Monday 25 December 2017

Killing Christmas

A few years ago, my friends - among them Chris Newton - started a tradition that each of us would write a ghost story at Christmas, gather round the fireplace (even if, most of the time, that fireplace is televised courtesy of the good people at Netflix), and read them to each other. This year I broke the rules, by writing a Christmas ghost story that doesn't feature Christmas, and doesn't include any ghosts... Or does it?

Killing Christmas, by Mark Charlesworth

“A ghost… A discorporate personality that has survived bodily death” John Hurt

“Christmas… A time in which people daub their faces with soot and exchange toys believed to be possessed by the spirit of Jesus Christ” Oxford English Dictionary, Pg. 389

“It’s important to define both of these terms, because it’s debatable whether this story contains either” Mark Charlesworth, Just Now

Gaz Barnett rubbed his hands together as if to somehow fortify himself against the cold. “Hoo hoo, nothing quite says Christmas Eve like the clang of the shutters coming down! What say you, Nick?” He elbowed his friend, twirling an unnecessarily heavy looking cluster of car keys round one finger.
“I say that’s us done for another year.” Nick grinned. “…Fleetwood match to look forward to, and the whole of Christmas stretching out before us. No work to think about.” He gestured expansively across the almost empty car park.
“Aye,” Gaz nodded, swiftly readopting his store manager-on-duty face, “until the Boxing Day sales. Got to be in at 7.30 sharp to get the POS promotion displays out. So don’t go getting mullered tomorrow.”
“You sayin’ I can’t take my drink?” Nick blustered.
“I’m saying nothing, mate. I’m saying nothing.” He left it hanging just long enough. “All I’m saying is, I’ve heard stories.”
He tapped his nose. “Big Gav.”
Nick crumpled. “Argh, you’re not talkin’ about Danny’s stag do? You can’t count Danny’s stag do. I weren’t the only one that was smashed.”
“Wouldn’t know, mate, wouldn’t know. I was graftin’, coverin’ Katy Sinclaire’s maternity. The only drink I was looking at that weekend was the Carling shelf-end display from that darts promotion. Speakin’ of which…” They’d made it to the car, Gaz’s Audi looking strangely lonely outside the deserted superstore. Ronald, the officious car park attendant, had stashed all the trolleys away at closing time, making sure there were no strays for teenagers to push each other around in the cold when they got bored spending time with their families on Christmas Day. The car looked incongruous among the ocean of floodlit tarmac, but to Gaz - who spent much of his time on the road visiting managers and suppliers - it was like a second home. Tonight, it seemed more enticing than ever; he patted a six-pack nestled next to a bag of tortilla chips on the passenger seat, making way for Nick and tossing him a can as he clambered inside.
“Eh, I bet your missus wouldn’t like this?” Nick laughed moronically.
“You’re right there. She would not. She would not. Amy doesn’t realise I drive better when I’ve had a few. Takes the pressure off, know what I mean?”
“I hear y’, mate. I hear y’. You remember when I was driving us back from Will ‘n’ Sarah’s weddin’? Everyone was sayin’ that was the best drivin’ they’d ever seen.” He sighed wistfully. “I don’t say this for nowt… The moment my ban’s lifted, I’m getting right back behind the wheel. No messin’.” Gaz didn’t know what to say, the part of him that was Nick’s mate wanting to cheer him on, the part of him that was his manager feeling an almost fatherly sense of responsibility. The silence made Nick uneasy and he quickly changed the subject. “Any road, what was with the hold-up tonight? I was freezing my arse off out there waiting for you to lock up.”
Gaz huffed. “Don’t talk to me about tonight’s lock-up. Right ball-ache, it was. Some homeless guy had shut ‘imself in the disabled toilet. Wouldn’t shift for nothing. And you know who didn’t help matters?”
Nick let out a long breath of exasperation. “Not Ronald?”
“Spot on, lad, spot on. Ronald bloody Slater, spoutin’ ‘is usual claptrap.” He snapped off one of the tortilla chips, positioning it between his nose and top lip so that it resembled a moustache, and put on a ratty, self-important voice. “Having unlicensed personnel present outside of core shopping hours directly contravenes Health & Safety Protocol 9-8-6-3-11. As such, you are a ‘customer’ - and I use that word in its loosest possible sense. That means Security - muggins here - must remain on the premises indefinitely. Given the circumstances, I shall allow you 10 seconds before making a forced entry if you do not immediately evacuate.”
Nick fell about laughing. “What ‘appened?”
“Well, our hobo friend, he evacuated himself alright, just as Ronald burst in! Talk about a dirty protest!”
“No way!”
“Yes way. It wasn’t pretty, I can tell you.”
Nick had thought of a joke, barely able to contain himself. “Eh, Gaz, Gaz… I bet Ronald made a note of it in his log book.”
Gaz roared ecstatically, spitting foam from his beer can. “’Ere, chuck us another one of them, will y’?”
“With pleasure. So, ‘ow’d you get rid of the gruesome twosome?”
“D’yer mean Ronald and his hobo mate, or the…”
“Number two?!” Nick slappped his thighs. “Solid gold, mate, solid gold! We should be doing stand up.”
“Ronald was a bloody nightmare. I told ‘im to sling ‘is ‘ook, get ‘ome to his missus. But would ‘e listen? Would ‘e bollocks. Soon as ‘e cottoned on that the ‘omeless guy wasn’t of limited mobility…” He mimed air quotes, taking his hands off the wheel and seeming not to notice when the car swerved. “…’E ‘ad to do ‘is bloody spiel. What gives you the right to use facilities intended for the disabled? And you know what this guy says to our Ron? ‘E says ‘I’d ‘ave ended up disabled if I ‘and’t got that one out.’” He doubled over, clutching his chest, eyes screwed tight, sobbing with laughter. Nick was in a similar state and didn’t seem to care that the car had just lurched onto the pavement. Neither of them noticed the flash of red flailing in front of the windscreen until it was too late, until whatever it was had hit the window, tumbling over the bonnet and onto the ground with a sickening thud.
“Fuck!” Gaz slammed the breaks on, undoing his belt with a sense of urgency he did not feel and then remaining rooted to the spot. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” His face was livid, and it was all he could do to keep himself from vomiting.
It was Nick who leapt out first, somehow managing to to keep his composure as he stared ashen-faced at the body lying in a tangled heap by the front wheels, arms outstretched desperately into a pool of spreading blood, one leg bent to a sickening angle, snapped like a cheap matchstick. He dashed back round to the glove compartment and fished out a torch, the wide arc of its beam reminding him of something from a TV detective show as it scanned the body, taking in the red suit, the white fur-lined collar.
“Gaz…” His voice trembled. “I think… I think you’ve killed Santa.” A chill ran over Gaz, hairs prickling, each one a knife edge as it stood on end. As he watched his limbs manoeuvre themselves from the seat, it felt like the body he saw reflected ghostly in the windscreen no longer belonged to him, that he was merely watching a lookalike, a puppet miming the sort of movements a man like Gaz Bartlett should be making. He bent down, sweeping back the hood of the Santa outfit to reveal a tangle of tightly curled grey hair, a beaky nose and a mouth still stretched into a taut grin. Or maybe it was a rictus of pain, etching a final smile onto his face.
“Nick,” Gaz nearly fell backwards, “this isn’t just any old Santa. It’s…” The words sounded so ridiculous, he would’ve laughed if he didn’t have blood on his hands. “It’s Noddy Holder”.


