Highgate Cemetery

29/06/2013 at 21:30 (Poetry, Writing) (, , , , , , , , )

Let me preface this with the admission that the photos were taken on a naff little Nokia. I’ve used the best possible shots, minus pixel-spatter.

Highgate Cemetery.

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You were once as I am now
A dreamer full of sleep and lust
A thought on someone else’s time
A river flowing to the mind

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I am here, among the stones
The ivy-clad, the sparse and blank
The fretted vines of ages gone
The scent of death and heavy life

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We are gone and they remain
To watch us through the lowered night
With faces chapped by falling rain
Beneath we lie, as one in dust.

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Writing Reality: German Expressionism as a literary filter

28/06/2013 at 20:34 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , )

Imagine, if you will, the Weimar Republic of Germany between the two world wars (1919-1933.) A country broken by the Treaty of Versailles – hit with hyperinflation, frozen out by the Allies’ trade blockades, and suffering beneath the chill mantle of winter with few provisions. A dark historical context, particularly when set against the fallout of the first war, with over two and half million Germans dead, four million wounded.

So it can be seen as admirable how, like lava placed under immense pressure to metamorphose into marble, the Weimar Republic still spawned some of the most influential art and science names and creations of modern history. Albert Einstein lived and taught in the capital Berlin; Bertolt Brecht’s plays were infamous as Marxist interpretations of society. Inevitably, with the rising Nazi tide, these pioneers of culture would find themselves in self-imposed exile from Germany for their own survival – by 1933, the spirited party had come to an end. This was to be Hollywood’s gain; it’s no coincidence that film noir had firmly established itself throughout the 40’s, with the arrival of those exiled film makers.

This article intends to highlight the features of that crucial and dark time, spearheaded by the Expressionist movement – and most importantly, what writers can learn from their methods.

“All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive – of its author and of the situation in which he works – but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist.”
(Art historian Norbert Lynton)

How can this translate down to written text? How can characters become people by virtue of not only their speech, but their context, actions and reactions? More to the point – how can the world you put them in jump off the pages to grab your audience, and tug them in?

When writing my characters, I try to visualize them in my mind as actors/actresses on set. This has much to do with the film studies A Level course I took some years ago, which taught me how to break each scene down to a frame-by-frame flow. Naturally, it’s time-consuming: but it’s well worth the bother. When you actually imagine, say, the living room in which your characters are being written into, things start to leap out at you. The exquisite china set on the mantelpiece, which you’re at pains to describe – does it actually belong in their world? Are they the kind of people who’d feel the need to populate their interior decor with such quaint delicacies? Can they even afford such effects?

If you’re writing about a couple on the Dole – probably not. They’d most likely have sold such things by now. Nostalgia and sentiment, do not feed mouths. But their absence, can feed a scene. You might instead make note of the little round spaces where they once stood, among the dust.

Now imagine the precarious world of the German Expressionist director. Fritz Lang and Erich Pommer, for example, didn’t have much cash to flash when it came to the production of their films. But this wasn’t their greatest preoccupation; it was the conveyance of emotional expression to the audience, and by such darkly twisting means that are now synonymous with early German cinema. Such was the upheaval in their country at that time, they certainly weren’t lacking in emotional input, or inspiration.

Germany barely had enough to feed itself, left alone subsidize the creation of films. Imagine yourself in this position when writing to reach your audience. Their attention span, is your budget. It doesn’t have to become a countdown of words; your imagery doesn’t have become so sparse that they’re as a house without glass in the windows. (Unless you’re writing solely in the surreal sense to convey a house devoid of emotion and life, or after a concussive storm – in which case by all means, go ahead.)

The audience – and if you’re aiming for publication, a potential agent – will be looking for the unfamiliar, the exotic, the tantalizing. They don’t want to see the same hackneyed cliches, the same slipshod metaphors. To describe a large man as “beefy” or “fat”, is toppling off the unimaginative cliff. If, however, you take a leaf out of Erich Pommer’s book, with his fine representation of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you might describe your large man differently.

