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Wednesday, 16 May 2012


LUXEMBOURG In my fictional novel ‘Luxembourg’, two decades are visited – 1986 and 2006. The story switches between both periods weaving a story that begins with youth – with all its follies of love, drunkenness and tragedy and cuts its way towards the 21st century where lies knowledge, understanding and eventually acts of madness. I lived in Luxembourg in the late 80’s. How I arrived there was pure chance. A CV, sent to a job agency, a phone call, an interview and then Pow! I uprooted myself away from everything that my 21 year old body knew. Friends were waved goodbye down the local pub, my mum was left with instructions to sell my Ford Cortina (with trim dashboard) and on a cool February morning I found myself in the Hotel Schincton in the centre of Luxembourg city. The hotel room was so small that going out and socialising was the only option, so along with Nish, who was in the room next-door, the other successful applicant for a similar role to mine, we explored a city that etched itself into my mind as strongly as any religion. The year is now 2012 and we have both returned to Luxembourg to re-trace old steps and for myself to reiterate certain elements of the book I am writing. It is frightening how little Luxembourg city has changed. We started at the train station – where I had rented a flat in 1987 – and standing there now, where buses and taxis line up in slots, offering their wares – I was immediately thrown back to that 21 year old self. The self that was trying to work out how all this was going to work. How I was going to live, eat, commute to work, find friends, find girls.... Yet at that time, 1987, several key things fell into place. There were other English people sharing my predicament. Nish and Mark, who had arrived a few weeks earlier, were both looking for somewhere to rent. Newspapers were planted in my lap (by Mark) – already open at possible living quarters. Advice was offered. A social life was offered. And within a week I had my own flat in Bonnevoie. An area just behind the train station, that fed the adventurous part of my mind with brothels on the doorstep, supermarkets serving strange food and bars that stayed open until daylight beckoned. That was how my 21 year-old self survived. By embracing all that was around me. By – eventually – cutting loose from that old life in England. The one of pints of Stella, constant hints of violence and where being a young man contained scents of both of these. Sure, there were initial phone calls home – to mates, where I explained my new life like an 18-30’s holiday camp. There were visits home, to see parents and siblings and to see friends – again, down the pub. But the pull was lessening. Luxembourg was starting to offer things. New friends (where I was able to re-invent myself, not have to explain weaknesses..) who were seeing me afresh, without judgements of previous actions. I had met my future wife (of 26 years and counting) and all of a sudden there was this new thing – Europe – where I could see opportunity – an otherly quality to life. England had just been a starting point. The Bella Napoli pizzeria offered Nish and myself pasta and wine and the initial flashbacks from the present back to the 80’s. That was where we used to sit. Do you remember Paul/Mark/Claire..? We both filled in histories for the other. Ghosts became real people (“Christ, I’d forgotten about him/her..”) and actions, however pathetic were always recounted as hilarious and necessary and of course would have been repeated given the chance. Luxembourg became the first place where we just thought of something and just did it. Let’s go to the lakes (sunshine, warm beers and hope - all packed into second-hand cars and off we went) – let’s learn French (four of us attended language classes with differing attendance and results) – let’s drink every evening for a week (and it wasn’t just drunkenness, the evenings – never planned – always seemed to have a ‘point’). Let’s jump on a plane to Norway and pay a surprise visit to an au pair I sort of knew (well, I did and the visit wasn’t all that successful). I was learning that restrictions – when you are young – were obstacles that others put in your way and how you dealt with those restrictions depended a lot on who you surrounded yourself with. After the Bella it was a swift walk through the rain to the Pub in the Grund. This pub sits within one of the ‘scooped’ out valleys of Luxembourg city. It opened quite soon after I arrived in 1987 and provided a life support for my initial early social outings. During those first weeks I used to walk everywhere – for miles – the sun shone a lot and to me it seemed a natural way of getting around the city. I fell upon the pub in the Grund one Saturday afternoon and to be honest I have never really left. In 1987 there was just a single level (now there are three) and it had the feel of a real pub. Local beer, sandwiches on the bar and an Irish staff that were more than friendly. I quickly fell within their community, drinking, partying – liking what it offered – an alternate home. In later years when I moved to Holland and my girlfriend still lived and worked in Luxembourg, I used to drive from Holland and the pub in the Grund was always my first stop. Where I would use their upstairs partially finished rooms to change and freshen up. Even having moved away from Luxembourg the country, the warmth was always there for me. As my weekend of revisiting old haunts progressed the feeling that not a lot had changed began to grate slightly. The way that certain elements had ignored modernity, such as smoking still being allowed in all bars and pubs. As an ex-smoker I love the fact that this is allowed but after two evenings of breathing in the stale smug of tobacco my throat felt like it had been finely sandpapered. We revisited an English pub that we used to frequent to find that the same landlord was still running the bar. Instead of a warm greeting however we were met with bitter lemon tales of how much he hated his wife and how awful his life was. This was someone who had three houses, five healthy children and several cars i.e. he wasn’t unwealthy. When I suggested if his life was that unhappy that perhaps he should change it – this produced a set of hurdles as reasoning to why it could never happen – the best one being “she is so bad as a mother, I had better stay and bring up the children” and with that comment he retired to the corner of a bar to draw wistfully on a receding cigarette and stare out towards the scruffy overgrown garden area. This was someone still stuck in the 80’s and determined to stay there as his pub decor demonstrated. I was trying to regain the glorious feelings from all those years ago yet when confronted with an example of ‘how it was’ -it was depressing. Maybe if he had given the pub a lick of paint. And opened up a window. There was another bar that we used to frequent called The Cockpit. It sat at the bottom of a hill, clearly defined by the fact it had the rear end of an aircraft protruding from the front of the building. On entering the bar was scattered with old, original memorabilia from Icelandic planes from the 1950’s. The bar staff all wore airline uniforms and again, were friendly. Nish recalled a summer evening after work where we had ordered so many beers during happy hour (it was four for the price of one or something..) that we were dousing each other with beer to cool down. Now – in 2012, The Cockpit has become an apartment office block of smartly decorated frontage with gold nameplates, of doctors and lawyers. Around the back where we doused each other on the raised decking area, now sat a car park. Yet in a way I preferred this transformation. I preferred that it was gone – The Cockpit – yet it was still there (it was called The Cockpit Apartments) – in a modern format – and it was useful. Not still being run by married owners moaning about their life-style choices. I think in a way I wanted Luxembourg city to still be the same but also to have moved on – perhaps a reflection of how I wanted myself to be as a person. I think what I learnt was – that memories are fine things and that they belong in particular time eras and that dragging them back into the present causes confusion, regret sometimes and a yearning for a past that can never be the present. Ian May 2012

