Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Neil Gunn

I first encountered the work of Neil Gunn some eight years ago.  Although critically acclaimed in his lifetime, Gunn’s contribution to, and influence on, the first half of twentieth century Scottish literature has to a certain extent been eclipsed by the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Gunn was a socialist and committed to the cause of Scottish nationalism at a time when both were unfashionable, causes which, many of you will have gathered, I have more than a little sympathy for.  He was also, as the excellent Whisky & Scotland: A Practical and Spiritual Survey proves, an early proponent of malt whisky at a time when single malts were virtually unknown, no doubt aided by his years as a Customs & Excise officer.  His time at the Glen Mhor distillery afforded him ample opportunity to write, and is surely my dream day job.
Gunn, along with contemporary Hugh MacDiarmid was part of the Scottish Renaissance - a movement that sought to take Scottish fiction “out of the kaleyard” and into contemporary themes free from the romanticised and flowery tales that had come to typify Scottish literature.  Despite all of his novels being set in the Scottish Highlands, Gunn experimented continuously with style and subject matter, his later work being particularly influenced Zen Buddhism.  In many ways this was to be his undoing.  Despite the commercial and critical success of novels such as Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings, Gunn defied the expectations of his publisher and readers by more metaphysical tales such as The Serpent and The Green Isle Of The Great Deep, the latter a dystopian warning that pre-dates Nineteen Eighty-Four by five years.  As sad as it might seem inevitable, this led to a dwindling interest by both Gunn’s agent and his public, resulting in such a poor reception to his spiritual autobiography The Atom Of Delight in 1956 that he never wrote another full length work up until his death in 1973.
Perhaps somewhat perversely, while many readers expect, even demand, that their favourite authors produce a variant of the same book or at least return to favourite characters in order to continue their story, it is the diversity of Gunn’s novels that has made him both a favourite and an influence on my own work.  From the rich prose of Highland River and Sun Circle to the more simple and heart warming text of Young Art And Old Hector, Gunn explored the human condition and all its drives with a knowing nod to the Scottish character.
It was through such works that I first began to experience a shift in my own perception, the acknowledgement of something of worth within my own heritage and culture, the ability to tell a story in my own dialect and set in the land in which I grew up.  More than this, I came to challenge myself and remove self-imposed limits on my writing, enabling me to write stories that previously I might have considered beyond my means.  For this, more than anything else, I will always be indebted to Neil Gunn, regardless of any future direction.  This is why the books I write may not always be in a genre you wish to read, feature settings you are familiar with, or deal with subject matter with which you might readily associate me with.  What they will be is written to the best of my ability in order to tell the stories I need to tell.
Like the song says, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.’
Don’t think of this as hubris so much as kindly dictatorship.

For those wishing to investigate the work of Neil Gunn, I have listed some of my personal favourites.  Others are perhaps better known but these one’s resonated particularly strongly.

Sun Circle
Young Art And Old Hector
The Green Isle Of The Great Deep
The Silver Bough
The Well At The World’s End

Sunday, 2 September 2012

More Stories About Drugs, Sex & Violence

With a second short story collection under way, I thought this was a good opportunity to say a little about the stories in the previous one: More Stories About Drugs Sex & Violence.
The collection comprises thirteen stories written over a sixteen year period that covers almost every aspect of my writing.  I’ve tried to provide some insight into them below without giving too much away for those who have yet to read them.

The use of the second person in the narrative is a direct homage to those old adventure games books that originated in the eighties, where you navigated through the book by turning to various numbered sections.  Depending on your choices, you either won or died!
In line with the choice of the second person was the decision to write in as gender neutral a voice as possible.  Despite being the oldest story in the collection, having been written in 1996, it holds up remarkably well.

The Dog Trainer
The setting and much of the early dialogue relating to dog psychology are lifted directly from a session I had with a dog trainer after re-homing a dog that turned out to be aggressive.  Somewhere during the process I started to wonder what would happen if you applied the same process to a human.  I suspect I have rather too many thoughts like this.

The concept behind this story started as something of a joke, someone setting out to commit every specific type of murder, and swiftly turned far more serious.  Is it too fantastical?

Death & Taxes
A reproduction of the composition piece I wrote for my English O Grade.  Proof, were it needed, that my humour has always been black.  For those that may be interested, I received a B.

