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In my mind’s eye, I see a cold grey dawn, with a grey city silhouette like a cardboard cut out, set against a grey sky. Grey people sit in grey motor cars, bumper to bumper, as clouds of grey poison swirl around them. They stand on the streets, packed tightly, grey figures without faces, afraid of touching and yet hardly able to move without doing so. They work, they reproduce, and then they die in a slow, painless, soulless cycle.

The City moves. It creeps invisibly, like the hands of a clock, like warm tar, spreading and sprawling. It lives and grows, fed by the souls it steals. But beyond the gloomy boundaries of this strange place, people dance under blue skies, on summer scented lawns. They dress in bright colours and sing songs. Then the skies darken as the City draws near. Their bright faces shine for just a moment before the warm tar engulfs them. They become petrified and emerge as yet more grey people without faces and without souls, while their summer scented lawns become roads and streets choked with motor cars. Then the poison seeks them out and fills their lungs as they too join in the slow cycle of work and death. Their songs are forgotten, and the intricate patterns of their dance are lost for ever.

Some of the grey people manage to hide a piece of their soul. It survives and grows, filling them with horror at what they see. They break away and search for a summer scented lawn on which to lay down and rest, somewhere far from the City where they can breathe clean air and listen to the singing of the trees and feel the good, sweet earth all around them. They imagine themselves free at last. But the greyness is with them and like Midas and his gold, everything they touch turns to grey. The grass withers beneath their feet, concrete springs up as if from wells beneath the ground, and another city is born, poisoning, spreading, sprawling. This inexorable process consumes whole continents, fouling land and sea until there is nothing left but a kind of grey, living death.

Finally, and in despair, the earth splits and great fires shoot out, creating vast lava-flows. Storm clouds gather, unleashing a terrible revenge, while the land undergoes convulsions of unimaginable proportion, throwing up mountains where there were none before and creating new oceans where once had stood grey mountains, befouled and exploited. The storms last for a hundred million years.

But none of this is real. It’s just a dream; something inside my head that brings me pain when I’m asleep. I wake up sweating and then a woman’s hand curls around my arm easing me onto my pillow. I hear her voice, soft and gentle and then she runs her fingers through my hair while I slip back into the dream.

Sometimes, I see the storms subside. The clouds part and I see sunlight playing upon a new world, a world that has become one big summer scented lawn and I see creatures, strange, yet wonderful, flitting about in an unexpected paradise. But this is no happy ending: there are no people here. I travel far and wide and see only simple creatures living out their lives, oblivious to the paradise around them. There is nothing that is conscious of its existence and no one to see the beauty of it all except for me through the windows of my dream.

I cannot look upon it for long, because I too am one of the grey people. I reach out and pluck a flower but it withers in my hand; I have yet to learn I am only passing through; the flower was not mine to pluck. I should have been content with admiring it for what it was and breathing in the scent it freely gave, instead of trying to claim it as my own, guarding it jealously within the palm of my hand. Then my window breaks and there is darkness once more, until I’m wakened by the dawn and the sound of a woman singing in the kitchen, downstairs.

I drag myself from bed and draw the curtains so I might look out across the waters of the loch. It sparkles with gold-dust in the yellow light of sunrise, and beyond I see moors, dark with bracken and heather. Hills rise beyond the moor, low and rounded and then, softened by a veil of blue haze, there are mountains. I see the fold in the land, and the silver thread of water leading to a pool of morning mist. In my mind, I trace the thread to its source, to that place whose lure I find so irresistible, to that other loch whose strange songs have changed my life.

It was through the Singing Loch I glimpsed the summer scented lawns and felt the meaning of its wordless song in my heart. It has much to tell, embracing as it does the mystery and the passion that compels us all. But also, for those who would claim the wild flowers as their own, there is a message.

From my novel, The Singing Loch, first published 2005. I’ve not looked at this since 2014. It must have gone through a million drafts since the first one in 1995, but there’s a typo in the very first sentence. Still, I meant well.

See if you can spot it. Click here.

