Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Direction of Our Fear

On BBC television news this morning, the awful memories of a survivor of Auschwitz - a child of fourteen when he entered the camp - moved me to tears. His harrowing description of a Nazi officer standing at the head of a line making cold decisions of left or right, life or death, was somehow awfully familiar. And then I remembered why. Some years ago I wrote a short story for a competition. The subject had to be 'fear'. My entry, written after a considerable amount of disturbing research was called The Direction of Our Fear. It has been published twice in print *, but never before online. The significance of today's date suggested now might be an appropriate time. I hope you agree but please forgive me if you consider I'm wrong. If you have time to read my story, I think you will realise why this morning's testimony gave me cold shivers. Please be advised, this short piece pulls no punches and could cause offence to some people.

The Direction of Our Fear

On February 7th 1979, Wolfgang Gerhard went swimming. Witnesses reported that he had entered the sea in some haste from the beach at Bertiog, a near Embu das Artes, Brazil.
His corpse made landfall further down the coast, bewildered horror frozen in its eyes.
Forgive me. I must explain. We had entertained Herr Gerhard every night for years. Our theatre served to aid his failing memory, for we could not permit our subject to forget.
In youth Wolfgang Gerhard showed great potential. He achieved a doctorate in philosophy at Munich and in medicine at Frankfurt. Early in World War Two he was a hero, saving the lives of comrades under fire, and then power corrupted his mind and dark ideas seduced his soul. Some generous folk say he was an aberration, a simple anomaly in facets of personality common to us all. But you must judge for yourselves. Come back with us.
The lights grow dim. Herr Gerhard's entertainment is about to start.
'Come, Doctor, take my hand. It is time to revisit your achievements.'
Wolfgang Gerhard rolls his eyes as if seeking escape, but there is none. He grunts in futile protest. His heavy eyelids droop.
The monster with film star looks stands frigid, his green uniform pressed, his black-peaked cap set at a rakish angle. He waves a baton as if conducting an orchestra, or directing traffic in a Berlin street. To the left he swings his white-gloved hand, then to the right. He is whistling as he conducts lives that shuffle to the crossroads of kismet, the junction with his power. Breathing snatches of Wagner he directs their fate, employing dark criteria known to him alone, to the right, to the left, to death, to life. Such life, for which some show relief, may yet make death seem kinder.
A woman pleads for her child, designated to the alternate stream. A polished Luger pistol rises in a white-gloved hand and two sharp shots settle the matter, leaving two spare appointments.
The conductor tosses the soiled pistol to an underling.
'Zwillinge? Zwillinge?' SS guards move among the lines, seeking twins for purposes only their master understands.
For the first time since they herded us aboard that train I can feel Mother's fear. She grips my brother and me, pulling us close to her emaciated body. Father is wracked with fits of guttural coughing but insists that he feels neither cold nor hunger. He moves to the front. The line slows. A command, 'Schnell!' rings out and the baton waves to the conductor's right. Father vanishes in the crush, leaving Mother softly sobbing.
A pair of polished jackboots stands before our down-turned eyes.
'What are you hiding?'
The crush has lessened. We are the focus of his attention. Fingers in a spotless linen glove pass beneath my chin; lift my face toward his. The eyes are dark, the skin swarthy, gypsy-like. The mouth forms a smile, which the eyes do not join.
'Twins?' he says, voice lifting with anticipation.
Mother gasps, 'Is "twins" good?'
'Yes, "twins" is good,' he says, staring for too long at my brother.
'You can help your uncle with his medical research. Take them.' Rough hands snatch us. Mother screams.
'Be silent, Mother. Please. For all our sakes, be silent,' I shout, too late. His face betrays irritation. He gestures to the underling cradling his pistol.
The gun is in the good doctor's hand, aimed at Mother's head. A pure white finger tightens on the trigger. The gun emits a sharp metallic click. He laughs. 'Take away this shit,' he screams, sighs, and resumes directing lives.
Oh, how hard you must have worked, Doctor, in less than two years to conduct four hundred thousand souls - such dedication. Three thousand twin children, fifteen hundred pairs like my brother and me.
How to list your achievements? Where to start?
Your own clear vision said blue eyes were good. In our eyes, dye injections always failed. Often they resulted in mere blindness, though sometimes, inconveniently, death.
Once dead, you dissected us with care and pinned our eyeballs to your office wall. We watched the doctor at his tireless toil.
If too small, or sick, or when we’d served your scientific purpose, you cast out our worthless frames; deloused your Aryan world of infestation. When insecticide ran out, you set light to fuel-filled trenches. By lorry load, the living with the dead, they tipped us in, those brave SS with poles who barred escape from one hell to another.
How proud you must be: you and your kind.
'Do you remember this, Doctor? Do you still believe you were supermen as Friedrich Nietzsche taught you?'
He slavers into his moustache, muttering.
'Look, Doctor, look here, at my wrist.'
The rheumy eyes stare at everything except my arm. But I can wait. What is time to me? Then, as they must, his eyes converge on that dark number. He shudders.
'Yes, you see it, your special mark for twins.'
The wizened mouth forms a clear but soundless plea.
'What was that? Forgive you?' I smile at his naivety. 'I did that long ago. My forgiveness set me free. I am here not for myself, but for my brother and for all the others who cannot or will not forgive.
'Come now, Doctor, you are a cultured person. You appreciate the music of Richard Wagner; you have read the works of Goethe. You were once a spiritual man, brought up in the Catholic faith. You surely know that there’s a price to pay? Keep in mind that other doctor, Johann Faustus.'
I summon up my multitude: suffering souls from space and time, from then and now and days to come. A fitting chorus for my closing act.
He covers his ears in a futile attempt to silence the cacophony of wailing spirits. His aged eyes dilate with hatred turning now to fear. He scans the open beach and empty sky. 'Why do you torment me so? Who are you?'
'Through the ages men have named me Adrasteia or Rhamnusia. Some have termed me Nemesis. But, Mortal, you may call me Legion for to you I am Every Child, in whose names I bestow Hell and endless torment. Such hubris, Doctor; you usurp my fame. For I am the Angel of Death.'
Wolfgang Gerhard gasps, staggers and begins to run. Slapping flat foot fast across the beach, eyes wild, hands thrown skyward, he pitches headlong screaming into the waves.
According to news reports in June 1985, forensic examination of human remains from the grave of Wolfgang Gerhard at a cemetery in Embu das Artes, Brazil, proved they were in fact those of Josef Mengele. Although exactly why the chronically unfit sixty-nine year old Nazi should have gone swimming remained unclear.
In 1990, a Baptist missionary set up a home for orphaned or abandoned children in Embu das Artes, Brazil.