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Kubik's boxes

Chapter 4 of 12 is where I am at. One third (almost) of a completed novel. Yet the first three chapters have taken me around a year to complete. Can I take another 4 years to complete this? And what if it doesn't get published? The terror of every writer. We hate publishers yet recognise them as our ultimate goal. This week I watched a Jon Ronson documentary called 'Stanley Kubrik's boxes' - it concerned the thousands of boxes of research information that Kubrik had gathered over the years for his (not so many) films that he made. I think he made nine in total. Yet the point of the documentary was the amount of detail that he considered within each film that he made (and not always made available to the public). For 'Eyes Wide Shut' Kubrik hired a consultant to photograph possible locations for potential scenes. Ronson was bemused to discover that his own neighbourhood in Islington had been considered for the scene labelled as the 'door of a prostitute'. The scene was eventually shot within a studio. Yet this consultant had taken a year out of his life to take photographs of possible locations for this one film. Another Kubrik project involved a further two years of preparation - photographs, locations etc - it was to be a film covering Poland and the Holocaust - yet in the time that it took Kubrik to research (and consider if the film was worth making) - Spielberg had made 'Schindler's List' - so Kubrik abandoned the idea. And placed all evidence within a box (or two), It made me think about art and detail and how most brilliant art involves a massive consideration of detail. It is not obvious - it never is - yet the best films, the best music, the best writing - it all has elements of genius applied to the details. So, I'm going to breathe. take my time. Treat my writing like whittling a piece of wood. There will be plenty of Spielberg's who will overtake me, publish, re-publish. I'm going to keep on reading the best - the Paul Auster's and the Graham Greene's - hope that some of it stays in my head. Hope that Chapter 4 gets written.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Music, words and writing.

