Okay. Before I begin, let me just say something: this is not going to be your typical sort of traditional book review. It’s not going to be like most other reviews, in which you get a précis of the book’s plot, and a bunch of reasons why the reader liked or disliked it. I mean, I guess I’ll do all that, out of courtesy for other, potential readers or whatever, but really this is less a review of the book and more an expression of love and gratitude to its author, Lidia Yuknavitch.
…or is it trying to teach me poetry?
I only ask because every so often it does this thing where it won’t allow me to eject the CD. This leaves me with three options as I drive back and forth between tutoring gigs and shopping mall coffee shops: one, sit in silence; two, listen to a bit of You & Yours on Radio 4 with Winifred Robinson; or three, listen to the same CD, over and over, until, eventually—inexplicably—it decides to eject itself and I can put in a different album and repeat the whole process.
One of my favourite things at the moment is the Penguin Modern Classics series. Little books with a silvery-grey cover, each containing two or three short stories by one of the twentieth century’s most noted authors—authors who sought to push boundaries, be they social, sexual or linguistic. It includes works by luminaries such as Kafka, Joseph Conrad and Dorothy Parker, as well as lesser known names like Ryunosuke Akutagawa and M.R. James.
“The first mistake I made was letting the man with the moustache catch my eye.
Actually, scratch that. There were mistakes before then. Way before. Getting on the plane without knowing where I’d be staying when I arrived, for one. Without having heard from Theo since his last email, over two weeks ago. Hell, booking the trip in the first place—that in itself could be construed as a major cock-up on my behalf. I mean, seriously, what were you thinking? You haven’t heard from your brother in almost two years, and then he asks you to come over to Spain to visit him, no explanation or apology for his absence. And then, less than a week later, he disappears, leaving you stranded on a Saturday night, in the middle of Malaga…
The first thing I saw this morning as I walked out of my hostel was a guy on a bike, riding up the middle of the street on one wheel. Just a kid, sitting back with a big grin on his face, front wheel high in the air. And not just for a second, either. I stood and watched as he rode all the way down the street like that. Brilliant. What a way to start the day.
This is Barcelona.
Four days now, I’ve been back here. The first day I just walked. Alone. Trudged the streets in the baking heat, from the Raval to El Born. Down to the port, where the seagulls are as big as eagles, and dirty as the water by which they strut. Like me, they seemed to be searching for something… Halfway up to Barceloneta, I stopped and sat on a bench and watched a skater in tight black jeans and no shirt doing tricks, while his girlfriend rode behind him on a bike, filming it all on her phone. I didn’t go any further after that. I went back, wandered ’round the Raval for a bit, but called it quits at around two, beaten by the heat and the weight of memory.
Today is different. Today I feel better. I’m back into the swing of things—back into the groove of this city. After watching the guy wheelie all the way down Calle Hospital, I put on my sunglasses, turned left, turned left again, walked a couple of blocks, and there—on the corner—was a café I’d never seen before. A perfect little place, with wooden booths, and sunshine streaming in through the window…
This feeling I have right now, it comes from another place. A place that I seem to be able to access far more easily when I’m here. Here, in this place, I feel more open—more susceptible to the beauty of it all. And it seems to me that by perceiving the beauty of it all, of our surroundings, and of the possibilities they present… well, one can’t help but marvel at it all. The light, the colours—even the little things, like this bowl of sugar before me. Sugar so brown and rich in its brownness I want to pick up the little wooden spoon and eat it straight from the bowl. I don’t do that, though. Instead, I look to my right and there above the bar, above the shelves of jars containing teas and other infusions, is an array of wooden blocks, each one with a letter on the front, and each letter has been fashioned in a different way. Carved into the wood, or stencilled on, the letters spell out the name of the café.
It looks kind of like this:
C o L e c t i v 0.
