Here’s an extract from another short story in progress. Hope you enjoy…
After leaving his seat, Alfred was still in the habit of looking back to check if he’d left anything behind, like his umbrella, or his scarf, or his body. He’d told me that he’d rarely been present in his youth; always lost in a daydream or marinating in thought; always forgetting something-or-other. Now, as a mindful, meditative septuagenarian, he lived in every moment like a tableau figurine, entirely aware of his surroundings and inhaling the perfume of life.
The gilded chair that Alfred had just levered himself up from was upholstered in red velvet and framed by an ornamental, gold-leaf backrest. He was dressed in keeping with this opulent perch: a charcoal morning suit he’d acquired from Saville Row, tailored to make his hunch seem corrected, his pot-belly hidden, and his chest puffed like he was ready to swim the English Channel. Alfred’s suit was the most expensive purchase he’d made since Margret’s engagement ring (and that was over fifty years ago).
Why the big effort? Two reasons: Today, Alfred was meeting a woman he was in love with, but had only ever met in a dream. And the second reason? Alfred was about to receive an OBE for services to education. You see, Alfred was in love with The Queen of England, and the gilded red velvet chair he was now slinking away from was in the Ballroom of Buckingham Palace.
His name had been called, and he was now walking towards The Queen to receive his honour, using his large palm to flatten the long wisps of hair he persisted in lacquering and combing to his scalp. Perhaps, in his youth, he would have been trembling with nerves, his mind considering every potential mishap on the short walk from chair to monarch; a stumble, a wet sneeze, a foul word blurted in error. But I could see that Alfred was now completely calm; his focus was on his breath, on his steps, on his tingling flesh. He was profoundly present and aware.
Margret had been the one to introduce meditation to their marriage. After the loss of their daughter, she’d been recommended ‘mindfulness’ by her GP as a method for baring the pain; for somehow accepting it. Alfred had been sceptical at first – I know, what a cliché – but remember, he’d been born in the 1940s, when men were men and never spoke of feelings other than those mustered by their empty stomachs.
However, behind closed doors, I knew Alfred worshipped Margret and only wanted to see her happy again; so without complaint, he’d meditated alongside his wife twice-a-day for the next twenty years. That is, until, Margret herself passed away, some four years ago.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but my writing’s been picking up some pace since my wedding (those things take up a lot of time). Here’s an extract from one of several stories I’m currently juggling. I’m not sure it’s the most efficient way to work, but I always seem to have several pieces ongoing at various stages of completion. Other writers might draft and redraft the same story until it’s polished and ready to go. That just doesn’t seem to work for me. The drawback is that I have a lot of stories that aren’t polished and ready to submit. Here’s a bit from one of those:
Two noises dominate when it’s just me and The Meat in here: Beep and Shhhp. Beep. Shhhp. Beep – The Meat’s heart still beats. Shhhp — The Meat’s lungs still breathe. I’ve tried to tune them out: impossible. I’ve tried to extract a beat or some kind of musical pleasure from them: nope. There is a sort of rhythm, but it’s not exactly one you can tap your foot to.
I saw The Meat tap his foot once. Well, it was more of a twitch. The nurse saw it too while she was in here changing his shit bag (that’s right, he shits). His big toe started twitching away like Thumper and the nurse yipped with excitement and called in one of the leaden doctors – they’re all leaden when they come in here; gravely serious and pissed-off and put-out. I mean, I get it – they want to heal the living, not flog the dead horses down this end of the corridor.
So, this doctor lopes in and sees The Meat twitching and he says, “It’s nothing.” The nurse looks crestfallen, so he explains a bit more: “By week six, his brain will have liquefied.” The nurse’s eyes fill up with liquid. “I’m sorry,” says the doc. “This,” he points at The Meat. “Is a corpse. The family need to understand that. Please don’t tell them about the twitch. They’ll just use it to prove their case.”
When he says ‘The Family’, he’s talking about my wife, Jenny. She visits every day. A black cloud of guilt brings her here around 9am, after she’s dropped off poor little Alistair at primary school. On weekends she’s here from 7.30am and stays until the solicitous nurses timidly ask her to leave.
