Going forward (can’t find reverse)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m somewhat in limbo at the moment, part way through the dehumanisation process which is the biannual re-application for Personal Independence Payment (Daily Living Component only) on the grounds of having crippling depression and anxiety. I’ve been called for an assessment, a one-to-one consultation with an out-sourced medical professional (my last one was a midwife) to determine if I’m mental enough to be paid to stay out of society’s way.

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I’ve not been writing much because my mind is focussed on the short-term. It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else when you’re fighting to keep the money you need to have any quality of life. I decided to take a trip to find ideas.

My favourite time to be alive was when I was 14, in 1984. Apart from being 14, it was an era which introduced me to the emergence of home computing, Steve Barron’s Electric Dreams, and aspirations of having a room like David Lightman’s in John Badham’s WarGames. He had a lock on his door and could connect to the early internet via dial-up and an acoustic coupler. Aged 48, I’ve managed to acquire more or less the same, but with more internet.

When you don’t go out much and you’re stuck for something to do, you can do far worse than take a wander around the entire universe which is online, beyond your bookmarks. Anything and everything is there to be discovered, away from the well-trodden paths.

Here’s a few I’ve happened upon today, starting with some personal exploration by way of translating my words into pictures with AI art: Type in some text and it will interpret it as art. It’s pretty shit, but it can be quite inspired (and disturbing). For starters I just typed in what I was, then what I was doing and what I wanted:

Writer sitting at desk   Writing science fiction   Dying to be heard
Left to right: “A writer sitting at a desk”, “Writing science fiction”, “Dying to be heard”

As I staggered from that virtual gallery, I found someone who’d stumbled upon a hidden computer museum. This little-known place hosts exhibits which were fundamental to the evolution of the computer, from 4000-year-old Mesopotamian tablets to computers of yesteryear, and the kind David Lightman and Miles Harding found so much life in:

Mesopetanian tablets         Computer Museum

I finished my little trip by taking in some more art. With OCD among my many labels, there are some sights which disturb me (Alphabetti running out of letters I need to make words on toast), and antidotes to erase memories of such things. There are video compilations of these little CGI perpetual motion machines on YouTube, and the dude who makes them is one Andreas Wannerstedt. He has an Instagram page, filled with dozens of examples of things like this:

After that brief stumble up the internet corridor, I’d have liked someone to hug when I got home. I once lived on the streets, where love and fear are never far apart. I was ready to laugh at this guy, because I’ve become (in some ways) reconditioned to life with a roof. How quickly we forget not to be too quick to judge, as Catfish Cooley tells us so eloquently:

If I’m judged unfit for work in the upcoming PIP assessment, I’ll be able to get on with life again. I just wonder who’s fit to judge. The process is designed to reduce one’s will to live, but I won’t be a statistic in a government’s social cleansing exercise. While I can’t go out, I still have a virtual universe to traverse.

 

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Two heads are better than one (just ask Zaphod Beeblebrox)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Having recently chosen to engage my mind more, by writing two books at once, it’s going well, in a neural spaghetti kind of way. I’m almost always doing more than one thing at once, but still favouring one. In a funny way, my latest split personalities seem to be egging one another on.

HHGG Fan ArtThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan art.

I don’t multitask well in real life (away from writing), because one of the things I’m doing is usually writing, which takes precedence. I have in the past been known to neglect things dangerously (like food) while furiously getting something down in words. And when you live alone, there are few people to talk to. A socially anxious writer can make people up, and the one with plenty of family matters on their mind can talk to those people from the past.

In the fictional world, I now have three short stories lined up for publication: two sci-fi and a horror. That means my next collection – The Unfinished Literary Agency – will most likely be out earlier than planned. At least one of the new stories involves a warping of time, to the future. One of the reasons the fiction is flowing so well, is not a rush to get the book out, but rather oddly, writing the factual narratives in my family history book.

I always research my fiction, to make it plausible. And I put myself in there, so that there’s more in the words than say, what a character says. I’ve been described as writing from the heart and with feeling (especially for my children’s book, by a magazine judging panel), and the heart I have is very much in my family book, about the family who gave me a heart.

It’s not even that I never write non-fiction. I take work from freelance clients, and write about anything from a US country music tour to smoking cannabis for a medical blog.

What it is, is that this family history is something I can get as broadly and deeply into as fiction, and what that should mean is I produce the book I was aiming to: The stories of quiet people, brought into focus in a book with heart and feeling.

I was a little nervous that it might only gain a small audience, which didn’t matter, as it’s a gift. But that needed to be something which the recipients would want to share. And if we’re all honest, other people’s family isn’t of any great interest. I’m sure I’m not alone in being the one among a group cooing over a baby, “Oh, ain’t he cute…”, thinking, ‘No, he ain’t,’ sometimes aloud.

But what many other families would have in common, if there were enough researchers to look into it, is a rich history which surrounded them and that they were a part of. My parents were part of the cast of extras which made the stories of others noteworthy to record-keepers of the time, and those records are now available online. It’s going through those archives which has thrown up so many fascinating stories which I can now tell, mostly of people besides my parents, but characters who will increase the reading demographic, and who were supported by the two lead characters in my book, Silent Gardens (very much due in March).

The book is becoming a lesser-known secret than it already was (hi mum), as I’ve had cause to phone my parents a few times to check things (writing non-fiction means that research is even more crucial than for plausible fiction). Whether or not the book sells to a wider audience, I like to share things I find. I believe stories should be told, and I’m someone who can tell stories.

In the last family history post, I left off at Yotes Court in Mereworth, which my book goes on to describe in greater detail than this:

Country Life, June 18th and 25th, 1964, CXXXV, 1580, 1648. Yotes Court is listed Grade I as a very early example of the type of country house that became dominant after the Restoration. As a building of importance and quality of the Commonwealth period it has great rarity value.

In 1974, something happened, and all I knew at the time was that we were leaving home. My dad’s boss, Leslie (or Lesley) MacKay was a stockbroker, and those were the days of three-day weeks. The markets moved and Mr MacKay (“Sir” to dad), needed to make redundancies. There were two groundskeepers, my dad and Art.

Arthur Holdstock and his wife Jean became surrogate uncle and aunt to me and my sister, and visits to their house were always inappropriately funny. Back at Yotes Court, Art was also Mr MacKay’s driver, and he could drive with one more wheel than my dad’s three, so our lives were packed into the back of that red Reliant and we chugged off, next, to Ightham.

Mum, dad and the Holdstocks remained friends for many years. After Yotes Court, Art was an undertaker for a while, and my younger self was fascinated by real-life tales from the morgue.

Mr MacKay divorced from his first wife, who moved to nearby Wateringbury, where we lived in the Old Hoy Cottages. He passed away while still living at the house with his second wife, Jane.

The auction-catalog.com online archive includes an auction brochure, dated Monday 16th April 1984, for “The remaining contents of Yotes Court…” and “Includes the property of Mrs L MacKay,” which was described as Fine Victorian Pictures, Drawings, and Watercolours.

Given that it was fairly common practice among the upper class, for a wife to take her husband’s full name in formal documents, I had to conclude (with research avenues exhausted) that this Mrs L MacKay was in fact Jane. They had two daughters, which makes further research into how the house came to be sold (perhaps to divide an estate) somewhat pertinent. By then though, the Lakers had moved on.

Another stockbroker owned our next house, and there was to be more news of the stock market later. But when we moved there, mum and dad’s employers and landlords were the Byam-Cooks.

Philip Byam-Cook was a lawyer, and his father, William Byam, a Harley Street doctor. The power of the internet means that with a few clicks, I can find information freely online which would have once taken weeks, and which would have taken me to many repositories of accumulated knowledge in person. Now, I can gather most of the information I need, without having to leave this studio where I live and write.

By coincidence, I live just a few minutes from an address where Philip Byam-Cook was registered as a director of various companies, with an accountant in West Malling. This would be entirely consistent with a practitioner in law…

***

I’m well into the next chapter now, when we lived for 12 years in Ightham. It turns out Philip was a bit of a World War II humanitarian hero. I’ll post some more here once I’ve got the events in order, as it makes for an interesting read.

Although I’d like to be judged on any of my books, I feel that everything I write is better than the last. I’ll hang my hat on Cyrus Song as a sci-fi for a long time, but I’d equally like to be judged on my non-fiction, in an introverted story with a lot of heart.

So like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the sci-fi writer with two heads is just a bit mixed up. In my own mind, it’s a nice entanglement: I found my heart, it’s been stolen, and it’s been stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, like the Heart of Gold dream ship with its infinite improbability drive in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

This is the inside of my mind, and you’re welcome to it.

The bastard brain thing

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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“Anyone, anyone, anyone…”

As Saturday transitions into Sunday, I often get attacks of insomnia, and this is one such. Having spent the day reading the news, thinking, researching and writing, I have a lot on my mind. Sometimes I write. Other times, I’ll have a DVD binge.

Given the size of my DVD library, I have a lot of choice. I can pretty much watch something whichever mood takes me. When my mind is really in need of a sedative, beyond Mirtazapine, I turn to a regular favourite. Because there’s one show which appeals to many of my senses and emotions. I know I’m not alone in being a fan, but I wonder sometimes if I may be being obsessive. But to me, that’s the appeal of this show.

I’m sure others have written in greater detail but I question whether I should look, for fear of becoming even more obsessive. For now, I suspect I’m alone, or in very minority company, in analysing The Big Bang Theory in such depth, way beyond these few thoughts:

Sci-fi series aside (I’m thinking Firefly), as a general entertainment show, TBBT is one of my favourites, because there’s so much beyond the surface.

Personally, I see “Friends”, as just “The one where only the one with any apparent brains (Ross Geller) was always shouted down as some sort of boring, intellectual elitist”, at the expense of Chandler’s “Wit”; Joey’s Harmless-but-slightly-sinister-misogynist-guy-acting-dumb-and-vulnerable-getting-away-with-it; Monica’s neediness and OCD; Pheobe’s hippy, floaty, histrionic personality; and Rachael’s poor rich kid. With all that potential, little was made of it by the writers. For a more in-depth comment on this, see David Hopkins’ article, How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization.

Which is why I like TBBT so much: Intelligent writers; scientific consultants; and cast members with academic qualifications themselves. Actors who are accomplished in artistic and scientific fields, away from this show.

And it stands up to repeated viewing, because behind the first act, there are so many layers: Deep personalities and back stories; humour intelligent enough to evoke a double-take; but above all, the ongoing, in-depth analysis of complex human emotions.

Again, I suspect I am alone or at least lonely, but anyone who appreciates the intricacies of Leonard Hofstadter, his relationship with Penny (never had a second name, before Hofstadter (this is how much of a geek I am)); Penny and Sheldon’s relationship; and Sheldon’s relationship with Amy, will know what I mean.

And this is before I analyse Raj, Bernadette and Howard. Even though the latter is generally repugnant, the acting portrays a deeply troubled and insecure character. The characters in Big Bang are very complex, which is what gives the show so much appeal to me.

But the greatest thing for the geek in me is the supporting cast: Stuart Bloom, Beverley Hofstadter, Mary Cooper…; And the sci-fi legends who are game enough to make cameos: Katee Sackhoff, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy. And Wesley Crusher, always game as he plays Wil Wheaton (If no-one else gets that gag, I am truly alone).

I can’t think of any instances in that other show where anything outside the trials and tribulations of a bunch of stereotypes were explored. Sure, it was “funny”, in an escapist way. And Big Bang is escapist too, but it makes me think more. It makes me think; not the thoughts which keep me awake, but those which allow me to go on exploring.

Do androids dream of electric sheep?