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