Universal Basic Income and Creativity

Ten or fifteen years ago OneMonkey and I were in the pub with a few friends and one of us (probably OneMonkey) said wouldn’t it be a great idea if the government gave every adult £12,000 a year and then we wouldn’t have to have all the bureaucracy of benefits, and everyone would have a safety net. None of us at that point had come across the phrase Universal Basic Income (UBI) but that’s what we discovered it was called a few years later when we started to see it mentioned here and there.

This week the Lib Dems have voted at their party conference to campaign for UBI in the UK, and last week Leeds Council (which covers the area where my siblings and several of my friends live) agreed to ask the government if they could host a pilot scheme. You could argue that this doesn’t mean much when the Lib Dems have so little power, and a few councillors in Yorkshire being on board doesn’t mean it’s going to take off, but with Nicola Sturgeon also speaking in support of the idea back in May, and South Korea considering it, it does feel like this is gathering momentum.

There are many arguments for (and against) UBI, including in an interesting-looking Pelican book from 2017 by Guy Standing (Basic Income : And How We Can Make It Happen) but I’m going to concentrate on what I see as its potential to support creativity. Although there are many people who manage to write novels or start a design business alongside full-time work that pays the bills, they often have to work themselves into the ground or sacrifice quality time with friends and family as they do it. And there are many more who don’t manage because they can’t carve out the time or don’t have the energy after work, or can’t afford to risk any outlay.

There have been a number of reports in the last few years on diversity in the arts and what most of it boils down to is a narrow cultural presence in gate-keeping roles, dominated by wealthy middle-class white people. It takes time to build up a career, roles are often freelance and low-paid, and it’s not easy, probably not even advisable, to try without the safety net of money in the bank or someone who can bail you out. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had some kind of safety net so that if they had the talent they could try and make it as a composer or musician or writer without having to worry about getting a second full-time job to subsidise the first? Or waiting, as many working-class writers do, until they’ve built up their pot of savings in middle-age or beyond.

It’s not just the arts. I did an interesting MOOC recently on Innovation which advised trying and failing, and learning from that failure (to their credit the course leaders did acknowledge that what they were suggesting wasn’t viable for everyone). Sound advice in terms of avoiding procrastination and finding out what doesn’t work quickly, but again you need a safety net. There are undoubtedly many inventions and innovations being thought up and dismissed all round the country because of a lack of money for a prototype, or time to develop the idea, or both. Most people can’t afford to plough a couple of thousand pounds into a project that might fail, or one that might take a while to take off. Many people can’t even afford to plough a tenner into a writing competition they probably won’t win (which I’ve written about before).

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that money buys you time, money gives security and peace of mind, and it’s hard for many people to be creative in snatched half-hours while they’re worrying about putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their head. UBI isn’t the only solution, I’m sure, but it merits a serious conversation at a time when the logic of the market and the chancellor’s assistance only for ‘viable jobs’ means theatres and music venues are closing down and creatives of all sorts are having to turn their backs on the work that they’re good at, that fulfils them, and that gives other people pleasure – we’re all reading or watching or listening to creative output during this pandemic. If you haven’t thought about UBI before, have a read and a think because someone will probably be asking your opinion on it as a policy soon.

While UBI is still just talk, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes

Tippy the triceratops is a detective at the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency. In fact he is the agency. Another world-weary private eye with a hip flask, battling his way through cases in the imaginary realms of the Stillreal. Another day, another Friend in need of his help. But wait – was that an actual death he just witnessed? An idea killed forever, never to return? This is an unprecedented situation for Tippy, but then this is an unprecedented book.

I bought this novel on a whim in the early days of lockdown, browsing the Angry Robot ebook sale. Noir starring a cuddly toy triceratops – it sounded mad enough to be bordering on genius, which turned out to be a fair assessment. Basically it’s set in the Stillreal, a place populated by ideas that are so real as to have become embodied in a separate existence. Some of them are things like discarded novel ideas, which you’ll be comfortable with if you’ve read Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, others are imaginary friends like Tippy and his pals in Playtime Town, or personified nightmares.

I should say at this point that if you’re out and out cynical this book is not for you. Tyler Hayes himself calls it ‘hopepunk’ (like cyberpunk but fuzzy?). I like my hard-boiled detective stories, but I also like Paddington Bear. Tippy is a hard-boiled detective as imagined by an eight-year-old, so that hip flask is full of root beer, his wisecracks are pretty tame, and he feels physical pain if someone says even a mild swear-word nearby. At the same time, it’s definitely not a children’s book, there is trauma and deep sadness, tension and death, but also friendship and love and yes, hope. As Tippy might say, it will make you feel all the feels.

My only slight quibble I guess is the way Tippy worries about invading personal space, and asks everyone he meets for their preferred pronoun – to me that doesn’t gel with either world-weary private eye or eight-year-old, but then I was eight in the 80s and things have changed since then, so maybe I’m out of touch. The world and its rules seem so well thought out as to be complete, I had total confidence and belief in the Stillreal as a place as I was reading. It is the most inventive book I’ve read in a long time (and back in July I thought The Interminables was original, I’m just being spoilt this year) and I would love there to be a sequel. You can read an excerpt on the Barnes and Noble blog and then buy it direct from Angry Robot.

If I just helped you find your new favourite fantasy novel you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Looks like it was 12 years ago tomorrow when I had my first flash published. Still feeling vulnerable with every publication. BB brought up the Goon Show script about 2 weeks ago. Basically, not much has changed (though I hope I’ve kept on getting better at flash fiction. I didn’t even know that was what it was called, back then)

The tip-tap of monkey keyboards

This morning I was woken from my peaceful, if overlong, weekend slumbers by an excited phonecall from One Monkey’s dad. Being retired and having broadband, for the last two weeks he’s been checking 365tomorrows eagerly over his morning coffee, and this morning my story appeared. That woke me up about as quickly as a cold flannel to the back of the neck, and before I was even tea-and-croissanted the message had been passed along to my parents and siblings. Big Brother (the sibling as opposed to the shadowy authority figure. Although…) facetiously asked if I’d had a call from a publisher yet, though you could tell there was a bit of pride there by the way we quickly established that my writing is partly his fault: we used to act out Goon Shows from my dad’s books of the scripts, and BB (as we may as well call him, if…

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Inclusion and diversity in books and publishing

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Yesterday I went (via the power of Zoom) to a panel event at the first under-represented writers’ festival from Untitled Writing – you may recall I had a story in their first journal a few months back. The theme of the panel was What We Need To Do, i.e. how do we get more/better representation for those writers we currently don’t hear much from. Hosted by Ollie Charles who co-founded Untitled Writing in 2019, the panel was made up of Abi Fellows (agent at The Good Literary Agency), Andrew McMillan (poet and lecturer), Yvonne Battle-Felton (author and lecturer), Paul Burston (author, journalist, founder of the Polari Prize), Nelima Begum (from The Literary Consultancy), and Ben Townley-Canning (poet, editor of fourteen poems). Interestingly – and not to take away from any of the discussion, particularly since I’m about to argue we don’t need like for like representation – that’s 3 middle-aged gay white men on a 6-person panel, no mention of disability until the audience questions, and only a brief mention (from Abi in the context of having children) of caring responsibilities. More of all that anon…

Ollie began by mentioning the recent report from Spread the Word and Goldsmiths, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing – if you haven’t read it, give it a look, they make recommendations as well as spelling out the problems. However, as Yvonne pointed out, in the eight years since she moved over from the US to the UK there’s been plenty of robust research but nothing much has changed as we (by which I mean UK writing and publishing as a whole) don’t seem that good at translating it to meaningful actions.

One of the stumbling blocks, which the Spread the Word report mentions and which Paul brought up in the discussion, is relatability. The publishing industry in the UK, which is predominantly white, middle-class, and London-based, have a sort of default reader/book-buyer in mind who is female, white, middle-class, and probably London-based. If this reader doesn’t ‘relate’ to the characters in a novel, the idea goes, then they won’t buy it. Sounds reasonable, until you realise that by ‘relate to’ the publishers seem to mean ’embody’.

I agree wholeheartedly with Paul that it’s insulting to readers to suggest they can’t relate to characters from vastly different backgrounds from them, but it’s still used as a publisher’s excuse for not wanting to take on novels with gay, BAME, disabled, working-class etc main characters, which often equates to not taking on gay, BAME, disabled, working-class etc writers. Andrew (representing the strongly-accented north on the panel, as well as gay poets) likes to point out on Twitter that 83% of the English population lives outside London. And yet we’re all expected to want to read London-set books.

Having said all that, I also agree with Andrew’s point that it can be restrictive if a writer is expected, even allowed, to write only about the subject that makes them a minority. While it’s entirely natural for the main characters in your novel to share your background, your disability, your sexuality – that is, after all, the easiest way to make sure you’re fully inside that character’s space and representing it to the best of your ability – it should also be possible to write outside of that. Andrew pointed out that his latest poetry collection is heavy on gardening, now he’s middle-aged, and Paul’s current novel has no gay characters because that’s what he felt best served this particular plot. That is their choice and their prerogative. Paul should be free to write gay characters in his novels without publishers thinking it makes it a niche ‘gay-interest’ novel, and also free to not have any gay characters without then being seen as short-changing people who he’s been marketed to in the past as a ‘gay novelist’, or as doing it to blend in (somehow letting down fellow gay writers). I’ve seen BAME writers in particular who are damned as niche if they want to write about their own background, and damned as somehow ‘not BAME enough’ if they don’t. This is one of the obstacles we need to get past.

Despite, as I mentioned at the start, there not being what you might call a full range of minority interests on the panel, there was a wealth of understanding and I think this is a key point. Everyone is an individual, people have different intersections and different priorities – their class might feel more of an issue than their sexuality, for instance – so it’s not necessarily about finding someone who has the exact same problems as you, it’s about finding someone who understands there are barriers and is willing to listen to what yours are and help you get around them.

Yvonne talked about feeling unwelcome at certain events, not necessarily because of who she was – as a black American woman in the north of England she said she wasn’t expecting to run into anyone quite like her – but because the events were not welcoming, seemingly to anyone. I know exactly what she means, and I also know that feeling of being made to feel like you do belong, you are meant to be there, regardless of who else is in the room – those are the best kinds of events, and given the prevalence of imposter syndrome in all kinds of under-represented writers, it’s that kind of generally welcoming atmosphere that we should be aiming at.

On a related note, Paul mentioned the reduction in the number of editors and agents from working-class backgrounds he runs across now, compared with say twenty years ago. In itself this doesn’t matter, but when they don’t get your characters and therefore assume no-one else will, even though you know that anyone from a similar background to your own would recognise those types of characters immediately, it becomes a gate-keeping problem. Replace working-class here with BAME, disabled, any other under-represented characteristic and you begin to see why it’s so hard to break through, particularly with novels. The number of agents I’ve either crossed off my list or approached with extreme caution because of their English degree from Oxford, or their alienating London life as evidenced on social media, is ridiculous. They are the single person who gets to say whether a novel even gets as far as a publisher, most of the time, and if they don’t click with characters who aren’t like people they know in real life, that’s a whole swathe of novels they’re rejecting straight away. It makes me wonder if there should be slush readers from different backgrounds you could go through instead – this manuscript has faithfully represented Cumbrian farmers and anyone in the rural north will recognise these dilemmas, I endorse it for the agency…

It can take a long time to build up a career, or break through. I think I’ve said before how wrong it seems that there are so many age based opportunities, as though if you’re over 30 you’ve missed the boat. Many people don’t have the confidence, or the leisure, to write until later life. A lot of attention (and prizes) go to debut novels, so it can feel like you only get one shot at success. Andrew said that writers need ‘the gift of time and patience’ from editors, and I think he’s right. If you have an illness that ebbs and flows, if you have caring responsibilities, if your day-job has peaks of overtime or exhaustion, then you’re not going to be able to write steadily and progress smoothly, either.

Andrew mentioned patience as well as time. You may not know ‘the done thing’ if you don’t know anyone in the business – I’ve submitted scripts to various BBC opportunities over the last five years or so, diligently following the templates on the BBC website. I did wonder how someone reading the script was supposed to know to read a particular character in a Geordie accent, but nowhere on the template was there a place to put that kind of information and I decided it must be considered amateurish to do so, like sprinkling it with too many parenthetical instructions. An acquaintance with Radio 4 experience kindly offered via Twitter to look at one of my scripts recently and his first comment when I emailed it to him was about the lack of a voice list – how was he supposed to know what register each character was speaking in? I had applied to the BBC’s Galton and Simpson bursary that week, with – you guessed it – no indication of how the characters in my sitcom spoke, and I felt wretched and like I’d wasted yet another opportunity.

Writing and publishing, in fact the arts in general, can seem like a bit of a club sometimes, one where knowledge of the unwritten rules is used to screen applicants. What’s wrong with transparency? Sabrina Mahfouz wrote a useful guide to applying for arts funding, aimed at working class artists but really for anyone lacking relevant experience, and there’s a new list of successful funding applications so you can go see how it’s done. There are all sorts of highly specific things to master, like synopses and covering letters, and it’s no use saying ‘write it like you’d write any other business letter’, when some of us have never written a business letter. Setting out requirements clearly, giving examples, is helpful to everyone unless you really are trying to keep out the plebs.

Coincidentally yesterday, Frances Ryan had written an article in The Guardian about the need to ‘make room for disabled authors’ which I finished reading moments before I entered the Zoom room for the under-represented writers’ festival. That, I guess, is why I particularly noticed there being no mention of disability during the main panel discussion. Frances Ryan uses a wheelchair, and that’s the first and sometimes only thing people think of when they think disability. We’ve made the conference wheelchair-accessible therefore we’ve ticked accessibility boxes, we’re welcoming disabled writers. In reality it’s a vast area: mental illness, hearing or sight loss, dyslexia, mobility problems, chronic pain, things that are made obvious by a walking stick or hearing aid or can be completely hidden to anyone you don’t choose to confide in, things that are always there or that come and go, things that affect your ability to write itself and things that affect only the necessary extras like festivals or agent meetings.

Because of musculo-skeletal problems stemming from a slipped disc more than 5 years ago, I sometimes struggle with a half-hour train journey or can’t face the prospect of sitting in an unsupportive conference-room chair for an hour and wouldn’t want to have to stay overnight in a strange bed, but other times I’m fine. I never tick the ‘yes I have a disability’ box. I don’t like Zoom but I can’t deny that it’s allowed me to attend all sorts of events in lockdown that I wouldn’t have otherwise been to, and that’s the case for many other people whose disabilities or lack of train fare or caring responsibilities (or all three) normally stop them from travelling long distances. I wouldn’t want Zoom to become the only way of doing it, because some people manage better face to face and not everyone has suitable equipment but it should surely become part of the toolbox, there should be no excuse for saying if a writer can’t get to London for a meeting they must forfeit this opportunity.

There is no single solution, is what I’m saying. Except trying to be inclusive. Listening to people say what their barriers are, and trying to take away as many of those barriers as possible. So fair play to Untitled Writing for trying to prompt another conversation, and for giving under-represented writers a voice, even if they can’t pay them. Their deadline for issue 2 of Voices is September 11th, details are on their website.

 

If this post has made you think, or you enjoyed my story Twelve Weeks Rest in Untitled:Voices issue 1 you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

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Big Sky is Kate Atkinson’s fifth Jackson Brodie private detective novel, and if you haven’t read the first four I’d recommend heading there first (Case Histories from 2004 is the start of the series). Partly because they’re good books so why not, partly because characters from the past turn up in Big Sky and while I don’t think a Brodie novice would be totally flummoxed, there’s definitely deeper satisfaction to be gained if you’ve been there before.

If you are new to Jackson Brodie, don’t expect much sleuthing. He is, if not quite the world’s most feckless detective, at least the luckiest. He doesn’t so much go out and find answers as stumble across an answer while he’s looking for something completely different, and possibly even fail to recognise it as an answer for a while. My dad and I both read this in the same week – he got it out of the library ebook system after I mentioned I’d finally got round to buying it – and I wondered aloud if Brodie did any proper detecting at all in this one. My dad leapt to his defence and pointed out one thread that counted as such, but still, even by Jackson Brodie standards he’s something of a bystander in this story.

The novel makes for grim reading. And yet with Kate Atkinson’s usual lightness of touch and wry humour I found myself smiling more than I would have imagined, given the subject matter. There’s a tangle of historic child abuse cases, present-day grooming on the internet, and people-trafficking. All set in Yorkshire, mostly at the coast. The cast of characters is varied and nuanced (and tellingly detailed), and it’s not always easy to pick out the good guys and the bad guys. As ever with Jackson Brodie novels, coincidences and connections abound – if you’re new to the series, be prepared for pretty much anything that could be connected to be connected.

In the background of all this is Jackson’s feelings as a father having had a fall-out with his grown up daughter, and currently in charge of his adolescent son. How the world has changed, how old he feels, how nostalgic. And how some things don’t change. He’s suffused with as much melancholy as you’d expect from a middle-aged divorced man who’s a fan of female country singers, but overall the book has an air of hope. Well worth a read, which I guess you’d expect me to say since I’m such a big fan of Kate Atkinson but start at Case Histories and you will be too.

 

If you found this book recommendation helpful you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Lost knowledge as the start of a story

In a wooden box in my flat, with the birth, marriage and death certificates of my Nana’s parents, plus assorted ration books and the like, is a leaflet on the benefits of tripe. I haven’t investigated it thoroughly, as a long-term vegetarian frankly I don’t want to know, but I’ve left it there on the basis that it’s where my Nana put it and there must have been a reason.

I thought about that last week when I was searching through a tin of brooches. Mostly cheap trinkets from my childhood – a leather elephant, an enamel cat, a fimo Christmas pudding a friend made me – but there are a few I inherited from my Nana. Most of them are cheap trinkets too, but I guess she kept them for sentimental reasons so in the twenty-two years since her death they’ve been in my tin. Some of them may have been made by my mum, she did make jewellery before I was born, and I’m guessing the thistle emblem’s from a holiday in Scotland but I don’t know or at least can’t remember if Nana told me. And now there’s no-one to ask, my mum’s dementia having made her an even more unreliable witness than she used to be.

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A random selection of my brooches

The tripe leaflet looks like it was distributed to post-war housewives. It was probably on the kitchen table when Nana last had the rest of the paperwork out of the box and got shuffled into the pile by accident, stowed away for forty years until I unpacked it and wondered at its significance. But because I don’t know (will never know), I keep it. Just in case. If I was curious enough I could research its origins, see if it was indeed released the month that Nana’s mum died, but I’m not so I haven’t. It just sits there, along with a pencil that presumably suffered a similar fate.

As a person who lives in a smallish flat with belongings stretching back five generations – and thank heavens my 3xgreat grandma only left one book that was a prize from the temperance society, unlike my great-uncle’s bungalow-filling library that’s split between my dad and I – I curse these accidental inheritances of unknown provenance. I’d love to be able to clear out with a clean conscience. As a writer, on the other hand, they’re great inspiration.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, which I reviewed at the Bookbag when it came out, is all about researching the history behind a mysterious object that is unexplainable after someone’s death. In this case it’s a charm bracelet belonging to Arthur’s wife, and through it he makes connections with people, and finds out about parts of his wife’s life that he never knew about. There’s so much scope for stories in that kind of situation: an incongruous object that you can’t quite marry up with your memory of its owner; an object you feel you ought to have seen but never have; an object that could change your opinion of them. Certainly an object you wish you could question them about.

While Phaedra Patrick got a whole novel out of it due to each charm on the bracelet having a separate history, short stories might be easier to sustain. Flash fiction lends itself particularly to focus on a single object, its significance and maybe a dance of dialogue around it. Think about who a character might ask about this object – could it help bridge a longstanding rift or reconnect them to a distant cousin? Does the character immediately know what the object is? Is it the object itself or where it appears to have come from (maybe where your character assumes it has come from)? Is there a deeper secret behind it like a relative that’s never mentioned, or is it more face-value like the dead person was once a member of an orchestra and your character never knew? Is the truth of the object uncovered or does it remain a mystery but allow your character to do something/meet someone in the meantime? Do they decide that after all, the leaflet about tripe was just a leaflet about tripe?

I wrote a short story a few years ago called Letters From the Past (which you can still read online for free) which used a similar idea, but discovering letters hands a bit more of the story to you – it’s usually much more about the secret and the fallout, the re-evaluation of the past, rather than working out what the discovery is or means. I think it’s a much more interesting and original exercise to use an object that tells you nothing, so go away and try that and see what you come up with. Not tripe, I hope.

If you enjoyed Letters From the Past or just want to help me brace myself for a good declutter you can always buy me a cuppa…

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When do we decide to stop remembering?

Stuart Maconie mentioned in passing that it was 43 years since Elvis Presley died, on his BBC6Music programme this morning. Even so, and despite having played several other songs from the ’60s and ’70s in the half hour or so that I listened to, he didn’t play any of Elvis Presley’s music. Sometime in the ’80s I went through a big Elvis Presley phase (I’ve also had a bit of an Elvis Costello phase, but that came later) so his death did cross my mind this week, but it seems I’d misremembered the date as the 13th so I was surprised on Thursday when nobody mentioned it on BBC6Music. They still make a big thing about David Bowie’s death each year, but the years that have passed since then are still in single digits and besides, they were always in thrall to Bowie so that makes sense.

In the ’80s when Radio 1 was basically the only choice if you wanted to avoid adverts, I remember them making a big thing about Elvis Presley’s death, and the anniversary of his birth for that matter. Likewise the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison but not Buddy Holly as far as I recall. At the time, all of these events seemed equally ancient to me – Elvis Presley died the year before I was born, and I hadn’t yet figured out who John Lennon was by the time he was shot – but looking back I wonder if my Elvis phase (Presley not Costello) coincided with the tenth anniversary of his death. Now that I’m in my forties, ten years sounds like no time at all. No wonder the DJs were still marking the date.

Also this week was the 75th anniversary of VJ Day. Because I live in an area with high COVID-19 infection rates and stricter rules than the national set, I got an email from the council reminding me not to throw or attend a street party for the occasion and suggesting I could put up some bunting instead. Leaving aside the fact that it would seem in bad taste given the Japanese lady who ran the village post office till she retired a few years ago lives round the corner, it made me wonder how long these commemorations will go on.

In the summer of 1987, when I was eight and three-quarters and possibly getting into Elvis Presley’s phenomenal rock n’ roll thanks to Radio 1, it was 42 years since the second world war ended and nearly 69 years since the first world war ended. We had the minute’s silence on Armistice Day, as we still do, but it was already about wars plural, not just 1914-18. I don’t remember – though bear in mind memory is a faulty thing at best – any particular commemoration for world war one in my lifetime until the centenary. There was a 50th anniversary of the end of world war two, however, and we seem to have marked it every five years since then.

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Great uncle Hubert’s WW1 medal

In November 2018, when the country was marking the centenary of that initial Armistice Day, my dad told me it had really hit him that week how recent the first world war was when he was a kid. Here were we, recently celebrating fifty years of Sergeant Pepper, an album that was released while my dad was at university, and yet when he went to university it was less than fifty years since his grandad had been fighting in the first world war. It was old hat though, my dad said, it was all about world war two by then.

When I mused to OneMonkey earlier about this 75th anniversary of VJ Day he said there are still people living who were caught up in it. That’s true, there are people who fought, had military support roles, were land girls, worked in munitions factories. My parents and OneMonkey’s were born in a scatter of years just before and just after summer 1945 and had fathers and/or uncles who fought. But the same could have been said about the first world war when we were children so is it, as my dad suggested, about displacement by the next thing?

A quick look through the online nineteenth century newspaper archive my library card gets me access to reveals no great British commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo on its 50th anniversary in June 1865 (there was a festival for 1,200 veterans in Holland, I believe). There were veterans still living, not least one of OneMonkey’s Westmorland ancestors, and yet all I can find is a passing reference to ‘the jubilee of Waterloo’ in a political canvassing speech, and another reference as a rhetorical flourish in an article about the American civil war. There had been wars and revolutions aplenty in the meantime. Perhaps they’d knocked Waterloo from its pedestal in the national psyche, or perhaps there were simply too many things to commemorate – like the old excuse for a drink, ‘toasting the siege of Gibraltar’ (the joke being that there’s been so many, it’s bound to be the anniversary of one or the other of them).

So maybe by the time I was a child, Buddy Holly had been knocked off the top spot by the more recent untimely rock deaths – god knows there have been enough of them – and Elvis Presley’s been surpassed in turn by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. You can’t dedicate an hour of radio to all of them, you’d never play any new music, but it doesn’t stop the fans remembering, the people who it means something to. We all have our personal anniversaries, whether weddings, deaths, or in my case a relative’s failed suicide attempt (21 extra years of them, this summer – hurrah!) but we don’t expect anyone else to remember or note their passing. I sincerely hope we never have another global war to knock world war two off the top spot, but I wonder when as a nation we’ll feel able to let the anniversary fade away as we have with its predecessors.

 

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Welcome to the cheap seats

Wow, twelve years ago today I (encouraged by OneMonkey) decided to start a blog. Despite all the many changes since then – my thirties came and went, for one thing – I’m still at it, still a hypocrite, still prone to circumlocution. Still a writer.

The tip-tap of monkey keyboards

Despite bemoaning the countless terabytes of useless non-information out there in web-land these days, I’ve gone and got myself a blog. Think of it as vanity publishing, if you like.

To semi-justify my electronic presence, I am determined that this blog will provide information of a sort, i.e. I will provide you with some facts. The first one has already been implied, but for those of you who missed it:

Fact 1: I am, like so much of the rest of the human race, a hypocrite.

The vigilant among you will have gleaned another fact along the way, too:

Fact 2: I am given to circumlocution, and have a fondness for tangential asides.

That said, I fully intend to write something snappy and concise at least once a week for your delectation. Those poor souls currently participating in the long drawn-out serialisation of my second novel will be…

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Lost cities and forgotten worlds

Footsteps by Bruce Norman

I’ve never been able to resist a library book sale. OneMonkey had to ban me from going to them, eventually, but not before I’d filled our creaking bookshelves with cheap cast-offs I might find interesting or useful one day. The fiction tended to be read in short order, it was the non-fiction that hung around, getting passed over in subsequent book culls because one day, you know, when I’m in the right mood, I might do more than flick through and nod in an interested way before replacing it on the shelf.

Cue lockdown, and while I have bought 6 ebooks and 3 physical books online since March, it seemed like a good time to not only read books from my To Read shelf, but also ferret among the main shelves for the books I haven’t read yet. I should clarify at this point that the To Read shelf automatically gets any new fiction, and gets some new non-fiction but not all. There is no underlying logic as to which goes where. Which means that there are a handful of non-fiction books scattered around the house that weren’t bought purely for reference and yet neither of us has read them. Most of them were picked up at library book sales at least fifteen years ago.

Footsteps by Bruce Norman is a BBC book from 1987, I assume it went with a TV series of the same name but I don’t remember watching it. At a guess, I bought the book from Dunfermline library in about 2002 and for the last nine years in this flat it’s been sat on the shelf between the BBC tie-ins of Michael Palin’s travels, and a book about female Victorian explorers which I hadn’t read either. The female explorers one turned out to be patronising claptrap that had me ranting within half a prologue – and before anyone assumes male author, it wasn’t. Having cast that aside I moved onto Footsteps, thinking maybe this would be another book I’d finally get rid of, but I was hooked within moments.

The sub-title of Footsteps is ‘Nine archaeological journeys of romance and discovery’, and while there is romance aplenty, that word ‘discovery’ is a troubling but crucial one. In one sense none of these are ‘discoveries’ because they were all built by someone – at best they’re rediscoveries after being forgotten in the meantime. In another sense they were all discoveries in a personal sense because that explorer or that team was seeing the ruined city or the cave temples for the first time, with no inkling beforehand unlike now where we’ve all seen impressive photos or video footage of Machu Picchu. It’s that personal revelation and the sense of wonder and awe that often accompanies it in the journals of the explorers that I tried to hang on to as I read.

The journeys in question take place from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s in Egypt, India, Peru, the USA, Zimbabwe, Thailand and elsewhere, and the book draws on extensive quotes from journals and letters of the time of each journey. During those original journeys, particularly the early ones, the aim was plunder. In Egypt in 1817, for example, the explorers didn’t care who owned the pyramids and their associated statues and sarcophagi, there was a race between the British and French governments to loot the finest pieces and that’s what mattered. It’s disgraceful, and at some sites mentioned in the book it ruined all possibility of scientific archaeology later on, but the exploration itself I still find fascinating in the same way I find Michael Palin’s travels fascinating, with the added interest of itself describing the lost world (to us now) of the 1840s or 1920s.

For the most part, as you might expect, the explorers were wealthy amateurs from western Europe or the USA who decided – whether for glory, treasure or for the advancement of science – to head off and see what was out there. Alfred Maudslay apparently went to Guatemala in 1880 because he fancied spending the winter somewhere warm and had recently read about an 1840s expedition there. Part of me is gobsmacked by the arrogance of the man but another part of me admires his confidence and drive. Unfortunately, however, men like Maudslay were busy colonising the globe at the time (he was a colonial official himself, in the South Pacific) and even when there is some scientific basis behind their approach to their expeditions, the patronising attitude to the locals and the sense that everything is ripe for the picking, can be pretty sickening to read. Oddly, even some of the 1980s contextualising from Bruce Norman seems a tad old-fashioned now, to say the least.

The sites that were ‘discovered’ had mostly been abandoned, some had even passed from folk memory and the ability to read the carved or painted pictograms lost, but in Zimbabwe and some of the sites in Peru for instance people lived among the stone ruins, in recent dwellings that were not made of stone. In these cases I guess the sites had been abandoned at one time and then people had drifted back, or new people had drifted in. Some of the Ellora cave temples in India were in use when army captain John Seely turned up in 1810 but he still thought it impertinent of the local holy men to object to him pitching a tent in one or eating beef on the premises. I ought to be thoroughly disgusted with him – I am, his interactions with people make me wince, but I still want to read his account of the temples and their surroundings and see the place through his eyes, because he was the first Englishman to write about it, to see and describe it from that perspective. The outsider’s eyes that Reginald Le May later brought to northern Siam (published as Asian Arcady in 1926) even proved useful to that country’s new king, who read the book when first visiting that area of his realm a short time after its publication.

Most of the journeys in Footsteps are to sites I’ve read about before, or maybe watched a BBC programme about – Luxor, Petra, Machu Picchu, the cliff dwellings in the USA. They are still spell-binding, and the book gave me details I hadn’t known before, or perhaps had forgotten, as well as the contemporary accounts and drawings. Add to this the sites I wasn’t familiar with at all – Tikal in Guatemala, Lycia in Turkey, temples in India and Thailand – and it made for a wonderful book, an armchair excursion through space and time. It reminded me of reading Biggles books and Jules Verne as a kid, full of bravery and adventure, which has carried me through to reading sci-fi and Michael Palin now. I can be critical of the explorers and their approach while still enjoying the glimpse of other times and places they give me.

Footsteps serves in a way as a history of archaeology as a discipline as well, from the interested antiquarians to the introduction of scientific methods, all the way up to the (1980s) present day of magnetometry, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Time Team. Even the looters mainly ended up turning to science: Belzoni in Egypt began to take measurements and make observations which led him to discover completely forgotten tombs that were not even suspected, for instance. Richard Wetherill of Colorado began by selling artefacts from the south-western USA in the 1890s but entirely self-taught seems to have progressed to proper layer by layer excavation with careful measuring and recording of finds using a grid system, and a need for his expeditions to meet high archaeological standards. He put forward theories about the basket maker and cliff dweller people in that area which have since been borne out but at the time were dismissed. Maybe that was because he was initially a looter, or because there were by this point university-trained archaeologists and Wetherill was an amateur, but I bet that in large part it’s because he was a cattle farmer rather than a ‘gentleman’.

Footsteps is long out of print, but you can read some of the original accounts in free out-of-copyright ebooks:

 

If you’ve enjoyed these adventurous ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

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5 podcasts that helped me through lockdown

Back in mid-March, just before official lockdown in England began, I stopped going in to the office, with 2 weeks of my contract left to work. Ordinarily, OneMonkey and I would listen to the World at One if we were lunching together at home on a weekday (oh, the excitement of our forty-something lives) but for obvious reasons we decided current affairs analysis wasn’t the best accompaniment to a break from work at the time, and looked for something different. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a habitual listener to the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, where Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd talk Big Ideas with an assortment of expert guests, but that fell into a similar category. What on earth could we listen to?

