Light reading for the new year

I’m determined to write more book reviews and recommendations this year. I’ve persuaded myself that they needn’t be full-on 600 word reviews with references to previous works and links to where to buy them. I still might help someone find a good book to try, by writing a paragraph or two about why I did or didn’t enjoy it, and who it might appeal to. So here we go for the first two books I read in 2021, both of which were short and (to a greater or lesser degree) humourous: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Tales From the Folly by Ben Aaronovitch.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on my To Read list because of the Backlisted podcast about it. I jotted down after listening last year that ‘apparently it’s quite PG Wodehouse’ and what with it being set (and indeed written) in the 1920s I was looking forward to reading it. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name but I only have vague recollections of a long-distance boat trip, I certainly don’t think the film follows the story of the book closely. While it has some laugh out loud moments and some flashes of great satire, this novel is not in shouting distance of the same league as PG Wodehouse. It’s written as a diary by dim-but-scheming gold-digger Lorelei, who has the ability to wrap any man around her little finger and make even the meanest English aristocrat dip into his wallet to procure her some expensive trinkets. I found her writing style tiresome after a while – beginning most sentences with ‘so’, scattering ‘I mean’ everywhere, and spelling the odd word wrong e.g. landguage. Lorelei and her wise-cracking friend Dorothy leave New York for an adventure in Europe, financed by a gentleman of Lorelei’s acquaintance, naturally. A series of amusing escapades follow, and Lorelei somehow manages to get out of all the scrapes she gets herself into. Readable enough, short, and very much of its time. I think if you enjoy the Mapp and Lucia books (which I didn’t) you’ll enjoy it more than I did. There is a sequel, I believe, but I’m not about to seek it out.

Tales From the Folly is a Rivers of London short story collection from 2020 and is strictly for the fans. As I understand it, this is a gathering up of all the short stories that Ben Aaronovitch has written for special editions of his novels and novellas. Each one has a short (paragraph-long) introduction saying when it’s set and what prompted it. The first half of the book is stories from the point of view of the main character Peter Grant, and the rest of the stories are centred on other characters. I’ve read all the Rivers of London novels except the latest one, plus one of the novellas, and I still had trouble remembering what some bits referred to. There was a whole first-person story from a minor character’s point of view, and I spent most of it trying to work out who the character was (no name being mentioned for a long time) and then trying to remember where that name had cropped up in the novels. That said, if you are already familiar with Rivers of London you’ll enjoy these extras and there are some good stories and interesting ideas here. I thought the Peter Grant stories worked better than the other characters, on the whole.

It’s no coincidence that I chose short, light-hearted fiction to start the year. I’ve seen people setting themselves reading challenges for 2021, and declaring that they’ll be reading outside their comfort zone, reading difficult books, reading a certain proportion of books by this or that category of author. I didn’t read as many books as I expected last year. I started a few and gave up, I took weeks to get through some, I had long periods when I didn’t seem to be able to read at all. Some of that is the lack of commuting (which is where I did most of my reading for the preceding 2 years) but the disruption and worry that lasted through most of 2020 played its part. I generally read for pleasure. I don’t want to read ‘difficult’ fiction now I’m in my forties, though I might have thought I was ‘supposed to’ when I was younger. Even if I pick up non-fiction, I choose books I think I’ll enjoy if I’m intending to read the whole thing rather than dipping in here and there for research. So my declaration of intent for 2021 is to read whatever the hell I fancy, and if that means sticking mainly within SF and crime (or SF-crime, like Rivers of London) then so be it. My dad tells me that fantastic fiction is useful for finding similar authors, if you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of your favourites.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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2020: a year of not much reading

The traditional look back over what I read during the year just gone, as an excuse to round up the reviews I wrote, and provide a few mini-reviews of the books I didn’t review at the time. I only read 20 physical books in 2020, most of which are pictured below, split into non-fiction and fiction. I also read 14 e-books and listened to 4 audiobooks, but for various reasons the audiobooks never get counted in any of my totals. I read even fewer books in 2020 than I had in 2019, and as I noted a year ago, 2019 was my joint-lowest book-tally of the decade. The proportions were broadly similar though: about two-thirds of it was fiction, just over half the fiction was sci-fi and fantasy and just over a third of it was crime. Some of it was both.

