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

Adam and Rosie by Ben Catchpole

Adam with ‘hairy bullet’ Rosie – by Ben Catchpole

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

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

Buxton Podcast art by Helen Green

Illustration by Helen Green – click for pods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The word nudger in action

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

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

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

Scrimshand writing room

Writing room for The Legend of Scrimshand by Ana Rebolledo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explore online events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep calm and Carrie on

Keep calm and Carrie on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My first published novel – set entirely in Hong Kong

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

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

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

Puro Verso bookshop 2

The splendid Puro Verso bookshop in Montevideo

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

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

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

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

 

80. Books I intend to read in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

79. Books I can remember reading in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Pretending to write in Aigburth

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

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

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

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

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

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

76. Hong Kong Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

IMG_7955

Adrian Mole, c’est nous!

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

IMG_7093.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’ve had an accident I hear?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Fighting again, was it?’

‘Artistic differences.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie kneed him in the thigh.

‘Fuck, why the aggression?’

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

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

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

‘Yes please,’ Julie croaked politely.

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

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

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

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

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

‘My…brother…’

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

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

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

He read the inscription.

‘Sam.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kill the bastards
Kills the bastards
Kill the lazy rebel bastards

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

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

‘Who’s that singing?’

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

‘It’s me, Dad – your son.’

‘Sam?’

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

Silence.

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

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

‘Damn son fitted it.’

‘Sam?’

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

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

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

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

‘Seaport,’ Patrick said.

‘Where else?’ his father replied crankily.

‘What a fantastic gift.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What the hell is that?’

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

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

‘Here we go.’

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

© Peter Humphreys

59. Game of Drones

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

 

55. To all the writers out there craving a bestseller

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

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

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

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

54. Giant Faces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50. Future Perfect: anthology-editing pointers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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