The people who come into the café, they all say hello. It’s a general hello to everyone—even me. I don’t respond at first, but then I do. “Bon dia…” Do people do this in England? I can’t help but think that the reaction would be less receptive… “Why are you saying hello to me? I don’t fuckin’ know you…”
I want to tell you about what happened the other night. Walking back from the restaurant, cutting across Calle de les Floristes de la Rambla, and two guys passed me. They weren’t running, but they were out of breath, like they had been. Running, I mean. They were talking, muttering to each other in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Anyway, a minute later (less?) I round the corner, into the plaza that backs onto the mercat, and I see a man in construction gear, standing with his neck craned, looking past me. Behind him, a couple—tourists, clearly—and they look distressed. The woman is crying, panting, struggling for breath. Immediately, I understand: they’ve been robbed. I stop. Shit. The two guys that passed me, a matter of seconds before. Surely. The construction worker, he’s trying to help, seeing if he can spot the culprits. What can I do? They’re long gone. I didn’t even see which direction they went. I start to walk over to the couple, but they are already retreating. The woman is literally howling. I hope the guy will hold her, comfort and reassure her.
Today is a new day, though. A good day. Today is all about the light, as it comes through the leaves and branches of the trees. Leaves and branches that make shadows on the stone, and the shadows shift with the breeze, gentle and pleasant. The light here is so bright, that even under the shade of the trees—these giant chestnut trees—sunglasses are a necessity. I’m in Gràcia, now, sitting on a bench in a square. On my way over I saw a notice. Hand-written, stuck on the side of a building on C/ Verdi: “Apartment for sale: a duplex, with three rooms and two bathrooms, 180 square metres. 450,000 Euros.” Cripes. People cross the plaza before me. A family of tourists. A hippie lady with three dogs. One of them cannot walk properly—it has wheels attached to its hind legs, and it scoots along, behind the others. My eyes roam over to the tables outside the café in the corner of the square. There’s a man, watching me. I know he’s watching me, even though he’s wearing sunglasses. In fact, that’s how I know he’s watching me. That’s why anyone wears sunglasses: to watch you as you sit and write about them. Of course it is. This guy who’s watching me, he’s wearing a t-shirt with the name of a band. The band is Flipper. I know Flipper, but I wonder: would anyone have heard of Flipper if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain? I doubt it. So what, though? That’s okay. No-one cares. Not here! This is Barcelona…
I’m now sitting in the exact spot where the guy in the Flipper shirt was sitting. The place is called La Cafetera. On the table in front of me is a bottle of Voll Damm—the double malt beer that comes from the same brewery as Estrella, which the Brits pronounce: “estrella”. As opposed to “es-tray-ah”… which would also be wrong, the way I pronounce it. I prefer Moritz, anyway. Whatever. It’s not important. On the bench where I was sitting a few minutes before, there are two old guys. They’re Spanish (as opposed to Catalan) and one of them strums a guitar with his thumb, singing a song that sounds like that one by the Gypsy Kings. His hair is grey, his teeth almost all gone, and he has a voice that crackles from too many cigarettes. I think maybe he’s Andalucian. His compadre is tall, dressed in a smart shirt and old, ill-fitting blue jeans. He sits and rolls a joint, discarding the cigarettes from which he has just pinched the tobacco, chucking them on the ground. A few yards away, sitting on the stoop of a store with its shutter pulled down, is another guy, smoking a cigarette and glancing across, kinda shiftily. The tall guy starts bawling at him, his voice as throaty and hackneyed as his guitar-strumming amigo. The guitarist cackles: they are taking the piss out of the stoop guy. The stoop guy tells them to fuck off, basically. They laugh. These men remind me of the men on the cover of that copy of Hemingway’s ‘Men Without Women’ that sits on my bedside table back at home. Where do they live, these men? Maybe they live in that duplex. The one that costs half a million euros. What? You don’t know.
