Cyrus Song, nāgas, and the Hindu festival of lights

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK REVIEW

To my pleasant surprise recently, I found an enterprising soul with a book shop on eBay, selling Cyrus Song under the search term, ‘Diwali’, that of course being the Hindu festival of lights. It struck me how appropriate this all was, of a ‘Sci-fi romcom’, but also a novel which has been described by a book critic as ‘An extraordinary juggling act‘. Cyrus Song is more than the book itself, as that same critic noted: it’s one way to look at life, the universe and everything. It also has talking black mambas, and snakes (or nagas) hold high status in Hindu mythology.

Mamba Couple Arse

Nāga is the Sanskrit and Pāli word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very large snake, found in Hinduism and Buddhism. A female nāga is a nāgī.

The book isn’t just for Diwali, nor for any particular reason, other than a book for everyone. And although not everyone is talking about it, it’s rising in popularity: A Google shopping search for ‘Cyrus Song‘, not even mentioning that it’s a book, or as having anything to do with me, returns the novel as more relevant than the music of Miley Cyrus (which it might be, it’s how search algorithms work). I still need the right people to read it: The kind who’ll tell others and spark the natural growth which any book needs. Most recently, I got sent this by someone who’d just finished it:

That has to be the single, weirdest, most original story I have ever read. It was the reading equivalent of watching a film like The Cabin in the Woods, or The City of Lost Children: Not like those films at all in subject, but big, weird, and complicated but made easy to understand, and above all, wonderful.

I thought the microscopic space ships were weird enough, but somehow totally believable (and Captain Mamba and his ilk are righteous dudes). But then there’s the Babel Fish. And then there’s the attempt at human cloning. There’s the German rabbit who talks to plants, and the white mice. And THEN, it all comes together. In the end, it all makes complete sense, and the answer to life, the universe and everything, is right under our noses, all around us, like it says in the book. And like it always was, that’s the weirdest thing: I just needed to open my eyes. Reading this made that happen. Among all the true facts about animals and wildlife, there’s also an explanation of why black mambas are grumpy, and why cats have nine lives. And it all makes complete sense.

I laughed (a lot), and I cried. The humour is sometimes a dark cover for the sadness, but underneath it all, are these parallel stories, of people’s lives. I’ve rarely seen a relationship develop in the way the two main characters’ did, and their unlikely partnerships with others were sometimes comedies of error, but always filled with feeling. And the animals: So many characters, in those and in the people who pass through the story. I loved the research. The London Zoo chapters were brilliant, as were the ones in and around London, and in Simon Fry’s personal world.

I hope more people read this. I really want to see a sequel, to find out what happens to them all, after they’ve worked things out.

This was like no other book I’ve read: Brilliant and unique. It’s a page-turner, fascinating to the end, with lots of animal facts deftly distributed throughout, as well as great characters, but above all, it’s quite a story. The ending is perfect (for now).

(Name and address supplied).

This wasn’t an Amazon review, as the book was bought from a different source (it’s becoming available in other book retailers, but until I get a mainstream publisher, I make the best (very small) royalties from Amazon sales). I was given permission to share it, and figured the author wanted others to read it (they said so themselves).

Happy Diwali, and I hope those who continue to read my book enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

Cyrus Song is available now, and has its own Facebook page, where there are also two prequel tales (on this blog as well) and where there may one day be news of a sequel. While I’m waiting for publicity and all the signing events that might entail, it remains a nice problem not to have. Signed copies can be arranged with me by getting in touch by email.

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To make science fiction reality, simply imagine

DEAR DIARY

Despite mankind’s technological advances, much of life remains in the 20th Century. Much that we made then is becoming redundant, obsolete, or simply ‘old-fashioned’: The internal combustion engine, fossil fuels, factories and farming. Our politics are certainly arcane, based on unfair electoral systems, political skewing by finance or fake news, and for the most part, disconnected from the electorate, many of whom live in perpetual poverty or ignorance, which aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to evolve, and we have the tools of change to hand…

CyberPunk Hammock
Image: Khang Lee

There is good to be made from what we have, and we only have to look at history to see where we went wrong, or need to change our ways. Everything we need to make big changes, is around us already. The problem for contemporary politics, is it’s all a bit radical. But for radical, see long-game. This one’s mainly about where we live:

Recently I wrote of an idea to levy a new social tax on the collection of personal data, then to use the revenue raised to finance a universal basic income. To cries of ‘It can’t be done!’, I ask, why not? Like all big ideas, it needs a lot of work to implement, but the resources are readily-available. If big companies really do have altruistic humanitarian ideals, even they have to admit that global corporate domination will eventually be limited by the size of a planet and its population. Sustained economic growth (the shareholders’ ideal) on a planet which is not growing, will surely mean an eventual environmental limit is reached (assuming such things remain important, and that sustainable really does mean that: the long-game).

We’re already witnessing a technological shift, with a far greater long-term impact than the industrial revolution. Humans are being made redundant by machines. In factories, robots have replaced many humans, and of the latter who remain, most are robots by proxy of AI monitoring. Artificial intelligence is encroaching on the jobs of the mind too: Doctors, accountants, and even some areas of law. So humans are going to need a longer period of (free) education, to gain the qualifications needed for the remaining jobs, which (for now) are the preserve of humans.