Once a month I select six songs to play in front of a crowd of mainly english in a French bar. I not only play, but I attempt to sing. The results are varying. The first time I played at the bar I had to down a bottle of wine in order to gain the nerve to get up and play and I think, if I was honest, the applause I received after each song was a little sympathetic. The last time I played though it was sober and the effect was that where alcohol was absent, nerves like a good old missed friend kicked in. So, as I struck up the chords to English Rose by The Jam, my fingers appeared to have a mild stroke. I did manage to 'recover' half way through the song but the memory has stuck with me, ready to remind me next time I play. Memory muscle I think they call it. Selecting a song is difficult, mainly because I 'think' I can play any song. In fact playing a song on the ipod cements this false belief in my mind as I become enamoured with the song so much I believe that 'love' of the tune will alone carry me through. It happened as I attempted to play "Wild Wood' - a reasonably simple song to play on guitar yet deceivingly hard to sing along to. I could hear the song in my head as I played in front of the local village crowd - but what came out of my mouth did not match what I imagined. So it will join another song that I will 'park' due to my musical ineptitude. There are songs I can sing OK - 'Lisa Radley' comes over in an alright sort of way - 'Nothing Ever Happens' by Justin Corrie kind of works, and 'The Table' a 'Beautiful South' song seemed to attract a few comments like 'lovely words' (I just wish I had written them). I choose songs that 'have something to say' yet in an unusual way. I am attracted to words. Paul Heaton's 'The Table' is about an inanimate object yet builds a picture of a history of who has sat at the table and why '"I've been sat upon, I've been spat upon" and "I've been taken for a desk when they should have been at school". I also chose to play 'Patience of Angels' by Boo Hewerdine. It concerns the story of a life 'unlived' - someone spotting someone else 'from the top of a bus' and wondering what life would be like if they began a relationship with them. It is the story of an ephemeral life - a 'what if' song. And all of these things I do, like learning new songs and trying to emulate that excellence is related to what I write and how I write. I am reminded constantly that 'honest' writing is always better. That you don't have to look far to write well. That good songwriting is the ultimate summarisation - it is not possible to lessen further what is being said. You are listening to the core of greatness. These are great poems set to great music.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Bakelite and the French Foreign Legion

The fourth chapter of 'Luxembourg' begins with a phone ringing in a pub. A bakelite phone. From 1986. And two things sidetracked my writing. Firstly, had I spelt 'bakelite' correctly and how do I describe the ringing of a phone in the hallway of a pub. Checking the spelling of bakelite led me to learn that the technical name for this plastic is 'polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride'. I absorbed, dismissed and moved on. That was the first sidetrack dealt with. Then - there was the description issue. I know what a bakelite phone sounds like - the ringing noise is in my head. I considered watching some old re-runs of The Sweeney as a bakelite phone is always ringing by John Thaw's bed - maybe that would remind me. And ITV4 rerun this show most mornings these days. But in the end I will probably settle for an 'empty drilling noise, interspersed by echoed pauses'. The character on the calling end of the phone is based in Corsica. The friend in the English pub he is trying to contact is someone he hasn't spoken to for almost a year. Pete, who has just signed away 5 years of his life to train and eventually become a French Foreign Legionnaire is a complicated character - in fact when he joins the Legion he is placed within a unit called the 'Deuxiemme Rep' - a unit renowned for parachuting from extremely low heights. It is where the Legion puts men who they consider to be slightly unhinged. Pete needs to contact Tom to connect to a sane part of his life. Pete needs to speak with a normal person. Someone that knows how he used to be. Away from this madness. In future chapters Pete will visit Tom during his periods of 'leave'. Tom later describes being with Pete as 'like walking around with a loaded gun'. In real life 'Pete' was someone I knew very well and 'Tom' - that was me. And the 'adventures' when 'Pete' visited 'Tom' during his leave will be accurate and true. Personally, I am looking forward to detailing events in my past as they were exciting and entertaining. Inserting 'truth' into fiction is a good way of making a story readable.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Chapter 4 - The French Foreign Legion

