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Ade Johnston Posts

My Dark Places

Melancolia Durer

We’ve all got our dark places haven’t we? One of my current works in progress is aimed at publishing a new illustrated version of James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, more of which below. While it will contain a brief biography of Thomson and some notes, the main part of my introduction will be a consideration of what draws us and artists and writers to the darkness, the darkness within and without.

I think by the time I was ten I’d read all of my older sister’s collection of Pan Horror Stories, and most of her Dennis Wheatley books. By the age of eleven I think I’d read her Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology more than once.

Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost still greatly appeals to me – certainly much more than the pale and ghostly God who banished him. I wouldn’t say Satan was a role model but I loved his way with words: “Evil, be thou my Good!”, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n” and his philosophising:

Farewel happy Fields 
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail  
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings 
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time. 
The mind is its own place, and in it self 
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. 

Yes, I was a strange child. Older, in bedsitter land with Leonard Cohen, reading James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, I also took to frequenting an ancient graveyard alone. At night. Especially when it was misty…..

The City of Dreadful Night

James Thomson’s poem (not to be confused with a Rudyard Kipling work with the same title) is bleak indeed. Thomson himself had a bleak life. Intelligent, sensitive and forsaken, a depressive and alcoholic who died an agonising death. Parallels with Poe are clear (though there are not as far as I know any literary connections). You can delight in the poem online – it’s in the public domain. I’ll be publishing it as I said with the main part of the introduction being directed less to the poem itself than to the ‘culture of melancholy’ from the Romantic period onwards, with attention to such jolly folk as Baudelaire and to the urban spiritual dystopia of Eliot’s Wasteland

The book will be illustrated with images, some from artists, some from my own photographs taken in the city of Glasgow.

Here’s a little from near the start of Thomson’s poem to put you in the mood:

Surely I write not for the hopeful young,                  

Or those who deem their happiness of worth,

  Or such as pasture and grow fat among

    The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,

  Or pious spirits with a God above them

  To sanctify and glorify and love them,                     

    Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.

  For none of these I write, and none of these

    Could read the writing if they deigned to try;

  So may they flourish in their due degrees,

    On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.            

  If any cares for the weak words here written,

  It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,

    Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die.

  Yes, here and there some weary wanderer

    In that same city of tremendous night,                   

  Will understand the speech and feel a stir

    Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;

  “I suffer mute and lonely, yet another

  Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother

    Travels the same wild paths though out of sight.”        

  O sad Fraternity, do I unfold

    Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?

  Nay, be assured; no secret can be told

    To any who divined it not before:                        

  None uninitiate by many a presage

  Will comprehend the language of the message,

    Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.

Review: ‘West is San Francisco’ by Lauren Sapala

Another masterpiece from Lauren Sapala. It washes back over her first in the trilogy, ‘Between the Shadow and Bo’ and I see that, gritty and alcoholic as that first novel is, the central theme is not addiction to a substance but the relationship with the Shadow, that dark part of the soul which is twin to the light.
The protagonist and her boyfriend set up in San Francisco and she has stopped drinking completely. Instead she seems to become a ‘workaholic’. All seems reasonably good until she comes up against a woman who is both nemesis and mirror. She loves and hates her. Her boyfriend says she has become addicted to her. No more story here: suffice it to say that the author handles the narrative with flair and expertise.
As in the earlier novel, ‘West’ is saturated in colours and shades, light and darkness, executed with stunning imagery. Sapala’s use of metaphor is singular and exquisite. Her observation of the many characters in the book is spot on. Her style is concise and compressed, never a redundant word.
There is a tone of naturalism above which, with no boundary, hover and shimmer dreamscapes and a transcendent sense. I’m lost for words to describe some of the writing techniques which culminate in a stunning finale.
Maybe this could have gone at the top: both books are very, very funny despite the elemental depths.
To a large extent the novel is about the process of writing itself. And there’s one sentence near the end which is a jewel any author will treasure.

ONLY THREE DAYS FOR FREE KINDLE DOWNLOAD

Get your free copy of Scotched on Kindle Saturday – Monday, 26 – 28 January. For novel details reviews and to get your book go here

A free promotion last week saw almost 200 downloads. I know that many will rest forgotten in the library but if I get a handful of reviews I’ll be delighted. Reviews have some influence in leading people to buy a book.

