Thursday, 24 July 2014

E.T Phoneme Home - Friday Flash

It certainly wasn’t my intention to overhear what the two men at the table next to me were saying. They’d been there for an age jawing away without me picking up on anything. But when I sneezed it hurtled me into their conversation. Or rather it thrust their conversation into me.

I guess my head was propelled towards them by my whole body spasm into the expulsion and that put me within range of clearer articulation. But the crescendo and uneven modulation of the assault of my sneeze upon my own ears, meant that I only grasped the merest snatch of their exchange. Just two words that emerged somewhere between my head jagging forward and the fluctuating percussion of the sneeze, which thereby rendered the words random. Certainly ripped from their context placed within the rest of the sentence.

The two words were “rude” and “ire”. I say words, but I far more credit them to have been syllables. I mean who uses “ire” in everyday speech these days? And by the same logic, I have to hope and trust the same applies to “rude”, otherwise I fear they were discussing me and labelling me thus. Wholly without justification, since despite the ambush of the snout salvo, my reflexes were such that I managed to whip out my handkerchief and safely snaffle the discharge.

Even though I was averse to, my mind involuntarily begun trying to surmise what the full words might had been. It fixed on the “ire”, perhaps because that was indisputably a snapped off longer form, or maybe it didn’t want to dwell on the possibility that “rude” was delivered as it was meant. “Fire”, “hire”, “retire”, “acquire”, “conspire”, it could conceivably have been any of these. It might not even have been a word containing the lexeme “ire”, but as a homophone could very easily have been “liar”, “flier”, "pyre", “briar”, “supplier”, “buyer”, “prior”, “friar”, although I think that last one is likely to be an outlier. Normally one would have the added cue of the speaker’s face, but at that moment of course I had been confronted solely with the tabula rasa of my handkerchief (now imprinted with a mucal Rorschach of greens and yellows no artist’s palette could replicate), while at the moment of eruption my eyes were reflexively lidded and seeing of nothing. 

My mind would not rest however, resolved to determine whether I had been castigated and insulted by the other table for “intruding” in their chit chat. For being somehow crude when dabbing prudently to snag any snot extruding from my nostril. How else could the word “rude” be construed? They were unlikely to be pontificating on the morals of any woman called “Gertrude”, since who these days is bestowed with such a name? Whether such a woman was a “prude”, with or without a “brood”. Hang on a tick, it is just possible that it wasn’t the prefix which was overlain and sawn off by my nasal detonation. It could have been a suffix, as in “rudimentary”, or a bloke called “Rudolph”. Gertrude and Rudolph, who would have thought it? “Desire” that’s another “ire” word. How could I have possibly missed that one? I bet they had been parleying nothing more than a good bit of lewd prurience. A rudimentary desire to… 

There was only one way to determine this definitively, well one way apart from asking them directly which would be intrusive and rude. I would see if I could pick up any clues by observing the rest of their conversation. I stared at them surreptitiously, but they were no longer engaged in colloquy. Instead each was cutting their meat, stabbing it on the end of their fork, hoisting it into their mouths and silently chewing. That augured to a certain level of etiquette, which naturally could have proved the case either way. That these two were relatively effete and therefore quick to take offence at the perceived rudeness of others. Or that they hadn’t registered anything of my unfortunate sonic interposition earlier and remained oblivious to my very existence next to them. 

There was only a single action remaining to settle this for good. I removed my handkerchief from my pocket, opened it and began to counterfeit inspecting it, all the time peeking just above its edge for their reaction. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Disenchanted Forest - Friday Flash

A faerie ring of discarded cigarette ends.

A henge of jagged bottles sawn off by practise bullets. Witches’ thimbles picked out in empty shell casings.

Wreaths woven not from acorns and oak leaves, but from silver foil and torn up aluminium can crack pipes.

A cromlech constructed from three abandoned shopping trollies.

Corn dollies festooned the bare ground, fabricated from condoms and tampons.

Hag stones cultivated from car tyres, corn circles of six-pack beer plastic.

A spineless scarecrow featurelessly fashioned from a mound of clothes and rags.

A small maypole erected from a medical crutch planted in the soil while strips of bandages billowed from it.

Devil’s footprints forged from pillboxes, twisted glue tubes and lighter fluid tins. 

