Welcome to the cheap seats

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

The tip-tap of monkey keyboards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost cities and forgotten worlds

Footsteps by Bruce Norman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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5 podcasts that helped me through lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A quick SFF round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With apologies to Brian Bilston

In these locked down times

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

I don’t swagger in silver-threaded shirts.

My fringed scarves remain in their perfumed wardrobe, dreaming.

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

 

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

I loll in hooded loungewear with a book.

Louche and languid I drape around my laptop.

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

Scarf fringes on my biker jacket

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

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

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So I set up a Ko-fi page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two topical stories released this month

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on censorship and debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monologues in Minutes

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

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

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

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

“So what do you think?”

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

“What do you mean, usual trick?”

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

“Oh.”

Back to the scribbling board.

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

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

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

“The ending works now. But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prescient at the time, outdated now

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention they filmed my monologue?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Very specific commissions

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

The criteria for the one I entered was as follows:

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

Scientist’s name must be Rowena.

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

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

Recipe for Rebellion

by JY Saville

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

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

“Mark?”

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

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

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

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

“Pea soup?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liar, she’s here to read.”

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

“I’m just here for sex, honestly.”

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

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

Shakily, Rowena sat on a table.

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

Somebody’s filming my words

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

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

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

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

Monologue for the socially distant blues

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So here I am with writing time on my hands and although I’ve got a major project or two to be getting on with, everyone knows I’ve got a butterfly mind. I skim through Twitter and the BBC Writersroom looking for opportunities to submit to, a challenge, something to get the brain exercised, and everyone is asking for monologues.

It makes sense, if you think about it – they want to record them quick and stick them on the internet to entertain a bored nation stuck at home, and what with all the actors being stuck at home as well, the best way is to make it short and make it for one person, and they can read it out in their own bedroom and nobody has to meet anyone else. Great, I think, I can do monologues, I’ve done monologues before, I did the one for the Ilkley Writers river project, I did Viv’s 64th that always went down well (I must put a new recording of that up, the Chapel FM one isn’t available any more), even Pat’s part in Lavender Ink started as a monologue in isolation.

So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that with all that experience and a copy of Talking Heads to hand, not to mention the Mslexia guide to Writing for Radio (even though these aren’t for radio), I’d be laughing. Slackline Cyberstories even want strong female characters over 35, and anyone who’s read The Little Book of Northern Women knows I can write them, I bloody love writing them. But it won’t come. I’m sat at the keyboard waiting for an outpouring of monologue in the voice of a northern matriarch, preferably one with some curbed liberties so I can try the Popelei Seed Commission, and all I want to write is scripts full of silliness featuring as many characters as possible. It’s no good, I must’ve got the socially distant blues.

Sharing Isolation in an Asynchronous World

Back in 2018 when I got a new day-job it was a two-year contract so I knew that, all other things being equal, I would leave in mid-April 2020. As we began this year, what with Easter and accumulated leave my last day in the office looked like it was going to be March 31st. What perfect timing, I thought, for my last-Sunday-of-the-month blog post to be an amusing look back at office life, commuting, and the people-watching I’d done over the previous two years. Light-hearted thoughts about the pronunciation of acronyms and why I was inordinately fond of a database that sounded like it was called Malcolm, even though I knew nothing about its contents or purpose. Speculations on the sudden smartening up of a familiar stranger. That kind of thing.

As we’ve all noticed by now, however, March 2020 isn’t going to anybody’s plan (unless, perhaps, you’re one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – which really makes me want to go back and finish a comic fantasy story I started writing in 2012) and my last day in the office turned out to be, rather abruptly, March 16th. Because I mainly sit at a computer all day sieving and cleaning data and occasionally taking a SQL-spanner to the workings of the odd database, I can work from home. There are technical challenges that need to be figured out before we can work completely as normal, but basically I’m easily transplantable. Every now and then over the last couple of years I’ve had a day or two working from home for one reason or another and it’s been fine being on my own, peaceful and productive. Besides, after March 31st I was planning to be writing at home anyway, with OneMonkey working in the next room three days a week, so all I’ve done is move to the next (planned) phase of my life two weeks early. Except it doesn’t work like that because for those two weeks I still have colleagues.

