Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Art Of Collaboration - some thoughts

They say writing novels is a lonely pursuit. Well in an age of digital and self-publishing this is no longer true. There are a myriad of online writing communities, where you can get craft, publishing and technical advice or trial your work. With social media you get to converse with your readers before they buy your book, as they buy it (since they can just share the fat of their Amazon purchase with one click, while I've had people tweet a photo of my front cover), while they're reading it I've three people reading my short stories who are tweeting to me about them as they progress through the book) and finally of course when they've finished reading and want to continue the engagement either through a review or just talking to you about it. If like me you can't even draw stickmen, then you'll need to reach out to a designer to design your book cover for you. While if you want a bespoke website but have no coding skills, again like me, then you need to collaborate with a web designer.

So digital publishing is the age of interaction and collaboration. Earlier this year I collaborated with Pixel Pixie Design on a video reading of one of my flash fiction stories, seeking to tell a story in a different way. We're about to launch into our second collaborative project making a second video.

I've been used to collaborating, since I formerly wrote plays for the stage. There I had the privilege of attending all rehearsals, doing the warm up games with the actors, participating in the impro tasks as the director found ways for them to discover their characters, without laying down too many pre and pro-scriptions. It was a real skill to allow everyone to bring their own creativity to the production, rather than just impose one person's vision. There may well have been things I wanted to say about the interpretation of 'my' play, but I didn't interrupt the process. I would never bring them up directly with the actors and only rarely would I have a sidebar chat with the director to feed in my input. I may have written the script, but the actors had to bring it alive up on stage and I felt it best to trust to their abilities rather than impose my own views. Any playwright who feels precious about every word that they write, ought to bear in mind that an actor may trip up over a word or line and just never get it right, for no logical reason at all. Then the writer just has to let the line go. If that can happen to any line in the play, then you realise that nothing is so precious as to be ring-fenced from being cut. There may be no rhyme or reason to it, but that's just how things can shake out.

What my theatre experiences taught me was it's vital to allow every creative partner the space to bring their talents and vision to the project. That way you maximise the chances for full synergy, that is the finished piece being greater than the original conception and bigger than the sum of the different creative parts that came together to produce it. I may have written a text, Pixel Pixie may have animated design skills, but hopefully the synthesis of our skills forged a piece that became more than a short story and more than a kinetic typography video. The kinetic typography would hopefully bring out things in the story less accessible to being read in print. While the text would hopefully inform and reinforce just why kinetic typography was being used as the medium and make the letters on screen resonate with meaning.

But that creative space for each to pitch in is hard to define. Unless you're all sat round a table with a blank piece of paper at the beginning, (less and less likely in these days of virtual communication), the someone will probably initiate the process with the concept. I had written my story and had a vision of how it would look in kinetic typography. And it can be hard to relinquish 'ownership' and throw it completely open to your partners to do what they will with it. I'm sure that the whole spectrum of creative working relationships exists, from the person with the brief so detailed and the control freakery to prevent their partner from deviating from a single detail, through to the person with a grain of an idea who turns to their partner and asks them to go away and magically conjure the whole finished piece. Clearly the ideal is somewhere between those two stifling poles.

There exists a further issue, that of different creative artists not speaking the same language in order to communicate their take on things and their vision. I can't even draw convincing stickmen with pen and paper, let alone wield any design software programmes. And yet the process with Pixel Pixie was without hiccup. The initial brief was no more than 6 lines long, and then the full 275 word text itself. There was a process of initial emails where we were just feeling around to understand each other's approach and conception. And language. Pixel asked me about fonts and colours, but I was keen for her to bring her own ideas to that. We talked about a voiceover of the story, but I explained I felt that since the piece is about the breakdown of language and the ability to recall words (due to developing asphasia), we needed to show the actual breakdown of words and their transformation into other words visually. We talked about morphing and transitions as I gradually learned the concepts involved in Pixel's art and she learned about how the story worked conceptually beyond the words that she was to transform and animate. Finally we talked about imagining the viewing experience for an audience not greatly exposed to this relatively new way of telling a story. (Most kinetic typography videos are either infographics for a product or service, or use song lyrics or film dialogue that are well know already).

So after these initial getting to know your art stages, Pixel Pixie went away and created! It was the equivalent of a first draft of any author's manuscript, only way more realised and closer to the final version. The points we discussed on this first draft were already about details, rather than overall conception. We did talk about colour, agreeing that the basic colour scheme was correct, but that it could just be broken up a bit more in places with other colour effects. The fonts we left untouched. The exciting thing was not only had Pixie Pixel come up with the 'doodle' images in the piece, but that these sparked off suggestions from both of us of other ones we could add. The sparking off of a creative partner you just don't get working on your own. Some of these image suggestions were tried, but I always couched them with the caveat if they proved too difficult technically, or messed up the transition, then to drop them as ideas. My training from the actors corpsing in rehearsals standing me in good stead. Indeed there was one really nice image idea we tried but had to abandon as it just didn't work into feeding into the next frame.

A second draft required very few changes, the third draft was for the soundtrack and we didn't make a single change to that. The fourth and final draft was for the credits and in the space of 11 days the video was complete from its starting blank screen. Even when it was finished, the swapping of ideas didn't end there. I asked about how she went about finding and applying the 'doodle' images as such information will inform my side of things for the next kinetic typography project we will hopefully collaborate on later in the year.

Here's the fruitful result of my collaboration with Pixel Pixie Design:

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Music Colour Therapy - Songs about colours

Color Me Badd, as if there aren't a host of bands with a colour in their name, Black Sabbath, White Stripes, Green Day, Blue Oyster Cult, Simply Red, Maroon 5, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry...

But here are songs involving colours rather than just the band names. Good and bad!


1) "Paint It Black" - Rolling Stones
Beatles or Stones? I was never really either, but I preferred the Stones' edge over the Beatles, though didn't really dig many of their songs. This however is a classic and has a real menace.

Honourable mentions:
"Black Candy" - Beat Happening
"Black Betty" Ram Jam
"Blackheart Man" - Bunny Wailer
"Black Night" - Deep Purple
Black Dog - Led Zepplin

Dishonourable Mentions:
"Men In Black" - The Stranglers makes David Bowie's "Laughing Gnome" sound meaningful

2) "Curious Oranj" - The Fall
Orange, the word that has no rhyme and therefore unlikely to lend itself to lyricism. Unless you're Mark E Smith, who echoed a 60s avant garde film from Yugoslavia and composed a score for a modern ballet (performed by Michael Clark's dance company) based on the colour divide in Northern Ireland. Barmy but fun.

Honourable mentions:
"Orange Crush" - REM

3) "Purple Haze" - Jimi Hendrix
'Scuse me while I kiss this guy'... Simply definitive song by the master. It's about drugs ya know? I see purple landing smoke canisters for helicopters in Vietnam whenever I hear this song. Like I say, definitive...

Honourable mentions:
"Purple Rain" - Prince

4) "All Cats Are Grey" - The Cure
After their debut album of low-fi pop pun, that difficult follow-up album was the doomy gloomy "Seventeen Seconds" from which this track was taken. It was the prelude to Smith's ridiculous White Rabbit meets Goth phase which was cartoonish in its sentiment, but this track represents them when they actually meant their angst.

Honourable mentions:
"Fade To Grey" - Visage
"Grey Day" - Madness

5) "Green Light" - Sonic Youth
From when Sonic Youth were still good and making interesting, discordant music. Although this song musically references another of their own songs "Death Valley 69" which is a bit cheeky methinks. There are many honourable mentions for this colour, the colour must conjure up lots of things. Note, rap artists singing about 'green' as in money were not considered for this category

Honourable mentions:
"Everything's Gone Green" - New Order
"Pretty Green" - The Jam
"Green Green Grass Of Home" - Tom Jones
"Green Onions" - Booker T & The MGs

6) "Golden Brown" - The Stranglers
I remember this with its whimsical harpsichord vibe getting into the charts. And yes it's about drugs. Colours... drugs, seeing a theme develop here.

