Sunday 30 July 2017

Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll...... and Stephen King.

Now that I am older and ever-so-slightly wiser, I can now admit that I did not read Stephen King until I hit 40 because he looked like a nerd. Yep, Clive Barker looked a bit nerdy too in the 80s, but he was young, he directed Hellraiser, and the Books of Blood were magnificent. Similarly, Philip.K. Dick and William Burroughs’ drug use was legendary so they backed up the “coolness” of their work with an extreme lifestyle that I thought would be worth reading about. For you see, despite the tens of millions of books sold, the dozens of TV and film adaptations and the thousands of rave reviews, I always thought Stephen King looked like the sort of person I would be hesitant to give 10 minutes to at a party, let alone several hours of intensively digging through his psyche.

Then again I was always a bit like that. My first favourite band was KISS, less because of their albums (although they did make at least a few classics) but more because of their look. Yet I didn’t get into Leonard Cohen and the like until my mid twenties. Still, it’s unsurprising that, as a debauched degenerate myself, I should be drawn to and interested in the works of those writers and musicians whose lives seemed that bit more extreme than others. Indeed, on closer examination it can be seen that there are many similarities in the lifestyles of excess pursued by both writers and rock stars; priapic, drug-crazed poets were working their way through groupies and mounds of drugs hundreds of years before their guitar-wielding counterparts........and they were doing it so much better.

However, there is a common feeling that poetry doesn't have the same visceral appeal as Rock 'n' Roll, but when one bears in mind that Dylan Thomas, when asked by an inquisitive reader what his poem "The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait" meant, answered, "It's a description of a gigantic fuck" and Byron once wrote in a letter to a friend, that as a poet he was "more interested in cunt than cant," you can see that dusty libraries, and tweed jackets with leather elbow patches were the last things on their minds. In his poem Don Juan, Byron perhaps described a typical seduction scenario - "Not that remorse did not oppose temptation; / A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering "I will ne'er consent" - consented."

The "free-love" exploits of sixties bands like the Rolling Stones are legendary, one Stones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, started with Brian Jones and then moved on to Keith Richards (via a brief rendezvous with Mick Jagger). However, some 140 years before, Shelley was touring Europe with his wife and sixteen year old mistress Claire Clairmont. On meeting Byron, Byron had a child with Clairmont and then in true "any hole's a goal" fashion had Shelley too. Of course after such a lifestyle, both Brian Jones and Shelley came to sticky ends - Jones being found face down in his swimming pool, Shelley acting as fishfood after falling off his boat in the Bay of Spezia.

But for some, it's easier to look closer to home for sexual satisfaction. Jerry Lee Lewis' first UK tour was surrounded by scandal when the English press found out that he had married his thirteen year old cousin. Strangely, when Edgar Allen Poe married his thirteen year old cousin a century before, nary an eyebrow was raised. However, Byron may have been pushing his luck slightly when he had a child with his half-sister, his excuses of being "snowed in" at his country estate doing little to dull the ensuing outrage. Still, most Rock 'n' Roll debauchery has to pale into insignificance when talking about Byron, a man whose very name has become an adjective to describe excess, all current Rock stars trying in vain to be as "Byronic" as their hero. Descended from Captain "Mad Jack" Byron, he had numerous affairs, drank heavily, took laudanum, and amassed impressive gambling debts. He used the great hall of his home as a shooting gallery, and no serving wench or Lady was free from his well-known appetites. He married but this only lasted a year, and as a result of various scandals such as sleeping with his half-sister, he left for Geneva. There he slept with Shelley's step-sister (and fathered a child) before in true "any-hole's-a-goal" fashion he also slept with Shelley. Moving to Venice he cut a swathe through the local women, including a long affair with the Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, an affair of which her husband was fully aware. Finally, she separated from her husband, but getting bored of this Byron decided to go to Greece to fight the invading Turks, and it was there that Byron, founder of what Southey termed the "Satanic School" of poetry, died. Jim Morrison of The Doors openly held Byron as a hero - but Byron did it all 150 years before and he did it with a lot more style.

Of course, Byron’s friend Shelley was also very much a rock star of his time. Nicknamed "Mad Shelley" at Eton, he got expelled from University College, Oxford, and married 16 year old Harriet Westbrook. Being a believer in free-love he tried to get his wife to sleep with his best friend, had numerous female "friends" in his "household" then in 1814 fell in love with his friend's 16 year old daughter Mary (writer of Frankenstein) and eloped (although in typical Shelleyan fashion he took 15 year old Claire Clairmont with them (yes, the one Byron later had a child with - please do keep up), thus completing his little menage a trois). His first wife then drowned herself (Shelley still slept with her when she was around), and the Shelleys went to Naples where he registered himself as the father of an illegitimate child (no-one knows who the mother was). He had a few more affairs but died in 1822, when as noted above, he drowned in the Bay of Spezia.

Of course, sex is only part of the story. Many a poet and rock star has liked to dabble with the odd chemical; on a flight back from New York, The Who’s Pete Townsend lunged at stewardesses, stole other passengers food (before spitting it back out at them), shouted gibberish ("We are sitting here travelling faster than a bullet in this supersonic rocket!"), and then got a bag of coke and started throwing it up his nose covering everyone near him (much to their delight, I am sure). On another occasion in an exclusive Parisian hotel, Townsend downed a bottle of champagne, and then promptly threw it back up again into the nearby ice-bucket.......while the upmarket guests looked on. Interestingly, he justified his drinking not by trying to be a Rock star, but by referring to literary figures, trying to rationalise his need to drink by linking it to the boozy tradition of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Still, it's probably best to not even consider what the John Bonhams and Keith Moons of the world were up to at the same time….