Charlie Says
For want of better term, a more literary examination of the concept behind White Vampyre.  I later attempted to turn it into a novel with no success.  Some of the material from that failed attempt was then used in a second failed attempt to turn Tracks, another story in this collection, into a novel.  One of these days I will complete a novel about Aberdeen lowlifes based on my time in the city.  Honest.

One of several pieces in this collection originally written for a competition.  In this instance the brief was a modern updating of a myth.  I chose Leda and the swan from Greek mythology.  Didn’t win.

Inspired by an advert for a company offering to turn human cremation ashes into diamond via an industrial process.  The character of Wayne swiftly took on a life of his own, becoming far more unpleasant than anything I’d first imagined.  Had a different twist when I first conceived it.  You’ll have to take my word for it that his one works better.

Two Minutes
Another competition piece and the only flash fiction in this collection - 500 words on the subject of time.  I suspect the racist language at the beginning may have queered this with the judges.  I considered removing it for the submission but it is entirely justified for the character and self-censorship is a slippery slope for any writer.

The Mythographer
This one arrived out of nowhere, starting with the title which sounds like something J G Ballard might have used.  Any resemblance to an ex member of The Libertines is entirely coincidental.

Down The Rabbit Hole
The most light-hearted story in the collection.  Besides the obvious references to Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard Of Oz and 70’s British Children’s television, there are a number of references to Tori Amos lyrics in the text.  I do this sort of thing far too often for my own good.

Another story that seemed to arrive almost fully formed.  This one manages to feature all three on the collections title themes along with a generous helping of black humour.  I like to think it attempts to make some serious points along the way.

Another Nail In My Coffin
In large part inspired by the excellent charity anthology Off The Record, where each story was inspired by a classic song.  The title comes from Nail In My Coffin from The Kills Blood Pressures album.  The two, however, have little else in common.

The Killing Of Joe Fly
Competition - the body in the library.  Hard boiled detective fiction with a twist.  Also didn’t win.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Fear

Empires, during expansion, control by force of arms and the fresh memory of defeat in the minds of the vanquished.  Once the borders have expanded too far, and the battles are the wars of previous generations, other means must be employed.
One of the most successful examples of such practise was the Roman Empire.  No longer able to control its subjects by military might alone it cowed them with a state religion in the form of the myth of Jesus Christ.  If fear of punishment in the here and now could not keep the proletariat in line, then the threat of eternal damnation surely would.  Indeed, even after the Reformation, it is only in the last hundred years that the Roman Catholic Church can be said to have truly faltered.
God may not be dead but he is undeniably failing rapidly in Western society.  The Almighty is more often than not the puppet vassal of right wing politicians.  Where a strong moral stance on society or an excuse for war is required, you can almost be certain that it is time to pay lip service to God.  The downside, now that God is only an excuse, is that fear of His divine retribution can no longer be used to control the masses.  Fortunately, for the West at least, the War On Terror has presented itself.  A concept so brilliant that if it did not exist then the American government would have to invent it.
Fear, as always, is the key.  The identity of the enemy is almost irrelevant.  His true power and capabilities are likewise negligible, just so long as the fear is real.  The psychology is both simple and deeply rooted in the human subconscious to the point of being an archetype – fear of the bogeyman.  Hitler had the Jews, gypsies and homosexuals.  America, since the institution of slavery, has had the Negro.  The same white liberals that will inform you that the coloureds are now free to vote, ride at the front of the bus and attend schools with their children are ones who are barricaded up in the suburbs with private security.  Deep down they know, because it is enforced by the media, that the black man is waiting, ready to rape, murder and pillage.  Correspondingly, they must be kept in their place.  To do so overtly would be to invite a race riot.  Instead, civil liberties have been abused in the name of that other moral crusade – the War On Drugs.  With the American prison population now at two million, and a felony conviction in most states resulting in a lifetime forfeit of the right to vote, it is indisputable that this particular war has been most successful is disenfranchising a large number of black, Hispanic and Puerto Rican Americans.
The above has proved so successful in the domestic environment that it can come as little surprise that America has decided to employ it world wide with their War On Terror.  They have learned the lesson well – the enemy is now so nebulous that no one is above suspicion.  As long as you accede and surrender your civil rights without argument you have the right to be innocent until proven guilty.  Should you be foolish enough to suggest that the government may be in error, to protest against being forced to provide fingerprints, DNA and iris scans, woe betide.  At best, you will be judged guilty of unpatriotic behaviour.  At worst, you will be viewed as a subversive with terrorist sympathies.  To disagree is to have something to hide.
While it may be argued that it is a historical inevitability that Britain should align with a power block, it is disconcerting to see the ease with which the current government has grabbed a hold of the USA’s coattails.  Apparently falling into line without question to every request made from overseas for increased security.  Though, perhaps, there is a certain irony to be derived from the fact that the British now appear to be little more than a colony of their former colonies.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Plastic Age

