Monday, 22 June 2015

Unprofessional Mourners - Flash fiction

She would ache more than any other there at the grave. But none present might acknowledge that. Since she was eternally tagged the mistress rather than the love of his life. The scarlet woman who broke up a family, yet it was perennially he who would not accede to her pleas to marry her once he had left the marital home. So today she was not even an official mourner. Only his own family, despite them to all intents disowning him, adopting his ex-wife as if their blood kin and treating him as the imported in-law. 

Hence she had brought a gaggle of grandchildren from her own spent marriage. Her children refused to support her illicit love, taking the side of her lame duck husband in some misguided sentiment of keeping the family intact. But their progeny were of an age to remain blithely unaware or unconcerned with relationship politics and with just a few material inducements had been importuned to accompany her so she would not have to stand in isolation at the graveside. A human shield to protect her from all the daggers inevitably being cast at her. Even his family would give pause before making a scene in front of die kinder. They abided by received notions of the right way of behaving, which was why the two of them had been held beyond the pale. Thus they could never concede that passion could out-trump miserable convention.

She marched her juvenile cortege to take up their place on the cemetery grounds. There was a clear divide, an unbridgeable Red Sea, ironic echo of the two sides of wedding guests in a church, bride or groom. Why did he have to go and leave her? To expose her like this? She huddled closer to her kiddie entourage. As the coffin was lowered on its ropes, her emotions were such that she wanted to push past them and jump in after it. His family’s emotions were such that they wanted to push her in and heap the soil over. 

And when the ceremony was over and he had disappeared from sight for good, they trooped back towards the car. The kids whipped out their phones and plugged themselves back into the world, after obediently heeding the presiding priest’s enjoining all phones to be switched off for the duration. As their attention was arrested by their tiny screens, one by one they fell away in pace, until their aegis had melted away entirely. The family formed into attack formation and lay siege to her before she could reach the sanctuary of her car. She should have coughed up more funds and hired some professional mourners.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Customer Swervices - Friday Flash

The Customer Services Liaison was explaining to him why his scheduled journey had been cancelled. He realised he was stood there with his arms were crossed which seemed a touch vehement, so he unfolded them and clasped them behind his coccyx while he listened to her bull. Her words jangled and reverberated in his ears even though they were delivered with mellifluous cadence. It was like being informed of a family bereavement in sing-song tones. Not that a family bereavement equated to a cancelled journey. Yet him being stood still in place rather than in motion was the bottom line, so all the rest was florid superfluity. Nevertheless he knew from previous experiences with the likes of this customer’s swervices ilk, that it behoved him to remain calm and not lose his temper, if he had any shot at satisfactory redress. He scrutinised her corporate uniform. He wanted to see if it was shoddy or sleek. Although neither really determined the heft with which he should treat her words. She could still be slick with her disavowals even shod in a flimsy manmade fabric, just as clad in quality wool twill might make her complacent in her pre-ordained patter. He wanted to see beneath the tissue, to scan for any guilty pigmenting of the skin. He wanted to smell her fragrance, to see if he could sniff out her respiring lies, but the synthetic terminus atmosphere prevented any scents from spooring on the air. She had paused in her soliloquy, adjudging for his response, with moistened finger held up to the windsock of his face. He grasped her hand and shook it. A brief connection solely in order to break their engagement entirely. A man shaking a woman by her hand felt all wrong. He wanted to kiss her, to stop up her insincere mouth, but knew that was unseemly. 

He marched back over to his partner. She stood there with her own arms crossed but made no move to relent her angular fury. He began to relay the bare bones of what he had been told. Her eyes widened as she challenged him to the usual semiotic interpretation of a handshake at the end of transacted business. He could not admit to her that it merely signalled his desperation to end the unsuccessful conference. Instead he found himself giving a fuller rendition of the liaison officer’s justifications. He had taken her role and was reiterating the very same discourse, with his partner playing him. Only a superior more imposing version of him. How had he wound up being the proxy for the corporation that had failed him, them so unutterably? He too was professionally besuited, but not branded like the liaison. he had very different stakes in this exchange than had the functionary. He knew the arguments he was mustering would brook no weight with his partner, how had he allowed them to do so with himself? Had he become distracted by her peregrinity and so allowed her to daintily ride roughshod over him? Whereas his partner knew him intimately, so would in no way be swayed by his allure, more familiar than institutionally unctuous. She was fully aware of just how and where his body blushed, while she could unfailingly detect his reek of petty deceit. He could see it in her eyes, her determination to sweep him aside and march over to the woman and have it out with her. Maybe woman to woman she might garner satisfaction, where woman to man he could not, with either of these females. He knew he had two options. He could grab her arm and pull her back. Or he could just shake that hand and take his leave of his partner as he had with the liaison officer. And in this situation, he could in fair propriety stop up her all-to-sincere mouth with a kiss. 

Monday, 8 June 2015

My Ten Favourite Stage Plays

Before I wrote fiction, I wrote stage plays. I used to see a lot of contemporary plays staged and also read a lot of scripts as part of my self-education programme. Though I don't go to the theatre much these days, here is a chart of my favourite plays. I've only included plays from the post-Second World War period onwards, otherwise it might be pretty Shakespeare & Brecht heavy in the chart!

