Thursday, 29 November 2012

Safe House - Friday Flash

The garden looked in good order. Trim and tidy, without being symmetrical. Creepers adorning the walls but not overrunning them. Kissing rather than smothering the brickwork. Flowers were in neat beds, but in various stages of expression. From unbudded, through fully blossomed, to those shrivelled and shorn of all petals. Requiring deadheading. There were no fruit trees he noted, the lawn clear of rotten fruit. A killing field for birds dive bombing insects. An untrammelled plain for concealed mantraps too he thought sardonically.

The glass mullion in the door was stippled like the unburned powder of a gunshot wound at close proximity. No looking out, no looking in. A world of opacity, through a glass darkly. The key bit in the lock. It felt like driving in the smallest of knives between vertebrae. He turned it and felt the tumbler give without any resistance as the door swung open silently. That was no good. A squeaky door was a useful warning system. And there it was. His new home. Again it looked orderly and spotless. Nothing out of place or untoward. Though how could he say that? Seeing as he had never been here before.

He caught his image in the smoother glass of the kitchen door. He didn't recognise himself. But conceivably that might have been because of how he was unfamiliarly framed in his new interior. Kitchen and bathroom were always key indicators of any home. He didn't feel like gauging the porcelain upstairs, so marched forward to chase down his reflection. He headed for the fridge. Milk was stood inside. He scanned the Best by date. He realised he had no idea of what today's date actually was. Events had been somewhat of a whirlwind and he was yet to catch up to them. He opened the freezer compartment. He took out two packets of frozen vegetables. They had year stamps way off into the future. Looked like this had been freshly stocked then. That they had prepared for his arrival. But not that well, or they would have known he barely ate vegetables. Fresh or iced.

He ambled over to the sink. Stainless steel, but not especially shiny. However, there were no water drops splashed against its side, nor faded impressions of them, suggesting that the tap had not been run in some time. He brought the cutting board away from resting against the tiled wall. The wood was discoloured, but there was not a single score or gouge in its surface.

He walked into the reception room. There was no one to receive him. The furniture seemed to be pressing itself hard up against the wall and away from him. As if it sensed he was trouble. That he wouldn't be around long enough to indent their upholstery with the volume of his body. That he was the ghost looming up within its interior, rather than the house itself being spectral. The room had the aura of having just re-emerged from lying under dust sheets. Nothing was mint. It wasn't a new building. Again he knew that this house had to have previously suggested habitation, even though it lay unoccupied. The dwelling had been aged carefully albeit of a non-descript vintage. So dust sheets had been wide of the mark. A dearth of human skin parings. No peeling away of any flesh to be protected from. Until now.

Since this was a safe house. A ghost house. Sitting inconspicuously among its neighbours, not drawing attention to itself. But the mere fact of nobody ever coming or going through its front door was just as likely to draw down attention upon it? There must have been a gardener taking care of the outside. Would not curious neighbours try and engage said Justice Department flunkey in idle conversation? Perhaps the man with the pruning shears only came at night? No lawnmower use tipping the wink then. A garden having been magically tended to under cover of darkness would surely raise more suspicion than it being left to run rampant? He couldn't figure out the dynamics.

And what about the men who came to read the gas and electric meters? Who granted them access to their readings? And what when the counters showed no unit consumption visit after visit? That would sunder the impression of a living, working home? Maybe they had simply turned off all the power and come to an arrangement with the utility companies that they would have no need of inspection? But the ravening Power companies would never buy that would they? They would force entry like a shot, suspecting someone was drawing juice illegally off their network.

He idly tested the window locks and rapped at the thickness of the glass as he continued his tour. From now on he would have to allow access to men with laminated IDs on lanyards. All in the guise of normality. Of a living, breathing house. Any one of those men could be an assassin to terminate his account. To cut him off. Safe as houses right? You gotta be kidding. Houses require a lot of attention. Like children. He remembered when he and his partner childproofed every room of their last abode. He couldn't bring her into this. She had to remain removed from any house where terrors lurked round every corner. Maybe he should aspire to preserving the dust sheet antiseptic ambience of the place. Never emerge out into the daylight? Of course, it hadn't been his decision. She'd reached her own inevitable conclusion long ago.

His handlers had made it clear he was on his own now. They had offered him a portal to disappear through, but they weren't coming in after him. Unlike his foes. To live, he would have to function as a regular human being. Eating, sleeping, defecating, fornicating...

That's what was wrong with the aura of the house. While Mother Nature outside had faithfully flowed with the seasons, inside here time had been stopped. There were no spillages on the carpet where a mug of tea had been thrown in anger. No dents in the kitchen partition where an exasperated fist had flown into the flimsy wood rather than a partner's solar plexus. No smells of sex, no blistered paintwork from the heat. A lack of dried toothpaste contrails in the bathroom sink, hair in the plugholes. A dearth of emanations at all, of shared lives having been embodied here. Oh he would fill it up in time with his spoors. But could he in all conscience invite anyone else in to help him populate the air in here? He might be inviting his killer in across the threshold.

