Sick of football? Let me read you some stories

So stunned was I by the England-Panama game that I failed to blog yesterday, but during (at least the second half of) England’s next match I’ll be in the local pub reading stories. Ilkley Writers are interspersing their stories and poems with a couple of 20-30 minute sets from singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Glover. Tickets are only a fiver and you’ll be supporting local creative types.PurpleRoomFlyer

Of course, given that most of you reading this won’t be in the vicinity of Ilkley on Thursday evening (or maybe you were, but you’re not reading this till next week and you’re cursing your poor timing), it seems only fair to remind you that you can listen to me reading a few of my stories (and an essay) here, and there’s a whole radio drama to go at, over at East Leeds FM. And if you’re still looking for distractions from the football, I can recommend a good book.

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Alice and Jacqueline face the impossible

York Festival of Ideas is just drawing to a close for another year, but this week I joined Alice Courvoisier there for the third time to deliver an evening of thought-provoking entertainment (such has always been our aim, anyway).

We were supposed to be joined by Carolyn Dougherty this time (sadly she had to pull out at the last minute) so it was much more of a straightforward lecture format than our 2016 offering on the theme of time (which mixed myths, my fiction, history of science, and some proper physics) and a complete departure from our 2015 blend of myths and stories. Alice’s hair seems to get a bit shorter each time, but I can’t present the evidence because everyone was too engrossed to take photos this year (by which I mean, OneMonkey couldn’t make it and no-one else thinks of these things), which also means you don’t get to see the flabbergasting size of our audience. We were in a bigger venue this year, with stewards on hand to bring us coffee and supervise the Q&A (thank you to the students who gave up their time to do this) and I had a mild panic when I heard 88 tickets had been booked. They didn’t all turn up, but we still had a bigger audience than I was anticipating.

This year we were Facing the Impossible in Physics, according to the title of our talk, and (to paraphrase from my notes) we tried to get the audience thinking about science in a way they might not have thought about it before, by looking at how the notion of ‘impossible’ can change depending on when and where we are, and how the prevailing scientific view can change radically.

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Kepler’s Platonic Solid model of the solar system

Between us we did an accelerated history of celestial mechanics, with me tackling the part from the dawn of time (metaphorically speaking) to Kepler in 1609, and Alice presenting Newton to Poincaré at the turn of the 20th century, which gave her an excuse to play a clip of this video illustrating the concept of the sun moving as well (because we usually see it as static, with planets whizzing round it), with some suitably grandiose music.

I talked about experimental validation and bias, thought experiments, and provisional truths, while Alice pointed out that we have to trust something, and rattled through a history of Western views on the nature of matter. As a brief overview that might sound a bit dry but the audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and we had to curtail the Q&A after about half an hour because we’d over-run our slot and the next guy needed to start setting his presentation up! In fact Alice and I, as well as Mark the artist (who was there to provide moral support but also to critique us in his capacity as a philosopher of science) chatted to interested members of the audience for at least a quarter of an hour outside the lecture room afterwards as well, which made me feel like we’d achieved our goal of getting people thinking. A special mention must go to the physics student who boosted my ego by asking if there was an accompanying book available downstairs at the Waterstones stand… (maybe next time).

If you were there, thank you. If not, I’ll leave you with one of my thoughts from the evening:

In this age of the distrust of experts I don’t want to imply that scientists – even long-dead astronomers – don’t know what they’re doing. But I do want to emphasize that they’re not infallible, they’re not pure objective calculating machines, and the history of science isn’t a single-track road that’s sitting there just waiting for the brambles to be hacked away so the carefree physicists can skip along it arm in arm past all the handy signposts saying ‘Truth this way’.

National Flash-Fiction Day 2018

It’s National Flash-Fiction Day today (in the UK) and as usual they’re releasing fabulous morsels of flash every ten minutes or so at FlashFlood. For the first time in years (since it started?) I haven’t even submitted anything to the flood, because I’ve been so busy preparing for the event I did with Alice Courvoisier at York Festival of Ideas on Thursday (more of which later, probably tomorrow). However, I was fortunate enough to have a piece selected for this year’s anthology, Ripening, which you can purchase on Amazon. There are so many great contemporary flashers in there, you’d be daft not to.

So, read some flash today – by definition, it won’t take long and it might brighten up your day or make you see something in a different light. There’s still a couple of hours left for me to enjoy the flood before I settle down to listen to the Argentina match (happy World Cup everyone…)

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds so far (a novella, a few novels and short stories) but his 2004 novel Century Rain is not only the best I’ve read from him, it’s the most enjoyable sci-fi I’ve read in a while.

