humour

Week 16: Comedy Gold

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Thanks to a refresher from re-reading the BBC Academy radio comedy pages (though not from reading the pictured pamphlet, which I only remembered as I came to write this post) I’ve written two sketches for Newsjack this weekend that not only made me laugh, but made OneMonkey laugh too. I have yet to hear whether they made the producers of Newsjack laugh, but one can only hope.

I can now reveal that the northern-themed writing I alluded to before Christmas is a guest post in the Literature and Place slot at Laurie Garrison’s Women Writers School, and you should have less than two weeks to wait till you can read it. In the meantime if you’re of a sci-fi bent you could read a new review I’ve written for The Bookbag, for an Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets.

Before I race off to write one-liners in time for tomorrow morning’s Newsjack deadline, have I mentioned the rather wonderful RS500 yet? They’re working through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 album list, inviting an essay or a piece of fiction related to each one, and so far they’re at 252 so almost halfway but I only heard about them recently. While I may dislike many of the albums on the list, and bemoan the exclusion of some of my favourites, I applaud the harnessing of musical passion to a writing project like this, and I encourage any and all of you with a love of music to read, absorb, and contribute.

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Bits that fell off the cat

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On the stairs to our flat there are 2 beech leaves and some mud.

In the hallway there is a small slug making a break for freedom.

On the pristine purple carpet in the living room, vacuumed only half an hour earlier, there are several pieces of spiky bush, some more mud, and some moss. There is now enough fur on the armchair to stuff a small cushion.

In the bedroom there is a piece of hawthorn twig. On the bed, damp leaves and fur. Underneath my pillow (how?) is a buttercup seed, all the better to give me golden dreams.

The cat likes to blur the boundaries between inside and out. He lets us enjoy the garden on a cold, wet day.

Either that or he’s on commission from a cleaning company.

Reviewing The Last of the Bowmans

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For today’s stop on the blog tour for The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson I’m not going to write a review. You’ve already read a few of those I’m sure, and anyway I wrote one for The Bookbag about a month ago (go read it now if you like, I’ll wait). Instead, I thought I’d tell you why I wrote the review in the first place.

Reviewing books for The Bookbag is always a thrill because I get to pick from their list of available books, some of which haven’t even been published yet (the exclusivity!), then I get a book dropping through the letterbox, which perks up the day no end. The fiction list usually includes debut authors, authors who’ve been around a while but haven’t crossed my radar, and authors I’m familiar with. New and emerging authors often sway me, they probably benefit more from a review than a bigger name with an established fanbase, and I might turn up something unexpected. J Paul Henderson wasn’t a name I’d come across before, having completely missed his debut novel Last Bus to Coffeeville despite both Leeds and Bradford libraries having copies in stock. The last few books I’d reviewed had been crime or fairly intense sci-fi so I was looking for something lighter, though not necessarily out and out comedy. I looked at the details of What a Way to Go by Julia Forster (hmm, maybe) then The Last of the Bowmans (his brother’s doing what and his Uncle Frank WHAT? Visited by his dead father?!). It certainly sounded different and it was the little details in the synopsis that grabbed me and made me take notice. His father wasn’t just dead he was in a bamboo coffin, of all things; his brother’s not just a stalker but stalking a woman with no feet. Intriguing. Could go either way, I thought, depends how he’s likely to come at it – what else do we know about this author? He’s from Bradford – done deal.

In case you haven’t read a review or even a synopsis yet, here’s what the novel’s about: Greg Bowman’s been in America for a few years, staying in touch with his dad Lyle and Lyle’s barmy brother Frank, but not with his own brother Billy. Never the most reliable member of the Bowman family, nevertheless Greg makes it home for Lyle’s funeral and sticks around to help sort out his affairs and do up the house, in no way using it as an excuse not to return to his girlfriend in Texas (honest). It’s while Greg is sitting down to dinner at his dad’s house after a day of planning and inventories that the ghost of Lyle appears to him and asks him to take over some unfinished business – sorting out Frank and Billy. Henpecked Billy has become a stalker, and Uncle Frank the Planet Rock listening Wild West aficionado is planning, aged nearly eighty, to rob a bank. Greg reluctantly starts unpicking family secrets and finds a startling one of his dad’s that he’s not sure what to do with.

