Get Thee Behind Me Satan!

I have finished reading Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann.

I know that’s hardly startling news but believe me I thinketh there bee few soulles can surviveth thicke torments as here bee.

Ahem. Pardon me. It took seven weeks to read the damned thing and I’m quite a fast reader. Going up The Magic Mountain was an easy stroll, Death in Venice a mere beach book. It’s by far the most difficult novel I have encountered. I feel like I have been to Hell and back, and I’m not sure about the latter.

Upon finishing there was no elation or self-congratulation. Instead there was the chilling realisation that having gained a meagre comprehension of its writhing genius I will have to read it again.

Soon I shall write a review – probably in the form of a confession or a pact – of what is probably the best novel I have read. I bet you can’t wait.

The Star of Love

Venus has been astonishingly bright in the sky this month. A planet, not a star, but it’s so much richer to see it as a ‘wandering star’. In any case, it got me thinking about the fixed stars, those guiding signs for sailors. Metaphorically, our lives have so often been compared to a boat at sea. Sometimes storm-tossed, sometimes lost, sometimes becalmed as in Coleridge’s evocation of depression:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Pursuing the fundamental poetry of sea and star, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 116 of Love as a fixed star above whatever lives we live, a guide to centre us in our bleakest moments. It’s a popular reading at weddings though I think the Love pointed to here transcends the marital:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
We cannot know this Love directly. Its ‘worth unknown’, it is a mystery. Yet it is something to which we turn with certainty, something beyond us yet crucially important. The poem could, of course, be interpreted as a Christian viewpoint. Buti interpretation can go far beyond that. However we may conceive of it, our ‘ever-fixed mark’, if we are lucky enough to find it within us, is an ultimate tranquillity and comfort. It does not speak or offer magic. It is above human joy and suffering, the point through which we contemplate, at least for brief periods, a benevolent cosmic principle.
I think Robert Frost’s Choose Something Like a Star resonates with Shakespeare’s sonnet. It’s always fascinating to see different treatments of similar ideas across the centuries:
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite *,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Frost’s star, like Shakespeare’s, cannot be experienced through words or measurements, facts or calculation. The star, too, is obscure, mysterious. It does ask of us ‘a certain height’ (as, say, a beautiful painting asks awe of us), that height both looking upwards to a fixed transcendental point, and the height of standing tall when passions run high and ‘the mob is swayed’. This poem is not about Love yet it shares the same ‘idea pattern’, offer sus the choice of ‘something like a star/ To stay our minds on and be staid.’ A Stoic such as Marcus Aurelius would have liked this poem. The Stoic’s ‘fixed point’, of course, was the central belief in the benevolence of the cosmos, a form of Love.

* Keats’ Eremite is a reference to John Keats’ poem Bright Star which celebrates sensuous, romantic love in contrast with the permanence of the bright star:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


Locked In

Like most, if not all, mental ‘illness’, paranoia exists on a scale of mild to severe. We all share features of paranoia: it’s common and normal. Twitching curtains, suspicious glances, a barely heard whispering in the attic….

In the story below we see how extreme paranoia can lead to a form of addiction, in this case to one’s own space, home, castle, defence bunker.

Locked In

MOON, SUN, season mean nothing. All done by the clock. Precisely. Adjusted to Greenwich Time Signal twice a day, Radio 4.

7a.m. Alarm. His eyes click open. Lavatory. Shower. Shave. Teeth.

7.17a.m. Four ounces of All Bran, splash of milk. Two mugs of weak tea. Wash dishes.

7.30a.m. Monitor room. Last night. Five screens, five cameras, each movement activated. Rear, garden: clear except for bloody fox. You’d think it would have learned. All three bins have padlocks. Thought foxes were supposed to be intelligent.

Side house: clear.

Front left, front right: Got the bastards coming and going.

