pontificating

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.

Grayson Perry on masculinity

I knew very little about Grayson Perry (other than that I wasn’t keen on his art) before I happened to catch part of his Reith lectures, ‘Playing to the Gallery’ in 2013. I sought out the rest on catch-up, read something he’d written in the paper when he made a TV programme about men and maleness, and added his 2016 book The Descent of Man to my To Read list as soon as I heard he’d written it. Having finally got it out of the library in January, I read it quickly and with great interest, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the thorny topic of gender in the modern age as well as anyone interested more broadly in contemporary politics and society. I don’t have to agree with him on everything to applaud the kind of book he’s written and the approach he’s taken, though I think I do agree with his assertion that “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.”

I’d like to think gender was irrelevant in modern Britain and I’ve refused to join women-only groups in everything from the Institute of Physics to the local branch of the Labour Party, so I’m not a habitual reader of gender-focused texts. I don’t, for that reason, know if The Descent of Man is a good example of its kind, but for the general reader like me it seemed a thought-provoking introduction to the topic. The tone of the book was none too serious, which helped. His comments on the parents of Islington made me laugh for instance, how they undoubtedly claim to bring up their sons as tender and gentle, away from gender stereotype, “I’m sure they do, and the young men in question are probably delightful,… and I’m pretty sure their mothers still do most of the childcare and housework or employ other women to do it.”

I thought Perry’s identification of Default Man was interesting, the white middle-class heterosexual male who is (as a broad group) at the head of all things, from banks and universities to media outlets and politics. Everyone else is measured against them – neutral means what Default Man uses, does, wears, like the uniform of the sober suit with a tie (colourful clothes are suspect), and anything else is automatically Other. Once you look at society with Default Man in mind, lots of things start to make more sense. As well as Default Man we have the Department of Masculinity, a member of which provides the voice in your head telling you not to be a “sissy”. Which, he argues, leads to confusion and aggression and worrying about what other people think. Or in other words Toxic Masculinity and its detrimental effects on mental health.

We need more public intellectuals if you ask me, we’re losing the art of debate and the ability (maybe even the desire) to question things. They might not cover a topic from all angles and they will bring bias with them, consciously or otherwise. They haven’t always found solutions, even if they think they have, but they’ve thought about it, asked some good questions, and made us think about it too. So hurrah for a potter with no qualification other than that of being a man himself, daring to provoke us into thinking and talking about what it means to be a man in modern Britain.

Brexit and the collapse of planning

The quagmire of negotiations, the dangerous farce that is the Irish border question, every day we’re told of new and apparently unexpected complications of Brexit. Each time, a chorus of people ask what Leave voters were thinking – didn’t they work through all the knock-on effects in their imaginations, like mental chess? Didn’t they think ahead and realise how complicated it would be, what a bad idea, how practically impossible? This chorus doesn’t appear to be asking what David Cameron was playing at, or why there were no detailed plans in place for what would happen in the event of a vote to leave the EU. They don’t ask how on earth our political systems managed to let the referendum happen when there was no plan for one of the two outcomes, or how come Cameron was allowed to abdicate responsibility as soon as he’d landed the country in the soup.

There are several scenarios I can think of, to cover David Cameron’s disregard for consequences:

  1. Knows that we can’t/won’t leave the EU, but poses the question anyway. No planning required; even if Leave wins, we won’t be leaving. But Remain will win anyway, so no need to worry about what to do if public opinion shows a leaning towards Leave.
  2. Intends to leave the EU if the vote goes that way, but doggedly believes it won’t as he has never met anyone except a few cranks in his own party that would vote Leave. Arrogantly (and incorrectly) assumes no planning required, simply because the messy and complicated reality of leaving the EU won’t arise.
  3. Doesn’t seriously consider the question of whether we’d leave the EU or not. The vote will go the right way, and life will continue as before. No planning desired, as it’s a waste of time.

Given the eventual outcome (narrow victory to Leave), any one of those positions would have left him in shock on results morning. In the first, he’d have to face a hostile public and tell them that despite the vote, we’d be staying put. Who knows what uproar there’d be, it’s not as if we never have riots in this country. In the third scenario he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: stay put despite the vote (see scenario 1) or leave the EU, which he hasn’t planned for and didn’t think (judging by his personal campaigning) was a good idea.

Scenario 2, which is the one Theresa May’s government has behaved as though we were in, seems to me the scariest and most chaotic. That would be like me asking my friends and family if I should go on a sponsored walk or blindfold myself and throw knives at OneMonkey from across the room, to raise money for charity. If by some fluke they selected the latter, they’d be shocked if I said I was going to do it (because I’d promised) but I’ve never thrown a knife before and didn’t know whether I could get OneMonkey any protective gear in time. If I was perplexed at why they’d choose that option when they must be able to spot some pitfalls, I think they’d be justified in turning round and telling me they didn’t think I was stupid enough to suggest it if I didn’t know what I was doing.

