Posted on | October 3, 2012 | No Comments
Liars’ League is a monthly short story event that takes place in London. Whereas most literature reading events involve the discomfort of watching reclusive and shy authors stumbling over their words or churning through pages of their work in suitably serious literary tones, Liars’ League does away with all that because all the stories are read by professional actors. It also takes place in a pub – good readings, good stories and good pints – it’s the perfect combination.
This collection brings together some of the stories that have appeared at Liars’ League over the last few years, all themed around London. There are urban fairy tales, post-apocalyptic cities, royal wedding riots, football fights, office steeplechases, awkward dates, hippo fights and scrabble.
My two stories are ‘The Frog’, which was first read at Liars’ League in 2008. It’s an urban re-telling of the Grimm brothers’ story ‘The Frog Prince’ – a girl helps a frog she finds in a North London street, but the deal she makes with it turns out to be more complicated than she thought. The second story is ‘The Escape’, which I wrote in 2010 for an event celebrating the history of the Market Estate in Camden, which was about to be demolished. Set in the 1930s when the area was the site of the Metropolitan Cattle Market, it follows the escape of a bull and the fate of a father and his two sons. Below are two extracts from the stories.
From ‘The Frog’
“So, the girl and her deepest darkest heart’s desire go out for drinks after work and one thing leads to another and she takes him home. But she takes him a different route, nowhere near the New River. They go to bed, and she discovers his secrets; the line of dark hairs down the centre of his chest, the scar on his thigh, the taste of his narrow mouth. Then, when they are lying there in the dark, her heart’s desire fast asleep because he has an early start tomorrow, the girl hears a noise on the stairs up to the door of her flat. Pur-flop. Pur-flop. It’s soft as a purse dropping from a pocket. Pur-flop. Pur-flop. It stops outside her door. Flop.
“Open the door. Lift me up to your bed. I have come to sleep on your pillow.”
The girl lies still in the dark, her scalp prickling. She doesn’t answer.
“Open the door. I want to lie against your cheek and stay with you wherever you go.”
Her heart’s desire shifts in his sleep, but still she doesn’t move. She doesn’t sleep herself, not that whole long night, or even in the very early morning when she hears the soft pur-flop, pur-flop, moving away down the stairs. She takes the other route to work that day.”
From ‘The Escape’
“It’s Lionel Levett who releases the bull, unhitching the hasp from the ring through its nose. He watches it slip between the wooden boards of the stall and into the street, smooth as a ship launching. As it sails past he reaches up to douse its wide, warm flank with a splash of lemonade from the glass bottle in his hand.
The bull reminds Lionel of his father, and if there’s one thing in the world Lionel would like to do for his dad, it’s set him loose. Nev Levett owns a market stall selling the scrap silver that stains his hands black with sulphide. Sometimes Lionel finds his dad stretched out under the stall with a handkerchief over his face like a corpse, but he isn’t sleeping, he’s shaking. Annie, Lionel’s stepmother – that’s who Lionel blames. Annie has a sting like a gadfly when she gets going. So the bull, sweltering in its stall in the Cally Market, makes Lionel think of his dad, and so off the chain comes and out the bull goes. Lionel watches after it with the feeling of a job well done.”
Posted on | July 13, 2012 | No Comments
Leave the slip road, nudge out into the slow lane between a Norbert Dentressangle lorry and a Volvo estate towing a caravan with mint-green go-faster stripes. Wherever that slip road led from, you’re on the motorway now. You could be anywhere.
Motorways are uncanny non-locations, spaces we know intimately but never set foot on. They are so ingrained in our lives, so iconic, so socially transformative, that it’s perhaps surprising they don’t feature more in literature.
Attempting to redress the balance, on Wednesday night the London Literature Festival hosted the launch of In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway, a new collection of poetry, prose and fiction inspired by the motorway. The collection, published by poetry specialist erbacce-press, intersperses poems with prose musings and explorations of the history, imagery and influence of the motorway. It’s an eclectic mix, from poems making only oblique references to roads, to detailed discussions of the landscape of the M62.
I was sold on the title alone. I love motorways. I think it stems from a childhood belief that my dad built the M5. In reality he got a student holiday job in 1970 on a work crew building a bridge over Junction 13 at Whitminster. Dad was on the Big Pour, the 24-hour slog to fill a bridge-shaped mould with concrete before it set, waving an endless stream of concrete trucks into place, unable to stop even long enough to deal with the hole that was gradually filling his boot with liquid concrete.
