Here’s a little report on my talk to a packed Norwich Writers’ Circle
Thank you to everyone who came to see me read alongside Nick Sweeney (Laikonik Express, Unthank Books, 2011) and Sarah Dobbs (Killing Daniel, Unthank Books, 2012) at Off the Shelf at Blacks Club in Soho yesterday.
For anyone who couldn’t make the event or would like to read the work after hearing it read, I’ve posted the extracts here:
From Touching the Starfish.
I reach the far side of the road and ahead of me waits the final uphill stretch. The parked cars are mounds of snow and the trees white scribbles and beside me the latticed windows of the shop have those crescents of frost that you see in Dickensian illustrations and Christmas cards. The shop lights cast a tangerine orange sheen across the snow on the pavement where I’ve paused. I should go in, linger a while, browse the aisles, this is bad, this weather. Tomorrow, the headlines will read: “Locally respected creative writing tutor Nathan Flack was yesterday discovered frozen to death outside a double gabled mock tudor house during the worst cold snap in living memory. All the regions’ other low quality writers survived the weather that swept in from the Arctic Circle. Reginald Carnaby, a close personal friend, said, “He really was a national disgrace and a traitor to Albion. None of us will miss him.”
But I don’t want to hide in the shop. This isn’t my life. This isn’t happening. Out there on the other side of the void is the other me and the other you and they are the Nathan and Johanna who count. And I ask myself as I begin to heave myself up the slope towards campus what would have happened if in the Rawalpindi you had told me that you were going to have the baby? What if I’d been filled with joy and love and grabbed you by the hand and embraced with all my heart the completeness and the certainty of this?
Yeah, sure, when it sunk in I’d have had all the doubts and confusions and regrets that lad lit, disco dad novels tell us are the rite of passage of becoming a parent and a real man, maturity and epiphany being brought about by unwanted pregnancy carried to full term. I’d have spent the first three months being unable to express my feelings and fears and my dialogue would be at variance with my interior monologue.
‘You do want to have this baby?’ she says, tears in her eyes, fiddling with her Police sunglasses.
‘Yes,’ I say, as I flip through my Primal Scream 12” singles, my arsecrack showing over the waistband of my Diesel jeans, and sling ‘Swastika Eyes’ onto the Bang and Olofsen.
No, I think, babies smell and proper fit birds won’t fancy me.
And I’d have worried about life being over and how could I be a father when I’m still a twelve-year old child at heart who still watches Star Wars and talks about Bagpuss and King Rollo in the pub, and I won’t see so much of Porno and Hard Drive who will be having a much better time of it chasing uncomplicated sex with uncomplicated women named after cheap wines and tourist destinations, and drinking poncey Japanese lager in bars with abstract noun logos like Incubation and Gestation, and playing Scalextric in their purpose-built warehouse apartments and nursing their mythic hangovers and comedowns as the grey light filters through their curtains while I’m stuck with her moaning and materialism and her expanding and sagging and withering and the thing filling its pants every two minutes and I won’t climb Everest now or play lead guitar at Knebworth in front of millions of call centre workers, or strafe the Mekong Delta in a F1-11 or float in space on acid, fiddling with my cock as the sun bursts over the North Pole. I’ll just turn thirty and CDs will pop out of the toaster like the jacket image of a day-glo 3-for-2 table product-shifter, and I’ll spend my spare time talking about things I don’t care about to people I don’t like and my living days lost in a la la land of big bright Fuzzy Felt colours and Happy Meal cartons.
