Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote

My debut novel, The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, was officially released by Bluemoose Books on Thursday 28th July.



Donna Crick-Oakley walks on six inches of stories every day. She may live on the top floor of a tower block but she still pads her walls and floor with books to shut the real world further out. Or do they only shut her in? Armed with her myths and medieval adventures, Donna sets out to escape her isolation and change her home town to better suit her dreams.

THE LESS THAN PERFECT LEGEND OF DONNA CREOSOTE is a modern fairy tale from the inner city, where the mundane becomes fantastical and the everyday ethereal, but where living happily ever after is often easier read than done.


You can order physical copies here, and ebooks here or here. Or, of course, you can buy it from your local bookshop - if they don't currently have any in stock, just ask them to order one in for you. 


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Silence of the Land: On Beastings, by Ben Myers

Perhaps because more and more of my own work seems to deal with characters who are estranged from their surroundings, who, to whatever degree of consciousness, retreat into themselves, or otherwise into a secure, controlled location, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to their opposite: stories in which characters are not only intimately related to and rooted in their natural landscape, but in which there are even characters which physically (and psychologically) represent facets of that landscape. That is, I’ve found myself increasingly (re-)drawn to folktales and myths, and contemporary iterations of same.

(Art by Bissette & Totleben)

For instance, there’s a stretch of the country road behind my house which runs parallel to a brook; a narrow, babbling V in the hillside; a kind of natural gutter. Towards the upper end of this stretch is a tree, which, shrouded with vines and creepers as it is, often reminds me of the comics character, Swamp Thing; his organic, sinuous, imposing design.


For most of its length, though, that small valley is a common target for fly-tippers and, as a result, is rarely as easy on the eyes as, to hear it murmur, you’d think it might be, when you near the barb-wire and peer over the edge.  


So, sometimes I find myself imagining how it would be if the Swamp Thing really did rise up from the boggy earth around the top of that brook, and, in his role as the ‘Guardian of the Green’, begin to seek vengeance. This occupies me happily for a moment or two. I picture a vandal getting the fright of their life; a big green hand slapping them silly.  

But the Swamp Thing, removed from the context of those comic books, never does rise up and take umbrage, and part of me – the younger part, still wishful and naive – is always just a little disappointed.

Part of the purpose of such comic books (indeed, of much fiction), of course, is to act as a bridge between dream (or nightmare) and reality, between hope (or fear) and realisation; implicit in that purpose is the acknowledgement that such realisation seldom occurs in our actual lives, certainly rarely in ways we can predict or control. These stories exist, like most human creations, to fulfil a sheltering, escapist need – in this case, to explain the unexplained, or to make something that’s already known that much easier to stomach, or to balance out and combat some elemental wrong. Or even, sometimes, to personify accident and chance, to give a malicious agency to hapless mistakes. And thereby to provide a kind of comfort, or at least a cushioning of the blow.

In the latter category, in a way, and following on from Swamp Thing, I’m thinking of Sara Maitland’s brilliant short story, ‘Moss Witch’.

Likewise, in keeping with the idea of avatars representing aspects of the natural world, there are numerous examples to be found in the back catalogue of Studio Ghibli, from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away to Princess Mononoke.

In Benjamin Myers’ latest novel, Beastings (Bluemoose Books), however, what we are given is not so much the fantasy itself (vengeful, beautiful, hopeful or otherwise), but the characters – flesh and blood, physical, fragile, mortal – who both harbour and hinder those fantasies. People who are tied to/constrained by their environment, but whose psychological links with it – with the superstitions and myths that might in other times have bound them to it in a different way – are, with increasing rapidity, coming apart.

It is not a story designed for comfort, but for confrontation.  

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s written in abrasive, in your face fashion. Rather, that it shies away neither from the harshness of the environment, nor the consequences of actions, nor from an acknowledgement of the fluctuating and often shaky nature of dreams – an acknowledgment, that is, of the very gaps, the gulfs, that many folktales seek either to cover or to give demonic form.

What complicates this, however, and makes the narrative more than simply a very good, if extremely severe, slice of historical realism – and almost, at some sections, a kind of body horror piece transplanted to 19th Century Cumbria – is that there are characters, almost at every step, who could be mistaken for such spirits; who, in another story, might well have a more fantastical, magic-realist dimension.

There is, for example, a hermit who, in his seeming benevolence and loquacity – not to mention his outlandish appearance – might in other hands veer into Tom Bombadil territory.

And there is a priest, who, for his talk and intentions, could be an agent of supernatural evil.

And there is the young woman that the priest is chasing – fleeing across the fells and pikes and moorland with a baby that isn’t hers. A mute young woman, who becomes more intimate with the landscape than anybody else – who depends upon that landscape and what it can provide for her very survival, and who therefore comes to echo that landscape at the times in which it is most barren or, occasionally, most ripe.

There is even, and especially, that landscape itself, which is evoked with a fullness of the kind that usually makes people claim it as ‘a character in its own right’, even though it is, emphatically, nothing of the kind. Although it impacts on proceedings, this is in a haphazard way – neither consciously charitable nor openly merciless. Instead, it seems voiceless, stripped of its spirits and spokespeople. And so, yes, the girl on the run does, in some ways, come to fill this role, to mirror and represent it, to the point where it is almost as if nature itself is being pursued, and holds the dark secrets the priest wants kept under wraps.

But, really, the muteness of both just means there is an increasing lack of understanding, a communication breakdown, which makes her escape all the more difficult.   

Of course, talking about the story in this almost abstract, theoretical manner is in some ways the same thing – it risks taking you out of the story, of the immediacy of its developments and deviations and shocks. But, for those who haven’t read it yet, I don’t want to give these away. The communication breakdown that the novel charts and interrogates relies on ideas of repression and withholding, evasion and denial; the inability to accept the truth and relevance (or irrelevance) of one’s past. Spoilers, I feel, would kind of bugger this up.

What I do hope to get across, though, is just how worthwhile it is to read this book and discover what’s being withheld, and how, and why – and what that perhaps says about us, and about both the ways we used to live and the ways we live now. About the relative promises and pitfalls of a life given over to running away from our problems and fears; to hoping that our mistakes and our messes will just somehow cease mattering, or be taken care of by/be blamed on somebody else.    

On the issue of its quality, and the effectiveness with which it engages these issues, I’ve seen a few other reviewers comparing Myers’ work here with Cormac McCarthy, and, whilst comparisons can often get in the way of appraising and appreciating a given work’s individual merit, as much as they offer valuable context, I think there’s validity to this one. Both Beastings and the finest, grimmest of McCarthy’s work (so, most of it), achieve a mythic quality without being myths, and present themselves as tales of (relatively, with a few glaring exceptions) ordinary folk, without being folktales. Whereas those two forms of storytelling seek to bridge the gaps between dream and waking, between superstition and sense, between self and place, these works operate within those spaces; or, rather, at the edge of them, looking out into the void.

The settings in these stories are often solid to the point of being monumental – think of the red, almost Martian deserts in Blood Meridian, the petrified forests in The Road; in this book, consider the mountains, the moors, the lakes themselves (as far removed from Wordsworth’s rendering of them as could be) – and yet they have no voices, no spokespeople. Or, if they do, they seldom last long. They are indifferent, and only seem to grow moreso the more the fates of the characters depend on their offering shelter, or providing food.

In Beastings, Myers gives us a view of a time of profound transition – the beginning of a society’s estrangement from its environment; the supplanting of its old, almost organic superstitions with new, equally-convenient if more outwardly rational lies, suitable for the demands of an urbanised age. Along with McCarthy’s work, it echoes other recent triumphs of this kind, such as John Hillcoat’s film, The Proposition – and yet it never feels in thrall to them, or as though it’s been written specifically and cynically to fit that mould. 

Rather, it is its own animal, and Myers tracks its passage unfailingly and unflinchingly, all the way to the jolting, vital bleakness of its end.    

Folktales and myths, of course, still have a crucial place and relevance in our culture, not least for making such grim outcomes somehow more palatable, for helping us assimilate them into our view of the world. This is, I think, why I've found myself turning to them lately. 