Front straight on: Four yobs in hoods showing arses. Throwing cans and takeaway cartons into garden. Bastards. Have them. Timed 12.48a.m. Be ready for them next time. Oh yes. Police couldn’t care less. But. Hidden faces but all the same anyway. Babies in grownup bodies. When he was their age he was with the army in Korea. Kept up in the TA for years. Ready to fight if called up. Oh, he learned a thing or two as a soldier. Those skinny rats, drunks, druggies, Neds heading up the hill to the council estate, rotten and weak.

Bloody council selling farmland to build boxes, squat houses and six storey blocks to house the scum overflow from Newcastle. Bloody Newcastle had enough space for them without ruining a lovely seaside town. Bastards.

But he’d be ready for them tonight. He’d had enough. They’d think twice before dumping their rubbish and showing their arses.

7.45 precisely. Dog, out, walk on the triangle opposite, the field that sloped down to a huddle of shops. Aye, the dog would probably terrify the weaklings on its own. Old now but an Alsation never forgets the attack skills it’s been taught. Bloody state of the grass, rubbish, dog shite, cans, the cold shadow of the council flats on half of it.

When he first came here with Mother and Father sixty three, no, sixty four years ago, the top of the hill was untouched. The ruins of the castle, 600 years old, still there but now daubed with graffiti and surrounded by council house scum. There used to be a lovely view down to the town and onto the bay and the sea beyond. All ruined now with three high rise blocks planted right behind the old town. Bastards.

It had been his dream as a young man to live here, and when he met Edith they scrimped and saved for ten years to put down a deposit on a house, the house he lived in still ten years after Edith’s death.

The dog shit. He scooped it into a shit bag and triple tied it. The dog shit bin was full, shit bags lay at the bottom of the pole that held it. Bloody council. Useless. Like everything else. World’s gone to wrack and ruin. No wonder people have stopped coming here for their holidays. Bed and breakfasts have closed down or turned into hostels for foreigners and layabouts.

8.30. Dog back on its chain out back. Paper still not arrived. Bloody typical. Out then with bin bag. Throw rubbish from yobs into it. Pressure hose. HIS pavement, a strict line between his and houses on either side. He blew the water across HIS pavement. Added bleach. Washed himself.


8.57. Daily Mail posted through letterbox. Bloody outrageous. If he were a working man he’d be well on his way to work without his paper. Will be into that bloody paper shop and threaten to take business elsewhere, that’ll shake them up. The newspaper is the only one in Britain with sense. Like him, it holds the proper opinions. It agrees with him that although the Tories are in a mess, what with Brexit and that, all good men must come to the aid of the campaign to keep that dirty, communist, terrorist sympathiser Corbyn from so much as getting a sniff of power. He hoped for and believed that a strong and moral leader like Mrs Thatcher would come to the nation’s rescue.

He had an appointment in town with one of his local councillors. He also had two library books to return, one a biography of Winston Churchill and the other an illustrated account of how Mrs Thatcher had beat the unions, starting with her wonderful strategies to destroy the miners in 1984.

He spent some time in the library. Every single person on the twelve computers looked foreign, dark or with giveaway noses. He detected one of them looking at a KPP website, bloody Kurdish terrorists. He felt himself growing angry. He needed some peace. He took out two Agatha Christie novels.

Early for his appointment, he walked around the harbour. Thank God there was still something left of the fishing industry and trawlers crewed by hard, manly men. Where there had been amusement arcades and souvenir shops now there were drab Pound shops and bookmakers and a Refugee Advice Centre. In the town centre, unemployed men and even women sat on the stone benches that circled the war memorial, all of them drinking from huge plastic bottles. Signs on lamp posts warning of £500 fines for drinking in public. Why didn’t the bloody police move them on? Bloody useless.

Right. To see the councillor.

