GUEST BLOG POST BY
When I sign copies of my books, I inscribe them with the line “rock ‘n’ roll saves lives” because it saved mine.
Backtrack to 1984 and my lost nineteen-year-old self. I had been a promising long distance runner in my youth, but my athletic dreams took a nosedive when I struggled to succeed at the next level. I quit my nationally-ranked university team and compensated by drinking heavily, often with the aid of Valium, which had been prescribed to me for anxiety issues. With running out of the picture I lost my identity. I did have music, however. I had always loved rock ‘n’ roll as a kid and with sports out of my life, I became obsessed with the punk and new wave scene, especially artists from the UK like Echo and The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs and The Cure. My fervor grew to the point where I pleaded with my parents to let me study abroad. My grades were not strong enough for the London School of Economics, but I did get accepted into the University of Essex in Wivenhoe Park, which borders Colchester, an old Roman town about an hour’s train ride from Liverpool Street Station in London.
The year spent at the University of Essex inspired my first novel Wivenhoe Park, which was first published in 2013. I was lucky enough to experience firsthand the rise of The Jesus and Mary Chain, who remain my all-time favorite band and forge friendships that still exist to this day. I remain close to my best friend at the time, Marc, who inspired the Johnny character. People often ask me why it took so long to write an eighties coming of age tale. Like the novel’s protagonist Drew, my dream was to become a music critic. For the next few decades I published several fanzines and contributed to renowned magazines such as The Big Takeover, Skyscraper and Alternative Press. During this time, I also worked for a record label in Los Angeles and started my own, Elephant Stone Records. So, what triggered my journey into writing fiction?
In the back of my mind I had always loved coming-of-age tales from an outsider’s perspective. As a youngster I loved The Outsiders; Catcher in the Rye; Less Than Zero; and Bright Lights, Big City. Later in life, Kevin Sampson’s Awaydays had a huge impact on me. In 2012, my wife and I were in New Orleans with her mother-in-law Ellendea Proffer, who is an accomplished academic with a MacArthur genius award to her name. At this time, I was in a creative funk as the music industry had changed so much that my record label had been relegated to side hustle status and I had been sucked into a corporate day gig. Writing came up in the discussion and I remember telling Ellendea that I had always wanted to write a novel. She said, then why don’t you? Some four months later I completed the first draft of Wivenhoe Park, which a publisher friend loved. Almost a year to the day after that lunch in New Orleans, Wivenhoe Park was in print.
The idea of a sequel and, possibly, a trilogy floated in my mind as I was writing Wivenhoe Park and it came to fruition when I started outlining ideas for my 2015 novel Heartworm. Set ten years after Wivenhoe Park, Heartworm is a comedown novel. If Wivenhoe Park was my Psychocandy, celebrating the mad rush of youth, Heartworm is most definitely Darklands. What worked for Drew in 1985 is most definitely not clicking ten-years later as our protagonist supports a less-than-glamourous writing ‘career’ with dead-end office work, burying memories of his ex-wife with drugs and alcohol.
Heartworm is about Drew coping with rejection in his life and it was in fact inspired by rejection. The novel was initially pitched to Bloomsbury Press for their 33 1/3 series of books inspired by classic albums. Heartworm is also the title of the acclaimed 1995 album by Dublin’s Whipping Boy, a record with cult status in Ireland, one that has topped artists such as U2, The Undertones and Van Morrison in Irish music polls. While most books in the 33 1/3 are dry music criticism, several, namely Joe Pernice’s Meat Is Murder and John Niven’s Music From Big Pink are first-rate rock ‘n’ roll fiction inspired by the music and times of their subject matter. Heartworm the album was a lifesaver for me when I was going through my divorce in 1995. Like Drew, I had lived in Ireland and I wanted to capture the vibe of mid-Nineties Dublin and the angst of the Whipping Boy album, which paralleled what was going on inside me. When my Heartworm didn’t make the cut, it lit a fire inside me to say, fuck it, I’ll show them! As the famous Whipping Boy single from the album proclaimed, ‘We don’t need nobody else’.
The forthcoming Sunset Trip on Obliterati Press is Drew’s hope for redemption. The story begins in 1999 with Drew two-years sober, trying to stay afloat at a soul-crushing investor relations gig in Boston. Circumstances lead him to a record label job in Los Angeles. Will he stay above water or sink into a rock ‘n’ roll heart of darkness?
Writing this final chapter was a therapeutic experience for me. Just after the release of Heartworm I learned that I had a congenital heart condition and that if I did not have surgery, I would only have a year or two to live. On top of that, two friends in their mid-forties passed away in part from heart-related conditions. One before the surgery, one soon after. This triggered me to give up drinking, which at various stages in my life was quite problematic. I wasn’t comfortable with AA, which has worked for some of my rock ‘n’ roll friends, but I saw a counselor who specializes in drug and alcohol addiction for six months.
