Thursday, 31 December 2009

Cannonball Read 10: Full of Life by John Fante

John Fante has long been one of my favourite authors. Virtually unknown throughout his life, Fante's work began to gain popularity in the 1970s when Black Sparrow Press republished his out-of-print work at the suggestion of Charles Bukowski. Subsequently, Fante's reputation slowly grew over the years and currently enjoys both critical acclaim and a significant cult following.

Ask The Dust, from Fante's Bandini Saga*, is his most famous novel (a fantastic review here). Similar to Dreams from Bunker Hill, the final Bandini book, both tell the story of a young writer, hot blooded, alone and impulsive, trying to make sense of himself in Los Angeles. As marvelous as these writings are, I have always enjoyed the semi-autobiographical stories that detailed Fante's life and relationship with his family. Two of my favourite Fante novels include The Brotherhood of the Grape and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The latter - to my knowledge his only novel written in the third person - introduces us to Fante as Bandini, the young son of Italian parents, born into poverty in Colorado. The former sees Fante returning home as a man. Both explore the tense relationships he shared with his excessively devout and overly dramatic mother, as well as with his tough and cantankerous father. Truly the byproduct of both parents, Fante's novels span over decades examining these three characters, all of them bewildered by their differences, yet almost comically unaware of their similarities.

Full of Life is more overtly autobiographical than Fante's other works, as he dispenses with alter egos altogether. The novel opens on John Fante, a man of modest success, home owner, and father to be. One day Fante's very pregnant wife, Joyce, falls through the termite-infested first floor. Though she is unharmed, the Fantes find the price of repairs to be out of their means. As a result, Fante travels from Los Angeles to northern California to request his father's professional expertise. Initially enthusiastic at the notion, Fante quickly finds himself regretting his decision once arrived at his parents' home. The story then centres around Fante being forced to deal with his self pitying father's faux stoicism, as well as his hormonal wife.

Less agonizing and much lighter than the bulk of Fante's work, this is by no means his best novel. It may be his funniest, however. While it is not recommended to Fante newcomers, anyone who has any experience with the Bandini's will delight at this small wonder.

*In the United Kingdom a collection of Fante's novels have been published in recent years under the name "The Bandini Quartet". They include Wait Until Spring, Bandini; The Road To Los Angeles; Ask The Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill. It is worth noting that The Road To Los Angeles was published posthumously. There is a reason for this: it's bad. Skip it and return to it only once you've completed the TRILOGY. It is not essential. In fact, check out The Wine of Youth instead, a collection of shorts that includes stories based on events written about in The Road To Los Angeles. Who takes care of you? I do, that's who. Happy New Year, sexy. Yeah, you.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cannonball Read 9: Another Country by James Baldwin

James Baldwin's Another Country is a sprawling novel that details the lives of a group of musicians, writers and artists in 1950's Greenwich Village. Thrown right into a cold New York City night, the story begins with urgency, as we follow the young Rufus Scott wandering the dark city streets, broke and broken. Baldwin immediately draws the reader in, setting us on a bumpy and often harrowing path exploring interracial relationships, extramarital affairs, bisexuality, as well as self delusion and its consequences.

Baldwin began writing the novel in Greenwich Village in 1948. He completed it on a kitchen counter in Istanbul in 1962. From Paris he had traveled to Turkey, arriving in poor health, depressed, and feeling that he had lost sight of his aims as a writer. Carrying with him an "unpublishable manuscript" that was "ruining his life", Baldwin claimed the characters simply wouldn't speak to him. On the brink of suicide, his novel had literally almost killed him. Taken care of by friends, away from his tempestuous life and relationships, he managed to conclude his 14 years of torment.

Reading Another Country is a frustrating experience. It is, rather understandably, uneven. The first third of the novel is its strongest, ranking with some of the best writing I have ever read. As a whole, however, it is muddled, and even infuriating in its failure to live up to its full potential. Often brutally honest in its exploration of relationships, willful ignorance and jealousy, it remains an intense and uncomfortably familiar read. In fact, I found myself completely obsessed with it when I was reading it, but almost felt it too heavy an emotional burden to pick up again after several hours away from it. It is the first time I have had such an intense and turbulent relationship with a book. I feel entirely serious (and quite ridiculous) stating that I had an almost romantic relationship with it. I love it despite it's flaws and feel quite terrible pointing them out publicly.

An imperfect work, yes, this may nonetheless be the most important literary discovery I've made in years. I hope others may value Baldwin's work as I have. Whether they do or not, I very much look forward to reading every word he has ever had published.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


Deistbrawler and Eyvi Sprite, put your machetes away, cancel your flights, for I have survived. I am currently holed up in a small French village outside of Paris with an internet connection and the best Whiskey money can buy. You're more than welcome to stop by.

I found myself in a tiny airport on the outskirts of Stockholm's outskirts. I slept on steel tables, I fought drunken Vikings for scraps of bread, I glugged moonshine at the security gates and wrote a novella with an albino at dawn.

