January 12, 2009

different sort of opening

So how much did your Mum and Dad love you, Tasha, in those early days?

If I’m honest, I can’t remember all that much love. Fear, certainly; overpowering fear that your squashy head would stove in beneath a careless relative’s fingers, fear that one of us would toss you out of a second-floor window on any of the particularly tough nights (I watched your mother closely, Tasha; she wasn’t to be trusted). There was fear that you’d begin, in later years, to join the wrong crowd, and we became sick with worry as we imagined you morphing into one of the smoking ten-year-olds who used to hang out on Tavistock Road, and the upshot of that fear always came within a couple of seconds- what if she has no crowd at all?

In time we found a kind of desperate, obsessive love for our fears themselves, because they were the only method we had of expressing love for such a fragile object. Keep her off the hot surface. Keep her off the cold surface. And it was incredibly infuriating that while we scuttled around, rescuing you from certain death a thousand times upon a thousand, you’d just lie there, as if quite careless to the fatal possibilities yawning wide all around you.


January 11, 2009

Lovecraftising.

‘Horrid little creatures,’ thought Daniel angrily. He bent forward a little, and with a neat stroke of the razor snipped the tip off his pimple. It wouldn’t be a bad joke to deface the head they all admired- ‘Pah, a scarred face is still a face, it always means something: I should get tired of it all the sooner.’ He walked up close to the mirror and eyed himself distastefully. ‘Besides,’ he said to himself, ‘I like to be good-looking.’ He looked tired...Seven whiskies last evening all by himself at Johnny’s. Until three o’clock he hadn’t been able to make up his mind to go home because it gave him the shivers to put his head on the pillow, and feel himself slide away into the darkness, reflecting that there must be a tomorrow.

=

He considered them, after all, wholly horrid little monstrosities, devoid of the symmetric proportions and anatomical precision which makes the human most apparent.

He leant forward over the alabaster sink and sheared away the peak of his pimple, imagining that perhaps there would be something amusing, even triumphant, in annihilating his handsome face. He could shrug it off as a sort of biological stoicism;

‘Surely Daniel is still Daniel, no matter what his deformities? But, no...I suppose, they would shun me.’ Dropping the razor into the froth of the sink, he leant forward to gaze into the mirrored gaze of his simulacrum.

‘My God...I might look monstrous!’ The length and effort of his nightly excursions were clearly visible in the droop of the bags beneath his globes. Sweet intoxications had, clearly, deadlier outcomes. The thought of his returning home at night had been impossible, out of a kind of fear, which he was unwilling to mention to his landlady- the sense that, had he lain himself down in his bedsheets, and extinguished the lights, he might somehow have slipped into a waiting darkness- an eternity of horrors.


December 29, 2008

Funniest literary moment of 2008?

Gossip-column stuff perhaps, but it really was funny; Anne Rice, the established vampires rising-again/Christian born-again novelist, giving a justifiably sour-grapesish review of (rant at, really) the hugely popular children’s book series about vampires, Twilight, in the Sunday Telegraph. Bastards haven’t kept it online, she doesn’t have it on her own website, and I, foolishly, haven’t hung onto a copy of the article, in which Rice suggested that perhaps if she, like author Stephanie Meyer, wrote about cardboard characters in a clichéd romantic plot with little narrative interest, then maybe she’d make millions of dollars as well. Tone can be better appreciated by reading her response to negative ‘comments’ on one of her books published on amazon.com. Here the author asks the amateur reviewers, “who in the world are you?” and informs them, “you have used this site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies”. Finally, and most memorably, “Be assured of the utter contempt I feel for you”.

Compare this to the late Harold Pinter’s rather lovely response to a negative piece of criticism towards a play by his friend Simon Gray, telling the critic in question, “As we are friends…perhaps you should be more considerate.”

Investigation into authors’ use of the internet to respond with rather less class to reader responses led me to another popular vampire author, Laurell K Hamilton (what is it about this genre and authorial prickliness? As worryingly, why am I finding this so fascinating?) who responded to negative amateur reviews by telling her critics, magnanimously, “Let me say that all of you that hate the books, and have decided not to read them anymore, I am happy for you” and then, less so, “There are books (out there which you can read instead) that don’t make you think that hard. Books that don’t push you past that comfortable envelope of the mundane.”