This would pass though, yes it would. And bollocks to Porno and Hard Drive. Who wants to gibber in a sofapub with a hatful of ciphers when I could have a real relationship with a real woman and be a dad? I’d have you, Johanna, and I would have stopped writing, abandoned The Drowners for a life more rewarding. As the snow begins to seem even whiter and thicker and The Avenue somehow widens and grows steeper and as all sense of feeling has gone and I can’t feel my legs anymore, the skin between realities tears and I sense the real history of us. Now I am not here but tucking in to a bowl of delicious home-cooked chilli con carne in my spot-lit country kitchen’s dining area, surrounded by my life partner and my preteen children, all talking about our day and its truthful wonders and heart-warmingly human moments as the snow falls magically, coldlessly outside and every so often we pause and glaze over and watch it tumble and blow. This is the me who once held you tight in the Rawalpindi, who took you home to our flat and cried with love as we sat on the side of the bed, who held your hand at the birthing pool and witnessed the miracle, who found himself merged and closer and closer to you than he thought it was possible to be, who settled happily for this adventure, who stashed the unfinished manuscript of The Drowners in a box file and wouldn’t look at it again, who sometimes mentioned it self-deprecatingly after three glasses of wine at leaving dos and big Four-O surprise parties, before I always glance over at my wife with her beauty and charm, and smile with relief that I left behind all that hubris and uncertainty, the desire to be ‘different’ and ‘creative’, to not do something that used to be called ‘selling out’. OK, I do look a bit of a pranny here, a bit bald, a bit fat, a little like a middle-ranking Lib Dem MP who pays for sex, but it’s a good life, bringing up children, the providing, the hard work, the occupation and the easy zeal of it. After I’d hid The Drowners in a box file, I sent out all those letters and eventually found another editing job, and this time, because I have to, because for the first time I am living in the future, have something to aim for, I knuckle down and stop looking out the window and using words like ‘munificent’ in faxes and drop the smoking and the posing and the dreaming. I do my job well and they like me and promote me and I’m like senior somethingorother, a list-managing, deadlinemeeting, target-hitting, forward-thinking, rejection slip-writing, eclectic and adaptive twenty-first century publishing executive and I like the stride and the thrust and the jargon. We have a house, our third now, play the property game adeptly, learn the second string moneymaking nous that all modern urban professionals need these days. We have a big summer holiday every year, Morocco or Florida or kayaking up the Orinoco. We have two cars, collect Art Deco furniture and African objets d’art and talk often about a second home on the Illyrian coast or southern Spain. We have our three children, Molly, Milly and Tom and you have tenure and I am setting up my own literary agency now and my days are packed and I am never lonely. I look to you and I am never lonely. I live with you and I am never lonely. I have the children and will never be lonely. Never be lonely? A gust of snow hits me so ferociously that going forwards I find my legs almost freeze to a halt as my torso wants to fly back the way that I’ve just come. The skin between worlds reassembles and I see clearly now, know that I’m doing what you disliked so much that last eighteen months or so of us: merely writing in my head. The phantom Nathan and his spectral children and replicant wife freeze-frame as the snow outside their window vanishes and the walls dissolve and the chilli con carne in their mouths disappears and they share one last terrified, pleading look at one another before their world goes abruptly kaput. There was none of that ahead for us, Johanna, whatever either of us had said or done in the Rawalpindi or Ristova Road.
A Mess of Cords and Eyes
Back at the flat that night we sat on the side of the bed for a while, still in our coats and our shoes, not holding hands, both staring at the patch of wall above the stereo. We sat there not talking until you uncoiled your scarf and muttered to me that you were going to have a wash. You hung up your coat and padded off to the bathroom. I listened to the boiler whoosh and the pipes buzz, the running of the taps and the unusually heavy-handed way that you seemed to be moving your things about. I wanted you to come back so that we could talk, though I had no idea what I was going to say and wouldn’t admit to myself that what I really needed to talk about was why you let go of my hand in Ristova Road.
This realization and the imminent procedure that you must be thinking about as you brushed your teeth and removed your make-up and looked at your pale, cold, winter face in the mirror made me hunch up and crush my ribs with my arms.
I noticed it then. It lay on the table next to the wardrobe, alongside the word processor and my stack of paperbacks topped by the starfish. My notebook with a sheaf of papers protruding from the covers. That morning I had finished the ninth chapter of The Drowners, the mid-point, the hinge where the plot dovetailed, became complicated by fresh reversals and obstacles.