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Note the skewed angles of the set, the warped perspective, the flimsiness of the paper misc-en-scene. Everything is off-kilter and surreal. Pommer doesn’t need to tell the audience that events are otherworldly, disturbing; they can see for themselves. It’s that wonderful phrase, Show don’t Tell, which can haunt many a writer’s days and nights. It’s speaking to the imagination of the audience; coming at them from a different angle than has been used before.

Your large man could be be described as “filling the doorway with his shoulders”; his hand could “envelop the glass handed to him.”

Now, I’ll admit right now that I’m not a dialogue writer. Witty banter doesn’t flow from my fingers; my penchant is the abstract, the inferred. Metaphors and similes are at once my playthings, and the anchors that chain down the sentences I write, when overused. I’ve referenced this before.
Often, characters will stand with arms akimbo and feet tapping, as they wait for me to find *that* spark, the right words that will convey all I mean to say through their dialogue and actions, with as little clunky interference to the narrative flow as possible.

From studying the Expressionist films in particular, I’ve learned to pare things right down. To put myself in the position of the actor/actress, on set with limited funds for a retake; in the shoes of the character they play, with often shocking (or at least disturbing) circumstances unfolding around them. Take poor Maria, of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for example –

Chased through the catacombs, she is port-holed in shadow. The focus is entirely on her, on the weakly flickering light of her candle. The misc-en-scene is that of death and minimal chance of escape – skulls line the walls, rubble is strewn before her every footfall. When the hand flashes on-screen to stub out her candle, it’s as surely an ominous premonition of what may be to come – her own life snuffed, just as quickly – as a knife to the throat. But it’s more interesting to watch.

The sweep of the spotlight over the skeletons, over her increasing terror, is that of control. Your light, your life, in the hands of another. The Doctor, all wild hair and framed by skulls, that awful seeking light, doesn’t need to say a word to get his message across.

The hunt through the tunnel, is a pure depiction of raw terror. Her limbs flail, her body ricochets off of walls; you see the pain and panic on her face, which is washed out by that ever-seeking light. The hunting shadow crawls along the wall behind her, another premonition of relentless Death, or something worse.

When the tunnel reveals itself seemingly a dead end, her trauma is made clear in the shadow thrown to the wall – stretched fingers, upraised arms. Her movements are stark. Maria’s wide eyes and mouth, tell us more than words ever could.

This is the immediateness I aim for, when a character’s status quo is thrown so out of whack; when the regular procession of their thoughts – wit, humour, intelligence – are marginalized by the intensity of feelings. We’ve all been there before; when that punchy one-liner just wouldn’t come, and your tongue felt like a dead fish, but hours later the words flowed smooth as silk and you only wished for a rehash of the situation. Too often, words let us down. It’s then that actions and symbolism, may take their place. Maria wouldn’t have had time to sum up her situation in pretty phrases of description. Her language – mirrored in her staccato movements – would be sharp and jagged as her breathing.

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, is an excellent example of such Show don’t Tell. The vampire has no need for speech in this scene; his living shadow is evocative enough a presence, creeping across the wall in stark lines of black, trailing seductive fingers up the helpless body of Ellen before him. No need for nakedness. There’s enough symbolism there to reference what may or may not come – the unease, the lack of control, of safe passage out of this dire situation.

In another scene, the vampire stands framed in a doorway. Not so interesting when written plainly thus: now, notice how said doorway is shaped like a coffin…

Notice also, the blue and yellow filters – the cankerous light, the pale sheen of death. The thick shadows laid either side of the frame.

This kind of symbolism can be a useful inlay for your writing. Take note of what your characters are likely to experience sensually in each scene. For example, smells that evoke past memories, can in turn colour the aura of a present situation – a girl sifting through pears laid out on a market stall, may recall sadly her late grandmother’s fondness of the fruit. Her memory will be turned to bittersweet thoughts, represented by the flavour; this can become a recurring theme of the story, with the pears making an innocuous appearance whenever a scene is likely to convey such emotions.

More often than not, your characters won’t have the time or inclination to funnel your own personal ideas and/or beliefs. And why should they? You want them to live their own lives, to breathe and speak, use body language and that of the tongue. Let their actions, homes and relationships, sensory perceptions and reactions to whichever situation you place them in, shine through as forms of pure expressionism.

