Inspired by Eric Clapton: a new story at The RS500

If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.

John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton

My dad’s actual 51-year-old copy of the LP

It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).

I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.

So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.

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A blurring of poetry and prose

I read a few pieces of flash fiction in the pub last night and they seemed to go down well. I don’t mean I had one too many shandies and jumped on a table with a sheaf of paper in my hand, this was an event I’d jointly organised on behalf of Ilkley Writers, with the Wharfedale Poets. Between us we’ve got a clutch of published writers (of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction), and the talent on show reflected that. A reasonable audience turned out on a Sunday night for us, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. We had poetry from Tony Barringer, Jenny Dixon, Yvette Huddleston, Colin Speakman, Mike Farren, Dave Hesmondhalgh and Fiona Williams, with prose from Mandy Sutter (a Wharfedale Poet with a short story collection out soon), Emily Devane, Fleur Speakman, Rachel Hagan, Andrea Hardaker, and me. I re-used the fab performance book I made a couple of years ago, which is ok as long as I don’t turn over two pages and start reading a story from some previous event.

Afterwards, I ended up talking to a couple of the poets about the blurred boundary between flash fiction and less structured poetry. I’m not keen on labels, as a rule – I just write stuff and see what happens. Admittedly I have trouble finding where to submit some of it…

I have, however, submitted a story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton to The RS500, where they’re slowly releasing writing inspired by each of Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums, and it’s due out this week. I’ll put the link here when it’s available.

Speech from the dead

Back in June I caught the first half of the first one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on Radio 4. As one of Britain’s best known writers of historical fiction, naturally she was talking about what we can know about the past. She talked about phrases passing down the family and in a sense keeping someone alive and it made me think about the time-spans word of mouth can cover and how immediate it makes the past feel.

I remember my Nana (born 1918) telling me anecdotes her grandma (born 1870) had told her about her younger days, which made my Nana’s grandma (and her dad, born 1832) more real to me than many a second cousin who lived nearby but never crossed my radar.

I have been known to refer to someone as an ‘Aunt Sarah Ann’ because they started clearing the dinner table before everyone had finished eating. The original Aunt Sarah Ann who had this mildly irritating habit was born in 1860 and was my great-grandmother’s aunt. Both of them died in the 1950s but the phrase persists in its fourth generation. It is slightly unfortunate for poor old Sarah Ann that this is the one trait that’s been remembered by the family, other than her short stature.

Whenever I’m full of cold I think of the phrase ‘poorly sick with a shawl on’, which my Nana’s friend Alice told me was what her grandmother (born 1860s I think, a friend of Nana’s grandma) always said in similar circumstances. I heard stories of Alice’s grandmother from my Nana too and I’ve had her described to me, so again she feels quite real to me though I’ve never even seen a picture of her.

I spent a lot of time as a child talking to Nana and Alice (hence the dedication in The Little Book of Northern Women) and the stories I heard about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s were full of detail as they relived their memories for me. I can still picture vividly many of the things they described – it helps that I spent part of my childhood in the same village, I guess. There’s a story in The Little Book of Northern Women called The Silent Witness which grew out of Nana’s childhood in particular (not the violent bit, I hasten to add) and I’d love to think that when I’m old I might tell a child born more than 100 years after my Nana some phrase or anecdote that they’ll remember, to keep the connection going.

 

A slightly tongue in cheek crime story for a midweek boost

Here’s a short story I wrote as part of an Ilkley Writers exercise in April. We had to imagine we’d been invited to a plush log cabin in the Highlands for a luxurious and relaxing writers’ retreat. We’ve kicked our shoes off and the host’s confiscated our phones so we don’t get distracted, but there’s bars on all the windows, wolves starting to howl outside in the remaining snow, and when someone tries to fetch something from their car they find the door’s locked and our host confronts them with a shotgun. Why is she doing this, and how do we respond? Fun to write, so I hope it’s fun to read…

She’s standing there, snarling over her shotgun, cashmere sweater rucked up under her elbow where she’s resting the gun’s weight. I look from face to unknown face, we’ve all frozen in a loose arc around the doorway. Rob – the guy who made the mistake of trying to fetch his forgotten toothbrush – a few steps in front. A crack from the kitchen and we all flinch.

“Kettle’s boiled,” she says, smiling and cradling the shotgun in one arm. “Who wanted peppermint? I can’t remember.”

