Archives for category: 2000s

This is Pretty’s illustration for my short story The Manager Who Fell To Earth, originally published by Pulp.Net in 2003. If you’d like to read the story, click on the image.

Untitled digital photograph, 2008 (edited and treated, 2011)

Track A – Solo Dancer is the first track on Charles Mingus’ 1963 album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The album is beautifully recorded, and for me strongly evocative of  the sixties, the night and the city. It’s generally considered to be a masterpiece of jazz orchestration. It’s quite unlike any other music (I mean it’s jazz,but it has the attack of rock and the seriousness of classical whilst having a light enough touch that you could dance to it), and pulls off the neat trick of being alien and familiar at the same time. I’m not going to point you in the direction of a video or a download, because I think the album should be heard on a disc – CD or vinyl – it deserves the ritual of being “put on”.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! IMP 11742)

Untitled digital photographs, 2005

These were taken with my first digital camera, a 5MB Pentax compact. The idea was to convey a sense of unease with mundane objects – a kind of underlying terror with the everyday. The camera was never the same afterwards.

Untitled digital photograph, 2008

The following is from Chapter 13 of the novel, originally extracted for reading at a writers’ group. Chapter 13 is a big one – currently 300-400 pages long. So, a small extract…

For the first time ever she saw it rain gravel. Terence the driver fell over backwards, like a felled tree, into the mouth of the garage. She let him lie for a while then, when he didn’t get up again, Jennifer walked over to see what had happened. From the concertina metal doorway she could see him sprawled on his back, a marijuana cigarette smouldering just out of reach of his right hand. His left still held the gun.

“Are you alright?” she said.

“Jenny.” The driver didn’t move. He spoke to the ceiling.

“Yes,” she said.

The left hand laid the pistol carefully to rest on the concrete floor.

“You haven’t shot yourself have you?” she said.

Without raising his head, Terence said in a low voice, “No, I must have blanked out for a second and squeezed the trigger by accident.”

Jennifer walked smartly into the garage and ground the joint underfoot. “Naked flames: not good in a garage,” she said.

“Do me a favour. Don’t tell anyone about this,” said Terence.

“Spoilsport,” she said.

“I mean it. Tony’s very anti-drugs. If he knew I’d been smoking, he’d sack me.”

“You’re joking.”

“Please, Jenny.”

“Alright, but you owe me one big boy.” She turned on her shiny heels and left the driver where he lay.

In a moment they would all come running to see what the noise had been. Jennifer picked her way down the path between the outside wall of the garage and the moat. It ended in a dilemma. Did she step out onto the lawn, possibly alerting the inquisitive guests in the drawing room to her presence, making them wonder what she was doing there? Or did she somehow squeeze herself into the undergrowth, where ivy and brambles had been allowed to run wild, but beyond which stood a line of trees in the shade of which she could hide?

She peeked around the corner of the garage. A figure stood on the concrete terrace that adjoined the drawing room, a hand raised to its ear: Dave. Tony, who was now dressed in a silver shirt, stepped out to join him. They exchanged a few words and then the singer disappeared back inside the house. Dave tapped a number into his phone. A mobile ring-tone she had not heard before started blaring in the garage. Jennifer retreated. No way could she appear from behind the garage now. Nothing about her conduct must arouse Tony’s suspicions, not now when everything was going so well. The bramble bushes behind her were up to waist height. She had nothing with her to cut through them, and nothing obvious to hand that would act as a switch. Then she saw, lent on its side against the garage wall, a broken decorator’s plank. It was damp and slimy and snails had congregated on its shady underside. But the plank was all she had, so she lifted it and laid it down over the spiky undergrowth. Thorns squeaked and a fallen branch snapped. Then all noise stopped. And she was shimmying across the plank into the shade of the trees.

Dave’s voice grew louder as he approached the garage; he was still talking into his phone. If you took away the garage there was probably less than twenty feet between him and Jennifer. She concentrated only on the next step. Make no noise. Breath become invisible, inaudible. After twenty-five-six-seven steps, the path widened. Enough that she didn’t have to stop to unpick thorny tendrils from her skirt and jacket every few feet. She allowed herself to breathe and filled her lungs with a welcoming earthy smell. Rotting leaves? The aroma belonged somewhere else, where? The time Danny got lost in the New Forest. Long before he got his hands on a drum kit.

Jennifer felt a sharp pain in her ankle. She had wandered into a nettle patch. “Ow, shit,” she said and hopped to a patch of bare earth under a big old tree. On a protruding root, she set about massaging her ankles through her sheer black tights. She knew she needed a dock leaf, but didn’t know what one looked like.

Around the curve from the base of the old tree, the gap between the undergrowth and the moat got narrower. If it got much tighter her clothes would be ruined. She thought she could see movement, a bird or something flitting across the path, but it was just flies. Where she was, the brambles were still too thick to climb through, so she pushed herself up off the tree and walked with burning ankles down the slope towards the narrowing path.

Its perfect body blocking her way, one dark eye open and glassy, lay a fox attended by three house sparrows. The birds did not fly off at her approach, but continued to regard the corpse with interest. Scarlet berries or fruit of some kind, had fallen from the surrounding plants and into the gaps between paw and tree root, snout and leaf. Here is death, thought the sparrows. Nijinsky, thought Jennifer. Nijinsky. This was her new world – savage, beautiful, vengeful. Seemingly as cunning a confection as her own outward appearance. What set of circumstances had led the fox and the birds into this composition? To this frozen moment. The fox had a neat brown bullet hole in its neck. Small spots of blood marked the fur here and there, but otherwise there was surprisingly little mess. It must have been Terence, she thought. Not as bad a shot as he seemed. If he stayed off the weed he could be quite dangerous.

