Day #12707 – The Very Best Things I Read In 2018

As I usually do at the end of a year, I thought I would set my thoughts down on some things I enjoyed reading in 2018.  I know it’s now the beginning (ish) of 2019 but the idea is the same.  In places these thoughts may be fragmentary or only semi-useful… nevertheless, here they are.

One of the first books I read last year (because it was a Christmas present at the end of the previous year) was Joff Winterhart‘s beautifully observed and drawn Driving Short Distances (2017).  Whilst examining everyday-type people, its power comes in highlighting the tiny details – winks, grimaces, tufts of hair.

David Keenan‘s novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) boasts the fantastically overblown and brilliantly specific subtitle ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.’  Keenan borrows the energy of the most hyberbolic kind of music writing and allows a population of strange characters to reverberate against one another in the claustrophobic small town setting.

Dreamlike in a completely different way, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992) cast a spell on me.  It is however going to be difficult to describe why… it had a haunting quality to it and seemed composed of thoughts which ran from one thing to the next.  Beautiful and sad, though more beautiful than sad…

Having first encountered Cesar Aira in 2017, I continued with my Aira fandom last year, and actually happened to meet another fan for the first time, which kind of confirmed that Aira was real.  All of Aira’s books proceed in strange and unexpected ways, a product of his ‘constant flight forward’ philosophy, and my favourite of the ones I read this year was How I Became A Nun (1993), which is worth it for the opening few scenes alone – a fiasco in strawberry ice-cream.

Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole (1970), a present from friend Lee, was the most terrifying thing I read all year.  A traveller is diverted to another city, one whose language and organisation are both incomprehensible and unfathomable.  Struggling to get a foothold, he tries in vain to understand the city’s food, transport, leisure, failing to get anywhere with increasing alarm.  The effect is mesmerising, suffocating, frustrating – like the character, there is nothing to which us readers can cling.

My two favourite short story collections of the year were James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man (1965) and A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) by Lucia Berlin.  Both wrote with clarity and beauty.

The James Baldwin story Sonny’s Blues (with its sadness leading to a jazz club redemption) and My Jockey by Lucia Berlin (one and a half meticulous pages) were amongst my favourite short works this year.  But there was also Doppelganger, Poltergeist, the final piece in Denis Johnson‘s final collection (a friendship becomes defined by a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced by a double)  and the remarkable reading experience of Triptyks by Ann Quin (a piece of work which doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, but does progress as you allow another part of your brain to enjoy the cascade of images and scenarios).  Plus Defending The Pencil Factory a one-off from one of my favourite current writers, Adam Marek (which pursues a slightly surreal premise before finding an original ending by alluding to another piece of work instead of actually finishing the story).  There were probably other great short pieces of writing that I enjoyed and have forgotten, I should keep better notes.

Last but by some means most (by virtue of me deciding this might be my favourite thing I read all year) – Man With A Seagull On His Head (2017).  Harriet Paige’s wilfully disobedient novel stubbornly refuses to fit in the template you expect.  Despite at first appearing fairly sedate, it is whimsical and unpredictable, and at times seems to hang together by a thread.  Much of it revolves around not-quite coincidences, characters not-quite meeting, loose ends not-quite being tied up.  I recommend it.

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Day #12686: Writing About Writing – A Year Of Writing

So this was this year.

In February, I completely failed to mark the ten year anniversary of the creation of this blog.  But when I checked, later in the year, it turned out to be true and I had been posting things here since February 2008.

In the Spring, I finished two longer slabs of short story that had been on my plate for a while.  I will look for somewhere to publish these.

In May, I attended the Guernsey Literary Festival, but this time didn’t write anything about it here or anywhere else.  Nevertheless, it still happened.  My highlight was probably attending a workshop run by Daljit Nagra.

Towards the end of June, I started a new project that resembles a novel in size and shape.  I aimed to write one page (roughly 400 words) every week day and give it to Rach to read whilst she ate her breakfast.  The story slowly started nudging its way into existence.

In the Summer, my (informal, semi-regular) writing group set ourselves a couple of writing challenges and then met up at the pub to read them out (we also met throughout the year to discuss things in general, but there’s no section in this thing for things that happened throughout the year).

