At long last: X Marks the Spot, Great God Pan the opera, Eastercon and a belated tribute to Vi Subversa

book_x_marks_the_spot_front_2It’s been a while since my last post, to put it lightly. What can I say? Deadlines, deadlines, day job and all the usual. I should know by now that the best way to blog is to fire off quick items, otherwise you’re faced with the prospect of knitting together disparate events. But that’s life, a series of disparate items.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll have a story in an anthology X Marks the Spot, published by NewCon Press to mark its tenth anniversary in July. It doesn’t seem long since I went to an event to celebrate the publisher’s fifth anniversary.

I previously published with NewCon in the anthology Conflicts. Some time ago at a bar, editor and writer Ian Whates told me he wanted stories for an anthology called Conflicts. Conflicts? You want conflicts, I’ve got conflicts! So I sent him “Harmony in My Head”, a story set around the 2005 7/7 London bombings and the anti-G8 mobilisation in Scotland. Tinnitus and parallel universes were also involved.

It turned out that Conflicts (2010) was primarily a collection of military SF, which my story wasn’t, but Ian published it anyway. At least one reviewer expressed bemusement that the only military hardware in the story was a quick glimpse of a Chinook helicopter in a newspaper photo.

I’m very pleased and proud to have a story published by NewCon again, and be on board to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Easterconeastercon cate and rosanne
I attended Eastercon at the end of March. It’s been my first Eastercon for several years. I felt sentimental about it being in Manchester, site of the first con I ever attended – Eastercon 1998. I went to some good panels, but now that I’m looking back over a few months and my memory is hazy I have to admit that a high point was dinner in the Greek tapas bar over the road in the company of Simon Bestwick, Nina Allen, Cate Gardner and Priya Sharma. And here’s a nice photo of myself (left) and Cate (right), taken by Cate. I’m notoriously camera-shy but I’m glad I gave into the cajoling for a selfie. A ‘good’ photo of myself is one where I don’t look like a zombie or an axe murderer – so I think this one fits the bill.

Great God Pan – the opera
Those of you who enjoyed Helen’s Story might be interested in a forthcoming opera based on The Great God Pan. While I’ve not been an opera follower myself, I’m taking a great interest in this one. Composed by Ross Crean, the opera sets out with similar aims to give the vilified Helen Vaughan a voice. In her final aria she sings:

We will raise the living dead
Through the power of horned head,
Cloven foot and revelry.
Thus the Lord of Trickery will
Set this mortal coil on fire
With every succulent desire.
Pan is all, and all is Pan,
And we will hence return again!

Here’s a clip with some background information and music. Apparently, the production will be given a steampunk aesthetic. I really hope I have the opportunity to see it some day.

Vi Subversa (Frances Sokolov) 20.06.35–20.02.16
So now we’re going to hark back to earlier in the year… If you recall, my last blog ended with reactions to the deaths of David Bowie and Paul Kantner. Since then, we’ve lost even more creative people, including Prince, Victoria Wood and Vi Subversa.

Several months gone, I still want to say something about Vi – guitarist, singer and songwriter with feminist punk band Poison Girls. She died at the age of 80 last February.

I first went to see Poison Girls in 1980, and went to their gigs many times throughout the decade. Conway Hall, Chat’s Palace, the Cricketers at the Oval, the squatted ambulance station on the Old Kent Road, other venues with names that have long slipped away into the spaces between my brain cells.

I also remember when Vi performed at a picnic in the garden at the occupied South London Women’s Hospital in the summer of 1984. She was accompanied by one guitarist, 17-year-old Debbie Smith. I have a vivid recollection of Vi performing “Under the Doctor”, very appropriate to the hospital setting: “What I’m trying to say… is you’ve got to be strong, so strong/Because nothing takes the pain away for long!” Sadly, the garden  where this took place is now a carpark for the Tesco superstore that replaced part of the hospital.

