The Unfinished Literary Agency in fiction, and in fact…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Unfinished

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional entity which I’ve used in a few of my own stories. It’s based above Hotblack Desiato’s property agency in Islington, which actually exists, by virtue of the owner being a Douglas Adams fan. I can almost forgive the guy being a property agent because of that alone. I like to imagine he gets the irony of being one of the professions loaded onto the B Ark when the Golgafrinchans rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My fictional agency exists to tell the stories of those who are unable to tell them. As Paul Auster once said, “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” So the Unfinished Literary Agency employs writers to tell the stories of others, which is pretty much what writers do anyway.

So I wondered if such a place might exist online. Surely, there would be lots of people who have stories, and many writers grateful of ideas? Well, that’s why there are ghostwriters, of which I am one. But my motivation for writing is more than money, of which there is very little. For me, it’s the reward of having someone tell me how much they enjoyed something I wrote.

An example in the public domain, is my award-winning children’s story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie. It was written when I was lodging with a family while I was homeless, and the family dog died. As someone who sees animals as people, I saw Jake’s passing as that of a family member, not a pet. I remembered losing many animal people of my own and not being able to find a coping mechanism. Eventually, that came in the form of Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside. Like me, she saw the loss of an animal person, rather than a replaceable pet. But those most affected by the loss of a family member are invariably children, who might be unable to express or understand their grief. I remembered again, not being able to find anything when I was a kid. So that’s how the children’s book came about, and it’s been variously praised for how it deals with life’s losses and changes, through the eyes of a girl and her talking dog. Anyway, if your animal friend dies, there’s a book for that.

One of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory is called String Theory: It was written for (and therefore, by) a young lady I met via her mum, again, when I was homeless. The young girl was at a transitory stage in life, where she was about to move to secondary school, with all of the internal changes which someone of that age will also have to deal with. She was a little bit lost, so I (she) wrote String Theory, which is about a puppet girl on strings, who learns to fly.

I had to conclude that there is no real or virtual online place which does what The Unfinished Literary Agency does, to tell the stories of others. If such a place were to exist, there must be so many untold stories to feed it: Children and adults alike, facing challenging situations, which fiction might help them to see and understand in a different way; the terminally ill could be given immortality, people could become known and remembered. But such an agency would need a staff of purely altruistic writers like me. And there are many who ghostwrite like me. The unfortunate truth is, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency couldn’t be monetised, so it would have to operate on charity alone.

People have asked me how things might have been different if I’d started writing earlier. If I’d gained a degree in literature, then gone straight into writing as a professional. The simple answer is, well it didn’t fucking happen like that, did it? In fact, the main catalyst for me becoming a writer, was when I was homeless, without possessions and with nothing else to do. It turned out I’m pretty good at it by all accounts. And by living a life before I came out as a writer, I gained experience. I lived the stories which I can now tell, and I met the characters which I can now inhabit, while developing my own. I’ve been complimented on the depth of some of my characters. That’s because, like most writers, my stories have a part of me in them. And I’ve put other people I know into stories too, with The Unfinished Literary Agency, and The Human Lending Library, from Reflections of yesterday.

In yet more stories of mine, there are protagonists and narrators who are writers themselves. In some of these, the fictional writer’s actions make the story more real: Writing is art, after all, and the beauty of an individual piece is often to be found in the unique marks left by the human artist. One such story is the title track from The Perpetuity of Memory. Another, The difference engine, will be published in early July.

I’m already a ghostwriter, for stories I write for other people and which are published without bearing my name. With stories like A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, and String Theory, the arrangement was symbiotic: I told someone else’s story, by writing a story of my own. As a writer, I was given an idea and turned it into a publishable story, which the person I was writing for was then able to see in print. In a couple of cases, that person bought a copy of the book containing their story, then arranged privately with me to send it to me, to sign and return. Others have asked for this, even though they’re not in any of the stories. While I’m still on the literary fringes, this is something I have time to do and it’s something I enjoy. Because it’s another thing which is more than money: It’s a personal touch, which people appreciate.

So far, I’ve avoided politics. But in making another prediction (and I’ve been pretty much spot on previously), I’m predicting a Universal Basic Income to be part of Labour’s manifesto for a second parliamentary term. If so, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency could become real, with writers more able to work for a greater good with a reliable minimum income in place. Until then, it will remain a purely fictional place.

