Friday, June 25, 2010



My complimentary copy of the new Gray Friar Press anthology, Where the Heart is, arrived today. In fact it arrived several days ago but I didn't get the chance to pick it up until now because my mailing address isn't the same as my home address. To plug this anthology I took two photos that treat the anthology title as if it's a question that needs answering rather than a statement that doesn't. I tend to do things like that, I don't know why. An anthology of stories set in the home towns of British writers is a fine book to purchase and own; I would like to see its guiding concept extended to include the countries and cities of the European Union.

My contribution to that anthology is 8 years old, but I have been writing lots of short stories recently. Ideas keep coming and just won't stop. Indeed I feel that my brain is on the verge of overload. Unintentionally I have also started writing a new novel called The Young Dictator. Exactly when I'll find the time to return to The Pilgrim's Regress and Ditto & Likewise, my two abandoned books from 2008, is anyone's guess. Not this summer, that's for sure!

One of the stories I am currently working on is called 'Discrepancy' and it seeks to justify and rectify all the mistakes in all my other stories. This is a simpler and more creative solution than revising those earlier stories. 'Discrepancy' will also nip in the bud any mistakes that might crop up in future stories. By 'mistakes' I actually mean one specific problem: the fact that I have invented a large cast of recurring characters operating over large spans of time and space and that some of those characters have ended up being in more than one place at the same moment or even dying more than once in different circumstances. Clearly there is a consistency issue...

My solution is to arrange for all my characters to possess at least one puppet double, so that any discrepancies can be explained away by saying, "There are incidents in different stories that contradict each other? Ah no, one incident happened to the real character, the other incident to the puppet double." I have already utilised this escape clause openly in some tales but now I plan to extend it clandestinely to all my characters in all my tales. Certainly I will be no more aware than the reader which characters are puppets at any given time, but that's fine, I can live with that lack of knowledge. Let's just say: as a default setting they will always be the real characters until someone raises an objection by pointing out a discrepancy: only at that stage will they retroactively and conveniently become puppets.

It might be argued that my "solution" is contrived in the extreme. Indeed it is! But my attitude to the oft-invoked 'suspension of disbelief' mantra isn't the same as that of most other writers. It is closer in spirit to the attitude expressed by the great B.S. Johnson in the final part of his Albert Angelo novel. All fiction is fibs. Long live pure and unadulterated contrivance!

Friday, June 18, 2010


Porthcawl Chile (Slight Return)

First things first: I have it at last! The greatest book I can conceive of reading. The Complete Cosmicomics of Italo Calvino. Too stingy to fork out for the hardback, which I first glimpsed and fingered in an ill-fated Borders bookshop last year, I waited in the margins like a cutprice predator for the paperback. Yesterday it hove into sight and I pounced! The 'cosmicomic' tale is a genre Calvino invented in the 1960s: each piece follows a reasonably precise but unreasonably pleasing pattern, extrapolating from a hard scientific statement into a realm of extremely imaginative fantasy, keeping profundity and whimsicality in perfect balance, laying maximum stress on intellectual satisfaction and thus circumventing all the maudlin effects of orthodox 'relationship' fiction but without sacrificing poignancy or emotional involvement. Truly a magnificent achievement! This bumper volume contains every 'cosmicomic' tale Calvino ever wrote, all 34 of them distributed over 400 pages of dazzlingly inventive prose. My ultimate dream of a book indeed!

Now then. Last weekend I went back to Porthcawl, the town where I grew up, the first time since (I think) 1997 that I have been there. The main point was to do a wild camping trip somewhere other than the Gower. Just for a change, you see. The vast expanse of sand dunes directly to the east of Porthcawl was, in fact, the location of my very first wild camping trips back in the early 1980s with some of my more intrepid schoolchums. We lit bonfires and drank rum. I remember a lad by the name of Andrew Street who cast a butane gas canister onto the flames and loitered in the area until it exploded in his face, an incident that made its way into one of my rare realistic stories ('Explosion'). Without wishing to spoil the ending of that story I can report that his eyebrows and hair were singed white by the blast but he wasn't mangled...

