The strangeness of the suburbs. A few reviews for Langwell Sorrow

Langwell Sorrow Stephen Hargadon

Last year (how briskly the years fall away, yet each day takes an age) I was privileged to be published in the tenth anniversary issue of the excellent Black Static. I was in the company of three other writers who published their very first stories in that magazine: Carole Johnstone, Tim Lees, and Ray Cluley. (I still remember, and still cherish, the excitement of that first acceptance.)

My story, Langwell Sorrow, is set in Manchester. There are pubs, there are big screens. There are voices. There are football teams. There are memories and hopes. There are streets to which you should never return. I do not quite know how the story began, or why it needed to be written. These things happen. The words happen.

I’m pleased to say it gathered a few decent reviews. Here they are.

For me, the real jewel in the crown in issue #60 is Langwell Sorrow by Stephen Hargadon. Quite simply, this is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It centres around a mans encounter with a patron at a pub that leads him on the trail of a local football team that few have heard of. The team is/was called Langwell Sorrow. Why is there no history online of Langwell Sorrow? Where is the ground they played at? Why have only a few heard of them? Why are they spoken about in hushed voices? These are all questions that need answering as our narrator seeks to piece together the truth of their existence, and perhaps his own. This is a beautifully melancholic story. I simply adored it. Many of the places mentioned are close to where I grew up and I believe this is one of the reasons I became so drawn into this story. Hargadon perfectly captures the feel of being a football supporter with his wonderful writing along with honing in on the camaraderie that exists between followers of the sport. The narrator is full of hope and sorrow at the same time, a wonderfully realistic character. The ending to the story is simply perfect. I enjoyed it so much I read the story again, twice! it is just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, nothing else to say. The Grim Reader

The best tale this issue is novelette “Langwell Sorrow” by Stephen Hargadon about a depressed single office worker who becomes obsessed with discovering an otherworldly amateur football (soccer) team that he learns about in a pub. It’s an engaging story full of insights … Michael J, Goodreads

“ … giving way to wrinkles and creases, the eyes ever more frightened, more alert, too sensitive for the world, and then becoming dim …” I have long lived with the truly remarkable Stephen Hargadon canon of stories in Black Static, and this one I tell you is that canon’s latest apotheosis, beyond which I cannot conceive of a greater apotheosis. Except I expect there may be one. I put nothing past this author, least of all a goal. Here, we have pub talk as a sort of religion, pubs as scatologically and eschatologically worse than even one’s memory of them, one’s living in them … and better, too. Football, too, as soccer puppets of the darkening soul. I imagined stigmatised bodies hanging from those chanting outstretched soccer-scarves to the Sorrow. I cannot do justice to this text packed with wise saws, homilies, unique locals, the strangeness of suburbs of a city that are ordinary to the people living there but an alien land to you, like life and death themselves. The good-hearted winks at sometime bad bonhomie, a rough cut mix of rarefied Quentin S Crisp and something overwhelmingly and completely off-the-bar but true … And the narrator himself is a real character and a half. Full of anxieties as well as hidden hopes. DF Lewis 

… the local color and characters make [this story] a rewarding experi­ence. The nameless narrator finds old Gary Gorse at a local pub and listens to him grouse about his football team. Despite his discon­tent, he exists for the Langwell Sorrow (“Named after a church. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows on the Lower Langwell Road”) and remains true to the green-and-maroon. The narrator is fascinated and goes off to find Langwell, the church, and the team. Paula Guran, Locus Reviews

“Langwell Sorrow” by Stephen Hargadon. The narrator meets a man in a pub who tells him about an obscure football team from an unknown town. He tracks down the village, which is not listed on any map. His journey leads to an unexpected discovery. The point of the story seems to be the narrator’s search for a way to escape his lonely existence. Victoria Silverwolf, Tangent Online

Our narrator drinks a lot in a pub and doesn’t have much more in his life. One night, a man he sees all the time started talking about all the football clubs he hated, which seemed to be all of them. What club did he support? Langwell Sorrow. Team colors were maroon and green. Our narrator is intrigued but can’t find out much more from the man, only that it was associated with a church called Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. He starts to look around and finally found where they play. Nicely chilling ending. Sam Tomaino, SFRevu

Black Static 60 can be bought from TTA Press here. (If dark fiction is your thing, it’s well worth getting yourself a subscription.) For Kindle, it is available here.

black static 60 Langwell Sorrow

Cover by Ben Baldwin

Berryl St

The other morning I went to collect a parcel from a depot. An item of knitwear. It was a chore I did not much resent, for time was on my side and it meant a relatively untaxing stroll through one of Manchester’s tattier and more interesting corners, the Baring Street industrial park, near Piccadilly Station. It’s a seedy and dilapidated zone – unpretty signs, cracked brickwork, soiled concrete, and intimidating gates of rusty, corrugated iron. But among the grimy backstreets and rubble-strewn ginnels there are functioning businesses. Some of the buildings look abandoned, the most notable being of course the old Mayfield Station, a quite impressive ediface of decay and neglect which I did not have the inclination to inspect. The Medlock, usually no more than a brown, feculent, niggly dribble of a river, has been gorging on rain and actually looks quite potent in its own insignificant way. A strange, crudely-painted emblem adorns the bridge over the river. Two creatures, one cream, the other a rather sickly blue pose and prance next to a dull shield. There is graffiti – RZ has been doing the rounds – and a leather jacket lies in the gutter. Some wag has modified the sign for Berry St. You can glimpse this not-quite-destroyed world from platform 14 of Picaddilly Station. It is tucked behind the clean, curved mass of the Macdonald Hotel, where hen parties, business men and football fans stay. Next time you’re up there, on platform 14, waiting for your train to Blackpool or Horton Parkway or Liverpool Lime Street, take a look  at the world outside, at those dirty, littered streets, just beyound the confines of your daily business. They are unloved streets, perhaps even unwelcoming for the right kind of visitor, but they are not with a certain charm. The old warehouses are attractive. The peeling paint and moss-furred pipes are pleasing on the eye. Perhaps my view that morning was coloured by the excitement of collecting a package. The jumper was too small by the way.

Saxophones and sperm donation: a night at Verbose

“What is this terrible music?”

“You should try a burger when you go. Oh my. I was like.”

“I’m done with Tarantino.”

“Is it fancy dress?”

“See, I like the new Star Wars and I’m not a Star Wars person. Funny isn’t it?”

“I paid four pounds for this and I don’t even like it. Do you want some?”

 

January 25. It’s busy down at Fallow Cafe. I’m listening to the jazz of small-talk. Hello, goodbye, I like your frock, how are you? Verbose is in town: bringing words to the ‘burbs. Hosted by Sarah-Clare Conlon, Verbose is one of several literary nights in Manchester. It’s a booming scene. Tonight’s guests are writers who study or teach at Edge Hill University: John D Rutter, Jim Hinks and Ailsa Cox. I’m doing an open mic slot. My third time treading the boards at Verbose. Wish me luck.

A mixed crowd tonight. It’s always a mixed crowd. There are some admirably interesting fashions on display. A fellow with brown velvety eyes and chapped lips asks me if I like Gerald Manley Hopkins. “Not on a Monday night,” I reply. And certainly not outside the Gents. There are familiar faces. And there are faces I hope will stay unfamiliar. Some writers clutch shivering sheets of paper. Others store their genius in places unknown. I keep mine in my pocket.

Sarah-Clare takes to the stage and we’re off. She explains that the warm-up music was selected by that master of the uncanny and Nightjar Press supremo, Nicholas Royle, as a showcase of sublime saxophone stylings. Gerry Rafferty or Spandau Ballet do not feature. No one complains.

First up, Rutter gives us a tale of IVF treatment and sperm donation. A Geordie accent is attempted with some success. Brave man. Later, there is an eruption of energetic performance poetry from a young man who looks too cool to be in the same room as me. Words bubble out of his mouth: I’m not convinced they make much sense but I’m an old pedant, and it’s a tight, polished, arresting performance. Which is more than can be said of my reading. I wasn’t at my finest. My shoes were too tight. No bottles or knickers were flung at me as I read from a work in progress.

A fellow who looked like a shabby, less handsome version of Anthony Newley delivered a fine, cynical, comical rant, winning laughs all over the gaff. Jim Hinks read a strange, quietly absorbing story. He’s also the man behind MacGuffin, a self-publishing platform owned by the very fine Comma Press. Every reading at the event was recorded. Writers then had the option of uploading their work. You can listen to my dulcet tones here. It’s cheaper than a prescription.

Verbose takes place on the fourth Monday of the month, at Fallow cafe in Fallowfield, Manchester.  On Monday 22 February 2016 readers from The Real Story will be bringing their creative non-fiction to Verbose. You’ll be hearing from Nija Dalal-Small, Adam Farrer and Danielle Peet.

Check it out.

 

 

Lambert Flows

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading my work at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. If you haven’t been, you should. I was merely a warm-up nonentity before the main attraction, Magnus Mills, a tall and genial fellow in a noticeable shirt. He looks like Syd Little and sounds like Tommy Cooper. He  entertained the crowd with  a selection of droll readings, my favourite being a telephone interaction between a less than forthcoming grocer and an increasingly exasperated customer. Mills himself likened it to a Python sketch. He was very good.  But let’s return to the nonentity.  I read from a work in progress. The piece seemed to acceptable to a boisterous crowd hungry for Mills. Indeed, nothing unsavoury was hurled in my direction. Does that count as success?

Jamie Stewart reviewed the event for Humanity Hallows. I was pleased to see what he’d written:

“Lambert flows through Dublin,” Stephen Hargadon begins as he kicked off the night with the equally hilarious and gruesome story of a “faded, rather hairy pop-star from the 1960s, who hides himself away in the West of Ireland.” It’s hard to listen to Hargadon’s prose without feeling Dublin around you, hearing the river and the voices curl nearby. “Lambert is observing, listening, walking.” Hargadon’s ear for city sounds is both disarming and utterly charming. Hargadon has previously had his work published in Black Static and Popshot.”

To be pedantic, Lambert was strolling, not flowing, through Dublin. But no matter. My dulcet tones, combined with a dry mouth, probably led to the confusion. Indeed, it was a happy mistake. I rather like the idea of Lambert flowing through Dublin like the Liffey. Constructive criticism at its finest. (BS Johnson thought critics a waste of space unless they could suggest improvements.)  As for the dry mouth, there must have been something in the air that night, for Magnus Mills reached for his glass of water several times to pacify a mutinous throat.

An enjoyable and instructive evening for all concerned.

Browsing on a Sunday afternoon

This afternoon, after an uninspired but tolerably energetic stint in the gym, I wandered over to the bookseller on Oxford Road. I’d seen the tables being set up earlier, just outside All Saints Park, as I ate an overripe banana on my way to the gym. The thought of all those books, musty and foxed, sustained me as I cycled grimly in front of a television screen busy with growling rappers and sneering divas. Soon, I told myself, this bodily torment will end. Soon I will be checking the condition of bindings and dust-jackets, picking out obscure Pelicans and Penguins for closer inspection.

Freed from the bright purgatory of kettlebell and rowing-machine, I ambled over to the tables. There were two long rows today – a chance for some proper post-gym browsing. You never know what you might find on these tables. It’s a casino of the mind. There was a big selection of communist literature, as there often is, from Trotsky’s provocative analysis of Swedish volleyball to Lenin’s thoughts on contemporary millinery. None of it has sold for weeks, perhaps in protest at the capitalist system. There was another table piled with more insidious red propaganda – big, shiny hardbacks about or ‘by’ such luminaries as Ferguson, Beckham, Ferdinand, Butt. These profound tomes inspired such awe in passers-by that no one stopped to investigate. Alex and Eric received far less fondling than did Leon and Karl.

For me, it wasn’t a vintage browsing session. But an hour or two spent nosing through strange books among sometimes strange people is never wasted. I dabbled with a bit of Henry James – I’ll try anything on a Sunday – but halfway through the opening sentence I felt the first faint throbs of a migraine. There’s usually a good stock of luridly-dressed sci-fi – I was drawn to Harry Harrison’s No More Room. In the end I came away with an interesting and sharply-designed Pelican paperback on mental asylums, which has certainly added cheer to a chilly Sunday afternoon.

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on secondhand bookshops, my essay Just Browsing: An Ode to the Second-Hand Bookshop can be found at Litro.

Take out or eat in

 

Hollywood Chicken: a new story

“Happens to me quite a bit. People think they know me. Perhaps they do. I wouldn’t know. I’m not a people person.”

Hollywood Chicken was published in issue two of LossLit Magazine and can be read in full here.

LossLit is an attempt by its co-creators, Kit Caless and Aki Schilz, to explore the various influences of loss in literature. The project aims to produce a body of work that will look at loss from all angles, alongside its online micro-project, the #LossLit hashtag on Twitter. Find out more at losslit.com.

Each contributor is asked to pick a book concerned with loss. You can read about my choice in the magazine.

Enjoy the story. And don’t forget to clean up after yourself.

Return Journey: phones, plimsolls and Stoke-on-Trent

Travelling home, facing forward.

It will soon be midnight. There are no clouds now, at least none that I can see as I look out of the window, or rather into it, for I am presented with a blurred version of the carriage in which I sit. Coach A, the quiet carriage. (But all the carriages looked quiet and empty as I walked along the platform, relieved that I had made it on time.) Beyond or inside my reflection, somewhere in the blackness, there is a cluster of lights, yellow and white, marking the edge of some faraway reality, a town or village. The cluster becomes a string as the train surges on. This is the last train of the day. By the time I reach Manchester it will be tomorrow. The announcer affects a silly, jocular accent. He swings his voice up and down, sliding through vowels and twirling his sentences at the end. Stoke-on Trent becomes something like Stork Untrained. Is he attempting a crude northern accent? No one laughs. At first he sounds simple or cheerful (the two often coincide). Then he sounds menacing. I imagine him sat in his underpants, clutching a meat cleaver, as he trills his way from Watford Gap to Macclesfield, singing the names of stations we might never reach.

There are not many passengers on this train. We stretch our legs. We define our kingdoms with jackets and books and canned drinks. Four seats for every person: unthinkable luxury, the commuter’s dream. There are no rowdies, no swaggering suits or boisterous tourists. A petite woman is curled across two seats, wrapped in a grimy red coat, sleeping. “Legs in, please,” says a man in a blue uniform as he passes through the carriage. The sleeper does not respond: her plimsolled feet are poking into the aisle. The man moves them out of his way, as if turning a handle, and receives a mumble for his trouble. He says something I cannot catch. A large round woman with a surprisingly young face is playing with her phone, pink fingernails pecking at the screen. She is talking to a companion I cannot see. Her observations are met with dunno and maybe and finally silence.

My face in the window looks tired. I am tired. I’m pleased to be facing forward, travelling home in this tube of pale light and cream moulded plastic. Out of the darkness, a station appears, excavated from the night. It looks rickety, insubstantial, held together by a rig of thin lights and slanting shadows. I cannot see the station’s name. It slips away and my window becomes a mirror again. I am two hours away from my bed, rushing towards sleep and temporary oblivion. The announcer tells us, in the jaunty voice of a children’s entertainer, that the buffet bar is open, selling a range of hot and cold snacks, hot beverages, teas, coffees, etcetera, alcoholic beverages, crisps, snacks, etcetera.  But cash only, please, there is a problem with the card reader. The sleeping woman is awake now, sat up like a judge and looking straight ahead, as though terrible things were told to her in her sleep. A man is speaking on his phone, a low grumble: “It’s in the kitchen. I told you. Yes. I did. In the kitchen. Yeah. No. Not in there. Kitchen. By the. I don’t need this. Where I said it was. By the thing. You do know.” I hear another voice behind me. “Tickets, please, tickets, tickets.” That’ll be the man in the uniform. My reflection has an anxious face, floating out there in the variable darkness. My reflection yawns. Tickets, please, sir. I look up and the uniformed man, his mouth overfilled with teeth or sweets, is asking for my ticket. I show him. He nods and moves on, into someone else’s dream.

Travelling Backwards

Thoughts from a train

I’m travelling backwards through the English countryside. Trees and bridges flicker by, while the fields in the distance seem to move at a slower pace, sliding out of view, turning unhurriedly beneath the enormous sky. It is as though the land is not solid at all, but molten and shifting, full of currents and channels that only become evident from the window of a speeding train. The world approaches, then flies away.

‘Look at the trees,’ says a young girl.

‘Yes,’ says the woman I assume is her mother.

‘You didn’t see, you weren’t looking.’

‘I was, I was, sweetheart.’

‘You weren’t.’

I am in coach A, the quiet coach, where electronic gadgetry and impulsive gobs must be kept under control. The rage of rappers must not leak from headphones. Please kill your alien warriors quietly. Curiously, I am facing the rest of the passengers. I am on a table at the end of the carriage, facing backwards, while almost everyone else is facing forwards. I feel like a cox. Perhaps I should bark instructions. ‘Read your book. Concentrate.’ ‘Don’t rustle that bag.’ Or perhaps I am an invigilator at an exam. Shush. No talking. The young girl is still mesmerised by the twirling trees, and shouts about them with such joy that no one dares remind her mummy that we are in the quiet zone.

From Manchester to London, the train rattles on. Yes, it rattles. Occasionally. Sometimes it even lurches. But it is a mostly pleasant way to travel, provided you have a seat. Sleepers and texters. Nose-pickers and fidgeters. The mother is chatting to her friend (or perhaps it is her sister). This is the quiet coach but there are no business men staring with psychopathic intensity at laptops. I am sat next to a reader. The bookmark on the table bears the logo of Daunt Books. The reader has a high forehead and heavy-lidded eyes. He reminds me of a friend. I am intrigued to know what he is reading. His paperback looks smart and literary, a cool grey-green cover, but I cannot see the title or the author’s name. I say I am intrigued but I’m not intrigued at all. Neither, it seems, is he. He spends more time checking his phone than he does reading his elegant book. Ah, it’s called The Iceberg. I’ve not heard of it. Have you? Is it good? Shame on me. I can smell the toilet – a warm confection of chemicals and faecal matter – soft dumps and blue poisons.

The laptops are out now, but everyone is behaving themselves. It is a bright day. The clouds look freshly laundered. They look cleaner and brighter than the ones I left behind in the city. These clouds remind me of the clouds in those brilliant old paintings of saints and scholars you see in the National Gallery.

Ted Baker. Fred Perry. There’s Ralph Lauren. We pass an expanse of meadows and marshes. The tall grasses undulate and ripple, waving me away. Shrubs and brackish water. Lanky wildflowers firing off rockets of pink and yellow. I’m travelling backwards from Manchester, my home, to London, where I was born and raised. Except I never really thought of myself as a Londoner, especially not with Irish parents. None of us at school really thought of Ilford as part of throbbing London. The city was Soho and Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. All we had was C&A and the Kenneth More Theatre. London was where the news happened, a thrilling otherness – a place of sex, music, drugs, murder and history. We were caught in the blandlands between Essex and east London. (And London for me started at Manor Park and didn’t really get going until about Forest Gate). But maybe it was just me. Even at home I felt that I was on the edge of things, although I doubt I could have told you what those things were.

Everyone is quiet, even the observant child. She has long tired of trees. She is sleeping on her mother’s lap. There are no accents to assess and gauge. Eyes sometimes connect – but it feels like an intrusion, an accidental touch of hands. My orange juice is nearly finished. I shall not brave the toilet.

I have nothing to read, which is unusual for me. I was going to bring The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson but I changed my mind at the last minute. It disrupted the feng shui of my pockets.

Warehouses with smashed windows and grubby brickwork. Cooling towers – monuments from another world. We are nearly there. It won’t be long. Jackets and holdalls are rescued from the rack. I check my pockets. I pack away my notepad and pen. London. This is my home city but I do not live here. My home is in Manchester but that is not my city. It feels good not to belong, not to be implicated. And yet the purpose of my trip is all about belonging, or wanting to belong, for I am attending a football match. The mother of the observant child is struggling with various bags and cases. I lift one on to the platform. “You’re welcome”, I say, and head for the exit, full of anticipation, with a creased shirt and a spring in my step.

What they said about The Visitors

Praise for The Visitors

Stephen Hargadon The Visitors

Illustration by Richard Wagner


Subtle, well observed, beautifully nuanced – Nicholas Royle @nicholasroyle


Stephen Hargadon continues his impressive run in the pages of Black Static with The Visitors – a first-person narrative that flows along with stream-of-consciousness ease as our narrator relates to us the details of his personal history, and his days spent perched at the local bar drinking pints of IPA as the conversations of others chip in around him. The really impressive thing about Hargadon’s writing is his ability to put you, as the reader, right in the place where he wants you – as though sitting at the table with his narrator as the general bustle of life continues around your conversation, and he occasionally interjects about getting another drink just as soon as there’s a space at the bar or he’s finished talking about the current topic.

The more obviously fantastical elements of Hargadon’s previously published work in Black Static are toned down, here – though things do come to a close on a weirder note that happily flirts with the ghostly versus the unreliable narrator, making for a strangely satisfying finish that presents its final reveal like a punch line … A damned good read? You bet.

Gareth Jones at Dread Central


I could quote every sentence in this story as a particular gem … this is a Hargadon ‘perfect storm’ of a Friday evening in a British city pub … life itself seen through the half-cynical, half-spiritual prism of pubtalk … A genuine irresistible last one for the road.

D.F. Lewis at Rameau’s Nephew 


… an enticing journey into the world of British pubs …

Mario Guslandi at Hellnotes.com

 


… a nice sting at the end.

Sam Tomaino at sfrevu.com


Illustration by Richard Wagner

Illustration by Richard Wagner