My tale of a friendship between two young women with a shocking shared history: The Fortune Teller's Factotum
Final edits now done, and in progress in the good hands of Hear Our Voice.
'Mary Dorn would never be tall, and her build would always be scrawny. She reminded herself of a teen from the black-and-white Amazing Tales comic books she found tucked away in random corners at home. Her skin had always been tight over her bones, her larger veins visible. Her eyes were blue, and not from Deedee Dorn, whose eyes were deep dark brown. Her face had features that her aunt Judith called ‘fine’ meaning not coarse but also, Mary thought, a polite way of saying unremarkable. She had bright blond hair, which was very un-Dorn. The Dorns were dark in almost any way anybody could think of.'
My tale of a friendship between two young women with a shocking shared history: The Fortune Teller's Factotum
Final edits now done, and in progress in the good hands of Hear Our Voice.
The Émigré Engineer
My novelette The Émigré Engineer, Emerson College's Ploughshares, October 2021.
From the bullets and bombs of the #RussianRevolution to the bombs and bullets of #Prohibition USA. Witold Galitzki's 1920s really roared!
Amazon.com: The Émigré Engineer eBook : Sweeney, Nick: Kindle Store
Mixed feelings and sandwiches on a minibus trip from hell to Hell itself - a visit to Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland. Should you be visiting such a place - and, if you do, should you bring your own sandwiches?
My story The Only True Outsider never quite gets to answer these questions, just examines them, lets them go, but leaves them in mind all the same.
It came out in Burningword Literary Journal #91, and the magazine can be found here should you wish to order it. The story is below:
Miriam, sandwich? The man waves one. You want?
She doesn’t. Miriam expects him to see that she is busy, and doesn’t want. She is talking to my wife. My wife is looking out the window. I know the look on her face, having to be polite.
We are polite on holiday. We don’t take drugs, on holiday. It’s like we want time out from our bad habits, but the reason is that we don’t risk bringing drugs with us on cross-border trains – only in our heads, a last glorious ingestion in the station toilets. We also don’t risk buying drugs on holiday. Our experience of this has led to a crushing disappointment in our fellow men, loss of money, and, once, loss of blood (mine). I’m not a fighter, and in any case we are too old to squabble with strangers over the price or the alleged purity, or lack of it, of various powders. So we are more polite to strangers, but more edgy if they overstep the boundaries.
It’s us and them in the minibus. As it was early in the morning, and we were bleary-eyed, that wasn’t apparent when we boarded. It was only on the road that they revealed themselves as a group, and, as collateral, us as outsiders.
Gradually, they shout merrily at one another. It is a small minibus. They extract sandwiches from Tupperware, examine them, and pass them around. It is a confined space. We are hungover. The sandwiches contain salami with a discernible garlic content. There is coleslaw. I know because, in the act of being passed, some of it, reverting to liquid in the heat, drops on my bare knee. I examine it. My instinct is mean, to wipe it on the nearest garment belonging to one of the group, but instead I use the underside of the seat.
Miriam talks to my wife about where we are going on our sightseeing mission. She finally refuses the sandwich, which stops the man we suppose is her husband from offering it. Instead, he says, well don’t ask me later for one, and adds endless variations of this warning.
Miriam’s older relatives, and those of the whole group, and those of my wife, went to where we are going, some of them leaving it, luckily, to tell the world about it. This leaves me as the only true outsider. The minibus driver delivers us to Auschwitz, the museum on the site of the notorious Nazi death camp. In the snack bar there, Miriam buys a Snickers, with me behind her in the line, dehydrated and in search of fizzy water. I say to her, you should have had the sandwich, and she snorts and nods and grimaces and says, yah – who knew, right? She rejoins the group, my wife holding on to my sleeve to make sure we let them get far enough away to be out of earshot, to be miserable on our own terms, and in our own silence.
