Being a new collection of short stories, essays and poems (to say nothing of the interview)
This thing is called a qr code. If you have a mobile device with a camera and the required bit of software, you can scan the image to go straight to our website
A spoiler-free introduction by the editor
hank you for picking up the latest issue of Structo magazine. It contains 13 short stories, seven poems, two classic essays and an in-depth interview with Iain Banks. It’s a good ’un. We have a new recruit this time around in the shape of Matt Cook, and my thanks go out to him for adding his considered reviews of the submissions which came in for this issue. Thanks also to Stephen Wolters for interesting conversations about the many worlds of Iain Banks. We’re sticking with the newspaper format which worked so well last time. Newspaper Club have made the printing process very easy, and I would recommend them to anyone. In fact I do. Right. Now all that cheerful introduction is out of the way, I have a quick rant to get out of my system. It’s about introductions, so I thought this would be a suitable place for it (and with apologies to Jerry Seinfeld). What’s the deal with book introductions? Maybe Paul Auster thinks that the plot of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is so familiar that everyone should know the ending by now, but you know what? I didn’t. Call me shallow, but I’m less likely to read the rest of the book now I know that – and I quote page vii in Auster’s introduction to Hunger directly here, talking about the protagonist: ‘In the end, for no apparent reason, he […]’. The paragraph then proceeds to summarise the book’s major plot points. Quite a feat of compression for a book of 222 pages. Then again, if you ever need to write an essay on Hunger, I’d recommend digging out this edition. It’s fairly easy to recognise, as it has the words, ‘With an
introduction by Paul Auster’ emblazoned on the cover. The practice seems to be restricted to classics and translated works. Avoid the introduction to the wonderful Moscow Stations by Venedikt Yerofeev for example, unless you want the translator – of all people – to completely and unambiguously ruin the ending for you. Do these introduction writers (do they have their own collective noun?) think that these types of novels are simply vessels for transmitting a metaphor to the reader, that the story itself doesn’t matter? I can’t think of any other reason why my edition of Albert Camus’ The Plague has its story spoiled, while the copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman which sits on the shelf next to it doesn’t. If publishers really want to include these no doubt thoughtful and well-constructed pieces of literary criticism in their books, why not print them at the end? Until then, I’ll be skipping over those dozen pages between me and the story, and hopefully staying a little less bitter in the process. Euan Monaghan (Bucks., November 2010)
Credits & Legal Gubbins Editor/designer: Euan Monaghan Associate editor: Keir Pratt Copy-editor: Elaine Monaghan Editorial assistant: Matt Cook ISSN: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (on-line) structomagazine.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org @structomagazine All works contained within the pages of this magazine are protected by a Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence (except the essays ‘Untitled’ and ‘Idleness’ by Samuel Johnson, which have entered the public domain). Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. The Structo logo; and the cover art (by rachelem-illo.com) are protected by the above Creative Commons licence. The Newspaper Club logo is © Newspaper Club. And that’s that.
The 250-piece Dinner Service by m at t
ba r de n
oward cursed as the telephone in the corner started to ring, interrupting Ronnie O’Sullivan’s break. With his left hand he muted the snooker commentary and with his right picked up the receiver. ‘Hello?’ he said, as O’Sullivan potted a long red to the left pocket. ‘Yes, okay. Kitchenware in five minutes, no problem,’ he said to the caller, as the black rattled in the jaws of the right-hand corner pocket. ‘Bye.’ Howard eased his long frame out of the armchair and inspected himself in the screen’s reflection. He brushed down his hair, straightened his green and gold tie and wiped his suit jacket free of crumbs and dandruff. As the snooker match ambled into its fifth hour, Howard walked out of his basement. *** ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so embarrassed in my life,’ said Mrs Meredith Fotheringhay in a voice that could cut diamonds. ‘And poor Cynthia; she was hosting Lord and Lady Winchelsea so you can imagine her reaction. I mean, she almost died!’ The Sales Manager knew not to interrupt a customer in the midst of a tirade; he listened politely as Mrs Meredith Fotheringhay continued her onslaught. ‘This is not something I would have expected from this establishment. I’ve been shopping here for 43 years, don’t you realise? How long have you worked here?’ she asked, jabbing her slender finger towards him. ‘Three years, ma’am,’ he stammered, glancing around for back-up. ‘Three years? You really shouldn’t have this level of responsibility after only three years.’ ‘Well ma’am, we do aim to please. The person responsible will be here shortly.’ ‘It’s about the principle and the frankly outrageous service. When one buys something from this establishment, one expects everything to be perfect.’ Mr Mason opened and closed his mouth and shuffled his feet. A slight cough signalled the arrival of his back-up and he turned to face Howard with a nod. Howard spoke in an easy, measured voice. ‘Good afternoon Mr Mason, you called?’
‘Yes Howard, I did. Thank you for coming; although, I would have appreciated a degree of expediency on your part,’ answered the salesman, looking at his watch. He returned his attention to his customer. ‘Mrs Fotheringhay, I think I can explain. My colleague here is responsible for our wedding gift service.’ ‘Him? This man here?’ Mrs Meredith Fotheringhay eyed Howard as if he were an earwig approaching one of her salmon and cucumber sandwiches. ‘Howard, this is Mrs Fotheringhay. She has been shopping here for over 40 years. Do you recognise the surname? You do? Good. The Fotheringhays have been very loyal to us over the years, indeed the family are amongst our most valued customers. Now last month – it was last month wasn’t it, Mrs Fotheringhay? – Yes, last month she ordered a wedding gift for her niece, a Miss Cynthia Wells. Who is now, I understand, a Mrs Alain de Loire, having married into a French aristocratic lineage. Do you remember Mrs Fotheringhay placing an order with us?’ Howard nodded meekly. ‘Yes Mr Mason, I do.’ ‘Can you confirm please, Mrs Fotheringhay, your order?’ ‘Yes, it was a 250-piece Clive Christian Empire Flame dinner service.’ ‘And what was the problem?’ he asked, becoming more relaxed now Howard was beside him. ‘Well, at the first dinner that Cynthia hosted after the wedding – which Lord and Lady Winchelsea attended – she found there were no fish forks! The poor girl was devastated. She had already prepared her horseradish-crusted salmon with lime velouté. Can you picture her embarrassment at the Lord and Lady having to eat salmon with a table fork?’ ‘No ma’am, I cannot,’ said Mr Mason, his usual sales pitch replaced with a sympathetic, compassionate tone. ‘It is a mistake for which we take full responsibility. Please accept our unreserved apology.’ He turned to Howard, who was stood staring at his shoes, which he had neglected to wipe clean of the basement dust and still carried a trace of Custard Cream from his mid-afternoon snack. ‘Now the questions are: what to do with this clot; and how to restore our establishment’s reputation
and leave you satisfied, Mrs Fotheringhay,’ continued Mr Mason, displaying the firm attitude that had seen him promoted to Sales Manager in the first place. ‘We could provide a replacement dinner-service?’ suggested Howard. ‘I suppose we could,’ said Mr Mason. ‘But Mrs de Loire only requires the missing fish forks, does she not? A replacement set would rectify the situation, true, but she would still have the incomplete set as well. No, it’s better just to send the fish forks to avoid any further confusion or embarrassment on her part.’ Mrs Meredith Fotheringhay tried to bring up the subject of an additional reimbursement of the money spent, but Mr Mason was now relentless. ‘Furthermore, we need to be hit where it hurts; an additional dinner service would barely dent our deep pockets. No, I think what is required is something hard-hitting, something that will teach all of us here in the shop a lesson, something that reinforces the values that customers expect and that this store demands. Howard, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to collect your things and visit payroll to collect your P45. You have caused one of our most cherished and loyal customers severe embarrassment, and let us down. You’re sacked.’ Howard stood by meekly. ‘Yes, Mr Mason. I’m sorry, Mrs Fotheringhay.’ ‘I trust that everything is now satisfactory, Mrs Fotheringhay. Do please visit us again soon, particularly if Mrs de Loire announces the imminent arrival of any petites de Loires. We do have a splendid range of christening gifts up on the fifth floor.’ As Mr Mason escorted a still-shocked Mrs Meredith Fotheringhay towards the exits, he made sure she could witness Howard trudge off sadly. *** He had missed O’Sullivan’s victory and the television was showing cookery instead. He flicked over to the racing, picked up his paper and chewed his pencil. ‘Time for a cuppa,’ he thought to himself. Twenty minutes later, just before the 4.50 from Haydock Park, the phone rang again. ‘A stained Afghan silk rug?’ said Howard. ‘Of course; see you on the third floor in ten minutes.’
My Fear and I by a i da n
t hom a s
do not remember when the fear appeared on my tongue for the first time. It seems it has always been there, eating my words. Cat got your tongue? That’s what people said to me. But it is the fear that has got my tongue. When it was young, it fed on hard consonants. It scooped the hardness out as they went past and left them limpid and humiliated. Ball to pall. Dick to tick. God to cod. Soon, the hard consonants refused to be spoken. Other words had to be used instead. Bliss and gorgeous were out. Happy and pretty were in. Sometimes, however, there were no alternatives. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan. A new strategy was needed. I learnt that I could hide wanted words beneath unwanted words, and the fear would let them pass. Dylan beneath Bob beneath Mr. Mr-Bob-Dylan. Then one day it rumbled the ruse. It was maddened at the deception. It strangled soft consonants. It feasted on vowels. It devoured whole sentences.
The more words it ate, the larger it grew. And the larger it grew, the more words it ate. It spread the fear of cod in them. Soon, no word was safe. Now it was king of the roost, it began to be noticed in the world. Children mocked it. Women pitied it. Men were disgusted by it. No one said anything, but I could see them thinking it. I wished I could not see so much in other people’s eyes because the fear fed off what it found there. It fed and swelled on my tongue. The cognitive speech therapists explained it. They drew flow charts and spider diagrams to rationalise it. They used tally counters to measure it and Tictaphones to record it. They played it back to me and I hated it. Now, it is the morning rush hour; faces mottled from lack of sleep queue for the ticket pox. The fear is more at home here than me, amidst the hustle and pustle. We stand in line, my fear and I, five from the front. The self-service machine is out of
order. As soon as it saw the yellow tape across the screen, it unfurled fat on my tongue, wet with anticipation. It is hard to swallow, the fear has crown so pig. Single to Bethnal Green. It will have every letter of every last one of them. Three people in front now. I can hardly breathe. I know how this will play out. I will step forward, look the man in the blue uniform in the eye, and open my mouth to speak. I will try to say, single. But the fear will snap it and trap it and sap it of strength, and all that will come out is a hiss, like a snake. For a moment the man’s eyes will be as loud as words. ‘This fellow is not normal,’ they will say. ‘Twitching and hissing, like a snake. It’s weird is what it is. Scary.’ This will only be for a splinter of an instant, and then they will glaze over. They will hide behind the silent blankness we all wear among strangers. I used to wish I too could hide my fear. I am at the front now. We step forward, my fear and I, to break the silence together.
Listening to Marcel Marceau & That Red Sweater †
by m i k e
b e rg e r
Listening to Marceau is an art. The ambience must be perfect to gain the full glorious effect. A soft easy-chair is required. Late in the evening is the best with no clatter and chatter to distract. Your stereo should peak at 100 watts and the bass descend to 20 cycles or less. Put your cd in and let your mind go. The first section will be very soft. Let your mind conjure up calm images a pastoral scene that is verdant green. As the piece moves from double piano let your mind slip to a new scene. See a river as it frolics and plays hiding the turmoil that lurks below. As the intensity builds and swells envision a Californian forest fire. Wicked orange tongues blistering the sky whipped by the Santa Ana winds. Sadness creeps in as the cd ends. You really hate to have it stop. You feel tired and totally drained. Oh, that mime etches evocative images.
Betty was a knockout. She knew how to ply her wiles. She had a male entourage that followed her around. She often complained that guys didn’t appreciate her mind. They couldn’t get past the sweaters that were much too small. To get a date you had to take a number and wait your turn. She broke dozens of hearts and was hated by all the girls. I always had a good laugh on report card day. In history, Betty wore her red sweater and she always got an A. When we talked, I’d tell her she had a keen mind. She always smiled as she soaked it in. I stayed aloof and didn’t drool like all of the other guys. She asked me to the girl’s choice dance. I acted surprised. The dance was great but the best part of going out with a sweater girl is pulling the wool over her eyes.
