Thursday 6 July
I had a small tangle with Hull's City of Culture festival at the weekend.

I started in the Ferens Gallery with the Skin exhibition. My favourite part of this was Spencer Tunick's recent antics in the city. There are few cities that wouldn't be improved by filling its streets with hundreds of naked blue people pretending to be the sea, and I think Hull particularly lends itself to this kind of treatment. The sea was very clearly cold. I then went over the road to the Maritime Museum for their "Cabinet of Curiosities", a collection of fossils and historical objects that were enlivened by half of the captions being pure invention by local schoolchildren, and the other half pure invention by Bill Bailey. I don't think it's any disrespect to Bill Bailey to say that the schoolchildren won.
 
I then went to the Albemarle Centre for the reason for my visit, "Anxiety Fanfare" by Jocelyn Pook. This took the form of five songs on the theme of anxiety. To liven things up, the singers had all been fitted with biometric recording devices, so that their anxiety levels could be displayed on the screen in front of us, which made it impossible not to try to stare them out to get the readings up. The conductor seemed to be having a panic attack himself, and showed us why when he turned to the audience for the third song and revealed himself to be a countertenor singing about the nerves he got just before having to sing ("Phlegm! Phlegm! I've got a zillion frogs!" is clearly a line that could only be written for a countertenor). I love Jocelyn Pook's music and have no idea why she isn't more widely known. I don't know anyone else who so deftly combines emotional depth with sheer wit, and the music is quite accessible and catchy (although you wouldn't want to be standing too near the mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg when she had an existential crisis in the final song. The soprano certainly didn't). In fact all the singers sang with such personality that it was difficult to believe it wasn't a staged opera.

The concert was also structured oddly - after the performance, which was about twenty minutes, there was an interview with the composer (who had also played violin in the piece) while half the audience barged past her on the way out and the latecomers tried to knock her over on the way in, and then they did the whole thing again, this time with two anxiety-inducing additions - an extra melody from an audience member's mobile phone, and a microphone fault for the countertenor. Just the same I can now claim to have done something I've never done in my life before. I enjoyed being in Hull.

Two new stories published. “The Losers’ Crusade” will be my fifth story for Third Flatiron, in their “Cat’s Breakfast” anthology – a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “The only real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers.”

And “The Longing”, my fourth story for The First Line:

“If you could not live without her,” she said. “Genuinely couldn’t. If you needed her to make sure you could take your next breath. You couldn’t exhale, but you knew that she would come and push your chest in and keep you going. And she was near, so near. You’re sure if you waved your arms around you’d touch her. She’d hear if you called. You only have to take a couple of steps and you’d find her. But after a couple of steps, she’s still a couple of steps away, and you still can’t exhale. So you have to keep going. And there’s no room in your brain for anything else. This is always the number one priority. For the first few nights, you don’t even look for anywhere to sleep. You just keep going. It takes a while for the survival mechanisms to kick in. If you knew how that felt, you’d have an idea what I feel.”

This is last year's news, but I ought to boost this review of my fantasy erotica novel "On Wings of Pity", from BCN.

"With the opening line (“I met the succubus when I was dying for the first time”), Neil James Hudson immediately caught my attention, and the tone was set for the rest of the story. There are plenty of other examples of clever phrasing throughout the book, which is one of its strengths. There are plenty of things happening throughout the story, it is fast paced, and you won’t get bored reading it ... All in all, I liked this book and would happily read more from the author."

Book available on Amazon here, or from Kobo with a £3 sign-up offer that would probably make it the cheapest thing you'll buy in a month.

Kobo adds "The Bog Warrior" as a related title. Then again, they also mention "Carnal Magic". You can decide for yourselves which is relevant.

Cross-posted to all my bits of the internet:

How the Trump Stole Christmas

The people were spending, and spending a lot,
But Vlad the Imputin in Russia was not.
He hated the time and he hated the season
For one misanthropic and world-weary reason.
So what was the cause of our Vladimir’s groaning?
As soon as it’s Christmas, the people start moaning.
“It’s all come too soon and it’s over too quick
The turkey’s too small and we ate till we’re sick
It’s all for the children, you have to be small,
But the kids don’t appreciate Christmas at all.
It used to be magic when I was a tot,
An apple and orange was all that you got.
But now we’re obsessed with amassing more stuff
And the presents I get simply aren’t good enough.
It‘s bad for the soul and it‘s bad for the planet
And Birmingham Council are trying to ban it!”
“What’s this?” muttered Vlad, watching everyone frown.
“The season of Christmas just brings them all down.
I know what to do to bring back their good cheer -
I’ll make Christmas Day, and its Eve, disappear.
But who shall I get to re-fill Santa’s sack?
There’s always the Trump - he likes taking things back.
He took back his country on finding it broken
And then he took back every word that he’d spoken.”

The Trump was a creature both hairy and yellow
That sat on the head of an unlucky fellow
Controlling his actions, controlling his thoughts,
Controlling his settlements outside the courts.
But Vlad took control of the arrogant pig,
His hackers attacked and reprogrammed his wig.
So Vlad was delighted about his new puppet,
He bent the West over and shoved the Trump up it.

The Trump set to work in American lands,
And the people cried, “look at the size of his hands!
Those hands are for grabbing and taking and stealing
And knocking down migrants while claiming they’re healing.”
The Trump set to work with the hands that he’d shown
And he built up a wall made of mortar and stone
And behind it he placed all the Christmassy things
Like the ropey old song by McCartney and Wings
And the couples who shout at each other with stress
And the cards that were sent to a former address
And TV show specials all filmed in July
And the carols sung flat as a post-Brexit high
And all of the office night out indiscretions
The genitals copied in xeroxing sessions
The Christmas release by the X-Factor winner
And the gaseous fumes we emit after dinner.

With these all immured, the Trump turned his attention
To Biblical tales of divine intervention.
“I think that some changes,” he said, “are in order.
The shepherds should stay on their side of the border.
The part played by Gabriel shouldn’t be large,
We’ll make our ambassador Nigel Farage.
And Mary, we’ll say, just to keep it Christmassy,
Not touched by the Lord, but was grabbed by the pussy.
And though the Wise Men said that Jesus was king,
Let me tell you, these experts don’t know everything.
We’ll cancel the census, pay taxes to no man -
It’s just the invention of some nasty Roman.
And now it’s all true!” said the Trump.  “Although actually
Some of it needs to be taken post-factually.”

