Thursday, 27 December 2018

The Best and Worst of 2018

Well, it's that time of the year when everyone is doing their 'best and worst of' lists, so here is mine. I'm going to list the books and movies I read/watched in 2018 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2018, but what I actually watched and read - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2018:

Mark Mower – The Baker Street Case-Files
The Residents – Never Known Questions
Douglas Thompson – The Brahan Seer
Thomas M Disch – 334
Chris Kelso – Unger House Radicals
Ed McBain – Til Death
Iain Banks – Dead Air
Aliya Whiteley – The Beauty
Jim Thompson – The Transgressors
Robert Greenfield – The Cedar Cage
Mark E Smith – Renegade
John D McDonald – Cape Fear
Brian Howell – Sight Unseen
Eley Williams – Attrib
Nina Allen – The Race
David Mathew – Dreadnought Flex
Tom Robbins – Jitterbug Perfume
Mark Morris (editor) – New Fears
Gudrun Eva Minervudottir – The Creator
Ernest Hemingway – Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises
Francis Durbridge – Dead To The World
Brian Aldiss – The Moment of Eclipse
Simon Avery – The Teardrop Method
John Connolly – he
Neil Williamson – The Moon King
Ernest Tidyman – Shaft
David Lynch and Kristine Mckenna – Room To Dream
John Wyndham – Trouble With Lichen
Nina Allen – Stardust
Nicholas Royle – Regicide
Camilla Grudova – The Doll's Alphabet
Primo Levi – The Wrench
Charles Bobuck – This Is for Readers: The Wax and Wane of Charles Bobuck
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic
Robert Edric – The Wrack Line
Andy Cox (editor) – Crimewave: Ghosts
Chris Beckett – America City
Katherine Osborne – Descansos
Douglas Thompson – The Suicide Machine
Sophie Macintosh – The Water Cure
Clive Bloom – Cult Fiction
David Rix – A Suite In Four Windows
Nicholas Royle – A Book Of Two Halves

That's worked out at 43 books this year, up from last year's 37 although my target is probably 50 (which would take me 7 years to get through my backlog without buying any more books). There were a couple of books this year that I struggled through and which I should probably have given up on, which included the Icelandic novel "The Creator" (unremittingly bland) and "334" by Thomas M Disch (a scattershot rendering of disengaging prose). There were also a handful of novels by authors I usually like which disappointed: Nicholas Royle's "Regicide" (a book of two halves, which I would have preferred to remain in the first half), Chris Kelso's "Unger House Radicals (much acclaimed, but it didn't quite engage with me), and Jim Thompson's "The Transgressors" (a floaty chore). An author new to me, Ernest Hemingway, also totally disappointed with "Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises" (Not sure why, the prose is so simple as to be a Janet and John primer, and the plot only subliminally exists so there wasn't anything difficult to follow).

Other than that there were some great books this year: Chris Beckett's near-dystopian future "America City" (narrowly avoids the top three as politics is inevitably a little dry), the Strugatsky brothers "Roadside Picnic" (brilliant premise, well realised), Primo Levi's "The Wrench" (totally engrossing considering the engineering subject matter didn't immediately appeal), "Room to Dream" (a fascinating insight into the workings of film-maker David Lynch), "he" (John Connolly's fictionalised biography of Stan Laurel), Nina Allan's "The Race" (beautifully realised prose), Aliya Whiteley's disturbing "The Beauty", Sophie Macintosh's "The Water Cure" (evoking the strange-logic films of Yorgos Lanthimos) and Ian Shirley's comprehensive biography of the San Francisco avant-garde band, The Residents.

I rarely re-read books, but this year I revisited Tom Robbins' "Jitterbug Perfume" which – it turns out – remains one of my favourite books of all time.

As usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads reviews. Four books received my 5/5 rating, but I'm not including Mark E Smith's "Renegade" as I prefer my final three to be fiction. So, without further ado, here they are:

In reverse order:

"The Doll's Alphabet" by Camilla Grudova

This collection of 'weird' short fiction feels very natural and not forced, as though Grudova is simply writing about the world as she sees it rather than imposing any weirdness upon it. and whilst initially I struggled with wondering what the 'point' of these stories was, eventually I realised that it didn't matter, that – to use a cliché, not that Grudova would – it was the journey rather than the destination which was important. A brilliant skilled prose writer, Grudova's world is a palace for readers and writers alike.

"Cape Fear" by John D MacDonald

This crime novel is a terrific book, faultlessly relentlessly terrific. Tension is sustained throughout the 200 pages: gripping, haunting, formidable, relatable. Dialogue between the Sam Bowden and Cady, his nemesis, is electrically charged, but – a real strength – the dialogue and easy camaraderie between Sam and his wife is also beautifully realised, so the book is a love story and no less realistic and honest for that. The ending is perfect, returning the glaze of normality over a fractured world.

And the winner is:

"Stardust" by Nina Allan

You really can't fault Allan's writing, and in this collection of very loosely linked short stories she excels, the tales richly layered and dense with portent. Characters are immaculately defined and engaging, and the stories themselves are perfectly formed. This is exactly the type of fiction which appeals to me: stories grounded in a world apparently recognisable as our own, which subtly tilts to subvert our expectations, leaving characters breathless in a new scenario where the ramifications affect them deeply. These are stories which resonate with the human condition yet are also recognisably weird. I cannot recommend Nina Allan highly enough. Amongst many strong contenders this year, this is easily the best book I read in 2018.


I watched the following in 2018:

Spotlight On A Murderer
The Wildest Dream
The Summit
That Obscure Object of Desire
Umberto D
The Anderson Tapes
A Serious Man
The Crimson Kimono
Being John Malkovich
Man Bites Dog
Dead Slow Ahead
The Structure of Crystals
The Lost Weekend
An Education
Los Decentes
L’Amant d’un Jour
Train to Busan
Six Shooter
The Challenge
Dr Strangelove, Or How I Leant To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
The Red Turtle
The Florida Project
The Handmaiden
The 400 Blows
Louder Than Bombs
Seven Psychopaths
Morvern Callar
The Neon Demon
Under The Shadow
Green Room
Meshes of the Afternoon
Bottle Rocket
Isle of Dogs
Canyon Passage
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
I Feel Pretty
Café de Flores
A Touch of Evil
Written On The Wind
Husbands and Wives
The Fall
Stand By Me
The Squid and the Whale
The Awful Truth
The Tarnished Angels
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
The Glass Key
Rumble Fish
Les Deux Amis
The Blob
Trouble Every Day
The Homesman
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Harry Smith at the Breslin Hotel
A Branch of a Pine is Tied Up
Un été brûlant
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
A Ghost Story
The Canyons
The Rise And Fall Of A Small Film Company
Cape Fear
Wind River
My Man Godfrey
Twelve Monkeys
Some Like It Hot
Sullivan’s Travels
The Lady Eve
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
White Chicks
Happy End

The Man Who Knew Too Much
Les Garçons Sauvages
No Man Of Her Own
Taste Of Fear
Nocturnal Animals
In The House
Have A Nice Day
Crimes of Passion
The Theory of Obscurity
The Wolf House
The Curse of Frankenstein
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Wanderers
Touch Me Not
9 Fingers
The Man Who Fell To Earth

In The Shadow Of Women
Bird Box

That's 121 movies this year, a rise from the 99 of last year which is good news. Of course, that's a long list to narrow down to my top three, and unlike books I don't have a site equivalent to Goodreads with which to guide my memory.

As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out Buñuel's wonderful "That Obscure Object Of Desire", the better-the-second-time-around "Being John Malkovich", Kubrick's delightful farce "Dr Strangelove", Truffaut's (dare I say it: 'a bit boring on third watch') "The 400 Blows", the sublime "Some Like It Hot", the Oh-That-Ending "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (Doris Day version), and the intriguing "The Man Who Fell To Earth."

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "An Education" which I absolutely hated and found morally repugnant, "Seven Psychopaths" (an absolute overblown mess), "Wind River" (much acclaimed for no apparent reason), and Hitchcock's "Frenzy" which really felt as though it was a homage to the great director from someone much less skilled.

This leaves us with some great movies. My favourite discovery this year has been Norwegian director Joachim Trier. Whilst I saw and enjoyed "Oslo, August 31st" another year, this film pales against a trio of films watched this year: "Reprise" (brilliant study of two men dreaming of becoming successful writers), "Thelma" (an intriguing supernatural fantasy drama, which loses it a little bit towards the end but which remains powerful), and ... actually, the third film will be amongst my top three so I'll leave that for a moment. Other favourites include "Arrival" (SF first contact story with an intelligent heart), "Train To Busan" (the first zombie movie to make me cry), "Dogville" (a masterpiece of experimental film by Lars Von Trier, "The Florida Project" (a trailer-trash film with a solid heart which has lingered in my mind for several months), the joyously insane "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" from the ever-inventive Luc Besson, Orson Welles' "A Touch Of Evil" (what an opening sequence!), Francis Ford Coppola's skewiff coming-of-age film, "Rumble Fish", Von Trier again with "Europa" (which we initially began watching – in error – for twenty minutes – without subtitles believing the dichotomy to be part of the film), the poorly named but brilliantly realised "Trouble Every Day" (by Claire Denis), "A Ghost Story" (which might have made my top three if I hadn't completely misunderstood the repeated 'wallpaper' sequence), "Capote" (for Philip Seymour Hoffman's commanding presence alone), the totally nuts full-out enjoyable "Machete", the detailed biography "The Theory of Obscurity" about avant-garde band The Residents, and "9 Fingers" (kind of existential French noir, confusing and dreamlike).

As usual, I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but – today – here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2018.
Again, in reverse order:

"I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House" (2016) - Oz Perkins

There's a real quiet charm to this ghost story which elevates the film way beyond similar fare. Constantly wrong-stepping the audience – but in a logical, un-horror-like way – the end result is fascination rather than dread, with a beautifully understated performance from lead actor Ruth Wilson. For those attuned to the standard 'jump scenes' these are thankfully few and far between, with the denouement perfectly rendering how the effect of actual sudden fear might result. It's quirky, winsome, and intriguing. I loved it.

"Les Garçons Sauvage" (2017) - Bertrand Mandico

This beautifully beguiling bizarre film is better watched without knowing anything about it. It's an exceptionally inventive piece of work from start to finish and – to me – represents all that cinema should be about. I can't recommend it highly enough: such a welter of imagery. It misses out by a hair's breath on being my favourite film seen this year. I want to enthuse more but spoilers would result. See it. At any cost, see it.

And the winner is...

"Louder Than Bombs" (2015) - Joachim Trier

So as previously mentioned, director Joachim Trier was (almost) a new discovery for me this year, and certainly this movie is my favourite of his and easily the best film watched in 2018. The central family performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert and Devin Druid are exemplarily. As the film ended I turned to my partner to dissect what we had watched as usual and I – literally – couldn't get any words out. I was totally overcome with emotion. And this wasn't a response to some glib sentimentality designed to push certain buttons, but more of a psychological reaction to breathtaking honesty in filmmaking, of how the right kind of art can do the right kind of things, of how even the best relationships are two-dimensional, and about how everything is potential and no more nor less than that. Trier unfolds this simply: allowing us to watch and absorb without judgement. There's no condescension to the audience, so when the film ends you are left bereft and replete simultaneously. And that's without me needing to detail the plot. Astonishing!

So that's it. Looking forward to reading and watching more in 2019!

Friday, 21 December 2018

My Writing Year 2018

As has become annual I thought I'd do a quick blog post as to my literary achievements during 2018.

I've had no books published this year, but at least three - possibly four - new titles should be available next year, so this is more an indication of peaks and troughs rather than sitting on my laurels. More about those later in the post.

Usually I aim to write a short story a month, but a large proportion of the year was spent working on a novella, "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N" (around 35,000 words), so in addition to this I only wrote five short stories in 2018: "The Day The World Turned", "The ______ Of ____ ________", "Always Forever Today", "The Rhythm of Beauty", and "Of Course, A Girl".

I sold only one short story this year: "The Day The World Turned" to an anthology I'm not yet permitted to mention.

The following six stories were published this year: "Memories of Olive" in Ambit #231, "Making Friends With Fold-Out Flaps" in Black Room Manuscripts Vol. 3, "The Al Pacino Appreciation Society" in Crimewave #13: Bad Light, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City" in the Midnight Street anthology Night Light. "A Pageant of Clouds" in Doppelganger #1 (a magazine which appeared to disappear on the day of its release), and "Sarcoline" reprinted in Norwich: A Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities anthology edited by Sophie Essex. Additionally, an extract from my novel, "People I Know Are Dead", was included in the Volta anthology from Salò Press.

I have sold two books this year. A ten thousand word short story, "The Uneasy", will appear as a standalone chapbook from Eibvonale Press, and a mini short story collection, "The Forest of Dead Children" will appear from a publisher I am at yet not at liberty to announce. These should be published in 2018, alongside a longer short story collection, "Frequencies of Existence", whose details I also am not at yet at liberty to reveal. The possible fourth book publication next year could be "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N", with which I am currently in negotiation.

I have a handful of stories awaiting publication that were originally accepted in previous years, and my next main project may be a novel titled "The Non-Conformists". A few novels are also under consideration by various agents/publishers, as they were last year.

It's been a quieter year on the publication/acceptance front, mostly because I've been working on longer projects and also due to the delay in publisher response times which seems increasingly prevalent. Even so, looking back on this, 2018 has still been a productive year in terms of word count.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Disco DADA

The first Disco DADA night was held on Wednesday 12th December 2018 in Norwich in an upstairs room at the Sir Garnet pub. My partner - Sophie - who runs a regular poetry night in Norwich (Volta) -  and who is also on the committee for CafeWriters - had intended to run a DADA night for some time, but there was always a question of whether Norwich was ready for it and also how she should go about planning it. Eventually, this small room (capacity 30) was offered by our regular Volta hosts and she decided we could make use of it for this purpose. What could go wrong?

I knew I wanted to pay tribute to The Residents, the avant-garde San Francisco band who certainly in their early days - and probably currently - were obvious inheritors of DADA (whether intentioned or otherwise). So I spent a few weeks fashioning a papier-mâché eyeball head with the intention of reading out some song lyrics - together with some audience participation. I also viewed this as a homage to the recently late Hardy Fox and his contributions to the anonymous band. Considering I'm not in anyway practical, I was pleased with the eyeball. Sophie sought poetry/illustration contributions to pin up on the wall, sourced a mic and amp, bought groan tubes, disco lights, and dug out a raygun, in addition to writing some cut-up for the night. All set.

As the audience arrived we rotated a couple of tracks from The Residents "Tale of Two Cities" album, played via a mobile phone into the mic. Mostly this one:

The evening was opened by poet Cai Draper - wearing something resembling a monk's garb - brilliantly setting the scene for what we hoped would come. Each reader 'introduced' by Sophie displaying their name in children's magnetic letters on an oven tray (and of course, Sophie was wearing her latex armadillo mask). First up was much-published poet, Peter Pegnall, who on this occasion confirmed that Peter was no more and that his poetry was currently being channelled through a soft-toy pig found on a North Norfolk pig farm. The pig alternating between poetry personal and political, as pigs are wont to do.

After a couple of more regular readings from poets Iona May and Adam Warne, Sophie read a cut-up poem juxtaposing text from DD/lg erotica and the Conservative Party Manifesto (which I have suggested she titled The Fever Dream of Rees-Mogg), which was perfectly mashed and well-received. The final line being particularly evocative: I want Britain to finger-fuck me again. This was followed by a reading from Anna Cathenka (whose book, they are really molluscs, we had decided to launch at the event). Beginning with an increasingly loud audience chant - DADA means nothing - she read some pieces from the chapbook and another recent publication.

So far, so good. I wore the eyeball throughout the first half, determined to continue doing so even if I collapsed (or, as Peter helpfully suggested, died). We took a short break, giving the following festive song a spin:

Back on: Cai opened the second half with 'a poem not yet written', performing a made-it-up-as-he-went-along cut-up of Anna Cathenka's they are really molluscs, complete with invited interruptions from the groan tubes, thrown objects etc. I thought both his performances during the evening were spot-on excellent.

This was followed by local poet Alex Russell, reading poetry into jars as part of a preserving poetry project:

These poetry jars can be purchased here.

And then me. It wasn't easy to read through the mask, but I think this added to the performance. Partial lyrics were culled from the songs "Moisture", "Margaret Freeman" and "Troubled Man" from The Commercial Album, "Sinister Exaggerator" from Duck Stab, the festive single "Santa Dog", an excerpt from "The Making of a Soul" from Not Available, and part of "Walter Westinghouse" from Fingerprince - which involved audience participation of the lines "eat exuding oinks upon / and bleed decrepit broken bones / at caustic spells of hell" read from a chalkboard and shouted louder and louder until I felt fit to stop. But don't take my word for it, watch some of it here:

My performance was followed by Bristol poet, Sarah Cave, who amongst other pieces read an excellent DADA-ist Moomin poem dealing with Moomimpappa's grief at Moominmamma's death.

And this was followed by Norwich poet Alison Graham who performed brilliantly, bewigged and on her knees.

The stage was set for more nonsense. Local artist Jacob Beaney commandeered a table, chair, a male member of the audience following a request for a female, and Alison's wig. In what has already been referred to as SpamGate or the Spamcident, he proceeded to lovingly craft a sculptured head of man-in-a-wig using the contents of tins of spam and corned beef, together with bacon hair and a sausage for a tongue, whilst Julia Bear wet-shaved his head. For me, this was the highlight of the evening, feeling totally impromptu as Jacob had only decided to buy the items from Tesco whilst waiting for the event to start. It wasn't popular with everyone, which was - of course - even better.

Finally, Anna Cathenka read again from they are really molluscs to the accompaniment of the sound of further head shaving.

My overall impression was that the evening was a success, balancing nonsense with passion and passion with nonsense. And we definitely need to do it again. I already have an idea for a mask replete with a six foot long snout held up by crutches...

(all videos copyright Sophie Essex, all photos copyright Anna Cathenka)

Thursday, 26 July 2018

A Pageant of Clouds

My short story, "A Pageant of Clouds", has recently been published in Doppelganger magazine, and as has become customary this short blog post will examine how the story was written. There will be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

This piece came completely out of the blue (no cloud analogy intended). I had an evening where I had time to write and had been struck by some cloud formations earlier that day. Searching for the collective noun for clouds gave me the title, which immediately plugged into my psyche. Thinking about different types of clouds led into research about night clouds (noctilucent clouds) which I realised could also be used as a metaphor. I also decided I could include atomic clouds (I own a book called 100 Suns by photographer Michael Light which I had been planning to farm for a story for some time), as this piece would suit that subject matter perfectly.

The atomic angle fed into writing this as a Japanese story (given the echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and I discovered that the city of Kokura had a narrow escape with respect to both those atrocities. As though fate was in collusion with the story, cloud cover made a difference: Kokura was backup to Hiroshima should clouds over the latter city have prevented the dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb, and conversely Kokura was first choice for the dropping of the Fat Man atomic bomb but cloud cover transferred that city to Nagasaki.

These ideas linked to another I had been toying with, having read about the increasing phenomena of (mostly) young Japanese men becoming reclusive and confining themselves to their bedrooms (known as hikikomori). Armed with all this information I wrote the entire piece in one energised setting.

Here's the start of it:

Eiji gradually spent less of his time in daylight, until eventually it was none.

He wasn't averse to the sensation of sun on his skin. There was a warmth to be had which was a two-way process. In the old days his skin felt projected towards the sun, as though it were giving back something that had been taken. However he found that the light illuminated as much as it shadowed, and increasingly it was within those shadows that he wanted to live. The transparency of night provided hiding places, smudged him into anonymity. By sleeping during the day he effectively erased its existence.

Eiji considered himself a noctilucent cloud, that rare meteorological phenomenon which could only be observed when the sun was below the horizon.

This is the first issue of Doppelganger magazine, a periodical whose remit is to publish three realist short stories alongside three magical realist short stories in each issue, in the hope that the clash of these two forms will be disconcerting and interesting. Having not yet read the magazine, I'm unsure which camp my piece falls into. The other stories are by Dan Powell, Grayson Eloreaga, Yasmina Floyer, Cath Barton and Max Dunbar.

At the moment of blogging, the website for the magazine seems to be down. But hopefully this is a short term inconvenience.

