Wednesday, 30 June 2010

My Month in Novels (June)

Among the crimes I perpetrated against fellow writers this month include:

– A flaming scarf around JM Coetzee’s neck
– An assortment of daggers in Michael Morpurgo’s cot
– Three small weevils in AL Kennedy’s stew
– Burglarising David Mitchell’s Persian villa
– Tattooing ‘I am a berk don’t cha know’ onto James Kelman’s bum
– Nailgunning Katie Price’s ghostwriters to the pavement while four bulldozers cancel their being

I read some junk too. I began with
JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Not his hippest work, ‘tis true, but I bagged it for £1 in a Burntisland bookshop, so no complaints here.

Nicola Barker’s Wide Open is the best work I’ve read from this unique novelist. I adored her cast of coastal misfits with an Icke-like mania and have been “converted” to her oddball lovelinesses.

To end last month’s
Gilbert Adair splurge, I read his 1990 novella Love & Death on Long Island. The title reeks of oxtail but the work itself is an entertaining descent into lunacy. Gilbert never hangs around too long to attract nefarious criticism. Clever little pup.

I was given
Strip the Willow by John Aberdein to read, but my brain couldn’t make sense of the whole product. I found the humour toe-curlingly embarrassing (which isn’t saying much given the bilge peddled in this blog) and the story made no actual sense I could discern. An Aberdonian political satire-cum-romance set in the future is certainly unique, but is it required? Umm . . . no. Aberdonian political satires are not required.

Having told
Martin Amis to lump hisself hither and yon, I read The Information. It is, in my estimation, the man’s finest work. He’s writing about himself. And writing. And himself. And there’s only occasional interruptions from awkwardly rendered peasants. Scathing satire on the writing life that I recommend as essential reading for writers everywhere.

I don’t like
Jonathan Lethem. There. I said it. He bores me. I said it. Having said that, I did like As She Climbed Across the Table – a humorous shortie about a man whose girlfriend dumps him for a black hole. Still, Lethem should be an author whose work I scrawl onto my arm in gouts of passionate fanboy adoration. But no. He passes the time amiably. And no more.

A month has passed in which I have read one
Gilbert Sorrentino book. I should be lashed and razored and have other perforations performed upon my person for this heinous oversight. Crystal Vision was outstanding. I wrote about it on the new Napier CW MA student blog – look! (And read the other posts from my co-student bitches, please).

I returned to
Alasdair Gray after a long absence of four months. He does bang on about Scottish independence and send the class to sleep, but often he turns in a weird postmodern work of radical wowness. A History Maker is muddled and strange, but looks gorgeous. Stuck in Orkney with nothing to read, I also chanced upon his Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing. It told me everything I knew about Scottish writing and why it makes me depressed.

I borrowed two books from
Miss Lickspittle Debussy for my Orkney trip. The prominent bulge of Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole occupied the first half of my travails. This is a spectacular book – gruesome, ludicrous, hilarious, embarrassing and improbable. Like South Park meets Albert Camus. Most invigorating. The other was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces which was distracting but hardly Pulitzer-worthy.

To close the month in a splash of sophistication I bought five English lit classics, beginning with
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which is the best girl-meets-boy-girl-has-boy’s-illegitimate-child-girl-leaves-boy-girl-meets-new-boy-new-boy-finds-out-about-child-and-spurns-her-girl-falls-into-long-depression-that-lasts-for-100-pages-first-boy-returns-and-so-does-other-boy-girl-kills-first-boy-girl-is-arrested story EVER.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010

A Missive From Dave

Dear Unwashed Pleb Scum,

Comrades! The recession is upon us! Apart from learning to survive on one can of refried beans per month, citizens of the UK must rise up and unite in the Campaign to Fuck Arts Up the Ass (CFAUA).

The remit of the CFAUA is to drain money from trivial things like art galleries, literature, film trusts, so-called ‘creative’ university degrees, and redistribute funds into far more crucial things like schools. We must educate our children to read and express themselves, so that they can shut the fuck up and earn a proper living in call centres.

If you are a ‘writer’ you are at risk. You are a drain on the system and you must take the following course of action:

1. Stop writing at once! There is no place for the action of fictitious beings in favour of real action! Be honest with yourself: you have nothing unique to contribute to the arts. You are wasting your own time. We have enough literature.

