The Artist’s Way – Advice on Creativity : Part of 1 of Many. Based on Book by Julia Cameron

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I am sure many of us have read many articles, books and social media postings that give advice on how to write. All of them differ in the detail but the common thread of all is ‘Just Write!’ which makes sense. Many writers, including myself, can get hung up on the fear that our next paragraph or page may not set the literary world alight. When such fear strikes, we end up staring at a blank screen or holding a pen like a human statue.

Then we may leave our desks and fix a sandwich or a bicycle and not return to our desks. We excuse ourselves by claiming writer’s block. I used to believe in writer’s block but only speaking for myself, it was not writer’s block that ever stopped me from writing but my own fears and lack of ability to marry my personal/working life to my creative life. Having spend the past week thinking about my own creative processes, I’ve come to the conclusion that there maybe no such thing as writer’s block.

What I believe to have been writer’s block was really my perceived inability to write blistering prose from the get-go. I sat down many times and typed a sentence or two only to end them not with a period/full-stop but my forefinger pinning down the backspace key until I had a nice pristine but blank screen looking back at me.

A blank screen is like a mirror to the writer’s soul. It reflects back at us what we fill it with. However, better for any image to appear that no image at all. Often, I preferred no image than poor writing. This is what held me back and now I recognise it.

I was hamstrung by perfectionism. I thought no sentence was better than no sentence at all.

So I justified by torpor by the respectability of the term ‘writer’s block’. If you think about it, in what other profession could one get away with days or weeks of non-productivity? The long the muscle rests, the weaker it gets and the longer a writer doesn’t write, the harder it becomes even to the point when the writer him/herself has to ask the question ‘Am I a writer at all?’

So I picked myself up and sat down and wrote. I had no structure in mind, not even a story or a plot, just a general essay on my forthcoming visit to Seattle and why I chose America over Britain. I let my fingers be the medium for my many thoughts and the words flowed from my fingers. Much of what I wrote in the first draft was badly spelt and unstructured but I was back on the saddle, holding onto the reins and not letting myself be thrown off by that bucking bronco of self-doubt and negative self-thought.

‘No, don’t write that!’

‘That’s a rubbish sentence’

‘You’re using the passive tense you verbal weakling’

‘Man, you are cliché city’

These were the demons that sat inside my eardrums during my essay and I told them where to go.

And you know something? Demons are very obedient. All you have to do is tell them to go away and they will vanish like a midday ice cube in the Kalahari. The corollary of this is that such demons are very willing to take up residence if you let the door’s of doubt lie open.

I finished my draft and the feeling of achievement and release was heady. I didn’t care how raw or unpolished the draft was. It was not carved on a marble tablet, impervious to edit. Within half an hour, I revised and rewrote my first draft, cutting unnecessary words out, replacing clichés with more original material without resorting to the ridiculous. I swapped sentences around and removed the passive voice and replaced unnecessarily complex words with simpler ones that conveyed the same meaning. When a writer uses unusual words, his/her readers may reach for the dictionary but this immediately puts an extra step between the reader and writer. In fact, the reader may find the dictionary more entertaining and rewarding than the book as the dictionary has the forethought to explain what everything means.

The key objective of any form of writing be it literary, factual, technical or genre is to be understood by the reader.

How many pans of dirt did the prospectors of the Klondike need to dig before they found a nugget of gold? They kept panning and panning until they hit pay-dirt, literally! Same goes for writing. So you wrote pages of turgid unreadable material that everyone would laugh at? Who cares. The fact that you wrote something is an achievement in itself. Just repeat the process. Revise what you wrote, study what didn’t work and fix it. Do this as often as you like until you are happier. This is the craft of editing. What sculptor knocked off a bronze statue of perfection in one go. The first chips of the chisel give overall shape to the final form. The angel only appears after many many deft and careful hammerings of the chisel.

Same goes for writing.

When I was pleased with my revisions, I posted it and here I am again, writing another blog post and this leads to me the book I mentioned at the start of this article.

Creativity be it writing, sculpture, painting or even baking a cake cannot take place without the right environment or the right attitude. We are all individuals and most creatives need routines. Some are lucky to jump out of bed in the morning and start work right away and this is great. However most of us need a routine before we start writing. I see this as pulling the boat to the river. You can’t sail when your boat is tethered to the top of your car or in your shed.

My routine is breakfast, a cup of tea, listening to a podcast, a shower and writing my morning pages

Morning pages?

Yes, these are like a diary but it can contain any thing you wish to write about and is purely private. The important thing about them is that they must be hand-written on actual paper. Yes, I know, I too thought I had forgotten how to write by hand but you will be surprised how those spidery scrawls can give way to legible words.

The reason why you must hand-write is to give you a physical and visceral connection between you and your art. The subject matter is immaterial but its important that it contains your thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears amongst it all. I consider this the act of taking the boat from my shed to the lake. It gives me the discipline of writing, writing something at the start of every day no matter what it contains. It also gives me insight and can even kick-start new thought processes and ideas that can feed into your creative writing later in the day.

After a couple of days,, the act of writing morning pages becomes part of your daily morning routine. In doing so, not a day goes past without you, the writer, being a writer. Only 2-3 pages is sufficient. The only other stipulations is that you right them in the same journal and don’t read or revise previous entries. Perhaps every several months one can read past entries and see how one has grown, changed even.

Then when you are done, later on that day when you sit down at your laptop, your blank screen no longer resembles a mountain to be climbed but a rose garden to be watered.

I can only speak for myself but my initial scepticism was blown away completely only after 4 days of putting this into practice. I’ve never had a better week than this for a long time and I feel very empowered.

I can only suggest that you try it for yourself and see how it works.

 

 

 

 

I am reading a book at the moment The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Frankson Says Seattle : Essay on Writing Full-Time in the US and Why America..

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It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry and I often wondered when I would get around to writing the next one but here I am.

At long last, after many years of planning and talking about it, my 6 month sabbatical (or ‘furlough’ as it’s more known as in North America) is upon me. I plan to write my next novel and market as best I can, the stories and novels I have written to date, within the world of social media. If costs allow, I may even pay for several copies to be printed to send off for review and even impromptu yard-sales/car-boot sales to set a foundation stone in the real world.

For many months, even years, I have been so busy at work that my creative juices evaporated in the searing heat of pressure and fatigue. This concerned me as writing is a passion of mine but I have to earn a crust in my day job. I saw no end to the maelstrom if I kept on the way I was and I knew something had to give but in a controlled responsible manner.

So I switched off the engine and let myself glide to the ground and this week, my first week of my freedom, I watch the propellers slowly whirr to a silent standstill while I decompress , step from the cockpit and fill my lungs with new air.

During my time, I plan an extended stay in Seattle or Vancouver and right now, a number of options are on the table and my dousing pendulum swings towards Seattle. I can’t say much at this moment about the possible house I may end up in but serendipity is a wonderful thing. I let this be my guide.