I’d only met Andrea once before, at a crime writing conference in York. She’d seemed friendly and open, maybe a bit too open now I came to think of it, and when her email landed in my inbox I was at a low enough ebb with my latest short story collection to take at face value her offer of accommodation. My dad’s old place, she said. Peace and quiet, she said. Undisturbed, she said. I said: Is tomorrow too soon?

In the kitchen area of this open-plan cabin like a hunting lodge from a National Lampoon film she’s spooning coffee with one hand and caressing the gun with the other. Not caressing, I realise after a moment, she’s playing it like it’s a disguised clarinet and any moment she’ll pull it to her mouth and wail out some jazz.

“My glasses,” another woman says. I didn’t catch her name. “They’re in the glove compartment.”

Andrea ignores her, the tiny crease beside her eyes the only sign she’s heard.

I take my mug of Earl Grey warily, poison warnings klaxoning at the back of my mind. Half an hour earlier I was looking forward to a week of writing, now I feel like I’ve been landed in the middle of a thriller. That’s it! She’s working on a novel, she writes crime, maybe she’s one of those crazy writers who approach the craft like a method actor. I grab for the gun, convinced now that it isn’t loaded and getting sick of this childish play-acting. She’s faster, and a spray of wood chips peppers the worktop.

“Oopsie,” she says. “Careful, people can get hurt with these things.”

I hear a sob and one woman pads upstairs in her pop socks to shut herself in her room. All the en-suite bedrooms lead off the gallery and I noticed mine didn’t have a lock. I assume none of the others do either.

“So, who wants to do a writing exercise?” Andrea asks, and we all murmur politely and space ourselves around the U-shaped arrangement of chairs and sofas.

“I’ve left my lucky pen in my coat pocket,” I say, heading for the stairs and glancing back to try and catch Rob’s eye. He’s staring at his feet but Rose, a playwright from Devon, gets the idea and stands up.

“Notebook,” she says and hurries up the stairs after me.

“If we make her waste the other cartridge she’s defenceless,” I whisper as we reach the door to my room.

“What do you want me to do, paint a target on my chest and dance on the coffee table?” she snaps, moving on to the next door.

I duck inside to get a random pen that I hope will prove luckier than usual.

“No but there must be-”

“Ready, ladies?” Andrea calls from downstairs.

An excruciating hour follows in which we pretend to relax as we write paragraphs where every word starts with the same letter, and describe a tree without using the words leaf, trunk or green. Rob lunges for a wine bottle from the crate at one point, I see him hefting it as though he’s wondering what to smash it against. Then Andrea’s smile, and the heavy mould line, make me realise she’s got the wine from an outside catering firm that uses plastic bottles for festivals and catered picnics. She’s cunning, I’ll give her that. Rob spots his mistake pretty soon too, and opens the bottle anyway. He doesn’t bother with a glass.

“I can’t sleep knowing she’s on the loose,” Marie murmurs. She’s been struggling to read back anything she’s written – she’s the one who left her glasses in the glove compartment – and she looks like she’d snap like a mousetrap if you brushed against her. I shuffle a couple of inches further away.

Rob and I lock eyes for a moment and I call our hostess over from the kitchen where Rose is helping her stack the dishwasher. Andrea’s only using one hand because of the gun.

“Is this painting of the view from here?” I ask.

Please come through the U-shape, don’t walk round it, don’t walk-

Rob uncrosses his ankles with a casual movement but he clearly meant to trip her because he’s on her back the second she hits the floor, leaning forward onto her gun arm to stop her moving it.

“Don’t just bloody stand there,” he shouts and Rose and I simultaneously lunge at the prone form beneath him. She’s struggling valiantly but since no reading of fine print is required, Marie joins in too and four against one is no contest.

“Now what?” Rose asks.

Andrea is spitting a machine-gun tirade of obscenities, none of us want to get close enough to her teeth to gag her. Rob is sitting on her buttocks to keep her down, holding her hands to stop her clawing blindly at his thigh. Both Rose and Marie have sacrificed their chiffon scarves to bind her wrists and ankles but we all know they won’t last long, the way she’s thrashing about.

“Hit her,” says Marie. “With the shotgun.”

We do our best to ignore the redoubled yelling from Andrea, and consider our options.

“Shove her outside,” says Rob.

“We need our shoes and car keys first, surely,” says Rose.

She gingerly holds the back of Andrea’s head so I can stick my fingers down the high neck of her jumper to see if she’s got a key on a chain. She has, and I unclasp it. Rose lets go and Andrea snarls: “You have no business in my study whatsoever.”