Bricks and mortar solidity, that's what this place lacked for. A safe place to contain his emotions. A redoubt for his memories. He had brought them all with him inside his head. But he couldn't yet unpack them to take up residence here. They had populated the nooks and crannies, bounced off the cavities and recesses of his old home. It would take an age, a lifetime possibly, for him to consider this house truly safe.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Some Thoughts On Constructing Character In Novels

The novel has remained a largely unchanged art form since its introduction. Other than the period of experimental Modernism by authors like Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Faulkner and Stein. They are by and large stories revolving around a central character or characters, with beginning, middle and end. These characters undergo a "journey", more psychological than actual, in which they end up changed as a person by the novel's end compared with the point at which they started. This journey can notionally be 'plotted' by a character arc, that is the progress of their change of viewpoint could almost be plotted on a graph.

I have always seen the character arc and the notion of a journey itself as reductive. Human beings in real life don't undergo journeys, they just live their span of life and narratives and patterns may be imposed upon their lives to try and bring meaning to it. While I understand the notion that novels are illustrative rather than imitative of real life, I have always believed they can be illustrative through other models of mapping human behaviour and attitudes than the journey.

Psychoanalysts will tell you that people are creatures of mental habit. Locked into repetitive patterns of behaviour, often influenced by anxieties and neuroses, but especially by the action of the unconscious whose influence on them they remain by definition, unaware. Even psychically healthy people have blind spots about their own behaviour. Now I would never want to reproduce fictional versions of the theories of Freud, Jung et al, because I have my severe doubts about such theories for diagnosing and explaining human mental health. But the notion of unconscious behaviour is a useful one for fiction writers, because it allows the author to construct their character as having only partial knowledge. Thus  the author can gradually reveal the character through a slow drip-feed of information about the character through their behaviour and actions in the book.

So the unconscious serves conventional narratives as well as the less conventional. But I'm interested in this notion of people being habitual in their thoughts and responses. In my debut novel, I jumped straight into the character, where everything about her psyche is hanging out from the opening paragraph. She has been on a journey, socially through different milieus, and physically as the book opens with her hiding in exile. All the action has happened before the start of the book. Instead of a drip feed building up her character through accumulation like a stalagmite, the book is an unpeeling away of the repeated behaviours in the different contexts of her different milieus, to get back to the source of her 'stuckness'. The epigram for the book is "Saul knows everything except what to do with what he knows" from Steve Tesich's wonderful book "Karoo". There is no redemption on offer by the end, instead a powerful analysis of those social dynamics that both shaped and constrained her and an inquiry into the power of self-knowledge and the nature of self-delusion.

But for my new book, I decided to try something in a diametrically opposite direction. Rather than being stuck and habituated, condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over, I went for a narrative structure of facing the same social situation time and again, but afresh each time and the vagaries of human nature and the influence of emotional colouring of thought processes, taking different decisions and having different reactions each time.  In this book, the characters never stand still. Their emotional state leads them to radically different courses of action. A missed cue or misheard word produces utterly different outcomes from those scenarios before. I found this a tremendously liberating approach to trying to get under the character's skin. The scenario was a seduction between a man and a woman. A situation replete with signals, codes, flurried emotions and calculations of effect and outcomes.

So three different approaches to character. Each trying to get under the skin of what it means to be human. To represent emotional truth in the characters. Are any of them better than any others? I do feel that the two less conventional approaches allow for a greater freedom, less formulaic writing and a certain freshness in tackling this most fundamental issue in the novel, of how to represent a human being.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Love Net - Friday Flash

She hit submit on her phone. Instantly a map came up of the vicinity in which she stood. The map began to seethe and pulsate with pixelated red hearts. A touch presumptuous she thought to herself. The hearts started floating across the grid. It was like a mawkish version of Pacman or something.

Her eyes were swimming as she tried to take it all in. She plumped for fixing on one and following its trajectory. It was about 400 yards distant from her, although moving away. It passed right through another stationary heart and carried on. Of course it would. Both hearts represented men and men would not be interested in other men. Well they might be, but not on this version of the app. She idly speculated whether on that subscription, they were also represented by hearts and if so, whether they were pink or not.

She started walking in the direction of where there seemed the largest cluster of hearts. Most were moving, but a few were static. She wondered if they were sat inside bars, for it was too cold to remain aimlessly outside. She saw that one such motionless heart was, according to the GPS locator, about fifty yards ahead of her. She clicked on the heart and immediately his profile came up. A photo, with the barest of personal data summarising him to her. He looked viable, so she sent him a message. A simple "Hi", confident in such an open prompt that he would accordingly click on her profile behind the message and draw his own conclusions.

She waited. Two hearts were bearing down on her from different directions. Why should she remain faithful to the man she had messaged? She quickly clicked on one of the hearts and saw his profile. Again, more than passable to her tastes. She clicked on the other one, but the bars on her phone signal had weakened. Two men passed her on divergent bearings. Neither looked like the man she had managed to download. One looked fit though, rugged and chiselled, even under his outerwear. They both continued their progress away from her. Mr Chiselled at a fair old lick it had to be said. While the pixels sluggishly took shape, she couldn't reference the blessed map. It was quite possible that neither of them were marked with a heart of course, that they weren't signed up to this love match group. Or what was worse, that they were, had clicked on her profile when they saw she was proximate and just walked on by having not liked what they were confronted with.

