EDITING YOUR WORK

As someone who edits and proofs my own work, here are my specific procedures laid bare. Notice that I wrote “laid bare.” As a writer, you need to know that the homonym “bear” is not the correct noun on this particular occasion!

You might find my procedures useful with your own writing. You might even have other suggestions – please let me know if you do.

It goes without saying that I use Microsoft Word’s inbuilt grammar and spelling checker. Why wouldn’t you do that? However, let me also say that the text to speech feature is extremely helpful. In fact, I use it all the time on my iMac.

Now, you might feel that whichever of the “voices” you choose is a bit like listening to the late professor Hawking’s speech synthesiser and you’d be right. But for me, that’s the whole point. I’d be the first to admit that it can’t even work out whether you meant the present or the past tense of the verb “to read” (I think it defaults to the former pronunciation) but that’s not important. The text to speech facility does a great job, with its wooden, monotonous delivery, because it defamiliarises your words. It will help you identify any errors in just the same way that printing out your work in a hard copy and reading it aloud will highlight any grammatical or stylistic issues.

As for proofreading, here’s my strategy. With a hard copy in front of you, lay a ruler across the page so that only one line of text is visible. Then, using a pen, point to each word and read it aloud in a mechanical fashion until you reach the end of the line. I also check the layout and punctuation while I’m doing this, but I suppose it all depends on how skilful you are at multitasking. Speech marks are the bane of my life, and it might be beneficial to do a single sweep of the text checking them and nothing else. In the future, I’m seriously considering changing over to James Joyce’s use of the elongated em dash to delineate dialogue.

When it comes to ordering proof copies, they are invaluable. I find that seeing all of those words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters set out in book form introduces yet another element of defamiliarisation. Moreover, having the ability to see two pages at a time will also help with any formatting issues.

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A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A WORKING-CLASS ANTIHERO

Being a working-class writer is fucking hard. The problem is that I have a foot in both camps so to speak. Liminal spaces are consequently my domain. For you to fully comprehend what I mean we need to go back in time.

My late father was prole-poor. As a child in the 1930s he was once given an orange as a Christmas present. Nothing else, just an orange. Whenever I recall that fucking orange I’m reminded of two lines by Paul Eluard:

 

The earth is blue like an orange.

This is no error. Words do not lie.

 

The thing is, children never forget such moments of humiliation. But at least my father owned a pair of shoes. Some of his classmates were not so fortunate and walked barefoot to school. However, he didn’t just have poverty to contend with. There was something else. He was illegitimate. Now, it was perfectly acceptable to be a bastard in those days as long as you were rich, but certainly not if you were poor and working class. For the lower orders there was shame attached and stigma and name-calling. There was opprobrium.

Despite enlisting underage in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and landing on Sword beach during D-Day – his thigh was later ripped open near Caen by shrapnel from a German mortar shell – this brave man was intimidated by books. Even the way he pronounced the word ‘book’ was different, his characteristic North East accent making it rhyme with the Arab word souk. So you might be surprised to learn that he’d had the chance to study at Oxford after the war – at Ruskin College.

My mother, on the other hand, was thoroughly middle class. My grandmother’s house in Germany had oil paintings on the walls, and she listened to opera broadcast on the radio by Nord Deutscher Rundfunk. There were bottles of wine stored in the cellar, and you ground your coffee beans in the morning in a strange contraption that made a hell of a racket. You wouldn’t find any of these things in our council flat back home.

Given my mother’s German heritage I grew up bilingual, and because of her religious affiliation I went to a Roman Catholic Boys’ school where they put me in the top form – 1 Alpha. The priests tried to indoctrinate me, but I didn’t need Karl Marx to tell me that religion is the opium of the people. As a twelve-year-old atheist I’d relish taking on some Goliath figure wearing a dog collar and best him every time. In those days I used to get into a lot of fights as well. I once felled a boy named Crow, who was a foot taller than me, with only one punch. He was middle class, so perhaps I was already striking a blow for the class struggle.

At school I began to take an interest in books. One day I managed to gain access to the stock cupboard and helped myself to some beautiful Penguin editions of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. I didn’t think of it as stealing – it was more a case of redistribution. I still have those books, with their distinctive orange or green covers, in my library to this day.

Speaking fluent German and being exposed to my mother’s culture, it might not come as a surprise to learn that I gravitated towards Krautrock – to the likes of Can, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. In my teens I also played classical guitar, teaching myself how to read music in only a week.

