Thursday, November 30, 2006

ENGLAND (or "I Was a Teenage ASBO")

I walk around this country and I'm constantly baffled by how ugly we make it. Every bit of developed space for the past hundred or so years seems to be designed to hinder individuality and imagination, and just generally put you in your place. I'm sure the actual people who design all of this stuff don't have that as their aim, but it's what's coming out.

Yet, I love this place. It doesn't matter how ugly and sinister the surroundings, I feel like I am in the right place. You can try to deny life, but you will not succeed.

Of course, it doesn't help that I work in Milton Keynes. If ever a place was just made all wrong, that is the place. You can walk through great swathes of housing estate and virtually every house ("unit" seems a more apt word) is identical. You know exactly the layout of your neighbour's house, and the family four streets away.

But still, I walk through it and I quite like it.

You see, every one of them has been modified in some way. A lot of them in a slipshod way, it must be said, but many of them ingeniously so. Some of them have had no actual work done on the exterior, but all you have to do is take one glance and you find out something about the people who live there. Life just spills over, wherever you put it.

People talk about ASBO teens and out-of-control teenagers. I prefer to call them "kids". It's a quaint term and it means people who are not grown up yet. Yeah yeah, I know what violent, selfish tossers some of them can be. I've had a couple of run-ins myself. But is it really a surprise that they get up to stuff? Do we really expect everyone to grow up well-adjusted in a country like this?

Confession: As a teenager, I was one of those troublemakers. I didn't go round mugging old grannies, but I did do quite a few things that should be frowned upon (although I was probably smirking at the time). I found myself in juvenile court. I hung around with other troublemakers. I recall literally going around looking for trouble. And finding it. Lots of times.

Thinking back, I was a bit of a nightmare.

My only saving grace is that I knew others who were way, WAY worse than me. And I saw the light and got out of all that before any more damage was done. (Not damage to your property, you understand, but damage to my prospects of getting a job. And I wanted a job so I could buy hip clothes and a car, and go around pulling birds. Teenagers are selfish, remember?)

Anyone who has met me knows that I'm a reasonable person. (There's a challenge if I ever heard it...) So why was I such a cunt, twenty years ago? Without making excuses for myself, perhaps it was because I was growing up in a place designed to squash life. Scrub the graffiti off the walls and it's still an ugly, claustrophobic town. But hey, life just spills over.

"Bring back National Service," says my grandad.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A lot of good writers give up writing too early. A lot of people try and write that novel but never get there. Some lose interest, and were never truly into it anyway. But a lot give up through frustration. Before you started writing, you had a brilliant idea, but when you tried writing it down and fleshing it out, it just didn't seem right. What you see there on the page, it's not quite what you intended. It does not please you. I think it's the same for all writers. (It's like that for me, anyway.) But the ones who stick with it are the ones who find away around this dissatisfaction.

The way I see it, there are two ways:

1. Never look back at what you've done. On and on until the end. Then look back.
2. Accept that the first draft is just digging. Be prepared to go back and dig down a different route at any point. And look out for anything shiny.

I am in the second camp

That great idea you initially had, it's not so great. It's a good starting point, but that's all it is. A great novel is not all about a great idea. It's about a whole lot of different things - some great, some not - that fit together and want to hold hands. For me, the process of writing the novel (first draft) is about discovering what those things are, and getting them holding hands with the rest of the gang (everything you have down so far). This may entail cutting someone out of the group. When I was writing my second published novel (FAGS AND LAGER), I got halfway through before I realised, after much agony, that the previous 20,000 words were a mistake. So out they came. Yeah, it hurt like hell and I had to drown my sorrows for a while. But as soon as I cut out the cancer and got moving again in the right direction, I was OK. I was loving it.

I'm wondering if that agony is what makes some writers (and many of them potentially good writers) give up?

20,000 words is a big chunk to cut out. More likely, I'll be going back into the novel again and again and making smaller adjustments - cut a few words here and change that bit. Sometimes you realise that a character is just not required. It's been nice knowing him, but if he has no place in the novel, out he goes. On his arse.

I think a big part of it is where you first put the spade in the dirt. One novel I wrote had my main character hanging out with this strange guy from the outset, and a lot of goings-on in the first few chapters that led him up to something else, which turned out to be the main thrust of the novel. At some point, I realised that I didn't need that intro. That strange guy's purpose was just to take me somewhere else, and once I got there, it was bye bye strange guy and a complete rewrite of the first couple of chapters.

Again, agony. Whatever it takes. Pain is only temporary.

So is a hangover.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Top 10 Reads

Here are what I think are the best novels around, at time of press, in no particular order. No doubt I've left out a biggie.