† Gravitoelectric Coupling , Point Mass ‡ ˙ ˙ & Reactıonless Propulsıon *
by m au r i c e
va n d e v e n
he following is a selection from Anti-gravity, a collection of work centred around the idea of ‘creating a place that’s free from the force of gravity’. You can read and see more at digitalnotes.org.
aming, security guards, networking hardware. Rootlessness. A world brightening. You imagine you live in Roman times as our bodies move in a blaze of white sky around the middle of nowhere and gone. For peace and love to be one with nature on the estuary. The wind blows soil to skin in between the island and mainland. Over-ozoned recordable compact disk in hand, a vessel moves with the neutral float along the shoreline. The texture below my feet reveals wind patterns and worms that roll into holes in preparation for another fragile return. Sand touches my soul as it travels in opposite directions, like ghosts suspended from the earth in conquest of gravity. Arms tumbled down and bright-eyed, a tidal current with two hearts fully immersed; deep yellow deeper deepest, surrounded by unseen sandbanks. A thread of memories entwine scattered to pieces amongst flowers, bumblebees and solitary shorebirds flying in pairs over the dunes moving inland. You say hello mister Mag, and I think to myself it’s your stars and beyond, they’re beauty pushed farther, higher, harder grabbing and grasping.
n alien ocean beyond pencil and paper. The power of bits, bytes and logic is altering our horizons. The warm bodies are descending thousands of meters into the Earth one-by-one. Like a high altitude mountaineering trip in reverse. Running a string down in damp, cold and dark places where everything that’s visible is artificially illuminated at great effort, or otherwise completely dark. Along the way are fantastic abysses and chambers so large that you can see for hundreds of meters without a break in the line of sight. Beyond the limits of human endurance, the group is suspended in disbelief. 26 advanced. 3 advancements. 29 advances. 1 make-believe. 1 make-do. 1 make-sense. 1 make-up. The deeper you go into the underworld, the more you can run into a conflict. And eventually you get to places where it is formidable and dangerous. Above the surface, our values threaten us for the sake of five minutes of popular glory. Behold the mindless, unremitting celebrity worship; the sports mania that sends adults caravanning up the motorways; the ugly, primal, loud and inescapable voices that preclude reflection and thought. We’ve collectively forgotten when boldness is required to move forward. A signal is lost, but can be heard over and above the noise. Do not misapprehend a few arc seconds or a few meters (for the junk).
our paranoid virtual office team started a t-shirt company in the polished shopping centre amongst the commodity of things. Arms, hands, legs, feet and eyes gathered under the solid roof. A silhouette of human life and culture contained to feed our rituals. Vitamins supplement her meager diet but at the heart of things, she’s centre stage. The focal point and we’re all gazing. A disabled veteran in the clean and carefully lit space stares at a few men who stand in small groups, smoking and talking in ceremonial trappings that regulate our attention. Greed and ambition compose their personality but they sometimes play cowboys and indians in their poor imagination. Some even fantasize about playing mommy. The power of spectacle. Systematize the silent majority with manufactured objects in gleaming lights. A performance artist makes balloons sing like birds while digital animation on a subnet illustrates the new surface that surrounds a virus. This display screen forms the front stage to a flashback documented in some trashvideo file. 51 bottles and 107 programming languages later, another trademark pissed in my mouth and told me it was victory gin. The end. Reset. The beginning. The overgrown green house of rarity and contained beauty. A full eclipse of the moon. Ten thousand things packed into the soil where the plants straddle the entire county. An economic miracle in the making but advertising is untenable. The painter represents his wife as a young girl, the face rendered with tenderness. A father portrayed as a goodlooking man within a landscape of soft colours. A sound wave changes the course of history. A natural variation, where each circuit serves a reaction to the human mind. A new kind of science: pass yourself off as, claim to be, pose as, pretend to be, profess to be a good example, not a traveling salesman.
Just One More by da n
ure, the first had character and charm and he liked it. It was a house to define yourself against, with history in the walls and a roof of straw. But it was up for more than they had and remote, sunk in a valley and damp and dark and intimidating. True, the garden was a rambling space for the girls to play, but there was a stream to drown in and trees to fall from, a wood with wolves and devious witches. He knew his wife would love it. Yes, she would. To start with. Nice and quiet, pretty. Away from everything. Neighbours. Everyone. She could bring people back and talk on about the door frames, old glass and the endless coats of coloured paint on the architrave. Then, after a time, the house would dull and she would grow bored. She would find it dark and mouldy, cluttered and awkward. She’d worry about the stream and the trees and start to hate it and hate him, the louse, for sticking them in that God-forsaken hell-hole, once again. The second was plain enough, half way down a cul-de-sac and within their means. He hated it, but thought it right for them, close enough to a school and a Co-op, not on the main drag, and a town not far away. It was the one to choose and he went for it. No one liked it. A couple of nights after moving in, Christina stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom in a tangerine tankini with her hands on her hips, twisting side to side to see its fit even though the holiday was six weeks away and she was determined to lose a few pounds by then anyway she said. He was in bed trying to read, but he was thinking about the man who came and sat right next to him on the train that morning (even though there were empty doubles) and who kept pushing his elbow against his own across the armrest to get the best position. The grievance nagged even now. After all, he had been there first, hadn’t he? That must mean something, didn’t it? He had put up good resistance of course, holding his position as best he could without seeming needy, but the man kept on, determined to take the armrest for himself no matter what. In the end he had given it up, folded his arms and looked out the window. At least he had the window; at least he couldn’t take that. But the journey was spoilt. Grazing hills, the flickering light in the birch forests, the way the reluctant land gave way to the shabby fringes of towns that drifted in, stopped, then faded away, all of these things were soured by the petty placement of an elbow. What was more he was aware of a vague smell of toilet soap invading his public personal space. ‘What do you think?’ Christina asked, pivoting once more on tiptoes. ‘Very sexy,’ he replied, ‘just right.’ Christina turned away from the mirror and looked at it from over her shoulder. ‘Does it fit all the way round?’ ‘Yep, tight as a drum,’ he replied, turning a page and rubbing the corner of his eye with a forefinger. Christina went and sat down on the end of the bed and took up a yoga position. Cross-legged, the backs of her hands resting on her knees, she pressed her fingers to her thumbs one after another. Her eyes were closed. ‘How was your journey?’ she asked. ‘Okay,’ he replied. ‘Only there was a man who sat next to me and stole the armrest.’ ‘Oh, I hate that. I hate it when someone does that. Makes me think they’re doing it on purpose and that they don’t want the armrest, they want to dominate you, make themselves more powerful than you. Like they have a point to prove that they are better than you and when you give in you’re nothing more than plant life. You can feel them turning all smug. I wish I had a big gun when I’m like that, a real big gun I could put against their head and scream: “Take your arm off the armrest you useless piece of shit or I’ll spray your brains all over this fucking
train!”’ Christina held the gun she had made with her hands and pointed it stiffly at the passenger. ‘Now!’ The passenger stared at her in astonishment, too startled to move. ‘Now!’ she screamed. He lifted his hands in slow surrender. Christina smiled; she smirked into the corner of her mouth and flicked a loose line of highlit hair from her eyes with her hand. Purposefully, she moved the gun from his temple and forced the nozzle into his mouth. ‘Too late!’ She squeezed the trigger: once, twice, and (angling the gun through the slanted morning sun, yellow rapeseed and blue cordite) three times. ‘Blam, blam, blam!’ she shouted. Christina blew the tips of her fingers, settled back to her yoga position and smiled. ‘Happy now?’ she mumbled. She was still for a moment and he began to feel sorry for the poor fellow. Then her arms began moving fast with form and function in and out in front of her, twisting and probing, her hands opening, her fingers pinching. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Going through his wallet,’ she whispered. She took some cash and stuffed it in her cleavage. Then she checked his credit cards, flicking them down the carriage one by one. Barclaycard, debit, laminated photo of his son in a blue and white striped football kit kneeling by a ball and smiling, train ticket (she kept that, not having bothered to buy one at the ticket office), Tesco Club Card. She sneered at this one and showed it to the compartment before flicking it away. Finally, she dropped the wallet and pushed the man back in the seat. She checked his other pockets. Empty. She grabbed his wrist and took his watch. Accurist. Nothing special. She tossed it into his lap and returned to her yoga. He heard small toesteps pad down the hall and Maisy came into the room holding Rabbit by a paw. They both looked at the girl. She stood still and started to cry. ‘Hey.’ He reached out and stroked her arm. Christina picked up the girl, and stroking and kissing her sweat-sticky hair, climbed into bed. She eased strands from the child’s flushed cheek. The girl cried on. ‘Did you have a bad dream, sweetheart?’ she whispered. The girl nodded and Christina gave her an extra squeeze. ‘Shhh, shhh, shhh,’ she said. ‘There-there, it’s okay, Mummy’s here, poppet. Go warm up some milk and make us some tea, Hun.’ Downstairs he looked through the cupboards for a saucepan. It took him three goes. He poured in some milk, switched on the kettle and waited for it all to heat up. He looked around. The kitchen needed work. Some of the doors were loose and the ceiling was dirty. The tiling was dated and there were a few chips in the work surface that let in water and were already blistered. Things would be different soon. He was only one contract away from getting it right, just the one so long as he could run it alongside the one he already had. That was the thing: too much work would be no good, he couldn’t handle too much work, too much letting people down, too much word of mouth and then no one hiring him at all. Two jobs at a time, that’s the ticket. When he returned to the bedroom Maisy was sleeping loudly, her head pushed against the pillow. He put the teacups and milk on the dresser and sat on the end of the bed. Christina had closed her eyes. He got up and checked on Emmie. She was curled tight and fast asleep. He kissed her forehead, went back to their room and sat down. ‘Christina?’
She opened an eye and put a finger to her lips. Then she pointed at Maisy. ‘Is she asleep?’ He nodded and passed her a teacup. She took it and mouthed ‘thank you’, with a soft smile. He went and stood by the door to better see his sleeping baby. Eyes tight, mouth against Rabbit. Deep, going deeper into sleep. He looked at Christina who had her eyes shut. He sipped his tea and as he did, Emmie walked past him and climbed into bed, snuggling into the still-warm pillow. He could hear rain outside; gusts against the uPVC. He could hear the road outside the sweet depth of innocent sleep. ‘Just one more,’ he thought. ‘One more.’
Structo interviews Iain (M.) Banks by e ua n
m o n ag h a n
ain Banks one of a rare breed. He is one of the very few novelists who manages to operate in two apparently disparate literary camps simultaneously, those of literary fiction and science fiction. He is known to many as the acclaimed if somewhat controversial author of The Wasp Factory, his debut novel, published in 1984 when Banks was 30. He has since written another dozen books which can loosely be given the tag ‘literary fiction’, while at the same time cultivating an equally successful and almost as prolific science fiction alter-ego who goes by the name of Iain M. Banks. [In the interests of not being a huge hypocrite (see my editorial), I should point out that this interview contains spoilers of Banks’ novel Matter. Those passages are noted. – ed.]