An eclectic selection of non-fiction I read in 2020

As you can see from the photo above, my non-fiction reading was pretty wide-ranging. I started with the pair of Simon Armitage books my sisters bought me for Christmas 2019. In Walking Home, Simon Armitage (now the poet laureate) walks the Pennine Way in the reverse of the usual direction, starting in Scotland and ending up near his house in West Yorkshire. It’s an entertaining journey through the north, sometimes walking with friends, sometimes with strangers and sometimes alone, but each night doing a poetry reading in an attempt to pay for bed and board. Walking Away is a similar format a couple of years later, but this time he’s walking in an unfamiliar part of the country, the south-west coast. I didn’t enjoy Walking Away as much, partly because I got the sense that he wasn’t enjoying the trip as much. He comes across as almost mourngy at times – his back hurts, his feet hurt, he’s not in the mood for a reading, he’s not enjoying the company of the strangers who’ve come to walk with him – and the book has a faintly dissatisfied air like a contractual obligation album from a band you used to like. If you’ve enjoyed any of his prose though, give Walking Home a go.

Common People is a collection of short memoir pieces from known and hitherto unknown writers from working-class backgrounds, several of whom I chat to now and then on Twitter, which gave it an added thrill for me. There are a variety of tales in there and I recommend it whether you think you might recognise any of the experiences in it or not. Maybe particularly if not. The Kinks book was heavily class-based too, but definitely for the Kinks fans as you need a certain level of familiarity with their early albums.

I wrote about Footsteps when I read it, and gave links to scanned-in copies of the original memoirs on archive.org, which is also where I found an excellent account of the Luddites around Cleckheaton. You might be surprised at the local history books or niche memoirs you can find there – have a nose around if you have even the slightest interest in history beyond the national level and the famous names. I also listened to the audiobook of Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, via the library and the Borrowbox app. Lara searches the tidal Thames for historical artefacts and I found her account fascinating despite my unfamiliarity with London. I suspect I missed out on great pictures though so if you have the chance, get hold of the actual book.

I reviewed An Indifference of Birds a few months ago – highly recommended for the interested amateur birdwatcher, particularly urban-based. I haven’t reviewed English Pastoral by James Rebanks because I don’t know where to start but I think it should be read by every politician, everyone on the board at supermarkets, and everyone who has the luxury of choice when it comes to food (by which I mean, their first priority isn’t maximum nutrition per pound due to their tiny food budget). James Rebanks is a Cumbrian farmer and in this book full of love and a sense of responsibility, he looks back at the way his grandfather farmed, where it all went wrong in his father’s generation, and how James and his children might be able to start putting things right. It talks about soil health and the downward spiral of artificial fertilisers, but also about the land and the wildlife, and it’s written beautifully. In a similar vein but with a different focus is Wilding by Isabella Tree, which OneMonkey and I listened to (again via the library). I started out bristling at these entitled aristocrats but it is a fascinating account of switching from intensive farming to a system that’s more in tune with nature, and I learnt a lot about counterproductive government incentives for agriculture.

Some of the fiction I read in 2020. Mostly I read e-books

Now to fiction. I did read a few physical books, as shown in the photo above. Mainly they were second-hand copies that were already on the To Read shelf when lockdown hit, a couple were ordered via Hive (which supports independent bookshops) or the Waterstones site. Mostly, however, I read e-books: a couple via the library and Borrowbox, some direct from small publishers, several from Kobo (since I have a Kobo mini), and one out-of-copyright downloaded for free.

