andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: hannu rajaniemi

The merits of a leaky ceiling: how the Wrong Box came to be

Madrid and a cold beer, starting point for most of our Spanish travels

I went to see Jackie recently. It’s good movie, although there’s something a bit odd about it: the Guardian review probably sums it up for me. There’s a dream-like quality to it that got me thinking, because the way that the various forms of the sleeping state influence creative work interests me a lot.

I’m scarcely an original in using dreams to help the creative process: writers and musicians from Robert Louis Stevenson to Prince have talked about how they’ve plundered the stuff clambering out of their night-time subconscious. Stevenson’s classic horror, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, came to him in a dream, although the cocaine he’d been prescribed by a doctor for his ongoing health problems might have had an influence too. According to that particular creation myth, he got as far as the first transformation scene before his wife woke him up. Wives, eh!

Which leads me to the inspiration for my published-at-long-last novel, The Wrong Box.

Most of my creative endeavours, whether musical or writing wise, tend to have shadowy beginnings – a half-heard piece of conversation; an encounter on the express bus to Edinburgh; an earworm of a tune that won’t go away despite it appearing during work time. In the case of novel’s story, however, I can more or less trace the date of its inception to a week in April, 2008, and the Hostal San Bartolome, Almagro.

Anyone that knows me half at all will know that I’m a lover of Spain and all things Spanish, and not even just the wine neither. Every year for the last fifteen or so, we’ve been spending time travelling through that great country, all the time seeking out different regions, different places to visit that are off the tourist trail. Because we rely on train and bus to get about (just never fancied driving a car in Spain, funnily enough) that usually involves reasonably decent-sized towns. However, in 2008 we decided to push the envelope a bit, and explore somewhere that even the more generous Spanish classification of ciudad wouldn’t cover.

First stop, though, after touching down in Madrid and spending a night in the unremarkable but reliable Hotel Mora, was one of the great Spanish northern cities, Valladolid. It was a pleasant three nights there, from what I can remember: the things that stood out were the storks nesting on the roofs of the churches, and the quirky proprietor of the Hostal Los Arces showing the 9-year-old Daughter and Heiress the model house he was building out of sweets (although that now sounds so unlikely, I’m wondering if I dreamed that bit!)

From there, we had to head back south, through Madrid, and change trains at Ciudad Real to get to our second stop, the La Mancha town of Almagro. It was, in retrospect, quite a small place to spend almost a week, (from 5th to 11th April according to the itinerary I’ve unearthed) and I remember wondering, as the tren de media distancia crossed what I was to describe, in a subsequent poem, as a ‘tiny wrinkle on Spain’s great red face,’ whether I’d overcooked the length of our stay there, and undercooked Valladolid.

I had. It rained. It wasn’t a warm rain. Although what I described in the same poem as the ‘green and white layer cake’ of buildings forming three sides of the central square had its charms, in the rain those charms were a bit, well, on the soggy side (I’m giving you the absolute best bits of that poem, by the way – you can see why it never made publication). As we huddled in the bars and cafes of the plaza mayor with the locals and very few other tourists, we also came to realise that, given the somewhat niche appeal of the place, we had probably arrived a week or so early, tourist season wise. Not all the cafes and bars were open all the time.

We gravitated initially towards one place in the square which seemed popular with the locals: the food was decent, if a little red-meat heavy, and they had, like most bars in Spain do, a decent Rioja as the house red. We ignored the bullfighting on the telly at first as one of those cultural things that come with the package; but by the time of the second visit, the relentless procession of Hemingwayesque scenes from the plaza de toros started to grate a bit. Then we learned that the son of the establishment was a bullfighter, and took the hint that they probably wouldn’t be changing over to the football any time soon.

The main alternative seemed to be the bar/restaurant on the side road that led to our hostal. It was often virtually empty, and the waiter a youngish bloke who didn’t seem that sure about anything we asked him. The food was ok, though, and the inevitable telly was tuned to a channel that featured lots of what we took at first to be nature programmes. On closer inspection, these turned out to be actually about one of La Mancha’s other obsessions, la caza: the types seen striding about various grassy wetlands weren’t there so much to appreciate the bird life as blast the hell out of it with guns as soon as look at it. Oh well: asi es, as the Spanish say. By way of compensation, the uncertain young waiter decided we merited an end-of-meal taste of the local liqueur: three glasses of the stuff (including one for said 9-year-old D & H) appeared unbidden at our table.

Needless to say even we Scots leave it a couple of years before starting our kids on spirits. The Redoubtable Mrs F, meanwhile, had taken one sip of the yellow liquid and decided it was something I had to deal with, either by drinking or pouring into a handy plant pot. The plants were plastic, so down my neck all three went. I still have no idea what it was, beyond perhaps being the subject of a bet back in the kitchen to see if the crazy extranjeros would drink it. I’ve a vague recollection we even got charged for it.

All of this was nearly offset by the charm of our accommodation, the Hostal San Bartolome, and the young woman who ran it. Built around a central patio, the place was brightly painted, had real plant life in it, and was comfortable, accommodation wise. On the debit side, it was a bit – well, crumbly. I owe the place a debt for forcing me to find the Spanish phrase ‘el techo de nuestra habitacion esta goteando,’ (our room’s ceiling is leaking) as well as one for the handle falling off the door of the room I can’t place exactly now. All good practice, but not particularly great in terms of rest and relaxation (I’m sure they’ve fixed it all up now, of course).

Anyway. There we were, and there was the rain, and after dinner there wasn’t a lot to do except retreat to our room and hope the door handle didn’t fall off the outside while we were inside.

And whether it was because of the weather, the leaky ceiling, the third shot of mysterious yellow liqueur, or the bed which, in common with most Spanish hostal beds, wasn’t designed for those of us north of 6 feet tall, sleep didn’t come easily: which is how I came up to dream part, at least, of the story which was to become the Wrong Box.

I can’t remember specific details now, of course: but the essentials, I think, were there, of an obnoxious commercial property lawyer who wakes up with the hangover shark biting his head and the dead body of a client, naked, dead and with his toe stuck up the tap, staring up at him from the bath. There was always the idea of women having been there but then having disappeared; of there being some wider conspiracy at work that he didn’t appreciate; and of dark forces at his workplace.

Every so often throughout the night I’d wake up, hearing nothing but the sound of the others’ breathing and the downpour outside; then drift back off again, back into this dream that spun on with its story. There was another character, one from one of the housing estates that encrust the far outer ring of Edinburgh’s historic core: a conspiracy theorist who, alone, could help the lawyer find out the truth.

Towards morning, the periods of wakefulness became longer, as a watery light started to bleed through the curtains of the room. Inevitably, the left brain – the half that likes to impose order and structure on ideas – took over: the lawyer’s name would be Simon English, and his Englishness was a factor in the whole story, making him the stranger in a strange land. I don’t know at what point I came up with the name Karen Clamp for the conspiracy theorist, although I suspect it was then, still half-dozing, when the trapdoor between the two brain halves was still half-open.

As soon as it was light enough to see, I crept to where I kept the notebook I always carry with me on holidays and scribbled some essentials down. There were still long, arduous hours of plotting to come before I could start on the story properly, because I was determined that, if I was going to commit all the spare time it would take to write another novel (the previous two remain, tucked up in a digital drawer on the hard drive, unpublished and unpublishable) I was going to have a story that actually ticked all the story-formation boxes. My fantastic Finnish friend, Hannu Rajaniemi, was to help with all of that. But for now, fresh from the alchemical moment of creation, I knew I had something.

In the movie version of this moment, the rain would have stopped, and my family and I would have walked to our breakfast café through tendrils of steam drawn from the pavement by the rapidly climbing morning sun.

In reality, it just kept on pissing down, of course.

 

The Wrong Box is now available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and, in Scotland, Waterstone’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below here, WordPress put it there.

 

2015: the Surrealist Year Ahead

January
As the macadamia air rage case accused, conglomerate heiress Cho Hyun-ah comes to trial, there are surprising outbreaks of sympathy from budget airline travellers, following Cho’s heavy-handed prosecution by the South Korean authorities. Things start quietly with passive-aggressive piss-weak coffee ‘spillages’ on Easyjet, but a Ryanair flight is forced to divert and land at Paris Charles de Gaulle after a flight’s complete crisp quota is used in a flash mob ‘Pringle shower.’
With no one passenger claiming responsibility, the airline is forced to allow the entire plane load off at an airport which is actually in the city it’s meant to be in for once.

 
February

 
Incensed by stand up comedians’ jokes about always having a sale, furniture retailer DFS hosts a’full price weekend.’ Backed by a campaign featuring Shane Whatsit from Series 4 of Celebrity X Jungle Wipeoff, the event is a surprising success, with queues for sofas that really do cost £700 forming from the early hours.

 
‘It just shows her at number 22 what a cheapskate she really is, buying that leather look five piece for £199.99 the other week,’ says Dolanda Chewit, 34, of Skinflats.

 
March

 
As the immigration debate heats up, a group calling themselves ‘Angle-land for the Anglo-Saxons’ romp home to a surprise by-election win on Hastings Borough Council. The victory speech, by Councillor Harold Godwinson, is taken off air after complaints about the bad language. In a carefully worded press statement, the party apologises for any offence but insists it is ‘time we stopped them bloody Normans coming over here with their posh words and taking all our jobs.’

 
In a seemingly unrelated development the newly-formed Viking Party, led by a Harald Hardrada, campaigns for an independence referendum for the Danelaw.

 
April

 
Buoyed up by the success of Stephen Hawking film The Theory of Everything, geek chic reaches new levels altogether. Joey Essex is spotted wearing black-framed glasses and carrying a Charlie Stross novel, which he claims to have read; thinking woman’s crumpet and fellow sf author Hannu Rajaniemi takes over from Dara O’Briain as host on the hastily renamed School of Really, Really Hard Sums.

 
In a definitely related development, sales on Amazon of second-hand copies of Jim Jardine’s seminal textbook, Physics is Fun (Heinemann) skyrocket, although the real value is reserved for any that don’t have the handwritten sub-title added by previous students, ‘is it fuck.’

