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I went to Gdansk and all I got was this lousy short story

Actually, the story isn’t all I got – I also got a ton of good memories.

I’ve just come back from Gdansk, in Poland, where I was doing Once Upon A Deadline – a writing event run by Hungry Arts as part of the Polish Arts Festival. It was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had, and I’m extremely grateful to Alex Gilly (@getalex) for mentioning my name to Robert Mac, the creator of the event – and also to Robert for including me and to Ros Green for making me welcome.

On the Saturday, each of the five writers involved was taken separately by a Polish guide to five different places: the Library of Gdansk, the shipyard where Solidarity began, a children’s playground, the Academy of Music, and St John’s Church. We spent about 90 minutes in each place, looking around and writing. The event began at about 9am, and by 8.30pm we had to have written a story of 2,000 words or less. The next day the stories were translated into Polish and read by their translators (mine was the excellent Polish prince, Piotr Ivansky) to an audience at the Gunter Grass Gallery.

My story was 2,250 words, cut down from the 3,500-word story below. The full set of stories will be published by Off_Press, and videos, photos and sound recordings from the day will be edited together in various forms, including an iPad app. A group of Polish writers will be doing the same thing in reverse in Southend this Sunday (2 September).

I’ll be writing a proper account of my weekend, so that I don’t forget it. In the meantime, here’s my story. It’s a bit odd, but here we go…

Free City

Have you ever walked into a room and realised that you have no idea why you are there? You stop, scratch your head, and then wander about, making vaguely purposeful gestures with your hands, hoping to remember what brought you there. It’s disconcerting.

Imagine then how much more disconcerting it is to stride out into a city, as George September did, and realise with a jolt that not only have you no idea why you are there, but also that you have no idea which city you are in. Or, indeed, who you are. Continue reading

Four ages of the beard

My beard began about two and a half years ago, and has passed through four ages, as I believe all beards must.

1. Neglect

Most beards aren’t planned. The man just stops shaving, usually as a result of some crisis. My dad’s beard began when he had chicken pox and couldn’t shave. Mine began in a very cold winter in a very cold flat, when I was writing Perpetual Astonishment and had lost interest in everything else. It was so cold that just getting out of the shower was an ordeal, as the water would instantly turn into a thin coating of ice that I would have to chip off my body. I couldn’t face applying a cold blade to my face, so I didn’t. After a few days of this neglect, people started to say that it suited me.

2. Mime

After perhaps three weeks, when I met people who hadn’t seen me for a while, they would invariably say, “Oh, this is new” and then they would wiggle their fingers in front of their chin. At this stage, people couldn’t bring themselves to call it a beard; they could only refer to it by miming the strands of hair on my chin.

3. Undeniability

After a while, people begin to call the hairs on your face a beard. At this stage, you can’t just say that you haven’t shaved for a while. You have to admit – if only to yourself – that you have deliberately grown a beard because you think it looks better than your face. People will then tell you what you look like. In my case it was Tsar Nicholas II (shy, ineffectual autocrat, murdered) and “someone who’s just got out of the Gulag”. This may not sound great, but it was infinitely better than the people I’d looked like before – Peter Baynham, Ronnie Corbett and Paul Whitehouse.

4. Maturity

I realised that my beard had attained full maturity a couple of weeks ago, when a friend I hadn’t seen for a while said, “Oh, hello Tolstoy”. I very much enjoy the Russian aspect of my beard, and there are a great many other advantages. For one thing, a beard functions as a facial expression in itself, so you don’t have to move your face muscles about so much. For another, you don’t have to deal with it much. If you stop shaving for a week, everyone notices and you can’t go to business meetings. If you stop looking after your beard for a week, it looks pretty much exactly as it did before.

There is a slight prejudice against beards, but I think this is misplaced. The main objection is that men with beards are hiding something. We are: our faces. However, we are completely up-front about this concealment, unlike those devious clean-shaven men, who hide what they are hiding.

Labour schmaving

It occurred to me while using the automated self-checkout machine in Tesco today that I patiently accept a degree of shit from labour-saving devices that I would on no account put up with from people. Why should this be? The following is exactly what would have happened if a person had treated me like the machine in Tesco did.

Scene: A Tesco checkout, early afternoon, silken sunlight pours through veiled windows, etc. Continue reading

London Coffee Places and the Death of the English Language

Have you ever seen that episode of the Twilight Zone where a man finds that words are gradually being replaced? One day his wife asks him what he wants for dinosaur. He says ‘Dinosaur? Why don’t we call it lunch anymore?’ She says ‘because lunch is a sort of light red colour.’ He says ‘No, pink is a light red colour’ and she replies ‘Pink is a kind of long pole used by anglers to catch fish’. Continue reading

On being chased out of a Helsinki graveyard by a squirrel

Have I ever told you about the time that I was chased out of a Helsinki graveyard by a squirrel? If so, stop reading now, because the rest of this describes the time I was chased out of a Helsinki graveyard by a squirrel. I think you will find it a tale that is at once strange, unnerving and – perhaps most of all – deeply boring. It is also, in every detail, perfectly true.

Continue reading