A postcard from Chelsea

So, the last three weeks have been busy.

This is an understatement.

Let’s start with geography. I have once again left Velcro City behind me. Yes, this was rather sudden, but a shift of situation was followed immediately by the sort of opportunity that it would be madness to pass up on. When the wind blows favourable, you hoist your sails, right? So, long story short: I’m now living in London for the first time in my life.

And not just any part of London, oh no; yours truly is rockin’ an SW3 postcode, lodged like a lonely cigarette butt in the sumptuous banquet of oblivious privilege that is Chelsea. I’m used to standing out from the crowd a little bit, but when I walk down the King’s Road to the shops, people stare like I’m leading a troupe of tap-dancing zebras by chains made from links of fire and lost languages. To be fair, I do some staring back; there’s no shortage of eccentricity around here. It just expresses rather differently, y’know?

Historical ironies abound, also; maybe a few minutes walk around the corner from my new abode, an Indian restaurant occupies the King’s Road shop where – way back when, around the time I was born – Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood acted as manipulative and Machiavellian midwives to the subculture that came to be known as punk. Gentrification’s apogee, ladies and gents; even the sanitised contemporary mutations of punk would look out of place in this neighbourhood. Walk a few minutes northward, and old chaps in colourful trousers (cravats optional, but still popular) stagger in and out of the Chelsea Arts Club; along the Fulham Road, boutiques decorated in earthy tones are staffed by willowy hungry-looking young women who look utterly uninterested in selling the ludicrous clothing that they label with ludicrous prices. Make no mistakes, I grew up with a port-side deck-chair on the SS Privilege… but the folk round here mortgage the damned boat to the cruise company, so to speak. I tend to feel at least slightly out of place pretty much anywhere I go, but the sense of being an interloper here is very tangible. It’s also quite fun. I’ve been doing a lot of cheery grins and how’d-you-dos to people I pass on the pavement. Politeness is a highly hackable protocol.

Alongside new digs, I’ve got new duties: my new Research Assistant post is getting interesting very fast, and there’s plenty of work to be doing. Ironically, considering I thought I’d successfully beamed off of Planet Webdev, a lot of this week’s work has involved thinking out a methodology for building a wiki for one of the projects I’m working on… and you can’t have a methodology without an information architecture, which means my inner librarygeek has been getting’ his taxonomy on, too. Guess all that talk about transferable skills means something after all, eh? Feels good to be stretching my brain around some real challenges.

And speaking of new challenges, I’m three weeks through the first semester of my Masters. The first two modules are going well; just about managing to keep on top of the reading lists and assignments and critical note-taking and what have you, and learning a lot in the process. But the biggest challenge of all attends next semester’s module on writing the novel, in that I need to have written a 90,000 word first draft of one… by January 9th.

In some respects, that’s not as bad as it first sounds; the challenge was set at the start of this semester, leaving the best part of three months to complete it. Nearly ninety days means you hit the goal by writing just 1,000 words a day. It may sound a little blasé, but a thousand words a day is easy; I probably do twice that wordcount most days, anyway.

But writing ninety discrete thousand-word lumps that all fit together and make a novel? That’s a totally different receptacle of ocean critters. We were ordered to start afresh rather than reboot an old or half-written project, so I dragged out one of my little idea nuggets from Evernote and got rolling… only to have become bogged down in the muddy verge. A third character/strand/scenario has been stubbornly refusing to cohere for the best part of the week, and at the lower right-hand corner of my monitor the date keeps changing with a sly, sleazy wink.

The whole point of the challenge, so far as I can tell, is to put us in a position where we don’t have time to think too hard about what we’re writing; we just have to write. This is a very alien position for me to be in. I am not what I think of as a “process writer”; the physical and mental act of writing itself, when I am conscious of it, is deeply unpleasant. It’s only when I cease to be conscious of the process that the decent stuff comes out, at least with non-fiction material; the leap to that higher quantum brain-state is not under my conscious control. Very rarely, it’s there first thing in the morning*; more often it takes two or three hours of battering the keyboard for the keyboard to disappear and the words to start stringing themselves through my mind like fairy lights. Some days, it just doesn’t turn up at all. Those are the days when this job is just typing, a joyless mechanical process that doesn’t even have the consolatory nigh-meditational oblivion provided by assembly-line work or physical labour.

