What’s up duck

is

On Noah’s Ark the ducks had started a jazz band and it was almost unbearable, though perhaps marginally easier to deal with at close quarters than the African Large Mammals’ Morris-Dancing Collective (to whom, after initial resistance, Noah had yielded the use of the foredeck every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. The rhinos were persuasive negotiators). Mr Duck had recently taken up the saxophone, while Mrs Duck fancied herself as a sultry crooner. They had recruited the moorhens, the geese, the female flamingo and a coot to be the rest of the band, with, on drums, a platypus from whom they would soon part owing to irreconcilable creative differences. They practised assiduously and promised to put on a concert as soon as they were ready.

 

“Is there any sign of land yet?” Noah asked Mrs Noah, as they huddled in their cabin, doing their best to relax with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

“My budgie had a look around earlier,” said Mrs Noah, “and she says there’s still twenty feet of water over the highest mountain top and aggressive mer-people have colonised the city of Uruk.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you learn from tweets,” said Noah. “But the dove said the same yesterday about the twenty feet of water. I wish I could get off this boat. The noise is appalling.”

“The hedgerow birds’ choral singing is quite good,” said Mrs Noah, who believed in positive thinking and was also slightly deaf.

“If only they didn’t do it at dawn,” groaned Noah. “Whose stupid idea was this ark nonsense, anyway?”

“It was God’s,” said Mrs Noah.

Continue reading “What’s up duck”

A Ghost Story

dark-lane

At the waning of the year I gather my ghosts. This is their time, in that dark pause, when between the bustle of Christmas and the trudge of January the memories return, drifting from familiar walls, pooling under lamps. Like the living, the dead want to be heard, but they are more confused than the living and fainter, thinner – shreds of old love and pain. I try to listen and piece them together. I give them four walls to stop them wandering.

There’s the lost child. “Mother, mother,” he calls, from very long ago. “Here I am, dear,” I say. It’s all he wants. It quiets him for a while. And then there’s the angry ghost who cries “Justice!” and makes his case to me – oh, it’s only jabberings now, and the dream he gives me of the scaffold and the noose – but there is no justice, only time. Some are faded to whispers with the centuries; some have stories I’ve tried to complete, with discreet researches in the newspaper archives. The detective side is fascinating, though I don’t like to travel and go into the city rarely. The poltergeist shook itself into nothing in the pantry when I gave it jars to throw. I swept out the glass and was glad this is such a big house, so far back from the road.

It was in the road I found some of them, chilling the hollows or rattling in the hedges, or rather they found me and followed me back. The ghosts recognize a listener. A sensitive, as some would say, though I’d almost say an insensitive, for they don’t frighten me and never have. I can comb through their pangs and terrors and stay apart. I confer a little order. It is my work now.

Continue reading “A Ghost Story”

How to Get a Hit Record in 1985

cover

Dot writes:

How to Get a Hit Record: Things You Should Know About the Pop Music Business, by Ray Hammond (Poole: Javelin Books, 1985) ISBN 0 7137 1498 0

If you want a hit record in 1985, you should know that it is all about the money. You should expect to be cheated, fleeced, exploited, and charged for the hamburgers the crew bought three years ago. You should get a clever lawyer who will make your contract just exploitative enough for the record company to accept it while still leaving you enough for a washing machine at the end of five years.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you must have the right image, which is original but exactly on-trend but not too outrageous but handsome but not effeminate but not too sexual, especially if there is a woman in your band. Consider having plastic surgery on your nose but realize you cannot be objective about it. Maybe it is your best feature after all.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you have to be in London. Sleep in your car if necessary. If you formed anywhere smaller than Glasgow there are unlikely to be more than two talented people in your band. Dump the others.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you may need to stamp on your best friend’s face. With luck, this will only be a metaphor for sacking him.

If you want a hit record in 1985, it goes without saying your best friend is a man. Only men are musicians, or producers, or managers, or promoters, or salesmen, or DJs, or critics, or label executives. Women may appear occasionally in brackets as an alternative. Otherwise there is a girl you might pick up after a gig, whose opinion of your single you should ask (if you remember), since her friends might buy it. Managers hate it when a musician falls in love with an intelligent woman as she might be bored while he’s away on tour and uncover some of the ways in which the manager is ripping the band off.

If you want a hit record in 1985, put all the good ideas you’ve ever had in the first 30 seconds of your demo, as it is the only part that will be listened to. Remember most people in the music business hate most of the music they hear.

If you want a hit record in 1985, find a producer who makes hits that are bought by teenagers of fourteen to nineteen. Virtually all singles are bought by teenagers of fourteen to nineteen, and virtually all successful records are produced by Trevor Horne. And a few other blokes who are helpfully listed on p. 112.

If you want a hit record in 1985, some members of the band may not be allowed to play on it. Also the producer will probably do all the mixing without you. Suck it up as you want a hit very much. Simultaneously remember that this is your record and your creative input is very important.

If you want a hit record in 1985, the most important thing is promotion. Hopefully by making the record company pay you a huge advance you will have forced them to do lots of this. Promotion chiefly means smoke and mirrors deployed in record shops, plus supplying DJs with cocaine. Adverts do not reach the target market but make the rest of the music industry think you are worth talking about. If you play on daytime TV ask to mime.

If you want a hit record in 1985, you must recognize the desperate state of the industry in which sales are falling and new technologies (such as taping from the radio) have irreparably damaged the old business models. Understand that long careers are no longer possible and you are boarding a sinking ship. But do not despair, and do not be cynical! For music is a beautiful thing. Anyway, just think what it will be like in thirty-one years’ time.

Yet another list of the top ten albums of 2016

Dot writes: what is the reason for Best Albums of 20xx posts? Sometimes I think it’s to make me feel small. I looked at the list on The Quietus, which is a dead trendy website for cool persons, and even though their list is 100 albums long I think I’d only even heard of 15 of them – and that’s heard of, not heard. I couldn’t help feeling darkly, and, I hope, unfairly, that they were showing off.

Anyway, here is my list. There were a lot of Important Records this year that I didn’t get round to, but here are ten that have given me joy this year, and maybe you’d like them too. I’m not showing off. Honest.

10. Shura, Nothing’s Real

Slick eighties-style production, catchy melodies, but lyrics that talk about vulnerability and awkwardness. And she’s incredibly loveable.

9. Christine and the Queens, Chaleur Humaine

Elegant gender-bending pop.

8. Beacon, Escapements

I bought this subtle electronic album early in the year and have found myself repeatedly going back to it.

7. Case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs

I’ve only just bought this as I heard about it through the end-of-year list in The Guardian. This illustrates the positive aspect of end-of-year lists. A female folk-rock supergroup, the brainchild of k.d.lang, now on heavy rotation in my kitchen, which is a far more sweet and soulful place as a result.

6. William Crighton, William Crighton

Australian country rock, tough, bitter and tuneful.

5. Bell X1, Arms

Bell X1 write witty lyrics with a political punch – “Let’s ask what the markets would do / Cos markets have feelings too”, the second track starts – but they also offer melodies that hook you in and moments of melancholy romance, as in the gorgeous animated clip below.

4. Braille Face, Kōya

Electronic production and oblique lyrics come together in a beautifully atmospheric album. Listening to Tim Shiel’s podcasts about the Spirit Level label has made me feel involved in Braille Face’s journey into the spotlight, and I’ve found Kōya and the treasury of songs from which it was selected productive sources of ideas for my writing, but when it comes down to it the album is just good, and would be good without any of this other stuff.

3. J.Views, 401 Days

This is another album with an involving story. It was fascinating to hear and learn about the songs as they were written, through the DNA website. The final product is unashamedly sensuous, richly textured and enchanting. All the nice adjectives.

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade

I never thought I liked Beyoncé, but it turns out I do. Such a varied and powerful record.

1. Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool

I wasn’t sure whether to put this or Lemonade at number one, but I think in the end I have to stick with my rock roots. It’s an album full of feeling but without a hint of easy sentiment.

Plus honourable mentions for:

Floex, Samorost 3 soundtrack

I fell hard for Floex this year, but for his oeuvre as a whole rather than for this soundtrack album specifically, which is why I’ve left it out of the top ten list. If I made a list of favourite tracks there would be several from Samorost 3 on it.

Chairlift, Moth

Arthur Beatrice, Keeping the Peace

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears

All Tvvins, IIVV

Bat for Lashes, The Bride

Colour Bomb, Colour Bomb

 

 

 

 

The Dressing-Up Box Nativity Play

This is a nativity play designed for the needs of the modern parent i.e. it uses only costumes that the average time-poor, pointless-crap-rich family already owns. It preaches a message of love, acceptance and extreme laziness highly pertinent to our frantic society.

christmas-star

SCENE ONE

A generic nativity play set with stars and stuff. Enter Mary (a princess) and Batman. All their luggage is piled on the back of a patient grey zombie.

Song: “Little zombie”

Mary We need somewhere to rest. I am about to have a baby and our zombie is very tired.

Batman knocks in mid-air.

Batman Is there room in the inn?

Witch No, but you can sleep in the stable where I keep all the ghosts, vampires and ghouls.

Enter ten children in their Halloween costumes.

Song: “A Wraith in a Manger”

Narrator (a knight) Mary had her baby and she called him Jesus. She laid him in the manger.

Ghost Wooooooo, what a beautiful baby!

Count Dracula He looks tasty.

Mary (indulgently) Count Dracula, you need to learn about the spirit of Christmas!

SCENE TWO

Still the same generic nativity play set, only now Mary, Batman and all the Halloween characters sit down at the side of the stage to indicate we can’t see them.

Narrator And there were superheroes abiding in the fields, keeping watch over the city by night.

Enter six or seven superheroes.

Song: “O little town of Bethlehem, how full you are of crime” 

Narrator Suddenly, the sky was full of princesses.

Enter fifteen princesses. Fourteen of them are Elsa from “Frozen”. The fifteenth is Xena, Warrior Princess, as she has a geeky mum who does cosplay.

Song: “The people that walked in darkness have Xena great light”

Xena, Warrior Princess Be not afraid! A child has been born in the city of Bethlehem who will save everybody much better than you do. However, he is being menaced by Count Dracula.

The superheroes have a quiet but intense argument among themselves.

Spiderman We will go to see him and bring him presents.

SCENE THREE

Same as Scene One but now with all the superheroes. The superheroes present the baby with a random selection of cuddly toys, weapons, pokémon cards etc.

Count Dracula This baby must be important, but I am getting very hungry.

Superman Don’t you dare try it, Dracula! We defeated you before!

Song: “Last Christmas, we skewered your heart”

By the way (thanks to Comics Alliance):

ac05

SCENE FOUR

Nothing about the stage has changed, except perhaps a small ghoul has fallen off it. Enter three wise Jedi: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Song: “We three kings escaped the Death Star”

Obi-Wan Kenobi We felt a disturbance in the Force and set out to bring gifts to the newborn king.

Luke We bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh-derous lightsabers.

The Jedi lay the lightsabers beside the crib.

Count Dracula I admit it, I can’t harm this baby. There’s simply too much peace and goodwill around. From now on I will give up sucking blood and eat only foil-wrapped chocolate coins and chestnut stuffing.

Everybody Hooray! Count Dracula has discovered the spirit of Christmas!

Song: “Dracul, the sharp-toothed vampire”

Darth Vader Jesus, I am your father.

Teacher Stop it, Nathan, that’s not in the Bible.

Song: “Have yourself a very mixed-up Christmas”

 

THE END

Backwards

[Braille Face effort no. 12, based on Jot. The last of the set]

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Let’s go backwards. Let’s rewind.

Ten. We’re in the ruins of Babel and your loyalty is my hate-speech and my sublime music is your god-awful satanic racket. I’ve taken the books. You’ve got the house. I sit under the cliff, by the great black wall, and listen to the scream of gulls.

Nine. Here are medications for the cruelty of the world: Xanax, Prozac, Facebook, kittens, knitting, strategic deafness, reality television. We are sealed to our separate devices.

Eight. You’re away a lot now. I say “mm” when you talk and wish you didn’t snore. There’s a fear in my gut I don’t tell you about.

Seven. On holiday we carefully study the phrasebook and memories from past lessons come back to us. We tentatively join hands with a strange place, a brief touch, and are warmed.

