Out, Damn’d Draft, Out!

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draftGahhhhhhh!!!!!!

I’m a huge fan of the Big Bang Theory but even after watching every episode I’m fairly sure there’s no loop quantum gravity, supersymmetry, or string theory explanation for why it is that the editing of the penultimate draft of a novel should take longer than the initial writing of it. Time simultaneously contracts and expands, dilates and condenses, the arduousness of the original creation being replaced by a dulling of the senses caused by repetition and familiarity, the spontaneous eruption of a forgotten joke encountered afresh distended into an asymptotic moan of diminishing returns each time it is reread and effort is made to improve on or sharpen it. The self-confidence that overtook any initial hesitation and thereby resulted in the completion of a work to be edited gives way in the review to an orgy of “What the hell was I thinking?” doubt, a form of self-abuse manifested by crossings-out, screeds in the margins, and long, languid waves of ink across full pages where not a word can be salvaged, waves that in brief moments condemn days of agonized wankery.

I get enough of editing in my day job, so this torture I inflict on myself is purely for your benefit, you understand. If you think this next book is shite, you should see what it was like before I edited it. But even now, I’m still laughing at the craziness of it. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that an anonymous reader at Hodder & Stoughton gave my agent feedback on it, saying “This is quite the funniest dystopian comedy I’ve read in a long time.” Well, let’s hope (s)he reads a lot of dystopian comedies, otherwise we’re fucked. Sometime soon, Fowl Play will be edging its way into your eyeline like one of those mythical beasts portending death and destruction but which, when you turn your head, looks like nothing more than a miniature schnauzer. But a miniature schnauzer with one eyebrow raised. He knows what you’ve been up to, and the day when he judges you is nigh.

Indie Revolution Interview

The very wonderful Lorie over at the Indie Revolution Blog has posted a recent interview we conducted in which I slag off Christopher Hitchens, quote Bruce Lee quoting Mae West, and recall singing “Danny Boy” with Wayne Sleep in an out-take from Twin Peaks.

 

You can read the entire thing here. And check out Lorie’s other interviews with some top, top indie writers.

A Fragile Pedestal

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yevtushenko

As students in London in the early 80s, my friends and I did whatever we could to entertain ourselves on the cheap: labyrinthine, clueless but committed all-night arguments on political theory, parties gatecrashed in the hope of stealing a bottle or a kiss, hours of masturbation (intellectual, physical, mutual if we were lucky, solo if not), and even, occasionally, attendance at lectures or seminars just for the craic. One form of entertainment I was unable to persuade my friends to partake of was a Sunday morning trip to Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner—hangover or inclement weather were the usual excuses—where one could huddle for warmth in crowds of pre-internet trolls as they heckled, harried, harassed, and humiliated the unfortunate few who had had the temerity to appoint themselves the focus of attention and source of enlightenment. I’ve always thought this ridiculing of the hubristic to be a valuable evolutionary tool in humanity’s development, a way to ensure not that anyone gets ideas above their station but that no station above or outside that of the community ever appears. And, to be fair, most of those who took the stage at Speakers’ Corner deserved the hard time they received: Proselytisers, Holy Joes, Holier-than-thou Joes, Prolier-than-thou Joes, Self-taught Vulgar Marxists, Untutored Vulgar Racists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Eleventh-Day Dreamers, Men in Straw Boaters, Strawmen by the Boatload. There’s a wonderful website where you can read about the varieties of crypto-religious experience to be had at this cathedral to free speech here.

My favourite speaker of all was a German anarchist known to me only as Willy, whose fractured English made his meaning no more or less opaque than that of the other turns, and no more or less funny, but it lent a certain charm to his Gestetnered magazine, News from Nowhere, never likely to be confused with William Morris’s utopian socialist text of the same name. Whenever I visited Hyde park, I always hoped that Willy would be there, even though I rarely agreed with him—he was simultaneously too hippyish and too Stirnerite for my tastes—for he was a gentle and amusing speaker. He was also the only speaker I ever saw escorted off the premises by the cops at Speakers’ Corner, following some scuffles in which he played no part, for the content of his oration. Annoyingly, I don’t recall the subject of his speech, only that when he was helped down from his milkcrate by the constabulary, he was immediately replaced by a Marxist of a most boring and didactic aspect, who lost no time in losing the crowd’s sympathy, telling Willy’s erstwhile listeners that their attitude to work—they were against it—qualified them only for membership of the lumpenproletariat.