I have been alcohol sober for twenty months now and sobriety has changed my writing process. Wivenhoe Park and Heartworm were written on a steady diet of red wine and Benadryl while Sunset Trip was completed on a course of Moroccan mint tea and cannabis. The later doesn’t trigger me and was in fact recommended to me by my counselor who helped me kick drink. Speaking of Morocco, a visit to Marrakesh inspired the genesis of Sunset Trip.
My wife and I visited the breathtaking desert city in the autumn of 2017. At this time, I had loose notes for what would become Sunset Trip. One afternoon, while sitting on the rooftop of the riad where we were staying, the whole story rushed to me. I madly typed out the outline and when I came home, wrote the first draft in three months. I sent it to Nathan and Wayne at Obliterati and a few revisions later, here we are. In addition to publishing Sunset Trip in October, Obliterati will be reissuing Wivenhoe Park and Heartworm as eBooks in July.
It was early 1986 and almost everyone I knew was desperate to see Rocky IV. The trailer looked amazing – this time, Balboa was taking on a Russian behemoth and every punch sounded like a nuclear missile exploding. In a post-Star Wars playground, expectation was high, but we had a long wait until the UK release date. I’d already watched a clip on Film 86 – a moody montage edited to ‘No Easy Way Out’ by Robert Tepper. I was hyped.
Then a classmate – let’s call him John, because that’s his name – mentioned he had a VHS copy at his house. He delivered this in such a laid-back fashion, that we didn’t quite believe him. Rocky IV right? Not III or II?
No, he assured us, it was the real deal – he’d already watched it. His uncle was a very good man to know and could get hold of pirate videos. Me and two mates rolled up to John’s house one weekend, ready to see The Italian Stallion, Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago in action and took our places on the settee.
“Oh, it’s not there,” he said. “I’ve got the cover, though.”
He showed us the tape box, which did indeed have ‘Rocky 4’ written in biro down the spine.
“We could watch this instead,” he said, holding up another box: Zombies: Dawn of the Dead.
It was a crushing letdown. Our hearts had been set on Stallone, and we’d been left with some ropey-looking video nasty. Then we started watching, and it was incredible. I can remember the tense opening scenes as Ken Foree’s SWAT team enter a tenement block where people have been hiding their dead from the authorities. It’s bedlam. A woman embraces an undead loved one, and has a chunk of her neck bitten off. Someone’s head explodes with a shotgun blast. Down in the basement, zombies ﬁght for scraps of human ﬂesh. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.
We didn’t get through the whole ﬁlm. I was let down by the weak attention spans of my classmates, who wanted to go off and explore John’s dad’s magazine collection. Then I went home and was off school with the ﬂu for a week. The bits of Dawn of the Dead I’d managed to see made their way into my fevered brain and have been there ever since.
It was a couple of years before I tracked it down. A pirate third or fourth generation VHS copy bought by mail order. I closed my curtains one Saturday afternoon and watched it in his entirety. It was brilliant. It had a vibe all of it’s own, an otherness. It was clearly done on a budget, yet the surreal combination of the zombie-occupied shopping mall setting and Tom Savini’s grisly special effects elevated it to another level altogether.
Dawn (and Night of the Living Dead, released a decade previously) established the basic rules of the modern zombie ﬁlm from which every other movie is a variation. And it’s a sub-genre that shows no signs of abating. Much like the vampire movie, it’s one that’s open to endless reinterpretation and reinvention, and one I’m very much there for.
As I write this, I'm on day 112 of #100DaysOfWriting.
Maybe I should explain.
A little while ago, I noticed a writer, Jenn Ashworth, was doing 100 consecutive days of writing and documenting her progress on the socials. The idea was that word count didn’t matter. This wasn’t like National Novel Writing Month, where participants committed to writing 50,000 words in November. Instead, you’d find time to write something – anything – each day for 100 days. In fact, you didn’t actually need to write anything at all, you could just do some research, or some correspondence, or some planning. Anything, in fact, to move your writing project along in some way.
My first novel, Lord of the Dead, was written in such a piecemeal style - short bursts of activity separated by days, sometimes weeks of inactivity – that committing to a sustained period of writing seemed like a great idea. If I cracked on, I could come up smiling with the best part of a novel in just over three months. So 2nd January became ‘DAY 1’, and on the train into work, I did some scribbling. In the spirit of counting things, here’s 10 things I noticed over the next 99 days. I’m not doing 100 things. That would be mad.
1. The first few days require a bit of adjustment. At the beginning, you’ll probably have all the ideas you need to keep you going, it’s more the discipline, finding the time to fit it in among, work, family life and everything in between.
2. Soon you’ll get creative with juggling your time. I realised if I took the longer route into work, I’d have a better chance of getting a seat, about 25 minutes uninterrupted writing, and still get to work on time.
