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?


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.

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.


Adrian Mole, c’est nous!

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


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.


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.


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.’


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


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.’


‘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


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.

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.


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


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

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

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

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

54. Giant Faces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

50. Future Perfect: anthology-editing pointers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49. Future Imperfect: writers beware?

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


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?


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.

47. Confessions from the pristine coalface

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

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


To all the agents out there

May your children

Be born illiterate


May your risk-averse nature

Get you into trouble on a daily basis


May your pens

Run out of ink

At the crucial moment

When foolish authors

Are about to sign their lives away


May your body

Run out of mojo

At the crucial moment

As foolish lovers

Are about to submit

To your 15 per cent

(20 per cent for overseas rights)


May your spouses be unedited

And your grandparents redrafted

May your nieces and nephews be typos


May your uncles defy category

And your aunties write in green pen

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


May your brothers be spellchecked

And your sisters put in parenthesis

May your garden be choked with flowery prose


May your semicolon function arbitrarily

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

May you rupture your pride while skiing down a slush pile


May your life be overwritten

And your synopsis be too wordy

May your sample chapters get lost in the lab


May adverbs spring suddenly from the back of kitchen cupboards

May adjectives mug you on dark and brooding nights

May every cocktail taste like a mixed metaphor


May your career start to slide

When you fail to reinstall Word

And get stuck in Comic Sans forever


May you never find the right words

To explain the problems you are

Having with your utilities

To company representatives


Especially during your retirement

As you sit alone wondering

Where all those nice dead authors

With their fine words are now.

43. In praise of podcasts

Do we still need ears? Yes, you heard me right – according to Hipzine.com musicologists in the States are experimenting with cutting edge technology that will not only trim unsightly ear hair but allow music to mutate into a purely visual art form within the next quarter century. How? By unleashing billions of vibrant colours to dance before our salivating gogs. Rumour has it Bowie was working on a follow-up to Blackstar in which musical notes were to be replaced by a cavalcade of pulses and pixels shortly before he died, the finished product intended for release on 3D edible vinyl with liquorice afterglow in early 2017.

So will any of us miss our auditory abilities once human beings have evolved heads as smooth as fish? Call me old-fashioned (can’t hear you) but I, for one, will. Having grown up (perhaps prematurely) listening to BBC Radio 4 I continue to love the sound of conversation blooming in my ear buds.


Which brings us circuitously to the latest edition of the Hong Kong Writers Circle podcast featuring award-winning crime novelist Jame DiBiasio in conversation with Simon Overton, the Circle’s resident interviewer/producer. Bucking the trend of embarrassing self-promotion that makes up 98% of today’s arts media content, mention of Jame’s books is followed by useful, in-depth discussion and generous advice about crime writing, international publishing, and how to stick to your guns as a contemporary author. Give your ears a treat by visiting http://www.hkwriterscircle.com/blog/

More ear stuffing
As a long-time commuter with a sketchy Internet connection it helps to have an array of podcasts at hand. You may have already sampled stalwarts like Serial, This American Life and The History Hour, but may not have tried Around the NFL, an American Football podcast that regularly enters into surreal territory and barroom philosophizing. Ever witnessed an acquaintance make a throwaway comment or treat a server with contempt and thought, ‘A-ha, so that’s what they’re really like…’? For the lads on the ATN pod this is a ‘reveal magnifico’, and can be equally applied to players, coaches, friends and family members.

Even if you’re a hugely successful author with access to your own semi-private ferry 24/7 you sometimes need nothing more than a mate in your ears. That’s the experience to be gained from following the new-ish Adam Buxton podcast. Interviews with Jon Ronson, Louis Theroux, Joe Cornish and others are intermingled with boozy rants from Adam’s shed, lashings of self-doubt, and occasional paeans to the great Dave himself. Perhaps there’ll soon be reckless speculation on that unreleased Bowie material there. I can only hope it’s better than mine…

42. A Hong Kong Christmas Story: Best Present Ever vs. Pappy Bot

I Robot

Christmas Eve. Every year it was the same. Leaving the office late then running round Hong Kong, trying to find a present for the boy. That’s how Larry ended up on Cat Street at nightfall, squinting in the dim lamplight of the last curio and bric-a-brac stall left open, hoping to find a toy unique enough to charm an eleven-year-old who already had everything money could buy.

‘Are you looking at me?’

The accent was pure New York, Martini mixed with gravel; reminding Larry of the cabbie who’d spun him round the Big Apple last time he took a bite.