Earth has been uninhabitable since the Nanocaust, but field archaeologists like Verity Auger still make trips there to study its artefacts. When she messes up on one of those trips, Verity is handed an offer she can’t refuse and finds herself on a secret mission for which her expertise on twentieth-century Paris will be invaluable. Government scientists have discovered an unstable entrance to a poorly-understood galactic transit system whose origins they know nothing about. This particular branch appears to lead to nineteen-fifties Paris, though not quite the same version Verity’s studied. All she has to do is use the transit system and retrieve the belongings of a murdered government agent who went through before her.

Meanwhile jazz-loving Paris-based private detective Wendell Floyd is on his uppers as usual, and takes on a murder case against his better judgement. At least, the client thinks it’s murder but Floyd’s inclined to go along with popular opinion and stick to accident or suicide. Until he starts to wonder if the victim was actually a spy, particularly when another one shows up.

This is part spy thriller, part space opera, part beautifully-rendered fifties noir, and I loved every minute. With more twists than a journey through an unstable pseudo-wormhole, Century Rain has tension, romance, dry humour, and a suitably tear-jerking Casablanca reference or two. It touches on ethics and the unknown consequences of new technology, but it can be approached simply as a wild adventure. I can particularly recommend it if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes Raymond Chandler or Maigret, and if you’ve read and enjoyed Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer you’ll probably love this.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Writer as performer

The last week or so it’s all been about performance. On May 17th I read some stories at the All Ears Listening Club in Ilkley, alongside Andrea Hardaker and David Hesmondhalgh. At first it seemed quite daunting – a couple of rooms of music enthusiasts had gathered for their regular fix and we were not there to give them those kind of sounds. The music was loud and the conversations were louder. I fell silent as I felt every word I tried to bellow scorching my throat, and I had a sudden fear of standing up to read later and simply croaking. Then eventually the three of us were introduced and it was absolute hear-a-pin-drop quiet, so fast that I was looking for the mute button someone in charge had clearly pressed. All eyes (and ears) on us, and no-one knowing quite what to expect. I read four pieces with some kind of musical connection (you can listen to Summer of ’96 here, you might already have read it at the Fiction Pool. You can read The Lesson at Ellipsis Zine, too) and they seemed to go down well. We’re already talking about reading together again somewhere, maybe with musical accompaniment.

Last weekend Alice Courvoisier and I sat down to plan the order of the York Festival of Ideas event we’re doing with Alice’s friend Carolyn in a couple of weeks. I guess it’s largely the history and philosophy of science (mainly physics, because that’s what we collectively know the most about). It’s on June 14th and tickets are free.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ilkley Writers (or some of us anyway: Jane Cameron, Emily Devane, Andrea Hardaker, David Knight-Croft, Patrick McGuckin, Rosalind York and me) are reading at the Purple Room event at the Wheatley Arms in Ben Rhydding on June 28th 8-10pm (tickets £5 on the door). We’ve been paired with Lisa Marie Glover and there should be four sets (two music, two spoken word) over the course of the evening. Just as long as I don’t lose my voice over the next month…

Might need a new bookshelf soon

Wow, I’ve got a story in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology! Although I’ve had a few pieces of flash fiction released in their Flash Flood on the day itself over the years, the previous couple of times I’ve submitted to the anthology I haven’t been successful. Much rejoicing at this news this week then, particularly since so many fellow-flashers from Twitter are also in the list, including Ilkley Writers’ own Emily Devane. The anthology is due out in June (NFF Day is the 16th) so I’m looking forward to seeing that sitting on my shelf.

Confingo 9 and Crossing the Tees anthology

Contributor copies

Meanwhile, in the last week or so I’ve had a couple of other publications in the post, as pictured above. Confingo 9 is a lovely magazine with colour artwork inside and a story of mine called Last Post. The Crossing the Tees anthology (which I think is only available from libraries in Teesside) houses my Time Team inspired story, Ghost Bridge, and is a pleasing paperback that I’m looking forward to reading.

As if that isn’t enough strain on my bookshelf, I went on a tour of the local charity shops yesterday with OneMonkey and my parents. Between us we got a big enough haul of books that OneMonkey had to drop some of them off at my parents’ car before we could continue (“That should keep us going for a couple of days,” said my dad). It’s dangerous letting me near a buy one get one free offer involving second-hand books, but at least I can safely say I’m unlikely to run out of reading material any time soon.

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Some of my eclectic purchases