Many thanks to Layla Blackwell, an old friend of the Glasgow Writers’ Group, for asking me to do a wee interview for her new project, The Writers’ Circle Scotland. Layla is one of those young writers today who works tirelessly to build support networks for new writers, and the Circle – which meets Friday evenings in Operetta in Glasgow – looks like an interesting new venture. If you’d like more information, you can find them on Meetup here:
Here’s the link to my interview:
Hope that title gets my blog lots and lots of hits!
Many thanks to the lovely people at Edinburgh live event organisation “Illicit Ink”. They invited me to do one of their website podcasts, and I recorded it with the charming Tom Moore last month. You can find it here:
I’m reading an extract from “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, the gay-themed story I was proud to have had published earlier this year in New York gay magazine “Chelsea Station“. While it has the usual dose of rampant sex you’ll find in many of my stories, here, it’s done much more gently; I must have been feeling very good about the human race when I wrote it. I also answer some of Tom’s rather unusual questions in which I display some sadly geeky knowledge about Kazakhstan that I will now never be able to verify in person…
Hope you enjoy it. I’m hoping they’ll let me perform at one of their upcoming shows, which, interestingly, are always themed. Coming along soon is “School”, and while I have quite a lot of work that would fit that particular subject, none of it could remotely be described as gentle. I love the job, love working with kids – but it’s a treasure chest of misanthropy!
In August 2001, just after “Occasional Demons” was published, I was asked by The Herald to nominate my five favourite books. Of course, in hindsight, I got (some of) it wrong; at the time I was into Ellroy and Leonard, and chose one of Eddie Bunker’s tough guy novels; then there was “Cloudsplitter”, a lovely historical novel about John Brown and the start of the American Civil War that should have been replaced by Timothy Mo’s magisterial tale of the Opium Wars, “An Insular Possession”. There were some that would still be on the list – “The Casanova Papers”, probably, and “The Silver Darlings” – but it was dominated by recent reads. There are books I’ve read since – like Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, “The Unconsoled” – which would definitely be on the list now, and a few I’ve read in the past that, for some reason, I overlooked: I still remember vividly enjoying “Cats Cradle”, which made the list, but what decision making process made me choose that over Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” or, biggest of them all, Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory”?
I read it when it came out in 1984. I was 26. And yet now, I get the sense that I read it when I was in my mid-teens, such is the influence it has quietly had on me. In my teens, I was an avid consumer of big blockbusters – Leon Uris was my favourite writer at the time – and I had a distinctly prudish streak: I remember buying Blatty’s “The Exorcist”. On opening it randomly, I discovered the word “cunt”, then found the crucifix masturbation scene. I broke out in a cold sweat, convinced that my mother would find me reading filth and clip me round the ear. I taped in inside an empty cardboard box and hid the box in a little secret nook in a cupboard. It may still be there, for all I know; what on earth will the new house owners think if they find it?
University brought the classics, and controversy was all very arty (Genet, Rochester) or scientific (“Homosexuality Studies” in Sociology) and so “The Wasp Factory” was a huge game changer. I think it’s the coolest, most influential Scottish novel ever written because of its determination to look anything in the face with a clear, amoral eye. That other great cultural event of the late Scottish 20th century, “Trainspotting” , never really did it for me, I’m afraid, because of the determination to glorify the unglorifiable; even Begbie is a character we are encouraged to revere. Not so with “The Wasp Factory”. Frank, Eric, their Mengele-like father, dwarves, pyrotechnic sheep and insect torture are all presented in the most deadpan of ways, and I think I learned that anything could be faced, anything lurking in the darkest corners of your imagination was story fodder. A girl who grows up believing she’s been castrated by a savage dog? Hell, why not?
I haven’t read much of Banks’ work since – his early novels up to “Crow Road”, the excellent “Transition” a couple of years ago – but I’ll always be grateful for “The Wasp Factory” because, I think, it may have had a big influence on how I write without me even knowing it.
