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white coppice cottages

The White Coppice Cottages

Sometimes we get stuck in a groove, doing the same old things, visiting the same old places, but even when we think we know a place well, there is still the opportunity for fresh discovery, always another path we can take.

So today we’re tackling the Black Coppice Quarries, just a short walk from the lovely hamlet of White Coppice, nestling in a fold at the edge of the  West Pennine Moors. I have not done this particular route before. It will eventually deliver us up to trackless expanse of moor, one that’s vaguely familiar to me, but by a kind of back door, and I’m not sure where to go after that. It’s past mid afternoon, and these February days are short, shadows already lengthening. It’s not the best time for mucking about but I’m sure we’ll be okay.

great hill from the white coppice cairn

Anglezarke Moor

It’s a little used route and all too soon vanishes into a lonely amphitheatre of gritstone crag and scree that echoes strangely. We choose a likely looking ridge, clear of the precipice – just a faint path worn through the heather, enough to inspire confidence we are not merely following sheep. The afternoon is clear, the sunshine almost warm. The outlook from the ridge is spectacular with vistas across lush green farmland running down to the Lancashire plain, and the sea glittering beyond. The light is tending towards amber now, the sun about to send shadows leaping from the ditches and hedgerows.

unfinished millstone above the quarries at white coppice

Abandoned millstone – Anglezarke Moor

We pick up the line of a stout fence that bounds the precipice and, after a breathy climb, delivers us up to Anglezarke Moor. There’s a megalithic structure just here, a rock slab tilted up a little from the horizontal, resting on stones. It doesn’t look much but an archaeological survey in the eighties has it down as a chambered cairn – a bronze age burial.

I’m not sure. That the moor hereabouts is also dotted with abandoned Millstones lends sufficient room for doubt. Some are in their earliest stages of manufacture, just a few taps of the chisel, others almost finished, evidence of months of labour in the wide open, all wasted when the market collapsed.

So, is this an ancient burial, or a stone merely propped up, ready to be worked by quarrymen? The ancients favoured west facing escarpments for their funerary rites, which makes this the perfect spot, ritualised daily by the setting sun. Romanticism and geomancy favour the former then, but there’s still magic in the latter, all be it of a lesser vintage. Imagination swells to fill the blanks, adds layers of psyche to the deadness of mere geography, and we wonder,….

grain pole hill

Grain Pole Hill

But speaking of the sun, time is short, so we head towards Grain Pole Hill, some nine hundred feet above the sea, distinguished from the moor by its dark cap of heather above the paler whispering grasses. There’s no path here and the grass is deeply hummocked – a tough stretch, heavy on the legs and sweaty now, but not far until we gain the easier going of the ridge that takes us more swiftly south, to the summit.

There was a summit cairn here, a stone man, visible for miles. I once spent an afternoon tidying him up, raising him to a shapely little cone. But he’s gone now, and so have the stones – not merely fallen aside, but spirited away, perhaps one by one by pilgrims heading east, to the shaggy dome of Hurst Hill and the newly massive cairn that’s been raised there. The stone men move around up here, you see? And the ways they mark shift slowly over time.

way cairn

Waycairn – Anglezarke

The day is too short to visit Hurst Hill. Maybe next time. Instead, we discover a newly raised cairn to the south and from here we make out a route taking us west, downhill, into the sun, picking its way along a line of trial shafts – bell-pits most likely – just dimples in the moor now, like a run of aerial bombing craters. They are surrounded by the spoil thrown up, and there’s lush green grass, in contrast to the normal dun colour of the moor. Already ancient at the time of the first ordnance surveys, they straddle a fault line where minerals are manifested in the earth by unimaginable pressures. They have found lead here, also Barium, Galena, Witherite and Copper,…

But nowadays this line of shafts serves only to lead us unerringly down to Moor Road, to the access point by Siddow Fold. It’s a promising little path, attractive in its turns and in its timeless use of cairns, set against the sky to guide. But these old stone men have a habit of moving about, so its as well to have a feel for the land yourself, taking their advice if they’re of a mind to give it, while not relying on them too much, because they may not be there next time.