You blanked me when you came back into the room and undressed behind the wardrobe door as if you didn’t want me to look at you. I listened to your shuffling, the click of your joints and the dull twang of elastic as you put on your pyjamas.
‘I’m going to bed,’ you said.
The bedsprings plummeted. I stood up so you could get under the duvet. You were resting against the headboard, your eyes shut and the covers pulled over your chin. I took Chapter Nine of The Drowners from the notebook. I’d been giving the novel to you chapter by chapter as I wrote it. You had not yet seen this part. You said that you were enjoying it, that you wanted to know what happened next.
‘Jo,’ I said as I slipped the papers across the bed. ‘I finished this today.’
In the bathroom, forgetting that this was the end, not the start of the day, I covered my cheeks with shaving gel, then muttered ‘oh you prick,’ as I wiped it off. I looked at my face in the mirror and splashed it with water and again the way that you’d dropped my hand seemed horribly significant. But I was being selfish. You were pregnant. You were going to have an abortion. The ‘us’ of this was academic. It was your body, your chemistry, your conscience. As I started to massage balm into my cheeks, it suddenly occurred to me what Chapter Nine was about. It was the chapter where my Angry Young Man for the 90s has been confronted by Chilly Posh Girl, because as a consequence of their chilly assignation in Chapter Three Chilly Posh is pregnant. This is a shock to Angry Young and he’s in denial and at the start of Chapter Nine he says . . .
I looked away from the mirror. You would be reading it now.
It’s a hideous, grasping thing growing inside her. A mess of cords and eyes.
Your bare feet thundered along the hall. As I blinked at the door, you pounded it three times. The door quivered. The mirror shook.
I held up my hands and slapped them to my face. You hit the door again and called out my name, but not in the accusatory, furious way that I expected. Unlocking the door, I had no chance to say anything before you elbowed and shouldered me out of the way and back into the hall. The bolt clicked behind you.
‘Jo?’ I said. ‘Johanna?’
In the bedroom, Chapter Nine was fanned across the bedclothes.
Back at the bathroom door, I knocked again.
‘Jo?’ I said. ‘I’m sorry.’
No answer, no sound from inside.
‘Jo, I didn’t think, I didn’t mean you to see that . . . Jo, please talk to me, I don’t feel like that. It’s fiction, you understand me, it’s not true, it’s for the sake of the story.’
All I could hear now was a faint rustling inside and the toilet roll holder rattle. Then a sob.
In front of the door, in the subterranean cold of the unheated flat, I shivered as I waited and I don’t know how long it was before you came out but it seemed much longer than it must have been. When the door swung open, your face was ash-blue and your eyes pink and raw. You looked up at me and thrust your hand into your fringe and seemed to teeter and for a second I thought you were going to faint.
‘Nathan,’ you said. ‘Nathan . . . I’ve just had my period.’
You collapsed into me and shook and shuddered and wept.
I wanted to shudder and weep. I felt like dancing.
We curled up in bed and lay in the dark and I stroked your hair and your ear and said: ‘Are we OK?’
‘Yes,’ you said.
‘I’m glad we’re OK?”
‘That’s why I said it.’
‘Really?’ I said.
‘I’ll be fine in a couple of days.’
‘Saved by the power of prose,’ I said.
On reflection, this last statement is the most stupid and naive thing I have
ever said in my entire, soon-to-be-over-in-the-snowy-wastes life.
From I Remember Nothing.
When Mr Paul Fischer of number 76 Yewlands died, an article in The Sentinel, the local paper I used to deliver after school presented strong circumstantial evidence that he had, in fact, been Martin Bormann. Until forensic scientists proved that rather than manage our sub-post office for forty years Bormann had been buried under the Lehrter Bahnhof in West Berlin, I lived with the guilt that I had delivered a low-quality free newspaper to Hitler’s feared private secretary.