I spent several hours in Oslo airport as well. Norway is the way forward. Stockholm and Sweden are fantastic, but Oslo airport's book selection! I expected a good deal of Knut Hamsun, as he's local. But their small English language selection was better than all of Glasgow's libraries combined. Bukowski, Nabokov, Bret Easton Ellis, Murakami, Camus, Kundera and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few. I felt inclined to move there based on the airport shop's collection alone. But I was informed that that was not a good enough reason to relocate and start life anew. Perhaps not. This is not the first time my impulsive tendencies have been brought into question. As it happens, "So I can watch the whales on the beach" is not a good enough response to the question, "Why is it you want to move to Nova Scotia?". Nonsense. It's as good a reason as any.

So here I am, "sharing" on line. I hope everyone is well.

Okay, this is impulsive. I don't believe in lists, I don't believe in awards. It's crass and pointless. But I still really enjoy them. I don't have the time or the energy to sit around and compile my favourite films of the Aughts, in general or in specific genres. So here is a list of my five favourite cinematic actors of the Aughts. If you don't like it, make your own damn list.

5. Ryan Gosling

4. Vera Farmiga

3. Idris Elba

2. Patricia Clarkson

1. Peter Dinklage

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Let The Right One Out

Dear Sweden,

Please let me leave. It's cold and dark and I can only buy 3.5% beer. I am very impressed with your snow storms, your rich culture and beautiful women. But I am cold. And I have not slept. And I want to go home. I have Cannonballin' to do and these little fingers are struggling to type.

Also, RyanAir is the worst thing to come out of Ireland since Bono.

Dear Readers,

If I have shown no signs of life by Wednesday, avenge death.



Monday, 30 November 2009

Cannonball Read 8: Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews Edited by Mac Montandon

I couldn't have been more than twelve years old when I first heard Tom Waits. I was watching MTV late one night when, from under a table in a dingy diner, a man appeared with a tiny guitar in his hands and belted out a song. I had no idea who this person was, or where he'd come from, but I was transfixed. Months passed and I sat up waiting, hoping to see the video again, a blank VHS ready in the machine. Finally, one night, the song came back on. I lunged towards the VCR and hit record. Immediately after the song ended I plugged the RCA chords that lead from the VCR into the tape deck and transferred the song onto an audio cassette.

The song was "I Don't Want To Grow Up", and it was unlike anything else I'd ever heard. I wanted to know more. I scoured the local record outlet for more of the man's work. The album that I wanted, Bone Machine, was too expensive. I searched through tens of modestly priced albums from the 70's and 80's with no idea where to start. Eventually, I settled on Rain Dogs, and, upon listening, was left confused and a little frightened at this eclectic mix of noise, beauty and brilliance. My musical tastes had been limited to the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth on the one hand, and Ice Cube and Wu Tang on the other. Already, these two genres were socially incompatible in my school. It was rock or Hip Hop. That was it. Angry, depressed and suffering the onset of puberty, I knew not which to chose, and rather resented the notion that a choice was necessary. Now I had Waits to contend with as well.

No one I knew had heard of this man. I kept him to myself and accumulated more of his albums as the years passed. I began noticing his songs increasingly being featured in cinema, popping up at the end credits of strange films I would come across on cable stations late at night. As the years drew on a few people I met started recognizing his name, though he was usually only referred to as the "guy with the gravelly voice". No one else got it. My mother even declared "Anybody that sings like that would just get laughed off stage" as I played "Dirt In The Ground" solemnly in my room. I did not care, the lyrics were as good as lyrics got.

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews is certainly not a book that will appeal to non-Waits fans. In fact, while it is an enjoyable insight into the man, it's hardly required reading for his fans either. The most interesting thing about Waits has always been his music. I still got a kick out of a lot of it. It's interesting to see the perceptions of journalists change over the years as Waits' grows from scruffy outcast to cult icon. The change in Waits' approach to interviews is even more drastic, as he evolves from a young artist spinning wild yarns about his past, to a husband and father with a decidedly more direct and, increasingly, political outlook. Nonetheless, he still insists on meeting journalists miles away from the secret location of his home, often in greasy spoon diners, or unfashionable Chinese restaurants.

This started as a mistake. I recently traveled down to London and, on Sunday, found myself alone in a friend's flat. I picked this book off of the shelf, flicked through the first few pages and, about 4 hours later, put it down and fell asleep. I had no plans on reviewing it but, in the end, could not resist writing a few paragraphs about this man whose music has been such a huge part of my life for the last sixteen years.

EDIT*************** Just deal with it.


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Cannonball Read 7: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the classic story of an amateur scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who succeeds in bringing life to a monster. Horrified by his creation, he abandons it. The monster, aware of nothing more than its own existence, searches for acceptance in a world repulsed and terrified by his appearance.

The story's genesis traces back to the volcanic summer of 1816 when an eighteen year old Shelley developed the idea after sharing ghost stories on a visit to Switzerland. Expanded from a short story, the novel was initially published anonymously and received a mostly negative critical reaction. Today, it will be greeted in much the same way. Dated by both style and pace, the book is often ponderous and repetitive. It hardly stands out as a great literary work on its own merit. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to delve into the source material of the now iconic creature, the monster of Frankenstein.

