A story dictated by Mus musculus

FICTION

In cat mythology, white mice were the second most intelligent species on Earth, after cats. Then it was dolphins, humans, dogs and everyone else. While infinite monkeys and apes developed tools, it was only humans who could be trained to use their opposable thumbs to write stories…

two-white-mice

SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE ANIMALS

The original carvings were found deep in a forest, but debate varied over which were the first. In the space of a week, new inscriptions were discovered several times daily, all in woodland, all identical, but unlike anything recorded previously. Meanwhile, two school friends had uncovered what could be a key.

How does it switch on, Jay?” Kerry stared at herself, next to Jason, as they both looked back from the black glass-like sheet.

I don’t know, Kay,” Jay replied, as he looked back at Kerry. “It’s nothing obvious that I’m missing, is it?” He handed the pane of glass to her. About A4 in size, the glass was no thicker than a sheet of paper. “What’s it made of, anyway?”

Well,” Kay said, moving it in and out from her face, “it’s got imperfections.”

What, your face?”

Fuck you, wanker. No, I mean, the glass, or whatever it is, it’s not completely smooth. It’s like something from a dark and twisted hall of mirrors. See what I mean?” She handed the mirror back, and Jay looked at himself as he moved it in front of him. “Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon.”

Jay turned the sheet over in his hands. “I look the same on both sides,” he said to their reflections, “bumpy. In fact, I’d say I’m quite corrugated.”

Well,” said Kay, “your forehead often is.”

Eh?”

You frown a lot.”

Jay frowned at the glass sheet. “Well,” he said, “no matter how much I wish it to switch on, it won’t. There are no buttons, so there must be some other way.”

You actually think it’ll switch on? Jay, it’s just a sheet of some old material.”

I know,” Jay replied, “but it’s this weird stuff, and where we found it. It’s got me wondering.”

We found it buried in the woods, Jay. Lots of things are buried in woodland, and time and the elements change things. This could just be a part of something plastic, and the material has been melted, or eroded.”

But it was wrapped up. And it was near those tree carvings, like the ones on the news.”

Tree and stone carvings had been cropping up spontaneously in the previous few days. At first, pranksters were suspected, but it had become too elaborate. Now, the same conspiracy community which once surrounded crop circles had been stirred, and the internet was an ocean of theories.

The carvings weren’t any recognisable text, nor were they pictographs which gave any clues to their origin or meaning. They incorporated geometric shapes and patterns, like crop formations, but appeared on tree bark and rocks. Jay and Kay found the glassy sheet when they’d been metal detecting, and at first, the haul was just a soda can and some tin foil, but the foil was wrapped around the slate.

Any theories on the news?” Kay wondered.

Only one,” Jay said, “a really out-there one.”

Try me.”

Imagine we’re in biblical times.”

You wha’?”

Two thousand years ago, give or take: Imagine we’re there, or then, if you like.”

Okay.”

Okay.” Jay adjusted himself in his chair. “You know I don’t believe in God, right? But no-one can deny that the bible might be based on fact, on actual events. Ancient scribes may have recorded actual historical events, but they’d have been limited in the terms they used and what was available to them, in the way they recorded things.”

Yeah,” Kay said, “you’ve said. Imagine if you could’ve given one of those old guys a smartphone. They could’ve recorded it all and we’d be able to see what they saw. It’d solve the whole religion problem.”

Well, yeah,” Jay agreed, “and if you gave them say, a mobile phone, or a tablet computer, they’d probably think it was some sort of sorcery, or it could be alien technology. And they’d probably write of it as some sort of magic mirror.”

And that’s what you think this is?”

It could be,” Jay tried to assert. “It just won’t switch on. If it’s what I think it could be, it’s either extinct through pure neglect or technology. Or it could be a technology so far advanced, that we just don’t understand it.” He held the slate to his face again. “Hmm, never noticed that before,” he frowned.

Show me?” Kay moved next to Jay, and looked at them both in the glassy surface, frowning. “What didn’t you notice?”

The way one of my eyes seems to take just a split fraction of a second to catch up. Only that one, the left one, watch.” Jay looked at Kay’s reflection.

“You’re right, it does,” she said. “You’ve got a lazy eye mate.”

I think it’s pretty cool actually,” Jay said, looking from himself, to Kay, and back again. “It’s like that one is taking things in more, while the other one concentrates ahead. Then the left one catches up and tells my brain all the other stuff it needs to know.”

That is pretty cool,” Kay said, “you freak.”

Then something slightly unexpected, but entirely plausible happened: The slate crackled and sparked, first an arc of blue lightning, and the sparkle of a glitter dome. Then a graphic appeared on what had become a screen.

That looks familiar,” Kay said.

Kind of what I expected,” Jay replied. “Let’s see what the latest news is…”

The latest developments were trending, in news and on social media: Analysis of the designs found on trees and rocks, had revealed them to be neither carved nor burned into any surface.

Your theory?” Kay wondered.

That,” Jay said, “the carvings weren’t made from the outside, at least not by any method we understand.”

Meaning how many things?”

Two, equally crazy ones.”

Humour me, agent Jay.”

Okay, Kay. One: It could be that the marks were made by technology we don’t understand, which would suggest alien, either extraterrestrial or of this earth, as in, government. But we can discount the latter. They wouldn’t put on any show, other than to whip up hysteria, perhaps as a smokescreen. I dunno. So, aliens: aliens among us? Or visiting ones, leaving us messages, meaning what? Or,” Jay looked at the design on the tablet. “Or it could be, that the ones which look like this on the trees and the rocks… That’s theory two.”

Which is?”

That the carvings, inscriptions, or whatever; the words, pictures, designs; they could be made from the inside.”

How?”

Nature. I don’t mean colonies of insects, parasites or fungi. These are carvings on the outside, with no signs of being carved. So the opposite of that, is that they were pulled in from the inside.”

What the actual?”

Nature made them.”

You already said that.”

The earth made them, Kay.”

The wha’? The actual planet. Planet earth, put the messages there?”

It’s a bit like self-harm, isn’t it? So what this could be, Kay, is messages in the earth, the trees, the rocks, from the earth, where they’re all a part of the nature of that planet.”

Saying what? Jay?”

I don’t know. Maybe telling us to fuck off.”

Us?”

Humans.”

Shit.”

We are. We’re so un-evolved, when you look at us, and all we could be, with all that’s around us. We’re ugly. Those ancient aliens who may or may not have made up the stories in the bible, they were probably a race so technologically advanced because they’d harnessed the natural, sustainable energy from their environment, rather than plundering it of all its resources for their own gain. I mean, we’re only just developing wind, solar and tidal energy technology. We’re having to, because we’re running out of coal and oil. But still, perpetual energy sources only serve a small proportion of our needs. And we use less than one per cent of the energy available for free on this planet.

Those technologically advanced races, who may or may not have visited biblical humans, they were ones who’d become efficient through sufficiency. There are races out there who might have harnessed the natural energy of their parent star, with something like a Dyson Sphere. Look it up.”

