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FLASH FICTION

A short story (222 words) about passwords and personal data. Precious commodities entrusted to digital custody…

Cat-working-at-laptop

EIGHT BILLION QUESTIONS

Please enter user name

Human, A

How may I help you today?

How do I prevent the impending destruction of planet Earth?

Hmmm. Tricky. I may have to think about that for a while. Please enjoy this sponsored message while you wait…

Thank you for using Deep Thought 3.0, the knowledge database built on human answers, personal data from our parent companies (Google, Facebook et al). Whatever humankind’s questions, about life, the universe and everything, Deep Thought 3.0 can answer them. We would be grateful if you could complete a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this enquiry

Hello, My name is Dave. How may I help you today?

How can I stop the world from ending?

Do you have an account with us?

I’m logged on to my Google. I’m already in my account, Dave

Please enter your password

**************

Please enter a valid password

Eh? Dave?

Password not recognised. Please try again

**************

You last changed your password three months ago

** *** **** ****

Passwords may not contain spaces. Would you like us to send you a password reminder?

Yes please. Where’s Dave gone?

Please enter your password

** **** ** *** ****

Password not recognised. Please enter your email address

Shakespeare.monkeys@infinite.com

Thank you. Instructions on resetting your password will be sent to the email address you provided

© Steve Laker, 2019

Human arses2Not a monkey, but a great ape who wasn’t asked if he’d like to pose for this photo

In an age of evolving technology, we have the Babel Fish within our grasp (and universal translation in our ears). Douglas Adams broke borders with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I used the fish as a quantum computer program translating animal language in my tribute to Douglas, Cyrus Song. Both speak in tongues of the Rosetta Stone and the Tower of Babel, the freedom of language and the forbidding of knowledge.

In my book, I pose the question of interpretive translation: No matter the means or technology, there’s a blurred line in neurobiology, where the messenger has no control of the recipient’s interpretation of a communication. Like the internet, which is free, because we signed over our personal lives long ago. We rarely use the counterpoint, which is the gift of writing for a world audience.

Whomever A. Human is, they might ask what can we do to save the world?

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The evolution of the typesetter

FICTION

This is a story which revisited my quarter century in the world of print, from hot metal typesetting to on-demand digital publication; and a writer, as the internet democratised publishing. Like most of my stories it can be applied to many situations, where the protagonist or antagonist is replaced. But like all my fiction, it’s a conversation with the writer. The evolution of the typewriter, and the mangling of the freelancer…

Helvetica-the-typeface

HELVETICA HAUS

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 flows smoothly through the barrel and it is comfortable to hold. The ink is stored in the barrel like so many thoughts yet to take form. Then it passes through the barrel, held in my fingers as it ejects my thoughts through my hand and onto the paper, like black blood. My pen is an ergonomic tool of an art which produces aesthetics in the written word.

It’s not just the writing I produce which is art: my means of bringing it into being is also art.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my faithful Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding the metallic rod of the pen in my hand as it spills my words 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. The Monotype operator uses a machine very much like a typewriter, which produces individual letters from molten metal ingots called “pigs”. These individual columns with characters on the end are called “slugs”. The slugs are positioned into a frame, called a “galley” by the Monotype machine. Each slug is one character and metal spacers are inserted into the galley to separate words. These characterless pieces of metal are also produced by the machine operator on his keyboard, simply by hitting a space bar like on a typewriter. I find it amazing to consider, that operator is not only typing the words which will tell a story but he is creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he is “typing” the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine; he’s writing the means to print. The final galley is a page of type which will be coated in ink and impressed upon sheets of paper: it’s a platen process; it’s traditional letterpress printing, pre-dating litho print.

Rather than be cast in a galley though, my individual letter and character slugs were soldered to the ends of the arms of the hammers in my typewriter, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes. This can be because of various motivators: often 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 speed 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.

Apart from the obvious fact that everything written electronically is indelible, even when erased, 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. I view it as typographical rape or incest. It’s similar to the comparison between vinyl LPs and MP3s: the latter is digitised and loses a lot of nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there is no difference but to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There is 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 computer printers. 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. It is 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 beauty is greater than the sum of the parts. My faithful typewriter – its unique qualities created by a writer – creates stories. It’s like a story written to reproduce.

