Monday, 26 March 2012


Many of the societies at Southdown put weekly or monthly bulletins on the noticeboards, and they weren't all political. But SUCSOC seemed to come from a different dimension. Who were these people who spent their university days cultivating cacti and succulents? One was called Tim and another Julian. Every bulletin ended with the words: If you'd like to know more about SUCSOC, please see Tim or Julian. There were no surnames or other contact details. From other entries in the bulletins I guessed that one was the secretary, the other the chair, and they were both science students of some kind, as there were occasional mentions of the labs. Next week Julian will be showing us slides of his holiday in Malta was followed by Unfotunately Julian was not able to show us slides of his holiday in Malta, due to an attack of the "dreaded lurgi"!! Many thanks to Wing Commander Jimmy Woods of the Easthaven Succulent Club, who gallantly stepped into the breach with a repeat of his popular talk on "My Favourite Succulents". And so it continued, page after scrappily photocopied page: A mamillaria table, Next Tuesday is Propagation Evening - make sure you turn up at the lab in plenty of time!!, Little known uses of opuntia, 33 things you didn't know about epiphytes, At last, the long awaited showing of Julian's holday slides! And then the report the next week: due to a malfunction of the heat lamps we were unable to hold our propagation evening... many thanks to Wing Commander Jimmy Woods. We hope Julian will be feeling better next week.
     'It's a front,' Rob said, when I asked him about in the pub one evening. 'I imagine if you looked up the various species you'd find that most of them are being cultivated for their psychotropic properties.'
     'But what about Jimmy Woods? He doesn't sound like the sort of person who'd have anything to do with drugs.'
     'That's the front, Daniel. They put him in to dupe the Drug Squad, so that no one will find out about what's going on under the heat lamps in the labs. He doesn't exist, of course.'
     'Who doesn't exist?' Imogen said, looking up from the cigarette she was rolling.
     'I don't think any of it exists,' I said. 'They don't sound real. I mean, can you imagine, week after week, whatever they're doing gets cancelled and replaced by a talk from Jimmy Woods of the Easthaven Club? The same talk? Wouldn't they stop turning up at some point?'
     'What I want to know,' Rob continued, his concentration apparently entirely taken up with a beermat that he kept resting on the edge of the table so that he could flip it into the air with the backs of his fingers and then catch it with the same hand, 'is do you ever listen when Linda Fiske talks about literary theory? Because it's all there, Daniel, the play of the signifier, the death of the author, indeterminacy, and so on and so forth. There is nothing outside the text, Daniel, not Jimmy Woods, not the Easthaven Club or SUCSOC or Tim and Julian, nothing. First of all - ' flip, catch - 'first of all, Daniel, you have to get your head round that, and then you have to go one further. My glass is empty, has anyone noticed? There must be something that can be done about that. First you get your head round the fact that the SUCSOC bulletins are a signifier without a signified, a purely fictive text if you like, and then you go one further and say after all maybe they are at least as real as you are. Because I haven't been doing this subject long, but as far as I can see the main point of it is that there is no reality. There's certainly no beer.'
     'That's a metonymy,' Imogen said. 'Or is it a synecdoche. The container for the thing contained.'
     'Where beer is concerned,' Rob said, 'I seem to be an essentialist.'

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Novel: What to Do If You Get Conscripted