When I was a kid we didn’t do Halloween in England. It was an American thing, something I read about in American comic books, or saw on the odd TV programme, and that was all, or so I thought till I went to live with my aunt in Dublin. They had Halloween there, for sure: it was Guy Fawkes Night, basically, but with Guy Fawkes luckily absent from the pyrotechnic proceedings, such as they were – few bonfires, and with fireworks rare. I didn’t realise it till years later, but of course it’s because Guy Fawkes was a Catholic, and not just any old Catholic, but one who'd tried to blow up the Protestant king and government of England. They were hardly going to celebrate barbecuing him in Catholic Ireland.
Fireworks were also rather hard to get in the Republic. Southerners, it was said, went on mysterious missions ‘up north’, enacting their own Gunpowder Plot. Those who refused, in those days, to contribute to the British economy, might well have regarded it as treason.
I date Halloween in Britain to sometime in the 1990s. I was living abroad by 1990, and we didn’t have it in Britain then. When I got back in the late 90s, we did, for some reason – pure commercialism, I guess; it was imported and forced on a mostly willing public, unlike, say, income tax or the death penalty. I think it had something to do with the growth of festivals, and how lots of people got the taste for dressing up funny and partying and getting out of it, with any excuse. And why not? I mean, one thing London really needs is yet more pissed people wandering around looking wacky. So now we have the virulent anti-Catholic cat-scaring whiz-bang of Guy Fawkes and the crazy dressing up of Halloween all together in the space of five days. Perfect. If you like that kind of thing.
My wife is from Northern Ireland. She tells me that when she was young, kids there did a thing they called Halloween Dunders; it involved knocking on people’s doors and legging it. I mean, we used to do that all the time in London, or, at least, anytime we were bored. We called it Knock Down Ginger, for some reason; poor old Ginger, whoever he ever was. I can’t see the point of Halloween Dunders – it’s all trick and no treat. They’re pretty hardcore in Ulster.
I forgot for years that I’d once taken part in Halloween, that year in Dublin when I was nine. I’m not sure what put it out of my mind so thoroughly – it may have been the circumstances that had sent us there, away from our parents. I can’t remember what my costume was, but my brother, who remembers these things, recalls that it was Batman. Not particularly spooky, without all the post-90s deconstruction of the Batman psyche. He wasn’t a civil rights-infringing vigilante back then, just a regular millionaire who caught crooks after biffing them. I remember that we went out in a gang, not accompanied by adults, and that we ranged round the few streets near where we lived, in Clontarf on the north side of Dublin’s Liffey estuary. Our local haunted house, called Simla Lodge, scary even in the daylight all year round, must have looked even more spooky that night.
I remember knocking at some old woman’s door, and she handed over the goodies then asked, puzzled, “Who are you?” For reasons that escape me, I named some local kid. “You’re not him,” she said, and the old crone made a grab for my mask, unsuccessfully. No self-respecting masked avenger was going to let that happen. I knew that much. I stepped back and left, and thought no more of it.
Years later, I thought she must have had a good idea of who I was. Everybody knew everybody, at least by sight, in those few streets in Clontarf, and she must have known that I was one of those pathetic brothers from London. We’d been sent over to live with my Dublin aunt while my dad died in peace, albeit at great length, of cancer. Though I didn’t know anything about the last part, I think I was pretty sure that our presence in Dublin had at least something to do with our dad having been in bed at home more or less permanently – firstly in recovery from a road accident – for some time. I’d hardly been in Dublin long enough to acquire a Dub accent. So the nosey old biddy was just being a nosey old biddy; the things some people expect in return for a hard toffee – those yellow-wrapped ones from Quality Street that nobody likes – and an apple straight out of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, which I tossed at my brother’s head.
At the start of the noughties, my friend Jerry, who’s from Pennsylvania, was living in London, near Belsize Park which is one of the wannabe posh areas leading up to truly posh Hampstead. The evening before Halloween one of his neighbours, a wannabe posh woman, appeared at his door, clutching a big bag. It wasn’t a Halloween fright wig she was wearing; she just had big hair, so Jerry relaxed. She informed him that, the next evening, her children and their friends would be calling to do trick or treat, and that he was to be so kaind as to present them with the small bag of goodies she extracted from the big bag, and passed over to him. Jerry took the bag. It slipped his mind that he wasn’t going to be home the next evening. Being a bodybuilder and a growing boy, he’d probably scoffed half the goodies before he was even back in the living room.