Willie died some years ago, I believe, but I still have a photo of him, courtesy of Invisible Threads, a large-format book of photographs taken by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died this weekend. A bereted Willy stands on a milkcrate wearing a homemade cardboard placard round his neck like a victim of Mao’s Red Guard. The text in felt marker relates to the Persons Unknown trial and reads “If it’s a crime to be an anarchist, then I’m a criminal.” Yevtushenko titled this photo “A Fragile Pedestal,” an apt comment on the willingness of hecklers to knock speakers off theirs but less appropriate in light of the trial’s outcome: four defendants—Ronan Bennett, Iris Mills, Trevor Dawton, and Vince Stevenson—were acquitted. I subsequently met Vince on a number of occasions at the Autonomy Club, an anarchist community centre in Wapping that was funded with money from the support fund, and Ronan Bennett has had a successful career as a novelist, playwright, and, more recently, focus of media celebrity speculation.

FragilePedestal

Yevtushenko I saw give a poetry reading in Birmingham in 1979, an experience I drew upon for the date scene in Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love; not so much “drew upon” as reproduced verbatim, though with Ivy as the protagonist. Yevtushenko was 45 years old at the time, this episode of The Book Programme tells me, ten years younger than I am today, yet he seemed to me back then to be pensionable, perhaps because he wore a flat cap throughout the reading,and flat caps were indelibly associated for me with my own grandad, already in his seventies by that point. (In retrospect, the flat cap may have been a fashion trend among intellectuals of the late 70s; that same year, I attended a sociology conference at Lancaster University where I saw Tom Bottomore deliver an entire lecture without removing his cap once.) Yevtushenko’s dynamism belied his apparent years, however. He declaimed heroically, growling, prowling, staring, emoting, the archetypal poets’ poet. There were only two male students in my Russian language class at college—me and Brian Grogan—so we were used to being marginal, minority participants in lessons (the low profile, I feel, explains why we were never targeted by MI6, either for surveillance or recruitment). Brian was absent from the reading, meaning that Yevgeny replaced him as the only other male in the room (male, not man; I was 16 at the time). It was a virtuoso performance, albeit helped, I am sure by the unworldiness of his audience, bookish bespectacled ladies of a certain age, awestruck by his very presence. I remember very little of the night other than Yevtushenko basking in the worship of his audience and wondering what that flat cap was all about; maybe he just had a bald patch he was concealing.

Had I any sense of the dramatic, my anecdote would end with “And that was the night I decided to become a poet,” but to be faithful to my recollections, I must instead report that I chanced my arm with one of my fellow classmates on the way home, asking her for a date in the naïve hope that exposure to Yevgeny’s lyricism had rendered her susceptible to the less graceful charms of a teenage Brummie. My hope was as baseless as it was base.

Perhaps I should buy a cap.

No Rest for the Wickless

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It’s never been entirely clear to me why those with wicks should be tormented by eternal flames. Just seems so vindictive. But it isn’t like those of us without wicks get a chance to take a breather either. The holiday period just gone saw visits to the family that were far too short, and since then I’ve been back on the mountain alongside Sisyphus, pushing my particular bolus of dung around like a good ‘un. The first week and a half of January have seen leaden hours of writing, editing, researching, with nary a chance to look away from whatever screen demands my attention, so I’m late in bringing my new year’s resolutions to the internet table. The irony is that one of the mini-promises I’d made to myself for the year was to get out more, get some exercise, meet and greet people face to face, escape the depression that living online brings. However, one shitty maitre d’ in a local restaurant put paid to any illusions I had about offline politeness, resulting in a vengeful pile-on on Trip Advisor that  saw me not only vent my spleen about my mistreatment at his hands but also, as a corollary, visit the pages of all the restaurant’s rivals to give them glowing reviews in the hope that they would overtake the aforementioned miscreant in the rankings. In retrospect, I probably went a bit Trump on his ass (i.e., petty and vindictive), and my good wife’s calm and placating nature was sufficient to make me feel ashamed of myself (all she needed to have said, of course, was “Leave him, Jay! He’s not worth it!” but we don’t watch Eastenders, so she didn’t know). The irony of my situation was thus compounded; one malefactor met in the flesh hurled me back to the virtual world in retribution.

