The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993
Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)
T H E A R T F A I R M U R D E R S
A Novel An Installation
THE ABERDEEN WRITERS' CLUB
Usually it's a mistake to seek advice from other amateurs at writers' clubs.
I don't think it's a good idea to ask family or friends to read and "criticize"
your manuscript, either.
If you want to share your work with a spouse or close friend, that's fine. But
to ask a club member, relative, or friend for criticism is mostly a waste of
time for at least two reasons: they won't be honest; they usually don't know
what they're doing anyway.
Of course your writer's club may have a much-published professional as a member.
If you can get advice from that person, it might be a fine thing.
Jack M. Bickham. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid
Zoran was the man that Jacko had to see. Twenty books published, eight still
in print and four translated into Spanish and Croatian. They'd both been thrown
out of the Aberdeen Writer's Club months ago by a bunch of wankers whose twin
heroes were John Creasy and Barbara Cartland and who reacted to liberal sprinklings
of the f-word and the c-word like vegetarians to steak tartare.
Anyway, the club had brought them together and Zoran had become something of
a mentor to Jacko, encouraging him to keep writing, basically encouraging him
to keep on keeping on.
Jacko pulled on his Robert Hughes, took a quick leak, then aimed his taxi through
the streets of Aberdeen with all the precision of a heat-seeking missile. He
knew where Zoran would be. It had just gone nine in the mid-winter morning and
it was still as dark as death. The last of the commuters were coming in from
the boondocks, snow six inches high on the roofs of their Volvos and Range Rovers.
Christ it was cold.
Zoran would be at Sweaty Betty's, sure to be. It was his favourite caff down
on the beach. Zoran was a man of habit and an aficionado of the all-day breakfast.
Nobody did them better than Betty. Smelled delicious. Two eggs, bacon, a sausage,
mushrooms when in season, a little rack of toast with two additional slices
already on the plate. All this on top of cornflakes or Coco Pops, followed by
jam and marmalade and accompanied throughout by a bottomless teapot. Magic.
Betty bought in all the papers, not just rubbish like the Sun and the Daily
Record but the International Herald Tribune and the Independent, the Guardian
Weekly, The New Yorker and the Spectator. A fine wee library of news catering
to all the American oil men in town and the English gentry up for the fishing.
Not that many of either came to Betty's, but if they did there would be plenty
for them to read. No harm in being prepared. Anyway, all the regulars read them
Zoran, as stated, was a man of habit. Every day he would eat exactly the same
two meals in exactly the same two places. He started each morning with his all-day
breakfast at Betty's and finished with a chicken curry at the Bay of Bengal
in Market Street, an Indo-Pak restaurant that fittingly occupied the old fire
station. He had an account at both places which he settled once a year when
his royalty cheque came through. He was still living well from the proceeds
of his third novel Venus Skytrap which like all his works of science fiction
featured Tito Zogg space detective. It had been huge in Slovenia and continued
to do well around the Balkans despite the current ethnic cleansing. For nearly
a decade his writing had supported three translators and their very extended
families in Zagreb, Split and Banja Luka.
There was a blast of heat the moment Jacko opened the door of Betty's. Like
going into the hot house at the Glasgow botanics when he was a child. The place
was full. Pensioners, unemployed, kids dodging school, the night shift just
clocked out the fish factory. Radiators burned between the tables, and betwen
the radiators pools of water covered the lino where the early morning punters
had stamped the ice from their boots. Some of them would stay all day. Save
on heating bills and keep the giro for the pub. A few token Christmas decorations
unconvincingly marked the time of year.
"Fit like?" Zoran asked, mimicking his adopted Aberdeen accent. Both
men had been born in Glasgow, ten years apart and on different sides of the
river, but Glasgow nonetheless.
"Fucking freezing," Jacko replied. "Wish ah wis back in Australia."
"Ah see the dawn's early light has been havin' a bit of a lie-in again
this morning," Zoran nodded towards the horizon where the first frosty
fingers of light were rising above the North Sea, barely illuminati ng a cluster
of abandoned oil rigs in the middle distance. Most of the foreground was occupied
by Jacko's taxi, close enough to keep an eye on. He'd had it nicked once by
a bunch of Ajax supporters over for the European Cup and it had really buggered
up hi s weekend. Life was hard enough withoot your taxi getting nicked.
One of Betty's many nieces brought Zoran his cornflakes so we were obviously
in at the start of the meal. "No hungry, wee man?" Zoran asked as
Jacko ordered a round of toast and a mug of h ot chocolate. "Got to build
up your body heat in these temperatures, put on the calories." On to a
small hill of cornflakes went the milk and the sugar and a wee dash of whisky
from the half bottle of Grouse in Zoran's overcoat. Like I say, he was a man
of habit. He only lived a few minutes away from Betty's, further along the beach
at Footdee the city's old harbour where fifty houses formed three wee streets
around the lighthouse and oil tankers from Hamburg and Oslo, each the size of
city blocks, waited off-shore. Christ it was cold. Warming up though with all
these heaters. Betty's prices went up twenty per cent in the off-season to help
pay the fuel bills but naybody cared because the purvey was the best in town.
Zoran, our man of habit, would read the papers till eleven in the morning, be
home by five past, get the fire lit, feed the three cats (Asimov, Ballard and
Clarke), brew a litre of coffee which would see him through the day, and start
writing by high noon. Every hour, on the hour, he would pour himself a glass
of whisky. Eight hours later he would switch off his Mac, put on his Luftwaffe
overcoat that he'd bought at Millets twenty years ago, and step out for his
curry. Always chicken, always biryani, always nan bread, never chapati, and
always a dozen papadoms.
He was a bit of a health freak so he always walked to the Bengal, but sometimes,
after the usual five pints of lager, he'd get a taxi back. One night, over a
year ago, the lucky taxi driver had been Jacko, and that was how they'd met,
and how they'd both (briefly) attended the Aberdeen Writer's Club.
Helen Wolfe Brown had always loved the literary world
more than she loved literature. Hence she became an agent rather than a
writer. Hence she pirated a maiden aunt's surname while still a student
at Middlesex Polytechnic and changed from plain old Helen Brown to the
rather more intriguing Helen Wolfe Brown. She took her first literary lover
about the same time. Her "book of the month club" as she would
later call them for they rarely lasted more than a few weeks. Others, less
enamoured of her choices which occasionally veered towards the extreme
right of the political race track, referred to them as the Helen Wolfe
She had compiled her CV with the same imagination as she constructed her
name, substituting Dublin and Cambridge for Southampton and Middlesex.
Before long she was learning her trade from a tiny office near the British
Museum high above the Empire pub. She worked under (sometimes literally,
on her hands and knees on the faded Axminster) Samuel "Palmer"
Fergusson a meek classics scholar with a penchant for gentle sado-masochistic
Several years after her arrival he suffered a massive coronary while being
Swinburned, as he would have guiltily enjoyed describing it, at a cheap
but cheerful brothel near Victoria Station. The coroner put it down to
an asthma attack and wryly noted that he had died in harness. To Helen's
surprise she inherited the business and its extensive educational lists
from this lonely old bachelor and quickly introduced a new stable of writers
who were young, virile, and to her credit bankably talented.
She went into the provinces and south of the river in London like no literary
agent had done before. She went to Glasgow, Newcastle, Belfast, Manchester,
and Aberdeen. Zoran MacDonald was one of her early discoveries. Not a huge
seller like James, Martin, or Irvine but with consistently good overseas
She expanded the office taking over the premises of the failed yachting
magazine next door and the mail order lingerie firm on the half-landing.
She now employed a staff of five, three of whom worked part-time but all
of whom always attended her Christmas parties along with any of her clients,
both writers and publishers, for whom she was the meat in the sandwich.
Every year they booked the back room in the Empire for their Christmas
party, turning up sober at mid-day and usually staying until chucking out
time at night.
"Going away for the season Helen?" Winston Harding her latest
hot young thing from Jamaica via Yale asked her over the turkey and chipolatas
at about the same time as, five hundred miles due north, Zoran was pouring
the second whisky of his writer's day and trying to set the scene for a
battle between the fuel-starved Th args from Jupiter and the occupying
"Aberdeen - for New Year" Helen replied, shouting as if through
a loud hailer. She didn't ride to hounds but if she did would have no trouble
being heard above the fray. "Hogmanay as the locals call it. Two of
my writers live up there. God knows why, both could afford to live in Switzerland,
or at least Spain, but neither travels. I blame the granite - radioactive.
Gets to them in the end. Anyway, I'm seeing one for business and one for
"If it's who I think it is darling then it must be Zoran for business
and Iain for pleasure."
"Got it in one, mastermind. I'll be in Stonehaven screwing Iain from
1995 into 1996 with a sidetrip to Furry-boot city as they call it to discuss
Zoran's next unreadabl e trilogy for which the former Yugoslavians are,
I have been reliably informed, holding their garlic-heavy breath. Zoran
also wants me to take on a friend of his, a taxi driver by the name of
Jacko. Sent me a sample chapter. It's got possibilities but has Jacko got
staying power, that's what I want to find out. Another gin?"
"Double or quits?"
"Double you fool, and when you come back you must, must, must give
me an end of year report on Acid Tongues . I need the manuscript by February
and if it is as good as you keep telling me we'll auction it in time for
The rest of the table generated noise and heat, but most of it was gossip
and lies, the staple diet of office parties.
So, you want to write a book?
No, I'm writing a book. I want to get it published. Didn't Zoran post you the
Yes, but I want you to describe it to me. What's it about?
And it's called?
The Art Fair Murders.
All over the world.
They were sitting in the breakfast bar of the Aberdeen Hilton looking out to
a helicopter landing pad and a 14th century sea wall insulated with lobster
creels. Zoran had left them together saying he had an appointment, but Jacko
was pretty sure it was with Betty. No way would he eat a sanitised hotel breakfast.
Over the prunes and meusli Jacko began to explain to a slightly hungover but
carnally satisfied Helen Wolfe Brown the international freemasonry of the world
of commercial art fairs.
-Well, Jacko began, these commercial art fairs have really taken off. They've
been going since '67 when the first one happened in Cologne. I've been doing
A better writer than you will probably ever be once said that research is the
policeman that holds up the novel. But no matter, go on. These art fairs happen
in galleries I presume?
No, no, in convention centres and trade halls, all over the world. Like where
they have car shows and ideal home shows and yachting shows. The book fair in
Frankfurt in October uses the same space as the art fair does earlier in the
year, in April. Inbetweens like there's car shows and computer jamborees. Galleries
just rent a space and set up their work. Might cost them twenty grand but if
they sell a Picasso for a hundred grand they're quids in. When a painting sells
it's usually removed and another one takes its place. It's all about money,
no about art at all.
And these have caught on?
Some dealers think there are now too many. There's a major one somewhere in
the world every month of the year. January its Miami, February Madrid, March
London, April Frankfurt, May Chicago - that's a beauty in the old Navy Piers
where a lot of the Cagney movies were shot. So it goes until the end of the
year in Los Angeles in December. Venice Beach here we come!
You have experience of these?
Yeah, I've been to most of them, most of the big ones, except Miami. Then there's
aw the wee ones in Stockholm and Taiwan and places like that.
And how, pray tell does a, forgive me, down-at-heel Aberdeen taxi driver come
to have trotted the globe to such an extent? And why art fairs - are you an
Nah, I was an art transporter, Jacko replied shuffling his Arnulf Rainers, stung
by the down-at-heel remark. Fair enough though, they were a bit on the nose
as his Australian mates would say.
An art transporter? You accompanied precious art objects on aeroplanes?
No very often, sometimes though. Mostly I was a driver but I started out as
a lifter and lugger.
Where were you based?
Not very much but the pay was good. Beer was pish mind so I really just used
it as a base. Came back to Scotland as much as possible between trips, but I
was overseas every other fortnight.
And this is what you want to write about?
No, no, I keep telling you I am writing aboot it. This is what I want to get
published. That's where you come in. Zoran's always saying you're a wee doll
when it comes to the literary agency stuff. I've got high hopes of a film too.
Twelve overseas locations. Impossible. It wouldn't stand a chance. Dream on,
Think it through lady. They all look the same inside these art fairs. Think
of Frankfurt, all chipboard panels white paint and green carpet. Could be anywhere
in the world. Shoot it all in a studio. We'd use language to set the location,
I've worked it all out. A bit of Spanish, some double Dutch and a few Cindy
I beg your pardon?
Sorry, Germans. We art transporters all have our own rhyming slang. Cindies
are Germans. You know, if you're feeling a bit Donatello you're mellow, if you're
dying for a Simon Linke - he's a young London artist - you're dying for a drink.
That sort of crack. Like behind the scenes at these art fairs all the art transporters
from around the world would meet up and go for a bevvy and a wee banter - Americans,
Australians, Brits, Dutch, French, German. Most of us were football fanatics,
that kind of brought us together. European Cup, that and the baseball. Satellite
TV's changed the world, really has. Then this rhyming slang thing started. Broke
the monotony like. You didn't need to know anything about the art, bit like
the critics, but we'd all see these names stencilled on the sides of crates
..... lifting them in and out of trucks all day. You don't have to see Georges
Braque too many times to think of sore back, or Solle Witt for shit, pardon
I get the idea, and don't worry about the language my boy. In my line of business
I'm no stranger to the Anthony Blunt word, and a lot worse.
Never mind, just trying to join in.
Oh I see, that's no bad. I'll use that if I you don't mind. Who was Anthony
Blunt, sure ah've heard his name somewhere?
Who indeed. Tell me, why aren't you doing this any more? Sounds more fun than
driving a cab.
Lost ma job. I was wheel-clamped behind the black ball so I was. More like an
Irish Granny. Happened after the Cologne art fair in '89.
What happened? I hope you don't write like you speak, or maybe I do. Yes, I
do hope you write like you speak. Go on, get to the point.
I look forward to enjoying your eclectic style, I really do, but can we get
back to Cologne...?
Aye, OK. It was all Wee Shitey's fault. On the Cologne trip I was driver, being
the senior man, and Wee Shitey, whose from Drumchapel, was luggin'. He sometimes
drives though. Anyway, we gets to Cologne and we've got a truck full of crates
from nine London galleries which means nine poncey gallery directors to deal
with further down the track. The London dealers are the worst in the world,
they make your average anal retentive seem like a laid back Fillipo Lippi. Anyway,
we unload as usual and I'm looking forward to a relaxing night in the bars around
We're in this tiny room that we're sharing and Wee Shitey tunes in to the World
Service trying to get the snooker results from Sheffield when the news comes
on and they're talking about how it looks like the Berlin Wall is about to be
opened up. Like Moscow's made it know n they won't interfere. "Let's go
to Berlin!", cries Wee Shitey. "Should be a rage!" He goes on
and on about history in the making and how much fun Berlin women are at the
worst of times let alone when their wall is coming down. But I'm no interested,
I'm dying for a pint of Callum Innes in this wee bar I know that sells every
beer imaginable. Last thing I want is to drive all night to Berlin.
Anyway, the silly cunt takes our van. I thought he was talking about hiring
a car for a couple of days. Took the key off ma ring while I was having a pish,
and to make it worse there was one very small crate we didnae realise we hadnae
unloaded. A Stanley Spencer drawing worth thirty grand. Left in a crate under
some blankets so it was and the wee lassie working for the Cork Street gallery
had uncorked a few wee champers hersel and didnae notice it either.
So you lost your job?
Oh, it got worse than that. Ah don't know if you remember the night the wall
came doon - everybody seems to. Oh God. I watched it in absolut e horror from
a bar in Cologne. I couldn't believe it. All over the world the same TV news
reports showed night shots of guys up on the wall wi' spotlights illuminating
them. You may remember in the middle of one group there was a guy with a pick-axe
and a pork pie hat, seen side on, beasting into the wall for all it was worth?
That was Wee Shitey from Drumchapel. Ah've never forgiven him for it yet. Neither
have our previous employers each of whom viewed the wee bugger in action from
their respective Hamps tead, Camden Town, and Chelsea living rooms. We were
sent up the hill straight away after that. Giro city here we came.
End of Chapter One
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