If centuries become seconds

FICTION

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a third party intervention, of unknown origin, which could perhaps unite our one race. Because the clock really is ticking…

Featured in this week’s Schlock!

Keeper of the clockKeeper of the clock, The Long Now Foundation

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”

Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

So what did you want to show me?”

Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”

I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”

Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”

I normally do.”

There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

That’s pretty much what I do.”

Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”

Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

But aren’t yours Anna?”

I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

But why do humans like to be scared?”

Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”

Have you found something?”

Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”

It could also be that we have something they need.”

They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

Or we might have something they want.”

Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

Surely you can look all that up?”

But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

The feeling of art?”

Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

Have you found something?”

Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

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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.

Philosophical jigsaws and see-saws

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I like to read, and I read a lot: Newspapers, books, blogs, and all sorts of internet research. For the latter, I use many sources relevant to different areas. But Wikipedia is always there: a depository of human knowledge, and kind of a hitch hiker’s guide, made by the people, for the people. It’s free, because it’s financed by donations (I’m a donor). It’s a fact, that every article on Wikipedia, eventually links back to the section on philosophy, which sits at the opposite end of the see-saw to ignorance.

Socrates

Over the last four years, I’ve developed my own philosophies, as I’ve got in touch with life and questioned it. Along with my previous essay on lucid dreaming and the quantum human soul, these philosophies help me through life, understanding it in the best way I can, and trying to convey some of that in words. Some I picked up from others and adapted, and others I wrote myself:

  • Life is like a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces fit together eventually. But don’t spend your life following rules and convention. Do the edges whenever you feel like it. Think differently.
  • It’s your life. Do with it as you please, but with due consideration for others.
  • There are three people who occupy every human body: Who you think you are, who other people think you are, and who you really are.
  • Being a pessimist or an optimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it.
  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral duty to put it right.
  • Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.
  • You need to understand what misunderstood means.
  • Be the best that you can, at the thing you enjoy most.

I say those things to my kids, and to curious people who ask me questions, about life, the universe, and everything. My philosophies are partly a personal coping mechanism.

So why am I getting all philosophical? In short, because in the not too distant future, I can imagine the world at a pivotal point, even if I wasn’t a science fiction and horror writer. Some of the scenarios I’ve written about, in my short stories and my books, are now looking more real.

For humanity, the see-saw has been the splitting of the atom, once the holy grail of science. In achieving our race’s goal to unlock the nucleus, we unleashed a power which could destroy or save our species. Until now, we’ve used our discovery to create weapons, and to destroy each other. And yet, as one race, we’d be destroying ourselves. For the most part, we agreed that nuclear weapons had been a bad idea. But rogue states still threaten to upset the status quo. And now, we’ve perfected nuclear fusion: splitting the atom to release limitless free and clean energy. Soon we could be using nuclear fusion drives to take us far into space. We are on the verge of becoming a technological race, which uses that technology to explore, not to destroy. But the see-saw could still tip the other way.

It’s an existential thing: Through ignorance and quick, aggressive action, we could extinct our species. By thinking bigger, we could evolve and travel to the stars. All we need to do, is keep talking.

Whether I’m a writer or not, I repeat my optimism vs. pessimism philosophy over and over again in my head. And I try to believe it.

My books are available on Amazon.

An unfathomable and irrepressible sensation

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK LAUNCH

It’s been nine months in the making: Six months of writing, then three months of compiling, editing, proofing, more editing, re-reading and re-proofing. The final printed book proofs arrived and now it’s good to go. I must admit to a very pleasant sensation of well-being.

LionsPublishing

Douglas Adams had the inspiration for The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as he lay on top of a pile of hay while drinking cider. I was sitting in my studio, listening to Pink Floyd: The Division Bell, in fact, and specifically the track Keep Talking. It’s the one which samples Stephen Hawking’s famous quote:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…”

My learned friend was of course referring to the human invention of language. But I thought (as others have), ‘But what if we could talk to the animals?’ As a big fan of Douglas Adams, I’m aware of the Babel fish and its use as a universal translator. And that’s when Cyrus Song was born.

Cyrus Song is also the alternative track title of Keep Talking. Cyrus is Sol, our sun: one of hundreds of billions in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, which itself is one of hundreds of billions in the known universe. Space is big, really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

Cyrus Song is a big book. Well, it’s not a huge tome as such (412 pages), but it’s deep in context and message. It’s “A deep and meaningful book, with a big heart and a sense of humour,” as one test reader put it. Another said, “An absolute joy to experience unfolding,” and a third, “Enjoyable, inventive and thought provoking.”

It’s a good book. Well, I’m bound to say that; I wrote it? But no. I was a writer for two years before I was brave enough to call myself one. I’m pleased with all four of my books but Cyrus Song is the one I’m proud of. It’s the book I would hang my writer’s hat on and be judged as a writer by.

As a part tribute to Douglas, my book takes a few of his ideas and expands upon them, as small parts of a bigger story which has completely original elements. There are microscopic pan-galactic animals, travelling on arks piloted by black mambas, there are pan-dimensional white mice, and there are three main humans in the cast of characters. There are many domestic and wild animals, given voice through the Babel fish, and there are many cameo appearances by people whom I’ve also paid small tributes to (see if you can spot them all, in the human and animal characters). Nothing digresses too much from the plot though.