I did an SFF round-up in the summer, gave a quick recommendation of Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston, and individually reviewed The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Big Sky was the fifth in a series where I’d read the preceding four, and there were a few similar continuations during the year (by Tad Williams, Reginald Hill, Georges Simenon, CJ Sansom, Vic James, Jodi Taylor) so I don’t think I have any more reviews to give. I will, however, mention the audiobook of Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. A standalone novel, this is set in an alternative Wales where Tom Jones is still known for Delilah, but most humans hibernate every winter to avoid the arctic conditions. Nothing is quite as it seems, and poor Charlie Worthing’s about to get caught up in a winter nobody wants to experience, least of all him. The level of detailed imaginative brilliance was breathtaking but the reading by Thomas Hunt gave it an extra dimension and I’m glad I listened to the audiobook from the library (so we could both ‘read’ it at once) rather than read the book.

I’ve already read two books in 2021, reviews to follow shortly, but if I just helped you find your next book to read you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Reflections on rejections in 2020

I have an 87% rejection rate this year so far. Wow.

Inspired by Katie Hale’s recent post I thought I’d summarise my 2020 experience as a writer through submission and rejection stats, in case it’s comforting to fellow writers or interesting to readers. It should be noted that my 28-hour-a-week day-job ended at the end of March, after which I threw myself into writing as a distraction from the news and it all got a bit feverish for a while. I calmed down as the year went on.

As I write this in mid-December I’ve made 140 submissions. That includes 32 short stories/flash, 7 pieces of creative non-fiction, 5 novels, and 13 scripts. I’ve pitched articles and applied for commissions (unsuccessfully so far), sent pieces to journals and anthologies, entered competitions, sent partial or whole novels to agents and publishers, sent scripts to BBC opportunities or open calls, and probably more besides. I’ve heard back from 125 of those (or the ‘if you haven’t heard by…’ date has passed) and 109 of them, that’s 87%, were out and out rejections or silence. For context, in 2019 I made 39 submissions and had a 90% rejection rate, so this is an improvement of sorts. Still, that’s a lot of rejection for one year, particularly when it’s already pretty shabby. Until April I was still getting 2019 rejections trickling in too.

On the plus side – and I really do want to focus on plus sides this year – that’s sixteen times in 2020 when I got an acceptance in a magazine, or won a competition, or someone asked to read the rest of my novel after they’d read the first 3 chapters. I’d never had a full manuscript read before but by the end of this year I’d had three small publishers express interest in reading from chapter four onwards, two for one novel, one for another. One of them has since said no, but the other two are technically still potential acceptances [Late edit: a second no, but with helpful feedback]. I have seen two actors take on my monologue scripts and bring them to life wonderfully, and this month I found out a short radio drama of mine will be recorded next year as one of the winners in the Script Yorkshire competition.

Even some of the full-on rejections have had silver linings. I have received ‘encouraging’ rejections more times this year than ever before, including those form rejections that ask the writer to submit again sometime. Before this year I dismissed those as mere politeness that costs the editor nothing, but I’m coming to understand that in general they do mean it and when I get a rejection like that I feel pretty good about it now. I’ve also received some more concrete near-misses – thank you to all the editors who took the time to give me even one line of feedback. It’s still frustrating to know a piece didn’t get accepted because someone else had already sent a similar topic, or they were put off by that one line I wasn’t sure about and should have taken out (ask me to change it – I’d probably be happy to! I know, I know, you don’t have time for the extra emails and not everyone would take kindly to the suggestion, but a girl can dream).

I made 35 quid from writing this year, one payment on publication for a story accepted last year, one payment on acceptance for a creative nonfiction piece due out in 2021. Unfortunately I’d already spent 26 quid on competition entries and submission fees. The monetary gain wasn’t much but I’m finishing the year with twelve stories, sixteen scripts and two novels, either written from scratch or finally finished or substantially reworked in 2020. I’ve started another couple that have potential but aren’t quite there yet, too. The astute among you will notice that I wrote more scripts than I sent out (partly confidence issues, partly not finding a suitable place to send it) and sent out more stories than I wrote. I have stories I absolutely believe in that I wrote years ago, and while some people might say it’s time to put them away, I’d point to the story I had published this year that I wrote in 2013, and the novel I got my first full manuscript request for, which hit the end of its first draft in 2011.

So what can we take away from this? Persistence and self-delusion are useful traits in a writer? Maybe. I’ve written stuff I’m really proud of this year, and I hope some of it’s made people think, and some of it’s given them a laugh in this bleak year. I’ve had my confidence boosted in some areas (scripts and novels) and it makes sense to concentrate on them next year. I’m also intent on applying for grants for the projects I want to do, instead of letting all the bureaucracy put me off as I have this year. Let’s hope 2021 is better than 2020, and may you read as many good books as you need.

Here’s a quick run-down of what you can read or watch from me this year:

Starting in April there was I Could Murder a Custard Cream, a dark comedy monologue produced by Slackline Productions, directed by Callie Nestleroth and starring the fab Susannah May. Watch it on Youtube (and catch up on the whole Slackline Cyberstories series while you’re at it, there are some under-rated gems in there) and you can read a bit about it here.

In May there was a short comedy monologue as part of the Rapid Reel challenge. I wrote about taking part, and you can watch A Ferret Too Far, admirably portrayed by Alan Cammish on Twitter here.

May also saw the Dortmund leg of the Leeds-Dortmund 50th anniversary town-twinning, for which I wrote Upstairs Left (flash fiction on living in flats, on this page: https://leedsdortmund50.com/the-work/open-writing) and a prose poem which you can hear me read at https://dortmundleeds50.de/was-uns-verbindet/ (click on the cherry blossom photo).

In June I had a splurge of fiction: light-hearted gay romance Evidently Lovestruck at Truffle magazine and angry pandemic-inspired Twelve Weeks’ Rest in the first issue of Untitled:Voices. You can read a bit about them both here. I also had prose poetry at FEED, Eyes Front.

In October Secret Attic shared my 1980s flash Stolen Warmth, about being a kid & thinking your parents are just being mean when they won’t put the heating on, and Ellipsis Zine printed my flash memoir Dream On in their eighth anthology, You, Me, and Emmylou which you can buy here.

Issue 14 of Confingo came out last month, which you can buy if you’d like to read a dark story of mine called 24 Years, 361 Days (they’re the ones who paid me – thanks Confingo!). And if you enjoyed any or all of that, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

Merry Christmas!

Disconnected from popular culture: 2020 special

I’ve mentioned before how I’m adrift from popular culture and the majority experience as portrayed in the media. I haven’t owned a TV since March 2002, I don’t read tabloids, wear make-up, follow fashion, or own a car or dishwasher. Ordinarily it means I don’t always get the references on Radio 4 comedies – I haven’t seen the advert or sitcom they’re referring to, or I haven’t experienced the frustration they’re talking about since I don’t own a smartphone. Trivial stuff, on the whole. At its worst it makes me feel old, that I’ve been left behind by modern life, but then I see some spat on Twitter and I’m glad I’ve never bothered to find out who Kim Kardashian is. I shrug and get on with it. 2020, however, is a different matter.

This year of turmoil is the ultimate in ‘all in this together’. As a human being, never mind a writer, I should be carefully observing all these changes to everyday life so I can look back on this notable, disruptive year. The insidious little things like adding ‘mask’ to the leaving-the-house checklist, or ‘you need to unmute’ becoming a kind of catchphrase. And yet, largely, I’m not experiencing them.