Hark at me whining! One of the shibboleths of writerdom is that the writer who hates writing should do something else. Well, screw that. I hate writing, sure… but I love having written. Having written is the strongest, subtlest drug I know of. I suspect that I’m not entirely alone in this. Furthermore, I suspect that better writers than I have come to love the process for the same reason a junkie loves the needle’s kiss: the high comes after the pain, and – after a while – the association becomes established, a sort of Pavlovian tropism of the intellect. The prospect of a by-line rings bell-like in the hallway, and the imagination starts to salivate… but the reward lies at the far side of the minefield of your own insecurities.

And so it goes. It’s alarming and instructive to see how losing the momentum with which I started has allowed the daemons of of defeatism to raise their voices. You can’t pull it off, they mutter, it’s a step too far; you’ve done OK with non-fiction, but did you really think you could write a novel? Even a ragged first draft, with cardboard characters and plot-holes that could hide entire planets? Even if you can, it’ll probably suck.

Well, that’s the thing I’m trying to cling to, perversely enough. If I tell myself that, yeah, it’ll almost certainly suck, then somehow it doesn’t matter that it will suck.

No, I have no idea how that works, either.

Still, this psychological self-hacking ain’t gonna fix the more tangible and immediate problem, namely the lack of a third character where I need one to exist. Only one thing’s gonna fix that, and that’s me sitting down and writing until someone or something reaches out and tells me where they need me to send them… so it’s time to leave aside the tempting displacement activity of blogging (which, in reference to my claim further up the page, has already seen me assemble over a thousand words into something approaching order this afternoon) and do that thing where I try to press the keys in the right order: the order that makes them – and everything else in the room, maybe even the whole universe – disappear.

So, to work.

[ * Clarification: I adhere to the Warren Ellis definition of “morning”, namely (and I paraphrase): “the first three hours after I get out of bed, whatever the lying bastard clock says”. ]

Standing on the verge of getting it on

When I was at college back in 1992, there was a guy in my tutor group who played trumpet and was bang into his classic funk – James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic, all that stuff. I remember him explaining one of the core structural components of the genre, which applies to a lot of other musical forms as well, most notably anything dance-orientated: it is called, simply enough, “The One”.

The One is that moment where a whole bunch of repeating riffs and figures of different lengths – a one-bar bass hook, a four-bar drum pattern, an eight-bar bridge, a sixteen-bar solo – all reach their loop point at the same moment within the tune. The One is the sound of something cohering, of an emergent higher order. It’s the point in the tune where everything comes together, that single first-beat-of-a-bar where everything strikes together, the moment when even the most grooveless of listeners feel the urge to to move.

I think I just hit The One in my life.

Most of you already know that I’ve just started my Masters degree in Creative Writing; my first seminar is this evening, in fact. In the last year I’ve sold pieces of writing to magazines that I’ve been reading since before I even considered writing as a career choice; I’ve just started writing a proper column at LitReactor, and other commissions are fluttering around in my in-tray. But not only that: today also sees me starting a new job with a title so cool you’ll think I’m making it up. As of this morning, I’m a telecommuting employee of the University of Sheffield’s Civil Engineering department — a Research Assistant in the Future of Infrastructure.

I’ve put a post over at Futurismic that goes into a little more detail about the job and what it means to me. Here, I’m just going to remark on the weird way my life has suddenly cohered into something strange and exciting and new, like I finally found a path I never realised I was looking for. These moments of synchronicity aren’t without their negative threads, of course; my uncle died the weekend before last after a few years of declining into dementia, and thanks to the timing of my first seminar this evening, I’m missing the funeral. I don’t feel great about that; the guilt is compounded by the knowledge that funerals are horrible things to have to attend at the best of times*, and that this one occurs at the same place we buried my old man back in 2002. I wish I was going, but I’m also quite glad I’m not, while simultaneously resentful of that spark of personal relief. Such are the contradictions of the heart that keep us awake at night, I suppose.

