About the verbalist

I write, I play guitar, I cook. And now I blog, it seems.

A lovely pre-birthday surprise from Holdfast magazine

Just when I was about to have the usual pre-holiday pleasures (mowing the lawn, checking those trousers still fit before you wash them, queuing up in Boots for insect repellent…), a lovely surprise arrived through the letterbox: the Holdfast Anthology #2, in which I am delighted to have a short story – Mr Gibson Checks In. (The story is exclusive to the anthology, having been selected from submissions for this ‘print only’ opportunity.)

Doubly delighted that the book is so beautifully designed and produced, and an especial thank you to Nelly Sanchez for illustrating it with an image that is pretty much exactly how I’d imagined Chevette would look.

(And a further thank you to Richard Hamblyn – not just an excellent teacher, but the inadvertent inspiration for the earlier, shorter version of this story. Speculative fiction is a whole new ball game for me, but one I can see myself exploring again. Demanding, challenging – and huge fun: a nice cocktail!)

And so back to the ironing pile, and then on to Sweden to be a year older. And arriving with an extra smile in my pocket thanks to this morning’s post.

Spring can really hang you up…

The transition from Spring to Summer feels like a ‘win some, lose some’ scenario some years. As the flowers fall off the wisteria – the portico over the patio has looked amazing, but then came the breezes and a lilac blizzard of falling flowers – so the roses come into bloom. There’s goodness if you wait for it, and stop focusing on the bad.

And life – in its literary moments – has been kind. There has been the usual torrent of ‘we’re sorry but this wasn’t quite what we were looking for’ emails in the inbox (as well as a couple of gratefully received ‘we really liked this, and you very nearly made the cut – please send us more work’ messages that read like they weren’t boilerplates), but I’m also hugely encouraged to have had stories appear in Issue 22 of Prole magazine, and in the very first issue of the – beautifully designed and produced – Token magazine (links on the right of the Home page, or on the Bibliography page if you’re minded to support the small presses and literary magazines that help to keep the art form alive). And one of my previously published stories will also be appearing in an US-published anthology later this year.

Elsewhere, I may be learning a valuable lesson in knowing your characters by an unexpected route: lyric writing. Writing lyrics to sing yourself is a matter of skill, but you are likely to already know your emotions, passions and concerns. Writing lyrics to be sung by someone of a different age, gender, sexual orientation and cultural background is a real challenge – especially when they are someone you don’t know that well. Whether this ongoing challenge will result in better stories remains to be seen, but hopefully a few people in Buckinghamshire will be judging the songs in performance over the summer.

Recent Reading

Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier

A war story, set both in Afghanistan and in the UK as a soldier recovers from traumatic injury, may seem like an unlikely choice: it was read on recommendation, not for its content but its approach. I was experimenting with writing a story narrated by a musical instrument as it ‘observed’ its player, and asked friends for suggestions of books that used object narrators. This was among them, and I’m hugely glad that it was. The narrators – all 45 of them – are inanimate objects that range from grain spores and surgeon’s saws to handbags and artificial limbs, but the tale they collectively tell is – despite the distancing effect one might assume – hugely moving. Described, the book sounds like a very clever idea: read, it feels like a masterful balance of restraint and emotion – the cleverness of the approach doesn’t intrude at all.

Saleem Haddad – Guapa

And finally Amazon’s ‘You’d like this’ metric pays dividends. I’d actually been put off by the blurbs (gay man in Arab Spring setting, identity politics), which sounded warning sirens about checklists and an author dutifully ticking them off. These are concerns that Haddad has risen above skilfully here: a rich and complex book where the people read like complicated, imperfect and contradictory human beings and the everyday collides with the universal, the topical and the political. The tragic and the heartbreaking mixes seamlessly with the mundane and – mercifully – the comic in a book that reminded me in many ways of Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded: there aren’t happy resolutions here, because life doesn’t work like that – and life is portrayed convincingly enough that the arc of the story feels lived rather than designed.

