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Saturday, 31 January 2009

Bourbon and Dames

I was no Mike Hammer either or even Shell Scott, but living alone with just a carpet to talk to at night I began a long and enduring love affair with two unlikely men: two word mangling gumshoes who used metaphors like shrapnel and lived in a haze of bourbon and dames.

I think it was Gareth Williams living in the flat below who brought home the first ‘Shell Scott’ book written by a man who must have dreamt books in his sleep. Richard S. Prather was one prolific guy. I knew something was wrong when a wild, hysterical guffaw hit the house. And so I was introduced to Shell Scott. What wasn’t there to like with lines like:

Constanza Carmocha was unarmed – that is, she didn’t have a gun. She didn’t need one either. She had all the weapons that have ruined men from time immemorial – or time immoral…She was surrounded by a guy who resembled a shaved ape and looked as though he could pick himself up with one hand.


Death is just around the coroner when your name is Shell Scott and you’re a private detective with nose for trouble and an eye for dames. The action began in a high class mortuary – the kind where you can die now and pay later (and I was going to be next) Me, Shell Scott, who never even so much as squashed a bug who didn’t have it coming.

What do these two women have in common? The mouth.

We ransacked our local Woolworth’s for the Five Star paperbacks and between us we acquired the entire collection, hooting appreciatively through long winter nights.

Then I moved on to laugh-aloud darker stuff. Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer just hit me in the face. (Well he was that kind of guy) I loved the genre, I loved him. He was un-politically correct before the term had meaning. I knew he had no time for ugly dames and he hated commies but I never quite worked out who Mike Hammer hated most: reds, ‘yellow bastards’, fags, pansies, or getting hit on the head.

Note the woman in the background and that final cigarette. You might think there's a missing picture here, but 'Mike' wasn't that kind of guy. He set Velda on a pedestal but was too busy drinking or killing to do anything about it.

He got hit on the head quite often. I saw a film once – Kiss Me Deadly starring Ralph Meeker. It’s an old black and white classic and me and Gareth bought a bottle of bourbon each just to get in the mood. The idea was that every time ‘Mike’ would have a drink, we’d have a drink. Every time ‘Mike’ got hit on the head, we’d …have a drink. Problem was that the film condensed a weeks worth of alcohol and concussion in 90 minutes and we were thoroughly pissed by the end. I vaguely remember a black box and a big explosion.

From that moment on I walked the mean streets of Newport wearing my invisible trench coat and fedora pulled low. I’d learnt the art of soundless dialogue from unmoving lips as a child delivering papers. Then my fantasies centred around cowboys and Nazis. Things change and stay the same. Now not a dame was safe…at least in my mind. I was Mike Hammer, war-damaged, crazy music in my head, the lot. Magic lines from book after book whispered their madness:

I could feel the madness in my brain eating its way through my veins, chewing the edges of my nerves raw, leaving me something that resembled a man and that was all. There had been pleasure in all that killing, an obscene pleasure that froze your face in a grin even when you were charged with fear. Like when I cut down that Jap with his own machete and laughed like hell while I made slices of his scrawny body then went on to do the same thing again and again because it got to be fun…I enjoyed that killing, every bit of it. I killed because I had to and I killed things that needed killing…

I was back in the jungle again, and I had that feeling…Death and I knew him well. I had seen him plenty of times before and I laughed in his face because I was me, see? I was Mike Hammer and I could laugh because what did I give a damn about death?

Feeney tried to say ‘no!’ but my hands had his throat, squeezing . . . slamming his head to the concrete floor until he went completely limp. I rolled on top of him and took that head like a sodden rag and smashed and smashed and smashed and there was no satisfying, solid thump, but a sickening squashing sound that splashed all over me.

And then one magical day a new hero was born. Clay Cross; Clayton Z Cross to give him his full name - Clayton Zacrowski - anglicised because hell, he was no East European commie. It was my first OWWSF work shopped book. The name came from the Derbyshire village of Clay Cross.

To get more fully in character I sent off several letters to the local Newspaper (‘The South Wales Argus’) as Clayton Z Cross. I was trying to pin down the mindset of a bigoted cold war warrior, vulnerable, decent, even well meaning, but possessed of a cock-sure certainty. To my astonishment every one of them was published. To my even greater astonishment some took them seriously and answered back – with vitriol instead of ink.

I’ll post them daily starting from Monday

Friday, 23 January 2009

A Venus Flytrap in heels

The Trout was in Market Street next to Newport Market and near a public toilet.
The first time we drank there Adrian introduced me to a large woman in a bright floral frock. She was middle-aged and had greasy black hair tied in a ponytail. We ended up in a very slow waltz across a beer sodden floor. The power of alcohol. Devastating.

She pulled me into her. I still remember a yeasty, sour smell. It was like dancing with bread-dough in a dress. I’d been caught by a Venus Flytrap in heels. If I’d been battered or bread-crumbed she’d have swallowed me whole, and all the time Adrian was grinning like a maniac on the side. Bastard.