But as humans become more redundant, they have more spare time, and for many this is spent in misery and poverty. The problem was, mankind made robots, at the same time as robots wanted to become humans. In a few years in some of my darker sci-fi stories, that situation could turn on its head (AI is one of the greatest threats to our race, and Stephen Hawking and others agree). Now, we need another shift, before everything settles into something we really wouldn’t want to be, or to live in.

A universal basic income would solve problems of housing and poverty. In all of this utopian thinking, we have to disregard entitlement mentality. At a human level, I believe it’s the basic entitlement of an individual in a civilised society, to have shelter, warmth and food. We also have to hope that the recent rise of the right in politics isn’t something the quieter left has lost sight of. Given the right social and economic foundations, there need not be many dissenting voices in a society.

A new approach might be to start with a concept like public luxury and private sufficiency. It’s a mindset, and a monumental shift in indoctrinated thinking, but like all big ideas, it requires different thinking, and promotes discussion. I’m trying to find ways we can all live together.

Where we are, there isn’t enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury. Private luxury creates a border, it removes or closes spaces, creating deprivation. Public alternatives are usually poor in comparison, even in the places they’re provided. But nevertheless, public parks, playgrounds, sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, theatres and cinemas, including some very fine examples of each, create space for everyone, at a fraction of the cost.

There is the system of common ownership, where public assets aren’t sold off and managed by a private market, nor the state, with such assets owned instead by communities, in the form of commons (much like we know public ‘commons’ now). In its truest form, a commons is a non-capitalist system, which controls a resource in perpetuity, for the shared and equal benefits of its members. Like many other leftist, centrist and radical (and anarchist) ideas, it’s one which has been operated successfully in other countries, notably the Nordic states.

The gross imbalance in housing could be addressed with the introduction of a tax as radical as the one proposed on personal data, and again this would be a social tax, specifically, a Land Value Taxation. A form of this already exists, with ground rents on leasehold properties, which is open to abuse and used as a cash cow to milk funds from the economy and hide them abroad. If this right to charge rent on ground was returned to sovereign control, or communities, then the rent collected would be retained within whichever system, national or local, to fund public services, or to develop communities further. It’s a politics of belonging, which is the political system I became involved in when I was homeless.

Whatever the value of this, political or otherwise, I’ve written it in the hope that it might be read and perhaps discussed further by others. But surely there’s something to talk about here, in a nice, lefty way, rather than reactively kick it into the long grass in ignorance. These ideas and others, of my own and many more besides, require big thought, including at a political level. We can make a change, even with what we have now.

But then humans are a species which is dependent on the milk of another, so it could be an evolutionary growth stunt, like when a kid gets to the point where things are so interesting that it takes longer to move on. I’m trying to find answers. I’m trying to solve problems.

I’ve got this brain that I found. And I’m trying to find out what it’s for and what it does.

Fact or fiction, Earth is the organic computer designed by Deep Though to find out why the answer is 42. We’re all part of that. All we need to do, is keep talking.

A book critic recently commented of my sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song: “Who knows—if you’re looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need to ‘keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

In commune with the universe, not immune to internal conflict

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Alcoholics and depressives or not, it’s still a brave person who calls themselves a writer, confident that they have the right to do so. It takes courage to share one’s own stories, yet many writers who do just that, because they’re writers, have the same sense of self-doubt.

Arthur DentConcept art: Arthur Dent with Vogon ship above (Touchstone Pictures)

A recent conversation with a writer peer whom I admire, and someone I consider a friend (same person), inspired me to do a few things. The most valuable piece of advice, was to stop being embarrassed about being proud of myself. But for me, that’s one of the eternal scars of chronic depression, anxiety and paranoia, hastened to the fore by an alcoholic breakdown: not something to be proud of, when it affected so many. Everything is reconciled, and not only am I better, but I’m a better person, as are those around me. It still takes some getting used to all that’s gone on though.

Like so much of my fiction writing into reality, my organic and digital lives often cross over, blurring the lines between reality and magic. Now, some of the old short stories I wrote, about writers writing about writers, are coming true, just as science quickly catches up with well-researched near-future science fiction.

Getting acclaim for Cyrus Song from a book critic (and appropriately for that book, a translator and interpreter), means that if I were so inclined, I could rightfully call myself a critically acclaimed science fiction novelist. Already I was an award-winning children’s author, and I’ve been compared to some of the most respected writers of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and surrealism, while being original at the same time. So why do I find it all so hard to accept, when I’m otherwise in touch with the universe and the universe apparently speaks back to me?

This is more an internal conflict, where the mind can be a universe to explore in itself. My mental conditions seem to be fuelled by paradoxes and irrational fears. When I’m someone who can address most issues from an outside perspective, internal understanding becomes frustrating. My IQ is what it is, but I can’t help wishing I had more processing power.

I crave attention, only because I want people to read my writing (especially the latest novel), so that they can see that what others are saying is true, and hopefully hear everything I’m trying to say. It’s a paradox when you crave that which you find hard to face in yourself.