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She was waiting by the shop, dropped into the car without a word, and turned her head half away from me, like in the old days, as if to discourage conversation. Not a good start, you might say. I preferred to think it was just her way – a little haughty, and ever so “cool”. The main thing is she was here, in my car, filling it with her scent, and with the mysterious tingle of her womanly being. She wore this crazy-short skirt. And I mean short, so it showed the tops of her stockings. She turned the radio on, found something with a beat and cranked the volume up.

There were two of me that night. There was the me who’d skipped after Lorraine to the bus stop when we were kids. Him, that kid, he was in the driving seat, carried away in the heat and the excitement of her presence. Then there was the other me, the guy who could only look on in a kind of stupefied horror, while this idiot got to work. This was the me who wore the jacket and tie of a white collar job, thought it smart and respectful attire for dating a girl, while everyone else turned out that night as New Romantics, Goths or Emos, all of them in search of this thing called “cool”.

We didn’t see a movie. She changed her mind, wanted a drink in a place well known in those days as a venue for plastic people who’d turn up and pose at one another. The music was loud, which made talking tiresome, everyone just nodding to the beat and looking glum. As for Lorraine, she was with me, but not with me. I was more the anchor around which she floated, while she showed herself off to the rest of the room. The only time she acknowledged my presence was when she tugged off my tie, and she didn’t look too pleased about it. I obviously hadn’t a clue how to be cool, and I’d better get with it.

Then it was on to a club – the only club in town actually – a dive, infamous for broken glass and drugs. I’d never been in before, but the bouncer seemed to know Lorraine and nodded us through. I recognized him as one of the bully-boys from school who nabbed my lunch money, but he didn’t know me now. Had the years changed me so much then?

Inside it was more loud music, and a wall of gyrating bodies. After a couple of drinks, Lorraine too was becoming more animated. I wasn’t drinking on account of driving. Sure, I could have done with loosening up a bit, but it gave me a clarity of vision I suppose everyone else lacked that night.

At some point she hooked up with a bunch of girls she knew, and they took to the dance-floor. I’d already made myself look un-cool over the tie business, indeed seemed unable to find my “cool” anywhere, and I didn’t want to make things worse by attempting to dance. So I propped up the bar, drank fizzy water, and then the God of Men broke through my thick skull, and woke me up.

There were pills circulating. Who knows what they were in those days? The kids probably had kid names for them, like they still do. I suppose you could only dance like that if you were off your head on something, everyone so completely gone. Was this what “cool” looked like, then? I wondered. If so, it looked disturbingly nihilistic, and certainly not pointing to any future I aspired to. Or more likely I just didn’t get it, and the notion of “cool” was beyond my small-town comprehension.

Sometimes, Lorraine would flick me a smile, but mostly she stuck to her mates, whom I guess she’d intended hooking up with all along, but with the added kudos of some guy in tow and what I had begun to uncharitably suspect was simply a ride home whenever she needed it. That smile was definitely an improvement in our relationship, but I reckon that was only because she was by now as stoned as everyone else, and she couldn’t tell me apart from all the other guys she was flirting with.

It was small-hours late when we spilled out. She was unsteady on her heels and giggly. It was the first sign I’d had she’d hit a point of happiness. But it had taken copious quantities of alcohol, and whatever pills she’d been washing down with it to get her there. Whatever this “cool” was, it was a hard task-master, and demanded a heavy price the morning after. I wondered what her mother would make of it when I dropped her off back home, if she’d blame me for not looking after her better. But that was real old-school thinking, and those days were already long gone. Anyway, Lorraine wasn’t done yet. When we sank into the car, she took my hand, clamped it between her thighs and stuck her tongue down my throat. She tasted of booze, and her perfume, so alluring to begin, had soured now with the cling of cigarettes.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.

She meant a dark country lane, and the back seat. But it wasn’t really her speaking. It was whoever took a hold of her when she was in this state. Still, the younger me might have gone for it, not seen what this other person wanted was simply “it”, and not necessarily me also, and worse, when the real Lorraine reappeared next morning, she’d either not remember a thing, or she’d be cringing with regrets.

I was entirely in the hands of that God of Men now, and I fear he’d not done such a good job up to now. Or was it that the God of Women was the more powerful, and I’d been unable to hear him above the noise of all that loud music? Anyway, he had me driving round on the pretence of knowing the perfect spot for such a desperate tryst. Just stall her, mate, he was saying, while you think this through.

