Monthly Archives: December 2011

Another Year

Just thinking about this year makes me dizzy. 2011 has been the most eventful twelve months of my life since I left home for university in the autumn of 1984. Bits and pieces of things have already found their way into some of the stories I’ve written this year, but obliquely. I’m the kind of writer who must write, who insists upon it as a right, no matter what else intervenes, and as the year comes to an end I find I can map it in stories, that the stories will be forever associated with certain events and a certain time, even when the narrative itself does no more than hint at it.

Among many other items of good news, I am happy to report that I have written a novel’s-length of stories this year. All of these should be appearing next year in various publications, to include Undertow Press’s biannual anthology Shadows and Tall Trees, the new NewCon anthology Dark Currents, Arkham House’s The Arkham Garland, Kelly Link’s fabulous zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and one or two others that I’m not at liberty to mention yet. All the pieces I’ve worked on this year represent significant steps forward for me, and I’m greatly looking forward to them being out in the world. More news on all of these as and when I have it.

Parts of the year still feel strange and painful, leaving London on the night the riots broke out, for instance. This is something I won’t talk about, because there’s a story here I want to write, and it’s still maturing, but the memories of that first hot week of August remain intense. Other memories are intensely happy, most of all the publication of Chris’s wonderful twelfth novel The Islanders, and seeing him launch himself into the new book immediately afterwards.  (The Adjacent is progressing brilliantly, even as we speak.)

The work of other artists is as always an encouragement, an inspiration and a pledge. Highlights of 2011 must include the Coen brothers’ magnificent film True Grit, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Kingsley and Sharp’s Black Pond and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (2011 saw us having a bit of a Woody Allen binge, actually. The man is a magician, a born writer sans pareil, and I worship him.)

Films are often easier for me to codify than books, because I don’t make them, and then there’s this awful greed-reading to contend with – there are seldom fewer than five books by my bed at any one time and usually more – but I do know I began and ended the year with exceptional reads (David Vann’s Caribou Island and Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference respectively) and that somewhere in the middle I had the privilege of discovering Lila Zanganeh’s joyous book about Nabokov The Enchanter. Older works discovered or rediscovered have included Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Tim Krabbe’s The Vanishing and Peter Stamm’s In Strange Gardens.

My own new book is coming on.

I want to end this post by saying thank you to everyone who drops in on this blog, and to the many people who have offered their support and appreciation for my work. Having readers is a privilege, one I hope I shall continue to earn.

Happy New Year, everyone. Have a good one. Glenfiddich time fast approaching…..

Whodunnit?

My first real memories of Doctor Who begin in 1972 with The Three Doctors. I have spots and flashes before that – The Daemons, The Claws of Axos and Colony in Space flicker on the screen at the back of my mind like interrupted transmissions from an earlier era – but my fully cognisant awareness that I was witnessing something extraordinary start with Lord Omega and becomes continuous with The Green Death, the first adventure I remember fully as a story rather than as a series of vivid yet disconnected fragments. I found this story terrifying yet overwhelmingly compelling. It had characters I felt immediately passionate about. It had giant maggots, for God’s sake. By some miracle – and at six years old it seemed a miracle made expressly for me – it seemed that, at a set time each week and for twenty-five minutes, I could sit myself down in the living room and realistically expect to see monsters. I honestly cannot say where the desire to see monsters came from – only that this fascination with the fantastic has been an intrinsic part of my life and my imagination literally ever since I can remember, and that it seemed to come out of nowhere. My father always shied away from stuff like that and would only ever watch Doctor Who if I was there in the room to watch it with him. My mother was happy to let me amuse myself with it but for herself she dismissed it as nonsense, ‘all that Doctor Who nonsense.’

From The Green Death in 1972 to The Caves of Androzani in 1984 I scarcely missed an episode. From 1984 to the final episode of ‘Old Who’ in 1989 – a period that coincided with my time at university and was therefore less static – I did miss stuff but I always kept abreast of what was going on and have since caught up with all the episodes I didn’t see when they were originally aired. I’ve seen all of ‘Nu-Who.’ Every episode. In order. (God, that’s terrifying.)

