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The pub quiz

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Time for an excerpt from one of this week’s works. While Nick Cave’s been helping out with my ghost story, this other tale I’ve been writing might better be accompanied by Pulp.

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with quiz nights. I think there’s a certain irresponsibility in summoning armchair-experts into a nice warm boozer, and then plying them with alcohol. The atmosphere can border on grisly by the end of round seven, so what better place to set a simple story of inspiration and hope?

This is just the first few paragraphs from “The Pub Quiz”, a work in progress. It introduces our protagonist, Gavin, as he waits for his night to begin. It stops before we’re introduced to the woman who will force him to challenge his ideas of himself.

 

The Pub Quiz (extract from first draft)

The usual suspects mill the crowded floor-space between bar and tables, sending last minute texts. Celia and George Heffer, secondary school teachers, specialist subject: The price that terrible home at number 53 sold for. The noisy crew from the engineering firm down Crow’s End, specialist subject: Answers for laughs, not for points. Charles “Fisty” Cuffs, who works as a barrister in London, but unfathomably makes the journey back each Wednesday to take part in the Red Lion’s Quiz Night, specialist subjects (equally unfathomably): Daytime soaps and 80s hair metal.

Gavin shakes his head, sips ineffectually at his pint, and glances at his own phone. None of his team’s arrived yet. If he ducks out for a piss or pint now, it’s gone, draped jacket or no draped jacket. Besides, there’s a quantifiable time period for which one can hold an entire table when a pub’s this fucking busy. A time period which is very nearly up. He taps his mobile rhythmically against the table, avoiding looking any of the wandering pairs and threes in the eye.

Finally he spots a familiar couple up at the bar, craning their necks. The Moncrieffs. Mary the librarian, Mark the one-time BBC Sports Commentator. quiz team from heaven, marriage from hell. He waves them over, trying to engineer things so that Mary takes the seat nearest. But she’s passing the big man her glass, shuffling off in the direction of the toilets. Cunt-stubble. Mark takes the stool beside him, the scrape of wooden legs on slate tiles smothering Gavin’s poorly suppressed sigh.

“Alan texted, he’ll be late, something about the Ring Road” Mark announces, setting glasses to table with loud clunks. Gavin dips his head in greeting, which Mark appears to take as concurrence.

“Poor planning. No excuse for it” Mark continues. He raises his pint, gulps back a mouthful of bitter, eyebrows raised, waiting for a verbal response.

Gavin wants to shrug, but Mark doesn’t like fence-sitting, or neutrality. Or the Swiss. Or Pakistanis. Or pillow biters, The Irish, welterweight boxers. So Gavin grunts out something that might be agreeance, and then floats a diversionary tactic.

“New grandstand’s coming along” he says, tilting his head toward the South end of town. The terraced end. The money end.

Mark draws a low, slow breath, the sound of a lit fuse in a gassy shitter. Gavin cringes inwardly, remembering the construction has meant a single lane down the Moncrieff’s street for the past week. And dust. And unobjectionable loitering by shovel-wielding clusters of working class. Fuckfuckfuck…

There’s a loud, muffled tapping sound above the hum of the crowd, and Gavin hears Mark’s breath being released over the head of his pint. Saved by the quizmaster.

[To be continued]

_____________

What do you think? Any feedback gratefully received.

Later this week I’ll catch you up on how the first 14 days have gone.

 

x Regan

 

 

The Haunting

Haunting

Week two is about atmosphere, about mood.

I want to complete first drafts of two short stories this week. The first is meant to be a dark, melancholy story, but it is set on a beautiful if remote New Zealand beach. The second is a buoyant stale of hope and charity, but it is set in a dark, dank English pub. So how do I haunt the golden, sandy seaside, and let the light shine amongst horse brasses and shuttered windows?

I woke early and went for a walk in the earth’s shadow yesterday. As I moved through desolate streets, between darkened homes, I let Nick Cave set the mood. He sang to me about summoning the unfortunates of the world, and I imagined spirits trailing me in the dark woods, old men of dark deed watching me from the low fields. My pace quickened.

