I’m very chuffed to have been accepted for the next edition of “Chelsea Station”, a magazine of gay writing from New York. Edited by Jameson Currier, the whole enterprise seems very ambitious; they’ve published several novels and the magazine is now in its third edition.
I’m especially pleased that the story I submitted, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, was truthful enough in its setting to be accepted by a New York based magazine, given that I’ve never been to New York. It’s usually said that US magazines are rather protective of their turf, and tend to be suspicious of anything from outside the country; I believe that’s especially true of academic journals. However, Currier is obviously an open-minded guy looking for good writing from anywhere, and I’m pleased that the story was convincing.
Although sex and relationships are pretty powerful drivers in my work, this is only the second purely LGBT themed story I’ve written. The first was “Drowning in the Shallows” from nearly twenty years ago now. That was a pot-boiler of a story about a jilted lover that was so highly personal, I had to find some way to distance myself from the subject matter. Just out of a hugely damaging relationship in which I’d been kicked around like some pathologically devoted stray mongrel for most of my twenties, I’d responded to a bit of kindness and a few treats the way a spaniel puppy might, and got myself into a relationship any emotionally mature person wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. After six months or so of intense passion, I was then dumped in what one could describe as a fairly shitty fashion.
It served me right, of course. I’d deluded myself about what it was and what it could be, and, justifying it all as “going with the flow”, my behaviour was pretty reprehensible. The resultant freaky breakdown I had was a response not just to those six months but to the misery of the previous ten years that I still hadn’t dealt with. In the ensuing chaos, I bumped around as if in a pinball machine, being embarrassing and needy and miserable and drinking too much and hardly sleeping. I made a wrong decision professionally, and fucked up a third and final chance with a young woman who might have been very special to me. So – just desserts.
The story, then, told of that break up, but first versions were just so outrageously self-pitying, I had to do something with it; so, the ‘dumper’ became a bisexual games-player, and the ‘dumpee’ a lesbian. I think that allowed me to look at it much more objectively, and I managed to do things symbolically and structurally that I couldn’t have managed otherwise simply because I had the distance of writing about someone who wasn’t me.
I think that fictionalisation of our lives is essential to capturing the truth of our existence and making it universal to the reader: it’s a theme I explored in the videos for young writers in school published by Learning and Teaching Scotland a couple of years ago. Here it is again:
The finished story appears in “Occasional Demons”, but I do remember entering a version of it anonymously for a Radio Clyde / Glasgow University competition judged by Janice Galloway. When I was placed first equal, I was quite proud of her comments: she said while she wasn’t absolutely sure it had been written by a gay woman, she was amazed that it had been written by a man, and that she hadn’t expected the ending at all. I took a great deal of heart from that (although a few years later she backtracked on those comments somewhat). Of course, the other winning story – which I can’t remember but which was terrific too – didn’t have swear words and gay sex scenes in it, so it was a shoe-in for the title and broadcast on the radio. At least I got an equal share of the prize money, which was enough to buy my then partner Geraldine and I a pizza and a bottle of wine in the local Italian restaurant.
I’ve heard lots of debates over the years amongst writers concerning ownership of the work we do. Should straight men write about gay women? Can whites write effectively about blacks, or non-Muslims about Muslims? There are a plethora of magazines, events and competitions that are becoming more and more exclusive – women only events, gay anthologies, immigrant literature competitions – and that’s all absolutely fine by me unless it encourages the potentially preposterous Esquire’s “Men’s Fiction” e-series, as if men are some disempowered minority who need affirmative action. And I’ll wager most of the stories Esquire publish will be by and about straight, white, professional men at that.
A lesbian friend did look askance a bit about me writing a “lesbian story”, but I think the reaction from women, gay and straight, to that piece has been generally positive over the years, even though it is, I have to stay, still more than a little overwrought. I do think there are certain groups within society who have the right to identify their own agendas and protect their own boundaries, simply as a bulwark against the discrimination they have suffered and still suffer, or to provide an environment in which they can grow. I hope, though, that those boundaries can be blurred enough to allow genuine dialogue with and sincere responses from those who lie nominally ‘outside’ them.