It’s a story about a man (a writer) and a young scientist. It is not a love story. In fact, I wrote it partly to demonstrate a lot of things about the depths and breadths of love, but which I can’t divulge at the risk of spoilers. But it’s love on a greater scale, like all humans being equal citizens of the earth, alongside the animals. I also touch on a lot of other subjects: Human psychology, evolution, language and communication, and a lot of science. But the science is all researched and it’s plausible, then it’s written in such a way as to make it accessible. There are other galaxies and dimensions, and there are wormholes. There’s human cloning and the aforementioned intergalactic snake crews, ferrying microscopic animals of all kinds to our planet. There’s the Babel fish (a computer program in my book), which translates the voices of pets and wild animals, both in the wild and in zoos. There’s a lot of factual information about animals, nature and the environment, told in a sort of QI style. The named animals at London Zoo are the actual ones living there at time of writing. All the species discussed are researched in their habits to bring forth their personality types through the Babel fish. The space-time travel, human cloning and more theoretical stuff are all researched so as to be plausible.

The book has been on sale now for a whole 24 hours and I’m seeing copies being bought; for now, in the UK; in a couple of days, worldwide on Amazon; and in a few weeks, available from all retailers and available in libraries. I’m hoping that in a few weeks, the early buyers I’m seeing on Amazon, have enjoyed the book and review it, or post on social media. I don’t think I’m being too optimistic to think that feedback will be positive. And so sales of Cyrus Song will grow gradually but exponentially, as word gets around by natural and organic human marketing. It just needs people to read it, to enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

More than one of my test readers expressed an impatience for a sequel. I’ll only know if that’s worth writing if the original story is popular enough. I have at least four months before I can do any more than plot Cyrus Song II, because I have a personal promise I made to myself: To write a modern historical book, about two people who made me a writer, and whom I can think of no better way to thank than to use the hands they gave me to write something for them. I speak, of course, of my parents.

Like my children, my parents are proud of what I’ve become. Cyrus Song is a multi-generational book and both generations either side of me are keen to read the book when I give them copies. I hope others will join them.

I do know how I feel, actually: I feel how those beta readers said they did at the end of the book: Calm and tranquil. At peace.

Cyrus Song is available now on Amazon.

The waiting game (long- and short-game strategy)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Over the last four years, there are four personal philosophies which I’ve learned to follow for a reasonably contented life:

  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral responsibility to put it right.

  • Being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.

  • Try to be the best that you can, at something you enjoy.

  • Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today, because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

waiting

Since my breakdown, those rules and others have served me well in life.

The first rule is one which can be applied to mankind and the damage we’ve done to our host planet. This and other themes are covered in my upcoming sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song. The book is still out with test readers for the next couple of weeks and I’m hoping that no news from them is good news.

I’m waiting on two more beta readers, with two having already reported back positively. There have also been a few comments from others who’ve read the manuscript in a “non-official” / friend capacity:

The weirdest, most intriguing story I’ve ever read: I fucking love it!”

Douglas would be proud.”

You’ve written a new fucking bible!” (Well, I suppose if I add another six simple rules to my four at the top, I’ve written ten suggestions (I’d never command)).

Where the fuck did you get the idea? How did you do this?”

You are part fucking alien!”

That, is one very funny, very deep book. It made me think, a lot. I don’t know anyone else who writes like this. It’s very deep, very clever and very satisfying. I cried!”

(Names and addresses supplied)

Obviously, most of these can’t be printed on the cover, although they are encouraging. But the two opinions I’m waiting on are from people I’m involved with contractually, so I need to wait for those before I can do anything more with the book. I’m expecting only minor changes between now and final publication, so September is still looking good and I’m confident the book will do well. Like all writing, its success will be down to word-of-mouth. If I can move publication forward to the end of August (without detriment to the story), it would be rather poetic, as that’ll be nine months after I started writing the book.

I’m assuming no news is good news from the remaining beta readers, because I don’t imagine it would take anyone this long to give negative feedback (the manuscript has been with the readers for three weeks now). If I were in their position, I’d have opened the manuscript as soon as it arrived, if only to have a nose at the first page. And it’s that first page which is all important when writing a book: The first line needs to hook the reader; the first paragraph, intrigue them; and the first page has to have “Turnability”: If a reader doesn’t want to turn that first page, I’ve not got them. Based on that assumption, I would imagine the test readers are indeed reading the manuscript, as opposed to not reading it. I’m speculating, and time will tell: The next couple of weeks in fact. Apropos of nothing much, here’s the first page only (from the 8 x 5” paperback):

Chapter 1: Two little things

This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing.

It’s more aesthetic in layout in the printed book, with the paragraphs indented and less spaced, like you see in a book. Hopefully, that first sentence will hook; the first paragraph, intrigue; and the reader will want to turn to page 2. After that, I’m hoping the book is as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

I posted recently in a writing peer forum about suffering separation anxiety from my characters and among the coping mechanisms suggested, one was “Write a sequel.” I’m already planning it, and should start actually writing it once I’ve gauged the reaction to Cyrus Song itself. The sequel will most likely be called Cyrus Song II: Because I’m so radical and original, but also because I have confidence in the first title.

And while I’m waiting, I’ve been writing, which isn’t entirely surprising.

