Monthly Archives: January 2014

Happiness – July 2011

“Happiness,” said Maria, “is that kid down there on the skateboard pretending he’s Superman.”

“No,” said Jack leaning over the balcony to look. “Happiness is that blonde girl trying to catch bubbles.”

“Stop being philosophical,” laughed Maria, squeezing his arm.

“You started it.”

The bubbles drifted higher as a flock of boys on push scooters swooped towards the swings.

“Maybe happiness is that boy on the climbing frame,” said Jack after careful consideration.

“No, that’s just a broken arm waiting to happen,” answered Maria with a grimace.

“Alright then,” shrugged Jack, taking Maria’s hand. “Happiness is the warmth between our fingers.”

They sat in silence for a while, watching the swings and wincing at the shrieks of the blissful.

“My palms are beginning to sweat,” announced Maria wrinkling her nose.

“Delightful.”

“Maybe happiness is that girl in yellow?” she asked.

“The one doing laps of the slide?” he replied. “You think happiness is running in circles?”

“No,” said Maria. “Happiness is the part where you get dizzy.”

Written from a Spanish balcony, dodging a million ants, looking out over a busy playground. July 2011.

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Conversations with Spirits

The Higgins version of “based on a true story”

“You saw a medium?”

“Several.”

“Did she make contact?”

“My wife? Yes, once…” I replied, “with the aid of a Mrs. Trubshawe, when I visited her in her lodgings in Bow.”

“And what message did she have for you?”

“She advised me to pay Mrs. Trubshawe sixpence. And when I asked why her voice sounded so different, I was informed that in the afterlife everyone has a cockney accent.”

(Chapter II – The Redoubtable Harry Price)

I first read part of Conversations with Spirits on a website called jottify.com where I used to be a member. It’s a site for writers to post their work and get comments and if they have finished stuff they could put it up for sale for ebooks and stuff. The author, E O Higgins, got the book picked up by Unbound and pushed for pledges. I pledged. I got a signed first edition.

Higgins and I regularly exchange witticisms (his are usually wittier) on Twitter and that makes talking about his book a little weird. I know I talk about Rivka’s books a lot but we live together and I cheerfully tell her the reactions her books give me. She writes quite emotive and stormy stuff. Spirits is altogether a more genteel affair. And I mean that in a good way.

I mentioned that I had been reading it in the bath. I consider such behaviour a little decadent. I never used to get the “reading in the bath” thing. But Spirits is a sumptuous book that deserves to be savoured. The opening line…

“I AWOKE IN the shadow of Sibella, the crumpled blackness of her crinoline dress hovering lightly before   me…”

(Chapter I – A Working Man)

it’s going to be iconic. It rolls around your brain like the first mouthful of a delightful scotch tickles the tongue. I always say that Chocolat is the book I wish I’d written, and that’s still true, but Conversations with Spirits is the book I wish I could paint onto myself like a full bodystocking tattoo. That one sentence fits the tone of the whole book: Sibella hovers with a shadowy form (from Hart’s dishevelled perspective) like an impatient spirit.

Set in 1917, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Trelawney Hart is a drifting, cynical alcoholic with the brain of a cold hearted materialist. It is very easy to forget how young he actually is. I had a shock when I remembered Hart is only thirty-two, given his hard drinking and railroading speeches. He acts older than his years but then he has suffered: his upbringing was clinical and he has lost his wife (a large part of the need for drink). He lies and he bluffs and he stumbles (literally at times) from insult to injury to indignation in his quest to prove that there is nothing supernatural going on in Broadstairs. Hart has been engaged to witness and scrutinise a potential miracle: a man called J P Beasant walking through ten feet of solid brickwork.

The book involves the quite real personages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price, the rise in popularity of mediums and spiritualists, and the academic conflict between the Materialist (realist/scientific) and the Spiritualist movements. Higgins wisely chooses to keep to the miracles end of things and steers clear of too much ghostly haunting of a sheets and chains kind. Those talkative spirits are both the liquor-induced whispers of memory and guilt that Hart is desperately trying to drown as well as the messages from beyond he delights in debunking. Hart scoffs at the supernatural and decries all mediums and psychics as being charlatans, but is (wilfully) ignorant that he is being haunted by his memories of Katherine. His refusal to acknowledge his turmoil does not make it any less real.

The spirits/spirits theme is there from the off

The spirits/spirits theme is there from the off

We know from the beginning, when Hart meets Price on the train, that of course it won’t be a miracle. There is a nice bit of foreshadowing where Hart demonstrates his powers of reasoning to explain a simple conjuring trick that Price performs that allows the reader to truly appreciate Hart’s disdain for anything irrational, including the behaviour of ordinary people. As the details of Hart’s education and upbringing splurge out in lumps when he’s feeling particularly callous or annoyed, we come to understand why Doyle compares him to Sherlock Holmes. There is no doubt that however carefully this spectacle is staged, Hart will figure it out and expose it. But it isn’t a straightforward journey.