You may believe all voters should avail themselves of all the facts and check out all claims made by politicians before voting, but you must know in practice it doesn’t happen that way in any UK election. Protest votes, party loyalty, the least worst option – I’ve voted based on each of those myself. Then there’s image and spin, some last-minute interview or soundbite that catches a voter’s imagination and sways them one way or another. There’s gut feeling, some idea you haven’t seen conclusive evidence for or against but that you hold onto nevertheless. There’s the complicated battle when a voter has too much information, weighing up the bits they do and don’t agree with or stand for, to see which aspect seems the most important; I don’t even agree with all of Labour’s policies and I’m a member of the party.

During the referendum campaign it wasn’t easy to get hold of facts anyway. Both sides, from all parties, seemed to be falling back on the usual meaningless soundbites and overinflated claims. The £350m written on the bus was clearly tripe and although I’m not saying 100% of the electorate spotted that, I don’t know anyone who believed it (Leave voters included). Remainers seemed to base all their arguments on how rosy it was already and why we’d be fools to give that up, which doesn’t work if the people you’re addressing don’t believe it’s rosy now. Very few people engaged in proper debate (a general problem in modern life) and I don’t remember any politicians giving serious thought to what the country would look like afterwards, whether the vote went their way or not. If they did, they didn’t share it with us.

Planning for an eventuality seems to have become synonymous with expecting it to happen, with all the resulting public hysteria. I would rather live under a government that had plans for what to do in the event of nuclear war, famine, an energy crisis, even if with hindsight it’s seen as (thankfully) a waste of time and money. I would argue it’s rarely a waste anyway because it gets you looking at resources and reliance, gaps in infrastructure etc that you wouldn’t otherwise focus on. But when it’s a situation of your own creation I don’t just think it’d be nice to have a plan, I think it’s damned irresponsible not to.

Maybe if someone had sat down with a pencil and a used envelope and had a ten-minute brainstorm about, say, possibilities for the Irish border should a referendum come out in favour of Leave, we’d have been spared the whole sorry episode.

A writer praises the North

Since I know you don’t get enough of me writing about the North, and writing, and northern writing, there’s an article of mine over at Women Writers School about that very thing.

Rusting anchor on stony beach

An anchor I saw in Cumbria, not the one that tethers me to the north

You’ll recognise it by the photo above, and my unbridled enthusiasm. And the mention of Luddites. Some of the other writers that Laurie Garrison has invited to add to her Literature and Place theme have covered exotic places like San Francisco and Bhutan so you can be an international jet-setter from the comfort of your armchair.

As ever, thoughts welcome. Do you love all my references to northern this, that and the other or do you sigh every time it comes up? Does fiction set in a place that’s familiar to you have an additional hook, or do you like reading yourself into places you’ll never visit? If you’re a writer too, is there somewhere that has that magic for you?

Social media and the new availability

The recent kerfuffle over MPs supposedly being hounded online over the Syria vote had me weighing up the pros and cons of instant online availability. As far as politicians go, sending an email is much less of a big deal than writing a letter or calling in at a constituency office, so more people are likely to do it (me, for instance) and the MP or at least their staff might hear from a wider range of voters than they otherwise would. On the other hand Twitter might be a bit too immediate, a bit too tempting for the instant reaction outburst (from disgruntled voter or tired and emotional MP). If I tweeted half the stuff I shout at the radio during Any Questions I’d probably get myself into a lot of trouble.

Authors online, however, seems like a safer prospect. Back in the days when snail mail was all there was, even if I’d had the faintest idea how to get a letter to my favourite authors, I wouldn’t have done so (though I did once almost write a letter about Cerebus to Dave Sim). Aside from the perception that I was taking up a fair amount of both my time and theirs, the nagging feeling that the closest it would get to them would be the cursory glance it was given by their secretary/wife/obliging neighbour, put me off. Then came email – still not necessarily read personally by the big names, but less work on both parts and somehow less weighty.

Next came blogs by writers – like this one, but sometimes written by someone more than a dozen people have heard of. The crime writer Martin Edwards has been writing posts regularly for years, imparting fascinating insights into his own writing and publishing process, discussing Golden Age (and other) crime with readers and generally seeming like a nice chap. The connection formed by not only reading his own thoughts, but personal responses to comments on the blog, has made me more keen to read his books than I otherwise would have been.

Twitter has been a revelation (possibly similar is true of Facebook and the like, but not being massively social I don’t have much social media experience). As mentioned above it’s perfect for the impulse comment (like an impulse purchase but possibly with greater ramifications) and because the wordcount is so tiny you can’t be accused (even by yourself) of wasting an author’s time by attempting to communicate with them. Even some of the big names are known to handle their own Twitter accounts, like JK Rowling and Stephen King. Not to mention Stephen Fry. The chances of you standing out among the 17,000 other responses they got to that last tweet are slim, but there is the faint possibility of a brief dialogue, and certainly the feeling that they may personally have read your view on their latest work (or hairstyle, love affair, breakfast etc).

So, if the big guns are now a little less ‘other’, the less stratospheric writers like comedic genius (and engaging Twitterite) John Finnemore are positively reach-out-and-touchable. If you’ve read about (and commented on) the new work-in-progress you’ve already got a connection to it by the time it comes out. Which is where we reach the emerging writers. While Stephen King may or may not notice you as an individual say how much you loved his new novel, the midlist authors probably will and they may well take your comments on board. The emerging writers will not only notice but you may well have the power to steer their mood for the day. For some, your comment might be the only one they’ve received.