We tend to use a five-year-old tablet computer as a portable radio in our flat – BBC Sounds, Spotify, radio.net, and all our digitised music in one handy-to-carry purple package. We could, I suppose, have bunged an album on and chatted over our sandwiches but because we were used to speech and information, we first turned elsewhere on BBC Sounds and came up with the You’re Dead To Me podcast. This is a light-hearted but factual look at history presented by a historian, Greg Jenner, who has two guests each episode, an expert and a comedian. Topics include Stonehenge, chocolate, football, Mary Shelley, general elections – some narrow, some broad, some British, some not. As a rule I’ve enjoyed them, both when I was already pretty clued-up on the topic and when I didn’t think I’d be interested, and they work best when the comedian is interested in the history, not just in trying to sound funny (Tim Minchin was a great guest. And I don’t even like him as a comedian). In short, highly recommended, but I’m not including it as one of the five because I suspect it’s not available outside the UK, and knowing BBC Sounds it’s probably not available at all times, either.

And so, on to the list proper – 3 sitcoms (comedy dramas?) and 2 discussing forgotten or overlooked books. All of these are available on Spotify, that’s where we listen to them:

  1. We Fix Space Junk. For the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans, this one revolves around 2 people and a computer, on a spaceship. And one of the people doesn’t really want to be there. I have to admit if I’d only listened to the first episode I probably wouldn’t have listened to the second, but we had it on autoplay while Spring-cleaning and it got more interesting in episode 2 so we stayed with it. Some adventures, some satire, and an overarching story. The website says “an award-winning dark sci-fi comedy about two repairwomen surviving in space against insurmountable odds and unimaginable debt.” The production company have a variety of ways to support them, including merchandise to buy, at the link above.
  2. Marscorp. Also comedic sci-fi, this one is about EL Hob becoming the new supervisor at the Marscorp base on Mars. She’s just been woken up after her journey from Earth in 2072, keen and ambitious and not at all nervous. The characters are definitely on the caricature side, it gets very silly and quite sweary, and is immense fun. The sideswipes at corporate culture are fab. This one’s more of a sitcom I guess, with ‘what hilarious misadventures can our favourite characters have this episode?’ though there are sort of running threads or longer story elements in the background. You can support the production company on Patreon.
  3. Mission Rejected. An American spy comedy this time. Their greatest secret agent has gone on a world cruise and due to budget cuts they’re forced to use a backroom nerd and his scraped-together team of misfits to fill in. Great characters who work well together, in one disastrous farce after another. These episodes are self-contained adventures but there’s also a longer story bubbling away and the odd reference to a previous mission pops up. You can support the series via Patreon at the link above.
  4. Backlisted. Part of the joy of discovering a podcast is delving into a well-stocked archive. Backlisted has been going a couple of years already so there’s plenty to catch up on. The idea is that the 2 hosts have a guest each episode and discuss a book that deserves a wider readership. It could be a minor novel from a well-known author of the 1960s, seventeenth-century non-fiction, a forgotten Victorian poet – if their guest can enthuse people about it, it’s fair game. The hosts have also read the book in preparation for the episode, and they might play snippets of the author reading their work or being interviewed, or read out other people’s opinions of the book. I started out by listening to a couple of episodes where the featured book (they begin each episode with general chat about what they’ve all been reading lately) was one I was familiar with, to test out where the hosts’ tastes lie in relation to mine, then moved on to books I’d heard of but hadn’t read. So far, they’ve only persuaded me to add one book to my To Read list but I have enjoyed the bookish chat and banter. The hosts are the kind of middle-class southern men who are confident, bordering on arrogance (one mentioned a Ben Myers novel as being surprisingly good, and not just for people interested in the north!), though the guests are often a contrasting voice, but if you can put annoyance aside and be amused by that for an hour, it’s worth a listen – they are usually both irreverent and nerdy about the books, which is a winning combination. You can support the series via Patreon at the link above.
  5. Slightly Foxed. This one is my guilty pleasure. I actually discovered Backlisted when I listened to the Slightly Foxed episode where one or both of the Backlisted hosts was the guest (I confess in my northern prejudice I can’t tell their voices apart, and neither can I tell the 3 main women on Slightly Foxed apart – the 4th is clearly younger and therefore easily distinguishable). As with Backlisted the idea is bringing overlooked books to a wider audience, but this time it goes with a magazine. Slightly Foxed is a quarterly publication where enthusiasts, both well-known authors and the erudite amateur, write about a book that means a great deal to them – often it’s out of print, sometimes Slightly Foxed will put out a fancy edition of it. The format of the podcast is an independent host talking to the Slightly Foxed editors at their publishing HQ, usually joined by a younger member of the team and one or more guests to talk about a theme, e.g. books about gardening, books about royalty, travel memoirs, Evelyn Waugh. They also chat about what they’ve been reading lately, and there’s an audio version of one of the articles from a past issue of the magazine. It’s incredibly gentle and soothing, and I can’t quite believe that the presenters are real people. They all talk so much like characters in a 1950s film, they make the Queen sound common, and they’ve never been reading the latest Val McDermid, it’s always something like ‘I was put in mind of the third memoir by Algernon Fitzsimmons when he was the British consul in Greece in the 1860s, so I revisited him in all seven volumes and I’m so glad I did’. Like I said, guilty pleasure, but class-consciousness aside they talk about books I would never delve into (probably still won’t) which opens up whole vistas of the literary world to me and I enjoy listening to them being so absorbed in these books, and so damned nice.

As a bonus I’ll mention I’ve just discovered the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, a bunch of British Asian writers including crime authors Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee chatting amongst themselves or to guests. I’ve only listened to half an episode so far but I enjoyed it.

If you’ve found new audio delights via this post you can always buy me a cuppa once you’ve supported your new favourite podcast…

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A quick SFF round-up

Possibly as an attempt to escape from real events, I’ve spent the last 4 months almost exclusively reading fantasy and sci-fi. Some newish, most not, and due to slow reading and assorted distractions I haven’t felt capable of writing proper reviews of any of them. However, a quick summary may suffice to prompt some of you to check out some of them, so here’s a rattle through The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby, The Interminables by Paige Orwin, The Body Library by Jeff Noon, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and Virtual Light by William Gibson.

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The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby was one of four ebooks I bought from Angry Robot at the start of lockdown, when they had their Shelf Isolation offer on. It’s easy-to-read comic fantasy in the Terry Pratchett/Tom Holt tradition which was a godsend in the early days of corona-anxiety. Marius don Hellespont is a corpse-rat, a looter of the dead on battlefields. He gets mistaken for a dead king and taken to rule the kingdom of the dead. They’ll let him go if he finds them a replacement king: cue highly entertaining quest/chase. It was Battersby’s debut, from 2012, and there is a sequel available.

The Interminables by Paige Orwin is another debut from Angry Robot (this time from 2016) with a sequel now available. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic 2020, which seemed too fitting! It’s also one of the most compelling and original fantasies I’ve read in a long time. The east coast of the USA is ruled by wizards (not the pointy-hat and wand variety, more like technocrats of a particular type) attempting to keep the fragile peace intact. The central partnership consists of a ghost and a jazz-loving near-immortal from the 1940s, and they need to investigate an arms-smuggling ring. Of course it’s never that simple, and there are secrets and lies aplenty, and I was on the edge of my seat for ages.

The Body Library by Jeff Noon was another of my Angry Robot ebooks (I haven’t read the fourth yet). Jeff Noon is more of a well-known name, and this book is the second of his Nyquist series, from 2018 (the first is A Man of Shadows, and the third, Creeping Jenny, has just been released). If you liked The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and can stand your fantasy pretty dark, you’ll love The Body Library. Private detective John Nyquist is on a simple tail job that turns out not to be, and finds himself mixed up in something beyond his understanding. It was weird and unsettling, blurring the lines between the fiction we’re reading (the ‘reality’ of the novel) and the fiction within their world, focusing on worlds within books and the power of words. I haven’t read the first Nyquist book because it sounded like it was firmly in the horror genre, and I had a nasty feeling this novel was heading that way too but it pulled back from the brink. Still not for the overly squeamish, I think, but I enjoyed it.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny is an odd (Hugo-winning) sci-fi novel from 1967. It’s set on a planet where the technologically-advanced have set themselves up as Hindu deities in a pseudo-heaven, while the masses toil and worship. Buddha, or Sam as he’s known to his friends, finds it tiresome and devotes his life (or lives) to disrupting the status quo. It’s not an easy read, not least because the chronology is not straightforward (I think Chapter 1 happens later than the next few chapters), and if you don’t have a passing familiarity with Hinduism and/or Buddhism I’d say you’re going to get confused more than once. It is ultimately a good and thought-provoking novel, however, so if that doesn’t put you off I’d give it a try.

