Summer Buddy Holly (3)

“It’s all about death,” he says quietly, to nobody in particular. 

“Perhaps,” says Saint Rufina, for it is she, wrapped in a robe of vermillion, who is contained within the fresco, she who is offering up her floral tribute. “Although—

when you stop and think about it,” she says, “isn’t everything about death? The flowers in the green glass vase that you bought on that vacación in Sitges in, when was it, Jay, 2005? their edges crisping, the heads bowed as if in prayer, standing among an eiderdown nest of themselves on the table. The latest box-set, the detective and the forensics team revelling in the nature of a grisly murder and passing itself off as entertainment. Isn’t everything about death? When you take the flowers to la cucina to eventually dispose of them, don’t their remaining petals strew themselves across the floor into a self-constructed cortège? They lay there, curled and benign, and you sweep up them up and then they are gone. Why, Jay,” she says, “just ask my sister.”

She inclines her head and gestures a little way along the wall, which belongs to one of the many ancient churches that punctuate Seville’s winding streets like asterisks, solid reminders that absolution is always close at hand. Saint Justa, swathed in a robe akin to that of Saint Rufina but in gold rather than red and offering a similar bouquet and, colours aside, identical to her sibling, smiles down at him from a matching fresco. There is that flash of recognition once more before it crawls away.

“Hola, Jay,” she says, her voice not unlike that of Penélope Cruz (although Jay is inclined to hear Penélope Cruz in the accents of many Spanish women), “of course, I agree with my sister. It is all about death.”

Jay slides one uncertain Birkenstock-sandaled foot to the right of the other like a man on a highwire and edges two metres to his right. Saint Justa is, like her saintly sister, surrounded by a script that seems to flow like a stream, offering itself in Spanish interspersed with ribbons of languages past. This time he relaxes into the tickertape scroll, letting his eyes adjust and settle. And presently he reads I loved you like a distant star.

Summer Buddy Holly (2)

There is, after all, so much to unpack.

(High, so high that it ceases to be called anything so mundane as sky, there is NGC 4631, otherwise known as the Whale Galaxy. The Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep within NGC 4631. It is 30 million light years away from us. Give or take a few thousand light years. We see it side-on. An exciting, daring glimpse of side-whale. Within the whale, stars are born. Their lights illuminate the galactic centre. Strata of dark material hang between us and the starburst. Through Hubble we can see that the galaxy has a central bulge and an asymmetric tapering disc, providing the appearance of a whale. There are fewer stars and less dust in its outer reaches, although these are still punctuated by star formation. The centre of the Whale Galaxy witnesses exploding stars. Supernovae, eight times the mass of our sun, bathing the galaxy in hot gas. Blue starlight making celestial ka-booms, painting the whale, which feeds on intergalactic material, stars coalescing to create the greater density within its vast belly. Just as blue whales gorge on plankton, so the Whale Galaxy snacks on dust and gas that powers a high rate of star formation. An undercurrent of gleaming silver, a base of orange and blue. They are there yet we cannot see. Paint particles at the outer edge of application, a dust of pigment, chlorofluorocarbons and light. Let the whales feast. You loved me like a distant star.)

Summer Buddy Holly (1)

As James Edward Henry—known universally as Jay—stands before the fresco in that street in Seville, his face lifted to the sun, his neck arched and tight-pink where the suncream did not stretch during yesterday’s snooze on the terrace, he explodes. 

(For the purposes of the tape, it is worth noting here that the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides three definitions of the word ‘explosion.’ The first two, concerned with the act of exploding and a large scale, spectacular expansion, are too obvious and lacking in any real merit to be noteworthy. No, what Jay experiences is the third definition: the release of occluded breath that occurs in one kind of articulation of stop consonants. An altogether more interesting proposition.)

At the beginning was the first.

Out of the black and into the soup.

The day is too warm to be described as merely warm. Hot would barely do it justice. Seville, even this late in the summer, is nudging the mid-thirties and we are barely an hour after breakfast (coffee and orange juice, pastries and some slices of an unknown, yellowish cheese for him, camomile tea and a peach for Blue, of whom more later). 

Order from chaos, a taper lit by a wish that the universe might know itself. Playing the long game. Everything that follows simply followed. Star-made horses stampeding.

