Sunday, 10 December 2017

CHRISTMAS COMES BUT ONCE A YEAR TOO OFTEN



Imagine a scientist telling you about an experiment he's planning. He will select a group of people who have nothing in common except being related by blood, marriage or misery, imprison them in a confined space, feed them massive quantities of sugar, protein, fat and alcohol, expose them to a nonstop barrage of popular culture's most degraded idiocy, turn the heating up, and see who cracks first. You'd call that cruel and inhuman. And yet that's what many of us volunteer for, every year.

Why do we do it? Why do we submit to the seasonal plague of sadomasochistic insanity that we call Christmas? Simple. It's because we get sentimental.

Sentimentality is a type of emotional totalitarianism. Tyrants are invariably sentimental. Think of Hitler, chuckling at his unpleasant dog and slapping his lederhosen to the martial rhythm of Teutonic folk songs; Mao Zedong, spellbound by the shrill pieties of Chinese operas, many of whose plots feature children who love their parents so much that it nearly breaks their stout little hearts to denounce them to the secret police; Stalin, wiping away an avuncular tear as he pats the heads of Young Pioneers whose murders he will authorize a few years later without a blink. And what could be more sentimental than the crazed bucolic vision that inspired Pol Pot and his regime?


I blame Charles Dickens. At least, in part. Which is a pity because I love Dickens and nearly all his work, except 'A Christmas Carol'. I interpret this appalling story as a tragedy. The hero, Scrooge, an admirably clear-sighted realist, undergoes a ghastly transformation and is reduced to imbecility simply because he's informed, by a trio of unconvincing holograms, of something that a noble pragmatist like him would surely understand better than most people. Namely, that he will meet the fate that awaits us all. He will die and the universe won't care. Perhaps Dickens was just being satirical. He was more complex than people think. They say things like, "Of course, if Dickens were alive today, he'd probably be selling scripts for movies or television." I don't think so. If Dickens were alive today it's more likely he'd be selling small, very expensive bottles of whatever it is that's kept him alive for over two hundred years.

However, you can't blame Dickens for what so many people whine about, which is the commercialisation of Christmas. But we live in a commercial society. If you don't like it you're welcome to treat Christmas as a purely religious ritual, commemorating the birth of Christ. Try to forget the part about the three wise men bringing those costly consumer items as gifts. As it happens, there were originally four wise men who set out on the journey, but one of them kept lecturing the others about the commercialisation of Christmas, and is now buried somewhere in the desert.


And as we all know, Christmas was a time of celebration long before Christians decided to join in. For as long as there have been humans they've always feasted at this time of year, sometimes on each other. After which, they settled down around the fire for some traditional entertainment. Maybe the local shaman, ripped on mushrooms, would reprise a much-loved classic, such as 'The One Where We Eviscerated The Mammoth' or 'How Your Short, Brutal Life Will End in the Slavering Jaws of a Huge, Terrifying Beast'. Alternatively, the shaman might enact a heartwarming tale of redemption featuring flying reindeer, 'little people' and an atavistic hierophant with magical powers - all of which are common elements in the mythologies of northern peoples with a fondness for hallucinogens. There's a theory that these stories originate in the visions produced by Amanita Muscaria mushrooms (also known as Fly Agaric), whose vivid red and white colour scheme is replicated in the costume of that same hierophant, now referred to as Santa Claus. The mushrooms grow in clusters around fir trees - just like the ones we bring into our homes at Christmas. They cause hallucinations in which objects and people appear to change size (hello, elves) and they're poisonous when ingested normally by humans. But back in the mists of time, someone discovered (and it's interesting to speculate exactly how) that if you drink the urine of reindeer that have eaten them, you can absorb them safely and have a nice trip...  a trip which might understandably feature such elements as flying reindeer, little people, and the rest. So maybe we should think again about eating yellow snow, especially if there's a chance any reindeer have been around. Happy Christmas, and have good trip.


