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What's In A Name?
I'd like you to meet the heroine of "A,B&E". Introducing Karen Dash a.k.a Helen Of Toyboy a.k.a "The Hydra" a.k.a - actually she has loads of aliases, seeing as she's on the run from her gangster husband and hiding out in a Club 18-30 resort in island Greece. As you do.
I once saw Anthony Burgess deliver a prolonged riff as to the thought he'd poured into deciding on the name "Alex" for his protagonist of "A Clockwork Orange". He even elaborated on the symbolic weight of the fact the name began with the letter "A" as the first letter of the alphabet. Internet writing communities abound with suggestions for fictional names. Myself, I've got quite a full mental database of the surnames of English footballers from the 1970's (when I collected the stickers) and the names of villains from seminal TV Cop show "The Sweeney". The two fictional cops were named Reagan & Carter, which of course by incredible coincidence were the names of two successive US presidents after the shows were aired...
But Karen Dash - let's settle on that name for now - Karen Dash is running away from her true name. Even before she had to leave her past behind, she was either Mrs Kevin Gage, her academic first husband, or Mrs Damon Lampitt, her gangster second husband. The two worlds she moved in, appointed her status only in relation to her man. A troubling prospect for a woman with a head on her shoulders, a mouth to express herself and a strong sense of who she is. Kevin Gage was a footballer for Wimbledon in the 1980's and Lampitt, a good Welsh name, well because 'to lamp' somebody is a slang term for thumping someone, which seemed appropriate for a hardman. Damon I settled on for its echo of Damocles (you'll have to read the book for that one!) And think about it, girls still largely bear their patrilineal surname until they marry and take on their husband's name, so she was still branded even as a little girl. Who is she this Karen Dash?
"No, my assigned identity was forged for me by someone I’ve never even met. Karen Dash. My new moniker. A bit of a giggle. An in-joke on my way out the country." Karen's new identity is that bestowed on her by way of a counterfeit passport. The name 'dashed' off the top of the counterfeiter's head. Referring back to the high quality Swiss colouring pencils of my and maybe his childhood. Where he first had his interest pricked in visual reproduction. Do you remember Caran D'Ache colouring pencils? At the time they were as ubiquitous as the Swiss Army knife and gave the lie to Harry Lime's contention that Switzerland had only ever produced the "cuckoo clock". Now they brand themselves as "Maison de Haute Ecriture" (maybe Harry Lime had a point after all). Karen Dash never existed, despite her larger than life presence on the pages of the novel. It is a name wrought to prevent her true identity being revealed, found and then expunged. It is a dead end of a name.
For she simply cannot afford to be tracked down by her name. She can't appear on any bureaucratic lists. She has no driving licence, no social security paperwork, no health insurance records and no credit card in her (assumed) name. She has nothing to her name, not even her real name. When she goes online, she employs a user name, a different identity yet again. She has been expunged from British life, but has sprouted a new existence within Greece, but a barely audible one like the Echo of the Narcissus story. Perhaps that is why she shouts so loud to be heard, but then has to be concerned with who exactly is listening to her. She is highly sociable, highly visible within her new life, "Perhaps news has travelled back to Blighty, about this batty, sexy lady, domiciled over in Corfu. That their mates must look me up. That I have garnered the status of an urban myth. I had better hope not." Caught in this perpetual pull-me, push-you, of wanting to cast a shadow and the fear of doing so. What's in a name? Everything if it leads back to her true identity, for those after erasing her name once and for all.
I am fascinated by what fictional names can represent. In another of my novels in progress, the three main characters all have different versions of the same phonetic name. In another, "Not In My Name" the narrator is willfully leading the reader a duplicitous dance and adopts many identities through his employment of identity theft and his travels along the information superhighway under different guises. What's in a name? Whatever you want to invest in it.
From reading at OVADA Gallery, Oxford 12/4/2010
But as I peer closer at the clinches, they are just girls, or girlies after all. At play, or playing at it. Judging by the preponderance of faux bridal veils. While caricature devil horns and angel wings, further undermines any cogency they might credit they possess. Though they may brazenly take to the street in crop tops and bikinis, still as they walk they hug their own elbows or shoulders. Forearms threaded across their midriffs, as if to reconceal all exposed flesh. As if they are trying to hold themselves together entirely. Up front in one dimension only. Their self-esteem is all shot. Their salty swagger peppered with the shrapnel of anxiety. The exclusively female markets for enhancements, fake tans and accessories, are still predicated on an adjudicatory male nod and a wink.
photos courtesy of Habibi and Penny Goring
Earlier this week I performed a live reading while wearing a nurse's dress and tights. Once you've done that, then I don't believe any public reading can hold much fear for you. Even a couple of my work colleague shuffled along to catch sight of me in drag; one of them bought my novel! (Sex sells? Have you seen my legs?)