Think? I couldn’t think. I was feeling the future shaking apart, and I was terrified of going too far with a girl who was sexy as hell, but seemed of a sudden darkly strange, and in exchange for what? For more nights like this? Is this what the world of Lorraine looked like? Was this “cool”? Then the fates intervened, as I realized of course they’d been intervening between us all our lives. The God of Men clanged the gates shut with her behind them, and me safe on the other side again. She fell asleep, woke as I stopped the car outside her mother’s, then she threw up all over her dress, stocking-tops and all. I would rather have spared her that last indignity, but the God of Men knew me better, knew nothing less than a serious sobering up was in order. And it worked.

So,…

“You’re looking a bit peaky, Mike. You okay?”

I’d just finished my second strong shot of coffee, and was already in danger of being not the best of company for Chloe. But she was bright, chatty as always, and I was starting to perk up, feeling better for being with her.

“I’m okay, just slept a bit funny, that’s all.”

That’s the only time I’ve ever lied to her, and we’ve been together now for thirty five years. We’ve seen children and grandchildren into the world, and by the grace of God we’ve dodged the worst of ill health and misfortune. We shared her flat for a while, were lovers from day one. Then we bought a house on the outskirts of town, fixed it up, and tended the garden. It’s been a happy sort of place, and we’ve never felt the need to move on from it. More recently, I got promoted a little beyond where I was comfortable, rode it out as long as I could, then took early retirement. Chloe had been working part-time since the kids were born, and now she’s done the same.

Next time you’re out, and you see a late middle aged couple, still smiling in one another’s company, that’s us. We’re still taking trips to the seaside with a flask of coffee and a blanket to sit upon, still reading and sharing books. Kind of twee, isn’t it? Certainly it’s quite ordinary, yet how little my life would have been without it. The thing is, I could have thrown it away that night with Lorraine, because I’m not the brightest when it comes to women, indeed I’m as easily seduced as the next man by the flash of a stocking-top.

Everyone has a love story to tell. Mine says we shouldn’t want to change ourselves when a girl comes along and makes us feel like shit. But when a girl makes you feel good just for being yourself, then you should take notice because she might just mean it. And if she’s genuine, she’s not the kind you chase with your eyes full of moon. You don’t need to. She just turns up one day, and it’s like you knew her in a past life or something, and you’re simply picking up again from where you left off last time around.

As for Lorraine, I never saw her again. When her mother passed, she took over the shop. For years then, she wore her mother’s blue house-coat, and an odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not. But I reckon some things we’re more at the mercy of than are worth the knowing, and the best we can hope for is we’ll grow out of them before they do us harm. I was afraid that was to be the story of her life, from the queen of cool to a corner shop and hair curlers. But then she sold up some time around the millennium, shipped out to Ibiza for all that party culture, and with a guy half her age in tow. She would have been in her forties then, good-looking. I’d like to think by then she knew the shape of what “cool” was, exactly.

And I like to think she found it.

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Now the thing with Chloe is I’d known her for years, but without realizing I knew her. She was one of the secretaries at the factory, a chatty girl, and ever so friendly. She’d talk to me, soak me dry actually, but she was like that with everyone, and I never thought anything about it. Neither, I’m sure, did she. I’d read novels in the lunch hours – quaint, I know, but this was before the invention of smartphones. She’d ask me what I was reading, ask to borrow the book when I was done with it, then she’d read it and talk to me about the story, and the characters like they were people we both knew. What did I think when he said this and when she said that?. I swear, Chloe found out more about me than I knew about myself during those chats, and all without either of us knowing she was doing it.

I was driving out one lunchtime to buy a wedding gift for a colleague’s upcoming nuptials. She came tapping on the glass saying she’d ride with me. She’d pick out a suitable card, she said, and was I going to the reception? And did I want to sit on the same table as her and her mates?

“Aw, go on, Mike. We’ll look after you.”

We got stuck in traffic on the way back, sneaked in late. Everyone saw of course, assumed we’d been up to something, and took no end of pleasure in teasing us about it. Is that what planted the seed in us? I don’t know. She was just easy to be around, and I swear neither of us thought about it until then, but something had changed. Whenever she came over to talk now, there seemed to be a heat in her, and I could feel it soaking through my bones.