We both thought it was kind of laughable. As a kid, Jerry and his friends went and did their trick-or-treating round their neighbourhoods, just as I did it that one Halloween in Dublin. Scary stuff happened, sort of – isn’t Halloween meant to be scary? There was probably the weirdo neighbour who wore socks and sandals, from whose place strange noises could be discerned once the ring of the doorbell had subsided. Was he playing living room basketball with a kid’s head? Was he behind the door with an axe? Or maybe just crouching there hoping those damn kids would believe he was out, and go away and bother somebody else? There were the usual rumours: kids taken to hospital with razorblades-stuck-in-apples wounds, kids frothing at the mouth and out of their minds on MDMA and acid – like any self-disrespecting acid-head was going to just give it away like that.
I believe there wasn’t ever too much of that kind of thing. Maybe it was all part of the Halloween myth – after all, kids are more likely to meet screwed-up people who like harming children than they are to happen across vampires, werewolves and zombies. But in Jerry’s day, and my single night, the point was that kids went out, with their friends, and did it. The scary stories gave us an idea that there was at least some risk involved – it’s supposed to be scary, remember? Where was the spontaneity in the venture that began with a visit from Jerry’s neighbour? Where was the fun supposed to be? And, we thought, later, where was the opportunity for a trick?
In 2009, my next-door neighbour made a similar visit. The year before, her kids and their friends had called at the door going, “Trick or treat,” in bored monotones. Not doing Halloween at all – I think I thought of it in Britain as solely to do with adults partying and getting drunk and looking ludicrous – I was slightly puzzled, and had to get them to repeat it. If it looked to them like I’d never heard the three words, it seemed to me that they didn’t even know what they meant. There were five kids, I think, gathered somewhat awkwardly on our top step. Out on the pavement near our gate stood a gaggle of parents. Not being into Halloween, and not being the kind of household that keeps things like crisps, biscuits, cakes or stuff like that – they have a short, doomed existence in our house – I had nothing to offer. I didn’t think they’d have liked a slice of Ryvita crispbread, some leftover pasta or a pickled walnut. Fortunately for all of us, the poor little mites didn’t seem to know how to trick: they came expecting treats only, with no contingency plan. I sometimes think all middle-ish-class kids these days expect to be treated, all the time, without having to do anything for it. It was a forlorn sight: kids, supposedly out to have some fun, dressed in costumes from the pound shop, mouthing words they didn’t understand at puzzled strangers, and their mums and dads a few yards away holding a health-and-safety committee. Really, where IS the fun in that? It was crap.
I’m not saying kids should be exposed to stranger danger on Halloween or any other night. If I had kids, I wouldn't want them wandering round knocking on people’s doors; call me a spoilsport, but I probably wouldn’t let them do it. I’d still be worried about razor blade apples and soft drinks with MDMA and rat poison in them, just a bit, despite the urban legend nature of those stories, and about Gary Glitter answering the door. On the other hand, children should be able to have a proper childhood, and to be able to believe in imaginary things that grab them, enthuse them, scare them, even, a bit. What’s the answer? I don’t know that. But their Halloween experience ought to be better than the one I saw.
So in 2010 my neighbour again came the day before, with the treats supply. I chickened out of giving her a condensed version of what I write above; she was just doing what she thought best, trying in her own way to make something of Halloween for her kids and their friends. I told her, truthfully, that I thought we might be out, but she kindly gave us the treats anyway, said it was no big deal, and that we could give them to somebody else if we weren’t in. I wasn’t at home, as it turned out. My wife duly handed over the trickless treats.
My neighbour didn’t come the following year, and nor did the kids. Maybe they’d grown out of it, or maybe had realised that, with no trick and such poor treats, it’s just crap.
I have had several stories prompted by dreams published. I've also just finished writing one. Generally, the whole dream is the usual nonsensical thing, and it's difficult to make anything much from them. What do they mean? Do they mean anything? The stories I've written have been sparked by an image in the dream that, I guess, I wouldn't have thought of, not right then.