All of which is by way of an excuse and an apology for my failure to give shout-outs to the classy literary folk who’ve sustained me in the past year and who form the foundation of my main resolution for 2017. I’ve encountered some remarkable talents – and some lovely people – in the indie writing world over the past couple of years, especially via Goodreads, but I’ve been unable, for one reason or another, to immerse myself in their writing. So the plan for the coming 12 months is to read as much as I can by the amazing Leo X. Robertson, Rebecca Gransden, Rupert Dreyfus, M.T. Bass, Mike Robbins, Jack Binding, Mary Papastavrou, Harry Whitewolf, and Arthur Graham, to name but a few.  I also have debts to pay to the wonderful Elyse, Alison, and Jason, stalwarts of the Goodreads community and readers of immense taste and patience, and to Booktubers Dan Martin and Acacia Ives, whose videos I never miss. I recommend that you never miss them too. It looks like I’ve a busy year ahead.

And so it goes.

Shortlisted!

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49489457_High Resolution Front Cover.5131632

Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love has made it onto the shortlist for the top 50 indie books of 2016 over at Read Freely. Here’s the link.

http://www.readfree.ly/vote-50-best-indie-books-2016-comedy/

If you’d be so kind, please give Ivy your votes. You can vote twice in each category, even for the same book, and there’s a $50 prize for one lucky voter.

Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s came in at No. 6 last year, so it would be great if Ivy beat that.

Please also vote for Harry Whitewolf’s book Rhyme and Rebellion in the Poetry section. Harry’s a powerful protest poet and deserves the publicity this award will provide.

Fill your boots!

Enniskillen Book Haul

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enniskillenbookhaulI’m a real sucker for charity shops, and Enniskillen in County Fermanagh has lots of them, each one a repository for students’ set texts and reference books at the end of the academic year. I find September and October to be particularly rewarding months, a time for harvesting the discarded but recyclable fruits of other folks’ pursuit of knowledge while making a small contribution to … well, whatever the charities do with their money: Enniskillen has an Oxfam shop, a Cancer Research shop, a British Heart Foundation shop, a Vincent de Paul shop, a Hospice Foundation shop, a Red Cross shop, and even a Presbyterian second-hand shop, among others. The prices of books vary, but most paperbacks will set you back 40 to 50 pence (or three for a pound), and a second-hand hardback rarely costs more than a couple of pounds. On this trip, I even found a hardback copy of Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man for a quid!

I arranged the display you see above (this month’s booty/bounty) on a purely practical basis, to fit the books into the photo, but I detect a distinct sociological/anthropological bias to the top row: The History of the Blues, by Francis Davis; Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism, by Edna Fernandes; When We Began, There Were Witchmen: An Oral History from Mount Kenya, by Jeffrey A. Fadiman; and the aforementioned Bronowski book. They aren’t placed above the other works for any other reason, and yet I suspect that they will the main sources of inspiration for my writing. I read others’ novels in the hope of being surprised and, sometimes, on those rare occasions when I am surprised, it is to dissect the authors’ technique, to figure out how on earth they managed to surprise me. Of course, I also read for enjoyment, but since the main pleasure I derive from reading relates to being shown something new, to being both educated and entertained, it’s rare for a work of fiction to hold me in its spell for very long simply because the educative aspect soon falls away. Steve Aylett’s Bigot Hall managed it, for the most part, and a book I’ve just begun, Padrika Tarrant’s The Knife Drawer, holds great promise, but I know from past experience what I’m likely to get from Iain Banks, Martin Amis, and even William Golding (and I’ve already read the sequel to I am the Secret Footballer; I just want to fill in the gaps). Still, to my shame, I haven’t read any of the books shown above, even though Lord of the Flies was a set text for many of my peers and despite the fact that I already have a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (I think) somewhere around the apartment. Perhaps there will be something within that will grab me by the, erm, lapels, and never let go. I still haven’t lost hope.

