he can fall in behind their metronomic beat. The problem being his touch centres are calibrating one frequency, while his ears are secondary reporting with a fractional lag.

Finally he takes the plunge and brings the snapping piranha teeth to the sheath of his head. He has no need for a mirror, since his free hand pats down for the braille glyphs beneath. The sunken foundations of Inca temples buried beneath hair vines and knotted canopy.

The clippers carry on the deforestation apace. Threshing a bristly stubble over the entirety of his furrowed brow. Harvesting secrets.

The hand runs over the contours of his cranium. Phrenology of the self. His fingers came away smeared with the follicle cull.

Phase one complete, he extinguishes the clippers and rips the plastic gradation accessory from its prow. He rubs the tips of his fingers over the bared steel serrations. He stares at the flesh as it puffs itself back up to reclaim the pressure indentations from the blades. He rubs his thumb against the callused pad of the index finger. The blistered vesicle there never once yielded before the press of the steel. He exhales.

Laying the clippers back on the floor, once again he summons their power by tripping the seesaw switch. The surge came anew. The coiled current crescendoing, plucking at the cable like a piano hammer.

His hand hovering above the vibrato as if conducting it, he was transported back to Summer memories on the streets. With thimbleriggers, professional beggars and suitcases full of somersaulting toy dogs. Those that yapped and yapped as they built up the momentum towards a forward roll. He had always imagined it was cats that were supposed to land on their feet. That damn yapping, reverberating in his ears. Building the pressure up, tightening his pulses like a garrote. A fluffy candyfloss white Son of Sam, but a devil dog all the same. Until he took a carving knife to it, silencing it for once and for all. Heartening to report dogs don't possess nine lives. At his hearing - now there's an apt word - they conceded his argument that all human creativity stems from using objects in new ways, ways that they were not intended for originally. But where he came a cropper, where they snagged him, was when he couldn't remember whether it was blood or hair stuffing that came out of the dog that he ran metal through. That was the bone of contention, how he couldn't quite place the interiority of another of God's creatures. So much so, apparently it made him a potential danger to all bodies.

He scooped up the clippers and began once again to range over his cropped head. With so little pappus to intercede between steel and flesh, the snarling blades bit time and again. He didn't flinch.

The livid veins were welted to the skin from their buffeting. Red and blue like a road map. But the terrain of his skull had been a scorched earth once before. Threaded with desiccated worm casts and that was the point.

The clippers had harrowed their acreage and he swiftly shut the current off to end phase two. His hand was still vibrating a full seventeen seconds after the power had died.

When his hands stopped shaking, he grabbed hold of the legs of the full-length mirror and dragged it through the pile of the carpet so as to face himself. He pressed his face right into the meniscus of the glass, and his bloodshot eyes started surveying the cuts and nicks. The scabs and the scars.

Some were freshly minted, most were older vestiges. The exterior of his skull resembled a brain scan signalling hot areas of neural activity. He was turned all inside out. Which was exactly the point.

He brought his fingers up to each of the clotted mounds. Distending the curdled skin at the foothills, trying to determine the precise aspect. The newer ones leached viscous blood onto his fingers. The older magma chambers threatened recrudescence under the seismic tremors of his manipulations.

But each blood red cameo was carved in relief. None offered the worm hole of intaglio, that which he was chasing after. Those nodes where they had affixed the electrodes. The inlets for the cabling, the electrical conduits, through which they had convulsed electric charge into his resistant brain. To drive away the stormy black clouds they claimed resided there, forecasting his gloomy outlook.

They had wanted to let the sunshine back in, even if it was an artificial source of illumination. A wan light which just leaves him numb and huddled around himself.

Of course, now they deny having ever done anything to him at all. No invasive treatment perpetrated. But he will keep sweeping the brush clear and he will pinpoint the evidence. Of the turned-in wound. Tell-tale concavity. The needle in the coagulated haystacks pockmarking his barren head.

He will bring them to account. He knows - and they must come to know - every time he flicks a switch, his whole nervous system resonates to the flow it engenders.

He moves to pick up the can of shaving foam and the triple bladed razor. At least they didn’t have a pulse other than that imparted by his hand. Commencing phase three.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Meta-Fiction considered in 1512 words (or 1510 if you don't include the title)

Bertolt Brecht and other playwrights aimed to break down the fourth wall of theatre that was the audience's perspective of events on stage. He didn't want them to suspend their disbelief and get sucked into the drama as 'real'. Rather he wanted them to retain their critical faculties at all time and be fully aware that what they were watching was a representation and to be able to reflect on its issues accordingly, remaining detached and analytical.

Rene Magritte's painting "The Treachery Of Images" depicting a smoker's pipe with the caption "This isn't a pipe" also challenged the viewer's way of seeing. Not only was this not the object we call a pipe, given that it was a painting of it, but the concept of 'pipe' is a lexigraphical unit applied to signify the symbol of what we understand to stand for all pipes (the word itself could also stand for some plumbing or a blow-dart delivery system). For Magritte, any symbolisation be it in paint or word, could neither approach nor appropriate the essence of a material object.

