A finished literary urgency

NEW BOOK

I’m sure there’s significance in my fifth book being published on the fifth of the month, but I can’t find any, other than this being the beginning of my fifth year as a writer. Not bad for an alcoholic ex-tramp (Charles Bukowski obviously taught me something). There’s a certain urgency to The Unfinished Literary Agency, in my visions of the future, some of them post-human…

wallup-251884

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a second collection of short stories (there are 20 in this one), which stand alone, but which tell a longer narrative collected together. Although there are some dark tales in the book, it’s suitable for a wide audience of various types, and has humour in the horror. For the most part, it’s science fiction, mainly set in the near-future, and it vindicates my plaudit of being a writer who can see deep into the human condition (and sentient AI and animals).

These are collected tales from an author variously compared to the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

It was an enjoyable book to write and I’ve had good feedback from test readers. Like most writers (who are honest and want their books to be read), I always feel my latest is my best so far. Of this one, I’d say it’s a measure of me as a writer, and Cyrus Song is the one I hang my novelist’s hat on. Those are statements which can only be put to the test of course, if people read my books.

If someone new to my writing were to ask, I’d say read The Unfinished Literary Agency, to get an idea in bite-size chunks. Anyone with more time on their hands who wants a longer book to hold with them, could do far worse with many other novelists, and there is a plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything in Cyrus Song.

Four years ago, I was homeless and drunk. That’s a whole other story, but what I’ve done since is written five books. I feel I’ve earned the modest readership I enjoy, and I hope that following will grow as more people read my words. It’s the perfect way for the socially anxious writer to make friends and meet kindred spirits.

The Unfinished Literary Agency and Cyrus Song are available now.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (First edition)

FICTION

As I continue to write short stories for a second collection, there are two so far in that next book from The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a theme which pops up in other stories, but the agency itself has published four stories so far. This was the first, and it’s in my first anthology…

Horror writer desk

The Unfinished Literary Agency

The Unfinished literary agency was like no other that I’d worked for. In all my years of writing, I’d simply not heard of them. The first I’d ever heard of them was when I received a letter on headed paper. It was a rather fine letterhead: an off-white recycled stock, with the agency’s details die-stamped in blue ink. Intriguingly, the telephone number was prefixed “01”: an old, old London number. The letter said that they had some unfinished work which they would like me to complete: I had been summonsed by – or from – the past. I had neither the time nor the inclination to visit them in person, although I did some research and found that the agency was above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington.

It was a hot summer afternoon when my friends found the diaries. Just in time too, as it had begun to rain and the smell of wet dust filled the air as water hit arid pavements. The diaries were in a battered green skip, outside a building which was being demolished.

There were 126 volumes in all. Some were faux leather-bound journals, some A5 refill pads and even a few school exercise books. Most were stuffed into boxes; one once filled with Xerox toner cartridges. Other books were thrown in amongst the bricks and debris from the building. They weren’t numbered or dated, so I had no way of arranging them into chronological order. They simply sat in boxes in the order they’d been retrieved from the skip by Jasper and Mole.

One journal almost audibly begged to be read, with its lurid New York taxi yellow cover. As I picked it up, it felt like I held a life in my hand, or at least a part of one. In bold, black letters on the front cover was the legend: “I hope these are found when I’m gone. Within these covers, a heart once beat.” There was no hint as to who the author might have been: The writer was simply “I”. “I” had seemingly lived and died there, in Upper Street N1, then been thrown into a skip.

I was working on another project at the time, ghost writing an autobiography. I was a blogger by trade and I surely didn’t have time to read through 126 volumes of someone else’s life. What was I to do? Hand the books into the police and be laughed at? After a period of time, the diaries would be destroyed if no-one had claimed them, or returned to me. Would I really miss the tatty old boxes cluttering up my studio? That life in the skip had already passed. What were my friends to have done if they’d not pulled the journals from the skip though? To leave them there would surely have been criminal. So I kept them, as they’d been dumped in my studio. Jasper suggested I might like to write about the anonymous life found in a skip. As a fiction writer, I could be a biographer who didn’t have a clue about who their subject was. I’d get around to them eventually.

Two terrible things happened in the month that followed: Mole, ironically, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and began an intensive course of chemotherapy; Jasper was killed, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Everything can change in a moment, without warning and forever. For several weeks afterwards, I looked at the journals in their boxes and wondered how I’d feel as I read them. They represented a time when all was well, when Mole and Jasper had found them. Perhaps I ought to leave things that way.