Finally Virtual Light by William Gibson, which I can’t believe I hadn’t read. It’s from 1993 but set in 2005, which of course is now further in the past than it was in the future when Gibson was writing it. I had to laugh at the portable fax machines, but the masks and the passing mentions of pandemics resonated. It’s a proper thriller (albeit with a cyberpunk flavour) involving stolen wearable tech, bike couriers and a failed policeman, as well as weird millennial cults and big data. It occurred to me after reading it that so much Gibson (and many other stories) hinge on exploitative capitalist societies – people forced into situations because of their lack of money and/or status (need the money so bad to pay the rent/bills that they’re prepared to do something illegal or against their principles, or can easily be manipulated into such). Depressing as that is, it does make for a cracking read.

If you found these mini-reviews useful, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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With apologies to Brian Bilston

In these locked down times

These days I don’t strut in Cuban heeled cowboy boots.

I don’t swagger in silver-threaded shirts.

My fringed scarves remain in their perfumed wardrobe, dreaming.

No longer do I wear my hair long, flopping forward so that I have to run my fingers through it now and then if I want to see.

 

In these locked down times I’m a pyjama’d layabout.

I loll in hooded loungewear with a book.

Louche and languid I drape around my laptop.

My novel doesn’t care if I’ve worn the same old jumper three days running, with a yellow bobble in my hair.

Scarf fringes on my biker jacket

I don’t tend to write poems but I’ve clearly been inspired by Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston. Last time I went to the Kobo website (to buy the latest Jackson Brodie novel by Kate Atkinson) it was on offer for 99p, I recognised the author as a Twitter poet whose poems had made me smile, so I bought it. Turns out it’s perfect lockdown reading – a gently comic novel about a struggling poet who’s useless at most things apart from being a cat pillow (which, to be fair, is a worthwhile thing to be good at). It’s like Ed Reardon if he was more bewildered than grumpy (and wrote poetry rather than prose).

If you particularly enjoyed my poem, or the stylish photograph of my scarf fringes, you can always buy me a cuppa. Ta.

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So I set up a Ko-fi page

Nearly 4 years ago I wrote a post asking if anyone had figured out how to get the best out of a digital tip jar. Nobody came back with any bright ideas and I haven’t had a single penny dropped in mine in the meantime, so you’d think I might have quietly shelved the idea, but no. I’ve set up a Ko-fi page instead.

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Even though it’s presumably meant to be pronounced like coffee (as in ‘buy this person a coffee at their Ko-fi page’) I see that hyphen and it’s koh-fee in my head. So it mildly bothers me every time I read it, but I’m told it has the advantage of being a recognisable brand and a set amount of money so you don’t have to second-guess what’s a reasonable tip.

Ko-fi is a free service (there is a paid-for version, which is how they make their money – you can change it so it’s not asking for coffee, for one thing) that lets people who’ve enjoyed some creative output give a small amount of money to the creator via Paypal. Like chucking a few coins in a busker’s case. The idea is it’s priced at about the cost of a coffee so hopefully won’t be too much of a big deal for any given member of the audience. In my case I’ve set it to £2, which admittedly won’t get me a hot drink at Betty’s, but not everywhere in town is that expensive.

I’ve seen a few people on Twitter mention their ko-fi page (I’ve even bunged a couple of quid in, in some cases), for instance the comedian John Finnemore who’s been doing a free lockdown series (Cabin Fever) tied in to his radio sitcom Cabin Pressure, the author Joanne Harris, the Coronavirus Theatre Club who have been providing dramatic content online for free during lockdown, and the publishing mover-and-shaker Sam Missingham.

It makes the most sense to me where they’re providing content for free in some way. John Finnemore, for instance, has done several comedy programmes on the BBC which they’ll have given him money for. The lockdown videos, on the other hand, seem to have been done by him at home to keep people (including himself, no doubt) entertained at a stressful time – buying him a coffee to say thank you seems reasonable. Joanne Harris gets royalties if you buy brand new copies of her novels but she also does story-telling and gives writing advice on Twitter so if that’s the only content of hers you consume – why not chuck some coins in her digital busking hat?

We’ve all been enjoying free content online during lockdown, whether it’s the National Theatre’s youtube offerings, RapidReel which I wrote A Ferret Too Far for, or the Slackline Cyberstories series which included my monologue I Could Murder a Custard Cream. Unless you’re also on the production side (writer, actor, director, coordinator etc) you may not have thought about how come it’s available for free. In many cases it’s because no-one who’s involved in producing it gets paid. The same goes for reading fiction online for free.

I wasn’t paid for any of the audio or video content that you can access via my publications list. I haven’t received money for fiction since 2018, though I do have the promise of payment for a story that’s due to be published this autumn. I’m often torn between submitting a story to a free venue online that gets lots of traffic so it’s accessible to as many people as possible, and trying to make money from it. It’s another argument for Universal Basic Income as a spur to creativity, but I’ll come back to that some other time.

None of this is to complain. I enjoy writing. I couldn’t not write. I’ve had a day-job most of the time (though not at the moment). But if you’ve ever read any of my stories online for free, or listened to me reading them out, or watched the monologues, and they’ve brightened up your day or made you think, then (if you can easily afford it) I would be chuffed to bits if you bought me a cuppa. Ta.

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Two topical stories released this month

Two of my short fictions have been published this month, Evidently Lovestruck in the first issue of Truffle Magazine, and Twelve Weeks’ Rest in volume 2 of the first issue of Untitled:Voices.

I felt a twinge that might not have been indigestion. There was a chance I was believing my own fairytale.

Evidently Lovestruck is flash fiction (about 300 words) which originated from a word-list challenge from a couple of years back – you know how I love them! I think it was a list of words that President Trump had (or was rumoured to have?) banned so it’s an eclectic mix and took me in unusual directions. Given that I’ve spent the bulk of the last 24 years on one university campus or another, it’s no surprise that it’s set at a university, and as my background’s in physics the tongue-in-cheek jibes at love across the STEM/Arts divide are probably not that surprising either. It came out at the beginning of June, which people keep telling me is Pride Month. When I was an undergraduate and first starting (unsuccessfully) to submit stories to competitions in the late nineties, I think having a gay couple at the heart of a story like this would have been seen as political, potentially controversial – what point are you trying to make by having them be the same sex? As it happens my first submitted story was about a same-sex couple (female, since you ask), but then I was trying to make a point. Whereas when I wrote this quirky little campus romance, the two characters that popped into my head both happened to be male and I liked the way they went together. It never crossed my mind that this was anything out of the ordinary (which indeed it isn’t now, thankfully), until I thought back on how far we’d come.

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The other story that came out this week is Twelve Weeks’ Rest, which was written during (and is about) lockdown, and is much longer (nearly 2000 words). It’s about trying to look after your health when the management see you as a human resource, not a person. It’s about hidden key-workers, the ones in warehouses that people forget are at the other end of their online order when they’re shopping for essentials. It’s also about sisters looking out for each other. It’s dedicated to (and sadly inspired by) Sister Number One. I was angry when I wrote it and I think that comes through, but I hope a bit of humour sneaks through too.

She says it like she’s disappointed in me, which she probably is. A loyal employee would tell the government to stick its shielding programme and carry on working.

You can read Evidently Lovestruck for free online at Truffle magazine. For Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can either read it on the website (be aware that it’s 4 pages long so you have to keep going back to the top to move on) or download both volumes of Issue 1 at the main Untitled:Voices page – they are free, but Untitled are asking for donations to the Stephen Lawrence Trust.

Some thoughts on censorship and debate

I am what you might call a fan of free speech. I err on the side of people being able to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as they can’t say the bad stuff with impunity. I appreciate subtlety. I infuriate people frequently with my ‘it depends’ – maybe I’m a little too fond of nuance but everything happens or is said in a particular context, and I think there’s a worrying tendency lately to forget or disregard that, and to want to see everything in stark, simple terms.