Hamilton goes on to express her view, in a Sarah-Palin-esque philosophy, that there are “negative readers” and “positive readers”. It is the reader’s responsibility, according to Hamilton, not to criticise a book if it’s not their specific cup of tea. Popular relativism at work?


December 20, 2008

Ghost Story

           We all need to escape sometimes. That’s my view, anyway- especially around this time of year when the nights are a little colder in bed by yourself and you’re always in danger of those depressing thoughts. If you can afford a little unreality, you should go for it.

           I’ve built up quite a collection now- slotting the CD into my disc drive- and this one is pretty good, even by the standards of the rest of the series. Nothing to drive away a rainy winter night than to sit in my jim-jams with a cup of cocoa and the adventures of my heroine. At the moment I’m halfway through Chapter Four. A wizard has stolen a crown containing my soul, and I have to get it back.

           Compare that to the news today. The man-woman has failed in his/her attempt to cross over; he/she is having another baby. A genocide somewhere. Someone’s been going around London killing young men. Charming. If there’s no romance to be found- I think- we need to make our own.

           Mum actually calls about that last one.

           I’m just saying, dear, you should be careful.

           It’s men he kills, Mum. I’m not in any danger.

           It says here, she replies, and she’s probably not even listening to me any more, that the last victim underwent enucleation. Enucleation!

           Do you even know what that means, Mum?

           She goes quiet for a few moments.

           Mum?

           I’d better put the tea on, she says.

           I emerge into a still landscape. Princess Ellesmira is waiting for me. Her golden hair is wafting over the water of a chill-running stream.

           Lady Gora, she says. I have to curtsey.

           I can reply;

1)     YOU ASKED FOR MY HELP, PRINCESS?

2)     WHAT DO YOU WANT?

3)     A PLEASURE TO MEET YOU, PRINCESS.

           or, as a sort of funny joke,

4)     SO YOU’RE THIS SO-CALLED BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS EVERYONE’S TALKING ABOUT? I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WAS GETTING SO JEALOUS ABOUT.

           I assume the men can’t say that one.

           You’re in grave danger, says Princess Ellesmira. Lady Gora, you’re in grave danger, even as we speak.

           A thrill runs through me. I scroll to all four corners of the map. There aren’t any enemies to be seen. I put on the ring which allows me to view the hidden and the invisible. Again nothing. This is clearly more than a normal test of cunning.

           If you aren’t ready, says Princess Ellesmira, then you’re going to die. Do you understand me?

           I equip my shield. I’m ready for anything. My armour shells outwards to maintain the curve of my fine breasts. As I breathe, they swell. I hate to think what sort of pervert came up with that one.

           This is peculiar. Princess Ellesmira, by some feat of game mechanics, is weeping. The dialogue options flash up onscreen again.

           WHO ARE YOU? I ask her.

           The reply reads,

           I am one of those who went first.

           MEANING?

          I am unable to help you. I can’t even move.

           And as if to illustrate that, she jerks about for a couple of seconds.

           Another sentence comes onscreen.

           He’s watching you from over your shoulder, Lady Gora.

           I spin around. The meadows are empty.

           I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

           The phone is ringing. Damn it. I pause the game and jog back into the kitchen.

           Hello- I begin, glancing back.

         The light of the computer screen reveals his face in flashes. A cold, stubbled mouth. Hair flattened over his brow. He’s been standing outside in the rain. Jaunty music is still blaring from the speakers. He steps into the doorway. I can no longer speak.

           My eyes, I think. Enucleation. He’s going to take away my eyes.

           Mum snaps,

           Walter? Walter, are you there?

          


December 18, 2008

We

Part one of a poetry/prose two-part challenge with Kat to write something about 'current affairs' and 'today's big issues' that is subtle, unpolemical, and which doesn't make you groan a little when you read it.

Haha.

We shan’t ask one another,

“Where were you when it happened?”

We all heard and saw it the same.

We shan’t understand your horror

at this ghastly inheritance;

at least, not yet.

We shan’t picnic on the Heath

(nobody goes there now.)

We shan’t give birth to tears.

We shan’t gape at the latest toys

without guessing, a little,

that someone is playing with us.

We may go hungry.

We shan’t demonstrate

against hearsay and footage;

none of it sticks in the memory.