The journals languished in their boxes for a year before I finally started to read them. I’d resisted before because I knew that my inquisitive nature would turn the books into a personal mission: who wrote them? Who was “I”? Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. The journals provided a link to Mole and Jasper. To be honest, I needed an escape into someone else’s life.

It wasn’t the yellow taxi volume I picked up first. The one I started to read was an anonymous black book, much like most of the others, and chosen at random. It started in the middle of a sentence: “…I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed. My blood is everywhere…”

I didn’t know who I was reading about and that anonymity meant that each sentence was a story in itself: Who was this? Why was he bleeding? What on earth had happened? Despite the fact that he was bleeding, the writer continued with sufficient clarity as to maintain a tidy style of handwriting: the individual letters were scribed with care; grammar and punctuation were perfect. He just carried on. Occasionally there were dates: days and months but not years. Sometimes the writing referred to events which I could attach approximate dates to – mentions of news events and programmes on TV – but still, there were 125 more volumes to comb through.

Eventually I pieced sufficient volumes together to work out that the stabbing incident had occurred when “I” was 14. But when was this? How had a 14-year-old boy been stabbed and what were the consequences? With no means of knowing which journal to read next, I was drawn into the story: I may have to read all of the volumes to fit things together. There is no recording of the time of day that the stabbing happened. The volume I was reading could even be the last: “I” could have died aged 14.

The text in that particular volume became gradually more rushed. Words clashed with the edges of pages as they hit. The author was trying to fit as much in as possible before the pages – or time – ran out. I was just skimming; hoping to find out. Maybe I should hand these diaries in to the police after all? But “I” hadn’t. It were as though he’d entrusted all of this information to the journals and my job now seemed to be one of unravelling, in private.

I managed to find the volume which followed the book of the bloodshed. I realised that the easiest way to achieve this was to look at just the first page of each notebook: I was simply looking for a sentence which began part way through, because the last page of the bloodshed book ended mid-sentence, with I “…bleeding from my insides, spilling my guts for all to see. How am I to explain something which I don’t understand but which has nonetheless happened? I feel light headed, like the blood is draining from my brain and pouring from the same exit wound…”

And that’s where it ended. He’d bled through a whole volume. An exit wound? Had he been shot? Is this why he couldn’t go to the police? Was this the last chapter? I longed for “I” to take me further. I don’t recall how many first pages I read but the one that stopped me was the one which began, “…and all because of my sex.” Was he homosexual? It mattered not a jot but it was the only thing I could think of.

As I read further, the river of blood slowed to a trickle and was eventually stemmed. Perhaps if I’d been less presumptuous, I’d have realised sooner that the poor young lad had been having his period. He was a girl.

Why wouldn’t I want to pry around a teenage girl’s intimate thoughts? The diaries became more than curios from then. No longer was it just a mystery thriller; now it was eroticism. I had metaphorically tasted virginal, vaginal teenage blood. Now I had an angry angel. I wanted to know who this young writer was, why she had died and been thrown away.

I continued to read the journals in the same random order: just as they’d ordered themselves when they were dumped, as though that was the way the writer had intended. Perhaps I was over romanticising. “I” described things in a way which made me wonder if she ever expected or wanted anyone else to hear about them. But it was manna to a voyeuristic fiction writer with an anonymous autobiography at my disposal.

Although “I” was now a girl, I still didn’t have a name. In a way, I preferred it like that: the anonymity gave the diaries a universality. They were impersonal, so as to reduce the voyeurism a little, and yet “I” wrote of intensely personal things. I figured it was okay to write about these things because she didn’t want her name to be known.

Nothing is certain. That’s the number one cancer cliche. 18 months after Mole’s first course of chemotherapy, the tumours returned. It was difficult to tell which was murdering him quicker: nature or medicine.

My focus now was to try to establish some kind of time line. If I committed to reading all of the journals in detail, I should be able to use the clues I’d previously identified to string things in some rough order. This became an obsession, as I read more and more intimate parts of this girl’s writing. I could almost hear her voice as her pen strokes betrayed her mood. She was always alternately angry and hurried when she wrote of her father. He taunted her regularly, verbally and physically assaulted her. I had to relive episodes with her over and over again, as I placed things in order.

It was her father who shattered one of the biggest illusions for me. Up to that point, I had no idea what “I” looked like but I had imagined her: She was of course small, slim, blonde and extraordinarily pretty. She wore her hair in a pony tail for school and let it down when she got home. She’d sit in front of a mirror and describe herself in her father’s words in her diary: “I’m fat and ugly. I’m useless at everything and never get anything right. I’m stupid and weak. I’ll never amount to anything in my life. When I die – which will hopefully be soon – my epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Vicky Francis, who did nothing, went nowhere and was loved by nobody.’”

Vicky.

I missed the nameless girl of my imaginings. I’d been robbed of my floating abstract, now squeezed into a finite thing. I’d liked this girl with no name, whose every feature was of my own design. I enjoyed her clumsiness, her irrational moments and her occasional desires for outbursts of violence. So what if she was called Vicky?

Vicky had been to many places. In the mid 1970s, she was living with her father in London. From social and current affairs of the time when she wrote, I worked out that she was in her early 20s by then. There seemed to be no-one besides her and the old man and he was drunk most of the time. Vicky paid the bills with cleaning jobs and bar work. The more I read, the more the story changed in itself and the expectations of the reader. It gained greater depth and breadth as first Vicky’s appearance was revealed, then her name. Now it took on some of the period piece, with the addition of a place and time in history: 1970s London, Soho in fact.

Vicky wrote of the seedy Soho of legend in salacious detail: encounters with pimps, prostitutes, punters, gangsters and drug dealers; Hostess bars and clip joints: she didn’t say if she worked in any of them but she wrote with an intimate familiarity, as though she worked around them. She had wild and ambitious plans and was in a hurry to record them in her diary. Some days and hours were dozens of pages long. Vicky would record one day in minute-by-minute detail, then say nothing for a week. I missed her when she was away and would search for the next entry in the journals.

In the little spare time she had, Vicky was working on a project: a biography in fact. She didn’t name her subject but I should like to learn more of him for the basis of a fictional character. The man was a monster: Some kind of tutor but he abused his students when they got things wrong. He was apparently in a permanent drunken state, unable to remember his abuse on the morning after the day before. Very little more is written of this man. Like with so much else with Vicky, once she gets her teeth into something, she disappears while she pursues it. Perhaps it would be dangerous for her to document the details.

In Vicky’s story, this older man was a full 30 years older than her main protagonist. Her character is also 14. The man has much in common with Vicky’s father but he doesn’t abuse her directly. The tutor allowed a young girl’s adulation to get out of hand. Vicky’s father demolished her confidence and ruined her ambitions, over a period of at least a decade. It was an intense and abusive period in her life.

After 1985, the story became vague. The content of the diaries grew gradually more sketchy, as though an outside influence was distracting Vicky, or indeed the character she was writing about: the stories had merged together.

Toward what now appeared to be the end, when Vicky was in her 30s, she was homeless. She was scavenging food from supermarket bins and using a single hob to cook. A typical meal was the one she cooked herself for her birthday that year: an out-of-date chicken madras microwave ready meal, which she over-cooked “to make it a bit safer.”

Mole was nearing the end of his time too. He implored me to step back a little, to stop reading the 126 books so intently and focus – as I was supposed to – on putting them into some sort of order; to form a backbone for the story, then add the bones and fill in the gaps. Maybe then it would take on life. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed to see the whole of Vicky and not selected highlights of her eventful life. I suppose I’d resisted because so many of my assumptions about Vicky had been false. How many others were?

I hope I die as peacefully as Mole did. The sudden but not unexpected ending of one life shone a light into the gaps of the one I was writing about. Vicky revealed a secret so massive that I was momentarily thrown and yet she didn’t write a word about it. After plotting a timeline of the period of her life which I held, I realised what a small part it was. The late 1970s, the whole of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s were missing. Those stories from 1995 still seemed to be the end though.

I estimated that the 126 volumes I’d still only skimmed over, amounted to about 15,000 pages, or 5 million words. Using that as a benchmark for number of words per year and knowing roughly the period of Vicky’s life which I knew about, I calculated the size of the diaries including the missing years. Using this very crude method, I reckoned that there could be close to 1000 journals somewhere: 40 million words, waiting to be heard. Vicky was a very prolific diarist and it would be a lifetime’s work for a biographer to record her life. In which case, a partly remarkable life is lost. And so I had to continue.

But how would I find all of those missing years? Why were there only edited highlights in the skip? I couldn’t believe that Vicky would have stopped for those periods. She always found time to write, whatever she was doing otherwise. If she’d married or got a job, she’d have written about it. It wasn’t so much the sudden ending of the diaries which intrigued me as those big gaps in the narrative. A life which was missing the 80s was a tragedy. Vicky came back afterwards, so where had she been in that defining decade? As a fiction writer, I could fill in the gaps but there was too much of the real story holding me.

I simply couldn’t think where those missing years might be. I didn’t even know exactly where Jasper and Mole recovered the original diaries from because at the time, I’d been so wrapped up in my own world that I’d not bothered to collect them myself. I hadn’t even thought to fucking ask. I’d lost my two best friends, and the one who confided her diaries to me. So I returned to being a fiction writer.

I resolved to confront this man, these men, the people in general, who had made Vicky’s life, so many lives, intolerable. I’d written about many such people: Evil but charismatic; the antagonists in my stories sometimes, but more often than not, the narrators. People who charmed their way into lives, leaving indelible marks. Characters so calculating as to ensure those scars were only on the inside: no-one could see the real harm. Characters whom I’d made anti-heroes and whose appealing looks and personality disguised a black heart. Invisible people.

Just as it is impossible to find someone if you don’t know where they are, it’s easy if you know who you’re looking for. Not only did I know who he was but I knew exactly where to find him.

We had a very pleasant evening together and I was seated at this very writing desk as I poured our last drink. In fact, this very manuscript of Vicky’s and so many others’ unfinished stories, was protruding from the top of my typewriter as I looked through the open curtains in front of the desk, out into the night at the street lamps. A sheet of off-white paper, bearing an unfinished story, the end of which would be determined by me, as I pressed the keys and the individual letters embossed themselves on the sheet. One keystroke, a metallic hammer into a soft surface, changing the story forever.

I stared back at myself from the window as I typed and reflected on such a tragic life, like a rabbit in the headlights:

“The end…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. My publishing schedule is on the book shelf page of this blog.

And you’ve been so busy lately (time in the think tank)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If I could hang my hat on a short story I wrote, it would be Echo Beach. If I can hang my hat on a novel, it’ll be Cyrus Song. If anyone were tempted to read one article on this blog, I’d point them here for now.

think-tank1

There are many more short stories planned, as well as whole new books. But recently, I’ve had to move things around a little. I’m planning what I think is a very appropriate Christmas gift for my parents (and I’m out of the horror market for now). When you’re given the opportunity to look forward five years, certain plans take shape.

In my last blog post, I mentioned a book which I was planning for my dad. Now that I’ve had time to start plotting it out, it’s going to take longer than I originally thought to put it together. But I’ve resolved to make this book before I move onto the next one. Why would I post this here, in a public forum, and now indelible? The reasons are as simple as the ones I have for writing the book: To hang my hat on a blog post, step forward and offer the chance of final judgement for those who still hide in the background, and who will remain there.

I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter to me, and those who will come after them. And they will attest to this, but not in a kangaroo court.

What went on (that would be me going into meltdown), is all squared with family and real friends: I got drunk. I was addicted (I’m still an addict, and always will be), I was on anti-depressants, which, combined with alcohol, can result in blackouts. But I re-live it, as it is not to be denied. I’ve got a medical record which convinced two tribunal panels that I am mentally ill, but otherwise well in the situation which took so much effort to win, and which now sits around me: A modest, secure home, with a social landlord, meaning long-term security. Now that I have that, I live as a diagnosed functioning alcoholic with chronic depression and anxiety. But I live: Perhaps some people will never be happy with the outcome. Finances are still lacking, so I have to make things. But I digress.

My mum (always affectionately referred to as ‘The Mothership’ here (Hi mum), because she gets me: she was a conspirator in making me), sometimes reads this blog. So am I spoiling a surprise? No. What this post does (if The Mothership reads it) is make a promise to her, in public. She trusts me now, based on the last three years of drawing ever closer as a family. So she knows that I won’t break my promise. And I know that I will be able to refer back to this post in five months or so and be vindicated in the eyes of remaining doubters. To be honest, those people bother me no less than an infection which can be ignored. My point with all of this, is to raise two fingers, with a sharp chop to my inside elbow and a reflex raising of my left hand. It’s my cure for cancer.

Will mum tell dad? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. The book I’m planning is one which they can both look forward to seeing in print. I’ve expanded my research a little, just into the history of the house and village where my mum lived, before she and dad lived together. The rest of dad’s life was spent with mum, in the same places. What occurred to me at first as a way to give a temporarily fading memory something to hook onto, has become more as I’ve plotted it. Now it will be a story of two people and how they left marks together, like names carved in a tree.

Every fine garden which my dad created and tended, will always bear his footprint. Every meal which my mum cooked, back in the family unit day, fed labour, and the imagination of a kid. My parents created the means to tell their story. I am that thing which they made, and this book seems an appropriate way to give something back and say a simple thank you.

I can write, compile, edit and publish a book, all from my desk. There will most likely be only a few copies given away, but the book will have an ISBN as part of the publishing process. My parents and those who know them will have a book. Anyone will be able to buy the book; a slice-of-life story from the Kent countryside (beware of spoonerisms). The bottom line is, I can immortalise my parents: I think that’s a nice gift from a writer, who was given the gift of writing (albeit unwittingly) by his parents. It’s something they can share. They gave me this IQ of 147, and now I know what it’s for.

And they are a proud couple, with every right to be. They are proud of me, and I will always give them every reason to be. They are proud to have such as a strange thing as a writer. I write bedtime stories for my kids now. So I can write a book which tells a brief history of how it all started.

All of which means I’m able to agree with myself that my future publishing schedule should go something like this(ish):

Cyrus Song: Now late August / early September, with 12 days left for final test reader comments.

Quietly, Through the Garden of England: Now the working title, being as it’s the journey of two people who would otherwise have gone unnoticed, but who made such a difference. I’m resolved to December publication.

Reflections of Yesterday (still the working title for an anthology): July 2018. I’m writing the fourth of 17 shorts for this: Longer stories, written in different personal circumstances from The Perpetuity of Memory‘s 25 tales. 42 in total.

Cyrus Song II: December 2018. If my confidence in the original is vindicated, this would be the right time.

Infana Kolonia: July 2019. This is still planned as a sci-fi epic but the current plot takes it to 1200 pages, so it needs some work.

Forgive me No-one: May 2020: My uncensored autobiography, if it’s noteworthy. And that all depends where eight published books gets me if I make 50. I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter, and those who will come after them. Despite what’s in my head sometimes, with this plan in place, I hope I live to be my parents’ age. Maybe then I’ll be half as wise as them.

In the meantime, The Afternaut is shaping up into something really quite original, but which still sticks to the brief sent into the Unfinished Literary Agency. It should now be out in the first half of August, and I think the idea donor will be pleased: Not just with their idea being turned into a story, but knowing that it’s out there and that anyone could read it, if they had time.

And you’ve been so busy lately
that you haven’t found the time
To open up your mind
And watch the world spinning gently out of time
Feel the sunshine on your face
It’s in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space…

(Out of Time: Blur, Ben Hillier, Marrakech, 2002).

Save

The difference engine and the afternaut

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Afternaut4

Recently I wrote of The Unfinished Literary Agency, my fictional office, where the staff (me) write the stories of others. It’s really just a standard tool which many writers use, but which I’ve turned into a background story in itself.

Originally, The Unfinished Literary Agency existed to write the stories of those who were unable to tell them themselves, for various reasons. But it’s also a repository for people’s ideas, which I turn into stories for them: A mutually beneficial arrangement, where the idea donor gets to see their story idea published; and the writer (me) is given the germ of a story to develop. Recently, I wrote a short story about a translation device, The difference engine, and that will be published in a week or so. The latter story ideas which have come into the agency, are the difference engine being put to work.

Among the idea slips in my in-tray was this one:

Imagine if you fell into a lake during a freak cold spell, and were frozen in a cryogenic-like state, however the extreme cold across the globe (perhaps the sun burned out?) caused the entire human race to perish, or at least change drastically. You are then discovered by these future people, and thawed out because you are now the last of an “extinct” human species, and are stuck trying to escape from these intrusive and frighteningly intelligent beings trying to study you.

That’s actually a big brief. Taken to its full extent, there are at least three massive concepts to include in the final story: Human extinction; Extraterrestrials, time and space; Human psychology, morals and social ethics. All would require at least a degree of explanation in setting up the beginning of a story. Even individually, it’s a lot for readers to take on board. As it stood, it could easily be a brief for a novel, or at least a novella.

A novella is typically 17,500 – 40,000 words. A novelette is 7500 – 17,500, and 7500 words or fewer is a short story. Most publications only accept a maximum of 6000 words for short fiction, and even those are rare and mainly online. Print magazines typically specify 1500 words maximum. Then there’s flash fiction, at sometimes as few as 500 words. Back at the other end of the scale, there’s the novel, with 40,000 words and over: An actual feckin’ book, as far as I’m concerned. As a point of note, Cyrus Song comes in at 93,000 words and it’ll be a 412 page paperback when it’s published in a few months. More on that in a moment.

Returning to the brief above, I was only going to be able to turn it into a short story. Given submission guidelines, I’d need to keep it under 6000 words if the idea donor was ever going to see it published. So I thought of a way I could do it, and this is the synopsis:

The lake is planet Trappist-1e, and the last human is a man, floating in a tin can, above the planet. He is the last human, following an extinction event on earth c.2097. Using the EMDrive, humans sent the last of their kind on a journey to the Trappist system. After 4000 years, the tin can travels the 40 light years to Trappist-1e, where we find ourselves in the year 6070.

It’s going to be a sort of ancient aliens turned on its head: There will be Trappists on the alien planet, and they have ancient scripts which tell of a distant planet where their forefathers once lived, and who would one day send a sentinel. It’s 12,000 years of history repeated.

With a working title of The Afternaut, it should be published sometime in the next month. The rough first draft opening goes like this:

The last earth human was also the most distant that any had ever been from the home planet. In roughly 4000 years, he’d travelled 40 light years away from earth and was approaching Trappist-1e, an exoplanet orbiting the Trappist-1 star.

The Trappist 1 planetary system was discovered in 2016, and Trappist-1e identified as a habitable planet shortly thereafter. By the time of mankind’s extinction event in 2096, the most advanced propulsion method available was the electromagnetic drive, or EMDrive. At warp 0.01 speed, it had taken 4000 years to travel the distance to the Trappist system. Back on earth, it would have been the year 6070. Neither the Trappists below, nor the man in the tin can, knew who he was.

To answer a few of the many questions arising at this point, and to speed the telling of the fable, it’s important to take a few things on board. Accept as fact, that humans died out on earth in 2097. It was an AI: Extinction through technology. What mankind had strived for millennia to achieve, turned on its creator. The entire extinction event was complete in less than a year: A flash in space time, and they were gone…

(To be continued).

It might even be a Douglas Adams-esque, Life of Brian type of story. I’ll see how it evolves in the typewriter. The idea donor and anyone else, will be able to see it when it’s published.

Returning to Cyrus Song, I mused to some of my writing peers in a forum last night:

Am I rare (or perhaps alone) in suffering separation anxiety from my characters?

For the last six months, I’ve been writing Cyrus Song and now it’s out with test readers. I’m trying to spend some time away from the manuscript, so that I can go back to it in a month or so, with beta reader feedback and take a fresher look, if necessary. So for now, I’m in limbo, and I really miss all the characters I created. I even wonder what they might be up to in the world I made for them.

Am I insane, taking writing too seriously, or just a normal idiosyncratic writer?

Apparently, I’m normal. Or at least, that’s a normal thing for a writer to feel. I was genuinely slightly concerned though, that my daily living issues of paranoia and anxiety were somehow creeping into my fiction as well. I haven’t suffered separation anxiety from anyone in real life for some time, because there hasn’t been anyone to separate from, and one of the many reasons I’m resolutely single. In any case, writing has been therapy for me for some time now, so the best way to overcome fictional character separation anxiety is to bring those people back to life. But that’s the thing: Simon Fry, Hannah Jones et al are such strong and deep characters on the page that they do seem real to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a good writer, or maybe just because I’m a writer.

So there will more than likely be a Cyrus Song II, possibly about a year for now. In the meantime, Hannah, Simon and all the animals are with my beta readers: Three pairs of safe hands and one one who spends a lot of time with their foot in their mouth; a good cross section of the target audience.

While I’m waiting for my fictional friends to come back to me, before I write more for them to do, I have other therapy to work on, with the difference engine, The Unfinished Literary Agency, and the afternaut. And the Unfinished Literary Agency is still open for submissions.

Revolutions of the difference engines

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Jez Guevara

Having said before that I’ll not politicise this blog, I’ll get the politics out of the way first. Specifically, why I’m backing the boy Corbyn: Man of the people, and the kind of new, progressive politician I’d like to see as prime minister. Of course, I’m biased: I’m a liberal, left-wing, Guardian-reading, part organic vegetable.

My reasons for backing Corbyn’s Labour are many, but for me personally, I’ll be able to make a greater contribution to society. I’m on benefits, signed off long-term from work because of mental health issues. Even forgetting for a moment, the changes to the NHS and improvements to mental health care provision proposed by Labour, I’d be able to take a distance learning course with the Open University when Labour abolish fees. I could study for a degree, which would allow me to give something back. Why should a university education be the preserve of the rich, when so many jobs are being made redundant by technology that soon a degree will be the minimum qualification for the remaining ones? My ex-wife and I couldn’t afford £9250 a year each for our children to become “future proofed”, so the kids would be saddled with loan repayments for the first few years of their employment.

The kids are intelligent, they go to good schools and they live comfortably with their mum and step dad. Naturally, everyone wants the children to be the best they can be, at whatever is best for them. They themselves made a point some time ago, as we were walking around Milton Keynes: They observed that there’s little for young people to do, since many local authority facilities have been closed down as a result of central government cuts. For the better-off, this isn’t a problem, since they can afford entertainment. And it was that statement which struck me, because two young but bright children had illustrated the two-tier society which they see around them. They have many of the things which children like to have, mainly financed by their mum and step dad. I contribute as much as I can, and they understand finances and budgeting, but they have an empathy for those less well-off (well, their dad was a tramp for a while). Like me and like Corbyn, they think long-term, and want to make a contribution towards a better society. Like me, they see that possibility under Corbyn and Labour. Personally, I envisage the introduction of a Universal Basic Income, or Guaranteed Minimum Income in Labour’s second term, a model which has proven successful in more enlightened countries, like Canada, Denmark, Brazil, Finland, Iceland…

A part of me still hopes that Brexit won’t happen. Kim-Jong May’s days are numbered in any case. She’s a danger and the country is a laughing stock among the other 27 EU nations and the wider world. As a country, we’re the kid left on the sideline and mocked. Isn’t it time she stepped down and allowed our re-uniting country a third chance at those “Put it to the nation” things so beloved of the Tories? Leave or Remain, Left or Right-wing: We need to agree that she isn’t a leader. Then the nation decides the rest in a general election which is triggered by her resignation. The woman’s ego is destroying a nation’s future and with it, our children’s prospects.

Meccanismo-Complesso-Octopus-Steampunk
An imagining of the difference engine (see below)

In other news, my next book is finished as a first draft, which is now out with beta readers for a month. Meanwhile the book is just over the half-way mark in a publishing sense. It’s been converted to 8 x 5” paperback size, and comes in at just over 400 pages.

Once the test readers come back with their comments, there’ll be another round of editing and Cyrus Song should be in the shops by October, all going well. Until then, I’m churning out pulp fiction for the shock horror web zines readerships, and the next one, The Difference Engine, will be out somewhere soon:

I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.

What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper…

As a literary plot device, the difference engine is an invention I may make use of in future stories. Like some of my mentors (Paul Auster in particular), I like to have links between stories and common themes within some of them. All of my short stories stand alone, but I have favoured geographical locations, fictional organisations and objects which I sometimes return to. The typewriter in The Difference Engine is one such thing, as is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s letting agency in Islington (the latter actually exists).

Of all the writers I’ve been variously compared to (Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl et al), the comparison with Auster is the one I’m most grateful for, as it was recognition that I can pull off the kind of complexities which he does. Like Auster’s, many of my stories contain others within them. There are recurring characters, meetings with oneself, and writers as narrators of tales about writer protagonists. Most contain subtexts, and some are two or more completely different stories contained in the same narrative. The thing is, they’re not clever tricks: It’s just my style of writing, so to be compared to my literary idol is quite something.

I’m not quite four years in with this writing game, and I’m about to publish my fourth book. Given the nature of Cyrus Song and the messages within, if it was published in October, with Jeremy Corbyn in No.10, that would just be the literary icing on the cake.

My first anthology is available now.

A hall of mirrors | Reflections of yesterday

FICTION

Hall of mirrors
Hall of Mirrors, Caloptric Chamber, Mirror Maze in Petrin Park

Interrogation, introspection, introversion, group therapy…I’ve been doing a lot of talking to myself lately, and the best way to do that, in the absence of any outside help, is by writing: Pink Sunshine was a self-study in my writing, and so is this. Yet, such seems to be the complexity of my writing that I’ve been told I can pull this kind of thing off. If I’m pulling anything at all off, it’s just an ability to tell my own stories through the medium of fiction. There’s a part of the writer in all stories but anyone who doesn’t know me, wouldn’t know I’m in this one. So why mention it? Because I’ve been asked how I do it, and can I teach others? I don’t know. But I can provide insights as well as telling the stories.

At least one of the people who asked me if I could teach them, was one of my younger friends, now almost out of their teens. I’ve counselled them on many things and got them to look at things differently, which has helped them. This is just a story about altering perceptions…

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.

End of part two (Day 1126)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK LAUNCH

screenshot_2016-02-08-14-45-54.png

Metamorphosis: The beetle emerges from the mouth. The Perpetuity of Memory is published: From the writer’s mouth (Image of a 3D tattoo).

Exactly three years ago today, I wrote a blog post, entitled End of part one: That was when I was learning about the life I’d found around me, on the streets. Scanning back through other old posts, I’ve worked out that if I’d kept recording the days, today would be Day 1126. I kept count of the days I was homeless but eventually gave up when the word took on different meanings.

Roughly speaking, it was 10 days of street walking and rough, unsheltered sleeping; 90 days of sleeping rough in a derelict building; 150 days of squatting; 210 days of sofa surfing; and 400 days of living illegally above a pub. Add that all up and it should make about two years. I’ve been at the studio for almost a year now, so I’ve found my home but it’s on the third anniversary of that End of part one post that part two makes way for the next.

I didn’t plan it. It says on the cover of the book that it took three years and without even checking beforehand, it’s landed on the exact day. Three years after the end of part one, I’ve published my first volume of collected tales. I’ve published other books and there will be more to come, but this is the one I’d like to be remembered for.

Just hours from writing of my upcoming book, it’s no longer an upcoming book: It’s published today. I wrote of my sentiments surrounding the book in that last post, by including the cover notes and introduction. Now that my three-year labour of love is published, I’m moved to post further sentiments from the book, the acknowledgements:

It would be impossible to thank everyone individually for their contribution to this book, because that would be everyone who knew me in the 42 years it took me to realise what I wanted to do with my life. But there are individuals and groups who stand out:

Those I am indebted to the most, and to whom this book is dedicated: My parents, my children and their mum.

My second family, The Pink Hearts: A rag tag group of young people I met when I was homeless and who remain friends, especially the ones who remain close: My adopted sister, The Courts, and my three adopted daughters: The fold-up one, clingy thingy, and Ninja. The Ninja was particularly helpful in the latter stages of this book, when she took on the role of proof reader for some of the later stories and sent me notes of encouragement, such as “If you don’t finish this, I will punch you. In the face. Repeatedly.”

I’m grateful to my other crash test dummies who read drafts for me: My sounding board, Nettie, and one of my most loyal friends, Jo. Thanks also to all of my old friends from the 80s and 90s who’ve stuck around to see what happened to the alcoholic.

I must acknowledge two of my literary heroes and influences: Paul Auster and Douglas Adams. Last and by no means least, my guardian angel: The man who taught me as a teenager that it’s okay to be different and that expression is freedom, David Bowie.

A life will always be a memory, so long as it’s not forgotten. These stories will be around long after I’m gone and I hope they make for some perpetuity of memory.

It’s all out there now: A book of stories, published and now indelible. Perhaps the most sentimental page is the dedications:

For George and Rose, my parents
They made this possible

And for Louis and Lola, my children
They are the next generation

My children may be two of the first generation of our one race to become immortal, through science and exploration. I will probably miss that boat, but I can still imagine and write stories. And the stories in this book are now immortalised, through the process of publication.

So this is a happy ending; A date which means the start of a new act, a new chapter, a new part.

I don’t know exactly why I called that post the end of part one, three years ago. Back then, life was taking me through many brief transits. If I were asked, I’d say part one lasted for about 42 years, starting in 1970. Part two lasted for somewhere between three and five years, the last three being the metamorphosis.

So this is part three. The Perpetuity of Memory is a rather handy launch pad, into whatever happens next.