We must travel in the direction of our fear.
John Berryman – poet

The Direction of Our Fear was published by the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers as Editor's Choice in their 'Ghostlight' magazine, 2010, and again by Verulam Writers' Circle in their anthology The Archangel and the White Hart, edited by Jonathan Pinnock, in 2011.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hit or Miss?

Guys, something happened this week that's bothering me and I really need your input. I think we can probably agree that none of us knows how others see us, yes? Or, to lapse for a moment into a dialect we're going to hear a deal more of in coming days: "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

Look, I have no hair – not by choice, you understand, it's the genes – and I do work out hard at the gym, regularly, so I could sort of understand if people who don't know what a pussycat I really am might – very briefly and in a bad light – mistake me for someone a 'bit handy'. But, last Thursday, I'm minding my own business in ASDA, clinging on to a shopping trolley while the little woman investigates another aisle, when this geezer swishes silently up to me on one of those Shopmobility scooters and whispers, out of the corner of his mouth, like in bad B movies: “You look the type. I’m looking for a hit man.”

OK, I’m a writer, I make things up, but this is true. Of course I made light of it, hoping he was simply someone with an even more bizarre sense of humour than my own (difficult to imagine), or perhaps a harmless eccentric. With fingers crossed I smiled, what I hoped was a none-hit-man-like humouring smile, and hoped my wife would arrive soon to save me. But before Freda could arrive, the hit-man-seeker’s own trouble and strife turned up with her trolley giving the poor sod such a humiliating ear-bending that I almost felt like taking the commission.

