Thursday, 31 August 2017

Three Dreams In The Key Of G

In October my new novel will be published by Dead Ink Books. "Three Dreams In The Key Of G" tackles many large themes, from parenting and child development, through "Nature" versus "Nurture", sectarian politics to what it means to be human. Part parenting guide, part mother's journal of despair, the book is full of bitter humour (some extracts can be found here).

Stylistically the book is quite daring as well, with visuals, two different sized alphabets (our 26 letter and DNA's 4 letter alphabet), as the book drills down beneath the level of word to that of the letters themselves).

Three very powerful female characters, Mother, Crone and genetic Creatrix. None of them will meekly submit to their besiegers. Their three narrative voices, intercut and interweave with one another. In a sense, all three are palimpsests, constantly writing over, and being written by, one of the other two. Whether they are aware or not, they are being informed by another intimate voice so close at hand, as to be under the skin. 

In post Peace Agreement Northern Ireland, a young mother feels besieged. Both by the demands of motherhood and her militant Loyalist husband, decommissioned with the advent of Peace and thrown back into the world of the domestic hearth; whither the violence of his soul? To stop her mind becoming silted up through inactivity, surrounded by the infantile and the exasperating, she maintains a journal. Through which she pursues questions of nature versus nurture in the development of her children, within a divided society such as Northern Ireland, proffering its rarefied environment of acquired symbol and historical legacy. Only, why is her journal all out of sequence and what meaning can it therefore provide to answer her despairing question, 'why do we even have children?'

In Florida, a British septuagenarian with no papers and no official existence, also finds herself under a state of siege. Her community is currently surrounded by FBI, ATF and DEA armed agents. Yet they are not a sect of any kind, rather a refuge for battered women. And while it is true she does have a scheme for redrawing the map of the world, it could hardly be said to be a doomsday scenario. Except maybe, if you're a male of the species. Her fight is for hearts and minds, which might explain why her principal manifestation appears to be through the internet. Where lurk useful allies for her in the war of information technology.

In commercial laboratories all over the world, the human genome is being decoded and compiled. Or ravished and dissected depending on your point of view. What is that textual voice feedbacking through the monitors? Protesting the assault; challenging the epistemologies of both scientist and theologian; chiding us for our linear notions of relationship, the depleted metaphors with which we construct thought and even our 26 letter alphabet in the face of the genome's intricate weaves formed from combinations of just 4 letters. Goading us that we will never unravel the mystery that lies behind the genetic code, unless we open up our very natures to unlimited potential. 

Here is a small extract from the Northern Irish mother as she realises her daughter has reached an important developmental stage

You can pre-order "Three Dreams In The Key Of G" direct from the publisher here

paperback £10.00
hardback £20.00
PDF for e-readers £7.00

For incentive prizes for purchase, see here; the chance to win all 5 of my flash fiction collections, a unique personalised flash fiction story I will write for you, a limited edition sculpture or my latest beautifully designed (not by me) chapbook with 24 stories. 

Pledges Mean Prizes - Incentives for pre-ordering my new novel

In October, my fifth novel "Three Dreams In The Key Of G" will be published by Dead Ink Books. You can read full details of the book and view a 3-minute reading by me from the book here.

For the month of August, the publishers Dead Ink Books are crowdfunding for mine along with 4 other new fiction books they are releasing between now and the end of the year. This is the money that will determine the size of the print run for the books, that is how many copies they will be able to get printed up.

A pledge to the crowdfunder at the very minimum serves as a pre-order purchase of the book(s) you pledge to. In addition, I am offering the following prizes as incentives to pledge either to my book alone, or to bundles of all 5 books.

Incentive 1) Five lucky people who pledge £10 to buy a copy of my book during the crowdfunder, will be entered into a draw to win a copy of my chapbook "Viciss-Etudes", hand designed, illustrated and bound by the wonderfully talented Little Appleseed. The chapbook has 24 of my flash fiction tales and offers something very different from your usual chapbook.

Incentive 2) For three lucky pledgers of a bundle of all 5 novels in e-book format, for the princely sum of £25, I will match it with a bundle of mine own - All 5 of my flash fiction collections in Kindle format, so you will need to have a Kindle e-reader to take advantage of this prize. There is no geographical limit to this, unlike the other analogue prizes which are limited to the UK and EU states. 

Incentive 3) For those of you who have watched my video reading from the novel, you might have noticed the sculpted female torso figure in the foreground. This original art work will be awarded to one lucky winner drawn from those who pledge for a signed hardback copy of my novel.


