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Month: June 2012

Winchelsea

So she parked on a street adjacent to The Lookout (by the Old Strand Gate) where there was a famously stunning view over the marshes below (the Royal Military Canal, the long road into Rye, the remains of Camber Castle, Winchelsea Beach, Dungeness – the power station and the lighthouse, both twinkling vaguely in the Channel – even France, on a good day), and led him by the hand (although he insisted on leaving the boy behind – ‘as a precaution’) to take in the vista.

The wind was biting and it was threatening to rain again. Dory gazed down, in silence, for several minutes, yet no matter how hard he tried (and he was trying – the powerful wave of his reason crashing, indomitably, against the sheer cliff of his instinct), he seemed incapable of feeling any kind of rapport with the landscape.

‘But where’s the great forest, Elen?’ he finally murmured.

(Nicola Barker, Darkmans p439)

The extraordinary thing is that when I first read Nicola Barker’s magisterial novel Darkmans in 2007 I had not yet encountered this landscape, nor seen any of the places named in the paragraphs above. Now that I am getting to know them, to assimilate them as imagery as well as fact, I find that Barker’s novel – which I loved and admired from the first – resonates with me all the more deeply.

Darkmans is a piece of work. In an interview she gave around the time of its publication, Nicola Barker talked about how she went into a kind of suspended animation during the final months of writing it, cutting off the internet, wearing ear muffs to block out all exterior noise. I found myself understanding and applauding. Real writing takes everything, precludes all other mental activity, all outside stimuli.

It means forfeiting the quotidian world – at least for a while.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Darkmans today, about how much I admire it – those unruly, renegade sentences, that don’t-give-a-stuff disregard for competent orderliness (and ordinariness) that conceals such stern craftsmanship, most of all that vertiginous, daredevil way of commandeering the fantastic – and how much it still continues to inspire me.

The scope of its ambition – and it’s an ambition realised – is enough to prevent any writer from sleeping at night.

It’s one of those books I like to keep close by, like a lucky charm.

This road sign, whose history I haven’t investigated yet, can be seen just before the turnoff path to Winchelsea station.

I can’t help but feel there has to be a story here somewhere.

Climbing towards Winchelsea Beacon.

Tram Road, Rye Harbour.

A couple of Mammoths

I had a lovely surprise earlier this week when I learned that my story ‘Wilkolak’, which originally appeared in Crimewave #11, had been selected by Maxim Jakubowski for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime #10. ‘Wilkolak’ was actually the first in a group of five stories I was hoping to write, all centred around the place I was living in Lee Green. Events, as they say, intervened, and I became sidetracked into writing one of the longer pieces that will be appearing in my forthcoming book from PS. Of course I still have all my notes for the Lee tales, and as ideas tend not to leave me alone until I make some kind of use of them I tend to think these will resurface at some later date. In the meantime, ‘Wilkolak’ is a story that is particularly close to my heart and I am delighted to see it winning new friends. TMBOBBC#10 will be published by Constable and Robinson in January 2013.

I am also very pleased to announce that a brand new story of mine, ‘Seeing Nancy’, is one of twenty-five tales selected by Marie O’Regan for her forthcoming Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women, also from Constable and due out this November. The table of contents is pretty amazing, and includes stories by Muriel Gray, Sarah Pinborough, Alison Littlewood, Lisa Tuttle, Kim Lakin Smith and Caitlin Kiernan as well as classics of the supernatural by the likes of Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Gaskell.

When Marie invited me to submit a story for the anthology, she asked if I could let her have a brief plot synopsis in advance, just to make sure that my idea didn’t coincide too closely with any of those put forward by other contributors. I was only too happy to comply with her quite reasonable request. The only problem was that the story I eventually submitted did not in any way resemble my oh-so-helpfully provided synopsis. This is why I don’t like writing about what I’m writing about. I am just not good at it.

I am, however, very happy that Marie seemed to like the story I ended up writing. Ghost stories are tricky. The beloved classics are always before you, reminding you of how difficult these pieces are to get right. ‘Seeing Nancy’, like more than a few of my stories, was actually inspired by a song, Eddi Reader’s ravishing interpretation of Robbie Burns’s Ae Fond Kiss. I was listening to Reader’s Burns album a lot last summer, and while I tried to bring the ideas around my original synopsis into a form I was happy with, I found the words of Ae Fond Kiss, the third verse in particular, working on me in a peculiar way:

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.

