Making flans for Simon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.

HHGG Deep ThoughtA poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.

Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.

I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).

It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.

Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.

It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.

I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…

I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.

“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”

“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).

“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”

“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.

“What about you?” I asked.

“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”

“It’s not like I can stop you.”

“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”

“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”

“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.

“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”

“So you’re haunting me?”

“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”

“In Cyrus Song?”

“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”

“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”

“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.

“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).

“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.

“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.

This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.

As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.

Cyrus Song is available now. The prequel stories of Simon and Hannah (and Captain Mamba) are told in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Simon said we should meet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I suppose it was partly to do with my curiosity: my ongoing one, with myself; and the deeper one, of the human condition. When I sometimes find it difficult to separate fact from fiction, yet I find the latter the greater comfort; when I can occupy my characters, so that they speak more than their own lines; and when I know them better than many friends who are not myself, I thought it might be interesting to meet up with one of my leading roles. So I popped in to see Simon Fry, six months after Cyrus Song…

Meeting MindsFine Art America

I knew I was at the right place because it looked familiar. The man who answered the door though, didn’t look entirely as I’d expected, even though I’d written him. “Come in,” he said, beckoning with his head.

I was having dinner with Simon Fry, a character I created for Cyrus Song, and I wanted to know how all that had gone for him. His flat was just as I’d left it inside, as I always knew the furniture wouldn’t fit any other way.

I hadn’t given Simon sufficient recognition for his looks in the book, as he was a person very aware of his appearance but without a particularly high opinion of himself. Now that I saw him, he was quite striking. I wondered how things had worked out with Hannah since the book.

“Are you planning a sequel?” Simon wondered, which was one of the things I wanted to ask him about. “Because,” he continued, “I’m wondering whether to hang around waiting for you, or just get on with things.” I had to assume this was a shared sense of humour in an otherwise quite surreal situation.

“I wondered pretty much exactly the same,” I replied, “whether you’d just get on with life after I left you.”

“A strong character doesn’t need the writer to carry them along all the time. If the writer’s good enough, they’ve put enough into that character to make them come to life in a story.”

“Well I’ve got your whole life story in a separate notebook. Very little of it is in Cyrus Song but it was only by knowing you that I was able to convey your story so plausibly. It’s all in what’s not written.”

“Every story,” Simon said, “is where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

“Did you say that or did I?”

“Both of us I suppose. Strange isn’t it?”

“In a nice way,” I agreed. I wondered if it might be worth letting Simon flip the table on me, and let him write my story. I’m more comfortable inside one of my characters anyway.

“I suppose you’re wondering,” Simon wondered, “about Hannah.” I wasn’t sure if I was.

“How is she?” It seemed the most obvious thing to say. I didn’t know the answer to expect, let alone how to respond to any.

“Last time I checked, she was fine.” He seemed to be leading me.

“When was that?”

“I thought you might ask, seeing as her doctorate was in human psychology, before we started talking with the animals.” Funny that. It just goes to show what happens when you talk to a friend who can relate to you. They can give you the answer, without you having to ask.

So that’s the weekend sorted. I might carry this on, as it could help both me and Mr Fry work out how we use the perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything in our book.

Cyrus Song is available now, and the prequel stories of Simon, Hannah Jones, and Captain Mamba are in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Writing intended for reading

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Rather than freshly back, I’m jaded from a week away, without actually going anywhere. It was a week in which I found myself conducting some sort of twisted social experiment, on myself (when there’s only oneself for company, there aren’t many others willing to be experimented on): I stopped writing. It was a depressive episode, a writer’s block, everything which helps the others along.

writing_on_the_wall_by_blue70Blue70, DeviantArt

It started with separation anxiety, after my last monthly visit with my children. Geography and finance are the governors of that infrequency, so the time together is precious. Meanwhile I was helping some friends with their own issues, yet no-one seemed to have the time to ask me how I was doing. No-one asks, so I don’t get the chance to tell anyone how it tears me apart every day. That’s just what living alone is like, and no-one seemed to be reading my writing.

Christmas had already been a solitary one for many people around me: a family mostly reliant on public transport, and regular visitors to my studio displaced by their own families (one was having a baby).

Aside from the monthly outing with the kids (a known and practised quantity), anxiety means I find travelling very difficult. I have mobility issues, even though my disability isn’t physical. This causes problems in itself, not only by being a self-perpetuating mechanism, but by rendering me almost exclusively displaced, unless people come to me. But it’s often the same people I’d like to get to myself, and therein lies the biggest issue.

I’m not able to demonstrate how much I care for some people, not through an inability to express myself (sometimes I do that a bit too much), but because my brain keeps me locked up. It’s frustrating, and it must make me look pretty shit when I won’t get on a combination of buses and trains to visit someone in hospital, but it’s the invisible disabilities of anxiety and paranoia which make it that way. So I feel even more shit about myself, which fuels the depression.

I want to tell people about my own struggles, but I don’t want to be a burden. I want to help with theirs, but don’t wish to intrude. I care about people but I don’t want to bother them. Then I wonder if that makes it look like I don’t give a shit. It’s all self-perpetuating.

So I’m living alone, feeling pretty hateful towards myself, missing a load of people who can’t visit me and who I wish I could go to myself. But the same regular visitors I might rely on as chaperones are the others who’ve been away. Another self-propelled paradox, just like anxiety and paranoia, which have no place together, other than to encourage each other along. I wished I had someone to do that for me.

I questioned my value as a writer, and as a person. I’m living alone and lonely, I’m depressed, and I’m an alcoholic: surely the perfect storm, at least for a relapse.

Although such a thing might have pleased some, it didn’t happen. I’m diagnosed with alcohol dependence syndrome, self-managed with controlled intake. The term ‘functioning alcoholic’ doesn’t mean someone who gets drunk but just about maintains bowel function, it’s someone who drinks little and often throughout the day.

I didn’t hurt myself, and there was no attempted suicide. That would be a failure and a defeat. If I wanted to kill myself, I’d make sure I was successful. The only attempt at anything which could be pinned on me, was some attempted accounting I did when I wound up a couple of my old companies, before the rest of my life fell apart. I got over that, so a depressive episode wasn’t going to beat me.

Episodes of depression are like unwelcome friends or relatives: They turn up unannounced, with no prior warning and no idea of how long they’d like to stay. Friends and relatives of someone with depression might sometimes fear to tread, wondering how long they’re likely to be lumbered. Sometimes you have to place yourself in others’ positions to see how they see things, and you may not like what you see. It’s all part of living alone with depression, but I do wish others could appreciate what depression actually is. Anxiety breeds paranoia and vice versa. They conspire together, and loneliness magnifies it all. Sometimes it wants to kill me, but I won’t let it.

Just as some advanced species in my sci-fi writing have transcended war, concluding it to be a waste of time, I try to rise above a situation. The only way to explore it is to question it, and write about what I find. Thoughts can quickly grow when you’re your own sole interrogator.

And there it was, staring me in the face, like it had been all along. Except I was so wrapped up in myself and with no-one else to point it out that I didn’t see it. Another paradox. I was away from home, while still being at home. I didn’t feel at home being away, even though I was here. The thing I’d lost was the writing, and I’d only stopped doing that because I didn’t think anyone was reading me. I still don’t know, but why should that stop me?

It begs other questions, like why can’t I go out and write, if writing is my home? That’s a whole load more blog posts. For now, it’s all I have, so I’ll just keep doing it, doing it at home, and seeing what happens. Just as in real life, I need people to find me, as I lack the confidence to find others.

It’s only writing which gives me a reason to live. If people don’t read me, is that less reason to live? When I have no-one else to talk to, is my writing just talking to myself?

Now that I think about it, it’s the only thing I can do. If no-one reads, it means it’s more private and I can say more. I’m a socially anxious writer with things to say, and it’s perfect, because that’s the kind of thing people like to read. It’s a paradox which works.

I write, because one day I won’t be able to. My words will always be there to read, even when I’m no longer around. All I have to do is leave them where they can be found. Unlike my attempted accounting of old, I’ll persevere with my attempts to be read.

A timeless plot device

FICTION

In one of the stories in The Unfinished Literary Agency, a writer loses his most cherished possession: a pen. Even though I prefer to use a keyboard (I can type faster than I write (neatly, at least)), and although I refer to my laptop as a typewriter, the pen (or pencil) is the most basic, portable and enduring tool of the writer. And so it is in this other story, where it’s used as a plot device. A previous draft of this appeared on this blog, but this is the final version, from the book.

I used to think I might one day be a prominent scientist or writer. When I became neither, I decided to be a sci-fi writer, and apparently I’m quite good at that. This story was co-written with my son (13), who knows about as much of what he wants to do with his life as I did at that age. One of his many aspirations is to be a writer, and although I’ve advised him not to take the route I did, I’ll encourage him only if he decides that’s what he wants to do. Whatever he does, he has a story in a published book with an ISBN, which grants him some sort of immortality. He’s got a copy of the book, but he’s a teenager, so it’s easier for his peers to read it on a screen…

tower_bridge_wp

THE BEST LAID PLANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, human,” one of them said.

“Hello,” Eve replied.

“What’s your name?” The crow asked.

“Eve.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

PROF. J.C. HESTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you like your chair?”

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

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

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

“Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

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

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

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

“But how can I hear you?”

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

“One of them.”

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

“And others followed.”

“Many. Then everyone.”

“So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

“Lonely.”

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

“I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

“Who’s she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

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

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

“Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

“Looked at like this, yes.”

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

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

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

“He was in London Zoo?”

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

“Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

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

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

“And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

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

“You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

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

“Why’s that?”

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

“It was a human thing?”

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

“Which was?”

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

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

“What’s not?”

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

“So where do we look?”

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

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

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

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

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

The day I farted Stardust

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Two years ago today, I woke to the news of David Bowie’s further travels. Ziggy Stardust, the thin white duke, the cracked actor, Major Tom was a starman again. The news was delivered by text message from one of my best friends. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky…

Ziggy Stardust cover art

It was news I wasn’t prepared for. David Bowie was immortal (but of course he is, just like the rest of us). He was back with the stars he came from, exploring further (“Knowledge comes with death’s release…”). It was poetic that I received the news as I did. Short of getting a telepathic message from the Starman himself, my friend was the best sentinel I could think of.

We’ve been friends for the best part of 40 years, we went to school together, and on my 40th birthday, he gave me a very personal gift: Bowie in Berlin; a book by Thomas Jerome Seabrook, which tells the story of the three-year period when Bowie made some of his most intensely creative music. We grew up with Bowie together, and there’s an inscription inside the book:

To my old friend,

These three albums [Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger] struck a chord with us, when we were younger. I remember smoking, playing pool and hanging out, with Bowie in the background. ‘Soundtrack to our lives’: Let’s live to it again.

Your old friend, T x

Along with my hi-fi separates and my signed copy of Diamond Dogs, the book is one of my most treasured things. When I was ill, had my breakdown and ended up on the streets, my ex-partners looked after my belongings until I found my own place, for which I’m forever grateful.

At some point during that period of homelessness, I dreamed that I’d one day have a place I could call my own, with copies of my own books dotted around. It was a daydream, as I sat in McDonald’s scribbling in a notepad (I probably still have it, as I managed to retain most). I knew I’d most likely never work again, so I wondered, “What the fuck…”

I was street homeless for three months (in winter), sleeping in garages and on benches (and once in a bin). Then for six months I had the squat, and a further seven months of sofa-surfing followed, before I took the tenancy above the pub. After a year of suffering that landlord, I was offered the place I have now: a small studio in a quiet village, and with a social (legal) landlord. After my first year as a tenant, I was given an indefinite rolling tenancy. It’s the nearest someone who doesn’t own their own place can get to actually having one.

All of that covers a period now just into its fifth year, and all documented on this blog. As I’ve noted several times, I needed to have a base before I could really sort myself out. Conventional wisdom works the opposite way, but if you give a human shelter and take care of their basic needs (like food and warmth), the rest will follow.

The day between Bowie’s birthday and the day he left, has become a day of reflection. Last night, I sat and looked around my little place, thankful for all I have and all I’ve done, and for the guidance. Because if you believe in the universe, it will talk to you.

I picked up The Unfinished Literary Agency from my coffee table, and I had a flick through: It really is a very good book, of which I’m proud. It’s my fifth, published on the fifth day of my fifth year as a writer, and my shit don’t stink.

We can all be heroes, even if it’s just for one day.

“And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor.” (Five Years, David Bowie).

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

An aardvark in the air tonight

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Like everyone else, I was saddened by the news of the fire at London Zoo. It’s a place I know very well, from several visits over many years, and one very close to my heart when I wrote Cyrus Song. Four meerkat brothers are missing presumed dead, an aardvark called Misha perished, and I lost a little friend.

Misha and OttoMisha and Otto

I first visited London Zoo in 1977 on a primary school trip. Back then the big draw was Guy the gorilla, and we happened to visit on the day he died. Hoping I hadn’t cursed the place, I’ve returned many times since without incident, and most recently for the chapters of Cyrus Song which are set there.

A lot of research went into the book, to make the science plausible and the characters real. The three human leads each have a notebook on a shelf in my studio, containing their life stories, very little of which made it into the novel, but it was knowing the characters which allowed me to bring them to life in the unwritten words. I familiarised myself with London Zoo’s ‘Inventory’, and researched many of the species therein, so that I could give them voice and personality through the Babel fish.

Unfortunately on the day Simon Fry visited, the aardvarks were asleep:

There were too many interesting animals I wanted to speak to for me to be able to place them in any sort of order. So I decided to just go from A to Z. In the time available, I’d probably be able to speak to the aardvarks and the zebras, but very few others. But the big draw for me was the reptile house: Not because of my fascination with snakes in general, but because London Zoo is home to one male and one female black mamba.

Of course it would be handy if London Zoo laid out all of their exhibits alphabetically, but that wouldn’t be practical, so they didn’t. This being a warm spring Sunday afternoon, the zoo was quite busy. The aardvarks are in the ‘Animal Adventure’ area, which is mainly for young people. And aardvarks are nocturnal, so they were asleep. Which was a shame, because Misha and Otto looked like a couple very much at ease in one another’s company, at least when asleep. Otto had arrived from Berlin Zoo in 2014, so I’d have liked to ask him about that city, and whether he’d seen David Bowie.

It’s cold comfort that the post mortem shows she died of smoke inhalation in her sleep. But there she was, little Misha, curled up with Otto and both looking very pleased with themselves in dreams. I can only imagine how the guy from Berlin must be feeling now, but I do know that the zoo staff are very socially aware with the animal people, so he’ll be getting some sort of aardvark counselling. If only he could read my book, he’d see that I put him and Misha (she was from Holland) in a story which changed a lot of lives, and gives a perfectly reasonable answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.

I’ve written many times of how I don’t write for the money, because there’s hardly any for the undiscovered self-publishing masses. I have my basic needs covered, so anything I make from writing I give away. I can hardly be called a philanthropist, as it’s really not much, but it’s what I don’t need. When life decided to give me a second chance, I resolved I’d pay it back.

As well as the charitable donations, I make my books available in libraries (on request), as I realise not everyone can afford books (I couldn’t once, and I used to base myself in a library when I was living on the streets). For those who can afford books, buying mine benefits good causes (mainly animal, homeless and addiction) and hopefully delivers a good read. Of course, anyone can donate directly to the charities but if we’re honest, most won’t. If someone’s buying a book anyway (because it’s received good reviews), the altruism by proxy is a small bonus. So it seemed only right to donate any proceeds from the sale of Cyrus Song in January to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the whole science side of the zoo which the public displays and learning support.

I shan’t milk the passing of every individual leaf cutter ant to plug my book, but Misha has a place in my heart from it.

History predicts that each new book increases interest in preceding ones, so with The Unfinished Literary Agency almost finished, Cyrus Song might get noticed more. And that’s good for Misha and Otto.

In loving memory of Misha Aardvark, 20.06.07 – 23.12.17

A lonely journey, never alone

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Yesterday was my monthly visit to Milton Keynes to see my children, the last time before Christmas and two days before the eldest turns teen. Tomorrow, my son will be legally allowed to have social media accounts, and become a part of humanity’s existential crisis, recorded for future historians. Today could be his last day of relative innocence. Farewell son, see you around…

Lonely Journey

I wrote recently of a girl I’d created in a short story, who’d found herself helping many others, while also having issues of her own. She was frustrated, because while she worked tirelessly and quietly with no recognition, others sought to claim credit for her actions. In that story, she doesn’t find a way out, but one finds her, as everything links up at the end. Sometimes, it can simply be someone walking into a life.

There’s a story out tomorrow, which will only be on this blog and then adapted for The Unfinished Literary Agency, my forthcoming second anthology. It’s also about a girl, who’s looking for something her son once wrote, but which he largely forgot about. My own son wrote part of a story some time ago, then gave it to me and we planned to finish it together. The life of the pre-teen has many distractions, just as his teenage years will, so the story was forgotten. But the original purpose of The Unfinished Literary Agency was to write the stories of others, which they themselves couldn’t. So it seemed fitting that I should finish the story, in which a mother looks for something her son started, to find out what became of it.

If my own mum were to look for things I’d written, she’d be somewhat spoiled for choice. Unlike a lot of the family history I’m writing for my other book, my stories are already out there. And in a family link-up, it was my own son who pointed something out to me yesterday.

The odd vanity search aside, I rarely search for myself online (inside, all the time, but not online). When I do, it’s just to see what people are searching for, besides the obvious (the search terms are varied: LGBTQI, animal sentience, steam punk, psychological writing, atheism, the human condition…). I don’t bother with outdated ‘Search Engine Optimisation’, nor any AdWords, preferring the natural order of Google to take care of things.

I didn’t need to be writing for long, before a simple search for my name (omitting the writer bit) more or less filled Google’s first page of results, simply because of all those who share my name, I’m the most prolific (I do write a lot). In any case, I’m usually logged on to my own Google account, so I see a slightly different screen to the public offering. So I was pleasantly surprised when my eldest pointed this out:

Google Box Screenshot

Apparently, Google has given me a box. Google thinks that anyone searching for my name will most likely be looking for me, so they’ve given me a box, which says I’m an author. I rarely call myself that (I prefer ‘Writer’), but if that’s what Google says, I’m pleased I’ve been given a box. So that was nice.

Whatever my children end up as, they’ve been encouraged to be the best that they can, at that which they enjoy the most, and which gives the most back. They’ll have many shepherds through their years and they’ll guide and inspire others, sometimes without knowing it, in their real and online worlds.

Like the girl in my story, I haven’t found a way, but one found me. It was other people, and in life just as on Google. Sometimes, you realise they were always there. Sometimes, you remember:

“Let’s run!”
“Why?”
“Because one day we won’t be able to.”

Farewell boy, see you around young man.