Comedy’s never an easy thing to pull off in a novel, and comedy drama (I think) is even harder, but The Last of the Bowmans cracks it. I once described A Touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood as ‘understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best’, and The Last of the Bowmans definitely follows in its footsteps with its odd characters and surreal situations interleaved with the humdrum. It’s the mundane details that make it, they ground the whole thing so that it’s that much easier to accept a ghost in a ballgown having a chat with his son, for instance. I’m not saying it’s flawless (neither was A Touch of Daniel, few books are) but it found its groove early on and powered along at a fair clip. In my (biased) opinion, northern writers tend to handle comedy drama better than most because it chimes with a certain northern approach to life, a general attitude that doesn’t take the world too seriously. The tragicomic prologue of The Last of the Bowmans where eighty-three-year-old Lyle dies in the pursuit of a chocolate bar sets the mood nicely, and you can’t beat a good funeral scene in a book like this. Particularly if you’ve got a cantankerous old bachelor like Uncle Frank there to wind up the vicar and assorted attendant old women. The book is dedicated ‘For the Uncle Franks of this world’ and I have to say Frank was probably my favourite character, I like an eccentric that goes his own way and his love of Planet Rock helped.

As well as the obvious family themes (commonalities among differences, misunderstandings and different viewpoints or versions of past events) there’s the idea of the returning wanderer with Greg. Through his eyes we see what’s changed (and what, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t) in the seven years of his absence. The distance, both from the place and the people he left behind, has given him a different perspective on his family and – partly because he’s cleaned up his act, partly because of his mission from Lyle – he’s attuned to things he would once have missed. Having left West Yorkshire and family myself for a similar amount of time to Greg, I remember that dual feeling of coming home and being a stranger and I think that helped draw me in. There are extra resonances for me in that Billy lives in an unnamed small town in the Wharfe Valley that could well be heavily based on the bit of Wharfedale I can see from my study window, and one of my sisters (like Billy) was forced into a change of direction fifteen years ago when the mills closed and her niche job didn’t exist any more.

Whatever your background, if you enjoy a good black comedy The Last of the Bowmans will make you laugh even as it makes you think about how much you really know your nearest and dearest. And if you do happen to be from West Yorkshire, so much the better.

The Last of the Bowmans was released by No Exit Press on January 21st and you can get it in print, for Kindle, or as an epub (see the No Exit Press website for details). My proof copy came via The Bookbag (thank you!), so I could review it for them over there.

Ilkley Literature Festival: parting notes

This year’s festival finished over a week ago and I’m still catching up with the things that were put aside because of it, the notes I wrote during it, and the thoughts I meant to write down but never did (which have been buzzing round my head with decreasing energy ever since). You can tell how much catching up I need to do by the fact that the first line said ‘finished on Sunday’ when I started to write this post…

I took part in the Open Mic on the final Sunday evening. An interesting experience and I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t do it again with prose. 16 of the 19 performers were poets, the judges were poets, the compere was a poet, and even the email said ‘you have been chosen to read your poetry’ (which gave me a moment of panic when I got it). So reading a comic fantasy story that took all but 4 seconds of the allotted 3 minutes did make me feel a little out of place. One chap did a humorous monologue on changing his life, with the refrain ‘it’s not for me’ – which I found myself saying at appropriate junctures last week, with a laugh (when the person offering you a slice of cake hasn’t heard the monologue, you just come across as odd). There was also a fabulous poem about spades, bane of poets because you have to call a spade a spade.

Two weeks ago I went to see Mark Thomas, who sometimes seems to do things just to get a rise out of people, but more often than not there’s a point to it and he causes change. And he’s very funny. I confess I was a little uncomfortable when he seemed to be saying that it’s all one big art project, a sort of performance and participation art. How is a gruff northern ‘modern art? It’s just an empty room with faulty light fittings’ socialist supposed to reconcile that with Mark Thomas being an angry, funny, long-standing left-wing activist who makes a difference?

There were a few other events I either didn’t enjoy enough or didn’t understand enough to write about here, and I’ve probably forgotten deeply insightful things I thought in the gaps between events (festival time does involve a lot of waiting around). However, that’s all for this year. The festival blog is apparently spreading its event reviews over the next couple of months rather than putting them all up in an exciting flurry (don’t ask me why), so you can continue to discover new views on the events over there for a while yet.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie – writer, broadcaster, unashamed wearer of red trousers – provided well over the allotted hour of insight and mirth this evening in Ilkley’s King’s Hall. The event was billed as relating to his most recent book, The Pie at Night (which even he keeps calling Pies and Prejudice by accident) but although he did keep referring back to it in passing, and read a short extract eventually, the bulk of his readings were from earlier works and the bulk of the delivery was comedic and anecdotal.