 
May

 
On the Planet Zenussi, the elections to the Chamber of the Ultimate Overlords of the Lizard People are thrown into confusion, when the three main candidates rip off lizard masks to reveal themselves as none other than David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. Enraged, the Lizard People launch a retaliatory strike on Earth.

 
Unfortunately a glitch in their version of Google Maps indicates that the Houses of Parliament are located in Aberfeldy. Armed only with stout walking sticks and umbrellas and led by their community council office bearers, the locals drive off the entire Imperial Zenussian Assault Force, before going back to whatever the hell they do in Aberfeldy when not under intergalactic attack by saurian life forms.

 
June

 
The legendarily tough world of the South East Yorkshire Cricket League is rocked by the arrival of a new recruit to the ranks of Uppenceworth. Flanked only by a single thick-set bodyguard, the newcomer is at first reticent about his name, before revealing that he is in fact Kim Yong-un, disillusioned with the American imperialist sport basketball, and keen to learn the most quintessentially English game of all.

 
Quickly nicknamed ‘Yoong Oon’ by his team mates, the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea turns out to bowl a beguiling mix of leg breaks and googlies, and makes a reliable pair of hands at first slip. He excels, however, as a dashing middle order batsman, and Uppenceworth’s star is soon in the ascendant in the Second Division.

 
However, a hotly disputed lbw decision during a match with local rivals Nobbut Ornery leads to repercussions far beyond the usual on-pitch fisticuffs. In the pub after the game, Yong-un’s captain manages to persuade him to call off the nuclear strike on the umpire’s house at the last minute.

 
However, dark forces seem to be at work when the village of Nobbut Ornery literally disappears off Google Maps, to be replaced by a symbol which resembles a cricket box; whilst all reports of the match in question suddenly 모두사라. I mean, 지옥빌어 먹을!

 
July

 
T in the Park, the annual Scottish drinking festival, is deluged with complaints about the music coming from various locations around the new venue.

 
‘I ken there’s always been bands playin’ somewhere in the background, but there seems tae be a lot mair of them this year,’ storms Shug McLush, 24, of Queenzieburn. ‘I mean, live and let live, but I’ve got a sledge full of lager tae get through here. I need focus.’

 
An ashen faced festival spokesperson admits he had no idea of the scale of the problem. ‘It’s all very well having background sounds for when you’re rolling around the grass grabbing at legs, but I’ve told Slipknot they’ll have to do an acoustic set if they’re distracting people from their drinking.’

 
Tinie Tempah really is tinie.

 
August

 
The world of sport is rocked as the World Anti-Doping Agency adds common place stimulants such as coffee, chocolate and bridies to the list of banned substances. Former England cricketer Freddie Flintoff is outraged. ‘They’ll be banning lager next,’ he fumes.

 
Seeing an opportunity for controversy-fuelled viewing figures, Channel 6 + 99 host a soi-disant ‘experimental Olympics,’ where alleged scientists monitor the effects of common illegal substances on sporting performance. The 100 metres world unassisted record is broken several times over by runners on various cold remedies; the boxing doesn’t go so well when the first two contestants are mistakenly given cannabis resin instead of cocaine.

 
After a few failed attempts to hit each other and much giggling, one tells the other ‘I love you, man,’ and the two sit in the middle of the ring, asking the increasingly restive audience if they have any toast.

 
September

 
Technological advances continue to drive consumer demand. Amongst them is the Belty, a belt device which monitors the wearer’s waistline and advises when it’s time to lose weight; the Tagg Pet Tracker, which allows pet owners – or significant others – to track the whereabouts of their pet/partner; the Shine Activity Tracker Device, which allows the wearer (or significant other) to track activities such as walking, running, swimming or, indeed, other physical activity via a smartphone; and the Wine Alarm, which sets off a loud beeping sound if blood alcohol levels in the wearer rise above a preset level.

 
Ok, so I made the last one up. But they could probably do it.

 
October

 
Following the slump in sales of celebrity biographies, The Guild of Ghost Writers publishes a collection of near career death experiences by its members.

 
‘I had the contract to write Beyonce’s next misery memoir;’ one recalls. ‘I was heading towards a white light of inner peace and a pretty tidy advance cheque. Then the market crashed, and the next thing I knew I was back on Planet Earth, trying to work on my own novel. I mean, I had to just make stuff up. A plot and characters and everything. It was horrible.’

 
November

 
Swedish ‘alternative and experimental music fusion group,’ Goat, are forced to suspend their Twitter feed after cyber assaults by some particularly unpleasant trolls. Only by eating extraordinary amounts of calories and renaming themselves Billy Goat Gruff are they able to drive the trolls away … oh come on, look it up!

 
December

 
The sky is full of strange portents. Herds of Gloucester Old Spot are seen wheeling in formation above Wiltshire. A plague of giant wasps descends on Cowdenbeath. The face of Simon Cowell appears on pizzas all over southern Italy.
Jesus of Nazareth and the Prophet Muhammad descend arm in arm from the clouds, to try to convince jihadist nutters Al-Quaeda they’re getting it wrong.

 
Then 2016 dawns, and things get a whole lot weirder.