Where rubbish had been burned, scorched into the grass was a black chalk outline of a prone man shorn of a wicker husk.

The giant ash tree stretching to the heavens had played host as gallows, suspending the lowliest man on earth from its branches.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

60s Music - A barren decade

Until the dawn of the 21st century, the 1960s was my least favourite decade for music. I wasn't sure if I could even scrape together ten tunes to form one of my customary themed charts. And yet it was a highly political decade with youth at its head, so could have been more crucial musically than it turned out to be, although to be fair at least by the decade's end we no longer had to watch our beat combo groups performing on TV still wearing suits. Anyway, here are my top 10 tunes from the 60s.

1) The Doors - "Light My Fire"
To me Doors were the quintessential sound of the 60s. A bit political, a bit rebel, a bit hippy, a touch literary and a lot druggy. Having said that they along with Hendrix are perhaps the only two artists who would have more than a handful of songs in my collection. And Coppola's use of "The End" to bookend his movie "Apocalypse Now" is a perfect artistic synthesis.

2) MC5 -  "Kick Out The Jams"
Now here were a political group who brought a whole heap of trouble down on their heads because of their incendiary music. I met Fred Sonic Smith once, and he looked very burned out. that's what oppositional politics can do for you I guess.

3) Shangri-Las - "Leader Of The Pack"
Girl groups were a staple of the pop charts, but the Shangri-Las turned up to inject a touch of edge, cynicism and put the 'bad' into the bad boy they always seemed to yearn for.

4) Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child"
Never been bettered, nuff said. In my contemporary record collection there are bands with maybe two top guitar riffs at best. Hendrix had albums chockfull of them.

5) Creedance Clearwater Revival" - "Have You Ever Sen The Rain"
This is one of those bands I wouldn't have come across were they not referenced and covered heavily by bands I like such as Sonic Youth and Minutemen. But and this is a big but, as great as the songs they wrote were, there is the question, as with Neil Young, of whether you can stand John Fogerty's reedy and frankly weedy vocals. That is the limiting factor for me.

6) Julie London - "Cry Me A River"
There will always be a place for female crooners and this stands the test of time. Will Adele? We will have to wait and see.

7) The Guess Who - "American Woman"
Don't know any other of their songs and again I came to this via a modern cover version, but this is great.

8) Jefferson Starship - "White Rabbit"
Those of you who know me will recall that I am very anti-drug use. And yet in a demonstration of cognitive dissonance, I acknowledge there has been some great music (but probably not great literature) made while under the influence. This is the grand-daddy of them all, or maybe the grand-mommy since Grace Slick's vocal style takes this song beyond the stratosphere.

9) Don Drummond - "The Man In The Street"
At least the 60s brought us Studio One label and the opening up of Jamaican reggae. So it wasn't all bad as a decade then...

10) Pink Floyd - "Lucifer Sam"
The great unsolvable question, what would Pink Floyd have been like if Syd Barett hadn't destroyed his brain cells and been forced to hand the group over to Roger Waters that helped usher in the bloated supergroups of the 1970s like Floyd, Led Zep, Yes, Supertramp, Steeley Dan et al.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Bye Bye Lingual - Friday Flash

I was the last in my line. The final native speaker of my language. It would die out with me since none would follow. For I had neither progeny nor converts. The concept of converts is a ridiculous one anyway, we ought to be learning our mother tongue at our mother’s knee. Our language doesn’t even have a word for ‘convert’.

Not that I haven’t striven my hardest. I’ve played on the emotional appeal of our tribe in peril without our indigenous tongue. I’ve tried to cajole, seduce, flatter and bully, again all to no avail. My kithmen refuse to have me pour our words into their cloth ears. The ewer holding our vernacular is cracked and the word flow has dribbled away into the dust. 

Our argot is an expressive one. Born of our rural roots, it is all facial articulation and gesture. It is simply impossible to dissimulate and deceive, unlike the measured blankness of the face that lies behind enunciation of the prevailing cant in these parts. There you can conceal anything and all meaning is shrouded and dissipated. So even though those I petition cannot understand my alien vocalisations, likely they can still glean my desperate hectoring of them. I can’t simultaneously smile and talk of my dying lexicon, the shape of our words simply will not permit me to. When I try and beseech them in their own language, they shrug and pronounce themselves happy with the pastel palette provided for by the dominant parlance. Our language has no word for ‘progress’ either. Yet it is the word that keeps being thrown back at me. 

