Tuesday, 26 November 2013


I dropped into Carluccios Italian restaurant in Manchester’s glassy, modern Spinningfields shopping area on Monday. I went with my parents after Strada mysteriously moved to Wilmslow on the outskirts of the city and we couldn’t use the vouchers we’d got for said restaurant. When I walked in through Carluccios’ large glass doors the carpet jammed the door open and the staff made no attempt to shut the door after me, meaning the restaurant was freezing most of the time I was there.

Eventually my mum got up and shut the door herself, only for someone else to come in and jam it open again. We ordered food. The service was quick but the food wasn’t fantastic. The soup was cold, the hot chocolate wasn’t more than lukewarm (a trait many establishments are guilty of, but that isn’t an excuse), but the eggs benedict I ordered was great. No complaints there.

On the whole, though, the restaurant has some work to do.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Meeting Chuck Palahniuk

Telling a story is like being a stripper,” says Chuck Palahniuk. “Don't take it all off and show your pussy. Take off one thing at a time; take steps towards what's going to happen.”

The first thing I hear when I arrive at The International Anthony BurgessFoundation is that there will be no meet-and-greet, no photos and no dedications involving the Oregon novelist. The IABF representative says Mr. Palahniuk has another event in another town to attend after this one.

To a seasoned celebrity stalk- I mean, erm, enthusiast, this is obviously a gutting setback. We'll see, I think. I've been to a lot of book signings out of curiosity and a general passion for stories, but Chuck Palahniuk has been a favourite for over a decade.

My old pal Fat Roland is on the door, and he tells me Mr. Palahniuk is in the back room, signing books. I wonder- can I get a photo-bomb? When the staff let us, I follow the crowd into the main room, nipping past the tall guy in Santa pyjamas to get to the front row.

The IABF representative takes to the mic to introduce the man, whose first novel Fight Club went on to define a generation and inspire countless other movies, and copycat clubs. Mr. Palahniuk takes the mic.

Tonight,” he says, “there will not be any bullshit beautiful stories.” But he reads a story that, well, you could call it beautiful in its own way. Beautifully graphic and shocking, but a delicately sentimental tale: a geek, his hot but totally mental girlfriend and a bus journey that takes what you could describe as a very wrong turn.

It isn't any of his numerous shorts that he's here to discuss, though. Doomed is the new novel he's promoting tonight: his first sequel. The book, following on from Damned, is the second in a trilogy, a collection that he's writing for catharsis, he says, to give him time to overcome the death of his mother and father.

In writing,” he says, “there's no reward. So always write what's personal to you so you get the therapeutic benefit, even if no-one buys it.”

And this is the first of a number of wise sound bytes from the author, during probing questions from the rep, describing his writing techniques and processes. (“Make the reader feel smarter than the character. We'll want to care for her. We don't care for people that are better than us. Make it so we wanna fix that.”)

The correct crafting of the answer is important to Mr. Palahniuk, and we can tell this by the consideration that goes into his responses, the anticipatory silent pauses as he finds the starting point for his explanatory anecdotes.

The rep throws out the questions to the audience. A 19-year-old budding writer asks Mr. Palahniuk about his story-writing processes.

Y'know, at thirty,” Palahniuk says, “you see the breakdown.” He doesn't explicitly mention it, but he's clearly talking about life. “In Fight Club, the narrator gets nurturing. In the second act, that nurturing falls apart. At thirty, you can't use your plan any more. You have to wing it. But that third act... that's when it all comes together.”

Next, a girl in her early twenties speaks up. “First, thanks for making me too scared to eat out anywhere,” she says. (She's referring to Fight Club's Tyler Durden, a part-time waiter who would lace his bodily fluids into the high-priced meals he served.) “It's made me a really good cook. I was wondering, do you find it hard to eat out?”

Palahniuk sighs. “The world is full of such atrocities. One time I was at a charity dinner with an oncologist. I had my wine glass; a woman next to me, a chatty woman in her forties, she didn't. But she was obsessed with wine. She was saying, 'I love wine, but every time I drink it, I get a burning feeling in my throat afterwards. I decided eventually that God didn't want me to drink wine any more, so I gave it up. But, boy, do I miss wine.'