My sentimental attachment to Doctor Who has been fierce and enduring. This is because it was there for me when I absolutely needed it. It gave form to my hazy imaginings, not only of what might be out there but what it might be possible to dream of, to conceive as story. Doctor Who introduced me to the concept of outer space, of time travel, of physical and imaginative worlds beyond our own. Doctor Who proved that it wasn’t just me that stayed awake at night worrying that there might be ‘monisters’ in the understairs cupboard. It was Doctor Who, in fact, that introduced me to science fiction. About five years after seeing The Green Death I graduated to The Time Machine and a little later to The Day of the Triffids, meatier inspirations no doubt and certainly more capable of bearing artistic scrutiny, but the whole point is that without the Doctor and the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith (absolutely my first ever role model) I might not have taken up with Wyndham or Clarke at all. It is for these reasons as well as the precious and indelible memories of childhood and childhood friendships that I continue to feel I owe Doctor Who a huge debt.

So – like finding out that an old comrade from Young Socialists has started voting Tory, or hearing the friend who first introduced you to Dostoevsky admit brightly that they really do enjoy reading Maeve Binchy – it’s painful to see the programme losing its way. Many devotees of the original show were very much doom and gloom when the BBC announced its return in 2004. They feared the memories they cherished would be ruined, that no contemporary reimagining could possibly live up to expectations and that on balance it was better not to try. I was not one of those people. I reasoned that whatever came of ‘Nu-Who’, my personal time-stasis around the Tom Baker years could not be breached, and anyway, I was eager to see what the new guys would do. Most of all, I was delighted to think that a whole new generation would be able to experience what I had experienced, to see the characters and situations in terms that would feel more relevant to them as opposed to being forced by their parents to watch and enjoy the dodgy black-and-white recordings from the 1960s. To have a Doctor of their own, in fact.  It all sounded great to me.

The one thing I was not prepared for was for the programme to become less frightening. I realise it’s impossible for me to be as entranced and terrified by giant maggots now as I was then, but the tragedy that’s been happening to Doctor Who since 2005 has far more to do with the way its parameters have shifted than with the natural aging process of this particular fan. There are obvious things – the way the new single-episode-adventure format has abolished much of the tension, for one – but with the right kind of writing this needn’t have been a disaster.

What is a disaster is that the Doctor is no longer the Doctor, but a superhero.

The original conception of Doctor Who had him as a kind of maverick mad scientist, an alien being with a gerontian lifespan and certain travel privileges yes, but a supernatural being most certainly not. The Doctor was enigmatic, often cantankerous, and definitely fallible. When we saw Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker running from the Daleks we had the sense that he was was a) actually scared and b) in some danger of getting exterminated. He knew a bit more about the state of the universe than we did but – like a crazy uncle who had just returned from a near-fatal trip to the Amazon – this was simply because he was older and had travelled more widely. We had the sense, above all, that we were in the adventure together.

The Doctor we have now is more like a minor deity than a renegade scientist. He doesn’t just regenerate, he’s resurrected on a regular basis. His sonic screwdriver, once a nifty little gadget for picking alien locks, is now regularly used as a cross between a wizard’s wand and a light sabre. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s saved the planet by magical means. In the Christmas Special on Sunday we saw him darting about a children’s nursery breathing life into fairy lights and magicking hammocks out of thin air like some kind of demented Mary Poppins. I think the nadir came for me in Series 5, when Mat Smith’s Doctor proved he was every child’s hero by playing all the positions on the football pitch at once.

Come on, guys. What is this shit??

It’s not just that Doctor Who has shifted over from science fiction into fantasy; the true nature of the catastrophe is that Doctor Who has become the worst kind of fantasy, that is, fantasy without rules or logic. The first thing anyone interested in writing speculative fiction must learn is that a fantasy world, however wondrous, must possess an internal logic to remain convincing. In the world of Nu-Who, where the Doctor is the deus out of every machina, there is no logic, there is only lazy writing.

Of course there have been exceptions. Billie Piper’s Rose, John Simm’s Master, Robert Shearman’s Dalek, Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, Tom McCrae’s The Girl Who Waited all give us glimpses of what Nu-Who could have been and (dare we hope?) retains the possibility of one day becoming. Some might argue that if only Christopher Eccleston had stayed longer as the Doctor then none of this would have happened.

