Bridget Shipley’s pathology was hidden, a bud that bloomed in darkness.
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.
Girl, come share my dream
Daniel Johnston, the singer-songwriter who has long been, for many people like me, a sort of patron saint of DIY creativity, has passed away at the age of 58.
Johnston is someone who, if you're reading this and you’ve never listened to him, no one YouTube clip or screenshot of lyrics will really explain the appeal. Johnston was a bedroom-dwelling outsider artist who found a huge audience, including Lana Del Ray, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie.
The best way to get into his world (and 'world' feels much more apt a description of his output represents than 'music' or 'art') is to pick out an album or two of his, ideally the early ones with handmade black and white covers, and listen to them all the way through a few times. Soon you'll notice something emerging from beneath the muffled recordings, the tape hiss, the rudimentary instruments, the off-kilter singing - something interesting and addictive. You'll grow to love the glitches and the cheapness, viewing them as equally an essential part of his music as the compositions and their melodies.
I've actually been going through a mini phase of listening to his albums recently and his sudden death has led me to think seriously about his music in a way I've never really done before. I find I'm shocked that it hadn't ever occurred to me before that, despite being quite a big fan of Johnston for quite a long time, there is in fact quite a bit about him and his work which is problematic.
To begin with: Laurie. On his first release, 1981’s Songs of Pain, which like all his early albums was self-released on cassette tape, is an extended delineation of his love for Laurie, a girl who rejected him for a mortician. Johnston's discography, which spans almost 40 years, is replete with songs which dwell obsessively on Laurie, often in the abstract but just as frequently overtly, naming her and detailing his ongoing unrequited love for her. This, coupled with Johnston's other big theme - a naïf's quasi-Christian belief in innocence and purity - belie an unpleasant mindset when it comes to women, stalkerish, controlling and self-pitying - in short, entirely male (a good place to start with Johnston is the cover of his song 'King Kong' by Tom Waits, a songwriter whose own work demonstrates him to be an undervalued critic of masculinity, imho).
Almost any interview or article on him in the past twenty years will have also touched on the fact that Johnston, who suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, lived with and was cared for by his parents, often seemingly beyond the needs of his illnesses, while he continued recording his own weird music, performing his own weird concerts and creating his own weird artwork. This wholesale dependency on others to support his self-belief feels unseemly.
Finally, there's the issue of my own culpability. Those thousands of us who paid for Johnston's music, artwork and live performances, and essentially bought into his vision, enabling a delusion, but worse, supplied the audience for an unwell man whose unwellness was key part of his life's performance.
So, after all this, what exactly is the appeal of Johnston for someone like me?
First of all, his struggles were clearly genuine - and his music is very much a testament to both that genuineness and to the power of pop. And I mean power here in the not-always-necessarily-positive-and-inspirational sense. Pop music - its themes, its myths, its promises - clearly possessed Johnston and in some ways controlled him.
He's also a figure who went on to become synonymous with mental illness. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how we talk about ‘mental health awareness’ in our current online age. It's undoubtedly something we're a lot more engaged with as a society, and there's no denying this is a good thing. But I find I often baulk at the way mental health is characterised when I see this awareness promoted online, which often sees 'depression' as a form of sadness or anxiety that evaporates on contact with hugs, understanding and friendship. The reality, in my experience, can often be far uglier and more difficult than this would suggest. Mental illness can take the form of anger, aggression, darkness and other kinds of extreme behaviour - in many cases psychotic behaviour - often resulting, ultimately, in the wholehearted rejection of any attempts at understanding or sympathy, and the dismissal of well-intentioned friends. Even if those friends remain, the friendships will most likely be forever marked. The loss of dignity that goes in to engaging with and understanding another's mental health is something no stigma-busting campaign can equip one for.
This, I think, is part of the reason Johnston's low-grade homemade tape recordings feel so compelling to so many listeners. There is little in the way of dignity to his recordings. Quite the opposite: they revel unabashed in their alienating qualities. Each of his songs, no matter how cheery and positive they may initially appear, is a genuine snapshot of a mind at war with existence. Whenever you hear his lyrics approach the usual pop themes of the thwarted lover or the underappreciated artist or the melancholic who bravely overcomes his condition to seize the day, it feels very much as though you're engaging with a piece of scenery Johnston constructed to protect himself from the reality which, going by the accounts of those who knew him, was full of darkness, anger, violence and unpleasantness (he was involuntarily institutionalised a number of times).
But what an absorbing, addictive vision it is, insistent on its own logic and drama, Bosch-like in its repeated motifs: frogs, ducks, toy instruments, monsters, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Frankenstein, boxers, floating eyeballs, Satan. For those of us who have engaged in similar behaviour, creating the world which best suits us, regardless of how it effects those around us, rather than adapting to the world we live in, an artist like Johnston - single-minded and industrious - will always be something of a touchstone. His music channelled his personality and transmuted his obsessions into something fascinating and, despite that war its creator was engaged in, was always utterly committed to leaving its own weird but indelible mark on the world he left behind.