I've been writing down my dreams since I was in my late teens, so for over 40 years now. It takes a certain self-discipline to just get up and write them. I don't always have it - just wake up and think the dream was SO FUCKING AMAZING that I won't forget it. Then I forget it when I wake up later.
I recommend writing them down. One brilliant thing is that you read them back even after a day or so, and you've forgotten them so thoroughly that it's like reading something new. One not so brilliant thing is that you can never really capture your dreamscape, only a pale version of it, and some of them read back a bit boring, and you wonder why you bothered.
My story Monstrous Men was sparked by a dream. It's one of my favourites of my own stories. It's now been published twice. Focusing on a dictator and the people in his sway, it was prompted by an image of myself shaking a head of state's hand, and him putting some kind of food into mine. That doesn't feature in the story, but I think it's safe to say that such an image wouldn't have occurred to me. Here's the longer version of the story, in the splendid #EunoiaReview
My latest story out, The Solution to the Rooks' Rider, also has a short sequence culled from a dream in it, in which I saw somebody in a crowd who looked like me. It's here, in #platform4prose
August 04th, 2018
'At 22 the girls get married, then stop walking around and giggling, just as turkeys and geese stop when their time comes. When you’re having some fun, it seems, tradition steps in, supply, demand, capital.'
My neo #noir tale Capital Story is out now in #oblivion_noir Retreats from Oblivion
I've written a bunch of so-called ‘Polish stories, quite a few of which have been published. Maybe my novel Laikonik Express is the best of them - it's certainly the longest. What authority do I have to write so-called Polish stories? Well, I'm a writer, and that's all the authority I need, which sounds a bit arrogant, but that's what writers do.
I lived in Poland in 1993, in Gliwice, and from 1994-1996 in Warsaw. That doesn't give me any more authority to write about Poland, though. As with any writer of fiction, I just have to tell my tales and see if people like them. When I was in Warsaw the English-language paper The Warsaw Voice started publishing a series of short stories written by an English guy living somewhere in Poland – he went under the name John Keeneye, and his stories were set in a small village somewhere. I didn’t think they were very good, seemed to peter out just as they'd got going. I also thought the writer was kind of mocking the people among whom he lived; for example, one of these tales featured an old woman who had a toothache, and the punchline was that she'd tied a piece of string to her bad tooth, tied the other end to the door handle and shut the door to pull it out - a thing that I thought only happened in English comics in the 1960s. The stories didn't run for long. Anyway, this is turning into a rambling tale in itself: in short, I thought I could do better.
I loved living in Poland, and got to like Polish people very much, and still do. I like their humour and their take on life in general. I also think Polish history is fascinating, even though it's dreadful, most of it. It's a great-looking place, too - even when it's crumbling away, and maybe especially when it's crumbling away - full of a strange atmosphere I've never succeeded in describing (though I think I've given it a fair crack in Laikonik Express and in my second-longest publication The Exploding Elephant), full of an energy I've barely been able to grasp.
Capital Story was the first of my Polish tales to see the light of day. I've always been fascinated with conmen and con tricks, so am a big fan of David Mamet. I love the elaborate lengths con artists (and the good ones are definitely artists - accomplished actors and players of roles) will go to. I never heard of anybody I knew being conned into the buying of drinks and lunch. I once got warned by one of my adult students not to go to certain areas of Warsaw, because the local villains' practice was to run up huge bar bills, disappear for a second while the bar owner handed them to any tourist foolish enough to wander in, then come back to enforce the paying of the bill, sworn witnesses that the tourist had wolfed down the lot. I didn't (and still don't) believe a word of it, but thought it'd make a good story; I hope it has.
"One summer lunchtime in the centre of a small city in the steel-producing region, Gregor Tomas ate his sandwiches in a cool and leafy tunnel in the park. Then he strolled back towards his office. Near the park gates he heard the sound of a guitar, and he stopped to listen to a busker. The man was small, but unostentatiously handsome, and well-dressed, and he played a lively tune with casual expertise. Then the musician stopped, looking somewhat agitated."