That night, as he slept in some awkward positions
The Trump was approached by three dire apparations.
He knew who they were, though their faces were hidden -
The ghosts of Theresas May, Might Not, and Didn’t.
“Oh phantoms,” he said, “with your wails so intensive,
Your chains made of iron, and your trousers expensive,
Why have you arrived at this ungodly hour
To my roost in the roof at the top of Trump Tower?”
And then with a howling and wailing and keening
They cried, “we are here to explain the true meaning
Of Christmas, to someone who thinks it’s a con.
Christmas means Christmas!”  And then they were gone.

“Well that was unhelpful,” the Trump said and yawned,
And then he discovered that Christmas had dawned.
“I must see the people!” he cried.  “How they’ll cheer
To discover that Christmas is cancelled this year!
They’ll dance in the streets, and they’ll all raise their voices
To show how a Christmasless person rejoices!”
But all he could hear was a low steady droning -
For all of the people were still bloody moaning!
“It’s all come too quick and there’s nothing on telly
Our relatives came and they’re old and they’re smelly
It’s cold and it’s freezing and still hasn’t snowed
And I borrowed enough to pay half what I owed.”
But when no attention was paid to their moans,
They spent Christmas Day simply glued to their phones.
“How odd,” said the Trump.  “I removed all the traces
Of Christmas, but still there’s no joy on their faces.
So Christmas is something that nobody stops,
However expensive it gets in the shops.”
So then the Trump ordered a huge wrecking ball.
He started it up and demolished the wall,
And Christmas was back!  There was no need to shout it.
If only he’d done risk assessments about it.
The ball swung around, to his hairline it sped,
And it knocked the Trump clean off the poor fellow’s head.
“I’m free!” shouted Donald, “a man once again!
Now the Trump’s off my head, not controlling my brain!
Give thanks to the ball, it has served the world well!”
And then it swung back and killed Donald as well.

And Vladimir Putin watched all this take place,
And he shook both his fists, slapped his palm on his face.
“I’ll never make anyone happy because
That’s the last time I try!” he exclaimed.  And it was.

