When You and I Die

Sorry about the focus on dying. It’s just that I went to a conference (Let’s Talk About Dying Conference: A day exploring the spiritual dimension to the end of life) the other day and read a couple of my poems there. These are the poems:

When You Die
When you die, you’ll move from here to there.
But before you do that, imagine you’re in a womb.
You don’t know where you are (except to know it’s dark and tight)
You don’t know how long you’re going to be there.
Maybe you’re going to be there forever!
But you’re not.
You’re born. You leave the womb and you come here.
And sometime after that, you’ll move from here to there.

When I Die
When I die I’m going to tell you
That it’s alright
That there’s light
And bright beings sat on my bed.

When I go I’ll tell you that I’m glad
That I believe
You shouldn’t grieve
When I leave to join loved ones.

And then I’ll close my eyes
And the curtains will close.

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all the broken-winged birds

‘How long does grief last?’ she said.
A gifted child with a fragile mind
Giving up her time for strays
And broken down spinsters
And her elderly neighbour.

She came to see me at the end.
My end. The one I’ll tell you about
If you’re around. And
Feel free to. Stick around, that is.
Unless you have things to do instead.

She said to me that she was being bullied.
So I told her not to worry.
The best people are bullied.
She smiled. Kind of. Then said
‘You were bullied too.’

I said that I was and that right now
It didn’t matter a whole lot
But what did matter was …
Then my voice faded (she told me afterwards)
And my eyes closed. Out and away.

It took her a while to find me.
The scent of all things boundless
Lingers but has no direction.
Not like carnations or cash
Or sons with somewhere else to be.

She’d told me to hold on and I did
I held on to her delicate truth.
The beauty of her spirit. And love.
And it was worth the wait.
But then again; isn’t it always?


(inspired by the Self-Help Whisperer)

Natural Disaster or Nature’s Resilience!

Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. Are they natural disasters or nature showing us how resilient she us in the face of man’s depredations?

I suppose it depends on your point of view.

Which ever way around, when I saw these plants bursting powerfully through the tarmac, I couldn’t help but smile.

More Like True Love Than You’d Think

Sometimes, when I watch people weaving their curved paths through a crowd, with their little glances, feints and unconscious signals, then it seems to me to be like an exquisitely choreographed ballet.

Of course, at other times, life is more like a mosh-pit. This is about one of those times.

Characters first. Imagine a stage. Last night we went to the theatre and so this part is pretty easy. Make them colourful and distinct.

hmm.

No. This isn’t easy at all. I can imagine people on a stage, but then what do I want to say about them? That the one on the left looks like a mad rainbow in his Technicolour Dreamcoat. That he’s called Joseph? But then what! He’s my brother, so I should know all about him. But what do you need to know? Okay, he’s up from Brum for a visit. I’m in York. He’s twenty-four and he’s as giddy as a box of frogs.

The lady to his right is Caroline. She’s got a face like a slab of granite. All angles with a skin you could sand planks of wood down with. Outdoors type. She’ll have rope for muscles when she’s forty; you can just tell. But for now – she’s my one and only, older by a year, sister. Down for the day and losing, just for now, that chewing-bricks Dundee accent she uses up there. For all of that, it doesn’t stop her calling me a choob when I say something daft. Yeah, you’re right; a what? I could look it up, but I don’t want to know. I can see the meaning in her eyes anyway. She was always disappointed by me. Dunno. Ask her yourself.

And then there’s me. What do you want, my OkCupid profile? The photo of me visiting Stonehenge last year for my 25th? Or this: I’m a dead ringer for Prince Harry from when he had all his hair. I’m on the stage too. Obviously, I’m the one writing as the other two catch up. I must look like I’m sketching them because I keep glancing up and down, up and down.

In about five seconds, one of them is going to screw up her face and a second later they’re both going to pay the first attention they’ve paid me since they arrived. I had curried beans for lunch and … hold on, here it comes; and … Oh, wait, what’s wrong? No-one’s looking! Ah, I know why – it didn’t happen. I made it up. I do that. Don’t we all? Actually, they’re still just ignoring me.

Okay, that’s enough of that, let’s see if we can plot ourselves out of this paper-bag of people. Or alternatively, we can make some stuff up. How about we just do that. A zombie story for instance. I always fancied writing one of those. Not so keen to be in one, but it’d be nice to put all the people I don’t really like into one and they get them eaten one by one. Sound like fun?

Uh-oh. Alert. They’re both looking at me. No idea why. Got the feeling they just asked me a question. Stop writing, phone-apps-media-recorder, tap the red button. I’ll transcribe it later.

“What!” That’s me.

“Have you farted?” Caroline. Common as compost.

“Nah. I just wrote that I did, but I didn’t.” I shut the notepad and put the phone on top, screen down.

“He’s up to no good. I can tell from his eyes. He has this look about him when he’s done something bad. Like, his face looks like it’s going to explode or something. It goes all red and …”

Joseph doesn’t half like to go on. I can’t be bothered to write the rest. You get the idea.

“Nah.” I don’t say much with my mouth. Most of it is already in the notebook. Not much to say once you’ve written it all. It’s like it’s already been said. And no-one likes repeats.

“So, you up for it?” Caroline.

“What’s that?”

She rolled her eyes and …

Hold on, let me just rewind a bit and fill in the scenery. The rain’s falling again outside the window and steam’s dripping down the wall above the cooker, partly ’cause the kettle’s just boiled but mostly because the gas rings are on. No central heating and no other way to keep it warm. Spring’s not very good at getting old houses with high ceilings warm. Like living in a bando sometimes. Okay, translation for all the mummies and daddies out there: abandoned house. You’re welcome.

… said, “we’re going to a gig. Wanna come?”

“Sure. Where? Who?”

“Whoever’s on down the Leadmill.”

I made a show of thinking about it, but there was nothing to ponder. Few bottles of Thunderbird to get us warmed up, best black skinny jeans, least smelly top (sniff those armpits) and we’re off.

Could have walked into town but Caroline didn’t want to get her hair wet. I could see her point. It would have been spike to frizz in five minutes flat. As it was, the walk to the bus nearly did her in. Me and Joseph have the sensitivity of hyperactive toddlers. If she hadn’t been holding her coat with a grip of steel, it’d have been gone. As it was, she just managed to keep it above her head. Cost her a boob-flash, but that was just par for the … Oh, okay, I made that up too. What can I say; I have a crude imagination. So sue!

The thing about a mosh-pit is that, although it doesn’t look like it from the outside, there are rules. Sure, they’re unspoken and so … yeah, actually they might all be in my head. You might think that it’s a hyperviolent free-for-all: all those arms going at ninety miles an hour, eyes rolling back in their sockets and those rictus grins, but that’s just pure show. Legs planted, looking like we’re defending our little territory to the death, but in our minds, we’re all there together. We’re one machine. A love machine. And if someone happens to slip and go down, then we pick them back up. Scoop down and set them right. And yeah, you get the odd one or two who don’t know the rules and use their elbows and fists, but, like as not, they’ll mysteriously go down. And they won’t get up again. And they learn. We all do.

She … Yeah, you knew there was going to be a she. It says love in the title. She was kissing all the fellas, and some of the girls too. And so, three-quarters of a bottle of Thunderbird and two cans of Red Stripe in, I said: “Where’s my kiss?” Fake petulance. I didn’t know her. Not before that.

Two minutes later I was laying flat on one the benches in the cafe area and she was laying flat on top of me. She wasn’t light, but I wasn’t bothered.

Three hours later she was at my place. A few of us crammed into a couple of taxis; impromptu party, and she slipped into mine. Brother, sister, friends and stranger (but getting more familiar by the minute).

Four days later I met her for a drink. We drank and we talked and we drank some more. She didn’t follow me home that night; even though I wanted her to.

Five weeks later and I was at her place and I was laying on top of her and she was crying and saying no. That she didn’t want it to be like it was with all the others. I didn’t ask her what she meant. But it wasn’t. I mean, it just didn’t happen.

Six months later and we were in town and she was teasing me and touching me and wanting more than I was willing to give and that evening didn’t really end that well.

Seven years later and I see her on the internet. A photograph from a strange angle with the kind of effects on it that took me ages to undo bring back to flesh and blood. She’d lost whatever fat she had and looked better for it. And she was a scriptwriter too. Won some prizes, had some of her stuff performed. But then nothing after the first few years. Strange. She just stopped. I could have sent her an email. But I didn’t. I would have known what to say. But I just didn’t

Meanwhile, going back to minute zero, my sister and brother were standing in the crowd, arms aloft, saluting the song that’s just ended. They’d entangled themselves in it. Music is so much better when you’re ears are singing along to it too and they … okay, let me try this thing that they call polyphony. I’m not God, so it’s not real. You just have to pretend along with me.

‘Wow, this is good. Good, good songs so glad I came here and the sweat, shirt soaking, t-shirt wring it out afterwards, going to be cold outside borrow brother’s jumper, he’s kind so he’ll let me but wow this song, that guitar, hey that guy looking at me with those come-here-eyes. Come here right back at you, dude, come kiss me, kiss me, kiss me. Gah, that girl draping her arms around his neck, scratch her eyes. Caroline! What’s got into you, not that drunk. Am I? Must be. Hey, this bass is good. Gotta dance. Jump up and shake it.’

And she did. Is it okay to put thoughts in other people’s heads like that? Writers do it all the time, but they’re making things up to put into stories. Then again, so am I. And it’s fun. Wonder what Joseph’s thinking.

‘Am I one of the bright and shiny people? Maybe not. Maybe I’m a bug; a bug-ugly punk with a big nose and a …’

Yeah, okay, Joseph; maybe I’ll just leave that to you. No sense in upsetting the punters with that kind of misery. Hey, though – this is kind of fun. What about that chick over there, the one with the bright red lipstick and the mournful face. She’s cute in a kind of a sultry way. Wonder what she’s thinking.

‘I swear that if something doesn’t happen tonight then I’m just going to go home and draw myself a bath, strip right down, ease myself into the water and slit my veins open.’

Whoa!

‘And not just across my wrists this time, but up and down. Get them good and open. Empty them out into the water. Empty this body. No more waking up wishing I hadn’t woken up. No more. Just no more. I’m so sick of this dreary life where nothing makes sense and no-one says anything that means anything. Such a dreary, dreary life. Insipid people. Nothing. No-one. Slit my veins. Say goodbye. Say goodbye with kisses. Salutations from a defective. A broken head slut.’

Of course, none of that is real. But then again, none of any of this is either. Memory is as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Not propionibacteria pulling the mind apart, but new experiences poking and prodding the old ones into new shapes. I know I asked her for a kiss then, but I already told you that. And I know the kind of dance that that starts.

And I kept her dancing. Trod on her feet for as long as I could. Sometimes it was a good old mosh, sometimes a foxtrot across the ballroom floor and sometimes just a soft shoe shuffle. But eventually, life collapsed into something other than what we really wanted. Things start, things end. We can’t keep dancing forever, but we do what we can.

Writing this is my way of saving us from oblivion. Maybe you have a different way. I try to accumulate. A drift of words to store against the years. To save me and maybe save us all.

And now there’s just this to say: love is still the answer when you don’t know the question. That and kisses.

Interview with Robert about Experimental Fiction

Q. So, Robert, now that you’ve come to the end of the experimental fiction chapter and completed all the exercises, I wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions?

R. Surely.

Q. Here we go then: has your attitude to your work changed?

R. This chapter has taught me that, although it’s fine to push back the frontiers of literature, it’s also worth bearing a few things in mind. The first thing is that if you’re going to experiment it’s good to equip your reader with the ability to make the journey with you. The best experiments don’t just blindly go where no writer has gone before and expect others to follow, they lay a trail of breadcrumbs so that they can both be followed (in terms of being read and being emulated) and be able to make their way back home. There’s nothing worse than going out on a limb only to find that it is too thin to support you. It’s necessary to know what path you have taken and be able to make your way back home afterwards. This can take the form of being able to experiment one day and write a conventional story the next day. Or it can be in terms of knowing the methodology of your experiment so that you can repeat it in the future and, more importantly, other writers can too. (in experimental methodology, reproducibility means an independent researcher should be able to replicate the experiment, under the same conditions, and achieve the same results) A second thing I have learned is that it’s good not to tick too many people off with your experiments. For example, I spent a couple of hours this afternoon writing an experimental piece about the Hillsborough Disaster. I made the mistake of treating the subject flippantly. This doesn’t work unless you can show that the humour has some purpose; something that helps heals or transforms the situation.

Q. Hmm; deep. Thanks for that. Will you incorporate any of the experimental approaches you’ve tried out into your work in future?

R. I think that I already incorporate experimental approaches into my work. It’s just that I do it so inexpertly that they’re indistinguishable from the ravings of a madman. Not that I have anything against madmen, mind, it’s just that I need to learn more about the art and craft of experimenting than this chapter has taught me. Still, I have some avenues that I can explore. Practising is one. Reading more contemporary experimental fiction is another. I have a long way to go here before I practice with any kind of competence.

Q. Appreciate your thoughts. What have you learned from reading and critiquing your fellow students’ experiments?

R. There’s a great mix of talent here on this course and this is brought sharply into focus for me by this chapter. Some, like me, need more practice, but others have mastered the art of experimental fiction. It’s actually quite illuminating to critique someone’s work. It shows me how well I’ve absorbed the teachings and it allows me to see more clearly what I need to do to improve. Exemplars are very useful, whether they follow the criteria in the teachings or not. I specifically have learned that it’s important to follow instructions closely when completing exercises and that punctuation, sentence length and even genre style make big differences in how a piece of writing is interpreted/perceived.

Q. And finally: how might this feed into your critical and reflective writing?

R. I find that the more critiques I do, the easier they get. The more I reflect on any kind of writing, whether it be that of established authors, that of fellow students and even my own work, the more insight I get into the process of writing. TMA03, in particular, was a huge learning experience for me. For perhaps the first time in my life I read (and reread) books whilst thinking consciously how specific effects were achieved. I don’t think I did a particularly good job of the TMA, but I still took a lot of benefit from doing it. It’s strange, but I find that I can either read a story for the enjoyment of it, or reading it whilst thinking how it works, but I can’t do both at the same time. I would like to know how to do both simultaneously. Any tips? Anyone?

Q. Well, thank you, Robert, for your thoughtful and illuminating replies to my questions. I’m sure our readers will join me in saying that it truly is worth reflecting on the things we have learned.

R. Thank you; I’m sure you’re right.

Not a Good Day (to be a Mind Reader)

I used to envy those guys on the television who played like they could read minds. You see, I really wanted to know for sure what Ruthybaby … not her real name, thought about me. Whether she had the same kind of hots for me as I had for her. If she wanted into my pants as much as I wanted into hers. Maybe she didn’t, but that’d be okay, because at least I’d know. At least I wouldn’t have to spend sleepless nights tossing and … well, you know.

Instead I used to have to try to imagine the way she thought about me. Lots of yeah, Brad, touch me there. Oooh, Brad, that hurts so good. Oh, oh, oh. Then she’d arch her back and kind of grimace. But in a nice way.

But hey, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a sleaze-ball. I’m actually one of the good guys. I still keep the fire burning. Not just for the future of the human race, which, let’s face it, is going down the pan at a rate of knots, but also for the important things in life. Like football.

So yeah, I wanted to read minds, but then that day happened. That was the day that I decided that there’s no way I’d want to know what people were thinking. Not no never.

Started out like any other Saturday. Me and my mate Russolini … no that’s not his real name, were in town doing something or other. He would have been recovering from a hangover, but he would pretty cool with it. I would have been looking at records and women. Of course, I couldn’t do that all the time. You don’t get many records walking down the street. Joke!

So here’s the funny thing – we were walking home from town and we starts to see people streaming towards us. More and more of them the nearer we got to home. It was a lovely day for walking. But not so nice for these people it seems. They were all crying.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not something you see every day where we lived. At least, not at that time of day. Actually, not at any time of day. You’d think that you might see a bit of it after four forty-five, but you don’t. It’s just not how we are up north. Must be the Viking blood. And anyway, it wasn’t as late as that. Must have been before three.

Being northerners, although actually Russolini was born in Brum and his dad came from even further south, somewhere near Naples I think. Being northerners, even ones with swarthy good looks and no accent at all, which I always thought was weird. I mean, how do you get rid of a Birmingham Italian accent? Anyway, being northerners, we didn’t really do much more than share a frown at first. A kind of a shared confusion as to what was happening.

Perhaps it was the southern blood in him, I mean – they’re more friendly down south aren’t they. They sit around drinking ouzo, or whatever they have in Italy. Oh, wait – wine, right? Yeah, they sit around drinking wine and practicing being friendly with each other. Leastwise, that’s how I got to know him, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. So it comes more naturally to them I guess. Being friendly that is. So that must have been why he asked first. Why they were so upset, that is. Or perhaps he was just a nosy git.

I was shy. I was so shy that the only way I could get to be close to a girl … and this is when I was in my early teens, I don’t do this anymore. Leastwise not intentionally. There are always occasions on the tube where people are packed close together on the tube for instance, where you can’t ‘observe proper social conventions’ and ‘maintain personal space’ even if you want to.

God know how they get on in Tokyo where they have professional pushers to get more people packed onto their trains. I mean, who knows what thoughts are going on behind those implacable masks. So, yeah – not like that anymore. But I was when I was a young teen … And I was quite young. Late developer and all of that. Well, not that late, but later than the other kids. I remember once in the shower, this other kid said … but that’s a whole other story too.

So there was me, being shy; and young; not a pervert; and there were crowds of people at concerts. And there were girls in the crowd. Perhaps I said to myself that they needed protecting from being crushed. Perhaps I gave myself some kind of a justification like that. It doesn’t really matter now; I was there and a girl would be there and we would be moulded nicely to each other and no one said nothing to no-one. Nice way to enjoy a concert. Nice way to get close to girls.

Then I got into the footie. There was this one time when, for some reason, the terraces were packed. I mean – really packed. I’m pretty sure it was a cup match, but I’ve no idea why it would have been important enough for all those people to be there. And we were only playing Burnley, or some other nobody team that began with B. Maybe it was Brentford, but certainly not Barnsley – I would have remembered that. And not Birmingham either. It was long before Russolini, but I would have remembered that too.

I said to myself that if we scored another goal I would casually hug her and jump up and down with her and then, if she was up for it, I would kiss her on the mouth and all of that. It would have seemed like the natural thing to do. I mean, even strangers get carried away when their team is winning three nil and they pop another in the net.

Picture the scene: we were right at the front of the crowd. Right in the middle of the kop. We kept looking at each other. She was fit, despite that tiny harelip thing she had, and I reckoned that I was fit too.

The fourth goal went in and the crowd went mad! If you’ve never been at a match in those days, they this is what it’s like: on the terraces, there are these broad, shallow steps, and there are barriers every twenty or so steps. I guess the barriers are to keep the whole crowd from falling onto the pitch like dominos every time a goal is scored. Thing is, you can fit a lot of people in between those barriers. And those people are pretty heavy. Okay, skip the classic English understatement – those people are enormously heavy.

I was stood right behind here. And she was up against the barrier when we scored. Of course, I had my arms braced against the barrier so that she was in a little protective cage. I thought that I was strong enough to hold the whole of the crown back. I thought that I could protect her. And I probably could have. I mean, I had good strength. I did a lot of push-ups you see. But I couldn’t as it turned out.

She must have got her arm caught between her body and the barrier because she was cradling it afterwards. And she was crying. And so I didn’t get to kiss her. Not that I would have anyway. I was shy, remember? And a wuss. Point is, those barriers were killers when you got all those people pushing against you from behind. Absolute killers.

They told us what happened. Through their tears. Through sobs. And they told us how many. And the worse thing was, the closer we got, the more the numbers went up. It was like they were dying as we walked. Ninety-six in the end. Not a good day to be able to read minds. Not a good day whichever way around. Long time ago, but we still remember.

Disconnected Narratives

There’s a certain kind of literature that doesn’t behave normally. It doesn’t have a plot arc, the characters don’t do things that advance the story and time doesn’t go from past to future. Instead, things jump about, often without there being a connection between one scene and the next, or one event and another. This literature is called experimental.

Historically, people used to write books that reflected reality. Then someone decided that reality was too difficult so people started to write books about what they thought reality was. Then this got boring so people wrote books about people writing books about what people thought reality was. Then they got confused and wrote books about people finding that writing books about people who don’t understand the way that people write books about the state of the world was a little too recherché and so they went back to writing trite poems about weevils.

And so here we are:

I am a weevil
My name is Bill
I don’t like top hats
And neither would she.

But seriously. Could I use the kind of disconnected narratives that I find in stories like Lipskybound by Lindsay Barrett, ‘Three Stories About Love’ by Anne Enright, Speedboat by Renate Adler or The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson? My answer is: only if I lose faith in life being a connected and coherent experience.

Authors who find that life is confusing will either write stories about being lost in confusion or about trying to make sense of that confusion. I prefer the latter because I think of life as being what we make it.

If I want life to be one big experiment where all bets are off, boundaries disintegrate, people are lost in their own selfish individuality and all the gods are dead or dying then that’s what I’ll write. But I happen to think that the world’s a better place for putting something more heartwarming into it. So that’s what I’m going to do. What about you?