The Annotator

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My new short story, The Annotator, is published by Token Magazine this week and is available now from http://tokenmagazine.bigcartel.com/

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Well, that’s the advert over!

But, as this blog is all about the contexts of writing, I thought my reader (I know who you are) might be interested to know how the story actually came about.

As usual, for me, the inspiration came from something I had been reading – in this case Vladimir Nabokov’s rather brilliant Collected Short Stories. Being an impoverished pensioner, I had borrowed the book from the library, and, as I read, I began to notice, with initial irritation, the jottings and annotations in the margins and page gutters that had been made by a previous reader. However, after a while, rather than seeing these marks as intrusions, sending me over the edge with irritation, I began to find the neat underlinings, the ticks and crosses and the words ocassionally inscribed, strangely interesting. They began to form, as it were, a kind of coherent dialogue in my head.

It was this that gave me the idea for a story about what might occur if (in my protagonist’s case) a slightly unhinged reader of the stories (not me, honest)  felt that there were hidden messages to be found in the annotations made by the other reader. As can be seen in this extract:

“In the Nabokov, under the cover of his voice as soft as moth wings and as cold and velvety as falling Christmas snow, there was a kind of silence in which I could hear the increasingly clear comments, admonitions and orders of the Annotator.”

And then, I began to wonder, what if my character should act upon these “orders”?

This started me thinking about the whole business and purpose of the annotation process itself  – the marginalia, underlinings, scribbles and jottings that have been made in books generally. What is particularly interesting, of course, is to look at those annotations made in literary texts read by famous writers. Here, for instance, is a page of Nabakov’s own annotations (or corrections) to a translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

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This is not just underlining, jotting or doodling  but a thorough and intense interrogation of the text. Here, Nabakov brings to his reading all of his extensive knowledge as an entomologist and as a linguist. Not only does he illustrate the creature that Kafka’s protagonist might be turning into but he corrects or suggests a better translation for some of the words used: replacing, for instance, “stiff arches” with (I think) “corrugated”.

Jottings like this, both trivial and profound, have, of course, a very long history. They date at least from the Scholia (ancient commentaries or annotations) made in the original texts of Homer’s epics – the Iliad and Odyssey – the earliest of which were made in the 5th or 4th century.

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More amusing than these scholarly annotations, however, are the beautifully scripted marginalia inserted by worn-out medieval monks as they laboured for hours on end on illustrated manuscripts.

Amongst these we can find examples such as the following priceless off-task asides:

“Oh, my hand!” and “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink!”

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Even the pictorial marginalia in these fantastically illuminated texts are clearly more, much more, than casual doodles. The images, as well as being extravagantly bizarre, may well be intended as a witty, if elusive, commentary on the text itself. They are made (if the written annotations I have mentioned above are any guide) by bored and often shockingly irreverent monks / artists, amusing themselves and taking the opportunity to express their outrageously anarchic imaginations.

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They contain such outlandish images as the flying penis monster above, as well as  being sprinkled expansively with many other miscellaneous monsters, such as giant snails and nightmarish executioner rabbits/hares.

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Although the exotic marginalia in these illustrated manuscripts are comprehensively imagined there is occasionally something that might be as spontaneous as a simple doodle, as, for instance, in the image above, where the arrow flying into the demon’s arse seems an impromptu extension of an individual letter of the alphabet.

IMG_2003A scribbled word or a doodle in a book does not, though, normally result in a thing of quite such beauty as the marginalia in an illustrated medieval manuscript. However, though frowned upon by librarians, these comments and doodles, idle or impassioned, may have a number of different and interesting effects upon the next reader: irritation being one, as well as annoyance that somebody is defacing a publicly owned book and distracting us from the text itself. But it can also be interesting to see what other readers are thinking about a text at the very moment that they, like you, are reading it.

Many a school or university literature student has been very grateful, I’m sure, to read somebody else’s thoughts on a text –  thoughts that they can then insert into their next coursework essay as if the insights were their own. (Although if you stumbled on Sylvia Plath’s copy of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, aboveyou’d still need to do a lot of interpretation for yourself.)

The annotation of a text is actually a sort of dialogue with it and a number of possible conversations might be occurring when somebody scribbles a note or marks a section of text in a book. The first, I suppose, is the dialogue with self. What fun, what splendour and what embarrassment there is to be had by reading, as an older person, some comment one has made as a callow youth on a central text of the English literature canon!

The second and third conversations, however, might be with the writer of the book or with other (known or unknown) readers of the same text. This might be an argument, a criticism or a commendation. Or perhaps an insult. Mark Twain, here,  for example, was clearly quite annoyed by Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, calling the poet and playwright  “an ass”.

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William Blake,  like Mark Twain, was a prolific annotator of texts and equally as free with his insults. Blake is famously furious, for instance, here below, with the artist Joshua Reynolds. He argues with him from the off (through his annotations of The Works of Reynolds) in an angry (if delightfully florid) hand, that “to generalise” (one of the virtues of Reynolds’ work vaunted by his editor) “is to be an idiot.”

