Continuing the drift

Some of you will know that for several years I’ve operated a separate project (“Edinburgh Drift”) which has encompassed a sort of semi-fictional, semi-dreamlike notion of walking and wondering. And trying to put all of that into words as best I can.

This project will continue but I’ve decided to incorporate everything here, under my own name. The website edindrift.me will exist until it doesn’t, but any new work on the project will appear on this website, not the original Edinburgh Drift site.

Quite a number of people follow the original site, so if you get to read this and would like to follow this one instead, I’d be very grateful. On the right hand side of this page, there’s a WordPress follow button (if you use the WordPress reader) or you can also follow the site by email. Thanks!

Andrew Humphrey, ‘Trick of the Light’ (Nightjar Press, 2020)

Readers of Ghosts & Scholars will be familiar with Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, which publishes individual short stories in a uniform and very attractive signed and numbered chapbook format. Its authors frequently explore the territory of the unsettling and the uneasy, the nightjar being, of course, a bird of supernatural repute.

The cover photograph of Andrew Humphrey’s Trick of the Light features a 1970s era Penguin paperback of M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary lying atop an Ordnance Survey Landranger map—number 156, covering Saxmundham, Aldeburgh and Southwold. They might have spilled out from the glovebox of a car, and the front of the paperback is partly obscured, its cover image limited to a blaze of blurred light. And so, before the reader even has a chance to open Humphrey’s slim volume and step into its pages, she is offered a signpost to a familiar Jamesian territory which the tale might occupy. But does it?

At first blush, there are only a few parallels with “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, the story alluded to in the cover’s combination of map and browning paperback. This tale’s context is modern, mundanely so: a couple, on the brink of a breaking point in their relationship, spend a few days away at a cottage in Southwold. Gayle is an amateur digital photographer, while Dan is guilty of having an affair and responsible, it seems, for their drift apart. Humphrey alludes to the difficulties between them, and that very fact sets this quite far from the typical Jamesian set-up. The couple even clashes over the TV adaptations of the original story: Dan prefers Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version.

The prose is carefully honed and devoid of unnecessary ornamentation; its angularity heightens the tension across every page. “It’s after dark that the world switches off.” The couple’s clipped dialogue does little to defuse the oppressive mood of the piece. Within just a few pages, the reader begins to sense that this couple may be doomed, either in their future together or in any future altogether.

The story plays with the waymarkers of ‘Whistle’, too: Gayle translates “Who is this who is coming?” from the Latin, and Dan responds:

“’Indeed.’ I think of MR James’ quiet, unsparing prose. The words crawl across the flesh on my hands, my arms and up to the base of my neck. ‘Should be good,’ I say.”

That throwaway “Should be good” is a curious line, and one wonders if it’s Dan’s admonition of himself against straying further in their relationship (you really should be good—should be better—Dan) or merely his approval of Gayle’s intention to infuse her photography with some authentic Jamesian chill on a windswept and lonely beach. Or it could be something darker – that whatever approaches should be—for their sakes—something truly momentous, something to break the cycle one way or another.

Back at the cottage, the radio is playing a song by The Fall. The late Mark E. Smith, that group’s famously contrary svengali, was an aficionado of James, as well as writers like Machen and Lovecraft. There is a sense that Humphrey is toying with us, giving glimpses of reality through fractured glass: a traditional ghost story filtered through the prism of late twentieth and early twenty-first century angst and the trappings of supernatural literature that post-dates James.

Trick is not overly self-referential in Jamesian terms, but it is undoubtedly a homage and there are obvious nods to the master and in particular to aspects of one of his most celebrated, and most adapted, tales. Humphrey plays with the reader, hinting that for Gayle and Dan their fate might be to be trapped in a story within an older story: “They built the church inside the ruins of the old one.”

Trick of the Light appears at first to be a straightforward narrative, a story of a break- up and a possible redemption—until its closing paragraphs, at least—but it has deeper tendrils that run through the soil of James’s earlier story and take its ideas in radically different directions. In James, Parkins is saved, physically at least; for Gayle and Dan, the outcome is much less certain, and the story’s conclusion is deliciously Aickmanesque in all its possibilities. This is a fine tale to add to the canon of modern supernatural fiction, and Humphrey achieves a pleasing synthesis of the best visual and literary markers of the two TV adaptations, too, creating something that reaches the delightfully unexpected in its tone and ending. I will be looking out for more of his work on the strength of this one.

This review first appeared in Ghosts & Scholars,

Live in Glasgow, 13 July 1998

22 years ago: a rare Glasgow performance by Richard Youngs and me, put on by the inestimable Liam Stefani as one of his Scatter nights at the legendary 13th Note.

Richard and I performed a bowed bass guitar duo. Also on the bill that night was remarkable saxophonist Tony Bevan. We were lucky to have the opportunity to play a trio with him: bowed bass guitars and Tony’s subterranean bass saxophone.

Both the duo and trio performances are here to download for free/pay what you like on Liam Stefani’s Scatter Archive.

茶 A Quiet Song

A Quiet Song is a new release I’ve been working on for a few months, and which is now available. Call it an isolation hymn; a paean to inwardness and reflection; a song of songs without words.

Sing—quietly—with me to the birds of this strange summer, in ceremony not in cerements.

You can listen to and buy the album here.

Distants

Released today, Distants is a collection of compilation tracks, online pieces (self-released and released by others) and some other oddities. There’s one very short unreleased track, which comes from the same sessions as Suburban Electrification.

