There will be no further Ruth Rendell novels.
Or, rather, there will be only the half-dozen or so she most likely composed before publication of The Girl Next Door, her most recent the book (or, as we must get used to describing it: her last).
It upset me when I heard Rendell had suffered a stroke earlier this year, but I’d hoped she’d recover. I’d assumed she would. She seemed like the sort. But no. Sadly not.
There’s no author who occupies anywhere near as much space on my shelves, or whose books I so purely enjoy reading, as Ruth Rendell. But enjoy doesn't seem like quite the right word. It is enjoyment but slightly more so and slightly different. I started reading her books about four years ago and since then my relationship with them has developed something of a reliance dynamic, a dependency. If I ever find myself amid a dry streak, muddling my way through a run disappointing novels, a stopover in Rendellland has always been a safe restorative. I finished reading The Crocodile Bird only last week.
Her books, for one thing, are so numerous. Formidably so. As well as that impending half-dozen I’m sure there could be others which have thus far gone unread. Her first novel, From Doon with Death, was in fact her sixth, her first five receiving only rejections from the publishers. She produced over eighty books in total: Rendell novels, Inspector Wexford novels, Barbara Vine novels, short story collections, novellas, a children’s book, a travel guide, an anthology, a think tank paper. I still feel something of a Rendell novice despite her occupying a substantial bloc of my shelf-space. There are always a handful of titles in the back of my mind: I must remember to look out for Shake Hands Forever! Need an Amazon add-on item! How much is Heartstones?!
Where is Rendellland? What does it look like? It’s a landscape which encompasses dingy London bedsits, neatly ordered suburbs and bucolic Suffolk country piles; is populated with ordinary people: men and women with jobs and families, but also with destructive urges and compulsive needs. They take trips to the supermarket and spend evenings watching television. But suddenly there’s a body in the basement, or a hider in the loft. Gradually, you see grudges being nursed, blighting mental illnesses going concealed or unchecked. Class bitterness is rife, repression endemic. It’s a site of plainness, but also of aberration, where guilt and hope, obsession and ecstasy, all find their terrible locus.
It is, of course, everyday Britain in all its mundanity and all its terror.
And that’s that. Rendellland remains intact, but there’s to be no major new developments. What’s saddest for me though is that one area in particular is unlikely to see any new additions. Because nowhere is Ruth Rendell a more compelling a writer, or more successful a novelist, than when she is Barbara Vine.
Barbara Vine came to life in 1986. Rendell often described her alter-ego as a separate person from herself, with a ‘less cold’ personality, someone who was ‘more feminine’, who was ‘a bit more serious, a bit more searching’. Vine was the product of a desire to turn out both a greater number of novels (Rendell and Vine have never shared a publisher), and ones which differed from her creator’s. She was never as rigid in her focus on the traditional structure and plotting of mystery fiction as Rendell, allowing instead more in the way of what her blurb writers like to call 'psychology'.
The best known of Vine’s books is probably her first, A Dark-Adapted Eye, a woozy, spooky coming-of-age tale, one of muddled parentage and unutterable wartime secrets. Others, like The Blood Doctor and The Birthday Present sold well and gained critical interest for their melding of fiction with an insider’s eye on how Westminster functions (Rendell sat in the house of Lords, attending weekly). But for my money, the best book written by Rendell was her third Vine, The House of Stairs.
A cursory summing-up of the plot – woman meets up and begins an affair with woman who was been released from prison where she's done time for killing first woman's best friend – demands resolution, an explanation. The course the narrative takes weaves between a late 80’s present-day and flashbacks of the 1960’s. It’s a very Rendell take on the decade: an era of drugs, swinging and rock music but, rather than providing the characters with opportunities for the breezy liberation and self-discovery one might expect, it instead nurtures their obsessions, drawing them further down into a squalour of sex and neuroses. There’s a triangle of characters: Cosette, a plump middle-aged woman trying to get in on the free love and psychedelia; Bell Sanger, a beautiful anonymous woman, the stranger in town; and the narrator, Elizabeth, a once-struggling writer who has turned to churning out financially successful but trashy novels.
This writing about writing theme belies how The House of Stairs is something of a novelist’s novel: the book's chief strength lies in its craft, the drama of these characters’ interactions playing out with a dreamlike structural confidence – drifting from past to present, neither taking precedence, both pushing the story on. What takes place seems dictated solely by a need to delineate these characters, to follow them in what seems naturally them and fills them with life. But there’s an undeniable readableness, and also a seamlessness, the whole tragedy meted out with a hermetically controlled precision.
It’s jarring to learn the book never received an award, nor was ever shortlisted. Nor was it singled out for praise beyond that which a new Rendell invariably receives. It's become a cliché to say that crime fiction suffers from literary snobbishness. And it became a cliché to describe of Rendell's Barbara Vine books as her 'literary' or ‘psychological’ output (there is more of an overlap between Rendell and her alter-ego than a nom-de-plume would indicate). Perhaps Rendell’s logic-defying prolificness is to blame for this. It’s hard to bring a clear-eyed assessment to an author who brings out more than one book a year. Your grasp of their capabilities is constantly on the shift; their books are judged as part of a whole rather than individually. If Ruth Rendell had only ever written A Dark-Adapted Eye, The House of Stairs and, say, Asta's Book, it’s hard not to think that she’d be spoken of in purpled tones as a literary colossus. As it is, these are instead thought of simply as a crime-writer's 'good books'.
Which is a shame. Barbara Vine’s novels are by most criteria successful: they engage and excite, they are thematically weighty, they are careful of structure, sophisticated of character and rich with allusion (The Wings of a Dove is unobtrusively referenced throughout The House of Stairs), they speak of their age, and yet are aware of how historicity functions, how some subject matters are touched with a timelessness. And yet, I’m going to hazard, it’s unlikely you’d heard of The House of Stairs prior to reading this blog post. You almost definitely won’t have read it.
In 2013 I noticed Penguin Modern Classics began had begun to reissue the back catalogue of Penelope Lively and Margaret Drabble, a pair of writers whose work I very much admire and whose sensibilities are similar to those of Vine’s. In that same year there was also an interview in which Ruth Rendell declared that The Child’s Child, the most recent novel written as Barbara Vine, would also be her final published under that penname. The book itself, whilst definitely not her best, was one I enjoyed and I'd hoped, optimistically, this ‘last book’ talk was just a bit of chucked-in interview-fuel, something to help the sub-editors with their headlines. But it seems that’s not to be the case.
I’d also hoped that both novel and interview-spiel would generate some kind of reappraisal of Rendell’s Vine-fictions. However, at the time of writing, The House of Stairs and many of Vine’s other novels are out of print. The rights to all of them still lie, presumably, with their original publisher: Penguin.
Perhaps now is the time for that reappraisal to take place.
A Letter to M.
It was after I’d finished building your cot that I sat down and cried for the first time. No-one had told me I’d cry. It happens to real men during the birth, crying. But during flatpack assembly? Definitely not. In my defence, I had had an exhausting day: I’d bickered with your mother; I’d helped drag a secondhand sofa up to your bedroom; I’d put together various IKEA furniture; I had not eaten. Sitting there, looking at this newly-made cot, along with your side table, your lamp and a wardrobe stuffed with bags of your blankets, toys and tiny clothes, it all suddenly became too much. Here was the room we’d prepared for you and were filling with things which we hoped would like. The walls we’d painted blue, a shade we’d picked out in the hope that it would remind you of a summer sky. An overpriced baby-rocker and a lampshade with a picture of a fox on it were on their way; somewhere among the bundles of clothes in the wardrobe were a pair of knitted Converse trainers bought by your mother and a babygro with a drawing of a badger on it bought by me. For a moment all of this was unbearably touching. But maybe touching isn’t the right word. Touching, but also odd.
