The Flowers of Romance
Last year, as I listened to this album, I would be in the supermarket, the drums insistent in my earphones as I wandered past the bare shelves; I would be making lunch for my children with it playing in the background; I would listen while we did crafts, making cardboard puppets of our friends or drawing pictures of the party we planned to have when all of this was over; it was there pulsing in the back of my mind during our daily walks around the park; I would tap out its rhythms while I watched the news late into the night; it was there throbbing in my mind as I struggled to sleep.
I wrote about Public Image Ltd's The Flowers of Romance for The Quietus, on the occasion of the record turning 40 years old.
I spoke to John Lydon, Martin Atkins and Nick Launay about its context, recording and legacy.
You can read their reminiscences alongside my general wittering on the topic of its resonance in our terrible Covid-age on The Quietus here.
‘Oblio,’ she said, ‘You should like to see Oblio?’
I have a new ghost story out. It's called 'Oblio' and will be published in Out of the Darkness, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror fiction loosely themed around mental health.
One bit of practical advice I always offer whenever I’m leading a creative writing workshop is this: if you can, set your story on a holiday. ‘Oblio’ is set on holiday. This isn’t because I’m a writer who particularly enjoys (or is skilled at) writing descriptively about a story’s settings. Rather, the appeal is an environment in which the characters are largely contained, mercifully shorn of the context of their daily lives, able only to interact with one another in any meaningful sense. As well being a handy way to bring these characters into sharper relief, a holiday setting also allows for tension to be built up with a ready plausibility, as the unfamiliar surroundings and encounters can slide smoothly into the ominous.
And, as anyone who has attended one of my workshops may well remember, I also have a habit of trying to crowbar a harmonium into pretty much everything I write, invariably for it to be removed during the edit. This story, I'm thrilled to announce, does feature a harmonium.
Briefly: ‘Oblio’ features two sisters who also happen to be a musical duo called Taurig. They are touring Europe to promote their debut album and we find them in Palermo, Italy, home of Carrie Viner, a reclusive and long-retired pop-star whose music had a great influence on Taurig. So they set out to find her. But overshadowing their jaunt are two things: the first is memories the narrator has of a traumatic trip her family took to Palermo she was a child. The second is her sister’s depression. There are also, for those who find such things interesting, connecting incidents between ‘Oblio’ and an earlier ghost story of mine called ‘Kloya and Klik’ which also concerns two people who find they are at odds with one another while holidaying in Europe.
Writing about music and musicians is something I’ve developed an interest in over the past few years, and when I was tasked with writing a story which touches on both the supernatural and depression, I was immediately put in mind of one musical artist in particular: Nico.
Nico is best remembered as a member of the Velvet Underground and for her austere performance on their 1967 debut album. After leaving the group to record the soft-rock Chelsea Girl in the same year, Nico embarked on a career that saw her create a new sound, one defined by cryptic lyrics, stark, spectral arrangements, droning harmonium and an overwhelming sense of doom. I’m not sure who described Nico’s music as ‘not so much music you get into, more a hole you fall into’ but I’ve always thought it an accurate summation, not just of her records but of also of a certain broader strata of culture of which Nico are just a small constituent part. Indeed, it also seems an apt way to describe a certain mode of depressive thinking. Nico’s music follows its own terminal logic, alive with a strange, frightening sense of mourning: it’s there in her wintry vocals and accompanying harmonium, a handheld reed organ which gives her music a pre-modern feel. It was this haunting, haunted sensation I wanted to capture as best I could in ‘Oblio’.
The aim of Out of the Darkness is to raise awareness of mental health issues and funds for Together for Mental Wellbeing, a charity that helps people affected by mental health issues work towards independent and fulfilling lives.