3. If that didn’t work out, I could get myself out at lunchtime. I could find a cafe, get something to eat and back to work, and still squeeze in 20 minutes of writing. In fact, the change of scenery would usually inspire something, a piece of dialogue, a character or a location, which I probably wouldn’t have thought of.
4. Writing in the morning really works for me. At weekends, if I happened to wake up early, instead of mindlessly thumbing my phone for an hour, I’d do a bit work. And then probably go back to sleep.
5. There’ll be times when you really – I mean really – don’t feel like writing. On my least productive day, with a stinking hangover, I did a total of eight words of dialogue. I wasn’t even that happy with them, but it was something, god dammit. There’ll always be something that could scupper things – a visiting relative, a christening, a weekend away with your significant other. Whatever it is, work around it. Fit it in.
6. At some point you might run out of stuff to write about. I guess it depends on your writing process. I’m not a meticulous planner. I have a vague idea of scenes, beats, plot points and where I want to get to, but often don’t have a clue as to how I’ll get there. A handful of days were taken just planning out things to write, a list of scenes on my phone for quick reference.
7. One good thing about #100DaysOfWriting is that you have to think ahead. Not just what I’m going to write about today, but what I’ll do tomorrow and so on. I think this consistency is great for your book.
8. Watching your book grow is pretty satisfying. I quickly gave up trying to organise anything into chapters and instead concentrated on getting it down, scribbling in my notebook, typing it up and scoring a line through the notebook page when it was done.
9. Don’t sweat over the small stuff. You could waste lost of time checking names, locations and facts that’ll distract you from your flow of writing. Instead, I’d write myself lots of notes. ‘Insert seas slug latin name here’ and so on. Fuck all that, you can sort it out later. Just keep writing.
10. Probably the best thing about #100DaysOfWriting is that it’s habit-forming. It changes the way you think about writing. I was always whinging about not having the time to write. There was always work, or family commitments, or the annoying need to eat and sleep, or good old-fashioned procrastination to get in the way.
I think #100DaysOfWriting makes you realise these pressures are always going to be there and if you’re going to be a writer, you’ll need to find techniques to work around them. So that’s why I’m on day 112. I’m maybe halfway through a really rough first draft, so when I hit DAY 200 of #100DaysOfWriting on 20th July, I might be ready to start a second draft.
A writer writes, right?
Earlier this week, it was confirmed that Steven Spielberg would begin filming for the as-yet untitled Indiana Jones 5 in April 2019. Okay… now pause. Let’s just think about that for a moment.
Harrison Ford is 75 years old. By the time filming begins, he’ll be almost 76. Which is 4 years away from being 80. Now, I’m not ageist or anything, but we have to be realistic here. I’ll happily pay money to see this film, but I will not be a happy bunny if Indy is jumping from moving cars, or busting faces in ridiculously implausible punch-ups, or swinging from his bullwhip over fiery pits. I will not be happy if his character is physically more powerful or his body more resilient to being tossed around on screen than any character half his age.
Well, it’s just not plausible anymore.
The heinous stain on the Indy franchise that is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was already pushing the realms of believability. Bouncing around in a lead-lined fridge that saved his life from an atomic detonation. Numerous fisticuffs with TRAINED Russian soldiers, all of whom were younger and, presumably, fitter. Bullwhip-swinging from the rafters of a warehouse; several life-threatening waterfall plunges, a heart-stopping race through the jungle with bullets flying, swords swinging, and great big teethy tree-chomping machines screaming through the air.
I mean… Come on. It was just insane. And the list goes on. Even if you forget the abysmal UFO ending, or Ray Winstone and Karen Allen’s piss-poor performances, or Shia LaBeouf, the one scene in this awful, AWFUL movie which cemented, for me, its utter and execrable disgrace, was the one in which Indy and Marion are stuck in sinking sand.
“Just say rope!” barks Indy, as Mutt comes to his rescue, brandishing a great big fucking snake he found in the jungle.
Oh yeah. Just say rope. Hilarious.
If Spielberg hopes for Indy 5 to be some kind of redemptive success, then I have some advice. Please, mate… please don’t shit all over the memory of the original three movies. Not like you did with Crystal Skull. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favourite movies ever, and has been for about 30 years. I first saw it when I was about 10; I fell in love with it instantly and I haven’t stopped loving it. Indy was my hero for years. An ordinary boffin, thwarting the Nazis with eye-popping stunts, daring dos and the coolest hat on the planet. From everything about the character, to the plot; to the costumes, the music and just the overall LOOK of the film, I cannot stress enough how much I love Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Temple and Crusade were okay. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually preferred Temple, despite some slightly uncomfortable stereotypes. Crusade took on more of the comic tone, which was used sparingly in the first two movies. I didn’t like that as much. Temple was dark. Ominous. It retained the spooky quality that was used in Raiders - chasing after forces not to be meddled with. There was a compassionate quality to Indy in Temple, conveyed by his refusal to let the children in that movie go on suffering, such that he damn well would meddle with forces not to be meddled with. In Raiders, the ominous overtones came via the simply unknowable, destructive power of the Ark of the Covenant. "Death has always surrounded it," says Sallah, in a moment of reflective concern. This is not an object being sought as treasure; this is a mission to prevent it falling into the worst hands it could possibly fall into.
