Poets make the best writers. Ways To Fold a Swan is a chapbook. I remember Rachel Smart from when she was an editor at ABCtales (she probably still is). I read everything she wrote. Poetry mostly, but also prose. Story of the week stuff.
I like her writing because she writes about people I recognise. People like me. Working class, and unashamedly so. Words she recognises come preloaded with meaning.
‘Rouse, ravish, rape.’ Roe versus Wade. Tens of millions of poor women have suddenly been disenfranchised by a coterie of rich white guys. Hierarchies of hidden meaning.
The narrator, Leda, is on a journey. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on push bikes. Leda has to find out how to be more herself and not what other—men—want her to be. She needs to grow up.
‘Leda is different to others. She has been different her whole life. Her parents never made a meal out of it.’
First lines are important. It needs to ask questions of the reader, but also draw us in.
‘Her companion reckoning she’s got nice hair shouldn’t tip her mood, but it’s the one adjective that turn Leda wretched.’
I had to read that line several times. I’ve grown proficient with words. I even know what semantics means. But I wasn’t sure what adjective Leda was referring. Then it hit me. ‘Nice,’ is hell of an insult. Nations don’t go to war, when they’re called ‘nice’. Relationships don’t break down over niceness. Leda is saying they do.
D. H. Lawrence wrote a poem about it. The English are So Nice/so awfully nice.
Lust doesn’t turn to hate, but an escape from the fate of so many other nice girls that can’t see who they are, or what they will become.
Leda claims a different self. An autonomous self, guided by a rejection of a male reading of Greek mythology. Zeus, and how her namesake, was raped by an Olympian God who’d turned himself into a swan to claim her beauty. How Leda was meant to feel grateful for this, because, after all, he was a god.
In the same way, the driver of a ‘Vauxhall something drives by her. It’s a flashy white model and it slows right down when the driver gets close.
he says: Get in.
And then: Sweetheart you do hand jobs? She calls him a dirty bastard and legs it all the way to the hotel.’
He was simply kerb crawling and claiming dominion. In another story, she could think herself lucky.
‘The thing that really riles Leda about the word nice is it’s a cop-out.’
Leda isn’t willing to do that or play that role. Neither is Rachel Smart. I used to have a verbal jibe at her: Smart by name and Smart by nature. Jesus, I wouldn’t dare call her ‘nice’.
When you are asked to review books, a number of prompts are translated into numbers. For example, you are asked to award a mark out of ten for literary merit. I often cheat here. If I like a book, it gets nearer ten than one. After all, even the ingredients on the label of a brown sauce bottle have enough literary merit to get five.
Ingenious Pain gets a ten, because his sentences sing and you can get your teeth into them. His characters have a bit of swagger.
Listen to the pedlar Gummer selling coloured-water placebos to a cynical audience of eighteenth-century market women and men who’ve heard it all before, and are willing to throw rotten fruit or whatever shit comes to hand.
‘Pain, friends, is from the devil. It is his touch, his caress. His venomous embrace! Who has not heard a man in agony cry out and curse his God…Or a woman in childbed, blast the unborn infants ears with groans or shrieks…The loving parent is transformed into an ogre. The child by pain is parted from his prayers, the good man from his goodness. It is a hell on earth! It casts us upon the flame while yet we live…And doctors! We know how much they may do! We know how their ministrations can double our suffering…And then they rob us when we are too weak, too much out of our wits to boot them down the steps of our house. Death is a sweet release. Think now, I ask you, think of your greatest suffering, a day, a night when some raging pain in your teeth or bowels, in your skull, in your leg…a burn from the fire, a fall from your horse, or one of the thousand noxious diseases that rend us from within. Remember, how each and every one of you, in your torment would have exchanged your skin with the most wretched in the kingdom, just but you might have a minute, nay, a half-minute’s relief.’
Score out of ten: content/subject matter/themes.
Ten again. The book begins in 1772 in a little village in Cow, Devon. Reverend Lestrade allows gentlemen surgeons to perform an autopsy on his friend James Dyer. Dyer was born unable to feel pain. The surgeons hoped to extract blood, viscous fluid or locate in his body this soul-like substance.
Contemporary accounts of those born unable to feel pain show it not as a blessing but a curse. Children burn themselves, but since they feel no pain, injuries are worse than children that cry and weep. Bones are broken, but still they use those limbs. Children with that gift die younger than their contemporaries. It’s in the book’s title: ‘Ingenious’ pain.