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Questions in a world of Blue

26/06/2013 at 20:34 (Personal)

This scene, from the David Lynch series Twin Peaks / film Fire, Walk with Me, has always meant more to me than any moment of its schizophrenic run. Even the scene when Leland Palmer …
Wait. You might not have watched it. I’m cruel in the eyes and hands, but never a spoiler.

But there’re always these filthy riffs to set things right, and strut to:

Angelo Badalamenti is some kind of awesome. Twin Peaks / Fire, Walk with Me, are two favourite writing soundtracks.

I’d love to laugh at this banality of existence, day-by-day conversing with estate agents who’re performing slow vampire sex on my bank balance and morale, while inept employers misdirect references…

Our kick-out date looms, this weekend. We’re half packed, half-starved from lack of appetite, and dying for a night out. I only realized today that I’ve not had a holiday since June last year.

I mean, I’m a workaholic, but this is a little ridiculous.

It’s our 5 year anniversary this Friday. Neither of us has the energy or emotional impetus to celebrate. The past 2 have been a gradual precipitation of apathy.
I’ve no time. Not enough left, and I need my life back. To travel, and see the world as I should have, all those years ago in my teens, before depression crept up and quietly bit me. New faces, new places. Writing about both, all the Boho stuff, shine and murk.

Above all, I want to find somewhere that feels even half like home. So that when I finally tire of the world, I’ll have a place to fall into.

When did our faces become so plain to each other? When did the words become too hard to say, when they sprang from our lips like blood before? I used to feel that knot in my chest. Now, I breathe clearly again. Except when I think back on what we had, who we were; then, the memories try to drown me again.
But I can’t subsist on memories. No one can.

I’ll probably end up erasing this entry in 24 hours time, once I’ve wiped my face down, reread its self-pitying bilge, and laughed at myself. As all good Brits do. Normal service will resume tomorrow, when I’ve had enough sleep to think clearly.

I’ll edit the novel some more, add chapters here and there as needed; paint the walls of my kingdom, and fashion it with lives I can control. More and more, I dream of living in Reighton (or at least, the universe it exists in, as the town itself is in slow economical and emotional decay.) I want to live where the blue roses grow; where time can be held still, so we can look each other in the eye, just that little bit longer.

At least my friends on the other side of the pond, have had an ace day. You couldn’t ask for more, of a midweek.

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Writing Reality: Novel Soundtrack, “End of the Line”

21/06/2013 at 23:31 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , )

I listen to music while writing; mainly instrumental, for less lyrical distraction, though a few softer vocalists make their way in too. Below is a selection I pulled together, of favoured artists and bands, for a would-be novel soundtrack. Sadly, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – with tracks generally running to a quarter-hour apiece – had to be consigned to the B-side of the vinyl issue, in the style of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes.’

1) The Levellers ‘Too Real’: Two mismatched teenagers, unlikely friends in a town of slow decay.

2) The Civil Wars,’20 Years’: The secret diary of a missing girl

3) Soley, ‘I Drown’: For the whimsy and idiocy of falling in love with a friend

4) The Levellers, ‘100 Years of Solitude’: For the Deathwalk race over the blustery Greenfell viaduct, towards the quarry – with gangs at your heels

5) I am Kloot, “Same Deep water as Me”: When the blues drag you both down, and neither can let go

6) Mogwai, ‘Too Raging to Cheers’: For the brassy evening light, hanging high in the trees, and the pollen-thick air; for wandering the old line

7) The Smiths, ‘I know it’s Over’: For that first, last dance. “Isn’t this a bit ominous?”

8) Soley, ‘Kill the Clown’: When the mask is pulled on, the man disappears into his past

9) The Levellers, ‘Red Sun Burns’: The blue moon rises, and the walls talk

10) Miriam Stockley, ‘Another Perfect Day’: The wind changes, lives move on – but there are no happy endings, because nothing ever ends

11) Blonde Redhead, ’23’: Played over end credits, scrolled over rhododendrons’ green-gold haze

Vinyl B-side: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Dead Flag Blues” – for walking the length of the line under a bone white moon, towards the quarry.