I didn't so much attend the university as haunt it. Even on days when I didn't have to go in for the Tuesday seminars or my meetings with Linda, I often felt a compulsion to get the train to Fulmar and cross the underpass where I had found my five-leaf clover to the campus, whose boundary was marked by a deconstructed moat of rectangular concrete ponds of different sizes arranged in some pattern I couldn't quite work out. ('It's fractal, Daniel,' Rob said when I asked him once, giggling under his breath in the knowledge that he was only puzzling me further.) The ponds were shallow and almost completely lifeless: only the largest had a small cluster of waterlilies that never flowered, as well as a sediment of copper coins glittering on the flagstones of the bottom. Undergraduates were said to fall into them from time to time, or to throw each other in - the nearest building to the ponds was one of the Students' Union bars, known as the Adorno Arms. There was nothing to keep me in the ponds area, and I would walk on through a succession of Modernist courtyards separated by glass-doored barnlike buildings which were only there to be passed through, as far as I was concerned. I still hardly knew which was which, Culture and Community Studies, Development Studies, Social Sciences, all of them called by hard-to-pronounce acronyms that made them sound like Eastern European intelligence agencies. After these, I would arrive in an open space, with a grass covered bank on the left-hand side surmounted by the library. Even though it was winter, there were always clusters of students sitting our lying on the bank, muffled in their thick Oxfam-shop overcoats. Most of the rest of the space was lawn, with paths snaking across it in no clear direction. Physical Sciences, Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences were great fortifications on the right, each on its own hill, served by their own roads and carparks. Just in front of them was a smaller building known only as the Occupation: I never found out what had gone on there before it was occupied. It was almost as if the University had laid it on specially for AgitProp training. On the other side of the lawn was a set of communal buildings including a refectory, a launderette and a general store run by the Union. Further away still, almost buried in the downs, were the residential areas of The Village and North Slope, the former giving way to the woodland where Pete the Animal and his customers operated, the latter backing on to the playing fields and the sports pavilion.
     By the time I got as far as the Central Lawn I had already come too far, at least if I wanted to go to English; it was in the last of the barnlike of the barnlike buildings, behind me. But perhaps I wanted to go to the library, or the coffee shop - on these days, I never exactly knew. Sometimes I would walk around the snakelike paths for an hour at a time - the layout made it easy not to get anywhere without consciously changing direction. And not to get anywhere seemed to be what I wanted.
     Days went by like this: a couple of hours in the library reading bits of books on polar exploration and literary theory, an hour in the coffee shop, a walk to The Village and back, a browse in the University bookshop, and the whole cycle all over again. Once I was there I found it impossible to leave until it got dark even when I had nothing to do. More than once I arrived on a Sunday without even realizing it, to find most of the buildings shut and the campus deserted. More than once I was the last person in the English Common room, standing among the shin-high furniture reading the notices pinned to the pillars in the half-dark and the smell of coffee,cigarette ash and whatever it was the farmers put on the surrounding fields.
     The FREE THE SHROVEDEAN THIRTEEN posters were looking tatty now; perhaps the Shrovedean Thirteen had already been freed - in any case, it was no longer a fashionable cause. Even the posters about what to do if you got busted, along with Rock against Racism, Vegetarians against the Nazis and SUPPORT THE OCCUPATION were hardly visible any more, not taken down (which hardly ever happened) but buried under new layers of warnings and bulletins. The Women's Centre were still holding their own, along with the Lesbian and Gay Social Club and the Das Kapital Reading Group. But most of the new posters were about Afghanistan: March for Peace, CND, What to Do if You Get Conscripted. I had read the last one many times, trying to decide whether I was a pacifist, a believer in the concept of a just war, or just someone who didn't want to be killed. The last option had no legislative basis according to the poster; besides, it didn't make much sense, since, as Imogen argued, we would all be killed whether we joined the army or not. The most convincing defence I could think of was that any army desperate enough to need me in its ranks had no chance of winning anyway, but I didn't fancy my chances of making that understood over the sound of It's a Long Way to Tipperary.
     I was becoming obsessed with the Cactus and Succulent Society, SUCSOC, as obsessed as I was with the starlings.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Novel: Tipperary

I don't know whether Rob ate anything on Tuesday evenings, apart from the dry roasted peanuts. After a couple of pints I always found myself getting light-headed and hungry, but it was no good suggesting going to a restaurant, even if we could have found one that served unpolished grains for Imogen - as far as Rob was concerned, Tuesday evenings were for drinking. So I got into the habit of slipping out for a hamburger. There was a shop on the corner of Shrovedean Road where no one but me ever went, full of dirty light from a buzzing fluorescent tube that, even in winter, attracted a few flies that must have thought it was an odd-looking member of their own species. It was run by an elderly man in slippers.
     'Coleslaw burger, is it?'
     I found it comforting that he knew my order (not that he had any others to remember); even the slippers were a homely touch. I would eat the burger walking up the frosty road, and be back at the Shakespeare's Head before anyone noticed I was missing.
     One night as I was waiting for my order, two old men came into the shop, very drunk, singing It's a Long Way to Tipperary. They were standing between me and the door, arms round each other's shoulders, looking at me in a way I construed as threatening. Every now and then one of them would stop singing, and the other would shake him and sing louder to egg him on to start again. They took it in turns to stop and start in this way. They were both short and fat, their jowls covered in white bristles.
     The hamburger man had obviously decided they were trouble rather than potential customers - perhaps he knew them already. 'Get out of it, you two.' He must have been a whole generation younger.
     'You look a fit young lad,' one of them said. ('Sweetest girl I know...' his friend was singing.) 'How old you? About twenty-one?'
     'Twenty-two.' I wasn't sure what I was afraid of: they probably couldn't overpower me, even if they wanted to, except through the sheer force of embarrassment.
     'Leave the poor lad alone,' the man in slippers said. 'Here you are, mate, coleslaw burger.'
     'Twenty-two, George.' ('Farewell, Leicester Square.') We could do with a few strong young chaps like him. Ever done any fighting, lad?'
     I shook my head, smiling desperately. 'Excuse me.'
     'Here,' George said. He was the taller and fatter of the two, wearing a blue open-necked shirt despite the cold. His neck was brown and strong-looking, as if it belonged to a much younger man, 'do you know that song we're singing?'
     The friend sputtered, filling the air with beery vapours. 'You'd better, lad. You're going to be singing it soon. Everybody is.'
     By the time I got back to the Shakespeare's Head with coleslaw repeating on me and an obscure feeling of cowardice and rage in my stomach, Rob and Imogen were discussing the next war. 'It's not true,' Imogen was saying, 'not with a bang but a whimper. It's going to be a bang first, and a bloody great whimper afterwards.'
     'We've been through all this before, Imogen,' Rob said. 'You don't remember, but I do. I was eleven when Cuba happened. They cancelled all the lessons at school and made us pray. But believe me - ' his wheezing way of speaking was particularly noticeable on E sounds, bel-eeeve mee - 'there is only so much praying you can do in a day at the age of eleven, eeven if the world is going to end before you get home. It was bloody boring, actually. Oh, hallo, Daniel, where did you get to?'
     'Supper,' I muttered.
     'You smell strange,' Imogen said. 'Doesn't he smell strange, Rob?'
     'Coleslaw,' I said. 'I met two old men. They wanted me to join the army.'
     'An army's going to be no use to anybody,' Imogen said. 'Fuck the army. It's all be over in a few agonizing weeks.'
     'Oh, I don't know,' Rob said. 'Most probably it'll be just another European land war.'