The Pitch is the story of a man who stopped to help, but found that giving isn't always its own reward.
It will be out soon in the latest edition of the Tigershark e-zine, its Magic or Mundane issue - I hope my story contributes to the magic!
Pavlov's Dogs - who owns a story?
Pavlov's Dogs is based on two stories told to me by two different people, so my telling you that will beg the immediate question: what makes it a story by Nick Sweeney? The simple answer is that I was the one who wrote it. Stories never come out of nothing, and rarely come out of imagination alone.
The main part of the tale was told to me by a friend who had set off on a trip through North Africa somewhere - maybe Morocco, but I can't now remember. It might even have been Spain, but it doesn't matter - somewhere hot and dusty, where more adventurous, or just curious, tourists go off the beaten track and where there are conscript soldiers having to cross the country to get to and from their barracks. I was familiar with them myself from a long trip through Morrocco in 1989, and from trips in Turkey in 1988 and throughout the early nineties, when I lived there. Mostly the soldiers were rather forlorn but very friendly, and, in general, not well educated enough to know English that well. We usually communicated via universals like the sharing of food and cigarettes. I was often advised not to either pick up hitchers nor hitch, in both Morocco and Turkey, but my only concession to this was never to do it at night - all kinds of dangers were promised if I ignored this advice - though I did, sometimes, if I misjudged times or distances. Apart from some angry words with a hitcher, once, and a driver once, which I felt could have developed into a full-blown row if it had gone any further, my experiences were always unremarkable, and I'm just mentioning them here to show that the story my friend told me had a background with which I was familiar. But anyway, as I said, I wrote it, so could have just made it all up anyway!
The two main elements of my friend's story featured the soldiers robbing her and her pals, and the man out on the beach arranging stones to some scheme of his own. There was a whole minibus full of people on the trip, but as it's a short story I decided I had to keep the number of characters down, so I made it two couples in a jeep. My friend's story very much hinged on the dynamics of leadership in a group of people who were on the face of it egalitarian, idealistic about promising to share the work and responsibilities of a trip like this, but never actually fulfilling their share. I left out some incidents (which now makes me think it was indeed Morocco) when my friend repeatedly warned the others not to buy dope from just anybody; she was shouted down repeatedly, and they were ripped off repeatedly, even arrested once in a police scam worked out with the local dealers – the dealers get the money for the dope, the police get a ‘fine’, and the dope is handed back to the dealers, so it can all start again with the next gullible crowd of tourists. They still managed to blame her, despite her warnings. In fact, as the trip went on, she saw that they desperately wanted a leader or mother figure, but only to moan about, talk back at, and by which to feel hard done by, so that they could all feel like ‘proper’ rebels; by the end of it she felt like the spoilsport auntie of rebellious and sulky teens.
The characters remind me of those in TC Boyle's wonderful novel Drop City, the plot of which focuses on hippies in the sixties who take their 'back to the land' movement quite literally, and go to a remote part of Alaska to live off their wits and the land; not being particularly well-equipped with wits, the land proves formidably resistant to being lived-off. The comparison I make here is that many of the people in Drop City had a kind of self-assuredness that was untested against any actual test; it's the same with my characters, apart from Carrie, who are basically out of their depth, but still don't appreciate being rescued by her. Carrie is out of her depth too, to a certain extent, or is close to it; it's only the fact that she has the character to face the challenge which gets her through it.
The other story was told to me by a vegetarian friend who went to a restaurant abroad somewhere - again, I can't now remember where. The incident is more or less how I've written it: a child waiter with gloves too big, a piece of raw meat under an omelette. My friend thought it was sort of funny, though one of his friends was put off their own dinner because of it. The only difference I've made is that, when my friend complained, the manager paced grimly all over the restaurant yelling in turn at each and every member of staff who could possibly have handled the dish, and made the chef come out and say sorry, like that Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers. Even so, my friend thought this was an act, a way of entertaining the manager, the staff and the other people in the restaurant - sort of, it's a slow night, so let's wind up the veggies. Now I’m thinking that it might have been funnier to depict this, but the story was getting a bit long, and I wanted this interlude to be sinister, rather than comic. I don't know now: reading this story again after so long, I feel that it lacks humour, and perhaps could do with some comedy, so I may rewrite and add that part one day, and see how it turns out.
