Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Shame it was a Saturday...

It was just gone half past ten on Saturday morning and the sun thumped down on the Old Kent Road’s grime and dust splattered concrete slabs. It was just gone half past ten on Saturday morning and my brain felt like someone was laying razor wire around it and my stomach seemed to believe I’d drunk battery acid the night before. It was just gone half past ten on Saturday morning and my creased and crumpled shirt was gaining embarrassing sweat patches, I had a particularly bitchy hang-over and I was struggling to walk home.

Fifteen minutes earlier it had seemed a bit of an adventure as I’d squeezed myself between two long ago prised apart iron railings at the base of a block of flats and then jumped down four feet onto the pavement below. There must have been another way out, but that was the way I’d gone in and I couldn’t be bothered to look for an alternative. But when I almost landed on an elderly man, and all I managed to croak was ‘morning,’ rather than a witty aside, I began to suspect this was going to be more difficult than I’d thought.

I stood on the corner and looked left and right for a road name, or some indication of which way to go. It all looked vaguely familiar, as though I might have been there in another life, but truth be told its uniformed red-brick, late-nineties renovation and wide angled roadways could have been anywhere in the world. I was ninety-nine percent certain I was still in London. My internal compass suggested that right was probably south and although alcohol had confused the compass in the past, I had little else to go on.

Right it was then.

As I paused at a pedestrian crossing, my arm raised for my hand to shield my eyes from the unsympathetic sun, a Ford Fiesta approached with the windows down and the system up, some unknown pulsing dance-pop suggesting that it was still summer belting out. ‘Whoy-aye-ay, son,’ the skinhead with the wrap around shades hanging out the passenger side window shouted at me. Quite what this meant, I haven’t a clue.

By the time I reached the recognisable bright murk of the Old Kent Road I was reasonably sure that I’d emptied my Oyster Card the night before and appeared to have done the same for my wallet. There was little alternative, but to walk the whole god-damned way home.

So, as I strode out blaming the bitter stinging behind my eyes of warm Californian rosé, the sensation that I might keel over at any moment on the fact that I hadn’t had anything to eat for over twenty-two hours, I curdled with self-awareness. All around were throngs of t-shirt and shorts glad weekenders whilst I remained in my rumpled suit and shirt, the jacket hanging from my limp hand, trailing in my wake.

Still, at least there was all the myriad beauty of London to keep me entertained.

It was one of those morning where I passed every facet of life all messed together in a short-breathing, long lasting ménage of existence. Everyone, from the sinewy guy helping set up the church charity sale tables, his bare arms raggedy and blistered, a can of K cider always close to his lips to the young couple emotionally fighting outside the self-storage depot, the tears of anger on her cheeks, his crossed arms and sulkily pouting lips failing to disguise his own distress. A gaggle of red t-shirted, black jeansed lads sat atop the roofs of cars outside KFC watching the world trundle by, watching and waiting for what I couldn’t even guess. The couple walking along, holding a tom-tom out as though it might bite, loudly looking for Commercial Road. I tried to point them in the right direction, but didn’t seem inclined to listen; not that I can blame them.

By the time I reached New Cross my energy levels were depleted. Sticky, salty sweat stuck to my brow, my insides grumbled incessantly and I felt dirtily ostracised from reality. I paused to drink the last half mouthful of day old tap water from a plastic bottle in my bag. When I looked up, a battered school uniform red Volvo estate was mounting the pavement rapidly. I stepped out the way just in time. The little old man driving lifted up an official looking placard reading ‘Courier on Delivery,’ replete with corporate logos along the bottom and stuffed it onto the dashboard. Then, he got out the car, with a little difficulty but certainly no package. He was smartly dressed in a suit far flashier than his choice of wheels, but also a jumper that matched the car’s colour and seemingly ignored the soaring temperature. With a deft turn his flicked a trilby hat onto his head and lit a cigarette – all in a single movement.

He marched briskly towards an alley where a man a few years younger than me sat slouched on the floor, lazily smoking and looking in the other direction. The older man cuffed the youngster around the back of the head.

