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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Publishing a novel? Well, it’s easy. Anyone can publish a novel these days. You write it, then you put it on the Internet. You do it yourself through a blog, serving it out of a Dropbox account, or use the likes of Smashwords, Wattpad, FreeEbooks, Amazon, and sundry others I’ve yet to make the acquaintance of, who serve it out for you. Your work gets published for free and people will read it. Guaranteed. Simple. Amazon and Smashwords even let you set a fee, so you can actually make money at it. The downside? Unless you go viral, don’t expect to make more than pocket-money, and your chances of going viral are about the same as coming up on the lottery. People come up on the lottery all the time, but the chances are it won’t be you, so don’t bank on it. Most likely you’ll make nothing at all.

I can feel your disappointment right there, because money’s the thing, isn’t it? What you really want to know is how to make serious money at it, or maybe even just enough to quit the day job and write full time. So, let’s go there. You write your novel and, if you don’t fancy online self-publishing, or it just doesn’t seem real to you, then send it to a traditional publisher or a literary agent. But this route is even more like a lottery. Someone always wins, but the chances are you won’t. In fact, the odds are so stacked against you doing it this way, it makes more sense not to bother, and only a fool would waste years filling out their ticket anyway.

There are exceptions, not to be cynical, but you need an edge. Your name needs to be widely known for some other reason, either by fair means or foul, because publishing’s about selling and names sell. Or you need an influential contact in the industry, someone who can sing your praises to a commissioning editor. Or you can enter your novel for a prestigious literary prize, but that’s an even bigger lottery. Either way, without your invite to the party, you’re not getting in, and that’s just the way it is. Always has been.

Persistence pays? Yes, I’ve heard that too, mostly from published literary types selling tips to writers who can’t get published, and maybe it’s true, worth a dabble perhaps, but don’t waste your life trying . Don’t spend decades hawking that novel, constantly raking back over old ground with rewrites, moving commas this way and that and coming up with yet one more killer submission, then beating yourself up when it’s rejected. Again. Don’t lie awake at night grinding your teeth, wondering what’s wrong with you, wondering why no one wants to publish your story. Chances are you’ll never know. So let it go, it’s done. Now write another.

What is a writer for? Do they create purely in order to give pleasure to others? Or do they do it for the money? Do they crave critical acclaim? Or is it more simply to satisfy a need in themselves? Why does anyone create anything that serves no practical purpose? I mean, come on, it’s just a story after all.

In my own writing I explore things, ideas that interest me. I enjoy painting and drawing too, but it’s the writing that gets me down to the nitty gritty, writing that is the true melting pot of thought, the alchemists alembic through which I attempt a kind of self-sublimation, a transformation from older, less skilful ways of thinking, and through which I try to make sense of a largely unintelligible world. The finished product, the novel, the story, the poem or whatever, is almost incidental, but until it’s finished the conundrum, the puzzle I’ve set myself isn’t complete. Completion is the last piece of the jigsaw, the moment of “Aha!” – or more often a wordless understanding that signifies a shift in consciousness, hopefully one in the right direction.

I know this isn’t what writing’s about for others. But most likely those others are a good deal younger than I am, and not as well acquainted with the realities of hawking the written word in exchange for a living. I’ve been writing for fifty years, never made a bean, haven’t even tried since ’98.  This is just the way it’s evolved for me, but don’t let that put you off. You do what you want. You may get lucky, or die trying.

How to get a novel published? Other than giving it away online, who knows? It’s always been a mystery to me, but in one sense persistence does indeed pay, in that it eventually yields a little known secret about getting yourself published, and I’ll share it with you now: when it comes to the art of writing, getting yourself published isn’t really the most important thing.

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drawing

Moonlit hills with Landrover

I still have my sketchbooks from school (1972-77). I was a more prolific drawer then than I am now, more driven, more inspired I think, whether I was actually any good or not is another question and it isn’t relevant anyway. All that matters is I was drawing, creating, doing, all the time. And mostly I was doing it without thought or care for an audience. Once you start doing it with a view to pleasing someone else, you’re screwed because then the lens of imagination through which you view the world dissolves. It’s like the tide going out, and then instead of the light dancing on the waves, all you see is a dreary plane of mud.

Life as a young teen is a hotbed of emotion, of unrequited love, of poetry, of romantic adventure, and every day a mystery to be solved. I did not write much then, suspected writing was for experts, had yet to discover it was also for poseurs and fools, that it led more often to obscurity, alcholoism and destitution than to fame and riches. I drew instead. A drawing can be a doodle in the margin of an exercise book, or it can cover a sheet of A0. It’s still a drawing, and it can still mean something to the drawer.

If I drew for anyone at all it was for a mysterious and entirely imaginary “other” who was always watching, but in a benign way, like I imagined my teachers were watching, assessing, marking. Sometimes I projected the watcher out onto all sorts of people, made protective sages of them when in fact they were nobody, just adults caught up in their own small lives, and oblivious of mine. It took a while to work that one out.

I see themes emerging in those drawings that would shape my later imagination and are still with me – the archetypal women, presence in a landscape, and a hunger for the hidden meaning of past lives as evidenced by their time-weathered remains in the present day – the ruins, the megalithic markers and other fey geomancies.

I’m being selective here. Flipping through my sketchbooks I see there were also fast cars and guns, but they belonged to adolescence, and have been left there where they belong. All of this was idiosyncratic yet of inestimable value, and if only I could understand it and present it to the mysterious “watcher” then all things would be resolved and the world would be a much better place.

I could not see then what I see now, that it was a personal quest, that all lives are founded on myth, some borrowed, some told, some self invented. Myths grant meaning to life, and I was inventing my own, rejecting the native mythologies of Albion and Christianity, things I suspect are common enough among teens who tend towards loneliness and misanthropy.

The picture above is one I drew in 1974 or thereabouts – I’d be thirteen. I remember it meaning something to me then, as it does still, though it’s physical manifestation is now fading and smudged. This is its first wider airing, but I use it only to illustrate a point. It changes nothing, means nothing to anyone other than me, speaks only to my own myth, looks a bit childish actually – indeed I recall my art teacher commented that it was “a corny and rather bland response” to a homework assignment. Oh, Miss T, you were such a stern mistress.

I see reverence for landscape, for exploration, for field skills. We are also looking at moonlight here, a big moon rising, rendering in paleness and deep shadow an endlessly pristine landscape – something slightly pagan about it too in the way the figure pays homage as he contemplates the endless feminine swell of the land. All of these are themes, symbols that still animate me four and a half decades later.

Miss T told me to stop drawing from imagination, or my work would stagnate. Nor was she ever impressed by cleverness with line – look, Miss, it’s a Landrover!. She preferred more the spontaneous Rosrchashis splash and daub of the avant guard – and who was I to argue with an art graduate from the University of Manchester? I did as I was told, and my work stagnated anyway. There was never anything inspirational, I found, in drawing wood shavings from observation, nor in splashing and daubing murky poster paint on sugar paper. The key insight of youth is that while many adults profess wisdom, sometimes they’re just bull-shitting. The trick is to tell the difference, and I’m still working on that.

But what I do know for sure is what we bring out of ourselves in the act of creation is like wiping the mist from a mirror, revealing aspects of ourselves hitherto hidden from awareness. But more than that is it is also a means of rendering unconscious elements of the psyche conscious. We live our art primarily for ourselves. Our vision may be corny in the eyes others more erudite, should we be inclined to exhibit, but some of us are slower to grasp the existential axioms, if such there be. It does not mean we are barred from the artistic life, which means of course, all the clever critics tossing spitballs at our work, can cheerfully go take a running jump.

Some say art should shock, that it should shake the foundations of the world, that is should prove a visceral reaction, and I can relate to that. But I am not working for the revolutionaries, and if I seek an audience at all it is comprised of others like me, inhabiting that same zone of liminality, a place of infinite strangeness and shadow. Look, I’m saying. I’ve felt this, seen this. You may have seen it too.

I don’t understand it either, but it’s probably okay.

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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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Segovia and me

Segovia and me, circa 1984

My art teacher, Miss T, was, to a young man, his veins coursing with the unfamiliar and quite heady zing of freshly squeezed hormones, something of a paradox. She was a very beautiful woman and, to a budding romantic, in thrall to the earliest manifestations of his well beloved, quite a promising candidate for an early muse. And all beautiful women are kind and nurturing, are they not?

Unfortunately Miss T was not.

I chose art because the alternatives – sociology and economics – sounded grim, and I liked to draw. But to my dismay, Miss T did not like my drawings. She was for ever criticising them for this or that reason. Careful, she called them, but lacking depth. C+ was a high score for my homeworks, which always seemed to require more than I could divine. Often I disappointed her. I remember she once told me, and in a tone of exasperation, in response to yet another homework over which I’d laboured long and lovingly, that if I continued to draw purely from imagination I would find my work stagnating, going nowhere. This came as a shock to me. Yes, I drew mainly from imagination, but then I’d always valued the inner world, never finding it dull, or stagnant, but always dynamic, reflective of the currents within me.

julia

Julia

In the end I managed to scrape a somewhat inglorious pass at Art, but was left feeling that an ability to draw would not open many doors in the art world for me. A scrappy, hastily scrawled notebook detail by Leonardo, or Tischen was to die for of course, but there was no point trying to emulate the old masters any more. It seemed they had already said everything that could be said with pencil and paper, or that master of old masters’ tool, the silverpoint.

Fortunately, drawing still opened some doors into the world of Engineering Design, at least it did in the late 1970’s, the days when design offices were still filled with white shirted men bent over drawing boards with chisel edged H and 2H pencils. Yes those pencils were more hard headed than I was used to, the lines more precise, and generally inked over afterwards by a much shaken Rotring pen for longevity, and there were rules one had to abide by, rules laid down in British Standards BS308, which I came to know by heart.

But a good engineering drawing still had something of the draughtsman’s soul about it – the weight of the line, the uniform slant of the text conveying much to the receptive mind, and instilling also a confidence in the quality of the designs it depicted. And these were not drawings of a thing already existing, but of thing that was yet to be. Miss T was wrong then, surely? Imagination was the life blood of creation, but I had had to serve my time at a highly objective grindstone in order to realise it. It was a skill I admired and acquired to some degree, but the drawing boards had all gone by the early nineties, the white shirted men by then all sitting at computer terminals which had erased the imaginative lens and all the humanness even from engineering. It was an economic necessity, but also a great loss. Alas nowhere now it seemed was there a place for the humble art of drawing.

pre raphelite jane morris

Pre Raphelite period. Jane Morris

My private sketchbooks petered out for a while about this time, their chronologies dying like extinct geneological lines. I moved into pen and ink, and occasional illustrative work, strictly as a hobby, my tin of treasured Derwent drawing pencils, grades HB to 9B, went unused so long I lost them down the back of the settee. Yet I remember fondly the nights I would sit in the long ago with that tin and a blank sheet of paper. A drawing was like a story – you might have a vague idea how you intended to proceed, but once you made the first marks the drawing took over and finished itself somewhere else entirely.

I enjoyed portraiture for a while. Miss T would have been pleased, I think, to find me working from observation at last, though I doubt she would have awarded me much above a C. No matter. My subjects were culled from photographs in the Radio and TV Times, but again you never knew how things were going to work out. A simple and apparently insignificant mark on the paper could bring a portrait to life in unexpected ways, while others refused to live no matter how hard you tried. And then again one might begin a portrait of an imaginary subject to find it taking on the identity of someone in real life.

cate blanchet

Cate

But now I realise, Miss T was not wrong, that we are better to work from life, to observe life; but in doing so one inevitably views it through the lens of one’s own imagining, and it is this that gives a drawing its value. She was doing her job, which was to nurture a latent artistic talent in young hearts that went beyond mere drawing, at least sufficient to pass muster at GCSE level. She did this by severe criticism, not by fawning over the inferior, fiddly drawings of an adolescent boy. I was an insecure youth, a little bruised, and needed more the approval of a beautiful woman than her scorn. Or so I thought. But I am still drawing, Miss T, or rather I am still contemplating life, at times, through this particular monochromic medium, so our time together was not entirely wasted though in truth, I own, it is a while since I actually drew anything.

There are two kinds of art – that which is  carried out with the aim of making a living, and a very precarious business that must be too. And the other? I discovered this around the turn of the century, by a return to drawing and observation, but by viewing it through a darker lens than I was used to, and thereby discovered in reality a deeper layer that has led beyond to other things. I found the first fingerposts in my dreams and in conversation with the unconscious mind. It’s a technique used in Jungian analysis. An often overlooked fact is that Carl Jung was an accomplished artist, as well as a leading psychoanalyst, and he encouraged all his patients to seek themselves in imaginative art.

unknown woman

Unknown woman circa 2010

My later drawings from this period certainly show a marked difference to those I once presented to Miss T, the main difference being I think, I no longer sought her nod of approval, let alone her admiring smile. The well beloved can be reached through art, and better that way than projected uselessly into the world. The harder and the longer you try the more her image comes through, and the more pointed her expression becomes, and once released she brings up other forces from the unconscious with her, some of them welcome, some not. Their exploration I found more difficult, the images dissolving into vague abstractions – a face in a tree, a man emerging from a pattern of dark leaves, drawing, another in the shadows, writing, pen poised – myself perhaps, or the self I was or might yet be, set free from the need to seek himself in the first place. Creepy, my sons say. Unsettling. I agree. I think that’s why I stopped.

portrait of the artist as an old man

Portrait of the artist as an old man?

I saw you, you know, Miss T? Oh, it’s many years ago now, though also many years after I had left your tutelage. You were no longer my muse, but an ordinary woman pushing a pram. You were leaving the art shop in town, as I was entering – in the days when our little town still boasted an art shop.  I looked at you in mute astonishment for a moment, that you had become so obviously human. I stepped back for you, held the door then you might pass. Our eyes met, but you didn’t recognise me.

My tin of drawing pencils has now turned up intact, and my drawing books are suddenly of interest again.

I wonder,…

What do you think, Miss T? Should I?

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warrior girlMy dream takes on the sound of the sea and the feeling of a warm night. At some point Rebecca and I have spooned up, and even through my closed eyes, I know her by her heat and by her scent. And keeping my eyes closed I carry with me the impression of dawn breaking, and of waking with her beside me still.

My spirits lift.

It’s enough, and I don’t care where we are now, nor what point in time we have emerged back into an ordinary waking reality, so long as we are together. But the sea is still washing on the shore, a reminder of last night’s dream, also harbinger of the fact I have not truly woken, that I am likely still dreaming. Then someone is touching my arm and I open my eyes to see Emma crouched in the sand, looking tenderly down.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” she says.

I turn to Rebecca but she’s no longer there. She’s waking, somewhere, and I find myself once more alone in the dreaming, with Emma. I’m afraid, because Emma is usually the herald of much strangeness, and I can bear it no more. I want simplicity. Pray God, I want the coherence of a single line in time. I must escape her.

I must!

I cannot force myself awake, and dare not ask it of the dream to take me back in time again, though ironically this seems the easier thing to do if the last occasion is anything to go by. Instead, I do the next best thing, the safer thing; I close my eyes and ask it of the dreaming for a change of scene. But even as I feel the giddiness of the transition, I am aware of Emma’s hand upon my arm; it is therefore no surprise when I open them to find she’s still there.

“You must be wide awake to loosen my grip,” she says. “And you are not for waking yet. You’re so tired of the world and all that’s in it; it’ll be a while longer, I’m afraid. If ever. But what is this, my love? Anyone would think you did not trust me any more.”

I do not like it, the suggestion I may never wake up. I wish she would go easy on me, but that is not her purpose.

We are back in the mythic levels, as we were before, the pair of us seated in Sunday best, upon a cold flat rock by night, facing the lake. I did not ask for this location, and why the dreaming thinks it is important I do not know, other than the fact it is but one step removed from Rebecca and her prayers for deliverance. Is that where she’s gone now? Is she not waking to a fresh dawn somewhere, but still sleeping, like me? And is she still dreaming of delivering the world, through her ministry?

I need the protection of my girls.

They are already disembarking from the skiff; bronze breastplates glinting beneath cloaks of Phoenician purple. They draw swords and fan out cautiously, prepared to do my bidding, but looking all the while hesitant, unsure, as if afraid I would command them injure a vital part of my self. Then Emma’s own entourage emerges from the shadows, all leather Basques and straps, and fishnets and whips, like a comical teen fantasy.

My girls draw swords, Emma’s unfurl their whips.

Emma laughs. “Gracious, what a curious stand-off. How shall we resolve it, I wonder?”

She yields, lets go of my arm. Her girls withdraw into the shadows. My own sheathe their swords and step back to the shore. I see the glitter of relief in their eyes.

“There,” she says. “That’s better. Now we can talk.”

“Please,… no more talk, Emma. Can’t you see how overwhelmed my senses are with all of this?”

“Then let me show you something,” she says. “It shall make all things clear at last. And afterwards, I’ll let you wake up. I promise.”

Thus the scene is set for the denouement of my story. We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, so it’s been a long time coming. What will Emma show me that’ll make everything clear and lead me into the final chapters? I can’t say, and for the simple reason that, although I am the author of this story, I don’t know, because she has not told me.

What she has told me is that a damaged life is not a ruined one, that it is upon the whetstone of adversity the human spirit is most keenly sharpened. Yet, naturally, if given the opportunity to invent our own realities, we would edit out all forms of adversity, all forms of pain. We would invent for ourselves a paradise of pleasure. But pleasure is a thing we do in resting. Adversity, suffering, is the thing we do for a living. We cannot help ourselves. Lives are broken on its harsh anvil, while others are made more meaningful, and rise more beautifully from the ashes of suffering, redeemed, enlightened,…

And eternity is a long time to be spent merely resting in pleasure.

Is any of this true?

What’s true is the world is a place of immense suffering, and at times it’s impossible to see the good in it. Our ignorance sows an ever more bitter harvest, one spotlighted with brutal efficiency by our global news media, which shall surely one day put a camera on the very tip of a bullet. A hundred years ago, we were less aware of the suffering in the greater world, unlike now, when there is no end to the live commentary by which we might probe its ills, from the very comfort of our living rooms. And our analysis reveals what? That the innocents run from the juggernaut path, that it careens blindly, scorching vast swathes of the earth, returning them to barbarism. Our capacity for the creation of suffering immense, yet seemingly the work of mere moments of madness. Conversely our ability to subvert the suffering of the world is pitifully weak, itself fraught with conflicting opinions. And it is the work of generations.

But if we could realise the dream, what kind of earth would it be? Easy, one might say. There would be no living in fear of our neighbour; there would be plenty to eat, and everyone would possess a secure roof under which to make love and nurture children. Returned to such an Eden, we might then vent our energies and our intellect in the creation of what? Great works of art to uplift the spirit? Contemplation of God’s will? In such a world no man need fear being anything other than his true self, and he would certainly not fear his neighbour might rob him of his goods, or his life.

From such a secure foundation, a man might then exercise his ingenuity, coupled with his spiritual instincts, and all so he could explore the million and one ways he might do good, and express his loving nature in the world.

But Eden has fallen.

In schizophrenia, the sufferer experiences a breaking through of unconscious energies from deep within the collective mind. They manifest as voices, as a dire urges, as a debilitating cacophony of destructive thought that burst with uncontrollable fervour upon the defences of the personality. They overwhelm us. Literally, they swallow us in madness. And these energies are amoral, grotesque, irrational, the very antithesis of order and calm. We see this too in the world, this breaking through of hitherto unimagined disorder. We see it night after night on our TV screens – a veritable daemonic orgy of death, destruction, and the ever more imaginative ways one human being can do harm to another.

One might have thought ten thousand years of civilisation would have yielded some defence, a key, a wise philosophy by which we might all live in harmony, and in doing so turn back the tide. But if such a philosophy exists, we have rendered it in so many layers of myth by now we can do no more than argue over its interpretation. Meanwhile the earth burns; and the pace of this awful breaking through of banshees from the dark depths accelerates.

As with schizophrenia, there is no cure for what ails man’s dominion over the earth. It might be controlled somewhat, moderated in its worst excesses by targeted therapies, but the overall prognosis is rarely positive. It is something we have to live with, something we must manage as best we can.

Is it this, the thing Emma would show me?

Would she take me on a tour of Bedlam to show me only the hopelessness of it, the absence of any cure to mankind’s most pernicious malaise? One might be tempted to say yes, except there are some humans who dare to look the daemons in the eye as they tear screaming though the gates of hell, and to ask them their names. If these are the denizens of the nether world, their residence in that abode seems only to have rendered them all the more destructive to a higher purpose. And the more we dream of Utopia, the more we seem only to feed their appetite for chaos and destruction.

But is Emma not herself a daemon?

She has all the qualifications, existing solely in imagination, her form rising from the archetypal foundations of the psychical sub-stratum of experience. Semi-autonomous, she draws me into her world, reveals to me forms that are infinitely malleable to my will. Meanwhile her brethren invade my own realm to torch the forms I cherish, to torment the living even as they flee from the shadows. And she reveals to me how readily I would escape the world, escape the madness, when my place is still firmly rooted in it.

“It is as Lao Tzu taught us,” she says, “that a man stands most strongly when he has one foot in the outer, and one foot in the inner world.”

If we shut ourselves off from the inner world, it’s excesses will lay waste to the physical, to the world of forms. Its energies exist, whether we believe in them or not, and their natural tendency is to flow into the world, through us, regardless of our will. If they do so, untempered by our communion, the result will be a world always falling to chaos, no matter how carefully or rationally we have built it. If we turn our backs on the physical, sink back into the inner world from whence we came, seek escape in our dreams, we will lose our selves, and our purpose, and all meaning, in its infinite possibilities.

I have betrayed my kind. I have betrayed my self.

“Time to wake up,” she says. “You’ll be late for work.”

And then, as she said to me at the very opening of my story:

“The most vital issue of the age is whether the future progress of humanity is to be governed by the modern economic and materialistic mind of the West or by a nobler pragmatism guided, uplifted and enlightened by spiritual culture and knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo 1872-1950

So, after all of that, am I any nearer my conclusion?

Don’t count on it.

Thanks for listening.

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DSCF3061In a recent article for the BBC, the playwright Mark Ravenhill lamented the steep decline in funding for the Arts. He warned that under the current paradigm of austerity economics, funding could disappear altogether over the present decade and that it didn’t matter who won the next general election here in the UK, that all parties were equally committed to the “ideology, and plain wrong mathematics, of austerity”. He then went on to argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for “Art”.

If an artist wants to make a living by their art, they rely on someone paying them for their work – obviously – a publisher, a gallery, a wealthy patron, or an art’s council grant. The danger in this is that the artist will stop being truthful to themselves and their vision, and instead begin to produce work they know they can simply sell. They start writing for “the market” and are less likely to produce work they know is going to suffer an endless round of rejection, or worse actually offend the people holding the purse strings.

It might be said then that only the artist with nothing to lose can be trusted to tell the truth about the world as he sees it. As funding becomes more difficult to obtain, so artists will have less difficulty in being critical of “the system”. Austerity = integrity, and that’s a good thing.

As an independent, unfunded author who gives his fiction away on Feedbooks, it’s easy to see why this struck a chord with me. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary or anarchic about my own work – it’s far too other-worldly for that – but the fact I can self-publish, for nothing is actually a very powerful thing, and if it were in me to be a political or a social agitator, I wouldn’t need to worry about biting the hand that feeds me. It’s the same with blogging – so long as what we bloggers say is within the law we can say what we like. That’s why blogs are powerful – perhaps not in terms of the “celebritification” of the individual blogger, but more importantly, and collectively, as waves of comment and discourse that surge on the blogsphere and which inform general opinion.

The counter argument to this of course is that the artist giving his work away is simply the one who couldn’t find a buyer for it, which is hardly a glowing recommendation for the intellectual and artistic quality of the work. In other words it’s probably rubbish. But art doesn’t have to tell the truth or be “good”, or “clever” to be successful. The most successful art is that produced by an artist who is merely honest to themselves and sincere in what they do. It doesn’t matter then if their vision is debatable, dubious, or just plain wrong, because so long as the art is sufficiently engaging it produces a reaction in the beholder, good or bad, attractive or repulsive, it has served its purpose in inspiring the beholder, even if it’s in completely the opposite direction to the one the artist intended.

So because something is available for free online, we mustn’t assume it has no merit – it can be very open and honest and untainted by “patronage”. Conversely if the art is riding upon an ocean of dollars, like for example the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie, it should make us pause and ask the question: who provides those dollars? We also need to understand that what we’re seeing is something the dollar holder likes. We may like it too, but there may be other art we would like more, but we’ll never see it if the guardians of taste, critical acclaim, political correctness and above all funding, are the ones dictating what we see in the first place.

I don’t like austerity economics either. I think it’s laid a noxious and depressing vapour over the land these past five years. It puts me more in a mind for hunkering down and counting the pennies I’ve got than for striking out, investing those pennies and making a difference in the world. That’s not good, it’s socially destructive, and I fear it will end badly, possibly in political chaos, even in those countries that seem rich enough to avoid the devil-take-the-hindmost collapse of their poorer neighbours.

But the silver lining in this is that we all have a voice now, and nothing to lose by using it. It’s not much, I know, but it’s better than nothing.

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Mortgage screwed? Investments collapsed? Does it look like you’ll have to work until you’re ninety, always supposing you can find a job? Cheer up: go and visit your local public art gallery – it’s free and it’ll make you feel better.

