Monday 29 November 2010

True Grit

This is a busy and very exciting week, and I have all my sets of fingers and toes crossed the snow doesn't bugger things about. I'm delighted to say I'll be at two fantastic gigs this week.

This Thursday is Text in the City at Oxford Castle's O3 Gallery ,where I'll be joined by the wonderful Larry Harrison, our musician in residence Christi Warner, Oxford Creative Writers coordinator Anna Hobson, and special guests from the super fab Dissocia Zine.

On Friday, I'm extremely excited to be reading for the first time in Brighton, at Grit Lit, held at Red Roaster. I'm particularly excited about this, not just because I've never read in Brighton before, and I get to be part of a super line-up, but because everyone I speak to tells me how amazing the cakes at Red Roaster are.

Friday 19 November 2010

Making a Song and Dance About Copyright

in the wake of a fiasco about purloined recipes that has already sparked enough bile not to be rehashed here, the lovely Jane at How Publishing Really Works has designated today copyright day. A whole host of bloggers will be blogging about copyright so check her blog for links - if you ever need to write on the subject there's bound to be something relevant to nick. That's satire, by the way. Which I believe is one of the legitimate uses for purloinage of portions. I heartily recommend Nicola Morgan's particularly clear and detailed contribution.

I will leave the law to others, and my take on copyright is very simple. Don't pilfer unless the author tells you it's OK. If an author does tell you it's OK, don't take that as an indication that you can extrapolate anything beyond that one instance. At all.

So to avoid this being a silly short post, I will tell you about a fantastic anthology I'm taking part in, put together by Michale Wells, author of the hilarious I Shot Bigfoot and Other Stories.

As "one of those" authors, the kind who hang out on the web rather than behaving decorously and getting a publisher or slinking off to their garret in a fit of pique or melancholy, I get asked to take part in a lot of fun anthologies. Sometimes they involve writing humour, something I find so traumatic I have to decline. Two recent ones I said yes to that have had a moderate amount of attention (largely because they were timed to come out at the same time as the bad sex awards) were about writing sex.

But the one in question, to be released in December, is a collection of stories inspired by songs. Not songs we got to choose ourselves (how many teenage memoirs of Love Will Tear Us Apart can society cope with after all?) . Michael randomly generated some titles from somewhere. I'm not sure where , and given the amount of INXS on there I'm in no hurry to ask. One of the INXS titles, Beautiful Girl, fell to me. I wrote a very peculiar story that none of the contributors could make head or tail of about a guy falling to pieces having killed a kid in a car crash (I say that because most people didn't even figure that out - that was the point. I wrote it like one of those black and white, oddly cut, moody enigmatic 80s pop videos).

What's relevant (and like a bad jokester - told you I couldn't do humour - I know you're there ahead of me) is that we spent a long long time discussing fair use before concluding that we wouldn't quote a single lyric. In the whole thing. Which has about 40 pieces of short and flash fiction in it.

Song lyrics seem to be THE most controversial copyright topic, largely because of the ambiguity over fair use. I can see why there's ambiguity. After all, on one hand you get Patti Smith who writes half the ancient mariner and sets it to music. On the other hand, you get the likes of 2 Unlimited, where if you didn't capitalise "No Limits" to make it clear you were referring to the title, you'd be lifting pretty much the whole song. But with songs being so much a part of popular culture, and so many of us writing about popular culture, it would be great to have SOME kind of rule for those of us who want to do the right thing by fellow artists, yet not have to avoid writing about whole swathes of subject matter or fill the page with allusion - yes, allusion, metaphor, word play are great, but sometimes you just want to quote a lyric and not risk being slapped with a suit you can't pay.

Maybe if we were allowed to quote a set proportion if we could prove due diligence? Let's face it, most managers are just too busy to get back to everyone who wants to quote a line from their band. BUT it's a bit rich if they then take out a suit against someone who tried to get permission but was never answered. So my suggestion - if I can show I asked your permission and you didn't get back to me, don't beef if I quote half a verse or a chorus couplet. And in return, if I can't be bothered to ask I won't quote.

Saturday 13 November 2010

5:am and time for my battered sausage

A week or so back I wrote a rather angry piece on this blog that both got the tone wrong, and conveyed completely the wrong message as a result. The danger of writing generalistic pieces is that they are, well, generalistic and weak as a consequence. So I put examples in, and as a result came across as snarky, having more chips than Harry Ramsden, and aiming my shots where they weren't intended.