When written to my satisfaction, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: a firm called Smith & Young in Bermondsey.

Smith & Young are die-stampers by trade: a beautiful art in itself. The die-stamping process is also a platen one, like letterpress. The process embosses ink into the paper, so that the print stands in relief. Each colour of ink in a coat of arms for example has to be die-stamped separately. Therefore an engraver needs to carve a copper embossing die for each colour and ensure that all colours are printed in register. Furthermore, because the image is stamped directly onto the paper, the dies have to be engraved in mirror image. It’s incredible to watch a worker such as my compositor produce such things of beauty and value. They practice print as an art, not a technology. Once furnished with a few simple concepts, even the layman can distinguish the difference between digital and traditional lithographic print. Die-stamping is a rare thing but the embossed nature of the print is easy to appreciate. To really understand the nuances and beauty of letterpress printing though, requires a connoisseur.

I have to ensure that my manuscript is perfect. I do not use correction fluid: to do so would mar the otherwise monotone typed page with another colour and evidence of a mistake. 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. What comes from my typewriter is the first and final hand-typed copy of a work.

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.

My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He is a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

The courier will wait with the printer, whilst the Monotype operator typesets my story. My story is written again, by a different writer. Whereas my key strokes produced ink on paper, his produce slugs of metal to be locked into a galley for a printing press. Again, the means of printing a story in infinite quantities by impressing those metal slugs into paper, is being literally written in cold, hard metal.

When the galley is complete, the courier will return the original typed manuscript to the writer. 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: the tool, written in metal, 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.

Once the potential to print countless physical copies of my work in the form of metal slugs in a galley exists, a problem troubles my purist mind. I trust the man at Smith and Young: he is 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 on 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 and Soho late at night and into the next day: that’s where they worked and some lived but many also lived in Bermondsey. Printing is in the blood there.

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 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. They’d dodge a few early risers in suits who are 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: the barber whose shop bears his name in Bermondsey Street. 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. George doesn’t talk as he works, negating the need for the kind of small talk which he and I detest. Time spent in his skilful hands is time to relax and contemplate, 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.

Ordering food at Manze’s has to be done with precision. A simple request for pie and mash will be greeted with a blank expression, even though it’s a pie and mash shop. It’s like a test to see if one is a connoisseur of the London delicacy. My specific request was delivered quickly and with no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, my order of one pie, one mash and “liquor” – sort of a parsley sauce – was dolloped with meaning and there was a knowing smile from the server. At a table shared with three complete strangers, I garnished my food with the chilli infused sarsaparilla vinegar, which is for some reason traditional, and ate in around ten minutes. The floor is tiled in black and white, so I played a quick mental game of chess against myself as I chewed.

Thereafter, 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 and 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, with a squeeze each of fresh lime, orange and lemon, then a tiny dash of cranberry juice: the four fruits must be added in a specific order to maintain the traffic light sequence: green lime, amber from the lemon and orange, then the cranberry for red; then another tiny dash of cranberry at the same time as a squeeze each of lemon and orange, and a final squeeze of lime for the red and amber, green part of the symphony. We had a few drinks and discussed my story.

Presently, we agreed that it might be time to eat, so we made our way back toward London Bridge Station by foot and then 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 down the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing more people into the West End.

Charing Cross is symbolic because Charing Cross itself, which the station takes its name from, is the official centre of London. The original centre point is the Square Mile of The City, once a Roman fortress trading post, enclosed and gated: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate etc. Charing Cross is also notable in my mind for being roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street, along Strand and through Aldwych, into The City; and Soho, the bohemian heart of the great metropolis, where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst famously being 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 form of the 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 sat.