In December 2015 I went to Brighton to attend what was to be Vi’s final gig, thrilled to see her performing again. Along with her own songs she sang several Brecht & Weill compositions including “Pirate Jenny”. Her voice was perfect for Brecht. Songs such as”Old Tart’s Song” and “I’ve Done it All Before” (just about the only love song I can stomach) acquired even more resonance when sung by an 80-year-old woman. I especially liked the little polyamorous flourish she added at the end: “I’ve done it all before, but not with you… and you… and you.”

I ended up sitting across a table from Vi before she went on stage. She was talking to one of the gig organisers, then to another musician. I wanted to say hello since I interviewed her for radical women’s magazine Bad Attitude in 1995, which marked the release of a retrospective CD and a grand reunion gig at the Astoria. I also went to her 60th birthday party and had the pleasure of getting to know her a little then.

But as I sat there at the Brighton venue I was thinking: ‘Better not disturb her before she goes on stage, she might be preparing for her performance and getting into the mood… etc etc… I’ll catch her afterwards.’

But I didn’t manage to find her that night, so that didn’t happen. Perhaps she left just after her performance. And now I know it won’t ever happen.

I deeply regret that I was too stupidly shy to say hello, but I am grateful that I had a chance to see that wonderful gig. Vi Subversa was – and still is – an inspiration to me.

Here are a couple of songs from that gig, “Persons Unknown: and “Old Tart’s Song”. As you might expect, the acoustic version of “Persons Unknown” is quieter than the original, but even more powerful: “Survival in silence isn’t good enough no more…”

And here’s the original “Persons Unknown” for a bit of contrast… I believe this was the first Poison Girls record.

I’ll now share a scan of the article I coauthored in Bad Attitude. The other article on the spread is about an ill-fated UN women’s conference in Beijing, in case you’re wondering. Back in the day I suppose our prevailing aesthetic was: “We’ve got a new font and we’re gonna use it!”

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If you have fond memories of any Poison Girls gigs or want to find out more about Vi and her wonderful music, you might be interested in joining a Tributes to Vi Subversa Facebook page. There you can find personal reflections and links to music videos, interviews, obituaries and tributes.

There may be trouble ahead…
Now I’m just getting up to speed. The events of the past few weeks weigh heavily, but this post is long enough. I’m sure more ranting, writing and serious thinking is called for in the near future. So at the risk of appearing flippant, I’ll close with a certain old Nat King Cole tune…

 

Book news and reviews, musical memories and memorials

6a00d8345295c269e201bb0898b1c1970dHere’s a belated happy New Year to all my readers, and a kick-off to 2016 with some bits and pieces…

To start things off, the paperback edition of Jews vs Aliens AND Jews vs Zombies is now available in one omnibus volume. So that’s two books for the price of one, comprising 18 stories. This includes my tale “The Matter of Meroz”, which was selected by James Everington for his list of the year’s favourite stories. Nice one, James!

And a few years after the fact, two new reviews of Helen’s Story have recently appeared. Bobby Derie writes in the Innsmouth Free Press:

Helen Vaughan is alive and well in contemporary London, both more and less than the genderbending changeling that Machen had made of her. A century after the events of Machen’s novella, she has set up as an artist in Shoreditch, seeking through her art to make contact once more with her elusive fey companion. The language is sensual, the imagery vivid, the critical eye on the inhabitants of the art scene perceptive and penetrating, creating caricatures from which characters emerge like blooming flowers, Helen Vaughan the busy honey bee spreading the pollen from one to the next, all while reliving the events of “The Great God Pan” (and, skillfully intermixed, elements of Machen’s “The White People”).

Helen'sStory cover_smallHe also pays me a great compliment by comparing my writing to Caitlin R Kiernan’s. Nice one there, too.

Mythogeography, a site dedicated to psychogeography and the art of wandering, also featured a review. Crab Man describes Helen as “a lovely read; an unembarrassed and unembarrassing hymn to pleasure and to an interwoven world of material and metamorphosis”. Thanks be to Mytho!