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Worst Gig in the World - a true story

NB: I’m sure performers of every kind have had worse gigs than this one, but it was the worst I ever did. However, it didn’t end my career, and nobody died. Except for several pigs, geese, chickens, turkeys, sheep, oxen, and a wild boar.

* * *

In the late 1970s I was living in Rotterdam with Crystal Theatre, the multimedia performance company I’d started the day after I got thrown out of one of Britain’s most prestigious theatre schools. After a few years the company relocated to Holland because Europeans seemed to like our work, and were willing to subsidise it. Back at home the Arts Council had consistently refused to give us money, seeing us as undisciplined, erratic, wilfully obscure, and on drugs – which was unfair. We were never wilfully obscure.
            But there was subsidy for the arts in Holland, and the definition of art was pretty flexible. For example, in this period Amsterdam city council was paying a cultural foundation grant to the local chapter of the Hell's Angels.

In Rotterdam we were given a house and funds to develop our work. We began devising a big new stage show. Progress was slow, but in early December a young Dutch guy we knew, who’d decided he wanted to be a promoter, told us he’d secured us a gig in Utrecht for the new production, if we could get it ready in time. The gig was at a college for butchers. The biggest one in Europe, he said. He explained that the students' Christmas party was coming up, and usually the entertainment was provided by a band – typically a German heavy metal tribute act – but he’d persuaded the social secretary that this year the students should be exposed to something more adventurous, like the cutting-edge multimedia show we were still in the process of devising. The gig was in three weeks.

At that time we had an idiosyncratic approach to rehearsal. We didn't do any. Instead we devoted ourselves to building a huge, elaborate set, with big revolving panels that acted as screens for the lightshow projections we used. It was an ambitious construction, and we were looking forward to getting the whole thing up and working. We probably should have tried doing that before the first performance.

The gig was on a Saturday night. I'd been in Amsterdam for a couple of days, and I'd arranged to go straight to Utrecht, while the others would drive from Rotterdam in our bus, and we'd all meet at the college. I got there early, and I was met by the social secretary. I explained that the rest of the company would be arriving later, and he said he would give me a guided tour while we waited. He was a tall young man with rimless glasses and no trace of the joviality traditionally associated with butchers. He informed me that this was the most modern butchers' college in the world, with nearly three hundred students, two of whom were women.
            He led me into a large room completely covered in white tiles. Four hulking figures dressed in full-body orange bio-hazard suits were clustered in the middle of the room, hosing blood off the walls. My host frowned. Oh, he said, it is unfortunate that they have just finished the slaughtering and you are unable to watch it. I tried to look disappointed.

The next stop was a small but highly realistic replica of a butchers' shop, equipped with all the tools of the trade and various parts of animals, possibly those that had recently been despatched in the abattoir next door. Here, the students were doing a role play exercise. One would enter the shop, in the guise of a customer, and address another student who was standing behind the counter. Good day, Mr Butcher, the first student would say, may I have five kilos of offal, please? The other student, twirling a meat cleaver with a merry twinkle in his eye, then replied, Certainly, Mrs Customer, would you like me to wrap it, or will you eat it on the way home? Something like that, anyway. The students took it very seriously, and I found it deeply disturbing.

But now it was down to business. My host, still addressing me in English that was stilted but far better than my Dutch, told me how much the students were looking forward to our show, especially as they had no idea what to expect. Then he outlined the schedule for the evening’s entertainment. First, he said, we will be having the great Christmas feast. We start with some cold sliced meats of salami and hams. Then a type of big meat pudding, made of minced sheep inside an intestine. Then there is turkey, served with sausages, and bacon. And then beef, and oxen meat. And all the time a whole wild boar is roasting, and we eat him. Then we have coffee. He paused and looked at me expectantly. Sounds good, I said, but there are nine of us, and five are vegetarians. Yes, he said, there will also be some vegetables with the meat. No, I said, these people don't eat any meat at all. He looked at me for a long time in silence. Finally he said, How is it possible?
            He simply didn't understand the concept of not eating meat. After that, it all went downhill.