Our like minds permitted us to arrive at different meal choices for dinner. My companion chose traditional fish and chips, his reasoning being that we were in close proximity to marine life. My own reasoning was that we were surrounded by all kinds of life: land-based humans and other mammals, mainly unseen; insects, largely invisible; airborne species, mainly birds which were visible; and indeed, marine life. The most visible, abundant and accessible food group was avian and this is what prompted me to order chicken escalope. I realise that there were unlikely to be any chickens within view at the time of my placing the order but neither were there gulls or pigeons on the menu. There were no cod that I could see either but my dining companion’s battered fish looked a fine meal, served with good chips, mushy peas – in a separate ramekin – and a slice of lemon. There was a separate pot of tartare sauce but my partner is a Philistine and smothered his food in ketchup. My chicken was served as requested: not a breast fillet from the menu but a butterflied piece of thigh meat. This must be cooked with the Cheddar cheese and bacon rolled into it but without a securing rasher of bacon around it, so that the skin may be allowed to brown and crisp. The escalope must then be allowed to rest in a warm place, so that the flesh of the chicken can relax and absorb its own juices and take on those of the bacon inside as it penetrates the soft, white and accommodating young chicken meat with it’s aged, salty juices. The rested chicken parcel must then be wrapped in another slice of fatty bacon and the whole thing fried in butter until the bacon starts to resist and becomes crisp. My chicken was accompanied by the aforementioned good chips: these are King Edward potatoes, cooked thrice: once boiled, then twice fried to produce an “armadillo” chip: crispy on the outside; fluffy on the inside. A fine barbecue sauce and a corn cob completed the plate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for long-standing friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. At one point, somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused at the incessant presence of gulls, I tossed a piece of chicken on deck which was quickly swooped upon by three winged balaclava-wearing hooligans. I speculated aloud as to whether this might be cannibalism by proxy and my partner responded by smiling and throwing a piece of his fish overboard, commenting that we’ll never know. I hope my smile conveyed my admiration.

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 something as yet incomplete but which held excitement. Great minds: I don’t know what his thoughts were but I respect privacy, so I concentrated on my own.

The flowing Thames below us was a blue-black, like ink flowing through a pen around the boat. I was aboard the boat and therefore the delivery mechanism. This story is now under my control; the boat beneath my feet like the pen in my hand.

I sliced my compositor’s neck from behind, cutting away from me as he leaned over the deck of the boat. Just as it had cut through the tomato skin and flesh, so my cut-throat razor slid between my ghost writer’s head and torso like a hot knife through butter, separating the two in an instant.

As the decapitated head fell to the water below, the eyes remained open and the cigarette which I’d rolled was still in his mouth. The head plopped into the river like a full stop from a hammer in an old typewriter impressing ink into a sheet of paper, or a platen press impressing the final page galley.

The ink flowing around me took on a new colour as the dark, dusty river of life and waste below was splashed with red strike marks, blood spurting from the neck of the headless body next to me, still gripping the handrail. Before I tipped him overboard, I took his wallet.

I engaged the staff in conversation about the distribution of tips paid to the establishment. Once I’d established that tips were distributed fairly among staff, I was able to pay for the meal using my friend’s credit card with a clear conscience.

Of course, I shall burn this copy of the story but I am aware that the galley still exists: that is by design. It is important to my art that a physical record be kept.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words and by putting myself in the stories and acting them out so that I may tell them more accurately.

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When my elbow was an airbag

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Burning the midnight oil at both ends of the candle, in this life and the one before it, desperate to ignite some of the methylated spirit which is the ink in my veins, I turned again to 642 Things to Write About (San Francisco Writers’ Grotto). On an otherwise blank page, there’s a line at the top: ‘What did you dream about last night?’ Mine is one of thousands of copies of this empty ideas book, and my entry only one of many versions of events. Recurring dreams are just history repeating, in a surreal retelling of witness statements.

Blood bottles

We don’t remember all of our dreams, although I probably recall more than most. I keep a notebook by the bed, so when I’m woken by a dream, I’ll write it down. I also have a rare and occasional ability to dream lucidly.

Lucid dreaming took me years of practice and I’m far from mastering the art, but when I manage to dream lucidly, it’s quite literally like exploring the cosmos. It’s a journey into the wider space of the unconscious mind. It’s essentially being aware that you’re dreaming within a dream.

Usually a dream will carry you along like a captive audience trapped in your own head. There are jumps and frights to guide the way to an exit, but otherwise you’re not in control. If you can be aware that you’re dreaming, you can interact within your dream and change it. It’s the difference between being in the audience and being the director on the set of your own scientific horror films.

