Thursday, 23 December 2010

Desperate Living

This has been the worst week of my life. Real misery is shopping for lipstck in Wood Green shopping centre two days before Christmas and seeing the woman you love more than anything in the world, now almost totally bald and the few remaining hairs glued flat to her scalp with Aloe Vera paste, burst into tears because shes too tired to go on and too confused to use an escalator.

They didn't have the bastard lipstick either.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Rant in the key of life.

Kelly has a theory. It's a lunatic theory because sleep deprivation is slowly driving her mad. And it's a desperate one because we are desperate. It is simply this: none of this is real.

It's the "intelligent design" theory of tragedy. The misfortunes befalling us are just too neat, too pat; too petty. The way Kelly's condition has been deteriorating exponentially is fair enough - diseases take hold, they insinuate. They burrow in. They party. That's nature: red in hoof and tail, goatee bearded and horny headed.

But...I attempt to have a night out. My friend's band is playing in Stoke Newington, nearby. I'd like to go. I'm a bit fat to be a scenester but I like to keep my hand in. I invite Jess out and the moment I do there is a panicked phonecall from Mo, Kelly's sister. Kelly is a bit manic at her work's Christmas do. I ring her and she is indeed in an agitated state. I ask her if she is alright and she tells me she is fine and to go ahead and meet Jess. I text Mo and get a markedly different assesment of the situation and so I blow The Ethical Debating Society out. That's the name of the band, by the way. I ring Jess leave her two answerphone messages to say I wont be meeting her after all, and then send a couple of texts as well, to seal the deal.

It starts snowing outside, fat soft flakes the size of postage stamps. Under different circumstances I would enjoy walking in the snow, as I did walking the five miles back from the Royal Free a week before-hand, sloughing off the gluey hospital fug with the exercise and the keen wet cold. But time is a factor so I take the tube and it is delayed as usual. The driver spends the entire journey barracking his customers because one of them, somewhere, has left his bag in a doorway while the doors are shutting. I hear this everyday and on virtually every journey and I have never once seen anyone with their bags jammed in the doorway as the doors were shutting. And there are a lot of backpackers out there and all of them quite happy to ram their sweat soaked haversacks into you face, but crucially, never in the doors - they've got places to go.

So after a solid hour on the tube I got off at Finsbury Park. Where I live. I find no messages on my phone. It's now 6.15 and as far as I know Jess is on her way to sit on her own in a Stoke Newington boozer. I phone her again. No answer. I ring again and leave another voice-mail, this one rambling and incoherent, which is how she usually hears me speaking. And then I think: Fuck it! I've done what I can - if she's sat on her own own, cursing my name (and she would) it's not my fault - she needs a new phone.

I walk up to the house through the snow, salt staining the cheap leather of my boots. There is nobody in but Kelly has told me she is stopping off at the hospital to pick up an inhaler. I try the door. The key turns but the door doesnt open. I try again. The door which usually elastic, you can feel the cheap wood give slightly as you turn the key in the lock, is stiff and unyeilding. The door doesnt open. The deabolt has been put on. I'm standing on the doorstep of my own flat in the snow unable to get in. I try the key again. Nothing. I look up and see that one of the flats has a light on. There is condensation in the window. I ring the bell and there is no answer. I ring again. I try the key again. I ring the doorbell of the top floor flat where there is no light on. Obviously nothing happens. I ring Kelly and tell her I cant get in. She immediately assumes I'm accusing her of something, some sly subtle thing. There is a notion at the back of Kelly's mind and edging forcefully into her voice, that in some way it's my fault the door wont open as if this technology somehow exceeds my reach. A locking mechanism is about as far as my knowledge of physics goes but I have had some practical experience of doors. Kelly advises me to go to the pub and wait for them - she has the BIG key required for the secondary lock. I dont need telling twice.

It's half six. I go to my local. It's closed for a private party. I go to my other local. It too is closed for a private party. All of the pubs in the area are closed for Christmas parties bar one - The Stapleton Arms. It has its advantages - it's on the 210 bus route (just) so will be great for Kelly and Mo when they get out of the hospital. But it has its disadvantages too - it's fucking freezing and its full of cunts!

It's half eight now. I've made a glass of wine last two hours. I'll go home. Try the door. Perhaps one of the neighbours has unlocked it now or I will have magically learned to use a key.

So I ask you: has my vain notion of going out with friends really resulted in my wife no longer thinking I'm competent to operate a key, in my being forced onto the snowy streets and into the worst pub in North London unable to help or even talk to those I love, whose three hour ordeal in pursuit of an inhaler has worn her phone into a brittle stump of incommunicado. Could this be real?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

I think Fagin, as always, said it best...

I'm reviewing the situation,
I must quickly look up ev'ryone I know.
Titled people -- with a station --
Who can help me make a real impressive show!
I will own a suite at Claridges,
And run a fleet of carriages,
And wave at all the duchesses
With friendliness, as much as is
Befitting of my new estate...

"Good morrow to you, magistrate!" Oh gawd!

...I think I'd better think it out again.

So where shall I go -- somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves...
So at my time of life
I should start turning over new leaves...?

I'm reviewing the situation.
If you want to eat -- you've got to earn a bob!
Is it such a humiliation
For a robber to perform an honest job?
So a job I'm getting, possibly,
I wonder who my boss'll be?
I wonder if he'll take to me...?
What bonuses he'll make to me...?
I'll start at eight and finish late,
At normal rate, and all..but wait!

...I think I'd better think it out again.

What happens when I'm seventy?
Must come a time...seventy.
When you're old, and it's cold
And who cares if you live or you die,
Your one consolation's the money
You may have put by...

I'm reviewing the situation.
I'm a bad 'un and a bad 'un I shall stay!
You'll be seeing no transformation,
But it's wrong to be a rogue in ev'ry way.

