Noodles in the soup of memory

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Far be it from me to post a restaurant review, because I never have. I’ve dined at the odd fictional place I made up because I don’t get out much, so what good would it do to post an opinion on a real place? It’d probably get as many more visitors to a Chinese takeaway as I might expect sales of a book if a restaurant were to review one of mine.

blade-runner-2049-700x290SlashFilm article, on Asian cultures and characters

In the interests of reporting all which needn’t trouble the world outside my own, and in supporting local business, this week I visited a China just up the road.

It’s rare that I get out, let alone as far as the Asian continent. I went to France once on a family holiday, and happened to be in Chicago on a business trip when the world’s political axis was tipped on 9/11. I don’t fear the wider world any more than I do the planet in my head, which still makes travelling a challenge.

At the most recent surveilance of the horizons in my mind’s world, it was a narrow perspective. Rather than gazing and wondering outward, I was looking in; kind of like having a telescope round the wrong way.

The limited stocks of food I had wouldn’t go to waste, but my miscomprehension of why I eat told me I didn’t fancy what I had to hand: Such a first world problem. As I contemplated what to think about cooking and eating, the paradigm was shifted by a neighbour.

The kind of guy who’d offer you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine, my friend is harmless if humoured, and a social tenant like me with a past. Nevertheless, when I had no instant coffee which he’d forgotten to buy in the morning, he asked me if I’d make him one of my nice filter ones (which I did).

Like me, my neighbour doesn’t get out much. So I decided to save both me and him further bother by going out to buy him some instant coffee. Then I wondered why I was out on my own in the dark. To solve problems, I guessed: Those of others, which might alleviate my own. As fresh as the coffee I’d just bought from Tesco Metro, the air drew my attention to my local Chinese takeaway.

I’ve lived here for two years, but I’ve never troubled the local cuisine. I’m happier instead to buy food to look at (and sometimes not cook) from the supermarket. So I crossed the road.

I wasn’t particularly hungry and neither did I want to eat, but both were down to my own inaction. I forced myself to eat by buying a takeaway, from a place not unlike many whose windows I’d gaze through longingly when I was homeless.

For all of twenty minutes, I was back on the streets again, but now looking out on a world in which I had a home to return to. It brought back memories, so I reverted to type and ordered what I always used to: sweet and sour king prawn balls, with rice vermicelli, Singapore style. The walk home was less eventful than the paranoid mind imagines, and nothing happened.

The words “Fresh” rest uneasily in my mind with Chinese takeaway, but my king prawns were somehow new in their batter, the sauce not like that I remember from artificiality, and the noodles disguising nothing but the sweetness of fresh chillis from that other continent, just outside my door.

It’s a place called “Lovely”, it’s right on my doorstep and it helped me find my way, by way of Chinese takeaway. It also served well as a day-after snack, where the measure is now less of a hangover cure and more about preserving food inside the body.

Once upon a time, I shared many meals from China and around the world with others, without actually going there. This week, I fed myself with a breath of outside air. I don’t go out much, and it’s no wonder when I’m let loose for a few minutes and all this happens. It’s a reminder of why I’m not allowed to roam free-range and why I just write about it. Anyone passing through and who can’t be arsed to cook, should call into a lovely place not a million miles from me.

I guess I just used this post to write.

I previously reviewed August Underground’s Diner and The Green Inferno in fiction. Lovely Chinese takeaway really does exist.

Writing directly on derelict walls

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Just as humans seem to be waking up to the crimes they’ve committed on our home world, I’m dealing with the self-harm I’ve recently inflicted upon myself. Being one of the many, prompted the individual. While humans have a moral responsibility to clear up their own mess, I owed it to myself to address mine: The fall of the wall.

Robot GraffitiGraffitiUrban.com

We’ve been here before, and it’ll happen again, when I’ve taken a mental knock in life and fallen into a ditch. With my brand of depression, it’s difficult to get over things which others might shrug off. When I’m personally invested in something and it goes wrong, I have a tendency to blame myself and dwell in a pool of guilt and self-doubt.