Finally, I wrote this piece whilst listening to the album "Alive" by Sa Dingding on repeat.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Sarcoline (reprise)

My short story, "Sarcoline", originally published through the now defunct Great Jones Street app, has recently been reprinted in Norwich: A Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities anthology, edited by Sophie Essex, so it seems timely to re-blog a few words about how the story came into being for those who might be interested. Beware, there could be spoilers.

A few words first about the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities project. This is a series of short anthologies which are guest edited for the publisher by someone local to the city in question and which feature material from writers and poets in that area. Each book is accompanied by a local event timed to coincide with publication (in this instance, I'll be reading from the book at The Birdcage in Norwich from 7:30pm on Thursday 19th July). Other cities covered and proposed so far include Brooklyn, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham and Glasgow.

Onto the story itself. "Sarcoline" is one of a series of pieces I've written which will form a new collection regarding Hollywood celebrity deaths of the 1920s through to the 1980s. These stories are told from the viewpoints of the celebrity at the exact moment of their (usually) tragic deaths - the results being kind of alternate autobiographies, fragments of memory, death assimilations, where fact and fiction intertwine as their souls vacate their bodies. In this instance, the story is based on the life and death of the actress, Grace Kelly. The word sarcoline means flesh-coloured, and I felt it resonated with Grace in a way which I could use. I believe the term for this type of work is creative non-fiction.

Here's an excerpt:

In her room at the Barbizon Hotel for Women she lays diagonally across the bed. The tape recorder squeaks on rewind. She simultaneously presses record and play. Speaks: fairytales tell imaginary stories. Me, I'm a living person. I exist. On the bed beside her lies the script for Strindberg's The Father. She reaches for a pencil and taps it against her teeth. Her legs extend upwards, crossed at the ankle. Within a coffee cup, dregs congeal. This scene is lit by the non-Technicolor glow of her bedside lamp, its shade muted yellow as the beam.

Norwich: A Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities anthology also features fiction and poetry from Anna Cathenka, Doug Jones, Ramona Herdman, N.A. Jackson, Helen Ivory, Julia Webb, Martin Figura, Kat Franceska, and Alison Graham.

Finally, I wrote the entirety of "Sarcoline" whilst listening to the song, "Sweeter Than You", by Dr John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell from their album "This Time It's Personal" on repeat.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Fall - My Personal Top Ten

Since Mark E Smith of The Fall died on 24th January 2018 I have listened to nothing other than Fall albums on my daily commute (by bicycle) to work and back. Some of these were records I already owned - particularly the most recent albums - and others I obtained via the library service (including the wonderful 6 CD Peel Sessions retrospective) and elsewhere. Prior to his death I reckon I owned about two sixths of the band's output and I'm probably now closer to three fifths. What strikes me is the diversity from the band who were always different yet always the same. Whilst both Smith and repetition are constants, musically The Fall ran the gamut of post-punk, rockabilly, reggaebilly (my word), and the peripheries of grunge-rock'n'roll, with the often cut-up lyrics reminiscent of Dadaism and experimental fiction. The amalgamation being - to my mind - fiercely intellectual and challenging, confrontational and exciting. As mentioned elsewhere, Mark E Smith is one of the few people I would consider to be a genius, and listening repeatedly to this extensive body of work has confirmed this evaluation.

Now, despite some significant gaps in my collection, this replaying / rehearing / new hearing of Fall songs is coming to a close. It seems important - to me, at any rate - to list what I consider to be my top ten Fall songs. This is the material which most often earwormed my head, which I might quote snatches from at inopportune moments, which got me dancing on that bicycle. The selection might change tomorrow / next week / next year, but this is what I like right now (although not in any order).

Bremen Nacht

As part of the above process, several compilations and alternate versions turned up on the CD's I listened to. By far and away the most frequent of these was "Bremen Nacht", the relentless repetition in the music imitated by the number of times it surprised me as I heard the opening bars of it once again. This is my favourite extended version.


I think This Nation's Saving Grace might be my favourite Fall album. There's a cohesive structure which builds over the course of the album and in the middle of this is the glorious "L.A.", basically an instrumental written by Brix Smith, which pins the elegiac to the grotesque, peppered with a handful of lines from Mark which perfectly compliment the music. An oasis.

Kurious Oranj

There's something really friendly about this song which appeals. The music almost jaunty, summery. I love the alternate pronunciations of 'orange'. (Mark's often deliberate mispronunciations always resonate with me). This song was written for the ballet "I Am Kurious Oranj" - of course. This is The Fall.

Mountain Energei

The Real New Fall LP was one of the first records I bought when I rediscovered the band back in 2003 and I have a real affection for this song with it's (on the surface) daft lyrics and ambling music. It's a grow(l)er.

Guest Informant

I consider this a typical Fall song. Repetitive chanting - with much online questioning over the actual lyric (Baghdad/Space Cog/Analyst?) - and a narrative story about hotel paranoia and incompetent staff which whilst surface-trivial is filled with those touches which make me adore Mark's lyrics (in the burning scorch of another Sunday over / the miserable Scottish hotel / resembled a Genesis or Marillion 1973 LP cover).

Rebellious Jukebox

Impossible not to sing along to this one, ay? A sentient jukebox, perhaps, refusing to conform and play standard material - or a metaphor for the band itself? Taxi!