Jenny arrived one morning and became hysterical because she saw a dried out bogey hanging from the tip of The Meat’s little finger — she was convinced he’d been scooping out cadaver snot in the night. “Proof!” she screamed, holding The Meat’s lifeless arm aloft like he’d vanquished Death in a bloody fistfight. “Proof, he’s still in there! He was always picking his nose.”
True as that may be, it was in fact poor little Alastair who’d left that bogey on The Meat’s finger. The little scamp.
An achievement from a group, who, despite their lyrical yearning to understand the self, have unequivocally found themselves as band…
Philadelphia outfit, The War on Drugs, is a band you put on at winding-down parties, or barbeques, or in the office, and you notice something: it makes people stop whatever they’re doing and ask, ‘Who is this?’
Since 2005, when Kurt Vile was an early member, the band has been honing a sound that stirs something within: pulsing, ambient, introspective rock, with warm, layered riffs and synths. Or, as one drunken friend proclaimed to us all in his kitchen at four in the morning: ‘This is just good music.’
The band’s 2014 album, Lost in a Dream, earned accolades across the critical spectrum, from musos to old-school rockers who think The Boss is still the boss. Frontman, Adam Granduciel, leads with a voice that rasps like Springsteen and croons like Bob Dylan – but this isn’t cheap mimicry. Granduciel is a musical force unto himself – the mastermind behind the multi-instrument production on every painstakingly complex track.
New album, A Deeper Understanding, is the first to be penned in the band’s new home, Los Angeles, and whilst the soul searching themes are still present, L.A.’s ‘more is more’ attitude may have influenced an evolution – not reinvention, but more layers, more instruments and longer track-times. There are no stadium-pleasing anthems, but this is an album full of moments that could fill any space, on any scale.
Highlights include, “Thinking of a Place”, a sprawling, ten minute intermission that takes you on a journey you don’t want to end, like a languid, window-seated train ride, where you find yourself hoping for just one more stop, as the unceasing drums drive things forward, like the thump of metallic wheels over railroad sleepers. It’s a track that matches the ambition of their previous album’s high point: the powerful and affecting, “An Ocean Between the Waves”.
“Pain” showcases The War on Drugs at their angst-propelled best, delivering introspective lyrics that set the scene for the rest of the work: I’m here all alone, just begging… give me a deeper understanding of who I am. Yet, the piece is not downbeat; it’s hopeful, determined, and heeds the transience of suffering, building to a soaring, uplifting crescendo.
“Nothing to Find” is the album’s double espresso shot, dissecting the middle of the record: an awakening from the radiant, dream-like tracks that surround it, with energetic, unabating drums that imbue positivity and rejuvenation.
The album is an achievement from a group, who, despite their lyrical yearning to understand the self, have unequivocally found themselves as band, and are comfortable in giving the people what they want – more. There is, however, a risk that the new material could be labelled as ‘samey’. Subtle evolutions are evident in their work, but a selection from Slave Ambient, their 2011 album, could arguably hide unnoticed amongst the track list of A Deeper Understanding. But, then, why must we obsess about reinvention? Leave that to the pop-stars and Kings of Leon. Change isn’t always for the best, especially when you’ve found something so… good.
With an increasingly impressive oeuvre, it’s likely The War on Drugs will begin to reverberate in circles beyond those who, since Lost in a Dream, have quietly coveted them as the best rock band at work today. This is no bad thing. All good music demands the foreground eventually – but, The War on Drugs demand something deeper than that too. That’s who they are.
Have you ever set your watch five minutes fast to stop you from being late? Yea, me too. But the problem is, you know it’s five minutes fast, so you end up just subtracting five minutes every time you look at your watch. It doesn’t work. What you really need, is for someone else to set your watch a few minutes fast without you being aware of it. That’ll work — for a while at least. But, if you aren’t aware that someone’s adjusted your watch, does that mean your time’s been stolen? Have you just lost five, ten minutes of life? And if time can be stolen, just how much can be taken from us?
There are 168 hours in a week. But how many of those hours are actually yours to live? You know, to do the things you keep saying you want to do more of: cycling, sewing, knitting, rowing — all those things ending with, ‘-ing’.
In a typical working week, doing an eight-hour shift, you’re losing 40 hours a week. And we’ve got to work, right? Time is money, after all. We need that stuff to help with the living part. And if we sleep eight hours a night (as we should), that’s 56 hours per week in the land of nod. That leaves 72 ‘free’ hours per week.
But then, let’s factor in your commute to work, all that housework you need to do, the kids that need chauffeuring, the shed that needs varnishing. Plus grooming, washing, and personal hygiene-ing. What are you left with? Maybe 50, 60 hours?
How are we treating those hours? Are they our most prized possession? Do we measure each minute out, like we’re dealing in precious stones? Ofcourse we don’t. We leave our time hanging out our back pockets, in unclasped bags, in unlocked rooms, letting pick-pockets and time-thieves take what they want.
Television steals hours from us. The average Briton watches 24 hours of TV per week (that adds up to about a decade over the course of a lifetime). TV companies sell this time of yours to advertisers, who compete to impress us with their elaborate pitches. Then we spend another few hours in shops or online, buying all of the things we never knew we needed.
Is watching TV ‘living’? It’s a choice, I suppose. And one I make regularly too — I’m not immune to TV’s powerful story-telling, and, in weaker times, junk-food for the eyes. But, 24 hours a week? Wow.
And then we have social media. In the UK, the average person spends 11 hours a week on Facebook et al. Some people would never give this up. It is their lives now. I can’t judge (please retweet this).
Have you been keeping up with the maths? For argument’s sake, let’s look at the worst-case scenario…
Let’s just assume your time spent doing chores and sat in front of screens isn’t what you value most in life. Let’s pretend, that stuff won’t be part of the highlights reel when you look back on how you spent your days on Earth. How many hours are we left with to do what we really want to do, to see the people we really like, to be the person we want to be?
I work it out to be around 20 hours a week*. Or, 2hrs 42 minutes a day. That’s the exact run-time of The Godfather: Part III — a film that won’t be making my highlights reel.
This is the paragraph where I consolidate my very obvious point and preach about how time is precious and all the guff you’ve heard before – words that are so easy to ignore when you’re watching Ex on the Beach. I’m not going to do that. I’d be a hypocrite if I tried. But, I will save you some time if you haven’t seen The Godfather: Part III. This line pretty much sums up the whole film:
“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
Below is an extract from a short story in progress. The working title is, “In Acceptance”…
There were three things I had in common with my father: whiskey, writing, and sleep-walking. According to him, I was an uncultured whiskey drinker and untalented fiction writer. ‘But, my God, you might just be the greatest sleep-walker there ever was,’ he said one morning after he’d seen me juggling semiconscious in my flannel pyjamas. To this day, I’ve never been able to juggle whilst awake.
He hadn’t left me much: a few unpublished manuscripts, a signed first-edition of his debut novel, and his RemingtonPortable typewriter, which he was found slumped over, with an empty bottle of whiskey in his lap and the final words he ever wrote stamped into the furled paper — I’m tired.
The RemingtonPortable was a beautiful thing. When you held it in your hands it was heavy and cold, like a chiselled lump of iron ore. But when you placed it on a desk, it became an intricate, miraculous object, like a miniaturised munitions factory, with hundreds of delicate cogs and levers working to your bidding. I’d always loved it. My father was repulsed at the idea of using a computer or word processor. ‘What’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for the rest of us,’ he said once, grinding his teeth down to the gum as he wound a fiddly ink ribbon into the Remington (Orwell used the same model, but my father had been duped into thinking he’d bought Orwell’s actual typewriter. As such, he treated the thing like a literary totem, with powers beyond mere mechanical virtue). When I heard that he’d stipulated in his will that I should have it, it was the only time after his death I came close to crying. I just didn’t expect it — he wasn’t a sentimental man.
I don’t usually write film reviews. Let me prove this by giving my verdict on Guardians of The Galaxy: Vol 2 immediately, rather than keeping you on tenterhooks until the final paragraph: it’s not as good as the first one (which is excellent). You probably knew that already. However… there is a ‘but’.
Vol. 2 doesn’t feel as fresh as the original, for the simple fact that the first film now exists — it’s impossible to surprise an audience with the same trick twice. Vol. 2 is still a fantastically quirky, self-deprecating, and at times, hilarious film, which borders on Spaceballs-esque sci-fi spoof. However, there were periods when the film faltered and I became restless for more gags, which, when they came, didn’t always hit the mark. I found it impossible to care about the story of the sisters and their scenes were undoubtedly the weakest in the film, often weighed down by the green one’s reluctance to display emotion and the robot one’s choice of just two: icy menace or theatrical anger.
The centrepiece of the movie is an ambitious, Freudian story, pitting step-dad against real-dad on a hyperbolic scale. This is delicate material, which has genuine sentiment for millions who are anchored by the ‘step’ prefix. This theme may have been suffocated by the CGI E-numbers and one-liners had the writers not provided some pantomime clues that this is supposed to be a more meaningful blockbuster. There is a moment when, unrelated to the patriarchal plot, a goon screams “It’s a metaphor!” in a tongue-in-cheek wink to the audience: this film has metaphors, and we’re not afraid to use them. And if that wasn’t clear enough, they went and named Quinn’s father ‘Ego’.
Where the first film poked fun at the absurdity of saving the Universe — and in doing so, inadvertently exposed just how one-dimensional The Avengers films are — the second film has a more serious undercurrent: it deals with real-life shit; the overlapping, crisscrossing family dynamics of modern life. The portrait of a ‘normal’ family is now so rare, the very idea seems fantastical or even obsolete – especially on screen.
Vol. 2 is a story about (spoiler alert?) a son putting their absent biological father on a pedestal so high, that no paternal stand-in could ever hope to compete. This familiar dynamic is taken to the ultimate extreme: Quinn’s long-lost Dad is a planet-building god (with a small ‘g’). How can Quinn’s surrogate father, an aging, blue-man-group outcast, compete with an intergalactic deity? Especially when it appears that he kidnapped the ‘Star Lord’ as a young boy for his own Fagan-esque gain.
This is affecting material, which feels heavy and important against a here-we-go-again, end-of-the-universe backdrop. And it’s the weight of these familial themes which highlight the film’s major flaw. I just didn’t care that the universe might end – do we ever in these Marvel films? We know it’s never going to end. The main characters are never going to die. It all feels so predictable… until, a surprise which shows real bravery from the writers. And by the end, after the emotive jostling and blurry CGI punch-ups (an abhorrent problem across all these superhero films), the film climaxes with a genuine tug at the throat: as souped-up fireworks flower across the screen, it’s the iconic words of Cat Stevens’ Father and Son that yield the most powerful special-effect. The heart of this film was there all along. “It’s a metaphor!”
Vol. 2 is not as well-rounded a film as the first, but I have to admire its ambition – flawed ambition, yes – but I’d take flawed ambition over a safe bet every time. Take note, The Last Jedi.
Johnny Borrell, the rakish front-man of noughties rock band, Razorlight, has been squatting impatiently in abandoned Mayfair flats, whimsically hoping for the day the vapid decade is reminisced as: ‘not as shit as we thought whilst living in it.’
‘Look what happened with the eighties,’ he told us, speaking from a yellowed mattress and surrounded by empty Pringles tubes. ‘And now the nineties. That decade was just as shit as the two-thousands. Now even Texas are making a comeback. Texas!’
‘We’re just waiting for nostalgia to kick in so people in their mid-thirties forget whether they liked us or not in the first place. We’ve started a Facebook page with The Kooks called, “I heart the 00’s”, but ‘heart’ is written as an emoticon, like a cartoon drawing of a heart, you know?’
‘The day Urban Outfitters stock Von Dutch caps will be our Bat Signal. Then we’ll know… we’re back in business boys.’
I awoke with renewed clarity, owing to a rare Saturday-night free from binge-drinking. Eight hours of undisturbed sleep had ordained me with new abilities and confidence. I was ready to tackle a task which had previously seemed impossible.
I padded out of the bedroom, being careful not to wake Nicola, and opened the cupboard under the stairs. Inside, the route to my target was blocked by a thicket of mop handles, hoover shafts and ironing boards. On another day, this would have sent me retreating back to my warm bed. But not today. I parted the Forrest of Domesticity and launched an arm towards the shadowy whereabouts of the neglected object. I had it. I pulled sharply, bringing the surrounding brooms and buckets careering out of the cupboard. My bare feet took some blows, but I was not deterred. The tool-box was out.
My ‘tool-box’ was actually just a plastic storage container that had been reassigned to house ad-hoc instruments I had collected over the years. Rather than being stored in neat compartments, as with a traditional tool-box, the items formed organic layers, like a sedimentary cross-section in a geography textbook. At the top were larger, bulkier items, such as a power drill which had been passed on to me by a friend who had mistaken me for a ‘real man’, and an electric screwdriver whose maiden voyage could yet prove to be its last. Underneath this solid outer crust you will find a hammer, wrench, miniature saw and Stanley knife, untidily arranged like torturer’s bedside table. At the bottom of these layers, the smaller items rattled around — nails, screws, nuts and bolts of all varieties, never to be touched again by human hands. It was too dangerous to try and save them. If I ever required the use of these items in the future, I would need to buy new ones and then empty the surplus into the tool-box, letting them slip through the porous cracks to find their resting place amongst their long-lost brothers.
Like a surgeon intent on not slicing his own hands and livelihood, I removed the instruments I needed with great care. In this case: some miniaturised screwdrivers which specialised in ‘precision’, for this was a job which required a deft touch. I rustled into a plastic Wilko’s bag for the subject of this delicate procedure: a ‘dimmer switch’.
The recently updated lighting in the kitchen was powerful enough to illuminate the pitch at Wembley Stadium on a dark January night. Filth and muck stood out like acne under the unforgiving LED spotlights and should a guest enter the room and switch on the beams unsuspectingly, we could well be liable for irreversible retina damage. Worst of all, the fearsome light made everyone look revolting and our friendships would likely suffer as a consequence. Something had to be done.
I glanced over the dimmer’s instructions as a courtesy — someone had gone to the trouble of putting the thing together — and began unscrewing the current switch (merely capable of ‘on’ and ‘off’ functions). I decided to turn off the power at the mains. This seemed a sensible reaction to the revelation of the nest of wires behind the switch’s casing, one of which was red and looked angry at being exposed to the world without warning.
I had assumed this would be an operation akin to removing and inserting a Game Boy cartridge, but with the discovery of the wires, a more challenging puzzle had presented itself. However, my confidence had not waned and I felt reassured by a faint memory of an episode of The Crystal Maze, where the contestant had to connect an over-sized battery to an oversized-door bell. I could not recall if they were successful in obtaining the crystal.
I ploughed on, reassured by the safety precautions I had now put in place.
It was time to perform the keyhole surgery required to remove the minuscule screws from the back of the dimmer switch. I shed the packaging from the precision screwdrivers and using nothing but my naked eye, selected the tool for the job. On realising it was too large for the job, I picked another tool with a slightly smaller head.
I engaged the screw and felt some resistance. I began to turn the corrugated metal grip of the screwdriver.
‘What’s all that swearing about?’ Something had stirred Nicola from her Sunday lie-in. Some of us had things to do around here, you know?
I used all the force I could muster, but there was no give. I went to the fridge for a hit of orange juice to lift my spirit so I could tackle it again.
I hardened my grip around the narrow neck of the screwdirver, digging the grooved grip deep into the pad of my thumb. I pushed the instrument into the screw head and turned with all the power that Florida oranges instilled in me.
This was simply a hurdle I could not overcome. The tip of my thumb had blistered into a plasma dome the size of an M&M (normal variety, not peanut).
I gathered the tools, packaging and light-switch confectionary and dumped it all back into the tool-box, letting nature organise them into the correct layers.
Dejected, I climbed back into bed and inspected my throbbing thumb. I poked and pinched it. The thick skin showed no signs of rupture, so I continued to prod and twist. It was a satisfying distraction from my reaffirmed failings as a handyman.
An epiphany: Had I been turning the screw the wrong way?
The blister broke, spotting the duvet in an impressive amount serum. I turned over and went to back sleep.
Pollen scented halos
float on tin music
played from under
against dark clouds
blotting the horizon).
Light dims and glares
as the sun plays peek-a-boo
with infants running
to no end.
the territories of the
green and daisy-dotted land.
Balls thumped with bass notes
in wrong directions;
Dads run after toe-poked
spheres into the road.
Trees watch from the edges;
a shallow forest leading
to suburbia, where the balls,
gazebos, children are stored.
Dogs. Oh, the dogs.
This is their land, of course.
They make the rules
and pull their clothed
owners like staggering drunks
into the deep of the park.
A man jogs past.
A bike rings it’s bell.
A laugh wins the
battle of decibels.
A plastic bag rustles
in the exhaling wind.
The daisies vibrate
and reach to leave their
But they are part of the park.
May they never leave.
May England remain this
way in memories forever.