Hong Kong Hangover

‘The novel does an excellent job of taking us from the apolitical centre of this city of commerce, into its highly politicised underworld.’ Nice review of Hong Kong Rocks in The Manchester Review of Books, 17/07/20.

Peter Humphreys – Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse Hong Kong, 2019)

Strange times in the vertical city. Reality continues to leapfrog literature.

Peter Humphreys’ Hong Kong Rocks is set in an alternative version of that troubled city where, rather than the massive crackdown currently being pushed by Beijing, the CCP are instead being more subtle, and only targeting expats.

The novel follows a rag-tag group of deadbeat Brits. Four middle aged men living on booze and regret. The four are shepherded along by their long-suffering pub landlord, Jeanie, who is a pro-democracy activist.

The narrative begins with a picture of expat life on HK. Paul tries to teach English to stroppy kids. Nick is bullied by bankers in his running club, “Pure Hash”. While Fenton, relic of Empire, has holed up in his compound, waiting for one last showdown with the commies.

Our expats receive their expulsion orders and a death…

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84. Local man, 46, WLTM wife

Lancaster Guardian 4Here’s our story in the latest Lancaster Guardian, my local paper (we don’t get the Buenos Aires Times delivered round these parts). My wife and I are enormously lucky compared to many separated couples around the world, but it’s true to say that the demands placed on our relationship by the Covid-19 lockdown and the financial/emotional demands of the UK visa system have presented us with some of the biggest challenges of our lives. You can read our full story here and a piece in the (more famous) Guardian on how non-UK spouses have been left in limbo during the pandemic here. The latest Home Office advice for those in similar situations was updated on 8 June 2020 and suggests some flexibility when it comes to meeting financial requirements and providing documents, which is a step in the right direction.

83. Review: Ramble Book by Adam Buxton (Audible)

Adam and Rosie by Ben Catchpole

Adam with ‘hairy bullet’ Rosie – by Ben Catchpole

Outside the Led Zeppelin song, to ramble on gets a bad press. No one wants to be ensnared in chat brambles with a semi-sozzled rambler at a party, and I apologise to anyone I’ve cornered in such circumstances. Happily, soon into the audio version of Ramble Book (Audible, £14.99) you begin to suspect that being trapped in a lift for a few days with comedian, podcaster, film-maker and actor Adam Buxton wouldn’t be so bad, provided there were toilet facilities, somewhere to stash his fold-up bike, and treats for his beloved dog, Rosie. A few chapters later, you start wondering whether rambling could one day surpass more academically acceptable forms of biography at fun-time universities of the type the author failed to attend (those bloody UCAS forms).

Anyway, of primary interest is not the quantity of ramble, but the quality. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that Buxton is someone unafraid of giving too much of himself away: an emotional middle-aged family man, content in his relationships, insulated by creature comforts, yet driven to make more sense of the world and himself than might actually be available – even when such quests lead to personal or professional disappointment. Self-indulgent? Self-aware, I’d argue. And curious. Anyone who’s immersed themselves in one or more of Buxton’s intimate podcast experiences will know how finely tuned his radar is to those beyond his domestic bubble, as demonstrated by his range of guests, and willingness to take on topics well outside his comfort zone. Listeners will also know how difficult it is to refer to our charming narrator (Adam!) by his surname.

Buxton Podcast art by Helen Green

Illustration by Helen Green – click for pods

For those unaware of the author, Adam shot to fame with his comedy partner, film director Joe Cornish, through The Adam and Joe Show (Channel 4, 1996-2001) – an irreverent take on pop culture featuring famous moments from cinema re-enacted with stuffed animals and Star Wars figures, and ‘Vinyl Justice’, in which pop stars of the day allowed their record collections to be scrutinised by the cheeky pair (Mark E Smith of The Fall proving a memorable foil).

The show also starred Adam’s father, Nigel, formerly travel editor of the snooty Sunday Telegraph, in the role of ‘BaaadDad’. Buxton senior’s posh tones and game approach (sharing a spliff at a music festival, bonding with rapper Coolio in LA) complemented the zaniness of the programme, and the era, but despite travelling the world together at the height of their success, Adam was unable to bond with his dad to the extent you might expect in the circumstances. As with schoolmate Louis Theroux’s father, the well-regarded travel writer Paul, it wasn’t easy for the older man to fully adjust to the whimsical nature of his offspring.

Adam’s relationship with Nigel, whom he helped nurse through the last months of his life in 2015, is closely (and movingly) examined in Ramble Book, but there’s no shoehorning, time-lining or flat-lining here in an effort to obey memoirish convention. Chronology is strictly optional, and the book is more enjoyable for it. Certainly in audio form, the scattershot approach makes the drive-by rambles intensely personal. Ever willing to examine – and mock – himself, the one step forward, two steps back, three steps sideways approach reflects a stuttering ‘progression’ through life familiar to most of us. When accompanied by consistently moreish humour and compassion, the hours (of which the author provides a generous quota) fly.

Almost predictably (well, very predictably – it’s advertised on the cover) the end of the audiobook proves a false dawn. Their continued ability to amuse one another and the nation affirmed by their 6Music show (BBC, 2007-11), Adam and Joe add a coda to the book with a podcast in lieu of a séance with Bowie. Why Bowie? Because Adam’s adoration of a man he would only ever glimpse from afar is key to the other up-and-down relationship at the heart of the book. His acknowledgement that his surreal Bowie impressions might be considered disparaging to his hero hints at the complex feelings many of us have towards famous figures, and how easy it is to see them as a member of the family, ripe for ribbing. I’m sure it’s a relationship plenty of Adam’s ‘podcats’ continue to navigate with him.

When he discusses the book’s editing process, it’s tempting to get greedy for more detail on the Adam and Joe years, and the pair’s pivotal role in 6Music’s journey to national treasure-dom, but I found it impossible to resist reaching the conclusion that this is a near-perfect ramble through the inner thoughts of a man who wears his honesty both humbly and defiantly. Like so many others, I return the love that Adam gives his readers and listeners with plenty of my own.

Ramble Book (Harper Collins) by Adam Buxton is available in hardback from 3 September 2020. I’ll be buying a copy from my local independent bookshop.

82.Everything’s a bit odd: finding your feet in lockdown as a non-essential writer


The word nudger in action

I’ve just started Chapter 7 of my new novel and am nudging 10,000 words.

First, I should reassure guilt-wracked writers (and writers are nothing if not guilty) and guilt-free readers alike that I haven’t stuck to the 2,000-words-a-day rule. The ideas for this book, and the characters in it, had been forming in the back of my mind, and indecipherably in notepads, for several months before I opened up Word, followed the header, footer and page number protocol; changed the proofing language to UK English, and double-checked all other relevant settings (imagining myself an astronaut preparing for a mission) until I was left with no choice but to begin – with more hope than expectation, and fanfare roughly equivalent to a liberated rat fart.

Yet all this is normal, for me. Each novel I’ve written, only one of which has been published, has started more-or-less the same way – with an incubation period followed by several months of writing, shaped around other work and life commitments. What are far from normal are the circumstances in which I find myself beginning ‘Suburbanites go Loco in Lockdown: Part I of the Disinfected Masses Trilogy.’*

Scrimshand writing room

Writing room for The Legend of Scrimshand by Ana Rebolledo

Fortunately for you, I don’t have much cause to moan about my situation – not yet anyway. My friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, where I’d missed SARS but heard all about it, were quick to warn me to take this virus seriously. Naturally paranoid, I did as I was told and shut myself away ASAP; even the care package from employers in my former home – containing masks and cartoon-themed stationery – was handled with plastic kid gloves when delivered by a key worker, who received my bellowed appreciation with a heroic shrug.

Okay, so I better get on with it. As returning readers will know, I don’t do concise very well and you’re unlikely to be assailed by a hail of bullet points or cluster of click-bait on these pages, but brace yourself for what passes for advice to fellow word divers round here.

(*real title infinitely more subtle, sexy and succinct, obvs)

No routine is routine
You wake up at 5am, sweaty and disorientated, wondering why you haven’t had any of the vivid dreams everyone’s talking about – what price that kind of free material? No matter, there’s no commute to stress about today. You could try to go back to sleep, but you’d probably find yourself dwelling on recent communication breakdowns with your wife who is thousands of miles away; better to brew a coffee (please drink responsibly) and return to bed with the laptop and begin.