A few weeks ago, an idea slip was posted for my Unfinished Literature Agency. It was a big brief for a short story but I’ve got it all into what will probably be a 6000 word fable. I’ve been on and off of it for the last week and now I’m buried in it, and loving writing it. It’s kind of an ancient aliens / time-travelling voyage of discovery and evolution, spread over 8000 years (no, really) and with a paradoxical biblical sub-text. The Afternaut (working title) should be published on my favoured web zine in about a month, then possibly in their print quarterly later. I’m grateful to the donor of that idea, and hope they’ll enjoy reading their published story.

And for anyone who’s read this far, thank you. Because this is also a public thank you to all my friends and families, from all eras of my chequered life; old and new, readers and followers, who are still here and who continue to support and encourage me since I emerged from my darkness and decided I’d be a writer.

Thank you.

Postscript
I’ve been wearing a black headband now for over a week and it’s become a part of me and the way I look: More myself. I own a headband 🙂

Reflections of reflections (Recursion*)

FICTION

Reflections of yesterdayReflections of yesterday5Reflections of yesterday4

One of my recent short stories (Pink Sunshine) was a self-study in my writing, as I chose to “Write, play, throw away”: A writer work-out to overcome the block. And so is this. I’m told that some of my writing is very complex / “Well clevva!”, requiring repeat reading. I see it as nothing more than an ability to tell my own stories through the medium of fiction. In any case, I’ve been asked to re-post this as it’s thought to be more relevant now than it was when I originally wrote it. It also saves the requester spending all of a few seconds searching for it in this blog’s archive.

It’s still a first draft, but it’s the basis of one of many I’m still writing for my second collection of shorts. It’s a story about altering perceptions:

Reflections of yesterday

The Unfinished Literary Agency is an underground publishing house, which I set up to tell the stories of others; Stories which would otherwise go untold. Like most of the characters in these stories, Marlene thought she was unimportant: She was a nobody. No-one would want to read a story about a random girl like her. So I made a suggestion on how we might make the story more interesting, while keeping it real.

It starts with a Beagle: a dog called Huxley, Marlene’s best friend and confidante. She insists on her name being written that way, without any character accents to denote that it’s pronounced “Mar-Lay-Nah”.

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, surrounded by her life, in three Sports Direct bags. A man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by. If someone just says hello, it makes me feel better. While there are so few people like you, I have a dog. I have Huxley, and he’s company. He listens. I’m Marlene. What’s your name mate? Sit down if you like.”

“Jay, and thanks.” Jay swung his rucksack from his shoulder and sat next to where Marlene lay on her sleeping bag, under a tree. It was a quiet time: mid-afternoon. Parents would be returning from shopping in Lewisham and getting ready to pick the kids up from school, before coming to the park. Every now and then, people walked by on the pathways. There were only two other people on the grass: a young red-haired girl, seated cross-legged, looking at something in her hand; and an older man, lying on his side and propped up on one arm. The girl passed something to the man and he looked at his hand for a while, before blowing something from his palm.

“You’re Muslim, right?

“Yeah, the rucksack sort of gives me away, doesn’t it?”

Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise in a moment that they’re of similar intellect; When one can crack a joke and the other doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate anything by finishing it off; When one doesn’t have to ride the coat tails of the other, because they both get what didn’t need to be said. They are equals. There’s usually some wag around in a social situation who’ll feel the need to fill things in: The kind of person who might give you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine or pool table. There were no spare parts in this conversation.

“How long have you been here?” Jay asked.

“Today, only about an hour. I try not to think about how long it’s been in all.”

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

“Yeah, I was out here for just over a year before I converted.”

“So what happened? I mean, if you want to tell me.”

“I think I might be as reluctant to share the tale of how I came to be here as you are. My conversion to Islam though, was an awakening. Some might call it an epiphany but I don’t believe in God. Or Allah.”

“What? Explain that one, please.”

“Well, one day when I was out here, someone gave me a copy of the Quran. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Thanks. This looks delicious’, but I couldn’t throw it away. No matter the contempt I have for religion and all that it’s caused, I respect every other human and that includes their beliefs. I wondered perhaps if I might reject God because I don’t understand him. I find that sense of not knowing unnerving, a fear of the unknown. The best way to deal with fear is confront it. So I decided I’d educate myself. I felt I owed it to the man who’d given me his copy of The Recitation.

“It was a coping mechanism and a comfort. It was escapism to safe entertainment. At it’s core, the Quran is just a different telling of the same events; The same stories, told by someone else with a different perspective. An alternative to the Bible. Despite what many perceive, a lot of the ancient Islamic texts have their roots in the one thing which unites us all: Humanity. In many ways, Islam is actually much more tolerant than Christianity. The Quran was the Guardian, to the Bible’s Telegraph. And where Jesus was just a nice guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad smoked a bit of weed. I don’t know, I just found the Quran much more accessible than the Bible. The Bible’s dictatorial, whereas the Quran is a guide. It was refreshing to see a different take on things. But either book in the wrong hands…

“So I took the faith and changed my name to Javeed. It means forever. But when I say I took the faith, I didn’t. Because I can’t have faith in something which is unproven; a paradox. I need to question what I don’t understand, and religion will not be interrogated. Instead, it tells us that we must believe and have faith. I’m not ready to relinquish my will. But I did have a new found faith in humanity and, just as I’d read that man’s Quran, I felt indebted to Islam. So I started attending the mosque. It was shelter, company, and food. Was I using Allah? If he exists, then he will judge. Until then, I consider myself free.”

