New Writing Scotland 32: ‘Songs of Other Places’ is now available to order from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Editors Zoe Strachan and Gerry Cambridge have gone for a slimmed down volume this year, and the quality is extremely high, with great writers like Christopher Whyte, Helen Sedgewick, Graham Fulton and Ron Butlin. Here’s an extract from my contribution, the title story ‘Songs of Other Places';
‘She kneads the pie dough, working through the flour, egg slipping between her fingers, strong fingers she has, and she knows how to knead dough cause her momma showed her how. Saturday afternoons, she’d park Alice up on a big kitchen stool and they’d be side by side, her momma baking big pies, apple and blueberry and pumpkin, and Alice made little pies with the same fillings that she’d feed to her dolls. Momma would sing Buddy Holly songs, sometimes whip her off that stool for a dance, whirling her around the kitchen, Every day, it’s a getting’ closer, Goin’ faster than a roller coaster, and she’d lift Alice high and they’d bump noses at the Love like yours bit.
‘During foaling, Roger Hernandez stayed in the hayloft above the barn, put up some walls with bits of lumber and bales of hay, ran a line from the generator so he could have a little hotplate and an old Dansette cassette player. Momma loaned him some Buddy Holly tapes, and he used to play mariachi bands, and Alice would sneak in and hide underneath the hayloft and listen to those horns. Then he got inta some other stuff, foreign like, first kinda Frenchy or European, then strange instruments she’d never heard before, and women’s voices that seemed to fit together in ways that didn’t sound quite like it shoulda. She asked him once, “Roger Hernandez, where does that music you listen to come from?” but all he said was, “Little Alice, they come from other places, far, far away.” They have camels there, he said, as well as horses, and the grasslands go on forever, even bigger and wider than the Prairies. “They don’t sing right,” she told him, and he said she was right, but it wasn’t really singing. “Ululating,” he said it was, and Alice reckoned the word sounded like the singing.’
£9.95 well spent, I say.
A really fascinating evening organised and hosted for the SWC by the elegant Chiew-Siah Tei, Diverse Voices brought together writers and artists from Polish, Indian, Mexican Spanish, Nigerian, Chinese Malaysian, Scots and Japanese backgrounds. Diverse it most certainly was. Biographies of all the readers can be found at the SWC blog, along with a brief report from Chair of the SWC Douglas Thompson, who is working tirelessly to develop the organisation and deserves much praise.
Highlights for me included Martin Stepek’s insights into his Scottish-Polish family, intriguing because they seem to have ended up in the UK after the War not by having come westward, like my father, but having taken the epic long way round, eastwards through Asia. Beautiful young Mexican poet Juana Adcock’s poetry melds English and Spanish together in a way that she describes as ‘Spanglish’ but is nowhere near as clumsy as that tourist pejorative suggests; she makes the two languages sounds as if they should be married. In addition, she generously reads the work of a young Mexican fiction writer she is translating. Eunice Buchanan’s Scots poetry can be whimsical and light, but ‘Esk’ is something of an epic; she has a lovely, lovely voice. Ryotaro Hoshino reads the original work and his translations of Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short prose. To be honest, his Japanese was beautiful enough to listen to on its own; just soaking up the sound of a language you don’t understand is a privilege in itself. There was so much else to enjoy, such as the handsome Ogba Uweru’s charming comic poetry or Leela Soma’s passionate account of child exploitation in India.
For myself, I had been thinking about reading something lyrical set in Poland in 1921, or something meaningful about my identity as a Polish Scot, but Martin beat me to it so I just decided to stand there and swear a lot and talk about sex; it’s in my nature, I suppose. ‘XPet’ is a reworking of a scene from an abandoned novel from some time ago that I’m trying to shape into a short story. I’ve been struggling with it, but edited it down by a third for this reading and I think I may have cracked it. The pace feels right, a lot of dead wood that referred to events in the novel was excised, the emphasis shifted and it ended up working very well as a performance reading. I have no idea if it’s publishable (far too many ‘fucks’, of all descriptions) but I think I may have discovered a new party piece that might be worth investing time into learning by heart and rehearsing. And I can always try it in ‘Front and Centre’, a wee Canadian magazine that seems to like my worst excesses…
An event I hope can be repeated, it’s well worth checking out if you see it on again.