You know nothing, Jon Snow…
This is true. Here I know less than nothing. It feels good, though—like being given a clean slate. I can feel my insignificance increasing every day, and with it goes my fear. My worries, my regrets… Oh, but this is a wonderful spot! The buildings, with their tall, rectangular windows and faded green shutters, and the balconies enclosed by iron spears, black as an oil slick. They’re barely wide enough to stand on, those balconies, but still. To live in one of those apartments… fabulous! Luxury beyond luxury. One day, baby. You and me. I watch the guitarist stand up and stretch and smoke his joint, before picking up his guitar and slowly sauntering off. Kinda bow-legged. He nods at a woman eating from a carton of stir-fry, bids her bon profit. She nods in acknowledgement and carries on, hoisting noodles and fried egg and spring onions into her mouth with chopsticks. Mm. I’m hungry.
It’s time to move on…”
Some days you’re just more open to the world around—more attuned to the melodies that play over the rhythm of your everyday routine. Why it happens, some days more than others, I don’t know. Quality of the coffee, maybe. The weather. A really good night’s sleep. Whatever the reason, it’s important to take advantage of those moments—those moments when your sense of wonder is heightened.
Every morning I write my pages. Anywhere I am—in the coffee shop, on the plane. Wherever. The other day I was at a school, doing some support, and having arrived an hour or so early, I sat down in the staffroom to do my pages. (I’m working a new short story, which I’m quite excited about, but I need to nail the ending, so I was hammering out some words and just playing around with different versions.) Anyway, about halfway down the page, three staff came in—all women—and started making coffee and chatting about their weekend. Whether or not they noticed me, sitting in the corner, I don’t know. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t care. Either way, they carried on their conversation, and as it turned out one of them had been to Ibiza for the weekend…
“So, how was it?”
“Oh, fantastic. No kids, just me and Chris.”
“Wow, I bet that was nice. Did you party all night long?”
“Yep. Lots of cocktails…”
“Ooh, I like Sex on the Beach…”
“Didn’t have any of those. Had a few mojitos, though.”
“Strawberry daiquiris—they’re my favourite…”
“Yep, had a couple of those.”
“Although, I went to this cocktail bar the other night in Milton Keynes called Turtle Bay, and it really put me off them, ‘cos they just didn’t know how to make ‘em properly…”
“Well, at this one place we went to they made us watermelon daiquiris.”[Cue both the other women basically having kittens.]
“Ooh, that’s a bit different…”
“Bet they were lush.”
At which point, all three now with their mugs of instant coffee in hand, drifted out of the staffroom, leaving me with a big grin on my face. Come on, I thought. That was amazing. You’ve got to get it down…
Writers are often encouraged to eavesdrop, as a means of developing their ear for dialogue. But really, who needs an excuse? Hearing a conversation like that just sets you up for a good day. Which it was: the boys in my writing group all managed to knock out a decent story (well, almost all of them… a half-decent one, anyway) and then, later, for some reason the girl at Pret gave me a free flat white and a discount on a cheese toastie!
So, there you go. Increased awareness. Watermelon daiquiris. And free coffee.
It’s all good.
“Underneath the orange trees I sit, in the grounds of the biblioteca. Shielded from the midday sun, by the branches of the trees—branches teeming with fruit. Bunches of three or four, clustered together, their bright orange peel mottled brown like the skin of a leopard. No way these oranges would make it onto the shelves of a British supermarket. No way! I’m not even sure they’re oranges. Perhaps they’re tangerines. Satsumas, or clementines, or something else entirely. Perhaps they’re apples. Why not? You can’t be too sure these days. You can’t be too sure of anything.
Underneath the orange trees I sit. I sit alone, but there are other people here. There’s a man, to my left, old and bald, in socks and sandals, with earphones in—the white ones you get with Apple products. I wonder what he’s listening to. Mozart? Or Megadeth? Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, perhaps, translated into Spanish. Over to my right there’s a woman, in a white blouse embroidered with flowers of pink and blue, leafing through papers in a plastic yellow file. Her face is hidden behind the trunk of one of the trees. I wonder what she looks like. I don’t want to know, though. I just want to imagine.
What’s this now? A small child—a toddler—escaped from her parents’ clutches, stands and stares at the fountain a few yards away. She points and smiles, the water dancing and twinkling in the sunlight. More people wander over, take photos on their phones. This toddler, in her pink shorts and little pink sunhat, she’s shown them. She has shown us all. Look, she says—and now I cannot stop. I sit and watch the fountain, spurting and splashing unendingly, the water overflowing and trickling down the sides of the stone bowl. I watch the sparrows come to drink. Dip their heads and tilt them back, and then fly off, chirping. A sign at the base of the fountain says that the water is not for drinking, nor swimming in, and one should not place fish or turtles in the fountain. It seems unlikely that anyone would do that, but I suppose they have to make sure.
It’s peaceful here, underneath the orange trees, like a pocket of tranquillity inside the chaos of the citadel. A place where people can sit and read, or sit and listen, or just sit. Everyone respects the norms here. The unwritten rules. Every so often, though, the peace is broken. Someone enters the grounds from behind me, comes bounding past, whooping and hollering. A guy with a mane of long black hair; his dog—unleashed—jumps into the fountain, and the man yells at the dog but carries on walking and the dog eventually follows him and then they’re gone. Out the other side. There’s always someone wants to disrupt things, bring attention to themselves. That’s okay, though. Perhaps one day I’ll be the crazy guy. Or the old man in the socks and the sandals. Or even the dog. Unleashed. Unbound. Free to roam, and jump into fountains, and chase the sparrows. Go up to strange women and lick their hands…
How long have I been here? Underneath the orange trees. The days go by so slow, and yet this trip will be over before I know it. Soon it’ll be time for me to go… though there’s nowhere I need to be. Just sit a little longer. Why not? This ain’t reality, but it’ll do for now.
Let’s get the ranting out of the way first, shall we?
Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe humanity is getting worse. Maybe both. I don’t know, but this year—more than any other—I’m finding my levels of irritation at the people who spend the whole time taking photos of the band—rather than actually watching and listening to the band—have reached an all-time high. Take this girl who rocks up during Mineral’s set on Thursday evening, stands right in front of me, and takes at least twenty shots of a band she’s probably never even heard of. And then just leaves. I mean, seriously. Why bother?
Another thing that really grinds my gears is how much people talk during the sets. Mostly Europeans, it has to be said, with Italians being the worst culprits. Yes, you speak a beautiful language and usually it’s a pleasure to listen to you parlare. And no, I’m not one for standing in complete silence for the entire performance, but if you don’t have any interest in what’s going on up there onstage, please: piss off and have your conversation elsewhere. By the bar, perhaps, or in that massive, empty expanse of land between the stages—anywhere, in fact, but right next to me, because I’m trying to dig on this guy’s music. This guy, who’s tearing it up like the bastard son of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Page, his name is Benjamin Booker: a Virginia-born rock ‘n’ roll wunderkind, whose attempts to get a round going during ‘L’il Liza Jane’ may fall disappointingly flat—“you guys can’t be cool all the time”—but whom nevertheless confirms his place on my list of this year’s essential acts.
But wait. Let’s back it up a sec. We’re at Primavera Sound. It’s a music festival, held in a huge, purpose-built leisure park just above the seafront in Barcelona. It is good. From the moment you pass through the turnstiles and saunter over toward the Ray-Ban stage, casting your eyes out over the horizon, where one impossible shade of blue meets another, you get a sense of being part of something special. This year marks the fifteenth edition of the event, and my fifth time attending. By the time it’s all over, I’ll be bordering on ecstatic. Why? Well, because for a start I’ll have seen Patti Smith. Twice. Once, performing her 1975 debut, Horses, in full, out on the main stage, and then again, inside the Auditori Rockdelux, where she will forget the lyrics to ‘A Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, but deliver a set of such raw beauty and righteous fury I won’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll have seen everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Sleaford Mods, Spiritualized, and Swans. I’ll have danced like a loon to Run The Jewels, stared in awe at Earthless’ guitar god, Isaiah Mitchell, and had my eardrums perforated by Sunn O))). I’ll have shed tears during José González’s set, and declared Fucked Up the best band I’ve ever seen… only to change my mind after Einstürzende Neubauten’s set an hour and a half later. I’ll have survived on a diet of Heineken, veggie burgers, coffee and Tex-Mex, and decided that The Strokes, The Black Keys and Interpol are all massively overrated. I’ll have missed the one band I really wanted to see—Battles—due to their performing on some stupid “hidden stage” for which you needed to purchase separate tickets. I’ll have soon forgotten about that though, along with a bunch of other, great moments… and so, before it all escapes into the mists of time, here are just a few of my highlights of Primavera Sound 2015…
1. José Gonzalez
“Well, it’s one thing to fall in love/ But it’s another to make it last…
Put your hand on your heart and tell me, it’s all over…”
So sings José González, on ‘Hand On Your Heart’. Well, José, as cheesy as it sounds, I can put my hand on my heart and say yours was a truly wonderful performance (Friday, Auditori Rockdelux). Your unmistakeable, haunting voice—fragile yet full-bodied—echoed all the way to the back where I was seated, bathing us all in the warmth of your wisdom as well as the pain of your suffering. I enjoyed every second of your sixty-minute set, which included a spine-tingling cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and—of course—your version of ‘Heartbeats’, by The Knife. It was your own material, however, that induced an unexpected spillage of eye-juice from this otherwise cynical hack: on ‘Walking Lightly’, you manage to turn a simple refrain into a profoundly moving mantra with guitar notes that shimmer like drops of summer rain. Excellent work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for taking children to festivals and exposing them to live music from a young age, but I’m not sure about making them sit through a set by Swans (Saturday, Auditori Rockdelux). And yet, lo and behold, as I settle into my seat down at the front, a quick glance to my right and there’s a woman sitting with a girl of about nine. A little boy, too. Woah! I mean, imagine trying to prepare them for it: “Well, sweetheart, you know those scary dreams you get—the ones you come into mummy and daddy’s room to escape, only to find us making strange noises from under the covers? Yes, well, it’ll be a bit like that. But louder. A lot louder. There’ll also be a guy with no shirt on playing the trombone and a huge gong—oh, and did I mention it’ll go on for over two hours?”
Of course, there’s every chance that little girl was Michael Gira’s own daughter, who sang on the band’s 2010 album… in which case I shall shut my mouth. Either way, heavy music doesn’t get much better than this. My God. There are many words to describe how you feel after leaving a Swans show: purged… liberated… cleansed… deaf. Most of all, however, you feel grateful—grateful that Michael Gira exists and is still making music of such bone-rattling power and savage emotion. Utterly astonishing.
3. Death From Above 1979
The big sexy beast that is Sebastien Grainger—singer and tub-thumper extraordinaire for Death From Above 1979—is dressed in a pair of white dungarees y nada más, by the looks of it. “We’re here to destroy your stages,” he announces, three songs into their set down on the Ray-Ban Stage (Friday). “I hope that’s okay…” The remarkably sizeable crowd indicates that that is very much okay by going a dozen different strains of doolally to the Canadian duo’s dirty bass riffs. It’s quite a sight to behold. Mind you, material from last year’s The Physical World still doesn’t sound a patch on the colossal cuts from You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine—especially ‘Romantic Rights’, which as an absolute choon.
4. The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger
One of the unwritten rules of Primavera Sound is that when a girl asks if you want to go with her and watch The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, you say yes. Even if you’ve no idea who they are, or what they sound like, or if you think their name is slightly preposterous. You just go. You go, and you watch and you get a bit drunk and you have a good time, because it turns out TGOASTT is Sean Lennon’s band (I think his dad was famous back in Sixties or something) and because the dude can shred, and because their swirling, psychedelic pop makes perfect sense in the baking sunshine on a Saturday evening in Barcelona.
5. Fucked Up
Did Fucked Up play this festival last year, or the one before? Were there always so many people in the band? Why hasn’t anyone noticed that Father Damian’s mic isn’t working? And how can a song whose chorus consists of a cry of “dying on the inside” sound so uplifting? These are just some of the questions that go though my head as I catch the last twenty minutes of the hardcore-progsters’ slot on the Pitchfork stage on Saturday evening. The answer to all the above is, of course, a massive “Who cares?” Especially after seeing Damian squat-walk across the stage with his shirt over his head, or hear him declare that he’s lost “like a hundred and twenty pounds over the last year” solely by smoking weed.