I didn’t go back to the Trout immediately and when I did it wasn’t with Adrian Jones. By this time I was writing, and I drank alone. The Trout was conducive to drinking alone. You didn’t make eye contact unless ordering a drink. In between times you could stare at the half dead mina bird. That was safe. It perched in a cage to one end of the bar enshrouded in smoke and didn’t move.

Me and the mina bird were talking one night. I was a few beers down and the thing looked like it needed company. From the corner of my eye I noticed a woman in a white dress drinking in quiet desperation. She drank alone faster than some people breathe. A man came in and walked slowly towards her. He slapped her twice across the face. I watched it all through the large mirror behind the bar. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out the pub. No one stared or blinked an eye. It was that kind of pub and I was no John Wayne. But then neither was John Wayne.

Adrian Jones introduced me to several interesting pubs, from Pontypridd to Cardiff. We both liked seedy pubs of character, and though I didn’t write much at that point, I was a fairly obsessive observer. The Custom House near Cardiff Docks ticked several boxes.

The police have their pubs, hospital staff theirs. Prostitutes had the Custom House. On entering I heard a warning whisper in my left ear. “Don’t make eye contact. It means you’re interested.”

I avoided eye contact but experienced various and intimate modes of contact between the door and the bar. I can’t remember what the beer was like.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Paprika then

Adrian Jones must have been short of money. Despite my small flat, my even smaller kitchen and the small tornados of dust that followed your every step, he invited his girlfriend there for a meal. He’d told her I was a master chef, and I was easily flattered.

It had to be Sole Veronique, a delicate dish of cream, white wine and grapes, easy to do and going well with the carpet. I should have scented disaster. It loomed about me but I was oblivious. A parsley garnish. No parsley. No problem. I’d sprinkle a dash of cayenne for colour. No Cayenne. No problem. Paprika then. A very tiny amount, the merest breath.

I heard Adrian and his latest conquest chattering quietly in the room next door; took a glug of wine and raised the paprika. The lid dropped gracefully into the dish followed by a torrent of red.

A chef never panics, but a clever chef knows when to admit defeat and opt for a takeaway. Instead I stared at the paprika, less a garnish than a malevolent red dune, and grimly stirred it in. Paprika Sole it was then.

We ate in silence, a dusky pink mess, the fish tasting like stewed peat. It was an abomination, a sin against the Hungarian nation and an entire species of fish. Adrian and his girlfriend didn’t look to happy either, but the broccoli was nice.

Adrian remained in Newport for some time in his capacity as a union official. Perhaps his greatest moment came during an ambulance strike. A television reporter accosted him and thrust a microphone into his face. The tone was aggressive, the question provocative. “Don’t you think it’s a thorough disgrace that people may be dying, that desperate people are not reaching hospital in time?”
Adrian stared into the camera and nodded gravely. “Yes,” he said. “And if I was the Regional Health Authority I would be thoroughly ashamed of myself.”

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Handpost

I like the way things change and stay the same.

This first picture shows The Handpost in one of its earliest incarnations.

This second one shows it in the 1930's. Manley Road is just off picture middle right. As you can see the pub was handy walking distance though I soon developed a taste for more interesting pubs.
This is the Handpost today.

I’ve always liked dark and pokey little flats, which is just as well. The top floor of 3 Manley Road was a dark and pokey flat that even a necromancer seeking obscurity
might well have turned down. It had a blue carpet that fluffed blue dust with every step and a kitchen the size of a large spittoon. The main window, again quite small, showed a sea of grey tiled roofs. There must have been a toilet but I can’t remember where.

In the flat below was a beautiful woman with red hair who worked for an insurance company, but she soon moved out and was replaced by Gareth Williams. He had the air of a Restoration rake and drove a white van for a paint company based in Pill.

I still remember my first week-end there, how low I felt. Maybe I hadn’t yet found the toilet, or maybe I was beginning to realise I had committed to a profession that would turn my soul to chalk. Maybe I was just scared. At that moment there was a knock on the door. It was Adrian Jones, revolutionary socialist and future Mayor of Wallasey. I’ve always been blessed with angels, revolutionary or otherwise.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he said. “Fancy a drink?”

Magic words.

We went to the Hand-post but he soon became restive.

“Let’s go to the Six Bells, he said. It’s bursting with nurses.”

And it was, and it was wonderful, but the beer was crap. Ansells.

The Six Bells was a nice little pub, sitting directly below St. Woolos Cathedral from where it might have got its name. Equally probably it was named after a nearby mine. Names are important; they reinforce a sense of place and you tamper with them at your peril. It was later taken over by a whizzy but brainless chain and renamed the Duck and Firkin – or something equally pointless.. Nurses still went there and the beer was just as bad.