2. Join the dole queue. Under our new Jobless Slave Bitches Scheme, for a recompense of £20.81 per month, you will be sent to work down the sewers. You will store up to four gallons of liquified human shit in your chest and throat until it is redistributed in a location no-one cares about, such as the North.

3. You must report to the Jobcentre every afternoon to have creativity slurped out of you by Bob. He left school when he was sixteen and knows the value of hard work, and he would like to tell you about it for nine hours a day. We will perform raids on your home when you are out to check for pens, computer documents or paints.

4. You are to have electrodes put in your brain. Any creative impulse you have will result in a powerful shock to every nerve ending in your body. If you reach five shocks, you will be pronounced clinically dead and your money will be stopped.

Yours in-this-together,

Dave Cam, Cambridgeshire Mansion #171

Monday, 14 June 2010

Jodi Loves Vladimir

According to tests conducted in my bathroom, we are only 4% ourselves on the page. The other 96% is a patchwork of untraceable, unmanageable sources passing in and out of our consciousnesses.

I recently wrote an essay for my Napier MA Theory & Authorship module about Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author. The theory posits, rather glumly, that writers can stake no claim on originality, that their texts are a tissue of unconscious influences. Nothing is authentic, therefore the writer cannot claim to have “authored” a work, to rule Godlike over their outpourings.

When writers are asked to cite ‘influences,’ they are being asked to hold up a mirror to their vanity and delusion. If Jodi Picoult cites Nabokov, we chortle chortle chortle. Oh, ha-ha-ha-ha! Oh, Jodi! How you would kill to be Nabokov! Similarly, Martin Amis. Oh, Martin! How you would kill to be Nabokov! Young Nabokov. Oh, Young Nabokov, how you would kill to Old Nabokov! And so on. The word ‘influence’ is therefore meaningless for a writer. Who is to say what influences our writing? It is an equation we could spend our careers completing and still be nowhere closer to the truth.

Writers are shaped by a million unconscious fragments of past, present, now, whenever. Jodi Picoult is as likely to be influenced by Nabokov as she is talking for twenty seconds to her butler.

Growing up, the writers I admired most were Will Self and Alasdair Gray. I tried to write like them. I wasn’t shy about it. I wanted to write Lanark-meets-Great Apes. Then I wanted to be Dostoevsky. I wanted to write Lanark-meets-Notes From Underground-meets-Great Apes. Things got out of hand when I started to write. I began to incorporate attitudes from films, music or other sources. My work became a wasteland of meaningless snatchings from whatever selective bubble of culture I inhabited.

Ergo = failure. Instead of aping various styles, I tried to clear my head of clutter, to reveal the unexpurgated me on the page. This was a disaster too, because the unexpurgated me had some issues. He had some issues, man. So I was forced to work these issues into the prose, rather than write a tract of various anguishes, and my writing improved. Titchily.

I still don’t feel ‘defined’ as a writer. I have no idea what ‘influences’ me, or what I would cite as my greatest drive, my reason for writing. Perhaps that’s for others to decide. I went to see Yann Martel speaking a few days ago, and he spoke of writing to make sense of the world, to understand more clearly his own place in a cosmos of indifference. (I paraphrase. Well, I don’t phrase at all). I feel the same applies to me too.

My only hope is that my own work doesn’t inhabit some godawful realm of solipsistic indulgence – all that matters is me, what I am doing here, and screw the Nigerian orphans. Too many writers are fond of the Big I Am. And that stinks. (I say, talking about ME, on MY blog). I understand now why Dave Eggers switched from the obsessive self-indulgence of his early work to the complete self-erasure of his current work. Too much of YOU is a bad thing.

The struggle for understanding on a grand theological and philosophical level is universal, is a never-ending routine of futile head-banging. The aim of literature, surely, is to provide an insight, another way of thinking, that helps us feel more comfortable in ourselves, feel more at home in this Godless blob of infinite insignificance. I sure hope so.

P.S. Thank you to Cruella Collett aka Mari Salberg for co-awarding me the Fabulous Sugar Doll Blogger Award over on her entertaining and informative blog. I would like to award Mari my Macho Granite Socks Blogger Award in return. Thank you and enjoy!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Say "Aarrrrrgggh!"