It’s an irrational internal brain blame culture, which extends to the problems of my fellow species on Earth. When I look around at what we’ve done, I wonder if I could have done more to prevent it. But could I have stopped Brexit, or the election of Trump? No more than I could make my dad better, or promise my kid sister she’ll live happily ever after as a matriarch.

Forces beyond my control are frustrating, just as all that we don’t understand is the greatest human fear. Unseen agents wresting control from me, have been the roots of past medical diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): being robbed at knifepoint, triggering an alcoholic decline to the end of a marriage, and another PTSD diagnosis.

Further trauma followed in the years I was homeless, and they all carry memories and regrets which fester in the repentant mind. At the last count, I had five or six entries for PTSD on my medical file, each compounding its predecessor. My dad’s health and my sister’s life hereafter are holding, but each could lead to a further dive into my own sense of self-worth, as I wonder if there was more I could have done.

I realise that if I’m to be in any way effective as a carer, helper, adviser and counsel, I need to get over myself; I have to keep going for other people’s sake despite myself, yet the only person I have to speak to about that is in the mirror, or on this page.

There was much in life which was outside my control, and no individual human can be held personally responsible for their species’ misdeeds, but we can work together to repair the damage. When I was still in London, I had an excellent psychologist who’d let me spill my thoughts on the floor, then go through them with me. All I can do now is spew up on a screen. Not all of this might make sense, but it helps to write it.

I’d forgotten I’m a writer and became more myself, and I don’t like that. It was writing which saved me from myself and pulled me back from the gutter, and it’s been self-help for the solitary anxious depressive ever since. Once the words are flowing, nothing else matters so much. The feel of keys beneath my fingers is my pulse. Even if I’m churning out pulp, eventually I’ll find decent prose, like the infinite monkeys writing Shakespeare.

I think I’ve done enough now, to apologise and make good all that I can. To dwell further is to hold others back, and myself. I gave up apologising to those who can’t find it in themselves to forgive. I prefer resolutory debate over conflict or a simple refusal to engage, but I’d rather walk away from a wall I can’t get over than talk to it. I only had myself to talk to, and I got over it.

Guilt is a wall as high as you build it. It will always be there as a constant reminder, but provided you’ve paid it sufficient moral respect, you can climb over it, walk around it, or simply go through it, rather than keep bumping into it and having to talk to it. When the lights go out at night and I’m writing, walls come tumbling down.

Reducing plastics in my diet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

We’re now a week into the British summer which forgot about spring, and despite having my window open, I’ve had no visitors. When I write at night, my desk lamp shines from the window, but not a single moth has dropped by. It’s resigned me to eat less plastic.

cow
A plastinated cow, from Gunther von HagensBodyWorlds

I suspect this may be the year when we finally wake up to the damage we’ve done to our planet, and humans may have to re-evaluate their diets: Not just what they eat, but as a moral responsibility. If we don’t change soon, the entire planet’s food chain could collapse.

It’s only been in the last year or so that we’ve had our eyes opened to the extent of our planetary pollution with plastics, thanks in large part to the BBC’s Blue Planet II. We’re lucky that scientists have stumbled upon a bacteria which eats some types of plastics, but there’s a lot of food.

Since the invention of plastic, humans have created 9 billion tonnes of plastic waste. While some efforts are afoot, less than 10% has been recycled, with most of it sitting in landfill and not decomposing. We’re developing machines which can help clear the waste which is loose in the wider world, but the real problem is micro-plastics.

In a recent study, micro-particles of plastic were found in arctic waters, so it’s thought that every cubic metre of the oceans is contaminated. In turn, these particles are ingested by wildlife, and passed up the food chain. Water evaporates into clouds, then falls as rain somewhere else on the planet, dropping plastic with it. Every single living organism on planet Earth is part-plastic. While we might clear up the immediately obvious mess, the long-term effects of internal plastic pollution aren’t known, as it’s only a recently-discovered phenomenon.

Returning to the food chain and my lack of visitors, I’d welcome even a blue bottle or a wasp, if it at least confirmed the insects were still around. Since we missed out spring, those who survived are emerging far more suddenly (but in fewer numbers) with the rapid rise in temperature. But while they were asleep, nature couldn’t make enough food for them (because it usually does that in spring).

Fewer flowers means less nectar for the invertebrates who do emerge, and reduced pollination of plants. Fewer insects is less food for spiders, birds and small mammals, their predators and all the way up the food chain.

For the humans who place themselves at the top table, there’s a relatively quick-fix solution: Grab more land for farming, produce more crops and livestock, so that humans can eat. And make the problem worse.

To sustain our current (mostly carnivorous) population, humans need more of the planet they’ve already taken too much of. If we selfishly solve our own problems by driving wildlife from its habitats, the animals will continue to die out at an accelerated rate. Like the plastics inside us all, the mass extinction of animals will have repercussions and knock-on effects which we’ve never imagined.

More humans, farming and livestock, will lead to further rises in global temperature, sea levels rising, and even less land being fertile as a result. Increased climate change, affected by humans, will further erode the seasons, and increasing numbers of animals, from invertebrates to the largest predators, will die out as the food chain eventually collapses. And we’re seeing the beginning in the UK this year.

The only way to halt this destruction is to eat less meat. Less livestock would mean less land is needed for rearing, or growing crops for livestock feed (The argument, “If we don’t eat them, we’ll be overrun; it’s just like in nature”, holds no water, as the vast majority of what humans eat, they rear themselves). Fewer heads of livestock would also mean fewer arses producing methane gasses.

I can’t help feeling somewhat to blame, not just for being human, but because my family have always been farmers. When the first Africans and Europeans arrived in what is now Britain (having crossed what was then a connected land mass with the continent), they’d have found Iron Age settlements, the remnants of which are still visible today, close to where I used to live as a child (Oldbury Woods, in Ightham, Kent). Those first Europeans taught the ancient Britons how to use their weapons as tools, so that they eventually evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, raising their own livestock.

As someone who’s partly responsible for that, I’ve tried being part-vegetable in the past, and failed to varying degrees. I’m limited to just a Tesco Metro for food shopping, unwilling to travel and not wanting to contribute to air pollution with unnecessary deliveries. The greater limitation though is that I live alone and have a small appetite, meaning that a lot of food used to go to waste (I only have space for a small freezer).

So for now, I’m a “meat-reducer”, which may sound like a total cop-out (and it’s used as an excuse by many) but which does make a difference. I’ll buy fewer of the more expensive meats, so they’ll be free range, and with animal welfare at the top of the shopping list.

One bird will feed me for a week, starting with a roast on Sunday, when I cook the whole bird and eat a leg. When you’re used to mass-produced, growth-enhanced chicken, it’s surprising how much more meat a bird will yield, if it’s had time to grow and roam in relative freedom. Once the rest is carved from the bone, there’ll be a casserole, a curry, a stir fry, and some sandwiches. Sometimes I’ll boil the carcass and make a stock or a soup. One chicken for a week, so little packaging too.

Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable eating something which was once a self-determining sentient being, when I could choose not to. Even free-range, responsibly-reared meat was made for human consumption, but it’s still another person. Turned on its head, it would be like animals choosing only to eat Category D prisoners, help in open prisons.

This diner must try harder, and others might take a leaf from my book.

There are possible solutions to our planetary problems in my book, which are achievable if we work with those whose planet we share. It’s their planet, we just live with them, and we have a moral responsibility to protect them and their home, and to clear up the human mess we made.

Corvids with opposable thumbs

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

The UK’s weather has jumped suddenly from winter to summer, and nature seems to have overlooked spring. But I’ve noticed fewer of the invertebrate visitors than I expected through my open window, as they emerge from their long sleep, and I wonder how many have perished because of humankind’s interference with the thermostat on nature’s climate control.

