Elizabeth Strout (2016) Olive Kitteridge

Having read (and reviewed) Olive, Again, Anything is Possible and My Name is Lucy Barton in the last few months, Olive Kitteridge is the best Elizabeth Strout novel I’ve read. Some authors, most authors—myself included—tend to write the same story again and again. Different haircuts, shiny shoes, but the same characters appearing again, renewed. From writer to reader there needs to be an emotional resonance that translates into a feeling of rightness. Olive Kitteridge feels right to me.

In other words I liked Olive Kitteridge in a way I didn’t particularly like those other books. It’s not that I disliked them. They were agreeable enough to me, but it was more of a feeling of so what? No particular, dazzle.  I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

I don’t classify myself as a writer. Writing is a verb, rather than a noun for me. If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t you’re not. In the same way that Angela O’Meara, in the story ‘The Piano Player’, four times a week plonks herself down at the piano in the Warehouse Bar and Grill and tries to get inside the music, I try and get inside words and write stuff most folk don’t read, apart from the locals in my ABCtales gang hut. Angela is a background noise to most folk in the town. A familiar figure that needs to be drunk so her nerves don’t show. With her red hair and slim figure, she was beautiful once, and in the right light is beautiful still. Her talent is innate. Her fingers need to be busy. She produced music, but isn’t going anywhere or coming from anywhere, but in the process she’s picked up a married man that loved her so much, couldn’t live without her, but somehow managed for twenty-odd years to do just that. One day Angela picks up the phone and phones him at home and simply says, she can’t do it anymore. She goes back to playing the piano. Life in her small—fictional—town goes on without her. There’s a pretty much perfect feeling of what is and what if to the story that seems true.

Olive Kitteridge, the local maths teachers with her big voice and big frame and size ten shoes, was someone most kids were scared of. As in the other novels (or collections of short stories) she does not feature in some of the stories, other than as a walk-on character. Support act to the main storyline.

In ‘Incoming Tide,’ for example, Kevin Coulson returns to his childhood home and parks near the marina looking out at the sailboats and shifting tide. He’s also been watching a childhood friend, a pretty girl, Patty Howe, with a kind of yearning that reaches towards the past. Then Olive Kitteridge is just there, in ways she often just is, a marker like the lighthouse, staring through the windscreen.

Mrs. Kitteridge. Holy shit. She looked exactly the same as she had in the classroom in the seventh grade, the forthright, high-cheekboned expression; her hair was still dark. He had liked her; not everyone had.

The story pivots on what Kevin tells Mrs.Kittiridge—he’s a doctor now, but no longer practices medicine—‘That’s pretty impressive,’ Olive tells him.

She is a woman given to plain speaking. That’s part of her attraction to the reader. She tells it like it is. The woman her son Christopher marries, for example, she recognises as intelligent enough, she’s also a doctor, but mean. Her son’s next wife, Ann, who she goes to visit in New York, has already fathered two kids to different men, and she’s bigger than Olive, which she’s not used to, but also essentially, dumb. But there’s another quality Olive recognises that should never be dismissed, kindness.  Ann is kind.

Olive isn’t so sure she is kind, but the reader knows better. Olive thinks herself as ‘cut from the same piece of bad cloth’ as Jim O’Casey, whom she would have had an affair with and would have left her husband, Henry, and her son, had O’Casey asked. But he never did. So she never did either. But it allowed her to better understand her husband’s requited love for mouse-like Denise who worked hand-in-fist in the pharmacy with him. Nothing sexual happened. As nothing sexual happened with O’Casey. Just an understanding that there’s no understanding love.

Perhaps that’s one of the attractions of Kitteridge’s books. Nothing sexual does happen. Incest, rape, arson and murder does take place, but it’s always off-scream and safely in the past.

Olive recalls she was 44 years old when she didn’t have the affair with O’Casey, didn’t run away with him—because he never asked. He drove into a tree shortly afterwards and was aged 53. Olive grows older with each story in the book. As do her characters. In New York visiting her son and Ann and their brood of children, the older Olive, aged 72, realises that it would have been such a mistake to leave Henry. But she still would have, because she thought she knew best.

Olive is 74, and her husband Henry is dead, when she meets Jack Kennison. She goes a walk in the morning to pass the time, to kill time and hopes it won’t add to her lifespan of misery when she stumbles over him.

‘Jack Kennison stared out at the river. ‘I was walking. I saw the bench and felt tired. I don’t sleep well. So I sat down and started to feel dizzy. I put my legs between my knees and the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground, with some woman squacking at me, “Are you dead?”

Olive’s face became warm. “You seem less dead every minute,’ she said. “Do you think you can walk?”

“…My wife died in December,” he said.

Olive watched the river. “Then you’re in hell,” she said.

“I’m in hell.”