First, the others turned up. They were only a couple of hours late, and while there was nothing unusual in that, it did create a problem. The big hall, where we were due to perform after the meal, was now being prepared for the banquet itself. This meant we couldn't set up before the meal. We'd have to do it afterwards, as quickly as we could. This put everyone in a bad mood. All except Mort. I stood beside him as he gazed at the students who were beginning to congregate in the hall, in pleasant anticipation of an orgy of blood and  protein. I inspected him closely. You're looking happy, I said. Yes, he said, this acid I've taken seems to be pretty strong. Shit, I said, is everyone tripping? No, Mort said, just three of us.
            Well, I thought, at least they didn't get the tour of the abattoir and the imaginary butchers' shop. That might have freaked them out a bit.

It turned out there was enough to freak us out anyway. The meal went on for a very long time. Everyone was polite to us, but they were clearly offended that some of us didn't eat meat, and that those of us that did eat meat didn’t eat it in the gigantic quantities they considered natural. But finally the meal was over, and it was time for us to set up. We waited for the students to leave. They didn't. There was nowhere for them to go, we were told. So, for the next hour, three hundred Dutch trainee butchers sat in silence, watching nine sweating, stumbling, cursing English people trying to erect a very large, very complicated set – for the very first time. The atmosphere in the room became increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally we were ready to begin the show. And if the preparations had bewildered the audience, it was nothing compared to their bafflement at the performance itself. It didn't help that unlike most of the Dutch audiences we played to these people spoke very little English. It also didn't help that we didn't know what we were doing, and were doing it very slowly. The show was meant to last just over an hour. After two hours I calculated we were about half way through. The going was slow, but not uneventful. At a certain point I gave Mort his cue to enter from stage right. It was a big moment because he was meant to come on carrying a blazing sword. Which he did. But this was the first time he'd attempted the costume change that was involved, and he was only half way through it. However, he believed it would have been unprofessional to miss his cue, so he marched onstage, blazing sword aloft, naked except for a pair of Wellington boots. He said later he thought it would enhance the impact for the audience. He was right, but not in a good way.

The show continued until, perhaps mercifully, the set fell down. Its collapse was slow and strangely beautiful. The audience remained completely silent, as they had been all the time, but I sensed a momentary change in the quality of their silence, from profound hostility to grim satisfaction. They continued to sit and watch, maintaining their complete silence, as we cleared everything up. Then, like bystanders at a gruesome accident accepting that the carnage is finally over and there is nothing more to see, they stood up and filed out, in silence.

After they'd gone we were told we weren't going to be paid. We remonstrated with the social secretary, but he steadfastly refused to hand over our fee. However, he was needlessly unpleasant about it. He sneered as he told us there was nothing we could do, because our "stupid hippie" promoter hadn’t asked for a written contract. With that, he turned on his heel and sauntered away, leaving us to load up the bus and leave.
            But he was mistaken when he said there was nothing we could do.

The main exit from the building was accessed via an adjoining room, which the students used as a social club: somewhere to relax after a hard day of frenzied butchery and demented role play, and swap a few yarns about intestines. In the middle of this empty room was a kind of wooden shed festooned with padlocks. It was the bar, designed so that once the shutters were opened, thirsty students, eager to wash away the stench of slaughter, could be served on three sides.

Although this edifice was well secured, it was still, basically, a shed. And a shed is, when you get down to it, nothing more than several pieces of wood screwed together. And what is screwed together can be unscrewed. Especially by nine people with a powerful grievance, who always travelled with heavy-duty tools, on account of the ridiculously large and complex sets they always constructed.

Without touching any of the padlocks we dismantled the shed, piece by piece, in about fifteen minutes. We didn't take all of the bottles inside it. We just took all of the vodka, and all of the whiskey, and all of the gin, and all of the tequila, and all of the beer, but we left the soft drinks. And then we rebuilt the shed, so that it looked, from the outside, as if it had never been touched. And then we loaded up, and drove into the night, drinking heavily to destroy the evidence.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

THE HELL GUIDE TO CROWDFUNDING


1. Begin crowdfunding by making a list of names, starting with your family and close friends. In your heart, bid them farewell.