As is often the way, I’ve expressed this far better in a short story I’ve just finished, which is due out this weekend. Fiction does allow me to get so much more over, apparently in an engaging way. The story is called Are ‘Friends’ Emojis? The title is a play on the Gary Numan song, Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose it’s not so much of a ‘Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. It’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining. It’s more a two-sided mirror.

I also write nice stories, like Echo Beach (okay, so it’s dark, but it’s still escapist), and I wrote that award-winning children’s book, used in family learning sessions, for parents with learning disabilities.

I’m one of those common phenomena: a writer who’s embraced technology for the democracy it has given many like me. It’s a determined writer who remains hidden, but it’s still an intrepid agent who finds the talent.

Until I’m discovered, I’ll carry on self-publishing and self-publicising, and see if I don’t.

A warming chill from the past

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

It was two years ago that I first had the courage to call myself a writer. I’d been writing quite solidly for two years before that, but it took that long to get a few stories published. Then I wrote my first flash fiction novel, so when I proclaimed myself as a writer, I at least had a track record I was willing to be judged on.

Nowadays, people ask me the usual questions: Have I written anything they’d know (probably not), why did I become a writer (it happened), what’s my favourite short story (Echo Beach), and so on. Just recently, someone asked what my first story was. And actually, before I became a writer full-time, I did write some other stories. There are two of those old ones in my anthology, and this is an adaptation of the eldest. Written in 1999 (in the millennium before this one, FFS), when I was having a lesser personal crisis than the one which saw me homeless, then become a writer, like I’d one day be able to call myself.

This is a very short story of reunions, and of identity…

the_crow_by_latyrx-d5edu0rThe Crow by Mikko Lagerstedt

LADDER LANE

It’s easy to find something you’ve not seen for a while, if you remember what it looks like. But only if the thing still resembles the memory, and hasn’t been changed too much with time. Nat knew what it looked like as it once was, but couldn’t be entirely sure when that was.

Things looked different on foot, and in the dark. He often drove down this lane, but always during the day, and it was many years since he’d parked with Sam in the lay-by, near the bridge that crossed the stream. Nat would could collect Sam from work and they’d dine out, on fish and chips served in yesterday’s news, with a 1966 Ford Cortina their dining car.

Here was the woods, where they’d shared many moments. There, the fields where they’d run, walk, sit and talk, or lie down and pedal on sky bikes. Behind were places they’d grown up, and all around were their lives.

Sam flew a year ago, a free spirit which should never have been caged. Tonight was their anniversary. To either side, familiar trees, hardly changed in so many years, and a constant, surrounded by much change. Some of those trees bore the scars of Nat and Sam, carved into their gnarled skin. Once they would skip along this road, pushing one another into the bushes. Today it was a walk alone, the trees no longer alive in the dark, now just monuments to the past.

The bending road glowed a dull white, as the headlights of a car approached a figure ahead, then slowly passed. Nat walked towards the figure, a young woman at a bus stop. She clutched her long black coat around her face, her peroxide hair damp, and clinging to her face with the smudges of smiles.

“Hello,” she said, her claret lips forming a piano smile.

“Hello,” said Nat. “Been waiting long?”

“Three weeks. I needed to sort some things out first. You?”

“Spur of the moment really, sort of found the wings no-one thought I should have. I’m Nat by the way.” He extended his hand.

“Tash.” She darted her hand quickly out of her coat pocket, just long enough to gently shake Nat’s. “As far as some of mine were concerned, I’d died a long time ago.”

“How do you mean?”

“They gave up on me. I had only one love. They thought they were helping, but I was a prisoner. I kicked back too many times. They gave up. I was dead to them, no longer the person they knew. Only I know who I am, and I’m me, the same person who destroyed their friend. It was premature mourning: their coping mechanism. And here I am”

“I suppose in some ways, we’re similar.”

“How so?”

A light lit up Tash’s face. Nat turned to see a car approaching. It slowed down and the driver lowered the window. Tash reached for the handle, then Nat placed his hand on hers. “I think I was unfairly judged,” he said.

“Need a lift?” asked the driver. The warmth from the car steamed the air, and Nat leaned down to look in. A man in the back seat looked unwell.

“No thanks,” Nat replied, “the bus should be here soon. Is he okay?”

“He’s not so good. I’m taking him down town. I can drop you off if you like.”

“It’s okay. We’re going the other way. Thanks all the same though.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to be late for anything. The buses can be pretty unreliable around here.”

“It’ll be here soon.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” The driver smiled, and drove away.

The rear lights of the car disappeared around the corner in a red mist. Then the fog turned pink, as the headlights of a bus approached.

“Here we go,” Nat said.

“Here we go,” said Tash.

“Are you meeting anyone when we get there?” Nat guided her onto the bus.

“I’ve got a couple of old friends I want to look up,” she replied. “You?”

“Yes, my husband,” said Nat.

Tash looked out of the window, as the bus passed an old Ford Cortina, parked in a lay-by. The windows were misted, so she couldn’t see if anyone was inside.

© Steve Laker, 1999

My books are available on Amazon.

Missing persons outside my comfort zones

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

This story begins with me sitting on a bench, much like I did in my homeless days, when I wrote many of the stories in my anthology. But I wasn’t homeless this time, just out of my comfort zone, away from home and on my way to see my kids in Milton Keynes. Now that I have what every human craves – a secure base – being away makes me somehow paranoid that I’m going to lose it. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s firmly nested in my own insecurity. But then some not entirely unexpected things happened, as I began to plot a new story in my notebook, about a cat from Catford.