I am older now and therefore less interested in explosions. Camp fires, however, have kept their appeal. Adele is one of the greatest fire builders in existence: she created another superb outdoor hearth from driftwood. After our hike through meadows and along country lanes and over the dunes, it was good to settle down near the blaze with wine (Hardy's Bin 53, a berry-licious little number) and food. No midnight swims, alas, as my resistance to cold water is shamefully low. Ah well! We camped in the middle of a 'fairy circle' of mushrooms and actually were visited by fairies, although on closer inspection they turned out to be moths, but for a few minutes we genuinely did believe...

Sleeping under the stars can sometimes be uncomfortable and on some camping trips I have slept like a gol, the opposite of a log, but on this occasion I enjoyed one of the most restful nights of my life. I have been reliably informed that I didn't snore. The following morning we proceeded along the beach until we reached the decaying funfair of Coney Beach, where I spent many long hours and many pocketfuls of change when I was a mere stripling. I am convinced that Coney Beach Amusement Park was an important factor in steering my interest towards the 'weird'. There is something very Ray Bradbury about the crumbling slides and rides and creaking wooden rollercoasters. Candyfloss and ghost trains, toffee apples and groaning carousels...

In Porthcawl town I went to pay homage to the house where I grew up and also the woods where I played between the ages of 3 and 10. The house is still there and still painted white; the woods are much reduced in size and surrounded by new houses but the core remains almost exactly as I remember it. For old time's sake I tried, not very successfully, to climb a tree. I practically lived in the trees when I was young! Apparently the official name of this wood is Trafalgar Wood and it was planted to commemorate Nelson's victory over the French fleet, but I never knew that back then: we called it Bluebell Wood and decided it was the 'good' wood, in contrast with the adjacent Black Wood, a tangle of hawthorn trees with extremely narrow corridor-like paths. Black Wood has now been cut down: it had an unsettling ambience about it. To test my courage I once read the first few chapters of Bram Stoker's Dracula on Halloween and then on the stroke of midnight went for a solitary walk among the twisted trees. I scared myself silly!

Moving along, I also made a brief pilgrimage to the ugly building that is Porthcawl Library. Despite its hideous architecture it's an important place for me because without it I probably would never have become the voracious reader and prolific writer that I now am. Thanks to this small library, I discovered Borges, Calvino, Barthelme, Voltaire, Nathanael West, Kafka, Nabokov, Pynchon and many other astounding authors. To return to Porthcawl again after so long was an interesting experience. Everything looked slightly different at first but then somehow condensed into familiarity. Probably I will go back soon to take a look at some of my other childhood haunts, especially the spook-infested Sker House and the magic wells of Newton and Nottage.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


My Naïveté

When I was young I was gullible in the extreme. And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. Nonetheless, it’s true. No it isn’t. Yes it is, honest. Yeah right! I assure you it is. Go tell it to the judge. I don’t know him. Go tell it to the postman. I never see him these days. Humbug! Gobstoppers!

Anyway, I was so gullible and naïve that I believed many implausible things. Some of those implausible things I invented myself, not willingly, but in the manner of analytical propositions: they popped into my head a priori as it were. Sometimes I even fell for my own rumours. For instance: a baby is not permitted by law to independently possess a sum of money greater than £1. I believed that ‘fact’ utterly, even though it was a fiscal rumour I started myself. Back then, £1 was a note, not a coin. I can still picture in my mind’s eye a pram with a baby’s hand emerging from its depths, and clutched in that hand a green note fluttering in the wind, with policemen scurrying on their way to the scene!