“So why do you still dress that way? Do you go to prayers?”

“Because I get something from it. I see other people’s ways of looking at things. It taught me to see that failure, me losing my home and all, was just that to the weak man: A failure. But the strong man sees a challenge and he rises to it, to change, to make things better. And I felt I might be able to do some good. You see, there are a lot of young Muslims who feel alienated and persecuted. Well, I know how that feels. I suppose the best way to sum up a situation I don’t understand, is I’m not bound by Islam but by humanity. With my brothers, we are all members of the same human race. That’s what I found Islam to be. It’s not a religion to me, it’s a family.”

“What about the women?”

“Well, that sits very uncomfortably with me. But I could run away and ignore it, or I could try to do something about it. I see those women and girls as suffragettes. They’re way more persecuted than the men, and by the men. Over time, I’m trying to make the Imam and others more progressive.

“So you’re radicalising them? That could take a while.”

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

“Jim. Which means Jim. Anyway, Marlene, I should go. I’m cramping your style. I think these people walking past are giving us an even wider berth than they’d normally give you alone. They are no-one. Because every one of them who walks past, you’d probably not recognise if you saw them again. Let them stay that way. Let them retain their anonymity, and be forgettable. Here, let me compensate you for your time.”

“Compensate me? Like, pay me for talking and listening? I’m a captive audience mate. Besides, it was nice. You actually remind me of someone, but I don’t remember who.”

“I wouldn’t know. In any case, it was a pleasure. You’re a valuable person Marlene. Don’t forget that. Here…”

“A tenner? You sure?”

“Of course. It seems quite appropriate. On the reverse of the ten pound note, is Charles Darwin: Evolution and the rest of it. And his ship, HMS Beagle. Well, I do believe Huxley here is a Beagle.”

“Can’t argue with that. Thank you. Thanks mate.”

“You’re welcome my friend. I don’t care what you spend it on. That’s your business. I’d like to think that you used it to do something, to make things different. Keep your head up kid. I know you can swim, you just gotta keep moving your legs.” Jay stood and shook Marlene’s hand. “Be safe.”

Something. Something to make a difference. To eat a hot meal would make a change. But she couldn’t dine out wearing five layers of clothes, or with Huxley and her house in tow. Instead, she bought some food, which she had no intention of eating. She bought five loaves of bread, some wafer thin ham, a block of Cheddar and some tomatoes; all of which were reduced as they approached their sell-by dates. She also got some plastic knives and cling film. The food probably would have been destined for the homeless, but she had a plan: She would make sandwiches and sell them. Any she didn’t sell, she would give to the homeless, most of whom lacked the resources to make a sandwich of their own. The way Marlene saw it, she was buying raw materials to make into something and add value. In percentage terms, the margins were very large, so she could cover her costs, make a little profit for herself and give something ready-made to those with no money. The business plan required her to place faith in the general public to buy her goods, but other than that, it was sound.

On the first day, most of the sandwiches went to the homeless. Pure prejudice seemed to keep people away. Her stall was a makeshift table made of plastic bread crates, her hand-written sign listing her sandwiches: Ham or cheese, with or without tomato. Sandwiches just like mum used to make. All were priced at 50p. But it seemed that the same anonymous people who passed her by, were equally unprepared to give her money for something she’d done. They needn’t have any concern for hygiene. She wore plastic gloves while making the sandwiches, and sanitary wipes to keep her hands clean. She’d lost £5, but she’d given homeless people something to eat.

The next day she spent less and broke even. At least people were coming to her now, parents with kids mainly, perhaps reassured by her presence on a second day. For the next few days, she reached a plateau and her venture stagnated. She was covering her costs, giving a few sandwiches to the homeless and making a few pence each day. She needed to upsize but for that, she needed more capital.

She wondered about what she was doing; interrogated her business model. Perhaps she appeared too needy. But she’d never begged, and people were buying from her of their own free will. She wasn’t asking for anything. There was no mention of helping the homeless on her sign, as she imagined people might make the wrong association with her food. Perhaps those people weren’t even eating her sandwiches but 50p was such a small sum, and at least they got something. Some of her customers became familiar faces. They talked to her and she learned about them.

It was at the end of the second week that Marlene decided to make a change. She wrote a new sign, with just the sandwiches on and no prices. She stood an empty baked bean tin next to her sandwiches on the stall, and stuck a label on the tin: Thank you.

Human psychology is a deep and complex field of study and her human lab mice proved a theory: If presented with something which requires questioning, most will walk on by. But some people will seek answers. The revamped sandwich stall invited people to enquire, at least about the price of a sandwich, or to find out what they were being thanked in advance for. Without too much prompting, some humans quickly exhibited completely altered behaviour. They found themselves in a new paradigm; one where they were being thanked for taking something, and invited to leave a donation. The important decisions about the transaction had been placed firmly back with the customers: Whether to take something and if so, how much to pay for it. She remained a few feet from the stall; still present but not so close as to distract from people’s own free will. At the end of that first new day, Marlene’s tin contained £6.35.

