Wednesday, 2 August 2017

WORK IN PROGRESS


My first novel, ‘Utter Folly’, was published more than four years ago. It did pretty well and I decided to write a sequel. But first I wrote a different novel, ‘Dead Writers in Rehab’, which was published in May this year. I also wrote a radio sitcom. And a collection of stories, which is now complete, I think, and will be published, I hope. Now I'm finally writing that sequel, and I'm posting some extracts, partly to see what you think, and partly to force myself to finish the book. That doesn't mean I don't want to write it, just that I need to trick myself into a kind of bargain. Writers will know what I mean.
            The new book is called ‘Monumental Folly’ and it picks up the story about four years after the end of Utter Folly. In this extract, James, the protagonist, has agreed to meet up with Oliver, whom he swore to have nothing to do with, ever again, at the end of the earlier book. But Oliver is the brother of Jessica, with whom James is still in love. When Olly calls him, and says he has important news for him, and hints it involves Jessica, James agrees, reluctantly, to meet him at a bar in Shoreditch:

James struggled through the crowd of hipsters, their facial hair like a thick forest just below his eye level. The place was rammed. But he could see Oliver through the crowd, waving from a small table in the corner. He was good at getting tables. James continued to force his way through the people, who were all muttering loudly at each other while they glanced constantly around the room, tormented by the suspicion that something cooler was happening somewhere else.
       So many beards. Some of them were blatantly ginger, too. Trousers were very short, and socks were absent in many cases, even though it was November. James reflected that the male ankle, in a strange inversion of Victorian attitudes, was now treated as some kind of erogenous zone; but one that was to be flaunted, rather than concealed, below the truncated ends of trousers as skinny as ballet tights. Another Victorian resonance was that women appeared to be an inferior species. There were plenty of them, but unlike the confident, tweed-encrusted, brogue-shod peacocks, they didn't seem to have settled on an appropriate look, and many of them appeared uncomfortable. Berets, caps and even bonnets were perched half-heartedly on their henna-streaked hair; flimsy layers of vintage clothing clashed with striped tee-shirts, and they peered anxiously through oversized glasses. James noted that they seemed to be drinking more than the men, perhaps to overcome their discomfort...'

James and Oliver start drinking. The more James drinks, the more he feels his attitude to Olly has been harsh and judgemental. True, Olly used his own sister as bait to dupe James into a dangerous criminal enterprise, exploited him ruthlessly, and was prepared to see him jailed in order to save his own skin, but he's great company. Lots of fun. Bloody good bloke, really. Just as James remembers to ask why Oliver summoned him, he's astonished to see Olly's uncle, the unscrupulous John Longbourne, appear in the bar:

He assumed it was John, anyway, and not Bill, his older brother. There was a strong resemblance between the two elderly men, and getting them mixed up had been only the first, and least serious, of a series of excruciating faux pas James had committed during his stay at the Longbourne house four years ago.
            He made a quick calculation. Olly's father, Bill, would be nearly eighty by now. John would be in his early seventies, which looked about right for the dapper apparition in the doorway, who now spotted Olly, and made his way to the table with a hint of wolfishness in his smile that confirmed his identity to James beyond doubt. John Longbourne was a far sharper character than his amiable, slightly unworldly brother. They also had a different approach to their personal appearance. While both brothers wore the type of clothes that defined them as country gentlemen, they were like a 'before-and-after' illustration of how different such attire could be made to look with just a little bit of attention – which was far more than Bill was prepared to devote to the patched and decaying collection of corduroy and tweed, held together by string, which was his everyday costume, and which he was only persuaded to alter once a week, when he was chivvied to church.
            John, meanwhile, had always been a dandy. This trait was now more evident than ever, and its effect on the assembled hipsters was remarkable. A silence descended on the bar. The bearded and moustachioed poseurs parted respectfully to make way for John, who wore his soft brown trilby, three-piece tweed suit, discreet tie, and ancient but highly polished brogues as if he'd been born in them. Everything about him spoke of effortless entitlement, and although his progress across the hushed bar was languid, his straight back and clipped moustache, with just a hint of a curl at its tips, added a military impression to his appearance. He looked like an aristocratic major who has retired from the Household Cavalry, perhaps to breed hounds and run the local Pony Club somewhere in Berkshire.
            James knew for a fact that John had never been anywhere near the army. He  also noted with distaste that the old man was sporting a monocle.
            This final touch was probably too much, and may have contributed to a ripple of unease that now began to spread among the hipsters, as they considered the possibility that there were unsuspected layers of irony here, which might need to be deconstructed. They were exquisitely alert to the danger of incurring mockery by failing to be an insider, privy to whatever secret contempt might lurk behind the latest attitude, and some of them glanced around furtively to see if the scene was being filmed. Were they, perhaps, unwitting extras in some kind of sneering reality show? Such a fate could ruin them, and they turned away hastily, resuming their conversations and exchanging knowing smiles, without actually knowing what it was they were implying they knew...


That's all for now. More extracts to follow. Probably.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

YOUR ARMAGEDDON BUCKET LIST


Whether you're a feisty silver fox determined to savour your twilight years, or a fresh-faced youngster eager to begin your journey through life, what could be more natural than making a list of things to do before you die? However, we currently face the strong possibility of imminent nuclear annihilation, and you may be fried to a crisp with very little warning. Use this handy guide to downscale your list of aspirations so they can be fulfilled in a more realistic timeframe.

SWIM WITH DOLPHINS*
Dolphins are so cool. However, they prefer to live in the sea, often a considerable distance from the beach. How about settling for the next best thing: swimming with friends of dolphins? If you read the label on almost any can of tuna you'll see it described as 'dolphin friendly'. So, take a can of tuna to your local swimming pool, empty the contents into the water, and hop in.

SING WITH A CHOIR.
Highly commendable, but choirs are notorious hotbeds of gossip, spite and treachery. They're also a nightmare of bureaucracy, and you won't have time to negotiate all this before the mushroom clouds bloom. You're better off singing along to a recording, and watching the skies. When the horizon lights up you'll have just enough time to fast-forward and join in with the climax of the Hallelujah chorus before the blast wave reaches you.

CLIMB MOUNT EVEREST
Are you fucking insane? Climbing any mountain, let alone Everest, is incredibly dangerous. And don't say, "Oh, but mountaineers do it." Have you met a mountaineer? They're pathological obsessives incapable of forming human relationships. Here's a typical extract from a mountaineer's memoir:

… as I looked down at Duane, dangling over the crevasse on the end of my rope, I knew my faithful comrade faced certain death unless I could drag him to safety. There was no time to hesitate. Using all my strength I swiftly sawed through the rope with my knife. Saving him would have delayed my ascent by up to an hour…

Climb a tree. It's just as fulfilling, and the view is probably better than at the summit of Everest or Kilimanjaro, whose slopes are now strewn with trash, and resemble the site of a rock music festival after the fans have gone home.

SKYDIVING.
Look, if you're just interested in scaring the living shit out of yourself there are easier ways to do it. Watch the news.

LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE.
Why? You'll never get around to using it. Your limited time would be better spent on crafting a few succinct words in your native tongue with which to deliver a meaningful final message to your close friends and family. Things like:

"I wish I'd told you more often that I love you."
"I said this would happen."
"I never liked your mother."
"I was faking it. Every single time."
"Didn't I say this would fucking happen?"

VISIT EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
Too late. Way too late. But here's an option: get hold of a globe that shows all the nations of the earth, one that you can spin around. Spin it. As it spins, and the colours blur, jab your finger on it, bringing it to an abrupt halt. That country where your finger rests? Obliterated. Spin again, and jab again. That ocean? Vaporised. And again. Gone. All gone.
            Sit back and look at the globe. That's our home. Pity we fucked it up. But you know what? In a way, you will visit every country in the world. When everything and everyone disintegrates, in a blinding flash or a slow entropic sigh, all matter will dissolve. All atoms will mix promiscuously, and some tiny part of you will blend with a speck of Latvia, Senegal or Chile. After all, this is how it all began: atoms, dancing. We are stardust, man. Ciao. KABOOM.


*Fun fact: when dolphins leap out of the water it's because they were asleep, and suddenly woke up and thought, Shit, I'm drowning! Then they remember they’re a dolphin, and they're embarrassed about freaking out, so they squirt a spout of water, to make it look like they meant to do everything all along.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

THE HELL GUIDE TO CROWDFUNDING


1. Begin crowdfunding by making a list of names, starting with your family and close friends. In your heart, bid them farewell.

2. Now list your colleagues and acquaintances. For each person, come up with three reasons why it doesn't matter if you never speak to them again.

3. Send an individual email to everyone on your list, addressing them by name. Make it personal. Affirm your connection with them, and mention the last time you met. Ask how they're doing. Remind them that you know where they live, and what their deepest fears are.

4. Wow, you've hit 20% of your target in the first week! At this rate you'll be funded in no time.

5. Two weeks later, and you're still on 20%. Begin a relentless social media campaign. Stay online all day, every day. 

6. After a week you've hit 30%. That's more like it. After another week you've hit 31%. Shit. Send another email to everyone you've ever met, while continuing your relentless social media campaign. Don't worry, most of those people unfollowing you on Twitter are fake accounts. Probably.

7. Finally reach 50%. NB: If at this point your keyboard is sprinkled with white powder, and it's not drugs, you should probably wash your hair. Also shower, eat, open the curtains,  emerge from your room, comfort your frightened children who don't remember who you are, etc.

8. After another week you're only on 51%. Maybe you should try some positive visualisation. So, imagine your project is fully funded. See it being a huge success. Visualise yourself at an awards ceremony, having given a witty, gracious acceptance speech, as your so-called friends approach you and apologise for not having funded the project, and confess how foolish they now feel. Picture their faces as you deliver an elegant but deadly put-down, whose utter brilliance is slowly grasped by their limited intelligence, while the appreciative laughter of the famous onlookers who now surround you in an adoring crowd adds to their shame and humiliation. 

Okay, that's probably enough positive visualisation.

9. Every day is now a gruelling emotional rollercoaster ride from despair to elation and back again, via agonising frustration, exhausted nonchalance, hysteria, savage resentment, boiling rage, and periodic voodoo sacrifices. Enter a weird fugue state of both heightened awareness and total oblivion.

10. Somehow you finally reach your goal. Weep with gratitude for the generosity and nobility of everyone who supported you, and forgive all those who didn't. They are only human, after all. Puny mortals, who knew no better. But you – you are a god. Your achievement is monumental and eternal. Allow yourself a small glass of champagne to celebrate.

11. Wake up from a three-day drinking binge. Apologise to everyone for whatever you did. Let us never speak of this again. But hey, you did it! The project is funded! The process was tough, but it was worth it. What a journey, right? It was awesome. But there's no way you'd ever do it again, of course.

12. Now all that remains is to bask in the adulation of a grateful public (see section 8).

13. Wait for the grateful public to get around to noticing your achievement.

14. Keep waiting.

15. Realise the grateful public is completely unaware of your masterpiece. What you need is publicity and promotion. And guess what? You're on your own again. If only you had a budget for a publicity campaign, and were able to pay for advertising, or employ a professional PR person. It's almost like promotion is a whole new project in itself, that requires... funding. Wait, maybe there's a way to raise the funds for this promotional project. Perhaps the answer is to persuade a bunch of people to support it. 
A whole crowd.


By the way, my new novel, Dead Writers in Rehab, is now available in all good book stores, and on Amazon. To check out the tasty reviews and buy it CLICK HERE.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

HOW I WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS


This is strictly confidential, and I'll be in big trouble if they find out, but I'm going to tell you about the first time I was abducted by aliens. It was many years ago, but that first time is still fresh in my mind. So is the smell. I'd heard abduction stories, but none of them mentioned anything about aliens stinking like rotting seal carcasses, or the overpowering stench inside the spacecraft. You'd expect superior beings from another galaxy to have air conditioning, but the inside of that thing was like a cheap hotel room with no windows, where a bunch of elderly men with stomach trouble had been holding a farting contest for a few weeks. Nothing prepared me for it. Most of the stories you hear focus on how the aliens will interfere with you in an unwelcome and personal way. Which is why, as soon as I woke up and realised where I was, I turned to the alien who seemed to be the boss and said:
            "Okay, if you're going to do anything in the way of probing or penetrating go ahead, but at least warm your hands first, will you? Or your tentacles, or whatever." I was attempting to break the ice by introducing a light-hearted tone into the situation, but the alien seemed shocked.
            "Are you serious?" he said. "What kind of people do you think we are?"
            Now, when I say he spoke to me (I assumed it was a male, and it wasn't until later that I understood their gender arrangements, which are a little different from ours) what I mean is that I heard his voice, but his mouth didn't move. Mainly because he didn't have a mouth. "Aha," you're thinking, "it was some kind of telepathy, right?" Wrong. He spoke through his ear. Loud and clear. I discovered they employed one ear for listening, and one for speaking. And one for sex. As I said, their arrangements were a little different.
            Before I could express my relief at hearing that my intimate orifices were safe from investigation, the alien made a noise that sounded like a discreet cough, and continued:
            "However, I must warn you," he said, "that after we've gathered the necessary data from you, we need to conduct certain… procedures."
            I asked what he meant.
            "Basically," he said, "we have to turn you into a redneck."
            Seeing my confusion, he curled a friendly tentacle around my shoulder and continued. "You see, in order to study your species we generally abduct the most intelligent specimens. However, a problem arises once we've extracted their data. If we release them, they're naturally eager to recount their experiences. The more intelligent they are, the more likely they are to be believed, which doesn't suit us just yet. What can we do? We'd never consider killing them. We respect all life forms, even those whose rights are unrecognised by your species, such as whales, cockroaches, trees, and dandruff. Our solution is to transform our visitors into the type of people who lack credibility. Everybody then disbelieves them, and points out how suspicious it is that the only people who ever seem to get abducted are rednecks, weirdoes, and clearly delusional fantasists. So, we're going to reduce your intelligence, put ninety pounds on you, limit your vocabulary, and make your eyes dart around the whole time."
            This was bad news for me, especially as I was, at that time, Regius professor of moral philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford. "But wait," I said, "can't you use some type of device to erase the necessary part of my memory?"
            He laughed indulgently. "You've been watching too many movies," he said. With that, he signalled to his companions, and within moments I found myself strapped on a gurney, losing consciousness. I managed to ask one final question:
            "What is that damned smell?" I croaked.
            "What smell?" he said.
            It was then that I saw the alien had no nose.


And that, friends, is how I became the man I am today: an overweight auto mechanic called Randy, living in South Carolina. As I said, this is all top secret, and if they… wait. That smell. And those lights outside. Dear God, they've found out I'm writing this! Maybe through some kind of brain implant. Okay, I'm going to get this on the internet before they capture me. But if you're reading this, you are now in possession of the truth, and they may come to get you. Remember, the first sign is the smell.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Christ in Michigan



Christ woke up with a pounding headache somewhere outside Flint, Michigan.
            Resurrection was always uncomfortable, but nobody needs a headache. He recalled what a Buddhist friend of his was always saying: "suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy." Or maybe it was the Buddha himself who'd told him that. He made a mental note to ask the fat man about it the next time he saw him.
            He looked around. He'd arrived in a bleak industrial wasteland with a few decaying factories visible in the distance. He hadn't visited America for around fifty years, and the place seemed to have gone downhill. He'd been tempted to go to New York – which is why he didn't.

He headed towards town and checked into the first motel he reached. There was a bible in his room, and he always found bibles entertaining, but it didn't have pictures. The last time he was here he'd loved the religious illustrations he found, depicting him as some kind of hippie Aryan surfer dude with a creepy smile and perfect teeth, wearing a weird, glowing toga.
            This time, in order to adjust his appearance, he switched on the TV and watched everything, everywhere, all at once. Then he spent a moment in front of the mirror and came up with a neatly trimmed beard, hair just above the shoulders, and a complexion that suggested mixed Caucasian and African parentage, with a hint of Amerindian. He'd been female in his most recent incarnation, so it was testosterone time again. As he took the pills he discovered the water tasted awful.        
            Almost without thinking he left the motel, located the source of the pollution that was contaminating the water, and fixed it. On the way back to town he had a twinge of conscience, realising he'd broken the no-miracles rule he'd imposed on himself a few hundred years ago. But was it even a miracle if nobody saw it? Anyway, how much harm could it do?

Plenty, it turned out. He'd only been preaching for two days when the trouble started. It seemed the water company was taking credit for cleaning up the supply. Then the government claimed responsibility. But that type of stunt wouldn't fly any more, not with the internet in the picture. People investigated, assertions were made and denied, theories were proposed and debunked, the debunking was itself debunked, and then re-bunked again.
            The water was clean, but everyone was angry. Even the environmentalists were pissed off because they couldn't hold the culprits to account now the pollution had vanished, and where was the fun in that?
            Christ was fascinated by the sheer energy of the online world, a vast parallel universe in which every transaction was conducted by enraged bees.

It was one of his disciples who drew media attention to him. As usual, Christ's followers were the wretched of the earth: street people, sex workers, servants, hustlers, troubled sinners, drug addicts, a few lawyers.  
            One of them filmed a sermon on her phone and posted it to a big Catholic web site. It was simply Christ talking. He wasn't trying to be compelling or charismatic, but he didn't try to fight it either. He'd learned long ago that what was going to happen was inevitable if he told the truth, and he couldn't stop himself telling the truth. That wasn't going to happen.

Christ went viral.
            People found out where he was, and began attributing the inexplicable purification of the water supply to his presence in the region. The media descended, bringing down a shit-storm. For a while, the furious denouncers were evenly balanced with the passionate believers, and he was besieged by would-be converts, hoping for salvation – which could mean almost anything, depending what their problem was. The web went crazy, with every conceivable explanation being proposed for who he really was and what he really wanted. Several women claimed he'd fathered their children, and several others were eager for him to father theirs without delay.
            But soon the narrative scales began to tip. A story about a devious charlatan was easier to pitch than one about a good man telling the truth. Where's the character arc? The dramatic conflict? What's the journey here? The negative spin had more legs.
            Christ prepared himself for crucifixion, of one kind or another. But before the drama could reach its designated climax he was abducted early one morning by a group of serious, unsmiling men, supported by special forces who were masked and armed to the teeth. He was told only that he was being taken to the leader.
            
The man was a strange colour, as though he suffered from some kind of radiation sickness, and he seemed surreally stupid. It quickly became clear that Christ's potential as a weapon was being considered. He was questioned about his 'powers' and how he controlled and directed them. The leader was childishly excited by the thought that finally he had within his grasp the means to inflict defeat and humiliation upon all those who had scorned and mocked him.
            Naturally, Christ had recognised his old enemy at once, despite the bizarre incarnation. In all his many guises, the darkness of the heart was unchanging. But now his eternal adversary was using a new tactic, and Christ had to admit to a certain grudging admiration for his cunning.
            It seemed that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was no longer to convince the world he didn't exist. It was to convince himself he didn't exist. It was horribly obvious that the president had absolutely no idea who he really was.
            Christ prepared himself for a tough battle.