She was young and foreign. Pakistani or Indian probably. He made his complaints. She complained about the nature of his complaints, politely. Some agreement was reached around an idea that the world was in desperate states, that like in a war England had a duty to intervene. But they stuck like heads against a wall when it came to distributing people with problems among people who just wanted a pleasant life with sea views and nothing ever changing. And he was thrown off course when, in passing, it became clear that she was a GP. Because he had always lowered himself to doctors, lawyers and certain Tory politicians. Although not a churchgoer he also respected C of E bishops etc.

He meekly agreed to attend a forthcoming Community Policing event which would listen to citizens’ concerns. As soon as he was outside he blazed with anger. Doctor or not, he should have told her that such meetings were worthless. The bloody police would take no notice.

He went back up the hill and opened a can of Heinz vegetable and lentil soup.

2.13p.m He takes the dog for a walk.

4p.m. He writes a letter to the local paper.

Sir. Am I alone in thinking that our town is becoming less and less attractive by the day?

Attractive to potential visitors but, as importantly, attractive to those of us who remember it as a lovely place to live?

I have researched the figures and, believe me, there have been huge increases in violence, drunkenness and antisocial behaviour over the past fifteen years, growing each year during that time.

Whereas once we were a wonderful holiday destination, since the council has accepted social housing overspill from Newcastle and the housing of ‘refugees’ we have become little more than a dormitory for drug-fuelled violence and the retreat of decent businesses.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that I am some sort of ‘oddball’ – as has occurred in responses to my previous letters – as I am absolutely certain that my views are those of most decent citizens in our town. The desire to live quietly and at peace with my neighbours should be the norm. It is unacceptable that the obnoxious influx of refugees, drug addicts and urban ‘problem families’ should be prioritised over the rights of a well-born Englishman – to enjoy, and feel secure in, his English home.

Yours sincerely,

He found the internet useful for sending such letters. And for buying such items as he had: spring-loaded lead truncheons, finger knives and tasers.

4.15p.m. Rear camera. Resolution poor. Something thrown from back fence. Bloody scum. Now trying to litter his back garden is it? He’ll show them. But later. Reads Agatha Christie, (what a writer!) and settles to calm. Why can’t it be like this all of the time?

5p.m. Synchronises clocks and data counters to Greenwich Mean Time signal. News. Migrants in Channel. Let them drown. We have enough of them and their sort already, nothing but problems. The Economy suffers. Record number of homeless. I wonder why? They aren’t prepared to work, criminals, druggies. Where is the news that promises protection to us who have worked hard, held the correct opinions, paid our way?

6.30p.m. Sorry I haven’t a Clue. Thank God for the BBC. Only thing that keeps me sane. I remember, I remember The Home Service, The Light and The Third. Before all this rubbish. Radio 5, Radio 6! And as for television. BBC1 and BBC2 were all right. The world’s gone mad now. No wonder any intelligent person won’t allow a television in the house.

7p.m. and 10p.m. Dog. Walk. Between times, Agatha Christie and routine checks on cameras 1-5.

10.45p.m. Get ready. Dress in black to hide in shadows. Bicycle helmet. Truncheon. Finger knife – a hole for his finger and a sharp curved blade. For self-defence. The yobs were soft as jelly, rotten with cowardice They’d run a mile when they saw he meant business.

11p.m. Check monitors. Three sluts stopped, raised their shirts and jiggled their breasts at the cameras. Laughing like hyenas, up the hill to their grotty council flats. Well, he had them recorded. It was going to be a long video of antisocial behaviour when he edited it together. The police would have to act. If they didn’t, if they made their usual bloody pathetic excuses, he’s send it to newspapers. The Daily Mail would love it.

11.10p.m. He goes for the dog. It’s not in the kennel. It’s lying in the middle of the little lawn at the end of the chain. It’s dead. There is a gnawed lump of meat by it. The bloody bastards have poisoned his dog. There is a riot of blood-red electricity behind his eyes. The dog was only ever a deterrent. He fed it and walked it but had no affection for it. But to kill it was to insult him, to laugh at him, to mock him. Furious anticipation of the scummy bastards’ arrival.

