iamhyperlexic

Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Category Archives: journal

Doctor A

I meet them in The Head Of Steam, a pub next to the railway station in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, the stand-offish male friends whom I pursue via social media.  This was the third such.  He can’t have been all that stand-offish, because he arrived, first. 

 

We were at university together, in Liverpool, in the 1980s.  A is not the initial of any of his names.  I was studying chemistry.  He was studying Egyptology.  We were interested in what the BBC used to call, “various left wing causes”, and which would now be called – inaccurately –  “anti-globalisation”.   

I have stood outside a branch of McDonald’s with him, handing out leaflets.  

I have huddled in the back of a Transit van with no seats with him, and suffered under the rain of condensing breath in November as a group of 25 hunt saboteurs decided how best to disrupt the annual hunt ball in Clayton-le-Moors, Lancashire.   And the aftermath, in the service station.  I have never felt so cold.   

I have been left behind with him by the coach from Liverpool after we got held up on an anti-fascist demo in London.  While we were pursuing, and being pursued by, the National Front, along The Embankment, he jumped up onto the plinth of a statue, and translated the hieroglyphics.  Were we afraid of the National Front?  Well, that.  

He now occupies a responsible position at a hospital in West Yorkshire.  He had to work weekends in order to finance his medical training.   

He is one of those people who is on call, waiting to save your life.   

He talked about his wife.  He talked about reading to his children.  He is delighted by his children’s love for reading.   

He mentioned my novella, ‘Escape Kit’.  He said it was too short.  Everybody says it is too short.  

We talked about work, and that metamorphosed into a conversation about politics.  It is remarkable, not just how much our priorities have changed in the intervening 30 years, but how much they have stayed the same.     

Of all the people I have known for this long, Doctor A has matured the most, has learnt the most from experience, and is most able to articulate how he has changed.   

I can imagine his and my standing outside McDonald’s, handing out more leaflets, but the leaflets would say somewhat different things.  “Provide adequate funding for Mental Health services,” would be a new one.  “Stop demonising immigrants,” would be an old one, along with, “Wake up.  Question everything.  Trust no one in power. Stop voting for people who have been to Eton.”   

We recommended books to each other: children’s books, books on neurology and medicine.   

He complained about funding for various health services, mainly mental health.  Complaints about funding for his own service were conspicuously absent.  That doesn’t mean that his service is adequately funded: it means that he uses his genius to deal with the shortcomings.  It is possible that he doesn’t realise he is doing it.  This is a man who lives in the moment. 

I live in a certain city in West Yorkshire.  If I ever enjoy the luxury of knowing in advance if I am going to undergo a life-threatening episode, I may travel to a different district of West Yorkshire,  before it happens. 

New hope for England

It is hereby recorded that, on this day, 25 January 2017, there was agreement between William Thirsk-Gaskill and Martin Edwards.

William Thirsk-Gaskill is a doctrinaire socialist of a kind that one seldom meets, nowadays. He believes in the diversion of resources towards the most basic requirements of humanity, particularly child health, infant nutrition, female literacy, general female education, and micro-finance.

One of the human development causes that William supports is Leeds United AFC, with its world-wide presence, and extensive youth development programmes.

Martin Edwards is some bloke that I first encountered in the high street in Chiselhurst. He supports Millwall. He buys meat for Sainsbury’s (a job I would quite happily swap with him). He has some improbably beautiful daughters.

But he is mean-spirited, including in ways that are contrary to his own interest.  You might want to stand next to him at a party, in case he said something offensive.  I still cherish the hope that, inside this carapace of right-wing clichés, there may be a glittering humming bird, ready to fly away in the most unexpected direction.  The evidence for this, so far, is not encouraging.

Nevertheless, at this point, we agreed that nobody knows what is going to happen next with regard to Brexit, and we blame Cameron.

We are not just arguing about football, ladies and gentlemen: we are healing the North-South divide. Believe me: if a Northerner can consciously live peaceably on the same island as Martin Edwards, then we are getting somewhere.

None of this would have been possible (or necessary) had it not been for Valerie Anderson.

Throwing Mother In The Skip: 1 October 2016

The Cluntergate Centre has two performance spaces: a smaller one, called the café, and a larger one, called the main hall. Out of concern for how many people would arrive, it was provisionally suggested that we should use the café. In the event, we used the main hall. The lighting in there is more controllable. We put café-style seating near the stage. I borrowed Jared’s amp (the one I had bought him for his birthday) to play the music.  Many thanks to Darren Bailey and, on the night, to Julie Yarrow.