Next time you’re considering getting in touch with a stranger, pause. Is the person a politician you have an urge to remonstrate with? If so, remember Theresa May is listening, and they’re probably not worth it. However, if the person in question is a writer, artist, musician, poet (and what you have in mind isn’t abusive) go for it. You won’t bother the busy ones, and the rest will probably be glad of the connection.

The Corbyn effect: when the political becomes personal

Some of the socialist and working class history books on the shelf of JY Saville

I’m feeling optimistic at the moment, generally sunny and bright and like anything is possible. These things are never simple, we all know that, but I can attribute part of it to Jeremy Corbyn (he’s not the messiah he’s a very lefty boy). Tenuous, you may say, trying to drum up a bit of blog traffic by latching on to the man of the moment, but regular readers should know I don’t have much appetite for that, and you don’t have to know me long to realise I’m a socialist (honestly I can bring politics into most conversations, appropriate or otherwise), so it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out I’d be supporting him.

It’s quite sad how refreshing it is to listen to a politician that sounds like they believe the words coming out of their mouth, and seems like they might actually have some principles they might stick to. I’m not saying politicians can never change their stance on anything, we all change our minds, maybe we’ve heard new evidence or thought about some consequence that never occurred to us before. All too often though, politicians seem like they’re swaying in the wind of public opinion. Honestly, I don’t care if you agree with me, I’d rather have a good lively debate, but you can’t do that if your heart’s not in it. I’d got a bit sick of politics, full of the same old insincere voices, wealthy and isolated in the Westminster bubble, until Mr Corbyn leapt into the leadership contest (wealth of Corbyn unknown but seemingly immaterial as it isn’t coupled with an I’m all right Jack attitude).

People are saying yes but would you want him as PM. To me that’s missing the point. It’s not that the socialists of England are only happy when they’re on the losing side, clearly winning an election and getting to put all these ideas for a fairer society into practice would be brilliant, but winning isn’t an end in itself. Pretending to be a branch of the Conservative party in order to trick a few floating voters seems pointless. Much better to be in opposition but standing up for what you and some portion of the electorate believe in. So I’m optimistic, the fifty shades of Tory politics of the last few years might be on its way out, we might get a debate on what Labour (or anyone else) stands for in the 21st century, and I might be able to vote with my conscience instead of tactically, holding my nose as I make the pencil cross. I’m fired up again (me and 50,000 other people, apparently).

While I’m feeling so good I’m getting stories finished, I’m entering writing competitions, I’m submitting to magazines more than I have in ages. If I make any money out of this sudden proliferation of work, I’ll have to send Jeremy a few quid for his leadership campaign as a thank you.

Calling Westminster, can you find The North on a map?

On my Twitter profile I summarise myself as ‘Writer. Reader. Northerner. Rocker.’ and anyone who’s been around this blog a while can testify that most of my ramblings and rantings fall into one (sometimes several) of those four categories. Today’s rant will mainly be about the north (like the one I had back in 2010 about the BBC programme about northern culture. This one involves the BBC too, tangentially); southern or overseas visitors may prefer to leave now.

Last week the Deputy PM launched a thing called TechNorth, which apparently is going to result in a ‘northern tech hub’ like the one in East London (TechCity), only incorporating Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and the Tees Valley. So far, so what? Well ordinarily I’d shrug and ignore it, but it’s not the thing itself that’s riled me so much as the way it’s been put across (and indeed, reported by the BBC). It’s a bit like those chaps down in Westminster think The North is a culturally uniform, tightly-compressed area with everything in common and no diversity of problems at all. As if Leeds isn’t already doing really quite well thank you, and The North East isn’t suffering from years of under-investment and the collapse of traditional industries that will take more than a token tech hub to put right.
Map of mainland UK

Let’s start with a brief Geography lesson (and it’s not like I know this stuff, I looked it up on a map the same way a policy wonk could). How far apart do you reckon Liverpool and Newcastle are, as the crow flies? Would you refer to a world-class tech ‘cluster’ if it included both Edinburgh and Aberdeen? Actually that may be a bad example because Scotland also seems to suffer from the undifferentiated lump syndrome in Westminster so let’s try this: how about if it included Bristol and Nottingham? To put it another way, according to the AA distance calculator Liverpool is closer to Oxford than it is to Newcastle, Sheffield is closer to Cambridge than to Sunderland, Newcastle is closer to Edinburgh than to Sheffield, and Manchester is closer to Aberystwyth than to Newcastle.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the quote on the government website claims TechNorth will be “a world-class tech cluster spanning 5 cities in the North” then mentions six northern cities and a cluster of towns (Tees Valley). The BBC goes one better and ignores Sunderland and the Tees Valley altogether, mentioning only Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle in the article I read.