Thanks to Marta Adamovicz for giving me a second spot at A Little Bit of Theatre this afternoon. Fellow performers included Glasgow Writers’ Group pals Emma Briant and Mary Dowds, two young women who have very distinctive voices and oodles of talent, along with comedian John Sheppard and poet / rappers Bram Gieben and Leon Deeside.
As it’s Easter, I decided to read something a little more redemptive than usual, so went for an oldie, “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out”. It was the default performance piece when “Occasional Demons” came out and I was whisked about all over the world to do readings; well, Inverness and Ullapool, anyway.
I’m not happy with my reading, though. It’s a piece that relies on pace, and I didn’t get it right. I was up on stage a couple of acts early after a rejig in the running order, so hadn’t quite composed myself: but the couple of stumbles and misreadings were my fault. Still, I think I managed to get the timing of the key moments just about right, and the joke about a marriage proposal got the biggest laugh of the afternoon…
… until Caroline McKenzie took the stage. Her recounting of her night-time reflections on the relationship between the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote and the Acme corporation was the highlight of the set. Perfectly nuanced, beautifully paced and very, very funny, McKenzie should have an awfy bright future ahead of her. Great stuff.
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…
A really good reading event at The Scottish Writers’ Centre in the CCA last night. Lots of Gaelic was on the bill; as I’ve said before, I don’t understand the language, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy listening to it. Perhaps it’s the musicality of the rhythms, but I think readers in Gaelic are generally much more proficient that readers in English, with beautiful changes of pace and tone and register. The Gaelic group run by Catriona Lexy Campbell – which seems to be thriving – has prepared work for this event on the theme of glass. Campbell herself reads a gorgeous poem which is just as effective in English. Other star performers are Maureen Macleod and, especially, Alison Lang, who reads a story about a grandfather with a love of Sherlock Holmes with real verve. Lovely too to see some Gaelic drama in progress.
But the readers in English are great too. Douglas Thompson, a novelist and prose writer, reads some poems themed on Glasgow weather just to prove he can write across genres; wish I could, I can’t write poetry to save myself. He’s witty and perceptive and gets tons of laughs.
It’s always a pleasure to hear J. David Simons, a writer I respect and a thoroughly nice bloke. His coming of age tale of typing lessons in 1919 Poland is really lovely, with pin sharp characterisation and beautiful detail, and it’s read with a gentle authority. Of course, the novel I’ve been wrestling with for six years is set in the same time and place, and it’s always disheartening to hear other people do it better than me. Such is life.
As for myself, I read an extract from “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, a story which is due to be published in New York gay literary magazine “Chelsea Station” later this month. I decided to try it without the crutch of a script tonight; I find I rarely refer to a script anyway, and it gets in the way, so, given I only had time for a five minute extract which was heavily edited from the original anyway, I thought I’d just stand there and tell the story. Other than one moment when the neurons almost failed to connect, it all went pretty well, and I was surprised at how easy it was. My shocking American accent didn’t seem to be too off-putting either, and it’s always nice to be able to say things like “She has nipples like coins of strawberry mousse” in public and not be slapped.
So it seemed to go well. David Manderson – another great writer and good guy – reckons I should tour New York with it and become a gay icon. Mmm… we’ll see…
I’ll be reading at the Scottish Writers Centre SpeakEasy, a members only event, on Thursday 19th July. I’ve been really busy lately, so it’s my first visit to this great new initiative to support Scottish writing. I’m looking forward to it, especially as it’s held at the CCA, one of my favourite Glasgow venues. The line up looks interesting, with a healthy dose of Gaelic writers – and even some Gaelic drama! – on the bill.
Gaelic Drama: ‘Daolag’ (‘Bug’)
Reading: DOUGLAS THOMPSON – 3 Poems
Reading: J. DAVID SIMONS ‘PALESTINE 1919 – DECISIONS, DECISIONS’ [extract from novel, The Land Agent, forthcoming (Five Leaves, 2014)]
Reading from the Gaelic Writers’ Group; DAVID EYRE, ALISON LANG
Reading: RAYMOND SOLTYSEK, ‘The Beauty that Brendan Sees’
Reading: ANGELA BLACKLOCK-BROWN – 3 Poems
Readings from the Gaelic Writers’ Group; MAUREEN MACLEOD, CATRIONA LEXY CAMPBELL
Reading: JACQUELINE SMITH, ‘Dumbie & the Devil’
I’ll read an extract from the story about to be published in “Chelsea Station”. It requires three accents – New York, French and Russian – so we’ll see how badly that goes!