Two months ago, I broke my pledge to never ever ever ever go to the dentist ever ever ever again. I endured a niggling toothache for a month before deciding the cosmos wanted to punish me by sending me back to that torturous cavern of unimaginable oral horrors.

Signing up at a local practice – its front entrance lurking along a Möbius strip of faux-gothic leafiness in one of Blackford’s endless procession of Georgian demi-mansions – I arrived for my first check-up in five years. Having been young and reckless, indulging in a hedonistic half-decade of fastfood gluttage, fizzy-foam gluggage, and potato snack munchage, my poor mouth had been left an eroding husk of whole-holed tooth rot.

Oh, I brushed daily, sure, but with the automatic sloppiness of the morning wash or the late-night piddle. As I sat on the chair, having beforehand imagined Boschian visions of mouth-based hellishness, the dentist rolled off a list of dental catastrophies occurring in ma mooth. Lower quadrant screwed. Palatal cleft buggered. My teeth were crumbling castles of ruinous disrepute, and I would require last-ditch refurbishment.

That afternoon, my problem tooth was extracted (goodbye, top left molar!) and donated to struggling piano manufacturers or elephants seeking cheap bling. The true horrors, however, were to come a few weeks later – I required FILLINGS. Please – no fainting.

Contrary to what those brave-idiots-who-feel-no-pain-ever tell you about having fillings put in, the process is infinite torture. And I speak as someone whose childhood was dogged by brace moulds – two thick slabs of viscous gelatin shoved into the gub, leaving a 0.1 inch gap in which to breathe – endless extractions, abscess-lancing and assorted shavings and scrapings. These, my shiny-toothed friends, are nothing compared to the filling.

The process begins with a pinkie-sized needle rammed into the gums, whereupon a light dose of novocaine numbs the mouth to the extent pain is still felt, but not as severely. Thanks. Next, your mouth is held open with metallic clamps as the hygienist skooshes slushy paste through a suction device around your teeth for about TEN MINUTES. Then the drills emerge. Is it any wonder I can’t watch Marathon Man without weeping?

The drill whirrs and buzzes around the treated tooth, tingling at the nerves or roots with a blood-curdling razor-zzzz. Fears about the dentist tend to revolve around the nerves being disturbed and the ensuing agonies piqued roots might bring . . . so the filling is YOUR WORSE NIGHTMARE. OK, I’m a wimp. Fine. I admit it. And my dentist is an artiste with that filling paste. But I will continue to cower in fear of the routine check-up.

From hence, I shall brush thrice a day and singe my gums off with acidic mouthwash. Anything to keep the woman who wields the drills at bay. Zzzzz-zzzz-zzzz! Oh, the horror!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

A Tale of Two Buses

When I first moved to Edinburgh from the darklands of Bodmin’s Arse, Scaborough, I loved the wall of silence erected between bus drivers and passengers.

Buses in small villages involve informing the driver of your destination so he can decide the travel costs. Which means: COMMUNICATION. In Edinburgh, travelling anywhere costs
a mere £1.20, and doesn't always require a verbal exchange. Or so it may seem.

My first year riding buses in town involved me slipping my quid into the coin-sucker gizmo, ignoring the doom-laden baldie at the wheel and scuttling to the back with the weirdoes. Later, I acquired a travel card and my attentions could be directed entirely onto hearing that BLIP sound which permits you access to Lothian Buses’ festive Butlins-themed interior. There was no communicatory tension between driver and passenger.

Then, drama struck one December when taking the No. 5 to the Royal Infirmary. I had the squeak-pop of Pinky & Perky on my headphones when the driver thrust his hand over the cash-sucker and fixed me an evil grin. Before he allowed me to proceed, he made me spit out my destination and ticket type. Well, my world of bus driver shunnage had been ruined! Was I now expected to give EVERY driver my destination and ticket preference?

For months, I became hyper-conscious of sliding change into the sucker sans speech. To appease my terror, I began to request ‘single’ tickets and ‘day’ tickets, rather than allowing them arrive at a decision based upon the coinage slotted down their chutes. Sometimes I would pause at the ticket machine, waiting for them to compute my change and dreading the callback – “Where are you going, MATE? What ticket type, PAL?”