Loneliness and a sense of the purposelessness of Olive’s life give her insight and increased compassion for others, like it, or not, including, ‘flub-a-dub’ Jack Kennison. He taught at Harvard and is an outsider to their coast town. She suspects, he shamefacedly, voted for Trump, whom she quickly categorises as a ‘moron’ with his piggy eyes and less sense than road kill. Even Reagan, that old faker, had more sense than Trump. These are asides, Kennison is in the same kind of pain she suffers. The perfect meet-greet, might not make the perfect elderly couple, but there’s an inevitability about it. No apple-pie endings, but I like that too.  

I like Olive Kitteridge, she’s one of those woman you kinda know. I guess that’s the attraction. Nostalgia. What we have lost. What is to come, the seven ages of old age. Hell. We might even find love.   

Caitlin Moran (2012) How To Be a Woman.

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How To Be a Woman has Caitlin Moran on the front cover surrounded by a proscenium arch of accolades. ‘Galaxy Book Awards Book of the Year.’ ‘Funniest Book of the Year,’ Evening Standard. ‘The book EVERY woman should read,’ Grazia. Well, I’m at a disadvantage here because I’ve read it and I’m a guy, or at least like to think so. I’m normal that way, obviously when you’re lying in bed, you’ve had sex with someone you don’t know very well, and she leaves her diary and Cosmopolitan lying about you read the diary first and the magazine later, because when she come back from the toilet she’ll be pissed off at you reading her diary. This is that diary. And it took her 36 years to live and six months to write the 312 pages, with a bit of help from friends and family.

But for me it’s strangely familiar. Most folk on ABCtales also know Sooz, who published her diary there, a year block at a time and that would be about 100 000 words. The term more honest than was good for her applied to Sooz. She told you about her father raping her, her husband’s grandmother stealing her son and bringing him up as her own, her life in a home and in a Women’s Aid hostel,  the many disasters of everyday life as a caring district nurse and trying to bring up a son that other kids bully. It would take me 312 pages just to scratch parts of her life, but let’s just say it was interesting. Is interesting. Her diaries are out there, but some troll she hooked up with set out to destroy her and her writing. He largely succeeded. Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman is the success story she never had but deserved.

Let’s look at Moran’s prescription in the postscript.

‘Anyway, by sixteen, I had a new idea. I didn’t want to be a princess. Princes were dull. It was all about the artists instead…I wanted to be a muse… WRITE A SONG ABOUT A GOBBY BIRD! WRITE A SONG ABOUT MEEEEEEEEE YOU FUCK!

‘18th birthday, not a muse, not a princess…Just “being” me isn’t enough. I’m going to have to do something, instead…Simply being honest about who we really are is half the battle.’

‘I don’t want men to go away. I don’t want men to stop what they’re doing. What I want, instead, are some radical market forces…I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.’

There is nothing Caitlin Moran writes about that I disagree with. She is particularly good on ‘I am Fat’. Fat is functional in the way that other vices are not. People that think of lunch while eating breakfast and snacking in between breakfast and lunch because the world is such a boring place to be and hey, Marlon Brando was fat and it never did him any harm. But there’s a hierarchy of addictions, just the same as there is a hierarchy of HIV sufferers, those that get the virus from contaminated blood products deserve to live, all other AID sufferers can rot in hell. In the same way she contrasts ROCK’ N’ROLL (she has an addiction to capital letters for emphasis) and the Stones.

‘Imagine’ she says, ‘if instead of taking herion – Keef had started overeating and got really fat instead. If he’d really got into spaghetti bolognese, say, or kept coming on stage holding foot-long Subway Meatballs.’ Instead of being a junkie he was a fattie. My guess is a fat stone cannot roll. They’d get rid of him sharpish. It reminds me a bit of a character in one of Jane Godley’s sketches, shouting ‘c’mere ya fat cunt to a mentor yeh’.

I also like Moran’s take on women that spend thousands of pounds on plastic bodies and faces. The world would be a so much better place if somebody instead of saying I’ve spent £500 on botox for my forehead, said I’ve taken £500 out of the cash machine and gave it that wee guy sitting on the park bench. You should have seen his smile. I’m still waiting for a Scottish Socialist Republican Scotland. Dream on. I like How To Be a Woman, but whisper it I watched three minutes of Raised by Wolves and it aged me, you know how much botox that’s going to cost me?



critique of (ABCtales) story: war to end all wars.

In a world of mud, colour was a low deceit and became his eyes, his legs and his feet tapping out messages to his body in the trenches. Bright colours such as red, orange and even blue were starbursts and new-born memories. Rail by rail, sleeper by sleeper the slow climb east or west, the locomotive found its way through craggy hills and mountain. Steppes washed red and orange by the flickering light of the day and nightfall falling like a stone and covering hay racks and stone houses, with their quaint roofs, and leaving behind the drift of wood smoke and the scent of passing history. A town glided past and on the bend birch forests turned blue and the air, higher up, tasted cleaner and crisper.

