I want to fail in a grander case.

For Reasons of Research, I’ve been reading Downriver by Iain Sinclair recently (aside from the normal heave-ho of life, visiting the Making Nature and Electricity: The Spark of Life exhibitions at the Wellcome Institute; drinking All The Wine in the company of a skittish cat; re-acquainting myself with old drawing habits and new gym ones – and novel heave-hos in life, such as “dealing with a blood-soaked stranger”; and my personal favourite “being evacuated from the office for a bomb scare”, which was nowhere near as much fun as you’d hope).

I have a lot of Ian Sinclair books to read, because Delightful Boyfriend has inherited psychogeographical scholarship from his Colin-Wilson-reading father, and my globe-trotting book patron/occasional whip hand (Amy Parker, who has recently published a short story in Bourbon Penn magazine, which rather unusually for any short fiction written after about 1901, I’ve read and loved – please sit down and have a go yourself! It’s a good one) also deluged me in copies before I had a chance to remove them from my research wishlist and plead exhaustion (there is a reason I don’t link to that on my blog).

In reading, I encountered this intriguing quote:

There is, I assure you, a measure of safety in being the one who holds the pen. ‘I’ is the man in possession, but he is also possessed, untouchable. ‘I’ is immortal. The title of the survivor. There always has to be one witness to legitimize a massacre. [etc]

Downriver, Iain Sinclair.

Long-term readers may be aware that I have a tattoo reading “ha bloody fucking ha” prominently on my writing wrist.

It is the abbreviated form of this quote:

Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.

The Ghost Road, Pat Barker

From a firmly-formative trilogy (one of the more respectable formative texts of my adolescence, which featured more heavily the lurid gay erotic horror of Poppy Z Brite in the vampire years and innumerable interchangeable Hardy Boys Casefiles), that of prize-draped Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy.

It is a conceptual echo that concerns me greatly: I’ve been keeping a regular, if occasionally sparse or incoherent and evasive diary, since September 1997. If I am still doing it in September this year (if global rise of fascism hasn’t dispensed with my gay, trans self by then – always proviso these days), it will be a solid 20 years of diarism.

Leaving aside the horror of a diary that can legally vote, marry, drink, drive, and star in extremely depressing pornography in the country in which it is written, what have I done to my longevity with this? All of my life choices so far – dabbling in alcoholism, obesity, cocaine, transitioning even – all of them should calculatedly have shaved off decades from my genetically accursed lengthy lifespan (no bloody cancer or coronary here, alas), at least according to the bastion of scientific rigour and life-extension that is the Daily Mail.  I live in a society that can’t afford my pension and soon won’t be able to feed itself. Have I unthinkingly undermined my sensible exit strategy with ego-centric nonsense?

Well, I shan’t be the first or the last. If I am still committing my life to language in another 20 years we shall know something has gone horribly, horribly right.


Readers already horrified by the above will be thrilled to learn I’ve taken up time-travel, and have transmitted a novel from the Edwardian period.

The Illustrated Woman

On Saturday I went to a tattoo studio in Greenwich, arriving via a series of unfortunate events just on time, whereupon my tattooist was late and we didn’t get started until an hour after we were supposed to.

I had not had any work done by this fellow previously, in part because he only moved to England in December, and one of the important parts of tattooing for me is being able to manage a reasonable conversation with the person tattooing me so that I don’t actually fall asleep. As it was I was overtired and became drowsy a few times (and oddly cold), but the conversation itself was satisfying as we dissected music, sound recording, legends and mythos of musicians, the difference between music performance and stand-up, the story-telling properties of songwriting, books we both liked, and cultural change.

The first of the two tattoos I received was discussed at length in a previous post:

quote from "The Ghost Road" by Pat Barker

The second, which I kept schtum about, is a depiction of Narcissus taken from a pencil drawing by Gillian Blekkenhorst, which I have had for several years, folding it and unfolding it as I move house. Narcissus was the subject of one of my Creative Writing projects at university, and naturally represents here the notion of self-love and also a caution against excessive self-involvement:

Narcissus by Gillian Blekkenhorst and Owen Williams

Personal Post: A World Of Meaning In Four Words

Yesterday I took the train from my workplace (Elephant and Castle) to my tattooist (Greenwich, or more specifically Maze Hill) in order to book an appointment, as one of the rituals of acquiring paid employment for me these days is to waste large chunks of my income on permanent additions to the body I’ve been left with by genes and circumstance.

On my return from this brisk, slightly disorienting visit to Living Image Tattoo, I found two things: one, that the train passing from Greenwich station to Deptford headed directly into the setting sun – a ball of red and orange balanced precariously on the skyline of the incoming city – and gave me the powerful sensation that I was living inside a poem, and two, that it being the season of short sleeves on the Underground once more, I was back to catching people trying to read my tattoos without me noticing.