But sometimes the inverse sneaks up on you - you discover a need for a work which refuses this fantasy, which forces you to look at the gap that it leaves, the uncleaned wound, and makes you really wonder what, if anything, can be done to help it heal; that makes you, paradoxically, want to reconnect with your surroundings at the same time as you aim to come to terms with their indifference; that, plain and simply, makes you want to take more responsibility for your life and your actions and the place that you fill in the world. 

Here, then, is a book that more than meets this need. 


   


Saturday, 7 March 2015

Thoughts on ‘Oils,’ by Stephen Sexton

I don’t want this to be a classroom thing. It is difficult to write about poetry sometimes without it turning out that way. Cracking open the highlighters – road-safety yellow, nu-raver pink – and finding key words in each line, mulling over their meaning. Yet, after you’ve maybe learnt how to appreciate poetry, this is often how you’re taught to appreciate it. To break it down, dissect and deconstruct it – climb inside the clockwork and analyse just exactly how each phrase, each pairing, each couplet – rhyming or not – beguiles the time.

Which is fair enough, and certainly has its uses.

But, as Stephen Sexton hints at in ‘An English Teacher Leaves the Room,’ the focus on isolated incidents can also be reductive, can lead either to lost or oversimplified meanings. Can lead, indeed, to a search for a clear or direct conclusion where perhaps there simply isn’t one.

Through the flux, then, as H. Miller once mentioned, is how I’ll come at this instead. The constant ambiguity of a life lived in pursuit.

At its base, this collection is concerned with what a lot of poetry (indeed, a lot of art) seems to be concerned with – mourning and longing, the missed chances of the past and the possibilities of the future. And yet it is about this with a surety, a tactility, which anchors these feelings, for the most part, in the reader’s present, even as they spill out over the sides.

Indeed, the reason I don’t want to resort to academic tactics – and am taking a rather wanky route around it, in fact – is because of the remarkable wholeness and heft of these poems. Is because, despite certain inferences passing over my head, I still felt the presence of what was inferred, the evocative ability of the poet’s craft at work.

I don’t intend for this to sound pretentious – though, again, it can be difficult to discuss poetry, especially at any kind of length, without falling into that trap – and I definitely don’t want to put off prospective readers by giving the impression that this collection is pretentious; though it is full of pretence, allusion and ekphrasis, it doesn’t beat you round the head with it, or exclude, or talk down to you, and nor does it show off for the sake of showing off.

Rather, what I want to convey is this – that Oils is a tremendously academic, intellectual, crafted work, but I don’t believe it requires you to be an intellectual, academic craftsman to take it apart and put it back together. It is not, in other words, poetry that speaks only to other capital P Poets. It exists in uncertainty, in unanswered questions, in the commonplace passivity of life, as much as it exists in communion with old myths and old masters.

There are, of course, many lines that may give you pause, have you reaching for references, but it is a testament to Sexton that the context of each poem in its fullness makes you really want to know, to try and fill the gap, though the poems themselves sometimes choke with a sense of the impossibility of ever quite doing so. He makes you complicit in his longing, in his own, often frustrated, search for meaning, as these poems may become, over time, complicit in yours.

And, of course, there are many lines worth breaking out the highlighters – Ghostbusters green and Breaking Bad blue – for. Such as this, from ‘John’s HiFi’:

The bass thumps like a sperm whale’s heart.

But this needn’t be a classroom thing. I don’t want it to be, is the point, and I don’t want you to think it has to be, to think any good poetry has to be; even poetry so clearly artful as that found in Oils.

I read the first half of this collection instead in Köln-Bonn airport, overlooking the runway. That felt right. These poems root you in the business of reading them, whilst they promise and/or threaten at all times to transport you somewhere else. They are written on the cusp and in the midst and in the aftermath. Moment to moment, just as we live. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

'The Blue Fox' and 'The Whispering Muse', by Sjon - Book Reviews

Perhaps this is an odd confession for someone who mistakenly classes himself (and is often classed mistakenly by others) as being well-read to make, but I’ve always had a bit of trepidation about reading novels that have only been translated into English.  

