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.
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.
I think art, whether 'so-called art' or not, only ever gets in the news if it sparks debate, usually on the lines of it's good / it's crap, or it's art / it's not art, so it's good that it's made people think about the First World War. But hang on, is the message: *War is Bad*? If daily news reports full of maimed and killed adults and children, and cities and countries in ruins, millions of people made into refugees, forever, don't put over that message, what chance do *art poppies* have, no matter how many of them there are?
It took the people of Yorkshire to show the Tour de France how it was done this year. The race never quite recovered its momentum after leaving them behind to get back to France. The early dramas came partly from stupidity, with Manxman Mark Cavendish out of the race on the first day when he head-barged another rider, hit the ground and couldn’t get up unaided; past winner Alberto Contador decided to pull an energy bar out of his pocket while doing 80KPH downhill – I mean, what could go wrong there, except of course the crash that sent him to hospital? Defending champ Chris Froome crashed out early too, thankfully through no fault of his own, and his absence could have stopped it being a bit of a snooze… except that Italian grand tour contender Vincenzo Nibali took over that job. The 2014 Tour was notable for the resurgence of the French; French riders battled it out to win second and third places, the first Frenchmen to reach the top three since 1984. It would be fantastic to see them reclaim their event.
Naturally, I don’t only watch cycling to see winners wearing various coloured jumpers and holding up bunches of flowers and kissing girls. Every sport features beautiful ways to win… well, not judo, possibly… but there are also beautiful ways to lose, and such moments often leave more of an imprint behind them than even the most spectacular win. Some of these moments can look stage-managed and cheesy, such as leading doper Bjarne Riis ‘honouring’ the previous winner Miguel Indurain when the 1996 race wiggled over to Spain to go through the latter’s home town, in the full expectation that he would be leader; there was also a young Lance Armstrong’s ‘tribute’ to team mate Fabio Casartelli as the Texan pointed to the sky when he won a stage a few days after Casartelli’s death during the 1995 Tour (a feat of formaggio repeated 6 years later by an older Armstrong). There was the moment when deadly same-team rivals Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault crossed the line with their hands not round each other’s throats but clasped, in the 1986 Tour.
My favourite by far of these moments of loss featured Australian Cadel Evans in the 2010 Tour. It’s safe to say that Cadel had been trying for a few years to win a grand tour; he was a clear contender, with placings at 8th, 4th and 2nd, but by the end of the noughties was getting the reputation of being a nearly-man. The general consensus is that he was often edged out of the top place by dopers. Maybe this contributed to his reputation as a bit of a grumpy bastard in the face of questions from the press and fans about his performances. I kind of don’t blame him; he was never able to give any accurate answers that wouldn’t have landed him in hot water with the entire sport.
In the 2010 Tour de France, Cadel was World Champion, but finally got to give the rainbow stripes of the WC jersey a rest to wear the yellow jersey – given to the race leader – on stage 9. If you’re familiar with how bike racing works, you’ll know that the jersey, and the race, isn’t won till the last day. Until then the wearer of the jersey has to use his team to defend him against attacks by other contenders and their teams; they will seek any weakness – a fall, an injury, even to a team member, a loss of tempo or concentration, a sudden change from good weather to bad, a crash in the main group that may hold up anybody behind it – and exploit it. It’s a fraught business. Halfway up the last climb of a five-climb day, the fearsome Col de la Madeleine, two teams, Saxo Bank and Astana, put pressure on Cadel’s BMC team, and one by one his team mates dropped away, and then so did he, knowing he was going to lose the jersey that day, and what was more, be so behind that he’d never be able to regain the time he’d lost.
Cadel also had a bit of a secret: he’d fractured his elbow two days before. He didn’t mention it, even to his own team, just didn’t want it to become common knowledge. I’m not sure how wise this is, but there are numerous instances of riders carrying on with broken bones, at least for a while. Wise or not, it puts certain pro footballers into perspective as they get a tap on the ankle and roll around in agony.
Cadel had one team mate left. 26 year-old Italian Mauro Santambrogio rode in front of Cadel, sheltered him from the wind as much as he could. At that time he was an established domestique, or team helper, having ridden for several teams. In the footage of stage 9, Santambrogio has a fixed, determined expression, composed – and not the teeth-gritting ‘race face’ of riders going all out. He looks serene, almost angelic.
They knew Cadel had lost, but they rode anyway. At the end of the stage, Cadel put his head on Santambrogio’s shoulder and sobbed. Santambrogio put an arm around his team leader’s shoulder. It’s a sad picture, but a great one all the same. Cadel didn’t ride his customised yellow bike again, and had to revert to his rainbow jersey of World Champion – which is, after all, not so bad – and, broken elbow and all, he stayed in the Tour, and finished a respectable 26th.
Cadel finally won his Tour de France in 2011, and what a great, and well-deserved, win that was. He’s had a few moments since then – even wore the leader’s pink jersey in the 2014 Giro d’Italia for a few days, but really, he stopped being hungry enough to win a grand tour after 2011. He is a fine sportsman and a great man in his personal life, I think, with his support of Tibet, and his comparison of its people to that of Native Australians, plus his donations to charities. I think cycling will be a poorer sport without him when he retires.
Santambrogio’s story hasn’t ended quite so well. He wasn’t with BMC by the time Cadel won his Tour, had moved on to the near-enough all-Italian Vini Fantini team. He was making waves in the 2013 Giro d’Italia. He even won a mountaintop stage, flouroescent yellow in his team kit against the equally glaring backdrop of white snow. After the race, which saw the ejection of his team leader Danilo di Luca for doping, Santambrogio failed a test for the performance booster EPO – not the first test he’d failed in his career – and since then he hasn’t got back on a bike as a pro, and, I fear, he never will, and fear too that, even if he does, he’ll never have a finer hour than he did on the day he tried to help Cadel limit his losses in the 2010 Tour de France.
Easter Monday in Lublin, 1993, with memories and Mars Bars, and a border journey with morning drinkers and visions of spacemen
I first went to live in Poland in 1993. I got a teaching job in a private language school in the Silesian* town of Gliwice, in the south west of Poland. I’d been at a loose end in London for a few months, having come back from living in Istanbul in August the previous year. I’d been intending to do an MA in Linguistics in Birmingham, but for various reasons the funding had fallen through. My first wife was doing post-grad teacher training in London, and we were living with her parents. Work didn’t look like it was going to happen for me in London, though in fact I didn’t try that hard: working as an EFL teacher in a private language school is okay if you’re abroad somewhere, but doing it in London just seemed ridiculous.