Which came first, the love of literature in general or of sci-fi? banks: Well, I suppose my first love was just reading – you know, per se – I was just reading anything really. I was one of those voracious readers as a kid, I would read almost anything. I always preferred fiction I suppose, rather than biography or non-fiction, although I read a lot of that as well, especially when I was growing up. I was born in ’54, so I really started properly to get to understand more my likes and dislikes in the ’60s. Back then there were a lot of war stories coming out; stories of what had gone on in the Second World War. But mostly it was fiction. At some point fairly early on – certainly by my early teens – I discovered that of all the different genres of fiction, science fiction I loved the most. I’ve always loved adventures of any sort; you can go back to the Enid Blyton stuff or whatever; I always liked excitement. And science fiction just seemed to me to be the most free of the genres in the sense that you didn’t know where you’re going to end up when you started the story, you could be anywhere in time, back or forward, it didn’t have to have a human protagonist, it could be a machine or it could be an alien. I just love that feeling; you’ve no idea where you’re going to end up, you have to start picking up clues from the first word or the first sentence. But I was always aware that there was such a thing as proper literature – classical literature – and certainly before I went to university, and very much when I was there at Stirling, between about ’72 and ’75, I was reading a lot – trying to catch up with the classics basically, going out and reading stuff I didn’t have to read for my courses. I was reading Homer and I was reading Lucretius; I must have spent a vast amount of money, especially proportionately for the amount of disposable income I had, on Penguin books. A huge amount of stuff, but at the same time science fiction was … I wouldn’t say it was a guilty pleasure, it was a happy pleasure. I was very happy to proselytize, trying to persuade my friends that this was the stuff. structo: A good time to be getting to sci-fi then? The ’60s? banks: They always say that the golden age of science fiction is when you personally are 14! It certainly felt like that to me. I was inspired by lots of different types of books, and wanted to emulate those. I think particularly because I’ve always had an arguably over-active imagination, science fiction offered the widest field to operate inside, so I was always going to be attracted to it. structo: What did you study at Stirling? banks: I studied English and philosophy; did those both for three years, and did one and half years of psychology as well, to make up the course credits. I was registered with the English department, and it was an English degree that I finally left with, but I got better marks at philosophy – that’s only because you can waffle more, you can get away with it, you know? structo: Did you go to university specifically to improve your writing, or to learn more about writing craft? banks: I had this mad idea that if you wanted to be a writer you should obviously study English Literature. Partly just to get an idea how to do it, but also to check out what the forebears had been up to. I think I had this slightly naïve idea, looking back. I remember, years later, talking to a friend
of mine, he’d gone to arts school, and he said ‘yes, when you go to art school, you don’t just study old artists, you do art! The main part of what you’re doing is creating art’, and before I found out what universities were really like I thought, well, you spend lots of your time writing. Writing English, writing stories, or articles, or whatever. I was slightly miffed to discover that it wasn’t how it worked at all – all you were writing were essays. structo: You weren’t tempted by creative writing then? banks: There was a creative writing course at Stirling. It wasn’t a formal course, it was a club rather, not part of the curriculum. It has become so since and I’ve worked on it and helped out, but I’m not terribly good at it to be honest; I don’t have the gift of being a good teacher. I’m also far too generous, I want to give them all As. I remember being taken aside by my co-marker, who was actually one of my tutors at the time, and he said, ‘if you give them an A it means it’s fit to be published! It can go straight into a professional, paid publication.’ structo: You’ve never been tempted by writers’ groups? banks: I approve of the idea in principle, but I don’t think it’s right for me. I think I might have gone to one writers’ group once, before I got anything published – a long, long time ago – it didn’t feel right for me. I generally enjoyed it, but there were aspects of the creative writing club that I wasn’t entirely happy with … I think it’s mainly being criticised! [Laughter] Like there was something wrong with what I’d written! So I approve of the general idea. At the very, very least, creative writing courses do no harm, and I’m sure for some people they are a very good idea, but I don’t think they’re right for everybody, and I don’t think they’ve been necessarily right for me. structo: Maybe it’s a way for people to get criticism that they wouldn’t otherwise find a place to get? banks: Uh huh. Maybe I’d have benefited more if I had got the criticism … [Laughter] Seriously … [More laughter] structo: A slightly random tangent, but I read somewhere that when you were at Stirling you were an extra in Monty Python?
Films, or whatever it was – want 150 extras to come and make this film. So we were up at Sheriffmuir, and yes, we spent the day filming for the princely sum at the Equity rate of £2 for the day’s work – oh, we’d have paid £20 – it was very good money for what they were asking us to do. That was 1973 I think it was. So you can imagine at the weekend talking to my pals at my home in Greenock: ‘So what did you do this week?’ ‘Oh, I went to a disco at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow. What did you do?’ ‘Oh, I sat around and got stoned.’ ‘What about you Banksy?’ ‘Oh … I spent the afternoon filming with the Python boys!’ [Laughter] structo: So you knew when you went to university that you wanted to be a writer? banks: Yes. It was kinda daft. It doesn’t necessarily teach you anything really about being a better writer. That’s why I took philosophy; you’ve got to have philosophy if you’re gonna be writing books. You’re working with characters; you need to know about psychology – idiotic really, absolutely stupid. I was kind of daft at the time. The main thing it did was it gave me time, and you had a lot of time, especially if you wrote fairly quickly like I did. I was used to writing three-and-a-half or four thousand words a day, and to be given an essay for fifteen hundred words, I’d be like, ‘what?! How dare you insult me with this?!’ structo: If anyone knows something about you personally, other than about you as a writer, they know that you write quickly, and in bursts, and then people maybe have this idea that you swan around for the rest of the year. [Laughter] What is your writing year like? You write a book a year on average? banks: I’m getting back to that. I thought I should slow down a bit, but I seem to be speeding up again. The three months immediately after a book there’s a lot of residual stuff to do, you know, editing and stuff. Then there’s the second draft … Well, they don’t really have draft one and draft two any more, they have draft 3.7, that’s the way it works with digitisation. So, three months of not very much, and three months of thinking generally about the next book; then three months of plotting it out, marshalling the ideas and getting the plot itself working in my head and drawing up my notes so I always know where I’m going next when I actually
‘But rather more to the point there
was a gigantic wooden rabbit there, with huge floppy ears. On wheels.’ banks:
Yes! Well, it wasn’t just me; there were 149 other Stirling students. There had been rumours around the campus that the Python team were filming nearby. At a castle called Doune. I walked out there one Sunday to see, and sure enough, there was … actually I found a bit of film! [Laughter] Straight from the Enid Blyton school of detective work. But rather more to the point there was a gigantic wooden rabbit there, with huge floppy ears. On wheels. It was I think about a week later that there was a notice on the general notice board at Stirling saying: Monty Python – or Handmade
start writing. The final three months is actually writing the novel. The thing is, the bit where I’m thinking about it, when I’m planning it, to the untutored eye that looks like I’m doing nothing, because as you say it’s swanning around basically! I’m sat at my desk for, well a lot more of the time doing day-to-day emails than I spend thinking and working on the book itself … structo: You’re not one of those writers who turn off the Internet; unplugs the cables, and locks yourself away? banks: Not quite. What I do is write at the (cont. over)
computer, and the only thing that it’s connected to is the mains. There’s a computer to the side that’s got email and iTunes and all of that sort of stuff, which is quite handy if I do absolutely have to do some research, which I try to avoid doing if at all possible. It’s nice to have that there. It’s not so bad. Neither of them is set up to chime to tell me there are emails, so I can ignore that, but I do answer the phone. I don’t have this writerly shed at the bottom of the garden. structo: Were you writing all the time through school, university – banks: Oh, yes – structo: What kind of thing were you writing? banks: I started just writing little stories in school. I knew I wanted to be a writer by about the age of 11, I’ve got documentary evidence somewhere – and I chose my university course around being a writer. I started trying writing novels, I wasn’t really interested in short stories. Well, I loved short stories, I just didn’t like writing them particularly. So I started trying to write a novel when I was 14, but it turned out it was only a long short story. I’d filled three whole exercise books with writing and it still wasn’t a proper novel! That’s why when I was 16 I wrote a spy story, it was a decent sort of size; it certainly looked like a novel, and it had the same number of words as a novel. So that’s when I was 16, and when I was 18 at university, and before starting and in the first year I was writing what turned out to be an immensely long satirical novel, very much influenced by Catch-22, but set slightly in the future – not science fiction, but very, very near future – and it ended up – oh, around 440,000 words. It taught me the lesson that I cannot work without a plan. I need to have a plan, otherwise the novel will just go on forever, forever generating new plot lines. structo: I think some of your fans would let that happen. banks: It’s too hard work! [Laughter] You’d hit burn-out. structo: How long did you write for before thinking about submitting things to publishers? banks: I submitted the second book, the nearfuture satire. Actually had it typed out professionally by a bevy of typists and sent it off, but to no avail. And then the next three novels were science fiction. There had been very, very slight science fictional traces within the satire, but it was more that it was set in the future to make the world that it was set within slightly more plausible. So there was a very slight science fictional bit in it, whereas then I wrote three SF novels. I think it was Against a Dark
Who did you submit that to? banks: I started with Jonathan Cape because they were publishing some of the novels I liked best at the time, people like Ian McEwan for example. And I think McMillan were about the seventh on the list, and it was McMillan that ended up publishing it. My actual association with what is now Hachette – in the shape of Orbit and Little, Brown – in a sense goes back to the year after, because it was what was then McDonald Futura – which was the forbear of the present company – that published The Wasp Factory in paperback, with the iconically fabulous black and white cover. That’s been a big element of continuity; I’ve probably had fewer changes of publisher than most writers, apart from in the States where I think I’ve been published by just about every publisher there is! [Laughter] structo: I noticed your latest Iain Banks novel has an ‘M’ inserted on the American covers. banks: That’s because science fiction sells better in the States, so they thought they’d put the ‘M’ in. structo: It does look as if your two personalities, Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, are beginning to merge. banks: Oh and deliberately so! With Transition it split away again. That was the idea: they split apart after The Bridge, which is the last time they’ve synthesised, and after that the science fiction became much more ‘space opera’, and the mainstream became much less fantastical. For years I’d been thinking about doing something like The Bridge again, and bringing the two back together, and I nearly did it with the mainstream novel before: The Steep Approach to Garbadale. At one point it was going to be a completely different kind of book; it was going to be about people – in it there’s the idea of this game the family own – people would become trapped inside the game or it would be much more important to them. In the end I decided I couldn’t make it work; it sounded just like an upmarket version of ‘Jumanji’, so it became much more conventional – and that’s the first time I was really thinking about it properly, and after that I thought: ‘right, I’m really gonna do it’. I used The Bridge as a template to bring the two back together. But it’s a temporary meeting. It might happen again, I’m not saying that’s it forever, but Surface Detail is back to the Culture, and the next mainstream one I’m thinking about at the moment and will be writing early in January and February next year, is just purely … well, it’ll be a thriller I guess, more family based – again I’m back to families. I’m obsessed by families.