Crusade lost all that. I don’t quite know how to define it, even. The Ark of the Covenant is Old Testament power; the human sacrifices in Temple were about some warped human devotion to deities of death and destruction (even if there may have been outrage over a purported misrepresentation of the Hindu Goddess Kali). But with Crusade, the darkness seemed to be missing. There’s just something about it… about the way it looks that isn’t the same, and for me, it didn’t work as much. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did. But by Crusade, it seemed to me that maybe they were best just leaving the whole thing be.
So when, nearly twenty years later, Crystal Skull was released, I can’t deny that I was pretty damn excited, if a little concerned.
So much for that. With the bad taste in my mouth of fond memories having been pissed all over, I did what I did with Alien 3. I just pretended it didn’t exist.
But now… now the chance exists to right some wrongs. I guess it doesn’t really matter that Harrison Ford is 75, as long as Indiana Jones behaves within the bounds of what can be expected from a man of that age. I'm not saying I don't want to see a bit of action; I'm not saying I want to see him forgetting his train of thought halfway through a conversation or the name of the person he's talking to. I'm not saying I want to hear him groan when he bends down to examine clues in the dirt and say: "Oh Jesus, my back!"
I'm just saying it has to be plausible. The character of Indiana Jones is as susceptible to the effects of ageing just as anyone is, and I have no problem with a film portraying his older years, as long as it's believable. It's simply another way of exploring a much-loved character. The one thing they did get right with his character in Crystal Skull was make him more reflective… more teacherly… Indy was always a bit of a clever bugger, but being older, his character’s wisdom was explored more. Shame then, that they also had him leaping from a moving motorbike, into a car, and back again.
I personally don’t know why Spielberg is so precious about the character being played ONLY by Ford. Sure… those are some pretty big shoes for any other actor to step into. But it’s not impossible. Generally speaking, I get as chapped off with re-boots as the next man. With Indiana Jones, though, I may be willing to make some allowances. Especially if they screw Indy 5 up.
For the time being however, it seems, that a re-boot ain’t gonna happen.
So please… for the love of Indiana Jones, and what will likely be Ford’s last crack at the whip, I ask that you join me in hoping to high heaven they don’t fuck this up.
My memories of first seeing The Big Lebowksi are not yet quite twenty years old. Though released in USA on 6th March 1998, it didn't hit the UK until a few weeks later. So, it was on or about 24th April that my housemate Andy and I, living in Carlisle at the time, went to the city's Warner Village (now Vue) cinema. Both hardcore cinephiles and Coen Brothers fans, our expectations were naturally high, especially following on from the success of their previous effort Fargo, which had won two Oscars and been a critical and commercial hit. The fact that I feel moved to write a blog post about it two decades later tell you that we were not disappointed.
Just a few hours later, we were annoying people at a party who hadn't yet seen the film by quoting lines from the film back and forth at each other, particularly most of Jesus Quintana's dialogue, and "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass", a line we also employed when leaving the party, as we kicked over a bike belonging to a lad we didn't like for reasons I can't remember.
So I loved Lebowski instantly. It was endlessly quotable, and demanded repeat viewings - in fact, I went back a couple of days later to watch it again, and retain some more of the dialogue to drop into everyday conversation. Many of the actors involved did some of their very best work. Jeff Bridges, having made a career of playing charismatic, handsome but morally ambiguous characters, completely let himself go to play the slobbish, overweight Dude, his fat gut hanging out over his shorts, unkempt beard stained with White Russian. John Goodman, re-teaming with the Coens having worked with them on Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, was allowed to go all out as paranoid, combustible Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak, pulling a piece out on the lanes and caring for his ex-wife's Pomeranian. Completing the unlikely trio of friends was Steve Buscemi's Donny, the quiet one of the group, about whom we know little beyond him being told to shut the fuck up by Walter, and that he loved bowling and surfing, a fact made clear to us in Walter's clumsy eulogy after Donny has continued Buscemi's tradition of being killed off in Coen Bros' films. Perhaps most instantly memorable of all was another Coens mainstay, John Turturro as Jesus, the hairnet wearing pederast who can fucking roll, man.