So an unconditional apology for aiming my snarks at Ben and Lee, and Todd and Emma - neither you personally nor Richard, The Canal, Literary Death Match or To Hell With The Lighthouse (now The Book Stops Here) were intended to be in my crosshairs. I also forgot the golden rule (that I finally got into my noodle with respect to "the mainstream" last year) that the best thing to do when you don't like something is to carry on doing what you're doing, only even better.

I did have a gripe, and it was this - the media portrays a literary scene as being new that is not, as being cutting edge that has actually been around long enough that it has donned its pipe and slippers and no longer occupies the front line position in the fight against "the boundaries" whatever they might be, that disproportionately reviews titles by its circle whilst refusing to look at other small releases; and there is also a part of the peripheral literary scene that likes to portray itself as these things in order to appear cool. The losers in all this are the public, who get disappointed, and never get to see the real boundaries until they too have donned pipe and slippers. The answer is for the literary media to spend more time looking around outside of what it already knows either from its friends, or from slick PR or the London circuit; and to be less frightened to champion something that other people don't like or don't get - to stop playing safe all the time. As writers and independent publishers we need to keep putting our message in front of the media to show them there is an alternative - and to do so vigorously and unapologetically - it deserves to be there as much as anything else does. Calling out laziness and prejudice is very much part of what we need to do. Snarking doesn't help our cause, but more than that it's not what I'm about and it's not what great literature's about. And the last thing for me to do is to piss off people who have done great things to bring great literature to the public. Sure, now they're successful I 100% expect them to extend a totally non-insular non-introspective outlook to everything else going on, just like they did when they were smaller. But I'll stick to bruhaha designed to promote the work I really beieve in, not to do down anything else.

So, I manifest myself to promote only manifestos of action not snark - I think at both Year Zero and latterly at eight cuts gallery I've done that - that needs to be done more transferably, and to work with people who want to promote great literature, to give the public the great stuff it deserves.

I could remove the previous piece and have done with it, but I won't, because that would be disingenuous to the people who took time to comment (even those who did so anonymously), and, having had my ass whooped, it would do me well for the ass-qhooping to remain public.

Sunday 7 November 2010

NaNoWrimo: The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes

I've met an awful lot of people here and on twitter in the last 18 months. And most of them have no idea why my blog is called what it is, why it has the funny little avvie it does, and why my twittername is unspellable. Well, without gong into the long version, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes is a novel I began in the spring of 2009. And never quite finished. And for all I have other ideas and novels, I keep coming back to it, so I have decided to use NaNoWriMo to edit and finish it for good.

The avvie is the central image from the book, the eyes a pair of trainers - look closely and you'll see the pupils are the 500 logo)

Here's the opening, so you can all see at last why I have the username I do. It's a work of (increasingly - the opening section is harmless enough) transgressive literary fiction, and I'm going to quit the usual self-deprecation and come out and say it. It's the best thing I've ever written, and I need to finish it (I have 56,000 of a projected 65k already but lots of editing to do).


Why are some images impossible to ignore, while others disappear without ever being seen?

In 2009 one image became as iconic as the face of Che Guevara.

A story of art, politics, online communities, environmentalism, and the nature of celebrity;

Of the search for the truth behind a seemingly tragic death, that became the most watched YouTube video in history;

Of two personal journeys – a man whose daughter, missing for ten years, is fading from existence in a world he cannot reach; a schoolboy whose quest for beauty in mathematics has kept him locked in his room for three years; and the website that unites them;

Of the world’s most reclusive artist; of a dominatrix who uses other people’s pain to break down the doors to parallel worlds in search of the origin of her own agony; of an astrophysicist determined to preserve the moment of his wife’s death forever; of a vicious vigilante who spends his evenings composing haiku.

Of the relationship between beauty, pain, and reality.


It’s nearly midnight, and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.

In that time, the clip has had 274,392 views.

I click the play arrow for the 104th time.


Running on the treadmill like millions of other middle class woman in their twenties. She looks fantastic in her lycra – she has the time and money to do this on a regular basis. Stop here and you’d never have noticed the silver and greens on her feet.