Other books shown:

Other People, by Martin Amis

Wall Street Words, by David L. Scott

Young Men in Spats, by P. G. Wodehouse

Continental Drifter, by Tim Moore

A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, by Chris Stewart

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende

The Business, by Iain Banks

Psyched!

49489457_High Resolution Front Cover.5131632

I’m just over the moon about this review of Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love from Richard at the superb Cunning Hired Knaves blog. I’ve reproduced it here in full.

Jay Spencer Green‘s first novel, Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s, begins with Walter Benjamin’s famous observation that there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. In his second novel, Ivy Feckett is Looking For Love, we learn that the eponymous central character is a researcher who spends her days documenting all kinds of barbarism, from the pornographic to the genocidal. But to what end, and for whom?

The unrelenting dark seamy humour with a taste for the bizarre and surreal and tightly woven plotlines that characterised Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s abound in this offering. But the setting has shifted, from a Dublin in advanced neoliberal decay and debauchery, to the striving petit-bourgeois suburbs of Birmingham, and instead of the rakish and worldly CIA agent of the first book, Ivy Feckett is bookish and reserved and unsure if she might ever fit in and find love, as the title says.

The subtitle of the book is ‘A Birmingham Romance’. Though the city has been doubtless the scene for many a romance among those who have lived there, it hardly enjoys the renown of Venice or Manhattan on that score. To my sensibilities anyway, a Birmingham romance sounds as incongruous as the homemade rhubarb or cauliflower wines served up by one of the main characters. Indeed, I imagine the kind of people who imagine Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s as the sort of thing they could get their teeth into might be a little cooler on this book, if they were to go by the title alone.

That would be a great pity, since I think this book in many ways outstrips Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s in depth and ingenuity. It comes in the wrapping of a romantic comedy-mystery, and with its narrative twists and engaging characters it works splendidly on that level alone. But it also reaches for weightier social, political and philosophical questions too: What if the objects of our desire in human form are the very things that turn us into a means to their end? What happens when we devote all our energies to producing the very things that might destroy us? Where do love and kinship lie amid social structures that prize the likes of family values, religious devotion and entrepreneurial endeavour but are really a breeding ground for sociopaths and con artists? And can riding in a donkey derby really give you an orgasm?

The answers, such as they are, emerge in an ingenious tale suffused with warmth and affection, for its characters (well, most of them), the places they inhabit, and the social world that brought them into being. But Jay Spencer Green is too astute a writer, a narrator with too keen a nose for the scent of abounding darkness, to allow what is ultimately a story about love, friendship and solidarity in the face of pervasive villainy to be padded out by gratuitous sentimentality. At the very least, Ivy Feckett ought to cement Green’s status as a cult novelist, and not just because this is also a novel about a religious cult. The book is accessible enough, and so abundant in fiendish humour and grounded optimism, that it could well be the founding document of a worldwide religion.

Wino Connoisseur

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Our usual panel of guests assembled for this year’s Christmas tasting within yards of the Law Courts on Fleet Street, a fitting and slightly ironic location, we thought: urbane, cosmopolitan, and convenient for litigation. It was a bitterly cold afternoon, but everyone was well wrapped up, at least to begin with; the more relaxed and convivial the company became, both conversation and clothing loosened up.

First up was a 1996 Sarvodaya. On most occasions, several of our panel would instinctively turn up their noses at anything purporting to come from India, but the enthusiasm of our younger and more adventurous members induced them to overcome this particular prejudice, albeit for just the afternoon. A near-translucent, vaguely oily liquid, with hints of amber when turned to the sun, the Sarvodaya had an underlying sweetness that was easy to miss but still too much for one or two even jaded palates. Peregrine thought that he detected a hint of peach and perhaps raspberry or printer’s ink, but this could have been his mind playing tricks on him, because few of the other tasters could discern those particular scents in the bouquet. “Are you sure you washed your hands before coming here?” asked Sebastian playfully.