I know what a Dyson sphere is, and I can only begin to imagine what a race might be capable of, once they’ve effectively captured all the energy of their sun with solar arrays. Actually, I can’t begin to imagine the possibilities.”

Which is exactly,” Jay said, “what those biblical scribes would have found.”

Your number two theory definitely has legs,” Kay confirmed. “How would the ancient alien tablet fit in though?”

Only if it was that.” Jay pointed at the design on the screen. “That being alien technology, like a magic mirror described in the bible.”

But it’s just showing that same design?” Kay suggested.

But look,” Jay said. “I’ve got a theory on how we managed to switch it on.”

How?” Kay looked at the same design as Jay on the screen. “Oh, like that,” she said, as the pattern began to change. “But how?”

Two heads are better than one, perhaps?”

They didn’t have to speak. It was the act of knowing, and the same like-mindedness which had switched the tablet on before. Perhaps the technology was ancient, advanced, or both, but it wasn’t redundant. It was woken by thought, specifically, the alignment of the thoughts of more than one person.

As Jay and Kay continued to watch the screen, the pattern continued to morph, into more complex and fractal patterns, perpetually zooming in on recursion. Then the whole screen changed, from screen saver to what was apparently an operating system.

It’s a bit like Linux,” Jay suggested.

You wha’? That,” Kay pointed, “is way more, Jay.”

It’s the only way I can think to describe it, as being accessible. Look, it seems to know what you want to do.” They both peered into the screen. “It’s three dimensional, and if you look ahead, you can see bits going off to the side. It’s like travelling down a wormhole.”

And that was the best way the modern day scribes had to describe what they saw.

Let’s see where we’re going,” Kay said, as they both watched the screen. “Ooh, look. What’s that?”

The wormhole opened onto a scene, apparently from a remote camera, with an overlay of what could be coordinates and time, but in an indecipherable text. The main picture was a live video feed, of a field, with a row of large chimneys in the background.

I wonder how we look around,” Kay wondered. Then something strange but expected happened:

The view on the tablet screen changed, as Kay (and Jay) willed some remote camera, perhaps in the countryside near a power station. Panning the landscape, they saw electricity pylons stretching into the distance, standing like frozen, bow-legged old ladies.

The pylon nearest the camera started to move, not by tilting, by lifting, first on one side, then the other. Soon, the pylon began to move forwards. A second pylon did the same, then a third, and quickly, a line of electricity pylons were walking through the mud beneath them, casting off electrical wires as they went. A battalion of iron old ladies, had lifted their skirts, cast off their bindings, and began a bow-legged march away from the power station.

The camera pulled away from the generator, which shrunk into the distance as the viewers were once again plunged into a spectral plughole, depositing them, through the magic of the mirror, in the middle of an ocean. As they thought about what might be around them, the camera obliged.

There was an oil rig, a steaming, fire-breathing skeletal leviathan. Suddenly, it held its breath, as the rig unplugged its umbilicus from the sea bed, and the natural elements in its man-made structure took on sentience.

The camera switched, gradually more quickly, around different scenes: Electricity pylons marching over fields, and oil rigs, swimming to shore, retro-futuristic dinosaur machines, striding through the landscape.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Everyone’s ugly in the back of a spoon,” with kind permission of Léanie Kaleido (she has a YouTube channel).

This story is taken from my second anthology, The Unfinished Literary Agency.

The real human lending library

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Everyone happens in a place, and if I were to put my finger on where I became a writer, it would be McDonald’s. When I first found myself homeless through drinking, I’d spend my days there, eventually becoming a bit of a fixture.

Seeing a solitary figure in the same place every day, scribbling in a note book, people were naturally curious, and it wasn’t long before I was relating my story to small groups. Mine is a cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction, but which led me into a life I’d never have known if I hadn’t been thrown into it. I’m part of the human library.

Human libraryDeccan Chronicle

I made a lot of friends and lived a lot of life on the streets, so when people started asking me what I’d do with all those notes I was making, I said I might one day turn them into short stories, and maybe publish a book.

This all leads to The Human Lending Library, an entity which I thought fictitious because I’d made it up, along with The Unfinished Literary Agency. I’m re-posting the story below because someone recently prodded me to say that there really is a human lending library, where people borrow people instead of books, and the borrowed tell their story. It originated (unsurprisingly) in Denmark in 2000.

The real human lending library serves exactly the same purpose as the one I imagined, back when I originally wrote Reflections of Yesterday. The story is set in a place close to my heart (Lewisham), where I saw much of the light and dark in the human condition. As an aside – with reference to the recent thinking on Stephen King (a horror writer I’ve been compared with) having an entire universe where he interconnects his stories – there’s an early appearance by a couple of characters from my own Cyrus Song in this unrelated story, as extras in a background scene.

The following fable was the result of long conversations and many notes, some made by the human whose story this is. For the most part, I transcribed those notes directly, which is why this is a bit of a long read.

This is the story of Huxley and Marlene: That’s “Mar-lay-nah” innit…

Reflections of yesterday Reflections of yesterday5 Reflections of yesterday4

REFLECTIONS OF YESTERDAY

The Unfinished Literary Agency is an underground publishing house, which I set up to tell the stories of others; Stories which would otherwise go untold. Like most of the characters in these stories, Marlene thought she was unimportant: She was a nobody. No-one would want to read a story about a random girl like her. So I made a suggestion on how we might make the story more interesting, while keeping it real.

It starts with a Beagle: a dog called Huxley, Marlene’s best friend and confidante. She insists on her name being written that way, without any character accents to denote that it’s pronounced “Mar-Lay-Nah”.

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, surrounded by her life, in three Sports Direct bags. A man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by. If someone just says hello, it makes me feel better. While there are so few people like you, I have a dog. I have Huxley, and he’s company. He listens. I’m Marlene. What’s your name mate? Sit down if you like.”

“Jay, and thanks.” Jay swung his rucksack from his shoulder and sat next to where Marlene lay on her sleeping bag, under a tree. It was a quiet time: mid-afternoon. Parents would be returning from shopping in Lewisham and getting ready to pick the kids up from school, before coming to the park. Every now and then, people walked by on the pathways. There were only two other people on the grass: a young red-haired girl, seated cross-legged, looking at something in her hand; and an older man, lying on his side and propped up on one arm. The girl passed something to the man and he looked at his hand for a while, before blowing something from his palm.

“You’re Muslim, right?

“Yeah, the rucksack sort of gives me away, doesn’t it?”

Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise in a moment that they’re of similar intellect; When one can crack a joke and the other doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate anything by finishing it off; When one doesn’t have to ride the coat tails of the other, because they both get what didn’t need to be said. They are equals. There’s usually some wag around in a social situation who’ll feel the need to fill things in: The kind of person who might give you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine or pool table. There were no spare parts in this conversation.

“How long have you been here?” Jay asked.

“Today, only about an hour. I try not to think about how long it’s been in all.”

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

“Yeah, I was out here for just over a year before I converted.”

“So what happened? I mean, if you want to tell me.”

“I think I might be as reluctant to share the tale of how I came to be here as you are. My conversion to Islam though, was an awakening. Some might call it an epiphany but I don’t believe in God. Or Allah.”

“What? Explain that one, please.”

“Well, one day when I was out here, someone gave me a copy of the Quran. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Thanks. This looks delicious’, but I couldn’t throw it away. No matter the contempt I have for religion and all that it’s caused, I respect every other human and that includes their beliefs. I wondered perhaps if I might reject God because I don’t understand him. I find that sense of not knowing unnerving, a fear of the unknown. The best way to deal with fear is confront it. So I decided I’d educate myself. I felt I owed it to the man who’d given me his copy of The Recitation.

“It was a coping mechanism and a comfort. It was escapism to safe entertainment. At it’s core, the Quran is just a different telling of the same events; The same stories, told by someone else with a different perspective. An alternative to the Bible. Despite what many perceive, a lot of the ancient Islamic texts have their roots in the one thing which unites us all: Humanity. In many ways, Islam is actually much more tolerant than Christianity. The Quran was the Guardian, to the Bible’s Telegraph. And where Jesus was just a nice guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad smoked a bit of weed. I don’t know, I just found the Quran much more accessible than the Bible. The Bible’s dictatorial, whereas the Quran is a guide. It was refreshing to see a different take on things. But either book in the wrong hands…

“So I took the faith and changed my name to Javeed. It means forever. But when I say I took the faith, I didn’t. Because I can’t have faith in something which is unproven; a paradox. I need to question what I don’t understand, and religion will not be interrogated. Instead, it tells us that we must believe and have faith. I’m not ready to relinquish my will. But I did have a new found faith in humanity and, just as I’d read that man’s Quran, I felt indebted to Islam. So I started attending the mosque. It was shelter, company, and food. Was I using Allah? If he exists, then he will judge. Until then, I consider myself free.”

“So why do you still dress that way? Do you go to prayers?”

“Because I get something from it. I see other people’s ways of looking at things. It taught me to see that failure, me losing my home and all, was just that to the weak man: A failure. But the strong man sees a challenge and he rises to it, to change, to make things better. And I felt I might be able to do some good. You see, there are a lot of young Muslims who feel alienated and persecuted. Well, I know how that feels. I suppose the best way to sum up a situation I don’t understand, is I’m not bound by Islam but by humanity. With my brothers, we are all members of the same human race. That’s what I found Islam to be. It’s not a religion to me, it’s a family.”

“What about the women?”

“Well, that sits very uncomfortably with me. But I could run away and ignore it, or I could try to do something about it. I see those women and girls as suffragettes. They’re way more persecuted than the men, and by the men. Over time, I’m trying to make the Imam and others more progressive.

“So you’re radicalising them? That could take a while.”

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

“Jim. Which means Jim. Anyway, Marlene, I should go. I’m cramping your style. I think these people walking past are giving us an even wider berth than they’d normally give you alone. They are no-one. Because every one of them who walks past, you’d probably not recognise if you saw them again. Let them stay that way. Let them retain their anonymity, and be forgettable. Here, let me compensate you for your time.”

“Compensate me? Like, pay me for talking and listening? I’m a captive audience mate. Besides, it was nice. You actually remind me of someone, but I don’t remember who.”

“I wouldn’t know. In any case, it was a pleasure. You’re a valuable person Marlene. Don’t forget that. Here…”

“A tenner? You sure?”

“Of course. It seems quite appropriate. On the reverse of the ten pound note, is Charles Darwin: Evolution and the rest of it. And his ship, HMS Beagle. Well, I do believe Huxley here is a Beagle.”

“Can’t argue with that. Thank you. Thanks mate.”

“You’re welcome my friend. I don’t care what you spend it on. That’s your business. I’d like to think that you used it to do something, to make things different. Keep your head up kid. I know you can swim, you just gotta keep moving your legs.” Jay stood and shook Marlene’s hand. “Be safe.”

Something. Something to make a difference. To eat a hot meal would make a change. But she couldn’t dine out wearing five layers of clothes, or with Huxley and her house in tow. Instead, she bought some food, which she had no intention of eating. She bought five loaves of bread, some wafer thin ham, a block of Cheddar and some tomatoes; all of which were reduced as they approached their sell-by dates. She also got some plastic knives and cling film. The food probably would have been destined for the homeless, but she had a plan: She would make sandwiches and sell them. Any she didn’t sell, she would give to the homeless, most of whom lacked the resources to make a sandwich of their own. The way Marlene saw it, she was buying raw materials to make into something and add value. In percentage terms, the margins were very large, so she could cover her costs, make a little profit for herself and give something ready-made to those with no money. The business plan required her to place faith in the general public to buy her goods, but other than that, it was sound.

On the first day, most of the sandwiches went to the homeless. Pure prejudice seemed to keep people away. Her stall was a makeshift table made of plastic bread crates, her hand-written sign listing her sandwiches: Ham or cheese, with or without tomato. Sandwiches just like mum used to make. All were priced at 50p. But it seemed that the same anonymous people who passed her by, were equally unprepared to give her money for something she’d done. They needn’t have any concern for hygiene. She wore plastic gloves while making the sandwiches, and sanitary wipes to keep her hands clean. She’d lost £5, but she’d given homeless people something to eat.

The next day she spent less and broke even. At least people were coming to her now, parents with kids mainly, perhaps reassured by her presence on a second day. For the next few days, she reached a plateau and her venture stagnated. She was covering her costs, giving a few sandwiches to the homeless and making a few pence each day. She needed to upsize but for that, she needed more capital.

She wondered about what she was doing; interrogated her business model. Perhaps she appeared too needy. But she’d never begged, and people were buying from her of their own free will. She wasn’t asking for anything. There was no mention of helping the homeless on her sign, as she imagined people might make the wrong association with her food. Perhaps those people weren’t even eating her sandwiches but 50p was such a small sum, and at least they got something. Some of her customers became familiar faces. They talked to her and she learned about them.

It was at the end of the second week that Marlene decided to make a change. She wrote a new sign, with just the sandwiches on and no prices. She stood an empty baked bean tin next to her sandwiches on the stall, and stuck a label on the tin: Thank you.

Human psychology is a deep and complex field of study and her human lab mice proved a theory: If presented with something which requires questioning, most will walk on by. But some people will seek answers. The revamped sandwich stall invited people to enquire, at least about the price of a sandwich, or to find out what they were being thanked in advance for. Without too much prompting, some humans quickly exhibited completely altered behaviour. They found themselves in a new paradigm; one where they were being thanked for taking something, and invited to leave a donation. The important decisions about the transaction had been placed firmly back with the customers: Whether to take something and if so, how much to pay for it. She remained a few feet from the stall; still present but not so close as to distract from people’s own free will. At the end of that first new day, Marlene’s tin contained £6.35.

She had a viable business model, of the simplest kind: Source cheaply, add value and sell at a profit. The added value here was the sandwiches being made: It was Marlene’s time. Her modest success was down to her honesty, and her trust in that of others: She could make no secret of the fact that her stall was unconventional. On the few occasions when she was asked the price of her sandwiches, she simply asked people to pay whatever they felt the food was worth. And there were those who took food and left nothing, but she wasn’t going to question them. One could quite easily be someone just like her, who might be embarrassed. By maintaining a distance, Marlene relied almost entirely on human spirit and her faith in such was somewhat restored.

But she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her business was standing still. She wasn’t making anything of Jay’s gift. So Marlene and Huxley took a walk. They couldn’t walk as far or for as long as they used to.

The sky was peach melba with a crème brûlée topping, and a warm breeze drove the day’s dust out of Mountsfield Park. Midges were beginning to form vortices around nothing, and ants were retreating to warmth. Marlene instinctively raised her wrist to her eye as something approached, but one midge didn’t make it home that night. Greenwich was the limit now, and even that took from afternoon to night, with frequent breaks. But everything in between was their time. Evenings were Huxley’s.

Marlene didn’t know Huxley’s exact age but they’d said he was already getting on a bit when she took him as a rescue dog from Battersea. His snout and some of his coat were greying, but no matter his age, Huxley liked to walk. He liked being outside – perhaps something to do with his previous life, chasing hares – so he was the perfect dog for a homeless nomad. He wasn’t a weaponised dog. An owner makes a dog and a dog’s love is unconditional. Marlene was sure Huxley would kill or be killed for her, but she never sought to find out. She threw Huxley a stick. ”Sticks and stones. My old bones…”

Fetching sticks aside, the only time Huxley wasn’t with Marlene, was when she’d had to work to repay a favour, or buy him food. A slut, a dirty whore, a re-useable doll: Just words. But she’d had fingers broken, been raped and left for dead in the park when she’d first washed up there. It wouldn’t have happened if Huxley had been there, but she hadn’t wanted him there. She would kill or be killed for him.

The Royal Borough of SE10 was no better than SE13: Postcodes didn’t change the status of a homeless person. But with that status come certain rights: You are always safe with your own kind. Although not true of humanity as a whole, there was an unwritten code in the homeless community; a people without borders. They were people of limited means but with deep resources.

And so Marlene and Huxley would regularly join a group who congregated in Greenwich Park, at the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory. There they were left alone at night, by all but the most curious and determined. They looked out at Docklands on the peninsular, with the City in the background. All of life was there, most of it indiscernible to the untrained eye.

At low tide, the banks of the Thames attracted beach combers. They’d look for coins beneath the bridges and barriers; They’d turn over stones and prod through the mud for other treasures; One day perhaps, a priceless artefact or discarded weapon. Further out, walkers would be among the undead, as street people pushed against the tide of robots to pick up after them. The invisible cleaned up after the anonymous.

Fiction writers have sometimes been accused of over-stretching the imagination; of inventing convenient coincidences to carry a narrative. While it is true that fiction is often stranger than fact, by its very design, it is also true that life imitates art. Although they can be tropes for a lazy writer, strange coincidences do occur in real life. However fantastical these situations can seem, when reported as fact, they become received wisdom. When written as fiction, the author is more likely to be questioned. This is exactly why Marlene said that the next chapter shouldn’t be written about, but for the same reasons, I insisted it should. She had entrusted this story to a writer and that writer was me. I couldn’t teach Marlene to write. At least, I couldn’t teach her how to write as I saw writing, because I would have to teach her how to write like me. When I myself don’t know why that is.

I was writing the story of Marlene, but I was also writing the story of a writer, who wanted to be a writer like Paul Auster: One who writes “in a certain way”, which sometimes frustrates him, because he can’t teach others how he does it; a writer who used himself in many plot devices and a named character in at least one story. On occasion, he’s used seemingly wild coincidences in his plots. But by way of a demonstration of how life can turn up these events, in October 1989, he asked listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered programme to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. The response was unexpected, with over 4000 submissions. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell. True Tales of American Life gathered some of these personal accounts to demonstrate that life could really be stranger than fiction. One such story was “The Chicken”, from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon:

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue I was close behind.

The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment the door opened and the chicken went in.

Other Auster trademarks are tributes to people he admires, with cameos or as a clue to a name in one of his characters, subtle references at various depths of immersion; Stories set in and around areas he knows intimately, like a pre-teen knows his or her genitals; and links to his other stories, through places or people; sometimes fleeting, others more overt.

It was while on the hill in Greenwich that one unlikely thing happened, when an unexpected Ellery Moon came into the story:

It was unusual but not unprecedented for someone inclined by curiosity to climb the hill and share the view from the summit. There’d never been one with a guitar before, least of all a twelve string. Ellery had come there to look at the Maritime Museum from an elevated viewpoint.

Odd and quirky things do happen. Sometimes, something breaks through the monotony and invites us to think differently. It’s a meeting of magnetic poles: Attraction and repulsion.

Ellery was a scholar of European neoclassicism in the visual arts. It was a modernising movement when it emerged in the mid 18th century, but also a conservative one. It sought to fight back against received wisdom and accepted norms, by simplifying things. In architecture, it was an admiration of the function and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, relatively unadorned with fussy decorative features. Ellery saw the maritime museum as an example of the architecture, with imperialism at its heart. Nationalism was something he found repellent but in order to understand that which he didn’t know, he needed to question it. “Architecture is frozen music”, he said. As far as Marlene was concerned, he simply spoke to buildings, as others do animals or plants.

Although Ellery’s interests were not ones she shared, Marlene found his interpretations of the world fascinating, and him an engaging orator. Everything was linked, he said. And where there were no obvious connections, they were still there to be discovered. He explained how certain things were triggers for him, which would most likely not affect many others: He was in touch with his senses to an extent where an oil painting, a piece of music, an architectural structure, or even a passage of words, would evoke in him a vision or a memory; one so powerful that it could make him visibly weep. Although it wasn’t recognised as a mental illness, it had a name: Stendhal Syndrome. It was another easy label to apply.

Ellery’s songs were not exercises in subtlety, his voice an embattled rasping call to action. His lyrics, an angry mix of threat and paranoia, chasing doomed dreams as he faced invisible oppressors. For him, music was an inferno, into which he’d toss caution and the inhibitions which he believed bind us in life. Anthems, protests and love songs, delivered in a rasping 60-a-day voice, with his guitar a machine gun triumphing against those unseen forces. He sought no-one’s approval for anything he did.

He taught Marlene to sing. She’d never been able to sing, but Ellery told her she always could, she simply lacked confidence. “You need to get out of your comfort zone and face a fear”, he said. “At school, I was just like all the other kids; mumbling words behind a hymn book in assembly. But then I started going to pubs and I was introduced to Karaoke. Some friends of mine were in a band, and it was hearing their voices over a microphone that made me wonder what I might sound like if I opened my lungs. And that was where I found it: All my anger and frustration was in my voice. It sounds narcissistic and clichéd, but when I heard my own voice over the speakers, it was an awakening. I didn’t even notice anyone in the room, even though the bar was packed. I was just into screaming and howling, but in some sort of tune. When I’d finished, I looked around and everyone was silently staring at me. I just thought, ‘Fuck you’ as I put the mic back in the stand, then they starting applauding. At first, I thought they were glad I’d finished. But they kept going. A few of them cheered and whistled, perhaps even more relieved that I was done. But then, one person stood up; then another; six in all. One shook my hand, then another, who slapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Nice one, mate”. They liked me. Wanna know what song it was that I ripped apart and threw around that room?”

“I’d imagine it was more an interpretation or tribute, rather than a straight cover or impression?”

“Fuck yeah. If you’re gonna sing a song, it’s more of a tribute to the original artists to give it your own style, rather than just ape them. The great thing is, it works if you’re shit at singing. It’s subjective, both to the performer and the listener. To the ears of some, a cover tribute takes on greater meaning than the original. Music history is littered with examples, depending on who you listen to. But the best example is probably Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt: “It’s his now.” For me, even though I’m a space boy, Bauhaus owned Ziggy Stardust’s eponymous track. That was even better than the Starman himself. There are examples in films and TV series too, where someone has taken a classic and re-imagined it, or turned literature into film; or vice versa. The arts are self-pollinating, but if we treat them as less than living entities, they will perish. I want to cede a new renaissance.

“So my first ever song performed in public, was George Michael’s Praying for Time, from the Listen Without Prejudice album.”

“But sung as…”

“But sung as me. That was the thing. For four minutes, I made that song my own. They said I sounded like an angry Michael Stipe. They said I held my forearms upwards, screaming at them all the time, whether I was standing or crouching; like I was displaying stigmata in my self-harm scars.

“These are the days of the open hand. These are the days of the beggars and the choosers. This is the year of the hungry man. Whose place is in the past. Hand in hand with ignorance. I sang twenty years and a day. But nothing changed. The human race found some other guy. And walked into the flame. And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate. Hanging on to hope. When there is no hope to speak of. And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late. Well maybe we should all be praying for time…

“But I was still using someone else’s words. To be honest, I don’t know if any of my own songs are any good. It’s impossible to be discovered, so no-one will hear them. But they’re all I want to say and if people get to hear them, they might tell others. The best chance to be heard, was to cover something someone else had already done. In so many cases, the words are there, and I wish I’d written them. But I didn’t, so I sung them. Even as I tell you this, I’m unsure as to what might be too much to say. I want you to get it, without having to question too much; but I don’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you too much, because then I take away from your personal interpretation. And right here, right now, I just don’t know when to shut up.”

Words can only be stopped when the mouth is otherwise occupied, and a first kiss is a catalyst for many more. Exchanges of bodily fluids quickly evolve, from the first drop of saliva, to ones which can be life-changing.

As one life ends, so another begins. It’s just changes. They have happened in the past, to create the now; and others are planned, to shape the future. The world turns on its axis, one man works while another relaxes.

Ellery sang at the birth, and Marlene gave them Ebony: An ornamental wood, dense enough to sink in water, with a smooth finish when polished, making it valuable.

A “Paupers funeral” is one paid for by the state. It’s normally at 9am, as that’s the cheapest slot, and you can only be incinerated. It’ll be attended by a suited figure, there to ensure that everything is done. There’ll be three pieces of music: One to welcome the mourners; another to accompany the lowering of the coffin; and the end.

The music didn’t even have words which Marlene could imagine Ellery singing, in his angry, impatient voice, struggling to escape, from something. She remembered him singing Amy Winehouse at The Dublin Castle, where Amy used to drink and play; and Madness. Suggs spoke about her, in the way Suggs speaks:

“We used to see her around in Camden, we started off in The Dublin Castle, a place where Amy very much liked. I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse which is on this record called ‘Blackbird’, without going on about it, it was a very tragic thing.”

When a panic attack strikes, it will do so without warning and for no apparent reason. A partner unable to free himself; their baby sealed in a burning box; and Marlene, on the wall.

“Even if I am in love with you. All this to say, what’s it to you? Observe the blood, the rose tattoo. Of the fingerprints on me from you. We’re still alone, around the danger zone. And we don’t talk about it. The passing of every soldier, but the only soldier now is me, fighting things I cannot see. I think it’s called my destiny. I am changing. Don’t give away the good too soon. I tried hard to resist, when you held me in your handsome fist. It reminded me of the night we kissed. Of why I should be leaving.”

And as one story ends, so another begins. Huxley went quietly at the PDSA in New Cross, where he met and said farewell to Doctor Jones. Hannah Jones then became a part of the story again, when she called Marlene a few months later: An injured beagle had been brought into the hospital by a stranger. He’d found the dog at the kerbside and guessed it had been hit by a car. It was barely more than a pup and it hadn’t been chipped. Before he went to Battersea, would Marlene be up to meeting him?

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, when a man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by.”

“Ignorant people, perhaps. You’re homeless though, right?”

“What gave me away? The bags?” Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise they’ve clicked. “Yeah, I’ve lost the lot mate: Home, money, people I cared about. I’m Marlene. Ironically, it’s derived from Mary Magdalene. But mine’s Mar-Lay-Nah, after the Suzanne Vega song.”

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

“Wanna hear a story, Jim? This guy came up to me once, right here. If you grew a beard, you’d probably look like him actually.

“So this other guy, he gave me a tenner. The Bank of England tenner has Darwin on it, and a picture of his ship: HMS Beagle. And Huxley here is a beagle. And the guy just said to make something with that tenner. It took me to a lot of places, that note and those words. I met a lot of people and heard their stories. And after that, I realised what it was I could do. I worked out that it was the best way to give the most back. Money is like the air: breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s just selfish to hold on to it.

“One day, I might learn to play this twelve string here. It was Ellerey’s. He taught me to sing. He allowed me to find my voice, even if it was in the words of others.

“But before I go out busking, I’ve set up The Human Lending Library. It’s a massive place, full of stories, but not housed in a building. It’s a library without borders. You don’t borrow books; you borrow a person. You don’t take them home with you, although some might appreciate that. No, you just ask one of them to tell you a story. And most of the time, they’ll have a story to tell, which they didn’t think anyone would want to hear. It might be their own or someone else’s: Someone who’s no longer around to tell their own story. But if someone asks, that changes things for the story teller. And it often changes the way the listener thinks of those story tellers.

“Libraries stand for freedom. Freedom to read, to think, and to pass on wisdom. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university. They’re safe entertainment. Some of the most under-appreciated people in society are librarians, yet without those gatekeepers of knowledge, we are ignorant.

“Our children lack the knowledge we have. We need to teach them. With knowledge, they can navigate the world, understand things, question others and solve problems. We must tell them the truth and not let them be lied to or misled.

“We should read aloud to others, or recite stories to them. Read them things they enjoy, even if those are stories we’ve already tired of. Or tell them a new story. And we can write. All of us – readers and writers – can dream. All of us can make a change, just by thinking more and doing things differently.

“Well, I’m one of the librarians and we’re everywhere. All anyone has to do, is rather than walk past, just ask. Both parties get something far greater than money from that free transaction.”

And Jim was lost for a moment.

Marlene didn’t expect a donation; She didn’t ask. It was pure coincidence that Jim gave her a ten pound note. A coincidence which gives meaning to the phrase, what comes around, goes around. Marlene’s situation too.

Marlene didn’t think this story worth telling. But by looking at things differently, she didn’t fail and end up back in the drain. She returned to where she felt she belonged, where there are far greater things than money. History repeating need not always be a death toll. Even in the darkest places, there is hope. Sometimes, we need to be stripped of everything to realise that there is more to life and to start seeing the world differently. The Human Lending Library is fictional, but with its base in the facts of Marlene and others’ lives.

She mock-fretted that if her story was told, people might read it and be moved to act upon it. Pretty soon, the librarians might receive sufficient donations to change their circumstances and living arrangements. There might one day be no Human Lending Library.

I told her not to worry. Such a dream was just that: firmly in the realms of fiction.

(C) Steve Laker and Marlene (that’s “Mar-lay-nah”), 2017

For Huxley

the-human-library-project

From The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now in paperback.

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Pass the kutchie to the liberal left

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The Musical Youth song actually asked us to ‘Pass the kutchie on the left hand side.’ It was a cover of a song originally by The Mighty Diamonds, and quite why ‘Dutchie’ was substituted is anyone’s guess, as it means nothing, whereas ‘kutchie’ is a doobie, a spliff, a reefer.

Kutchie

Last night I was transported back to my own musical youth when I shared a Trans-Atlantic joint with a Canadian friend and we reminisced in ASCII. It’s all very well two people putting the world to rights, but others might be interested in what they said.

My friend is also a writer, whom I’ve never met in organic form but who’s a closer friend than others I know in real life. We’re comrades of a similar age and we got talking about matters of equality, and of how music can be a leveller in some hands and divisive in others. I put on some music and got into character, so we could talk about possible futures.

It started with a video I posted on Facebook about Skinheads. Specifically it focuses on the infiltration of the far right into the skinhead movement, and their adoption of a previously inclusive personal style as a racist one. There was resistance from the old school skins, and the true skinhead ethos remains today, but the look is still copied by fascists. Fascism is only skin deep, but music has roots, with mine in Jamaica where Reggae gave birth to Ska and all its offshoots. The skinhead connection is better covered in Don Lett’s film, The Story of Skinhead, but captured in social media attention-span by this short film:

In the early 80s I discovered Ska music through Two Tone records, and I joined a movement which was so much more than the music. Rude boys, rastas, skins and punks all wanted to change the world but were frustrated by the narrow media spectrum of the time.

Back then was an age of a confused nation thrown together by Thatcherism in ways no-one expected (history does repeat). Those were the days before mobile phones and the internet, and when a fourth TV channel was cause for national celebration (as it should be still in Channel 4, our alternative national broadcaster and anarchist of the airwaves). I look back on the 1980s with the fondness of a teenager who was there, but with the hindsight of one who was there just the same. I hope we’ll still hear music in the future.

Our 21st century connectivity should mean our voices are louder and greater in number, but – perhaps by media manipulation – I only see an overall rise of the right. Those of us on the left need to do more, say more and write more, if we’re to reclaim our planet for our one race. We can still be anarchists and activists, even if we don’t get out so much now, shoulder-mounted sound systems replaced by laptops as our main weapons. The true skins reclaimed their voice, and humans who believe in humanity as one united race can take back the conversation. History repeats again.

In my mid-teens I got into Bowie alongside Ska. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he was telling me that it’s okay to be yourself. Ska fashion was a uniform, just like mod, metal, skinhead, punk, reggae (the list goes on) but Bowie was about individualism. That was slightly unnerving as a hormonal boy in a same-sex school, but I realised it was perfectly okay to have a crush on some of your mates.

I wish I’d listened, rather than living my life in the way so many our age were conditioned: aspiring to a life in either an office or a factory (further education was a luxury beyond the means of my family, when I needed to get a job straight out of school), conforming.

Bowie’s connection with Brixton is as famous as either, and later in life I lived near Bromley, where he was born. They say you don’t have to be born in a place to be from there: it’s where you feel at home. After working for five years in Bermondsey, I lived in Catford (in the borough of Lewisham) for more than a decade, and that cultural mix of London lives in my heart. It’s all those old social movements together, making human music which carries my soul back there, to my life of conformity but in a microcosm of what life as one race is like, where colour and status are irrelevant and anyone can find home.

At the end of my working life (aged 42, appropriately enough), I was running companies and swimming in a private pool, when I had my alcoholic breakdown and woke up to real life. I’d never go through it again by choice, but that time on the streets was what changed me for the better. Then I had time to think about things outside the life box I’d made by conditioning, so I decided to climb out and write about it.

Now I’m a pot-smoking lesbian transvestite, a bisexual, asexual anarchist, atheist, alcoholic, bi-polar, manic depressive writer, scraping a living but loving the life which freedom of the spirit gives you. I was born a Man of Kent, but I was made in Catford. It sounds so much better than ‘Managing Director’ of anything other than one’s own life as a conscious, self-determining being, connected to the universal web through quantum entanglement.

I once fell to earth and asked, “Spare a pound?” and members of the public would mainly walk on by. Now as a sci-fi writer, the first question I’d ask a passing extraterrestrial would be, “Do you have music?”

The soundtrack of a cracked actor, it’s all about roots and Two Tone. Within those, stoned science fiction writers can see human salvation.

Smoking reefers with ghosts

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Last night, I sat up talking to a dead person. It would be a good opening line for a story, but it’s fact. I don’t know if my friend heard me, but I like to think she did. I may be branded a loony (I’m pretty much medically diagnosed as one anyway) but I got something from that meeting, as though I’d heard something. This is not a religious epiphany.

Carl Sagan

I’ll confess that I’d been smoking a bit of weed, but no-one should judge that until they’ve tried it themselves. My friend smoked too. For her, it was pain relief from sickle cell disease, which took her from us last year. It’s her birthday today, so we kind of sat up, passing a reefer between us. For me, cannabis relieves my anxiety, relaxes me and opens my mind. It’s a very agreeable self-prescribed therapy. But just because I was a bit stoned, doesn’t mean I was tripping, or out of it. Like pretty much all weed smokers, I’m compos mentis (despite the medical diagnoses) when I’m on it, more chatty, articulate and enquiring. I get clarity of deeper thought, and I’m able to interrogate my own brain, which has allowed us to become good friends.

As an atheist, I deny God in man’s image. I don’t deny that there could be superior or technically advanced beings in the universe. I believe it may be possible that our planet was visited by ancient aliens, and that these events were recorded by scribes in the terms which they understood. My objection is to the white-haired man created by Christianity, in its own image, and religion based on worshipping an idol. But I accept that for some, it’s a belief system and a comfort.

I have my own set of beliefs. Having got my head around quantum mechanics a couple of years ago, I believe that life as we know it is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. And of course, like Christianity, my belief has to be based on a faith that I’m right. But my beliefs do at least have a grounding in science. Put simply, I believe that the soul continues to live, after the physical body has broken. Then, we take on a different physical form, which gives us freedom from the restraints of the living human body. Some may think of ghosts or spirits, and that’s perhaps what those phenomena are.

My short story, Cardboard Sky, explains the various kinds of ghosts:

The ‘Crisis Apparition’ is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

‘The reluctant dead’ are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with ‘unfinished business”’broadly split into two categories: A parent might return to make sure their children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the ‘vengeful ghost’; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

‘Residual ghosts’ usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the ‘intelligent ghost’: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder…”

That was fiction. But in fact, I do believe in ghosts I suppose.

By extension to all of this, I can see how heaven and hell might exist, in a personal sense. When the time comes for my calling, I imagine I’ll be faced with an entire universe to explore, perhaps for eternity. To my mind, that would be a personal utopia: All the answers I’ve always sought. ‘Knowledge comes with death’s release’ (David Bowie). But to others, knowledge represents fear. So faced with a universal knowledge of all things, some people may be terrified, and find themselves in a personal hell. Intelligence and ignorance may experience an eternal karma on the other side.

I believe that as we continue to exist and move freely after our physical death, we can visit the living. It may be that they don’t know we’re there, but I’m comforted by a belief that the dead still walk among us. In death, the world is without borders. I have written and I believe, that if we speak to the dead, if they’re listening, sometimes they may hear us. I imagine a sleeping soul being stirred from slumber, because someone is thinking of them. I believe that our thoughts can be heard: An ethereal, telepathic connection, with an afterlife without physical form, replaces the audible speech we’d have had with them in this life.

It wasn’t a long conversation. I told my friend that everyone said hi, including my kids, who went to school with her son. I asked her how it was out there, and how I imagine it was nice to escape the pain of her illness. But of course, she had to leave a family behind. I shared with her, my belief that she can hear me, and others who think of her. I wished there was a way she could have told me everything’s okay, and that she could hear us. Even though that’s down to my own atheist scientific faith, I felt at ease. I was relaxed, of course: we were smoking a joint. But it was a comforting feeling I had. The kind I get when I’ve just finished a story I’ve written while I’ve been a bit mind-expanded, and knowing it’s good. I read her the poem I wrote for her after she’d left us. To Catford’s sleeping Queenie:

A wave from a plane

If you’re ever stuck;
If you ever wonder;
It’s the simple things,
that make a life:

Sunday roast: Jerk chicken
Sandy coast: Jamaica
Bonfire nights, Christmas lights
All these things

Birthday gifts, healing rifts
Friendly smile, extra mile
All these things
remind me

City walks; Kids’ school
Family talks; Black and white
London years, happy tears
All these things

Moonlit night; Security lights
Morning haze; Happy days
All these things
remind me

Dogs and rats; Welcome mats
Catford: Life rhymes with that
Dancing queen, evergreen
All these things

All these things are true

50 Cent makes music
while Dana sings:
“All kinds of everything
remind me of you.”

It’s good to talk. Talk to the dead, if you believe they can hear you. I believe that it’s nice for someone out there to know that they’re being remembered.

I hope people still talk to me when I’m gone.

valdin

Valdin Millette (1983 – 2016)

Pondering evolution through regression (80s mix)

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

1980s Desk

It’s interesting (to me) how some of the greatest pleasures are the remembered ones: The things which definitely happened, because they’re recorded in the past. I’m a futurist and a sci-fi writer, but nostalgia still tugs at me.

Lately on my planet, I’ve been getting into radio, specifically BBC6 Music. I’ve got a hefty old bit of Cambridge Audio kit and I’ve always loved music, discovering new stuff and buying loads of old CDs in virtual record shops (because I don’t go out). The radio introduces me to more new music and I’m quite enjoying the company of some chat and documentaries on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. Like Benjamin Button, I’m evolving in reverse. But as my mind expands, I’m finding the joy I never found before in low tech, like radio. My typewriter is a perfectly contemporary laptop, and I’m connected, but like a 21st century version of all those American geeks in the 80s, who’d now be on the dark net. But I’m frustrated, like those nerds, yet I’m finding my identity.

In another move back to the 1980s, I’ve started wearing a headband, while I decide what else to do with my hair (it’s getting long). It’s fascinating as a study of human psychology. To anyone who’s never seen me before, me wearing a head band isn’t a new thing; perhaps a little eccentric but unlikely to illicit a response. When anyone who’s not seen me for a while sees me, they may comment. Those who don’t know me but who see me regularly (local shop staff, for example), do give me a second glance. I have to remember my cognitive behaviour therapy to remind myself that they’re probably looking at me in a positive way. I shouldn’t care: I feel comfortable with the way I look at home, it’s practical and comfortable. But social anxiety breeds paranoia, so it’s still a personal challenge to go out. Now it will be an evolutionary process in microcosm, and probably a few weeks before the people who see me regularly think it normal for me to be wearing a head band. I predict it would take several months for it to become a trademark: “You know the guy: Wears a headband.” I’ll try to keep wearing it, because it feels right.

Often when I return home from my daily mission to Tesco Metro, there’ll be boxes and barrels of produce at the bottom of the iron staircase leading up to the studio. Where once I might have been jealous, bitter, or perhaps even inclined to steal, now that’s changed. For starters, I wouldn’t steal any more. I did that, got caught, realised you always will, and gave it up on the advice of the law. It would alienate me from my neighbours and it would be morally wrong. No, nowadays, I smile inside when I’m confronted with fresh goods below the flat. It’s beer barrels, boxes of bottles of wine, crates and cartons of fresh fruit and veg, mainly from independent organic suppliers. Those are destined for the restaurant / bar downstairs, next to the coffee shop on the village high street. In those establishments, people have a nice time and it improves them. It’s nice to see things from the liberal left wing and live in a studio perched on top of all that life.

My village is a personal nirvana anyway, but twenty years ago, when I used to go out a lot, it would also have been perfect: I’d have a light meal at the restaurant downstairs (there’s an Indian next to it), then off to one of the four or five pleasant pubs in the village. But that’s not me any more. The tranquillity which I’d have enjoyed after hectic nights out locally, is the one I have almost 24/7. And it’s peace and quiet which I most crave now, it’s fed to me in spades. What did I do to deserve this? But I still live every day with the other side: The permanent reminders as a life sentence. But how do you deliberately finish something you’ve learned to love dearly?

Personal heaven and hell is one of the underlying subtexts of a new sci-fi short story I’m writing: The afternaut, coming soon. It’s about a man who hibernates for four millennia between planetary evolutions, and other things. The difference engine will be on Schlock web zine this weekend, and on this blog.

Another recent evolution has been knocking off from scribbling at 2am instead of 3, then have the final hour before crashing, chilled with a joint. I favour the Blaze channel in the early hours: Ancient Aliens, Hangar 1, The Conspiracy files: Unsealed etc. Late night UK Freeview TV is like we used to see American teens watching on cable in the 80s.

But even while I’m trying to reboot, I have a notepad handy (there’s so much pulp fiction fodder on those geeky shows). I write longhand notes with my favourite pencil: The Staedtler Norris 122-HB. It’s the yellow and black striped one with an eraser on the end. It’s my favoured pencil, as explained in a story I wrote: Echo Beach. If someone were unfamiliar with my writing, I’d guide them to this. It’s one of 25 short stories in my anthology and the one I still sometimes hang my hat on.

Life’s good, apart from social anxiety preventing me from fully enjoying it. But indoors, in my studio and now as a writer in residence, I’m in a self-made mini utopia. Watching late night geek TV or listening to the radio, looking like Charlie Sheen with my head band, writing with a pencil. I’ve also had an original Rubik’s Cube for the last few months and I’m no better at it than I was 35 years ago.

Identity, mid-life, or existential crisis? I don’t know. It’s as though I’ve had to regress in order to evolve. As such, I’ll continue my battle with Ernő Rubik, without resorting to tearing his invention apart.

I suppose this was a letter to my present self, from my future and past selves.

Deutsch sprechen? 99 Luftballons…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

99 Luft Balloon

BlenderArtists.org

I’m about one fifth of the way with writing my new book, which covers a lot of things, among them language and translation. In the book, my protagonist – Mr Fry – is searching for the answer to life, the universe and everything (aren’t we all?). We all know the answer is 42, but in order for an answer to make sense, we first need to make sure we ask the right questions: This is a point Douglas Adams made in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Cyrus Song is part Douglas Adams tribute.

In one Cyrus Song plot thread, Mr Fry is talking to animals, using a computer program called The Babel Fish: Clearly based on Douglas’ real fish in Hitch Hiker’s. Just like humans, animals speak in different languages. In another plot thread, our hero is contemplating what it might be like to speak to historical scientists, to see what they might make of life in the 21st century. Because finding answers which make sense, depends not only on how one poses the question, but to whom.

The book’s going well: Feedback from test readers is very good, and the actual writing process is a relatively smooth and fun one. It’s a book with a lot of deep messages but it’s also a sci-fi comedy tribute to one of my heroes. I’ve been compared to Douglas in the past, and to Roald Dahl, and Paul Auster. One magazine sub-editor compared me to Jane Austen, Enid Blighton, and Charles Dickens, all in one email. It’s all chronicled on this blog and I have documented proof filed away. It’s nice to know I can’t be pigeon-holed as a writer. But I suppose it would be difficult to categorise me, when I’ve won an award for a children’s story, and repulsed people with the beauty of COGS. But most of all, I’m a sci-fi writer. Cyrus Song is still on schedule for the end of the year, either self-published, or through an agent or mainstream publisher; depending on which suits me better. Getting the right agent or publisher vs. DIY is just the same as the question and answer thing above: If the correct questions are asked of the most appropriate partner, the answers will make more sense. Time and circumstance will dictate the publishing process of the book.

In a slightly tenuous link, one of my favourite songs of the 80s is an excellent example of how something can be totally different in another language: Of course it’s different; it’s in another language. But what I mean is, the meaning of a thing, in this case, a song, can lose much in translation. The song I’m referring to is 99 Red Balloons, by Nena. Most of us could sing an approximation of the English lyrics:

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one they were gone
Back at base bugs in the software
Flash the message “something’s out there!”
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine decision street
Ninety-nine ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a super hero
Everyone’s a captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you, and let it go

These are nice lyrics and set to a catchy musical score, we have a proper “Choon”. But the English lyrics are not a direct translation of the original German words. In fact, the English wording is quite different, so that the words fit the tune. And we all know the song: It’s good. But when we hear the original German song and translate directly, the lyrics are something quite different:

German Lyrics

Direct Translation by Hyde Flippo

Hast du etwas Zeit für mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Denkst du vielleicht g’rad an mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Und dass so was von so was kommt

Have you some time for me,
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
on their way to the horizon.
If you’re perhaps thinking about me right now
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
and that such a thing comes from such a thing.

99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man für Ufos aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General

‘ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn es so wär
Dabei war’n da am Horizont
Nur 99 Luftballons

99 balloons
on their way to the horizon
People think they’re UFOs from space
so a general sent up

a fighter squadron after them
Sound the alarm if it’s so
but there on the horizon were
only 99 balloons.

99 Düsenjäger
Jeder war ein großer Krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk
Das gab ein großes Feuerwerk
Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft
Und fühlten sich gleich angemacht
Dabei schoss man am Horizont
Auf 99 Luftballons

99 fighter jets
Each one’s a great warrior
Thought they were Captain Kirk
then came a lot of fireworks
the neighbors didn’t understand anything
and felt like they were being provoked
so they shot at the horizon
at 99 balloons.

99 Kriegsminister –
Streichholz und Benzinkanister –
Hielten sich für schlaue Leute
Witterten schon fette Beute
Riefen Krieg und wollten Macht
Mann, wer hätte das gedacht
Dass es einmal soweit kommt
Wegen 99 Luftballons

99 war ministers
matches and gasoline canisters
They thought they were clever people
already smelled a nice bounty
Called for war and wanted power.
Man, who would’ve thought
that things would someday go so far
because of 99 balloons.

99 Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger
Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh’ die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab’ ‘nen Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

99 years of war
left no room for victors.
There are no more war ministers
nor any jet fighters.
Today I’m making my rounds
see the world lying in ruins.
I found a balloon,
think of you and let it fly (away).

(Source: Thoughtco.com)

So we can see how much was changed in translation. And it does demonstrate the point nicely, that something can have a different meaning if you listen to it differently. As Mr Fry says in Cyrus Song, “To see more clearly, listen.”

And I have been asked if there is indeed an answer, to life the universe and everything: Is it in the book? Will it make sense? To answer those questions in turn: Yes, yes, and yes.

My first three books are available now.

Post Script: After posting this, I watched today’s Pointless on BBC1, where a question concerned books: Name the book which these characters appear in, one option being: Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox. To which the contestant answered, “Pride and Prejudice” (by Jane Austen, of course). Maybe it was one of them who compared me to Jane Austen or Douglas Adams.

“Blog Cabin”

I define a typewriter as, “a musical thing with keys”. I have a dear and long-standing friend who’s a musical thing with a keyboard: She writes and she makes music. We could be practically related, but this is not nepotism; this is merely syndication of another channel. My slightly magical musical young mucker, ruminating lyrically on how writers just need a place to write. Sometimes, it’s at the end of a garden:

She Shed. Woman Cave. Her Hut. Haven of Tranquillity. Divorce Prevention Unit (DPU). Kaleido Kabin; just a sprinkling of the monikers ascribed so far to the creation that has been brewing, slowly, …

Source: “Blog Cabin”