Incentive 4) For anyone generous enough to pledge for the hardback and original artwork for the cover, at the princely sum of £80, I will pen them an exclusive flash fiction story - both the handwritten draft version and then the mint typed version, signed and dated by me and framed. If you want, you can give me some elements you want incorporated into the story, such as a character name, or three words I have to use, or anything else that takes your fancy. This will be a limited edition of precisely 1! If there is more than one pledger, then each will get an original story. 

So there you have it. By pledging anything, you get my new novel at the very least. With a bit of luck, you could win one of the prizes I've listed above.

Many thanks and I hope you enjoy everything that's on offer.


Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Excerpts from "Three Dreams In The Key Of G"

My new novel "Three Dreams In The Key Of G" is available for pre-order throughout August. For prizes and incentives for ordering, see here

The synopsis can be read here. 

Here are some extracts from the novel

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Literary Lacrosse Stick Quiz!

Yesterday I did an author Twitter takeover of my publishers Dead Ink Books  As part of the mayhem & madness, I set a 25 question quiz, with questions posed as crossword cryptic clues. (Hence the title, Literary Lacrosse Stick, to represent that my new novel has a couple of acrostics in it).

In case you weren't able to join in but have a hankering to pit your wits, here are the questions again.

I give the cryptic clue to the book title, the year of publication and the country of origin of the author.

Here's an example for you:  Junky American author’s unadorned repast (5,5) 1959


I'll publish the answers on the blog in a couple of days.

Happy solving!

1) UK author’s ossified time keepers (3,4,6) 2014 

2) Russian MA (Hons) celebrates with a salted rimmed glass of tequila & triple sec (3,6,3,9) 1967 

3) Polish émigré switches off all the lights at the hub (5,2,8) 1899 

4) Manchester author’s wind-up citrus fruit (1,9,6) 1962

5) Korean eschewer of animal comestibles (3,10) 2007

6) All change for this Czech, but the DNA remains exactly the same (3,13) 1915  

7) Junky author’s vermillion nocturnal municipalities (6,2,3,3,5) 1981

8) Anglo-Dutchman’s Sub-subcutaneous? (5,3,4)  2000

9) Pacifist Yorkshireman’s Infernal unison (3,6,6) 2006 

10) Yugoslav Civil Service as the source of agonies? (3,8,2,4) 2006

11) Austrian sporting custodian’s twitchiness in the face of punitive leathering (3,11,7,2,3,7,4) 1970 

12) Japanese Alice eschews egg-timer for the final apocalypse (4-6,10,3,3,3,2,3,5) 1985 

13) US author has Theseus’ conquest submit to its craving for nicotine (3,8,5,1,9,5) 2000 

14) Modern day French misanthrope would gladly blow each and every one of us to bits (8) 1998 

15) Orphaned NYC Borough (10,8) 1999 

16) Irish author’s nominal aphasia? (3,9) 1953

17) Count on this midday British author’s attribution of the cause of hay fever (6) 1995 

18) American writer’s ignited abecedary (5,8) 2012

19) Frenchman’s 26th and last, the back to the beginning for the first (4) 2010

20) American author relocates Hades between Brooklyn’s Polo grounds and Dallas (10) 1997 

21) Scottish author double negative rejection of state benefits amid mañana (3,3,5,3,4) 1983 

22) French author drops a quartet of aitches? (1-1-1-1) 2010

23) Nothing to sneeze at Russian SciFi author putting murder up his nose (5) 2011 

24) English author’s tale of the dictator of London’s W11 (3,8,2,7,4) 1904 

25) US once-a-decade novelist’s nuptial plans? (3,8,4) 2011 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Can A Writer Also Be An Activist?

I salute the authors and publishing professionals who responded to the Grenfell Tower disaster by setting up an online auction which raised three and a half times its £50,000 target. An impressive, heartfelt humanitarian response. Yet not a political one. Indeed the victims have said that funds are not the issue, instead demanding answers as to the causes of the tragedy and lobbying Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry for the widest terms of reference possible. Society-wide terms so that they can determine their place and value in a society where the Grenfell fire can rage in so devastating a manner. 

The word author is hard to yoke to the word activism. Writing is a sedentary occupation, save for the odd writer like Hemingway standing up to write in a physicality vaguely suggestive of a manual trade. Potters are also sedentary artists, but in addition to their hands, one of their feet is working to rotate the wheel. Writing retreats are very popular with authors, the opportunity to get away from the distractions of the everyday world in order to pen your words within the cocoon of Nature, Wordsworthian or not. I can’t see how this would foster the atmosphere of a gritty urban thriller, but then I don’t write them.

