A short circuit of Deep Thought

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like a shit sandwich in the post, and like death, a computer crash is one of my life’s expectations. The postman delivered, my computer had a fit, but the world didn’t end and I didn’t die. I had to do some finding of the self though, in the worlds I’ve created.

Kasparov Deep ThoughtKasparov – Deep Thought. Game in one gate, Geek Magazine

I lost a few work-in-progress short stories but I still have the ideas, so I can start them again. I’d also written a fairly definitive post on how the world might end or not, as well as theorising some more on life, the universe and everything. It’s not lost as it’s still in my head, much as it was in Arthur Dent’s at the end of the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The world’s current predicament is complex, with many actors and possibilities. In an age where the daily news is sometimes like watching a surreal cartoon, where disinformation and misinformation have devalued (or destroyed) democracy, it’s easiest to just cut through everything that’s unpredictable and variable leading up to to an outcome and just think of the latter: the ultimate goals, or how the film ends (spoiler alert).

I’ve written before of how humankind needs a common focus. In the absence of a previously-undetected alien invasion to unite warring factions against a common foe, the world and its population needs a unifying cause. The planet we all share with those who were here before (the animals) might be a good starting point. Given our stunted evolution, this is the only planet we have.

We’re essentially witnessing the beginning of World War 3, and it’s a technological war between left and right. If we’re ever to evolve as a species beyond our technological age and into an exploratory era, we need to sort ourselves out. The main problem on Earth is that as it stands, there isn’t enough room for everyone.

The right-wing solution is population reduction. We see it in the domestic and foreign policies of the US and UK, where social cleansing is sold as protectionist security. We’re lied to about threats, but a gullible population will believe what it’s told if it’s repeated enough.

The geopolitical stage is set for any number of conflicts which could escalate into global war, with 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons controlled by Trump and Putin, the former a neo-Hitler personified, looking to purify the planet’s population through extermination. Such short-term, blinkered vision, typical of fascists. At the moment, some kind of war seems as inevitable as my computer crash. Even if no-one presses a button, the unrest is palpable and in the UK at least, I foresee an uprising. Like much else, that’s another story for another time, now that I have the typewriter back.

There’s another way, but the time and co-operation it would need is probably beyond humanity as it stands, on the brink of war. The other way is for us to return much of the planet to the animals, to convert to vegetarianism, or eat lab-grown meat.

We use more land for our livestock and to grow food for them than we occupy ourselves. If we accept that we’re not entitled to eat someone who has to die to feed us, we’re out of arguments to eat meat (not that that one’s a good one). Meat grown in the lab is grown from stem cells, just like in a real animal. The only difference is it doesn’t come from an actual sentient, self-determining being. If that remains anyone’s reason to eat, they themselves ought to be eaten. It’s another story I can write now I’ve reclaimed the computer.

In yet another story, we free up all that land which imprisons populations destined for slaughter, nature reclaims it and there’s plenty of room for us all to live together.

There’s a third way, which involves the far right getting its own way by the introduction of a species test. Being sub-human, they all fail and are used as food for those who insist on eating meat.

We need to accept that we’re tenants on this planet and not owners, to lose our sense of entitlement. Then there’s the damage we’ve done and our moral responsibility to clean up after ourselves and repair our damage, whether or not we evolve to colonise other planets. If we do, I hope we treat them with more respect than we gave Earth.

Humankind (as it stands) is an infection, gradually doing its best to eradicate itself. The planet which supported us for so long will reclaim itself for all those who were here before. We can only hope the next ones to find Earth treat it with more respect, or that nature makes it a world which is toxic to humans. Universal karma.

I’d written all of that and more in one coherent article, then I lost it in the computer crash. I’ve written it all before and the various articles are all over this blog, but my unifying entry went missing. It’s all still in my head somewhere and I’ll try to remember it all, or find some white mice willing to remove my brain and replace it with something more simple.

