Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Category Archives: life_writing

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.

e-Book review: A work by an anonymous author. CONTENT WARNING: FOUR LETTER WORDS

179 pages
£2.99 from Amazon Kindle store

The work in question is entitled ‘A Fucked Up Life In Books’ by Anonymous. The author is female, and (I believe) works in London as something to do with publishing. She is on Twitter under the name @bookcunt . She is one of those people who uses expletives in just about every paragraph.

It is divided into three parts: Childhood and school, Teenage years and university, and A proper grown-up. I counted a total of 56 chapters. Each chapter is about 3 or 4 pages (or screens, if you want to split hairs, given that it is an e-book).

I am not going to insult the reader’s intelligence by trying to pretend that I agreed to review this work without an ulterior motive. @bookcunt has five thousand Twitter followers and a blog (http://www.bookcunt.blogspot.co.uk/) and so I am writing this in the hope of a reciprocal review of my e-story, Pick-up Technique, which I think @bookcunt would enjoy. I am not as established in the blogosphere as she is, but then again, my e-story costs less than a third the price of hers.

Nearly every chapter is named after the book that the author was reading at the time the incident took place. Occasionally, the subject matter or the author’s reaction to the book comes into the narrative, but usually it doesn’t. One of the chapters is about a book she was going to read but, I am very glad to say, didn’t. The book selection is certainly varied.

The book reads more like a diary than what I would call a piece of life-writing. The main difficulty with life-writing is to create a coherent story out of the vicissitudes of everyday existence, and the usual way to do that is either to make a few things up, to make it more interesting, or to pick and pick away at what actually happened until you have pulled out just the main thread. Hence, most writers I know consider that writing from life is virtually the same as writing complete fiction in the sense that the story you end up with is still an artificial creation.

The author of AFULIB manages to create a readable work mainly by keeping each chapter very short. Viewed in comparison to the standard rules of creative writing, the narrative voice has some basic technical shortcomings. It is partial, vituperative, self-involved, colloquial, and cannot stop swearing. But it has a style of its own, and I managed to read the whole book in three, closely-following sittings. Several reviewers on Amazon have commented on a number of typos, but these are trivial. The thing that has the potential to drive you mad about this book is the narrative voice. If you can only read highly-polished, detached prose, then this book is not for you. On the other hand, if you respond to human warmth and feeling, if you are the kind of person who enjoys contemporary stand-up comedy and relates to another person’s frustrations, then you will find this readable, maybe even unputdownable. This is a work from the school of what one of the characters in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ referred to as “one fucking thing after another”.

Most of the chapters end with some kind of conclusion, in the form of an adage or homily. Most of these tend to be negative or misanthropic. I enjoyed reading them, not because of what they themselves contain, but because of what they say about the author. It is mostly the chapter endings which reveal the character of the author, and this revelation is the main thing I got out of reading the book. To paraphrase ‘The History Boys’ again, sometimes, when you read, you can feel a hand reaching out to you. This hand would probably want to put a latex glove on before reaching out to any-one who had not just washed their hands with carbolic, but the principle nevertheless applies.

The Wheelbarrow Principle

I have deleted this because I have entered it in a competition.

Christmas cake

My mother's recipe book

The recipe appears in my mother’s handwriting in a hardback, quarto book with ruled, multi-coloured pages.  On the cover is a rustic-looking drawing including a ham, a cake, a bowl of potatoes, a jelly, a tureen with a lid, and four pink fish on a plate surrounded on each side by black squiggles which look vaguely like pubic hair.  I think I can remember my mother writing out the recipe, and so I must have been at least four or five, which would make her twenty-five or twenty-six.  It comes between Chocolate Cake and Welsh Cakes in the book.  The paper is pink.  The recipe goes over a double-page which is incomparably the most stained, smeared and spotted in the whole collection.  It is entitled, ‘Liz’s fruit cake. 8-inch cake tin’.  The only Liz that my mother knew used to live in a neighbouring street and was a Spanish teacher at the school that I would eventually attend, about 8 years after the recipe was transcribed.  We only ever referred to it as Christmas cake, even when we ate it, with a mug of tea and a piece of cheese, at other times of year.

These are the ingredients:

10 oz plain flour
8 oz butter
7 oz Demerara sugar
4 large eggs
2 oz chopped almonds
4 oz glacé cherries
1½ lb mixed fruit
1 tablespoon black treacle
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp mixed spice
¼ bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1 grated zest of orange
Brandy, sherry, rum etc as required.

This recipe requires the biggest mixing-bowl you have got.  The method is first to beat the butter, sugar and rind.  My mother added instructions for her recently-acquired electric hand-blender.  Increase speed to 2 and add the treacle.  Add the eggs, one at a time.  Return speed to minimum, and tip in the flour, salt, spices and soda.  The next words are ‘then fruit and nuts.  Switch off as soon as incorporated.’  I know from experience that this cannot be right.  There is so much dried fruit in this recipe that you can only incorporate it by folding it in with a large metal spoon.  We are halfway down the second of the two pages by now, and should already have started pre-heating the oven and preparing the cake tin.

The tin, as it says at the very end of the recipe (in pencil rather than the black biro used for the rest of it) must be lined with three layers of tall greaseproof paper (preferably almost touching the ceiling of the oven).  And of course it must be liberally greased.

The cake cooks at gas mark 2 for one hour, followed by gas mark 1 for two-and-a-quarter hours, after which you don’t necessarily take it straight out, but you start testing it with a skewer.

When it has finally come out of the oven and been allowed to cool, and the tin and the three layers of greaseproof paper have been carefully removed, the cake is definitely not ready for eating.  You place it on two layers of aluminium foil, pour sherry or brandy or rum over it, and then wrap it up.  You repeat this procedure several times until the required consistency and degree of moistness has been achieved.  The cake is then ready to eat, but this process takes weeks.

My oven is not a gas oven: it is an electric, fan oven.  I have written 140 ºC next to ‘gas mark 2’ and 125 ºC next to ‘gas mark 1’.  I stopped to consider this action for a long time before I put pen to paper: it seemed at first like it might be an act of vandalism or forgery.

If you want to cook this recipe as my mother used to, then you need a kitchen with doors that you can shut to exclude every-one else in the house, and preferably one that you have occupied for several years.  You will need a portable radio permanently tuned to BBC Radio 4, a packet of Rothmans cigarettes, and a glass of cooking sherry (for drinking rather than cooking).

Cook.  Smoke.  Drink.  Shout at the narrator on Radio 4 as often and as loudly as possible.  Attack (after picking up the nearest suitable weapon) any-one who tries to enter the kitchen.  Upon finishing, emerge in order to lie down on the sofa in front of the TV, and complain at length about having had to ‘slave over a hot stove’.