Commentary, setting the scene: first paragraph. I was trying to seize the reader and hint at the narrator being blind. In my head that was already an established truth. I wasn’t sure about low deceit. Here I was trying to link in with the ducking and diving of the trenches. But mostly, you write first and think of why you did something later. That’s called giving what you write an alibi. The question here is low deceit, or should it be simplified as low deceit? Similarly, Bright colours such as red, orange and even blue were starbursts and new-born memories. Juxtaposing trenches with train is tied in with the idea of climbing.  I’m not sure that applies. If I was writing about the killing fields around Verdun, it  is flat country. Hedging my bets with east or west. I’d need to look at that again. Be more honest. Craggy hills. Not sure craggy does anything, but impede the progress of the sentence? Craggy hills. Then the follow on mountains. A sameness, one a synonym for the other, but may aid the idea of movement? Steppes sounds pretty good, it suggests climbing, or even falling. The problem here is steppes are usually associated with the East and in particular, I’d guess, Russia. Washed red has connotations of blood. I’d probably get away with orange, the colours of change. Nightfall falling- like a stone- hits all the cliché buttons as it goes down. Hay racks and stone houses are at best a  guess. This shows I don’t know what I’m talking about with the idea of ‘quaint roofs’. The drift of wood smoke tied in with the journey and also history does work.  

Each station they stopped red-capped guards stood in attendance, a hammer ringing up out of the tobacco fug and rowdy song: so We’re here because we’re here because we’re here, and the relief of being somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere else, away from the shells and the shrapnel and the sucking stinging mud filled with ghosts of friends and rats feasting on the finest, and overblown lice on the warm-blooded seams of sentient leftovers, and the pitter-patter of machine guns. The wheel tapper walked close to the line, tapped out the cheerful beat of the evening, and the order of nothing falling apart.  Everything in order. The rattle and shuttle of bodies defying gravity and moving on shuggling in the aisles and tilting in the compartment, and in the dining car, officers looking up from their hands of hearts over diamonds, alert, before sinking back into worn cards and playful bickering. Rubber followed rubber. The laughed as small sums of money changed hands, not lives, not in the way the most meaningless choice at the front could. Wax polish and the smell of the promised leg of lamb hung in the air, perhaps with a carafe of pinot blanch to follow and they licked dry lips. Laughed because they could, because they were here because they were here because they were here.

Red-capped guards continues the theme of colour, rising from the mud (I just thought of that, so it must be true). But the truth is I don’t know if i) guards were posted on the line ii) if they wore red caps, or iii) what they were supposed to be doing. I quite like the idea of a hammer ringing out the wheels and the wheels getting checked, wheel by wheel, by a wheel-tapper employed to do such a job because although it plays at normality it is ridiculous. Soldiers on leave are coming from a place where every minute of every day they died, yet, away from the front a parental ideal of care springs into action. I tried to show this with the anthem and rats feeding on the finest. A motif which recurs at the end of the paragraph.  

‘Won’t be long now,’ someone said. He turned his head towards the Glaswegian accent.

The movement from the general to the particular, a focusing in works here. The accent is Glaswegian, so back in familiar territory for me.

‘Where are we?’ he asked one of the orderlies. He shifted closer to the window, his body squeezed into a hard seat in a third-class compartment. The kind that his mother used to take him on when they went doon the water to Rothesay, with all the other families from the streets surrounding them at the Glasgow Fair. His mother, sitting opposite,  kept an eye on him far better than any medic, a black, winged hat buried her ears, wearing her best grey dress pinned with a large cairngorm brooch, a necklet of fur, some fox rubbed up the wrong way, her lips moving silently as she mouthed: ‘Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up’. Fearful of being sick and disgracing herself. George knew how she felt. His wee brother had cheered when he was called up and his wee sister had cried.

This is a kind of interlude linking past and present. The reactions of brother and sister tie the varying responses together and give a notion of home.

His fingers traced the bandage around his head, covering his eyes. They’d shaved his head on one side, minor bleeding, no lasting damage. Poked and prodded by one of the doctors. A light shined in his eyes. Then he’d slept for a very long time. Woke up somewhere unfamiliar. The smell of disinfectant and the groans of other men helped him realise he was in hospital. And that was all he had hoped for, all he dreamed of.  Felt a body filling the space, leaning over him.

‘You have to go back to your regiment,’ a voiced tolled in an upper-class English accent. ‘Royal Scots, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, sir,’ he said, sitting up square in his bed and trying to salute.

‘Good man,’ he said. ‘I see you’ve got a medal for gallantry.’

‘Yes, sir.’

He heard an intake of breath, slide of his shoes as he stepped to one side, fingers drumming impatiently on a piece of paper. The doctor acted like he was deaf and dumb as well as blind, with his instructions to the orderly to ‘get him up and get him moving, as quickly as possible’.

