Saturday, 23 June 2012

Cake Challenge

This was my entry for the second challenge on my other blog, The Master and Margaritas. The only person to finish her entry on time was snappyfish but I'm sure we'll all get something up eventually.

She plonked the cake down in front of me and prompted me to dig in. “Dig” was an apt word choice. I was sure that the rich chocolate strata, stretching miles deep, contained paleontological evidence of walnuts. I hate walnuts. My grandmother is too old to understand such pitiful excuses as “dislike”, or even “allergic”; she’s always been a firm believer in you-get-what-you’re-given.

I can’t blame her for forcing the cake on me though. It’s an inherent instinct in our family to feed people at times of high emotion, and this was definitely one of those. My cousin Louise had just announced her marriage to a woman called Charlie (a brilliant scientist who’s promised to take me on her next field trip. It’s only gonna be to the Isle of Arran, but it’s still a legitimate reason to miss school in these harsh economic times, when experience is everything in the job market.)

The fact that Charlie’s a woman wasn’t the issue. My grandmother’s old, but that doesn’t mean she’s old-fashioned – she lived through the sexual revolution of the sixties and she’s sensible enough to recognise that it’s not a big deal any more. What had caused the uproar was that they had gone and gotten married – horror of horrors – in Las Vegas. I mean, how tacky can you get? Louise had claimed that they didn’t want to make a fuss, and that they’d have a big party soon. My Nan was having none of it.

“You’re meant to have family at your wedding. That’s what it’s for, to share your happiness with your loved ones. It’s just selfish.”

My aunts and uncles were nodding emphatically. Charlie caught my eye and her glasses flashed in quiet amusement. She and I both knew that they were all just annoyed at missing out on a free booze-up. I smothered a snicker with cake and nearly choked on a fossilised walnut.

“Come on, Nan, you know we couldn’t have afforded a big wedding. Besides, the idea of flouncing up the aisle in a meringue didn’t appeal to me.” Louise was getting snippy, but she had a point. If they’d stayed in Leeds she’d have been forced into the white wedding, complete with a meringue dress, and that just isn’t Louise. She’d have been miserable. Who wants that on their wedding day?

The argument went on for hours. It was completely pointless of course; they were married now. That couldn’t be undone, at least not just to appease an 80-year-old matriarch. Well, that was two weeks ago. Today is the “big party” we were promised, and it does look set to be a roof-raiser. I’ve got the tux out, because Louise has booked my band. I wish I could say that I played something cool like guitar or drums, but alas: at eight years old I was under the delusion that the trumpet was what got the girls to like you. Can’t say I’ve done too badly, but it wasn’t until my late teens that I started to meet girls who appreciated how cool Louis Armstrong was.

Anyway, the sound check’s done and we’re just milling about in the tent. Louise and Charlie have gone all out on the decorations (within a small budget), and they managed to enlist help from everyone in my family under the age of 23 so the rented gazebo is looking amazing. I spy the buffet table and make a B-line for the cakes. More homemade fare, but it’s the best in town; I avoid the chocolate monstrosity onto which my grandmother’s piped “Happy Non-Wedding Day”. It sounds spiteful, but at least she’s coming.

I select a little jam-and-cream delicacy and turn around to lean on the table while I survey the tent. Guests have been arriving steadily for about an hour, and everyone looks amazing. Charlie looks especially beautiful. She’s wearing a dress (a rarity in itself), but it’s covered in delicately swirling flowers that undulate around her curves.

I feel the tell-tale swell in my trousers and turn around again to stare at the gaudy streamers behind the buffet. It’s not the first time I’ve had that reaction to Charlie. She and Louise are a bit older than me – she’s 26, Louise is 25 – and I’m still waiting to do my A Levels. I always got on well with Louise, but I’ve started to resent her for having a girlfriend like Charlie. No, she’s her wife. The word helps to quell the uprising. I hold on to that thought: it’s permanent. Charlie loves Louise completely. I’ve seen the way they are together, especially when they’ve had a few too many. Touching each other...buggar, that’s making it worse. I stare so hard at the streamers that I’m sure they’re about to catch on fire. I think about geology, about layers of rock. Layers of cake. I shove another one in my mouth.

“Steady on, mate, you don’t want to blow chunks down yer trumpet.” My bandmate, Jamie, who still quotes Wayne’s World constantly.

I’ve calmed down enough that I feel safe to back away from the table. “Haha, yeah.”

“You alright, mate? Getting nervous about the set?”

“Nah, I’m ok, Jamie. Let’s go nab a seat with the others before they’re all gone.”

The tent is steadily filling and we manage to cram ourselves into a corner near the dancefloor, close enough to the stage that we can run up once the speeches are over. Oh god, the speeches. Of course I’m not doing one – it’s Uncle Pete, Louise’s dad, Charlie’s mum and Charlie’s best mate Matthew – but I’m still nervous on their behalf. Luckily I’ve still got a couple of cakes to keep me going through them.

“Hi guys, you’re up next.” It’s Charlie, standing right by my shoulder and looking tired and happy and beautiful. I nearly choke on my jam tart.

I must have been staring because Jamie shoves me half out of my seat. “Move, bro.”

The set goes well, and I manage to get through ‘Crazy in Love’ without keeling over. The CD player is out and we’re all having our one permitted alcoholic beverage (mine’s a homemade cider) when Charlie appears at my shoulder again. Her eyes are shining and her cheeks are flushed; it’s corny but it’s true, happiness does make you prettier. I start gulping the cider for all it’s worth.

“Great job, guys, really great. I’ll be recommending you to everyone I know.” She’s smiling her gratitude and it’s making my chest ache. Then she touches my arm. “Wanna dance?”

I somehow manage to nod and glide over the dancefloor with her. Luckily it’s not a slow song – if I’d been pressed up against her I think I might have died – but even gyrating near her to some old ‘90s trash with a bellyful of strong cider made me feel invincible.

“I love you, Charlie!” It slips out before I can control it, but Charlie’s just laughing.

“I love you too!” She kisses me on the cheek. That’s when it happens, that I make my big mistake: I turn and try to kiss her on the lips. Charlie backs off quickly, embarrassed, and I can feel my face flushing red.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter, and I run off towards the back exit of the tent, grabbing a handful of French Fancies on my way past. Once I’m outside in the cool air of my grandmother’s back garden everything hits me and I can feel myself start to cry. What a baby. I try wiping away tears and eating a cake instead, but the sickly sweetness just cloys in my mouth. To my left I can see the old swing set that we all played on when I was little, and Louise used to push me so hard that I felt like I could fly.

I sit down on the swing and begin to rock. It’s comforting, hanging my head and just swaying gently. Why did I try to kiss her? Why did I say I loved her? I don’t really, it’s just a crush I have on a beautiful, intelligent older woman, and I’m not so young to think that I actually have a shot with her. I’m happy for her and Louise. So what is it?

“Are you alright?” It’s Charlie. It takes me a little while to lift up my head, but when I do it’s too painful to see her worried, pitying face, so I hang it back again and mumble, “yeah, I’m fine”.

“What was that about?”

“I don’t know.” It’s the truth, I don’t. “I needed a breather.”

“It is pretty stuffy in there.” She sits down on the other swing next to me, and I just wish the ground would swallow me up. “You were drinking my mum’s homemade cider, weren’t you? I think it’s nearly 10%, it’s lethal.” I keep staring at my feet as she rambles on. “It’s a good shindig though, isn’t it? You guys have been so accepting of us, and taken me into the family really easily. I’m really grateful.”

She starts to sound a little choked up. I turn to see that she’s crying, just a few tears rolling down her cheeks. I reach out and take her hand, her left hand, feeling the wedding ring warming to her skin, becoming part of her.

She wipes her cheeks a bit and giggles. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

“It’s the cider,” I hear myself saying, and start laughing as well. “It really is lethal. And I’m sorry. I meant what I said – I do love you, and so does everyone else. We can all see how happy you and Louise are together and that makes us happy. Of course you’re one of the family now.”

Charlie’s smiling properly now. “You’re such a sweet boy. Looking forward to our trip to Arran?”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be great!” I can feel the and strength coming back to my voice.

“You gonna be ok?” Charlie’s smiling at me and I know that the answer is “yeah, I’ll be fine. I just need a bit more time out here.”

“OK, see you in there.”

As she walks off it’s like a weight is being lifted off me. I got to be the grown up, just for a little while, and that was enough. That was enough to make me feel like...what? That I’d repaid Charlie’s kindness? I guess that must be it. But that’s enough introspection for one evening. I reach into my pocket and find a rather squashed French Fancy. I might actually enjoy it now.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Blochestra at Insider, Aviemore

It's been a while since I posted anything, and it looks like it'll take me a while to get anything decent written, so here's a wee interlude post. I'm in a covers band (kind of - more of a formalised jam session) called Blochestra and we were performing at Insider Festival in Aviemore last weekend. We all got free tickets for the whole weekend and the booze was a-flowin' and it was excellent. The tiniest, loveliest festival ever, although I was eaten alive by about a thousand midges. I ate about as many of them as well, though.

Anyway, I thought I'd share some recordings of the band. Be warned: the videos were taken by the five-year-old child of one of the band members, so there's a lot of swaying and for a lot of it you can only see our knees, but the sound quality's good.


Feel Good Inc. (The Gorillaz)

First Days of Spring (Noah & The Whale)

Wake Up (Arcade Fire)

And a Blochestra original: Fell Into Your Arms

Sunday, 20 May 2012

For the lazy people

For those of you who can't be bothered to read the story, here's a recording of my friend Chomsky reading it (another writer for that other blog):

Beauty and the Beast

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Fairy Tale Challenge

This is my re-imagining of a classic fairy story, as per the challenge set on our main blog:

Hope you enjoy, and I apologise for my lack of research in Stockholm Syndrome before writing this. Unrefined and unresearched is my methodology, I'm afraid.

Beauty & the Beast

He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. I’d managed to escape my father’s drunken pawing and I was sitting in my favourite place. It’s so peaceful by the lake, the moonlight rippling towards my bare toes. He made me jump but when I turned and saw his face I was unafraid. I felt safe.

He asked my name. I was ashamed to tell him. He understood. He said that angels don’t have names. I said he can’t have one either then. His laugh was husky and his eyes deep and shimmering. They just seem watery and weak now.

I thought he’d come to rescue me; to take me away from my father, from the louse-ridden bed, from the fear of being mauled again. From my bed I could see the sky through my small window. I could imagine flying away, up to the heavens, while my father sweated over me and the stench of ale wafted from his maw.

He did save me, but where I am now is dark, and cold. The stone bites like ice. There are no windows. It wasn’t always that way. When I first came to live in the mansion in the valley, I slept on silken sheets and looked out on my lake through bay windows taller than myself. He was kind, and gentle, at first.

He was patient with me, with my rough manners. He taught me to hold cutlery correctly, to speak correctly. He taught me to read. Whole worlds opened in his library, taking me beyond the edges of my small experience, and he guided me through them.

I called him Teacher. Sensei. Master. I never saw anyone else.

One day I was at a loss for something to do. I’d seen little more than our suite of rooms, and my Master was out on business. I wandered for hours: I saw the ballrooms, the dining halls, even the kitchens. They were all empty. I was alone in this great house.

Finally I made my way to the West Wing. Most of the rooms were empty, except for one. It was a long hall lined with portraits. All the faces I saw were beautiful. Men and women looked down with shining eyes and red lipped smiles, although they were somewhat tight smiles. The eyes were a little too bright.

At the end of the room was a door. I tugged at it but it would not budge: the first locked door I’d encountered. I put my ear to the door and I thought I heard something. A faint noise, like crying. Like a scream.

Despite the warm evening sunshine flooding through the windows, I felt cold. I hurried away, back towards the safe eastern end of the house. I had barely left the Portrait Room when I heard his voice calling me. I ran along the corridor and he was there. I smiled in relief but he did not return my warmth. His bright eyes were angry.

“You’ve been prying.” It wasn’t a question. I shrunk back, suddenly afraid, away from his accusing eyes. He advanced and raised his hand.

That night he came to me. The bruises were tender. He slipped between the sheets and pulled me close. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and kissed my face. It didn’t stop my tears.

He was less patient after that. Every little mistake irked him. He beat me, he took me against my will; all the gentleness of before was gone. I quaked every time I heard his voice, his footstep. Yet I could not leave. He had me trapped in his house, a gilded cage for his angel.

One night, the wine flowed freely. He seemed relaxed and more talkative than usual. Eventually he dozed in his chair. I grabbed the wine bottle and broke it on his brow. He bled and I ran, blindly. I didn’t know where to go. My footfalls echoed in the empty house like cruel laughter. The house mocked me further. I swear its walls moved. Despite my attempts to run northwards, towards the front door, I found myself in the Portrait Room. I turned to run but he was there in the doorway. He loomed, blood dripping from his forehead, his face demonic with rage. I had no choice. I ran to the locked door, desperate, and to my delight it opened at my touch. He raced after me, silent, as if on wings, and I looked into the darkness beyond the door. The scream was louder now, and there were more; a host of tortured cries crept out with an icy cold that tried to suck me in, to swallow me. I turned and he was behind me now, still beautiful, terrible. I could not move.

He grabbed me, clasped my arms, his fingers biting my flesh. His eyes bore into me, and I knew I was doomed. He forced me back, into the dark, down into pitch...

And now I am here. He dragged me past what looked like torture chambers, with men and women in shackles, but their screams seemed breathier, the groans were groans of pleasure.

My cell is small. There are no windows down here. When he comes to me he treats me kindly. I cannot hate him. I love him. When I’m alone I hear the pleasured pain of his other lovers and I echo their cries. Waves of bliss wash over me. I shudder to think of him.

But I cannot forget. When I am quiet the stories of the library come back to me. I remember the tales of Nature’s beauty, of kind lovers, of sweet caresses that don’t leave bruises. I remember my lake. I miss the sunshine.

The house hears my thoughts. I’m sure of it. Sometimes my cell door opens of its own accord, when the others are silent, daring me to leave, but I cannot. He needs me. He loves me.

I am growing weaker. He hates my lank hair, my bony frame. I hate that I am shrivelling. I cannot please him like this. I must wash myself.

The door is open. A flicker of torchlight hurts my eyes. Perhaps I can make it to the lake. I need to be clean.

I feel dizzy but I can stand. My fingernails are bloody. I am stumbling forward, towards the light. I can smell freshness. The corridor seems shorter than before. The house is listening. There are no stairs, just a gentle slope to an open door.

The Portrait Room is streaked with moonlight. The windows are open. I can reach the ground outside. The grass is dew-laden. I wander towards the lake. I can wash. I can be beautiful for him again.

The water is warm. I walk in and it soothes my sores. The lake’s bed is soft as sand. The moonlight shimmers about me, in my hair. I remember the night he came for me. I remember his eyes. They seemed so bright. How they’ve changed.

Now I am swimming. Do I need to go back to the house? He will join me, like he did before.

I’ve reached the other side. I hesitate. The water is so warm. I could just sink...

Something pushes me on. I climb upwards, onto the shore. I look back. The house seems so small from here.

The sun is coming up, to my left. Its warm rays are drying my clothes. I stare at the house.

He’s there, at the door. My heart stutters. I love him. My beautiful monster.

I turn. I am walking towards the hills. Maybe he’ll find me there. I hope he does. I’ll be beautiful there.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A Defence of Science Fiction

I wrote this about a year and a half ago for a student-run online magazine called Qwerty, for the second issue that never got published. I was writing my dissertation at the time (which was, unsurprisingly, about the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) against the advice of my dissertation supervisor: "it's not what you'd call literature, is it?" He also made some sexist comments about girls liking science fiction which I won't repeat; suffice to say that I wrote the dissertation, it got an A, and I graduated with a First from one of the top universities in the world. Up yours, prof.

This accusation of Hitchhiker's not being literature did gall me though, and it's one that I come across a lot from people who think all science fiction is without depth. I wrote this short article for Qwerty to try and get my feelings on the matter down on paper (or on a laptop screen, anyway), and to put some of my dissertation research to further use. Now I'll leave it for you to read. You can make up your own mind.

A Defence of Science Fiction

My love of science fiction started at eight years old. I was upset, struggling to get to sleep, and my father gave me a home recording on audio tape (yes, tape – I am that old) of the first two radio episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I instantly fell in love with Douglas Adams' writing and the comedic talents of the actors involved, and I've listened to the whole series at least twice a year since then (including the three later series made with the original cast in the early 2000s). 

Whether or not this counts as science fiction is the subject for another time – my dissertation, in fact – but there is a more worrying question I often encounter: whether or not it counts as literature.

Science fiction is, to a lot of people, synonymous with space opera: a tiny part of science fiction, exemplified by the big franchises Star Trek and Star Wars. They are long stories about men in ships looking for stuff and killing people. They are masculine, plot-driven, simplistic and, worst of all, enjoyable. Surely this can’t be literature? Well, if you take it out of space and put it back on earth, you have the plots of two of the most celebrated texts in European literary history: Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

Space opera owes a lot to Homer. Every long-running sci-fi series of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Babylon 5 – re-iterates the classic tropes of the epic, only the gods have become aliens and there are a few more women aboard. Just as Odysseus searched for home, so the crew of Battlestar Galactica seek a new planet to colonise, so the crew of the Enterprise seek ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Intrinsic in all of them is the somewhat imperialistic way in which humanity spreads through the universe. Humanity conquers planets everywhere, bravely slaughtering whole civilisations of aliens (foreigners) who have the audacity to pre-exist the (predominantly British and American) human race. Even in Star Trek, which claims to respect alien traditions, the earlier episodes were mainly about Captain Kirk shagging his way around the universe. Postcolonialists would have a field day looking at some of the earlier ‘epics’ of science fiction.

