Perspectives of generations

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My factual self is variously in Germany, France, and a garden in Kent, in the Second World War, and the 1970s and 80s. These are very strange places to find myself spread around. In different places and times, are people I looked up to when I was younger, for different reasons than I do now, and some no longer here. There are times and places I better understand, because of those people. The geography and history cross over many times in the factual book I’m writing, just like the dimensions of space and time in my science fiction. But this is actual, not surreal…

Airship plansBluePaw90

Until recently (until I started writing this book), Philip Howard Byam-Cook was a man known only to me as “Sir”, because that’s what my dad called his boss (his wife was addressed as ma’am), not as far as I know through any instruction to do so, but as a mark of respect from a humble man such as my dad, grateful of employment and a home. To this day, I address former school teachers similarly, and those in respected positions (a professor, for example, to me, is “Sir”, unless advised otherwise by that person). As someone who’s left-wing in many things, including wealth distribution, and as a science fiction writer, I can see that solutions to such issues are a long way off. For as long as there are employers and employees, I respect those who respect others and who have empathy with fellow humans.

Back in the 70s and 80s, when I saw Mr Byam-Cook, he was a friendly, posh chap. He was very tall, lived in a big house, and I had no agenda to question where all that had come from, because my parents had jobs and our family had a home. The house was in the middle of its own private woods, so I really couldn’t give a hoot, as we didn’t say in those days. I got splendidly lost in those woods as a child, and as a teenager, I smoked lashings and lashings of cigarettes. If I’d taken the trouble to stop being a confused teen and learn more, I might have appreciated what I had around me. All I needed to do was talk.

I can only dream (or write) of how life would have been if I’d had the internet back then, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t keep me locked up indoors, not exploring those woods.

Not far from where I live now, is where Mr Byam-Cook’s accountant had an office (as a solicitor, Philip was on the boards of a number of companies). I have the internet, and now I can find out what I didn’t back then about my parent’s boss. The tall, friendly, posh lawyer was a quiet hero.

This in an extract I found in Wars and Shadows: Memoirs of General Sir David Fraser (ISBN-10: 0141008598), a WWII memoir:

One of the last significant memoirs of the Second World War, seen through the eyes of a young Grenadier Guardsman. David Fraser has had two careers: as one of Britain’s most distinguished soldiers and then as one of our leading military biographers. His childhood passed in grand houses in London and Scotland, but he was the son of anything but conventional parents, who are sketched out in this book in all their bizarre and entertaining individuality. Fraser’s accounts of becoming a soldier, the life of his regiment, and his role as a young officer, are brilliantly written classics of their kind. After the War he rose through the hierarchy until he became GOC the British Army of the Rhine and Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff. 

David Fraser writes:

War crimes, and war crimes trials, impinged a lot on our existence. A friend of mine in the Batallion was Philip Byam-Cook, who was on the edge of a highly successful career in the law and who was, therefore, much in demand in the world of war crimes investigations, on one side or another. One evening he appeared in our Battalion Headquarters Officers’ Mess. There were only two or three of us there and Philip approached me.

‘David, I’m looking after a very senior officer in the RAF. Do you think we could put him up? He’s over there as a witness in a war crimes trial.’

Of course we were delighted (the visit lasted more than a week), and the more delighted because he proved to be a particularly charming person, an Air Marshal, Ivelaw Chapman. Sir Ronald Ivelaw Chapman, as he became, had been shot down on a raid over Germany, had escaped, been recaptured, tortured in order to extract the names of those in the Resistance who had helped his escape, and was now our guest.

I had many long talks with him. I seldom remember a more impressive man. He told me, under my no doubt impertinent and immature probing, exactly what had happened to him – how he had a gravely injured shoulder from the crash, how the Gestapo interrogators had beaten him on this shoulder, on and on and on. How he admired some of the Resistance chain who had helped his escape – ‘wonderful people!’

I never met a person with less bitterness. He spoke of his tormentors at that time with something like pity.

‘I could see they didn’t like what they were doing. They were quite young – I was sorry for them. I knew their feelings would give them hell one day.’

Such encounters – few in life – show what grandeur the human spirit can attain. The former German commandant of his prisoner-of-war camp (a decent man, he said) was being arraigned and ‘I felt I had to do, say, something for the fellow if I could. That’s why I’m here.’

Philip Byam-Cook had found him as a witness for the defence. He became an Air Chief Marshall and Vice Chief of the Air Staff. He did me – an unimportant Grenadier officer – a lot of good.

My parents might have considered themselves less important than others, but just like that Grenadier officer, they were there, helping others, and their acts have influenced me. They were part of the supporting cast for Philip Howard Byam-Cook, the aspiring lawyer in the story above, and who became inspiring for others.

The internet allows me to research the little-known history of those people my parents worked for, so that I can record their history in this book. The democratisation of the internet means that writers like me can record the stories of those which weren’t recorded at the time, because the means and notability wasn’t around those people. In writing the stories of the other people, myself and others are building a greater record of all of humankind, linking everything up.

It turns out there’s a rather poetic link back, as this small digression into a further past ends, and I move back into the present past, that of my time with my parents. Before I left that small online humanitarian pocket of the Second World War, I found out a little more about Air Chief Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman GCB, KBE, DFC, AFC (17 January 1899 – 28 April 1978), cited by Wikipedia as A senior commander in the Royal Air Force in the middle of the 20th century and the penultimate RAF commander-in-chief of the Indian Air Force.

Born in British Guiana to a successful merchant. He came to England with his parents in 1903 and attended Cheltenham College. He served at the end of the First World War, then in 1929 he helped in a successful evacuation of the British Legation in Kabul amidst a civil war. Forced to make an emergency landing, he was rescued by an Afghan royalist officer, and later awarded the Air Force Cross for his handling of the incident.

And this story from World War II:

On the night of the 6/7 May 1944 Ivelaw-Chapman was flying as second pilot of a No. 576 Squadron Avro Lancaster on a mission to bomb an ammunition dump at Aubigne in France. His aircraft was shot down by a night fighter and Ivelaw-Chapman went on the run. Because of his experience and knowledge Churchill ordered the French resistance to do all they could to help him return to England, he was to be killed if he was in danger of being captured by the Germans. He was captured by the Gestapo on 8 June 1944, the most senior Bomber Command officer to have been captured by the Germans. Churchill’s fear was unfounded as the Germans did not realise his importance and he was treated as an ordinary prisoner of war.

After the war he was promoted to air vice marshal, then air chief marshal in 1950, and took command of the newly-formed Indian Air Force. On his return to the UK he became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at Home Command in March 1952, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff in November 1952, and Vice-Chief of the Air Staff in 1953, before he retired in 1957.

I found memorabilia online, signed by Sir Ronald and acquired from the old West Malling air field. Although the village is home to over twenty blue plaques, for whatever reason, Sir Ronald doesn’t have one. It’s nevertheless another nice link with the past to discover, and one I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for my parents, but which I’m now able to bring to more light in all the rich history surrounding them.