That is, I’ve been putting off attempting such monumental classics of world literature as War and Peace and much of Balzac’s back catalogue by telling myself that, if I’m to get the full import and impact of such works – if I’m to read them the way they really should be read – then I should do so in the author’s original words. Of course, I’ve convinced myself more fully of this whenever anyone has suggested that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been putting them off because War and Peace is chuffin’ chunky, and there are enough books in Balzac’s Comédie humaine that I could have used them to build my shed.  

However, over the past few years, I’ve embarked upon – and been utterly bowled over by – works by writers as diverse as Milan Kundera, Rabelais, Albert Camus, Roberto Bolaño, Reinaldo Arenas, Blaise Cendrars and Italo Calvino. The combined force of which have helped me see the error of my ways, and highlighted just how much of what is truly vital in literature I was missing out on.    

I have come to appreciate the idea (heard previously but never properly, personally tested) that books from other cultures, translated or not, are nonetheless windows into the innermost workings of those cultures; even as the very fact of my reading works from such seemingly distant places has shown up how all such boundaries of culture are, and have long been (well before even the faintest conception of the Internet), infinitely permeable and fluid, if only people make the effort to allow them to be. Or, rather, cease making the effort to stop them from being.

It is this, which, by way of growing familiarity with the early works of other Scandinavian writers such as Knut Hamsun, as well as numerous recommendations, brought me recently to the writings of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known most commonly as Sjon.

And I am right bloody glad that it did.

It is appropriate, I suppose, in light of what’s mentioned above, that both The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse are a kind of fusion-fiction, melding in some areas a sparsely poetic, Hamsun-esque realism with blistering, unnerving elements of Icelandic folktales and more widely-sourced myth. But, rather than allowing this to be a smooth, magical-realist fusion, there is always an element of cynicism, a tension created by the presence of disbelievers, which threatens to undermine the works, even as, ultimately, it strengthens them and their closing intentions.  

For instance, the latter book includes the character of Caeneus, borrowed/revived from ancient Grecian tales about the Argo. He can be seen as the embodiment of the way that myths and stories can continue to shape and affect people – even, and this is perhaps most crucial, if those stories happen to have originated somewhere far from their audience. He becomes indicative of the germinant qualities of a good yarn – its ability to adapt, survive, and, ultimately, to spread and become part of wider narratives; of histories personal, social, and even global.

However, the novel’s narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, is far too busy espousing his obsession with the supposedly scientifically-proven ideas on the positive correlation between Nordic cultural hegemony and fish consumption (to a largely Nordic audience), to give much credence to what he sees as Caeneus’ ‘ridiculous’ tales of his adventurous past.

Because the story – and, therefore, Caeneus’ tale - unfolds through this sceptical viewpoint, it is not clear how seriously any of it should or even can be taken. That is, it is uncertain whether there will be any meaning to the tale at all, or whether the cynicism and close-mindedness/obsessiveness will undermine and override it in the end.  

Indeed, in the first book, The Blue Fox, Sjon is perhaps even more explicit in his depiction of this tension between the sceptical, hard-headed nature of the men on display – particularly the priest, Baldur Skuggason, who hunts the eponymous animal – and the more whimsical, free-flowing nature of other figures, as well as the folk-tale-ridden landscape in which Skuggason gradually becomes more immersed, both physically and mentally.  

In this way, these works certainly feel as though they provide an insight into certain areas of Scandinavian history and culture, even as they interrogate the wider impact and reach of that culture, and the way such interactions can impact upon a place, its inhabitants and their ideas.

On that score alone, they make for fascinating and worthwhile reading. Yet, the fact that they are written (and, importantly, translated, by all accounts brilliantly, by Victoria Cribb) in such an effective, compellingly direct manner, serves to make them even moreso.

At the close of each book, and certainly after reading them back-to-back, I was left with a feeling of great satisfaction, as though re-energised. Which, again, perfectly suits the way the central conflicts and tensions are resolved. The last sections of these novels come to act, both within and beyond the narrative, as both a celebration and a reward for allowing something different, and difficult, to become a part of one’s life.