But, much as I did love the film, it certainly didn't instantly take on the status of my favourite film. Or even my favourite Coen Bros' film. For a good few years later, I maintained that Fargo was their best work, occasionally arguing the case for Raising Arizona. But, as the film found its true home on DVD (it was considered something of a box office flop, and reviews were lukewarm), it was in this format that, over the course of several years, I grew to appreciate its true genius. There was just something irresistibly compelling about this film, and, during a period on the dole, I fell into a pattern of watching it several times a week, late at night. I came to realise that the lack of enthusiasm from many critics and even some fans was due to the fact that, with so much going on, it was hard to process everything in one sitting, or even several sittings. There's so much great dialogue, so many quotable lines, so many great gestures and facial expressions, that it's hard to keep track of them. A perfect example is the scene where The Dude confronts Da Fino (played by the late Jon Polito). Their inept attempts to square up to each other, and Polito's odd attempts to placate The Dude by making bizarre shapes with his arms, are so funny that one could easily miss the genius 'like an Irish monk?' line.
The fact that it rewarded so many repeat viewings was always its greatest strength. Throughout the script, there is not one line of dialogue, one single utterance, or even facial gesture wasted. Not only does The Big Lebowski reward repeat viewings, repeat viewings are absolutely essential to appreciating the level of its brilliance. I don't know how many dozens of viewings it was before I picked up on the nuances of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Brandt, lickspittle to the titular 'Big' Jeffrey Lebowski. Witness the scene before The Dude meets his namesake where Brandt is showing a disinterested Dude around the many awards his boss has acquired. Several times he asks The Dude to stop fingering a shoe-shaped plaque. As The Dude has one last touch, the discomforted reaction of Brandt is exquisite. Rarely if ever has a film revealed so much hidden depth that you can watch it literally a hundred times and still find something you'd missed before.
For all the hilarious dialogue, at its core, this is also a film about friendship. These three lonely men, who seemingly have little in common other than their love of bowling, need each other. As unhinged as Walter is, he's the kind of friend you'd always want in your corner when confronted by three nihilists in a dark parking lot. And when he tells The Dude "nobody's gonna cut your dick off, not while I have anything to say about it," you absolutely believe him. As mean as he seems to Donny at times, when Donny suffers at heart attack, Walter cradles him in his arms with genuine love. Even when he makes a mess of scattering Donny's ashes, covering The Dude in the incinerated remains of their friend, The Dude can't stay mad at him for long, eventually accepting the borderline psychotic veteran's embrace.
Only a handful of comedies have stood up to such repeat viewings over the years. The Producers, This Is Spinal Tap, Withnail And I, and The Big Lebowski stand out, with Alpha Papa likely to join them. But The Big Lebowski stands head and shoulders above all of them. But it's not just the greatest comedy of all time, it's the greatest film of all time.
And if you disagree, well, that's just, like, your opinion, maaan.
In the quest to find a publisher for my debut novel, one particular difficulty I’ve come up against involves the repeated necessity to refer to myself. You must create a Facebook page. You need a clever Twitter handle. You have to make the world aware of everything you do.
All right, pal. But what do I say?
Social media is one thing; the biography page of an author’s website is quite another. This section throws up a range of issues for anyone looking to get a foot in the publishing door. While it seems indulgent to partake in the kind of online soul-searching that seeks to answer the question, Am I a writer? it might be revealing to take a closer look at some of the reasons why it can be a challenge, in describing yourself and your work, to find suitable words and strike the right tone.
An awareness of existing outside of something does not represent a new experience or an original thought. Artists and writers from George Bernard Shaw to Dee Dee Ramone have riffed upon a sense of feeling somehow detached. What I’m talking about here, though, as regards the task of formulating the author biography section, is not a sense of existing outside of society, but a sense of existing, specifically, outside of the publishing industry. Deliberately or otherwise, writers themselves often contribute to a feeling of being inside or outside of an exclusive community. Consider, for example, many contemporary writers’ willingness to stop their work and prescribe the rules of writing. Rules, by their nature, create an outside. What does it mean if I don’t keep a word count? Don’t read my sentences aloud? Don’t love what I do? What does it say about me if I write in the evening instead of in the morning, work before breakfast not after dinner, venture outdoors, stand at the window, compose in the kitchen, at the library, on the crapper?
If an aspiring author manages to navigate the pitfalls of the act of writing, he soon stumbles upon more rules and regulations as he enters the sphere of the literary agent. The first fifty pages, ten thousand words, a natural break, personal, professional, a blurb, a synopsis, a chapter outline, an email inquiry. The recent controversy when one London agent posted on Twitter a sarcastic submission letter sent by a would-be disciple (the post provoking a mixed response, it’s worth remarking, from both writers and fellow agents alike) demonstrates how seriously the guidelines for submissions ought to be taken. Break the rules here, flower, and you might find yourself up in the kind of kangaroo court at which even Norman Stanley Fletcher would surely have baulked.
Interestingly, around the time I was thinking about content for my website, I was also re-reading Nelson Algren. Algren himself found it problematic to reconcile his worldview with his place, or not, within the publishing industry. “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery,” he states in Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, a work produced in the early 1950s and published posthumously in 1996. “The strong-armer isn’t out merely to turn a fast buck any more than the poet is out solely to see his name on the cover of a book, whatever satisfaction that event may afford him. What both need most deeply is to get even.” Not concerned, obviously, with the matter of what to write about himself on his website, Algren’s stance nevertheless evokes a spirit of belligerence that seems sorely lacking in today’s writing and publishing arena. It’s impossible to say how Algren might approach a twenty-first-century literary agent and the sharp observations (and various pictures of cats, dogs, desks, books, laptop screens, snacks and cups of coffee) on his or her Twitter feed, but I suspect the exchange might be edifying for all.