Take the ‘statue wars’ in the UK. Tearing down statues does not erase history. Both the erection and the destruction or removal of the statue tell us something about the prevailing mood of the time. They’re symbolic, that’s the whole point, and therefore symbolically removing them can make sense. Do I think all statues of ‘questionable people’ should be torn down? No. Partly because I’m not sure who gets to decide what ‘questionable’ means and partly because we’d end up with no statues at all, except the one of Paddington Bear in the station he was named after, and there are better things to do with the time, money and energy we have available. It reminds me of something Billy Bragg said at a gig many years ago, it’s all very well smashing in a McDonalds as a representative of global capitalism but there’s another branch round the corner, and before you’re halfway across town you’ve encountered six more and run out of steam and maybe you’d have been better off doing something more productive about it all in the first place.

Leaving statues up and defending them at all costs can lead to erasure of history. Churchill is a case in point: inspiring wartime leader he may have been but he was also responsible for famine in Bengal and some heavy-handed tactics against strikers at home. Yet any attempt to point out his flaws and failings is seen as denial of his achievements, as though one cancels out the other. They are both true. Either looking up to someone as a hero or decrying them as pure villain misses the truth of their humanity. As former US President Obama said this week (himself a role model for many despite leaving Guantanamo Bay untouched) the world is messy, there is such a thing as moral complexity. People are rarely all good or all bad and once you start trying to find ‘pure’ people to have statues of, you start tying yourself in philosophical knots about why these ones are ok despite the inevitable flaws and these aren’t. Here’s a thought: why don’t we openly talk about all the aspects of someone’s character, and when as a society we decide that the good no longer outweighs the bad, take the statue down and say why we’re doing it. Debate and discussion don’t seem to get much of a look-in in modern life, unfortunately.

I haven’t read the JK Rowling stuff that’s caused such a stir, and I don’t intend to. I don’t read her novels, she isn’t a politician, I don’t need to know what she thinks about anything. However, I can’t escape the fact that there has been uproar, and some people at her publisher are saying they won’t work on her new book. I confess my first thought was that it’s a job, you don’t get to choose which bits you want to do. Then I thought I’ve clearly been living in a Tory town too long, and surely that’s the point of a union. I thought about Lancashire mill-workers who underwent hardship themselves rather than deal with slave-picked cotton during the American Civil War, because they felt strongly enough about it. I thought about how various staff at the publishing house would have to meet or speak to an author to ask or answer questions, discuss a marketing plan etc, and how I’ve sat at work in the past hoping I don’t have to join a meeting with a particular person who’s a friend of a friend at home and who I find odious – above all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay professionally detached, that my personal feelings would come through and reflect badly on me. So after brief thought, I could see a few reasons why those publishing staff might revolt, and good luck to them. The point at which I’d worry is if they tried to prevent other staff who didn’t feel as strongly, or were happier about separating the creator from their work, from working on it.

I have mixed feelings about the blurring of the line between art and artist. For instance, everyone now knows that Eric Gill sexually abused his daughters which obviously entirely changes how a viewer sees or interprets any of his depictions of them. But does it – should it – change their views of his other work? And should we tear it all down and hide it away, or keep it on display with a note on context, or simply brush his biography under the carpet as some seem to advocate? The Guardian had an interesting article on this a while back. If he was still alive I doubt there would be quite as much debate about it, I have to say, but with a dead artist the argument can be made that we’re neither rewarding nor punishing him by our actions and so it’s more down to how the art itself makes people feel.

Which brings me to the litmags. If you’re running a small literary magazine with no pay then the main perk is getting to publish exactly what you want, and by extension not publishing whatever you don’t want. Nobody has any kind of a right to be published by your magazine, and if you want to never publish anyone called Tom because someone of that name bullied you at school, that’s your prerogative (depending on the jurisdiction you may have a hard time defending it legally if it’s a stated aim, but that’s another matter). However, I’m seeing again (it arose a couple of years ago and I’m sure I wrote about it at the time) statements on Twitter saying that ‘abusers’ and ‘bigots’ will never be knowingly published by certain magazines and if they have unknowingly published them, please let them know so they can remove their work. The aim, it seems, is to ‘not give them a platform’ – I’ll come back to no-platforming in a moment but take it at face value for now. You may have overlooked a term that’s offensive to particular groups and you weren’t familiar with it and would never have accepted the piece if you’d known the connotations. Fine. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and certainly when this flared up a couple of years ago the main fuss was about elements in the life of the artist, not the work itself. So if there’s nothing offensive in the work, that means you’re objecting to the writer as a person. Again, your prerogative – they’ve been rude to you, you saw some views you didn’t like on Twitter, by all means don’t publish them. The bit that makes me uncomfortable is asking people to shop them and taking their work down retrospectively, it veers a bit too close to witch hunt territory for my liking. What evidence do you require? Could I contact you and make up a story about a rival and make you take down all their work? Do they have a right of reply?

I don’t like no-platforming as a response. I’ve spent most of the last 24 years studying or working at UK universities and every so often you hear that some student union or other has decided that someone or other shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their event. Most of these turn out to be a storm in a teacup that’s being wilfully misrepresented as ‘no-platforming’ but a few are genuine. I can understand that at a particular event you might be worried about a fight breaking out (context, see) but in general I think shutting down debate is a bad idea. If the person’s ideas are self-evidently ludicrous, let them expose themselves as fools, you could even help them along with some well-chosen questions. If you’re genuinely worried that exposure to these ideas might persuade people to join the dark side (whatever the dark side is in your opinion, in this situation) then it’s better to have them in the open being challenged than for their ideas to filter through quietly with no opposing voice. Shutting people up also lets them be portrayed as martyrs, as people who were so dangerous they had to be silenced, which only adds to their appeal.

There will be many people who disagree with this post but I think we’ve established that I’m ok with you having different views from me. When I was an adolescent I wanted all my rock heroes to live up to my expectations but one after the other they blotted their copybooks. For a while I stopped listening to interviews on the Radio 1 Rock Show. Then eventually I realised that if there wasn’t a single member of my own family that I agreed with on everything, I wasn’t likely to find a stranger that made the grade. So there are bands where I will only ever buy a second-hand album, won’t listen to them on Spotify or buy their merchandise, because I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to stop listening to them. I’m not even going to deny liking their music (Motley Crue are first on the list, since you ask). People are complicated. That goes for me, too.

Monologues in Minutes

You know I love a writing challenge, so it was inevitable that I’d put my name in the hat for RapidReel. They’ve been having challenges throughout lockdown, where a bunch of writers are given a prompt at 9am, they have until noon to send back a 1-2 minute monologue script with a character note to aid casting, and then suitable actors have 4 hours to read, rehearse, film and upload the finished thing.

On Friday evening when I got the email to check I was available to take part on Saturday, I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up, so it had an element of pleasant surprise about it and I was sat at the computer by five to nine on Saturday morning, keyed up and ready to go. We got a photo prompt, someone walking up a sloping tunnel towards what looked to me like sunshine. I drank Earl Grey and brainstormed with a biro. Words it made me think of. At the back of my mind, but not written down, was a thought about Time Team. Five minutes later I started writing about Time Team.

Time Team, for those not British, old or nerdy enough to know, was a long-running programme where a group of archaeologists had 3 days to dig some interesting site and see what they could learn. I loved it, I watch old episodes whenever I get the opportunity, and their dig at Piercebridge already inspired my story Ghost Bridge which is in the first Crossing the Tees anthology. But I digress…

By 9.50 I’d written a monologue from the point of view of a farmer’s son in his 20s that was safely within the time limit, prompted by the picture, and was light-hearted. Working title: Inspired by Time Team. Time to run it past OneMonkey.

“So what do you think?”

“You’ve done your usual trick with the ending.”

“What do you mean, usual trick?”

“With the last two lines you’ve hinted at the start of a whole new story which has the potential to be way more interesting than the one you’ve just told.”

“Oh.”

Back to the scribbling board.

OneMonkey brought me a huge mug of black coffee and I wrote a different ending to Inspired by Time Team, but before I had the chance to read it to him I’d been seized by another burst of inspiration. Half past ten saw me finish a monologue from the point of view of a woman in her 50s. Working title: Redundant. Still plenty of time to polish it up, but I wanted to read it to OneMonkey first.

“You’ve done that thing with the ending again.”

Drat! I wrote a second ending to Redundant, read it to OneMonkey knowing he’d been right, knowing this one was better, waiting for the nod of approval from my trusted first-reader.

“The ending works now. But…”

“It’s nearly the same character as Custard Cream isn’t it?”

For those who haven’t seen it yet, I Could Murder a Custard Cream is a darkly comic monologue I wrote, which was made into a film for Slackline Cyberstories last month (you can read about it here).