But it wasn’t just avant-garde progressive rock that I listened to. Since Frank Zappa had expressed admiration for Varèse and Stravinsky I felt it made sense to check out these two guys as well. One thing therefore led to another and by the time of my eighteenth birthday I bought an LP of Schönberg’s Transfigured Night and the Variations for Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Soon I was listening to the other two members of the Second Viennese School triumvirate – Berg and Webern – as well as Mahler, Bartok and Messiaen.

Two years later I was an undergraduate at Birmingham Polytechnic, studying for a BA in English Language and Literature, and the good thing about having a poor father was that I got a full grant. Marxist literary criticism, structuralism and deconstruction were all the rage at the time, as were Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party. But the political climate in the country at large was anathema to everything I held dear.

In 1980 – the year in which John Lennon was shot dead – I bought a season ticket for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its newly-appointed principal conductor, Simon Rattle. I already admired his work since I owned his outstanding recording for EMI of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

As a result of my heavily subsidised student discount I ended up paying under two pounds per concert, which was less than half the price of standing in the Holte End at Villa Park – so much for classical music being out of reach of the common man. Given Rattle’s provocative programme selections in that first season, it sometimes felt like a case of épater la bourgeoisie. Despite the fact that I had to sit on one of the hard bench seats behind the percussion section I soon found myself in my element, whereas it seemed to be the case that at least some of Birmingham’s well-off citizenry were still coming to terms with the challenging nature of this new repertoire. For the most part Rattle’s exhilarating performances won people over, and I certainly didn’t mind having a sore arse at the end of the evening.

By the time I was in my final year the new intake of students had names like Sebastian and Olivia. The parents of one of these students bought their daughter a flat in Moseley. My parents bought me a Swan electric kettle.

Once I’d obtained my degree I applied to the University of Warwick, since being a student is always better than becoming a wage slave, and after my interview with Dr Susan Bassnett-McGuire I was accepted on the MPhil in Translation Studies. The snag was that I needed to fund myself, but I didn’t have two pennies to rub together, let alone two grand, so that any plans I might have harboured were quickly scuppered. Dream on, my lad.

Thatcher was re-elected in 1983. She was born in the same year as my father – 1925. He hated her guts, as did I. We watched the aftermath of the Brighton hotel bombing one morning on the telly and cheered. When I saw Norman Tebbit being extricated from the wreckage, his face screwed up in agony and covered with a fine layer of plaster and brick dust, as if someone had just emptied a bag of dirty flour over his head, I thought let’s see you get on your bike now you bastard. But we groaned with disappointment when we learned that the bitch wasn’t actually dead. It was the Stauffenberg plot all over again.

They should have used more Semtex was all my father could say. You couldn’t fault his logic.

During the miners’ strike I was hitching along the A1 when a police car pulled up beside me. They asked me all sorts of intrusive questions and checked my name and address against their database. I knew what their game was and remained exceedingly polite and accommodating throughout. Those fuckers assumed I was a flying picket, and it seems my North East accent was enough for them to go on. When I got out of the car I laughed like a madman. I was the enemy within.

After more than a year of unemployment, I eventually blundered into the world of work. One day, in the early hours of the morning, I stood waiting for the night bus on Colmore Row in Birmingham and got talking to a youth who was perhaps five years my junior and who worked as a shop-fitter. Here I was a Civil Servant with a 2:1 degree in English Language and Literature earning a measly £75 a week, so I was astonished when this young lad casually revealed that he took home £150. Was this how the capitalist system worked, then? It seemed as if education was simply not valued or rewarded; it counted for nothing.

I made a start on a novel about my predicament – it was aptly titled The Prison. I also wrote poetry. I submitted some of my poems and translations to various literary magazines – to Stand, Agenda, PN Review and Ambit. They were all rejected. That was something I’d better get used to. The bourgeoisie have weaponised rejection. There’s a line in Goethe’s Faust that seems to encapsulate their miserable world-view. It’s Mephistopheles who speaks it:

 

I am the spirit who always says no.

 

In 1993 I enrolled at Nottingham Trent University. My digs were in a terraced house in Sneinton, near the windmill. The working-class filmmaker, Shane Meadows, was living in this area throughout the same period. During my work placement in Derbyshire I passed through a small town called Eckington. I heard a fascinating story there from the student who was giving me a lift, and who was himself a former miner. It’s worth repeating.

On a previous visit he’d asked for directions from some old geezer. ‘It’s down theer,’ said the man, pointing, ‘down scab alley.’ But by employing this contemptuous epithet he wasn’t referring to the recent miners’ strike of 1984-85. Nor was he referencing the strike in 1972. No, scab alley had acquired its name all the way back in 1926, at the time of the General Strike. Such was the power of local feeling that this nickname had managed to survive for nearly seventy years. That tells you all you need to know about working-class identity, memory and betrayal. Me, I’d put strikebreakers up against a wall and shoot them, so I could well understand the old man’s sense of grievance.

Although I was studying for the Diploma in Careers Guidance, writing was still in my blood. If I couldn’t go to Warwick and pursue Translation Studies, I’d simply do the damned thing myself. I’d become an autodidact, to use Sartre’s word in his novel Nausea. And what better poet to translate than the impenetrable and melancholy Austrian, Georg Trakl. So, that’s exactly what I did. But then, I’ve always been up for a challenge. I bought his two volume collected edition from the Otto Müller Verlag in Salzburg. And I translated all of the published works, wrote a long biographical and critical introduction and provided copious annotations to the poems themselves. It’s a stupendous achievement, even though I say so myself, despite the fact that no one will ever read it, but so what. I fucking did it, that’s all that matters.

Politically the country was going to hell in a handcart now that Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was in power. Even worse, that grinning fucker was my Member of Parliament. What an embarrassment. Not that I ever voted for him you understand – Scargill’s Socialist Labour candidate got my X every time. Bollocks to Blair and his New Labour neo-liberal snake oil. That cunt has a lot to answer for.

My dad started to deteriorate physically in the late 1990s. It was to be expected. He still had shrapnel in his leg from the war, had worked with asbestos without being provided with any protective clothing, had slipped discs in his back and suffered from arthritis and vibration white finger. He developed prostate cancer and it eventually metastasised. It’s a well-known fact that manual labour kills you whereas brainwork never does.

He knew that I was never cut out for a labouring job. Where my material was the written word, his material of choice was wood. When he worked for the Gas Board in the 1970s they were demolishing a property with a solid wood floor. Since no one else could be bothered to reclaim the oak blocks, my dad brought them back home in the boot of his Austin Maxi.

They were strange-looking objects, covered in tar, like fragments of a meteorite. Frankly, they were about as unprepossessing as a collection of black dog turds. Anyway, he meticulously sanded them down, laid them in the classic herringbone pattern in our dining room and gave them several coats of varnish. Once in situ they were beautiful, amazing. I could never do anything like that.

Mam had cancer too. She opted for a full mastectomy with removal of lymph nodes rather than a lumpectomy. The operation was a resounding success and the cancer cells got their arses kicked. But Azrael wasn’t finished just yet. Some years later vascular dementia reared its ugly head. It bumps you off even faster than Alzheimer’s. It’s a one-way ticket to oblivion.

So, after the death of both my parents I now had some spare cash in my pockets. And there was unfinished business. In 2013 I therefore began studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Teesside University. I was fifty-five years old now and still as angry as hell. For two years I worked 4pm to 2am so I could get every Thursday off from my minimum wage job and make the journey to Middlesbrough where I would be transformed for the day into a mature student.

My target was to get a Distinction. And I did. On top of that I wrote. Shitloads. Prose and poetry. Nutshells and Nuggets published two of my poems online. I also drafted the first act of a screenplay. It was called Black Art. It eventually metamorphosed into a novel. I wrote short stories as well – most of them found their way into the present collection. It’s what’s called a composite novel, in the manner of James Joyce’s Dubliners, if you want to know the technical jargon.

Along the way I had some wonderful encouragement from fellow students and lecturers alike. It was a blast to hear that my very deliberate and elaborate style of writing resembled that of W.G. Sebald. He’s a particular favourite of mine.

I didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for The Prison but I did send the first three chapters of Black Art to various literary agents in London. And, would you believe it, I encountered the same bourgeois cunts standing in my way once again. The gatekeepers as they are named. The devotees of Mephistopheles who get a cheap thrill from saying no. Shithouses the lot of them. ‘We enjoyed this…but.’ They wield that ‘but’ like a bank robber does a cosh.

So, instead of admitting defeat, I self-published. In such circumstances I always bring to mind my hero – James Joyce. He dreamed up a great acronym, and it’s one that I fondly recall whenever I encounter rejection: KMRIA. It stands for Kiss My Royal Irish Arse. Ok, I may not be Irish – although my surname does crop up in Ulysses, where a jarvey is a hackney coach driver – but I think you get my drift.

I’m not sure what my dad would have made of my writing. I certainly don’t think he would have called it shite. I like to believe he’d have approved. He definitely would have enjoyed the invective aimed in the present piece at the great Satan – Thatcher. Now that would have caused him to smile.

I’ll end with a quotation from my comrade Bertolt Brecht. Although I’ve half a mind to leave it in the original German, I’ll translate it for you:

 

Art isn’t a mirror held up to reality; instead

it’s a hammer with which to shape it.

 

That metaphorical hammer makes me think of the figure of Wayland the Smith as well as Stephen Dedalus invoking the ‘old artificer’ at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

My dad would have understood the hammer.

CORVUS FRUGILEGUS

Corvus frugilegus has always worn the burqa

And flown the black flag of Mohammed.

The production line of natural selection

Has taken to heart Henry Ford’s maxim.

 

Each guttural caw of remonstration

Is a monosyllable of terseness;

The rookery a garrulous tower block,

Overrun by an army of black shirts.

 

Sometimes they glide earthbound on ragged wings,

And shamble barrel-chested across the lawn,

Probing for nest materials with their burnished beaks

Like excitable, voluble old women

Rummaging through wares on a market stall.

 

On poor days they eat Marmite for breakfast,

In days of plenty fat Beluga caviar.

They have an affinity with tarmacadam gangs,

And their favourite song is ‘Paint it Black.’

THE LIGHTHOUSE

The pubs of Birmingham were the fixed topographical features of my student days. You might even say that they constituted my very own Stations of the Cross, and that the place of crucifixion at the heart of it all was the concrete monolith of the GPO Tower, like some latter day Pharos of Alexandria.

From the balcony of the Longboat on Cambrian Wharf we’d peer down into the sullen blackness of the canal, and in The Shakespeare on Summer Row we’d lacerate the smoky air with our argumentation and raucous laughter. At any moment you’d expect the opening bars of ‘Vienna’ to come thumping out of the jukebox, music that would invariably conjure up in my mind an image of Orson Welles hiding in a doorway.

One fragment, recovered from that sea of memory, yields yet another location – the Bull’s Head, on Bishopsgate Street. Here it was that we first met Val. He was one of the regulars, with a mania for Yamaha organs – he even wore a lapel badge bearing that name. He had two favourite anecdotes with which he would regale us. In the first he told us how a Stuka dive-bomber had attacked him whilst he was manning a machine gun emplacement at Dunkirk. The second occurred some years later when he was an ARP warden. In his words, a German night fighter strafed him as he legged it across Broad Street ‘with a big fucking metal teapot’ in his hand.

On the telly in the bar, we sniggered through the engagement of Prince Charles to Princess Diana, and at the levels of deference on display. But there were also dark forces at work in those days – for this was an era of negation, of Thatcher and the Falklands War. That same year Bobby Sands began his hunger strike, and during the summer Toxteth, Brixton and Moss Side went up in flames.

My abiding memory of 1981, though, is of a house party in Acocks Green where I’d spouted the usual shite – how love was a bourgeois construct, and that fucking was therefore the only reality.

When I eventually left, it was the hour of the fox. Even the murky early morning air was redolent of damp fur. Beer-befuddled, I slunk off into the shadows and ended up pissing on my shoes. Arms flailing, I staggered rudderless for a while before doubt scuppered everything.

It was then, at the lowest point of degradation, that I experienced what can only be described as a moment of revelation. For there, in the distance, salvation beckoned. It was that Brum beacon – the GPO Tower – winking, winking, winking, with metronomic regularity. So, along the deserted Warwick Road I stumbled and fumbled my way, doggedly following those two red lights, always keeping them in view, and, in this undignified manner, like Rimbaud’s drunken boat, drifting inexorably downstream, I groped my way towards Golgotha.

THE TRIUMPH OF ENTROPY

The squalid Gein farmhouse in Wisconsin

with its moth-eaten Miss Havisham curtains

has no running water or electricity.

Upon entering this clapboard hovel you see

two mildewed mattresses decaying on the floor,

some Startling Detective magazines wedged in a box,

two sets of yellowed dentures displayed on a shelf.

This is a place where nothing is what it seems,

where toy aeroplanes and plastic whistles

from breakfast cereal promotions

Are arrayed side by side

with a box of Quaker Oats

containing human head integument.

A washbasin filled with sand

represents the triumph of entropy.

 

When you penetrate the icy vault

of the summer kitchen

in your deer-hunter cap and coveralls

you spit out a ball of masticated Wrigley’s gum

and drop it into the Maxwell House coffee tin

where you collect the stiff grey remains.

Your rubber-soled boots scrape against

the black pellets of rat shit

that embellish the floorboards.

You sit down in a chair seat

upholstered with human skin

reviewing your trophy collection.

You cured the heads in brine to preserve them.

 

In the foetid glow of the kerosene lamp

you light the old potbellied stove.

Gouging an exploratory hole in the lid

of Van Camp’s pork and beans,

You slice through the thin metal,

exposing the contents to the rancid air,

like you later did in Plainfield cemetery,

before placing the can

on the flat top of the stove.

You pour the contents

into the wobbly cranial-cap bowl

before digging in with an unwashed spoon,

less dirty than the rest,

recovered from the sink.

 

There are nine specimens in a shoe box.

(Does one say vulvae or vulvas?)

Most of them shrivelled up.

One you daubed with silver paint

and titivated with a red ribbon.

But then in the name of Christ

who would think to sew female nipples on a belt

or decorate a shade-pull with a pair of lips?

 

Augusta, that domineering bitch

of a mother, harangued you

with her Lutheran polemic.

That all women were whores,

that sex was a perversion.

Fuelled by religious misogyny,

she could flay you my boy

with a single lash of her tongue.

And you cried like a bitch in school

when they made fun of the growth on your eyelid.

Saggy baggy eye they called you.

 

So you longed to be a woman

and your fucked-up mind

engendered a monstrous solution:

that wearing a patchwork suit made of skin

was really some kind of metamorphosis.

 

Later you ransacked graveyards at night,

an earth-shovelling ghoul

prising open filthy coffin lids with a crowbar,

salvaging the putrefying remains

like rusty vehicles in a breaker’s yard,

making off with the spare parts

for your bodyshop.

 

So you hung Bernice Worden

suspended by her heels from the ceiling

then you filleted her corpse,

slopping out the blood

in a ten quart galvanised pail

and left her headless trunk

hanging there obscenely

like a dressed-out deer.

 

 

 

 

 

THE GOTHIC GODDESS

 

The Gothic Goddess with her midnight hair

Constricts your breathing like a succubus.

Her septum’s pierced, as is her lower lip.

Her varnished nails, a symphony of black,

Are instruments of torture and reward.

 

Fall to your knees and beg to kiss her feet!

For is she not the Mistress of your soul?

Is not her sweat a scent that you revere?

Her golden stream the nectar that you crave?

O slave, give praise to your Persephone!

ABSCISSION

Through the long days of summer

Those green chlorophyll batteries

Harvested sunlight and stored

Within each flexible membrane

A reservoir of energy

Locked in carbohydrate molecules.

Depleted now and scattered,

The spent leaves rustle

In carotenoidal splendour

Of red and gold pigmentation,

Like so much desiccated detritus.

As if a horde of butterflies

Had shed their wings

On the forest floor.

MERCURY

The Roman gods are dead, the pantheon
Long since deserted.
Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger,
God of poetry and divination
Bearing dreams from the valley of Somnus,
Could not outrun his fate.
His temple in the Circus Maximus
As empty as the interstellar medium.

And yet language reanimated him,
Bringing him immortality in the eyes of men.
And he is still in the ascendant,
A dangerous, volatile element.
Who fluctuates in the thermometer.
Or lives in our mouths filling cavities
With dental amalgam.

Better still, taking planetary form,
He steers an eccentric orbit,
No longer cement-grey but beautiful,
In the latest false-colour photographs,
A cratered aquamarine marble,
Irradiated by the solar wind.

THE PIER

Reduced to less than half its former length,
The juddering deck of African oak
Stretches six hundred and eighty-one feet
On spindly legs of Ormesby ironwork.

Today the North Sea nuzzles like a cat
Waiting to be fed. In seventy-four
It snapped the structure like a blackbird chick
Between its jaws.

And yet, after each botched amputation,
The pier regenerates its missing limb
Like a hermit crab that has lost a claw.