The story has changed drastically. Only a short few years after the novel's publication, playwrights struggled to translate the inner-monologue driven narrative to a visual medium. Subsequently, the story became increasingly sensationalized. For example, instead of the ambiguous chemical process Frankenstein employed to bring the monster to life in the novel, stage versions had electricity bolting into the creature, animating the grim collection of body parts. The character of Frankenstein, originally well-meaning, became increasingly corrupt, eventually morphing into the original Mad Scientist, along with his hunchbacked assistant Igor, a character also noticeably absent from the original story. But it is the monster that has changed the most drastically through the story's countless adaptations following the advent of cinema. Originally an eloquent creature of considerable intelligence, our modern monster has devolved into a lumbering zombie, inherently violent and mischievous.

It is the themes of the novel that resonate the most deeply to this day, however, as Shelley explores man's quest for knowledge, the harnessing of the elements, and our attempts at playing God. It taps into our unease over the ethical implications of genetic engineering and, most recently, the cloning of livestock. Yet it is ultimately the story of an even more universal theme: that of a man's obsession leading to his downfall.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Cannonball Read 6: Shibboleth: My Revolting Life by Penny Rimbaud a.k.a J.J. Ratter

"Whatever we do, we have to accept that our hopes and fears will be mercilessly exploited by those that have nothing better to offer than money."
Penny Rimbaud

Shibboleth: My Revolting Life is the autobiography of Crass founder, lyricist and drummer, Penny Rimbaud. Crass, perhaps one of the most influential rock groups in history, were a British punk band active throughout the late 70's and early 80's. Popularizing the anarcho-punk movement, Crass had an unquestionably significant impact on the punk scene philosophically, politically and aesthetically. As advocates of direct action, animal rights and environmentalism, the group became a minor thorn in the side of the Thatcher regime. This fact would lead to several encounters with authorities, and ultimately to Crass' members being tried under the Obscene Publications Act. While the book details Rimbaud's life from his childhood in London during the Second World War, through to his time as an art student and, later, teacher, the bulk of the book centres around the commune where Rimbaud spent decades of his life. Living with a variety of activists, artists and drifters, Rimbaud was involved in numerous creative and political endeavours throughout the years, though Crass remains the most notable.

Rimbaud is an intriguing figure who has lead a unique and fascinating life. A man of great intelligence and passion, his book nonetheless suffers as the result of his disjointed approach to storytelling. His non-sequential narrative, as well as his proclivity to flip from life event, political diatribe to philosophical musing, make for a frustrating read. Is this a memoir? A rant about the potential and/or limitations of revolutionary politics? A philosophical journey? It would appear to be a combination of all of the above. Thusly, it fails. This is compounded by a tendency to dryly list off the events of his life, rather than delving into any sort of detail that might engage the reader. Additionally, I often felt that Rimbaud's experiences were being listed to back up his ideology, rather than detailing how they organically led to his conclusions. My greatest criticism, however, is reserved for the almost comically pretentious descriptions that take over countless pages of this memoir. One particularly difficult section to stomach, detailing an early Crass gig, reads as follows:

"Sprays of alcohol burst in frothy trails from flying beer cans. Bodies surfed by on waves of grape and hop. Wild dancers dragged body to body, down onto the filthy floor in parodies of our fathers' violence. Touch on touch, in parodies of the awful coldness that had ripped us from our mothers' bodies. We heaved away at our adopted umbilical, sharing this moment of re-birth, ready to nurse each other's wounds, for, within this parody of violence, we realised that we loved each other."

The narrative deviates drastically as the book progresses. The central chapter, The Last of the Hippies, is the story of the death of Phillip Russell, a.k.a Wally Hope. Hope, a leading figure in the development of the Stonehenge Free Festival, was a close friend of Rimbaud's. Arrested on the commune where he sporadically resided, Hope was charged by local authorities for possession of a small amount of LSD and institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. Cut off from contact with the outside world, he was administered a cocktail of experimental drugs, often by force, that ultimately destroyed him as a person. Ten weeks later he was unexpectedly discharged. He returned to the commune a broken human being. Shortly thereafter he died, asphyxiated by his own vomit. The death, ruled as suicide, had a profound effect on Rimbaud, who devoted a great deal of time and energy investigating the authorities alleged complicity in Hope's death.

Indeed, the tragedy of Hope's death is truly harrowing, and forms not just the core of Rimbaud's attitude towards authority and government, but also the emotional centre piece of the book. However, as effective as the inclusion of this devastating story may be, it also serves as another obstacle in identifying what the core of Rimbaud's book actually is.

I want to be more generous with this book than I have been. At times it was engrossing, intelligent and thought provoking. Nonetheless, it remained a frustrating and often pretentious mess. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anybody that isn't specifically interested in the anarcho-punk movement and/or radical politics in general. The book comes to a very strong end, however, and the last section is particularly engaging, albeit deeply depressing. Crass dissolves, Rimbaud abandons his creative ventures to take care of his dying parents, and the world we all live in fails to improve. Rimbaud, much like the reader, is left without answers.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cannonball Read 5: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. He travels throughout his life experiencing its events out of sequence. He exists as an optometrist, a husband, a father and a mental patient. But it is Billy's time in Dresden during the Second World War, where he is held prisoner in a disused slaughterhouse, that form the core of the story. Based in large part on Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war, this incredible book stands as a towering literary achievement.

