66. Cult of Openness

You won’t find Game of Thrones Season 7 here but the Open Culture website continues to add to its menu of televisual treats – pooling free-to-view films from the dark corners of the web and serving them up for your delectation. The quality is consistently good but this is no den of exclusivity. Kubrick and Kurosawa rub shoulders with Laurel and Hardy and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, while vintage documentaries invite viewers to cross over to other parts of the site, where music, art and literature can be found sharing a joint and listening to Miles Davis. In other words, Open Culture provides click-bait that’s more likely to lead to submerged intellectual treasure than a feeling of existential worthlessness followed by a pop-up ad for caffeine shampoo. And it’s all FREE.
Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.03.37My ONE complaint is that I’ve been unable to find any content directly relevant to my own life and the ambivalence felt by those whose calling as a writer and editor sometimes makes them wonder if they should have picked up at all.
Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.04.12Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.05.06Admittedly, I drew the blinds recently in sunny Barcelona (while out of range of the BBC’s more homely iPlayer) and set off on a long, unforgettable trip into the dark hinterland of Andrei Tarkovsy’s ‘Stalker’, from which I’m still recovering. Possibly there was something in that…
Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.06.59Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.07.22Elsewhere on the site I ‘listened’ to Swedish composer Gris Skymning’s experimental piece, ‘Mute Gun Salute for Animals Petrified by Firework Displays’ (last played at the UN in 1959 to celebrate the Animal Disarmament Act). But as for something to share with other literary types – nothing to report as yet.
Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.08.01Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.08.27Next I looked at some images of Victorian ladies whose previously sepia features had been vivified via a palette of shocking neons by New York artist/tinterist Delia Shazhorn in order to ‘out their inner pizzazz’. Still nothing for the writers. Guess I’ll have to keep looking…
Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 07.09.30

Find your own inspiration here: www.openculture.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

65. Election Fever

IMG_8014A poem to celebrate the UK’s 2017 general election; specially commissioned by no one and based mainly on observations made from my desk in a flat above some shops in my beloved Manchester last month.

Overweight unemployed men
Go shopping for the apocalypse
In threadbare camouflage;
Election fever
Or something more terminal?

Thin faces folded once
Too many times
Like pass-the-parcel newspapers;
Election fever
Or something more terminal?

Female features set hard
Against the elements
Nurse uncertain future wounds;
Election fever
Or something more terminal?

White hair ponytail shades
Dabs his smiling blowhole
On the way to the pub;
Election fever
Or something more terminal?

The flagellation party
Offer muffs and blinkers
To the self-loathing majority;
Election fever
Or something more terminal?

Broke smokers wondering
How to afford pick-me-ups
In a world of rationalised pleasures;
Election fever
Or something more terminal?

Sunshine in Manchester
Half-mast flags in the still until
A poet channels civic pride;
Election fever
Or something more sanguine?

I’m voting by proxy – making up for missed opportunities to vote while living in Hong Kong. My first experience of flexing my democratic right since my return took place in the UK’s council elections on 4 May. A Conservative whose sole credentials appeared to be campaigning for a German market in a nearby town beat candidates seeking to sure up the National Health Service. Is British politics better equipped to accommodate irony than other democracies? Possibly. Fortunately, the reactions to the recent atrocity in Manchester prove there’s plenty of appetite for change in my home country.

Vote if/when you can, campaign if/when you can’t. Poetry optional.

64. David Bowie in Barcelona

I know, I’m reviewing an exhibition – two, in fact – which begs the question: have museums got more rock n’ roll or have I got less? Does seeing Evan Dando at Gorilla in Manchester and having night tickets for Sonar preclude me from mummified status? Perhaps – at least for now. While this opportunity to see the V&A ‘on tour’ was less immersive than the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains experience I waded through in London a few weeks ago, it still has plenty to offer. The interactive mixing desk, and thus the opportunity to remix your favourite tracks (‘Money’ without the bass line is worth a listen) is absent, and there’s no 3D revolving prism to indulge the senses, but what you lose out on in technological whimsy, you gain in intimacy.

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Putting the ‘I was there’ into Bowie

Here – torn from A4 pads or accounting ledgers or written with schoolboy simplicity on graph paper are the lyrics that Bowie and his handpicked musician friends alchemised into genius. Although his artistic visions undoubtedly scaled the same preposterous heights as Floyd’s, the version of events presented here reminds us – as does the man himself in a selection of interviews that, like the music, is transferred straight into your Sennheiser headphones as you browse the intriguing paraphernalia – that the nuts and bolts of the creative process were just as mundane as those serving countless other artists, only David Jones had decided early on that he was going to transform himself into something utterly unique. His motivation? At least in part it was to avoid the dark history of madness and suicide on his mother’s side of the family. Unlike most of us, Bowie felt he had no choice but to put his money where his mouth was even before he made any, and his cards on the table even when the pack was a jumbled mess of influences with no obvious aces to play.

On that point, Bowie reminds us that there is no shame in ignorance; any more than it’s uncool to have a thirst for knowledge. He recalls seeking out difficult books and impossible jazz records, refusing to be intimidated by them – hating them, then growing to love them (helped in part no doubt by the effect the avant-garde titles had on potential admirers when poking out of a bag or jacket pocket on the tube). He wasn’t being pretentious; didn’t hide his naivety, but his shameless pursuit of a more cerebral world worked out, and he went on to digest and reinterpret its more playful, humorous and human elements to the delight of his audience. Enough said – here’s a few photos of the Floyd show. They wouldn’t let me take any at the Bowie gig; maybe I just missed the warning signs in London.

I read recently that the music you enjoy at 21 stays with you forever – an evolutionary adherence to a misspent mammalian prime. I prefer to think I just have good taste but feel free to disagree!

DAVIDBOWIEis continues at the Museu del Disseny, Barcelona, until 25/9/17. A weekday ticket (Monday-Thurday) costs 14,90€.

63. Dictionary corner – word updates #76/77 (‘Tolerance’ / ‘Peace’)

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Manchester 23/6/17

In the wake of Theresa ‘don’t tease her’ May’s upcoming election triumph (by saying it with airy confidence, we hope the gods will punish us with a surprise to rival other, less pleasant ones recently delivered) dictionary darlings everywhere will have noticed that the champions-elect have already used the weight of their anticipated majority to remove all synonyms for tolerance from online dictionaries.

Responding to questions faced while addressing an orgiastic crossword convention at an underground Soho location, a government spokesman confirmed they are also planning to detach the ‘e’ from the end of tolerance, but explained that this would be no more than a temporary measure, with the letter safely returned once the ‘wets’ had learnt to toughen up, get real and accept ‘the brutal realities of the world we live in, from which there is no possible escape or likelihood of change until long after we are all dead.’

Additionally, in a move likely to enrage pedantic progressives, but give hope to dead or dying Latin masters around the country, the ruling party have decreed that the word peace will be returning to its Latinate form, pace later this year. Furthermore, in a ‘necessary cost-cutting exercise’ it will be merged with the more contemporary meaning of pace; thus pacemaker will come to mean ‘bringer of reliably paceful [formerly ‘peaceful’] times for the benefit of the sensible and realistically-minded majority’.