The camera wobbles. Has her friend turned to check out someone on the pec deck? Another tiny wobble, enough to remind you how casual the whole scene is, that she has no idea what she’s about to film – although there’s been speculation about that, of course, just like everything else.

Here it is. Three seconds of footage, the seconds before she stumbles. She turns, and over her shoulder she says something to her friend. It indecipherable. Not one of the people at the gym that day can remember her speaking at all. The best Polish and English lipreaders are clueless.

Everyone in the chatrooms devoted to her has their own theory. She’s calling out to a child she
gave away as a teenager in Gdansk; she realises she’s lost her footing and lets out an expletive; she’s begging her friend for help; she’s fluffing up the camera for posterity. The truth is she says something different to everyone who watches the clip. It’s as though, in those final seconds, she’s stepped out of her own body and time and speaks straight to you, the viewer.

Just you.

Just me.

See you, Dad! I’m sure that’s what she says. Every time I watch I’m even more certain. I pause the clip. Play. Pause. Play. Pause. I see her mouth form the shapes.

The gate closes. Her hair moves first, and then her head turns; she looks at me over the burgundy uniform; “See you, Dad!” she shouts. “Take care, love!” I shout back from the kitchen window but she’s already turned away, heading for school.

See you, Dad!

Was that the last thing she ever said? Why say it that morning? Was she worried? Did she know something I didn’t? No matter how many times I go through it, I just don’t know.

“Take care, love,” I whisper at the screen.


Ten seconds and it’s over. Nothing left of Agnieszka but her silver and green Mercury 500 trainers, logos filling the camera like startled eyebrows. The image of the year; of the decade, probably. The picture on every student’s wall, on T-shirts and placards and newspaper spreads.

And the reason my boss will call me tonight – the front cover for Epoch magazine’s Review of the Year.

Give me a different angle on it, Sarah will say. Make it fresh. Sure. Three weeks to find a completely new take on the most reproduced, rehashed, reformatted image of the century.

There’s the phone. The ringtone’s the riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit. Emma had Nevermind in her CD player when she left. I let the second bar finish and press accept.

“Hi!” I get ready for the inevitable banter about calling the wrong side of midnight, and click the mouse out of habit.


It’s not Sarah’s voice. It takes a few seconds to place and by the time I do the line’s dead. The phone’s still against my ear and I hear every word in real time, as though the line’s on a delay.

“Dad? Can you hear me? I’m safe but I don’t know where I am. Dad, I can’t explain it but it feels like I’m fading. Like now; I’m shouting but it feels like nothing’s coming out. And sometimes when I look down at my feet I think I can see through them. Does that make any sense? Dad, you have to come and find me. Please.” The line clicks dead.

Find me. Please. The words synch perfectly with Agnieszka’s lips.

“I’m coming, love.”

But she’s already turned away.

She trips, tangles, and the film ends.


We can see her clearly. She’s sitting with her legs folded underneath her, gripping the phone with both hands. It takes a moment for us to register things are wrong with this image. We have to blink several times, but still our eyes don’t feel right. We look closer, and then we see that although she is sitting on her legs, her legs aren’t on anything.

She’s not floating. Nor is she in a darkened room, lit only by an infinitely precise light. We don’t even have noticeably tunnelled vision. It’s just that we only see her.

Sometimes when we stare at a flecked carpet in summer we sense that something is amiss. Then we notice a movement. A few seconds later we see an ant scurry through the fibres, and suddenly our optic nerve turns on a switch and we see that the whole floor is a teeming sea of ants.

In the same sickening way we see all at once: this is Emma, and she is still 14 years old, the age she was when she disappeared; but the telephone she clutches like a parachute rip-cord is an iPhone; her skin and clothes are blurred. It’s not our eyes. We see the iPhone perfectly well. It’s her.

She is blurred.

She turns. Her eyes make us seasick. Instead of colour there’s a soup of grey strobing and fuzzing. “Where am I?” she asks.

She sounds sad. Or maybe we just imagine that she must be sad, because through the white noise in the pits where her eyes should be it’s impossible to say if she’s crying or not.

“I don’t know,” we reply. “How long have you been there?”

“I don’t know. No, that’s wrong. I’ve been here a day. Only this day seems to happen again and again and again. I don’t know how many times. It feels like someone’s caught it on tape and they keep playing it over and over and over, and the tape’s wearing thin in places. What will happen if they play it too many times and the tape snaps?”