The woman I caught examining the tattoo on my left inside elbow (“every time i let myself lose, i have won“) gave me an embarrassed look (she was wearing a mustard-coloured duffel coat and had the keen expression of someone who knows she is intelligent but hasn’t often been told that she is attractive). I merely rotated my arm so that she could read it, and said, “Is that better?”

She nodded at the tattoo in a worried fashion as if reading something that she would be examined on later, and looked away. I am used to a variety of reactions to my tattoos, although happily since moving to London the majority of them have been salutatory or curious rather than, as in my more provincial hometown, abusive. Once, at the Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus a woman in the queue for the toilets during an interval struck up a long conversation with me because she was curious as to the meaning of the opposite number in text tattoos: the right inner elbow, which reads “anything you do to me, i will learn to enjoy“.

As almost every one of the more visible text tattoos I have can be interpreted in a number of ways, I’m usually at ease with explaining them to strangers, but this woman was so inquisitive and so delighted in hearing that it came from a story I’d written (I didn’t dare tell her it was a lurid piece of Torchwood fan fiction!) that I grew nervous and was eager to get away…

This latest appointment will “deface” (as my mother so disdainfully describes it) my upper left arm, and the inside bones of my right wrist. The left arm is to be an image, although of what I wish to leave a surprise as I rather enjoy surprising my friends with tattoos (I also enjoy buying them tattoos as birthday presents, when I can afford to). The right wrist is a quote from my best-beloved series of books:

from "The Ghost Road" by Pat Barker

As with all my text tattoos there are myriad reasons for this specific sentence fragment. First, context – which will contain spoilers for The Ghost Road – this is part of a slightly longer sentiment:

I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking ha.

The Ghost Road, Pat Barker

The words are written by Billy Prior, the protagonist of the series (or one of them), in reference to all his fellow-soldiers on the WW1 Western Front who are compulsively keeping diaries, scribbling poems, sending lengthy descriptive letters home. His theory is that by turning their sufferings into stories they are granting themselves some notional escape from the near-inevitability of their death and (subtextually) their total lack of control over the situation they are in.

For this reason, first, the quote is a good one for a tattoo: I have been keeping diaries for fifteen years now, and can attest to the power of writing down events in turning them into manageable fictions rather than unmanageable horrors (even if I have quite obviously never experienced anything so mind-destroyingly dire as the young men at the Front). The claiming of safety created by story is a powerful delusion, and in part it is an accurate one, for in fictionalising our traumas we remove them from the forefront of experience and turn them into someone else’s problem.

Secondly, Prior is a character with whom I have a great deal of sympathy. Vicious at times, intelligent, belligerent, underestimated, “neither fish nor fowl” both in terms of sexuality (he is bisexual) and class (educated working class, exceeding his parents but acutely aware that he does not “pass” for the middle classes’ requirements), suffering from PTSD and utterly disdaining his own misery, he is filled with conflict so acute that he develops, for a time, a protective split personality.

Prior’s bitter, bitter cynicism and fatalism expressed in the four words are what draws me most inexorably to this quote: ha bloody fucking ha. It is very English, to make humour out of one’s own pain, and the statement – dry and without mirth – speaks of so many layered-on emotions it’s almost impossible to unpick them all.

He has been wrestling with himself over the morality of what he is doing, and with the knowledge that his desire to return to the Front is for what others might deem squalid, ungallant reasons. He is, whether he chooses to accept it or not, afraid of going forward, and unable to go back. He continues onward because he has been given no choice, but strove, fought, and argued to have that particular choice removed from him. He seeks both annihilation and survival, experiences both vicious self-loathing and a strange freedom in the terror of oncoming combat, and embodies in ha bloody fucking ha an unspoken, unneeded torrent of words. Billy Prior has fought for his right to surrender to the decisions of people he does not trust; he has everything to live for back in England and pushes towards death. He remains, even in the midst of the “bloodiest conflict in human history”, at war with himself.

And he acknowledges this, the absurdity of his mental state and the absurdity of the war, his anger and his resignation, in four words:

ha bloody fucking ha

Not only is this a tribute to my favourite series of books, and my most-studied period of history, but it is to me at least the phrase which best reflects the combination of nihilism and dark humour with which I find it most sensible to live my life.

I’m looking forwards to it.

My first book to read this year and I’m giving up on it

I mentioned as an aside in a previous post that I wasn’t getting on with Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong very well, and the time has unfortunately come where that lack of book/reader comradeship has slipped beyond the point of no return and into me becoming outright angry with it.

The problem isn’t that the book is immediately and egregiously bad, per se: if it were, I would have done what I usually do with bad books, and hurled it across the room in a fit of indignant melodrama (everyone I am friends with is by now familiar with the sadly entirely true story of how I managed to split the spine of a friend’s copy of Narcissus In Chains after one short chapter by pitching it out of my room in halls and into the opposite wall, taking Dorothy Parker’s literary critique very seriously indeed).