The Fischer/Bormann Scandal was not unusual in the little Surrey town that I now call Banberg. Back then The Sentinel’s resident Simon Wiesenthal also exposed a Mr Harry Glass of 28 Buff Avenue as Hartwig Glassman, a guard at the Flughelenlager Concentration Camp. Nothing was ever proved, though extradition proceedings reached an advanced stage in the case of Mr Teddy Hummel, accused by the same troublemaker at The Sentinel of being a willing participant in the 1942 Józefów Massacre.
I never saw or met any of these men on my round. All I remember of 76 Yewlands is that the crazy paving looked like the patterns on the skin of an adder. In Buff Avenue, the swathes of pampas grass would hiss in the breeze. Glass’ house, I think, was the one with the rotting pink porch and the dog inside which always howled. I have no idea where Hummel lived, behind which mock-Tudor facade or pebble-dashed bungalow he hid his secrets, if he had secrets, if he was who they said he was.
It was always quiet back then, especially after school, when the shops began to close for the evening and the pubs hadn’t yet opened. When I was fifteen, one afternoon a week I trudged the streets carrying a fluorescent orange sack stamped with The Sentinel’s logo. I would start at the edge of the Common and look back for luck at the turrets of the disused mental hospital that peeped over the tops of the fir trees. Marching up and down the gravel drives of the Victorian villas that bordered the Common it was easy to imagine that you were in a science fiction novel. The human race had mysteriously vanished, except for one resourceful and charismatic boy. In the overgrown garden of a thirties semi on Upton Lane I remember the feeling of trepidation when the gate cracked shut behind me and I faced a house with windows so thick with dirt that a walled-up cube of darkness seemed to glimmer through puncture marks in its casing. If I saw a Range Rover parked in a driveway, its roof encrusted with bird droppings, possibly in the shade of a leylandii hedge, maybe somewhere like Stoneleigh Drive, I would picture its owner staring out to sea from a cliff-top café. Nothing would remain to suggest that he’d been there beyond a pocketful of change abandoned in a saucer. I had already realized that in Banberg everyone has something to hide.
Years later, long after I’d left, a Banberg resident was arrested for shoplifting in the nearby town some call Slutsk. He turned out to be a Serb wanted for war crimes in Croatia. Allegedly, he’d captained a militia that tortured civilians during a raid on a village in the self-proclaimed breakaway Serb Republic of Krajina. Neighbours reported him to be ‘remarkably quiet and polite.’ A Croatian government statement said, ‘We are grateful for his capture, although it is true that we did not have [Banberg] on our radar as a possible hideout.’
This last statement struck me as profoundly naive. Banberg was the first place I would have looked. They don’t call it Little Paraguay for nothing.
Sometimes, like in the interview I recently gave to a Saturday newspaper, I like to joke that when I was growing-up in the self-proclaimed breakaway Republic of Banberg (a puppet state that in the mid-eighties flourished briefly in territory between the southern rim of Greater London and Old Surrey) we English were second-class citizens. We had to sit behind the Germans at school and because of them were deprived of certain recreational facilities and study options. My lack of sporting prowess and my near-ignorance of the sciences can be attributed to these disciplines being considered ‘German preserves’.
At the time, though, my problem was not the diktat of an imposed Teutonic hierarchy. My problem, at the start of my fourth year, was Peter Morrison, the new Scottish kid who in two terms had already carved out a reputation as something of an enforcer. My crime: posh voice and being a spaz on a level even lower than the obvious greasers and bookworms. I know now that due to the Highland Clearances and something to do with the imperialism of the Queen’s English, bullying me was a heroic act of post-colonial resistance. I would later come to feel sorry for him; at least I’m wise enough to know that I have to say this now. I must tick this box or appear unsympathetic, still at heart a Banberger. The day I first met Mr E was the day Morrison ambushed me after school on Senlac Road.
