In the early 90s I lived in İstanbul near the suburb of Şirinevler, and there was a sweet bakery – baklava and all those sticky syrupy cakes, plus biscuits, helva and lokum (what we call Turkish delight) – and across the street from it a dentist. The business name was the same, and I always assumed it was two brothers who’d opened up the businesses, one to rot your teeth for money, the other to take the rest of your cash to repair them.
"It was Cairo, city of television aerial skylines, where we got the maryjane of the decade, the munchies of the millennium. Police took a dim view of Sissy throwing up in the street among the followers of the prophet in their nightshirts and all. Fattest, ugliest cop said to me, what sort of man are you? He meant, go on, hit me, just once, and I’ll show you the anger of a cop in a nation that knows it will through no fault of its own always be the epitome of a Third World shithole, and of men afraid of the desires that roam their packed-out heads, I’ll show you a close-up of a police station floor. Looked at me, hardly the type to cut up rough."
A peek into the simmering lives of a couple who have developed a very strange relationship towards food. Published originally in Territories magazine in 2000 (from which the above illustration by Linda Downie and/or Jim McCutcheon comes), it has now been given a new lease of life by the fabulous people at Literally Stories, and can be read here.
Am I unreasonable in feeling slightly put-upon when I order wine, and the waiter goes into some convoluted explanation about the fucking grape, and the weather in that particular fucking valley, and how the fermentation process differs slightly from that of some other fucking wine made from some other fucking grape in some other fucking valley?
No, I thought not.
I want to drink it, not bond with it and send it Christmas cards.
A Parisian friend of mine lapsed only rarely and reluctantly into English (which suited me, as I wanted to nail French, and actively discouraged the speaking of my own language... unless I was lost, drunk or otherwise 'confused', or trying to get off with somebody...) One of the times he had to use English was in talking about the music we liked. I could make out 'Zheem' when he was talking about Jim Morrison, but his mention of 'Eau Queen' made me think of some royal baths. He meant Hawkwind. FFS.
The other time I got really confused was when he was talking about Dav-eed Boo-ee's 'major tome'. I thought he was telling me Bowie had written a huge book, but he meant Space Oddity, of course.
Esperanto will never catch on, because misunderstanding, and being misunderstood, is often a path to final understanding. And also, if you fall short of understanding, a good laugh.
I saw Rob Davis from Mud on Saturday night, on his way in to the ELO concert at Wembley. He was just going in the same entrance as me, had to show his ticket like everybody else. He was a great guitarist, and I liked nearly all of what Mud did - sure, they were kind of throwaway, and not to be taken seriously, but I didn't WANT to take anything seriously back then.
My wife said, "How did you know it was him?"
I said, "Well, he was wearing his salmon pink jumpsuit with massive flares that he wore in the video for Dyna Mite, and long dangly earrings, and he was carrying a guitar..." But the truth is more prosaic: I was looking up how to play the riff from Tiger Feet recently, and lo and behold there was a video of him showing that very thing.
One story always comes to mind about Rob Davis. Back at the height of his fame with Mud, I saw an article in a tabloid or a Sunday paper about a girl who was obsessed with following him. She was about 15, and was from some small town in then West Germany. She'd run away from home several times in order to stalk him, so her mother had decided to accompany her on this latest trip that made the British papers. There was a photo of them both, looking kind of forlorn. It was rather bizarre. What did they think Rob Davis was going to do - court her, marry her? Play her 'Lonely This Christmas'? The story made me feel a bit gosh-aren't-people-fucking-weird and a bit sad, too. I forgot about it.
The next day I went to Tower Hill tube to get a train, and the mother and daughter were sitting on a bench in the station. As I'd seen their photo the day before, they were instantly recognizable. I wonder how it all turned out.
I got talking to fellow-Unthanker Sharon Zink at her Book Diner - a part of her excellent writing and coaching site. She asked me some searching questions... some of which I answered sensibly, occasionally.
I missed the news that Benjamin Creme had died in October. Described variously as a painter, a writer, a journalist, he was more well known in esoteric circles as a 100% A-1 eccentric. In the 80s he tried to drum up interest in the second coming of the man he called 'the' Christ, or the World teacher, at the time a young Asian man known as Maitreya.
I went to one of his Maitreya lectures at London's Conway Hall in the late 90s. He assured us that Jesus was there with us, in person, in the audience. That audience was mostly men, who looked like anything from trainspotters to butterfly collectors to members of right-wing organisations. Many of them clutched carrier bags, for some reason I never worked out. I didn't know what to make of my evening, or of Benjamin Creme's claim, decided it was kind of harmless.