Fewer insects mean less food for birds, so I’ve taken to scattering seeds on the flat roof directly outside my window, where avian friends gather. I’ve had the usual suspects (thrushes, starlings, sparrows…) and there’s a regular wagtail who visits, but nevertheless their numbers are few, which is troubling.

I also get members of the corvid mafia, mainly crows and magpies, so I’ve been witness to the odd murder, gulp and charm of collective nouns. Knowing these birds to be incredibly intelligent, I’m thinking of making some food puzzles for them, so that I can witness their ingenuity first-hand. If I put some nuts in my Rubik’s cube, they might be able to work out something which has stumped me for many years.

A friend of mine once wondered at these bird brains, and I myself pondered what a world might be like if crows had opposable thumbs…

Crow Star WarsTheStarWarsCulture

A TALE WITH MANY STRINGS

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of writers’ block that I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

Royalties had dried up from my last book and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

Don’t you excuse yerself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yerself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if this was something she said absent mindedly, or whether she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’.” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Of course, all corvine birds are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain had voted to leave the EU, Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was his heir apparent. Across the Atlantic, Trump had installed himself in the Whitehouse, banned anyone he didn’t quite understand from entering the USA and was erecting a wall across the Mexican border. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A couple of years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered: If I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive; five years hence. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms: At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself five years ahead, of time; of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening five years.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The “little” supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over five years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called “The Library”. Kudos I supposed to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine: I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Five years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. I must not, I couldn’t; I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree; couldn’t give a fuck.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just five years from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, “That”.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous five year period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determinednot to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over: what if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been opened; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous 500 years, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what is in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs; Change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

Do ya?”

Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

Are they?”

Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

Do ya?”

Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

You are.”

Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit?. Live for the next one.”

Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016

This story is taken from The Perpetuity of Memory, my first anthology. My second collection of shorts – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

The planets orbiting my mind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

In the beginning there was the Big Bang, when subatomic particles split in two, and each retains a quantum link to its counterparts spread all around the universe. Each and every thing in the cosmos is linked to every other. It’s a matrix the mere concept of which blows the mind somewhat, but when you can dream lucidly, you’re connected to that network and have the freedom of the universe. It’s pure science, and it’s the stuff which can trouble an enquiring and expanding mind.

mind-universeThe human brain contains a multi-dimensional universe within, according to latest research (Core Spirit)

I don’t think the world has been at a more pivotal point than the one we find ourselves in now. Not far from now are two very different worlds, not unlike our own. They’re worlds I see more clearly after my recent depressive episode, which culminated in a mini breakdown at the weekend. Thankfully my adopted kid sister caught my fall.

In one world, a third global conflict wiped out half the human and animal population, and those who are left face a slow death from radiation poisoning. Future historians may conclude that it was a war founded on lies, like Brexit and the election of President Trump before, which had sewn the seeds of war.

The Russians hacked our democracy and influenced world politics, creating new alliances and divisions which were more suited to the longer-term Kremlin game. It made them the obvious place to point fingers of suspicion, and the ideal stooge to the UK plan.

The Salisbury poisonings were carried out by agents known to the UK security forces, but it was easy to blame Russia. The UK Prime Minister needed a distraction from the mess of Brexit, perhaps hoping that our EU partners would suggest simply reversing the UK’s withdrawal, given the importance of alliances in a world of geopolitical turbulence. Plan B was to hasten partnerships with the USA in a post-Brexit world. The alleged Russian chemical attack in Syria was a gift.

Theresa May’s spouse is a shareholder in BAE, and stands to gain financially from any British involvement in future conflicts. The decision to bomb the alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria was made unilaterally by the Cabinet, “In the public interest”. Many thought that was why we have a Parliament and a democratic process of electing our representatives. But apparently that’s not the case and the Tories know better: The governing party which refuses to accept unaccompanied child refugees from the war zone, some of whom may have been orphaned by UK military action.

Now I predict further cyber meddling (imagine if internet access were held to ransom), and I wouldn’t rule out a chemical attack on home soil, blamed on Russia, but again, perhaps a smokescreen and a means to a government’s ends (“Conspiracy theorist” is a derogatory term applied to those who think differently).

Whether or not the situation in Syria escalates, Theresa May has what she needs for now: the “Special relationship” with the USA, paving the way for peacetime trade deals, relaxing of regulations, lowering taxes and wages. If Brexit does still go the distance, the UK will be little more than the 52nd US state.

When it comes to the US nuclear option, the commander-in-chief’s state of mind is the unilateral decision-maker, and here’s a contender for the world’s scariest fact: The US nuclear launch protocol lacks any safeguard of allowing another US official to countermand a presidential order.

That potential world not far from now, came about because humans became so inward-looking and insecure. It came from nations putting themselves first and looking backwards. From insecurity comes mistrust and conflict, and we have the weapons to enforce and defend our agenda.

In that world, we gave up. We opened our eyes and looked around us, at all we’d done: Invented AI and machines which could turn against us; polluted every part of the planet and all who live on it with micro-plastics; and developed weapons of mass destruction as deterrents, but which were dangerous in the wrong hands. If we’d invested in exploration instead, the power we harnessed in our bombs could have taken us to the stars, and to colonise other planets, lessening the burden on Earth. But that would have required co-operation and trust, which humanity lacks. We were stuck and it became an entire species’ suicide, and the genocide of all those we share the planet with.

And that’s where I was at, with my personal life. The world around me seemed to be ending, and although I got over the idea of ridding the planet of me, I was on the verge of giving up. I stopped writing and I withdrew, but trapped in my head, with so much going on inside and out, is not a nice place to be alone.

I felt like walking out on life, slamming the door, and muttering those last words: “Fuck you…”. Then I remembered I live alone and would have locked myself out.

There’s another world out there, where we realise there might just be hope and that we may not be too late to save ourselves and the planet. It’s a world where we create self-replicating nano machines to clear the planet of plastic pollution (although scientists have accidentally discovered an enzyme which feeds on plastic), and with our increased awareness of those whose planet we share, we might at least co-operate in a moral duty to clear up our mess. Then perhaps we can continue these alliances and use technology to start leaving the planet and exploring beyond ourselves.

I’ve decided to live in that latter world, where I can imagine hope as well as despair, write utopian as well as dystopian stories, and keep myself busy expelling all the thoughts in my head. It was contact with another human – my kid sister catching my fall – which changed my mind.

I highly recommend breaking the leash and biting into Steve Laker’s Delirium. He keeps producing deeply aware material and philosophical gems. People are often chained dogs sniffing stale ground, but in sobering moments during our bondage state, we can be masters of our own freewill and observers of life.

It takes creative voodoo to sit me down and give me a novel to read. It takes even more dark magic to get me excited about a fictional piece of work. I only respond to mental stimulation that puts me in a story. I want to feel the turmoil and go on the author’s journey; to taste the outcome.

There was something profoundly honest and unhinged in Steve Laker’s blog that pinned my eyes to the screen. The intrigue began in that moment. It’s so rare to find an author who is willing to write in a style that’s so vulnerable in order to give the gift of storytelling to his or her readers. If you like your mind massaged, start reading Steve Laker’s books and short stories. If you like your mind fucked, make sure you keep reading them all the way to the last word.

Goran Zivanovic, author of Acupuncture of the Mind.

When I get reviews like that, it’s worth writing on. One person from each of my real and virtual lives, were what re-connected the matrix of my mind.

Making flans for Simon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.

HHGG Deep ThoughtA poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.

Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.

I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).

It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.

Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.

It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.

I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…

I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.

“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”

“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).

“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”

“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.

“What about you?” I asked.

“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”

“It’s not like I can stop you.”

“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”

“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”

“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.

“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”

“So you’re haunting me?”

“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”

“In Cyrus Song?”

“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”

“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”

“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.