The narrative is in the first person, making this fervent denial even more gripping. Going back to the opening, to Sibella, to the only woman in the book to have true substance, her concern (and affection) is seen from Hart’s perspective as nosiness and unwelcome interference. It is Sibella who arranges the first meeting with Doyle and who packs Hart’s luggage, though he is less than appreciative:

SIBELLA, IN HER usual marmish fashion, had packed a carpet-bag for me containing some fresh linens and toilet equipment. For whatever reason, she likes to do these things, and I have realised— perhaps a little late in our association— that it was easier just to accept these foibles. Not requiring the extra burden, however, it was my plan to deposit the bag in the Left Luggage office at Victoria railway station, should time permit it.

(Chapter II – The Redoubtable Harry Price)

She responds to Hart with lashing sarcasm and it is only after “four days of feminine criticism” on her part that he emerges from the first chasm of his grief following his wife’s death. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear how dependant Hart is on her: she even helps to organise and write up his manuscripts when she’s not busy making him get off the floor and drink something other than brandy. Though Hart blearily dismisses her caretaking as “mawkish” and “sentimental”, it does seem to occur to him that he appreciates her in his own way. After all, for a woman he is constantly criticising, he thinks about her a lot during the weekend.

It is Hart’s interactions with others – seen from his own clearly superior perspective – that give the book its best moments. He matches wits with Conan Doyle, finally getting a puissant last word that led to a full on chortle (which I won’t spoil); toys with Horrocks the long-suffering Hyperborea Club barman in full abuse of his social standing; and generally bullies his way through any situation. Hart is infuriating at times in the best possible way. He made me smile and cringe and snicker and glower so if nothing else this book gives the face a full workout. He isn’t necessarily a likeable character, but you can’t dislike him either. He is a person suffusing pathos and bedraggled pride from every brandy-clogged pore.

With a reluctant smile, Doyle added: “Between ourselves, I have always considered Knighthoods to be the badge of the provincial mayor.”

Nodding absently, I muttered: “I understand completely. I rarely ask people to use my title either.”

There was a moment’s pause within the carriage. Finally, Doyle leant forward in his chair: “Your title?”

“Oh? Didn’t you know?” I returned mildly. “I’m the eighth Duke of Roxburghe.”

(Chapter X – A Departure)

Beasant himself, the miracle worker, is a slightly pathetic figure that seems uncomfortable with the glare of the spotlight in which he has found himself. He is not a charismatic and flamboyant showman who is going to perform a spectacle; he is reserved and self-deprecating. Hart is not impressed with him when they meet by chance, though he manages to wangle an invitation to a small private séance anyway. Beasant reminds me of Sybill Trelawney from Harry Potter, in that it seems he does have a hint of real talent, revealed only subtly at first as he makes claims of a spirit guide and disembodied voices that Hart dismisses as the usual spiel.

Events at the séance, however, unsettle even a dyed-in-the-wool realist like Hart, and he later dreams of his wife. He wakes after the dream ends with his teeth falling out. It is a common theme of dreams but I doubt Higgins chose it at random. Losing teeth in dreams apparently represents feelings of powerlessness and difficulty dealing with loss, telling lies, and possibly even that the dreamer places all their faith and belief in the tangible and rejects the spiritual. Sounds about right. Thought you could sneak that one in, Higgins? I’m onto you.

Hart’s companion for most of the narrative is the bedraggled Billy Crouse, Ramsgate native, who is pressed into becoming Hart’s local ‘guide’. The two of them spend a lot of time drinking, though Billy is more used to cheap and nasty concoctions than the good stuff Hart is fond of. Hart feels sympathy for Billy as he too has lost his wife, and really the only thing that separates them is social class: Billy was a joiner while Hart is the son of a Colonel and by his own admission doesn’t work. Hart has been sheltered in the Hyperborea Club while Billy has been reduced to a vagrant. Their paths intersect and while Hart’s influence appears to be doing Billy some good – he can afford to eat properly and he has new clothes – Hart deteriorates through the weekend in both health and spirit.

Billy has a quiet dignity and a firm moral compass – he doesn’t like Hart lying to Beasant – but he knuckles under to Hart’s upper class bluster and becomes a useful gofer. He is also more intelligent than people give him credit for, including a sharp sense of humour. And of course he gets he best line in the whole book:

I blinked across at Billy, who was looking very intently at me. Finally, he broke the silence in the room and, in an anxious tone, uttered:

“You had your honeymoon en Basingstoke?”