In its opening chapter our narrator explains that this is an anti-war novel. The very notion of such a thing is mocked by one of the narrator's friends who quips, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?". Point taken. And so it is from here that Vonnegut begins exploring these notions of the inevitable, of free will, of fatalism and the illogical behaviour of man. The results are often very funny, very tragic and, usually, quite bizarre. We learn early on of a particularly absurd occurrence. Following the bombing of Dresden - an allied air raid which claimed the lives of 135,000 German civilians* - an American soldier is executed for stealing a tea pot. The anecdote is referenced frequently up to, and after, we meet the soldier in question. The absurdity of the event, initially bordering on comical to the reader, takes on a different tone as the soldier's story progresses. Ultimately, it is quite devastating, and one of the most effective dramatic tools that Vonnegut employs in his non-sequential approach.

There are aliens in the story as well. Our protagonist is abducted by the extra-terrestrial Tralfamadorians and held as a zoo attraction on their home planet. Despite being far more advanced beings than those on Earth, the Tralfamadorians have waged war and destruction throughout their history. They even destroy the universe, though quite by accident. This fact is known to them as they exist in a fourth dimension and possess the knowledge that there is no such thing as time. All events exist simultaneously. Anything that has ever, or will ever, happen is happening, now and always. Given this inevitability, the Tralfamadorians opt simply to ignore the unpleasant occurrences in their existence and, instead, focus on the good ones. It's a brilliant and hilarious mockery of the fatalistic attitudes adopted by so many of us back here on Earth.

I loved this book. It is one of the most original, intelligent and hilarious books I have ever read. I put off reading it for over a decade, figuring the subject matter and non-linear narrative would make for a rather inaccessible and depressing read. I could not have been more wrong. This is one of the most delightful and life-affirming books I have had the pleasure of coming across. I recommend this book to everyone that has ever, or will ever, exist.

*As I am reviewing a literary work, rather than a historical document, I felt it appropriate to include the same numbers employed by the author. For the sake of accuracy, however, it is worth noting that the number of civilian casualties has been the topic of much debate over the years. An independent investigation commissioned by the city of Dresden most recently identified 18,000 victims and the most current estimated number of fatalities is put at about 25,000.

Cannonball Read 4: Junky by William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs' Junky is a semi- autobiographical novel that details the author's years of heroin addiction. We follow the protagonist Bill, a young man from a middle class, suburban background who travels to New York. There he experiments with, and becomes addicted to, heroin.

Burroughs is an engaging writer. Through his dry and laconic style he grimly recounts his experience with the drug, as well as its addicts and pushers. It's bleak and, aside from the occasional amusing observation or remark, almost entirely devoid of humour. It is the last book anyone with experience of heroin addiction - or heroin addicts - needs to read.

I have been putting off writing this review for over a week. There is little for me to say about the book other than I did not enjoy it much. Nonetheless it has me interested enough in Burroughs as a writer to check out more of his work in the future. Probably not the immediate future, however.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Cannonball Read 3: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood arrives in New York City to work as an intern for a prominent magazine. Despite this dream opportunity she finds herself increasingly disinterested in the world around her. Alienated from her friends, repelled by her once seemingly perfect lover, she returns to her native Boston where she spirals further into depression. It is there that she is encouraged to seek medical help. Electroshock therapy, attempts at suicide and institutionalization follow.

Originally published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, this semi-autobiographical novel was published a month before Sylvia Plath committed suicide. This was the first of her work that I had read. I was initially struck by how humorous I found the opening chapters. Plath possessed a delightful wit and a searing cynicism. Moreover, she was a brilliant writer. I came across this title quite by accident. I picked it off of a friend's book shelf and was immediately drawn in by its opening pages.

I have read many accounts of both mental illness and the experience of such institutions. I have been impressed by few. Having experienced both firsthand, I usually derive little enjoyment from such work. Nonetheless The Bell Jar stands high and above the rest. It is an uncompromising novel that never falls victim to either sentimentality or self-importance.

Many details stood out for me. I found myself uncomfortably relating to many of the experiences and characters that the protagonist comes across. From the interest in texts of abnormal psychology, the weight gain caused through insulin injections, and the heartbreaking guilt of parents convinced they are to blame for the unfortunate outcome of their child's circumstance. I recognized myself in Esther's many seemingly irrational actions; her habit of lying to strangers for no particular purpose, her long walks to random destinations, and even her flirtation with the Catholic faith. But it was her obsession with methods of suicide that stood out for me the most.

This is difficult for me. I am not sure what or how much to write. This book resonated with me deeply. It has not given me any sort of comfort or resolution. But it has given me something.

The neighbourhood is always loud. People are shouting outside. Windows are smashed and the broken glass rains onto the pavement. Up stairs, they scream and shout. I sunk into this book, far from it all. As I read to the last page I heard a sound from upstairs. It was The Beatles song Across the Universe. The soothing melodies played out as my eyes fell upon the last words of this beautiful novel. The song ended. And the world sat in silence.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Cannonball Read 2: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

For a review of I Am Legend from last year's Cannonball Read click here

Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has destroyed civilization. A disease has turned all other human beings into vampires. Neville survives on his own in a barricaded house. By day he scours the streets of Los Angeles experimenting on comatose vampires in an attempt to find a cure. By night he sits alone, listening to the vampires gathered outside of his home, as he retreats into a world of drunkenness and depression.