‘Sorry, boss,’ the younger man said as he scrambled nervously to his feet.

The older man swore vehemently in what sounded like Italian and stormed off down the alley.

I shuffled on past, watching intrigued until the menacing glance the now alert younger man gave me, and the movement of his hand inside his jacket, suggested I should look away.

I did and struggled the rest of the way home desperate for a shower, some toast and bucket of coffee, but I couldn’t help wonder exactly what had I seen?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Sitting When the Evening Comes

I’m going to let you into a secret: I am thirty years old and I live in a bedsit.

This is something that I’m not only ever so slightly ashamed of, but also tends to piss me off a little, not least because I used to live in a house and before that a maisonette and before that a flat. Those were proper places to live, but somehow I seem to have dropped down to the bottom of the pile.

The landlord calls my bedsit a studio-flat, but that’s just a reason to hike the rent up.

I think, technically, the definition of a bedsit is that either the kitchen or the bathroom is shared, that they exist outside your private area. Everything here is self-contained; I have my own kitchen, my own bathroom. The smell of cooking and its ultimate destination all linger around my pillow.

But it’s still a bedsit.

After all, I spend quite a bit of time sitting on the bed.

Anyway, this is also the first place I’ve ever lived without a garden or any sort of communal outside space. In the winter this wasn’t a problem but given that my tiny bedsit is also rather stuffy it’s been incredibly annoyingly sweaty all summer.

Yes, Hilly Fields and Telegraph Hill are nearby. I have plenty of green space options, but it isn’t quite the same. I can’t take a cup of tea to Hilly Fields.
If I need the toilet, I have to come home. If I take work with me I need to be certain I’ve remembered everything from spare pens to the London A-Z. Going out in the sun requires a degree of forward planning I currently seem incapable of.

So, I’ve started to take myself out the front of the building and sit on the wall by the pavement. I go out for ten-fifteen minutes at a time, breaks from working in the sweat pit. I sit and watch Brockley go past. Sometimes I take a bit of the paper or a book and even if it’s late the light from the streetlamp means I can read. Sometimes, I’ll take a glass of wine or something similar with me. I nod at the neighbours and they look at me slightly strangely, as though unsure whether they’re allowed to find me amusing.

The road I live on is opposite the station and as such sees a lot of passing commuters. I like watching the variances in people’s manners depending on the time of night, the differences between those who are still fresh, those who are exhausted to the point of depression and those who are simply drunk to the point of bewilderment.

But I’m upset. There’s a slightly odd trend amongst some people to cross the road.
They look up the hill and see me perched on the wall reading the Observer with a glass of pinot grigo and they cross the road and then return to my side of the street further on up, where they think I can’t still see them on the brow of the hill.

They appear to be, in short, wary of what I might do to them,

This is a shame, but I guess there’s no tradition in Britain of observing the world outside your front door. In America, the image of sitting out on the front porch perhaps supping a Bud or chewing tobacco or perhaps inching a palely chequered arm around the teenage sweetheart daydream with a can of Dr Pepper close by, is a classic. In Italy there’s the tradition of the evening stroll around the town centre where the masses descend late at night just before going to bed to shout excitedly to each other whilst surreptitiously eyeing up their neighbour’s wife. Instead, life here is secreted away behind closed doors or behind the six foot high rose bushes encircling the back garden.

Well, perhaps I do strike a rather odd figure, perched atop the low wall, my bare feet dangling just about the fag butt strewn pavement, empty dirty chicken boxes fading in the sunlight. But, still, I mean really – what do they think I’m going to do to them? Do they expect me to leap up and threaten them with my half empty wine glass? (Don’t they know I’ve only two left unbroken.) Or do they think I’ll clamber atop the pillar at the end and preach the moderate left wing badly disguised middle class mandates of the Guardian until they promise to do more recycling?

I don’t, seriously, look scary, do I?

Honestly, I’m a gentle cutie pie, when you get to know me.