I got an interview with a bloke who ran a language school in Ljubljana, and was accepted for a job, but there was something about the set-up I didn’t like. From the guy's somewhat evasive answers to questions I asked about the working conditions, hours and pay, he seemed like one of those workaholic types who expected the same from his staff, on little pay, and, in addition, other things he said suggested that he was recruiting for his social life. I may have been wrong about that. I kind of regret not going to Ljubljana: it was a happening place, it seemed, after the ten-day war it fought to become independent from Yugoslavia, and times were surely exciting there.** I saw another ad in the Education supplement of the Guardian newspaper for a school in Gliwice. I answered it, had an interview in an empty room in the then empty-all-over Canary Wharf, and decided I’d take the job, and set off for Poland two days later. That was one cool thing about EFL teaching: see an ad on Tuesday, have an interview on Thursday, fly somewhere else on Saturday and, after a day or two to settle in, you’re living a different life by the following Monday.
It started snowing in Gliwice the week I got there in early January. It didn’t stop till April. When people here in London say, “I love the snow,” I don’t reply, as it would be a sort of snotty-sounding, “You weren’t in Gliwice that winter.”
The school was a bit crap, run, as is often the case in EFL, by idiots, but the students were okay, and I mostly managed to put on a good front and get on with it for them. I’m pretty good at getting on with work and pretending I love it, then switching off and forgetting it for the more important things in life. After a bit of messing about from the idiots, I was finally given a small flat overlooking what turned out, when the snow finally melted, a graveyard. It’s great to have quiet neighbours.
All of us teachers at the school griped about Gliwice at times. We changed the opening lines of Crowded House’s tune Whispers and Moans*** to Dull, dull grey, the colours of Gliwice… and sang it with some gusto. But in fact that was mean of us. Gliwice is a magical little town, with a mysterious vibe. There is an old rynek, or market place, at its centre, its buildings not exactly graceful, but intriguing all the same. There is a gothic-looking post office, there are sturdy fortress-like churches in black and brown brick, a lively railway station full of the usual shady characters, and babushkas**** in the ticket offices who were awkward with us if we got the grammar case wrong when buying tickets, especially if we were in a hurry. There were cafés and bars that looked as if they’d been designed by architects who really hated people having any leisure time, but were all the same friendly, and cheap. There were shops selling only red plastic kitchen equipment. There were tall communist-era housing blocks with Wendy houses painted on them, and you made sure to walk equidistant between them, as balconies and other bits were said to fall off them regularly. (A few people assured us that this story was a wind-up, and yet there were worryingly matching chunks of masonry on the ground by some of the blocks.) There were shrines in glass cases that led to the small industrial areas that ring the town, water towers that looked like Byzantine domes, and the brown brick of classic pre-war German Silesian housing, known as familoki or familie lokat, and the forlorn-looking ground of the Piast football club – the season takes a break for the snow – whose fans were certainly, er, dedicated. There is the Kłodnice, a black, polluted river, a market full of Eastern Bloc goods and characters, soot-faced miners with horses and carts selling excess coal, Gypsy women and babies routinely dumped on the town from a lorry on regular days of the week to get out there and make a living, grannies in formal clothes but with moonboots, and middle-aged housewives who insisted on wearing stiletto heels, even in the snow. There is also the tallest wooden structure in the world, the tower at the radio station. This is where the Nazis attempted to start the Second World War in August, 1939: for Gliwice was once Gleiwitz, and was once in Germany, and the Nazis came up with a ridiculous fight-starting ruse, the concoction of a ludicrous story about the Polish army attacking the radio station. It didn’t work, though that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who unfortunately didn’t let such a thing set them back for long.
I missed my wife – of course I did. She came over to spend a couple of weeks with me at Easter. She was on holiday from her course, but had plenty of work to get on with for it when I was at work. Along with the rest of the country, we finally had the long Easter weekend off together.
Poland is, of course, a Catholic country, and Easter is much more important there than it is in secular countries. Lots of businesses close, as people either go to see relatives, or have them staying. What many of them do is visit churches with small baskets of eggs, to have them blessed by priests. It looks slightly comic, seeing all kinds of people, but mainly old women or younger women with children, walk through the streets towards the churches with their eggs. Some carried tiny, plain basket, others larger, flasher, beribboned ones, maybe with an elaborately-patterned szmata,***** or cloth, lining it. Some people have their baskets packed with stuff, and we joked that they were bringing their entirely weekly shop to be blessed. This scene was part of the backdrop of Easter in Poland, and we saw a lot of it, partly because that weekend we set off on a journey that took us to a few smallish, quiet towns whose churches were the main focus.
“Bless my eggs!” we said, did it as Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, made it into an expression from a Carry On film that had never been made – Carry On Easter, Carry On Poland, Carry On Catholics.
We’d got the train across the country to Lublin in the south east, and were staying in its Dom Asystencki, or student hostel, which, it being the Easter hols, was absolutely empty. It was kind of dull and kind of cold, kind of dimly lit, and kind of grim, but we didn’t care. We weren’t there to lie around in the hotel. With Lublin as a base, we ventured to some of the smaller towns in the area. I achieved a tiny and ridiculous ambition to send postcards to my relatives in Dublin that said, somewhere on them, ‘from Lublin to Dublin’, and wondered, as ever, if the two cities had been twinned, resolving to find out. (I looked it up today, 21 years later: they’re not.)
On Easter Sunday we had a three-hour coach journey along the eastern border to a town called Siemiatycze. Some of my wife’s family had come from there. Most of them had been murdered in the Treblinka death camp during the Second World War, but there were a few traces of them: her great great uncle had built the synagogue there, and the street his doomed descendants had lived in, ulica Szkolna, or School Street, was still there, though we weren’t sure whether their houses were still standing. There were also apparently the remnants of a small Jewish graveyard.