(Chapter VIII – Lost Souls)

I was in the bath for that one.

So why do I want this book to be tattooed on me forever? Well, the language and vocabulary are stunning. When I read the first chapters on jottify it was clear that this was Higgins’s soul between the lines. The pages are dense with detail including newspaper articles and the manuscript of Doyle’s draft report following the ‘miracle’. No one ejaculates, but there is some hallooing which is always welcome. The tone wavers between condescending and self-pitying, with brief stops in arch and wry. Each word has clearly been chosen with care and with an attention to register and structure that frankly beggars belief. It has been sculpted. It has been honed. It is so worth it. There is not one wasted syllable in this book. It’s the leanest sirloin you could hope for.

You may remember I’m a less than staunch supporter of Neil Gaiman and his works quite often have a similarly super-edited quality to them, but the difference for me is that Higgins doesn’t get pretentious about it. Or maybe the whole book is so damned pretentious it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. But I don’t think so. The strength of the character voice and the eloquent language reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. The attention to period detail is luxuriant. From the brandy bottle bedecked endpapers to the excellent note about the font at the back of the print edition (I love this kind of education in my books) the only fault I can find is that it ends…

According to the man himself, paperbacks will be available from February 2014

Learn more about E O Higgins at his website or follow him on Twitter.

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Every day I’m Hustling

Yesterday I saw one of those little things that restore’s one’s faith in humanity. I had parked in the little pay and display that is one of the cheaper ones at the top of town and so is usually chocka. I was happy I even found a space to start with. Then I got to the ticket machine and saw that people had left their still-valid tickets stuck to the machine. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be so I bought a ticket myself, but it made me smile that people would leave them. I’m sure it isn’t a new thing – I’ve been known to physically offer my ticket to someone if I’m leaving and someone’s just parked – but this fluttering display of tiny kindness made my afternoon. When I came back to my car I went and stuck my own ticket on the machine – there was an hour left on it – and all the other tickets were gone.

Rivka and I went to the cinema last night and after a bit of debate finally settled for American Hustle. I quite enjoyed it but Rivka wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know anything about the real story that it borrows from, so I didn’t know how it was going to end. It was hard to follow the genre of the film: I was unsure if it was a proper caper or a serious thriller. There are some funny moments – some intentional, some not – and the actual performances were top notch (Jeremy Renner’s hair piece should get an award, as should Christian Bale’s combover) but it couldn’t quite make up its mind. It was good though because I kept trying to guess who the focus of the movie was meant to be and how that would affect the outcome.

I kept guessing wrong on the plot turns (not twists; they weren’t so dramatic and unpredictable as to be called twists) but that’s not unusual. I’m not very good on plot predicting. I was kept interested because of that though: was Bradley Cooper going to get in on the con game and leave the FBI? Was the Florida Mob going to be arrested? Who was going to get the girl? Would Jennifer Lawrence burn the house down? Who would die and who would live and who would get away with it… it was all on the table. I was wrong about pretty much all of it.

Through the film there’s a story being told by Bradley Cooper’s boss that never gets finished. Cooper keeps guessing the ending and annoying the boss so he refuses to tell the rest of it. Not knowing that was just as frustrating as the rest of it. It’s a decent film with a rocking late seventies soundtrack, though.

I’m currently about halfway through an amazing book called Conversations with Spirits that is rocking my world. I only seem to get through big bits when I’m in the bath, but that could be because the author, E O Higgins, is usually pictured therein and it influences my decision making. I am thoroughly enjoying myself reading it. It’s about a man who has been asked to debunk a medium, set in 1917, and as it is a first-person narrative, the language is exquisite. I’ll let you know when I’m done.

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Essence

Having a bit of a mixed day. I’m keen to get some more writing done tonight and I think I need some Evanescence to see me through. Fallen and The Open Door should jumble me up some more.

I mentioned way back at the beginning of my blog – in the rant about book covers – that I was a bit of a Goth back in my younger days. Amy Lee and I are old friends. In a similar way to my rediscovery of Linkin Park, I hear so many different things in the lyrics now than I did when I had less life experience. I mentally tag songs to different people or feelings, and right now I need some angst to get this next scene finished. Music is a great motivator for me. If you were following my tweets during November you’d have seen a few music-related ones. The best music I’ve found to write to so far has been banjo bluegrass hillbilly music. I mentally try to keep up with the banjo 🙂

So here’s Lose Control, lumped together with Everybody’s Fool, my current Lyon songs. If you blend them together with a little Going Under for the days I really hate myself, it sort of sums it up. I feel a little zen drawing on that tumult right now, possibly just because he’s very far away, but last night – this morning if we’re being technical – I made myself another, under the wire, Resolution. I’m going to give not being so flipping angry a go. I might not seem like a particularly angry or anxious person on the surface, but given my propensity to ragequit when anyone uses the cheese knife for anything other than cheese and/or NOT use a cheese knife for cheese when there’s one right there… *cough* you see? Chalk it up to national identity if you like. I’m also filled with road rage. I fair turn the air in my little car blue sometimes. It’d make a sailor blush. Not that I know any bad words. I’m a lady. I digress…

Whisper is sort of an in-joke to me right now. It wouldn’t make sense if I explained it, and it’s a bit close to the bone. It makes me laugh in an otherwise-the-crying way. Similarly Imaginary. I heard someone playing Imaginary on the piano in the basement of my halls of residence back in 2006. It is one of my best memories.