Initially, I thought I would spend my time in London, UK. I visit London more often than the ravens at the Tower. I am forever smitten by London’s surprises, incongruities, its people, its eccentricities, its avant garde theatre (where else but the wonderful Horse Hospital (behind Russell Square Tube Station) where one can spend an evening attending a film, lecture and Q&A hosted by the British Psychical Research Society about the purported case of a talking mongoose in 1930’s Isle of Man but I digress)

So why not London?

Firstly, one can become overly familiar with a city to the point where the fascinating becomes mundane and the incongruous can just become just another tree in heavily thicketed forest. Secondly, my writing and love of literature is heavily rooted in Americana. To paraphrase and to extend  Orwell (daring and forward of me I know), when one is on a sinking ship, all one can think about is a sinking ship and therefore sinking ships soak into every nook and cranny of one’s writing.

Not that London is a sinking ship but it’s the metaphor Orwell used and I completely see his point.

I have visited Chicago many times on business and have had ample free time to explore it and enjoy road trips upstate and into Wisconsin. I feasted on the flora of the small towns, the expansiveness of the landscape, the long endless lonely roads, horizons kissed by cornfields, random homesteads, motels, abandoned buildings, and last but not least, hospitable and individualistic people.

Geographically, America is a very large country that ironically, resembles the properties of the tiny atom. Several specks of very busy protons such as New York, San Francisco, LA, Miami  and Chicago that whizz and whirr with their millions of busy people but the space between them is vast, empty.

It’s within this space, between the cities that the romance, mysteries and awe of America exist. The ghosts of its history, legend haunt its blue highways and fill travellers with a sense of solitude and immense possibilities. It’s not for nothing that the genre of the road-movie is largely quintessential to the US ( the only British road movie worth watching in my opinion is ‘Radio On’ but even this movie artificially warps the British landscape into the shape of an American one but it works all the same without ever feeling contrived)

The spirit of the road movie is freedom. There are different categories (fleeing a bad situation to find a better life, fleeing from the law or the underworld) but what makes these movies plausible in a way that is difficult to do elsewhere is that America is a country where you can simply disappear and pop-up somewhere else and reinvent yourself. Whether or not this reflects the modern day of cellular and internet connectivity is another story but today, these stories occupy the domain of the realistic. In a highly populated country such as England, it is very hard to imagine disappearing from Cornwall and starting all over again in Newcastle with an adventure up the M1 in between without a significant possibility of running into someone who may know you or at least has heard of you.

The UK is still a highly centralized country in terms of its media. From the remote Scilly Isles to Edinburgh, everyone watches the same news channels, read the same newspapers. In the US, the national papers and TV channels do exist but they are weaker glue. What we in Europe often fail to realise is the sheer size of the US and even Canada too. America is not the size of France nor is its states equivalent to British counties.

Many European nations could fit comfortably inside a North Dakotan forest, often many times over. The physical scale of the country and the concentration of population within a few centres has given rise to a sense of isolation within many rural/small town communities that has transmogrified into the following values

Self-Reliance – unlike Europe, a town in the mid West could be 100 miles from the next one. Think about how this would have affected the townsfolk/famer mindset in the days before the telegraph and the telephone never mind before the advent of GPS, Google and smart-phones. You couldn’t have ridden to the nearest neighbouring village nor return within an hour in case of emergency. The early settlements resembled the lunar bases we often see in science fiction movies where everyone wears tinfoil suits and the men still wear bryl-cream on their head, except that they had breathable air. Its people had to fend for themselves often struggling to survive in lawless and inhospitable conditions. It was a land of immigrants who had escaped the tyrannies of poverty, war and persecution in the Old World.

The New World was a chance to form a society in the image of their dreams. It’s a matter of debate as to how well this turned out and is beyond the scope of this essay but such newly formed societies had to employ wanderlust, faith, hope and self-reliance, not just individually but within their communities too. A by-product of this was an unconscious sense of temporiness. Unlike the Old World with its solid stone castles and cathedrals that seem to have been around since the dawn of time itself, the American settlers faced a land with so such constructs. They were no longer in a land where they could use the scaffolding of history to lean against be it law or edifice.

Is it any wonder that many of these communities turned to their Gods in their many, sometimes perennial times of need. No matter how strong we think we are, we all need an anchor of some kind.

From these roots grew the modern day America we know either through first-hand experience or through the prism of movies and literature.

The hero of the road-movie is a lone pilgrim, leaving his/her old life behind to venture into unknown land and people  to build or find a new life with highs and lows, a trail of trials, tribulations and dawns and false dawns along the way until they either reach the promised land or die. The road movie is the subconscious re-enactment of the history of the American soul.

Localism – Some Europeans comment on how parochial American news report seem to them. Its news networks often ignore large swathes of the outside world.  Howevre,  it is wrong headed for an outsider to poke fun at this is and merely shows a lack of understanding of why this maybe. It’s easy for a European to be (or pretend to be in some cases) cosmopolitan when there are thirty or so nations within a 3 hour flight radius. In Belgium, one can reach no fewer than 4 nations within a radius of one hour’s drive. America occupies a land mass similar to that of the entirety of Western Europe. Driving from LA to Boson is equivalent to driving from Lisbon, Portugal to Vilnius, Lithuania. In the former trip you remain inside one nation state; within the latter, well I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count them but you get the picture.

The nation state of America as I mentioned earlier, is a much weaker construct than we Europeans are used to for reasons I’ve touched upon above. America was not founded all at once by one set of pilgrims or immigrants but by waves of very different groups who arrived at different times. Each moved across the continent at different speeds and in different directions during a time when long distance communications were very difficult or an impossibility. These groups eventually settled and those which survived, established permanent communities that formed proto-States that still spoke the settler’s European tongue. Minnesota was largely Swedish, Pennsylvania largely German. The Federal government did not have a long reach and even then,  was like a radio signal that was bedevilled with the static of the nation’s size, space and distance.

Wariness of Government: Mistrust is perhaps too strong a word. Perhaps it’s better to say that the most Americans have always stood their arms defensively folded, casting a healthily wry eye at Washington, sometimes with a gun tucked under the belt. European nations are much smaller, compact and homogenous and thus easier to manage. All modern European nations at one time or other had a King or Queen who was seen as the Father/Mother, grand protector of the nation. Many nations have since become democracies but the legacy of expecting central Government to help one out of a tricky situation has persisted to this day. Such a legacy never existed in America which goes a long way to explain why many Americans, including its poorest, are both suspicious of central Government and have an aversion towards receiving help from it.

Europeans are often bewildered at the abuse and bile levied at President Obama for his attempts to extend free access to medical care. In Europe, free medical care is seen as the 11th Commandment, an immutable aspect of nature itself but again, the roots of attitude, like a person, stem from its childhood and formative experiences. For an American to think like a European or vice versa, each would have had to have had the history of the other behind it.

These aspects of the American attitude towards Government often perplex the more communitarian minded European but it is good to remind one’s self that nations in many ways are like people; our personalities are formed through nature and nurture and it’s only a fool or a despot who expects one’s neighbour to be a carbon copy of him/herself.