So for now, The Unfinished Literary Agency has but one writer in residence. But as I’m not driven by money, I will accept commissions. I’ll write the stories of others, free of charge, and both parties gain a little warm feeling, through helping someone else.

And for as long as I’m writing, I’ll always be happy to sign copies of my books.

The Perpetuity of Memory; A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie; and The Paradoxicon (my original, semi-autobiographical novel) are available now. My next sci-fi book, Cyrus Song, is due for publication around October.

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A return to Echo Beach

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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(Image: Pinterest)

For those familiar with the title, this is not a re-write. For those not acquainted (and those already familiar), if there’s one story I’d like to be remembered for, this year or any other, I think it’s the story I told when I was on Echo Beach. Someone very close to me just read it for the first time and commented simply, “Wow. Just wow.” That comment, from that person meant a lot to me for many reasons. All of those reasons are on Echo Beach.

A version of this story will be in The Perpetuity of Memory. Until then, the original is a gift: Chill out with Theo and Hugh, then escape for a while.

I started writing when I drank myself into homelessness. With quite literally nothing but a Sports Direct bag full of clothes, I was in the darkest place I’ve ever known. I could easily have died. Among the many things I did out on the streets, I begged money to buy exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens. What’s happened since has been quite a story.

Now, I’m a writer. I’m a freelance copywriter and ghostwriter for private clients and I get paid modest fees for all that work. After a long battle, my benefits have been reinstated in recognition of my depression, PTSD and alcohol dependence as disabilities. I still write stories which are published under my own name but I’m not so keen to sell them now that I’m being paid from other quarters, when to do so would limit my fiction’s audience and my exposure.

The stories I write for competitions and those which I do sell, obviously won’t be published here. Where I’m giving away a story, I grant one-time web publishing rights and first print rights. My usual partner in this arrangement is Schlock! web zine: They have a very talented stable of writers and the editor has been of enormous help to me as a friend. Schlock! is a labour of love and if this blog gets the ‘zine and my stable mates noticed, then I’ve returned the favour. And now that this latest story is in the public domain, I retain secondary self-publishing rights.

This is Echo Beach…

Echo Beach

By Steve Laker

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent. Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

“Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

“Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand.

“Friend.

“Brother.

“Human?”

“I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

“Do you have a name?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know your own name?”

“I lost it.”

It is often said, when something is lost, ‘Try to think back to where you were when you last had it.’ And the internal dialogue retort: ‘If I knew where that was, I wouldn’t have lost it in the first place.’

“Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

“I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

“There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

“On a boat?”

“No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

“But how?”

“In a kind of submarine.”

“Where do you live now?”

“I don’t.”

“You’re homeless?”

“Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

“Is it far?”

“About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

“You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

“Why?”

“It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

“Nine.”

“Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

“What?”

“I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.'” Theo looked down at his feet.

“I just need a drink.”

“Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

“What?”

“Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

“No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

“What does the sign on the door mean?”

“Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

“Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

“Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

“That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

“It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

“Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh. “Smoke?”

“No thanks.”

“Mind if I do?”

“No. It’s your home.”

“Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

“What are you gonna show me?”

“I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

“Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

“See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

“So, by adding shells of different sizes.

“With trial and error.

“The scales should.

Should.

“Take some off, and the scales should.

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

“Er, no. You have a fire though?”

“Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

“You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

“That’s quite philosophical.”

“A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

“That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

“So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

“It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

“No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

“Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

“On the beach?”

“Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

“I only need a pee.”

“Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

“No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

“Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

“There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

“Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

“Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

“In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

“I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

“And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

“Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

“Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

“Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

“But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

“So the book with all your notes in…”

“Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

“Can you remember any of the stories?”

“All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

“Will you tell me one of the stories?”

“A bedtime story, at your age?”

“Something to connect me to the sea.”

“How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

“It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

“Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

“This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

“A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

“The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

“He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

“The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

“The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

“The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

“And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

“If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

“But he must never speak of it.

“You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

***

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016.

The dark matter of the dogs

THE WRITER’S LIFE

dark-matter-dog

I appeared to have a day off earlier. That is to say, I looked around this morning and this appeared to be a good day to take off. As such, I should be relaxed. But no matter how good everything is, that fucking black dog is always there. It’s somewhere, though I can’t see it.

This isn’t the black dog once used as a metaphor for depression: I’ve got that one on a lead and walking to heel. This is the anxiety hound. Ever since anxiety was placed at the top of my list of mental health problems, it’s the one that’s been hounding me.