‘I’ve always loved Brian Aldiss’s categorisation of ‘wide-screen baroque’ space opera. I’d love to identify with that a bit more’
Background first, and then Use of Weapons, and then Player of Games. I think that was the way round it was. I felt pretty good about Player of Games, I thought it was a good novel; it works well as a novel, and happens to be set in this thing called the Culture. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t go anywhere, so I thought: ‘right, I’m going to write something mainstream’. That way at least it will get rejection letters from a wider pool of publishers! This was back when you could send stuff straight to the publisher. It went into the slush pile, or over the transom, as we used to say, but publishers would accept manuscripts directly from writers. Nowadays it’s pretty much the case that you have to have an agent first. It’s fair enough in a sense; the publishers had to spend an amount of money, not that they were paying readers very well, but they did have to pay them to read the stuff, and that must have been a pretty thankless job, because ninety-something percent of it would be rubbish. Just terrible, and there would be very few gems amongst the dross. I was lucky that The Wasp Factory was regarded as a gem not a piece of –
Do you ever try and work things like that into your books? Do you ever say to yourself, ‘today I’m going to write about … redemption’? banks: Oh God no. That’s why I’m always slightly confused and bamboozled when people say, ‘what’s the theme of your next novel?’ I mean, I don’t know! I rely on clever people reading it and telling me later. I don’t think in terms of themes, I think in terms of stories and plot. In that sense I’m more of a craft-based writer than a self-consciously artbased writer. I like the mechanics of the plot, I like the surprise endings, things like that. It all has to make some kind of emotional sense, and you can’t help it meaning something else if you’re concerned about something or worried about something or have strong views about something, it will tend to come out, but it didn’t work for me to start from that point of view and say ‘right: this is going to be about the alienation of late 20th and 21st century capitalism’ or something. structo: If you meet someone on a train, and they ask you what kind you do, what do you say? banks: I say I write books. That I’m a novelist. If
they ask what sort, I say fifty percent mainstream and fifty percent science fiction. That’s enough. structo: What do you think of the term ‘literary fiction’? banks: Well, I understand it and kind of accept it. Again, I suppose for want of a better term, some of my works are. I’m not entirely sure all of the critics would agree though. It’s certainly fiction, but I think they may be a bit too playful and tongue-in-cheek, a bit too narrative- and plot-based and so on to qualify entirely as literary fiction in some people’s definitions. structo: And on the sci-fi side, ‘space opera’? banks: Oh yeah I’m quite happy with that. I hope it’s thoughtful space opera, but oh yeah. I’ve always loved Brian Aldiss’s categorisation of ‘wide-screen baroque’ space opera. I’d love to identify with that a bit more. structo: There seems to be a bit of a space opera resurgence in Scotland at the moment. I mean Garry Gibson … banks: Yeah, and Charles Stross, and Ken MacLeod of course. I’ve been asked about this by a fair few people over the past year or so; it could just be a statistical cluster, I mean these things happen, and that’s just the way it is. I don’t think there’s anything in the water, and I don’t think it’s some kind of up-swelling of national pride postdevolution, so I’m at a loss to account for it. I’m very pleased though. structo: Do you ever get to meet those guys? banks: Occasionally. I meet Ken fairly often because we’re best pals; we’ve been pals since about 1970. We go way back. But not particularly. You tend to meet people if you share a publisher, at events and things like EasterCon; you bump into people there. We don’t meet in a secret room and plot domination of space opera over the coming years. Maybe we should actually! structo: Turning to the Culture: you said this was the third of the sci-fi books that you wrote that was published? banks: The Culture came about as a background for a story idea I was having about Zakalwe [the main character] in Use of Weapons as this ultimate marshal hero guy. I just wanted him to be this marshal genius, but at the same time wanted him to be absolutely definitely on the side of the good guys. And the Culture started out as a way to excuse his actions. I had lots and lots of ideas floating around, and lots of feelings, and I wanted to react against what I saw as the right-wing bias in a lot of the science fiction I’d been reading. Those ideas crystallised around the Culture, it became this nucleus that built up over the years. Use of Weapons came first, and it was a Culture novel even in its first incarnation way back in whenever it was, ’75 or ’77. Then Player of Games was the second, and it was much more consciously a Culture novel, it started out right from the beginning being about the Culture. Of course at that point the Culture was a mature technology; I’d been thinking about it for years, and talking about it to Ken MacLeod as well. We used each other as sounding boards. Then Consider Phlebas was going to be a one-off, because I’d seen Star Wars and thought, ‘you can’t get away with some of that!’ They’d had some ideas for action set-pieces that I thought were just ridiculous. I thought, ‘you can’t put that in a novel! Hmm, you kinda can … Right, I’m going to out-Star Wars Star Wars!’ structo: The biggest train crash you can possibly stage. banks: [Laughter] Exactly! It wasn’t entirely successful, but that was the idea. The Culture was used as a background. Even by then though, although none of the science fiction had been published, in a sense I was always looking for different ways to explore it. I thought it would be interesting to have the main protagonist in a novel as an enemy of the Culture. It gives you an idea of how mature it was in my head. No one else’s though … structo: It’s interesting that there’s a sub-division between your sci-fi: the Culture and the rest. Of course you have fans of different aspects of your work. Do you ever meet them and have them say, ‘can you write more about the Culture?’ Or of your mainstream work?
I definitely get people asking for more Culture, and that always brings a smile to my publisher’s face, you know: ‘The next one’s a Culture novel.’ ‘Oh goodie! We like the other ones too, but …’ I’m sure it adds a fair bit to the sales, putting the words, ‘the next Culture novel’ on the cover. That’s understandable, and I kinda share that feeling because I really like writing about the Culture! When I’m writing something that isn’t about the Culture, it’s not that I’ve got bored with it, it’s just that I want to write something slightly different. I guess I’m trying to prove that I’m not just a one-trick pony in science-fictional terms, and only writing about this one universe. structo: Is the Culture a society you would be happy to live in? banks: Good grief yes! Oh yeah. I wouldn’t understand anyone who didn’t. structo: Do you see it working? banks: Absolutely, yeah. It’s just my idea though, I could be entirely wrong! I think with the proviso that it’s a post-scarcity society, so you don’t have the pressures and tensions of people competing and being greedy, and not having enough to go around, and definitely with the advent of the Minds [artificial intelligences, or AIs, created by the Culture], so in a lot of ways it’s not a human society, it’s a Mind-run society. The AIs are in a sense in control, certainly in terms of day-to-day running – and possibly in terms of Machiavellian manoeuvring behind the scenes. You’re never entirely sure, but you wouldn’t put it past the blighters. So I don’t see why it shouldn’t in that sense; I mean there are a lot of presuppositions in there: faster-than-light travel being one! But absolutely; it’s my secular heaven. It’s the best I can think of in terms of something as close to a genuine utopia as it’s possible to get, and in many ways it is a utopia. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s as close as you’re going to get with anything remotely like us, if not in charge, then involved. structo: So you’d be very happy climbing mountains and reading and generally enjoying yourself ? banks: And lava rafting! I was very proud of that! Actually, I’m not sure I would want to try lava rafting, it sounds a bit dangerous. I do spend a lot of time trying to think up ways to show that the Culture are deeply cool, and a place that you would obviously want to live. Trouble is, that’s the last thing you would want to write about. Writing about people having fun is incredibly boring. structo: Is there an end-point to the Culture where they have expanded to the point where everyone is in the Culture and just having a great time? banks: Well, no. The shiny new idea mentioned in the last couple of novels is that the Culture is an exemplar. Obviously it doesn’t want to conquer and enslave anyone, and it doesn’t necessarily want to bring everyone into the Culture, but it thinks that everyone should come up with their own idea of the Culture. As long as they can get over their silly objections like getting rid of money and letting the machines basically run things – you know, minor objections like that. They want to leave this legacy, ‘look this is how you do it; how you run a decent society’. That has been built in to it, especially since Look to Windward. structo: Speaking of Look to Windward, how did the T.S. Eliot poem The Waste Land spark the naming of both that novel and Consider Phlebas? banks: I love the poem. I’m not a great fan of what he stood for in terms of his politics and so on, but I think he was a genius, and The Waste Land is simply my favourite poem of the twentieth-century. I remember, maybe the first time I read it, the words ‘consider Phlebas’ just jumped out at me, and just said, ‘title’. I don’t know why, but I made a note of it then and there, and that would be back in high school. Then re-reading it while trying to think up titles for the next book, I thought it would be nice to try to use another title inside The Waste Land. I didn’t think it would be the preceding three words! [Laughter] ‘Ah, that’s even better!’ structo: There’s a website called reddit, which is a social bookmarking and community website. I told them I was coming to interview you, and I asked them if they could submit some questions. These
are the top three. banks: All right then. structo: ‘flyfisher64’ would like to know how you come up with the Culture ship names, saying that ‘the humour in them makes the story much more enjoyable’. banks: It’s about doing something different than the way it has been done in the past. No matter how much you’ve liked or even loved stories or approaches to writing, and in science fiction in particular, there are always some areas that you think, ‘hmm, I could do better’. Sometimes it’s a generational thing, you can see the old guard doing it one way, and that something better must be possible. One area was simply that I felt all these important-sounding ships are called things like Intrepid or Indefatigable or Enterprise, and I thought that if, making the assumption that these ships didn’t have captains – it would be ridiculous for a human to command a ship, because it would be like a flea commanding a human being – they’d be their own people, their own individuals, and I think they’d just go for slightly silly names, or very abstruse or odd names. That was the initial idea, and after that it’s just about keeping your eyes and ears open, and just noting things. Having said all that, there is a mindset I get into, when I’m starting to think like a ship manufactory, one of these gigantic things that actually constructs the star-ships, and it is about the attitude the Culture have towards inferior civilisations, like us; slightly indulgent, but at the same time morally censorious. One of the ships in Surface Detail has been called ‘Me, I’m Counting’. It’s that thing you hear soldiers say, ‘ah who’s counting’. Well actually, forget about your fictitious god, there is actually someone up there, ‘actually I’m counting; I’m watching what you’re doing’. structo: Or ‘More Gravitas’? banks: Oh yes the Gravitas ships! The idea behind that was that some civilisation criticised the Culture for constructing these fabulous and wonderful devices and then giving them stupid names that ‘lacked gravitas’. So instantly one of the manufactories went, ‘that’s a good idea!’, hence ‘Stood Far Back When The Gravitas Was Ladled Out’ and ‘Gravitas ... Gravitas ... Not Much Call For It Around Here I’m Afraid’, and even the zenlike one which is ‘Not Much You-Know-What’, which manages to be a gravitas-series ship without mentioning it at all. structo: The next question was by archlich: ‘it seemed that Matter was truncated, is there an alternative ending’? [The following answer contains large spoilers for the novel Matter. – ed.] banks: Oh no, it was always going to have that sort of ending. I wanted it to have this long slow build-up as you get to the point when you find out what’s really going on and what’s happening, the threat that’s posed by this thing that they’ve pulled out of the nameless city. At the end I wanted it to go haywire kinetic and just be a continual 100page rush from then on in. It ends up in death and destruction, not death and destruction of the whole world, but of the royal house – who are all dead at the end – and even the Culture agent is dead. I was wondering how to round that all off at the end, obviously it’s all set in the Culture, but a lot of it is set in this other world. It was one of the first books where I was trying to contextualise the Culture within the greater meta-society or meta-civilisation. There were a lot of terms and new words that I had to try and explain, so I thought I might just put that into the book. That then gives you this space before the ending, which is an incredible rush and then a slam into a brick wall. Then before the proper coda, the actual ending of it, which has a happy and progressive note, at least you’ve got this buffer. I think it would have been completely wrong to go straight from the slam-bang ending into the sort-of-happy ending. It was nice to have something in between that had its own part to play. So no, it wasn’t truncated in that sense. Bits were taken out of the book, but they were taken out earlier, strands that were taken out. In fact one of those will appear in a programme book for Novacon 40 which is happening in November. Another strand which I’ve taken out I’m not going to be revealing because it’s still quite a good idea, and I might use
it for another novel. Ha ha! But no, the ending was always supposed to be of that nature. structo: Another hard to pronounce one ... ‘varangian’ possibly – banks: Who can say? structo: ‘I’d like to know if there’s any prospect of him writing for other media, e.g. doing a Doctor Who script or the story for a videogame or a graphic novel.’ Is this something that just doesn’t interest you or is it the case that the opportunity hasn’t arisen? banks: I tried writing a script for The Wasp Factory years ago, and I didn’t really like it. You get used to being God when you’re a writer or a novelist, and I’m not really a ‘team player’ to be perfectly frank – I put it down to being an only child – and stuff like Doctor Who ... I quite like Doctor Who, I’m not a mega-fan, but I enjoy it, and I was talking to Paul Cornell, one of the main writers, and he was explaining some of the rules that you have to follow. One of them is that the monster has to go back in the box at the end of the story. Whether it’s after one or more episodes, at the end, the monster has to be put away again. You can’t reel it out again as an existing threat. It’s all these sort of rules, and I’m not used to having to obey that sort of stuff. I like complete freedom, and if you write a script of any sort – and games being the same – you’ve got to cooperate with lots of people. I can do that, and can enjoy it up to a point, but in the end I don’t like being told, ‘no, we’re not going do it that way’. I like having the final word. In principle I kind of like the idea, but I think I’d flounce out before too long. structo: Okay, so they were reddit’s questions. On the games thing: I read somewhere that you’re a Civilisation fan, or you were? banks: Oh I still am. I’m just not playing at the moment. I’m in remission! structo: So you’re not playing the new one, number five, at the moment then? banks: No not five, I haven’t tackled five yet. That would have to be into late spring next year once the next book’s out of the way. It’s recreational you know. structo: Just a few quick ones to finish off then. How long between starting writing, and getting published? banks: Oh I was an overnight success! Sixteen years. structo: You wrote those three sci-fi books and then – banks: The spy story, the Catch-22-influenced satire, and then the three SF novels and then The Wasp Factory. structo: Will either of the earlier two ever see the light of day? banks: Oh no no, oh no. ‘Juvenilia’ I think is the term. Or ‘rubbish’. structo: Do you subscribe to the ‘million words of rubbish’ theory? banks: Basically yes. The only person I have personally seen disprove that, or test the rule, is Ken MacLeod. I think Ken did the million words of rubbish in his head, the cheating blighter that he is. [Laughs] His first novel got published by the first publisher he sent it to! It’s a good job he’s my pal or I’d hate him! structo: I think Steven King is a big proponent of the same theory. banks: You have to find your own voice, and one of the main things is to learn what you have to leave out, which is as important as what you put in there. At the start you put everything in there – ‘why use one adjective when seven will do?’– and it’s not knowing how much to leave to the imagination of the reader, because the reader is your co-conspirator in this, they’re not just a blank entity sitting there, absorbing. You have to make the reader’s brain work otherwise literature doesn’t work at all. That’s the main thing you have to learn, and it can take a long, long time. The rest is just practice. The thing about writing is that it’s just like everything else: the more you do it, the better you get. It’s that simple. The new Culture novel, Surface Detail, is out now.
Man on a Mission by dav i d
b r ag a
urrounded by the rest of his unit, Private John Walters put streaks of mud on his cheeks and forehead, for camouflage. Listening to his instructions once again, John’s determination was clear on his face as he tried to commit them to memory. He knew the importance of this mission, and his body was producing so much adrenaline he was forced to stamp his feet and blow out air in nervous, visible plumes in front of him. He felt as if he was breathing in more air than he could store, and unless he got rid of the excess he would burst. To stop his hands shaking in front of his colleagues, he thrust them firmly into his coat pockets, balling them into tight fists deep in the snug lining. When Captain Sharwood asked him if he understood what failure would mean, John tried to prevent his gaze from dropping to the ground. He knew, all right. It meant he might as well not come back. For a lowly grunt like himself, this was his one chance to shine, and when the Captain asked him if he would fail, he knew what to say. ‘No, Sir!’ Each word was delivered with an earnest fervour that drew a satisfied smile from the Captain, and with the cheers of the rest of his unit hanging in the air, John Walters was despatched from the clearing into the surrounding woods to begin his mission. Whilst he understood the ramifications of failure, he also knew what success might mean. He was close to a promoshun. His captain had told him so. Just succeed with this, he told himself, and everything would be different. The rest of the unit had all seemed to want him to do it. They had cheered him as he left, hadn’t they? Although there’d been laughing, too. Grazing his arm on a protruding branch made him wince, but the determination did not waver. His eyes darted randomly over the mottled green canopy that lay in front of him and all around him, making him feel claustrophobic. His breathing was heavy in his own ears, and he encouraged himself with little meaningless phrases. His running equated to a cumbersome shuffle, his feet hardly leaving the floor, which caused frequent stumbles over slippery leaves, jutting roots, and the uneven ground. John knew that he was stupid. A dummy. An idiot. He couldn’t avoid the fact, seeing he had been told it all his life. He had always been big for his age, so the bullying had nearly always been verbal rather than physical, but it had hurt as much. Maybe more. They called him Hulk which, on the face of it, could be read as a compliment to his size and strength, but he knew the way they had said it; he saw the contempt behind their eyes. He was stupid, but he could still see that. Well, this was it. Hulk Walters was going to show them what he could do. When he returned victorious, he knew the promoshun would change everything. Maybe they’d even come up with a new nickname for him. The smell of the forest usually calmed him, but that was when he was engaged on one of his long, aimless strolls. Now, the damp bark and pungent moss were oppressive odours that churned his mind and his stomach until he felt dizzy and nauseous. Eventually he emerged from the woods and crossed the road, checking left and right for cars. He ran clumsily, even after leaving the woodland, aware that speed was vital to the success of the mission. Trying to stoop in the open terrain to conceal his over-large figure, and yet not stooping enough to be effective, he created a ludicrous appearance: a lumbering, self-conscious figure with limbs apparently too long for their owner, seemingly constantly a step away from tripping himself up. Having navigated his way across the road, he crashed through the light foliage separating the road from the grounds of the nearby house, and paused, panting, to try and compose himself. This was it. This was the scene of the mission. He was on a supplies raid. According to Captain Sharwood, supplies were dangerously low, and the
needs of the army overrode any laws, such as theft. Without supplies, the company might starve, and who would defend the freedom of the country then? No, this was a situation that needed direct and immediate action. Staring at the house, John felt, and fought to suppress, a sense of rising panic. This couldn’t be right. If he was on a glorious mission, he wouldn’t feel what was pressing down on his guts: a sense of pure, unadulterated wrongness. He didn’t feel like a hero on the verge of success. He felt like a small child about to get caught. Recalling the implications of a failed mission, however, he pushed the doubts down, away into his churning stomach. Spotting an open window, he ran towards it, again affecting that strange lumbering gait. It seemed to take an age, but he got there without incident, and, not allowing himself a moment to reconsider, he pulled the window wide open and hoisted himself up. Breathlessly and gracelessly, he clambered into what appeared to be an old, carefully decorated dining room, complete with a large, immaculately polished table, and a matching dresser on the far side of the room. He had been briefed on which item constituted his number one priority on the raid (they’d all called it noomero oono), and where it would be. He ran for the dresser, and began opening the cupboards one after the other, until he found it. A large clear bottle, half full, containing a clear liquid and with a word in large red letters on the side. He didn’t understand the word, but had been shown it written down so he could recognise it, in preparation for the mission. Speaking aloud, he broke the word into two confirming syllables: ‘Smern. Off.’ As he turned to flee, the door next to him opened, and a middle-aged man in a loose-fitting, woollen cardigan walked in. For a moment, they stared at each other, frozen as if posing for an artist: the man leaning slightly backwards, his mouth forming an almost perfect ‘O’ of surprise; John’s countenance a contrast between the black mud plastered over his face and the whites of his helplessly panicking eyeballs, his only movement a rapidly pulsing chest. He saw the man’s face in intricate detail, from the neatly trimmed, brown moustache to the vein that protruded slightly on his forehead. John’s first instinct was to run, but he saw that the man was between him and the window. The mission, and all it stood for, was in terrible danger. As the man uttered an indignant exclamation, John acted, instincts pushing to the fore while his mind dithered helplessly. He had to stop the noise. Feeling as sluggish as in a dream, he utilised the only weapon he had. He swung the vodka bottle round in a perfect arc, slamming it into the side of Keith Brook’s purple, stammering face. The bottle smashed open, and an arc of blood and vodka spattered a morbidly picturesque pattern across the table and carpet, and over one of the walls. The unfortunate Mr Brook collapsed and lay still, and a scared, disbelieving twelve-year-old boy looked, dumbfounded, at what was left of the bottle top, trembling in the white, tight grip of his stupid, hulking hand. ‘Keith?’ A woman’s uncertain voice came from the corridor. John ran for the window, and vaulted out. Catching his foot on the sill, he fell and lay, momentarily winded, on the path outside. As he struggled upright and limped awkwardly away towards the trees, no longer stooping, the devastated wail of Mrs Brook followed him. He would hear that sound in his mind repeatedly through the days to come, and also in the nights. Especially in the nights. Running back towards the woods, he remembered the promised price of failure, and stopped dead, knowing that he would never be accepted by the other kids now. He knew how angry they would be. Especially Bobby Sharwood. He’d punish him, with all the others laughing. Everyone laughed
when Bobby Sharwood did something, no matter how cruel, because everybody loved him. It’s why he always got to play Captain. Even Hulk Walters loved him, despite the jibes, despite the scorn. He still longed for just one compliment, one pat on the back to say ‘Well done’. He’d console himself in the moments before sleep by conjuring up such a scenario in his mind. He knew he couldn’t go there now, not to them, not without the bottle. But he’d had it. That was the biggest regret. He’d had it in his hands. He’d held the Smern off. It wasn’t fair. The town clock chimed five, and his heart wrenched. He knew that five was for teatime. Five always meant tea. His mum always made him promise to come back when he heard five o’clock strike, and whenever the clock announced the hour, he would pause whatever he was doing, and listen intently, to make sure. When it was five o’clock, he would stop whatever game he was playing, however involved he was, and run home as fast as he could. Starting back towards the town, towards home, he realised he would have to pass the house that he had just run from. He couldn’t go back there, not for anything. He stopped, looking uncertainly in every direction, impotently clenching and relaxing his fists, tears running silently down his cheeks, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly. Eventually, Private Hulk Walters, grubbily rubbing his mudstreaked face with his sleeve, sat down beside the road, and it was there, asleep in the long grass, that they found him.
A Garbled Narrative by j . j .
stei n f el d
I’m not going to start at the beginning or the middle or even at the end none of those trajectories this morning which will soon be afternoon even if I desire night but time is going by too fast for any authentic calculation so I’ll start in well-shaped subjectivity and move toward abstraction just for the heck of it just for the sake of being forsaken how exciting there is a knock at the door a lovely rhythmic tapping bare-knuckled ghost or elegant imaginary something or the other at least I won’t be alone as I grapple with morning and afternoon and night whether I like it or not tripping over beginnings middles and ends.
Green Blackboards by a . h .
s a rg e a n t
Came to our school one summer’s day an Educationist, to say how research, costing coin and care, had proved beyond a doubt that there was benefit from blackboards green. It seemed that scientists had been conducting tests to ascertain which colour best allowed the brain absorb the things the teacher wrote upon the board. And at the vote they all agreed; the colour which relaxed the eyes, improved the pitch, allowed the writing to be seen the very best of all, was green. And I, who found the task of learning hard, whose gaze would oft beyond the yard seek bank and meadow, fields and trees, found here a lesson learned with ease; God chose a hue to set the scene, and for our comfort gave us green.
by du n c a n
jon e s
ucifer was sly. Lucifer was vicious. Lucifer was Amy’s cat. The name and the cat came together in one package. This was no Tiddles, no triple-barrelled Alberto-Cuddlington-Snuggles the Third. This truly was the feline Lucifer. Shredded curtains, pulverised mice and mauled flowerbeds bore witness to his demonic power. True, he could be cute. This was just to lure you in, draw you closer, get you within swiping distance. Just ask the Reverend Whitlock. (He of the blood-stained dog collar.) Yet one day Lucifer met his match. Not that tabby from behind the Co-op. Not some celebrity cat trainer from bbc Four. No. Miranda, age eight, sparkly hair slides and a permanent smile, from two doors up. Miranda knew nothing of Lucifer’s track record, not even his name. Like the passage they always read at weddings, Miranda was patient, Miranda was kind. So when Lucifer spat at her, she thought he had something stuck in his throat and got him a saucer of cream. When Lucifer took a deadly clawed swipe at her nose, she thought he was only being playful and tickled his tummy. Miranda even used her own pocket money to buy Lucifer a collar. Amy came home from work at the chiropractors one day to find Lucifer with a sparkly pink collar. His once gleaming, scheming eyes were now like the scuffed and battered toes of an eight-year-old boy’s school shoes. Lucifer looked forlornly up at his owner. If he could have spoken he would have said ‘Mother, take this clasp away from me’. Due to the attentions of Miranda, Lucifer was never quite the same cat again, which was ironic because Miranda was an absolute bugger at Sunday School.
as flies are wont to do by c o l i n
d. h a l l or a n
sat on a front porch in Albany, a stranger to those walking past the house, stranger still, perhaps, because of the large black cast engulfing one of my legs on this, a heavy August afternoon, with a pencil in my right hand, Best American Poetry in my left, and as i took in that prosodic conglomerate of 2008, two flies landed as one on that very left arm which found itself attached to the hand attached to those poems, declared best just two years prior; a brief rest from mid-air life-creation, and i paused before i swatted, wondering if i could end two lives before the hundred-and-a-half were conceived, and i paused again before I shook them off, looking down at my northwesterly extremity, taking in the flies, precariously stacked, and the book, and i paused once more because i couldn’t help but see myself in the scene, not just my arm, but all of me, because i was the flies, the book poised to swat, even though it was held in the same hand on whose stem i was perched, and could this book, with the seventyfive best, be ready to swat the hundred-and-a-half offspring my mind had yet sprung, and i paused before i watched them fly, carrying on their cascade of being, leaving me, with screws in my leg, book in my hand, pencil in the other, patiently waiting to betray my musings to a receipt that now lived as a bookmark, grounded.
Last Autumn† & Suncakes
by j oa n
Amazing how many stars fit inside my windowpane. A flying carpet of sugar maple leaves unfurls along my road. Tenacious … one ragged leaf clings to the bough. Just enough light to glimpse silhouettes of yellow trees against the dove-grey sky. After evening showers, a garden of bright meteors blossoms. Stopping to see the shape of a snowflake.
Do you know how to make them? They’re supposed to be light bright and full of vitamin C. Everyone says you just glow after eating one. My friend had a shining recipe I kept asking for. Suncakes stop you from being cold and lost in avalanches. I remember something about filling golden pans with flowers, seeds … sunflower seeds. Bake at high noon, of course. If only there were a suncake now to have with hot cocoa. My friend is so lucky wintering in Malibu. Who gave her that recipe anyway? I’m the one who’s freezing!
Office Girls by va n e s s a
So various ailments are getting you down Your all over weight-gain is making you frown You have fat chubby ankles and small saggy breasts You’re having bad hair and your flat is a mess You can’t smoke or drink as it makes you look old You live on your own and have no one to hold – But your social life equals your mum’s once a week Laura Ashley and next are your version of chic You feel so hard done by; you’re into self-help Though McKenna’s Hypnosis just sits on your shelf Your clothes don’t quite fit with your huge muffin top But give you some cakes and you’ll scoff down the lot You’re a perfect size ten but try to eat less Craving attention to blend in with the rest Low-fat lunches and dinners are topics for talk But you’d rather be driving than taking a walk You’re moaning about things time and again; Hair and your figure, clothes, money and men You’re stuck like a jumping record that’s broke Sitting there sipping your diet cherry coke And maybe I’m sorry I’ve slated your way But I sit in an office and hear you all day.
by t h e o d o r e
bu n k e r
he stars are grey, set on an onyx background with only a few smatterings of summer sky visible through the trees. The moon hangs limp in the sky, glowing a faded orange in the pale heavens. It is a clear but impossibly dim night, and it is time for a boy to face his fears. Slowly he climbs out of bed, careful not to let the floorboards creak. It is three-thirty in the morning. He creeps down the stairs and carefully, silently, cracks open the door. Faint light pours out but is quickly quenched by the closing of the door behind him. Fear is an invaluable emotion, no matter how much we would like to be without it. For fear makes us cautious, teaches us to think about our actions and consider the consequences. Fear flows thick in August’s veins, and this is his chance to defeat it, to seize and take control of it, to rid himself of this childish dread of the dark. Tonight he becomes a man, shedding the fears of a boy, or so he hopes. This will be a journey, a great battle, for fear is not easily conquered and to cast it away takes great strength. Strength he has yet to possess. So he leaves the house, that safe haven. He stumbles, slipping on the dew. The first step is the hardest, thinks August, as he raises his foot to take the next; the second is hard as well. But he manages it, and another. He marches into the oblivion of the forest, alone and afraid. In dim moonlight the trees look endless, stretching upwards into space. Light crawls down their trunks, pooling onto the ground in bland puddles. The colourless forest provides August with no comfort. The silence is broken by no sound other than his footsteps and harsh, terrified breathing. Fear is a terrible emotion; we should be able to explore the world fearlessly, using common sense to protect us instead of fear. Grass breaks underfoot, folding and bending and snapping beneath the weight. Groaning quietly, the forest waits for him to notice what is happening. It doesn’t take long. August feels it behind him, a presence, a malevolence rising from the very ground. There’s no point in turning; it’s there. So he runs. Far and fast he sprints through the grey trees, the forest a dull blur around him. A pounding deep in his ears, so loud the presence is surely right behind him. He runs faster. August knows the fear is winning, but he also knows that what he feels is real, is so strong that it outweighs his logic and forces him to keep running. Through the trees he sees a boat, a tiny vessel that might be his saviour. Tied to a dock it gleams in the ocean, the only brightness in the world. Light seems to shine not on it but from it, illuminating the dark. Silver ripples play across the water, glimmering in the night. August wants nothing more than to get to it. The moment he steps onto the boat it starts to move, as if it were waiting for him, had been idling there for some time, waiting. The boy stands with one arm wrapped around the mast, sail billowing outwards, thrusting the boat on across the ocean. The rain, beautiful, soft rain comes, gently falling on him and his nameless boat. Through the rain he sails, tiny droplets piercing the water, rolling off his body. Night falls, drowning the ocean and the waves, the smooth waves that rocked the boat but offered no resistance. A silence comes over the world and August is calm, the calmness that comes only from a peaceful ocean. He’s safe, far away from his pursuer, and never wants to know what it was, will never speak of this night, is careless that he does not know how to sail; August trusts the boat to bring him to the land. The rain continues to fall, washing away the sadness of life, as only the rain can. August sleeps then. But his slumber doesn’t last; he wakes to see that the boat has reached a grassy shore, and above that shore is a town. No, more
than a town. A city. The city was grey. August tells himself he isn’t afraid, but he knows he is. He’s cold and the night is not over. The moon is lost behind the buildings; tall, they stare down at him. He steps off the boat and the moment his feet are on the ground the boat slips away into the water again. August lets it go. It would return, or at least he hopes it will. August looks to the city. Its towering spires and buildings circle around each other. The sublime peace of the sea vanishes, swept out by the nightmare that stands before him. But as he enters the city he can see it for what it is: a shell. A hollow imitation lost forever to time. Rotting doors fall outwards, swaying on broken hinges, shattered glass lines the streets, reflecting August as he walks. Is there a faint sound in the background, some steady beat echoing down the broken avenues? He thinks there is, but perhaps it’s his imagination. Still he swears he can hear the sound of drums, coming up from the very ground. Curiosity grows inside like a vine, wrapping itself around his mind until he can think of nothing but the sound of the drums. So he changes his course, walking instead to the source of this strange sound, this beat that permeates his skin and sets itself deep within his soul. But the way to the drums is dark, and August is afraid. Then the drums are louder, much louder, even though he’s now standing still. He ducks into a building and runs to the top floor, desperate to get as far away from the drums as he can. They grow louder though, louder still. August has no choice but to look through the window, and wait for the drums. They come very soon. Carried by an army. What he had run from in the forest. Now he knows he was tricked into coming to their city, to see their march. He understands now, they’re coming to take the world, and he’s to be their messenger. He’s to bring word of their arrival, he knows it. And the only way to get back is with them. August tries to turn but can’t. His legs tremble, and to lift one just a little would surely cause the other to collapse under his weight. He shuts his eyes tight and slips to the ground, hugging his legs. The army marches past, their wretched drums beating endlessly, burrowing into his mind. August wishes he were anywhere but there; but then realizes he is the only one who can stop them. It’s the responsibility he has dreamed of all his life, only now he’s unsure if he’s strong enough. But there’s no one else, he thinks, no one else. And his fear turns to fire, and he stands. August goes down then, towards the men-whowere-not-quite-men, with the bodies of men but the heads of foxes and wolves. Heads not quite attached and some with no heads at all. The world would be flooded with fire, and all would be lost if this army was allowed to reach the world. So August goes out and down a side street, hidden from the army. And down that forsaken street he runs. Runs to beat the army to the shore, where he can see their ship. He reaches the beach before the army and runs aboard, steering the ship out, away from the city, to the sea; but he knows it will return, it will come back and take the army to his home where they will destroy it with fire and terror. But there is one way to prevent them. He climbs the mast. Raising his voice he calls to the army of foxes and wolves who were men, calls to them and commands them. The army continues straight into the water and onwards to the ship. Their marching grows soft as their feet and their bodies disappear into the water. But the drums continue to pound; up through the ship comes the demonic beat of the drums. August tries again and this time the army falters. He screams a great ringing shriek, and the soldiers stop. They halt and look, their canine gaze
unblinking. He tells them to turn and go back the way they came. They can’t have the world. They simply stare. He looks upon them with a terrible spark in his eyes and with a sharp note of rage in his voice, and repeats: They can’t have his world. They destroyed theirs in fire and war. They must live with what they’ve done. The world they want is taken. The foxes and wolves retreated then, and the world was safe. August knew courage now, and knew fear for what it was: a warning and a guide. He had conquered fear, for he is no longer afraid of it, and knows how to use it. The world is safe now because he listened to his fear. August climbs down to the deck and takes hold of the wheel, feeling the dark wood smooth in his hands. He turns it, slowly, and sets the ship to the sea.
The Woodstockian Rut by s a n d e r
ahrat had this kitten with a dying eye or something. She was pretty cool about it, she knew how to handle the situation but other women would just get tears in their eyes for sure. I was pretty bored that afternoon. We had a heat wave the other week but that turned 180 and into rain and wind. But now all of a sudden this afternoon just felt like the most flawless autumn day of the year. The one in which you can see what time it is by the golden sunlight reflecting on the yellowing leaves. F. and me, we took the car and started driving to the vet. I had nothing else to do. I really didn’t. And I’m always up for action so there I was on the passenger seat looking at the bypassing vineyards and at the shadows of the down facing oak trees over the mountain road. We went to Hout Bay and that drive is just about as beautiful as it can get on such a fall-imposing day. And for real, Cape Town just knows how to toss your everyday impulses into situations on which every European would dream to write a novel. The scenery as always is just one thing. Conversing with F. and on the backseat this box with border lining kittens, I don’t know what it was but it sure was something else. In Europe it’s more difficult to get yourself into storylines like this but in South Africa, especially in Woodstock, there’s always some impulsive situation waiting for you to get picked up like a lost coin on the pave of an empty street. And picking it up always feels like falling into a river. I always enjoyed peddling with the current just once and I always ended up in intensely flawless situations. Like on Peter’s private 60th birthday party. Like at the back of Joe White’s dodgy pawnshop. Like at the front row of the jazz fest with free suds under my seat. Like sleeping in an empty combivan in the sandiest country. Like on the couch of Jose’s jungle house messing around with his baby daughters. Picture yourself getting up for work, and when leaving the house life decides to change your direction, in just a flash, and all of a sudden you’re on a location and in a situation so cool you never were able to dream witnessing it. Especially since you were only going to work. When life on its own decides to break the grind of itself I from now on call it the Woodstockian Rut. It’s tautological in a way because Woodstock as I know it is mostly in its own rut but has a natural drive of getting out with hardly any effort. You following? Read those last two sentences again. It’s life to the fullest because of the primary goals and when those are achieved happiness follows. This explains why everyone in my fatherland is on meds and in therapy. There’s so much choice we don’t know what to pick what to focus on and where to go so media decides everything. The media decides our
m at t h e w h o d g e s
political leaders and your body weight. I’m typing this while being back in Europe. Here’s my home because I know it from the inside out. Therein lies the estranged and most difficult thing for me which is the fact that I’m sitting alone typing this while all my friends are sitting home as well, alone, listening to music, working on stuff that never gets published either or just watching fucked up television shit I would never want to get my own brains dirty on. I estimate that at least 80% of my European friends is watching crap while I’m typing this. And I’m positive they understand what low quality shit they’re chewing right now but they will deny liking it for sure. They’ll deny having watched it. And that really bums me out. It really does. And this is how it goes here. They’re still my friends. But I’m still hearing Fahrat’s engine. I can still hear the cats cry. We eventually saved the one with the eye. The rest’s ok too I heard. I still carry the shuffling cardboard box back inside.
Rambler #134 & Idleness *
by s a m u e l
What is there to say about Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) that has not already been said? He was an essayist, a poet, a critic and an editor, who spent nine years compiling perhaps his most famous work, the Dictionary of the English Language, which was eventually published in 1755. The first essay reproduced below is from The Rambler, a twice-weekly pamphlet containing Johnson’s essays which ran for two years from 1750, with this essay appearing on June 29th 1751. The second is from The Idler, Johnson’s column in the Universal Chronicle, a publication apparently created to house his writings, but which also published essays by Joshua Reynolds amongst others. The Idler again ran for two years, with Idleness being published in issue #31, on November 18th 1758. These essays have now entered the public domain.