Funny enough, Benjamin Creme passed me a couple of years back on a visit to the National Liberal Club's restaurant, and he looked hale and hearty enough. I didn't realise he was quite as old as he was, so maybe belief keeps you in hope, which keeps you healthy... or maybe it was yoghurt and yoga.
Maitreya the would-be Christ is well worth a Google, especially the stories of his 'miraculous' appearance near Nairobi in 1988. He'll be a middle-aged man now, if he's still among us.
I'm making an appearance today on Chris Fielden's excellent blog on all things writing. I give my take on story-aimed competitions, and share what I think is a methodical approach to a haphazard enterprise, and am also passing on some (hopefully) useful advice detected from the judges of the V S Pritchett Short Story Award - their honorable discretion had to be negotiated! - and sharing some rather shocking statistics on the long-and-shortlisting process. I discuss how I set about preparing my V S Pritchett runner-up story, Traffic, and supply an extract from it and a link to it, on the Unthank Books site.
I was out walking in the City of London today and passed a place that used to be a lunchtime cafe back in the mid-70s when I used to work near there. It's now friggin Starbucks, or something. ANYway, one lunchtime back in the day, I went there with a colleague, and at the counter I pointed to some kind of meat, and asked the guy behind the counter, "What's that?"
He said, "It's veal."
Almost without a pause, I said, "Okay. I'll have a cheese and pickle sandwich, please."
My colleague roared laughing, nudged me, said, "Classic!" and the guy behind the counter was all annoyed.
So one thought I was trying to amuse him - a bit of the Two Ronnies, maybe - and the other thought I was trying to offend him, but in fact it was only me mentally processing that I didn't want veal, and thought I'd stick with cheese, but without revealing it to my audience. I remember feeling a bit embarrassed, and, once I'd seen that I'd annoyed him, apologising to the man behind the counter. I'd not yet worked in catering...but somehow knew not to offend anybody in a place I went to regularly!
I was in west London once in the 80s and a guy approached me on the street and just started speaking to me in some language I couldn't understand. It was utterly puzzling. He made no attempt to see if I spoke his language, nor any to try a few words of broken English, just kept up this spiel. It may have been Portuguese. I just had to tell him I wasn't about to learn a whole new language just to learn what he was saying, even if it was fascinating.
Years ago I used to go into a Caffe Nero near Oxford Circus, where I worked. The baristas were all young, and either Italian or Polish. They did the usual fantastic job, and all with competence and good humour. One of them, an Italian girl, would always ask customers who didn't present a loyalty card to be stamped, "Do you have-a theese-a one?" and would point to the new cards.
I thought if it was quiet there one day I'd correct her discreetly, tell her what she was trying to say was, "Do you have one of these?" But she was always very kind to me, and to all the other harassed people in and out for their caffeine fix, and maybe saying that might have hurt her feelings.
And anyway, that's just never been my habit. London is full of people speaking the most appalling English - I include Londoners in that - and for my whole life I've always worked out what people have been trying to say, noted it, and answered accordingly.
Thirdly, it's kind of rude to correct people if you understand them. I had a rather annoying Polish friend for a while when I lived over in Warsaw, and he would say, "Please correct my English for me," and firstly I thought, 'Well, I'm not a free English lesson,' and secondly, if I'd done that he'd have barely been able to speak for more than a minute or two, as his English was fairly crap - it didn't matter: I could understand it, so there was no problem.
But I think the main reason I didn't correct the Caffe Nero barista was that I just enjoyed the way she said it: it was beautiful, and there is no reason why we should all speak any language in exactly the same way.
Just went to have a a haircut, well, two haircuts, with my wife. I mean, we had one each. I now have my hair cut by the nephew of the old Turkish man who used to cut my hair when I was in my teens.
I wonder if there will be an outbreak of #BowieHaircuts as tributes to David Bowie's passing.
"I'll have a traditional Ziggy, please."
"A late Alladin for me, please, sort of 1974-ish."
"A Young American, with the option of a thin white duke."
Back in the early 1970s a few friends went for rather poor versions of the Ziggy Stardust cut, but without the flamboyant red colour they just looked a bit like regular mullets. (I'm not sure the mullet was even a thing then. I think David Bowie is partly responsible for it.) I had something very like the 'thin white duke' style for a few months in the late 80s, when the blond dye I was using reacted badly with remnants of whatever had been on my hair before. After being a bit appalled, it became a happy accident!
