Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.

Technological supremacy, the not so direct path

Talking about technological innovation and what wins out, recently, I discovered that friend of a friend Carolyn Dougherty had written a great article on just such a topic. It’s called On Progress, On Airships and you can read it in Steampunk Magazine 5. She talks about how the invention that ‘wins’ (i.e. enters the mainstream) is not necessarily the best or the safest, which although you may have realised that before, still makes you stop and think.

Coincidentally in the same week I stumbled across a novel called The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, which is about the legal battle that saw Edison triumph with his lightbulb. I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting angle (though I must admit the phrase SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING EDDIE REDMAYNE is putting me off just a tad).

Ilkley litfest: Tim Smith photographs Gujarat

This evening in an eerily deserted Ilkley I went to see Bradford-based photographer Tim Smith talk about his Gujarat project. I learnt a lot about the history and geography of that part of India, for instance I had no idea it was about the size of the UK (both in area and in population) or that more than half of British people with Indian backgrounds have their origins there. Interestingly there are specific localities connected, so that Gujaratis from Batley are predominantly connected to one part of Gujarat which is a different area from those who live in Bradford, different again from those in Leicester or Wembley.

Tim began his career in Bradford in the mid-eighties working with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (oral history and documentary photographs), and it was from the large numbers of migrants he photographed in Bradford’s mills that he eventually worked so much on documenting migration to Britain. As he said this evening, the textile work was the ‘pull factor’ that encouraged people to come to the UK, but he wanted to see the story from the other end. Hence he spent 2 months in Gujarat in 2014.

His style is photographing ‘ordinary people doing everyday things’ whether that’s in Bradford, Leicester, London or Surat. There was a nice symmetry to some of the pictures he showed: Indian restaurants in Bradford and English-style restaurants or food stalls in India; the interior of a church in Mumbai that could have been anywhere in England, and the interior of a mosque near Bradford that could have been India. One of my favourite pictures was a woman in a shalwar kameez playing cricket on a beach, which happened to be in India but could just as easily have been Blackpool.

Unfortunately an hour proved to be too short a time to fit everything in and sadly Tim had to rush through the last half-dozen photos, but it was an interesting evening with some wonderful photos and I’m sorry I missed the exhibition that arose from this trip (though there is of course a book).

Ilkley Litfest: Mike Jay

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was an eye-opening talk on the history of asylums. Straight away, in my first sentence, I’ve struggled with what to call them, and that difficulty in terminology was the first thing Mike Jay addressed.


His book is called This Way Madness Lies, and he stressed that none of his word choice is intended to be offensive but when you’re covering hundreds of years of history the words people use change as much as the attitudes. Madness, lunacy, insanity, mental illness. The affliction as permanent and inherent, or able to be treated with rest, electric shocks, drugs. The asylum as prison, hospital, home. All these changes in perspective reflect changes in society or the progress of medicine.

It is not a linear, progressive history and Jay suggested there were cyclical elements and also – which I found particularly thought-provoking – that if you took a snapshot at any one time you would find examples of both good and bad conditions. He also talked about delving into several hundred years worth of the Bethlem hospital (‘bedlam’) archives over the last decade, and gave a very brief overview of the ‘open air asylum’ at Geel in Belgium, which I hadn’t heard of but has about as long a pedigree as Bethlem (Geel is a town in which there is a centuries-old tradition of taking people with mental problems as boarders with families).

All in all, a packed 45 minutes where Mike Jay rattled through a number of topics from his (illustrated) book and showed a selection of slides including art by asylum inmates, some or all of which were taken from the book. As the audience questions about the effects of austerity on mental healthcare today, and the possible future for psychiatric treatment, showed this history illuminates the present and I’ve added this hefty volume to my To Read list.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

Fathers Day, a note of thanks


My dad’s leather-patched elbow, with which he has nudged me into all sorts of literary and musical exploration

Sometimes I’m too tired to avoid the cliche up ahead, so here’s a Fathers’ Day post about my dad, without whom… (well, without whom I wouldn’t be here, obviously, but I mean apart from that).

  • When I had measles, aged 9 or 10, he read a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings to me, because he’s not one for taking age into account (thankfully). I struggled with it when he handed it over once I was feeling better, and it took me another few years to go back and finish it, but the spark of interest was there.
  • He likes Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, and he thought I might too (and as we now know, my entire writing career such as it is can be blamed on Douglas Adams)
  • He likes Anthony Trollope, and he thought I might too (can you see a pattern emerging here?)
  • He assiduously collected PKD novels in the years when they were hard to come by, scouring the second hand bookshops of West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and shared them. When I’m finally happy with my SF noir novel, Sunrise Over Centrified City, he’ll get to see where all that ended up.
  • He let me read the Maigret novels he got out of the library, when I was still on a children’s ticket (it’s that not accounting for age thing again. That also got me using big words quite early on – learn fast or have no idea what he’s talking about…)

If you’ve been around here for a while you can see the shape of my reading habits in this list. And if you really have been around for a while you probably know some of the musical ones too (all the bits that aren’t Big Brother’s fault. Both of them deny all responsibility for the hair metal). I am still resistant to Roxy Music, however.

Thanks today to all the dads that read to their kids, take them to libraries, buy them books (whether or not that involves keeping a list tucked in their wallet of which books exist in a series and which ones said child hasn’t read yet) and generally enthuse them about reading. Better than a kickabout in the park any day.

Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)


A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.


They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).


Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.


Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.