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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

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the sea southportI began my last piece with the intention of waxing lyrical on the notion of loneliness, of isolation, and the apparent meaninglessness of life. But I ended up putting the world to rights on several tangential fronts sparked by the current political situation, and the picture of a gold plated motor car that somehow tipped me over the edge, puncturing what was left of my magnanimity. This is still relevant, but what I’d hoped to touch upon also was a way of seeing the world in which our current preoccupations with the state of it become in fact unimportant.

What I wanted to talk about was Between the Tides.

This was a book I wrote some years ago now, a novel, a story about two strangers, stranded on an imaginary island off the coast of Lancashire. Both protagonists have been damaged by life, both feel isolated, lost and alone. Phil likes to draw, likes to put his pictures up on Flikr. Adrienne writes poetry, keeps a literary blog but both have come to understand how futile such things are at least in so far as they reflect the Facebook generation’s fallacy, that the undocumented life is a life not worth living, that we are only as successful a human being as the number of followers we can boast.

between the tidesWe pass a stranger in the street. They are of infinite worth to themselves, occupy the central role in the drama of their own life, a life that is in each case a miracle of creation. Yet when we pass them by, only rarely do we remember them for long afterwards. As an individual then we are worth little to others, our lives irrelevant them. So what’s the point of being alive if no one really knows we’re there? This is the nihilistic end-game of the material world view. And we know it’s not true. Phil’s drawings and Adrienne’s poetry are important, but not in the way they originally believed.

What makes each of us important, and how can we return to that realisation, and rest easy in it, even if no one else knows we’re alive?

Both Phil and Adrienne are visionaries in that their lives are haunted, literally, by visions. Phil sees things out of the corner of his eye, overlays imaginary entities on reality like Pokemon Go, and receives intimations from them, suggestive of another, hidden dimension to the world. Adrienne has suffered a life changing accident, one that triggered a near death experience so profound she is confident of the reality of the continuation of her life after death, though what that means is no less confusing. She is also developing as a neopagan witch.

Both, in their separate ways are colouring the world through the lens of their imaginations. They see patterns where others see nothing. They can view a landscape, both seeing it, visually, and feeling it, emotionally. In the brief time they are stranded together, each learns not to fear their visionary experience, more to trust in it, and to take it forward. Phil and Adrienne are extreem examples, but we can each follow their lead, since we all possess the faculty of imagination.

In the material world we try to describe the meaning of the universe, but in a language that is entirely inadequate, a language lacking the vital dimension of insight. Contrary to belief, however, through the visionary experience, the world makes even less sense, descends into a kind of incoherent anarchy. But we lose also the childish need to make sense of it. Instead, embracing the ambiguity, we realise at once each our own meaning and our importance. This is our true and real celebrity.

So forget Facebook. It’s doing your head in and those mysteriously apposite little adverts will one day have you dropping your trousers in public. Instead, like Phil and Adrienne, try seeing the world through the lens of your imagination a little more, and don’t be afraid of where it takes you.

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In Durelston Wood

durleston wood cover smallI left this place twenty years ago, left the old pit village of Marsden in the grey English North, exchanged it for the sunshine of California, tanned my skin, and brought up children on the beaches of the Pacific coast. I built a life with a blonde haired, long-legged woman who, after all of our time together, decided we should call it a day, and apparently for no other reason, she said, than that I bored her. So, I have come home now, to my father.

He’s not looking bad today. He sits upright in a tweed jacket. It’s threadbare now, but the care-workers know he is fond of it, and they have tied his tie nicely. There is a chessboard between us, though it’s months now since he’s had the energy to apply himself to a game, but the carers have explained to me there is something in the way the pieces are arranged that pleases him – that even though he rarely speaks now, and his tempers can make him difficult to manage, the simple array of a chess game calms him. It’s as if he remembers a fragment of his former self in it, as I remember a fragment of my former self in Durleston Wood.

The pieces are not lined up in their beginning positions; there is always a game in play. One of the carers has set this up by copying positions from a little book of classic games she found in a charity shop. Any attempt to randomly array the pieces, something that might for example result in the illogicality of two white bishops – is enough to set my father grumbling. Even in his old age, and his confusion, he cannot be placated by pretence.

He is still lucid at times, and sensible, but even on those treasured occasions we do not talk of certain things. I think he knows his home has gone. I sold it to pay for his care, but we do not mention this. It still exists in his mind, and also in my dreams, as a place he will return to, just as soon as he starts to feel a little brighter in himself. It was the place he brought his wife home to fifty years ago, the place he raised his child in, the place he would have liked to leave his child when he finally shuffles off, but like I said: we do not mention it.

He’s quite chatty today, remembering a walk by the Rye, when I was twelve. My memory of this event is clear enough to know it is not an illusion on his part, but he is remembering it in such detail I wonder if the past can possibly be embellished in this way; his memories have such a brightness to them, while mine are dull, tarnished by the abrasive dross of all that has filled my life since. But I like his picture of things, so borrow from a mind that may be manufacturing fantasy-frilled edges, and I accept it all unflinchingly as the truth, for no other reason than it has a brightness about it, when everything else in the world these days is unbearably dull.

He’s speaking of the path around the horseshoe of the Rye, and of the season when the ramsons and the bluebells and the wood anemones bloom together to create an impossibly beautiful carpet beneath the overarching boughs of beech and oak and sycamore.

We have the gun, and we are ratting along the banks of the Rye, close by the Willet place, the curious, lonely old house in Durleston Wood. I am away from school – some mysterious illness of the spirit that has laid me low, and which is somehow soothed now by the warm blanket gloom of Durleston, and the peaty smell of the Rye.

The rats are not rats but water voles, the Ratty-Rats of Tales of Toad and Badger, and homely Mole – harmless voles twisted by ignorance into carriers of plague and shot almost to extinction. And when he talks about the starry heads of the ramsons, I am with him, their garlic scent overwhelming me in hot waves as we lie prone for hours, the gun lined up on a likely looking hole in the sandy bank of the Rye.

Bumble bees buzz, ducking in and out of the shade of our hats, but we bide them patiently, and when my father mentions this, I am amazed he can have recalled the scene so vividly, and I am drawn into it – not just the pictures and the scent, but the “feel” of it – to have my belly against the soft earth, and to have it soothe my fear, soothe the feeling of that twelve year old boy that he is entering a life he surely was not meant for.

Did I tell you my wife’s name is Faye?

It’s three years since I last saw her, now, but we died a long time before that. I know this because I tell myself I think of her so little, and that when I do there is neither hate nor fondness in it. She is not like the first girl I fell in love with, whom I think of still with a wistful tenderness, the girl whose love my father’s story of that walk reminds me I had already betrayed as I lay there that day with the gun. Her name was Lillian.

Lillian and I are kneeling in the school hall, at Marsden C. of E. Primary School. I am eleven, she is on the cusp of her tenth birthday, and there is something about her face, something about her eyes, and in the way the light falls upon her long blonde hair that pleases me, though in a way I do not understand. And while I am looking at her, taking pleasure in this thing I do not understand, I become aware that she has looked up, is looking at me, and on seeing or sensing my pleasure, she is smiling at me, smiling because my pleasure gives her pleasure. And the more pleasure we are each aware of inspiring in the other, the greater becomes our pleasure, so the feeling is like a flowering, like a swelling of spiritual bliss. And we blossom into the unexpected enlightenment of first-love.

But human love brings also human folly, and in the days to come Lillian will ask me if I will come to the front of the school assembly to tug her hair when it’s her birthday – ten tugs – as is the tradition, one for each year of her life. Of course there will be uproar among our friends. Hers will be jealous I did not pick them to love, while mine will be merciless in their teasing that I could ever like a girl.

I lie awake for days, dreading this event so much that on the dreaded morning I invent a tummy ache, and when Lillian stands up proudly on the school stage to proclaim her love by calling out my name, I am not there. She’s embarrassed then, let down by love, and quickly chooses one of her smug school-chums, and the pair of them make fun of me on my return – rejecting as ludicrous my tales of tummy ache, and Lillian, her heart bleeding throws my love back in my face.

My father is quiet now, his tale hanging mid-sentence, attenuated by the heat of the lounge here in Marsden Hall, and by the enigma of the frozen chess game. The memory of Lillian remains like a splinter in my brain. It’s strange; I have not thought of this for a long time now, have not thought of my betrayal of her love in such vivid terms before. I am forty five and find myself overflowing with guilt for something I did as a boy, and cannot possible atone for.

What is it telling me, this thing, this serendipitous serpent from the darker layers of my unconscious? It is reminding me, I think, how often I have been seduced by the idea, and by the loveliness of love, but when love demands a test, I am unwilling to allow myself to be transformed by it and to trust in the sureness of its direction.

Perhaps then, I have never truly been in love.

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The Lavender and the Rose book coverOdd,.. one tries to live in the present, but as a writer I am often called back to visit with previous parts of myself, to revise my more obvious errors and of course to explain,…

Now, it’s a strange thing for an author to say, I suppose, but I don’t know what to make of the Lavender and the Rose, even a decade after publication, and a decade before that in the writing, but there it is. The sexual stuff, the eroticism, the menage a trois, the tantric thing – really I should no longer be troubled by it, being now rather more mature in years, but I still am, because on the surface at least I’m a regular kind of guy, unused to channelling that kind of thing.

The whole mad tome of it went up on Smashwords in 2013, and with hardly a peep  from them until just recently when they’ve begun nagging me over the chapter numbers – two chapter fours, no chapter three,.. blush! Self editing can be a nightmare can’t it? But what the hell, who cares? It’s not exactly as if I’m up for the Booker is it?

Anyway,… I made the changes, resubmitted to their meatgrinder thing, because, well, even though the download rate is poor on Smashwords, I still have a great respect for the ethos of the site. And in making the changes I came across the postscript I added after the last revision which I’d forgotten about, and quote in full here:

Thank you for reading this story.

I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Although a work of fiction, the Lavender and the Rose charts a long period of deep reflection and psychological change for its author. The ideas expressed here were an exploration of the potential of human imagination, as told through the eyes of the main protagonists, who either were or became Romantic and mystical in their outlook – as did its author. A decade in the writing, the person who penned the opening chapters was not the same person who now writes this postscript. In revising the story for this new Smashwords edition, I have been able to remind myself of the turning points and the key ideas I now hold to, but which would have been incomprehensible or even preposterous before I began this journey.

Romanticism does not sit well in the modern materialistic world. The former abhors the latter, and the latter does not take the former at all seriously. But while materialism is a philosophy that well suits the simplistic machinery of world trade, it steals from human beings the simple magic of living. It is therefore a philosophy that cannot help but be ultimately pessimistic in its outlook, that human beings, human hopes and aspirations be viewed as perishable and meaningless concepts.

But, like the old Romantics, I suggest the world cannot be properly revealed unless it be through the lens of the imagination. It is imagination alone that colours the world, personalises it, opens it up for a more intimate dialogue. It restores our spirit, and reveals an optimistic and benign undercurrent which propels us more certainly along the course of our lives. More, it reconnects the individual life to its sense of purpose in an otherwise overwhelming and seemingly unknowable world. Through the Romantic eye, the world becomes, if not knowable, then at least sensed at a more vital level than that revealed by a knowledge of its materials alone, for materials are dead things. Through the Romantic eye, however, the world lives and breathes, and smiles at the wonder of it all.

Without it, the world frowns and suffocates in a self imposed insignificance.

Michael Graeme

Autumn 2013the sea view cafe - small

It’s a reminder, not just to me, but to all of us who write that in the broader dissemination of our work, no matter how much we desire it and strive towards it, it is always secondary to the simple fact that primarily the person most important in the writing, the person most satisfied, and most healed is always gong to be our selves. This alone is sufficient reason for our persistence.

Four years ago? Is that right? And did I really begin the Lavender and the Rose a quarter of a century ago? Sure I did, but equally I find everything I said still stands, even though the author is now a stranger to me, and that’s a relief. Time then I returned to the present – to where I really am, lost in the continuing mystery of my life, as expressed in the mystery of  the Sea View Cafe.

 

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mazda southportFull moon and a Spring tide draws me to the coast. The coast for me is Southport, North West England, a place you rarely catch the sea – at least not splashing up against the promenade, even at high tide, so the opportunity is not to be missed. I have in mind an hour’s stroll along the front, and some sea air, but I am an hour late in arriving and the tide is already on its way out, a slow peeling back of muddy foreshore puncturing my boyish optimism.

Instead I am faced with a dilemma. To park on the promenade for just an hour now is over a pound. I fumble for change, but it seems an extravagance given the receding tide and the all pervading mood of “Austerity”. Do I stay, or do I just go home? I split the difference and drive to the Ocean Plaza instead where it’s free to park so long as you intend buying something.

I buy coffee.

Two pounds buys a medium Americano at the Pausa Cafe  in Dunelm Mill. Luck gets you a balcony table overlooking fabrics and curtains. The coffee is really good.  I come here a lot on wet weekends – for the coffee, not the fabrics.

When I sit down I’m thinking about the work in progress, a novel that seems intent, as usual, on self destruction about three quarters of the way in. Such single minded preoccupation is irrational when it doesn’t matter a damn if it’s ever finished or not, and will in any case never make me a bean. It’s just a vast puzzle to be solved, something satisfying only to my convoluted psyche, the end result being something I have made and can post online. And it gets me out of bed.

A couple of overnight pings in response to a sample posted on the blog have revealed potential avenues for exploration, and I’m thinking about those. My thanks to elmonoyd on Wattpad, and Steve on WordPress. I make notes, add them to the mix, let them stew. Then I fall back on the secondary preoccupation: the apparently perilous state of Western Civilisation, its dearth of progressive leadership, its alarmingly retrograde motions this past twelve months, and its lack of answers to the most pressing questions of our times.

What now after the collapse of Capital?

The world is disintegrating on so many levels, and no one knows what to make of it, let alone what to do. The best us Brits can come up with is Brexit, God help us, but that’s like sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Me? I’m done. All I have in mind now is a little cabin in my back garden, so when retirement comes, soon I hope, I can sit in it and make writing the sole purpose of my life, instead of just a hobby.

My solution to the world’s ills then will be to get up at nine in the morning, instead of six, and never have to commute another fucking mile – a sort of wry three fingered salute. Of course there will be no more purpose in this than there is to my writing now. But I feel too old these days, and too muddled to make a difference to anything more worthy. I see my life’s challenge as simply not to waste any more time moaning about stuff I cannot fix.

But there’s a snag, and it’s to do with the energy of reaction. We’re ten years into a recession, though no one’s actually calling it by that name. In the broader picture it is the sudden acceleration of a decline that’s been steadily ongoing since the seventies – in practical terms by this I mean the availability of well paid work for working men, and free education so the sons of working men can aspire to better paid middle class work. Irt is the struggle of the majority against the minority.

But that’s all over now.

Think about it.

Things are no better, ten years on, employment trends being to divest the employers of all responsibility for employees, while driving wages down to Victorian levels that fall short even of subsistence. In the mean time it overhangs everything, like a chest infection, every breath we take a reminder of its cloying presence, that foul delusion of our times: Austerity.

Is my little cabin still a viable proposition? Sure I can build it, but can I really close the door on a world gone mad, retreat into my fantasies? On the one hand I don’t see why not since I can do nothing about any of this. Putting the world to rights is for the pub, and self indulgent blogging, but on the other hand it seems morally bankrupt to turn my back when the generation I have nurtured in hope and optimism is left with no future and no credible leadership of any colour at all, and there is only the turmoil of populism and layer upon layer of toxic social media to inform opinion.

What the hell?

Suddenly I’m aware the old girl at the table behind me is talking too loudly and has nothing nice to say about anyone. Then there’s a sharp mouthed mother shouting abuse at her child for dolloping something on the table. A baby squeals loud for hunger, for comfort, for sleep. It seems my troubled thoughts are sending waves out into the world, unsettling it. Time to move on before I bring the ceiling down as well.

I look in Pound Stretcher and Matalan while I’m passing, further justifying my free parking, but they are drab and uninspiring this afternoon, and I don’t buy anything. I never do. I cannot help but think big out of town shopping centres like this will all be gone soon – nothing to sustain them with the world and his dog on minimum wage. Then all we’ll have will be our threadbare highstreets with their thrift shops, their pawn shops and  their pay-day loan sharks.

And coffee shops, I hope.

I return to the car the long way via the end of Southport Pier. It adds perspective, and a glimpse of emptiness, of infinity.

It begins to rain.

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girl with green eyesThe meaning of things isn’t to be found in studying them, said Carina, nor in thinking about them at all, but more in attaining a state of non-judgemental awareness. Then we see there is no meaning in things themselves, that in seeking their meaning we obscure the formless beauty in them, and through analysis, through over-thinking, we fail to experience love.

“Then there is no meaning?” asked Finn.

“To what?”

“To life. My life. Your life.”

“Of course there is.”

“Then what?”

Carina looked a little dishevelled – her hair uncombed, more voluminous and more fiery red than Finn remembered from when she was working, from those long budget meetings whose only redeeming feature for Finn had been the presence of Carina herself, the knowledge of her kindness, and that she did not hate him.

Her blouse was creased and she wore no bra. Her cream suit looked business-like but too well worn and lived-in comfortable for a hundred quid a head restaurant. Finn had baulked at the idea of dinner in such a place as this, but she’d insisted, claiming her resurrection from the dead, at least in Finn’s eyes, was worth splashing out a little on dinner, and she would pay.

“Love,” she said.

“Love?”

“We find meaning, redemption, salvation, whatever you want to call it,… in love. Not just the kind you’re thinking. I mean not the one-person-bonking-the-other kind. Sometimes we think that’s all there is to love, that it’s merely the permission to bonk. But that’s Eros. I’m meaning more simply love – you know? Kindness, compassion. Agape.”

“Agape?”

“The love of God, Finn. The grace of God. I mean,… without being religious about it. Can you do it? Can you find a way of loving even these tossers in here? Look at them. Given the state of the economy and the number slaving below subsistence levels for tyrannical bastards, many of whom probably frequent pretentious pig troughs like this, there’s much in this well polished porcine crowd to hate. But in doing so, do you not also feel also,… a little cut off? A little less than human? A little diminished?”

“I,…”

Carina had not been drinking, had drunk nothing since the mother of all hangovers some weeks ago. This was Carina sober, incisive, cynical and – for all of her apparent languor – intellectually terrifying.

“I mean, how do we find the love of God in these people, Finn?”

Finn wasn’t sure he wanted to. He found their braying and their preening obnoxious, but felt he had to try, if only because Carina had challenged him to do it, and it was always a pleasure to please Carina.

“Em,… I can make a start, I suppose, by understanding their folly, and forgiving it? After all, I used to be one of them.”

Carina, smiled indulgently, nodded. “Yes, it’s a start. Every couple of generations we make the mistake of worshipping affluence, don’t we? But they’re just people like anybody else – frail, feeble, stupid. They make mistakes. By the way, you were never one of them, Finn,… or I would have seen no point in rescuing you. I’d’ve been doing humanity a service by allowing evolution to take it’s toll on you.”

“That doesn’t sound very,… loving?”

“Didn’t say I was perfect.”

“So, at the risk of fishing for compliments, which is always a dangerous thing where you’re concerned, what was my redeeming feature – the one that spared me from your indifference?”

“Oh,… it’s hard to say. A mixture of things. Compassion. Humility. And clear signs of distress.”

“Well, distress for sure.”

Finn scanned the dining crowds. He noted men did not wear ties to dinner any more, unlike Finn who remained always a decade behind fashion. He noted instead they wore hideously pretentious timepieces with designer names, timepieces that would no doubt be thrown away when their batteries ran down. There would be no future niche market on Ebay for such things, unless future generations rediscovered a sense of irony.

Carina watched him watching: “So, what are you thinking?”

But never mind what Finn’s thinking, Carina, what am I thinking? This is an interesting chapter and a turning point,  a little overlong perhaps, a little talky, you and Finn batting ideas across the table like tennis players, and I can barely keep up with you, just as the rules of tennis, so obvious to others have long remained a mystery to me. I can only ask you play the game wisely, Carina, and don’t hurt anyone – especially me. We’re in too deep by now. Your next moves can either make or break the story.

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the sea view cafe - smallSo,… what do we have so far?

Man leaves wife, flees his life and his dope-smoking offspring, wife has affair with her boss. Man meets woman, the woman meets a woman, the man discovers feelings for a woman-friend from way back. He loves all these women, even the woman who loves his woman, but he can only actually be with one woman because,.. well, he’s an old fashioned kind of guy. So who, among all these women will he choose? Or, more to the point, who will have him? Or,… actually,… does a man need a woman at all? Is he not better living on his own, sorting himself out instead of running round changing light-bulbs for women, arguing over the washing machine, and who makes lunch?

Given all the upheavals in the world and the stuff I could be writing about, this seems a bit trite, a bit “domestic”, and I don’t know what these characters are trying to tell me, if they’re trying to be funny, profound, or if they’re trying to tell me anything at all and I’m not just making stuff up as I go along, heading nowhere that means anything. It’s the usual creative impasse. To be original you have to write what you’re given by the voices in your head, not simply copy something else you’ve read. But to be original, doesn’t automatically mean you’re creating something worthwhile. I mean, after all, anyone can make stuff up.

But let’s think about it. No, I’m sure my characters are talking to me in the context of more weighty world affairs, and what they’re saying is this: our love triangles and love squares and love scares might seem trivial on the surface, but at least we’re seeking love in both its broad and narrow senses, rather than power. We’re also seeking a modest means of surviving these coming decades, rather than scoring grand fortunes at the expense of others less fortunate. And you know, it doesn’t matter to us, they tell me, what race or gender our friends and lovers are, or even if they’re like they say in the popular media: damned foreigners comin’ over ere and takin’ our jobs, because really that kind of language belongs to the stone age, and we’ve moved on, even if you haven’t.

My characters see through the machinations and the manipulations now; they laugh at the purveyors of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as at the antics of a newly discovered species which, although now the dominant predator on the planet, is actually of only passing interest because they (my characters) accept they cannot alter the way things are, that in order to survive they must make alternative arrangements than the ones apparently on offer which would otherwise do them harm. They are all refugees, economic migrants, waifs and strays, some native, some not, all washed up just the same on the shores of economic ruin, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations gone. They are all stateless, in that the state on which they formerly stood is disappearing so rapidly beneath their feet it might as well not exist at all, and in any case will not be there for their children.

Yet, they do not turn to drugs, or violence – I mean not like they would in the movies. Nor do they tumble into a twisted aspiration of an Endtimes, where we shall all be saved by “The Rapture”, nor a post apocalyptic future where we shall be saved by nothing. They reject the language of hate and despair, they do not conform to the media stereotypes of the ruined middle class, nor the workless working man, nor any of the million vain conspiracy theories. Nor are they racist, bigoted misogynists, so whatever the world throws at them (and it’s thrown a lot) the Sea View Cafe dares to tell a positive tale of plucky survival against the odds, of cleanliness and dignity maintained against an oppressively murky background.

They take stock, they brush themselves down, they bind their wounds, paint on a smile. Lacking kin they gather into improvised families, seek survival for themselves and the ones they choose to love. They remain steadfastly human in a dehumanising world, a world that sees people not as people, but as economic units of varying viability, to be switched on and off as the market demands, even if half of them starve to death in the process. They are Romantic figures, also pragmatic, but most of all they are Romantic. And I’m talking Samuel Taylor Coleridge here, not Mills and Boon.

Put it like that, the Sea View might sound like one of those worthy but laboured literary texts that’s trying to change the world, but it’s not. It accepts the world as its stage, even if it might not be the world you recognise, and it says: okay, so how do we work with this? And the characters do what they must in all stories, they start out in one place and end up in another, and in the process they either grow or they die, and the only weapons I’ve given them are compassion and a stubbornly infinite capacity for love. I know, I know, Helena Aynslea has just kneed Squinty Mulligan in the balls for being a lecherous misogynist, but no one’s perfect. And I’m sorry but he deserved it. And I rather like Helena’s fiery spirit.

We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, and there are doubts about direction as there always are at this point with so many threads running this way and that and all wanting their resolution before the novel can be steered safe into harbour and a new story begun. So I talk to myself, and I talk to my characters, like I’m doing here, and the way becomes a little clearer.

Hermione looks up from the counter as I walk in: “So, what can I get you darlin’?”

“Um,… Americano, please.”

She turns to the coffee machine, bangs the scoop works the levers, makes steam.

Whoosh!

Did she just call me darlin’?

Thanks for listening.

*The Sea View Cafe,… a work in progress. To be completed,… well,… sometime,… possibly.

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