The consensus was that the Sarvodaya constituted a solid start but was nothing to write home about. Six stars.

Sarvodaya Liquid Paraffin 1996 (£3.99 500 ml)

Next up was the 1997 Klenasol White Spirit, an offering that drew further sneers from one or two of the panel members averse to anything that has New World about it. “You might as well give us industrial cleaning fluid,” Auberon said, although this did not stop him from consuming more than his fair share of this delicate little number. “Reputations can be deceptive,” he conceded afterwards. “I didn’t think this would have the complexity of some of the older, more established, European spirits, but they’ve clearly done their homework and learned from our mistakes.” Hints of cherries on the nose and a hit at the rear of the palate redolent of lighter fluid made this a popular selection with the panel. Eight stars.

Klenasol White Spirit 1997 (£1.99 250 ml)

In retrospect, it may have been too early in the tasting to have at this point introduced the Old Spice. I had decanted it beforehand in order to conceal its identity and to allow it to breathe, but all the panel members over 70 recognized it immediately, and the younger members barely got a look in, causing a rift in the proceedings and souring the atmosphere in what was meant, after all, to be a festive occasion. “Reminds me of my rugby playing days,” said Jeffrey, snatching the bottle from my grip before anyone else could get near it and taking a hearty swig that brought gasps of dismay from one or two members distraught at this breach of etiquette. They were mollified only by the intervention of the panel chairman, who tried to ensure a more equitable distribution of the beverage.

Old Spice remains an enigma. An overpowering bouquet soon gives way in the mouth to a not unpleasant heat reminiscent of Fisherman’s Friends or Victory Vs. Opinion was nonetheless divided on this drink. Older members appreciated the selection, possibly out of sentiment, whereas younger members thought it a little vulgar. Five stars.

Old Spice After Shave 1994 (£4.99 250 ml)

Events took a slight turn for the worse with the next selection, a 1996 Liberon Beeswax Liquid Antique Pine Polish. The Liberon is marketed as “rich in beeswax and turpentine,” which I anticipated would make it a guaranteed winner with our panel, but some of the animosity from the argument over the previous sample could only be dissipated, it seemed, by rounding on me, even though I couldn’t help but notice that they finished off, or I should say, polished off, this drink much quicker than any of the others. “You’re a cunt of the first order,” said Jeffrey as he coaxed the dregs of the Liberon from the flask. “I bet he’s a fucking Jew,” said Richard. “Now, now,” said Boris. “You can’t be seen to be anti-Semitic in this day and age.” Richard’s head drooped. “Fuck off, blondie,” he said under his breath.

Although the breezy ethanol opening promises a vibrant, youthful drink, the Liberon was slow and mushy on the tongue, indicating perhaps that too much beeswax had been used in its manufacture and not enough turpentine. It was still regarded as “quite filling,” and a couple of the younger panel members at this point noticed that they could no longer feel their arms. Five Stars.

Liberon Beeswax Liquid Antique Pine Polish 1996 (£10.12 500 ml)

A brown, opaque liquid with low notes of ammonia, horseshit, and chrysanthemum, Reckitt’s Silvo All-Purpose Metal Polish doesn’t jump to mind as an intoxicant of choice among the swinish multitudes. Among those of some discernment and imagination, however, it proffers an opportunity to get completely out of it on very little outlay while simultaneously lending itself to mockery of the usual pretentious shite that the nouveaux riches and wretchedly obnoxious social climbers spout whenever they congregate for tastings such as this. “Definite suggestion of new-mown grass with apples. Do you get that?” asked Sebastian, both sarcastically and loudly enough to be heard from the other side of the street, with the consequence that we were moved on by the constabulary, even though most of us were by now contentedly slumped in the doorway of the Cock Tavern. “You’re a cunt, officer,” said Jeffrey. “Ask him if he’s a fucking Jew,” said Richard. “My apologies, officer, “ said Boris. “They haven’t been well.”