Because here's something else no-one had told me: having a baby would be uncanny. There exists an industry built around doling out advice to new or expectant parents, both practical and emotional: How do I change a nappy? What if I fuck up my kids? Do babies wear pyjamas? What if they grow up to be Hitler? What is colic? What if I don’t love them? All useful (and all things I’ve worried about) but none of it tackles that weird, initial miracle: a person is segueing into a reality. Someone who did not exist is emerging from nothingness into existence, into the flesh-and-blood world, literally muscling into their portion of the world’s space. I’d always thought the notion rather trite, that pre-birth is somehow connected with the post-death, that life is a brief sidetrack on a cosmic Grand Prix. And yet here I was, assailed by what felt a little like grief, crying in the afternoon for someone who I didn’t even know yet, someone who technically didn’t even exist.
An odd form of love. Or, rather, the last few months have made clear to me just how odd love can be. We are all of us essentially genitals which emerge from our forebears’ genitals and subsequently go on to produce new genitals of our own. Human history is essentially an endless strip of William Morris wallpaper patterned with cocks and fannies. And not just the people who you see walking round every day, nor also those who came before us and those who are yet to come, but everything we have – the buildings, the roads, the thoughts, the technology, the wars, everything – is all woven through that pattern of men and women. It feels like another fairly banal observation, but it’s actually startling, when you fully appraise it – when having a baby makes you fully appraised of it. It feels like there must have been a mistake; someone has made a galactic error.
I don’t know where it came from, this odd love. You began as an idea, a conversation; then your presence announced itself quietly as a pink line on a pissed-on stick of plastic; you grew gradually; and now here you are, a kicking, wriggling, sonogramable, undeniable person. And with this slow transmutation - which has taken place against the backdrop of the humdrum, the routine, the everyday - the corridor of a future has opened up, of your future. It has caught me off-guard, how excited I am to see which doors you will try and which routes you’ll choose and how powerful my hope is that I can follow you for a very long time.
And finally there’s books. Like a lot of parents, to begin with I secretly decided that your upbringing should consist of a recreation of those aspects of my own which I hold dearest – I have bought you, amongst a great many others, Mog, Funnybones,Paddington and a thick stack of Ladybird books – and correct those of which I am least fond (no spanking, no church). The methodology lying behind this is fairly selfish on my part, and I can already feel it beginning to fall by the wayside the realer you become. But books will remain. If anyone ever wants his or her faith in the world restoring, they should visit the picture books section of a branch of Waterstones and discover the almighty industriousness that goes into the simple task of trying to make children happy.
I could go on, but I won’t. I just wanted to get some of this down, to have some of it in front of me, to try to help myself understand what it is that is happening. But also to have something of these feelings on record. Both for myself and for you, for the future, for those moments when you encounter the strong feelings of doubt or failure or insignificance which await you, when it might be helpful or reassuring to know that even the merest rumour of your existence was enough to populate your parents’ lives with joy and meaning and a powerful, daunting love.
I’m sorry it's turned out that you've got a father who, way back when, was so syrupy and twee he did things like write a blog post to his unborn daughter. And I’m sorry for writing about genitals.
Blood Relatives by Stevan Alcock
Rick is a delivery boy for Corona soft drinks, traversing 1970’s Leeds to dispense ginger beer and dandelion and burdock to the public, a line of work which brings him into contact not only with the city’s humdrum housewives and sad senior citizens, but also with a pair of more marginalised groups, both of which shape this bustling, picaresque coming-of-age debut: prostitutes and homosexuals.
I reviewed Blood Relatives, Stevan Alcock’s debut novel, for the Guardian. You can read the full review here.
I recently wrote this brief piece on the best independent bookshops in Manchester for Time Out. One I neglected to mention is the Didsbury Village Bookshop, located at the rear of the Art of Tea café. I hadn’t been at the time of writing, but I have now. And it’s ace: a jungle of narrow walkways, tightly-packed shelves and a native in the guise of the shop's ubiquitous eccentric owner.
Manchester Book Buyers
Although located in the busy city-centre thoroughfare of Church Street, Manchester Book Buyers is still easily overlooked. The last in the row of market-stalls, its perfunctory name and unsophisticated appearance belie an excellent bookshop. The tiny space is lined with densely-packed shelves, all loaded with the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore which are the lifeblood of secondhand bookshops. The jumbled-high table of £1 books is also always worth digging around in: the copious Mills & Boon paperbacks often those obscure 1960’s sci-fi originals and little-known crime novels you’ve been seeking out.
Church Street, city centre.
EJ Morten is a dream of a bookshop, so much so that after a visit it can be difficult to believe it’s not some idealised, bygone-era archetype but a real bricks-and-mortar place. Found on a cobbled side-street, the unassuming exterior conceals a generous and busily-stocked space. EJ Morten is much-frequented and much-beloved by locals, primarily because of their large and well-curated selection of children’s books and because of the staff’s reputation as a knowledgeable and friendly bunch.
6 Warburton Street, Didsbury.
Another charmingly old-fashioned shop, Chorlton Bookshop made preparations in 2014 to close permanently when it was learned a new bar was due to open next door to them. However, after a campaign by passionate Chorlton residents the council ensured the bar found alternative premises and the popular, family-owned bookshop was saved. And it’s not hard to see why locals are so enthusiastic: a warm, welcoming vibe prevails and the stock choices are well-considered and varied (there is, apparently, a sub-section of books about The Fall).
506 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton.
You hear Paramount before you see it. The classical music booming from outdoor speakers echoes down the Shudehill side of the Arndale Centre. For many secondhand bookshops stock can be a big problem: having a regular turnover of books which are of a consistent quality requires a lot of hard work. But somehow Paramount, quite possibly the best bookshop in Manchester and certainly the most eccentric, makes things work. One could quite easily lose a weekend browsing the place: the ceiling-high shelves cover every conceivable category, Manchester’s science fiction heritage is healthily represented, and the extensive comics collection is a geek’s pay-dirt. But it’s the eccentric ad-hoc offers – ‘You’ve spent over £7.50 – that means you get a free pineapple!’ – which make this place a local treasure.
25-27 Shudehill, city centre.
Chapter One is currently the literary talk of the town, which is impressive when you consider that it hasn’t even opened its doors yet. Anyone recently passing by Chatsworth House’s long-unoccupied ground-floor offices in recent weeks will have had a glimpse of the extensive work being done to create a brand new bookshop for the Northern Quarter. And, anyone who’s investigated these things on Twitter, will have witnessed the outpouring of excitement from Manchester’s book-lovers at this news. The shop promises impress with over 4,000 square feet of unique, carefully chosen books, a spacious café and an events space for live readings and book launches. The shop plans to be up and running for a grand open day on April 1 and all progress can be followed on Twitter.
Chatsworth House, 19 Lever St, Northern Quarter
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Faber’s big beasts. During his absence for the past ten years, his reputation both as a prose stylist but more so as a storyteller, has grown, thanks in part to 2010’s film adaptation of Never Let Me Go. Anticipations are high. To emerge from a decade’s hibernation into this glare of expectation with The Buried Giant – a novel set in post-Arthurian Britain, replete with warrior-knights, ogres and dragons – is a brave choice, one which invites the charges of literary tourism (is one of our most precise literary artisans really cruising the fantasy romp scene?) and of grand-folly-ism (it’s difficult, on discovering that the protagonist of The Buried Giant‘s is named Axl, to avoid being reminded of Chinese Democracy).
I reviewed The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s much-anticipated new novel, for Bookmunch.
You can read the full review here.
Winters in Literature
It was the 19th century which dreamt up Christmas as a holiday to embody our ideals of what childhood should be, but it finds its 20th-century apotheosis here, in this beautiful, wordless and entirely unsentimental picture book. The story is straightforward: boy builds snowman; snowman comes to life; charming high-jinks ensue; snowman melts. The Snowman, for the British in particular, is perhaps the closest since A Christmas Carol that any book has come to fully epitomising Christmas (this despite there being, as Raymond Briggs is always keen to point out, no reference to Christmas in the original book). It is simply impossible, when faced with a page of its pastel-and-crayon blizzard, Snowman and child mid-flight, to ignore the pull of one’s inner child - winter is suddenly alive again with twilight magic.