This oncologist, he interrupts, and says, 'Miss, I'm a cancer specialist. That is not God talking to you. You probably have stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma.'”

Nervous laughter bounces off the Foundation's bare brick walls.

'Here's my card. You're gonna need 6 months treatment. It's not too late.'

She's not so chatty any more.

The oncologist, he says, 'after treatment, that first drink will be the worst drink you ever taste. But if it doesn't hurt, the second drink... that will be the best tasting drink. Sorry about that!'

I found out months later after the woman's GP phoned me: the oncologist was right.”

The IABF rep says there's time for one more question. My hand shoots up and he picks me.

I believe you were a journalist before you got into fiction. Given that blogging and citizen journalism is now becoming so popular, how important do you think qualifications in journalism are, and how do you see the future of journalism?”

A lot of us entered journalism because of the Watergate scandal. We all wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Then when we graduated, there were no jobs. I went and worked on a freight-liner. But I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to write fiction! So, if you want to write a lifetime of books, a background in journalism will help.

I remember on my first day on this freight-liner, the manager sent me to the foreman to get a squeegee sharpener. The foreman didn't have one, so he sent me to another foreman. I fell for it, but that day, I met every foreman I might ever work for. Another job I had, at Target, they took up a whole of my day sending me to look for a shelf stretcher.

I told this story at a party to a paediatric surgeon. He said, that's nothing. This surgeon, he told me that on his first day he'd been paged and ordered around the hospital all day, when he hears screaming from this other room. He goes into this room, a dark, unused ward, and follows the sound of this screaming to a hospital bed. He looks underneath it and a woman thrusts something into his hands and it's slick with blood and she screams 'YOU KILLED MY BABY YOU SON ON A BITCH!'

The lights go on. The woman, she's one of his team. What he's holding is a resuscitation baby, a training doll, drenched in fake blood. Behind a separation screen, the rest of the team are watching him, trying not to laugh.

I was in Paris talking to a veterinary scientist. What they do when they graduate is, the vets take you to an all-night party and ply you with wine. If you don't faint, they hit you with an animal tranquilliser. Then they strip you naked and sew you into the belly of a dead horse. When you wake up, your head aches, you want to vomit, and it's so tight and dark and the smell is awful. Your team-mates- you can hear them from inside the horse. They start yelling at you. 'If you wanna be part of this team, you're gonna have to fight. This is a terrible job!'

So you fight, you push against the wall and you start your rebirth. You find an opening and you thrust out your arm and someone hands you a glass of wine and you burst out of the corpse to rapturous applause, and from that moment on... nothing in your career will be as bad as waking up inside a dead horse.

I got these stories by coaxing this information out of people, and that skill came through journalism training.”

With that, the IABF rep stirs up one last well-deserved round of applause before the staff walk him through the crowd. He stops for a few moments for pictures, at which point I pounce...

and I slip him my blog card and the staff ferry who could be my biggest living literary hero briskly out of the room.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

I Accidentally Blagged my Way into an Ian Rankin Signing

So there's this gullible guy,” says Ian Rankin. “He gets taken to a party, or what he thinks is a party. It's really a derelict housing block.”

He's reciting a story that he's heard, a piece of Scottish urban folklore.

They tape him to a chair, put a bag over his head, and leave him there. Anyway, he gets his hands free, and escapes.” Mr Rankin's nodding to us, like we're the one telling him the story, egging for a conclusion. “And?” he asks, as he asked the storyteller. “End of story”, the storyteller told him. “Woah,” he says, like he said to the teller. “That's the start of a story.”

If you're planning to go to three book signings in a month, make sure you've bought the necessary tickets to all three. I didn't. I think I tried to buy an Ian Rankin ticket before they were available and the Waterstones bookseller told me to come back in about a week. Then I forgot.

I turned up at the event last night in St. Anne's Church in Manchester as the event was starting. The bookseller on the door checked the list for my name. It wasn't included. I rooted through my diary, finding the tickets to all the other events, but no Ian Rankin ticket.