So which is better, the American or the European way? I shall sit on the fence on this one as both have their advantages and disadvantages which are well documented. I am merely trying to attempt to explain the differences as best I can and I see them. When we explore the reasons behind the why, then we begin to nip the bitter buds of xenophobia, racism and jingoism. Only then we realise that no nation has the right to point the finger at the other and say ‘Don’t do it like that, let me in and I’ll show you how it’s done’ but I do believe that the exception should be in cases where people are being systemically and physically harmed by tin-pot dictators. In such cases, humanitarian intervention is justified but I am sure this is a matter of debate and again beyond the scope of this essay.

So back to my decision to move to North America to write.

I have a deep and long lasting appreciation of American writing both factual and fiction. Fitzgerald for his languid language and exposition of character and beautifully crafted and controlled narrative documenting the ascent, disillusionment and decline of one man’s wish to pursue the American Dream.

Hemingway  for his muscular, sinewy yet insightful prose.

Steinbeck for his exposition of the truth. My particular favourite is ‘Travels with Charley’, a travelogue about his camper-van road trip through rural America. Every sentence a pure joy of description and insight into the human condition.

Hunter S Thompson for his single handed invention of the literary style of Gonzo Journalism. His literary documentary ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ is an acidic, accurate, warts and all depiction of both the minutiae and the broad strokes of the 1972 Democratic Party Presidential Candidate nomination process that reads like the political equivalent of watching sausages being made. Unpleasant but peculiarly intriguing.

Cornell Woolrich for his dark tales of how life can turn into roads of despair at the turn of seemingly innocuous events. Chilling in their realism and makes one do a double-take of the paths and decisions taken in one’s own life.

Michael Connolly for his Harry Bosch detective stories where LA is a character in its own right, weaving its anxious fabric through the fabric of narrative.

Frank Bill and his modern day classic ‘The Crimes of Southern Indiana’, a collection of connected short stories. A writhing, unsettling slab of beautifully and realistically written American Literary Gothic. No angels here and reader may fear to tread.

Willie Vlautin for his plain-style tales of everyday blue collar America. The humour and the struggle of the Everyman/Everywoman is sympathetically depicted without ever retreating into the easy burrows of pity and cliché. Each of the characters is a fighter. Whether or not they win is another story but it’s hard not to empathise with even the worst of them as Vlautin’s characterisation teaches us that we all have had a road to travel, some more rocky than others. Show me your nice polished shoes and I’ll show you the smooth, well tarmacced road you just walked down. Humanity runs through his narrative landscape at every turn.

I could continue but I think I’ve made my point.

It’s these authors and more who have whetted my literary appetite. I hope that living in the land they still roam, either in body or spirit, may help sculpt the shape of my own writing to come.

I will post regular missives to this blog during my time both before, during and after my Seattle extended stay and I hope all two of my followers and their dog keep in touch

 

Review of David Mark’s Debut Crime Novel “Dark Winter”

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ImageWhat doesn’t kill you makes your stronger they say. Maybe, but not for some of the poor sods in David Mark’s splendid debut novel Dark Winter.

Set in a wintry Hull in the east Riding of the giant English county of Yorkshire (The Texas of England in my book), the first of a series of murders is off young woman is hacked to death in the Cathedral during a pre Christmas Evensong in full view of the congregation. The protagonist, Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy was in attendance and was in close quarters to the murderer but the killer was too quick and slipped like sand through McAvoy’s fingers.

More murders ensue of course and are seemingly unrelated to one another except for one thread: they had all been sole survivors of past tragedies but during the course of this novel, had met their end violently in the manner from which they had hitherto escaped all those years ago.

McAvoy is Scottish, hailing from outside Edinburgh. A gentle giant with a conscience the size of a small country,  this serves as his moral compass by which he charts his course, a course from which he does not deviate either for sake of expediency or  easy life. This is the one of a few off the key planks of the conflict that exists between him, his colleagues and the top brass in the police force. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is given to Kevin Keegan-esque fits of emotion which raise an eyebrow or two when the pressure gets a little much.

He is set apart from his colleagues for being the whistleblower who blow open corrupt CID team that led to the dismissal of a Detective Superintendant and some of his erstwhile colleagues being transferred out.  Those around him don’t entirely trust or rate McAvoy. A lesser man would have skulked off to lick his wounds as a security guard or in a desk-job but McAvoy clings to his course and sails in that direction throughout the novel.

His frame is mentioned quite a few times in the novel in juxtaposition to how it belies his actual nature. Brooding, emotional, conscientious and fair. In fact, there is something of the Shrek or the Beast from Beauty fame. This character has rich deep roots in world literature and Mr Mark has expertly reinvented and renewed this character in this novel.

The dialogue is realistic, witty where appropriate and the register aligns totally to that of the characters which is a skill in itself. The narrative is well paced, never dull and the plot and how it unfolds is peeled before the reader at a rate and manner that resulted in me reading this book in two sessions. The plot twists are believable, surprises are peppered deftly without making the reader sneeze and the climax was truly a paragon of excitement, breathlessness and genuine terror as the personal life of McAvoy and that off the killer crossed paths resulting in a race against the clock and a denouement worthy of a Bond movie.

Last but not least, Hull, not exactly New York or Chicago, London or LA, proved itself a silent but brooding atmospheric character in its own right, one whose hands shapes the minds, hearts and lives of those who live there especially those in the novel itself. All places have this quality but its few authors who can skilfully transfer this to the page. Mr Mark did this in spades.

An ace book from an ace author and I commend this book to the House (spot the frustrated MP)

Dark Winter is published by Quercus and is available in paperback, hardback and eBook from Amazon

Goofy Shit – Or ‘Love in a Bus Station’


Sunshine and picnics and goofy shit like that, I see that kind of thing from afar and it all seems very nice.

But that’s for other people. These days, I just observe. I haven’t participated ever since I lost my script. I never thought of looking for a new one. I found the role I was born for but someone else pipped me at the post at the audition. It was then I decided to take a bow and leave via stage-left. I took my seat in the stalls, watching the play from a distance.

It’s ok.

Truly.

I like it here.

Ok, I’m not that ecstatic but I never get that sad and that’s the deal I’ve cut. Pretty girls may come, but pretty girl always go. That’s as sure as shit in a baby’s pants.

I remember that morning clearly, almost twenty years ago now….

*

I woke up that morning and was full of the broken promises of spring. Dead weeds and rusted supermarket trolleys fill my yard.

That’s just how it is.

I was supposed to go into work but I couldn’t be fucked. Eva was my manager and she was on always on my case. She never liked me ever since I refused to do a dumb mains check one day. This entailed crawling under every desk amongst the dust and rat nests of cables, making sure the date-label on each plug matched that of the device it was attached to.

It was unnecessary bullshit and I pointed this out but no one wanted to listen. Some even hated me for it.

I guess some people just like the security of a steady ship, regardless of its direction be it north, south, east or west.

Or even downwards.

I worked there for a year before my final year at university where I studied computer science. Sorry, I didn’t say – I worked as a junior computer programmer for BT. knew the gig was a sick one from the moment I started. I remember that first day as clearly as that time I nearly drowned when I was seven. That first morning, around ten o’clock I think it was, the entire new intake sat around a table. I looked around.

