Raymond Soltysek's Blog

‘Bad News for Refugees’, CCA, 11/10/13

Posted in Immigration, Politics, Publications, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on October 13, 2013

Bad News for Refugees

Bad News for Refugees

Went to a launch event for ‘Bad News for Refugees’, a book co-authored by my Glasgow Writing Group pal Emma Briant.  A wee bundle of genius, Emma is a media researcher by trade, and her work with the venerable Glasgow Media Group has produced a fascinating examination of the demonization of refugees by the media.  The evidence for the prosecution of the media as a bunch of heartless bastards is overwhelming: for example, there is a callous disregard for any sort of accuracy in reporting, with the terms ‘asylum seekers’ routinely replacing the term ‘refugees’, and that then being conflated with ‘immigrants’, ‘illegal immigrants’ and, eventually, the reduction to the contemptuous ‘illegals’.  The effects of this kind of thinly veiled attack on human dignity is vividly described by  co-author Pauline Donald, who gives a voice to those who have come here simply in order to escape extra-judicial imprisonment, social and economic discrimination, torture and worse.  Portrayed as penniless scroungers, most come here for no other reason than they fear for their lives; 75% of the refugees in the Glasgow area have degrees, so why would they desert their middle-class lifestyles to come here to be abused by the Daily Fucking Mail?

The manipulation of refugee stories is glaringly obvious, with concentration on the few barking mad apples like Abu Qatada to deflect attention from the voices of the thousands of ordinary, law abiding refugees hounded by law enforcement agencies and press alike; when was the last time you heard the first-hand story of an Eritrean like those poor souls who died off the coast of Lampedusa last week (or the week before or the week before or… yesterday)?  GMG leader Greg Philo talks eloquently of the culture of the newsroom, ending his talk with the words of one reporter ringing in our ears, talking of being sent out to ‘monster an asylum seeker’.

This of course came on the day after Theresa May proudly trumpeted the latest in a long line of racist policies this government has enacted to whip up hatred and fear of our immigrant population.  The Today programme did all it could to conspire with the bastards of Westminster by devoting three separate sections in a report on the proposed legislation.  First, they interviewed a waiting room of Kent NHS patients, asking them what they thought of immigrants coming here taking our medicines. The response was vile, with narking, harping voice after narking, harping voice viciously bemoaning what they think they lose to immigrants.  Of course, figures clearly show that immigrants (‘legal’ or ‘illegal’) are less likely to access NHS services than ‘indigenous’ people, but that’s not the point, is it?  Neither is it the point that they are much, much more likely to be treated by an immigrant in the NHS than be gazumped by one in the waiting lists.  But Today gave a voice to the ill-informed and, of course, failed to ask an immigrant what they thought about being targeted as ‘NHS tourists’.  It was little more than a UKIP party political broadcast.

The second section consisted of an interview with a London GP who rightly took issue with the whole ‘problem’, simply and effectively stating that… there wasn’t one.  No-one’s appointment is delayed by immigrants in her practice.  But was it a coincidence that her name was Paquita de Zulueta?  A doctor here for 30 years, you can nevertheless just hear the cogs of listeners grinding, putting two and two together to make a conspiracy: Paquita de Zulueta?  Defending immigrants?  Well, of course she would. It’s a tactic often used against me when I attack racists on HuffPost:  ‘Soltysek?  Well, of course you’d stick up for immigrants, woudn’t you?  Let’s face it, you are one…’

And finally came La May herself.  Her words quite clearly show the purpose of her party’s vicious legislation: ‘many people feel this is unfair’, ‘hard working people see people who haven’t paid coming in…’, ‘most people…’.  This is a blatant appeal to the UKIP and EDL minded voter, nothing more.  And when challenged on the fact that so called ‘health tourism’ accounts for 0.01% of NHS costs, she blustered and deflected and dodged and, laughably, resorted to an appeal to ‘principle’.  Out of her mouth, the word is sullied.  But the difficult time she was rightly given by interviewer Mishail Husain (there’s those cogs again…) came at the end of what sounded like a carefully stage managed stitch up job.

It’s depressing, regardless of how inherently fair and good people might be.  And I sit listening to the three authors and wonder where this came from.  My father was Silesian Deutsche Volk, conscripted into the Wehrmacht.  After fighting on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded and decorated, he was captured by the Allies in the Western Front.  Here as a POW, at the end of the war he found himself a refugee seeking asylum, unable to return to Poland because of the Soviet occupation.  He would have been a prime target for the Daily Mail – can you imagine the headlines? – and yet, there was a general acceptance of him.  It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t anything like what refugees have to face now.  Here was someone who’d actively fought against this country and yet who had no problems finding work or accessing social services.   It’s ironic that he was accepted here as a refugee from Communism, but those Eastern Europeans who overthrew Communism now find themselves vilified when they come here.  The hypocrisy is astounding.

