The Corbyn effect: when the political becomes personal

Some of the socialist and working class history books on the shelf of JY Saville

I’m feeling optimistic at the moment, generally sunny and bright and like anything is possible. These things are never simple, we all know that, but I can attribute part of it to Jeremy Corbyn (he’s not the messiah he’s a very lefty boy). Tenuous, you may say, trying to drum up a bit of blog traffic by latching on to the man of the moment, but regular readers should know I don’t have much appetite for that, and you don’t have to know me long to realise I’m a socialist (honestly I can bring politics into most conversations, appropriate or otherwise), so it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out I’d be supporting him.

It’s quite sad how refreshing it is to listen to a politician that sounds like they believe the words coming out of their mouth, and seems like they might actually have some principles they might stick to. I’m not saying politicians can never change their stance on anything, we all change our minds, maybe we’ve heard new evidence or thought about some consequence that never occurred to us before. All too often though, politicians seem like they’re swaying in the wind of public opinion. Honestly, I don’t care if you agree with me, I’d rather have a good lively debate, but you can’t do that if your heart’s not in it. I’d got a bit sick of politics, full of the same old insincere voices, wealthy and isolated in the Westminster bubble, until Mr Corbyn leapt into the leadership contest (wealth of Corbyn unknown but seemingly immaterial as it isn’t coupled with an I’m all right Jack attitude).

People are saying yes but would you want him as PM. To me that’s missing the point. It’s not that the socialists of England are only happy when they’re on the losing side, clearly winning an election and getting to put all these ideas for a fairer society into practice would be brilliant, but winning isn’t an end in itself. Pretending to be a branch of the Conservative party in order to trick a few floating voters seems pointless. Much better to be in opposition but standing up for what you and some portion of the electorate believe in. So I’m optimistic, the fifty shades of Tory politics of the last few years might be on its way out, we might get a debate on what Labour (or anyone else) stands for in the 21st century, and I might be able to vote with my conscience instead of tactically, holding my nose as I make the pencil cross. I’m fired up again (me and 50,000 other people, apparently).

While I’m feeling so good I’m getting stories finished, I’m entering writing competitions, I’m submitting to magazines more than I have in ages. If I make any money out of this sudden proliferation of work, I’ll have to send Jeremy a few quid for his leadership campaign as a thank you.

Yet more book reviews

A couple of weeks ago I said there was another possible opportunity for me to do book reviews. It’s now all come to fruition and my first review for The Bookbag is for a non-genre novel The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon. Rather than reviewing books I’ve bought, or borrowed from the library (as often happens), this is the kind of reviewing where you choose from the available books and then they send you it to read. The excitement of receiving books through the post! You can imagine the glee this is filling me with, I’m sure. Don’t worry library, I haven’t forgotten you and I’m sure I’ll still be a regular visitor, but this is definitely going to help with my aim of reading more recent novels this year.

Weekend creativity

Like those conversations in the pub that are full of great plans but never amount to anything, OneMonkey and our artist friend Mark and I have spent most of today drinking tea on the sofa and telling each other what to do, knowing 90% of it will be ignored. If we weren’t shy, if we had more confidence, if we were more organised, if we only had time to do this project justice… The excuses have been flying around, all of us about as bad as each other, but between us we’ve generated a few ideas that might pay off (not in terms of actual money, obviously, but maybe in terms of artistic satisfaction). It’s an interesting exercise having an outsider’s perspective (by which I mean I’m not a painter or illustrator, Mark and OneMonkey are not writers), asking the questions that are so obvious they’ve been overlooked.

So, in between all the book reviews I’m writing, all the books I’m reading, the 3 writing deadlines that are looming, and the continuing amusement of the interactive detective story I’m writing with OneMonkey (not to mention the art history MOOC I’ve just started and the philosophy MOOC I still haven’t finished) I’ll try following up on some of today’s suggestions. When was it I was supposed to sleep..?

The Prisoner of Paradise by Romesh Gunesekera

Set in Mauritius in 1825 this is a richly descriptive novel about freedom and fetters, be it freed slaves, shackled convicts, or those bound by convention and the rules of society.

Don Lambodar is from Ceylon, the young interpreter for an exiled old prince of that island. Lucy Gladwell is a 19 year old orphan, recently arrived from England to live with her uncle who works for the British administration. Their class, race and gender separate them, yet events and a penchant for philosophical discussion keep throwing them together.

The heat and humidity, exotic flora and the ocean-dominated landscape are vividly conjured. I found the poetry of the language engaging, and a certain tension was built up as the paths that Don and Lucy’s lives would take unfolded. Outside of the focus of this pair, however, I felt that the other action (a slave revolt, for instance) became mere background with few consequences, and Lucy had a remarkable amount of leeway considering her uncle’s demeanour. Enjoy it for the strained romance and the beautiful writing rather than the history.

Heat, laziness, mildly exciting activity

This week has felt like summer, specifically a hot summer, one which I imagine occurs on a regular basis in the South but thankfully not here. It’s been (for a few hours) too hot to drink tea, which is frankly unacceptable. On Tuesday the temperature reached 84 degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously. In Celsius I think that’s ‘very hot’) and on Wednesday I went to bed much later than intended as I couldn’t tear myself away from the quiet storm raging over the valley. Like being under a giant faulty striplight.

Picturesque and interesting as it’s been, it’s also been (for me at least) uncomfortable, oppressive, and absolutely not conducive to getting any writing done. The energy required to hold a pen hasn’t really been there. The idea of being in close proximity to a laptop generating heat has not been an attractive one. I went to the library one lunchbreak during the week and sat idly in a patch of sunlight from a high window, revelling in the feeling of bare yet warm arms resting on the wooden table. I didn’t do much writing though.

In theory, I’m hard at work on my piece for the Ilkley Writers fringe performance in October, but what’s actually happening is I’m writing down disjointed ideas and pretending they’re fermenting and producing something useful. The looming deadline for a draft will no doubt galvanise me into action. I have been writing some book reviews – there’s a new one due at Luna Station Quarterly in a couple of weeks, and I may be reviewing elsewhere soon (details here as soon as it’s certain), and partly related to that I’ve been to the library twice in the last 2 days and now have a stack of books so high I seriously doubt I can read it all in 3 weeks (even without the inconvenience of the day job cutting down my reading and writing time).

That said, I’ll take my leave now and get some proper writing done. Or I might return to the slightly silly but highly entertaining interactive fiction (like those Choose Your Own Adventure books which may or may not still exist) detective story I’ve been writing with OneMonkey this weekend. As I go, I tip my battered straw hat to all of you who live in warmer climes and yet somehow manage to function on a daily basis, and even write stuff.

National Flash Fiction Day and starting afresh

It was yesterday, but don’t let that worry you because FlashFlood posted new stories every ten minutes so plenty of people are no doubt still catching up on their free reading. One of those stories was my own Guilt by Association (known in these parts as ‘Are you still with Malcolm? No, we none of us are, are we’. Titles don’t always seem to stick to stories, but that’s a subject for another day) which obviously I recommend you wander along and read.

I haven’t been submitting stories much this year, so it was great to see something of mine out there. Earlier in the year I was concentrating on the storytelling for York Festival of Ideas, now I’m working on a monologue for Ilkley Writers’ event at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe. In between that I’ve finally finished the first draft of a crime story I’ve been picking at for a couple of years (which needs much more work before it goes anywhere), and I’m trying to finish a story I started last year when I was doing a creative writing MOOC. The novella about a teenager searching for a half-sibling who may or may not exist has been put on hold for a while.

Consequently it feels a bit weird to start a new story from scratch, I haven’t done that for ages. I mean not deliberately constrained flash or hint fiction, but a full-blown short story that has a couple of thousand words or more to play out and do its thing. I’ve spent a couple of hours (more, probably) this weekend looking through my bits and pieces file, the place I write down every stray line, wild idea and resonant character name, where all my 5 minute free-writing gets copied in case it’s holding a partially-obscured gem. I was agonising over what to use, so many possibilities (though this is for a non-genre short story competition and lots of my ideas are SF or crime) so I read a few out to OneMonkey and got shrugs or Not really my kind of thing but…, until one I wasn’t sure about but felt it had potential. Yes, write that one he said. But write it well.

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)