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…

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Football’s Coming Home

I went to a barber’s opposite my workplace in the week. My hair felt long and itchy, and the sun was blazing hot. I was served by an Eastern European girl. It was my lunch hour, and every minute counted. I asked for a trim- I never know what to say to barbers, except that I need a haircut, which obviously they must know.
 This time, she said: Which number? I was stumped. I’d been asked this before, again by Eastern European barbers. Is it meant to be the number of centimetres, and if so, is it the centimetres they take off or that they leave on? I said: Number one. The girl looked horrified. Her colleague explained to me that Number One was the shortest cut they made, it would leave me bald. Number Seven was the longest cut. I vaguely imagined that this would leave me looking like Michael Bolton, so I asked for Number Four.
Well a Number Four haircut is pretty much a crop. I don’ think my hair has ever been so short since I was in the womb. A Number One cut must be a scalping.
I’ve been trying to come up with a story since Christmas. I think I’ve only begun and finished one new piece of horror flash fiction. I’m trying not to panic.
Since I came back from a 3-day break in Dorset, things have been getting, well, sticky. The heat is rising, although my wife still insists on cooking roasts. The faces on trains are all dessicated. My work colleagues are beginning to go off on their holidays, leaving the rest of us short. This coincides with the time when all the arseholes are out in force. I finished work at eight o’clock last night, and if I’d had a machine gun, I think I would have opened fire. I keep asking God to take this rage away from me.
One f my colleagues has a partner whose cancer has come back. The partner now begins a new round of chemotherapy. I didn’t know what to say to my colleague the first time around. I’m truly stumped now. When I see my colleague’s bravery and quiet dignity, it certainly puts a lot of unnecessary stuff in perspective.
I bet on England to win the world cup. I knew full well it wasn’t going to happen, but I thought that they might have stayed in the competition for longer than they did. It wasn’t all bad news. I think, ironically, that England were better this time than they were in the last world cup. Wayne Rooney actually scored. They seemed to have more heart when they played, which was all I really wanted from them. Roy Hutchinson, as a manager, is an improvement. Frustratingly, though, it didn’t translate into goals.
Anyway, I made a bet on France at the same time…

Monday, 16 June 2014

Hardy People


            We’ve just got back from Dorset. My uncle, my dad’s brother, has put up a memorial bench for my dad in the seaside town they were evacuated to during the war. The bench overlooks the sea, and I feel like my dad was with us the whole time. The weather was glorious.

            My uncle and aunt were staying at an old cottage with an incredibly steep wooden staircase, and our room was at the top of the house. There were wooden beams in every ceiling, and the cottage owners had filled it with some valuable-looking antiques. I was taking photographs of everything.

            Out the windows, we could see the sea again, and the Norman church. Seagulls flew over our room the whole time.

            I got to meet one of my dad’s school friends, and heard a lot about his childhood. I also got to see the place where my nan, my dad, his brother and his sister, lived in- it’s a wooden holiday cottage, the size of two bathing huts welded together, and during the time the family lived there, it didn’t have electricity or running water, only a pot-bellied stove which had to be fed with driftwood. These days, you’re not allowed to live in it during winter.

            Whenever my dad told me anything about his childhood, I switched off; but in any case, he didn’t tell me the half of it. He never really complained, but he was dealt some awful hands during his lifetime. Since he died, a couple of years ago, a lot has fallen into place, and I realize now what he was putting up with.

            I feel guilty about all the arguments we had as I hit puberty. And about a decade or so when we didn’t really communicate, and neither of us understood each other. I’m glad, though, that we reached a sort of truce before the end. A lot of that was due to my wife, who was fond of him, and brought him out of his shell.

                                                            *

            Before heading back to London, we stayed a night in Dorchester, and visited Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s house, a mile or so outside the town. My wife is a lifelong Hardy fan, and she got me to read Tess Of The Durbervilles and The Mayor Of Casterbridge. They’re magnificent, and I’m determined to read more of his work.

            You got a real sense of the man and his world as you moved around the house and gardens. Funniest were the accounts of the famous people who met him, and especially the stories of Wessex, his beloved dog, who attacked everybody except T.E. Lawrence. But there was a sadness, too. His first wife, Emma, stopped speaking to him in the last years of her life, and lived in two rooms at the top of the house. When she died, he was overcome with remorse, which found its way into his poetry.

            I found this quotation from Thomas Hardy in Max Gate, which I thought was profound:

            A writer should express the emotion of all ages and the thought of his own.

                                                            *

            We’ve got our Kindles up and running, finally, and we were reading them at nights and on the train journeys there and back. I’m reading Madam Crowl’s Ghost and other stories by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an anthology put together by M.R. James, who was a fan. I can see now some of the influence Le Fanu had on James. They both use stories-within-stories to heighten the mood; they both have supernatural menaces which are borderline vampires; and they both wrote stories featuring curses-which-span-generations.

            As a result, I’ve fallen back in love with horror fiction. Microhorror is up and running again, and I’ve sent off a flash fiction for them to consider. It’s one I had ready, though. I haven’t written anything new in a while.

            The truth is, I’m stuck. I need to climb back in the saddle again. To come up with a story.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Kindling


                These are the continuing adventures of the starship Scribe, whose lifelong mission is to make money from writing fiction.

                A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to our local PC World and bought a Kindle and a Kindle Paperwhite. Ever since then, it’s been a rigmarole trying to get them to work. We already had a Kindle. I bought my wife one of the original versions for Christmas; she found out, said she didn’t want anything to do with it, and I should send it back. I didn’t; I kept it myself; and over time I came to fill it with titles by M.R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, etc.