The journey was grindingly slow. Coach journeys could be up to 45 minutes slower than the advertised journey time, depending on whether the driver was a smoker or not; if he was, then there were plenty of stops for indulging in the noxious weed. This was one of those, with people shuffling out into a misty day to inhale either fresh air or tobacco. Most of the people on the bus were visiting relatives for Easter, and had luggage full of pungent salamis, cheese and children – it wasn’t quite steerage class peasants with chickens from a Kusturica film, but seemed surreally close to it at times. Many of the men on the journey were pissed as farts – this was at nine in the morning – starting off the celebrations early, and their breath was alarmingly toxic from a few feet away. And yet, this is not a moan. It was eastern Poland, and full of the old habits of a country that was, for a few years after 1989, divided to all intents and purposes, the east not getting the much talked-about economic trickle-over effect of the new capitalism: we’d chosen to go there, after all. Once we were moving again, the motion began to hypnotise me a little, and maybe I just imagined seeing the towers built on the eastern border, and a giant statue of a soldier, or was it an astronaut, left over from communist times. I didn’t imagine the fumes, the excited high-pitched conversation and pisshead laughter, or the tinny music on the driver’s radio, the people getting on and off at various spots along the way, the goodbyes, promises to be friends for life with other drinking strangers, waves full of affection that was genuine, if only for those drunken holiday moments that had all the possibilities of freedom and celebration in them.
Siemiatycze was a compact little town under a layer of fine mist. The crows made noises in the bare trees above us, their cawing rhythmic and insistent. I always imagine crows having Cockney accents and actually saying something including an insult that starts with c and ends in t – as if they were berating us for coming all that way to a town in which very few places except the churches were open. The people headed in and out of them with their baskets and their eggs, and that part of it was all as it had been in Warsaw, Lublin, Częstochowa. We watched them for a while, and made a search for a bar or café – we were hungry by then, having got up at sevenish – but none were open. We had to go back to the decrepit bus station, even more forlorn looking than these places usually are, to grab a coffee and a sandwich, and then resume our quest in the increasingly deserted streets of the town. We found the onetime shul, or synagogue, a building that was solid and functional, rather than elegant, painted yellow and, these days, serving time as a community centre; as with most towns in Poland, there was no Jewish community left to use it as a synagogue. Ulica Szkolna was similarly unremarkable, but we weren’t disappointed, as we hadn’t come to see great architecture or anything of great beauty or intrinsic interest. It was my ex’s commune and connection with a part of her past, that was all, and it was important to us, and to nobody else. We didn’t find the graveyard. Siemiatycze, though small, was bigger than we’d thought, and there was one bus back to Lublin that day – we really had to be on it.
We were back at the bus station early, then. Another drecky kawa turecka – the Polish version of Turkish coffee, which was, er, a work in progress – from the station café, and between us a rock-hard roll with sweaty cheese, the only one left.
My ex went to the loo, and took ages. A man and his two small sons came into the waiting room, and settled down on the bench near me, and near the tiny heater. We caught each other’s eyes, and he gave me a rather down-sounding greeting, let out a big sigh, held his hand palm up as if to say look at this place – what? Huh? Though in fact I was glad of it; it had turned very nippy outside.
He didn’t speak much English, and my Polish was pretty basic. He pointed to my wedding ring, worn on the third finger of my left hand, and then pointed to his own, as if in commiseration. I thought he was being a long-suffering comic henpecked husband from Carry On Poland, and was prepared to be uncritical but non-committal. In fact, it was genuine commiseration. He said to me, “Your wife is dead?” I frowned, and said, “She seemed quite chipper a few minutes ago.” Despite the jokey tone, I was a bit puzzled, and quite relieved when I saw her come back into the interior from the loo, swinging its key to hand it back to the babushka in charge of it. I introduced my wife when she got back, and the man nodded and grinned. He too was relieved, and anxious to explain to me that in eastern Poland the wedding ring was worn on the right hand, unless you’d been widowed, in which case you put it, like his, on the left hand. It was my turn to make commiserations, though it pained me and pissed me off that I couldn’t understand how his wife had died – that none of the words he used in explanation were familiar to me, none of the gestures – only that it had been the year before, and that he was taking the children to stay with his sister for the remainder of the Easter break.
The coach back to Lublin was near-enough empty. We chatted and gestured to the man and his two well-behaved boys, about nothing much, until he got off at some roadside in the middle of nowhere. The driver wasn’t a smoker, and the journey passed quickly enough. I forget exactly where we went that Easter Sunday night in Lublin. We were knackered, and past hunger. We went for a drink at a place that chucked us out as it was closing early, and then may have had an early night.
Easter Monday morning we woke early. We were starving by then. We went out in search of breakfast. Not one single place was open. We covered a lot of Lublin in our search. We got it: most places were shut because it was Easter Monday, okay, so we just had to find the places that were open. We’d appreciate our breakfast even more, then. We found nowhere. Even the lowliest burger shack was shut, the tiniest kiosk. We spotted people a long long way up a road making a small queue at a kiosk, and yelled with joy, but then it turned out to be a flower stall. Flower stalls were the only things open. You couldn't eat flowers, I was fairly sure, though I was hungry enough to do so by then. All the cafés, all the bars, all the restaurants, all the hotels, shut for the day. What about the cinema? We’d been there on the Saturday night to see, I think, Of Mice and Men. At least we could buy a bag of crisps or something – but no, shut. We finally went back to the grim room we’d decided we weren’t going to spend much time in, and read our books, listened to music from my Walkman through its little speakers, dozed, looked out the window. My ex found a Mars Bar in her bag. She’d bought it the week before, for a train journey, but had forgotten about it. That was what we ate, used a little penknife to slice it. It filled a gap. It wasn’t a three-course meal, nor even a hard sandwich with sweaty cheese – I’d have killed for another of them – nor an Easter egg, but it did its best. We had an early night, got up the next day to begin our trip back to Gliwice, but not before we went out and had the biggest breakfast we’d ever had.
*Silesia is the English name for this region, incorporating 'industrial Poland', but also the Czech border town of Ostrava. The Polish name is Śląsk, pronounced /shlonsk/
**I didn’t get to Ljubljana until 2009.
***The band's 1991 album. One of us had bought a cassette of it in the station, which had a fine selection of dodgy goods.
****Babushka is not a Polish word - the Polish word for little ole lady, or granny, is babcia, pronounced /bahb-cha/ I'm using babushka as it's more familiar to most readers.
*****The British and/or Yiddish spelling of this is schmatter or schmutter. My ex-wife and her family would use the word to mean anything from a wedding dress to a head scarf to a tablecloth to a tea towel to a dishcloth. In Polish it means only a dishcloth or rag of some kind, and is also the slang for bitch and slut. The North London Jewish use of it was in the manner of a put-down, which could be friendly or catty, depending on how proud people, usually women, were of their tea towels or tablecloths.
Thanks to "the two Joannas", Głuszczyszyn and Podhajska, for gently pointing out my various misuses of their fine language.