For fantasy to work, it must keep its edge. That doesn’t mean more monsters (necessarily – but they do help); what it means is taking the reader or the viewer into new territory. As soon as fantasy becomes comfortable it’s dead. Speculative fiction that no longer speculates is ……well, Friends, only with Daleks in.

Christmas evening saw me in full rant mode and swearing that this was it for me, I’d never watch another episode. Do I have such strength of character? I can’t answer that question. But isn’t it sad that the team behind this lazy excuse for SF – a team with some talent and not to mention huge financial resources at their disposal – have put someone who once so loved the series in this position?

Swanage, Boxing Day 2011 Photo by Christopher Priest (I made him do it)

Kite surfer, Kimmeridge Bay Dec 26th 2011

Cold Snap

One of the problems with Christmas is that it’s so ripe for subversion. As the end of December approaches, you cannot escape the feeling that you’re being ordered to have a good time, and speaking for myself I have always naturally mistrusted the behaviour of crowds.

There are of course things to be enjoyed. The Doctor Who Christmas Special, for one. M. R James’s ghost stories of course. Last year my pre-Christmas Christmas treat turnd out to be the deliciously off-the-wall Finnish movie Rare Exports, additionally memorable for me because I slipped and fell badly on the ice outside Blackheath station while on my way to see it. Not to be cheated of my evening’s entertainment I continued on my journey, and limped into the cinema just in time for the opening credits. My fallen-on hip stiffened painfully during the film and getting home afterwards was a bit tricky but the film was so worth the effort of getting there. In taking the complete piss out of Christmas, it somehow reinvigorated its magic. I mean, because of that film I now smile each time I walk past one of those glittery Santa’s Grotto things, and anything that can do that for me has to contain at least a modicum of magical power.

And today I’ve been rereading ‘Cold Snap’ by Robert Shearman. This was one of the first stories by Rob I read, the opener of his most recent collection, Everyone’s Just So So Special, and one of the most original and frightening visions of Christmas I have ever come across. It has plenty in common with Rare Exports, not just the reappraisal, shall we say, of the benificent nature of good old St Nick, but also the delicate and often difficult relationships between fathers and children. I started out reading ‘Cold Snap’ feeling wryly amused by this coal-black Christmas tale, and professionally admiring (as always) of its author’s skill with the English language and gift for original ideas. (Talk about deals with the devil…..!) I finished it in tears. The story has a poignancy and emotional truth that reaches far beyond the goal of mere entertainment, something that could be said of everything Robert Shearman writes.

Stephen King has said more than once that in writing horror fiction the trick is not to make a big deal in dffierentiating what is real from what is fantastic, to sew the seam between the two so fine that the reader will not initially be aware that he has crossed over. Rob’s skill in fantasy writing lies precisely here; in fact he doesn’t seem to differentiate between the fantastic and the quotidian at all. So it is that getting lost in fog leads perfectly naturally to a fatal encounter with killer angels. Inviting your gran round for Christmas lunch ends with…. well. zombies, what else? Rob’s great gift is for understanding people, their inner agonies and secret motivations, and you can’t read a story by him without being reminded of his ten-year stint working with the great theatre director and playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Both men have a searing talent for dialogue – Shearman’s prose writing has a dramatic quality that makes each and every story a piece of theatre – and it’s essential to remember that every now and again we see in Ayckbourn’s plays touches of the dark fantastic (I’m thinking Way Upstream, Haunting Julia) that make it clear that Ayckbourn’s writerly ambitions have always been about more than the suburban marital farces for which the great British public love him. I’m sure Ayckbourn learned as much from Shearman as the other way around.

Rob Shearman always writes with the intensity of someone who has an urgent message to deliver. The stories that make up Everyone’s Just So So Special are deeply expressive of both the English propensity for understatement and that particular national difficulty we find in properly expressing what we feel. Rob’s fantasy is not about breaking rules, it is about disregarding them entirely. I guess that’s something all writers would benefit from doing more often, and not just at Christmas.