Eley Williams – Attrib. and other stories

If Guapa is rich in detail and content, the stories in Attrib are rich in a very different way. These stories are not ‘drunk on prose’: they have swallowed a whole shelf of dictionaries and are now working their way from optic to optic, necking books of proverbs, puns and rhetorical devices with gay abandon. It’s like reading a Dundee cake while drinking a pint of port, and the linguistic fireworks are hard not to enjoy.

But… once the cleverness sinks in, I wasn’t convinced by the residue in rather too many cases. The Alphabet and Bs both pack an emotional punch beneath their showy witticisms, but I’m not sure the same can be said for the other stories here: I’m left with huge admiration, but the actual stories don’t linger. I will read them again, to check what I have missed under the surface dazzle (it took me several stories, after all, to notice the almost entire absence of gender specifics about the characters in these stories).

Spring Soundtrack

Khalil Chahine – Noun: music by a Franco-Egyptian guitarist who has worked heavily in film music, this is richly ornate music that wears its orchestrations with dignity. Much more mature than his earlier work, this feels like a musician coming to fruition. Paris meets the Middle East, and accordions play alongside kotos.

Antoine Boyer and Samuelito – Coincidence: two young Turks of gypsy jazz and flamenco let rip on their guitars, with monstrous firepower but a matching musical sophistication that is startling given their youth. Yes, they play a Django song (Nuages), but they radically rework it – as they do Paco do Lucia’s Zyrab and – less expectedly – David Bowie’s Life on Mars. And they compose as well as they play. A startling record in more ways than one.

Renaud Garcia-Fons – La Vie Devant Soi: Garcia-Fons is a personal favourite, mining the same broad Euro-Arabic seam as Chahine in many of his outings although this album has a more French emphasis – his double bass virtuosity joins an accordionist and a tuned percussionist in music of surprising delicacy and wit. A lighter confection that much of his catalogue, but rich in charm.

 

The (T)ides of March, or the march of tides…

This is just a blog, not an awards ceremony or a reality show, so I’ll resist the temptation to say I feel blessed to have had another story published, although it’s definitely a honour and a pleasure.  (I’ve also just read Colum McCann’s advice to writers at Lithub and ‘Don’t be a dick’ is always a good maxim.) So, thank you to the editors of MIROnline for publishing Unstuck (click to read online), and especially to Sally Larsen for her eagle-eyed copyediting input: I still manage not to stumble through life telling people “I’m an author” – surely a phrase to be delivered in one’s best Leonard Nimoy? – but I feel slightly more like one today. (Thank you too to There Goes The Neighbourhood and ArtsGateway MK for recent opportunities to read my work publically

But it is a strange feeling to read yourself in published form, and this particular story retriggered a recent recurring thought: how rapidly seismic events seem to happening in the world and how unpredictable life feels recently. Most of the stories I write have quite long gestation periods, and cycles of revision – probably not an unusual situation, but one that can catch you on the hop when you re-read a work in progress several months down the line.

Stories may be one form of record of time passing (even if their plots are non-linear, the idea of ‘story’ certain implies a degree of Before and After), but I’m often conscious of the issue of contemporary references in fiction: stories not clearly set in the past where no-one uses a mobile or never checks their email feel as if these aspects are conscious omissions given their ubiquity. As Kevin Pickard wrote at electricliterature,how specifically you use cultural references can effect how specifically you place a story in a time period: everything has to happen at some actual time. But a story that is very knowingly set in 2017 but that doesn’t hint that time passes and things change may feel equally awkward – especially in 2019. While I’m not vain enough to think that I’m developing a timeless canon of investigations of human nature, a degree of timelessness – the way we think of decades having a particular character, perhaps, unless I want to make a specific time/event-related point – strikes me as a good thing, or something not be ashamed of attempting. It’s not that I don’t think a very precisely time-stamped kind of writing doesn’t have a place, it’s more that I think its place is probably somewhere closer to journalism or criticism.