He had by now grown accustomed to eliding almost all memories of his life in England, his childhood in particular, whenever he encountered something which might provoke them, allowing them to instead remain where they were in the back of his mind, being gently eroded and leaving him independent of his past. And yet, he had entered the café and was stamping the slush from his boots, shaking it from his jacket, when the image – the streetlamp inching its light over a dark heap of snow, luminating thick falling flakes, backgrounded by an endless terrible clanging and pervaded by his father’s dark, consuming madness – returned to assail him, impressing itself onto his thoughts like a religious vision.
I've been quite quiet lately, due in large part to an unusually large number of projects I currently find myself working on. BUT I do have a new short story out. It’s called ‘Sky Yen’ and can be found in Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks, an anthology from Manchester’s own DIY publisher Dostoevsky Wannabe. As its title hopefully makes clear, this is a collection of stories which take their inspiration from the late songwriter Pete Shelley and his erstwhile band Buzzcocks.
Shelley was perhaps the premier architect of the pop-punk song, largely down to the Buzzocks’ hits as well as his early solo recordings. But he has always struck me as a more enigmatic figure than his reputation would imply. His pop songs are powered by traditional teenage boy-girl lyrics but he was also openly bisexual; Buzzocks were very much emblematic of the deeply British anarchic music scene he was so instrumental in establishing in the late 70s but he later fled the country to settle down with his family in Estonia; his standing was built on his catchy melodic music but he also created perhaps the most austerely experimental recording I own, Sky Yen.
Sky Yen is composed of two tracks, ‘Sky Yen 1’ and ‘Sky Yen 2’. It was recorded in the early 1970s, before Buzzcocks even existed, and was made using an oscillator Shelley has created himself by soldering together components which came free with electronics magazines. The resulting recording is something which in the words of one fan, 'has more in common with air raid sirens than music'. This is true. Sky Yen is the sound of a young man discovering he has the tools with which to experiment with sound, with harmonics and dissonance, compelling or unlistenable, depending on the mood you find yourself in when you listen to it.
So, you may reasonably wonder, how does someone set about trying to transmute music like this into narrative fiction?
I thought primarily about Shelley himself, a complex character who struggled with the career path music traditionally offers. The collection was instigated by his the sudden death and while I was writing I thought as much about the subsequent assessment of the impact Shelley had had on our culture as I did about the music of Sky Yen. Debates such as these, taking place as they do in our Brexit Hell era where, for me at least, remembrances of the past feel untrustworthy and nostalgia tainted with a noxious power, also fed into the story. Similarly, ‘Sky Yen’ concerns itself with the concertina-like nature of time, the past impacting on the present in the most violent ways only for it to retreat again, distant and untouchable. If all that sound rather gloomily po-faced rest assured that it also touches briefly on the cheerier themes of the Holocaust and PTSD.
The collection, which, like all Dostoevsky Wannabe books, looks great, also features work by Wendy Erskine, Lee Rourke and Luke Kennard, among many others, and can be purchased here.
I have a new story, titled 'The School Project', in the latest issue of The Shadow Booth, the UK's premier book-shaped journal for the sort of weird, creepy fiction I love to both read and write.
Although, yeah - okay - technically, it's not really a new story. It is in fact an old story, one which I've slightly neatened up for publication. In its original iteration it was titled 'School Report' and was joint-winner of the 2011 Manchester Fiction Prize. I've made a few minor cuts, smoothed out a few sections and sorted out my simply unforgivable inconsistencies with em- and en-dashes.
Back in 2011 when I first wrote this thing I was newly unemployed, having been made redundant from my job as a bookseller, and found I unexpectedly had the time to write in between desperately looking for another job, so decided to work on an idea I'd had for a short story and submit it to a competition, which turned out to be a good idea. If you've not read it before - any why should you have? - it is written from the collective first-person perspective of a group of children at a rural school and is takes poverty and collective delusion as its loose themes. I later spent a not inconsiderable amount of my time trying to turn it into a novel, which turned out to be a less good idea.
Although at the time my mind was full of Anders Breivik and the then fairly new culture of austerity, eight years down the line the mindset which vaguely linked those two things feels if anything more concrete and more prevalent: tribal groupthink and ideological violence seem set to be the hallmarks of 2019.
Perhaps now is the time for me to attempt a convincing suggestion that, despite all this, it's not quite as horrendously grim a story I've no doubt indicated. There is, for instance, also sneezing and beanbags and (something which somehow eluded me until I re-read and re-edited it) more of than a dose of Wicker Man to the proceedings.
And, in any case, despite the inclusion of my story, there are wonderful contributions from the likes of Robert Shearman and Verity Holloway, among others, which I highly recommend.
You can order a copy of The Shadow Booth here.