One of the great novelistic fallacies of the human condition is born of our instinctive need to stitch a narrative out of the cloth of experience and chance. We often speak of fate, or simply feeling that something was meant to be, even though we know that nothing is determined, and that even history shifts its meaning depending on where you stand to look back at it. Caught in the fragmentary slice of silence before the bass bounces back to the root note and the horn section stabs out a fat major chord, I find myself glancing back and wondering how I got here from there. In some respects it seems almost beyond belief, a daft tall story that a teenaged me would have scoffed at; in other ways it seems like a fortunate yet inevitable confluence of all the things I’ve been doing for the last decade, if not my entire life. Both stories are equally valid; neither of them are strictly true. The truth is in the telling, maybe. Or in the reading, or the ending.

Either which way, the page turns; one chapter ends, another begins, and a new act begins to play out. In the orchestra pit, feet and fingers twitch in an anticipation of rhythm; the audience, small as it may be, waits patiently for events to unfold.

Let the beat drop; bring on The One.

[ * I’ve come to the conclusion that funerals are a little like placebos, in that an understanding of their true function lessens said function’s effect. Funerals are for the living, not the dead; I don’t need to be there to make peace with my own mortality, but I wish I could be there to support the rest of my family. And so it goes. ]

Pearl Jam: Twenty

So, me and a bunch of musician buddies trundled down to Gunwharf last night to see Twenty, Cameron Crowe’s documentary celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s seminal album Ten.

It was pretty decent, though there was a general sense that it wasn’t quite what any of us were hoping it would be. With hindsight, however, it’s not entirely surprising that Twenty is a work of mild hagiography. For a start, Crowe was the guy behind the movie Singles, and a major booster for the Seattle scene in its infancy; secondly (and as highlighted by the film itself) Pearl Jam made the decision early in their career to say “no” to doing music industry stuff that they didn’t want to do or couldn’t maintain control over, so they were hardly going to sign up for deep surgery (let alone a hatchet-job) after twenty years of refusing to be dragged over the coals of music journalism. This way, they get to stand in the carefully stage-directed light of the two-decade anniversary of grunge, but on their own terms; a chance to tell the story in their own words, to own their own narrative to some extent.

A few snippets of period interview footage featuring one Kurt Cobain are a pointed reminder that said narrative control is denied to those whose pieces got taken off the gameboard: Twenty may be hagiographic in a folksy sort of way, but poor Kurt was elevated to an uneasy sainthood when the ink on Pearl Jam’s press buzz was still fresh, much like his own. The true tragedy of Cobain’s suicide is that he never got to show the world he’d licked his demons, and – by extension – the world itself. But the mythology of rock can’t pass up the easy meat of those who burn out rather than fading away, and Cobain will remain among its pantheon of pietà for as long as there’s money in selling his image, broken on the wheel of fame, a martyr to the alienation of a generation. Pearl Jam’s sainthood is different, a quieter litany of honesty and penitence; there is little mass-marketable glory in their refusal to participate in the music industry’s increasingly desperate circus of amplified personality and public pain.

That’s not to portray them as noble mendicants, of course; while they may not be living the Hollywood rock-star lifestyle, their survival as a band that continues to release new music and tours off the back of such must look enviable to today’s young musicians, and the contemporary interview footage suggests that none of them are living the hand-to-mouth grind of the fallen star. Pearl Jam have made what looks to be a comfortable living by doing things on their own terms, though lurking beneath the narrative surface of Twenty is the suggestion that it was not always an easy journey to make (and a persistent undercurrent of reminders that being a proper musician is just as much a job of work as any other artistic vocation). But with the exception of a few minutes taken to dwell on the tragedy at Roskilde and the personal aftermath of such (which, to be fair, would be hard to treat in greater depth without seeming tacky, self-aggrandising or both), the band’s post-Ticketmaster travails are painted with broad strokes, their second decade handwaved across the border with an alacrity born (one assumes) of Crowe knowing his target audience: the serious but unromantic business of a mature band writing new material and organising their own global tours lacks the tragic mystique of their origin story.