She was renting a flat, but it was stretching her salary. She’d invited a mate to share with her, but it had fallen through. There was something both casual and pointed in the way she told me this, definitely a hint in it, I thought. I wondered how we’d moved on to the point of nearly moving in together, when you couldn’t even say we were going out. I’m not saying she was suggesting we’d be sharing like that, you know, like lovers. We’d be housemates, or something, that’s all. But the gods were also telling me it was a subterfuge, and deep down we both knew it. There was only one place we were heading, and what did that feel like? Well, it felt like pulling on a familiar glove. It fit just right, and I didn’t need to think about it. That’s not to say it wasn’t exciting too.

Still, not being the greatest reader of womankind, I thought I’d better ask if she fancied lunch, one weekend. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t mistaken in the vibes I was getting. I also wanted her to know what kind of guy I was outside of work. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most exciting type, while Chloe was sparkly and fun. She could have had any guy she wanted.

“Lunch, Mike? Okay. Thought you’d never ask.”

So this was a Friday night, the night before we were due to meet at the coffee shop in town, and I’m thinking about it on the way home, wondering how I’d eventually tell my mother when the pace of things picked up, as I sensed they would. Moving in with a girl was still a racy thing back then, and my mother, born to the Edwardian generation, was bound to have some reservations. I found her fussing with the fire, and out of firelighters. So I said I’d nip to the shop for some. And there behind the counter, like I’d tried to game it so many times before, and failed,… was Lorraine.

She’d bloomed out in a way, travelled, seen things, done things I could not imagine – or so I imagined. And here I was, never left home, asking for a box of stupid firelighters, in an age when everyone else had moved on to gas. I felt like a loser, or at any rate seriously “un-cool”. Nothing new there then. And if I’d paused for a moment I would have realized that’s how Lorraine always made me feel.

“Hello, Mike.”

“Hi. Haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Well, you know, been away for a bit.”

Yes, I’d heard all the rumours by now. She’d dropped out of University, worked in a store down south for a while, then got mixed up with a guy in London. He’d turned out to be a bit of a stoner, and she was well shot of him. Now she was back home. All of that sounds a bit grungy, laid out plain like that, but remember, the god of women looking after her, painting that somewhat dubious history in more of an adventurous light, while making everything I’d done seem ever so dull and conventional.

“I don’t suppose,” she said,…

“Hmm?”

“You fancy going into town tonight? Watch a movie, have a drink, catch up a bit. You know? All those mornings we used to walk to the bus stop together. Remember? Seems so long ago now.”

She’d never said more than a couple of words to me before, and only then with her lids turned down and her head pointing the other way. Now she was full on, eyes wide.

What? She was asking me out? Were the gods having a laugh?

Well what would you have done? Maybe you’d have been right, too. Me? I said okay.

To be continued,…

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It was in the turn of her head as she got down from the bus, the way she blew the hair from her eyes, and pretended not to see me. They might have called it coquettish, back in the old days. But then those were the old days, forty years ago, when everyone still rode busses into town. We were both eighteen, and her name was Lorraine.

Her mother ran the corner shop. I’d make up excuses to go there to buy bits and bobs, on the off chance it would be Lorraine who served. But it was usually her mother – always a blue nylon housecoat, and this odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not.

“Here again, Mike,” she’d say. “What can we get you this time?”

I was not the only young man drawn to the shop, and for the same reasons. Lorraine was a good looking girl, had something of the unobtainable about her, something they used to call “cool”. Maybe that’s what amused her mother – her daughter, the queen of cool, and all these dreamy guys with not a hope in hell.

Some mornings Lorraine and I would be walking out for the bus at the same time. I’d manage a shy hello, and slip into step with her, but she spoke little, and those five minutes to the stop were an agony. Then we’d get there, and she’d slip into lively chatter with her girlfriends. Seeing that transformation, I mean from near-mute to sparkling, I’d die a little, while at the same time falling all the more deeply in love.