While the computer was down, the post arrived and I put myself through the bi-annual dehumanising process of applying for PIP (a disability benefit). It’s now in the hands of the department of social cleansing, who will no doubt require me to attend a fitness-for-work (real work) assessment. Among other things, I’ll be asked if I can walk 200 yards. I can, but there’s no accounting for the silent assassin which is the panic attack always in tow. My invisible disability will then see me referred to tribunal, like twice before. My benefit claim will most likely be approved at that stage (like twice before), but not before the social machine has done its best to reduce the size of the population by one. I, Steve Laker…

I’m still here, even if I’m one who matters little in the greater plan. I’m socially anxious and excluded, but life’s about finding your own place in the one place you feel at home, even if you’re paranoid. For me, that’s in the world I created, even if the physical borders don’t extend beyond my studio. That’s where I create other universes.

Only by moving forward will you find true redemption, if not from your persecutors then in yourself. I understand the human condition, and that only really came about because I had an alcoholic breakdown. In the greater scheme of things, everything still worked out for the better, if I consider where else I might have been now.

This planet we all share is the supercomputer of Douglas Adams’ imagining: Deep thought, which replaced the original Earth, destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m just one part of that Earth 2.0 and my own Earth 3.0, with all the answers inside me, like all of us as parts of the grander scheme (the computer program). A computer works best if all the component parts work together.

All we need to do is keep talking, and we need to involve the animals in the conversation, as they’re part of the program too. We’re not far off realising a real-life Babel fish, once AI and quantum computing are let loose on the task.

Many animals with larger, more complex brains than ours, we dismiss, simply because they can’t talk. We don’t give them sufficient credit for having, for example, a sense of humour. I wrote a book about it. And I’ll write more books, in the hope that people read and see that there really are perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything.

wopr_joshua_by_dragontamer75-d4qnf6v

There won’t be anyone to stop you if you’ve truly made up your mind, but no matter how bad it is, and how little people might seem to care, every lost life affects others. You’ll only be aware of the splash you make, not the ripples you create.”

I wrote that, while I was rolling like a stone.

Stockings with go-faster stripes

TRUE EVIDENCE OF LIFE

I’m still suffering writer’s block somewhat, not because I’m stuck for ideas but my head is full of them. On a personal front, in my real life, there are ongoing issues of my dad’s health, my son being a teenager, and family drama where I’m always the black scapegoat.

In my fictional worlds, I’m writing more short stories and a couple of books. None of which I can write about here because they’re works in progress. It’s like writerly constipation.

I hope other people read my stories and often I happen upon other people’s. There are only so many storytellers, but there are close to eight billion of us on this planet. None of us will ever hear every story, but while there are readers and sharers, stories live on. Like Paul Auster collecting true tales of American life, which can sometimes be indistinguishable from fiction.

Auster American Life

This one started with a question in my Quora list:

If you are visibly disfigured or disabled and a random three-year-old loudly asks their parent(s) about you, what would you prefer the response of the parent(s) to be?

It had already been answered by Cecelia Smith, from Dallas in Texas:

It happened today … a very lively and curious 3 year-old was running through Starbucks, making her sparkly neon shoes blink, and nearly landed in my lap because she overshot the spot where she planned to turn. As she backed away, she noticed that I don’t have feet … her eyes got wide and she spun around “Mommy!! This lady doesn’t have feet!”

Mommy was looking mortified but was balancing a baby in a carrier while trying to say “I’m so sorry” and get the child to come back to her … but the bright little spot of energy had already spun around to me again and was studying the bright knit socks I wore over the stumps.

Where did your feets go?” I told her I’d been in an accident.

Will you grow new ones?” Nope. They don’t grow back. But that’s ok, because I have the chair to let me get around.

How fast can your chair go?” … Which turned into a discussion of who was faster, me in my chair or her with her pretty, neon shoes that lit up when she moved!

We ended up having a “race” across the store .. and she WON! She was so excited, and showed me how her shoes sparkle when she dances too!

Then she suddenly stopped and got a seriously sad look on her face.

“You can’t dance can you?” I had to admit, no I can’t dance like she does. BUT if she holds my hand while she is dancing, then it is like we are dancing together.

So she grabbed my hand with a big smile and danced with me!

Everyone was just delighted watching her – because she was just delightful.

Mom still looked uncomfortable – she wasn’t sure how she, as the parent, should respond. When the dance ended, Mom came over to apologize – and I told her there is no offense in the honest innocence of a child. I had enjoyed our talk and our dance.

I was really glad Mom had another child to tend to, so that I had the opportunity to have such a positive interaction with the little girl. When a child notices me and my “invisible feet” … all too often the parents pull them away, and tell them they are being rude and teach them to avoid interacting with people like me. I understand the parents think they are being polite and teaching their children manners – but what they really are doing is teaching their kids to ignore the existence of disabled people. I’d much rather have them see me as just someone who is a little different.

I didn’t bother to answer the question myself. I’m not sure why it appeared on my answers (requests for) page. Despite social anxiety disfiguring me in the eyes of the blinkered, I’m not one who necessarily draws glances.

I could make it into a sci-fi tale: I could strap rockets on those feet, make it a meeting of races from different worlds experiencing music for the first time… I could do so much, but it stands alone as a story which touched me, in that small part of the heart which still hopes for humanity. Despite what has happened to our countries, the UK and USA will always have a special relationship among those of us who see it for what it is.

Some stories require no embellishment. But there are billions of fables, anecdotes and thoughts of whimsy in all of us, which would go untold if there weren’t writers. I once had nothing, but I found the written word. We can all tell stories.

Maybe this one accidentally ended up in my list of questions for a reason.

Douglas Auster and Paul Adams

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As a writer in a few genres, I’ve been favourably compared to many I admire in each: Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, the Teletubbies of horror; Roald Dahl and others for children’s fiction; Douglas Adams in sci-fi; and the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas (as well as Adams) for Cyrus Song.

Monkey-typing

Today I was asked a question on Quora: If you could take a writing class from a successful author, who would it be?

As a writer who writes, I’ve been compared to Paul Auster and the way he can tell stories, both real and fictional. Like him, I place a part of me in everything I write, whether it be a mannerism in a character, or a place from the fringe of experience. It allows me to live in my characters and stories, telling them like a storyteller reading directly to you as you read to yourself (not all writers do) and like Paul Auster does.

For me, reading someone like Paul Auster and then, say, Dan Brown (to name but one), is like listening to vinyl records then MP3s. There’s a depth and richness to Auster’s writing, where much more is said than actually written. I’ve found this technique especially useful when writing surreal fiction, as it allows me to paint parallels and to tell more than one story at the same time.

He often crosses his stories over, so that the attentive reader might spot a character or location in more than one of his works. He builds themes which he dots about in his stories, creating microcosm universes which only he and his readers populate. He taught me to do all of that, and it can be seen in the recurring themes, places and characters in my separate-but-linked short fiction. Auster writes short stories and novels, but many of the former can be linked to form an entity greater than the component parts. This is what I sought to do in both of my anthology volumes (many of the individual short stories are on this blog).

I have many influences but I like to think I’m unique, as most writers do. Paul Auster and others have allowed me to take something from each to arrive at the way I write, which is to work somehow lucidly and detached, as if writing subconsciously.

It was ten years ago I learned I might be a writer, by reading Paul Auster’s ease of prose. He’s always been there, an invisible mentor in my mind, and if I were fortunate enough to have tuition from another author, it would be the one I respect most in his craft. Auster is so natural as to be indistinguishable from, and the definition of, the word ‘Writer’. That’s what I aspire to.

But truthfully, if I could go back in time or somehow change the past; if I could book some one-to-one time with any author, I’d choose Douglas. I’m not sure I’d learn a lot, but we’d probably have a fun and mutually self-deprecating time. I’d love him to read Cyrus Song, written in tribute to him and heavily influenced by him and Stephen Hawking.

I’d love to have Douglas Adams and Paul Auster round to dinner sometime, just to see what happened when those great minds met. They’ve both been there influencing my writing, so perhaps they already did.

He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it,” Douglas said.

Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them,” Paul replied.

Incoherence in the past tense

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The more I have on my mind, the less inclined I am to write. I can’t write much of what’s in my head (mainly unfinished and mostly involving other people), but I can still write. There’s only so much you can get from a blog about a depressed writer, writing about being that, but I have a past I’ve written little of. There was a time when I couldn’t, when I was too drunk. Life’s a quieter affair now and I can make better sense of some of what went before.

Cat asleep at desk

I have plenty of interests but not many hobbies, as most involve meeting people with a common interest. That’s not as much of a problem as having to leave home to meet those people, only to find you have just the one thing in common and the conversation quickly runs dry.

Real-life friends I’ve known for many years (since before my alcoholic breakdown) have tried to extract me from home, but I’ve always grown too anxious as the event approaches and ducked out. Lately this has included the chance to see a play at a local theatre about David Bowie, and to meet John Hegley for a book signing at Tate Modern.

It seems nothing is so important that it will cancel out my anxiety and paranoia, and of course, I always regret missing these things and letting people down. So the depression grows deeper with more time spent alone, and I hardly dare trouble anyone for company when I’m so prone to backing out at the last minute. It’s why the few friends I have come to me: I’m not likely to leave them.

The depressive does not make their own life easy, which is pretty much how depression works (it’s self-propagating). It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad company, but they’re generally complicated, with higher- or differently-functioning brains, which is handy when it comes to my main interest beyond writing: I play poker.

An alcoholic gambler: what a mix. The perfect storm, where each feeds the other and generally turns out badly. That was indeed the case once, but before I was ill I played well and made some money. At my peak, I was playing live cash games daily at The Empire Casino, and there’d be a pub tournament most nights around where I lived in Bexley. Failing that (or as well as) there was often a home game at someone’s house, and I played online too. Those were heady days and long weeks, usually endured with a Colombian cold.

I have little to show for those days besides a PokerStars.com baseball cap, but anyone familiar with the game will know how many Frequent Player Points you need to get one of those. I host my own home games but they’re mainly heads-up (two players), as I only have a small table.

Since I dried out and got my brain fully functional, I can play again. Despite what many say, poker is not a game of luck. I play No-limit Hold Em (Texas Hold Em), and the maths in calculating odds, the psychology of bluffing or reading another player, and everything else a successful player needs to be aware of, make it far more a game of skill than luck (about 70 and 30 per cent respectively). Unwilling or unable to go out much, I found myself coaching other players, so that they can.

This blog post has virtually no literary merit, it doesn’t make many points, and it’s not the usual unloading of my mind or chest. But there’s more to me than that, I just don’t get out much to meet people and tell them. It’s helped just to sit at the desk and type away with almost gay abandon, and that’s why I originally started writing this blog, as an escape and a coping mechanism. It doesn’t matter how many people read it, just that I said it.

These are the kind of notes I normally scribble down longhand throughout the day, then review every now and then trying to make a coherent narrative. When my own life and mind are as incoherent as any confused, lost and lonely depressive, I don’t feel so abandoned when I write.

There’s much to tell which I’ve not written before, mainly because it’s from around the time my life changed (the alcoholic and mental breakdown of 2011-13), when so many other people were affected. Now that I’ve moved on from places others would rather I’d stayed, I can look back and find chinks of memory in the dark.

There are many anecdotal stories I could tell of the poker life, some of which would be more plausible written as fiction. I have other interests besides, which fellow recluses might like. When I think of all that, I realise how little those who only know me online actually know me. They know the writer, but one who hasn’t ventured far from the depressive narrative. I’m really not that depressing in real life, and anecdotal memories are a good way of reminding me.

I can never claim to have nothing to write when I’ve done so much. Even if I can’t make my thoughts coherent, I can at least share them, and some will make good stories. It was right under my nose, like all I put up there in the poker days.

Life might be shit sometimes, but I have another one, a better one I once lived to look back on. That life, to be continued…

The psychopathy of typeface

FICTION

This is a re-write of a story I first wrote four years ago (which in itself is an irony, given the narrative). Like then, it’s about getting into character, clearing the mind, and of severance pay in the name of art. It’s a new puritan tale with no dialogue…

Helvetica Neue

HELVETICA NEUE HAUS

I’m a writer with mental health labels, writing about a writer with mental health labels: Kind of Hellraiser with Post-It Notes. I write stories too. In this one, I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink is sticky and thick, like the tarred blood of a heavy smoker, stored in the barrel as many thoughts yet to take form. It flows through the pen, a symbiosis of ergonomics and aesthetics, as my words spill onto the page like so many injuries. The true art of the storyteller is breathing life into the words.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding my syringe-like pen but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. Long ago, there was the letterpress printing machine, or platen press. Individual characters of type were arranged in a frame, then ink applied and the words pressed into sheets of paper. It was the pre-press art which I found most fascinating: A compositor (like my acquaintance) produces the individual printed letters from hot metal on a Monotype machine. The operator uses a keyboard to enter the characters and the machine creates each as a metal block. My friend is not just typing the words which will tell a story, but creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he’s typing the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine which will print.

To make the words which come from my typewriter, the individual metal blocks were soldered to the ends of the hammers, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes, and there are several motivators: something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes haste itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Besides the indelible nature of electronic words, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks, like some typographical incestuous rape. It’s the same as comparing LPs and MP3s: the latter are digitised and lose much depth and nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there’s no difference. But to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There’s simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or printing machines. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. A metal skeleton, a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective aesthetic is greater than the sum of the parts. My typewriter, as unique as the writer who uses it, creates stories more real than any written using anything else.

When I’m happy with what I’ve written, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: Smith & Young in Bermondsey. Like me, they view print as an art, not technology. Like vinyl records, the connoisseur can feel and appreciate the depth and richness of letterpress printing.

I do my best to make first draft and final copy the same. I don’t use correction fluid: it spoils the otherwise pristine, two-tone typed page with a smudge of grey, and an error on my part. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He’s a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

The courier will wait with the printer, while the Monotype operator typesets my manuscript. It’s written again, by a different writer. My key strokes on paper become the voice of the mechanical animal which will spew out potentially infinite copies of this story. Once the typesetting is complete, the courier returns with my original manuscript.

For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy, written in metal, and can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased, because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

With all that potential, a problem troubles the puritan mind. I trust the man at Smith & Young: he’s a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street, Soho and Bermondsey, the print bloodlines of London.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy of the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans, dodging a few early risers in suits on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George in his eponymous barber’s shop. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress, are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. Like me, George doesn’t talk as he works, which suits us both. Time in his skilful hands is relaxing and contemplative, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble. I eat pie, mash and liquor, with chili-infused sarsaparilla vinegar, staring down at the chequered floor and playing mind chess.

After that, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith & Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water.

Suitably lubricated, we agreed it might be time to eat (great minds think alike), so we made our way back by foot toward London Bridge Station, and to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing a different life into the West End. This part of London is roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street and Soho, the bohemian heart where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst being famously unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we ate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to seeing my story in finished form. He said it looked good to him when he typeset it.

Great minds: I don’t know what went through his, but the eyes remained open as his head fell away from me. The lights of the South Bank danced on the river as the head splashed down like a full stop on my typewriter hitting the page, then floated away. The barber’s cut throat razor sliced through the neck as easily as Red’s meat cleaver dismembered pigs at Smithfield.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words by putting myself in the stories. I’ll burn this copy of the story but it still exists by design, ready to be printed by the mechanical animal, in Helvetica and on paper from Smythson of Bond Street. Just as I intended it to be read.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The history of the potting shed

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A question asked directly of me (and I assume of others) on Quora was, What made you realise you were a writer? I didn’t really have a lot of choice in the matter, and the enquiry gave me the chance to pot some history. When you’re feeling shit about yourself (depression does that) and have no-one to hand, sometimes you just have to go over it all again for your own benefit.

Alien smoking pot

They say not to dwell on the past and to move on, but I must never forget that my ability to travel forward in time obliges me to travel back every now and then, lest I forget. The penitent man in the eyes of God seeks forgiveness in a life of servitude in return for entry to heaven. The atheist with many more questions will forever carry the burden of guilt, but never seek the forgiveness of a deity made in another man’s image. So I write open letters to the other humans around the world, to whom it may concern…

Robot writingTechRadar

As a human who writes, I don’t fear redundancy by technology just yet. For now there’s enough pure humanity still detectable in our own species to protect (most) writing as a human interface, where the readers’ and writers’ gains are more about preserving life than getting paid for what we do.

Every writer will tell you a different human story (their own), and mine is probably as original as most. I started writing on the streets, like a budget version of Charles Bukowski. I didn’t so much realise I was a writer as happen to be one.

I worked in London in print for 25 years, from the days of hot metal and the trade as an art, to the digital revolution and print as technology. From corporate finance and security printing in the 80s boom, to working with design agencies in the West End, print was always an industry fuelled as much by alcohol as ink. Deals were done in pubs and bars, and a lot of people made a lot of money.

I went on to run my own companies, latterly home-based when I was married with kids. But the alcohol in that environment wasn’t the same lubricant it had been in the city. Eventually my drinking got the better of me and I lost everything in 2011: Home, marriage, kids, business.

I found myself on the streets and only then realised that anyone, no matter who they are, could be just one or two luck-outs away from there. I literally had nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I had no TV, radio or internet. I was cut off.

Being December, I’d seek warmth in McDonald’s after I’d got enough money together for a coffee. I could read the free newspapers but there was nothing else to do. So I begged some money for a notepad and stole some pens from a bookmaker, and the rest is quite literally history.

Becoming a writer just happened, but what made me realise I was one? I’d never had time like that alone with my thoughts, and the opportunity presented itself to get some of them down. Many went into the blog as I’d use library computers, and others became the foundations for short stories (some of what I experienced out on the road people wouldn’t believe, so it’s easier written as fiction).

I got back on my feet, but I’m always an alcoholic (albeit a functioning one) so I couldn’t go back to work. After all that, I didn’t want to. In some respects, I was happier on the streets just writing than I’d ever been in well-paid jobs. I’d rather not have lost everything else, but were it not for that, I wouldn’t have become a writer.

It’s about freedom and satisfaction with life (there’s no point being a writer if you’re out to make a lot of money). My alcoholic breakdown left a lot of scars (on me and others), but those who knew me throughout said that I emerged a better person (and a pretty good writer). I look at the world differently now, in a way no-one can until they’ve been at that all-time low.

I don’t know what I’d do without writing, when I have so few physical people around my in real life. It’s hard enough living with myself, let alone burden anyone else, so I address much of what’s real in fiction. It’s not so much virtual detachment as the only coping mechanism I have, when to write beyond the headlines would be speculation. So long as that remains fictional, there’s hope, because the real life news is that my dad’s health is deteriorating and my son is the same teenage lost boy I once was. I hope we all get better as I’m the Marmite filling in a generational sandwich.

The whole of my life, before and after the fall, is in my books and online writing, a mixture of fact and fiction, real and virtual. From Linotype print to the scars of the road, ink flows through my veins and written into my skin. My words on the page are as deep as the tattoos on my arms: my children’s names, in Helvetica typeface.

Nowadays I tell my kids, be the best that you can at that which you enjoy the most, because then you give the most and you get the most back. My dad told me something similar once, and I hope that one day I will. I know I have good guides.

I may not Douglas Adams

A nope rope around the neck

FAIRY TALE

“In these perilous times,” a recent Guardian article urged, “progressives must create narratives that shine a light on crises such as climate change and the plight of refugee.” And megalomaniac world leaders, and climate change, and pollution, and weapons of mass destruction…

Contemporary fiction tends to be situation-specific or narrow in frame, but a fairy tale’s whimsy or fantastical narrative creates vaguery, allowing different analogies to be applied according to circumstance. The headline of the Guardian article was, “We need new fairy stories and folk tales to guide us out of today’s dark woods.”

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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 stood 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 opposite sides 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 coiled 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 tightened its grip. The troops gathered around the central square and the snake coiled tighter around the girl’s neck, lifting its body above her head. Soldiers from either side approached as the girl’s feet left the ground.

One of the warlock’s troops held the girl’s legs while a necromancer’s guard pulled at the snake, until the girl fell to the ground. Both free, the girl ran straight ahead to the warlock’s tower, protected by the necromancer’s army, and the snake chased the warlock’s troops towards the necromancer’s castle.

Walking home, the girl looked at the left and right paths, where she’d met the snake before. She parted 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.

Once upon a time in the future, in a place not far away, this will happen more than once.

© Steve Laker, 2018