Particular stand-outs for me both revolved around his mum. The wonderful tale of him interviewing her some years ago about her taking the two-year-old Stuart to see The Beatles in 1964: she can’t remember what the band played or who supported them, but can recount at length the weather, the neighbours in the queue, the refreshments, and what the family had for tea later.

The other one was a trait which all northern women (used to) have, of relational story-telling such as ‘you know, Gladys. Worked with your mum at the chip shop before she married that feller from Rotherham with the false leg. He had a caravan two berths down from your Norman at Brid that summer, when Flo and Arthur won the teddy bear on the front’. It wasn’t his mum’s long-winded argument about Blackpool so much as the way Stuart Maconie linked it with Icelandic sagas, and northerners being the true inheritors of our forefathers’ means of expression (instead of Agbard son of Gimli who slew the troll, we have Ethel wife of Peter who drove the bus. He put it better than I have though…). I like that idea, I shall return to it at some point, I’m sure.

Interestingly, the hall was only about two-thirds full, and I do wonder if it’s the prices that are the problem. There was a list of ‘over 100 events with tickets remaining’, including some big names. I bought a whole raft of tickets weeks ago, and I got a shock pulling these ones out of the pack tonight and realising in some moment of madness in late summer I’d handed over nearly thirty quid for OneMonkey and I to sit and listen to an admittedly amusing raconteur for an hour. There are so many events packed into such a short time at the Ilkley litfest, and so much I’m interested in every year, but only so much I can afford to go to (and don’t expect me to have any left over to buy the books).

As for Stuart Maconie’s latest book, this evening’s left me none the wiser as to whether I should read it. It has made me want to go borrow Pies and Prejudice from Big Brother though.

Petrified by proper poetry

A good five years ago I thought I’d lost my affinity for poetry, though more recently I decided maybe I’d just been reading the wrong kind of stuff. In the meantime I started using haikus as writing exercises but that was as close to writing poetry as I got.

Recently we talked about poetry at an Ilkley Writers meeting. There were a couple of poets present, but a few of us were in the ‘frightened of poetry’ camp. Frightened of the rules, frightened of getting it wrong, of being found out by ‘real’ poets, sounding pretentious and making fools of ourselves. We’d all been put off poetry at school, with sonnets and rigid rhyming schemes, then looked at ‘grown up’ poetry with no rhyme or reason (sorry…) and felt completely adrift. I quite like rhyming poetry, I said, and someone else (who’s keen to start writing poetry) agreed. I suggested, if she wants to write poetry and is having trouble, why not try rhymes? Rhyming poetry’s for kids though, she replied. And there lies one of the problems.

If anyone’s familiar with the Hancock’s Half Hour episode The Poetry Society from 1959, they will know where I’m coming from. Proper poetry for grown ups must be deep and serious, must not contain any rhymes, and absolutely on pain of death must not be intelligible to the casual reader on the first run through. If performed, it should be intoned with plenty of pauses and a frown. The casual listener (of which there will be few) should be made to feel like the dunce at the back of the English class.

Thankfully, this is not universally true, as I’ve been discovering lately, but it’s been true often enough (or has seemed true, at least) that some of us have taken it on board and shied away. One of the group (not a poet, but not frightened of poetry, in fact he’d just written a humorous rhyming poem about Charles Darwin’s sojourn in Ilkley) pointed out that popular poetry, the stuff that engages audiences and sells festival tickets, is usually funny and may or may not rhyme, by the likes of John Hegley and Roger McGough (he didn’t mention Pam Ayres but I guess she’s a popular entertainer poet too. Personally, I’ve never got past her accent but I applaud her use of it – more people should keep their regional accents). A poet in our group told me lots of modern poetry rhymed: WH Auden and Tony Harrison to name two. Tony Harrison had come up in conversation elsewhere that week, to do with dialect (of which undoubtedly more later) so I ordered a book of his poetry at my local library and I’ll see how it goes. While I was there I picked up a slim volume by Helen Burke, whose poetry I’d enjoyed at a reading a few months earlier. I may be beginning to lose my poetry fear.

John Hegley and Helen Burke poetry books

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.