‘Excuse me?’

The stallholder crossed his bare legs, turned a page of his racing guide and allowed a flicker of impatience to cross his brow. There was no point Larry asking him if he was the only one hearing voices.

‘You don’t like this one?’ the voice continued. ‘You’d rather I spoke like an angel or a princess or a high-class hooker? No problem. I can do all the accents. Last owner rewired my mimicry gland.’


Larry scanned the shelves, furry with dust, looking for an old tape recorder or radio that might be the source of the babbling. These places were a graveyard for obsolete technology; cables snaked around cherubic statuettes, brass candlesticks, gilt-framed mirrors and shit-bedecked birdcages. He let his tired eyes run along the faded spines of CDs and cassettes. Meanwhile the disembodied voice continued.

‘Twelve previous owners, eleven of them unspeakable bastards…’

The robot had just closed its tiny gold teeth when Larry found it. Doll-like with static whirlpool eyes, its silvery metal skin was exposed in patches through the peeling red and black of its old-fashioned robot livery. Sure, it was in need of a paint job, but wasn’t all this ‘50s retro stuff coming back into fashion?


The robot seemed to be examining Larry as he was examining it. When Larry rubbed his chin thoughtfully, the robot did the same. Then it stopped and began to swing its little legs, as if it had made up its mind for both of them.

‘Take me home?’ the robot asked.

The stallholder wanted 800 but took 500. Maybe the robot’s chattering was distracting him from his wagers.

‘Need bag?’

‘It’s fine, I’ll walk,’ said the robot, answering for them.

Larry lifted the robot down from the shelf. There was no box. When he held it in mid-air, the small movements of its muscles and sinews and its unexpected heaviness reminded him of holding the boy years before; jogging the child in his arms before returning him to their helper, Noreen, on hearing the swish of the company limo outside.

‘Everything all right?’ the robot asked.


‘Good, you can put me down then.’

The robot was around two-and-a-half feet tall and showed itself capable of walking beside Larry as they made their way up towards Hollywood Road to find a cab. The streets were deserted and bathed in amber light. The neighbourhood smelled of incense, oranges and the beginnings of Christmas meals.

‘Do you have a name?’ Larry asked.

‘I can be whoever you want me to be, honey,’ said the robot, affecting a Texan drawl.

Larry stopped dead and turned to his companion.

‘Okay, metal face – let’s get one thing straight,’ he used the voice he reserved for reprobate employees. ‘You’re a gift for my eleven-year-old son. I want you to act accordingly. No funny business.’

‘Fine,’ the robot huffed. ‘Not a problem.’

They continued on in silence for a while before the automaton relented.

‘Pappy Bot’, he said through gritted teeth. ‘Kids like to call me Pappy Bot.’

Larry’s concerns about Pappy vanished when he saw how delighted his son was with his present the next day. Although Pappy remained testy once they were back at Larry’s palatial apartment, relaying the truism that ‘money can’t buy taste’, he was happy when his custodian gave up on the idea of wrapping him in shiny paper, and even happier while demolishing the brandy and slice of M&S Christmas cake his son had left out for Santa – ‘just in case’. When Larry’s son came into the lounge on Christmas morning, affecting coolness, he found Pappy snoozing on a sofa and couldn’t hide his excitement.

‘Wow, amazing!’

‘Hello, Samantha,’ said Pappy, bleary-eyed.

‘Sam,’ said Larry’s son. ‘My name’s Sam, but don’t stress it. I just know we’re going to have so much fun together.’

And they did. While Larry relaxed, sharing mince pies with Noreen and raising a glass of sherry in a brief, ironic toast to his ex-wife, Sam and Pappy raced around the apartment together. After a brief, chaotic game of rugby, Pappy demonstrated his skill at impersonations, using Sam’s tablet to access YouTube, through which he quickly learnt how to mimic CY Leung, Lady Gaga and Chewbacca.

‘You two enjoy today?’ asked Larry, as they sat down for Christmas dinner.

‘Totally,’ his son beamed. ‘Pappy is the best.’

His father tilted an eyebrow.

‘Sorry, dad,’ Sam corrected himself, grinning guiltily. ‘You’re the best.’

But the night didn’t pass altogether smoothly. Before dessert, Larry suggested they pull some crackers.

‘Neat!’ said Sam. ‘You’ll pull one with me, won’t you Pappy?’

‘Sure thing, kid.’