I don't want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It's getting far too hot for me.
There is no in between for me
But who will change the scene for me?
Don't want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me,

...I think I'd better think it out again!

And a kick in the balls...

This used to be a blog, unread and unloved admittedly, about my writing. Events have somewhat overtaken it recently but Kelly's own blog A Quare Gunk outstrips it in every way. So it's back to the old untravelled path, the one that leads to my boundless authorial success.

So it is with a heavy heart and no little shock and horror that I have to report that things aren't going that well. They aren't going that well at all. As I have previously said on this here blog I'm at the point of sending out the completed manuscript of The Improving Parents, my delightful children's fable about treacherous parents and a thinly disguised satire on Scientology and the Alpha Church. It has transformed from a series of short stories to a fully realised narrative with, y'know, a journey, a narrative arc, a reversal of fortune and lessons learned - I am nothing if not a traditionalist. Much of this was on the advice of an agent who had spent time and effort on reading the first three chapters and was a great fan of my writing, the story and thought there was great potential. It was the most positive feedback of my so-called career.

Well not anymore. Having sent her the completed novel she is no longer a fan of my work. My new changes seem "cobbled together" and there is a "lack of cohesion". She longer likes the writing, merely "the premise". She suggests I use an editorial service like Cornerstones and lastly there is explicitly no chance whatsoever of her or her company ever representing my material.

Ah.

Not ideal.

Probably for the best. I was getting too full of myself for a while there.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Do the Hustle!

Sent off The Improving Parents as an unsolicited submission to two more agencies today - uber hustler that I am. If recent events have taught me anything, and that's debatable, it's that tempus is a fugitive and I need to be a fat ray-banned Southern Sheriff with two snarling dogs called Killer and Zeke. Like Tom Petty or Halle Berry I'm running down a dream.

Time to flex those hustle muscles: lift, seperate and hyper-extend! feel the books burn!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Ghost

She has the "The Ghost" back on again! Presumably with the notion that what didnt kill her may make her stronger. No fits so far!

Surprisingly it's not Kim Catrall or Ewan MacGregor who are the most annoying characters but Olivia Williams, out of "The Sixth Sense" and about two seconds of "Spaced", whose faux Cherie Blair seems to be channeling both Liz Hurley and Violet Elizabeth Bott.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Medical School taught yer torture

The cancer is in her brain. Kelly is back to localised radiotherapy, this time directly to her head. She will lose her hair again and there will undoubtably be burning to the scalp. She is terrified of brain damage; of not being the person she was.

The cancer being in her brain precludes her from taking part in the bespoke drug trials we had been anticipating and because of the "blood brain barrier" (blood treatments don't work in the brain as there is too little blood for it to be effecacious)so we're back to the bludgeoning burning radiotherapy again. Its for five solid days, ten minutes at a time; her head bolted to the gurney by a moulded mesh mask to stop her head from moving. It's medieval.If there's a fine line between medicine and torture, I think medicine just edges it, mainly because the onus is rarely on the torture victim to remember why they are being tortured and which instruments would probably get the job done.

It's a French farce complete with slamming doors, medical misunderstandings and cheek chewing character actors. Hospital is the only place where you still hear cockney accents that would shame bit part players in Carry On movies.

The Prisoner of Guantanamo Orange

We had our own room behind a paper curtain and we waited as you do in hospitals. They are centres of excellence for waiting and I've put in a lot of hours waiting in hospitals at one point clocking up a 12 hour stint in A & E that was so boring and frightening as I worked my way from five in the evening to five in the morning that I became spaced-out and hysterical, laughing like a nervous jackal as the doctor showed me my own femur through the green hole in my leg. So we waited. Gradually doctors arrived, did various stroke tests, banged Kelly with wooden mallets and went away again. Then an oncologist arrived and did the same thing with slightly more authority.

A begged egg sandwich and a cup of tea arrived, stolen by a friendly Dub nurse who looked and sounded like he could have roadied for The Boomtown Rats. He then took us to the ward on the 11th floor. And then I had to leave Kelly for another night in hospital in her Guantanamo orange pyjamas.

It was hard to leave. Not least because the Royal Free locks all but one of it's exits at night- I wandered the corridors for the next twenty minutes, clattering up and down the corridors, like "The Prisoner" without the fanfaring bongotastic theme tune, angrily shouting and laughing hysterically at the shit art on the walls, somewhere between imperial period MacGoohan and a helium filled Alexis Kanner. There was nobody about, every exit was closed to me - it was a ghost hospital!

Eventually, desperately, I span around a corner and almost crashed into a man ferrying a corpse on a trolley. I have never been so please to see a man with a dead body in my life.

"Please," I said, "please, is there a way out of here?"

"Over there," he said, gesturing over his shoulder. And he was right. I followed the thumbs rule, headed out through the double-door and into the icy night. Belsize Park on a freezing Sunday evening, with no taxis, trains or buses in sight. It was a long walk home.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Back in the Jug agane!

A sunday afternoon. Kelly and I attempt to watch the Ewan McGregor/Pierce Brosnan film "The Ghost". McGregor's accent is ludicrous, the script is a doddering exposition and when Kim Cattrall turned up I knew that something was wrong. And not just with the film. Kelly had already told me she was having difficulty dealing with her depth perception watching film, as cameras tripped in and out of focus it was hurting her eyes. The clincher came when she asked me to change the volume for her. Now this was extremely odd. Kelly is very nuch the practical hands-on one in our marriage. For her to ask me to do something vaguely technical, and pressing a button on the remote is about the limit of my technical sophistication, should have been a warning sign. A more obvious warning sign was when she started saying "erm" repeatedly, the sort of noise you make when someone makes an off colour remark in a social situation or when you're trying desperately to remember a word. And in fact it was the latter - though Kelly wasn't trying to remember a word but ANY word - nothing would come. Suddenly she let out a low gutteral moan and threw herself against the back of the sofa, her eyes rolling back in her skull, her teeth clamped shut, her body rigid as a table. I jumped up and grabbed her by the shoulders begging her to look at me, to acknowledge me. Slowly her body relaxed, curling like a passion fish onto her side. At last only her teeth remained solid, gritted. I thought for a moment. I could only think for a moment, from moment to moment. I thought about her tongue, how she might have bitten it in two or how it could have curled back in her mouth, choking her. But she wasn't choking and there was no blood in her saliva. I ran off once I was certain she was still breathing and phoned an ambulance. When I came back, jittery and sick with sweat, she was still lying on her side, but her eyes were open. I lifted her up and she smiled, her eyes were slipping in and out of focus, her recognition fading, the pupils expanding and contracting as her face seemed to cloud over in confusion.