That’s the gist of my first novel, “End of the Line” – old-gold light and blue-black shadows; racing through twisted undergrowth; an abandoned quarry and its disused rail line; hooky bus trips; slightly mental teachers; teen gang warfare, and a missing girl’s diary. All filtered through the 1st POV of a lad with too much going on upstairs for his own good. More fact, less context.

Letting go of the rail, clinging to the backs of each chair, she wobbles up the aisle. Litter clinks and rattles a colourful stream around her boots. “Nope. You’re a fellow outsider.”
I laugh. “Oh yeah. Because your drive-by knowledge of everything and everyone in this town, qualifies you an outsider.” Grunting, I plunk back down. “I think I’ll head in the back door, after all. Take my chances with the Mafia.”
She stares at me, all humour washed out of her eyes. “No, I wouldn’t say that’s a good idea. You’re an outsider because you’re new here. They’ll know it. Come in the front way.”
I smirk. “If I was being gross…”
The wishbone jaw tightens. She hefts the bag back up her shoulder. “Suit yourself,” she says shortly. “See you around.”
“Not likely,” I tell her. “You don’t seem like the kind of person someone like me would be seen with.”

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Review – “The Wild Road”, Gabriel King

11/06/2013 at 20:16 (Reviews, Writing) (, , , , , , , )

The Wild Road, co-authored by Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison under their collaborative pseudonym Gabriel King, is essentially the Watership Down of cats. Described by William Horwood, the bestselling author of Duncton Wood, as “an enthralling epic of a tale”, it is a novel filled with feline politics and mysticism, historical reference and reflections on identity. Narrated almost exclusively through the eyes of Tag, the young Burmilla protagonist, it is as much a bildungsroman as reverential catalogue of what makes up your feline friend’s world.

The story begins with an innocuous-enough line: “The one-eyed black cat called Majicou sat between a rusting cage and two sacks of stale grain on a shelf at the top of a shop on Cutting Lane.” It still resonates down the years to me, from that 1997 book signing I happened upon at Kensington Olympia, attending my third Grand National Cat Show with my father. It was our habit to wander the stalls set up with all feline-related wares, opposite the show bench and cages filled with every breed imaginable. Only 12 at the time, I had no idea of the significant impact this book would have on me – on my own writing – when the authors smiled, and signed my copy’s interior.

They might well have fitted their own cats – “Iggy”, a young Burmilla (framed as the protagonist, Tag) and “Finn”, a beautiful Norwegian Forest queen (reshaped as the King of Cats) – with cameras. Such is the attention to detail in the narrative, no blade of grass is left unstirred without remark; the smallest experience is caught and refracted through the mind and body of the kitten narrator we come to inhabit (“Up and down the room rushed Tag, clapping his front paws in the air. He loved the movement. He loved the heavy warmth of the air. Everything was exciting. Everything was golden. The iridescence of each bubble was a brand new world, a brand new opportunity. It was like waking up in the morning.”) And as each experience is dialled down to the acute senses of the cat, so we too come to know what it means to live so close to the ground, so attuned to the world, which often bypasses the human existence: “He heard them burst, in a way a human being never could, with a sound like tapped porcelain.”

Tag is a cossetted kitten, about to be sent on a quest to save the world. Not only the world of the cat, or that of the urban fox he comes to know as friend and mentor (“Loves a Dustbin” will forever remain one of my favourite fictional names), or the world of the wild creatures he learns to run alongside on the wild ghost roads of Earth energy – but the world of men. For it is a man who has brought to pass unnatural changes in the wild roads, causing them to erupt strange, twisted versions of cats – sorry little ghosts, with empty eyes and laboratory stitching. They hunt Pertelot Fitzwilliam of Hi-Fashion, an Egyptian Mau, whose dreams are haunted by the country of her ancestors (“‘In Egypt they mourned Her three days,'” she began in a febrile, sing-songy voice. “‘If she would not wake, they took her to the Canopic room …”‘ She looked around her suddenly. “‘I was never in Egypt,”‘ she said puzzledly.”) Pertelot is the Queen of Cats, bred by the Alchemist as The Mother – creator of the Golden Cat, which itself will hold the key to the natural world.

