Something I missed earlier this year was the release of an episode of The Wandering Bard, a podcast on the topic of writing, travel, place and identity, in which myself and Jenn, my occasional collaborator with whom I wrote last year’s The Night Visitors, talk about the north, going on holiday, horror and the role of the artist post-Brexit.
You can listen to the whole thing here.
Here's a photograph of a man who went by the name of Shakespeare Hirst. Was he a relative of mine? I don’t know, but it seems likely given the surname, with its i spelling rather than the more common u, and the fact that he lived in Bolton where my own family come from. His father, Henry Hirst, was the owner of The Shakespeare Hotel, a pub in Huddersfield, and was so obsessed with the Bard that he named his son after him – Shakespeare was his genuine first name, the one he was baptised with – a tradition Shakespeare Hirst himself continued with his own five children: Henry, Cordelia, Ophelia, Miranda and Elsheimer, the latter taken from Adam Elsheimer, an artist supposedly responsible for a lost portrait of William Shakespeare. Hirst eventually took over The Shakespeare Hotel from his father and turned it into a semi-theatre, staging productions of his namesake's works. He also toured as a performer, wrote numerous books about Shakespeare and amassed a large body of art which include works by Leonardo, Raphael and Rubens. He even briefly became something of a celebrity when he claimed to be in the possession of the Elsheimer portrait of Shakespeare, something rightly greeted with scepticism by the press, but with a snobbiness and a sneeriness which I find leaves me feeling oddly defensive of this strange and silly man to whom I may or may not be related.
'It is cruel and blind
And does not compensate
The brutal fracture.'
I used to get anxious about running into Mark E Smith.
Generally, the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’ is taken to mean: you probably have a positive yet simplified image of your heroes which difficult, nuanced reality will be unable to match. That couldn’t really be said of Smith, who passed away last week at the age of 60. Smith, in his 42-year capacity as frontman/ringleader of The Fall, was known for many things: profuse drinking, difficult music and turbulent relationships with almost everyone he came across, not least his fellow band members (66 in total), many of whom were abruptly fired and few of whom have anything good to say about their time in the group. Whether someone like this has been a ‘hero’ to me is difficult to say.
It was when I first moved to Manchester that I started to get anxious about running into Smith. This was due to a convergence of facts: I now lived in Manchester, Mark E Smith lived in Manchester, I play guitar, Smith was known for recruiting musicians into The Fall from chance meetings. I knew that if I did find myself in the same room as him I would feel compelled to speak with him, and possibly fish for that magical opportunity. Although the precedents are foreboding, the experience uniformly reported as unpleasant, sometimes traumatic, who would turn down the chance to join The Fall?
For those on the outside, understanding the appeal of this group (never ‘band’) is impossible: they make jarring, inconsistent music with off-keys singing and gibberish lyrics, fronted by someone whose life’s work seemed to be to alienate and annoy. But attempting to understand is how people end up getting into The Fall, finding themselves listening out of curiosity, then finding themselves growing interested in re-hearing one or two musical ideas, then finding a fragment of lyrics has taken root in their thoughts. I remember someone once described Nico’s weird druggy albums as ‘not so much music you get into, more a hole you fall into.’ The same is true of The Fall. Indeed, their appeal has something virus-like to it, striking down at random regardless of the individual: any Fall gig had more than its share of blokey serious musos, but also kids in tracksuits and middle-aged accountancy dads who’ve rushed from their offices, all there to worship at the altar of northern weirdness.
It’s seeing them live that the anti-appeal of The Fall is at its starkest. Their gigs could famously be chaotic events but more than that they were tense. Almost any recording will corroborate this but this performance of ‘Latch Key Kid’ is fairly representative.
You never see anything like a smile pass between band members, let alone eye-contact. Instead they simply try to play the song, keeping their heads down while Smith prowls the stage like a revenant, shouldering them out of the way. interfering with speaker settings, jamming his hand into the keyboard, before shuffling off-camera. There’s something menacing to the proceedings, but it makes for compelling viewing.
This is a microcosm for what Smith and his group stood for. He was a laureate of tension, duty-bound to jam a spanner into the works whenever an opportunity presented itself, whether it was a performance, a recording, an interview, his line-up or his personal life.