"Do you know me, darlin'? Do you recognise me?" I said grabbing her arms.

"Love you" she slurred, grinning like a happy drunk.

"But do you know me? What's my name?

A levee broke inside her head. Words tumbled out: phrases, sounds, strings of disordered language patted out. "Bronagh and the bird-bag" was mentioned as were "the tablet, the tables of the tablets". It was language loosed from its moorings, a scatter-shot of attempted speech.

"love you," she kept saying. "love you" She had no idea who I was but she knew she loved me.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Back on the 210 again.

So I'm finally in a position to start sending chapters out again. I was doing this with my last novel "The Rain of Terror" only 6 months ago and with what became this book, back when I thought it was a book of short-stories, only three months ago. I dont half crank 'em out me! Sheer panic.

This book is better though, potentially the best thing I've done. It's certainly better than it was as six strange, vaguely related stories about poor parenting skills! Now at least they have a motivation for acting as they do. They fall back into a much larger narrative as the protagonist has new friends and a proper goal. There is an identifiable baddie, satire, parody, sci-fi and poo jokes. It's a lot of slightly subversive fun. It's also the best thing I've done in terms of sureness of tone and appropriateness of language. It's just over 30,000 words, which is short and therefore manageable and above all editable.

I've actually enjoyed editing for the first time and that's a real achievement for me.

And amusing story from Kent.

Last night the police surrounded my brother's house in Broadstairs as a fugitive of some stripe was clambering around on his roof. The hapless suspect was called Aaron. There was a lengthy standoff at the rooftop vigil during which Aaron shouted down "You can't arrest me! You haven't got a warrant!" To which the police replied "You're right Aaron. But we don't need one see cos you're on top of your neighbours roof!"

Thursday, 11 November 2010

In which I'm rude to a shouty Christian...

It was a packed Victoria line train that had stopped several times between stations and the man next to me closed his eyes and started mouthing and mumbling as if he were giving himself a pep-talk. Then suddenly he started bellowing down the carriage about how a great guy god is, how the Bible is a terrific page turning treat and how really into us Jesus is; how none of the bad things that ever happened mattered because this metaphysical space-hippy really loves us without even being introduced. So I told him to fuck off.

Not the sort of thing I would usually do because a) he can think what he wants b) I'm a tremendous physical coward and he was bigger than me c) it would involve me talking to someone on the tube and I've been in London for too long. But this morning I did tell him to fuck off because actually shouting a load of rubbish down the carriage at 9 in the morning is just arrogant and rude and because I'm having a rough time of it at the moment and Jesus hasn't dropped by with a six pack. The train started up again and he turned and I thought he was going to hit me but he just started rambling on again, directing his breathless rote-learned parrit - fashion nonsense at me directly this time. So I told him to fuck off again. He told me he'd pray for me and I said don't you fucking dare. And then I got off and went to work and remained unsmited for the rest of the day.

Though I did just hurt my ankle emptying a humane mousetrap into the garden. Hmnn.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

How do you make sense of this? My beautiful wife is dying.

She's 35 and onto a second, incurable cancer. The lymphnodes were the least of it: it's in her sternum, whittling out the bones in her chest, and it's in her liver: two lumps, one the size of a ten pee piece, the other the size of a penny. The surgeon pointed out that they didnt think there was any in her lungs or brain as though it were a bonus. That "didn't think" vagueness is the watch-word of all our interactions with hospital staff. I don't know how a surgeon wealds a scalpel when he's covering his arse with both hands.

It had been a nice morning and if I believed in signs and portents or you-know-who I would have believed that nothing could have been allowed to spoil a beautiful bright autumnal morning. Trees carpeted the pavements with red and their black naked branches saluted the blue sky. I should have realised this was the path to the spider's nest. In the waiting room, where we waited the customary hour after our appointment, which had been torture only a week before, we had fun, nervousness making us giddily chatty. Kelly's mum and sister werw over and the chat of Irish women cannot be stemmed, quelled or quashed. Except by the nodded instruction of an oncologist to come and join her.

The surgeon wasn't wearing a black cap but he may as well have been. His summing up was curt; spare: This is cancer. It's in the bone and the liver. It had grown under the battery of chemotherapy, effectively meaning that that particular protracted torture was pointless. The cancer is incurable and they didn't really know if it was treatable either. There was no point in surgery but there were other chemotherapies and drug treatments available. They might prove effecacious but he didnt know. He used the words "random" and "tossing a coin" several times to surely sever the last bonds of trust. And trust fell away like an unpopular mountaineer with a twisted ankle.

Kelly, bright eyed with unspilled tears, managed to ask a series of questions, her voice tremulous and high, her usual lilt straining horribly as if some terrible pressure was resting on her vocal cords. I sat there mute and glaring, clutching her perfect hand as if I were that unpopular mountaineer staring into the face of the abyss.