I wrote an article about depictions of winter, including Raymond Briggs' The Snowman, for the Review section of The Guardian at Christmas. You can read the full article here.
Note: Okay, pay attention. This is something I wrote for an old blog in 2011 about something which took place in 2010. As an election is, at the time of writing this, on the horizon, it seems as pertinent a time as any to re-post it.
Few will now be able to recall that in 2010-2011 Twitter was still a relatively minor pursuit, and not the agenda-setting ground zero of news which it is today. Hence the frequent dum-dum explanations of what retweets are and the like.
Twitter is addictive. It offers an immediate audience and, in its brevity, is the perfect medium for short pieces of writing, especially jokes; and in its ephemeralness (not a word, but you know what I mean), its transience, suits jokes about current events. I still draw and still use Twitter to pedal my wares, but I quickly fell into the Twitter trap of telling jokes. Telling them for free, to anyone who’d listen, with no obvious goal in sight beyond the infrequent approval of an increasing number of increasingly disapproving strangers. The following is a brief story about one of these jokes.
A year and a bit ago there were, you may remember, three pre-election leaders’ debate screened live on Sky News, the BBC and ITV respectively. During the opening minutes of the first debate I took to Twitter, wrote ‘This is the worst Kraftwek gig ever #leadersdebate’ (note, as posterity has done, the misspelling of ‘Kraftwerk’), and then clicked ‘tweet’ (Twitter’s version of ‘post’ or ‘send’).
And look. They do look a bit like Kraftwerk (as they will persist in spelling it). I thought this was quite a funny observation. Nothing too special, but worth sharing with my small pool of followers, then numbering around a modest yet thoroughly respectable 700.
Very quickly, it became evident that this observation had hit a nerve. The people of Twitter, it seemed, agreed wholeheartedly that the party leaders did indeed look like Kraftwerk. Their agreement was total and ubiquitous. My replies-feed was instantly choked with retweets (for those happy few uninitiated in the ways of Twitter, replies are any tweets including my username and a ‘retweet’ is when someone else on Twitter re-posts your tweet, crediting you as its original author), then with retweets of those retweets, then retweets of those, and so on. There was a draught coming from the on-screen counter showing the amount of people following as the number climbed higher and higher like a stolen car’s milometer. In all honesty, it was a little daunting.
Straight away, folks started copy and pasting this joke and passing it off as their own. This happens. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it irked me. It was my observation, after all, my phraseology, my joke. I’d seen folks gripe about joke-theft, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it happen on Twitter. I upbraided a few people here and there who I saw posting the joke without crediting me, whilst simultaneously trying to entertain my new-found followers with further, increasingly less-incisive comments about the onscreen debate. Hard work, and ultimately fairly pointless: soon there were way more people copy and pasting the tweet and passing it off as their own than I could humanly deal with. And, again, people were retweeting them, and then they themselves were getting retweeted, and so on. It was like trying to use a toothbrush to staunch a shotgun wound. A massive, leaky, satirical wound.
I stopped telling people off. Retweets are (rather depressingly) a measure of how successful a joke you’ve made has been, the online equivalent of rapturous applause or, as tends to be my experience, one or two people clicking their fingers like appreciative beatniks at an awkward poetry reading. Kraftwek had gained me more retweets than I’m ever liable to have again: somewhere in the 1000’s. I’m aware that, for those who don’t use Twitter, I might as well be bragging about how I slayed an army of goblins a World Of Warcraft, but just take my word for it, 1000’s is lots. I left things as they were and spent a week doing my normal Twitter schtick – jokes no-one gets, observations no-one cares for. Some new followers came, some (quite a few) of the Kraftwek ones drifted away.
Within a week, of course, came the second leaders’ debate. I’m not a huge fan of repeating myself when it comes to any writing (even Twitter) but, given my ownership of this seemingly popular Kraftwek joke was at stake, decided to allow it. I stuck the joke on Twitter again, in the form of a link to the original tweet, self-mockingly imploring people to ‘keep it real’ and remember who their online folk-hero troubadour was. I’m your Daniel Kitson, I told them. Your Bill Hicks. Again, futile. There were even more people ‘Kraftwekking’ this time; they were everywhere, pissing my joke all over the place like comedy diabetics, many before the debate had even begun. One particular gentleman, whose timeline hitherto consisted largely grammatically poor insults directed at well-known homosexuals, tweeted my joke at Charlie Brooker, who duly retweeted it to his mighty army of followers. I got quite annoyed at him (the tweeter, not Brooker) and made an attempt at publicly taking him to task. I was polite and reasonable but no, I accept, it wasn’t the most dignified approach. But dammit that guy was getting kudos for my joke. The sham-LOLs he was suddenly showered with were mine. The ROFL’s h ewas gorging himself on belonged to me.
This is what Twitter does to a person. An otherwise well-adjusted and easy-going guy is reduced to foot-stamping and brattishly demanding that the world looks at him. The nature of Twitter (anonymous, easily given to largely imaginary conflict) also meant that, rather than making the pithily hilarious #leadersdebate comments now expected of me, I was instead immediately defending myself of accusations from a number of Twitter users of being variously: bitter, delusional, obsessive and (Twitter’s resident rapier-wit comeback) ‘a cunt’. It was Assault On Precinct Vivmondo. There were, I hasten to add, a number of people – all total strangers – ready to leap to my defence, to whom I remain pathetically grateful. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. Were my actions unreasonable and childish? Was there any way of staking my ownership on a joke in such a public forum? Was it possible hundreds of people had genuinely thought up the same joke in the same exact words at the same time? Was I ‘a cunt’? It was all very disorientating.
Then things got really weird. I saw someone who didn’t use Twitter stick the joke, in a slightly altered after-the-fact form (ie. ‘That was the worst Kraftwerk gig ever’ or similar), on Facebook. Someone told me that they’d heard it repeated, in the same ‘worst Kraftwerk gig ever’ phrasing, during a chat on a Saturday morning cookery show (I rushed to the iPlayer and, after a forty-odd minute thrill-ride of tips on cooking shellfish and whether SodaStreams were making a comeback, confirmed the inclusion of my precious bloody joke). It popped up in the Guardian, on the Telegraph’s website (both crediting me) and a whole bunch of other blogs and sites (where crediting, unsurprisingly, was less rigorously observed). My cousin emailed me to say he’d heard people saying it at work. Someone else, the most unTwitter person imaginable, said they’d received Kraftwek in the form of a text from the second most unTwitter person after the second debate. A few people heard it, in various forms, on various local radio stations. A couple of people heard it pop up on BBC 5Live. Jeremy Clarkson repeated it when he hosted Have I Got News For You.
By the time the third leaders’ debate came round (coincidentally my birthday), Twitter was awash with ‘This is the worst Kraftwerk/Kraftwek gig ever’ tweets. If you did a search for all the word “kraftwerk’, or indeed ‘kraftwek’, as I constantly did, you’d be inundated with ’20 new tweets’ alerts (again, if you’ve never run a search on Twitter, this means a lot of people were repeating it), some citing me as the joke’s author, most not. I still had no idea how to feel. Some people were demanding I kick arse and make my ownership of the joke known to as many people as possible, like some kind of poindexter Vin Diesel, waving his prefect-badge about and confiscating everyone’s satirical catapults. Others said I should leave it and try to retain whatever vestiges of dignity they claimed I still had. A number of people told me ‘you can’t own a joke’, something I very much disputed (still do), resulting in someone labeling me ‘a typical American, always wanting to OWN things’, a remarkable claim given that, whilst the latter is true (I do want to own things), I’m afraid I'm disappointingly and relentlessly British.