The ending of The Whispering Muse in particular is a dramatisation of this – the suggestion being that, no matter how far a story (or storyteller) has travelled to reach you, and no matter how much may have been chipped away from that story – lost in translation, as it were – if it seems there is some truth, some vitality to it, it is probably best to stop making excuses, to simply dive in and embrace what you find there of use.

Having read these two books, as well as works by the other authors mentioned above, I can't help but agree. I still aim to be able someday to read fluently in other languages. But I’m increasingly aware that being actually well-read, and thereby hopefully ever-more open-minded and more understanding, is the salient goal, and one that can’t really wait.

 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Snorri & Frosti, by Ben Myers – Book Review

I have read this novella now five times over the past year or so, and feel like I could read it many more without growing tired, without growing bored. That’s not because it’s short, quick-reading, and I’ve got nothing else on my urgent ‘To-read’ list. Quite the opposite – I’ve re-read it so often already despite the fact there’s so much else I want to get through. 


It is addictive, compulsive, habit-forming, in the best sense. Like fresh coffee, or country walks. It feels comfortable on repeated readings, though it has lost none of its challenging qualities, nor its ability to surprise or amuse. There's a folk album quality to it. As with an album, I even feel that I've taken something new from it each time; there are different sections that appeal more, that have offered more when I’ve been caught up in different moods.

Indeed, reading it again just now, I found this aspect of the book extremely fitting to its themes – change weighed against continuity, daily life weighed against the spectre of death –   and to the way Ben Myers has allowed the narrative to develop, giving himself space to balance these themes and submerge them within the delicate, subtle study of the two eponymous brothers, creating a sense of tension, flux and conflict, even as the sparse setting and the steady pace lends the work a feeling of compelling, almost unbreakable calm.   

The story of a day in the life of these two brothers is relayed, with the exception of a brief intro, by way of the dialogue between the two. In the way the simple, direct language fits together, and the lines spark off each other to generate moments of bittersweet, quite often dark humour, there’s a bit of Beckett about it, and a bit of Cormac McCarthy (think The Sunset Limited), too. Yet, if these inspirations were indeed there for Myers, they are there as an undertone, as a foundation only. He crafts something that feels new and original from the seemingly traditional, basic ingredients he starts with.

It is tempting to simply lavish praise on his concrete but unobtrusive writing style, and the way he’s constructed the piece; to say that were it not for the way he tells it, this tale could run the risk of feeling old-hat and outmoded. After all, this day in the life can be roughly boiled down to a rather dull-sounding pattern of waking up, drinking coffee, talking about snow, chopping wood, talking about food, chopping more wood, eating food, and then going to bed. Over which hangs the threat of the brothers being kicked off their land by a faceless construction conglomerate.

Yet, the repetitive nature of this day, within the context of the rest of the protagonists’ lives, is the backbone of the story. It is crucial to its ultimate meaning, and to why that story works so well here. In Myer’s hands, what could have been off-puttingly dour kitchen-sink realism transplanted to an unnamed valley in Scandinavia, becomes an affecting meditation on the ways in which consistency and routine can become intrinsic to a person’s survival. And, because of this, I came to care about the survival of these characters – there has been a point, earlier and earlier, in each reading where the characters have simply taken over, and any admiration for the simplicity of form gets lost, as it should, in the mix.

Their discussions of coffee and snow and food and the threat posed by the aforementioned faceless construction conglomerate are fascinating, funny, and frequently insightful. There are sections that I’d like to quote here by way of demonstration, but for those who haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil the surprises.

I may have said too much already – though, as mentioned earlier, here is a book where it is more important how something happens than it is what happens.

Which is fortunate because, as also stated above, it is simple and sparse in terms of plot. Yet, like the meals the book’s titular brothers describe to each other, it feels wholesome and hearty with it. Though it describes a place of desolate, isolated, seemingly unending cold, it evokes as well a sense that change and renewal abound constantly, beneath the beneficial routines, beneath the blanket of snow. Despite that snow, it brings with it a warming sensation. It rekindles a vitality in me which, particularly under recent grey skies, it’s too easy to worry I’ve lost.