The bus would drop her off outside the sixth-form college. She was doing A levels. Then it would be University, I supposed, and on to the big wide world, or at any rate somewhere beyond the old town. Me? I rode the bus to the polytechnic. I was doing a day-release thing for my engineering studies. I had a car by then, but so long as Lorraine rode the bus, I’d ride it too. There was an urgency, you see? If I didn’t impress her soon, she’d most likely be off somewhere far away. Then I’d never see her again and my life, as I knew it, would be over.

I can’t say what kept me going. It was more hope than expectation, but also the belief in something supernatural. That I could feel something so profound, it was impossible to imagine she’d be unaware of it. More than that, it seemed impossible she could not return it, otherwise, what was I feeling, and why? What strange god was playing with us, lighting me up, and making her so cold? And had there not been that look? She’d seen and, in that instant, read my heart. I know she had! I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

I only went to the polytechnic once a week. The rest of the time I was doing an apprenticeship at a factory, miles away. I’d take the car those mornings, and as I drove I’d imagine her in the passenger seat. We’d talk then. She was sweet and understanding, easy to be with. Then, on the next poly morning, I’d set out thinking this might be the day, that I’d ask her out, and we’d ride together somewhere for real. We’d watch a movie, maybe a drink afterwards. All I had to do was ask the question. But then I’d find she’d not caught the bus that day, like some obstructive god was playing with us. Other mornings, when I’d timed it right, she’d seem even more frosty than usual, and I feared her scorn.

Lorraine’s awkwardness, her evasiveness, drove me mad, but it was not lust I felt. She was an attractive girl, but the thought of sex scared the life out of me. I only wanted her to want to be with me. I wanted to hear her say it: “I want to be with you , Mike.”

It never happened.

Rumour reached me by way of my mother how “that girl from the shop” had gone off to Aberystwyth, to the university. I would never see her again. It was over, or rather, it had never begun, and I had to face the fact she’d never thought of me at all, and that look,… well, she’d jut been playing with me.

For months, I was sunk in the most profound depression. Indeed, a part of me has never forgotten that sense of loss. I mean, why had the gods built me up to such a fever-pitch of expectation over so futile a cause, then let me down? If there was a god of love, I thought, he/she/it took care of the women-folk, while the men could go to hell, for that’s pretty much where I was when Lorraine went away.

Anyway, I carried on, finished the apprenticeship, signed up for more studies, found myself a position in a well paid, technical department of clever, decent men who inspired me. It was a slow, steady business, climbing that ladder. Maybe I was still doing it for her, building myself up to something that might impress her, make her change her mind and just look at me, dammit – I mean always supposing she ever showed up again. Or maybe it was bloody mindedness, to say nothing of an abundance of energy I needed to channel, after so long wasting it stoking the useless flame of love.

From time to time I’d hear snippets of news from my mother, who’d got it gossiping to others who’d got it from Lorraine’s mother in the shop. I told myself I didn’t care, that I felt nothing for her now. Except, I could always tell from my mother’s tone she’d never cared much for Lorraine. She thought her shallow, a bit of a flirt, getting by on her looks, that sort of thing – just like her mother, she’d say. That would hurt, and I’d be protective of her. Lorraine was misunderstood, that’s all. She was the queen of cool, she was everything a romantic man aspired to in a woman. Then we heard rumours of dubious boyfriends, of parties, drugs. But that was just the usual student silliness, surely,…

I was on the road a lot, travelling out to other companies. Most of the time I was alone, long weeks away, staying in big hotels, something my parents had never had the money for. It was an education for a working class lad, I mean beyond the studies. There was also learning the middle class ropes of expenses, hire cars, and first class railway tickets. Then came the business trips abroad. I learned French, German, got to know a little of Paris and Berlin.

It should all have helped me to forget – and in the most part it did. I felt an optimism about life, a sense of going places. But there’s something about a love gone wrong that lingers. You think you’re fine, then a thought pops into your head, and you’re floundering in a tide of sweet melancholy again. They say you never forget your last love until you love again. There’s something true in that. And if ever a fresh breeze could blow away the sticky cobwebs of Lorraine, her name was Chloe,…

To be continued – all episodes by Friday!

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pince nez

When we write online, we are like birds calling in the wilderness so our own kind will know us. But we should be careful not to go more than half way towards meeting whatever approaches as a result, and be prepared to withdraw at once if what we have attracted seeks to take advantage. There seems to be no way of inviting exclusively those birds of a feather without automatically attracting the wrong sort as well: the predators.