The new meaning of pace/peace will thus veer more towards a government-mandated ideal of consistent economic output and away from the rather wishy-washy plea for world disarmament, love and understanding the word had come to represent in its ungoverned state. The move is rumoured to be a ‘sweetener’ for inclusion in a billion-dollar trade deal with an American manufacturer of headphones, earplugs, muffs and blinkers.

Pronunciation tips

tolerance = toleranc (pronounced ‘tolerank’, for that grittier 2017 feel)

peace = pace (rhymes with ‘pâté’ if you’re posh, otherwise ‘ace’ with a ‘p’)

More word news as it’s made…

62. Brit election: special?

Farron in the Hate Mail

Tim Farron – he’s local & he’s vocal

Interesting times… (Cliché alert – Collins suggests ‘Intriguing’ but that sounds just as hackneyed while reverberating with an unwarranted positivity)

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron may have since ‘clarified his position’ but he continues to be in a conspicuous minority when it comes to campaigning MPs, not to mention party leaders, who have more than a tokenistic faith.

Which begs the question, would you rather vote for someone who has a rigid set of moral beliefs, or a flexible outlook that changes when diplomacy (or the need to find more voters) dictates?

And in this particular example, someone who is prepared to vote along secular lines for a more inclusive society, whatever their personal beliefs, or who abstains on LGBT issues if they fear taking sides would lose a precious chunk of voters?

I have no answers. I still don’t know how I’m going to vote. In this messed-up world of smoke and mirrors (and the damage done?) I’m glad I’m in the UK this year, thereby able to have a say, witness ‘history’ and harrumph to my heart’s content (my hooraying days being well and truly over).

61. Adrian Mole: pre-Moleskine antihero

Long before a generation of wannabe writers got hip to Moleskine notepads and pledged to take themselves a bit too seriously, there was Adrian Mole urging us not to go there – way back in 1982. As Adrian reluctantly admits in Sue Townsend’s superlative The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾: ‘I have a problem. I am an intellectual, but at the same time I am not very clever.’

The advice was there for the taking but, like 20 million others, I was too busy laughing my head off to take it to heart. Something I did take seriously was the merits of keeping a diary as a way of recording the stuff of life – from the momentous to the minutiae: marriage, death and crap sitcom ideas – they’re all in there. Even now I find there’s a certain Adrian-ness about some of my diary entries, not all of it affected to commemorate his 50th birthday (e.g. from last week: ‘Future seems uncertain. She’s been offered a job overseas and Trump has started bombing people’.)

This juxtaposing of personal impotence and global importance became a hallmark of Townshend’s rare, edgy and hilarious talent. I was underage when I found The Secret Diary – still a little way off 13¾. On reading it I was frankly terrified. A sheltered child, I had yet to own up to my own puberty; reading Adrian’s diary made the journey into teenhood seem baffling, disturbing, yet – presumably – fairly normal. Once I started to laugh at Adrian, I started to laugh at myself. My heart broke for him, but through him I slowly realised I could no longer assume I was the virgin product of a world geared solely around my needs, wants and moods.

Realising we’re not as clever as we think we are is a work-in-progress for most of us. Recognising how clever, funny and compassionate Sue Townsend was is easy.

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Adrian Mole, c’est nous!

60. “Homecoming” (novel extract featuring strong language)

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Mr and Mrs Rutter lived at the end of the avenue in a top-heavy, ramshackle wooden house that appeared to be staggering forward into the road to welcome arrivals or block departures from the deserted neighbourhood.

As they pulled up outside, a large pot-bellied bird vacated the top of the family pile with a disgruntled cawing. Patrick watched as it leavened itself over their neighbours’ roof tiles, almost colliding with a weathervane shaped like blades of grass blowing in the wind. Meanwhile Julie had opened her door and spilled out of the van with a ‘what a fucking journey’. Mrs Rutter quit her gardening and hurried out through a lopsided front gate to meet them.

‘Mum,’ said Patrick, his cramped legs limping towards her.

‘Julie,’ said Mrs Rutter, a woman of formidable proportions with fierce green eyes and a stiff lick of immovable grey hair. ‘You came all this way to see us.’

The women embraced. Patrick squinted towards the doorway but there was no sign of his father. Eventually the women parted and Mrs Rutter regarded her son.

‘You’ve had an accident I hear?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Fighting again, was it?’

‘Artistic differences.’

‘Bollocks. He’d probably had enough of your bull.’

Mrs Rutter swung her considerable bulk in her son’s direction. Patrick braced himself for some delayed affection but instead got a whack round the ear.

‘Don’t worry, Paddy,’ she laughed. ‘We’ll soon get that brain working again.’

She hurried them off the road and up the dusty path beside the rockery where she had just downed tools. An extended family of tiny black spiders scaled a mini-mountain of hand-painted pebbles. Beside the path eight individual stones had each been given their own letter and arranged to spell out WELLCOME.

‘Looks nice, Mum,’ said Patrick, for which he received another whack.

‘That hurt,’ he told her, remembering another report he and Julie had watched on the TV news.

‘Have you not heard about the revised state ordinance on parent-child -?’

Julie kneed him in the thigh.

‘Fuck, why the aggression?’

‘Don’t be such a baby,’ said Mrs Rutter, showing them into the front sitting room.

Patrick sank into a mushroom-coloured couch while Julie perched on a sponge toadstool.

‘I’ll put the lights on,’ their host announced, as if this was something saved for special occasions. ‘Air?’

‘Yes please,’ Julie croaked politely.

The electric candles fixed to the walls and atop the brooding television offered precious little illumination but the air conditioner was game, rattling into life and releasing into the large, dank room a welcome trickle of freshness. With enough imagination its timbre – rich, warm and repetitive – could have been mistaken for that of a long-lost uncle, recounting his tales on loop to no one in particular while giving the rest of the household permission to parlay.

Certainly it seemed to help Julie and Mrs Rutter overcome the niceties that threatened to prevent the travellers from obtaining refreshments, as Julie’s apologies for failing to bring any supplies from the city were countered by Mrs Rutter’s unconvincing insistence that they had plenty in the pantry.

‘I’ll give you a hand,’ said Julie, and the two left the room to see what they could find.

Patrick waited for the stinging in his ear to die down. He clung to the hope that his father might make a suitable ally against these brutal women. But there was no sign he was on his way as the seconds passed on a mantel clock made from another colourfully painted stone. He decided to get up and seek inspiration. A vase of plastic flowers near the lace-curtained window caught his eye and he went over to investigate.

It was a shrine of sorts. Beside the vase was a copper dish containing several decomposing spheres of unidentifiable fruit – their spores speared with the wooden butts of incense sticks. Pinned to the wall above the offerings were a series of crinkled colour photographs of variable quality. One was of a blonde-haired boy blurred in motion, too busy growing up to sit still; another showed a dark-haired young man in starched uniform propped up for the camera. The final in the series was by far the most surprising. Here was the same man smiling with his comrades. Most were dressed in black body stockings, or some part thereof; a couple were holding machine guns. All were crouched around the oversized head of a smiling foam policeman.