Banks is a motormouth raconteur – I’m delighted to hear he lived in Gourock for many years, where I live now – and is humble about his own abilities and career, telling of his teenage novel attempts and his determination to write like Alistair Maclean but with lots of sex and violence. In the Q&A, he has little time for the literary / genre debate that rages at the moment – he is exactly the same writer whether he’s Iain Banks or Iain M. Banks, he says – and reveals that he is most probably proud of “The Bridge”, one I like too. Despite being an icon, he’s the most down to earth, nice bloke you could listen to. A real treat.
Weegie Wednesday is a social event for writers, publishers, editors and just about anyone who’s interested in networking in wordy circles. One of the leading lights is the smashing Liz Small who worked tirelessly on behalf of the 11:9 books when they were published. Nice too to see Alex Cox of the Glasgow Writers’ Group, and Weegie Wednesday organiser J. David Simons, who I am even more envious of now that I know he is a very good friend of my favourite writer, Kazuo Ishiguro. Wish I had a pal like that…
“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?”
“Go on. Say coo.”
“Feel it? The shape your mouth makes?”
“Like a kiss.”
“Na, man. More like a suck. Now say 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.
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.
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.
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.
Just had the good news today that my short story, “Spree Killer”, has been accepted for the forthcoming edition of “New Writing Scotland”, published every year by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. In the past, I never seemed to have anything suitable at the time of submission, and if I did it was always rejected. I was unsure about this one – I had doubts about a blue collar / redneck Texan tale fitting a Scottish anthology – so I’m really pleased at this being my first time in the annual anthology of all that is great and good about Scottish writing. My thanks go to Carl McDougall and Zoe Strachan who are editing the book.
All in all, it’s proving to be a busy year in writing terms for me without me really trying. With lots of management work on the PGDE course along with teaching, I haven’t really approached it in any strategic way – and yet, I have ended up with so much to do. Quite apart from my not-so-ongoing novel (I’m tempted to ditch it for now), I’ve had stories in NWS, 1000 Cranes (the Scottish Writers for Japan anthology) and Front & Centre, and have high hopes for a story I’ve sent to a LGBT anthology. I’m quite proud of the stories I have been writing lately: few and far between, they have been goodies. Perhaps short story writing is my true love…
On top of that, I’ve just finished my chapter on ethos and behaviour in Scottish secondary schools for the latest edition of the seminal work on Scottish Education, which I was truly honoured to be invited to join. Then I’ve just finished my part – ruthless editing – of a research article written by a lovely team of colleagues which is just being resubmitted to a notable academic journal.
Biggest of all, though, is the behaviour management book I’m writing for a major academic publisher. It’s due for delivery next Spring, and although it’s already quite bit behind, I’m confident that I’ll get it all done in time. That’s very exciting, and it was a huge surprise to be asked to submit a proposal. It’s nice when people put their faith in you, even if it is a lot of hard work to ensure you don’t let them down.
My short story “Gathering of the Clan”, one of my more twisted little tales, has just been published in Matthew Firth’s Canadian magazine Front & Centre # 26. Apologies for the quality of the scan – it looks much better in the flesh. It’s available by post at the Black Bile Press website: click on the cover photo..
Here’s the opening as a wee taster.
There was a smell in the room, no doubt about it, and it wasn’t from the dead body. She smelled better than she had for ages, you know that acrid, underwear reek because the poor old soul had been forgetting herself? No, it wasn’t her. She even looked good now, better than she’d done for years, and I marvelled at the undertakers’ art, the hours of moisturising, revitalising, to smooth off that dried up, deadwood skin like greaseproof paper left in the oven too long.
“She looks her old self,” said Carrie, clutching my arm with her left hand, her right fluttering on the edge of the coffin, her face contorted, mascara sludged, nose snottery.
“Your mother smells,” I’d once said, when Carrie’d noticed I avoided kisses. Goodbye ones were the worst, because by then she’d be well pissed and stinking of dark rum.
“She’s old. She’s never got over my father dying,” she’d said.
That was a laugh. From the snippets I’d got over the years, the bitch had spent three weeks mourning the old guy in the pub with a few of his cronies who’d fancied shagging her for years. And some who had. And all of them went on to.
Carrie sniffled, dabbed her nose with a handkerchief. Surely you can smell it too? I thought. Fuck, what was that smell. There was definitely something boak-inducing about it, and unless someone opened a window or I got out quick, I was going to deposit my dinner right in the lacy lap of the dearly departed.