In the end my actions flopped about somewhere in between kicking arse and doing nothing like an indecisive fish: I tried to make a few humourous and casually self-deprecating remarks about the joke’s popularity, all marked with a tone of ‘hands off my joke!’ hostility and an abject bewilderment. By the time people had stopped repeating the joke (an alarmingly long time after the election result had been and gone) I figured that, although I’d looked a bit mental, I’d also quite accidentally handled it the right way. No-one likes to come cross as an angry, overly proprietorial loon on Twitter (god forbid on Twitter!), but at the same time, I do think a person has a right to defend what is essentially their written work. It might be a very small number of words, and it might be a joke (a grey-area in public ownership), and it might be on a relatively niche public website (as, unimaginably, Twitter once was), but that’s merely the medium being used and the same rules should still apply to a stupid misspelled joke on stupid Twitter as to any other written work published anywhere else. It was still my joke.
In the end however, I see ‘Kraftwek’ as an exception that proves this particular rule. Sometimes I see people tweeting ‘this is the worst Kraftwerk gig ever’ in relation to something which bares literally no visible or metaphorical relation to any kind of Kraftwerk gig. It’s as though it’s become whatever a cult version of an adage or a popular saying would be: not quite a meme, but not quite nothing at all. A phrase which, for a very select group of people, means: ‘this sucks’.
If this whole thing has taught me anything (and I’m not sure it has), it’s that the phenomenon of people lifting a joke or a comment or a poorly-spelled observation about German electronic music is not by necessity always a terrible crime against author copyright. In this case, it became the property of anyone who cared to use it and, albeit very very briefly and on a nigh-insignificantly small scale, part of the public’s consciousness. And it would take a deeply selfish maker of jokes to not be quietly insanely proud of that.
(Note: This all started when Andrea Mann (AKA jazzchantoozie), asked about online joke-thievery, you can read her excellent article on the matter here).
Bus Station: Unbound
You head towards the bit of the station where you remember the door to the stairwell being, find it and open it. You’d forgotten how bad it is in here - or, no, not forgotten, but assumed your imagination had exaggerated it: the stink of piss, knocked-over cans of Carling, a matted scrap of tinfoil. You’ll be quick: you jog up the steps taking in three at a time.
I have a new digital novel, Bus Station: Unbound, available through Curious Tales. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure style novel set in Preston Bus Station and is co-written with Jenn Ashworth.
You can read the full thing for free online here.
And the Children Followed
Joan awakes to find she has been unwell on Tim's letter. She is lying across the doorway to her bedroom, her left shoe missing, the puddle of liquid – thin, evil-smelling – congealing together her hair, the letter, its envelope and the fabric of the rug.
I have a ghost story titled ‘And the Children Followed’ in Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales. You can buy a copy here.
You see them together quite a bit now, Carrie and your husband. You've watched them in the supermarket, perusing the saleable items; and in the café, their feet up to dry out on an unoccupied chair; and in the park, holding hands as they wade about, laughing, pointing out to to one another the squirrels looking down at them from high up in the branches of the tall trees with their giant hungry eyes. When did they cease all attempts at disguising how comfortable they clearly feel with one another? You're not sure.
I’ve a new short story ‘Flood’ in the latest edition of Bare Fiction.
You can buy a copy here.
Drums at Cullen
'Science is all about the factors which make the improbable occur, the particularities. You see, the earth here is rich with a particular strain of mineral which is excellent at preservation. And the wood of those sticks you hold are cut from Acer Henryi, a particular tree known to create a particular resonance when hit upon a particular drum in a particular fashion. The human nervous system – even if impaired – is known to react to its vibrations. Not always, but it is known. If this is done at a particular time on a particular night when the weather and the polarity and the moon are all in their own particular... ah!' He fell silent, a white puff of air left him as he held his breath, listening.
I have a new ghost story, ‘Drums at Cullen’, in The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales. You can buy a copy here.
'Your father’s ghost came to me,’ I said – I’m so used to telling her this, word for word. ‘I awoke and there he was. You were conceived in this house, in the living room. Gary is your father. It was a miracle. A simple, wonderful miracle. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but it’s true.’
I’ve a new short story titled ‘Mothering Season’ in The Manchester Review.
You can read it here.
On September 1st 1914, in Cincinnati Zoo – one of the oldest in the United States – at around 5:00pm, a bird called Martha, named after George Washington’s wife, was found dead at the bottom of her cage.
Martha was the last of a species called the passenger pigeon. A hundred years earlier, there had been more passenger pigeons than any other bird on the planet. Alexander Wilson, an early proponent of what we’d now call bird-watching, wrote of a flock he saw passing between Kentucky and Indiana in 1800 and estimated it was made up of 2.2 billion birds. Other early settlers in North America wrote of the bird’s migrations as extending for miles on end and tended to put its population somewhere around 4 billion. Their flocks, it was said, would cause the skies to grow dark, the air thunderous with the beating of their wings. One flock, seen in Ontario in 1866, took a full 14 hours to pass over a single point.
The arrival of man into any landscape pretty much always results in a demise of native wildlife: settlers expand out into their surroundings, claiming areas for farming, lumber and fuel. Like all creatures native to these areas the passenger pigeon suffered from this expansion; but, on the whole, their decline was executed in a far more intimate manner. The vast numbers they travelled in made them exceedingly easy targets and mostly they were shot for food. Their sheer quantity, however, also led settlers to quickly develop a grizzly attitude of sport around the bird. Competitions sprang up around their migration trail, all almost exclusively with one goal: to shoot as many birds as possible. One competition required participants to bring down a minimum of 30,000 just to be in contention for the prize. Seemingly in a prolonged state of delirium at the limitless riches on offer, and charged with a need to supply food for a rapidly increasing and expanding population, the slaughter increased as the century drew on. It also got increasingly bizarre.
Professional hunters of the bird, inspired by the successful methods of industrial production, tried to come up with new techniques for slaughtering the birds in larger numbers: grain soaked in alcohol to make them drunk and sluggish; large, elaborate netting contraptions; bushels of burning sulphur below their nests to suffocate them; acres of trees set alight simply to scare the birds out; one especially gruesome method involved the capture of a live pigeon which would then have its eyelids sewn shut and be left as bait, attracting others with its distressed calls.
None of this, of course, seemed to make the number of birds diminish especially visibly. Things were beginning to change though, the rapid evolution of communication and transport in the country allowing the killing to be carried out with ever-increasing efficiency. April 1871 saw the largest nesting assembly of the bird on record – some 136 million birds blanketing the plains of south central Wisconsin. The telegraph system, recently installed nationwide, allowed the hunters to track the pigeons, pursuing them relentlessly from site to site as they took flight and moved on, effortlessly wiping out whole exhausted colonies at a time. The other great innovations of the period, railroad cars, were used to ship out millions of the pigeons to butchers and general stores across the country at an average of 20 cents a dozen.
Another gathering occurred in Michigan seven years later, but it was to be the last. The population plummeted sharply towards the latter end of the century. The last recorded sighting of a passenger pigeon in the wild was in Ohio 1900. Fittingly, it was shot. By 1909, Cincinnati Zoo had the three remaining birds on the planet, two males and a female, all the offspring of previously confined birds, and the final chance to bring the species back from the brink of extinction, to restore the vast drumming of countless billions of wings back to the skies, to see the plains of Ontario grow dark once again with their passing overhead. By 1910, however, only the female – Martha – remained. She survived a further four years then, caged and alone, she died.
But there’s no time to mourn for Martha, I’m afraid. Now we must zip forwards in time a hundred years later. It is the present day. Things are very different here: at present the earth’s population consumes something like 50 billion animals every year, a number which is likely to double over the next forty years. If our eating habits remain as they are, the vast majority of these animals we eat will continue to be those which the modern age has found to be the most easily and effectively farmed: chickens.
There’s something of a vogue for organic meat these days, particularly chickens: we like to think of ourselves as a discerning and compassionate generation of consumers, much more careful in selecting what we eat than in the recent past. Sadly, the statistics show this is to be somewhat of an illusion: 96 percent of the chickens we consume are hatched and slaughtered in factory conditions. The mechanization of meat production in America has evolved beyond recognition since the passenger pigeon’s demise and has become the standard industry model the world has seen fit to replicate.
Chickens found their lives beginning to grow shorter in the 1950s when farmers discovered that, instead of simply waiting for the chickens to reach their adult size, they could be brought indoors when they reached 10 weeks old and force-fed oats and animal fat using the bluntly apposite ‘cramming machine’. Shortly after this, it was also found that introducing antibiotics into the chickens’ feed caused them to grow faster still and meant they didn’t get sick. Finally, it was discovered that containing them in barns with the lights kept on meant they would eat (and grow) around the clock. The foundations for what would become modern meat production were established.
By the 1970s chickens were being bred to specific internal biological patents, in pursuit of a bird which put on weight faster, younger, with less feed: the bird we’ve now grown familiar with. Chickens are essentially babies when they’re killed – normally 38-40 days old – but have been forced to a grotesquely proportioned adult size at an unnatural pace. These days the constant lighting used in the factory farms is kept dim so as to discourage the birds from moving about and losing any weight. Around half of all broiler birds develop something called tibial dyschondroplasia – a condition where the weight of their bodies causes their leg-bones to buckle and twist. Unsurprisingly, this means that a lot of the birds, at 6 weeks, tend to spend much of their lives motionless: lying down, rising only to eat.
All of this may sound unpleasant (it is unpleasant), but the worst potential for suffering comes at the end of a chicken’s life. 900 million chickens and hens a year are slaughtered in the UK; the process each of them goes through is as follows.
A team of ‘catchers’ enters the sheds to gather the chickens by hand; the legal maximum they’re allowed to bunch together is three in each which are carried upside down to a crate. Increasingly common in the UK are machines which hoover the birds up through a large nozzle and drop them into the crate. They’re then packed into plastic containers – the sort you may have seen stacked up inside passing lorries.
On arrival at the slaughterhouse the plastic containers are forklifted from the lorry into the plant. The birds are removed, then have their legs slotted upside down into metal manacles so they’re hanging from a long, moving wire. They’re moved through a stunning bath, which is precisely what it sounds like: a basin of salt-water with an electrical charge running through it. The aim with this is not to kill the chickens but merely to ensure they’re unconscious. The stunning bath has become the most controversial element of the killing process: many of the birds, as you or I or any other animal might do in the situation, lift their heads to avoid the water. The Humane Slaughter Association (for there is such a thing) estimates that of the average 13,200 birds which are killed every hour, around 30 to 50 of them remain conscious when killed.
This killing is done by the line of birds passing before a rotating blade which cuts through the chickens’ necks, severing the vessels carrying blood between the brain and heart. In the UK a double blade is used – whereas the USA favours just one – and a person is now required on each production line to make sure each of the birds is dead.
After this they’re moved through to the bleed tunnel and then the scald tank to sap the blood, loosen the feathers and strip them clean; then the chicken’s feet and head are removed; they’re refrigerated; and finally they’re take to the factory floor where they’re gutted, stuffed and packaged-up to be sent out, sold and eaten.
When looking at our progress as a species it’s customary to read our history as a narrative of improvement, the achievements of each generation bettering those of the previous, the good things we do broadly outnumbering the bad, nudging our enlightenment forward. This, on the whole, is probably true, but those bad things are still worth bad things and, as such, worth addressing.
I should say that this is categorically not the point at which this about-faces into a haranguing animal liberation. There is always more than enough human bloodshed to make any talk of life and death of animals seem pretty much unimportant. But it isn’t unimportant: it seems we’ve voided any sense of equilibrium when it comes to animals; while the sight of a person in pain will cause us to flinch or weep or intervene, we’re often content to view suffering on a far more imposing scale if it happens to be inflicted on animals.
Curiously, animal-libbers seem to have little interest in industrialised meat (or leather) production, preferring to direct their attention towards the undeniably more essential work going on at medical laboratories, no doubt due to the more appealing critters in question. Also, as with the rest of us, the super-abundance of chickens and the other animals we consume has bred a moral murkiness in our minds: their ubiquity and sheer number cause us to deny them their evident sentience, and to do so on a quietly titanic scale.
In each of these birds, in the stories of their fates, we see the inverse of the other: both are stories of excess; but whereas one, the passenger pigeon, was numerous enough to fill the sky and become hastily blitzed from creation not long after man discovered it, the chicken, on the other hand, is now a monstrous parody of extinction, currently numbering more than double the amount of people on the planet. If there is a theme which both stories share it’s one which has plainly been constant to human history: animals uprooted from nature and brutalised for the sake of a sensation, a taste on our tongues.
I first wrote this for an old blog in November 2010 when I had nothing better to do.
I have a small rule whenever I’m in a second-hand bookshop. If I come across Dr Who a novel, one of the The Virgin New Adventures series, I buy it. I don’t think about it, don’t quibble over the price, don’t leaf through the book, wondering if it’s actually any good. I just pick it up and buy it.
This, you might be thinking, has the potential to be an expensive rule for someone to keep. Not so: these books actually turn up in shops very rarely. Sure, they’re available online and, although they’re available at a broad spectrum of prices, most of them are pretty cheap. But no: that would be against the rule. If I bought one on Amazon, what would there be to stop me buying another? And then another? And so on. Once I’d bought and read all the ones available for a few pence I’d then have no option to move on to the more expensive ones. Eventually I'd be bankrupting myself for copies of Damaged Goods and The Dying Days, and then where would I be? No, there is a rule, a simple one, and it must be adhered to: if I’m in a second-hand bookshop I’m required to look. If I find one, I must buy it.
When I was a teenager I’d be taken for monthly trips to Waterstones (or Waterstone’s, as it was then) by my dad to have a book bought for me. I had the predictably lofty-seeming tastes of someone my age: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Junky, a joyless-looking copy of Rimbaud’s Selected Poems. But, more than any of these, I was drawn to the Dr Who books. I was a big fan of Dr Who back then, as big a fan as a 90’s teen with only a handful of VHS tapes – The Green Death, Revelation of the Daleks, Paradise Towers, The Stranger (a copyright-dodging Who-reimagining, released straight-to-video and available only via mail order) and no independent income could hope to be. There was something thrilling about the sight of the New Adventures, their uniform spines of pristine white with elegant coloured lettering, all lined up in the tall, stately shelves; their mysterious titles - Lungbarrow, The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Christmas on a Rational Planet; and, most of all, their covers, each book hosting a strange, hyper-realist painting of the Doctor in a different dramatic scene, often with skewed renderings of the human form and an iffy sense of perspective, presenting not just a snapshot of the adventure concealed inside, waiting to happen, but also the notion that, far from being mere entertainment, what lay behind those gaudy covers could also be something else entirely, something a world away from the cheap sets, silly costumes and mere acting of the TV show: something dark, perilous and hallucinatory.
I was a slow reader back then: the books in the New Adventures series were released far quicker than I could get through them. And, remember, this was in the age before a person could check which book had the most Amazon stars or look up the reviews on GoodReads. The only method for selecting one of these books was for me to single out the cover I liked the most, make sure the synopsis sounded suitably gripping, and then force myself away from the shelf, glancing around at those books left unselected, a galaxy of worlds unrealised and adventures unexperienced. Later on, in my bedroom, I'd look at the titles listed of the other books in the series and think about how, when I was an adult, successful and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I’d be able to buy all of them.
