Unfinished stories of austerity

FLASH FICTION

All over the country this weekend, in the few remaining places where social tenants manage to survive, stories will be played out and never told by those who live them: blots on the Conservative social cleansing landscape.

Unable to put them down through the Department of Work and Pensions’ dehumanising of benefits claims assessments with “medically-qualified assessors” (my last one was a midwife), the Tories can’t rid themselves of their shame.

Local councils clad their social housing to spare the views of the rich, on the cheap; and accidents happen, the Tories say. They sell off the NHS, bringing healthcare into line with everything else in Conservative Britain: It’s okay living here, if you can afford to…

Jagtve-69-Vendepunktet-by-WE-Architecture-and-Erik-Juul-00How social housing looks in Denmark.

TICKS AND CROSSES

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

A lifeline company, and so friendly, right down to the company logo: a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms, reaching out to help. Short-term credit loans were just the icing.

The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which was a viewing card too. A life made of plastic.

Topping up was a £2 call on her Living Loans mobile, and the week just lived was paid for. TV time would have to be rationed, and food for her and the kid would come from the bank.

With the kid fed and asleep, she microwaved a ready meal, with an extra 30 seconds, ‘just to be sure’. She lit a candle, and got cosy in a Onesie for Eastenders.

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

£2 can do so much. With a quick call, it can summon another human soul, a friend to talk to and sort out problems. A chat with a smiling person, with long arms to reach into their pockets and help. She eagerly signed, ticked the boxes, and regained her life. She needn’t fear the mail any longer.

***

Dear valued customer,

There are insufficient funds in your account to maintain your contractual agreement with Living Loans. We understand that you may be experiencing financial difficulties and we are sympathetic to any partner who finds themselves in this position, so we would like to assist you in any way we can.

To ensure that you continue to enjoy the benefits of your Living Loans membership, we simply ask that you join our exclusive Living Lives Health Plan. Members are automatically contracted out of the National Health Service and benefit from private healthcare in our nationwide network of clinics. Our clinics offer one-to-one consultations, treatments and surgical procedures.

What’s more, initial consultations are free, so that you can get a feel for the level of care which we offer at our clinics. Thereafter, to receive ongoing medical care, simply insert your Living Lives membership card into any of our on-site drug or treatment administration terminals, located conveniently around our facilities.

The Living Lives Health Plan, brought to you by Living Loans: Loans for Life.

Mummy, can I stay in bed today? And can you read me Mr Tickle? Because he can reach into the kitchen and get food, without having to get out of bed and get cold.”

She went to the kitchen, signed, crossed, and ticked where indicated on the form.

© Steve Laker.

My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

The silent footsteps of ghosts

THE WRITER’S LIFE

With London recording its 50th murder this year, and crime on the rise nationwide, I wonder what can be done, and I think about what I could do. Not much on my own, but there are gathering voices on social media, calling for an end to the violence.

London ghosts

Agendas vary between groups (and possibly within), but the most effective activism is always unified, and I hope that those within the groups can overcome differences to unite against a common foe. I’d propose coordinated silent marches, children and adults walking together, reclaiming the streets throughout towns and cities across the UK.

The enemy is the country we’ve become, and while many may hark back to days of empire, I see my country’s proudest moments when we were far more united. I remember the pride which surrounded the London Olympics in 2012, as we welcomed all nations to our inclusive country. Now we’re a fractured, disunited former kingdom.

There’s the ever-present danger of such a movement being hijacked by the far right (that’s why I thought the silent protest most appropriate). Racial tension is only one element of life on our streets, stoked by those very people.

It’s partly about drugs, but the biggest drug problem is that they’re illegal: Legalise, tax, regulate, boost the economy and reduce crime in a stroke. With illegal drugs come weapons.

Much of our youth feels disaffected, left to do nothing. Round after round of government cuts mean there are next to no youth facilities. It’s a problem of poverty, of the UK wealth divide, underfunded police, and a government not taking notice.

If you have money, you can afford to do things with your children, or give them money for a pursuit of their own. But if you’re broke, your kids have little to do besides hang around in groups of peers, quickly growing bored and disruptive as they find amusement: Gangs, drugs and violence.

A nation’s tragedy could be an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we’re governed, and how we think, of ourselves and our neighbours. People might find themselves talking to someone they associate with a conditioned stereotype.

They’d learn more if we all walked together: The family of Britain, young and old, of all colours and religions. Together, we can get our country back. Then we can talk about the other stuff.

