‘The Dark Fish’ in Horla

In my last post I mentioned I had been reading short story collections lately, and particularly the strange tales of Robert Aickman. This prompted me to exhume some of my own short stories from the cobwebby Kenny Vaults. One of these was a story called The Dark Fish. I wrote the first version of this in my mid twenties, and it interested the editor of a magazine called Panurge, who suggested changes. After three lots of changes, it was rejected. After this, and a couple of other rejections, it lay dormant in dusty hard copy for years.

Time, however, is the best editor. When I found my MS last week, a few editorial fixes suggested themselves.  These made, I was pleased with the results.

I had recently discovered Horla, the Home of Intelligent Horror, and when I sent it to its editor, Matthew Rees to my delight the story was immediately accepted. I have often experienced long time-lags between having written something, and it finding publication, but 32 years is my best yet.

The story concerns an astrologer, and was grounded in my own experience. For having graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Literature, I returned to London and seizing up the nearest copy of the Evening Standard was aghast to discover the absence of a ‘philosopher wanted’ column in the jobs section.

After a few months lifting and carrying boxes containing electric keyboards and cash registers in the Casio warehouse near Brent Cross, I began casting horoscopes in my spare time. I then left the warehouse to go full time as an astrologer. Briefly things went okay. I had taught myself how to cast and interpret horoscopes in my teens, and found a stream of people asking for my services. Soon my work took a darker turn. I found I was asked to do horoscopes for people who were recently bereaved. More strangely, I discovered that people were investing me with powers and wisdom I did not have.  I am pleased, looking back, that I had enough self-awareness at the time not to pretend I had the answers. I got out of the business of astrology sharpish. For more about my brief career as an astrologer and my feelings about astrology itself read this.

Alongside the story, I discovered the Rotring pen drawing below.

So, thanks again Horla — and please read the story here if you fancy ten minutes of weirdness then investigate the Horla site for yourself.

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A lost friend, agent hunting, and new collections of short stories

My friend Janet Summerton died on October 1st at the age of 79.  I was heavily involved in her care during her last two months, and that of her husband Ken who survives her. Janet was a lateral thinking champion of the crafts and craft makers – and a benign influence on a generation of arts managers in the UK.  There are plans to celebrate her life and work next year. My own relationship with her, however, started when I  was her lodger in my twenties. For the next thirty years she was a wise and affectionate aunt-like figure to me. What I learned from her is immeasurable, introducing me right away to the idea of having a portfolio career and, perhaps most helpfully, she stopped me being a genius.

* * *

Shortly after Janet died I attended a long-booked Writers & Artists ‘How to hook an agent’ day course for writers of Children’s and YA fiction, at Bloomsbury Publishing up in Bedford Square. The agents I heard from were Davinia Andrew-Lynch, Julia Churchill, and Ben Illis, all of whom were generous with their advice, and refreshingly normal and human. Lurking in Bloomsbury’s maze-like offices I kept imagining all the celebrated writers who must have visited there. My fellow attendees were a fascinating lot too, some had flown in from other countries. In the afternoon we all had ten minutes face-to-face with an agent. Pitching is part of what I have done for a living for the last twenty years or so, so the fact I made such an arse of myself was disappointing. Despite this, Ben Illis the agent I spoke to gave me excellent advice. I am acting on it.

* * *

I have been reading short stories recently, after buying two collections from writer friends, both published by Cultured Llama.

In Jeremy Page’s London Calling and Other Stories. I particularly enjoyed the novela-length title story London Calling. Its protagonist, a University drop-out called Eustace Tutt, is brilliantly drawn, and was for me like meeting someone from my own past.    Sadly, my past did not feature sharing a squat with two German girls with a propensity for nudity.  Jeremy’s stories are funny, touching and very human. I devoured the collection.

Unusual Places  by Louise Tondeur‘s style is fascinating, she has an alien’s eye for detail, and observations are made without the expected filters and hierarchies of importance. Louise is writing a crime novel at the moment, and I can’t help thinking the engaging oddness of her characters and description would make her foray into crime something to be greatly anticipated.

My other ‘discovery’ is Robert Aickman, a writer of what he called ‘strange Stories’, who died in 1981. I bought a new collection of his called Compulsory Games full of hauntingly weird stories. The story called No Time Is Passing, is one of the most disturbing and brilliant things I have ever read. It concerns a man who goes out into his back garden in West London and discovers a river at the end of it.  I found myself in the middle of the night worrying if I was going mad. I had been obsessing about the story lying awake and wide-eyed for hours. The way Aickman nudges up the weird every few sentences is just incredible. Dreamlike is a word that is overused continually, but Aickman’s stories are properly nightmarish, while rarely resorting to horror tropes.

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An Outbreak of Peace

An Outbreak of Peace, Stories and Poems in Response to the End of WWI

Edited by Cherry Potts of Arachne Press, this great new anthology coincides with the centenary of the 1918 Armistice.

The Launch Party, will be held: 7.00 pm, Wednesday 14th November 2018 — at Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX. If you’d like to come, simply email  cherry@arachnepress.com. Find out more about the anthology, its contributors and the readings here.

Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing the readings, drinking some wine, and also reading my poem War diary in 1/72 scale, which is about how the legacy of male hostility is passed down the generations… And Airfix kits.

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Eno installations at the Montefiore Hospital

I’m not given much to hero worship, but Brian Eno is as close as I get.  His ambient music is often the backdrop to my work, and his albums Neroli, Thursday Afternoon, The Plateaux of Mirrors (with Harold Budd), Music for Airports, and On Land are all favourites.  While his book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, which I read several times, influenced the course of my life and helped me diversify and enrich what have done with my life.

Lately, I have been researching hospital waiting rooms, as I believe the experience for people using them can be drastically improved. No surprise to find that Eno had already gone there before me. I visited the Montefiore Hospital  in Hove, just walking distance from my home, which has two installations by Brian Eno.

In the reception area you can find Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings for Montefiore, a slowly-mutating light painting, which layers and combines in millions of ways previous artworks by Eno.  He says in his notes, ‘The movement of the whole piece is deliberately slow. My feeling is that this slowness produces a calming experience — because it takes the viewer down to its speed.’ Soothing ambient sounds also provide a tranquil backdrop to the reception area.

The Quiet Room for Montefiore  is chiefly used by patients after chemotherapy and it creates a therapeutic, humanising tranquillity.  About this room Eno writes, ‘Creating a healing environment isn’t only about correct surgical procedures and the right technology but also about making an atmosphere where the patients feel able to relax enough to clearly think through their options, and to properly take part in the healing process themselves.’ As you sit on the sofa and watch the light combine in different ways, and sense the ambient sound calming you, you can tell this is art of a different sort, that provides a context for you to exist calmly. It is a brilliant piece of work.

I picked up the comments book in reception and read, ‘you can feel your blood pressure calming by the minute. It made me think of cells and change and the beauty of life.’ Another person wrote, ‘I truly believe they play a significant role in my treatment and my journey to being well’.

I believe treatment should begin in the waiting room, and The Montefiore Hospital, through its use of these Eno installations, may be on the way to doing just that.

I would like to thank Tom Collins of Montefiore Hospital for showing me the work.

Below a snap of the endlessly changing 77 Million Paintings for Montefiore, in the reception area, and a photo taken from the sofa in the darkened The Quiet Room for Montefiore.

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77 Million Paintings for Montefiore by Brian Eno

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The Quiet Room for Montefiore, by Brian Eno

 

 

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Get your TRUTHS here

I wanted to post this link to the Telltale Press site to get your copy of TRUTHS: A Telltale Press Anthology.  Crammed with exceptional poets, this anthology is Telltale’s swansong, edited by Sarah Barnsley, Robin Houghton and I. Lovely to be able to finish the Telltale project on a high.

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Sarah Barnsley, Robin Houghton and myself pictured in gleeful mode, at an editorial  meeting in a pub earlier this year.

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The Mosque Cathedral of Córdoba

A mosque with a cathedral bursting out of its roof. Ever since Lorraine and I went to Spain a month ago, I have been haunted by the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.

It is not rare for different religions to use the same holy sites over history, although what makes people originally decide a site is holy or not is an interesting question. The building in Córdoba close to the Guadalquivir river has its roots at least as far back as the mid-6th Century, with establishment of a Visigoth Basilica of San Vincente. It became a mosque in 786 and after the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, was rededicated as a Catholic temple in 1146, and its strange hybrid life began.

I found the Mezquita exquisite. A forest of pillars, that line up as you walk past them, with the visitors inside flickering between them.

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But what held me spellbound, was the the semicircular niche, the mihrab, in the qibla wall, where people orient themselves in prayer. This mihrab, was simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. Lorraine and I spent a long time just looking at this beautiful thing, and returned early a few days later so we could spend more time drinking it in with our eyes.

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And looking up…

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On my next visit, I wanted to look harder at the Cathedral too.

The effect of a almost vertical shaft of light, which is extremely  dramatic when you walk into it from the low light levels of the mosque. Walking into the Cathedral after looking at the patterns of Islamic art, the depictions of Jesus, God, Mary, various saints and angels was a stark difference.

It made me think how the holy art of Islam contrasts with Christian depictions of Christ, Mary, the apostles and so on. For me, these depictions, however beautiful, always have a touch of bathos. They particularise and funnel the imagination towards human likenesses. While I found my first impression of the mihrab made me imagine reaching out to something divine and ultimately indefineable.

To me, imposing a new Cathedral which literally goes through the roof of the old mosque seemed almost a brutality, and inclined me to a political reading of the building, that the Cathedral was triumphalist expression of the overthrow of the Caliphate and the reconquest of Spain.

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But after a second visit, I changed my mind. The building’s hybrid nature won me over.

I’ve forgotten where I first bumped into the thought that religions could be considered to be fingers on the hand of God, but this Mosque Cathedral reminded me of it.

Through many centuries people have yearned towards the idea of God in so many ways, including eastwards, upwards or by looking within. What strange things we people are, and what beauty can religions draw out of us.

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Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, and grappling with what’s difficult

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When I meet a difficult text, it invariably makes me think of the Genesis story of Jacob and the Angel, or at least its depictions in art.  I like Jacob Epstein’s statue Jacob and the Angel (1940) in the Tate, but it is Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon (1888) with women having just left church on Sunday, receiving a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel that most often comes to mind. What does the angel want? Obedience? Submission? When Jacob prevails after a night of wrestling, he is freed with a wounded hip joint and he is given a new name: Israel.

* * *

Grappling all night with difficult texts can seem an ordeal too, especially if there is an exam at the end of it. As a student, I sometimes found unpicking all the references in say T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound tiresome. I still think of this stage of modernism as an exercise of cultural collage, or mosaic work: a tessera of Dante, a smidge of Wordsworth, a splash of Bhagavad Gita. Exemplified by The Waste Land, this juxtaposition of  pan-cultural resonances was undoubtedly exciting, and a leap ahead in poetry. As a student, the better read you became, the easier it became to nod with a certain smugness, for example, when you’d traced the origins.

In the mid eighties, I was given J.H.Prynne’s The Oval Window by my friend Michael, who is now a professor in the US. This was the best kind of grappling. Michael was a Prynne advocate, and we swapped letters (yes, in actual envelopes) for a few months about Prynne’s work. My first reaction to Prynne was hostile. I got that he used language in part to portray the difficulty of communicating, a familiar trope in twentieth century writing. But itseemed to me that Prynne took this to heroic levels of wilful obscurity. Grappling with the angel of Prynne frequently left me feeling angry and baffled. But it stretched me as a reader, and something else happened that I hadn’t bargained for: I became haunted by the images in his work. Here’s a section from one of the untitled (they are all untitled) poems in the book.

Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones,
aircraft and the corpses of men, tigers
fish and pythons, “all in a confused tangle.”

This collection is full of points ‘of vantage, private and inert’, and these poems have been  a sphinx on my imaginative horizon ever since, and in the way that poems that yield their pleasures more easily simply have not. I’m still conflicted by Prynne. Do I find this language beautiful? Not really. Does it move me? Only in a weird way. Do I find myself picking up Prynne on a regular basis? Yes, damn it!

Since Prynne I have grappled with poets I find difficult, and even if I have to submit, bruised and baffled, I often feel I have at least encountered something mysterious, and that the struggle taught me something, even if only about my own limitations.

* * *

Most writers of poetry often encounter invitations to enter competitions. The majority of them exist to bolster the funds of poetry publishers, which is a perfectly good reason to support them. Sifting through hundreds of poems, those judges, however sincere and thorough, are more likely to respond to work that rapidly downloads its meaning and rewards. While these poems can be profound, my feeling is that only rarely do they provoke a lengthy engagement. The worst of them are like jokes, you read them once or twice, get the punchline and move on.

 * * *

I have lately been visiting the New York based site E·ratio, which is edited by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino. E·ratio ‘publishes poetry in the postmodern idioms with an emphasis on the intransitive’. The intransitive being writing that draws attention to the act of writing itself, in a Prynne-like way, rather than pointing to something in the outside world. I loved this bracing precision, and there is bags of challenging work on the site. I was also delighted when Gregory published a rare sortie into this kind of postmodernism by me.

 * * *

I have been enjoying getting to grips with Gregory’s Vincent St. Thomasino’s selected writings, collected in the soon-to-be-released, The Wet Motorcycle. This work, which I have been lucky enough to see before publication, includes some absolutely pyrotechnic  poems, that burst off the page and whoosh over your head.  An early sequence is called Bolts. To me they are mysterious meteors of meaning. Take Bolt twenty which pinballs between tiny fragments of perhaps, Tristan and Iseult, and Petrach, and may be alluding to the  misfortune of having to dash your brain on the harsh business of grappling with words.

Bolt twenty
Por Deu
Omnipotent
Ce
Fu pechiez
dash my brain L’
Aspre vie
Words
New
Woe

The Wet Motorcycle is also remarkable, in that it provides the theoretical background to enable you to better understand the poet’s way of seeing. He offers a  Crash Course in Logoclastics,  which employs the term ‘logoclastics’ to suggest a break or dislocation in discourse. This break is where the reader steps in to bridge the gap with ‘their own logic, sense and meaning’. I think it may be possible to read this as encouraging a more engaged reading, where the reader is co-creating with the writer. Nothing to argue with here. While I have never thought of it this way, I always enjoy writing that has ambiguity, suggestion, and territories left for the reader to explore. Leaving space for the reader is essential in serious writing.

The theory continues with a description of the ‘pannarrative’ text.

The pannarrative text. If “text-collage” is the general term for such, then a “text collage” composed of fragments (word fragments, words, sentences, verses, elements [quotation]) of narrative (narrative as found / appropriation) “stitched” together. It is a sort of “list” or “roll call.”
The pannarrative poem begins by seeing all the world as one great narration — a narrative that is known in proportion to the degree of the relation of its parts.
As an instance of the pannarrative text (or, of, the collage text) I here do offer a text. And notice, please, the composition, the assemblage, is of things from the world writ large, from the world encircling me, and these are mixed with my own sensibilities, with my own emotions (and that my poem is the analogue to the expressionist depiction, and thus an ekphrasis of sorts).

This description of how the writer engages with the ‘one great narration’ to produce his work I find fascinating.

I have just embarked on Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino’s work. Sure it is difficult. But it has rewards and challenges. But one thing is for certain, this is a way of writing that is distinctly different to my own, and I enjoy it for precisely this reason. His is a serious and pioneering endeavour, which has poetry, flash fiction, novels and theory in its ambit. It is unlike any other I have read, so must be explored.

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