Jay squints up at the wall, yellow and orange and blue and green climbing in through the polarised lenses of his tortoiseshell sunglasses (Steve McQueen 714s, by Persol), colours dripping from a deity’s easel, made liquid by the sunshine and coating his eyes. The street is bisected by shadow, one side under-exposed and in hiding, awaiting its big ta-da as tourists seek sundowners on its tabled sidewalk later; the other side, his side, the mad dogs and Englishmen side, is brighter than bonfires. On the wall a saint, faded and ephemeral, glorifying God with a basket of roses or maybe they are calibrachoa, or bidens, more suited to the heat, this heat. She reminds him of someone, a memory in the back of his mind, so far back he is not able to fully recall it. The River Guadalquivir crawls inside his thin, white cotton shirt, carving its way to the waistband of the blue Diesel jeans that he now knows were a mistake, his coyness about men in shorts uncomfortably misplaced. 

He tries to make out the writing contained within the tiled patterns bordering the saint. Words swim, in Spanish, in Latin, in Arabic. Eventually he reads You loved me like a distant star. And he knows that he has read that before. Somewhere, he has read that before. In a book, no, somewhere else. You loved me like a distant star, he reads. And he thinks, says out loud, “Maybe I did,” and then he explodes.

A Thing Laid Bare

I tweeted a few days ago about writing a book ‘live’ as a blog. It seemed like an adventurous, possibly bold thing to attempt. And yet here we are. If I write it down it must be so.

I have a work in progress that is barely a thing. In my head, it’s a memoir told through fiction with dashes of non-fiction and smatterings of whatever it darn well chooses to be. A hybrid thing. I am only 3,000 words into it and much of it resides in my head. It’s also my ‘secondary’ writing project, as I have a novel (the fourth I will have written), Naked Magic, began in 2018 and which stands at over 60,000 words and is in its umpteenth draft on its way to being a full first draft. And that novel is one I shall complete this year (I also said this on a similar date—i.e. early January—last year. I have the notebooks to prove it).

Anyway. This other thing: I shall attempt to post it here as bits of it become written. Of course it will be spasmodic, unkempt, irregular, with the possibility of huge gaps between posts while I work on Naked Magic, and also publish the chapbooks and potential other things that we are committed to over at Seventy2One. But if you’re interested in reading it, in keeping up with its stuttering progress, then here is the place.

The opening salvo will be published here before the end of this week. Feel free to comment on it, just as I will feel free to graciously accept any praise and completely ignore any opprobrium. In the meantime, happy 2022. Stay healthy. Get jabbed. Love your neighbours. See you here before the weekend.


NEWS: I’m starting an imprint. Or rather, have started an imprint. Along with my friend and fellow author Hannah Persaud (who is brilliant, read her novel The Codes of Love if you haven’t already), we will be bringing out brand new works of fiction, in print, starting with a collection of climate emergency-themed short stories in time for Christmas.

Short is the word. Because Seventy2One is so called as we won’t publish anything longer than seventy thousand words (about 250-ish pages); but the One is since we’d prefer if all stories were at least one thousand words long. We want books you can carry with you, slip into your pocket or bag and not feel like you’re carting a house brick around with you.

We’re concentrating on literary fiction, mainly concerned with the major issues of the times we live in; so right now that’s climate change, the environment and other social issues. We want to discover new writers as well as offering a route to print for a few people who are known to us and who deserve to have their words in bookshops.

Seventy2One will come under the umbrella that Alec Bowman_Clarke and started last year when we made our short (that word again) film, Overheads. Massive Overheads Productions has morphed into a groovy little arts co-operative and Seventy2One is its publishing arm.

The intention, following this year’s anthology, will be for two novels next year, along with a series of chapbooks, single or double story publications that will come out in limited numbers and sell for less than the price of a Caffè Nero Hot Chocolate Milano (currently £3.20). Beyond 2022, well, let’s see how things go. But two novels a year, plus the chapbooks, feels about right.

So, Seventy2One. Small volumes. Loud voices.

Sgt. Pepperoni

I love the Beatles. I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of music made post, say, 1967 wouldn’t have happened had The Beatles not happened. They wrote the rule book. It’s the one thing I disagree with Scroobius Pip about.

Anyway. Last week was the 44th anniversary of the Sgt. Pepper album. You know the one, with the iconic cover designed by Peter Blake that features the Beatles’ heroes, icons, contemporaries and historical enigmas. There are 55 people on that cover, plus three that are obscured, according to Craig Brown’s excellent book, One Two Three Four. And I got to wondering who my 55 might be. Wonder no more:

Paul McCartney, musician

John Lennon, musician

George Harrison, musician

Ringo Starr, musician

Sir David Attenborough, naturalist and broadcaster

Mr Badger, character, Wind in the Willows

Ronnie Barker (as Fletcher), writer and actor

Dame Mary Beard, classicist, broadcaster, writer

George Best, footballer

Charles Booth, social reformer

Sir Frank Bowling, artist

Gordon Burn, writer

Kate Bush, musician

Nick Cave, musician

Sir Billy Connolly, comedian and presenter

Molly Cooney, doctor

Ian Dury, musician and writer

James Ellroy, writer

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, actor

Guy Garvey, musician

Antony Gormley, artist

Barbara Hepworth, artist

Gil Scott Heron, musician

Ian Hislop, writer and broadcaster

Hans Holbein the younger, artist

Albert Irvin, artist

Brian Johnston, cricket commentator

Sir Tom Jones, singer

Kauto Star, racehorse

Nicole Kidman, actor

Naomi Klein, writer and activist

James Lovelock, scientist and writer

Hilary Mantel, writer

Helen McCrory, actor

Rocío Molina, dancer

Grayson Perry, artist

Pablo Picasso, artist

Empty Plinth, space for the as yet undecided

Kojey Radical, musician

George Robinson, 1st marquess of Ripon

Don Rogers, footballer

Joseph Rowntree, social reformer

Arundhati Roy, writer and activist

Alexei Sayle, writer and comedian

Michael Sheen, actor

Barry Sheene, motorcycle racer

Timothy Spall, actor

Bruce Springsteen, musician

Dylan Thomas, poet

JMW Turner, artist

Bernhard Vogel, artist

Mary Wesley, writer

Tim Winton, writer

PG Wodehouse, writer

Victoria Wood, writer, musician, actor

Not writing

I have not written anything here for six months or so. That’s not because there has been nothing to say. There has been plenty to say. In that time I’ve moved house, technically moved house several times, given that the move involved two periods of temporary rental (house selling and buying got somewhat out of synch) until finally buying a three-storey Victorian house in the City of Ripon, North Yorkshire. A long way from London and, given that I unsuccessfully lived here before between 2006 and 2009, is in itself enough material to write several books. Also during this time, for one reason and another, pretty much all house-move related, I’ve written very little. At least if writing is deemed to be the act of putting pen to paper or tapping a keyboard into submission.

I have, though, written a great deal in my head. Mostly my ongoing novel, set in 1971 and the first few months of 1972. And now that’s beginning to grow like a well-watered begonia on the page as well as inside my brain.

There are, however, other things ongoing that have prevented blogging (I hate that word, it sounds so childish, like someone made it up rather than attend English class), not least a perpetual worry about a dear friend’s ill health. So that, the house (it’s a renovation project) and keeping 1971 buoyant have been more than enough.

There is no need to write more here. For now.

On Reading

I read and admire books by authors I like (occasionally love), who tell me, sometimes in the text, sometimes later in interviews in magazines, newspapers, online, about other authors they revere. And mostly I have never read those authors they refer to. This makes me question everything. 

Henry Miller, Clarice Lispector, Tom Wolfe, William Burroughs. I have never read anything by these people. How then can I ever grasp everything my author is saying to me, if I am unaware, other than from lip service, of the writing by these influences? 

(A related example: sometimes I would admire the paintings of the artist Sean Scully, without ever really being able to get to the root of the why. And then I heard him talk of his love for JMW Turner. And pennies fell from my eyes like the cascades on the end of the pier.)

Eventually I gave myself the permission to not follow what others have read. It felt like a permission to be granted. Rarely do I like slash read books written before, say, the latter half of the twentieth century, with one or three exceptions. I don’t feel that I am particularly well read. In a traditional sense, at least. But you know what? I decided it didn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Am I any worse read than someone else because I have read every word ever published by David Peace but have never read any Nabokov? Because I think Tim Winton’s Dirt Music is pretty much the perfect novel but have never read William Faulkner? 

Read what you like. Like what you like. Don’t follow the crowd.

Read what you like.*

*this author reserves the right to read the short Clarice Lispector novel that he bought purely because David Keenan raved about her. 

Making it

As a “creative” I spend far too much time worrying about the (self-inflicted) requirement to “make it.” What does that even mean?

It means different things to different people. Of course it does. But I’ve come to the realisation that it means far too much to me. A possible combination of latent narcissism, the need for validation and a streak of self-protection have resulted in a situation whereby making it has some pretty starry connotations. I won’t embarrass myself by listing them here. Suffice to say that BBC Front Row has surely got a seat somewhere with my name emblazoned across the back. (I’m joking. Really.) Anyway, I’m letting that notion go. 

I recently revisited a couple of short stories that I wrote some time ago. Months, years in one case. At the time of writing them I was convinced they were the best they could be. I was proud of them. Coming back to them it’s like they’ve changed without my input. They’ve opened up, suggesting ways in which they could be improved. Exposed themselves to scrutiny. I’ve edited them, applied more precision to them. And now I prefer them. So “the work” is ever-changing. I’m more proud of those stories now than I am of any work that I’ve previously had published. What does that say about the need for validation, which (presumably) comes via publication?

During so-called-lockdown, I turned to screenwriting. I’d previously completed an online course in it and wanted to see if what I’d learned could be applied to my development as a writer. I’d also been inspired by hearing a podcast in which the musician Warren Ellis talked to Edith Bowman about a score he’d written for a short film called This Train I Ride. It made me question and consider various methods of working and I found it inspirational. I approached a Twitter pal whose music video work I admired, Alec Bowman-Clarke. If I could finish the script I had a vague idea for, might he be interested in trying to make a short film with me? His ‘Hell, yeah’ response provided further encouragement. 

So over the summer we made a film, in a socially-distanced way. Three parts, each filmed separately in three different locations. And as that project nears completion, it stands as one of the proudest things I’ve ever been involved with. Have ever done. No one’s seen it yet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a type of “making it” that satisfies completely. 

When I was little more than a child I used to spend Friday nights in a pub on the Fulham Palace Road watching live music. Two acts in particular were favourites and would perhaps play once a month or so. A band called Blues ‘n’ Trouble, and a guitarist named Sammy Mitchell. My friends and I loved them. Blues ‘n’ Trouble are still playing, I think. Sammy sadly died in 2006. Both had moments of recognition. TV appearances, playing with big artists. Neither are household names. In a modern, media-driven sense I guess neither “made it.” But the point here is that they did to me. That they and their music is still memorable to me all these years later means they made it, in a way.

Over two years ago I read a short story. It was called Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind and was written by Victoria Richards. It was published in The London Magazine. I read a lot of short stories. Most vanish once read. Some linger, fondly remembered. This one sticks around, as much as any short story ever has. I’m jealous of it. It was original, witty, dark and utterly brilliant. With that story, Victoria, too, made it. (She might disagree, I don’t know. Sorry, Victoria. It’s meant with love and admiration!).

Of course, the other element of making it over which we have little or no control is the ephemeral. Talent is not enough. If it were, Sammy Mitchell would be in several Halls of Fame. Victoria Richards would be on the current Booker list. Other things must play their part. Things called luck, zeitgeist, cronyism and its sibling nepotism, catching a wave, right place right time. And if we have no control, why worry about the outcome?

So I’ve realigned the making it requirement. Softened its edges. Popped its balloon. And dare I say it, I think the work I’m creating now is all the better for it. 

On Writing and Collaborating

I’ve been amazingly productive lately. That’s not crowing, it’s just a fact. It’s partly having the time, partly a phantom thing that won’t let me not write. I call it making up for lost time. All those years when I wasn’t ready to accept myself as a creative, as a writer. Not really. But for the past two years and a few months I have. Completely, uncritically, joyfully, unselfconsciously. So in that time I’ve written two novels (and one of them has had four versions of its poor self until it arrived at its final form), a dozen or more short stories, a big handful of poems, three short screenplays and some other bits and pieces besides, such as a 3,000 word essay that I finished recently about whales and the American artist Jules Olitski. I enjoyed that. The most important pieces, though, are the novels and the screenplays. They’re what I want to do forever. 

The first of the novels is in that land that exists between my agent getting enthusiastic about it and a publishing house saying they want it. Hopefully it’ll move on from that space soon. The second is with my agent, who’s reading it. Publishing is notoriously slow at the best of times but the last few months have felt like going into reverse. I’m not moaning and of course it’s the same for everyone, but I’m naturally impatient. Apparently global pandemics and my temperament aren’t natural pals. Who knew?

Anyway, the one thing that I’ve discovered recently is that collaboration can be a wonderful thing. I’m not a great team-player, generally, Too much of a control freak, too fond of my own ideas. But I recently reached out to someone who I really like and respect and whose work I felt had elements that appeared in my writing, albeit that theirs involved different media. I handed over something I’d written and was delighted at getting a positive response in return. Along the way we involved several more people in our project. Again, all immensely positive. I’ll write more about what that is and what we’re working on soon, when we’re a little closer to the finishing line. Anyway, I watched Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s documentary film featuring Nick Cave (in my eyes of course the SAINTED Nick Cave), 20,000 Days on Earth. In it, Nick talks about collaboration. He says:

“To take an idea that is blind and unformed, and that has been hatched largely in solitude, and allow these strange collaborator creatures that I work with to morph it into something else, something better… well, that’s really something to see.”

And yeah, basically. Yeah. It is.