I blame the Walkman. It was a grey plastic thing the size of a half a brick, a free gift when I’d opened my first bank account that I could squeeze into my blazer’s side-pocket. The orange foam headphones no doubt helped Morrison sight me from a distance. I was walking beside a high wall. The overhanging branches of apple trees swayed in time to a track from Ignite the Seven Cannons. I didn’t have a hope of hearing him come up behind me.
When my chest hit the grass verge a harsh click snapped in my ear. My first panicked thought was not that I might have dashed a hole in my trousers again but that the Walkman had broken. I’d also dropped my school bag. It was standing bolt upright in the gutter. As I reached out for it something pressed down on my ankle.
‘Alright there, Bridesheid Revisited. Gizzus a listen.’
From my low-down angle his cheekbones seemed even sharper than usual. His face tightened further as he forced his basketball boot down on my ankle.
‘Is that electric jazz-funk you’re listening to, Bridesheid?’
Mums with pushchairs and girls from the grammar school ambled past us. Dog-walking pensioners strolled on the other side of Senlac Road, probably veterans of Anzio and Tobruk (maybe not these battles actually; this was Little Paraguay after all). None of them seemed to notice a lanky monster about to break my leg in two.
‘C’mon, Brides, gizzus the funk.’
I didn’t have the funk. The funk – all that Shakatak and Shalamar stuff – was music for boys who already had girlfriends. He knew that I didn’t have the funk. I knew that this wasn’t about the funk. Earlier, in the first history class of the new term, Mr Priskin, after the Kenneth Williams impressions had died down – the Jazz Funkateers had recognized that his right ear was newly pierced – taught us all about the political upheavals that beset the early years of the Weimar Republic. With what seemed like great sadness he’d explained the failure of the left-wing Spartakist Rising and with great relish the defeat by general strike of the nationalist Kapp Putsch. He described with weary contempt the Freikorps as irregular paramilitaries no better than hired thugs and racist skinheads. He seemed to scowl at Morrison; and I for some reason, for no reason, sniggered. Afterwards in double Geography, Morrison stared me out while everyone else was trying to distract Mr Jagger with questions about solar flares and the political flare-up caused by the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour.
‘Don’t be scared, Brides,’ said Morrison. ‘No worries if it’s only Electro.’
‘It’s Electro,’ I spluttered.
‘Good stuff, Brides. You’re a good man, really you are. Here.’
The pressure lifted from my ankle. He held out his hand, which seemed to be offering to pull me up, but instead it flashed into my pocket to grab the Walkman. When I struggled to my feet he was exploring its panels and buttons with his fingers like he’d never seen one before. He flipped the catch and grimaced, as if inside I’d hidden a picture of Mr Priskin. I had a reputation as Priskin’s pet that no one, not even the other grease-worms like Mellis and Woods much admired.
‘Hey, this is not electric jazz-funk, Brides,’ he said. ‘Absolutely hunacceptable.’
He threw the Walkman high in the air. The headphones and their lead trailed after it like a kite’s tail until the whole contraption dipped. From somewhere behind the apple trees came a thud and a tinkling of plastic. Morrison then picked my school bag from the gutter and sent it over the wall in a similar arcing trajectory.
‘Run along and do your homework, Bridesheid. I’ll collect it in the morn.’
I watched, sweating murder as he loped off down Senlac Road.
Heaving myself onto the top of the wall took three quite painful and humiliating attempts but there was no way I could go home with a grazed cheek and no school bag or really expensive free Walkman. With one leg hanging down on either side I paused to make sure that I wasn’t about to drop into a pit of slavering attack-dogs
(Little Paraguay, remember). Away from the trees a lawn sloped gently down towards a house. A patio and wicker chairs were set out in front of french doors. Beyond the trees, where the slope began, there stood an old man in a white shirt. My school bag lay at his feet. The pages of my French textbook and other papers rippled on the grass. He was holding a piece of paper in his hand, a map Mr Priskin had given out earlier. The old man looked over to where I was perched on his wall. He must have realized that he was being watched. This is how I came to meet Mr E.