Things could hardly be better: Benefits and freelance money have started to come in; I’ve bought a few gadgets for the writing desk; and I’ve pimped the typewriter, so it looks cooler and more mine. The fridge, freezer and cupboards are stocked; I’ve got a ready supply of alcohol, tobacco and weed; I’ve added to both my music and DVD collections.

On the music front, I’ve added the back catalogues of Bat For Lashes and Charlotte Hatherley (ex-guitarist with Ash). With a music collection running to the many hundreds of titles and with eclectic tastes, it’s rare that I’ll leave an album on loop all day but Grey Will Fade by Charlotte Hatherley is one such disc.

Film wise, I’ve completed the Savage Cinema collection, as defined by the most authoritative lists. There were three titles missing from my collection, by virtue of them being unobtainable through price (one would have set me back £395) and being banned. I’ve found a workaround though and now Begotten, Aftermath (Genesis) and The Titicut Follies complete the “100 most disturbing movies of all time” collection and about 400 others. Unlike their 97 stable mates, I couldn’t get originals with cover art but better to have them and to complete the collection than not.

The latter title is an out-of-print documentary by Frederick Wiseman, exposing the mistreatment of inmates inside the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater. As my journalistic output through freelance work has increased, I’ve taken a greater interest in a number of things and begun to expand the Savage Cinema with a non-fiction section. It’s small at the moment but it already includes some important films by John Pilger, Werner Herzog and Joshua Oppenheimer.

Films like Into the Abyss, by Herzog and The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer) are not pleasurable viewing but they are brave films by some of the more maverick film makers. Into the Abyss is a series of conversations with death row inmate Michael Perry and those affected by his crime; an examination of why people – and the state – kill. The Act of Killing is a documentary which challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to re-enact their mass killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers. These are very powerful films.

Why do I watch documentaries like these? Why would I want to collect them? Because, just like the Top 100 “Nasties”, these are important and affecting films. I want to be affected by what I see and hear and the films I collect are effective in achieving that. I like to explore and learn about things, however troubling that knowledge may be. It means that I’m informed, not blinkered, and can pursue subjects and causes in an educated manner. The democratisation of media and blogging means that I have an instant publishing medium with a global audience, to talk about things.

The move into documentaries was prompted by freelance writing and it’s feeding me with ideas for fiction writing, so life is self-perpetuating.

And it’s not my consumption of controversial films which feeds my anxiety. In fact, the documentaries such as those above make me appreciate how lucky I am, when I consider the cruelty which mankind is capable of inflicting on his own kind. For me, life is comfortable.

The day off didn’t really work out in the end: A freelance client has asked me to write some copy and it looks interesting, so I’ve taken it on. I’ve written this of course. Later, I’ll probably do some writing. In that respect, I never want to take a day off. I just wish some days themselves weren’t off.

Yes, the anxiety can be crippling, but there are many worse places to be.

I, am a product…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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The story of Crass and David King

…I am a symbol of endless, hopeless, fruitless, aimless games.

I am aware, through bitter experience, that the benefits system is a filtering mechanism by design. Having taken my claims to tribunal twice now to prove my mental disability, I have gone where few have the resources and stamina to go. As with most claimants who persevere to that stage, my appeal was successful. But it’s a dehumanising process.

At the moment, I qualify for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Severe Disability Payment. Yet still the Department for Work and Pensions seem intent on making life as difficult as possible sometimes. It deadens the spirit and devalues the person.

I’m going through the same process as I did two years ago and, like then, I’ve won recognition of entitlement and am now battling to receive the funds due to me. I can see why so many claimants simply don’t (or can’t) go through the whole process because it is enough to make one ill. The irony is, that seems to be the intention and my successful appeal feels a somewhat pyrrhic victory.

This latest battle is just drawing to a close and my benefits will be back paid to my original claim date. In the interim though, my benefits have been sanctioned and although I’ve managed on my own, I can see how others with more responsibilities and dependants might not. It is a system which I would rather not be a slave to but upon which I am reliant, because I have quite serious mental health issues preventing me from doing any kind of work.