VERY EXCITED to be on London's arts radio station Resonance 104.4 FM tomorrow night at 10.30 in a show incorporating my novel of friendship, Poland, snow, trains and vodka, Laikonik Express. In collaboration with Johny Brown and The Band Of Holy Joy, we’ll be exploring some of the music associated with the book, or prompted by it, implied, inferred, or just made up on the spot. I’ll be reading some short extracts, and we’ll make a soundscape or two out of it all. Tune in to Resonance 104.4 at 10.30 PM Friday for Johny Brown’s much-loved Such a Nice Radio Show.
Elvis: rex futuris rex quondam, the once and future king of rock n roll, as discussed with a Parisien teddy boy
Paris has been on my mind recently, after my February visit. My first trip there was in the summer of 1980. I think of myself as very much post-punk by then, but looking back I still had the spiky hair, charity shop jacket, skinny trousers, and possibly plastic sandals, brothel creepers or winklepickers that still passed for punk four years on. None of that stopped me getting into conversation with a French teddy boy on the steps of Montmartre below the Sacre Couer church. I was slightly nervous. Punks and teds had long before made a truce in Britain, but, you know, this was a foreign country, and maybe trends and enmities lasted longer there – or maybe the decree that teds should hate punks had only just been translated into French and was now effective… If that was so, he didn’t seem to mind my being ‘the enemy’. I wasn’t that nervous, but, you know, I was on holiday, and was, sort of, grown up by then, so didn’t want to be going getting into a fight, for Chrissake.
“Elvis est Le King,” he told me.
I didn’t think so. I wasn’t one of those punks who’d cheered at Elvis’s 1977 passing, but he was somebody my mum liked, so I thought he was a bit naff, really – mums’ and dads’ music. Fresh in my mind, I suppose, was bloated Vegas Elvis, and not the cool young dude who’d broken all that ground in the 50s and made some fine records I now love. I thought I’d better not test this guy’s goodwill and say I thought it had to be a very long time since Elvis had made a decent record. Instead I latched onto a linguistic certainty. “C’est a dire,” I said, “Elvis est le roi.”
“Non non, le King,” he said.
“Yeah but… that’s… like, I mean… Ici, il est le roi, non? Le roi de rock n roll.”
“Il est le King,” the guy insisted. “Elvis est le King.” He seemed genuinely puzzled as to why I couldn’t take this on board, and soon got up to go, giving me a what-kind-of-twat-are-you-actually look but offering a handshake all the same.
At that time, French was the only foreign language I knew, learned, somewhat painfully, at school and unused and ignored for five or six years. What’s more, I’d never lived abroad anywhere, and didn’t have the experience or knowledge to realise that languages are living things, that they don’t always follow the rules in coursebooks. Just as we call a dead end a cul-de-sac in English, a heel shaped like a sharp knife a stiletto, a one-storey house a bungalow, the pleasure in other people’s bad luck schadenfreude, the French also incorporate a load of foreign words quite naturally into their everyday language, despite the disapproval of the Academie Française.
So at least I learned something from my meeting with the cheerful French ted. Firstly, he was right, and Elvis was at least the first king* of rock n roll. He also gave me a signpost to this kind of linguistic sharing, and to the rather disappointing knowledge that I could be pedantic, and wrong, in at least two languages. I could have made it worse: I remembered one of our French teachers telling us that in France teddy boys were known as yé-yé boys** (from the English yeah), so at least I didn’t insist on calling him a oui-oui garçon – he might really have hit me then.
*I couldn’t find a photo of Elvis wearing a crown – that would have been a bit crass, and I’m glad he was sensible – I mean, it must have been tempting. The search for Elvis Presley + crown did lead me to a photo of his dental mould. Hmm. Er, no: Google it yourself.
**Not exactly true, in fact. They were more like 1960s pop kids. Proper teddy boys would have beaten them up. And would have been very narked if I’d mistaken one for a yé-yé boy. Bloody teachers.
My participation in The Writing Process Blog Tour, by kind invitation from Sharon Zink. Sharon’s novel Sharonville will be published in June by Unthank Books. See more from Sharon at www.sharonzink.com
Every blogger on The Writing Process Blog Tour is going to make an attempt to answer these questions.
What are you working on at the moment?
My main project is the production of two linked novellas focusing on two girls from different families in small-town Pennsylvania – or, to be completely accurate, somewhere like Pennsylvania. I’ve only been to the States once, and not for that long, but the geography of the story dictates that it couldn’t be set in Britain. I did make a try, but it didn’t work out. So it’s a virtual America in my novellas, virtual towns in a virtual Pennsylvania.
The first novella is called The Fortune Teller’s Factotum. Ashley Hyde is from a family at the uncool end of showbiz, her dad being a daytime TV producer and her stepmother being the host of an inane breakfast show. She lives in a town where everybody knows her business, and where she can’t get away from the fact that she has been very publicly dumped out of the only romance of her life, and where her car has been wrecked in a moment of malice. The whole town seems to be conspiring to humiliate her. But she is on a college course that will allow her to get away to study medicine in New York, so the future seems bright, as long as she can get to it in one piece. Her life is underscored by a feeling of unease, the face she sees in the mirror always seems to be screaming, and she is fixated on the lacks in her life, of friends, of a lover, of a mother.
Ashley’s mother is one of America’s disappeared; she went out one day and didn’t come home, and this event makes itself felt deep in Ashley’s mind every day. Where did her mom go? And is Ashley going to join her? Could a fortune teller help? Certainly not, says stoic, scientific Ashley, and yet she finds herself facing one anyway.
The disappeared, their stories thumbnailed onto milk cartons and posters, and in documentaries that titillate rather than help, are very much a part of both of these novellas, as are serial killers and the faded fortunes of a family who made their money in arms dealing. Extracts from The Fortune Teller’s Factotum and its companion novella The Firemont Dorns are here on the site.
I’m also working on short stories, and at the moment I have one lined up for publication in Ian Chung’s wonderful Eunoia Review for next August. It’s called Andabatae – they were the most hopeless gladiators of ancient Rome, criminals forced to fight to the death with their eyes covered – and is about a group of friends in modern-day Rome whose lives are unravelling.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I always find this a bit difficult to answer. I don’t write anything that can be classed within a genre, apart from the rather ambiguous one of so-called literary fiction. Some genres are clearly defined – detective, romance, horror, whatever – and often with good reason, as booksellers have to set out their stalls somehow. Literary fiction can be anything from books perceived to be ‘highbrow’ and yet which seem like genre fiction – Sebastian Faulks, for example, with his war stories – to unreadable rambling avant-garde rants. Literary fiction is often (snobbily) described as ‘genre fiction but well-written’ – very patronising! And my work? How does it stand out from other literary fiction? I don’t know, really. I don’t really know. I really don’t know. Sorry.