I want as many readers as possible as a writer, whether they’ve paid or not. Those who do pay will contribute to the totality of proceeds that the author is donating to charity.

Growing a Novel from Seed

An identity crisis going on here. I am Ade Johnston, author of Scotched. I am also Adrian Johnston Bailey. As Ade Johnston I write to keep readers turning the page. As Adrian Bailey I shall reveal my literary pretensions to be ‘serious’.

So I’m working as Ade Johnston putting to bed a collection of short stories. Then I’m (Ade Johnston) going to have a go at crime fiction. For a crime novel, the formula is just that, more or less there already and well trodden by many writers. I have to start with plot structure, story, drama. The bad guys and the police team: a female Detective Inspector, a grouchy sergeant (who initially resents his new inspector, a job he had applied for) and two Detective Constables. Throw in an officious Superintendent boss, an Assistant Chief Constable who plays golf with society’s best, and the big bad media.

My ‘literary’ novel

Maybe as long as ten years ago, long before I thought about actually completing anything, an idea came along. It was one idea among thousands, many of which resulted in reams of paper, writing which periodically I would burn. I like to think the time wasn’t wasted, time for learning to write.

Anyway, this one idea has survived the test of time. It is going to be transformed into a novel. Plot and story here are of small interest only. Character depth and relationships centre around a university philosophy department (bags of laughs there!). Susan is 23 years old, a PhD student who does a little teaching. She’s had a year off for reasons revealed towards the middle of the novel, and returns to university near the start.

During her time at home with mother a step-father, her Aunt Julia is dying, and Susan visits her frequently. Julia, though, is otherwise something of a familial pariah on account of her transgressive life style and refusal to adhere to respectable propriety. The bond between her and Susan is unlikely on the surface; it is revealed as something deeper and not literally describable.

The novel opens on the day of Julia’s funeral at the gathering in Susan’s home. That day also is when Susan returns to university, taking with her a memory stick and several notebooks Julia has pressed upon her. The content of the memory stick and the contents of the notebooks will slant the novel to include an epistolary narrative.

I’ve got no narrative structure but am writing scenes as they occur to me. I’ll join the scenes with straight lines later for the story. Susan’s character feels more real each day, and several other characters are making themselves known. It’s growing like a tree with branches and leaves for texture, roots to tap into the mysterious source for what will hopefully become a ‘philosophical’ novel.

Free Kindle version SCOTCHED 19 & 29 January

I’m coming to the end of my ties with Amazon and will be ‘going wide’ next month. You can celebrate with me by downloading to Kindle my novel Scotched this weekend, 19th and 20th January.

I’m very grateful for the latest review from Alex Bewley which certainly tells you what to expect:

Scotched is a real gut-gripping page-turner that bores a grizzly hole straight through the bowels of Scotland circa 2018, offering a core sample in which can be seen an all-too-accurate sight of life in the West of Scotland.

The portrait is painfully accurate at times with all the familiar sights of Scottish urban life – drugs, drink, gambling, poverty, crime – but also that which goes unseen, the intrigue, the corruption and hand-in-glove nature of politics, business, and organised crime; and that’s where the story gets good. In the midst of such a mess are one man and his family.

To this add the politics of Brexit, Scottish independence, and the religious tensions that still plague Scotland. And Football, of course! If your into yir fitba, this novel’s for you. If not, it’s unlikely you’ll ever enjoy the “beautiful game” more than within these pages.

A must read for anyone living in – or interested in life in Scotland today.

She’s resting. The Doctor Gave Her a Sedative

The Crisis – Frank Dicksee 1891

I wonder how many books, films and dramas have contained these words? Often set in a country house, the ‘mistress’ has suffered a shock her fragile female form cannot bear. The gruff but avuncular doctor is seen coming down the stairs. ‘I’ve given her a sedative,’ he says. ‘I’ll call in tomorrow.’ Then off he rides on his horse.

When the police inspector comes calling, needing to talk to the lady, her husband says, ‘That will not be possible. She’s resting. The doctor gave her a sedative.’

It’s a stock situation with stock script. It would definitely be more interesting if it were the husband who was resting after a sedative, his wife the stoical manager who can challenge all adversity.

In this slice of narrative how much is said about perceptions of strong men and weak women. We’ve moved on considerably from such stereotypes but they’re still to be found in ‘cosy’ contemporary fiction and television.