 

My Nancy is of course not the same person as Burns’s Nancy, but I grew to love her anyway, and she would never have existed in quite the same way without the inspiration provided by Eddi and Robbie.

Here’s the cover art for the anthology. I’ll post a full ToC as soon as Marie officially releases it.

Rustblind and Silverbright

David Rix of Eibonvale Press has just announced a call for submissions for a new anthology. The theme is trains and railways. The wonderful title is drawn from a story by Wolfgang Borchert.

I will always have a soft spot for Borchert. His stories ‘Das Brot’ and ‘Nachts Schlafen die Ratten Doch’ were the first pieces of German fiction I read in their original language – like Kafka, and like Chekhov in Russian, Borchert’s talent for expressing complex truths in a deceptively simple way makes him an ideal starting point for anyone trying to learn his language. I was moved by these stories, but it wasn’t until I tried translating his rather longer story ‘Billbrook’ that I began to fully understand the power of his writing and the extremity of his wartime experience.

Anyone coming to ‘Billbrook’ unannounced, as it were, might be forgiven for taking it to be a science fiction story set in the days following a nuclear holocaust. In fact it’s about the blanket bombing, in WW2, of Borchert’s home city, Hamburg.

Borchert loved his city, and he is brilliant at portraying the multitudinous multiplicity of the urban environment. He loved the magic and the mystery of the city as organism, and his grief at the utterly needless and wanton destruction of his home-place – its literal reduction to rubble – might be said to be at least as much the cause of his appallingly early death (aged 26) as the complications from hepatitis that are usually cited. Borchert, like so many Germans, was a victim of both the Nazis (he was arrested more than once by the Gestapo for his anti-Nazi views, imprisoned and then sent to the Eastern Front as punishment) and the Allies.

Borchert also loved railways. We know that from the way they shimmer and creak and thunder into his stories. When he likened the human soul to the railway track – ‘rusty, stained, silver, shiny, beautiful and uncertain’ – he was recognising the possibilities for change, for beauty and above all for exploration that railways provide in both the physical and spiritual realm, the way trains – somehow much more than cars and at least equally with space rockets – excite and stimulate and prompt the creative imagination.

I don’t think it’s too presumptious to argue that Borchert would have loved the idea of an anthology of SF railway stories. He might even have written one for Rustblind himself. Let us hope he would at least approve the use of his words in the choice of title.

I know that this project is very close indeed to David’s heart and has been long in the planning. He first mentioned it to me more than a year ago – while we were watching a ‘cab ride’ DVD shot from a train running the Tren a las Nubes line across Argentina. His train addiction is one I share. Indeed a love of trains is common to many writers, who value the opportunities they provide for the most productive kind of solitude, for the observation of people and places, for meditation and reflection, for extended reading time. Not to mention being a mobile workspace.

It’s going to be thrilling to see what stories people come up with.

You can – and please do – read the full submission guidelines for Rustblind and Silverbright right here.

‘At noon, or 3am’

I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at school, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, as part of my ‘O’ Level English Literature course. I was mesmerised by it – at that age dystopian SF was pretty much my literature of choice. I was in love with the rage it engendered in me, as well as the fear. I knew nothing about Ray Bradbury – he was just the bloke who wrote the book, the name on the cover. At around the same time I was similarly gripped by the BBC miniseries of The Martian Chronicles. I can’t remember if I connected the two experiences, if the name ‘Ray Bradbury’ clicked with me at that point. What I do know is that I loved those stories.

I find it difficult to read Bradbury these days. I dip in from time to time – those early stories in The October Country still mean a lot to me – but there’s an overexcitability to a lot of his prose, an overwritten quality that, for me at least, makes it seem dated. And yet.

I’ve been writing since I was six years old, but when I first started to take my writing seriously – when I decided that this was what I wanted to do, what I should, in fact, be doing – it was to other writers I instinctively turned. I was hungry for their advice. I read more ‘how to’ books than could ever have been good for me. Not all of them were good – or perhaps I should say not all of them felt relevant to me. But all of them had something, if I was prepared to wrest it free, and one of them had an essay by Ray Bradbury.

