Minerva’s Oven

PASTEL WITH FLYING SNAKE AND VOLCANO.” It’s a fairly anemic title, isn’t it? It’s the makeshift title I had to invent for a pastel drawing by my late brother Ally, which my nephew Feargas and I discovered to our surprise hidden in the back of a forgotten portfolio as we were clearing out his studio a year or so after his death. Although the pastel layers are characteristically thick and tempestuous, I recall that the paper is unusually thin and had been slightly damaged or folded at its edges, something that the framer I hired fortunately managed to successfully iron out. We exhibited the pastel at Ally’s posthumous retrospective exhibition at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie in 2019, and since then it has hung on the wall next to the staircase that I habitually climb to my attic each time I ascend to write stories, poems, or articles such as this.

This morning I felt a compulsion to lift the picture off the wall and lay it down on the floor where I could give it a long and closer look while I gave thought to its meaning. I suspect that passing by it each day I have somehow taken it for granted without ever giving it due attention. It is something of an enigma and may never fully give up its definitive secrets. But Ally would have quite liked that, of course. Why did he leave it in that old portfolio? Could he simply have forgotten about it, perhaps while drunk? Or were elements of its subject matter too off-beat to please his usual buyers?

It was Ally’s normal custom, more often than not, to choose an evocative title for a picture, to get people thinking, but occasionally when all else failed he would simply revert to a straightforward description of the picture’s content. Sometimes the more evocative titles were things I suggested to him from literature, but with him no longer alive I felt that this time that would be over-stepping the mark with this mysterious picture. Also, I don’t think such naming would have been possible. The picture’s meaning seems too diffuse, too strangely ambivalent, for any definitive poetic label.

As far as I know, it’s the only picture he ever created that features a volcano, albeit a rather abstracted one. One from which puffs of smoke are shown emerging, as from the chimney of a steam engine. The volcano has a large keyhole shape, one of Ally’s trademark symbols, usually representing a gateway to some hidden spiritual dimension, carved into its centre, near the base. The walking figure to the front-side of the volcano appears to be almost of a size to be able to potentially climb through that keyhole, and his striding posture, walking away from us, back turned, gives every indication that he may even attempt this unwise course of action, or at least peer inside. This volcano seems more like a kiln therefore, a huge chimney-topped oven, such as those that used to line the banks of the river Clyde in its industrial heyday and can still be seem in some very old historic paintings. This volcano seems like some kind of ancient oven of the natural world, and phrased like that it is hard not to take it as a symbol of death, though also perhaps death and rebirth.

Why a volcano? The picture is dated 1996, and as far as I can see from records on the internet, that was not an unusually active year for volcano eruptions on Earth. There was however a very significant eruption at Gjálp in Iceland in October of that year, Iceland being about as near to Scotland as any volcanic eruption is ever likely to get. Ally always followed the television news closely and was particularly sensitive to visual images and primal natural forces. Taken together with the presence of two very stark white leafless trees in the picture, I think there is reasonable grounds to conclude that Ally created the picture in late autumn and was influenced by the images of the Gjálp eruption. It’s too long ago for me to remember if we ever discussed that at the time, and I certainly never saw this drawing until years later after his death.

But those leafless trees mean a whole lot more of course. 1996 as a year in Ally’s CV was halfway between two of his sojourns in France in 1992 and 1999 in Paris and Avignon respectively. After his initial flush of success with his agent Norbert Binotti, he would have been despairing at the possibility of his chance at fame slowly slipping away, and at the prospect of getting older without having found love or fulfilment in his personal life.

The other major symbol in the picture, taking up as much and indeed slightly more space than the volcano, is the distorted image of a house counterbalancing it, to the right hand side of the composition. But this is no comforting symbol of home. It has a single door, black as if shadowed like the entrance to a tomb, and a single square window high up like the aperture of a monk’s cell. The double-meaning is that the pitched-roof of the house also operates as the head of an arrow, pointing to heaven. So our striding figure in the foreground, with whom we are presumed to identify and sympathise, apparently faces a choice, between approaching the smoking oven of the volcano or retreating to the prison-like safety of the family home with its perceived moral strictures. Out of economic necessity, Ally still lived with his parents, a fact that always irked his self-esteem, a fact he would seek solace and escape from on long restless walks across town and country, and in gradually increasing bouts of drinking and frequenting bars and night clubs.

It’s not a happy picture. The wonderfully brooding horizon line confirms this, brilliantly tipped at a ten degree angle like the camera lens of a Hitchcock film when something particularly untoward is going down. Reality and sanity, he is signalling to us, are under threat. But there’s still more, other symbols, he’s crammed into the picture. We have a large blood-red sun centre-stage, pawed at by one of the branches of the white blasted trees, as if pleading with the lord of life for reprieve and redemption. But there’s also, almost hidden to its left, another more curious orb, black like some weird moon, or a portent of imminent eclipse. Lastly we have perhaps the picture’s most startling ingredient: a green snake sailing across the top of the sky. What to make of that? Ally was immersed in the art and words of William Blake, and this snake brings to mind those strange and ominous words from Blake’s poem ‘The Sick Rose’ as follows: O Rose thou art sick/ The invisible worm, /That flies in the night / In the howling storm: /Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy: /And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.

Well, when we put all of that together, and look again at the picture, personally I feel perhaps its jarring ingredients begin to gel and coalesce in our heads into a coherent message. Maybe this mental work needs done by the viewer, precisely because the artist’s mind was in an explosive state of disarray as the pastel was created. The elements are spinning around violently, threatening to fire off in various separate directions at once, as the artist’s sense of self and hope reach the brink of giving way. As ever, the image depicts Ally himself, although he invites us to inhabit his path with him. The figure faces a choice between the strictures of home and the forge of art and nature, some terrifying and exciting oven where an artist can be consumed  and potentially destroyed by his own passions. There seems little doubt which way he is going to go. Indeed, the choice has already been made in the feet and the mind of that stubborn little figure.

It seems significant that Ally fuses the passion of his art with Nature in the symbol of the volcano. He hold the gods, all of creation, responsible for the raging fire inside him. He is the volcano, and he will erupt. He will break the sky, break the day itself, enter the oven and thereby escape and be remade into some new day and life. The picture presents Art as a fusion of Death and Life, an expression of Gaia itself, wrecking every human vessel it uses, a sacrifice to which he announces himself now brave or bitter enough to assent to.

If I had come up with a poetic title back in 2019, and been so arrogant as to give it to this picture posthumously without my late brother’s consent, I see now that title might have been something like ‘The Forge Of Minerva’ or ‘Under The Volcano’. Having now written the foregoing analysis, I come to the conclusion that it could very well be an even finer picture than I had thought until now, and that maybe even Ally himself was too close to it to fully perceive its true value as an honest testament of human pain. At any rate, the picture was found and saved. It lives and will go on living beyond us it is to be hoped, until its next eruption.

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The Dead Land Dreams Again

The above is a draft of the cover proposed for the forthcoming German translation of my novella ‘Dreams Of A Dead Country*’ to be published late next year by Nighttrain (*the English language version was first published by Salo Press but its first edition is currently sold out). This cover image is an oil painting that my late brother Ally Thompson created for an exhibition in Avignon about 20 years ago. So he and I are still collaborating, somehow, even though we no longer inhabit the same dimension. There is also talk of my short story ‘Black Fox’ first published in Romania, being translated into Portuguese by Raphus Press.

Meanwhile, my collaboration with Black Isle artist Pamela Tait, our apocalyptic Covid novella ‘Oneironauts’ (kindly funded by Creative Scotland), is about 66% complete. Here is a taster extract from one of the 21 stunning images Pamela is creating for this:

I also have some other fruitful collaborations to tell of soon, but will save those for a subsequent post this summer.

Strange to read my previous post from back on the first day of this year and see how much has changed in the last six months. The Covid death toll now stands as 128,000. That’s 58,000 more than it did in January, despite the successful formulation of several vaccines across the globe. The celebrated idiot Matt Hancock finally resigned yesterday from his role as Health Secretary, but not apparently for the paltry sin of presiding over the unnecessary deaths of more people than a Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but for something more serious to do with what’s in his trousers. How on earth are the Conservative Government still getting away with their continuous mishandling of the pandemic? Not content with the highest death rates in the world and leaving frontline medical staff to use bin bags for protective clothing, they have also treated us to opening up too soon, repeated failures to re-impose lockdowns on time, and to continuing failures to secure our airports thus becoming an incubator for the Delta variant.

Like many UK citizens of my age, I have now had two successive jabs so should hopefully in a matter of days have achieved a degree of immunity. And yet… various friends with backgrounds in environmental health advise me that a re-imposition of restrictions towards the end of this summer is almost inevitable. As with global warming, Covid has starkly revealed the impotence of capitalist western economies in the face of major threats, as opposed to command-economies such as China, which for all their other flaws, are able to act rapidly and effectively to protect the majority of their ordinary citizens from their own prodigious capacity for self-harming stupidity. Every day now the trains get a little busier, and more young fools sit on them with their face masks off. While the Scotrail staff doing nothing to correct them, because… well, because Scotrail staff, a bit like Glasgow City Council staff, are not actually living so much as running through an absurdist dress-rehearsal for life directed by Franz Kafka, driven on by the longstanding stage-direction to remain ever unhelpful, ever uncaring, authority without responsibility, always ready to obstruct sanity and common-sense wherever they threaten to break out. Wait. I’ve made them sound like Dadaists or Surrealists. But they’re never that good.

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Twenty Twenty One

Barking Circus-Drowned Labyrinth

I write in the bright new light of a new year. The year in which I would imagine Scotland will either become an independent nation, or astound the world again with its own peculiar brand of self-loathing obsequious gutlessness. It’s hard to speak of the old year, 2020, without resort to overwhelming sadness and even anger at the deaths of more than 70,000 UK citizens, perhaps 80% of which might still be alive were it not for the Westminster government’s failure to impose lockdown soon enough nor heed the recommendations of its own Exercise Cygnus conducted only 4 years earlier in order to prepare for just such an eventuality. Many films and books, my own included, predicted a pandemic event, but nobody anticipated the sheer scale of governmental incompetence that would accompany it, nor the shockingly large number of Covid-skeptics telling us it was all a hoax and that wearing masks would solve nothing. If only those were the ones who perished from it, but the laws of Nature seldom conform to human ideas of justice. Many good, heroic people with their whole lives ahead of them, died through no fault of their own in the calamity that enveloped our planet in 2020.

And yet, writers tried to make something out of it, find some meaning and hope in it, as we are inclined to do, and felt obliged to do in order to try to maintain our health and sanity through all the months of isolation. I wrote a 15,000 word novella called ‘The Drowned Labyrinth’ that was picked up by Brazilian publisher Raphus Press, from whom it is now available in English (and soon in Portuguese), here

Also I began another novella, to be called ‘Oneironauts’ which the Black Isle-based artist Pamela Tait (whose work graced the cover of my novel ‘The Suicide Machine‘) secured a substantial sum of funding from Creative Scotland from, for her and I to bring it to completion as a book to be published by Zagava of Dusseldorf, and also potentially as a touring exhibition, presuming society returns to normal in time.

My most recent novel, one I began writing 25 years ago, ‘Barking Circus’ finally became available in paperback in November, having already been out in limited edition hardback for a year. Andrew Hook reviewed it very favourably in Issue 77 of Black Static Magazine, stating that this book and its predecessor The Suicide Machine “use language in ways over and beyond forcing a plot. This is storytelling at its invigorating, demanding best.”

Among other things I published online this year, were a story called ‘Resurrection’ about a Roman centurion being brought back to life over at the John Byrne Awards website, and ‘Blue Bottle’ in the Winter 2020 issue of Sein Und Werden. That magazine is also where to find a recent review by N A Jackson of my novel ‘The Suicide Machine’.

As well as ‘Oneironauts’ there is a good deal else should happen in 2021 (besides us all hopefully escaping from Covid-19 via vaccination), such as my short story ‘The Dissolving Man’ being published by the prestigious Nightjar Press, several poems appearing in differing chapbooks from Dreich Magazine, who will also, later in the year, be publishing a third one of my 2020-penned novellas, this one called ‘Tam Tarrow’s Journey’, a collaboration with Glasgow poet and printmaker Elly Farrelly.

The cover images above, for Barking Circus and The Drowned Labyrinth, from Zagava and Raphus respectively, both feature artwork by my late brother Ally Thompson.  So let’s begin 2021 by paying due respect to the fallen, with those haunting words of Andrew Eldritch in his finest hour in that old Sisters Of Mercy song from 35 years ago: “Let’s drink to the dead lying under the water, and the cost of their blood on the driven snow…”

 

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Acer Palmatum

Beautiful wreckage

the leaves crimson fallen

a carpet around the branches

reaching up in ballet silhouette

against the chill blue sky

in November light softening

settling into golden haze 

of quiet afternoon the last

single leaf waits poised

contemplating swansong pirouette

slow motion dervish dive bomb

glowing red gorged on light

breath held to join its audience

the symphony of colour below 

before night falls the incredible

moment promised: this glorious

death that sings in eternity.

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The Unimaginable Zero Summer

Writing has not always been easy amid this strange year’s many strangenesses, as I think many authors will agree. Maybe we can now see that we needed our customary everyday distractions more than we thought… maybe they were in fact, our secret inspiration. In terms of a round-up of things achieved, it was good to have The Poets Republic magazine publish my poem ‘How To Survive A Scottish Winter‘  which although written pre-Covid has perhaps now assumed a further layer of poignancy. Dreich Magazine also published in their Coronavirus-themed chapbook four poems I wrote under Lockdown, one of which you can read here. Also, to make light of the whole onerous subject, this cheeky little poem was published at the ‘Coronaverses’ website.

Also written under Lockdown, and bearing its chill shadows, was an entire novella called ‘The Drowned Labyrinth’ which will be published this autumn in English and Portuguese by Raphus Press of Brazil. You can read the first few thousand words here at the Sein Und Werden magazine website. Sein Und Werden have also just published a somewhat scurrilous short piece called ‘Making Plans For Nigel‘ which might get me into trouble if the Nigel in question ever reads it. Written well before Covid, and completely unrelated to it, is my prose piece ‘The Wild Hunt’ which is out now in ‘The Neo-Decadent Cookbook‘ published by Eibonvale Press and edited by Justin Isis and Brendan Connell, which is a kind of tongue-in-cheek manifesto a bit like those produced by movements like The Futurists in the early twentieth century. Always quick off the mark, It has already been reviewed here by the great weirdmonger himself D F Lewis.

I make it a rule of mine never to mind being claimed by one literary genre or movement or another. I’ve met a lot of great writers and readers over the years through my openness to differing views or styles. But just as I have never been a member of any political party, or follower of any religion, despite my respect for all of them and their adherents, I hope to go on, if I go on at all, defying categorisation. A society of one.

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Latest

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Presuming that human civilization is going to survive Coronavirus at some level, then I perhaps ought to post here what I’ve been up to in the world of writing. My 14th book, a “quantum novel” called ‘Barking Circus’, has now been published in hardback in Germany by Zagava. This is a fairly extraordinary publication, comprising as it does of 14 quality reproductions of my late brother Ally’s drawings. The text was begun around 25 years ago, so parts of it verge on encrypted autobiography, while others are purgative attempts to come to terms with my brother’s premature death in the only effective way I know how: by analogy and allegory into wild flights of surrealism and science fiction.

The theory of this is simple: that real life cannot simply be described and told just as it is, if we wish to hold people’s attention and extract useful meaning from it. Who, after all, should care about the pains and cares of my irrelevant little life? But none of our lives are irrelevant, and all human experience is united by the same longings and sadnesses. To find a way to shed light upon your own life is perhaps a way to help everyone else shed light on their own. The trick as we probably all know by now is that tired old adage of “showing, not telling”. The apparently disconnected fragments of stories in ‘Barking Circus’ can only be assembled in the mind of each reader themselves, and there it is that the higher meaning of not just the book, but life itself, will emerge, like the flickering image of the street outside in a camera obscura.

70277917_2472180986223146_6653435659023286272_oHere is the official burb:

In the early days of the 21st century, an ‘Unknown Executive’ is killed by a passing car near Park Circus, the architectural office quarter of Glasgow. From his briefcase spill a series of mysterious and outlandish story fragments which blow across surrounding districts over subsequent days, each found and read by a diverse range of local characters. A far future Britain overtaken by rising sea levels, a near-future Scotland in which a nuclear accident has displaced the lowland populations to new experimental settlements in the north, an America in which NASA has begun a mining colony on a distant planet to the detriment of its hapless alien inhabitants. Each of these narratives do little to help the police establish the dead man ‘s identity, but point instead to a higher reality, a series of metaphorical futures that throw light on the enduring enigmas of human life and love: the struggle for freedom against the forces of tyranny and decay, the adverse effects of social-exclusion at the personal and societal level, and the transformative power of art.

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Meanwhile, Zagava have also now released the paperback version of the previous book of mine that they published, ‘The Suicide Machine‘ with excellent cover art by Pamela Tait:Suicide Machine PB

‘The Suicide Machine’ was written after ‘Barking Circus’ (despite being published before it, complicated eh?) and dealt in similarly fragmented terms through disparate narrative threads with the death of my mother. As I’ve posted here before, it received a very favourable review by Andrew Hook in in Black Static Magazine No.68.

In other news, some poems of mine appeared recently in Seahorse Publications anthology ‘Glasgow: Historical City‘ edited by the wonderful Linda Jackson.

Forthcoming later this year if the world is still here, will be a poem of mine in a magazine called ‘The Poet’s Republic‘, and a novella called ‘Emilianna’ to be published in Eibonvale Press‘s chap book series. Until then, stay safe, then overthrow your governments in order to build a new world and way of life in harmony with nature.

glasgow_historical_city

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Quarantine

turin-spring-1914_by-giorgio-de-chirico

ONEIRONAUTS

Cars and trains shall rust
windows cake with dust
while lawns will grow
and go unmowed
grass push through
the tarmac pavements
concrete foundations crack
crops go unharvested
in desolate fields
life blossom but no longer
under human hands
fruit rot on the bough
only birds shall pick
at their ripe and fallen flesh
as in time they will at mine
whose beard grows longer
each week in the attic
the heartbeat of humanity
halted the clock stopped
at three minutes to midnight
in the town square
I can only reach by telescope
while here in our little screens
we secretly persist as moss
in the fissures singing
to each other inhabiting
each other’s dreams
imagining ourselves
into life each morning
human network slung
across the earth
like a spiders web
as the tinned food
and hope runs down
breath itself expire
but the planet
go on dreaming itself
running on empty and
the bliss of a kiss
remembered.

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All I Have To Give

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At Christmas I used to turn home
fill a hold-all with gifts and catch
the long loving train under Glasgow
through tunnels of memory
out through hazy suburbs
back to the village that raised me
retrace the streets of childhood
a maze of hedges and rockeries
unlocking the puzzle of upbringing
to open again the creaking back door
of my parents house and catch up
with all the lives of my brothers
like a train terminus our tracks
interwove there over dinner
laughter news and reminisces
before finally sleeping on the floor
in front of the fire or anywhere
we could find space. But space
can’t find us now our constellation
of love is lost at last become
no place the old house sold
and changed beyond resemblance
for it was only bricks and mortar
after all and like the glitter
of frost and stars below as above
both fleeting and immortal.

Thus am I homeless and orphaned
now as are we all in the end
with my pockets empty
except for words. It is well past
midnight Christmas morning
all shops closed I have nothing
to give you my love except love
itself the key to step outside
of time if you can accept
this nothing for the everything
it is. A poem made of me
which can fit you snugly also
to keep you and every other
sad cold monkey warm
so far from home
forgive me if I neglect
the wrapping paper.

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What The Spaceman Said

Ally Thompson drawing green ink

I’ve noticed on Earth
nobody wins arguments
nobody loses them
yet opinions change
This is mysterious
I’ve noticed everybody
bickers with their neighbours
over where their trash cans sit
and yet long for world peace
This is also mysterious
I’ve noticed everybody
builds fences then laments
inequality and loneliness
This is mysterious
I’ve noticed how they can’t live
without films of murders and wars
but lock up real murderers
and say war is wrong but vote for more of it
and I’ve noticed how they lavish love
on animals, some of whom they eat
and some of whom they don’t
but treat their fellow humans
whom they don’t eat
and say they must never eat, terribly
and all of this is mysterious
I’ve noticed that they’ve noticed
that no alien life forms have
come visiting to say hello to them
This is not mysterious.

 

(Drawing by Ally Thompson 1955-2016)

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How To Survive A Scottish Winter

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Don’t fight the darkness, treasure it
avoid electric light, choose candles
wherever possible sit in the dark
and think about what cannot be seen
the past the future the truth, meaning
now is the time for the thousand yard
thousand year stare into the flames
of a fireplace flickering with the music
your ancestors understood as you did
as a child before all the distractions
of daylight blinded you. Stock up
for the winter with long walks
under the moon and hours spent
in cafés watching raindrops racing
down glass after glass raised with good
friends exchanging stories. Stock up
with vital fuel not just chopped logs
but also, though not to be confused
with it, for the fire of the soul:
many shelves of poetry. For when
it runs out never worry, a sustainable
resource, you’ll make your own.

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