She's at a driving lesson now. A driving lesson! It's fucking heartbreaking.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Hospital porters are like unlicensed cabbies. They have no idea where they're going and theyre not afraid to ask random passers by or even the people theyre supposed to be moving. In hospital the onus would appear to be on the patient to know what should be happening to them at any given point. Any failure on the patients part to know exactly what's going on will result in irritability and bafflement from staff.

However once you have completed specific tests for a mappable and recignisable illness then you are magicked away to a far more rarified land. There is more room. There are less people and those that are there are genuinely unwell and seem a lot more focussed. Nobody here is shouting drunken abuse at the nurses or remonstrating with the reception staff about their parking. It is quieter and more condusive to reflection. I prefer this as I hate all of humanity and being near them in extremis, hearing their expressed thoughts, seeing their horrible faces, makes me want to bludgeon them to death.

It's a baffling regime for Kelly: she has been handed non-functioning beepers, injected with stuff, told to fast and then been given special drinks to drink. The promised drink will make her feel as if she has wet herself! Every week is rag week for doctors!

She's in a gown now, feeling ridiculous in the mixed waiting room where she is the youngest person by at least thirty years (not counting myself, though I do rather fit in). There are three elderly Irish women who never stop talking, all of them at once, the hubbub a continual stream of hissing plosives, like simmering soup. It sounds quite nice actually - you could drift off to it. They smell of lavender too - it's almost relaxing. There are two silent, hatted men. One of them wears a plush fisherman's cap and has wrapped a silvery rosary around his knuckles. I am reminded briefly of Scott Walker. The other man wears a neat moustache and breathes like he's already on a ventilator. He reads the Sun. We are waiting on a bone scan.

Lunch is in the local creche. It appears to be a cafe at first glance and I admit I was fooled by all the clever trappings at first: the food, the table service, the ubiquitous apple lap-top (lapple - top? apptop?)users taking advantage of the free wi-fi and going through the motions of flirting with the severe and unattainably attractive staff. But I was wrong. This is a creche. Just like everywhere else in London - any museum or library, any cinema or theatre. Even certain Trappist monasteries. Any where, in fact, that braying and entitled yummy mummies feel like parking their 4 by 4 off-road prams and allowing their colourful brood to scream for an hour while they flap on endlessly on about their lives. Today they are joined by a tall camp wally called Gideon ( the kids are called Zack and Oscar - of course!) who is getting his own back on one "Josh" who mocked him for missing the Arsenal one time because he was playing guitar in Cambridge with "Dave". This time it's Josh who is going to miss the football as he has to go to his girlfriend's grandfather's birthday party. In your face Josh! Gideon's going to tear you a new one with this little tit-bit. They're all in from swimming and the kids are grizzling with water in their ears but Gideon and his gilet wearing companions continue to quack on over the screams. Why arent they at work? Why is no one in London at work?

Why do I care?

We're still waiting on bone scan results.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

So cancer it is then. The swollen lymph-node behind Kelly's collar-bone is cancerous. What does this mean? Well the best case scenario is surgery and radiotherapy. Radio is far preferable to chemo as, while it leaves the patient tired and burned, it doesnt specifically poison the system. And while it is intrusive, you have it everyday for three weeks (every week day - cancer doesnt work weekends apparently)you can factor it into your life. Chemo takes over completely; your hair goes, your teeth rattle in their gums, you're exhausted night and day with no respite. There is nausea and of course the psychological horror of a shattered body image and the constant awareness of other people's discomfort at your changed appearance. It is truly, truly awful. So as I say the best case scenario is surgery and radiotherapy.

Trouble is that my wife and I arent that good on best case scenarios.

I find myself bubbling with barely contained fury at the moment. The sort of anger that can find no release and leaks out into other unrelated areas of my life. Interactions with my uniquely irritating family for instance who are taking a right kicking at the moment. It's just that there is no one to blame! I could have blamed God if the fucker had bothered to exist. I could have thrown my fist at the sky and denounced him for the coward, the liar, the bully that he is. But I dont believe in god. So who is there? Do I call Richard Dawkins a cunt? Do I desecrate Douglas Adams'grave? Do I sent Stephen Fry a turd in some tupperware. Well I've done all that and I don't feel a bit better for it.

There is nowhere for this rage to go. I need a "Fantastic Voyage". I need to shrink right down and take on cancer, mano a mano. Queensbury rules be bollocksed. I want to hurt you.I want to fucking hurt you cancer.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Wild Duck Chase

I left work to be with my wife and we went from the "Imaging Room" at The Whittington, up the hill to Waterlow Park. It was a beautiful day but unfortunately renovations to the Waterlow Cafe ruined our tranquility and we trudged off for a glass of wine and some onion soup in the Cafe Rouge. Then we took a long stroll through the whispering trees and wheezing joggers of The Parkland Walk; an abandoned train line left over from Dr Beechings cuts, now overgrown and full of bats and monkjack deer (never seen either). We alighted at Crouch End and I continued my search for ducks.

There were none in Waitrose, Budgens, Tescos or Marks and Spencers. I bought a couple of bottles of South African red and we continued our search. We made it to Finsbury Park. No duck in the Sainsburys. Tescos offered something called a "duck crown" and sold "duck legs" separately; a self assembley duck, if you will. I won't. We weighed up the pros and cons and finally trudged over to Green Lanes where the Sainsburys is so big that they have to have two everything; it's a noahs ark of rotting pumpkins and scowling, indifferent staff.

They had a duck! With giblets! Success. By this point we had been walking for about four hours and had been talking constantly. We had been through shell-shocked, to weeping anger, to stiff lipped denial and were now in a good place - chatting and joking. By the time we got home and I opened a bottle of white ( a cheap but rather nice vouvray) we were almost happy.

The duck was a success (though the giblet stock wasnt really worth the hour and a half it took to make) and our cotton wedding anniversary was memorable - if only for being one we woould rather forget.

We get the results of the biopsy back tomorrow. That may take more than a duck-walk to fix

Friday, 22 October 2010

Cowardly, lyin'...