The problem, I think, is in where we draw the lines of those boundaries. I remember the advice the Writer in Residence at Glasgow University gave me when I took a sheaf of my stuff along to him as an eager first year student; I won’t mention his name, but he’s a major Scottish literary figure and a lovely writer. “Write about what you know” was the old faithful he trotted out. What does that actually mean? Does it mean that writers can never write from the point of view of the opposite sex, of different genders, of alternative lifestyles? That we can’t write about people who are not us, people who are older or younger, richer or poorer? Should we avoid writing about drunks and drug addicts unless we’ve been there and got the vomit-stained t-shirt? Are serial killers off-limits unless we’ve a few bodies buried under the floor boards ourselves? And what, then, of vampires, werewolves and zombies? It was all very confusing for a rather awestruck 17-year-old me. Luckily, I realised I’d misinterpreted the advice (I think), grew out of that phase and decided to branch out into characters I could never be.
As for “Drowning in the Shallows”, I once got a card from the real life ‘dumper’; she congratulated me on getting my collection published, and signed it with the name of “her” character in the story. I found I couldn’t forgive her for that presumption, for taking ownership of my story, of my work, of my catharsis.
I felt she’d had enough of me already.
The great Funny or Die website did a piece on celebrities that look like figures from history: I mentioned the resemblance I’d noticed between Robert de Niro and a portrait I discovered in the National Gallery in Wroclaw of Johan van Vogt. I know some people have been looking for it, so, to ease your way, here’s the evidence that Robert de Niro is a time-travelling celebrity:
Jings, I’ve just noticed that both picture have a logo to the right of the subject’s head! Spooky or what?
I’ve blogged a couple of times about the excellent Northern Writes conference for young writers that Aberdeen council runs each year. The annual anthology of writing by those young people is now online here:
The quality of the young people’s writing is terrific, and I’d recommend it to English teachers for use with their senior writers. Well worth a download!
Tutors were asked to contribute something, and I submitted a short character study that goes to prove I can’t really write poetry! Here it is:
Edith Piaf on the MetroOld Edith Piaf is on the Metro. She sits opposite, asleep, buttoned tight in a burgundy coat which falls aside so slightly at the knee, revealing the colour picked out in the stripes of her dress. She is muffled in one, two, three scarves, layered thermally and aesthetically, purple, green-purple, green, and her sky blue headscarf matches the audacity of her handbag. She wears, though, sensible brown shoes, scuffed and worn smooth like the tiniest and oldest of otters. The train rolls into Falguière: I reach across, touch her elbow, “Madame, excusez-moi,” my fearful French supplemented by an eyebrow raised, “votre station?” She blinks, wipes a drool from the corner of her mouth, flusters to her feet. Bustling through the door she remembers her fading charm turns, gap-tooth smiles, flirts a wink and says, “Merci, Monsieur.” Having woken her and been so blessed I have not one regret.
I’ve just watched a lovely BBC4 documentary on Allegri’s “Miserere”, that most mysterious piece of devotional music that was held like a state secret by the Vatican for so long. Simon Russell Beale tells its story, and then The Sixteen, a cool choir led by Harry Christophers I’ve never come across before, deliver a spellbinding performance.
Like magnificent cathedrals and devotional masterpieces on the walls of luxurious religious palaces, I baulk at the idea of such beauty being owned by the corrupt bureaucrats of organised, brutalised religions: I can’t think of anyone who deserves access to this wonder less than a privileged, self-serving clergy who fatten themselves on the patronage of the rich while failing to give a shit about the poor; to claim this genius as your own is as perverse as the notion of land ownership or the disappearance of masterpieces of art into the private collections of billionaire criminal oligarchs or the corporate patenting of DNA. And let’s not forget that they were happy to castrate boys to sing this, and that if it hadn’t been for the sneakiness of Mozart and Mendelssohn, this would still be locked in the Sistine Chapel.
But that is what the world is, damn it. Plebeians like me can only drop our jaws in wonder at what the rich take for granted as their entitlement. And this is jaw dropping, and those four bars containing the high C – so wondrously sung by Elin Manhan Thomas – are the most jaw dropping of all. I don’t believe in God – cannot believe in God – but I envy the music and art and architecture men have created and have had created in His praise.
I wonder how beautiful the world would be if all that ingenuity had been devoted to man instead of myth.