Honourable Mentions:
"Golden Years" - David Bowie
"Fools Gold" - Stone Roses
"Brown Sugar" - Rolling Stones
"Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue" - Crystal Gale

Dishonourable Mentions:
"Brown Girl In The Ring" - Boney M
"Gold_ - Spandau Ballet - always hated this song, even before it became the theme or motif music of 1001 quiz and sports' shows

7) "Blue Monday" - New Order
The Blues, well this colour clearly would have the most entries, but this is the daddy of them all.

Honourable mentions:
"Mr Blue Sky" - ELO
"Preaching The Blues" - Gun Club
"Gravedigger Blues" - Beat Happening

Dishonourable mentions:
"Mr Blue Sky" - ELO - sometimes it's just too damn cheerful for my mood. Music can be like that you know!

8) "Pink Turns To Blue" - Husker Du
A band of heavy guitar punk/new wave playing really muscular music, all three members of this power trio eventually coming out as gay which gave a whole new insight into their love songs. Fabulous.

Honourable mention:
"Pink Cadillac" - Natalie Cole
"Pretty In Pink" - Psychedelic Furs

9) "Violet" - Hole
I know it's heresy, but I actually preferred Mrs Cobain's band to Kurt's mob. If you'll excuse the implicit sexism, she had more balls in her music and lyrics than hubby.

10. "White Lines" - Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Has this been bettered as early hip-hop? I don't think so. White, symbol of purity (and purity of powdered drugs) seems to be a very popular colour of choice in song titles. White noise? Don't you believe it.

Honourable mentions:
"White Rabbit" - Jefferson Airplane
"White Riot" - The Clash
"White Punks On Dope" - The Tubes
"Whiter Shade Of Pale" - Procul Harum
"Knights in White Satin" - Moody Blues
"Ride A White Swan" - T-Rex

10) "Silver Machine" - Hawkwind
Hawkwind were a band that divided (I mean check out this video for bubbles, flutes and strange mute women in astral make-up as to why) but still the greasers stuck to their preferred choice of music. I happen to be a punk who really likes this song.

Honourable Mention:
"Silver Rocket" - Sonic Youth
"Silver" - Pixies

Dishonourable mention:
"Silver Lining" - Stiff Little Fingers - what punk mutated to when they ran out of rage

Dishonourable mention - The colour red.
Red, colour of passion and flame and yet a strange paucity of songs honouring the colour. All I could think of was "Red, Red Wine", a ska reggae version by Tony Tribe which is pretty neat, but then later covered by UB40 which should have been named "Red, Red Whine".

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Secret Agent Songs

In a historic week in which all three chief spies in the UK came out of the shadows and reported live on TV to Parliament, well I say live but there was a two-minute delay on the transmission which was a bit useless as people were live tweeting it - but anyway, I thought I'd do a chart of spy and secret-agent related songs.

Enjoy (in private, unless the NSA are listening in to your internet surfing).

1) Last Of The Secret Agents - Nancy Sinatra
Or James Bond goes jaunty country & western. Actually this is nothing of the sort, but a paean to her man who is a complete fantasist, but Nancy still stands by him

2) Secret Agent Man - Devo
Devo sounding more like Cabaret Voltaire here. Do you remember a time before music videos? Well Devo in the late 1970s were making quite disturbing ones and were way ahead of the trend. The keyboardist here looks like he's moonlighting from Doctor Who.

3) Espionage - Green Day
I never got the whole Green Day thing, but well here they are. It;s funny how most songs about spies/secret agents have the chugging rhythms that reference TV shows like "Dragnet"and of course the James Bond movie themes.

4) I-Spy - Beat Happening
... or they go a bit Oriental to suggest the exotic climes in which the spies work. I love Beat Happening and yet couldn't recall this song at all.

5) Double Agent - Rush
Rush appear far too many times in my charts, not because I particularly like them (punk rock saw an end to my flirtation with heavy rock), but because their song titles seem to chime with whatever zeitgeisty theme I happen to choose, to make a chart for, so props to them for that. This song is pretty dreck though!

6) The Spy (In The House Of Love) - The Doors
Named after an Anais Nin novel, Morrison again resorts to literature for his lyrical delivery. This one is sort of whiskey bar boogie. Musically the band were so damn good.

7) Spy Vs Spy - The Spinto Band
I remember casting around for some music to listen to and The Spinto Band came highly recommended. Too floppy and feeble for me, I didn't really get on with them though. I only dredged this from my recall because Spy Vs Spy echoed a Billy Bragg album title and I was ,uch more into him.

8) CIA Man - The Fugs
See what happens when you give some poets a bunch of musical instruments? All good fun really, I do wonder if one of my favourite bands were influenced by them both politically and musically in songs like "Big Stick".

9) Spy - They Might Be Giants
Here's a band I haven't featured in my charts before, so glad to welcome TMBG. Again that chugging rhythm albeit with a jazz vive over the top of it. I don't know, maybe the rhythm is to suggest a pursuit or something...

10) Surveillance - Clint Mansell
Now this one definitely breaks the mould compared to the others. No chugging rhythms, just a genuinely creepy sense behind the music. I've not seen the movie, but am tempted to track it down.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Short Story - Narcissus Denied

In a world without silver and glass, those with poor eyesight were selected out. Victims of predators, but also condemned to die as lonely hearts. 

For without silvered mirrors, lovers constantly asked their swains to construe their own unseen beauty for them. To trace their features with their fingers and relay a description of what lay beneath their pads. Love making with a running commentary. These verbal echo chambers, pinging back the co-ordinates of the heart by plotting the topography of the rest of the body. Reaffirmation of flesh through the word as much as the adoration by sinew and plasma. The connection was less the physical merging, more the establishing of an image in the mind of each partner of themselves.

Suitors gave air to what attracted them to their inamorata and gave generously. All became poets and lyricists as they gave vent to the full range of their imaginations, reaching for increasingly outlandish metaphors as they moved their lover’s hands over their own countenance. True love often exaggerated, sometimes it outright lied and fabricated. 

Moving in to steal a partner from a rival was often a case of offering a different and maybe more flattering or appealing portrayal of the paramour’s pulchritude. Flimsy fixities of self-images crumbled as they were effortlessly overwritten. Duels were fought with incongruously soft-edged verbal bouquets. The vanquished reeling away to brush up his verbal palette elsewhere. 

Without mirrors and with the quality of water too muddied to hold a sharp reflection, men were unshaven. Their visages partly covered up from delineation in word. Their faces remained opaque. Not so very different from our own world in many ways.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Music For the Sinful

The seven deadly sins. How many have been enshrined in song? Surely there's never been a song penned to sloth?

Here's my best stab at them for your delectation and indulgence!

NB There will be no U2 in this chart, as I don't think Bono was being ironic when he sung of pride and glory...

1) The Undertones - "The Sin Of Pride"
Good Catholic boys from Derry warble on about pride

2) Earth Wind & Fire - "Pride"
Pride in the costumes of soul funk yeah that sounds about right!

3) The Bug featuring Tipper Irie - "Angry"
Yep, they sound impressively angry, but not as much in The Bug track "Politician's and Paedophiles"

4) Public Enemy - "Prophets of Rage"
Actually I always thought with so much righteous anger behind them, Chuck D kept it respectful, while co-vocalist Flavor Flav was the clown in his delivery.