Because my day-job contract was about to end anyway when lockdown hit in March, I spent eight days working the day-job from home. Eight. During the mad scramble phase where we knew certain systems wouldn’t work and we were leaving some complex tasks ‘until we got back to the office’. It felt like a crisis and an intriguing novelty at the same time, but it also felt temporary, for my colleagues as well as for me. I never had to face the realisation that we wouldn’t be going back to the office anytime soon, or the protracted loneliness of interacting with colleagues in a work context but not getting to natter to them in the kitchen anymore. I didn’t even have the forced jollity of a morale-boosting quiz night in Microsoft Teams. All I had to do was accept that my rainbow striped mug was out of reach on a desk that was no longer mine and my leaving drinks weren’t going to happen, even the ‘come back and have a proper goodbye in the summer’ version. And since I’d been planning on taking the rest of the year to concentrate on my writing I haven’t (yet) had to look for jobs during a time of major redundancies, or do an interview via Zoom, or be a new starter when everyone’s working remotely.

OneMonkey worked from home most of the time pre-pandemic, so we’d been expecting to be at home together most days from April onwards. We’d worked like that before, when I took my previous writing-focused break (Nov 2016 – Mar 2018). It’s been weird not having one day a week where he’s in the office so I’m not tempted to wander into the next room and chat when I reach a tricky plot knot, but not that far removed from our plans. We don’t have children so we never had to juggle any of this with home-schooling or try to explain to a toddler why they can’t go to the park and play on the swings. Because neither of us had unexpected downtime, we didn’t bake sourdough or take up new hobbies, and I haven’t caught up on classic books I’d been meaning to read, in fact I’ve read less than normal.

I didn’t have a camera on the computer I was doing my day-job from so I never took part in a video meeting while worrying about my PJ bottoms becoming visible if I stretched. My laptop doesn’t cope well with playing video, and the tablet we have only seems to consistently pick up my mic if I’m in a Zoom break-out room with fewer than 4 participants so I’ve generally avoided events on Zoom that aren’t simply presentations. Against my better judgement I’ve signed up for the odd one that requires interaction, then got frustrated as I can only make myself heard intermittently, and can’t type on the chat fast enough to take part in the conversation. I have never been interrupted by a pet or family member wandering into shot, oblivious.

The big one I’m missing out on is the mask. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been mixing indoors without one, I mean I haven’t been anywhere. I’m easily flustered and my dodgy back means I often can’t carry much shopping, so back in early March when we decided it was fairer on retail staff if we didn’t shop as a pair (before that became the rule) it fell to OneMonkey to do all of the grocery shopping. He took photos of the empty shelves to show me because I thought all the talk of panic-buying was exagerated nonsense. Mid-April I walked down the local high street for the first time since lockdown and marvelled at the Easter displays fading in shop windows, beneath posters still advertising events for March. It felt weirdly post-apocalyptic but on the plus side it was possible to dance along the main road watching red kites soar overhead, a road that’s normally hard to cross due to the amount of traffic – unless it’s shut for the Tour de Yorkshire.

I took the phrase ‘non-essential’ to heart, and decided when the shops re-opened it wasn’t worth risking passing the virus around just because I fancied buying a new notebook or browsing through the books in a charity shop. I don’t even know if you were allowed to browse through the books in a charity shop. This is the kind of detail I’ll be unaware of if I choose to set any fiction in this pandemic era. I haven’t been to a city since March 16th – I haven’t been anywhere I can’t reasonably walk to. I have no pressing need, and our local council has been consistently advising that public transport should only be used if unavoidable (remember, we have no car). I get claustrophobic just thinking about being on a train for half an hour with a mask on, anyway. Consequently I haven’t seen the changes wrought by remote working except through photos online. Neither have I had socially-distanced meetings with friends or family, or been inside a pub or restaurant under the new guidelines. I don’t know how people have been behaving, how you choose your pint from the selection of guest ales, what the new signs look like (are they using signs or is it gaffer tape on the floor, or a system of roped-off areas?). I don’t know the new retail etiquette, or if there is any new etiquette, how people queue when they can’t get close, how conversations arise if everyone’s wearing a mask.