“Find the study and we’re in business,” says Rose, so we leave Rob and Marie on guard and go in search.

The study turns out to be what Andrea’s bedroom has instead of a bathroom, and our shoes are jumbled on the floor, a pile of keys and phones on the desk next to her laptop. I grab a skirt from the back of a chair and shove the assorted footwear on it intending to use it as a sack.

“Good God,” Rose says. “She wasn’t being kind at all.”

I turn to the corkboard she’s looking at and see a grainy reproduction of my own face from the local paper’s write-up of the conference in York. It describes me as a name to watch out for but doesn’t mention Andrea at all.

“This is from when Marie beat her to second prize in a women’s novel competition,” Rose points to another clipping. “And – ooh – Rob wrote this review of her first novel.” She twists her mouth. “I don’t think there was any need for him to say that.”

I hesitate but only for a second.

“What are you doing?”

Rose sounds shocked, as though I’ve overstepped the bounds of hospitality by unpinning newspaper cuttings. This from a woman who recently tied our hostess’s ankles together with a three-foot length of rose-print, shot through with metallic threads.

“She’d come after us,” I say. “This is no chance gathering of writers. We need to make it look like we were never here.”

“With all the tyre tracks outside?”

“OK, we need to make it look like some or all of us were here, but she never turned up and we left again. And there’s nothing special about any of us.”

Rose stands for a moment with her lips parted as though preparing for some sentence that won’t come, then she turns and holding the edge of her tunic against the desk, sweeps the keys and phones into its billowy material. I get a glimpse of elasticated trouser waist as she leaves the room.

It takes all four of us to put Rob’s plan into action, but we’re too squeamish to knock Andrea out, even Marie. The sobbing woman left with her estate car’s seatbelt alarm clanging rhythmically as soon as Rose took her shoes up to her.

“Curtain tie-backs, it doesn’t look like the sort of thing a hardened criminal would use does it?”

“They’d be improvising,” Rose says. “If they existed.”

We’ve got Andrea trussed up in gold braid, Marie and Rose wearing their scarves again. Everything from the dishwasher is washed and put away. I notice Rob’s transferred most of the wine bottles to his car boot.

“Are you sure she’s going to die?” Marie asks for the twentieth time. “We can’t have her talking to the police about this.”

“Have you heard the howls out there?”

“Chuck a chicken out with her,” Rob says, gesturing to the fridge, and Marie hurries over to fetch the uncooked meat. She’s already wearing her woolly gloves, partly against the cold we’re about to encounter, partly to make sure we’re not leaving fingerprints.

As we carry Andrea up the slope behind the cabin, still swearing and struggling and now trying to keep her face away from the plucked chicken resting on her chest, Rose runs through our story one more time:

“The four of us arrived, no idea that it had been cancelled. We stood around exchanging pleasantries until someone thought to try the door to the cabin. It was open, but although we shouted and looked in a few rooms there was no response and we left again as it started dropping dark. Marie and Rob went their separate ways, leaving us to find a hotel somewhere together since we were both heading down the west.”

In truth Rose is planning to drive Andrea’s car north into the next valley and I’ll follow her and bring her back to get her own car. In theory the wolves will be too busy with their chicken ‘n’ Andrea two-for-one by then to bother with us.

“Best of luck and I hope we never meet again,” says Rob, holding his hand out. The three of us shake it and then we’re driving off in convoy down the winding track to the road.

To make it look like a robbery we’ve each taken one of the few valuable items in the place: a small CD player from the kitchen, Andrea’s phone and printer. I’ve got her laptop in the back of my car. I’m supposed to ditch it somewhere unconnected but I think I might keep it. It’s newer than mine and if I wipe all her data who’s to say it was ever hers? I fancy a new laptop anyway, I can feel a novel coming on.

wolf_snow

 

To the far north, in search of Penguins

Major excitement (and writing vaildation) this week as I found out I’ve been lucky enough to get a place on the Penguin Random House WriteNow insight day in Newcastle. This means, among other things, I get to talk to an editor about an extract of the semi-rural fantasy novel which they’ll have read in advance. I’m sure you can imagine the walking on air/dancing on lino that’s been going on here. Penguin books had a similar status to the BBC when I was growing up so even without making the trip north, meeting anyone or getting any further along the route to mentoring, I feel like I’ve won the pools and been anointed with the sacred oil of authorhood, extracted from the typewriter keys of earnest 1950s writers in suits.

Back in June I rather cheekily asked if from a London perspective their criterion of being ‘socio-economically marginalised’ meant that simply being northern was enough (and since then there continues to be evidence of the north-south divide, such as in premature death rates) but to their credit they gave me a considered answer:

They also said they’d consider applicants as eligible “If you define yourself as working class/ from a working class background”. We can argue about class till the cows come home, whether going to university catapults you into middle class territory regardless of accent, outlook, or what your sister does for a living, but there’s no denying my background, my roots, and the words I write with a loud northern working class voice (just look at the class tag here on the blog, for a start).

As Mark the artist pointed out while congratulating me, this surely highlights the importance of being true to yourself. On the face of it a combination of politics and urban (semi-rural) fantasy set in northern England in the wake of Brexit doesn’t sound like it would have mass appeal and I’ve worried a few times that I’ve sunk so much time and energy into a novel that no-one will be interested in. Yet that’s the novel I sent them an extract from and a synopsis of, and that someone has presumably seen potential in. The lesson to take away from this is: write with passion and originality, and you’ll get there (somewhere) eventually.

Crowdfunding hitches: the skint and the tight

Crowdfunding’s been around for a while in its modern form, and even Victorian novels were sometimes funded by pre-orders, but publishers who use crowdfunding to support their new books are having a surge in popularity (or publicity) at the moment. Dead Ink and Unbound each had a few books on the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize longlist earlier this summer, for instance, and I know that 3 of Cups Press are funding their first anthology at the moment via Kickstarter. It feels like half the people I follow on Twitter have crowdfunded novels or short story collections either already out or in the pipeline.

Naturally enough, I went to pledge for one of these books this week on Unbound and got a shock at the prices. First off, note that while the author isn’t someone I’ve met, we have a few mutual friends/acquaintances (in real life, not just online) so I’m naturally inclined to do him a good turn. Secondly, having read the blurb it’s a novel I’d choose to borrow if I ran across it in the library, so from purely selfish reasons (getting hold of a book I want to read) I want it to get published. Unfortunately it looks like the cheapest option is £10 for an ebook (which I didn’t want), £15 plus postage for the paperback, with (as far as I could see) no option to chip in a smaller amount as a simple donation. It stopped me from pledging, and I bet it stops others as well. There needs to be a lower threshold.

Now, before we go any further I’ll do my usual disclaimer about supporting the right of authors, proofreaders, editors and all the rest to reasonable remuneration for their time and effort. However, that £15 seems a bit steep compared to £7.99 or £8.99 for a full-price paperback, and we all know that in reality via Waterstones 3 for 2 offers, Amazon’s undercutting or supermarket bestsellers, many paperbacks aren’t even purchased at full price. Even if someone’s used to buying full-price new books, you’ve still got to give them an incentive to buy yours rather than the new one from the big name, the prizewinner, or their favourite author. So what’s the incentive to pay double here? Well, apart from the warm glow at supporting an independent publisher or encouraging an author, you get your name in the book. For higher pledges of course you get extras, special editions, original artwork, meet the author, that kind of thing, which seems fair enough. I’m not bothered about getting my name in a book though, I’d rather have the opportunity to buy the paperback at normal paperback sort of prices. Or just donate a small amount, get nothing but the warm glow in return, and maybe buy the book later once it’s out and I’ve got more spare cash.

Once I’d thought about it a bit I wondered if this is another instance of the long-running ‘privileged backgrounds in publishing’ saga (see also my recent posts about the cost of writing competitions). Both Dead Ink and 3 of Cups Press happen to have slightly lower prices than Unbound for their ebooks and paperbacks, but crucially they both have donation options. If you can only spare a quid this week, you still get to feel like you contributed towards a publication that means something to you, even if you don’t get a copy of the book out of it. I was once chatting to a student environmentalist (accentless, bit snobby, apparently from a well-off background) who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t switch to eco-friendly brands as the prices were so similar and clearly it was the right thing to do – I remember trying to explain to this bemused lad that for many people the choice is not between Andrex and Nouvelle or Fairy Liquid and Ecover, it’s between the value brand and the eco version, and their budgets simply might not stretch that far even if they thought it was a good idea. As I confessed to Sam at Lounge Books on Twitter this morning, most of my reading material comes from the library, charity shops, or I get review copies. Before the reviewing it was mainly libraries and charity shops, and most of my family and friends are the same – for us £15 isn’t just usurping two novels we’d buy in the shops, it’s more like five on the expensive side from Oxfam or 30 from the charity shop near my parents. Crowdfunding publishers might be asking for a bigger investment from us than they think.