By then, the British motorway-building programme was on the cusp of decline. That same summer of 1970 the Westway opened in London. Unlike previous motorways, which had been greeted with public fascination, the press attention this time was less friendly. The Westway ploughed through streets of London suburbia, feet away from the bedroom windows of once-tranquil Victorian terraces. Public feelings towards motorways, once seen as a means of escape both literal and symbolic, was beginning to turn.
The novelist best known for examining this ambivalence towards the motorway is JG Ballard. The Westway is the setting for Crash and its spiritual sequel, Concrete Island. Crash may be the better known of the two, but it’s the plot of Concrete Island that comes to mind every time I drive over that muddle of lanes and bridges where the road flies past White City.
A blown tyre sends architect Robert Maitland’s Jaguar plunging through a temporary barrier and down an embankment, ending up on a patch of wasteland hemmed in by three roads. Injured and dazed, Maitland is stranded, unable to attract the attention of the drivers above, unable to find a way out.
I’ve always shared Ballard’s fascination with these stray bits of motorway land, snipped away from the rest of the countryside like fabric off-cuts. They are familiar but unreachable. We see them, but don’t notice them. Crashing onto the island, Maitland enters a weird through-the-looking-glass world. He becomes invisible himself. ‘A defective tyre-wall, a bang on the head, and he had suddenly exited from reality.’
Ballard’s motorways are metaphors for alienation, the dissociation of modern life. He saw the car as the ultimate expression of the 20th Century, and the motorway as its symbolic architecture. He wrote in Drive magazine in 1971, “If I were asked to condense the whole of the present century into one mental picture I would pick a familiar everyday sight: a man in a motor car, driving along a concrete highway to some unknown destination.”
The concrete island is a map of Maitland’s modern mind; he is also cut off emotionally; from his wife and son, from his mistress, from his past. It seems right he should end up there. Perhaps he even caused the crash, his exit from reality, deliberately. In the end, Maitland starts to feel at home in the other-world of the motorway.
Will Self, influenced by Ballard and a self-confessed motorway obsessive, also used the symbolism of the Westway in his novella Bull: ‘the line of the flyover formed the stick shape of an enormous woman. The head was the elevated roundabout at White City. From there, one extended arm was formed by the motorway spur that ended in Shepherd’s Bush roundabout. The other arm was flung over the woman-figure’s head. It arced into a three-lane elbow, then placed its hand in Acton.’
In Self’s short story Waiting, a man stuck in a jam on the M25 is obsessed with how much of modern life is spent in that state: “…while they wait nothing is happening, and when they stop waiting nothing will happen either, and while they have waited nothing will have occurred…” He leaps from the car, unable to wait any longer, leaving his friend stranded on the motorway.
The motorway is a time rather than a place; a time apart from the real world. A tailback pauses motorway time, reduces it to a point, a long moment. Julio Cortázar’s 1966 story The Southern Thruway imagines a monster jam on a motorway outside Paris. No one can leave their car in case the queue moves on a few feet while they are gone. Hours turn into days. Small alliances begin to form between groups of cars. Leaders emerge. Food and water are shared, rumours move up the line about the cause of the tailback. As the weeks go by, foraging parties go out into the countryside for food. A man begins a relationship with the woman in the next car. Later she is expecting a child.
Here, time is paused so long that it stops being motorway time at all and becomes real life again. A white butterfly lands on a windshield, its wings ‘spread in brief and perfect suspension’, an impossible image of stillness, of time passing normally on the motorway. When the jam finally clears and the group of familiar cars breaks up, the reality of the motorway seems brutal, bizarre: ‘not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.’
Alienation also runs through the work in In the Company of Ghosts, from Hazel Mutch’s poem ‘The New M62 Interchange’ (‘There I was alone in the night suddenly / curving / in a camber of shellgrip’) to David Lawrence’s study of the ‘particular isolation’ of the night-time geography of service stations. In Emma Brooker’s short story ‘Homes not Roads’, a woman stumbles across a camp of Twyford Down protestors. Swept up in the moment and persuaded to vandalise a bulldozer, she feels ‘…elation, a thrill of pride, a sense of release from all the things that tied her to this world.’ When the motorway comes despite the protest, the ‘bleak, white ravine’ that rips through the downs is symbolic of that tear, that absence at the heart of modern life.