OK, so it looks like they’re not sure where these places are or which ones we’re talking about, but what about comparisons to TechCity? “The government says it will spend the same amount on TechNorth as it has on Tech City” says the BBC article that admittedly I’ve just claimed isn’t perfectly accurate. However, let’s assume it got that bit right. A bit of poking around on the internet has failed to provide me with a figure, but that’s not necessarily important. TechCity is based in Shoreditch, East London (and this is where I confess that my knowledge of London is about as solid as Westminster knowledge of The North, but I’ll do my best) which I gather is part of the borough of Hackney, population c.214,000 and an area of 7.4 sq miles. If I point out that Sunderland, the least populous of the 6 cities, has a population of 276,000 can you see where this is going? They’re going to invest the same amount of money in a population of 3.74 million spread over c.940 sq miles as they did in one small part of London. This is The North, of course, and things are cheaper up here (though probably not at Harvey Nichols in Leeds) so perhaps I’m being unfair.

Grumbling quietly to myself (and OneMonkey) for a few days, it was almost as if Number Ten was listening, because before I’d finished writing the foregoing rant, our esteemed leader had taken himself off to Leeds to announce HS3. Apparently it doesn’t matter that The North is a rather large area because the government are going to connect it all up with high-speed rail and make it feel like everywhere’s practically next door. Except of course they aren’t, and I’m not sure it would be a good idea if they did. What they actually seem to be proposing is knocking a small amount of time off some of the intercity journeys, so that Manchester to Newcastle would still take longer than Leeds to London.

What no-one (except most of the people commenting on the BBC article) seems to have spotted is that in the modern world it shouldn’t be necessary to physically travel to a different city to work there. In fact from an environmental (and city overcrowding) point of view it might be good to move away from that idea. Perhaps it’s simply that the Westminster crowd can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live and work in a city, in the same way that I just don’t get why anyone would want to live or work in London, but I know I wouldn’t be alone in rejoicing if I could be set free from commuting into a city every working day. Give us rural broadband, spend a bit of money maintaining the existing train lines and reopening a few stations that fell under the Beeching axe. The current proposals are patronising, badly thought through and have an air of ‘Crumbs! There’s an election soon – when did we last take any notice of The North?’. Such is my opinion, anyway, but as those outside the M25 might have spotted, northerners are a varied bunch.

How I write, why I write, what I write

Disembark here for the next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Tearoom at the rear. Please exit via the gift shop…

As mentioned a few days ago Kelvin Knight passed me (and Judith Allnatt, and Stephen May) the responsibility of continuing this blog tour, so whether you like it or not I’m going to give you a little insight into my writing life. If you haven’t called off here before, it might act as some kind of introduction and (hopefully) an inducement to stick around. You could even sign the visitors’ book (or ‘leave a comment’ if you want to be prosaic).

First up, what am I working on?
Lots of things. Too much. Not the stuff I should be. This is the problem with having a butterfly mind and an overactive imagination, when you actually come up against the fact that writing a complete piece (even if it’s 500 words long) requires focus and a bit of (whisper it) work. I’ve had a crime story on the go for months. I was mightily pleased with the idea and I don’t want to rush it and fail to do it justice, but I’m in danger of letting it hang around too long.

There are two larger projects on the go. One is the sci-fi noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo 2013 and finished the first draft of in January this year – Sunrise Over Centrified City. I’d written it longhand as I’d hurt my back and wasn’t carrying my dinky little notebook computer around (and since then I’ve done more damage so I’m still not typing when I’m out and about), so it’s taken me until the end of August to find the time to type it all up so that I could start redrafting. The other is a collection of speculative fiction which I’m hoping to put out fairly soon. It’ll be roughly half and half published and unpublished work, a mix of science fiction, fantasy and things between.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write in so many genres (butterfly mind), I’m not sure how to answer this one. OneMonkey has claimed my science fiction is like Alan Bennett in space (if only! But I’m not sure it was meant as a compliment). I’ve had a recent story in Romance Magazine and my first novel (Wasted Years) has been described as a romantic tale, but I don’t usually read fiction labelled as romance, and I absolutely don’t write anything mushy or soppy (I really hope I don’t. Please tell me if I do). My comic fantasy isn’t always as funny as others in the genre (hence it doesn’t tend to get out into the world. Except All the Room in the World) and my other fantasy doesn’t tend to involve elves and royalty and magic artefacts. There is often (but not universally) a core of northern-ness (northernity?) to my stories, with all that might entail (grit, rain, tea, taciturn characters). And probably an undercurrent of socialism where you least expect it (Wasted Years might be romantic in places, but I still see it as a cautionary tale about the shallow emptiness of greed-is-good consumer capitalism and ruthless ambition. But don’t let that put you off…)

Why do I write what I do?
I can’t not, is the simple answer. If I didn’t write it down it would stay swirling round my head and eventually I’d explode. All writers are a product of their reading, so from Paddington Bear to Anthony Trollope’s finest novels via John Wyndham, Terry Pratchett and Philip K Dick, I select my subconscious ingredients and distil them into something (I hope) unique. I write in many genres because I read in many genres, as you can probably tell from my book reviews and end of year summaries.

And finally, how does my writing process work?
Hmm, most of the time it clearly doesn’t, or I’d get more stuff finished. I don’t have a writing routine (though I went through a long phase of writing during my lunchbreak, when I was carrying my pencil-case sized computer around) or even a fixed way of approaching a story (whole plot sketched first? just an ending, a beginning, a setting, a character?). Chaotic, maybe, but I like to think it leaves me open to chance thoughts and melding of ideas. It could just be poor planning.

I have a TeX file (hangover from years of physics) which I’ve gradually been adding to for the last few (nine?) years, divided into character names, good lines, snippets, titles, characters, and ideas. Anything that I jot down during the day on a paracetamol packet, the back of an agenda or even in a writing notebook (it does happen), gets thrown in there as soon as possible. I’ll do writing exercises in the snippets section to see if I come out with anything usable. Vague half-baked thoughts of ‘what if..?’ go in the ideas section, and even Stuart Maconie caused an entry in the names section a few years back when he tried to say Michael Jackson on the radio and it came out Maxl Jaggle (which I’ve yet to use for a sci-fi character, but someday I will). Every now and then (when I’m in full-on procrastination mode) I trawl through the file and join a title with an idea, a name with a snippet, or just pick one item and go off on a flight of fantasy with it (like in March 2012 when I tried writing a story a day this way). Occasionally, an idea is sparked directly and I just start writing without it ever going in the file.

Sometimes I write one story till I’m finished. Sometimes I get bored, or have a better idea partway through, and I get sidetracked. I have been known to put something aside for a number of years, only to come back to it and finish it in a matter of hours. There are some things I’ve written from start to finish without correcting any of what came before (Sunrise Over Centrified City, for instance). Others have been rewritten continually as I go along, so the first paragraph’s been through seventeen drafts and the last has been through two. Crime stories need meticulous planning so that they hang together (clues and methods and detection and such); that’ll be why I rarely manage to finish them (The Dovedale Affair being a notable exception).

Some days I get lost in the story and bang out a thousand words without trying, other days I sharpen a lot of pencils and tidy my inbox. Or write a blog post.

So there you have it, me as a writer, in a nutshell. If your appetite for my fiction has been whetted (admit it, it has a little bit), check my About (& Publications) page where you can follow links to all the ones that are available for free, then if you like, proceed to the ones you have to pay for…

Time to hand you over to some other creative folks:
Jo Tiddy is a member of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and although she has contributed guest posts there, she doesn’t have a blog of her own and will therefore be a most welcome guest right here.

Mary Colson mainly writes non-fiction for children, but she has fun with fiction as part of Ilkley Writers and will be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in October. Regular readers (or those that know me well) will understand why I particularly appreciated a recent extract in which a cat called Clash belonged to a guitarist named Strummer…

What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

#Bookaday, volume the third

I’ll make this the last outing for #bookaday and I’ll cherry-pick, in a vain attempt to avoid boredom. So, where were we..?

BOOKADAY_JuneAt the risk of sounding pretentious (I know, not like me at all) I can’t believe more people haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past. Lots of people have heard of Proust, they may even use the word Proustian in relation to sensation-triggered memories, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who admits to having made it past the first part (if you have, leave a comment and end my solitude). Maybe the fact that I read epic fantasy novels conditioned me for it, but I loved the total immersion and also the ability to (if I remember correctly) write a few thousand pages without actually naming your main character. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read twice (see number 29, below) and it’s left such vivid images in my mind that I can step into the setting of the novel at will. Marvellous stuff.

If I say I’m moving on to number 19 now, I guess regulars will groan, and chorus The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. It might get overtaken by The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel at some point, but I haven’t finished reading that yet. What can I say? I get fired up about inequality, education, working class opportunities and any mixture thereof.

I’ve got a lot of out of print books, that’s part of the fun of second-hand bookshops.

23 and 25 kind of go hand in hand. Any book we were made to read at school, I’m unlikely to have finished. I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd or a world war 2 book which may have been The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall. I vaguely remember asking friend T what happened in The Lord of the Flies so I suspect I didn’t get to the end of that one either. I probably finished Animal Farm because it was George Orwell, and I know I read The Hobbit but I’m pretty sure I’d already done so before it was flung at us in the classroom. As you might guess, 23 and 24 are diametrically opposed. Thankfully I was enthused about reading long before school started to try and spoil it, and my earliest memory isn’t early enough to capture it (though Spot the Dog will have been part of it, so a brief nod to his creator Eric Hill, who died recently).

Should have sold more copies? Clearly that’s The Little Book of Northern Women by JY Saville, a rewarding collection of short stories that’s not just for girls, and a snip at only 99p…

I’m not going to admit here which bookload of characters I’d want to be among (although I probably have done already, there’s a lot of posts on this blog now). Those who know me, in real life or through long readership, could probably have a good guess. Answers on a postcard (or a comment box, if you feel like it).

Which brings me to re-reading. A few years ago I explained why I rarely re-read books (I do re-read blog posts, and you can do the same here), so I’m not sure there are any books (except children’s books, books I’ve written, or books I’ve proof-read for other people) that I’ve read more than twice. Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every festive season (Dickens and I don’t get on, so I had a hard enough time getting through it the once). I know someone who rarely reads anything but Jane Austen and has to buy new copies as the old ones wear out. Honestly, my most-read book is almost certainly A Bear Called Paddington. If you’ve ever seen me in a situation where a hard stare is called for, that might explain a lot.

Part 2 of #Bookaday

Time for the second instalment of my responses to this:
BOOKADAY_June
I’d got as far as number 8 last time, so let me think of something film or TV related. Obviously there are masses of books on the shelves that have been made into films or TV series, or indeed vice versa (like some of the early Doctor Who novels). However, the one I’m going to pick is a boxed set of 3 paperbacks from the Michael Palin travel programmes: Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Full Circle. The paperbacks don’t have all the photos that the big coffee-table versions had, and I probably saw less than half the episodes on TV, but Michael Palin’s gentle enthusiasm for foreign parts forms the core of my (very much armchair-based) interest in far-flung places.

Which book reminds me of someone I love? Quicker to list the ones that don’t. Among the many given to me by friend T there’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which set me off on Tracy Chevalier. There are the ones that used to belong to my dad’s late uncle, unashamedly intellectual with a dreadful line in puns (much like my dad, in fact). The one I’m going with though is a book I’ve only got an electronic copy of, having first read Big Brother’s paperback many years ago: The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels. Inextricably bound up with Big Brother, his outlook and influence. For better or worse (make your own mind up), he’s a big reason I am who I am today.

Ah, the pull of secondhand bookshops. Even now I have to make a big effort to walk past an open charity shop, and I have great memories of exploring the ever-expanding labyrinth of Michael Moon’s cornucopia of books in Whitehaven as a child. The majority of my books, and the ones in the Library of Mum and Dad are second hand, many of them with irritatingly limpet-like price stickers from the now defunct Roblyns in Huddersfield, regular haunt of my dad in the late 80s. One wonderful day in the early 90s, friend T and I were taken round every bookshop in some small Pennine town by her dad and had a fab time unearthing treasures. We once had a family day out to the old station bookshop at Alnwick. Can you see why picking one gem might be tricky? How about William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, bought from a second hand bookshop at Pitlochry station moments before our train pulled in?

I’m not sure I always pretended to have read the books I was supposed to read at school, and outside of that the question doesn’t make sense so I’ll move on to laughter. Humour’s a tricky one to pull off, much harder to write than you might think (believe me, I’ve tried) so I have great respect for those authors who manage it consistently. Do they make me laugh though, really? Is it more of a smile to myself as I pass over the page? Strongest contenders could well be from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde or the broader realms of comic fantasy. I’ve read a lot of comic fantasy (which you might not expect if you came across me in one of my more serious moods), I’ve written a fair bit too and most of it’s not very good. Except All the Room in the World which made it into Bards and Sages Quarterly a few years ago.

Phew, this is getting long so 14 is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ’nuff said. Calvin’s dad from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons gets my vote for top fictional father, though I read the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice a while ago and Mr Bennet’s long-suffering wit reminded me of my dad and therefore deserves a mention.

Back to the books…

Jumping on the #Bookaday bandwagon

The last few days, I’ve kept seeing people on Twitter flash up this picture:

BOOKADAY_JuneSince it doesn’t seem to be trying to sell me anything I figured I may as well join in, and some of the categories beg a bit of discussion so I’ll do it here where I can waffle more than 140 characters allows.

Favourite book from childhood ties in nicely with the YouGov poll of favourite children’s books from the other day, which I would have blogged about earlier in the week if I’d had time. Maybe another day. Childhood covers a long period though, from Meg and Mog to Biggles Flies Again, via Little Women and The School at the Chalet (as with the poll of favourites, most of my reading material seems to have been from long before I was born). My favourite book aged 4 would be quite different from my favourite aged 11, and the ones I look back on with fondness now may not have been my favourites at the time. I still love (and quote regularly) both Winnie the Pooh and Paddington, but I’m going to choose a book called Dragon in Danger, by Rosemary Manning, which was from a series about a little girl who befriends an old (and as I recall, most polite) dragon. I suspect it had quite a profound effect on my later reading habits. (As an aside, I just searched for the author’s surname online as I could only get as far as Rosemary unaided, then realised if I’d wheeled my desk chair 3 feet to the right I could have stuck my head out of the study to read the spine of the book on one of the hall bookcases. Modern life, eh?)

The one that’s springing to mind as a bargain is Poverty: A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree, I can’t even remember how much it was but certainly less than half an hour’s pay at the shop I worked at around that time. Not the first (1901) edition, I think it’s from 1909 but I was delighted with it then and I’m happy to own it now. It had a blue cover I think, too (that one’s in the bookcase on the other leg of the L-shaped hall. It would require getting up and walking).

Who’s my favourite author today? That’s the question I’d need to answer before I could pick my least favourite book by them. I read reviews, I take notice of other people I know who like the author, so I tend not to bother with the books I don’t think I’ll take to, hence even my least favourite is one I’ll probably have enjoyed. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett’s a contender, though.

Most books in the world don’t belong to me. The library book I’m halfway through (Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer) for instance. There are some books in the house that were bought for OneMonkey, and some I’ve borrowed from my dad, but since both fall under the ‘what’s yours is mine’ heading, I don’t think that counts.

Now number 6 really perplexed me: The book you always give as a gift. As though there are books that simply everyone will enjoy. I can’t think of any book that I’ve bought more than one person as a gift except possibly OneMonkey and The Nephew, and even then it might have been my sister that bought it for OneMonkey. Isn’t part of the joy of giving and receiving books the personalisation behind it? I read this synopsis and thought of you. Or I read this book and knew you’d enjoy it so I’m passing it on. Maybe there are lots of people out there with whole swathes of friends and family with similar tastes in literature. Though if that’s the case, why are they not sharing?

I’ll get ahead a couple of days by being equally perplexed at number 7 (why wouldn’t I know the contents of my bookshelves intimately? Good grief!), and confessing that there is one Terry Pratchett novel that got overlooked when OneMonkey and I amalgamated our books many years ago and removed the duplicates. Somehow we’ve never quite got round to ditching that second copy of Witches Abroad.

So there you go, a ‘fascinating’ (maybe if you squint) romp through a week and a bit of book-related wittering. I would love to know anyone else’s responses, to all or a selected few of the prompts themselves, or indeed to my answers. But don’t let it distract you from your reading time.

In defence of Luddites

I saw an article this week that suggested the meaning and history behind Bonfire Night is being lost, and because of that and the proximity to Halloween, the two may gradually merge. Whatever you think about burning effigies of violent political protesters from times long past, it does seem sad to lose the meaning behind a tradition. It also strikes me as worrying when people start doing or saying something without knowing why – one of the least serious consequences of this is mixed metaphors and misplaced words.

Luddite. What does it make you think? Someone who doesn’t understand technology? A backward peasant, perhaps? I’m guessing that if that’s the case you don’t have a deep-rooted family connection to the textile industries of the West Riding. Some of my relatives were probably Luddites (it’s hardly something that gets officially recorded. Unless they got caught) so I’d like to nudge you away from using the word in that modern sense. I might not agree with their methods, but the Luddites were protesting against the introduction of labour-saving machinery that would take away their jobs. Far from not understanding the new technology, they understood only too well what it would mean for them and their families when the mill-owners needed to employ fewer workers. It’s a bit like supermarket checkout staff smashing self-service tills, or library assistants taking a hammer to the automatic book-sorter. Ultimately futile and likely to get them in trouble, but a heartfelt response to the prospect of unemployment. And in the early 19th century they didn’t have Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Why does it matter? Well, apart from a spot of pedantry, and not wanting dead relatives to be misunderstood, we need to hold onto history. Without remembering, we can’t learn from past mistakes, and considering how many there are, we have the potential to learn an awful lot.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Fantastic academics

A while ago, as I mentioned at the time, I read (some of) the Oxford book of fantasy. Because I’m nerdy like that, I read the weighty introduction as well and it amazed me, first because there are apparently academics out there who study sword and sorcery, and second because even while arguing that fantasy as a genre is worth studying, they still seem to dismiss it. With friends like that, etc.

Plenty of fantasy stories are what I would class as mawkish trash (even some that I’ve enjoyed as a guilty pleasure), but then I have similar views on Dickens and thankfully for the heterogeneity of the literary world many people think differently. I’ve never been entirely convinced that studying literature at universities is a worthwhile occupation, but if you’re going to do it then I don’t see what’s wrong with studying fantasy – popular entertainment, particularly when it’s revealing what people dream about when they’ve got totally free rein, detached from reality, has got to tell you something interesting about the collective psyche. The problem of defining fantasy came up as it always does, but the phrase ‘known to be impossible’ struck me as breath-takingly arrogant: there are plenty of things ‘known to be impossible’ a while ago which have turned out not to be, from remote communities to scientific advances.

Another one that got me was ‘I suspect that few if any people now believe in dragons, vampires…’ – fair enough, I’ve never met anyone over the age of about 6 who believed in dragons, but I’ve crossed paths with people who believed (or wanted to believe) in vampires, and here’s a quote from Private Eye just before Christmas 2009: “There are at least 1000 people in the vampire community in New York City alone” – Michelle Belanger, author and former head of the International Society of Vampires. The author of the introduction seemed to find belief in demons, God and the Devil far more acceptable, but I honestly can’t see much of a difference between believing in demons and believing in vampires (both equally incomprehensible to my scientifically-trained atheistic mind). Mind you, he also seemed to see sword and sorcery as the continual triumph of brute force over intelligence, and it didn’t horrify him that such a state of affairs should be put forward as the natural order of things; clearly his mind works in a very different way to mine.

Odd days

For a while there it almost looked like I was posting these things regularly…

Normality, or what passes for it in these parts, is now resumed – infrequent ramblings, even more infrequent fictional output. Today I’ve made my first submission in four weeks, so while this year’s submission total is definitely going to be the best yet, at this rate most of them will have been in January. I keep thinking that if only I submitted more, even if my success rate stayed the same, in absolute numbers I’d get more acceptances which is presumably the point. Rational arguments with myself rarely work though, and I let my good intentions drift and fall away, until I get some jolt that makes me focus on achievements. Like seeing my grey hairs in the mirror.