Not instructive, either, in my attempts to find the right words for the biography part of my website was a recent email communication with another London agent. Here I discovered what I already knew. Trends and the bottom line. Quite understandable. It’s a business, not a charity, or some kind of therapy. Yet the agent’s message didn’t offer a great deal of encouragement in terms of my believing in the inclusivity and openness of the publishing racket. “Brilliant” prose, he wrote, “as good and probably better than most of the stuff that gets published and on the prize lists.” At the same time, though, he described a situation, almost apologetically, in which it would be impossible to shift a Yorkshire novel about gambling on the football, even in a World Cup year, because of its northern setting, its sporting subject matter and the fact that most publishing houses cater to a seventy percent female readership.
I’m a big boy, though. I understand the game. Clearly, you can be too precious about your relationship to the industry. You can take yourself and your work too seriously. You can be unrealistic in your expectations or blinkered in the measure of your potential audience or your talent.
And your manuscript might be a bag of shite.
The question remains, however: Does it matter how an author describes himself or how other people, inspecting his website, categorise his output or come to judge his endeavours? Should a writer struggle to get inside? Algren again: “If you feel you belong to things as they are, you won’t hold up anybody in the alley no matter how hungry you may get. And you won’t write anything that anyone will read a second time either.”
As I’ve discovered in the last couple of years, it’s difficult enough to convince those in the industry to read your work once. For a variety of reasons, the idea of writing something that a publishing insider might read a second time sounds optimistic in the extreme. In this context, the image of the writer as strong-armer, street robber or safecracker seems to speak to the state of British publishing itself. If a debut author manages to gain entry and, with a bit of luck, subsequently escape, whilst maintaining a semblance, at least, of his originality and integrity, despite the rules and regulations, the conventions and limitations, the reductive analyses, he might rightly consider himself above the law.
Which brings me back to the challenge of describing myself and explaining my literary situation. As a consequence, perhaps, of re-reading Algren, and of the experience, more generally, of labouring to persuade an agent or a publisher to consider my manuscript, on the website I resorted to the language of the heist: “John O’Brien is looking for one big score. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.”
Follow John O'Brien on Twitter: @johnnyrises
The competitors in this theoretical two-horse race were always - in second place - Sherlock Holmes and - winning it by a length - Batman.
Alright, mock all you want, but as I say, it's all entirely subjective anyway. It recently occurred to me, however, that there was a third horse I was overlooking: Norfolk's favourite son, or one of them, Alan Gordon Partridge.
Dispensing with the tired horse racing analogy, Partridge is easily the greatest British comedy character ever created, in a league of his own ahead of other greats such as Basil Fawlty and David Brent. As well as being funnier even than those brilliant and timeless characters, one quality Partridge has which they don't, and which he shares with Holmes and Bruce Wayne, is longevity. While he has some way to go to attain the levels of durability those characters have shown -120 years in Holmes' case, 71 and counting in Wayne's - he has far outlasted all the other obviously comparable greats.
Fawlty and Brent lasted two series each (David Brent did of course return with some comic relief specials and Life On The Road in 2016, but, though I enjoyed the film, reception was mixed), while Alan has been with us for 26 years, over a quarter of a century, since he first appeared on the Radio 4 series On The Hour, before the character was given his own chat show Knowing Me Knowing You the following year.
On The Hour made the transition from radio to TV in 1993, renamed as The Day Today, marking the first time we saw the inept sports presenter on our screens. Knowing Me Knowing You also made the move to TV, giving a wider audience the chance to see Partridge as a standalone character for the first time. The single series of the chat show ended with Partridge accidentally shooting restaurant critic Forbes McAllister through the heart, killing him live on air. The Christmas special saw Partridge punching a disabled guest, as well as BBC chief commissioning editor Tony Hayers. As the TV career of the character died, so the character itself could have, but Alan returned to our screens three years later in the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge.
The change in format proved to be a new beginning for the character. The limitations of the chat show and sports presenter format only hinted at the possibilities, but freed from those constraints, Coogan, along with writers Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, revealed depths previously only hinted at. Partridge, now divorced from Carol, was living in a Travel Tavern, compensating for the death of his TV career by working at Radio Norwich, killing time conversing with hotel employee Michael the Geordie, making ridiculous demands of put-upon PA Lynn and trading digs with fellow DJ Dave Clifton. The traditional sitcom format showed us the full extent of Alan's Daily Express-reader Little Englander political views, his anxiety problems, and his bizarre fixation on ladyboys. The portrayal of an eternally bored, bitter and resentful man also brought a pathos that had been glimpsed only briefly in previous incarnations, taking Alan into a realm beyond that of most comedy characters.