Gaz had woken up restless and achy from many a hangover, but the morning found him in worse condition than ever before. Night had come and gone with little chance of sleep, and he lay with wide, bloodshot eyes, recalling a grim end to the previous evening… Loading the body into the boot of the car by the roadside, swapping nervous glances every time a light came on in one of the Grange Park houses that overlooked them… Carting Noddy’s corpse through the living room, past the Christmas tree, stockings hanging over the fireplace, feeling somehow inappropriate now… Gaz’s wife Amy coming downstairs to see what the commotion was, but mercifully leaving the light off so they could pretend that the lumpy bundle in their arms was a sack of presents… Which had seemed like a good idea at the time, only now he realised he’d burdened himself with two onerous tasks: dealing with the Noddy Holder / Hit & Run situation, and looking like he’d bought Amy as many presents as he claimed he had.
Inexplicably, he found it was the latter task occupying the most brain space, wondering, as he made his way downstairs, if he could wrap up a few unloved wedding gifts from one of the dickhead friends they’d felt obliged to invite, or maybe pass off a bottle from the wine rack as one he’d bought. But when he walked into the living room, there was only one thing on his mind. It was… Empty. At least… Empty of any Christmas stuff. Surely, after the headfuck of last night, they hadn’t been burgled too? The stockings had gone from the fireplace, there was no trace of tinsel, and where the Christmas tree had stood was what looked like a dead twig propped up despondently in the corner. Gaz ran his hand along one of the spindly branches, a snowstorm of pine needles detaching with a shudder.
“Nick!” He whispered urgently to the sleeping mound on the sofa. Any other day, he would have played a joke on him. Maybe give him a rude awakening by whacking him with the tennis-racket-shaped electric bug zapper, or piss in his water glass then pretend he’d brought him a glass of orange juice for breakfast. But now was not the time. He made do with an elbow in the ribs, and Nick came to with a loud snort.
“Whoa, whoa…” He rubbed his eyes. “What’s your beef?”
“How can you be getting forty bloody winks at a time like this?”
“A time like what?” He scratched his balding head, then suddenly brightened. “’Ang about… Is it kick off time?” Reaching into his sleeping bag, he produced the remote control from god knows where, and brought up the TV guide for Sky Sports 6. The confusion hit him instantly. Nick was the sort of man you’d call ‘an open book’, wearing his thoughts and feelings very clearly on his face, and right then he looked like he’d been hit by a cricket ball in the scrotum. “There’s…” His jaw hung slack so that he could barely get the words out. “There’s no Fleetwood match… They can’t ‘ave cancelled it! It’s a Christmas tradition.”
Gaz put on his ‘serious’ voice, usually saved for staff briefings or tabling a new motion at the ‘Small Business Owners Brexit Survival Guild’, a direct action group formed from the ashes of the ‘Credit Crunch Coalition’. “Nick, I think there’s something seriously weird going on. Check out BBC2. If I know my Christmas, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ should be showing right now. I need to take stock of the kitchen situation.” He marched off with a grave expression, peering into the oven with the grim sense of certainty that Amy’s pre-basted turkey would not be there. Just as he thought, the oven was empty, cold. Nick appeared in the kitchen, still clutching the remote control but eyeing it now with a sense of betrayal.
“So I switch to BBC2, and they’re showing some shit called… Fletcher Tries It On?” He shrugged. “What the fuck is Fletcher Tries It On?”
“I don’t know mate, but it sure as hell ain’t ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. This is going to sound crazy, but…” He braced himself. “I think Noddy Holder was some kind of… Festive talisman. When we mowed him down last night, it’s like we erased Christmas from history.” Nick farted in shock. “Get your boots on, lad.”
Quick as a flash, Amy’s voice called out from upstairs. Although technically telling them off, hearing her brought a comforting reminder of reality. “Errrr…” Gaz knew he was in for a bollocking when she started a sentence with a drawn out ‘Errrr’. He smiled warmly. “Did I just hear the ‘b’ word down there? You’d better not be wearing shoes in the house.”
“Too late love, already got ‘em on.”
“Well, get ‘em off. I thought you were bringing me brekkie in bed?”
Never before had the words ‘get ‘em off’ and an invite to join his wife in bed elicited such a cool response from Gaz, but for once he had more pressing matters on his mind. He had to save Christmas. “Sorry love, no time. My hands are tied. And so are my laces.”
“Where’re we going?” Nick tucked his builders’ bum into his PJ bottoms. “Mek myself look presentable, like.” He muttered to no one in particular.
“We need to get to the nearest hardware store, pronto! Set the satnav for D&Q.”