So...I finished writing my book a week ago and since then I have done nothing with it. I have instead developed ulcers on the roof of my mouth as pernicious and damaging as dry-rot in a Cathedral's eaves and cooked an awful lot of soup. Soup is healthy and nutritious and most importantly can be spooned into a mouth like a haemorrhoidal arsehole in relative comfort.

And of course i'm putting off re-reading the book. I'm telling myself that I'm allowing it to settle, like meusli after transit, or simmering soup. But I'm not. I'm scared that it might be shit. I'm scared that there are jarring mood-swings, that the jokes don't work; that the central ridiculousness of the plot overshadows everything else and renders the entire story meaningless.

Enough cowardice. Tonight's the night, baby!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Yet another review but...lawks a lawdy...this one is pretty upbeat

Buy this fantastic record! I mean it! Buy it now!
In 1942, while deep-ploughing for sugarbeet in Suffolk, a farm labourer named Gordon Butcher, whom history records had a curiously pointy head, though it's never clear why history bothered to record it, accidentally dug up what has become known as The Mildenhall Treasure. It is widely regarded as the most extraordinary Roman treasure-trove ever to be found in the British Isles. The pieces were of such extraordinary quality and workmanship that there was some doubt that they could have been found in the manner descibed at all. How could such splendid, important artifacts be found by a pointy-headed man in a Suffolk sugarbeet field?

Gentle reader, I am that pointy-headed man and the internet that you see before you is my virtual sugarbeet field: for I have unearthed a treasure. Get ready to thank me.

Rough Trade Shop's "Psych Folk 10" isn't the tenth record in a series nor does it contain ten artists. This is a sprawling 21 song joyride across the sonic spectrum stretching what folk music means in the twenty first century. And there's not a bad song here. It's all good. Out of 21 songs there are no duds. That in itself is an amazing achievement and it does rather neatly illustrate the elasticity and robustness of the genre.

Jack Rose's "Moon in the gutter" is a sweet droning introduction and a nod to Claude Vasori's "Folk Guitar". This is followed, in marked contrast, by Wood's "Pick Up" - the sound of a castrato playing a single stringed guitar while people move furniture in the room up stairs. Espers introduce proggish synths and tricky time signatures alongside Meg Baird's crystalline folk voice and Sam Amidon's evocation of early seventies folk giants is extraordinary, managing to sound like both Nick Drake and John Martyn simultaneously - "Way Go, Lily" is a wonderful piece of music.

At the centre of this record, like a black-eyed spider in a bejewelled web, sits Alasdair Roberts. His "Spoils" may have been my favourite record of last year and "You Muses Assist" is presented here - a flute-impacted gem of a song. The sing-along chorus of "sterile rams and simulacra" accompanied by the most tone-deaf backing singing ever recorded shouldnt work, should in fact be breathlessly funny. And it is funny but it's also magnifficent, life-affirming and triumphant. It's followed by Men-An Tol's "Borrow my bed" and it's a tale as old as time: a young man with a taste for adventure decides to neck a load of pills and ends up in hospital. Kath Bloom's "Heart so sadly" is odd and affecting. Kath sounds like a pissed mum at a wedding but the song is so beautiful and the music so full and strong beneath her fragile delivery that effect is incredibly uplifting. Sleepy Sun augment their his 'n' her vocal trade-off with odd Lyndsey de Paul trills and Lau Nau (who disappoint only by not calling their album "Brown Cow") delight with the woozy miasma of their voices. They sound like you're staring at the sun through half closed eyes beneath a canopy of trees on a sunny day. Yes they do.

Six organs of Admittance introduce drones and a shoegazey lustre to proceedings as if to point out that modern folk is a very broad church indeed and Hush Arbors, Voice of the Seven Wonders and Ulaan Khol give us three variations on smoking psych-rock as well as three very silly names.

This is a fantastic record.

Review of Wetherby...

A quietly disturbing, beautifully written meditation on alienation in Thatcher's Britain. They really don't make 'em like this anymore. They didn't make many of them then.

This is a story of loneliness, about the unbridgeable gaps between people. It is quiet and it is savage; full of unspoken/unspeakable moments a furious drunken Soliquising. And while it is unmistakably a period piece now it is also a timeless study on what it means to "live a life of quiet desperation"; or what it is to be English.

Vanessa Redgrave, in a TOWERING performance, plays Jean Travers, a teacher in the Yorkshire suburb of Wetherby. A drunken dinner party she holds for her friends is attended by John Morgan (Tim McInnerny) an enigmatic young man whom she assumes is a guest of Marcia, (Judi Dench) her best friend. Shortly afterwards he returns to her house carrying a pair of dead pheasants and without warning commits suicide in front of her at her kitchen table.

So there is a puzzle at the centre of "Wetherby" - why did Morgan choose to shoot himself in front of Jean? Was it the desperate act of a lonely man looking for any sense of connection. The police investigation reveals that Morgan was obsessed with local librarian Karen Creasy (Suzanna Hamilton) described by Jean as "the sort of girl people become obsessed with" but known to Marcia for her "central disfiguring blankness". Karen invites herself to live with Jean for the next few days until a tense confrontation sends the young woman away.

This is a film about emptiness and dislocation, about one generations inability to interact with another: the drunken ranting post war generation and the numbed separateness of Thatcher's babies. This dislocation is reflected in the film non-linear structure too, and in the haunting parallel narrative of Jean's doomed romance with an Air Man.