When we call into the wilderness, we tag our writings so others who share our ideas might find us. But the predators take those tags as indicative of our habit and try to hit us with some sort of service. But I am from the Old Testament era of the Internet, a time when its promise loomed large, and it had more to offer than mere shopping. Therefore I find the predators annoying in their crassness and think their growing domination and their souring of this wonderful mind-space space an utter abomination.

In response to the last blog I have received advice on how to make money online, was offered beauty products, lifestyle advice from teenagers, and budgeting advice from spivs. There were also genuine responses, easily discerned from the fake, and as ever I thank those most valued birds of a feather for being the icing on the cake of my wordsmithing. But in general, our bird-calls mainly flag our position to the hunters who ready their guns seeking to fell the money from our pockets. And in hardening myself against predators, in learning to evade them, I find I mistrust every advert that comes my way online because I suspect I have been clumsily profiled. I resent it and find it creepy. As a self-publisher though I have no choice but to operate in this territory. I suppose then I’ve become quite the snob, seeking kinship exclusively with my own kind while being infuriated to a comical degree when the predators hear my call and respond by showering me with their shite.  Those Victorian men of letters, contributing piffle to “Blackwoods” never had this problem.

As a young engineer, many years ago now, finding my feet in a huge and, at times, terrifying manufactory, I once had the privilege of working with a crusty old curmudgeon in whom I confided my utter bewilderment at the oftentimes Byzantine processes required to achieve the simplest of things, also the long hours we spent in meetings, discussing ‘policy’ without actually achieving anything. And he told me that in engineering, all there really is is cutting metal, that the rest is bullshit, that we should never lose sight of that one key fact, then all would be well – at least with us – and we would not go crazy.

It was good advice, advice that has served me well, and which can be applied metaphorically and usefully to many areas of life outside the metal-cutting business. But in a society that has de-industrialised it has also become impossible not to conclude all there seems to be left now is the bullshit, and no more so than with the online world where nothing tangible ever existed in the first place.

It’s therefore disappointing when you put up a piece of work to which most of the responses are from snake-oil entrepreneurs. It’s not disappointment that so few birds of a feather hear my call, more perhaps that there seem to be so few genuine wild birds of any feather out there at all. It’s as well then that of all the species, I am the least gregarious, and therefore well suited to the environment, happiest in small company. I am an albatross perhaps, or a stormy petrel.

It’s a very big ocean we are crossing, and meaningful encounters are  naturally rare. True, the ocean has also become a sterile environment, thick with dross and boiling with fatuous nitrates, a fact we birds of a feather recognise only by our detachment from it and we lament its loss. Everyone down there is trying to profit at the expense of everyone else, it is a place of predators and prey  like worms in a bucket where everything is a baited hook, and even imaginary concepts like “lifestyle” have their price-tag.

We follow the styles of the celebrities, ape the decor of their homes, dress the way they dress, even pretend we are celebrities ourselves with our Insta-profiles. I suppose I’m no different. It’s just that my styles are a couple of hundred years out of date. I am all frock-coat and pince-nez. I am a pocket-watch and leather-bound journal, grimacing at modernity.

Krishnamurti had much to say about such faulty thinking. Basically, he said, the world was never in trouble before we came along, and even we were fine until we started over-thinking everything, that it is our oftentimes corrupt thought, our ground-level delusions that are at the root of all suffering. It begins with thinking, and ends with killing. So, dear snake-oil entrepreneur, before you respond this time with your spam you should take time to read what I’ve written, observe the tag-traps I have set for you, then you’d realise your hits on me only become a part of the meta-structure of the very thing I’m getting at, and it’s thus I profit instead from your avarice.

But each to their own. So you keep your nose to the ground, Mr Entrepreneur, sniffing out your grubby coin, always an eye for the easy buck, weighted by your  petty ambition, while we true birds of a feather spread our wings and soar.

Squawk!

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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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bookshopcoverAs a self publishing writer willing to give his work away in exchange for establishing a readership, Feedbooks is where it all began, back in 2007. You loaded your story up to the Feedbooks site, and it became available at once to a worldwide audience, downloadable directly to smartphones, tablet computers and kindles. If free fiction was your bag, reading it or writing it, Feedbooks is where you went.