I'm fortunate that I've never seemed daunted by reading/performing in public. I'm not sure where it stemmed from, since at school I studiously avoided anything to do with the musicals and plays that were staged for doting parents. At College where I'd started writing plays, I had to take one of the roles myself when I couldn't persuade enough student actors to utter the swear words I'd written. The part called for me to hang over a fence erected between actors and audience while I lambasted the paying public. (Please make allowances for such youthful enthusiasms and delusions). I felt that if I wasn't prepared to spout my own words, I couldn't very well expect others to do it.
After also performing in The Edinburgh Fringe Festival to two men, a poodle and "The Scotsman" newspaper's fishing correspondent dispatched to review another of my plays, I stuck to just the writing role. That meant I got actors to speak my words for me. All the established British playwrights of that time, Davids Hare and Edgar, Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths were also largely able to step back and let their written words speak for them. To judge by the fact that neither I, nor most of the population knew what these writers looked like. They had no 1970's media presence, other than write ups and reviews of their work. That seemed like the ideal to me, to be judged almost in absentia, solely on the power of your own written words.
But having turned my hand to novel writing, once again I'm faced with the prospect of performing live through readings. The misgivings I have about my abilities, stem not from any weaknesses of heart, but that rather I have an uninteresting timbre of voice to listen to, nor is there much range to it. Two characters would be a real stretch for me to convey live. Added to the fact that the novel I'm currently performing from has two female characters in it, meaning on one fairly fundamental level I'll never be able to do it justice in a reading. I have trifled with the idea of getting an actress to perform it, but lack of budget, plus the fact that a reading is most different from a play; the audience have come to see the author live and in person. We not only read from our work, our personality also comes across (hopefully) through the microphone.
So I dress up. I get into character. More fool me for writing only two female parts. I like to think I put on a bit of a show. I aim to interact with the audience, not only in the introduction and asides, but through the text as well. I want to involve them in it, to draw them into its world. Not dissimilar to an actor's ability to suspend the audience's disbelief that they're in a theatre watching a play on stage.
What I have found interesting and totally unforeseen, is that each of my characters offers a very different type of reading. I don't think many if any writers pen a novel with the live readings already in mind. So I have learned this only through the process of reading and come to a bit more understanding of my own work and my two characters themselves. Both are avenging angels, but very different in style. Karen Dash can engage the audience directly, she can play with them, goad them, accuse them, seduce them and make them laugh with her outlandishness. Billie Rubin, the nurse, however operates her vengeance behind the scenes. She needs to keep people at arms length. When she made her debut this week, this is what I realised as I rehearsed her passages. It felt very strange after the full-on approach of all the previous Karen Dash readings. Can I even bring Billie out for future readings? I hope so, because in a way the presentation of her in costume along with the text is a much tighter fit; that is the readings gain much more layering from the sight of me, a man, dressed up as a nurse. Since her passages are all about mistaken perceptions of her behind the uniform. Of course the ideal would be to have two different slots with a chance to get changed between them. But this isn't always possible.
But what I would like to offer any writer, is that they ought not to be intimidated by the thought of doing a reading. If you can complete the process of writing a novel from beginning to end, then the same dedication will see you just fine up on stage. After all, you believe in your books right? Just like I had to act in my early plays. It's just a question of rehearsing and trying out different things in front of the mirror within the comfort of your own home. A change of voice here, a gesture there. If I can do it with my limited voice, then anyone can. And it really is the best way to connect with readers and potential readers by making your work come alive in front of their eyes. Go for it!
Mankind has always seemed to have a yen for fermented drinks. There is a fascinating real life tale of archeological tracking down of ancient alcoholic admixtures and rebrewing them today - King Midas of Phrygia's (modern Turkey) favourite tipple from 700BC has been recreated by a brewery in Delaware, but it bears close resemblance to Greek potions dating back 3,100 years. It may not always have been yeast doing the fermenting, sometimes human spittle seems to have stood in to do the job, but pretty early on man sussed that weird and wonderful transformations could be wrought on pressed fruits and the like by interposing an agent of change. The word 'barmy', which we take as a gentle, affectionate term for 'out of one's headedness', actually refers etymologically to a 'frothiness' or zestiness, as 'barm' means the yeast formed while fermenting. So already there is a link between the chemical processes and the affect on human behaviour.
Culturally, alcohol may be akin to the Andean people chewing coca leaves to steel them for their crushing labours. Certainly in Britain, beer production has always been part of the agricultural roster, to fortify and supplement its rural workforce. With industrialisation, brewing became a significant enterprise, to supply those labour forces decamped to the growing cities. Alcohol, a toxin and a vice, has always implicitly been seen as a payoff and a reward to the labouring classes. Moral panics occasionally arose when it was perceived the working classes would be too drunk and dissolute to perform their labours; the Eighteenth Century crisis over cheap gin and the First World War introduction of the Licensing Laws being two cases in point. But the proffering of alcoholic pleasure had to remain in place, so deeply embedded within the psyche of the working Britain. Prohibition was not tried here.
The Local. Regulars with their favoured seats and tankards behind the bar. No one has to ask them what they drink. There is no menu chalked up on a board. They come in expectation of an evening's entertainment being derived from the community of everything that happens around the social act of drinking. The ubiquitous pub culture, with its local parochialisms. Perhaps it will be facilitated by quaint bar games with their arcane entry requirements - do you chalk your name up on the board, or lay down 50p on the pool table? Winner stays on, so you never get to play with the friend that you came out with. Anecdotes are traded accordingly. Revolving around any and every aspect of the pub culture. The pub is the hub of entertainment. Anything that happens within its environs is potentially a source of myth and legend handed down by word of mouth in the retelling.
But all that has been largely swept away beneath thunderous jukeboxes, dead-eyed one armed bandits, franchise peri-peri chicken or Thai food. Clipped margins mean a pool table denies floor space to potential consumers. Spit and sawdust replaced by themed pubs and women-friendly chain bars. I'm not for one moment bemoaning the end of the saloon bar culture and the demise of the cribbage board. But it has coincided with a different approach to a night out drinking I believe. Now with the emphasis less on community and locality and more on bottom lines, it's all about shifting units, in this case alcoholic units. A good night out less relies on the conversation and ritual familiarity, and more on the quantity necked. Happy Hours, cheapest price at the pumps, special promotional offers, all mark a consumptive kite mark of value for money. How mortalled, bladdered, legless, off their face or any other assault upon the integrity of their own body they can deem themselves to have achieved.
I was never particular smitten with drinking anecdotes. I guess you had to be there that night X threw up, or fell asleep under the banquettes. The stories all tend to blur into one anyway, so they bore me inside a pub as much as outside its locale. But now they are transmuted into War stories. Brawl stories. drink plus violence, because of the uninhibited consumption through bingeing. There was always an undercurrent of violence around pubs; arguments over the pool table and did you spill my pint and the like. But it tended to be funneled into the 11pm throwing out time and most people could avoid being caught up in it. Less so now with varied licensed times and the consumerist spree of drinking establishments all grouped together in the club/bar areas of modern cities and town centres. Every night out is a pub and bar crawl, as people still mooch along in expectation of there being something more interesting happening at the next establishment.
Take all this and multiply when considering certain holiday resorts catering mainly to the British. Pubs, bars and nightclubs grouped together for convenience and to jostle and compete for the tourist Euros. Places with even less soul, rather solely dedicated to minting money in exchange for alcoholic nectar. These are little more than alcohol service stations along the motorway of binge consumption. Refuelling stops. Drinking games, emptied glasses on the head, spirits poured straight from the optics down the throat, getting the alcohol into the bloodstream by the quickest method.
Alcohol no longer seems the means to a convivial end. It is the end in itself, by volume proof of intake. And with that it is largely stripped of any social context. I won't even begin to broach the problem of underage drinking on the streets with alcohol bought from shops, for this is not what my novel covers. But I want to pose the question of what happens when you strip away the social context of drinking to a bare one of consumption. When people who always looked to the pub to provide a full evening of entertainment, and now have nothing to fill up the spaces around the alcohol, how they have to go and make their own entertainment, frequently in horrifically anti-social and uncontrollable ways. This is the world of "A,B&E", accident and emergency, breaking and entering.