This is a quiet film, intercut with splenetic ranting, a simple human story, striated with shadows thrown forward and back, colouring, shaping and obfuscating. And it is simply a classic of English cinema from a time when English cinema was about to stop.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Finished

The first draft of "The Improving Parents" was completed yesterday. Now I actually have to WRITE it. Because of its peculiar and convoluted gestation it's going to require more rewriting than practically anything else I've written. Most writers crack their knuckles and say "Right!This is where the fun begins!" They're wrong - making stuff up in the first place is the fun. But this is where the craft begins. It's a different kind of enjoyment, a deferred pleasure. It's like planing wood. But with more jokes and less repetition of the word "And".

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A review of Dermot O'Leary presents "The Saturday Sessions". It's god-awful.

What is the point of this record? Who wants this record? Are there really any Supergrass completists who must, must, must have a rather scrappy run through of "Beat it"? Can there really be a market for indie bands doing "ironic" cover versions of "pop" hits in this day and age? Even when they're quite well done, The Divine Comedy's transposition of MGMT's "Time to Pretend" for solo piano for instance, the "meh" factor is through the roof. Especially when the transfer is far to high for Neil Hannon's natural register making this normally effortless and natural singer sound as if he is gasping for air throughout.

The bands who do their own songs are even more redundant. So Elbow can do a decent studio version of "Grounds for Divorce" rather quickly and in a rather cheaper studio than it took them to record it in the first place.Why? And doesn't your heart just sink when an r 'n' b singer brings in a session guy with an acoustic guitar and a stool to lay down a raw version of one of their own songs. Doesn't a tiny piece of you want to shrivel up and die when Sia trills and ululates all over the place as if making up for the missing drums.

I really have nothing against Dermot O'Leary and I don't doubt that he is in awe every single time somebody knocks out a half-arsed comedy cover version for his show but nobody need own this record. Switch on radio 2 now and you will hear something almost exactly the same.

Save your money: buy a bad haircut or a good bottle of wine. Better still go out and buy a good record.

Review of Bry Ferry's Olympia

Bryan Ferry lives the dream. For a certain kind pretentious (but not too pretentious) Europhile he has been the poster boy for glamorous disaffection for four decades; a Geordie Alain Delon, forever leaving the casino chipless and with an heiress on his arm.

He's married into the aristocracy, been cuckolded by Mick Jagger and hung out with the original Pop Artists. It's quite the C.V. And of course he does, even if it seems increasingly discreetly, deliver albums of jewelled perfection every three or four years. It's hard to know what Bryan is trying to achieve now; there are no real progressions here from 2007's "Dylanesque" or 2002's "Frantic", but then Bryan's not really about progression. He's about distillation. He know what it should sound like and he has the clout and good taste to bring in whoever he wants to play bits on his records. The roll-call of players on this record is extraordinary: Nile Rodgers, Dave Gilmour, Flea(!), Mani, Jonny Greenwood and that baldy guy from that band he used to be in. If anything this album is too tasteful; there are too many slapped basses and untreated blues licks for my liking but there's not doubting Bry's intent: this is the album he wanted to make, the album in his head. Pretty much like all of the rest of them.

It starts well. "You can dance" is a chilly floor filler with the dead-eyed repetition of the title at first a command, then a mantra. "Alphaville" is remarkable chiefly for the fact that he has never used the title before. "Heartache by Numbers" is a very brave title for Bryan to use and is his collaboration with the Scissor Scissors. It has a bit more wah-wah on it than usual but sits very neatly with the rest of the collection.

Bryan's voice is quite extraordinary these days, hollowed out and smoky; it's a parched whisper, infinitely subtle. It allows him to sing anything and imbue it with a sense of meaning and dignity. It's by far the most interesting thing on "Me Oh My" which has far too many sensible guitar parts. His voice is almost subversive, it's watery gurgle almost detathed from humanity as it slops around on these songs.

"Shameless" is expensive sounding disco - you can imagine it filling the floors in a St. Moritz nite-club with people too rich to know how to dance. We'll gloss over the covers, except to say that if you ever want to hear Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" produced to sound like "Sweets" by World of Twist, this is the place to start, because the real meat of the album is in its last two songs. "Reason or Rhyme" with its none-more-Bryan reference to "A Dance to the Music of Time" is seven minutes of sumptuous euro- cosmopolitanism; Bryan's alternately husky and trilled vocal shadowed by a simple piano figure, over a backdrop of whispering female vocals and a juddering, echoing bass. "Tender is the Night", another archly self-referential title, starts with a selection of parping space-ship noises, and you can practically smell the Eno, although this is the nearest thing to a piano ballad on the record. The lyrics are a list of older songs, half remembered, a pop-cultural shopping list, but Bryan's languorous delivery makes them sing like poetry on the page. It is beautiful.

This is another Bryan Ferry album made by and for Bryan Ferry. You may like it but you'll never love it like Bryan does.

Monday, 4 October 2010

A review of Daughters of Darkness

From the sheer oddness of seeing the words "Cine Vog" before the credits sequence, from the squat black font of the titles played out against the blood red back-drop, from the oscillating progishness of the music, you know that "Daughters of Darkness" is going to be a wild ride. And it doesn't disappoint. There is something cruel and kinky at bottom here; this is a world (well a Belgium) where relationships are marked by violence and betrayal, where nothing is tender or kind, and words when spoken are not used to mollify and placate but to wound. That's when words are used - the Francois de Roubaix' furious player-piano soundtrack does a lot of the talking here.

Daughters of Darkness is the story of newlyweds Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen - Harvey from "Cagney and Lacey" unrecognisable here as a kind of evil Bjorn from Abba!) who arrive at the amazing Hotel des Thermes in Ostend as a stop-gap before taking the ferry to England to meet Stefan's mother. It's at the hotel that they meet Countess Elizabeth Bathory (the sublime Delphine Seyrig) and her secretary Ilona ( an astonishingly foxy Andrea Rau.) A rash of bloody murders anticipate both of their arrivals and all is not what it seems: Stefan is in no hurry to get back to England, and the Concierge recognises the Countess from 40 years before and though he is in in late middle age she hasn't aged a day.