So celebrate Christmas and be of good cheer
And let’s all give our thanks it’s the end of the year.
And if you feel something’s gone missing, don’t jump
To conclusions - it may have been thieved by the Trump.
And there’s one particular thing you might lack
For the Trump stole some cards and did not give them back
And I didn’t forget them, whatever you feel -
For they said, “to my friends, Merry Christmas!  Love, Neil.”
I went back to the Modern Art Gallery this morning to see the thing I didn’t have time for yesterday, Paintings 1963-2015 by Bridget Riley.  Although this was presented as an overview of her career (she was most famous in the sixties but is still working today) it was really about a dozen random pictures, all exemplifying the “op art” that she’s famous for - swirling repeated patterns of the sort that you often find in books of optical illusions.  I quickly discovered that you could cross your eyes in front of them and treat them as autostereograms, and went round the exhibition a second time watching each pattern take a physical form in the air between the wall and my eyes.  This can’t possibly be what the artist intended, but I have never been a respecter of artists’ intentions.  Nor of cartographers’, as I left the gallery by such a wrong route that it seriously called into question my ability to carry out any of my other plans for the day.
   Nonetheless, I made it to Radio Active, the revival of the eighties radio programme that I felt should go to as a kind of comedy pilgrimage.  Angus Deayton, Helen Atkinson-Wood, Michael Fenton-Stevens and Philip Pope made up four of the original cast - I’d assumed Geoffrey Perkins was too busy, but in fact he was too dead, and was represented only by a pre-recorded segment (I now have to question how hard “pre” was working in that word, but never mind).  I’d wondered how they were going to present a radio programme on stage, and the answer is, they pretended it was still a radio programme, with the four actors stepping up to the mike holding their scripts and switching from character to character at a dizzying rate.  The show was compiled from the fourth series, and I was struck by how their voices were the same as on the original broadcasts, even though they were all looking their age (Deayton didn’t look too bad actually, perhaps because I wasn’t that near the front).  They finished, inevitably, with a performance of “Meaningless Songs (In Very High Voices)” by the HeeBeeGeeBees, and I did wonder if it wouldn’t have killed them to write some new material and add a few jokes that acknowledged it was no longer 1985, but a lot of this stuff was as funny as when I first heard it as a starry-eyed teenager and I’m glad I made the effort.
   In the evening I went to Miranda Kane’s new show 07800 834030, as I‘d loved The Coin-Operated Girl and wondered if she‘d be as good without that subject matter.  The theory behind this show was that the show would be based on calls and texts from the audience, however as she pointed out, the Free Fringe guaranteed you a room and a microphone, but not a phone signal.  Instead she built the show around messages she’d previously been left.  She began by handing out social awkwardness stickers, two of which I grabbed - one saying “I’m not listening to you because I’m trying to think of something interesting to say, but I’ve got nothing”, the second saying “your face is too out of context for me to recognise right now”.  Her first voicemail was an inaudible one; when she rang him back via internet, he told a story in which he and his girlfriend had used mayonnaise as a substitute for lube.  I won’t tell the punchline, partly because it’s disgusting and partly because it was such an obvious urban myth that I had to question the veracity of the whole show (I googled it as soon as I got back, Snopes’ version dates from 1999).  In fact I think MK was innocent here, none of the other stories seem to be online and as she encouraged the audience to come back as the show was different every night, it would difficult to have plants in the audience.  It was just her bad fortune that the first person she rang was a liar - I sometimes forget that bullshit exists outside of Facebook.  Before we’d finished she’d managed to phone up a couple and convince them to move to Norway because of his sweating problem, and got the audience to tell her about their worst sexual experiences (remember I was wearing a sticker saying I couldn‘t think of anything interesting to say).  It may not have been the deepest thing I’ve ever seen at Edinburgh, but it was hilarious and filthy which is good enough for me.
   After this I succeeded in my second attempt to see Samantha Pressdee’s show Sextremist.  Pressdee’s thesis is that if men are legally allowed to show their nipples, so should women, and she put her money where her mouth was by performing topless (with the phrase “still not asking for it” written on her stomach).  I am a firm believer that one can be a feminist and like boobs, in fact I’d go so far as to say this is my life’s project, but an illiberal subroutine in my head suspects that the inequality would be better settled if men were forced to put them away.  I also feel that the problem might be less with the law and more with creepy men following her around.  She told a lot of stories about being a groupie with people I’m too unfashionable to have heard of, and had a lot to say about women’s control of their own bodies that I could scarcely disagree with.
   I called it a night after this.  On the way home I overheard a couple arguing.  “We could just look at a map,” he was saying.  I think he was puzzled by my attempt to hire him.  If anyone else wants to follow me around in Edinburgh telling me to look at a map every thirty seconds, I can afford about fifty pounds a day.
First order of the day was the “Surreal Encounters” exhibition at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.  This was easy to find as I’d been there before, a point that was to echo through my mind as I realised that I’d set off in the wrong direction as soon as I left my flat, and wondered how long I’d leave it before finally admitting that I wasn’t going to correct my route through instinct and would have to simply retrace my steps.  Still, I had plenty of time so arriving an hour later than I intended wasn’t a problem, and my own surreal route seemed entirely suitable.  The exhibition was enormous, taking up 13 rooms and including a lot of very familiar works, including paintings by Dali and Magritte that I’ve known since I was a teenager (there was something thrilling about finding myself next to a genuine lobster telephone that wasn’t at all diminished by the news that I wasn‘t allowed to call Hitler on it).
   I did, however, have one massive problem with the exhibition.  I know I’m being a bit obvious and born-again, but it just doesn’t make sense to put on an exhibition of twentieth-century surrealism, especially of this size - around 200 works, I think - and have so few by women artists.  The gallery mentions Leonor Fini’s “Due Donne” and Dorothea Tanning’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” among its four highlights, correctly in my opinion, but doesn’t mention that that’s one sixth of women’s entire contribution to the show.  Women were painting alongside the men, exhibiting with the men, and in my opinion, were usually better.  It’s not the gallery’s fault - the show was made up of four large private collections - but they didn’t seem to notice.  The result is that they represented virtually any man who’s ever drawn a pair of boobs without a head, but cut out half of surrealism’s history, and there’s an argument that it’s the better half.
   If one can stomach that, this must have been one of the best exhibitions of surrealism to have happened in this country, but I found it was Dorothea Tanning’s picture I really couldn’t drag myself away from, and I wished I could have gone into the building next door for the missing half.  In any case, I left with any sense of reality deliciously purged from my mind, and set off for my next show, in the wrong direction.
   I eventually arrived though, and I could see from the queue that half of the audience for Solotronik’s “The Sanctuary of the Minds” wasn’t going to make it to the end.  Perhaps I’m wrong and the audience for electronic music is indeed made up of pensioners and Japanese tourists, but events would suggest that my prejudice had some foundation.  Solotronik consisted of a man playing music through two laptops, although in fact he may just have been e-mailing the woman next to me who was unable to tear her eyes away from her phone for the entire concert.  The music was actually pretty good, if a bit derivative, but I felt that the visuals were the result of a sixth-former applying his first video editing software to some home-shot footage that was never terribly interesting in the first place.  Fortunately Solotronik spiced things up by ensuring that his head was usually in the way of the projector.  The audience had indeed halved by the end, which was a shame as the leave camp had missed the chance of a free dvd of the show, which they could have watched and walked out of to their heart’s content.
   I rounded off the afternoon with “The Sensible Dresser” by Elsie Diamond, this was a hilarious account of her experiences as a dresser in an opera house told in burlesque form, or at least as burlesque as you’re going to get in a free show in the afternoon.  I have long since learnt to sit in an inaccessible part of the room at shows like these in order to avoid potential audience participation.  This was a mistake as it meant I didn’t get to participate in such harmless horseplay as whipping her behind as she sang “The Masochism Tango”, or helping her in and out of her clothes during the costume changes (hint to the man at the back: if a woman asks you to zip her dress up, put the beer down).  However I at least avoided the fate of the man who was forced on stage to play the role of a nasty singer who made ED sew a button on his trousers while he was still wearing them.  The poor sap had to sit there while she fiddled around his groin with a needle and thread, singing a version of Radiohead’s “Creep” to him - “You’re a creep, you’re a weirdo, you’ve got a semi, it smells of smegma” and the like.  Some of it was quite touching as well, and it finished with a burlesque strip with a “Les Mis” theme.  As I left I remarked to her, “You’re the weirdest looking person I’ve ever given money to,” and spent the next half hour wondering if I should run back and say, “you do realise I was referring to the fact that you’re wearing a false moustache and beard, tricolor hot pants, and you’ve got your boobs out?  I wasn’t actually saying you look weird.”  But I left it.
   The evening didn’t quite work out.  Misirlou’s act consisted of standing outside the venue being annoyed that it was closed and they hadn’t told her.  I still have no clear idea what the act proper might have consisted of.  I had a ticket for Samantha Pressdee later, so I sat in a nearby bar and decided to go to the first free show I found.  This turned out to be The Middle-Class Rapper, but as I was queueing a few things occurred to me: it might be a one-joke show, I’d probably have to leave early, and I was the only person in the queue.  I ran.  I finally made it to Samantha Pressdee, only to find that the show was cancelled for personal reasons, a fact I would have known had I checked my messages before leaving.  So I saw nothing in the evening, which is the kind of thing that can easily happen at the Edinburgh festivals, although as I trudged home alone among all the partying groups of friends, it didn’t seem to be happening to anyone else.
Sunday
One of the best things about going to Edinburgh every year is that I don’t make rookie mistakes such as buying tickets at the last minute or setting off too late.  This is what went through my mind as I raced through town trying to get to the only EIF show that hadn’t sold out, Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart.  It was entirely through choice that I had decided not to buy a seat but a piece of floor space, and I felt remarkably smug and superior to the seated people as I was shown to my cushion in front of the stage.  Actually this turned out to be the best seat in the house, the stage was only raised by about a foot and I had a perfect view of everything that happened.  The show itself was as folk as folk - the first line was “As I wandered up yon hill”, and I seriously worried that she was going to sail out of Liverpool, never to return.  Not my type of music really, but I was quite engrossed for the whole evening, as she weaved a story of her neighbour’s grandparents’ lives through it, took in descriptions of the local area and wildlife, herbalism, history and folklore, and Alex Ferguson’s surprise decision to bring on John Hewitt in the 87th minute of the 1983 Cupwinners’ Cup Final between Aberdeen and Real Madrid.  Only in the second half did it become clear that the real theme from which everything rippled back and forwards was her own experience of childbirth.  The music was pleasant and the whole experience a charming evening that I’d just never have gone to deliberately.
   I walked back to my room, delighted that I hadn’t made a rookie mistake like forget that I wouldn’t be able to get a bottle of wine after 10 o’clock.  I deliberately chose to stay sober tonight.  It was weird.  The room looked so real.
Anyone who didn't pick up a copy of Bike Immunity news at Bicon can obtain one by the postal system here.  Be sure to thank your postie when they deliver it.
I was actually quite down and unenthusiastic about still going to Bicon after all these years, and I came very close to knocking the zine on the head at least, but I had a good enough time while I was there.  On Friday I thought of a couple of jokes about the workshop I'd just been to, and I thought I'd better write them down for when I write a "what I did on my Bicon" piece in a panic in a year's time.  Then I thought of a few more jokes and kept making a note of them, and realised I was writing the piece as I went along, so I spent the entire weekend acting out a comedy sketch that I hadn't finished writing yet.  I think this means I'm in for another year.
I'm delighted to report that my novel On Wings of Pity has now been published by eXcessica, and is now available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play and Kobo.  The book is an erotic paranormal story about incubi and succubi, blurb as follows:

     Marec Neumann has been diagnosed with Thirds, a new disease that kills its victims in exactly fifteen days. He has one hope--Ellathea, the succubus who cured him of meningitis when he was a student.
     But the incubi and succubi have their own problems--they are under attack from the angels, powerful ethereal beings who have a plan of their own for humanity. And that plan does not include the survival of the incubi and succubi, nor of Marec himself.
     Marec becomes the lover of Ellathea and the incubus Azaret, as well as Catamella, the angel who infected him, and who is determined he should die on the appointed day. But Marec has a unique role to play in the battle. The stakes are his own life, the lives of his demon lovers, and the very future of humanity.

The film rights are still available.

Quick round-up:
Third Flatiron has published my story "The Mytilenian Delay" in their "Hyperpowers" anthology;
The First Line has published my story "A Visitor from the Independent Republic of Scotland" in their spring issue;
and eXcessica will be publishing my novel On Wings of Pity some time in July.
Unfortunately this means I don't have time to write blog posts, but you can get computers to do that sort of thing nowadays.

Now I'm not one to blow my own trumpet (although that should probably be recorder, since playing "Merrily We Roll Along" in junior school is the zenith of my musical achievement), but I think I'm justified in having a quick parp.  Des Lewis, publisher of Nemonymous, has been reviewing my self-published collection of short stories "The End of the World: A User's Guide".

Let's have some quotes: "staggering ... a work of genius ... a masterpiece ...brilliantly witty ...mind-boggling ... NJH does something I feel no author can, i.e. make you doubt your own reality - for real ... this is indeed a great book."

I've decided to let this go to my head.  Des's reviews can be found here.

A need to buy the book can be satisfied by clicking here.

Some more shows I saw in Edinburgh. 

After all the art and music I lightened things up a bit.  In all honesty I’ve lost my taste for the standard stand-up “what is it about breakfast cereals?” comic, making comments that are clever and funny at the time but which are instantly forgettable, whereas I’m quite happy with anyone who can be funny while actually delivering a talk for an hour.  With this in mind I finally tracked down Brydie Lee-Kennedy Loves You Two, in which Lee-Kennedy talks us through her recent polyamorous dating escapades, completely undaunted by the fact that she’d ditched one and married the other shortly before the show.  She interweaved this with the story of how her grandparents met, a charming device that underlined her point that love was all that matters, not its form (she didn’t really address her bisexuality on the grounds that her relationships with women tended not to be disastrous, and therefore didn’t give her much material).  Two people walked out halfway through, to her relief; they hadn’t been enjoying it, and because of the lighting, they were the only ones she could see.

   After this I went to see Helen Lederer at the Book Festival.  My interest in her stems from a radio programme in the eighties called In One Ear, which was a massive inspiration on my own comedy writing.  As such, she can claim (at most, I suppose) one quarter of the inspiration for the solitary joke that I sold last year, and as a quarter of the fee for that was half of what I paid to see her, I reckon she owes me.  Mostly her appearance took the form of an interview, during which Lee Randall occasionally managed to get a question while Helen just talked.  It was a joy to watch all her old gestures and tropes, but it was also odd to see them happening while she seemed to be opening up about her emotions and various things that had happened in her past.  She never seemed to come out character and take the mask off, while saying things that sounded as if she had.  Which made me wonder if the “mask” was the real Helen Lederer, or if we all are.  Which was perhaps a bit profound to be thinking of given that her book seems to be about a woman on a diet, or is it actually to the point?  Brr.

   After this I went to see Prey by Nicci Take.  When I got here I almost left, as she seemed to be a drag act, and the prospect of an hour’s lip synching to Beyonce (which is how she started) didn’t appeal.  But once she settled down and got on to the point of the show, things got more interesting.  Nicci was a man who started dressing as a woman, and who then, much to her surprise (I don’t know where he or she is with pronouns, and suspect they’d be surprised and amused to hear the rest of us tying ourselves in knots over it) found herself on the receiving end of some fairly poor behaviour - not transphobia, but just everyday sexism from men who took her as a woman.  The occasional unsound comment just emphasised the point that she hadn’t learnt about gender from a book or a workshop, but by being on the sharp end of behaviour that had previously been invisible.  It was all more thought-provoking than the start of the show suggested.

Tuesday 25 August part 1.  In which Neil lays to rest a 28-year-old ghost, and reckons art is more fun than xenophobia.

The saddest thing I saw in Edinburgh was a couple of young men with placards labelled “Stop all imigration now”, and I hope the reader won’t find me too pretentious if I feel obliged to add, in square brackets, “[sic]”.  The temptation to tell them how to spell “immigration” was almost insurmountable, as was the temptation to inform that if they wanted to live in the country they should learn the language.  But it would have been as unfair coming from me as it would from them, and anyway, there was the small but real possibility that this was some kind of publicity stunt for a fringe show, so I ignored them and went on my way.
   My way was to the “art kiosk” for the guided tour of the art festival.  While I was waiting I was able to look round the exhibition inside, which was by an artist called Antonia Banados.  There was no information on it, but it seemed to consist of “rocks” arranged in cabinets and collections, as if they were part of a Victorian geological or fossil collection.  The “rocks” had very artificial shapes though, and strongly reminded me of something that I couldn’t put my finger on - possibly car parts.  I later learnt that they were polystyrene packaging from white goods, thereby making transient objects into near-eternal ones.  Clever stuff, I rather liked it.
   This was just as well for two reasons; Antonia was the tour guide, and I was the only person who had turned up.  When I realised this, my first thought was to leg it.  This was not the first time this had happened to me.  When I first arrived at university in 1987 I went for a guided tour of the Sainsbury Centre, imagining that I might meet a few new people with an interest in contemporary art.  Instead I found myself following two blokes round the gallery at a time when I was almost incapable of speech without having a drink first, and was completely devoid of any kind of intelligent comment or question.  I found the whole experience so embarrassing that it was nearly ten years before I went back.
   But I stuck with it, and had one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve ever had in Edinburgh.  I couldn’t have asked for a better guide, I very quickly lost any sense of awkwardness and Antonia took me to some really interesting places.  First off was SING SIGN by Hanna Tuulikki, a film of a live performance that had taken place in an alley off the Royal Mile, which was being shown in an unnecessarily dark room in an unnecessarily old building up some unnecessarily steep steps (I have a theory that Edinburgh was originally flat but had to be reshaped due to an overproduction of steps\).  The work was an attempt to depict the Royal Mile, and the various buildings and alleys along it, partly through costume (the two performers appeared to be wearing a list of places along the road, through song (a hocket that was based in some way upon the topography) and finally through movement, using gestures, miming and good honest British Sign Language to illustrate the route.  I was never able to link up what was happening with the street itself - at least one building appeared to be exploding - but the whole effect was captivating.
   From there we headed to Trinity Apse to see Holoturian by Ariel Guzik.  Unfortunately I wasn’t part of his target audience, because I’m not a whale.  Guzik has apparently decided that the only people worth talking to are cetaceans, and has therefore devoted his life to designing methods of doing so.  The centrepiece of this exhibition was a capsule designed to be sent down to the whales, containing electromagnetically-played strings that made a soothing whalesong-type sound, and a living object - a cactus.  The point of this was that the cactus needs its dangerous spikes because below them it’s so fragile, and so, o whales, are we.  Too little too late I reckon, and the whole project is as mad as a moose, but there’s no denying that it was an extraordinarily beautiful object, and its setting, a vaulted gothic church building, made me feel as if we were already underwater.
   Next we had a quick peek at Work No 1059 by Martin Creed.  This was the renovation of some steps off Market Street, in a stairwell that Antonia told me had become run down and was being used as a toilet.  The steps were now slabs of marble, each in a different colour and pattern.  Steps somehow struck me as being the most apt medium for an Edinburgh installation, and by now I was frankly glad that I only had to look at them rather than climb them.  And it was clearly still being used as a toilet, making it one of the more interactive artworks I saw this week.
   We then found ourselves at Waverley Station for Tree No 5 by Charles Avery.  For the past eleven years Avery has been making pictures of a fictional island called Onomatopeia, and now seems to have the unsettling habit of creating real objects that were originally only present in the two-dimensional world, a point that was more noticeable when Antonia took me to the larger exhibition of his work at the Ingleby Gallery.  This colourful artificial tree was originally a meeting-place in the fictional world, and was now in reality in the meeting-place at the station, where it didn’t seem at all out of place.  In the meantime, posters being worn in the pictures were reincarnated as real posters, some of the monstrous animals were lying around in boxes, and if anyone had had the wit to make a real version of the “unicorn” t-shirt, I would be wearing it now.  It was all a little disorienting, and completely won me over.  It’s just a shame that the tree can’t stay there permanently.
   One final trek and we made it to Emma Finn’s Double Mountain, a bizarre film narrated by a mountain and depicted in such a stylised manner as almost to be a cartoon.  Although there was a definite story there, few of the characters seemed to interact with each other, with only the mountain having any real personality.
   All told it had been a wonderful tour.  All the works I saw were thought-provoking, and Antonia had been the best of eggs and gone well beyond the extra mile.  And, as someone who’d come to this country from Chile, was exactly the kind of thing that our friends with the missing “m” were trying to ban.  Screw them, I know who contributed more to the world this afternoon.  And although my tastes aren’t everyone’s, and I’m sure they enjoyed their placard waving, I think I beat them at being alive on this occasion.


In which M C Escher is on the level, the Mechanisms get a frog in their throats and Max Richter saves humanity.
Monday 24 August

The first thing I wanted to see today was The Amazing World of M C Escher at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which was just round the corner from my room, but whose existence I had never suspected.  The exhibition took up four large rooms and was so large that they could devote a whole room to the dull stuff he did before he became M C Escher.  Every famous image he created was represented in some form or another, as well as plenty of detail on the technical processes themselves.  His attention to detail was such that he once re-did an entire picture when he realised that the printing process meant that he’d shown the stars of The Plough back to front (although I think this would have suited it, and in fact perhaps he should have had two Ploughs pointing at each other).  My only criticism of the exhibition was that each room wasn’t up a flight of stairs, which finished on the same level you started from.  It’s not as if they didn’t have the blueprints.
   After this, as my unique geographical awareness had me wandering around the building looking for an exhibition that was in another gallery completely, I found a film showing about Escher.  I couldn’t really be bothered with it, but I was astonished to notice that the wall was decorated with original works by Dali, Magritte and Picasso.  Where I come from that’s a major exhibition, and I realised that despite loving his art for decades, I’ve never actually come face to face with a real Dali before.  Being able to see the brush strokes was almost like shaking his hand or tweaking his moustache (which I’m sure he would have allowed if I’d paid him enough).  And this was only the prologue to a permanent surrealist exhibition with works by some major artists.  Frankly I can’t even remember what was there; I realised after a while that I’d just become over-arted, and I had to go home for a coffee, preferably made from a kettle that didn’t double as a lobster.
   As the show I wanted to see this afternoon proved to be taking place elsewhere and elsewhen completely (time and space are relative at the festivals, and the sort of relative who communicates only through Christmas cards), I had a break until early evening, when I went for my usual pilgrimage to The Mechanisms.  Not having a new show, they were repeating their old ones and were now onto “High Noon Over Camelot”.  I saw this twice last year, so fortunately they performed a remix, including Raffaela’s coughing solo (off-mike and between lines, to be fair) and a persistent low buzzing which I assumed was an early Moog synthesiser, but which was actually a technical fault so bad that they finally had to stop the show, and which means I may to re-assess some of Tangerine Dream’s first albums.  While they frantically unplugged and replugged every cable they could find, the Toy Soldier entertained us with frog facts.  We learnt, for example, that frogs vomit by turning their stomachs inside out.  It killed the story stone dead, mind, but there wasn’t much they could do about it and they eventually finished without microphones.  Just bad luck, and it won’t stop me coming back next year, provided they arsing well write a new show by then.
   Then I popped over the road for my only brush with the main festival itself.  Now: I have no real problem with my name.  It’s workable, easy to pronounce and does the job it’s asked to.  But if there are people in this world called Max Richter, it’s hardly worth the rest of us having names.  Seriously, if there was a deadly radiation leak that needed fixing, who would you choose, Neil Hudson or Max Richter?  At the very least he should be the hero of a Gerry Anderson supermarionation show.  I imagine that somewhere there’s an alien mineral called Richternite that takes away his powers, but it wasn’t in evidence tonight, where he was playing his own music with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (at the front of the stage with his back to the conductor, as there are some people you just can’t tell what to do).  The first piece was “Recomposed”, a live orchestral “remix” of Vivaldi’s Four Seaons, which might seem a bit presumptuous in most composers, but when you’re called Max Richter you can recompose whatever you like.  In particular he got rid of that annoying unmemorable theme from the first movement.  Most of the musicians were standing as an aid to bounciness, and I believe that Chambers are going to change the definition of “prance” to “the thing that Daniel Hope did on stage while playing the main violin part” (all from memory, I believe, to enhance pranceability).  All good stuff though, and the audience seemed to enjoy it as much as the performers.  There was a short interval, during which Max stopped the Mysterons from invading the earth, and then they played Memoryhouse, which was lovely but apparently completely ignored on its first release, not getting a single review.  This was quite an achievement, given that it was released on a BBC spin-off label and the BBC has a music magazine, but this probably says less about their impartiality than their internal communications.  I was surprised by how profoundly sad the music was, in fact this may have been the most consistently sad concert I’ve ever heard.  Heaven knows what was on his mind when he wrote it; our Max can save the world, but I guess he can’t mend his broken heart.
   Although now I think of it, he may just be a porn star.
The start of my write-up of my trip to Edinburgh takes me to Sunday night and “Alien Lullabies”.  Later instalments may be a while in coming.

Sunday 23 August
Hadrian was an amateur.  In 122 AD he spent six years constructing an 80-mile wall in the north of England, heavily fortified and staffed by garrisons, apparently to form an impregnable barrier between the empire and the Scottish rebels.  All he really needed was the Highways Department.  Closing the main road into Edinburgh was fair enough; closing the diversion as well was pure genius that effectively closed Scotland (or, as the Scottish would say, closed England).  The only way through was to follow tiny by-roads that were so cramped that I expected to hear the Mission Impossible theme and end up at an air-conditioning grille.  However, by using the time-honoured technique of following someone who looked as if they knew where they were going, I finally arrived after only a seven-hour drive, which Google Maps had assured me would take less than four “without traffic” (a somewhat odd disclaimer that seems to assume that traffic is an unusual thing to find on a road).
   This meant that I couldn’t get to any evening shows, but I was still able to turn up for the first thing I was booked for, Alien Lullabies by Fiona Soe Paing.  I’d booked this on a whim and didn’t actually expect to like it, but I was quite wrong.  The show consisted of a nightmarish surrealist animated film by Zennor Alexander set to electronic music by Soe Paing, who also provided live vocals to it, wearing a hat so floppy that I expected it to apologise and suggest we try again in ten minutes.  I found it entirely to my taste, and although we ought to be past this, I was also secretly pleased that it had been produced by a woman of Chinese descent (although when she talked to the audience at the end she was clearly as Scottish as anyone needs).  There was a time when the only people who had the time, money and sheer bloody-mindedness to spend a year building a machine that goes “zzzzttt” were German men, and the only woman in electronic music was Wendy Carlos, who cheated slightly by starting out as Walter.  Those days are long past, and I think we sometimes forget that girls are sitting in their bedrooms geeking out over bleepy software as much as boys.  I was also pleased that surrealism still has the power to disturb and unsettle when in the right hands, and hasn’t just been assimilated by advertising.  I accepted a free poster from her on the way out, which I then packed so badly I had to recycle it as soon as I got home, and went home pleased that something I’d just taken a punt on had turned to be A-star stuff.  I really don’t think I’d seen anything quite like it.