But when social themes, culture and division seem to loom large, an observation or a story detail can feel unexpectedly dated or obsolete. The first draft of Unstuck, whose narrator is a young Slovak woman living in an English new town, was written in the autumn of 2015. Free movement of people was a reality that had yet to be seriously called in question, and an assumption: in a way, the story is partly built on it. Dorota’s reference to customers in her call centre voicing their wish that she might ‘go home soon’ was, then at least, a reflection of the background noise of racism and xenophobia that has always hummed in corners of English life. In the spring of 2017, with the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK currently unsecured, that background note sounds louder – the words haven’t changed, but the reading of them probably has. If mobiles and email are things you need a reason not to mention, are Brexit, Trump, populism and the national mood joining them on the list of things a ‘contemporary’ story needs to reflect – or find plausible ways to omit?

March Reading

Edouard Louis – The End of Eddy
A book about growing up poor and gay in a passed over, post-industrial village in Northern France, this has caused quite a stir in its homeland. Knowingly unflinching, it covers a lot of very contemporary themes, not least the culture and politics of the white working class and the difficulty of social mobility (not least as it is frowned upon as a further abandonment). As a depiction of growing up gay in an environment where coming out will lead to shame, public humiliation or physical abuse (all of which he endures anyway), this is powerful and insightful writing, although the book blurbs slightly oversell the originality of these insights. (The book may lack the saccharine coating of Billy Elliott, but it’s not so far removed from it.) It is also a strong read in its descriptions of the circumstances that make populist political movements appealing to ‘the left behind’ – an acknowledged intention of the author. If there is blame here, it is directed to the circumstances that create the behaviours and attitudes the young protagonist must endure from those around him and from which  he escapes not just geographically but by reinventing himself (hence the title and the author’s dropping of his birth name).

What good the bookmay do them is more difficult to discern: they seem unlikely to read this unless, given this is billed as autobiography as much as fiction, they are the authors’ family or former neighbours: French press coverage suggests some have not taken kindly to their depiction, or dispute aspects of it. (As a reader, even a gay one from a working class background, there were moments were the ethics of writing about the living worried me a little). A book that raises a host of questions and has sparked debate across the Channel. As a book with more than a whiff of social purpose that its author maintains was expected to sell poorly, “Why write this?” is just one of them. A book I’ll call important more than great, but good certainly

Sjon – Moonstone (The Boy Who Never Was) Continue reading

Making it a year of culture/February reading

geronimoIs it too early to declare the year a mixed bag? If this was a plane journey, I think someone would be apologising for turbulence and advising us to keep our seat belts fastened. Certainly dancing in the aisles might lead to sanctioning. Or possibly sectioning…

My response so far has been to go full speed ahead on being cultural. (I live in Milton Keynes: think of this as a boats against the tide thing.) City Lit Talks Back was a great evening, where I was very honoured to read for the launch of Issue #5 of Shooter – and very pleased to do so for a large and very attentive audience. And there’s been other culture too – an evening of world-class guitar playing from Derek Gripper and Paulo Angeli that combined the gentle rhythms and melodies of the Cape with a level of mechanical and musical adventure that is almost beyond description. (Try a video!)

pygmy_editedMore recently, The Incite Project’s exhibition of photography from the conflicts of the last few decades was desperately moving: it’s on until May at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, and highly recommended.  We also ventured into the Hauser and Wirth Gallery in Bruton, and were delighted and powerfully struck respectively by the work of Djordje Ozbolt (left) and Elizabeth Frink.

And perhaps a little resilience is paying off too. A short story about the death of the gay village will appear in Issue 22 of Prole, while another piece inspired by the thought that life as an angel might not live up to the brochures will be published later this year by Fictive Dream. (I’ll be reading part of the latter at the wonderful There Goes The Neighbourhood on 14 March – details here, and an excellent event if you had a Tuesday night free.) Thank you to both of them for having faith in my work, and helping me to have a little too. Onward and – maybe, eventually – upward, even if that handcart to hell seems intent on gathering speed in a different direction.