Why do you write what you do?
Again, a difficult question. A part of me would like to do a nine-to-five day writing a series of detective stories that would sell well enough to guarantee me enough to pay the mortgage and have a week by the sea every summer. My novel Laikonik Express (Unthank Books, 2011) was set in the Poland in which I lived and travelled during the 1990s, and featured characters that were partly based on people I knew, and incidents that actually happened… and yet it’s not ‘about’ these things, as such; a reader has to have a story, so the story is ostensibly about a man in search of a way to fill the lacks in his life… or in fact, two men… or three… or about a woman who wants to end her life being remembered in a certain way… But then why did I write that story and not a different one? Only I can know, and I don’t, really. Telling that story was what grabbed me and obsessed me at the time. Maybe I write what I do because I just can’t write that series of detective stories. I usually describe my work (in the kind of short author biographies required in publications) as ‘reflecting my interest in Eastern Europe’, and some of it does, but inevitably that isn’t the whole story. In no particular order, I am interested in people’s motives for doing the irrational things they do, in language and in languages (there is a distinction, of course) and how both affect the ‘message’ people put out, in architecture and how it affects people’s environments, in people in flux, whether as individuals or en masse, such as migrants, in music, in history, and in a lot of other things, all of which find their way into my work. There is a range of my short stories on my website.
How does your writing process work?
It’s chaos. It only looks like a process in retrospect. I think about what will go into my writing all the time, and I write anywhere and everywhere, and at any time. Accordingly, I use notebooks and pens a lot, as well as computers and tablets. I still like notebooks, though; you can scribble and doodle in them, or conjugate irregular German verbs on the spur of the moment, do shopping lists, write reminders. I feel slightly envious when I read ‘My Writing Day’ features and writers say they get up at 6.30, walk the dog, make porridge, write from 7.30 till 12, have lunch, then write from 1.30 till 5, and then lead regular lives. My life is kind of irregular. My writing is irregular. I am easily distracted, by my other life as a husband, by yet another as a musician, by cycling, driving, shopping, drinking coffee, by TV sport, by the things around me and outside. It’s chaos, but if I could do it another way, I’m not sure if I would.
Next week, author Lawrence Burton will be on The Writing Process Blog Tour. He is the author of the novel Against Nature, and is a writer and artist originally from the UK. He will be answering the same questions on his blog An Englishman in Texas.
You’d think, as a musician, my dreams would all be of myself stepping up to the front of the stage and doing a brilliant guitar break, singing a song perfectly, bringing some great musical moment to the fore. The crowd would be on their feet, cheering for ten minutes to demand an encore. I’ve never had a dream like that - such dreams probably lie deeper than the subconscious of anybody who wants to stand on a stage and perform.
No, my muso dreams are of failure and panic, loss, letting people down. Typical dreams go:
We’re at a venue. We’ve done the soundcheck. As ever, it’s hours before we play. [As in real life], we go off and eat, or go for a drink, either together, or in small groups, or on our own. I have gone off on my own. After a while I realise that I am far away from the venue, and can’t find my way back to it. Panic.
I’m at what is obviously the wrong venue. I’ve got the night wrong. I can’t contact anybody else in the band by phone. I can’t get a cab. I’m in a place that has loads of corridors or staircases, or both. Everybody around is focused on whatever’s happening at the venue, or I am too embarrassed to admit to anybody that I need help, because it’s ridiculous to turn up at the wrong venue.
I have lent my guitar to somebody in another band. I am either in the venue, outside it, or near it somewhere. I can’t remember who I’ve lent it to, and again feel too embarrassed to admit to this.
My guitar is broken, or won’t work for any number of reasons. Or I’ve forgotten to bring it.
Variations of some of these have actually happened: equipment failure is common, especially with one very temperamental amp the band owns, guitar strings breaking during a set or, on one occasion, one minute before we were due to go on, a clarinet being dropped on cobblestones and broken, and one of our tubas has dents that wouldn’t look out of place on a car in Naples, testifying to a lot of tumbles. On a recent trip to Glasgow, I started to feel a bit lost when a group of us went on a walk, and for a drink, before we played – we weren’t lost at all, in the safe hands of one of our trumpeters who has an excellent sense of direction. Various members of the band lose stuff at gigs, small things, usually, a guitar tuner or capo left on the stage, trumpet mutes, sheet music, clothes and hats left in dressing rooms shared by (and I kid you not) fifty other people. Nobody has lost an instrument yet (though one band member, shocked by sudden bad news, left an instrument on a train once – he got it back later) but I can see it happening. There has been the occasional almost last-minute dash to a venue if a band member hasn’t been able to get there earlier.
What I found weird was that I’m not the only member of the band to have these dreams – many of us do. I realised then that it wasn’t so weird. No matter how well things have gone, once we look back on them, gigs, tours, and recording sessions, even rehearsals sometimes, are all ventures that rely on the organisation of people and their time and resources, and are also subject to adverse events, lapses in people’s goodwill and efficiency, and pure luck. Obviously, we can’t approach everything with white-knuckled anxiety, or it would all seem a bit of a slog, but I think our dreams show that anxiety is not so far away, and will settle its amusing little account with us in the end.
I've just finished reading Adam Ant's autobiography Stand and Deliver. It was very readable, if a bit repetitive at times; it's horribly honest. It goes into AA's music, influences, early and family life, sex addiction, rootlessness– he bought several houses in several different places and was unable to face living in any of them for long, often returning to his tiny London flat – and loneliness, even as one of the most popular entertainers in the world. It also details his quest to get some acting roles that would match his success in pop music, his depression, his mental illness, and finally his several disorderly conduct arrests and sectioning in recent years. It ends on a relatively positive note. Adam is now back doing the circuit of small gigs - the results are all over YouTube - and the odd (and often rather combative) interview in between living, until we hear differently, a quiet life.
Reading the book has prompted me to revisit my one-time love of AA's music. I was a fan of Adam and the Ants in the late 1970s, before his rise to phenomenal fame in 1980, in which he really did see off all the competition. I first saw the band on a bill at Soho's Vortex Club in mid-1977, supporting my other fave band of the time, Siouxsie and the Banshees. I was blown away by the energy of the performance, and the manic, slightly dangerous edge it brought to the atmosphere. The first line-up I saw featured Adam singing and playing guitar occasionally, Andy Warren on bass (a thin, gaunt figure described in Ants publicity as being called Winkle and Watson, for some reason), the handsome Dave Barbe on drums and a guy called Johnny Bivouac on guitar. What was it about Johnny Bivuouac I didn’t like? His hair was all wrong, I thought, sort of freeze-dried-looking, and he wore a cap-sleeved t-shirt, which was so sort of last-year disco. Was I shallow, or what? (Yes, I was.) Good guitar player, though.
