Sunday 17 April 2011

The annotated Ugly Stories for Beautiful People - BobandJane

BobandJane - A Fable in Two Indistinct Parts

Originally Published in Raw Edge 4, Spring/Summer 1997, ed. Dave Reeves

Well, as promised, here is the first entry of the Ugly Stories notes. Initially, I was unsure of where to start as some of the stories do have quite a lot of back story to them whilst others do not. However, for the sake of convenience, I've decided to, in the best storytelling traditions, start at the beginning.

So, “BobandJane”.

It's hard to remember exact dates but I think “BobandJane” was written in the late spring/early summer of 1996. I'd returned from Barcelona in the February of 1996 in a pretty bad way. For reasons that should be apparent to anyone who's read the Ugly Stories I'd pretty much had a nervous breakdown in the November/December of 1995. I'd soldiered on for a few months, trying to make the best of a bad situation and ignore what was happening; I'd continued to go to work teaching ESOL to Barcelonese businessmen; I'd tried to lose weight by walking to all my appointments, sometimes walking up to four hours a day; and I'd started writing again, rather than simply developing plot outlines or noting down new ideas (something I had been doing for the previous 12 months because basically, I was too fucked to do anything else).

One of the standout stories of that period was “Fragments of a Schizoid Dream” (more on that later). However, in late February 1996 I returned to the UK and, incapable of looking after myself, I moved back in with my parents. The rest of that year was a strange blur. I really can't remember much of anything that happened at that time. However, strangely, it was a very productive time. With the distant hope of becoming a Lecturer in English literature I had enrolled with the Open University to study for a second degree in English Lit (my first was in Psychology), taking half a degree per year. In that brief 12 month period, I also wrote over half of the Ugly Stories for Beautiful People and, as I was unable to sit still without my thoughts becoming overwhelming, I continued to walk for several hours a day around the local countryside and canals getting into possibly the best shape of my life. Oh yes, and somehow I also managed to work full-time in a local petrol station (the only work I could even consider doing at the time, although this too was important for a number of later stories - again, more on that later).

In some ways “BobandJane” is a classic example of how my mind works when it comes to the process of developing stories. It started with a simple observation that, in my previous relationship, several people had said we were (unfairly, I thought) "joined at the hip." Quite simply, I'd just extrapolated this everyday phrase into the literal; what if a couple was so in love that they literally were joined at the hip? At the same time, however, I also noticed that many of the couples I knew had just disappeared from my social scene; it's that old cliché of people disappearing until they split up again. I also remembered how annoyed I was at receiving Christmas cards addressed, not to me, but to me and my girlfriend. It was as if we had become one person, one blob..... and so “BobandJane” was born.

“BobandJane” was also a strange story in that I usually outline and develop stories in great detail before finally writing them in over a period of a week to a month, usually writing 1000 to 2000 words a day. “BobandJane” was different in that once I had had the initial idea and had thought of a number of key lines and scenes, I wrote it in one sitting and the first draft was essentially the finished draft. I usually spend a long time editing, revising and even sometimes rewriting stories. With “BobandJane” I simply polished it a little and cut out some of the flab; it was virtually 90% finished once I had finished writing the first draft.

“BobandJane” was also the first story I had published. Prior to that I'd had a few haikus published in small press magazines and some embarrassingly Baudelairean prose poems published in tiny literary magazines. However, Raw Edge magazine published “BobandJane” in their fourth issue and it appeared in the spring/summer of 1997. Raw Edge, like many magazines, is no longer with us but it was a great showcase for new writing talent and was subsidised by the British Arts Council. As such, it was distributed to local libraries and had a circulation of over 16,000. It also had great production values with thick paper and glossy covers. In some ways, my writing career came full circle with Raw Edge; “BobandJane” was published near the beginning of its life and a review of Ugly Stories for Beautiful People appeared in its very last issue.

So, “BobandJane” was one of the first stories I wrote (probably the sixth in total, but only the second or third once I had discovered my voice in Barcelona), was the first story I had published, was the first in a series of "body horror" stories (the others being “It”, “The Byronic Man,” “Foetal Attractions” and an unpublished prose poem called "If Janus Had Two Faces, Then Why Can't I?"), and was probably the first story I realised I could use to integrate and interlink a number of the Ugly Stories, something I wanted to do from the beginning. As such, it seemed right that it should be the first story in the collection. Once I had realised this, I knew I wanted a "top and tail" story as I had been a fan of this way of opening and closing collections since I had read Clive Barker's Books of Blood and Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man in the early 90s. (Although bear in mind only around 10% of the collection had been written at this point, although I had a full listing of the stories I wanted to include in it at this point). Thus, the “BobandJane” postscript was written quite soon after the original “BobandJane” story, although I cannot remember exactly when; however, I suspect it was written after “BobandJane” had been published in Raw Edge so it was probably sometime in 1997.

“BobandJane” also gave me my brief first taste of "fame." I remember ringing West Midlands Arts to enquire about jobs in arts promotion and, when I gave my name to the guy on the other end of the phone, he said, "Oh, you're the “BobandJane” guy." Not exactly like being asked for an autograph in the street, but to a virtually unpublished writer such a small scrap of recognition goes a long way.

“BobandJane” is also the only Ugly Story I have ever performed live. The video can be found here. And while the print version of Raw Edge is long gone, the website still has a copy of it here. Hope you enjoy it.

One other strange thing I've noticed about “BobandJane” is that everyone who knows me and is part of a couple (and I mean everyone!) seems to think it is about them. I don't know why; it really was a reflection on my own experiences of being in a relationship at the time and wasn't based on anyone else. In some ways it's flattering that it seems to resonate with people. In other ways it's incredibly sad that people can, or would even want to, identify with them. Now I personally identify more with Kokoschka in the story and in some ways it was a pleasure to liberate Jane and open her eyes in the Post-Script, as Will in “The Dada Relationship Police” was very much based on me at the time. It was undoubtedly satisfying to be the one who handed Jane the Dada Relationship Police card, saying “Your relationship is over!”.

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