Thursday
I’d supposed I’d just go straight home today, but the temptation to stick around was too much, so I left my luggage at reception and had a look at the City Art Gallery. One thing I learnt here is that it’s an increasingly big mistake to go up “up” escalators if there’s no obvious sign of a “down” one. I wonder how many of Edinburgh’s art fans find themselves trapped on the top floor with no hope of escape, presumably to become food for aliens or some such. Anyway, there was a lot here that I liked, including a large exhibition called “Where Do I End And You Begin?” (another clue, I think, that the top floor was being used to extract our life forces for the benefit of our Centauran overlords). I particularly liked Arpita Singh’s paintings, which seemed to be of real life painted over the maps where they were happening, Kushana Bush’s paintings of people who seemed to be leaving a dominant cuture and entering a subculture, and Masooma Syed‘s models of architectural structures that had been made out of packaging, particularly whisky boxes. I suspect that I was reading completely different meanings from those intended, but that’s the nature of art. I also liked Rebecca Belmore‘s Wild, a four-poster bed refitted with hair and animal skins, not least because I was able to use it to make a rope ladder and escape the building. But at least one member of staff was able to compliment me on my hat on the way out. Seriously Edinburgh, what is it about hats? If you like them so much, get a hat.

There were other things I’d wanted to see - it was a shame I missed Miranda Kane’s new show, as I’d liked her last year - but I found myself finishing off by going back to The Mechanisms. This time I was more familiar with the music, and could appreciate how cleverly the story had been constructed. When Johnny d’Ville half sang and half shouted the line “But you’re a liar!” he pointed directly at me, easily the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me at the fringe, and this time I found to my surprise that I was the one with the tear in his eye at the final showdown. But as Mordred rode off into the sunset, I realised it was time for me to do the same, and I took my leave of the fringe, returning to a life of normality and the occasional vitamin.
Wednesday 20 August
I finally managed to meet up with Rowan for coffee and lunch, after establishing that I’ve been walking past her flat several times a day since I got here. As a consequence, I now believe I know everything about next year’s Bicon, as my brain simply refused to process words such as “might”, “maybe”, “possibly”, “actually no” and the like. Lunch was vegetarian haggis tacos with guacamole, which made me suspect that either everything Scottish should be Mexicanised, or everything Mexican should be Scottified. I could certainly go with Tijuana Bagpipes.

I had to run off though as this was my best hope of seeing The Mechanisms’ new show, “High Noon Over Camelot”. I’m sure that if I wrote a story about gunslingers of the round table in space, no magazine would even read it (although come to think of it I think Circlet are soliciting such), but once again the whole thing worked excellently, even though the return of a couple of former Mechanisms meant that they were now a nine-piece on a five-piece stage. Once again I would find it impossible to justify why I love the band so much, but I know I’m not alone because at least one person told them afterwards that it was even better the second time around and that she’d been in tears at one point. I bought the CD with the minimum of obsequiousness and scuttled away.

Aware that I seemed to have spent a bit too much time watching absolute filth, I decided to watch Joanne Tremarco’s one-woman show which was billed as “untwisting the herstory of the world”. I therefore took my seat for Women Who Wank and was treated to a partly improvised show in which she seemed to spend half of it impersonating genitalia. I think that two things set her apart from anyone else. Firstly, her improvisations were largely based on gesture and body language - in fact, during the first five minutes, as she desperately tried to keep her hand away from her genitals at the sight of certain members of the audience, I wondered if the whole show would be mimed. Secondly, this was without doubt the most spirited yelling of the word “wankers!” at the two audience members who walked out that I’ve ever heard. In fact the biggest audience wanker was the man in the hat who forgot to switch his mobile off, and I deeply regret now that I didn’t do as she said and pass the phone over, because I think I’d be getting far fewer life insurance spam calls if they’d been forced to speak to a clitoris. Excellent stuff, I think, although not everyone in the audience got it. After this I went back to my room, only to be accosted by a Mechanism to whom I was able to pour out all the obsequiousness that I’d managed to avoid at the gig. She even gave me the flyer I needed to complete my collection.

In the evening I more or less randomly went to see Frenchy and the Punk, a two-piece steampunk bank in that most steampunk of venues, a bingo hall. They admitted that steampunk music only really meant music that steampunks listen to, but this was good stuff, although I wasn’t tempted by a CD.

I then moved on to the only show that really fell flat for me, The Widow, the Virgin and the Lamb. This claimed to be a “bouffon show”, and it’s possible that if I knew more about what that meant I might have appreciated it more. The Widow came on first, with blacked-out tooth and ghastly make-up, but it became clear that her only plan was to embarrass the audience rather than do anything funny or interesting (at one point she had people on stage playing I-Spy). The Virgin and the Lamb were better, Mary and Jesus apparently on a cheap flight and indulging in disco dancing. Some of it was funny but again, I had the idea that they were trying to be strange for the sake of it, rather than having a real surrealist sensibility. They also had some interaction with the audience, and at one point Jesus asked my name, said we’d known each other for 2000 years and that he liked my hat (I have more sense than to sit at the front at these shows). There were some good ideas but I felt that it had misfired, and by the end of it I was just relieved to get away.

(I’m a little embarrassed, by the way, that all of this is coming across as a set of reviews. I hate reviews, didn’t consult any before deciding where to go, and don’t understand why everyone else seems so obsessed about them. These notes are somewhat selfish attempts to say what mattered to me, and what didn’t, not to try to say anything meaningful about the acts themselves. If anyone disagrees with me, that only means they’re a different person, and I’d hate it if anyone avoided seeing an act simply because I didn’t get it - which is, after all, most likely to be a lack of understanding on my part and my loss.)

Anyway, it was my last night here, and I had a long drive back tomorrow, possibly in a car with bouffon brakes, so I decided to call it a night.
It’s a good job I haven’t done anything else interesting since I got back from Edinburgh, or I’d be getting well behind now.

Tuesday
I spent the morning looking at art galleries, as paintings are better at getting out of bed than performers. I found Stephen Campbell’s installation On Form and Fiction at the National Gallery to be interesting: a room full of pictures from various sources, apparently including film noir and Boys’ Own adventures, while “Je t’aime ... moi non plus” played continuously in the background. It’s visual effect doesn’t really come across in words, but I would like to think that’s very much in the nature of a successful artwork. I liked it ... me neither.

So the first actual show I went to was Emily Snee is Bifurious. I was relieved that there were already three people in the room when I arrived. “These are my family,” Emily explained, and I realised that I was the audience. Her songs were pretty good, mostly about her various relationships and only getting slightly awkward when she started singing about her family. The only oddity was that although she was certainly singing about relationships with more than one gender, she never directly addressed the concept of bisexuality, even though I suspect the show’s title put off more people than it attracted.