There is a lot going on in Daughters of Darkness. It's an exercise in glorious style which never-the-less has a coherent narrative. It has a truly international cast but this only adds to the starkness and oddness of the circumstances: the two couples wander around the enormous, Art deco hotel haggling over who will get the Royal Suite to the only member of staff! The food is delicious but there is no one to cook it! The film should be a picture postcard from Belgium, in the same way "In Bruges" was, but Ostend pictured here is unremittingly bleak, the sea view from the hotel window turbulent and dotted with ferries. The retired detective who investigates the murders "as a hobby" spends much of the film standing on the grey sand-flats outside in almost comically torrential rain.

There are old and new horror tropes here; when Stefan cuts himself shaving, a la Jonathan Harker, he is wearing a modish shorty dressing gown. The Countess clearly models her style on Marlene Dietrich but Ilona is a dead-ringer for Guido Crepax's "Valentina" comics, themselves a a reference to Louise Brook's timelessly chic bob. (Crepax's creation was filmed as "Baba Yaga" in 1973 but I maintain Andrea Rau's creation is he more impressive).

It's Delphine Seyrig's film, from the first time we see her; her brilliant teeth framed by blood-red lips, framed by the darkness of her veil, like a 40s key-light was trained upon her. She is seductive, mesmerising and controlled, perfectly presented and precise. Her fluttering hands, the way her inner life moves like changing weather across her bone white face. And then suddenly she is ruthless and pragmatic. The masks slips to reveal another mask.

I love this film. Beautifully shot, wonderfully realised, stinking of decadance and amorality like three day old lillies. And this is a rare bloom, director Harry Kumel made hardly any other films of note ( barring 1973's little seem "Malpertuis") his last outing being almost 20 years ago. This is a timely realease and while it's difficult not feel short-changed by the complete lack of extras ( a travelogue around Ostend from the time would have worked !) it's good to see this amazing film released for a wider audience.

Fresh blood for the "Daughters of Darkness"

Friday, 1 October 2010

Review of the remake of "Night of the Demons"

Well this was a surprise. I was expecting a version of "Night of the Demon", Jacques Tourneur's inky black foray into shadow and suggestion, fatally flawed by the unwanted intrusion a big scary monster. But this is a remake of "Night of the Demons": tawdry 80's shlock-horror gore-fest. And things dont stat well...

Director Adam Geirasch's mission statement ( and I am franky horrified by the idea of a director's mission statement! ) reveals "My aim for "Night of the Demons" was to make the ultimate film that my seventeen-year old self wanted to see. Punk rock, demons, scantily clothed women, gore and big scares!" I suspect me and Adam were very different kinds of 17 year olds, given that my idea of a good time was wearing an off-the shoulder cardigan, covered in badges and hanging around in record and coffee shops never buying anything. But I'm older now and sufficiently coarsened so I can see where he's coming from.

The film opens with some dodgy sepia back-story. Eighty years ago, on Halloween night, Evangeline Broussard hanged herself from the balcony of her New Orleans Manor house. This Halloween Angela (Shannon Elizabeth) has rented the place out and everybody who's anybody is going. This doesn't include local drug dealer Colin ( Edward Furlong, and he's really let himself go - he looks like James Dean Bradfield!) who is desperate to get inside and reap the rich rewards of a captive audience. When the police arrive and break up the party only seven guests remain behind: three moronic men and four nubile young women in light bondage gear. It's then that they realise that the gates have been locked and their "cell-phones" have stopped working. And that's when weird shit starts happening.

Inspired stuff, eh? Did i mention it comes with that dull, chugging American version of goth-music that was everywhere in nineties, and fewer acting chops than you might expect from your local butcher's window.

However, HOWEVER. I did quite like it. Sure, it's the sort of film that IMDB reviewers would describe as a "turn off your brain, get a pizza and a six-pack" classic but in fact it's not quite that stupid. Furlong is remarkably unaffected and scuzzy and, despite the uber-boobedness of many of the women, the playing is fairly naturalistic. There are some great lines: "Maybe pantry is French for fucking deathtrap" and "she stuck a lipstick in her boob and it fell out of her pussy, okay?". It's the okay that gets me every time!

And it has the best "breasts-behaving-badly" scene since Ken Russell's "Gothic".

By the end you are really rooting for Monica Keena's Maddie, so much so that at the rather matter of fact end to the film,she makes it seem cool and stylish, rather than hastily pat. No mean feat.

So "Night of the Demons" came from behind, hacked bloodily away at my preconception and eventually made me like it. Though maybe i'm not such hard-arse after all: I DID thrill to the blink and you miss it Linnea Quiqley cameo. And it takes a special kind of pathetic nerd to do that!

The Deadly Optician

Watching Dr Who, The Deadly Asassin. One of the Time Lords appears to be wearing glasses. What an affectation!

(Yes, this what I'm doing instead of working. Actually it's worse - this is what I'm doing while i'm working!)

Peter Butterworth in Carry on Behind

Two days crippled with the worst kind of flu known to man, man flu*, but the will to power up my cheapo lap-top is undiminished. Completed four illustrations for an article for a Belfast arts magazine and have forty pages of notes to type up for the final two chapters of "The Improving Parents" - "The No-Show" and "The Ball". I also have to review "Daughters of Darkness" and "Night of the Demons" for an on-line magazine. The it's not the fantastic Tourneur version of "Night of the Demons" but some crappy modern version featuring scantily clad women and plastic prosthetics. Ho hum.

By the way Adrienne Posta is by far the best looking woman in Carry on Behind, despite looking like a panda eyed Jon Pertwee.      

* a slight head-cold

Monday, 27 September 2010

Where am I?