That was when he first heard the word ‘malingerer’.

This episode was the way the story played out in my head. My intentions were to juxtapose the way that soldiers from working-class backgrounds, in particular, were tortured by those of a different class in the belief that would make a man of them and cure them. But the story didn’t quite work out that way.  

They walked slowly arm in arm, giving the others plenty of time to climb onto waiting buses and trains and leave them behind. The whistles and hissing of trains, the shouted greeting of other passengers meeting loved ones. An amputee beside them swung himself sideways and forward with the aid of crutches. He tilted his head and shifted his weight onto his good leg.

They would be best modified by giving the orderly some kind of descriptive presence. That way the linkage of past and present would seem more real. Arm-in-arm. The bustle of the station is alluded to in the next sentence. The problem with the amputee isn’t who he is or what he does, but a logistical one. There’s a shift in point of view. Who is seeing him? Especially if George is blind.

‘George, is that you?’ he called over his shoulder. ‘It’s Frank. Frank Lodge, we were together at Verdun.’

George had been with tens of thousands of others, on paper part of a centripetal force attacking a hill. A worm’s eye view of the trenches separated the men from the boys. Shivering boys who had soiled themselves, standing beside you, blown up. Men buried alive, some unearthing themselves, only to die later. Rank decaying body parts shovelled into bags. Left out in the open. Bayoneting and shooting of prisoners because the only way to survive was to remain alive. Gas drifting and men vomiting up their burnt lungs, the only cure a bullet. Fields of mud, vast cemeteries without end.  He turned sightless, some plangent note in the voice calling him back.

Worm’s eye view is clichéd. The idea of starting with shivering boys and then in the next sentence allowing them to be referred to as men works, but perhaps some or all of it should be moved to the opening passage, second paragraph, and tied in with the pitter-patter of machine guns.

‘We met at the delousing station, shared a half of whiskey before going on leave.’ There was a pleading tone to his voice. ‘Remember?’

I wasn’t sure how much whiskey the men at the front had, but I remembered reading how the Germans, when they raided the trenches were astonished how much food and booze was on the other side.

‘Aye,’ said George, trying to sound convincing. But then it came to him, a man with hardly any hair and a nose so long it appeared no just on his face but on different time zones. Now it had come to meet him as he felt the man’s arms around his neck as his crutch fell and he awkwardly hugged his head. ‘Frank, sorry mate, I just can’t see you.’

Hardly any hair, i.e. balding or some variant, shorten. His nose being on different time zones – attempt at Glasgow humour.  

The orderly bent down and picked up the crutch, he positioned the pad under Frank’s oxter and the crutch in an upright and steady position, allowing him to move his foot and let it take his weight.

‘Cheers pal,’ Frank said to the orderly. ‘Going home to meet the wife.’ His voice seesawed up and down. ‘Never thought I’d be able to say that.’

The orderly appears again here. A third body between George and Frank. The case for the orderly to have some kind of descriptive tag so he stands out is clear.

‘You’ve got a wife?’ George sounded surprised.

‘Aye, she couldnae resist me.’ The smile was slow in coming. ‘Just thought I’d say hello. We used to talk about you, you know, how you got transferred and then the terrible day. If you’re numbers up, it’s up.  All dead – apart from you, of course.’ He bit his lip and nodded, even though the other man couldn’t see it. ‘Keep in touch.’ He steadied his crutch, but before striking out, reached out to embrace George once more.

Bit muddled here. Leading the reader into flannel land. how you got transferred and then the terrible day.

George flinched at the touch, but then he stepped inside the crutches, and placing his arm around his friend’s powerful shoulders, swaying and supporting his weight, he felt his unshaved cheek press briefly against his own.  ‘Take care of yourself.’ George felt his eyes moisten beneath the bandages.

Need to re-order or rewrite sentence so the whose unshaved cheek is being pressed against flesh is clear.

‘You too,’ said Frank.

George waited until he could hear the tap and swing of the crutch as he took the first step and moved away.

ABCtales goes to the wall


I’ll be sorry to see the end of ABCtales.com. Most folk will not of heard of it, or be that interested. In theory there’s almost 120 000 stories (poetry counts as a story) online, written by almost 20 000 writers. That works out at six stories per writer. But if you believe that you’ll probably believe some of the unbelievable shit I’ve written over the last eight years. It helps if you have no idea what moderation is. My normal day consisted of writing pages and pages of stories so fast I didn’t read them, or understand them, but I did publish them online. I’d push that button and wait for my brilliance to be uncovered. At that stage ABCtales had been online about eight years and only 40 000 stories had been published, 32 326 of them mine.  Other writers were kind


Ewan, of soon-to-be-released Gibbous House, was an ABCtales editor. I didn’t know what an editor was, and I’m still not sure, but I did know an editor could give your work the magical glow of a red cherry. The equivalent would be when you were in primary 1 and the teacher pressed a gold star onto your jotter. It shone so bright you’d become blinded by the glory and pee yourself. Other dafties without gold stars were to be sneered at. Silver stars were OK for other people and bronze stars, well, you might as well wear a dunce hat and call yourself Noel Behan, who couldn’t put his shoes on without getting his left foot mixed up with his right. Ewan tentatively suggested writing in sentences now and again. My argument that it was bound to happen by the logic of numbers, letters and random full stops on the page, went unchallenged, but he  was the first editor to cherry-pick my work. That was a mistake, because then I upped productivity tenfold and produced even more stories. Ewan couldn’t keep up, had a nervous breakdown and went to live offline near a donkeyless track in Spain.

I joined ABCtales around the same time as Claudine Lazar. Her online name was insertponceyfrenchnamehere, (‘wrong day-go back’ motif) yeh, smartass type. You probably think I hated her and you’d be right if not write, or so it is written in biblical language. Her stories of London life 1974 and 1978 were far better than any stories I was mass producing. Then she was made an editor. So I had to kid on I liked her. That ruse has worked well right up to the present day. She even attended my book launch. I picked her up at Glasgow Airport, but she didn’t recognise me at first because she’s never met me and I’m much bigger and have more byte than onscreen. She had to light a cigarette immediately. The air in Scotland is so clear and clean it choked her smog-filled London lungs. I had to wind up the windows in my van to create a decompression chamber. When my eyes started to smart so I couldn’t see, then we could drive to the venue. I missed the turnoff, of course, but kept on the right lane (almost).  She was everything I hoped for, never bought a drink all night and tried to diddle the taxi fare. In other words, typical Londoner.

But it raises the question of whether an online friend is a friend. I doubt it. My offline friends aren’t even my friends. The affection I hold for my ABCtales crew is personal. It’s in the words they write. The experiences they create and share. The poetry of their live shaped by the frailty of normality. It helps if you’re nosey and want to know everything, as I do. I’m a reader first and a writer zzzecond. I’ll miss all these guys because they have become part of my life. You know Sooz made me laugh because her live was so shit and grounded in a reality that didn’t exist. And anybody that can write poetry, or even spell it, well, that’s special and you have telekinetic powers to move people. You know who you are. All I can say is wow and thanks for the help you’ve given me over the years.  Most online writers max out at two years, I’ve served eight years. I’d give more or do more.

ABCtales needs around £20 000 per annum to break even. It takes in about a quarter of that in dribs and drabs. I sometimes shipped the odd £20 the sites way, which made me feel like Moses with the Ten Commandments, overflowing with righteousness. The truth is in the numbers. £20 per annum. I pay £3 per week for The Observer. £156 per annum. A pint of beer costs £3 and I drink one of those every six months. I’m guilty as the next man. Some ABCtalers have proposed a subscription. The problem is it would start costing money to chase those that don’t pay and what exactly would you threaten them with? But it’s more fundamental than that. When I joined ABCtales it was free.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I was sure I wasn’t going to be ripped off. In a word I was scared. Scared my writing was shit (it was and still is). And scared I’d be diddled and it was all a big internet scam. The expectation of readers is books and online stuff will be free and that creates a pressure. Footfall or clicks to sites that charge will be close to non-existent and the existing membership of ABCtales will not be renewed. No new writers mean death to a writing site. Simple economics has killed us. I’ll miss my old online gang hut. I’ll miss my old gang. What to do now? God knows.

Prostitution and Lily Poole.


I like to read and I like to write. One is the engine of the other. When you’re writing fast, with dash, you just fling words down, and hope for the best. Lily Poole was a serial on ABCtales. Bang, bang, bang, around 2000 words a day. It wasn’t called Lily Poole then, I’d given it the working tag, ‘School Photos’. First-draft stuff.  Let’s not call it a novel, but a collection of words pointing in a particular direction. There was no Lily Poole, but there was a little girl that fell down in the snow. She didn’t say much, in fact, didn’t say anything other than ‘big people don’t understand’. There’s a truth in that which is hard to pin down. And yeh, a little boy I once took to school when he kept slipping in the snow, did use those very words. Nowadays kids go to school in a flotilla of cars, and if you took a kid’s hand you didn’t know, well, it wouldn’t be the school bell, but alarm bells that would be ringing.

In later drafts of the story, I gave the little girl a name Lily. And in later, later drafts, I gave her a surname Poole. Her backstory plays a part in the plot. I like to be realistic, but it did seem farfetched.  Then later when the novel has been published you read something that makes truth of fiction.

You read in Robert A. Douglas (2012, p115) ‘The Investigative Journalist and His Cause’ and the trial of William Stead, a cause celebrity, in Victorian London.

‘In order to facilitate a heightened sense of  verisimilitude, he “bought” a thirteen-year-old girl [Eliza Armstrong] under the pseudonym, Lily for five pounds by negotiating with a former procuress, who, in turn, made the arrangements with the child’s mother…The midwife certifies her virginity, she is taken to a brothel, undressed, put in bed and chloroformed. She awakes to find a strange man in her room.’

A starved and working-class girl of thirteen of the Victorian era would not be prepubescent. Physically, she would be a child, a little girl. Lily does indeed live and breathe, her time has gone, but sometimes the past does haunt us in unexpected ways and at unexpected moments.

Saturday Night Fever on a Tuesday

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You can see the shell of the La Scala from Second Avenue. I can’t remember the first X-rated movie I went to see there, but you can bet the fear on my face was real enough as I got to the turn at the top of the stairs and I expected the woman taking the tickes to eye me up and say, ‘Nah, son you look about fifteen’. Which would be about right, even though I did have a proper suit jacket on and open-necked collar to somehow make me look older, the more mature kind of man that wanted to see Saturday Night Fever.

My mate Burnsie went all the way with the white suit and black shirt, aka, John Travolta. I wasn’t that stupid or that daring. In a rare sighting you might have seen me falling out of the emergency door of a moving bus in Ramelton, somewhere in Donegal, with a white-jacketed jounce, and giving  it skid marks in all the wrong places, but let’s face it that’s what drink does to you. That’s Saturday Night Fever on a Tuesday or Wednesday or whatever the hell day it was. Now Nik Cohen has come clean and said Saturday Night Fever didn’t exist. In fact he just made it all up. I need to re-think my whole life and my propensity to wear parachute material for all the wrong reasons.

My first stop was the off sales. Only then could I think myself into Night Fever falsetto. Then I read Nik Cohen’s story which was the truth of Vincent and his crew’s hand gliding and foot finding. Published in ‘New York’ magazine  7th June 1976 it inspired  those in the disco scene to cut their balls off and dance, dance, prance and with the right kind of parted hair and with the right kind of clobber to take a bullfighter’s stance. Inspired Hollywood to go after the next blockbuster that would gross almost $300 million at the box office in 1976, and me to fall off a moving bus, while swearing it wasn’t really my fault.

I do a lot of reading for a little known group called ABCtalers. A weird bunch that insist we never meet anywhere but on the page. ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ by Nik Cohen.  No cherry for you Nik. I’ve nothing against making things up. I do it all the time and imagine I could rattle something like this off in a few hours. But ‘Tribal Rites’ is so damn boring it makes you glad you’re not fifteen anymore and not a proper writer. New York that prestigious capital of magazines and books must have been a simpler place in those days.  Or I’m simpler. I no longer fling myself from buses. There, I’ve done it. Admitted it was my fault and not the feckin drivers. Like Nik I feel better for it. I’m a fraud.



Christine Hamill (2016) The Best Medicine


the best medicine.jpgI can hear my partner, Mary, yakking on the phone downstairs, talking to her Auntie Mary about another Auntie- Eleanor who is dying. ‘She did have a bit of fear…’ she’s talking about her Granny, not her Auntie Eleanor, but the story is familiar, the same one. The Big C.

‘Apparently one in three people get cancer,’ Philip Wright, the thirteen-year old narrator tells the reader. That’s a 50/50 chance. That’s a joke. Jokes don’t have to be funny, but that doesn’t stop you being very trying. ‘I just wanted things to be normal. I wanted Mum to be normal. I knew she could never ‘unhave’ cancer , but…’

The structure of the book is before the but—with the usual school-boy concerns, homework and hanging out with his best friend Ang, being bullied by the Yeti, getting his specs broken, being in love with the ‘Goddess’ Lucy and getting detention, even though it wasn’t his fault—and after the but. It would also come under the letter B for Breast, but not Mum knows best because she’s being acting very strangely. Baking wholemeal buns. Tidying up the mess before there’s a mess. Ordering the cutlery drawer. And locking herself in the toilet and bursting in tears at the drop of a hat. Or the drop of her hair.  Or Harry Hill, a bit like Hara Kristna, but with big open-necked-shirt collars ‘our very own Harry Hill Appreciation Society’. That’s what Philip does, writes letters to Harry Hill asking for his advice, because laughter is the best medicine   ‘Even if Mum could write a guide and leave it – “An A—Z of Philip”’.  Christine Hamill did both of those things on ABCtales.

ABCtales is a kind of online gang hut for people with too much time and even worse literary ass-perversions. B is for Breast Cancer got my vote for book of the year. It offered advice for cancer sufferers and useful tips on topics as diverse as how to keep your head and lose your hair. When it was published it was a runaway success for older people that couldn’t walk very fast or very far. I’m sorry to say I’m in that cohort group. But positive thinking. Think yourself younger.

