I’ve been playing guitar since I was fifteen, a long, long time. Although I also first wrote stories as a teenager and then on into my twenties, life intervened, and there was a gap of several decades before I started again. It seems to me now that music and literature are first cousins: the importance of rhythm, structure, of learning to shape a phrase, all apply to both, as does the value of a pause, or even silence. Both have a formal vocabulary and rich vernacular possibilities, both hold more secrets than can ever be learned in a lifetime.
I’ve known so many musicians, professional and amateur, famous and unknown, that music, and the people who play it, seems a very natural thing to write about. 'Fergal’s First Gig' was my fledgling attempt at returning to fiction. It’s based loosely on my friendship with a schoolmate guitarist, now my oldest friend, whose playing seemed miraculous by our then teenage standards, and still does to me when I think back. The story won second prize in the Bedford International Short Story Competition 2014, which, thank you dear Bedford, encouraged me to continue. Recently, about a hundred and thirty stories later, I've written Fergal's first gig again, though now it's called Revelation on the Banks of Pawtuxet, has grown by fifteen hundred words, and developed a love interest. Nothing I intended, it just happened...
I sometimes wonder if that nebulous concept we call living memory should be recalibrated. With the speed the world is changing has the recent past ever seemed more distant? I was reminded of this when writing a new story, Going Out Somewhere, set in the early seventies and remembering how things were then, musically and otherwise. Regarding the former, it was a liminal time: grandiose concept albums from the old guard of rock on their way out but not quite gone, singer-songwriters no longer seen as prophets or social commentators, and the nihilistic energy of punk yet to emerge in reaction to the sheer ghastliness of glam rock. The narrator is caught up in all that, not to mention a relationship, literally, going north, and he's only nineteen with no family around. He's confused, and who wouldn't be? This one is due to appear in my mini-collection, due to be published in Confingo later this year (2023).
Oktavists are very rare creatures indeed. They sing an octave below bass and seem to exist mainly in Russia, hence the 'k' in their name. My second published story, 'My Friend the Oktavist', which first appeared in The London Journal of Fiction, describes the experience of two boys, born in small adjacent towns in England, whose voices plummet freakishly at puberty, causing difficulties. They bond and look out for each other in consequence as their lives go in different directions. Well worth Googling 'oktavist' if you've never heard one. Sadly the LJF seems to exist no longer, but Brett and Phil, editors of the fabulous Prole magazine, have kindly given it a new home in Issue 29.
'Guitar Strings, People Strings' tells the tale of an ageing metal head, now reduced to playing weddings, but still hell bent on having an impact. I've come across a number of such and they hold a special place in my heart. This story was shortlisted in the Bedford International Short Story Competition 2016. If my career as a writer of stories fails, it will certainly not be due to anyone at Bedford.
'Getting Our Heads Together in the Country' has yet to find a publisher, perhaps because I’ve never submitted it. It's set in 1969, and describes a group of teenage musicians recording a double album while communing with nature in a field in deepest Somerset (younger readers, I promise you things like this really once happened). The narrator remembers the whole experience, with mixed feelings, as a lost idyll. If by chance any editor is reading and finds this in any way intriguing please get in touch and a script will be with you forthwith.
Regarding my own playing, I had the very good fortune to learn directly from several of the iconic acoustic players of the sixties and seventies, including the founding father of the British steel string guitar, Davy Graham. Davy’s utter originality was reflected in his lifestyle and character, which was singular to say the least, but it was an unforgettable experience to go to his home and soak up knowledge and inspiration. I described how it all started in an article for Acoustic Magazine. To read it click here
I'm now (as of April 2023) twenty-thousand words into a novel, at least I'm beginning to call it that, set circa 1970 and featuring what was once known as a progressive rock band. It started life as a short story, taken from a dream-like memory of sitting in a café on a rainy day in my teens. The radio was playing and I had no idea where life would take me. Strange how some images stay with you. I know you're supposed to have a plot or some sort of structure in mind when you write in the longer form, but being a short story writer I've done what I normally do - followed my characters around, tried to observe and understand them, learn how they speak and behave, allowed them space to reveal their back stories. Following what I might loosely call this 'method', the band, Satan's Actuary, have found themselves in a van that, after a certain amount of welding, is on its way to being a bus, on their first tour of Britain, hoping for a breakthrough. They're an idiosyncratic bunch - I've never met a musician who wasn't idiosyncratic - and in their own way they care for each other, as I do for them. They're very good musicians and their formidable manager has a master plan. Perhaps one day you'll be able to read about it...