The rest of my afternoon turned into a bit of a faff - it’s impossible to get anywhere fast in Edinburgh at the best of times, and I realised if you need to be anywhere in ten minutes, you’ve already missed it. I had a brief interlude at the Royal Mile where I found myself chasing a member of The Mechanisms down the street loudly demanding a flyer (a newsworthy event during the festival, but one that I think they’re starting to get used to). I also got chatting with a comedian called James Ross, who liked my hat and thought I would be interested in his show Unicornucopia, as I looked as if I’d read a book and could cope with some difficult words. He even gave me a badge with a unicorn on it, and I promised to make it to his show.

That unicorn is the unicorn of guilt, its horn pointing at me like an accusatory lodestone to the magnetic north of broken promises. I’ll get there next year. (I didn’t get any other hat comments today, although someone seemed to be muttering about undertakers as I walked past.)

In the evening I went to another concert by the Kronos Quartet, this time offering pieces by Philip Glass and Clint Mansell. Fortunately I’d had the sense to buy a programme this time and realised that they were playing considerably more than that, although tonight David Harrington had got over his shyness and actually told us what they were playing. The first piece was Nicole Lizée’s “Death to Kosmiche”, which incorporated a stylophone (an instrument whose star, you would have thought, had no further to fall in the twenty-first century) as well as other archaic proto-electronic instruments which reminded me that my brakes might need seeing to when I got home. Philip Glass’s “String Quartet no 6” sounded very much like a Philip Glass string quartet (as a longtime Glass fan I have a certain sympathy with people who think his music sounds the same - it can take a second or third or fourth listen before you start to hear what’s actually going on in the piece, what’s actually different. I remember being particularly tripped up by his second symphony, which isn’t anything like his other music. It just sounded like it) and Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Bombs of Beirut” was a major piece which really should have had the star billing above Clint Mansell’s loud film music. It incorporated interviews with her family and recordings of bombings and attacks on civilians and was quite effective, although the music didn’t catch me as much as Vrebalov’s yesterday, and the text didn’t integrate with the music to the extent of its obvious precursor “Different Trains”.

After this it was time for more filth in the form of Nymphonerdiac, a double-act with “Nympho” Carmen Ali and “Nerd” Ella Murray. At first it looked as if they didn’t have an act - they involved the audience in a game of “I never”, in which I chose to keep quiet, as virtually the only thing I never did was announce it all to a room full of complete strangers. But then they got started with two stand-up spots. Ali was the filthier of the two, but I think Murray was funnier, even though she seemed to spend just as much time talking about sex. Carmen Ali felt that you hadn’t really had anal sex unless you can feel your heartbeat in your rectum the next day: Ella Murray mentioned how disappointed she was when she took the veil off and discovered that her flesh wasn’t tempting sex-crazed men into carnal acts. I think that probably tells you enough about both of them, and with the bedtime stories over with, I went to bed, possibly with two or three people fewer than Carmen Ali.
As regular readers will know, it’s usually taken me a couple of weeks to get around to writing up my experiences in Edinburgh. Always a great respecter of tradition, I have done exactly the same this year and will therefore start with 18 August.

Monday
One of the problems with being fan of early 70s German electronic music is that I’m not always sure if the sound is coming from the CD or my car. On this occasion I had to admit that the noise of my brakes wasn’t possible on a Moog oscillator in 1971, but as I’ve solved most problems in my life merely by outliving them, I decided to keep driving and just not brake much. It did look as if my trip would be cancelled before it had even started, but in fact the noise subsided and I arrived at Edinburgh only a couple of hours after Google Maps had promised. One person complimented me on my hat, but this appeared to be an excuse to give me a flyer. I felt used.

There had been nothing I’d come for in particular, but once I’d decided on the dates I’d decided to book tickets for the Kronos Quartet. I had an odd seat, at the right-hand corner of the stage, which gave me an excellent view of the cellist’s back but otherwise wasn’t such a bad place to be, especially as none of the seats around me were full and I was spared the experience of people coughing in my ear louder than usual so they can be heard above the musicians. I didn’t know any of the music on the programme, but this was largely because I didn’t get a programme until on the way out (I sometimes experiment with living backwards, or rather, I‘m going to), and as David Harrington wasn’t talking to the audience to an almost Gothic extent, I was confused - I’d been under the impression that it was a single piece by Aleksandra Vrebalov (whom I’d never heard of) but in fact the first half of the programme was music from the early twentieth century, making me believe that Vrebalov must write in a large variety of styles (although to be fair, Kronos virtually never play non-contemporary music). The main piece was Vrebalov’s Beyond Zero, accompanied by a film of unseen World War One footage that seemed to be in the process of decaying even as it was being shown. I’m pleased to say that I really enjoyed this music and have made a mental note to find out more about her.

There was only one way to follow a film about the horrors of the First World War: Miss Glory Pearl, The Naked Stand-Up. I can report that Miss Pearl would not be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act, although in fact she wore a pair of shoes, as would anyone who‘s ever been in an Edinburgh bar, and hat for decency‘s sake. This wasn’t just a gimmick: her show was about our attitudes to our bodies and sexualities, and besides, as she said, when you’re a stripper, it’s a lot less work if you don’t put the clothes on in the first place. The audience seemed to be half men and half women (the word “seemed” being my assume-nothing gender-issues get-out clause) and Miss Pearl insisted on talking to all of us individually about our own bodies, her main point being that we spend too much time complaining about them and not enough appreciating them. If I were being savagely critical I’d say that this was 101 stuff - you’d have to have given it no thought at all to be surprised by the point of the show - but some people probably haven‘t, and I suspect that most stand-ups in Edinburgh have far less to say about the world. So I thought this was great, it was one of those shows where I felt as if I’d become friends with the performer, and had to remember that I wasn’t. Even though I’d been talking to her while she had no clothes on.

This only took me to 11:30, but I’d spent most of the day travelling and the rest thinking about industrial-scale warfare and naked women. I hadn’t even unpacked. So I went home and unpacked a bottle of wine.
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