The fact that I’m a writer is a fortunate coincidence and one which I’m begrudgingly grateful to the system for allowing me to do. It has been recognised that I am unfit for work but that writing is therapeutic for me. Furthermore, I am permitted to work and be paid within certain parameters. Being a self-employed freelance writer, working from home, fits into all of those guidelines.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, the pay for freelance work is poor but it’s a means to an end for me. Writing for others allows me to divide my writing day into paid freelance work and my own work, which I hope will pay one day. Until then, my benefits keep things topped up and allow me to live.

With writing going so well on all fronts, I’m fairly up-beat but when you live on what can seem like the whims of others, the anxiety never goes away. That dark stalker is always there.

I have a list of conditions: They are my mental illnesses and factors which a tribunal panel agreed as being severe enough to entitle me to disability allowances. Alcohol dependence, depression and PTSD (on several accounts) are all listed, but at the top of the list is anxiety. Just as it’s always there, every day, it will always be there. It’s only smoking cannabis which lessens my anxiety and allows me to function.

Without marijuana, I simply can’t relax. Having had a smoke though, I can happily immerse myself into some writing, reading, watching TV or a movie. I am at my most relaxed, yet stimulated, when I have smoked some weed. I’m also more creative.

Cannabis, in fact, enhances my depression; which may sound slightly counter-productive. But my depression, in common with many others’, does have a manic element. I am on the Bi-polar spectrum: I’m not schizophrenic but I have a personality disorder: It’s one of mood swings and different personalities; It’s manic depression. So cannabis can mean that I get more down but it also increases the pleasure of the times when I’m up. It is simply a magnifier of my illness.

My illness is one I’m at ease with, because it is the reason I’m so inquisitive and imaginative. It’s my mental health which guided me to becoming a writer. It is my friend and ally, even though it can be my nemesis. When I’m suffering internal conflict because of my wonky brain, I always remind myself of the documentary which Stephen Fry made, about his own Manic Depression. In the end it comes down to the metaphorical big red button: If I could press a button and simply switch off my mental health issues once and for all; and that would make me normal, with no depression nor manic periods. If I could press that button, would I? Just like Stephen Fry, I would answer “No”.

I won’t stop smoking weed either.

So, I’m one of those you read about in the red-top tabloids: A person on benefits who has a drinking and smoking habit. Hopefully this blog serves to educate, not just about my situation but those of others.

I, have mental health issues. I, benefit claimant and writer. I, Guardian reader and liberal. I am an atheist, anarchist, restless spirit.

I, am a slave to the system: I, robot.

I, human.

I am an example. I’m no hero of the great, intelligent, magnificent human race.
I’m part of the race that kills for possessions
Part of the race that’s wiping itself out.
I’m part of the race that’s got crazy obsessions
Like locking people up, not letting them out.”

(Crass, End Result).

An expression of perpetuity

THE WRITER’S LIFE

suicide-the-demon-called-depression

I first dared to call myself a writer about a year ago now. Back then, it was more like an admission, and only to close friends. I’d had a few short stories published, I’d won an award for one of them, and I’d self-published my first novel. To those who are late to the party, The Paradoxicon is a semi-autobiographical story of a man searching for answers in life, while he battles his own demons. And still it goes on.

That first book was written in about eight weeks, when it was my sole obsession. Even my harshest critic (me) would say that The Paradoxicon is a pretty good book, and others agree. When I compare it with my writing now though, I realise how far I’ve progressed.

Now I’m earning money from freelance work, as well as writing my own material. Now, I’m busy enough to be able to call myself a writer with and not in confidence. People enjoy reading my stories and my freelance clients like my style.

I was compared with some truly great fiction writers by a sub-editor and praised for my authorial voice. There is a part of the writer in every story: An aspect of a character, or a memory on the fringe of experience. Good writing comes from the heart. As I become ever more prolific, I hope that others will read my work and judge for themselves.

Writing was never going to be a highly-paid vocation and it would be a fool who got into it thinking it would. I’m clearly not a fool and writing is one of the more admired professions for its required intellect. My living costs are covered by the disability benefits I receive on the grounds of my alcohol dependence, PTSD, depression and anxiety. My modest writing income is for permitted work, which is recognised as being beneficial to me and my mental health.

So my overall income makes for a modest but comfortable life. And this second life I’ve made, after my breakdown three years ago, is rather perfect. Mentally, I had to accept that I wasn’t kidding myself; that I really am as good as people say: If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have clients. Turning it into a sole-trader business mindset was key. Now, I’m a professional writer; an author and a freelance writer. It took a long time to realise and just as long to set everything up so that the business worked, but it does.