5) The Fall - "Eat Yourself Fitter"
I used to own this very video on Sony Betamax format. Yes The Fall have been making great music for THAT long!

6) Buckcherry - "Gluttony"
I didn't know about this band, but since they don't have Marianne Faithfull's "Gluttony" on YouTube I had to resort to this. Poor show. And do stop swearing, it's not big or clever or RRRRRRock

7)  Dizzee Rascal - "Money Money"
"Money money girls girls cash cash..." The history of rap is littered with male rap singers complaining about female gold diggers

8) Mos Def - "Sex, Love, Money"
More of the same

9) Rainbow - "Jealous Lover"
Sensitive heavy rock, whatever next?

10) Bill Withers - "Who Is He And What Is He To You?"
Good question, great song

11) Buzzcocks - "Just Lust"
Punk-pop at its finest

12) The The - "The Dogs Of Lust"
Funny, I remembered them as a synth band

13) Small Faces - "Lazy Sunday Afternoon"
Has there ever been a more English voice in rock & pop? It was this or The Kinks "Sunday Afternoon" - there really wasn't much to do in Britain in the 60s when the pubs were clsed for the Sabbath was there?

14) Charlatans - "Can't Get Out Of Bed"
It wasn't called the 'Shoegazing' movement in music for nothing you know. Shoegazing was what William Burroughs remembered from his heroin addiction, for hours on end apparently. He described it as boring...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Not In My Name - Excerpt

I was struck today by the debate raging over Facebook's decision to reserve the right of its users to post beheading videos depending on their context. I wrote about this in my novel "Not In My Name" which is all about the new politics shifting to the online world and which is far more vicious than any other public political discourse.

Below are two excerpts from the novel around the subject:

How can you criticise beheading videos on the internet, when during the invasion of Iraq, the US military would release footage of its surgical air strikes on mainstream TV news programmes? Both show ferocious acts of killing and the last moments of supposedly sacred life, just one appears in close up. Do you not realise that both seek the same outcome, that of enlisting support to their cause? We’ve moved on from baroquely moustachioed Lord Kitchener 'Your country needs you' recruitment posters. Telescopic military videos are designed to becalm its target audience with the detached, scientific nature of precision warfare, whereas the beheading videos are meant to stir the passions of its gallery. We cavil because it seems so barbaric, but they equally regard our methods as both cowardly and uncivilised with its ravaging of civilians. If we persist in such hypocritical myopia, how will we ever evidence the judgement necessary to resolve this clash of civilisations beneficially to both houses? 

Capitation (poem by Aki) 

Eyes cast down, neck braced by the woodImpressed grain logs the ineffable ruling.Court artist sand, worm’s upraised viewingDeath mask imprinted with my blood. I blanch while the ascending ground darkensTrading places, I divine sacrifice not martyr.

In the arena, a recount of the charges My basket case nerves nod mute accord. There is no bucket beneath to slam dunk Neither Jacobin traitor, nor political agitator My poll will not be mounted upon any pole. All glassy eyed it will be held up highRevolved around, to be cheered all four sides.
My lolling tongue and foaming maw Are requested to shape the words of Shahada.Lip service paid now, whence in default beforeChurlish to supplicate for a miracle. I hear the soft sandalled tread An executioner’s shadow enshrouding As the sword’s molecules dash on deck Each anticipates bloody anointing.

I shut my eyes, no desire to see The separation of my apostate head, From my mutinous body. Instead, An involuntary prayer, to whom I am unsure.I hearken the shimmering swish of a scimitarPerceive behind a field of dancing light.Beauteous spectral wake as blade parts the air.Not taut like steel, but floppy greenLong-stemmed bloom presented afore me
A declaration of love, gift of life Revivifying my enervated senses. I unfasten my lids, unshutter my gaze Winch my head up from the stump And view only the one, you my love As you drop your veil, to reveal A different red hue sun glinting. You shake away the baying dogs With a sweep of your head Your welcoming arms grant private audience

I stand and stride, a little shakily No mirage you, unflinching in bearing A cradle of acceptance Perfectly tailored for my body Hands safeguarding my bare crown. On approach they spangle and changeNow palm fronds provide our joint canopyMy bride elixir births me anew Returns me to my root safely.Intact, yet only half a man stillUnblockishly lower my gaze and modesty

On today's issue my personal thoughts are as follows. Beheading videos are created only for propaganda purposes. Facebook will not permit them being posted for the purpose of advancing a cause or trying to incite commitment and recruitment. I don't really see how representing these videos in a critical fashion can be beneficial to any public debate on the subject of terrorism or violence. Beheading is a bad thing, go figure... Also the act itself is a crime, a beheading video is a record of a crime while it is being committed and that must have legal implications I would have thought. I know happyslapping and joyriding videos abound online, but this is a far more extreme crime. It is the equivalent of snuff porn and that wouldn't be allowed online. Is the only difference that in a beheading video the victim has their clothes on, unlike a snuff movie? I say this not with flippancy, but as has been pointed out today, Facebook comes down heavily on breastfeeding images because of the nudity.

Sorry, I just don't see any circumstance where showing a beheading video promotes any understanding of the issues

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Video Killed The Radio Star?

Not on your nelly! Ten top tunes dedicated to the medium of the radio. Enjoy

1) Wall of Voodoo - "Mexican Radio"
Stan Ridgeway's voice is so knowing, classic pop that merrily subverts that itself.

2) World Domination Enterprises - "Can't Live Without My Radio"
West Londoners cover LL Cool J's massive hit, swapping 'my name is Cool-K' for Cool James' own name check. Apart from the lowest of low bass registers that was the signature of the band, I love the choppy guitar noodles on this version.

Trivia - on the back of an early collection of The Fall (The Step Forward label collection I think), the back cover artwork has a handwritten note that says "I love this band in a way I can't describe" or words to that affect. It's signed 'Steve J' - who just happened to be the bass player of World Domination Enterprises.

3) Public Image Limited - "Radio 4"
The ambient closing track of the furious record "Metalbox" and perhaps the antidote to the earlier track "Poptones". It showed how radical the band were in their early incarnation by finishing an album in a totally different and unexpected way to what had gone before.

4) Joy Division - "Transmission"
As good as this paean to the radio is, I never quite understood why live it always seemed to bring out the most febrile of Ian Curtis' performances compared to the searing emotionality of his other songs. maybe that was it, maybe it was a release and a dance of well joy for him, although you wouldn't gather that from his demeanour in his moves (about 2 minutes 20 secs in).

5) The Ramones - "Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio"
R-r-rock and roll high school slowed down a tad and the word 'radio' replaces 'High school'. Sorted

6) The Clash - "Capital Radio One"
"You can't say cr*p (the word) on the radio" all seems very tame nowdays, but that's how punk got its kick start remember when the Sex Pistols swore on live tv. And The Clash were right, London's local music radio station Capital Radio was dire and slow to catch up to punk rock.

7) Eazy-E - "Radio"
Old skool hip hop. Nuff respec'

8) Elvis Costello - "Radio Radio"
You'll notice that a lot of these songs extolling the virtues of radio were by punk bands. When their early records were being championed by a few progressive radio DJs, fighting against the soporific mainstream of the Chart hits that were soon to be rudely invaded by punk bands like Costello, The Stranglers and Sex Pistols. Radio helped spread the gospel for punk when often its records were hard to get hold of due to poor distribution, hearing the songs on radio was a vital way for fans to get to hear them.

9) Ultramagnetic MCs - "Funk Radio"
And in the same way that punk had struggled for a foothold in radio airplay with its provocative lyrics, so too hip hop and rap  in the US, until MTV really got established for TV audiences.

10) Rush - Spirit of The Radio"
Ah dear old Rush. How many identity changes did they go through, from cosmologically obssesed heavy rockers, through the Ayn Rand flirtation and accusations of fascistic sympathies, through to their tilt at mainstream stadium rock and radio friendly airplay. This comes from that last incarnation, when the best thing about the album the song was taken from was a visual pun on the album's title "Moving Pictures".

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Fix Bayonets - Sunday Sample

This story was prompted by Marianne Faithfull's recounting of the experience of her Jewish grandmother and half-Jewish mother surviving the Nazi occupation of Vienna, only to be the victims of rape by the liberating Russian Red Army as a systematic tactic used against the female population of Vienna.

“Was that an order Comrade?”

The trooper shrugged his rounded shoulders. Seemed as though the muscles and sinew attached to his shoulder blades were directly connected to those in the face, as his mouth winched up into a rictus of a smile. His hands plunged to his balls and freed them from some crease within the coarse fabric of his fatigues. He shuffled off, still cupping his balls.

It was true. Our officers were exhorting us to seek some R & R and they didn’t mean taking ourselves off to Vienna’s opera houses for some high culture. Our cadres were enjoining us to remember the suffering of our families and the motherland back east. My fellow soldiers were egging one another on with lurid tales of former non-military conquests, exaggerated or otherwise. Creating that unity of purpose that had seen us drive the German army back out of our homeland and back towards the sewers of their own shattered cities. 

But each was being utterly deceitful in the intent behind their words. Our officers had turned a blind eye to when we had huddled deep inside one another for warmth, intimacy and relief in the direst of circumstances during the German advance. Now they wanted to ensure that was just a desperate exigency, never to be repeated and that we were to rediscover and reinstate our manliness as men of war. The cadres whispered how we were to degrade the notion of Aryan purity by spreading a little Slavic seed among their blonde haired, blue eyed women. Our soldiers, well they would never admit it, but they wanted to purge their self-disgust at the embrace of last resort they had indulged in when they thought their number was up.

I couldn’t fathom the logic. Such acts would make us no better than our fascist foes. They regarded us as untermenschen and here we were treating them exactly the same way. It was one thing to sprag an enemy soldier on the end of your bayonet, but you don’t also stick at the non-combatants. And so far as the males went, we weren’t going to. But the women we were to expressly target. That made them a level below, like the sub-subhuman. Dialectical materialism seemed to mean, they rape our mothers, we rape their daughters. I couldn’t see the advancement of any progress by that. How was this dick-tatorship of the proletariat supposed to establish superior socialist moral values? 

It was an abomination that the Nazis had employed the same tactic to terrorise our population back home, in order to quell any resistance and  consolidate their conquest. But here with the Wehrmacht in full retreat, there is no prospect of any resistance, our victory is uncontested by an already defeated populace. And we are to announce ourselves an Army of Liberation in this manner? 

The command was of double distaste to me. When I hugged and fondled my fellow gunner in the basement of burned out buildings at night, it wasn’t mere relief or any desperation for me. It would be an embellishment to describe it as love, but the passion and ardour on my part was not borne out of any wretchedness. Am I to forcibly take some Austrian boy to demonstrate Mother Russia’s puissance? The Nazis placed the likes of me in their death camps and I have no doubt that when the Communists are able to return to their rigid prescriptions outside of war, I would be categorised similarly and treated with equal malice. Our model ideal Uncle Joe, has made a man’s love for his fellow a criminal act. Apparently it is only a proclivity in the aristocratic and bourgeoisie. A perversion manifested by an already aberrant class. There is only one criminal act about to be enacted here and it’s by a whole class of men from our nation.

this story is taken from my 4th collection of flash fiction "28 Far Cries" published by Gumbo Press

Available in print and e-book 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Cop Aesthetic - Sunday Sample Flash Story

I hated petting zoos. All that callow vulnerability on display. Both animal and human. Innocence for innocents. Lambs and calves eating out of children’s hands. A rathe tender connection that soon evaporates when their cousins are sent to the abattoir on our behalves and our kids fail to make the connection. Not that I care much for animal rights. Not compared to those human ones flouted in lethal fashion I have to deal with.

I managed to prevail upon my wife to undertake today’s roster of artless bonding. Thus releasing me to go wandering the zoo’s grounds for more copacetic fauna. The raptors. Those in whose company I felt more at home. Or more compatible with my work life perhaps. I brought my work home every evening, so why not bring it to the zoo in my family leisure time as well?

I’d done the sharks, alligators, big cats and anacondas. Each desultorily nudging silver-serviced prey with their spotless maws. Predators on Easy Street had failed to sate my own hunger. The jackals were out of commission due to a virus running amok in their enclosure. I came upon a new beast. Not predator exactly, more scavenger, but I was still drawn to its pen.

The creature was pressed up against the mesh fencing. Its hooked beak protruding through the grille. I sunk to my haunches so that I was at the same level as the vulture. Lammergeier or Gypaetus barbatus as the little information plaque sunk into the ground informed me. A quick glance downward and I saw the area of the globe the bird hailed from. It was indeed a long way from home.

All I knew about vultures was that they were Nature’s table cleaners. They took care of corruption in the animal kingdom, happily devouring the rotten carrion left by other carnivores. Yeah I could relate. Oh and that they circled on wind thermals so that they barely had to expend any energy flapping their wings in order to fly. They were like gliders. But this poor specimen had no such luxury in its confinement. But there again it was hardly unique in that. The zoo was full of caged tigers and birds with wings clipped by the walls of their aviaries. Goodness, the reptiles were entirely animated by human control of the temperature gauge. If there was a need to clean out their case, down went the pointer of the Fahrenheit dial and the snakes were frozen into immobility. Imagine having that level of power over another person’s life? I don’t have to imagine. I’ve seen it not even at one remove, sat across a table from me.

I caught the bird staring at me. I mean that was what it was actually doing, fixing me in its beady gaze. I don’t think I was imagining that, or attributing it a human slant on an action that otherwise wasn’t there. It never blinked nor averted its gaze. The beak never moved a fraction from the centre of the mesh square it pierced. Seems like we were playing statues. Okay, that is anthropormorphising the situation. Was it sizing me up, or more likely as I wasn’t moving was it computing whether I was dead and ripe for trespass by its beak? I made sure I moved to let it know I was still pulsing with living blood.

I regathered holding the bird’s steely gaze. Its irises were black obsidian pools. I couldn’t determine whether there was any depth behind them or that it was all just surface. They were too opaque to afford any reflection of me within them. Could it see its own shrunken reflection held within mine? Damn beast was unnerving me. I couldn’t read it at all. Nor could I drop my gaze from that of the bird’s. I was only wrenched away from the staring match when my daughter came beetling up to me and flung her arms around my waist. The sudden shock of it was rapidly followed by my brain factoring the smallness of the touch as inevitably being that of a child and ameliorating any alarm. The bird signalled the cessation of our mute conference by extending its wings and waving me away. I’d say dismissively, only of course the bird could make no such reckoning.


The man sat across the table from me. He was handcuffed to one of its legs, but even with that precaution there were two burly officers stationed at either of my shoulders. Of course such was this man’s proclivity for violence, there was no certainty that he would make any such calculation of the odds for three against one. Or if he did, perhaps he didn’t see it as disadvantageous to him.

He wasn’t answering any of my questions about the litany of murders he’d perpetrated. It wasn’t clear if he was hearing them, if he even registered my voice at all. In many ways it didn’t matter, since we had a catalogue of evidence pinning him to his crimes. But we are always after gleaning some insight. 