In September, I scurried away to deepest, darkest, dampest Yorkshire for a week-long experimental fiction retreat.  The course was geared towards exploring and trying new things, not necessarily working towards a thing that was finished and complete and shiny.  It was refreshing to have that impetus removed and to just spend some time playing and trying things out.  I also met a great bunch of people.

In November, I read a short story to around 40 people at the inaugural Guilles-Alles Library Fiction Open Mic night.

In December, my short story, ‘An Ambulance’ was published online by the Mechanics Institute Review.

Later in December, I completed the project I set in motion back in June and found I had surprised myself by finishing the writing of the first draft of a short novel.  This piece of work has been locked away to mature for a month or so, then I will look at redrafting it.

Pat

It was the the times when you got things wrong that did you in. Those were the times people remembered.

You could work in the same village for thirty years, delivering folks’ letters and parcels with professionalism and a kind word. But no one noticed the days when it all went smoothly. Even your cat sat there giving you sly glances or – worse – refusing to acknowledge you.

And those times you did get things wrong, they kept replaying in your head, at night, when you were trying to get to sleep. Like some television programme that was always on repeat. You kept going over what you did, what you could have done, what you should have done. What you should have done.

It was all about trying to do things differently. Thinking more, or better. Thinking before doing. Pat was trying, he really was. Trying to take things slowly, carefully. Think through a plan of action then execute it step by step so nothing could go wrong.

But sometimes you just knew. You knew that whatever you did would be the wrong way of doing it.

This morning, Pat has to deliver some helium balloons to the school. The potential for calamity is obvious. So obvious. Pat has already collected the balloons from the depot and now they are bobbing around in the back of his van, a nest of brightly-coloured problems.

He stops at Ted’s, hoping that talking to his friend might help shift the feeling of futility. But he finds Ted standing at the counter of his store, his hands flat against the counter.

“Ho there, Pat.”

“Ted,” nods Pat.

They stand for a moment.

“So,” says Pat. “Got to deliver some helium balloons to the school.”

Ted winces, looks down at his hands. “Oh no, Pat.”

“Might just stop here for a moment.”

“Fair enough. Just having a little stop myself. It’s for the best. I get this terrible feeling sometimes, Pat, as if… if I start doing something, whatever it is, it’s going to go wrong.”

The two men stand together, in the quiet.

“It’s just,” says Pat eventually, “I know exactly what will happen. Those damn balloons. They’re going to escape, aren’t they? I can be as careful as I like, it won’t make a bit of difference.”

Ted nods. “They’re as good as in the sky already.”

“And that would be fine,” Pat continues. “They can float away for all I care – I’m sure they’ll look very pretty up in the air.. What gets me is that I’ll have to chase after them, and…”

“It’s the same here,” Ted interjects. “I’ve got some new rollers for the car wash. That’s my next job. Install the new rollers. Should be straight forward enough. Job done. Cup of tea.” He looks down at his hands, still pressed flat against the counter where they can cause no harm. “Rollers roll, don’t they?”

“Things always seem easy at first.” Pat shakes his head.

Around the two men, displayed on every shelf and stand of Ted’s store are items designed to fix things or help solve problems. People would come along to buy these things when something was broken and they needed to repair it – like as not, some of these projects would end in calamity too. It was the way of things.

Those balloons really should be getting on their way. Pat would just have to get on, see what happened, then deal with the repercussions. It was not that people were unkind. They were, broadly speaking, sympathetic. When he finally got things sorted they would cheer and say he had done a good job. Somehow this only made things worse.

“We’re going to get on with things now Ted,” says Pat. “We have to.”

Ted nods.

“We’re just going to calmly, carefully get on with what we need to do.”

Ted nods.

“It’ll be ok.  In the end, it’ll be ok.”

Ted nods. His eyes remain locked with Pat’s. The futility of their daily tasks – fixing things, delivering stuff, keeping on going as the world turned round and round – like a bridge between them.

“One,” says Pat.

“Two.” Ted.

“Three.”

They both take their hands off the counter and those dreadful utensils are free to wreak havoc once more.

“Good luck, Ted.”

“Good luck, Pat.”

Furious Green Haircut

This all started when we were kids. Then, a telephone call cost more than a train ticket. So we wrote.

I was the furious green haircut. You were a real rolling trembling body of thunder.

Love? Love was in a mess – mired in popsong cliche. We Were Always Meant To Be Together, You’re The Love Of My Life, My One And Only. So, we were determined not to be in that.

Of course, that didn’t work out.

What we had in common was this. We both had a hobby in creating, or curating, little boxes of essentials, things that could be taken in an emergency evacuation. We would send each other lists of our latest efforts, e.g.:

A ball of string (always useful)
A decorated teaspoon (for beauty)
Fake treasure maps (for decoy)
A long-discontinued limited edition chocolate bar (for leverage)
A list of numbers (for mystery)
A tiny toy soldier

The soldier was of no significance really – but it was small and fit in the box. And if I did have to escape my burning home with only a small box of objects, and a toy soldier was one of the few possessions I had left, then that toy soldier was going to take on a whole load of significance.

There were various scenarios in which a small box of essential objects might be required.

In a storm a tree was blown down, landing on, and somehow setting fire to, the house. The power went out and the fire brigade pumped water over everything until the whole street was flooded and everyone who lived there had to be evacuated, leaving with only the important things they could grab and carry.

But this wasn’t my house or even a house on my street – this happened to some houses about a mile away. My house was fine. I didn’t have to leave carrying only my most recently curated box of belongings. Those kind of emergencies never happened to me. Though I was hapless – in my hands, small objects, tools or devices were always falling apart or grinding to a lifeless halt – the wider narrative did always tend to arc around me, leaving me whole and unharmed.

And so that was how our teenagehoods progressed – in letters detailing tiny boxes and in wider narrative arcs that barely brushed our lives but which perfectly described popsong cliches and the cost of telephone calls.

*

Suddenly the cost of a phone call fell. Before we could speak, the price of a train ticket plummeted too. It was a time of adjustment that coincided with the two of us making our first tentative steps into adulthood.

The day before we were due to finally meet, I went to get my hair cut. I asked for my usual – furious green. There was nothing green about my hair, nor was it cut in a particularly severe style to suggest fury. But my hairdresser knew exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. She cut it to look the way it always did, but she knew that on the inside my hair was green, was furious.

“You go get her, tiger,” she told me as she finished snipping.

We had agreed to meet midway between our two separate lives. When I got off the train I bought you some flowers but before I could present them to you, a bird shat on them. Later that day, when we were sitting on a bench in the town centre, a bird shat on my ice-cream. What was with all those shitting birds?

“Why do birds suddenly appear, every time I am near,” you said-sung sweetly. I loved you for that.

We Were Always Meant To Be Together. It was what we had wanted, ever since we first started resisting the urge to fall in love. There would be no need for either of us to return to our previous lives – we had both brought a carefully-packed box of only the most essential of our things. There was no need to serve a notice period, we could start right away.

That same afternoon, we got jobs working side by side, putting the rings into telephones. They said it was a good job for a couple. We held hands all through the interview.

After that we went looking for somewhere to live. On the bus, we passed a beautiful house on fire – we could never have lived there.

But there were still houses we could live in. In the midst of all the complex cost adjustments – telephone calls, train tickets, other things of which we had neither control nor understanding – some unfurnished, unwanted houses had emerged. Unfurnished was all we wanted.

I remember the first night in our house, the two of us. We used an upturned cardboard box for a table, played games with some post-it notes which we had drawn on to make them into playing cards. All the other rooms were silent, it felt like they were watching us to see what we would do next.

We got sold a washing machine full of firewood and after that we could have clean clothes and warm air. We got sold a fridge full of clothes. So often in our lives, things made much less sense than they should.

It felt like we were being played by the objects around us, like we were only instruments.

And I worried about writing all this down in case anyone ever found it and thought we were being serious.

Midsummer Night’s Murder

After dinner, we trooped round the streets again, the whole family, taking down the ‘missing cat’ posters we had stuck up earlier that week. There were no signs of it getting dark outside, as if the night had overslept or forgotten to turn up for work.

There were other people still out and about, just going for a walk or sitting and drinking on the streets, just standing there talking, saying all the things they never had time to say in the course of a normal day. Over garden hedges, there drifted smoke from barbecues and music from radios. We collected up all the posters, then went home.

I needed sleep – there would be business to attend to tomorrow. But it was difficult, with it being so light. It felt like the world had been split open with a knife and spread out flat, so now the sun had no choice but to meander around the sky, there being no horizon behind which it could disappear. Lying there, feeling increasingly fractious, I felt like I was missing out on something, some action. The possibilities seemed endless, there were infinite permutations for things that might be happening, and here I was lying in bed.

I must have fallen asleep because at some point in the night I was jolted awake. Instinctively, I thought it had been the cat jumping on the bed, but I was mistaken – it had been the sound of a horn or a scream, or something crashing down. Half-asleep, I didn’t really know what was going on.

When I woke again, it was light. Had I not stirred briefly in the night, I could have believed there had never been any darkness. Now, there was the sound of a soft rain falling; next, a flurry of birdsong drowned it out; then, when the birds had finished, the soft rain could be heard again. By the time it stopped, it was only five o’clock. I got out of bed, quietly slipped some clothes on and left the house.

I walked through the streets. The fabric of that morning felt like it had been worn through by the previous night’s transgressions, like the air itself was hungover. I went down on to the beach and walked along with my eyes closed – walking in this way, I felt I was only lightly touching the world. As though maybe I didn’t properly exist.

I opened my eyes and the world was still there – furthermore, there was something new in it, lying just where the knackered sea was meeting with the slumped sand. A guitar riff became lodged in my brain and I started to replicate it by making sounds with my mouth.

Da-na-na-na-na-now, diddly-dee-dee-dee, diddly-dee-dee-dee, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam-bam- bam-bam, dow-nnnowww. And by now I had reached the edge of the creeping tide and stood looking down at that lifeless body, its clothes tangled in seaweed. The world would tilt and we would proceed to winter.

An Episode In The Life Of A Substitute Goalkeeper

To celebrate the World Cup (hurrah for having a World Cup), my (informal, semi-irregular) writing group issued a challenge to write a football-themed piece of flash fiction with a word limit of 500 words.  The challenge culminated with ‘performances’ of each of the pieces at the Last Post pub in Guernsey on the evening of Wednesday 27th June, after the Brazil match.  My piece was partly inspired by Cesar Aira’s short novel An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (the title, the horse) and came in about 12 words under the limit (let me know if you think there are some I could or should have squeezed in).  Here it is: 

 

Dmitri’s father’s preference was to sit high in the stands behind the goal and watch with steepled fingers to his lips, displaying neither joy nor anguish at the team’s fortunes, only enjoying the pattern of play as it created new shapes on the field, like a kaleidoscope.

For young Dmitri there was only one player worthy of attention – he felt the crowd behind the goal had a responsibility to support the keeper in front of them, regardless which team was attacking. Instinctively, he rejected the idea of the ball hitting the back of the net.

This was not to be what made him the most famous goalkeeper in the country, but it set him on a path.

Dmitri practiced diving, stretching his still-growing sinews to reach further. Studied angles. Became elastic, quick. Forced himself to be unafraid to get hurt. Coach praised his bravery; Dmitri knew it was merely devotion to a task. He was a function.

He was good, but not good enough. His fate (though fate had further plans) was that of the substitute goalkeeper, the back-up to be thrust suddenly into situations. Game after game of watching, waiting then – bam! – sliding for the ball, a striker’s studs thump into the number one’s sternum. This was a local derby, crowds upon crowds pressing down on the pitch. Dmitri was on.

He warmed his palms with a few smart saves, leapt above the jostle to collect a corner. His concentration was absolute. He had eyes only for the ball. When his team scored, he barely celebrated, just kept watching the ball as the game was reset. His team-mates’ ‘one’ did not affect his own pristine ‘zero’, but the crowd had erupted into thick smoke and popping fireworks.

Players ran one way then another, in the heat and noise the game seemed descended into madness. But there was something else.

A horse was on the pitch.

There it was, rearing up, wide-eyed, spooked. Dmitri saw it only as an apparition. The ball was still upfield, bouncing from one player to the next until one, in blind panic, launched it high towards Dmitri’s goal. The horse galloped goalwards. Surely the game had already been stopped.