Maybe we should get to know each other better. One country, one planet, one family, one race. We are humans.

Home of silent propaganda

COMMENT | SATIRE

propaganda-e1498947894270The Department for Work and Pensions’ definition of each benefits claim

A 47-year-old, able-bodied, straight white British man, has begun a campaign against himself, because what he stands for is different to what his appearance represents. With diagnoses of PTSD, depression, anxiety and personality disorders, the man’s protest aims to highlight invisible disabilities to those who make fitness-for-work assessments in benefit claims.

Lee Verstak (not his real name), a little-read left-wing writer, explained: “Everyone thought I was jumping on bandwagons, supporting everything I’m not: BAME, LGBT, and everyone else who’s discriminated against. I tried inventing minorities, transcending them even. But when I made a case for pan-sexuality being someone who understands, even if they don’t take part, people got confused. How are you supposed to participate in a debate if you try to think for everyone?

“So to prove everyone wrong, I’ve started this protest against me doing that sort of thing. I’ve always been capable of actually walking a short distance, but I never enjoyed doing it anyway, because of my paranoia and anxiety.

I handed out some leaflets locally, with me on them, telling people what I was doing. Before long, people stopped taking them, and eventually ignored me altogether, saying I should be in a home or something. So I sent myself home.

I found out that technically, you can arrest yourself, in a logical extension of the powers of citizens arrest available to us all, to prevent a further breach of myself. I’d encourage others to do this, to help the system so that we may be more easily dealt with and ignored.

I’ve told the authorities where I’m holding myself, but even the departments for indifference and ignorance can’t help, so I’m just sweating it out. I’m on strike from being me, sort of like a hunger strike, but without anyone to force feed me. I might have wasted away in a few months: Problem solved.

Meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how others see you. For me, it’s going well: I fucking hate myself. Hopefully I’ll get through it, like I did the last two tribunals, and I’ll feel even more dehumanised and with an even lower opinion of myself.

“Yeah, it’s quite life-affirming really. Then I might write a book or something, about finding a way out when life traps you: Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? Well, you could stop imagining, or you could use your imagination.”

My critically-acclaimed, Douglas Adams tribute sci-fi novel is also now an eBook. My latest anthology is available in paperback.

 

Dining on darkened stools

FLASH FICTION

Pulp Pollution

PULP POLLUTION

As a one-time music writer, I’m crapping it, which is what every horror writer wants their readers to do, as they feed them to obesity in a crowded field. When I write fiction, there are parts of me in every story or character I create, but I’ve rarely lived the actual events in the stories. Now I’m seated alone in Green Inferno, a joint which prides itself on being carnivorous. My first observation is that if you’re in the story yourself, it’s not so easy to make it up as you go along.

The place is cavernous and filled with greenery, so that the experience is one of dining in a plastic south American forest, alone. As I look around, it’s hard to make out many other diners for the dense foliage, which eases my anxiety. Anyone walking through the bushes around me could be a customer, a lost tribe member, or one of the dishes. I hear running water but I can’t see a toilet. I turn my attention to the menu, which is the other point of this place.

It’s a meat restaurant, but with its focus on food provenance. All their dishes are locally sourced, and every cut of meat is traceable to an individual. Reared by organic local farmers, each animal was once a friend, and so every dish comes with a story, like Peter Davidson at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, describing his lifestyle and how that’s improved his finer cuts.

Mine is a shallow hunger, so I browse the appetisers. Among them, I’m intrigued by the pygmy cutlets. The beast once burdened by these isn’t described by species (I assume pork, from a pig), but as a character:

He (we’re told that much) was unwell for much of his short life (not terribly appetising so far). Bullied by his siblings and shunned by his elders, he’d been adopted by other animals. They stop short of actually naming the individuals here, but I gather this little chap had a bit of an identity crisis (I know how he felt).

Another of these pygmy things sounded a bit of an arse: His partner and children had fled his abusive patriarchy, then he’d been ejected by his drift (the collective noun for swine) and become a nomad (and no mates). For years he wandered with lonely guilt, until he died of a broken heart (impaled). In some respects, I could relate to him too.

The stories of the menu certainly make me question whether I should be eating what was once a sentient, self-determining being like me. As a horror writer, I’ve sometimes reflected on the act of consuming dead flesh, questioning if it might be both the most and least respectful way of disposing of a body. On the one hand, it’s everything which was in that living body being taken on by another (so a bit like holy communion). Conversely, it’s power over the body of the lost soul as it’s consumed (not unlike holy communion then).