The bookseller waved me in. “We'll sort it out later,” he said, eager for the event to start on time. I think he recognised me from the numerous events I've previously attended. I sat down among the rest of the audience, mostly in their forties, 180-strong, the church so full that temporary seating has been lined up in the main isle and is filling up fast.

It occurs to me that I've blagged my way in here, kind of by accident. I should try this more often.

As we're in a church, it's the vicar that introduces the event, addressing us from his pulpit. He hands over to Ian Rankin, author of the Detective Rebus novels and who bares a striking resemblance to Neil Morrisey, who takes the mic.

Er, why am I here... right, my new Rebus novel.”

A chuckle ripples through the pews and up the high walls, the first of many.

This is the second 'retirement novel', and it came about due to a change in the law. Rebus no longer needed to retire at 60, so he wasn't going to work as a taxi driver or open a bar in Marbella. Also, the Double Jeopardy law has been dropped, so that gave me a chance to revive Rebus.” Armed with a plethora of stories jotted down at numerous retirement parties for policemen, he started to form a plot for the new novel.

He doesn't talk for long about the book, however, as some things are better discovered on the page. So instead he describes his days on tour with a Scot singer, the late Jackie Leven, and how his haggis rider was met with disdain in the pub.

When he does mention the book he describes the title- Standing in Another Man's Grave- as a Mondegreen, a misheard lyric. Rankin misheard Jackie Leven singing "Standing in Another Man's Rain". “It's a bit of a long title,” he admits, “but it didn't do Stieg Larrson any harm...

One of the best things about being a crime writer is that if someone pisses you off, you go home and kill them. I hate to say it in a place like this-” he looks up at the whitewashed columns and ceiling- “but you can 'play God'. One guy was giving me stick, so I made him a Gorilla with impotency problems.” He takes a sip of water. “Why did I tell you that story?”

He describes how having a cop for a main character gives the author a “backstage pass” to all sectors and layers of society, and how police move around the city allowing for location changes within the novel. Similarly, as an author, Rankin gets a chance to meet people you might not ordinarily encounter- Chief Exorcist Gabriel of Rome, for instance, for his TV show Ian Rankin's Evil Thoughts. For this show he met a death-row convict of twelve years in Texas, and spent a Sunday night in the Italian capital, where Father Gabriel- who claimed to have met the devil 7 or 8 times- made him kiss a crucifix on camera.

I can't go in half the pubs in Glasgow now,” Rankin says.

The conversation weaves on through a myriad of crime topics. “PD James says we are all capable of murder. What stops us,” he says, “is the most interesting part. My least favourite part of novel writing is the ending. The crime genre isn't taken seriously by the fiction community because the closure that you need isn't realistic.

I don't even know who the killer is when I'm writing a first draft. My wife said, 'yeah, this could be problematic.'If there are any budding crime writers out there, don't do it the way I do it.”

The talk weaves on through Rankin's past, where he reveals he had once been a swine herder and had killed a pig through alcohol poisoning by feeding it an overripe, fermented leaf. He also accurately guessed the layout of an existing Scottish town without going there, to the disbelief of locals that read the book.

During the Q and A session he reveals how he carves dialogue (“Elmore Leonard said 'trust your reader. Allow them to make their own interpretation.'”) and how his crime novels cause a few riffs in the police community (“Rebus looks down on cops. But it's not me, it's him!”)

He also regales an instance when a policeman threw him out of a closed church whilst he was trying to do some research for a novel, and how he caused a police inquiry after he tweeted about something he'd seen in his local area.

My name's Malcolm Fox,” say's one audience member. “Please don't kill me!” This causes a laugh between those in the know (not me- I've never actually read a Rankin novel). Fox is a Rankin character appearing in many of his novels, an internal affairs officer and Rebus' ethical opposite. The real Mr. Fox asks about a theatre production based on Rankin's work, which Rankin admitted he really liked. It was the first time he could actually see people's reactions to his work, and he got to talk to the audience after the show.

Another revenue avenue for Rankin is to auction off an opportunity for your name to be used in his books. On one occasion the highest bidder was a fellow by the name of “Peackock Johnson”, who asked to be included alongside his pal, “Evil Bob.” Rankin admitted he really enjoyed writing these characters. When it came to chasing payment, however, the email address bounced. The author soon turned sleuth himself, and discovered that the man in question was a notorious practical joker.

The session talk ended here and the audience flocked briskly over to Deansgate, where I joined the queue unchecked. In my book, he draws a macabre hangman next to his signature.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Toronto Mayor in New Hollywood Conspiracy

Here's crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford.

And here's Gert Fröbe , AKA Auric Goldfinger in the classic '64 Bond movie.

Do you expect me to talk?”

No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to get high!”

Related much?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Three Strikes: Week 50

The Three Strikes project has come to a close. I just couldn't quite beat the personal bests in the last few movements on my list.

I started a new notebook to record PBs in November 2011. These records have been added to since that time. In November I came up with the idea for the Three Strikes project. See here.

Since 24/11/12, focusing on each movement for a few weeks at a time and over a period of 50 weeks, I amassed a total of 137 personal bests. Most of these came at the start of the project when I was lifting movements that I had been working not long before the project began. As the project ran on, however, I started to work movements that I'd had a VERY long break from. The last movement I worked was close-hand lat pulldown, working the biceps, chest and back. My record was notch 15 from June '11. I struck out straight away, getting 14 each time.

The hardest part of using the lat pulldown machine is simply getting on it. I would have finished the project much earlier if I'd have used the pulldown sooner, and not visited the gym at busy periods. EVERYBODY loves pulldown. I had to get up sickeningly early and do my session before work, when I was at my weakest. This is possibly why I didn't do so well on it. It is good, however, to shock your body by mixing up your routine. Work out early. Work out late. Hungry. Full. Tired out. Fired up. Make your body do the work. And get into the gym at quiet times, work the most popular movements first and leave the obscure ones 'til later.

Of course, it would help if OCL had a bigger gym in the town centre!

Other bits of advice: You get fit when someone else is pushing you. So have a break from the 3 Strikes project and go to a few classes. If I'd have done this from the start I would have been a lot fitter, and the project would have taken much longer to complete.

The other advantage to extending the project this way: Exposure. I'd been blogging consistently every Sunday night. When people come to expect this post as part of your blogging routine, your hits will increase. Mine did.

This only works, however, if you have something to say in your blog posts. If you spend your life in the gym with very little else going on, what are people going to read about?! Keep your life busy with other activities, not just hammering the gym. Then you have something to write about, and your hits will continue to rise. Towards the end of the project, I didn't have that much going on in my life and hence didn't write many other blog posts.

This week, for instance, I've visited relatives down south. I've seen watched Gravity in 3D at the Imax (fun but average. Predictable. Good performances from George Clooney and particularly Sandra Bullock. 3D is a fad that I don't know why the cinema industry has decided to revive).

I've also found time to get some reading in.

I've finished Emergency by Neil Strauss. I gave a pre-emptive review here.

Now I've read it fully I can say it's a fun, informative read. The most important information, the urban survival section, emerges in the last few pages. Read it now, before the “Cormac McCarthy's The Road” scenario emerges.

I also finished War and Peace: My Story, Ricky Hatton's autobiography. I started reading it in the signing queue a few weeks back, concurrent with Emergency and Ring. It's a funny, interesting account of the light-welterweight and welterweight former champion's rise from his humble beginnings in Hyde (5 miles from me) through to his last devastating defeat at the hands of Russian Vyacheslav Senchenko.

Although billed as an autobiography, it's pretty clear that editor Tris Dixon interviewed him over a period of a few weeks and transcribed his answers straight from the tape, adding in descriptions with Mr Hatton's consent as they went along. Can you see Ricky Hatton sitting in front of his PC and tapping out a 14-chapter, 300-page book? It's a strange blend of Hatton's northern, banter-laiden vernacular and Dixon's journalistic prompting and tailoring. But Hatton isn't your regular boxer- he's a regular bloke alright, a pint-drinking, wise-cracking Manc lad with a girlfriend and 2 kids of his own, but you don't always get that in a four-time world champion boxer.

