Sunday, 18 January 2015

Freedom Of Speech

                My wife and I had a row, the Friday before last, and things seemed pretty bleak and hopeless after that. We have been through countless times like this and come through them, but each time we feel it is the end. This time was no exception.
            The argument was about freedom of speech, believe it or not. You might have heard that Channel 4 are planning a sitcom- a sitcom!- about the Irish famine. My wife is Irish, and a lot of Irish people regard the famine the way Jewish people regard the Holocaust. So for some idiot to think he can write a sitcom about it boggles the mind.
            When my wife told me about it, I tried to shrug it off as another episode of modern living, where nothing is sacred. I tried hollowly to suggest, well, maybe it depends on how Channel 4 do it. Maybe it would be like Blackadder- I mean Blackadder Goes Forth, the one set in the first world war, which poked fun at the generals and politicians, and pointed out the lunacy and bloodshed that war caused.
            I thought this might pour oil on troubled waters. After all, we’d both watched, and laughed at Blackadder Goes Forth. No, no dice. I suppose I should be proud that, if we did separate and divorce, it wouldn’t have been over petty domestic stuff, like putting the garbage out. It would have been over a clash of ideals. Freedom of speech versus a nation’s identity and right to recognition. But I love my wife, and I don’t want to separate or get divorced.
            She told me she was going to sign an online petition to stop Channel 4 from making the programme. She was also going to join the demonstration outside Channel 4 headquarters. Which is not only a form of censorship, but will virtually guarantee that Channel 4 will make and broadcast it.
            As I write, Channel 4 are only thinking about it. The writer whose idea it was hasn’t even written it yet. But now, even if the script stinks, they might feel forced to produce it anyway. This is just after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, and Sony’s debacle over their film The Interview was not so long ago. In fact, if the writer changes his mind, they might look for someone else to write it, to prove how fearless they are.
            I didn’t like Blackadder Goes Forth that much. As I said, I laughed at it, but it was the same as watching an episode of Spitting Images or Have I Got News For You. Satire, I think, dates badly; and meanwhile, the characters aren’t meant to be fully rounded. Programmes like that can make you smile wryly, but the best fictional depiction of the First World War I’ve ever come across is Alan Bleasdale’s The Monocled Mutineer.
            Meanwhile, a national tragedy is somehow going to be turned into a set of half-hour episodes. The prospective author says he will be respectful of the suffering which was incurred; but then went on to suggest that his series would be something like Shameless.
            So, altogether, I’ve done very little writing lately. I wrote Morning Pages, as per Julia Cameron, and did Writing Practice, as per Natalie Goldberg. But as for any fiction, I didn’t have the heart, especially after my wife suggested sarcastically that I come up with Biafra: The Musical.

            I’ve been going around as though having an out-of-body experience. I dread to think what I’ve spent on takeaways. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Horse Feathers