In fact, Sebastian Faulks has shown himself to be a competent (if dull) writer in delivering the minutae of small-town pre-war French life, painting an idyll with enough realism laced through it (strikes, oppressive heat, foul odours) and segues into rather clumsy pontification about death which is probably intended as foreshadowing to prevent it from reading as a saccharine waltz through an idealised past.

Because of this relative skill it took a few chapters for the prickling feeling of dislike to settle in. I found his prose sneakingly pedestrian in places, but I thought I should press on in spite of this: after all, something about China Mieville’s prose occasionally knocks against a button marked “trying too hard” in my head, but I was rewarded for my reading there by the scope of his ideas and the pleasure in his impeccable pacing. But there was something else, something beyond the uninspiring dialogue, and the dragging pace of the countryside pleasantness which was getting between me and what I had picked the book up for (World War 1, which has still not started at the point at which I’m giving up).

After [spoilers, although not really because it’s obvious from the outset that this is going to happen] Stephen had begun sleeping with Isabelle regularly, and started talking about taking her away to England, I realised that this wholly unlikely path of his nobility and her blamelessness had been married up against Azaire’s cruelty (which stemmed from his impotence, of course) and the tiresome fact of Azaire’s sexual deviance (naturally the main deviant thing about it was that he didn’t consult with his wife about it, but it’s presented as his desire being the repellent thing) for a reason: to make Stephen and Isabelle’s affair without moral impediment. The entire set-up was intended to present Isabelle as a poor bird, trapped in the cage of a marriage, to be freed by the silent Stephen, who has mastered his emotions and now fallen in love; Azaire’s unrestrained temper, violence, and impotence are all written as reasons why the reader should have no doubt in their mind as to the validity of Isabella’s escape.

I find all of this unedifying. I would prefer conflict, both in my mind and in Stephen’s. I would have liked guilt. I would have been happier for the question of adultery to have been a burning coal on the conscience or at least more of a threat to the stability of the situation than the mild and insulting run-in with Lisette, where the 17-year-old girl is presented as – if never directly called – silly and unworthy of attention, and some kind of sexually aggressive temptress; Stephen, of course, remains steadfast in his loyalty to Isabelle.

I would also have preferred if Sebastian Faulks had been able to rein in his genius sufficiently to abide by one of the simpler rules of writing fiction: one character’s point of view per scene, and if you’re going to swap between them, have a clear and obvious break between one point of view and another. This is usually given as “avoiding confusion”, and Faulks or his editor has gone to some trouble to ensure that the change of perspective is signposted, if not always very well. However, the introduction of different points of view seems only to act as explanations and excuses rather than the inner lives of the characters bringing them into conflict and progressing what little plot there is.

It would be unfair to compare Faulks to Pat Barker, whose Regeneration trilogy is my touchstone for World War 1 fiction (even Barker didn’t live up to the promise of those books and I found Another World a little of a come-down and Life Class such a change of pace that I couldn’t finish it), so I will try to compare like with like a little, based on my knowledge gleaned from the book so far.

Faulks sets the opening ten million boring chapters of Birdsong in pre-war rural town France, on the banks of the Somme. This resonates immediately with anyone who has any knowledge of the upcoming struggle, but Faulks feels the need to bestow a heavy foreshadowing hand upon the location by having Stephen ramble about death every so often and even offer up a prayer to save himself and Isabella from being buried in the soil of France.

In The Charioteer, one of my favourite books, Mary Renault opens with the pre-war period of idyll (in this case, pre-WW2), but with an incident of conflict and high emotion which is formative in the character of the protagonist. She goes on to demonstrate the development of his personality and his relationship to the romantic lead through scenes of further conflict, crisis, and resolution at both trivial and vast levels. Sebastian Faulks, on the other hand, tells me in passing about Stephen’s personality but fails to demonstrate anything of it. Stephen might as well be an eyepiece held up to my face through which to view a postcard.

In The Charioteer Mary Renault, like Faulks, devotes passages to the countryside in which her protagonist resides. She describes locations, individuals, and weather states as they come into contact with Laurie Odell. She uses far more poetical, and some might say purple, turns of phrase than Faulks; the pedestrian nature of Faulks’s prose is entirely down to my personal taste, as someone who prefers narrative to either flirt with floridity and wrap itself in poetry or to be sharp and pared down and to the point. But the cloying sense of having my sensibilities directed by someone who doesn’t have the skill to conceal what they’re about remains, and I am not going to read any more of Birdsong when I have so many other unread books sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention.

For all of these reasons: a persistence of telling rather than showing; refusal to move between points of view in a logical, useful, or story-progressing fashion; uninspiring prose; attempts to manipulate my sympathies through telling me who I should like rather than giving me demonstrations of layered complexity from the characters; and the overall feeling of authorial contempt – I am sorry, lauded author Sebstian Faulks, but I do not enjoy your work this time.