But such chemical excesses were not restricted to their leisure time. Jimi Hendrix once sat on the front of the stage simply laughing at the audience after taking too much LSD, and Coleridge, a notorious opium-fiend, wrote much of his poetry when completely cabbaged. His classic poem Kubla Khan was written under the influence, although it remained unfinished after his "reverie" (a typically poetic euphemism if ever there was one) was disturbed by a travelling salesman. And who can forget Dylan Thomas, who once said, "I'd rather be a poet any day and live on guile and beer"? Once, at a poetry reading in New York, he was helped to the lectern, where he tried to fill an empty glass with a pitcher of water that someone had neglected to fill. For several moments he stood swaying at the lectern before, puzzled, he held the pitcher up to the light and closely examined it, while some of the audience laughed at him. Despite this, the reading went well and Thomas was a success.....until the reception party held later that night where he downed several pints and loudly compared the attributes of the female guests. A guest, Marian Brock later said, "We were getting a little worried because he had a guest room in one of the student halls, and we wondered if it was wise to send him off in case he got loose among the students." She needn't have worried, however, because at the end of the night he fell flat over a coffee table and passed out till morning.

But then, such debauchery is surely just a perk of the job? Why else would one want to be a rock star or, dare I say it, a writer? After all, one isn't overly surprised when the likes of Gene Simmons, the bassist with the aforementioned Kiss, and a man who claims to have slept with over 3000 women says that he joined a band because of "Girls. Anyone who says they start to contribute to human culture is full of it. It's girls!", but surely writers and poets are more artistically inclined? Well, no. Byron claimed that as a poet he was "more interested in cunt than cant", which is as good a reason as any for picking up a pen or guitar.

But for some, sex and drugs just aren't enough. Sid Vicious' career in The Sex Pistols came to an end when, after years of heroin abuse he finally stabbed his girlfriend to death in a New York hotel room. He told the arriving police that he couldn't be arrested because he was "a rock star". They were apparently distinctly unimpressed. Not to be outdone by such Johnny-Come-Lately poseurs, Edgar Allen Poe, is suspected of murdering a young girl called Mary Rogers. In true who-gives-a-shit fashion he then wrote a story about the unsolved case virtually pointing the finger at himself. He later died of alcohol poisoning and exposure, having been too arseholed to find shelter in a rainstorm.

So yes. While I am, as this post probably suggests, far too influenced by the lifestyle an artist has (after all, why would I want to crawl into the head of a complete nerd?), I am happy to say that as the years have gone by I have learned my lesson. My musical tastes now include the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Melanie, Bat For Lashes and other people who look like they’ve just stepped up on stage directly from the street (although I contend that Ed Sheeran is still nothing more than a ginger busker. I have only heard a couple of his songs yet such is his image I have no interest in hearing any more – damn, maybe I’m not as mature as I was hoping I was?). That said, as I noted at the beginning of this post, at the age of 40, after hearing the same recommendations again and again from various friends, I finally sat down and read some Stephen King…… and finally realized why he is regarded as the King of Horror by so many.

So who knows? Maybe in another 40 years I’ll sit down and listen to Ed Sheeran?  Although I doubt I'll be as pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

New flash fiction - "A Fresh Perspective."

I've always liked reading my work out loud as part of the revision process. Even if you're just reading it out to yourself, sometimes vocalising it can make you realise when you are being overly verbose, when you are repeating yourself or when the rhythm of your prose is just "wrong." However, nothing is as good for fine-tuning prose as actually reading it out loud in front of others, preferably in front of large-ish groups who are less likely to be as placatory as friends or family. Further proof of this came tonight after another great evening at 42, Worcester's Horror/SF and Fantasy spoken word evening. I hadn't booked a mic slot but decided just to take something with me if a gap came up. Thankfully, there was a spare slot so I ended up reading a relatively new flash piece, A Fresh Perspective. Now, when revising this at home I thought I'd done a pretty good job of cutting it down to what I thought was a fairly zippy 1020 words. However, on being faced with the prospect of reading it out loud, I suddenly realised that bits I had originally been quite pleased with (which linked the creation of new artistic perspectives to the protagonist's own subjective experiences in the story) were actually a bit clunky and would undoubtedly result in the audience losing interest. Then I found myself cutting out other chunks of these sections, even as I read it.  So all in all, I ended up losing almost 100 words, or 10% of the story, just through the act of being hyper-critical because I knew it had to maintain the interest of real people (rather than nebulous figures that you just think of as "some reader, somewhere").

So anyway, here is the freshly edited story as performed tonight. It seemed to go down pretty well, which is always encouraging, anyway.

A Fresh Perspective

The Artist woke up face down on the wall, his favourite Braque print digging uncomfortably into his ribs. It seemed that gravity must have shifted 90° as he slept as he was now lying on the far wall of his bedroom looking up at his bed, which seemed to be hanging from what was now the ceiling. Yet it couldn’t be that gravity had shifted 90°, as his bed was where it always was, albeit at an utterly unfamiliar angle, and the rumpled covers still lay on it. Similarly his desk and chair were still in the corner of the room, although from his perspective, now wedged into the far corner of the ceiling. He stood up. Aside from his own position in the room, everything was much as it had always been.

He yawned and then made his way to the bedroom door, now embedded in the floor at his feet. He pulled it up and looked down. There was a drop of around 6 feet to the hall wall but then he would have to navigate a 20 feet drop to get to the far wall of his open-plan living room. He was already behind on several commissioned canvases and this damn gravity-thing was the last thing he needed. Still, he was an artist and it was the nature of the artist to explore experience. So he flipped over the door frame and dropped to the hall wall, his feet punching through the plasterboard. “Damn it!”

Prying his feet free, he then walked down the wall to the living room door, shaking the dust from his feet as he did so, before getting to his knees so he could peer over the edge of the doorframe, into the room below. The sheer drop was somewhat broken by the cupboards and units of his kitchen area below the wall he was currently kneeling on. But did this phenomenon extend to the entirety of his flat? He could see his sofa and telephone twenty feet below on the floor/wall opposite.

I suspect that I have transcended the limits of ordinary reality and now perceive the world with the agility of a mind freed from entrenched perspectives, thought the Artist and he grew eager to explore further.

If he could somehow swing from the doorframe across the room, it was only a drop of ten feet or so to his tall cupboard which, if he could reach it he could then land on before dropping down to the rest of the living room. Gingerly, he edged his way over the doorframe and then carefully lowered himself until he hung over the opposite wall. He then started to swing forwards and backwards as he tried to build momentum, before with one final kip, he flung himself across the room, landing on the side of the tall cupboard. However, as he landed he smashed his face into the wall and he could feel himself dropping backwards into the living room below. Desperately he reached out and managed to grab the side of the sink, and he pulled himself forwards. Above him were his other kitchen units, herbs and spices, yesterday’s Chinese wrappers, coffee jars and kettle all still resting, perpendicular on the worktop, in defiance of the phenomenon that seemed to be afflicting him. Damn it. He could do nothing in the morning without a morning coffee, but making one would involve climbing up the wall, perhaps using the side of the window frame as a foothold and then somehow monkey barring his way across the kitchen units, if they could even take his weight of course. So the Artist shifted position and sat on the edge of the unit; it was just a ten foot drop to the far wall of his living room.