Since attending Napier, greater traumas have developed. The No. 41 has created minutes of indecisive torment. Craighouse Campus is the last stop on the 41 route, and often the drivers like to stop and have a fag or make a phone call before hitting the road again. So the question is: to board or not to board? I am forced to stand there, awaiting the driver’s decision. Sometimes the driver is fiddling with his coat or opening his driver door. What if I slip my coins into the machine when the engine is off? Does my money vanish?

I have had to back away from buses when rude drivers make no outward signals to me. My coins hang limp like question marks in my cold fingers as I stand by the door, blocking the path, waiting for this now-human creature to cease his faggage and get back into action. It hurts.

I have also suffered at the hands of the No. 23. The driver once processed me a single ticket instead of a day ticket, and I was required to make a ruckus about this misallotment of travel time. He was none too pleased as I held up a raft of eager travellers with this slip of vexation. It was MY FAULT of course for having the mousiest voice in the universe and favouring a series of hand-shuggling gestures for communication over dragging endless words from the cobweb of my larynx and mashing them into sentences. Yeah RIGHT.

Another disaster struck when I pulled yesterday’s ticket from my wallet while ensconced in the music of LA designer hipsters The Muffs. Not hearing the driver’s protests, I sat down as he lumbered towards me, kicking up a stink about my apparent violation of ticket expiration protocol. I retrieved the correct ticket from my wallet and we chortled. Inside, though, I was writhing on fourteen thousand floors of embarrassment.

So for now, to avoid any humiliation, I declare which ticket type I want CLEARLY. I have practised saying the words ‘single, please’ and ‘day ticket, please’ into the mirror so I can engage with this genus of creature on a more harmonious footing. I must remember: bus drivers are almost human too.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Kristin Hersh releases new album as a book.

Kristin Hersh’s music touches me in places even doctors and expensive call girls cannot reach. Her music is the ongoing exploration of a biploar mind – one rich in imaginative wonder and emotional depth. Listening to her songs is an intimate, disquieting act in the same manner as mellowing to Leonard Cohen, Vic Chestnutt, or Joni Mitchell.

Unlike those folks, I find Kristin more interesting as a personality. She towers above other soul-bearing musicians with her generosity, sincerity, and willingness to connect with her listenership beyond the song. Her Kristinness can be felt in every pore of her music: through her original lyricism, which bridges the gap between cryptic, literate and personal, and her enviable eclecticism (she also fronts alt-pop sirens Throwing Muses and punk purists 50 Foot Wave).

Today, her eighth studio album as a solo artist, Crooked, is released as a book. This is exciting because, well . . . her album is being released as a book. Do I have to do a little dance? This is a momentous moment for the tenuous borderline between music and literature. Many authors (well, Nick Hornby) have tried to marry music with literature. Usually the genres prove as marriable as Katie Price to anything other than bank transfers.

Crooked doesn’t contain a work of prose – the book element is achieved through essays on each song and excerpts from her forthcoming memoir, Rat Girl. The disc itself will contain a treasure trove of exclusive online content, which adds a hypertextual dimension to this multimedia feast. Crooked could represent a more symbiotic relationship between music and text, between the art and its creation. Watch this space.

Kristin has been donating free music on
her website since the release of her 2007 album Learn to Sing Like a Star. Crooked will consist of re-recorded versions of these songs, meaning long-term devotees like me will be familiar with its content. Likewise with the essays – the words will no doubt be taken from her live blog and reproduced in print. This makes Crooked more of a fresh discovery for newcomers, though for long-term fans the additional extras are likely to keep us entertained. They are a thoughtful bunch.

So three cheers for this challenging and unpredictable artist, and her challenging and unpredictable music! Youtube videos of Kristin tend to focus on her Michael Stipe association, but here are a few gems:

Duet with the late Vic Chestnutt:

TV performance of ‘Flooding’:

Recent live version of ‘Krait’:

Saturday, 5 June 2010

An End to Trouser Tyranny

I would like to discuss trousers. Yes. You heard me correctly. Why must everything be about writing on this writer’s blog? Since the first caveman covered his legs in leaves and declared “ooowww-ahhhhh,” mankind has been burdened with these irritating leg fluffers.