I’m very pleased that people are still reading and commenting on this book. And it turns out that there are still signed hardback copies left at PS Publishing, which are now on sale for a mere £4. Many more excellent titles are available at knock-down prices in this general clear-out at PS – I have my eye on a few – and there are reductions on postage for multiple orders.

The opening month of 2016 has been cruel one for the loss of musicians. Like many others I was stunned and saddened by the death of David Bowie only days after the release of his new album and his 69th birthday. And hadn’t I been belting out “Rebel Rebel” at a karaoke in the not-too-distant past? It all came back to me.

Much has been written about Bowie since his death and doubtless more will be written. I was stunned and saddened, but this was shared with many people – especially since I’m based in the general Brixton area. When I turned up at the mural off the High Street around 11pm, people were still gathering, playing his songs and remembering ‘our Brixton boy’. Candles are still burning there as I write. There was both collective mourning and celebration of the music he has left behind.

For the record, I’ll mention that my favourite Bowie songs are “Suffragette City” and “Panic in Detroit”. Before there was punk, there was Bowie. You could almost pogo to “Suffragette City”. Here’s a live version from the Hammersmith Palais – sadly, this renowned live music venue is now a gym. As I watch this video, I can see a lot of headshaking and handwaving from the audience… perhaps a few demi-pogos can be detected as well.

Then… A couple of weeks after Bowie’s death, I was stunned again to hear that Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner had died. This hit me even harder. It was only a few months ago that I’d rediscovered his more recent folk-inspired music and its link to the legacy of the Weavers.

The grief at Bowie’s death was shared with many around me, and it was tempered by a massive celebration of his music. But my Facebook feed was pretty quiet on the loss of Kantner. I suspect it’s because many of my friends are younger than me. To them, the Airplane was just one of those hippie bands from 1960s/70s. Yeah, the Jefferson Airplane had some good songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. But my younger friends didn’t grow up with those guys. The very first album I bought was Crown of Creation. For many of my friends it might’ve been something by Ian Dury, Madness or the Specials, Alison Moyet, Joan Armatrading or the Slits – or perhaps Bowie.

One friend did post an item that that the Jefferson Airplane’s first female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson, died on the same day as Paul at the same age of 74. She had left the group when she had a baby, then Grace Slick stepped in. Anyway, here’s an early Airplane song where she duets with Marty Balin.

Back in the day my Airplane-love focused very much on Grace and her magnificent voice, but I later appreciated that it was Paul who brought the political and science fictional themes to the band. I was just starting to read SF and all things weird, and hearing it infuse my favourite rock music was sublime.

I later turned to Twitter for people sharing similar memories, though that first album financed by after-school newspaper routes or carefully accumulated allowances tended to be Surrealistic Pillow rather than Crown of Creation.

I feel as if I already wrote a tribute to the Jefferson Airplane and Kantner in particular in Soliloquy for Pan: It’s Not Just About the Pipes. The story that appeared in Soliloquy, “The Lady in the Yard” was also such a tribute, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time of writing. So I intended to add to these homages by posting a live version of War Movie here, since the album version from Bark already appears in my earlier post.

However, I couldn’t find one on YouTube or anywhere I else. A friend remarked that “War Movie” has been overlooked on all the compilation albums and I gave the matter some thought. I’m just very fond of it, though other tracks from this band may have stood up better to the test of time. Well, specifying a long-departed date for when the revolution takes place may be why! But that’s part of its charm for me, and perhaps it lends the tune a certain poignancy. And like any piece of outdated SF, it shows us more about the era it was written in than the future it envisioned.

I remember hanging out with a few friends in my college dorm in 1976, listening to this song rather glumly since nothing of the sort had happened in ‘nineteen hundred and seventy-five’. Then we put on ‘Volunteers’ followed by ‘Suffragette City’ to cheer ourselves up.

We were well and truly ready for punk.