                A week ago, while I was at work, I wanted to bet on some horses, and the only bookmaker’s near to my workplace was a Ladbroke’s. Now my wife and I try to avoid Ladbroke’s where we can. My wife was once all but accused of not paying her stake by a member of staff at our local branch; and when she complained to the organization, she was ignored. Since then, we have not had a good opinion of them.
          But I figured, well, that idiot who accused her didn’t work at this branch, so I popped in during my lunch hour. One of my bets was what they call a double, where you pick two horses, and if your first horse wins, your winnings go straight onto the second horse. As a backup, I backed the horses separately, too, so that if one won but the other one didn’t, I would still have something to show for it.
          Before I left work that night, I checked the results on At The Races UK, and this I could have sworn, that neither horse in my double had run. When your horse doesn’t run at all, you get your money back. I wanted to get straight home, so I didn’t go back to the Ladbroke’s where I’d placed the bet, thinking that I could get my money back from the branch near my home (which I have no moral objection to).
          I went into our local branch the next day, intending to go onto the shops afterwards, where my wife would be waiting for me. I showed my betting slips to the Chinese guy who was alone behind the counter. One slip he said he would have to ring the original branch about. I thought that this was unusual, but assumed he knew what he was doing.
          For the double slip, he only handed me back a £1 coin. I was expecting £3. I questioned him about it, but he said, in mangled English, no, I was only getting £1. All this time, other punters were thrusting by me to place their own bets, two seconds before the starts of their races, which I think is the height of rudeness.
          I waited and waited. He couldn’t reach the other branch, so I took back that slip; but he wouldn’t give me the other slip, with the double on it, because he had officially paid out, nor would he give me anything other than $1. He was becoming louder, and I became correspondingly shriller. I said: “Have you got a manager here?” I had to ask him three times, my voice becoming louder each time. I was trying to stay polite, but feeling more and more frustrated. He said that the manager was taking a break. I said I’d wait.
          I rang my wife to tell her that there was a hold up. She annoyed me by saying: “Make sure you get all your money,” as if I’d choose to be defrauded. Fifteen minutes went past. I could feel all eyes on me. My stomach was churning with the electronic whirrs of the fruit machines.
          When was the manager coming back? In another fifteen minutes. The Chinese guy tried telling me, again, that I was only entitled to £1. He said that one of the horses had actually run. This was news to me.
          I said, “Alright, so one of the horses ran, but the other one still blew out. Surely I should get my money back for that?” He said, no; when you place a double bet and one horse doesn’t run, your entire stake then goes onto the horse which did run. He then appealed to a woman punter who was standing there. She said: “Yeah, that’s the ruling.”
          I wanted the earth to swallow me. I had to get out of that bookies fast. I tried to talk to the Chinese guy, but he wouldn’t look at me. I ended up shouting through the glass partition: “I’m sorry that I shouted at you!” and then I left.
          Outside, I took a deep breath. I was shaking, and I swore to myself that I would never go into that Ladbrokes again for any reason. I started walking up towards the shops. When I was halfway there, I realized I’d left behind the £1 the Chinese guy had been willing to give me.
          Last Sunday, when that incident was becoming a distant memory, I set out to place a bet for my wife. When I got to our usual bookmaker’s, which is a Coral’s, about whom I cannot say a bad word, it was nearly mid-day, so I didn’t expect any trouble other than from last-minute merchants barging past me. But when I got there, the lights were off and there was nobody inside. Standing on the pavement outside, looking disgruntled, was one of the members of staff, who said something about a magnetic lock still being locked. Time was pressing. My wife’s first horse was about to run. The nearest bookmaker’s was the Ladbroke’s in which I’d shown myself up a week ago.
          I slunk in there. The Chinese guy was on duty with another guy. I rewrote my wife’s bets swiftly, then went to the counter. This time, nobody barged past me, and guess who I was served by? To his eternal credit, the Chinese guy served me without any recognition or any rancour. We thanked each other, and I got out.
          When I told my wife what had happened, she said that if any of her horses won, I would have to collect the winnings for her.
          I was cynical about the beginnings of new years, but at this precise moment, I feel alright, and that 2015 won’t be so bad. 2014 was okay, but I was directionless. I never quite got around to doing the things I promised myself. We didn’t buy and install a washing machine or a new cooker, we didn’t renegotiate our lease, we didn’t recarpet our flat our fit a new bathroom suite. In summer, I mucked about painting the hallway- the walls came out fine, but I made a real mess of the woodwork, and now our doors won’t shut.
          We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in Dublin, and we went to Dorset to see the place where my late father was billeted during the war. Other than that, we drifted through the year, and the principal fault for that lies with me. I couldn’t face any big upheavals, the thought of a load of practical stuff brought me out in a cold sweat.
          But I’m starting 2015 feeling cautiously optimistic, and part of the reason for that is because I decided not to read on the trains to work or on the trains coming home again. Instead, I listened to music on the i-pod. Similarly, I didn’t watch DVDs in the mornings, or listen to any radio programmes except music ones.
          This is the nearest I can get to a reading-deprivation week, as outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and various others of her books. It’s a kind of fiction detox, and actually Julia Cameron extends the ban to all reading, including newspapers, emails, etc. As much as I would like to do this, I have to read as part of my job.
          Still, even this watered-down version of the reading-free week had benefits. Writers get addicted to stories, we can start craving them constantly.
          It was a particularly hard time for a story-free week. I’ve got a load of terrific books on the go. The second series of the magnificent Broadchurch began on Monday. On BBC radio i-player, there’s some good programmes, including the dark fantasy series Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz on Friday, a radio version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. That’s on top of the DVDs I got for Christmas.
          One of the benefits of the detox was that I started telling myself stories, as if to compensate. Because, writing-wise, I’m at square one.
          I don’t know what story to tell. I don’t know which form it should take. It was the one blot over Christmas, actually, that I felt rudderless. My writing group will be starting again soon. Before I know it, it will be my turn to bring in something to read. I’ve got a batch of horror stories which have never seen the light of day, so that’s not a problem. It’s just that…I’m going off horror fiction.
          It worries me, that last sentence. For four or five years, horror has been my obsession. I can’t seem to get any new ideas for horror stories, and I can’t face looking at an incriminating blank page again. I’m stuck.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Brand New Start