The Harry Hill Appreciation Society was the bastard child of the A-Z. A book for YA. Young Adults. A kind of fictional Wright what you know. Although Philip Wright isn’t sure about that idea. As he find out on his journey from childish understanding to childish understanding the best medicine, of the Harry Hill, kind is love and laughter. As long as no one dies in the process. Spoiler here. Nobody does.  And the boy gets the Goddess.

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Why book selling doesn’t work!

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Warning, I’m going to try and sell you something. It’s billed as ‘the best new writing from ABCtales’. Who decides what’s best? That’s a question that is often difficult to answer. Certainly, Stephen Thom, who wrote story of the year is here. And Alex Graves who wins poems of the year, every year, is included. My work is also in, but I’d guess that’s because I’ll have a book out later this year in which ABCtales act as my agent and get a fee. I’m glad about that. Although it costs nothing to join ABCtales, or to publish your work online, the expense of running the site is met by Tony Cook, chief cook and bottle washer. Every year I pay around £40 to ABCtales because I know it’s not free and I can afford it. Mr Cook will probably pop up here and say no you don’t – in the eight years you’ve been here you’ve paid six shillings and two pence. But listen, I’ve got an active imagination and no real interest in Facebook, I do like stringing a few sentences together and passing them off as original prose. And I get a buzz when someone reads it and comments. Without a reader the circuit of writing is not complete. ABCtales gives me that opportunity. It gives you that opportunity. But I’m not stupid. I know whatever I’ve written will be forgotten quicker that a photo of last night’s dinner. That doesn’t bother me. There’s no glory in what you’ve written, but what you’ve still to write. Even then, I’ve no illusions, ABCtales is gang hut in hyperspace few folk know about and fewer still cares?

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Well, I care, because it’s my gang hut and my turf. And John Wilks who edited this slim volume also cares. He offered up his time and expertise to get this published. Publishing is the easy part. We all know that now. There’s an extract from Joe Lawrence’s East End Butcher Boy here and it’s better than anything published by Unbound, and I include my own work in that. The difficult part is selling something. I know that and Laurie knows that and Ewan knows that and Tony knows that. And I’d add that Scratch (Peter) who has also written a novel on ABCtales, although he’s not included in this volume, also knows that. It’s only when you actually go and try and sell something that you realise how difficult it actually is. It’s not like that Kevin Coster film Field of Dreams, when you build that baseball diamond, ‘they will come’. No they fucking willnae.  Ask Richard Penny,  who has a story here ‘The Tipping Point’, but who also published a sister volume,  My Baby Shot Me Down which included the works of some my favourite writers on ABCtales, including Rachael Smart, Claudine Lazar and ‘Katherine Black’ (Harpie). And really if you’re going to publish the best of ABCtales you’ve to have something from Maggy van Eijk. Why stop there? What about Philip Sidney who is also not included in this volume and to my mind merits inclusion (I love this for example,  http://www.abctales.com/story/philip-sidney/triptych-1-mass). But I don’t really think it matters that those other names aren’t there. That’s editor’s choice. I’ve been there with A Celtic Anthology, which I co-edited with Kevin McCallum (Old Pesky on ABCtales). I could rattle off another few anthologies I’ve been involved in. It’s that gang-hut mentality that makes you part of a group, and your mum and your sister and their brother might buy a copy. And then you become invisible. Christopher Isherwood’s narrator in The Berlin Novels jokes about selling eight copies of his poetry before fleeing England for Berlin. Funnily enough that’s the number of copies John Wilks claimed to have sold so far. I can name a few buyers. Joe Lawrence, Claudine Lazar, Ewan Lawrie and myself. That’s 50% of the buyers. And it’s pathetic. Thirty of those published in the volume haven’t bothered buying a copy. Whatever the opposite of resounding success this is the opposite.  Build the field and they will come? Just because you get ABCtales for nothing, doesn’t mean it costs nothing. Put something back (if you can afford it). There’s some good stuff here. I can’t claim any credit for that. At least think about it.



A good short story for Christmas?


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What makes a good short story? I asked the writers and reader on ABCtales that question. You might want to have a go at answering it yourself. This story is in the public domain and I’ve read it, so I’ve used it as an example. There are no right or wrong answers. You might think you could make a better job of it yourself. Go ahead. That’s what I always think. I’m stupid that way.  I remember, a few years ago, reading two contributors to ABCtales having the don’t worry about the grammar or spelling conversation, because the editors will sort all that out for you, when you sell it for a million quid. Some people don’t live on the same planet as me. I don’t think I’ll ever make a million quid from my writing. If I make ten quid, I’m ecstatic. My writing is a search for readers, there’s a sense of ego involved, of course, because I’m not a robot, which ironically is not the future of writing, because the software is already here and writing articles in sports, business and politics.