6. Einstürzende Neubauten
Einstürzende Neubauten not only have a name very few people can pronounce properly, they are, surely, the only group who’ve brought along a metal trough, filled it with strips of metal and suspended it above the back of the stage. Famed for creating and building their own instruments, and making use of all manner of industrial materials, Neubauten deliver, hands down, the most captivating set of the weekend—even the group of Italians next to me is silenced. Fifty-something frontman, Blixa Bargeld—resplendent in a three-piece suit of charcoal grey and no shoes—is a model of German stoicism and creepy, gothic attitude, veering between dark, softly-spoken monologues, and screams so high-pitched they almost defy belief; bassist Alex Hacke, meanwhile, is a dead ringer for forgotten Steve Coogan character, Tony Ferrino.
Earthless’ From The Ages, released back in 2013, is an album that’s never too far from my CD player: four tracks of mind-melting psych-jamming led by Isaiah Mitchell’s Hendrixian guitar shreddage, with a rhythm section that features Mike Eginton (Electric Nazarene) and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, OFF!). When first I take my place for the San Diegan trio’s midnight set on the adidas Originals stage, the audience comprises just a few savvy punters. By the time first track, ‘Uluru Rock’, is finished, the crowd has quadrupled in size—Mr Mitchell clearly being a modern day Pied Piper of Hamelin, drawing children from all corners of the park. The fact that some band called The Strokes is shambling through their headline slot at the other end may have something to do with it, but whatever led them to arrive here, no-one leaves Earthless feeling anything less than exultant.
I finish this year’s festival by treating myself to a taxi back into the city and walking up La Rambla back to my hostel. It’s three o’clock on Sunday morning, and this is when everything you’ve ever heard about Barcelona is happening, all at once. Police vans and handcuffed street thieves, Pakistanis selling cans of beer for one euro, leathered tourists from Russia, Spain and England, and hookers of all shapes and sizes, plying their wares on the corners of every carrer. Drunk, tired and elated, the dazzling light from the street-lamps that line the entire stretch rendering the whole scene a little more surreal, I smile, drinking it all in, feeling cool and invisible—right up until the moment someone makes a grab for my phone (or possibly my crotch) after which point, naturally, I pick up the pace slightly…
Buenas noches, Primavera! Until next time…
So, my old buddy Ben got hitched. Yep. He and Tahlia finally tied the knot, down in “sunny” Cornwall. It was beautiful, despite the rain. Best man’s duties fell to Jake (Ben’s bru), who is also one of my dearest friends, so I wasn’t at all miffed at missing out on that job. Besides, I really don’t think I could have delivered a speech quite as special as the one Jake did. Oh, boy. No, siree…
Why, I hear you cry? What happened? What made it so special? Well, first of all, he was nervous, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jake nervous about anything. He was so nervous, in fact, that he asked me to listen to him do a final read-through an hour before, upstairs, in his bedroom. With the door locked. At the end, he couldn’t quite get the words out without crying. I’ve never seen him cry before, either. I almost laughed. You’ll be fine, I lied, gave him a hug, and we went downstairs, back to the marquee and the one hundred and thirty-odd waiting guests.
Things started off fine. First, he read out some messages from people who couldn’t be there, and it was funny (“Hi Jake… Hm. Bit weird”). Then he began the main speech, talking about all the things he could mention about his old brother… but won’t. His shoes, his hair, his soul patch. There was even a toast to the soul patch. Again, very funny. After that he talked about all the jobs Ben had had over the years and how he’d basically been fired from them all and/or caused the companies to fold… and it was during this part that things started to go awry. Like, spectacularly. Because for some reason, he decided to turn the focus of the speech to himself, about how well his suit fitted, and how good his hair looked, and so on. He returned to these themes later, without warning, and he made jokes about his own jokes—the ones he’d just made—and commented on whether or not he thought they had worked. At one point he told a crying kid to shut up. (He claims he said “chill out”, but whatever). People didn’t really know what to make of it, which made it even funnier.