I decided on a cut from each, whoever they were. While they remained nameless, they’d be just like any other meat on my plate. As food, once the organism has ceased to function, it becomes organic. It’s consumed, drained of its nutrients for the nourishment of the host, then what’s left is excreted as waste: Life as pulp fiction, picked up on airport news stands, consumed in the air, and cast into the bin on different shores, like so much human waste. Perhaps there are beach combers there, and some stories live again, but I was growing distracted in the plastic green inferno.

My stomach was growing cramped, like my surroundings; vegetation everywhere, but not a leaf to eat. And yet, the dishes I’d ordered were once living beings with stories. I owed them enough respect to eat them while they were still warm.

I’m not sure if it was a server or a customer who ran through the foliage behind me. I couldn’t tell if the sound of flowing water was from a distant stream or the glass now being poured beside me, as my food arrived. I couldn’t wait.

I dined alone as always, with only myself for company, pondering publication of this review. The writer who shit himself.

“Door open or closed?” It made no difference, as I passed an effigy of me. It appeared to smile as I flushed it away to some distant beach.

© Steve Laker, 2018

The Tory plan for new housing: a social tax on climate change

POLITICS | COMMENT | SATIRE

It’s satirical, but it’s not particularly funny. As a science fiction writer, I look at many Utopian and near future dystopia scenarios, some dependent only upon a butterfly effect which could already be gathering motion, unknown to us. Sometimes I have to take a short break from fiction, so that none of my stories cross over unwittingly (even though crossovers are one of my trademarks).

theresa_may_conference_idojwi

In a radical plan to tackle the housing crisis in London, the Conservatives are quietly pushing through new legislation, which wasn’t announced at the recent party conference in Brighton. Theresa May insists she did announce it, but it was when she’d lost her voice, and the whole Tory vision was collapsing around her on stage.

The changes are two fold: New housing built underground, paid for with a new social tax on climate change. Whether or not the announcements were heard at conference, this journalist was given a copy of the PM’s speech:

I have seen Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour manifesto on housing and a social tax on personal data, and I wonder what the leader of the opposition has been smoking (smile, then look to audience for approval). London has a housing crisis, and with so many people in one place, tensions are bound to develop. It is unacceptable that the wealthy people of the capital, should have to witness, daily, what the poor have done to themselves (sad face). Their unsightly housing is a blemish on the otherwise rich tapestry of London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. We tried to make the pauper housing more aesthetically pleasing, by cladding high rise towers. We did so in a cost-efficient way, saving money, so that the wealthy weren’t squeezed too hard. And look what happened (sadder face).

So we plan to build housing for the poor underground, out of sight. There is not much of London which we can build up from, so the only way now, is down. This will solve the problem of homelessness, and ensure that wealthy tax payers aren’t troubled by those people. Out of sight, out of mind (look rad, and down with the people).

Of course, big ideas need big finance, and it is unfair to tax the top-rate taxpayers any more than they are squeezed almost beyond their means already. So another way to keep the poor underground, is with a climate tax. Quite simply, they will pay a new dynamic tax, depending on the weather. If it’s a nice, sunny day out, those people should pay to enjoy what the rich have to earn, so that they can build their mansions above ground. We might give them a rebate on really miserable days, when no-one really wants to go out anyway (check audience reaction). We could let them see a sunset or sunrise for free on bank holidays (smile sincerely).

They’ll be completely self-sufficient underground, and we’ll give them all the facilities they need: We’ve already partnered with Coral and Wetherspoons, and someone’s bound to open a Londis down there (good for the economy and ethical companies). They’ll have no problems with employment, as the wealthy residents of London will ignore planning laws on digging down, to make luxury basements in their houses. If they hit an underground poor area while they’re constructing, they can hire slaves (check audience again, then decide whether or not to mention further benefit cuts). As the owners of the land, we will give them title to all which is below their property. It’s joined-up government, with all departments working together (air punch).

We caught up with Theresa May later, to ask her about the rumours of a disagreement between her and the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. “The foreign secretary,” she said, “is behind me, just like the rest of my cabinet.”

Johnson contacted this blog to ask, “What the fuck were you talking to the mad witch about?” Told of her comment that she valued him as a cabinet colleague, Johnson replied: “I’m just waiting for the right moment to shaft her. It’ll be like fisting the old turkey at the Bullingdon Club. Is this thing on?” We pointed out that the foreign secretary had called us, then he hung up.