I’ve never forgotten it. He described with candour and good humour how he found and pursued his vocation. I was greatly taken by the method he had, of writing down endless lists of nouns – The Dwarf, The Baby, The Basement, The Mirror Maze, The Carnival – and then trusting that a story would come along to fit each such title. We know now that mostly it did. I even followed his method myself, for a while. I still love his essay, the honesty of it, and the passion. I’m still affected by the quality of his imagination: unquiet, baroque, almost rapacious in its intensity. The joy he felt in creation is obvious, and deeply honourable. Above all else, the man loved words, and cherished all the places a story could take him.

We lost someone important today.

I’m happy to say that even if I can’t remember when precisely I realised that Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles were written by the same person, I can remember, exactly, when I first became aware of Bradbury the writer, and his stature in the world of weird fiction. I remember because he bloody scared the shit out of me. In the mid-eighties there was a series of half-hour dramatisations of Bradbury stories broadcast late at night on Radio 4. I would lie in bed, reading with the radio on, waiting for the moment when Bradbury’s voice would come over the airwaves to introduce the next story. At that point I would lay down my book and switch out the light, and listen with rising horror as the tale unfolded.

It was something about being in the dark, with the radio on, just me and the story and nothing in between. I have to confess that there were several times when I found myself having to switch off the radio before the story ended. But nothing would stop me tuning in again for more the following week.

The worst – and best – was ‘Night Call, Collect’. I have no idea why this story, of a lone accidental survivor of a nuclear holocaust, trapped on Mars with nothing but his own recorded voice for company, terrified me quite so much, but I remember that by the end of the broadcast my whole body was rigid with tension and my palms were sweating.

Ray Bradbury did his job, and he did it good.

Reading some of the early tributes, I came across this quote, picked out by his grandson, Danny Karapetian, as his favourite:

“My tunes and numbers are here. They have filled my years, the years when I refused to die. And in order to do that I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, at noon or 3am.

“So as not to be dead.'”

He will never leave us.

(You can listen to the recording of ‘Night Call, Collect’ here.)

In the South

It’s odd, the way major royal events always seem to coincide with me being out of the country. I was in France for the Silver Jubilee – my parents had to get special permission for me to be absent from school and no one, I repeat no one from my class thought to save me a commemorative mug and coin – and I spent most of Charles and Diana’s wedding day in a park in Zell am Harmersbach right across the road from where my mother was watching the whole damned spectacle on a fourteen-inch portable TV with a gaggle of doting German royalists. I was Thinking Dark Thoughts and singing the Internationale under my breath.

For the past five days we’ve been in Montpellier for the Comedie du Livres, returning home yesterday evening to find the entire country covered in bunting and patrolled by guardsmen.

In a final last ditch attempt to pretend this wasn’t happening, I unpacked my holdall and went and hid in the Hastings Odeon, just in time to catch the 8pm showing of Prometheus. Only that was bad, too.

I’ll be kind-of writing more about that (Prometheus that is, not the jubilee) for my Starburst column next month. Meanwhile, Montpellier was glorious. Chris had been invited to participate in a festival strand featuring UK authors. The festival organizers made thoughtful and imaginative choices, and we felt privileged to be in company with so many fine writers including Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall, Ian McDonald, Anne Fine, Melvyn Burgess and Tim Parks. The Scottish contingent was particularly strong. On the Saturday morning I attended a panel on the new writing coming out of Glasgow – Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Louise Walsh, Alan Warner all in one room! The debate was forthright, passionate and wholly committed as only a discussion among Scottish writers can be, and I was particularly thrilled to meet Alan Warner, a writer I admire immensely and whose novel Morvern Callar continues to be a key inspiration. The experience left me fired up and itching to get back to my desk, a sure sign that the journey was worthwhile.

Chris’s panels and interviews went very well indeed, the passion for books and interest in writers among festival-goers a real joy to see.

Montpellier is a gem. Even more so because it has trams. We had a good part of the day free on Friday, so we took the tram out to the terminus and then got on a bus that transported us right to the edge of the Mediterranean at Palavas, a kind of Ballard-land of white apartment blocks and glass-fronted bars. It was weird but weirdly invigorating just to stand there and gaze at it all. I burned my bare feet on the sand and wished I’d thought to bring my swimming costume. My childhood memories are repeatedly underscored by such potent, recurrent images of the south of France, and being back there, however briefly, always feels vaguely extraordinary, a species of time travel.

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