I never saw such a sorry circle of wet bags in one gathering that didn’t have the banner ‘Baptist Youth for Christ’ outside the front door.  Short back and sides, glasses and blue shirts and good old Ulster standard-issue double-chins a plenty.

A manager, Mike Lee sat in the middle.

He reminded me of then Home Secretary, Michael Howard. He did have something of the night about him too.

He laughed at his own lame jokes. His eyes darted from side to side. He was one of the scariest people I had ever met. His head looked like a shark that pulled the skin of man’s head over itself.

I then noticed everyone’s suits.

All dark.

Well cut.

Identical.

Unlike mine.

I was bumming around home that summer and hadn’t two farts of a starved rat to rub together. After a hot and heavy June and July spent chasing my best friend’s sister, a letter arrived from BT’s Engineering Centre.

Dear Mr Paulson, your employment will commence on Monday August 2nd. Please arrive at Royston House at 9am sharp.

I had no suit and I had no tie.

Dad lent me a few hundred quid and within days, I was back in Belfast, with a holdall and my Dad’s old grey suit.

The same old grey suit I now wore. It’s hard to say how I felt except I felt like a twenty-one year old man wearing an ill-fitting suit that belonged to a sixty year old man who was born in the 1930’s.

I stuck out like a poor thumb.

A series of senior computer programmers then came into the room to give very austere messages about the hundred and one ways I could be fired.

I listened intently for all the wrong reasons.

After a buffet lunch of finger food and stilted conversations, a series of managers came into the room to claim each of the new intakes for their own. One by one, I saw each of the mice being carried off in the talons of a grey suited hawk to some even greyer part of the building where they eagerly started a life of waiting for retirement and death

It’s the done thing.

It’s called aspiration.

Then Eva came in. She was one of the few women in the joint but to say she was a rose in a garden of thorns, well that would have been a lie. I used to nickname the office The Cactus, full of sap on the inside, full of pricks on the outside and my golly wasn’t she the sharpest prick of them all.

She never did take to me.

I was her second assignment. The first one under her charge was a born-again silver-spooner and the sun of Christ did shine from his perfect little arse. I was a rough cut and I didn’t fit into this beach of bland sand and smoothed down pebbles. She spent the rest of the year throwing acidic comments at how wonderful he was whenever I was in earshot. I guess she was trying to sprinkle my path with broken glass but she didn’t bank on my wearing Doctor Martens.

Sometimes, only sometimes, I felt something sharp but I never looked down. Pain goes away in the end, no matter how deep it is.

My first task was to write a price comparison program that compared the price of business and domestic phone calls between BT and Mercury Communications.

Nothing I did was ever good enough and holes were picked where there was no fucking fabric to pick a hole in. My year was spent pretty much in this vein of having my self-respect being slowly sucked into this vortex of soul destruction.

It was November when I met Sharon.

I was down visiting my folks in my hometown that weekend and it was the Sunday night bus back to the big city. My Dad dropped me off and sped on. I wanted to be there early to be first in the queue and to smoke a few Marlboro lights and have a good think. Most of my thoughts were about leaving but I was the first in the family to go to University and leaving would have broken my mother’s heart. Poor mother. She thought I was a little Bamber Gascoigne or a Stephen Fry, dressed in tweeds having erudite conversations with high minded people in the ante-rooms of libraries. Little did she know I was heading for a first class honours degree in alcoholism, debt and playing Russian-roulette with VD.

I had smoked a few cigarettes while sitting under the plastic hood of the bus shelter when I realised that it was only five minutes to departure. No one else was in the queue. It didn’t seem right. By now, the place would have been heaving with students and strange looking men with grey drawn faces who looked like they had cut out their trouser pockets and liked to sit beside young men.

But I was alone until Sharon arrived.

It was freezing cold. I was wearing a shirt, a jumper and a thick grey coat but the cold, like ill-will, always finds a way inside. The first thing I noticed about Sharon was how ill-dressed she was for the weather. She looked like a pretty icicle. She wore a skimpy white blouse that looked more like a christening gown and a thin PVC bum-freezer. I never saw a girl look more innocent in my entire life.

Looking back, I think I just wanted to meet an angel.

I asked her if she’d like a coffee and she said ok. The town was still a stranger to Sunday opening so the only place that was open was the Royal Arms Hotel, right in the middle of Main Street.

Inside the lobby, I remember how reassuringly brown the whole place was. The carpets, the walls, the furnishings. No-one objects to brown. It’s the colour no one loves. Funny how lowest common denominators are never really that common at all. It’s what’s left when what everyone really wants is taken away.

We talked about the music we liked. She liked Blur. I liked Depeche Mode. She didn’t like them because they wore leather jackets. I let it go. God knows what leather jackets reminded her off. I was old enough to realise that foibles are never chosen. We talked about the friends we had and what we did and what we wanted to do when we grew up. I was twenty-two and she was nineteen. To be frank, nearly twenty years later, I’m still waiting to grow up.

I checked my watch. Time had slipped quickly like a drunken bum in an ice-rink. It was nearly time for the bus. We hot-footed it to the station and boarded just in the nick of time. It was packed out and there were no double seats left so we had to sit on different parts of the bus for that ninety minute journey.

I have to tell ya that those ninety minutes felt like a thousand years. I kept looking behind me to where she was sitting to see her face. She must have been staring at me the whole time for every time I looked over my shoulder, there she was, looking right back at me.

When the bus pulled in, I made my way out onto street and waited for her. Down the steps she came. I asked her if she was cold. She said she wasn’t but I know a shiver when I see one.

So I took off my grey overcoat and draped it over her shoulders. She looked up me from under her eyes, smiling a thank you to me.

You’re welcome, angel I smiled back. Sometimes words break the spell. There was little magic in my life and I was damned if I wasn’t going to bottle that dust-devil of a feeling.

This was the early nineties and mobile phones were still the stuff of the TV show Tomorrow’s World. I lived in shitty shared house in the student quarter but at least it had a landline. We swapped numbers but she told me she lived in Bangor, twenty miles away. Neither of us owned a car but there was a decent enough train service so we agreed to meet the next day. I walked her to Botanic train station and we waited only fifteen minutes until her train pulled in. We embraced and kissed before I had to let her go.

Man that sucked.

It was a Sunday and I realised that I hadn’t booked the next day off but I hadn’t taken any sick days so I thought fuck it and spent that evening in my room smoking weed and listening to Radio One, counting the seconds until I fell asleep so I could time travel to Monday double quick.

Around midnight, after Bob Harris whispered good night, I crashed out.

The next day, I phoned in sick, using the best dreary woe-is-me-phone-in-sick voice I could muster. No-one talks like that when they really are sick. I hammed it up so much I nearly tasted bacon. Eva said see you tomorrow in a downbeat I-know-you’re-bullshitting-but-I-don’t-care kinda voice.

I ran down the Stranmillis Road, through Botanic Gardens and all the way down to the train station. I was forty minutes early for the train but I couldn’t wait. I chain smoked like a chimney on fire.