          Happy new year. I normally dread the last day of December. I’ve never gone in for walking around the block with a lump of coal, or whatever it is you’re supposed to do, much less dive in fountains. The fireworks in London looked impressive on the television, but we had no desire to push our way through crowds of drunk strangers to watch them.
          I’m never quite sure what you’re supposed to do come New Year. Originally, we weren’t even going to wait up until midnight, we were going to go to bed early. But then we started watching the Queen concert. So we sang a verse of Auld Lang Syne ironically. But neither of us felt like we were going to take 2015 by the throat.
          All it’s really meant to me, over the years, is that Christmas is over, whatever about the decorations coming down on January 6th. On January 2nd, you’re going back to work, and it won’t be as relaxed or as cheerful as it was on the run up to Christmas Eve.
          I do love Christmas. I know what I’m doing at Christmas. I love buying the perfect present for my wife (I’m getting quite good at it after 20 years). I love receiving presents- Remembrance of the Daleks this year! I love cooking the roast dinner, even if I haven’t mastered gravy yet. I love going to mass, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. The sun was out when we walked to our church, it was frosty but exhilarating. The one or two people out at the time wished us a merry Christmas. We sang carols, out of tune but with gusto. And we left feeling on top of the world.
          Mass, for me, is Christmas. Everything else, really, is icing on the cake. As we walked home (we walked through a park on the way back, only to find that all the other gates were still locked, so we had to exit from the one we entered from), we felt buoyant and optimistic. That would have done me for the beginning of the new year. If you belong to another religion, say Islam, Christmas might not mean the same to you, but you’ve got Ede. I suppose committed atheists might get something out of the day, if they spon our end the day thinking about the wonder of life. But if all Christmas means to you is buying and receiving more and more presents and stuffing your face, then I feel sorry for you.
          A funny thing happened to me on New Year’s Day, though. After a leisurely breakfast, when we talked about the year we’d been through, we realized that we’d had an awful lot to put up with. We’d been through a big legal thing in 2013, which we still weren’t the better of. My dad’s death, in 2012, and the awful, unnecessary and painful fallout from that, was still on our minds. 2014 became, really, something to be got through, a stalling for time.
          2015 is, I hope, going to be different. My wife and I are good in crises- just as well, really, since we’ve had plenty of them. But that means, too, that when we plan things, and carry through those plans, we get things done. So that’s what we’re going to do: get some projects underway.
          As soon as I got back to work, I downloaded a list of plumbers, to see which ones might be best for installing a washing machine.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Sea Breezes