Larry noticed that in the ensuing tug-of-war, Pappy wasn’t afraid to employ the advantages he enjoyed as a well-designed machine. Just as Sam looked to be winning the contest, Pappy shifted gear, using an extra motor concealed in his tiny bicep to split the cracker and triumph.


‘What’ve you got, Pappy?’ Sam asked as the smoke cleared.

Pappy discarded the joke and looked greedily at the toy that had fallen into his lap: a small plastic fish.

‘Say, what kind of piece of crap crackers are these?’ he turned on Larry, malice in his whirlpool eyes. ‘Goddam skinflint.’

With that the robot hurled the fish towards their blinking Christmas tree. Larry stood, empowered by a rage he rarely let show.

‘Room,’ he bellowed at Pappy. ‘Now!’

In truth it was a marginal setback. The fact that Larry, even in his fury, had admitted that Pappy was to have his own room, showed that their robot houseguest was here for the long haul. The rest of the holidays passed peaceably enough. Larry returned to work and Sam, reluctantly, to school.

Sam had never been popular at school. He had been especially quiet and reserved since his mother left home. It was a concern that nagged at Larry during his more reflective moments. But that year, once Pappy had been introduced to his classmates, Sam’s popularity skyrocketed. Suddenly everyone wanted to be his friend, and to play with the ‘radical robot’.

‘Dad, can I have some money for the movies?’ became a regular refrain.

There were even academic benefits to Pappy’s presence. His last owner had been an eccentric art dealer and Pappy retained many facts about painting that Sam was able to use in a class project. There was no doubt the boy was inspired – energised – by the unwavering presence of his little friend. Often during tiresome meetings Larry would smile at the realisation that his son was finally finding himself in the world.

Months flew by, cooler weather arrived again and before they knew it another Christmas was on the horizon. One cold December day, Larry was in his office when his assistant buzzed to say he had an unexpected visitor.

‘Tell them I’m busy.’

‘He’s very insistent.’

‘How insistent?’

‘This insistent,’ said Pappy, opening and closing the office door and hopping onto the chair opposite Larry’s.

Larry was momentarily stunned. Pappy took full advantage.

‘So, I was thinking…’ he began. ‘Coming up to Christmas again, ain’t it?’

‘That’s right.’

‘What were you thinking of getting the boy, Samantha…?’


‘Whatever. Just answer the question.’


Larry swivelled on his chair, looked out at the view across the harbour.

‘I hadn’t really thought about it, Pappy.’

‘And why’s that?’

Pappy produced a pack of cigarettes and lit one.

‘You can’t smoke in…’

‘Shut up and answer the question,’ said Pappy.

All Larry could think about was how to remove the robot without causing further embarrassment. His mind went blank.

‘What was the question?’

The robot exhaled, shook his head.

‘I asked why you ain’t worried about getting the boy something special this year.’

‘Because I… I…’ Larry floundered.

‘Let me help you out,’ Pappy interrupted. ‘It’s because he loves his goddam robot so much that you could give him a dozen carrot sticks for Christmas and he wouldn’t give two hoots.’

Larry didn’t like it, but he saw that Pappy was right. Sam would want nothing more than to keep his Pappy Bot for another year. He groaned inwardly.

‘What do you want?’

‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ said Pappy, extinguishing his smoke in Larry’s in-tray. ‘I want a present of my own this year. And I don’t mean some crap out of a cracker. I want…a woman.’

Something in the way the robot said this, shuffling his tiny robot bot on the big leather chair momentarily unhinged Larry and he began to laugh. He couldn’t help it. Although he knew Pappy was serious, and his actions could have implications, he just kept on laughing and laughing.

‘A woman…’ he snorted tears through his nose. ‘My robot wants a woman.’

Pappy leapt off his chair, eyes whirling with emotion.

‘You’ll regret this,’ he shouted as he left the office. ‘You’ll regret this for the rest of your life!’

But Larry wasn’t going to be blackmailed. By Christmas Eve he had decided to decommission Pappy Bot and had persuaded his best IT whizz to help him do it. Still, he was oddly nervous as they entered his block and could only smile awkwardly at his employee as they travelled to the 26th floor.

‘Damn key, why won’t it…?’ he muttered as he tried to gain entry.

The apartment door opened a crack. It was on a heavy metal chain.

‘It’s no use, Larry,’ Larry recognised one of Pappy’s calmer voices. ‘We’ve changed the locks. You’re not welcome here anymore.’