Musicians don’t seem to be so hamstrung from activism. After all they are most active in their stage performance, they are bound by distinct rhythms (unlike the rhythms silently imagined by the author sat at their desk) and slogans can be handily and catchily bound up in simple chants drawing on popular songs. Jeremy Corbyn gets a rousing reception at Glastonbury, while in London’s inner boroughs, Grime artists will tell you it was them what mobilised the youth vote for their main man MC Jezza. However, the audience for books is a discrete one, since reading is undertaken alone and rarely does an author have a stage bringing together the numbers to convene the significant assemblage of a band in concert or at a festival.

Authors don’t have to be excluded from being viewed as activists. In France, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were at the head of any 1960s political demonstration going. Novelist André Malraux had a stint as  the Minister of Cultural Affairs. But Britain lacks for much of a recent history of activist authors. Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser were notable exceptions, but part of their activism occurred through high end dinner parties. JK Rowling publicly expresses her political views through social media, but was recently rounded on by fellow author Joanna Trollope for such action representing a mere indulgence of ego. Or worse, that exploiting her popularity to leverage support for a cause, somehow strikes at the gravitas of serious wordsmithery. 

It’s not hard to write a political novel. But it’s hard getting the timing right for its relevance, seeing that a week is a long time in politics and issues perpetually change and move on. So if you wanted to sit down and write a book provoked by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, it would be ready to hit the bookshops probably only marginally before any official government inquiry had reached its conclusions; yes that long! Firstly it takes at least a year for an author to write a complete work from scratch and that’s assuming they either have it plotted out, or a pretty good idea of it if they tend to eschew planning. Then if they have a deal with one of the big publishing houses, their work will probably be slated for release two years hence, so far in advance are publication schedules. A seemly group of pop stars can gather in a recording studio and record a song to highlight a cause in a single working day, digitised and downloadable within the same week. Of course an author can take to Kindle and swiftly publish a single short story, or publish it on their own website, but it’s just not going to have the same impact. And save us from another hastily put together rapid response anthology of stories, that bear no relationship to one another, let alone to the cause espoused in the introduction. 

But then timing is always an issue in any art form that seeks to engage with the world. JG Ballard wrote three books between 1973-75 inspired by the very urban landscape and architecture of that part of North Kensington where Grenfell Tower is situated. “Crash”, “High Rise” and “Concrete Island” are seeped in the trunk road The Westway, around which North Kensington’s tower blocks stand upright and austere. Each book involves a political and psychological analysis pertinent to the issues of the area, that were finally laid bare by the flames that engulfed Grenfell Tower. Yet Ballard’s vision predated even the hand wringing and finger pointing back to the politics of the 1980s by a full decade. Yet Ballard was not overtly an activist. And that is the point of the political novelist, the activist writer. You have to be in it for the long haul. You can’t simply dip in and out when a single issue gets your political gander up and provokes you into a literary (or fundraising) response. You’re never writing about your themes completely from scratch, but as part of your continuum of subjects. Ballard's artistic and philosophical influence continues through the writers and film-makers who channel his ideas today. 

The true activist author keeps chipping away with his or her critical vision, with their constant commitment to looking beneath the surface of society and one day maybe, their ideas come into fashion for their ‘timely’ resonance. An activist author can address rallies, go on “Newsnight" to debate with an MP, take to Twitter, or pen an opinion piece for a broadsheet. But ultimately, their activism is really their sustained body of work in the political sphere, using fiction to speak to truth. 

For my piece on just how we end up at a Grenfell Tower disaster, read here. 

Thursday, 10 August 2017

HouDiniVD - Flash Fiction

The illusionist clasped his hands together at his diaphragm in ham piety, as two black-clad stagehands brandished a straitjacket at him like bullfighters. His glamorous gold bikini abettor snatched his wrists and wrenched his hands apart with a flourish, as if she was performing a magic trick and a dove might fly free. The two assistants strapped him into his restraints. Miss Direction then circled him with a wrap of chains, sinuously bending down to apply the keys in the padlocks. She then gave the links a yank to test their resolve, with a relish that prompted conspiratorial stage whispers in the stalls that the pair carried on the same relationship beyond the spill of the footlights. 

He ascended the steps with confined gait and pivoted one leg over the rim of the water tank. He swivelled his torso to turn and face the audience, took an exaggerated breath, before swiftly swinging his other leg and sinking to the bottom of the tank.  A lid was placed over his indoor Davy Jones Locker.

His body started to gently writhe, like the fronds on a coral reef wafting in the undertow. The chains bucked and twisted like metal seaweed on the tide. 

“They’re pumping oxygen into the tank for him!”
“How does he breathe it in without equipment then?”
“Look, you can see the bubbles!”
“You must have 40-20 vision to see that from up here in the gods”.

The PA was playing a heartbeat, perhaps they had mic’d up the illusionist in the tank. The tempo started to increase, suggestive of an urgency to the heart’s pumping. The movements from within the white canvas shroud were more spasmodic though with greater amplitude, causing a greater swell of the water. The audience began to serrate their own breathing as they watched on. 