Mr Cave’s a master of evocation, this week he’s going to be my muse. I’m going to start with his song lyrics, and see what they reveal. I think he’s also worked on screenplays, maybe written a book or two? I’m sure amongst all the slow piano and gravelly murder ballads I’ll find a few moments of levity…

So by the end of this week, I will have two roughly written tales, each around 2500-3000 words. I’ll also be looking for people to read some of these shorter pieces, and offer feedback, so message me if you’re interested.

Ok, time to research whaling stations, Nordic ghost stories and companies who create pub quizzes.

_____________________

Beneath the fold: What’s in a name?

One of the first issues I encountered while writing a first draft of my manuscript, was naming my characters. I searched baby name lists for hours, and I began to realise what a huge descriptor a name can be. Who’s more likely to cover up a murder, Tom or Ash? Is Celeste going to be the wicked step-mother, or Griselda?

By the end of last week, I had a list of 17 short story ideas. That’s a lot of names. So I went for a walk in the local cemetery for inspiration. I roved between stones seeking ideas, and trying to avoid an old woman adding new flowers to old memories.

Amongst the Corona and Jim Beam bottles filled with flower stems (hello small town New Zealand…) I found elaborate names, solid names, even vampire names. Lorna and Charles Pompey. Thomas Hossack. Victor Hamilton-Hyde. But in general I found that the fields of the dead in a very young country, are very, very localised. Fine if I want to set my story in rural New Zealand in the 1960s. Not so much for labelling Viking chieftains.

So the hunt continues. Someone on Reddit mentioned looking at the Immigration and Emigration lists from the countries you’re interested in. Another suggested war memorial sites, lists of the dead. Morbid, yet interesting…

 

 

Sounding the drums

Colour writing

It was half day through day one that I felt a ripple of relaxation shift through me. When the same thing happened the next day, I understood its source. I had given myself permission to write.

This three months of creative productivity  wasn’t an easy thing to commit to. It has meant dropping out of full-time work, and a consequential drop in my income. I’m not money-focused, so the numbers aren’t important. But I place a huge value on harvesting experiences, some of which consume cash. Particularly the ones where I board a plane with a belly full of anticipation, and a thousand dollar ticket.

And of course I have bills to pay, a share in both a forest and a house truck to pay off. So I’m working in an office two days a week to cover all of this. And coffee. But parts of me have had to be put on hold.

I live in a country which is not given to celebrating the arts. Our statues are rarely of philosophers, or novelists, or painters. The result of this is that patrons are few, novelists are rare, and “suffering” for your desire to create isn’t generally understood. And so the decision to simply write takes a combination of self belief, considerate friends, and a supremely understanding partner.

So as much of a thrill it has been to let my imagination draw me forward, I have also had to plan to make my writing a business. It’s a confronting realisation. As much as this 88 days is going to be about generating stories, it is going to have to equally be about self-promotion. I don’t have an agent, nor a publisher. I don’t yet have a track record of works printed in The New Yorker, or Granta. I need to earn my own reputation.

Writing is a quiet pursuit. Me, a keyboard or notepad. Maybe birdsong, or Lorde’s new album on a lower volume than it deserves. The world has no audible or visual clue idea that I’m unfurling scenery, painting characters, summoning mythology. For all they can see, my brow might simply be furrowing in lieu of Tinder responses.

When you practice with your heavy-grunge band, the world is alerted. A couple of beers, a wall of amps, and the wail of feedback, there’s no denying your output. When I painted murals around walls, an audience was assured, commentary was inevitable. But my words threaten to lie cold within the cage of my laptop. Colourless without a mind to project them, silent without a consciousness to voice them.

I heard a wonderful quote this week, though I failed to make note of the origin. Or the exact words. But it was something like “what a joy it is to remain hidden from the world, but what a crime it is, never to be discovered”. For five years I’ve remained largely silent about my stories. It’s time to start beating a drum. And over the past seven days, I’ve started to understand that I shouldn’t be beating it just for myself.

One of my tasks in week one, was a hunt for community. And what I’m finding, is that I need to be that community, as much as to find it. Once I find inspiration in someone’s talent, or tenacity, or imagination, then I need to make some noise for them as well. I can’t write as part of a band or troupe, but I know I can be an enthusiastic member of other people’s audiences.

