New Website

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Hello everyone!

This blog has moved to http://www.50ayear.com/

It’s basically exactly the same – it was just about time I self-hosted.

It’s easy to subscribe to the new site, just enter your email address in the subscription box in the right-hand menu.

I do hope you’ll come with me (and see if I manage to complete the 50 a year challenge)!

What to look forward to on the new site:

  • The final instalments of ‘Footsteps’
  • More ‘Dear Andrew…’ postcards
  • A review of ‘The Devil’s Footprints‘ by John Burnside

– gildius –

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Footsteps, Part 3

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Read from the beginning here.
See all the parts here.

Footsteps, Part 3
January 2011

As Dougal stumbled out of the hotel into the piercing, horizontal light of early evening, the misplaced feeling in his stomach returned.  He ignored it.  Across the street a tall, red-brick tower reared up in front of him, catching the light in every window on one side and reflecting a myriad of suns.  Along the wide street there were more squat, brick buildings – evidence of an industrial past, renovated and polished for the neighbourhood’s twenty-first century manifestation as a centre of expensive artistic chic.  This was old New York made new – any mysterious, inherited memory of the place Dougal might have been hoping for had been removed, along with the erstwhile rotting beams and shattered windows.

The street was wide and, at this time, filled with impatiently hooting cars.  The light reflected off the windscreens so he could not see the people inside.  Up ahead was a crowded four-way intersection, with traffic lights suspended over the road and groups of people standing on the pavements, waiting for the illuminated man to instruct them to walk.  Dougal wanted to cross, but at the last moment he changed his mind and instead followed the street as it bent away to the right.  Now and again he looked back over his shoulder, memorising street signs and naked trees, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to help him find his way back to safety.

He scrutinised the faces of everybody who passed him.  Some bustled past importantly wearing trim suits, all straight lines and acute angles.  He imitated them by rolling back his shoulders, straightening his back and adopting a concentrated look; but they were all carrying their briefcases in the opposite direction, downtown, and before long his deliberate gait looked out of place in the faltering sunlight and outdoor cafés.

Dougal stopped at the window of an estate agency and examined the property advertisements.  At first he perused them leisurely, letting his eyes wander from picture to picture, but he soon began reading avidly.  He was on the brink of taking a pen from his pocket to note down the telephone number of the agency, when he saw a movement through the glass: a man caught his eye, smiled and began to get up from behind his desk.  Dougal smiled back but, inwardly panicking, he hurried around the corner.

The further he walked from the hotel and the more people he encountered, the less comfortable Dougal felt.  Everybody here seemed to know where they were going, while he was wandering aimlessly from block to block: the merciless layout of neat rectangles and straight roads felt like a deceptively simple labyrinth, designed to make him think he knew where he was going.  But it was the persistent feeling that he was in a foreign city that most distressed him – where was the sense of homecoming?  Why did nobody meet his eye, however briefly, in recognition that the Lynch family had returned?  He thought that perhaps they were all strangers to the city as well.

At the corner of an intersection Dougal came across a restaurant emitting enticing smells into the air of early evening.  Dark-green wooden panelling surrounded the square windows and cream-painted lettering boldly declared the establishment’s fat, round name: Bubby’s.  Hunger overwhelmed his melancholy, but he lingered outside for a moment, looking through the window at the people eating inside, trying to see what was on their plates.  An old man walked up the street, looked briefly at Dougal and went in.  A few seconds later Dougal pushed open the heavy, wooden door and was engulfed in a delicious wave of cooking smells that drew him deep into the belly of the restaurant.

*

When his plane had finally touched down at JFK International Airport, Dougal’s shrunken world had opened up again; horizons expanded and possibilities multiplied to infinity.  The images of death that had dogged him in the air dissolved the minute his feet touched solid ground.  Tragedy no longer breathed over his shoulder.  It returned to its rightful place, comfortably distant, stalking the heels of people he would never know.  Continents with connotations of suffering: Africa, the Middle East.