The torso in its tethers had stopped moving. Only one the legs intermittently convulsed. The two black-clad assistants sprinted over to the tank. One scaled the steps, worked off the lid and handed it to his partner. Then he dived into the water while the other took up position on the top step. Between the two of them they levered the illusionist out of the water and manoeuvred him back down to the stage floor. The audience was hushed as they saw the water rivulets forge from the illusionist’s still body. The woman ran over and threw herself down to her knees and started mouth to mouth resuscitation. No one now dared to speculate about this being an extension of their lives beyond the theatre. 

“If he was still alive, wouldn’t he be shivering?”
“Not if he’s gone into shock maybe?”
“That’s not very convincing heart massage. This is all part of the act”.
“How can they possibly do it properly with the chains still on him?”

The water had stopped flowing from his body. There was no rising chest to impel it down inclines of his inert body. The stage curtain started shuffling across. Only one foot peeked out from under the drape, utterly, utterly still. Had they stopped working on him on the other side of the material? 

“Wow, that was something!”
“That’s what you call a real showstopper!”
“You’re joking aren’t you? I want my money back!”
“Why? He most definitely gave us a show didn’t he?”
“Gave it everything he’s got. Had”.
“Dying on stage? It’s the way to go for anyone in show business”.
“Not comedians”.
“You’re awful the lot of you. A man just died out there. For our entertainment”.
“It’s what he would have wanted”.
“It’s what his agent and publisher would have wanted at the least”.

The PA system announcement began, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to have to inform you”. The audience picked up their coats started filing out all abuzz. Too busy opining to finish their drinks or their toffees. They swarmed over the stairs as the volume rose beneath the high vaulted ceilings. They flowed into the foyer, whereupon they were confronted with the sight of the illusionist. Not two-dimensional on the giant panels on the billboards, but stood there in the flesh. Wet, shivering, shaking hands and handing out leaflets. 

“Thanks for coming tonight… Hope you enjoyed the show… Thanks you so much… Had you going for a bit there right…? Don’t forget to buy my DVD from the stall over there… Yes all my best illusions are on there… You can spend as much time as you want playing it over and over again, you won’t spot how I do the tricks… Thanks for coming out tonight…”

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Cover Reveal - Three Dreams In The Key Of G

I have a new novel (my fifth) coming out in October, published by Dead Ink Books. As part of my book deal, the cover art would be designed by a designer of their choice. They opted for artist Michael Lacey who has had exhibitions of his art in Scotland, London and the North-West. 

The Dead Ink authors were each asked to fill in a questionnaire about our book (produced below) for the artist to start from. 

Normally I have an idea for what might go on the cover, but this time I was really struggling; the only two notions I had were both a bit kitsch, which doesn't fit the tone of the book. Fortunately Michael came up with a brilliant design, which I am delighted to share with you now. 

The first thing is I love the colour and the strength of the hues. But what's really ingenious is how Michael has designed the image of thorny flowers with molecular structures. Finally there are subtle, shadowy outline of a machine gun. In another blog post I'll talk about the themes of the book so you can see how Michael has perfectly captured those in this arresting cover design. 

Even though Dead Ink employed three different artists for their covers, there is a detectable style that links all the book covers together so that I think you can tell they come from the same literary stable. No mean feat considering this involved three different artists each with their own unique approach to art and design. Here are some of the other covers.



Here is the questionnaire with my responses:

Please provide a brief cover blurb for your book:

Three very powerful female characters, Mother, Crone and genetic Creatrix,  none of whom will meekly submit to their besiegers. Whether they are aware or not, they are being informed by another intimate voice so close at hand, as to be under the skin. Will the language they are able to draw on, be sufficiently robust to meet their enquiries, or will it betray them and lead the triumph of their besiegers? 

Main themes of the book:

Nature V Nurture (false binary)
Human genome, science (and Frankenstein science). What makes us human?
Human reproduction 
Northern Ireland religious divide
Reintegrating paramilitary men of violence back into a peaceful society
Parenting - why do we as a species have children?
The SI system of units of measurement & how all measurement is iniquitous

Main characters:

Jean Ome (Northern Irish mother of two daughters)
Jean Ohm (octogenarian cult leader/ battered women’s refuge leader)
Genome (the human genome being dissected & coded by scientists)

Are there any art movements/styles that match, are included in, or inspired your book?

Wall murals during the Troubles in Ulster
Calligraphy is a minor theme of the book

Are there any pieces of art that influenced your book or appear in it? (Paintings, books, films, music, etc.)