It is the task of the Majicou – ancient keeper of the animal highways and a cat on his final life – to protect the Mau. In doing so, he will snare Tag, pulling him out of his comfy home and into the wild environs he must learn to negotiate. We are with the growing kitten every paw-step of the way, as he becomes part of an unlikely fellowship of animals set against the Alchemist’s plans. That this group is made up of a surly magpie (“One for Sorrow”, of course), a fox, and a band of feral cats, is testament to the severity of the situation. Suspicion between the species often flares, and serve as a firm reminder that what we are dealing with are animals, outside of human social mores and etiquette.

That being said, the camaraderie between the group is made apparent through their own brand of animal socializing, in the style of the rabbits of Watership Down – “The magpie had returned to his perch, and seemed to be orchestrating the party. The fox chased the tabby round in a circle. The tabby chased him back the other way. The Mau watched like a cat carved in a pyramid … Ragnar was demonstrating for Mousebreath some move he believed to be specific Norsk Skaukatt… These events seemed odd but full of joy.”

The story is essentially Tag’s, set in a modern London lovingly painted through a cats-eye view (“It was about half a mile along the Caribbean Road, in the direction of the Fantastic Bridge…the sign on the front read (if you could read): Burgess Supermart and Deli. Tag had made his way through the morning foot-traffic, creeping along between a pavement and a wall, crouching and veering to avoid pram wheels here, the grasping hands of a toddler there.”)

Yet the novel takes the reader beyond any average animal adventure, with its referencing of both mythical and historical events, which have intertwined the fates of feline and man. Framed in the mythical nine lives of the cat, these enchanting segments are interspersed between Tag’s chapters (or those of other characters, when the party become separated) in order to flesh out the world these two powerful races have inhabited together over the centuries. The first “life” in particular, reads as a reformed Genesis (“At last, the first sound broke the silence. Rhythmic and insistent, charged and vital. Every corner was filled with awe and comfort, comfort and awe – But there were no cats yet to know the glory that was the first purr.”) These sections are at once reverential, humourous and damning, with references ranging from the medieval burning of cats, to their mummification in ancient Egypt (“It wasn’t long before the priests found a way to profit from that. Cats began to go missing… with a smart tap to the neck, helped them on their journey to the other world… Sometimes they can love you too much.”) In this way, history is replayed through the eyes of the cat, adding context for the reader to understand present events. In one life, the Alchemist (or rather, his cat, Hobbe) is alluded to being the catalyst of the Great Fire of London.

The Alchemist, it has to be said, is one of the most grisly antagonists I have ever encountered in literature – merciless as a grinning skull, and freakishly deformed in his pursuit of the ultimate knowledge of the cat: “In one hand, the Alchemist held a closed brass vessel streaming smoke. In the other, a short thick staff devised from the mummified foreleg and paw of some large black animal. Weird light flared off the eyepieces of his mask. Around him broke a tide of cats.” Since the novel is published under speculative fiction, allusions to Sir Isaac Newton and his pursuit of immortality towards the story’s middle, can be seen as a progression of narrative, and not doctoring of fact.

Even the staccato jumpiness of the dialogue/Tag’s internal monologues, add to the feline flavour (“‘Eat a bee,”‘ he thought. He thought, “‘Eat more than one.”‘) When framing the animals’ speech, the authors rarely progress further than simple sentence structure – a clever play on the snapshot world inhabited by each species, with constant referencing to every vital sense that keeps them alive.

The Wild Road is a grim story in places, and not for the faint of heart. Delivered with a whiskery promise of other worlds, ancient and modern, the reader is allowed a tentative step upon those ghost-populated animal highways. It’s an immersive read, convincing as it is influential. I still feel the hairs on my neck prickle as I watch a cat nonchalantly disappear into the grey shadows at the bottom of our garden. I find myself wondering how far they will travel, through the night.

My battered old copy lies beside me now. Its pages are well-thumbed with a growing girl’s desperate need to learn more of the strange other-world, which remains intriguing and influential to this day.

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Product details
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd; paperback / softback edition (6 Nov 1997)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0099242524
ISBN-13: 978-0099242529

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