The laggardly profile finally loaded up. Curses, it had been Mr Rugged after all! A match made quite possibly in Heaven, stymied by satellite technology and poor reception. Must be the frigid air. Had he been aware of her on his map, or had he been in just too much of a hurry to have downloaded her? Maybe he was heading towards another heart he'd pinpointed further out. Could she catch up with him? She decided not. She acknowledged the instantaneity (signal issues notwithstanding) of this geo-social networking. Unlike dating websites, photos posted here had to be truthful, because you were no further than eight minutes from bumping into them and verifying their likeness. There could be no lies with this app. No blind dating built on any duplicity that accentuated the blind over the dating. No lying, but plenty of cheating she thought to herself sardonically. This app was a boon for the quickie, extra marital fling. Getting your rocks off without even having to stand for a drink on the rocks. The one-night stand by not standing still on this map...

Hey wait a mo, what happened to the stationary guy? She'd almost forgotten about him. She checked back to the map and saw that he was still frozen in the same place. Yet he hadn't responded to her message. That was pretty clear then. He wasn't interested. Bastard. Part of her felt like chasing him down and confronting him as to his lack of chivalry in even responding to her. Making her wait out in the freezing air for the non-forthcoming privilege of his reply.

She started walking again, if only to get the blood recommencing its flow. She pressed reject on rude immovable man and saw his heart image swell and then fragment and die from the screen. It was rather satisfying actually. Reminded her of those online shooting penguin games that she used to while away dead hours in the office with. Until an audit of website URLs tumbled her and saw her lose her job. She was walking past a fast food take-out as a man was emerging through the door. She stopped and consulted her phone. As did he. Sure enough, he was digitised in a heart, suddenly throbbing on its spot on the map. He looked up and smiled at her. In your dreams mate. His expression turned crestfallen as she marched on past the shop. Her heart missed a beat. She was utterly thrilled with the power she had just wielded in cutting him dead.

This was a strange beast indeed. Here she was trawling for men, yet the men threw the net over themselves. They actively scanned for her net, then vaulted into it with alacrity. The fish that catches itself. She caressed the heavy bladed knife beneath her overcoat. The harsh steel stung her chill fingers with its own glacial reassurance. She just knew in her bones she would have no difficulty in locating the man of her dreams. And making his heart fragment and disappear.

Taken from the flash fiction collection available from Amazon Kindle

Monday, 19 November 2012

War Is Twitter By Other Means

Social media has been full of the exchanges of fire in Gaza. I fully understand eye witness reports, ensuring that the view of people coming under attack is disseminated around the world, where it otherwise might not be reported due to certain media bias. But there is also the official spokepersons' views to counteract the view from the ground. A war of hearts and minds to sway the Western (in the main) World. But most of the Western audience is already fully aligned on one side or the other, such is the long-standing nature of this particular conflict.

Reading some of the responses online, some people seem to be reacting to this as if this has never happened before. Fair enough if you're under the age of 18 perhaps, since Israel sent in its army only 4 years ago in the previous of its attempts to suppress Palestinian militancy . This is a chronic, repetitive state of affairs. Israel talks about ensuring its security, but the best way to do that would be to support and nurture its neighbour rather than cripple its economy and drive its people into poverty. Like it or not, economic wellbeing draws the sting from much protest, even those based on claims of territoriality and identity, in that a tranche of potential opposition is unwilling to rock the boat if they are flourishing economically. When the Palestinians were engaged in a campaign of suicide bombing through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, the Israelis had to deal with the physical clear up. Since Jewish law demands that dead bodies are preserved integral for burial, every piece of flesh and even the spilled blood was mopped up and buried. A single life is so precious in Jewish teaching, witness the campaign to get the release of one Israeli soldier held captive for 5 years, in return for 1000 Palestinian hostages. Yet they don't extend the same thought to the lives of the civilians killed in air attacks on cities. In fact that seems to represent the exchange rate calculations of the Israelis, for every one of their citizens killed by a Hamas rocket, 1000 palestinians may have to pay the price. The calculus of revenge, deterrent, escalation, call it what you want.

But far worse than not supporting Palestine and its economy, over the years Israel has indulged in a string of abuses heaped on its neighbour, which both fuels Palestinian dissent and just as significantly, has seen a dereliction of duty on the part of the Western world in not sustaining a constant media campaign over. Why do we only wait until hostilities break out, when the mismatch of military might, the disproportionate response by the Israeli Defence Force and densely populated cities are attacked from the air, before raising our voices in protest? Below is a list of continual Israeli abuses of Palenstinian rights and property, which they have been allowed to get away with relatively unscathed by the world's population. Often UN resolutions against Israeli actions or interests have simply been flagrantly ignored by the Israelis, because they can. So when these hostilities are over, let's keep the pressure up on the following.

1) The Israeli state has a right of "Aliyah" enshrined in its constitution. This is the right for any Diasporic Jew who wishes to resettle in Israel, to be granted property by the state, to facilitate his return home. As an echo of the short-lived "40 Acres and a Mule" programme to freed slaves during the US Civil War, it sounds utterly noble. However, look at a map of the region. Israel is tiny. It has no more land. Except what it snaffles away from the Palestinians. The infamous "settlements", inevitably bordering on Palestinian communities, having in all likelihood taken away some of their land. Nothing inflammatory there then. Aliyah is an open ended contract that allows the Israeli state to land grab whenever it fancies it can get away with it. Which given the deafening silence on the issue, is at present, all the time.

2) The Middle East is always associated as being the place where oil is the significant commodity. But not in Israel, where it's water. Much land has been reclaimed from the desert, which Israel has wielded sufficient technological skill to make bloom and contribute to economic production. But it also serves to place a premium on water resources, for water must be channeled to the desert where Nature has seen to it that it is in scant supply. Israel has diverted water courses, tapped into underground wells, removed trees which has altered environmental ecosystems such as groundwater and salt levels. This process has being going on for years, with little protest from the West, despite statistics showing the Palestinians' water supplies is below the World Health organisation's stated daily minimum requirement for good health.