Six. The words and the music are one and fit us perfectly. The celestial spheres revolve.

Five. Music teaches a love looking for names. An aching in the chest, blood quickening, a sense of all the space in which you might be waiting.

Four. You throw your shoes over the power line and walk home barefoot. They dangle there, cheerfully unexplained.

Three. As a child I write words in the sand on the beach for the waves to remember.

Two. I learn jokes. Knock knock. Who’s there? Me! And a big hug.

One. The mouth speaks to the milk and the fist to the air, flailing. We have to learn object relations. The world emerges: mama, tree, mine, again.

Zero. Heartbeat and darkness.

Hold me.

Three marches

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 11. I think this story really wants to be longer: this is the skeleton of it. It’s based on Moiety and especially the track ‘Political Monsters’.]

unknown-1

He first met Jenny at the protest against the Criminal Justice Bill in June 1994. He was eighteen years old, about to go to university (Warwick, History), and he and some mates went up to London because they’d heard The Manic Street Preachers would be playing and also, secretly, because they were hoping to witness a riot. They didn’t witness a riot. They almost missed the protest altogether because they didn’t know London and weren’t sure where to go. It was Jenny who set them right as they walked in the wrong direction with their droopy cardboard KILL THE BILL sign. She wore purple doc martins and a tie-dye dress. He got talking to her as she guided them to Trafalgar Square, or, rather, she got talking to him. She must have liked him because he went home with her address on a slip of paper in his pocket.

They exchanged letters and, when they got to university, emails. She educated him. The world weighed on her: Tibet, the rainforests, Bosnia, underprivileged youth. She was reading Law and Anthropology at LSE. He had always been a kings and battles kind of person, but he grew interested in social history. He joined Young Labour. He and Jenny became a couple: he visited her in London and made love to her nervously in her student room, wanting to please her and unsure how to do so. After a while they split up.

 

In 2003 he was writing a PhD on social mobility in fifteenth-century Warwickshire and he got an email from Jenny: she was organizing a big group to join the march against war in Iraq. He’d been uncertain of his views on the issue, but he wanted to see her again. On a chilly February day he walked beside her in the largest crowd he had ever known. She wore a black coat and red lipstick. She had a training contract with a big legal firm, but planned to go into charity law. He felt provincial and addled with libraries. She was alight with anger at the arrogance of Bush and Blair. He rode the wonderful wave of her conviction all the way to Hyde Park. Afterwards he went back to Warwick and his manor court rolls, and wanted to email her, and didn’t think she would be interested.

In the years that followed he thought of her often. Teaching, he imagined her as an observer in the corner, and tried to show her why history was important, or at least how it was humane. He reminded himself sometimes that he was charged with the shaping of young minds, though they didn’t always seem that malleable. He was teaching about contingency, about the complexity of causes, about the mattering of minor lives; he was trying to get his students to pay proper attention. He did admin. He made submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise. He had girlfriends but did not marry.

 

In 2015 he went on a march entirely by himself. It was the anti-austerity march of 20th June. He had made a cardboard sign, which he carried self-consciously: CUTS KILL. He was thin-skinned to the crowd, a little emotional. It was unlike him to do this, but he finally felt that he had to; everything he’d once taken for granted had eroded so far.

And by chance he saw Jenny. Somehow in the mass of people they encountered each other. She looked tired and plump now, but so, he knew, did he. They fell into step and exchanged the summaries of their lives. Hers was not as he expected: a daughter, a divorce, an illness, and now she was running a community centre, struggling for funding.

“It’s wonderful to see you again,” she said. “Remember the Criminal Justice Bill march? They passed that bill, of course. Sometimes I think we only march so we’ll feel better when the government goes ahead and ignores us.”

“Ah, but think of the chartists,” he said. “They didn’t get what they wanted in the short term, but it came good in the end. Think of the suffragettes.” He couldn’t help also thinking of the Luddites, the Britons petitioning Rome for protection against the Picts and Scots, and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sometimes terms were very long.

“You must come and see me,” she said, “for old times’ sake. And maybe some new times too.” And he went home that day with her number in his phone.