Literature's take on trying to change its audience's way of seeing it, is meta-fiction. Of course like any label, it does not represent a homogeneous group of authors all typing away with the theory tucked into their belts, but more the various and diverse outpourings of writers ploughing their individual furrows, banded together as a group by external commentators.

I think there is great value in exploring the nature of fiction itself, just what it the nature of the interaction between reader and author foisting a made up story them. On a personal level, I'm less struck by books about books, or revealing the process by which authors write those books, or that they appear in them as one of the characters or a commentator, or even writing about someone reading a book. These do not seem to me to get to the heart of the issue of fiction. These are little more than a hall of reflecting (and distorting) mirrors. Rather than stripping the veil of what fiction is doing, they seem to me to add a further level of obfuscation.

To me, an inquiry into fiction much stem from literature's primary tool: language. As with Magritte, the illusional nature of all literature starts with language purporting to be able to carry meaning. Story is structured through words. Character is fleshed out in words. It is these words that more directly should be held up to reflective scrutiny, rather than the secondary armatures of story and character.

Clearly on one level words do convey meaning, else how would an author be able to communicate and be understood by a reader? "That fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude" as Proust describes reading. But words are approximations. As above, the word 'pipe' has several meanings for different material objects lumped together through the single word label. Individual words further have several shades of meaning tincturing the interpretation. "Fast" can have two contradictory readings, being either swiftness, or held fast and therefore immobile. This is exacerbated when you put words together, sometimes in unexpected ways. I recently peer reviewed a piece which had the phrase "leering ugly host of reasons", all the words individually being correctly utilised and yet together, the effect takes an unintended direction, as once you employ 'leering', it pushes the sense of the word 'host' away from a multitude or army and more towards a person acting hospitably.

Words are slippery, imprecise. It amazes me that they ever manage to convey meaning at all, but accounts for why there are a myriad of misreadings and misunderstandings in any conversation between two people, unless they are blessed by a sort of telepathy born from long practice and exposure to one other. (The old married couple). Nor are words neutral, since any reader brings their preconceptions with them to any book. Neither are they random. They have origins, they stem from etymological roots. Some words have stayed true to these origins, others have diverged wildly from them, yet still they may retain a faint echo of their original meaning. "Presently" formerly meant immediately, now it means in a little while or soon. But the undertow still sounds the word 'present' in our heads. This is the resonance I want to tap into in my interrogation of just what fiction is.

To me, as with Brecht, I want the book to interact with the reader. By this I don't just mean for them to trace the plot, or have various emotional responses and even catharsis by the novel's end. I want my book to engage in a dialogue with the reader while they progress through it. I write in a conversational tone, chatty even. However, the words I use may not be conversational themselves. It is merely how direct is the voice of the book in addressing the reader, seeking to engage them as if the narrator was in the room (or more pertinently whispering inside their head). The voice at different stages of the narrative wheedles, browbeats, bats its lashes, apologises, reasons, negotiates in a whole gamut of entreaties. But the conscious choice of language, of heightened metaphor, (which is not how anyone 'speaks' in reality) plunging between high language and low vernacular sometimes within the same sentence, all of this is intended to pull the reader up to the fact that this is fiction. I'm addressing the reader, I may even be telling them a story, but what I'm telling them and how, demands constant reflection and assessment by the reader as to what level it is pitched at. What level of reality is the book operating on? A fictional one of course. Buttressed by words that don't do quite what they claim - they are unable to bear up 'reality' to any decent scrutiny and I aim to show them up in their false claims, within a fiction I openly acknowledge as fictitious. The words may bear my story up in that it communicates itself to the reader, but my story is a self-confessed fiction and tugs on the reader's sleeve constantly to remember this. From such a reflexive position, then the reader may go on to weigh up how my fictional world bears in relationship to the world he takes as 'real'.

In my novel "A,B&E" a woman is sat at various beach bars, spinning tales in return for free drinks from her audience. She is a Scheherazade figure, in that she has opened up with her life being in danger from her gangster husband; telling tales to eke out a subsistence in this hiding place where she has no other means. ("1001 Nights" might even be considered a very early meta-fictional work in its narrative structure of passing on the baton of story-tellers within it). But is this framing fact of her life being under threat even true? What impact does that have on each and every one of her tales? What is fact and what is fantasy, in her mind (and be osmosis in the reader's mind?) Yet this is more than just an issue of whether she is an unreliable narrator or not. This is about how all knowledge is transmitted to us in our contemporary culture, trying to separate out fact from fiction, the culturally produced from the individually experienced. Our personal relationship to the language we employ and how much of that is pre-structured for us. Ultimately it is about how we construct our own identity.

She is ostensibly recounting her life story in pint size gobbets (cocktails actually) and her audience isn't specified, so she is ultimately addressing the reader. She has a highfalutin vocabulary, she is a Classics scholar, she uses Greek myths to allude to her own situation. She uses them archly. She is essaying to manipulate the audience. As much as she uses high end words, she also dives down into the vulgate, especially when remarking on her fellow British tourists around her in this holiday resort on Corfu. But as seemingly confident about language as she appears, she also butchers it and misuses it. Just like Shakespeare's yeoman characters who are mastered by language rather than mastering it, she too is tripped up because language will not be pinned down to exactitude. No matter her proficiencies with words, she too will come a cropper at some unseen juncture. The same could possibly be said about the author who gives her these words? Is he 100% in control of the meaning of his material? I'm going to let the readers adjudge that for themselves, because that is part of the fictional game. Did the author intend that? Is my reading of this correct?