Recent reading

frinkTim Murphy – Christodora  Continue reading

End of year report…

pre-raphaeliteSo long then, 2016. In the end, there were no teary farewells. Just a sigh of relief, like the moment a ghastly uncle finally decides he should start heading home now and you try not to rush to get his coat for him. It ended, as years so often do, with red wine, fireworks and Jools Holland. The latter threw in my favourite moment – a pleasant surprise that shook me out of the expected for a few moments. Imelda May – a truly wonderful singer, but hitherto the queen of contemporary rockabilly – sang a sultry blues in a long black dress, her 50s quiff consigned to the past. She stepped from pose to composure, and stole the show.

Maybe 2017 could be a year of re-invention and renewal after all. (And of buying more CDs, inevitably. Plus ça change and all that.) Eyes right, lad, and get marching…

For me, it’s starting with a flurry of promising things. A new jazz band is emerging, and made its debut a few days ago. Following a Polish heavy metal band, knowing your set is full of Brazilian saudades and jazzy sophistication, is an interesting experience, and thank you to the audience for carrying us through. The second anthology Holdfast magazine will arrive from the printers early in February, and in the meantime I’m delighted that In The Gut – which I think may be my best story (which is both horribly immodest, and a little like answering ‘which is your favourite child?’ – will appear in the next issue of Shooter, published next Friday. So now to rehearse, as I’ll be reading an extract at Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, on 27 January (more details here).

Recent reading

Alexander Weinstein – Children of the New World

Continue reading

No birds, no trees, no peace for the wicked…

img_0550_editedAh, November. Or is it ‘Argh, November’? The jury is still out, I suspect, waiting with baited breath until after the US election results – when as usual, I will spend a night cowering in front of a TV t find out what I could have just as easily learned by going to bed and listening to the morning news bulletin. Ah, but it’s the narrative, the tension…

While I wait (or maybe that should be we wait – you now, me and those pesky inner voice), good things arrive, like London buses, in a sudden huddle. The award-winning folk behind Holdfast magazine secured their crowdfunding, and Anthology #2 is now at the printers. I might not have been prophetic enough enough to see it coming, but I will very shortly be a published writer of sci-fi. (Or perhaps of a story in the clothes of the genre that’s really about future-scepticism and eternalities? Buy a copy and decide.)

tgtnnov2016Another story, Bro, has just appeared at the US site, Chelsea Station Magazine (and a dark little adventure it is too – even the dog has a bad morning), and I’ll be reading an extract from it tonight in Hackey at the excellent There Goes The Neighbourhood literary salon. And a third is currently shortlisted for a competition and the wait – another wait! – is on for the results.

Elsewhere in this fractured gig-economy life, I’ve delivered a lecture to University students on the role of copy-readers in helping writers produce their strongest possible fiction, and a new jazz band is in the offing. The idea struck a chord. G13m9/6, if I’m not much mistaken.

Recent reading

Adam Haslett – You Are Not A Stranger Here and Imagine Me Gone

Continue reading

The hardest part of writing

theditAt first, I thought the answer was obvious. The editing, the revising, the scrutinising, reviewing and reconsidering – well, easiest isn’t the right word, but they’re probably my most liked. Twenty-plus of editing just about any kind of text almost certainly helps. Reading the story aloud helps too: if the sentence feels clumsy to say, or there’s that one word you always thought probably wasn’t quite right? It wasn’t. Do something about it.

Editing needs a certain mindset though. Don’t do it for reassurance, or tell yourself you’re ‘good at this’. You’re editing it because it needs work, so get on with it. Leave it alone for a long time if you can: wait till forgotten how the story goes. As far as you can, imagine it’s the work of someone you want to help but making the story clearer, the characters better drawn. A certain aggressiveness – an attitude to the text that says ‘no, this won’t do’ – helps. But editing has a joyous side too: the satisfaction of leaving something better than you found it. Continue reading