When the Israelis argue that it's only they who make the desert bloom through their dedication, labour and innovation, it is an inherently racist argument that implies Palestinians have none of these required qualities and that they could not make the desert bloom...

3) A security wall separates Israel from the West Bank Palestinian settlements. It was erected in response to Palestinian suicide bombers gaining access to Israel for its targets. Israelis point to the wall's success in virtually eliminating suicide bomb attacks, but at what moral cost? The wall is a form of Apartheid as practised by the whites in South Africa. Since the division between Israeli and Palestinian is along racial lines. Since many Palestinians work in Israel, the wall is a solidification of how the Israelis exploit this fact to make Palestinians all too conscious of their second class citizen's status. Israeli workers don't get searched at checkpoints as a matter of course on their way to work.

And where the wall demanded to be sited on land already occupied or owned, guess which of the two  communities had their property sequestered to the wall building programme?

Sidenote: when suicide bombers were getting through to Israel before the wall went up, Israel would punish the family of the bomber by bulldozing the family house. Even on the level of waging a strategic campaign, this doesn't make any sense. All it can do is reinforce the community's sense of outrage, engender sympathy for the family and foster recruitment of more suicide bombers. This came at a time when world opinion was far more divided on the Palestinian cause through this very issue of suicide bombing as a tactic and further thrown into disrepute when it emerged that the ever-shrinking pool of recruits was being bolstered from the ranks of the young and the vulnerable. The wall helped usher some of the sympathy back to the Palestinian corner.

4) Israel has repeatedly practised state-sponsored assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, as well as Palestinian targets both in Palestine and other neighbouring countries. Yet no one calls them on this.

So please Twitterati and Facebook Fans, don't confine your chat and outrage only as long as the rockets fly back and forth over the border. This is an ongoing situation that needs our agitation and pressure to resolve a long list of injustices and exploitation.

***Make no mistake, this is a conflict over land. A geopolitical struggle with appeal to the Old Testament, mysticism, blood history and the rest. What this actually means in practise is a battle for living space. The war over water, the land under the defence wall, even the nature of fighting within the confines of Palestinian towns, may I recommend you to a tremendous book that deals with the spatial conflict involved throughout.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Songs About Shopping

I'm not a natural born shopper. I've been fortunate that I worked in a record shop and skateboard warehouse so that I got loads of free clothes, either promo merch or slightly faulty goods. But since I left that job over 3 years ago, the time has come to replace them as they fall off me as rags. I blogged on that whole mental minefield here in "Wardrobe Malfunction".

The only shopping I do is the weekly family grocery shop at Sainsburys supermarket. I've been doing this for so long now, I whisk through the store, knowing where everything is in double quick time. I used to require music to blot out everyone around me. But since I stood in the queue at a till and observed the person in front of me and ended up with a flash story out of it "5 Items Or Less", I find I'd rather keep my eyes and ears unclotted for the wondrous sights and sounds in a supermarket.

I do shop in bookstores, but often I know what I want, so it's a case of zeroing straight in to shelves, or asking my friendly indie shop owners. But now I'm faced with an imminent prospect of having to go clothes shopping. So I need a shopping soundtrack to buffer me, or to help steel my resolve.

Here's 10 shopping songs:

Store's Own Brand: Pet Shop Boys - "Shopping"
I mean it's even in their name, The Pet Shop Boys liked a bit of kitsch now and again.

VFM: The Coasters - "Shopping For Clothes"
God how I'd like these guys to accompany me in my own clothes shopping. Mellow... The one suit I do own was given to me by  a widow, it was her husband's...

BuyOneGetOneFree: Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers -  "Cornerstore"
Jonathan's lament for an old community store no longer there. Think we all lost that fight Jonathan... He also had a song called "Rockin' Shoppin' Centre" which would seem to go against the sentiment of "Cornerstore". But since it doesn't seem to be on YouTube, I can't let you judge for yourselves. Soz.

Organic Produce: De La Soul - "Shopping Bags"
When De La Soul broke into the Hip-Hop scene they were seen as a breath of fresh air. And yet now hip-hop and rap stars have their own huge brands of scents, drinks, fashion labels, jewellry. They shift as much merchandise as music. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted I think.

Manager's Choice: Tools You Can Trust - "Working And Shopping"
I love this song, played on found bits of metal and the like. Still, seems to me there's more about working than there is shopping in it.

Display Copy Only: The Clash - "Lost In The Supermarket"
This wistful song could only have been voiced by Mick Jones rather than Joe Strummer's guttural machine gun roar. The Modfather Paul Weller credits this song with influencing his song "Shopping".

Loyalty Card Points: Eek-A-Mouse - "Shopping"
The man with the best name in reggae - and he has some competition there believe me - gives a whole different vibe on the theme of shopping. "Biddy bung bung" indeed. I think I need this echoing in my eardrums when I'm pushing a trolley around.

Sale Item: Lily Allen - Nan You're A Window Shopper"
Remember Lily Allen, whatever happened to her? I windowshopped Lily Allen, but I didn't buy her records...

Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area: Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine - "Strength Through Shopping"
Ex-Dead Kennedy frontman Jello Biafra may have a bit less hair, have a few more pounds on his girth, but he's still an angry satirist of American culture. Live the Dead Kennedys were pure theatre. Age seems to have slowed up Jello's seemingly boundless energy as a performer a tad.

Checkout: The Smiths - "Shoplifters Of The World Unite"
You just know Morrisey was far too fey to actually indulge himself in the five-finger discount. But junkie bassist Andy Rourke might just have to feed his addiction...

Bonus Item: Billy Bragg - The Busy Girl Buys Beauty
5 comments on the video, 4 asking about the guitar he's playing...

"Do you need help with your packing Sir...?"

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Gustations Of The Cross - Friday Flash

The boy lost his footing and fell down. Although he'd gashed his leg, it was the jolt of the impact on the ground which his brain reacted to first. He burst into tears. He called for his mother, for such was his shock, he'd momentarily forgotten that she'd walked out on her nuclear family and would never hear his plaintive cries. He called for his father, yet he too failed to heed the call and ride to the rescue. The boy was on his own.

By now the tears were streaming so heavily, they were running into his mouth. They were salty on his lips and tongue. His nose was also emitting fluid. In wiping it with his arm, the mucus was smeared against his lips and again he tasted his insurgent self. He faintly recognised the taste from the smell of being housed in his olfactory apparatus. It had similar sapidity to his tears, but was more glutinous and full-bodied. It was clammy and warm on his tongue.

Finally his attention was wrenched to the pain in his leg. He was small and supple enough to bring the wound tenderly up to his lips. He sucked it to staunch the bleed. The blood hit him with an acrid, metallic taste. It made him want to retch. But he managed to maintain his labia over the laceration, until the bloodflow clotted and ceased.


The boy's father fell down. His son strode over to him and knelt down by his prostrate form. His father had been crying, but in his collapse the tears had ceased. Only the dirt trails down his cheeks gave evidence of their existence. The boy inclined his head towards the limp face of his father and flicked his tongue out, tracing the tear tracks. His father's dried tears had no taste to them. No saltiness or anything saline about them at all.

Mucus had collected under his father's bottom lip. The boy dabbed the pad of his little finger into the viscid spherule and felt it adhere to him. He slowly pulled his finger away, drawing the bead into an elongated string. He brought his hand to his mouth, folded all but his pinkie down and smeared some of the mucus on his tongue. While he could sense its consistency and texture, it to lacked for any sapidity.

There was a gout of blood from a depression in the back of his father's skull. The concavity took two of his fingers to span. Withdrawing them, he could see that they were covered in his father's gore. He rubbed his fingers together and the powdery red cruor was brushed from his skin. He returned his digits to the indentation and drove them through the fibrous plasma that had started to clot. His fingers could feel a warm, thick fluid beneath. He ensured they were coated in the serum by whirling them around, before once again withdrawing them. He followed the prints in his fingers, now cameo'd in red. He rubbed them together, but this time nothing fell away into the air.

He smiled and inserted those bloodied fingers deep into his mouth and brought his tongue up to plaster and plate the blood around every part of the inside of his mouth. There was no metallic tang, no smack of iron forcing him to wince. Nothing at all. And yet he relished it, every last layer clotting his own chinks and clefts in the membrane of his cheeks; the pits and perforations in the roof of his palate; the fissures and hollows in his gums and between the teeth. It tasted of ... Victory!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

More Songs About Time

After my chart of 10 songs about time in honour of my latest kindle novel, here are some more, specifically about the time marked on clocks.

1) U2 - "11 o'Clock Tick Tock"
The only U2 song I ever liked, with that guitar riff that sort of shuffles you along. This is my U2 story; I went to see them in the early days as they happened to be the support band to Belfast punkers Stiff Little Fingers. A lifeboat had sunk the week before killing the crew and U2 fans were collecting money at the venue for the bereaved. They weren't getting a lot of joy from the punkers who just stomped on past them, when one of them snapped and yelled, "I hope you don't get caught out at sea with your trousers down pal". Rather uncharitable for a supposed Christian fanbase I thought to myself... Also in the present climate, could U2 get away with the cover of their debut album "Boy"? Probably not I feel.

2) The Stranglers - "5 Minutes"
Okay this post has turned snarky already (what did I expect launching off with U2?). So what dirt can I give you on The Stranglers? Well allegedly 3 of the 4 founder members were all draft dodgers from their respective countries of Sweden, France and er England? That would make Hugh Cornwell in his 40s in the 1070's which I'm dubious about. Another scurrilous rumour was that bassist JJ Burnel couldn't play his instrument and that keyboardist Dave Greenfield played all his basslines for him through his synths...

3) The Jam - In The Midnight Hour"
A cover version of a Wilson Pickett song. It's hard to be snarky about The Jam, beyond the they're too sharply dressed like Mods to be considered punks, yet their sustained Chart success with songs that were very critical of the Conservative Government of the day was quite an achievement where other art forms either failed to address the political issues, or just couldn't draw any kind of significant audience. They were the band I saw live most until I got into The Fall. So sorry, no snark.

4) Pere Ubu - "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"
Pere Ubu were one of those New Wave art-punk bands from New York in the late 70s. Their music was fabby, but they were totally impermeable to fans and journalists alike. Not to say cussed. This from the Wikipedia entry: "Pere Ubu have compiled a list of guidelines for touring, live performances and the like: "Lighting should be theatrical rather than rockist. We are interested in atmosphere, mooddrama, energy, subtlety, imagination—not rock cliché." 