Valerie was in charge of the bar. She had some help from Jane (Jared’s mother, my previous partner).

All the people I have mentioned so far appear in poems in my debut collection, ‘Throwing Mother In The Skip’. This was the first reading I have ever given at which they have all been present.

Rob Reed and Matt Abbott arrived in a taxi, a fact of which Matt had to try and make light by describing it in a posh accent. Despite his TV celebrity status, Matt still finds the mere act of riding in a taxi uncomfortable.

At 5am on the day the performance was due to start at 7:30pm, I was in my kitchen, drinking gin and sawing wood, in order to rebuild the stand that the mock skip requires to make it usable on stage. I am glad to say that Valerie slept through all this, and I managed to complete the task without injuring myself.

I think I thought of nearly everything, apart from who was going to collect the entrance money from people who were going to pay on the door. This was admirably taken up by Sarah Leah Cobham, in a display of initiative that would have done credit to the young Napoleon.

The audience was 25 people. This was pretty good, considering that only 5 tickets were sold through the ticket website. And they were 25 very good people.

The distance record, as far as I know, was taken by John Darwin, late of A Firm Of Poets, who had come from Manchester. YES, DEAR READER. SOMEBODY CAME FROM WEST OF THE PENNINES TO SEE THIS SHOW IN HORBURY. It was fortunate that I had communicated with him earlier about the best route to take. If you are coming to the Cluntergate Centre from Kirklees, or anywhere to the west, do not go via the centre of Wakefield: go via Dewsbury. The 126 and 127 bus from Dewsbury stops virtually at the door of the centre.

Rose Drew and Alan Gillott, my publishers at Stairwell Books in York, had also travelled a long way, and it was great to see them. They want to publish my debut short story collection, provisionally titled, ‘Something I Need To Tell You’, of which more later.

After a bit of messing about with the voice mic and Jared’s amp, Matt decided he would make a foray behind the curtain, and see if he could get the PA working. This he did, in a very short time. We were in business, with voice on one system, and music on another.

We started on time.

First up was Rob Reed. Rob reads from a medium-sized notebook with a black cover. He marks his running order with Post-It notes, which he tears off as he goes, and aggressively throws on the floor (before assiduously picking them all up after his set has finished). He did the modern, long run-up comedy routine based on multiple sophisticated word-play on the word, “Hello” that I had heard before. Everybody got it. He did serious stuff. He did other humorous stuff. He did stuff that defies classification as either serious or humorous. That was why I asked him to be there. That is why he went on first.

Rob is the only person I have ever heard to utter the phrase, “Jeremy Corbyn riding a dinosaur”.

It had occurred to me, before the show, to try to make up jokes about Matt Abbott’s recent TV celebrity. I needn’t have bothered because, of course, the best person to make fun of Matt Abbott’s TV celebrity is Matt Abbott himself.

Matt was also acute enough (ACUTE, I said) to observe that Rob had had a skip behind him while on stage (albeit a mock skip) and yet had broadcast his Post-It notes all over the place in the most wanton manner imaginable.

Matt’s set showed his accustomed variety. Politics. Pies. L20 1BG, which is about his mother’s cancer diagnosis. It appears in the Wordlife anthology, edited by Joe Kriss (ISBN 978-1-5272-0073-9) and, by something approaching chance, had been read by me on the last edition of Themes for Dreamers on PhoenixFM, broadcast from Halifax.

I started at the kitchen door. Valerie and Jane, who had been managing the bar, were sitting down. I stood in the doorway, off to stage left, and performed the prose piece that I call, ‘Buried Treasure’, which is an impersonation of my late mother. It has only been performed once before, at the now-defunct Sportsman in Halifax. It is quite an experimental piece. I think I just about got away with it.

Next: a piece I call, ‘Unfortunately’. https://www.facebook.com/sarahleahcobham/videos/10208832249377853/

Then a new poem, read from a piece of paper, and then onto reading from a copy of ‘Throwing Mother In The Skip’.

This was the first time the line, “with inadequate French bacon” got a laugh. Rose Drew attributed this to my having fore-shadowed it with the “Buried Treasure” piece about my mother. That seems like a good explanation.

Enough people turned up. The venue was great. The concept I had had in mind for the show worked. I expect to be running similar events at the Cluntergate Centre in the near future. I learnt a lot, and the next one may be even better.

We still need to insure Matt’s hair.