                The screen froze on that Kindle after it was out of warranty. I suggested to my wife that I buy ‘us’ a new one. This time, she wanted one of her own. I’d like to think that I’d won her around to using Kindles, but I think the reality is this: on Thursday, we’re going down to stay for a couple of nights with my aunt and uncle, who are both well off and both IT savvy, so this was about saving face.

                Things seem to have changed since I bought that first Kindle. Nowadays, you seem to have to do everything on it via Wifi. Since we haven’t got that at home, I’ve been taking the new Kindles into public libraries, Starbucks, etc; trying to register them. With seemingly no luck.

                My wife said she only wanted a basic Kindle. The on-off button jammed on that, so I had to take it back to PC World. I talked to a gruff-looking man with a beard, who fiddled about with it before giving me a replacement. When I got home, I realized that the replacement was the more expensive Paperwhite model. We hummed and haahed about taking it back, before deciding that, for the gruff man’s sake, not for ours, we ought to keep it.

                But I couldn’t seem to register either of them via Wifi, and by now I was spending a small fortune on coffees, curly fries, etc. It was a revelation to me how complicated it is to get ‘free’ Wifi, with this cafe wanting your email address, that library wanting your membership card number, etc. I read a little bit about Kindles over the internet, and learned that, since they are manufactured in the USA, they are geared to US Wifi, which is different to the British one. If you’ve got your own Wifi at home, you can adjust it; but I could hardly nip behind the counter at Starbucks and start fiddling with their router.

                It felt like we’d thrown away £200. It was driving me up the wall. Finally, I got in touch with Amazon, and asked if they could register the Kindles at their end. They managed to register one, but not the other- the Paperwhite we’d been given by mistake. They couldn’t recognize the serial number. Could it be, by chance, some part of the mix-up? Some computery snarl up resulting from the fact that we hadn’t owned up?

                I lovingly replaced the second Paperwhite back in its box, then returned to PC World. I got the gruff bloke again, and was gearing myself up to telling him that I’d only realized his mistake after I’d charged it up. But he said that it was his mistake, they didn’t have any of the basic models left, and I should simply keep it. So I had a Kindle Paperwhite when I’d only paid for the regular Kindle. Which should have been good news; except there was something wrong with this one’s serial number; which I ‘didn’t know’ yet.

                Meanwhile, the original Paperwhite, although it seemed to have registered, still couldn’t get any books on it. Because I still had to use Wifi on it. I still don’t understand this; the only way I can explain it is with the analogy of the Channel Tunnel. France and the UK both had to dig half, and the two halves had to meet in the middle. I went back to Starbucks, back to the public libraries, and finally managed to download something.

                I went back to PC World the third time. I couldn’t get anybody else but the gruff bloke. This time, I was able to tell him truthful. He switched the Kindle Paperwhite on, and, using his store’s Wifi, registered it in five seconds flat.

                When technology breaks down, it really snarls things up. There seems to be no end to phone calls, emails, being kept on hold and being told that your call is important to us. And you can’t escape it. Even in supermarkets, if you want to be served by a human being, you have to join a massive queue. Otherwise, it’s a self-service machine which refuses to serve you if you’re trying to buy Paracetemol, until a member of staff comes over to verify that you’re old enough to buy it.

                                                                                *

                I haven’t posted to this blog for about a year now. I don’t know why. Events in my life were mounting up; and I wasn’t quite sure what it was for, any more. But I hope, if you’re reading this, that you find it interesting. And perhaps, if you write fiction too, that you find it helpful. Even if you’re learning from my mistakes.

                I’ve been writing made-up stories ever since I was at Primary school. Round about the age of 13, I decided that what I most wanted to be in life was a fiction writer. Actually, its truer top say that I can’t really do anything else; or, anyway, a fiction writer is what I’m meant to be, what I am, even though I still have to keep the day job.

                The type of fiction has varied. I’ve tried my hand at short stories, novels, stage plays and TV and radio scripts. I’ve gone from wanting to be the next Alan Bleasdale to wanting to be the next Nick Hornby.

                About three years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing prose horror stories. Initially, it was a bit of a lark, but then, to my surprise, I got hooked reading M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. And I started getting flash fiction published regularly on the Microhorror website. So, even though I’m still not earning a penny, I’ve had more success writing horror than with anything else.

                The editor of Microhorror, Nathan Rosen, put the site on hold whilst he finished his Masters degree. That threw me. Plus, I had the nagging voice in my head that I ought to be writing something nobler than horror. Contemporary drama, perhaps. Contemporary fiction. That I ought to try tackling the real world head-on, rather than filtering things through a genre.

                A better way of putting it, perhaps, is this: that I still feel angry about the world, and the way that it’s going. And I need to try to channel that anger. Make my protest (or, at least, make it more directly than you can via a horror story).

                I’ve started, in my writing practice (see Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones), to write about things which happened to me recently, perhaps as recently as yesterday. Things I saw and heard. The man screaming into his mobile phone: “You want to wake up and smell the effing coffee!” The shoplifter running through the shopping mall with security guards on his tail. All with the vague aim of coming up with a straightforward, contemporary (non-genre) story of some variety.

                At the same time, though, I’ve just read a superb book, So You Want To Write Radio Drama? by Claire Groves and Stephen Wyatt, and it’s given me the itch to write a radio script. A horror radio script…