No. I am a big fan of Mark Rothko, not sure if it’s relevant

If you had to choose three four (!) words to describe your book what would they be:

pentimento/ palimpsest *

* the 3 characters are unknown to each other, yet each influences and overwrites the next one in an unending circle. 

Are there any colours that you think are particularly relevant to your book?

Notionally the Orange Order and Green of Irish Republicanism set against one another

Are there any props or items relevant to your book?

A journal in which all the pages have come loose and are out of order.
A lambeg drum
A baby’s calibrated milk bottle (empty, stained with milk swash)

For what it’s worth I always envisaged part or all of the cover being a garden gnome with a fishing rod dipping into a pool/pond of sperm like tadpoles, with a Preppy letter ‘G’ on his preppy shirt. However I have also contemplated this may be too kitschy and jokey which goes against the themes of the book. So I am neutral on this. 

Are there any locations relevant to your book?

Omagh, Northern Ireland
The laboratories where the human genome is being coded
A (cult) compound in the USA

Is there anything that you DON’T want to feature on your cover?

Can’t think of anything

You can pre-order my new novel during August from the publishers here

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Blood Ink - Flash Fiction

My self-styled stylus isn’t disposed with its own reservoir of ink. Instead it relies on its incised strokes to be infilled by the upsurge of blood. My improvised fountain pen spraying the gist of me. But you can’t control such red ink swell. The blood blotter smear of self. So it is only once the flow has clotted and the skin cicatrised, that such graphic calligraphy can be anatomised. The straight edge of the razor makes it hard to curlicue any flesh inscription (made worse when the unhanded side has to grave the more favoured limb). So my chirography resembles little more than cuneiform. The Rosetta Stone of me. Can’t you decipher it you illiterates? Why, it’s not as if I hide my verbiage encased behind dust jacket sleeves. Here, I’ll re-carve it. A palimpsest whose abiding runes are imperishable, but the surface scar tissue is recast once again. I aim for a blue vein, but the ink still emerges the unsparing red of the hyper-critical inner-editor. I have no words, but I do have profuse red ink flow to share with you. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Grenfell Tower Fire

I am 50 years man and boy a Londoner. Let me paint you a picture of my once fair city. The West side has always been regarded as the richer part. People say they're going 'up West' when they're going shopping or out for entertainment. From the shops of Oxford and Regent Streets, the cinemas of Leicester Square, the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue, all in the West End of the centre of London. Keep moving west just beyond Marble Arch that marks the beginning of this West End, and you soon leave the borough of Westminster and arrive in the even more expensive borough of Kensington and Chelsea, known as a Royal borough because of a clause in a monarch's will, even though it only holds one Royal palace compared with Westminster's two. RBK&C has some of the most expensive real estate in London, in Chelsea, Belgravia, Notting Hill and Kensington, which are also supported by exclusive upmarket shopping areas in Knightsbridge, Sloane Square and the King's Road. Harrods is located here.

But in the northern margins of the borough, lies an enclave of poorer communities, around Ladbroke Grove, Kensal Rise and North Kensington. Densely populated, mainly in high rises. centred around a raised major trunk road the Westway, which carries you out of the area as fast as possible into the West End.

The raised Westway and tower blocks
This area is culturally diverse and vibrant. It is the creative heart and soul of the Notting Hill Carnival (the council are trying to neuter this, moving it inside an arena or commercialising it in other ways). It was the launching pad of punk rock, with members of the Clash living in squats off the Portobello Road, while Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren ran his shop "Sex" with Vivienne Westwood, located on the Kings Road. The Jam were not even from London, but affirmed their punk credentials with the cover of their album "The Modern World" being photographed under the Westway. While 'Dystopian Modernity' author JG Ballard's works are suffused with the Westway skyline, whether in "Concrete Island" (based on the Westway itself), or books like "High Rise" and "Crash". There was also in the 90s what was called London's frontline of drugs, on the infamous All Saints Road. North Kensington is a symbol of soulless urban modernity and blight, yet it has always forged a community who have used that to spark off their creative imaginations and to utterly transcend their surroundings.

I lived on Ladbroke Grove for two years (above a funeral director's) and worked in the area for about 16 years, splitting my time between a record shop just off the Portobello Road and their skateboard warehouse on Latimer Road (a stone's throw form Grenfell Tower). During my time there, the local Council twice waged war on parts of the community as they sought to further gentrify what was already an expensive area of Notting Hill. Portobello Road is the site of a world famous antique market, but it only runs over the weekend. For the rest of the week, a small section of Portobello Road plays host to a fresh fruit and vegetable market, who also ran their stalls at the weekend an island deluged by the antique stalls. The Council decided they wanted rid of the fruit stalls. First they shut the public lavatories so that the stallholders on their feet all day were inconvenienced to the maximum. Sympathetic shops and pubs allowed them to use their facilities instead. Meanwhile 7 minutes down the road the local residents commissioned a top architect to design them a public convenience and produced the so called "Turquoise Island" with a flower shop woven into its structure.