One Christmas present come early: my novella ‘The Silver Wind’ (first published in Interzone 233) has been selected as part of the line-up for Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. An honour of course, and with stories by Margo Lanagan, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Theodora Goss and Jonathan Carroll in the mix I personally can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

Meanwhile, Chris has just given me the DVD box set of The KIlling 1 – another early present. So that’s me incommunicado for the next three days at least. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Russell Hoban R.I.P

I woke this morning to hear news of the death of Russell Hoban at the age of 86. He was a unique writer, someone whose work I treasured, and I feel sad to think that I will never now have the chance to meet him in person.

The first book of his I read – by chance almost – was his 2002 novel The Bat Tattoo, and not since picking up Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs a couple of years earlier was I so immediately captured by a particular writer’s sensibility and vision.

He was an American who ‘got’ London, who loved the place and loved to write about it. Passing over the more obvious temptations towards ‘gritty urban reality’, he rather viewed our gloriously sprawling metropolis as a place without boundaries, a cathedral of the imagination. That he did this whilst remaining true to its earthly geography makes his achievement all the more magical. How many times, walking the route of one of his books, did I wriggle with delight to find that each street corner, each church, each shopfront was actually there? I’ve lost count. Russell Hoban first won recognition for Riddley Walker, but it will always be his later, London novels I love most dearly, that will continue to offer me inspiration and – remarkably often – an alternative insight into my own feelings.

His knowledge of music too was something I cherished. The classical recordings he talks about – in My Tango With Barbara Strozzi (my favourite), in Her Name Was Lola and everywhere elsewhere – were always actual CDs, their offerings evoked with the passionate enthusiasm of the true connoisseur. He never patronised his readers, he never name-dropped for effect or for the sake of it. He simply loved music, and wanted to talk about it. His closeness to the German language through his wife Gundel was another aspect of this, and yet one more reason I felt close to him.

Typically, he was not half so well known as he should have been within the literary establishment. He was one of those uncomfortable writers who defy definition, who was fearless and singular and utterly sincere. He paid the price for it.

While caught up in the world of The Bat Tattoo I found myself compelled to go and visit the Claudes in the National Gallery, The Embarkation of St Ursula in particular, so richly and lovingly described in that novel.  Hoban writes about art with the same conviction as he writes about music, and I’ve had a reproduction of the painting in my work room ever since. For me, it will always be his sign, and I will continue to think of him each time I look at it.

Anyone who’s in the area this morning should grab themselves a bite to eat in Gabi’s deli on Charing Cross Road and celebrate the life and work of this most singular artist. I wish I was in London today.

Black Pond

Last night we were at the excellent little Kino Digital cinema in Hawkhurst for a screening of the new British indie movie Black Pond, a film that – almost from its opening credits – instantly joined my personal pantheon of favourites. I have a deep love of the ‘strange documentary’: movies that, whether purporting to be truth or fiction, make extensive use of the techniques of life writing and news reportage to build a story. I’d count Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Christopher Petit’s Content as strange documentaries. Also Henry Joost’s wonderful 2010 movie Catfish. With their magpie mentality, their excitement at the strange coincidence and that general feeling that everything in the film was discovered by miraculous chance in a cardboard box at the back of someone’s garage, films like this have unlimited appeal for writers who create their fictions in a roughly similar way.

And while loving the hand-held, cut-and-paste visuals as I did (I’m a total ‘found footage’ junkie) my chief delight in Black Pond was to be found in its words. How marvellous to have it reaffirmed that there are young film makers out there who understand, and still so early in their careers, that the crucial component of a great film, the centre without which it cannot hold, is a good script. Black Pond‘s script is inventive, daring, moving and darkly comic. It is also deeply literate and beautifully written. In the Q&A afterwards, the film’s star Chris Langham mentioned that his father (film director Michael Langham) had described the script as ‘Chekhovian’, and that seemed to me perfectly apposite. Writer-directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe seem to have an innate grasp of the Chekhovian grammar of understatement and natural pathos. Still both in their twenties, they also have a lived understanding of ‘the way we live now’. The combination of raw talent and learned skill they have demonstrated in the creation of this film is more than admirable, and more than just a little dumbfounding.