My Last Breath really fits the book at the moment – it’s Christmas Eve and the action is in a parkland type area – and it’s quite a desperate time. That’s definitely going in there.

I should get all the lyrics and make one huge “essence of Evanescence” song that explodes into the tear ducts and cries havoc with the uncontrollable feels.

I’m already looking ahead to when the draft will be done and I can edit the beast. I have some things earmarked for change or deletion already and I’m itching to get to it but I know I need to get this thing to a conclusion or it will never have one. It’s an old project – my first NaNoWriMo – that I started in 2009, and I’ve decided it’s called Once Bitten possibly with a pretentious ellipsis as well. It depends how buoyant I’m feeling.

Anyway, it’s very YA but it represented an interesting time in my life and now it’s sort of cycling around again. I’m still facing some of the same problems and some of the same worries, and getting back into the protagonist’s zone isn’t very difficult, but I’m a little afraid my current feeling of disillusionment will rub off too much.

Ha, I actually got distracted making an Ubernescence song. If only there was a tune that all of these phrases would fit to:

Closing your eyes to disappear
You pray your dreams will leave you here
But still you wake and know the truth
No one’s there

Say goodnight
Don’t be afraid
Calling me, calling me
As you fade to black

Let me stay
Where the wind will whisper to me
Where the raindrops
As they’re falling tell a story

In my field of paper flowers
And candy clouds of lullaby
I lie inside myself for hours
And watch my purple sky fly over me

Catch me as I fall
Say you’re here and it’s all over now
Speaking to the atmosphere
No one’s here and I fall into myself

This truth drives me into madness
I know I can stop the pain
If I will it all away
If I will it all away

Blurring and stirring the truth and the lies
So, I don’t know what’s real and what’s not
Always confusing the thoughts in my head
So I can’t trust myself anymore

I’m dying again, I’m going under
Drowning in you, I’m falling forever
I’ve got to break through

You don’t remember my name
I don’t really care
Can we play the game your way?
Can I really lose control?

Just once in my life
I think it’d be nice
(Just to lose control, just once)
With all the pretty flowers in the dust

Without the mask
Where will you hide?
Can’t find yourself
Lost in your lie

I know the truth now
I know who you are

Guess it wasn’t real after all
Guess it wasn’t real all along

If I fall and all is lost
It’s where I belong

 Til next time, kiddos.

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Class and bookishness: a rant on the uses of literacy

And this is why I try to get every kid I work with to read more.

Velvet Coalmine

Probably the last useful thing that Julie Burchill ever wrote, in respect of her working-class provincial origins, was this:

If you don’t read books, you really have been fucked over in a major way… To read, voluntarily, is the first step to asserting the fact that you know there is somewhere else.

Read, or you’ll get fucked over. Growing up, I read like fuck. I read out of boredom, I read to escape my surroundings and to understand my surroundings, through history and politics and music and literature and whatever there was left over. I also read because I wanted to write. And a thread that ran throughout my reading was, indeed, the sense that not to read was to, somehow, allow yourself to get fucked over.

Furthermore, once I began to read, finding stuff to read wasn’t a struggle. I read at school, on and off the curriculum –…

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Obligatory New Year post

Well wasn’t 2013 a year of ups and downs? It’s been a good year for work but a bad year for writing. It’s been a good and a bad year for family. It’s been a weird and heart-shattering year for my personal affairs. Same as anyone’s year, really.

I did however get a tower of books for Christmas and who could ask for better? Plus all that romance melodrama is excellent writing material!

I’m not really one for New Year’s Resolutions, but I do have a couple:

1. Get at least one draft finished (I’m almost done with Once Bitten)

2. Meet more writers.

That’s pretty much it. Luckily we have a great writing retreat up here – Moniack Mhor – so both of those could easily be achievable.

Whatever 2014 has in store for us, we’re never thrown anything more than we can handle, so stride forth with dread purpose and grab those hardships by the proverbials! Beat those deadlines into submission! Do ALL THE THINGS!

And just as a head’s up, it’s only 10 hours to new Sherlock over here… already quite excited!

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