Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Portraits of the Band

Once upon a time there was a violinist called Cathy who led a string quartet and played gigs up and down the North-East of England, but then one day, after playing for a conference of neuro-surgeons in Alnwick Castle, her health took a nosedive and the violin was put away for twenty years.

—At which point her health got even worse, so she thought to herself, this is ridiculous, and after major surgery and radiotherapy she pulled herself together and re-invented herself as a fiddle player with Irish band ‘Share the Darkness’.

These things can happen! I know, I was—and am—that violinist/fiddle player.

Whilst being ill, I hadn’t wasted my time. I’d worked at portraiture, so it was only natural to do some drawings of the band. Here they are:

Phil Graham (Lead Vocals)

Geoff Pickering (Mandolin, Guitar, Vocals)

Gary Lee (bass)

Mark 'Hammie' Hammond (vocals, Guitar)

Cathy Edmunds (Fiddle)

So where are the drawings of the string quartet? Nowhere. I played quartets before I was into portraiture, so the ladies of ‘Cameo Quartet’ were, alas, never immortalised in the same way. 

Forthcoming ‘Share the Darkness’ gigs are listed on our Facebook page here. Come and listen! I’m having terrific fun playing with them, and the feedback we get is great; many people come time and time again to see us. And unlike at the quartet gigs, you’re allowed—encouraged—to dance. 

Photo: Dan Graham

Friday, 16 December 2016

"The Promise of the Child" by Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child

by Tom Toner

Gollancz ISBN 978-1-473-21137-7

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” was supposedly said by the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. The minute I encountered Aaron at the start of this novel I thought ‘Jesuit’! Okay, maybe that’s just me, but still – this is how Aaron operates. He manipulates. But he also makes promises.

The Prologue opens in Prague, 1319, though most of the story is set unimaginably far in the future. Aaron makes the first of his many bargains, this one with a princess who is to bring him her son when he is seven years old. She has no choice. If she doesn’t hand him over, he will die, so she loses him either way. So far, so historical novel. The next section takes a huge leap forward in time. We meet Sotiris, but he’s dreaming. He understands this is an illusion, he knows what is going on. St Ignatius Loyola (yes, I’m thinking Jesuits again) also experienced a series of visions which appeared as “a form in the air near him and this form gave him much consolation because it was exceedingly beautiful ... He received much delight and consolation from gazing upon this object ... but when the object vanished he became disconsolate”. After Sotiris’ dream, we’re flung straight into classic space opera territory with a fortress under attack, various species mentioned, names that are clearly sci-fi. There is something called the ‘Shell’ that needs protecting, but no clues yet as to what that is. At this point the reader who has noticed there is a glossary at the back of the book will be breathing a sigh of relief, as the names and races are adding up rapidly. 

Now then, if you don’t customarily read fantasy or sci-fi, you will probably give up at this point, fling the book down saying, too many races, too many characters, too many weird names, too much unexplained, too much chopping and changing between places and scenarios. If you persevere, however, you’ll realise you’ve got to the end of the prologue, and Part One is about to begin. The various strands will now start to be woven together, though it will be several hundred pages before you’re sure how everything relates. You’re about to meet Lycaste, and he’s going to be your guide through pretty much everything that happens from now on, which is useful because he doesn’t understand it either so we’re all in the same boat.

I’m not going to give away any more of the story, because I’m trying to tell you what it’s about, not what happens, and that’s an entirely different thing. For me, this first volume of the trilogy is about the corruption of innocence, but other readers will see different themes. There are echoes of Faust, Kierkegaard, Jonathan Swift, even the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I’ll come back to them. The whole thing is wildly weird until you start seeing it in its own terms. It is undoubtedly a great piece of complex world-building, in the grand tradition started by ‘Dune’, a book which knocked me sideways when I first read it all those years ago. The book is similarly high concept, though its world is entirely different. I’m glad it avoids the extremes of the modern steam-punk trend, while still giving a healthy nod in that direction with its rusting and patched up space ships. There’s nothing glossy and futuristic here, no clean lines; this is baroque, this is mannerist, this is as far from the anodyne sparseness of old-style futuristic sci-fi as you can get. It’s also a very long way from being hard sci-fi, and aficionados of that genre are regrettably not going to be gripped. They’ll dismiss it as soft fantasy, which is a shame. Sci-fi does not necessarily need to be bristling with hard science to be effective.

