The lights of the mothership

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is six weeks since my assessment for PIP, and still not a word from The Department for Work and Pensions. It seemed my benefits had been withdrawn when less money than usual went into my bank. Strange (or just plain rude) then that no-one had the decency to tell me. It’s been playing on a primal human fear within me: that of the unknown. I was grateful for the wisdom of the mothership, telling me to slow down.

mothership_by_jambi20-d6nq2yvMothership by ShahabAlizadeh

My mum pointed something out which gives me a glint of hope: It could (just about) be, that my last period of benefits (two years) ended, while DWP are still considering my re-application. It’s a faint glimmer, but it’s a small light at least.

It could just be that someone has found some inner humanity, and decided not to put me through the social cleansing machinery. It’s more likely to be weeks of making calls, waiting 20 minutes to be connected, then hung up on as soon as someone can’t answer a question.

I’m usually the optimist – despite having chronic depression – my reasoning that neither the optimist nor the pessimist can affect or predict the outcome of something unknown and beyond their control, but the optimist has a better time while not knowing. I must admit – because a government department is involved, and a Tory one at that – the pessimist is more to the fore of my mind at the moment.

But even if I have been declined, I know what I have to do now. I can’t fully relax like I would if I wasn’t facing the tribunal appeals process, but now I have the knowledge, it helps. So much so that I’ve started writing some new stories.

There’s one I’m particularly excited about, but too much reveal would be spoilers. It’s a science fiction yarn, about plastic pollution on Earth, a way in which aliens might communicate with us which hasn’t occurred to us to look for before, and a message in a plastic bottle. The central idea is not one I’ve seen used in fiction before, and it needs a bit of explaining, but I can do that in fiction with show-don’t-tell and with dialogue. It’s a rare departure for me into long-form short stories (I’ve written a few before), of anywhere between 6,000 and 12,0000 words. The kind of length which could be made into a feature film.

I don’t even have a working title for the story yet, but I feel compelled to record my intention to finish it, lest any DWP shit sandwich arrive in the post and throw a spanner in my brain’s workings. There’s a lot in there, troubling me, including (but not limited to) the end of the world and of human extinction.

Now that I’m getting back to writing, perhaps I’ll deal with the rise of the right, their invention of fear with a rhetoric of unseen outside threats, placing a protectionist dome over their captive audience as they repeat lies with such frequency they become the truth. I’ll use the coping mechanism of the keyboard to write of the hacking of democracy, and the various ways humanity may commit mass suicide or save itself. One story will see humankind in a new paradigm, one in which extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system, a common new actor uniting previously hostile human factions. The arrival of a mothership might force all humans to slow down and take a look at themselves, just like my mum, who gave me this computer, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” When I first started, it was for therapy.

I’m busy on the typewriter: The laptop computer which actually sits on a desktop, where a desktop was always really a ‘Floortop’. There’s an analogy, perhaps for more fiction, of computers placed as though by a superior intelligence on ever-higher shelves as it brings up kids. A technological Tower of Babel. A protectionist mechanism, telling us not to grow up too fast.

Shooting battered cod and chips

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is five weeks since my PIP assessment and I’ve still been told nothing. DWP acknowledged that they have all they need to assess my claim, so part of me thinks no news is good news. Based on previous experience though, most of me suspects they’ll conclude that I’m not entitled. If so, it’s taken five weeks to play a pretty sick trick on someone they know is vulnerable. But it’s all part of the Tory social cleansing machinery.

ship_shark_jaws_boat_sea_60084_2560x1600

It’s anxiety and paranoia, and the reassessment process makes it worse. It heightens my conditions, like taking a Stabilo Boss to all the Post-It notes pinned to my head. Benefits claimants are fish in barrels at the best of times, but I’m simultaneously out of the water.

I saw the kids yesterday, so I now I have separation anxiety. I do miss them, every day, but the days after I’ve seen them are the hardest as they’re fresher in my mind. Everyone but me ended up in a better place after my breakdown, over five years ago now. It’s a testament to my ex-wife and the kids’ second dad that I now have two very engaging and curious young people to share the odd Sunday with.

I can think about plans but not make them. Visiting my parents and my kids costs money, which PIP has helped with over the last four years. With my mind confused and unknowing, I can’t write, or not coherently enough to hold all but the most surreal stories together.

I know I should broaden my horizons and maybe take up a new hobby, perhaps even one which might get me out more. The problem with being outside is, there are other people there. Maybe then a solitary pursuit, like fishing. But then there’d be some tosser (one who casts lines) who’s been doing it for years, telling me I’m doing it all wrong without actually helping (you know the kind of smug, elitist type, often train conductors or lorry drivers in their day jobs). So perhaps I’d get a boat, then float alone, fishing on a lake. It’s where my name came from after all. Then I realise I don’t have the money or the courage, so I stay as I am. Less a Laker (one who fishes from lakes) and more the ponder.

gir_by_thekeyofeGir by Thekeyofe

The only thing I have patience for is poker. I’ve been coaching and playing my sole regular visitor, my kid sis Courtney (‘The Courts’, or ‘WE33 WIDOW’ at the table), and she’s holding me to a 14-14 score line in our tournament of tournaments, albeit with some handicapping earlier on. She’s 21 today, she’s come a long way and gone through as much machinery as me, and we both kept the other alive at times. Sometimes we’ll have fish with our poker chips, and PIP helps with thanking a friend for their support with a take-away (and ensuring I eat something). Playing poker relies on having someone to play with. I can play online, but not having someone to talk to means my attention wanders and I could end up playing losing games and forgetting to eat, so I stick to live play.

The Courts and me started playing poker at the squat, and in some ways, this waiting game is like being back on the streets, when my only output was transcribing a few pages of handwritten notes I’d made as I led my transient life, never able to settle anywhere. Back then, I started writing as it was all I had (no TV, not even a radio, and I daren’t borrow too many library books for fear they’d be lost or stolen), so I wrote. Now I have more to do, but no patience to do it; everything around me, but no interest in it. I’ve become even more withdrawn, and withdrawal drills into deeper thoughts. Yet after all that, after all the talk about being depressed and in a rut; because of all that, I can see something.

I read something on the train yesterday, on my way to meet the kids. Essentially it said, be grateful of your own company if it’s all you have. Don’t waste time chasing other people, less so wondering when you might hear from them. Don’t put your life on hold for too many others, live the one you have left with whomever you can.

Right now, that’s just me and my adopted sister sometimes for a game of cards. Once a month, it’s precious time with the children their mum and step dad have brought up so well. Once this period of limbo ends, it’ll be more regular trips to spend time with my parents. Until then, I wait, like I have for five weeks. And during that month and a bit, I’ve written a lot which doesn’t make sense in pieces, but I can see how it will come together.

I’ve not lost the ability to write, just the means to edit my thoughts and make them coherent. While I reconstruct myself, I can at least see ahead and know that I have a lot of stories to tell, once I can stitch them together as analogies for the horrors of going through the social cleansing machinery, and how it can be used to find things in the mind you’d normally be too busy to be troubled by.

In future fiction, within the next 2-3 years, a number of technologies could combine and reduce in cost to become something really cool:

Take an AI home assistant (Siri, Alexa…), put it in a humanoid or other robot physical form, and you’ve got home help for lifting and assisting with physical tasks.

Introduce an app to design your own personification of a home help robot, send it to a 3D printer (which will also print the circuitry), and each AI becomes even more individual and a part of the designer.

I’d like to print one of these:

shark_rex_by_heckthorShark Rex by Heckthor

To be continued…

The mended heart of Catford

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Where you’re from is not necessarily where you were born or spent your childhood, but where your heart is, and where you feel at home. Despite a comfortable upbringing in the country, I feel I’m more from London, specifically the borough of Lewisham, and Catford, SE6. That’s where my heart misses a beat…

catford-cat-702x336The Catford Cat (from LoveCatford)

At my recent benefits assessment, I was asked when my depression was originally diagnosed. That would be in 2011, after I was robbed at knifepoint in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a place otherwise full of pleasant memories. And in a way, even the attack wasn’t all bad. It was the start of everything going wrong and me losing all I had, but it redistributed people to where they better belonged.

A lot has happened in the last seven years and much has changed, most of all me. The last few weeks have been hectic, as I’ve been assessed by life and dealt with more changes, while making peace with where I am.

The benefits assessor asked me many probing questions, including what fuels my depression now. Mainly it’s guilt. I feel guilty about being a drunken, abusive, narcissistic sociopathic monster, and all the upset I caused so many people, during and after; most of all my long-suffering ex-wife and my children, but also my parents, forced to kick me out on the streets when I became unmanageable at the last chance saloon. That was the greatest act of bravery on their part, but the world didn’t want me the way I was. On the streets I’d either die like that or get better. As it was, I was a Tory. But as some of my more liberal friends have observed, I was very sick.

Mum stopped watching Pointless when I was on the streets, because we used to watch it together. When I stayed at my parents’ last week, after helping them around London for dad’s latest assessment, we watched Pointless together again. Dad’s doing well, so much so that I can write about it now that we’re seeing an improvement.

Long story short, he had suspected hydrocephalus, requiring a surgical drain of fluid which had built up around his cerebellum. He ended up with a severe infection which hospitalised him for three weeks, then had intravenous antibiotics administered by a district nurse at home for three months. He was very sick indeed.

When I met mum and dad for lunch before our trip to London, the first thing which struck me was how dad’s face matched his jumper. It was light brown in colour, where before there was nothing but grey. The last time I saw him, he was confined – physically and mentally – to his armchair. Even though he’s still largely confined to a wheelchair, he’s getting his mind back and he’s starting to walk short distances. He says he wakes up now and looks forward to the day, where before he was waking up and not knowing where he was, only to realise he wasn’t dead and that another day threatened.

After a day of trundling then watching TV together, my dad said it was great to have me around, because he knew that I was now. It was great to be there, spending time with my parents now that so much has changed for all of us (and brought all but my obstinate sister closer). Before I went to bed that night, I apologised about all that had gone before, when I was a Tory. “That’s all in the past,” mum said. If only they were.

The last time I saw the kids, I made a heartfelt apology to my ex-wife. “What for?” She knows of course, but she’s speaking from an over-it position, where I can’t get over it. I don’t swan around in life, happy with where I’ve got to. I spend every day feeling guilty about everything I did when I was drunk, looking at the little I have but glad to be here (alive), and glad that everyone else is in a better place. Except me.

Which ought to be enough for my remaining detractors (friends who are very much no longer, or still Tories), but they won’t rest until I’m gone. Even then I’m familiar with the technique of haunting. While I’m still here, I’ve changed into something those people don’t recognise.

Now I’m a left-wing liberal socialist, embracing diversity and all the colour and variety of life, music, art, culture, history, and personal identity you find in the kind of place where I’m at home. I’m an ageing punk, but from the days when Carnaby Street was all independent clothes, records and accessories shops. Now I’m a bit queer.

Home was once a country to be proud of, when the London Olympics showed the world what the UK could be. Now we’re a nation divided by fascist politicians, but the resistance is coming soon, on the streets where my heart beats.

I’m squared with the people who matter in my life, my family and the friends who stuck around and forgave me, even if I can’t. As for the rest, I don’t care if they love or hate me: If they love me, I have a place in their heart. If they hate me, I trouble their mind.

I’m from Catford after all.

peace-rainbow
‘I love my hands!’ (Academy of Ancient Reflexology)

 

Sugar, spice and puppy dog tails

THE WRITER’S LIFE

As it’s the school holidays, this month’s day out with my kids is different to the usual trip to Milton Keynes, as it’s not in Milton Keynes. This month we have a longer day, I don’t have to travel so far, and we’re spending the day in my spiritual home. I’ve got a day out in London with my two favourite young people, culminating in a trip to little China.

hungs_chinese_restaurant_chinatown_london

The itinerary was agreed after a surprisingly short trilateral democratic process, which took me aback somewhat. Given the multitude of things to do in London (paid and free), I thought there’d be more debate and possibly an argument. But no. With no prompting from me, eldest son (13) has chosen The London Transport Museum. This is fine by me as it ticks so many of my boxes: Transport, construction, engineering, history, graphic design, and London. The youngest daughter (11) is fine with this. She herself would like to go to The National Gallery, specifically the BP Portrait Award exhibition. This ticks more of my boxes: Art, history, religion, and architecture. Great minds think alike, and so do mine and my kids’.

This day out stretches into the evening, and given that London offers cuisine from pretty much every country, I asked the kids what they’d like to get for dinner. They chose Chinese, which was handy because we’ll be near Chinatown and I fancy Chinese too. I’ve even bought the kids a pair of chopsticks each, a souvenir of the day for future takeaways at home (I’m giving them spending money too, and paying for the food, and it costs £50 to get into the Transport Museum. My arse isn’t always tight).

The icing on the cake is a new T-shirt I bought, given that we’ll be walking around a gallery and a museum. In tribute to one of my favourite films, and to celebrate a favourite day out with my two favourite enquiring minds, I’ve got myself a ‘SAVE FERRIS’ shirt.

The story which follows is one I co-wrote with my son, or rather he started it and I finished it off. It could loosely be a sequel to The Invention of the Pencil Case, as we travel to a future Earth and find out a bit about how The Unfinished Literary Agency came to be, via The Office of Lost Things

IanVisitsIanVisits

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

Hello,” Eve replied.

What’s your name?” The crow asked.

Eve.”

Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

Would you like your chair?”

Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

But how can I hear you?”

Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

One of them.”

Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

And others followed.”

Many. Then everyone.”

So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

Lonely.”

That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

Who’s she?”

He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

Looked at like this, yes.”

But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

He was in London Zoo?”

Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

Why’s that?”

Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

It was a human thing?”

It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

Which was?”

The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

What’s not?”

Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

So where do we look?”

Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

 

A hitch hiker’s guide to chemists

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Space,” notes The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster2

As an anxious introverted recluse, I don’t get out much (even going to the chemist can take planning). I never travelled far in my life (to Belfast and the in-laws half a dozen times, and once each to France and Chicago) and my children have already both accumulated more air miles than me (visits to Belfast, school trips and holidays in Europe). I’ve travelled in space, like we all have, but I think about these things more than most.

At 48 years old, I’ve travelled around the sun 48 times, which is roughly 45,120,000,000 km or 28,032,000,000 miles (and counting). To my mind, that’s forty five thousand million km, but nowadays we call it 45 billion, when that’s not what it is. A billion (in maths) is a million million, just as a million is a thousand thousand. So I’ve travelled 45 ‘billion’ km, which is roughly the distance to Neptune and back, five times.

To put that into the perspective of the universe, it’s about 0.005 light years. So in 48 years, I’ve travelled as far as light does in 42 hours: Strange how that number crops up when you’re considering your place in the universal scheme of things. Even if I’d spent my life travelling at light speed (in which case, I wouldn’t have aged), I’d only recently have reached the nearest exoplanets outside our solar system.

That’s where humans need to go, to places like the Trappist system, about 41 light years away. But we are nowhere near ready or evolved to do more than contemplate the science we need to take us there, or to terraform and colonise the moon or Mars. For whatever future is foreseeable, we will remain a one-planet race, so we have to hope we find ways of getting along as a species and being nicer to our neighbours who were here first. Those are other blog entries, already written or on my mind.

I may not have travelled much on the surface of the planet but I appreciate where I’ve been while sitting on it. It’s humbling and often emotional to place ourselves relative to something else, in space or in time, to remind ourselves not how small we are, but how big everything else is. There’s a regular mind exercise I do, sometimes exploring ideas for stories, and other times just to remember or imagine.

I think of my age now (48), then I go back to a time when my dad was that age, which would be 1990, where I remember a lot about myself. I also think forward, to when my son will be 48 (2052) and imagine what might be going on then. But first, back to a time when problems seemed far away, when I was my son’s age (I was 13 in 1983).

Both are going through changes in their own lives at the moment, yet I can only relate to the younger one, who’s where I’ve been before. My dad is way ahead of me. At 76, he’s travelled that many times around the sun and clocked up just over 71 billion km, equivalent to five return trips to Pluto and just a tiny fraction nearer the closest habitable planets. I don’t see either of them as much as I’d like, because I don’t get out much.

I’ve just put myself through the first part of the human mincing machine which is the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) bi-annual re-assessment. Filling out the form, ‘How your disability affects you’ made me realise how my own mental health has declined over the last couple of years.

When you live a life of social exclusion, depression becomes degenerative. If I’m not fully dehumanised by the whole process, having to prove my mental disability at tribunal (for a third time), then maybe I’ll have the confidence to seek further treatment, now that I’ve seen with my own eyes how bad things can get by writing it all down in an application form. Then I could see more of people.

Just remember, next time you’re looking at the night sky: You’ve been there, about 300 million km away. The Earth passed through that part of space six months ago, but that’s like a walk to the chemist’s on the universal scale. In our singular worlds, we’re much more significant in time than we are in space.

Life trek: The next generation

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The week just finished was one I’d been dreading for some time, but which I couldn’t have missed at any cost. Not one for early mornings, my body was required to haul itself up and stay there three times this week, but time spent with generations respectively either side of me made the extra hours worthwhile.

man-machine-evolution-TVH-gerd-leonhard-1024x608Press release for Gerd Leonhard’s 2016 book: Technology vs. Humanity – The coming clash between man and machine

Further to my dad’s trip to London and a subsequent, more local hospital appointment, he’s surrounded by some clear water: The fluid on his brain hasn’t returned in any great quantity, and his blood readings are returning to normal. His neurologist vindicated my thinking, noting that the series of setbacks my dad’s suffered (an infection, then an adverse reaction to the antibiotics) will have slowed his recovery. Now things are more normal, and with no appointments to worry about (he stresses over the travelling), his recovery should quicken.

The visit to mum and dad’s was much nicer than I expected it to be; not that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy time with my parents, but because dad is in better health than I’d led myself to believe. I’m an advocate of optimism over pessimism, because being of either persuasion makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. But a mind which will sometimes remind itself of its host’s human mortality also needs to prepare for other eventual certainties. My life has covered a lot of experiential ground, but there’s some I’m yet to tread one day.

As a scientific atheist, I don’t fear death. Or rather, I believe there’s a different life after this one, but while I remain human, I lack proof. I’ll always fear the mode of transit to the other side, and my own mind’s capacity to deal with the passing of another. It’s a universal human fear of the unknown, which my brain dwells on more than it should. For now, I’m only human.

On the other side of the generational family sandwich, I spent yesterday with my children, and was able to deliver positive news of the older generation. It was an important date (for us) because it marked the last time we’d be together for some while, before we’re once again all prime numbers. We’re currently 47, 13 and 11, so the next window will be when I’m 53, and the kids 19 and 17 respectively.

Life in 2023 will be very different to today, and we only have to look at the speed of change around us to see how obvious that is. If the world’s still here, and humans not extinct, we’ll see many more human occupations made redundant by technology. Like many others, my children understand the importance of remaining in education for as long as possible, when soon there’ll be relatively few jobs which are the sole preserve of humans.