At the airport entrance he hailed a cab to the hotel.  The driver had a strong accent which he could not identify; he asked Dougal’s name and was delighted by the answer.  He told Dougal that he was descended from Irish immigrants and had always wanted to visit their homeland; he asked him about Ireland in penetrating detail, but his expression fell when Dougal told him he had only ever been there for short holidays, visiting distant family.  Nevertheless the man, whose name was Saul, was not disheartened and, no matter how unresponsive Dougal was, he did not stop talking for the entire journey.

From the driving seat Saul relentlessly narrated the history of some important landmarks in the city, including several points of interest relating to the Irish immigrants.  He pointed out the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; the Hunger Memorial and the city’s oldest public park.  They passed the World Trade Centre and a note of pride crept into Saul’s voice, as he talked about the vast wealth and power contained within the two towers.  Dougal’s first thought – which had been more of a fleeting longing in his gut, that he had instantly suppressed – was that he would feel proud of them too, if this were his country.

*

When he emerged from Bubby’s restaurant two hours later, Dougal was patting his swollen stomach and grinning stupidly, savouring the light haze induced by the two bottles of beer he had drunk.  He ambled at a slow, luxuriant pace and muttered reassuringly to himself.  How could he ever have expected to feel comfortable all at once?  He thought – no, he knew – that belonging was not an immediate thing; it takes time to adjust to being at home when you have been away from it for a long time.  Surely even the most self-assured people felt this way sometimes?  Tiny raindrops fluttered on his bare forearms, so he rolled down his sleeves.  Yes, this was where he was meant to be.  And if tomorrow’s meeting went well then all the better; it would be a definite sign that he was supposed to have come.  Not that he really believed in that sort of thing, of course, but he thought that perhaps just occasionally people should take some notice of coincidences.  The rain began to fall more heavily.

He passed the estate agency again and wrote down the telephone number on the back of his hand, but as he stood there he suddenly found himself submerged in the smothering deluge of a thunderstorm.  Dougal ran through the downpour.  Water streamed through his hair and into his eyes, splintered his vision and turned dull streetlights into long blades of light which reached from the ground to the sky.  Welts of water ricocheted off the skeletal structures of scaffolding and fire escapes with a hollow, metallic sound.  Shivering puddles reflected blurs of neon shop signs and illuminated window-displays, and broke into pieces under his feet.  The whole city seemed to be shattering.

The streets were transformed by the storm and the night, and Dougal almost ran past his hotel, but as he ducked under the awning for shelter he realised where he was and went inside.  Back in his room he towelled off; the number written on his hand had been smudged by the rain and was now an indecipherable blur.  He switched off the light, closed the curtains against the pounding rain and turned on the television; an old film was starting, which the continuity announcer described as a Hollywood classic.  Dougal had never seen it before.  Lying on the bed, half propped up with his head in his hand and a pillow under his elbow he read and reread his presentation notes.  As the characters on screen fell in love and were torn apart by circumstance, Dougal paced up and down the room gesturing and silently mouthing the words of his speech.  The movie ended with a tearful departure down a misty path and, with a final triumphant flourish, Dougal collapsed onto the bed and watched the credits roll lazily up the screen.

He turned off the television and checked the time – 23:10.  A perfectly acceptable American hour to go to bed.  There was no hurry to get up early: there would be time to go through his notes again over lunch and he felt it best to be fully refreshed for the afternoon.  The rain was still beating against the window, so he put in his ear plugs and found the eye mask they had given him on the plane.  Setting his alarm for eleven in the morning (embrace the new time zone, your life is measured differently now), he climbed under the tight covers and was asleep within minutes.  He did not know that jet lag can seep into the bones.

– gildius –

Read Part 4 here.

Signed Book: ‘The Burning’ – Thomas Legendre

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Thomas Legendre was the tutor for my MA Creative Writing course at Nottingham University. It was a new course, so I was one of the first three people to graduate from Nottingham with this Masters. Thomas was the only teacher – his classes were interesting, and he is very friendly and encouraging (having never let anyone read anything that I’d written before, I was quite nervous when I first had to submit a story!).

I bought and read his novel, ‘The Burning’, before I started the course. At the end of the year I went to my graduation ceremony, and then walked across campus in my gown and mortar board to get Thomas to sign the book.

As for the novel – I can, of course, highly recommend it!

http://thomaslegendre.com/

– gildius –

My Bristol library

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In less than two weeks I will finally be making the move from Truro to Bristol! I say finally – it feels like it has happened pretty quickly (we only found a house a week or so ago), but the idea has been rattling around for a while. I am so excited!

So now I’m in the long process of packing and deciding what to take – it’s a shared, rented house, so I don’t have space for all my stuff (and I have a LOT of stuff).

Perhaps the hardest part has been selecting the books. After much thought I have finally condensed my library to just a few shelves – some poetry, reference and short stories, but mainly novels. I don’t tend to re-read books, so I’ve essentially chosen the best books I haven’t read yet, but there a few in there I just can’t bear to do without.

I’ve also made a list of what I’m leaving behind, so I can come back for more if I want them – although I’m sure there’ll be plenty of bookshops in Bristol to keep me occupied! If you know of any hidden bookshop gems, I’d love to hear about them.

– gildius –

Dear Andrew…

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Boat Quay, Singapore
14th September 1963

Dear Andrew,
Thank you for your very good letter. I shall write postcards to you instead of letters so that you can see where I have been.
I am glad that you had such nice birthday presents, and Fireball XL5 has arrived at last.
I expect you are glad you are having art almost every day.
Let me know if you become a seconder.
Are you still helping Mummy?
All my love,
Daddy.
x

 See the full collection here.

– gildius –

Footsteps, Part 2

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Read the first part of the story here.

Footsteps, Part 2
January 2011

The day he had flown to America was a Monday – the second Monday of the new school term – and already the novelty of going back to school had worn off for the children.  That morning he and Niamh slept in by half an hour and when they went to the boys’ room they found them both already awake, cocooned rebelliously in their duvets, giggling at their parents’ confused faces and dishevelled hair.  It had taken a concerted joint effort to make hurried breakfasts, fill rucksacks and tumble them out the front door; but when Dougal finally saw them walking to the bus stop at the bottom of the road – a small figure holding the hand of a smaller one and kicking up a shower of golden leaves – he wanted to run after them and gather them into his arms.

Niamh and Dougal ate breakfast in silence, across the table from each other; then she wished him a good flight, kissed him efficiently on the cheek and left.  He spent the rest of the morning going through his presentation: he had written it weeks before but he revised it every day.  Now the pages were crumpled and covered in so many scribbled corrections that they were almost impossible to read.  He had tried several times to write up the presentation afresh, but he could not leave it alone and every copy eventually ended up as an unintelligible forest of ink.

He worked with the television on and muted.  The news came on; now and again he would glance up at the reporter’s look of accustomed concern, as she mouthed the headlines that scrolled along the bottom of the screen.  WARNING AGAINST ‘MIRACLE’ SLIMMING DRUGS ● AFGHAN OPPOSITION LEADER’S CONDITION UNCLEAR AFTER BOMB BLAST ● SPIELBERG’S ‘BAND OF BROTHERS’ RECEIVES MIXED CRITICAL REVIEWS AT PREMIERE.  He added his own headline to the list: SUCCESSFUL LYNCH DEAL OPENS UP PROMISING AMERICAN FUTURE.

Dougal imagined going into the office on Friday morning to a crowd of cheering colleagues.  Familiar faces would grin hearty congratulations, and the small team of programmers he had led for three years would surround him and pat him on the back.  At the end of the corridor, his boss would lean back in his chair and spread his arms wide.  “My friend, you have done great things this week!  You have pushed the boundaries of our company and proven yourself to be a valued and capable employee!  America has opened its doors to us and it’s all because of you!”  He would stand, come forward from behind his desk and shake Dougal’s hand.  He would enthusiastically wish him luck in his ventures across the Atlantic.  The fantasy always culminated there, in the jubilant office, skin to skin with his superior.

*

He had not enjoyed the flight, although he was able to appreciate that the world from above was, actually, quite beautiful.  London, long since behind him, had lost its sprawling awe as he ascended.  The exact height at which it had ceased to be a real city was unclear, but as the plane had banked and stretched its wings, he could only conceive of it as a million shards of broken glass on black linoleum, reflecting the light of a swinging, naked bulb overhead.  Still, throughout his seven airborne hours, he had not been able to shake off a strong sense of fear.  He tried to distract himself with his presentation, but the words had lost their meaning through repetition and his hands were shaking.  Instead every news report and documentary he had ever seen about plane crashes crowded into his mind – twisted wreckage burning vividly against patches of scorched grass and the placid, indifferent sky.

He hated how flying made everything feel so small.  In the plane his existence shrank to small packages of hot food, tiny cups of orange juice and the trivial little screen on the back of the seat in front of him.  The thick window pane forced on him a limited reflection of himself.  Air stewardesses trimmed the day into neat segments by punctually wheeling their trolleys up and down the aisle.  He could look out of his shrunken porthole at a wide expanse of uninterrupted cloud-tops, but he could not straighten his legs.

Only time was stretched and swollen by flying.  Seconds inflated and plodded along the aisle, visibly slowing the hands of his watch.  Time feasted in the plane, greedily fattening itself while everything around it shrivelled like burning paper.  Minutes dragged like hours, and hours warped into tedious lifetimes.  Dougal worried that he would disembark an aged man with withered legs, bent over, his frail beard brushing the runway.  When people looked into his eyes they would see an infinite stretch of impossible clouds filling his tiny skull.  He sat and waited and suffered his distorted claustrophobia, as the minutes crawled achingly by: human chaos measured against the rhythmic ticking of the clock.

Somewhere over the Atlantic the clouds parted and Dougal could see all the way down to the ocean.  The rumpled surface was scattered with flecks of snowy foam and the minuscule movements of the water made the whole vast body look like it was breathing.  He pressed his face against the window and the steam from his breath suffused the view with a dewy mistiness: water superimposed on water, masking the wheeling waves and heady depths of the sea.  He pictured the industrious steamship that must have carried his progenitors across this restless terrain.  Like him they had not known what they would find when the crossing was over, and their same anxious hope had travelled through the decades and thirty-five thousand feet into the air, to Dougal’s seat in the sky.

– gildius –

Read Part 3 here.

#12 ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ – Carol Birch

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The Book:

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

It took me a while to really get into this book. The first sentence – “I was born twice” – is a great hook into the story, but I wouldn’t say that I was engrossed at the start. Tracts of time are skipped over quickly, the threads of the plot hang together sometimes only tenuously. The saving grace was the language: sumptuously descriptive, it evokes Victorian London beautifully; especially the smells.

Jaffy, a street urchin, is saved from the mouth of a tiger by Mr Jamrach, who sells exotic animals captured abroad and brought back to his menagerie in London.  Jaf takes a job with Jamrach, and becomes friends with Tim, another boy working at the shop. When Tim embarks on a sea voyage to capture a dragon, Jaf goes with him. It’s interesting to read a book in which the main character is not the golden child. Tim is selected for the voyage and Jaf essentially tags along – the character whose voice we hear (and who we care for most) is not a Harry Potter-esque ‘chosen one’.

For me the book really begins at Chapter 7, with the capturing of the dragon. The pace quickens and the descriptions become almost addictively absorbing: “A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass…”. When the sailors take the dragon on board the ship, time becomes confused – thanks, in part, to the increasingly loopy Skip. Then disaster strikes, and it becomes all but impossible to stop reading.

I recommend reading from Chapter 9 to the end in one go, because this is the best writing in the entire book. It seems that this is the real story Carol Birch wants to tell and, while she may have sacrificed some quality in order to get to it, any faults I found with the earlier chapters cease to matter. The character of Dan is amazing; Skip is lucky to get away with as much as he does; but what happens between Jaf and Tim is all the more poignantly shocking because it is based on truth. I read this section in almost one sitting, and it sent me into that rare, trance-like state that only some writing is able to do.