If it’s not sci-fi exactly, should we file it under fantasy? It certainly comes under that umbrella through its use of its own mythology, but it’s not sword and sorcery fantasy by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m pleased to report there are no bearded wizards in tall hats.

What we do have is intricate plotting. A large number of promises and bargains are made and broken as the story moves from the tiniest details of a young man on a beach, to a vast breakdown of society at a cosmic level. The strength of the telling is in the fact that the fate of the young man matters to the reader, more and more, and the ‘great events’ that are going on may be vitally important and inform everything that happens to Lycaste, but it’s the man himself whom we grow to care about, on a personal level.

Kierkegaard said, “...every historical era will have its own Faust.” I’m not saying our era has an exact equivalent in this novel, but some striking parallels are undoubtedly there, which I will leave you to discover. Ditto the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh learns that “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands”. If people don’t die though – what then? Jonathan Swift was the first writer in the modern era to fictionalise this concept. In Gulliver’s travels, eternal life is a curse, as the extremely elderly become more and more decrepit as the years go by. Very few film versions of the story include this nightmarish section of the book. We prefer little people and giants – and they happen to turn up in ‘The Promise of the Child’ too. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, only two humans have ever been granted immortality, and when seeking these immortals, Gilgamesh enters a paradise full of jewel-laden trees; and ‘The Promise of the Child’ is also full of paradises, of Utopias – but these are where the incredibly old go because they have become insane.

There are people in this book who are effectively immortal; they are ‘perennial’, and while there are enough of them, the old contracts hold, there is peace – but even perennials can be killed, and their numbers are falling. Old age won’t get them, they are relatively safe from that, though they will go quietly insane eventually. But anyone can have a fatal accident, often in the most banal circumstances. Throughout the novel, vast wars are being waged and old alliances are being destroyed. Aaron sees it all and knows precisely what he wants from the outcome. He is getting close. Sotiris knows what he wants too. As readers, we start rooting for Sotiris, but even he will use people, sometimes cruelly if he has to. The critical point is this: Sotiris has – or had – a sister. Aaron knows this, and uses the knowledge.  

But we also know, and have known all along, that there’s something downright odd about Aaron’s shadow.

Ultimately, perhaps what this book is asking is the perennial question of what it means to be human – and its corollary: what does it mean to be something else entirely?

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"Contracts" by P J Walters

Publisher: Waggledance Press; 1 edition (30 Oct. 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-0956966827

The blurb to this book tells the reader that everything in this story is fake, even the name of the main character – it talks about being on the run, being washed up, doing one last job. Blurbs are there to get you to pick up the book, to think, yeah, that sounds like a decent thriller; to make you put your hand in your pocket and dig out the cash. The cover is dark. Bleak. You think you know what you’re getting. You think this is going to be straightforward genre fiction.

But is it? Is this really just a standard crime thriller, read it once, forget it? I don’t think so. I think it’s far, far subtler than the blurb would lead you to believe. True, it’s full of ‘stuff’ happening. Scene after scene winds up the tension ready for the explosive and shocking finale which incidentally, is foreshadowed brilliantly halfway through novel. It’s not so much what happens at that point, but what John, the narrator, says in one of his occasional soliloquies that punctuate the action where he talks about the lack of imagination he sees in the ‘easy-going criminals’ who make up his circle. The emptiness of their thought processes means they cannot see how their actions are going to have real, devastating and horrifying consequences that are beyond their wildest imaginings – the point being that they are incapable of having those imaginings in the first place. There are disasters, tragedies, waiting to happen, and they’ll never see them coming until it’s too late. They simply don’t think. 

John, on the other hand is a thinker. He tries to switch his thinking off, along with his emotions, but that high-functioning brain of his is there in the background all the time, even when he’s numbing it with drink or the excessive workouts with which he abuses his body in his search for oblivion. His life is a downward spiral. He can see this. He has imagination. But even he can’t see the ending.

PJ Walters has produced a hilariously self-deprecating biography for the purposes of this publication. In it, he says: PJ Walters is an academic and writer with the most lacklustre CV in modern British history. He once won an Arts Council award for his writing, but it’s now worn off. The best thing that can be said about him is that he owns a nice hat. Yes, the hat is very nice. I’ve seen photos. But Walters is far more than an academic with a hat. Much of ‘Contracts’ is filmic, much of it very noir, and it’s clear that this is an area which Walters understands intimately. Each scene is perfectly choreographed – it’s ready to be filmed. This is the book of the film that is yet to be made. Walters directs it with exemplary skill, but he bypasses the need for the expense of production – he projects the story directly into his readers’ brains. The language he uses is an object lesson in invisible excellence. You stop noticing you’re reading at all. That’s how it should be.  

It’s not all darkness. There is some humour, though it’s pretty bleak. I particularly enjoyed the excruciating journey John takes when Euan is driving for a change, and he has his CD on auto-play, continually repeating a mind-numbing thumping beat at unbearably high volume. We’ve all had vehicles like that drive past us – it makes a change to be inside one, but this is precisely what this book does so well. Walters takes us inside every aspect of the underworld that his anti-hero inhabits.

The novel is called ‘Contracts’, and it’s a great title, multi-layered, many possible interpretations, but it’s left to the reader to decide precisely what they think it means, beyond the obvious.

So it’s a thriller, yes, and a very good one at that. But it also crosses over into literary fiction because it never spoonfeeds the reader, it never explains. This is not airport fiction. This is a thought provoking and disturbing novel that will get under the reader’s skin in a way which many throwaway thrillers can only dream about, if they have the imagination. But that’s just the point. They don’t.

Monday, 14 November 2016

"I Am A Refugee" by Camillo Adler

‘I Am A Refugee’ by Camillo Adler, Trans. Michel Adler
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 8, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1477664087

I was at a writing event the other week, when one of the ladies there said she was embarking on an account of her mother and aunt’s lives as part of the Kindertransport. She was nervous about writing it, and I sympathised, having written my own mother’s biography with all the details of her life as a ‘hidden child’ in central Europe. These books are very hard to write so long after the event, when memories are fading. Camillo Adler, on the other hand, was writing while everything was happening. His words are immediate. They are raw. They are never filtered through hindsight. His son, Michel Adler, didn’t even know these writings existed until relatively recently, but once he found them, it was clear he would have to translate them into English and get them published. He recognised, as anyone who reads this book will, that these things matter; they matter vitally.

I didn’t realise quite how much until I’d finished the book.

There is much rhetoric being flung about at the moment about ‘the other’; people who are not ‘us’; people who come to be seen as less than human. That dreaded word, ‘Refugees’ and its close cousin ‘asylum seeker’ – both of which are almost becoming pejorative terms these days. These refugees, fleeing death and destruction, are depicted in the mainstream media as a problem for us – we don’t understand why they don’t go back where they came from, we don’t want them to take ‘our’ jobs, we fear many of them are terrorists and will blow us up. We don’t stop to think that the only reason they are refugees is in many instances because we have bankrolled and supported the actions of those who have blown up their homes.

Refugees are ‘wrong’ somehow. They will infect us with their wrongness. We can’t take them in. Send them somewhere else.

But any one of us could become a refugee. Any one of us could become ‘the other’.

Camillo Adler’s book starts off as a straightforward account of what went on, of how he went from being a perfectly valued member of society to being that hated thing, the refugee, the foreigner who isn’t wanted. Add in the problems of anti-Semitism, and he was always going to have a horrendously hard time as WWII approached and then broke out. The book describes his experiences in the Foreign Legion and various internment camps, and makes for a gripping read, especially with the human interest angle of enforced separation from his wife and sons – but then it changes tack, and the last few chapters are, for me, what makes this so much more than simply ‘another’ holocaust memoir.

Camillo Adler is a thinker. A philosopher in all but name. At the end of the book there are a number of essays in which he explores what causes the refugee phenomenon, and what it means to people to be stateless. For you or I, if we get into trouble in a foreign land, we can call on the consulate to help us out. But if you no longer have a state? There is nobody. You are utterly reliant on the goodwill of strangers.

This section of the book is not an easy read, but it is a very important read. I think this should be a taught book in universities, both in history and philosophy faculties.

I only came across this book because Michel Adler, the translator, was looking into the family tree and my name came up. I didn’t even know of his existence, but we discovered we are second cousins, and we got chatting by email, and decided to read each other’s books to learn more about our mutual families.

I’m so glad we did.