In the right governmental hands, there’s a possible utopia ahead, where the productivity of machines means that wealth generated by a nation can finance a universal basic income, so that humans are free to pursue their hearts and dreams more, with the essentials taken care of. I believe a basic home is a human right and not a privilege, and that autonomous freedom has huge public health benefits, but the UK has a Conservative government.

I’ve always told my children to be the best they can at that which they enjoy the most (provided it’s legal and ethical), because that will give them the most back in satisfaction, and allow them to give more back to the world in which they create. At the moment, the eldest is learning to play keyboards, to possibly concentrate on the piano further down the line. He’s also building his own home computer. Meanwhile the youngest is a budding artist and illustrator in her spare time, in between learning three European languages (French, German and Polish).

There’s a lot to be said for being the middle of three generations, because each is a reflection of me on the other, and I’m not the Marmite filling I once was. I’m glad the gene for questioning and discovery was passed down, and only regret not making better use of it in my time. My children don’t suppress their curiosity in a conditioned life like I did. Now we’re learning together, as the world around us changes; and as old as I am, I sometimes have to ask them what something is.

Now that my dad’s getting better, hopefully we’ll be able to restart those conversations too.

Star Trekkin’ across the universe, Only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse…”

No jacket or factory reset required

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve just returned from a 24 hour break, which I needed to open my eyes again. I’ve been among nature and handled a snake, I’ve been to London to be reminded where my heart lives, I’ve helped the aged, and I’ve been touched by beacons of humanity. I’d become trapped in my own home and I needed to escape, so I took my notepad and made some notes in the field…

star_trek_data

My main purpose was to help transport my dad to London for a consultation with his neurologist. For the uninitiated, he’d developed signs of senility but had fluid on his brain. This was drained and he seemed to be making a good recovery before complications set in. First an infection, then a long course of powerful antibiotics meant that his improvement slowed, and he even looked like he might be declining for a while.

Long story short, his recovery is now picking up where it left off, and we’ll know if any further invasive procedures will be needed in a few months’ time. The most recent prognosis is that his condition isn’t degenerative, but he’s of a certain age and any full recovery will take time. For now, he’s a bit slow on his feet and in his mind, but he has my mum as full-time carer. Yesterday I got to drive the wheelchair around London, in a role-reversal of all the times dad wheeled me around in a buggy as a kid.

As someone who’s become gradually more withdrawn over recent months, I wondered how my social anxiety and paranoia would cope with a return to the capital. Although I was there in sensible mode, providing practical help to a wheelchair user, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to stay. Looked at another way, I was fulfilling a duty which I’d have to complete, but London didn’t take long to let me know I’d be welcome back any time.

There’s the well-known saying, that you can take the person out of London, but you can never take the city out of the person. It applies equally to others in places all around the world, but London is where my heart is. Although I wasn’t born there, I’ve spent more than half my life living and working in London, and I believe I’m from the place where I feel at home, rather than my birthplace.

An early start to the day had skewed my internal clock (I was up at 8am, when normally I wake around noon), so by the time we got to dad’s appointment at a part of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Holborn, it felt like evening (it was 2.30pm). Mum went in to the consultation with dad, and I was free to explore. I quickly spotted a pub.

Unlike five years ago, I can go to a pub now for a single or social drink, and it won’t be the first of however many are needed to prevent me functioning. A pint of cider came in at just under a fiver, and I sat at a table outside on Queen’s Square to contemplate the cold, frosty glass. Then I took out my notebook and wrote this blog entry: everything to here in fact, as my glass sits almost full beside me, and an occasional droplet of condensation runs down the side. That pint cost me a fiver, so I owe it the respect of savouring the anticipation before I actually drink it.

Before I got there though, I’d travelled from my home to my parents’ house, and then to London. I had nothing to fear of any extra stress involved in travelling with a wheelchair user, and even though we were travelling on a group discounted ticket, we were given a little public transport red carpet treatment.

Our train was held so that a wheelchair ramp could be provided, and a train guard asked some young people to move from the wheelchair priority area of the carriage. Once dad was installed, seatbelt on and handbrake applied, I enjoyed a personal journey to London I’d not made in a while.

When I visit my kids every month, I only pass through London, hardly pausing on the way to Milton Keynes. The journey from where I live in West Malling, takes the rail line through the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, before docking at London Victoria. On this trip, I was returned to travelling from Tonbridge and into London Charing Cross, a route I’ve not taken for over two years.

I like many things, including trains. I like all transport and the infrastructure which surrounds it (I love airports), and I like architecture, building and construction. I was keen to see the new London Bridge station and the progress of various tall buildings in the Square Mile. We were just passing through, but I vowed to return and explore the new London Bridge further, perhaps on a future visit to ride on Crossrail, The Elizabeth Line and the Battersea underground extension.

We were provided with a further ramp for alighting at Charing Cross, and with time to spare, we decided to walk to the hospital. On the way, I gave a running commentary on places and buildings of note, including Savoy Place, the only road in the UK where motorists drive on the right (it dates from an age of carriages setting down outside The Savoy, and now modern cabs, where the driver opens the driver-side passenger door to disgorge patrons). It was shortly after that I decanted myself into the pub.

A further ramp was provided by an obliging cabbie for the return journey to Charing Cross, and again by South Eastern staff at both ends. Local mini cab drivers had provided a similar assistance service (without the ramps), so my dad spent the entire day on wheels.

I stayed over and we had fish and chips for dinner. I decamped to the garden every time I needed to smoke, and with dad’s condition preventing him from keeping things as he’d like, it’s become somewhat overgrown. While I was smoking in the evening, I saw many species of birds, insects and spiders. Later at night, I heard the familiar rustle of undergrowth as a hedgehog foraged. My dad loves nature and he dotes on his garden, but he may decide to retain a bit of the wilderness now that all these new visitors are popping in.

As I smoked my last at around midnight, I was surprised at how clear the skies were above mum and dad’s home. Theirs is a suburban setting with street lighting, but despite the pollution, I could clearly make out the main planets, the obvious stars and constellations, and some more distant bodies in the night sky. It was as I wondered at my place in the universe that the familiar sound of mating urban foxes curdled the air, so I wished them well and retired.

I was physically and mentally tired from the day, so I turned in a couple of hours earlier than usual. At my parents’ house, there’s no danger of footsteps outside the door with the comings and goings of social tenancies, so there’s no need for a fan to provide drowning ambient white noise. Instead, I fell asleep to the sound of chirping insects and the occasional hoot from a distant owl, before floating through the universe.

My parents are off to another appointment for dad today, this one more local and not requiring my help. I got up early to spend a couple of hours with mum and dad, and their snake: a seven-year-old four-foot royal python, adopted from me when I fell apart (and he was my son’s snake: a birthday present, staying with me (another story on this blog somewhere)), but never returned because they were too attached to the little guy. Now their priorities are more with each other, and with my life far more settled and as secure as it can be in social accommodation, I could do with a companion. I need to check the specifics of the “No pets” rule with the landlord. Snakes don’t make a noise like some dogs, but attitudes towards them can be somewhat different among those who don’t take the time to educate themselves.

FordMy arm, with bracelet

It all started with a Facebook post (and a picture of a snake), after I’d written the last blog entry: I tend to post less personal stuff on here nowadays, and save my sentiments for the blog…

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had good friends phone me to see how things are. It’s like the Facebook post led them to the blog and they took the time to read. If so, then I’m grateful. Because that last blog post was a quiet cry for help, and the help found me when humanity functioned.

It was nice to have a whole day and night, to relax and not worry about people wanting my material possessions. It was pleasant to spend time with different people and to see humanity and nature, briefly in the same view.

This post has rambled all over the place, just like me with my notepad in the last day. I needed to write it all down before it faded, because the depths and messengers of depression will return, as they always do. For now though, I’m restored, and I plan to venture out of the darkness again. Better to restore functionality than have to resort to a factory reset.