My social media rules

  1. I will summarily delete anything which originates from the so-called Britain First, EDL, or any other far-right group. I am against cruelty to animals and in favour of more assistance to veterans (preferably provided by the state) but I will have nothing whatsoever to do with neo-Nazis, which is what Britain First, EDL and the other members of the 57 varieties are. They peddle the worst kind of click-bait.
  2. I am much less likely to criticise your grammar, spelling, and punctuation if I agree with your argument, or at least can see that you are a compassionate person. This applies particularly if you are trying to assert something like, “Immigrants can’t speak English”: I will proof-read your post as if it were received English (and – oh, boy – will I find a lot of mistakes).
  3. Don’t get me started on the subject of St George. If the historical St George existed, he was Palestinian, or Armenian, or from Asia Minor (Turkey), and never set foot in Britain. He could not have set foot in England, or spoken English, even if he had wanted to, because England and English are concepts that did not exist until after he allegedly died. The obvious public holiday to celebrate “Englishness” is Shakespeare Day, miraculously also on 23 April.
  4. I have no patience with internet conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds. Yes, they are a family with a long capitalist heritage. No, they do not control every government in the western world. The reputation of the Rothschilds is derived from Nathan Rothschild, who made a lot of money in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War (which he helped the United Kingdom to win). What Nathan Rothschild did was audacious; in some ways, cynical, and also in the teeth of anxious opposition from many of the other members of his family. It was not magic. It was not cabbalistic. It was not part of an international conspiracy (Zionist, Marxist, or otherwise). He was outdone in the modern era by George Soros. Yes, George Soros also happens to be ethnically Jewish. Australians win a lot of cricket matches. Is that because of an international conspiracy?
  5. Anything that starts, “If you have a father/mother/sister/brother…” I will delete. I have no living relations closer than cousin. Neither does my wife.
  6. I have nothing to do with articles about diet or exercise. Crap to do with diet and exercise in newspapers and magazines is no respector of class: the former broad-sheets are as full of crap as the tabloids.
  7. That photo with the blue plaque about George Orwell and the CCTV camera: that isn’t ironic. George Orwell wrote about telescreens which were installed in people’s rooms, which monitored them for the purposes of assessing their adherence to a set of political doctrines. CCTV cameras in public places are not the same thing as that. Orwell was nothing if not a believer in the precise use of language. People who say, “Oh, ha ha ha. George Orwell ha ha irony ha ha. CCTV ha ha ha ha,” are an insult to Orwell’s method. (And note that I say, “method”, not “legacy”.)
  8. That will do, for now.

Review: A Firm Of Poets at Unity Works, Wakefield 26/11/2015

This is the first time I have paid to see A Firm Of Poets. The evening was worth every penny.

The music was provided by a band whose name I didn’t catch. Their line-up was: electric piano, guitar, and violin. The violin playing and backing vocals were provided by Matt Abbott’s girlfriend, Lucy Relins.

The format was the same one that A Firm Of Poets always use. They line up five chairs. They line up five poets. Each poet does a single poem and then it moves on to the next one. Sometimes there is a preamble or banter about the previous piece, but it is always kept to a merciful minimum. They all recite from memory. I don’t know how they do it.

The compere was Geneviève Walsh. Her performance was the best I have seen. A Firm Of Poets are accessible and alternative at the same time. Geneviève is the embodiment of this. I heard her poetic voice more clearly than I have in any previous performance. She is maturing in her presentation, and staying crazy and uncategorisable at the same time. If Geneviève Walsh ever enters the same room as Alan Bennett, there will probably be a thermonuclear explosion.

Matt Abbott is only 26 years old. Like Geneviève, in this performance he spoke with the clearest voice I have ever heard him use. Part of his patter was the comparison and contrast between audiences that expect rhymed pieces (music crowds) and those that expect unrhymed (lit crowds). Matt has mastered both. He also does pieces that leave the listener wondering if they were rhymed or unrhymed. His last three pieces were political. He can do political poetry that has a mixed-aged, mixed-gender audience stamping their feet, clapping, and shouting. I have lost count of the number of failed attempts at political poetry I have heard.

John Darwin’s work has a depth and breadth that defies description. The man himself is quitely-spoken, philosophical, and introspective. His work is inventive and profound. His performances are crafted, to the extent of being like those of an old-time music hall performer. He reminds me faintly of Eric Morecambe. It is impossible to tell whether everything is rehearsed to the nth degree, or if is improvised. I guess that the truth is somewhere in between. He is also a Manc, which helps to diversify what might otherwise have become the contemporary poetry equivalent of Last Of The Summer Wine.