Stick with this book. It’s fine at first, but keep going and it becomes a story you will be unlikely to forget.

“Every given moment a bubble that bursts. Step on, from one to the next, ever onwards, a rainbow of stepping stones, each bursting softly as your foot touches and passes on. Till one step finds only empty air. Till that step, live.”

The Background:

I saw this book first on a TV programme about Man Booker Prize nominees, and then kept seeing it in bookshops. The cover is beautiful – covered in little, shiny stars – and the title throws up images of tropical creatures and strangely exotic lands.

In fact, I don’t think the title is particularly fitting. Jamrach and the menagerie do not feature very heavily, and I think the presentation of the book doesn’t prepare you for what is inside. It’s a far, far darker story than the cover might have you believe. And somebody needs to do something about that dreadful tagline: “When you go in search of adventure, travel carefully…” It misses the point of the book entirely.

Not a book to judge by its cover, however pretty the cover might be.

– gildius –

Dear Andrew…

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7
Collyer Quay & Clifford Pier, Singapore
5th September 1963

Dear Andrew,
This is the view from the office where I am working. I am glad to hear from Mummy that you are being good.
In the house where I was visiting last night, there were little pale green lizards on the walls: three of them. When they move, they run very, very quickly. If one goes too near another, he grabs his tail, and it comes off. But in another few days it grows another tail.
All my love,
Dad.
x x x 

See the full collection here.

– gildius –

Footsteps, Part 1

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The first part of the first ‘free’ story I wrote for my Creative Writing MA. Reading it back, the metaphors seem quite heavy-handed in places (ah, hindsight!), but I’m resisting the urge to change them, and posting it as it was when I wrote it.

This, by the way, was the story’s third draft, following multiple discussions with my classmates. The first version should probably be burned.

Footsteps, Part 1
January 2011

Homesickness hollowed out Dougal’s stomach as he heard his wife’s voice over the line.  The sound of it had hardly been altered by the distance it travelled; with the receiver pressed to his face it retained the intimacy of a whisper in his ear.  But sometimes a shout across an impassable gorge can sound like a whisper to the person standing on the other side.  She asked about his flight and he gave a short reply; he wound the spiral of phone cord around his fingers as he spoke, listening to the crackles that interrupted her.  After a few seconds he realised that she had stopped talking.

He released the cable and sat upright.  “Sorry, what did you say?  Bad line.”

“It’s fine at my end,” she said.

“I went through my notes for tomorrow again.  I have a really good feeling about this meeting,” he said.

There was the sound of a little voice on the other end of the line, and a distant crash.  His wife spoke.  “Yes, I’ll get you some in a minute.  Would you like to talk to Daddy?”

“Niamh?  I don’t have time.  Tell the kids I love them.”

She sighed.  “Daddy has to go.  I’m sorry, he’s got a very important day tomorrow.”

“Bye Niamh, I love you.”

He heard the little voice again, followed by his wife’s, more distant this time: “Oh, sweetie, come here.”  She hung up.

Dougal lay back on the bed, his legs still dangling over the edge where he had been sitting.  The same bed, the same bedside table with the same telephone – for emergencies call 911 – even the same neutral painting on the wall, was replicated ad infinitum up and down the hallway.  The same hallway was repeated on every floor below (but not above, that was the realm of the penthouse).  He felt like a harmless bug in an elaborate matchbox; part of some merciful amateur entomologist’s collection.  Behind that numbered door, in the other country of his family’s history, he was blissfully alone.  Is there anywhere else on earth as perfectly isolated as a foreign hotel room?

He spread out his arms and let the receiver fall softly onto the pillow, where it lay emitting its absent dial tone.  His eyes closed themselves and he felt himself moving in the thick waves of approaching sleep; hours of sterile travel still lulling and rocking him after his body had stopped moving.  The fog wrapped around his brain, steeped in the clinging scent of London, lied that it was half past ten in the evening.  Prostrate on the anonymous bed Dougal could have surrendered to his exhaustion – he was on the brink of abandoning himself – but his suit was stale with travel-sweat and the growling from his stomach was audible.