Quix scit, an adjiciant hodiernae crastina summae Tempora Di superi! horace
Who knows if Heaven, with ever bounteous power, Shall add to-morrow to the present hour? francis
sat yesterday morning employed in deliberating on which, among the various subjects that occurred to my imagination, I should bestow the paper of today. After a short effort of meditation by which nothing was determined, I grew every moment more irresolute, my ideas wandered from the first intention, and I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject; till at last I was awakened from this dream of study by a summons from the press: the time was come for which I had been thus negligently purposing to provide, and, however dubious or sluggish, I was now necessitated to write. Though to a writer whose design is so comprehensive and miscellaneous that he may accommodate himself with a topic from every scene of life, or view of nature, it is no great aggravation of his task to be obliged to a sudden composition; yet I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty. There was however some pleasure in reflecting that I, who had only trifled till diligence was necessary, might still congratulate myself upon my superiority to multitudes who have trifled till diligence is vain; who can by no degree of activity or resolution recover the opportunities which have slipped away; and who are condemned by their own carelessness to hopeless calamity and barren sorrow. The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind; even they who most steadily withstand it find it, if not the most violent, the most pertinacious of their passions, always renewing its attacks, and, though often vanquished, never destroyed. It is indeed natural to have particular regard to the time present, and to be most solicitous for that which is by its nearness enabled to make the strongest impressions. When therefore any sharp pain is to be suffered, or any formidable danger to be incurred, we can scarcely exempt ourselves wholly from the seducements of imagination; we readily believe that another day will bring some support or advantage which we now want; and are easily persuaded, that the moment of necessity, which we desire never to arrive, is at a great distance from us. Thus life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolution which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd. Our
firmness is by the continual contemplation of misery hourly impaired; every submission to our fear enlarges its dominion; we not only waste that time in which the evil we dread might have been suffered and surmounted, but even where procrastination produces no absolute increase of our difficulties, make them less superable to ourselves by habitual terrors. When evils cannot be avoided, it is wise to contract the interval of expectation; to meet the mischiefs which will overtake us if we fly; and suffer only their real malignity without the conflicts of doubt and anguish of anticipation. To act is far easier than to suffer; yet we every day see the progress of life retarded by the vis inertiae, the mere repugnance to motion, and find multitudes repining at the want of that which nothing but idleness hinders them from enjoying. The case of Tantalus, in the region of poetic punishment, was somewhat to be pitied, because the fruits that hung about him retired from his hand; but what tenderness can be claimed by those who, though perhaps they suffer the pains of Tantalus, will never lift their hands for their own relief ? There is nothing more common among this torpid generation than murmurs and complaints; murmurs at uneasiness which only vacancy and suspicion expose them to feel, and complaints of distresses which it is in their own power to remove. Laziness is commonly associated with timidity. Either fear originally prohibits endeavours by infusing despair of success; or the frequent failure of irresolute struggles, and the constant desire of avoiding labour, impress by degrees false terror on the mind. But fear, whether natural or acquired, when once it has full possession of the fancy, never fails to employ it upon visions of calamity, such as, if they are not dissipated by useful employment, will soon overcast it with horrors, and imbitter life not only with those miseries by which all earthly beings are really more or less tormented, but with those which do not yet exist, and which can only be discerned by the perspicacity of cowardice. Among all who sacrifice future advantage to present inclination, scarcely any gain so little as those that suffer themselves to freeze in idleness. Others are corrupted by some enjoyment of more or less power to gratify the passions; but to neglect our duties merely to avoid the labour of performing them, a labour which is always punctually rewarded, is surely to sink under weak temptations. Idleness never can secure tranquillity; the call of reason and of conscience will pierce the closest pavilion of the sluggard, and, though it may not have force to drive him from his down, will be loud enough to hinder him from sleep. Those moments which he cannot resolve to make useful, by devoting them to the great business of his being, will still be usurped by powers that will not leave them to his disposal; remorse and vexation will seize upon them, and forbid him to enjoy what he is so desirous to appropriate. There are other causes of inactivity incident to more active faculties and more acute discernment. He to whom many objects of pursuit arise at the
same time, will frequently hesitate between different desires till a rival has precluded him, or change his course as new attractions prevail, and harass himself without advancing. He who sees different ways to the same end, will, unless he watches carefully over his own conduct, lay out too much of his attention upon the comparison of probabilities and the adjustment of expedients, and pause in the choice of his road, till some accident intercepts his journey. He whose penetration extends to remote consequences, and who, whenever he applies his attention to any design, discovers new prospects of advantage and possibilities of improvement, will not easily be persuaded that his project is ripe for execution; but will superadd one contrivance to another, endeavour to unite various purposes in one operation, multiply complications, and refine niceties, till he is entangled in his own scheme, and bewildered in the perplexity of various intentions. He that resolves to unite all the beauties of situation in a new purchase must waste his life in roving to no purpose from province to province. He that hopes in the same house to obtain every convenience may draw plans and study Palladio, but will never lay a stone. He will attempt a treatise on some important subject, and amass materials, consult authors, and study all the dependent and collateral parts of learning, but never conclude himself qualified to write. He that has abilities to conceive perfection will not easily be content without it; and, since perfection cannot be reached, will lose the opportunity of doing well in the vain hope of unattainable excellence. The certainty that life cannot be long, and the probability that it will be much shorter than nature allows, ought to awaken every man to the active prosecution of whatever he is desirous to perform. It is true, that no diligence can ascertain success; death may intercept the swiftest career; but he who is cut off in the execution of an honest undertaking has at least the honour of falling in his rank, and has fought the battle, though he missed the victory.
any moralists have remarked, that Pride has of all human vices the widest dominion, appears in the greatest multiplicity of forms, and lies hid under the greatest variety of disguises; of disguises, which, like the moon’s veil of brightness, are both its lustre and its shade, and betray it to others, tho’ they hide it from ourselves. It is not my intention to degrade Pride from this pre-eminence of mischief, yet I know not whether Idleness may not maintain a very doubtful and obstinate competition. There are some that profess Idleness in its full dignity, who call themselves the Idle, as Busiris in the play calls himself the Proud; who boast that they do nothing, and thank their stars that they have nothing to do; who sleep every night till they can sleep no longer, and rise only that exercise may enable them to sleep again; who prolong the reign of dark-
Samuel Johnson, from Evert A. Duycknick’s ‘A Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America’ New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873
ness by double curtains, and never see the sun but to tell him how they hate his beams; whose whole labour is to vary the postures of indulgence, and whose day differs from their night but as a couch or chair differs from a bed. These are the true and open votaries of Idleness, for whom she weaves the garlands of poppies, and into whose cup she pours the waters of oblivion; who exist in a state of unruffled stupidity, forgetting and forgotten; who have long ceased to live, and at whose death the survivors can only say, that they have ceased to breathe. But Idleness predominates in many lives where it is not suspected; for being a vice which terminates in itself, it may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another’s inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it. As Pride sometimes is hid under humility, Idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry. He that neglects his known duty and real employment, naturally endeavours to crowd his mind with something that may bar out the remembrance of his own folly, and does any thing but what he ought to do with eager diligence, that he may keep himself in his own favour. Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials, and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of Idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought. I was once
told by a great master, that no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours. There are others to whom Idleness dictates another expedient, by which life may be passed unprofitably away without the tediousness of many vacant hours. The art is, to fill the day with petty business, to have always something in hand which may raise curiosity, but not solicitude, and keep the mind in a state of action, but not of labour. This art has for many years been practised by my old friend Sober, with wonderful success. Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease, that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have, however, so much power, that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest, and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself. Mr. Sober’s chief pleasure is conversation; there is no end of his talk or his attention; to speak or to hear is equally pleasing; for he still fancies that he is teaching or learning something, and is free for the time from his own reproaches. But there is one time at night when he must go home, that his friends may sleep; and another time in the morning, when all the world agrees to shut out interruption. These are the moments of which poor Sober trembles at the thought. But the misery of these tiresome intervals, he has many means of alleviating. He has persuaded himself that the manual arts are undeservedly overlooked; he has observed in many trades the effects of close thought, and just ratiocination. From speculation he proceeded to practice, and supplied himself with the tools of a carpenter, with which he mended his
coal-box very successfully, and which he still continues to employ, as he finds occasion. He has attempted at other times the crafts of the Shoemaker, Tinman, Plumber, and Potter; in all these arts he has failed, and resolves to qualify himself for them by better information. But his daily amusement is Chemistry. He has a small furnace, which he employs in distillation, and which has long been the solace of his life. He draws oils and waters, and essences and spirits, which he knows to be of no use; sits and counts the drops as they come from his retort, and forgets that, whilst a drop is falling, a moment flies away. Poor Sober! I have often teased him with reproof, and he has often promised reformation; for no man is so much open to conviction as the Idler, but there is none on whom it operates so little. What will be the effect of this paper I know not; perhaps he will read it and laugh, and light the fire in his furnace; but my hope is that he will quit his trifles, and betake himself to rational and useful diligence.
Molly and Richie in the Meatpacking ˙ ˙ Dıstrıct by j o h n
gr e i n e r
here was only one complaint that Molly had about Richie and that was his lack of fairness with the whip. She had come from the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, somewhere like that. She had never been clear on that detail. Richie insisted on calling her Wisconsin Wendy, although she asserted that she had never been to Wisconsin, once even leaving a plane before take-off when she learned that there would be a layover in Milwaukee. ‘Why go to Milwaukee when you’ve got the Meat-Packing District?’ she’d always say, with eyes sparkling. Molly was never far from Richie in the days of fame; she loved his cat o’ nine tails and his freshly polished wing-tipped shoes. ‘Always look out for accidents and keep your back bare. It was the Superbowl of shock with studs and lashes that shivered Washington Street. There was no reason to head to the desert to do a St Jerome routine. I ain’t got time to be tempted like St Anthony. There’s no reason to deny. You’ve got to dive in and swim in the spittle and blood. We had quite a following, Richie and I. They’d come all of the way down from uptown and Yonkers and beyond to watch us play, their balls in a knot and big boy diapers to hold their Westchester dreams.’ She had been the suffering sovereign of The Village Idiot smashing shot glasses in all her glory. Richie, though, he was a different story, a motionless column when confronted on the street by the slavering students of technique, but once he got into the dank rooms with the dim lights and the St Andrew’s Cross he’d burst the bonds while placing the blackball. Molly had been his shadow and his misfortunate mistress. ‘At first she intrigued me. Wisconsin Wendy was something to look at, I’ll not deny that. A little beetle of perspicacity with no particular direction outside of the dung heap.’ Richie signals the bartender to pour us a couple more Scotch and sodas. ‘But these corn-fed girls are nothing more than frigid filth pushers when the dust settles. I’m an artist. I’m here to command. I’m here to show Wall Street the hell that they can never grasp, and that they’ll never give while they have white linen and wifeys in pretty lace and collars. I’ve got the torrid
memories of centuries pushing me forward. I’ve got bed bugs crawling all over my body. The blood’s pouring and Wisconsin Wendy is a knock on the skull that rattles bare cupboards that I’ve long left behind. She needs to find a new career, something with the Transit Department, perhaps. I’ve told her this and if she doesn’t listen then I’m going to have to slit her throat because she long ago left me dry.’ Molly from the Midwest is a lovely girl. She too is bored. She loves to struggle naked and reads Maturin by moonlight. The dens of the West Side have decided to bar her entrance and The Village Idiot has shut down. As a girl from the Midwest she knows that she must continue moving east to the river, the docks, the bridge and beyond.