If A Firm Of Poets were a set of spice jars, then Victoria Garbutt would be the chilli powder. Apart from the three years I spent at Liverpool University, I do not get Toria’s drug references, but I do get her anger and the stylishness of her delivery. I heard five poets this evening. I preferred some of them to others. The fact that there was a range of voices is something I would never change. Toria keeps the preamble down to virtually zero, which is greatly to be applauded. She also met most of the evening’s quota of swearing, which is also a thing to be encouraged. This was commendably augmented by the representatives from A Republic Of Poetry, particularly with regard to the word, “wanker” by a gentleman from Featherstone.

Ralph Dartford’s voice also came through more clearly in this performance. He added touches of comedy and pathos, as well as delivering his blockbuster, ‘Safe Home’, with topical variation.

Jacqui Wicks produced the performance. As a production, it could not have been bettered.

If I had to think of one word to describe the whole event, it would be: Shakespearian. We had everything: characters, voices, stories, love, sex, death, substance abuse, childhood, old age, madness, familiarity, strangeness.

The auditorium of Floor 4 at Unity Works was packed. Everybody in that auditorium apart from the performers had paid ten quid to get in. This is A Firm Of Poets. This is the People’s Republic Of Poetry. The next performance is at the Barnsley Civic on Saturday 28 November. I won free tickets.

How I write 4: the 6-word story

I have recently entered a competition on http://www.readwave.com to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s famous exercise in writing a story in 6 words.  One of the Readwave editors then asked me to become an editor for this format.

The first thing to get clear is that the object of this exercise is to write a fictional narrative – a story.  Many of those I have seen so far on the Readwave website are not stories.   They are not even bad stories: they are philosophical statements, or motivational slogans.  The basic rules of narrative fiction are bound to be squeezed when we are dealing with such an impoverished format, but they are still to be observed as closely as possible.  That is the point.

Of the competition entries which are at least fictional narratives, the next biggest group of failures are the ones which are completely generic.  “There was a man, he lived, and then he died,” – even when condensed into 6 words – will not do.  Pieces in this category tend to be the beginning of a story, or the end of a story, but not a whole story.   Hemingway’s classic: “For sale: baby shoes.  Never worn” leaves a great deal to the reader, as much of modern literature does, but it does not require the reader to re-write the whole story.  The story must engage the reader.  To do that, it needs either details, or a narrative twist, or both – probably both.  The twist in Hemingway’s comes in the last two words.

My approach when I began this exercise was to begin by trying to get as far away from Hemingway’s classic as possible.  Rather than something in the form of a personal ad, I began to think about whether it would be possible to squeeze more subject matter into the story by only using nouns.  This is what I came up with:

Milk. Beer. Whisky. Meths. Milk. Morphine.

As a first attempt, I was quite pleased with this, because it has enough detail to engage the reader, and it has a narrative arc which would be obvious to most readers.  The idea of selecting 6 nouns with a discontinuity between neighbouring words struck me as quite a powerful technique.  This is my next attempt:

Scissors. Stone. Paper.  Machete.  Shears.  Bin-bag.

Entrants to the Readwave competition may notice that you can cheat like mad because the format of the Readwave website gives you a title and a strap-line, neither of which is counted towards the 6 words.  Many of the weaker entries are trying to set the scene or explain the point of the story through the title and the strap-line.  Hemingway’s piece has no title and no strap-line, and so I have left those out of the examples in this article.

The only other one I have posted so far is a variation of the sub-title of my solo performance at the 2013 Ilkley Literature Festival.

Abandoned in woods.  Raised by lawyers.

“Woods” provides (just) enough detail to engage the reader, and the narrative twist is provided by substituting “lawyers” for “wolves”, which also triggers the reader’s cultural view of the legal profession.

One consolation of this format is that, like writing a villanelle, you at least know almost straight away whether you are on the right track.

28 May 2014: a short statement by William Thirsk-Gaskill

I fight on.

Valerie

Jane left me in May. I became clinically depressed, and, for a while, my writing was the only thing that was keeping me going.

On Sunday 11 August, everything changed. That is the day I met Valerie, except that I didn’t meet her. I just started communicating with her via Facebook, text, and on the phone.

We met face-to-face on 23 August. It was a very 21st century experience to find out in a quarter of a second that the person one had been corresponding with in cyberspace was the same person in the flesh.

Since Valerie and I met, we have been to see Leonard Cohen at Manchester Arena, have been to an event for performers at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and have appeared on the same edition of Themes for Dreamers http://www.phoenixfm.co.uk .