But science fiction isn’t just space opera. SF, as it is sometimes called, has its own canon shaped by changes in society. The debate continues as to when SF began, but it undoubtedly stretches back as far as H. G. Wells and his stories about time travel and alien invasion. Like a lot of literature in the latter half of the nineteenth century, H. G. Wells engages with ideas of Darwinism in his work. The Morlocks in The Time Machine are ape-like, seen by the time traveller as degenerate and evil (another common image for other non-white races), with the more child-like Eloi idealised as naive descendants of man. This is also a study of class – the Morlocks are descended from the working classes, forced underground in some later Industrial age, and the Eloi are descended from the lazy aristocracy.

These obvious dichotomies continued to influence SF into the twentieth century, and it was in the 1920s that what is now commonly recognised as SF began to emerge. The period from the 1930s to the 1950s has become known as The Golden Age of Science Fiction, with a key figure of this time being John W. Campbell. He was editor of several science fiction magazines (especially Astounding) and his name inspired the phrase Campbellian: deeply conservative science fiction, hard-SF, that placed man at the centre of the universe. This tendency for SF to be anthropocentric was a point against which later writers rebelled, and which the New Wave of the sixties and seventies detested. J. G. Ballard was one of the most prominent writers of this time, credited with creating the ‘mad astronaut’ archetype. His stories were concerned with the infinity of space, the insignificance of man, and the internal landscape externalised.

The 1980s heralded a new way of reacting to political and social change. Cyberpunk was born, a subgenre that explored the anxieties of a society under threat of nuclear war. It is largely concerned with body and mind invasion: the characters’ lives are dominated by technology, often inserted into the body through invasive surgeries. Governments infiltrate the lives of characters through mind control and drug abuse. SF becomes the literature of paranoia, rather than the somewhat propagandistic literature of previous movements.

A potted history of SF such as this cannot cover everything, but it does illustrate the presence of a canon. Science fiction is more than mere space opera: it can be used to explore profound questions about the human experience. In the past twenty years, SF writers have drawn on all these influences and more to create hybrid works of literature. One such writer is China MiĆ©ville, who identifies himself as a writer of ‘Weird Fiction’, because of the ambiguous nature of the term ‘SF’. It does not merely stand for science fiction, but also speculative fiction: a mode of literature, in which the author conducts a ‘thought-experiment’. The author poses a ‘what if?’ scenario and extrapolates an alternative present or future. What if there was no gender, as there is none in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)? What if all children were genetically engineered, as they are in Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? What if Big Brother saw all like in 1984 (1948)? Science fiction is the literature of prediction and philosophy, looking forward through the lens of cynicism. If the ‘what if?’ scenario is based on real past events, the structure is an alternate history, the extrapolation of an alternative present or future based on a changed past. These texts can often hit a little close to home; they are unsettling depictions of the dystopias we only just missed.

And so we come back to Hitchhiker’s. No, it is not a plausible scenario, but it does pose a question: what if the earth was destroyed by Vogons? Apparently, a quintessentially English man would escape with the aliens and be continually bemused by his friends’ enthusiasm, whilst searching desperately for a decent cup of tea. In Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams is mocking the Campbellian archetype of the romantic hero: rather than courageous and triumphant, Arthur is confused and succeeds purely by luck. Adams satirises the body and mind invasion of cyberpunk, the earnest counter-cultures of New Wave, the self-importance of speculative fiction. Through satire, he proves what many people wish to deny: that science fiction is worthy of literary analysis. It is significant enough to have a self-contained intertextuality and to attract satirical imitation. It is serious. It is literature.

The OED defines literature as ‘writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect’. Even if the naysayers deny the high standards of writing in science fiction, they cannot deny its emotional effect. Especially on an eight-year-old girl who can’t get to sleep.

An Introduction

This blog was started as part of a larger project amongst friends: a group of unemployed arts graduates with nothing to do, we decided to make a place online for our musings, ideas, creative writing and all the other bullshit we don't get paid to do. This is my contribution.

As you may have guessed, I am a huge fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Rest assured that this blog will talk about other things (although the next post is definitely H2G2-related). I aim to post at least once a week, and the posts are likely to be a mixture of contemplative essays, book/film/theatre reviews, and diary posts about the weird stuff that happens to me quite a lot of the time.

Good thing it's not a Thursday.