In that spirit I’ll end with a fast(er) and thumpin’ version of “Volunteers”. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I am a lover of speculative fiction. And I do like to speculate and will do so at any opportunity. So I immediately imagined Paul Kantner jamming on this song with Joe Strummer. What a ‘heavenly’ racket those two powerful rhythm guitarists would make! And Pete Seeger came into this fantasy too. Maybe he’d pull the plug, as he did when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Or perhaps he’d shake his head with a bemused chuckle, then get out his banjo.

 

 

 

Manchester, myth and music

Hey, that guest blog from Simon Bestwick was fun… I’d like to thank him for stopping by. I’d also recommend guest-blogging to those who might feel the urge to hold forth every so often but don’t want to make a commitment to a regular blog just yet. I started off that way with a guest slot at TTA Press, all about Machen, Misogyny and Madwomen in Attics.

Which brings me to my current post, which also as a lot of ‘M’s in it. As mentioned, I went up to Ladyfest Manchester in November and did a reading as part of the launch for the Rebel Dykes film trailer. This included a fragment of a novel that revisited the South London Women’s Hospital and a bit from my recent blog post on Rebel Dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space. The room was packed – the event had the atmosphere of a gig rather than a literary soiree… People even spontaneously sang out to the “Dykes of Brixton”. I was thrilled by the enthusiastic response by younger women, and also aware of how much I stand to learn from them in turn during this process.

So finally, here is the trailer we launched that night…

After the presentation, I got a drink and eventually turned my attention to the musical talent on the main stage. This started a train of thought about music and urban myth. Recently I saw a BBC documentary about indie music, Music for MisfitsSome of it I enjoyed, but I will also agree with Emma Jackson on the programme’s ‘restrospective sexism’ and how it ignored the sizeable input of women musicians. Where were PJ Harvey, the Voodoo Queens, Echobelly, and so many women who made some noise in the 1990s?

I always find it startling to watch historical documentaries about a period that I lived through, a time that had been a ‘now’ for me. While it could be seen as a part of growing older, I imagine this is also what is meant by the ‘making history‘. Myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I writer I often deal with myths and draw inspiration from them.

But I’m wary when mythologising has the effect of flattening a lived experience and robbing it of ambiguity and nuance, or hiding major parts of that experience from view. A mythologised experience often stands outside the stream of time, as if the branches that extend into the present have been lopped off. It’s like a bug preserved in amber. In the case of the Rebel Dykes project, this is exactly what the film-makers are striving to avoid.

Meanwhile, musical retrospectives can be very seductive. You hear a lot of favourite old tunes,  they provoke a glow of nostalgia. But they often leave me unsatisfied, as if a big chunk of the story is missing. Friends I spoke with at the Ladyfest weekend observed that the Manchester segment of Music for Misfits and similar documentaries give the impression no real music has been made in the city since the days of the Smiths, Happy Mondays and Oasis.

But the music I enjoyed showed that was far from the truth. One of the bands, Factory Acts, also makes an explicit connection to their city’s musical heritage while striking out in its own unique direction. “Factory Acts are a Salford based dark electro, alt-dance duo. We exist at the edge of the analogue-digital divide, sometimes dreaming, always dancing.” I’ll say that I love a band where the bass plays lead…

And let’s have some rock ‘n roll theremin playing! You’ll see some theremin action at this performance from the Pussy Riot Revolution Festival in 2013.

Another brilliant band was ILL, which happens to include Rebel Dykes co-director, Harri Shanahan. ILL plays queercore riot grrrl style, spikey and discordant and wonderful. If I may indulge in some old fogeyness, I’d also say they’re rather like a 21st-century Delta Five. You can check out their Housewives Trilogy EP and listen to their signature song below.

And here’s a live performance, also from 2013’s Pussy Riot Revolution Festival.

I only caught a bit of the Galivantes after our presentation. But I liked what I heard and would like to see them again.

The night finished in storming style with hip-hop band Ajah UK – here are a couple of videos from them – a live performance of “Money Ain’t Your Friend” and a performance of “Don’t Step on My Shoe”.

During the event, further news about the attacks in Lebanon and Paris was just filtering through. Because I was at a gig myself, I felt especially emotional hearing about the attacks at the Bataclan. Many of us were also concerned about how the horror of these attacks will be compounded with racism and attacks on civil liberties, as well as military action by governments that will result in many more deaths.

It seemed very important to keep making music wherever we are and to oppose suppression wherever it descends. Though much has happened, been written about and analysed since mid-November, as an immediate reaction this comment by a French woman living in the UK still nails it: “My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy…”

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Guest post by Simon Bestwick: Masada in Yorkshire

I’ve known Simon Bestwick since 2010, when we both appeared in the same anthology – Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascism. Since then, his sharp and scathing Facebook posts have enlivened many a grey morning. And now he’s here on the second stop of his blog tour, writing about a post-apocalyptic tale that enthralled him as a teenager and continues to influence his work.
Simon is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out now.

Brother in the landWritten in the 1980s, Robert Swindells’ Brother In The Land is set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Skipley in the aftermath of a nuclear attack

It’s told through the eyes of Danny Lodge, a teenage boy. His mother is killed in the attack, but his father, and his younger brother, Ben, have survived. There’s no sign of the authorities, and new subcultures are already emerging: the traumatised, near-catatonic Spacers; the ‘Badgers’ hiding in their fallout shelters; and the deranged cannibals called the Purples. When the authorities do show up, help is the last thing they provide.

The local Commissioner and his soldiers are establishing a feudal society: their HQ serves as their castle, the rest of the population as their serfs. Opposition arises in the form of a local smallholder, Sam Branwell, and MASADA, the Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority. When Danny’s father is killed, Danny, Ben and Kim, a girl Danny’s own age, join him. Branwell is a kind and humane man; his second-in-command, however, is Keith Rhodes, Danny’s hated Games teacher from school, whose ruthlessness, and contempt for those he sees as weak, serve as both an asset and a liability.

MASADA overthrow the Commissioner, establishing a more just communitarian settlement. Crops are planted; Kim’s elder sister, Maureen, becomes pregnant, her child hailed as ‘the first of many’. For a while, there is hope.

But when international aid arrives in the form of the Swiss, they see only a Communist organisation and deprive them of weapons and transport, leaving the community isolated and defenceless in the face of the coming winter. Further blows come in rapid succession. Radioactive contamination causes their crops to fail. Rhodes and his men set off, ostensibly to search for supplies, but never return. The community begins to fall apart. Maureen gives birth; her child is born without a mouth, and dies almost immediately. Branwell dies the same night.

Danny remembers Holy Island, off the coast; clinging to the hope they can survive there, he sets off with Kim and Ben. He runs afoul of Rhodes; the former teacher prepares to kill him, but is shot down by Kim. Soon after, Ben dies of radiation sickness.

Brother In The Land is a bleak novel; it isn’t quite as in-your-face horrific as films like Threads (is anything as horrific as Threads?) or adult novels such as James Herbert’s Domain, but it’s more than harrowing enough.

However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction that takes pains to emphasise the appalling consequences of nuclear war, Brother In The Land isn’t content to simply leave its characters to suffer and struggle for survival, but asks instead what kind of a society we should strive to create. The social order which, according to conventional wisdom, should be the default in this kind of ‘survival situation’ – the authoritarian, militaristic one of the Commissioner and his men, where democracy and personal freedom are sacrificed in the name of security – is identified as pernicious and malign. Branwell’s community, democratic and consensual, is not only a viable alternative, but the only sane one.

In a film of the Mad Max variety, Branwell would be portrayed as well-intentioned but hopelessly idealistic, unable to realise his outdated Utopian ideals in the harsh realities of a fallen world; here, instead, he’s a wise, principled figure, a man of peace and reason who’s nonetheless clear-eyed about the need to overthrow the Commissioner. Swindells was an active member of the CND at the time, and continues to campaign on behalf of the Green Party; how much of him may have been in Branwell is hard to determine, but neither translate opposition to nuclear weapons into an unworkable pacifism. Instead they reluctantly accept revolution as a necessary tool in the absence of a peaceful alternative. What ultimately defeats him is the nature of the post-apocalyptic world itself: the crops would have failed whoever was in charge.

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Out now: discount this week at the Snowbooks website 

It’s a remarkable read for young people, and an extraordinary book that left a lasting impression on me. Its brutally honest depiction both of life in the aftermath and of the struggle to try and build a better society in the ruins is yet another of the influences on my new book, Hell’s Ditch.

The original novel – the one I read in my teens – ends with Danny leaving behind his account of what’s happened before setting off with Kim on what’s probably a doomed and futile quest for sanctuary. Swindells later added an additional, more optimistic final chapter, in which they reach Holy Island, find a community run along similar lines to Branwell’s, and manage to survive; by the end, Kim is pregnant, and the child, if it’s a boy, will be named for Ben. Both versions conclude with the same line: ‘…for little Ben, my brother. In the land.’

Simon Bestwick

Rebel dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space

Feminaxe

“Before there were queer activists, before there were Riot Grrls, there were the Rebel Dykes of London. They were young, they were feminists, they were anarchists, they were punks. They lived together in squats and at Peace Camps. They went to political demos every Saturday, they set up squatted creches and bookshops, feminist newspapers and magazines. They had bands like Poison Girls, Mouth Almighty, The Darlings and Well Oiled Sisters… This documentary film is being made because the history of the London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s is in danger of being forgotten. Rebel dykes created their own world, made their own rules, and refused to be ignored. So we can’t let history tidy them away.”

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On 14 November Ladyfest Manchester will feature meetings, workshops and music AND the launch of the trailer for an exciting new documentary about those hell-raising 1980s Rebel Dykes of London. Unfortunately the day-long Ladyfest event is already sold out, but if you’re already going you might be interested in our presentation at 6.30pm.

Producer Siobhan Fahey will do a presentation with music, images and oral history. I’ll be reading from a story or two about my rebel dyke days, along with fellow writer Maj Ikle. Music on stage includes Lesley Woods (former Au Pairs singer and guitarist) and the film’s co-director Harri Shanahan will be playing with her band ILL. For the full line-up see the Ladyfest Manchester website or click on the schedule on the right.

For those who are interested but haven’t got a ticket to Ladyfest, Siobhan will do a similar presentation in London on 5 December at the Speak Up! Speak Out! queer history conference.

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Ye olde Amstrad

If the queer riot graphic at the top seems familiar to a few of you, I included it in my 2013 post, One Funeral and a Playlist. It’s based on the front page of a ‘zine called Feminaxe, the result of a hectic all-night lay-out session in 1987. We needed to get it to the printer so we’d have the paper for a Clause 28 march in Manchester. We did most of the typesetting on an Amstrad but these were the days before full-on computer design. Quark was only a creamy cheese our homesick German friends talked about, not the ubiquitous graphics application later replaced by InDesign. So lay-out involved cutting stuff up, laboriously scratching at those incendiary headlines in Letraset, spray-mounting and moving pieces of paper about, having a laugh but also getting grumpy with lack of sleep. And despite our greatest efforts, sticky bits of paper would inevitably be left stuck to the floor.

Those Clash-inspired lyrics with a queer twist came from a song by the Sluts From Outer Space, inspired by a fight with the cops on Downing Street during a Clause 28 march in 1987. Afterwards a few of us ended up revising “White Riot” as we made our way home. Another rewrite we perpetrated was “The Dykes of Brixton”: “You can nick us you can evict us but you have to answer to oh oh the Dykes of Brixton”. Well, I really did love the Clash, and still do.

Sluts From Outer Space 1988ish 1

Three out of seven or eight Sluts. Briefly we were called Rebel Sleaze but that name never stuck

Rampage

At Gay Pride 1988 in Jubilee Gardens

Beyond the parodies, our own songs included the (anti)bicentennial in Australia, more stuff about Clause 28, Restart interviews (forerunner to the benefit sanctions regime). And sex of course, with our finale number “Wild, Hot and Wet”.

Our biggest gig took place at East London Polytechnic in Stratford, where we supported punky-reggae band Culture Shock As I watched them, I was very impressed that the bass player played with three fingers. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that I played bass?

I recently saw that Culture Shock has been gigging again. Not so for the Sluts, I’m afraid. We split sometime in 1989 due to the proverbial personal and musical differences, or perhaps it was because some of us moved out of London. Whatever… We did have a brief reunion for a couple of numbers at a 1990 gig by Latin/Spanish band Los Lasses, which involved our drummer Jill.

There are no YouTube videos of the Sluts, and our recordings are just on cassette – I have one from a very chaotic rehearsal. It is currently being digitised but I expect to shudder when I hear it again! But I do have a photo of us performing in front of the wonderful banner we used for marches and gigs.

Unfortunately, the banner no longer exists. It was cut in half when someone at the squat where Feminaxe had an ‘office’ (an empty housing benefit office next to what is now the Hootenanny pub) used it for a curtain when she ran a rave. If I recall (and I could be wrong so many years after) it was a paid event. I regarded this as our own countercultural version of the backlash and creeping conservatism of the 1990s – OK now to use communal space in squats to make money, was it? So we had our disagreements; it wasn’t all sisterhood and sweetness. But maybe we’re getting out of the time period covered in the film…

Now, a word about my writing. Though I was reading a lot of speculative fiction, most of my own work at the time was non-fiction, polemic and straight-up realism. But in retrospect, I believe that the name of our band hinted at the more fantastical turn that my writing would take in the future…

Fantasycon, book nerd problems and book love

Book_nerdThere I was, volunteering to organise a workshop on Universal Credit and benefit sanctions for working people (aka in-work conditionality‘) at the London Anarchist Bookfair when something went ping in the twisted passages of my brain as I noted the date of the bookfair – 24 October. Could that be… yes it is… the same date as Fantasycon in Nottingham! Yes, I had double-booked myself, despite the many lists made and calendars defaced. As a friend suggested, this clash of events is a classic #booknerdproblem.

Usually Fantasycon takes place at the end of September, but this year it’s moved to the end of October. A couple of years ago the World Fantasy Convention took place on the last weekend of October, just after the London Anarchist Bookfair and it was fun to go from one to the other – I wrote about this in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland. But it’s bookfair weekend rather than Halloween weekend this time around.

Since I had arranged everything in Nottingham, Fantasycon won out. It did give me some pause for thought. While I’ve been ruminating on the conjunctions between political action, creativity, weirdness and writing, have I been caught in a situation where the interests of geekery, fantasy and activism stand opposed?

Not entirely… The story I’ll be reading in my slot is about in-work conditionality too – kind of – with a definite twist of weirdness. Plus, the panel I’m on will tackle alternative social structures in imaginative fiction. And of course, the anti-austerity anthology Horror Uncut is shortlisted for the best anthology award.

So here are my events for the weekend. And no doubt I’ll also also be hanging out at the bar…

PANEL: Saturday 24 October
The Fantastic Mundane: Imaginary Social Infrastructures
12 midday (
Conference Theatre)
Health, wealth, law, government & learning are key parts of our lives, but how are they depicted in genre writing? What do these and other ‘everyday’ social establishments offer within created worlds?
My personal starting point in this discussion will be Ursula K LeGuin’s comment: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” I’m also interested in how we can envision alternatives when writing speculatively about ‘real’ settings as well as secondary and far future worlds .
Moderator: Karina Coldrick
Panelists: Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Hounsom, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Williamson

READING: Saturday 24 October
8.40pm
(Reading Room)
I plan to present “Keep Them Rollin'” from the anthology We Need to Talk. Quantum computing meets Universal Credit! This is my first truly ‘short’ short story that I can finish in one reading.
Afterwards, I’ll be heading to the launch party for Undertow Publications, which will celebrate the launch of VH Leslie’s Skein and Bone and Aickmann’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas. I gather there will be wine and conversation until late. Anyone wanting to chat afterwards is welcome to join me at the launch.

I was just putting the finishing touches on this post, when I went over to Facebook and discovered a somewhat relevant article in the Mirror16 of the scariest things we just learnt about benefits reform should definitely appeal to horror fans, and it also features an incident involving time travel, or at least the expectation that claimants have access to some means of time travel: “One man received a letter telling him about an appointment on 27 June 2014. It was dated 26 June 2014 and told him he had to go to the appointment one day previously – 25 June 2014. Even though he showed officials the letter, he was sanctioned.” 

To end on a more cheerful note, the second printing of Soliloquy for Pan is out. According to the publisher, about half were sold by pre-order so get in there if you want one. And here’s a review from When Churchyards Yawn. The blogger, John C Nash, writes appreciatively about the physical presentation and feel of the book, accompanied by luscious photographs of the book in autumnal settings:

“The foliate arabesque cartouche surrounding the gold-foiled Pan on the front cover and the gold-foiled Trajanesque typeface on the spine is reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement; which is, of course, the perfect choice for the theme of the collection as there was a massive resurgence of interest in Pan at that time.”

I certainly feel honoured that my story, “The Lady in the Yard”, is encased within an object of such beauty. Meanwhile, I hope that John enjoys the text as well…:)

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Universal Credit and the multiverse – and a tribute to a friend

6a00d8345295c269e201b8d12175b2970c-200wiWe Need to Talk has just been released by Jurassic London, the same folks who published Jews vs Aliens. I have a story in this new anthology, which is themed on ‘difficult conversations’. I am very pleased with this because it’s the only story I’ve written that comes to a mere 2000 words. When I’ve previously submitted 2000-word things to critiquing groups, I received comments along these lines: “This reads like the beginning of a novel.” But wow, here’s my first proper short short story. I’ve pretty much decided on this one for my reading at Fantasycon.

Jurassic is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in charity and benefit books. It worked with the Kindred Agency to produce and promote We Need to Talk, and proceeds will go to the Eve Appeal, a charity dedicated to supporting research into the early detection and prevention of women’s cancers. The stories were selected by Susan Armstrong, Anne C Perry, Anastasia Scott and Athena Lamnisos.

My story “Keep Them Rollin” in this anthology involves Universal Credit, quantum computing and multiversal weirdness, which results in a very difficult conversation indeed… It was inspired by my involvement with Boycott Workfare, which campaigns against forced unpaid labour and benefit sanctions.

When I was researching ‘in-work conditionality‘, the extension of sanctions and compulsion to low-income workers who claim top-up benefits, I never expected it to turn into a story. At the time, I was investigating a pilot scheme that started last April, reading through the DWP’s guidelines for ‘job coaches’ (once known simply as advisors) who would be harassing working claimants on these pilots. They were advised to initiate ‘challenging conversations’ with their ‘customers’.

And then when Jurassic London sent around an email announcing a competition for short fiction about ‘difficult conversations’, the story took shape.

A few of my friends have died from gynaecological cancers, so that’s another reason it means a lot to be in this anthology. I’d like to dedicate “Keep Them Rollin'” to my good friend Jill Allott, who died in 2012 from a secondary brain tumour related to ovarian cancer. Here’s a photo and a link to a little bio in History Made At Night. This was based on a Facebook tribute I wrote before I’d joined the blogosphere. Jill was a former stalwart of Brixton squatting and a wonderful friend, whose enthusiasm boosted many anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay and community projects.

Jill has also come up again in my thoughts because I’ve just been interviewed for a forthcoming documentary, London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s, which brought back many memories of her. In fact, we went together to the infamous Treworgy Tree Fayre festival in 1989 – referred to in the story – along with a posse of other friends. So this story belongs to Jill in many ways.

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Jill Allott on drums in our late 1980s-era band, the Sluts from Outer Space