That is, it reminds me that no matter how little you feel like you have, and how monotonous your days may seem, there is always something to lose. And it is worth taking the time to appreciate that thing – life – as fully as you’re able, in whichever fashion you prefer, because, afterwards, it will only and always be too late.

I’ve read this novella so often already, then, because I don’t think you can ask too much more of a story than that. 


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Recovery

There’s no jazz in this pub.

There always was. Well, not always, but mostly. In one of the pubs. More of a bar. In another, we’d mostly or always just drink coffee and beer and make full-throttle early-burn-out efforts at University work. Research. Write. Footnote. Spellcheck. Grammar check. Send. Or something like that. Getting harder to remember the details. Been out nearly as long as we were in.

He still reads my mind, though.

Unlucky for him.

Says, ‘We’re getting old, man,’

And ‘I know,’ I say, pretending that he isn’t psychic.

Which is why I don’t have to say the thing about there being no jazz.

He just knows. I just know it.

There’s other music, of course, but it’s something from the eighties. On the speakers, though, – mercifully – not a live band. In fact, the place where a band would be, maybe, in this pub, is filled with empty tables.

On one of the tables there’s a wine bottle and a glass, and the glass is drained but I can’t tell about the bottle. I make a joke about going over to check it for dregs. Well, I say that I’m going to, but he knows it’s a joke. We’re getting old, he says, and we’re both of us, for some reason, lacking in energy.

He likes to remind me of times when energy was boundless. Likes to remind me of a night when we’d been to the jazz pub but come back to the other about one in the morning, and ordered pizza, and ordered strong cider on top of all the wine and the fantastic foreign beer that we’d been drinking. He likes to remind me about how I fell off my barstool but somehow stumbled back the whole length of the room before falling.

We both like to laugh.

What wankers we were, eh?

What absolute dicks.

Not like we are now we’re old. Getting old. Getting respectable. Getting more easy to embarrass. Is there a difference?

He knows.  

We mostly meet up now in places like this, pubs like this, cities where we don’t know anyone. That way, our past mistakes and our past victories are our secrets. That way, these secrets themselves become victories, when we share them, remember them, use them to cover up current mistakes.

There’s no jazz in this pub, but we have a laugh about the eighties music, and I even catch myself singing along. Or he catches me, rather, when he comes back from having a piss.

Duran Duran? he says.

You sad bastard.

I try deny it, but it’s a fruitless attempt.

Talk turns again to the good days, the old days, when I’d do things like that all the time. Well, not all the time, but more often than is mentally regular.

Talk turns to how good it is to catch up, how it’s been too long. How it’s tricky with him working now, and me still not working, and both of us with a long way to travel. Metaphorically and not metaphorically speaking.

This is the way it is, we conclude, and we deal with it. Man up. Meet up like this and drink beer and drink coffee and then go our separate ways about seven or eight.

Like seven or eight’s the new ‘one in the morning’.

Like a couple of pints and a latté is the new legless, new wasted, new wrecked-off-your-face.

We’re getting old, I remind him, before we split at the station. He mentions meeting in two or three months to do it again. Jokes how we need that long to recover.

Well, says it, but I know it’s a joke.

What he means is, we need this to recover. These half-days out. Every so often.

What he means is, there’s no jazz in real life either, but at least this way we’re not alone when we drink. 

Faulty Escape Plan No.1, 652

There you stand in
your grey shirt
and your Sports Direct shoes
tired little writer
with nothing to lose

but the love that
you’ve found and
the books you have left
and the intimate
knowledge of a wallet
bereft

and you squint
and your scrutinise
this thing you’ve become
wearing those shoes
as though you’re
wanting to run

and run more and
keep running
and not once ever stop
lying to yourself
that you won’t ever
be caught

whilst you’re waving
your grey shirt
in bungled surrender
and Jackson Browne-alike
singing
pray for the pretender

as you know all
the while that even here
on the edge
it’s a long way down
from your oubliette ledge

it’s a long long way
from your dreams
to the floor
so don’t quit this
not yet


but still don’t shut the door.