We all have mental health and it’s positive that the topic of mental illness is far more publicly discussed a topic than in the past, increasingly free of its taboo and stigma. However, the reality can often be far more alienating than the discourse suggests. For many, their mental wellbeing can come with a history of behaviour which is alienating and involves a loss of dignity which is hard to live with, both for them and for their loved ones. For these people medical and clinical interventions become an essential aspect of their lives. The current ‘hugs and chats’ discourse, while serving most people well, masks a mental health provision which is suffering from years of systematic underfunding. As the past year has seen widespread isolation, unemployment, record deaths and disruption to these services, the opportunity to create any kind of art which plumbs the mire of the human mind is a gift.
Out of the Darkness is published by the great Unsung Stories and also features fiction by Alison Moore, Nicholas Royle, Verity Holloway and others (and some no-mark called Jenn Ashworth).
It's currently available to pre-order on Kickstarter with a variety of rewards including a critique service from top notch editor Dan Coxon.
Anne and I follow him along the hallway. His name is Patrick and he is dressed as a Tudor lord.
Hello there. I have a new ghost story available for you to read. It's published alongside Jenn Ashworth's 'Our Mother's House' in Naming the Hour: Two Curious Tales.
You can buy it on Kindle here.
Bridget Shipley’s pathology was hidden, a bud that bloomed in darkness.
I have a new book out.
It's called Plunge Hill: A Case Study. It was written by myself and Jenn Ashworth for the Eden Book Society project which is being run by Dead Ink.
You can buy it here.
I find myself trying to imagine the virus, imagine myself catching it, or imagine Grandad catching, imagine him dying from it. But it’s a kind of imagining that’s hard to sustain – it feels indulgent, like a fantasy, like a depressive’s daydream. ‘Underlying conditions’ – that’s the phrase which the news reports always mention when it comes to the deaths. We have no conditions in our household, unless you count Grandad’s dementia. And in any case the illness, as opposed to its social effects, remains unseen. When I watched the news this morning the reports were all of hospital exteriors, of dry soundbites from medical advisors conveyed via webcam. The figures in hospital beds, their faces obscured by ventilators, their limbs flapping weakly as they seize in panic – that is all left to the imagination.
I have a new short story available to read.
'Grasshopper' was written in response to events in real time with me finishing it only a couple of weeks ago. It takes the form of a woman in a remote village writing a journal which documents the moments when coronavirus creeps first through the country, then into her community and finally into her family.
Writing in this way - quickly, with ever-changing events informing the direction of the story - isn't usually my style but, like many other writers I know, I have found trying to think creatively with all of this swirling around me pretty much impossible. So it was cathartic to try to give voice to the anxieties I feel must have been fairly common over the past few months. Ordinarily, I would sit on a finished story like this for a while before putting it through the editorial process, trying to restructure the piece and smooth away the flaws. Clearly, in this instance the piece would lose some of its intended impact. My hope is that it feels authentic.
This piece was commissioned by Greater Manchester Combined Authority for their Covid-19 archive of works documenting and responding to the times we've all found ourselves living through.
You can read 'Grasshopper' here.
I have two very different events coming up which, quite simply, you'd be a blithering fool to miss.
First: I'll be for the launch of Love Bites, the latest anthology of short fiction from Dostoevsky Wannabe which takes Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks as its instigating force, where I'll be reading from my story 'Sky Yen', on Saturday 5th October at Gulliver's in, appropriately enough, Manchester. Tickets are free and you can find them along with all the other info you need here.
Then: we smash-cut to Tuesday October 29th when I'll be at Blackwells Manchester to compere an event with Lee Rourke, a man whose writing I've long admired (he too has contributed to Love Bites) but who I've never before met, and Jenn Ashworth, a colleague, co-writer and childhood friend. Lee's latest book is Glitch, a transatlantic novel of family and grief. Jenn's is Notes Made While Falling, a mind-bending literary memoir of motherhood and madness. I'll be in conversation with both, touching on grief, belief, the body, the north and turning experience into writing. Once again, tickets are free and can be found alongside all the ancillary information here.