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It was a cold, rainy morning in town this morning – the sort of day that seems to stall around dawn and gets no lighter. Traffic was jittery, the carparks twitchy with panicky shoppers anxious to get that last space so they could go buy their Christmas tat. I only wanted breakfast, almost fell foul of the season of good-will, but managed to find a slot on the edge of town, then shouldered the rain and headed back in to the greasy spoon.

The town is impoverished, has been since the crash, and getting steadily worse – always looks worse at this time of year though, the people poor and mainly elderly, the doorways camped by homeless looking wretched. I don’t suppose it’ll get any better than this now, but on the upside there was a guy in a giraffe suit dancing for charity. It was pouring rain, and he was a big yellow smile, the brightest light by far and a gesture of jolly defiance. What a star!

I bought a 0.7 mm Staedtler propelling pencil for £6.99 to replace the one I keep losing – a good piece of kit. Same price on Ebay so nothing to be gained there, plus it’s good to get out, even on a bad day, look around, even if it’s only to see what the latest storm of economy and season has done to my town. And yes, I know, shopping on Ebay doesn’t help matters. Greenwoods is the latest casualty – there since 1880-something, now abandoned and looking almost derelict. The landlords are crippling these businesses. I wonder where they do their shopping?

The Charity bookshop that inspired my latest novel was also closed – insufficient volunteers to man it on Saturdays now. I was going to put my name forward when I retired – quite fancied it actually, sitting there in tweed jacket and brogues, an ageing hipster, preserving for my town that last flicker of bookish vibe. Looks like I’m too late though. Damn.

And speaking of that novel, brings me to the shameless self promotion bit. Home from town I shut the weather out,  cosied up with coffee and hit the laptop. Saving Grace, as it’s now calling itself, went up on Smashwords and Free Ebooks this afternoon. I’ve enjoyed the ride, like I always do, and this last bit always leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s like putting it in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. You never know where the currents will take it.

I’ve been serialising it on Wattpad for a while now, but it’s not had much of a following. Those of you who have read and commented and queried my errors, (you know who you are) I thank you. Time to take a break from the long form now though while the next one gestates.

In the pecking order of Austerity, otherwise known in older parlance as “class war” I’m still in the fortunate position of relative security and money to spend on fripperies and without killing myself working three jobs. Those this morning though, staring out at a thousand yards of misery from those derelict shop doorways, are still bearing the brunt of it.

They give me pause – that it’s so commonplace even in the smaller market towns these days is telling me there’s worse to come, and no one to do anything about it. And that quid you toss into the begging bowl, or that pasty and a brew you press into shivering, mittened hands might get the poor bastard through until tomorrow. But what then?

And what’s that got to do with Saving Grace you ask? Well, pretty much everything, but you’ll need to read it to find out. Just click the book cover in the margin on the right. Best if you’re reading this on your smartphone – you’ll need an ebook reader app like Aldiko or Moonreader too.

All my stuff is free.

 

 

 

 

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Survivalcraft for wordpressWriting stories is old hat. They’re like a wind-up Swiss Watch; beautiful, intricate and hard to make, and no one wants them any more. Sure, you can still get them, but most mass market tickers are of the quartz variety. Technology has moved on. Like cut-throat razors, there’s no need for them any more and anyone still using them is seriously retro. In the same way, written stories died with the age of Television, about the time I was born, which makes it somewhat ironic I should have spent so much time writing them. I collect wind-up watches too. Speaks volumes.

Seems like I was born too late.

In the UK it died early. America hung on for a bit. Indeed, over there, it was still possible to sell fiction, even really poor fiction, well into the seventies. But now, like us, they don’t read stuff any more. It’s all visual drama, and most of it’s so up itself the only thing it teaches us is the art of celebrity.

In the UK you had a few women’s magazines and you had the People’s Friend. They’re still around but they weren’t an easy genre to figure out. I did try, but they get thousands of stories a week showered on them and they have to pick just one or two. Even if you’ve got what it takes it’s still a lottery. No room for also-rans. There were some London literary rags as well, I recall, still are, but you’ve only to read one to see they’re seriously off the strangeness scale, that only very clever people could fathom, so I never wasted stamps on them.

For Science Fiction and Speculative you had Interzone and The Third Alternative. They supported a lot of big names back in the day and were great magazines to read, with engaging and intelligent fiction, but I guess like the rest, it was just too competitive, again no room for second best with those boys. And if you don’t know your cyberpunk from your whatsamacallit, then seriously, don’t bother, you’ll just look like a fool.

I know I did.

I had some luck with Ireland’s Own, a Wexford based publication, quite old fashioned really, like something out of the fifties. I wrote traditional Irish tales for them, which was weird because I’ve never been to Ireland, and they say you should always write what you know, but they didn’t seem to mind that. They had about twenty stories off me, the sum total of my published opus, in fact, and all of them lost to obscurity now. I’ve published nothing there in ages because the market dried me up completely. And what I really wanted anyway was to publish longer stories – novels and such – the pursuit of which finally wised me up to the whole damned publishing business altogether.

I’m reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut at the moment – most recently a book called Timequake, published in ’97, part weird, zany fiction, also part autobiography, in which he was already lamenting the end of the era of pop fiction, the one he grew up in, the one that enabled him to quit his job at General Electric to write full time and make a decent living at it, just like I wanted to do. But Vonnegut was a generation ahead of me and had already concluded it was over at the same time as I was still trying to doggedly break in. He was a real writer’s writer, Kurt Vonnegut, God rest him.

When I say writing stories is old hat, I don’t mean they’re no longer relevant or enjoyable, it’s just that fewer people bother with them, that’s all. Stories used to pass the time at a time when we all seemed to have more time, when the evenings after work seemed longer and there was time to just – I don’t know – just be. Nowadays by the time we’ve finished commuting and had our tea, it’s time for bed and work again. So it’s all too easy to pick up your phone in the bits of time that are left and play Candy Crush than it is to immerse yourself in a work of fiction.

Me? Guilty as charged your honour. I can lose myself for hours in Survivalcraft instead of reading or writing. See pic – that’s me! But it doesn’t exactly teach you anything of any use outside the game. I’ve built an entire world in it. There are farms and mines and homesteads, and remote islands, all interlinked by tunnels, so I can get about without running the gauntlet of hungry wild animals. Years and years its taken me, just tunnelling away, piling up the earth to build more farmsteads, plant more crops, round-up cows. I’ve only to drop my phone and it’s all gone. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just an escape, like doing Soduku.

Stories are an escape too, yes, but they are so much more than that. In the main they present an experience as if it were shared. The writer beckons you in, and says come along with me for a bit. And along you go, finding yourself on a journey peopled by characters as real as any you’re likely to meet in real life. And they talk to you, show you things. They ask you: what do you think of this? You always come away from a story, a good story, with your soul changed in some way – a little deeper, a little wiser.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

For a time, some time post 2008, when our devices became portable and powerful, they seemed the perfect medium for written stories to migrate to, and that’s pretty much where I’ve been as an amateur hack since then, basically giving stuff away, and why not? given that most publications don’t even pay for it now anyway, what’s there to lose? But I’m not so sure about this any more. All I seem to be doing is creating reams of content for others to pepper with their advertising, or to content scrape, or simply bare-faced pirate, all of them like parasites picking at my brains. And then we’ve had the scandals of election meddling through nefarious psychological means, served out of our devices and pretty soon you come to realise our devices are not so much full of wonder any more, as full of shit. Apologies for the “S” word – Vonnegut is a bad influence, but you’ve got to love him.

So is it time we set our devices aside? Sure, if you go searching online you might find some decent stories, like flowers growing on a dung hill, but you’re not going to manage it without getting a lot of crap on your wellies. We’d all be better going for a walk, a real walk, in the sunshine because it cheers you up, you know? Or go for a coffee and spot how many people still have their heads stuck in their phones and up their asses. Best of all buy a paper book from a charity shop, then sit down somewhere comfy and read, like we did in the old days.

I’m coming up on retirement soon, thinking to duck out early while I’ve still got breath in me for climbing a few more hills. I’ll have all the time in the world to read and to write then, but I’ll probably just sitting flicking listlessly on my phone like everybody else, or ordering tat off Ebay, or playing Survivalcraft. Then I’ll finally have become one more zombie, good as gold, incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts, or words, together.

I hope that isn’t true, but fiction is definitely niche these days, reading it and, I suppose, writing it too. Like Dandelion and Burdock pop, it conjures up memories of long ago. But, like those childhood summers, golden age of the written word isn’t coming back and, like climate-change and Neo-con economics, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. But that’s fine, because it’s still possible to find pleasure in really small things. And it’s just as well, because small things is all we’ve ever really had, or needed in the first place.

So,.. sun’s coming up. Let’s saddle up.

And ride!

Survivalcraft for wordpress 2

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long long wayIn this centenary of the first world war we’ve not been short of moving commemorations, and then there’s always a wealth of literature to remind us as well, and for me there’s been no more powerful and insightful an evocation of those awful years than Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel “A Long Long Way”. Unlike other Great War fiction, which tends to treat the United Kingdom as a uniquely Anglo-centric affair, this story follows the life of Willy Dunne, a young Irishman who enters the war by way of volunteering for the Dublin Fusiliers.

We’re reminded that the Ireland that entered the war, was not the same Ireland at the end of it. At the beginning, largely Catholic Nationalists from the South were encouraged to join up, the thinking being their fighting alongside Ulster Protestant Loyalists from the North would speed Ireland towards a more harmonious transition to Home Rule. But then came the 1916 uprising when Nationalist ambitions took a more aggressive turn with an uprising that was put down by brutal force of arms. So, while Willie Dunne and his fellows were away fighting for King and Country, and dying in vast numbers, news was reaching them of the same King sending gunboats up the Liffey to bombard the Hell out of Dublin, and executing fellow Irishmen as traitors.

Thus, on top of the horrors they face on account of the war itself, they must now come to terms with the bewildering loss of all certainties at home. They enter the war as part of the United Kingdom and the Empire, are waved off by their countrymen as heroes, but end up despised by many of those same countrymen for their service to a uniform that is suddenly seen as an oppressive force against Irish freedoms. As the war grinds on, and the troubles deepen, they also lose the trust of their fellow (non-Irish)comrades-in-arms, facing casual racism and suspicion as well as the more familiar horrors of war hurled at them by the Germans.

At home on leave, Willie witnesses the shooting of a young rebel, and in a letter to his father, expresses his confused sympathies for the boy’s needless death. He’s looking to his father for comfort and reassurance that all will be well in the end, but his father, a police superintendent and a staunch Loyalist, considers the rebels to be traitors, and disowns Willie on account of his sympathy. So Willie has the sense of having lost his father’s love, as well as all he has come to think of as home, that even if he survives the war, there is nothing for him to return to.

While the turbulent history of Anglo-Irish relations is a story in itself here, Barry holds us to the view of the world through Willy Dunne’s bewildered innocence and its gradual loss – loss of love and homeland, and all in a cause that grows more opaque and futile as the years wear on, so that in the end all that’s certain is the terror of the war itself, a dwindling number of surviving comrades, and memories of intense friendships born of war in the flicker of an eye, then lost in moments of horrific violence. Meanwhile, the enemy, though certainly feared for their ferocity, are blurred out to an almost abstract concept, rarely encountered face to face, and spared even the venom levelled at Willy and his mates by their own side.

This is not an easy read, in part because we know Willy is doomed, that the manner of his death is merely an event in the future we must work towards, and largely irrelevant anyway because Willie has been dead from the moment he joined up, the story of his brief young life thereafter being more a foreshadowing, an account of the slow hollowing out of his soul. The imagery of this most brutal war is as vividly portrayed here as any I’ve read elsewhere, but I felt its grotesqueries were brought to a more painfully sharp relief by the incongruous lyrical beauty of Barry’s prose, also that additional layer of the almost unbearable shredding of Willy’s inner being as everything that grounded him as a boy sinks into the mud as surely as his mates sink one by one into the mud of an obliterated Belgium.

As war fiction of the cautionary kind, this novel scores very highly indeed, bringing humanity front and centre and cherishing its innocence in the face of the unspeakable evils and the sheer stupidity that we all know stalks the world still. Also, coming at us as it does from such an unusual angle, it highlights all the more the futility and the tragedy of those years. I found it an awe-inspiring, deeply moving read.

May the ghost of Willy Dunne for ever haunt us all.

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Lavender and the Rose Cover

Another in the occasional series, looking at the themes expressed in my various works of fiction. 

Moving on, getting on, forgetting the past, embracing change, living in the present moment – and all that. It’s good stuff, stuff I tried to get at in the Road from Langholm Avenue. And to be sure, all these things are attainable, the material world navigated safely as needs be without falling over in despair at the pointlessness of existence. At least for a time.

But as we get older, something else happens, some call it an existential crisis, others simply the menopause. But as I see it, youth, inexperience, and just plain ignorance has us accepting without question the allure of an essentially material life, rendering us blind to the fallacy that it is entirely sufficient for our needs – the pursuit of money, lifestyle, the bigger house, the bigger car, the exotic travel destinations. It isn’t.

If we’re lucky we wake up and realise material things don’t satisfy us for very long, that we can live an extravagant lifestyle, a life all the adverts would have us aspire to, and still be as miserable as sin, still craving the next big thing. But you can’t go on for ever like that. Clearly something is missing. We need a bigger story if our lives are to mean anything.

Some find that bigger story ready made in the various world religions – usually a story about a supreme being and an afterlife to help make sense of the suffering we endure in this one. We can then explain our lives as a trial imposed upon us, the reward for which will be riches in the next life. Or we can explain it as a preparation for a higher level of existence, again in some non-material hereafter. And all that’s fine for the faithful, because religions do provide comfort in times of need, but what if you’re not faithful? What if all of that sounds ridiculous to you? What if the logical inconsistencies of such a set-up cause you to take out that barge pole and prod all religions and their scary religiosity safely out of sight. Life simply is what it is, and then you die. Right?

Well, maybe.

But what if you sit down one day in an existential funk, and something happens? Let’s say the doors to perception are flung wide open – just for a moment – and you’re given an utterly convincing glimpse of a universe that’s somehow greatly expanded compared with the narrow way you normally perceive it? How so? Hard to describe except lets say, for example, time drops out of the equation and you’re given the impression of an infinite continuum in which there is no difference between you and whatever you perceive, that your mind is independent of both the physical body and the physical world, that indeed your mind is a subset of a greater mind that is both you and not you at the same time.

How would you deal with that?

Well, you’d probably think you were ill, or just coming out of a semi swoon or a waking dream where we all know the most outrageous nonsense can be made to feel true. So we come back to our senses and carry on as normal. Except we find our perspective on life is subtly altered. We are drawn to ideas that might explain our experience. We explore it first through psychology, because it was a kind of mind-thing we experienced. So down the rabbit hole we go,…

And there sitting at the mad hatter’s table we discover Carl Jung, sipping tea and reading a book called the Yijing, which he lends to us, saying that if we are not pleased by it, we don’t need to use it, and we’d worry about that except he also tells us famous quantum physicists have used it too, though they don’t like to admit it. Then this Oriental connection takes us to ancient China and another book called the Tao Te Ching, then to religions that aren’t like other religions, to Daoism and Buddhism which are kind of hard to get your head around. But while everything you learn explains some small part of what you experienced, nothing explains the whole of it.

So you put some rules to it yourself, create a quasi-logical structure for this strange new universe you alone have apparently discovered. Before you know it, you’ve invented your own religion and it all falls apart again, victim to the inconsistencies you’ve imposed upon it yourself. It seems the moment you put words to things you limit their potential to within the bounds of your own perception, and what you perceive actually isn’t that much when compared with what’s really out there, or to be more precise in there, because it’s an inner experience that leads us to this taste of the infinite where there’s no such thing as or in or out anyway.

The Lavender and the Rose comes out of this shift in perception, but without structure it would make no sense to anyone else – just two hundred thousand words of mindless drivel that would bore anyone to tears, so we accept the vagueness and the mystery, and we weave a story around it instead, a love story, several love stories, blur the boundaries, throw in some visions, some Jungian psychology, basically a lot of muse-stuff and conquering of the ego, that sort of thing. Add in a bit of Victorian costume drama, play about with characters having more than one identity, play the story out at different points in history, play it out in alternative universes where even the present moments can pan out differently, and then try to make it all hang together as an interesting story – about what can happen when you start living magically, and with others who are similarly inclined. Then explore ways the mystery can be coaxed to your aid, and discover how, if you get it wrong it will shun you for a decade. Learn how to navigate its endless ambiguities, how to see the world as no one else sees it, and still get by without getting yourself sectioned.

Such is the irresistible allure of something other.

And as with all my stuff, if you are not pleased by it, at least it hasn’t cost you anything!

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BullIf you were a fish, what colour would you be? I told them yellow, but it was the wrong answer – must have been, because I didn’t get the job. I’m assuming the question was absurd, that it didn’t really matter what colour you picked, not in any logical sense anyway. And it wasn’t about testing your imagination or lateral thinking skills either  because they didn’t ask me to elaborate on why I said yellow, so it could only be that some secret colour was the key to getting that job, and it wasn’t yellow. Right?

I had a similar thing on the application before, or maybe it was the time before that,… anyway: if a man hands you a piece of stone, how do you know he’s from Birmingham? That was easier, I thought. I said you could probably tell by his accent, but that was too logical. Not far enough out of the box. I failed that one too. There were about eight thousand went for that job, tough odds, I know, and you’ve got to whittle them down somehow. I wouldn’t have minded knowing what the right answer was though, or at least what A-Z manual of HR Guruspeak you get this stuff from because maybe there’s a general rule you can apply, and I could really do with knowing what it is.

So, this job’s worth twenty K a year, which isn’t much really, but it’s a start, but first you have to answer this question: If you have a banana, an orange and a cantaloupe, why is your shirt tail sticking out? Doesn’t make sense does it? But you’re still not getting this job until you answer the damned question because it takes a certain kind of brain to sit in front of a PC all day with a plug in your ear and the machine telling you what to say. We’re looking for the top one percent of super positive ultra proactive all singing all dancing graduate intellects here – so you just go back to your Playstation and those same four walls you’ve been waking up in since you were a baby and contemplate how dumb and useless you really are.

You can take a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead. No,… I made one that up,… no, actually I stole it from Stan Laurel. He was full of stuff like that, remember? He used to befuddle his mate Ollie with nonsense aphorisms like: A bird in the bush saves nine. Maybe Stan wrote that A-Z guide. Don’t be fooled by appearances, Stan was a clever guy, you know? A comedy genius. I wonder what he would have made of this online job application business.

Okay, let’s see. Another graduate scheme. Online application. Big supermarket this one. Another few hours of my life I’ll never get back. If a customer comes up to you and complains this cauliflower is wilting, do you (a) poke them in the eye and run away screaming (b) apologise, and offer to find a fresh one (c) call security on them for abusive behaviour?

Hmm,… careful now. I smell a trick question. No,… go on, we’ll say (b).

Failed. Told you. Application rejected. Not entirely surprised, or disappointed – I mean that job was barely minimum wage and a two hour commute each way. I would have been in more debt, on top of the fifty grand I already owe for my degree, and working like a slave for it.

I bet it was call security on them!

My dad says it was easier in his day. Jobs more or less came to you. They came to school, invited you for tests where they asked normal questions – got you to do a sheet of sums, or fold a piece of paper according to written instructions. It sort of made sense, he says, not like the bollocks I’m being asked on these online applications.

But didn’t you need degrees? He said not, that most jobs, even well paid ones you could get with a handful of GCSE’s, that only the super-brainy kids went to college. It’s a pity, now you need a degree to peel spuds. They were factory jobs most of them, and good riddance my teachers used to say – you don’t want to grow up being factory fodder, do you? But I’d give anything for a factory job now.

Dad’s coming up on retirement. He doesn’t have to. You can work until you drop now but he’s had a bit of trouble with his nerves and Mum says he’s to stop, that we’ll manage. He tells me we won’t starve, promises I’m not a pain in the arse or anything, hanging around the house all day, that things will work out. But me? I’d hate having me hanging around, I even feel like a bad smell. Dad’s worked all his life, deserves some peace, some privacy in his own home. But he says: what, you think your mother me are jumping into bed every five minutes? Laugh a minute, my dad.

But seriously, I’ve got to get out of here. I’m feeling like one of those Japanese kids, those Hikikomoris. Thirty, forty years old, still living in their bedrooms, parents grown old and grey and thin, and life just not seeming to grant them their dues. I mean there has to be some point to it all. I’ve been busting my guts on tests since I was five. That’s seventeen years of education and testing and never once being asked what colour of fish I was, or what the secret was to just knowing the right answer. It’s like waking up of a sudden and realising the world’s actually barking mad and all that education,… well it’s just a way of keeping you out of mischief in the mean time.

A blue ball, a green ball and a red ball,… which one is bigger? Nah!… who cares? Do I really want to work for a place that goes around asking damned fool questions like that and expecting us all to keep a straight face?

I’m learning how to grow vegetables, actually. Dad’s let me have a bit of the back garden, which I’ve turned over to a veggie patch. It’s better learning how to grow them than explaining online to a dumb machine what kind of vegetable you are, and why. If I can’t earn money to buy them from those one percent graduate-rich supermarkets, I’ll grow my own for nothing, thanks. I had a small crop last year and they were a bit bent but they saved some money on the week’s shop, and Dad said they tasted all right.

Me and Jess next door are thinking of going halves on some chickens. Her Dad’s got a bigger garden and there’s room for coup. Chickens sound tricky though, but she’s a bright kid, Jess, I mean for someone without a degree, and she’ll fathom it all out. She works part time in the corner shop, minimum wage, but it’s better than nothing she says, and nothing’s about all there is round here anyway. Nothing anywhere else, I tell her. She was lucky to get that job, and nobody ever asked her what colour of fish she was either.

She said she’d put a good word in.

You never know.

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The road from lamghom avenue new cover - smallThere are two major weaknesses of the spirit – well,… there are more than two but we’ll keep this simple. One is the misconception that change must be resisted at all costs, the second is our inability to move on when everything we believe in turns out to have been false, or when everything we have or hold dear is erased by what we perceive to be an adverse fate.

An early lesson is unrequited love. Part of the  psyche begins to break through and we project it with a terrifying vigour onto an unfortunate member of the opposite sex. We fall in love with them but, hampered by our own pathological reticence, we cannot make our feelings known. Instead we believe the other party must know we love them, because how can they not? This love we feel is so elemental, so visceral, so spiritual, it’s like a sickness we cannot shake. Surely, it’s inevitable they will pick up on it somehow and, as is the way of all true love stories, we will have our happy ending?

Eventually we wise up to the fact the object of our desire is not in love with us, never was and never will be, and worse, that we might have wasted years in sad lament for this one love that was not reciprocated, nor even guessed at by the other party. What we earnestly believed in was one thing, the truth of the matter quite another. We look back wondering what the hell it was all for, and the truth is, actually,… nothing. Worse, unless we can overcome the void it leaves behind, it will cast a shadow over our potential for future happiness, future love.

Another lesson some of us encounter is when we invest several decades in a particular profession, say as an engineer working for a vast organisation manufacturing something we think is important, something we love doing. Then the economic plug is pulled, the era of de-industrialisation is born and our profession goes through a decade of decline – year on year friends and colleagues are handed their redundancy notices. And then maybe we’re made redundant ourselves, coming up on our middle years, having apparently wasted most of our lives establishing and perfecting skills that are now useless.

The shock of change, the shattering of long held beliefs leaves us naked before that ultimate of all existential questions: what am I doing here? And what the Hell was all that about if everything and everyone we ever loved can so easily and arbitrarily taken from us?

The protagonist of The Road From Langholm Avenue, Tom, a designer of marine engines, is facing the closure of the factory where he’s worked all his life, the prospect of long term unemployment and he’s about to go through a messy divorce, so the whole bedrock of his life has crumbled. He’s also haunted by memories of an unrequited affair from his schooldays with a girl called Rachel, as if in calling him back to his past, Rachel holds the key to his future. Powerless in all other respects, Tom sets out to do the one thing he feels capable of physically doing, and that’s finding Rachel and, regardless of her circumstances after a quarter of a century, asking her on a date.

The story of the unravelling of Tom’s life is contrasted by this Quixotic quest through which we learn of a woman, Rachel, who, unlike Tom, has dealt with tumultuous change throughout her life, reinventing herself at every turn. It takes spirit and a certain ruthlessness to avoid getting buried in the wreckage of the past, and Rachel is an expert, still fighting, still making something of herself every day while Tom is imprisoned, overwhelmed by a cloying sense of stagnation and decay.

Only when we’ve untangled ourselves do we see the opportunities in the present clearly enough and realise our purpose is not defined by anything in our past, be they objects or mind-constructed things, or group loyalties, or past loves. More, the one thing we fear to lose as a result of sweeping change, our sense of self, is the one thing we cannot lose. What we do risk though is holding our selves hostage to the past, by our inability to let it go.

Tom has his denouement with Rachel, and rejects his dying profession, sees his past bulldozed to make way for a housing estate, and he steps out into the wilderness of a post industrial, post millennial Britain.

In simple terms the existential quandary boils down to the fact that every time we wake up, we know our life is not over and, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, we can then ‘either get busy living, or get busy dying’. We needn’t take dying literally here, we can read it metaphorically. And most of us, if we’re honest, risk dying a little each day, poisoned by stuff we know to be toxic yet can’t seem to let go of.

 

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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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