There are 28 pieces across more than 120 minutes, and there’s a lot of variety in tone and texturesomething for everyone, perhaps? I’ve set the release as “pay what you like” so you can download for free if you wish. If you do want to pay something for it, today (Friday 5 June) is one of the days when Bandcamp is waiving its fees so today would be the perfect opportunity for a purchase! (And all other releases are set the same way, too, in case there’s anything you’re missing…)

You can find Distants here.

Thanks to you all for listening and I hope you are able to stay safe and well.

A new recording – endecade

I’ve uploaded a long—a very long—field recording piece today, endecade. At 200 minutes’ duration, this is the longest single release I’ve created. Click on the image below to go to the download page.

Click to open the album page in a new tab

It’s a largely quiet and unassuming recording made in a suburban back garden somewhere in Edinburgh in the last few hours of the last decade. The punctuation points are revelry and fireworks, but it mainly just exists for its duration and allows the listener to exist in that duration too. I wasn’t present for any of the timespan of the piece; my contribution to it all is absence.

endecade is available as a pay what you like album—and you can of course download for free if you want.

Thanks for listening.

Richard Skelton, ‘The Look Away’ (Xylem Books, 2018)

The Look Away is musician and poet Richard Skelton’s first lengthy work of fiction, a novella clothed in unconventional garb. Fleetingly available as a limited edition hardback from Corbel Stone Press earlier in the year, it now appears in paperback from new imprint Xylem Books, established by Skelton and Autumn Richardson to make some of their key publications more accessible.

The book has an intriguing structure. At first glance, the focus is its nameless narrator, a damaged man fleeing something unspoken—past violence and the dread of violence to come, it seems—the story revealing in anxious, often agitated fragments the inner monologue which punctuates his hermetic escape from the world. Wearing the mantle of the fugitive, he hides away in a shieling, the resonantly named Hollowscar, a tumbledown stone hut barely fit for human habitation. Although this is a fictional narrative, that place turns out to be a real location and an odd mid-19th century map of the area actually exists, preserved in the National Library of Scotland. The protagonist’s retreat might even be from life itself: “Are you come here to die?”, asks the woman who provides him with basic supplies in exchange for what money he has.

There are few characters besides this broken individual. Other human agents are glimpsed only from the corner of the eye or appear as uncertain figures dredged from memory. Those familiar with Skelton’s work won’t be surprised that landscape plays an integral part in the story, its sinews tightening around everything. It might be the book’s most solid and threatening presence. Significant also is the spectre of isolation, an antagonist as fearful as whatever has forced the man to seek shelter in Hollowscar on the boundaries of civilisation. “I am an island lost in an infinite sea.”

The animal world here is not the stuff of typical nature writing; clothed in the pelt of the supernatural, in the sense of being beyond the natural, it is strange and menacing. Death’s shadow looms large over both the man’s seclusion and the grey tracts of this undiscovered country. Prey to his own insignificance in the surrounding wildness and beset by nightmares of hunter and hunted, he is “heir to a land returned to nature,” a brutal inheritance that might engulf him forever.

The writing in The Look Away is striking and memorable. Each passage plays out note perfectly, descriptions given room to breathe on the page, empty space marking time between the narrator’s bouts of introspection. Cadences fall as in the quietly insistent coda to a requiem Mass, the strains filling the room. Phrases loop back on themselves in a fashion similar to the way Skelton’s music is constructed, evolving and building as the tension builds. Familiar refrains flow like a turbid river across the page, are reified in different configurations, their call and response helping to fashion a lattice on which the more linear aspects of the narrative are encouraged to grow. The author interpolates parts of the twenty-third psalm in the text in a remarkably unnerving way. Stripped back, these biblical excerpts find an uncanny significance in the narrator’s menaced inner torment: his cup may overflow, not with goodness or mercy, but with a cleansing flood which erases all trace of memory and existence.

As the book moves across its two distinct sections, fear of the man’s pursuers evolves into a terror of what surrounds and imprisons him. He longs to be discovered; his desire for a new escape becomes more palpable, but one realm of violence is replaced by another, a more ancient one. The imperative to look away, rooted in memory and a child’s awakening to the relentlessness of nature, becomes the central core of the book. He cannot turn from fate, because he is swallowed whole by it.

The Look Away is a bold, poetic meditation on the power of nature to forget, to erase the past, and to renew, even if that renewal is unforgiving and indiscriminate. I have rarely read anything so emotionally compelling in so unusual a form. Skelton has crafted an unsettling and finely-wrought tale of red-in-tooth-and-claw metonymy, and I hope there is much more of this to come from him.

[The original review for Caught By The River is here.]

Psammomancy booklet & CD

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Fine sand is poured from a pouch,
trickled onto a tray or table,
fingertips are used to find figures,
tracing, erasing, effacing, shaping . . .

The mysterious art of sand reading explored in text by Mark Valentine and music by Brian Lavelle, with black and white photography by Jo Valentine.

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This collaborative project is published in February 2018 by Seacliff Press, a small press Mark and I have established. There’s a Twitter account here for occasional news items.

Professionally printed 16 page booklet with professionally duplicated CD. Limited to 120 numbered copies, of which 100 only are for sale.


Psammomancy is available from Mark direct: contact markl [dot] valentine [at] btinternet [dot] com, removing spaces and replacing the words in brackets with characters.
(Note, the fifth character is the letter ell not the number one.)

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