The Half-Life of Songs
 by David Gaffney

Salt Publishing
2010
Paperback
First Collection? No, Third







"They got down on their knees in the sawdust and plastic eyes and began to assemble it. Local historians looked in on them as they remade the moon. One of them, a round-faced bearded man, caught Mason’s eye and winked and the man looked happier than any local historian Mason had ever seen, as if by watching Mason and the young woman remaking the moon, something had been added to him."


Reviewed by A J Kirby

David Gaffney’s stories are often described as "bite-sized". If that's the case, the size of the bites in this particularly tasty morsel would match the radius of a great white shark's mouth. Perhaps a great white which was about to be lopped in half and pickled in formaldehyde. For in The Half Life of Songs what we are presented with is a veritable feast. A Heston Blumenthal-style masterclass of the weird and wonderful, the fantastic and the comic. Fifty-five sharky tales which fin their way into the reader's consciousness in a way that many other, more "serious" writers' work could never hope to match.

David Gaffney's stories are also described as the ideal reading for today's audience with our rather under-developed attention spans. They are heralded as fiction to take the iPad generation by their designer hoodies and shake them within an inch of their lives; proclaimed as writing which can compete with the clamour of voices from Twitter and Facebook and Sky Atlantic (Let the Stories Begin.) But if Gaffney were an iPhone app, he'd be the 3G one which takes us along McCartney's long and winding road rather than "the shortest possible route". Because there's simply so much to see along the way, he doesn't want us to miss it.

Although nominally a collection of short, flash pieces, The Half Life of Songs is about far more than that. Here, Gaffney delivers the real Little Britain; a collection of unique snapshots, pen-pictures if you will, of people, not caricatures. He holds an iPhone app mirror up to the society, landscape and culture of Britain and he shows us our foibles, or strange tics, our crazed beliefs and our hidden fears.

This is a pinpoint examination of truth which stands comparison with the best observational comics, and it is also revelation of things we wish were true. Things we wish would make the "And Finally…" section of the local news, such as in The Three Daves, in which a stag do is organised in Pontefract, because Budapest, Paris, Krakow have all been done before:
"It was Little Dave's idea to use the stone troughs in the market place (to drink out of) and the president of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was so impressed that Pontefract's troughs would be returned to something like their original use that he gave his blessing right away."
This is absurd, often irreverent humour. In Wooden Animals, a cinema worker observes: "For some reason they liked nun films in Elland (…) Not like Nuns on the Run (…) real nun films, like the Magdalene Sisters. The problem is, they never make enough." It is wild, screaming generalisations which tickle the funny bone, such as "They would smile at Mason in that sarcastic way people with an interest in local history have…" or seeming narrative cul de sacs such as "No one drops in to enquire about industrial breathing equipment on Saturdays…" He imagines up his own literary conundrums. One story is a six paragraph thought-piece on why the protagonist has "Celia's Mum's Rat" as an entry in his mobile phone's phone book.

Along the way, we meet newts, tomato-plants fed on the blood of belly dancers, marmoset-owning fathers, thought-control (and its relationship to PowerPoint), an upturned cereal bowl which acts as a sponge for all arguments (and is later replaced by an electrician who looks like Buddy Holly), a dad whose arm falls off on holiday in Spain. We discover the etiquette of village fireworks displays, swap-shops (swishing), making owl mating calls, and karaoke competitions…

Storywriting 101 class tells us the protagonist must always overcome a problem in a story. And even in as little as 150 words, in some cases, Gaffney's heroes overcome. They overcome problems such as where to buy country clobber when the shop in the high street is boycotted because of a row over what exactly constitutes country music, or "where to get food for a party of 300 on a Sunday afternoon with Greggs shut…" (turns out manages to get ahold of "Irish" themed chickens dyed turquoise by bath bombes.)

There is also a rich seam of art themed/ inspired stories, including I Liked Everything and Towns in France Exactly Like This. In another, Everlast, Kathleen becomes obsessed with an art installation which is based on the Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living". Only here, instead of a shark, we have Pete Doherty cut in half after donating his body to art. After attending a private viewing, Kathleen hides when the rest of the guests go home and then goes to meet her hero:
"She threw her arms out sideways and touched both cases, drawing breath sharply. Pete Doherty's body. She was standing between the two halves of Pete Doherty, almost inside him, the closest she'd been to the man, and the only time she'd seen him naked."
Kathleen eventually decides she needs "one last kiss – formaldehyde or no formaldehyde," and uses a break-glass hammer to shatter the glass. To claim him. In this way, the story asks interesting questions about our obsession with celebrity and our ‘ownership' of personalities, but it does it in a way which shows what a horrorshow celebrity has actually become.

Live Feed is my favourite of the art-world stories. It's a piece which Gaffney manages to lampoon both the snooty seriousness of the art exhibition as well as the impotent frustration of the football hooligan all together in this mad, oxymoronic mix which bubbles to the surface as guffawing laughter. With echoes of A Clockwork Orange, the story revolves around an art show being shown live, on big screen inside and outside the White Swan pub in Fallowfield. Jack, our protagonist, is on duty, "policing the live coverage in the community" in order that "if anything serious kicked off" he is on hand.

It is a powder-keg atmosphere. Gaffney renders it perfectly; his language aping the "football hooligan memoir". It is trying to justify nonsense as something important and serious.
"At the actual event it was much easier to control the disorder that always went with these big exhibitions. The Velasquez in Birmingham, the Monet in Sheffield, the Titian in Liverpool, they all ended up the same. Bloodbaths.'"
And:
"...the Chorlton-on-Medlock Watercolour Society were notoriously vicious. Yet the hard core had been flushed out long ago. Guns were off the scene, and the violence had become ritualized – balletic, almost. (…) the fighting was ceremonial."

He meets Jimmy, one of the Chorlton-on-Medlock crew. Jimmy has "a crazy, feral streak, and lacked the normal human aversion to physical violence. Events like this were an excuse to vent the fury he brewed all year."

When the show begins in the decorative arts section, all hell breaks loose. The camera lingers on an Italian Sgabello chair, provoking this response from Jimmy:
"A chair? A fucking chair? How exactly is that art? If I want to look at a chair, I'll visit World of fucking Leather. Get this shite off our screens."
And violence is inevitable. But also memorable. The title of this collection, "The Half Life…' is crucial to understanding the feelings Gaffney leaves with the reader. They resonate. They linger. They invite you back to have another read. Comic writing often gets looked down upon, but Howard Jacobsen won the 2010 Booker with a comic novel, and here Gaffney looks to have cemented his reputation as one of the foremost writers in the short fiction arena. In part by making us laugh.

Read a story from this collection in Lamport Court


A J Kirby is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). He was recently announced as the runner-up in the Dog Horn Publishing Fiction Prize.
A Js other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus"

Howard Goldowsky (ed) "Masters of Technique"

Various Authors "Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 3"

Panos Ioannides "Gregory and Other Stories"


                     
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David Gaffney comes from Cleator Moor in West Cumbria and now lives in Manchester. He is the author of Sawn Off Tales (2006), Aromabingo (2007), Never Never (2008), Buildings Crying Out,, a story using lost cat posters (Lancaster litfest 2009), 23 Stops To Hull, a set of short stories about every junction on the M62 (Humber Mouth festival 2009) ,Rivers Take Them a set of short operas with composer Ailis Ni Riain (BBC Radio Three 2008), Destroy PowerPoint, stories in PowerPoint format for Edinburgh Festival in August 2009, and the Poole Confessions, stories told in a mobile confessional box (Poole Literature festival 2010).

Read an interview with David Gaffney