Begin what exactly? That depends how you’ve decided to compartmentalise your days. Most of mine follow a familiar pattern: an hour of fiction in bed (not that sort), university work until lunch; freelance editing; Joe Wicks workout (who could resent him those bestsellers now?); more editing and then fiction writing until dinner with an hour or so of Netflix or iPlayer thereafter.

The days are full but imperfectly formed. Where’s the time I promised to dedicate to the books and films I’ve been meaning to tackle for years? How am I going to improve as a writer if I’m not giving myself the time to absorb the genius of others?  I’m sure you’ve developed your own set of bespoke obstacles to prevent you from achieving a similarly mythical equilibrium. Perhaps like me you’ve concluded that what’s important is staying flexible enough in body and mind to take a deep breath and accept your limitations. If not, there’s always the Tibetan singing bowls.

Explore online events

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Let’s face it, unless you’re a key worker or scientist working on a vaccine, there’s not much more you can do to impact on what’s happening now than staying home, looking out for neighbours and donating to appropriate charities, if you can afford to. It sounds obvious, but following the news all day is only going to make you feel more helpless than you do already. Try using the Stephen Fry approach and check in on global events twice a day, devoting the time you save to following your passion instead. For readers and writers there’s an ever-expanding resource of stimulating reassurance available via online literary events.

BookBound2020 is the first I’ve followed. If you missed it, why not dive into the diverse range of author discussions available on their YouTube channel? Consider spending what you would have on travel to a venue, drinks etc. to support the mental health charity Mind, with whom they’ve partnered. As if on cue, the first forum I entered relayed the damage inadvertently done to writers by the fiercely competitive publishing industry in pitting them against one another, when they should all be part of the kind of community BookBound2020 and others are striving for.

On Friday 8 May, the Big Book Weekend is kicking off (so to speak – as we’ve just said, the days of authors trying to knock each other’s wine-stained teeth out are to be confined to the past). Here big-hitters like Neil Gaiman and AL Kennedy will be sharing their undoubted wisdom but I’m particularly looking forward to joining my long-term writing ally Maria Roberts in watching our comrade Zoe Lambert talk about her part in the Resist anthology (Comma) on Sunday 10 May at 11am.

I was fortunate enough to launch Hong Kong Rocks with Zoe’s help in February, just before the world changed. Authors are now relying on social media platforms to catapult their babies towards a hungry readership. These online launches can be wonderfully intimate and – crucially – devoid of karaoke (my apologies to the Gregson Centre). I particularly enjoyed hearing Sarah Jasmon reading extracts from her novel You Never Told Me from her canal boat via Facebook Live.

On 6 May you can join poet Mathew Welton at the launch of his delicious-sounding Squid Squad (Carcanet). Maybe see you there?

And if you’re feeling really desperate you could always check out my YouTube channel where bitesize promo films for Hong Kong Rocks from artist and animator Ana Rebolledo nudge shoulders with a couple of semi-improvised ‘skits’ and ongoing readings from the author (i.e. me).

Handpick opportunities
You might find entering a writing contest gives you a helpful timeframe in which to complete a specific project, but take care to manage expectations and go easy on yourself. Avoid high profile competitions charging £25 for the opportunity to have a story you may have dug out of your soul summarily dismissed by strangers who may be overwhelmed with entries (and money).

Literary journals could be a better bet, though some of these may also demand a submission fee. A friend with her own publication tells me a modest contribution is necessary to cover expenses, and avoid the kind of blanket spamming that can occur if you open the online floodgates. Crucially, she pays writers for their contributions, as do Orca, who are charging $3 to submit to their speculative fiction edition (deadline 1 June), encouraging those who can afford to pay to offset the 100 submissions that will avoid the charge.

This kind of thoughtful approach to a delicate business might be something to look out for amidst the increasing number of lockdown call-outs for fresh material.

Podcasts for house cats
There’s no need to prepare that banana bread in the respectful silence it deserves, plug the buds into your hairy lugholes and aim for humour: Great Big Owl is an excellent resource for original comedy/TV nostalgia – The Box of Delights, Heavy Pencil, and I am Anna Mann being amongst the standouts. Athletico Mince and Adam Buxton have deserved reputations for eliciting neighbour-bothering laugh-cries, while the eye-wateringly surreal Beef and Dairy podcast will put you off gristly, panel-based comedy for life. Should you want to discover the human/humorous side of the journalists relaying our daily grimness try From Our Own Correspondent, presented by the ever-cool Kate Adie.

Keep calm and Carrie on

Keep calm and Carrie on

Write a diary
In New York, a city stuck between an ocean and a racist POTUS with a vendetta against the urbanites who first saw through him, a writer friend is keeping it together with the help of therapeutic wordsmithery, most of which goes into his diary, and a little of which I’m privileged to sample via email. Who would have imagined 40 days ago that by May he’d be advising me to take solace in the siege of Skipton Castle, and I’d be consoling him after defeat in a fight (‘I quickly succumbed and died’) with a muscular young Korean man in one of those vivid dreams?

I won’t bore on about the benefits of writing down your daily feelings but it’s worked for me for many years. This isn’t about trying to get published; or otherwise sharing your all-important agenda, and is all the better for it. My advice would be to type one up rather than buying a pre-printed agenda full of expectant pages – some days you’ll write a sentence, other days you’ll want to vent. Let it out. Enjoy it. It’s a guilt-free gift to yourself in a world where self-care is a prerequisite to helping others.

In conclusion
There’s probably not a lot here you haven’t thought of for yourself already. If it’s any consolation, writing down my coping mechanisms has helped me cope with this madness for a couple of hours. If I could follow my own advice I would be in a better place mentally than I care to admit, but I guess that’s the same for all of us.

You don’t need my love or luck but here it is anyway – on a tin hat platter flecked with badly burnt banana bread crumbs (let’s not even get into my culinary/horticultural failings). Take care, and write it down. For now at least, the process of putting one word after another to form a sentence at a time, remains a fundamental way of communicating our feelings, to ourselves and to the slowly-healing world out there.

Five reasons to buy my debut novel Hong Kong Rocks during lockdown: 1) Escapism (‘the first un-put-down-able book I’ve read in ages’) 2) Excitement (‘spirals out of control like a Cohen Brothers movie’) 3) Comedy (‘the author’s distinctive wit can be felt throughout’) 4) Insight (‘parts and people of Hong Kong that only some may know’) 5) Half-price summer sale! Email hongkongrocksnovel@gmail.com to order a signed & dated copy for just £7+P&P.

81. Inside out: writing as an expat in changing times

(NB – This is a guest post I was asked to write for innovative Hong Kong publisher Zizzle and first appeared on their Zizzling Pan blog earlier this month)
Good day sirHere are a few thoughts on writing as an expat and a little advice shared in the spirit of free expression; a freedom that – if I’ve understood it correctly – allows for occasional misunderstandings and faux-pas, and few right or wrong answers when it comes to telling your stories from wherever you happen to be in the world.

Not so long ago, expat writers’ portraits of  “exotic” (to Western eyes) places such as Hong Kong — usually expressed in the language of colonisation — provided the impressions most trusted by an international readership. Think Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell and others. These days the reverse is true – we prefer to hear from local writers raised within and fully connected to a region’s language and culture.

But this does not mean there is no longer a place for the expat writer, provided they accept a responsibility to observe and record without prejudice while being aware that their cultural background will always influence their perceptions.

In my experience, living overseas is a double boon to any writer. First, you will find that your recollections of your home country (or wherever you lived before) will sharpen, allowing you to scratch that itch and etch out whatever stories you’ve left untold from your previous life. Second, you will discover yourself embracing a multi-armed, many-hued octopus of change that, after slapping you around for a bit, will pass you a pen and paper and tell you to get cracking on some new stuff.

peter solo 209

My first published novel – set entirely in Hong Kong

Here’s the advice bit: even if you don’t manage to learn the language or languages spoken in your new home, try to put yourself in situations wherein you have no choice but to engage with its culture.

One reason (I tell myself) I know so little Cantonese is because I took a full-time job with a local company while living in Hong Kong. Most of my Hongkongese colleagues spoke perfect English. I simply didn’t need to learn Cantonese. But I did learn much from them about what it means to be a Hongkonger and formed some lasting friendships. Studying or working overseas is a sure-fire way to avoid writing as a tourist.

Next, don’t rely on fellow expats to shed light on your host country in your native tongue. This is harder to resist than you might expect. On a recent trip to Uruguay a priority was to visit a legendary bookshop in Montevideo called Puro Verso. This is a truly beautiful place in a little-known gem of a country. And yet, instead of asking my Argentinian wife to recommend some local writers (something she has since done) I asked a member of staff whether a famous British writer, married to a Uruguayan, ever visited Puro Verso – perhaps he’d hosted an event to promote one of his notoriously scathing books on UK life and culture here? I wondered what his take on this part of Latin America might be.

Puro Verso bookshop 2

The splendid Puro Verso bookshop in Montevideo

In truth, I just wanted a break from speaking and listening to Spanish. Maybe there was someone I could speak to in English ‘round here? I’m glad I didn’t bump into my fellow expat anyway – I have a terrible track record when meeting famous authors. An embarrassing half-hour trapped in a broom cupboard with Will Self springs to mind…

Finally, as an expat writer, try not to dictate to your readers when it comes to what’s happening in your new home. The role of fiction is not to preach, or stray into the realms of dogma, any more than is the case with journalism. Works of the imagination usually carry the hallmarks of their author’s opinions, but it is important to allow your characters to act out the confrontations and contradictions that bubble through any society. Dare your readers to make up their own minds and form their own opinions based on the insights you provide.

Having said that, every writer must decide when, or whether, to snatch the baton from their characters and take a more explicit stand when it comes to highlighting injustice. Only you will know if the time is right to make your fiction issue-driven. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to add to the smorgasbord of viewpoints that unite readers around this interconnected world, wherever they happen to hail from.

Can you guess the identity of the famous British writer mentioned in the text? To win a signed copy of Hong Kong Rocks by Peter Humphreys, post his name beside the @theworddiver Instagram post designed to promote this piece. Good luck!


80. Books I intend to read in 2020

Books for 2020
First, the basics. When your partner is a constant source of knowledge and inspiration (see previous post) and has learnt Ancient Greek ‘por diversión’ (‘for sh*ts and giggles’ as we say in the UK) there’s no excuse not to make an odyssey to the university library to demand a copy of Homer’s The Iliad (in translation, please). Suspect I’ll find within it more of what I need to become a half-decent writer.

Next, the flights of fancy. I was lucky enough to be in the same workshop group as author Brendan Le Grange during much of my time in Hong Kong and so have already sampled some tasty chunks of his second novel Butterfly Hill. Le Grange manages to evoke the political undercurrents and visceral nature of our former home while adding tightly-written elements of the best thrillers available. When I have to insert page-turning action into my meandering musings I think of how he might do it. I’m also looking forward to reading more of George Salis’s lyrical prose, having begun his debut novel, Sea Above, Sun Below.

I first sampled Salis’s work in Zizzle (Promiseshore), a beautifully-produced series of hardbacked compendiums designed for parents to read with their children, or teachers with their students, each dashed with magic by a guest illustrator. I’m overdue a read of Issue 2. Zizzle’s editor and creator is also a Hong Kong writer of note, Yuetting Cindy Lam. An upcoming Word Diver post on writing as an expat will be shared with the Zizzle blog, ‘Zizzling Pan’, so watch this space.
Cortazar and Tango in San Telmo.jpg
The Argentinian short story writer, Julio Cortázar, will be accompanying me on my next trip to Buenos Aires as I begin the collection named after his most famous work, Blow-Up (Pantheon). I’m also looking forward to reading Dorothy Parker for the first time, while my non-fiction reads will be Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books), having heard her interviewed on the infinitely entertaining/educational Adam Buxton podcast, and On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director (Farrah, Straus and Giroux) by Alexander Mackendrick, to ensure I’m ready to make that first film, or at least better understand those I’m watching. The introduction by Martin Scorsese is a mere 300 pages long and employs age-defying technology to spruce up some of the older words he uses.

Eoghan Walls’ poetry collection Pigeon Songs (Seren) was launched last year in Lancaster. You can see Eoghan reading ‘To Half-Inchling’ here, his unflinching wit extending deep into personal loss. ‘Pigeons do not sing’ Kei Miller forewarns us on its opening pages, but fortunately – from the poems I’ve heard him bring to life – Eoghan does.

Eoghan’s tribute to a much-underrated bird reminds me of a section in my first novel (briefly self-published) in which a lovelorn pigeon suffers a heart attack while desperately seeking his mate, plummeting to earth from the skies above Milan, and causing a car accident in which a right-wing politician suffers a foot injury that sabotages the ‘strongman’ speech he is to deliver the next day. We would surely miss these filthy flappers were they to go the way of the dodo.

More seriously, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling there is more of an obligation than ever this year for artists of all types to create work that in some way helps counter the rise in populism being stoked around the globe just now. I would love to write gentle satires for a tiny readership indefinitely but have come to accept this may not be good enough.

Political sculptor Jason de Cairnes Taylor (see The Pride of Brexit) loosely translates a Spanish poem to illustrate his compelling ethos: ‘I disdain art that doesn’t take sides till it’s soaked in blood, I disdain art conceived as a luxury, neutral for the neutrals.’

Which doesn’t have to mean embracing factionalism, at the expense of losing likely allies with whom we may not agree on every nuance of belief – or in how we use the increasingly complex terminology deployed in the language of liberation. When asked about a perceived obligation on his part to stand up for African-Americans, James Baldwin (often to be found at his desk in Europe, rather than the States) told the Paris Review, ‘Yourself and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really. In spite of the quarrels you may have. And your people are all people.’

The challenge now, as I see it, is not persuading citizens with nothing to lose to join the struggle for a fundamentally fairer, unrecognisably greener world, but persuading those with something to lose to risk everything in the name of peace, equality and human dignity. To do this we need powerful art and literature that not only exposes the creeping fascism poisoning our societies, but also demonstrates the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in, and suggests ways for people to fight back against those intent on destroying humanity for their own ends.

Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse) by Peter Humphreys is available on Amazon now and will be launched in the UK in 2020.

79. Books I can remember reading in 2019

Having failed to get these recollections online before the end of 2019, I’m relieved to have managed it before the end of the world. Writing/creating as an internal/cathartic process, as opposed to an external/commercial or political activity, was a topic I found myself discussing regularly last year. Fortunately for readers, writing appears to have offered solace, for a while at least, to Virginia Woolf. My wife – a firm advocate of therapeutic creativity, though an educational whirlwind when it comes to politics – introduced me to her work in 2019.
Some books of 2019I read Orlando (Penguin Modern Classics) and Mrs Dalloway (Wordsworth Classics), finding, as many have before me, Woolf’s taking of liberties with narrative and language regularly rewarding and occasionally frustrating. She is a much funnier writer than I’d anticipated, but in Orlando warns us that ‘brilliant wit can be tedious beyond description’ and, in fact, it is her breathtaking description of icebergs (upon which doomed citizens sit calmly, scream loudly; or play piano) racing along the just-thawed Thames in that book, and her unflinching compassion for Septimus Smith, PTSD-suffering WWI veteran in Mrs Dalloway, that will stay with me longest.

Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Kate Atkinson’s steely female ARP warden in Life after Life (Black Swan) is named Woolf. I must confess to finding Atkinson’s descriptions of the blitz, and its aftermath, the most affecting part of a hefty book with a concept I could never fully buy into.
The Dark Stuff.jpgFormerly of the NME and The Face, Nick Kent’s irreverent, podcast-length features on rock n’ rollers in The Dark Stuff (Faber and Faber) are a reminder that you’ve been reading too many cosy accounts of well-adjusted musos in the Sunday papers (or however you get your news).

No one, whether the household name in question, significant other or hanger-on, is let off the hook in Kent’s in-depth investigations into the souls of some of the twentieth century’s heftiest icons. He sticks with the story, in the case of Brian Wilson returning to interview him over the decades; finding the songwriter never quite recovered from Eugene Landy, the cuckoo-like psychologist who appears to have nested successfully between Wilson’s ears, but capable of some form of closure as, in time with the Pacific waves lapping nearby, he tells Kent, ‘I know I’ll always have a spiritual power in this world.’

On drugs, especially his piece on Syd Barrett, I found Kent’s conclusions interesting, wondering if he tended to blame formative incidents for subsequent mental breakdowns as a way of maintaining that his contemporaneous rock n’ roll lifestyle was causing no permanent damage. Pure speculation on my part. In any case, his musings on this and other matters pop, rock and life stray far from the official line and I was grateful for that.

Sticking with music, We Were Strangers (Cōnfingō) is a beautifully produced and impressively varied collection of stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP. While Nicholas Royle stays on-topic with impressive dedication – using only words from song lyrics employed in the album as his anxious narrator struggles to express their fears in ‘Disorder’ – Zoe Lambert writes movingly on the epilepsy that plagued Ian Curtis in ‘She’s Lost Control’, and David Gaffney hilariously in ‘Insight’, a deadpan tale of what might happen were you to buy the lead singer’s old house in Macclesfield…then be asked to sell his garage by a ‘big fella with crooked teeth’.
Vintage CheeverI also swooned over John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ in his Collected Stories (Vintage Classics) – you may recall an old TV ad for jeans stealing the concept of a trespasser helping himself to a cheeky length in pool after pool as sun-kissed neighbours look on. Like so much else I read this year, it reminded me how far I still have to go to achieve what I want in my work.

Pretending to write in Aigburth

A young Word Diver struggles to finish one of his unfinished novels

Since I began travelling to Argentina frequently a couple of years ago, Jorge Lois Borges has become a regular read. The brief, faux-historical tales in his A Universal History of Iniquity (Penguin Classics) have been a key influence on my new collection of short stories, Folk Tales for Adult Kids, which I hope to publish in 2020.

Something else that I hope sees the light of day is a TV adaptation of Maria Roberts’s short story The Heatwave, a timely tale of suffering and solidarity set on a Manchester housing estate. I read Maria’s screenplay this year, having heard her read the original short story, published by Comma, at a literary event way back.

As well as hitting the Spanish books, lessons and excellent Duolingo podcast series, I will be finishing reading (in translation, sadly) Juan Rulfo’s novella Pedro Páramo (Serpent’s Tail) and Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (also Serpent’s Tail) this year – the former a classic ghost story drawing on Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions, the latter a galloping, non-fiction horror detailing the ways the region has been ruthlessly gutted by Western governments for centuries; a grim process of arch-cynicism that shows no sign of stopping as we slash and burn our way into the 2020s.

I’ll post a preview of what else I’ll be reading in 2020 soon. This is likely to include several books I’ve been intending to read for years (they sit beside the books I’ve been intending to write for years). Some may never get opened. In the words of Saki, whose tales I enjoyed for the first time in 2019, ‘The young have aspirations that never come to pass; the old have reminiscences of what never happened. It’s only the middle-aged who are really conscious of their limitations.’

Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse) by Peter Humphreys is available on Amazon now and will be launched in the UK in 2020.

78. Distraction Poetry

Nube elefante

Detail from ‘Nube elefante’, Mauro Koliva

Until we work out which larger acts of resistance to use against five more years of Tory lies, xenophobia and depravations under Boris Johnson here’s a small one you can try; who knows, maybe it will confuse some of his tax-dodging friends, perhaps even lose them a penny or two.

For every genuine enquiry you type into your search engine (e.g. ‘Best countries to emigrate to in 2020’) type something wholly invented as well (e.g. ‘Where can I find an enormous hat companion for the 1948 Olympics?’). It might just throw the algorithms employed by the corporate barons to sell you crap off your scent. It could even help disguise your true intentions when it comes to the struggles ahead.

I know, it’s a little pathetic. But – if your brain is wired anything like mine – it’s also creative, fun and strangely addictive. I call it ‘distraction poetry’ and you can find more examples of it here and here. Give it a go, and in the course of your random searches you might just churn up some grains of insight on the seabed of the net that you can fling into the smug faces of those in charge. Every little helps!

77. Beef with Claus

Christmas sentinelWhile I pine for my wife as a Christmas tree yearns to shed its needles in the furthest echelons of your living room, at this time of year it’s best we meet on her side of the equator. She needs sunshine, and here in Lancaster in December it’s hard enough to find sufficient light. After my morning stint at home I walk to the city centre, surfboard tucked under my arm, to chase a few watery rays before gloom encases the city and it becomes a romantic silhouette of itself, minus the romance. I don’t mind the melancholy so much. I might have been away for a few years, but this is the country I grew up in – I can’t say I wasn’t warned. However, it doesn’t take much for the ice in my veins to start bubbling with seasonal rage, as happened yesterday in Poundland.

Readers of my short-lived Toxic Bachelor blog will recall both my fondness for bargain stores, and my poor track record in negotiating their subtleties. But my confidence was high this week. I’d avoided slipping on the pavement beside the ice rink and paid my respects to the solitary sentinel above the chemist’s (pictured). Having stopped off at the croaky tobacconist’s therein, I’d emerged from ‘Santa’s Passage’ (last month no more than an austere shortcut into town) relatively unscathed. Charity shops scoured, I decided to stop off at Poundland on my way home – seeking something cheap and cheerful.

Unlike wedding anniversaries, the materials utilised for Christmas celebrations year on year never seem to change – plastic and chocolate. Yes, it’s time for the annual blowout; to forget the problems of the world by creating more of them. Perhaps you’re thinking this is the year I finally surrender all my worldly goods and wander the country barefoot preaching abstinence? You’re misremembering – that’s next year. Instead, grim-faced and guilt-ridden, I take my shopping to the self-service checkout seeking a quick getaway. What I get is the disembodied voice of an imposter.

‘Ho, ho, ho – unauthorised item in the bagging area!’

A schoolboy error. Rucksacks trigger alarm bells, or worse – robotic jollity. Because it seems Santa is moonlighting in place of the standard mechanical orator we all know and love. Perusing the clogged aisles, it’s clear we’ll be waiting a while. I’m content to wait in silence. The same can’t be said for Santa.

‘I think I’ll have a mince pie while we’re waiting – yum, yum!’

You have to be kidding. Not only is Santa insulting my intelligence with this little charade, but the bastard fails to offer me one. I tell him what he can do with his mince pie, under my breath, then thank the woman who comes to help before resuming scanning.

‘Ho, ho, ho – product requires age verification!’

Another schoolboy error (Santa can’t tell if I’m over 18, apparently, nor whether I’ve been a good boy – the cigarette papers suggest not).

‘I think I’ll have a mince pie while we’re waiting – yum, yum!’

This time I fail to keep my voice down when replying to Santa, allowing him to enjoy the moral victory his pompous tone suggests was never in doubt.

Heading home I detect the unmistakable scent of effluent in the moistening air – either from Santa’s passage or the drains; or perhaps the river or canal. I’ve nothing against Lancaster. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the UK. But the city’s appeal isn’t ever likely to run up and smack you in the face, like the smell of faecal matter. On plenty of days the most inspiring thing about wandering its streets is witnessing the unfussy goodness in ordinary, uncelebrated members of the public; people despised by the current government and scorned by the tabloids.

Because, despite getting my knickers in a twist in Poundland, and beginning a beef with Santa that could end badly (he has some powerful friends in the media), I couldn’t help noticing a couple of elderly people assisting a group with learning difficulties, some in wheelchairs, with their Christmas shopping. Details like these are my personal source of Christmas cheer. Long life to them. Up yours Santa.

76. Hong Kong Rocks

Gillian_Hong Kong Rocks cover Revised.jpgSo what was The Islands of Hong Kong has become Hong Kong Rocks (working with a publisher, learning to share decisions and make compromises has been educational) and a relatively calm 2018 in Hong Kong has been replaced by a nightmarish 2019. Against this backdrop, the novel I completed over a year ago is launched today (21 November 2019) at Proverse’s autumn reception in my former home city.

While happy to be introducing Hong Kong Rocks to an unsuspecting readership, now is not the time to promote a satirical, thought-provoking, but ultimately comedic thriller in a Hong Kong experiencing violent unrest on an unprecedented scale.

Instead I will concentrate on a UK launch in early 2020, appreciative of Proverse’s international reach, and hoping it won’t be too long before the journalistic voices narrating the unfolding history of Hong Kong can be joined by the storytellers essential to long-term healing, understanding and diversion.

As can be seen on social media, a number of gifted Hong Kong writers (such as poet/PEN Hong Kong president Tammy Lai-Ming Ho) have proved themselves capable of fulfilling  both roles at this testing time. My thoughts are with them.

I will doubtless write more about Hong Kong Rocks soon, perhaps with reference to the lengthy editing process (a necessary evil but not one you’d want to get chatting to at a party) or my fledgling attempts to market the book. In the meantime, here’s the blurb:

Nick Powell, arriving in Hong Kong with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lennox, finds himself drawn into the political machinations affecting the city as the Occupy movement of 2014 takes root.  A fatal accident exposes the factions vying for control of the SAR and gives Nick the second chance desired by many Hong Kong expats. Will he make the most of the opportunity, or find himself on the wrong side of history?  Shifting between a variety of unique voices, Hong Kong Rocks (a Hong Kong Proverse Prize finalist) is part thriller, part creative exploration of the challenges facing a special administrative region punching above its weight.

Order Hong Kong Rocks from Amazon 
Order Hong Kong Rocks through Proverse, Hong Kong 
Look out for details of the UK launch here and on Instagram (@theworddiver)
And if you have any Rocks-related enquires, feel free to email me at humphreyspeter@rocketmail.com

75. Over the Border

Over the border
The sun shines
But it is not real
The work continues
But it has no substance
The clouds move
Or appear to anyway
But none of it is real
Over the border
It is real
It is so real it tears
Your body from soul
We play our songs
And drink our drinks
Waking up to find
The sun shines
But it is not real
Over the border
It is real

Illustration ©Ana Rebolledo

74. Tickets please

The inventor of
The train ticket
Lived down the road:
It was his ticket
Out of here.

(All the way to Manchester
Where he died in 1851)

Teenage couple
Can’t wait to make
Their fortune to escape;
Can’t quite raise
The fare to anywhere –
Just know they must be going.

Hiding in disabled loos
Between carriages
Where Edmondson rode
Upfront in topper, one imagines,
Signing stubs and visualising
Tickertape parades on Princess Street.

Where to go is moot (toot-toot!)
For our young heroes.
“Please wash your hands” (they do)
Then jump the barricades
To find a world run by
Fat controllers, grey cardinals
Entwined – demanding tickets please.

Soon they are proven to be on
The wrong side of the tracks;
Then sitting on the fence
At an erroneous angle
By blinking data readings on
Smart troops’ smart watches.

(The Internet thinks
What I type is what I want,
So up pops an ad for a
Military smart watch:
Henceforth official timer
Of this poem.)

Here the ghost of Edmondson
Decides to intervene.
“God is in everyone,”
He tells the tooled-up bureaucrats
“Not according to this,”
Comes the reply; but when they
See his pasty Quaker face and swoon
The couple are off again.

Finding a planet blighted
By splurge and gut-greed,
And while weeping over birds
In sticky deaths throes
On foamy beaches
The couple decide
To try Plan B.

The office is manned
By a man in a topper,
They ask for one-way tickets;
Edmondson requests a code
Downloaded from a website,
Then smiles: “Please permit
My little joke.” They do.

And off they go again;
You hear the engines roar
While hanging out the washing;
But don’t worry, old man,
Old woman, old ghost –
You are not compelled
To join them: your only duty
Is to let them go (ticket or no ticket).

73. Goodbye to all cash?

Silver dollarCashless pubs – an overdue innovation for a struggling sector, or the thin end of the wodge, as our interactions become increasingly dependent on technology, and the pinpoint precision with which it tracks our movements?

Depressing to find the pub closest to me, a fine place to drink and eat with which I have no other complaints, now only accepts card payments. Efficiency is mooted, the most overrated aspect of our current society. And, the management claim, it’s reflective of customer habits – the customers a modern pub wants to attract, anyway. No more looking down the back of the sofa for nuggets of the non-chicken variety – overnight a series of invisible signs has been propped up beside the shouty SKY SPORTS blackboard. The first to catch the eye: Buskers, Bankrupts and those of No Fixed Abode not welcome here. Indefinitely.

All this tech. All this joined up tech. It’s not that we’re necessarily being spied on now; not unless you happen to fall into an ethnic group under perpetual suspicion – we’re simply allowing the tools for a surveillance society to be put in place if/when we get an elected leader who isn’t wild about elections, as is happening in many parts of the world right now. Fortunately, we still have a minimum wage in the UK, but it doesn’t amount to enough to let you go contactless all day, tempting as that may be. Consider the bar staff deprived of those modest ‘keep the change’ gestures. Another freshly painted sign: Charming and helpful bar staff must rely on cashless customers utilising that awkward piece of pottery marked TIPS.

I can’t deny my bias. Having lived in Hong Kong; having friends in Hong Kong who have no choice but to stay there, the latest news about the Chinese governments roll-out of a yet-more intrusive, data-based monitoring system (there’s only so many times you can huff ‘Why should I worry if I’ve got nothing to hide?’ before it sounds like utter crap) gives me the fucking willies, and why wouldn’t it?

The issue may soon be out of our hands, here on our small island anyway. In Latin America, dollars are kept under the bed while local currencies fluctuate wildly. They are a safe – if galling – bet, for those who can afford to accumulate them. Ironically, my experience of the US is that the federal system won’t allow a huge amount of joined-up thinking when it comes to the technology taking hold here. Of course, that will change. In the meantime, swallow your pride, and get yourself some bucks. Just don’t expect to be able to spend them down the local, mighty dollar or not.

72. The Games of Death


Who needs Game of Thrones when you have this gem ripe for a multi-million squid TV adaptation? Hints of sadomasochism abound while the ‘tiny man shouting at an ork’ could easily be played by a digitally diminished Aaron Rodgers (NFL reference, sorry). Note to producers: you would need to budget for possible litigation from the original heroes of the genre: Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson.

Judging from the reaction to the Game of Thrones finale, it won’t be long before fans of high-stake TV blockbusters are being asked to choose their preferred story endings, if not their own adventures, in audience polls. Wonder if that’s going to make the writing better or worse?

71. Foolproof anti-algorithm technique disguised as free jazz II – search engine responses

Facial furySelected highlights from my attempts at misinformation mentioned last time.

  • How do you smell my dog’s name in French?
    Dog Names That’ll Make you Say ‘Oui, Oui’
    Name your love pup one of these French dog names, and you’re sure to get even more warm fuzzies for your favorite little fur-ball.
  • Does paper feel regret?
    Psychopaths actually do feel regret, new research finds—they just don’t change. … The paper found that those with signs of psychopathy do, in fact, experience regret over certain decisions. But it seems that they struggle to learn from that regret, and use it to inform future choices.
  • Cabbage camouflage techniques
    By law it is technically illegal to wear camouflage uniforms in public that had been adopted by any military or paramilitary organization. South African companies have produced a large number of varied camouflage patterns from the apartheid period into the present era, in part to provide some legitimate hunting designs for commercial purposes.
  • Renting a toxic waffle maker with a dodgy plug, 1972-76
    We’ve come a long way since the word “waffle” was first introduced to the English language in the 1725 book “Court Cookery” by chef Robert Smith, who swore by the “bake one to try; if they burn, add more butter” method. But as with pancakes, mastering the art of the perfect waffle first time can be tricky. Reject waffles can range from drastically under-cooked in the middle to so burnt that you’ll have to leave the pan soaking in the sink. But it doesn’t have to be that way: these days, fancy waffle makers will do all the hard work for you at the optimum temperature.
  • Can I divorce my guilty feet?
    We built that house, and had kids close together. When they got older, I did start my writing career, but along the way, something happened, and we both agreed the only solution to stay happy was to write a new chapter, which would involve living in separate places — and eventually lead to a divorce.
  • Is disco an Olympic sport?
    When I reflect on the London Games, the moments that resonate with me the most are not the ones where American athletes are standing up on that top pedestal singing “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” While seeing that always floods me with such happiness and pride, the memories that have impacted me the most include the ones that demonstrate the pure goodness of humanity. The moments that, no matter what country you’re from, are bound to stick with you because they strike something deep within.
  • Is my face made of wool?
    Earlier this month I flew to London. I prepped for the flight like any good little beauty editor. Face wipes? Check. A nefarious-looking sheet mask? Of course. Rosewater to mist my face? Certainly. And to lock in all of these transatlantic treatments, I turned to Lano Ointment — a thick balm made from the wool of Australian sheep. Baa-humbug. The ointment’s star ingredient is lanolin, a viscous, gummy formula that may ring a few bells if you’re a new mom or a French-beauty-brand aficionado. Commonly found in diaper-rash treatments, nipple creams, and Avibon, the French retinol salve that makes even the most deferential beauty editor’s lips smack in excitement, lanolin is nature’s answer to fussy, dry skin. Skin is why lanolin exists at all, actually, as it’s secreted by sheep to protect their skin and wool from the environment.
  • Best-paid jobs for unemployed millionaires in Rotherham, 1829-2052
    The average Rotherham salary is £28,170. Currently there are 1,506 live job ads in Rotherham, out of 1,055,507 jobs nationally. Most live job ads in Rotherham are for Healthcare & Nursing Jobs and Teaching Jobs. Salaries in Rotherham have gone up 7.2% year-on-year while the national annual change is 1.0%.
  • Best way to feel feelings (without touching them)
    Besides inner feelings such as sensations as others have mentioned and hot or cold, those that cannot hear or see have a more heightened sense of feelings. Vibrations, such as made by music, someone’s step, or the sound of a car engine, even a door closing, wind at different speeds and temperatures. The feeling of movement, falling, forward movement, climbing or spinning, our inner ear reacts to these often causing motion sickness, you feel what you breath, the consistency of the air, when you step, you not only feel the ground beneath your feet through your shoes, but the density beneath it, it may be soft like mud or hard like concrete.
  • Should I buy my hamster a golf course?
    Get ready to play a challenging round of Hamster Mini Golf. Play mini golf with hamsters! Challenge a friend with two-player mode! Choose the course you’d like to play and the hamster you’d like to play with and set off for a fun golfing adventure!

  • How much is £1.56 worth in pounds and pence twenty minutes ago near the big tree in the park?
    Children need to know the value of each coin and note and understand what these values represent. They should understand that money can be represented in different ways but still have the same value. Children will need to be able to add coin values together to find the total amount.
  • Why can’t I change a million-pound note at Aldi, or Lidl?
    Smoothie and porridge toppers chia, sesame, flaxseed, linseed and pumpkin seeds are the most up and coming health foods of the last few years. While the unt-rendiest part about health food has long been the prices, most Aldis have met the trend with competitively priced packs into the bargain. Pet food is notoriously priced, with owners spending around £7 a week on cat food to feed Oscar or Kitty. Aldi’s Vitacat and Earls cat and dog food brands can be an easy way to feed a beloved pet without raising debts, ranging between £1.50 and £2.50 for a pack of 8 pouches.
  • How do I stop the Queen from ringing me at all hours?
    Having plans in place for the death of leading royals is a practice that makes some journalists uncomfortable. For 30 years, BBC news teams were hauled to work on quiet Sunday mornings to perform mock storylines about the Queen Mother choking on a fishbone. There was once a scenario about Princess Diana dying in a car crash on the M4. These well-laid plans have not always helped. In 2002, when the Queen Mother died, the obit lights didn’t come on because someone failed to push the button down properly. On the BBC, Peter Sissons, the veteran anchor, was criticised for wearing a maroon tie. The last words in Sissons’s ear before going on air were: “Don’t go overboard. She’s a very old woman who had to go some time.”
  • Carpet sale dynamic wrist action shag pile conundrum: when, and for how long?
  • How do I get my recycling back?
    Countries such as China are prepared to pay high prices for recyclables such as waste plastic, mainly because they do not have readily available sources of virgin materials (no indigenous forests or oil supplies) and they have a large manufacturing industry that requires these products. Even though exporting our recyclables means a bigger recycling loop because recyclable materials are transported further, it is still a better environmental option than using virgin, raw materials.
  • Baggage allowance for heaven
    Malta Paradise Holidays
    You must be able to fit your bags into the baggage gauge at check in, including handles, pockets and wheels. You must be able to fit any duty-free and airport purchases into this allowance. The maximum weight per bag is up to 23kg/51lb and you must be able to lift it into the overhead locker by yourself. Infants (under age 2) may take 1 additional cabin bag (as above) only for items they may require during the flight.
  • Nothing: pros and cons
    Petrov hesitated. The technology was new, and surely if the Americans had launched a preemptive strike, they would have fired more than five missiles. Still, he couldn’t be certain. So he waited. Against all training and expectation he waited for an agonizing 23 minutes to see if Soviet surface radar would confirm the launch. It did not. And the world survived another day without nuclear war. Unarguably, the most important contribution Stanislav Petrov made during his lifetime was his decision not to take action.

70. Foolproof anti-algorithm technique disguised as free jazz II

Here we go again. Trying to simultaneously engage with the real world and escape from it over the last few months, I’ve doubtless given far too much of myself away online yet again. Time to dangle my word-clogged trombone over the Internet’s spittle bucket and dribble a few more anti-algorithm distractors into the void. Feel free to slop them down the neck of your favoured search engine, or find the time to create your own. It’s strangely relaxing.

  • How do you smell my dog’s name in French?
  • Wanted: travel toothbrush for philanthropic marsupial
  • Does paper feel regret?
  • Cabbage camouflage techniques
  • Pay for extra legroom or build an extra leg room?
  • Renting a toxic waffle maker with a dodgy plug, 1972-76
  • Can I divorce my guilty feet?
  • Is disco an Olympic sport?
  • Can ears smell poisonous gossip underwater?
  • Is my face made of wool?
  • Best-paid jobs for unemployed millionaires in Rotherham, 1829-2052
  • Best way to feel feelings (without touching them)
  • Should I buy my hamster a golf course?
  • How much is £1.56 worth in pounds and pence twenty minutes ago near the big tree in the park?
  • Why can’t I change a million-pound note at Aldi, or Lidl?
  • How do I stop the Queen from ringing me at all hours?
  • Carpet sale dynamic wrist action shag pile conundrum: when, and for how long?
  • How do I get my recycling back?
  • Baggage allowance for heaven
  • Nothing: pros and cons

Word hungry? Etymology #1

Steamin 2Steaming – i.e. extremely drunk (e.g. ‘Shouldn’t have mixed my drinks, I was steamin’ when I got home’) – originates in Scotland, where legislation in the 1850s meant the only way to enjoy a legal drink on a Sunday was as a traveller; hence the speedy formation of steamship operators offering convenient ‘booze cruises’ along the Clyde. Inevitably, some of these bygone travellers returned to port ‘steamin’’ and in need of a wee; hence, the largest urinal in Scotland is at the pier at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Yes, drinking was a largely male preserve back then, but I’m told facilities for women haven’t exactly come on in leaps and bounds in the interim.

Source: BBC Timeshift

69. Zizzle – a literary magazine for young minds (Issue #1)

Zizzle 1_mag and bookmarksThis gorgeous hardback magazine is infused with generosity – not only do the creators of Zizzle compensate authors for their time and effort (unlike too many other publications) but their readers are treated to lush, varicoloured pages boasting dream-like images amongst 10 stories for youngsters, and those tasked with reading to or with them.

If some of the language in the more advanced stories could potentially flummox work-ragged adults, then this is representative of a calculated risk taken by Hong Kong publisher Yuetting Cindy Lam and Lesley Dahl, the magazine’s North American editor. In their introduction they emphasise the importance of a good story over any attempt to tailor it to a precise age group. This seems both brave and sensible. Many of us advanced quickly through middle-grade fiction and beyond, ignoring any advice on age range offered on covers. Others will have dwelt longer on books designed for readers younger than their years. No big deal.