5) Joy Division - "24 Hours"
Now followers of this blog will doubtless know that Joy Division are my all time favourite band, (just click on label tags on Joy Division to see that in effect) so I won't write a bad word against them. This was a track on the album that didn't even have a chance to be released before lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. "A cloud hangs over me/ Marks every move/ Deep in the memory/ Of what once was love." Ughh...

6) Spacemen 3 - "2:35"
I love Spacemen 3 even though I am virulently against drug use to stimulate creativity. One has to acknowledge that maybe within the art form that is music, drug taking can yield some great art. This is about waiting desperately for your next hit, but time is marching on. When I was at College, my friends and I discussed who would be the next rock and roll fatality. Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 and funnily enough Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers (see above) who penned the ode to heroin that is "Golden Brown", were our prime candidates. But both I am happy to report, are alive and kicking and still making music. Although not with their old bandmates...

7) Cabaret Voltaire - "Seconds Too Late"
So you're in Sheffield and you can have The Human League, or you can have Cabaret Voltaire. But you can't have both... Deeply unsettling I think you'll agree? Way ahead of the field in Dub, Electronica, Industrial, Techno and House. And unlike the band Coil, they didn't write advertising jingles on the side to make money.

8) Blondie - "11:59"
We're not allowed to be rude about Blondie are we? Especially not that she started her professional life as a Go-Go dancer and Playboy Bunny? That this punk icon started her music career in a 60s folk band. She also claims in interviews to have been lured into serial killer Ted Bundy's car, though this claim has been denied by critics who say there is no evidence for Bundy ever having been in The Big Apple.

9) David Bowie - "5 Years"
There's an awful lot you could say about Bowie, not least his "Thin White Duke" iconography with its undertones (overtones?) of Fascism. But an audit of his musical output is maybe what we should stick to and in my humble opinion, there was just 1 great album, which is of course Ziggy Stardust from which this track is the opening track on that album, plus a meagre sprinkling of a few other good songs dotted around here and there. The "Laughing Gnome" is not one of those however...

10) The Specials - "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"
And I simply won't hear a bad word said against The Specials. From an era when music was socially relevant...

11) The Cure - "10:15 Saturday Night"
How did they go from this, three schoolboys from Crawley, to the bloated Goth king who had an imaginary friend who talked to him? I think the answer has to be the pressures of fame and bad drugs/alcohol. This damn song was only ever a B-side, yet still knocks the socks off most of the output of their contemporaries. Then the drummer tried to sue the other two for a share of the writing royalties. He lost...

Friday, 9 November 2012

Philip Roth retires from writing

In an interview with a French magazine, Philip Roth dropped the bombshell that as he feels he has no more books in him, he is to cease being a novelist. "Nemesis" is his final published work.

First let me say I think across Roth's huge catalogue of books, there are some masterpieces such as "American Pastoral" which I think can truly be held up as the American post-war epic novel; but there are also some rather tiresome books where to my mind he demonstrates an obsession with the Jewish male and sexual anxiety, like Woody Allen but without the gags. I also felt that Roth's more recent works since "The Plot Against America" (which showed the breadth of his skill as he turned to a new genre for him of Speculative History), have been a bit thin, both in actual volume and in content of those meagre pages. "Everyman" is a brilliant concept, where a man in the twilight of his life plots his own physical decay across his own life. But he doesn't quite execute it for me.

On the one hand it could be said that Roth having been such a master of letters, now took considerably fewer words to say what he wanted to say in a novel. On the other hand, maybe these last few books were evidence of him simply running out of words. I admire him for concluding that he's done. I always imagine that they will have to prise the pen from my dead hand (though of course it's keyboards now and goodness knows what technology in the future), but maybe I will have long run out of words before that time and if that's the case, I hope I have the honesty to quit rather than churn out contract obligations.

So Philip Roth, genius, man of letters, American lightning rod, flawed self-involved writer, literary provocateur, I salute you. "American Pastoral" is in my all time top 10 novels. Happy retirement Sir!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Root And Branch - Friday Flash

I went nap on it. Staked my whole being on it. Never been so sure on anything my whole life. Or so I thought.

Taken a bath on that one haven't I? Post-Natal Depression they sneered. Only being a bloke, I lacked any suspect chemical cocktail swirling around non-varicosed veins.

So here I stand in the middle of the threadbare carpet. Hands splayed over my eyes counting to a... Eighteen years (assuming he'll leave home at eighteen, go to Uni or have a Gap Year or something) times 356 & 1/4 days (accounts for Leap years) multiplied by twenty-four hours X sixty minutes squared for seconds... 554,040,000...

Christ, counting down from five hundred and fifty four million, never coming ready or not... If the supposed seeker has shuttered his eyes for so long as to refuse to go seek, then is he not the one who is hiding? Multiplied, times... god how do those words resonate inside my head now?

He is threaded in place on the carpet through bare immobility. I am rooted to the spot with fear and love. Fear that I cannot love. While all around me is the bustle of my wife enacting the necessaries for his living. She shuns me in my paralysis. But he? He still reaches out his arms towards me, demanding to be picked up into my arms. Just for the warmth of contact against my body, or more practical sirening of nappy changing or feeding I cannot be sure. When the clamour is for me to somehow assist him in ceasing mewling, the two poles become rather blurred to my mind.

So yes I concede, I do sometimes splay my fingers apart, just to yield me a modicum of sight on the scene. Like viewing through the slats of a drawblind. Playing peek-a-boo which slices my heart into shreds, as I see him innocently mimic me. Sat there dumbly on the floor, unable to express his desires. Exactly the same state as me stood upright and erect here. So clearly altitude has nothing to do with emotional amplitude.

I keep throwing my stone to land on square one, to take that first step. But it continually straddles the line. So my fragile intent is scotched and I remain frozen in place.

He's bawling again. Is he already so broken? You don't think I want nothing more than to burst into tears myself? But I can't. The sole grown up manly trait I manage to exhibit. I can see the line of transmission from father to son, even in one so young. Suckling greedily at my emotional blocks from the distance that separates us. The invisible male umbilical, gnarled and desiccated. And there's not a damned thing I can do to prevent it. Because I too am so broken. Courtesy of the line of transmission from my own father.

All those feelings I had managed to tamp down, like self-loathing, shame (naturally), fear and despair. Well now I can add a new one to it in the form of regret. Have you, little one, imbibed these deep into your marrow by your observations of me? You coming along I had hoped would have banished them all for good. Make me flower and open up. But I can't lay that at your tiny feet now can I? The failing is all my own. I didn't do my research properly.

My eyes still shielded off, yet I hear him padding about the floor. He's developing while I stagnate. I can't tell if he's shuffling on his bottom or propelling himself along by his limbs. I yearn only to play "Statues" because it makes no calls upon me. But as he throws himself at my feet and wraps himself around my ankles, seems like he's playing "What's The Time Mr Wolf?" Argghh, he's shaking me like apples from a tree. Trying to topple me, like statues of dictators being hauled down. Shattering me in my brittleness for once and for all.

I'd dimly imagined he'd stand as a moppet for conducting sympathetic magic. To bring out all these wondrous warm emotions in me. But he is opaque, impenetrable. Perhaps his mother is a yet greater sorceress and that she has invested her dark arts in armouring his floppy frame to buttress him from me.

I have taken root in the worst possible way. Those roots that fork and proliferate until they squat under the foundations of the house. So that if my wife ever sought to put me out of my vegetative state and took an axe to our coupling, the whole house would come tumbling down around her. For this is the house that Jack jerrybuilt. 'This is the man all tattered and torn/That kissed the maiden all forlorn'. She who continues to vacuum and dust around my limp frame. We made this decision to seed together. Now I am lying fallow alone. A graft that just hasn't taken. A cutting that withered on the vine. Like the fate that awaits my son.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Dear Author, Dear Reader

Had some interesting online conversations with other writers this week and been surprised by their stance.

When it comes to the relationship of author and reader, I honestly don't believe there are, or should be any demands made of a reader. The author on the other hand, is compelled to make their book entertaining. For what is reading but a pleasurable form of entertainment? Of course a book can also educate, or excite emotion and engage thought. But its primary purpose is to entertain, in order for a reader to devote a few hours of their life to read that book.

The book makes demands on its reader, hopefully engaging them to stick with it and read it all the way through. But the author has no right to demand anything over and above what the words themselves do.

I don't believe any reader is obliged to write a review, as much as it might help the author. Nor is the reader obliged to 'like' a book by clicking on a button. The reader isn't obliged to finish a book. Or even begin to read any book having downloaded or bought it. This seems to me to happen more these days, as some readers scoop up lots of free titles and then may sample them all before deciding on just one to read and ignoring the rest. Seems an eminently rational way of making your consumption decisions to me, especially at no cost to yourself.

If a reader is so engaged with a book that they are then moved to want to engage further with it, in the form of a review, or a 'like', or even starting up a conversation directly with the author via social media, then this is a huge bonus for the author. But there ought not to be any expectation of any of it. The reader undertakes every aspect of reading as a voluntary act. Same thing in their reactions to the book having finished it. If the reader is moved to want to support the author they have just read, then they will, in whatever manner they opt to do so.

Of course there is a chicken and egg situation about the visibility of an author's book being partly dependent on reviews and likes and retweets. But the reader is not responsible for any book's visibility, unless they choose to contribute to that. Books have always been partly dependent on word of mouth. Readers can still talk to their friends and recommend your book without them formally committing 200 words to a review, or liking on Facebook.

Authors, if you agree with me, please join in debate via the comments. Readers, I would love you to participate in any debate too, but I make no demands of you to do so! 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Seven Songs - 7 songs er with the number 7 in them

I was going to do a chart counting down 10 songs each with a number between 1 and 10 in their title. But when I considered number 7, there were so many good songs I couldn't pick one, so decided that it needed a chart all of its own.

1) White Stripes - Seven Nation Army
A great primal swamp-blues riff made this song eminently chantable at gigs and festivals. It's not the bands' fault that football fans across Europe adopted it so it was heard on the terraces proclaiming parochial allegiances. Even heard at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

2) Culture - "Two Sevens Clash"
1977, celebrating the close musical links between punk rock and reggae music both as protest music. Even Bob Marley recognised the synergies with his song "Punky Reggae Party". Ah, halycon days...

3) The Clash - "The Magnificent Seven"
The Clash were always open to exploring different musical styles and having relocated to the USA (despite singing "I'm So Bored With The USA" in 1977), here they dabbled with dance music that was sweeping NYC's clubs. Not their finest moment in this humble correspondent's opinion, but it was the opening track of that magnum opus "Sandinista" triple album which did more than anything to raise awareness of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua who were trying to resist the might of US black ops and desytabilisation. Triple albums, remember them? Wouldn't happen today with everything downloadable and disposable. If it did, discs 2 and 3 would merely be remixes of disc 1.