Matheson's book is an engaging, intelligent and terrifying read. A total of three Hollywood films based on Matheson's novel have been made over the years.* 1964's The Last Man on Earth, 1971's The Omega Man and 2007's I Am Legend have all attempted to translate the story from page to screen, with decidedly mixed results. Like many people I have spoken to in the last few days, I was unaware that the 2007 film was based on a novel. I saw the film prior to reading the book and found myself scratching my head, trying to determine what version of the book the film makers had actually read. The similarities between the two are few and superficial. The Omega Man offers a promising start, but ultimately falls short of translating Matheson's story. I have yet to see The Last Man on Earth but, from what I have gathered reading online reviews, it is a more faithful adaptation that suffers greatly due to the restraints of a limited budget.

Matheson has enjoyed a long relationship with the cinematic world. He went on to pen several screenplays, and his novel What Dreams May Come was also turned into a cinematic abomination, starring Robin Williams. I was initially drawn to this novel having read that it had been a primary inspiration for George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead. It is striking that, in many ways, Romero's film feels a more faithful adaptation than its official counterparts.

It was my intention to review this book solely on its own merits. That proved impossible, however, as I found myself obsessed with it's various failed cinematic adaptations, as well as its influence in pioneering the modern zombie genre. Nonetheless, I was utterly engrossed the whole time I was reading the book. I recommend it to anybody that is a fan of the vampire or zombie genre, whether or not they've had the unfortunate experience of viewing any of the films that the novel was based on.

*In 2007 a film titled I Am Omega was released straight to DVD in hopes of cashing in on the Will Smith starring I Am Legend. As it was only loosely based on the film, rather than Matheson's original novel, this writer does not feel its inclusion necessary.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Cannonball Read 1: The Life & Death of St. Kilda by Tom Steel

"The family prayers were said for the last time and, as was custom among Gaelic people, a bible was left open in each house, along with a small heap of oats. In one house the exposed text was Exodus."

"In each of the eleven inhabited cottages the fire was built up with fresh coal and turf. When they were burnt out some hours later, it was probably the first time there had not been a fire on St. Kilda for a thousand years."

St Kilda is an isolated group of islands located on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The main island, Hirta, was until 1930 inhabited by a small community whose population fluctuated between roughly one hundred and two hundred over the centuries. They had lived on the 6.285 square kilometres of island for perhaps 2000 years. Tom Steel's The Life & Death of St. Kilda provides an exhaustive account of these people.

The St. Kildans existed in an isolated world of incredibly harsh weather. Sudden and vicious storms attacked the inhabitants, often blowing sheep over cliffs and into the sea. It is believed St. Kilda was probably Christian before Scotland, as monks travelling from Ireland to Iceland likely settled briefly to convert the inhabitants. Nonetheless religion was not a focal point of the islanders lives initially, though this would change drastically in years to come. The islanders never saw a pig, a bee, rabbit or rat. Their only animals were sheep, cows, dogs and cats. They had no idea about trees, as there were none on the island. It wasn't until 1875 that any of them saw an apple, when freelance journalist John Sands brought three over from the mainland.

The harsh seasons resulted in the inhabitants putting little reliance on the islands limited crops. Their main source of food were the various sea birds that the men spent the bulk of their time catching. These birds would remain the staple diet of the St. Kildans until the beginning of the 20th century when fish - which they had previously avoided as it was not oleaginous enough for their liking - became a more central part of their diet.

In 1822 a profound cultural change occurred when Reverend John MacDonald lay the foundations for a highly organized, puritan and harsh religion. Upon visiting from the mainland he was shocked and appalled that he couldn't find a "decidedly religious person" on the island. He set about his work. Education arrived around the same time as this new form of religion. Various teachers were sent over from the mainland to St. Kilda, decreasing the islanders isolation. The teaching of the English language proved to be particularly useful in dealing with a growing tourist population. The tourists introduced a new concept into the lives of the islanders: money, a concept they struggled with. Furthermore, they found it impossible to understand the mainlands class distinctions.

A far more damaging import arrived from the tourists and occasional stranded ships, however. Disease came to the island and several outbreaks repeatedly decimated the population, as tetanus robbed the community of generations. In 1928 a flu that killed four members of the community struck a particularly devastating blow to morale on the island. And so in 1930 a Nurse Williamina Barclay, who'd been stationed on the island, helped the 36 remaining inhabitants to petition the government to evacuate.

Tom Steel's book is vivid and engrossing, if a little heavy on detail at times, particularly in his descriptions of the islands variety of sea birds. The book successfully recounts the history of this fascinating community up to, and after, their evacuation. The story of their arrival on the mainland is as frustrating as it is heartbreaking. Today the island is home to no more than military personnel and the occasional travelling geologist. The St. Kildans are no more.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Odds & Ends

I really wanted to make an effort with this wee blog thing but I've found myself stranded in the Highlands, galavanting through fields and frightening sheep. Internet access is limited. I will be returning to Glasgow in time for the Cannonball Read kick off on Sunday. Until then I dug up some old bits of whatever that I've decided to post for no other reason than to satiate the thirst of my legions of fans. Keep your damn pants on.


Strip malls and broken cities
Either it shines or it's boarded up
There's magic out there somewhere
But I'm distracted by the frat boys

The cold is sharp, shoulders tense
I smash the shit out of a public phone
Across the street, people just stare

I had no idea how good I had it then

It's the way your head lowers, eyes look up
Words are quiet
Carved up like a Christmas turkey
Large sips of beer as I stare around the room

You wanted to leave
But I couldn't see how anything
Out there
Would make this better

It was just colder
Your tears pressed against the side of my face


And so it goes. Those brown bridges continue to rust, by the burnt out lumber yard and the old haunted building that was once Searles Middle School. I sipped black coffee at dawn, watching the smoke pour out of the chimney across the parking lot. The bakery was hot, every oven on and flour in the air. Cutting dough and my hands were covered in it. I labored on and drank before noon. In that heat any beer tasted good.

Those mornings were grey and beautiful. It was in those times that I thought of you deeply, my thoughts with you as you lay in your bed on Hollenbeck. Long mornings followed on until the afternoon, where we drove down those long roads, passed Barrington Fairgrounds, abandoned and covered in weeds.

I found a couple of hours to sleep in between. You joined me, and we lay in my bed, panting from the heat and the love we made. We pushed the covers onto the floor and slept in. Late afternoon we hurried to the restaurant and worked ourselves hard until the late hours when we drank deep into those summer mornings. I was so alive that the exhaustion turned to exuberance. Laying there, a couple of hours, our bodies fitting together as though God carved each of us as one piece. We talked quietly for a moment before my heavy eye lids shut. And I didn’t even dream, I don’t think.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A Few Words on the Subject of Sex

I wrote this a few years ago. I find it moderately amusing. It is entirely fictional. But no one believes me when I say that. Some of the grammar makes me shudder but I am reprinting it as it was originally written.

I don’t have sex with other people. It is messy business both literally and figuratively. Coming out of a five year relationship the prospect of never having sex is equally daunting and comforting. It does little good for ones self esteem, but neither does the average sexual experience, so there’s no real loss there.

There are moments, however, when one may feel weakened, seduced and drawn into a situation that will inevitably lead to a sexual experience with another person. You may very well find yourself in this situation if you are not extremely careful.

It usually occurs when one is attending a rhythmic ceremonial ritual. The mind clouded by various toxins and inebriants, the vision obscured through the thick smoke and darkness, one will invariably gaze across the room and see a person that they believe they would enjoy a sexual experience with.

At this point one may find themselves walking across the room, taking a pull from a cigarette, sauntering over to the prospective partner with a look of - one hopes - cool emanating from their being. Conversation ensues, more inebriants are purchased, anecdotes and interests are shared.

As the nocturnal activity progresses one tends to find themselves huddled up in a corner with their prospective partner, chatting and gazing into their eyes. It is obvious to all others in attendance that they have now “coupled up”, despite the fact that the couple at hand have not made this explicit to each other. But it is only a matter of time.

What’s this? One may now find themselves with their prospective partners’ tongue in their mouth. A pleasant feeling in most instances, one reciprocates and the rest of the world vanishes. The people, the smells, sights and sounds slide away as the couple become completely enveloped in each others seemingly insatiable lust.

By this point it is quite late and the people that provide the inebriants set in motion the preliminary steps of closing the establishment that one has found themselves in. Outside one stands with their prospective partner. It is cold but she smiles and one feels all warm inside. At this point one may be feeling “wild” and “crazy” and the dark streets of London witness two kooky kids dancing and laughing in the middles of the street. Joy.

One now finds themselves with their prospective partner on the N29 bus heading north to Green Lanes. The “wacky” behavior out of their system, the couple talk quietly, occasionally kissing each other softly on the lips. Loud, crazy people get on and off. One makes wise cracks as their prospective partner erupts with laughter at ones’ witticisms.

Back at the house one suggests to their prospective partner that there is a pizza in the fridge, if she is hungry. Or one could make her a sandwich, perhaps. She says, “maybe later” and takes ones’ hands in hers and gazes into ones’ eyes. They kiss, softly at first, but it builds to a climax as they stumble towards ones’ bedroom.

Once inside one may very well put on his fairy lights as the main bulb is oppressively bright. The fairy lights are red which gives it all a bit of a Soho vibe. One makes a self conscious joke about the sleaziness of it all and turns around to see their prospective partner laying back on the bed, smiling and biting their bottom lip.

One climbs on top of their prospective partner and they kiss passionately. Clothes are torn off, flesh is kissed all over. One runs their tongue all the way down their prospective partners’ stomach and kisses it as one removes their prospective partners’ undergarments. In most instances one will kiss along the inner thigh of their prospective partner and slowly move towards the genitalia that one will breath on for a moment before engaging in oral sex.

The first orgasm out of the way, one makes their way back up to kiss their prospective partner. In most cases both people involved are either very near, or completely, naked. The prospective partner may reach down and grab a hold of ones’ genitalia and give one that satisfied and impressed sort of look that makes one feel like A Man. The prospective partner will usually enquire as to whether or not one is in current possession of any prophylactics.

There is then that awkward, but often endearing, moment when one struggles to apply a condom to ones’ genitalia. The couple giggle, but once fitted one climbs back onto their prospective partner and both wear an expression of seriousness on their faces. The prospective partner lets out a breathless gasp as one penetrates.

The couple begin to copulate. Things start slowly and carefully, but the couple become more accustomed to each others bodies. One is actually impressing himself at this point and, if the prospective partner groaning like an animal and chewing the pillow like some sort of famished cave girl is any indication, he is not alone.

Both now nearing orgasm the groans, gasps and shouts grow louder and more intense. One stares directly into their prospective partners eyes and they both achieve orgasm, the kind they write about in history books.

One rolls over and lays next to his prospective partner. Then, out of the corner of his eye, one spots a copy Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage on the shelf. Either that or the Firefly DVD box set. Either that or his copy of E.A.R.L, The Autobiography of DMX. Or any number of things that give him pause.

One remembers that ones’ ex-girlfriend lent him her fathers’ copy of Brendan Behan’s only novel, Borstal Boy, but he never did get around to reading it. One remembers the last time one visited ones’ ex-girlfriend at her University, where one slept on an air mattress as ones’ ex-girlfriend watched an episode of Firefly. One had no interest because one did not think much of Joss Whedon then, but now recognizes his genius. And one remembers that DMX is from Yonkers, but spent a good amount of time in New Rochelle where ones’ ex-girlfriends family comes from.

One remembers all of this, and a million other things, and it all comes flooding back in the space of about two seconds. One promptly bursts into tears as ones’ prospective partner stares in dismay.

The rest of the night is spent with the prospective partner bringing one hot drinks as one talks and blubs and loudly exclaims things like, “We never even got to go to Ireland together!” and “I was her little monkey!”. The prospective partner is kind and understanding. But really she just wants the blubbing to stop so she can leave and never, ever come back.

So I leave sex to other people and focus on eating more fruit instead. I try to maintain a healthy diet to counter act the two bottles of whiskey I drink every night.

It’s going to be a long year.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Situation is Hopeless. I'm Told.

YouTube is under the impression that it knows what I want to watch. It does not. There is an assumption being made that I want to watch countless sensationalist documentaries about gang violence in Glasgow. I do not. Here are the two most common offenders:

(some strange edits on that one)

Now, the first one is from Dispatches. I like Dispatches. I saw a great episode once about sandwiches (avoid Subway). I have no problem with these social ills being addressed. As a resident of Govan I am more than familiar with them and have witnessed worse from my tenement window than what is shown in the grainy CCTV images. I am glad to see these issues being brought to light. But it's pretty fucking bleak, isn't it? Do they offer any glimmer of hope? Any alternative? Any possible solutions?

The American video is more perplexing. Why was this made? Why are the problems of youth violence in a mid-sized British city being addressed by the lady with the big hair? Because it's the murder capital? Don't they have one of them in America? Could they not find any angry, drunken young men in Detroit to point a camera at?

The only thing that these piss poor documentaries succeed in doing is painting a portrait of Glasgow as a war zone. It leaves outsiders intimidated and fearful of visiting and residents of these communities feeling hopeless. In addition, neither video addresses just why Glasgow finds itself to be in such economic (and social) decline. Margaret Thatcher doesn't even get a mention. That's like making a documentary about violence in Baghdad and not mentioning George W. Bush (it's not really, but this is just a blog so I can say whatever I want). At least the second video interviewed John Carnochan, someone who has years of experience in working with gangs. I met him through the Poverty Truth Commission earlier this year and he seems to be one of the few people that has any real grasp on what is going on in these communities.

Here are two examples of what I would like to see more of. The first video is about the GalGael, a Govan based organization that grew out of the Pollok Free State. The second is a quick recap of the aforementioned Poverty Truth Commission. The event itself took place in the City Chambers but most of the meetings leading up were held in the Pierce Institute, also in Govan. This is what's happening in my community:

Monday, 5 October 2009

Benylin Nightmare Oct. 3 2009

How do I constantly find myself in these situations? Why do I let myself get roped in? Is it not bad enough that every time I return to London I find myself spending the bulk of my time in former places of employment? But now I've decided to work too?

The theatre is much the same. But why am I seated with the audience on Prompt Side? They can't even see the stage. And who's bright idea was it to have me play the keyboard? Do I have queues? What do I play? And when?

This is all Gary's fault. Why do I listen to him? Why do I empathize? He's not even here! The bastard has gone home and left me to my own devices. I should probably twiddle out a few notes. Twiddle, twiddle. That didn't sound too bad. At least these electric fuckers don't go out of tune.

Is that intermission? My bladder is bursting. I can't just leave the keyboard here. Christ, it's bulky. Excuse me, excuse.... These fucking geriatrics are limping up the stairs, hurry up and croak, Mildred! I need to drain the weasel, get a strong drink from the bar and - provided I have time - ask someone what I'm actually supposed to do during the second half of the godforsaken play. Hurry it up, people!

What was that? Seagulls squawking? I can hear people outside. And the horn from the shipyard. I'm in Govan, in bed. I have to piss. Of course I do. My dreams have never really been shrouded in metaphor.

Okay, now where are we? Great, half way through the second act. At least I managed to miss the bulk of it by being awake. Should I be playing something? Did anyone notice my absence? Did they fuck. I imagine this is an elaborate practical joke dreamt up by that vile swine Gary and his cohort Tom. How I loathe them.