Thoughtful, intelligent fiction does not work with stock images. That is left to the churning out of the thoughtless and simple writers and readers. Yet there is for a writer a rich and fertile ground that is never exhausted in the exploring of sex and gender.

One other thing. There is an interesting and clear path from the nineteenth century idea of doctors’ ‘treating’ emotional distress with pills, potions and injections to the present day. Perhaps, for instance, ‘mothers little helpers’ as Valium became known through the Rolling Stones song, were the drugs needed to keep ‘a good mother and housewife’ functioning.

And as drugs were needed to sedate women trapped in tight gender roles, perhaps now all of us in a toxic culture have to turn to sedation. Ironically, in an age touted as the zenith of personal freedom, we have never been more constrained, and never will we be strong enough to meet the demands of a devestating capitalist realism.

Mother’s Little Helper

What a drag it is getting old”Kids are different today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill
There’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day”Things are different today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak

And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy dayDoctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old”Men just aren’t the same today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t appreciate that you get tired
They’re so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind
So go running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plightDoctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old”Life’s just much too hard today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
The pursuit of happiness just seems a bore

And if you take more of those, you will get an overdose
No more running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
They just helped you on your way, through your busy dying day

Keith Richards / Mick JaggerMother’s Little Helper lyrics © Abkco Music, Inc

Upcoming Tributes to Tom Leonard

I’m reading a lot and thinking a lot about the things that were of prime concern and value to Tom Leonard. ‘What language is using us for’. The control of language by the powerful elite. Resistance through language.

.I’m also referring to his masterly biography of Jame Thomson as I prepare to write something on Thomson’s neglected gem, The City of Dreadful Night.

As noted his well attended funeral saw no representation from Scotland’s literary elite but plenty of love from his comrades.

There are a couple of events coming up to honour Tom. He was an Honorary President of Mirrorballers, the poetry collective, and they are holding an event to celebrate his life and work at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow on 29th March at 6p.m.

Before that, there’s This is Not a Burns Night #6 A Tribute to Tom Leonard by Govanhill Baths Community Trust, Sunday, 20 January 2019 from 14:30-16:30 in The Rum Shack Glasgow, 657 – 659 Pollokshaws Road, G41 2AB Glasgow,

Moodscapes. Dreamscapes. Writing.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘moodscape’ as a depiction or evocation in words, music, etc., of complex moods or feelings.

I’d say it has something to do with ‘dreamscapes’. I’m definitely left with strong feelings after my dreams but they are hard to ‘make sense of’. They defy ‘off the shelf’ lexicons of feeling and emotion because they combine so many elements. My own dreams are always very vivid and usually have a narrative, something like a bizarre film.

Like engaging with music, a film, a poem, a novel or a landscape, it is not straightforward to describe the feeling even to myself. I think an artist of whatever sort has to ‘translate’ into a medium, a translation which can never be complete.

There are films and novels, long poems and dreams, places and climates whose details I can barely remember if at all. I can’t remember plots, characters or narratives. Yet I remember deeply the feeling-scape. It’s years since I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or W.G.Sebald’s Rings of Saturn yet the atmosphere, the desolation and melancholy of each are not simple: they are their own unique evocations of desolation and melancholy, produced by the writers’ art, their craft.

To think of Jane Austen or George Eliot is, more than anything, to make me smile – a different smile for each, for each of their conveying of writerly mood. Now plot, character, story increase the pleasure of reading them of course. But their siingular voices are the consequence of their deepest complexes of feeling that can’t be expressed literally. It all needs a slanting, a refraction,

There are writers, the large majority, who give me great pleasure. I like a villain and a frantic car chase as the next pulp fiction reader. I appreciate the artistry and skill of many writers as I read. But then I forget them. The pulse at the heart of a feeling complex wasn’t there.

Several artists have pointed out that their work is never completed but merely abandoned. They cannot portray more than hints, shadows, textures, whispers of the mysterious complex of feelings. Many writers spend their lives not telling the same story but trying to find another slant on the core complex that urges them to essay the attempt.

Review: ‘The Beauty of Broken Things’ by Catherine North

I read this in one sitting yesterday after seeing a tweet from Lauren Sapala directing me to a video of the author’s talking about this, her first novel. And what a stunning first novel it is!