In amongst all of his adventures – between the wars in 1930 – Ronald married his fiancée, Margaret…

***

There’s some sort of magic at work as it all links up. From here, the book goes back to Ightham, and life with my parents’ respective sisters, both called Margaret.

Between chapters, I’ve got some more sci-fi and horror to write. My virtual self, split over multiple times and places, taking the time to find things out. And I only write them down just in case, they should die.

I hope people are similarly haunted by me when I go.

Silent Gardens will be published around March next year. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

The thin veils of symbiosis

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s a story I’m writing, about a girl who’s never sought attention but now has everyone’s. Pretty much me in reverse, sort of a not-me. The girl in the story has things on her own mind, which she can’t tell others, while all those others enquire of her mind to help them. Thank whatever, I’m not that girl then. And yet, it’s true that I’m in every single one of my stories in parts.

symbiosisSymbiosis in nature

Fictional me has been as busy as my factual side, making my actual self an engaged writer (always a nice thing to be), splitting myself over two projects and with the two different genres (sci-fi and family history) becoming a symbiotic feeding mechanism. And I’ve nailed what it is, how one style of writing can help with another.

With factual writing, there’s much more to write, because it’s already there. Research reveals the facts, which the writer then tells as a real-life story. I’m a writer who likes to link things up and tie them off, so writing historical pieces about my family’s places of work and home means the links to the central characters are already there. It’s the sheer volume of recorded factual history which gives the writer so much to think and write about.

In fiction of course, we start with a blank page. These are stories which haven’t been written, of people and places who’ve been created. With no recorded history, the writer has to fill it in, at least between the lines, to make the fictional narratives strong.

So with so much to write factually, there are many unused thoughts and ideas, as it’s edited down. There are new things, never personally encountered before, which provide fresh ideas, and those can drive fiction. It’s actually quite easy to turn things in, when you look at a picture of a figure standing by a Scottish loch, and notice a ripple in the water behind. I’ve been a serious writer now for five years and I’ve only just worked that out. If others have been similarly wondering, you’re welcome.

Fictional me has stories lined up for publication over the next four weekends now. Next up, is ‘A Girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook’. Mindful that I’d never written another story which could somehow be linked to a specific different one (but still stand on its own), this one was a mix of two things: A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie (my – award-winning – children’s story), and Cyrus Song. It’s a story set in 2042, about a girl, a cat and a dog. In 2042, AI home assistants are ubiquitous and have universal translation algorithms (possibly thanks to the Babel fish, and a stoned ethics committee somewhere), which of course allows the three to talk.

Elsewhere and after that, there’ll be ‘Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters’, which examines a part of the human condition (apparently I’m good at that) in the context of a pair of Roborovski hamsters, called Hannibal and Lecter.

Next there’s a restaurant review of ‘August Underground’s Diner’, then ‘Another Nativity (For the Stage)’ at Christmas, the latter being a re-write of one of my old stories, originally a story about a nativity play, now made into a play of that story for the stage (pretentious, me?)

In the factual world, I’m still snooping around houses, gardens and people, in 1970s and 80s Kent, and in the Second World War (in France and Germany). I have a good feeling about the book (always completely unreliable and not reflective of future sales), it being one where I’ve really been able to free my inner, real self in the stories of others.

Just as the modest sales of Cyrus Song generate blips of The Perpetuity of Memory, it seems my theory is vindicated: That each book I write, is better than the last (in a different genre), improving my depth in the former, and that each subsequent book fuels sales of the previous ones. Silent Gardens (A Quiet History), a factual story, will attract curiosity in what else I’ve done, just as my sci-fi in Cyrus Song has led people to look at my old horror in The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon (including ‘The Director’s Cut’) gets the odd look, and A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie stands on its own.

All of which leads me to predict with no confidence at all, that my next anthology, ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’ will be well-received and garner further interest in my preceding titles. Meanwhile, I’ll move onto the next (Cyrus Song II, Infana Kolonia, and Forgive me No-one).

In my life-within-a-life, I’ve added some furniture to this blog. There’s a filing cabinet, where all posts are filed by month (going all the way back to the start), and a drop-down category list, intentionally made to be more Vogon, in its grasp of English (“I write blog”, “I write film” etc. but it’s true that “I write satire”).

Meanwhile, the girl continues to deal with a slightly lost son, trying to help him and his parents, and his sister. She’s recently taken one her own parents’ liberties away, having phoned the police when her dad went missing, warning that surrendering his license might be the price, but valuing his life more. She has an auntie who’s cut off because her dad can’t drive, and therefore with nowhere to go at Christmas. She has a sister with whom she’s estranged, despite her efforts over five years. This year, she’s asked that any remaining differences can be put to one side, as she’s made amends for past damage she’s done. She’s suggested that a reconciliation would be nice for their parents at Christmas, and that come the time, they can share driving duties to get everyone together. The girl is keen to get her kids and have them stay for New Year. She hates going out, but she’ll do all this. She’s right in the middle of everything and everyone, yet no-one seems to know.

The same girl is helping several friends with personal matters of counselling. One is a vulnerable girl expecting a baby (not hers, as she’s a girl) and until recently, the child was due to be taken from the mum. So the girl wrote letters, she transcended the situation and saw a way that everything might be saved. She saw something in her friend which others didn’t. While everyone else was cooing over a baby they might not see, and saying fuck to the system on social media, this one girl stayed silent. She was the only one who’d been honest with the mum about the chances of losing the baby, and as the only one right, the one to get the blame when it happened. So she risked her friendship, yet no-one knows because nobody speaks of her. She’s lonely and only craves recognition, not help. She writes it all down.

The factual and the fictional, writing as many people, about many others. Symbiosis in the real and the imagined, a thinly-veiled heart.

Two heads are better than one (just ask Zaphod Beeblebrox)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Having recently chosen to engage my mind more, by writing two books at once, it’s going well, in a neural spaghetti kind of way. I’m almost always doing more than one thing at once, but still favouring one. In a funny way, my latest split personalities seem to be egging one another on.

HHGG Fan ArtThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan art.

I don’t multitask well in real life (away from writing), because one of the things I’m doing is usually writing, which takes precedence. I have in the past been known to neglect things dangerously (like food) while furiously getting something down in words. And when you live alone, there are few people to talk to. A socially anxious writer can make people up, and the one with plenty of family matters on their mind can talk to those people from the past.

In the fictional world, I now have three short stories lined up for publication: two sci-fi and a horror. That means my next collection – The Unfinished Literary Agency – will most likely be out earlier than planned. At least one of the new stories involves a warping of time, to the future. One of the reasons the fiction is flowing so well, is not a rush to get the book out, but rather oddly, writing the factual narratives in my family history book.