MONEY by Martin Amis

I've never seen a writer so on fire, in terms of accessing the English language and turning it to his own demonic ends. He plays with it like putty, making obscene and ridiculous shapes with it before rolling it up again and doing something else. I've always thought that Amis got a bit bored after reaching these heights.

CRASH by JG Ballard

Another language one. I know a lot of people see CRASH as primarily a big knock at post-industrial culture, fucking the automobile etc, but to me it's the funniest comic novel I've ever read. You can have both polemic and full-on laughs in the same book. That's always my ambition anyway.


An old favourite. I read it in my teens and was horrified to find myself moist-eyed. But, shit, what a babe Tess is. And Angel Clare... ah, such a twat. But yes, I know, they were shackled by the constraints of their time etc... I'm not sure if what I write is noir, but I can see some of the elements in my stuff. For me (and without getting bogged down with definitions) noir is about fate, and how the world will fuck you at every turn. Probably reading TESS at an earlyish age instilled that in me. But what a babe!


I'm always surprised to realise that I love this one so much. I suppose not many have heard of it (especially in the UK), but you should seek it out. Really it's a coming-of-age thing about a kid from the desert moving to the surfing beaches of California in search of his lost sister... and finding himself in a whole heap of shit. I'm not much of a summariser, but you can trust me that everything is pulled off just right. You get dragged into darker and darker places (from your point of innocence behind the young hero), and by the end you know you have been somewhere. Just brilliant.

POP. 1280 by Jim Thompson

Thompson... I could pick many of his novels, but this one sticks out a bit more than most. Before I read it, I just didn't realise what you could get away with in terms of totally unrestrained protagonists in positions of (perceived) authority, which is a big area of interest for me. Actually, I think the main pull for me is that, in this book, Thompson is spectacularly at ease with the first-person voice.

DON QUIXOTE by Miguel de Cervantes

You just start reading this big old Penguin Classic, and then you keep reading, and then you get to the end and you're sad. Your eyes are moist. But it's not like Tess. You're not sad at the fate of old Don, but because such a great book is over. Go on, read it again.

PET SEMETARY by Stephen King

I heard that King (who had a young family at the time) wrote this one and then put it in a drawer for a couple of years, because it scared him. I don't think any other King novel (or anyone's novel, come to think of it) gets as close to the primal fears at the heart of every family. For me, this is his most horrifying novel.

PICK UP by Charles Willeford

As I was saying to someone the other day, never has a last line in a novel knocked me off-balance as much as this one. PLEASE don't cheat. Just read it all from the start. And DONT CHEAT.


"Quiet" being the operative word here. No big bangs and tense action in Mills' novels, just a gentle stroll through the countryside that leaves you with the uneasiest of feelings...


Got to have a Goodis in here, and this one nails it easy for me. A long time since I read it, but the feeling stays fresh. You read it thinking "yeah, great, but this is the normal sort of stuff.." Ah, but it's not. Think about it and everything is different from your usual noir novel of the time. (NB: Original title is DOWN THERE. The "SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER" one is borrowed (wisely, I think) from Truffaut's film version)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Not blog off

When I said I'm abandoning this blog for good, of course I was just being figurative. Jesus Christ, some people can be so literal. What I'm doing now, see, is mirroring this blog with the one I've got on myspace. Slightly more graft involved but, you know, this way more people get to read the excellent things I post here. And also the shit things. Mind you, people on myspace might get the odd piece of short fiction now and then. (And I am talking ODD.)

Anyways, carry on with what you were doing.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Shite books

Why are there so many dull books out there? I walk into a bookshop and the dullness engulfs me within seconds. Open up the book review pages of a broadsheet: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. Walk into a library... you know it.

Sounds like I'm a typical bibliophobe here, but I'm not. Believe me, I love books. But it took the right kind of book for me to first get interested. You know what that was, for me? Worzel Gummidge novels, when I was about 9. I'm not tempted to open one now (aged 9+), but back then the "otherness" of this world where scarecrows walk was just compelling. No shit! Later on it was Stephen King, then on to all kinds such as Thomas Hardy and Kingsley Amis and I don't know what else. All of these guys either had a unique take on the world and knew how to put it across in an utterly compelling way. Preferably they also knew how to put FUN on the page.

Don't get me wrong, I am no advocate of "feelgood" novels. (Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.) However, a writer should never neglect to put in a joke funny, should one crop up. Cut out the jokes and you're cutting out half the entertainment. Which brings me back to where I started. Books are entertainment, and should be accepted as such. That means they are right there alongside CDs, DVDs, vid games, and wank mags.

When I walk into a record/DVD shop, I know I can spend hours in there. The whole atmosphere of the place tells me that I'm going to have a good time looking for cool stuff. When I walk into a high street bookshop or a library, I know I'm going to have a fucking dull time... finding cool stuff. Either there is just not enough cool stuff to make it worth my while (high street bookshop) or the cool stuff is hidden away in this warehouse of sleep (library).