Lots of very short paragraphs, I notice, which I don't usually like in other people's writing. I guess they work here, which at least should make me more tolerant of them when I see them in other stories.
I also sketched out a big scene in which Carrie confronted her friends, and had her telling them what she thought of their cowardice, their lack of togetherness, their willingness to blame her for everything that went wrong, but I guess this should have been implicit in the story anyway.
I wrote it very quickly, possibly all in one go, I see from the original draft of it in a notebook, on 30th July 2000. I don't think I did much work on it for a while, wasn't convinced of its worth. I certainly showed an early typescripted draft to fellow writers at Out of Reality, the writers' group I used to go to from 1999-2001, and remember some of them liking it, and getting some good advice about it.
I worked on it further and had it in shape by the time I did my MA at Goldsmiths in 2001-2002, and submitted it as one of my pieces of assessed work. Some of the tutors said, among other things: 'effective characterisation through reaction to situations, the tone is cool and suspenseful, strong plot which impacts upon the structure (Eh? Don't understand that even now), a strong narrative, should open with the second sentence (I can't remember if I took that advice or not), but it is unclear how the different elements connect with the body of the narrative.' All these helped it towards the final version. It first came out in Ambit magazine, in 2002, and is now out again in Literally Stories, and you can read it here.
I made some muffins earlier, and was reminded of the old children’s song 'Do you know the Muffin Man', and this in turn brought to mind a memory from my teens. *WARNING* This blog will be slightly swearier than my usual posts.
When I was 14 I had a friend called Jimmy, who didn't go to my school, but lived locally, and we soon fell into one of those intense friendships that you have in your teens. We'd hang out more or less every day, either at his place or mine, do bus trips to central London, and get up to the usual kind of teenage boy stuff that sometimes bordered on relatively harmless mischief.
Jimmy was not very impressed at my early attempts to learn the guitar. I could do G and C chords, but, as I'd not heard Jonathan Richman's 2-chord Roadrunner by that point, they weren't an awful lot of use to me. One evening we were drinking something - cider, maybe, or cheap lager, maybe those cans of Tennants with scantily-clad women on them to make teenage boys buy them - and got slightly tipsy. Jimmy picked up my 'Learning the Guitar for People Challenged by the Basics of Music' book. I'd not got as far as the 'advanced' section. Jimmy pointed out that there were actual songs there, and that I should try to play them. As they featured more chords than G and C, I failed miserably.
They were a mixed bag of children's tunes, and I can only remember 'Do You Know the Muffin Man', 'The Wheels on the Bus', 'Jimmy Crack Corn' and 'Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush', all songs that tend to repeat the title then add one more line.
As we were slightly drunk, we started singing the songs a capella, but instead of singing the last line, we just sang 'What a Fucking Cunt', so we went:
Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care
What a fucking cunt
…and so on... and collapsed into teenage boy laughter at each repetition of the new, 'improved' line. It seemed a good idea at the time. I still don't quite know what 'Jimmy crack corn' actually means... but as in the song so it is in real life, and I still don't actually care.
(In the Camberwell in which I grew up, the immediate answer to the question 'do you know the muffin man' would be: who wants to fucking know?)
If Jimmy is out there somewhere, we are, in theory, still available to sing at children’s parties.
Perfect Professional Arrangement
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.
The big book Bowie never wrote
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.
A Legend Sighted - Mud's Rob Davis
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.
Death of an Eccentric
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.
Unintentionally hilarious - a memory sparked by passing by a cafe I used to go to
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!
Theese- a one, that-a one
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.
Kent-based musician with Clash covers band Clashback, among others. Writer of novels, short stories and pastiche Balkan tunes. My five longest works are Laikonik Express, The Exploding Elephant, A Blue Coast Mystery, Almost Solved, The Émigré Engineer and Cleopatra's Script. My stories are all over the place... in a good way!