Adam was beautiful, no other word for it. His hair wasn’t very punk, either, all Romany curls, and at least one of his eyes was often slathered in eyeliner – or he wore clear-framed National Health specs – his lips lipsticked black. He looked like a manic mannequin, a crazed escapee from the Commedia dell-Arte – you know, Pierrot, Harlequin, Columbine, medieval Italian Punch and Judy show. He was a New Romantic a few years before the movement he would later despise came into being. But I guess what made him beautiful, ultimately, was his sense of don’t-give-a-fuck-ness: that is always something fantastic to behold. On a more basic level, I also loved his skanky leather trousers, his strappy boots from Sex, or Seditionaries, as Westwood and McLaren had rechristened the shop, loved his bare torso when he got half his kit off, with its tattoos, scratches and bruises, its hint of puppy fat at one gig, his ribs showing starkly at the next.
I made a recording of this line-up from a gig at Oxford Street's 100 Club, a ton-weight cassette player secreted round my waist, and the recording came out brilliantly; I was able to learn all the songs, obsessively working them out on my guitar in the right keys. This was to be important to me a year or so later, when Johnny Bivouac left (or was dumped, actually - Adam already had a history of getting rid of band members on a whim, though I didn't know that at the time) and, after seeing an ad in Melody Maker, just by chance, I went to audition as a replacement. Because I’d been listening to the tape, I was able to turn up andjust play the tunes. Adam asked me, "Do you know B-Side Baby?" and I went straight into the guitar intro as he was about to recite the chords, and also led the band into their ode to mädchen-in-uniform Deutscher Girls. They were impressed. But they were more impressed by 17-year-old Matthew Ashman, who got the job instead of me, so there I went, back into obscurity for a few decades... Was I too ugly, too spotty, not punk enough, or maybe too punk – was my Rickenbacker guitar just not cool enough? Was it my hair, not enough gel, or too much? Or was I just a bit too porky for the stripey teeshirt I wore to the audition? (Not everybody can get away with horizontal stripes, but it was very similar to the one I now wear sometimes in the Trans-Siberian March Band.) No, none of those things, I hope. It was Matthew Ashman; he was pure class on a guitar, pure rock n roll, and I just wasn’t.
With the phenomenally talented, precocious Matthew, the Ants went on to a different phase, and a whole load of different songs, that culminated in the album, out on independent Do-It Records, Dirk Wears White Sox. None of the songs they played at the early gigs made their way onto that album; they only turned up later on bootlegs, or were revamped occasionally on slicked-up versions on the b-sides of some of the hit singles, once Adam was a star. Those early songs featured themes of S&M, sex in general, murder and Nazis, basically, though there was the rather sweet Send a Letter to Jordan (about Adam’s obsessive letter-writing to one Pamela Rooke, who worked in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road shop Sex), a cover of Perry Como’s Catch a Falling Star and the gentle French music hall pastiche of Young Parisians. Deutscher Girls, Nietzsche Baby and Dirk Wears White Sox (which ghosted only as a title on the Do-It album) all worked through fetishised pictures of Nazism; they poked fun at it, though this wasn't always clear to the music press, who dismissed the Ants as a Nazi band at one point, despite their having a black drummer in Dave Barbe, and Adam being a descendant of British Roma. Il Duce described Mussolini as a 'fatty fasciste – they call him the fat boy' and had a derisory chorus of Santa Lucia in the middle
of it, so it was sometimes difficult for Antpeople (as Adam dubbed us fans) to see how it could be taken as anything other than black comedy. The S&M songs included Beat My Guest, Whip in My Valise, Ligotage, You're So Physical and Bathroom Function. There were other tunes, such as the subtle, slow Song for Ruth Ellis, which had the hook 'Violence in Hampstead', and a frenetic tune just called Hampstead, 'a place for fairs and not for revolution - you're deprived of being deprived'. There was Lou, mainly known to fans as Andy Warhol Video from one of the few coherent lines in the chorus, a song about Lou Reed, apparently, the verses of which were screeched out by band manager at the time, Jordan – that same Pamela Rooke, from McLaren and Westwood's Sex/Seditionaries boutique, and a big face on the early punk scene. There was also the comic, smutty Juanito the Bandito - 'he'd even make love to a dog' - and the rather grim Light Up a Beacon on a Puerto Rican, which dealt with racism, albeit in a rather repugnant and aggressive manner which could easily be, and was, taken for racism in itself. A lot of people also missed the pure music hall-type humour of songs like Friends, basically a list of claimed friendship with famous people from all eras punchlined with the whined line ‘If I come on the night, can I get in free?’
In Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, along with Deutscher
Girls (shown briefly, on a background TV), the full version of the Ants' gig-opening tune Plastic Surgery features. The film was a bit of a mess, but was worth seeing for this sequence alone, in which Adam threw himself into the performance - literally - with such zest that he dislocated his knee.
I must add that the tunes on Dirk Wears White Sox , with
Matthew Ashman on guitar, are pretty good – I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like them at all. Animals
and Men is surely the only tune ever written about Italian Futurism; Car Trouble Part 1 and Family of Noise arrived at punk-funk-disco years before the Red Hot Chillis. The Day I Met God (and was impressed ‘at the size of His knob’ –tch, really, Adam) is a sublime piece of on-the-road observation: ‘We was coming back in the van, from Milan, and I saw God, right there’. Like you do. Catholic Day, again, is a first, as far as I know, a song about JFK, his ‘sporty young hairstyle’, his brain falling on Jackie’s knee on that day in Dallas. Never Trust a Man with Egg on His Face is a menacing piece of sci-fi. All good, some of it great. But not the Ants I’d known, followed, recorded, learned, looked forward to. Serious twenty-something post-punk types like me, with our floppy fringes and long overcoats, were a pretty hard-to-please bunch, I guess.
A lot of the early tunes are now available to hear on YouTube, accompanied mostly by still pictures, and often from dodgy live recordings, and consequently they’re often very scrunchy, but they give a real flavour of the barrage of sound, and the
innovative, and often chaotic, nature of early Ants performance, at a time when most 1977 bands were trying to be secondhand Sex Pistols, and intoning crap tunes about boredom, or being boringly ‘political, maaan’, in bad imitations of the Clash. Adam and his Ants were never as rock n roll as the Pistols, were never as doctrinaire as the Clash, were not as earnest as the Banshees, nor as arty as Wire – I thought the Ants got it exactly right in having a decent mix of all those elements.