The only logical explanation for this situation is that it is the manifestation of my will to transcend boundaries yet my flat’s continuing existence continues to prove that humans may attempt to defy gravity but never wholly escape, thought the Artist.

He sat on the edge of the unit and again, dropped down until he was hanging from its side. And then, the distance minimised as much as he could, he let go, landing in a heap on the far wall. Grumbling, he got to his feet and looked above him, at the walls, paintings hanging horizontally, his dining table and chairs now suspended on a wooden wall, fifteen feet above him.

The Artist grew excited at this exciting development in his creative life. This physical experience could provide a radical shift of perspective so I can look at the world through a completely different lens. This phenomenon provides an opportunity to reimagine the physical and psychological reality I previously thought of as fixed as something more flexible, mutable, and light. Excited, he considered the artistic possibilities his new perspective afforded. He considered the colours, the shapes the conceptual possibilities that he could now exploit. He looked around these familiar yet strange surroundings for his easel and paints before remembering with a shudder that they were in his bedroom.
         And so he jumped and jumped and jumped. But as he leaped, arms outstretched for the kitchen units out of reach above him, he realised there was no way back out of his living room.

        And it was then that he finally saw the true gravity of his situation.

Reading tonight

I'll be attending the "42" group's meeting tonight where I will probably be reading a flash story (or two).  All welcome to come along!  We'll be at The Swan With Two Nicks, 28 New Street in Worcester at 7:30pm.  I shall, for once, actually be completely off-topic as I have nothing that fits the theme of "Curiosities."

I will be airing a couple of new stories written in the past month, however.

Sunday 23 July 2017

How experimental Literature borrows techniques from other Arts - non-verbal analogies as explanations of form, focusing specifically on Becket’s Endgame and Eliot’s The Wasteland.

One of the more interesting things about writing surrealistic/irreal fiction is that you can be more experimental, not just in subject matter but also in form, whether it be experimenting with cut-ups in "Life's What You Make It" or "concrete prose" and diagrams in "Blot" (all in Ugly Stories for Beautiful People).  Writers of experimental literature have long looked to other art forms to inform or influence their work in their own medium, whether it be the Modernists looking to collage and surrealism in the visual arts in the early Twentieth Century or the likes of Jeff Noon looking to the audio delays and distortion of dub reggae at the end.  The French poet Paul Valery suggested that literary texts often strive to emulate the harmony of music and dance. In this way he tried to explain what he believed were the differences between poetry and prose through the analogy of walking and dancing. He believed that prose was like walking - it has a direct object, an aim directed towards some object which we mean to reach, and once that purpose has been fulfilled it is of no more relevance. Verse, on the other hand, is like dancing, a system of acts that has no purpose or function other than the movements which are ends in themselves. Because of this, he believed that verse was meant to be enjoyed again and again, but was not suitable for the description or narration of events as this gives the words a functional purpose which verse cannot carry. Similarly, in the same way that walking uses the same limbs etc as dancing yet the two acts are different, he believed that poetry and prose were different, even though they use the same words, forms and tones. However, how helpful are these non-verbal analogies  in explaining the nature and function of experimental form?  I hope to answer this by restricting my discussion to two well-known “experimental texts”; The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and Endgame by Samuel Beckett.

Valery was not the first to see elements in common between the arts (both verbal and non-verbal), and poetry in particular has much in common with music. While there are exceptions, most forms of music and poetry make strong use of rhythm, and both forms make use of sound, whether it be a piccolo trying to evoke birdsong, or by the use of assonance and alliteration in poetry, for example, the repetition of the "s" sound in a poem describing the sound of the sea. Similarly, even though either can exist in their own right, both art forms generally try to evoke an image of something, whether it be a journey down (The Blue) Danube or a description of Mendelsohn's Fingal's Cave; or a journey around Eliot's London or Joyce's Dublin. Finally, even though there are exceptions, both art forms have accepted forms around which they are structured. Poems can rhyme or be in free verse, be narrative or descriptive, and be in any number of stress/unstress metrical forms e.g. iambic pentameter. Similarly, music can be a symphony or a concerto, be written for a quartet or a full orchestra, and so and so forth. (Although many of these forms and "rules" were challenged by the Modernists of the 20th Century such as Joyce and Eliot, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg).

However, when discussing the form and structure of a Modernist work such as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Beckett’s Endgame, analogies with other art forms such as music, can be very helpful, as the apparent lack of "plot" and naturalistic elements (character, setting etc) can often make Modernist works difficult to appreciate in a conventional "literary" sense. One rarely asks what a piece of music is "about", as it describes a scene or evokes an emotion or mood, and much Modernist work also has this quality. For example, The Waste Land, does this, without, unlike many poems, really telling a story. It is thus structured very much like a piece of music. For example, most music has a theme which is repeated and developed through variations on this theme, and there is usually a conflict or interplay between these variations. The musical piece is held together by echoes and repetitions of the theme, and of motifs reminding the listener of particular moods.

The Waste Land, does not have a story or a narrator as such, but a central theme which is emphasized through different characters - a theme of spiritual deadness, of the sterility and futility of life, perhaps lines 1-7 and 19-24 coming the closest to describing the central concerns of the poem, although, unlike music, the theme develops (and can develop) gradually.

There are also, as with much music, "variations" of this theme. All of the characters whether they are rich or poor, aristocratic or in a seedy pub, a "real" secretary or a Classical mythical figure (such as the Fisher King or the questors of the Grail legend) are spiritually deadened, and by use of social variety, and the contrasting and counterpointing of certain "scenes" (such as the rape of Philomel and the Thames-girls accounts (292-305), Eliot is achieving much the same effect as a composer changing a few notes in his musical theme. Indeed, it can be argued that Eliot's allusion to other literary sources to emphasize his theme is much like a composer's having a different instrument section play a refrain.

