“You’ve got paint all over your face,” I say to Nige as he joins me at the bar. I don’t expect a reply immediately, knowing he’ll need to acclimatise his innards with a half pint of lager first.

As he drinks, his eyes are smiling over the rim of the glass. The paint is yellow and white, and suspiciously neatly streaked across his cheeks. There are a few blobs in his long brown hair, too, but I get the feeling those are the bits he’s unaware of.

He puts down the glass and says, “I know. It’s a ploy, Tel. It occurred to me that most of the women around here now are middle-class and therefore have a suppressed but manifold desire for working class totty, like me. So, I thought I’d wear proudly the marks of the working man as a focal point for their libidinous interest.”

“Those marks look more like you did them with your fingers, not your brush. Anyway, there’s a fundamental problem with your plan.”

“What’s that?”

“Look around: there aren’t any women here.”

It’s true. Over there is Old Harry, who’s been old for at least twenty years now, reading a newspaper as always, maybe his eyes moving nearer to the print as time rolls on. At the other end of the bar is Loud Derek, fairly quiet now since there is nobody nearby to shout his opinions too. No one’s sure what he does or did for a living but the rumour is it’s something to do with MI5, but then it was probably him who started the rumour. Other than that, there’s just a table with three male musicians sat around it, their instrument boxes close by. Their bow ties and white shirts look a little incongruous; then again, as Nige has said, the area has become more middle-class in recent years so we’re used to seeing classical musicians rubbing figurative shoulders with painter/decorators wearing war paint.

“Damn. Okay, so what do you want to talk about?”

“I’ve been thinking about endings.”

“Happy endings?” He waggles his eyebrows but I ignore the inference.

Any ending, actually. I’ve had to read a lot of short stories recently, for a workshop I’m giving soon, and what they all lack is a convincing ending. Some just stop; some leave it to you to work it out for yourself; others cheat with an ending that’s dramatic but illogical to the story. So many times, I’ll turn over the page, expecting ten or more pages to come, only to find the story stops right there. I’d say this is mostly with new writers, by the way. Any ideas why?”

He doesn’t reply immediately; instead finishes his pint and orders two more.

Then he’s clearly thinking about the question and I have to suppress a laugh, since his concentrating forehead is turning the yellow lines there into thoughtful wave formations.

“First thing I’d blame,” he says, “is serialitis.”

“Come again.”

“You look at films, TV, even bleedin’ books – nothing ever finishes these days. Everyone’s looking for a potential cash cow so the last thing you want to do is finish a story, or kill off a character. So that sort of mind set must affect all writers, to a degree. They sit down to tell a story with their mind already fixed in the idea that they shouldn’t ever end it.”

“Well, you could be right but – “

“Serialitis is the other end of remakeitis. Nobody’s killing off the Amazing Bloody Spider-Man at one end and they keep remaking his story at the other. So it never finishes and it never finishes starting either.”

He reaches for his glass and I have the chance to add my theory.

“Another reason might be,” I say, “the general lack of commitment today. If you think about it, everyone used to get married and that was very definitely an ending; an ending to ever being single again. And having kids was an ending to ever living without kids.”

“You may be on to something there. Me and my ex lived together for five years before we got married; then we did and were divorced within six months. Now, I’m not a huge fan of hers, but she said something at the time what made sense. She said that while we weren’t married, somewhere in the back of our minds was the notion that we could always be single again if we wanted to be. So, the act of getting married had our subconsciouses suddenly pooping their pants because that retention of the possibility of freedom was suddenly gone. And since, as you allude, we’re part of the general non-committed these days, we then wanted out of the arrangement.”

“But we still have the folk memory that endings are a mark of maturity and therefore that makes it hard for say you and your ex to have got together on the basis that there was no commitment; that you’d just carry on carrying on until you didn’t want to do it any more.”

“Yes, even though that’s kind of what we did anyway. And it ain’t just couples; it’s banks, too, and insurance companies. You got a bank account and that was it for life; now, it’s more likely to be a one night stand, except you’re the one getting screwed, of course.”

“Death, too.”

“I’m with you, I think,” he says. “Infant mortality ain’t what it used to be; people live longer; we never see any dead bodies these days. So, no endings again; we just expect life to go on and on.”

“The more you think about it, endings have become taboo.”

“So, what’s your solution, mate? Are you saying that if anyone wants to be a good writer, they have to get married young and stay married; join up with Barclays for life; visit the morgue every week to remind themselves of death; and kill off every character they write about in their first story?”

“Well, when you put it like that, no. But on the other hand, maybe that kind of life, one full of commitment and endings, needed more escaping in one’s imagination. Maybe writers in the past used to not so much avoid endings but look for more fitting ones to put in their stories: the kinds of endings they wanted in their own lives. Now, there aren’t any endings, either in real life or the imagination.”

“Well, this pint’s come to an end. And the one thing you can say about beer and sex is that more of the same is always a good thing.”

“As long as it’s a happy ending?”

“Tou-bleedin’-che. Oh, and I’ll tell you something else that never ends: social media.”

I actually feel a shiver down my spine at this. “You’re right: all those words appearing all the time, telling stories but without any endings. Because you can’t end anything on social media; the idea is you have to stay endlessly connected.”

“God help us,” says Nige, “we’ve become addicted to never-endings. No wonder they’re making another three bleedin’ Star Wars movies.”


“Sturgeon was right,” says Ben.

I don’t have to respond since I know what he’s referring to. It was once put to Theodore Sturgeon, the Science Fiction writer, that 90 per cent of SF was crap. Sturgeon’s Law, as it’s become known, derives from his reply: “Yes, but then 90 per cent of everything’s crap.”

“But,” says Ben, “he was being generous. I reckon in reality we’re talking 99.99999.”

I stand, point to his beer glass. “You want me to ask the barmaid to just pour in the 0.00001 per cent good bit of a beer?”

“Tell her to smile at the hidden camera. The brewery are always watching.”

I go to the counter for two more pints. I’m concerned about him. Okay, we couldn’t meet tonight in the Mr Morris wine bar on account of it being taken over by a private party, and Ben doesn’t like pubs because they remind him of book shop chains; and book shop chains, with their unfair publishers’ discounts, are close to putting his small, independent book shop out of business. But, still, his mood seems darker than normal.

“Do you really believe that?” I say, returning to our table.

“Actually, yes. And not just because the book world has bent over and offered its arse to the corporate todger. I mean, I reckon we stock more than a fair share of good books at our place but when I say ‘good’ I just don’t know what that entails any more.”

“Let’s keep it simple,” I say. “Surely Shakespeare is good.”

He takes a long swallow of beer, grimacing as if expecting something less homogenous to have hit his throat.

“I don’t know. When did you last read a Shakespeare play?”

“Read one? Probably not since college, over thirty years ago. But — “

“Okay; so when did you last see a Shakespeare play in the theatre?”

“Well . . . ” Shit. I recall seeing Ian McKellen do Macbeth, or was it Hamlet, when I was a teenager. He was great. He must have been great. He is great. And I think I saw ‘A Merchant of Venice’ with an actress I was in love with at the time and wanted to impress by going to see Shakespeare as keenly as I’d trot along to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea.

“I see,” he says, in the tone a doctor might use when he’s just diagnosed your liver is full of alcohol memories. “So, when did you last see a Shakespeare film?”

I’m about to mention Joss Whedon’s adaptation of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ then remember I’ve had the DVD for several months but haven’t removed it from its cellophane wrapping yet.

“I really enjoyed ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’,” I say, “which was based on ‘Taming of the Shrew’, wasn’t it?”

He sighs, drinks more beer. “You’re proving my point,” he says. “Shakespeare’s great but he’s also boring. Which is another kind of crap.”

“But in that case, what isn’t crap?”

“Honestly? Not much. Everything’s over-hyped, either by condescending media whore critics talking about popular culture that they hate but feel they should praise because that’s what ordinary people like, or anally-retentive supporters of the classics who don’t actually enjoy them, just think studying high art makes them better people.”

“So everyone’s full of shit?”

He laughs. “Yes. You, me; the barmaid over there, even if she does look like Audrey Hepburn. We’re all full of shit, but we never admit it because if we did, we might as well just hand in the keys and let McGonads turn the world into one giant turdburger.”

“If everything’s crap,” I say, “what gets you up in the morning?”

“People are full of crap but lots of them do great things, every day. Writers on the other hand — I just don’t think they try hard enough.”

“To be better writers?”

He holds up his hands. “Okay, let me come at this another way . . . I’m not really saying there aren’t any good writers or any good books. But there aren’t enough of them. There are too many writers producing crap because it sells but not admitting to it, and too many readers buying crap because it’s easier to digest or because someone else told them it’s not crap, and the end result is that we give prizes, money and fame to half-wits producing stuff that really should make them ashamed.”

“Are you including all genres in this?”

He nods. “No exceptions, although some are more full of crap than others. But definitely no pass for literary fiction — that’s full of the worst crap of all: written by insecure tossers who think they’re actually pretty damn clever. They’re not. They’re transparent, boring and predictable. If you don’t believe me, try reading anything by Virginia Woolf.”

I shudder, remembering having to study ‘To the Lighthouse’ at school, thinking I must be missing something but suspecting that in fact the book was just good at looking clever without possessing much actual substance.

“See?” he says, noting my Bloomsburyian frown.

“Okay, but if you’re right, what’s the answer?”

He shrugs. “Call a moratorium on reviews, prizes, blurbs, etc — anything that suggests a novel is good. Instead, we issue everything in plain brown covers with the word ‘CRAP’ across the top of it. Then, we might just be pleasantly surprised. Or not.”

We sip our drinks in silence for a while, then I say, “When I’m writing, it’s like there’s this bank of sensory material right in front of me, within easy reach. It’s full of character tics, and word runs, and story twists. I want to get the story finished, so the easiest thing to do is reach for what’s to hand. But most of it isn’t really mine, is it? It’s all the digestible crap that the world puts in front of us, to make sure that what we produce won’t actually make anyone else think or pause or reflect.”

“Same as when you want to tell a girl you love her.”

“I think it takes courage to push beyond that immediate bank of help, to reach into the unknown — of oneself, really. Because, once you do that you stop being a follower-writer and become a leader-writer.”

“And there’s no guarantee anyone will go with you.”

“You might not sell any books.”

“Or your shop might have to shut down.”

The barmaid is leaning on the bar, staring at her phone.

“I remember reading somewhere,” I say, “that Audrey Hepburn moved away from making films and spent the last part of her life working for UNICEF in some of the most disadvantaged places in the world.”

Flickering blue light makes the barmaid’s eyes seem on fire.

“Yes,” says Ben, “but people only remember her films.”