She’s speaking quickly, like she only has one lungful of air and she has to get everything out in that single breath. We daren’t interrupt, even if we could answer her questions, in case she goes silent for ever.

“I’m scared. I don’t understand what’s happening. Would it be better if they stopped the tape and left it in an archive somewhere it could never be played again? Does that make any sense?”

“Tell Dad,” she begins but whatever the connection was, it’s cut. We blink several times.

Everything is sharp again. We stare at our computer screens, and Emma exists only in the words we see there.


Shuji Nomoto stands with his head pressed against the door. He has been listening for ten minutes as his mother, Junko, and his older brother, Yuichi, argue about something inconsequential downstairs. At last he is satisfied there is no one on this floor, but still his muscles pull against him as he puts his fingers on the handle. His grip falters; the sweat on his palm slides against the metal. He swallows hard and listens to the sound of blood in his ears, the quick, quick, quick beat of his heart, the only fragile thing that separates life from death.


Silently – every day he uses oil from his fried tofu lunch to keep the door from making a sound. A crack of strange light appears from the corridor and Shuji winces. Cooler air and the smell of bean curd catch his face and he feels giddy. He closes his eyes, pushes, feels for the tray with his feet, pulls the door, eases the handle back, turns the lock, and leans back against the door, fighting back shameful tears as he waits for his heart to slow.

Eventually he is calm. He sits at his desk, his back rod-straight, and moves his finger in a perfect nautilus spiral on the mouse pad to bringing to life the ageing laptop his mother bought before his confinement began.

One morning, when he was 14, Shuji stepped out of the shower in the corner of his Kobe room and towelled himself dry. He pulled on his underwear, trousers, socks, a vest, and a clean white shirt. He stood in front of the mirror, pulling wax through his short hair, expertly teasing it into spikes between his fingers. Without any warning, he stopped, stared, and saw someone he didn’t recognise staring back at him from the mirror. It was like he was looking at a mannequin in a shop window, a model on a billboard.

There was a stranger in his room, and the stranger was him.

He took off his school uniform, emptied the identikit outfits from their drawer, bundled them into a bag, placed them outside his bedroom, closed the door, and locked it behind him. He washed the gel from his hair, dressed in jeans and a Nirvana T-shirt, sat at his desk, fired up his laptop, and began scouring the internet for every reference he could find to the Byfield Effect .

He hasn’t spoken to, seen, or been seen by, another person since.

At first he was fascinated. He devoted every second of his time to understanding the Effect. It felt to him as though knowing it better than he knew anything else in or about the world was all that mattered. He had been given a task of monumental importance, but he had no idea what, or why. All he knew was he had to prepare for it by mastering this theory.

Two years later, Shuji saw the clip of Agnieszka Iwanowa’s death. He played the clip through five times. Each time Agnieszka turned her head to the camera, he pressed his face closer to the screen, trying to decipher her words, to make out what she was saying to him. He knew what he was watching change his life forever, but he had no idea how.

Eventually his eyes hurt so much from the concentration he cradled his head in his hands, massaging his brow with his fingertips. Through the gaps between his fingers, he saw on a piece of paper handwriting he recognised as his own: Nomoto-Byfield Conjecture.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

4:am fiction : writing in the slips

OK, so Brutalism was a stunt. The Book of Fuck was actually The Book of Fuck All Else to Do. But still. Once upon a time (can you see the jokes coming? Can you? Both of them?) we knew where the boundaries were, and we knew who was pushing them (can you now?). Fuck the mainstream said Ben Myers, and Adelle Stripe. And the other one. People oohed and aahed at 3:am and remembered that the klf actually had more to say than the Venga Boys even if everyone else had forgotten it.

In fact, while everyone else was still talking about Amis and McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie and Ishiguro, even though they'd been really quite shit for a good few years; and Zadie Smith was cool even though she went from zero to sellout faster than the Lambo Countach they'd had on their walls as pre-pubescents; and there were whispers about slams and things that had to do with hopping were a little but hip; but actually it was all about the lyric, the sound in your ear the thank-fuck-punk-is-dead return to syncopated sensibilities. While all that was going on there were geeks who got in your face and did stuff that made you nervous you might get glassed or your mum might walk in. But that was kind of the point. And who cares that their influences were Burroughs and Fante and Richard Hell and people old enough to be their dealer's dealer if they'd had a dealer anywhere but their overactive imaginations. Because all we'd really had was three chord shit and Pink Floyd and David Bowie. And all of a sudden we were Where It's At.