I tend to keep the day-job out of this, but I guess with a quick search for my name you could find out what I do so it seems tiresome to talk around it in this context: I work (for the next week and a bit) on statutory returns at a university, sending student data to HESA and the OfS. Bits of it are fiddly and arcane, and at certain times of the year incredibly high-pressure, and the four of us in the HESA corner end up having long, detailed, technical discussions over whether some particular student in unusual circumstances should take this code or that code out of the five rigidly defined possibilities in the HESA specifications, and kind of forget that anyone else in the office exists. Believe me, we’re great fun at parties. Assuming that by ‘parties’ you mean gatherings of geeks who are particularly interested in student records. And like to quote Douglas Adams at every available opportunity.

Because that’s the thing you miss when you’re suddenly all separate. The in-jokes, the familiar joshing, the leaning round the monitor and asking what’s up when you hear the snort of disbelief from the other side of the desk. In my writing life I’ve never had that, I’m not missing out on anyone’s company by sitting at home rather than being somewhere else. I was gearing up for leaving my office job and I knew I’d miss everyone but it feels so odd suddenly never hearing someone’s laugh (or Terry Jones impression) and yet still interacting with them via email or text discussion, rather than having left them behind as expected.

We’re all getting to grips with using Microsoft Teams and apart from technicalities like getting headsets to work, we’re grappling with etiquette about why and when and how to initiate a voice call, which I’m sure will settle down after a while (though maybe not before I’ve left). In the office, I can see from the set of my colleague’s shoulders that she’s concentrating and I shouldn’t disturb her, but I can also see her stand up to stretch or get a drink and before she settles back to work again I can ask her a question or tell her some piece of information she might like to know but doesn’t warrant clogging up her inbox. At a distance, the best I can do is leave it in Teams and see if/when she spots it (as yet, we haven’t all got the hang of mentions and notifications and the like either). The Dilbert cartoons, the cat pictures and the Dungeons and Dragons memes that we might lean over each others’ screens to look at are missing entirely so far, as we try and keep the Teams feed ‘professional’, whatever that means.

At the end of the week we instituted a daily afternoon chat, half an hour of hearing each others’ voices (and seeing the one person with a working webcam) and it surprised me both how much I was looking forward to it all afternoon and how refreshing it was. Over the last few years I realise I’ve gradually slipped into asynchronous communication outside of office life. I don’t have the hour-long phone conversations with friend T that were a feature of our lives (however irregular) for twenty years, we text for quick updates or email if we want to include pictures. I went from Christmas Day to mid-February without hearing the sound of any of my siblings’ voices, in fact I still haven’t spoken to Big Brother – Sister Number One and I text each other so we all know what’s going on in each others’ lives (they all live in one place, I live 20 miles or so away). Nobody seems to watch TV programmes or even listen to the radio at the same time anymore, it’s all about catch-up services and convenience, and there’s so much choice and individuality that they’re often not watching or listening to the same thing anyway so all of the ‘did you hear..?’ has gone. I wonder if this enforced separation will change that?

I’ve already seen global book clubs springing up on Twitter, I think Robert Macfarlane for one was suggesting everyone read a particular book and then presumably they’ll discuss it somehow. Bands are live-streaming gigs with no audience, or filming to put them online. Writers are setting up webinar groups to write together to the same prompt at the same time as though they were in the same room. Even with catch-up or podcasts, you could agree with a friend that you’ll both watch or listen to the new episode on a particular day of the week and then ring up for a chat about it. Or even better, video call. Maybe when broadband is struggling with all the extra home-working and extra streaming of TV services to bored people in self-isolation I shouldn’t be encouraging extra strain on the capacity. However, having used Skype or Google Hangouts now and then to catch up with distant friends and family, I can recommend it if you’re not used to phoning particular friends. Particularly if you’re using a screen that’s larger than a phone screen, and preferably have it propped up somewhere (for a phone or tablet – you don’t have that problem with a laptop) so you don’t have to hold it for ages, it can start to feel more like a cosy chat in the same room than a potentially stilted phonecall. You get the body language cues of someone being about to speak so you don’t keep talking over each other, and it can include anyone in the household who wanders into the room, rather than it being one on one.

This pandemic is necessarily going to change everyone’s lives, at least for a while. We’re all going to have to get used to our own company but don’t misjudge the place of casual interactions. If you’re used to pointing to a passing peregrine falcon from the office window and sparking a conversation, or chatting about hair straighteners while you queue for the kettle, you probably need to find an equivalent of that while you’re in your weird new solitary world. Now excuse me while I make a cup of tea and see if my dad’s up for sitting quietly in front of distant screens making occasional observations about what birds each of us can see from our respective windows.

Twine and interactive fiction

Readers of a certain age may recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books for children, that were popular a few decades ago.

Ahead of you, Robin Hood is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. As the remaining member of his band at large in the forest it’s up to you to rescue Maid Marian. Do you run back the way you came, to talk to the woodcutter (turn to page 7) or follow the Sheriff’s men as they lead Robin away (turn to page 8)?

That kind of thing. Basically it was a thrilling short novel in which the reader made the decisions, usually after reading only a page or two of text, and thus could read the same book multiple times, having slightly different experiences, and feeling like they were in the middle of the action. I came across a couple of essentially novelty versions for adults in the late nineties but on the whole I’d only heard of the format being used for children’s books.

Having also grown up on text-based computer adventure games (because graphics were a luxury thirty years ago) and sharing a love of noir, it was perhaps inevitable that OneMonkey and I would drift into entertaining ourselves by starting to write a detective story on the computer, with the intention that the plot could pan out in different ways depending on the decisions made at each turn.

Four and a half years ago during a hot, lazy summer we started fooling around with the tale of an unnamed private detective who lived above a chip shop somewhere near Middlesbrough, and what happened when he came home from a poetry recital one evening to find the body of one of his clients sprawled on his kitchen lino:

Yet here she was in the fringes of suburbia, sprawled on my beige and orange linoleum. She’d only been looking for a missing spaniel when she pitched up at my office last week, and wherever the dog was it wouldn’t be in my kitchen. My cat would never allow it.

Instead of the typical second person narrative (you go into the kitchen…) we opted for the traditional noir first person (I stepped over the threshold…) with the reader acting as the detective’s conscience, inner voice, or maybe guiding deity (Should I call the police or slip out the back door?).

Because we both have programming backgrounds and because it probably didn’t cross our minds that anyone else would be daft enough to do stuff like this, we used our markup facility of choice (txt2tags) and made a simple html version so you could read a passage of text, click on one of the links and move to the next passage. The only trouble was, the way we were keeping track of the interconnectedness was to draw decision trees on paper and magnet them to the side of the filing cabinet, and we were running out of filing cabinet. Fun as it had been, we were getting tangled in our own storylines and we shelved the poor detective a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to the Christmas holidays 2019, when I was formatting a radio script to send to the BBC Script Room. OneMonkey, convinced there must be specialist script software that would stop me swearing so much (and indeed, I’ve downloaded a demo of Fade In but I haven’t tried it yet), was trawling the web. He found a nifty thing called Twine, which wouldn’t help with the radio script but was just the thing we needed to get our detective back into his favourite thinking-chair.

Twine is open source (did I ever mention I use Linux? And LibreOffice, and Vim, and…) and is also incredibly simple to use. I find it just visual enough to be helpful without being overwhelming, and at its simplest you can use the default set-up and make simple text passages with simple links (like we were doing in html before), and be up and running straight away. Within an hour we’d downloaded Twine, learnt enough to get started, copied across our existing story and were examining the incomplete pathways.

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The layout of our story in Twine, which makes me think of international flight-paths

We set up a couple of tags to add colour-coding, so we know which ones are still only headings, with no text added, and which ones are end-points. OneMonkey got enthusiastic on the coding front and added an inventory (represented here by the disconnected set of items on the left-hand side) so at any time we know what our hero has in his pockets, but this is very much an optional extra.

Since our adoption of this new software approach, all we’ve done is untangle a couple of threads, add an inventory, work out where we’d got to, and sketch out a couple of scenes to be used later (the disconnected items on the right-hand side). It’s not often we’ve both got the time (or maybe I mean energy) to sit down and work on this together, but Twine certainly seems to be a useful way to do it. You can do a test run through the ‘game’ (I can’t figure out what terminology to use for this venture, I would naturally say interactive fiction but they get referred to as games) to see how it’s going so far, or you can sit in storyboard mode (as shown in the screenshot above) and edit the passages, add links etc.

As I understand it, you can get even more advanced by adding images, sounds (say you want to have a distinctive door-opening hum every time the character goes through a door), and we’ve used conditionals in a couple of places already. By ‘conditionals’ I mean the text shown, and/or the decisions available are conditional on what’s already happened – if the detective has visited the bathroom already then he will behave in a different way when he enters the bedroom, for instance. In our detective’s case he’s looking for clues and deciding what to do next based on them, so if he encounters things in a different order then he might jump to different conclusions. If you’re a programming beginner, you might want to stick to basic building blocks of narrative at first and only bring this sort of nuance in once you feel more confident.

As with anything of this nature, a quick search for how-to articles, or YouTube tutorials should turn up helpful pointers. If you want some inspiration there’s a community site with links to interactive fiction that people have constructed, you can even search for ones made using Twine.

We may never guide our detective through all the twists of his fishy plot but at least Twine has given us a way to progress, and if Above a Chip Shop in Teesside is ever available to the public, I’ll let you know.

Not just a year but a decade in books

As is becoming sort of traditional, I thought I’d have a quick look back at what I read during the last year. The photo below is by no means a scientific sample but it does skew towards non-fiction, which is what the year felt like it did.

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Some of the books I read in 2019

However, given that the Guardian kept on reminding me it wasn’t just a new year but a new decade, I had a look back through my reading lists 2010-2019 and as a proportion I actually read more non-fiction in both 2018 and 2013 than I did in 2019 so I’m not sure why it felt so prominent.

As ever, there were library books (only 2 that I got all the way through, it’s scandalous), e-books (8), and books I’ve subsequently given away (2) and hence aren’t represented in the picture. Plus the ones I couldn’t be bothered to pull off shelves in 3 different rooms and pile on the floor (apologies to Messrs Hobsbawm and Wodehouse, among others).

Standout novels of my reading year were probably the first two volumes of the Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James (I still haven’t read the third) and the Joe Sixsmith series from Reginald Hill (from the nineties, by the author best known for detectives Dalziel and Pascoe).

I read such a range of non-fiction in 2019, from Bruce Dickinson’s fab autobiography What Does This Button Do? to a selection of books about the north or being working class, the brilliant Gig by Simon Armitage, and a couple of economics books. It doesn’t make sense to say which was ‘best’ but Erebus by Michael Palin, The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson, and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane both got me thinking and got me wanting to write some kind of follow-on or response.

I only read 39 books in 2019, the joint lowest total of the decade (alongside 2011). I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been writing so much instead, but it’s really not. Just over half the fiction was sci-fi or fantasy, which is about average for the decade, and just over a third was crime, which is on the high end. Though come to think of it, both novels so far in 2020 have been crime so maybe I’m going through a phase (riding a crime wave?). I should dust off the half-written detective novel this year.

Over the decade I’ve read 479 books, though I’m quite sure a few of them will have been the same book again (there’s a book on writing crime fiction that I remember getting out of the library twice, for a start). It might be a lot if you stick them in one bookcase but less than 500 in 10 years is not that many. When I think about how many new books come out in a year, even just in the genres I’m interested in, it gets a little overwhelming. It also makes me feel less bad about abandoning a long fantasy series partway through if it’s no longer absolutely compelling me to read on. I never felt guilty about not reading the must-reads and award-winners just because someone told me to, so no change there.

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.