In the Garden by a l u n
e va n s
e’s been living down in the garden for the past three months now. I haven’t seen him drink or eat anything in that time. I haven’t been watching him constantly of course, but I’ve been spending more time than perhaps I should, inspecting his day-to-day habits; he wakes up at 7am every day, down by where we grow our prize-winning roses. When he wakes, he unfurls from the foetus position he sleeps in, stretches his arms as far as he can into the sky, and then lets out a roar that sets next door’s dogs barking wildly. He spends the next two hours cleaning himself thoroughly. For the sake of decency, I turn away when he undresses. I go and make breakfast, take it up to my wife, and then make love or watch some television. I wait a full two hours before I return to my place by the window. When I sit back down, he has always finished his routine, and looks as dirty as before. Now he sits on a chair fashioned from one of our upturned flower pots. It was empty before he arrived, so we have no issues with him using it as a seat. He doesn’t do anything as he sits, and this I find strange. He knows I am watching him because sometimes he acknowledges me with a brief glance, maybe a grimace, but he always sits with his back turned to me. I suppose he could well be doing something with his hands that I can’t see, but he doesn’t do anything like I would, such as read a book or a newspaper. Or watch television. Around this time, I get a little bored of watching him, and I’ll go and do my own thing for a while. I work from home, nothing you’d be interested in mind, just numbers and figures and the kind of stuff a lot of people would do in offices, but I do it from home at my laptop, and it usually only takes a few hours to get a good deal of work done. When I am hungry again, I go downstairs. My wife is usually up by now. Sometimes she stays in bed all day. The doctor recommended it if she happens to be having one of her episodes. ‘I don’t know what else I can offer,’ he told me, the last time we spoke. ‘Trust me,’ he said, ‘this is the best idea for all concerned.’ I’m not sure if he was lying to me or not, but I trusted him and it seems to be working out all right so far. Anyway, if my wife is up, we’ll make small talk, chat about our prize-winning roses, or how my work is going. I don’t ask how she is feeling, or mention how bad she looks. The doctor advised against this, and so the faltering conversation inevitably turns to our uninvited guest. ‘Do you think he’s dying?’ my wife asks, gently pulling the edge of the curtain as she watches him, still hunched over on the upturned flower pot. ‘Why do you ask?’ I usually say, but sometimes I remain silent until she speaks again. ‘Each day, he’s looking paler,’ she will tell me. ‘And each day his movements seem frailer, and he gets a little more hunched when he sits.’ I nod and agree at this point. It is true, after all, that his whole way of being seems consistent with that of a dying man; he has a terrible hacking cough that erupts every half hour or so, then lasts for a good five or ten minutes at a time. It bends him double and every time it sounds like it’ll be his last earthly tremor. This sets the dogs barking again, and I am sure the neighbours will eventually get tired of it all and come to complain, to see what the noises coming from our back garden are all about. They can’t see our guest due to the eight-foot fences I had erected after my wife’s original diagnosis. At first I felt a little bad about this barrier, this cutting-off from people we were – had been – friendly with. But after the first couple of years, it seemed quite natural to live this way. We bought the first rose bush just after. It was a way to do something together, to celebrate a life that wasn’t our own. My wife was dubious in the beginning, and treated the garden with a sneaky kind of disdain. The kind of attitude you’d usually reserve for long-term friends you didn’t actually like, but felt obliged to remain in contact with. This lasted a few months, and I didn’t try to push her any other way.
I kept on looking after the roses and just before they blossomed, well, there was a change in her behaviour. It was a sunny day and she came out into the garden where I held the watering can above them. She touched me on the arm, really touched me. ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ she said, and her eyes were smiling in that way they hadn’t in a long time. We looked at the plants together, the sun massaging the backs of our necks, and our hands crossed into one another’s. In this moment, I thought that maybe the doctor was right, maybe it would only be temporary. We began to win awards at village fairs soon after the first plant blossomed. It wasn’t so much the prizes, but the ceremony of it all. Of having the feeling of accomplishment, of a job completed. Plus, it gave us both an excuse to get out of the house and take a ride into the country. Our guest arrived about a year after our first win. He took up position by those roses straight away, as if he knew what they meant to us, as if he respected them as much as we did. ‘It’s a sign,’ my wife said to me when we first realised he was there, when we first saw that dark bundle of rags curled up beside the thorny bushes. And I had nodded, unable to disagree. In the late afternoon, he leaves the garden for at least three hours. I do not know where he goes. I have thought about following him, but considered this to be too forceful an action; for some reason, it doesn’t seem bad form to watch him if he’s in the garden, choosing to cross over into our territory. But out in the real world, I imagine it would feel a little strange. Instead I take this time to feed and prune the roses. Sometimes my wife will accompany me. She coos at them and has given each different plant a name. I don’t encourage her, but I don’t discourage her either. I’m not sure what the doctor would say about this if I told him. ‘Do you think he’s dying?’ my wife asks, but she seems as unconvinced by her question as I am. He still cuts a frail, hunch-backed silhouette down on the overturned flower pot, it’s true, but there is something in his manner now, something about the way he will suddenly stand upright, electrified and full of life. He has taken to pacing. He walks determinedly in slow, clockwise circles around the garden. He keeps his head bowed, but not in embarrassment or shame, more as if he’s deep in thought. Neither my wife nor I can imagine what he could possibly be thinking about as he paces around our garden. I still haven’t seen him eat or drink a thing since he arrived. There is something wrong with the roses. A black fungus has begun to creep into their leaves. I haven’t changed sprays or my pruning technique, yet it seems to be affecting the whole batch. It came as quickly as our visitor arrived: one day nothing, and the next everything is changed, warped into some new reality, some new, alien fixture. Our visitor is still getting healthier and has begun to pace longer and longer with each day. I am not one to draw comparisons, but it does seem a strange coincidence. ‘It’s just one of those things,’ my wife said, and shrugged before turning over in her bed. I was surprised by her nonchalance, but when I tried to question her further, she was either asleep, or feigning sleep. I am sure now I can smell urine when I go to water the plants. It is that potent, acrid stench that gets right into your nostrils, unmistakeable from any other smell. The roses are really suffering, and no matter what I try I am sure they will be dead soon. My wife doesn’t seem phased in the slightest. In fact, she seems more upbeat than ever. She spends longer and longer by my side at the window, watching our visitor. Not only has he continued to pace, but he has begun to exercise when he first wakes. We watch him together, my hand placed delicately on my wife’s trembling shoulder, as he works a slow, erratic rhythm into sit-ups and push-ups on our lawn. In fact, sometimes my wife continues to watch
our guest when I go upstairs to work. I shut the door to the study, close myself in, and try to focus on what needs to be done for the day. On the Thursday I decided to give up on the roses. This was about a week after the first symptoms of the disease. There seemed no point; there was nothing left of them but a purplish-black mess. My wife seems so much better that it seems unnecessary to carry on with something that does not benefit either of us any more. I will leave them to the elements. If our guest is choosing to piss on them, and I suspect that he is but have never actually caught him in the act, then he can go right ahead. It will not affect either of us, and it will not anger us in the slightest. ‘Should we get a cat?’ I asked my wife. This was two weeks or so after I had stopped watering the roses. In fact, I hadn’t been in the garden since. ‘A little cute kitten,’ I ventured. I was sat at the kitchen table and had just read an article about pets and their various therapeutic qualities. I asked her on impulse, before even considering whether I would want a mewling little animal running around the place. She was stood at the window, watching our visitor perform his daily laps, more vigorously than ever now. It took her a moment to turn to me and refocus. ‘No,’ she said finally, very softly. ‘I think it would be more trouble than it’s worth.’ Then she blushed; I saw the pinkish-red blossom upwards through her cheeks, highlighted by the morning light reaching through the kitchen window, and realised I had not seen this for over three years. I walked over to the window and stood beside her. Slowly, our hands snaked into one another’s as we turned to watch our guest out in the garden. He was doing some stretching exercises. As usual he had his back turned to us. A dark v-shaped layer of sweat had formed in between his pronounced shoulder blades. I traced the shape across my wife’s own delicate shoulders. She shivered and smiled. ‘Let’s go back to bed,’ she said. ‘It’s still early.’
Author biographies Matt Barden – p.4
Duncan Jones – p.14
J.J. Steinfeld – p.13
Matt Barden is an Englishman currently living in Wales. He plans towns for a living but writes about fictional lives as a means of escape. His work has been published by Six Sentences and by Powder Burn Flash
Duncan is found nearer a pint of Batemans than a cocktail, is nearer 40 than 20 and according to his wife is nearer to being a geek than being cool. He has been keeping his writing to himself until quite recently. He also dabbles in poetry which can be found at molethepoet.com
Canadian poet, fiction writer, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island. He has published fourteen books — ten short story collections, two novels, two poetry collections — the most recent ones being Word Burials (Novel, Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink, 2009), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions, 2009), and A Glass Shard and Memory (Stories, Recliner Books, 2010). His short stories and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals internationally, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in North America
Mike Berger – p.5 Mike Berger, PhD; humble poet is bright, articulate, handsome, and extremely humble.
Vanessa Bootle – p.15 Vanessa Bootle is a charity fundraiser-slash-writer based in Milton Keynes. She is passionate about the written word, having graduated from Goldsmiths’ College with a ba in English Literature back in 1998. As well as writing poetry, Vanessa has just completed her debut novel, The Haven, details of which can be found by visiting welcometowesterly. com or by visiting her facebook page facebook. com/welcometowesterly
David Braga – p.12 David Braga lives and works in Bristol, and has been published here and there. He would never have got into the army, and likes to think that’s on purpose. His blog is bartheshouting.wordpress.com
Theodore Bunker – p.16 Alun Evans – p.21 Alun Evans is not really into biographies, but can be reached at email@example.com should anyone want to get in touch
John Greiner – p.20 John Greiner lives in New York City. His works have appeared in numerous international magazines. Greiner’s Relics From a Hell’s Kitchen Pawn Shop was recently published in e-Book form from Ronin Press (roninpress.org). John Greiner’s works in collaboration with photographer Carrie Crow have appeared in museums and galleries in New York City, Los Angeles and Paris. More of their pieces can be seen at baronandcrow.blogspot.com
Colin D. Halloran – p.14
Colin D. Halloran is a former infantryman, cheerleading coach, bartender, lobbyist, and public school teacher. He has lived on three continents, and though he currently resides in Hartford, Connecticut, he has yet to define home beyond a state of mind. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Caper Journal, Long River Run, and throughout the Internet. He is an mfa candidate at Fairfield University, where he is poetry editor for the literary journal Mason’s Road. When not wandering and writing, Colin serves as a teaching artist, working with students and teachers on incorporating literature into the history classroom. You can find more information at facebook.com/colindhalloran
Dan Lane – p.8 Dan Lane was born in the London commuter town of Potters Bar in 1965. Since school he worked in numerous jobs, from Van Driver to Freelance Photographer. Between jobs he gained three degrees in literature and criticism. In the mid 90s his poetry was published in small press magazines. Since then he has worked in prose. Just One More is the first in a series of short stories. Dan lives in Emsworth, Hampshire with his wife and two daughters. He is serialising his experience as the main carer for his daughters on-line at: themummydaddyjournals. wordpress.com. He lectures at Southdown College
Joan McNerney – p.15 Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as Seven Circle Press, Dinner with the Muse, Blueline, 63 channels, Spectrum, and three Bright Spring Press anthologies. Four of her books have been published by fine literary presses. She has performed at the National Arts Club, Borders Bookstore, McNay Art Institute and other distinguished venues. A recent reading was sponsored by the American Academy of Poetry. Her latest title is Having Lunch with the Sky, a.p.d. Press, Albany, New York
Sander Timmermans & Matthew Hodges – p.17 South African father and business coach Matthew Hodges writes on his daily raw life experiences as they are to be seen on the streets of his Capetonian suburb, Woodstock. It is there where he became friends with Sander Timmermans, a Dutch musician and Social Development student gaining experience by working with incarcerated youth. With great passion for the common people and a dedication to low life they together write. Substance abuse, violence and poverty are common factors in Cape Town and it is both with sincerity and a big fat wink on real life that they write their straightforward prose. You can find more information at woodstock.iblog.co.za or woodstock.blog.com
A.H. Sargeant – p.13 An ancient hack – born in the first half of the last century – an advertising copywriter in an earlier life, whose work, unlike that of Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie, refused to jump off the page into mainstream literature. Now long retired and having lots of time (in the short term at least) devotes most of his leisure hours to his first love, writing short stories and verse. A silver-surfer himself, he is especially thrilled that the World Wide Web exposes his efforts to a world-wide audience
Aidan Thomas – p.4 Aidan Thomas, born 1986, is a short story writer. His work has previously appeared in Forced Rhubarb, a student fiction pamphlet. He lives in New Cross, London
Maurice Van De Ven – p.6 Maurice Van De Ven is a writer and photographer. His latest series of work is about anti-gravity, as it’s free from the force of gravity. His work has been exhibited at international exhibitions such as the Brighton Photo Biennial, Transit, lcc Gallery, 333, Agnes b. and contributed to Dazed & Confused, themepark, A Shaded View, Very, Influences and Hort magazine. Van De Ven spends his days as Creative Director of StrawberryFrog and also mentors at the School of Communication Arts. He has given talks at international design conferences in Holland, Germany, Spain, England and Ireland. He lives in Amsterdam with his partner Morag
Online edition, November 2010 Limited-edition printed copies available from our website: www.structomagazine.co.uk
This issue features 13 short stories, seven poems, two classic essays and a new in-depth interview with author Iain M. Banks (The Wasp Facto...
Published on Nov 22, 2010
This issue features 13 short stories, seven poems, two classic essays and a new in-depth interview with author Iain M. Banks (The Wasp Facto...