“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).

“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.

“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.

This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.

As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.

Cyrus Song is available now. The prequel stories of Simon and Hannah (and Captain Mamba) are told in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Elephants in the atmosphere

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

A talented writer whom I respect, said of me in a review, “It takes creative voodoo to sit me down and give me a novel to read. It takes even more dark magic to get me excited about a fictional piece of work. I only respond to mental stimulation that puts me in a story…”

His is a mind entwined with my own, and he’s the author of a book I’m reading at the moment: Acupuncture of the Mind. In my own mind and many others, I’m just the occasional elephant in the room, which travels with its own atmosphere and requires a different kind of gravity to step among the surrounding eggshells. In many respects, we all are.

ElephantsSalvador Dali

Like horses galloping on coconut shells, mine is a loud story, some of which is told on this blog. Other parts are in my stories and books, and still more will travel with me one day. Mostly it’s quiet, and elephants can float. For now, I’m landed back on something resembling my home planet after a recent episode.

Actually, to call it an episode would give it less credit than it’s due, when previous ones on my medical record only resulted in failed attempts to leave life. This latest one arrived like many before, then didn’t leave. It was the difference between seeing a UFO and beaming on board. Yeah, I was smoking, but that’s the best analogy to paint.

Just recently, my physical life has had to traverse landscapes far more frightening than the daily ones of the life I once lived on the streets. Once I found writing, I knew there was a way to deal with things. Then I stopped writing recently, which was odd.

Writing only what I feel I should, balancing my need for an outlet with what anyone really wants to read about, I’m not sure what to write. Yet I’m a writer, and it was writing which pulled me out of the depression before. I create my own paradoxes.

Lately it’s been more about people I care about than myself. When you’re me and you’ve done what I have, most people are better than me. I’m sober, but I remember being drunk.

To forget would be to drink again, and I won’t put anyone else through that. I go through it alone, perpetually in sobriety. To end that would be more selfish than anything I did before, so it’s an inescapable penance. And there are people who need me, by invitation.

My adopted kid sister is still fighting to keep her baby (the one I’ve been given debatable godfather duties with). My dad continues to remind me of the frailty of life, but inspires me with his spirit to fight. The mother ship is somewhere between Joss Whedon’s Serenity in SciFi, and a graceful duck beneath the surface. These are all things concerning others which I can only write so much about, but which have been consuming me.

It was the pen which saved me from death by bottle, but while I’ve not been writing this blog, I’ve not lapsed. I’ve perhaps smoked more, and I’ve thought. I wondered what was worth writing, and if it was worth sharing. But a blog is a platform, a soap box. Even if the speaker perched on top doesn’t have a coherent message, at least they have a voice.

A blog is an up-turned table, which could be used to flip the message on the writer’s life. It’s my stage. Whether or not I have an audience, it’s my open diary for all to read.

So that’s the real life and virtual life I was having so much trouble separating but trying to connect. When the physical is lived alone, the virtual becomes more real (the subject of more than one of my short stories). But in the spirit of maintaining the blurred lines, these were a few of the things occupying my mind today:

On #Brexit: “They may be fictional, but most of the Starfleet captains could teach Earth politicians a lot…”

On the #SyriaStrikes: “Well, this is feckin’ interesting: It adds weight to theories that we’re watching the playing out of a plan made long ago (‘Conspiracy theorist’ is a derogatory term applied to those who think more)…”

And on the latest developments in #WorldWar3: “Theresa May says the Syria Strikes were ‘In the national interest’: I beg your fucking pardon? Is that not why we have a Parliament and voters who elect our representatives? Tory Hypocrisy. The national interest? #NotInMyName…”

Those are all from my Facebook timeline, not my author page. I’m staying on Facebook, because to run away is to submit to the defeat of democracy. I’m grateful I have people to spend time with, wherever they are. The world is only as big or small as we make it.

My problems are universal. We are not a machine. We have autonomy, and we can be rebels if we still want to be.

We could still be heroes.