Andy Warren went on to join The Monochrome Set – one of my favourite bands from the same period - while Dave Barbe and Matthew Ashman were stolen by the scheming Malcolm McLaren to back the 14 year-old Annabella Lu Win in his new project Bow Wow Wow. Adam had paid McLaren a grand for advice on the next phase of his career – “Do cowboys, Adam,” mockney Malkie said out of the corner of his mouth, “do Indians, mate, do pirates, swash your buckle, bit of flash, bit of brash, become prince charming…” – so Adam did, and didn't come too badly out of the deal in the end.
Bow Wow Wow ploughed a similar furrow, sporting Vivienne Westwood’s new off-the-peg pirate look, with Dave Barbe stripped of his sharp and punky name and restored to his real name (according to Malcolm) Dave Barbarossa – that of the legendary Redbeard the Pirate. They played Burundi drums and Duane Eddy guitars, speedy fifteen-fingered basslines, tunes about Don Juan corsairs and other planets, the Eiffel Tower as a phallic symbol. They released an album on a cassette, had Annabella photographed in the nude. They were great, but never quite the business, despite being talented, photogenic, controversial and newsworthy. What went wrong with them? For the mass market, the formula just didn’t work as well as Adam’s: he had it, and they didn’t.
Adam hooked up with Marco Pirroni, another man with a great pedigree on the punk scene, who’d been there from the beginning, wearing the shirts, playing the guitar, po-faced and workmanlike, canny enough to tell the shite from the shine. Marco was (and still is) a rare talent, and the best thing that happened to Adam – I’m sorry to hear they don’t talk these days. I didn't mind some of the tunes they had massive hits with - I liked some of the Kings of the Wild Frontier album, resigned myself to be exasperated and then amused to see that the line ‘Dirk Wears White Socks’ had gone from an entire song about comedy Nazis and slapstick Berlin decadence in 1977, to the somewhat meaningless (to all but original Antpeople, who were still rather mystified by it) title of a 1979 album, to an even more cryptic line in the chorus of an unmemorable 1980 non-tune, the piss-weak Don’t Be Square be There. By the time Adam was standing and delivering and doing the Prince Charming two-step with Diana Dors, shaking hands with royalty and appearing on Jim’ll Fix It I thought it had all become a bit too cartoony. (In fact, several children’s mags did indeed feature cartoons in which Adam was the hero, totally messing up my metaphor here.) I can see that he never would have made it with the early tunes -Princess Margaret and her sis probably wouldn't have tapped their feet along to any tune that went 'Tie me up
and beat me with a stick, beat me, beat me' - and that Adam did what he had to do to become the world-famous song and dance man he craved to be, and turned into. I'm glad he made it, glad he became a name and a face, a look and a haircut and a style of his own: I’m glad he ‘sold out’ – as we Antpeople sniped for an inordinately long while – and got the fame he deserved for the hard work he put in. He paid a massive price for it in the end, unfortunately. I’m also glad his hidden legacy of early tunes is now around and available though, just as it ever was, you need to seek it out, though I'm too much of an ole fart these days to want to listen to the songs TOO often.
Punk 77is an exhaustive site about the bands of the time, and has a lot on the Ants –great interviews with one-time guitarist Mark Ryan, and with Marco Pirroni.
Adam-Ant.Net and Ant Spotting have the latest AA-related news.
Ant Lady has an excellent site with all the lyrics, cross-referenced expertly by album/period, etc.
Here’s one of the many pages on which you’ll find early Ants tunes on YouTube.
When I was a kid we didn’t do Halloween in England. It was purely an American thing, a thing I read about in American comic books, 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 happily absent from the proceedings, no bonfires, and with fireworks few and far between. 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.
I date Halloween in Britain to sometime in the 1990s. I was living abroad by 1990, and we didn’t have it then. When I got back in the late 90s, we did, for some reason – pure commercialism, I guess; it's all been imported and forced on us. A bit like the Corn Laws of 1833 et seq. I also think it has something to do with festivals, and how lots of people get the taste for dressing up funny and partying, 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.
My wife is from Northern Ireland. She tells me that 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. 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 can’t remember what my costume was. I do remember that we went out in a gang, not accompanied by adultts, and that we ranged round the few
streets near where we lived, in Clontarf. Our local haunted house, called Simla Lodge, scary even in the daylight all year round, must have looked even more spooky that night. I also 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. I stepped back and left, and thought no more of it.
Later, probably years later, I thought she must have had a good idea of who I was. Everybody knew everybody, at least by sight, in Clontarf, and she must have known – as everybody else seemed to – that I was one of those pathetic brothers from London, who’d been sent over to my aunt’s to allow my dad to die in peace, albeit at great length, of cancer. Though I wasn’t sure of 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, 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 a miserable apple…
A few years ago my friend Jerry, who’s from Pennsylvania, was living in London, up near Belsize Park which, if you don’t know it, is one of the wannabe posh areas leading up to truly posh Hampstead. The evening before Halloween one of his neighbours, a big-haired wannabe posh woman, appeared at his door, clutching a big bag. 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 probably scoffed half the goodies before he even got back to the living room.
We both thought it was kind of laughable, a little pathetic, in fact. 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 it meant to? 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 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 fucked-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 – I mean, Halloween is supposed to be scary, remember? So we thought the visit from Jerry’s neighbour was kind of ludicrous; where was the spontaneity in that? And, we thought, later, where was the opportunity for a trick?
I’ve since had a similar visit from my own next-door neighbour. In 2008, her kids 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 looking ridiculous – 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 Ryvita, 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 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 really wouldn't want them wandering round knocking on people’s doors. 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 2009 my neighbour 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 last year, and nor did the kids. Maybe they’ve grown out of it, or maybe have tumbled, basically, that it’s just crap.