11.30p.m. He’s sat on the back door step at the side of the house. He’d learned patience as a soldier. Sometimes he had stayed put on surveillance duty for twelve hours. Those dirty bastards didn’t know the sort of man they were dealing with.

12.17a.m. He heard them coming. Singing and laughing. They stopped. He sidled along the wall. Through the narrow slits in his balaclava he saw them throw their usual rubbish into the garden, cans and polystyrene containers. Then, giggling, they opened his gate and walked up the little drive towards him. But they only walked a few feet before dropping their trousers and shitting on the pink paving he kept meticulously clean.

12.18a.m. He ran out screaming, truncheon raised in one hand, knife in position on the other. They hadn’t finished their business when he whacked the nearest one on the back of the head. The blow was fatal, the lad went out like a light. The other three panicked, trying to pull their trousers up as he came at them. He took the eye out of one of them with the knife. A third one was knocked unconscious. Only one escaped.

He’d been wrong about the police. They took what happened very seriously and were more than interested in what the cameras had recorded. He was sentenced to eighteen years in jail. He enjoyed jail. Its precise routines reminded him of being in the army.

This story is taken from my collection, The Big Wheel.

The Saddest Story I have Written

I think this is the saddest story I have written. It’s from my recent short story collection, The Big Wheel.

Aunty Joan

JOAN WAS at the ‘reduced to sell’ section of the bread and cakes. She went for a Brandenburg and a nice Warburtons white medium. Then she bought her bottle of sherry. No one she knew was on the checkouts except for the nasty one, but she had more luck at the news and tobacco counter where she went for her scratch cards. Young Cheryl was on and she always had a friendly word, and didn’t hurry Joan while she was choosing. On this occasion she bought two each of the silver and gold cards, and two of the more expensive blue ones. And, of course, the new ‘Ideal Home’.

Cheryl wished her luck with the cards, and Joan said, ‘Well someone’s got to win, dear. I’m in it to win it.’ She chuckled. ‘D’you remember that on the telly? They always said “in it to win it” on the lottery adverts.’ Cheryl didn’t remember.

After a grilled potato cake with butter, Joan settled down at two o’clock with a glass of sherry and her magazine. She was saving the cards for when Alan came. She put the television on too but only for company. ‘The room feels cold without the telly on,’ she always told Alan.

She dozed off and woke to the sound of the doorbell. It was her nephew, Alan. On the dot as usual. Three o’clock.

He sat in his usual chair while Joan was in the kitchen. He wasn’t particularly happy being there but knew it was his duty. Aunty Joan had no one else now. He noticed the slightly unpleasant smell in the room, and the dust, and the sad age of the china ornaments.

‘There!’ said Joan coming in with a tray containing teacups and slices of Brandenburg cake. ‘Tuck in, love. I know it’s your favourite. How’re Nicola and the kids? You’ll have to bring them with you next time. It’s ages since I’ve seen them. Go on, have another piece of cake. I know it’s your favourite.’

Alan ate dutifully. ‘I can’t stay too long,’ he said. ‘We’re taking the kids to the pictures so I need to be away soon. Bit of a flying visit this time, sorry.’

‘Well, I know how busy you young people are. Enjoy it while you’re young I say. Me and Bob had good times but we both had to work so much we hardly had time for fun.

Alan knew what was coming.

‘It was hard in the old days. But d’you know what, we were happier then. I feel sorry for young people today, always rushing around and busy even when they’re not working.

‘That chair you’re sitting in, that’s where Bob died. He’d been into town. A Saturday it was, like today. He came home with a tray of seedlings. He always did the garden on Saturday afternoons. Couldn’t get him out the greenhouse.

‘Anyway, he put the seedlings on the table and sat in your chair and I made him a cup of tea. Then I was in the kitchen getting the washing together, and he shouted through, “Make us another cup of tea, girl.” so I shouted back, “What did your last slave die of?” but I made him one five minutes later and took it through.