This was during The Dr Who dark ages: the television series, now roundly thought of as a silly children's show well past its prime, had been taken off the air. Virgin Books leased the rights for the extant characters - the 7th incarnation of the Doctor, his companion Ace, and occasionally her irritating predecessor Mel - from the BBC to use in a range of novels title The Virgin New Adventures. Prior to all these there had been Target Books' novelisations: brief, no-nonsense volumes which recounted the plots and dialogue exchanges of the television adventures with little in the way additional content or substance: formative reading for a lot of people growing up in the 70's. Later, in 1996, an American Dr Who TV movie appeared and, although it resolutely failed to reignite the public's love of the show, it did prompt the BBC to take back the rights to their characters and begin publishing their own extensive series of books, ones which were consistent in tone and every bit as a good as the Virgin New Adventures but, although I read dozens of the things, they came along slightly too late to exert the same hypnotic hold on me as the New Adventures and, crucially, their front covers weren't as nice.
Wisely, rather than providing a new raft of novelisations of those more recent TV episodes which had so evidently failed to grasp as firm a hold on the imaginations of young people as the show had done in its 60’s and 70’s heyday, the New Adventures, as the name suggests, instead opted for entirely new adventures, with a darker tone and more rounded characters, the concepts ebbing into the territory of hard science-fiction, the themes significantly more adult: there’s drugs in Damaged Goods; religious animal torture proliferates in St Anthony’s Fire; two constant tropes throughout most of the books are the Doctor’s hardening from Sylvester McCoy’s amicable bumbler into a troubled loner and Ace’s restless desire to get laid.
My personal favourites are those which left me with a certain feeling: the sinister-creature-lurking-behind-the-postbox-in-a-small-village Nightshade; the fearsome, nigh-incomprehensible, sheer Aztec K-hole drop of The Left-Handed Hummingbird; and, most of all, the recurring-dream, garden-party wooziness of Strange England. If I were drawing up a list of my favourite novels I’d choose the big beasts – Mrs Dalloway, American Pastoral, The Master and Margarita - but, secretly, somewhere near the top of this list would be this cheap paperback by Simon Messingham, whose other entries into Dr Who include such gloriously B-movie titles as The Indestructable Man and The Face-Eater. Yes, these are silly little books and when I read them I projected. I'd perceive meaning, emotional weight and literary depth which, quite patently I now see, were simply not there. But, really, I don’t care: for me they were there.
Reading them now, I find it genuinely impossible to tell what they are. Are they hacks’ potboilers, as formulaic and uninspired as you’d expect a TV tie-in novel to be? Or are they the trippy exercises in mid-period Angela Carter-esque excess I can’t help but see them as? The truth, I imagine, lies somewhere in between: solid, decent science-fiction pressed up against the feverish imagination of a bored, lonely teenager. There’s a comparison to be drawn, I think, between these sorts of books and the pulp crime novels of the post-war age, or the golden age of comics, or the penny-dreadfuls of the nineteenth-century: it seems there is always writing which at the time is seen as trash but then – gradually, eventually – works its way into respectability: first as artifacts of a pop culture past, museum pieces from a certain moment in time, then simply as examples of good writing. A lot of great writers found their voices with these books and the BBC series - Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Ben Aaronovitch, even Steven Moffatt contributed a short story to one of the Decalog anthologies – who, in turn, set the bar for the very much established writers currently working on novels to tie in with the new series of Dr Who: Naomi Alderman, Jenny Colgan, Steven Baxter, Dan Abnett, Michael Moorcock.
This year Dr Who is 50 years old. There’ll be various celebrations but (understandably) they’ll all focus on the television show. I'd read them and re-read them, these books. For me, their appeal and the appeal of Dr Who in general is and always has been its blending of science-fiction not just with the real world, but with modern Britain. I'd wander the suburbs of Chorley, lost in a reverie of imagined otherworldly set-pieces: I’d see fragments of alien cultures in the Range Rovers I passed; terrifying customs and rituals in my elderly neighbours mowing of their lawns; patient creatures lurked behind the net-curtains; there were dangers and dramas behind every frosted-glass front door; the stilted silence all around me was the sound of time unspooling and rewinding. For me – for the teenage me - these books weren't just the purest form of Dr Who, at the time they were the purest form of reading.
Here's something which happened to me recently: I walked into Oxfam and found one of the books. There it was, a copy of First Frontier by David A. McIntee on the science fiction shelf. Not the most highly regarded book in the series, but not the worst either. So, naturally, I picked it up, went directly to the counter, paid for it and then headed for the exit.
It was only when I was outside the shop, holding the door open for an elderly man to enter that I saw the spinner. It was by the door and was loaded with Dr Who Virgin New Adventures. I re-entered the shop, not taking my eyes off the covers: almost every single book was there – Zamper, Transit, Shadowmind, even (my heart was pounding) the entire Timewyrm and Cat's Cradle sequence of books which had kicked off the series. Clearly, someone had traded in their entire collection. I started sweating and shaking; I was finding it hard not to scream. Without fully thinking about what I was doing, I began piling up the most choice books in my arms. It was impossible, both physically and financially, the grown-up part of my brain insisted, for me to buy them all. But, countered my stroppy inner-teen, I had to at least make a decent go of it.
As quickly as I could I tottered over to the till, spilled the dozen or so books I’d gathered and waited whilst the girl behind the counter stopped what she was doing and slowly began scanning them in. To her I was merely another sweaty oddball, of course. I might as well be pawing through Star Trek novels, or Quantum Leap ones, or Babylon 5. The fool! Didn’t she know these were some of the most precious books ever committed to print? I wished she’d hurry up. What if some other New Adventure-ist came in and saw my wonderful booty, my beautiful array of battered 80’s sci-fi, with their yellowing pages, dog-eared corners and terrible cover art, and offered to pay a higher price? What if there was a problem with my debit card? Or the till? What if there was a sudden fire alarm requiring the immediate closure of the shop? What if whoever these books had originally belonged to had, at this very moment, experienced a change of heart (surely inevitable!) and was now racing back to the shop to undo their madness and reclaim their beloved copies of Blood Harvest and Falls The Shadow?
Even when the payment cleared, I didn’t feel any sense of relief, let alone the Proustian surge of wish-fulfillment I’d been anticipating.
My receipt handed to me, the books bagged, I made my way to Costa furtively, as though carrying an illicit package of drug-money. I sat down with a cup of tea. Tentatively, I now allowed myself to pick through what I'd bought. It was now that it came: finally, after years of questing – half-arsed questing, admittedly – I’d hit manna; I had waited, had been patient, had had faith, and was now being rewarded. Although not especially successful and definitely not wealthy beyond even my more moderate dreams, I had succeeded in providing the books to that stupid teenager which he wanted more than any others.
I opened my copy of Timewyrm: Revelation and read as though reading to him:
They say that no two snowflakes are the same. But nobody ever stops to check. Above the Academy blew great billows of them, whipping around the corners of the dark building as if to emphasize the structure's harsh lines...
Where I Write
I work after work. For the most part my daytime existence is taken up by a humdrum office job in central Manchester, after which I take a short walk to Piccadilly Railway Station in which can be found the branch of Starbucks where I get most of my writing done. I tend to write for 2-3 hours. When I'm done there, I have a twenty-minute bus journey home. By the time I return home I’ve been sat in front of a computer screen for almost 11 hours, the most intensive part of which has come at the end of this period. Understandably, I associate my branch of Starbucks of choice with tiredness as well as writing.
There are, it's true, plenty of other nicer cafés nearer to my home, but I can't go to those. I simply can't. I've tried it. The first problem is that a strong and friendly community spirit prevails over where I live: no bad thing, but it does mean that, aside from the ubiquitous crying of neighbourhood infants, I also face the risk of running into people I know. I am a good deal more predisposed to wiling away the evenings in pleasant conversation rather than the dispiriting grind that is getting words down on the page. Starbucks, despite the promise of its shiny wooden floors, comfortable seating and folksy promotional posters, eliminates the possibility of any such friendliness. Also, it's the only café I know of which stays open till 10pm.
Alternately, I'd love to have a quiet, private office of my own in which to work but, at the moment, I don't. So instead I opt for the next best thing. Here (I am currently in Starbucks) I am surrounded by noise and movement: the conversations, movements and all-round hustle and bustle of commuters, holidaymakers and passers-by that comes with a large railway station. Here, the presence of others, although unavoidable, is also so ubiquitous and so fleeting and so irritating that it leaves the mind with little opportunity to latch onto anything enormously distracting.