I do a lot of reading - as a writer, I guess I'm supposed to, but I always did anyway. See my About reading page on this site. As well as the books I get through, I also read a lot of fragments of things - on the internet, in magazines, and in books I'm not reading, as such, at the moment, but in books I have read or will read. I was bored with whatever I was reading yesterday, and picked up my battered copy of David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace; the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. One of the advantages of such a long title is that I don't need to explain what it's about. If you want to re-examine the origins of what's going on now in the Middle East, then this is a good place to start: scheming westerners and Americans feature, of course, but also, to be balanced, a lot of opportunist local leaders willing to be schemed against for a slice of the pie. The passage I was reading featured the lead-up to the Greek-Turkish war of the early 1920s; Greek Prime Minster Venizelos had realised by the twenties that Lloyd George no longer had it in him, nor any real political clout anymore, to support his so-called 'Grand Idea' - this was for the Greeks to occupy Anatolia and regain a large part of the territory that would have made up ancient Greece - a skewed idea, in any case, ancient Greece being a series of city-states, rather than a united nation. The main problem was that Anatolia had become the heartland of the new Turkish republic under Kemal Ataturk. All the same, Venizelos kept on discussing it with Lloyd George who, with no real interest in it, kept the Greeks at bay with a year of dissembling. Should Venizelos send his army into Anantolia to attack the Turks? The book continues:
What Venizelos and Lloyd George would have decided to do can never be known for sure, for one of the most bizarre political accidents in modern history took the matter out of their hands. On 30 September 1920 the young Greek King, Alexander, while taking a walk in the grounds of his palace, was bitten by a monkey. A severe fever set in and, on 25 October, Alexander died. In a famous phrase, Winston Churchill later wrote that "It is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey's bite" - for it was his belief that if Alexander and Venizelos had continued to rule Greece, the tragic outcome of the war that Greece was to wage against Turkey in 1921 and 1922 would have been averted.
I don't know what grabs me so much about this story. I used it as the basis for an incident in my story Monstrous Men - see my Short stories and tall tales page - which goes:
Even as an unacknowledged child of privilege, L’s child had been allowed to go anywhere she wanted to. This included the animal cages at the palace zoo where, one day, a gibbon bit her. The wound festered, and she died, closely followed, probably, by the monkey keeper and the nanny.
I like stories about animals, in general, though inevitably I read more of them as a child than I do as an adult. There's something about their lack of intent, the laissez-faire chaos of their world, that appeals to me, I think. I'm writing a story at the moment that features an animal at its centre - not a thinking one, like Tom, or Jerry, Top Cat, Roadrunner, but an animal nevertheless. The story partly features how people relate to animals, and how people get them to appear to reflect their own opinions, and, it is suggested, endorse them. That's not the main point of the story (which is quite long) but one that came out of the background as I wrote. At the moment the story is called The Fortune Teller's Factotum, and I think it'll be under construction for a while yet. You can see two pieces from this tale - at the moment, not quite long enough to be a novella, but terribly long for a short story - here: http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com/my-works-in-progress.html
I went to the launch of Ambit 206 last night at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish
Town. I think most bookshop launches are much the same: glass of wine or two, quietish crowd, the opportunity to hear writers reading their work from a few feet away. It's a formula that probably shouldn't be messed-with too much.
Poet John Hartley Williams was over from Germany, reading some of his poems which will appear in the next Ambit (207, out in January) for reasons that escape me. They centred on an eastern-sounding empire, and reminded me a little of some of Alisdair Gray’s work, and were very good. He also read them with a hint of performance, which always helps.
I also liked Joanna Ingham’s work, and one poem in particular, about the sinister aspects of communication between genders at primary school.
Ambit prose editor Geoff Nicholson read out his Frequently Asked Questions – (sorry this title is incomplete, but) points to the nature of the piece, hardly a story, rolling out those questions people, or computers, ask, in the full knowledge that people think they know the answer, never know the answer, or will not be helped in any way by knowing the answer. It which was slightly surreal, and very funny.
I was told Ambit have accepted my short story The Pitch for the next edition, which will be out in January. See my Out Soon page here:
http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com/out-soon.html to learn more about the story.
Ambit had its Arts Council funding withdrawn a few years ago, and needs all the support it can get. It’s been going since the late 1950s, so is no ordinary small press magazine. See its website here: http://www.ambitmagazine.co.uk
The Owl Bookshop is at 209 Kentish Town Road, London NW5, and is a great independent bookshop. (Actually, just found out it’s been bought by Daunt Books, but will continue under its existing name – Daunt seem to be okay, though – a small chain.) The Owl still has the atmosphere of an indie, anyway.
Ambit's prose editor Geoff Nicholson is the author of novels and non-fiction including Gravity's Volkswagen, The Lost Art of Walking and The Hollywood Dodo.
John Hartley Williams has published twelve collections of poetry. His latest collection, Café des Artistes(Cape), was published in 2009.
Joanna Ingham's work has been published in various magazines. As a student at
Birkbeck College, she won the Michael Donaghy Prize for Poetry 2009.
I'm blogging after a relatively sleepless few days of writing, working not only on my follow-up to Laikonik Express and a short story work-in-progress (see my works-in-progress tab on the main site) called The Fortune Teller's Factotum, but also some of my freelance editing. Do I get them all mixed up from time-to-time? Not really. It'd be difficult to look at any of the factual, prosaic things I work on to make a living and mistake them for anything creative - the creativity with them is in making them readable, which is not a snarky comment: they're not setting out to be Dostoevski or anything. The two pieces of my own are easily separable too, though maybe there are things I'm not aware of that make me impose the style of one onto the other. I wonder if mega-successful writers, Booker Prize winners and all, ever work on more than one major thing at a time - I imagine they do.
I spent much of yesterday doing a Wikipedia entry for the band I play with, the Trans-Siberian March Band. There are dire warnings all over the 'create a new page' bit of Wiki, things like "Don't do a wiki on the band you play in; if you're notable enough, somebody will do one eventually; very few bands are worthy of inclusion in Wikipedia..." etc etc, and fair enough. I'd had the wiki entry written for about 6 months, but was always put off doing it whenever I read these words. What made me go ahead and do it yesterday? It was finding a wiki entry for a band we are friendly with, and have seen on the London scene, though we've never shared a bill with them. They're in a similar situation to us, but, arguably, have done a lot less. So I went ahead and did it anyway. I had to put on my dispassionate editing hat and savage the rather flowery text I'd written, reduce all our beautiful endeavours, the exciting places we've been to on tour, exotic venues, surreally brain-addled promoters, all to a few matter-of-fact lines. I'm still waiting to see if Wikipedia's watchdogs will get rid of it citing contravention of their 'notability' clause, but will be on the point of arguing that my friend's band's entry shouldn't be there either - which seems a bit mean... I hope it won't come to that.
Tomorrow I may just junk writing and do something else. It's not like I'm sick of it, or anything, but I don't do it so well when I'm overloaded. On the other hand it's not going to do itself...
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Kent-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!