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Archive for July, 2010

Big day today!  I’ve just put this one up on Lulu.com and look forward to seeing how it does. If my other stories are anything to go by, I can probably expect around a 100 downloads a month. Durleston Wood is a project I’ve been working on for years, working through the delicate psychology of it and trying to figure out just who these characters are. As usual I’ve grown very fond of them and it’s hard to finally put the book down and say: that’s it.

As with all my stuff on Lulu, there’s a print copy available for which Lulu will charge you £6.24 plus postage. However, the down load is in PDF format and  free. This is not a taster or a sample or a teaser or any other kind of sleazy gimmick – it’s a full length novel of 353 pages and you can get it by clicking here. If I can tempt you into downloading it, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

**Updated Oct 2012**

As with all my work now, I’ve moved away from paper and focus entirely on the ebook market, so those Lulu links above won’t take you anywhere. I have no problem with Lulu, and I think what they’re doing is still great, but I personally believe the future for the serious indy author is in ebooks – and getting your work on the iPhones and “droid” smartphones of ordinary people all over the world. In Durleston Wood  is therefore exclusively available on Feedbooks here, for free. Download to your Kindle, iPhone Smartphone or whatever. Thanks very much to all my readers for their comments. I delight in all your mails, and shall always endeavour to answer each of them personally.  I initially write these stories for myself, but it’s all the more satisfying to know others enjoy them as well.

This is what indy publishing  is all about!

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In my attempt to embrace the online e-book indy author thing, I’ve neglected to get a proper handle on Smashwords. So, in order to avoid being labelled as unadventurous, or “conservative” (yuk), I decided to have a closer look at Smashwords  using my short story “The Man Who Could not Forget” as a Guinea pig.

“The Man Who” has been on Feedbooks for a while now, and I’m very fortunate it’s managed to stay in the top ten of the “all time” most downloaded, which is  immensely satisfying for a story that the conventional printed press rejected ad nauseum.  I’m very grateful to the people behind Feedbooks for granting me the means to disseminate this story so effectively, and to the many readers who have commented on it.

Let me state this in as plain a language as possible:

For the millions of writers out there who have struggled for recognition through the conventional printed press,  gnashed their teeth at the pedantic and pernickerty “requirements,”  studied the “market”  until they were blue in the face and still not understood a word of it, and finally after all of that, come to believe it was impossible to ever have their work read by a worldwide audience,  or indeed any sort of audience at all, Feedbooks has been a miracle. I can put a story on there now, confident that by morning it will have been downloaded fifty times, by readers all over the world. Well done guys, and thank you!

Anyway – back to Smashwords.

Be careful with your formatting!

The first thing I noticed with Smashwords is that the formatting requirements are very stringent – .doc files only please, and you must  be careful of your carriage returns????? – also, using the tab-key for paragraph indents is strictly verboten, but other than that, it’s not beyond the wit of man, and there’s an excellent guide you can download, along with an example of good practice that you can easily adapt.

I know, I know,…. we writers are not word-processor gurus are we?  We are,… well,… writers. We use word processors, but we only understand about 10% of  their billions of features. For us, you see,  dear word processor software programmers, it is the plot, it is the character, the subtle nuances of the dialogue, it is the wordcount, the difference between the “who” and the “whom”, the difference between sincere meaning, and fatuous pretence, it is the sustaining of 200,000 words of prose while avoiding the quagmire of pretentious padding.

After all of that the difference to us between a “tab” and a “paragraph indent” can seem a little pedantic, a little esoteric, when the effect on screen, or on paper is the same to us. To the guts of the machine though, I understand they are entirely different, they are chalk and cheese, and if you want your machine to communicate with other machines you must have a common set of rules. This is why formatting becomes important.  So, if you want to explore the crucially important e-book medium, and call yourself a respectable “indy author” you  can’t afford to be sniffy about these things. Don’t be put off though, read the guide, do your best to respect it, and your reward is another free outlet for your work. Imagine: all those tricksy little devices pocketed by potential readers, all over the world,  and your story just a few clicks away! How can you possibly resist!

Anyway, I had “The Man Who” loaded into Smashwords’ queue within an hour – one of fifty stories awaiting acceptance that evening. So, I put the lappy to sleep and went to bed.  By morning I’d passed the Smashwords test, and “The Man Who” was available for download on my iPod touch, via the Stanza app. It had also already been downloaded 20 times. Fantasic!

There are a few niggles, however. So far as I can tell, with Smashwords, your story goes into the vast pool of uploaded stories more or less straight away and can only be retrieved by readers searching on the tags you’ve attached to your work, or for the genre you’ve assigned to it. With Feedbooks you go into a rank that has various categories, depending on how long your story’s been up there, and how many times it’s been downloaded. I may be wrong here, but I feel that with Feedbooks your story is more visible to a casual web-clicker and for longer.

Smashwords seem to have good grip on the market though, and readers obviously use them a lot. If you are a writer , rest assured, your story will be downloaded. Work with Smashwords on their formatting needs, don’t be put off by jargon like “meta-data” and you’ll have a potentially very wide distribution for your work. I’ve learned a lot about formatting since investigating Smashwords, so the exercise has been a useful one in itself. We’re still only just catching the wave of e-books. You only need to do a Google search on e-book readers to know that every electronics’  manufacturer is now jumping on the band-waggon with new devices appearing all the time, and, more importantly prices plummeting –  for example the all new Amazon Kindle! As a print medium, the e-book is still not clearly understood, either by readers, publishers, or writers. I don’t think for a minute the printed book will ever die, but the web-savvy, the gadget fans and above all the upcoming generation of youngsters will make greater use of the e-book format, so the “indy author” needs to be up with the latest.

If you’ve been wondering about Smashwords, but wondering also about the catch, there really isn’t one. Go ahead, you’ve nothing to lose.

Earning money on Smashwords?

The thing you can do with Smashwords, which you  can’t with Feedbooks, is set a price for the download – in other words, make some money out of it. You may have wondered about that, but here’s where it becomes more complicated: Smashwords is a US based service, and as such, regardless of which part of the world you live in, you fall foul of the US tax collection agency, the IRS, who require your name rank and serial number, up front. This is a bit confusing for non US writers, and a painful reminder that we’re a long way from the borderless, Shangrila ideal of the 1960’s of a single worldwide brotherhood of man.

I’ve no problem with the collection of taxes of course, it’s just that it’s such a dauntingly complicated business! Any other form of financial transaction has become so much easier of late; I can sit at my laptop of an evening and I can manage my banking, make investments, pay my bills, make all manner of purchases, large or small, I can insure my car, my house, write books and publish them, but pay taxes? No,… that’s still really, really complicated, and better not meddling with unless you can employ the services of an hourly rated advisor. You can try to bottom this if you want, but I took the easy way out and decided to keep my work on the “freebie” side of the net. I’d much rather shift copies at the moment.

Your likely download rates

After monitoring the situation for a while now, I find the download rates on Smashwords for an unknown story,  by an unknown, amateur  writer are  about 20 per day, initially, but this quickly falls off to about 5 per day. I can’t make a direct comparison with “The Man Who” on Feedbooks, because I think that getting in early on Feedbooks distorted the download rates significantly upwards (currently about 100 per day – not that I’m complaining). Instead, I should use one of my more recent stories on Feedbooks, say “Katie’s Rescue”, as a fairer comparison, and on this basis, on Feedbooks, download rates are about 10 per day (even after several months), while the Smashword’s hit rate continues to decline (only 1 or 2 over the past few days) and appears to be in danger of flatlining.

Smashwords Premium Catalogue

Smashwords don’t upload your book instantly. They run it through a basic, automated proof reader in order to check for any massive formatting problems.  Pass this test and your book goes onto Smashwords’ server, so people can get at it through things like the Stanza app on the iphone.  It also goes into another queue where it’s proof-read again, this time by a pair of eyes. Understandably, this can take a while,  in my case a week or so. Pass this test and Smashwords will put your book into their Premium Catalogue. This means the ever important formatting of your book is  compatible with a wider range of Smashwords’ partners, so your potential distribution is much greater.

“The Man Who” passed the automated proof-read, but failed the later manual check at the first pass. With the simple rich text editor I’m in the habit of  using I’d developed the habit of including a line-space between paragraphs, unaware that more advanced word processors include a trailing space after the paragraph anyway. The combination of the trailing space and my line-space was too much for Smashwords’ liking and they dropped me a note to say so. I made the correction, resubmitted, and the book was accepted into the Premium Catalogue very quickly after that.

ISBN number

Smashwords offer you a free ISBN number for your work. I’m not sure how they do this without charging you, but once your book is in the premium catalogue, you can opt for the free ISBN. In this instance Smashwords is listed with the ISBN authorities as your publisher, but naturally you keep all the rights to your work and can do whatever you want with it in the future. The ISBN is important because it gets your work listed in the book catalogues, and again opens up your potential distribution. The ISBN for “The Man Who” is 978-1-4523-8275-3, however, inputting that number into an ISBN search engine hasn’t yet yielded any results.

So, Smashwords or Feedbooks?

After all of that the answer, obviously, is both. If you’re a US based indy author and you want to explore making money out of your work, then Smashwords is definitely worth investigating, but unless you can hire a world class publicist I don’t think you should expect to  give up your day job any time soon. If it’s distribution you’re after, and you don’t care about the money, then in my opinion, Feedbooks has the edge.

For all the extra effort involved in formatting, and ISBN-ing, I’ve been  a bit disappointed with the effectiveness of Smashwords in making my work “visible” to potential readers. The reason for this may simply be that Smashwords is listed in applications like Stanza as a Pay-For-Content site, while Feedbooks is known to be free and Web-Heads have an instinct for sniffing out free content, while shunning any provider who wants your credit card details – even if, hidden among all that paid-for-content, there are also some free pieces.

I’ll be checking in the coming weeks to see if inclusion in the Premium Catalogue, and the assigning of an ISBN number has a significant effect on download rates, and I’ll report back here in due course.

Graeme out!

Update August 11 2010:

Download rates for “The Man Who ” have effectively flatlined on Smashwords now, after less than a month, while even my least downloaded stories on Feedbooks are still achieving between five and ten downloads per day, even after a year. By all means try your story out on Smashwords yourself but Feedbooks still looks like it has the edge. I may be wrong and I’ll keep my eye on the situation, but judging from my experience so far, it doesn’t look like Smashwords is the most effective way to distribute your work.

Update 28 Nov 2010

I find mystelf still in agreement with my earlier analysis. The Man Who has flatlined on Smashwords. Were I charging for the download I really can’t see how I would have achieved anything here. My advice? I if you want to get your work “out there” then keep it free, and put it on Feedbooks.

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If you own an iPod Touch or an iPhone, you dabble a bit with painting and drawing, then you need to check-out the Brushes app. I was a bit doubtful at first until I saw some of the artwork  that’s been posted on Flikr, and I decided to give it a go. The portrait of the rather archetypal lady, left is my first attempt.

This is a seriously beautiful application – intuitive, easy to use, simple, fast learning curve, and most of all: great fun.

There are by now thousands of apps for the iPod and the iPhone, most of them perhaps not worth a second look while, on the other hand, some of them are worth the purchase price of the device itself.  Exactly which of these apps are will vary depending on your interests of course. For me they are Stanza, the e-book portal that’s opened up my view on the indy author scene,… and this one, Brushes.

For a while I’ve been hankering after an iPad, basically a larger version of the iPod touch. I had an idea that I’d be able to use it in all sorts of ways, but I was lacking that killer application that really clinched the deal and elevated my interest from one of speculation to desire. Brushes has clinched it.

But for all of my enthusiasm for the larger format of the iPad, there’s still an awful lot you can do on the smaller screen of the iPod. The device is so sensitive and tactile it lends itself to this kind of application. You may be thinking you’d be better off with a stylus or something – I know I did and made the mistake of buying one, but really you don’t need it. This is finger painting, and it’s fantastic.

If this isn’t an example of the evolution of computing int0 a more human-serving form, I don’t know what is.

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For years now I’ve delegated the shopping around for the cheapest car insurance to a well known (UK) breakdown and recovery organisation. I’ve had no problem with this until now: they send you a renewal notice a few weeks before your car insurance expires, along with a note to say that “so and so” is the cheapest deal they could find, and you believe them, because they wouldn’t lie to you would they,  so you pay it.

Last year the insurance premium on “Old Grumpy”, a 1.8 litre Vauxhall Astra, cost me just over £400, which I thought was a bit pricey, since I’m nearer to 50 years old than 19, and haven’t had a claim in nearly 20 years (touch wood) but hey: the world’s economy has just collapsed and everything seems to be falling down or getting blown up or flooded,  and things in the world of insurance are consequently  a bit dodgy at the moment, so I paid up. Today, however, I received notice of my renewal and this year the absolute cheapest quote  was £650.00.

When I read this I had a Broadgate Meadow moment, swore in disbelief and did something I’ve never done before: I got on the phone to the well known (UK) recovery organisation and asked if they’d perhaps made a mistake?

No, there was no mistake. Things were topsy turvey in the world of insurance sir, but we can reduce it by £100.

What?

Have I got this right?

There’s no mistake; after all your hard work on my behalf, £650 is the cheapest quote you can find me, but because I ring to query it you can knock £100 off it straight away without so much as a sharp intake of breath?

Me-thinks there’s something funny going on here – a dimension to the universe of insurance providers that lies hidden to the rest of us, is mysterious, intangible, mercurial.

So, my insurance was now down to £550,  but this still seemed rather high to me, so I said I’d think about it. Meanwhile, the call centre bod passed my details on to a mysterious  “special office” to see if they could reduce it still further.

Perplexed, head in hands, and wondering if I should finally trade Old Grumpy in for a 50 cc moped, I checked online with an independent insurance provider who quoted me £360 – and that was the gold plated version: legal fees, protected no claims, enhanced courtesy car, blah-di-blah-di-blah.

I was about to sign up to this when  the “special office” of the well known (UK) breakdown and recovery organisation came back with a further reduction of £150.

So,.. wait a minute: you were going to charge me £650 , but because I queried it, you were suddenly able to reduce it to £400?

I’ve allowed the well known (UK) breakdown and recovery organisation to manage my car insurance for more years than I can remember, but I was forced to take my leave of them because, although I recognise  my trust was naive, I lost that trust today, took charge of  my own shopping-around and saved myself nearly £300 in the process.

My advice? Obviously, whoever your car insurance is with don’t just pay it when you get your renewal. Your apathy is an essential part of the financial services business model, and these are tough times, so be vigilant, or you’ll be the one getting shafted.

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So, what are you reading at the moment? I don’t know about you but my reading comes in waves, or moods – usually when I’m unable to write. So then I surf the tides of literature instead and can devour a novel in a couple of days, like I’m tearing it apart for the answer to why it is I can’t write. I started out with an idea about reading the Romantics, really settling in to Wordsworth and Coleridge for a bit, but an odd tide fetched up on Patrick Harpur’s shores instead, and in the space of a few weeks I’ve read both his “Mercurius” and “The Philosopher’s Secret Fire”. These books have in turn had me re-reading Carl Jung, and generally blowing the dust off that mysterious trail through the Perennial Philosophy, a thing that’s denied with equal vigor by both religion and science but is probably closer to being a description of reality than either of those curmudgeonly old sages will admit.

If you don’t know Patrick Harpur, but you’re interested in how you can tie up mythology, the Romantics, alchemy, Jung’s psychology, anthropology and even a belief in the fairies, then he’s your man. I wouldn’t say his books are easy going, but I’ve found them utterly engrossing, insightful and enlightening. I’ve just ordered his “Complete guide to the Soul”, and I’m looking forward to devouring that one as well.

I’ve also been reading “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and a bleaker story I can’t ever remember having read, except perhaps for Hardy’s “Jude the obscure”, though both for completely different reasons of course. Jude was a reaction to a hypocritical morality, a bubbling up of unspoken nastiness through to the surface of the Victorian psyche. The backlash nearly ruined Hardy’s career. It’s thirty years since I read it and its  unrelenting break-heart bleakness has stuck with me ever since. Masterful though it is, it’s one the few Hardy novels I could never bring myself to re-read – it would just finish me off. In a similar vein, I’m wondering if McCarthy’s The Road is a similar bubbling up of something powerfully indigestible. It’s not  a very long book – you’ll get through it in a couple of days. The prose is beautiful but all the more shocking for the horrors it describes – you do need a strong stomach for it. It’ s a post apocalyptic vision that is surely without equal, and the benchmark against which all others will be measured.  I can’t remember the ending of a book that made me weep before, but this one did – and though it seems a long way off the other stuff I’ve been reading, I’m sure it’s all connected, all a part of the same meltings in the crucible of my imagination.

But apart from all that, and yet also similarly related,…

It’s summer, and it’s the weekend, and I’ve been sitting here in the garden thinking I should write something, if only to get myself in the contemplative mood. But that’s not how it works, so I’ve wasted most of the day, even to the extent of nodding off for a couple of hours this afternoon. All of this is trivial and not exactly what you want to hear, but there’s nothing much to tell, and certainly my reading isn’t yielding much by way of answers – at least not directly. The answers come like shy cats, and you can’t make a fuss or even look at them directly or they will melt away. But I’ve a feeling an answer is coming, and it has to do with the imagination, with the Romantic  sense, and an acceptance of its validity, though not in a literal way, and it’s this non-literalness that I’m beginning to see, thanks to Patrick Harpur,  is the important thing, the thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow. This is both complex and yet, I suspect, also very simple,… but I need to think about it some more.

At the moment my literal reality consists of this summer house I built back in the spring, and in which I am now sitting. It also consists of  a patch of garden, and some trees beyond. The sky is grey. It’s about 20 degrees, getting on for 9:00 pm and I’ve got work in the morning. I’ve just lit a vanilla scented joss-stick, and my head’s a little thick from too much cheap wine. But in imagination, I’m a long way from here…

In my mind’s eye I can see a  lake in a bowl of mountains, and by the shore there stands a pavillion, terracotta coloured, its pillars reflected in the gently rippling waters of the lake. I’m in the Swiss Alps somewhere, though perhaps not literally. It’s just somewhere that reminds me a little of the Alps. Anyway, this pavillion,… it has a domed copper roof, whose centuries old verdigris is luminous in the early evening light and inside, unseen, in the pavillion,  a woman is waiting for me, seated on cushions. I’m making my way to her. It’s been a while in coming and though I’m not exactly reluctant to have finally made this connection, I can’t hide the fact that I’m anxious, that there’s a gravity here I’m not sure I grasp properly, and I have to allow my unconscious to guide my hand now or my ego’s going to ruin the moment. I’ve no idea what she’s going to say to me because I’ve not written that part yet. It may yet be that she’s fallen asleep waiting for me, and I’ll spend the night just watching over her.

To what extent is this imaginative scenario a valid reality? Should one take any of it seriously? Where did the pavilion come from? I’ve never been there, but I know its shape, the feel of its pillars against my palm, the sound of the lake lapping at its base. I  did a watercolour of it yesterday just to explore it a little more deeply and if I were to see a photograph of it tomorrow I’d say: “Oh, yea: I know that place.”

It could be a subliminal suggestion of course, a pastiche of images, of experiences long forgotten. The thesis of  mentalist Darren Brown, for the degree to which we are suggestible is very convincing,.. and yet,…

Her name is Gabrielle. I don’t know where she came from, nor her sinister, gnome like parents who forbid me from having anything to do with her, nor the wily old hotelier, the white suited septegenarian, Herr Gruber, who seems bent on smoothing my way with her, if only I will take this thing seriously, he says. Indeed, he says I must, for all our sakes – his, mine and Gabrielle’s.

To be clear, I’m talking about a story I’m writing here – a story that may eventually be completed and stuck up on some free to download e-book emporium, or it may yet languish unfinished on my computer for years, like a puzzle unsolved until either time or carelessness results in its deletion. To some extent, the plot, the conflict, even the language,… these are literary devices that deliver up at the end of everything a story that someone else can read. It is a format for recording imaginary events, events that have no literal reality, no literal meaning,  but what about the abstract imaginative energy that created them? Where did that come from? And can it not mean something? That pavillion of my imagination – is it not a place someone else can travel to in their imagination, if I describe it well enough?

These are the themes that Patrick Harpur deals with – the daemonic reality, he calls it, and it’s the reason I’ve found his books so interesting. They are archetypal, and mythical, these themes – as all good stories are, and if I’d only studied the classical myths as a lad, instead of engineering, I might have a better idea of what my work is about instead of shunting myself into so many dead ends all the time. All right, if I’d clung to the writing at the expense of everything else, I would have starved to death by now, and I’m quite happy to be uncovering these kindergarten stories in my late middle age, thank you. You see, there are no new stories any more. They were all written down at the beginning of time, etched deeply into the bedrock of our mythology. Each generation of writers merely comes along and reinvents the myths in contemporary disguise and claims the stories as his own.

I think I’ve always  accepted the imagination is a window on a different kind of  reality, wherein dwell these mythical aspects of ourselves., these daemons – some of them close and personal, some of them much, much older, more fundamental, primeval, elemantary.  If we know how to balance our literal and non-literal realities, then I think we stand a chance of living as we should: we “think along the lines of nature”, as Jung said.

The trouble is modern man seems to have such an uneasy relationship with it. He can no longer think along the lines of  nature because two hundred years of Enlightement thinking has addled his brain. But we need to be careful in waking up from this delusion and jumping too far in the other direction. We can go too far in our acceptance of every little thing that comes out of the unconscious, not realising that it is the antithesis of logic, and that to analyse it in literal terms may be to tie ourselves in knots and waste decades of our lives until we can wise up and tell true insight from delusion. On the other hand it’s equally dangerous to deny the imagination any kind of voice at all  because it may end up coming back at us in ways we don’t like.

I’m almost convinced now of the ability of the collective imagination to manifest itself in some kind of  physical way. The thrust of  Dean Radin’s work on Conscious Entanglement is compelling, suggesting that human consciousness is capable of manipulating matter or events, that indeed conciousness itself may be the primary ground of being. It’s only a small leap therefore to speculate on what might happen when the collective unconscious becomes focused in literal reality.

People see things.

Only last summer a trio of tall angelic beings were spotted by a policeman near Silbury Hill in Wiltshire – part of the crop circle goings on that enliven that part of the world every year, and if that’s not a manifestation of a mythical reality, I don’t know what is! No amount of investigation ever yields a definitive explanation to these things. They are like smoke, and remain a mystery, fastened upon by the credulous and the needy and denied with equal fervour by the establishment as preposterous – yet people go on witnessing all manner of Forteana, all the time.

While we should be mindful of the reality of the imaginative dimension, and intuitively alert for any personal meaning coming out of it, it doesn’t do to spend too much time humoring its every whim. To be sure, the fairies are a beguiling crowd but we live in a literal reality while they do not. We are flip sides of the same coin so to speak, neither of us able to manage in isolation from the other, but equally neither of us are equipped to make way for long in the other’s realm, nor to make sense of it in any great detail. The literal reality is our domain, but it is perhaps the non literal that gives it, and our lives, its colour and its meaning.

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I’ve carried this story on my website “The Rivendale Review” for the best part of a decade now, but I decided to  put it up on Feedbooks last weekend. Without spoiling the story, Rosemary’s Eyes relies upon the idea of a seamless transition from the world we know, one that is strictly confined within the bounds of space and time, to a world that lies outside of those laws, but one in which we can make way by relaxing the normally strict hold we have over our imaginations. This is a perennial theme, one that’s been used by writers down the centuries, either for purely entertainment purposes, or in order, through their fiction, to indulge in one kind of thought experiment or another. Rosemary’s Eyes falls into both categories.

Re-reading Rosemary’s Eyes now tells me much about both the nature and origins of many of my stories. It pre-dates the internet, being originally introduced to the world as a double-line spaced manuscript that was chugged out of a dot-matrix printer. It then went off to a UK science/speculative fiction magazine, and after about six months the editor returned it with a note telling me the opening was too much like J.G. Ballard’s “Concrete Island”.

This  came as a surprise to me. I’ve enjoyed many a story from the pen of J.G. Ballard (sadly no longer with us), but I’d not read Concrete Island, so I went out and found a copy, and the editor was right – there are certain similarities.

Ballard’s hero crashes his car in the opening scene – so does mine – and they both end up confined in a sort of wasteland, in the middle of a triangle of arterial roadways. But there the similarities end. Ballard’s vision was, well, Ballardian: urban, grungy, claustrophobic and disturbingly dystopian. Mine was rural, open, romantic, “back to nature”, and utopian – not a trace of concrete anywhere. Ballard’s hero remains trapped on his “island”, even when a means of escape is revealed to him because by that time it seems escape is no longer on his mind, and he settles down instead to live among the filth. In my story the boundaries dissolve, both physically and psychologically, opening up a new world, one the hero had never imagined possible. His experience then is one of release, of transcendence, rather than confinement.

There was no point in explaining all of this to the editor of that magazine, of course. Instead, I thought: “flipping heck” – there must be millions of sci-fi fantasy novels out there, and even if I read them all, I’ll surely forget the crucial one, write a scene that’s similar to something someone had written before, and get yet another editor returning yet another submission saying it was too much like, say, the fourth chapter of Edith Twonk’s 1938 novella Florence Loses her Parasol but Finds a Farthing. (Don’t Google it, I made it up).

So, if any of you have read Concrete Island, and you care to try Rosemary’s Eyes, before you say: wait a minute – these openings are quite similar: I know,.. I know… I was beaten to it by a much better, and much more famous writer.

It’s easy to lose faith in what you’re doing, of course, to react badly to a knock like this, and it certainly got under my skin at the time – the result being that I set Rosemary’s Eyes aside for a long time –  until the internet came along and I had nothing to lose by sticking it up on my website. What it also did though was shove the splinter of J.G. Ballard rather more deeply into my brain, and I’ve paid more attention to his work than I think I normally would have done. If you don’t know Ballard, do look him up, though I warn you, his  vision of modern society is unrelentingly grim and deeply disturbing.

My own work is the opposite of Ballardian, perhaps naively so, yet it addresses the same problems of encroaching dystopia, but from a different angle.  I don’t put myself in the same league as Ballard of course, who is surely one of England’s most successful, and imaginative writers, but as a result of that early hiccup with Rosemary’s Eyes, I do count him among my influences. I don’t  write like him, because I can’t. I view the world differently – not that I don’t believe he was right, that we’re living in a nightmare of our own making, because in many ways we are. One has only to visit urban Britain, or indeed anywhere in the western world and what you see is Ballard’s vision staring right back at you – and that’s not a thing any of us should be comfortable with.

My own approach to this is more of a reaction, one of trying to get at the cure instead of morbidly dwelling upon the disease. I live out in the countryside, which helps. There are no high-rise buildings, here, unless you count grain silos. There are no motorways, no factories, no gated communities, no crack-cocaine, or machine guns. My world consists of  a small village, a thousand year old church, centuries old trees, wide open skies, and vast open meadows, where the potatoes and carrots you buy in Tescos are actually grown – yes grown, and not cloned in some ghastly biochemical vat! This isn’t wild countryside – it’s agricultural, but living with even a mechanically tamed nature is better than no nature at all. The Romantics of  the late eighteenth, and early nineteenth century understood this. They knew that a connection with Nature, a sense of the earth upon which we stand, gives vent to certain functions of the unconscious, functions that are pacified by it, but which can equally be twisted into nightmares if we are isolated from it. To be isolated from nature, and from the Romantic sense is bad for us. Its result is the Ballardian dystopia.

Cities are rusty, dusty, dirty, violent places. I don’t know a single one that isn’t. If I lived in a city, my work would be more Ballardian, more despairing perhaps. He points to the sickness and frightens us with ever more disturbing portraits of it. But with respect to the master, beyond a certain point I think this approach can be misunderstood. It can reinforce the very dystopia we are trying to resist. We see the grunge, the rust, the dirt, the violence all so eloquently portrayed as “art”, and we mistake it as tacit permission for this kind of reality to exist at all – and of course it can be made to look so glamorous on TV! The noble work is thus corrupted into the horror movie, into the voyeuristic chain saw massacre, the twisted mass-murder-fest that has us frightened to let our kids out of the door.

What I try to point to in my stories however is a reality of a different kind. I see this as the only cure to dystopia, and it involves a reappraisal of our selves, also a re-acquaintance with that embarrassing thing we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from these last two hundred years, since the beginning of our so called Enlightenment: it is of course the soul. There is not a trace of soul in a thousand miles of motorway, I know because I’ve travelled them, and a less spiritually sustaining environment there is not. But turn off for a moment, or crash off like the hero in Rosemary’s Eyes, touch down in the countryside that these high-speed arterial abominations cut through so brutally,… and you reconnect, you light up.

On an eight-lane highway, or in a city, there is no sense of what the alchemists of old called the world soul, the Anima Mundi. All you see  is what mankind is capable of constructing. But a construct without soul is always going to be ugly, and it will likewise inspire only what is ugliest in human nature. As I write I’m sitting in my garden, beneath a wide open sky and with the sound of a warm breeze moving the trees. I feel the breeze on my face. It drifts, it brushes, it caresses, it connects me  to the earth, and the heavens. Its energy is my energy. It animates me, it drives the tides of my mind, it stirs my thoughts.

All of this is no more than the figment of a Romantic’s imagination of course, but without a return to at least a healthy respect and an understanding of those values, I believe we are lost. Ballard’s dystopia is all around us; its dusty, rusty fist is about to close and squeeze out the last traces of soul. Perhaps at best my  stories can provide some comforting reading at bedtime, a temporary diversion from whatever shades of dystopia darken your life. Or then again they might stir you into action, they make you look your dystopia in the eye and say: to hell with this. There has to be another way. Dystopia or not?

We choose.

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Thinking along the lines of nature?

In an interview for the BBC, broadcast in 1959, Carl Jung, the Swiss depth psychologist was asked this, by his interviewer John Freeman: “I remember that you’ve said death is just as psychologically important as birth and like it is an integral part of life, but surely it can’t be like birth if it’s an end, can it?”

Jung’s reply was astonishing to me, and confirmed in my mind  at least the validity of my own emerging world view, or at least granted me the necessary permission to go on developing my personal philosophy along the lines it seemed to be wanting to go.

Jung  replied: Yes, if it is an end, and there we are not quite certain,… about this end, because, you know there are these peculiar faculties of the psyche; that it isn’t entirely confined to space and time; you can have dreams, or visions of the future; you can see around corners, and such things. Only ignorants deny these facts, you know? It is quite evident that they do exist and have existed always. Now, these facts show that the psyche in part at least is not dependent upon these,.. confinements. And then what?

When the psyche is not under that obligation to live in time and space alone, and obviously, it doesn’t, then in to that extent the psyche is not submitted to those laws, and that means a practical continuation of life, of a sort of psychical existence, beyond time and space.

Jung is telling us that there’s more to the mind than the narrow view materialist science suggests. He tells us that the mind is more than the brain, that the psyche is more than an illusion brought on by an accumulation of memory and environmental programming. The evidence for this, not only from modern times, but from all the ages past, is compelling – that the mind is capable of  existing in, if not exactly a place, then some form of psychical medium external to time and space, which is at any rate outside of our heads and independent of our biological being.

John Freeman, presses Jung on this point, seeking perhaps to winkle out the actual beliefs of Jung himself: “Do you,  yourself  believe that death is probably the end, or do you believe,..”

Jung cut in: “Well,… I can’t say – you see, the word ‘belief’ is a difficult thing for me. I don’t ‘believe’; I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing,… and when I know it, I don’t need to believe it. If,… I,… I don’t allow myself, for instance, to believe a thing just for sake of believing it. I can’t believe it! But when there are sufficient reasons for a certain hypothesis, I shall accept these reasons, naturally. And shall say: ‘We have to reckon with the possibility of so and so. You know?’

Jung has no use for the term “belief”,then,  because it implies the holding of certain things to be true, when one does not have good reason for it. Jung views were more than beliefs,  they were backed up by his own observations which gave him sufficient reason for forming what he saw as a perfectly reasonable hypothesis regarding at least some form of the psychical continuation of life, after death.

Freeman continues:

“Well,… now you told us that we should regard death as being a goal, and to stray away from it is to evade life, and life’s purpose. What advice would you give to people in their later life to enable them to do this when most of them must, in fact, believe that death is the end of everything?”

Jung:  “Well,… you see, I have treated many old people, and its quite interesting to watch what their conscious is doing with the fact that it is apparently threatened with the complete end. It disregards it.  Life behaves as if it were going on,… and so I think it is better for old people to live on,… to look forward to the next day, as if he had to spend centuries,… and then he lives happily. But when he is afraid,…. and he doesn’t looks forward, he looks back, he petrifies,  he gets stiff, and he dies before his time.  But when he’s living on, looking forward to the great adventure that is ahead, then he lives. And that is about what your conscious is intending to do. Of course it is quite obvious that we’re all going to die and this is the sad finale of everything, but never-the-less, there is something in us that doesn’t believe it, apparently, but this is merely a fact, a psychological fact. Doesn’t mean to me that it proves something. It is simply so. For instance, I may not know why we need salt, but we prefer to eat salt too because we feel better. And so when you think in a certain way, you may feel considerably better. And I think if you think along the lines of nature, then you think properly.”

What Jung means by this last bit isn’t quite as clear, and it strikes me as settling back a bit, and straddling the fence compared with his earlier, more visionary statements. Psychologically at least, he’s telling us we are better to disregard the fact of death as an end, that his observations suggest we are programmed this way, and the worst thing we should do is go against our instincts, against our nature and assume that death is an end, and fear one’s annihilation, because then you bring on the infirmities of old age, become prisoner to them, and die before your time. Those who disregard it, live normally, and fully. But then Jung tells us this does not prove anything in itself, only that by thinking along these lines, you feel better.

It is more natural to think of ourselves as immortal. Maybe it’s an evolutionary quirk that people who delude themselves this way are able to live longer, and that’s all there is to it. Or,…

This interview reminds me why Jung is such a significant influence over my thoughts and my work.

You can see this interview over on Youtube here:

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