Shan’t, won’t, can’t- see?

We’re speaking like you did already.


December 14, 2008

Monologue of a Bearded Man

He has to put the poor creatures down. There are only three shells left in the old two-barrel. Mercy, he thinks, it’s a mercy, and slides his hands around the throat of the fourth, which is crouching on its broken leg, still docile, as if expecting him to resolve the situation.

           Sorry, he whispers, and all the sorrier because I can’t remember your name- and while he’s wringing its neck, he twists his head around to gaze over the horizon as if its hooves are applying some equal pressure upon him.

           The skyline is silent. Nobody to watch, he thinks. Nobody to judge. Something in that makes him feel a little happier. He hefts the burlap bag and turns his back on the carcasses. The wind will scald their bones.

           I had a duty, he says aloud. Let me see now- a job to do. Its own rewards.

           All that can still be clearly defined is the roads. He tries to imagine them from the air. A great web of threads leading nowhere, in any direction.

           At the edge of the little town he finds a broken chimney-pot half-sunk in the ground.

           Distractions, he thinks. That’s all I could provide. Perhaps there’s something to be gleaned from that- maybe when the time came they were so involved with the distractions I brought them that they never really noticed their own deaths. Silly little fantasies. Maybe some of them were so plugged-in they didn’t even hear what was coming. That’s something to be glad for.

           The streetlined loudspeakers are still playing, on increasingly fuzzy repeat, Irving Berlin. Dreaming of that which he used to know. An evacuation song, he thinks. Soon the song will break down altogether. He dumps the burlap bag by the roadside and trudges on.

           …MAY YOUR DAYS BE MERRY AND BRIGHT…

           I think I dreamt once, he says, that there were people here, hundreds of millions of little people, and they were all depending on me for something…something important. No, it’s gone. I hope it mattered. It’d be great to think it mattered, back then.

           …MAY ALL YOUR CHRISTMASES BE WHITE…

           The empty sky howls. Celestial laughter.


December 13, 2008

Which 3 books changed your childhood?

An incredibly peculiar sensation- wandering up into the attic to find the Christmas decorations and then spending forty minutes leafing through the old kid’s books. Chief memories, I then realised, were-

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child

Every time I bring this book up I’m met with puzzled looks. To reiterate; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road featuring two clockwork mice (a father and son) who require constant winding in order to continue moving, which puts them in a terrifying state of dependency as they journey across a bleak landscape, searching for the other toys they once knew to try and forge familial bonds. Features slave labour, traumatic death and philosophy. When you’re seven years old, the concept of a tin of dog food depicting a dog holding a tin of dog food depicting a dog, etc., is something of a mindfuck.

Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe

I’ve been flicking through Google to see how well Green Knowe has weathered. It mostly seems to appear only on explicitly Christian book sites, which is a shame. The story is familiar- some curious children explore a mysterious (possibly magical) old manor home. A running parallel between the lives of these children and some children from the distant past (now existing as somewhere between phantom and memory) is rudely interrupted by the awakening of Green Noah, a possessed stump of tree and bush (sounds silly, but it’s terrifying) whose beard must never be cut. Noah is taken out by a real deus ex machina- a statue of St Christopher, no less, channelling lightning- but by that stage you were too relieved to care much about religious brainwashing.

Roald Dahl’s The Minpins, illus. by Patrick Benson

The illustrator is important- The Minpins was maybe the one Dahl book that would have suffered from Quentin Blake’s whimsical cartoons. One image stands out in the memory- a tiny boy, staring forward into an enormous boundary of dark, looming trees. It is, of course, the Forest of Sin- ‘none come out, though many go in’, which, the young boy’s mother claims, features monsters such as vermicious knids, the soul-sucking blobs from the writer’s other most frightening children’s book, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The Minpins themselves, generic little Borrower-people, are the weakest element in this story. Far more exciting is the beginning- when a children’s book features the Devil in the first few pages you’re bound to look up- and the end, in which the child, on swanback, battles an unseen monster with the horrifying signifier of a plume of smoke moving through the forest. The ending’s tainted slightly for me now by the echo of Dahl’s ‘slightly older audience’ short story The Swan, in which two bullies torment a younger boy, finally forcing him to attach the wings of a swan they’ve shot to his own arms and attempt to fly from the top of a tall tree. It deserves a mention for being brilliantly disturbing and effective- but, sadly, in a career full of murders, cannibalism and grotesquery, it’s the only thing I’ve ever read by Dahl that was actually nasty.