Several hours later, stood in Gaz’s garage, counting out a box of comically oversized bolts and occasionally shooting furtive glances to the line of car batteries running into Noddy Holder’s body, Nick could only bring himself to ask one question. “Why do they call it D&Q anyway?”
“What?” Gaz’s brow furrowed in frustration as he hooked an enormous crocodile clip onto a metal diode.
“The shop. You’d think if you were gonna start a tool shop, you’d pick a name that made sense so people knew what they were getting. BHS - British Home Stores, C&A - clothes and accessories, Woolworths… Sold woolly jumpers.” He jabbed the air with each flimsy example, like a latter-years, harried-looking Tony Blair trying to ram home another morally dubious point. “What the fook does D&Q stand for? I can’t think of a single thing to do with DIY that begins with a ‘D’. And Q? What’s ‘Q’ when it’s at ‘ome? Quick clamps? Bollocks. You’re not telling me people roll into that place looking specifically - specifically - for quick clamps. They need to sort their branding out.”
Gaz’s mouth - and the crocodile clip - hung agape. He was familiar with Nick’s ability to home in on trivial matters when things got tough - reprimanding him for gassing about Gary Linekar’s allegiance to FIFA when he should have been dealing with a smash in ‘Wines & Spirits’ sprung to mind - but this was off the scale, especially considering they were trying to raise an entirely different kind of spirit. He tried his best to think up something to say but all he could come up with was “You’re an idiot. We’ve been in some scrapes, you and me, but, even by our standards, this is bad. Way, way bad. It’s not just another nicking-Fat-Boz’s-specs-cause-he-ruined-the-test-match-then-losing-them incident. This is serious. We killed someone, and not just any someone. We need to… Unkill him. Fast. And by the way, all those stores you mentioned have gone out of business; fine branding consultant you’d make. Now give me a hand threading these wires under the paste table and keep it buttoned, alright?”
Nick tried so hard to keep quiet, he really did. He clicked his tongue, whistled tunelessly, drummed on his legs without any discernible rhythm, hissed air through his - No, it was too much. “Eh, we’ve had some times with this paste table. Remember when we ran out of room for the buffet at Denny’s barbecue, so - ouch!” Gaz hurled a spanner at him. “What was that for?”
“If I end up dying before you do - and, believe me, that doesn’t seem likely right now - there’s no way you’re looking after my funeral.” Gaz fumed. “It’s like you’ve got… Attention Defecation Disorder, or whatever it’s called. You’d draw out the life insurance money, then get distracted on the way the crem; blow it at Ladbrokes or something.”
“Alright, alright! What’s your point?”
“Fo. Cus! For fuck’s sake, focus!” He clicked his fingers at the body stretched out in front of them. Nick tried to concentrate. It made his brain hurt, like when he had to do the ambient code checks down the crisp aisle at work but, looking closely, he noticed something.
“Errrr, wasn’t he wearing a Santa suit last night?”
“And finally, he’s back in the room. I was beginning to think Mr. ‘Older wasn’t the doziest one ‘ere.” He nudged Noddy’s body, which remained unsettlingly still, hardened by rigor mortis. “Yes, he was wearing a Santa suit. I reckon it’s gone the same way as Christmas telly, our turkey, and,” he pointed angrily through the living room window, “my bloody tree. I found ‘im in ‘ere completely starkers, whole kit missing, the full Ashley Cole.”
“Where’d that towel come from then?”
“What, this? I wipe me ‘ands on it when I’m tinkering with the motor; changing oil, stuff like that. I felt a bit weird working with…” He pointed at Noddy’s crotch, subconsciously taking a step back. “… That thing staring at me.”
“What’s it like?”
He spread his hands wide and mouthed the word almost silently. “Huge.”
“Thought so. And, erm, what’s with those massive rusty bolts on ‘is neck?”
Gaz was dumbfounded. “Nick Cullen, I despair at you sometimes. ’An’t you ever seen Frankenstein?”
“It’s a film! From them days. Used to watch it with me Mum when I were a kid.” His eyes widened. “’Ang about! You know Frankenstein… ‘Ad ‘im in the Chamber of Horrors when we went to the waxworks.”
Nick chuckled. “I ‘earn you’d ‘ad a bloke down the waxworks.”
“Fuck off. You know what I mean. We went for my 12th birthday.” He stopped, breaking out into a big smile and, suddenly, all the tension was gone. They exchanged a look infused with genuine warmth, the sort of moment they hadn’t shared since the coach back from Wembley after Blackpool won the play-offs. “Y’know, we went to Maccy D’s after and Nathan Povey spewed up from drinkin’ too much Pepsi?”
“Oh yeah! The green guy?”
“Yeah, Nathan did look pretty gr-”
“-I meant Frankenstein.”
Gaz nodded almost paternally. “I know y’ did.”
“So what you gonna do then? Zap ‘im full of electricity and hope he comes back to life?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Seems a bit far fetched, doesn’t it? What if it doesn’t work?”