Besides, any of the above would be far too easy.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Soul, Baby, Soul

Recently, I’ve been immersing myself deep into another world.

This is a world of archaic rules, of carefully contrived language; a world where not everyone may be as they seem and intentions are rarely clear. It is a world of danger and excitement, where a click of a button may instigate a whole new adventure.

Oh, all right, then. I’m exaggerating. As usual.

Last week, I went and joined a dating website.

I’ve briefly written about my thoughts on twenty-first century dating before and whilst I’ve even done a little idle browsing, if I am honest my heart was never in it. Although, I’ve flicked through the relevant pages of newspapers putting curious little marks next to the descriptions that interested me, it was just a flirtation with an idea. It was never serious. I just wasn’t mentally ready.

In the end, it was an impetuous act born by the sudden realisation that it would be sensible if I stopped trying to metaphorically piss on my own doorstep. One complicated situation after another was threatening to boil over and it seemed like the easiest way to distract myself.

And distracting it is.

I’ve chosen a silly nickname for myself and probably not spent long enough writing a description not only of how I look and act, but of how I would like my ideal match to look and act – a notion that seems more than a little ridiculous given that I have no fixed type of person who I am attracted to. Never have. Short, tall, blonde, dark, slight, curvaceous, working class northern, slightly posh southern,
I’ll give anyone a whirl. I don’t, typically, like narrow-minded bigots, but then who in their right mind is going to put that on their profiles anyway.

Only a crazy.

And I’ve had enough of crazy for the time being, thanks all the same.

So, I have the alias, I have the description which slightly naughtily plays up the writerly aspect of myself and correspondingly makes only the briefest of mentions to the underpaid public sector project management side, but hell isn’t this is a idealised version of self anyway? Then came the photo. This proved to be more problematic than anticipated as in all the relatively recent photos I can find of myself I am either extremely sweaty, somewhat drunk or wearing dark glasses. It also transpires that it’s incredibly difficult to take a decent picture of yourself.

Either that or I’m losing my previously photogenic good looks.

I could have asked someone to take it for me, but as I said this was all taking place on a whim and I found the idea of ringing someone up at midnight to ask them to snap me faintly embarrassing. This was something I wanted to keep secret.

(Yes, I realise I’m now telling everyone about it, but somehow it has always been easier to write rather than talk about things.)

After what felt like a phenomenally vain process where I smiled, beamed, pouted, attempted to half laugh or even look disinterested all of which seem to result in my head being at an odd angle to the rest of my body, I thought ‘fuck it, that’ll do.’
And so on I ploughed without a care for the rules and etiquette which exist in this online world – cripes, I had no idea.

All first attempts at contact appear to have to come from the men (at least in the heterosexual niches) which means that I have spent hours composing emails which I hope have the right level of flirtatiousness and intrigue around them whilst being unique to the person I’m approaching based on the scant detail I can glean from their profile and not descending to simply “I think you look cute.” Indeed, I begin to feel after the seventh attempt that my prose was becoming a little dry and formulaic, yet I was also labouring far too long over each message. Where’s the balance?

But then pretty girls replied and it all started over again with my head full of fluffyness as it always has been whenever someone attractive has paid attention.
Whilst women don’t message upfront they do seem to prowl the boards of the non-existent club that we’re all crammed into, eyeing up and down the profiles and pictures that spark their interest. I know they do, because you can see who’s checked you out – the internet version of a lingering glance across a crowded bar, perhaps. Some become fans of me (whatever that means). Some become fans of me without even viewing my profile (which is a little odd).

But what I cannot get over is the incredible amount of time it absorbs. It becomes slightly drug like, addictive – ‘how many views have I had today?’ ‘Why are some people viewing me but not responding to my email even though they’re my fan?’
Composing the messages is a slow process because there isn’t the moment where you can nervously laugh off that you’ve just made a tit of yourself. Trawling through all the profiles is equally laborious and there’s almost too much information to absorb. At one point I started to become paranoid that I was muddling people up.