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Annotations, especially extended ones, may, however, result in more than insults or what might be called, at their best, philosophical disagreements. They might also result in a work of art in themsleves. John Keats, for example, yet another prolific annotator, had his copy of Shakespeare’s Poetic Works passed on to him by fellow poet and friend J.H.Reynolds. This text shows a dialogue (to be found in the margins) between the two poets about Shakespeare’s artistry. However, the outcome, even more wonderfully, and drafted alongside the text, is the first version of Keats’s lovely Bright Star poem, presumably inspired by what he was reading.

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Artists and scholars will of course annotate a text for very different and specific purposes. Ezra Pound, for example, famously annotated a draft of T.S.Eliot’s Waste Land, cutting it down to almost 50% of its original size in the process. He made no bones about what he approved or disapproved of, as can be seen in his aggressive slashed crossings-out. I particularly like Ezra Pound’s irritation with Eliot’s use of the equivocal “perhaps“. “Perhaps,” as he says, “be damned”.

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Stanley Kubrik’s annotations, seen throughout his copy of Stephen King’s The Shining, clearly also has a specific editorial purpose as well as a filmic focus.

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The actual annotations in the copy of the Nabakov I was reading and which inspired my own story, as I’ve said, were no more than ticks or crosses, odd words (“good”) or glosses on unusual words (“furunculosis = boils”).  I imagined, though, that my protagonist in The Annotator was mentally unstable – a condition that, like Jack Torrance’s in The Shining, is exacerbated by his sense of isolatation and, in my protagonist’s case, by the breakdown in his marriage.  Where Torrance begins to see visions, my character hears loud voices – in his case the voices of the authors of the books he reads. These voices, for him, take on an alarmingly visceral kind of reality:

“If I opened Paradise Lost, Milton explained man’s first disobedience to me as if he were whispering directly into my ears there and then. I could smell the metallic tang of his blind eyes and the blood in his piss. When Coleridge chanted his poems to me I could taste the laudanum on his breath and smell the nappies boiling in the wash-tub at Nether Stowey. Dickens spoke to me as his most intimate friend – whilst he imbibed his opium tincture I could feel the Addison’s tremors convulsing his cheek and neck.”

Eventually these voices, powerful as they are, give way to the more immediate voice of the annotations in the Nabakov. A voice that eventually becomes all powerful. The annotations in the collection of Nabakov’s short stories that he reads become voices that send him, finally, over the edge.

A far cry, admittedly, dear reader, from merely underlining a word in a text!

 

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The Limping Man

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‘For no one who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb. (Leviticus 26.18)

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For nine months I have been a lame man: a limping man. Meniscus tear, don’t you know – for which, back in January, I had arthroscopy of the knee. I’ve had nothing but sympathy, of course, during this time, but my crab-like gait has put me in a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of people who have (or have had) a gammy leg – and worse. We are legion, we limping men.

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Yet in films and fiction and ancient lore we, the limping people (crippled by arthritis, Achilles’ tendon injuries, twisted ankles or dodgy knees, on crutches, in plaster casts, missing a limb and in wheel-chairs – temporarily or permanently) are, as often as not, seen as objects of suspicion, omens of evil, ripe for mockery or an easy target for abuse or exploitation.

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From the limping man, in the eponymous British noir thriller (The Limping Man) to limping, weaselly con-man Roger Kint in The Usual Suspects, the man with the limp (as I shall call those who are temporarily or permanently disabled) is presented as a figure of menace or ineptitude. From The Day of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead, it is the lurching, limping man (woman or child) shuffling towards us that establishes a sense of mockery or impending terror.

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Amongst the multitude of the disabled, one might mention evil Captain Hook with his hooked hand; the hobbling and dangerous Long John Silver; manic Dr Strangelove (in his wheelchair with his deranged mind and uncontrollable Nazi salute); Captain Ahab, limping along the foredeck in Moby Dick with his peg-leg and epic desire for existential revenge; even the poor put-upon but hapless Mr Nirdlinger in JM Cain’s Double Indemnity – whose murder the reader or viewer feels is somehow justified.

All lurching, shuffling, limping men.

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What all this is about, of course, is not a malicious prejudice against us limpers but, as I have discussed in one of my earlier posts (and as Susan Sontag famously argues in her essay ‘Illness as Metaphor’) another example of writers using disability as a metaphor for character. The correlation is clear: if a character in fiction is wicked, morally compromised or challenged in some way, he is likely to be pre-marked with a physical affliction. At the best he might rise above his physical disability to show himself morally renewed; at the worst, he must be seen to be punished for his evil, an evil so obvious in both his inner and outer nature.

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Giving a man a limp is, at the very least (notwithstanding its metaphorical overtones), a way of making a character, as Doc Henshaw argues in one of his on-line creative writing sessions, “interesting”. This idea is one of the standard clichés of creative writing classes. Henshaw boasts of being able to list thirty-four limping characters from literature, film or TV, and all within the space of fifteen minutes. (Quite a party trick!) He includes Chester’s twisted gait in Gun Smoke, Dr. Philip Carey’s lurch from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Dr. Weaver’s tapping cane from the TV show ER and Dr. Watson’s “psychosomatic limp”, as seen in the first episode of Sherlock. (An interesting grouping of Doctors there!)