We had people who were doing things with language. And saying social stuff. Big social stuff. With odd sentence structures. It was like Brett Easton Ellis and Doug Coupland had had their brains transplanted with a bunch of British nobodies and that's why they seemed so crap all of a sudden. Eventually they got names like The Brutalists. Or The Offbeats. And their CBGB's, their Chelsea Hotel, was 3:am the granddaddy of all literary ezines. And in those early days you sense if they'd had gigs there would have been police raids; and speed-fuelled fights; and taking to the streets to smash the windows of M&S.

And then. Then the boundaries dried up and they found themselves fielding in the slips. They got blogs for The Guardian. and "fuck the mainstream" became Lee Rourke's debut novel The Canal - with an indie publisher (kind of) but a publisher nonetheless. And the granddaddy of anti-culture produced the granddaddy of all sellouts (without even the irony of John Lydon selling butter) and Ben Myerts signed the dotted line with Picador.

And I don't think I've seen a single piece in the papers that stood back and said what the fuck!

WTF is that we have a literary scene - primarily a London literary scene (but the Brutalists were Northern, weren't they? Wasn't that part of the point? - that's as vacucous as Manchester music became in the mid 90s.

Not that this is bad *in itself*. What's bad is how it's being spun (largely by each other). This WAS the *edge*. It's now the flabby middle, but the names are still being spun as edgy. The public is being sold Richard as though it's Book of Fuck. As though IT, the sellout, is at the limits of the written word. Is it any wonder that when they find out it's yet another slightly blank slightly non-linear spin-off of ladlit more via Glamorama than Less Than Zero they think literature is moribund?

And this would be edge (we could call it U3 as much as we could call it 4:am fiction) has attracted around it (hint - edges don't HAVE things around them) a whole world that sells itself as the literary avant garde. But it's not. It's a scenester scam where what matters is playing namedrop bingo with the beautiful people. And that's the problem. People are being sold a pup. I've seen it from the inside, and it's not nice. Not that it's nasty. It's just, well, a shame. Literary Death Match, To Hell With the Lighthouse - high profile events getting the public whipped up about some exciting new things in literature - only to offer them people who may have had something to say (or whose predecessors may have done). Once. But are now part of an inward-looking group who are rather pleased with how cool they are.

And that's where it's harming literature. Today's movers and shakers want to be the first to tell their friends they discovered the new cool. They don't want to stand up and tell their friends they found something no one else likes that they think is the bollox.

Which is no different from the rest of the publishing industry, of course. Fine. But they're selling it like it is, and that's going to be their downfall. The slick, blank, rather shallow Ellis-lite Welsh-liter 4:am fiction they flog is all knob gags and middle class angst and surfaces that are no longer surfaces to expose the shallowness of society, but surfaces that expose the shallowness of the form itself.

There IS a new underground, of course, that has nothing really to do with 3:am (even if some of its practitioners have moved on and stayed fresh) or 4:am or anything else you could name from a clockface. And the irony is, that while cool slowly eats itself, the old industry that's so far behind the scenesters who are behind, might actually be so oblivious they inadvertently pick it up without knowing.

So what is the new underground? Well, it's so underground I probably don't know about it (but unlike the scenester-setters it's my daily quest to look and not be told about it by a style bible). As I've said elsewhere, I think Sean McGahey nailed it in a recent Facebook status update when he talked about those not afraid to stand up and be mocked for being sentimental. As punk gave way to New Romanticism, so I think the age of blank will give way to a new kind of writing that's not ashamed of emotion and adjectives, of scratching the surface and tapping the romance below. It will be unashamed of rather old-fashioned art forms like painting. It will have sweeping palettes, and be somewhat like the Italian horror of the 70s. Modern fairytales, salon culture that's not quite what it seems, burlesque - like the transgressive masterpieces of the 19th century, look here for the really new of the 21st. Look hard and look quick though, because sentimentalism soon becomes dandyism, and the whole thing will have started again before any of it hits the media.