Later, we smoked a joint with the boy Jeremy who said, “We’ll tax and regulate this stuff, and it’ll be legal, first for medicinal use, then probably for recreation. You won’t believe how much we get through at shadow cabinet meetings.” Asked about Theresa May’s latest plans, he outlined those of the Labour party: “Yes, big ideas need big money, and we’ve found a way to make a load of new money just appear. We’re proposing a new social tax to be levied on personal data. It’s a return of power to the people, where the internet giants fund a universal basic income, solving poverty in a stroke. Between us and the Tories, the British public just need to look at these new policies and decide which works best in the long term. Do you grow this yourself?”

None of the above is true, probably.

If I could teach the world to sing…

THE WRITER’S LIFE | COMMENT

malcolm-x

A regular visitor to my little studio is my adopted kid sister, The Courts. She’s the one I met on my first night on the streets, when she and a couple of friends sat with me, surrounded by my life in Sports Direct bags. Those three girls were 15 years old at the time. Later, I was adopted by three more and gained three teenage daughter-types: What nice problems to have.

Since then, much has changed but Courtney became my sister in that family we formed at the squat: The Pink Hearts. We look out for each other, as brothers and sisters do. We chill out in my studio, watch DVDs, smoke weed and talk. She talks a lot and she’s naive about a lot of things but occasionally, she’ll say something really deep and thoughtful. She did that yesterday, when in her own idiosyncratic way, she effectively said this:

This feeds into a much bigger debate, which could well become a global conversation soon. As a beneficiary of the democratisation of writing, I know that marketplace is open to abuse because there are those who can and will preach to the gullible. Then it only takes a few “Shares” for potential lies to be spread. Eventually, untruths become believed, accepted and abused.

Trump and Brexit are examples of what happens in a perfect storm: A lack of faith in the gorverning classes has led to an angry right wing gaining traction, while those on the left were ineffective in opposition.

But what’s equally important and saddening is that people were lied to and they believed the untruths. They didn’t check or research.

There need not be a silent majority though.

We need to talk. We need to debate. We need to arrive a point where we all agree that this current mess can be sorted out. In order to get there, we need to stop fighting.

It’s idealistic to think that such a New World Order might evolve in our lifetimes but I believe it could happen in our children’s. We have de-evolved as a human race recently and I’m not alone in this thinking.

Read – as I do – the many scientific notes of Stephen Hawking et al. I do it as a fiction writer, for research into near future scenarios I might scare or wonder readers with.

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

It was a version of that quote by Stephen Hawking, sampled by Pink Floyd in “Keep Talking” which prompted me to write Cyrus Song. All of the above, current affairs and scientific research is fuel for the fiction writer. And that’s what I am. I’m not a journalist, but even for my fiction work, I do research my material.

Don’t believe all that you see. Check it out. Read The Guardian; check Snopes; Don’t spread lies.

The politics of feeling good

THE WRITER’S LIFE

marijuana

Thought provoking quotes about medical marijuana from Potbotics.com

By unfortunate coincidence, my work and real lives clashed again this week, even though I’ve got all my internal personalities working well together. The unfortunate thing was that a very dear friend of mine has been diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative illness. By coincidence, I was writing some articles for a client about cannabis.

As well as writing about marijuana, I smoke it: I’m a recreational user, and I use cannabis to deal with my anxiety. My friend confided that she also uses the drug to help with her condition. For me, the answer to the cannabis “problem” is one of legality: Legalise, regulate, medicate, educate.

The subjects I write about for clients are varied and interesting. The pay is poor but the satisfaction is in learning through research and putting that knowledge into an entertaining and informative piece. Because the articles were written for a paying client, I do not retain copyright but I can publish excerpts.

In the course of my research into all things weed, I naturally had to familiarise myself with some history, to place the law into a certain context within an article which was very much pro-consumption. What I found out was quite shocking and I had to tone down the language of a US politician to make my piece suitable for the intended audience:

..Cannabis was outlawed with the introduction of The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Some of the reasons given by Harry J. Anslinger (Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) for the banning of cannabis, speak volumes about some of the ignorance and attitudes of the time:

Anslinger believed that cannabis was an ethnic minority problem and described non-whites and “entertainers” as diseases infecting the white population. Their “Satanic” music resulted from marijuana use, which caused insanity, criminality and death. Cannabis was “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind”, he said. He further stated that smoking cannabis made ethnic minorities “think they’re as good as white men.”