What would he have done if I’d said yes? How much would he have been prepared to pay? I don’t know, but I have a feeling… It was that pleading betrayed look he gave me every time our eyes met as he dogged the footsteps of his shrewish spouse down other aisles.

So, my question is, given that most of my friends online are probably writers, editors, and publishers or in some other way connected with the literary world: Guys, you know how hard it is to make a living as a writer. Do you think there's an alternative income stream for me here?

Please, I'm only after friendly advice, not potential targets. You know how little sense of humour the Security Services have.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

EXTRA! Successful Author Exposed as Fraud

Hello again. I know, just as it seemed safe to re-enter the water blogosphere I'm back to threaten your sanity with a post. Apologies, but another chance to interview my chum Jonathan Pinnock was too good to an opportunity to miss. So I'm levering the 'dangerous structure' signs from the door and brushing away the cobwebs for the first time in months.

IttTL: Hi, Jon. Welcome back to my scruffy crash pad. We're out of milk and coffee, I'm afraid, so I hope black tea's OK? The tea bags are behind you, drying on the radiator. Oh, and the jammy dodgers are a bit soft, but you'll find the furry stuff comes off if you wipe them with your sleeve. It could have come from my sleeve, of course…

JP: Nice to see things haven’t changed. I’ll just have a glass of water, please. Boiled.
IttTL: Right-you-are. Water, boiled and cooled, coming right up, sir! Jon, it is public knowledge that your hilarious Jane Austen mash-up, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, published by Proxima in 2011, was pretty weird stuff. In fairness, that publication marked the cards of your readers and set the benchmark for your Scott Prize-winning collection Dot Dash, published by Salt in 2012. But your latest opus, Take It Cool, has zoomed out of left field even for those countless loyal fans expecting, indeed relishing the unexpected from you.

For the benefit of the few fans remaining unaware, Take it Cool, published by Two Ravens Press is a true-life account of your search for a West Indian reggae musician bearing the same unusual surname as you.

Was this project a long-planned change of direction or–– how can I put this? ––an itch you simply had to scratch?

 JP: The truth is that I started work on TiC some time before I actually got published in any shape or form, back in 2005. It always seemed like a story worth telling, although it took me a long, long time to work out how to tell it. Writing a novel (even one like Mrs Darcy) and all those short stories were extremely valuable in helping me solve that problem. So yes, it’s a bit of a change of direction, but it’s one that builds on everything I’ve done before.

IttTl: Reviewers have described Take it Cool variously as genealogical, musicological, historical and even 'a British man's odd quest.' Each of these descriptions seems to touch on aspects of your book but none truly does it justice. Is there an existing term that accurately describes Take it Cool, or will the world have to invent one?

JP: TiC is one of those books that refuses to fit in any particular pigeonhole. It’s pretty much sui generis. This suits me fine, but it’s a nightmare from a marketing point of view. What’s nice is that the genealogists (at least the one who reviews books at Family Tree Magazine) seem to get it from their angle, although I’m still waiting to see if anyone in the music press takes an interest. What I really want to shout from the rooftops is ‘Look, FORGET ABOUT $£@%^& CATEGORIES, this is a book you’ll ENJOY. Just trust me and TRY it.’ However, last time I tried doing that, I got arrested for causing a breach of the peace.

IttTL: Sui generis? That phrase must be one of a kind. I usually discourage the use of suspect language on this blog, and clambering about on the roof poses safety issues for the landlord, but I digress… In your quest for a connection between your own family history and that of Dennis Pinnock, the trail took you to 18th century Jamaica. When did the possibility of a slavery connection occur to you, and how did you feel when it did?