Schopenheur’s pessimistic view that everybody suffers has continued to hold true through the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing technology spiral of the late twentieth century - which continues at an increasing pace during the twenty-first century. It is a truism that all human beings desire, and anyone in a state of want may be said to suffer. In the past this desire was a basic need for food, shelter and warmth, as defined by Maslow’s Hierarchy. Now that we in the West have long since met these needs the current generation has more leisure time than any previous; they should only suffer only through boredom. Correspondingly, this should be a Golden Age for art, music and exploration, of freethinkers and liberal attitudes. The shackles of custom and dogma should have been torn asunder by a new breed that transcended the societal norm, freed from the tyranny of the herd mentality. This should be the age of the Übermensch, as prophesied by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
Instead of evolution we have embraced devolution! The lowest common denominator is the yardstick by which we measure society. The current generation is not the Übermensch – they are the apathetic, poorly read stooges of the Multinationals, the inheritors of consumerist policies. Their pathetic and narrow worldview is incapable of grasping the importance of anything beyond ownership of the latest WAP phone. That the Arab and the Jew murder each other’s children in the name of religion is inconsequential to them. They are blinded by the pernicious influence of satellite television, the Internet, games consoles and the tabloid press. Why bother to hold an opinion when someone else can hold it for you? Why question your government’s domestic or foreign policies? Every time they should cry out they remain silent, disinterested, as their civil liberties are still further eroded in the name of the War On Drugs or the War On Terror. They do not worry that the government wants the right to monitor their phone calls, read their e-mails, or review which sites they have visited on the Internet. Their concern lies in having faster access and better browsers and video-streamed graphics. If a Police State is to exist, surely it will exist for their protection? It is easier for them to believe in the existence of evil unfounded than to question what motivates a human being to crash a hijacked aircraft into a building. That there might be injustice at the root of the problem is inconceivable.
Nietzsche’s burial of God may have been premature, when over a century later mankind still clings to raft of faith in the harsh light of scientific advance. However, he was correct when he warned that Christianity had weakened and impoverished the character of man. We have swapped the authority of the Church for the authority of the Multinationals. Where once the herd animal was a Christian sheep, now it is the Corporate sheep. Its purpose in life is no longer benevolence, charity or moralisation; its purpose is to consume. The military and the bio-pharmaceuticals rain down their wares on the herd, which bleats thankfully in the name of progress.
No, this is not the Golden Age; this is not the time of the Übermensch. It is the Plastic Age – the age of disposable culture! The age of the nothing, where the blind who choose not to see are crowned kings!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Of Corporate Sheep And Shepherds

The corporate shepherd leads his flock in the belief that each is a valued member of the organisation.  This deceit is necessary to foster a sense of family within the group and to aid in subsuming the individual personality.  The individual is valued only so long as he or she is deemed to be both productive and cost effective.  In short, they are a resource, and their effectiveness is always judged against the bottom line.  The profit has spoken and declared that in the face of loss, or even that of a higher margin, we are all expendable, a fact proven the expansion of foreign call centres and manufacturing plants.  The cold logic of accountancy is not subject to morals or ethics or sentimentality, simple arithmetic states that an Asian worker trained to the same competency level as their European counterpart need be paid a far lower wage.
Care, therefore, must be taken to distract the sheep from this financial Sword of Damocles through indoctrination into the corporate mindset.  Corporate identity has become increasingly important, with ready identification through logos and colours, the physical branding of property and metaphorical branding of personnel.  Communications and briefings are targeted at reinforcing the corporate identity over that of the individual.  In this particular worldview you are either a leader or a follower, it is anathema to step outside of the rigidly defined boundaries.  Intelligence is respected only when it is employed within one’s designated area of expertise.  It is an act of heresy to question the motives of higher management, a sign of deviancy, or worse, a belief in the rights of the self.
Dichotomy arises in the individual in that it is extremely difficult to function outside of the corporate sector unless one is independently wealthy, either through inheritance or via self-made means.  The majority of sheep, even the self-aware, are bound by financial responsibility to their partner, children, or simply by a perceived level of lifestyle that they wish to maintain.  Others, still, are bound by morality.  To disapprove of corporate politics and policies is reasonable enough.  However, for some the act of signing a contract behoves them to honour it, not necessarily out of loyalty to the company but for the sake of their self-respect.  Respect for the security of their fellow employees is also a powerful binding force.  To put one’s own livelihood at risk through an act of omission or rebellion is foolhardy enough; to jeopardise the security and future of others is to risk being socially ostracised.
In such a manner the corporate shepherds, like the Church before them, are able to exercise control of their flocks through guilt, fear and familial ties; through the promise not of eternal damnation but the certainty of hell on earth.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Song's For Life