His eyes were aligned with mine, but they weren’t holding them in his gaze. His irises were black obsidian pools. I couldn’t determine whether there was any depth behind them or that it was all just surface. They were too opaque to afford any reflection of me within them. The flesh eater was just as damn unreadable as the vulture.

from the flash fiction collection "28 Far Cries" available from Amazon in both print an e-book

Saturday, 14 September 2013

New Novel Cover Reveal

Before the end of September, my new paranormal police procedural dystopian novel will be published on Amazon Kindle. It's very different for me to be writing a genre novel, (or several genres perhaps), but it's a book studded with literary values in the manner of China Mieville.

Over the next few posts I'll be trailing it with some videos and other extras, but for now here's the cover designed for me by Appleseed Images - @littleappleseed on Twitter

I think she's done a brilliant job, with both the central striking image and the subtle flourishes and cues niched within it. And my author name reversed in the glass bottle refracted through the alcohol. What hard bitten detective doesn't have a central relationship to alcohol? Only my detective isn't actually a policeman, alcohol as exotic as Mezcal is hard to get hold of in the dystopia caused by the economic meltdown of nations and his reliance on alcohol is fundamental to the plot of the novel...

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Sunday Sample - Tattoo You?

Karen Dash is a gangster's wife on the run in fear of her life. She holes up in the holiday resort of Kavos on the island of Corfu, where she spends the days befriending anyone who will listen to her stories in return for free drinks. Here she is at a beach bar regaling her audience with her views on tattoos and piercings.

"Scuse us, make way please. Elders and venerables coming through. That’s better, some clear sand. Ow, ow! You’re all right, you’ve got fetching open toed sandals on. Answer me this if you can. When the sun heats up the sand, to such a level of discomfort you can barely walk on it, why doesn’t it do the same to the metal insertions in people’s bodies out here? That would really give them something to cavort around for. And do tattoos absorb or diffuse ultra-violet light? Wouldn't it function like matt paint? I can’t find anything about it in the books. I only ask, since I’m troubled by the ins and outs of whether they apply sun cream to their cuticular respray jobs. Doesn’t seem right somehow. Right in the sense of fitting. They should further immolate for their art. Of course, if the ink provides its own sun screen, then the quandary doesn't arise. There again, it might be rather hard to spot a melanoma against a tattoo overlay. Like pentimento. But if you think about it, and every day out here on the beach such is the ubiquity of the body pictorialism on pallid flesh, I cannot but help chew on the subject, has not the cell machinery already been stirred into mutinous action? To heal the subcutaneous breech of rapier needles? Endlessly knocking its head against a metallic partition. I know how it feels.

Oh go on. Let me have a look then? Oh, cheeky! No danger of any sunburn there then. She is a handsome little devil! And everyday you get to sit on her face! Only an elect few get to witness it there I’m sure. No, no, not at all. Far from it. In theory I welcome the urge to own your body, shaping it to your own design. To draw upon your skin as a canvas. To render your self-portrait. But tattoos on girls just doesn’t sit right with me. Call me old fashioned, call them ladettes. (Actually, call them pneumatic hermaphrodites, so comprehensive is their adoption of all other male tropes). But there again, it isn’t even just the blemishing of feminine flesh that rankles. To my mind, all of them male and female alike, exhibit such a paucity of inspiration and verve. Is that really how this generation envision themselves? How they elect to self-daub? Take the overabundance of Celtic symbols. Alright, some may be genuinely extracted from Caledonian, Irish and Welsh stock and thereby wish to underscore some notional heritage. But the bulk are Anglo-Saxon, basking in constipated extirpation of these selfsame stirps. Therefore I’m convinced no matter where they hail from, all sail in brackish witlessness as to the origins of these geometric interweaves.

No let me ask you. Do you honestly think they identify themselves with those heroic tribal resistors of the Roman Legions? Or maybe it’s with the later anchorite Christian scribes? Smart money’s gotta be on the tribal illiterates over the illuminati. Symbols too knotty to pierce. Yet how ironic, that an artform dripping in twining interdependence, should be adopted by a complexion of youth so comprehensively alienated from meaning altogether. Here they are hankering after the uniqueness of their personal branding, yet en masse they contrive a monolithic classification palette. Rubber stamped, so whither individuality? A lost panoply of ancient tribes, paid tribute by a modern tribe that does not wish to be bound together at all. Craving after personal virtuosity. To have a secret, special meaning reserved solely for their mind. A cribsheet written on their skin. Unfortunately, all the pat answers have flowed into one another and become a tangled mess. Leaving them without an inkling.

Spirals that seemingly have no beginning and no end. (Depending on the proficiency of the tattooist at concealing them, oh yes I’ve traced this artform long through many a night). As representing connection to the cosmos and recycle of life. Yet don’t these non-believers renounce the afterlife totally? Whirling sigils and heraldic beasts, guardian family spirits, when they have pretty much repudiated family also. And what of the warrior caste they notionally align themselves with? I don’t see them undertaking too many heroic quests. Though in fairness, they are often to be seen bearing a fallen comrade from the drink-sodden field of battle. If the ink were green hued rather than black, then they would be solemnising their skin with the exalted vine. Which at least would be more legible.

So yes, I’ll opt for their regressive association with the primitive, rather than scholars and holy men. Superstition over abstruse thought. (To them an everlasting light is a refillable lighter, while most are blessed with the creative spark of wet matches). Each fibril of knotwork, another anodised briar of reinforcement. A decorative razor wire they have welted to their skins. Serving as a ‘keep out’ to any warm-blooded trespass beyond the surface and to caulk any seepage of character from within their own plated prison. Amulets against self. But all of that fades to a most bruised black, compared with the porcupine hide of piercings! Don’t tell me you’ve got some of them as well? No? Because you have responsibilities in the real world that’s why. Business suits and first impressions and all that. Am I wrong?

Granted one can accept the sight of antic flesh on a beach. In fact you expect it as the local Olympian pursuit round these parts. Sprinting into or out of the sea; discusing with a plastic frisbee; beach volleyball or playing paddle-bat tennis; Greco-Roman wrestling between lovers on sun beds. These are legitimate wobbling ogling opportunities. 5.9 for artistic impression and all that. I’m here myself, with more than half an eye on a gold medal, slow-dance partner for tonight. But then it’s anything but a knockout, as your attention is snagged by the detail of a ring or chain, performing its own whipping and pinched version of the dance of exuberance. Hells Bells! A case in point! Look at the state of that, emerging from the sea like it’s been salvaged. She’s going to have her own eye out if she hits top speed across the burning sand. For on those unfortunate occasions, when due to concupiscence, drunkenness or extreme flashback, I am forced into a canter, well let’s just say it’s no bad happenstance that I still sport my sunglasses. But she’s got metal extensions that swing like a flail. You see those bolts in her brow there? Not quite Frankenstein’s Monster, but so long as her mate has some jump leads handy, he should be able to get her out of bed and started of an afternoon. Once she’s flown back home to her life of graphic underemployment. In my day, office workers just used to starve themselves and paint their nails of a lunch hour. Now these fatted calves seemingly go and hand over good money to be skewered.

You’re not buying this are you? Maybe it’s not so pronounced at home. I mean given the climate, flesh is necessarily always trussed up behind fabric. Out here it’s all on show and I’m telling you, it’s absolutely rife. A particular one night only, stand-up comedian of my brief acquaintance, regaled me with an anatomical sketch of his previous night’s mooring. To what end I couldn’t fathom, but I did listen with a certain appalled raptness. Unsure as to which of the two protagonists was more despicable. She with her cloven skin predilections, or he for telling intimate tales out of school. Was I to be relayed in turn, to schmooze the following night’s selected audience member of participation? As what, someone more soft and yielding than last night’s human pin cushion? Soft and yielding? Uh-uh, he was going to be a mite disappointed on that front. Nevertheless, circumspection was clearly called for, as to what I broached with this loose-lipped lad. Couldn't be making a clean breast of things, as had my antecedent. If that’s not a contradiction in terms, seeing as according to him, her breast was disfigured by all manner of metal probes.

The estrogen egghunt didn’t end at the mammaries. Apparently, she also was the proud possessor of twin labial piercings. Tied off in tiny, white balls as might affix corkboard pins. Memo to herself. Signpost landing strip navigation lights, for any intrepid night pilots. Gliders rather than dive bombers one might hope. ‘Nacreous or ivory?’ I innocently inquired, for if I have to put up with an imposition of taste, then I insist on going with a full flavoured flow. In preference to a gobbety drip feed. But of course, my deadeye witness couldn’t enlighten me further. His insipid sapidity unable to register any new sensation, despite presumably not having orally partaken of either material before. Rather, he informed me his tongue delightedly played with them for a seeming eternity. A ‘wicked’ sensation of licking a woman’s ‘balls’, no matter how shrunken. Freud would have had an orgasm. The target buoys bobbed up and down, among the roiling waves of her sex, entailing contact kept being lost. She seemed pleased enough with his fingertip searches for them anyway, so perhaps there was some design to her self-stapling. I queried whether it wasn’t like having a pair of tiny eyes scrutinising him, or worse, just the whites of lifeless orbs? Even more accursed than that, he conceded. Once it had gradually dawned on him that in fact, they rather resembled two beads of, well ejaculate. That somehow he was embarked on somebody else’s sloppy seconds, which crash landed him immediately. And yet the sexual metallurgists will protest till they’re blue in the face, that it only heightens sexual pleasure. More like vagina dentura if you ask me!

Behold another one, with wireless bra and wired breast. There with the tray of food buttressed against her pierced abdomen. Oh double bubble and squeak! For I spy a tattoo rippling beneath her costume, where she might cradle a feeding babe. If an infant wants to watch an animated cartoon with its supper, stick it in front of the TV like any normal Mum. This way, he’ll likely get indigestion, motion sickness and a squint all in one. Surprised she needs to utilise her hands. Surely she could just run a chain through her evidently pierced nipples and secure the tray across her sternum? More than likely, the overpriced lunch will be the most precious issue to emerge from there. No, no I’ve found her! She’s the clincher! That one fellating an ice cream cone yonder.

You can see it quite clearly. There at her site of honeyed suckling, is only to be found the bitter aftertaste of mummy’s noxious metal ringlet. Think about it, how the fleshy areola must have been sent packing. For a permanent mineral tenant. So the only lability can’t possibly be the hormonal brewing of milk. Rather the tarnishing of cheap gold. Verdigris. And don’t you wonder what all this says about their own mothers? That umbilical tie clamped and snipped at birth, cutting them adrift of their life-giver. How they now spike and padlock their own navels to return the deed with ruinous interest. Voting with their sharded mammaries to ostracise the maternal. Oh for a giant magnet to hoover them all up and drop them down in say Cephalonia. Or Lesbos even."

"A,B&E" available on Amazon Kindle

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

More Tea Vicar? - Short Story

“May I come in?”

“Good grief, is it time for my Last Rites already? I haven’t finished my cuppa. Or my morphine for that matter”

“I’m an Anglican vicar not a Roman Catholic priest”

“Good, because I’m not one for confessing, death bed or no death bed. Besides, De Quincey has already said it all for me. So, you’re a representative from the church of compromise and sequestration set up by Henry Tudor are you?” 

“Yes, I understand you were a former professor of History”

“Hey less of the ‘former’ if you don’t mind!” 

“My apologies. Do you give lectures from your bed?”

“Tell me vicar why are you here exactly? I mean we’ve never even met one another before. So why now? What’s the occasion I wonder? What could it possibly be about my current plight that draws you here? Could this be a getting to know you session, the first and last of its kind? So you can gather some notes for the eulogy, just to infuse it with enough singular detail to make it sound like we were personally acquainted. Thus further voiding an already empty ritual”

“My my, you have a very dim view of religion”

“Since my cataracts and glaucoma I have a dim view of everything vicar. It’s not enough that your putative god built in such obsolescence into our body’s cell machinery. He had to  supplement our enervation with all these other afflictions. Built in his image? I pity him... if he actually existed”

“The human condition is indubitably a puzzling one. We’ve spent millennia trying to solve these conundrums and yet here we still are. Here I still am, a minister and adumbrator of a religious faith. It must hold some validity, or at least people believe it does”

“Oh yes, very scientific. We historians laboured under similar illusions. Crediting our academic discipline proceeded upon scientific standards of proof, of supporting evidence. But you know what? I lost my faith in it. Turns out history is merely the value judgements of mankind on past events. Kings and Prime Ministers may legislate and act and mass movements may make their moves, but it is only us academics and chroniclers who rule on them. What should be accorded weight and what should be dismissed. I thought I could change the world by reflecting great insights into human behaviour, so that we could learn from the past. But here’s something I comprehended from the scientists across the High Table at dinner. The past may keep repeating itself, but you never know which bit of the past will repeat and when. As with the Butterfly Effect, the starting conditions of each epoch under comparison are different, so the outcomes will be too. Therefore I grasped I couldn’t save mankind and by the end of my career, I knew I couldn’t even save my students either. And now with my failing body I discover I can’t even save my family? There, will you put that crisis of faith into your sermon at my funeral? Might prove instructive to others...”

“No, while we don’t paint paragons of people, we do try and keep the last and lasting impression of them positive”

“Like I say, a meaningless ritual. I suppose I have left it too late to change my will and organise something different to mark my passing. Like a New Orleans Jazz Funeral, though I can’t stand jazz. Or a viking boat pyre, though I suppose smoke alarms and health and safety will put the kyybosh on that. I quite fancy the idea of a sky funeral, but we lack for indigenous vultures in our perishing climate...”

“The Christian funeral ritual is as much for the bereaved left behind as the send off for the corpse wherever it is aheaded. it plays an important function in the mourners coming to terms with the reality of death”

“I admire your self-surety I really do. But then I’m the one with the greater question mark hanging over him over the near future. Tell me, when you confront the realities of the world armed only with your good book of homilies and vague imperatives from which you elicit your answers to the human condition, does it fill you joy or despair? After all even Christ had misgivings while up on the Cross, Thomas was so sceptical they fashioned it into a soubriquet for him. Moses beat the rock with his staff because he had a moment of vacillation in his conviction. See, I may not have the detailed answers, but at least I am released from the bondage of blind faith, of doubt and despair. Because I accord the cruel, cosmic joke of existence. Of coming into life, of making attachments and then having them snatched away from you by death. All because of biochemistry’s drive towards entropy. Mind you there are those proponents who argue that even those precious attachments are only an outcome of biochemistry too, the blind imperative to pass on our DNA”

“You live on in the hearts of those who love you”

“Until they too pass on and no one remains to light the candle for me. All our mouldering hearts full of unrequited love, because there’s no one left to meet it”

“See that sounds like a very bleak worldview that can only lead to despair”

“The despair actually only comes at this particular juncture. I’m sorely testing the love of my wife and children because I am checking out of this world before them and abandoning them”

“You cannot be held responsible for the failings of the mortal body”

“Who then? Only your god could be an alternative candidate. But I can’t descry him, seeing as I don’t believe in his existence. But it’s a particularly cruel twist of fate that means any last days I eke out under my condition, can only be secured by these infusions of morphine to dull the pain from numbing my mind. And I know there will come a point where I slip into a state where I cannot medicate myself, so my poor benighted wife will have to do it. She and she alone will hold the power of my life in her hands. She could determine at any time to supply me the terminal dose so that it’s morphine that shuts me off rather than the disease. What terrible power that is to wreak on a loved one? That’s why perhaps I say my imminent passing is a dereliction of love. To place such an unreasonable burden upon them”

“But the corollary of that is to wish your wife dead before you. That could be misconstrued as selfish thinking”

“Any two historians would give you divergent views on that one. Do you still credit that’s how your god set things up? Or is it more likely to be the result of blind forces?”