In those early days, when the web was a little more anarchic with its dreams, Feedbooks was hot stuff, and I moved a lot of stories through them. But no longer. My Aldiko and Moonreader apps now link only to Feedbook’s paid content,  or legacy works that have entered the public domain due to copyright expiry. Contemporary, free, original titles are no longer accessible from the platforms they were aimed at.

You can still get at them from the non-mobile webpage version of the site, but the graphics are winking out one by one, and there’s a sense of something falling down, falling over and being left to rot.

There has been no announcement by Feedbooks, but this is not unexpected. Their support, indeed their interest in the free stuff we’ve given them over the years has been generally poor. In the early days independent authors provided a wealth of free content that got Feedbooks on the map, got their business model off the ground, and we’ve been ignored ever since the paid stuff came online. That they’ve finally ditched us comes as no surprise – my only real surprise being it’s taken so long.

I do feel a keen disappointment in this because their penetration of the market has always been really good. If you wanted readers Feedbooks found them for you. Smashwords couldn’t match it, and Wattpad was even worse. It’ll be a chillier place I fear in the search for readers from now on. But as authors we should not despair. Readers like free stuff, and they’ll get it wherever they can. Smashwords here they come?

I hope so.

Is Feedbooks dead?

For authors of free original content, sadly, yes it is.

 

 

 

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by fall of night cover smallAt last, I’ve nailed the final sentence of the final draft of my latest novel, By Fall of Night. It’s been a hard one to crack, hard to explore these esoteric and speculative concepts of mind and meaning, and present them as a story anyone would want to read. So I’ll call it a romance and hope for the best.

What’s it about? Well, an asteroid is about to strike the North of England and usher in a second mass extinction like the Cambrian event, the one that wiped out all the dinosaurs – only this will probably take the humans with it. You can forget sending nuclear missiles to deflect it. It’s too late for that. There’s nothing we can do and it looks like the lucky ones will be those sitting right under it when it hits. For newly met lovers Tim and Rebecca this looks like a serious case of bad timing, but it turns out the end of the world may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Dreaming, visions, Shamanism, Christianity, mass surveillance, tick box culture, teaching, dancing, tai chi, meaning of life, the multi-dimensional nature of reality, time travel, muse psychology – I touch on a lot of stuff in here, but something’s changing – age perhaps. I’ve felt it coming on as I wrote the story, that although the concepts I deal with here are of vital interest to me, I’m aware very few people really give a damn about this stuff any more. Those black Friday scenes of fights over TV sets are still haunting me, and are a humbling reminder of a battle for the soul of man, one that seems all but lost now.

Huxley cautioned us that the most successful form of prison is one in which the inmates already believe they are free. They are happy to incarcerate themselves in a frame of mind that is void of depth, robbed even of an innate spiritual awareness. We no longer look at the world and question it, no longer bother to seek enchantment – only entertainment, sex and more and more stuff.

By now you may be getting a rough idea of what By Fall of Night is about. It’s a small oasis in the wilderness of popular thinking, and not much on its own, possibly even ridiculous, but I remain hopeful that if enough of us make a stand, things cannot help but change. As a wise lady once said: it is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. It’s live now on Smashwords, and like all my other stuff it’s free. You’ll find it in the margin on the right, also here.

I won’t be writing another novel of this kind for long time because it’s bent my head out of shape, and I need some breathing space to straighten it out again. It’s lifted me to a level of personal mythology that’s hard to back-track from and, as far as my own journey goes, it’s been more than worthwhile. But I’m going to rest the heavy stuff here for a bit, and maybe tackle something more light hearted next time.

Thanks for listening.

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i chingIt wasn’t easy breaking into college that night. Obviously the gates were locked and the grounds patrolled by dogs. There were also infra red CCTV cameras all over the place. The main buildings too were locked, but let’s just say I was determined and I found a way.

Once inside, the corridors were empty, sterile, smelling of disinfectant, and for a moment I was disappointed; perhaps there was nothing here after all? There were no lights and my torch was pathetic – just a single intermittent beam, batteries running low – and I’d no idea where I was going, what I was looking for – I mean specifically. I tried several doors at random. Some were locked, while others gave onto darkened rooms. Then I opened a door to find myself inside the main lecture hall. It was well lit, and full to the top tiers with students. It was warm inside and there was an excited buzz, cut suddenly short by my brazen appearance.