For someone with no musical talent, music has played a large role in my life, particularly a host of bands that emerged from Punk and New Wave to play a part in the 1980’s Goth scene.  Suffice to say, certain singers and songs have become inextricably woven into my personal mythology.  For the record, I believe all writers are possessed of a personal mythology, composed from the myriad influences of their formative years, which forms part of their writer’s toolkit.  Now, as much as I’d like to pretend that I spent my youth consuming the works of Dickens, Hardy, Chaucer and Dostoevsky, I would be lying.  I came to read the majority of the above in my thirties, along with Orwell and Grassic Gibbons, and while they have undoubtedly left their mark, they are nowhere as deeply embedded in my psyche as Tolkien, Moorcock and, dare I mention it in yet another blog or interview, Brit Sci-Fi comic 2000 AD.
Adolescence, more than any other period, is a time when information is absorbed and assimilated, a time when patterns are set with a rigidity that will prove difficult to reshape.  Into this heady mix of hobbits, albinos, ABC war robots and Genetic Infantrymen, I found myself adding the aforementioned music, largely due to having been given free reign of my older brother’s extensive record collection.
Those of you who grew up between the 1960’s and 1980’s will probably remember the delights of listening to records on an automatic portable mono record player.  The one I fondly remember had a dark blue base and light grey cover, with a carry handle on the side and a choice of three turntable speeds - 78, 45 and 331/3 rpm.  The other really cool feature being that the spindle had a notch near the top on which you could stack half a dozen or so 45’s, which would proceed to drop and play one after the other.  Between this, and a mono cassette player, which was later pressed into alternate service loading games on to my Spectrum, I worked my way through the early work of Adam & The Ants, Toyah, The Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie & The Banshees.
Music was, and remains a serious business for me.  This was no background noise, but something to be carefully absorbed, more often than not, in the confines of a darkened room.  Not surprisingly, for me it was more often than not about the words rather than the music.  And never was this more apparent than with the records produced my The Sisters Of Mercy.  At the impressionable age of 15 I was completely blown away by the video for This Corrosion and by subsequently reading an interview in the NME with Andrew Eldritch, who just struck me as this incredibly cool and intelligent rock star, much as I imagine David Bowie and Iggy Pop must have impressed teenagers in the 60’s and 70’s.  Suffice to say, along with my previously musical influences, it wasn’t long before I had a wardrobe full of black clothes and started dying my hair black!
I look back at the late 80’s with more than a little nostalgia - bands such as The Sisters Of Mercy, Fields Of The Nephilim, The Cure and Siouxsie & The Banshees were striding across the charts and appearing on television, but by the end of 1991 it had all rather come apart.  The Cult had completed their journey to Heavy Metal, FOTN had split and Eldritch was determined that the Sisters should be thought of as first and foremost a rock band, as well as going on strike in regard to record releases (a decision Eldritch stands by to this day, having continued to operate as a live band only for the last two decades).  Only The Cure seemed willing to soldier on and they were starting to sound rather twee.  Bands such as Rosetta Stone struck me as nothing more than a pale imitation of the early Sisters’ sound, and so I drifted away, content to get my lyrical fix from female singer/song writers such as Tori Amos, PJ Harvey and Heather Nova.  That said, they say if you wait long enough everything comes back into fashion sooner or later - both Toyah and Adam Ant are enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, while bands such as Pixies and The Stooges ply the lucrative reformation market, together with a recent trend for playing classic albums live in their entirety.
I still love music, discovering new bands and going out to see them live accounts for the greater part of my socialising, and probably always will.  But it’s the music of my youth that remains the most deeply embedded and to which I still return - referencing song titles, quoting lyrics in dialogue, even snippets of old interviews.  It’s all there for those in the know to discover, while being unobtrusively passed over by those for which it has no meaning.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m not being overly self-indulgent with these references, but as I said before, it’s all part of the mythology.  And no one needs myths more than a fiction writer.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