‘Well, he was just sitting there. At first I thought he was asleep but his eyes were open. I touched him and shook him a bit. Then I thought, oh, he must have died.

‘So I went next door and Bill Smith came back with me. “Oh, you’re right, girl,” he said. “He’s dead.” Well, I didn’t know what to do so Bill says to phone the doctor so I went to the phone box and phoned Doctor White. When he came him and Bill took the tray of seedlings off the table and lifted Bob onto it.’

Alan had heard the story so many times he knew that it didn’t matter how he responded, so he simply said, ‘You must still miss him.’

‘Oh I do. He was a bloody nuisance but he wasn’t too bad to have around. It’s a bit lonely without him.’

Alan guessed it had been around 20 years since his Uncle Bob, a stoker in the local power station, had died of a heart attack. He remembered his own parents talking about it when he was about eleven, and his father saying, ‘She’ll be better off without him. Should never have married a Catholic.’

‘Anyway, love, you haven’t come to hear your Aunty Joan moaning and feeling sorry for herself. Have some more cake, and I’ll go and make another cup of tea.’

Alan was not superstitious but he thought that sitting in that chair while a second cup of tea was being made was not a good idea. In any case, he was in a hurry to leave, so he declined patiently, politely resisting several entreaties.

‘Well, let’s do the cards. You’re my lucky little pixie. Have you got a coin? I find two pences are best. Here you are. Three for you and three for me. Now, I’m counting on you to bring me some luck.’

They scratched the cards. Nothing.

‘Well, look at this one, though,’ said Joan. ‘Two £10,000. I only needed one more. So close! I just feel it in my bones that I’m going to win soon.’

Alan, sensing his imminent release, enquired, ‘What will you do when you do win?’

‘Oh, I’ll give it all to you and the little ones. But I may buy a new rug and one of those chairs that tilt back. You see them on telly. Called recliners, they advertise them in Ideal Home. Get rid of that old chair you’re sitting in. It was in a rotten state when Bob sat on it. He wasn’t the cleanest man either so some of his smells seeped into it.’

Alan took that as a cue, and began the five minutes process of leaving. He made the ritual promise to bring the children next time, a promise so worn down by time that it was no longer a lie.

When he was gone, Joan poured herself another sherry. She said to Bob, ‘Don’t you be scoffing all that cake. You’re fat enough. You’re terrible eating all the cakes and biscuits. I’m going to have to start hiding them. You should be ashamed of yourself. Do you remember when Judy Smith was in here that time, only five she was, and eating a fig roll, and you said it was made of mashed spiders? Poor lass was crying all day after that. She probably never ate a single one for the rest of her life after that.’

She looked at the scratch cards on the table, and an idea came to her. She went back to the supermarket and bought another £20 worth. It was all the money she had but she was going to win so it didn’t matter. She came home and drank more sherry. She said to Bob, ‘What will you do with yourself when I’m away on my world cruise? You probably won’t even notice I’m gone you dirty pig.’ She scratched, scratched, scratched. Nothing. Just so close every time.

She fell asleep. When she woke it was dark. She turned the light on. Feeling sick, she looked at the table. The Brandenburg, the empty cups, the dead scratch cards. She turned to Bob. ‘It’s all your fault. Everything. I wish I’d never met you, you useless tub of lard.’

Joan went up the stairs to the toilet. On the landing, about to come back down the stairs, she felt dizzy. She grabbed for the wall. Her hand slid along it and she fell, step by step, to the bottom. There she lay, twisted and unable to move. The phone was on a table just in front of her. She couldn’t get to it. A feeble sound came from her mouth as she tried to call out for help. She could do nothing except weakly scratch on the carpet, scratch, scratch, scratch. Joan died on Sunday afternoon and her body was found the next Saturday.