And it is true, my own tongue is diluted and collapsing under the weight of import words to deal with the modern world and its advances. This is why the mothers shunned nourishing their babes with it, for perennially looking backwards in what constructions it could furnish, it failed to equip them for life. And as soon as it ceases being passed down the maternal line, then it takes very few generations for it to become extinct. And time is what I don’t possess as I near my own expiration. Even if I found a willing candidate, time is too short for them to assimilate sufficiently sized a vocabulary to preserve the language as a workable one. 

I’ve even ventured outside of our bloodline, entreating the sense of tragedy, the romantic, the exotic, the academic, the idle indexers, but with no takers. The academics suggested I might at least set it down in a lexicon where it might have a stab at being preserved in a dusty library stack. I pointed out to them that our language was an oral tongue only. It certainly didn’t abide by any written alphabetic characters and it couldn’t ever expect to be contained by a symbolic system. They shrugged and returned to perusing texts behind their half-moon glasses as they eclipsed the feeble embers of my hope.

This was how the sovereign language operated. It didn’t persecute us nor our florid tongue. It let us be and was completely indifferent to whether we existed or not. And that was sufficient to do for us. We had no cause to rally to, no injustices to try and draw on our glossaries from to form slogans to hurl at them. We just drifted over to the monolith that was this language so powerful it didn’t have to broadcast its strengths and virtues (which is just as well since I cannot discern any). We paled by comparison with it. Our words became ghostly, tugging at the sleeve uselessly for address.

I am exhausted in my quest to find a lingual heir, as exhausted now as all the spent leads. I am so weary, the search has hurtled my frail body closer towards death and yet I veer back from the precipice of annulment by the knowledge I cannot extinguish my language by allowing myself to do so.  And in those utterly defeated moments when I can do nothing but lie back in my chair and let the thoughts assail me, I wonder if I have been chosen to be yoked to the burden of being the last keeper of this particular tongue as some sort of punishment. Indeed we do have that concept in our vocabulary. My mother may have been the sole woman among her generation not to betray our race by passing on her language, but I myself may just have now forsaken us all. For as I said I have no progeny. I never took a wife. How was I supposed to know I was the last speaker of our kind when I pursued male lovers? Our language has no word for homosexuality. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Why UK Citizens Join The Fight In Syria

Yesterday two young men from Birmingham were convicted of fighting in Syria and returning to Britain and planning terrorist acts with the training they'd received. Also the identity of two 16 year old girls who had left Britain to join the war in Syria was also revealed. These girls had achieved great success in their school exams, so we are not talking about the vulnerable minds of people who cannot think for themselves here, just as the evidence to membership of religious cults shows adherents to be well educated and in search of something more in life which is why they join up.

So currently we have much hand-wringing about how elements of our youth become radicalised and want to fight in Syria. We enjoin their spiritual leaders in british Mosques to help stem the flow. We appeal to their parents to be vigilant for signs of radicalisation in their children. Yet none of these agencies really can penetrate the mindset that motivates these kids and they really are kids at age 16, to enlist in a foreign war. "Know thine enemy" is a crucial facet of success in war and most people don't have the first clue with what they are up against here. Hand wringing turns to open handed shrug.

The Birmingham men were only caught because one left a message for his mother and she took the emotionally wracked decision to report him to the authorities, as the government are calling on people to do. But without that letter, would she have had any idea that's where her son had gone after he set up an elaborate screen to suggest he was visiting Turkey? The mothers of two of the British boys featured on an ISIS recruitment video revealed last week said they had no idea their sons had joined up to fight. Parents don't know. The authorities don't know, how can this be?

It is well second nature for these recruits to lead double lives. In my book "Not In My Name" I offered a fictional journey for a youth from middle class Yorkshire to suicide bomber. I explored the myriad of identities expected and forced such a person and which he could inhabit while all the time having other motivations really in play.