Notes: The Story So Far

Not feeling at my most creative today after a weekend of marking, so it seems a good time to assess how I think the project is going. First of all, how much have I actually written? I haven't been keeping track as I've been going on, but had a vague feeling it might be about 5000 words. I've just counted, and it's about 7000, so that's encouraging. The sections are rather shorter than I was anticipating - I originally said 1000 - 1500 words each, but they are more like 500 - 1000. One reason for this is that I am deliberately not putting pressure on myself. Once you start getting up beyond 1000 it feels like hard work because you have to sustain a mood, a narrative, an argument, beyond the initial impetus that led you to write it down. It can be hard work for the reader, too, work that we are used to putting into the books we read but not when reading on a screen in the knowledge that lots of fascinating sites are just a couple of mouse-clicks away. So the second reason I am not writing long sections is the nature of the medium I'm initially writing for. Rather to my surprise there are a few people reading this, and I have had some positive feedback. Whether it eventually works as a novel or not, I have some hope is that it is working as a blog, and that seems to dictate shorter sections.

In other respects, it is much as I expected. I said it would begin as a process of getting to know the characters and the fictional environment and that not much would happen in the early stages. This is how it has turned out. Apart from Daniel himself there are only two other main characters so far, Rob and Imogen, and neither of them is much more than a sketch at present - it's not yet clear what influence they will have in Daniel's story. I know a little more about this than the reader does, but not much. There are also several other characters who are briefly sketched and who may or may not play a part in the story: Martin, Linda, Elaine, Bill the Landlord. I suspect that the first two will have a bigger part to play, while the second two are just part of the scenery. All are based to some extent on people I knew in my Brighton days, sometimes on more than one person. The underlying reality, the remembered past, is already beginning to shift a bit, to become the imagined world of the novel. The girl on the skateboard, for example, comes from a period two years after my brief stay in The Squirrels - she used to whizz round a different, much quieter corner. Helmston itself (now without a final E) is changing in my mind: I am beginning to see it as full of the sea-mists of Aberystwyth rather than the clear light I associate with Brighton.

One other thing that may surprise some readers - it's fairly light and humorous, despite all my initial comments about the misery I was going through at the time. This was not exactly planned, but it tends to happen when I write autobiographically. A certain defensive irony creeps in, keeping me at a distance from the material. This seems to be psychologically necessary for me - I remember that it happened when I wrote my first short story, 'American Fugue', which, as I have mentioned, came directly out of the breakdown I suffered when I was living in Brighton, but which is one of my most humorous stories. It could be argued that there is something dishonest about this approach, but I'm not sure - comedy is always present where there is a mismatch between the individual and the community. I may have been unhappy a lot of the time, but there was a lot of laughter, too. It seems to be my way of understanding these events, and I find it much more attractive than a wallow in remembered suffering.

What I enjoy about this project is the combination of instant and delayed gratification. The novel can be postponed for as long as I like, and yet in a sense it already exists, and is being read. Thinking of it as a blog allows me to forget about difficult things like plot - my only challenge is to write 500 - 1000 words that are reasonably interesting in their own right. What influence will this process of composition have on the final novel? It's impossible to say. I like the thought that it will retain a lot of the traces of its original composition. I enjoy novels in short sections, like Calvino's Invisible Cities, and it may be in any case that the novel of the future will have to take account of shortened attention spans by using shorter chapters and composing its fictional world jigsaw-fashion. Or it may be that the novel of the future will be in blog form rather than a book - why do I actually need to publish Starling City at all? I am working on other books of a more traditional nature, so I probably have my academic duty to publish covered.

So there is a thought to end with - the blovel as a genre in its own right, available to anyone who wants to write one, the kind of democratic art form that various internet prophets have been proclaiming for some time. It costs nothing to publish, and, if it doesn't make any profit either, that is almost true of the traditional genres I work in, poetry, criticism, the short story, the 'literary' novel. I could sell advertising space, I suppose, or, as I suggested in one of the comments to a previous entry, charge people a fee for appearing in it as characters. At any rate, I think writing this may well change my approach to writing fiction in general, and that is an exciting thought.