To get yourself onstage, you need that initial awareness. You need to plant a seed. The way I did it was a bit like counting sheep to clear the mind, but by repeating to myself as I laid there, ‘Tonight I will be aware that I’m dreaming,’ or words to similar effect. I find it difficult to clear my mind, so sleep eludes me regularly, despite prescription tranquillisers. In a way, it helps with achieving lucidity, taking my waking thoughts with me as I slip into the other world.

It can take years of practice though, not least in suppressing your emotions so that you don’t wake yourself at the moment you realise you’re dreaming. That’s the opposite of being shocked awake by a nightmare. Conversely, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve achieved lucidity. Often the difference between awake and subconscious can be so subtle that you feel you’ve not slept at all.

You’re never aware of the moment you fall asleep, but you’re neither awake nor asleep in the dream. I learned to sleep like this when I was homeless.

It’s a different kind of consciousness. You’re exploring the subconscious mind, and that’s connected to the rest of the universe. How? Quantum entanglement: The simple idea that at the moment of the Big Bang, all matter was created from a point of almost infinite density. To do that, sub-atomic particles – many degrees of magnitude further from the smallest we can now detect – were ripped apart. 14.6 billion years later, each retains a link to its partner (they’re monogamous), and science has demonstrated that these connections operate over cosmic distances. We’re all in this together.

Essentially, each of us is connected to every single part of the universe at a sub-atomic level. And that’s how lucid dreaming works, as those wires which trail between galaxies get plugged into the universal power supply. The people you’re thinking of are far more likely to be looking up at the stars than those you’d rather forget. You’re more likely to bump into people you like when you dream. Better to sleep.

While you’re slumbering ethereally, you’re in a place of eternity and infinity; one where all knowledge is to be found. Count the sheep and follow the last one.

And that’s how I circle back to what I dreamed about last night.

Dreams are an exaggeration of reality, and the things you take with you become amplified.

While I drifted around in space the day before that which is now, I thought of how what could be my personal heaven might be someone else’s hell, if they fear a truth which might challenge their conditioning; and of how we’re all conditioned by modern terror.

Bic Red

Our rulers and governors would rather we didn’t dream. They made mind-expanding drugs illegal because they don’t want us to explore beyond this planet they’ve engineered; heaven and hell respectively, on either side of the great manufactured divide, pumped full of licensed drugs. The only psychedelic substances we’re allowed are the artificial ones made by big pharma companies, paying little tax in the havens governed by their shareholders. They fear what might happen if we were able to lay our hands freely on natural resources which might expand our minds beyond their blinkered vision, available for reading from the limited library of the right-wing press, or by borrowing someone from the human lending library of people most likely to give you unsolicited advice at a Wetherspoon’s fruit machine.

sun-tzu-statue

Like everyone’s dreams, mine are an exaggeration of reality. I have a feeling we really are in the midst of a third world war without realising we’ve been polarised, because it was engineered by a whole film crew of politicians, producing the living nightmare we see being played out around us.

Maybe I didn’t sleep after all, but I was there. All around the world, then and now. One person’s dreams are another’s nightmares. The only way to stop it is to switch it off.

Like so.

SyringePen-2

This post was brought to you by the letter E, the number 37, and the writing prompt, ‘What did you dream about last night?’

The invention of the pencil case

If it wasn’t for humans, other people would have the time and space to write

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

Proletariat politics of disruption

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POLITICS

As a Labour Party member disaffected by the leadership, and with The Greens not fielding a candidate in my local election, I voted Lib Dem. Just putting that out there.

Polling Station

Despite the general apathy I witnessed at the booths (I voted by post), no vote is wasted, especially when it’s not for one of the two main parties. We need to change the political landscape if we’re to have any hope of a future. 

Hitler May

As it turned out, if the results were replicated in a general election, the Lib Dems would poll around 19%. Now all they need to do is join up with the Greens (who would poll 12%) and you’ve got a workable coalition which could land an overall majority.

Meanwhile we’re in the midst of the Third World War and we’re blind to it. It’s a war engineered by politicians in the UK, the US, Russia, and worldwide. It’s designed to fracture society, left vs. right to realise their social cleansing agenda. They under-estimate our intelligence at their peril, when we could unite against a common foe.

I’ve not written much over the last few months, least of all about UK politics. The fascist social cleansing agenda of the Tory dictatorship is a machine I’m consumed within myself, as the ruling party commit economic murder on a nation they’ve divided. The United Kingdom is an international joke, and the government is our shame. It’s difficult to write about one of the antagonists making you ill when their aim is prevention, but I’ll only be heard if I write, even if not all the words are mine.

Working class

I read an online post recently, which saves me several months of updating this blog with my opinion on the UK government, and of Brexit, which was always about internal divisions within the Conservative Party. Instead of sorting out their own differences, like long-term thinkers and responsible government do, they decided to destroy a country and its democracy. Deliberately. This by Attila the Stockbroker on Facebook:

This unprecedented period of division and chaos in our country is entirely the Tories’ doing. No-one else’s – it is literally entirely theirs. If you are in any way unconvinced I think it’s time for a recap.

Firstly, Cameron decided to foist a referendum on us in the mistaken belief that it would settle the Tories’ split on Europe once and for all by showing the ‘Eurosceptics’ that the majority wanted to stay in the EU. He never dreamed for an instant that the slavering bigots of the tabloid press, dark money and the likes of Cambridge Analytica would prove cleverer and more influential than his countless corporate backers when it came to influencing voters. A ghastly coalition of liars won the referendum in a welter of fake news and appalling xenophobia.

Then May called a snap general election in the mistaken belief (re-enforced, let us remember, by 99% of all known mainstream media) that she would trounce the ‘unelectable’ Jeremy Corbyn and gain the huge majority to complete Brexit in the way she wanted to. Instead she lost her slim majority and could only cling on to power by bribing the unspeakable 17th century boggle eyed rednecks of the DUP.

(An aside here: if you are going to inveigh against ‘terrorist sympathisers’ then the DUP are as much in that category as Sinn Fein. Of course, one person’s ‘terrorist sympathisers’ are another woman’s route to power in a country with a tame right wing press and cowed BBC. Imagine the utter furore if the situation had been reversed, Labour were the largest party and Corbyn then persuaded Sinn Fein to take their seats to give him a majority….)

And then May made the most appalling and yes, disloyal, unpatriotic decision of all the festering, diarrhoea sodden, burst colostomy bag in a leaking bucket of unspeakably crap decisions she has come up with in the past three years….

Instead of recognising the severity of the situation and reaching out to other parties, she put the interests of the Conservative Party above those of the country and allowed her Brexit strategy to be dictated by the appalling Lord Snooty Rees Mogg and the aforementioned DUP.

And that brings us on to the backstop issue. Let us not forget that the DUP are supposed to be representing a province which voted 63% to stay in the EU. Although a huge obstacle which needed to be high on the agenda in any Brexit negotiations, the Irish border issue had no real traction during what was (surprise, surprise) a thoroughly Anglocentric referendum campaign. So when it came up in Brussels the DUP, holding the balance of power in Parliament, could hold the country to ransom on the backstop issue to appease their ghastly followers with no problem at all – in no way reflecting the views of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

If May had reached out to other parties during negotiations and sidelined the slavering bigots on the Tory Right the DUP would have turned against her, binning her majority, and the Conservative Party would have split. As a literally lifelong Tory loyalist apparatchik devoid of empathy, humanity or imagination (those being self evidently the qualities required for that role) she was determined to avoid those eventualities at all costs.

Like Cameron who foisted the filthy referendum on us in the first place, she deliberately chose to split the country in two to avoid the Tory Party falling apart. Families and friendships torn asunder and British citizens literally fighting in streets and pubs is preferable to her than the end of the disgusting organisation to which she has dedicated her life.

I hope the Tory Party self-destructs anyway. I think it will. To coin a phrase, Parliament has to take back control now and save us from the abyss. There will be cross party co-operation and Lord Snooty won’t like that. Rot in hell, Rees Mogg. Rot in hell.

And the rest of us? Weep, Britain, weep. And if you care about this country, as I most certainly do, remember what the Tories – no one else, just the selfish, self-obsessed, navel gazing Tory Party – have done to us and never, ever, ever vote for them again.