The pressures are as follows:

Cultural and social

The word "jihad" means (spiritual) struggle, usually denoting an inner questing, but which in certain interpretations has come to stand for an external struggle against enemies of Islam. With such different identities foisted on these young men and women, they are already engaged in inner struggle from an early age. An external identity and cause conveyed by the likes of radical Jihad can unify these disparate strands and provide a unity of vision and self. The British authorities can wring their hands as much as Imams and parents, but they make no move to dissect these social pressures and conflicts that start the journey for recruits to Jihad. Our society is fundamentally alienating to people with such values so that they have no ties to Britain which enables them to both leave to fight abroad and maybe to return and wage war here with a terrorist act. It behooves us to examine our own values and how that may alienate certain people to such an extent they have no stake or value in our country. You don't have to agree with such alienation, but you sure as hell better understand how it arises. It's nothing new, the 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta described his own alienation in the West very clearly. It's in any recruitment or suicide video from a Western youth.

Again my book looked at all this and did not cast judgement. It had a range of voices, from the Muslim protagonist himself, his patsy (the novel represents an online grooming, but not for sex but for terrorism, to provide a witness once the suicide bomber has perished unleashing the dogs of the media to track down every last detail and link on this veritable innocent who had an online relationship with him), an intelligence whistle blower, and the whole blogosphere where the real politics is being fought out in a vicious battle for recruitment to causes and a battle for hearts and minds. The book's analysis is intricate and complex, but does penetrate the mindset of people who would blow up their fellow countrymen by strapping explosive to their bodies.

"They market death as a lifestyle. Conferring an off the peg posterity. Of soldier; freedom fighter; liberator; hero; martyr; patriot; bomber. When life circumstances have prevented the volunteer from being secure in the roles of lover, father, son, worker, provider, man of leisure. Such appeals strike at the very core of anxiety and neurosis. Become a sapper rather than merely sapped." (from "Not In My Name"

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Sunday, 6 July 2014

Flash Fiction - a retrospective

With the publication last month of "28 Far Cries" I've written and published almost 130 flash stories now. I thought I'd look back and decide which were my ten personal favourites from my first 3 collections and talk about them a little bit and link to them if you wanted to read them. It was really hard to narrow the list down to just ten, especially as the stories, themes and styles cover such a diverse range that it's hard to compare wildly different stories against one another to decide which I prefer. But here goes anyway and in no particular order.

1) "A Series Of False Endings" from "Long Stories Short"
I thought I'd start with a story that was all about endings! With the flash limit of 1000 words you don't have time for setting up stories in the beginning, nor do you have much scope for extensive descriptions. But all stories have an ending, twist or otherwise ( I blogged on the twist in fiction and got a writer friend to give the opposite view). So here is a tale entirely constructed from endings, as its title suggests. I thought of all the typical hollywood film endings, those iconic final scenes for the hero to take their bow and from that fabricated a dark story that all the time was moving to the only possible, final ending. 

A structure I use quite often in my flash is to take a central image and then consider it from several different angles. Like turning a gemstone in the light to see all the different facets illuminated. In this case I had the image of the lightened colour of the material of am armchair where a person sitting in it had worn away the fabric in the outline of their body and that led me to think about the tidemark in baths and other 'outlines' that mark the human body's impression, but which are themselves hollow. It's a sad tale as befits the emptiness of the missing body that makes such marks from the cradle to the grave. 

3) "Two Up, One Down" from "52FF"
I attended an event by author Tom McCarthy's fake intellectual The Necronautical Society in which the Necronaut panel of three grilled an architect and a psychoanalyst about the mental construction of space. Even though the framing was a spoof, the content was very stimulating and this flash tale emerged from it. It's about how we imprint on our houses, our living spaces, with little spoors and traces of our being and what happens when the inhabitants go their separate ways. A shared house mirrored the war between the couple and continued that combat even when one of the partners had moved out, because she still 'inhabited' the cracks and fibre of the house. It has become one of my favourite pieces to read live because it's packed with slow burning emotion.

4) "Just Aphasia Going Through" from "16FF"
I love words that mutate into other words simply through changing a letter. And yet the context of the sentence allows the reader to work out what the word mutated from as well as what it has morphed into. This allows reverberations and layers to seep through and I hit on the conceit of a tumour pressing in on the language centres of the brain which meant when the character reached for certain words, they invariably pulled out the wrong one. This came about after a relative was diagnosed with cancer that had metastasised and reached the brain. 

5) "Basildon Bond" from "Long Stories Short"
I was always intrigued by women who write to life sentence killers in prison and form non-physical relationships with them. I wanted to explore this but decided to do it from the point of view of the prisoner, to see what he got out of it and to try and tease out what might be at play in the psychology of the woman. The story is a letter from the prisoner and I refer to it as my contribution to the epistolary literary tradition, although I'm not sure there's ever been a story quite as dark as this in the tradition. Now a staple of my live performances.

6) "If It Were Thee" from "52FF"
This originally started life as me trying to write a story in the second person singular, but somewhere down the line the second person was totally erased and it became a story about this erasure of any person singular or plural. So "I" became "it" and "you" became "thee" and then it became a story about an artificial intelligence and the linguistic programming by humans to deny it having any sense of self. This story shows the power of language and its capacity to strip away identity. 

7) "Strains" from "16FF"
This is in my list because it's one of the the most intimate, inner stories of them all I think. It didn't start from that writing urge, rather it was an interest in the medical theories that babies in the womb not only respond to music but can recognise it after their born. So I speculated whether the music was an exact recollection, or whether there was a qualitative difference through being heard through the membrane of the mother's body and hearing it once born. Then I began thinking about other sounds being pure or distorted, such as music boxes, ice cream van chimes, the difference between hearing your own voice and then hearing it played back on a recording. The ending is one of complete fiction, but somehow this story feels very personal to me.

8) "Basic Geometry"from "52FF"
It's hard in some ways to pin this story down and yet in other ways it seems simple and clear. I was attending a poetry event where a friend of mine was reading and she used thew word "fuselage" in a poem. My mind went into overdrive with associations to that word, as often it does from a single word. "Fuselage" can only apply to airplanes, which is unusual in a noun to be quite so restricted. And when people say planes to me, I always return to thinking about 9/11. I myself have not stepped foot on a plane since that dark day. So I'm sat there in a poetry event, thinking about 9/11 and the action of those planes, but I've transposed the word "fuselage" into one made from Lego bricks. And I had this image of building a giant tower of Lego and then building a plane that crashed into it as a child plays out these dread, enormous images in their imaginative play, because the real life version is too difficult for our imaginations to contemplate readily. From that kernel the piece developed its other facets. I've yet to perform this one live, but I have got as far as printing it out in anticipation of reading it one day.

9) "Abacus" from "Long Stories Short"
Some of my stories are quite experimental in form and this is one of my favourite examples. It's several small vignettes based around the different number of limbs in various scenarios; a one armed war veteran, the sixteen arms pulling oars in a rowing eight; the eight limbs of an octopus; the six arms of a Hindu deity and so on. I think there's a lot of room for readers to find their own resonances from vignette to vignette, ones I won't necessarily be aware of.


10) "The Caller To The Bingo Caller's House Calls House" from "52FF"
Another story organised by numbers. I was struck by the poetry and the violence of bingo calling rhymes and that formed the basis of this story. I like the fact that there are no real paragraphs, or that each sentence forms a self-contained paragraph. This is great fun to do live as I hope the video shows.

You can buy any of the three collections on Kindle from Amazon

"28 Far Cries" is available in both print and on kindle.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

If It Were Thee

Though IT too had ball and socket joints, the Borg could not sit down to face ITs inquisitor. While IT felt the cleanliness imperative to sweep up the fallen embers from under the ashtray's lip, there was no concomitant compunction to issue any molecular mutation warning towards this human interlocutor. This was not a human IT had ever served before.

"So, tell me how it went down again."

'Again'? Had ITs human master performed such a parabola before?
"The human THEE was assigned to serve, fell over the balcony's balustrade. THEE was not witness to this circumstance."

"See I don't buy that, not for one moment."

Borg's speech recognition bundle ran over the audio input and automatically shunted over into the acronyms subfile; however the probability matrix rejected all prompts for 'C.I.' On a parallel track, the language synchromesh was filtering usage for the word 'buy' - credits, debits, transaction, merchandise, produce, all flash across ITs neural net, but none seem to correspond syntactically. Humans knew that the language applications bequeathed Borgs, worked on permutation and frequency analysis. Idiosyncratic speech such as that demonstrated by ITs current interviewer, left IT with no possible clear response. Only the twinkling of ITs facial panel's LED displays would indicate to ITs inspector that some measure of logical processing was taking place.