His passing away has left me sad but the manner of his passing has also left me feeling slightly guilty. In the wake of his death, lots of people have been sharing Mark E Smith interviews and anecdotes in which he is, in common parlance, a ‘legend’. Which is to be expected: he had a knack for being bitchy and blunt when drunk in a way which struck a chord, and seems to be remembered as much for his batty pronouncements as he is for his music. But all the interviews take place in pubs, in most of the anecdotes he’s drunk - sadness and the threat of cruelty are always in the air. But alcoholism, or at least drunkenness, seemed such an important part of the creativity that produced the music I and many others have found important, in a way which music isn’t usually important, that simply wishing it away is difficult. It’s instinctive to argue that there was some self-mythologising going on, some meeting of expectations, playing the role which pays the bills. But beneath that suspicion is a nagging sense that being a Fall fan probably meant you were in some way complicit in something destructive, that you were doing your bit for the crutch for someone’s publicly played-out illness. It is problematic.
And yet I fell down the hole. Brix Smith, his first wife and the musician widely credited with transforming The Fall from a provincial weirdo band into something grander (the role of women in The Fall deserves an essay of its own), recently described their music as something fans projected onto as much as they drew from. And that’s true, at least for me. The Fall’s music feels as though it has an importance beyond lots of other bands’ music because of a signature objection – musically, lyrically, existentially – to clarity, answers, neatness, resolution. There have many artists who have been as committed to their artistic vision as Smith but few so unswervingly and so satisfyingly so. So many loose ends tease at the imagination.
And so I would fret about meeting Mark E Smith, half wanting it, half dreading it. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve even had dreams about meeting him – they have always been anxiety dreams, in which I’m almost craven, keening for respect, for recognition, awaiting a vicious rebuke. Such dreams are a hangover, shadows of an awkward boyhood, a teenage fantasy gone to seed, but one of the more disquieting aspects of Smith’s death has been reading the interviews which have resurfaced. Invariably, they take place in Manchester pubs I’m more than familiar with – The Crown and Kettle, The Castle Hotel, Gulliver’s. In one recent piece I even read the following: ‘Mark chose an All Bar One-style after-works drinks place in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester. "I like to watch the freaks. They’re fucking weird. Who the fuck are they?" he later told me, while staring into a pub filled with the most normal people imaginable.’
There’s only really one All Bar One-style place in Piccadilly Gardens: Missoula, which has recently been turned into a Slug and Lettuce, and which is a couple of hundred feet from the office building where I work. I’ve often gone there after work for a drink, one of the freaks, fleetingly aware of the occassional outlines of old men, pissed, lonely, looking on from peripheral tables.
Now that he’s gone, it turns out that magical, dreaded opportunity was there in the corner all along.
Here is my (very much personal) ranking of The Fall’s studio albums
1 - Fall Heads Roll
2 - Bend Sinister
3 - The Unutterable
4 - I Am Kurious Oranj
5 - This Nation's Saving Grace
6 - New Facts Emerge
7 - The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
8 - Hex Enduction Hour
9 - Re-Mit
10 - Your Future Our Clutter
11 - Cerebral Caustic
12 - Imperial Wax Solvent
13 - The Frenz Experiment
14 - Grotesque (After the Gramme)
15 - Light User Syndrome
16 - Live at the Witch Trials
17 - Extricate
18 - The Wonderful and Frightening World Of...
19 - Levitate
20 - Dragnet
21 - Middle Class Revolt
22 - Perverted by Language
23 - Ersatz GB
24 - Shift-Work
25 - Room to Live
26 - The Infotainment Scan
27 - Code: Selfish
28 - The Marshall Suite
29 - Sub-Lingual Tablet
30 - Reformation Post TLC
31 - Are You Are Missing Winner
(I’ve seen the most recent record, New Facts Emerge, referred to as the 32nd studio album, presumably by people including Slates, which was technically an EP)
Happy New Year!
But enough of the pleasantries. I’m going to be in London on 16 January for an event.
The Shadow Booth will be launched by the good people at Unsung Live at The Star of Kings where there will be a reading from myself, Gary Budden and others.
The event is free and all the additional info you could possibly desire can be found here.
Copies of The Shadow Booth will be available to buy on the night, but if your Christmas passed without you receiving a book as a gift, why not give yourself a late present right now?
Well there we go. What a ridiculous year.
I’m not sure I’d necessarily say 2017 has been momentous for me but it’s been very eventful and certainly the busiest year I can remember having. In summary: my partner and I bought a house, we started work on some renovations, we discovered we now have a second child on the way, I had a book published, we rather decadently went on holiday twice, to France AND to Denmark. All this alongside a fulltime office job, weekly driving lessons and parenting child number one. Madness.