Last autumn, I was contracted by the then Learning and Teaching Scotland to create support materials for the development of persuasive writing for the new National Qualifications courses in English.
Designed in much the same way as the materials I produced in 2010 to support creative writing for the Higher folio, these materials support writing as an ongoing process throughout a course. Teachers can pick and choose the PowerPoint lessons as and when they wish to reinforce work that is going on in the class. There are also regular activities to be done as lesson starters or homework, such a tweet sheets or blogging tasks.
I hope you find them useful. They can be downloaded, saved and adapted as you see fit and as topicality demands. They can be found here.
Since LTS was subsumed into the new Education Scotland body, the web address for the creative writing materials has moved. You can now find and download the materials, including videos of authors talking about creative writing, here:
My annual wee weekend away with pals takes us to Madrid, the first time I’ve ever visited Spain. It’s a lovely city, but odd in a number of ways. It doesn’t seem to have an identifiable vista like Paris or London or Edinburgh, and is a little like Glasgow in that the fantastic architecture is hidden at ground level by retail outlets.
There’s also highly visible long term poverty, including one poor bloke who camped outside a multiplex cinema virtually 24/7 for the duration of our visit. I’m in no way suggesting the many, many beggars we saw should be moved out of tourists’ view, nor that Madrid is any worse than any other capital city for its long term homeless: it just seems to me scandalous that in any civilised city – particularly one dominated so much by the Church – anyone still has to live on the streets, regardless of their social or mental or physical needs.
Finally, I’m quite discomfited by the guns everywhere: it seems store and hotel security men are licensed to carry guns too. I’m never happy around such people: they may ostensibly be there for “our protection”, but I firmly believe violence breed violence. I remember being on a safari holiday in Kenya, and an armed soldier accompanied us on a walk along the banks of a crocodile infested river. He was ten times more threatening than those crocs who we never got within a hundred yards of us and who were separated by a wide river, and if he had extorted cash from us – as we were warned he might – we’d have handed it over pretty damn quick.
But it’s probably the most beautiful city I’ve been to for art, save Paris perhaps. The Prado, the traditional museum, is fantastic. Heavy on Velásquez, it includes the great Las Meninas. It’s an undoubted masterpiece, a clever, clever painting with it’s mirror image of the subject of the painting being painted in the painting (!) and the paintings of paintings on the far wall, along with the artist cocky and confident peering over the heads of the nosy royal family. It doesn’t do it for me, though, representing as it does the horrendous privilege of the Spanish court, led by the cruellest bunch of genetically compromised arrogant uglies you could ever imagine: chief amongst them is Felipe IV, one of the vainest men ever born given the number of portraits of him. The corruption is clear in the preponderance of dwarves and mental defectives brought to court to “entertain” this idle lot, and they were supported wholeheartedly by the most corrupt branch of the Catholic Church ever known. In celebration of my visit, I’m reading Antony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, and he makes it absolutely clear just how repressive Church and State were in maintaining a vicious and primitive feudal state all the way to the mid-20th Century. You can see the sense of entitlement in their faces.
He is a stunning painter, though, even if he did buy into the whole privilege thing. His Christ on the Cross is rightly one of the most famous of those images, and his Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan is fantastic. Forget the cheesy mythological subject matter, just look at the face of the guy second from the right. He could be your next door neighbour.
There’s a whole lot more. Goya is great too: I especially respond to his black paintings. Half Submerged Dog is one of the saddest paintings I’ve ever seen, even though there’s hardly anything in it, and Saturn Devouring his Son is surely one of the most disturbing paintings ever committed to canvas and one you don’t want in your head. Well, not actually: they were murals in his house transferred to canvas after his death. These were Goya’s idea of wallpaper. Eeek.
Obviously, royalty and religion figure heavily, and for a socialist, atheist republican, these don’t hold much significance for me. Some, though, are wonderful, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. The excellent audio guide points out why I find it visually so arresting and satisfying: it’s all about design and symmetry, the parenthetical figures right and left framing the group, the echoed body shapes of Christ and Mary. It’s gorgeous and vivid and nearly six hundred years old.