Quill software, for example, can collect data across a range of fields, perform statistical and financial modelling and produce reports quicker than you can say oh, fuck, I wish I had that when I was copying Joe Block’s work at college. Instant A* grade every time. And the CIA and Google are using it to collect and transform bit patterns into coherent structures and reports. Writing novels takes a whole different skill set – dream on. Ten minutes, using similar software for the equivalent of a 100 000 word novel. Short stories, grammatically correct, and conforming to different genres, produced quicker than I can pick my nose.

I don’t imagine I can write like Sophie Hannah, who wrote the short story The Tennis Church (follow the link above) but neither do I think I can write like Peter or Claudine or Ewan or Sooz or Rachel, or any number of writers on ABCtales, or those writing general fiction. We like to think, or I like to think, we are unique, our words or stories are like fingerprints. You could read a bit of writing and nod with recognition and say that’s Claudine – even if she disguised her work. That’s a Charles Dickens’s story. That’s Agatha Christie. But if Sophie Hannah can resurrect Inspector Poirot, as she has done with The Monogram and as she is doing with Closed Casket then it would be foolish to believe software will not soon be able to perform the same function. Val McDermid’s reworking of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey could take software such as Quill a few minutes.

There’s always the feel the quality argument. You do get a few folk that spend tens of thousands of pound on sound systems for music. They argue the quality is so much better. I’m sure we’ll get the same pattern emerging with the written word. Journalism is a closing door. Factual works will follow. Fiction writing and writers like to think their idiosyncratic take on life and skill set will lead to openings. For the very few, the 1%, that will remain true, the rest of us hacks—a number worldwide that keeps growing, competing for even fewer resources and openings—are pretty much fucked in terms of hoping to get an audience of over fifty reads. I like to think I’ll keep on writing because it’s a habit and how I make sense of the world. It’s too easy to let my increased understanding of the written word slip away, but all things change. The only certainty is mass immiseration or the poor and the poverty of chances and choices of those born recently. At least I’ve had a life of sorts. Bah humbug! Read on.


James Wood (2015) The Nearest Thing to Life.

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James Wood (2015) The Nearest Thing to Life.

The Nearest Thing to Life begins with a death—that of a friend’s younger brother—and the question, “WHY?’.

There’s no real answer, how could there be? But in death Wood’s looks at the obverse, and how Woods, a bibliophile, has charted the great waters of life by clinging to books and the knowledge of humanity that they provide. ‘The Why question is a refusal to accept death.’ Heaven provides an answer and a justification for earthly suffering, but not one which Wood, whose father was a vicar, could accept. He became a ‘formidable liar’. But this doubleness, this ability to inhabit two worlds that of the clandestine reader looking for truth where he could find it between the inky sheets,  and the church-going son that sung in the choir, and attended to all the usual duties of a public school boy, makes a fiction of life. His father hinted to him that he had an ‘uedifying girlfriend’. The truth was much worse. He was reading unedifying books. He was devouring books indiscriminately in the way a chorister might devour a copy of Playboy or even ‘a naughty book’ such as those written by D.H.Lawrence.

Why? hangs unpicked gloating in the free air.

To read fiction is to understand humanity.

…we peer into the thinking of an Isabel Archer or a Tommy Wilhelm, a Pnin or a Miss Brodie, a Pechorin or Ricardo Reis, there is something of the vertiginous sensation of possessing Jesus’s power…

I’m not as well read as Wood and am not sure who Tommy Wilhelm, Pechorin or Ricardo Reis are, but the great thing about books is they are always there waiting for you to find out. But the boy that reads a book is not the same as the man that reads a book. Wood, for example, despairs about the twenty-year old students he teaches at Harvard being able to understand the ‘why’ of a chapter devoted to Isabel Archer sitting alone in a chair after finding out about her husband’s betrayal. Her ability to see through the gauze of familiarity colours all that she thought she knew. Nothing has outwardly changed, but everything has. Wood’s ability to love the characters has made me think about reading it again, but there is another truth that lies beneath, portraits of the upper class just don’t appeal to me. I can’t relate to, or have the empathy, which Wood has, for some twat that is given too much money because a sick and dying man and his son both thing her beauty deserves to be rewarded. I prefer the sharp deceits of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime. A reader can never be wrong, his judgement godlike.

The shape of Wood’s early reading life, aged fifteen, is shaped by finding among a jumbled pile of books at Waterloo Station the poet Martin Seymour Smith’s Novel and Novelists, A Guide to the World of Fiction. He picked the book or the book picked him? This synchronism of the known and yet unknown shaped his life. Martin Seymour Smith offered him a map. Woods offers a similar map to the untutored reader such as myself.

But what stuck in my craw was not the wisdom about writing and reading, and the insights it provides of man and books, but of the awful prejudice of one of his father’s neighbours.  A Dickensian scholar and Oxford University librarian he was quite happy to proclaim: ‘You could say that the girls who serve in Woolworth’s are the intellectual scum of the earth’. My reading of this is not fit for comment.