Yesterday I finished plotting the final chapter of "The Improving Parents". This is a good thing as it means that not only do I know how it ends ( I've had a vague idea since the format was revamped but now everything is slotting neatly into place) but it also gives me a specific idea of what to work towards. The beauty of knowing your ending (and this the first thing I've written where I haven't really known what happens - I usually know the beginning and the end and have to get from to the other by means of an indirect and incident strewn narrative) is that it causes a ripple-back (should such an expression exist ) through the rest of the book: you get to add things along the way, correct pathways and cut off narrative tributaries, so it looks as if you knew what you were doing all along.

The other thing that's great is that you see the thing as a whole for the first time and you can see where the fat is, while your trimming scissors hover. It's where you start to write...  
     

Sunday, 26 September 2010

When did you last see William Gaunt

I've seen the actor William Gaunt twice in the last two days - yesterday at the Tate Modern in a pair of crocs and today in Crouch End wearing normal shoes in the rain. I've never seen him before but I do well remember him from "The Champions" and the sit-com which featured Martin Clunes as is son, where he was permanantly pissed in a shed with Michael Sharvell-Martin and which was always appended with the announcement that "William Gaunt is appearing in the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, in "When did you last see your trousers."

Quite why William was the only man allowed an advert on the stringent BBC I'll never know. Maybe those powers he picked up in Shangri La were still working for him.

It's a shit business

I am a writer of children’s fiction and as such I crave rejection. I’m lucky in this respect because rejection, and its boon companions: “futile endeavour” and “time not spent in the pub” are the natural and super- abundant reward for the unpublished children’s author.     
A novel can take years to write, can frustrate, torture and embarrass. The sending of a novel out into the world is not unlike sending a child off to school for the very first time. The book is nurtured and shaped according to your values and aesthetics; polished and neatened for its first interaction with the outside world and then sent blithely off, in squeaky new shoes and without a backward glance, while you bawl inconsolably at the school gates. This is where the metaphor breaks down however,  as unless something has gone disastrously wrong, you should have your child back that same evening, more or less in one piece and none too traumatised by the event.
With your manuscript (solicited or otherwise) you can wait up to six months for any kind of a response. (Though most publishers and agents pride themselves on a three month turnaround) And when that response arrives it will be two or three lines of blandly discouraging guff on letter-headed paper with a looping signature in blue biro.    
It may sound tired and jaded, and indeed it is, but my advice to any aspiring writer is: know someone. A friend of the family, a college mate; a de-frocked priest who owes you – anyone who can help you stick your head above the paper parapet.  You may not rise to the top of somebody’s teetering slush pile but you will leap like a ticklish salmon over those manuscripts that come without a recommendation.
And there are going to be a lot of manuscripts in a children’s publisher’s slush-pile. This is because everybody thinks they can write a children’s book.  Children are idiots, they can barely read! They’ll settle for any old rubbish: a bee with non-stick legs,* a giraffe with whip-lash; a bulimic cow. Stick it in a moralist framework with loads of faux- na├»ve illustrations and you can herniate your postman with massive royalty cheques.
It’s at this point at I become sickeningly idealistic, so readers of a cynical disposition may wish to look away now. I believe that the best books are children’s books. The best children’s books are full of uncertainties and subversion; little upsets and tiny revolutions. They should be about assessing preconceived values and puncturing facile assumptions. Good children’s fiction is about ideas in a way that almost all adult fiction isn’t. Most adult books are about women shopping and men blowing things up.  No books are more beloved, more stark and strange than those you read as a child. None are as closely scrutinised, as learnt, as those you read in your teens. As an adult you don’t have the time and you don’t have the focus – you’re too busy worrying about weight-gain, downsizing and the accumulation of tattoos.   A child is a perfect reading machine and to be a children’s author is a privilege, not a right or a fore-gone conclusion. Unless you’re Geri Halliwell.   
But unless you get out of that in-tray and not into the recycling it’s never going to happen. Now I’m not saying that publishers are going to throw your manuscript into the recycling. They won’t.  And that’s not because publishers are massive eco-squanderers (though they DO get through a lot of trees!) It’s because most publishers won’t accept unsolicited submissions at all. The first defence of the publishing industry, and most people’s only point of contact, is the Literary Agent.
These are the men and women with the address books; literary hustlers who know what sells and who to sell it to. They also have a lot of advice, much of it contradictory and all of it involving a lot of rewriting.
My own book “The Improving Parents”, an everyday story parental oppression and childish revenge, caught the eye of several agencies when I sent out the standard submissions package (three chapters, a letter of introduction, a synopsis and an embarrassingly brief description of my publishing history) and they each asked to see the complete manuscript.   None of them have subsequently seen “The Improving Parents” as the 100% solid kid-nip it clearly is or offered me piles of cash. But a few were interested enough to give me notes, advice and actual constructive criticism. The criticism would have me construct the narrative in completely different ways: if one liked the “knowingness” of the dialogue, another asked me to tone it down. If one thought the chapters were rambling and unfocussed another thought them gnomic and tight-lipped. If one was a fan of Eric the protagonist another would prefer his friend Freya. It was all wildly inconsistent and I was wildly grateful!     
These people don’t have to do this; I’ve had enough tersely polite notes describing “a lack of enthusiasm” (this is publishing speak for “it stinks like ripe brie in the toe of a work boot”) for my work to really appreciate time spent actually discussing it. They aren’t paid for it; they don’t necessarily stand to gain by it: it really is because they see something in the work.  And any advice is good advice; if you have a clear-eyed notion of the value of your work and there is a good idea at the centre of it, then you can bend and stretch it in all sorts of directions. One passing remark from an agent allowed me to re-imagine the entire story, adding narrative twists, layers of meaning, new characters and literally doubling the length of the book! This extra work has made the story a much more viable commercial proposition and made me more confident about sending it out into the world.
So in conclusion: it’s a shitty business, don’t even try and don’t queer my pitch!

*Actually this one’s pretty good – I’m using it.