All of this maybe confirms something me and James Harringman have been discussing - the greatest childrens’ books tend to be the ones that no sensible adult would ever dream of letting a child near...


December 12, 2008

'WHY poetry?'– two bad answers to a sensible question.

Poetry- the palliative cure for an unknown disease; we treat every symptom as it turns up but never truly understand the cause, and never aim to defeat it- we may utilise the solution, but we’re in cahoots with the sickness all along.

You missed that lecture;
“What’s poetry to you?”-
twelve sleepscarred hands

choking plasticked moccas.
We didn’t understand,
though the usual braggarts

had it nailed: poetry
is a vacuum. Poetry
is that sort-of-tingle

in your stomach
that makes us special.
But this is Grabbist,

lands of low-slung hills
and infant remembrance:
boundaries of elm

trawling to the sea;
dipped and yoked
by the adult’s tongue.

December 09, 2008

Master of Ceremonies

Master of Ceremonies

There’s strange goings-on at court at the moment. Someone broke the Queen’s platinum single last Tuesday; the chambermaid found it shattered in the hallway. Nobody’s owning up. They know all too well how the Queen would punish them. She took to her bed for the rest of the week and sent Sophie PA out to buy her a new dress. Which, of course, upset the costumier. And then we were all faced with the sight of Sophie herself, her tubby little body quaking, scurrying back up the drive trailing a sixty-thousand-dollar dress behind her.

And then there’s the matter of the security cameras. André, the bodyguard, halts midway through his habitual stalk around the hedges to tell me,

-Murdoch, someone’s taken out the security cameras. I’m busy feeding the koi carp. The Queen picked them out herself; intshikigoi, an exceptionally rare variety. Nobody knows what to feed them so I toss a bucketful of goldfish fodder every morning. Many of them die, so it’s my job to net them up and order in more from Tokyo.

-Someone’s taken out the security cameras, André repeats. What are we going to do? The fish are bright, like sunbeams.

-Someone’s taken out the security cameras? I echo. He blushes.

-Some men from the company arrived and took them away an hour ago, he clarifies.

-Were they on the list?

-Yes.

-Then don’t worry about it. Speak to Sophie PA if it’s a serious concern. From behind the hedges, a solitary camera is clicking. There’s always one idiot who thinks he can see her in one of the windows.

***

Adam is sitting by himself in the kitchen in his gym kit, watching the sideboard with a vacant expression.

-Just did two hundred and ten reps, he says as I approach, without much confidence. I prepare his smoothie. Adam, who’s been sleeping with the Queen for four months now, serves as a litmus paper to her moods and graces. When he looks glum, the rest of the household knows something dark is on its way from the bedroom to us.

I stir the ingredients out into the blender. He drops onto the tiling and begins to do push-ups.

-Went to see her just now, he says, and Sophie PA told me she wasn’t to be disturbed. Think she’s in a mood with me?

–I really wouldn’t know, Adam.

-Her last concert went well, right?

-Full capacity.

-And the movie’s still doing great.

The critics abhorred it.

-Box-office smash, I tell him. He grunts, downs the smoothie, and wanders off in the direction of the tennis court.

My final duty is always to clean the gold records in the recording studio. The first is the Queen’s from her teenage years. My predecessor told me how his predecessor would tell the story of her insistent deflowering; how after her first Grammy, the tender fourteen-year-old Princess dragged in some tuxedoed grin by the name of Dan and told him what was going to happen. My predecessor’s predecessor spent the next seven minutes listening intently outside the door of the master bedroom. When she began to cry, afterwards, he marched in and picked the man up by his collar and drove him out to the middle of nowhere, abandoning him by the kerbside. He came back to the bedroom with a rare breed of chihuahua for her. Its pups are still around, I think, littering the lower corridors.

-Not like anyone would have the balls for that these days, he said, ticking off the list of guests for her twenty-first birthday. If she told you she wanted you to shoot her in the face, you’d do it- I mean, Christ, what would she do to you if you refused?

He left two months later. You have to keep on your toes in this job. You have to know her mind better than you know your own.