It would, in many ways, be easier if there was a format that somehow replicated the technique of someone I used to know, who at a certain time of the night would just decide he’d drunk enough beer and now wanted to have sex. He’d methodically work his way through propositioning every single woman in the room, with his addled Scottish charm, using a ranking system based on their physical proximity to him and giving each no more than a couple of minutes until either he went home with one of them or (as was more frequently the case) he went home alone to have a wank.

Simple, crude and if not effective at least time efficient.

Mind you, sex isn’t the point. It’s about meeting someone without necessarily meeting them. In that way it is time efficient, but you are still making decisions about people based on the refraction of the computer screen, the stylised image that careful planning can project.

All that said I am quite enjoying the more arcane ritualistic method of chatting to women. What’s that, I hear you ask? How’s it going? Do I have any dates lined up?

Mind your own business.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Faulks It.

It’s been a quieter week and there’s a temporary lack of drunken misadventures with which to entertain you. So, instead, it’s time for another blog in the irregular series on writerly technique.

Sebastian Faulks – he of Birdsong and more recently the new James Bond book fame – has a proper novel coming out (as opposed to something he bashed out in a fortnight’s holiday to the Bahamas).

Quick confession before I blunder further onwards – I’ve never actually read a Faulks’ novel. I’ve kind of always lumped him into the category of ‘probably not as good as he’s hyped to be.’ Like Ian McEwan or Martin Amis. No, that’s not fair. They’re both in the ‘not as good as they used to be’ category. Someone like Dave Eggers, then. Or DBC Pierre.

Right, now I’ve just slagged off five significantly more successful than I writers, let’s continue.

The hoo-hah around the novel’s release is that it is the first of Faulks’ books to be set in an entirely contemporary environment and that it (may, might, possibly, if you peer through the murk hard enough) contain characters who are not favourable facsimiles of real people. In particular a literary critic, who in the novel only gets joy and satisfaction from writing poisonous reviews and may (at a certain angle, in a particular light) bear more than a passing resemblance to a critic at the Independent.

Oo Sebastian Faulks might, occasionally, borrow from his own life for his novels. What a big surprise? Almost as a big a shock as the notion that authors don’t always agree with the reviews they get.

I think we all poach bits and bobs, friends and enemies. It’s unavoidable. John Berger once said “imagination is not the ability to invent, it is the ability to disclose that which already exists.” To do this, I believe, we must draw on our own understandings of how the world exists.

I’m not suggesting that all fiction is really the author’s life through a cracked mirror - although there’s plenty of that about. See the near-reportage of Graham Greene or the weirdness that is Paul Auster. (Once you’ve spotted the trick, it becomes kind of hard to ignore that every novel essentially starts “Once upon a time there was a novelist, called Paul, who lived in Brooklyn…”)

No I suspect that this is more the writer, as they’re supposed to do, communicating their understanding of human nature to the wider world. That, in order to push boundaries and stretch our writing emotional credentials, there is usually a grounded base that that the author can trust to ring true because, well, because it is.

The shelves of your local bookshop (go and have look, go on, stop using bloody Amazon) are lined with this stuff. Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came To The End is set at an advertising agency. Ferris used to work at an advertising agency. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is about a Dutchman in New York who lives in the Chelsea Hotel. O’Neill may be Irish (actually, thinking about it he may not be, but never mind) but he does live in New York in the Chelsea Hotel. Irvine Welsh’s better books are those set in his native Edinburgh. John Updike was, apparently, something of a womaniser and it’s curious to see the lead in Run Rabbit debating whether to stay with his mistress or to return to his wife. More than a few of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters struggle with alcohol and the author died from an illness related to his own drink trouble

I could go on and these are all excellent books, but clearly there is at least an element within the writing, a single factual thread, that the writer clings to and around which he weaves the story.

The question should, I think, not be ‘do we do it’ but ‘should we be allowed to do it’?

A friend of mine is nervous that their parents will spot a moment vaguely similar to something that happened during childhood, even though they’ve changed the gender of the character. (Note how I’ve made this paragraph genderless – ah, the power of rewriting.) This is a moment in life that they’ve borrowed, twisted about a bit and exaggerated the emotional impact of, but it would still be very easy for people in the know to draw the wrong conclusions.

