Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Adrian Barnes

THE world has had a rough night. No one has slept. From China to Chelsea, India to Indiana, Austria to Australia, from sea to restless, insomniac sea - the whole world has been laying awake counting the hours till morning. And that's just day one of a global phenomenon that moves very quickly from a 'well, that was weird.' to full-blown psychosis. Imagine it: a sleepless world, a world without rest. That's going to be a world all fucked up big style in short order. And, actually, you don't have to imagine it, because Canadian writer Adrian Barnes already has in his terrific debut novel Nod.

This is a book with explosive narrative propulsion. Nod is not for the squeamish - not being able to sleep turns the mildest people into monsters (ask any parent of tiny sleepless babies)-  but it is also a book with huge heart as well as linguistic daring. The hero, Paul, is a one of the few Sleepers in this new world (a fact he very quickly learns to keep quiet) and is also a professional lover of words and everything from the title on resonates at a variety of levels (Nod - for instance, is the land where Cain fled after he was expelled for killing his brother). Of course Nod is a metaphor for the way the frenzied activity of mankind is mostly pointless, and often dangerous - but it's also a damn fine terrifying helter-skelter of a modern horror story. The sort of thing John Wyndham might appreciate, or HG Wells. And Adrian is coming over from British Columbia to promote Nod (a book I fully expect to cause stonking hard-ons in Hollywood film studios - it has 'potential blockbuster movie' written all over it) - and I asked him a few questions... And he is, I think you'll agree, a thoughtful, intelligent bloke. Now go and buy his book.

Can we have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words, please? (not 49, not 51...)

First poem, in grade one: "A mother's a mother/Skinny or fat/She shouts loud and long/All through the day/But I like her that way". Got a reaction and thought 'hmm'. From there it was Dr. Seuss then comic books then sci fi then punk rock then Dante then Dickens then NOD.

Where did the story for NOD come from? (are you an insomniac for example?)

Yes, I'm something of an amateur insomniac, which has given me time to reflect and consider how insomnia may well be the defining metaphor of our era and not just my own life. 

In what senses is Nod a Canadian book do you think?

I think Nod contains a trust in nature that's very Canadian. The problems in the book are all 'First World' as the kids say, and fairly universal, but the solutions are all out there waiting in the woods. Canadians love nature and even rely on it as a corrective to civilization. That confidence in nature stops Nod from going completely over the edge in terms of despair. I have a thousand kilometres of unbroken forest right behind my house. It's got my back.  

Nod possesses huge narrative propulsion, and it's also graphically violent at times. Did you surprise yourself in writing these scenes?

No. I pretty much just inhabit what I write and don't think about it too much, if that makes sense. I didn't realize Nod was so intense until others read the ms and said so. Odd because I've never written violently before and have no plans to do so again...but it is about an apocalypse, so no one can say it's gratuitous!

The hero of Nod loves words - indeed, he is a professional explorer of forgotten and ancient words. How far do you share his fascination?

On an amateur level. I teach English and will often stop a class for fifteen minutes and talk about the etymology of 'okay' or 'cool'. In the same way that metaphor adds depth to words, so too--I think--does knowing their histories.

What's the next project?

I've recently begun working on a comic novel titled "Dickensian" which is about a sort of post-modern uber-hipster who finds his life slowly transformed into a Dickensian orgy of the emotions.  

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire and why?

I admire people with the guts to tell the truth and not gussy life up too much. Most of my heroes were musicians when I was younger: John Lennon, Morrissey, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, even Paul Weller. Those who dug right through the bullshit around fame, which is a form of mental illness for most famous people--and for society as a whole. In a literary sense that translates into George Orwell, GB Shaw, Noam Chomsky, and Socrates. In a personal sense, my father's mother and my mother's father as well as both my parents, who've always striven to be honest people.

Anyone you despise? (and why?)

No one. I can't despise because I'm too despicable to be qualified. Ask Jesus or Buddha, maybe!

World getting better or worse?

Both. On the one hand, I judge society by how it treats the marginalized--and on that front we're way ahead of the Middle Ages: gay people can now often live freely and in some places openly; people with mental and physical challenges are increasingly welcomed into society; women are now, at least in our part of the world, mostly masters of their own fates. That's progress. On the other hand, our governments and corporations are nightmares and we're headed for a big fall unless--and I can't in good conscience put it another way--there's a revolution.

Tell me something I don't know...

Two things. 1. For every year a coke dealer gets sentenced to in the US a crack dealer gets 100 years. Yes, 100. 2. Barack Obama defines as 'enemy combatant' anyone within drone strike range of the 'terrorists' he unilaterally sentences to death each morning over coffee. That includes many, many women and children.