Eliot also uses echoes (both to other works and to other lines in the poem) creating an effect like that of a piece of music. For example, the repetition of "dead" or "death" sounds through the poem from "the dead land" (2), "the dead tree" (23), "neither/living nor dead" (39-40), "I had not thought death had undone so many" (63), "Where dead men lost their bones" (116), "Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead" (312) to "He who was living is now dead" (328). References to Philomel come in Parts II, III, and V insisting that the reader doesn't forget, and the word "unreal" in line 60 recurs in lines 207 and 376. Similarly, in the pub scene in Part II the line "Hurry up please it's time" occurs like a refrain five times.

Eliot's use of compressed allusion is like a musical theme that is played by different instruments, all valid on their own, yet together strengthening the main theme. For example, he not only writes that London is a spiritual "wasteland" but also refers the reader to Mylae, Baudelaire's nineteenth century Paris, and Dante's medieval Hell, not only repeating the idea of spiritual stagnation, but also suggesting that such ennui and amorality is part of human nature rather than specific to London in 1922.

It is also worth mentioning Korg's comparisons of The Waste Land's structure to that of many techniques used by modern artists - another useful non-verbal analogy. He compared Eliot's method of connecting every part of the poem, through a complex system of parallels, contrasts and allusions, with the shattering and re-arrangement of subject matter pioneered by the Cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso - i.e. the way that they used fragments to distort space and time.

He also compared it to the artistic technique known as collage, in that Eliot used real quotations, songs, objective realism etc and placed them next to imagined and mythical characters and situations, the many elements supporting each other so that the sum of the work has a greater (or different) meaning than the sum of its parts. Finally, he argued that there were similarities between the "paranoiac-critical" (or "double image") paintings of the Surrealist painters like Dali, and Eliot's method of transforming every episode, character and symbol in the poem into something else under the pressure of its context. For example, Korg argued, "...Mr Eugenides, because he is one eyed, is also the merchant in the Tarot pack, and because he is half-blind, has a certain relationship with Tiresius" (Korg, 1960), in the same way that a hand can also be a kneeling figure in a Dali painting, even though the image itself doesn't change. However, in my opinion Korg is pushing the analogy too far here. The similarities to collage are easy to understand, yet despite its dream-like quality in places, I do not believe it was ever Eliot's intention to create a "paranoiac-critical" effect in literary terms. Indeed, the linking of characters argued by Korg, robs the poem of power by reducing the universality of the loss of faith in all these people in all the various times.

Beckett's Modernist play Endgame, like The Waste Land, puts a lot of emphasis on form and structure. There is no real cause-effect plot, and little in the way of character development because of what happens in the play, and much of the dialogue is not naturalistic, but poetic. Here too, non-verbal analogies can be useful. Like much music, nothing really happens in Endgame, yet there is a theme (here that of the futility, sterility and pointlessness of life) which is explored and developed in different ways, in this example through the different characters and their actions and reactions. Indeed, the very text of the play can be likened to a musical score, Beckett's stage directions being very precise including silences, mannerisms, tones of voice etc. He even said that his plays should be performed like music (Coe and Havely 1995, p25). Indeed, like a symphonic composition there is a very varied pace and mood, from long soliloquy-type speeches and Hamm's story, to snappy dialogue (sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes tragic: " is corpsed" (Beckett, Endgame, p71)), and sometimes nihilistically obscure, ("What time is it?"/"The same as usual." (Beckett, Endgame, p95)).

Similarly, like a musical piece (and indeed The Waste Land and many other Modernist works), there are echoes and repetitions of the theme, such as the repetition of "There are no more bicycle wheels (p97), more pap (p97), "....sugar plums" (p120), "tide"(p123), "navigators" (p125), "rugs" (p126), "pain-killer" (p128) etc, as well as a repetition of ideas, the reply "the same as usual" being repeated several times to emphasize the lack of change or purpose in the room, and the questioning of what is happening (with typically obscure (and again, repeated, answers e.g. "something is taking its course" (note how passive the concept makes them)) emphasising, through subtle variations, the main themes.

Endgame also refers to other literary works (eg The Tempest, The Iliad, and Richard III), although to nowhere near the extent of The Waste Land), so, as a piece of drama it is more difficult to compare with visual art.....collage or Cubist theories are of little importance here (although perhaps at a push, the tiny events such as the introduction of the flea and Nell and Nagg, which appear like "action" but aren't.... apart from their creating a subconscious wholeness to the play, could be likened to the effect of an abstract painting -it shows perhaps a blob of colour (in Endgame's case undeniably grey), yet has great emotional affect).

However, the repeated actions (eg Clov's fetching of the steps and the glass) are very choreographed by Beckett (the word itself is important), so the importance of physical movement in space, often in silence, was obviously well understood by him, and he obviously considered it important (as he did the appearance and dress of the characters, again going into great detail on how they should look).

Like much Modernist work, Endgame does not portray a mimetic copy of the natural world, there is little cause-effect narrative "plot", the ending doesn't offer any kind of conclusive "closure", neither the setting or the characters are recognisably "real", and the characters occasionally refer to themselves as being characters in a play - they "break the fourth wall" in a way that is not recognised as "normal" by the audience (for example a soliloquy), but with lines like:

CLOV What is there to keep me here?
HAMM The dialogue. (p121-122),
CLOV This is what we call making an exit. (p133).

Thus, it can be seen from these two works, how Modernist writing has to emphasize form and structure (e.g. use of allusion, "collage", repetition of ideas etc) in order to still convey a message or a theme, without the use of naturalistic characters or cause-effect plots, and as such other non-verbal art forms can help our understanding of them by shifting our focus from "what happens?" or "what are they about?", to "what emotional impact does it have?"

What happens when one uses Modernist and Postmodernist techniques with prose which does have characters and cause-and-effect plots (no matter how bizarre they may be), is what I hope to be exploring through my own work.


Beckett, S. (1958) Endgame, in Owens,W.R. (ed) (1991) The Drama Anthology, The Open University, Gateshead, Athenaeum Press.

Coe, T. and Havely, C.P. (1995) "Drama" in A319 - Block 1 - Introduction, Norwich, The Open University.