The Man Whose Head Expanded

This may have been the first Fall song I ever heard. I certainly remember it played on the John Peel show and enjoying it, although it was some years later (via TV show The Tube) that I really connected with the band. Love the Casio VL Tone intro which transports me like a time machine back to the early 80s. Actually, thinking about that date, it couldn't have been the first Fall song I ever heard, but let's say it was.

Fol de Rol

The Fall inhabited now, so not to choose something from the final album, New Facts Emerge, would be a travesty. It's a great record in any event, a searing guttural throb of garage rock, and whilst Mark's voice has changed (as though someone has re-tuned his personal instrument), there's a steamroller menace here which benefits from that nuance. This song is a perfect example of what The Fall were all about prior to Mark's death.

Y.F.O.C. / Slippy Floor

Another recent(ish) album which I consider as thematically coherent as This Nations Saving Grace, Your Future, Our Clutter is probably my second favourite Fall record. This piece segues the your future our clutter theme which runs through the album into a raging piece of music which slips and slides all over the place just like that slippy floor itself.

Free Range

I absolutely love the opening of this song. I've always considered The Fall to be a great dance band, and it's impossible not to hypnotically gyrate here. And the riff is sublime. What a great song to finish off this selection. Lyrically not too shabby either.

Of course, I could have included "How I Wrote Elastic Man" (partly responsible for the once-name of my old publishing company), or "Cruisers Creek" (see reference to The Tube - above - where I saw this song performed and fell for the band), or "Hilary" (where's the sixty quid you borrowed off me?), or "Totally Wired" (I'm totally wired). or "Way Round" (I hit roundabout / I just can't find my way / round), or "Secession Man" (you're the one who always runs the show), or "Pumpkin Soup And Mashed Potatoes" (pumpkin soup and mashed potatoes / That has always been my dream). Or - indeed - every Fall song ever written that's always different, always the same.

If you've read this far it's highly likely you're also a big Fall fan, and if you haven't heard of the following site which contains a wealth of lyrical information then I suggest you drop by now: The Annotated Fall.

And finally, to quote again from "Totally Wired", here's some sound advice: You don't have to be strange to be strange / You don't have to be weird to be weird.

Mark E Smith
05/07/1957 - 24/01/2018
nobody has ever called me sir in my entire life

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City

My short story, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City", has recently been published in the Midnight Street Press anthology, "Night Light", and as usual I'm blogging about how the story came to be written for those who might be interested. Be aware that this post is likely to contain spoilers.

As usual, I had the title prior to any other ideas. In this case, I stole the phrase from Paul Auster's memoir "The Invention of Solitude". In the chapter titled "The Book of Memory" he states This was life as Crusoe would have lived it: shipwreck in the heart of the city. As soon as I read it I knew it was mine.

Shortly thereafter I had an idea to write a story about a woman whose baby had died in the womb but who refused to acknowledge it, and in the process of thinking through that idea I decided to alternate her story with that of the aborted foetus itself which exists in a kind of pre-birth limbo within a world not entirely dissimilar from David Lynch's Eraserhead vision. The phrase, shipwrecked in the heart of the city, seemed to perfectly convey this.

The story is prefaced with the following quote, which together with the title - I believe - elevates reader expectation and primes them for the fiction:

Interviewer: suppose your house were on fire and you could remove only one thing. What would you take?

Jean Cocteau: I would take the fire

Here's a bit from the middle of it:

There was nothing for it. He took off his clothes, pulled the sheets from the bed until all that remained was the bare wooden frame. He curled up, foetus-like, his head bent in supplication, his knees close to his chest, his arms tight, little fists tensed as if expecting to box. After a moment he felt for his umbilical cord where it was squashed between one leg and his stomach, and he straightened it, pointed it away from his body, as though it were an arrow to another place.

Night Light includes stories by Stephen Laws, Ralph Robert Moore, Tony Richards, Rhys Hughes, Simon Clark, Susan York, Maria V A Johnson, Robert D Richards, Alexander Zelenyj, Gary Couzens, Ian Steadman, Michael Washburn, Terry Grimwood, Allen Ashley, Yvonne Chamberlain, David Turnbull, Andrew Darlington, Stephen Faulkner and Mat Joiner. Buy it here (UK) or here (elsewhere).

Finally, I wrote "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City" whilst listening to the album "Barragan" by Blonde Redhead on repeat.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

In Case You Missed It...

...I've recently written guest posts for the blogs of those fine writers James Everington and Stephen Palmer. For those who might be reading here but not there, below are links to those posts.

Music For Writers

James is running a series of guest blogs from writers who listen to music as part of the creative process. Here's my piece in which I name check Bjork, Blonde Redhead, Echobelly, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Nancy Sinatra, and explain how their work creates an ambience to facilitate mine.

Whilst you're there, other contributors to the series have been Iain Rowan, Mary J Nichols, Paul Feeney, Ray Cluley, Tim Major, Stephen Palmer and Rhys Hughes (with more to follow).