Compare & contrast, these are the Portobello toilets closed by the council

When the Council targeted the stallholders more directly, wanting to remove them in favour of more antique stallholders, I was involved in a community campaign to defend them. I volunteered our shop's photocopier for producing the leaflets (without seeking permission of my bosses) and stallholders came in and out frequently to get or drop off their petition sheets, standing out like a sore thumb among all the punks and techno DJs picking through the record racks. I attended local meetings and we won this particular round. I haven't been to Portobello for 10 years or so, and wonder if the fruit stalls are still there or not.

What has any of this got to do with the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy? It's indicative of the attitude of the local Council, who have for ideological reasons undertaken a policy of the economic equivalent of ethnic cleansing, to drive the poorer residents from the area, because its most valuable resource is land. Land for building houses on, in the costliest property area throughout the whole of the UK. But to restate, it's not solely an economic greed, it is also ideological. This all started in the 1980s, when Left and Right were diametrically opposed to one another on either of the far ends of the spectrum. The Right were in power under Margaret Thatcher, with a multi-pronged programme to change the face of this country. The Parliamentary Left were in no shape to offer effective opposition, instead their power base was centred on the major urban metropolitan local councils, including at the time, the Greater London Council which was a unitary body for all London. The Thatcher government disbanded the GLC and returned responsibility to each individual London borough. At the same time, they attacked the funding of local councils and starved them of the means of providing their services. The drive was to privatise everything, such as rubbish collections to traffic wardens. Councils were further starved of funds, through the Right To Buy policy, whereby their housing stock was sold off to those tenants who applied to buy it from them at discount. Councils lost the rental incomes from houses they no longer owned and although the sales income was initially given to the councils for building replacement housing stock at a level of 75% of sales proceeds, this was continually reduced so that councils received less and less return for their sold off properties. This was ideological in that a whole upper strata of working class people were creamed off by being invited to join the property-owning class, twinned with invitations to become share owners by buying the heavily underpriced stocks as nationalised industries were sold off and privatised. This was an ideology of converting traditional working class Labour supporters into middle class Conservative voters. Though it suggests a class egalitarianism, it was only achieved at the expense of those who weren't able to buy homes and shares, who were to come to subsidise their more fortunate neighbours through cutbacks to the services they needed. More of which below. The Conservatives also deregulated the housing market, lowering the standards for house conversions, having cheap money and credit to facilitate mortgages and constructors taking out loans. London had a housing boom which has changed its economic and cultural landscape forever, like Paris, New York and Tokyo making it almost impossible to own a house now without significant funds and turning it into a de facto city-state. My first flat was an ex-council property, we bought it off the tenant who had purchased it at a 30% discount before selling it on immediately to us, making a nice tidy profit on a windfall that fell in her lap.

Before I consider a specific initiative by Conservative local councils, I just want to finish the story of national forces on the state of housing. Once Thatcher left power and Tony Blair came in for Labour, make no mistake, he did very little - despite huge 100+ majorities in Parliament - to reverse the policies of the previous Conservative regimes. Right to Buy had run out of steam anyway, since those who could afford to buy had done so by now. Deregulation was not reversed, standards within selling property remained low. Credit was still cheap, so that now property was regarded as much as an investment as it was the place for you to live and call home. The budgets of local councils were not refloated, low public housing stock not significantly replenished. Let's be clear about this, Labour failed the most distressed communities that the Conservatives had created. And when the Conservatives returned to power under David Cameron, the UK economy and level of debt was in a very parlous state. Austerity became the watchword, with cuts to every aspect of the public sector. The commodification & privatisation under Thatcher was even more central to Cameron who looked to make budget savings. Rather than go after their allies in Big Business to make them pay appropriate tax, they trimmed and slashed services already at critical levels. This includes the many aspects that notionally fall under the responsibility of local councils, but had in fact been contracted out to private firms and agencies whose primary motivation is profit. Add to that that Cameron declared war on what he called the health and safety culture and standards slipped even more off the bottom of the scale. Everything was done on the cheap, with little scrutiny since the numbers of inspectors had been cut as a cost saving, while ideologically there was not only no appetite for due oversight, but downright hostility to it.