So where did it go wrong?  I was politicised in the 1970s and early 80s (when I actually took a couple of Greg Philo’s media  modules) and so for me the answer lies in the neoliberal revolution that Thatcher began, combined with the emasculation of the mass labour movement.  But of course, that’s too simplistic; mass labour movements have often been at the forefront of anti-immigration protests, especially in the early 1960s.  So I don’t know, and neither do I know how we can counter that insidious and vicious propaganda campaign against the poor generally and immigrants in particular. 

What’s clear, though, is that projects like this are essential in the fight.  There are bad books, good books and great books.  Then there are important books.  My pal Emma has helped produce one of those.

Upcoming publications

Posted in Education, Publications, Writing by raymondsoltysek on August 4, 2013
black middens

Black Middens, New Writing Scotland 31

I’ve had a very quiet blog recently because of pressures on my time (some very welcome, some not so) and because WordPress seems to be difficult to get into these days (I must check out my firewall settings, apparently, though why they have unilaterally decided to go wonky I haven’t a scooby).

July saw two very different major Scottish publications in which I’ve been included.  First of all, “Lizard Isle”, a gentle fantasy story, has been included in Black Middens, New writing Scotland 31.  It’s a major collection – over 300 pages of the best Scottish writing around – and I’m delighted to be included.

Just coming out from the printers too is the 4th edition of the seminal academic volume Scottish Education, edited by Tom Bryce, Walter Humes, Donald Gillies and Aileen Kennedy.  Mine is a small contribution – one chapter out of a whopping one hundred and eleven – on “Ethos and behaviour in secondary schools”.  I enjoyed writing it, and it’s a privilege to have been asked.

Unfortunately, neither will open the gateways to fame and fortune, but that’s never really the point, is it?

New Writing Scotland 31

Posted in Publications by raymondsoltysek on March 31, 2013

Was absolutely delighted to get word that the Association for Scottish Literary Studies has accepted a short story from me for inclusion in New Writing Scotland for the second year running.

Last year, “Spree Killer” was written very quickly, seeming to come to me ready-made.  I liked it a lot, and felt I got the voice pretty much nailed, though at the time I didn’t know if a Texan malcontent was quite right for the anthology.  This year’s story,  “Lizard Isle”, is very much the antithesis to that: a gentle, upbeat , light-touch fantasy, it has a central character very different from my usual angsty misanthropes.  It’s also very different in its origins and gestation, having been kicking about for years, and has been through revision after revision until I eventually lost patience with it and thought I’d try it somewhere.  Glad I did; obviously, I got something right about it, and my thanks go again to Zoe Strachan and Carl McDougall for picking it up.

When I was much younger and in the flush of my early “success”, New Writing Scotland seemed so difficult to break in to for me; I think I tried four years in a row without a sniff at getting in.  Now that I’ve managed twice in two years, I’ll take it as a sign that my writing is maturing with age, and I’m finally getting back on track.

“A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening”; New Writing Scotland 30 Glasgow launch, 7/9/12

Posted in Publications, Reading review by raymondsoltysek on September 7, 2012

Waterstones’ in Argyle Street hosted the Glasgow lauch of NWS 30, and a lovely evening it was too.  Zoe Strachan compéred like a professional, and readings were by Alison Irvine, Ross McGregor, Maggie Mallon, Derek McLuckie, Lorna Callery and yours truly.  All the readers were great, and the line up was interesting and eclectic.  I particularly liked Alison Irvine’s “Nightcalls” which started the evening; she has a beautiful voice and the rhythms of her story are beguiling.  Lovely stuff.

Of course, Derek McLuckie blew the place away.  “Park Bum” is classic Derek, witty and sexy and delivered with a verve that leaves you breathless.  He really does perform his work fantastically well, and in amongst the speed and the self loathing and the sex there are moments of quiet loveliness, like “Sometimes yi see a kingfisher flash, like a stray streak of rainbow…”.  It’s a real pleasure to see him and chat again after so many years.