Most of my other implausible beliefs were empirical in origin but stemmed from a misinterpretation of real world phenomena. I assumed that Parkinson’s Disease was named after Michael Parkinson and that the chat show host was somehow the inventor of the affliction; I concluded that ‘common sense’ must be inferior to ‘rare and extinct’ sense in terms of quality and monetary worth; I guessed that sociopaths cure sociologists; that Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ wore a red cape and blue shorts; that the Delta of Venus was in Egypt and Anaïs Nin was a flavour that resembled fennel; I thought that the painter Titian was a giant (literal not cultural, made of bronze with molten blood); I assumed that Tenpole Tudor was an historical era; that pesto was a poison; that Brunei was in the Middle East (near Dubai); that chillies came from Chile; and that macramé was a type of pasta.

I felt sure that oil slicks on the road were dead rainbows; that steelworks were cloud factories; that the NSPCC stood for the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children and that the organisation must therefore be evil; that the book and film called The Postman Always Rings Twice referred to the second (afternoon) delivery; that the Eroica Symphony was naughty; that Hitler’s ‘phantom armies’ with which he planned the defence of Berlin were composed of actual ghosts: it seemed to me that he must surely win, for such troops would be endlessly reusable, like shogi pieces. Worse than all these, I misunderstood the Womble song: I thought that the lyrics were, “Wombles of Wimbledon – common are we” (in other words they’re not rare) rather than “Wombles of Wimbledon Common – are we” (a simple declaration of spatial origin).

I am still gullible and naïve. To write a blog entry admitting the fact is proof of that. Therefore I make no effort to withhold the above photograph of myself with a gullible expression. However, to balance it out, I also include a self-portrait in the opposite mode. What is the opposite of ‘gullible’? ‘Monumental’, surely? Well then, here I am also looking monumental.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Monsters of the Victorian Age #3

Musical Monsters

The vogue for musical monsters began in 1841 when Chumworth Blighter, the progressive impresario, arranged the first season of afternoon concerts in which imaginary beings were the sole performers. Prior to this achievement, common wisdom had decreed that monsters "should be screamed but not heard". Rapidly growing in popularity, recitals by monsters of music composed by monsters soon became the dominant form of acoustical entertainment in concert halls, theatres and outdoor arenas. The fad crumpled just three years later when notes H to Z inclusive, the ones most favoured by monsters, were officially removed from the octave in compliance with wide-ranging austerity measures.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Where the Heart is

Themed anthologies are always welcome. The inestimable Gray Frair Press recently issued a call for authors to submit weird stories about their home towns. The end result would be a fantastical gazetteer of modern Britain. It's a great conceit for an anthology! I was invited to submit and I responded postively at once. Any chance to present Swansea in fiction (a form that allows unpalatable truths to be explored with less risk of censure) must be seized immediately! The story I submitted is entitled 'The Cuckoos of Bliss' and is one of the darkest and bleakest and most blasphemous tales I have written in the past decade. Originally created for Bible Black, an anthology themed around quotations from the Bible that an incompetent publisher never finalised, it has been hanging around in its English form for many years, judged as "too dark" for inclusion in my subsequent short story collections.

It did appear in French (the French have always been more phlegmatic about blasphemous themes than the British) back in 2006 as 'Les Coucous de la félicité' in the Les Anges électriques anthology, but I'm delighted that it's finally going to appear in its original language. I rarely write horror stories; my own belief is that existential horror is the only kind worth creating, and that when it is too intense it can be genuinely dangerous to the soul. The stories that have most strongly affected me in this regard are some pieces by Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad and Philip K. Dick. A small number of themes are truly unbearable: for example, the fact that both eternal consciousness and eternal oblivion are equally terrible but that one of them must be our fate. 'The Cuckoos of Bliss' is about existing in a state of eternal contempt, the ultimate low for any human organism...

Where the Heart is contains stories by such fine writers as Stephen Volk, Joel Lane, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Allen Ashley, John Travis and many others. The striking cover is shown in the first picture. Because I felt sorry for the poor wounded map of Britain, I decided to apply a few plasters to the nation, hence the second picture!

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