An enjoyable read.

One of the reasons I started the Three Strikes project was to force myself to write quickly, to analyse the week's proceedings and hammer out a quick post. I wanted a bit of pressure to help induce a Thompson-style gonzo element to my work. Over the last 50 weeks I think I've become a lot more adept at just getting the fucking writing written, with only myself to pressure me into finishing. I start these posts after tea on Sunday nights and put them up as soon as I've finished. They're usually laden with errors and lacking details that I meant to put in from the start of the week, but I've tailored the skill of making notes about anything that might have happened over the course of the seven days. So this happens less these days.

And now I can do whatever I damned well want at the gym! Hooray!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Retrospective: Captain America Filming in Manchester

I watched Captain America last week, the predictable Marvel tosh about a genetically engineered soldier fighting in a war in an alternate 1940s. It did what I thought it would do.

What a lot of people don’t know is that Marvel Studios shot a small portion of the film in Manchester’s Northern Quarter back in October 2010. At the time, I swung by to see what was happening. 

I didn’t see a great deal going on, other than a few extras in trilbies knocking about. One blogger / photographer was given access to the set. The posts were quite interesting. More so than the film itself, it must be said.

There were a few other big-name films shot in Manchester in the last few years. I’ll watch them before I blog them though…

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Why Do Nightclubs NOT Do This?!

 Back in September I was stood on the edge of the courtyard of Ibiza Rocks Hotel watching Zane Lowe and Mark Ronson making valiant efforts to sing. I remember trying to get to the toilets and back without losing a grasp of where I’d left my friends, when a brainwave hit me.

Countless times in my adult life I’ve lost friends on crowded dance floors, and had no way of describing or being described to where I am / they are. The bigger the dance floor, obviously, the bigger the problem. Some clubs even have more than one room, complicating things further. When drunk, sometimes knowing what part of the club you’re in can be a massive challenge in itself.

But it needn’t be, and I realised that on the outskirts of IRH’s courtyard, thinking, my mates are around here SOMEWHERE.

I looked up at the sky as dusk fell. It hit me then: why don’t clubs have grid references on the ceiling? Letters on two facing sides, numbers on the adjacent walls, with letter / number combinations printed on the ceiling in big enough text for people on the floor to see. That way, if you lose your friends, you look to the ceiling- or the walls if writing on the ceiling has been impractical- and work out your club grid reference. All you’ve then got to do is remember it during the epic queue for the club toilets, and hope your friends don’t move…

Whether it's a decent idea or not, I realised, it wouldn't be of much use at an open air venue like the one I was in. I just had to keep wandering until I spotted a familiar face.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Three Strikes: Week 49

Koji Suzuki's Ring. No, not a title of a niche video on YouPorn, but a novel translated from Japanese to English and also adapted for the screen by The World's Scariest Man, Hideo Nataka. A journalist in Yokohama stumbles across a story involving a videotape that kills you after you watch it. Once he's watched it, he has a week to save his own life.

I watched the Japanese movie in '02 and I crapped myself. It's brilliant, and even if you've seen the (lame) American remake, you should watch the original. It's on a par with Don't Look Now as one of the most intense horrors ever made.

But this is a book review, dammit! How was the book?! Well, not great. It's much slower than the film, much more detailed and- if memory serves me- much weirder. It's still an interesting tale, but the behaviour of the characters is kind of strange. Their decisions and admittances are odd, but somehow drive the story in ways I don't remember seeing in the film. The translations from Japanese to British English are occasionally clunky and unintentionally comedic.

Yoko paused to catch his breath. There was a loud gulping sound. It wasn't clear which one of them had swallowed his saliva.”

I've found, over the last few years, a number of lame books that have been adapted into surprisingly good films. This is one of them. Nataka's team picked the best bits and made a decent, concise story out of it. I meant to watch it again before today, actually. You should give it a whirl.

I've hammered the gym and have made no PBs. I've managed to get on the popular machines by going before work and early on Sunday mornings. It's not difficult to get up early at the weekend when all of your friends are getting married and having babies...