Fashion to me as is useful as the num lock on a keyboard. It is a hindrance designed to undermine self-conscious weirdoes like me. I resent others looking wonderful and attractive. I want everyone to wear electric blue sweatpants and bright orange overcoats to highlight the intrinsic absurdity of humans. Fashion is the spangly blue dildo of consumer capitalism! You must realise this! Do not kowtow to the corporate oppressors! Be DIFFERENT!

I own two pairs of ‘outside’ trousers. The first pair are black cords with slit-lines. These lines represent the fragmented nature of my soul. They are metaphors for the brokenness of things – a statement of defiance against the many ills of the world. OK, not really. I bought them in Barnado’s.

The second pair are grey jeans, tatty at the knees. They are a metaphor for the everyday struggle to succeed in a world ravaged by avarice, self-interest, hatred, bigotry and indolence. They are covered in ketchup stains because the world is a stain. They are unwashed because the world is dirty. They are a trouser protest like no other, daddio.

Despite the serious political statement I make with my trousers, I do not sit well in them. Frankly, wearing trousers is the cruellest hoax to befall mankind, apart from the shaving necessity. What I yearn for is the male skirt. Yes. Sod this exclusivity women have over comfortable, silky items that actually feel good to wear over the hips, genitals and thighs. Rise up, men of the world, and don your man-skirts!

David Beckham was the spark that caused the revolution. He had the courage to risk looking like a berk with his half-sari half-carpet arrangement. Well, let me tell you, you won’t be laughing at him in two weeks time. The revolution is coming. And it loves the legs.

You see, mankind cannot stand to wear tight belts that dig into the stomach any longer. We refuse to look like officious twats in suits, absorbing hatred from the beautiful people. We refuse to hide our hairy, glorious legs under sweaty fabrics that chafe the skin. We are MAD AS HELL and we will not take this trouser tyranny anymore!

So please, gentlemen, swallow that gulp of cynicism and burn your trousers. Raid your partners’ cupboards and respect your bodies. Don that skirt. This is a matter of integrity. Adapt or die.

Thank you.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


I’ve been writing on outrageous whims lately, which is never a sensible idea. There is an ADHD part of the writer’s brain which seizes upon an idea, ANY IDEA – for they may never have one ever again – and milks it to death as fast as they can. The results are often baggy and undisciplined.

I have fallen prey to this condition. Last week I started an ill-advised story which began to grow. And grow. Soon I found myself with 10K and wondered whether I had a novel on my hands. I didn’t WANT another novel, you see, but I went along with the story, and began concoting elaborate plot ruses to shape it into something substantial.

The crippling doubts started after I wrote a synopsis, and around midweek the story descended into the usual whimsical-surreal-postmodern fare that functions as my autopliot. After some feedback from Arthur Scargill, the potential messiness of this mother became apparent. The whole endeavour required greater thought, planning and intellect. Well – it required a PLAN. One of those certainly helps before writing a novel.

Last year, I tried to write a novel in a day. It was, erm… not a remarkable success. The end result helped me to pinpoint my failings and defaults, and taught me the importance of pacing oneself and not assaulting the keyboard like
Skeet Ulrich in the original Scream. These recent whims have been something of a step backward, so I must control them!

I have earmarked the writing contests I want to enter, performing exegeses on the guidelines, and made a note of publications I would like to submit work to over the next few months. I am also collaborating with Gordon Brown on a novella celebrating Britain’s bigoted women. The working title is Brown’s Bigots, which I’m not happy about.

So the question remains – how much is too much? I take great care over most stories (unless I’m on a deadline), but I’m not a writer who spends weeks agonising over things. I don’t have the stamina, nor the compassion. I’ve decided to PLAN CAREFULLY each piece of work from now on. To pinpoint its exact purpose, its potential effectiveness. I don’t want to waste time on stories that end up as vacuums, as bum fodder.

But enough about me. I’ve heard you lost weight? Oh really? No, he didn’t! Well, I wouldn’t take that from anyone, I don’t care if he’s your brother. Yes. Yes. Yes. A turnip? Really? Yes. Mmm-hmm. Umm. Listen… I have to go now. Sorry! Bye bye bye, love you!