Eliot, T.S. (1922) The Waste Land, London, Faber and Faber.

Korg, J. (1960) "Modern Art Techniques in The Waste Land" in Martin, J. (1968) A Collection of Critical Essays On The Waste Land, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.

Martin, G. (1991) "What was Modernism?" in Literature in the Modern World: Impact of Modernism (Course A319), Norwich, The Open University.

Martin, G. (1991) "A study guide to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot" in Literature in the Modern World: Impact of Modernism (Course A319), Norwich, The Open University.

Martin, G. (1991) "Poetic language" in Literature in the Modern World: Impact of Modernism (Course A319), Norwich, The Open University.

Scholes. R. (1978) "Towards a Semiotics in Literature", in Walder,D. (1990) Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Valery, P.(1957) "Remarks on Poetry", in Walder,D. (1990) Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Thursday 20 July 2017

"Elasticity" (The Best of Elastic Press) Book Launch

An account of my recent trip to London to attend the Elasticity: The Best of Elastic Press anthology book launch with artist (and book cover designer) Alexi K.


Tuesday 18 July 2017

Rod Serling: Speeches and Interviews

I came across some of these lectures and interviews with of one of my heroes, Rod Serling, on YouTube the other day.  I link to them here as I hope they will be of interest to readers of this blog.  It's amazing how much he achieved by the time he died at the far too young age of 50.

Interview with Rod Serling (1959)

Interview with Rod Serling (1970)

Rod Serling speaking at UCLA (1966)

Rod Serling speaking at UCLA (1971)

Monday 17 July 2017

The Three Stigmata of Philip .K. Dick - A Life.

It's a sad fact of life that as far as the arts are concerned, success and fame is often accorded to the artist posthumously, the said artist usually dying in poverty unaware of his or her later status and influence.

And so it was with Philip.K.Dick, SF writer, counter-cultural figurehead, Intimate of God, and, according to Timothy Leary "a fictional philosopher of the Quantum Age". Dick, whose work has been influential on all manner of artists from Terry Gilliam, Robert Crumb, REM and Elvis Costello to William Gibson (who founded the "Cyberpunk" movement with his novel "Neuromancer"), Philippe Starck and Fay Weldon (who called him "my literary hero"), emerged as a champion of the 60's counter-culture and the European Avant-Garde, many of whom were enamoured by his strange stories of drug-like reality displacements and distortions.

His best known creations are probably the films based upon his books, films in which his creative role was negligible to say the least. These include the cult-classic Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall(1990). Now, with the release of Bladerunner 2049, it seems that Dick's media profile is set to rise, and attention will again be focused on his forty novels and two hundred stories.

In the years following the original Bladerunner's release, Dick underwent a Renaissance, many people discovering his works (some 35 novels and 6 short-story collections), and his skewed sense of reality, through the film.

In 1990, eight years after his death and with his reputation as a `cult` author safely established, Total Recall was released. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, the film was a box office success, although (perhaps because) the elements of the original PKD story We Can Remember it for you Wholesale were hidden or erased under piles of corpses and hours of gunfire; the remaining sliver of plot ("Is this real, or a schizoid delusion?") being reduced to little more than a side-issue. After all, who cares if it`s reality or not - Arnie can still shoot it!

Hooray for Hollywood.

Nevertheless, Dick`s reputation continued to grow, his lifetimes` production of stories being collected together into a five-volume 900,000 word set, and bands as diverse as R.E.M., Elvis Costello (who appeared on a BBC documentary on Dick in 1994), The Fall, and Sonic Youth all name-checking him as an `influence`. Robert Crumb wrote a comic-book biography of Dick, and Fay Weldon refers to him as "my literary hero".

In the intervening years Dick's reputation, in both pop cultural and academic circles, has continued to grow and it is likely that mainstream interest in him will again grow with the release of Bladerunner 2049 and the Channel 4 TV series Philip.K. Dick's Electric Dreams.

But just what is it that separates Dick from the mass of other SF writers who embarked upon their careers in the 1940's and 1950's writing 'bug-eyed monster' stories for the pulp magazines of the era, such as "Weird Tales" and "Astounding Science Fiction"?

Philip Kindred Dick and his fraternal-sister Jane Charlotte were born six weeks prematurely, on December 16, 1928, although Jane died six weeks later, a spiritual trauma which tormented him for the rest of his life, and which, as is apparently common amongst 'surviving' twins, manifested itself in hypochondria and a fear of death, guilt at having survived, difficult relationships with the opposite sex, an urge to place himself in difficult situations, and an his case, an obsession with resolving dualist dilemmas - SF/mainstream, real/fake, human/android, and the two-source cosmology described in Valis. Many of his novels dealt with dualities or twinning, but perhaps one of the greatest examples of Jane's "vestigial experience" as Dick felt it, is described in his other 1965 novel, Dr Bloodmoney. (He would frequently write three or four novels a year; plus stories, essays, letters and journals - he was an astoundingly prolific writer, capable of typing at 100 words per minute).
In the novel seven year old Edie actually carries her twin brother Bill within her, on her left side near her appendix.

Dick was an intelligent if unhealthy child who was frequently ill. By the age of six he had been prescribed, amongst other medicines, ephedrine (an amphetamine) for his asthma.  It was at this time that his parents divorced. In the years following the separation he may have been the victim of sexual and physical abuse, possibly perpetrated by his grandfather.

As a child Dick contributed poems and stories to the "Young Authors' Club" of the "Berkeley Gazette", as well as from the age of 13 a self-published newspaper called "The Truth". However, he had to be withdrawn from school when he started to experience difficulties swallowing food, panic attacks, and bouts of vertigo so serious that he had to spend time bedridden at home, these fears and paranoias eventually resulting in a female voice telling him the answers to a physics exam - a foreshadowing of his later mental problems in the 1970's and 1980's.  As a result, he attended weekly psychotherapy sessions at the Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco.

However, his psychic turmoil was calmed somewhat by his job at 'University Radio' in Berkeley, where, from the age of fifteen he worked as a sales assistant, selling radios, T.V.s and records. The owner of the shop, Herb Hollis, was a positive influence on Dick, an influence that never entirely faded, even when Dick was communicating with God in the seventies, indeed, many of his characters are based on Hollis and the times he spent with him in the late forties, including the boss-employee relationship of Leo Bulero and Barney Mayerson in "Palmer Eldritch".