Here's what I do when I get to Starbucks. I buy a tea, usually a Grande although sometimes a Venti, find an unoccupied table and drink slowly whilst I work. Once my cup's empty I usually need to go to the bathroom.
Let's begin with my bathroom activity. As there's no bathroom in the Manchester Piccadilly branch of Starbucks itself I instead have to save whatever document it is I'm working on, gather my things together and leave to use the railway station's toilets. These toilets charge 30p to access and there is a pair of machines near their turnstiles which provide the necessary denominations of change if one only has pound coins or fifty-pence pieces on oneself. If, as happens, I haven't got any change at all on me my only option is to queue for the cash machine, withdraw £10 (£5 if I’m lucky, £20 if I’m not) and then go into the neighbouring branch of Sainsbury’s to buy something with which I'll hopefully be given change. I use the bathroom and, if I'm still feeling awake enough and in a positive enough mood, return to my writing. I'm at a stage where I and a number of staff members at the Piccadilly branch of Starbucks now recognise one another on sight but not the stage where we acknowledge as much, so I often find the prospect of returning there to buy another tea and again unpack all my things and begin writing far too awkward and embarrassing to countenance, and instead decamp to Pret a Manger (which is next door) or to the Hourglass Bar (which is upstairs) or, if necessary, even one of the general seats around the station itself. I then repeat the beverage-work-bathroom cycle, a microcosm of the writing life, until it's time for me to go home.
Clearly this is all very inconvenient, but rest assured there are a number of aspects to working in a busy city centre café which are much less conducive to getting work done. First of all, there's the music. I spend a couple of hours in Starbucks nearly every day and the music is nearly always the factor which determines when it is time for me to leave. Have you ever sat in a branch of Starbucks for a protracted length of time? The music itself is fine - the sort of beige, acoustic-jazz songs with which the company has come to be associated – but these songs, in the branch of Starbucks I frequent at least, are played on a rota. The twinkly lounge jazz song followed by the upbeat Elbow-type song followed by the toothlessly amicable cover of a Nina Simone song followed by The Rembrandts' 'I'll Be There For You' followed by another twinkly lounge jazz song followed by a song which sounds like it's going to be by Eels but isn't. And so on. There's only so much of the stuff the human mind can withstand. I mean, it's all fine – boring, obviously, but fine – but no-one would ever choose to listen to them every single day. And certainly not more than once. If you've spent enough time in a room for 'I'll Be There For You' to be played twice, it is time to leave that room. A motto with which I'm sure we can all agree.
Another factor is the dilemma of where to sit. When I arrive it's usually just after 5:30pm, prime time for exhausted commuters to pack themselves in for an Espresso and muffin. I rarely have the pick of the choice writing seats (the ones to the rear), and often find myself sitting down to write with someone at a neighbouring table peering over my shoulder whilst munching away on their apple fritter donut. This used to bother me, but I've grown less self-conscious simply by daily exposure to their beady eyes and wet chewing. I quite like the idea that there's a handful of knackered office workers who return home throughout the week, each with a scrap of my work-in-progress floating about somewhere in the consciousness.
By far the worst thing about where I work however - something I've grown to dread - is the seemingly unending procession of people who come into the place who I can only describe as insane. There is not a week that passes without me being singled out from the rest of the later-afternoon customers for an encounter with someone who has, to a varying and often unsettling degree, lost their mind. Before I go any further let me say that I'm sure these people have their problems and that, yes, I'm perhaps coming across as unkind but, believe me, their intrusion into what I try to think of as my place of work is so comprehensive, so routine, so terrifying that it's difficult to remain as sympathetic as I'd like to be. These mad people can be very unpredictable, the hues of their madness far more numerous, its wide spectrum far wider than you'd probably suppose. The only common factor amongst them appears to be their desire for a conversation with me, usually a one-sided one. There's been the man who wanted to detail the minutiae of his Polish ancestry; the man who explained how he sewed his coat together with scraps of material he'd found here and there; the woman who asked me to look after a carrier bag full of litter whilst she went for a walk around the station, swiftly followed by her aggressive husband who appeared demanding to know what I was doing with the bag, having spotted and recognised it from the Starbucks window; the man who sat down opposite me at the table I'd chosen and glared at me, not breaking eye-contact once, even whilst slowly and, I thought, deliberately spilling his hot drink down his front; the man who told me he had 'a dead arm' and asked me if he could 'have a go' on my laptop; the young South African man who handed me a seemingly ceaseless range of flyers about an alarming sounding branch of Christianity; the woman who told me about the hoover she'd recently bought, how it wasn't working even though her son had come around to look at it and he worked as an engineer, or at least he did before he lost his job in Blackpool where she had once visited him and got lost looking for an Italian restaurant; the endless drunks. I don't know why they single me out. Maybe they see something in me, some weakness, some chink in the armour of uninterested hostility I try my hardest to maintain.
On a number of times I've found it necessary to leave, to simply pack up my stuff, mutter some sort of excuse and decamp to Pret a Manger. Here I often find myself beset by yet another mad person intent on striking up a conversation and - a one-man Suite Française - find I must gather my things and flee once again. The thing I'm working on at the moment, Ark, is a novel I like to think of as being serious quality literature, a delusion it's difficult to maintain once one is faced with this sort of activity. I can't imagine, for instance, that Seamus Heaney finds himself jogging up an escalator to escape an elderly man who really wants to talk to him about changes to a local bus route, at least not with the same regularity as I seem to.
Does the place have an influence on what I write? Not in any way that I’ve not noticed. It's a place of necessity. I write tired. This, I think, has a much bigger impact on my writing. And in a good way: keeping my writing interesting is crucial. If I try to embark on a passage for which I've little enthusiasm or which I think of simply as 'filler' my mind starts to wander. The content and style I find myself drawn to are, in part, attempts at keeping myself awake.
It's important to just get a reasonable amount of words down on the screen in a reasonable order, particularly when the project I'm working on is in an early-to-midway phase. I don't have the luxury of energy. With plenty of time and desk of my own I'm fairly sure I'd become entirely preoccupied with trying to ensure the whole thing was coming together perfectly as I worked, each scene well-written and fully-fledged. Of course, this is never the way things actually work. Also, the act of writing itself can be a woozy activity to give your mind over to – pulling every-increasing structures of meaning out of nothing but the 26 characters of the alphabet and a few dots and dashes. All very frightening if you allow yourself to think about it too much. A place like Piccadilly Starbucks helps you forget about all of this. Here, the process of putting together a story is a lot more openly ad-hoc and chaotic, something which is matched by the bustling populace swarming around me. You have to get your head down, throw some slabs of text together and hope for the best.
So I suppose that's what I do and will continue to do for as long as it takes. I don't have any inspirational quotes from favourite books or photographs of great novelists surrounding me, like the people you read about in the 'Writers' Rooms' feature in the Guardian's Review section, but noisy strangers drinking coffee. And that's fine: you play the hand you've been dealt. I'll remain here, locked unthinkingly into my routine of drinking tea, pressing buttons on a keyboard and then going to the bathroom, like a character in a Beckett play, all the time hoping for (but trying not to think about) an end product which proves the whole of it – the intrusive madmen, the constant chatter, the terrible terrible music - to have been worthwhile all along.
The Next Big Thing
I was recently 'tagged' by the great Anne Billson in some sort of ongoing online project (which I don't think I fully understand) called The Next Big Thing: "The scheme is simple. You write a blog post answering the below questions, at the end you then tag another five people who will do the same." Fair enough.
1 - What is the working title of your next book?
Gosh. Ark. Maybe. I don't know. It's not finished yet.
2 - Where did the idea come from for the book?