In retrospect, I’m not that happy with my reading:  I found myself more nervous than usual at the beginning – I had to give my hand a little silent row for shaking – perhaps because I was last to read and was given a very generous introduction by Zoe that set up huge expectations, and then three pages in I got that dreaded sudden attack of dry mouth and I’d put my water bottle behind me (“Just stop and take a drink, you fool, take a drink!”).  However, I got to the end, approximate Texan accent and all.  Opinions on the accent were divided between “You got that spot on”, “That was a good stab at it” and “You should have read it as yourself”.  I’m very conscious of pace and rhythm in a reading, and I feel that without the accent, the rhythms and inflections that were necessary just wouldn’t come across; still, at least the story itself seems to have gone down well.

So lovely too to see my heroic pal Jenny Allan.  Jenny retired early a couple of years back and is now off to Ethiopia to do VSO work with teachers.  She’s one of the most admirable women I know, and I’ll miss her.  Bon voyage and hurry back, Jenny; you’re a star.

“A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening” Glasgow launch, 7/9/12

Posted in Publications by raymondsoltysek on September 2, 2012

Just a quick announcement!

I’ll be reading a short extract from “Spree Killer” at the Glasgow launch of “A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening” on Friday 7th September at 7pm in Waterstone’s, Argyle Street, Glasgow.  It will be hosted by one (or both) of the editors, the terrific Zoe Strachan and Carl Macdougall.  Should be good!

“The Beauty that Brendan Sees”: “Chelsea Station”, Issue 3.

Posted in Publications by raymondsoltysek on August 6, 2012

Link to Chelsea Station

“Chelsea Station”, the New York literary magazine for gay writing, is out now.  At over 110 pages of writing, it’s a bumper edition of fiction, memoir, travel writing and poetry.  It’s available either as print or as downloadable pdf here.

It includes my story, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, which tells of the friendship between Brendan and Larry over twenty years.  I don’t usually pass comment on my own work, but it feels to me one of the best short stories I’ve ever written: certainly, it’s one of the gentlest, and is as near as I’ve ever got to being uplifting.

Here’s an extract to give a flavour:

He met Larry at Elazio’s cigar emporium off Madison Avenue in the days when he was young and searching for props to make him seem older, more distinguished, more masculine. He’d been fussing over some cheap cigars when he felt the big man loom up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Elazio,” a booming voice said to the little wizened man behind the counter who resembled a nut-brown tobacco leaf, “looks like the young gentleman’s a beginner. Show him the good ones so he gets a real taste.” He winked at Brendan and shooed Elazio away to bring out some of the contrabands he’d got by a roundabout route through Canada from his wife’s cousin’s neighbour’s business in Havana. “No point not having the best, son,” he said, “and this place has the best, if you know how to look for it. Hell, the only thing this shop don’t have is a sweaty set of mulatto girl’s thighs. Not that I’d have much use else for them.” He smacked his lips in the lascivious way that Brendan soon discovered made everyone say, “Oh, Laurence!”

He rolls the cigar as he lights it, puff, puff, puff. It relaxes him and he realises he is looking forward to the end game. In the background, Amalia Rodriguez sings; he and Larry saw her once, long before that time she came to New York to kill herself and couldn’t do it. They watched her wring herself empty, and Larry said anyone that miserable had to be a dyke, but he was joking and he’d enjoyed it because he was content to wait with Brendan amongst a small knot of common people outside the stage door to get her autograph. She is singing a happy tune, light; Brendan doesn’t understand Portuguese, but he knows for sure it is about orange groves and beaches with little fishing boats dragged up on to the sand. Hearts are broken in fado, and hearts are mended; this is one of the mending songs.

“Hey, Brendan, you ever realise smoking cigars gave Cuba its name?” Larry once asked him.

“What do you mean?”

“Say coo.”

“What?”

“Go on. Say coo.”

“Coo.”

“Feel it? The shape your mouth makes?”

“Like a kiss.”

“Na, man. More like a suck. Now say baa.”

“Baa.”

“Just like exhaling. Coo-baa. Coo-baa. You say it every time you take a draw of you cigar.”

“Kind of oral, these Cubans.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Ain’t I the lucky one?”

At about a fiver for the digital issue, it’s well worth it.  With material from all over the world included, it’s another fine outlet for writers.  Take a look.

“Spree Killer”: “A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening”; New Writing Scotland 30

Posted in Publications by raymondsoltysek on August 1, 2012
Link to ASLS

NWS30

New Writing Scotland 30 is out now, and very interesting it looks too.  You can buy it  here: NWS30.

My story, “Spree Killer” tells of one day in the life of Duane, an underemployed, divorced, impoverished Texan with a chip on his shoulder and a semi-automatic rifle, and of his efforts to buy the meat for his friend’s barbecue.

Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:

“He drains the beer bottle, kicks open the back door, tosses the empty at the dumspter at the back of the duplex. It misses, bounces high in the air off the back wall, comes down hard on the metal edge, shatters, spraying glass everywhere. The old guy upstairs, not so bad, but he walks his poodle out back in the evening, he’ll moan like crazy bout the glass. Duane takes a broom, crosses the dusty yard where nothin’s ever grown and brushes the glass under the dumpster. If the poodle gets under there, it’s its own fault, he reckons, though its okay, belonged to the wife afore she died. Not a good dog, not a huntin dog, but it keeps quiet and shits in its own corner of the yard.

The guy’s an old vet, not even from Vietnam or Korea but from the German war, which was like fuckin way back, was the first in to one of those concentration camps, piles of dead hebes and walkin skeletons. Duane woulda liked to’ve seen that, the piles of hebes and those Germans with their hands behind their heads and shittin their pants, and Duane woulda taken his machine gun, big Browning 50 calibre, and spread those motherfuckers’ guts all over the place. The old guy gets misty when he talks bout it though, says it was the worst time ever, but Duane’s brother was in the first Gulf war and he came back wrecked, shakes and sickness specially in winter, just couldn’t keep the food in his belly, heavin all the time until he blew his brains out in a doss house in Denver with a Saturday night special he bought offa some nigger crack dealer, so Duane reckons the old guy couldn’ta had it that bad. Yeah, Duane woulda liked to’ve seen that, seen what the old guy’d saw.

He’d better go get the meat, though fuck knows it could go off by the afternoon in this heat. He’ll swing by Barney’s first, grab a coupla beers, see who’s around, get some ice to pack the meat. He racks up the Woodsmaster in the cab, clears out the burger wrappers on the floor so Jonelle won’t make that screwed up face she makes, climbs in. It’s a rust heap, this fuckin thing, and it burns through rubber fast, but the engine’s good, big 5 litre V8 with that Nip transmission, solid.

The solenoid’s been playing up, almost shot, so it just clicks dead and he has to spark it with a screwdriver, but then it just ticks over sweet. Jonelle says he should get rid of it, it’s too thirsty and he only uses the bed but once or twice a year when he’s gone deer huntin, but he’s not goin for some European compact like hers cos he’s a man and she’s a schoolteacher, and he says he might stretch to a station wagon but he can’t afford it right now. “You can’t afford not to,” she says, “that thing’s just gonna eat money,” but she wants to go shoppin with him for a new car, she’d co-sign the loan, she says, but he don’t want that, don’t want saddled with obligations to her and her weirdo kid yet.

Down the road he’s trailin dust, fast past that fence hopper’s place, the one that drives the el Camino like some pimp, the one picked a fight with Duane down at Barney’s and Duane kicked his ass and almost popped his eye, took the guy’s switchbade off him and damn near dug it right out of its socket till Barney stopped him and they threw the wetback’s ass off the lot and told him not to come back. The guy don’t look Duane’s road now. He hacks hard, spits at the guy’s yard, drives on. The guy has a car in the yard, rust and dents, parts for the Camino.”

I had a lot of fun getting inside Duane’s head: hope you enjoy it enough to buy the book and support the ASLS.

“A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening”; New Writing Scotland 30

Posted in Publications by raymondsoltysek on July 3, 2012
Link to ASLS

NWS30

The list of contributors for New Writing Scotland 30 has been announced, and a very long and very interesting list it is too.  At 336 pages, it must be the biggest NWS yet; the editors, Carl McDougall and Zoë Strachan, claim it’s the best.

It’s certainly conducive to big-headedness when you’re published in the same volume as fantastic household names like Alasdair Gray, David Greig, Ron Butlin and Agnes Ownes, and it’s also nice to be in the same book as some writing chums old and new, like Derek McLuckie, David Manderson, Jane Alexander and Jonathan Falla.

You can read more about the book and pre-order it here: NWS30.  I’m looking forward to the lauch: I’ve been practising “Spree Killer” in my Weegee/Texan accent in case I’m asked to read!

“Chelsea Station” and the art of fictionalising ourselves.

Posted in fiction, Publications, Society by raymondsoltysek on May 27, 2012
Link to Chelsea Station magazine

Chelsea Station

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.

“Northern Writes” Creative Writing magazine

Posted in Education, Publications, Teaching Writing by raymondsoltysek on May 24, 2012

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:

http://www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/nmsruntime/saveasdialog.asp?lID=43518&sID=13170

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 Metro

Old 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.
 
 
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