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The disability, however, doesn’t have to be a limp, it is obvious to state. Henshaw himself begins by recommending to a student that he make a character deaf to make them more dramatically appealing. It could be a missing arm, as with the infamous one-armed man in The Fugitive; Jamie Lanaster’s golden prosthetic hand in Game of Thrones, or John Wayne’s/Jeff Bridges’ eye-patch in True Grit.

In the bizarre biblical story of Jacob wrestling with what most commentators agree is God, Jacob himself ends up as a limping man. Although Jacob seems to win the bout, God’s parting shot is to dislocate Jacob’s hip. The price of seeing (and wrestling with) God face-to-face is apparently to be blighted with the mark of the limping man.

In my capacity as a god-like author who is in control of my characters’ fates, I confess to using this trick myself: of metaphorically and actually disabling my characters. In my novel, Inspector Bucket and the BeastI curse the morally suspect Frederick Dreadnaught with small-pox, and in one of my ‘Inspector Bucket’ short stories, Inspector Bucket and the Olympics, a character uses the fact that he is on crutches (another limping man!) to attempt a desperate fraud. In The Sad Strange Tale of Jon Bergersson I handicap my eponymous hero with ‘sickness’ and ‘asthma’. And in my experimental steam-punk story, Moriarty’s Revenge, I curse the moral coward Markham, who partially narrates the story, with both a limp and a glass eye – double metaphorical imperfections! I might also have taken the opportunity to give the rather psychotic protagonist in my  The Annotator, (due to be published in the first print edition of Token Magazine on the 1st May) a  physical imperfection – but I resisted. Perhaps hearing voices that he feels are controlling him, or at least prompting him to certain actions, is already enough of a handicap: a kind of limping in its own way.

There are precedents for all this (as always, and as I have already implied) in the Bible. The Author of All Things easily outdoes us earthly authors in the way He seems so shamefully happy to blight those who offend him – and with the most terrible of infirmities too:
“The LORD will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart. (Deuteronomy 28-9)

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He seems equally happy (smug almost) about accepting the blame (or praise) for causing the disabilities in the first place:
“The LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” Exodus 4:11

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Thus, the blueprint for the metaphorical use of the limping man is deeply embedded in the Bible itself where, as Jeremy Schipper argues, disability, more often than not, is seen as a religious, moral or theological issue under the control of the divine (as at Gen 16:2; 20:18; 25:21; 29:31; Exod 4:11; 23:26; Deut 7:14; Judg 13:2-3; 1 Sam 1:5; 2 Chron 16:12).

Christian commentators often use the Jacob story to show how when mankind gets too cocky about himself, God will put him in his place. The key quote here seems to be from Psalms 147:10-11: “God does not delight in man’s strength or cleverness, but in those who fear Him and put their hope in His unfailing love”

Thus God cripples Jacob. Seems like a low blow to me. And after the bell too, for Jacob had clearly won the bout.

However, in a turn-around to my central point, I must concede that some Christians advise us not to, “trust a man without a limp.” The idea here being that a man who doesn’t realise he is nothing without God, and that he is dependent on the Lord just as a crippled man might be dependent on his crutches, is a lost man.

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Nevertheless, what we are seeing here, once again, is how disability is being used as a signifier of a moral condition.

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However, this moral attitude to the limping man goes back even earlier still than the Hebrew Bible, to, arguably, the most ancient of ancient texts. The first tablet of the earliest extant Sumerian prophetic texts predicts, we are told, the danger to ancient society of contact with a limping man:

“If a woman gives birth to a limping male : penury”

Another tablet reads, with even more confidence, that, “If a woman gives birth to a cripple, the land will be disturbed; the house of the man will be scattered.”

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Modern narratives, however, when not turning the limping man merely into an object of menace or bitterness, do sometimes present the possibility of redemption through disability. We see this, for example, in Ron Kovik’s Born on the 4th July (film directed by Oliver Stone) where, by the end of the narrative, the wheelchair bound Kovik attains, it seems, a form of both political and moral regeneration.

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The Christian New Testament, too, it is fair to say, in its use of disability metaphors, focuses (in contrast to the Old Testament) just as much on the redemption of the sick and the lame as on the disabilities themselves. It employs both figurative language and the actuality of disability itself to suggest that the limping man may one day be restored to transcendent moral and actual health:

“And large crowds came to Him, bringing with them those who were lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others, and they laid them down at His feet; and He healed them. So the crowd marveled as they saw the mute speaking, the crippled restored, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.”
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A fantastically moving passage, of course, and yet I find it hard to believe that this redemptive God of Israel is the same deity who clearly seems to relish causing the disabilities that afflict mankind in the first place.

As for me, the operation (you’ll be pleased to know) was successful – although I confess a residue of the limping man returns to haunt me if I become way too cocky in my walking!

Nevertheless, this limping man is back to walking a less crooked path – at least physically.

The Hierarchy of the Dead

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It’s been so long.

I blame it on what my daughter would call baby-brain. With me, of course, it’s more granddad-brain! I have been so besotted with our first grandchild and all the joy which that has brought that I have neglected to write my blog.

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My preoccupation with babies did set me to wondering about babies in fiction though  – and, indeed, I’ll get to that in a subsequent blog (if I don’t come over all foggy again). However, I’m afraid that, as of this moment,  I am about to employ a dire cliché (I blame it on the baby-brain). I am now going to write about a new story I have just had published as if it too is a baby.

A mewling insignificant little thing it is. A mere squib of a short story. A little fantasy with comic pretensions. Hardly out of nappies and already with aspirations to be a grown-up moral fable. Of sorts.

But it is mine. And, as you might with all babies, you feel proud of it simply because it’s yours. But you do worry for it.

It’s a little supernatural tale called The Hierarchy of the Dead and is one of many other stories (by many other authors as well as me) in an anthology called Tales from the Grave. Jess-does-the-graveyard-shiftI’m sure my reader will be pleased to be informed (you know who you are) that it’s out now, published by Zimbell House Publishing and available in paper back and e-book.

I didn’t actually write it for this particular anthology. It’s a story I have had tucked away for a while and have been struggling to find a midwife for. (Sorry.)

For a number of years now I have been amusing myself writing a whole series of, what might be called. dark stories for, hopefully, a collection of stories I am on with to be called Nineteen Nervous Breakdowns. These are to be stories dealing with extreme mental states of one kind or another. I have about nine or ten at the moment.

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I do occasionally write things with a particular magazine or book in mind but I’m also usually disappointed when the story is rejected. A hard knock for any parent.

I have been lucky with a few of my Inspector Bucket stories, it’s true, writing two of them specifically for themed editions of the What the Dickens? magazine (March Hare, issue 3 and Olympia, issue 4) and one other for Arachne Press’s Stations anthology – again, specifically tailored. And there are one or two of my other stories lying around out there all neglected too, should you be interested (The Carebot in the Mirador Fantasgamoria and The World is not Good Enough in The Busker. 

But after rejections of stories that  to me seemed much healthier babies than this one, stories that I thought would be able to walk and run all by themselves, it’s a mystery to me why this particular story caught the midwife’s eye. But what does any parent know?

This one was inspired by a phrase I heard on the radio about the hierarchy of the dead, as in the title of my story. Someone was making a jokey comment about how amongst the dead in a graveyard you probably might gain kudos depending on how many visits you get. An absurd notion of course. But, nonetheless, I picked it up and ran with it,  and this conceit, of the dead arguing about who gets visited most and thus who is the top dead body, is the simple gist of my tale, though, as I say, I try to tun it into a little bit of a moral fable.

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The phrase, the hierarchy of the dead, of course, has an altogether more serious and sombre meaning, related to how the media, the military and those in power, rate the importance or otherwise of people who die in accidents, in terrorist outrage or in war. Own Jones had an interesting article about such things here.

But, as I say, my story is just a baby thing.

Blog Tour Monday

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image Ah, what’s this then? Well, If you must know, I’ve been given a helping hand to climb on board the Blog Tour Monday (a sort of blog-bus) by my writing friend, (fellow Arachne Press author and Ilkley Fringe Festival performer) Louise Swingler and her pal, traveller and writer, Jo Nicel, who wrote a very entertaining blog last Monday. Jo described Blog Tour Monday as a sort of relay race. I like to think of it as a way for writers across the land to hold hands, to make connections, to tell each other and their readers a bit more about themselves and about their writing and to generally feel, well, that there’s somebody out there whose hand they can hold. holdinghands Holding hands before me, apart from Jo and Louise, were novelist and musician Dr Steve Hollyman (‘CreepJoint’ sounds a most crepuscular name for a band, Dr Steve!), Graeme Shimmin (author of ‘A Kill in the Morning’), Sara Jasmon (author of ‘The Summer of Secrets’, to be published by Transworld next year) and writers David Hartley and Emma Yates Badley. If you click on those lovely people’s names you will be linked to their contributions to the Blog Tour and find out much more about them. As for me, it’s good to shake you by the hand. bucket cover As you might know (where have you been?) I’m the writer of Inspector Bucket and The Beast Dahliapublishing.co.uk (available also from Amazon) – and various other Inspector Bucket short stories (see my previous blogs). But what I’m supposed to be doing here  is answering some questions about my current writing. What am I working on? Well, since you ask, at the moment I’m 80,000 words into a family saga (currently called No Father Was There), very loosely based on the lives of my Australian grandfather and my English grandmother during the First World War. The tale deals with their rather tragic relationship and the effect it had on my father, who was brought up in a children’s home in Sidcup, South London.  Pertinently, given the anniversary of World War One about to be upon us, it deals with the war itself, of course, but more so the impact the war had on people’s family and emotional lives. There’s a chapter of the novel (in much adapted form), entitled The Trumpet Calls, already available in Stew and Stinkers from the ‘Stringybark Book shop’ if you want to have a look at it. image However, The Blog Tour demands that one should answer the question: How does your writing differ from others in its genre? Of course then you have to pin yourself down (always a difficult job that can cause bruises and fractures) to work out what on earth your genre is! (Sounds like a very nasty complaint to me.) Well, my first book, ‘Inspector Bucket’, sat in the historical-detective novel genre quite comfortably, I suppose – though it has Gothic qualities too – and, I like to think, it might also be seen as a comic-romance. Sort of. ‘No Father Was There’, on the other hand, (the title comes from William Blake’s Little Boy Lost) is clearly a War Time story – and I’m happy with that description – but it’s also about childhood, class and cultural and racial tensions. I hope its multi-narrative structure gives it a different sort of dimension too. I shall now unravel myself from the floor to answer the next question, which is: Why do I write what I do? Ah, that one brings the priest and the doctor running over the fields! ‘Inspector Bucket’ was (though based on Dickens’ character from ‘Bleak House’)  a completely imagined story. The new novel is, I confess, very definitely based on some real people. However it’s still complete fiction, a way to imagine lives that were close to me but that I actually know very little about. The imaginative recreation is a kind of emotional analogue of genealogical research for me, a way of exploring lives that I hope are interesting for their own sake but that might be illustrative of certain times and places in the past. Now I need a lie down in a darkened room. The final question I have been asked is: How does my writing process work? Haphazardly must be the answer. I wish I could say I write a disciplined thousand words a day but, in fact, I can go for weeks without writing much at all – but, when an idea hits me (perhaps through something I’ve read or seen or heard about), I get completely engaged and don’t look up again until I have come to the end of it. (Clothes unwashed, hair and beard down to my knees.) But, in between, I love the fiddly process of editing my own mad scribbles. This bit I find very akin to painting – an extra touch of colour here, a change of position for a character or object there, a complete paint-over when it all looks wrong. (Chuck the whole dratted canvas in the bin over there and go up the pub.) Enough, or too much. So now it’s time to hand over to two writers to take the Blog Tour Monday further on its motley way. And they are Christina Longden (who describes herself as a ‘Funny Female Who Gives A Toss’) author of ‘Mind Games and Ministers’, amongst other delights, as well as being a leading light in the ‘Holmfirth Writers’ Group’. And then there is David Ellis who duets with Julienne Victoria in a collection of poetry called Flying from the Heart and, like me, (you fool!) has a story in the ‘What the Dickens?Busker anthology. Click on their names to find their contribution to the Blog Tour next Monday, 17th March, and they will keep you company. I shake your hand. hand to shake

I could hear every word you said!

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image I went riding on the Write Track alongside my co-driver, Louise Swingler, and wonderful fire-woman (and expert slide-clicker and general ideas-stoker) the Lady Vivienne imageon the fringe at the Ilkley Lit Festival last night (Tuesday 15 Oct). And after a few shunts and diversions we  built up enough steam to arrive safely at our destination. 

We arrived for work carrying guitars, Station Master hats and coats, a top hat, books, and lots of nerves to a busy Wildman Studio at the Ilkley Playhouse and were escorted to our dressing room (well of course!)

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Once on stage (that’s luvvie talk) we performed our odd mixture of songs, brief sketches from ‘Brief Encounters’ 

image WP_001751and strange ones from ‘Strangers on a Train’, as well as rousing readings from train-related incidents by Richard Yates, Kate Atkinson, Paul Theroux, Angela Carter and Arundhati Roy, before entering the tunnel of our own tales from the ‘Stations’ anthology.

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We finished by asking the audience for their own favourite train stories or episodes – and were re-railed along the lines of: The Railway Children, Ghost Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Slum Dog Millionaire, The Night Train, Train to Pakistan, and Thomas the Tank Engine – to name but a few. 

(Feel free to add your own!)

It was lovely to get such engagement  – and many positive responses to our performance too, including:

 “I could hear every word you said!”

(There’s Yorkshire praise for you!)

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People hovered on the platform for some while afterwards, chatting, sharing more train anecdotes and even buying a book or two at the station bookshop.

Or was it the free cake from the buffet that kept them there?

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Chocolate vinilla

On the Write Track

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Just back from Otley, rehearsing with fellow scribbler Louis Swingler for our stint on the fringe at the Ilkley Literature Literature festival next Tuesday. image

We’ll be having bit of fun with train related stories (and a couple of films) as well as reading adapted versions of our stories from the ‘Stations’ anthology. I even sing a chorus or two from a couple of songs. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that!)

We enjoyed preparing it anyway, and hope our pleasure gets across to any audience who might turn up! There’s a link here to an interview we’ve just completed.

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Oh, and there’s free cake!

 

The Trumpet Calls

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image I hear a trumpet call of encouragement!

The adapted first chapter of my work-in-progress novel (currently entitled ‘No Father was there’) has been accepted for publication by the ‘Stringybark Awards Past Times’ competition in their ‘Stew and Sinkers’ anthology.  The e-book is available now and the paperback edition by 17 October.

Click here for the Bookshop.

image Modest stuff, but as the putative novel is partly an Australian based story and ‘Stringybark’ is an Aussie publisher, I’m encouraged that they seem to think I’ve got it right!

Thus far anyway! We’ll see how the rest of the novel goes, shall we?

You can get a discounted copy of the e-book (which includes a version of the first chapter of my novel) by going to the above website (if you’re interested) and on payment putting in this code: TV48F – so that you get a discount! (There are lots of other interesting stories there by other authors as well as me!) With the discount the cost is A$2.80 (A bargain, cobber!)

The story (and the novel) is partly about the life of my Australian grandad. He was in fact a serviceman during the First World War who must, of course, have spent some time in England.

image The young Aussie pictured above, is not, unfortunately, my grandad. I have no picture of him and, to my shame, and I know to the shame of my brothers, we know almost nothing about him! All we know is that he was called John Cooper and that he was a soldier. I presume he must have just gone back to Australia after he met my grandma. (Who I also didn’t know!) Perhaps he wasn’t even aware that he’d made her pregnant.

I wonder how they met. Were they actually lovers, or …

Or what?

I only know that my dad, Lewis John Cooper, was born, illegitimately, in Limehouse, London, in 1917 and was brought up in The Hollies Children’s Homes, Sidcup, Kent.image

Grandma went on, I have always assumed, to ‘marry’ a chap called Dopson. This Mr Dopson clearly didn’t want to take on the child (my dad) and, I suppose, Grandma must have been forced to give him up. I never knew Mr Dopson or Grandma. But I do know her Christian names: Florence Elizabeth.

Rather lovely, I think.

No doubt it was common enough for a young woman to get into trouble during the war years, but, of course, it would have been shameful nonetheless – and people would probably go to great extremes to cover up the misdemeanour. To cover up the pregnancy. In this case, to cover up the existence of my dad!

But the reason for the inverted commas around the word ‘marry’, above, is that on my Aunt Joan’a birth certificate (Joan Dopson was the child Florence Elizabeth had at a later stage with the before mentioned Mr Dopson) Grandma’s name is given as Florence Elizabeth Cooper.

Florence didn’t marry Mr Dopson then. Did she marry John Cooper after all? Or did she estrange herself (or become estranged) from Dopson and simply call herself Cooper.  Or …

All very mysterious.

But you must forgive me for dwelling on such vague biographical matter.

You might be wondering why my brothers and I didn’t clear up these matters whilst the principals (or some of them) were still alive.

Well, I ask myself the same question and feel full of guilt that I didn’t.

But, of course, my dad would never talk of such things – it being seen as shameful to be a ‘bastard’ in his day.

Here he is in happier times with my brother.

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He was probably ashamed, too, to talk about his childhood in the home.

Here it is.

image Or perhaps it was too painful for him.

Only occasionally, when tipsy with drink at Christmas time or at other potentially emotional moments, would he briefly allude to his childhood – and then promptly wave aside any further questioning – whilst mum looked upset.

This is him (and mum) below (looking very happy and proud) with two of their many grandchildren.

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It was partly that my parents were such cheerful, happy people that, I suppose, the thought of the “terrible hidden secret” was never worried about by any of us when we were growing up. Or when we were grown.

Here we all are (minus my brother Lew who was already in the services himself) looking the typical picture of a happy family. (I’m the little one.)

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But what about our Aunt Joan? (Dad’s half-sister.) Perhaps she would have known something about the mysterious John Cooper and she could certainly have told us something about her own father (Dopson) and her mother, Florence. Perhaps so, but I barely knew her, beyond the occasional visit to what seemed to me at the time a rather posh house where we were served such unheard of delicacies (for a boy from Woolwich) as Twiglets!

My Aunt Joan always gave the impression that she was a cut (several cuts) above us (above my dad – above her half-brother.)

This impression wasn’t solely due to the Twiglets, or the posh house either.

Mum always put on an embarrassingly ‘la-di-da’ voice when she spoke to Aunt Joan. That was always a sure sign!

And dad would sometimes visit his half-sister and bring back exotic things (or so they seemed to me) like brief cases, expensive looking headed note-paper, fine looking fountain pens and golden nibs. (Perhaps she or her husband – I don’t remember ever meeting him either – ran a stationery shop!)

And then there was the whispered, anguished voice of my mum muttering something like, “Couldn’t your Joan help out?” – which I always supposed was a question about money. (Though, on reflection, my mum would have been too proud to accept that sort of help!)

So what was Aunt Joan to ‘help out’ with that, presumably, she never did?

Anyway, by the time I was an adult, Aunt Joan had moved to Spain (must have been posh then) and by the time I was interested in the answers to these family conundrums she had died there.

Was Mr Dopson (my ‘step-grandad’ I suppose I have to call him) ‘middle class’ then?

Several steps above us, indeed.

But where is all this leading me, you might ask?

Well, there is, of course, the trumpet call to explore the verities about one’s own antecedents. (Must get on to Ancestry.co.uk. Must explore the Australian Forces records. Yes, must.)

But, for me, there is also the trumpet call to make fiction of all of this. To invent the bits in between the vague facts. To investigate in the imagination before I investigate in fact.

Grandad (Johnny Cooper as I call him in my fiction) must have heard the trumpet call to join up in 1914. After all, there was unemployment in the dusty overcrowded suburbs of Sydney (where I imagine him living as a young man.)imageJoining the Australian Imperial Forces (as I imagine he did) must have seemed a great adventure, as it did to so many young men. (And the AIF paid 6 bob a day! Enough to make the British troops jealous anyway.) Like most in the AIF he would have been posted to Gallipoli and, if he survived that, the Somme too.

Some adventure! image image At some point, of course, he must have been in England – possibly on leave but more likely hospitalised due to some war wound or other. image And Mr Dopson (my step-grandad) – what sort of man was he? A man perhaps with class aspirations, if not middle class as such. And Florence Elizabeth? What kind of young woman was she?

One that liked a man in uniform it seems! image And then there’s my dad. Lewis John Cooper. What was it like for him to be brought up without a mother and father in an institution?

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That’s him, my dad, the little fat boy in the middle. (The only picture I have of him as a boy.) And it makes my heart ache every time I look at it.

And how come he was born in Limehouse? imageLimehouse had a notorious reputation at that time, just before and after the First World War. It was the ‘China Town’ of London, in the days before it was supplanted by Soho. In 1917, Limehouse was an area of docklands inhabited by a colloquy of Malays, Lascars, Chinese, negroes, Jews, boxing bouts, opium dens and brothels. image                                        A recipe for a story perhaps.

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A Gorgonzola sandwich

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imageJust got back from “dear dirty Dublin”.

Actually, it’s very clean on the whole, although there is a complicated dispute going on about a new property tax – which is related in an odd sort of way. Bear with me.

It seems that in Dublin they don’t have the equivalent of our council tax. ‘Rates’, as they called them, were abolished in 1997 (a pre-election pledge given when the economy was still booming.) Theoretically, water supply and sanitation services, in contrast to most countries in the world, are provided free of charge to domestic users, paid for out of general taxation. Apparently, though, with creeping privatisation, it seems some are having to pay private firms to take their rubbish away. You might have thought that the new property tax would have been brought in as a sort of equivalent to our council tax to pay for these vital local services, but no. It seems that the property tax is, well, just a tax on property.That’s it. It doesn’t pay for any services. It just helps to pay off the European loan that Ireland has been forced to take out because of its exploded economy. Brought on by its greedy bankers I suppose. It must seem to some Dubliners that they’re having to pay to get their bins removed in three different ways.

As with us, this sort of thing is leaving rather a bitter taste in the mouth. “The feety savour of green cheese,” as Joyce puts it in Ulysses when describing a gorgonzola sandwich.

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But I digress.

I’ve just got back from “dear dirty Dublin,” as I was saying, and am astonished (again) by the institutional veneration of James Augusta Aloysius Joyce. From Bloom’s Bar on the Ulysses ferry (where I enjoyed several pints of Guinness on the way out and back) to the tourist maps full of the ubiquitous double J of the “James Joyce Connection” and the recent striking of a ten euro coin in Joyce’s honour, Dublin is the James Joyce city.SAM_2867

Odd, it seems to me.

Odd because, on the evidence of a re-reading of ‘Dubliners’ at least, James Joyce seems to be generally contemptuous of Dublin’s people, if not the streets that they walk in.

dublinstrrets‘Dubliners’ is famously a collection of stories about paralysis. A paralysis of morality, of the imagination and of the body itself.

The few ‘successful’ characters in the collection are self-aggrandising, self-serving and shallow. Take Gallagher, a character in ‘A Little Cloud’, with his nasty way of equating women (or marriage) and money – “I’ve only to say the word and tomorrow I can have the woman and the cash” – or, Lenehan, from ‘Two Gallants’, holding out the “small gold coin in his hand” (parodying Judas) after his ‘business’ with the “blunt” featured woman. These characters are just nasty but the majority of Dubliners are seemingly trapped in lives which stultify them or turn them into helpless monsters, like Little Chandler (in ‘A Little Cloud’) shouting at the baby because its crying stops him from reading his poetry, feeling himself a “prisoner for life”. Or there is the repulsive bullying boss in ‘Counterpart’, Mr Alleyne, who employs the hideous Farrington who in his turn bullies and strikes his own child, ignoring him as he cries out, “Don’t beat me pa! Don’t beat me!” Other Dubliners are just trapped by dubiously pragmatic manipulators, as Jimmy is in ‘After the Race’, his head in a “dark stupor” and out of his depth after his night of gambling with his more ‘knowing’ friends. Or there’s poor Mr Doran who is tricked into marriage by the coldly calculating Mrs Mooney (in ‘The Boarding House’) who “deals with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat”.

The word that springs to my mind to describe this gallery of failed, frustrated and trapped people is the word ‘pitiful’.

At times the experience of reading ‘Dubliners’ does give rise to genuine pathos, as in ‘The Dead’ when Gabrielle becomes painfully, “shamefully” aware of how ludicrous he is, misunderstanding, as he does, his wife’s feelings about a previous lover. And this pathos is often strengthened by the beauty of Joyce’s deceptively simple prose, as in the “reflections of candles on darkened blinds” (‘Sisters’), or the “branches of tall trees (lining) the mall with gay little light leaves .. the sun slanting through them onto the water (‘The Encounter’) or as in ‘The Dead’ with “the snow falling faintly through the universe, falling faintly … Upon all the living and the dead”.

snow

deadEven so, the famous epiphanies in these stories are often cruel, it seems to me, amounting to nothing more than a painfully sharp awareness of failure or loss.