I finished work yesterday – having adopted the habit of late years of saving up some leave, so I can get in a good long break at the year end. As is my habit, I used the first of my free days to slip into Southport, without my family, so I could concentrate on buying my wife her Christmas present.

It’s been about as cold as it gets here in the North of England, this past week, the car glazed with frost most mornings, temperatures down to around -5C and the occasional patch of black ice on the roads at first light. The sinking of the year, the draining of the light down to the solstice – these are all familiar themes and part of the natural cycle of our lives, but it seems to be mirrored this year by all this talk of global financial ruin. We seem to be getting the hang of it though, and I only lend it half an ear these days – the stock markets falling, and the BBC bringing us daily news of yet one more financial swindle that looks set to ruin the world.  I find I’m fairly laid back about all of this, and like most folks with half a brain, I’ve been expecting it for a while. My mortgage was screwed long ago, and now my modest stock market dabblings have followed. I’ve been putting a little by in one scheme or another since 1988, the plan being to have enough to retire on by 2015, but the way things are going I’ll be lucky if it’ll buy me a second hand car and I would have been far better just putting it all in a savings account like my granny would have done. Never mind, at least I still have a job, for now – unlike the staff of Woolworths, whose shop front in Southport this morning was plastered with notices of stock clearance sales. There’s something about this sudden torpedoing of Woolworths, a name that is inextricably linked with my own childhood Christmases, that tells me this is more than just your usual downturn – like the ones we’ve seen before.

Anyway, I have a great affection for Southport. It’s probably the only big town I know that does not seem permanently dark and dour, and which it is always a pleasure to visit at any time of year. Since Victorian times, it’s been the butt of many a joke about its claim to be a seaside resort: sure, it’s on the coast, but the beach here is miles wide, mostly mudflats and you usually need binoculars to see the sea. Until recent years it had all been going a little to seed, but it’s impossible to miss the dramatic developments along the seafront, and the Marine Drive now.

It’s a town with ambition, a town intent on rising above the sleazy image of graffiti-ed shop fronts and greasy chip wrappers, and instead it seems to want to embrace the corporate/designer/cafe/convention culture. The buildings going up are modern and stylish, and all the older buildings around seem to be rushing to spruce themselves up in order not to let the side down.

Southport’s  also a town with serious Eco friendly credentials and has for years been coaxing us motorists out of its busy centre  with ever increasing car-parking fees. I succumbed a while ago and now park dutifully at the admirably self sustaining Eco-Centre, to ride the admirable Eco Park-and Ride Bus onto Lord Street, in the heart of the shopping district.

My first port of call was a coffee  in the Cambridge Arcade, but there was a feeling of emptiness about the place that was down to more than just the usual early morning atmosphere of streets not yet aired. The Cambridge is a walk-through arcade that links the Edwardian styled boulevard of Lord Street with the big modern stores on Chapel Street. It’s home to a few cafes but mostly high class – ie generally expensive – shops, a cut above your usual bargain/thrift/clearance/affordable establishments. But many were empty, windows whitewashed or papered over – familiar names already gone. As a result, I sipped my coffee with not much to look at and  feeling that this was just the thin end of the wedge, that more familiar names might follow soon.

Being without my family I was able to indulge myself a little and, when in Southport, this means two things: a trip to Broadhursts Antiquarian bookshop, and the Atkinson Gallery. Broadhursts sells both new and used books and has the air of a proper bookshop because that’s exactly what it is. It’s always a pleasure to lose an hour here in its labyrinthine interior. I generally have no idea what I’m looking for when I go – something vaguely metaphysical perhaps or a bit of unusual poetry, but the point of these visits is more to allow a book to find me.  I came away empty handed though, and headed for the Atkinson.

The Atkinson occupies a fine location on Lord Street, between the library and the Art’s Center and is home to a collection of works dating from the mid Victorian period, through to the present day. Here, I lingered mainly over my favourites: Lilith of course, Dorette’s Sister, and a particular seascape that captures the light in a way that seems more like witchcraft than art. Galleries like the Atkinson were set up in Victorian times by philanthropic individuals for the purpose of reminding us that there’s more to life than work, bed and mortgages. We’ve much to thank these people for.

Sure my mortgage is screwed, my life savings are worth about the same now as they were twenty years ago, and never mind retiring in 2015 – I may have to go on until I drop – but those three pictures I gazed at made it easier to go on being philosophical about the whole thing, in spite of the News Vendors who seem to be trying to convince me it’s time I was reaching for the revolver.

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