The broken platinum single is lying under a discreet silk cloth. André claims he caught one of the maids next to it, sobbing, who insisted that she had not shattered the disc but that she was crying ‘because it was like she never won it’. She’s on probation for now, but André claims last week’s security footage will resolve everything.

***

He calls me again at a quarter to three.

-Murdoch? Murdoch, are you there?

-Yes...I’m here...

-Something else funny’s happened, he says. The Queen’s not seeing anyone tonight.

-And? Christ...

-Murdoch, is someone else there with you?

-Nobody, I reply. Strictly true. A hopeful young actress. The lustre of the Queen is enough to make even moderately intelligent people think you can work wonders. Murdoch the Scotch court magician. I can summon demons. GQ, Cosmopolitan. Not so great; my predecessor, the second Murdoch, got her onto Time.

-She’s meant to be giving another broadcast, André persists.

-Another Alma Mater?

-Another of her African videos, he says. In the Heart. The Heart is where everything is recorded. The greatest of my duties is to fill the great blank studio for its every purpose. Music videos, interviews, and even, for two seasons, the hugely popular reality series True Royalty. And, of course, the Alma Maters; the Queen, emerging onto a fully-constructed African landscape, leaning down to starving Ethiopian children (the actors playing them make more money in this town than the blonde slip beside me ever will).

-Right. And...and the problem is?

-Nobody’s letting the crew in. Word is the Queen isn’t to be disturbed. The gates are shut.

I frown, and sit up. The hopeful young actress pulls face No.# 4 from her headshots, ‘Savage Disapproval’.

-So you’re locked out?

-All of us, he says. Adam went out for a snapper and now he’s here too. You need to come right away, Murdoch. Say hi to him.

A muffled moment.

-Hey, Murdoch, says Adam.

-Hi, Adam.

This is serious. It was the first Murdoch who initiated the snapper rule. Although nobody inside the house ever have need of anything, it remains important that the Queen’s consort be seen. So every couple of days, Adam must drive out through the gates on an imaginary errand; occasionally he will walk down and be picked up by a car. There the photographers can catch a few sneak glimpses of him. If he’s trapped outside the house, it’s entirely possible that they’re getting tired of him. Such a thing must not be allowed to happen.

-Just give me four-and-a-half minutes, I reply, and hang up.

I don my jacket and ask the hopeful young actress not to touch the mini-bar. She’s understandably shocked. She’d been under the impression that I live here. The Queen’s empire spans continents; many beds are hers and, by extension, mine to rent.

***

I arrive to an empty drive. The gates are open, and the security cameras are standing in the same places as ever.

The body is drifting in the carp pond. The bewildered crowd is standing all around it, but nobody seems to have noticed it. All eyes are upon the house. André spots me and nods, then turns back. And then the doors open.

The Heart, I remember thinking. She’s brought the Heart out here. Colours of people, like all the people of the world, streaming out into the night. My knees go faint. Torches somersault all around her. The Queen stands before us. She awaits our applause.

I lose my breath: magnificent. I’ve underestimated Sophie PA. She understands the power of good lighting. Presumably while the Queen lay bleeding to death in her chambers, she was already getting in the hairdressers and makeup to impress us. And perhaps her hair is a little blotchier, her face a little chubbier than the old Queen’s. But who’s going to notice that? She can probably sing, and act, just as well. She may not even punish me for sneering at her; after all, the illusion must be maintained. I glance over the faces of the crowd. Some other courtiers seem to have had the same idea. If anything, it’s the photographers who look less convinced.

Silence reigns.

And then Adam steps out from the crowd and walks the two, three, four steps up to where the Queen is standing. Their eyes touch. He kisses her, as a man kisses his long-loved and well-familiar lover.


December 02, 2008

The perfect writer's date movie?

Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, a film that suggests, in the face of all contrary evidence, that writers are,

a)     Caring and accomplished lovers

b)     Snappy dressers

c)      Crusaders for individual freedom, justice and human rights in the face of a faceless totalitarian regime

d)     Geniuses whose works will, as a matter of course, outlive political powers

and which also implies, by contrasting the life of the playwright Dreyman with that of Wiesler’s Stasi eavesdropper, that somehow writers aren’t wallflowers or voyeurs but people who ACT...


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