Much of the start of this year was dominated by the move and the marginally less stressful pursuit of writing The Night Visitors, mine and Jenn Ashworth’s collaboratively constructed tale of obsession and evil which was published in April and which regular readers will no doubt be sick of hearing about by now.
The Night Visitors was fun. It's the second big piece of fiction me and Jenn have worked on together (following 2015's much less fun Bus Station: Unbound). Although not all that dissimilar from a lot of the writing work I do (in collaboration, without an agent, spookiness aplenty) this was the first project which resulted in a book with my name on the cover and spine and an ISBN on the back and is available in bookshops. It even popped up on the promo table in a couple of branches of Waterstones, which has been quite exciting to see. Similarly, although on the face of it everything about The Night Visitors it is pretty niche – it’s a novella, it’s horror, it’s written by two authors and it comes from a small press – I’ve been delighted (and relieved) that people seem to, I dunno, *enjoy* it...? We've had some flattering reviews, at the time of writing we have a bunch of five star ratings on Amazon, we won a Saboteur Award and, a particular highlight, we staged our launch event with Ramsey Campbell, a horror legend and one degree of separation from Robert Aickman.
The publication itself brought with it a burst of related activity, including writing for The Guardian, with me and Jenn co-authoring a piece about modern epistolary fiction and recommending our favourite examples (sadly, I wasn't allowed Leonard Cohen's 'Famous Blue Raincoat'). Mercifully, the comments section, which unlike Jenn I monitor obsessively whenever I get a chance to write for the graun, was for the most part restrained and respectful.
Ordinarily I tend to turn out about two or three short stories a year, depending on commissions, a frankly pathetic average (I write a lot more, but only a a handful reach completion) but one which was made slightly more pathetic by the demands of a new house, a book and a child who simply will not stop growing. As such, I’ve been less productive this year than I’d have liked when it comes to short fiction. Nonetheless, having got the majority of The Night Visitors and its publicity out of the way I found I had time to write some sundry bits and pieces in the second half of the year. I had a nonfiction piece published on The Real Story which I went to the read at their live event. Annoyingly, by the time the event came around I was so riddled with laryngitis that I only read for about three minutes, then made my hoarse apologies and returned to my seat. Not my finest lit-event but, tellingly, nowhere near my worst. I also reviewed Tell Me How This Ends Well and We Are The End (forthcoming) for Litro, both of which were fine enough but confirmed for me something I’ve noticed in the past few years: I have real trouble reading novels by men these days, which is odd when you remember that I am a man.
Perhaps the most fun I had in my writing year has been a piece for The Quietus about cannibalism in cinema, a drastically overlooked canon if ever there was one.
With much of 2017’s achievements being vaguely grand-sounding – Writing for broadsheets! An ISBN! Ramsey Campbell! – the writing which I think has left me most proud has been a ghost story called ‘Kloya and Klik’ which was published by The Island Review, a wonderful online journal for thoughts/opinions/observations on islands. It received the level of attention you’d expect for a long-ish ghost story on such a site (ie. not that much) but is, for now at least, the closest I have to a favourite of my own writing out there in the world. If you've not yet read, please take the time to do so.
A ghost story of mine was also included in The Shadow Booth, a brand new book-shaped journal of uncanny fiction. Issue one includes ‘The Upstairs Room’, originally published on the Minor Literatures site earlier this year as a teaser for the collection. Although just a couple of oddball stories, it's been great getting them out. My oddball stuff is the most me stuff, so discovering there is an audience for it is gratifying.
2017 has turned out to be a good year for reading, albeit one which I bumbled through rather than giddily seizing with both hands. Like everyone else in the world I read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry this year, and like them I enjoyed it. I also very much enjoyed Attrib. a sleeper-hit collection of short stories by Eley Williams, Elmet by Fiona Mozley and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, both of which were published by small presses and went on to hit the relative big time. But, as my reading is often loosely dictated by research, that seemed to be more or less it for me and contemporary fiction. Shocking, I know. Thanks to the marvel that is Audible, from January onwards I managed to transmute my uneventful morning train journeys to work into a fertile nonfiction reading experience (listening to fiction is completely impossible), making my way through, among other things, Richard Evans’ enormous trilogy of books about the Third Reich. For the most part however, surrounded as I’ve been by boxes of old novels shuttled between properties, 2017 has seen me reading some older titles picked largely at random: The Lost Father by Marina Warner, Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith, Piranha To Scurfy by Ruth Rendell, Heresy by SJ Parris and, for the first time (yeah I know), The Handmaid’s Tale.
But the two books which stuck with me most this year were a pair of true crime titles. I like true crime, but I tend to rather snobbily think of it as a guilty pleasure genre, a slummy holiday from 'proper' books. But Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn, which concerns Fred and Rose West and the torture, sexual abuse and murder they made their day-to-day lives, is like nothing I’ve ever read before, an unholy meeting point between true crime and a kind of poetic stream-of-consciousness half-fiction. I know that sounds self-indulgent and disrespecful and as though it shouldn’t work, and I suppose it shouldn’t, but it does: it’s tragic, very beautiful and unspeakably disturbing.
Even more affecting for me was One of Your Own by Carol Ann Lee, which is far more traditional in its approach and concerns a much more well-trodden path - the Moors murders - but is written with such cool precision I've found its imagery lodged in my mind months after I read it in the summer. Lee, much of whose book focuses on Myra Hindley's time in prison, has a forensic eye for her subject's psychological tells, a seriousness when it comes to researching her motives and an icy level-headedness when it comes to her crimes. Where Burn’s book is a masterpiece of repellence, One of Your Own is a dispassionate look at something dark but undeniably human, the disquieting impact of which Lee's probing, scrutinising and seeking to understand only serves to enhance. I had terrible dreams for weeks after finishing One of Your Own and immediately read a handful of Lee’s other books.
2018 will hopefully see a commissioned short story from me based on a piece of folklore local to specific place, not to mention Plunge Hill, mine and Jenn’s follow-up to The Night Visitors for our publisher Dead Ink which we've already started work on. Most excitingly, I’m currently editing an anthology for another small local publisher with some incredible authors which has taken me a few years to get off the ground and which I’m hopeful (ie. praying) will do well.
Just like in 2016, myself, Jenn and Emma Jane Unsworth all found ourselves too busy this year to publish anything through Curious Tales, our collective initiative which tends to come to life when the clocks go back and produce something between Halloween and Christmas. Which is a shame because, while the writing/promotion/publicity/events management make for an absurdly labour-intensive winter, it’s also something I’ve always loved working on. Initial discussions about a 2018 Curious Tales project have tentatively begun but whether all/any of us will have the time remains to be seen.
As I mentioned earlier, I shall once again become a father next year. I often intend to write something about parenthood. As a grand theme it seems so central to everything I read and see at the moment. But getting a firm grasp has proven hard. I find that the sands are so constantly shifting, the essence of what it is to be a father evolving by the day, the hour, the thought. Maybe with two of them I’ll be able to pull things into focus.
Finally, 2017 was also the year in which a friend of mine passed away. Ben Ashworth was diagnosed with bowel cancer five years ago and told he had months left to live. He immediately threw himself into running, taking it from a hobby to a kind of career, setting up Ben's Bowel Movements, raising money and awareness for bowel cancer and becoming a huge source of encouragement and inspiration for hundreds. When he passed away this July and I went to his memorial service at Blackburn Cathedral I was astounded by the sheer numbers of people in attendance. But I first met Ben in Preston when I was at college and he worked at McDonalds. A shared love of 90s girl bands like Sleater Kinney and Le Tigre gave us something to talk about but his warmth and curiosity made him one of the easiest people to bond with. Later I would go on to be godfather to his eldest daughter. I last saw him a couple of years ago, at a Sleater Kinney gig, a few days before my own daughter was born, and I remember him being welcoming to my blathering on about my hopes and fears for fatherhood despite everything he was going through. I'll miss that generosity - the world feels a colder place without it. So, if you’re able to charitable this Christmas, please consider supporting Ben's Bowel Movements.
Tomorrow night I’ll be doing an AMA on Reddit Books along with Alison Moore, Aliya Whiteley and Gary Budden for the Eden Book Society.
As that hopefully implies, you may AMA (Ask Me Anything) about the Eden Book Society, its murky past, the mysterious figures involved or, if you want to, my own writing, and I shall be honour-bound to truthfully reply. This will be my first ever experience on Reddit and I suspect the end result will resemble that time your gran got flustered trying to use a remote control for the first time in the 1990s. So please, if for no other reason, tune in to witness that.
So that’s Wednesday 29th November, 7pm GMT (2PM EST if you’re an exotic American).
And if you've not done so already, please pledge money towards The Eden Book Society. The society was a secret publisher of horror novellas for almost 100 years that Dead Ink is reissuing to the public… except it's actually literary hoax I'm involved in.
You can find out all the info you need and pledge your money here.
See you tomorrow.