Alexei doesn't like his wife Elena wandering around half-naked in the flat after her shower. There's a man out there, looking, and he won't hear her when she points out that they live so high up in the sky that a man would have to go to extraordinary lengths just to look. My short story Just Looking is out now in the wonderful Mystery Weekly.
Christ. It took me a year, once again, to forget 'Shakey' singing Merry Christmas Everyone, and 'Macca' warbling Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime. I walk into a cafe in Lewisham, and it's Christmas there, FFS, and so those songs came at me again, and I'm stuck with them again. I honestly don't mind Christmas, but - really - it's barely December.
It's probably fair to say that Carrie's and Ivan's relationship will not be strengthened by the challenges they face on a slacker roadtrip along the coast of a hot country full of rather bad-tempered people. It very nearly ends in disaster when some off-duty soldiers throw themselves into the mix. And friends Ellie's and Jacob's vegetarianism may also suffer just a little. Pavlov's Dogs will be out in the December edition of Writing Raw magazine.
My story Traffic, was runner-up in the 2015 V S Pritchett Short Story Award. Traffic is set in contemporary Kiev, in Ukraine, the capital city of a country beset by separatism, factionalism, schism and any other ism you can think of that will definitely NOT contribute to the quality of life. In this scenario, is it right to bring up a baby? A young mother dreams of unburdening herself and leaving, and hits on a radical solution to help her on her way.
I am so proud to have come second in this competition, and to be among those keeping up the short story standard set by the eminent V S Pritchett.
Traffic is now available to read on the Unthank Books site. Click HERE.
This is not a Thanksgiving story, but all this talking turkey at this time of year has reminded me of it. My late aunt, Angela Mare, spent many years living in Canada. One Christmas it struck her that she and her husband always bought frozen turkey at the last minute, and she got it into her head to get a fresh one. She drove out to some farm outside town and bought a bird. The snow was coming down a bit. On the way home she thought she'd visit a friend, as she lived out that way, and called in and spent a few hours there. When she came out the snow was much worse, and it was too dangerous to drive, so she stayed at her friend's place for the night. It was okay to drive the next day, so she drove home. When she took the bag with the turkey in it out of the boot of the car, it weighed a ton: the turkey had frozen.
I was just writing the word 'random' in a FaceBook post, and, as ever, feel it's a word I overuse. 'Random' now seems to have several, uh, random meanings. That's the nature of the English language, of course, or any living language; words change over the course of your lifetime, and remind you, sometimes, of how old you are, when you remember the meanings to them that you grew up with.
Anyway, this prompted me to remember one of the colossal wastes of taxpayers' money, uh, I mean, court cases, I saw last year, while on jury duty. One of the participants had made a statement to the police in which the word had been overused, for sure - random people here, random friends there, random people, or friends, having random drinks at some random bar on the evening in question. Okay, so we knew what was meant, but as we were both listening to his recorded statement - why, I have no idea, as it was rambling rather than random - and reading the police's typescript, I saw that the typist had originally typed 'Iranian' for each instance of 'random' - it had been corrected in handwriting. I listened to the droning testimony with a new interest, and, yes, I could hear why the typist had written 'Iranian' instead - it was just in the slurry way it was being pronounced. This little instance of chaos led to a moment of humour that almost made the whole thing worthwhile for me!
'Digital Narcissism'; there were people taking selfies at the site of the Sydney Lindt Coffee House siege, in turn photographed. You can imagine it: "On the rocks again LOL #Titanic." "OMG cancel my European trip again #1stSept1939" "Whoa Low flying planes WTF #WTCNYC911"
I had a quick look, but can't find a word for people who enjoy disasters - presumably not if they're in the middle of one. Who takes selfies at disasters? Funny enough, I know a man who quite probably would have: I used to work with somebody - a guy in his 40s or early 50s - whose entire annual leave was spent going to see sieges and disasters. He went to Munich when the Olympic Hostage Crisis was happening, and also to the so-called South Molluccan Siege in Amsterdam. It was weird and crass back then, and it's crass and weird now.
My story The Place of the Dead d was published in May 2014 in the collection Exiles, An Outsider Anthology. Edited by Paul D Brazill, it's published by Blackwitch Press. It features a host of talent, among which I'm very happy to be numbered. Please buy a copy: all profits go to the Marfan Foundation, which funds research and channels aid to sufferers from Marfan Syndrome. Paul asked all contributors to say a little about our stories, and the following first appeared on his home page.