More stories like this in my collection, The Big Wheel

Reading Easy, Reading Hard

As a teenager in the 1960s I remember visiting record stores and the various music genres, most of which I avoided. In particular, the popular ‘easy listening’ category was considered as nauseous drivel. Jazz was a foreign country that made no sense at all. Classical music was no-no, and opera was a horrible noise suitable only for upper class nobs who pretended to like it.

The music I loved was the Beatles, of course, the Stones, Pink Floyd and what was known as prog rock. The latter started introducing symphony orchestras, synthesisers, and – through bands like the folk-rock Incredible String Band – world music. Blues and soul intertwined, lyrics from the likes of Dylan and Leonard Cohen were prized as poetry. In fact, looking back, it’s easy to see that the explosion of genre-mixing music was laying a foundation for my broader musical tastes. By the end of the decade I was even listening to Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and developing a taste for jazz via Cream.

Then came a period of the ‘light classics’ such as Tchaikovsky, soon to be followed by the existential darkness of Wagner and Mahler. Today I remain fairly restricted in my classical experience, and more to the point I find some music too ‘hard’ to listen to. It’s the same with literature.

Although I was always top of the class in English and have a degree in English Literature, I am still very much learning to read – and write. Some of my reading is ‘highbrow’ which gives me a very different pleasure than that which I obtain from my ‘lighter reading’. I love crime fiction, police procedurals preferably, and welcome the astonishing growth of excellent authors in recent decades. My all-time favourite is Agatha Christie whose work has all the hallmarks of genius. And it’s ‘easy reading’. So too is P.D.James whom I am currently reading, though her work is a little ‘harder’, a little more ‘literary’.

Like romance, the detective genre is extremely popular. At it’s best, the crime stories are vehicles for the examination of social, cultural and political problems. At the same time they reveal our psychological condition beneath our civilised veneers.

I imagine that there may still be a few ‘high culture’ critics who look down their noses at such culture for the masses. My response is that, clever as they may be, they lack the cultural competences to engage in these works. The phrase ‘cultural competence’ was emphasised by Charlotte Brunsden in 1981 to show how ‘reading’ and interpreting soap opera was essentially linked to cultural matrices which involved learned reading of significatory ‘texts’. Thus, while it may be true that many lack the competences to relate with James Joyce, many highbrow readers lack the skills necessary to read popular texts.

When James Kelman, the workingclass Glaswegian writer, won the Booker prize for his novel How Late It Was, How Late some judges resigned in protest. One critic in a broadsheet described the novel as ‘literary vandalism’. There remains to this day – on all sides – fierce, often virulent, condemnation of many cultural products (reflecting my close-minded tastes in music as a teenager).

We’d do very well to remember that Shakespeare, Dickens and most nineteenth century writers were very popular across all sectors of society. Shakespeare, in particular, wrote into many of his plays opportunities for the ‘lower class’ groundlings in his audiences to join in with banter against their social superiors in the galleries. I’m pretty sure, though I have done no research, that crime fiction – and romance – similarly appeal to all segments of society. But reading whatever you enjoy requires no justification, none whatsoever. Incidentally, I’d add that as a writer I do not have the skills and competences to write in the crime genre I love reading. They’re different skills than those of Kafka or Beckett but they are as rare and valuable. To some extent they can be taught, formulae followed, but only the best writers will find their unique voice. Unless you’re Ian Rankin you’d be daft to try and write like Ian Rankin. Of course, in ways we cannot map, all that we read will influence our writing – influence but not determine.