Last year I was out of work for about three months during which I, amongst other things, wrote a short story called 'School Report'. Prior to that happening my method of writing, if you can call it a method, was to think of an idea, hammer it out, do some cursory editing and then that was that. I wouldn't even do anything with the stories once they were completed – no submissions to magazines, no entries to competitions, no manuscripts to agents, nothing - they simply got written, printed out, and then carefully filed away in a lever-arch file. With this story I did things differently: I had the luxury of being able to think about it for a long time, to work on it for a long time and to spend a long time editing it. When it seemed finished I also decided to try to actually put it to some use. I entered it for the Manchester Fiction Prize (chosen solely due to the judges being writers whose work I like) and although I didn't win exactly – the prize was split between another entrant and myself – the whole experience showed me that the stuff I write, whilst not massively likely to provide me with anything you could realistically call 'a living', might still be of interest to some people. Also, I found I didn't want to leave the terrain of 'School Report' – its style of writing, its creepy dynamics, its grubby setting – these were all new to me, and I found myself thinking up another story, one set in the same place, with some of the same characters, but fuller-bodied, more expansive and with more plot. I love novels, both in reading and writing (I still have a colossal chunk of an unfinished one written and abandoned five years ago which, I like to think, I'll get back to work on some day), but, in all honesty, I love short stories more: for me, they're just what writing is. Despite this, the more I thought about this new idea – the 'book' as I rather grandly began to call it - and as more of it got written, the bigger it got. After I got beyond a certain word-count in my usual pootling-along way it suddenly broke loose: I couldn't stop it.It kept demanding new plot points, each in turn demanding the addition of a character or two who would then insist on having their own parts expanded, thus requiring more plotting, etc. etc... That may sound like a good thing - having such a huge amount of easily forthcoming material - but I'm not so sure. In truth, it's a monster. At present it's a 80,000 words long monster – enough for a short novel – and is still far from finished (there are some sections which are comprised of a blank page save for the words 'ADD RAILWAY STATION SCENE' or 'INSERT WITTY EXCHANGE' written in the centre) and to my mind is still another short story I'm working on, one which, by some getting-out-of-hand freak occurrence, just happens to be as long as one of those proper books you see in the shops.
3 - What genre does your book fall under?
'Folk horror', maybe. I don't know. There's a sort of sub-sub-genre I've made up which I like to think of myself as writing in. I'm not sure what I'd call it, possibly 'weird-ish oblique folksy'. I don't think I could actually sum up what works of fiction which I see as fitting into this genre would contain - which is irritating, I know – but it's something I definitely recognise when I see it. I'm not sure how helpful genres are for writers – they're more of a guide for readers – it's difficult not to find them silly the more you think about them. It reminds me of a friend I had when I was a teenager: he would only listen to music which he considered to be a genre called 'math-grind'. He didn't care whether what he was listening to was any good, he only cared that it was math-grind.
4 - What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
There's two main characters in Ark. Although not all of them are really actors, when writing I occasionally see my protagonist, an anxious and wide-eyed city rube in the wilds of the countryside, as David Byrne, Michael Palin, Jonathan Richman, Morrissey, Peter Davison, and Eddie Bixter (a friend of mine). The bad guy, on the other hand, I found myself half-basing on only one person: George Galloway.
5 - What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Nasty story by unknown writer.
6 - Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
God knows. Self-publishing is always a definite DON'T in any 'how to be a writer' type books written before 2010-ish. Now it's a completely viable option – the cool option, even – and I like things about it: the directness, the DIY aspect, the fact you can plausibly release a book without having to have a conversation with a single other human being. That said, and maybe I'm actually being like some loon who's trying to convince you on the merits of Laserdiscs here, but I actually like books, and not just in the don't-they-smell-nice-and-make-my-walls-look-clever sense. When you pick a book off the shelf in your local Waterstones (or Blackwell's, maybe even WHSmith's) part of your brain knows that a great deal of work has been carried out by a great number of people – the writer, of course; those who helped him or her with the book; the agents who peddled it round to the publishers; the publisher themselves who figured out what the book should look like, how they should sell it, who they should send it to for reviews, how big a discount to offer the bookshops to give them an incentive to stock it; the typesetters; the blurb monkeys; the guys whose job it is to shift hundreds of the things around a warehouse; and so on – all these people busying away for something someone simply wrote. I still reckon, with what, as I say, I cheerily accept are my woefully ill-informed and quaintly olde worlde views on an ever-evolving market, that all this legitimises the book in a way with which someone doing it on their own can't really compete. If you have a book published, a real life in-the-shops book, you can say I wrote something and all these people think it's definitely not so completely shit and awful.
7 - How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I haven't. Why must you remind me of how much I still have to do? Oh god. This is how I get my work done: during the daytime I have a dull office job; once I've finished there I traipse along to Starbucks, sit with a big tea and write for a minimum of two hours, ideally three. This way of doing things has its benefits: it's a routine, for one thing. But it's also colossally detrimental to any kind of social life and leaves me with virtually no free time. Two or three hours is not even that much time out of the whole day for getting something the size of a book written, and by the time I head home I'm usually too tired to feel hugely confident with what I've done. So the whole thing has been infuriatingly slow and piecemeal in coming together.
I've recently got to the final section of the book, so I suppose I do have something approaching a final draft – I've got from part A of the story to part Z – and that has taken me about nine months. I say part Z, but it's actually more like part Y, or part Y and a half. I'm not sure what I want to have happen at the very end so I'm saving it for when I come to the redrafting stage. In fact, in the past couple of weeks I've taken a total break from it – I don't look at it, I don't think about it – whilst I work on some other 'proper' short stories so I can come to it fresh in the new year. At my current work rate, the amount of stuff I need to do with Ark is going to take a year at least to get done. Oh god.
8 - What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I could list the books in the 'weird-ish oblique folksy horror' canon but, in my conscious normal-person brain, I can see that they don't really have a huge amount in common with one another: Wise Blood, that's one. American Pastoral is another; Robert Aickman's short stories, Ian McEwan's first four or so books, Ted Hughes's Difficulties of a Bridegroom (a very much an overlooked short story collection, incidentally), and a whole bunch of other apparently unconnected books. I say apparently because they're actually all about people dealing with unknown and unseen forces, many of them even flirting with unfashionably metaphysical themes, but in none of them are there ever any easy final answers; they all tell stories which appear to give the impression of being allegorical, but what they might be allegories for is never made wholly clear.
9 - Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The basic plot of this thing is a man returning to the town where he grew up, only to find the town in complete disrepair, the people growing insular and backwards, relying on faith and superstition to get by (artistically, there's a lot to be said for living in what often seems to be an age of terminal decline and recession). It's all very Wicker Man-y, but then I am a very Wicker Man-y type of guy. A lot of what goes on in Ark came about when I was reading a book about forgotten English customs and traditions. I thought it would be interesting to write something in which the plot of which was hinged around these practices and more interesting still if it was set not in the historical time when people had these superstitions, but in some imagined near-future. I grew up in Lancashire, a place rich with small towns, and wondered what would happen if, with the rest of the country dying on its arse, one of these places became so isolated from any grander social hierarchy and so alienated from any real sense of meaning that it started to drift backwards: who would the stronger personalities in the community be? How would they go about assuming power over the less strong? What would their aims be?
In terms of style, I find I favour what I'd call 'non-internet writing': fiction made up of elegant, well-structured passages which aren't afraid of extended metaphors, lengthy sentences or seemingly unrelated digressions. WG Sebald is good at this sort of thing. In terms of narrative, I try to emulate books like Patrick McGrath's Asylum, Barbara Vine's The Brimstone Wedding, and Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy: books which utilise a first person narrator, ostensibly writing an account of their experiences, but who are unstable and unreliable, invariably in ways which become integral to the story itself.
10 - What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The whole thing is written from the collective viewpoint of a group of schoolchildren: 'we watched him', 'we sat at our desks,' 'we filed out of the door and headed to our separate homes'.