The snow has melted and suddenly the worship has moved away from the woodburner to the sun that shines outside. The birds that we have been 'feeding' via strange elastic-type food-balls are now ignoring us like a well-worn fast food restaraunt and flitting around the garden, taunting the cat. So - withdrawing the bird food I contemplate starting chapter 4 of 'Luxembourg'. I have drawn out a plan on a home-made whiteboard and this seems to have fed my mind with plenty of writing fuel. I have linked characters via marriage, split others through death and one character is destined to join the French Foreign Legion - the gem in my story - the subject that I have inside information on. And yes I knew someone who was in the Legion for five years and I know the reason they joined. It will supply me with plenty of ammunition. When this character left the Legion I met up with them in a small village in England and it was one of the more memorable evenings I have spent with someone. It led to many consumed beers, two crying French girls - one of whom wanted to sleep with me (instead of the ex-Legionnaire) - note: if possible do not piss off an ex-Legionnaire. This in turn led to a crossbow appearing from somewhere and being fired into an empty suitcase (we had moved back to the Legionnaire's flat by this point). And for the record - when fired into the case it sounded like a 'plop'. Still, as I was thinking at the time, better to be plopping into the suitcase than my head. Chapter 4 will be full of action.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

3 Chapters finished...

I have reached that 'benchmark' of completing the first 3 chapters of 'Luxembourg'. It's unnerving as I have spent so many months on this piece of work that I am still not sure it hangs together yet. I cannot see an ending for the story yet and I have calculated that I need at least 12 chapters in order to make this a 'real' book. So, 3 chapters written and no real plan of how the book is going to go from now. I have decided therefore to formulate a plan. To take each chapter in turn and describe what is happening in the hope that a string will magically appear that will hold each chapter onto the next. And that this string will lead the way onto Chapter number 4 and 5 and so on. Summarising the contents of each chapter has helped me to focus a little on where the story is going - other ideas have started to formulate - ideas that will take up whole chapters and that will add quality and content to the story. I am leaning heavily on personal experience and I am still reading only books written by Graham Greene, in the hope that his brilliance will somehow leak into my writing. Greene was known to only write 500 words each day (when he was writing). To the point that he would finish mid-sentence in order to adhere to this habit. I don't do this. In fact I don't stick to any of the advice given by other writers. Advice such as always write at the same time every day. Or find a good place each day to write. Me, I just write when the feeling is good. And if it's not, I don't. I don't tie myself to any schedule. If the book takes two years to complete at least I know it will have been the best that I could have produced. Or - maybe I'm just putting off finishing the book and - to paraphrase Martin Amis - pushing it out to sea to see if it floats.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


I am writing/editing most days. Some days I ignore the book and play guitar. Other times I am drawn to adding details. I have a 15,000 word goal in my mind - the three chapter completion bit. That is when I may send what I have written to the odd publisher - test the water of rejection. I am finding it difficult delving into my past. One pretty unsavoury episode I am currently dredging back up involves a violent incident in a pub in Luxembourg. Well, it remains violent in my mind because it came out of nowhere and involved a nice Irish chap pinning my throat against the wall with a silver candlestick. It was over in a few minutes and acted as a warning to me to avoid this particular character but I have managed to weave the experience into my writing. It has also helped me to analyse why someone would act in such a way. The characters I am introducing - are overlapping with each other - and now seem very real - I can picture them being part of my past - or many pasts if you like. And that was what living abroad enabled so many ex-pats to do - re-invent themselves, leave behind a shabby past and re-glaze it. Polish it with lies. If I carried anything away from the many years I lived abroad it was that most people were running from something - consciously or not. Luxembourg to me was a magical place and that is why I chose it as a location for my writing - it stirred my imagination at a very young age and lots of changing incidents occurred during those strange years. I think I am going to unearth many emotions as I venture to complete this book and the skill will be channelling them into attractive ideas. Here's hoping it is not an utter waste of time.