Hard Reading

As I said, I’m still learning to read and write. I like to finish the evening immersed in the pleasure of an ‘easy read’. Prior to that (and I’m not always in the mood, or have the energy) I’ll read something ‘hard’. No way am I as developed a reader to tackle something like Finnegan’s Wake: I’m having trouble even to wade through Infinite Jest which at least has a familiar basic naturalistic narrative. Let me tell you a little of what I’m facing at the moment reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

It’s the ‘hardest’ fiction I have read, or at least the hardest I’ve continued to read after the first pages. Mann’s The Magic Mountain I found ‘easy’. The book I’m currently reading is very difficult – and long, alas. I’m used to being a fast reader but here it may take me five minutes to work through a page. The narrator is infuriating: very clever, highly educated and cultured, musical, psychologically sinister, and is clearly unreliable in telling the story of his friend Adrian Leverkühn, the brilliant composer who was pulled into a Faustian pact, a story which – as I reach the halfway mark – has barely begun. Thus far have been backstories. Yet the promised-to-come heart of the tale is set in Nazi Germany which receives but intellectualised occasional comments to do with the fate of Germanic culture. The narrator teases, often apologising for ‘going on’, fully aware that ‘the reader’ may be having difficulty following. The style is convoluted to say the least, frequent fifteen-line sentences with lacunae and subject and predicate losing each other (for this reader anyway). For reasons I have yet to digest, though, a few chapters are ‘easy’, crystal clear and even beautifully evocative.

The main characters are musicians. Subsidiary groups chatter about philosophy, culture and politics. Throughout is the theme of music, music as art, and the technicalities of music are for me difficult, but not impossible, to follow. Here’s Leverkühn:

In art…the subjective and the objective intertwine to the point of being indistinguishable, one proceeds from the other and takes the character of the other, the subjective precipitates as objective and by genius is again awaked to spontaneity, ‘dynamized,’ as we say; it speaks all at once the language of the subjective. The musical conventions today destroyed were not always so objective, so objectively imposed. They were crystallizations of living experiences and as such long performed an office of vital importance: the task of organization. Organization is everything. Without it there is nothing, least of all art. And it was aesthetic subjectivity that took on the task, it undertook to organize the work out of itself, in freedom… Old or new, I will tell you what I understand by ‘strict style.’ I mean the complete integration of all musical dimensions, their neutrality towards each other due to complete organization.

So it goes. Am I enjoying it? Yes, I am. Much of it is falling on deaf ears. Slowly, cumulatively, the text is developing like a symphony. Hints of the main theme to come, repeated motifs, contrapuntal harmonies, discords, recognised traditional compositions, a drive for new forms. Dark as the frequently evoked mediaeval theologies of Germany (Leverkühn chose to study theology for two years before committing to his prodigious musical talent), this is reading unique to my experience. Very hard, very difficult, enormously worthwhile.


Oh Joy! An hour after writing the above I returned to my Faustian toil. At last that wretched narrator has removed his prune-souled gibberish from proceedings and Leverkühn’s secret documentary account of his journey to perdition begins. And I have to say, may the Devil take me, that upon the entrance of the Mephistophelean Angel of Death, I had tears of laughter rolling down my face. Tears of relief and revenge against that spiteful bourgeois gossip who besmirched the first part of the novel with his pusillanimous drivel. Doubtless a few passing chords of parody and glee. I anticipate much darkness to come, much dread, much cold.

The Wheel of Life

I’ve written an article about the main inspiration for my recently published short stories about addiction, The Big Wheel. The Buddhist Wheel of Life is an ancient model of human psychology in six ‘realms’ or ways of living and thinking, feeling and acting. I’ve also highly recommended the above book. I’m not a Buddhist or an anything, but I love gaining at least some insights from ancient (and modern) wisdom.

New Book, New Year!

Out on 4 January, initially on Amazon, my collection of short stories around the theme of addiction. Not an easy read, but hopefully worthwhile in helping us understand ourselves and others.

As well as looking at substance addiction and the growing issue of gambling addiction, the stories often portray slanted views on everyday addictions. Maybe, as the blurb on the back says, addiction isn’t something ‘out there’ but is much closer to home.

The book retails at 99 pence for the e-book and £3.99 for the paperback. That’s as cheap as I’m allowed to make it.

More to follow on launch day!