10) "Royal Hunt For The Sun" - Peter Schaffer
I only ever read this rather than saw a performance, but I remember being struck by the amazing visual images that came across from the stage directions alone, the main one being a giant sun. It's the story of conquistadores in Latin America and the political dance around the Meso-American god-king to try and ensure a successful conquest with a tiny amount of men against a whole nation.

9) "No Exit" - Jean-Paul Sartre
I love Sartre more as a playwright than a novelist. But in truth most of his plays while readable, are unperformable. However this perfect little nugget of a play sees the threeway power struggle of prisoners in a locked room, trying to manoeuvre for power even though they have none in their situation. By turns they seduce, wheedle, cajole each other, always forming and breaking alliances. It's an early precursor of the "Big Brother" TV show, only with a killer pay-off line, "Hell is other people".

8) "The Balcony" - Jean Genet
Genet understood the illusion of the theatre better than most and a recurring theme of his was characters dressing up and acting as other characters. Here a revolution is taking place, but the action is being mirrored in microcosm inside a brothel, where punters are dressing up in fantasy roles as Judge, General and Priest, replacing the very same outside who have become victims of the coup, thus perpetuating the status quo. Sex, death and corruption, what more could you want on stage?

7) "Accidental Death Of An Anarchist" - Dario Fo
You've got to have a bit of humour haven't you? I always thought theatre audiences were so desperate to laugh, they would go into fits at the weakest of jokes in tired drawing room dramas. But this was a genuinely funny, laugh throughout the 90 minutes satirical farce with some acute political observations. All the more remarkable that it was based wholly on an incident from Italy and dissected Italian politics, yet it absolutely managed to translate both its message and its comedy to other countries. Part of this was down to recognisable character types, such as the dim-witted policeman, or the hero who disguises himself, the sultry temptress, but the nature of farce itself is also quintessentially recognisable.

6) "Comedians" - Trevor Griffiths
I only saw a student production of this, but it was still terrifying and visceral. A play about alternative comedy before anyone had even come up with that term. The premise is that an old pre-war comic is coaching a night-class of comedian-wannabees for a talent show night, when his star pupil throws his whole act in the bin and performs a brutal and in the face of the audience menacing routine instead. The only weakness of the play is the short and cop-out third act, when the old comic talks about the nature of humour set against and grounded in his own experiences of liberating a concentration camp when he was in the British army. I don't think that apologetic third act was required at all.

5) "White Rose" - Peter Arnott
I saw this at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and of the 40 shows I crammed in my time there, this was head and shoulders the best. But you won't even find a copy of the script available on Amazon. It was in a theatre so small that it didn't even have a stage, but that perfectly suited its small scale for 3 actors. Set in World War Two Russia, a male fighter pilot, a female fighter pilot (the eponymous 'White Rose' and their shared female engineer, beautifully enact their triangular relationships, taking in the war, gender, love, patriotism, politics and just what it means to be human in the face of extremes and the prospect of death.

4) "AC/DC" - Heathcote Williams
The enfant terrible of the UK stage in the 1960s, which is saying something given the obsession with sex that abounded once plays were no longer censored by the offices of the Lord Chamberlain after 1968. This play was so prescient about all things that would go on to become our obsession with celebrity. It's visceral and yet has stunningly powerful visual imagery. I'm not sure how it would hold up to scrutiny today, simply because what it portrayed has now become so commonplace. But a work of genius to be sure.

3) "Marat/Sade" - Peter Weiss
A powerful play about the French revolution and how political dissidents were locked up in insane asylums. Thus it explores that boundary between revolutionary/radical thinkers and the mad, while also examining the propensity for change within the individual and across whole societies.

2) "Geography of a Horse Dreamer" - Sam Shepard
I think of all playwrights, Shepard has my favourite body of work. It's hard to pick just one. But there were a few plays he wrote in exile in the UK, looking back at his home country of the US and this is one from that period. It's small but perfectly formed, as a cowboy is kidnapped by gangsters because he has a special gift for forecasting winning racehorses so they can clean up at the bookies. However, cut adrift from his Wyoming home, the cowboy is losing his mind and his touch, whereupon the gangster captor is getting more desperate to restore his powers, while his doctor sidekick is more keen to isolate the creative energy by culling his body parts. The cowboys' brothers turn up to rescue him and return him to the range. Shepard's psychic pain at being cut off from his own home roots are encapsulated in this perfectly.