Hey, I didn't start this post with the intention of knocking bookshops and libraries. I wanted to slag off the bulk of authors out there, and the mainstream publishers who perpetuate this culture of mediocrity, zero risk-taking, and literary snobbery. Brilliant books are out there. I've read them. They are dark and funny and eye-opening and gut-wrenching and utterly compelling, and they take you somewhere you never knew you wanted to go. And books are cool. For fuck's sake, books can be hip, man. And I don't mean hip like some Hoxton he-slag with a two turntables and a neo-mullet. I mean cool as in this is what you want to do, kids. So do it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Novel wars

After nearly four years of living in the current house, I've finally got some book shelves up and unpacked all my books onto them. I'm sure I lost a box some place but essentially all the old faves are there: the books I've collected over the years, give or take a burglary or two and giving a few away (ie: "lending").

So, for the hell of it (and in the absence of anything more interesting to blog about), here are the guys who score the most books on my shelves (and their scores):

14 Jim Thompson
13 Charles Willeford
8 Raymond Chandler
7 Ken Bruen
7 Stephen King
6 Martin Amis
6 Iain Banks
6 Clive Barker
6 Joe Lansdale
6 Graham Masterton
6 Magnus Mills
6 Jason Starr
5 Ramsey Campbell
5 Tim Lebbon
5 Elmore Leonard
5 Derek Raymond
5 John Williams
5 Charles Dickens
5 Michael Marshall (Smith)

I think that's a pretty strange list. I'm not surprised that Thompson and Willeford are way up there, but I haven't really thought of Chandler in years. And where is Hardy? I think I've read all of his books, and I love them, but where the hell are they? Same for Kingsley Amis and Irvine Welsh. Someone has got those books and I want to know who. Own up, you thieving bastard.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I only ever loved one horse

...and he was Desert Orchid.

Just watch this clip, even if you don't like horse racing, and you will love him too. He's the grey, by the way.

So long, Dessie.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Magician

If you can find it, check out Australian film THE MAGICIAN. Looks like it was shot for about 50 quid, but it's one of those ones that remind you that money is nothing without ideas and enthusiasm. My brother described it as CHOPPER meets BLAIR WITCH when he handed it to me, but I can confirm that it's way more subtle than either of those two, without being coy about anything.

Plotwise, a Melbourne hitman discovers that his neighbour is a filmmaker, and gets him to do a doc about him (to be released on the event of his death). MAN BITES DOG also comes to mind, but really it's not so much about the killing, or even the story at all. It's about character, and interplay between characters. The "Royale with Cheese" scene in PULP FICTION comes to mind. If you think the "Royale with Cheese" scene is one of the best things about PF, see this movie.

In the obligatory DVD interview, director/writer/star Scott Ryan admits that the film turned no profit (so far). I hope it does, because his resume looks a bit bare and it's a crying shame.

On an unrelated note, it's also a crying shame that Belgian director Fabrice Du Weltz only has the superb CALVAIRE on his CV. Someone give these guys jobs, now!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Guy Fawkes and punishment

Made a Guy Fawkes with the kids on Sunday. I was telling them about Mr Fawkes and his plans to blow up parliament, and how they caught him, tortured him, and burned him as a punishment. Then I told them how we carry on burning him every year... erm, as more punishment.

Is there anyone in history who has been punished more than him, for so long? Isn't it time to forgive and forget? Doesn't he have family somewhere? Surely they get fed up with all the hatred? Maybe not? Maybe modern-day Fawkes family members burn him too? "Come on, son. Time to put great-great-great......great grandad on the fire again, the dirty treacherous old bastard."

Due to some strange quirk of fate, I was born in Worcester, which is historically a rampantly royalist city who have no time for revolutionary upstarts, harbouring the fugitive King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester, etc. The quirk of fate is that one of my ancestors is Oliver Cromwell, who... well, if you did history at school then you'll know about him. Let's just say he was the biggest revolutionary upstart England has ever seen, booting out the monarchy and turning England (for five years) into a republic. He was also the winner of the Battle of Worcester, and the feller who was after Charles II's blue blood.

Anyway, after Cromwell died, the monarchy was restored and everyone turned against him. They dug him up and did some bad things to his festering corpse in London. Back in Worcester, meanwhile, they put up an effigy of his head with huge exaggerated ears (which he didn't have - look here and you'll see that Cromwell was a very handsome man), and nails through them pinning him to the wall of the Guildhall. Charming. Either side of him are King Charles I and II, just to ram the point home that Worcester is a royalist town for royalist people, and there's nothing here for republicans. And it's all still there. Every time I walk past with the kids I can say: "Look, that's what you get for getting above your station."