JP: No question about it, that was the point at which the project took flight. Up until then, it was going to be the story of me trying to track down this obscure singer, with a vague sideplot of me trying to find out how we were related. It really wasn’t much to build a book around. However, once slavery raised its ugly warty head, there was a whole new dimension to explore. There was always the risk, of course, that I might end up implicating myself (or at least a contributor to my genes), but it seemed worth taking.

IttTL: It seems to me that your eclectic musical tastes, your confessed magpie collecting tendencies – having discovered Dennis' career and discography – and a growing admiration for Dennis as your researches progressed have coalesced in Take it Cool to produce a unique bond across time, race and culture. So, it must have been quite a moment when you finally came face to face with Dennis. Can you describe that meeting in a few words?

JP: I’ve no idea what he made of me, but I liked him a lot. He was very unassuming, but also keen to talk about his career and his music, and the conversation didn’t flag for a moment. This was true of the other guys I interviewed as well, Paul ‘Snoopy’ Nagle and Tex Johnson. What was really nice, and quite unexpected, was that they all took my quest at face value and didn’t think I was some kind of idiot. In many ways, this was the best validation of the project.

IttTL: In Take it Cool you make great show of being uncool. In this respect, sir, you are a fraud. Take it Cool has done what it says on the label: it has taken you, Jonathan Pinnock, cool. How can a white British guy whose book has received a warm and enthusiastic review on itzcarribean.com, not to mention a prize book giveaway on that same coolest of websites, continue to claim un-coolness? 

JP: I’m not sure you can ever truly shake off un-coolness. You either are or you aren’t, and I’m most definitely not. However, if the book ever does get reviewed in the music press, I may have cause to re-evaluate this.

IttTL: Indeed you should, Mr Cool – sorry – Jon (for now). You're not a man who stands still for long. So, what are likely to be the next challenges you'll be taking on?

JP: That’s a very good question. As ever, there’s a whole load of things I’d like to do, almost none of which will actually make it beyond the first 1000 words or so before they self-destruct. For example, having had one stab at narrative non-fiction, there are now half a dozen other similar projects I quite fancy having a bash at. But I’d also like to go back to fiction, although exactly what form that’s likely to take, I have no idea. I’ve recently enrolled for the Creative Writing MA Programme at Bath Spa, so I’m hoping that will help me decide what I should be doing.

IttTL: Best of luck with sales of Take it Cool, Jon, your MA, and with all your future undertakings. Thanks for dropping by.

Jonathan Pinnock blogs at jonathanpinnock.com, an address in cyberspace that rewards the visitor with a miscellany of literary goodies; here you'll find links to Jon's eclectic back catalogue plus abundant evidence of his polymath skillset.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What could possibly enhance this image?

Today The Independent reported the death of Glenn McDuffie, aged 86. That name probably won't mean much to you, but it's a fair bet that you will recognise the man behind it. 

You see, Glenn was the sailor in this famous photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaed on August 14th 1945, in Time Square, New York. Over the years it has become a symbol of the joy experienced at the end of the Second World War. I can add nothing to the raw human emotion recorded in this amazing image, but I believe the work of a friend of mine may just do that.

Please, if possible, turn off any noise around you, sit, and allow yourself three minutes and fifteen seconds to listen to Donna Gagnon reading The Kiss.

Rest in peace, Glenn McDuffie, you have a very special place in human history.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

On Writing: In audio, the pictures are better (discuss?)

Do you recognise good writing when you hear it?
The Verulam Writers' Circle Crystal Decanter and Gnome de Plume

We can probably agree that good writing is good writing, whatever the genre or subject of that writing, and we can probably also agree that we recognise good writing when we see it. But what about when we hear it? If we're listening to writing that's from a genre or is about a subject that has little attraction to us – best intentions notwithstanding – do we listen as carefully?

I am fortunate in belonging to an excellent writers' group, Verulam Writer's Circle (VWC), where we have regular manuscript evenings at which our members read their work aloud and receive critique. Over time it has become clear to me that some people are far better at retaining, analysing and critiquing orally delivered work than others. I for one am very poor at this, and – although I enjoy the readings – prefer to analyse work from the screen or printed page. Of course there must be many factors that influence this, including the confidence and projection skills of the reader and the acuity of the listener's hearing. The factor I'm interested in here, however, is the writer's ability gain interest – to hook the listener's attention – by creating 'pictures' in the mind.