However, by 1944 Dick was still a virgin, and worried that he might be gay. And so, he married for the first time; he was in his early twenties and she was in her late twenties.  They also had nothing in common.

Needless to say, it was over before the year was out.

Meanwhile, he had been steadily producing a number of mainstream pieces throughout the late forties, but he wasn't published until October 1951, after his mother gave Anthony Boucher, the editor of "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction", one of Dick's stories to criticise on her Thursday evening writer's workshop. Boucher liked the story although his response to his mainstream work was cool, and he encouraged Dick to write more SF, and to take advantage of the boom in SF 'pulp' magazines. By May 1952 he had sold four more stories, and was taken on by the newly established Scott Meredith Agency, a relationship that lasted until his death.

In 1952 four Philip.K.Dick stories appeared. In 1953 there were thirty including seven in June 1953 alone. In 1954 he published twenty-eight more.

However by 1954 the pulp explosion was over, due mostly to the collapse of the American News Company, one of the biggest distributors in the U.S.A. This added to his extreme poverty (he himself noted, "You might get $20 for a story and $4000 for a novel. So I decided to bet everything on the novel.")

And he was as good as his word. Between 1955 and 1960 he had six SF novels published, Solar Lottery (the first, and with sales of over 300,000 one of his most successful), The World Jones Made, The Man Who Japed, Eye In The Sky, The Cosmic PuppetsDr. Futurity and Vulcan's Hammer, most of which, despite good reviews at the time, generally don't rise above hack-work in quality. Noticeably surreal and 'Dickian' in their view of reality, they betray their pulp origins, a situation not entirely made any better by his publishers, 'Ace Books' who would frequently change stories and titles without telling the author. As Karen Anderson, the wife of writer Poul Anderson once noted: "[In the fifties] if the Bible was printed as an 'Ace Double'" (a paperback containing two novellas by different writers) "it would be cut down to two 20,000 word halves with the Old Testament retitled as "Master of Chaos" and the New Testament as "The Thing with Three Souls".

However, despite his output, Dick continued to write his massive mainstream novels (in this period he wrote eleven), abandoning SF altogether in 1956 and 1957 in order to concentrate on his literary efforts.

But it was in 1958 that he wrote his breakthrough SF novel. After all of his mainstream work had been rejected, he started to write Time Out Of Joint, a novel in which all the characters believe it is 1959, until the hero, Ragle Gumm, "goes sane", and realises that it is really 1996 and the Earth is at war with its lunar colony. This 'finding of sanity' is ingeniously described. In one 'episode' Ragle is standing at a soft-drink stand, when he turns to look at something. When he turns round again the stand is gone, replaced by a piece of paper with the words


written on it.

He got the idea for the novel from a time when he reached for a light cord in his bathroom only to realise that there wasn't one, and there had never been one - he had always had a lightswitch (an episode he also includes in the novel). He decided that one possible explanation for this was that he perhaps had a subliminal awareness of an alternate world where he did in fact have a bathroom that had a light-cord.

However, at this time he was simply writing 40 - 50,000 word novels for the money, expanding previously published stories or even coming up with proposals for novels off the top of his head so that Ace would send him an advance. Then, buzzing away on amphetamines he would bang out a novel. Unfortunately, by this time he'd have spent all of the money already, and so would have to start all over again. This combined with his lack of interest in SF as a genre resulted in some of his poorer novels of the fifties.

Time Out Of Joint was an attempt to break this cycle. While it is an interesting novel, it didn't get a paperback release for another five years, and he had to return to writing for the pulps.

By March 1959 Dick's affair with Anne Rubinstein had ended his second marriage, and he and Anne were married on April Fool's Day in Mexico.

However, Anne, the daughter of a stockbroker, and by her own admission "bourgeois with expensive tastes" persuaded Dick to change his writing schdule from late-night/early-evening to 9 to 5, so that he could spend more time with the family. For a while he lived the good life of a middle-class family man, but soon he started to experience out of the body experiences, and chest pains that were possibly caused by Sexoxydrine. Then, Anne had an abortion, an act which, bearing in mind his obsession with his unborn twin sister, caused him to hate her, resulting in a string of 'evil-female' characters in his sixties novels, and a much weakened marriage. One of the characters based on Anne is Emily Hnatt in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, who, instead of evolving like her husband, because of the now-dubiously named 'E-therapy', regresses into a slow-witted husk. This could be Dick's analogy for their different responses to Stelazine or, of course, it could just be an obvious insult.

In the early 1960's he discovered The I Ching, or Book of Changes, the 3000 year old Chinese Oracle so beloved by hippies everywhere.

And so, in 1961, whilst helping Anne with her jewellery business (the economic threat of which to his own career resulted in his third nervous breakdown), Dick started to secretly write his Hugo Award winning novel using questions posed to the I Ching to help plot the novel. The I Ching also has an important role in the actual story of the novel, which is about an alternate world in which the Axis powers won the Second World War and then split the U.S.A. between them.

"The Man in the High Castle" was the first American novel to mention the I Ching, and many of those who elevated it to cult status in the sixties first learned of its existence from it. However Dick accused it of being a "malevolent spirit" because of the unresolved last chapter of the book - even though the characters see the Chung Fu (Inner Truth) Hexagram and realise that in reality the Allies won the War, the book doesn't really reach a conclusion, and he frequently planned new chapters or sequels to it.

Despite this minor weakness, it was a critical success, and marked a turning point in his career because he realised he could bridge the gap between SF and the experimental mainstream novel. Thus the success of "High Castle" and the continued rejection of his mainstream pieces resulted in him concentrating more on the genre-defying material that was still labelled as SF, but which featured robots, spaceships etc more to help readers used to SF to digest his distorted world-view, more than anything else.

Thus in 1963 - 1964 he wrote eleven 'SF' novels including The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The novel, written while fueled on various amphetamines, was one of the first of Dick`s truly great novels to deal with the nature of, and the distortion of, reality. It was also his first to receive the honour of being published in hardback.

The action in the novel takes place in the early 21st century, on an earth so ecologically damaged that the temperature in New York in May is 180 degrees. The main protagonists are Leo Bulero the owner of a company called Perky Pat Layouts; one of his employees, Barney Mayerson who uses his precognitive abilities to determine if there is a market for the Perky Pat products; and the Palmer Eldritch of the title, a renegade industrialist who has been away in the Prox system for ten years, and who has recently returned to Earth, although he is in hiding.

Perky Pat Layouts produce miniaturised ("minned") 'Barbie'-style "layouts" - penthouse apartments; convertible cars; luxury kitchen units etc, basically, enough consumer goods to put the "Generation Game" to shame. The Martian colonists who are generally the sole consumers of these products can then be 'translated' into the layouts if they take the illegal drug

'Can-D' i.e. they can become Perky Pat (if they are women), or her handsome boyfriend Walt (if they are men), and then live their perfect lives for the half-hour or so of their drug experience. Strangely, any number of people can participate in this experience, the actions of Pat and Walt being determined by a majority consensus. Needless to say Dick doesn't ignore the fun that a 'two-bodied' wife-swapping orgy can present.

However, Leo Bulero, the owner of PPL, is also the main dealer of Can-D to the colonists on Mars, who have grown to treat the Can-D experience like a religion.

It is into this situation that Palmer Eldritch returns to Earth after ten mysterious years in the Prox system, with a rival drug - Chew-Z - which threatens to drive Can-D off the market, as it needs no minned accessories, and the experience can last as long as the user wishes, even if, subjectively that is a lifetime. Their slogan: "God Promises Eternal Life. We Can Deliver It."

Eldritch doses Bulero with Chew-Z, a horrific experience in which all reality becomes suspect. (Does he escape Eldritch? Does he confer with his future self? Does he see a monument dedicated to himself, as 'saviour of the universe, and conqueror of Palmer Eldritch?'). Confusingly, eventually everyone, whether they've taken the drug or not, takes up the Palmer Eldritch 'stigmata' i.e. they have stainless steel teeth, slotted artificial eyes, and a black mechanical arm. These 'stigmata' become the signs of a pervasive hallucinatory reality controlled by Eldritch - in essence he becomes a God in everyone's reality. The novel ends with a business memo dated after the narrative that assures readers that Bulero will eventually overcome Eldritch.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritchwas a turning point book for Dick. Whilst confusing and delighting the SF audience, and being ignored by the literary mainstream, the novel was welcomed by both the growing numbers of the mid to late 60's counterculture, and by the intellectuals of the European Avant Garde alike. However, the book itself terrified Dick - he refused to read the proofs of the novel, and actually based the appearance of the Eldritch character upon a face which he saw half-filling the sky for several days in 1963. )

He was, rather unsurprisingly, rumoured to have been taking what were referred to alternately as "certain chemicals" and "psychedelic drugs" during this period, as well as taking astoundingly large quantities of speed, (as he did continually for several decades of his life).

Dick said of his prodigious output, "I'd like to say I'd have been able to do it without the amphetamines, but I'm not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, to turn out that volume of writing."

There was however a cost. His feelings of paranoia, agoraphobia and his mood swings increased to the point that his and Anne's marriage grew more violent (on both their parts), Phil claiming several times that she wanted to kill him, and he eventually had her committed for a short time, although he always felt that it was he who should have been 'locked up'. It seems that he was right too, because it was at this time that he saw the evil face in the sky that helped shape his description of Palmer Eldritch.

Rather unsurprisingly his third marriage was soon over, and he returned to the city, to a small house in East Oakland.

Dick became known as a drug-user and experimenter, not just hash and speed, but also many prescription drugs which he would mix and match. He rarely took L.S.D. despite rumours to the contrary. (On one occassion he felt he was reliving the life of a Roman Gladiator, speaking in Latin and experiencing a spear thrust through his body.)

In 1964 he met Nancy Hackett, a 21 year old girl who had had a nervous breakdown the previous year. He courted her furiously and they eventually married in 1966. His domestic circumstances now more stable, he started to write again, after a writing slump that had started after he'd left Anne. His next novel was one of his best, Ubik. It was because of this book that Dick was elected as an honourary member of "The College du Pataphysique" in France.

Ubik is about a group of people who are accidentally thrown into a different reality which may or may not be controlled by any one of the other characters.....or something else. Is the main protagonist half-dead, or is it just one of the other characters hallucinating, etc? Characters find coins in their pockets that bear the faces of the other characters, they try to make direct contact with the others through cheap T.V. adverts, messages appear on walls, inside books of matches, and so on. Eventually, the being called Ubik declares itself, "Salvific information penetrating through the 'walls' of our world."

After Ubik came a string of novels, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?(1968), a book that was later adapted into the film Bladerunner, Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), and A Maze of Death (1970), although by this time he felt that he'd exhausted himself as a writer.

In March 1967 Nancy gave birth to his second child but Dick grew increasingly worried about his drug intake, not just prescription drugs, but drugs that he had to score from dealers on the street. But despite his fears he continued to take them because he thought that they helped him to write; he wrote 140 pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970) in one forty-eight hour burst.

But from 1967 to 1970 he experienced a number of traumas. Nancy was unfaithful, three close friends died, the IRS announced a major audit, and the dosages of speed he was taking increased, as did their mental and physical toll. He was hospitalised for a while with pancreatitis and kidney failure.

But it was a mescaline trip in 1970 which he said at last gave him genuine insights into reality - he said that he felt an overpowering sense of love, and it was this that was reality. He used this insight to write Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which is an exploration of various types of love.

However by late 1970 Nancy left Dick taking the children with her, leaving him in their Santa Venetia house. In a bid to fight off boredom he opened it up to anybody, and it eventually became known as a haven for any dealer or stray that happened to be passing. Dick would speed and stay awake for days on end as he chatted to whoever was around, drinking milkshakes to line his stomach. Needless to say his paranoia increased - everybody was after him, the IRS, the Black Panthers, the FBI, the police, even previous members of the house. One of these (a speed-freak who kept loaded rifles under the bed) he feared so much he went to a bar and hired a couple of contract killers to protect him. However, it does seem he was right - in 1971 his house was broken into, and his files either stolen or destroyed. A 1975 interview with "Rolling Stone" made this a cause-celebre, but those responsible were never caught.