In the shower the plug was blocked and the run-off from his body swilled around his ankles.  His legs were so heavy they felt as though they were carved from wood; he smiled as he pictured roots sprouting from his toes and cracking the bath.  He wondered how long it would take for the tendrils to grow, thicken and feel their way through the bathroom tiles and floors below, into the welcoming soil.  With slow movements he turned off the shower, dried himself and dressed in trousers and a thick shirt, to guard against the faint autumnal chill.  Beyond his window the new city beckoned.  The digital clock blinked – 18:30.  You’re in America now.

*

The day that Dougal’s boss had called him into his office had been the proudest of his working life.  His software – pioneering, the pride and joy of the company – would be taken abroad and perfected by an American giant, provided the September meeting went well.  Dougal would present at the meeting, with a view to establishing a lasting connection with America, where he would be needed in the New York office to assist with sales and development.  Sell your passion to the highest bidder.  He thought it a reasonable trade for a new life in the States.

He had hurried home to tell Niamh about his opportunity overseas.  They would all have to move out there; maybe he could go a few months before to find a house and make everything ready for their arrival.  The children were still young, they would easily adapt to a new school, and Niamh should be able to find a new teaching job without too much difficulty.  He was effusive with anticipation, and so excited that his tongue tripped over his torrent of words.

Niamh put down the knife she had been polishing and crossed her arms.  She steadily met his fervent gaze.

“You’re not seriously suggesting we move to America.”  It was not a question.

“Yes!  It’ll be brilliant for all of us, a real adventure.  And I’ve always wanted to find out about the American branch of my family.”

“Your grandfather left for a reason,” she said.

Dougal’s stomach turned over.

“What about Ireland?” she continued.  “We always said we’d move there, take the kids home.”  Dougal winced at the confidence with which she proclaimed Ireland their home.

“America could be their home.”  He looked out the window.  “It could be mine.”

She rolled her eyes; “Don’t romanticise it.”

Dougal felt like he was choking under the weight of words that he could not say.  Niamh would never understand: she was born and raised in Dublin; her identity was steadfastly rooted in her Irish history.  His forebears, unlike Niamh’s, had emigrated to America to escape the famine; his grandfather had then moved to London with his American wife in the twenties and, shortly after, his father was born.  To Dougal, England had always seemed to be a temporary home, yet he felt as tied to Ireland as a balloon on the end of a long and tenuous string.  Secretly he had always pinned his hopes on America, as the place where he would at last feel truly connected to his ancestral past.  Its shape in the atlas was comfortably familiar to him, like the photographs of dead relatives he had never met, whose faces bore unsettling similarities to his own.  Since the meeting with his boss it had felt like the fates were conspiring, at last, to take him home.

“Well,” he said, “if the meeting doesn’t work out there won’t even be the chance to move out there.”

Niamh nodded and continued to polish the silver.

– gildius –

Read Part Two here.

Dear Andrew…

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One of my best finds in an auction was a box of postcards. They were all written on and, among them, I rooted out a collection of cards from 1963-4. They were sent by a man to his family, as he travelled around Asia, Australia and New Zealand for six months. They were numbered, so I know I don’t have them all, but they make for quite a sweet story.

This is the first one sent, I assume, to his wife. Most of the later ones are addressed to his two sons, Andrew and Alastair.

2
1st September 1963, 7:45pm
Istanbul, Turkey

Darling,
Arrived here 5.30 p.m. Your time, 7.30 p.m. Here: temperature 72
ᴼF – don’t you wish you were with me.
All the Turkish curios seem to be very expensive – these postcards cost 1/- each.
I shall think of you putting Alastair to bed, when we take off again in about half an hour. Hope Andrew has a good birthday.
All love to all
Tom

See the full collection here.

– gildius –