The painting I’m really here to see is almost as old and just as vivid and much, much stranger. Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delight is one of the most famous paintings in the world, largely because of its inspiration of a thousand prog rock album covers, Monty Python’s cartoon style and weirdos like Dali. I remember buying a book about it when I was sixteen and being amazed at the modernity of its imagery; in the flesh, so to speak, it is even more dazzling. Hell, of course, is the big draw here. It’s amazing how closely the darkened skyline lit by burning buildings and shafts of eerie light resemble a 20th century Blitz scene, and that’s echoed in his The Haywain and Pieter Breughel’s awful Passchendale landscape in The Triumph of Death.
There are two truly beautiful nudes that catch my eye. The first is Mariano Fortuny’s Male Nude in the Sun; I just love the old man’s expression, sunlight lighting and warming his face, the folds of skin on his belly speaking of a once hard and beautiful body now as fragile as a bird. The most stunning, I think, is Paul Baudry’s The Pearl and the Wave. Those perfect skin tones, those foaming waves, that look of promise over the shoulder make for as innocently erotic a painting as I’ve seen.
There’s one other that is quite stunning, but I’ll leave her for later.
The Reina Sofia at the end of the Paseo del Arte is a modern art gallery, and therefore, I’m afraid, much lost on me. I did, however, find another gobsmackingly beautiful nude, Roberto Fernández Balbuena’s utterly gorgeous Desnudo. However, I’m again here for the big one: Guernica, perhaps the most famous painting of the 20th century. I do admire and even like Picasso, and since visiting the Paris Picasso museum I have a huge respect for his technical skill: he was a fantastic draughtsman, for instance. Therefore, the surrounding exhibits tell a fascinating story of his preparatory work and his later revisions, as well as displaying some of the images of the Civil War that inspired him. The painting itself is truly monumental, and a real treasure. Standing in front of that renowned image of the wounded, terrified horse centre stage is truly visceral, and slowly but surely the other horrors – that mother off left, howling as she cradles her dead child in a tangle of misshapen limbs, for instance – beat down on the senses. It’s absolutely magnificent.
There are some fantastic spaces in the city. The CentroCentro building, housed in the old post office, is brilliant. Refurbished, it retains the old marble counter tops and brass edgings and fittings that so many transactions took place on, retaining a sense of history, and yet it is cool and utterly modern. Brand spanking new, it’s housing some photographic exhibitions just now, most notably Luis Baylon’s A Pair of Twos sequence that wittily recounts humans’ need to copy, to ape, to belong. Another great building is the train station (yes, I went to visit a train station – anorak) which has been extended and the platforms ripped out of the old building to house a huge, primeval forest that dinosaurs should inhabit. It’s great, and quite the loveliest rail waiting area I’ve ever been in.
There’s plenty of green space too, such as the Parque del Retiro, home to the lovely Velásquez and Crystal Palaces (which have been gutted to house – urgh – conceptual art works), or the Ptolemaic Temple of Debod, reconstructed after being given as a gift by the Egyptian government in the 1950s, overlooking the Casa de Campo.
The third big museum is the Thyssen- Bornemisza. I hate it because it’s the tax-dodging fiddle of a filthy rich dynasty that should never have been allowed to squirrel away this much art, but in many ways it’s the best of the lot and I love it for that. Take a deep breath: over three compact floors, you can see, among many others, Holbein (younger and elder), van Eyck, El Greco, Breughel, Canaletto, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals, Goya, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin, Lautrec, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Chagal, Dali, Rothko and Lichtenstein.
My favourites? Caravaggio’s beautiful Saint Catherine; Franz Hals’ Fisherman Playing the Violin, just because of the vitality of his face; Hopper’s Hotel Room because of it’s utter loneliness; Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror because I love Bacon, so there, and it’s weird and brilliant; Lucien Freud’s Portrait of Baron H. H. Thyssen-Bornemisza because I think Freud is one of the most honest portrait painters ever; Grosz’s Metropolis because of its utterly modern apocalyptic take on the city; and Estes’ People’s Flowers for it’s American reportage.
