A Bad Place to Stick Your Hand

My story A Bad Place to Stick Your Hand has been published on Everyday Fiction this morning. It's a piece  about a ventriloquist's funeral which I have performed live several times:

"I was supposed to meet my family a couple of hours before the funeral, but I arrived late because of work. Everyone smiled when they saw me and I soon found out why: in my absence they’d decided I would be doing the eulogy."

I hope you enjoy it.

Recent reading

I've read a lot of books since my last reading post so this is a quick catch-up of the most interesting ones:

  • Die Hard Mod by Charlie McQuaker is a short book but it's great fun. The story is set in Brighton and mentions lots of well-known places. I loved the fast and effective style, which led to a great set-piece at the end. If you live in Brighton, you should definitely read this. There's a review by Paolo Hewitt here.
  • Jaws was a good quick read, described by Peter Benchley as "a first novel about a fish". I can't see myself reading much more Peter Brenchley, although if a copy of 1994's White Shark falls into my lap then I won't be able to resist "the story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid".
  • What was Lost was recommended by Scott Pack and was good enough that I read it by torchlight in my tent at a festival. It's about a shopping centre, and really captures the horror of lunch-breaks and days off. One thing that annoyed me was that the back of the book gave away the structure of the book – it would have been lovely to read this not knowing where it was going.  My favourite line, from a girl who wants to be a detective: "Although Sam Spade is not seen at any point in The Maltese Falcon shopping for stationery, Kate knew how important premium office supplies were to an effective investigator"
  • I read Einstein's Dreams because it was compared to Sum,
    which I read in April. The similarities are notable. However, I think
    Einstein's dreams is the better book, since it asks more relevant questions about our lives – which of the worlds it describes are we living in? My copy of the book was
    augmented by notes from a previous owner. She seemed to be studying the stories in college and had, I felt, had missed the point at times. I thought it better not to email her and point this out.
  • I was initially inspired to explore the Bizarro genre by a post from Damien G. Walter. My appetite was further whetted by Bluejoh, who'd read Baby Jesus Butt Plug and said "It's still with me, in a way that a lot of books aren't". I bought one of the Bizarro starter kits and was mostly unimpressed, but House of Houses is one of the most interesting fantasy novels I've read. It's not Tolkien by any means but it is a truly weird novel, which asks the deep philosophical question: what is a house? While the text sometimes seems immature, it's also one of the strangest and most
    inventive novels I've read. True fantasy.

The Secret State was a fascinating but bleak book by Peter Hennessey.
Now that the world has survived the Cold War, it seems less insane than
it did (In August 1991, the head of the JIC, Sir Percy Cradock,
produced champagne, "toasting the intelligence community as a whole
on the demise of the Cold War with the words "We didn't have a
war. We
did win").
Despite this, some of the memos from the time remain chilling.

Looking back, the Cold War seems like a very strange period of history. As historian Michael Howard pointed out, "War is now seen as being a matter for governments and not for
peoples; an affair of mutual destruction inflicted at remote distances
by technological specialists operating according to the arcane
calculations of strategic analysts. Popular participation is considered
neither necessary nor desirable
– and this despite, as Hennessey
points out, the certainty of massive civilian casualties.

The book was fascinating. One of the
strangest moments was the discussion of how a nuclear submarine checks
whether Britain has been destroyed – one test was whether the Today programme was still broadcasting.

The Bret Easton Ellis Live Experience


One of the things I was most excited about at Latitude was seeing a talk with Bret Easton Ellis. While I was underwhelmed by his last book (Imperial Bedrooms), American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park are among my very favourite novels.

It was certainly an interesting experience. The crowd was in a good mood, cheering the titles of their favourite novels as Miranda Sawyer introduced Ellis. He seemed surprised to see so many people present ("we thought we'd be hearing a song" someone shouted) and took photos of the crowd.

Ellis started by saying "I want to talk about hangovers… because that is more important to me than that book now." He was apparently suffering the second day of a hangover from partying earlier in the tour. Throughout, Ellis seemed to resent discussing Imperial Bedrooms, which he dismissed as an idea he had seven years ago, even though many of the audience had only recently bought and read it. 

In fact, Ellis seemed reluctant to talk about most things. Miranda Sawyer was very patient and did a great job of drawing him out a little before asking for audience questions. In part, Ellis seemed to be trying to demystify what he did, but it also felt as if he didn't really want to be there. 

One audience member asked about Clay, saying that he felt bad for not having as exciting a life. Ellis said he shouldn't worry: "he's a fictional character in a book". Ellis said that he works office hours so he can socialise with his friends in the
evening, and that his novels were reflections of his feelings at the
time he wrote them.

I enjoyed seeing Ellis – it was certainly an entertaining session – but looking back I feel a little uncomfortable with it too. His unwillingness to answer some of Miranda Sawyer's questions verged on rudeness. Obviously I have no expectations of a writer whose book I am reading. But if they're making a public appearance, then a certain amount of openness is expected.


Latitude 2010


Latitude was a lovely interlude between finishing the book and my return to Brighton later this week. It's a fantastic festival with a perfect site (despite a massive downpour on Saturday morning, the ground was dry again within an hour or two). I only saw a handful of bands, spending most of my time between the poetry, literary and comedy tents. I saw three of my heroes through the weekend (Chris Morris, Eddie Argos, and Bret Easton Ellis) along with lots of interesting people I'd not heard of before. Among the highlights:

  • The poetry tent had an excellent programme, which included my friend Rosy Carrick doing a couple of New Voices slots. I saw good performances from Anna Freeman, Rhian Edwards, Byron Vincent and Laura Dockerill's Word Orchestra. One note to performance poets, though: please can you stop doing patronising pieces about tabloid readers and the underclass.
  • There was a showing of 4 Lions with a Q&A afterwards. This was marred only by a heavy-handed announcement that officials with night vision goggles would be making sure nobody filmed the screen. Both insulting and patronising- and there are better ways to steal a film than at a festival showing. Chris Morris lightened the mood a little, suggesting that there were only two officials and a whole crowd – with a little work, it would be possible to run them ragged…. The Q&A was fascinating, with some discussions about the film's research. Apparently, jihadi message boards are like those for "any other obsessive hobby".
  • The Bret Easton Ellis interview with Miranda Sawyer was fascinating, but probably deserves a post of its own tomorrow. Hanif Kureshi was an interesting warm-up act; I liked his observation: "Writing could stop you going mad – but so too could reading"
  • I read The End of Mr. Y a couple of years ago and wasn't particularly excited by it. On Saturday night, just before midnight, Scarlett Thomas read from her new book Our Tragic Universe, accompanied by her brother on keyboards. I was spellbound by the reading and had to buy the book. I can't wait to read it next week.
  • The best band of the weekend was Crystal Castles, who played an amazing, chaotic set on Saturday. Alice Glass veered between being incredibly cool and a little daft, which makes her the perfect pop star (it seemed excessive to have a mike-lead roadie to untangle the wires when she caught them behind the monitors). Alice spent much of the gig in the crowd, cutting the set early after she was groped. Some media reports claimed the crowd were booing when she left, but I didn't hear any boos where I was. It was an amazing, furious set.
  • On Sunday night, Robin Ince's book club featured a reading of one of Guy N Smith's Crabs novels, with musical accompaniment. Quite spectacular. I'm now resisting the temptation to re-read the Crabs novels.

Latitude was a great weekend. The festival isn't perfect (the heavy-handed bag searches were wearing) but the acts easily make up for it. I'm looking forward to next year's event.


I Have America Surrounded

I've been reading a lot of books about the 60's lately. On my to-read pile there are books by or about William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Johnson, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Most recently I've read  I Have America Surrounded, by John Higgs, a biography of Timothy Leary. I'm not a huge fan of Leary's writings and theories, but he is an intruiging character.

The biography was a good read. First off, I love the title. It comes from an interview with Leary where he was asked to comment on Nixon's claim that he was the most dangerous man in America. Leary, who was dying at the time, replied, "Yes, it's true. I have America surrounded."

In The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby suggests should be a legal limit to the length of a biography. This book is perfect, coming in at just over three hundred pages. There was no messing around: by the end of the third chapter, Leary had been thrown out of the army and then out of Harvard. There were a few points where I'd perhaps have liked more detail, but the book concentrated on telling a great story. The contents page reflects this – there are some fantastic chapter titles.

For me, the best biographies are those that include a series of connected anecdotes and episodes, with hindsight putting them into perspective. This book includes some wonderful stories – like the time that the only LSD Leary had access to was dropped in a suitcase. The drug soaked into Richard Alpert's white linen suit meaning Leary and friends were "reduced to nibbling the suit when they wanted to trip". (Alpert's name was later borrowed for a character from Lost). Or the time when Leary was given a series of psychological papers to decide what category of prison he should be held in – papers he himself had devised.

There's also some interesting background information. I learned that the 007 codeword came from John Dee, magician and spymaster. The notes have a brief discussion of Dock Ellis, a
baseball player who pitched a
perfect no-hitter on LSD
and there's a mention of R. Gordon Wasson, an ex-vice-president of JP Morgan. Wasson's hobby was, apparently 'ethnomycology', "the study of mushrooms in human society". He went to Mexico to investigate mushroom cults for Life magazine, a trip apparently funded by the CIA. 

One thing I love about biographies is how they overlap. Leary gave psychedelic sessions for Burroughs and Ginsberg and was an associate and defence witness for Abbie Hoffman; there's also a weird moment, where Charles Manson criticises some
pro-violence statements that Leary made. But, for me, the most interesting episode was when Leary encountered Eldridge Cleaver. After escaping prison with the help of the weather underground, he fled America for Algeria. Apparently, after Algeria achieved independence, the country recognised 13 'liberation groups' rather than the countries they were resisting. This meant that the official representatives for the USA were the Black Panthers, under Eldridge Cleaver.

Like many 60's icons, Leary's post-60's legacy is more conflicted. He was finally captured by the American Government and was released after agreeing to assist the FBI with their investigation of the Weathermen. Although it was claimed Leary's co-operation was a pretence, and that nobody was arrested as a result, it was a dubious episode.

I Have America Surrounded was a good book – recommended. Next up: Steal this Dream, an oral biography of Annie Hoffman.

I’ve finished the novel

Today I finally finished Swansong, the novel I've been working on in Derbyshire. While the manuscript undoubtedly contains a few spelling mistakes and odd errors, there are no bugs that I am aware of.

I started working on Swansong when I was in Coventry, although I first had the idea at University (when I was at University the first time, that is, doing my BSc). The novel has turned out very different from what I first planned, but I think it's stronger for that. It has been fascinating to work on – the research has led to some fascinating conversations and I've met some interesting people.

I've learned a lot from writing this novel. One lesson is to be more careful with research. I spent too long gathering material rather doing the specific research that the novel needed. Hopefully I can avoid this in future by planning the second half of the book better – which would also have prevented a couple of the rewrites. Having said that, I'm very excited about some of the secrets I uncovered through doing the research.

FWIW, Swansong is not the first novel I've written. I wrote some appalling messes in my twenties, that have now been permanently deleted. There is also The Clown Novel, which I finished last year, but that feels a little too depraved to unleash upon the world. Swansong is the first novel I've written that I feel reasonably happy with. I'm now going to send the book to my initial alpha-reader for their comments. Then I'm taking the rest of the day off.