She too could be dangerous, the girl who had chosen this path, the maid whose origins lay in an ‘A’ level art class. An oh-yes moment: she chanced upon Untitled 1975 by Cindy Sherman in a book about the eighties. It was made up of 23 head and shoulder shots of Cindy from the first, where she wore glasses, no make-up and limp shoulder-length hair, through twenty-one minor changes – glasses taken off, blusher, eye shadow and eyeliner applied, thick red lipstick, a beauty mark and a black choker added – one picture at a time. Until at last she looked like a different person; still Cindy, but with a new hard outer layer. This work of art was something else. It did something in the world. To Jenny it said, “It is possible to effect change.” So she put away her paints and started using her body as her material. And here she was, as much of a confection as the Cindy Sherman of Untitled 1975, as much of a result of circumstance as the dead fox before her. What a pretty picture they made: the fox, the maid, the house sparrows, the spilled fruit.

Jennifer stepped over the dead animal and found herself in a less overgrown area. The blackberries had been cut back, the nettles cleared. Just ahead of her and to the left, she could see the foundations of the summer house. A little further along she would be able to slip out onto the lawn behind the tool shed.

Untitled digital photograph, 2008

Untitled digital photograph, 2010

This shot was taken on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway (the world’s smallest public railway until 1982). It’s a very narrow guage (15 in/381 mm), which is why the carriage in this photo looks so cramped. The line runs from Hythe (one of the cinque ports), via Dymchurch, St. Mary’s Bay, New Romney and Romney Sands to Dungeness, home to a famous nuclear power station. The film director and artist, Derek Jarman owned a house nearby. Out back he made use of his sculptures and the stones and strange flora, that help make the area so otherworldly, to fashion something beautiful, something more than just a garden from a pebbly patch of ground. (There’s a very nice book Derek Jarman’s Garden published by Thames & Hudson – advert ends)

It may surprise you to learn that some people have never seen a single episode of The League of Gentlemen. But it’s true. I’m one. Which puts me in the happy position of being able to review Jeremy Dyson’s first book of short stories with the cool detachment it deserves (he’s a co-writer on the series, for those who are as uninitiated as I am).

Never Trust A Rabbit comprises twelve short stories, three of which have been published previously in other places; seven and a half were written specially for this collection. Each story is preceded by a wonderful unsettling, inky black and white illustration by James Hood. We get an introduction from the author, and, opposite the colophon page, a Hungarian proverb: Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy but they eat your crops. It’s the perfect taster for the stories to come. And, of course, Jeremy Dyson made it up. There is no such Hungarian proverb.

All twelve stories end unexpectedly. After the first couple, We Who Walk Through Walls and A Slate Roof In The Rain, you begin to expect the unexpected. Some stories finish more surprisingly than others. When the twist works it’s brilliant, but when it doesn’t it’s extremely frustrating because the stories are otherwise so well written. City Deep is the oldest here – dating back to 1989/1990. It’s about a tube-train-phobic man who is forced to go underground with catastrophic (but kind of predictable) results. And We Who Walk Through Walls (about the staging of an illusion that involves a world famous magician walking through a wall) ends unpredictably, but at the expense of its own narrative logic, making the ending read as if it were flown in from another story.

But when it works, ah when it works…

At the heart of the collection are two stories. The first is The Engine of Desire. It’s disgusting, improbable, nasty, and hilarious. Where some of the other stories are tightly focused miniatures (The Maze, All In The Telling), this is a story told in the literary equivalent of widescreen CinemaScope. It has a “hero” called Jack Sleighmaker (fer Chrissakes)!

Sleighmaker is an international adventurer-cum-mercenary who will do virtually anything for money. He is commissioned by Prince Bandar bin Turki (of some unspecified country) to find and acquire an incredibly rare automaton invented by an erotomaniac artist called Thomas Narcejac. The piece in question is a life-like replica of a girl called Aveline that can apparently perform unbelievably exquisite sexual acts. The quest to find the piece takes Sleighmaker from Egypt to Rippon in North Yorkshire and eventually on to a little piece of Kent in the middle of Zambia. The visceral, gory, insane, spectacular denouement reminded me of one of the Chapman Brothers’ sicker dioramas. And made me laugh out loud.

The second is the most recent story in the collection, A Last Look At The Sea. It’s a taut, unshowy dissection of a couple’s relationship, with a strange maritime effect as a backdrop. George and Tessa, who have been seeing each other for a year, visit Long Cross in Cornwall, just prior to Tessa going to live in America for a year. At Tessa’s insistence they go for a cliff walk that leads them to a fog-shrouded beach where the tide goes out and does not come back. There is a sumptuous bleakness to the story, rounded out by a deft ending that manages to be positive without being sickly or sentimental.

The remaining eight stories stand at points along the line that connects The Engine of Desire to A Last Look At The Sea.  At the heart of each lies a believable relationship – even if it’s between a man and a cash machine (The Cashpoint Oracle) – and this lends the stories, no matter how absurd, their emotional power.  It’s a fine balance between the deliciously sinister and the mundane and human that makes these stories so satisfying. Tasty!

Review originally published by The Roundtable Review (May/ June 2007)

Untitled digital photograph, 2009

Happy new year, all!

‘cross The Breeze is the fourth track on Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation, and is beautifully sung by Kim Gordon. You can read more about it here.

Untitled digital photograph, 2008

This was taken in central London in the winter of 2008. I wonder what the man’s story is.

Untitled digital photograph, 2009

Nowhere Fast is the sixth track on The Smiths’ 1985 album, Meat Is Murder. You can read more about it here.