However, the paintings I most jump out of my skin at are two soppy Romantic portraits, each of a woman of whom I thoroughly disapprove. Amalia de Llano y Dotres, Countess of Vilches, whose portrait hangs in the Prado, was a monarchist writer in Spain when Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz painted her in 1854. Again, she represents corruption, privilege, cruelty; and yet she’s lovely. She was a friend of Madrazo y Kuntz , and that relationship comes across so beautifully in the seductive, playful tilt of her head and the cheeky, come-hither smile she gives the painter. The texture of her dress is beautifully realised too. It’s sickly sweet and yet just gorgeous.
In the Thyssen, though, there’s a painting I have to sit for fifteen minutes in front of. John Singer Sargent is well known to Scottish people for his world famous and breathtaking portrait of Lady Agnew in the National Gallery, but he does an even better job of Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland. Full size, romantic, straight-backed, utterly confident, she is magnificent. I know I shouldn’t like it politically (although she was said to be “liberal”, just ask any Scotsman what the Sutherlands did for Scotland) or artistically (all that merging into the natural world, all that floatiness), but I can’t help it. Singer Sargent may well be a relatively minor figure in art history, but by gum, he knew how to burn the image of a beautiful woman into your consciousness.
Strangely, it’s one the Thyssen doesn’t seem to value: its not an image used on postcards or tea towels or mugs; nor does she appear in any of the general guides. I don’t care; I loved it and would quite happily spend some time in her company again.
Ps – walking miles every day, getting out to eat late, we don’t manage any live flamenco, which I would have liked to see. However, I’ve brought back some interesting CDs of Copla music (a bit overwrought, for my taste, I have to say), nuevo flamenco and nuevo tango. The car’s jumping at the moment.
I’ve been a fan of Deolinda ever since their first album came out, and saw them first at Celtic Connections in 2010 when they – or, more especially, Ana Bacalhau’s foghorn voice – absolutely blew me away. They are a lovely band, perfect musicians led by the perfectly charming and cheeky and pretty Bacalhau. Their modern take on fado – irreverent and pop-tinged – is totally refreshing; as Bacalhau points out, they don’t do it straight, of which her impossibly cute hip hop dancing is evidence.
It’s wrong to suggest Bacalhau’s voice is all about power; she is capable of immense range, and I’ve never heard a singer before so capable of delivering a full throated pianissimo; she is also linguistically hugely dexterous, delivering lyrics that are packed tight and fast, such as “Ai Rapaz” or “Cancao ao lado”. She is an astonishing singer, a voice that is rare and quite unique and terrifically engaging. As for the band, Luis Jose Martins and Pedro da Silva Martins on guitar and vocals and Ze Pedro Leitao on (a beautiful) bass are fantastic musicians, and obviously devoted to giving Bacalhau free rein. The result is… well, I have to say it again; perfect. Just perfect.
They sing plenty about falling in love and falling out of love, but always with a wink that suggests they know how ridiculous it all is. In addition, they also have a political edge to them; Bacalhau speaks of the effect “Parva Que Sou” has on audiences in Portugal, telling as it does of a woman’s fight to retain her dignity and sense of purpose in an economic climate that dumps on the poor. And there are so just many songs that put a huge smile on your face – “Mal por Mal” or “Fon Fon Fon” or “Movimento perpetuo associativo” (ignore the title, they’ll have you singing along in no time), as well as ones that are so beautiful, they’ll take your breath away: I almost burst into tears at the loveliness of “Passou por mim” and I doubt you’ll find a more gorgeous song than “Clandestino” anywhere. And as for “Um contra o outro” – it has one of the catchiest choruses ever. Really. Ever.
There are a few bands I would have on my “favorites” list – Tindersticks, The National – but Deolinda make me feel the sun on my back and the warmth in my soul, and for that reason, I might just love them more than any other band I know.
This doesn’t quite get gig of the year so far, but not because of them; Band on the Wall is a fine little venue, but the audience doesn’t generate the warmth of The Civil Wars gig last month, and there are some bad mannered folk who think Bacalhau moving offstage to allow the band to perform an instrumental is some kind of intermission during which they can chat. Deolinda themselves are joyous; afterwards, Ze Pedro tells me that they are playing WOMAD in July. Just for them, I may put aside my natural aversion to festival toilets and go: I’ve just got a new tent and sleeping bag, so why not?
Even if it pishes with rain, the sun will be out when they start playing.