The second series of I'm Alan Partridge was the best yet. Now living in a caravan with his younger, 'mildly cretinous' Ukrainian girlfriend Sonya on site while his new home was being built, still killing time with Michael at the BP garage where he now worked and interacting awkwardly with the builders. In this series, Coogan had grown into the character to such an extent that literally every single thing he did was funny: his every facial expression, his increasingly hunched walk, his involuntary throat noises when nervous, displaying an ownership and understanding of the character that is unparalleled. Often asked where Partridge ends and he begins, Coogan recently said to Adam Buxton that there's a lot of him in Partridge and vice-versa - how could there not be when Coogan has now been playing Alan for the majority of his life - and this series was the first time that Coogan truly did disappear into the character, so much so that at times you genuinely forget you're watching a performance. The lack of canned laughter for the first time in the character's history added to the feeling that you were watching a real person. Always a huge fan, it was now that my obsession with Alan Partridge truly kicked in. My day-to-day quotes and Partridgeisms increased exponentially, often to the complete bemusement of friends and family whose love of the character didn't reach the same deranged heights as my own. I had by now discovered that there is barely an everyday situation where a direct quote from partridge cannot be used. Even in the few situations where a quote is not applicable, I often find myself thinking 'what would Alan do?' and answering questions or making points in a Partridge-esque manner.
In 2011 came the web-only series of fifteen minute shorts Mid Morning Matters, funded by Fosters Lager, exclusively for the Fosters Funny website. Though fairly inauspicious for such a beloved and popular character, this series proved to be pivotal as it was the first outing to be co-written by two new additions to the writing team; brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons. At a time when Partridge had been around for exactly twenty years and Coogan was reportedly unsure whether he wanted to play him anymore, this introduction of new writing talent breathed fresh life into the character. Partridge once again left the BBC, this time to move to Sky Atlantic for the one-off documentary Welcome To The Places Of My Life, and two years later, the long talked about Partridge movie was released.
Often rumoured to be about Alan travelling to America to try and find fame, Alpha Papa instead wisely played to the character's parochial strengths, keeping him very much in Norfolk, with Alan working, as he had been in Mid Morning Matters (which by now had also been broadcast on Sky Atlantic), at North Norfolk Digital 'Norf- North Norfolk's best music mix'.
The track record of great TV comedies making the move to the big screen is not good. What works over a thirty minute episode may not necessarily work over ninety minutes, and in most cases doesn't, but Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa managed to buck the trend, the ninety minute running time flying by, and Coogan and the writing team all on top of their game in writing and portraying a character that now seemed to fit them all like a glove. It stands the comedy acid test of continuing to be funny, or even becoming increasingly funny, with repeated viewings. I watched it for what I think was approximately the twentieth time last weekend, and I'm not even beginning to tire of it. More than this, the film showed beyond any doubt that there is much more life in Alan yet and, following on from a superb second series of Mid Morning Matters, Alan Partridge's Scissored Isle was broadcast on Sky Atlantic in 2016.
The tale of Alan's search for redemption, and the reinstatement of several lucrative endorsement contracts, in the wake of angrily calling a teenaged guest a 'chav', the programme, along with Mid Morning Matters and two superb books; I Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan and Nomad (for full effect, listen to the audio versions of each, both read by Coogan), captured every essence of what makes Partridge so great. His hubris, his sense of entitlement, his cowardice, his cynical opportunism, his deep sense of loneliness, his Simon Heffer-reading Little Englander conservatism, balanced out by a genuine attempt in recent years to be something approaching a social liberal (witness him on Mid Morning Matters talking about being mates with Dale Winton when five years earlier he'd have spat in the face of anyone who suggested the possibility of such a friendship, as well as his new, longer hairstyle), his awful, awful taste in clothes and music. It also contains, in the form of the warehouse sequence, amongst the best five and a half minutes or so in British comedy history.
More than anything, though, Partridge is a man out of place in the world. Like Brent and Fawlty, he just doesn't quite fit in. Anywhere. He's not truly part of any group. He is able to maintain his friendship with Michael the Geordie primarily because of the gulf in intellect. Other than Michael, the only other constant presence in Alan's life is Lynn on her nine-and-a-half-thousand-pounds salary. They remain part of his life largely because they are both subservient. Everyone else just ends up annoying him or, in the case of sudden new best friend Dan, turn out to be 'sex people'.
And now, via Coogan's recent appearance on The One Show, we have learned that Alan Partridge is, in 2018, about to return to BBC television (the programme is anyway, not the character, those days are gone for Alan), where he truly belongs, as 'the voice of Brexit', a role Partridge was surely born for. Sorry, created for. I was forgetting he's not a real person again. This move back to his spiritual home shows that Alan Partridge is, to use his grossly inaccurate description of his doomed chat show; 'a very healthy duck, with plenty of legs'.