So I sit in the shade of the seventh morning, listening to the thudding of my heart. I’m preparing to work not just on the foundations for my own success, but also to begin  contributing to the elevation of others.

Losses and gains

Cognitive dissonance is a term for what happens when you experience something which upsets your understanding of how the world works. Like being told by the people you surround yourself with that a comet will destroy the world on October 12th, giving away all your worldly possessions, breaking ties with your  family and friends, and then waking up on October 13th to someone’s Beyoncé alarm.

As I climbed into a yellow cab outside JFK three weeks ago, I believed that Trump’s loss was inevitable. I believed this with the same depth of surety with which I’d once dismissed the Internet as ‘just a fad’. I was about to become very familiar with cognitive dissonance.

As I looked out the taxi window onto the streets of Queens I was also preparing myself to be lonely in a new city, to be ready for rejection on both sides. But despite my anxieties, New York City and I just…clicked. Within days we ended up giggling together, telling in-jokes and slamming Hennessey and Red Bulls in dive bars at 3:00am. I remember a moment, maybe a week before I flew out of New Zealand, when I read something about New York being a place that all sorts of dreamers headed, in order to birth their ideas. And that was it, I met so many people who had dreams, and talents, and self belief. And they talked with me. They shuffled along the bench and made room for my ass and my ideas. My imaginative soul had found a new home.

This all began well before election day. I had made what ended up being a very good decision to begin my exploration of the city from a Williamsburg base. From there I found great coffee, astounding vegan Reuben sandwiches, and hundreds of artisans practising intricate arts, from distilling to button-making. I found centres for Judaic thought, summer food-markets that looked out over Manhattan, and people who looked me in the eye when I explained who I wanted to be. And looking back on it, I realise that as much as that time was about New York charming me, it was also about me appealing to her.

It isn’t easy to explain, but I think it was about being open to anything. It was about starting the conversations, sitting at the bar rather than the booth, dancing on the rooftop rather than in my dreams. It was about expression and engagement. It was also about being comfortable and confident. I was surprised to find I was more comfortable in that city than anywhere else I’d ever travelled. I was frequently a racial minority of one, but most of my endearing moments were with people who had been labelled as minorities their whole lives. I was often lost, but I quickly built a trust that lost was a euphemism for ‘on the way to an unexpected experience.’

And then just as all was going so well, there was that election night. At around 4:00pm I stood on the corner of 46th and 9th Ave, debating which party to attend. A tall beggar in a thick coat asked me for a dollar for cawfee, and I declined. He began an explanation as to why I was making a poor choice. As he talked I noticed shapely sculptures outside an Irish bar, The Playwright. I gave him a ‘waddayagunnado?’ shrug and explained I had no change and I was meeting a friend. A friend called Bud. Who was apparently half-price between 4 and 6pm. Good timing Bud.

Half the screens above the bar showed sport, the other showed a mute countdown to the first voting results. I dragged a stool under myself and drank in the scene. There was a good mix of characterful faces, and there was a password for free wi-fi. So I ordered a beer, connected, and an hour out from the start of Trump’s ascendency I found out a young man I knew had taken his life. I looked about the thickening crowd, I looked down at my hand about the pint glass, and I looked back to the last times I heard from him. I swallowed back my beer then I noticed a woman next to me was drinking from two different glasses.

‘What are you drinking?’ I enquired, hoping for something more exotic than Budweiser.

‘Hennessey,’ she replied, ‘and Red Bull.’

And in that exchange I found a new friend. And even as I struggled to come to terms with a feelings of loss, either I or the universe found a way to balance some sort of scales. I’m not suggesting that a new friendship can offset such dreadful loss. No, it was simply my head trying to find a way to reconcile a fresh case of cognitive dissonance.

The next morning I said goodbye to Matt from Bow Bridge in Central Park. I think he would have appreciated the view, and my imagining characters from the film Highlander beside me, talking about the coming end of days. I looked to the water below, the layer of fallen leaves. Then I looked up to the skyline, to the sunshadow forms of skyscrapers, and the sun behind them. And although I felt lead in my centre, I also felt the lightness that acceptance in a strange and new place brings. And now I wish that somehow I’d been able to help Matt find that. Or whatever it was that he’d needed to make a different choice.

The days following the US election results have reminded me of the importance of finding our voices. Of telling stories, and of being actively, positively human. And so I am going to start a new set of writings in the coming weeks. I’m going to try to hunt out 100 tools for being human. From Eye Contact to Trees, from Hope to Lego, I’ll be exploring the things that help me maintain my positivity, my humanity, in what can be a difficult world if we let it. Because I need to ensure that I’m doing, rather than simply being. And because I want to be there for people, more effectively than I have been in the past.

Unbinding myself from my masculine story in order to grow

Women

Photo coutesy of the fantastic Roni Kay…

There have been two points so far, at which I have had to re-invent my novel. The first was when I realised that the central story wasn’t big enough, and I replaced a distinct vodka with a unique religion. The second rewrite became unavoidable when I realised that if half of my characters were going to be female, I had a lot to learn a lot more about what it means to be a woman.

That epiphany was the result of three awkward periods of self-discovery. I experienced the first of these after I managed to almost completely destroy a friendship with an adventurous and astounding woman, Elza, through my inability to understand her perspective. The two of us spent several months travelling together, and yet the whole time we also moved further apart. The silver lining to what was a dark cloud was that honesty on her part allowed for introspection on mine. I was at least able to learn a valuable, if emotionally expensive lesson.

The second flashlight to be shone on my gender naiveté was held by another inspirational woman, Linda. I’d always found ways to convince myself that there were no vast differences between men and women, that it was simply our individual experiences that led to misunderstandings. But Linda helped me see that as my own experiences had only ever been as a man, I had ended up with a strongly gendered bias to my thinking. Yes, I was a product of all the things that had happened to me, of my environment, of the people I’d spent time with. But it would have been impossible for a woman in similar circumstances to have the same experiences. Society’s attitudes towards gender trumped my hope that we weren’t so different as we all seemed to think. Shit.

Around this time I read a Margaret Atwood quote, which compounded my understanding:

“Men’s great fear is that women will laugh at them. Women’s great fear is that men will kill them”

I spent some time bouncing between the two sides of that quote, combating my defensiveness. Both Margaret and Linda had helped shift my perspective in a new direction.

The last twist to my viewpoint was a short, sharp one, encountered around half way through the film ‘Wild’. In the scene that challenged me, Cheryl Strayed is alone in the woods, and she’s approached by two hunters. My presumption at this point was that things were going to go dreadfully wrong, and I wanted to be anywhere but in the theatre, watching what I thought would happen next. It was my intense relief when the men didn’t attack her that shook me. For years I’ve tried to point out that the media’s to blame for other people’s heightened fears, but I have to accept that I’ve been shaped by the way ‘they’ portray the world as well. And if the media’s amplification of a history of men subjugating women has made me uncomfortable at the idea of a woman caught alone by two men in the wild, how much more fear must that idea hold for some women?

I spent a lot of long walks rattling around inside my head after that, trying to make sense of all this. I explored my past. To what degree had I sexualised past friendships? How many relationships had I destroyed through wilful ignorance? How many women had I scared through my actions, or words, or attitudes? It would have been easy to tie myself to my failures, to see myself as a bad person. But in my heart I believe that I am good, and that I am the engineer of my own future. So I decided I needed to stop digging a pit and start building a bridge. I resolved to do better, to be better.

The interesting thing about taking so long to write a novel, is that the rewrites can mirror your experiences. This rewrite of my story began with a look at my characters. One character was blind, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to write as a person without sight, as someone who draws the world inside her head. But two of my four central characters were female, how much consideration had I given their experiences as a women in determining their paths through the story? Not enough.

So I began to read more by female authors. I examined the great conversations of my past, how often was it a woman who kept me awake, offering me new ways to examine Christianity, or gun control, or Israelis? Or Batman?