Why am I telling you a tale in the form of a novel? I want to humbly entreat you with some insights on the world. By constantly reminding you that this is fiction, I would hope to also underscore that this is only my opinion on these matters. I'd love to hear yours.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The End Of The Line - Friday Flash

Dwelling at the end of the line bestowed me a brace of boons. Firstly that I always secured myself a seat, much to the spreading satisfaction of my gluteus maximus. And second, that usually I'm able to wade into my current reading book to good effect.

Now I grant that reading on a train and in public, is not the same as reading in the splendid isolation of home. When one feasts on words, one cannot but help take a mental pause for digestion and paying silent compliment to the literary chef. On a train, when hoisting the eyes up from the page thus, one has no recourse other than to scan the carnival of humanity, which also happens to be in transit between one worldly carousel and another.

Within my little cloister of four seats, there is usually some permutation of persons cutting themselves adrift. Be it through earphones; hiding behind a freesheet newspaper; slumped asleep; women applying make-up gathered into a compact; and innumerable folks predictably having words chiseled for them on their mobile phones and grinning inanely to themselves. Occasionally, just occasionally, I am abutted or adjacent to a fellow bibliophile. My heart cannot but help skip in such circumstance. Our eyes craning to read, not the face, but the title of their book which will enlighten us one to the other, into an instant familiarity.

So imagine my unalloyed delight when today all three other berths were filled by men with volumes held out in front of them, supplicants like myself. My eyes were pinging about in their sockets, unsure quite where to alight first. Etiquette determines that it is unseemly to swivel your head to the left towards the man seated beside you, so I was faced with the two diametric, either of whom could be engaged with minimal canting.

I plumped for the man directly opposite me. I snaked my eyes above the paper periphery of my book. To be confronted directly by his, staring straight at me, with his book lowered into his lap. In point of fact he was staring straight through me. As if he was trying to burn through to the Virgin Trains' logoed antimacassar behind my head.

I saw that his lips were moving. Possibly a student reeling off his rote learning for the ordeal of a test. Though he seemed a touch on the old side for a student, even an eternal one. Also the rhythm of his recitation seemed to be so rapid as to preclude an itemisation of facts.

People who read not only moving their lips, but actually vocalising their words had always struck me as rather limited readers, yet this chap was belting through his text of choice with compelling fluency. Though cupped in his lap, he wasn't actually reading it per se, unless it was written in braille...

I ducked my eyes down to squint at his print. It wasn't pointillist, but neither could I apprehend its alphabet. Of course, this man was praying! Intoning words not only taken into his heart, but inscribed there.

Does one have to be reading a text for the first time in order to fulfil the prerequisite to be a member of our impromptu book club? He wasn't even strictly reading his damned book anyway! I'm not sure therefore we could count him as a fellow traveller through the printed word. Our full house might just have become a busted flush. Oh sweet fraternity, I had imagined today to be so very special, what with these portents lined up this way.

Still, that left two other kindred souls. I veered my glance slightly to the left. The features were partially obscured behind the cover of his book, but I could deduce that he wore spectacles. Time to see what was being reflected in his lenses.

"Sociolinguistics". Well now, I knew what 'linguistics' meant and I had a fair idea what 'socio' presaged in the main, but I'll own putting the two together left me floundering a tad. Patently an academic text of sorts. To wring all the life out of language and literature no doubt. The burst blood vessels in his hand seemed quite appropriate somehow.

Then he lowered his book and I chanced look at his face, but only saw myself dimly outlined in his reflectors. Clearly he wasn't looking through the glass and seeing me. His eyes never left his text as they dipped downwards. Socio-gymnastics, seeing as his hand was fumbling in the pocket of his corduroy jacket. It resurfaced, brandishing a dayglo fluorescent pen.

Still adhered to his reading, he inserted the pen between his lips and levered the lid off with his one free hand. And then the great desecration descended as he proceeded to underline , or possibly block-fill sections of the page. This man had no respect for the holy sacrament of print. I drummed him straight out of our honorary members club and in my mind sliced off his corduroy shoulder pads with - no, no I am a man moved by things of the mind, not violence.

As to the third, well I will not even bring myself to utter.... It had pictures in it. An art book of some kind ? No lush plates of photographic reproductions, but line drawings if you please. Of a man, with a beard and a woman. And this bookworm too was imbibing the text with his vermicular tongue stuck out at the corner of his mouth. But it wasn't any sounds it was keeping time with...

Oh woe to be compartmentalised with a breviary, one textbook and singular manual. Fickle fate has mocked me with a mirage of monographs.

As the train pulled in towards the buffers, it was then that I realised I hadn't even progressed to the end of even a single line in my own book. Today, I couldn't even call myself a reader.