Valerie’s friends have been lining up to tell me what they will do to me if I don’t make her happy, but I think I am equal to this task.

Meat Loaf – Farewell Tour at Manchester Arena, 25 May 2013

We bought the tickets from a third party website, which left us missing a vital piece of information. When I downloaded the e-ticket file, the name was wrong and the date was also wrong. We took them to the box office, and they explained that they were returned tickets. The box office teller told us just to queue to get in, and see what happened. If the tickets were rejected by the bar code scanner, there would be nothing the box office could do, and our dispute would be with the third party, not with Manchester Arena.

We got in.

We had very little money with which to buy refreshments, but managed to find a cash machine inside the arena complex.

We were conducted to our seats in stages, by three stewards. Manchester Arena has the same layout as Sheffield Arena: it has sloping seating round three sides, surrounding the stage, with rows of flat seating in front of the stage – what in a traditional theatre would be called the stalls.

Our tickets said row J. We ended up nine rows from the front of the stage.

There was no support act. They put the lights out, and played When I’m Sixty-four by The Beatles.

Lights came on, and the band took up their positions. They were all male, apart from the second vocalist. The line-up was: drums, baby grand piano, keyboards, electric bass, two guitars (electric for most songs), and Meat Loaf himself, who played electric guitar for some songs and acoustic guitar for some others, but mostly just used his voice. The keyboard player also did two saxophone solos. One of the only two things I did not like about the performance was that these solos, and some other features of the music, were inadequately conveyed by a slightly messy-sounding PA system. The PA was set-up for grunge, not for a strident, clean guitar and keyboard sound. But it was loud, and bassy. The drums and the bass hit you in the guts, and so justice was done at least to those instruments, and to the vocals. Fortunately, some of the piano playing was solo, which helped.

The other element I was not keen on was the huge screen above the stage. Maybe this was helpful to the people who were seated at the back, near the outskirts of Greater Manchester, but for those blessed with seats near the stage, it was a mere distraction.

Meat Loaf took to the stage looking like a madman. He was wearing a black suit which was quite conservative except for glittering symbols on both sleeves, and a black shirt. He was not having a bad hair day: he was having a bad hair decade. Compared to the peak of his career in the 80s, he had lost a lot of weight, and not in a good way. He looked as if he was carrying the world on his shoulders, and had been doing all his life, and was sick to death of it. He was pent-up. He was angry. He looked either ferocious or exhausted, but never anything in between. He looked as if he was about to break down. He did not look like a rock star: he was a rock star.

His singing performance was a master class from the school of “Give It Everything You’ve Got”. Rock ‘n’ roll is about sex, the propensity for violence, and mistakes – both the intention to make them and the capacity to regret having made them. Meat Loaf’s performance had all these ingredients in their strongest form. This performance had another as well: the melancholy (and relief) of saying goodbye. Every word he sang and spoke, especially during the slow, solo numbers, he expressed as if for the very last time. The stage was like the world’s largest, loudest, most brightly-illuminated deathbed.

The crowd lapped it up. If Meat Loaf had handed out poison and told us that it would make him happy if we drank it, we all would have done. It was a diverse crowd. It was a nice crowd. The atmosphere was one of peace and love. Meat Loaf was in touch with this. He told us that we were important. He told us that any act of kindness that we could perform would make the world a better place. We believed him.

It was one of the greatest live performances I have ever seen, or ever expect to see. The music was great mainly for its familiarity, and the memories that it evoked, but the stage presence, the intensity, the mixture of aggression and pathos and melancholy was unique and unforgettable.

Great art, most definitely including popular and mass-market art, changes people. I am not the same person I would have been had I never encountered the work of Meat Loaf. When I was writing my Kindle story ‘Pick-up Technique’, I was trying to write a rock ‘n’ roll story. I was trying to write about youthful mistakes, and how human beings try to cope with the consequences of them.

Goodbye, Meat Loaf. I wish you good health and long life, but I also suspect that you are your performances and, without the performances, there won’t be much left. Thanks for the music, the words, and the memories.

‘Pick-up Technique’ from Goggle Publishing

PickUpTechnique

This is the cover art for my next publication, called ‘Pick-up Technique’.

My thanks go to Andrew Oldham for publishing the story, which will be available in Kindle format via http://www.gogglepublishing.co.uk .

My thanks also go to Lisha Rooney for the cover art.

And to Michael Stewart for editing the story, and for selecting me as one of this year’s Goggle writers.

Working with Michael in editing the story and with Lisha in selecting the cover art were new experiences which have made me feel more like a writer than I did before.