Parlez-vous les kangourou?

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Is it possible to write animal language? This was a question asked directly of me on Quora, and it’s all down to interpretation. After all, no matter what anyone says, they have no control over how that message is received, but that’s a larger sphere for another discussion.

There’s a story (possibly apocryphal), of an explorer pointing to an animal he’d never seen before and asking a native what it was: “Kangaroo”. But ‘kangaroo’ simply meant ‘I don’t know.’ Do animals want to tell us something? All rabbits look like they have something on their mind, all the time. Is it possible to write animal language?

Apps for catsApps for cats

It’s something probably within near-reach of current technology, but while it remains theoretical, there’s always the fictional. Is it possible to write animal language(s)? I gave it a go, because someone had to let everyone know what the animals are thinking on this home world we all share. They were here first. It’s theirs, and we are only guests, with a moral responsibility to clean up our mess.

As this question was requested directly from me, I shan’t shy from mentioning my science fiction novel, which is central to my answers (it may be because I wrote that book that someone asked me specifically).

Cyrus Song has two main premises, and it’s a tribute to two people who’ve been influential on me in my literary and scientific lives: Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. It was the famous quote by the latter, sampled on Pink Floyd’s song ‘Keep Talking’: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…” Of course it refers to humans, but I turned it on its head and wondered what it would be like if we learned to talk with the animals. Incidentally, the alternative title to that Pink Floyd track is ‘Cyrus Song’, Cyrus being a name for our parent star, Sol.

Then I had Douglas Adams and his original invention of the universal translation device: the Babel fish, which eventually disproved God in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I put that to use as a quantum computer program in Cyrus Song, to come up with a universal translation device for animals. Cyrus Song is clearly fiction, but my near-future sci-fi will always have a grounding in current science, at least scientific theory. I like to think my science fiction is plausible.

We already have universal translation, and can hear most human languages translated to our own as we speak through a device or algorithm. We’re on the verge of quantum computing and the vast power they represent, unimaginable in current computers. And we’re already setting AI to task on working out the really difficult questions we can’t yet answer, because our brains can’t process the huge amounts of data (a cure for cancer, the search for extraterrestrial life). With a greater human awareness of the other people we share a home with, humans are researching animal communication more (we know that much of what they say it outside our audible range, that whales and dolphins have incredibly complex languages, and that some animals can use a form of telepathy) and could yet build that tower of Babel.

I predict that something like the Babel fish could be with us in about five years, but for now it’s imagined as one possible answer to mankind’s biggest questions, of life, the universe and everything. I figured if we could talk to the animals, we might change.

I believe that humanity is at a pivotal evolutionary point, where we could equally save or destroy ourselves with the science and technology we’ve made. With the world seemingly just waiting for WW3, the only saviour I could see would be the sudden intervention of a common foe, to unite previously warring factions.

The same science and technology could take us to the stars, leaving this planet for those who were here before us. We have a lot of mess to clear up first, and for now we’re stuck here. So instead of a common foe, I see a common interest which we can all unite behind as one race, the human race. That’s our shared home. And when we look around, the answers we’re looking for are everywhere.

Is it possible to write animal languages? I did my best to interpret what I think they’d like us to know. If we take the time to listen, we might be better guests in their home.

Cyrus Song (with perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything) is available now.

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A smoked salmon bagel of doubt

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, remember the friends who say “Always here…” Because who would welcome that kind of call?

When all you need is to talk to someone, you don’t wish to be a burden, especially at 3am. You want people to call you. But how are they to know you’d welcome the distraction?

Depression is like leprosy. It’s a paradox of our humanity.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a #MentalHealth message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

It’s all in the mind, of course. A very lonely place to be with only your own thoughts.

I was there once. I was on Brick Lane and I had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, with a squeeze of lemon and a grind of black pepper. I got a coffee too, and I had brunch on a doorstep in E1.

Some people really are right here, and they don’t mind those calls. You can’t catch a disease over the phone.

The evolution of the typesetter

FICTION

This is a story which revisited my quarter century in the world of print, from hot metal typesetting to on-demand digital publication; and a writer, as the internet democratised publishing. Like most of my stories it can be applied to many situations, where the protagonist or antagonist is replaced. But like all my fiction, it’s a conversation with the writer. The evolution of the typewriter, and the mangling of the freelancer…

Helvetica-the-typeface

HELVETICA HAUS

I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink flows smoothly through the barrel and it is comfortable to hold. The ink is stored in the barrel like so many thoughts yet to take form. Then it passes through the barrel, held in my fingers as it ejects my thoughts through my hand and onto the paper, like black blood. My pen is an ergonomic tool of an art which produces aesthetics in the written word.

It’s not just the writing I produce which is art: my means of bringing it into being is also art.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my faithful Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding the metallic rod of the pen in my hand as it spills my words but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. The Monotype operator uses a machine very much like a typewriter, which produces individual letters from molten metal ingots called “pigs”. These individual columns with characters on the end are called “slugs”. The slugs are positioned into a frame, called a “galley” by the Monotype machine. Each slug is one character and metal spacers are inserted into the galley to separate words. These characterless pieces of metal are also produced by the machine operator on his keyboard, simply by hitting a space bar like on a typewriter. I find it amazing to consider, that operator is not only typing the words which will tell a story but he is creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he is “typing” the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine; he’s writing the means to print. The final galley is a page of type which will be coated in ink and impressed upon sheets of paper: it’s a platen process; it’s traditional letterpress printing, pre-dating litho print.

Rather than be cast in a galley though, my individual letter and character slugs were soldered to the ends of the arms of the hammers in my typewriter, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes. This can be because of various motivators: often something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes speed itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Apart from the obvious fact that everything written electronically is indelible, even when erased, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks. I view it as typographical rape or incest. It’s similar to the comparison between vinyl LPs and MP3s: the latter is digitised and loses a lot of nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there is no difference but to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There is simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or computer printers. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. It is a metal skeleton; a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective beauty is greater than the sum of the parts. My faithful typewriter – its unique qualities created by a writer – creates stories. It’s like a story written to reproduce.

When written to my satisfaction, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: a firm called Smith & Young in Bermondsey.

Smith & Young are die-stampers by trade: a beautiful art in itself. The die-stamping process is also a platen one, like letterpress. The process embosses ink into the paper, so that the print stands in relief. Each colour of ink in a coat of arms for example has to be die-stamped separately. Therefore an engraver needs to carve a copper embossing die for each colour and ensure that all colours are printed in register. Furthermore, because the image is stamped directly onto the paper, the dies have to be engraved in mirror image. It’s incredible to watch a worker such as my compositor produce such things of beauty and value. They practice print as an art, not a technology. Once furnished with a few simple concepts, even the layman can distinguish the difference between digital and traditional lithographic print. Die-stamping is a rare thing but the embossed nature of the print is easy to appreciate. To really understand the nuances and beauty of letterpress printing though, requires a connoisseur.

I have to ensure that my manuscript is perfect. I do not use correction fluid: to do so would mar the otherwise monotone typed page with another colour and evidence of a mistake. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. What comes from my typewriter is the first and final hand-typed copy of a work.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He is a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

The courier will wait with the printer, whilst the Monotype operator typesets my story. My story is written again, by a different writer. Whereas my key strokes produced ink on paper, his produce slugs of metal to be locked into a galley for a printing press. Again, the means of printing a story in infinite quantities by impressing those metal slugs into paper, is being literally written in cold, hard metal.

When the galley is complete, the courier will return the original typed manuscript to the writer. For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy: the tool, written in metal, can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

Once the potential to print countless physical copies of my work in the form of metal slugs in a galley exists, a problem troubles my purist mind. I trust the man at Smith and Young: he is a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were on anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street and Soho late at night and into the next day: that’s where they worked and some lived but many also lived in Bermondsey. Printing is in the blood there.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans. They’d dodge a few early risers in suits who are on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George: the barber whose shop bears his name in Bermondsey Street. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. George doesn’t talk as he works, negating the need for the kind of small talk which he and I detest. Time spent in his skilful hands is time to relax and contemplate, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble.

Ordering food at Manze’s has to be done with precision. A simple request for pie and mash will be greeted with a blank expression, even though it’s a pie and mash shop. It’s like a test to see if one is a connoisseur of the London delicacy. My specific request was delivered quickly and with no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, my order of one pie, one mash and “liquor” – sort of a parsley sauce – was dolloped with meaning and there was a knowing smile from the server. At a table shared with three complete strangers, I garnished my food with the chilli infused sarsaparilla vinegar, which is for some reason traditional, and ate in around ten minutes. The floor is tiled in black and white, so I played a quick mental game of chess against myself as I chewed.

Thereafter, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith and Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water, with a squeeze each of fresh lime, orange and lemon, then a tiny dash of cranberry juice: the four fruits must be added in a specific order to maintain the traffic light sequence: green lime, amber from the lemon and orange, then the cranberry for red; then another tiny dash of cranberry at the same time as a squeeze each of lemon and orange, and a final squeeze of lime for the red and amber, green part of the symphony. We had a few drinks and discussed my story.

Presently, we agreed that it might be time to eat, so we made our way back toward London Bridge Station by foot and then to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge, and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked down the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing more people into the West End.

Charing Cross is symbolic because Charing Cross itself, which the station takes its name from, is the official centre of London. The original centre point is the Square Mile of The City, once a Roman fortress trading post, enclosed and gated: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate etc. Charing Cross is also notable in my mind for being roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street, along Strand and through Aldwych, into The City; and Soho, the bohemian heart of the great metropolis, where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst famously being unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful form of the Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we sat.

Our like minds permitted us to arrive at different meal choices for dinner. My companion chose traditional fish and chips, his reasoning being that we were in close proximity to marine life. My own reasoning was that we were surrounded by all kinds of life: land-based humans and other mammals, mainly unseen; insects, largely invisible; airborne species, mainly birds which were visible; and indeed, marine life. The most visible, abundant and accessible food group was avian and this is what prompted me to order chicken escalope. I realise that there were unlikely to be any chickens within view at the time of my placing the order but neither were there gulls or pigeons on the menu. There were no cod that I could see either but my dining companion’s battered fish looked a fine meal, served with good chips, mushy peas – in a separate ramekin – and a slice of lemon. There was a separate pot of tartare sauce but my partner is a Philistine and smothered his food in ketchup. My chicken was served as requested: not a breast fillet from the menu but a butterflied piece of thigh meat. This must be cooked with the Cheddar cheese and bacon rolled into it but without a securing rasher of bacon around it, so that the skin may be allowed to brown and crisp. The escalope must then be allowed to rest in a warm place, so that the flesh of the chicken can relax and absorb its own juices and take on those of the bacon inside as it penetrates the soft, white and accommodating young chicken meat with it’s aged, salty juices. The rested chicken parcel must then be wrapped in another slice of fatty bacon and the whole thing fried in butter until the bacon starts to resist and becomes crisp. My chicken was accompanied by the aforementioned good chips: these are King Edward potatoes, cooked thrice: once boiled, then twice fried to produce an “armadillo” chip: crispy on the outside; fluffy on the inside. A fine barbecue sauce and a corn cob completed the plate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for long-standing friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. At one point, somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused at the incessant presence of gulls, I tossed a piece of chicken on deck which was quickly swooped upon by three winged balaclava-wearing hooligans. I speculated aloud as to whether this might be cannibalism by proxy and my partner responded by smiling and throwing a piece of his fish overboard, commenting that we’ll never know. I hope my smile conveyed my admiration.

We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to something as yet incomplete but which held excitement. Great minds: I don’t know what his thoughts were but I respect privacy, so I concentrated on my own.

The flowing Thames below us was a blue-black, like ink flowing through a pen around the boat. I was aboard the boat and therefore the delivery mechanism. This story is now under my control; the boat beneath my feet like the pen in my hand.

I sliced my compositor’s neck from behind, cutting away from me as he leaned over the deck of the boat. Just as it had cut through the tomato skin and flesh, so my cut-throat razor slid between my ghost writer’s head and torso like a hot knife through butter, separating the two in an instant.

As the decapitated head fell to the water below, the eyes remained open and the cigarette which I’d rolled was still in his mouth. The head plopped into the river like a full stop from a hammer in an old typewriter impressing ink into a sheet of paper, or a platen press impressing the final page galley.

The ink flowing around me took on a new colour as the dark, dusty river of life and waste below was splashed with red strike marks, blood spurting from the neck of the headless body next to me, still gripping the handrail. Before I tipped him overboard, I took his wallet.

I engaged the staff in conversation about the distribution of tips paid to the establishment. Once I’d established that tips were distributed fairly among staff, I was able to pay for the meal using my friend’s credit card with a clear conscience.

Of course, I shall burn this copy of the story but I am aware that the galley still exists: that is by design. It is important to my art that a physical record be kept.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words and by putting myself in the stories and acting them out so that I may tell them more accurately.

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Shooting up from the oceans

PROSE FROM THE PENCIL CASE

INK IN THE SKIN

Gas Station Horror PoemGas Station Horror

If you can’t write your dreams, remember to live them. Then maybe someone can write them for you.

Still tied with instrument strings

FICTION

Has anyone been to The Tower of London recently? Were the ravens still there? Because it seems The Tories’ incompetent and corrupt fascist dictatorship has achieved at least one thing: The collapse of democracy into deadly farce. The collected corvids on the Tower lawns could surely do a better job of governing than the incumbent economic murderers in Parliament.

Sometimes the easiest means of self-expression is to write a simple story, in the hope that someone reads it in preference to listening. This is one I wrote some time ago, when I had a musical score, but the wrong instruments to play it…

Bug instrumentsDarkroastedblend.com

TYPEWRITER: A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT WITH KEYS

This was a suggestion slip posted to The Unfinished Literary Agency, poked through the letterbox I have installed in my bathroom mirror. On the outside, it’s just a normal cabinet, containing medicines and cosmetic products, with a mirror on the door. On the other side of the door, is a letterbox, through which people can post things into my mirror.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional publishing concern I run from a small room above Hotblack Desiato’s Islington office in Islington. The agency’s main function is to write the stories of others, who are unable to convey themselves, for whatever reason. This is one such:

I overheard someone talking about how intelligent crows are, and this got me to wondering what might happen if they evolved opposable thumbs. Being a writer, I set off to find out. It was sheer luck which put me in the right place at the right time, with the right people.

I was suffering one of the worst episodes of depression I care to remember, so I’d gone for a walk to Manor House Gardens, a National Trust property just outside the village where I lived. ‘Depression’, like ‘mental illness’ is a label with no real definition. The condition (and mine’s medically diagnosed as ‘chronic’, with anxiety at the top of the list), is as individual a cocktail of things, and as the individual with all of those things inside them. I tend not to talk about it, for fear that others judge me as having brought it all upon myself. Because I’m also an alcoholic. But if people were to read the nearest-to definitions (so far) of ‘depression’ and ‘alcohol dependence syndrome’, they might be able to find me in there somewhere, like they might in my own writing.

Writing is a cruel therapy, allowing one to exorcise one’s thoughts, yet still alone should no-one read them. It is a thankless task, but it’s nevertheless a coping mechanism for me. But I long to hear that others have heard me. By asking someone else to write this, I’m sort of putting myself in those readers’ places, to see if the story which comes back is worth reading, to see what might happen to me, and if I’ll be remembered when I’m gone.

Ideas for stories occur to writers all the time and in the most unexpected ways. It wasn’t that I lacked ideas so much as I couldn’t extrapolate some really good stories. A story is relatively easy to write but a really good story is something completely different and I was in the business of writing really good fiction.

My books weren’t selling well, but the fringes of undiscovered writers would always count sales in dozens, and although I was never a writer for the money, I was a bit destitute. In a way, I enjoyed the financial freedom which writing enabled me to enjoy. Although that was a beautifully philosophical way for an impoverished writer to think, it wasn’t putting electricity on my key, nor much food in my stomach. I had great visions of where my next novel would take me but it was a long way from being finished. And so it was that I was writing short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction for various magazines. The cheques were small but they kept me alive. My book was on hold and I was struggling for original material for the short story market: such a first world problem.

I sat on a bench and rolled a cigarette. To my surprise, I was joined by two old ladies. When I’d sat down, I was the only person around and I’d seated myself in the middle of the bench, so the ladies sat either side of me. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I went to stand up.

“Don’t you excuse yourself young man,” said the lady to my left. “You were ‘ere first, so you sit yourself down and do whatever it was you was gunner do.” I couldn’t be sure if it was just a thought she’d absently broadcast, or if she had a sense of humour which was dry to the extreme. In any case, the irony was palpable. She continued: “You might ‘ear sumink interestin’” She gave my arm a gentle pinch, with finger and thumb.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the crows?” The old dear to my right was speaking now.

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft car. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

Of course, all corvids are noted for their intelligence: Crows, rooks, ravens, Jays and the like, show some quite remarkable powers of reasoning, and it was this that the two old girls were talking about, perhaps without at least one of them realising it. I excused myself and made my way back to my studio, smiling at anyone who caught my gaze.

The most wonderful thing is when people smile back at you. Those are the stories, right there.

Back at my desk, I skimmed quickly through the news feeds on my computer: Britain and the world were at pivotal points. What better time to leave?

Using some string I’d borrowed from a theory and a little imagination, I constructed a means of transport to a far future. My ship was powered by cats: and why not? Schrödinger’s cats to be precise, as a fuel source, wherein two possible physical states existed in parallel, inside each of an infinite number of sealed boxes. Effectively, it was powered by will. The upshot of this was that I could go absolutely anywhere I wished. A working knowledge of quantum mechanics would enable you to understand exactly how the engine worked. If you lack that knowledge, suffice to say that the engine worked. The only limitation was that I couldn’t go back in time. I could go forward and then back, to my starting point, but I couldn’t go back from there. Nevertheless, it was a dream machine.

A few years prior to this, I’d had a bit of a life episode and wondered, if I’d had my time machine then, would I have travelled forward to now, and would I believe what I saw? I paused for a few minutes to contemplate the paradox of myself appearing from the past: I didn’t turn up. Then I did something really inadvisable. It was a self-fulfilling exercise to see if I was vilified in a decision I’d made two years ago: I travelled forward to a time when I either should or could be alive, twenty years hence. I felt settled in my life, and if I was alive twenty years from now, I hoped I’d stayed there. If I was still around, I had to be very careful not to bump into myself. It was a cheat’s way of gaining benefit from hindsight. I set the destination and it was as much as I could do to not say, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need, roads.”

Travelling through time is a curious sensation: I’m not sure quite how I expected it to feel, but it wasn’t at all like I could have expected. I suppose, scientifically, I expected all of the atoms in my body to be torn apart, as I accelerated at many times the speed of light. Eventually, my physical self would reassemble itself. I suppose I thought that I’d effectively be unconscious and as such, if anything went wrong, I would be oblivious to it. Not so, as it turns out.

It was like when I first tried magic mushrooms. At first, there was nothing. So I took some more. Then the first lot started to take effect. Time did indeed slow down, so that I could relish the sensation of reduced gravity. I can assure you, that what you may have heard about the senses being enhanced, is true. The hardest thing to control is the almost undeniable urge to burst into laughter. It is said that just before one dies from drowning, one experiences a euphoria: it was like that I suppose, and I felt a little lost. I’d almost forgotten that I’d taken a second dose. I wish I’d had some way of recording where I went but I don’t recall.

So then I found myself twenty years ahead, of time, and of myself. I kept a low profile but not so covert as to miss what was going on around me: the evidence of change over the intervening two decades.

The most striking thing, initially, was the absence of pavements and roads in my village. There was a single thoroughfare which carried both traffic and pedestrians. All of the cars were computer-driven, their passengers simply passengers. As I took this scenery in, a much more fundamental thing occurred to me: what I was witnessing was a harmony. There were no impatient drivers (or passengers) and no self-righteous pedestrians impeding the cars’ progress: the two existed together, in the same space. Who’d have thought it? The ‘little’ supermarket was still there: a necessary evil, but it was smaller than I remembered, with complimentary independent shops now sharing its old footprint. There was a butcher and a baker; a fishmonger and greengrocer. On the face of things, much progress had been made over twenty years.

No-one had seemed to notice me, so I decided to take a stroll around my future village, taking care not to interact with anyone. I resisted the urge to go to my flat, for obvious reasons. Whether I was still around of not, things had moved on nicely: I’m glad I saw it. Of course, it was like visiting an old home but this was a nostalgia made in the future. I was most struck by something a lady said to her partner as they passed:

“Blimey, that’s going back a bit. That must be about 2018 when that happened.” I’d vowed not to interact, and they passed anyway. I wondered what had happened, just a year after I’d left. Then I decided to do the most ill-advised thing of all.

I had no signal on my mobile, and it was a futuristic irony that an old red phone box replaced my smart phone. That iconic red box on the village high street no longer contained a pay phone, but a touch screen open internet portal. Free. And the little communication hub was pristine inside: no stench of piss and not a scratch anywhere. Either a zero tolerance police regime was to thank, or more hopefully, a society which had calmed down, like the traffic. I noticed that the library was gone, converted into housing and imaginatively called ‘The Library’. Kudos I supposed, to whatever or whomever had made that red kiosk available, to all and for free. I wondered what else might have changed, and wanted to use that little box for as long as no-one else needed it, but I really shouldn’t have been there.

I gave myself one go on the Google fruit machine. I typed my name into the search field and allowed myself just enough time to scan over the first page of results. I reasoned that I should not dwell and that I certainly mustn’t click on any of the links. Twenty years from now, I was still alive and I’d published the book I was writing in the present time. I could not, should not look any further, even though I longed to see how it was selling, how it had been received and reviewed, and how it ended. Or if I’d written anything since. I must not, I couldn’t, I didn’t. So I came back. I steered myself away from looking up my parents too.

I’d caught a bug out there. The kind that bites and infects those with an inquisitive nature and who are risk-averse, carefree, couldn’t give a fuck. But who then think about things more deeply than they should, like writers, using words to convey their feelings, but whose words few read.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I wasn’t still around fifty years hence, so why was I going there next? Because I could. Just because one can do something though, doesn’t mean they should. I’d rarely heeded advice in the past, so why heed my own advice about the future? I’d only have myself to blame, and I was sure I’d already lived with far worse. There are limits to what one can imagine.

Hindsight is a fine thing, with the benefit of hindsight. Each of us are limited in our ability to change things but if we co-operate, I’d seen just a generation from now, how things might be. But I’d had to return to what is now as I write this. Now could be quite an incredible time to be around, if things turn out the way I saw them.

At some point in that future I travel to, there is no me: I will cease to exist in my physical form and that will be, well, that.

So when I arrived fifty years from now, I had no idea what to expect, given what I’d witnessed had taken place over a previous two decade period. The only thing I could be sure of as I went through that very disconcerting wormhole thing, was what I was determined not to do: I would not look myself up.

The only way I would suggest of distancing yourself from the future, is to not go there in the first place. Should you find that impossible, try to remain inconspicuous. Naturally, there will be many things which a traveller from the past will find alien about the future. Like the way people stared at me. And then walked straight past me. I smiled at some of them and they all smiled back. The supermarket had completely vanished from the village by now, replaced by more independent shops. There were fewer driver-less cars but that was irrelevant, because the cars cruised at about thirty feet from the ground. The walkers had reclaimed the thoroughfare.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy taught me that if people look at you for longer than a second or two, it might be because they find you attractive. It could equally be a look of recognition. So I panicked and went back in time.

Just to be sure that I was back in the world I’d left, I took another walk to Manor House Gardens: all was as it had been. The old girls had departed, probably in opposite directions. Not so far from here. Nothing is really, is it?

As I sat and smoked, whimsy took over. What if those people in fifty years time recognised me as a well-known author? Perhaps one of my books had gone on to be an international best seller. Maybe it had been made into a film. What was worrying if that were the case, was that they recognised me as I look now, fifty years ago. Could it be that I just finish the book I’m working on, then I die suddenly and never get to see what happened? I had to be more optimistic. After all, it was my own will driving the cat machine.

Continuing the theme which was developing, my next foray into the future was 500 years from now and that’s where it gets a bit weird. Obviously, the things I saw were familiar to the people who lived in that time, and although nothing seemed alien as such, the apparent technical progress was quite remarkable. The most striking juxtaposition was the one between old and new. It looked as though wherever possible, my village had been preserved. Some of the buildings had been more than 500 years old when I lived there. My old local pub, now over a millennium in age, was still there and it was still a pub. Peering in, I could see that the decor had hardly changed: It was still an eclectic mix of old, non-matching tables and chairs and there was still an open fire. I was tempted to go in. No-one would recognise me. Then I considered how much a beer might cost. Even if I had enough money, I wondered if it would even be recognised as such.

Either side of the pub were houses, built in some kind of plastic / metal composite. It was quite soft to the touch, and it was as I touched the wall that I got the biggest surprise of all. A window opened before me in the wall. It wasn’t a window that was there and which had been closed; it just appeared in the wall and a woman looked out. She smiled, as though seeing someone looking back through her window was a common occurrence.

These windows that just appeared, were a feature in most of the modern houses in the village. Eventually I noticed that doors were too, as one materialised on the front of a house and a man stepped out. He walked off and the door disappeared, leaving just a minimalist, aesthetically pleasing piece of both architecture and art.

Without the benefit of the previous half millennium, I could only assume that this was nano technology: microscopic machines which can alter their physical form, so that in this instance, a material changed from a wall made of the building material, into a glass window, or a wooden door. I imagined that each of the small houses had perhaps three or four rooms, the functions of which could be changed by altering what’s in them. Touch a leather sofa and it might morph into a dining table and chairs, change or move something on a whim. How liberating that must be.

I’m sure there must have been many more wonders, 500 years from now. It struck me that rather than become slaves to technology, humanity seemed to have used it to make more time for themselves in their lives of relative leisure. All of the residential buildings were of roughly equal size. I hoped this might be the result of some sort of leveller, which rendered everyone equal. I’d theorised about a universal state payment system for all in one of my old sci-fi shorts. In that story, everyone was paid a regular sum: enough to not just survive but to be comfortable. The thinking was, that people would then put their personal skills to good use for the benefit of all. I created a humanitarian utopia in that story.

5000 years from now, I couldn’t be sure of what might have happened in the intervening four and a half millennia to make things so different. In short, mankind had gone. There were very few things remaining that suggested we’d been there at all. Had we left of our own accord, or were we destroyed? Did will kill ourselves? Two thoughts came to mind: either, we were extinct as a race, or we could have populated the cosmos by now. Both ideas were quite staggering, after all the progress we’d seemed to be making.

I was forgetting about the crows: I wanted to see if I could shake hands with one. Science held that after humans, it would most likely be the invertebrates who evolved to inherit the earth. If that was the case, what of those who would feed on them?

Sure enough, there were some alarmingly large things with many legs, 50 million years from now. Some species which were once arboreal now walked upright on land. Others which had once grazed on the land grew so massive that they evolved gills and became amphibious, and still others had become exclusively marine-dwelling to support their huge bulks. One of the greatest spectacles on earth in 50 million years will be the annual migration of Frisian sea cows across the Pacific Ocean.

I sat on a grass bank in this distant future and looked across a lake. A chorus of wildlife which I didn’t recognise, buzzed and chirped in the trees. I laid down on the grass and watched a pair of large birds circling above: vultures? I sat back up, so that they didn’t mistake me for dead and they landed either side of me: two crows, about four feet tall, stood and looked over the lake.

“So, what was you sayin’ baat the oomans?”

“Well, I feed ’em in me garden, don’t I?

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I told ya, ya daft caar. Anyway, they’ve started bringin’ me presents ain’t they?”

“‘Ave they?”

“Yeah. Clever sods ain’t they?”

“Are they?”

“Well yeah, cos then I give ’em more grub don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah, I enjoy it, don’t I?”

“Do ya?”

“Yeah. I’m gettin’ on a bit naah, ain’t I?”

“You are.”

“Life’s what ya make it every day though, innit? Live for the next one. It’s why I started playin’ pianah.”

“Next one, yeah.”

And that gave me an idea.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

This story is taken from my first collection of shorts, The Perpetuity of Memory. My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is also available now. 

Fava beans and a nice Chianti

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best friendships are those where time and distance become irrelevant. You can continue a conversation where you left off, even if you’re on opposite sides of a planet. I have few friends, but the ones I have are like this. I could invite them all to dinner and have ample seating for them in my studio. I can’t help thinking that most people have fewer true friends than they realise when they’re measured like that.

Fava bean and ChiantiLiver and fava bean risotto recipe (YouTube)

Recently I’ve had even less human contact than normal, partly because I’m financially disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions taking my Personal Independence Payment (and therefore my independence) away. I’ve lodged an appeal at tribunal and I’m waiting for a date, but the process is likely to drag on for a few months yet (by design).

My processing through the social cleansing machine has already gone on for six months, during which I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. It’s dehumanised me and robbed me of any sense of self. I’ve become more withdrawn than usual, and found it difficult to write amidst the darkness. There’s fuel for fiction there, but my attention span has become shortened so that stories are the briefest flashes.

I realise I’m not alone. Despite my medical diagnoses of depression and anxiety, there are thousands more undiagnosed, as we live through what could be the end of days. The UK and the wider world are depressing places to be, like in my head. My opinions on Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, climate change, and myriad existential threats to humanity, have been scant on this blog. But I’m always activist on Facebook and Twitter, other voices spreading environmental and socialist propaganda in the name of pacifism. 

It doesn’t help if you detest what you represent. Being male, white and British, I’m a gender, colour and nationality which has inflicted much damage on others, just like I did in my former drunken life. I’m perpetually repentant of my personal deeds, but I’m a member of demographics whose ideologies pollute other minds in a repeat of human history. In a world which grows gradually more bipolar, World War 3 will most likely boil down to left vs. right, socialism against fascism. I’m on the opposing side to all that my appearance might suggest. Without a voice, I can’t adjust the balance. As a writer, I can write as anyone; a pan-gender African if I like.

I’ve got new short stories in the pipeline, addressing human redundancy by technology and the resulting increase in the social divide; plastic pollution and a possible solution; and a world event which ought to unite divided factions. For the here and now, I need to concentrate on myself. The best way help me be me and regain my sense of worth, is to write. I’ll get back to the politics of living, once I’m in control of the policies of being.

I need to keep telling myself to write, where once it wasn’t forced, when I had less on my mind. I need to turn the darkness around the world and in my head into words, fiction or fact, just so long as I write. The longer I write, the more I feel myself again. At the very least, I’m a writer with depression, writing about being a writer with depression.

I get lost in personal longhand journals, where much of my offline self lives. But I can always find myself in my own words when I write at the typewriter and self-publish online, not because I’m addressing an audience, but for a simple fact that I can speak and stand a chance to be heard. When I talk to myself, my thoughts don’t penetrate the walls which contain me. When I write, I’ve broadcast something which is out there for others to listen to if they choose. Less immediacy reduces anxiety.

If I’ve not written much, when I can write a page and unburden a few words, I feel better. Sitting chain-smoking at this typewriter, with coffee and spirits within reach, I feel like a writer. I don’t want to leave here. It’s comforting to know I have this place, where I have editorial control, and where I can share thoughts with friends where time and distance are irrelevant.

They’ve gone away on holiday

POETRY

We’re only gone when we’re forgotten, but when we remember, sometimes they visit us. They still walk among us. You just have to keep your eyes open to notice them.

BLINK

In a moment3