“You have your beliefs and I have mine”

“Bad faiths both... I’m sorry where are my manners? More tea vicar? Or would you prefer a touch of the harder stuff?”

“Well I wouldn’t say no”

“Here you go”

“What is it? Scotch? Wow that’s bitter. Hold on a moment, that isn’t... Have you given me your flask of morphine by any chance?”

“I’m sorry vicar, my ailing sight you see. Can’t tell the difference”

“Should you be quaffing alcohol at the same time as morphine?”

“Don’t think either vice is going to make too much difference in the long run do you?” 


Postscript: The Funeral

It was a virtual stranger who officiated at the service. Whether this was a deliberate decision undertaken by the ecclesiastical body or not couldn’t be established. But suicide is still regarded as a sin and more so in a man of the cloth who has pledged himself to avoid such mortal sins. He was found dangling from the church rafters, hung by the length of his liturgical stole. The recipient of his last pastoral visit was unable to attend the funeral as he was bedbound. he was insensible of the whole matter, despite the gossip spreading beyond the parochial congregation through making the local news rag.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Reality And Fiction

The novel was once a radical art form. It represented a slow turning away from sacred and transcendent literature and placed the human subjectivity of the author at the steering wheel. Though religion didn't immediately lose its influence within literature, no longer did authors have to re-present traditional themes, forms and symbology. They were free to choose what they wrote about and didn't have to refer to previous conventions and traditions if they opted not to.

Cervantes and Sterne celebrated this with their gorgeous insinuations as to the unreliability of their narrators. Could fiction be lying to us, making things up and stuff? What could mendacious literature be for then? Did it seek to reflect the real world? Was it intended to provide an interpretation of the world? How does any of that play with the fact that it is a work of fiction, an imagining of an author's mind, no matter how much 'based on truth'? How did the subjectivity of its single author's imagination square with imparting anything universal to a readership?

In painting similar development occurred. Western art was in thrall to theology, with prescriptions, proscriptions and a ready made symbolic palette to refer to. Within these limitations however, artists advanced their art by discovering perspective and how to play with light and colour, so that religious icons were supplanted by the sumptuous canvases of Giotto and Titian. It may have been revolutionary to move the Madonna and Child away from the very centre of the painting, but it was still utterly rooted in religious iconography and imagery.

It was the various modernist movements in art, Impressionism, Cubism and the like, which took the religious shackles off the image in painting as artists went in pursuit of 'truth'; that is the essential real nature of objects, be it landscapes, still lifes or figurative art. These were inquiries into the truth of objects through exploring the way we 'see' things. But the revolutions didn't stop there as art freed itself from the figurative, passing through abstraction and into conceptual forms that eschewed canvas and paint entirely. Art became self-aware, not just of light, colour and perspective, but of its very fictions too.
It reached its apotheosis perhaps with Magritte's painting -

It expressed a key realisation: a picture of a pipe was not the same as a pipe itself. A picture of a pipe was actually a symbol, an image of what we know and recognise as a pipe. It cannot represent or reflect the ceramic/wood ensemble that constitutes the object that is the pipe, for this is a two-dimensional representation only of its image. Art had so freed itself from depicting and portraying, that it had shrunk its own horizons into fairly arid considerations of the image (Pop Art, much conceptual art for example). The image itself had been supplanted by the sign. What something stood for. Art became aware of its limitations and its fictional nature, almost completely cut off from trying to portray the real.

The novel has not had nearly as many revolutions and paradigm shifts as visual art. Yet it should have arrived at the same place in terms of becoming conscious of itself as fiction. In fact, fiction ought to have a competitive advantage in all things fictional, seeing as it's even in its very name! Magritte's painting wouldn't work without the tension set up by the words "This is not a pipe".

There are some hard and fast realities about the novel, or any artwork, that make them have some actual substance in the world. A print book is an object, while even an e-reader data file exists on some level. Books take up space on libraries and shelves and if they remain in print after the author is long dead, then they could definitely be said to have contributed to the lasting store of human knowledge and ideas. So as a material entity, any book forms part of reality. But of course we are really talking about the contents within. The body of the written word.

Novels are stories rather than truths about the real world, though there can be points where they catalyse truth in the form of the emotional reaction of the reader. And through all its seismic changes, painting being a visual artform has always placed at its centre an inquiry into ways of seeing and the nature of perception. What's the literary equivalent of visual art's primary inquiry? Well it has to be language, since that is literature's only real tool. The author may have a palette with plot, character, imagery, setting and the like on it, but all are solely rendered through words.

So any novel ought to be aware of its relation to language. How words work to build up images, voices, narratives. But also how all of these are at one remove from reality, since the fictional building, tree or person is only constructed through words rather than brick, wood or flesh. A tale involving a pipe is not an actual pipe, only a representation of one through story.

And it becomes more complex, for the word PIPE has a myriad of meanings all differing from one another; a smoking pipe. Some plumbing pipe or duct. A blowpipe. A sewer. A gas pipe(line). A hose pipe. An organ pipe, or other musical pipes. The anatomical windpipe. Various tubular formations that channel things through them, such as in volcanos or in geology. And that's without any of the meanings of the word when employed as a verb.

Magritte's painting would not have worked so well if the image was of a bit of copper tubing. It relies on the primacy our brains give to the word 'pipe' to associate it with the act of tobacco smoking. Words have inbuilt hierarchies of meaning, they have etymological roots rooted in historical realities. Anglo-Saxon words, Norman french words, Latin, Greek, Arabic and all the imports from colonies ruled by English speaking imperial powers. There are reasons why certain classes of anglo-Saxon words survived into the language, while others didn't, supplanted by Norman-French ones. There is the Latin from the original Roman invasion, Latin from Christian liturgy, Latin and Greek from the slowly developing scientific orthodoxy and classification. It is organic, constantly shifting and evolving. It is loaded with value judgements and assumptions, even if these are not apparent. The choice of Latin and Greek was often to convey the sense of the word being scholarly and not really accessible to the common man. The legal system is replete with such abstruse words. It's a very distorting medium that both muddies interpretations of the real world even as it purports to classify and sequence it by grouping things into classes. So not only does language construct an author's representation of any human world he cares to compose, language is also already at one remove from everyday reality as its descriptive medium. The author may write of a smoker's pipe, but in real life the concept of a pipe is already a shorthand and a convention couched in language.

In the early 21st Century, we are actually at an advantage where fiction is concerned. We have become so saturated by media, by images and data bombarding us, it is often the case that thoughts and ideas and even feelings that emerge from within us, may not have actually originated with us. Advertising may have implanted an idea, or you may have read something but forgotten you ever had read it and now credit that the idea was your own. This is the world of the hyperreal, where everything is constructed through media, sign and symbol and nothing is definitively real. Or if it is, we certainly can't tell the difference, because it has all become conflated. Now imagine constructing your fictions out of that? You already start from the world of the fictional. You are reflecting the unreality of constructed reality back on itself. In this way, fiction may just help us in our ways of seeing and conceptualising reality and to consider the part language plays in moderating and defining our reality back to us. Fiction isn't real, but it can help interrogate the world around us to see what may equally not be as real and unconstructed, unfabricated by various assumptions, connections and abbreviations. Novels can't solve the conundrum of reality, but it can help us get beneath the surface of appearances

This is not to say all fictions have to engage with writing about the manufacture and prefabrication of the hyperreal. But if writing contemporary fiction you ought probably to be aware of it. Add to that a consciousness of how language operates to obfuscate as much as illuminate and the power bases and relationships it has stemmed from. Although part of the liberation from religion and supernatural explanations of the world came from a greater understanding of cause and effect, ironically we still don't understand much, such as the workings of the human brain, about the nature of the cosmos, the blind drive of genes to reproduce themselves. The contemporary author who seeks to explore our world should really start from a position of acknowledging the limits of his understanding and that the world, or parts of it at least, go in and out of focus like a mirage as he seeks to grasp hold of it.