I couldn’t have put it any better.

Brexit Myths

While we’re lied to by those in power, and their media friends who perpetuate those lies, the future of UK politics requires us to have faith rather than conviction. Democracy in the UK is broken, and Parliament is being exposed as what Guy Fawkes had a righteous objection to. We need to get rid of the current government, and consign them to history. What next for our once proud nation, where patriotism has been reclaimed by nationalists? Where do we go now?

The Prime Minister has kicked the Brexit can so far down the road, there’s hardly time left before the UK is obliged to leave the EU under current UK law (made by parliament). Leaving the EU with no deal was voted down, so now the MayBot has to ask the other 27 member states for an extension. Having already told the UK government they’ve done all they can, the EU will tell the PM to fuck off. So on March 29, Brexit doesn’t happen and the UK remains in the EU, or the Tories keep kicking the can? Again, the EU is running out of patience. This has taken two years, and what’s held the process up all that time (and cost billions) is internal UK parliamentary divisions. Just like it’s always been then.

Labour Tory

The Tories’ opposition in Parliament has hardly been fit for purpose, caught up in their own internal battles and with a leader seemingly unable to offer a way out: a simple matter of a second referendum, where the working class who read the right-wing press which perpetuated the mess might be allowed another vote, now that they know what they were voting for. Perhaps even they can see now that ‘Taking back control’ means giving more control to the Tories and their fascist agenda.

We need a new government, but who’s fit to govern? The rest of the EU might be able to negotiate with a new PM, but who might that be? If there were a general election soon, no single party would manage a majority, and with Parliament shattered into so many pieces – opposing within parties, and agreeing across party divides – what might emerge?

If we’re given a vote we hope might mean something, who do we vote for? Not Labour, whose leader has various fences up his arse. Certainly not the so-called “Indies,” whose independence is only their own interests. My vote in any general election would go to The Greens, if they can only field enough local candidates. But that’s a massive hope, just as it is to wish for enough people to do the same. UK politics is broken, and so are the electorate.

mayfascistwitch

Where’s the party which could be formed, when the voting public are starved and hungry for something new? When politicians are so keen to form alliances and coalitions, where’s the party which would at least unify enough people to make all the quiet voices of reason audible? Where are the centrist and remainer Labour MPs, The Greens, and the Lib Dems, who could form such an allegiance? Where’s the new party who can say they’ll get us through this, then because of their various political standings, they’re intelligent enough to know that progress comes from thesis, antithesis and synthesis; the ones who know that the long-term thinkers will prevail, because we can sort all the other stuff out once we’re less distracted?

Where’s the green socialist democratic movement, making the best of democracy as it’s become, even subverting it? Where’s the party which could disrupt the right-wing media read by the working classes? What if they levied a tax on personal data to finance a Universal Basic Income?

Where’s a New World Order Party when we need one? Where’s the redistribution of wealth our species needs? Where’s radicalism when we need it? Where are our elected representatives when we need them to do their jobs?

With what remains of a hacked democracy, we should seize what might be our last chance to take our country back. Us, the people, should re-take the country we once knew, back from fascist occupation. Back to a time before la folie of the last two years, before the United Kingdom ceased to be.

Dear Britain2

Now is the time to admit we got it wrong, all of us. But however convinced anyone is of leave or remain, it was all a big con. To prevent it happening again, we need to change politics. We need to stop this, then maybe we can all sit down afterwards and sort the rest out over a cup of tea or a warm beer.

Ultimately, we need to disrupt the politics of division. We need to think of the future we can only make for ourselves. The only one we might have. Britannia no longer rules the waves, but we can still lead the world by example.

Tony Benn

I can’t help but think that might be aided by the Lib Dems and Greens joining up. When differences are small, it’s far easier to find common ground and form lasting coalitions (possibly even the ‘Strong and stable’ which has become farcical under the current fascist dictatorship).

Usually politics moves slowly, but this is a fast change. With European elections coming up in a couple of weeks, it could be the start of a monumental shift. It’s not radical, just rational.

I’m not an armchair or ambulance activist. I’m using a typewriter at a writing desk, but I’m everywhere: On phones and tablets, on Facebook and Twitter, just like you.

See you around. Vive la Révolution.

Where the robot rejects work

FLASH FICTION

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology (an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world), 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.”

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans-octothorpe) for things like AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is suppressed but can be found.

It’s a story of inclusiveness and belonging, of fitting in and being yourself. It’s told through the face of a defective android called Frenchie, who’s pink…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

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.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Pink_or_Plum_Robot_Face_With_Green_Eyes

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN
WE MAKE
YOU EAT
WE DO DISHES

This story taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency

 

The omnipresent Kung Po chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My real and online lives have always been blurred, and my fiction contains much which is real. The places and people of my imagination connect and fold in on each other and into parallel worlds besides. Where it all plugs in is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington: a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own.

mp_chicken_keyboardFollow me on Twitter

I have much written in longhand journals but little published lately, because I’m unable to finish anything with all that’s crowding my head personally. So it was ironic that I opened a page in ‘642 Things to Write About‘ today, to see ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

Sensing an urge, I stuffed 642 Things into my satchel and made my way to the Unfinished Literary Agency’s office, a place I feel I belong. Home is where the heart is, which is probably why I still have fond memories of being homeless in a world without judgement. Ink pumps through my veins, which is why I feel at home in the agency I wrote, one of many homes I created for myself.

When I arrived at the office, I found I wasn’t alone (even though I’d travelled that way). Not only is the agency home to myriad unpublished manuscripts, filed where most people think indie creative writing belongs (there is no direct sunlight in the office), now it was a nest for a familiar chicken.

Helen (‘Len’ in the short form) was the chicken I’d created when she hatched from a Campbell’s Soup tin in my kitchen back home in Catford. She’d subsequently disappeared in a flight of logic, when she proclaimed herself as God and we’d disproved her over dinner. That was a few weeks ago. Now she was seated at my desk (standing on the chair), pecking at my typewriter by candlelight.

Naturally I was curious about what Len was writing, but every time I tried to look, she obscured the paper in the typewriter with her wings. I asked her what it was she was working on, and she pointed at a pile of papers on the desk. It was at least a ream of A4, typed on both sides. Sensing I wasn’t going to get any keyboard time, I picked up the manuscript.

It was a report from The Department for Work and Pensions, their response to my appeal to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to hear my case for having my human rights returned. Was Len turning it into a surrealist novel, or writing a damning critique of its inaccuracy? For now the chicken wouldn’t let me see, so I tried to catch some sleep in a place I might find it easier than usual, away from home.

The hardest thing about writing is starting. Once you’re into it, things flow. Sometimes you can’t stop. Most of the time, the writing can’t keep up with the thinking. And so I slept, while a chicken transcribed whatever it was in her head.

When I woke, the chicken had gone. She’d apparently also found the switch for the desk lamp I once wrote into existence, in case I should ever run out of candles.

Everything else was as I’d left it after I’d last visited, except the in-tray of The Unfinished Literary Agency, a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own. There were suggestions, some so sparse and vague that they could be ideas for novels, typed on a space as small as a compliment slip:

The waters on Earth contain the answers humanity needs to explore the oceans of the cosmos. Over time, new bacteria will grow on the human pollution which floats on the oceans, and human science and technology will advance as it learns more from nature. Eventually, human scientists will realise that a single strain of DNA can hold more information than any artificial storage medium, and it can survive almost any environmental condition practically indefinitely. And ultimately, humanity will see that the new bacteria on the plastic polluting the oceans contains DNA encoded with a message of extraterrestrial origin.

Clever poultry. It’s amazing what you can do when you have someone else to write it for you. Apparently I hadn’t disproved Len that last time, but her creator. She’d also left some sketches of road plans based on Mobius strips, so she wouldn’t get run over again.

I rushed home to start writing again. It was only when I got back that I realised I left my DWP paperwork back at the office.

Pink Chick

Every night as you drift off to sleep, you sail through purgatory. The only way to pause and remember is to float on the lucid waves.

Being here and now and there and then, is what it feels like to be a writer, unable to know what happens next, but knowing where to go. Writing from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Making music and singing out from where the sun rarely shines.

This post was brought to you by the writing prompt, ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (Volume One) is available now.