He deteriorated after the break-in, his paranoia becoming near unbearable, but just as he reached his lowest point, there was a spark of good news. He was invited to a Conference in Vancouver where he was feted by fans and (more importantly to Dick, perhaps) single women, and his speech was received enthusiastically, as it had been at a luncheon held by the University of British Columbia a few days before. Unfortunately, after almost a year in Vancouver, he claimed to have been kidnapped by men in black suits who drove him around in a limousine asking him questions he couldn't remember. This resulted in a two week memory lapse. As he awoke, he was killing himself. He was seated in a running car, its exhaust connected to the interior of the car, he had taken an overdose and he had slashed his wrists. Somehow, however he had managed to survive, and drained, he was taken to a drug rehabilitation centre where he stayed for three weeks as he pieced his life back together.

In April 1972 he flew back to Fullerton, California where he lived with some teenage students, and in July he met eighteen year old Tessa Busby at a party. Within a week she had rented the apartment next door to serve as their new home. He finished Flow My Tears...., and started work on his classic analysis of the sixties drug scene, A Scanner Darkly. However, he contracted double pneumonia and was lucky to survive.

Once he'd recovered he started to write, drawing on his experiences as a drug user in the late sixties. A Scanner Darkly is about an undercover policeman who lives with a group of "Substance D" users. In order to pass himself off as a user he has to take Substance D, which in turn seperates his left brain from his right brain. This means that his personality splits so that when he is assigned to investigate a new drug user he doesn't realise that that person is himself. Scanner Darkly was well received, and his year was made complete when his son Christopher was born on July 25, 1973.

However, by early 1974 he was worried about the IRS seizing his assets, and he feared going to jail for 15 years because of 'civil disobedience' in the sixties, and he was very stressed despite his novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said winning the John.W. Campbell Memorial Award and being nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

In February to March 1974 (2-3-74) Dick experienced a number of visions and auditions, as (he claimed) pink beams of light beamed information into his head, as well as 'releasing' memories of himself as a First-Century Christian, even contacting Soviet scientists to see if they'd "been involved with experiments involving the long-range transmission by E.S.P of Modern Art Graphics".

However, he continued to receive these strange visions and communicated with an infinitely wise voice, this voice even telling him of an illness that Dick's son unknowingly had, an illness which was later verified by a medical examination. The radio started to operate even when not plugged in, a phenomenon that can be confirmed by Dick's then wife. He had dreams about God, three-eyed aliens, 'memories' from the future, and so on, and spent virtually the rest of his life writing his 8000 page long "Exegesis"; an attempt to try and explain his experiences. (One time he phoned the police telling the officer on the other end of the phone, "I am a machine." No action was taken.)

In The Exegesis he develops every possible explanation that could possibly explain his experiences, from the obvious (insanity, neurological damage) to the less believable (the F.B.I had programmed his mind when he had been "kidnapped" in Vancouver; his spirit had bonded with 1. a dead friend; 2. a first Century Christian; 3. his dead twin sister, etc. He also felt he was seeing the world 'freshly' with no pre-conceived ideas, stripping away its layer of illusion; he was talking to God; beings from the future were beaming information to him using Tachyons.

In February 1976 Tessa left him, and he tried to kill himself again, for what was to be the last time in his life. After he was hospitalised, he started work on Radio Free Albemuth a semi-autobiographical account of his 2-3-74 experiences, and, after a few short relationships with various young women, Dick moved back to the Bay Area in mid 1977.

He found it difficult to extrapolate 2-3-74 into novel form however (he wasn't pleased with Radio Free Albemuth) but was persuaded to attend the Metz Festival in France, where his sixties reputation had preceded him. At dinner a young man swallowed the pill that Dick had placed next to his plate and asked him what he thought would happen. Dick replied that he would soon feel better if he had a sore throat.

His work on the novel that was to become Valis continued.

Valis is a semi-autobiographical account of Dick's 2-3-74 experiences. In it Horselover Fat (Philip is Greek for "lover of Horses", and Dick is German for Fat), has just had a nervous breakdown and searches for God, while Phil Dick the SF writer tries to persuade him of his futility.

Eventually they discover Valis' daughter (the Fifth Saviour), who dispels Phil's need to project a false "Horselover Fat" personality. Unfortunately, she is accidentally killed and Horselover Fat returns, leaving Phil Dick to search for clues to Valis' next reappearance.

Valis confused virtually everybody, including Bantam who were in two minds as to whether to publish it or not. However, his worth in the New York market climbed impressively, and for the first time in his life he was making 'good' money, $101,000 in 1978 and $75,000 in 1979. He also won a number of awards and managed to publish a few short stories in distinguished magazines.

In 1981 the 'sequel' to Valis, The Divine Invasion was published, but Dick was unsure as to its worth, and started planning another alternate world novel. He was tense because his relationship with God had dwindled but he needn't have worried.

In November 1980 "God manifested himself completely" to him, and as a result his Exegesis writings stopped, although this was perhaps aided by more material concerns such as the making of Bladerunner. Despite disliking the screenplay, Dick loved the visuals of the film, and he stood to make a lot of money from a novelisation tie-in. He had also been contracted to write a mainstream novel, an SF novel, and his 1950's mainstream novel Confessions of a Crap Artist was being reissued.

He planned to visit Belgium and the Netherlands to search for Maitreya, the future Buddha and also planned to visit New York and Paris.  Other Hollywood deals were in the pipe-line (including Total Recall and Claw, a screenplay based on his 1953 novella Second Variety), he had at last published a mainstream novel, and he and Tessa were discussing re-marriage.

He convinced her that she wouldn't find her dead somewhere having successfully committed suicide, because he wanted to live.

Unfortunately during an interview he forgot things and experienced failing eye-sight. A day later he was found unconscious on his apartment floor, the victim of a stroke. The doctors said that he could recover from the stroke, but later he had more strokes and then a heart attack. Philip .K.Dick died on March the 2nd 1982 at fifty three years of age.

However, Dick, despite failing to predict his future fame, was uncannily accurate when he came to predicting, in a 1980 letter, how most of his readers would view him after reading Valis.  (A view that will probably remain unchanged for many, despite his increasing fame and media exposure).

"He's crazy. Took drugs, saw God. Big fucking deal."