2. Now list your colleagues and acquaintances. For each person, come up with three reasons why it doesn't matter if you never speak to them again.

3. Send an individual email to everyone on your list, addressing them by name. Make it personal. Affirm your connection with them, and mention the last time you met. Ask how they're doing. Remind them that you know where they live, and what their deepest fears are.

4. Wow, you've hit 20% of your target in the first week! At this rate you'll be funded in no time.

5. Two weeks later, and you're still on 20%. Begin a relentless social media campaign. Stay online all day, every day. 

6. After a week you've hit 30%. That's more like it. After another week you've hit 31%. Shit. Send another email to everyone you've ever met, while continuing your relentless social media campaign. Don't worry, most of those people unfollowing you on Twitter are fake accounts. Probably.

7. Finally reach 50%. NB: If at this point your keyboard is sprinkled with white powder, and it's not drugs, you should probably wash your hair. Also shower, eat, open the curtains,  emerge from your room, comfort your frightened children who don't remember who you are, etc.

8. After another week you're only on 51%. Maybe you should try some positive visualisation. So, imagine your project is fully funded. See it being a huge success. Visualise yourself at an awards ceremony, having given a witty, gracious acceptance speech, as your so-called friends approach you and apologise for not having funded the project, and confess how foolish they now feel. Picture their faces as you deliver an elegant but deadly put-down, whose utter brilliance is slowly grasped by their limited intelligence, while the appreciative laughter of the famous onlookers who now surround you in an adoring crowd adds to their shame and humiliation. 

Okay, that's probably enough positive visualisation.

9. Every day is now a gruelling emotional rollercoaster ride from despair to elation and back again, via agonising frustration, exhausted nonchalance, hysteria, savage resentment, boiling rage, and periodic voodoo sacrifices. Enter a weird fugue state of both heightened awareness and total oblivion.

10. Somehow you finally reach your goal. Weep with gratitude for the generosity and nobility of everyone who supported you, and forgive all those who didn't. They are only human, after all. Puny mortals, who knew no better. But you – you are a god. Your achievement is monumental and eternal. Allow yourself a small glass of champagne to celebrate.

11. Wake up from a three-day drinking binge. Apologise to everyone for whatever you did. Let us never speak of this again. But hey, you did it! The project is funded! The process was tough, but it was worth it. What a journey, right? It was awesome. But there's no way you'd ever do it again, of course.

12. Now all that remains is to bask in the adulation of a grateful public (see section 8).

13. Wait for the grateful public to get around to noticing your achievement.

14. Keep waiting.

15. Realise the grateful public is completely unaware of your masterpiece. What you need is publicity and promotion. And guess what? You're on your own again. If only you had a budget for a publicity campaign, and were able to pay for advertising, or employ a professional PR person. It's almost like promotion is a whole new project in itself, that requires... funding. Wait, maybe there's a way to raise the funds for this promotional project. Perhaps the answer is to persuade a bunch of people to support it. 
A whole crowd.


By the way, my new novel, Dead Writers in Rehab, is now available in all good book stores, and on Amazon. To check out the tasty reviews and buy it CLICK HERE.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Christ in Michigan



Christ woke up with a pounding headache somewhere outside Flint, Michigan.
            Resurrection was always uncomfortable, but nobody needs a headache. He recalled what a Buddhist friend of his was always saying: "suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy." Or maybe it was the Buddha himself who'd told him that. He made a mental note to ask the fat man about it the next time he saw him.
            He looked around. He'd arrived in a bleak industrial wasteland with a few decaying factories visible in the distance. He hadn't visited America for around fifty years, and the place seemed to have gone downhill. He'd been tempted to go to New York – which is why he didn't.

He headed towards town and checked into the first motel he reached. There was a bible in his room, and he always found bibles entertaining, but it didn't have pictures. The last time he was here he'd loved the religious illustrations he found, depicting him as some kind of hippie Aryan surfer dude with a creepy smile and perfect teeth, wearing a weird, glowing toga.
            This time, in order to adjust his appearance, he switched on the TV and watched everything, everywhere, all at once. Then he spent a moment in front of the mirror and came up with a neatly trimmed beard, hair just above the shoulders, and a complexion that suggested mixed Caucasian and African parentage, with a hint of Amerindian. He'd been female in his most recent incarnation, so it was testosterone time again. As he took the pills he discovered the water tasted awful.        
            Almost without thinking he left the motel, located the source of the pollution that was contaminating the water, and fixed it. On the way back to town he had a twinge of conscience, realising he'd broken the no-miracles rule he'd imposed on himself a few hundred years ago. But was it even a miracle if nobody saw it? Anyway, how much harm could it do?

Plenty, it turned out. He'd only been preaching for two days when the trouble started. It seemed the water company was taking credit for cleaning up the supply. Then the government claimed responsibility. But that type of stunt wouldn't fly any more, not with the internet in the picture. People investigated, assertions were made and denied, theories were proposed and debunked, the debunking was itself debunked, and then re-bunked again.
            The water was clean, but everyone was angry. Even the environmentalists were pissed off because they couldn't hold the culprits to account now the pollution had vanished, and where was the fun in that?
            Christ was fascinated by the sheer energy of the online world, a vast parallel universe in which every transaction was conducted by enraged bees.

It was one of his disciples who drew media attention to him. As usual, Christ's followers were the wretched of the earth: street people, sex workers, servants, hustlers, troubled sinners, drug addicts, a few lawyers.  
            One of them filmed a sermon on her phone and posted it to a big Catholic web site. It was simply Christ talking. He wasn't trying to be compelling or charismatic, but he didn't try to fight it either. He'd learned long ago that what was going to happen was inevitable if he told the truth, and he couldn't stop himself telling the truth. That wasn't going to happen.

Christ went viral.
            People found out where he was, and began attributing the inexplicable purification of the water supply to his presence in the region. The media descended, bringing down a shit-storm. For a while, the furious denouncers were evenly balanced with the passionate believers, and he was besieged by would-be converts, hoping for salvation – which could mean almost anything, depending what their problem was. The web went crazy, with every conceivable explanation being proposed for who he really was and what he really wanted. Several women claimed he'd fathered their children, and several others were eager for him to father theirs without delay.
            But soon the narrative scales began to tip. A story about a devious charlatan was easier to pitch than one about a good man telling the truth. Where's the character arc? The dramatic conflict? What's the journey here? The negative spin had more legs.
            Christ prepared himself for crucifixion, of one kind or another. But before the drama could reach its designated climax he was abducted early one morning by a group of serious, unsmiling men, supported by special forces who were masked and armed to the teeth. He was told only that he was being taken to the leader.
            
The man was a strange colour, as though he suffered from some kind of radiation sickness, and he seemed surreally stupid. It quickly became clear that Christ's potential as a weapon was being considered. He was questioned about his 'powers' and how he controlled and directed them. The leader was childishly excited by the thought that finally he had within his grasp the means to inflict defeat and humiliation upon all those who had scorned and mocked him.
            Naturally, Christ had recognised his old enemy at once, despite the bizarre incarnation. In all his many guises, the darkness of the heart was unchanging. But now his eternal adversary was using a new tactic, and Christ had to admit to a certain grudging admiration for his cunning.
            It seemed that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was no longer to convince the world he didn't exist. It was to convince himself he didn't exist. It was horribly obvious that the president had absolutely no idea who he really was.
            Christ prepared himself for a tough battle.







Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Writing advice from my 16-year-old self.