So as usual I’m listening to Radio 4 comedies and either not getting the references at all, or recalling an article I’ve read about it in The Guardian. But somehow it doesn’t feel as trivial as usual. In one way, the writer way if you like, it feels like a missed opportunity to observe a (hopefully) temporary phenomenon. On a human level I also feel guilty that I’ve largely dodged this, like I’m shirking some kind of responsibility. It also serves as a reminder that Radio 4 comedies with their white-collar Zoom-laden rule-of-six vibe haven’t been reflecting the experience of everyone. People who have been working as normal in supermarkets, hospitals or factories for instance, or were living under tight restrictions in the north even before the new all-England lockdown. Like my sisters, whose situation as undervalued ‘key workers’ inspired me to write the short story Twelve Weeks’ Rest during the first lockdown. And I’m not saying Radio 4 is always entirely middle-class and London-centric, but that does make the times feel somehow more normal.

If you enjoyed Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can always buy me a cuppa…

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An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth, in paperback

I don’t often review non-fiction and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed ‘nature writing’ before, partly because I’m not sure how much of my audience will be interested and partly because I don’t feel qualified, somehow. I wanted to share this book, however, because I feel like it’s the most accessible nature book I’ve read.

An Indifference of Birds proclaims itself ‘Human history – from a bird’s eye view’ and in less than a hundred pages it rattles through a series of good turns and injuries we as a species have (mostly accidentally) done to birds both in general, and for specific types, times and places. In the process it lobbed handfuls of fascinating facts at me (which I then lobbed at OneMonkey), turned my perspective upside down and made me think hard about our place in nature. Which, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about a fair bit anyway.

Lockdown, we’re told, has made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more. Indeed, the BBC6Music breakfast show has a new nature-lovers’ segment, so mainstream has our Attenborough-fuelled appreciation become. No better time, then, to read this book. I will confess that Richard is a friend of a friend, which is what made me aware of the book’s existence but I’m glad I read it and I urge other interested amateurs to read it too.

I mentioned that ‘nature-writing’ can sometimes seem daunting, lots of technical terms for glacial valleys or Latin names for plants, or it’s written by someone who goes into raptures about trees while I’m sat here thinking trees are nice and everything, I love walking among them but is there something wrong with me that I don’t look at a 900-year-old oak and swoon? Richard’s book glows with enthusiasm, here is a man who clearly loves his subject and appears to know what he’s talking about, but he uses Latin names only about twice in the book where he needs to make a point, and if he uses a technical term he gives a simple gloss for the uninitiated. White-tailed eagles, we’re told, are ‘broad-spectrum feeders – they’ll eat any old shit’. This is the level of technicality I can deal with.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few of Richard Smyth’s short stories (some of which can be read at his website) and this book is also in a deceptively simple, readable style with occasional flourishes that leave you smiling. He makes the point in chapter 2 that our destruction of habitat isn’t solely down to late-stage capitalism and corporate greed, we’ve been doing this for centuries, and I love the way he says we’re ‘perfectly capable of wreaking handmade artisanal havoc at a community level’. That nudge to step back and think about what exactly the problem is and are our ‘solutions’ sensible recurs through the book.

I happened to have started listening to the audiobook of Wilding by Isabella Tree the week I read An Indifference of Birds and I once went to a talk about rewilding by George Monbiot, so I have a passing Guardian-reader’s interest in the topic. OneMonkey and I have had the odd conversation along the lines of ‘yes but returning to which state of nature – 500 years ago, a thousand?’ but I haven’t seen that problem articulated before. Richard makes the point that it’s tricky to talk about re-introduction of anything, as everything else in the ecosystem (including people and their habits, dwellings, waste) has changed in the meantime, and he raises some interesting moral questions about wiping out non-native species.

In short, if you want to find out some interesting things about birds ancient and modern, admirably contextualised, and be made to view the birds in your garden/town/city differently, and possibly be alerted to to the difficulties of noticing and stopping gradual changes (be it biodiversity loss or climate change), read this book. And if anyone knows of equivalently accessible volumes on other aspects of the natural world, let me know.

You can find out more or buy the book via the publisher.

If I just helped you find your way into nature-writing you can always buy me a cuppa…

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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)

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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.