I’ve had similar concerns. A short story I wrote dealt with a son’s relationship with his Father. I gave it to my parent’s to read and was worried that they’d think this troubled relationship was how I felt growing up. It wasn’t, but I was pulling at bits of empathy from my understanding of how my relationship with my Dad works.

Unfortunately (and indeed unsurprisingly) not everyone likes appearing in the written form. They can get a bit upset; sometimes they might even feel betrayed. My ex used to be very uncomfortable about her appearances in this blog and she drew comparisons between the characters in my, now abandoned, first attempt at a novel and our relationship. Perhaps, that was a fair criticism. Perhaps it wasn’t. I was using my understanding of our relationship to write about a fictional relationship, but maybe I hadn’t stepped far enough away. I certainly didn’t intend to novelising myself.

To an extent, I’m still doing it. I had the opening of the novel I’m currently writing workshopped recently. It starts at the end of a relationship and I was quite surprised when nobody asked ‘Is this…?’ Because it is and isn’t. It isn’t in that the circumstances, situation, nature, dialogue are a million miles from the end of our relationship and the story then goes somewhere it wouldn’t be possible for me to go. But then it is, in that I am mining the seam, as it were, of the emotional maelstrom I got ripped through last year.

It’s good stuff too, but does that justify borrowing a little line from here, a little look from there? I appreciate I am getting miles ahead of myself given that a) I haven’t even finished a first draft yet and b) have neither agent and publisher, just to remind you how far removed from the authors listed above I am. Okay, so let’s rephrase it. Let’s try: Should I even be writing about doing it in this blog? It is, after all, tantamount to the same thing.

One of my friends who made an appearance in last week’s blog emailed me say that they didn’t recall saying the words that I’d put in their mouth. They weren’t annoyed (I don’t think), but just couldn’t imagine themselves saying the particular phrase. I replied that I was pretty certain they had, but did concede it could have been someone else in the group. They came back saying that they were no longer sure whether it was the real them speaking or an imaginary version.

“Congratulations,” I almost wrote, “you’ve become a character.” And then realised that to characterise someone is such a way would be totally unacceptable.

I like to think I have been given a degree of licence by those friends whom I’ve known a long time (it tends to be those who have been around for more than a decade who get named and given recurrent appearances) to tweak reality slightly for dramatic convenience, but I cannot (must not) completely invent on behalf of real people.

Okay, so davidmarstonwrites is different to a novel – I don’t proclaim this to be fiction - but the problem is that after you’ve done it once, the reader struggles to distinguish between what the factual element is and the where the wholly fictional world begins. They start to see comparisons that aren’t there. In another short story, I wrote of a man who had an affair. Actually, it was more about a man who might have had an affair or he might just have been writing a story about having an affair. It got a bit complicated and didn’t really work – in fact one of my tutors called in “a short story that ate itself.” Anyway, it led to me being accused by a couple of people of it either being about me having or wanting to have an affair with someone in particular. Which it wasn’t. In fact, it probably had the least elements from my life of anything I was writing at that time. Which may have been why I couldn’t get it to work.

So, I changed the girl’s hair colour and moved it to a different bit of London and no-one ever said anything again. Except, that it was still a bit crap.

Perhaps, my point behind all this is that if you’re going to do this, if you’re going to write brilliantly amazing fiction that includes snippets of your reality to prevent the entire fictional mesh floating off into a mental void then you better be talented enough to do it well. Indeed, those defending Faulks were arguing that a novelist of his skill would have disguised his target so successfully, would have thrown forth so many red herrings, that no-one would ever have noticed it. That people were simply looking for something that wasn’t there. Although, of course, if you’re going to be viciously vitriolic about someone it might appear to defeat the point, if no-one notices it - unless you’re also trying to avoid a lawsuit for defamation.

Note to everyone (especially Boris), there’s no point suing me. I haven’t any money or assets.