watermans

Waterman’s Cottage – Anglezarke

The little road snakes us down to the tip of the Anglezarke reservoir, to the Waterman’s mock Tudor Cottage, once such a lure for the camera with its reflections in black water, and still a pretty subject but looking now like it’s in need of work. Here, a long, deep-puddled path takes us back to White Coppice. The light is golden, the shadows running, and the air stilling down in preparation for the coming of darkness. We have not walked more than three miles, but it’s a journey that’s opened up fresh avenues in the dense forest of imagination.

In certain esoteric philosophies it is said we are destined to repeat our lives over and over, word for word, step by step, unless we can wake up to the process sufficient to say, hold on, what about this path over here? So we should always keep an eye open for the paths we have overlooked. No matter how well we think we know a place, there’s always something else to be gleaned. Like those mysteriously moving stone men, we just shift our focus a bit, and our lives, like the land under our feet takes on an unsuspected freshness, newly rich in meaning and direction.

path to white coppice

To White Coppice – West Pennines

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100 year old manA quirky title for a quirky book.

Set in Sweden, the story opens with Allan Karlsson on the eve of his hundredth birthday. He’s recently moved into an old folks home, having blown his own place up with a stick of dynamite – it was an accident and a long story, which we get to eventually, but for now Allan can’t abide the thought of attending the party that’s being organised in his honour, so with moments to spare, he climbs out of the window and heads for the bus station.

He has no clear plan, but then such is the story of Allan’s long life – no clear plan, yet a series of outrageous events that has seen him at the pivotal moments of twentieth century history, often on the wrong side of it, and armed only with his native wits and a happy-go-lucky optimism to see him through. The story is at times darkly humorous, at times absurd, Allen’s engagingly quirky insights into the true workings of the world providing the punchlines along the way.

The story has been likened to Forest Gump and the fortunes of a naive simpleton similarly turning up at iconic moments of (American) history. But although Allan’s outlook on life is refreshingly uncomplicated, and completely accepting of whatever simply is, he’s definitely no simpleton and is at times ingenious in his understanding and outwitting of authority. Also, unlike Gump, his adventures take in the entire sweep of world history, gathering the globe together and presenting it to the reader as a complete basket case.

Following his escape and arrival at the bus station, Allan, by a mixture of outrageous chance and mild indignation, manages to relieve an incompetent motorcycle gangster of a suitcase containing a small fortune in cash, then makes off with it on a bus. He doesn’t know about the money yet and is rather hoping to find instead a decent pair of shoes to replace the carpet slippers he’s currently wearing. What follows is an incompetent chase given by both the bad guys and the supposed good guys, Allen managing always to keep one step ahead, though mostly without trying and leaving an unwitting trail of mayhem in his wake. Along the way he picks up an eclectic mix of friends, accomplices, and an elephant!

But this is just one side of the story. The other side is the story of Allen’s life-long adventures in the world where he has been instrumental in The Chinese Revolution, the Russian Revolution, helping to invent the atomic bomb (for both the Americans and the Russians), in the death of Stalin (a stroke brought on by exasperation), saving the life of Winston Churchill (unintended consequences) in the complete destruction of Vladivostok (a diversion that went better than expected), and in the Korean war. He has befriended presidents and dictators, escaped torture and execution and all without a passion for anything except an occasional drop of the hard-stuff.

Allen’s romp through history presents the world’s leaders as incompetents, poseurs, megalomaniacs and fools, in pretty much the same light as Allen’s contemporary encounters during his flight from more petty scoundrels, self important officials and violent motor-cycle gangsters – all of this I suspect only half in jest. The plot is utterly insane, but magically engaging, the story as a whole suggesting the world itself, its pivotal moments and its key players cannot be described in any other way than utterly absurd.

One of Allen’s few penetrating observation on power and politics, to his one time companion, Einstein’s lesser known look-alike half sibling, the eternally dim Herbert (don’t ask): “the nearer you get to the top, my friend, the better the food and drink!”

Endearingly mad. And very glad to have discovered it.

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Most of the practice has fallen away, leaving only Qigong. It’s been there from the beginning of course, learned along with a decade’s worth of Tai Chi, then Kung Fu. I still watch the masters, admire the fluidity of their forms, but these days experience in my self only a resistance to it, as if in the absence of attaining such perfection myself, I would sooner shun the effort. This is not skillful thinking.

Through Qigong, I’m hanging on, but only by my fingernails.

It’s a meditation of sorts, a medley of mindful moves, synchronised to the rhythm of one’s breath. But when your head’s so far outside the box as mine is now, the moves become automatic while the mind roams, sifts through the fetid entrails of the day, or ruminates on what may or may not yet be. There is too much past and future, not enough presence. We catch ourselves half way through an hour’s session still thinking back upon the day. We have yet to settle in, yet to still the mind, to become,… mindful of what we’re doing, and where we are, and why.

We close with ten minutes of simple meditation, thighs aching from a fading familiarity with the lotus. We count with each breath silently from one to ten, then down again. If we lose our way, lose focus, if the mind wanders, we start from the beginning. I  can barely make it past four. I have one eye half open, then I can see the teacher’s temple bell, alert for the move that will ring an end to yet another half-assed  session, spill me back out into the dark of night.

It’s been a long day, a rushed day, one problem after another, one damned fool question after another to be answered, demands for ever more pieces of me, when all that’s left feels like this fragile husk, ragged, frayed,  head zig zagging like a stray hound in the forest chasing rabbits.

But driving home, gone nine pm now, I realise I’m feeling better than when I set out into my day at seven a.m., out into the rain streaked murk of a January predawn. Yes, it’s an evil night, cold, black, and lashing with hail. Idiots are flashing past on the dual carriageway, doing a hundred miles an hour. I’m on cruise control, keeping to just below the limit, listening to  Smooth radio.

ABBA are singing, “Knowing me, Knowing you”.

1977, I think. It was the year I first set out on that long commute, out into those first days of manhood. Back then I rode a dodgy moped of dubious reliability, little knowing how long that road would be, that I would still be travelling it forty years later, though fortunately not on a moped. But as I listen, I’m not nostalgic for any of that,  nor regretful, my head slipping free of the myriad snares of the past. All of that simply was, and as for the future none of it might ever be. Instead, I catch myself for once in a state of relaxed attention. It still happens. Sometimes.

Practice in martial arts, in Yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, whatever, is not about success, not about perfection or grace or power in forms. It’s not about feeling the chi or entering the zone. Sometimes it’s more about simply recognising the imperfections in oneself, of not minding them, and turning up anyway.

 

[The opening video is a breathtaking demonstration of the twenty four form Chen style Tai Chi by JoJo Hua]

 

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marniesnipI’m not imagining it, am I? I mean, how we used to dress up for shopping in town on a Saturday afternoons. Dad would wear a clean shirt and a tie, Mum a nice dress and lipstick. And it wasn’t a class thing. My parents were poor.

I’ve seen a hundred movie actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Era on Main Street: Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, or so it seemed to me as a kid, those fine ladies all clickety clacking in their long heels and their big, shiny hair. They weren’t rich either, just your regular mill girls all done up and dignified, and proud. This would have been in the sixties, I suppose, maybe the early seventies.

Rose tinted vision perhaps? Sure, I get that, but there’s no denying it’s different now. I look out of the window of this little bookshop and I see people are – pretty much all of them – dishevelled, crushed, some even a little drunk, though it’s just past lunch.

There are no movie stars on Main Street any more. Our role models offer us no promise of magic, or escape, only this insufferable grunge, and all the time our noses rubbed into it and a cynical voice-over telling us it will never get any better this.

Me? I still pretend. I’ve been doing it all my life.

Right now I’m pretending to be this bookish, tweedy hipster – Chinos, casual jacket, button-down Oxford shirt, and shiny brogues. I’m Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Or for those of you a little older, I’m Anthony Hopkins in Charing Cross Road. Either way it’s an act. I’m not doing it because I’m expecting Julia Roberts or Anne Bancroft to drop in any time soon. It just gets me out of bed in the morning, and it’s somewhere warm to sit without using up the Calor in the van.

A slow stagger of drunks has spilled out of the pub up the top of Chapel Street, what the council’s now somewhat euphemistically calling the ‘Northern Quarter’. It makes it sound like a chic Parisian hot-spot, but the pub – the Malting House they call it now – is the same seedy old ale-house it always was, cheap booze, sticky carpets and vomit on the step, a questionable choice for continuity with a bygone era. I’d rather we’d hung on to Woolworth’s – always something cosy about Woolies – but the Malting House is chosen to be our past, our present, and it seems now our future.

The drunks are shouting – all of them women, tight dresses, boobs spilling out, fag-raw voices. They sound aggressive, like they’re spoiling for a fight, but as I listen, I realise they’re only having a conversation, something about meeting up again, tomorrow.

‘Yea right then, see yer love,’

‘See yer,..’

‘See yer,..”

It’s a simple enough exchange, but it takes a while and they swear a lot while struggling to light up, drawing comically sideways on their cigarettes. Not pretty, is it? Is this really what we have become, we plucky Brits? We ninety nine percenters?

There’s a ‘bigger shoe’ guy pacing out his pitch, the same small square of street, hour after hour, his plaintive call the sound-track to my days. It’s a new guy, late middle age, pockmarked face, his boredom lifted only by the occasional passing abuse on account of his foreignness. I don’t know his story, but picture him as one of those escaping by a hair’s breadth the mess we’ve made of the world, while those who stirred up the mess don’t have to look him in the eye all the time like I do. I reckon he makes a tenner a day for his trouble, if he’s lucky. I’ve yet to a buy a magazine from him. In truth I’m embarrassed to be even marginally better off. Luck, these days, is relative.

Opposite, in the doorway of the empty shop, there’s been a homeless person these past few weeks. There’s a couple of them up by the church, and one on the carpark now. The person opposite is shapeless in a dozen layers, feet and legs immersed in a sleeping bag that’s bursting stuffing from one corner. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. You always get a lot of rough sleepers in the cities, I know, but it’s spreading into the provincial market towns now, and each one seems to me like a canary dropping from its perch in warning.

‘The dog starved at the rich man’s gate,’ and all that.

Odd still to be quoting Blake. It’s like we’ve learned nothing in two hundred years. Indeed if anything we are evolving backwards into a darker age even than the one he knew.

Maggs emerges from the back room, whiff of perfume – Le Jardin, I think. I had a girl who was fond of that, ended badly though.

“Just off then, Mike.”

“Righto Maggs. See you later.”

She’s wearing the green dress today. Suits it. I presume it’s fitted. She’s rather pear shaped, chunky in the thigh, but the dress makes a virtue of it. Snug jeans wouldn’t be her thing at all. Apologies for the crass objectification, but she’s a difficult one to know as a person, therefore gives me little choice. And it’s been a slow day in the bookshop.

“Be nice to have lunch together sometime,” she says. “I mean, if we can ever get Alan to turn up when he should, then he can take over for a bit. What do you say?”

“Yes Maggs. That would be lovely.”

I’m not sure if it would or not. Actually, I’d probably find it awkward, I mean socialising with Maggs.

“Sure you’re all right minding the shop?”

“No problem. Sandwich in my bag.” Minding the shop, is, after all, what I’m here to do.

“Okay, so,.. see you later then.”

And she’s off, usually for coffee and a Pannini in the Market Cafe. There’s not much by way of haute cuisine in Middleton. Never has been.

I don’t know much about Maggs – she’s the boss, and that’s about it. She’s married, judging by the rings – full house: engagement, wedding and an ostentatious eternity which suggests a certain longer term stability, if somewhat boldly overstated. I suspect she has no children, because there’s nothing more women like boring you with than the endless insignificant achievements of their offspring, and she’s never mentioned any.

Apologies again.

It must, actually, be quite nice to have children. Mine would be grown up by now of course, lives of their own. A positive achievement to have created life, but also rather a knife to one’s throat, then to see that life suffer.

She likes long heels, I note. Invented by a man, presumably, in order to create that accentuated roll of the hips, which is pleasing to the eye, but very much out of place in Middleton these days. And what with her hair, wound up tight like Tippi Hedren in Marnie,… she stands out more than I’d be comfortable doing in a town like this.

The drunk women are still taking leave of one another, they cast her a sideways glance as she wafts by.

“Who does she think she is then?”

They don’t actually say it out loud, but I was a good salesman in my day, which involves a lot of mind-reading, and I know they’re thinking it.

I watch as she clacks away and the crowds fold over her. Such an attractive down in the nape of her neck, I’ve noticed. Yes, Maggs still has the movie star quality, at least she would have, back in the day when hips were the thing.

A coin is dropped into the homeless person’s hat. There’s a myth, perpetuated by the aspirant one percenters, and their various fetid orifi that beggars go home each night to nice houses and cars. But truth is not the same as belief, and we should be careful what we are led to believe.

I think on this for a moment, take out my notebook and jot down the observation. It’s not an especially profound revelation, but small things are important these days.

Truth and belief.

I resolve to meditate upon it.

 

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psion 5

It was a good machine, the Psion 5. Even after twenty years there are still a lot of them around, though mostly I suspect lurking at the backs of drawers. I note they’re fetching good prices on Ebay too, which suggest they still have a bit of a niche following, but surely it’s had its day by now, hasn’t it?

I wrote a lot of stuff on mine – this being at a time when your main computer sat on the floor and hummed and got hot, and portability meant a laptop. But laptops were only for business users – being rather on the pricey side, so if you wanted to write away from your desk, options were limited.

I used it every day for the better part of a decade, so much so the keys went shiny. I wrote everything on it it, only transferring stuff to the computer when I was ready to publish. Why did I eventually give up on it? Well I found that, as computers went through their various iterations of the Windows operating system, it became harder to get stuff off the Psion and onto the computer.

For data transfer you used Psion’s Psiwin software, which you installed on the computer. Then you plugged your Psion in with a venerable old RS232 cable, and your Psion popped up as an icon on your desktop. After that you ran the Psiwin conversion utility on the files you wanted, to get them into MS Word or even just plain old RTF format. But at some point that cable thing failed to keep up, RS232 was abandoned and suddenly I needed a USB cable converter before I could do the converting, and the cable converter thing never worked properly.

I remember die hards arguing over it on the forums – switch this, switch that, hold your mouth this way and poke your tongue out and all will be well, they said – or words to that effect. But by now laptops were cheap, so I bought one of those instead, and the Psion got left behind. I’ve not touched it since 2007.

Then, out of curiosity, I popped a couple of AA batteries into it, changed the button cell and switched it on, and it still worked. Instantly. I riffled through the files on the compact flash card and discovered an entire first draft of The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, a substantial prototype of Between the Tides, and several other early works I’d completely forgotten about. It was like an archaeological dig through my older writings, but it also reminded me what a terrific mainstay of my writing life this little device used to be.

Over the years, I’ve missed the Psion for its ease of use, for its portability, indeed its pocketability, and have tried in vain to find a replacement for it. Laptops aren’t really that portable, as anyone who’s lugged one around knows and you need to be able to plug them in every day or they’re useless. A Psion will run for 50 hours on even the cheapest home brand AA’s. Stick a couple of 2700 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeables and it’ll take you to the moon and back.

I also liked the fact that, before the cable issues, the Psion just worked. You opened it up and the last thing you were working on was right there. Instantly. No distractions. The machine never bothered you with nags about updates and it never flashed adverts at you.  So I wondered,.. might there be a way to beat those RS232 blues after all, and get this thing back on the road?

Well, you still need those conversion routines in Psiwin – no way around that – but the cable? Actually, no, you don’t need it, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. You still need Psiwin, no way around that, but if you’ve lost it, don’t worry, you can download it legally, for free, here. Trying to install it on a 64 bit machine running Windows 10 though will throw up an incompatibility warning. But in spite of these protestations, Windows will still load all the files you need into the program folder, so ignore the warnings and carry on.

As for that cable. Forget it. Instead, simply remove the compact flash card from the Psion and slot it into a card reader on the computer. That’s all there is to it. True, most computers no longer cater for Compact Flash cards in the media slots, but there are plenty of older pro-DSLR cameras around that use them, so you can still buy them, along with plug-in usb readers.

Windows should then identify your card and list your files, but these will be in Psion’s own Epoc format. They need converting. So, you navigate to the Windows/Programs/Psion folder, and rummage about until you find the “cpycnv” (copy and convert) executable. This is the only thing you need, but before you can coax it to life you’ll have to right click it and change the compatibility mode to XP service pack 3.

You should then be able to use the cpycnv interface to locate the files on the flash card, tell the converter what format you want them in and where you want them. Then you’ll be able to open them in Windows using whatever package you prefer. I use Jarte or Libre Office.

All right, it’s a bit of a faff to begin with, but it definitely works, and with a shortcut to cpycnv on the desktop, things should be slicker next time.

As a writing tool, the Psion may be old but it’s definitely still relevant, as evidenced by the fact I wrote this blog on it, and plan to write more. It’s certainly much better than trying to write stuff on your phone or a tablet – even one with a generous amount of screen to spare. And it’s actually easier with the Psion to convert to the more recognisable – (ie MS) word processing formats on a PC, than it is from a portable Android or an Apple device.

The keyboard is solid and has a good feel to it, being about as small as is practical while allowing for fast, accurate typing. It has a word count and spell checker, and no internet to distract you. And of course the whole thing folds up and slides nicely into a jacket pocket. For writing on the go, it hasn’t been beaten in twenty years.

On the downside, the Psion screen is an early touch-screen LCD and quite murky compared with the crisp brightness of a modern device. Mine has a backlight but that seems to have faded over time and makes little difference now. All round though, the Psion 5 is a design classic, rather like an old Smith’s clock – solid, reliable – and made in England!

If you’ve still got one at the back of a drawer, why not blow the dust off it and remind yourself how good a thing it still is?

 

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man writingInteresting article, here, about the “highbrow” literary genre and a lament that writers of this kind of stuff are abandoning the basics of story writing in favour of a kind of avant garde expressionism. By basics we mean any semblance of plot structure.

It’s a vulnerable niche, this highbrow stuff, it being economically worthless, but there are Arts’ Council grants to support it, I presume because it’s still considered culturally important. This amazes me – I mean that grants for any sort of writing exist at all, and how the hell do I apply for one? But why should we subsidise stuff hardly anybody reads, and aren’t those arty writers all just taking the Mickey anyway?

Being an amateur hack this is all well above my pay grade of course, but it does seem to be expecting a lot of the poor reader. Tackling a book void of plot is like ploughing through heavy seas without sail or tiller. It has me wondering if actually reading such stuff is no longer the goal, that the target market is the more the kind of person who prefers simply to own a work by an edgy writer so they can say so at posh parties.

I prefer a story myself to a mere assault of words. If a writer has a “literary” point to make, better they do so by sneaking it in under the radar, so to speak, than hitting the poor reader over the head with it. Stories rest on a framework we call the plot. A plot simply means we have some characters, and they start out in one place, then set out to get somewhere else, but things happen along the way to prevent them. Success is thwarted, calamity drawing ever nearer until it seems all but impossible we shall ever have our denouement. Psychologically speaking, plots rise from the archetypal bedrock of humanity, a phenomenon that gives rise to mythic culture, which is why stories have a universal resonance, so they shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also why machines will never write good stories.

The plot rules, as I learned them in the long ago, are simple enough: get things going in a certain direction, then set up the conflicts and have the characters fall into them. How the characters handle themselves, how they resolve the conflicts and get on with the story is where a writer gets to say whatever else they have to say – the moral, the literary points, whatever; they are also the hook that keeps the reader turning the pages.

Soap opera plotlines are an endless chain of conflict and resolution, almost comically so – every long awaited wedding morphing seamlessly into adultery, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve missed a dozen episodes or drop out after the next one because there’s never going to be a conclusion – the psychology of the plot drives the whole thing endlessly. Soaps are, literally, pointless, yet still manage to hook millions of viewers for a couple of hours every night. Such is the power of the plot!

Unlike Soap however, with a piece of fiction, a reader expects a conclusion, so we give them one, the conflict/resolution thing having a sort of trajectory, aimed towards a climactic moment when all seems lost and then,… bang! The murderer is revealed, the baddie gets their comeuppance and the good-guy/gal either gets the good-girl/guy,… or they don’t.

I suppose the counter argument is that plot rules make for formulaic fiction, that it’s a dumb way to write, and allows for little by way of airy fairyness. But they’re only guidelines, not really rules, and while I make no claims for possessing sufficient intellect to handle the airy fairy heights of contemporary “edgy” literature, I’ve found traditional plotting allows for endless subtle interpretation, enabling any means of expression while still respecting the reader, leading them in with guile, even shamelessly seducing them with a bit of romance and adventure, rather than standing there for two hundred thousand words, roaring like a lion and hurling bricks. The latter approach might lend us a fearsome reputation among literary critics for a while, but it only takes one of them to call us out as a pretentious old windbag and we’re sunk.

I don’t know what passes for high-brow fiction these days, but I can certainly understand some of the stuff I’ve read in the past struggling to get a look in when most of us would rather fiddle with our phones of an evening. But if it’s culturally important something is written it shouldn’t matter that it’s no longer economically viable in print form, and the obvious place for it is online. Publication is guaranteed, but an audience is less certain because it’s a sea of words out there and easy to find yourself becalmed.

It doesn’t have the same author-in-a-tweed-jacket vibe, I know, but the times they are a-changing, and if attention is switching from books to smartphones – that’s where the words should follow because that’s where the readers have gone. We abandoned papyrus scrolls and vellum, and typewriters each in their turn, long ago. Perhaps we should not be so squeamish about abandoning paper too.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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manufacturing

I’m not much of a futurologist. I didn’t see BREXIT coming, or Trump. I’m better at retrospectives and can equate the decline of meaningful work in the west as a  consequence of de-industrialisation, and the off-shoring of manufacture. But then I ask the question: what next? Answer: I don’t know, other than: it cannot be more of the same.

Manufacturing was once a tremendous source of varied employment, taking people from a broad spectrum of practical and intellectual ability, then organising and deploying them in a way that brought fruition to physical objects that could be sold, either to a domestic market or, ideally, exported. People with degrees, people with no qualifications at all other than a willingness to work – all found their place in manufacturing. Such types used to be called factory fodder. I’m one of them.

But manufacturing paid its fodder well, if you were a boss or a labourer. It bought you a house, a car, and time to pursue interests. It paid you enough to purchase the spoils of the consumer society, also a pension to live in modest comfort in your senior years. It was not a bad way of life.

But efficiency in manufacturing is driven by certain basic economic rules that come down to the price of a pair of hands. If hands can be bought more cheaply in poorer parts of the world, that’s where manufacturing goes. The result for the west is de-industrialisation. People previously employed in manufacturing then find themselves competing for what’s left – mainly service sector jobs, or warehousing at wages set well below what anyone can actually live off. Why? Because there’s a glut of labour and prices, as with wages, are dictated by the law of supply and demand. Too many hands for not enough jobs  =  low wages.

The vacuum left by industrialisation is filled, at best, by exploitative and unscrupulous profit-mad employers, bereft of any social conscience, at worst by crooks and modern day criminal slavers. Couple this with a right leaning political system, one ideologically inclined towards the cutting of state benefits in order to elevate those already rich to even greater riches and we have a perfect storm. Homelessness, drug addiction fuelled by the need to escape appalling life chances, and a widening divide between the haves and have nots. All these things destroy the soul of nations.

Historically the result is populist politicians seizing power by manipulating mass resentment – blaming the “foreign other” for ills that are purely domestic also sniping at  libertarian ideals as pandering to a loss of moral fibre, so we see a rise in anti-gay, indeed anti just about anything not white, male straight Ango-Saxon and Christian. In the worst of cases, this leads to internal suppression, death, and the distraction of foreign wars  before we come to our senses and a more egalitarian zeitgeist is ushered in on a wave of revulsion at our own stupidity.

That history may be about to repeat itself here goes without saying, but I remain hopeful we have not yet entirely failed to learn the lessons of past upheavals. That said, our industries are not coming back. And worse, those low level service jobs, those warehouse jobs that pay next to nothing – they will be automated out of existence in the next decade, because this is the inevitable goal of those “scientific” management aspirations birthed in the late Victorian era, the absolute maximisation of profit by the elimination of paid labour.

The result is hardly controversial: Western nations are looking at a future in which tens of millions of citizens will have no realistic prospect of gaining any kind of employment at all. Even those who have followed the gruelling path of the degree system will find themselves competing for scant resources – clambering over one another for every petty bullshit spreadsheet jockey job imaginable.

So, if we follow the current model of Capitalism, as it stands, tens of millions must logically be consigned to homelessness, and starving to death on our streets. However, it can hardly be expected the masses do so quietly. When a man has nothing left to lose he will behave unpredictably. Therefore a solution will be found, because the monied are perfectly aware they will otherwise find themselves impaled on pitchforks.

Demonisation of the poor is a common trope of the monied. Blame it on lack of morals, rather than lack of money or life chances. Lose your job to downsizing and you suffer the double ignominy of being blamed for your own unemployment, while discovering the state funded safety net has its ropes spread so thin by austerity its easy to fall through, your days spent searching for non-existent work and your state funded security axed on the slightest pretext. Right leaning states and amoral commerce act as one in this, obey the same rules, turn a blind eye to starvation, to homelessness, to drug addiction, they blame it on moral weakness, on immigration, on anything but a corrupt system incapable of sustaining life for all but an unspeakably wealthy minority.

Only a radically different approach can coax our future towards less turbulent times. And one of those approaches involves paying everyone an amount of money to cover their basic needs, to grant them the dignity of being able to afford to refuse undignified, demeaning or exploitative paid work.

To this end it’s proposed the state benefit system is altered, abolishing its overarching, penny pinching bureaucracy and instead everyone, irrespective of their circumstances is given free money, a so called universal basic income. It sounds bizarre but when the only beneficiaries of “business” will be the business owners themselves and, by means of taxation on profits, the state, how else are populations to be supported?

Naturally, it is the political left who are most sympathetic to this idea, while the right struggle with it, quoting the “immorality” of paying “scroungers” to stay at home while others work. But in a future world without any meaningful work whatsoever for the majority, whether they want to work or not, the options, other than starvation, seem limited.

We are seeing various experimental trials of universal basic income now, including one in Finland which awards £500 a month – no strings, no means test. It doesn’t sound like a lot – and that’s because it isn’t. You’d need to be a magician to survive for long off that, and there’s the rub. It’s clearly no panacea, but results are encouraging.

Left leaning administrations will be more generous than the right in setting this level of subsistence, but the poor can hardly go on strike to demand an increase, so may find themselves trapped in poverty anyway, while a technocratic elite continue to reap the lions share of paid work, in addition of course to the basic income.

But it is at least a question being asked by those serious about the future. The answers are varied and uncertain for now, but without such progressive thinking all visions of a future for the west are at best unsettling, at worst unthinkable.

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