What I earn through freelance work is one side of things: Signing contracts, writing for clients and invoicing them. The other side of the business is my own work, sold on Amazon and Lulu through my various online presences: My website, this blog, and Facebook. My general outlet on the latter is in recognition of where I came from: Gilbert House Publishing on Facebook. Gilbert House was the name of the building I squatted in when I was homeless.

As a writer, I read a lot and my newspaper of choice is The Guardian, perhaps unsurprisingly. Their in-depth reporting and analysis provides me with a lot of material for both sides of my business. It is true that there are a few writers who’ve become very wealthy and it’s not just bitter jealousy which drives other writers’ disdain for some of those people. Like all writers, I appreciate the craft of others’ work. And like all writers, I critique the work of others.

There are writers whom I admire and aspire to. There are others for whom I have no time whatsoever. It’s not so much intellectual snobbery as not finding some writers particularly engaging or challenging, and wondering how the fuck they got their publishing deals. John Crace sort of summed it up with a satirical piece in The Guardian recently:

The news so many people have been dreading. Dan Brown is writing a new novel called Origin featuring his world-famous symbologist, Robert Langdon. It won’t be published until next year but Brown has been kind enough to offer me a preview: “Langdon’s mind was a vale of darkness. His eidetic memory had failed him. ‘You’ve been shot,’ a woman said. He looked up to see a lissom figure with gentle brown eyes that held a profundity of experience rarely encountered in someone of her age. ‘I’m Carla Miller. A doctor. We have to get you out of here. Someone is trying to kill you.’ ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ he asked. ‘Because they read The Da Vinci Code.’ Just then, a masked woman with spiky hair burst through the doors, firing a metallic gun made of metal. Carla opened a hidden trapdoor no one had guessed might be there and she and Langdon slid down a curved tunnel that took them to a secret hideout. Langdon looked out the window. ‘From my observations, I deduce we must be in Florence, the most populous city in Tuscany, with 370,000 residents,’ he said. ‘There’s no time for you to quote Wikipedia,’ Sienna reprimanded him scoldingly. ‘The world is under threat.’”

It rang true for me, as I’ve read a lot of bad prose written by others. Perhaps I am an intellectual snob.

Others will be the judge of me as a writer: Something I don’t mind standing in the dock for. For now, I’m good enough that I’m able to get paid for what I do as a freelancer. My first novel is out there for me to be critiqued on. But it will be my greatest pleasure so far to be judged on my forthcoming anthology: Now a collection spread over the last two years’ writing and including some deep and thought-provoking tales.

I remember how things were before I even dared to call myself a writer. I remember all that I loved and lost. I remember every day that I’m now serving a life sentence. Beyond this second life I’m now living, I hope others will read as I remember. And still it goes on.

The Perpetuity of Memory will be available in hard cover at the end of December.

The politics of feeling good

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Thought provoking quotes about medical marijuana from Potbotics.com

By unfortunate coincidence, my work and real lives clashed again this week, even though I’ve got all my internal personalities working well together. The unfortunate thing was that a very dear friend of mine has been diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative illness. By coincidence, I was writing some articles for a client about cannabis.

As well as writing about marijuana, I smoke it: I’m a recreational user, and I use cannabis to deal with my anxiety. My friend confided that she also uses the drug to help with her condition. For me, the answer to the cannabis “problem” is one of legality: Legalise, regulate, medicate, educate.

The subjects I write about for clients are varied and interesting. The pay is poor but the satisfaction is in learning through research and putting that knowledge into an entertaining and informative piece. Because the articles were written for a paying client, I do not retain copyright but I can publish excerpts.

In the course of my research into all things weed, I naturally had to familiarise myself with some history, to place the law into a certain context within an article which was very much pro-consumption. What I found out was quite shocking and I had to tone down the language of a US politician to make my piece suitable for the intended audience:

..Cannabis was outlawed with the introduction of The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Some of the reasons given by Harry J. Anslinger (Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) for the banning of cannabis, speak volumes about some of the ignorance and attitudes of the time:

Anslinger believed that cannabis was an ethnic minority problem and described non-whites and “entertainers” as diseases infecting the white population. Their “Satanic” music resulted from marijuana use, which caused insanity, criminality and death. Cannabis was “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind”, he said. He further stated that smoking cannabis made ethnic minorities “think they’re as good as white men.”

Despite Aslinger’s naive and narrow-minded views, in less enlightened times, his bill was passed and the recreational use of marijuana became illegal. At the time, cannabis was prescribed by doctors for pain relief, and was an accepted part of American life. Although cannabis was the common name for the drug at the time, the Spanish word – marijuana – was used in the name of the act to further encourage racist sympathies…

It took a lot of editing to remove words which were offensive, even to me, whilst still making it a legible section. Then I continued:

…Thankfully, attitudes have changed. Medicinal and recreational use of cannabis is legal in certain states and being debated in others. Medical research and progressive politics have combined to realise the benefits of cannabis, both socially and economically. Regulation and taxation are made possible with legalization…

The article (and the writer) is not pro-legalisation (I used the American in the article itself, as it’s for a US client) just because of the benefits of decriminalisation (not getting locked up). The pro-legalisation argument is for cannabis to be regulated, taxed and sold for recreational and medicinal use. I went on:

…[Users] will experience a range of feelings, sensations and personal benefits, including a general feeling of wellbeing, hightened awareness, uplifting and cerebral thoughts. Recreational cannabis is therefore unsurprisingly referred to as a “mind expanding drug”.

For some people, marijuana is an occupational drug. Many people working in the creative arts cite recreational cannabis use as an aid to their craft. Writers and artists especially take advantage of the creative effects of the drug…

I then researched the two main types of cannabis which are cultivated for recreational and medicinal use: Indica and Sativa.

…Indica dominant marijuana strains provide a very relaxing and strong body high that is helpful in treating general anxiety, body pain and sleeping disorders. Indica is most commonly smoked by medical marijuana patients in the late evening or even just before bed. Sativa dominant marijuana strains provide an uplifting, energetic and cerebral high that is best suited for daytime smoking…

…In summary, Indica effects and benefits are relief from body pain, headaches and migraines; muscle relaxation, relieving spasms and reducing seizures; and relief from anxiety and stress.

Sativa effects and benefits include feelings of well-being and of being at ease; uplifting and cerebral thoughts; stimulation and increased energy; increased focus and creativity; and relief from depression.

Cannabis (marijuana) has many beneficial effects for the casual and medicinal user. Sativa and Indica effects are different and can be combined for the most effective tailored benefits…

At my recent (successful) tribunal appeal to prove that I was entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), I mentioned to the residing judge that I smoke weed. She nodded. As a poker player, I’m pretty good at reading people and I’d bet on her nod not being a despairing one, nor one of resignation. Rather, it was a nod of understanding. I shouldn’t be surprised nor judgemental if the judge herself liked a bit of a toke on the reefer.

I’ve completed dozens of freelance assignments over the last couple of weeks and submitted my invoices for payment from the clients. All were interesting, even when they were about things which would normally hold no interest for me. Writing about a cause which is close to me though was the most satisfying. Because as a writer, I can get points across effectively and in an engaging manner. I may prompt debate but that’s part of my job.

In the other part of my job, as a fiction writer, I can use my writing to raise awareness of many things. With my friend I mentioned at the top in mind, I’m working on a short story. My stories have helped a family dealing with the loss of a pet; a friend’s daughter coping with growing up; and a teenage friend who self-harmed. I’m hoping I can help a friend who’s just been diagnosed with MS:

“…The curious thing was, it was the diagnosis which hastened the condition. It had lain dormant, without troubling me. Then as soon as I heard its name, it made itself known. What a cunt.

I wouldn’t be had. I decided to wager with the thing. All my life had been one long gamble anyway, most of it working out for the best. So I bet my life with the thing.

I bet this thing that I wouldn’t beat it on my own: That confused it. I was betting that my opponent would win. But I continued: I bet, that although I knew it could win, I would put up such a long fight that it would lose. Because I would fight for so long, through times of medical research, personal resolve and those around me, that I would live to see the day when a treatment was found.

At first, the thing taunted me. But gradually, as I learned to live with it, it was as though I were growing all over my own parasite. It was far from its kin but I had my team around me. The bet couldn’t be annulled, because I’d told the thing that I couldn’t beat it alone.

That was a pretty big bet: I was playing the long game. I’m still playing my opponent, so I may yet win the wager…”

(To be continued)

Even though writing doesn’t pay much, the rewards are far greater than financial. And the pain of depression and anxiety is made bearable by writing and by smoking weed for my recreation and occupation.