By Nathan O'Hagan
It was a Friday evening sometime in May, 2016. We were sitting in a curry house in the Horsforth area of Leeds. There was me, 'Stickleback' author Mark Connors, Armley Press co-director and author John Lake, his girlfriend Jo and Wayne Leeming. The following morning we were all due at Leeds Central Library for the Big Bookend literary festival. We were doing a panel reading and Q&A session, and the event was doubling as the launch for Wayne's novel 'Justice Is Served'. Four Armley Press writers, all talking about books, films and music (a significant part of which involved me and Wayne telling Mark and John that jazz was a load of wank, them arguing otherwise), drinking beer and eating curry.
At some point in the evening, the conversation divided up and Wayne and myself, meeting for the first time, got talking about our individual stories about how we came to be published by a 'punk publisher' from Leeds. Among the usual hard-luck stories of rejection, Wayne mentioned that he had always wanted to start his own publishing press, much in the style of what John and Mick McCann had done with Armley Press. I told him I'd always imagined starting an indie record label, then also a publishing press. Then again, I've imagined doing a lot of things over the years, but always lacked either the skill, the drive or the self-belief to attempt any of them.
The conversation shifted and we moved quickly on, probably distracted by the duvet-sized garlic naan hanging from a hook at the end of our table. But the seeds of an idea had been sown, particularly in Wayne's mind, and during facebook interactions and phone calls over the coming months, we would occasionally joke about that press we were going to start up. I usually laughed it off, until sometime early this year, Wayne said, in all seriousness, 'why not?' And, other than the negative reasons I mentioned above, I couldn't think of a good reason not to.
So, over the next couple of months, we had a few phone calls where we planned out our strategy. We named ourselves after the Mission Of Burma album 'The Obliterati', and decided the only sensible option was to mimic the print-on-demand model used by Armley Press and some other small presses. One thing we decided to do differently to most publishers was, rather than setting up and looking for submissions, leading to a potential delude of books the two of us could never hope to read our way through, was to approach unpublished but talented writers we knew, and find at least our first couple of releases that way. While Wayne set to work on making our website, I took on the role of poacher. Two people sprang to mind instantly. Richard Rippon was an old mate of my sister, which is how I came to read his earlier novel 'The Kebab King' which had won The New Writing North Award and earned him an agent. After his agent had been unable to place it with the right publisher, Richard had self-published. As with many of us who've tried self-publishing, Richard had struggled to find a wide audience for 'The Kebab King', which is a shame as it's a clever and funny crime novel, and well worth checking out, so I knew he could write, and I recalled a year or two earlier him telling me about a second novel he had completed. I sent a speculative email to Richard explaining what Wayne and I were up to, fully expecting him to tell me to fuck off and shove my indie press up my arse. Fortunately, having received a fair amount of interest in his novel from a few publishers, who had wanted him to make changes he wasn't comfortable with, Richard was well up for the idea of working with a pair of clueless first-timers who didn't know what the fuck they were doing. He emailed me his manuscript, and me and Wayne read it. Within the first few pages, it was clear we'd struck very, very lucky. 'Lord Of The Dead' needed some work, but it was a superbly written, thrilling and potentially very commercial piece of crime fiction. There was not a hint of doubt that we wanted to publish it. While Richard set about redrafting the novel, with a few notes from Obliterati Press, I approached the other writer who had sprung to mind.
Authonomy was a website set up by Harper Collins to act like an electronic slush pile, and also as an online version of a writers group. People uploaded their works in progress, and received feedback, while reciprocating, with an incentive called the Editors Desk, whereby the five novels to make it onto there at the end of each month would have the first ten thousand words read by Harper Collins. Several writers on there found publication. A few chapters of my debut novel 'The World Is (Not) A Cold Dead Place' were on there and improved in part due to feedback I received. Eventually, people figured out how to play the system, Harper Collins realised they couldn't quite find a way to monetise the site, and closed it down.
One novel I'd loved on there was 'The Baggage Carousel' by David Olner. Luckily, when Authonomy closed down, we had stayed in touch via twitter. I approached him as I had done with Richard, and was very pleased that he too was enthusiastic about what Obliterati Press were trying to achieve. 'The Baggage Carousel' was at an advanced stage of rewriting so required little more than some formatting changes from Wayne. With the two novels at final draft stage, Obliterati Press were ready to launch. Any self-doubt over whether there was the room or the need for another indie publisher was quickly extinguished by the sheer quality of our first two titles. The fact that neither of these books had yet come particularly close to publication shows there can probably never be enough publishers for all the great undiscovered writers out there, just needing someone to give them a voice. Over the coming months and years, that is exactly what Obliterati Press intend to do. We'll continue our unorthodox search for writers already known to us, as well as opening for short but frequent submission windows.
Watch this space...