The train pulled in and I hopped on. It was 10:40am. There weren’t too many people on the carriage apart from myself. A well dressed elderly man in green corduroy trousers, checked dark twill shirt and matching tie and brown tweed jacket was reading the Newsletter. In the seat to my left across the aisle was a fat dude in a tracksuit, deafening himself with that rave racket that passed for music. No harm to him but he looked like he would do himself a favour by losing the map to Mickey D’s now and then.

The sound of thump-thump leaked from his ninety-nine pence headphones like an aural oil-spill and it was rapidly drowning the cormorants of my good humour.

I cast him a glare.

He returned a smile.

He then started nodding his head in time to the music and closed his eyes and sank into chav-reverie.

I sighed and resigned myself to the train-travellers hazard of Other Passengers and looked out the window as the train cut through the city like a voyeur’s knife, passing by endless rows of unkempt backyards and curtainless windows.

Half an hour later, the train pulled into Bangor train station. I glanced over at the raver dude. He was reading a book. It looked quite thick. I was impressed. I got up and I noticed the edges were coloured gold.  He looked up and smiled again.

Fuck me; this dude wants to be my friend. He lifted the book and showed to me while removing his headphones.

“The Bible” he lisped.

“Uh huh”

“I’m a friend of Jesus”

“Uh huh”

I grabbed my bag and scurried off like a mouse in front of a dozy cat. Strange country.

Her you can find Jesus in the strangest of places. They should twin this hellhole with Alabama and be done with it.

I found a cluster of BT and Mercury payphones inside the terminal building so I went to one of the Mercury ones on principle. I lifted the handset and rummaged in my pocket for a clatter of silver and shoved a bunch of ten and twenty pence pieces through the slot. I then reached inside my jacket pocket and took out her number that was written on a folded white envelope.

I memorised it and dialled.

“Hello” answered an old lady.

Sharon boarded with an old lady.

I said hello and introduced myself and asked to speak to the girl.

“I’m sorry but she moved out last night”

I explained that I only met her the day before in my hometown and that we arranged to meet.

“I’m sorry young man but she’s moved in with her friend Chris on Dufferin Avenue. I can give you her address if you can wait a moment”

My mouth dried up. I think all its moisture went to the palms of my hands. I felt sick.

“She never mentioned this”

“She never mentioned it to me neither. She told me this morning after breakfast. She packed her case and called a cab and off she went. I have to admit, I was a little surprised. She is usually quite a sensible girl for her age. She came downstairs, had her toast and cup of tea like she always does. Then she told me. I didn’t know she had a friend Chris. Do you know him?”

“No, I don’t”

“Oh, well, I hope he’s good to her but I do worry. Well, she left a forwarding address. Let me go to my address book”

I thanked her and waited.

Dufferin Avenue.

Nicknamed Sufferin’ Avenue. Twinned with Skidsville. A lost soul of a street full of the lost souls who wash up on its rocks from their shipwrecked lives. A half-way house between here and hell. Runaways, dropouts, on the runs, ex-children’s home kids who make the mistake of turning eighteen and have stopped being cute.

And my angel face.

What the hell was going on I wondered. I repeated this question to myself like a neurotic mantra.

The old lady returned to the phone and gave me a house number.

21c

Dufferin Avenue. To this day it’s the kind of place where every address ended in a letter.

I thanked the old lady and slammed down the phone. I didn’t bother retrieving the change. I heard the coins fall into the tray like a win on a fruit machine but I sure didn’t feel like a winner.

Anything but.

I couldn’t waste a second.

I ran out of the terminal building and saw a taxi rank to the right. I jumped into the cab at the head of the queue and gave the driver the address.

Minutes later I was in Dufferin Avenue. I had never seen it before but its notoriety preceded it.

Now it was in front of me.

Jesus Christ. The Devil has a colony.

It didn’t me long to find 21c. The front door had seen better days. It was once painted blue but now long chipped and weather worn. Two of the six glass panels were broken and replaced with cardboard. One of them had the Kellogg’s Frosties logo facing outwards. I couldn’t help thinking of the policeman’s elbow that punched the glass in to enter the building on the way to find a body.

It has been known.

Bangor, a glamorous ex-beauty-queen of a sea-side town who no-one has had the nerve to tell that the pageant ended years ago. It sits on the Ards coast like an aging divorcee in a party-dress with a moth-ball still stuck to its hem.

The grand old townhouses had long since been degentrified. The wealthy had moved up the road to Cultra and Helen’s Bay and the vacuum was filled by property developers with a hard-on for multi-occupancy and Housing Benefit cheques. Each building was divvied up into a rat’s nest of bedsits and studios. A plastic sub-city of blue and black council bins sat outside each building on the street like an out-door mausoleum of punk-rock penguins.

Litter would have looked better.

I looked for the buzzer for 21c.Beside the lock was a plastic mount with each of the flat numbers written on a small piece of light green cardboard.

I buzzed and waited.

Seconds later, I heard a door opening from inside the building followed with a shamble of voices, followed by the sounds of feet thudding down a thin-carpeted stairwell. The shape of a person fell upon the opaque glass panels on the front door.

The door opened.

It was angel face.

She looked at me as if I was February the thirtieth.

“What, I mean, how did you find me?”

“Your landlady told me”

She pursed her lips and looked uncomfortable.

“She told you about Chris then”

“Uh huh. News to us both”

She looked so sheepish she could’ve grown wool.

“Chris, he’s upstairs. Do you want to come in?”

“Is he your boyfriend?”

“No” she whimpered, looking down at her feet.

Disappointment has morphed into curiousity. I wanted to meet this Chris character and see what he had to offer that I didn’t.

She led me upstairs, and I remember more than anything else..

The Smell.

It was a dog’s cocktail of old takeaways, rancid booze and damp. A bomb would have been an act of mercy. The staircase was as I imagined, 1970’s remaindered carpet and peeling wallpaper. We turned a corner and she led me into her flat.

And that’s where I met Chris. A fine figure of a man if you are thinking of the number 8, font size thirty.

Comic Sans Serif

He sat on the sofa in a tee-shirt and boxer shorts eating noodles from a paper plat. The TV was on at a low volume. The cheerful sunny English voices of the presenters provided much needed dissonance to the situation.

“Jack, this is Chris”

“Hi Chris”. Those words dragged their feet from my throat like hungry soldiers returning to a losing war.

He still didn’t speak. He just stared at me and then looked at the TV. I looked at angel-face.

“What’s going on?”

She didn’t say a word but the silence said it all.

I nodded a silent goodbye and saw myself out.

*

Later that day I returned to the city and sat down by myself on a park bench in Botanic Gardens. I opened my bag and took out the picnic I made for two. I spent the afternoon people watching, thinking and smoking.

I noticed the flower beds. They were pretty but flowers are only beautiful when you’re happy.

The daffodils seemed peculiarly vulnerable; their bright yellow heads sitting on long tall stalks like the refined heads of refined women on refined necks that begged for hungry, hungry kisses.