I had high hopes for creativity this weekend: no pubs, clubs or supermarkets to sap my will; no pressing need to do anything in particular. Of course OneMonkey and I decided to go walking in the Peak District, and relying on public transport as we do, it really had to be Saturday. Which was very windy. And we’re both out of condition, having last been walking before Christmas. I was asleep by 9.30 with the cat curled on my feet, and all I’d managed to do since arriving home was strip my muddy walking gear off and drink some tea. This is the kind of thing I have to overcome to get writing, which probably explains a lot.

In search of lost time

So we’ve established by now that I am a time-waster, a faffer, a pontificating dawdler. And verbose. It’s not that I’m not an organised person, far from it, it’s more that my organising energies are directed badly: list-writing, calendar-marking, CD-arranging, labelling, cataloguing, in short anything that could probably safely be left until I’ve run out of all other occupations except breathing. I also get side-tracked very easily, so right in the middle of importantly tidying a stack of books (I have nowhere near enough shelves, or space to put them), I’ll remember the item I forgot to write on the shopping list earlier when I got halfway to the fridge door and decided to alphabetise the recipe books (all under V for Vegetarian).

To make matters worse, as well as my now-legendary written verbosity, I have a severe case of what my mother refers to (and believe me, it takes one to know one) as verbal diarrhoea, and I don’t seem to be able to talk and do things at the same time – one thing always distracts the other. By the time I’ve zig-zagged my way through seven interleaved activities when I get home from work, it’s just about bedtime; add a phonecall from my mum and a report of the phonecall to the long-suffering OneMonkey, and it’s so far past bedtime I may as well start making breakfast.

What’s that? You mean, if I stopped writing about how I never got round to writing, I might actually write something? Hmm, there’s an idea. Maybe I should try it sometime.

Two buses to Ripon

Far too much of my time is spent on, or waiting for, buses. Until recently, I couldn’t even read on a bus without feeling sick, but somehow I seem to have got round that by closing my eyes when we grind to a halt or go round corners.  I still can’t write on a bus though, which given my pitifully sporadic output is a serious shortcoming. For about five minutes, I toyed with the idea of a pretend phonecall, to allow me to record notes and snippets using the voice function on my MP3 player, then I realised I’d probably sound like less of a nutter if I just got the MP3 player out and started speaking into it. Needless to say, I haven’t yet.

I did try recording ideas and passages while I was washing up, to be typed up later, but with the long pauses and the distracting clink of crockery it wasn’t that successful. My next plan was to record while I was on my exercise bike; usually I either read a book or watch a DVD while I’m cycling, I find it distracts me from the tedium of the static scenery, and the worrying realisation that I’m unfit and nearly 30, never a good combination.  Unfortunately breathlessness, while something of a prerequisite in the sphere of romantic heroines, can be a hindrance for this sort of thing.

Ironing is a peaceful, mindless pastime that lends itself admirably to the contemplation of tangled plots and the honing of polished paragraphs, but if I only worked while I was ironing, I’d be down to a thousand words a decade.  If only I didn’t waste so much time on unnecessary activities, like reading the Education Guardian. Or writing a blog.

Rainy Day Women

On the way to work one sodden morning last week, I saw a woman with a clear dome umbrella; how she could see where she was going is beyond me, it had steamed up enough to obscure her face. Through the exhilirating 20-minute walk in the early morning gloom, as the rain only got heavier and the skies darker, I kept myself distracted from the way my skirt was clinging to my knees as I walked, by contemplating the stories behind that umbrella.

I might not always manage to convey them successfully, but the images in my head and the desire to lift them out and show them to people are always there, and I think always have been. By the time I reached my desk, my hand was so cold and wet it was hard to hold a pen properly (if it had been autumn, I would have worn gloves on a morning like this, but why would I have gloves to hand in summer? Unless of course I’d learned anything from past experience), but I needed to scribble down the ideas chasing round my head, even if most of them would amount to nothing. I almost always have a notebook and pen with me, and at work I have an out-of-date desk diary, mostly blank, that I keep for lunchtime scrawls or early-morning ideas.

Ideas, and snippets of dialogue, are not a problem – like Alan Bennett (one of my inspirations) I keep my ears peeled on the bus, and sometimes I strike gold. My main stumbling block is following an idea through to fruition, or fitting smart dialogue into a reasonable context. I start twenty different stories, some at the beginning and some in the middle, and finish one or two by the end of a year, if I’m lucky. Sometimes I forget where I was going, or my style and taste change so much in the meantime that I abandon a piece, but I might plunder it for one or two particularly good lines or images.

I keep telling myself that if I got down to this properly, if I sat at my keyboard for eight hours every weekend, an hour every evening before bed, I could finish most things I started, get more stories out there, and (statistically, anyway) have a better chance of getting published. As it is, I could faff for Britain, and if I really wanted to concentrate on one story, I’d have to try and ignore all the other ideas that came to me while I was writing it. What if one of them was the queen of them all?