Is that it? The end? Both brothers are dead, right? They've managed to find their way to their untimely death after having navigated through the most contrived story of all time? Aye? Twiddle-fuckin-dee. Might as well give these people their moneys worth, bang out a few notes as they roar and applaud. A wee solo for you fine, fine people.

Thank Christ that's over. Or is it? We're striking the set. Of course we are, that makes sense. But for what? No point in asking, just strip it bare.

Okay, the DJ's here. Thank God. There's a good 50 people milling around. They look as bored as I do. Let's get this over with. I just need to jump the 38 back to Hackney. It's the 38 right? Fuck you, Gary, why are you putting me through this?

The DJ is scratching. Rejoice! The sooner he starts, the sooner he finishes. He wants us to make noise. We are not making noise. It dawns on me that if we don't all start yelling Lil' Wayne will never come out. Come on people, make some noise! Lil' Wayne! WOOOO! I try to whip up some enthusiasm.

There's Tom. Tom! Tom, you fucker! It's the 38 right? That gets me to Hackney? I can get booze 24 hours right? Oh you're busy. At least make some noise and help get -

There he is! Weezy, on stage. Rap, you fud! Get this over with. No, he won't. He's standing next to me now. You've not just let us down, you've let yourself down. I hope you're happy, Weezy. Don't look at me like that.

Fuck this, Tom can handle this shit. I'm going to go find the 38. It is the 38, right? To get to Hackney? Okay. I'm in Victoria station. There's Keira Knightley. She's standing next to a row of chocolate bars being greeted by what I assume is her boyfriend. Is that... there's a white chocolate bar behind her that has her face on it. I didn't realize she was that much of a corporate shill, not that I ever put that much thought into it.

I pick up one of the chocolate bars and I'm waving it in her face. Hey Keira I'm going to steal the chocolate you sponsored, you bitch! Haha, I love you!

I'm running now. Outside of Victoria station. A phone! I'll call Gary, make sure it's the 38. The 38 back to Hackney. I need change. No... I have a mobile phone.... Dialing.... Gary, you vicious bastard! Is it the 38? Is... Yeah? The 38 back to Hackney? I can get booze 24 hours right? Yeah... And you're still up? ......Yeah, I left it to Tom. I can't go back in. I had, there was a thing... and Keira Knightley was.... Yeah. The chocolate. Okay, bye.

I head to a corner shop and look at the chocolate bars. A lot more white chocolate available these days. I should probably steal a few of these. Inside a Russian prostitute and a dumpy shop clerk watch me.

I hear the shipyard horn blow.

Benylin Nightmare Oct. 5 2009

When I realized where I was I felt queasy. The summer heat, the humidity in the air, the golden hue of a sun slumping its way off at the end of a long day. I was standing on the rusty train tracks by the old station. I knew I could find you, I knew you were here. My sudden arrival made no sense, I could think of no logical reason as to why I would find myself in this town, in this country, at this time of year.

I'd had enough. Too many times now we had met under these circumstances and it was taking its toll on my heavy heart. I stormed up and down Railroad street, barging into every tavern and restaurant, marching into kitchens and busser stations. You were in none of them. And I had checked all but one.

Still? Would you still be in that place? After all of these years? My heart had sunk into my stomach. I marched in through the rear entrance, nauseous and shaking. I quickly swept the main restaurant and cut through the busser station and into the bar. And there you were.

You were dancing with a woman, a short haired brunette with glasses. I noticed the slight specks of sweat along your brow, the red that flushed through your pale cheeks. And then you looked upon me. I froze and wanted more than anything to storm out, to have never been there. For the very first time I felt terrified that this may be real.

"John-", you began.
"Don't!", I interrupted, "Just don't! This has to end now. It has to! This is killing me and it's not even real!"
"What are you talking about...", you looked afraid. People had gathered. This was not good.
"This! All of this!", I gesticulated wildly across the room, "It is not real, and this is not happening. But what it does- it's still breaking my heart. Every time I am in your embrace and it all comes back, all of it, it all comes back and it's so real. I can't! I can't!"
"Oh, John... it is, please.." you whispered, bottom lip trembling.
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that you're crying, none of it does. I keep coming back here, and it keeps killing me. I can be irrational. I can be full of rage, it doesn't matter! It's not real!"

I reached for a glass at the nearest table, picked it up and threw it to the floor. The crowd that had gathered shuffled back a few steps as the glass smashed into a million pieces. I picked up a lime from the bar and squeezed it until it burst in my palm.

"This isn't my fault. You know that." you insisted.
"It still tastes bitter." I said, licking the lime juice that dripped down my wrist. Somehow I felt citrus had accentuated my point. I threw what was left of the lime to the ground and stormed out.

What was that? Where was I going? Where was I staying? Why hadn't I woken up? There is no way this was real. This couldn't really be happening. I tried to determine how I ended up here, for what purpose, but my ability to deduct such information from my brain had been turned off. So it mustn't be real? Not unless I had lost the ability to reason... But what if I had? And what if I just did that? To you?

I paced into a dark wood and everything that was summer and of days gone turned into an endless black of twisted branches, as the pale white sky turned a colder grey.