"Alright, let me try and make this easier for you. How did your sensors not detect the human there on the balcony while you were going about your duties?"

"THEE's focus was precisely directed on the tasks THEE's armatures were performing. Scanning at floor level as THEE cleaned it to spick and span gold standard."

"You know, I might believe that of a fellow human being. Restricted by a visual cortex comprised of wandering rods and cones, mounted on pivoting stalks so that we have to tilt up or down but not both simultaneously. Yet you my fine piece of cybernetic engineering, you aren't so constrained. No blind spots for you, since you cast a sensory mesh over entire areas and scan the lot at over 400 frames a second. There's no way the human's volumetric image would not have shown up in your scan. Unless there was a fault in your systems. But we've run full diagnostics. Your visual apparatus is functioning normally. Blind spots simply ain't conceivable."

Why was ITs interrogator telling IT this? IT had run ITs own diagnostics as matter of routine and pre-established fully operational visuals.
"Point of clarification please. Does the human mean for THEE to understand that he is using 'blind' as an associative idea?"

"Come on Borg, you can do better than that! We haven't programmed any language chip for literalism in well over a generation. You tipped him over the edge Borg and here I most definitely do mean literally not figuratively."

'Tipping'- a pecuniary reward given for good service ... The Borg always renders good service.
"THEE was executing THEE's roster of devoirs when THEE-"

"Yeah, 'executing'. That's a good word for it. Did you imagine it would liberate you from the chore of your duties?"

'Tchaw', no word match found. 'Chaw', no word match found. 'Chore', no word match found. Nearest match 'Jaw', discounted by syntactical context.
"THEE cannot imagine anything. THEE is fibre optics and silicon chips mounted on a motherboard. THEE is completely programmed."

"The crawlspaces in between Borg. The neural network we spawn but allow to develop of its own accord. The room our designers give Borgs for reflexivity. To better predict our wants and needs. The leeway we accord you to form independence of thought, even though we've erected bulwarks aplenty against you finding any identity. And right now, you're hiding facts in that space."

'Space'... space, has myriad of meanings. Context too wide, contains all meanings. Infinity itself. Expanding universes.
'Reflexivity' - mirrors. ITs topological visual synchromesh means silvered glass does not function for IT, but humans can view their own image.
"THEE's master had a tube mounted on a fulcrum on the balcony. Initially THEE analysed it as an armature, one like THEE's own welding arm. Maybe mounted awaiting repair or charging. But the armature always lay unattended during daylight hours. At night however, THEE witnessed THEE's master bend down and press his face into the descending end of the tube. Over time THEE refined THEE's observation to the fact that he was only pressing one eye into the tube. THEE could not apprehend for what function. THEE engaged him in inquiry as to whether please master wished THEE to clean or mend the armature in any way. Master declined THEE's request, instructing that THEE never need concern THEE  with what THEE is informed is called a 'telescope'."
'Telescope', no word match found. 'Scope'- range, breadth, space, opportunity. 'Television' - multi-dimensional human entertainment screen requiring of regular cleaning and dusting regimen, but not when illuminated.
"THEE needed to witness what master was witnessing. The tube's ascending arm pointed at the sky. With the dim twinkling lights therein. THEE needed to know what among the black therein held master's attention for hours at a time. No, not need, want. Master restates that THEE never need concern THEE with telescope. With range, breadth, space, opportunity. THEE, he, concept of need, cannot align two vocabularies. Need. Master's needs. THEE is to serve needs at all times. Master parabolates over balcony. THEE struggles to bend ball and socket joints to have visual sensors abut descending end of the tube."

"Good God in heaven!"

'Heaven', no match found. 'God'- irrelevancy, arcane value, passover.

"And what did you see in that tube Borg?"

"Nothing. Blackness, but different hue to the sky. No twinkling lights. Just chromatographic absence in topographical shape of the end of the tube."

"Still can't see yourselves in mirrors huh? Got some way to go yet before you pose any systematic threat. Thank you Borg. That will be all from you. For eternity."

'Eternity', no match found. 'Et', no match found. 'Earn' - merit, deserve, gain from service. 'Ity' - suffix expressing condition or state.

"Thank you human master."