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.

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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?
    EXCELLENT GOOD OLD FASHIONED SERVICE. WHEN CUSTOMERS WERE TREATED LIKE THEY WERE VALUED. HE EXPLAINED EVERYTHING TO US ABOUT WHAT WOULD BE NEEDED FROM THE GLUE FIX – TO THE DOOR BARS ETC AND GAVE US THE SAME SERVICE AS SOMEONE ELSE IN THE STORE THAT WAS LIKELY TO BE SPENDING THOUSAND WHILST WE WERE SPENDING HUNDREDS.
  • 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

STOP CONTROL
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.

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.

IMG_8233

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’)

IMG_8147

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.

IMG_7955

Adrian Mole, c’est nous!

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

IMG_7093.jpg

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.