Let’s get the ethics of this post out the way. Mat Coward is an old friend and comrade from way back when, even though I still think of him as a young man. So I didn’t pay for You can jump; and other stories – I got a review e-copy for free – and anyway I couldn’t have borrowed it from a library, because the actual paper and card object you can drop in the bath edition isn’t out yet (though it is imminent). Not that that would have made the slightest difference to what I’m going to write next.
Is this not one of the great opening sentences of all time? Resistance is futile:
My grandfather, for instance, created an entire religion based on chips.
That’s from Persons reported, the second story in You can jump: and other stories (Alia Mondo, 2012), Mat’s new anthology of quirky crime short stories. His grandfather is – in passing – an ‘anti-Faith healer.’ There are crimes – mostly murders or attempts therat – at the heart of each tale, and the denouement is never obvious (well, not to me , anyway). But it’s the tone that really scores – conversational, confiding, drenched in a wry, relaxed wit – that and the observation. And the one-liners. That “for instance” above, for instance, is crucial. We are never told what it’s an instance of; we’ve just been privileged to drop in on the never dull mind of Mat Coward. It’s beautifully done.
The opening tale, If all is dark, starts with something almost (seemingly) tangential that happened at school
“Yes,” I said. “I did write a poem. About depression. Though, in mitigation, I should say I’ve never written one before or since. A teenage aberration.”
and skips to a flirtatious job hunting interview (“I do insist on Luncheon Vouchers“) , which leads to an odd love triangle involving japes with a philosopher who favours deadpan downer sloganed t-shirts and badges.
Once, we all dressed up in dark suits and went from door to door in a respectable suburb, telling whoever opened the door that we brought good news about the Bible. The good news was “It’s all a pack of lies, so you can do anything you want to do.” The only snag with that one was that most people shut their doors so quickly that they missed the punch line.
Trust me, I’ve barely scratched the surface. The story concludes years later with revelations at the funeral of one of said triangle and is a fine example of the basic Coward signature move:
Over the years, I’ve only rarely written what you might call “straight” short stories […] but there is something about historical fiction which sometimes seems to inhibit my usual practice of “twisting” my stories (or at least filling them full of jokes).
There are 12 stories here, two of them historical. What he say above holds for one of them. And what can they show, or what reasons give? takes place on the eve of the big Peasants Revolt demo and is played relatively straight. The Wodehousian Hope of the world is a country house mystery straight out of Michael Palin’s Ripping yarns, reflecting 1920s establishment paranoia of communism, complete with some wonderful twist and turns; indeed, if the Monty Python boys ever contemplated a return to the movies, here with The Bolshevist League of Urgency is a ready-made plot for them. The politics of both these stories make for a wonderful springboard of socialist (but never hectoring) wit.
The other 10 stories draw on the last 30 years or so, often in the same piece. Two of the stories are barmen’s tales, where the dialogue is delicious and the comic timing straight out of classic radio shows; when reading So where’ve you buried the missus then, Paddy I would warn you especially against operating heavy machinery at the same time. In Jizz we get introduced to the concept of ‘special birding‘ – you see, you’re intrigued, I can tell. Reason to believe lets loose some delicious banter doubling as the interrogation of the astrologer suspect. There’s not a dud among ’em and you get the bonus of Mat commenting on their genesis afterwards. You can jump, the title story, is as serious as it gets, reflecting its author’s thoughts on what the social movement that was punk meant, or should have meant, to the foot soldiers, how its empowering philosophy is still valid today. That and melancholy too.
The only thing that disappointed about You can jump; and other stories is that not much was new to me. I’d read most of the stories before. All of them have appeared before in mainstream crime anthologies edited by major players in the genre like Martin Edwards, so don’t let the fact that this book comes out via a small publisher put you off; rather it’s a reflection of the moribund state of British publishing. You can purchase the e-book in any format (including .pdf) for a measly $3.99 from the Smashwords site; the paperback will be available soon.
And while we’re at it, Mat’s novel of the near future, Acts of destruction (Alia Mondo Press, 2009) is full of ideas and more of the same. It’s a crime novel – a gentle police procedural even – set 20 years hence in a London where society is adapting to the non-apocalyptic failure of capitalism and the climate change chickens having come home to roost. It’ll make you think, remind you there are alternatives to the way we live. You can read its first two chapters here. Every library system should have at least one. Not that they will have, so reserve it so they do.
I should mention January’s Scribal Gathering before its memory recedes, given I’ve mentioned all the others – and another goodie it was too. Danni Antagonist gave us some of her words, Naomi Rose sang some of her songs, both to good effect. We also had another fine set from Ian Freemantle, the official Bard of Stony Stratford, now approaching the end of his year’s election, but I won’t mention Steve Hobbs & his human Powerpoint demonstration. And I was dead chuffed to win a much-prized Scribal Gathering mug in the post-it note poetry competition by rhyming Gaddafi and library with Rastafari and tsunami.