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

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59. Game of Drones

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

26. Looking for an excuse to stay off the beach…?

The Hong Kong Writers Circle summer writing competition is themed “Junk” and offers a chance of publication in the prestigious Asia Literary Review. Whether you want to recycle an existing idea or produce your own fresh garbage, all we ask is that you keep it below 5,000 words.

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Visit the Circle’s website to find out more. You have to be a member to enter, but I’d wager the annual membership is less pricey than entering some of the higher-end story competitions out there. They should be ashamed…

Closing date is 31 August 2014 so get a shift on if you want to see your work in print.

20. The Post-Madam Novel – a sustainable future?

So my significant relationship is dead in the water and now an author who helped inspire me to start my own stuttering writing career tells us that the novel is heading the same way.

How do I feel about this double blow? Strangely elated. Why? Because these kinds of personal and professional disappointments often take a lifetime to achieve – I feel fortunate to have plenty of time left in front of me to waste on brand new pursuits.

Perhaps I also retain a little more hope about the novel’s future destiny than Will. While I agree that ‘difficult art’ has become fair game for a populous frustrated with the deception and doublespeak of those who govern them, and that for new generations any form of entertainment lacking some form of interactive connectivity may become taboo, Young Adult Fiction is HUGE right now: get ‘em young and we might yet keep ‘em reading.

Relationship-wise, us single writers can only hope that the trade’s cultural cache continues to attract beautiful crazies until we find that bookish partner of our dreams…

HKWC Podcast May 2014

If you would like to hear me talk (non-intimidatingly!) about writing in Hong Kong and/or listen to an extract from The Parachutist, please download the latest Hong Kong Writers Circle podcast here.

If you’re looking for an accessible way into Will Self’s canon I would recommend sampling the surreal stories in his collection Grey Area.

15. Another Hong Kong – for your reading pleasure

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There are a multitude of perspectives in Hong Kong; more nationalities, cultures and minorities than you might imagine. In Another Hong Kong, a Hong Kong Writers Circle anthology of prose, poetry and creative non-fiction that I’ve been co-editing over the last few months, we can’t pretend to have covered all theses viewpoints – not while speculating on Hong Kong’s past, future and hidden present as well. However, we’ve done our best to pack as many alternative takes on the city as 250-odd pages will allow.

Another Hong Kong is officially launched on Thursday 13th March, at Culture Club Gallery, 15 Elgin Street, and includes a new short story from me called The Parachutist. This tall tale, full of ghosts, and featuring a mysterious American fugitive, is a tribute to time spent in old Wan Chai (as referenced on this blog occasionally) as well as to the Hong Kong teenagers I write for by day.

The book’s striking cover art is by Hong Kong artist Marc Allante who has about as many likes on his Facebook page as I have indifferent pauses. You can see what he’s doing right here.

***Please place your order now and spend your money on some non-designer Hong Kong shopping!!!***

Buy the softcover book

Buy Another Hong Kong for Kindle

 

11. Want to know where you stand?

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Are you someone of ‘good standing’, according to the UK government? Have a look at this list of acceptable occupations and see if you are able to countersign a friend’s passport application. Authors/editors: don’t even think about it…

Occupations

Countersignatories must work in (or be retired from) a recognised profession or be ‘a person of good standing in their community’, eg:

  • accountant
  • airline pilot
  • articled clerk of a limited company
  • assurance agent of recognised company
  • bank/building society official
  • barrister
  • chairman/director of limited company
  • chiropodist
  • commissioner of oaths
  • councillor (local or county)
  • civil servant (permanent), but not someone who works for Her Majesty’s Passport Office
  • dentist
  • director/manager of a VAT-registered charity
  • director/manager/personnel officer of a VAT-registered company
  • engineer (with professional qualifications)
  • financial services intermediary (eg a stockbroker or insurance broker)
  • fire service official
  • funeral director
  • insurance agent (full time) of a recognised company
  • journalist
  • Justice of the Peace
  • legal secretary (fellow or associate member of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs)
  • licensee of public house
  • local government officer
  • manager/personnel officer (of a limited company)
  • member, associate or fellow of a professional body
  • Member of Parliament
  • Merchant Navy officer
  • minister of a recognised religion (including Christian Science)
  • nurse (RGN and RMN)
  • officer of the armed services
  • optician
  • paralegal (certified paralegal, qualified paralegal or associate member of the Institute of Paralegals)
  • person with honours (an OBE or MBE, for example)
  • pharmacist
  • photographer (professional)
  • police officer
  • Post Office official
  • president/secretary of a recognised organisation
  • Salvation Army officer
  • social worker
  • solicitor
  • surveyor
  • teacher, lecturer
  • trade union officer
  • travel agent (qualified)
  • valuer or auctioneer (fellows and associate members of the incorporated society)
  • Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers

Why pilots and not divers? Good old-fashioned snobbery I suspect, which is a shame when you hear tales of heroic human decency taking place under water. I urge you to listen to the story of Italian police diver Antonio D’Amico who endured a harrowing time removing the bodies of migrants who drowned off the island of Lampedusa in October. His evident compassion and consummate professionalism is a moving combination. Find the radio programme he’s featured on here.

It’s worth remembering that while it’s nice to be important, plenty of worthy individuals exist outside the vouchsafing framework suggested by our betters. Who would you choose to trust, a paramedic or an MP? An editor or a…okay, fair point. What’s that? You still want to apply for that job as commissioner of oaths? Well, good luck – just don’t expect my written reference to mean too much.