“What happened to the rewrite of Inspired by Time Team?”

So I read him that and he liked it, and so did I. It wouldn’t make me look quite so much like I could only write monologues for middle-aged women. And it was light-hearted. We could all do with a bit more light-hearted these days. It was well after eleven but there was still plenty of time to edit it to my final satisfaction, come up with a proper title, check all the formatting and file-naming guidelines again, edit it some more, and send it in. Plenty of time.

I came so close to calling it Farmer Jones and the Field Drain of Doom. I opted for A Ferret Too Far – this may have been partly influenced by writing a radio play involving a wereferret on Thursday. But that, as they say, is a whole other story.

I faffed with commas, I wrote a quick character note. I changed one mild swear word for another. I re-read all the guidelines. I pressed send at 11.56 and sank back, drained, half-expecting to be told I’d named my file with the wrong date or some such glaring violation. But no, all was well.

So if you’d like a minute and forty-five seconds of light relief in the form of a young man called Alan doing a lovely job on A Ferret Too Far (and really, why wouldn’t you?), you can watch it here:

 

Prescient at the time, outdated now

I’ve been tidying up my work in progress folder over the last few days, part genuine attempt to feel less overwhelmed when I switch on the computer and see such a massive list of incomplete work, part procrastination technique at a time of wavering focus. For whatever reason, they’re mostly speculative fiction of some flavour or another. Probably because with SFF I’m striving for perfection and never finding it, comparing every story to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett or PKD and feeling dissatisfied, endlessly seeking the optimum ending.

Some stories I have no recollection of writing, and I read the pages I have got (3,000 words, in some cases!) with great enjoyment, getting caught up in the plot, feeling for the characters, and then… What? What happens next? I need to know! But if I knew, I’d have written it down 8 years ago. Those ones stay, somewhat optimistically, in the work in progress area, a promise to myself that one day, one day I will know and I will write it down.

Others are from writing exercises and aren’t going anywhere. They maybe have some good descriptions but I’m just riffing on a half-baked idea and there’s nothing much to salvage. They go in the folder labelled Abandoned so I can strip them down for parts later. I rarely do, but there’s always the possibility that gold is buried in those paragraphs of dross.

The ones that I’m finding the most interesting and frustrating are the ones that would have looked like I had insight, if I’d actually finished them. Like the one where I had Boris Johnson as PM (I wrote a note on that one in June 2016: “with Boris looking likely to replace the recently-resigned Cameron this no longer seems as amusing as it did a few months ago” – of course, it was actually 3 years later that he finally got there), or Hillary Clinton pointing out (in 2008) that if she’d been elected as president this situation would have been handled so much better. There’s the one I wrote when civil partnerships were a new thing, featuring the first gay cabinet minister to get married (in a church!) while in office, the incredibly futuristic one where everyone wears wristbands that they wave at the barriers to pay credits for their city journey – I’ve seen my friend do that with her Apple watch on the underground when I visited her in London 2 years ago! There are numerous instances of people using things that are suspiciously like ipads (usually called entscreens) as well as scientific and technological developments where capabilities and attitudes have come a long way in 15 years.

I’m not sure what to take away from this rummage through my old writing. If you haven’t touched a story in 17 years you can probably delete it? Some developments are inevitable? Or maybe I’ve learnt that if I can just figure out how to find the optimum ending for those lingering stories, I could be a pretty decent SFF writer.

Did I mention they filmed my monologue?

I announced with great delight recently that Slackline Productions had chosen my monologue, I Could Murder a Custard Cream, to be filmed for their Slackline Cyberstories. It is now available on YouTube starring Susannah May and directed by Callie Nestleroth, and it’s been done so well I grinned incessantly for the full 9 minutes and 51 seconds.

It’s a dark comedy set in a village in the Yorkshire Dales, and revolves around the magnificence of the humble custard cream (that’s a popular biscuit, for those not from round these parts). Susannah was glintingly wicked as the nameless biscuit-lover.

She was also kind enough to say that this was one of her favourite monologues,

and Lee Stuart Evans, author of the novel Words Best Sung (which I reviewed a while ago) said it was brilliant.

 

Lee’s a genuine TV and radio comedy writer by day so I’m choosing to believe that he knows what he’s talking about! As does my dad of course, who declared it ‘most amusing’.

If these endorsements have made you think that this film might be worth ten minutes of your life, I urge you to go and watch now at https://youtu.be/J4BR3odiNQI

While you’re there, I’m sure you can spare a few more minutes for the other Cyberstories too, they’re good. You can quote me on that if you like.

Very specific commissions

Five Dials are holding another of their Very Specific Commission flash fiction competitions (deadline 5th May 2020), and as the name suggests they are prescriptive about setting, main character, and a line of dialogue to be included, which forces you to be extra-inventive I think. This time it’s about an infectious disease expert, but I took part a few years ago when it was about a climate scientist, and it was great fun. They even quoted part of my story in Five Dials issue 42.

The criteria for the one I entered was as follows:

about a scientist who smuggles out crucial climate change facts under the iron fist of a censorial government.

Scientist’s name must be Rowena.

Story must contain the line of dialogue: ‘Some things you just don’t see coming.’

Here’s what I wrote in response, it might spur some of you on to respond to the latest one…

Recipe for Rebellion

by JY Saville

Rowena tensed at a noise from the corridor. She swallowed, fanned her face with the minutes of the environmental science regulatory committee and willed the printer to work faster.

Five minutes later she was on her way out with a freshly-printed recipe for pea soup folded in her bag. Government employees weren’t supposed to print personal items at work, but that was the least of her problems. If anyone tried making the soup they’d find it inedible.

“Mark?”

She knocked on the locked door of the bookshop. Like the library, it was closed until the government had decided what citizens could safely read.

“You shouldn’t come to the front door,” Mark said as he opened it.

“I’m visiting a friend, I don’t want it to look like I’m sneaking.”

Mark held his hand out and Rowena passed him the print-out.

“Pea soup?”

“It’s humidity data,” she said. “It made me think of fog, pea-soupers.”

He tucked it inside a second-hand comic novel in a cardboard box, Rowena assumed it was the latest order from one of a network of climate scientists overseas. The government had banned publication of climate change data, officially dismissing it as nonsense but in reality knowing they had the only access to a crucial piece of the jigsaw. There were many government officials with links to companies that would benefit from being ahead of the game. They thought withholding the data would only damage their foreign rivals, not their own chances of survival.

“I should have got out before the travel ban,” she said.

“Some things you just don’t see coming.”

The door crashed open and two men pointed guns at them.

“Police!” one barked. “What are all these books doing here?”

“This used to be a bookshop,” said Mark. “It’s old stock, strictly for export.”

The government had no objections to corrupting other countries’ citizens.

“Liar, she’s here to read.”

Rowena moved closer to Mark and put her hand on his arm.

“I’m just here for sex, honestly.”

To her surprise, Mark fished a condom from his jeans pocket and held it up as proof. She looked at him and he shrugged.

The policemen looked uncertainly at each other, made a show of checking a few box-labels, and left.

Shakily, Rowena sat on a table.

“Could you fit me in one of your book shipments?” she said. “I can’t do this any more.”

Somebody’s filming my words

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Remember how I was stuck for a monologue? Well I wrote one, featuring custard creams, and Slackline Productions are making it week 5 of their fabulous Slackline Cyberstories, next week! They haven’t announced yet who will be acting it but I’m so looking forward to seeing what they make of it. This will be a new experience, seeing someone else interpreting my words. Thrilling, but maybe also a bit nail-bitey.

You can watch weeks 1-4 at their YouTube channel, and if you’re in the mood for monologues in lockdown, you can also try Coronavirus Theatre Club and Buglight.

I’ve been adding a few old recordings, mainly stories I’ve read on the radio, to Chirbit so you can now hear Viv’s 64th (a popular one from The Little Book of Northern Women, which started life as an Alan Bennett style monologue for my mum’s 64th birthday), Guilt By Association (part of National Flash Fiction Day Flash Flood 2015), Can’t Stop the Rock (comic fantasy about reanimating dead rock stars) and The Library of Forgotten Dreams (a short piece of whimsy I wrote for an Ilkley Writers programme on Chapel FM in 2017). There were already a few recordings up there, including another of my monologues which I didn’t end up using for the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in 2015, as we changed theme.

Enjoy. Stay safe. Check back here next week for a link to the finished film.