And yet, to an editor of school textbooks, used to a more formalised approach to language introduction, I did have some concerns when bumping into words and expressions like ‘diminuendo’ and ‘vein-riddled’ in George Salis’ atmospheric ‘The Lightning Conductor’ (which memorably describes goosebumps as ‘skin braille’). Never fear – help is at hard. Zizzle may blur the line between child and adult reading, but it’s not looking to lose anyone along the way. A bookmark can be peeled from the front cover to mark the particular progress of each reading team; the stories are short, and all are helpfully categorised into three difficulty levels – ‘Easy’, ‘Less Easy’ and ‘Not Easy’.

In my role as uncle, I would happily dip into the magazine with my niece and nephews, and suspect each would get something different from it. While I might savour the delicious satire in Ryan Thorpe’s ‘The Border Crossing’, a tale in which a mouse ‘trying to look casual’ heads a line of animals attempting to navigate a border point, my older nephew may prefer to wallow in its more comedic elements. I don’t think the message would be lost either way.

Myth, magic and mystery – as you might expect – bag conspicuous roles in the Zizzle cavalcade. ‘One Wish’ by Jennifer Moore offers a new take on the perils of unchecked desire, while ‘How the Moon Scared the Giant’ by Lenore Weiss casts its light on lonely despotism. Other stories, such as ‘The Road to Valhalla’ by Blake Johnson and ‘Ruby Vidalia’ by Karen Rigby tell of lifelong love affairs with books.

Personally, I like the way these more recognisable narratives are complemented by several abstract visions contemplating loss, or offering similarly melancholy glimpses into adult life – and how you might temporarily escape it. ‘Scarves’ by Cheryl Pappas is especially striking, as a young girl leaves a smiling picnic to create a shrine of discarded animal bones.
Zizzle 2_Andy Wai Kit illustrationAndy Wai Kit, a Malaysian-born animator in the games industry, provides the sweeping visuals that are a highlight of Zizzle’s debut – certainly his work contains more whimsy and humanity than I recall in the computer games I played as a kid, which, despite the momentary relapse offered by Zizzle, I have to concede was a while ago now.

Promishore have produced an exceptionally high-quality product with this first edition of Zizzle; so much so that the international price of US$21 does not seem overly steep. This isn’t a magazine destined to end up in the recycling; it’s a publication to treasure or share, depending on how generous you’re feeling.

68. International Proverse Prize: Islands on the horizon

Islands_Macau ferry.JPGThe Islands of Hong Kong has reached the semi-final stage of the International Proverse Prize, as announced at Proverse’s autumn reception in Hong Kong on 15 November 2018.

Here’s the semi-final line-up:

Lilla Csorgo
Daniel J. Hamilton
Peter Humphreys
Sheng-Wei Wang

Sadly I couldn’t make it to the reception. I’ve spent too much of this year bouncing around the planet’s darkening skies to justify another flight. To find that the story has travelled well is enough; when I sent the manuscript, as per instructions, to a Hotel Coma in Andorra I thought I might be inadvertently taking part in a new Wes Anderson movie.

Islands – a darkly comic literary thriller preoccupied with identity and the meaning of home – represents both a love letter and fond farewell to the place I called home for six years, so to have been shortlisted for the prize is extra-special. Win, lose or draw I’ll let you now how to get hold of a copy of the book as soon as it’s available.

67. Last Dance with Old Friends [contains spoilers]

I began reading Anthony Powell’s sumptuous 12-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time in 2015 and have just closed the covers on its final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies. Semi-autobiographical and covering Britain’s major social upheavals from the Great War to the swinging ‘60s, Powell’s Dance… rarely fails to entertain if (like me) you prefer to observe history through the minutiae of social interaction and the ebb and flow of artistic movements, rather than the watermarked bloodletting beloved of Tory educators. A significant bonus to fans of the former approach is the number of artists and writers Powell encountered during his long and interesting life, and how many of them he teased into fully formed characters in his novel series.

First things first: Powell’s narrative technique won’t be for everyone. His often long and clause-cluttered sentences are likely to grate with contemporary readers whose Twitter diet has encouraged them to be wary of intellectual vagaries and – god forbid – literary pretension. Powell was lucky enough to exist at a time before adverbs and double-negatives were banned; when readers had more time to dwell and puzzle by the fireside, and had the patience (or captive status) required to wait for a chain of thought to develop, graze against them, and then glide down to a soot-stained carpet to join other carefully crafted gems underfoot.

In other words, don’t expect to be bowled over, harangued or challenged to a dance-off if you choose to read these books. Powell doesn’t do punch lines. He’s not looking for a fight. He ends most of his reflections with a wry observation on the bittersweet nature of life, because in the end a little knowing mirth is the best we can hope for. How can I be so sure? Because almost from the start of Dance… it becomes chillingly apparent that – just like us – Powell’s darlings of the ‘20s and ‘30s think they are simply the most delicious and important things in the world, and all their art and lifestyle choices are dashingly original, whereas Powell knows they and their ideas are infinitely replaceable – as it is with this generation, and the last and the next. Which is not to say he doesn’t credit – and occasionally celebrate – the spontaneous humanity of the peers he was born with and the life he was born into.

Here’s an example of the type of sentence Powell uses to frame his gentle intimacies. His narrator, Nick Jenkins, is asked in A Buyer’s Market if he served in the 1914-18 war; service for which he was too young.

‘I thought that enquiry rather unnecessary, not by then aware that, as one grows older, the physical appearance of those younger than oneself offers only a vague indication of their precise age.’

Age is a preoccupation of Powell’s, as might be expected in a work set over several decades. However, he only rarely gravitates towards the melancholy. Here, in Books Do Furnish a Room he speaks of how middle age leads to a reassessment of the casual relationships of youth.

‘…friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone [turning 40]. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.’

A Soldier’s Art also puts plainly how the relentless years impact friendship, something most of us can recognise.

‘Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time.’

Powell’s understated style is as much a reflection of the type of discourse permitted or preferred in his own time as it is of his stylistic choices as a writer. People were getting up to the same type of mischief in the last century as they are today, but it was spoken of in coded language. So when Jenkins is told in A Question of Upbringing that an old school friend is an alcoholic, the purveyor of the news chooses to deliver their update thus:

‘I hear he is drinking just a tiny bit too much nowadays.’

Powell is unusual by today’s standards in using a reliable narrator who exists largely at the periphery of the action. Nick Jenkins is a reasonably successful writer who enjoys a long and stable marriage with the mischievous Isobel, but he is never one to compete with the larger personalities that surround him: he simply allows them to get on with it, for better or worse; giving then enough rope to fly their flag or hang themselves. Here, in the manner of Wilson in TV’s Dad’s Army, he rolls his eyes at a comrade in The Soldier’s Art:

‘Diplock had brought all his own notable powers of confusion to bear, darkening the waters around him like a cuttlefish.’

Ironically, given Powell based many of his characters on real people, it could be that the author – as biographer – is far less reliable than his narrator. Certainly Powell’s character X. Trapnel (accepted to be the cult writer Julian Maclaren-Ross) would agree. You sense that in relaying Trapnel’s thoughts here, Powell – with typically understated humour – may be poking fun at himself and his grand quest for truth, rather than justifying his own choice of genre.

‘People think that because a novel is invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down… The biographer, even at his highest and best can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned by his own egotism. He must always be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is god…’

Jenkins’ role may be that of observer and recorder, but that doesn’t mean he operates in a purely administrative capacity. Nick can be as dry as the desert sometimes, but the people he socialises with, or who are forced upon him by circumstances, are often vivid to behold. Occasionally the unexpected paths their lives take, whether based on fact or invention, are truly heartbreaking.

In an astonishing section of The Soldier’s Art an estranged husband and wife are killed on the same night in separate London locations during a World War II air raid. The writing is beautifully understated. Powell lets the reader decide whether the wandering wife’s sudden malaise midway through a fancy meal, sat beside her lover, is due to guilt; a premonition of her own doom; or telepathic realisation that her husband is about to be killed nearby. Nick/Powell first tells us of the husband’s death. Once news of the wife’s death is revealed, the reader wonders whether she has rushed out to join her ill-fated spouse just before the blast. Weeds of hope spring eternal in the rubble. Did they meet their end together, in an impossibly romantic way? Were they reconciled through death? No, Nick informs us – the wife had returned to her lonely lodgings, which also happened to be bombed that night.