The novel’s central themes are brought to life with excellent writing. Set mostly in a charity shop, brilliantly observed, the story centres on the intense love affair between two ‘broken things’, a man and a woman who despite their difficulties come to realise that having mental health problems does not make them broken at all. Upon a shelf in the shop is a somewhat ugly figurine of Cupid, one eye missing which also, though written off by most as ‘junk’ has its own beauty for one customer (the sort of person, sadly, whom society could write off as unbeautiful, as junk).

The central character, Kerry, is on a journey from debilitating anxiety to strength, and she sees that her story is one of “an ordinary life. If you changed a few of the details it could be any one of a million people’s narratives. The story of a woman growing up in the western world.”

Kerry has been hurt, and continues to be hurt, by casual sexism, a sexism made worse in that the multiple instances of it are so normalised, the ‘perpetrators’ often do realise they are doing anything wrong. A greater hurt is that her interior suffering is something she is ashamed of and dare not speak of to even her parents and sister, though she is to find comfort and affirmation from those who have known the pain of mental distress. I recognised so many of the difficulties facing a person often locked into their lonely darkness.

The depiction of Kerry’s lover’s the intense depression is as powerful and accurate as any I have come across. Not only is Alex often isolated in a seemingly inescapable abyss of despair, a private hell, his troubles are magnified by thoughts of suicide and his own belief that he is a weight on the world of ‘normality’. That and the everpresent attrition of Britain’s ‘welfare’ state, a cruel and cold also scours Kerry. Both Kerry and Alex are highly intelligent, well-educated and very sensitive people whose humanity and self-worth are constantly undermined by things they are not responsible for: biological factors, stigma, cultural beliefs and the non-stop machinery of uncaring ‘normality’, a world which has no time for those unable or unwilling to join in with its Set mostly values.
There are so many aspects of the approach to mental health, some which reference other characters such as Dan’s autistic daughter’s being bullied at school.

I am immensely grateful to have read this book because it reminded me that I am not alone. I identified with and recognised so much The novel helped me articulate things which I have kept private and muddled. Simply to know my own life is not so different after all from millions of others has helped.


There is a short passage that jumped out in particular. A character who has never suffered as Kerry and Alex have, appoints herself a moral guardian of ‘mental health’. There is a liberal consensus that ‘mental health’ is something like ‘the environment’ or ‘poverty’. These are Very Important Things that people know from dinner parties and ‘respectable’ media should arouse the appropriate expressions of concerned rhetoric. In my own life, coming constantly across such a phenomenon has added immensely to my own sense of being misunderstood or feeling able to ever make my voice heard. In fact, on several occasions after engaging with organisations that proved to be patronising and politely dogmatic, I was driven to despair. So I feel that the author has helped me so much here. I hope future readers will recognise their own assumptions, often so hurtful to matter how well-intentioned.

By taking each aspect of the issues around mental health discussed by professionals, politicians, educationists and (in my opinion at least) some big mental health charities, and distilling the reality into the thick lives of individuals, North has done more in this novel to portray the reality of mental distress than millions of pounds worth of expensive campaigns. Setting it in a charity shop, with understated references to ‘junk’ is brilliant. Broken ‘junk’, worthless, ugly, lonely, forgotten, cast-off, homeless: all made beautiful.


This is a brilliantly executed piece of fiction. I won’t detail its specific skills. I would like to state that it represents writing of the highest calibre. I’ll just say that in its artful use of settings, its characters, its pacing, we are given an immensely powerful drama set in a charity shop which could be on any high street. And the novel’s last sentence is a triumph. Doubly so.

Sorting Books and Existential Dread.


It started about a month ago. One of those breezy, well-intentioned statements of commitment which was well wrapped in the ‘sometime in the future’ mantra.

It had got to the stage that not only were there piles of books everywhere but the piles were collapsing. On the odd occasions when I went looking for a book I couldn’t find it. More usually I’d be picking up books near at hand, those lapping on my armchair island, those books carried in by tides of daily impulsive purchases. I’d be reading bits of maybe six books each day. Meanwhile, the volume of unread books grew physically, and so did a gnawing and persistent unease.

I was disrespecting books. The puritan minimalist in me envied the reader who sits in a superbly organised library while enjoying the riches of one book at a time. So, a month ago, I ordered yet another bookcase which currently joins the book piles, forgotten, unassembled.

DISASTER!