The ball bounced once as it approached the penalty area; Dmitri judged it carefully; the horse kicked up little explosions of turf as it raced on; the noise of the crowd intensified and then went dead.

As Dmitri took the ball, the horse was upon him.

High in the stands, his father, steepled fingers to his lips, watched this strange and hideous turn of the kaleidoscope. The green pitch, the white ball, the bay horse, the hi-vis medics pouring past the different-shirted players.

Later, in the buzzing listlessness of the hospital he waited beside this braced and bandaged Picasso of his son – broken arm and pelvis, cracked ribs, punctured lung; the ball placed at his bedside.

Work Ethic

I love hard work.  Working hard.  The idea of working so hard.  Working hard, sweat on hair dangling from face as bend and lift or dig into or shift, or brain cells worn down from think.  Unshakeable from task, hand on shoulder but unshakeable, cannot be shaken out of.  Hard work.  Dedication to task.  Not stopping.  Never stopping.  I love the idea of growing as a person.  Personal growth, working hard, growing.  Producing, or becoming.  The idea, the idea of such hard work.  Is so.  Tangible.  Almost.  I lie prone, thinking how great hard work is, how good is personal growth.  Prone, as if finally stopped from hard work, exhausted.  Thinking about hard work, how admirable, working hard.  Yes.  Great.

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How do you cut through metal?*

 

* Sometimes when you ask Google a question, it is keen to tell you about the related questions other people have asked.  I have a fascination with the way the questions drift from your initial enquiry as they pop in to existence one-by-one forever, suggesting you can never know everything.  You probably can’t ever know everything, but the tumble of these questions makes for a very pleasing found poetry thing.

Crises Upon Crises Upon Crises Upon Cupboards Upon Cupboards Upon Cupboards

I couldn’t sleep for laughing, then when sleep did crack through the laughter, that sleep was distracted, unfocussed, bad at being sleep.  I woke giddy, was a useless, sore morning person.  Living in the land of the living.  I was making for a bad guest, an irresponsible, unreliable narrator.  I needed to buck my ideas up.  I looked out of that borrowed window, composing myself out of old notes, watched the last leaves clinging to the trees.  Those poor saps probably thought they had won some kind of prize.  My hosts looked over in my direction, as if they could actually hear the things falling over in my mind, the clattering, the accidents setting fire to accidents.

And then to the ceremony and the reception. I was not sure where the animals – toads, spiders, cats – had come from, they crept / hopped / prowled across the hall. My gaze tracked their progress and I saw a cupboard and, wanting to get away from things, tried the handle, entered.

The cupboard was empty (in that it had some things in it, but nothing that seemed important), but in it there was a door. I hesitated, and some of that old dread of being unreliable, un-bucked up, came creeping back. I push open the door, entered another cupboard, with another door, so…

Much like the last one. This time, I locked the door behind me. In case anyone was following. It is possible that ‘cupboard’ could describe many different types of small room. This one was being used to store a lot of towels. No one else was around. I had locked the door behind me, but there was nothing to say that someone would not suddenly come through the other door. If that was what the story wanted. No one was going to suddenly come through the door. I took a step back, then launched myself in to the softness of the towels because no one would ever know. However. I had failed to notice that shelving punctuating the towels, giving their stacking structure, and, as a result of my leap, took an edge of wood to the ribs. No one saw, but I was embarrassed – and embarrassed of being embarrassed all by myself.

The next cupboard was a store for dried food. The one after that, I think, was the one containing ring binders with cryptic names felt-tipped on their sides. “Change Quorum ’97.” “Revamp Q-7.” I was starting to worry I might not be able to find my way back through the cupboards, even though each one had only two doors and the way back was just to pass back through each cupboard until I got back to where I had come to get away from.

In the next cupboard there was a funeral going on. The room was not small, it might have been stretching use of the word to describe it as a cupboard.

I saw those animals again – the toads, spiders and cats, creeping / hopping / prowling through the mournful crowds – and followed them, excusing-me in soft tones all the way, towards the door on the far side of the cupboard.

This lead to a cupboard as big and as outside as the outside world and I was still clattering through, still with accidents setting fire to accidents all the time.  Irresponsible, unreliable.  When I fell through the door and into that big, cloud-stretched cupboard, I couldn’t breathe for laughing again.