Catford CatCatford: This writer’s spiritual home

First, was a phantom train. I plan my journeys to Milton Keynes well in advance, bearing in mind Network Rail’s rather splendid work on London Bridge Station, Thameslink, Crossrail, and HS2, all of which have affected my journey via London. In the midst of many weekends of engineering work, there was what appeared to be a new or ad-hoc service running into Victoria from my village station. I’d had plenty of time to ease my paranoia about this unknown quantity, by simply walking to the station and asking a human what was going on, rather than trusting everything to a website. But anxiety and paranoia prevent all but the most necessary of brief outings, once every day or two to Tesco, two minutes away, and the monthly trip to Milton Keynes via London. The latter is exhausting, and only possible because of what awaits (my children), but it’s at least a known quantity, so I’m able to plan, but for that ghost train. Long story short, in the month since I last travelled, the timetable has changed. And so have the fares (albeit, not much). I needn’t have stressed, if I’d followed my own advice and checked. Me, who believes that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome (because it doesn’t), but the optimist has a better time leading up to it (because they do). Welcome to my world, and the idiosyncratic way my brain can work.

It was mainly that unnecessary (and ungrounded) fear which kept me awake on Saturday night, so that by the time I went to bed at 3 o’clock on Monday morning, I’d been awake for 44 hours. I normally roll in at about 3am, it’s just the way my body clock has settled. It’s said that when your day isn’t dictated by anything much, a natural sleeping pattern will emerge. I struggle to understand what’s ‘natural’ about mine, when sometimes I simply can’t switch my brain off, even at 3am, and even with prescription sedatives. It’s the time of day truly in the twilight between the last and the next. At 2am, the previous night is still unwinding and straggling home. At 4am, early morning workers and services are waking up. But at 3am, the least happens, but not in my brain. In there, 3am became eternal.

So I dream lucidly, which I’ve been writing a lot of lately, as I’ve embraced it in favour of fighting it and trying to get some actual dead time sleep. My sleep seems to be more subconscious than unconscious, in that zone between wakefulness and proper REM sleep (where ‘They’ exist, in The Paradoxicon), and where I’ve found that I can take some degree of control of my dreams. If I’m getting all spiritual about it, I’ve learned that it’s like talking to the universe (from this blog). And that can be complicated and confusing, but better to embrace it and learn from it, than to fear it and flee. In the same article, I wrote of how others think the universe talks back. When it’s explained in the way I wrote that I get it, it makes sense at least to the superstitious and those who believe in luck and guiding spirits (and to an extent, me). Some would call these universal interactions signs from God, but I’m an atheist. ‘God’, extraterrestrials, a higher intelligence, the universe: they’re all interchangeable. I’m a scientist, not an agnostic though, so I appreciate ‘The force’ as that of the universe. I certainly witnessed messages and signs on Sunday, as I deliberately set out to look out for them (they tend to be only as obvious as necessary, sometimes not even occurring to the less observant).

The first interaction came early on, as I boarded the train to London. There were two particularly unpleasant, well-to-do looking people on the platform. It is said that one should not judge a book, and I’m an advocate of that, as I don’t wish to be judged for what some see as my cover. But I believe it’s fair and accurate to base an initial general opinion of someone on the newspaper they read. And in the vast majority of cases, I will confront potential conflict with dialogue, to encourage debate, so better to understand an opposing point of view. But this vile couple, probably in their 70s, were reading The Hate Mail on Sunday, and the Sunday Pun. I was quite prepared to change seats, carriages, or trains to avoid them. But they travelled in First Class, like the fascist capitalists they are. The universe had stepped in, and saved at least one life.

The train journey to London is quite pleasant when all runs smoothly, with full-length, on-time trains, as was the case on Sunday. Then it’s 50 minutes into London Victoria, via the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, and then past my favourite London structure, Battersea Power Station. On Sunday, the journey was even nicer, albeit ten minutes longer, as engineering works diverted my train onto a different line for a leg of the trip. I was jotting notes in my journal, and happened to glance up to see Catford outside. Having lived there for ten years, SE6 is where my heart still beats.

A further treat was provided at Victoria Station when I alighted from the train, as a load of Pullman carriages parked up on the adjacent platform. Unfortunately for those privileged enough to travel in those on Sunday, the steam locomotive was out of action, so they got a diesel engine instead, which for me was just as nice (I like trains).

A quick trip through London’s light blue vein (the Victoria Line), and I was at Euston, where I’d hoped to meet a street girl called Zoe.

I first met Zoe five weeks ago, as I was smoking a cigarette outside Euston Station, and she asked me for a roll-up. I was happy to oblige, because I can’t roll for shit, so she rolled them both. It was obvious the young lady was on the streets, and naturally, I can empathise, although I submit that it’s far worse for a lone and vulnerable female. So we chatted for about ten minutes, about life on the streets and the world at large. That’s what it’s like out there. You find humanity in people who are only there because, for whatever reason, their lives fell apart, and most are judged as having brought it all on themselves. Trust me, it’s no-one’s greatest wish, and it’s not something people deserve. I know that addiction can transcend all other needs, I’m an alcoholic (sober now, but always with Alcohol Dependence Syndrome on my list of doctors’ diagnoses). When you’ve been there, you form a bond with that community, and it’s one which you can only get if you’ve been there, as others would confirm. Trouble is, few people ask them. There’s a deep human connection with someone in that situation, past, present and future. Lest we forget we are human.

I left Zoe to catch my train to Milton Keynes, leaving her some money and a promise to meet her four weeks later. As far as I was concerned, she could spend the cash on whatever she needed or wanted, I can hardly preach about feeding an addiction, and I wouldn’t. If a can of cider or a joint helps her to ease the fear of the streets, so be it. She’d asked what I do. Seeing as I’ve got used to it now, I told her I’m a writer. I don’t know of many occupations which illicit the kind of intrigue or amazement in people that being a writer does, and it had been just such a ‘WTF’ moment as usual. She asked me what I’d written, and I told her. She was especially intrigued by the concepts behind Cyrus Song, so I promised her a copy when I next passed through Euston, four weeks from then.

Come the time to plan ahead for the usual (routine, after 18 months) trip to see my kids, two weeks ahead, I checked the National Rail website. Unfortunately, the Sunday I was due to return to London was one of those when multiple engineering works conspired together, to make the journey all but impossible. Even if I was prepared to change trains five times and trust all connections, I wasn’t going to make it to Euston at the time I’d said: about 10.30. So I put a request out on Facebook, asking anyone who lived or worked in the area to keep an eye out for Zoe, as she’s regularly around Euston Station. It was a simple message to say that I couldn’t make it, but that I’d be there the following week (I’d checked that I could, aboard that phantom train at the top). The message was shared a few times, and I placed my trust in social media and humanity.

Was I being presumptuous or having delusions of importance? Did I consider myself so special that this girl would make the effort to meet me again? Who the fuck was I to foist a copy of my book on her, like some self-important evangelist giving a starving person a bible (‘Gee, thanks. This looks delicious’)? Well, she’d asked for the book, as she said she liked to read, as I did when I was out there. It’s the only affordable distraction. But again, I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like to crave human contact, and to have so little that you pin your thoughts on some distant promise. I remember how nice it is to have a ‘member of the public’ (because most homeless people don’t value themselves as such, and neither does much of society) simply give you some time, to talk and listen, not of your life and your problems, but of hopes and dreams. Invariably those people are financially generous too, but the monetary is not the greatest value the homeless place in their contact with others. Anyway, I couldn’t make it, and when I arrived on Sunday, I’d had no confirmation that she’d got my message.

Before setting off with the book, I’d looked on what3words, to find Zoe an address. The concept is the brainchild of Jack Waley-Cohen, Mohan Ganesalingam and Chris Sheldrick:

what3words provides a precise and incredibly simple way to talk about location. We have divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3 word address.

Better addressing enhances customer experience, delivers business efficiency, drives growth and supports the social and economic development of countries. With what3words, everyone and everywhere now has an address.

And it’s that social element which is one of the most important, because the system is being adopted by national and international address databases. The upshot of this, is that ‘everyone and everywhere now has an address.’ Having an address is essential to gaining some sort of foot back into humanity, because with an address, you can apply for a bank account and for any benefits owing. I came up with what I thought was a radical plan to solve homelessness, a universal basic income, financed by a social tax on personal data. But for as long as such a solution is a slow political plod in the distance, and while attitudes of the homeless deserving their lot are still only too common, those people remain downtrodden and forgotten. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t crave a base, somewhere of their own. While that’s just a plot of land or a park bench, that place can be used as an address, recognised as such, and allowing those of otherwise no fixed abode to make a start on rebuilding their lives. It would take a particularly humanitarian postman to actually deliver a letter or a parcel to these three-word addresses, but there’s nothing more practical to prevent such an act of humanity, as to deliver something to someone who has a place where they belong, even if that address is a tent. Traditionally, the homeless have made use of the charity afforded by most churches offering to serve as a postal address (for the purposes of bank accounts and benefits etc.) The what3words system gives more of a sense of belonging, even if that’s a patch of concrete, grass, or woodland.

So I found Zoe an address, assuming she’d be unaware of what3words, and in case she needed it (as I didn’t pry into her personal affairs any more than she was prepared to tell me in confidence). Then I waited at engine.dice.cheek (her place) but she wasn’t home, and she didn’t return in the 20 minutes I could hang around. Of course, she may not have even remembered we’d met, let alone arranged to meet, but I thought at the time that she would. Equally, she might have been housed. But although I try to remain optimistic, I know what it can be like out there, so I just hope she’s okay.

I’ve kept Zoe’s copy of the book (I can’t give it to anyone else, even if I wanted to (I don’t), as I’ve signed it for her), and I’ll take it with me next time I’m passing through, in the hope that I can find out she’s okay. And if not, the months after that…

The final leg of the outward journey has coping mechanisms in Virgin’s Pendolino trains (The tilty ones: I like those) to Milton Keynes. I was amused for a moment, by a young lad, seated on the other side of the aisle with his parents. Probably about my own son’s age (12), he was saving family numbers in what I assume was a new phone. My own kids are fortunate to have both sets of grandparents still intact, with my parents and my ex-wife’s being ‘nanny and granddad,’ and, ‘nanna and grampy’ respectively. I didn’t catch the train boy’s paternal grandparents’ names, because I was so enamoured by the nans’: ‘Nanny’, and ‘Granno’. Granno: The images it played out in my mind were many, based only on the genius of a family who call one of the parents’ mum’s ‘granno’. My social anxiety and paranoia are eased when I witness such human thinking.

I met the kids at Milton Keynes, and there was no foreword, no caveat, nor addenda from their mum and step dad, so we were free to gallivant. First, to the pub (with the full knowledge of mum and other dad, because I can do that now, even with kids in tow) for lunch: a ‘spoons, so a known quantity. The food, company and ambience were fine, but it was in the pub that things unravelled a little: I paid cash for lunch and drinks, and my change was 43p. Can we see where the problem is? The three of us ordered exactly the same as we had the last time we were there, but something had reduced in price by a penny. Because the change last time was 42p. It wasn’t planned the last time, and even though I keep an eye out for 42, it’s not an obsession, apart from ‘mild’ OCD. But there was now an imbalance in the universe. Salvation came later, in the unlikely form of McDonald’s, when we later went for frappés, and ours was order 41.

Shopping and further gallivanting kept us busy for another couple of hours, then it was time to leave. I always get the most painful separation pangs, when I give the kids a hug, and we descend to our respective platforms to wait for trains in opposite directions. I’m in the habit of just walking away and not looking back in those situations, I just have to keep going. ‘Trains pass at high speed and can cause suction on the platforms,’ the signs read. Sometimes I look at my kids over the other side of the rails, with their mum and other dad. Sometimes I just spend some time in the gents, then sit against the wall, far from the platform edge. I like trains, but I don’t want to play with them any more. But I did get a little reassuring sign from the universe, when my 16.41 train was a minute late: It’ll be okay.

The return journey is a reverse of the first, but lighter of wallet and somewhat heavier in shopping and heart. I stopped for a while at Euston to smoke, but still no sign of the person who lives around engine.dice.cheek.

I get home and I’m exhausted. I used to commute to London every day for 25 years, but nowadays, even a leisure day is mentally tiring. It’s the best day of the month, the one spent with my kids, and with life all rather good for everyone now. But when you have depression, you may have all of your wishes granted, yet still there will be times. It never goes away.

I’m home, I’m dry, and I’ve worked hard to get better. I smile, but I can never be complacent. The reminders and the guilt remain, including those who still judge but lack the confidence for confrontation.

It’s life-long, every day, and it’s personal. The Catford cat looks down, watching over the people and frozen. I miss my kids, and I apparently deserve the pain. The only way I have of exorcising even some of it, is to write it down.

Thanks for listening.

Zoe is probably in her mid-twenties, about 5′ 3” and slim, with blonde / ginger frizzy hair. She’s often around at the front of the station, in the retail square. It’s always nice for a homeless person if someone speaks and listens to them. Human contact is what the lonely and lost crave the most.

Three wishes: for not-things, and one for luck

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Just over two years ago, a dog theme cropped up in my short stories. First, there was A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, the story which won Writing Magazine’s ‘Life-changing’ story competition last year, and which became a children’s book, now being used in some family learning classes. It’s the story of a young girl, dealing with loss and life’s changes, helped by her talking dog, and by wishing for ‘not-things’ to happen. That story was written when I was sofa-surfing, then lodging with a family, whose dog died. They’d lost a friend and family member, and that’s what the book is about.

After that, I moved into the flat above the pub, where the landlady acquired a very small dog. It was while I sat in the bar one night, watching the little thing, that I decided to write an antithesis to my children’s book. I was only in the bar for a while, so this is flash fiction, coming in at just over 500 words:

Gothic dinner

TWO WISHES

There’s an old lady who’s very upset: she’s lost her dog. She’s here at the pub where I live with mum and dad: the lady; not the dog. Because the lady lost her dog. The lady and the dog are regulars but it’s just the lady today because she’s lost her dog. She’s telling mum and dad about her dog: it’s lost. The lady doesn’t know what happened to the dog. It just disappeared when she was at the pub last Sunday. Today is Sunday, so the dog has been missing for a week and the lady is upset.

While all this is going on in the pub, I’m creating a wish in the kitchen. I may only be eleven years old and a bit slow, but I can make wishes come true. Simple is a label: like a label on food. I pay no attention to the label placed on me, any more than a chicken would to its packaging. The chicken is dead and unable to read the label on its wrapping. I’m not dead but I have this label of being simple. Unlike a chicken though, I can grant wishes. And besides, simple is how I look at life and solve problems.

I know that I’m best off in the kitchen, because it’s where people can’t hear me and I can’t hear them. I know they talk about me, and I try to do what I think they want me to, but that sometimes gets me into trouble. I do as I’m told and more: if someone asks me to do something, I’ll usually do it. If someone wishes for something, I’ll do my best to make that wish come true.

I asked the sad lady in the pub what she wished for and she said she wished she could have the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted. So I’m making a wish come true by cooking lunch. They say I’m a good cook, but I know they’re humouring me and just want me out of the way. I’m a savant, rather than a servant, and I’m both in the kitchen. I’m in charge of the kitchen: I choose the ingredients and I cook them to make nice meals. On this occasion, I’m not only cooking a meal but I’m granting a wish as well.

The chicken is nearly finished roasting; the potatoes are in the roasting tin as well. I put the vegetables on to boil, before going into the pub to lay the place settings for lunch. The old lady is still upset. She’s saying she wishes someone could bring her little dog back. As I lay out the cutlery, she’s saying how she misses the little wagging tail and the cute yapping noise her little baby made.

All I can do is grant the old lady her wish, so I serve up what I hope will be the nicest roast chicken dinner she’s ever tasted: she gets a leg and so does mum. Dad’s greedy, so he gets two legs. I wait while my diners taste their meal, and they all comment on how it’s the nicest chicken they’ve ever tasted. They’re just humouring me of course.

I return to the kitchen, happy that I’ve granted two wishes: I remember my dad saying a week ago, “I wish someone would shut that old woman’s yappy fucking dog up and shove it down her throat.”

© Steve Laker, 2015.

My anthology, The Perpetuity of Memory, is available now.

Thinking differently, aloud (talking to myself, and hoping telepathy works)

DEAR DIARY

Imagine a world where everyone’s basic human needs are taken care of, a world with no homelessness or poverty. In this same world, people are paid a basic wage, simply for being who they are. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it’s a world which doesn’t have to be too far away. In fact, it’s one we could live in right now, if we think differently. Not as a hive mind, but as a colony.

steampunk_observatory_by_akira_ravenlier-d4mlbeqSteampunk Observatory by Akira-Ravenlier (DeviantArt)

Here’s a radical idea: Imagine if data were taxed. That’s not to say that we – the average internet user – should pay a tax on all the data we access for free. Rather, the companies who make huge profits from mining and selling our personal data, would pay a rate of tax on the volumes of information they use. It’s not an entirely new idea, but it’s still radical and would require a lot of work to come to fruition. But it’s an idea which could work, and which could solve many other problems as a fortunate side-effect. Big ideas need big money though. New ideas need new money. Is there such a thing as social capitalism?

For over a generation now, human kind has had free access to more or less all human knowledge. That’s the internet by design, and the way things should be: sharing and co-operation, mainly for the greater good. The cost of this free access is personal data, which is a fair exchange for most, although there remain those who are ignorant of this: Some people really do think they can have something for nothing. But when we sign up to Facebook, Google and all the rest, we agree to give them our personal data in return for the use of their platform (it’s in the Terms & Conditions, which very few people read). The internet companies then use this data to sell targeted advertising, keeping their sites free to use, and it’s a model which works well for the most part, and to monetise it in any other way (subscription sites aside) would go against the whole ethos of Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s genius (my insertion of that hyperlink was the basis of Sir Tim’s brainchild: a link to further information, stored elsewhere. Rather poetically in this illustration, that’s the father of the internet himself). And yet, here sits this unimaginably huge thing which we’ve made through co-operation and altruism. Sir Tim’s wish was for it to remain free forever, and so it should. But might there not be a humanitarian way to monetise it?

Because at the same time, we have humanitarian issues to address: causes which require revenue. Close to home, and close to my heart, is homelessness. Cutting through many debates to get to a point, is it not an immoral government which presides over a public, who see a home as more of a luxury than a necessity? Let’s not get into the many debates about individual liberties and how we got here, this is about a new idea which – like all – would need development. For now, I’m trying to keep it on that track. But homelessness is just one of many social issues which could be addressed by the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

Quite simply, a universal basic income is amount given to everyone, regardless of status. It’s just enough to put a roof over someone’s head, feed and heat them. It’s the means for people to live modestly. What have they done to deserve this? Unfortunately, that’s the most common question. Instead, I’d ask, what have they done that they should be deprived a home? We’re not talking about Acacia avenue semis here, but basic accommodation, a bit like I have.

What I have, is a studio flat: a 12 foot square room, with not even enough room for a bed, once my other stuff is crammed in. I use a futon, which I could write a whole blog post as an ode to, as it’s at least a bed. And it’s mine. I have a small separate kitchen, and I have a toilet and shower room off-suite. As I’ve said before, it’s not an ideal flat, but as a studio which I use as an office, it’s fine. It’s as much as I need.

My rent is covered by the housing benefit I receive from the local authority, and it’s paid to a social landlord. I’m a social tenant, because I’m recognised as a vulnerable individual with a disability. Mine is invisible, but I’m no less deserving after the years of work it took to get to this place in my life. As well as housing benefit, I receive benefits commensurate with my needs, as I’m mentally unwell and unable to work in the conventional sense (for anyone else). With my basic needs taken care of, I can concentrate on being the best at something which I enjoy. From that, I gain satisfaction, and I hope that others gain from what I do too.

I’m perhaps not the best example, but I’m an example nonetheless, of someone who has been given their basic needs, so that they are free to do something worthwhile. For many others, this might be finding work with a company, or forming their own. For some, they may wish to study, then enter employment later with higher qualifications. And there will be some, to whom the basic income is enough, because they want for no more. Even so, the problems of poverty and homelessness could be solved with a universal basic income. As an ex-tramp myself, I know that all a human needs is a secure base from which to build the rest, whatever that may be. As the benefactor of that rare modern phenomenon, the social landlord, I know how that works. The greater debate about the way things came to be like this eventually becomes moot, as people realise what happens when everyone is given their basic human needs, in order to live as a human being. For the most part, it’s a positive thing.

Society as a whole needs to adopt a wider view, and just like those given a home to sort themselves out, so everything that’s left behind will get cleared up too, because people will be free and available to address those things.

Many countries already operate a Guaranteed Minimum Income system: Canada, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, and many of the United States of America. Other countries are advocates, including many in the EU (including the UK, while still a member). And the founders and CEOs of those online giants are supporters too, because they see the long-term advantages of happy people and nations. It’s those people who hold the keys.

While the rest of the world lags without a universal income, such a societal change requires not only a different mindset, it requires capital. In the UK at least, we are not of a sufficiently evolved mindset (as a nation) to accept a simple tax-the-rich policy, but this overall point I’m striving to make ought to transcend current politics. Because I believe there is a way to effectively make the necessary money appear, as if by magic. And all it is, is a radical idea. At the moment, it’s a case of throwing it out there and seeing what happens.

It’s no secret that the internet giants pay very little tax. That’s another debate which can be left aside for the purposes of this, because there is another way. It’s a far-reaching vision, but many of the founders and CEOs of those online behemoths are true visionaries themselves, thinking long-term of future worlds, not necessarily run by their companies.

Elon Musk made his money from PayPal. Ask the average person in the street what PayPal does, and they’ll have an idea, but most wouldn’t be able to tell you how the model works, and how that fortune came to be. And yet the idea is a very simple one. Essentially, PayPal is a means of exchanging money, which is simple and free. I myself have a PayPal account, which I use to receive some freelance payments, then make small online purchases with. For me, it’s a micro account which I run completely independently, and for many people, that’s the simple solution it represents. Others use it in more sophisticated ways, but in total, there are tens of millions of PayPal users with sums of money sitting in the limbo which is PayPal, a holding house between merchant and buyer. Many of those accounts lie dormant most of the time, and all contain funds. To a business, this is a cash asset, and it has liquidity. All of those millions of currency can be used, to invest, to speculate, and to grow. PayPal exists on the money made from what are effectively stock market cash trades. Give a good investor your funds, and that investor will grow them for you. And that’s what Elon Musk did very successfully, while providing a free service for many others. Now we have the Tesla electric car and all of that company’s research into producing power which can be transmitted, just as Nikola Tesla himself envisioned. Musk is also one of the pioneers of commercial space travel and exploration. His long-term vision is to change the world and humanity. Elon Musk made his initial capital so that he could pursue this greater goal.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, envisions a future world where his company’s infrastructure exists in ‘cloud cities’, manufacturing and distribution facilities constructed above the earth’s surface. His vision is to return much of the planet to nature, while some of mankind moves into these vast cloud cities. The sci-fi writer can be a pessimist in seeing a two-tier dystopia in that, or a natural utopia. In any case, it’s long-term vision. And it’s that of the internet entrepreneur most likely to be labelled a capitalist, because Amazon sells tangible goods.

Returning to Google and Facebook, they make the majority of their money from our personal data, which they sell to advertisers. In return, we receive free and unlimited use of their platforms. It’s a simple business transaction of an intangible product. But what if we suddenly said, “Hold on. I realise I’m receiving something in return for giving you my data, and that it’s in the terms and conditions of our contract. But I think my data is worth more than that.”

Naturally, there would be objections and much debate. In an ideal world, we, the serfs, would say to our governing classes, “Hey, we’d like you to tax those companies for mining our information. We accept that they use it for their own gain and to improve their business and our lives, and we accept that they are very tax efficient with their business affairs. We also see that you don’t have sufficient means through tax collected, to use that as a government should: to benefit the tax-payer. So we wonder if perhaps we might make a suggestion: could you could place a ring-fenced social tax on our data please?”

Once the mechanisms are calculated and agreed, the revenue raised from placing a tax on personal data could be sufficient to finance a universal basic income sustainably. Like I said, it’s a very simple but radical idea, but one which governments and the internet giants subscribe to. Unfortunately, the machinations of government (especially in the UK) are painfully slow. Politics can be radical, if the elected politicians think differently, or if someone just thinks differently, perhaps by listening. There is a rumour of Mark Zuckerberg running for US president. For my part, I’ve tried to write all of this in such a way that it’s accessible, and I hope it’ll be shared.

It’s power to the people. It’s about addressing the balance of power and returning that to the people. That’s anarchy. But could human kind use what it has created, to evolve as a race? I just wrote a late night diary entry. 

But I’m just part of Earth 2.0, the organic supercomputer designed by Deep Thought in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to work out why the answer is 42. The computer only works if all of the component parts co-operate to the greater good of the machine.

steampunk_goggles_11_1_by_ambassadormann

For an alternative answer to the greatest question – that of life, the universe and everything – I wrote a ‘Sci-fi Rom Com’ (it’s now been called): Cyrus Song. It’s about what happened when three humans were able to talk to the other people they share this planet with: The animals.