At one recent VWC manuscript evening I was delighted to have my drifting attention lensed into sharp focus by passages in two different pieces, each by a different writer, both of which performed that magical trick of forming clear, colourful, images in my mind. From that point, but regrettably only from that point, both readers had my effortless attention: the operative word being 'effortless'. The message from this is, I guess, that if we writers can get those 'visual effect' moments in the right places in our work, we are in with a chance of winning-over listeners – and therefore, I would assume, readers/editors/publishers – who might not otherwise give our work their best attention.

Fair enough, but how to achieve such images? I really can't say. In my view those pictures in the mind are not achieved, as some people might think, by simply mentioning colours, textures aromas etc., by their bald names, or even by complex similes or metaphors, because among the few 'rules' I do believe in are: Less is more and Show, don't tell. All I can say for certain is that when those visuals work the effect is truly magical. 

What I would like to know most of all is: Given that [truism alert] it is impossible to read your own work for the first time – any more than you can tickle yourself – is it possible to know you've successfully achieved 'the visual effect' as you write and, if so, how?

If you know an answer to that final question, I'd be extremely grateful to hear from you because it's not a secret I've learned.

Thank you for kindly visiting my blog. Do help yourselves to virtual tea and biccys, but please shut the fridge door and turn out the lights out when you leave. Call again when you've time.

Good writing!


Saturday, 23 November 2013

An Appointment with The Doctor

Half a lifetime ago, in 1980 to be precise, a small Hertfordshire community service organisation called Bushey and Oxhey Round Table (BORT) received a visit from Doctor Who.

Tom Baker had been The Doctor since 1974 and was not in the habit of condescending to lesser planets let alone to a provincial Donkey Derby, but BORT had a reputation for punching above its weight, and somebody in BORT knew somebody very near the top in BBC Enterprises. So The Doctor came to our fund-raising event, complete with the pukka Tardis.

For the purpose of publicity stunts, we also acquired a number of other genuine Doctor Who props and costumes : a Dalek and a round headed monster whose name escapes me, plus a generic Time Lord outfit, which is why the young fellow in the picture - as BORT chairman - got to be a Time Lord for a day.

To be quite honest I got the impression that Mr Baker – surrounded by his BBC minders (not Dennis Waterman, the real thing) – was not best pleased to be dragged around a Donkey Derby. In the event he did a stalwart job. Great fun was had and lots of money raised for charity.

The very next year, 1981, Doctor Who regenerated again: enter Peter Davison. I do hope it wasn't anything I did.

BREAKING NEWS: So Tom Baker has another place in the 50 years of Who history – The Curator.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Can a Voice Change Your Life?

Freda, the real love of my life (in case of misunderstanding)
I'd like to share with you something I've never experienced before. It happened yesterday morning driving home from the gym when I switched on the car radio, which was tuned to BBC Radio 4, a programme called 'Don't Log Off'. I fell in love with a woman, Jenny,  talking about her life in the outback of Australia.

I arrived home and sat in my garage for the final ten minutes of the broadcast, listening to this serene, beautiful, voice full of humanity, with a deceptively light-sounding but truly profound life-philosophy encapsulating the way she dealt with - is dealing with - personal tragedy.

Besides the content of what Jenny says, there's something about the direct, uncluttered, way she uses language without artifice. It's like natural, flowing, poetry – or perhaps that response is personal to me - I'd be pleased to know if her words affect you this way as well.

I learned a surprising amount about Australia and Australian history from Jenny, too.

So why not treat yourself to a quiet half hour - trust me, it must be quiet - maybe pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, close your eyes, and listen - and perhaps fall a little in love. You won't regret it.

(There's a short intro first) BBC Radio4 - Don't Log Off, 22 May 13: A Tale from the Bush

Do turn out the lights and close the door as you leave the blog.

Bye for now.

Thanks for visiting.