I was starting to get hungry and I looked at the food I had prepared but it didn’t seem right to eat it.  I didn’t prepare it for me.

It was for me and her.

I left the lunchbox on the bench, looking around to make sure no one saw me. I didn’t want some well-meaning stranger chase after me shouting ‘hey, your lunch box’. I didn’t want the lunchbox. I filled it with hope and now its contents had gone bad.

Disappointment.

That’s one smell I never did learn to wash away completely.

It hangs around like the smell of a lonely guest with nowhere else to go but your spare room.

I went home and flopped out on my bed and fell asleep.

*

The next day, I returned to work, back to what I know.

Back to a land of benweed and nettles.

At least I know they’re real.

I never did see Sharon again. She’d be in her late thirties now.

I hope.

Hidden Gems of London: The Cellar Door, Aldwych, London

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Close your eyes and imagine London without its dark little secrets.

Can you?

No?

Don’t worry, why would you want to. To imagine such a London is like imagining a family without its drug-addled aunts and uncles no one speaks off.  What would be the point?  It would be a little dull indeed.

The Cellar Door jazz bar on Essex Street, just a couple of blocks south of Covent Garden, is certainly one of the most decadent little secrets in town as not many people seem to know about it which is a shame in some ways but selfishly, I was a little pleased about this. It occupies a tiny subterranean converted space that once was a Victorian gentleman’s convenience.  

 The entrance is quite non  descript and in fact, unless you knew it was there, you could scurry past it many times without knowing it was there. In fact, I had mistaken it for the entrance to some underground construction site as you can see below:

CELLARDOOR1

My friend and I indeed walked past this spot several times looking for it at night until I saw a remarkably well dressed man descend down the steps at 7pm. Either he was a ghost or someone who didn’t mind getting his threads dirty in an underground sewer. I deduced he was neither and on closer inspection, I saw a very small poster on one of the perspex panels. It was then I knew we had found the right spot.

We made our way down and through the black doors and into a world of black sobrieny and shimmering rose-red where we were greeted by a hostess who took us to our table. The interior decor put me in mind of all those 1920’s Berlin and 1950’s Soho cabaret clubs that we have seen in dozens of movies and retro-television depictions but a lot smaller. At first, it seemed a lot bigger but the far walls were decked in floor to ceiling mirrors that gave a false but welcome sense of roominess otherwise it would have felt a little claustrophobic.

Just enough room to swing a cat in more than ways than one.

We took our seats. There were only a dozen or so people in. A mixture of city girls catching up with one another over salads, night time prowlers, couples, city types, office workers delaying the homebound train until as late as possible and two very intense looking Chinese businessmen with white shirts open and ties so distressingly undone that they looked like tightly coiled wires of stress.

We were there for the evening’s entertainment, Kitty La Roar and Nick of Time in the longstanding Kit Kat Kabaret evening of decadant jazz and swing. The black curtains in the corner were opened to reveal Nick on keyboards, a saxophonist and Kitty herself.

She looked like Betty Draper from Madmen meets Marilyn Monroe. She looked every inch the tragic bottle blonde. Her mannerisms, facial expressions and stance were almost cartoonlike in their faithful representation of the eras that her chosen musical genre incubated in. I dont mean that in a negative way however. I had felt I had timetravelled to that certain past of the smoked-filled 20th century and had come face to face with one of it’s citizen femmes fatales.

The lights dimmeds, the cocktails were served, the ice cubes chattered and the music started.

Jazz and swing standards, infused with experimentation, improvisation and original numbers filled the next couple of hours with the most perfectly and enigmatically executed jazz and swing performance I have seen for a very long time. These were artists at the top of their field.  Being at close quarters magnified the force of the impact. This was an evening of sultry, sexy jazz in a sumptious, glitzy little cabal of a retro yet sleek winebar. As the evening wore on, more people melted in from the outside and I think there were no more than forty people present at any one time.

Kitty La Roar is no work-a-day jazz singer. She has performed for Hugh Hefner and Prince Ranier of Monico as well as much bigger audiences. I doubt very much Kitty La Roar is her real name but I want it to be her real name.

She seemed to much in character to be a real person. I couldnt imagine her shopping for ready meals in a Tesco Metro or queuing up to have her gas card being topped up. She only comes into existence when the lights go down and the music strikes up. She does not come on stage but is conjured. She doesn’t so much as perform but embody a bygone age and sling it into the far future which we occupy right now.  Her highheels, each a dagger that has speared a man’s heart or twenty, sharpening on each and every note ready for the next lady-kill.

She was jazz. She was swing. She was night-time itself.

Later on that night, an older man sat down in front of me. He wore a shades, a hat and what looked like a sheepskin jacket. Many people made their way to him to greet and pay homage to him. I have no idea who he was but he seemed to be a face. My friend and I exchanged many postulations and imaganeerings of who he might be. A gangster, an impressario, a major artist?

Who knows and I don’t want to know. In my mind he was presumed-dead gangster who faked his own death and only spends his time amongst a small coterie of the entrusted. Who were these people? He was adulated by scruff and Savile-row alike before they slinked back to their seats moments later.

At around eleven, the performance segued to its conclusion and fini.

My friend and I had trains to catch so with sadness, we gathered our coats, scarves and bags and left and made our way back to the real world above. I emerged too quickly as I felt the  onset of artistic bends forming bubbles in my blood.

How the cold air of this February evening felt like the kiss of an aunt hot on the heels of being kissed by a vampiress.I’ve always maintained that the singular fatal flaw of addiction is that it opens up the doors of rooms that are beautiful but forbidden and it’s the devil himself to leave them. Sure, we can leave them but the memory of their evil splendour can never be got rid off.

That was how I felt on my way to Covent Garden tube station, snaking through the snakes and dancing past the detritus of the night. I kissed my friend goodbye as she went eastwards on the Jublilee and I westwards to Green Park. On my way back to my hotel,  I felt deflated at being flung back into the arms of the ordinary world I had only a few hours earlier, took leave off but yet I was still in a mellow haze and I never felt so chilled out in such a long time.

Jazz like that beats valium any day of the month.

A mesmorizing performance and only for a tenner entrance fee too and the drinks menu was surprisingly reasonable in price.

So, you might be wondering, is held on the other nights of the week. At the time of this going to press, The Cellar Door plays host to burlesque, drag nights, Saturday afternoons of ‘High Tea and Tease’ which includes card games and magic and open-mic night on Tuesdays.

CELLARDOOR2

 

If you love jazz or the sultry-but-ever-so-slightly-seedy but in a respectable and safe and kosher setting, I cannot recommend The Cellar Door enough. I will be setting many scenes in this bar in my next novel such was my inspiration.

As I alluded to earlier in this review, I get the impression not many people know about this place. It’s a shame but like that free car parking spot you found that’s handy to work, why spoil it by telling everyone.

My many many thanks to my dear friend Fiorina for recommending this! It always takes an Italian to recognise a class act I always say!