I was afraid, even though I knew that he might well be more scared of me than I was of him. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. He maintained a rigid, composed stance, the paper now rolled in his fist.
‘Can I come down and get my stuff?’ I called out.
He merely nodded. My ankle throbbed as my shoes hit the dirt. I approached him with what I remember now as a crab-like, hunched walk, my only thought being to regather my things and get out as quickly as possible. I kept my eyes fixed to the ground and scanned for the Walkman. The back panel had detached. The cassette lay close to an herbaceous border. I picked up the parts onehandedly and rammed them under my armpit. Half-crouched, I started to scrabble around for the papers and books in a hopping toad-like way.
‘I don’t think you intended to throw your own possessions over my wall, young man,’ he said. There was an accent, though not a strong or harsh one.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Really sorry. Sorry to bother you.’
‘You know who did this?’
‘I’m sorry, really sorry, I’ve said sorry.’
‘Hey, calm yourself. You shouldn’t let others push you around.’
I stuffed the last of the papers into my bag and took my first clear look at him. He was much taller than me, taller even than Morrison. A halo of pale sunlight flamed around his hair. He had a lot of hair for a man of his age, much more than any of my elderly relatives, and his suntan made his skin seem as thick as the brown paper we used to wrap our textbooks.
‘Quite an ordeal, eh?’ he said.
‘It won’t happen again, I promise.’
He was still holding the map, Mr Priskin’s map, Europe in 1919, a duplicate machine job with the old pre-war borders in red and the post-Treaty of Versailles frontiers in indigo-blue. That map had already showed me wonderful countries that would never exist again, like Latvia and Estonia, and obscure and exotic nations like Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia (all shaded with left-slanting blue stripes). I’d already memorised the territorial trades and annexations: South Tyrol to Italy; Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium; Memelland to Lithuania. To me, sitting in that class earlier, at the front and itching to ask a question, the map described a charged, alluring continent. I wanted to be on the ground there, to witness and record. I wanted to belong in that Europe. I wanted to own it.
For a moment it didn’t look like the man with the white hair was going to give me back the map, so I wasn’t even going to own that. He held it up to me with his thumb over the top left-hand corner, somewhere East or West Prussia-ish.
‘There,’ he said. ‘That’s where I started.’
I now have a page on The Writers Room, so you can ask me questions (of course, you can do that here, too). There are links to Touching the Starfish and The Syllabus of Errors reviews, too.
So, here’s my fellow Unthank Books author LANDER HAWES interviewing me for FWRICTION:REVIEW’s WRITER2 section.
“Ashley Stokes writes stories which cover a fictional ground that I once regarded as impassable, and his writing incorporates wildly divergent ends that I once considered irreconcilable. His work is both highly literary and extremely funny; it is as socially and politically attuned as it is tenderly private and intimate; it is, by turns, both subjective and objective in its treatment of obsession, sentimentality and nostalgia.
One of the reasons I’ve continued to read, and champion, Ashley’s work is that I think he writes colorfully about the colorlessness of regional English suburbia. He explores the tendency of this milieu to be defined in negatives and contrasts, and fictionalizes very adeptly the consequences of this for the inhabitants.”
“We’re thrilled to have been around long enough to publish the second novel by one of our authors. We launched Unthank Books with Ashley Stokes’ comic masterpiece about the creative writing game – and this month, three years to the day, we’re publishing The Syllabus of Errors, Ashley’s deep, interwoven exploration of messing up and missing out in present day Purley and Weimar Berlin. The very eminent David Rose calls it Josef Roth meets Robert Bolano – which will do for us.”
I am interviewed today on WordNerdz as part of their ‘In the Spotlight’ series, talking writing, publishing, Syllabus and Starfish. There’s also an extract from ISLAND GARDENS, the first story in The Syllabus of Errors.
There is an interview with me in this week’s Concrete. Talking Syllabus, Starfish and UEA.