So what are we left with after 12 modest masterpieces? If you’re looking for clever plotlines and seismic twists in the novels that make up A Dance to the Music of Time you will by now have realised that disappointment lies ahead. Instead, should you choose to explore them, I would suggest ripping up the grammar book and concentrating instead on Powell’s rich vocabulary – by which I mean a cast of characters that are unique and inspiring (in one way or another), and yet mirrored in the people each of us engage with on a daily basis. Here are a few of my favourites. If you choose to track them down please send them my regards – saying goodbye has been tough.

Lindsay Bagshaw [based on an amalgam of journalist friends?] – literary editor
Bagshaw is the kind of high-minded but disorganised editor you can imagine working on underground literary magazines to this day. Here’s a snippet from Books Do Furnish a Room, the title of that novel coming from a Bagshaw quote which may or may not have been used as a diversionary tactic when a husband discovered the old goat making advances on his wife in the drawing room.

‘Like almost all persons whose life is largely spun out in saloon bars, Bagshaw acknowledged strong ritualistic responses to given pubs. Each drinking house possessed its special, almost magical endowment to give meaning to whatever was said or done within its individual premises. Indeed Bagshaw himself was so wholeheartedly committed to the mystique of the pub that no night of his life was complete without a final pint of beer in one of them.’

Ralph Barnby [based on Adrian Daintrey?] – painter/wartime camouflage expert
A romancer of women par excellence, Barnby is associated with a left-leaning subset of London society that includes the enigmatic Gypsy Jones and Mr Deacon. Barnby’s artistic skills are called upon during wartime service when he is given a role camouflaging planes.

Mr Deaconpainter
An artist of the previous generation whose canvases fall in and out of fashion, much as Powell’s novels have over the years. In his dotage Mr Deacon runs an antiques shop that doubles as a refuge for lost souls. Long after his demise a smart London gallery holds a retrospective of his work, which is praised by a prominent young critic. Nick believes this ‘…would have delighted Mr Deacon [who] had once remarked that youth was the only valid criterion in any field.’

Matilda Donners – actor and muse
Hugh Moreland’s vivacious wife ultimately leaves him for kinky businessman Sir Magnus Donners. Like several of Powell’s female characters, she is a child of her time (i.e. liberated in the aftermath of World War I). Matilda is humorous, free-spirited and independent – in Powell’s words, ‘mistress of her own life’.

Erridge (Earl of Warminster) [based on George Orwell?] – socialist idealist
Sickly, uncomfortable with his wealth, and unable to keep his stately home in order, Erridge prefers to spend his resources in support of the underground literature distributed by Gypsy Jones and Mr Deacon. Almost inevitably, he follows the call to war-torn Spain in the 1930s.

Uncle Giles – Nick’s unreliable relative
The ultimate eccentric uncle; moves from boarding house to cheap hotel to boarding house depending on the state of his affairs and investments. A confirmed bachelor, Uncle Giles only seems likely to be tamed by the mystical powers of Mrs Erdleigh, who takes pleasure in reading his Tarot cards.

Gypsy Jones – socialist worker
Sexually liberated long before it became fashionable, Gypsy’s no-nonsense manner and hardcore politics make her a fearsome presence on the page.

Hugh Moreland [based on Constant Lambert?] – composer
Moreland is perhaps the most sympathetic of Nick’s friends. Highly-strung, melancholy and regularly hilarious, Moreland was clearly a big deal in his time. Yet even at the grand receptions at which his musical talent is celebrated, he seems to realise that his art will be quickly forgotten after his demise.

From Moreland we get much reflection on marriage and relationships. In Temporary Kings, his days with Matilda long over, he tells Nick that marital discord ‘vibrates on an axis of envy rather than jealousy.’

X. Trapnel [based on Julian Maclaren-Ross] – subterranean writer
I’m a big fan of reading London-based stories set in and around World War II. We know all about the honourable soldier, sometimes it’s refreshing to read more about the dishonourable civilian. As with the skewed romance of Patrick Hamilton’s sublime Hangover Square, Maclaren-Ross’s short stories in Of Love and Hunger represent angst-ridden, flea-bitten, booze-sodden bedsit bliss.

The end of the affair is painful for X, but I’m convinced his silver death’s head-topped walking stick can still be heard clipping across the cobbles in old Soho.

Dr Trelawney [a more sympathetic Aleister Crawley?] – mystic/cult leader
When people think of mystics in early twentieth century history, perhaps only Rasputin and Crawley come to mind; in fact there were many such strange types roaming Europe before and after World War I, as I discovered while researching for my historical novel, Death Defiers. Trelawney is by far my favourite of those available. He pops up in around half the novels in Dance… Here, in Hearing Secret Harmonies, Nick recalls an early encounter from his faraway childhood:

‘Once a week Dr Trelawney and his neophytes would jog down the pine-bordered lane from which our Indian-type bungalow was set a short distance back…Dr Trelawney would be leading, dark locks flowing to the shoulder, biblical beard, Grecian tunic, thonged sandals…People who encountered Dr Trelawney by chance in the village post-office received an invariable greeting:
“The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True.”
The appropriate response can rarely have been returned.
“The Vision of Visions heals the Blindness of Sight.”’

Dicky Umfraville [based on Patrick Tritton?] – nightclub owner & colonial adventurer
Umfraville is a charmer. He inhabits a nocturnal world of darkened nightclub lounges, into which he persuades a sequence of wives. His contacts span the old Empire; had you wanted to know the winner of the next horserace at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley, or which actress was about to bag a maharaja, Umfraville would have been the man to ask.

Sadly, no matter how handsome, vain and charming we are, age has its wicked way with us in the end. It is typical of Umfraville that in Temporary Kings he feels ‘…let down by the rapidity with which friends and acquaintances decay, once the process has begun.’ In them he sees his future…not that it turns out so badly for him. Aged 80 he meets Nick at a wedding, feeling the after-effects of the night before:

‘Rare for me these days. One of those hangovers like sheet lightning. Sudden flashes round the head at irregular intervals. Not at all unpleasant.’

Lady Pamela Widmerpool [based on Barbara Skelton?] – World War II driver & sexual adventurer
When we hear that wars are won and lost on the home-front, not many of us have characters like Pamela Flitton (later Widmerpool) in mind, but in being a driver for and lover to a diverse range of military attachés from Britain’s allies large and small, valuable intelligence gathering is implied, even if Pam’s moral scruples are open to debate (one lover in the secret services – a childhood friend of Nick’s – selects a suicide mission as the only way to escape the heartbreak she has coolly administered).

While capable of building wartime bridges with her erotic exploits, they seem to provide little long-term solace to the irrepressibly moody Pam. X. Trapnel and Widmerpool are little more than notches on her bedpost. When she destroys Trapnel’s final manuscript by throwing it in the Thames, the reader winces, even when the writer refuses to. Pam’s contrariness and don’t-give-a-damn attitude make her a distinctly modern role model, though whether that’s a good thing or not is a thorny question. ‘It was Death she liked,’ Nick/Powell concludes in Temporary Kings.

Lord (Kenneth) Widmerpool [an amalgam of various pompous acquaintances?] – schoolboy, businessman, peer of the realm
Perhaps the most caricatured/least nuanced of Powell’s characters, yet over time the reader accepts that Widmerpool’s Trump-like ambitions and jaw-dropping rambunctiousness can hardly be explained with subtlety. Bullied at school, this overweight, badly dressed know-it-all revenges himself on society by toadying his way to the top and then turning cult leader in the ‘60s.

Lord Widmerpool is the thundering bore that Nick never quite manages to avoid at social gatherings and – arguably – Powell displays some snobbery in dealing with a peer who happens to come from a less privileged background than him. Still, once we hear of the sinister side to Widmerpool’s dealings it is hard for us to feel any sympathy for him. Rising to a senior position in the army, he is quick to dispatch a sickly childhood enemy to the Far East, where it is pretty clear he will perish. Meanwhile a hapless drunk is removed from his unit with the same lack of sympathy others have inflicted on him in the past.

Those who feel Powell’s world favours the aristocracy and peerage will note that while his artists and writers are allowed their adventures, those who seek and find positions of influence rarely end up happy.

With thanks to the Anthony Powell website and Wikipedia.