The book asks other questions of readers. Can we, for example, be fully human when we feel no pain? The obverse of this, can we experience the bloom of pleasure?
Structure/plot/pacing (where applicable). Ten. Ingenious Pain is straightforward in its plotting, it moves in seven sections back through time from the autopsy in the barn to the epilogue, with the burial of James Dyer.
But there are also journeys of the soul. At its heart is the journey successful, but disgraced, surgeon James Dyer makes from his home in Bath to London. A race against time and other English doctors, to inoculate the Empress Catherine with the small pox virus in her St Petersburg palace with the promise of fame and riches (this is based on true events).
A mirroring of other journeys. Dyer being saved from the pedlar of lies, Gummer by a rich gentleman, who collects curiosities and freaks, he himself having a woman’s breasts. The gilded cage on the cover of the book offers a clue. Then there is Dyer’s time in Riga, entombed in a monastery by the weather. Where he meets his nemesis, ‘Mary’, who frees him from his curse, but offers no cure. Dyer in becoming more human, is no longer himself. His final journey finds him in Bedlam. Here he finds love, but he’s a curiosity of a different kind.
General Comments: Being picky, Reverend Lestrade’s sojourn in Paris before he met Dyer could have been cut—I found it a bit boring.
Enjoyment: ten. For a debut novel, for any novel, in general, it’s a marvel. Fully formed and wonderful to read. A real page-turner.
I bought a copy of A Working Class State of Mind because I like Colin Burnett’s writing. I’m an editor on ABCtales and some of his fiction appeared online. Most of the other editors are English. Whisper it, we’ve even got an American. But he recognised the moron’s moron Trump as the narcissistic psychopathic puckered lips organism that he proved to be. I got nudged towards Colin Burnett’s work because as the resident Scot it was my domain. And Colin Burnett writes in the Scottish dialect of Leith as did Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting.
It’s a risky venture, because it limits the number of potential readers in a market saturated with fiction, and everybody shouting and nobody listening. But hey, even Rabbie Burns needed the helping hand of the Masons to become an international icon. The Scottish language promotes intimacy, and in getting closer to the language you get to closer to yourself and your class, or so James Kelman would have us believe. What resonates within us is who we are. And if you’re one of those that declare I’ve no interest in politics then you’ve not been paying attention. Politics is about power. And we the working class lost the propaganda war by the early seventies. The narrator in the first story, ‘A Working Class State of Mind’ puts it this way.
The greatest trick those in power ever pulled wis gittin the workers tae believe we aw huv equal opportunities. Fae the moment we first open our eyes and until the time finally comes tae close thum. Oor lives huv been mapped oot fur us by they’m fae the cradle tae the grave. In this country ‘cash is class’. When yur born intae a family wae a bit ae money and the right postcode, you’re oan the home straight while the rest ae us are jist warmin up fur the race.
A trio of characters run like Edinburgh rock through the stories. In the last story of the collection their backstory becomes the story. Dougie is about to go to Secondary School, the infamous Ainslie Park, but he’s got company, his wee mate Craigie is going to the same school. Dougie’s mum is trying to convince him it won’t be that bad.
‘That wis until ma faither decided tae inject himself intae the conversation.
“Son” he said, while lowerin his newspaper.
“Jist remember, eh? snitches git stiches.”’
The reader is already familiar with Aldo. Adlo is the ballast that makes most stories work; he appears as a wee skinny Asian kid with a kick-ass attitude. He’s a familiar figure in any working-class community. The hardman that takes nae shite. But he’s also funny, but not deliberately so. And he has a heart. In ‘Lost and Found’, for example, he rescues a stray puppy tossed like a hot dog from a car. We learn that Aldo had to split up from his one true love because he found out she was a Tory. I know the feeling well, having a big sister I slotted into that category, but there’s no divorcing her. The irony is there’s nobody more capitalist in his approach to the business of drug dealing than Aldo.
In ‘House of Horrors’, for example, gambling is just a casual breeze. ‘He didnae need the money as he made maire fae sellin snow than a doactur did fae savin lives. Still there wis aloat ridin oan this fuckin horse. Ma two grand, and Aldo’s yin.’