Despite Aslinger’s naive and narrow-minded views, in less enlightened times, his bill was passed and the recreational use of marijuana became illegal. At the time, cannabis was prescribed by doctors for pain relief, and was an accepted part of American life. Although cannabis was the common name for the drug at the time, the Spanish word – marijuana – was used in the name of the act to further encourage racist sympathies…

It took a lot of editing to remove words which were offensive, even to me, whilst still making it a legible section. Then I continued:

…Thankfully, attitudes have changed. Medicinal and recreational use of cannabis is legal in certain states and being debated in others. Medical research and progressive politics have combined to realise the benefits of cannabis, both socially and economically. Regulation and taxation are made possible with legalization…

The article (and the writer) is not pro-legalisation (I used the American in the article itself, as it’s for a US client) just because of the benefits of decriminalisation (not getting locked up). The pro-legalisation argument is for cannabis to be regulated, taxed and sold for recreational and medicinal use. I went on:

…[Users] will experience a range of feelings, sensations and personal benefits, including a general feeling of wellbeing, hightened awareness, uplifting and cerebral thoughts. Recreational cannabis is therefore unsurprisingly referred to as a “mind expanding drug”.

For some people, marijuana is an occupational drug. Many people working in the creative arts cite recreational cannabis use as an aid to their craft. Writers and artists especially take advantage of the creative effects of the drug…

I then researched the two main types of cannabis which are cultivated for recreational and medicinal use: Indica and Sativa.

…Indica dominant marijuana strains provide a very relaxing and strong body high that is helpful in treating general anxiety, body pain and sleeping disorders. Indica is most commonly smoked by medical marijuana patients in the late evening or even just before bed. Sativa dominant marijuana strains provide an uplifting, energetic and cerebral high that is best suited for daytime smoking…

…In summary, Indica effects and benefits are relief from body pain, headaches and migraines; muscle relaxation, relieving spasms and reducing seizures; and relief from anxiety and stress.

Sativa effects and benefits include feelings of well-being and of being at ease; uplifting and cerebral thoughts; stimulation and increased energy; increased focus and creativity; and relief from depression.

Cannabis (marijuana) has many beneficial effects for the casual and medicinal user. Sativa and Indica effects are different and can be combined for the most effective tailored benefits…

At my recent (successful) tribunal appeal to prove that I was entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), I mentioned to the residing judge that I smoke weed. She nodded. As a poker player, I’m pretty good at reading people and I’d bet on her nod not being a despairing one, nor one of resignation. Rather, it was a nod of understanding. I shouldn’t be surprised nor judgemental if the judge herself liked a bit of a toke on the reefer.

I’ve completed dozens of freelance assignments over the last couple of weeks and submitted my invoices for payment from the clients. All were interesting, even when they were about things which would normally hold no interest for me. Writing about a cause which is close to me though was the most satisfying. Because as a writer, I can get points across effectively and in an engaging manner. I may prompt debate but that’s part of my job.

In the other part of my job, as a fiction writer, I can use my writing to raise awareness of many things. With my friend I mentioned at the top in mind, I’m working on a short story. My stories have helped a family dealing with the loss of a pet; a friend’s daughter coping with growing up; and a teenage friend who self-harmed. I’m hoping I can help a friend who’s just been diagnosed with MS:

“…The curious thing was, it was the diagnosis which hastened the condition. It had lain dormant, without troubling me. Then as soon as I heard its name, it made itself known. What a cunt.

I wouldn’t be had. I decided to wager with the thing. All my life had been one long gamble anyway, most of it working out for the best. So I bet my life with the thing.

I bet this thing that I wouldn’t beat it on my own: That confused it. I was betting that my opponent would win. But I continued: I bet, that although I knew it could win, I would put up such a long fight that it would lose. Because I would fight for so long, through times of medical research, personal resolve and those around me, that I would live to see the day when a treatment was found.

At first, the thing taunted me. But gradually, as I learned to live with it, it was as though I were growing all over my own parasite. It was far from its kin but I had my team around me. The bet couldn’t be annulled, because I’d told the thing that I couldn’t beat it alone.

That was a pretty big bet: I was playing the long game. I’m still playing my opponent, so I may yet win the wager…”

(To be continued)

Even though writing doesn’t pay much, the rewards are far greater than financial. And the pain of depression and anxiety is made bearable by writing and by smoking weed for my recreation and occupation.

The politics of feeling good are simple: Legalise, regulate, medicate, educate.