‘My…brother…’

Why hadn’t Julie told him he had a brother? Because she was too busy getting him here so he could experience this kind of revelation. Why hadn’t he asked her about siblings? It hadn’t crossed his mind, any more than consideration of his parents had. What kind of a person was he? The women returned with snacks and drinks on trays.

‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your own brother, Paddy?’

‘Of course not,’ he hoped the chill in his heart hadn’t spread to his voice. ‘How could I forget about old…young…’

He read the inscription.

‘Sam.’

Only 24 when he lost his life, according to the dates. Three years his junior.

‘It’s those that killed him you should be fighting,’ his mother explained. ‘Not your workmates.’

‘Come and get some water,’ Julie told him.

‘And then you can go and find your father,’ Mrs Rutter added.

The interior of the house was dark and musty with unaccountable shadows in the armpits of stairwells and in corners where home improvement projects appeared to have been angrily abandoned. The main staircase, almost as steep as a ladder, began towards the rear of the house and ran diagonally back to front. This contrivance could not have been part of the original layout, suggesting the stairs had been clumsily reversed.

Who would have engaged in such a mad restructuring? Why would anyone put their stairs so far from the lounge, leaving a hallway chasm of crooked space below them from which cobwebs could survive untouched at vertiginous heights? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. He began to climb.

Kill the bastards
Kills the bastards
Kill the lazy rebel bastards

Where had that come from? He paused for breath halfway up the stairs, recovering on a shallow step while gripping the iron balustrade. Closing his eyes he saw his brother’s face again. Yes, they had run up here together. When the air was clearer. When ideas were clearer. What did they do to you Sam?

Make the state
Good and great
Tie your fate
To the state

‘Who’s that singing?’

The voice came from near the top of the house. There was still another staircase to go.

‘It’s me, Dad – your son.’

‘Sam?’

‘No, it’s Patrick – I’ve come home to see you.’

Silence.

More strange design choices on the middle landing of the house. Foam was taped to the fixtures and fittings; dirty pillows were assembled at the foot of the stairs going up to the attic rooms. A figure shuffled into Patrick’s vision as he took stock. His father was past his prime. His slack jaw was silver with roughage and his hand trembled on the bannister as he looked down with a mixture of defiance and trepidation.

‘What’s with all the insulation?’ Patrick called up.

‘Damn son fitted it.’

‘Sam?’

‘No – the other one, says it’s cheaper this way if I have another fall. Cheaper than calling a doctor.’

‘What a prick,’ Patrick smiled. So his father had lost his mind as well. Perhaps they could give each other solace.

‘Oh he wasn’t all bad,’ the head of the family continued. ‘Loyal patriot. Got a bunch of awards. Come on up and I’ll show you what he made me for a retirement present.’

Patrick took the last staircase and entered the spacious attic studio. A hatch perpendicular to the sloping roof was open to the elements. The sky was less soupy now and a slight breeze spun the various model aeroplanes and spacecraft that hung on wires from the slatted wooden ceiling of his father’s den. Below them the room was dominated by a large rectangle of board from which rose a magnificent papier-mâché representation of lush hills and spindly skyscrapers; hand-painted and with a to-scale railway track running along the edge of the model world.

‘Seaport,’ Patrick said.

‘Where else?’ his father replied crankily.

‘What a fantastic gift.’

‘This isn’t my gift,’ the old man barked, sitting down heavily at a roll-top bureau beside the skylight.

Patrick ran a finger through the hills, into the town; skimmed the coastal train track that finished at Casio. When he looked up he found his father staring at him, the bureau rolled halfway up. Rutter senior had a wild, vulnerable look in his eyes.

‘Who are you anyway?’ he asked. ‘Friend of my son’s?’

‘That’s right,’ Patrick assured him. ‘We’re close.’

‘Okay,’ Rutter’s growl returned. ‘Guess I can trust you then.’

He finished rolling up the bureau and Patrick saw that a control panel lay behind it. There were lights and buttons and taped instructions, ‘UP’, ‘DOWN’ and ‘HOVER’ amongst them. There was a thorough amateurishness to it that Patrick admired. Men had built this for themselves – with care and attention – rather than it having been mass-produced by and for the state. Mr Rutter clicked and punched some buttons and the panel started vibrating violently. The good thing with state products, Patrick reflected, was they were safety-tested before being used. He let his eyes wander back to their slice of sky.

‘What the hell is that?’

‘Don’t mind him,’ said Rutter without looking up. ‘He just likes to play.’

The pot-bellied bird blinked its red eyes twice at Patrick. It didn’t seem to mind him but nor did it look like it wanted to play. The thing seemed to have hair in place of feathers and its bony wings, dripping with extraneous skin, were folded firmly across its breast.

‘Here we go.’

His father had switched to a hand-held device with two antennae. He got up and attempted to shoo the bird away from the hatch. It reluctantly heaved its weight to one side, allowing Mr Rutter to see what was happening beyond. Patrick joined him. Towards them, stuttering out of the milky canopy came a drone unlike any Patrick had seen before. It was round and squat; and its patchwork panelling appeared to consist of three different types of metal. Extending from its rotund form were several spindly grabbers as well as two silvery stabilisers that slimmed to a point from its flanks. Maybe it was these wing-like appendages that spurred the pot-bellied bird into action. As soon as the drone appeared it toppled off its perch and began to swoop below and around it with surprising grace.

© Peter Humphreys

59. Game of Drones

blackhole-vincent-bob

The producers of Game of Thrones have done it, so why can’t I? Admittedly fewer people are looking forward to the release of my four novels later this year than they are to seeing whether dragons or white walkers will prevail in a post-Brexit world but I’m going to provide you with a teaser anyway – and one of more substantial dimensions than HBO’s computer-generated mumble-fest of a preview that reminded this Cumbrian resident of a slowly collapsing dry stone wall. My next post features a far more revealing chunk from Altered State, a sci-fi dystopian fantasy (for adults) and my fourth attempt at blowing the socks off the well-clad reading public.

There are similarities between my work and that of George RR Martin/his successors, if you look closely enough. Strong female characters abound, though they rarely resort to violence (as they do in the extract to follow). There is also an otherworldly quality to the latter two books – Death Defiers and Altered State – though there is more humour and less brooding than we can expect in the new GoT.

KIND OF FREEDOM artwork 2.jpg

Previous genius from Richard Heap

Visually, I hope you’ll find my books as rich and satisfying as any high-def. adventure, thanks in no small part to the cover art being provided by long-term collaborator Richard Heap. If you’re going to start judging books by their covers, the release of this quintet may be as good a time as any. Stand by for news on publication dates soon. Winter is coming, beware the red witch/orange bloke etc.

58. Foolproof anti-algorithm technique disguised as free jazz

Disturbed by the aptness of the ads haunting your desktop whenever you browse some real fake news or crank up your search engine in the hope of finding a non-fascist holiday destination? Me too. Worry that fascist governments are monitoring your search terms in order to track your thoughts, movements or trousers? Me too. My solution – in no way scientifically tested – is to invent algorithm-defying queries designed to confuse the heck out of whatever commercially-driven or ideologically-motivated surveillance your fingertips are unintentionally flirting with.

Too busy to dream up your own nonsense? Simply copy and paste a line or two of random verbiage from the list below and see what sense the AI on your shoulder makes of your incoherent babbling. With any luck you’ll be given less spookily accurate recommendations and more surreal stocking fillers from the dark recesses of the web.

  • How do I keep my monkey dry?
  • If the four-inch whatsit is wedged in the thing who thence turneth the screw?
  • My beach-fit body won’t be seen dead with me
  • Best birdbath bathing suits 1932-78
  • Uses for old shoeboxes that do NOT involve space travel
  • Menstruating hamster tips
  • If books furnish a room, what does my wallpaper say about me?
  • My boss doesn’t understand him or her: help!
  • How do I get transferred from a jail with a j to a gaol with a g?
  • Is Friends the only proof the ‘90s ever existed?
  • Housing bubble gum chew up chew down with small blackguard and extra cadding
  • What if my neighbours aren’t spying on me?
  • Do spineless hedgehogs make good guard hogs?
  • Current time in Pluto, Illinois
  • Playing card, Pritt Stick and Sellotape stocks: stick or twist?
  • Do molecules wear monocles?
  • Hibernation techniques for furless pets
  • Best holiday resorts for hardworking appliances/traditional burial grounds for ‘80s white goods
  • Where do I report sexist seahorses?
  • Is it legal to conduct my own funeral from space?

So there you go – my gift to a desperate world; a toilet bag of Word Diver-sponsored goodies to help divert the dive-bombers from your pit-stop motel, buying you a little more time and privacy as you traverse your own road to nowhere. Google’s speed and good luck finding that simian hairdryer…

57. Philatering to deceive

smoking-jacketThere was no such thing as middle-aged when I was a kid. Humans were either young or old. Had I been forced to make the distinction and recognise the semi-greys in my midst, I would probably have muttered something about how they were only interested in trainspotting, golf and stamp collecting before taking off on another charity shop run, praying there might be a suitable smoking jacket available at the Cottage Hospital Shop this time round. Youth is truly wasted on the young Oscar Wilde devotee.

Never a fan of hobbies that didn’t involve the pub or football pitch, I’ve recently found myself drawn to some of the activities that once made me shudder. In Yangon over Christmas, while my energetic paramour was busy capturing the street life around dusty Insein station, I was stopped in my tracks by an ancient British steam train, which I proceeded to stalk, pet and document as if it were a great white rhino and I was a flying vet.
IMG_7289.JPGFortunately, my left-handedness (and an imagined shortage of suitable clubs) has long provided me with a ready excuse for avoiding golf, meaning I needn’t reveal the real reason why I must avoid this game at all costs: I have an apocalyptic temper when it comes to putting small balls in holes and am only a marginally better loser than the President Elect. However, as I queued to post items back to the UK recently, I found myself supping from another holy grail of the middle-aged – philately.
hk-new-stampsEntranced by an advert for a new set of stamps sporting pencil drawings of Hong Kong by a Mr Kong Kar-ming, I began daydreaming about using them to begin my own modest but meaningful collection. Yet far from making my smug purchase and sliding contentedly into metaphorical slippers back home, my thought process then accelerated towards some of the more reckless actions of my unthinking youth. Soon I wasn’t in a very comfortable place at all.

When my grandfather, Les, died in the mid-1980s, death was a remote concept. I was too busy coming to terms with my own awkward identity to fully imagine someone else’s. Les had been suffering for months. It was his time. End of story. But that sense of remove wasn’t to last long. I inherited some items from Les, including his electric razor. Fiddling with the head some months after his death, I managed to send hundreds and thousands of salt-and-pepper stubble flecks into the sink. Horrified by this visceral reminder of his being, I was forced to confront the truth: I hadn’t simply lost a relative, I’d lost a living, breathing person – and before I’d come to know him properly.

My reaction to this injustice was as mature as you might expect from an undiagnosed child prodigy with a thing for second-hand smoking jackets. I turned to something else I’d inherited. Les had asked friends and colleagues to post him matchbooks from wherever they travelled. Some of them were pretty cool. Pretty soon I was using these matches to light my Camel cigarettes. Why not? Life was short and unfair. It could all go up in smoke as far as I was concerned. After the shaver had been abandoned, and most of the matches used up, my attention finally turned to Les’ stamp collection.

Unfortunately, rather than learning my lesson from recent conflagrations and recognising the stories behind the hordes of miniature images, I merely saw the stamps as another means of funding my teenage lifestyle. A friend and I took Les’ stamps to Birkenhead indoor market, then a den of iniquity populated by intergalactic bounty hunters, spice traders and chippies. On the way to the stamp dealer we passed a stall selling unused matchbooks commemorating recent weddings: ‘Dave and Emma, 15.12.88’, ‘Sammy & Sheila Forever’ etc. A misprint or mismatch – what did it matter to us? We snapped up a few to calm our nerves.

I can picture the specialist stamp stall – how a sliver of outdoor light pierced the unflappable sheets of stuck-fast goodies – but not the dealer’s face. Possibly it was too middle-aged for me to process. Or perhaps I was too nervous, or guilty, to look him in the eye. The transaction itself was quick and merciless. We were told the stamps were nothing special, that he’d be doing us a favour if he gave us a few quid for them. Lies, most likely, but we’d come all this way so…the deal was done.

The money we made soon vanished, leaving me feeling angry and ashamed. What would Les have thought about our loss? A scientist, a man of numbers – it was one thing to jettison a family heirloom, but to get so little remuneration in return?

Years later, my uncle told me that the biggest danger Les faced during the war while spotting for enemy planes was an ARP colleague with an itchy trigger finger and penchant for whisky. He had a cigar every Christmas but was otherwise no fan of smoking either. In retrospect, I think Les would have been happy that we made so little to squander from his stamps. He might even have reminded me that what goes around comes around (provided sufficient postage has been paid). Either way, this post is my apology to him, coupled with an acceptance that one Christmas soon those left-handed gold clubs are coming my way.

Griefcast, Cariad Lloyd’s funny and poignant podcast about grief and grieving is well worth a listen: https://soundcloud.com/griefcast

56. To all the readers out there craving more Hong Kong writing

hkfp-facebook-bannerI couldn’t be prouder to see the 12th HKWC anthology Hong Kong Future Perfect being launched this Thursday at the Art & Culture Outreach bookstore in Wan Chai. No fanfares, just a gathering of interested parties for an interesting party: music from cerebral singer-songwriter P E A C E and readings from eight of our fantastic writers. This is the culmination of months of work for my co-editor Elizabeth Solomon and I, and right up to the last we’re keeping it tense. Will the freshly printed books find their way to the venue or will the embedded microchips fail, causing us to rely on our sinister fleet of Lit-drones? How early in the evening will I spill wine over the nibbles, saturating the handpicked typos and Oxford commas? Have we captured the zeitgeist, or is it about to run off somewhere else, thumping its chest?

What is certain is that this will be my last foray into publishing in Hong Kong for a while, the latest DSE English course book on which I’ve worked having likewise gone to print recently. Hong Kong Future Perfect is a gift from its writers and editors to a much-loved city and, in my case, a goodbye too. The Word Diver is about to take refuge in Davy Jones’ locker, with only a blank page and extendable snorkel for company. Thanks to everyone who has followed the blog, or dipped in now and again. A reminder that you can still find reflections on life in Victorian Manchester in my first blog, Cotton and Coal, and life as a trailing spouse in Washington DC in my second, The Diplomat’s Fiancé.

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If your name’s not down, you can still come in – see you Thursday

A special mention to K & C who arranged some guerrilla readings at my ‘Bookish Beach Bum’s Birthday Bash’ in October. Stiffened by the sea breeze and fortified by grog, brave volunteers read extracts from my work, or directed their own humorous and/or vaguely insulting poetry at me. It meant a lot. Here’s hoping for more happy memories on Thursday – they’re all being stashed in my hairy sea chest. Stick a few in yours as well.

 

55. To all the writers out there craving a bestseller

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Surely the strangest of Kerouac book covers –         Jack in a bikini?

Careful what you wish for. Here are some sobering words from an undisguised Jack Kerouac at the start of Big Sur (1963). How the tough but sensitive Petit Jean would have dealt with the intrusions of social media we’ll never know. We might have lost him even earlier, or maybe his machine gun prose would have enlivened the Internet, slicing through the prudes, hypocrites and trolls.

It’s the first trip I’ve taken away from home (my mother’s house) since the publication of ‘Road’ the book that ‘made me famous’ and in fact so much so I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers (a big voice saying in my basement window as I prepare to write a story: ARE YOU BUSY?) or the time the reporter ran upstairs to my bedroom as I sat there in my pajamas trying to write down a dream – Teenagers jumping the six-foot fence I’d had built around my yard for privacy – Parties with bottles yelling at my study window ‘Come on out and get drunk, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!’ A woman coming to my door and saying ‘I’m not going to ask you if you’re Jack Duluoz because I know he wears a beard, can you tell me where I can find him, I want a real Beatnik at my annual Shindig party’ – Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils – Uninvited acquaintances staying for days because of the clean beds and good food my mother provided – Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realising I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude again or die.

Many thanks to G for gifting me this little gem of a book and adding to my packing as I prepare to leave Hong Kong. Even when you’re determined to recycle your whole life, some things – certain books and friendships – remain defiantly non-recyclable.

54. Giant Faces

My first reaction on leaving the ferry at the weekend and half-noticing a series of giant heads pockmarking the harbour-front was one of relief. Local elections must be underway; choices may be limited but at least some form of choice is available. On realising the beaming noggins belonged to a rogue’s gallery of rock star number crunchers and pin-up financiers, their job to allure the aspiring into joining a conference that may as well be calling ‘How to Get Rich Quick (Before the World Ends)’, my heart sank.

It picked up pace again (I was walking so it needed to) when I realised how few politicians I would rather have blocking out the watery sunshine with their own attempts to look human. Still, should a sudden typhoon cause one of the faces to come unstuck and flatten me, wouldn’t I rather it belonged to an elected member? I thought back over my life and decided what or whom I would most like to have seen on a loose piece of signage, shortly before it came for me.

Age 15 – almost any supermodel (coincidentally, this was around the time Kate Moss’s career began; still waiting for mine to start)

Age 21 – an awkward ‘family’ portrait featuring several moody-looking Beatnik writers, and Stephen Fry

Age 30 – Youthful-looking Humphreys signing 8-book ‘golden handcuffs’ deal with Penguin Classics

Age 43 – News from the US that it was all a terrible dream/OJ Fart has fallen off his podium during rambunctious inaugural address, shattering ego etc.

What seems more likely going forward is that I become the victim of friendly fire. This is a time to stand up and be counted, to hit the streets whenever necessary; one danger being that your bedrock beliefs are piled on by a gaggle of other opinions, some of which you may not wish to support as fully, or at all. This happened to me whenever I visited Liverpool city centre as a teen, to shop for erotic posters at Athena or browse self-consciously at Probe Records. Stopping to sign a Socialist Worker petition against human rights abuses, I would find myself being pressured to sign multiple other documents related to unconnected causes.

Back in the UK, protesting on a blustery winter’s day while daydreaming of Hemingway’s Spain, I can imagine a ‘NO MORE BULL’ placard decorated with bloodied torro heading straight for me. Better that than a big-faced bullshitter anyway.

53. Self-defence class: PEN launches in Hong Kong

Stone age politics, meet advanced technology. Oh, you’ve met before? A hundred years ago? I see. And how did that go? Great.guernica_all-oldThe world is more terrifying than ever, especially to fiction writers – a particularly wimpy bunch. You could argue that Hemingway and Orwell were exceptions to the rule but it’s doubtful either would have lasted long in a Game of Thrones-type landscape. Journalists are far braver, of course; an increasing number of them giving their lives for diminishing returns in the post-truth age. Something else that contrasts the better ones with fictionheads is an impartiality when it comes to politics. Yet just as fiction writers may soon be forced to learn how to dig bomb shelters and fight hand-to-hand, so journalists are having to show their colours less discretely – especially when their freedom to report is threatened.IMG_6946.JPGWhile I’m running a course in urban sniping for short story writers next week at Fringe, PEN Hong Kong’s less melodramatic reaction to recent events is to set out a mandate of reasonable measures they can use to help protect the written word in the city. They are open to ideas, but for now these include collecting and analysing media data, maintaining a watch list, and going into schools to promote literature and freedom of expression.IMG_6947.JPGThe impressive panel unveiled at its launch on 13 November 2016 is led by Jason K. Ng, a roving, pen-wielding presence in today’s Hong Kong, and an important contributor to the forthcoming anthology Hong Kong Future Perfect. Author Mishi Saran kicks things off, saying it’s time for writers to take a stand. In a world where ‘the thugs are emboldened’, she explains, ‘I can’t just sit in my room fiddling with sentences’. Saran quotes a holocaust survivor who insists, ‘you must always take sides’, and James Baldwin who told us, ‘you have to tell the world how you want to be treated’. It’s likely that many in the audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club are wrestling with the same demons, but I suspect it’s the genuineness of Saran’s delivery as much as empathy with her situation that leads to the prolonged applause after her words.

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Copies of Afterness – an anthology from City’s U’s Creative Writing graduates – disappeared almost as quickly as the Uni axed the course

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, co-founder of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an emerging academic, took things from high principles to grim facts as she related a personal story of self-censorship. An allegorical tale for the 2010s, it began with her reposting a captioned Facebook photo of a professor who refused to award a degree to a student who had taken a yellow umbrella on stage at his graduation ceremony. A colleague, believing she had Ho’s best interests at heart, advised her to remove the post, suspecting its lingering presence might preclude her friend from a university job extension. Ho refused to accept the idea that you ‘shouldn’t be too political in Hong Kong academia’; in fact, she believes having such conversations openly is the only way to escape a climate of paranoia and fear.img_6869Bao Pu, founder of New Century Press, picked up where he left off at the PEN America talk a week earlier (second from right above – with reappeared bookseller Lam Wing-kee, second from left). For Bao, Hong Kong’s role as a publishing safe house – where memoirs and histories can be freely written and published – provides a vital mirror to modern China. Noting that these publications are in decline, he nevertheless finds hope in recent legal victories when it comes to cross-border book seizures; the mainland’s banned book list not only needs constant updating, but its secrecy means it’s very hard to defend confiscations legally.

Ilaria Maria Zucchina has been covering Hong Kong news since the ‘90s. Like Saran, she now feels compelled to speak out, in her case having witnessed the increasing restrictions placed on journalists in Hong Kong today. No longer can she get ready access to government officials – ‘we’ll get back to you’ translates into missed deadlines, something unaffordable in the Internet age. Perhaps most surprising to me is hearing that reporters from Internet news providers such as Hong Kong Free Press are refused press cards and entry into government press conferences because they operate outside the traditional print media. Whether this is a failure to keep up with the times or something more deliberate isn’t clear, but it does Hong Kong no favours as it attempts to debate its future in a sensible way.

The event concludes to more determined applause. Not so much a call to arms as a firm and friendly reminder that writers and journalists have a responsibility to themselves and others not to turn the other cheek, and to continue to do what they do, only more so, when times are dark.

52. We need to talk about…Uncles

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A typically dashing Uncle

What could be better than being an Uncle? Impossibly exotic bearer of unusual gifts and stories; freewheeling our way in and out of young lives minus parental baggage and devoid of black bags beneath the eyes, unless self-inflicted via some unimaginable adventures in the place where Uncles congregate to lounge, wax, sip Martinis and fly light aircraft.

Childless Uncles are a particularly funny breed in that we will never be worn down in the same way as parents. By which I don’t just mean exhausted; more that we will never be honed, shaped and crafted into different human beings in the way that parents are by their children. In our relationships we remain naturally selfish. Which is fine, so do kids. But our contrariness means we are always at as much risk of losing our beloved nieces and nephews’ attention as they are of losing ours.

A couple of examples from childhood.

A Great Uncle I loved dearly was a fan of all things practical. I vividly recall the day when midway through an age-inappropriate anecdote about steam power or cuckoo clocks or traction engines, which his captive audience may or may not have heard before, I asserted my teenage right to get up off the sofa and leave the room. Despite being in thrall to the impetuousness I was trialling so defiantly, I couldn’t help notice his face fall as I left him in the company of my loyal but uncomprehending younger brother.

What he must have thought of me doesn’t matter here. I never sensed anything but the same warm and generous acceptance of my brattishness whenever he came to other family parties in the years that followed. What I fear now is that after this innocuous-seeming incident he began to examine his own life in more detail and thereafter suspected himself of having become the archetypical boring relation – the unspoken fear of all in our position. Looking back, I realise he was simply being an Uncle: strange, independent and ultimately dispensable; something now he’s gone I ache to remedy.

Another Uncle, much closer to my age, was a pop star in the ‘80s and gloried in the hard work and rewards that came with that profession. His home was usually LA but when he was in England we were guaranteed a visit. The thrill of stealing cigarettes from the packs he’d carelessly leave at my parents’ house is one hard to match to this day. That he noticed us at all was beyond our wildest dreams. We didn’t just hang onto his every word, as kids we breathed in his magical scent – of leather, tobacco, expensive aftershave. Every promise of the unknown world lingered long after his BMW had departed our suburban stasis.

My Uncle became a parent too but, before we got to know her, the distant presence of a vivacious Californian cousin seemed like yet another example of his shameless dream weaving. His fame made him available, his relative proximity made him ours.

As you can imagine, this led to difficulties beyond geography when it came to our adult relationship. In my twenties and thirties I could never see him as anything other than a superstar, and once I developed ambitions of my own I found it hard not to consider him a rival. When his reaction to my artistic efforts was encouraging but lukewarm, I took more offence than was warranted, displaying an arrogance I hoped would impress him more than my talent, or lack of, could.

Now older and wiser, I realize he was simply being an Uncle: aloof, distracted, infused with otherness, but ultimately just a man, just an Uncle. It’s a relationship I wish to restore and nurture. Perhaps now I’m an Uncle too I’ll be given that chance.

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Me & My Uncle – a gift in vinyl from Hong Kong mates

51. Memorable Times I’ve Been Sworn At In Public

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Leaving the ferry late the other night, nursing a can of almost-drunk Kirin in my paw and heading for home, I was surprised to witness a youth sprinting ahead of me instead of veering towards our incongruous McDonald’s or one of the island’s nocturnal food stands (cheesy fish balls anyone?) What he did next almost shocked me. He spun round on his heels and gave me the finger, repeatedly and determinedly, before disappearing into the shadows.

Why was I only almost shocked? This is Hong Kong. Getting abuse on the street is as rare as thousand-year-old hen’s teeth. I guess the reason I wasn’t entirely surprised by the abuse is because I have a long and varied history of being sworn at in public that crosses continents and defies (so far as I’m aware) personal motivation on behalf of the cursers, which suggests that at certain times or in particular circumstances I am representative of something far more provocative than I perceive myself to be.

Take the case of the elderly football fan who approached me in Krakow as we relieved ourselves behind a stand during a tense Wisła Kraków match. Keep in mind that at the local derby between Wisła and KS Cracovia it’s not unknown for rival fans to battle with swords and axes. But what threat did he see in me? Perhaps the shadow of a British hooligan he’d grappled with in the ‘80s at this ground or another? On this occasion he shuffled up to me so gingerly that I offered my hand as much to support him as allow him the honour of greeting a guest new to his land. While his English mustn’t have been exercised very often, he spoke clearly and carefully to make sure I wouldn’t miss a word.

‘You…are….a…hideous…piece…of…sh*t.’

I smiled. He smiled. We zipped up our flies.

On the same European trip there was the punk in Berlin. Taking photos in the deserted streets around the neighbourhood I found myself in, I was feeling good about the city – not to mention life and all the opportunities it provides. All until, crouching down to snap some or other piece of street architecture, my lens focused on a huge pair of black bovver boots protruding from the cobbles. At the summit of this immovable object was a Mohican; at the midriff a middle finger that was telling me exactly where to go more succinctly and effectively than most Tourist Information Centres I’ve visited.

I smiled. Moved on my way. Quickly.

Next there was Washington DC. Walking not far off U-Street, near Busboys and Poets (the kind of aspirational, all-purpose, all-welcome venue you find in areas undergoing gentrification), an old African-American guy confronted me on the street: ‘Kiss my black ass you gay f*ck’, he said – delivering a mixed message that I’d no intention of picking apart for his benefit or mine. Perhaps if I’d been close enough to him to smell the booze on his breath I might have nudged him closer towards the gutter, but as he was pretty much there already I just kept walking.