And so the lion’s share of the movie covers the formation of Mother Love Bone from the ashes of Green River, the tragic-but-inevitable death of frontman Andrew Wood, , the forming of the band that became Pearl Jam, and the gradual apotheosis of a shy and earnest Eddie Vedder, some handsome kid from beyond Seattle who sent in a demo tape featuring a voice to die for. Twenty‘s greatest triumph is perhaps the way it captures Vedder’s transition from promising young frontman to self-appointed voice-of-the-underdog; there’s an amazing bit of footage from an early Pearl Jam set in Vancouver (a support slot for Alice In Chains, if I remember correctly) where, midway through their set, Vedder witnesses the sort of heavy-handed security procedures that were a big feature of the era. After dropping a handful of lines from a song to mutter – over the mic, but almost more to himself than anyone else – about how fucked-up a thing it is for some bull-necked guy in a bomber jacket to beat some kid up for the sin of rocking out at a show, there’s a sudden shift; the to-this-point mellow and shy Vedder undergoes an astonishing phase change, the rapid and unexpected flourishing of righteous anger channelled almost immediately into his performance. It’s genuinely incredible; you can see the guy age maybe five years in a few seconds, and within the space of a few lines that earnest young man becomes the snarling channeller of inner turmoil whose frontmanship turned a skilled but otherwise unremarkable hard rock band into one of the pillars of a generational movement. That transformational trigger has its tragic echo in the Roskilde disaster; if you asked me to novelise Pearl Jam’s story, that would probably be the thematic spine I’d use to hold the work together. (It would be, unsurprisingly, a darker story than Crowe’s telling, though I like to think it would have a more transcendent ending as a result. What that says about my relationship to Pearl Jam’s music by comparison with Crowe’s is left as an exercise for the reader.)

I don’t know if it happens to everyone, but I find that reliving my youth through media output like this makes me feel very old. Naturally enough, a big part of that comes from seeing one’s teen heroes age twenty years within the compressed temporal frame of a few hours, going from daftly-dressed kids in their early twenties goofing off and having fun on noise-fuzzed camcorder footage or home-cloned VHS scrapings from MTV, to serious musicians in middle age, their eyes haunted sporadically by the ghosts of their pasts. (Though it should be noted, with a degree of envy mixed with admiration, that Vedder remains youthfully handsome and clear-skinned by comparison to his band-mates, despite still being a smoker, and his voice – spoken and sung alike – has become deeper and broader in terms of its range for a fairly minimal sacrifice in its raw power; a modest charm flows off the guy in waves, and – much as one of my friends said as we walked back into town in the drizzle – one likes to imagine him shrugging off formality and inviting you to “just call me Ed, man”.

But I think the real reason Twenty makes me feel old is because, in the terms of the outlook on life I had when the most important events it portrays took place, I am old – almost unimaginably so, in fact. It sounds laughably overdramatic and emo of me to say so, but when I was fifteen I really didn’t think I’d make it out of my twenties alive, let alone sane… and with that remembered alienation and restless nihilism still as fresh in my mind as they ever were (or so it feels), it’s hard to reconcile those feelings with the fact that I’m now the sort of person whose formative favourite bands have serious and worthy documentaries made about them. Twenty, then, says as much about how its audience have grown up and come to terms with the world as it says about the band’s own struggle to make peace with itself.

I guess I can live with that. (Like I get a choice, right?)


This is one of my favourite Pearl Jam tunes. Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s one of their most simple and obviously anthemic the-kids-are-all-right numbers, but frankly I don’t really care; it said what I felt at the time, I can still remember that feeling, and that’s enough for me. Pipe up with your own favourites in the comments, if you like. 🙂

“Will myself to find a home / a home within myself… “

Critical mass at the LitReactor

Attention, writery types – allow me to draw your attention to LitReactor, which is a new project from the people who run ChuckPalahniuk.net. LitReactor is gonna be part online writer’s workshop, part book-geek community, part webzine. It launches at the turn of the month, but if you sign up now for the mailing list you’ll get an introductory e-compendium of writing tips from an assortment of luminaries including Neil Gaiman,  Brett Easton Ellis and (of course) your main man Chuck. Go take a look.

Oh yeah, and they’ve hired some limey called Paul to write their tech column. 😉

A Glass of Shadow – Liz Williams

A Glass of Shadow - Liz WilliamsApart from a few chance encounters in mags and anthologies, this is my first condensed experience of Liz Williams in the short form, in a handsome (and rather genre-ambivalent) collection from NewCon Press. Nice font size and simple layout… though the fancy font for the story titles errs a little too far toward the unreadable for my taste. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

Now, I’ve not actually read any of Williams’ sf novels, either. She holds the very rare and dubious honour of being the only writer of what you might term ‘urban fantasy’ whose output in that bracket has captured and sustained my interest: I was sent a copy of one of the Inspector Chen novels for review a few years back, dipped my nose into it out of curiosity, and have read almost all of them since. They’re a great balance of dry humour and dramatic plotting, and a real pleasure to read.

A few of the stories here are set in Singapore 3, but neither Chen or his supporting cast make an appearance in these stand-alone tales, and the city is largely a convenient backdrop against which to set some spooky goings-on that draw on the Chinese occult pantheon; the vibrancy and depth-of-field of the novels is absent, but that’s not really a surprise or a complaint; short stories is short stories, after all. My favourite of these was probably “Mr Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies”, because I’m a sucker for a rock’n’roll underdog story played with just the right balance of respect and snark…

Williams draws on other occult traditions, far and near: “Who Pays” drops in on the all-but-out-of-business gateway to the Egyptian afterlife (and reveals it to have had still older and stranger origins than those we think we know); “Voivodoi” mashes up a genetically-modified near-future with the folk tale monsters of Central Asia; an embittered undine bites off more than she can chew when she tries to harness the unusual power of a hapless Victorian gent in “The Water Cure”, and that notorious opium eater Thomas De Quincey reveals a dark and untold aspect to his well-known tale in “Mr De Quincy and the Daughters of Madness”; “Blackthorn and Nettles” goes back to druidic traditions of ancient Britain, and “On Windhover Down” takes place in an alternate branch of English history where the transition between the old gods and their imported supercedents is not yet complete.

There’s a variety of tone throughout, though Williams tends toward a verbose narration in the first person (which may be a function of the dominance of [alt]-historical settings in this collection); there’s also a scale of severity or seriousness that runs from its peak in the stories set on the Mars of Williams’ Winterstrike novels (“The Age Of Ice”, “La Malcontenta”) down to the whimsical Whitby-and-Goths spook-story “All Fish and Dracula” (which was a smidgen too cute for my palate). The Winterstrike setting feels like it’ll be very much to my taste, though, so I’ll have to look those up when the opportunity arises.

What really leapt out at me, though, was the regularity with which Williams has her characters transition across the borders between “reality” and other dimensions – Hell, Faerie, altered states, the afterlife – and back again, and the way in which she views those transitions and transactions in much the same terms that we understand the borders between nation-states; the Other Side is always political, sometimes sexual (though not overtly so). The transitions always change the person who makes them, too; it’s those who hang back or tremble undecided on the borders who tend to get hurt the worst. Don’t hesitate in the face of change, of the other… I’m put in mind of Chris Beckett’s fiction, which – while stylistically very different – contains this same fascination with the transgression of boundaries, though Chris tends to focus on the apprehension and temptation of transition (and the tension that temptation creates when strung against the need for borders to be maintained and policed) rather than the transgressions themselves. An opportunity for some sort of comparative paper there, maybe.

As a final aside, it struck me that “Ikiryoh” poses the same ethical question as Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: is the deliberately engineered suffering of a single unfortunate justifiable if it brings peace and plenty to the entire state? The problem is approached from a very different angle to LeGuin’s; this story is more story than parable, for a start, and the answer is left for the reader to decide for themselves (though Williams’ protagonist – itself, perhaps tellingly, a member of an engineered servitor underclass – seems to make her own choice before the story’s end). Indeed, the literary similarities are very few, but it was the chime of recognition that made me think it worth noting down; it’s one of those themes that always reaches out of a story and slaps me into stillness, and I think there’s a lesson for me -both literary and personal – in that jerk of clarity.

As with all the most important lessons, though, what is to be learned is not immediately apparent. Selah. 🙂

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology