Saturday, 1 October 2016


Staring at the wall. It was so close he could have touched it. Plasterboard painted light orange, brush marks, streaks, although you wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t looking closely, if you weren’t examining it. Then the angle where it met the other wall, the corner. He could have touched that, too. Was this why he came here, to stare at walls and the corners they form? The sheet of paper on the desk. He had decided to do it the old way, longhand, but all he had managed was half a page. It wasn’t good. He knew the importance of making a start, and the flow of words that would inevitably follow – he wasn’t a beginner – but he couldn’t get his head into it. He couldn’t get his head into it because his head was somewhere else. His head was miles away, hundreds of them, where his body should have been.
It had been fine for the first few days, but the non-existence of a phone signal was getting to him. No internet, either. He was worried. He hadn’t been at first, but he was now. He was thinking about home, about bad things that might happen or might already have happened. Bad things that might be going on at this very moment. The nearest telephone was in the pub at the bottom of the hill. What if they tried to reach him during the night, when the pub was shut? In his absence...
In his absence.
He was absent. He wasn’t where he should have been, although he had an excuse, a poor one: he had asked to be here. The Panel had been suitably impressed by his portfolio and he was now their guest, free board and lodging for a month in the back of beyond so he could concentrate, interruption-free, on his writing. Except he hadn’t done any since he arrived, forget the half page of garbage he had scrawled, it was offensive just to look at the shape of the words, never mind read them.
The other Fellows were in the kitchen, he could hear them through the wall laughing and talking as they prepared breakfast. Gus prised the pencil out of his fingers and went to the toilet.

Duncan Margolyes, celebrated epigrammatist and Writer-in-Residence, was holding forth, yet again, on Circular Narrative. ‘It has to keep coming back to itself,’ he said as he looped salt illustratively onto his porridge. ‘Focus,’ he said. ‘That’s the key word. Focus.’
Gus’s knife clattered as he stabbed his kipper.
‘Although there are other ways of going about it,’ said Duncan. He let the sentence hang. So did everyone else.
Gus chewed his food. When he had worked it enough, he swallowed. ‘This is lovely,’ he said. ‘Is it a kipper?’
‘Oh, good one!’ said Duncan. ‘Humour over breakfast. We’re talking about Circular Narrative, Gus, Circular Narrative!’
‘Indeed you are,’ said Gus. ‘I thought this conversation finished three days ago. I thought the same two days ago, then yesterday. Seems like the talk keeps coming back to itself. To be expected, I suppose.’ He tapped the kipper with the edge of his fork. ‘Sorry for stating the obvious.’
The other Fellows made their excuses and left. Gus looked at their plates. Steam was rising from fish that hadn’t had time to be stripped.
Duncan lifted a spoonful of porridge. He blew on it. He blew on it for a long time. He was in no hurry, a dangerous man to be sure. Perhaps he was in the creative midst of another of those ditties for which he was so roundly feted. ‘I’m glad we’ve got this chance to talk alone, Gus,’ he said.
‘As long as it’s not about you-know-what, I’m up for it,’ said Gus.
‘Oh, god,’ said Duncan. ‘Don’t pay any attention to me, especially at this time of the morning. What would I know about narrative, circular or otherwise, I’m a poet for crying out loud. And not a very good one at that.’
For courtesy’s sake, Gus could have said something. Instead, he teased out another mouthful of food.
‘I’m not being modest, Gus. Whatever we do as writers, it’s never enough, is it? It’s never good enough, that’s what I’m trying to say. It’s a struggle. People come to this retreat for many reasons, not just to write. The Panel like to see a sample of work before they offer a Fellowship, but, as you know, promising to write while you’re here isn’t a condition of acceptance. How’s it going, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Gus buttered a slice of toast, a displacement activity if ever there was one, and he knew all about those. He used two sachets, slowly, trying to enjoy the scrape of metal on charred bread.
Duncan placed his spoon in the bowl. ‘I’m sorry to be so intrusive,’ he said. ‘I’ll let you get on with your breakfast in peace.’
The door clicked shut. Gus looked around the kitchen. The emptiness gave him yet another reason to hate himself. He had managed to alienate everyone in the house just by being there. No, he had managed to alienate himself, that was more precise, wasn’t it, that was more focused. It was a talent, of that there was no doubt.

He lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Walls and ceilings. Christ this was a waste of time. But it was his choice. He’d had to get away, and nobody had tried to talk him out of it. They were glad to see the back of him. He missed them. He doubted they felt the same. His children had started doing vanishing tricks whenever he came home, even the youngest, little Susie, who was just learning to talk, she was picking up the signals from the other three. And their mother – she hadn’t even phoned to see if he arrived safely. She knew the number of the pub, he’d written it down for her, but no messages had been brought to the retreat by bicycle, that was the way he’d been told it worked.
Gus hadn’t phoned, either.
The further away from home the better. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. No one had been there to see him off, certainly not his wife. He remembered the sound as he pulled the front door closed, an empty thud. He should have dumped the keys in the mailbox.
And here he was.
Walls and ceilings.
It was like a prison. He’d put himself in it.
It wasn’t a prison. He could walk out the door any time he wanted. He could take off across the fields and never come back, no one was stopping him.
Solitary confinement.
When he started counting the flowers on the curtains he knew it was time to get out.

The pub was open, a single car in the car park. He could have gone inside, but kept walking. He didn’t know where he was headed. He didn’t even know where he was, not exactly, if you’d given him a map he wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint anything.
The track joined the main road. He crossed over and found a gap in the drystone wall. Rugged moorland as far as the eye could see. Never had he stood in grass so thick. He squatted and put his hands into it – it had the consistency of wire, springy and wet. And the silence, not even the chirp of a bird. Not a tree to be seen. It was the first time he’d been outside since he got here. Perhaps this was all he needed, to be out in the fresh air, to clear his head. He stood tall and filled his lungs, once, twice, three times. It didn’t help. He knew better than to try and kid himself. Clear his head? How could he do that, his head was crammed full of ideas, images, voices, they weren’t going anywhere. And his left shoe had sprung a leak, the sock was mulching against his foot. Luckily, he had another pair of shoes with him. And countless pairs of socks, of course, it wasn’t the first time he’d tried to live out of a suitcase, the trick was to unpack as soon as you arrived. Back in the room, the wardrobe was a sight to behold, shirts and trousers hanging stiffly and the drawers replete with rows of freshly laundered hosiery. And there was an iron in the kitchen if he needed it, maintaining a dapper appearance wasn’t a problem. Okay, he was vain. He acknowledged it. Everything came down to his reflection and how good it looked. How else could he have abandoned his family to concentrate on his inner self, his Art? He knew he was good, he was good at making up little stories, he wasn’t the only one who thought so. But it didn’t pay. In other words he was selfish, irresponsible. A dreamer.
It hurt like hell when his wife reminded him, which she did more often than was necessary.
He reached another wall. The grass was even thicker here, he had to be careful where he was putting his feet, he didn’t want to break an ankle. The stones were sharp against his palms as he climbed over. His intention, if it really was an intention, had been to keep walking away from the retreat, a straight line, but the way forward was blocked by a river. The water was completely still. It was a canal, the towpath looked as if it had been relaid quite recently. Why would they do that? Maybe in the summer months this was a tourist spot full of barges taking holidaymakers from A to B, although where A and B were he had no idea. His eyes were playing tricks. The water seemed to be higher than the towpath. He threw in a handful of cinders. They scattered across the surface sooner than they should have. He found a large stone, almost a boulder, in the shrubbery and hoisted it as far as he could. It splashed was as if the water was at least a foot higher than the path. The laws of physics, he tried to dredge something up from his boyhood, what was it called, optics, refraction? His boyhood was a long time ago. Sometimes it seemed like yesterday. He’d been good at science. Formulas. Formulae. He’d binned it after two years, though, when the arithmetic turned into maths. He was more interested in the concepts than the analysis, although the difference between accuracy and precision was something he would always respect. It was words he’d fallen in love with, not numbers.

*     *     *

The hissing sound was growing louder. A waterfall? What did Newton have to say about man-made rivers and waterfalls? Probably not much. The land on both sides of the canal was falling away, grass and shrubs being replaced by trees. Soon only the tops were showing.
About a hundred yards away the canal swept to the right, crossing a deep gorge over a series of arches.
Gus immediately thought of the pub, and the phone in it. He had said goodbye to no one. He could see the river now, it was in spate, its hiss was insistent. His eyes were on his feet as cinders turned into irregular slabs, crazy paving. Then his hands were clutching the bars, as thick as clothes poles, along the side of the aqueduct. And the slabs, they seemed to be moving, even though he knew they weren’t, it was impossible. He forced himself to let go and fell to his knees, his fingers splayed on the stones.
Fear. Simple and pure, so pure, because of the gap at his shoulder, he could see the angles where something had been used to prise the railings apart. This gap was large. It was more than large enough for a human body. He was being drawn towards it, his knees were inching. He should have been thankful, whoever had done this had saved him the trouble. He gripped metal and felt the wind in his face, he had to close his eyes against it, but he wanted to look, he wanted to see, he needed to. Hundreds of feet below, the river was coursing white over invisible rocks, the roar undulating, an angry siren. How easy would it be? He would leave it all to philosophy of a natural kind. Focus. This was why he had come. No longer an encumbrance. They wouldn’t even have to clean up the mess. Strangers would take care of that downstream.
His left foot moved through the space. The sole of his shoe found the ledge on the other side. The sock inside was slippery, but he was careful. Carefully does it.
Her voice. Behind him. As clear as life.

*     *     *

He had to ring the bell on the counter. He rang it again. Eventually, a man appeared at the side of the gantry.
‘Hello,’ said Gus. He didn’t sound like himself.
‘Hello,’ said the man, all smiles. ‘Don’t tell me. You’re one of the writers up at the retreat...’
‘I need...’
‘...I didn’t hear a car stopping. I was wondering when you’d be putting in an appearance. Not just you, you understand. All of you. What would you like?’
‘I need to use your phone,’ said Gus.
‘Ah,’ said the man. ‘I see. No problem. Just round the corner behind you, next to the Gents.’
‘Thanks,’ said Gus.
It was a payphone.
He rang the bell.
The man appeared.
‘Could I break a tenner?’ said Gus.
The man exhaled, his cheeks puffing. Eventually, he moved to the till. ‘Folk usually ask for change for the phone when they’re paying for their drinks,’ he said.
‘Maybe next time,’ said Gus.
‘You’re welcome,’ said the man, even though he didn’t mean it.
Gus took a moment to remember the country code then hit the buttons. He checked his watch. Everyone would be home.
‘Daddy! Mummy, it’s daddy!’
Muffled voices.
‘Hey, how are you?’
‘Are you for real? I’ve been worried sick. That number you gave me doesn’t work, you idiot.’
It was starting again. In truth, it had never stopped. He scanned the front of the phone, but there was no information on it. ‘That was the number they gave me,’ he said.
‘You should have phoned when you got there. The kids have been up the walls. Nathan...’
‘How is everyone?’
‘How the hell do you think they are?!’
The heap of coins in his hand. He closed his fingers till hardness dug into bone.
‘I had to take Nathan to the clinic this morning, his throat’s getting worse. He’ll be on antibiotics for the next fortnight. If you were here, you’d...’
‘I have to go.’
‘What do you mean you have to go? You’ve just...’
‘Tell the kids I love them.’
‘Daddy!’ It was Susie again. ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’
The receiver was warm against his ear. The tiny voice coming out of it. He watched his fist push down on the cradle.

*     *     *

Leaving. Nothing is easier. All you do is put one foot in front of the other. It sounded like something Margolyes would have written. Then again, who was Gus to know – Gus was no poet. He would phone for a taxi from the pub. The flight was another matter. He’d worry about that when he got to the airport. His good shoes, where were they? And socks, a dry pair, they were in the wardrobe, the bottom drawer. He was trying not to look at the desk. The piece of paper was where he’d left it. So was the packet of A4, the top ripped open.
He dragged himself to the chair. The room was quiet. Silent. Not a sound from the kitchen. His pencil. A clean sheet of paper slid in front of his eyes. He tried to stop himself, but it was beyond his control.

Staring at the wall. It was so close he could have touched it.

It was a start.

The words were soon flowing.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The night Large One, Derrick played The Clatrell Leisure Suite, Falkirk - from a work in progress

By the time Large One, Derrick came on, the place was heaving. It had nothing to do with Large One, Derrick. The word was out that Shug Skinner was back in town.
‘HE-LLO FAW-KURT!’ Mooney bellowed into the microphone.
‘Freak!’ someone shouted.
‘I shagged your maw!’ shouted someone else. It was one of the Drive! fans, even though Drive! had already left the building.
‘I’d drink your pish!’ squeaked a wee lassie down the front. She’d been on the light box earlier.
Grant thumped out the tempo with a pair of brushes. He looked uncomfortable; he was trying to avoid the spray coming at him off the snare. Then Mooney came in on the guitar, and Stark on the fiddle. It sounded like The Dubliners meets Rising Damp. But nobody cared what it sounded like, not even the Posse. It was backing music for Shug. He didn’t, after all, have a clue about the lights, but he was a great dancer. He was swaying alone in the middle of the floor, cradling the syringe like it was his own true love. He danced expressively, almost balletically, pushing the hunk of metal away then drawing it closer, as if he couldn’t bear to let it go. It was quite a performance, Dug had to admit; Shug remained focussed even through Stark’s countless bum notes.
The applause was loud.
‘I! THANK! YOU!’ Mooney boomed. He pretended to tune his guitar till the noise died down. Then he stepped back to the mike. ‘This yin’s for my auld dear!’ he said. ‘It’s called The Slag!’ No one was listening. Shug was getting his photo taken with his fans. He’d be in the Herald next week. Again. Mooney turned to his brother. ‘Can ye no get this baldy fucker to sit down?’ he said.
There was a sudden ruckus at the door. Three men barged in. They looked identical: receding hairlines, bloodstained white T-shirts and arms like thighs. Dug found himself thinking of butchers, which was apt. It was the Bell Brothers. Their wee sister was with them, crying, getting dragged along by the wrist.
‘Where’s this Derrick Mooney cunt?’ shouted the largest brother. The meat cleaver he was wielding had bits of mince hanging off it. Shug shot a glance at Dug, who immediately pointed at the stage.
‘IT’S THE SINGER!’ Shug shouted, and led the charge. Grant scarpered. So did Stark. Mooney tried to vault the drums, but got his feet caught in the snare. He managed to get up before they reached him, though, his guitar banging off the walls as he legged it out the fire escape. The Bell Brothers kicked the drums out of the way, dragging their wee sister behind them.
Clatrell lost no time picking the microphone off the floor. ‘Anybody for a wee bit Rapper’s Delight?’ he said.
The joint was soon pulsating, The Posse, the whole lot of them, keening like a flock of Hasidic pigeons. Dug ordered another beer. He watched the remaining Drive! fans sink their pints and leave. Shug Skinner poked his head through the fire door. He walked straight up to Dug. ‘Nurse Buckle hasnae been in, has she?’ he said.
‘Eh,’ said Dug. ‘Don’t think so. Are you expecting her?’
‘Ye could say that,’ said Shug, and inserted his needle into the leg of his overalls. ‘I’m no really supposed to be out. Keep it to yerself, though!’
‘Got you,’ said Dug, and watched his new friend disappear through the back of the stage.
Half an hour later, Grant sloped in, followed by Stark.
‘Drink?’ said Dug.
‘Give us a hand with the stuff, will you?’ said Stark.
Stark’s car was parked round the back, next to a white Saab with a meat cleaver embedded in the bonnet. They laid the drums carefully in the back; the newspapers were already spread out. They had to leave the tailgate open – Grant’s bass drum was large. Dug was about to climb in when Mooney shoved past him. ‘Come on, youse,’ he said. ‘Handers. I want my money.’
They followed him through the back door of the pub, into the kitchen. It wasn’t long before the argument was in full flow.
‘Aye ye’re fucking right ye’ll be paying me!’ Mooney said. He was hyperventilating. His guitar was hanging off his shoulder, machine gun style. A few of the strings were broken. It was obvious the Bell Brothers hadn’t caught up with him.
Clatrell stuck his ladle into a pot and stirred. The bass line was thudding through the wall. ‘See this soup?’ he said.
Mooney was shaking with anger. ‘What about it?’ he said. There were bits of meat and carrot floating on the surface, just visible through the steam.
‘If ye don’t change yer tune,’ said Clatrell, ‘ye’ll be fucking wearing it.’
‘This is my Friday Night Delight,’ he continued. ‘Fuck the idiots through there in their baseball caps. Mutton broth, the kind of soup that sticks to yer ribs, and other parts of yer body, if ye get my drift. And ye know something else? I don’t need mouthy twats like you spoiling it.’
‘Fuck yer soup,’ said Mooney. ‘You booked us...’
‘You cheeky monkey,’ said Clatrell, and scooped a load into a bowl. ‘You’re asking me for money? Ye owe me five hunner quid for the fire door – mind you, you were too busy legging it down the road to see the Bell Brothers tearing it off its hinges. And ye can’t have missed the hatchet sticking out the bonnet of my new car.’
It was a case of mistaken identity. Stark coughed. ‘There’s a good panel beater in Denny...’ he offered.
‘What?’ said Grant. ‘Dalrymple Bash ’n’ Dash? They’ve been on strike since June.’
‘Eh?’ said Stark. He was blushing. ‘I didn’t know...’

Clatrell parked himself at the table and tore a hunk of bread off a loaf. ‘Stark,’ he said. ‘Get the Mooney contingent out of my sight. I can’t eat when there’s pricks like that watching me. Fancy a plate of soup, Dug? There’s plenty in the pot for folk with jobs.’

Sunday, 14 August 2016


Flat on my back
in a Surrey hayfield.
She's got me
where she wants me
she thinks.

Over her shoulder,
a shooting star
sears the face
of a harvest moon.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Strip The Willow on Ink Sweat and Tears

Strip The Willow

I want to watch. I want to watch you dance with me, and we are the perfect couple. Synchronised. Fiddles and accordions...

Read the rest of the story on Ink Sweat and Tears

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Source Language

It was not a delusion. The fact that he could articulate the thought and stand outside it, appreciating it in all its complexity, was proof. For months he had been picking up signs, which he had come to interpret as signals, as gestures of intent. He was the target. That was his interpretation. All he had to do was reciprocate, but that was the problem, one of the many. Recklessness was not in his nature. It would have been easy to say it had been beaten out of him, stamped on, squashed; we look for people to blame. He had never been a blamer, if it came to looking for culprits he had always come back to himself. But now he was flailing at the bottom of a pit before he had even dug it, as if a censor had requisitioned the best part of his brain and was controlling him, controlling his imagination, the only thing that was keeping him sane.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

They Made The Effort by Andrew McCallum Crawford - published in McStorytellers

They Made The Effort

He tossed and turned till his wife told him to sleep downstairs. The rest of the night he spent on the couch, the lights switched off, the television tuned to the comedy channel, although he only caught fragments; it was difficult to concentrate on the screen. Too many things were running around in his head, disjointed images jostling for attention before shooting off on absurd tangents. Nothing made sense, after a while the scenes began to overlap, there was so much going on, too much information, all of it punctuated by the incongruous mirth of a laugh track.

His eyelids were closing. He fumbled for the button on the remote. It was time to get ready.

To read the complete story, go to the McStorytellers site.

Friday, 10 April 2015

At The Astoria - from a work in progress

I walked down to the square. Tam was on the corner, leaning against his barrow and affecting the worst Irish accent I had ever heard:
‘Get yer loovely toilet paper here – all de way from ould Doublin!’
‘All right, Tam?’
He ignored me. Someone had just picked up a sample. The transaction was completed, much to Tam’s delight.
‘What’s with the brogue?’ I said.
‘Ever seen green bog roll?’ he said. ‘Course ye have. This lot, however, haven’t. Call it a Celtic sales pitch.’
‘But they can’t speak English,’ I reminded him.
He jingled the coins in his hand. ‘Away wichi!’ he said. ‘Dey loove de ould blarney. Interested?’
We still had half a family pack at the flat. I was about to explain this when my attention was seized by the sight of two men in leather caps pushing a barrow, larger than Tam’s, into the square. They took a furtive look round, parked and carefully removed the tarpaulin that was covering their wares.
‘Now there’s something ye don’t see every day,’ said Tam, and scratched his head through tartan.
A periscope was lying inside an inflatable dinghy.
‘I hope their patter’s good,’ he said, and looked at his own merchandise. ‘My stuff’s more household oriented,’ he added.
I left him to argue the toss with the competition, who were nudging their barrow closer. Tara was sipping a gin tonic outside the Astoria. She wasn’t alone. I sat at the next table and ordered a coffee. Maybe I’d chance a beer later. I’d be staying off the retsina, though.
‘All right there, Tara?’ I said. No reaction. I reached over to the old man who was parked next to her. He was fiddling with the rims on his wheelchair. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ I said. He mumbled something into his toga and looked at Tara, who patted his hand.
‘There, there,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to know who it is.’
‘Hnn?’ he said. The old boy was addled beyond repair. It must have been frustrating for Tara, who, at fifty, had needs that couldn’t be fulfilled by her husband.  She had a fucking big house, though, so maybe it was worth being married to a cripple.
‘How are things, Tara?’ I said.
She was still stroking his hand. ‘Don’t try to ingratiate yourself with me, you cad,’ she said. ‘You can forget about the exams.’
I had to smile. Did she really think I was holding out for employment at her bribefest? And I’d never been called a cad before. It sounded totally ridiculous. ‘I was just being civil,’ I said. At this point, I lied. ‘I usually stay on speaking terms with women I’ve...’
‘Oh don’t say it!’
Her husband raised his hands quickly to his ears. ‘Hnnnnnnn?!’ he went.
‘Does he speak English?’ I said.
‘What’s it to you?’ she said.
‘Thought not,’ I said. ‘He doesn’t like the sound of raised voices, though, does he?’ He reminded me of Priam for some reason. Fair enough, here we were in the land of Homer, and there was, of course, the toga. I felt that he wasn’t as articulate as he could have been, however. We plumb the depths of human degradation...
‘Call yourself a man?’ Tara huffed. She was talking to me, not him.
‘You should be thanking me,’ I said. Priam leaned forwards until his face was hovering above a soup plate of brown liquid. He vacuumed froth through a straw.
‘You don’t know how to satisfy a woman,’ she said, and wiped his chin with a tissue. Again, I assumed the remark was directed at me. Oh, dear, I thought. It was turning into one of those conversations. The ones where no holds are barred.
‘I’ve never had any complaints,’ I said. ‘Lots of moans, though.’
‘I’ve never seen a smaller one in my life,’ she said.
Oh, please, I thought. ‘I almost saw your anus,’ I told her.
Priam, with the straw in his mouth, turned to me and Hnnnnned.
‘Yes,’ I said to him. ‘Her arse is so flabby I wasn’t sure if it was her bumhole or her belly button.’
‘Hah!’ he went; the straw flew out of his mouth and sailed over my shoulder.
This wasn’t me. It was as if someone was making me say these things. But she was asking for it.
‘You’ll never work in TEFL again,’ she said, and wiped her eyes with the tissue. ‘I’ll make sure of that.’
‘Oh, don’t threaten me,’ I said. ‘Who do you think you are?’
‘You’ll find out if you ever apply for a job with the Council,’ she said.
Tam threw his barrow into the bushes. He didn’t bother to chain it up. ‘That’s me fucked,’ he said, and crashed down into a chair. ‘Ever had a pistol pressed to yer ribs? Awright there, Stanley?’
‘Ooh, aow’s it goin’, Tam?’ It was the old man. The accent was more Stoke than Troy. I felt like a complete idiot. He poked me on the forearm. ‘Aow’s it goin’, shaggah?’ he smiled.
‘Get this,’ said Tam. ‘That’s the Commies moved in. Tell me this. How’s me selling toilet paper going to affect sales of Russian Navy knock-off? Eh? Tell me.’
‘Tara,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry if I upset you.’
‘I mean it,’ I said. ‘I didn’t come here to make enemies. I’ll be gone in a matter of days...’ She wailed into her gin tonic. Stanley gripped my forearm. His knuckles looked like polished marbles. ‘You want to stop ’ere, lad,’ he said. ‘She likes a know...’
Tam looked at me and closed an eye, like a camera shutter.
     ‘No, Stanley,’ I said. ‘But I think I know the man to help you out. You’ll be meeting him shortly.’

Monday, 23 February 2015

Costas Lapavitsas - his concerns about the Greek 'extension'.

Costas Lapavitsas, a professor of economics at SOAS, London, and a newly-elected SYRIZA MP, has written a blog post expressing his concerns about the Greek government's handling of negotiations with the Eurogroup. Towards the end of the post, he makes the following points:

'In light of the Eurogroup statement, I ask -

National Reconstruction Plan

How will the National Reconstruction plan be funded when the 3 billion euros from the Financial Stability Fund is now outwith Greek control? That these funds have now been removed puts all the more pressure on recovering large amounts from tax evasion and debt collection in a short period of time. How feasible is this?

Debt Write-off

How will a debt write-off be effected when Greece is committed to fulfill - fully and promptly - all its financial obligations to its partners?

End to Austerity

How will Austerity be ended when Greece is committed to achieve 'appropriate' primary surpluses in order to make the current massive debt 'sustainable'? The 'sustainability' of the debt  - as evaluated by the Troika - was what caused the mad chase after primary surpluses. As the debt will not be significantly reduced, how will we put an end to primary surpluses which are destructive for the Greek economy and which are the very substance of austerity?

Inspection and Fiscal Cost

How will there be any progressive change in the country when the 'Institutions' will implement strict inspections and prohibit unilateral actions [on the part of the Greek government]. Will the 'Institutions' allow the implementation of the 'Thessaloniki' pledges, given that they may have a direct or indirect fiscal cost?

Future Negotiations

What exactly will change in the next four months of the 'extension' that will improve our negotiating position with our partners? What will prevent a worsening of the political, economic and social conditions in the country?

These moments are crucial for society, the nation and, of course, for the Left. The democratic justification of the government is founded on the SYRIZA manifesto. The least that is required is an open discussion amongst party cadres and within the Parliamentary Group. We must give immediate answers to these questions if we are to maintain the huge support and dynamic given to us by the Greek people. The answers we give over the next few days will affect the future of the country and of society.'

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Scotch Family Grillparzer - An Introduction

...find themselves washed up on a desert island. They have no recollection how they got there. Sylvia, the ageing Matriarch, lies on the beach all day stroking a pair of worn tap dancing shoes. The abundance of sand makes tap dancing impossible, which is just as well considering she suffers from advanced osteoporosis in her left leg. Her eldest son, Sigmund, has strung a length of vine, like a washing line, between two trees and spends his time drying out sheets of tracing paper, which he packs neatly in a leather suitcase every evening. Every morning he wakes to find this suitcase bobbing in the surf. Sigmund has delusions of musicianship - his ambition is to play the comb professionally. Unfortunately, he spends so much time drying out tracing paper that he has yet to fashion a comb out of the driftwood which litters the beach. The middle son, Wilbur, wanders the island incessantly while clutching a tubular metal bed-head. More - much more - about him later. Grant, at twenty-five the baby of the family, is the only Grillparzer to realise that their situation is a mere figment of someone's imagination, even though he is aware that they as people are very real. He sits all day at the fire, which he managed to light by rubbing two sticks together, thinking of ways to come into contact with whoever put them in this position.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Knife by Andrew McCallum Crawford

The knife screamed when I pressed it into the grinder. I soon had it squealing. 2000rpm, that’s what it said on the plaque next to the On button. There was nothing I didn’t know about this sharpening business. I’d been doing it all week, since they took my driving licence off me. I told McCabe straight away. I think he appreciated it. Maybe he forgave me, although it struck me that he didn’t quote a line of scripture. He had a verse for every occasion. So did I. It was usually a total non sequitur, but it managed to shut him up. I knew he liked a drink. Perhaps there’s something in the Bible that says too much whisky is good.
Another perfect job. I pressed the Off button and laid the knife on the pile. Someone was standing in the doorway. I couldn’t make out who – sunlight was streaming over his shoulders. He just stood there, perfectly still, the silhouette of a statue. At first I thought it was McCabe, or that mate of his, Sergeant Bilko, who was always turning up unannounced.
‘Alright?’ I said.
The figure stepped inside. It wasn’t McCabe. It wasn’t Bilko, either. I didn’t know who it was. He looked like Jack Nicholson – no, younger. Oddbod, but taller. That was it, a tall, adolescent Oddbod. His eyes roamed the workshop and fell on the pile of knives. He licked his lips.
I was sweating.
‘Is Mr McCabe here?’ he said, slowly. He sounded like he had memorised the question.
‘He’s not in here, mate,’ I said. ‘Have you tried the house?’
He came closer and started prodding near the grinder.
‘You’d better not touch that,’ I said. ‘It’s a hair trigger.’
‘Is Mr McCabe here?’ he said.
I gathered up the knives and placed them behind an oil drum in the corner, taking care not to damage the blades. We’d had a few Youth Opportunities kids coming round. Time wasters. This boy was something else entirely. I’d noticed the lump in the top of his forehead.  It was like a baby’s fist with a ladder of stitches in it. Post-op. I wasn’t taking any chances.
‘Have you tried the house?’ I said. The door was on the other side of the workshop. Having put the knives out of reach, my aim was to get to it.
‘I’m here for a job,’ he said. ‘They told me about a job.’
What were those fuckers down the DHSS thinking about? Fair enough, everyone was supposed to take care of everyone else, but what were they doing sending the likes of this to a farm? Didn’t they realise it was a hazardous environment?
‘The laddies are up the field,’ I told him. ‘Maybe Mr McCabe’s waiting for you.’ I managed to get to the door, and air. ‘Come with me,’ I said.
McCabe was round the side of the big shed, fixing a window that had recently had a ball kicked through it.
‘Mr McCabe,’ I said. ‘Someone here to see you.’ I didn’t bother hanging around to explain anything. I knew nothing, and that’s the way I wanted it to stay. I went back to the workshop. A minute later, McCabe marched in and started poking about on the bench.
‘Dang things,’ he said. ‘Where are those blessed knives?’
‘Eh?’ I said. I’d just put them on top of the oil drum. McCabe spotted them. He picked one up and ran a thumb across the blade, like a true professional.
‘That’s a bit blooming sharp,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you before...’
Oddbod was in the doorway. McCabe handed him the knife.
‘You have got to be joking,’ I said.
‘Folk come here to work,’ said McCabe. ‘Not to footer about.’
Oddbod began slashing at shadows. I gave him plenty of room. ‘Mr McCabe,’ I said. ‘I really think you should reconsider.’
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘He’ll be careful. Look, he’s a fully grown man.’
I was left to get on with it. I leaned on the oil drum, thinking. I heard the Subaru getting fired up. A couple of seconds later it flashed past the window. I went outside. The yard was empty.
I’d been keeping myself to myself in the workshop. There was a lot of stuff that needed fixing, a lot more stuff than there had been the previous week. The summer was only three months long, and I knew it was in my interests to make myself invaluable. Unsackable. A lot of broken machinery was lying around. I’d broken most of it on the Monday when everyone was up at the field. McCabe just nodded when I told him about the dire state of affairs. ‘It’s a good job you lost your licence, then,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get Chas to do the driving.’  He had warned me about oversharpening the knives; they were for cutting cabbages, but the laddies knew the risks. Chas, the only one who had facial hair that didn’t look like a burst cushion, had shaved his chin with one of the thinner blades as the boys looked on jealously. They were more impressed with Chas’s stubble than with my skills at the grinder, but that’s teenagers for you. Working on the farm was something to keep them busy. More than that, it gave them thirty two quid to blow in the Auld Toll on Friday nights.
I was bored. I looked at the machinery. There was a lawnmower that I’d told McCabe was well and truly knackered. All that was wrong with it was the spark plugs – I’d unscrewed them. And there was a disc harrows that needed greasing. As far as McCabe knew, the discs needed replacing. I’d told him I would save him a packet by sharpening them. His face had lit up. I still hadn’t worked out how to remove them from the frame.
I was turning into a compulsive liar.
So what? It was only for the summer. Next year I would be in full time employment in a bank somewhere, wearing a suit and making a fortune. But there was something going on in the back of my mind, something to do with conscience. I didn’t like lying. It had nothing to do with damnation and Hell, which were McCabe’s points of reference, but I knew it wasn’t right. Maybe I had spent too much time studying Philosophy; Philosophy loves hypocrisy, and McCabe was full of it. You could find him and his crowd down the precinct every Saturday morning outside Boots, giving it maximum New Testament Repent to the shoppers. It was difficult to tell who was the leader, McCabe or Sergeant Bilko. You wouldn’t have wanted to sign up, it all looked very curious indeed. That was the point, though. It was a strange kind of proselytising. They were spreading the word, they were telling everyone about the Way, the Truth and the Life, but they didn’t want you in their gang. The Bowhouse Brotherhood, that’s what they were called. I don’t know if that was their real name, but everyone in town called them that. They were famous. Notorious. Of course they were – the precinct was stowed at weekends. They used to bring their kids to work beside us. I’d been coming here since my first year at Uni, and there were always new faces. Young faces. They brought them here to instil the work ethic, while in the evenings Sergeant Bilko introduced them to the adolescent delights of Famous Grouse at McCabe’s house, a grand old pile round the back of the workshop. An infidel breaking bread in front of them was not to be countenanced. They ate on their own at dinnertime. McCabe once went into a spasm when I opened a crisp poke next to him.
The Subaru was back in the yard. McCabe came into the workshop. I was blowing on a spark plug I’d just had time to pick up.
‘How’s it going with the repairs?’ he said.
I tutted. ‘Bit difficult, chief,’ I said. ‘But I’m getting there.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Eh, can you come with me a minute?’ He took me to the far end of the yard. ‘There’s something wrong with this,’ he said. It was the John Deere. Nothing to do with me, nothing malicious, at least. It needed diesel. It had been needing diesel since Friday, when I parked it. I climbed inside and turned the key in the ignition. The fuel gauge said ‘E’.
‘Just leave it to me,’ I said. ‘I’ll fix it.’

The laddies were playing football next to the shed. It looked strenuous. The grass was up to their knees. I noticed that iron bars had been fitted over the window. Chas was sitting on the roof of the diesel tank, smoking.
‘You want to watch that,’ I said.
‘What?’ he said. ‘Diesel isnae flammable.’
‘Not that,’ I said. ‘You’re supposed to be driving.’
Chas laughed. He put the spliff to his lips and toked hard. He held it. He looked at the sky. It was getting cloudy. ‘I think I’ll take the afternoon off,’ he said.
‘Where’s the new guy?’ I said.
‘What new guy?’
‘The boy that came round this morning. I thought McCabe took him up the field.’
‘He must have taken him up the Overflow,’ said Chas. ‘He didn’t bring him anywhere near us.’
He had been left up there all by himself. He was probably one of those slow lunatics who did whatever you told them until you told them to stop. Or broke them. Like a machine. Whatever. It wasn’t my problem. I went back to the workshop. I was flicking through an old copy of the Sun when Chas staggered in, giggling. He sat on the floor in front of the oil drum and got his tobacco pouch out of his trousers.
‘Two spliffs at dinner time?’ I said. ‘Are you going for the record?’
‘Me?’ he said. ‘No, I’m a Scotsman reader, me.’ He burst out laughing then got back to building his joint.
Footsteps in the yard. I looked out the window. ‘Hey up,’ I said. Chas ran into the toilet and stuck his head under the tap. McCabe was examining the Subaru. He gave each tyre a perfunctory kick, then looked over at the workshop. At me. I turned to see Chas lying on his back in front of the oil drum, his arms and legs splayed out. He was making stuttering noises in the back of his throat.
McCabe walked in. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said.
‘I had a dodgy Pot Noodle,’ said Chas.
McCabe looked at me. ‘A what?’ he said. At first I thought he was joining in the banter, but banter wasn’t his style, not with the likes of us. Maybe he was, actually, unaware of the existence of Pot Noodles. I knew televisions were anathema to him, he’d probably never seen a commercial in his life. Well maybe accidentally, down the precinct; Radio Rentals was round the corner from Boots. But didn’t his lot go shopping? Right enough, shopping was women’s work. They seemed to have that kind of thing worked out.
‘It’s dehydrated food particles,’ I said. Chas made a small yelping noise. He tried to turn it into a groan. I managed to keep a straight face. ‘Loads of salt,’ I said, ‘something which, as you know, is really unhealthy.’
‘It jolly well looks like it,’ said McCabe. ‘He’d better take the afternoon off. Clear a space for him up the back there.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I haven’t had my dang lunch yet,’ he said. He looked at Chas. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’ll drive the laddies back to the field.’
Chas coughed at the ceiling. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.
I ducked into the toilet and turned on the tap. Hopefully, it covered the sound of my laughter.

I didn’t clear a space for him. I watched him skin up. We spent the afternoon shooting the shit, until we heard footsteps in the yard. We knew it wasn’t McCabe. He didn’t drag his feet. It was Oddbod. He stood in the doorway. He was grinning. He had the knife in his hand, buffing it up on the leg of his jeans. ‘I cut myself,’ he said. He showed me. The back of his left hand, all the way across to the base of his thumb, was hanging open like a tin of salmon. A ripe bead of blood plopped onto the workshop floor. The dust hissed.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Chas.
‘You shouldn’t say that,’ said Oddbod. Metal scraped denim. ‘You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.’ McCabe had wasted no time with the brainwashing, it seemed. Whatever, I wasn’t going to argue with him.
‘Have you looked at your hand?’ said Chas. ‘The Lord would be taking his own name in vain if he saw that.’
‘I cut myself,’ he said. He sounded proud, like he’d just passed an induction test instead of proving what a useless bastard he was.
‘You’ll be needing a jag,’ said Chas. I was impressed. Despite the two joints, he was still capable of connected thought. Oddbod raised his hand to his nose and sniffed the wound. Then he licked himself. ‘I’ve seen dogs do that,’ said Chas.
‘If you want to lay the knife on the bench,’ I said. Oddbod did as he was told. Of course he did. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘We’ll see if McCabe’s in. He’ll take you up the hospital.’
‘Aye, get it seen to,’ said Chas. ‘Before Lobotomy sets in.’
‘Eh?’ said Oddbod.
‘Come on,’ I said. Oddbod was smiling a lot, but I didn’t want to find out how far his sense of humour went.
We walked round to the house. I’d seen lots of cuts on the farm. I’d suffered a few myself. I knew the score. The dull thud, the shock, then, after a few seconds, the blood. It was when the bleeding stopped that the pain started. His hand must have been gowping.
A car passed us in the driveway. It glided to a halt in the parking space. Sergeant Bilko got out. He clocked the boy, then the hand. ‘What the blazes happened to you?’ he said.
‘We’ve had a bit of an accident,’ I said, and was ignored. Oddbod’s shoulder was gripped and he was pushed up to the door. Bilko rattled the knocker.
After a moment, McCabe’s head appeared, immersed in a halo of soup fumes. ‘Alec!’ he said. ‘Blessings to ye.’
‘And to you, Graham,’ said Bilko. ‘Sorry to get you up from your lunch. Scotch broth?’
‘Aye,’ said McCabe. ‘The woman makes a rare pot.’
‘Though not Pot Noodle,’ I said, and was ignored.
‘Anyway,’ said Alec. Sergeant Bilko. He jerked a thumb at Oddbod. ‘Have you seen the state of this?’
McCabe stepped outside. ‘Aye,’ he said. ‘It’s another of these DHSS referrals.’ He shook his head. ‘One tries to do the decent thing.’
‘It’s Brother Daniel’s laddie,’ said Bilko. ‘Didn’t he phone you?’
It took me a second to get it. McCabe seemed to be struggling. He scratched his head then patted the linen napkin that was hanging from the throat of his shirt. There was still no mention of a first aid box. Protection from soup stains and positive employee identification seemed to be more important than industrial injury of a criminally negligent bent. ‘Well, I’ll be...’ he smiled. ‘The last time I saw this yin he was sitting on a po!’
Oddbod raised his hand to his mouth and licked the flap of meat.
‘Holy God in heaven!’ said McCabe, and reeled back against the door jamb. It was at this point that my presence in the company was acknowledged; my employer’s eyes.
‘Now, now,’ I said. ‘No need to take the Lord’s name in vain.’ Oddbod nodded, which I found encouraging. I was in need of allies. I could see where this was going.
‘You cheeky..!’ said McCabe. ‘I...I told you about those knives. I’ve been telling you for weeks!’
‘Oh, come, now, Mr McCabe,’ I said. ‘I’ve only been on the grinder since Monday.’
‘You know what I mean!’ he said.
‘I take it you’re the student,’ said Bilko. ‘You mouthy young so and so. I’ve heard about you.’
‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘And we’ve all heard about you.’ I swear his glasses steamed up when I said that. Maybe it was the soup fumes.
McCabe made to put his hand on Oddbod’s shoulder, but stopped short before contact was effected. His front teeth were nibbling furiously on a stubborn grain of barley. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’ he said. ‘Mark 10:14,’ he added, his voice trembling.
Sergeant Bilko Hmmm-Hmmm, Hmmm-Hmmmed his endorsement.
‘Aye,’ I said, ‘And too many cooks spoil the soup.’ It wasn’t quite the non-sequitur I was going for, but it did the trick. The conversation was over. McCabe, his napkin flapping, ushered Oddbod into the sanctuary of the house, and Savlon. Bilko followed. The door slammed shut in my face.

McCabe knew I was lippy. That’s why he employed me. I was a foil for his biblically barbed comments, he regarded me as a challenge. But was being cheeky a sacking offence? It all came down to who exactly Brother Daniel was, and McCabe’s relationship with him. Could he risk sacking me? Any idiot could learn how to sharpen a knife, maybe even Oddbod, but I was the only one on the farm who knew how to fix the broken machinery. By the end of the afternoon, there was a lot more of it. Most of it was lying in bits, strewn over the area in front of the oil drum; Chas had, in the end, decided to go home. The damage was rather more substantial than loose spark plugs.
Who was I kidding? The problem – the real problem – was that I was beginning to believe my own lies.
     Oddbod’s knife was on the bench. I gave it a good wash under the tap. I pressed On and pushed the blade into the wheel. It didn’t scream; it didn’t even squeal. It whined. It was still sharp. Sharp as a razor. Too sharp by half.

*     *     *

This story first appeared in Gutter