If the author accordingly is dialoguing with this mirage in his fiction, then it will also entail the reader does the same. The author and reader constantly dialogue together through the book,  as the levels of its 'reality' shift and mutate, as the language and perspectives on offer are constantly being redefined between the two of them.

This is unlike the vast majority of books which lead the reader passively through a constructed story. No matter how much the reader's imagination is engaged in following the author's carefully laid out trail, the book does not change in its essence. It does not take on a life of its own outside of the story being read. There may be twists and unexpected turns, but how much is the reader determining these? These beautifully crafted, self-confident yarns leave no room for doubt, even if the ending is left open or ambiguous. It is done so artfully. The implication behind such crafted stories is that the world is and has to be exactly as is portrayed in the book and by this I don't mean the real world, merely the world described in the book. The author is in absolute control of the world he builds, creates every detail and knows even the workings of things not referenced in the book at all.

Nowhere is there room for fictional scepticism to be chipping in. That although say a city or a planet is described, the reflexivness of the writing pulls against that surety at the same time (one example where the author does this is Stanislau Lem's "Solaris". Kafka's work though more mundane in setting also had this pull-me, push-you dynamic). Instead the world of the yarn book is established by the author to facilitate the plot. It can't heave loose threads that might unravel it. It must be hermetically sealed within the world of the novel, narrators can't be picking holes in it unless it's a "Matrix" type scenario being written about. The world is great or terrible and the hero reacts accordingly, but the world is unquestionable and unbreakable even if the hero manages to effect some sort of regime change within it. We cannot be so certain about the workings of our own world. Fiction perhaps ought to reflect that tremulous doubt in our own minds in its presentations. Authors who start from a postion of confessing their own relative ignorance about the nature of reality, will produce very different novels from those who either feel they have an excellent grip on the nature of reality, or deny any need to bother trying to comprehend it.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Story versus Narrative

The story goes that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to tell a story in just six words and he came up with the following:

"For sale, baby's shoes, never worn".

But is it actually a story? For the reasons below I would say not. It is definitely a narrative, because it has a movement forward; From the neutral commercial opening "For sale", it has moved on by the end to deliver a powerful emotional punch, as the implication is that the shoes were never worn because the baby has died. But the devil is in the detail and 6 words just cannot provide any such detail. There are too many unanswered questions for the reader to decide that this is anything more than a taste of a story rather than a complete one.

1) Baby's shoes: newborns don't really wear shoes. They are in babygrows with pouches for their feet. So it's unclear whether the baby died during childbirth or in the home. Since babies don't walk, while in the home they are unlikely to wear shoes, though they may have them for when being taken out in a pushchair or sling, where the shoes are purely decorative adornment. The shoes don't have to provide any support for the foot, since again the baby is not putting any downward pressure on the foot against the ground. Therefore such shoes are flimsy, unless the parent has indulged in a designer brand trainer/sneaker (though presumably Hemingway was writing before the ubiquity of the branded sneaker took hold). They are 'booties' rather than shoes perhaps. So the question has to be asked, why bother putting them up for sale? They are low-cost items, except perhaps if a brand trainer/sneaker is the item in question. What resale value could such short-lived accessories have?

2) Why is a grieving parent putting baby shoes up for sale anyway? If it is to banish a painful reminder from sight, just throw or give them away or burn them? The emotional impact of the tragedy in this tale is a tad compromised, if a parent has the wherewithal to put up an advert to sell such a low-cost item. One would certainly like greater insights into the parent's motivation behind such an action. This part of the story is too incomplete.

3) Time is always an important quality in fiction. There is no way of knowing how long after the baby's death the advert was put up. Is it at the end of a grieving process of some length, therefore possibly representing closure? Or is it as above still in the rawness of the immediate aftermath? The narrative moves, but we are uncertain along what timescale, the opposite ends of the possible spectrum again inflecting the emotional state of the character very differently. Never worn suggests that it is either in childbirth or so soon after as the baby never taking an outing in an upright pushchair or a sling so as to require decorative footwear. But it is not conclusive.

It may seem churlish to spend so many words to critique a 6 word piece, but I wanted to use it to illustrate some of the differences between narrative and story.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Book Review - "Evie And Guy" by Dan Holloway

What a fantastic concept for a book! George Perec may have written a whole novel without a single letter 'E' (ironic seeing as there are four in his name on the spine, bet he still got paid royalties though), but Dan Holloway has created a work of literature constructed almost entirely from numbers.

Each chapter represents a year in the lives of the eponymous Evie and Guy. The text is constructed of dates, times, duration and the parentheses reporting interruptions or other impediments to finishing, the act of masturbation. And that's it. A matrix of numbers that look random and yet means so much. For this is a book about relationship as measured by time. A clusterfuck of a read, both literally and metaphorically.

Relationship, not in that wooly sense of you and your partner, but an actual physical relationship of two bodies (objects) in proximate space. Though the two narrative timetables are separated in the text, Evie’s following on only after the entirety of Guy’s, the reader is silently entreated to superimpose them to try and render meaning. To see where their onanistic acts might coincide (the only way perhaps for them to mutually consummate their love?) or perhaps where they are cast down in their own solitude and simultaneously scratch their own sexual itches. The beauty and simplicity of the 10 digits of the numerical palette are arranged and rearranged with subtle differences so as to offer different emotional tenors and different physical alignments.

I’m reminded of the fathers of forensics such as fingerprinting, who patiently built up a database until the sample was large enough to be able to pronounce it a science that followed rules and predictable observations. Here the reader, if they are so minded, can plot the blow by blow comparison of Evie’s times and dates with that of Guy’s to glean the emotional state of their relationship at any one moment. Was Guy frotting himself to death in a particular year because he was unfulfilled by Evie, or separated from her? Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall give him a hard on in front of the TV that he just had to relive himself? For her part, Evie’s self-pleasuring never falters while with Guy and it is only when he is dying that she becomes less surefooted (handed?). Once she has honoured his passing, she reasserts her sexuality and is able to fulfil her pleasures as before. Guy’s dishonour roll of interrupted or failed tommy tank manoeuvres attests maybe to the more mechanical torquing of the male member, that there is a climactic destination that has to be attained, else it is a failure. A dud. A blank. Even the name 'Guy' perhaps stands for every (male) man perhaps? This is a book about both relationship and gender, employing numbers but not by the numbers.

I don’t think its canvas is quite as large as the author perhaps imagines, citing the artistic language of Rothko and Emin in his preface. It’s actually way more intimate and I believe all the better for that, so that it is not weighed down by notions of grand art and experimentalism. But it is interesting, that just like an opaque piece of contemporary conceptual art may rely on its title and or an explanatory text, “Evie and Guy”  hinges on that one page explanatory preface and the sole appearance of words in the numerical narrative at the year 1995 to draw the novel to its conclusion.  I read the book first without the preface and couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the set of figures in the brackets represented. It was only by reading the explanatory words of the preface that those important contextualising devices were set in place.

A brave work, but in form and content. And one that could reward endless revisiting with full attention to detail. Plot your own matrices and enjoy!
The book is free to download from or available as a paperback from for £6.99 + p&P or direct from Dan for £7 inc postage by paypalling