4) Wah! - "Seven Minutes To Midnight"
One of the late, great John Peel's favourites, I never really got Wah!  This song takes an awful long time to get going and is a bit shouty-preachy for me, but there you go. Synchronise watches...

5) The Herbaliser - "Return Of The Seven"
I love this, with the Western theme spliced with a Japanese musical motif to acknowledge the "Seven Samurai" origins of the "Magnificent Seven". Just has a real urgency to it.

6) The Kills - "Dead Road 7"
Can never decide if I like The Kills or not. Still, decide for yourself

7) Portishead - Seven Months
Great atmospheric music soundtracks for imaginary films and Beth Gibbons' voice so full of emotion. yep, all in all just another Portishead song really...

Friday, 2 November 2012

Basildon Bond - Friday Flash

I got your latest letter. As it always does, it helps speed up time for me, by structuring the eternal hours of nothingness in here. Several days reading it over and over, thinking about every last word on the paper. Gauging the surety of the handwriting that can betray falsehoods like a polygraph can. A week or so maybe composing the response inside my head, taking me up to the time when I qualify for my paper or stamp allowance. To say nothing of the night time nourishment, the sustenance under the sheets.

For you may credit we only have our swapped words, that I have no sense of what you look like since you have never sent me a photo, let alone visited me in the flesh. But you have ceded me one physical impression of you. For your scent infuses the paper on which your letter is written. Transferred maybe by your fingers dancing across its tissue behind the pen, or maybe when you fold it to slip into the envelope and bring the gummed strip to your lips and lick it to seal both your words and your essence inside. Until I set you free, inhaling both word and musk deep inside me.

I won't lie to you. You're like heroin to me. The smack of you wears off a little more each time I take to my bed with you. I develop a - I won't say tolerance- well let me explain it like this; Your scent reanimates me. I reclaim my own reek as I reinhabit my body gone numb in here. As my blood begins to course through me again, it pushes your fragrance to the periphery. I have to choke it all the harder towards the end of the fortnight when you have been almost wholly evicted from my nostrils, full of the stink of me. I have to beat my limp meat so far more fiercely because you are barely present to me.

Does that shock you? It shouldn't really. How else did you imagine me using what you send me? What I want to know is whether I provoke the same response in you back there in your rinky-dinky house behind its trim white picket fence? Do you inhale me up from my clumsily chiselled letters on this cheap [a[er that rips and tears beneath the furious notching of my nib? Is your brain filled with the spice of me? That prison stench of tobacco, fear, blood, shit, semen and sweat? Does the tang of me flow around your bloodstream? Do you run your tongue over the letter seal to taste my sputum where I originally licked it sealed? Do I, incarcerated here on the other side of the country, force you to choke your own sex? I doubt it somehow.

Words and thinking see. I appreciate how your letters stimulate that at least. Something someone said in Group Therapy set me thinking. I probably completely misinterpreted what was being said, but that's what the likes of us in here do. We take things for our own purposes, run with it, put our own stamp on it. Once the notion took hold of me, I zoned out the rest of that particular session. See I'm the one behind bars and yet you have erected your own little cage for yourself. Where you can lock up your dark parts of the psyche. Safely leaving you clean on the outside behind your picket fence. It's through me, through this correspondence that you can look on that pustulant, shrivelled soul in the cage. Poke it. Make it flinch and dance for you when you choose to set the cage swinging on its hook. All through your association with me.

But I won't dance for you. You can't prod me. You need to take your own suppurating heart out of the cage and let it breathe and expand. Let it see the light and either embrace it or try to extinguish it. For that is what the darkness inside means. If something is outside me, it isn't mine, so I just seize hold of it, take it into me and make it mine. Unless I simply am not interested in possessing it. I can help you break your heart free of its restraints. If you follow me. Do as I tell you to do.

Cos seems to me you want it both ways. The thrill of associating with me, hard up against the utter security of me being held at arms length confined in prison. What would it be like if I broke out? If I came to you and solidified the fantasy? Tearing you away from your rinky-dinky house as the getaway car smashed down the picket fence as we sought to outrun the cops. Would you happily join me on the lam?  Always be you having to go out to buy us food because I had to lay out of sight, never sure if the customer in the queue behind you was a plain clothes cop waiting to jump you? Would you happily reload my semi-automatic as we shot our way out of a police cordon? Cos I don't believe you want any of that at all. Cos either I'm stuck here for life, kept apart from you, or that would constitute the only reality for us to be together.

So here's the test. Here's how we can be eternal cell-soul mates, even physically removed from one another. Here's how you pledge me your undying love, that dark heart that I know beats within you.  And which attracts you to me. I will kill a man in here, choke him with my bare hands, or shank him with a knife. But only if you tell me to. You tell me which one out of a choice of men I'll give you, the manner of despatch and what trophy you want me to take and mail you as proof. This will be our exchange of eternity rings. Do this for me, and our scents will be forever commingled in our nostrils. I won't have to trust to receding perfume on writing paper. Whenever I have my own reek in my head, there you will be too.

Taken from my 3rd Flash Fiction collection "Long Stories Short" available for free Kindle download June 4-7th 2016