 The lecturer, a kindly old guy, who bore an uncanny resemblance to a Fluid Mechanics teacher I’d once studied under, paused only briefly in his presentation, then gestured to a few empty seats where I might take my place. Students – they were not young these students, but mostly older guys and gals – gave way for my passing so I might sit among them. I hesitated because I could tell by the material on the blackboard that this was a deeply profound subject and those gathered were of an uncanny breed. It would be expensive, I thought, and I might not be able to afford the fees. But, as if reading my thoughts, an old guy gathered me to his side, took me under his wing, so to speak, and he either said, or intimated subliminally that all the courses here were free. Sure, the college was locked and a bit of a puzzle to get into, and it was up to the individual to find a way of breaking in, but once in, he was welcome and there was absolutely no charge for any of the knowledge he might care to take away with him.

 All right, yes, a dream – unusually numinous and, for once, not that hard to interpret.

I woke up feeling deeply reassured.

 

 

 

 

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man writing

It can come as a shock to a first time would-be author, how difficult is is to interest a literary agent or a publisher in your work. You’ve studied the market, you’ve penned your masterpiece, honed it to perfection and sent it off, confident your genius is about to be recognised. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, after the first dozen submissions your confidence in that early victory is by now mired in something more akin to trench warfare. You grit your teeth and lob it over the wall, again, and they lob it back, but try as you might you can’t beat the odds and outshine all the other manuscripts agents and publishers are inundated with. It’s strictly a buyers market – and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Some writers persevere and make it, others persevere their whole lives and don’t. Others give up along the way and get themselves a proper job while some, like me, decide to self-publish for free online – better that way, I think, than my kids having to dispose of a shed full of unpublished manuscripts when I finally shuffle off to my cosy little study in the sky.

But, whichever category you fit into, there’s always a risk you’ll become downhearted, even desperate, for that one last shot at fame. You need to be careful at this point because it’s precisely now you become vulnerable to the predators who circle the publishing battlefield: vultures, on the look out for that most fatal and profusely bleeding of all literary wounds: the shattered dream.

But cheer up chum. Don’t look so glum. Pay me some money and I’ll make that tired old manuscript of yours really shine. Honest! It’ll shine so bright it’ll light up an agent’s eyes. Pay me some money and I’ll print you a thousand copies. Pay me some money and I’ll market it for you.

Hmm,..

Think very carefully now. Follow the money, and ask yourself: who profits here? For all these enticing offers of “help”, you still have no guarantee your work will ever reach the shelves of the book store. And for all of those rosy assurances, most likely, it won’t. Call me old-school, but I believe a writer must never pay anyone anything in pursuit of “publication”. The fact that so many of us do is the one thing responsible for the vanity publishing industry’s persistence in the face of a technological revolution that should have wiped it from the face of the earth.

But how do I go pro, if no one will publish me? I know. It’s a hard road and I’ve been there. I fell by the wayside some time ago, and found myself a quieter backwater, one where there’s no money, but plenty of readers and that suits me fine. Go pro? Then persevere with your submissions to agents – you never know – or write for free until someone offers to pay you. But don’t let your love of writing, your devotion to the muse, your obsession for your subject – whatever you want to call it – become a financial liability as well.

Remember, you are the important one here. You are the source. Yours are the fingers on the keyboard, night after night. Yours is the head lost for years in the mysterious labyrinth of creation. Yours is the book, the poem, the story. If you can profit from that, then do. But when others seek to cosy up, and offer their literary consultancy services in exchange for money, a writer needs to be wary.

Your writing is a gift, take pleasure in it, but don’t let others use it to make money out of you, when there’s no guarantee you’ll be making any money out of it yourself. You want your little piece of immortality? I know. I understand. But you already have it. If you self-publish online, or keep a blog, your words will remain in the clouds until the sun burns out, and that’s as much immortality as anyone can expect. No need to feed the culture vultures.

What more do you want?

Oh, fame,…

Pfft,.. that old thing.

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