The politics of feeling good are simple: Legalise, regulate, medicate, educate.

The re-invention of solitude

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Finding peace in solitude, Disjointedthinking (Jeff Hughes)

The Invention of Solitude is one of many novels by my favourite author, Paul Auster. His work has been a major influence on me and he is a silent mentor. Often, my internal dialogue is between me and him: I talk to myself, in my head, where my mentor resides. In there, things are created by an alchemy which can only work in the solitude I find in my inner voices.

All of my personalities are now in order and working well together. But the real me is still the one inside, the one who hides behind the words and disguises the anxiety.

The anxiety is probably the most debilitating aspect of my personal illness: Alcohol dependence, depression and several counts of PTSD, recognised as a disability by a tribunal judge last week and entitling me to PIP.

Just like the depression which holds all of my contributing conditions together, the anxiety part is difficult to explain because it’s so personal. It’s hard to convey how it feels because however I put it, it sounds irrational. Even at the moment, when everything is going so well, I still get anxious.

I’ve written before of how the various aspects of my illness might feel to someone else, in an attempt to get across just how debilitating they can be. A panic attack feels like being mugged: I know, as it’s happened to me. An anxiety episode feels like being stalked: I’m also qualified by experience of that one.

So why, when I have every reason to be happy, do I still feel anxious? I’m busy with freelance work, writing for clients and getting paid. I’m busy with writing under my own name: Still churning out short stories, editing my anthology and hoping to make some sales when it’s published in December. I’m happy doing both, because I love to write. So why, at the end of a productive day of work, do I still suffer anxiety? I don’t know.

In my day job as a freelance writer, I’m in my element: Reading for research, learning, writing for the education of others and loving every minute. Just today, I’ve written articles on progressive prescription lenses for an eye care website; and about Nicosia in Cyprus for a property company: Not subjects which would otherwise trouble me but I’ve enjoyed learning and passing that knowledge on in my own idiosyncratic way: a style which people seem to like. In the other part of my job as a fiction writer, I’ve continued with my next short story, Cardboard Sky:

As I continued to read George’s captain’s log, I realised that the fantastical situations he described could just as easily be real. I only had to read between the lines to see the parallels. It took a while because George described his night time adventures in a dream-like state. It required a lucidity of the reader like that of the writer to imagine the sub-texts.

Or perhaps I was simply dreaming in the world around me as George dreamed in his. He wrote of things he encountered in his sleep, as though he were dreaming as he wrote. I was fully awake as I read his words, relating them to the world around me. I wonder whether my words betray my waking state? It would be for a reader to tell me but a writer cannot hear a reader.

My short stories now are deeper and longer than the schlock horror I used to write, because the life I’ve made enables me to craft each one more carefully. Consequently, my anthology will have fewer than the promised 42 stories but those that are left and still being written are much better works. I love all aspects of the life I’ve divided up to make one. I’m passionate about writing, yet I’m still anxious.

Anxiety is the feeling that something is about to go wrong: Not at any minute but sometime and in a massive way. It’s a feeling of impending doom, with no idea where that next shit sandwich might come from. Everything is good for me but there’s still that feeling. Everything can change, suddenly and forever.

That’s the frustrating thing about mental illness: It can be irrational and unfathomable. I’m very intelligent and as such, I get frustrated when I don’t understand something. I’ve been saying for a long time that my high IQ is a poisoned chalice. Depression does tend to favour the enquiring mind. But I’ve written also of the big red button and whether I’d press it: If there were a button I could press, which switched off the anxiety but also caused me to stop questioning, would I press it? The answer is still a resounding “No”.

So, I’m on benefits: I’ve proven my entitlement to them. They are what they say on the papers: Employment Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payment. Once they’re coming in, they do what it says on the tins.

But I’m not just sitting on my arse. I do have a job and it’s the only one I can do, with my conditions: The judge recognised this. I’m not pissed but I’m an alcoholic: If I drink to excess again, it will all go wrong. I’m happy and content but I have depression and anxiety. I’m sad but I’m happy: Isn’t it ironic? I receive benefits but I’m a professional writer. I’ve got one hand in my pocket but the other one is giving a peace sign.

Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever. You can’t put your feet on the ground until you’ve touched the sky. There’s hope for everyone. That’s what makes the world go round.”

(Paul Auster).