So now we return to the local council level. Despite its property riches, London is a Labour city. Consistently since 1997 it has voted for a majority Labour representation, with the sole exception of two terms as London mayor for Conservative Boris Johnson. The Conservatives are in the main restricted to the richest central boroughs and those well-off suburbs around the fringes of the city. Three of the central boroughs are Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth. In the 1980s, bolstered by Right To Buy and the property boom sending house prices shooting up, the Conservatives undertook the most ideological (and craven) of policies to try and ensure these boroughs remained Conservative in perpetuity. While the poll tax that replaced the local rates system of local taxation went up in most London boroughs to try and make good the shortfall of government funding, in these three boroughs the poll tax was at negligible levels. This was subsidised by an incentive from central government, allowing the councils to run a low level of local taxation. But in Westminster it went further. The then council leader Dame Shirley Porter ran a clandestine scheme of "Homes For Votes" , trying to socially engineer parts of the borough to make them guaranteed Conservative wards. This was a more naked, far-reaching expression of the class cleansing that RBK&C were envisioning in the next door borough. On the border between the two, was the Harrow Road tower blocks which were condemned for containing asbestos, yet still undesirables and the homeless were moved into them, immortalised in song in 1988 by RBK&C squatters World Domination Enterprises in their song "Asbestos Lead Asbestos". Eventually Porter's regime were taken to court for their flagrant gerrymandering and found guilty. Like all good patriots with a stake in their country, Porter immediately fled overseas to avoid sanction and financial punishment. Wandsworth at a Parliamentary level has two Labour MPs and one Conservative, RBK&C for the first time in history returned a Labour MP a fortnight ago as one of its two MPs. Westminster also has one MP from each Party. So the Conservative initiative has not taken, Londoners have retained their independence of mind.

And finally to the Grenfell Tower fire. All the above factors feed into this tragedy. Private management of housing, austerity and cutbacks (though RBK&C has a contingency fund of £300 million so that it has no excuse for being too cash strapped), and class cleansing. RBK&C didn't have to be as blatant as Westminster, since it was under less threat of losing control to Labour and its poor and impoverished were already grouped together in a specific locale of the borough, that of North Kensington. Every council has a legal requirement to house the 'unintentionally homeless' and because those that could buy their council homes have, this means that all councils now only really house the most vulnerable and needy members of society. Look at the survivors of Grenfell Tower on TV, or consider the list of names of the missing and unaccounted for and this is abundantly clear. In some places such areas might be considered ghettos, but not here so diverse was the local population, truly representative of all continents of this earth. But they were vulnerable, mainly economically rather than social and cultural. The Council just did not care or value them like it did its private householders. Local residents had warned for years about the deficiencies of their housing, including safety issues. No sprinklers. Shortage of lifts and so on. They were ignored and palmed off as troublemakers. The Council allowed their private contractors to 'upgrade' the fire safety of Grenfell Tower with a cladding material that saved the measly sum of £6,250 on the total budget. If the death toll is of the likely order of 100, that works out to be £625 saved at the cost of each life. Read that and weep. Really really weep. The sight of people waving for help on the top floors and babies being thrown out windows to those down on the ground, echoes the imagery of the Twin Towers during 9/11. Our terrorism was not based overseas and the low level campaign against residents was to unsettle rather than terrorise, but our terrorism is named corporate manslaughter. It is a campaign waged for profit and ideology that has been running since the 1980s and the people responsible must be brought to justice. It is time for all people's lives in this country to have a genuine equal value, rather than this faux rhetoric of Thatcherite egalitarianism, or Cameron's "we're all in this together". If Britain isn't moved by this tragedy towards a whole different way of thinking and regarding of our fellow citizens, then we have not only missed an invaluable opportunity, we are actually lost as a nation for good. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Behind Glass - Flash Fiction

In the window the woman was sat on a chair, legs crossed one over the other at the ankle. It might have been elegant and dainty, were it not swept up in a beam of red light flooding her from a lamp in the floor. Her basqued torso was fixed in its beam, red enhancing red. However she had  managed to rake her body at such an angle that her face was bathed in shadow. She declined to move, unlike her neighbours swivelling on their chairs to open up their legs, or undulating to imaginary music only they could hear their side of the glass. The Physicist pushed his glasses back up his nose as he returned his gaze to her. He bobbed his head left and right, trying to animate her by parallax. But she remained frozen and determinedly immobile. He decided she approximated a shop mannequin. But unlike fashion dummies, you would not be able to determine the season of the year, since he presumed she was arrayed in a bodice all year round. He wondered if her pigmentation never changed during the course of a year, that like mannequins her skin too never saw sunlight. She still hadn’t shifted and in that he felt she was red shifting away from his grasp, even though he had a fistful of carmine hued banknotes in his pocket. The game “What’s The Time Mr Wolf” from his childhood came into his mind. Or was he confusing it with the game “Statues”? 