Nod is published by Bluemoose tomorrow (october 31)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Taxi for Emmerdale

I NEARLY laid down my life for Emmerdale. It's unlikely, absurd even - and entirely true. just a few weeks into my - very short - stint as a storyliner for the show (which is celebrating it's ruby anniversary with a live show even as I type!). I was mugged on my way to Leeds station. Two lads after my laptop, on which were copies of all the new storylines. If I lost them to these hooded weasels we would have to do them all again and the prospect was a horrific one. Clearly I wasn't going to go through all that again, so I shouted, I roared, I kicked out and most of all I kept a stubborn grip on the strap of my lap top bag.

I'm no hero. I'm not tough. But a middle-aged man needs very little excuse to go nuclear these days. Over 40, it needs almost nothing to send us off into a scary, volcanic murderous rage. Losing your glasses can do it, a dodgy mobile signal can do it, never mind a kid laying his ferrety fingers on your Lenovo. And in any case I think these boys were probably junkies and, as we well know, heroin is not a performing enhancing drug. Not for street fighting anyway - if you are recording A Kind of Blue or Exile On Main Street, it seem to work rather better.

So, the fight was a short one. And they ran off to ring their probation officers or whatever, to complain that the nasty shouty man wouldn't do the decent thing. And left me to have palpitations about how it could have turned out. A stanley knife in the guts, the family turning off the life support with me locked in by own body, and unable to tell them that I was still alive... and then the grave-stone. Here lies the grave of Stephen May... Died So The Sugdens and The Dingles might live.

Except that you don't know who the Sugdens and the Dingles are do you? Or, if you do, it's a distant folk memory like the way people who have no conscious knowledge of George Formby still somehow know the words to 'Leaning On a Lamp Post' or 'When I'm Cleaning Windows'.

During my time on Emmerdale I rarely met actual fans of the show (and I include the cast and crew here). In fact I rarely met anyone who admitted to watching it. I used to hear 'My mum watches it.' or, most hurtfully of all, I once got 'My Nan used to watch it.'

Which, to be fair, was more than I did. I can admit it now. But don't tell anyone.  The whole time I worked on Emmerdale I didn't watch a single episode. Not all the way through. I couldn't actually bear to. So it wasn't much wonder that my storylines weren't much cop. Amusing things for the old people to do with chutney, that was what I found myself tasked with. This is the TV soap equivalent of being made to clean the toilets with a toothbrush. Punishment detail.

But there was one storyline I - sort of - came up with. A big one. Now, it's possible that other people will claim this didn't happen. That I am suffering from false memory syndrome. That they came up with this story. They have their truth, and this is mine (to coin a phrase) and bear in mind the adage about success having many fathers while failure is an orphan. And it's true that in soap storyline writing you are often working in groups so the contribution of one individual is hard to measure. Except in this case. Because in the case of the Paddy\Chas story the authorship is - to my mind anyway - completely clear. It came from a Hebden Bridge taxi driver.

Now because you don't know who the fuck Paddy and Chas are (you're now singing When I'm cleaning windows and playing air ukulele) I'll tell you. Paddy Kirk (brilliantly played by Dominic Brunt. It is a strange fact that some of the actors on Emmerdale are amazing. Dom, Mark Charnock -the guy who plays Marlon and - especially - the guy who played Eli Dingle, whose name I forget.  And Jane Cox who plays Ma Dingle. All superb actors.) Paddy Kirk is the village vet. An amiable, good-hearted, permanently flustered oaf. Unlucky in love and a bit of a buffoon. Chas is the village vamp. A tart with a heart (Chas is short for Chastity. Ho and, indeed, ho.) Chas has chequered sexual history. The streets of Emmerdale are littered with the hearts she's broken... Nevertheless she walks in hope that one day her dark prince will come along. Someone who can tame her...

Anyway, one night on my way home from a hard day on chutney duty, I took a cab. I mentioned what I did and the taxi driver went into paroxysms of joy. She WAS a fan. She LOVED the show. In fact she loved it so much she knew what should happen... And what should happen was that Paddy - amiable idiot that he is should get entangled with Chas.

'Really?' I said

'Yes, really.' She said. And went on.  She told how Chas, fragile after her the wreckage of her latest doomed romance, will - one desperately lonely night - bestow on her favours on Paddy. And the scales will fall from her eyes and she'll see the honest virtues of Paddy are far better than the dubious charms of the self-absorbed shits she's been falling for up to now... Plain, good-hearted, sturdy yeoman Paddy he's the man. Paddy - sure his heart will be broken if he falls for Chas - resists. But she is determined. She woos and wins him and finally convinces Paddy that she's serious. That she loves him Goddamit. That the self-absorbed shits are a thing of the past, that it's only good-hearted vets for her from now on. Paddy has never been so happy. Except that... Chas can't help herself and, having reeled Paddy in, finds she still has a thing for Carl - the bad boy haulage company owner and her former partner. She has a for old times sake fling with Carl. And breaks Paddy's heart.