                We wanted a quiet day at the seaside, because we felt cooped up. All through the really fierce heat- or what in England feels like fierce heat- we’d stayed indoors as much as we could. In London, anyway, it feels like an oven everywhere. So we headed off for Whitstable in Kent.
            Only when we got there, Whitstable was packed. An Oyster festival combined with a beer festival. People poured out of the station, and every street down to the town centre was packed. I never managed to get fish and chips- outside every chip shop was a queue. Every pub was packed. We found one cafĂ© at the far end of town, the Whitstable Coffee Company, which serves a terrific bacon and brie baguette.
            It got claustrophobic. You couldn’t get near the seafront, let alone go for a paddle. Normally, Whitstable is a small, quiet, quaint resort where you can relax, but not today. Luckily, back up the hill it has a castle- what must be the smallest castle in the world- with beautiful flower gardens. So we sat there and watched a bowling match.
            The trip did us a world of good. On Monday morning, we felt reinvigorated. And one of the best bits of the day was the train journey down. Especially when the people of Kent started boarding. These were ex-Londoners and their descendants, with strong cockney accents. It was like travelling back in time. They were taking their kids for a day out, and the kids were all healthy, happy, fascinated by the world around them. They were struck by the cows and sheep in the fields that flashed past.
            London is deadening. It simply doesn’t bring out the best in anybody. You might want to come here to see a West End show or visit the Tower of London, but day to day living is foul.
            Another benefit of the journey was that it gave us the opportunity to read. And I’d bought The New Statesman at Victoria Station. I might start reading this regularly. Here were well-written articles about the world around us, the sort of thing you should get from a newspaper, but don’t.
            And it has spurred me on to…something. I’m trying to come up with a story that is non-genre. Trying to write something more honest than a horror story. The literary equivalent of a Jam/Beatles/Madness/Kinks song. I’m still reading William Trevor’s Collected Short Stories, which are superb.
            I’ve started to collect newspaper stories again. The one-paragraph snippets, where an ordinary person (that is to say, a non-celebrity, and not in a position of power) has done something, frequently bringing about his/her own downfall. Because I need to look at life head-on, and not duck it, or disguise it.

Friday, 25 July 2014

God Bless America

          Well, I’ve done it. Written the first draft. A horror story set in the USA, where I’ve never been. It obsessed me for months, trying to find an idea and then trying to research, first the state, then the city. I hope I’ve got it right, or, anyway, that it isn’t ludicrous.
          There’s no end of facts to research on a project like that. Even moving to the US might not be enough, really. Even if you emigrated, you only get to know a place when you’ve been there for a few years. This was something George Orwell noted in his essay on Henry Miller (I forget, for the moment, the title of the essay, and the exact quote). That writers do their best work in their home soil.
          I was listening to American radio stations (an awful lot of adverts about retirement homes), looking up newspapers online, all the time feeling that this wasn’t quite the way. How do you learn the way a particular group of people speak, other than by eavesdropping? Ideally, I would have liked to log into some sort of CCTV network with sound on it. A terrific invasion of privacy, maybe, but it would be in the name of Art.
          After a while, as time crept on, I decided that I had to start writing the story anyway, and kind of guess what I didn’t already know. It felt so good to be writing fiction again. Ideas came to me, holes in the plot began to seal themselves, characters came into sharp relief. Doing the thing I’m best at, after sex. I had a story to tell, a secret to impart, and a way of telling it.
          It’s taken me a fortnight, which is why I haven’t posted in a while. Did you miss me? I missed you. But I had to finish this project, I had to prove to myself again that I’m a fiction writer.
          The story is for Burialday’s next blue gothic book, the deadline for submissions is the 31st August.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Baby's Coming Home Tomorrow