In the foreward to In the Company of Ghosts, Edward Chell talks about the nostalgia of the motorway, what was modern become dilapidated, old, reflecting back at us ‘the fallibility of our plans and dreams.’ It is perhaps this awareness that gives a sadness to the physical poetry of the motorway, the concrete arches, abutments and stanchions, piers and cantilevers, the interchanges shaped like cloverleaves, trumpets and split diamonds over which we trace our desire lines, the routes between where we are, and where we want to go.
Posted on | July 11, 2012 | No Comments
Post for the Guardian Film Blog on ghosts in film. Click here to read the whole article.
More than any other medium, film has the power to scare us silly. In the dark of the cinema, the suspense of a slow pan, that shadowy figure at the edge of frame – the shock of a sudden sound-effect, or jittery jump-cut – all come together in delicious, breath-stopping, heartbeat-skipping moments of pure cinematic fear. But forget chainsaws, zombies or psychos. The best scares in cinema are the ghosts that don’t rely on gore to frighten. Subtly terrifying, flesh-creepingly sinister or horribly uncanny, here’s a roll-call of the most memorable, best-realised apparitions on film.
Posted on | June 9, 2012 | No Comments
When death turns out to be not so final, when your dearly departed start turning up on the doorstep in the suit they were buried in, the world’s got to change.
My short story ‘Glenn Miller and his Zombie Orchestra’ is currently available to download for free on the Ether Books app, available in the Apple App Store.
Posted on | May 31, 2012 | No Comments
Latest article for Litro.co.uk.
An airport is a philosophical question it can take a transatlantic flight to answer.
I went on holiday with my boyfriend to the USA a couple of years ago. We’d only been going out a few months. As the plane took off, I watched Heathrow dwindle away below us. The chaotic specifics of baggage check-in and Starbucks concessions coalesced into a pattern of geometric shapes on a green background.
I experienced a sudden shuddering sense of the uncanny. How had this huge, infinitely complex mass of tarmac, technology and the travel branch of WH Smith come into being? Its function, to send planes full of people roaring into the sky, was achieved by a mesh of individuals, each doing their job, unaware of the humming, glittering whole.
It was like one of those creatures that look like a jellyfish but if you peer closer are made up of thousands of tiny organisms living their little lives while the colony drifts through the sea.
I grasped my boyfriend’s arm. “Why is the airport there?”
“It’s handy for the M4 corridor.” He didn’t look up from his game of Puzzle Bobble on the seat-back screen.
“I mean, why does is exist? No one ever designed… that.” I flapped my hand at the scene below us.
“Well, someone thought a flat bit of land would be good for an airfield.”
“No, right, it’s like the universe. It’s just happened. There is no god.”
“Fuck!” There was a tinny explosion from his headphones as the bubbles filled his screen.
I’ll gloss over the rest of the discussion from this point until my boyfriend marched, glassy-eyed, towards the baggage carousel at JFK, shouting, “Maybe we should ask someone in charge. Excuse me, WHY IS A FUCKING AIRPORT?”
I now realize that if only I’d gone on holiday with Alain de Botton, the flight would have been more relaxed. Alain would have been happy to dissect the philosophical implications of an airport all the way to Brooklyn.
To read the rest of this article, visit Litro.co.uk.
Posted on | May 27, 2012 | No Comments
My short story A Sense of Wonder is in the latest edition of .Cent magazine, a beautifully produced eclectic mix of art, fashion, photography and literature. It’s available from London stockists, or the digital version, also lovely looking, is free to download here.
Posted on | February 14, 2012 | No Comments
An article for Litro Magazine – click here to see the original
Feeling bitter and twisted about the whole chocolate-coated, rose-tinted, heart-shaped Valentine’s behemoth? Fuel your antipathy with a good gloat over five of the top romance fails in literature.
1. Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennett (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen)
Priggish clergyman Mr. Collins is in Hertfordshire “with the design of selecting a wife”. He settles on his cousin Elizabeth Bennett, but after explaining his reasons for marrying (his patron told him to), his reasons for choosing of Elizabeth (he feels guilty for inheriting her house), and her reasons for accepting him (she’s likely to die an old maid otherwise), for some reason Lizzie declines. She would get the prize for literature’s most crushing turn-down (“You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so.”), if only Mr. Collins didn’t keep taking her refusals as flirty come-ons. After all, when a woman says no, she really means yes … doesn’t she?
