Posts Tagged ‘rosemary’

I’ve carried this story on my website “The Rivendale Review” for the best part of a decade now, but I decided to  put it up on Feedbooks last weekend. Without spoiling the story, Rosemary’s Eyes relies upon the idea of a seamless transition from the world we know, one that is strictly confined within the bounds of space and time, to a world that lies outside of those laws, but one in which we can make way by relaxing the normally strict hold we have over our imaginations. This is a perennial theme, one that’s been used by writers down the centuries, either for purely entertainment purposes, or in order, through their fiction, to indulge in one kind of thought experiment or another. Rosemary’s Eyes falls into both categories.

Re-reading Rosemary’s Eyes now tells me much about both the nature and origins of many of my stories. It pre-dates the internet, being originally introduced to the world as a double-line spaced manuscript that was chugged out of a dot-matrix printer. It then went off to a UK science/speculative fiction magazine, and after about six months the editor returned it with a note telling me the opening was too much like J.G. Ballard’s “Concrete Island”.

This  came as a surprise to me. I’ve enjoyed many a story from the pen of J.G. Ballard (sadly no longer with us), but I’d not read Concrete Island, so I went out and found a copy, and the editor was right – there are certain similarities.

Ballard’s hero crashes his car in the opening scene – so does mine – and they both end up confined in a sort of wasteland, in the middle of a triangle of arterial roadways. But there the similarities end. Ballard’s vision was, well, Ballardian: urban, grungy, claustrophobic and disturbingly dystopian. Mine was rural, open, romantic, “back to nature”, and utopian – not a trace of concrete anywhere. Ballard’s hero remains trapped on his “island”, even when a means of escape is revealed to him because by that time it seems escape is no longer on his mind, and he settles down instead to live among the filth. In my story the boundaries dissolve, both physically and psychologically, opening up a new world, one the hero had never imagined possible. His experience then is one of release, of transcendence, rather than confinement.

There was no point in explaining all of this to the editor of that magazine, of course. Instead, I thought: “flipping heck” – there must be millions of sci-fi fantasy novels out there, and even if I read them all, I’ll surely forget the crucial one, write a scene that’s similar to something someone had written before, and get yet another editor returning yet another submission saying it was too much like, say, the fourth chapter of Edith Twonk’s 1938 novella Florence Loses her Parasol but Finds a Farthing. (Don’t Google it, I made it up).

So, if any of you have read Concrete Island, and you care to try Rosemary’s Eyes, before you say: wait a minute – these openings are quite similar: I know,.. I know… I was beaten to it by a much better, and much more famous writer.

It’s easy to lose faith in what you’re doing, of course, to react badly to a knock like this, and it certainly got under my skin at the time – the result being that I set Rosemary’s Eyes aside for a long time –  until the internet came along and I had nothing to lose by sticking it up on my website. What it also did though was shove the splinter of J.G. Ballard rather more deeply into my brain, and I’ve paid more attention to his work than I think I normally would have done. If you don’t know Ballard, do look him up, though I warn you, his  vision of modern society is unrelentingly grim and deeply disturbing.

My own work is the opposite of Ballardian, perhaps naively so, yet it addresses the same problems of encroaching dystopia, but from a different angle.  I don’t put myself in the same league as Ballard of course, who is surely one of England’s most successful, and imaginative writers, but as a result of that early hiccup with Rosemary’s Eyes, I do count him among my influences. I don’t  write like him, because I can’t. I view the world differently – not that I don’t believe he was right, that we’re living in a nightmare of our own making, because in many ways we are. One has only to visit urban Britain, or indeed anywhere in the western world and what you see is Ballard’s vision staring right back at you – and that’s not a thing any of us should be comfortable with.

My own approach to this is more of a reaction, one of trying to get at the cure instead of morbidly dwelling upon the disease. I live out in the countryside, which helps. There are no high-rise buildings, here, unless you count grain silos. There are no motorways, no factories, no gated communities, no crack-cocaine, or machine guns. My world consists of  a small village, a thousand year old church, centuries old trees, wide open skies, and vast open meadows, where the potatoes and carrots you buy in Tescos are actually grown – yes grown, and not cloned in some ghastly biochemical vat! This isn’t wild countryside – it’s agricultural, but living with even a mechanically tamed nature is better than no nature at all. The Romantics of  the late eighteenth, and early nineteenth century understood this. They knew that a connection with Nature, a sense of the earth upon which we stand, gives vent to certain functions of the unconscious, functions that are pacified by it, but which can equally be twisted into nightmares if we are isolated from it. To be isolated from nature, and from the Romantic sense is bad for us. Its result is the Ballardian dystopia.

Cities are rusty, dusty, dirty, violent places. I don’t know a single one that isn’t. If I lived in a city, my work would be more Ballardian, more despairing perhaps. He points to the sickness and frightens us with ever more disturbing portraits of it. But with respect to the master, beyond a certain point I think this approach can be misunderstood. It can reinforce the very dystopia we are trying to resist. We see the grunge, the rust, the dirt, the violence all so eloquently portrayed as “art”, and we mistake it as tacit permission for this kind of reality to exist at all – and of course it can be made to look so glamorous on TV! The noble work is thus corrupted into the horror movie, into the voyeuristic chain saw massacre, the twisted mass-murder-fest that has us frightened to let our kids out of the door.

What I try to point to in my stories however is a reality of a different kind. I see this as the only cure to dystopia, and it involves a reappraisal of our selves, also a re-acquaintance with that embarrassing thing we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from these last two hundred years, since the beginning of our so called Enlightenment: it is of course the soul. There is not a trace of soul in a thousand miles of motorway, I know because I’ve travelled them, and a less spiritually sustaining environment there is not. But turn off for a moment, or crash off like the hero in Rosemary’s Eyes, touch down in the countryside that these high-speed arterial abominations cut through so brutally,… and you reconnect, you light up.

On an eight-lane highway, or in a city, there is no sense of what the alchemists of old called the world soul, the Anima Mundi. All you see  is what mankind is capable of constructing. But a construct without soul is always going to be ugly, and it will likewise inspire only what is ugliest in human nature. As I write I’m sitting in my garden, beneath a wide open sky and with the sound of a warm breeze moving the trees. I feel the breeze on my face. It drifts, it brushes, it caresses, it connects me  to the earth, and the heavens. Its energy is my energy. It animates me, it drives the tides of my mind, it stirs my thoughts.

All of this is no more than the figment of a Romantic’s imagination of course, but without a return to at least a healthy respect and an understanding of those values, I believe we are lost. Ballard’s dystopia is all around us; its dusty, rusty fist is about to close and squeeze out the last traces of soul. Perhaps at best my  stories can provide some comforting reading at bedtime, a temporary diversion from whatever shades of dystopia darken your life. Or then again they might stir you into action, they make you look your dystopia in the eye and say: to hell with this. There has to be another way. Dystopia or not?

We choose.

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