Of all these vaguely threatening but still incredibly minor incidents (when compared to the abuse others face on streets around the world on a daily basis) the one in DC was probably the most understandable – once you got past the racism and homophobia. The city was changing while remaining largely segregated. And a social group that appeared to be benefitting infinitely more than older, poorly educated black men was privileged white dudes my age. However, as with the Polish football fan and German punk, I couldn’t imagine any extended dialogue designed to placate him ending with anything other than a bottle of strong, sticky spirits being smashed over my head.

Safe to say I didn’t feel as uncomfortable during this latest incident in Hong Kong. I taught English on this island a few years ago. It’s not out of the question that I forced the finger-waggling kid to read a poem aloud in class. Something to do with the sea no doubt. I’ll let this one go, as I’ve let the other incidents go. Every now and then you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. What can you do? You just have to hold your hands up, accept the finger, and move on.

50. Future Perfect: anthology-editing pointers

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What a thrill to have co-edited the latest Hong Kong Writers Circle (HKWC) anthology, themed Hong Kong Future Perfect, with Elizabeth Solomon. As a result of our labours, twenty-one surprising and subversive stories about the city can be yours on or soon after the 15 December 2016 launch date.

So what lessons did I learn from the experience? Here are a few pointers to others looking to edit their own fiction anthology.

1. Being on the other side of the process is always an eye-opener
Editors are no more the writer’s enemy than literary agents (whatever rants I may have posted recently). As someone used to being asked to change my semi-precious words by often-unseen editors, I recognise the frustration writers feel at being ‘misunderstood’.

However, editors need to stand firm when they need to: they appreciate the overall vision of the book/magazine/online publication more than the talent, who have already been assured by acceptance that their piece is loved.

2. Consistency is key
Consult your style guide. If you don’t have one, write one before the submissions start to arrive. The HKWC style guide is our bedrock, and has been passed from editor to editor; which doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked occasionally. Yet the relief of knowing that, for example, ‘realize’ will be ‘realise’, and ‘OK’, ‘okay’, gives you more time to concentrate on the creative side of your work – aka the fun bit.

3. Know your limits
In a self-publishing age, it’s important to realise that you can’t do everything yourself. An editor or editing team is unlikely to have the talent to design a professional-standard cover or typeset the manuscript in its final form. Get help, which means paying for help when necessary.

4. Get a second opinion
HKWC anthologies rarely operate with a single editor. In general, an editing team is established long before the theme is dreamt up and submissions received. There is no ideal number, a lot depends on personality, but a small team of two or three – each with specific roles and responsibilities – is preferable to a committee.

5. Use Word tools
Upon opening a submission click Tools -> Track changes -> Highlight changes and tick all the boxes before you engage with the text. This feature shows the writer exactly how you’ve nuked the nuance from their piece and allows them to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ your changes when they take a look at your edit.

[Remember to keep a separate draft of every story at each stage of the process so you can cross-reference changes and see which of those rejections you might have to ‘unreject’ for the sake of the story/anthology.]

To give general or specific feedback use Insert -> New comment. Bar typos or grammatical boobs, it’s better to suggest before you change. Use comments to ask questions or offer alternative words or sentence rewrites in parenthesis.

6. Manage expectations
After accepting a story and relaying the good news, tell writers when you will be in touch with your initial edits. On sending them, be clear what you want. Unless you want a complete rewrite (unlikely) stress that only the indicated parts of the text need changing, otherwise you may find yourself with a whole heap of fresh editing to undertake.

Keep the writer in the loop throughout the second edit and beyond. As the initial buzz of acceptance wears off, the inevitable anxiety and self-doubt can take over so make sure you let writers know they are part of something special and are being listened to and kept in the loop.

7. Let it flow
When deciding on the order of stories in your collection try to keep the reader guessing about what’s coming next without confusing them unnecessarily. There is no perfect formula for deciding on story sequence (as I’m sure readers of Hong Kong Future Perfect will soon be telling me) but just as there should be a rhythm and flow to individual pieces, so the collection itself should be marching to the beat of its own drum.

As with so much of editing, consistency is key. Don’t attempt ‘top load’ your collection with the ‘best’ stories – presuming you even know which these are. Instead take the reader on a journey that will be interesting from start to finish.

Fortunately for us, Hong Kong Future Perfect has a reassuringly strong line-up of authors – an array of fresh, fragrant and occasionally fruity writers willing and able to forgive the editors for playing hard and fast with their own guidelines on occasion.

It also engages with the most predictable yet intriguing theme possible at this juncture in the city’s history: the future of Hong Kong.

Just as we hope to see Hong Kong thrive in the years ahead, so we need its literary voices to continue to be heard. If you would like to help guarantee the future survival of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, please volunteer to take a role on the committee in 2017. Email hello@hkwriterscircle.com for more information.

49. Future Imperfect: writers beware?

It’s quaint to look back from the vantage point of 43 and consider which of the academic experiences and skills you’ve grasped, albeit weakly, over the last 25 years would be of use to students today – bar those studying ancient history or delusional writer syndrome. Is Marxist media theory still relevant? I guess that depends as much on your opinion of the man as how you rate the latest cooking and talent shows. Is developing B&W photos in a darkroom still a valid skill, or yet another meditative zone long since bulldozed by an impatient twenty-first century? Time will tell, though presumably only if it starts rewinding.

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Ginsberg looking chilly but cheerful in the snow (Beat Museum, SF)

My dissertation related to how drug use affected popular protest in the 1960s and 1990s. My rather sweet conclusion was that the psychotropics of the earlier decade promoted genuine empathy and desire for social change, while the ecstasy tablets favoured by my own generation encouraged only hedonism, despite the free hugs they induced and the friendly emoji (the ne’er-do-well cousins to today’s puritanical variety) they were stamped with. For a few tantalising seconds last week I wondered if this long-lost paper was about to be vindicated by the words of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who was being interviewed on Jarvis Cocker’s fabulous radio show. Listening more carefully, I realised the reverse was actually the case.

Curtis maintains that the ‘60s flower children are to blame for much that is broken in the world today; that their need for self-expression, and with it the desire to stand out and be different, fuelled the insatiable capitalism of today due to its inherent promise of choice and uniqueness (a promise that was all too easily monetised). This meant the collective movements of the time ultimately vanished in the haze of a Hendrix guitar solo, and from thereon in we were screwed.

Even more disturbing than realizing my dissertation was fatally flawed, and that rampant selfishness is about to destroy the world, was the next thing Curtis said. Apparently the most radical thing to do in the face of all this damned self-expression is nothing. Nothing? Or even better, he suggested, walk to Aleppo, Syria [and see what you can do to help]. Don’t tell anyone you’re going. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t write a book about it. Don’t write a book about it?

Unthinkable. Or perhaps not. First, ask yourself whether writers (and other creative types) are typically altruists or egoists. Have you met one before? Okay, question answered. Second, do we really need to publish more and more books, to upload more and more thoughts and feelings until we have an infinite number of clever theses and artistic flourishes, or do we need to take direct action according to our consciences, and if that doesn’t work…do nowt?

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Timothy Leary looking to the future

In another Cocker show, future thinker Dr Yuval Noah Harari asked what humans can bring to a party soon to be hosted by algorithms with more willpower than a zillion horny undergrads. Should they even bother to pitch up? Already taxi drivers are being threatened with imminent redundancy by driverless cars with a much better attitude. I wonder what lies in store for editors of soon-to-be-outdated textbooks. Perhaps our attention to detail could be applied to Virtual Reality programming? Oh, hold on. In the next breath Harari explains that in future middle-aged folk whose first occupation becomes redundant will either join the cabbies in a ‘useless class’ or face annihilation, depending on the political climate of the time.

On the upside, I still haven’t learnt to drive so that’s one less skill I need to find a home for in my darkroom of obsolete abilities – a space I see being curated by an AI version of Timothy Leary that spends its days dropping acid with a regenerated Karl Marx. Rest assured, despite the squeeze I’m sure there’ll be a place for all of us in there in years to come.

48. Something of what Bowie looked at

Somewhere near the top of the bland ceramic womb of Hong Kong’s Pacific Place mall there is a Sotheby’s, or at least a showroom belonging to the international art and antique peddlers. I am guided to the correct elevator by a smiling woman holding a picture of David Bowie with a finger to his lips. Mixed messages. I have swapped the Hunky Dory tranquillity of home for the Tin Machine tinnitus of the city specifically to see the art collection of one of my heroes which, somewhat depressingly, is being flown around the world over the next few weeks, presumably to see which economic hub is capable of birthing an oligarch with the beans to bid hard and fast when the 350 pieces are sold in three thematic job lots in London next month.

Sealed into my metal box I sigh in sympathy with the lift doors, and also in recollection at a certain dream I had before coming to Hong Kong. An avid Antiques Roadshow fan, I remember explaining to my ex-wife how I was seriously considering entering the antiques trade on arrival, sight unseen, in our new home. Before she started laughing, I sketched out a near-future scenario in which I would become a cross between Indiana Jones and Lovejoy. When she saw I was being serious, a mental note was made in the deficit column and accountancy courses were suggested.
img_6784We all suspect Bowie was well hung, but was he well lit? Not in this case. The twenty or so selections from his art collection are banged under uniformly bright lighting, allowing viewers to interact with the more brooding, abstract work by casting dirty great shadows onto murky canvases. Sure, no one wants to trip over a Picasso or mistake a Damien Hirst spin painting for a genuine work of art, but there seems little call for this treatment at what should be an intimate preview/last chance to see.
IMG_6790.jpgAlthough a Wyndham Lewis sketch could – at a stretch – be a nascent Starman or Bowie-as-mime, it’s too small to create much of an impact.
IMG_6779.jpgBar the bold Basquiat and some neon sculpture straight out of Homer Simpson’s day job, the exhibits are more reflective than might have been expected. Family is a key theme, and eponymous in Henry Moore’s undersized, overpriced sculpture.
IMG_6785.jpgThe purpose of coming today was to see things Bowie looked at and wanted. It’s tempting to wonder if Moore’s piece was chosen for its simple depiction of a straightforward nuclear family, something that eluded Bowie in his youth, due in part to his brother’s mental illness – a state of affairs he would write about so hypnotically in The Bewlay Brothers.
IMG_6787.jpgBowie’s purchase of unfashionable British artists from the last century has been gleefully seized upon in at least one review as a mark of his repressed conservatism, but I wonder if the melancholy hues of these dusty-seeming objects and canvases represented a confusion related to his past that he needed to identify, and hang.

These lines in Dollar Days, a song on Bowie’s final record, entered my ears as I studied the pieces: ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see’. Superficially, these words support the defiant approach to death that permeates much of Blackstar, but an alternative reading is that so fixed within his mind was the idea of Englishness – the gentle countryside, the surreal humour – that he need not see his homeland in the flesh again: it existed within him, as it exists within some of the pieces on display here.
IMG_6781.jpgTrying not to dwell on the inevitable feeling of loneliness and loss tucked between the artworks, I concentrate on some of Bowie’s more contemporary acquisitions: the giant telephone, bright red cube radio and beige record player (all estimated to fetch £200-£600, if you’re interested), above which is listed his 25 albums that could ‘Change Your Reputation’. Tongue in cheek, finger to his lips, whatever your verdict on his art collection it’s clear who’s having the last laugh here, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a hint or two of what was going on behind the scenes in the eternal expat’s living museum in New York.
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47. Confessions from the pristine coalface

Every now and then your emotions get the better of you. For my passionate partner and American critiquers who would like me to demonstrate a less ironic approach to romance and writing this is probably a good thing. Earlier this year I went straight out bat-dung crazy – a side effect of which can be writing poetry. Some months before I had sent the first 10,000 words of my new novel to a London literary agent, Mr X. He was soon back in touch: ‘Loved the opening chapters, send the rest of the book.’ So I did. And then I waited. And waited. For weeks and weeks and weeks. In the end I swallowed what was left of my pride and sent a follow-up email. Mr X told me he wouldn’t be signing me up. ‘Why?’ I felt the question was valid. ‘And what advice would you give me for next time?’ How naive of me to expect a reply…

Meanwhile a friend has received £8,000 for a two-book deal, that’s approximately 0.04p p/word, which is 100 per cent more than I’ve earned from my fiction this year but only £7,500 more than I earned as a student by way of a prize for my first fumbling attempts at crafting a novel. Yes, times are hard for writers and every now and then we should be permitted to vent spleen…

 

To all the agents out there

May your children

Be born illiterate

 

May your risk-averse nature

Get you into trouble on a daily basis

 

May your pens

Run out of ink

At the crucial moment

When foolish authors

Are about to sign their lives away

 

May your body

Run out of mojo

At the crucial moment

As foolish lovers

Are about to submit

To your 15 per cent

(20 per cent for overseas rights)

 

May your spouses be unedited

And your grandparents redrafted

May your nieces and nephews be typos

 

May your uncles defy category

And your aunties write in green pen

May your mother-in-law exceed the agreed word count

 

May your brothers be spellchecked

And your sisters put in parenthesis

May your garden be choked with flowery prose

 

May your semicolon function arbitrarily

And your metatext snap as you warm up for the book fair

May you rupture your pride while skiing down a slush pile

 

May your life be overwritten

And your synopsis be too wordy

May your sample chapters get lost in the lab

 

May adverbs spring suddenly from the back of kitchen cupboards

May adjectives mug you on dark and brooding nights

May every cocktail taste like a mixed metaphor

 

May your career start to slide

When you fail to reinstall Word

And get stuck in Comic Sans forever

 

May you never find the right words

To explain the problems you are

Having with your utilities

To company representatives

 

Especially during your retirement

As you sit alone wondering

Where all those nice dead authors

With their fine words are now.