The whole time, I watched and listened from the back, loving every minute, like I was watching and listening to a member of my own family. Which I was. When he came to the serious part—a genuinely heartfelt tribute to his big brother, who had taught him to snowboard and helped him through some pretty tough times, but adding that he never takes life too seriously in spite of how tough things get—my heart soared, and I willed him on as he struggled to keep it together.
Afterwards, I couldn’t help but think: that’s how to do it. That’s how to deliver a wedding speech. Okay, so he ballsed up the ending a bit, repeated himself a couple of times, and went on for about twenty minutes too long, but for all its imperfections it was all absolutely glorious.
So, here’s to you Jakey. Good job. And congratulations once again to Ben and Tahlia. You guys rock.
It has been a while, eh? Yeah, well, I been busy. Weddings, marathons, general elections (all as an attendee and/or viewer, rather than a participant, I should add).
Mostly, though, I’ve been learning about gutter opera, with D. Foy. The whole experience has been fantastic, a lot of fun, and hugely, incredibly inspiring—and so the next few blogs I post will be either posts I wrote for that class, or pieces inspired by the assignments I was given. I hope you like them, and perhaps feel inspired to take D.’s class yourself.
Anyway, there are several things D. has been trying to get us to do during the course of this class. One was to compile a commonplace book, in which you store or make a record of all of your influences. (And by all of your influences, he means all of your influences. Doesn’t matter how random, weird, or seemingly irrelevant.) Another thing he encourages you to do is pay attention to the language around us. Again, by this, he means all of it. Everywhere…
Look around your immediate surroundings and note the myriad types of language you see (e.g., online, print magazines, books, advertisements, mailers, street directions, billboards, airline tickets, bus passes/transfers, take-out menus, and so forth, and so on). Do this often as you go through your day…
Sounds simple, right? It is, but try it and you might be amazed at the creative avenues it opens up.
Take for example, the other day, when I bought a packet of crisps [or “potato chips” for my American readers] and took them to the school where I teach, to eat at snack time. Before opening the packet, I read all the text—and there was a lot of it. Sheesh. Crisps aren’t just crisps anymore. Oh no. These had “BEST OF BRITISH POTATOES WITH ANGLESEY SEA SALT HAND COOKED CRISPS” written across the front of the packet, and then, underneath, “BRITISH POTATOES grown in HEREFORDSHIRE and specially selected for their quality. Our potatoes are thinly sliced with their skins on, HAND COOKED in small batches, and tumbled with sea salt from ANGLESEY to give a delicious and crispy snack.” (All upper casing and italics the manufacturers’ own).
Wow. Tumbled. I don’t think I’ve ever had crisps that have been “tumbled” in sea salt before.
And if I didn’t before, I really wanted to eat those crisps.
Then I opened the packet, and the first thing I saw was… yep. You guessed it. A purple crisp. And it totally threw me. In fact, the crisps were all different colours—red, purple, yellow. Que raro, I thought, but then almost immediately I had an idea for a story-prompt for the boys in my writing group.
The Purple Crisp.
Imagine you found a purple crisp in your bag. What would you do? Would you eat it? What might happen if you did? Etc., etc., and so on.
Anyway, I put it to them; they loved it, and off they went. Then a weird thing happened. While the boys were busy writing, I looked at the packet again and noticed that under all the blurb was an image of the Anglesey Sea, serene and blue under a cloud-streaked sky. I must have seen it before, but nothing registered. It was weird, because Anglesey was where I went last November, with a group of mates to commemorate my friend, Warren, who’d died the year before… And it was weird, because I suddenly started thinking about him, and all the stories I wanted to tell. Warren. AKA: Norm. A, er, how shall I say? Bit of a rogue. Yeah. And then some! Oh, boy. The stories I could tell you about Norm… Point is, just like that, there he was, in my thoughts. And I wanted to write about him.