The Djma el Fnaa is Marakech’s central square. By a linguistic quirk, its name can be translated as either ‘the Mosque of Nowhere / Nothing’ or ‘the Place / Assembly of the Dead’. It was too good a title not to use for a story, and several people have indeed beaten me to it in the 25 years since I thought of it, and done that. It’s a market place by day, but at night turns into a circus of a place, full of performers, storytellers, hustlers, vendors, snake bullies – they don’t charm them at all – musicians, dancers, pickpockets, some plying their trade only because of the tourists, and some just because they always have. As noted in my story, our guide book described it as ‘the most exciting place in all of Africa’, a ridiculous claim that I make a character address briefly, and somewhat flippantly.
My first wife and I spent five weeks in Morocco in July and August 1989. I’d been there about two weeks before I got to Marakech. I was used to the hustlers by then, which didn’t make them any less wearying. They didn’t want all your cash, just some. They weren’t bad people, just hungry, jobless – just bored, maybe. They weren’t begging; you couldn’t cut to the chase by paying them to go away. None of this stopped it being tedious, though, especially when you knew that you would extricate yourself from it only for it to start up again a few minutes later, a different bloke, same spiel.
A friend of mine had travelled in Morocco the previous year. He’d lost his rag with a hustler in some small town, told him to fuck off. After that, the man and his pals followed him around for the rest of his stay, saying, “You don’t say ‘fuck off’ in this town,” and making slit-your-throat gestures at him. They camped in his hotel lobby, occupied tables in every restaurant he went to. They said, “See you later, alligator,” each time he managed to get away, or when they had to go home for their tea. They were probably just having a laugh, labouring a point, or really had nothing else to do. When my friend gave up on that town, this entourage escorted him to the bus station. It was their last chance to slit his throat. Though he’d got used to it as a charade of sorts by then, a performance, he was glad to get on the bus. An old man boarded, shuffled and wheezed up the aisle and sat down, turned to my friend and grinned and said, “See you later, alligator,” not knowing it was a goodbye and not a greeting; it was just some stray English, offered in friendship. It only freaked my friend out a little, I think.
So I knew not to tell the hustlers to fuck off, even though I wanted to sometimes. I said I was not interested in making a financial contribution to their ventures, at that moment – maybe I’d bore them into going away. But Moroccans are polite and patient, mostly. (One man was the exception, aggressively accused my wife of acting like ‘a Jew’. “There’s a very good reason for that,” she informed him, somewhat dangerously, but her actual Jewishness was beside the point he was trying to make. He was a carpet seller, though, a breed apart.)
It sounds like I had a bad time in Morocco, but in fact I enjoyed most of my time there – you can’t spend five weeks anywhere and have every single moment be a joy. I’m reminded of a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing: a couple in a fractious relationship are in the Djma el Fnaa, and the woman chides the man for his petty obsession over some aspect of their life together. “Look at where we are,” she reminds him. I’ll probably never go back to Morocco, so I’m glad I didn’t let anybody, even an anti-Jewish carpet seller, spoil it for me. Why am I talking about all this, then?
The answer is that a story isn’t made up of the nice things in life. I’m also not a travel writer, and any guide book can describe the brilliance of Morocco better than I can – just as a postcard seller can supply a better photo of its monuments than I’ll ever take. I’ve tried to reflect Marakech’s atmosphere in The Place of the Dead, but it’s not a story about Moroccans. Think of the crowded streets I show in my tale; most of the people in them were unaware of us, and if they were aware, they were leaving us alone. As per the brief of this anthology, the story is about foreigners, outsiders, and how they might behave out of their comfort zones.
The couple in my story is not based on me and my first wife, nor on any of the many people we met. A few of the incidents described happened, such as the frustrating, lengthy journey at the opening of the story, the conversations with hustlers, the sunglasses that attracted a pint-sized opportunist, the constant assumption that we’d want an English newspaper, and watching that exciting ending to the 1989 Tour de France, a race that is often done and dusted in its last few days, and like watching paint dry. They are all only background, though. None of them make a story. The heart of the story is the people in it, and how they conduct themselves when faced with certain choices, and how their lives will be affected by those choices, and by their actions and reactions.
London-based musician with Clash covers band Clashback, among others. Writer of novels, short stories and pastiche Balkan tunes. Laikonik Express is out with Unthank Books; my stories are all over the place... in a good way!