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"You've Got to Sleep With Your Mum and Dad" is now available on Amazon. Childhood angst, marathon swimming, international exploitation and the threat of impending pinniped intimacy. on 2014-08-13
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Have a look at my page on Amazon. Still plenty of summer left for challenging literature. on 2014-08-13
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Check out my Amazon Kindle page. 'The Baby Who Killed People for Money' is now available. An utterly charming child with a unique and lucrative skill. A father with no defence against his daughter's impulses. Would you take your little girl around Europe for a spot of murder tourism? Of course you would. on 2014-06-30
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My story on the Tate gallery website on 2013-11-11
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A Thousand Natural Shocks An anthology that includes two of my stories. Available now at Amazon. on 2013-11-11
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Posted February 3, 2014
  Posted by in Uncategorized

It wasn’t really a novel. It was 25000 words or thereabouts. Still, an impressive word per day rate.

The 1988 Adelaide Festival Fringe had a three-day novel-writing contest. You entered, then wrote your novel on a long weekend and posted your manuscript to Landin Press. There, some poor soul read as much as they were able and picked a winner.

The winner that year was Up to your arse in alligators, a rather amusing terrorist farce written by Margo James.

Here’s a section of my effort. I have to say that Up to your arse in alligators was a worthy winner.

The main protegonist, Mike (a guitarist in a mediocre Adelaide band) is borrowing a bike from Warren (self-styled suburban intellectual).

“Warren?”

“Yes?”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“Talk like what, exactly?”

“You know how you talk. I know it’s a personal question and you don’t have to answer it or anything, but I’d like to know.”

“Why this sudden interest in my mode of speech?”

“Well, it’s something I’ve always wondered about. I guess you didn’t always talk that way but I remember when I was a kid and you seemed a lot older than me and you started using longer and longer words. I guess that was when you met some new people, or something.”

“Yes, I do remember. It was a conscious decision to adopt a mode of speech which imitated the classes to which I aspired.”

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. Look, I’m about to meet a whole bunch of art students that are friends of a girl I just started seeing. What they say is going to be weirder than what you say.”

“Well… yes. I would say that the reason I speak as I do is similar to the reason that resulted in you playing in a rock music band.”

“What?”

“Well, it’s all a matter of approval. In our society, ‘survival of the fittest’ has another meaning. It is no longer necessary to be physically fit to survive. Paraplegics, people with spina bifida, the mentally and physically handicapped, babies with circulatory abnormalities… medical, surgical and technological advances have ensured that they all survive. Now the quality of survival is assessed with reference to entirely different criteria. These pertain to the ability to survive and advance within society.

It is one’s self-concept which dictates how one will be able to relate to other members of the species – one must have approval. Altruism and generosity: these are null concepts. The reason behind a person being altruistic or generous is that he will thereby gain approval – this is the cause of what we call being noble and self-sacrificing. Man is not a noble animal – it is simply that the prime causative factor for behaviour is the improvement of the ego by soliciting approval in various ways that are being constantly tested by experiment.

This is obviously a mere summary of the mechanism. Yet any positive action can be traced to this common motivation. Of course, everyone’s target audience is different. For example, some people require that their lives have some meaning and adopt a previously invented god and generate their behaviours according to the tenets of a religion. In this way, they can withstand negative reactions by much of the populace. The taunts of the ephemerals are as nought compared to the forthcoming divine reward. In this way, martyrdom is born.”

“Er… yeah. I’m struggling a bit here. Remember I wasn’t too good in Matric.”

“Yes, dear boy, but I credit you with a good deal of intelligence. I have faith in our genetic make-up, though not your eye make-up from my memory of the one occasion I was subjected to your group’s performance.”

“Thank you.”

“Yes, well. Obviously, you are part of my target audience. I think a person will always feel the need to seek approval from that initial influence – one’s family. In fact, the first tactics one learns in the battle for the enlarged ego are learned from the family. One finds out which deeds will elicit praise. We discover which will bring attention and surface disapproval but we all recognise sympathy for the underdog, the grudging respect given to the David, who by underhand tactics, brings about the demise of a mighty Goliath. And so we learn to be naughty. We learn to do what we can get away with. We learn not to tell tales. We learn not to boast even when we desperately want recognition for our deeds. And we learn ways to make our deeds know without us directly conveying the information to our target audiences.

Then come the friends. And more – we are sent to school. The influences widen. The teacher is a substitute parent. We must accept products of different families with different values. We are faced with behaviours, hitherto unacceptable, but now blatantly exhibited by others. We inform authority of these but are met with disapproval. We try these behaviours and receive more disapproval. We are puzzled. We are told to be ourselves – a manifestly ridiculous instruction as the self is the sum of our perceptions of our experiences in gaining approval from those from whom we require approval.

So every new experience in life threatens us. The threat is disapproval, especially from those we know and respect, but also, somehow, from that waiter who smirks at your pronunciation of Italian menu items.

We can analyse any person and discover the influences that formes their personalities. It may be easier with the aged who are said to become set in their ways. This is because they have collected such vast experience in the behaviours that deliver the required approval that they scarcely seek feedback as any new information is as nothing when compared with their vast archives of previously acquired knowledge.

As one example in millions, let us consider a caretaker I saw recently at a youth camp. He would seize upon any violation of camp protocol and berate the hapless miscreant mercilessly. This individual was not a man of great education or standing in the community, but he gained his approval by visualising others seeing him as firmly in charge. Every time some poor youth disobeyed the rules, that child would instantly know that this man Knew What He Was Doing.”

“Yeah, I’ve met them.”

“Well… in my case, I went to school and reacted to the influences as does everyone. I resented being asked continually what one called ‘a bloke with fourteen rabbits up his bum’. Naturally, I avoided these individuals as I could not retort with insults which they found sufficiently cutting. Crudity did not come easily because of my family influences.

I socialised with the types who also avoided the insulters. I found them in the library and gained my approval from success in scholastic endeavours. In high school, I joined the chess club. With these people, longer words brought approval. An accent such as this followed naturally.

I went to university and received a shock. There was no more obvious and direct teacher approval. The impersonal nature of the lecture hall did not allow close relationships with professors, and in tutorials I was rather slow to communicate my points. Scholarly achievement no longer brought the rewards I had come to crave.

So… well, I entered the public service. I can now do a job where, to be frank, I can impress people with my learning and my command of words. I would imagine that you are in a band because at school, those to whom you gravitated socially valued rock musicians to the extent of having them as social heroes.”

“Yeah… I guess so. Everyone had pictures of pop stars on their books and band names on their schoolbags.”

“You have been fortunate in realising, at least partially, the ambition to gain approval by this method. Yet, perhaps your success in this venture has not forced you to seek the necessary kudos elsewhere and make a financial success of yourself.”

“You’ve seen our parents recently?”

“Yes. They are concerned about you, dear boy.”

“Yeah. Still unemployed and collecting a tiny, untaxed income.”

“And your social security cheques.”

“And my social security cheques.”

“Well, I envy you in some ways. You have achieved a reasonable standing in what I formerly considered to be mainstream culture.”

“Er… thanks. Look, why don’t you publish this philosophy of yours?”

“Ah… I have the results of eighteen months of research on my study desk.”

“Great. When will you finish it?”

“I am not at all sure that I dare.”

“Why? I don’t get it.”

“It’s like this. I have a comfortable lifestyle with a position in which I am valued. People consult me about everyday problems. In my own way I am a leader. People know that I am writing this amazing philosophy.”

“Yes. So do I and I’d like to read it.”

“You may never do so. You see, to complete a work such as this, I would need to perceive sufficient approval to be forthcoming as a result of publication. But I do not. In order to complete the manuscript, I would be taking a risk. The evidence would be there in black and white for trained specialists to examine and dispute. I can speak impressively but I am not good at fielding the types of questions which would undoubtedly be flung. I may lose approval. People would not wish to recognise themselves in my examples. Cultured people do not wish to know that the only reason they do not pick their noses in public is that they fear disapproval.

So when I have my holidays, I become enthusiastic and sit at my desk with blank pages and sharpened pencils, but when I come to place my life’s work on paper, I see the experts picking at every sentence as I think it.”

“Oh… Have you heard of anything like your ideas before?”

“Oh certainly, dear boy. It’s officially termed ‘egoism’ and many writers have skirted quite convincingly around it, damning it as a theory with some good points, but… The problem is, nobody really wants to know their true motives. Denouncing the courage of soldiers or the compassion of Mother Teresa as approval-seeking behaviour is rather worse than burning the Stars and Stripes on Capitol Hill.”

“I see what you mean.”

“”Well now… About your artist and her threatening friends.”

“Yes…?”

“I cannot furnish you with any advice which is guaranteed to work. If you are exceedingly adept and able to interpret feedback immediately, as I cannot, you may use the Theory to your advantage.”

“What’s the Theory?”

“It is my concise appellation for that system of socialisation which I have briefly described.”

“What do you mean, I could use it?”

“Very well, let us consider your alternatives. Where is the meeting with these individuals to take place?”

“Ah… in a theatre… it’s a dance thing… production. I don’t know what the theatre’s called.”

“Well, you could go as you are, with no formal preparation. Or you could attempt to learn as much as possible about some field of art or a similar esoteric topic in order to convince them that you are well versed in some abstruse technique. I doubt that this would achieve any success.”

“Yeah. Michelle knows I don’t know a lot about art.”

“Michelle. A good private-school name.”

“Yeah.”

“What may work is a means of finding some way of giving them approval that has some meaning to them. Now, in order to achieve this, you will initially need to project an image that will convince them, for the purpose of a first impression, that it is worth their while trying to gain your respect. If you can do this, they will talk about themselves ad nauseam, enabling you to shield the dreadfully mundane truth about yourself.”

“Yeah, but what am I supposed to do? Stalk down the stairs in an ermine gown with my fifth husband in tow?”

“Dear boy, that is entirely up to you. I have no idea of your capabilities in such a role. I would suggest something in the way of participation in a rock music band.”

“But Michelle knows that my band’s nothing special. She saw us play on Friday night.”

“Well Michael, you are on your own.”

“Can I borrow your bike now?”

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Posted November 11, 2013
  Posted by in Uncategorized

swimThis picture is from an earlier swim across the Bosphorus.

“Do you want to swim the Çanakkale Boğazı?” Mehmet asked me. Mehmet had already swum the Dardanelles a few times and had got me involved in a race across the Bosphorus the previous year in which I had placed close to last in a large field.

But did I want to swim the Dardanelles? I thought of Hero and Leander, Xerxes and the Persian army, Lord Byron, World War I. Of course I did. Or rather, I wanted to have done it. I wasn’t sure about the actual swimming. I remembered Çanakkale Boğazı as significantly wider than its İstanbul counterpart.

“Yes?” He knew I would. “The race is on Saturday August 30th. You have to register in Çanakkale before 5 p.m. on the Friday before.” OK, so now I was going to do it.

.          .          .          .          .

My bedraggled-looking 1982 Ford Escort sat there and glared at me. I couldn’t see any loose connections in the electrical system. But when I turned the ignition key, there was no starter motor sound. It had done this three months ago but not since then. I knew if I waited an hour, it would go back to normal and start without any problems. But I didn’t have an hour. I was near Tekirdağ and in a hurry to get to Çanakkale before five.

The Oto Elektrikçi made an eloquent face as I realised how the Escort’s filthy engine compartment must look to a professional. He started it with a screwdriver and some bits of wire, then said it was a dynamo problem and he could fix it in an hour. I didn’t think it was the dynamo, was fairly sure that one hour would stretch to three and I didn’t have an hour to spare anyway. I paid him and continued.

A road map supplied by a major daily newspaper showed a main road along the Marmara coast from Kumbağ to Şarköy. Great, a short-cut. Unfortunately after Kumbağ, the road degenerated into a pitted track covered in grass. Rocks stuck up 30cm from the surface in an engine-threatening manner. Occasional showers of stones bounced across the road from the high cliffs on the right. The recent rains had raised the water table and fresh water bubbled up in the middle of the road. Rockfalls on the right coincided with washaways on the left.

The car hated it. The temperature gauge shot up to maximum and I smelled steam. I didn’t dare stop. I had only seen one vehicle since Kumbağ – some brave soul on a motorcycle. The track followed the terrain and the gradients were frighteningly steep. The car swore at me and growled on.

But the views were magnificent. Wild mountains plunged down to the serene Marmara. Secluded beaches nestled in green coves. Cultivated patches were visible on tiny squares of flat land.

I came to a beautiful cliff-hugging village inevitably called Yeniköy and drove past donkeys, goats and curious men outside the coffee-house. The road got worse. Sometimes it seemed to disappear altogether but when I steered through the least rocky areas, there it was again. I was treated to the sight of waterfalls plunging to the road and carving bits of it out.

Then came heaven in the shape of Uçmakdere, a tobacco-growing village with a track leading to a beach. Some lucky Türks had heard about the place and were having their holiday there. One day, I will too.

The road got better after Uçmakdere and the little Escort sped through Şarköy, Gelibolu and into Eceabat to join the queue for the Çanakkale ferry. It was 3:55. I had to catch the 4 p.m. ferry or I wouldn’t be able to register and the trip would have been in vain. I tried to restart the car. Nothing. Same problem.

I would have to leave the car here. But not in the ferry queue. I spotted an empty parking space 100 metres away and started pushing. A friendly simitçi saw my efforts and leaped to help me. Made it. I grabbed my bag, locked the car and ran.

I bought my jeton from a man who looked and moved like a Galapagos tortoise and sprinted through the gate with the simitçi cheering me on. The ferry was moving. I hurled my bag over the raised vehicle ramp, leapt for the railing at the side, clung on and hauled myself on board. I wondered if any other swimmers were training for the race like this.

It seemed a long ferry crossing. I looked around at the coastlines and tried to figure out the race route. They’ll choose the easiest way, I thought. Maybe from that point on the Asian side to that big castle at Kilitbahir, directly opposite Çanakkale. I began to feel quite good about it. The current would carry me most of the way if I got lazy.

I tried not to look down where there was a plague of those enormous purple-tentacled jellyfish which get swept down from the Black Sea. I wondered what it was like to swim through them.

In Çanakkale, I found an office marked “Information” so I went in and asked where I should enter for the swimming marathon. A helpful girl pointed at the road to İzmir on a map. What? I repeated my request. This time, she pointed out some nice swimming bays near Çanakkale. No, no, no. “Yüzme maratonu. Yarın. Çanakkale Boğazı Geçme Yarışması.” “No,” she said with finality.

Someone was listening though, and after a few phone calls, he had found out where I should register. I jumped into a taxi, got to the 18 Mart Stadium and found the right building. A man was waiting for me and helped me fill in my form. Done it. It was 4:57. I congratulated myself on my careful planning and impeccable timing.

I found a pansiyon, then headed back on the ferry to see about my car. The crossing seemed longer than ever and the jellyfish were increasing. Good thing we won’t be swimming this way.

.          .          .          .          .

My tyre’s flat. But every car here has a flat tyre. I’ve parked in the place reserved for dolmuş drivers. I guess they didn’t like that. Oh well, better than a wheel clamp and a fine. I change the tyre. The car starts first time and sits there giggling at me.

I drive to the Oto Sanayı, pump up my tyre and put it back on. The Oto Elektrikçi looks at my car. “There is no problem.” I explain that the problem only happens if I have driven fast for a few hundred kilometres. “Bring it back when you’ve driven fast for a few hundred kilometres,” he retorts, and goes away. Meanwhile, a small boy has washed the battery with gallons of water which have seeped through the air vents and made a small lake inside the car. I tip him for this and slosh back to the ferry terminal.

Next day, I find the place where the Çanakkale Rotary Club has set up race headquarters. I meet Peter and Susan, a distinguished-looking American couple. They know the headmaster who hired me at an American school in İstanbul and Susan has just written a book about Troy. We have our blood pressures taken. There is concern when Peter’s is reported as 28 but two leaps of understanding later, it turns out to be 120 over 80. He’s all right.

There’s mass movement afoot so I follow the crowd to two boats and sit on the roof of one with a bunch of alarmingly fit-looking young men who are discussing race tactics. Last on board is Mehmet with his all-swimming family. He says, “We managed to register you by fax. You didn’t need to come yesterday but we couldn’t contact you.”

The boat starts off. We’re heading towards Eceabat. I wasn’t expecting that. I ask where we start from. “The ferry dock at Eceabat.” It turns out that we’re swimming further than the ferry goes. I start to worry. More than five kilometres? Oh, dear.

Knowing my interest in biology, Mehmet begins to tell me about the sharks that a relative of his saw whilst diving at World War I shipwrecks just beneath us. Some helpful points about how to tell if a shark is about to attack improve my confidence.

The frighteningly healthy youths strip down to purposeful-looking racing trunks and cover themselves in pink grease. They do professional stretching exercises. They agree on the ideal strategy for the race. They will head directly for the very tall radio mast on the European shore. This ensures that they will not be carried too far downstream by the current. Then they will head in a graded curve along the bay and be swept with precision between the buoys which mark the finish. An excellent plan, I think. If only I could have done it.

We reach the ferry dock. Race marshals make sure of numbers and issue bathing caps. I stretch the yellow rubber over my head and presume that now I am safe from any hazards.

Without apparent warning, people start jumping into the sea. I push through a crowd of men with stopwatches and jump into a space between crowds of small boats. The start is a mass of kicking legs as we sort ourselves out into positions in which we can actually start to swim.

I find the radio mast on the opposite shore and commence the enormous task of heading towards it. The Asian shore may as well be the Australian coast for all the hope I have of reaching it. I look back at the ferry dock. To my surprise, it’s already a long way behind. It doesn’t make the far shore look any closer but it’s encouraging.

I put my head down and try to get some distance covered. I look up. Where’s the tower? Turn 30 degrees. Swim again. Eventually, I resign myself to alternating my faster crawl (freestyle) with a breaststroke which gives me a bit of a breather and lets me correct my course.

I bump into a group of swimmers. We recognise each other from the boat, have a short conversation and get back to business. The atmosphere is great. It’s the swimming that’s the problem.

There are dozens of boats around. Knowledgeable-looking men occasionally drive up to me and give me instructions along with a face full of exhaust gases. I look around. Most swimmers seem to be ahead of me and upstream. No matter. I keep swimming towards the radio tower.

The castle at Kilitbahir is now in sight. I’ve swum far enough to see some progress. Head down again. Looking underwater is like swimming in a 60’s Lava Lamp. Out-of-focus blobs of jellyfish everywhere. They’re not too bad so far. None of those Black Sea monsters.

I remember Xerxes and his bridge of boats. How many hundreds of boats did he use? Maybe I could build a bridge of jellyfish. A man on a boat tells me to be careful of the current. I look up. The tower has slipped off to the left a bit.

Leander swam there and back every night? He must really have loved that girl. How did he have any energy left when he got there? Was there any point in making the swim? He must have had muscles like cannonballs.

The jellyfish have disappeared for a while but have been replaced by mats of grass or seaweed which get caught on my hands. I look to the right again. I can see open water to the south-west between the Asian and European shores. I guess that’s why the current is getting stronger. Back to work.

A bit more hard swimming. I can see the buildings of Çanakkale clearly now. A couple of patrol boats up ahead. I see the model of the Nusret, the heroic minelayer from World War I. Just to the left of it is a patch of trees which marks the finish. It doesn’t look too far now.

I remember someone telling me about a negative current if I get too close to the shore. So I don’t. I start swimming straight to the target. There are two or three swimmers near me doing the same thing. Nearly there. One last effort.

I hear yelling. I look up. There is a boat either side of me. People are shouting at me to swim upstream. I look to the shore. I’m level with the Nusret. People standing near it are gesturing urgently towards the left.

And I’ve lost sight of the finish line. I’ve been swept around a point. No negative current here – the entire force of water from the Sea of Marmara is shoving me towards the Aegean. I swim as fast as I can but make no headway. Damn the Dardanelles! The only thing I can do is swim towards the shore.

In the shelter of the land, I can make some progress. But when I get to the little headland, the current hits me again. There’s a boat moored to a jetty there. This is the hardest part. I swim as hard as I can for what seems like ages. I look up. I have moved no distance at all. This is horrible. This is the last time I try to emulate Lord Byron.

I let myself drop back, then swim between the boat and the jetty. That’s easier. I wave at the people peering down through the narrow gap. They give me a bit of a cheer.

I’m through. I swim in calm water to the beach. Mehmet and another swimmer are just taking in the buoys which mark the finish line. That makes me the last official finisher. I stagger onto the shore. I don’t feel really tired, just as if I’ve been on a boat for a week and can’t remember how to walk on land.

“Hello.” Mehmet is unruffled, as always. “I guess you went a bit far with the current.” I watch another couple of swimmers lurch out of the water. I know how they feel.

I meet Peter and Susan. Susan made it despite some early cramps. She’s talking about a swim from Abydos to Sestos, Leander’s actual route in the legend. Peter is looking superior. He got on a boat half way through and doesn’t look dead, like we do.

We watch the awards ceremony. Mehmet, his mother and his younger brother appear an inordinate amount of times to collect prizes. I get my participation certificate, made out in  a name that almost, but not entirely, unrecognisable as mine.

Mehmet’s final words are, “It will be much easier next year. You know where you went wrong.”

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