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.
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.
Kapka Kassabova is a colleague of mine, though there’s no reason why she should know it. We both work at the University of Strathclyde, she in English and me in Education. However, when Jordanhill dies its sorry death in July 2012 and we all troop down to the main campus in the city centre, perhaps our paths will cross: I hope so, because I’d like to learn to write half as beautifully as she does.
I have just started reading her memoir “Twelve Minutes of Love”, a gloriously sensual account of her ten year love affair with the Argentine tango (“the only tango”, she writes). It’s a stunning read, full of esoteric detail of the dance’s history, its music, its steps, its etiquette. More than that, though, it is a subtle but nevertheless forensically honest account of her soul. In throwaway lines, she hints at the uncomfortable “longing” which permeates her life as well as the ethos of the dance: “Our faces were very suddenly close,” she writes, “which was a bit disturbing, but not as disturbing as the sudden closeness of our bodies. I could feel his body heat. It had been some time since I’d last felt the heat of a man’s body.”
She speaks a great deal of this intimacy which is at the same time fulfilling and disturbing, joyous and sad. It’s an intimacy that has its own climax, the “tangasm” of total abandonment and oneness that two partners experience when they achieve that ineffable euphoria of “clarity of mind and crispness of step in the declining afternoon of San Telmo.”
I have brought my sister along as a birthday outing. She is addicted to dancing, there is no other word for it. In the last decade or so, she seems to have been brought to a new life through the tango, ballroom, jive (of so many kinds), salsa, Lindy Hop (the sound of which always makes me smile), LeRoc. She recognises much of what Kassabova talks about: of the “virtual nation” that is tango dancing; of living a life based around where and when the next dance is; of the all-consuming need to find a partner, any partner, for that twelve minutes of love. What she doesn’t comprehend, though, is Kassabova’s revelation that she doesn’t dance much any more; like an addict, she had to go cold turkey. That suggests the book will have a lot to reveal about tango’s emotional cost.
Jeff and Sari of the Dance House give a tango demonstration which is, of course, smooth and sensuous and playful and beautiful. What strikes me is the intricacy of the wordless conversation that is obviously going on because of the way in which she seems to know exactly what he wants her to do at any given moment. The steps, the leans, the drags are all executed with an apparent effortlessness that can only come though a level of communication through weight and balance and inclination and the slightest of pressures that seems like telepathy.
A thought occurs to me. Kassabova is very sweet and charming. She listens to people intently, smiling and nodding, and, unlike many authors, makes sure she answers the questions asked of her in the way the questioner demands, not the way she wants; she is more than happy to respond to someone else’s agenda rather than impose her own. It’s impossible not to warm to her.
I wonder if this is a product of tango, of having to read partners so intently, of being serially compliant on the dance floor? Does tango make you a good listener, or do you need to be a good listener to appreciate tango?
Jeff and Sari make me gasp and smile and laugh; my sister, for the umpteenth time, asks me if I fancy learning to dance for myself. No. I am not a dancer. I have a body built for the clumsy scrum of ceilidhs. My sister is the dancer. I write. Kassabova can do both.
More than that, though, is that the beauty of the dance is something I want to admire, and that beauty is not going to be heightened by me stumbling and fumbling my way to some sort of proficiency. I love Portuguese fado, which, like Tango, has been pompously declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; but the beauty of the fado is not going to be radically changed by my learning Portuguese or, God forbid, by my taking singing lessons. So let Jeff and Sari and Kapka and my sister get on with it, and I’ll admire from afar.
But Kassabova’s honesty also has me thinking that perhaps the reality is that I have problems with intimacy, I like my space to be private (very West of Scotland); Kassabova notes absolutely truly that in the West we connect with each others’ bodies through sex, nothing else. Perhaps, deep down, the reality is that I see the dance not as an abandonment but as a terrible responsibility to that fleeting partner whose body heat excites and disturbs us.
Perhaps I’m just a bloke with issues.