I always research my fiction, to make it plausible. And I put myself in there, so that there’s more in the words than say, what a character says. I’ve been described as writing from the heart and with feeling (especially for my children’s book, by a magazine judging panel), and the heart I have is very much in my family book, about the family who gave me a heart.

It’s not even that I never write non-fiction. I take work from freelance clients, and write about anything from a US country music tour to smoking cannabis for a medical blog.

What it is, is that this family history is something I can get as broadly and deeply into as fiction, and what that should mean is I produce the book I was aiming to: The stories of quiet people, brought into focus in a book with heart and feeling.

I was a little nervous that it might only gain a small audience, which didn’t matter, as it’s a gift. But that needed to be something which the recipients would want to share. And if we’re all honest, other people’s family isn’t of any great interest. I’m sure I’m not alone in being the one among a group cooing over a baby, “Oh, ain’t he cute…”, thinking, ‘No, he ain’t,’ sometimes aloud.

But what many other families would have in common, if there were enough researchers to look into it, is a rich history which surrounded them and that they were a part of. My parents were part of the cast of extras which made the stories of others noteworthy to record-keepers of the time, and those records are now available online. It’s going through those archives which has thrown up so many fascinating stories which I can now tell, mostly of people besides my parents, but characters who will increase the reading demographic, and who were supported by the two lead characters in my book, Silent Gardens (very much due in March).

The book is becoming a lesser-known secret than it already was (hi mum), as I’ve had cause to phone my parents a few times to check things (writing non-fiction means that research is even more crucial than for plausible fiction). Whether or not the book sells to a wider audience, I like to share things I find. I believe stories should be told, and I’m someone who can tell stories.

In the last family history post, I left off at Yotes Court in Mereworth, which my book goes on to describe in greater detail than this:

Country Life, June 18th and 25th, 1964, CXXXV, 1580, 1648. Yotes Court is listed Grade I as a very early example of the type of country house that became dominant after the Restoration. As a building of importance and quality of the Commonwealth period it has great rarity value.

In 1974, something happened, and all I knew at the time was that we were leaving home. My dad’s boss, Leslie (or Lesley) MacKay was a stockbroker, and those were the days of three-day weeks. The markets moved and Mr MacKay (“Sir” to dad), needed to make redundancies. There were two groundskeepers, my dad and Art.

Arthur Holdstock and his wife Jean became surrogate uncle and aunt to me and my sister, and visits to their house were always inappropriately funny. Back at Yotes Court, Art was also Mr MacKay’s driver, and he could drive with one more wheel than my dad’s three, so our lives were packed into the back of that red Reliant and we chugged off, next, to Ightham.

Mum, dad and the Holdstocks remained friends for many years. After Yotes Court, Art was an undertaker for a while, and my younger self was fascinated by real-life tales from the morgue.

Mr MacKay divorced from his first wife, who moved to nearby Wateringbury, where we lived in the Old Hoy Cottages. He passed away while still living at the house with his second wife, Jane.

The auction-catalog.com online archive includes an auction brochure, dated Monday 16th April 1984, for “The remaining contents of Yotes Court…” and “Includes the property of Mrs L MacKay,” which was described as Fine Victorian Pictures, Drawings, and Watercolours.

Given that it was fairly common practice among the upper class, for a wife to take her husband’s full name in formal documents, I had to conclude (with research avenues exhausted) that this Mrs L MacKay was in fact Jane. They had two daughters, which makes further research into how the house came to be sold (perhaps to divide an estate) somewhat pertinent. By then though, the Lakers had moved on.

Another stockbroker owned our next house, and there was to be more news of the stock market later. But when we moved there, mum and dad’s employers and landlords were the Byam-Cooks.

Philip Byam-Cook was a lawyer, and his father, William Byam, a Harley Street doctor. The power of the internet means that with a few clicks, I can find information freely online which would have once taken weeks, and which would have taken me to many repositories of accumulated knowledge in person. Now, I can gather most of the information I need, without having to leave this studio where I live and write.

By coincidence, I live just a few minutes from an address where Philip Byam-Cook was registered as a director of various companies, with an accountant in West Malling. This would be entirely consistent with a practitioner in law…

***

I’m well into the next chapter now, when we lived for 12 years in Ightham. It turns out Philip was a bit of a World War II humanitarian hero. I’ll post some more here once I’ve got the events in order, as it makes for an interesting read.

Although I’d like to be judged on any of my books, I feel that everything I write is better than the last. I’ll hang my hat on Cyrus Song as a sci-fi for a long time, but I’d equally like to be judged on my non-fiction, in an introverted story with a lot of heart.

So like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the sci-fi writer with two heads is just a bit mixed up. In my own mind, it’s a nice entanglement: I found my heart, it’s been stolen, and it’s been stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, like the Heart of Gold dream ship with its infinite improbability drive in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

This is the inside of my mind, and you’re welcome to it.

Life in bifocal time frames

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are simple ways to look at complex issues. For example, all human conflict is rooted in an inability to see others as alternative versions of ourselves. We are all human after all, and everyone is host to a ghost, shadow self, where thoughts are suppressed, because we know those thoughts are wrong. At my age, I’ve seen plenty, including my hateful drunken ex-self, and a rebellious teenager.

Stempunk cat

As I continue to work my brain out, with reading and writing (while sometimes smoking weed), I’m realising things, only now that I have the time to think in solitude. I can see how that’s sometimes a self-perpetuating mechanism to greater insanity, but I did hit a proverbial wall this week.

Writing my family history book, I was thinking about how I became a writer (via the catalyst of an alcoholic breakdown), but more wondering why I hadn’t found it earlier and not wasted all that time. Since my illness, I’ve been on a journey of discovery, very much like being a teenager again.

With a nearly-teen son of my own, and the shelter and counselling I gave those stray youngsters at the squat, I’m perhaps more in touch with those feelings than I was when I myself should have been learning about the world. And that’s where it seems to have gone wrong, through no-one’s fault but by a combination of me and the system.

Aged five, I’d sit in class and daydream, and many were the times I was summoned back to the room I was already sitting in by a teacher. A few teachers and subjects aside, and despite the efforts of my parents to get me into grammar school, neither primary nor secondary education engaged me. I excelled in maths, English and the sciences, but I neglected other subjects, including history, which now engages me a great deal. And the syllabus was so linear, there was little opportunity to explore beyond it and link things up, as I like to do, to better comprehend them in a larger context. Of course, we were sans internet then.

At primary school, I’d already earned the name, “Ponder: a small Laker that thinks a lot,” as that teacher put it. I was more into visual art at primary school, drawing and painting. And again, I showed promise.

I remember one class project, just after we’d returned from a day trip to London. We’d seen the changing of the guard and we’d been asked to draw a picture from our day. I drew a line of horses, with guards mounted on them, with their feather plumes and so on. And I drew the back view: a line of horses’ arses. Truth is, I couldn’t draw horses’ faces, but when I was asked why I’d chosen my particular angle, I explained that everyone else was drawing the fronts of the horses round the other side, and there was no room for me. That’s quite deep for someone who’s six. But then, to this day I won’t walk between a street artist and their subject, for fear I end up photobombing a drawing.

It’s far from acceptable for a teenage boy to be playing video games in a leisure centre, in full view of the rest of the class running around in the fields outside. But Tehkan’s Bomb Jack was far more my thing than football. My rebellious teenage self levelled this as concentrating on something I excelled at, rather than wasting time on something I hated. Although I was generally a bit of a twunt, I can’t help thinking I had a point.

To their credit, I had many fine teachers at both schools, but they were also bound into a system: one which conditioned children in preparation for entering the world of work, either in a factory or an office. And that, is where the system went wrong, with me (although granted, I helped) and many others, and it still goes on.

I spent 11 years with no aspirations greater than wearing a blue or white collar. I didn’t have pushy parents, and the honest, modest jobs they did allowed them time with us kids. So I worked in print for 25 years, a mostly enjoyable time and certainly with many fond memories. Becoming a writer was logical, making all those things which could be printed and shared. However it happened, I’m glad it did. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, I’m in a place I never realised I wanted to be, but I like it here.

My children and those around them are hopeful that the Tories will be consigned to history soon, so that my kids and many others might enjoy a free higher education. They get that human jobs are being made redundant by technology now, just as they were by machines in the industrial age. Young people need to be able to fill the remaining jobs, the ones AI can’t do (yet), but that’s a long-term vision, something right-wing politics seems blind to.

For whatever reason, my children admire their radical writer old man. On the one hand, anything’s better than what I was a few years ago. But on the other, although not everyone approves, I’m really proud that they’re interested in writing, especially because their dad can write so many things, from bedtime stories to surreal whimsy and horror.

As a many-hatted writer, I’m either doing nothing at all or everything at once. So despite my resolution to break from other genres, I’m finishing my second anthology alongside my family history book, with the latter a constant while I write the last few short stories for what will now be called ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’. The fictional agency is a theme cropping up in a few of my stories, and although none of the 17 in the book will be incomplete, the title is perhaps a statement of intent: I will not stop writing, when it’s my life and that’s one I enjoy now for the most part (with anxiety, depression and their mates along for a chat while we ride life’s bus).

There are two more short stories published over the next couple of weekends, and the remainder may remain unpublished outside the new book. At least one is the kind of story which has no market or home, except in my own volume. The running list of stories is looking good, and part of the reason I place importance in the titles of my tales:

The office of lost things
Pink sunshine
Reflections of yesterday
The difference engine
Of mice and boys in 1984
A young captain plays it safe
Are ‘friends’ electric?
Diary of a teen in the woods
So long and thanks for all the animals
The long now clock
Quantum entanglement in hamsters
Zeigarnick’s kitchen
The girl with the snake scarf
A girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook

Plus three more, and possibly some bonus tracks. Some of the stories are retained on this blog and may be revised, while others have been previously published elsewhere. Like The Perpetuity of Memory though, I’ll curate the newer stories into a bigger whole, so that it’s a collection of short stories within a longer narrative.

There are simple ways to look at complex issues, and one piece of advice I’ve given all those young people I’ve met and still see: Be the best that you can be, at the thing you enjoy the most. Then you can give the most back. Some things can’t and shouldn’t be simplified, but by transcending them, you can make them easier to understand.

I’m on a permanent guilt trip anyway, but it’s a guilty pleasure while my former teenage self haunts the current one and they both realise what they’re supposed to be doing.

The tale of a fairy with teeth

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

I’ve often used moral parallels in my short stories, many completely bereft of visual horrors (“Like a Black Mirror for the page […] underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,” as one reviewer said).

As I’ve floated from sci-fi and horror for a while to write my family history book, I’m finding interesting paths in the latter, in stories from the past. Even further back, stories were written which were later read to children in the times I’m researching, stories based on ancient myths and real monsters, which carried cautionary messages. And I read this article in The Guardian, which begins, “In these perilous times, progressives must create narratives that shine a light on crises such as climate change and the plight of refugee…”

Fairy stories appeal to our human instinct to fear, and somehow enjoy it, and it’s something stirred in an inquisitive child (I covered this in ‘The Long Now Clock’). In fairy tales, our inner, personal and existential fears, are packaged up into coping mechanisms, memorable stories we tell the children, about things we dare not trouble them with. For those telling the stories, when they were written, and as they are now re-told to children, the parallels, metaphors and analogies are easier to see. There’s a few in here…

fairy-tale-forest-baydar-valley-crimea-2Fairy-tale forest in Baydar Valley in Crimea

THE GIRL WITH THE SNAKE SCARF

Once upon a place, in a faraway time, there lived a warlock in a tower, afraid for his wife to leave. Across many ploughed fields, lay a castle, where a necromancer surveyed the crops, and his queen cared for him. The warlock could make new things happen. The necromancer made old things happen again.

The fields were like vast woven tapestries, and a girl stitched them together as she jumped and played, the bobbin in the silk.

One day, a serpent approached. “Why do you tend the fields?” he asked.

For many reasons,” replied the bobbin.

Tell me three,” said the snake.

The first,” the girl said, “is to feed everyone.”

And the second?” the snake wondered.

The second, is to keep this land for feeding people.”

You have one more,” the serpent reminded her.

But most of all,” the girl said, “it’s because it’s fun.”

Very well,” said the snake, “carry on.” Then he promptly disappeared into the night.

The bells of the warlock’s tower rang, while the necromancer’s banshees sang, on either side of the land, while horses and soldiers guarded the castle and the tower. The bobbin made her way home, through the woods, until the path in the green inferno split in two, where the snake waited.

Which path?” he asked. “You have three choices.”

Three?” asked the bobbin, “but there are only two paths.”

And you have used one option. You have two remaining.”

Why have I only two left?”

“Because that is the number of paths you see. You have spoken twice now.”

“Then,” the bobbin said, “I choose right, because I always do. Or left, because I’ve never gone that way.”

And now,” said the serpent, “I am gone.” And with that, the snake disappeared into the undergrowth.

With all her choices gone, the bobbin walked home on the right path, then she ate porridge, made from the fields, before resting ahead of another day.

The next day, the fields were covered with petrified horses and soldiers, frozen where they’d perished. The snake appeared again.

The warlock’s army want the necromancer to return their dead. And the necromancer’s army want the warlock to pay his army more gold. Can you see a problem? You have three tries at this game.”

The bobbin thought.

There are two problems which are one,” she said. “The necromancer and the warlock. They want what the other has, and they don’t ask their armies what they want. So everyone dies.”

That is very clever,” said the snake, “and you used your three tries in one. You win. But no-one has won. So you need to go now, before the fighting starts again. Let me ask you a question, to ponder as you sleep: If you were to plant one grain of rice in the corner field of this vast pasture, then two in the next, four in the third and so on, doubling with each square. How many rice plants would you have in the 64th field?”

The bobbin walked home thinking, down the left path, and the snake hung from a branch. “You chose the left path,” he said. “Let me ask you another question: Does the right path still exist, because you can’t see it?”

On the third day, the bobbin had to jump over many lifeless souls to reach the middle of the land. There, only nine fields remained, and a battle had already started. In some pastures, the warlock’s troops stood in circles, chanting. And in others, the necromancer’s army burned crosses.

The serpent greeted her again. “May I speak closely, in your ear?” The bobbin nodded, so the snake rested around her shoulders, then whispered, “You may speak three times today. Did you work out the rice problem?”

Yes,” she said, “there would be enough to feed everyone.”

And the problem now?”

They were only fighting over land, and there was enough for everyone. Now both are dead. Now there are only nine fields. The long game has become a short one, which no-one can win.”

So now,” the snake said, “you know there’s another way, and you have to tell them.”

“But why would they believe me?”

They won’t now, because you just spoke for the third time.” The bobbin had used her three chances. “You didn’t think enough before you spoke, you spoke too soon, and now you can’t.” The serpent coiled around her neck. “If you were able to, you could have gone to the centre field, the middle earth. You could have formed a shield. They wouldn’t kill an innocent bobbin. So they would have approached you, and you’d have told them they are playing a game which can’t be won now. And they would have listened, because yours would be a new voice to them, one they’ve not heard before. And now, they won’t hear that voice today. Tomorrow, it could all be over. You lose.” The snake tightened his grip.

The girl felt light-headed, so she stumbled down into the middle earth, and the serpent loosened his grip. She stood in the centre of the stand-off, and the snake moved up, wrapping around her head like a crown. The troops gathered around the central square.

The girl pointed at the warlock’s soldiers, and the snake looked at the necromancer’s castle. Then the girl pointed at his troops, and the serpent looked to the warlock’s tower. Each side returned to the other’s, where they’d never been before, and where they liberated the queens from the kings.

They could all live happily for a while, as the girl with the snake scarf departed for the woods.

At the fork in the path, the serpent climbed down. “Choose your path,” he said, before disappearing into the undergrowth.

The girl looked at the left and right paths, then she followed the snake, through the bushes. And there was a third path, hidden behind the leaves. One she’d not seen before, because she didn’t think it was there.

The snake climbed around her neck again and they walked home together. And once upon a time in the future, in a place not far away, this will happen more than once.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Walking in enchanted gardens

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve rarely been asked why I’m in someone’s garden, but I’m metaphorically looking over the wall of one now, from the inside. I’m writing my planned family history book, and in a different comfort zone than my usual ones. I’m finding it a fascinating journey of discovery, and although it’s planned as a gift to my parents, the style I’ve adopted may widen the audience beyond those it’s intended directly for.

The book is the story of my parents, and all the places they’ve passed through. For me, the greatest interest is the domestic servants. But those they worked for and the houses where they lived are full of stories which wouldn’t be told if those parents of a future writer hadn’t happened. So I thought I’d share a rough draft introduction, of how things came to be, and how the journey started.

Enchanted GardenYra De Mesa

SILENT GARDENS
A quiet history

I can imagine what life in 2042 will be like, when my children are in their 30s, because I’m normally a science fiction writer. I can find out what life was like a century before, because I can research history. I’m a writer who can imagine many things, but my parents can tell me the facts. That’s why I decided to write this book.

This is the story of a working class family, who passed through some of England’s fine estates; of a gardener and groundsman, a cook and matron, and two kids. One of those was me, so I decided to use the hands my parents gave me to give something back, a book about small lives, with a lot of heart. It’s a brief history, of people who might otherwise have passed through undocumented.

The Laker family name was originally an occupational one, where others are characteristic. If I wasn’t a Laker, I might be called Smallman, or Shorter, those being descriptive names. If there were two Steves in a group, they might be assigned second names to differentiate between them, and in most pairs of Steves, I’d be the smaller one (interestingly, my maternal nan’s maiden name was Shorter). But as an occupational name, Laker was one who fished on lakes, where a Fisher might fish rivers or streams. It’s also a residential name, where those who lived by lakes became known as Lakers (of the lakes).

I’ve not traced my own family back far enough to discover which we are, and some of my genealogy enquiries have pointed me to emigrants to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One thing I’m sure of, is that we’re from a group originating in Kent and Sussex, which grew to include many other families. What I’ve found is that my own family line can be traced back through the working classes: farm labourers, factory workers, gardeners, caretakers, cooks and housekeepers.

So they were all probably very nice, hard-working people, who helped and supported many others. The problem with those working class people, is that there is scant record of them. But they did leave their marks, in houses, on landscapes and in gardens. They made things, they repaired and made good, and they made stories. Few would be noteworthy outside their social circles, but they played small, quiet parts in changing times, like millions of others in the silent majority of untold tales.

The first character to emerge into this story, is my dad, George, on 6th February, 1942. Then Rose, my mum, on 22nd January, 1945, both to farm labourers. I never met my maternal granddad, as he died of Tuberculosis, along with my young uncle John, who gave me my middle name. I met the other three, and often wish they were still around to tell their stories at greater length. Like so many things, I left it too late. But I can go further back in history later, as the future reveals more of it so that it can be documented.

For now, the first chapter opens on 18th March, 1967, when mum and dad married. Things happened when people were younger then, so when I came along in 1970, mum and dad were 28 and 25. My sister Lisa arrived in 1973, to compliment my parents’ one sister each, both Margarets.

It’s said that most people will have a first memory around the age of two or three, and it was in 1972 that I remember dad saying, “Don’t touch that.” This wasn’t so much an early sign of how life was going to pan out, as a quick lesson in motorbike mechanics: Chrome exhausts are hot.

Before us kids came along, dad had a motorbike, which mum would ride pillion. When I came along, they got a sidecar, so me and mum could sit together. It was only when Lisa arrived that we upgraded to a family car. Money was tight, and I quite like the idea of being a biker aged two, even if I was transported precariously in a motorcycle sidecar. Health and safety forgot those days.

The first family car was a red 1966 Reliant three-wheeler, as a motorbike license also allowed the holder to drive a three-wheeled car. That was later replaced by a 1971 model, which somehow chugged mum and dad in the front, with mum’s mum and sister on the back seat, my sister and me perched on their laps, on family holidays and days out. We’d alternate between years, one year spending a week in Bournemouth or on the Isle of Wight, in a chalet or caravan, and the next we’d go on days out, to zoos and beaches. Those were us kids’ favourites (when the grown-ups would tell us we had to go home, to get a bath and have dinner. “But we’ve been in the sea all day, and there’s a fish and chip shop over there”) but there’d always be at least one day when we’d visit a stately home or a museum.

Those odd days were mainly for my auntie. Margaret had a keen interest in history, and especially royalty. I wonder now what she’d make of the world. She could access the internet, where once she visited libraries and borrowed books. But back then, exploration and discovery were to be had in real places. And at the time, my sister and me had no interest in where we were, unless there was a maze or a decent park, where dad would normally get lumbered with us. While mum and her sister had life’s rich tapestry to enjoy, he had a picnic blanket.

All of this revolved around a house in Wateringbury, Kent. Old Hoy Cottages took their name from The Kentish Hoy public house, which was already known to be in operation in 1807. The earliest landlord I can trace is a Stephen Walter, who’s listed in Pigot’s National & Commercial Directory of 1828. According to a Wateringbury Remembered blog, the building pre-dates the pub, with the original structure damaged by fire, but retaining examples of Crown Post roofing, a form of French architecture popular from the 11th to 16th centuries. The pub ceased trading around 1892, when it was bought by Richard Henry Fremlin, who converted it into two cottages in 1894. The property was further divided sometime before the Second World War, and that’s where we lived.

I found an obituary for Mr Fremlin, in an extract from the Parish magazine from 1916, from the Wateringbury Local History Society:

The name of Richard Henry Fremlin will be remembered in Wateringbury long after those who were privileged to know him personally and now mourn his loss shall have passed away. For 45 years, or thereabouts, he lived his bachelor life at May Lodge, the house attached to Upper Mill Farm, which, with the Lower Mill and “Wardens,” the old home of the family, he inherited from his father, James Fremlin, on the death of the latter in 1881. May Lodge had at one time been occupied by Dr. William Rutter Dawes, F.R.S., the astronomer, and afterwards by Mr. Arthur Fremlin, who went to live at Court Lodge, Teston, in or about the year 1870. When Mr. Richard succeeded his brother Arthur in the management of Upper Mill Farm the house was but a small one: before entering into residence he enlarged it, and he added to it again at a later date.

After a time he was asked by his brothers at Maidstone to assist them in the management of their growing business there. The additional responsibilities which he thus undertook made his life a busy one, so that he had little time. And being moreover of a retiring nature he had little inclination, to enter into what is known as public life. But he fully recognised the responsibilities of his position and opportunities in the parish.

In early days he joined with his brother Ralph and his friend Mr. E. J. Goodwin in carrying on a night school in a cottage in Old Road: those were times before the State recognised the importance of elementary education. His name appears for the first time in the minute book of the Vestry in the year 1873. In 1879 he was elected to serve on the new Burial Board, and also on the Sanitary Committee which created a drainage system for part of the village. In 1884, at the time of the enlargement of the north aisle of the Church, he was elected by the people as their Churchwarden, an office which he discharged continuously, with the exception of one year (1891-2), until Easter, 1897.

Under March 25th, 1889, there appears a vote of thanks to the Churchwardens for the many services rendered by them to the church and parish; and again under March 27th, 1894, “to Mr. Fremlin and Mr. Jude for their liberality in connexion with the new organ erected in the church in the course of preceding year.” Without being an expert musician he was very fond of music and took much interest in the musical rendering of the Church Services.

For the last twenty years, the period for which the writer can personally testify, though Mr. Fremlin was not fond of attending public meetings, no movement projected for the welfare of the parish was carried out without his careful consideration and backed by his generous financial support: the enlargement of the schools in 1896, the building Parish Church Rooms, the erection of the Lych Gate in memory of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria; the establishment of the Queen Victoria Memorial Essay Prize, may be mentioned among the public undertakings which the place owes in a great measure to his assistance; and he was always ready to lend a willing hand to any request for assistance of a less public nature—in fact his kindness cannot be measured, for he was a man who always preferred to keep in the background and to do good by stealth so to speak.

It was a great joy to him to be able to share the pleasure of his plentiful garden with friends—a garden which he was continually extending and stocking with precious plants collected from all quarters of the globe, and indeed lovers of flowers came from all parts of the world, one may say to make his acquaintance and to see his treasures. During the spring and summer months the grounds were thrown open on Wednesday afternoons to the public, and many parishioners habitually availed themselves of the privilege thus accorded to them. A man of wide culture and reverent mind, albeit of independent thought—” no doubt we shall have what we want there,” he replied simply to a friend who going round his garden with him, connected its beauty with a reference to the hope of the future. That was not long before he began to be confined to his house by his last illness, borne throughout bravely and patiently. He reached the full term of fourscore years, and was laid to rest in his parents’ grave near the Church Porch on March 30th.

Probate records show: Richard Henry Fremlin – died 25 Mar. 1916. Probate at 17 May 1916 to Alfred Charles Leney, Harry Leny – Brewer, the Rev. Frederick Fremlin – Key Clerk

£248,413 11s 10d.

In an online blue plaques unveiling walk of Wateringbury, one in particular stood out:

The next stop was at the oldest house in the village, The Wardens, just off Bow Road, where in 1833 Ralph Fremlin, founder of Fremlin’s Brewery, Maidstone was born. The mayor unveiled this plaque telling of Ralph’s life and his own boyhood memories of the area.

So many links, to be found in places I’d never explored before, and yet I lived there. The Fremlins sound like liberal, social country folk, with their livelihoods in farming (and brewing), private people but for their human kindness, quietly changing the world, like so many other unwritten histories.

Our Old Hoy cottage was typical of that described by the Wateringbury Remembered blog article: As the original building was built on a steep slope, the front parlours were much higher than the kitchens and access from one room to the other was by a wooden ladder, until at least the 1950s.

Other than than ladders with snakes, there were no more to climb in the house when we arrived, the descent to the kitchen then via concrete steps from the living room. I don’t recall any sort of regimen in any of our houses, and when I look back (especially to my teenage years), family living was more a commune.

Dad worked at Yotes Court, now a Kent Gardens Trust site, in Mereworth. The original house dates from 1658, and was redesigned in 1735, with improvements made to the gardens and a walled kitchen garden added sometime in the 18th century. The modern lawn and pool date from as recently as 1970, which must have been my dad’s main preoccupation at the time.

As an aside, in the 1970s, some old myths prevailed, not just in Wateringbury. One such was left-handedness, and a belief that it represented all which was sinister. This has its roots in some religions, but left-handers were still considered to have a handicap throughout the industrial revolution, when southpaws found machinery awkward. I was the first such oddity in my family that I know of, and when I started favouring my left arm, my mum’s health visitor suggested she might tie my left arm behind my back, so that I might be cured of some curse and return to the right side.

My mum refused, because she was radical, and she used to carry me around in a motorcycle sidecar, Gromit to dad’s Wallace. So thanks mum and dad, for letting me find the left hand which now writes this story.

***

After some of the history of Yotes Court, we’ll move on to Ightham, with its historic buildings, Roman and Palaeolithic archaeological sites, and a Kentish Ragstone stable cottage where we lived. Then to Tonbridge, with the castle, and many famous painters commemorated in the names of roads where my parents now live. Finally, the book will bring everything up to date, including where I live now (West Malling), which itself has many links to my parents’ and previous generations, through farms and the old air field.

It should be a book which my parents find interesting, for all the history they knew little about. It’s a book for those who like finding new history, and the stories of people they might not otherwise have read. And for me, it’s an interesting and rewarding book to write. I hope it will be as much fun for others to read.

I’m hoping to make it enchanting.

Silent Gardens will be available around March 2018.

To ponder a whispering spirit

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I think about words a lot, and I think a lot about words. My favourite word at the moment, is kintsukuroi, which means “More beautiful for having been broken,” and I apply it to people, as well as to objects. “Whisper” is also a nice word, having many meanings in various contexts, but also suggesting a whisper, or one who whisps…

Lonely Robot
Matt Dixon

My family name is Laker: one who fishes on lakes, as opposed to a Fisher, who might fish streams or rivers. At primary school, I had one matron-like teacher who called me “Ponder”, and she was on to something. I just spent the first 42 years of my life not thinking about it, which is quite a paradox. So too is my departed aunt, to whom Cyrus Song is partly dedicated.

My mum’s sister Margaret, was spirited away in 1993, aged 51, by that bastard cancer. The even more tragic thing is, she’d have loved the modern world, for all it could do for her. She’d have doted on my children, and taken an interest in what I’m doing. And the funny thing is, I believe she’s doing all of those things right now.

My belief that the human soul survives the body is all over this blog. I believe we’re all one day free of our physical bindings, to explore the universe as ethereal beings for eternity (therein lie personal heaven and hell, covered elsewhere on this blog), that what we call ghosts are all around us, in a form we can’t always see, and that Bowie was right: Knowledge comes with death’s release.

Although I didn’t realise or appreciate it at the time, my auntie was just like I was when I took on the role of adopted uncle with all those young people at the squat (also on this blog). She was slightly radical, realising that a 14-year-old boy (me, her nephew) was likely to be bored when visiting his nan and aunt (they lived together, in a war memorial house). So she rented me what were then X-rated (horror) films on VHS. She was wicked, cool and sick, as the kids would say.

Margaret was hugely into royalty and royal history. In her day, her research and reading was through books and libraries. In later life, I’m fascinated by the subject myself, like my aunt tapped on my shoulder. What might she make of the internet? How is she, being a part of it? She has a supporting (and linking) role in my next book.

After much debate, I’ve decided how I’m going to write (to present) my brief history of a family. The intent has always been to give my parents an everlasting gift, made with the hands which they made for me, and which I eventually found out were for writing. Even that has an interesting anecdote behind it: When I began to favour my left hand over my right (in 1971), my mum’s health visitor (as we had in those days) advised tying my left arm behind my back, so that I would somehow realign as “normal” by being right-handed. This was common practice in the day, when being left-handed was considered some sort of sinister curse (thank fuck they weren’t all over gender and sexual identities back then, I’d have been drowned). In later life, I’ve been grateful of my “defects”. I feel kintsukuroi.

As a further aside, when I was at school, around 10% of the population were southpaw. When I was married and taking the kids to school, I asked the head teacher what the percentage was among pupils. It was around 40% (let’s say 42), demonstrating that there were once many potential lefties.

In a funny way, my left-handedness has been linked with my life. Where once I ran companies, voted Tory and was generally a right-wing capitalist arse (and drinking heavily), now I’m a impoverished writer, but a happy one, having found all that’s left-wing, joined the Labour Party and embraced wider communities, where I’ve identified myself (and smoked weed). I’ve written in my stories about fallen angels with broken wings, mainly misunderstood characters, learning about themselves, and it’s always the right wing which is broken.

But back to the book, written with the left hand, which has a heart tattoo on it: It’s the story of two people, who would always be little-known, because no-one had written about them. I was only a part of the story from 1970, and the book will be about the places we lived as a family, and where my parents worked (large country houses, and a couple of schools). With all of the research material conveniently within reach, I’ll just be the curator of the story, putting my fictional character skills to use in bringing the real-life characters in this book to life on the page (given my plaudits, I should be able to pull that off). It is of course of somewhat limited interest, but both mum and dad have their own interests and hobbies, so the story will be sprinkled with QI-style factual stories and anecdotes from periods of history which my two characters saw (at least one of which has a royal connection), and they’re inspiring people, as others will see. And of course, such is the democratisation of writing through digital self-publishing, it’ll be a proper book, with an ISBN and all that represents (a copy filed at The British Library etc.)

As a writer, I can create immortality, for my vain and insecure self, wanting to be heard one day, and for others. I somehow feel I’ll be getting in touch with my auntie Margaret more, like I should’ve done when I was younger. She’s a spirit guide, because she was there in the background too, along with others, some still with us and others no longer. But my belief in immortality and of gaining knowledge permits me the comfort of knowing they might all appear in the book, as characters with depth, not because there’s a part of me in them like my fictional characters (although I’m in there biologically), but because it might feel sometimes like they’re guiding me too. It’s a quiet story, a whisper of the blood.

I’m really going to enjoy this busman’s holiday into a new genre: The sci-fi, horror, and sometimes children’s writer, off to speak with the dead. To ponder and whisper, to think about fish in a pond, and to whisp.

Of hamsters and pink robots

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best laid plans of mice (men had nothing to do with it, of course) sometimes work out in unexpected ways. Those of a religious persuasion might attribute these strange happenings to guidance from God. Other, broader thinking individuals, would say it’s simply a matter of being connected.

Pink Robot

It’s the weird coincidences which writers are sometimes accused of using for convenience (“Suddenly, a trap door he’d not noticed before, provided a potential escape…” might be something you’d read in a Dan Brown novel), but which do happen in real life. There are few pure coincidences in my fiction, and I make it all at least plausible through background research.

My last published story (‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’) was inspired by Douglas, and a song. My next one (‘The Long Now Clock’, out this weekend) came about because of something I heard on Ancient Aliens. A future story, about two hamsters called Hannibal and Lecter, was for a young friend, test reader and occasional literary muse, who has a pair of Roborovski hamsters named after her favourite film character. Given they sound like Russian cyborgs, I couldn’t resist.

It was my latest completed story which relied most heavily on real-life coincidences, not to make the story work Dan Brown style, but a series of things which shaped the way I told the plausible story.

I wanted to further explore sexual alignment and identity (in an asexual story), and the interface between humans and technology, as we become more merged, and the (rather worn) concept of sentient IA, as the lines between human and technological species blur, so I wanted to be original. I wanted to convey feeling and thoughts, from different perspectives, and I wanted to do this with flash fiction. The latter wish, was to make what turned into a bit of an experiment, effective through speed of delivery (a bit like a cartoon).

So I was looking for a lot of meaning in not many words. Having been encouraged by my writing peers to not be embarrassed to be proud, I’m rather fond of what I’ve come up with. It started when I heard something about ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’, so I researched it.

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.” (Wikipedia). That became:

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s…

My protagonist is a small pink robot, whose AI has a defect. She’s from the Pink Ladies range of assistant droids and she’s called Frenchie. She came about when I watched a documentary on Grease, with a greater emphasis on the play which preceded the film (my stories are littered with references, tributes and nods, to films, people…), and someone texted me. A conversation of some length followed, after which she was able to look at something in a different way, and a problem became a solution.

Most of all, I wanted to write a story about the way the mind works, in all its sometimes cracked ways; about how understanding can change attitudes; and of how that can be achieved simply by looking at things differently. And all I have is words on the page, just text.

The result, is a flash fiction story (about 750 words), of Frenchie and her depressed friend (Sandy, another robot), serving tables at Zeigarnik’s Kitchen. The facial expressions of the androids are conveyed with pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons, and thoughts in something similar to hashtags. An editor thinks it works too (“An interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever had a robot with Tourette Syndrome”), so it’s out in a couple of weeks.

It is true that many stories use the well-trodden path of throwing up gradually more challenging obstacles, then for these to be overcome in a denouement (“Then he woke up”, not being one a fiction writer would get away with), and the story of my life is one such example.

Lawrence and the Machine

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Stories start in many ways. When it comes to the tale itself, the first sentence needs to grab the reader, and the first paragraph to hook them. But the actual conception can come in many forms, and I find good material just by paying attention, to things I hear and see, inside and out, sometimes just playing with words, and often adding surrealism, by mixing fiction with personal fact and barely disguising parts of myself in the stories.

Lawrence and the Machine

In common with many writers (and my life), I like to mix things up, to challenge myself, or do something slightly different, when writing is such a well-worn plain and originality is scarce. It’s probably why I’ve been compared to surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with others thrown in for different genres (in Cyrus Song‘s case, “with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary”).

With around half the new stories written for The Importance of Discovery (the working title of my second anthology), I have another three shorts lined up for publication, and most of the remainder planned. ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’ is out this weekend, ‘The Long Now Clock’ next week, and ‘Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters’ not long after.

Two of the remainder are word fuckery titles, but stories I want to play and experiment with. I have plots for both ‘Lawrence and the Machine’ (occurred to me when I was listening to Florence) and ‘The King and I, Robot’ (something I saw in a question on Pointless), and they’ll be in the future book at least.

Lawrence and the Machine is planned as one of my exploratory deep dives into the human condition, specifically sexual identity and alignment, and especially when my own are so mixed up (although importantly, not confused). The central protagonist isn’t so much consumed by crisis, as exploring themselves (the plurality being central), an entity which presents as male, but who identifies more with their feminine self, and who has little interest in sex. They are asexual, or in the context of this story, pan-sexual.

My point being, it’s possible to fall in love with someone and not necessarily want to fuck them. Such a union, should it occur in that kind of relationship, wouldn’t be described so crudely. That applies equally to me as a human as it does my fictional character.

One day, and encouraged by a writer friend, I may round up all my fictional characters (at least a dozen central cast and probably hundreds of extras), from the various crevices in my imaginary universe, and set them all in one, long story (probably a 20,000 word “short”, or possibly a novella), set in something like the Hell’s Club movie mash-up. That would be quite the literary mash-up, if I pull it off. It would be a very strange tale, and an exploration of my own human condition (story of my life).

Stories start in many ways, and when at least a part of me is in most of my stories (a mannerism in a character, or a place from the fringes of memory), perhaps that story might be ‘Lawrence and the Machine’, because it sounds better than my own name.

GMT on the Doomsday clock

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s not too much of an imagination stretch, to see the world and humanity currently at a pivotal point, nor that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end. Doomsday was always going to be a longer period on the clock than a single day. And some people are rather excited about all of this.

Doomsday clockWallhaven

Sci-fi writers see utopian and dystopian scenarios in near and far future settings, where current technology could plausibly change everything, for better or far worse.

Good science fiction can be affecting, because it could so easily be true. My depression is sometimes a tool, because oblivion is something I’ve seen, yet I’ve also dreamed of escape. With the clocks recently going back, the darkness is longer, tempting the imagination.

In the UK for example, the already tangible public resentment, towards a government which vainly clings to power, could erupt into violent protest. In response, the government might impose martial law. In the event of a complete breakdown, a government isn’t just useless, it becomes the enemy. And then, something could happen which makes people think differently, and warring factions are forced to confront a common threat: “We have your internet…” (Imagine the confusion and panic) “…We demand a general election, and when it’s agreed, we will return your internet. We are Anonymous.”

It’s a story with two key elements: a ransom demand, and a third party. A larger scale sci-fi might have the USA on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea. Then, extraterrestrials – who have perhaps been observing us for millennia – threaten to use their advanced technology to destroy a planet they see as infantile and un-evolved, removing a carcinogen from the galaxy. This scenario may be the only one to bring Trump and Kim into alliance, fictionally or otherwise.

Those two outlines are ones I may use for some upcoming stories. What makes them good material, is that both could go either way, and neither is too difficult to imagine at the moment.

I’m still able to write sci-fi shorts while I’m working on my family history book, simply because there is so much material out there (physically and fictionally, dark matter too) for the mind which enquires of the dark. And with a brain which could do with a tranquilliser dart sometimes, I have a lot to write.

After editing down a couple of my horrors recently, they served a number of purposes. It can be difficult to not cross-pollinate genres with writing styles, and there was never a danger of my parents coming to any harm in the garden of England they’re walking through in the book, but analogies are easy to paint unintentionally (especially for the surrealist writer, who can place much subliminal thought in a story), so I was keen to finish any horror hangovers before I moved on. The recent flash fiction horrors then, served as place holders. It’s inevitable I’ll return to horror, but just as that originally led me to refine science fiction, the latter worlds are still safe for my broader mind to inhabit, while I concentrate on a much more personal, introverted and longer story.

I’ve found balance, after some temporary unrest, so that I can concentrate sufficiently on a personal book, while also able to churn out the other stories which people seem to like.

There are two new sci-fi tales coming out in the next fortnight: ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’ is this weekend, then ‘The Long Now Clock’ a week after, and there are more planned. My next two books are on schedule, and I’m enjoying working in two different genres simultaneously.

Sometimes, my mind can wander where it shouldn’t. Other times, it finds a way. It’s like those two warring factions uniting in the face of a common unknown, and it’s that which we don’t understand, which we find most terrifying, because it renders us powerless and futile. But to better understand it, we need to interrogate it. And that’s how I live with my brain, riddled as it is with many riddles.

Doomsday is always longer than a day. And the clock can be altered. I should know this, as I’m a sci-fi writer. It’s that which keeps me sane, depending on who you interrogate.

Writing allows me to deal with my depression and anxiety. Most importantly, on my own. I don’t know if I ever want to be “cured”, if to be cured means to become “normal”, when I don’t see myself as normal, and I celebrate the differences in humanity. As my mind continues to cede to me, I’m able to write about it.

I’m not really capable of excitement, but I’m quite relieved about all of this.