“I’ll go and make a cup of tea,” I said. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
Carrie did not want a cup of tea, she wanted a large vodka tonic, but she had enough of a sense of decorum not to ask for one with the priest in the room, some fat wee cherub who didn’t know the McAllisters and would have run a mile if he had.
“Yeah, go on, Martin, go and make a cup of tea. That’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?”
The priest’s ears twitched, but he didn’t look at us. I smiled at her, leaned down into her hair as if to kiss her ear. “Fuck you,” I said.
Matthew also sent me a copy of his new collection., “Shag Carpet Action”, which I’ll review some time soon when I get round to finishing the mammoth Civil War history I’m reading. But a quickie called “Three Women on a Bus” is a bleak tale of frustration and temptation that is out of reach on the back seat. It reads really well and ends on a pitch perfect note. I look forward to reading the whole collection.
Today would have been my father’s 99th birthday.
It’s been a particularly momentous time for us both; it took ninety-eight-and-a-half years for his Scottish son to arrive in his home town, to visit the street where he was born, to look at the school and the church he went to, to stand at his parents’ graveside, to get a sense of what family means.
And for his Scottish son to finally get a measure of what he was like as a man.
Big year. Big, big year.
This is probably the most evocative photograph I have of myself and my father: the memories of that trip to London are still somehow pin sharp to me. So I thought I’d reproduce here a very short piece I contributed to a British Council anthology, “Identity Papers”, published in 2001 to celebrate the cultural diversity of “Britishness”. I hope you like it.
“If you see a German soldier…”
On my mantleshelf, a black-and-white photograph shows a jerkin-clad boy, squatting down, hands cupped, outstretched, feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I am beaming: I have never been so close to wildlife before. My little sister stands behind me spearing the ground with her umbrella – was it pink? – and stares at the camera like some stern-faced little goddess. My father is on his knees beside her, her hand in his. He shines at her, a fifty-year old man already, proud of something so tiny and perfect. Huge in the background looms a great black lion: we are obviously oblivious to it.
It was 1964. I remember the sweaty journey from Glasgow to Euston: the dusty fabric of the cramped first class carriage with its tiny ledge by the window; the old couple who sucked humbugs and tutted at noisy children; the joy of moving to second class where my mother found a huge table on which we could spread our crayons and colouring books. We visited my father in his lodgings, and my mother scolded him because all he’d organised to eat was Polish bread and liver sausage and cabanos (my sister and I thought it a feast), and I fell asleep watching Gregory Peck win a sea battle in a Hornblower movie and felt at the centre of his Empire because the next day we were going to see Buckingham Palace. And I never thought my father wasn’t part of that.
My childhood brought “Dad’s Army” and “Hogan’s Heroes”, or “Colditz” and “Manhunt”, in which resourceful heroes outwitted crop-haired villains who wore handsome black uniforms. I went to the cinema every Saturday with my friends and watched “The Longest Day”, “The Great Escape”, “The Battle of the Bulge”, and when we emerged from the gloom we were true British heroes, dancing and singing down the street:
“Holy Mary I am dying
Just one word before I go
If you see a German soldier
Shove a bayonet up his
Hoooo-lll-y Mary I am dying…”
My dad won the Iron Cross. I was fourteen when two suited detectives – perhaps Special Branch, how would I know? – came to the house to interview him and left smiling, shaking his hand. He spoke of his unit, pinned down by two Russian tanks, his comrades killed one by one each night they came marauding, and of how his flame-thrower stopped them. And he spoke of the frostbite and the wounds he received, and hinted at the terrible things he’d seen and done which made him whimper when he fell asleep in his fireside chair. I loved him for telling me.
Being British sloughed off me like snakeskin after that, and I knew why my dreams took place in sleety landscapes of sleek black cobbles and high tenements where there lurked an atmosphere of War having started or having ended, either being much the same. All the Churchillianisms I had grown up with signified nothing, made not one bit of difference.
We are what our fathers make us.
from “Identitiy Papers”, The British Council, 2001, isbn 086355489X