Dear future me,

This is so weird, thinking about you (me) reading this when you're really old, about forty-five or something, and a world famous author. Actually it's blowing my mind! Haha, so freaky. Sorry, I'm a bit stoned. Am I? Yes, definitely. Last time it turned out I'd been ripped off, but the weird thing was I totally felt high. That's psychology. I have some very interesting theories about psychology and I'm going to write a book about them. But you already know that. How did it turn out? Probably a bestseller. Anyway, I hope you're stoned when you read this, because that will be so weird for you. Which brings me to my first piece of advice:

STAY HIGH.
I can't imagine you'll ever allow a day to pass without smoking weed but I just want to remind you: it's what got you where you are today. Since I started doing it two months ago my literary output has been off the scale. It's opened the doors of my perception (in the egregious words of Aldous Huxley) and unleashed a veritable torrent, cascade, or cornucopia, if you will, of awesome sci-fi, fantasy and horror genre classics that are sure to be snapped up by a publisher. As you know, I'll never do other drugs. Although I may try cocaine, just once. It's so cool to think that when you read this you won't have to worry about our parents finding your stash.

NEVER REWRITE.
Apparently some writers need to do a lot of rewriting, but I'm not that type of writer, and neither will you be. Rewriting destroys the authenticity of your spontaneous inspiration. And where do you stop? Example: I was up nearly all night last night writing 'Behind the Beyond', the fourteenth volume of my 'DoomSlaughter Empire Quantum Quest' dark fantasy series. I only managed fifty thousand words, but they were all pretty good. However, this morning I looked at what I'd written and started to make some changes. I was doing it for, like, hours! Waste of time. My tip: don't reread what you've written, that way you won't have to rewrite it.

CHOOSING A PUBLISHER.
There are a ton of publishers out there, and I'm trying to decide which one I should allow to publish me. Now that you're a rich and famous author you've probably changed your publisher a few times. I can understand that. But never compromise your principles, okay? Always be with a publisher that shares your values: authenticity, spontaneity, and getting high.

AGENTS.
According to some people a writer should have an agent. But I'm pretty sure that's a rumour spread by agents. Forget about it. I mean, why would you allow someone to take a percentage of your money just for… doing what, exactly? I don't get it. Sounds like a scam to me. So please, never employ an agent, no matter how many of them beg you.

MONEY.
Talking of money, please don't let money change you. Now you're phenomenally wealthy it must be a temptation to splash out on another house in Goa, or that unnecessary third Ferrari. Resist it. Always spare a thought for those less fortunate than you. In fact, I suggest you give away a certain percentage of your income. But not to an agent! (Joke. As you can see, I'm currently exploring the use of humour in my writing, to enhance the rich, varied and awesomely broad texture of my oeuvre.) Anyway, bottom line: don't get obsessed with money, like my parents. All they talk about is how much it's going to cost to send me to university. Yeah, right, like I'm going to university. Why would I study literature for three years when I'm already creating it? I feel it would only dilute my natural gift. I haven't told them about this decision yet, and I'm waiting until I've sent some of my stuff to a publisher next week. It may take the publisher a few days to read it and get back to me, but as soon they offer me an advance I'll tell my parents about the university thing, and then I'll probably buy them a house or something. I hope you always retain my true generosity of spirit, future me, and never forget your humble middle-class origins and your family, even though they can be massive dicks.

SEX.
Writers are naturally endowed with great sexual allure and charisma, and I expect a famous author like you is pretty much irresistible to women. But you're probably still married to Sarah. Unless she dies in some kind of tragic accident, perhaps leaving you with an adorable baby daughter who reminds you of her so much that you resist the attentions of all the other women who'll want to marry you as a result of your tragic back story and virile yet tender parenting skills, then eventually you marry the hottest one. Meanwhile you will transmute the leaden weight of your grief into the golden prose of transcendence in an irresistibly poignant but also life-affirming memoir. Whatever. But since I had full actual sex with Sarah, three weeks ago, I haven't thought about anyone else, even when I'm masturbating, so I think I love her. Apparently men masturbate less as they get older, but you'll obviously still want to do it, even though you're having sex with Sarah several times a day, provided she's still alive. But whenever she's not around, try to restrict yourself, and don't masturbate more than five times a day, maximum.

That's all.

Looking forward to being you!