She had a viable business model, of the simplest kind: Source cheaply, add value and sell at a profit. The added value here was the sandwiches being made: It was Marlene’s time. Her modest success was down to her honesty, and her trust in that of others: She could make no secret of the fact that her stall was unconventional. On the few occasions when she was asked the price of her sandwiches, she simply asked people to pay whatever they felt the food was worth. And there were those who took food and left nothing, but she wasn’t going to question them. One could quite easily be someone just like her, who might be embarrassed. By maintaining a distance, Marlene relied almost entirely on human spirit and her faith in such was somewhat restored.

But she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her business was standing still. She wasn’t making anything of Jay’s gift. So Marlene and Huxley took a walk. They couldn’t walk as far or for as long as they used to.

The sky was peach melba with a crème brûlée topping, and a warm breeze drove the day’s dust out of Mountsfield Park. Midges were beginning to form vortices around nothing, and ants were retreating to warmth. Marlene instinctively raised her wrist to her eye as something approached, but one midge didn’t make it home that night. Greenwich was the limit now, and even that took from afternoon to night, with frequent breaks. But everything in between was their time. Evenings were Huxley’s.

Marlene didn’t know Huxley’s exact age but they’d said he was already getting on a bit when she took him as a rescue dog from Battersea. His snout and some of his coat were greying, but no matter his age, Huxley liked to walk. He liked being outside – perhaps something to do with his previous life, chasing hares – so he was the perfect dog for a homeless nomad. He wasn’t a weaponised dog. An owner makes a dog and a dog’s love is unconditional. Marlene was sure Huxley would kill or be killed for her, but she never sought to find out. She threw Huxley a stick. ”Sticks and stones. My old bones…”

Fetching sticks aside, the only time Huxley wasn’t with Marlene, was when she’d had to work to repay a favour, or buy him food. A slut, a dirty whore, a re-useable doll: Just words. But she’d had fingers broken, been raped and left for dead in the park when she’d first washed up there. It wouldn’t have happened if Huxley had been there, but she hadn’t wanted him there. She would kill or be killed for him.

The Royal Borough of SE10 was no better than SE13: Postcodes didn’t change the status of a homeless person. But with that status come certain rights: You are always safe with your own kind. Although not true of humanity as a whole, there was an unwritten code in the homeless community; a people without borders. They were people of limited means but with deep resources.

And so Marlene and Huxley would regularly join a group who congregated in Greenwich Park, at the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory. There they were left alone at night, by all but the most curious and determined. They looked out at Docklands on the peninsular, with the City in the background. All of life was there, most of it indiscernible to the untrained eye.

At low tide, the banks of the Thames attracted beach combers. They’d look for coins beneath the bridges and barriers; They’d turn over stones and prod through the mud for other treasures; One day perhaps, a priceless artefact or discarded weapon. Further out, walkers would be among the undead, as street people pushed against the tide of robots to pick up after them. The invisible cleaned up after the anonymous.

Fiction writers have sometimes been accused of over-stretching the imagination; of inventing convenient coincidences to carry a narrative. While it is true that fiction is often stranger than fact, by its very design, it is also true that life imitates art. Although they can be tropes for a lazy writer, strange coincidences do occur in real life. However fantastical these situations can seem, when reported as fact, they become received wisdom. When written as fiction, the author is more likely to be questioned. This is exactly why Marlene said that the next chapter shouldn’t be written about, but for the same reasons, I insisted it should. She had entrusted this story to a writer and that writer was me. I couldn’t teach Marlene to write. At least, I couldn’t teach her how to write as I saw writing, because I would have to teach her how to write like me. When I myself don’t know why that is.

I was writing the story of Marlene, but I was also writing the story of a writer, who wanted to be a writer like Paul Auster: One who writes “in a certain way”, which sometimes frustrates him, because he can’t teach others how he does it; a writer who used himself in many plot devices and a named character in at least one story. On occasion, he’s used seemingly wild coincidences in his plots. But by way of a demonstration of how life can turn up these events, in October 1989, he asked listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered programme to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. The response was unexpected, with over 4000 submissions. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell. True Tales of American Life gathered some of these personal accounts to demonstrate that life could really be stranger than fiction. One such story was “The Chicken”, from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon:

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue I was close behind.

The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment the door opened and the chicken went in.

Other Auster trademarks are tributes to people he admires, with cameos or as a clue to a name in one of his characters, subtle references at various depths of immersion; Stories set in and around areas he knows intimately, like a pre-teen knows his or her genitals; and links to his other stories, through places or people; sometimes fleeting, others more overt.

It was while on the hill in Greenwich that one unlikely thing happened, when an unexpected Ellery Moon came into the story:

It was unusual but not unprecedented for someone inclined by curiosity to climb the hill and share the view from the summit. There’d never been one with a guitar before, least of all a twelve string. Ellery had come there to look at the Maritime Museum from an elevated viewpoint.

Odd and quirky things do happen. Sometimes, something breaks through the monotony and invites us to think differently. It’s a meeting of magnetic poles: Attraction and repulsion.

Ellery was a scholar of European neoclassicism in the visual arts. It was a modernising movement when it emerged in the mid 18th century, but also a conservative one. It sought to fight back against received wisdom and accepted norms, by simplifying things. In architecture, it was an admiration of the function and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, relatively unadorned with fussy decorative features. Ellery saw the maritime museum as an example of the architecture, with imperialism at its heart. Nationalism was something he found repellent but in order to understand that which he didn’t know, he needed to question it. “Architecture is frozen music”, he said. As far as Marlene was concerned, he simply spoke to buildings, as others do animals or plants.

Although Ellery’s interests were not ones she shared, Marlene found his interpretations of the world fascinating, and him an engaging orator. Everything was linked, he said. And where there were no obvious connections, they were still there to be discovered. He explained how certain things were triggers for him, which would most likely not affect many others: He was in touch with his senses to an extent where an oil painting, a piece of music, an architectural structure, or even a passage of words, would evoke in him a vision or a memory; one so powerful that it could make him visibly weep. Although it wasn’t recognised as a mental illness, it had a name: Stendhal Syndrome. It was another easy label to apply.

Ellery’s songs were not exercises in subtlety, his voice an embattled rasping call to action. His lyrics, an angry mix of threat and paranoia, chasing doomed dreams as he faced invisible oppressors. For him, music was an inferno, into which he’d toss caution and the inhibitions which he believed bind us in life. Anthems, protests and love songs, delivered in a rasping 60-a-day voice, with his guitar a machine gun triumphing against those unseen forces. He sought no-one’s approval for anything he did.

He taught Marlene to sing. She’d never been able to sing, but Ellery told her she always could, she simply lacked confidence. “You need to get out of your comfort zone and face a fear”, he said. “At school, I was just like all the other kids; mumbling words behind a hymn book in assembly. But then I started going to pubs and I was introduced to Karaoke. Some friends of mine were in a band, and it was hearing their voices over a microphone that made me wonder what I might sound like if I opened my lungs. And that was where I found it: All my anger and frustration was in my voice. It sounds narcissistic and clichéd, but when I heard my own voice over the speakers, it was an awakening. I didn’t even notice anyone in the room, even though the bar was packed. I was just into screaming and howling, but in some sort of tune. When I’d finished, I looked around and everyone was silently staring at me. I just thought, ‘Fuck you’ as I put the mic back in the stand, then they starting applauding. At first, I thought they were glad I’d finished. But they kept going. A few of them cheered and whistled, perhaps even more relieved that I was done. But then, one person stood up; then another; six in all. One shook my hand, then another, who slapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Nice one, mate”. They liked me. Wanna know what song it was that I ripped apart and threw around that room?”

“I’d imagine it was more an interpretation or tribute, rather than a straight cover or impression?”

“Fuck yeah. If you’re gonna sing a song, it’s more of a tribute to the original artists to give it your own style, rather than just ape them. The great thing is, it works if you’re shit at singing. It’s subjective, both to the performer and the listener. To the ears of some, a cover tribute takes on greater meaning than the original. Music history is littered with examples, depending on who you listen to. But the best example is probably Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt: “It’s his now.” For me, even though I’m a space boy, Bauhaus owned Ziggy Stardust’s eponymous track. That was even better than the Starman himself. There are examples in films and TV series too, where someone has taken a classic and re-imagined it, or turned literature into film; or vice versa. The arts are self-pollinating, but if we treat them as less than living entities, they will perish. I want to cede a new renaissance.

“So my first ever song performed in public, was George Michael’s Praying for Time, from the Listen Without Prejudice album.”

“But sung as…”

“But sung as me. That was the thing. For four minutes, I made that song my own. They said I sounded like an angry Michael Stipe. They said I held my forearms upwards, screaming at them all the time, whether I was standing or crouching; like I was displaying stigmata in my self-harm scars.

“These are the days of the open hand. These are the days of the beggars and the choosers. This is the year of the hungry man. Whose place is in the past. Hand in hand with ignorance. I sang twenty years and a day. But nothing changed. The human race found some other guy. And walked into the flame. And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate. Hanging on to hope. When there is no hope to speak of. And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late. Well maybe we should all be praying for time…

“But I was still using someone else’s words. To be honest, I don’t know if any of my own songs are any good. It’s impossible to be discovered, so no-one will hear them. But they’re all I want to say and if people get to hear them, they might tell others. The best chance to be heard, was to cover something someone else had already done. In so many cases, the words are there, and I wish I’d written them. But I didn’t, so I sung them. Even as I tell you this, I’m unsure as to what might be too much to say. I want you to get it, without having to question too much; but I don’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you too much, because then I take away from your personal interpretation. And right here, right now, I just don’t know when to shut up.”

Words can only be stopped when the mouth is otherwise occupied, and a first kiss is a catalyst for many more. Exchanges of bodily fluids quickly evolve, from the first drop of saliva, to ones which can be life-changing.

As one life ends, so another begins. It’s just changes. They have happened in the past, to create the now; and others are planned, to shape the future. The world turns on its axis, one man works while another relaxes.

Ellery sang at the birth, and Marlene gave them Ebony: An ornamental wood, dense enough to sink in water, with a smooth finish when polished, making it valuable.

A “Paupers funeral” is one paid for by the state. It’s normally at 9am, as that’s the cheapest slot, and you can only be incinerated. It’ll be attended by a suited figure, there to ensure that everything is done. There’ll be three pieces of music: One to welcome the mourners; another to accompany the lowering of the coffin; and the end.

The music didn’t even have words which Marlene could imagine Ellery singing, in his angry, impatient voice, struggling to escape, from something. She remembered him singing Amy Winehouse at The Dublin Castle, where Amy used to drink and play; and Madness. Suggs spoke about her, in the way Suggs speaks:

“We used to see her around in Camden, we started off in The Dublin Castle, a place where Amy very much liked. I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse which is on this record called ‘Blackbird’, without going on about it, it was a very tragic thing.”

When a panic attack strikes, it will do so without warning and for no apparent reason. A partner unable to free himself; their baby sealed in a burning box; and Marlene, on the wall.

“Even if I am in love with you. All this to say, what’s it to you? Observe the blood, the rose tattoo. Of the fingerprints on me from you. We’re still alone, around the danger zone. And we don’t talk about it. The passing of every soldier, but the only soldier now is me, fighting things I cannot see. I think it’s called my destiny. I am changing. Don’t give away the good too soon. I tried hard to resist, when you held me in your handsome fist. It reminded me of the night we kissed. Of why I should be leaving.”

And as one story ends, so another begins. Huxley went quietly at the PDSA in New Cross, where he met and said farewell to Doctor Jones. Hannah Jones then became a part of the story again, when she called Marlene a few months later: An injured beagle had been brought into the hospital by a stranger. He’d found the dog at the kerbside and guessed it had been hit by a car. It was barely more than a pup and it hadn’t been chipped. Before he went to Battersea, would Marlene be up to meeting him?

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, when a man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by.”

“Ignorant people, perhaps. You’re homeless though, right?”

“What gave me away? The bags?” Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise they’ve clicked. “Yeah, I’ve lost the lot mate: Home, money, people I cared about. I’m Marlene. Ironically, it’s derived from Mary Magdalene. But mine’s Mar-Lay-Nah, after the Suzanne Vega song.”

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

“Wanna hear a story, Jim? This guy came up to me once, right here. If you grew a beard, you’d probably look like him actually.

“So this other guy, he gave me a tenner. The Bank of England tenner has Darwin on it, and a picture of his ship: HMS Beagle. And Huxley here is a beagle. And the guy just said to make something with that tenner. It took me to a lot of places, that note and those words. I met a lot of people and heard their stories. And after that, I realised what it was I could do. I worked out that it was the best way to give the most back. Money is like the air: breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s just selfish to hold on to it.

“One day, I might learn to play this twelve string here. It was Ellerey’s. He taught me to sing. He allowed me to find my voice, even if it was in the words of others.

“But before I go out busking, I’ve set up The Human Lending Library. It’s a massive place, full of stories, but not housed in a building. It’s a library without borders. You don’t borrow books; you borrow a person. You don’t take them home with you, although some might appreciate that. No, you just ask one of them to tell you a story. And most of the time, they’ll have a story to tell, which they didn’t think anyone would want to hear. It might be their own or someone else’s: Someone who’s no longer around to tell their own story. But if someone asks, that changes things for the story teller. And it often changes the way the listener thinks of those story tellers.

“Libraries stand for freedom. Freedom to read, to think, and to pass on wisdom. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university. They’re safe entertainment. Some of the most under-appreciated people in society are librarians, yet without those gatekeepers of knowledge, we are ignorant.

“Our children lack the knowledge we have. We need to teach them. With knowledge, they can navigate the world, understand things, question others and solve problems. We must tell them the truth and not let them be lied to or misled.

“We should read aloud to others, or recite stories to them. Read them things they enjoy, even if those are stories we’ve already tired of. Or tell them a new story. And we can write. All of us – readers and writers – can dream. All of us can make a change, just by thinking more and doing things differently.

“Well, I’m one of the librarians and we’re everywhere. All anyone has to do, is rather than walk past, just ask. Both parties get something far greater than money from that free transaction.”

And Jim was lost for a moment.

Marlene didn’t expect a donation; She didn’t ask. It was pure coincidence that Jim gave her a ten pound note. A coincidence which gives meaning to the phrase, what comes around, goes around. Marlene’s situation too.

Marlene didn’t think this story worth telling. But by looking at things differently, she didn’t fail and end up back in the drain. She returned to where she felt she belonged, where there are far greater things than money. History repeating need not always be a death toll. Even in the darkest places, there is hope. Sometimes, we need to be stripped of everything to realise that there is more to life and to start seeing the world differently. The Human Lending Library is fictional, but with its base in the facts of Marlene and others’ lives.

She mock-fretted that if her story was told, people might read it and be moved to act upon it. Pretty soon, the librarians might receive sufficient donations to change their circumstances and living arrangements. There might one day be no Human Lending Library.

I told her not to worry. Such a dream was just that: firmly in the realms of fiction.

My books are available on Amazon and through all good book stores.
*Recursion
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Have you fed the snake?

THE WRITER’S LIFE

royal-python
A Royal python (Python regius), like my parents’ permanent house guest

Yesterday I took my parents to lunch, for their golden wedding anniversary. I must admit, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

This wasn’t an unprecedented gesture on my part, and no unexpectedness arose from actually being there. It’s true that I wouldn’t have been having lunch out with my parents as recently as three years ago, because I’d done my drunken best to kick everyone away from me. But I’m better now. I’m a writer, I earn modest royalties from my books, and I can treat my mum and dad. The initial surprise was in how my local had changed since I was last there.

I don’t not go to the pub because I’m an alcoholic: I’ve got that genie back in its lantern. I don’t go to the pub for the same reason I rarely go anywhere beyond my studio: Anxiety. If I were able to overcome that, I might be able to make more of this idyllic setting I’ve found myself in. Then I might be able to pick up a newspaper, pop to the pub for lunch, then finish with a coffee in the coffee shop under my studio. But those things don’t happen.