This morning I was subject to disaster. Yesterday, among the books delivered to me was the Penguin hardback version of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I already have paperback editions – somewhere – but felt Marcus deserved special treatment. The Penguin version is what a book should be, beautifully made and printed. I spent a moment smelling it then placed it on the pile to the left of my armchair which is next to a bookshelf I use for not only books but varieties of detritus such as elastic bands, old pens, and where I place my drinks. Thus it was that I contrived to knock over and spill a full mug of tea.

That did it. I’ve been three hours now sorting books in my main room. I’ve got some empty boxes somewhere so I have made a big pile for the charity shops, maybe 50 books, most of which I haven’t read. Each title reminds me of a time maybe a month, maybe a year ago when I developed an inexplicable interest in subjects I knew nothing about. Sorting the titles I was seized with recognising an underlying manic and possibly Faustian desire to swallow every item of knowledge and thought contained in the universe. Oddly, I haven’t found my book about octopuses which I think is the only non-fiction text I read in 2018 with devoted attention and fascination. Perhaps there is more than a little of the octopus in myself. Or my multi-tentacled selves.

The largest transitory pile contains subjects to which I do profess an interest. Technology and culture, mental health, psychology, philosophy, theology. Too much. One reason I ended up with so many books is that I was beguiled by ones I’d read to follow a footnote or reference to read authors I’d not come across. Every field of human study bifurcates continuously into labyrinthine mazes, fractals. An academic may devote years of their life to researching a tiny aspect of a tiny aspect of a subject. Yet here is me trying to bypass disciplines and wallow in the easy joy of superficial understanding. Well, that last sentence is one aspect of my existential anxiety regarding my reading habits. Another is that such foolish reading habits remind me of something a teacher of mine once said in dismissing a writer: ‘He chewed far more than he could bite off.’

Still, the areas mentioned above are deeply important to me in a very broad sense. A few of the titles will go on the shelf, the rest in a box, a storage space, a dusty archive. I think many of us have a precognition, valid or not, that something may come in use at a future time. (It rarely does, of course: it’s simply forgotten).

Poetry’s easier because such is the high status of poetry in literary culture I don’t bother to separate periods, schools or – God help us! – ‘types’ of poetry. I take the easy way out. If it’s poems it goes in the poetry section. I feel a bit happier now, getting all the poets together. It’s been a while since I’ve browsed and chosen one to enjoy. There’s only one book not going on the poetry shelves – T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets which is now on a shelf just to my left next to some Vedic selections.

Fiction’s easy to classify too. I don’t even bother to stop my pulp crime fiction from sidling up the ‘literary’ geniuses. This is symbolic, not just lazy. The crude distinction between the highbrow elite and the lowbrow masses is rarer these days but it still retains its offensive implications. Let’s be glad that Shakespeare wasn’t pressured into writing only for the galleries.

The most depressing pile of books, happily not too big, contains those How to… tomes. How to reach a million twitter followers. How to set up and run a successful business repairing umbrellas (I joke). How to self-publish. How to become an author-entrepreneur. How to master SEO – the 100% proven and easy way. How to market your book. All I can say is I was duped! One thing I have learned from such books is that they represent a huge part of the reading market. If you follow the fairly obvious advice to use the right keywords and categories, price your book correctly and have an attractive cover you’re 75% on the way to selling your How God can Make You a Millionaire. I’ve also learned that all that book marketing is not for me. Apart from the waste of many hours, and subscribing to a certain attitude of mind which is totally inimical to mine, you have to beware of mixing with the sort of people who, in many modern tragedies, were travelling salesmen.

Then, as the temporary piles begin to collapse and books I love but seem unclassifiable come from the recesses of memory, I find a space for those titles which I need for my writing projects. And there are only three of them! To think that if I spent my time writing I would hardly ever have to read again – an exhilarating yet terrifying thought experiment. And yet, the mess, the arbitrary collection of my books library is one way of looking at my mind. It’s disorganised, disconnected, in bits and forever adding jewels and junk. I should have the physical side of things sorted in the next few days, albeit that will mostly result in tidy-looking chaos. Psychically, from the very start of 2019 I shall be engaged in that strange thing writers seem able to do – to make everything seem so simple. If you want to think mud and Lotos Flowers, please do!

Anyway, that’s enough for today. And don’t get me started on my Kindle library. Somewhere in there are three books I’ve promised to read and review.

Ah, no longer finished finishing when the doorbell rings. A sweet delivery of the Everyman’s Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne