Tuesday Sep. 27, 2016

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This is not an emergency, I say
when Mom picks up. She answers,
Hold on, we’re getting a page.
Two electronic tones, the call numbers
that follow. As a teenager, I listened
to the police scanner in our kitchen,
taught myself the radio codes
that told me where she was, what she
was putting right. Today I wait
without hearing anything I understand.
She’s used to waiting—for calls
to come in, units to go out, her shift
to end. She says she doesn’t miss
the ambulance, hefting cots and equipment,
the urgent drives. As a dispatcher,
she gets to stay inside, wear
her own clothes, go home unbloodied.
On the night shift, she reads cookbooks
and crime novels next to her keyboard,
wanting and not wanting something
to happen. Mornings at my desk,
I imagine her voice sending sirens
exactly where they’re needed.

“Dispatch” by Carrie Shipers from Family Resemblances. © University of New Mexico Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The first steam-powered passenger railway began service in England on this date in 1825. It brought together the work of George Stephenson, builder of coal mine steam engines, and Edward Pease, who wanted to build a delivery system to bring coal to the market towns of Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees. Some Stockton businessmen advocated a canal system, but the other two towns on the line — Darlington and Yarm — both wanted a railway. Pease was planning to use horse-drawn coal wagons, however, until Stephenson informed him that a steam engine could pull a load 50 times greater than horses could manage. So a proposal for a railway line went before Parliament, and was thrown out twice. In 1821, supporters of the railway submitted a petition with 785 signatures, and the plan was finally approved. As an afterthought, the drafters of the official document added the permission to carry passengers on the train.

The train’s inaugural journey went from Shildon to Stockton, with a top speed of 12 miles per hour. A man on horseback went before the train, carrying a banner that read Periculum privatum utilitas publica (“The private danger is the public good”). About 600 people were aboard, most of them riding in open coal cars. Dignitaries and rich backers rode in the sole passenger coach, which had been dubbed “The Experiment,” and which had been built at a cost of 80 pounds sterling. George Stephenson rode on the footplate. A brass band boarded the train at Yarm to complete the journey, where the first steam-powered passenger train was greeted with a 21-gun salute and “God Save the Queen.”

It’s the birthday of writer Joyce Johnson (books by this author), born Joyce Glassman in New York City (1935). She ran away to Greenwich Village when she was still a teenager, and got to know people at the center of the emerging Beat Generation. Her troubled, two-year affair with Jack Kerouac is recounted in her memoir, Minor Characters, A Young Woman’s Coming of Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac (1999), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. She has also published Doors Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters 1957–1958, the letters she and Kerouac exchanged during their relationship.

Glassman said: “Artists are nourished more by each other than by fame or by the public. To give one’s work to the world is an experience of peculiar emptiness. The work goes away from the artist into a void, like a message stuck into a bottle and flung into the sea.”

It’s the birthday of Scottish novelist, Irvine Welsh (books by this author), best known for his novel Trainspotting (1993), about a group of rough heroin addicts in crime-plagued Edinburgh, Scotland.

Welsh was born in in Leith, a port area of Edinburgh (1957). His mother was a waitress and his father was a dockworker. Welsh left Ainslie Park Secondary School at 16 and worked as an apprentice television and radio repairman until he was electrocuted. It was 1976, so he promptly quit and hauled off to London, where became involved in the burgeoning punk rock scene. He sang in a band called The Pubic Lice, worked as a kitchen porter, and became addicted to heroin. Welsh started shoplifting and committing petty crimes to pay for his habit. He decided to quit drugs cold turkey and used the money he received as compensation for falling off the top deck of a bus to start buying property during the real estate boom in London in the 1980s. He fixed up the properties and sold them for a profit, making enough to move back to Edinburgh, where he worked for the city council and studied for his MBA at Heriot-Watt University.

Welsh had always wanted to write, but he didn’t know how to start; so one day he just started typing until he reached 100,000 words. He said, “I’m the same kind of writer as I am a drinker. A binger.” That novel didn’t go anywhere, but it inspired him to dig out his teenage diaries from Leith, which had been filled with poverty and drugs as he was growing up. He started writing about that time in his life and publishing stories in small magazines. A friend of his put him in touch with an agent, and the first publisher they showed it to snapped it up. The novel was called Trainspotting (1993), and not only was it violent, strange, crude, and realistic, it was also told in seven sections, instead of chapters, and the dialect was a mix of Scots, Scottish English, and British English. One character even maintains a running dialogue with actor Sean Connery. Welsh and his publisher only printed 3,000 copies, thinking the book’s subject matter would be hard to sell, but it received good reviews and was even nominated for the Booker Prize, though two female judges objected to the violence and it was removed from contention.

It wasn’t until the film version of Trainspotting (1996) came out three years later that the novel really took off. The movie starred a young Ewan McGregor, and its scenes of heroin addiction and poverty were controversial. U.S. Senator Bob Dole called the movie “morally depraved,” even though he admitted he had not seen it. The novel has now sold more than a million copies in the United Kingdom alone and has been translated into 30 languages. Welsh’s other books include Ecstasy, (1996), Filth (1998), Glue (2001), Porno (2002), The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006), Skagboys (2012), and The Blade Artist (2016).

Welsh lives in Chicago and Dublin. On his writing process, he says: “It’s just a big mess. And I think, all this has got to be put in some kind of order. It’s like a police kind of thing. I’ve got whiteboards on the walls and I’ve got all the pictures I’ve taken of different things and stuff that I’ve taken off the net, and Post-it notes that I’ve scribbled on all over the wall. And there I am mixing it all around, taking it off the wall, putting it back up again.”

When asked why his books are so violent, Irvine Welsh answered: “Well, everybody that writes has their own area of inquiry. And mine has always been kind of, why is it that when life can be so hard and difficult, we compound it by self-sabotage, doing terrible things? That’s always been my main area of inquiry, and it does lead you to dark places.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®