Perhaps, though, the key to Joyce’s purposes is in that word “universe” from ‘The Dead’.

Joyce reportedly said (as recorded in Ellmann’s biography) that “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

So there we have it.

Joyce wasn’t writing just about Dubliners but about all mankind. Similarly, ‘Ulysses’ is not just about Bloom’s and Stephen’s one day in one city but all men’s (and women’s) experiences in all places and times.

But I still can’t help thinking that Joyce didn’t actually like Dubliners very much.

He exiled himself after 1904, at the age of 22, returning only intermittently till 1912 and hardly at all, as far as I can see, after that. When he died he was buried in Zurich, not Dublin.

Even today his descendants recall what they consider to be bad treatment by the Irish state – although I am unclear what this treatment actually amounts to. He had difficulty getting his work published, sure enough, and Dublin was nervous about some of his views, true. And Joyce felt, it seems, that he couldn’t write the sort of books he wanted to write whilst still in Dublin, and nor could he go on living in Dublin in his unmarried state with Nora Barnacle (whom he didn’t actually marry until 1931 after leaving Dublin with her in 1904).

But why else was Joyce so upset by Ireland? I’m sure someone will enlighten me.

joyce and nora

Recently the Irish state, clearly with the intention of cementing still further the connection with Joyce and drawing in more gullible literary tourists like myself, have struck a 10 euro coin in honour of the writer, adorned with his face and a quotation from ‘Ulysses’ no less. Unfortunately, it is a misquotation, or rather they have put in an extra word. The word is “that”. This is clearly a stupid mistake but the Joyce Estate sees it as more than ‘that’. It is, instead, a deliberate insult to Joyce’s memory.

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They don’t much like the look of the likeness on the coin either.

pubplackMeanwhile, the pubs still have their plaques up claiming that Joyce drank here, or that one of his characters did.image

“He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once… Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.”

I (like thousands of tourists before me) entered Davy Byrne’s myself recently. I had a very enjoyable Gorgonzola sandwich along with a delicious pint of Guinness (rather than the glass of Burgundy that Bloom has.)

Dublin and Joyce, a relish of mutual disgust and the savour of love.

A bizarre sandwich.

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Pechakutcha, the March Hare, the MVMNT Cafe and the Kindle Launch

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imageI was at Huddersfield Literature Festival’s Pechakutcha night at the Media Centre on the 14th March and enjoyed it immensely.

Pechakutcha is basically an intense powerpoint presentation where you talk about anything you want to whilst showing 20 (obviously relevent) slides and talking for a maximum of 20 seconds per image. Quite a challenge actually. The theme for the night was, being a literary festival, books. (Come on, keep up!)

I talked, breathlessly, about some of the background ideas in Inspector Bucket and the Beast. This image is of me talking about how easy it was in Mid-Victorian England for husbands and fathers to get wives and daughters committed to mental institutions – something one of the characters in my novel does to his daughter. The slide is actually of a wax work from Madame Tussauds from towards the end of the Victorian period. I’m the one on the right just in case you’re confused!

As you can, just about, see I attempted to dress up for the part, as Bucket – not a mad woman.

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This is actually how I was dresssed. I don’t know who I think I’m trying to be here, but I look like I’m chewing a wasp.imageIt was quite a well attended event (about 50 people) and I managed to sell some more books! The slide is of Inspector Bucket from Dickens’ Bleak House, an image you could find on a 1930’s cigarette card.

Despite my nerves, I must have gone down quite well because I was invited to deliver the same presentation for BettaKultcha (another version of Pechakutcha – mad isn’t it?) in Leeds on the 24th April. (I think it was my topper that the chap who invited me liked the best!)

There’ll be a link to the presentations on here as soon as Brent at the Media Centre in Huddersfield sends it to me.

More fun was had on Sunday, 17th March, at Two Valleys Radio where I was recording a radio drama adaptation of one of my other Bucket Stories, Inspector Bucket and the March Hare. (You can find that in What the Dickens? magazine, issue 3, online or on Kindle.)

march hare

My friends, David Jones and Vince and Lewis Duffy helped me out with the acting (for an exorbitant fee in pints of beer and red smarties) and we were steered through all the techy stuff by the wonderful Matt and Paddy from Two Valleys.

TWO-VALLEYS-RADIO-LEAFLET-A4-pg1-279x400It should be aired some time on Wednesday, 27th March at around 3pm (I think)  but if you miss it you can catch up by clicking on their Listen Again facility.

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Now I’m off to London to give a reading of Inspector Bucket Takes the Train at the MVMNT cafe in Greenwich. (That’s to be found  – the story not the cafe – in the Arachne Press Stations Anthology.

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Finally, Bucket and the Beast itself is out in its Kindle incarnation from the 20th March. A snip at £2.49!flyer-inspector-for-web

I think that’s enough self promotion (ed)