‘What?’ Larry reeled backwards. ‘This is my home. Let me in you animatronic arsehole!’

‘No way,’ Pappy showed himself at the doorway. Larry sensed his son hovering in the background.

‘Sam?’ Larry called through. ‘Are you there, Sam?’

‘Sorry dad,’ came Sam’s voice, quiet but determined.

Larry turned to his IT guy who was creeping back towards the elevator.

‘Help me out,’ he pleaded. ‘We can smash the door down. This is my place. I have rights.’

But the man just smiled apologetically. It was time for his last throw of the dice.

‘Noreen,’ he shouted. ‘Come to the door, I beg you.’

In seconds the partially concealed face of their long-time helper appeared.

‘Please,’ he said to her, his voice quivering. ‘Stop this madness.’

She lowered her eyes and shook her head sadly. Pappy clarified the situation.

‘Noreen and I…’ he announced, ‘….are in love.‘

‘What?’ Larry spun round, looking for a reaction, but his colleague had disappeared. ‘In love?’ He wanted to laugh but couldn’t. ‘Well, let’s see what the police have to say about love.’

Larry stabbed the elevator call button. His own apartment. His own kid. This was ridiculous!

‘I would advise you not to call the police,’ came Pappy’s steady tones.

‘Why the hell not?’

‘Because then we will have to tell them about the abuse,’ Pappy explained.

‘Abuse?’ Larry swayed unsteadily.

‘The parental neglect,’ Pappy said, with pseudo-sorrow. ‘That has persisted for more than a decade.’

Abuse? Neglect? Did they really have a case? He stood there in a daze for several moments. Finally he staggered back towards the door. Warm light from within merged with delicious cooking smells. He listened carefully. From inside he heard the merry tinkle of a woman’s contented laughter and the sound of his son playing happily. Next year, Larry told himself, turning to leave, next year I’ll get him something even better…

41. “A dizzying second…”

Mankell advent.JPG

Poignant start to my homemade advent calendar (a gift for the man who has everything, but could do with a bit more wisdom). We lost Henning Mankell to the eternity he railed against earlier this year. An author able to write thrillers with a social conscience and of murder and mayhem while appealing for peace and compassion. He never wavered. He had his dizzying second and was generous (and talented) enough to share it far and wide. Much missed. If you haven’t read his lesser-known The Man from Beijing I would thoroughly recommend it (think I found a copy in Hong Kong library). Dark and insightful.

The Man from Beijing

40. 24-hour short story contest: big response to call of the wild

Lord Buckley wants you

A huge thank you to everyone who entered our 24-hour story contest that ran over the weekend of 3-4 October (Hong Kong time). All stories had to take into account this constraint drawn by the editor of Gafencu magazine: ‘the story must feature an elephant’. Local authors rose to the challenge, looked it square in the face and waited for inspiration to charge. We were very impressed with the quality and quantity of the entries we received and intend to trumpet about them in the weeks and months ahead.

If you want to hear some of the stories being read by their authors come along to the next Hong Kong Writers Circle social event on Wednesday 28 October at Culture Club, 15 Elgin Street (7.30pm kick off). Gafencu magazine will be awarding a special prize to the author of their favourite entry.

My own effort? Thanks for asking. As the contest fell on my birthday weekend it was a bit of a struggle to be honest. While I was able to maintain my admin duties, I didn’t come up with too many of my own words before friends joined me in the pub.

An elephant never remembers. Isn’t that what they say? I forget. It’s the one with the horn, right? I had the horn last night, and not the powdered kind: the kind brought about by liquor; the type of urge that doesn’t get you anywhere because you find yourself drawn to the unattainable – to the rare, lesser-spotted, velveteen-skinned fauna of the night; the tough but dainty animals thought extinct until recent sightings were inadvertently publicised in the startled eyes of a friend and who are now hunted by nightlife’s big beast collective – besuited predators making steady padding progress through the snow maintained by their indefatigable cool. Yes, last night I officially became grey and wrinkly. Worse – I forgot that I was grey and wrinkly. I fooled my own reflection but inspired no one else’s. I took on board so much booze that I became unattainable even to myself. Hence my head. Hence this elephantine hangover…

Here’s one I prepared earlier. An Elephant in Kowloon was published in Far Enough East a couple of years back. Check it out here. It’s a little more accomplished than the above…as far as I can remember: http://www.farenougheast.com/issue-03/an-elephant-in-kowloon-peter-humphreys/