The fact that they were offered no commercial help or financial backing for their talent stands as both a testament to their tenacity and (yet one more) mark of shame on the monetarist political culture of our country. Tom and Will chose not to go to film school because it was ‘rather too expensive’ to do so. Instead they learned as they went along, teaching themselves the skills they needed to realise what they wanted to create. The passion that shone out of them as they described, in typically self-deprecating terms, their determination to see this project through to fruition must be an inspiration to any artist, no matter how old or how experienced they are.

Black Pond should win many awards, and I hope it does. Not least because it is a quintessentially English film, a showcase of our young talent and a slap in the face for a political establishment that consistently seeks to deny the importance of culture in the life of this nation. How fitting then that the motif that runs through this movie, that holds it thematically together in fact, should be the person and the poetry of John Clare, the quintessentially English eccentric, genius, madman, poet and political maverick. In the aptly-named character of Blake, the strange outsider who is both the cause and resolution of the crisis at the heart of the film,  Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe have given us a John Clare for our time. Clare’s poem, I Am, read aloud at Blake’s illegal woodland funeral, sounds as a paean of hope and protest for artists everywhere

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

John Clare

Scene of the crime

I’ve never forgotten a radio interview I heard a couple of years ago, in which Zadie Smith spoke passionately about her home turf of Willesden. As she described the sprawl of corner shops and backyards and overgrown lots that formed the background of her early life and the underpinning of her novel White Teeth, the interviewer broke in and said with evident surprise: ‘You seem almost to be saying that Willesden is beautiful.’ Zadie laughed, and then said: ‘I think it is.’

Walking around New Cross and down through St Johns into Lewisham yesterday, thinking about my novel and stomping about in the footsteps of its protagonist, I contemplated for the hundredth time the unappreciated nature, the invisibility almost of South East London. People refuse to look at it because they think it’s grotty. It is, but there it heroically stands. It’s a shipwreck of a place, with islands and oil streaks of ground-shaking beauty. My love for it defies all logic. Yesterday was a perfect London December day of blue air and rapier sunlight, filled with the coincidences that have become familiar to me when writing about London, with the things that you imagine really being there when you go to check up on them.

The words are going down fine, but there are so many of them! Never has writing felt so scary, so like swimming out of my depth. There’s a constant temptation to second-draft as I go along, just so I can get a firmer grip on what I’m doing. I mustn’t give in to it though. I know instinctively that the story must come first.

Houses on Amersham Road, SE14

Parkfield Road, New Cross

Houses on Parkfield Road, SE14

Houses on Lewisham Way, SE14

Chapter One

Today I finished the first draft of the first chapter of my first novel. At 10,000 words that’s quite some chapter but its length has been dictated by its contents, which I feel must be presented as a continuum. This first chapter recounts the events of a single crucial day in the life of its protagonist. The writing of it has left me tired and drained, because it’s very sad.

It’s a strange feeling, embarking on a project of this size. I’ve been preparing for it for months, but nothing aside from actually getting down there and doing it could have prepared me for the vertiginous sensation of unlimited possibility.  None of the short stories I’ve written this year have been particularly short; each has had to be reined in to keep it from running out of control. Now there’s no need to do that. I can show everything.

The writer I keep thinking of at the moment is Nicola Barker. I keep wondering how she felt when she started to write Darkmans, which is one of my most admired novels of the past ten years and a modern masterpiece. That it should have won the Booker when it was shortlisted in 2007 is for me a given. In scale, ambition and achievement the book is vast. Did she know as she wrote the first word that it would be that huge? It’s proof to me that simply by sitting down and doing them such things can be done.

Now reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace:

All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

God that’s good.

Quote of the day though has to come from one Rob Hull, who has just got into the 2012 Guinness Book of Records for having amassed the largest ever collection of Daleks. Asked what started him off, he recalled the moment when, as a child, he saw his first ever Dalek replica in a toy shop window and was forever smitten:

”My mum wouldn’t buy it for me, but I swore at that moment that I’d have my own one day.”

Didn’t we all, Rob, didn’t we all. 517 Daleks later, he is still collecting.