How We Lost The war On Drugs

Few things polarise public opinion as much as those substances listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  Forty years into a war that we show no sign of winning, one might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that prohibition isn’t working.  And yet pointing out this fact remains professional suicide for politician and police officer alike.  Calls for decriminalising or, most heinous of all, legalising certain drugs produce an inevitable knee jerk reaction.  But the salient fact remains that we are dealing with the fundamental market principle of supply and demand.  Drugs are cheaper and more freely available than at any time in the last forty years due to an increase in users.  Having failed to cut off the Black Market supply the logical option is surely to seek to reduce the demand.  Products for which there is limited or no demand disappear.  If you need further evidence of this just look at the amount of brands that have disappeared from our high streets over the last four years.
No substance is safer when manufactured and controlled by the Black Market.  I’m a product of the world as it is, not how I would like it to be.  The reality in the UK, Europe and the US is that there are millions of recreational drug users and labelling them as stupid or misguided doesn’t change that fact.
Many of the health issues associated with heroin addiction arise through adulteration of the product.  In its pure form heroin is less harmful to the human body than alcohol or, more importantly, methadone.  What a heroin addict needs is heroin and, in my opinion, it is far better to prescribe them that than another equally addictive substance.
While the above would help to reduce property crime, it is relatively pointless without some means of rehabilitation.  Weaning someone off a drug like heroin is all well and good, but dropping them back into the same environment they came from without support or the prospect of a job or means to build a future accomplishes little.  Rehab should be about integrating individuals back into society in order to contribute and develop self-worth.  The Swiss have been running trials with prescribed heroin for a number of years now, some of which involved cooperation with employers who allowed addicts to go for their morning fix before attending work as part of a programme to reduce their dependency.  It should be added that the injections took place in clinical environments deliberately chosen to remove any sense of ritual from the process.
While the above would help reduce some of the current problems the key to a radical rethink on drugs policy is decriminalisation of some substances and the legalisations of others.  The money saved and correspondingly raised through taxes would be sufficient to finance any amount of rehabilitation and education programmes.  Contrary to what some might think, I don’t want to see children popping down to Boots for smack.  But I’ll tell you this, I’ve never known a dealer ask for proof of age.
The truth the moral majority finds so unpalatable is that problem drug users are a minority when placed against the recreational user.  Due to the increasing divide between rich and poor in the UK there are thousands stuck either in low paid jobs or without even the prospect of work who can be forgiven for feeling the need for a little something to numb the pain.  A fact that is unlikely to change while an increasing number of children leave primary education without the fundamental ability to read or perform basic numeracy, or while we slowly slip back into a system where the right to higher education is based on wealth rather than ability.
Call me a left of centre liberal dreamer, but I happen to believe that in an industrialised nation such as ours every child should have the right to a decent standard of education and healthcare.  That affordable and good quality housing should be available to all according to their needs, particularly for the young starting out in life.
How, particularly in these dark days of recession, is this to be paid for?  Let me see, perhaps replacing Trident isn’t such a priority.  Perhaps maintaining troops in Afghanistan isn’t really making us safe in our beds at night from the bogeyman of terrorism.  Perhaps decriminalising drugs and spending the money currently used to limit supply on improving health and education might be of some help.
As alcohol, tobacco and trans fats have long proved, people like their pleasures, however bad for them they may be.  All you can do is educate them to the risks and ensure they have as clean a product as possible.  Far as I’m concerned, it’s up to the individual what he or she puts in their body.  As Aleister Crowley famously remarked, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”  Gerald Gardener, perhaps wisely, modified it for the Wiccan Rede as, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”  The latter of which surely includes harming yourself.