            I couldn’t wait to get back to work, and that’s saying something. For something like a week, I was alone in the flat with only the cat for company- and she was always hissing at me and looking out for my wife. The only human interaction I got was when I went to the shops or, one morning, went to Starbucks. The living room was jam-packed with mirrors, coat racks and whatnot from the hallway. The hallway was lined with dust sheets, paint pots, bottles of white spirit, brushes, etc. The flat reeked of chemicals.
            By now, you’ll have gathered that I don’t like decorating. A memory, perhaps, of being turfed out of my bedroom every summer by my dad, who used to love all the upheaval. Yes, it can look nice afterwards (although, with me decorating, there’s no guarantee), but for the anxiety it causes me, I’d simply make do. I’m out at work all the time anyway.
This week, though, was particularly bad. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed before nine o’clock. Then I’d spend hours messing about with the laptop, trying to find a decent American radio station. It could be twelve o’clock by the time I buckled down and got to work.
Well, of course, once you’ve started your particular decorating task, you have to keep going until it’s finished. So I was painting or paint-scraping up until eleven, crawling into bed at twelve. I barely read anything though the week, let alone wrote. Sometimes, I’d watch a bit of a DVD as I ate my supper, but here was a curious thing- I wasn’t bothered. I simply wasn’t bothered. All the time while my wife is home, I’m scheming to get the remote control to myself. Now I could barely concentrate on what was on the screen, and sometimes I nodded off.
It’s only a small hallway, yet in five days I barely got through it. In fact, I’ve still got to paint the woodwork. The trouble there is, in the twenty-odd years we’ve lived here, I’ve never stripped the previous layer of paint, simply painted over it. But by now, the doors don’t shut properly. Well, I was slapping paint-removing gel on it by the jarful. It blistered, but stubbornly remained in place. I some patches, it seems to have had no effect whatsoever.
So, when I set off for the airport to bring my wife back, I was steeling myself to tell her that I’d painted the walls and ceiling, but that the doors and skirtings looked like the ones in Freddy Krueger’s lair. I was dreading an argument, and the last thing I wanted to do was break the holiday mood. Luckily, she was understanding about it. I felt like dancing down the train carriage.
Looking back, I think I’ve been a bit hard on myself. I know I took two days off, but on one of those days, I went to the launderette with two big bagsful. And I’ve never had to strip five layers of gloss paint off wood before- it was a steep learning curve.
I listened to a lot of radio drama on BBC i-player. I read passages from the King James bible, in bed at nights. And- dare I say it? I felt a sense of achievement, and a sense of pride in our flat. I can almost see why my dad enjoyed DIY.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

She's Leaving Home

          My wife goes away today, for a week in Ireland. I hesitate to call it a holiday. Both her parents are buried over there, so she’ll be visiting the grave and tending to that. Besides, she considers herself to be Irish, even though she was born here. For her, it is more like a homecoming. But there’s a race meeting and a hurling match, shopping trips to Dunne’s Stores, and cups of Bewlays coffee.

          Meanwhile, I’ve got a week to myself, but I rashly promised my wife that I’d decorate the bathroom. That got adjusted to the slightly easier hallway, but it’s still a week doing something I can’t stand and am honestly not very good at. It still means breathing in chemicals, crouching down on all fours, and trying not to get paint on the carpet. Dust, upheaval and being stuck indoors all day. Does anybody ever enjoy that?

          I’ve also got to talk to the cat, because that’s my wife does. The cat is passionately attached to her; if I don’t play it right, I’ll be savaged to death in my wife’s absence.

          On the other hand, I’m glad to be off work. I thought today would never come. I found myself getting tetchier and tetchier with the public. They deserve it, of course, but I’m supposed to be professionally detached.

          Writing-wise, I’ve been happier. I found out that Burialday are looking for horror stories for their forthcoming gothic blue book. They are especially keen to have stories featuring American supernatural folklore. So I started researching that, and two or three ideas started to come to me, strong ideas, stories which I can’t wait to tell. The ideas scare me slightly, in a good way. If I can’t find a way to get my sasquatch over to the UK then I will have to set my story in the USA, where I’ve never been.

          I’ve seen Hollywood films, of course; and human beings are fundamentally the same the world over. But can I, from the comfort of a chair in South London, write about, say, New York in such a way that a New Yorker won’t realize that I’ve never been there? Have never flown further west than Shannon airport.

          I’ve stopped being obsessed with this horror-film-for-radio which I was trying to come up with. I haven’t entirely given up on the project, although it bugs me. There’s a difference between writing prose and writing drama. A lot of what happens in an M.R. James story is physical, atmospheric.

          I’m going to watch a few horror films whilst my wife is away (one thing to comfort me during her absence: I’ve got sole possession of the remote control). I’m also going to catch the stage show of The Woman In Black at the Fortune Theatre- the fourth time I will have seen it. As good as the film version was, the stage version is a lot creepier. However blasĂ© you are about horror films, this play will make you jump.

          I only hope I can fit in all the decorating which I promised…