He dropped the cheque into the open end of the recessed counter and was careful to remove his fingers as the teller slid the metal lid to close off his half and gain herself access. She reached in to forage for the cheque and brought it up to read. He scrutinised her behind the glass. Only her face and upper body were visible sat on her high chair, desk ledge guillotining off the more compelling half from his vision. Her layered make up, her bank-issued uniform of indeterminate swatch shade of blue and amorphous twill, the rectangular bar bearing her overlong name osculating the corporate logo. She resembled nothing less than an automaton like you used to get on piers or in arcades. They were coin operated too. She stamped his cheque. 

Looking out from the window in his top floor apartment, he owned the vista of the whole city. No mortal could meet his eye level, for his erection crowned the cityscape. Only he possessed the untrammelled skyline, while the glass of his edifice reflected the city back to itself as mere surface. When he deigned to descend from the opaque glass of the skyscraper, it was only to transfer smoothly into a limousine with tinted glass of its own. Yet the breadth of his acquisitive eye was necessarily blinkered by dark glass. His invisible hand in the markets was perforce erased by the operation of the glass, his imprint effaced as he seamlessly brought companies crashing down or resurrected them puissant and thrusting. He shrouded his own eyes behind polaroid lenses, even though the interior of his car was already tenebrous. At ground level he inhabited a permanent world of shade. Up in the clouds, the gleam of the sun glinting off his glass panes blinded him.

The meat in the glass sandwich of microscope slide and lens, bubbled, writhed and pulsed. The bacteria were pullulating. Only the repulsive colour might tip to an untrained eye that these were not flabelliform flowers budding and blooming. But the microbiologist had a most trained eye. Mind you, only with the facilitation of lens-mediated magnification. Glass communion with glass. He pushed his glasses back up to sit on his balding pate as he refocused his squint into the vertically offered eyepiece. He admired the structure of the single cells concatenating into ever expanding chains. Extending their reach. Through history and time to preserve and persevere even until now. Fighting off the chemical warfare that the pharmacists dispensed against them. Coming back leaner and more robust, ready for further incursive action on living hosts. A resistance movement that could never be quelled. ‘Persevere’ includes the etymological root ‘severe’. For this was an army way more disciplined and resilient than the human forces arranged against it. Single-celled organisms defeating the mighty technological battery at mankind’s disposal, for all the complex, specialist braincells we are endowed with. It ought to be humbling. For the hell of it, he turned the ratchet of the microscope to lower the lens until it kissed the slide. He continued to apply pressure so the lens punched further down onto the slide, crushing the bacteria through sheer brute force. The microscope itself was now beyond use. A casualty of war. 

People couldn’t be trusted. An immersive art that is begging to be touched as well as viewed. Brush strokes, paint layered on deliberately, sculptures in carved stone or metal. So some like the Mona Lisa are placed behind glass, beyond caress or gouge. Controlled environments. Museum art that never ages. Pickled in aspic. Dinosaur DNA preserved in amber. But Marcel Duchamp outflanked them all with his The Bride Stripped Bare By her Bachelors, Even. Painted on glass itself. A vertical plane like the museum glass case itself. Spectators could walk and view behind the painting. The glass was not sealed (not even behind a second outer frame of glass), so that it could collect dust and mark the passage of time. Being placed in front of a gallery window means its own hyaline canvas can filter and channel the daylight funnelling across outside. The work was originally broken in half when the museum took delivery of it. Duchamp repaired it, but favoured the cracks being left in. 


The book from antiquity was kept under glass to preserve its delicate papers and inks. Only two pages a day were ever offered up to read to visitors. However the museum curator was conscientious in starting each new day by turning over to the next two leaves in the folio. He disapproved of the content, particularly the illustrations. It certainly wasn’t how he conducted his own marriage. Yet he felt a sense of cultural pride that such a precious volume had emerged from his ancestors and drew curious visitors from all over the globe to pay homage. I, being determined to read every single verse and aphorism had to return day after day after day to drink in my rationed two pages. I traversed the book over the course of a year. I went when I was ill, crawling on my hands and knees like a supplicant. From down below, I could see the pages reverse written in the glass and multiplied by several refractions at the odd angle I was at. The curator had to help me upright to be able to see into the  case. Some days I patiently awaited my turn, while tour parties made their guidebook-mediated pass at it. Other days I was asked to cede my station by those chafing behind me, as they gleaned I had spent an unhealthy amount of time poring over the glass case. They might have been right, sometimes my breath misted up the glass. Only the curator shared the daily vigil with me, since everyone else was transient. I knew he was scrutinising my behaviour, my reactions, observing me as if an annex to the tome, that I was an exhibit under glass also in his charge. For my part, I kept our verbal interactions to a minimum, but when we reached the second part, ninth chapter, I did scrutinise him in turn for any sign of recognition, but his expression never changed. 

Marcel Duchamp's "Bride Stripped Bare By Bachelors"