 Visit: http://www.cellardoor.biz

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Abraham Lincoln – A Warning From the Past


“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country … Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavour to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

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Review : Ex Libris Macabre by Theatre Delicatessen, Marylebone, London


 A Night of Dark Fairytales.

It was a cold, bright Monday morning in Lambeth oexlibrisverlooking the grounds of the Imperial War Museum when it struck me that I’d like to spend the evening exploring or attending or immerse myself in the presence of something dark, something fantastical, something enigmatic and ever so slightly Goth.

A tall order at the best of times. My mind was so whetted by attending a showing of the director’s cut of The Shining the night before at the British Film Institute. I’ve seen the movie before but not on the silver screen nor in its original full length glory.

The move ended sometime around 11pm I think and we wandered out to the walkway along the Southbank. It was a freezing cold night and for London, it was eerily quiet. God knows where the rest of the audience had scurried off to as everyone seemed to have melted into the ether, nearest bar or underground.

We walked along the Thames, that cold viscous slab of trembling black silk, flowing forever behind some unseen bride like a never ending train of a never ending wedding-dress, vanishing into indistinct points behind distant buildings. Along the sidings, bare branches  glittered like the wistful chintz memories of long forgotten friends  and long spent better times past.  

In the distance, noises, almost whimpers of unseen vehicles and people floated past and melted away like the cries of ghosts that still talk of St Giles and have never heard of Oxford Street.

It was in this dark and gothic conceit that I fell into trance and later into a slumber.

It was in this mood that I woke up the following morning.

I logged on and did some investigation and within minutes on the Timeout app, I came across this gem, and I quote:

Ex Libra Macabre by Theatre Delicatessen, 25 Marylebone High Street, London.

This immersive theatre experience builds a world of storytelling and performance. Step through an ancient library of stories and poems where tales of ancient curses, fateful card games, ghostly spirits and blood red roses are brought to life. Where everything is not quite as it seems and there are hidden depths all around you.

As you can imagine, dear reader, the hook had hooked me and I made the booking.

[Later that evening…]

We arrived at a building, 35 Marylebone High Street. It wasn’t a theatre as such but a disused suite of offices where the BBC once occupied. After a drink at the bar on the ground floor, we were all led upstairs to a room where we were greeted by a young lady who invited us to write a poem about Christmas and to hang it on the rather restrained and unadorned Christmas Tree that stood like an unmarried elder sister behind the little crowd who had just gathered.

After some nervous getting-to-know-you laughter and small talk and the passing off biscuits that everyone felt too cool to take and be seen eating, a young lady dressed in a black cat-suit sang a beautiful song. I sadly forget what the song was about but it was simply stunningly beautiful. Then we were led into another, much larger room that was more dimly lit.

Now for the night-proper.

The audience sat in chairs around left and back wall of the room. At the far corner sat the sound engineer and in the middle, the players. The players were dressed in what I can describe as Japanese-looking kimono-meet-karate-meets-leisure wear.

The first act of the night was a spine-chilling incantation of Alfred Noye’s poem The Highwayman. I have to state the room was the size of an average office and the action took place within feet  of the audience (which numbered around 15 or thereabouts). The poem was recited with relish, vigour and passion and it brought to life the story of the doomed highwaymen in a way I had never experienced before. I had encountered the poem a long time ago as a school-boy in a time when poems were dispensed by unimaginative teachers in much the same way as chemists dispensed cough-mixture.

I forget the order of the rest of the show but the following montage of poems/songs/stories were subject to the most spine-chilling, evocative and empathetic rendition, accompanied by percussion and other instrumentation which laced the evening with a darkly romantic twist like a black ice-cube in a tall thin glass of cold, crisp gin served while the lights dim at midnight:

 David Bowie – ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’

Florence and the Machine  – ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’

The Decemberists – ‘The Rake’s Song’

Angela Carter – The Tiger’s Bride

Edgar Allan Poe – The Raven

American Traditional ‘ You Will Be My Ain True Love’

And one of tales of the Brothers Grimm

 If I be pushed to name my favourite, it would have been ‘The Rake’s Song’ where the male singer depicted the role of a young man who went to the electric chair for poisoning his wife. The original version by The Decemberists is quite tense and raucous but this rendition was a more sombre affair accompanied by re-enactment of the narrative of the lyrics without ever seeming contrived in any way.

The evening ended, sadly and we once again ventured out into a cold December night in London. Black cabs and brave cyclists whizzed by, pedestrians scurried to and fro around us. For all they knew, we had just left the office for the night.

Little did they know and how little we knew about them.

I commend this show to you and if you can get to this gem of dark romanticism, I wholeheartedly suggest you do and do it soon before its run ends.

You will be delighted.

Darkly of course.

 http://www.theatredelicatessen.co.uk/productions/ex-libris-macabre/

 @ExLibrisMacabre

www.facebook.com/DarkFairytaleShow

With:

  • Jade Alexander
  • Sonia Allan
  • Akie Kotabe
  • Tom Judd
  • Liz McMullen

Director: Joe Thorpe

Tysk, Nemet, Tedesco, Němčina

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If you are one of these, Italians would call you a “tedesco”. If you are one of these, Hungarians would call you a “Nemet” and in Czech Republic, a “Němčina”

In Norway, a “Tysk”, in Finland a “Saksa” (probably derived from Saxon) and in Lithuania, you would be a “Vokietijos”

My word! Or should I say, my many words!

So what am I then?

A German

That’s right. All these wonderful exotic and etymologically varies words mean “German” in the respective tongues I mention above.

As a etymological hobbyist, I find that this variation of the national adjectival form to be quite unusual and will be the subject of private study- the results of which I will post here in the near future.

To be continued…..

Book Review : Raymond Chandler – A Life by Tom Williams

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ImageTom Williams has embarked on a very daring literary journey in writing a biography of a man whose life seemed to have been definitively covered  by Frank McShane’s seminal 1976 biography ‘The Life of Raymond Chandler’.  

So whither ‘A Mysterious Something in the Light’ ? Is this biography the equivalent of stealing into the orchard at night after the fruit pickers have gone home for the day?

You would be forgiven for thinking so but let me assure you that, this is not the case with this particular biography. Chandler was highly complex individual whose personal life, work and psyche were a byzantine nest of subterranean tunnels that to this days, decades after his death, still retain many darkly virgin coal seams of uncovered facts and secrets that shine a new light into the many shadowy corners of one Raymond Chandler, iconic and pioneering mystery and crime writer of the early to mid twentieth century.

Chandler was born to Maurice and Florence Chandler  nee Thornton in Chicago 1888. Florence was originally from Waterford, Ireland and from rather comfortably-off Anglo-Irish Quaker stock. Maurice was an American engineer. Mother and father were ill suited.  He was unreliable and prone to alcoholism and violence. In 1900, Florence after having given her failing marriage many chances, decided enough was enough and returned to Waterford with the twelve year Raymond.

But this was not a typical Irish family by any means. The Anglo-Irish fell between two cultural stools. They were not Gaelic but descended from wealthy English landowners who didn’t see themselves as Irish yet they were not quite English.

A people lost between nations.