Stephen's guest blog series invites writers to enthuse about one fiction and one non-fiction book. My post is here in which I mention Luis Bunuel's "My Last Breath" and "Jitterbug Perfume" by Tom Robbins. Currently I believe my inaugural post remains the first in the series, but keep an eye on Stephen's blog for other such posts and also his regular musings.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Al Pacino Appreciation Society

My short story, "The Al Pacino Appreciation Society", has just been published in Crimewave #13: Bad Light, and as usual here are a few words about how the story was written with the usual caveat that there are likely to be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

This story was actually written quite some time ago (October 2011, to be precise), but for reasons I'll mention below has taken a while to get into print. Because of this, my memory is a little sketchy. Needless to say, I had the title first. Whether I'd just watched an Al Pacino movie I can't remember, but there it was: a title waiting for a story to fit it.

The main thrust of the piece is a man's unwitting immersion in terrorism, how love can blind us to what is really happening. There is a clue in the title which has become a little dated - I won't say more, but world events have shifted a tad from when this was written. I recall the whole idea came to me at once, when I noticed the clue myself, but I was having a job structuring it until I decided to have section headings from Al Pacino film titles. The story then flowed easily.

Getting it to print has been a different story. It was originally accepted for publication in November 2011 by an anthology which was going to be called The Year, featuring 365 stories. This didn't come to fruition, but the accepted pieces were then going to appear in three separate anthologies, of which crime was going to be one of them. But again, this never happened, and it was finally released from that obligation around 2015. I then sold it to TTA Press for Crimewave in January 2016, and it's taken a while to subsequently get to print. Of course, all good things are worth waiting for, and the anthology looks to contain excellent stories from many well-respected writers.

Here's an extract from the opening:

She wanted someone gritty.

I wanted to be someone gritty. But where Beatrice and I failed was in the definition of gritty.

I turned up one evening with an armful of Al Pacino DVDs. The Godfather parts one through to three, Righteous Kill, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, 88 Minutes, Scent of a Woman, and Cruising.

"This is gritty," I told her; even though I hadn't seen any of the movies, and had only that morning picked them up at a car boot sale. None of them were in their original packaging.

"I don't want violent gritty," Beatrice said, her arms folded across her ample chest. "I want romantic gritty".

Crimewave #13: Bad Light also features stories by Simon Bestwick, Gerri Brightwell, Georgina Bruce, Ray Cluley, Mat Coward, Catherine Donnelly, Stephen Hargadon, Linda Mannheim, Ralph Robert Moore, Mike O'Driscoll and Steve Rasnic Tem. Cover art by Ben Baldwin. Buy it here.

I usually write stories to music, but I have made no note as to what I listened to writing this story.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Making Friends With Fold Out Flaps

My short story, "Making Friends With Fold Out Flaps", has recently been published in The Black Room Manuscripts: Volume Three by the Sinister Horror Company and as usual I'm blogging about the gestation of the story for those who might be interested. There may be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

As is usual for me, this piece was born from the title and a couple of other ideas which tangentially coalesced with it. In this case the title came from another title - from a simple children's board book: "Making Friends (Just Like Us)". At the corner of the book runs the phrase, "with fold out flaps". It doesn't take too much imagination to put those two things together, and the resultant phrase carried with it a suggestion for a possible story.

Two other books also made their way into this piece, both works which I'd been considering using as launch pads for stories for some time. The first was a book on silhouettes which I picked up at a school boot fair several years ago. Silhouettes as a metaphor for what we are and what we hide has always been of interest. Additional to this, I find what we have hidden physically within our bodies as well as psychologically is also fascinating. Who thinks on a daily basis about all our interactive internal organs which run our bodies almost independently of conscious thought? This never been illustrated better in my opinion than through the plastination work of Gunther Von Hagens which I was lucky enough to view at the London Bodyworlds exhibition in 2002. I picked up the catalogue at that event and often find myself flicking through it.

Silhouettes, the workings of our bodies, making friends with fold out flaps: this is the kind of story which falls together quite simply from its constituent parts. Here's a bit of it:

The bonus with silhouettes is that they are one-dimensional. But people aren't. The truth embodied in a silhouette is lacking from that in a person. With them, it's not so much about the surface, it's about the things people keep hidden: their thoughts, their repressed desires, their understandings, their internal organs. To get at the real person you have to undress them, utterly. I could equate this to locating the kernel within a fruit or a nut, or a grain or seed as of a cereal grass enclosed in a husk. Or - to use the computing definition of the word - the kernel is the main component of most computer operating systems; it is a bridge between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level. The kernel can provide the lowest-level abstraction layer for the resources that application software must control to perform its function. It was the lowest level that I was interested in.

Finally, I wrote the story whilst listening to Radiohead's "Hail To The Thief" album on repeat.

The Black Room Manuscripts: Volume Three is a charity anthology where all proceeds will go to Shelter, the homeless charity. It's a hefty book - over 400 pages - and as well as myself features in order of appearance stories from Paul Tremblay, Adam L G Nevill, Guy N Smith, David Moody, Ray Cluley, Michael Bray, Paul Kane, Chris Kelso, Preston Grassmann, Phil Sloman, Daniel Marc Chant, J R Park, Anthony Watson, Glenn Rolfe, Orrin Grey, Lex H Jones, Linda Angel, CC Adams, Lydian Faust, Ash Hartwell, James Jobling, Andrew Freudenberg, Kerry Lipp, Jonathan Butcher and Jack Bantry.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Volta: an obscurity of poets

An extract from my neo-noir crime novel, "People I Know Are Dead", has recently been published in Volta: an obscurity of poets published by Salò Press. This anthology is a project birthed from a series of literary nights in Norwich throughout 2017 - titled Volta - which have mostly occurred at The Birdcage in the city centre.

