The lowdown on the Lowdown

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Ye olde Amstrad

This is just a quick note to say that Simon Bestwick has interviewed me for his regular author feature The Lowdown. I admit I first had problems with the question: “Tell me three things about yourself.” But given time, the oddest things came to mind. So in honour of my anecdote about a stint testing early home computers in 1981, I will grace this post with a photo of an Amstrad. As I say in the article I’m not exactly sure what model I was testing, but it did look like an Amstrad and that’s good enough reason to plonk one on this page.

Another thing – which I’ve only just discovered – is that two of my stories, Meat, Motion and Light and The Lady in the Yard were given Honourable Mentions by Ellen Datlow in Best Horror of the Year Vol 8. Thanks Ellen! How that had first escaped the net of my conscientious self-googling I don’t know…

I’d also like to draw readers’ attention to a new journal called Feminist Dissent. The inaugural issue is free to download online, and features a mix of analysis, poetry, fiction, art and reflection. This will give you an idea of what the magazine explores:

“Feminist Dissentcover_issue_2_en_US brings together innovative and critical insights to enhance our understanding of the relationship between gender, fundamentalism and related socio-political issues. It aims to fill a gap in the existing literature by creating space to interrogate the multi-faceted links between historical and resurgent religious fundamentalism and gender. It further aims to open up new ways of thinking about secularism, religious freedom, civil liberties and human rights, nationalism and identity politics, anti-racism and multiculturalism, neoliberalism, and feminist resistance”.

I hope to do some reviewing for Feminist Dissent in the near future, so keep an eye out for more about this exciting and much-needed publication.

 

 

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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 time of 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 in to 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…

 

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

The rock arrives, and Fantasycon approaches

Shirley Jackson pebbleMost bloggers already have LonCon summed up, done and dusted. But as soon as I sat down to write about LonCon, I realised that the next convention is coming up on 5 September – tomorrow!

So it looks like I’ll write about LonCon and Fantasycon and the reflections or hangovers they provoke later on.

Meanwhile, my special commemorative Shirley Jackson Award nominee pebble has arrived! The ‘detailed description’ on the customs form attached to the package describes the contents: “Rock”. No fooling around there.

As I own a strictly antique phone, I’ve tried to take a photo with the Photobooth thingy on my Mac. So here’s my special rock, arse backwards. It’s a nice little thing, well-polished and smooth and somehow calming to hold. Maybe I’ll take my rock with me to Fantasycon this weekend.

While the programme at LonCon was impressive, I’ve been looking forward to the relative coziness of Fantasycon. So what are some of my plans for the weekend? Well, if you see me mumbling in a corner in the bar on the Friday afternoon, be assured that I’m practising for my reading.

This will take place at 7.20, sandwiched between Simon Bestwick and Simon Kurt Unsworth. I’m planning to read from “Pieces of Ourselves”, which will appear very soon in the Gray Friar Press anthology Horror Uncut: tales of social insecurity and economic unease,  edited by Tom Johnstone and the late Joel Lane. Joel will certainly be in the thoughts of many of us at the convention, and we’ll be meeting for a drink and readings from his work at 6pm on Friday – just before my reading.

On Sunday 7 September at 10am I’ll be on the panel below. Yes, it’s kind of early. Strong coffee has been promised!

10.00am – A Working Class Hero is Something to Read?
“Fantasy often focuses on characters at the extreme ends of society, but is frequently written by middle-class authors who bring middle class assumptions to their princes and peasants. The panellists discuss class in SFF.” Gillian Redfearn (m), Joan De La Haye, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Sarah Lotz, Den Patrick

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing the rest of the time, but meeting up with friends, schmoozing and drinking and eating and attending a panel or two will certainly play a big part. Rustblind and Silverbright is up for best anthology, so I’ll be at the awards ceremony… perhaps clutching my special rock for good luck. (No, I have no plans to throw it at anyone.)

And looking ahead to next month, I’ll announce an exciting event coming up as part of the Gothic Manchester festival. Info is now out for Twisted Tales of Austerity, a reading on 24 October that will mark the launch of Horror Uncut. It will take place from 12 noon to 1.30pm at Waterstones on Deansgate in central Manchester. The readings will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.

Co-editor Tom Johnstone says this anthology ushers in a ‘new era of socially engaged but entertaining and darkly funny horror fiction, which may not change the world but will, I hope, change the way we look at it’.”