The Silvo was declared by all to be “fucking splendid,” and although my companions wanted me to disport myself to an ironmongery in order to purchase further supplies while they repaired to a nearby hostelry, I insisted that we finish the tasting first. At this point, Sebastian vomited copiously over his own and Boris’s laps. Ten stars.

Reckitt Silvo All Purpose Metal Polish 1999 (£1.89 150 ml)

Next up was an adventurous choice, a 1992 Polycell Heavy Duty Brush Cleaner. I say “adventurous” because at 10 pounds a litre, you really expect this one to be something special. The panel was not disappointed. “Sweet, sweet paint thinners,” said Auberon accurately, crawling across the pavement in my direction and flailing his hand at where he imagined the bottle to be before falling soundly asleep, his feet hanging over the kerb. I judged that it was probably as well that he slept. There was blood at the corner of his mouth, and one of the well-known side-effects of paint thinners is renal failure and death. On the bright side, it works as an anticonvulsant for canine epilepsy.

Sebastian had perked up after vomiting and was keen to try this little number. Still able to raise his little finger as he lifted the bottle to his lips, he gazed into the distance and gently swirled the rasping liquid around his gums. Rather than spit or swallow, he elected to do both, his head lolling to one side with his mouth open so that half the drink went down his throat, the other half over his lips and onto his shoulder. “Enchanting,” he animadverted, before passing out.

Other panel members concurred. “You know what this would be good for?” said Toby. “Performing operations. For the surgeon, I mean. Instead of performing operations.” I took his lack of lucidity to be an endorsement of this selection. Nine stars.

Polycell Heavy Duty Brush Cleaner 1992 (£10.12 1l)

The tasting was drawing to a close as rush hour advanced and panel members declined further refreshment. Next on the agenda was a 1998 Cutex Quick & Gentle Nourishing nail polish remover. I had deliberately placed the more potent beverages toward the end of the day’s list, aware that, even though not all the panel members’ palates are as discerning as they once were, early exposure to such overpowering intoxicants could have reduced the afternoon to a raucous free-for-all and a waste of time for everyone concerned. As it transpired, I had gauged things well: Only two of the panel members remained unconscious as I poured the Cutex into their mouths, and one of those bestirred himself enough to try to stand and punch me. The other merely lay comatose across the pavement, surreptitiously shitting himself, we later learned.

Cutex hasn’t produced a beverage this complex and intriguing since 1993. That, of course, was a very good year for nail polish remover because of the withdrawal on restrictions in the amount of acetone used in its manufacture. Peregrine thought it gave off “hints of airplanes.” “There. Look,” he said, pointing at a zebra crossing. “Airplanes. Can’t you hear them? Tiny slimy bastards. Watch out!!!” at which point he shielded his eyes from the pedestrians passing by and curled up into a trembling ball before leaping up and barking at me.

Personally, I detected plums and blackcurrant, albeit very faintly, scents that disappear on the tongue to be replaced by cabbage leaves, saffron, and cotton. This was by far my favourite selection of the afternoon, but I was unable to coax agreement from my fellow panel members, only one of whom was at that point capable of coherent English, namely Boris. Nine and a half stars.

Cutex Quick & Gentle Nourishing nail polish 1998 (£2.75 25 ml)

As a digestif, I offered the panel a wee dram of 1997 Kiwi Instant Wax Shoe Polish, opting for the white, an unusual choice, I know you’ll agree, but the black can be so messy at the end of a meal, and the white, in my experience, comes off the skin and clothing more easily. None of my fellow panel members was able to get the top off their individually crafted bottles, each of which I had had monogrammed for the occasion, so it was down to me to act as the Admirable Crichton and take care of them. Happily, assistance was not long in coming, in the form of a white van with the word “Police” on the side. The gentlemen passengers within were most understanding and my panel members almost universally compliant, except for Richard, naturally, and Sebastian, who I understand died in police custody. Never mind. It’s what he would have wanted. Five stars.

Kiwi Instant Wax Shoe Polish (White) 1997

Account by an unknown author of the 2009 Spectator/Oldie Christmas party.