From ‘Wuhan to Leith’ and ‘Lost and Found’, Aldo’s innate capacity for violence is harnessed to indirectly help the community. But usually not in term of labour exploitation.
‘Business hus plummeted cos ae this virus. Ah’ve loast a lotae fuckin money, that’s fur sure. None ae ma runners will pick up or droap oaff fur me in case they catch it. Deep doon ah jist wish ah wis still dain ma community service cos nuttin wid deter they retards fae dain business. Thanks largely tae the fact that none ae thum are playin wae a full deck. Been buzzin oot ae ma nut maist ae the day. Oan coke and heavy bevyin.’
The weakest story in the collection is ‘Sebastian the Great’, possibly because there’s no Aldo. Here the narrator is Callum. He’s sipping watered down lager as he attends a literary even in Edinburgh. I guess we’ve all been there. I labelled them Americans. When asked what they have written they rhyme of a staggering amount of bullshit. And they’re hooked into the Scottish literary establishment. One guy I met had, like our friend Sebastian the Great, a grant from the Scottish Book Trust to write a book and was late by two years—but unconcerned. I read his book and it was shite, but hey, that’s my opinion. Everybody loved him, as does the middle-class in this story. The problem with the story isn’t in the facts. We know the publishing industry is dominated by the middle classes and mainly women. The problem with the story is it become a bit of a rant. Better if Aldo bust it up.
I’m becoming predictable too. I hate the Tory scum. And what we’ve become. That’s my rant. But Colin Burnett puts it more eloquently. Read on.
Noticed this about [adrenalin] andreline pumpin through yur veins, p14
Jeremey Kyle who wis convinced his cat wis the antiChrist. It wis summit tae dae wae the cat sittin oan his phone and diallin 666 (p16).
Ah guess General Custard must huv said the
same hing at Little Bighorn. And we aw ken what
turned up there, another load ae irate Indians [overwriting]
Ah feel like Leith’s answer tae Dr Dolittle 21
And when the time comes tae draw oor final
breath, we’ve accumulated enough debt that our
creditors will be hoadin a seance. 24
The greatest trick those in power ever pulled wis gittin the workers tae believe we aw huv equal opportunities [all in it together] 24
Story about a spider. Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn.
The greatest trick
those in power ever pulled wis gittin the workers tae
believe we aw huv equal opportunities. Fae the
moment we first open our eyes and until the time
finally comes tae close thum. Oor lives huv been
mapped oot fur us by they’m fae the cradle tae the
grave. In this country ‘cash is class’. When yur born
intae a family wae a bit ae money and the right
postcode, you’re oan the home straight while the rest
ae us are jist warmin up fur the race. 24
House of Horrors.
ah’m oan yin ae
they zerohour contracts. Ken, the hings where yae
dinnae ken if yur gonnae earn a quid or a livin wage
fae month tae month. And that’s why the bookies 28
As ah enter the shoap flair the young
cashier Megan wis chattin tae Auld Tam at the coonter.
Yince she cloacked ma presence in the shoap ah’m
suddenly bein cawed oor by her.
“Dougie” she says. “Come oor here fur a
second. Yae kin settle this argument fur us.” 29
A puny boay cawed Paul
who ah kent fae the boozer hud jumped oantae a till.
He wis a small guy wae prickly black hair and a
tangerine complexion, due tae his love ae the sunbeds.
Aldo knoacked this boays front teeth oot wae yin
Ah couldnae understand why Stevie hudnae
mentioned Aldo wis involved in the mayhem. Probably
thoat it went withoot sayin. Ah love the guy, ken? but
Aldo scares the shite oot ae me.
“Fur fuck sake” ah says. “Anywey, why are yae
whisperin? Aldo’s no even here” ah add as ah take a
casual peek aroond the room, jist tae be shaire.
ah’ve no seen Aldo in
here fur nearly a week.
mother and faither own and run a popular Indianoan
Portobello High Street. Aw his faimily are hard workin,
law abidin citizens, and they didnae ever toil fur
money. So there really wisnae any excuses fur Aldo
and the borderline insane wae the wey he’s turned oot. ‘A Little Taste of India’
might be a lunatic but he’s oor lunatic, 36
Now ah kin feel ma hert skippin a beat
and ma blood pressure seems tae huv went up a notch
or two efter aw that excitement fae the race. The hing is
though yae kin ask any seasoned gambler and they’ll
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.
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?
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.