“It’s got to work, Nick lad, it’s Christmas. Or at least it will be. And if there’s one thing I learnt from watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with little Arthur, my sister’s lad, it’s that you can’t have Christmas without a few ghosts popping by.”
“But Gaz,” Nick looked very earnest, “what if the Christmas magic’s gone for good?”
“Only one way to find out. Fire up the batteries.”
The extension cord that had been used to power Amy’s ambitious display of fairy lights had enough socket space to put a serious drain on the National Grid; neighbours within a half-mile radius were unable to use their kettles for the entire month of December, but tonight the residents of Fairfax close were in for power-out the like of which they’d never seen. As current surged through the linked rig of car batteries, the entire garage blazed with a vibrant blue light, almost blinding them both. Gaz heard alt-meter needles twitching, felt the heat of copper wires growing red hot, and knew that the violent spasm of motion was coming from Noddy Holder’s body, but he couldn’t see a thing. Without warning, the dead man’s hand shot out, closing itself in an icy grip around Nick’s wrist.
“Gaaaaz! For fuck’s sake, help me! He’s gonna rip my arm off!”
But Gaz was cackling madly, too caught up in the hysteria of the moment. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” He hadn’t felt this good since winning ‘Regional Tradesman of the Year, Fylde & Wyre Sector, Second Quarter, 2009’. Electricity was crackling like sparks of lightning, dancing around his homemade generators, the growl of static growing louder and angrier by the second, as terrifying and exhilarating as a penalty shoot-out after extra time. The thing could only sustain itself for so long. Before either of them knew what was happening, the workbench had burst into flames, an ear-splitting explosion roaring like a jet engine and blowing the garage wall clean off.
Improbable as it seemed, Nick and Gaz were both completely unscathed, although their clothes were torn to shreds and they each had a ring of black soot around their eyes. If either of them had had any hair to speak of, it would no doubt have been cartoonishly stood on end. Gaz watched shell-shocked as the plaster dust settled, blinking feverishly to clear dust from his eyes. Several full minutes passed before he could really see anything, the mist giving way to a haze of colour as it disappeared.
“Gaz… I think it’s warming up.” Nick nodded to the hand, still clinging on tightly, but no longer white. “The fucker still won’t let go.”
“Just tug yourself off.” Gaz dismissed him, not even meaning to make a joke. He was too preoccupied with the sight of his neighbours’ houses, each one covered from cellar to rooftop with fairy lights, every garden white with crisp, fresh snow. His own living room had its tree back - only it wasn’t the same tree at all. The crappy synthetic one he’d bought in Pilkingtons back in his bachelor days was gone. In its place stood a rich, green pine, a mountain of presents at its base. Next door, the kitchen was bathed in a heartening golden glow as the oven warmed their Christmas dinner, and on the side sat a crate brimming with bottled lager.
They heard a groan behind them, as a battered-looking Noddy Holder heaved himself up, rubbing at the stitches on his newly botched face and feeling the disconcerting weight of two metal bolts protruding from his neck. He’d deal with that later. It was nothing a festive scarf wouldn’t hide. Besides, he’d been here before, ‘sacrificing himself’ every December since 1973 to bring the spirit of Christmas back to those who needed it most. It wasn’t always the obvious cases… He specialised in marketing managers whose only Christmas cheer came from hitting their sales targets; jaded cynics; anyone who looked at snow and saw it as an inconvenience rather than a chance to play with their children. One year, there was a suicidal lorry driver, another time it was a mean-spirited landlady who wouldn’t pay her staff extra for working Boxing Day, now it was Gaz Bartlett’s turn…
He made his charges appreciate the things they had to be grateful for - a wife, a best friend, food in the oven - saving lives one December 25th at a time. Having a Christmas number 1 brings with it certain seasonal responsibilities; not a lot of people knew it, but that was how Santa got started. TV presenters often made a point of saying how good Noddy was looking for his age. They didn’t know the half of it. Cut down at the height of his chart-topping prime. 44 years dead. Who would have suspected that, for most of their career, Slade had been fronted by a ghost? The tabloids would’ve loved to have got their hands on that one!
“Eh lads…” He beckoned them over. “That’s a big stack o’ presents under your tree. Better go ‘n’ wake the missus.” Their mouths hung open. “Well, ‘urry up then! You do know what time it is, don’t you? IT’S CHRISTMAAAAAAAAS!”

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Crowded House

I've been listening to Crowded House quite a lot the last couple of days. Whenever I say this to anyone, they usually say "aren't they the ones that do 'everywhere you go, always take the weather with you'?", or sometimes "hey now, hey now, don't dream, it's over". But oddly enough, I don't particularly like either of those songs (probably for the same reason I don't listen to 'Everybody Hurts' by R.E.M. that often).

Crowded House's songs (Neil Finn's output in general actually) has always been a little bit hit and miss for me. The Crowded House that I love is the more delicate, almost-on-the-verge-of-falling-apart-but-still-being-musically-beautiful one, and these elements aren't immediately obvious on their biggest hit.

Even as someone who writes songs, I'm not great with the musical theory side of things. This is probably why I got an F at A-Level Music Tech (hardly my finest hour). So I can't say what it is that makes Crowded House's so musically interesting, other than that there's something enigmatic and mysterious about them. 'Kare Kare', the opener from 'Together Alone', is a great example of this. When I first heard it, I kept thinking 'what's going on here? Why is this bundle of musical ideas holding together when it clearly shouldn't?!' Then it just clicked. First there's that slide guitar at the start that seems almost too lazy for Paul Hester's brilliantly idiosyncratic beat, then the bridge that seems to cut in a phrase ahead of where you'd expect, and then 'wait, that's not a bridge, that's the chorus!'. The end of the song is something else altogether. The rhythm becomes tangled and syncopated, almost like jazz, chattering voices whisper away in the background, and it seems like the whole thing's going to peter out, like it couldn't possibly all pull back together in time to bring the song to a satisfying conclusion. Except it does, emerging from a tangled forest onto a starlit beach. It doesn't sound it from that description, but this song is seriously beautiful. Musically, there's something wonderful and special going on here that very few bands could pull off. And the delivery of the phrase 'sleep by no means comes to soon, in a valley lit by the moon' gives me chills.

Then there's Neil Finn's lyrics. He writes about the human experience with an earthiness that few other lyricists can pull off (except perhaps Mike Scott, who I imagine will get his own blog entry on here at some point). He sings in colours ('no fire where I lit my spark, where your words devour my heart, and dust from a distant sun will shower over everyone') and articulates experiences with these obscure turns of phrase that seem to speak right from the soul, as though something ethereal is being drawn up from the Earth and using the human voice as a vessel. They're biblical, savage and, in the case of songs like 'Nobody Wants To' and 'Pour Le Mande' (both at least partly inspired by Paul Hester's suicide) utterly heartbreaking. When Pete Paphides and Caitlin Moran were putting together a campaign about the refugee crisis last year, they chose Crowded House obscurity 'Help is Coming' to soundtrack it because "it evoked with uncanny empathy the howling uncertainty faced by thousands of families arriving in Europe for the first time". How astounding to be able to write words so powerful.

I don't have too much more to say about this, except that, a few years ago, I tried to write my own song in the style of Crowded House's more weird numbers. It's called 'A Twist of Logic', and it sounds - at least in rough demo format - like this...

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Water Lilies Bloom

A few years ago, I wrote a song called 'Water Lilies Bloom' and recently stuck it at the end of my EP as a hidden track. It was meant as a demo and doesn't have the same production values as the other tracks. It's also the last track and isn't even listed on the CD sleeve, so it generally gets the least attention. But I really like it, and felt it deserved its own spotlight. This is a blog post about 'Water Lilies Bloom'.

There's a magnetic poetry board in Neal's Yard, a little cluster of shops and cafes in London's Covent Garden. You can arrange the words to say something profound. Or something silly. When we went there in 2013, I was listening to lots of early R.E.M...

Allow me to 'go off on one' about R.E.M. before we come back to that magnetic poetry board. They'd split a few years earlier, but we'd just seen a great tribute band in Glasgow called 'It Crawled From The South'. Not only that, another of my favourite bands, Editors, were recording an album ('The Weight of Your Love') and frontman Tom Smith kept citing R.E.M. as a big influence. This got me on an obsessive hunt through R.E.M.'s earliest (and best) material.

I don't mean to go all Patrick Bateman here, but there's something magical about R.E.M.s early music that they seemed to lose when they signed to a major label. I realise that's a real music snob thing to say, but there's a hazy, ghostly quality to those first few albums. The half-spoken words, driving rhythms and guitars that seem to really rock, despite being influenced by folk and country music, conjure images for me: dusky back roads, tumbledown buildings, spindly trees and lonely hives of activity, where motels, half-empty bars and petrol stations (or maybe I should say gas stations) exist in tiny, isolated clusters of prosperity, thriving on their unique location, but very far away from other people. I half-wrote another song all about this called 'Haunted America'. I hope it'll see the light of day at some point.

But back to 'Water Lilies Bloom' and that magnetic poetry board. I was playing about with words, looking for something a bit Michael Stipe; something that 'felt like' that bit of London. The words got rearranged into the phrase 'under which the water lilies bloom'. I thought that sounded suitably enigmatic, like the sort of thing that could have been on 'Murmur'. The rest of the lyrics - sparse though they are (and that was important too) - fell into place from there. It's a simple song really. It basically repeats the same section, building each time, with a middle 8 and picked guitar bit halfway through to break it up. I was going for something that seemed like a mantra, although feel free to substitute 'straightforward, repetitive song' for 'mantra' if it isn't to your taste.

I recorded what I thought was the demo (but which actually became the finished version) with Guy Pople at St. Annes Music, a lovely shop, studio and teaching space down the road from where I used to live. The simplicity of the lyric encouraged me to write counter-vocals and harmony parts. I love harmonies, but I usually struggle with them. This was one of the few times I didn't. Everything just fit. When I was recording the other songs for the EP, any ideas in that direction came from my producer, Rod Futrille. My partner, Roisin Brennan, will be taking more of a lead on the vocals in future, so I'm hoping she'll have some tasty harmony ideas. I reckon she will. She's good like that. My Mum also has a bit of a knack for them. I hope she'll chip some contributions in too.

I thought there'd be more to this song. It was never going to be a big, rock track, but I'd planned electric guitar parts, a bass, percussion, and a Hammond organ swell. But then I started working up some of my other ideas, and it was obvious that 'Water Lilies Bloom' didn't fit. Having a mood, or vibe, for an album is important to me with other people's work. But I've always liked hidden tracks, and it seems that they're allowed to be different... The black sheep, as it were. I remembered 'Water Lilies Bloom' right at the eleventh hour. I mastered it myself quickly, and it was added at the very last minute. A few years down the line from when I wrote it, I still have a lot of affection for this song. I'm sure most songwriters come up with something that they think's great for a while and then suddenly go 'what was I thinking?!' I know I do. So it's a real gift when something stands the test of time. To me, it captures that hazy R.E.M. sound I was going for and it brings to mind one of my favourite parts of London. I hope writing this means that a few more people will hear it.

You can hear the full 'Chasing Ghosts' EP on Soundcloud. There's also a free download, and the option to buy the CD version (with lovely artwork and lyrics) on Bandcamp.

Short and Sweet

I've decided to start using this blog again. I apologise, to its avid readers*, about the lack of content for the last 3 years. It's going to be a bit of a vanity project, but I really like making music and sometimes writing stuff too, and I wanted somewhere to document it.

*Yeah, sorry Dexter

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Unexpected Charity Christmas Single

A lot of people asked me what I was going to do next when I announced that I'd be taking a step back from poetry earlier this year. I wanted to do something different, but even I was quite surprised to find myself recording a dodgy Christmas single recently! In truth, I'd been trying to write one for ages. We did make an attempt some years ago at high school, and sure enough the unintentionally resigned sounding 'Christmas Time (Again)' got its debut outing at the Year 9 Christmas Concert, complete with a whistling solo just 31 years after Otis Redding pioneered the technique in 'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay'. The fact there was a never a second outing for 'Christmas Time (Again)' - Christmas Time (Again)... Again?! - says all you need to know about that one.

The new track 'Every Day Is Christmas In My Heart' is silly, fun and a bit crap. Everything about it is very homemade. The song was recorded in a bedroom, so small that we couldn't fit all 4 musicians in the house at the same time (we came up with a complicated shift system, involving a winch, a signal flare and a dumb waiter). The video - such as it is - was put together in another bedroom. It's very simple, so if anyone fancies having a go at a better one, fire away! And the CD packaging will be hand-cut (like posh chips) with real scissors. But surely that's the point, because it's Christmas, and it's all for a good cause, with all proceeds going to The Christie Hospital.

The single also features 2 bonus tracks (or b-sides as they used to be called). I'm slowly working on an album at the moment (of marginally more serious songs), which I guess you'd call the natural successor to the poetry. Track 2, 'A Twist Of Logic', is an acoustic version of one of the tracks planned for inclusion. Whilst Track 3, 'The Devil's Picnic', is a song so old that I wrote the lyrics on the back of a till receipt whilst working behind the counter of my corner shop nearly 10 years ago. I'm glad it's finally out there, complete with a cowboy drama in the middle 8...

You can download all 3 tracks, and support The Christie's continuing good work, for just £0.79! Or, if you'd prefer a (very) homemade CD, it's available for £2 including postage!

Buy 'Every Day Is Christmas In My Heart' at:

Saturday 16 June 2012

Charity Walk Photos

Sorry it's taken me a week or so to get these up, but here are a few pictures from the 'Sketches from the Journey Home' charity walk, which was completed last week in aid of Christie Hospital. Thanks to everyone who donated, and to all those who joined me along the way. It was great - even if we got absolutely drenched on the last day!

The route above is the actual one I walked, clocking up just over 76 miles, mostly in decent weather and with no serious injuries to speak of! Only the very end was slightly arduous, but it seemed kind of appropriate - if it had all been too easy, I might not have felt I'd truly earned the sponsorship for Christie.

I know there are still a few people who would like to make a donation, and there are still a couple of books left for the those who want a copy. I'm planning to send the total fund raised over to Christie in a few weeks, so if you'd like to send any money via the Paypal link at the top right of this page, or contact me ( to send it by some other method, you've got a few more weeks. After that, the book should be available via Amazon etc. And then it's off to pastures new...

Thursday 29 March 2012

'Sketches from the Journey Home' - A New Book and Charity Project

I'm writing with with news of a new book / charity project to be launched very soon.

People who've known me for quite a long time, or followed my work over the years, will know that I've undertaken several projects for Christie Hospital, where I was treated as a child. And this year could see the most exciting project yet, as I release my final collection of poetry (at least for quite some time) in conjunction with a charity walk, inspired by the ones I did a few years ago.

So, let's start with the book, which will be called 'Sketches from the Journey Home'. Wrapping up the themes explored in my previous collections, this set is divided into two parts: the first aiming to exorcise the darker subject matter of past writing; the second exploring a more hopeful trajectory. 'Sketches from the Journey Home' is a roadmap towards light, towards growing up, and towards finding a unique space in a world that all too often drowns out small voices and big dreams.

The book will be on general release later in the year, but initially is only available as a thank you to anyone who sponsors me / donates to the charity walk (suggested donation £7), with all proceeds from both ventures being donated to The Christie.

Previous fundraising campaigns for The Christie have been very well supported, and any donations for the walk / book this time would be very much appreciated. People are more than welcome to do so in person or by cheque (please contact me on to arrange alternative donation method). But if you wish to make a donation online, please click the Paypal 'Donate' button at the right of this page, just below the banner (making sure a postal address is included for book delivery).

The walk itself is very much inspired by the writing of the book. As I found myself looking fondly to the past, knowing that I was moving away from childhood, I started to think more and more about the fundraising walks, and how important they were to me. It seemed symbolic that, if this was to be my last collection of poetry, perhaps I should try one more walk too. It may not be my longest attempt in terms of mileage, but it seems like it could be the most personally significant. Not least because I'll be reprising the walk that started it all. Only this time, I'll be doing it back to front.

In the first week of June, I set off from Windermere in The Lake District, walking (via a slightly twisty-turny route) the 75 miles back to The Ship Inn, my old local from Freckleton, the village where I grew up. Whereas my previous treks were about escape and adventure, starting from my own front door with an impractical rucksack (usually filled with clanking real ale bottles, a few cold slices of toast, and a copy of The Hobbit), this time I will, quite literally, be making 'The Journey Home'.

Books should be available for dispatch in a few weeks time. If you'd just like a copy of the book and are happy to wait, it will be available individually after the walk. Please consider postage cost when sending sponsorship, but remember that a donation of any kind will be received with gratitude and thanks. I've included an image of my authorisation letter from The Christie at the bottom of this post.

I'm hoping this might be a good excuse to catch up with some old friends too, so anyone that wants to get in touch, or meet up, it'd be great to hear from you. In the meantime, I'll leave you with an excerpt called 'An Affair with Mr. Blair', which is about the optimism of growing up during the Labour boom years, and what came next...

An Affair With Mr. Blair

I read your letters from the early days,
brimming with the promise of a bright new era,
a manifesto with a smiling press shot,
nationally broadcast as a lonely hearts advert,

chanting aspiration, and we all knew the words,
high on the tailwind of a major cataclysm,
ever present in the bold optimism
of England's greatest achievements to date:
Hugh Grant,
Euro '96.
Cue holiday photos on windy council estates.

You personally freed Deirdre Rasheed
in New-Labour-Constituency-Coronation-Street,
promised every pensioner a brand new hip,
a remastered Ugly Rumours 'Greatest Hits'.

It goes without saying,
we were the strangest of partners:
me, you, several thousand others,
documenting dreams from a damp little island.

But the sun shone for us that day in May,
1997 at the South Bank parade.
It's just a shame your finest hour
signposted decline, downfall, end.

Guess it all went to your head,
that infamous messiah complex
measurable in the quality of dinner guest.
I could put up with that Prescott chap,
the odd round with Brown,
it started to take the piss
when you had the bloody President round,
when you decided hardline opinions were unfashionable,
ditching left and right,
playing from centre,
like it was all a Sunday kickabout
beyond approval ratings and public attention.

You talked about counting sheep,
losing sleep over tactical necessities.
The first battle lost kept you up all night,
you chalked the rest to friendly fire.

It came to the point where you wanted to change the world.
I just wanted to change the channel
without casualties of war
on BBC News 24.

Once upon a time,
it seemed we sung from the same moral page.
Now all that looked like a power play,
which is why we had to go our separate ways.

Flicking through these love letters again,
back to a future preened by a marketing team,
much as I came to detest that grin,
I can't help but feel a tug on the heartstrings,
because all that fashionable spin,
that helped seduce the masses,
persuaded voters to elope,
resembles something like fond nostalgia,
at least compared to what we've got now:
sky-scraping scaremongering in The Daily Mail,
excuses for escapism in tabloid soaps.
It's only clear in hindsight –
that missing ingredient found.
Don't call it romance. Call it hope.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Remember, Remember...

...The fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and... ROCK!?

But seriously, in between writing poetry and the sequel to 'Life Begins at 40', we've made some music. Click here to download the 'November' EP by Black Orchid. There's no set price for the download, so you can pay what you like. Those of you who read my last poetry collection, 'In Memory of Real Trees', may recognise a musical version of an old poem...

And if you're in Lancaster on Friday 25th November, you can see us playing live at the Oxfam fundraiser 'Oxtravaganza' in The Yorkshire House. More on that soon...

Thursday 27 October 2011



It's been rather quiet on the blog/news front lately, but followers of the previous books might like to know that I'll be doing a reading this evening at Preston's 'Word Soup' which is held at 'The Continental' from 8pm. It's quite an exciting one for me: not only is it my first time reading poetry live for over a year-and-a-half, it's also a great opportunity for me to debut some new material from my forthcoming collection. I like to think this as-yet-untitled project ties up the loose threads of 'Sunrise and Shorelines' and 'In Memory of Real Trees' nicely. So it seems fitting that it will be my last collection of poetry for quite a long time. I will also be donating the entire proceeds to Christie Hospital for reasons that may be clear in 'White Pyjamas', a new poem included at the end of this message.

Also this week, myself and Chris Newton will be reading an extract from our Doctor Who inspired comedy, 'Life Begins at 40' (the sequel of which is currently in the works), at Ansdell library, this Friday, starting 10.30am. If any of you are local to the area and want to call in, it would be great to see you there.

As ever, anyone who wants to drop me a line is welcome to send me a message on, with any comments or just to say hi.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this new excerpt:

White Pyjamas

I am having a recurring dream,
wandering through the hallways of my past,
seeing, at best, situations I was blessed,
at worst, occasions we were together cursed,
seeing childhood memories played as melodramas,
seeing the ghosts of you and me,
dressed in white pyjamas.

Our kitchens are repopulated
by the cast of old productions,
living rooms filled with laughter, tears,
neighbours from an avenue seeming so big,
their houses could simply disappear,
a flick-show of December twenty-fifths,
fast-forwarding through time around a sole constant:
teletext, Eastenders, white noise, mist,
a body immoveable, asleep on the sofa,
remote control limply in wrist.

Out of sight, uninvited, unseen,
treading the boards of places I've been
– but no longer belong –
I find myself at a summer garden party,
watching relatives from distant counties
tend skewers on a buffet,
a somersaulting girl with freckles and pigtails.

A boy who looks the spit of me
rises from the table.
He holds his mother's hand,
inclines his head.
The pair of them, wearing backless gowns,
walk me to a photo of a hospital bed.

In a wall-mounted gallery
of carefully-selected memories,
it seems an odd choice.
Family portraits chime with edited harmony.
Sorrow doesn't get a voice.

Our eyes meet with a knowing smile,
and I understand.
I've waited, for years, to tell myself
– a child of twelve with the cares of a man –
that everything will be okay,
to look at my mother, with clear hindsight,
and say that I love her.

Now, somehow, we're above that,
just being here is enough.
Some words are conveyed
without ever being spoken,
it's time to stir nostalgia
without sad ghosts being woken,
time to shake off the white pyjamas,
put the turmoil and dramas of the past to bed.

Monday 31 January 2011

BOOK UPDATE: 'Life Begins at 40'

Well, doesn't time fly? The last time I sent out an update was a couple of months ago, but it seems like a few days ago. 'Life Begins at 40', which had started out as a blog on Pete and Jeff's Blog, had just become a book (or it had certainly taken its first tentative steps - things ended up taking a little longer than expected, but I'll come to that shortly) and gone up for pre-order. Pete and Jeff had made a bold move to become less socially reclusive and actually joined Facebook, where it was discovered other Doctor Who fans also lurked. And the website hit its first 1000 views. Everything was going swimmingly. And then - a few Christmas dinners, celebratory drinks and duff New Year fireworks later - it was the end of 2010! And now, somehow, it's nearly the end of January!

I'd like to offer my very sincere apologies to those of you who pre-ordered the book and were hoping to get it in time for Christmas, particularly to those of you who I haven't already contacted individually. Because this book is being released through Hirst Publications, I don't actually have a complete list of everyone who's pre-ordered. Any hold ups have been almost as frustrating to me and Chris as they have no doubt been to you, but any of you who follow Marillion and the like will know that it is often the way with pre-order campaigns.

The good news is that the book has now gone to print and should be with you shortly. Unfortunately, we've had to make a tough decision and lose Sophie Aldred's foreword, as it was the sole thing holding the whole process up: the general consensus seemed to be that people would rather have the book in good time rather than delay things further by waiting for it. To compensate, however, we've added various bits of new content, including some completely new sections! Having seen the final draft of the book, we have to say that we're really proud of it, and we hope you'll enjoy sitting down to read it as much as we will. At nearly 400 pages, we like to think it offers value for money too!

Once again, I can only thank all of you - especially those who are awaiting pre-order copies - for your patience and support. If anyone wishes to get in touch through '', I'll be on hand to answer any questions.

And should anyone wish to order the soon-to-be-released 'Life Begins at 40', you can do so at the following link: Pre-Order 'Life Begins at 40'.

I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback, and will be in touch again with more news shortly.

All the best,

Mark Charlesworth