There’s a history to how I write fiction. A necessary history, which I only hope won’t bore you.
In the second year of my English degree, there came the option to write a short bit of prose or poetry – which, in an emergency, might bump up our overall class mark. This shortish thing was known as the ‘Original Composition’. As if that square moniker hadn’t frightened all the fun out of the task, I was running chronically low on ideas. Besides: I lacked conviction in my ability to write fiction of any kind. I still recall – with an icy shudder – my hubristic attempt to write a novel, aged only sixteen. I began by meticulously mapping out the symbols I would use. The novel was as good as dead from that moment. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that the GCSE syllabus ruins one’s relationship with literature. Indeed, the humiliating lesson of my first few terms at Cambridge was that I really didn’t know how to write – and therefore to think – very well at all. (I do not state that words are essential to everyone’s thought processes; this was simply the situation I encountered.)
I always felt like a disappointing recusant of an English student. Sir Ian McKellen has referred to himself as being ‘a plodder’ at Cantabrigian English, but he at least had the advantage of: a) being Ian McKellen; b) not really trying that hard in the first place. I was James Swanton, and I tried bloody hard. I had no other option. The irritation of my work ethic is that it stretches even to pursuits that I don’t feel particularly invested in; less work ethic than dutiful doggedness. So I spent far too much time in the library and a little less time in various theatres. Which still worked out at twenty-four plays, but could so very easily have been twenty-five…
Thus did I embark on my Original Composition in a spirit of indignant self-immolation. I resolved to write the most ostentatiously pretentious story I was capable of. I turned out a few pages of senseless drivel. To drive the point home, I made up most of the words. This is borne out in their titles: at the end of second year, I wrote ‘My Homely Ownsome’; before my finals, ‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’. The towering irony is that the marks I received for both were far in excess of any marks I ever received for my academic work. If there’s a lesson there, it’s also a taunt. Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, it raises a truth that I’m happier not facing.
A little context before I get quoting. Both stories are an encapsulation of my simultaneous fear of and desire for entanglement with the human race. I suppose they’re also a rudimentary map to the contents of my brain. This is particularly clear in their unending connections to all kinds of cultural (but not necessarily cultured) artefacts. In the extracts below, I’ve found echoes of the following: The Simpsons (many and many a time); The Secret Garden (the film, not the book); the stage directions of Tennessee Williams (more than once); the artwork on the Sun-Maid Raisins packet; William Blake; Alice in Wonderland (for me, the word ‘wow!’ is overshadowed by that text); Universal’s House of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (two films that couldn’t be more different); Shakespeare (I make out bits of Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Lord knows what else); The Phantom Lament (an ambitious but fatally flawed play I wrote a few years back); Alfred Hitchcock; Stephen Fry’s anatomical analyses (those areas which are dark and tufted); the musical The Baker’s Wife; the history of the Technicolor film corporation; the village of Poppleton; ‘Little Miss Muffet’ (ludicrous word); Pozzo in Waiting for Godot; Tod Browning’s Freaks; my dear friend Callum’s coinage of the word ‘portalise’; the Marx Brothers (one of the more obvious ones); the Manor School Art department; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.
Now. This roving intertextuality isn’t my attempt to pass myself off as some great genius, or qualify myself for special plaudits. Oscar Wilde said it best:
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
Best not to contemplate the implications of having quoted the above… My point, I think, is that unconscious quotation is a process that goes on for everyone. My stories are unconscious quotation turned inside out: exposing that sticky membrane that underlies too much of my thinking. I’m forever making off with other people’s ideas, which limits my writings to various strains of pastiche. Maybe I’ll arrive at something really ‘Original’ one day.
Looking back on these extracts, I’m also reminded of a Quentin Crisp-ism:
Push your neuroses into a place where they don’t hurt.
‘My Homely Ownsome’
Light Becomes Him
Boy is being rent at the seams and the creases and dark corners and crevasses by the shrieking pierce shooting in, laser-like, through the chinks in the great wooden barn-door that blocks free typewriter expressway, easy-access cavern monorail service; exposings whooshing, knife-like, far in and under-lash for pryful lid-well-aways, rending flesh to perambulate a span or two on dewy outreach bubble-yolks – jetting in, thundering, arrow-like, disruptive, beams quaking at the clamour, registering, noise-like, but then not actually or that’s just what I’d have said for myself, and myself now approach, I do – I approach robed and resplendent in noise. But not for ownsome’s.
The dread is palpable and indifferent. The light: yellow.
Up close, some radiant boy. A great smouldering garland of hair, black and rooky-woodening, befeathered at the endings and leaning cosmic. Face a monochrome mosaic, a children’s play-garden of black plant-life and white rocky bases. Black seashells on his shore. Of limbs, a ripening primacy, a budding into youthy vigours, like crush of fruit on sun-drivelled vine, like that likeishness preserved for me on a hundred moist raisin packets, all that particular drivel. Fairly drizzles from his massy, overwhelming brows. Snub nose. Stolid edifice. No hint of sphinxing, no bull-shitting here. I come into my most treasured rest. And I sit; and I stagnate; and I only ever but intermittently acknowledge the thrice-repured gather-ins of Baroness and Pinkin and the Grubbins in too.
‘My Homely Ownsome’
Perversion of O!