1) "Endgame" - Samuel Beckett
No one 'got' theatre like Beckett in my opinion. I think because real life amused him and was absurd and illusory as the stage itself. Life was a play and not a very logical or coherent one at that. Everyone cites "Godot" of course, but I believe this is a far superior play. One character Hamm is unable to stand, his antagonist Clov unable to sit. Hamm's parents both live inside dustbins. It's bleak and dystopian and nihilistic but it is also funny and moving and has stark, stripped down visually imagery that is so powerful. When life is so painfully absurd, all you can do is laugh at it, which is exactly what Beckett has us do. It's one of those plays that is so all-absorbing, the audience are no less captives in the theatre than the characters on stage, until the houselights come up to release them... into a world as absurd and illogical outside the theatre's doors. For the duration of the play, there is no outside world, no fourth wall of separation. A masterpiece.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Rock Cake - Flash Fiction

The first intimation they missed was when the sky suddenly darkened. Not the sky across the oceanic vista they were lovingly gazing out towards, but the sky immediately above their canopy as a shadow began to shroud their idyllic platform. They had hoped for a shooting star to mark their union, but they felt they could accept an eclipse, even if it proffered the imagery of the lights going out. 

The second pointer they missed was their wedding photographer fleeing his assignment, leaving his camera to spill to the floor in his haste to skedaddle. To be fair, since he had been stationed  behind them taking a shot of them looking out to the ocean, it was perhaps not entirely unsurprising that they remained unaware of his deletion from the scene.

The third inkling ought to have been when the columns of their belvedere began to buckle and bend as the downward thrust on its roof increased. They imagined they might be about to be caught in the middle of a tropical cyclone, though all remained calm out at sea in front of them. 

The fourth prompt was as the pressure increased, both developed nose bleeds. She was distraught as the blood stained her wedding dress, while he winced at the thought of the likely lost deposit on his tuxedo as the blood spurted on to it.

The conclusive affirmation was when the canopy was lifted off its pillars and a giant hand swept down and plucked them both up and popped them into a huge maw. The giant loved the taste of wedding rock cake. The first tier made from the stone, the second from the fondant wood and silk of the belvedere and the tasty final topper of bride and groom, though the chewy texture of the bride’s dress could sometimes get stuck between the giant’s teeth. But then he would employ one of the belvedere’s pillars as a toothpick. 

Story from following prompt provided for by Short Story & Flash Fiction Society

Monday, 1 June 2015

My Top TV Tunes

Thought I'd share with you my favourite TV theme tunes. Some are for programmes that weren't all that good, not even in a camp or ironic way, yet the theme tune still salvages some value in them. Sadly themes such as "Hawaii 5-0" and "Thunderbirds" have become ruined for me by drunken chorus renditions of them searing into my brain at many an end of season football team drink-up, or just some witheringly bad adolescent disco, no fault of the songs themselves really. Nor have I included movie themes (otherwise "Shaft" would be at number one and "The Pink Panther" at two, but look at the bright side, it rules out "Bewitched" and "The Brady Bunch") and I'm afraid there are whole rafts of programme types I don't watch and therefore am blissfully unaware of their blindingly good theme music for shows about properties and holidays.

10) Roobarb and Custard - The distortion and the slightly off harmonica make this really very 'muso' as well serving perfectly for a consciously garishly ill-drawn cartoon that shaded outside the drawn boundaries of its characters.

9) The Odd Couple - Just oozes swing and class, this was hipster chic before it was invented down Hoxton way. Series was pretty good too.

8) The Avengers - Sure it's cheesy and over the top, but then that was the aesthetic of the programme. Emma Peel and Purdey right? This almost has a Lee Hazelwood vibe to it (he of Nancy Sinatra collaborative partner fame).

7) Joe 90 - Not the best tune in the world, but this is Mod and Carnaby Street and every 1960s documentary about swinging London you'll ever watch. Even though it's actually scifi about some dreadfully unfashionable geek.

6) Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea - These puppet/animatron shows from the 60s & 70s all sort of blur into one in my dim and distant memory. Stingray, Captain Scarlet, Space 1999, Fireball XL5. But one thing about them all, they had pretty fine theme tunes. This show wasn't one by puppet-master Gerry Anderson. Good tune still.

5) Jackass - Never watched the programme in my life, but it's theme tune is from one of my fave bands The Minutemen. It's called "Corona" which is kind of the opposite to the void heart of Steve-O and his cronies. Still, someone in their production company had impeccable music taste. I know it's a film, but my blog, my rules okay? Interestingly someone rigorously keeps slapping a copyright claim on the theme tune, so that gives me the excuse to give you the original as well.

4) Twilight Zone - Eat your heart out X-Files. The original and the best in eerie, unexplained creepiness.

3) The Persuaders - Written by John Barry so you know it's going to be good right? The hint of an Iron Curtain musical theme sets it up just right

2) Test Match Cricket - For such a slow, languid sport this is really rather breakneck in pace. Brings back so many lazy summer days as a youth waiting in anticipation for the clock to tick round to 11am and a full day slumped in front of the telly while the sun was beating down outside. Or, when it was chucking it down and the BBC were restricted to showing reruns of old matches, the jaunty Caribbean upswing of this made the rain outside seem very far away.

1) The Sweeney - Great show, great theme tune. The way the police car siren segues into the theme tune is genius (unfortunately not on this YouTube version) and the theme itself manages to conjure up the suggestion of violence, seediness and corruption that the show portrayed. The closing track was a slower, more reflective version of the theme. The Sweeney was unusual for its time because the cops didn't always get their man. Now I watch it and am flabbergasted at just how much my city of London has changed in the 40 years since this aired. It looks like another world.