2. Gabriel Oak to Bathsheba Everdene (Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy)
Gabriel’s hard-sell of the advantages of marriage might be humble (some chickens and a piano, because farmers wives are getting pianos now), but he ends on a high with perhaps the most beautiful vignette of a loving marriage ever written: “at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be – and whenever I look up, there will be you.” But don’t worry, Gabriel crashes and burns anyway. Bathsheba Everdene’s not keen on being a man’s property, and tells Gabriel in a rather off-hand way that she doesn’t love him. Bathsheba embarks on a disastrous love life before Gabriel gets his second chance
3. St John Rivers to Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë)
St John Rivers is in love with the beautiful Rosamund Oliver, but she’d make a terrible missionary’s wife, so he proposes to plain, hard-working Jane Eyre instead. But Jane gives him the classic ‘you’re like a brother to me’ speech – St John doesn’t love her for a start, and he’s got a wet handshake to boot. Of course, her heart is also elsewhere, across the moors with her moody, mad-wife-hiding pet project Mr. Rochester, whose marriage proposals involve a lot more sweeping to bosoms and chest-beating and whose handshake is undoubtedly crushing. No contest, really.
4. Konstantin Levin to Kitty Shcherbatskaya (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)
Stolid, awkward landowner Konstantin Levin’s is desperately in love with Kitty Shcherbatskaya. Finding her alone, his face becoming more gloomy than usual as he realizes he has no excuse for not making his move, he launches into a proposal that scores points for being gloriously awkward: ‘I meant to say … I meant to say … I came for this … to be my wife!’ Unfortunately, after that promising start, Kitty turns him down, because she’s head-over-heels with the dashing Vronsky. Of course, Vronsky’s not so keen on her (it would be a shorter book if he was), and Levin gets another shot at it later, but for now he retreats to his country estate, devastated.
5. Mr. Stevens to Miss Kenton (Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro)
The build-up for this proposal lasts a whole novel, and when it finally happens at the end … well, actually, it doesn’t. Prim, repressed butler Mr. Stevens is travelling to meet his old colleague Miss Kenton, who has written to tell him her marriage is in trouble. Stevens claims to want to ask her if she will return to her old post as housekeeper at Darlington Hall, but he is also drawn by the promise of a second chance at the most important relationship of his life, one that he sabotaged the first time round because he couldn’t bring himself to admit his feelings. Miss Kenton confirms that she has often thought of how her life might have been better with him. But she will stay with her husband. “…at that moment my heart was breaking”, says Stevens, admitting to his emotions for the first time, and far too late.
Posted on | February 9, 2012 | No Comments
The Evils of Spain by V.S. Pritchett
A group of old men meet for a meal and remember the day years ago when one of them nearly drowned. The story is a babble of their exuberant, affectionate and chastising voices, arguing over food, over the placement of their table, over their memories, as they retell the tale of Angel’s near-death experience, a story they must have relived at every reunion, time and time again. This is a melancholy and tender elegy for youth, and as the story finishes we want to stay at their table, silent and enrapt, as they ask Angel to explain about the pyjamas.
Posted on | February 6, 2012 | No Comments
The news that the science fiction author John Christopher died this week at the age of 90 has had me thinking about the influence his books had on me. The Tripods and the Sword of the Spirits trilogies had a huge effect on me when I read them as a teenager. They helped to shape my tastes in literature for life, and I still have vivid memories of them.
Coincidentally, I picked up my old copy of The White Mountains, the first book in The Tripods trilogy, the other day and started to re-read it for the first time in years, unaware that John Christopher had died. The Tripods are huge alien machines that rule the earth at some time in the not-too-distant future, keeping the human race subjugated with mind-control caps that are fitted to teenagers as they come of age. A group of boys escape their cappings and begin a journey that will lead them to discover who controls the Tripods, and what they can do to overthrow them. Many people my age will remember The Tripods from the excellent 1980s BBC TV series that was made (although never completed).
John Christopher had the knack of creating complex, believable post-apocalyptic worlds dominated by authoritarian power structures. That was fascinating to me as a teenage reader, just forming my own views on the power structures of family, society and state in our own world.
To celebrate his writing, I’ve started reading his adult science fiction novel, The Death of Grass, which has just been published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.
Posted on | February 5, 2012 | No Comments
The precisely drawn character of the Verger is a joy– a fastidious former butler who keeps his worn-out verger’s gowns in brown paper in the bottom of his wardrobe and thinks he has a job for life. The new vicar discovers he is illiterate, and the verger chooses to leave rather than change his ways. The ramifications of his decision build to the final smile of the last line.keep looking »