It would be comical had not the little centre of attention been caught at it and in it and at it again and again. A most improper puritan. But stomping always gives out full well away to romping, with the little black boy’s little black bed a very treasure-house of syphilitic plashing: forth and back, and out and in, and over and around again and in and in and in. And that of course is full precisely how imprecisely they come into his own – the devil’s own, for that is where He would say the devil went – spilling out like mewling cubs, oozed in amniotic bridal gowns, plucked new bright and bleating from the blackened womb: a-planted like a bomb-some at the bed’s very rootings. Why, it gets to the core of one. Cannot ne’er-do-well contemplate the sweet velvet pop and dissolution. To well envision the juddersome rubbings o’er smooth eiderdown and palatial mint carpet. So many heads, so little bed. A strain of diametric lessening, you know-somes, each boring and beating spirit blood and bone away, leaving only the most paper-thin cut-paper membrane. A little on the side of the transparents. Skin displaced from blackened caverns. Could turn a whole being inside out from these prising, flowsome chinks. Just clamp down and pull – come apart, O! come apart. Sublime devastation. The circle spun complete. Some show of blood, much more of oil.
‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’
Desperate Insecurity as a Basis for Cordial Theatre
And did. I flunkering hate that attitude. Flubbing well. That very platitude he digs away at, squirreling at the wainscoting, skit-knittering and tickering and flittstittering like a mad old old mad sparrowlark. Plaster-creakle-tits twirl jizzensquirk uppentimes. Agitardo movementation. Allegri, allegro, flitter-gib bibbington! Tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum – tee-tum tee-tum tee-tummy of Skelterton bouncey-pounce, don’t mucha like it now, a-neurgh-neurgh-neurgh (PRIG! of extreme validatory youthiclucks): gimmee at the pail and the golden curl; gimmee at the discardy Judy Garland dress what don’t not never not cinematograph in the on-model colourings except on posting-away Great Depressio Natalie-Kalmus-an-interfering-bitch film stock; gimmee at the village hall panto, stripped-down sex appeal fearatricks, primary-colour Eyes of Glob whiffling unpenetrened pungencies down upon my frilla-laced, polka-dotted, but very much unpoked and unlaced and unpanted skinitude. Gimmee yer grouncerings and trounce-plunkerings, yer blink-maddington-madammers. Harrumph-harrumph, goes the curla-haired, pinnied-up garrump. Truth be told (will be), all the humpity, tuffet-bred outcasts are welcome to my Fearatear: that arena pledged existence-contingent on the stretchaplush canvas of the steadermore grey matter pressed in-between my earatrics. We Twair! We Grubby Twair Within! The Fantasmalongerers! The Barnum-Bunterers! The Man-With-The-Bear-At-The-End-Of-His-Rope! We fess-longer in-upon your floss-candied cheeping-seats: fronter, lower, aisle and back, back, back. Your structuring attraction. Pigeon-chested, bird-brained, wing-backed, pea-cocked, chicken-breasted, chicken-hearted, mag-pied. Back and back again! Birdygirl Koo-Koo’s travellincompanions. Blast from out back birdalogue. Cat-a-pounce. Wow-wow-wow.
‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’
Helter-Skelterton to the Cock-Tailed Bar
And on and on and on we go, going on it like the clappers. Clap-clap, clap-clap, clip-clap, clap-clip, our down-spun trainsportalisation ever-reaching just-a-jut. Nib-nib, nib-nib, nab-nib, nib-nab, we sli-hi-hide from croopy up-oblysessed nibblings to the absolute incontrovert binnlings – consigning the old way to the bin, with downward swoop-exchelsior, just as we go a binly, binly, binnington-bins, just as we go binwise, just as we go bin the right direction to get to the binnermost core bin the earth, e’er since it is birth, all its berth, uh-huh-huh-hucksterrblery flinng. With a plin-plin, plin-plin, plan-plin, plin-plan, I am but a wispling crushed ticker-tape encasement screwed every-way-which-away balled. Bald as the eagle; smooth t’touch. Screwball knock-about nonsense, Groucho an’ Harpo an’ Dow-bow-wowager. Screwed now. Balls to’t. Clap-clap, clap-clap, squeezing-pleasing, clap-clap, clap-clap, tracing-bracing, clap-clap-clap-clap, bite-tight, sight-tight, might-bite, bite-bite, clapper-clapper-clapper-clap, turns out we all got bladdered with the clap! Here’s our stop – ooh! – shaddup. False drama para-break. Here’s the stop, if you can cork your flabby hole about it for all on five second.
Seven second later, because adding on a one seemed too risible toe-the-line punch-o’-the-line, and adding on a three made for vulgar vowel wot I ’ate so mech th’t I cannae regre’ tit’s disinclusion: then! we skeltered down bar-wise. A generic cubicle of neo-depressive kitchken-surfacings and aluminium braced-tracerings and cut-glass bottled-window accoutrements, with dispensable blonde barman accessory. The light, though, the light! Light, even – is what convalesced it, swoopingly, crimpingly, unto our gentle sensors. A light well-lent to lightning nose-dusts. Brush down. Goggles. Art-room shades. Gangrenous powder paint. Bilious oils. And waters colouring musty. In at the green-room, art-room, green-bar-var-var-voom-room. Roused by waters, I proffer taily tonic for mine self, for Skelterton: the cocky cordial, for (which) Skelterton leans crematoriously in on in on barman. Hoping at manbar. Making him as devil-may-care dispensable as ever even devil would not dare. He forth-billows – henchly – gropes unto his quarry – havahushly – then, bollockses up, and collapses onto – me! hunchingly me! – bollocks up (displorable behaviour), and we make for cutaway sofa fragment.
The third entry in the series – ‘We’re Sorry He’ – has been on my must-write list for almost a year. It shall be written. And I might very well post an extract.