My local is the one I chose among a number of agreeable looking contenders when I first came here. It’s not my local in proximity; there are other pubs nearer home. It became my local because it looked friendly, and when I first went in there with my removal man mate, we found it to be just that. It’s an old pub; the building dating from the 16th century, with an open fire and higgledy piggledy furniture. They serve traditional Sunday roasts, at a decent price and without farting around: Just the kind of thing my parents like, being as they were, fans of the Wetherspoons roasts (RIP). My local was a place I might go, if ever I plucked up the courage to go there on my own. I never did. Yesterday’s visit was going to be fine: I’d mentally prepared, and I had pleasant company.

But like ‘spoons roasts, my old pub has gone. The pub itself is still there but the atmosphere has left, as though someone popped a balloon. Now it’s a gastro pub. My village has room for another one and if I were wealthier and less anxious, I could enjoy a fine meal at a different quality eatery every night. But the boozer had gone, along with the friendly locals. When we arrived at 12.30, we were the first. My heart sank when I looked around and saw that all the furniture was uniformly laid out and the whole place had been de-cluttered. It was that very cluttered nature of the place which made it homely, even if there were few others around. Now, everything was gone.

I’d reserved a table, which we duly occupied when we were requested to do so. Immediately, the menu caused me slight alarm by proxy, on behalf of my parents: Being of a certain age, they are used to having things a certain way. In the case of roast beef, this would include the meat being cooked way beyond my personal preference (rare) and in a Bisto gravy (other gravy brands are available). This roast beef came with a red wine gravy and I assumed the meat would be served pink. We asked if we might have an alternative gravy but the reply from “Chef” was that he’d already prepared the sauce. I was tempted to tell the pretentious cunt to climb down from his rocking horse, and that I’d boil a fucking kettle if he really couldn’t manage it, but I managed to hold my tongue.

When my parents’ lunches arrived, they looked just like the sort of roast beef dinner I’d relish: slightly pink meat, and the red wine gravy was silky and delicious. My appetite excluded me from participating in what would have been an expensive waste of money. Instead, I related some anecdotes to my parents while they ate, before writing some notes in my pad (My parents get that I carry a notepad around all the time, and they enjoy hearing what I’m thinking as I write, I think). My mum commented that there were no prices on the menu: There were but she’d not noticed. It didn’t matter, because I was paying.

In the time we were there, the place filled up considerably. It got quite lively in fact. It wasn’t the old boozer atmosphere though: Compared to what I remembered in that place, this atmosphere was a bit wanky, with pretentious types, hipsters, yummy mummies and fun dads. I began to take a dislike to some of those people, because they’d taken over my old place. Of course, it was never mine but still.

Once, I’d have grown more anxious and paranoid, feeling somehow that it was me who wasn’t welcome there. It’s irrational but that’s how my mix of mental malfunctions works. Now I live by coping mechanisms and what was taught to me by one of many psychologists: Cognition.

Although it’s never been openly discussed, my parents don’t seem uncomfortable when I’m apparently being utterly rude and disrespectful by writing notes in my journal, right in front of them. There’s no paranoia on their part, as I tell them what I’m writing about. They had their mouths full, so it was good for them to listen and not have to reply.

I was writing about the people in the room. Because what I’ve known for some time now is that however objectionable someone might be, they’re human. And given that I don’t discriminate on any grounds, it would be hypocritical of me to take a dislike to someone based purely on the way they look and seem. I’m sure these invaders of my old pub were nice people once you got talking to them, but I wasn’t, so I wrote about them.

That guy over there, with his man bun and generally infuriatingly fucking friendly face, could be a psychopath. Equally, he could be gay and mourning a break up with a partner. That annoying little kid over there: She might be wearing that hat because she has cancer and not long to live. The two girls in the corner, could be sisters or lovers; this could be their first or their break-up date. Everyone has and is a story. We don’t know until we ask. And if we don’t ask, we shouldn’t judge. What a wonderful world this would be if people thought a little differently. What a wonderful one mine has become since I did.

There are many interesting people among my friends, some with many stories of their own. And I’m probably one of very few people whose pensioner parents have a pet snake: Adopted from me when I had my breakdown, because I needed the money and the snake needed a home. My parents’ house was once going to be an interim measure but now they won’t let go of the little guy.

It would probably do me some good to get out more, but monthly trips to see the kids and the odd pre-arranged thing like yesterday is about my limit. My anxiety is only crippling in that it renders me housebound. It’s fortunate that I’m in a place where I don’t mind being.

And what are my problems anyway? First world problems is what they are. As such, they are insignificant compared to those of millions of others. Those are the important people: The silent ones. The ones with no voice, or no means to make themselves heard. At least I have that. And with that, I might make a difference. I know that I already have to some people and that’s worth more than money.

It’s becoming a trope: That I’m not a writer for the money. I’d be deluded if I thought I’d make anything from what I do. But even if I’m doing it for free, it comes back to me in other ways.

Life can throw up surprises, and that’s what makes being alive so much fun. I write stories about it, and people seem to like that.

 

Shameless plug
A shameless plug

I have a new short story out soon: It’s called Reflections of Yesterday and it’s about perceptions; how we see people, and how we look at them. If you look at things a different way, the story takes on a different meaning. That story will be in my second collection of shorts. The first is available now.