My partner, Sophie, runs these mostly-monthly events which regularly achieve audiences of between 40-60 people and feature a mix of invited readers and open-mic from the floor. The nominal £2 entry fee covers payment for the room and also enables her to pay the main readers. After the first three nights in 2017 it was clear that a profit was going to be made from the event - a profit which she was reluctant to keep. The idea came that an anthology of the year should be produced - funded by that profit - which would then be given away free to contributors with any surplus copies sold at a discounted price, the sales of which would enable her to continue bringing fresh voices to the event with the book also being a thankyou for those who have participated. The resultant anthology contains single pieces from 58 contributors who read during 2017, the only omissions being a handful of performers who decided not to contribute and several who couldn't be traced. The pieces chosen were those performed on the nights and the running order matches that of the events.

Norwich is a Unesco City of Literature with a vibrant local literary scene. This anthology perfectly encapsulates a year in this scene, as well as providing many of the contributors with their first publication credit alongside more established poets/prose writers.

I've occasionally read open-mic at the event and therefore was eligible for the book. I chose an extract from my yet-to-be-published neo-noir crime novel, "People I Know Are Dead" (the third in my Mordent PI series). It's a piece I've often read at crime events. My PI sees the world through noir-coloured glasses and in this short extract he experiences a noir-dream where the dialogue is exclusively noir slang. It makes sense to include this here in it's entirety:

I met the stool-pigeon watching the bangtails. He was a bit of a daisy and we bumped gums for a while before getting down to business. The pigeon was nervy out in the open and suggested a dive which looked more like a can house despite the canary doing business with gusto on a low stage. Nearby a tomato with great gams drank tiger milk and in one corner some bums obviously out on the roof shot rats and mice for mazuma.

The pigeon was a weak-sister even to be peaching. He took a smell from the barrel but was hinky and twitchy as though he expected droppers at any moment. I told him to break it up or I'd take it on the heel and toe, but I was waiting for the Chinese angle. Then a guy broke in with a bean-shooter and the wild eye of a snow-bird. The pigeon was a wrong number, probably on the nut, and I was the patsy set for a fall.

I was in a jam, told the pigeon to climb up his thumb and then kissed him in the kisser to make sure. The dive lit up with Chicago lightning and the pigeon got zotzed. I pulled out my roscoe and hit the snow-bird across the button, smashing his beezer into his puss. Then the bracelets were on and he was bundled into the boiler, set to fry or gain some Nevada gas under glass.

Later I returned to the joint and chinned with the tomato who wasn't fussed I held a ticket. Before long we were drinking out of the same bottle until we were smoked and goofy and the number we came to was one.

Volta: an obscurity of poets is available to purchase here.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Memories of Olive

My short story, "Memories of Olive", has recently been published in #231 of Ambit magazine, and as usual this short blog post serves as background to how the story was written.

"Memories of Olive" is one of twelve stories which I'm hoping at some point will be published as a collection themed around golden-age celebrity Hollywood deaths. Fusing facts with fiction, gossip with direct quotes, movie memories and false memories, these stories are fictionalised biographies of actors who died too soon - whose promising lives were cut short. In this case, the story is of Olive Thomas, a silent film actress who accidentally drank a mercury bichloride liquid solution believing it to be drinking water (reports vary) whilst intoxicated. Her apparent words after realising what she had done were "Oh my God!" I've used this phrase throughout the telling of her story, a poignant coda to a truncated life.

I took the title, "Memories of Olive", from this painting of Olive by Alberto Vargas:

Here's an extract:

Oh, my God!

"Head back."

Brown hair cascading - oh how it cascades - to shoulder length. Red barrette, just so. Eyes closed. Lips parted. What was I thinking? Visible upper set of teeth. Jack: delete set, sounds false. Pale pink rose twixt thumb and ring finger. Black silk gown bunched, on the slide. Such exposed flesh. Breathe in. Breathe in. Left breast clutched (echoes of Wah!), nipple palmed. Right breast exposed: a masturbatory tool. Such sweet scent.

Topless portrait  of Olive Thomas (Memories of Olive), painted by Alberto Vargas for Florenz Ziegfield. Current location unknown.

Oh, my God!

Ambit #231 also contains poetry, prose and art from Khairani Barokka, Victoria Kennefick, Lisa Kelly, Judy Brown, Elaine Beckett, Martin Bax, Dominic Kennedy, John Saul / Sinead McGeechan, Caitlin Newby, Imogen Cassels, Vala Thorodds, Helen Nisbet, Rosalind Brown / Laylah Amarchih, Bridget Khursheed, Stephen, Kate Schneider and Helen Charman, Sophie Larrimore, George Ayres, Gillian Walker, N.J. Stallard, Lydia Popowich, Sophie van Llewyn, Phoebe Eccles, James Stradner, Théo Mercier.

Finally I wrote "Memories of Olive" whilst listening to "Gravity Pulls" by Echobelly on repeat.