And then I walked from one side of Spain to the other, usually in the company of astounding women. And through this time I began to rewrite my female characters, as women. My principal character is a man, but he had to change too, his motivations, his confrontations with himself, the impact of these women’s new decisions on his plans. In fact he really had to step the fuck up. To say much more would give away too much of the plot, but I know that when I write the foreword I will be thanking a number of influential ladies.

I don’t want to be an apologist for men, I don’t see much value in trying to explain what shaped my biases in the past. But I do want to say thank you to all the people, men or women, who have contributed to me being a better person today. Some of you managed to improve my world view in as little as 24 hours, astounding. I will always be to a degree the result of what surrounds me, so I’m making a promise to myself that I’ll continue to as often as possible surround myself with good people. And I make a promise to all of you, that I will do my best not to cause fear, or anxiety, and to try to put myself in your shoes.

Juggling truth and fiction

Twain and I

It’s been a while since I posted on this site, because I find it difficult to write fiction and fact at the same time. But I realise that it is important to move forward, to become more capable, not to simply label myself as incapable and find acceptance in that. So time to try juggling fact and fiction. And US politics* seems a good place to practice that particular dexterity.

I recently watched Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’, an exploration of governance done better. And it reflected what I’d experienced in my time in the States. I could see so many beautiful ideas that had found expression through the formation of that country. But many people I talked to expressed dismay at the changes in the way the country was going. It’s so hard talking with people whose hope is failing, when you’re bubbling inside with all the possibilities you’ve found.

I think something Michael Moore and I would agree on (and I’m sure there are many others, attitudes to diet and trucker-caps notwithstanding), is that it was the ability to start anew was at the heart of what made America attractive. You were less fettered by convention, your ancestry didn’t determine your path through life.  But one of the most damaging aspects of ‘progress’ is the ability to communicate ideas to populations instantaneously. Once the barriers of landscape and environment are eliminated, you become subject once again to other people’s spheres of influence. Fears, prejudices, lies, airport security measures, Indian Jones 5.

I watched another film (hey, it’s almost winter and I’m saving money for the next adventures…) last week, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’. It reminded me of how individual my country had been when I was young, when it was truly an island adrift from the rest of the world. For a brief period there, there was a chance to build something special, to export something positive, to live up to our image as somewhere pure and clean, yet rugged and enterprising. But alas, we sold out, and now our Prime Minister is someone who thinks we should make decisions because ‘that’s how we’ll get rich’.

Obviously I don’t have the answers to all of this. But I’ve learnt to try to do better. I’ve learnt to live thoughtfully, to understand and counteract my prejudices, to spend more time with those people I admire. And I have to find a way to write about the things I care about through this blog, as well as through a novel. Because you have to make the world a better place, not just wish it was one.

Of course all this earnest positivity will always be mixed with beer drinking, outdoor adventures and Mexican food. And hopefully alongside an ever-changing cast of inspiring people. I need to brave enough to confront my mistakes, but also to have the courage to risk making new ones. And I love all the people who ever encourage me along that treacherous but rewarding path.

I’d like to dedicate this post to Linda and Kylie, two people who remind me of the rewards of being open to try something new. I’m looking forward to the next Port tasting…

*Ok I didn’t really get ’round to talking about US politics, but it’s a little hard to steer away from cynicism when discussing that particular race towards devolution. See?

Being a part of something (but not just anything)

Legs

Five days out from the pass through the Pyrenees, less than 100 miles from the French border, I was close to lowering my pack gently to the warm, dry earth and waiting for a bus. Just a fifth of the way through an adventure I’d been thinking about for nine years, I came uncomfortably close to giving up, and that moment of compounded doubt has been weighing on me over the past couple of months. With some time for reflection, my frustration and despondency was largely around what I felt was a lack of ‘community’.

For years now, my travels and experiences have been about engaging with new groups. I can bus and bike and walk between places, but it is the ‘dwelling within’ that I need. I love that feeling you get working, eating, drinking and dancing as part of something, a trailer park, a village, a castle estate. I like to feel as if I belong, even if for just a few weeks. I can see the roots of this in my teenage years. At around fourteen I moved from one class to another, away from all my mates, which began a period of angst tinged adjustment. I concentrated on my studies, and exam results were great, but I missed banter, camaraderie, teasing, and hearing that a girl might fancy me. So that summer I held a party, and made new friends. Once school restarted I spent study time remodelling the school’s furniture, learning a dozen ways to make imitation marijuana scents to frustrate teachers, and slipping out with Darren to go on a booze buying mission for his next party. My grades slipped a little, but the social rewards were worth it. I remember the slight disappointment as I saw what my compromise had done to my exam results, but I knew I had good friends, a long Summer (and Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘Appetite for Destruction’) to pull me through.

As I’ve continued to push, pull and swing myself through life, I have done whatever I could to ensure I was part of some sort of group, even if it meant occasional new compromises. I hung out with goths in the graveyard, moved from one country to another, changed jobs, grew my hair, cut my hair, dressed as an Orc at nights, moved into an artists squat, took up chainsaw sculpting, all so that I might be able to share my days and nights with good people. I draw so much energy from having others with whom I can laugh, apologise, confess my sins, indulge in new ones, and recite classic stories with over pints and chips. So it is very difficult for me to imagine how people manage without that sense of belonging.

On my fifth evening in Paris, several people attacked concert-goers, drinkers and diners, in a choreographed symphony of destruction. As I lay propped up against the wall in Montmartre, listening to helicopters and sirens, I kept circling back to ‘why’? What state of mind do you have to be in, in order to be drawn into a group that is willing to unleash such fury? And all I could think of was those people pushed to the edges of a society, those without that sense of belonging I find so essential. If I had grown up marginalised, harassed, even despised, if I didn’t have the support of family, friends, peers, what path might I have chosen? If the Hells Angels, or Jahovahs Witnesses, or local ISIS recruiters offered me a chance to belong to something, could I really be blamed for reaching up an arm and letting myself be drawn from the pit?

Of course I then rally against the idea of what I’d have to do, how I’d have to change my thinking in order to even get through some of the initiations for these groups. Paying money to advance to the next level of scientology, learning to refer to my workmates as ‘people capital’, beating a defenceless person with a crowbar. But then I remember all the small (or large) compromises I’ve made myself, in order to belong to something. And I think of the despicable ways I’ve seen some people behave within corporations, as if being part of a business excuses you from having to be human. When did that person’s need to feel like part of the management executive team eclipse their need to be kind, considerate and reasonable? How much time without positive human contact would it take, before I decided I was prepared to compromise my morality, my rationality, in order to get to share wear a uniform, secret handshake and ammo collection with a bunch of people who were just as lost and misplaced as I was?

The morning after that day of doubt on the Camino, the sun shone. I had discussed my difficulties into the evening, and I had decided to alter my approach to the journey. I realised that in order to find community I had to offer it. I took the time to talk with people who sat alone, and I offered my own stories freely, without expectation of reciprocation. And as seven days became sixteen, and one hundred miles became two, we all underwent testing times, physically and emotionally, and there in the cracks, that was where community grew. Because as our vulnerabilities were exposed, as we became part of each other’s solutions, and as our stories began to entwine, bonds were formed. And we all began to have faith that the next time we struggled to shoulder our pack and stand, that we would find someone standing above us, offering a hand up, and a smile of understanding.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all our sister’s and brother’s keepers. It is no good ignoring people that are struggling, or alone, or broken. Because it is when we feel that we no longer have anything to lose, that we are at our most vulnerable and susceptible to the will of others. We need to remember that people want the same things, no matter what language they speak, or what name they have for god. They want to feel important, included, valued. If you have friends, family, workmates, support, then maybe consider asking one more person to join the football team next winter, or come to your place for New Years Eve, or to the beach for a swim and ice cream. Because surely it is harder to grasp for the unthinkable, if you have friends holding both your hands.

I am back in New Zealand, back in my small community, where I have ready access to people, smiles, and ice cream. But over the past three months I was on the other side of the world, and most of the time I felt like I belonged, whether I was in London, Burgos, or even Zubiri. Thank you to everyone I met and walked with on the Camino Frances, I was honoured to be part of your journeys, your triumphs, your disappointments. And thanks to everyone I met afterwards, old friends and new, you welcomed me into your homes, your families and your Hip Hop album releases. Mucho gracias.