Soon after, he and his mother left for London where he was educated at Dulwich College where he thrived and remained until 1904. It was here that Chandler decided to become a writer but his first ventures into literary waters were not the crime or mystery that he’s known for but pastiches of Arthurian/Chivalric legend

Not quite American, not quite Irish, not quite English, Chandler harboured a sense of being an outsider, not quite belonging. This was one of many shadows from his childhood that cast a long umbra for the rest of his life.

The young Chandler had enough and left the emotional safety of his life with his mother Florence and returned to America where he believed he could reinvent himself and start anew.

Like many young men of perhaps a sheltered upbringing, the First World War thrust them into corners of the world that they otherwise would not have seen, shaping Chandler’s persona further. He had worked in a succession of dull office jobs which reminds of what Orwell wrote in Keep the Aspidistra Flying ‘Why are young men condemned to a good job in an office’? However during this time, Chandler was writing poetry and had his first tastes of literary success in the long forgotten Chamber’s Journal, still couched in the vein and influence of Arthurian legend.

Chandler joined the Canadian army. His decision was actuarial as the US army would not pay to support his mother, Florence if he were killed. Chandler returned to Europe where he saw front line action in the trenches. He made it through the war, physically at least and in 1918, joined the RAF before being demobbed in 1919 and returned to LA where he fatefully fell in love with the woman who was shape the rest of his adult life, Cissy Pascal, 18 years his senior.

The ravages of war had turned the young Raymond to an alcoholic albeit a seemingly high-functioning one.

“When I was a young man in the RAF, I would get so plastered that I had to crawl to bed on my hands and knees”

But now married and established as a high flying oil executive and moved to Los Angeles during the era of Prohibition, a tense and edgy era where corruption and organised crime were born and grew quickly in a dark symbiosis which coloured every strand of the civic and social fabric of the precocious new upstart of a city. It was during this time that Chandler’s fingers were burned by the flames of an attractive investment scam namely that of Julian Petroleum. It was both this direct and other indirect news items of injustice that gave form and shape to the noir sensibilities of corruption that became the hallmark of his most famous works.

His alcoholism became more noticeable during this time and indulged in extramarital affairs which led to a short-lived separation between Chandler and his wife Cissy. They got back together but his troubles with the bottle and the negative effect it had on his mood and behaviour had a large part to play in his eventual firing from his oil executive post in 1931. He was 43 but this cloud had a silver lining and gave him the impetus to focus on his writing full-time.

It was a financially challenging time, living on  $25. This is the equivalent to $462 per week in today’s money according to  http://www.usinflationcalculator.com. Not a sum that allowed a couple to indulge in luxury and life was pretty meagre but it was an auspicious time as this was the heyday of the new pulp magazines that captured the nation’s imagination, one of the most famous being The Black Mask. It was establish in the early 1920’s but steadily grew in reputation and circulation, its stories being steeped in the realism that its readership craved. Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner were regular contributors, such was the pedigree. Their work drew its realism from Hammett’s work as a real life private detective and Stanley’s own law practice. Chandler did not have this advantage but he used his imagination and knowledge of the crookedness of Los Angeles to whet and hone his literary style.

1939 saw the publication of his first novel The Big Sleep followed by Farewell, My Lovely in 1940, novels which introduced Philip Marlowe to the world. It was his second novel that caught Hollywood’s eye when it was produced as but morphed into the 1944 film Murder My Sweet in the US but released under the original name in the UK.

Despite his novels having stirred up rumours of repressed homosexuality, literary success and acclaim followed leading to a spell as a Hollywood screenwriter where he had a very uneasy working relationship with Billy Wilder which nevertheless, led to the production of the stylistic and cinematically acclaimed Double Indemnity in 1944. Chandler later worked with Hitchcock but their relationship was strained. Alcoholism seems to draw a veil of taciturnity over every aspect of Chandler’s life and poisoned most of his key working relationships which should have been more fruitful.

In 1946, Chandler left Paramount, disenchanted and indignant of the many perceived dishonourable practices he witnessed and partook in.  He and Cissy returned to La Jolla in California where he wrote two further novels The Long Goodbye and the not so well known Playback. However he was unable to replicate his original happiness there. Old friends and associates were no longer there and Chandler entered a period of introspection and detachment, exacerbating his increasing penchant for misanthropic grumpiness – a vicious circle.

In 1952, the Chandlers realised their long held dream of visiting London but Cissy was in poor health and the London of their daydreams was a disappointment in its realisation such as the still extant expectation of formal etiquette, something that the more relaxed culture of California had allowed Chandler to forget. However, he did discover that he was more respected as an artist and writer in England than in his adopted American homeland

‘In England I am an author. In the USA just a mystery writer’ he wrote to Paul Brooks.

After two months, the Chandlers returned to the US but Cissy became frailer.

In 1954, Cissy died and Chandler entered into a period of ever quickening decline. A paucity of literary output of any worth and a string of short lived and some bizarre love affairs were the background to his increasing alcoholism which reached terminal point in 1959 when he died in hospital.

Tom Williams, the author and latest Chandler biographer, has performed a worthy, lucid and very well written exercise in judiciously mining of rich seams of new found fact and epistolary evidence and has given new and refreshed insight into the man and surprisingly remarkably detailed information on the genesis and development of his craft as well as the trajectory of his somewhat mixed up, chaotic personal life. The prose is quite workmanlike but it lets the facts speak for themselves. Williams does pepper this biography with conjecture of Chandler’s thoughts and situational analysis where direct evidence may not exist but nevertheless, it is intelligently based on the ample evidence that Williams has dug up and there is little doubt in my mind that it is as near the mark as any biographer could come up with bar a time machine.

This is an excellent biography and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and savouring it.  Chandler like most literary heroes was a terribly flawed man but his canon mitigates this and thank goodness it is his literary reputation that eclipses his foibles and faults.

 

(I received this book courtesy of Rhian Davies @crimeficreader  & http://itsacrime.wordpress.com )

 

 

I have a Kindle So Why Did I Buy a New Paperback?

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I have a kindle.
A lot of people do.
Big deal you may say.
That’s fair enough but today I deliberately bought two paperbacks in Waterstones. I could have bought them over my wifi link and download to my kindle but I chose not to.

Why?
Am I turning into a Luddite?
Absolutely not!
The thing is, no matter what wizardry there is in this brave new world, at the end of the day, I’m an aesthete and a physical entity and I do prefer to hold a book, feeling that cold crispness of a fresh virgin page, get heady on the scent of its perfume, admire the cover art and ultimately take it home

While there is a future for eBooks, a happy equilibrium will be established within the decade.

Paper can lie down with the eReader.

Hardbacks, folios, collectors editions and the like will still be available as perhaps gifts etc with a code to allow one to download the electronic equivalent.

The difference between a paper book and an ebook is really the difference between sex and phone sex. One is preferable but sometimes expediency wins out. Not that that’s a personal endorsement of the latter but merely a personal opinion of an observed reality of the modern world.

I buy eBooks and I buy paper books.

Sometimes I’m an aesthete, sometimes I’m not.