And which point she realises that it really IS Paddy she loves and has to work to win him back a second time and of course he's doubly watchful, doubly resistant... It's like one of those 19th century French novels. Like something out of Zola or Flaubert. And genius... And she succeeds 'And then they're an item for a long time' concludes the tax driver.

So the next morning I'm in to those offices on the Kirkstall Road and I'm saying 'You know what should happen? Paddy and.... Chas should happen.'

And they're all scoffing  'Really? Paddy and Chas... '

And I'm all 'Yes really...' And I begin to explain, just as the Hebden taxi driver explained it all to me. I was the girl with the golden straw, she was Rumpelstiltskin - and she didn't even want my first born daughter in return.

And that my friends is the story of how Paddy and Chas came to be. Other people will claim the credit, other people will tell you that it wasn't like that... but we - you and I - we know the truth...

Like we all know the rot set in when they stopped calling it Emmerdale Farm...

The First episode of Emmerdale Farm was broadcast Oct 16 1972. The same year Ziggy Stardust came out... 


Monday, 1 October 2012

Some sympathy please for Jeremy Forrest

So Jeremy Forrest is guilty of child abduction. He's got five and a half years. Juries are generally sensible and I haven't been following the court reports that closely - but here's something I wrote about it when the story first broke back in October...

A TEACHER I know asked her Year Ten class 'So what do you think of this Jeremy Forrest thing? You know the maths teacher guy who ran off to France with a student?' The response was instant and predictable.

'He's a paedo, miss!'

'He should be castrated, miss!'

And then she asked them if any of them had ever had crushes on teachers. After a pause, about eight raised their hands. My friend the teacher twitched an eye-brow. There was laughter, and another eight hands went up. Sixteen out of a class of 25 fifteen year olds. Makes you think.

And of course, this Jeremy Forrest, this man, this maths teacher, has stepped over a line. He has - whether consciously or not - abused the power relationship between student and faculty.More specifically, he has, in the words of another friend of mine, 'been a complete twit.'

But desire, love, makes twits of us all. Makes complete fucking arses of us all. Who hasn't made a dick of themselves because of desire? Who doesn't, even now, suddenly feel a hot rush of shame at the thought of something we did or said to the wrong person because love - or what we thought was love - had seized the driving wheel of our psyche.

Here's a sum - the average maths teacher teaches twenty classes a week. Most groups he will see three or four times in that week, so he's working with 100 different kids each year. In a ten year teaching career that is a thousand different pupils. In that time it would be staggering if a young, handsome, personable, clever teacher didn't collect a fair few admirers. Some of them passionate, some of them wily, several of them very beautiful and very smart themselves. No surprise that maybe with some of them he makes a real live adult connection. No surprise that feelings grow, especially if he's hired by the parents to give extra maths tuition. Especially if the school apparently turns a blind eye when he sits holding hands with the girl on the way back from a school trip to the States.

And of course, he shouldn't act on these feelings. Of course he should be responsible. And if he can't control himself,  he should be sacked, no question. But should he be in jail? Should he be branded a paedo? Should he be on the sex offenders register for life?

Interesting that he ran away to France, where the age of consent is fifteen. Where, in fact, he has committed no crime and where he and the student could, if they chose, live together openly and have children and lead an entirely respectable life. In five years time Monsieur and Madame Forrest could be on the PTA committee of their own kids' ecole.

I guess that won't happen though. I guess that he'll be destroyed and the relationship will fall apart pretty quickly - it almost certainly would have done anyway, but what relationship could withstand the pressure this one is getting now?

And I'm willing to bet that in ten years time Jeremy Forrest will still be avoiding the eyes of strangers, fearful that he'll be attacked as a nonce, while in another part of the world, over a few bottles of chilled Pinot Grigio, the girl might well  be telling this amazing story of how she once  ran off with her maths teacher. And after she's told it, most of her audience will chime in with stories of how they themselves once kissed their teacher, or almost did, or wanted to.

And, just in case, you were wondering, I was a teacher for ten years. And, no, nothing like this happened to me. Not really. But then I was already 30 when I became a teacher. And teenagers - with their rubbish music and their dodgy fashions and unformed opinions never really did it for me - but it is an occupational hazard and silly not to acknowledge that every now and again in a long career you might meet a sixth former for whom - if you weren't their teacher - you might have made an idiot of yourself over.

Women as well as men by the way. Just this week I had a conversation with another ex-colleague who told of a kid who had a crush on her, who was, in the end, expelled for various idiocies. 'And thank God he was.' she said. 'Because everyone in the staff room knew he had a  crush on me - and they all joked about it - but what they didn't know, was that I had one on him. He was 14.'

And my former colleague is the best teacher I've ever met.

Anyway, if you want to read more you should look at my novel TAG -- because one of the slightly annoying things about this whole Jeremy Forrest thing is that the two of them seem to have lifted chunks of my book to inform their escape plan...