Wish upon a dark star

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s queer how a few days can change things, sometimes like a flipping of the table with life. On Friday night, I found myself in a position familiar to many with depression, regularly staring into the void: Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit (and there’s no light). How do you get out? It happened four years ago, when I found myself drunk and on the street. I wasn’t drinking this time, but I needed to detoxify my environment.

Death star

I’ve written before: you can stop imagining, or you can use your imagination. And it was doing that, which made some of what I thought I could only imagine, actually happen. In a way, I made a wish. I wished upon a star and the universe answered.

We’ve all got it, and in most people it’s there to be found. It’s as obvious as being the most world-weary person around, then a two-year-old hands you a toy phone, and you say “Hello?” Anyone, from the humblest hobo to the queen, would answer that phone. To not do so, is to not be human. Some people don’t even get that, let alone their universal connection to everyone else. And all I did was in the logic of science, applying transcendent psychology. I rose above the situation to view it from the outside. It’s like being a stage director to actors.

The real clincher was when I cracked for a moment. With so much to do for so many people, and with no-one to do it with, I felt more alone than normal. I also longed for one of the people I was helping to ask how I was (because people don’t tend to, usually worried about getting too involved with a depressive). I didn’t cry, I got angry with people who hold a personal grudge with me, trying to turn those I was helping against me for their own selfish gains, and take credit for what I’d done. This is advice for others as much as a relating of my own story.

Before I did some physical damage by proxy to another human being (used here in its widest, most inclusive context), I stepped back.

I was reminded of something I myself said to someone, and it was they who repeated the words back to me (they’d already asked me how I was). Then I spoke to another (to check facts) and it was the same: Some people really are so stupid and ignorant (not only through lack of schooling, but of life) that they can’t be educated. Sometimes I can’t see the obvious, or more importantly, why I couldn’t help. It’s hard to comprehend, but some people really are – sometimes through choice – so arrogant and selfish, blinkered by their own conditioning, that they can’t see beyond their personal bubble. And that’s always the weakness.

Because of that insular bubble, even those around them (with a few equally delinquent exceptions) – the ones they think are closest to them – actually mock them behind their backs, just as they themselves speak ill of others unfairly. It was quite a revelation, and I didn’t even have to say it. It wasn’t me putting words into the mouths of others who can see for themselves. I don’t need to slag people off behind their backs, when those people do such a good job of discrediting themselves (and I have a blog).

The advice to anyone else? You’ll never lose a real friend, because those who believe what they’re told about you without checking, aren’t worthy friends. In believing all they’re told and not questioning, they’re as ignorant as those who tell the stories. Just don’t feed the animals in their personal zoos.

For me, why worry about it, when it seems to be taking care of itself? It was quite literally like wiping the shit from my shoes on their doormat (I hope I left a lingering stench). The problem (someone else pointed out), was that I was too busy being nice and I’d forgotten how to be nasty (but only when it’s deserved, when everyone around can see when things are explained to them in full, that mine is the superior moral side).

Incurable fascists are incapable of reasoned debate. Ignorant ones will always lose an argument, but they keep on whining, a dying wasp on the pavement to be trodden on or kicked into the drain, or simply left to flounder. When something lacks the basic life instinct of knowing when to give up, they’re best left to suffer in their own company.

I thought about others in my life and about myself, and how we’d changed and progressed over the last four years. Some of those who’ve stuck with me have done well, while others got left behind. The ones still with me then, are the only ones to move forward with and further away from those who couldn’t keep up. There’s only so much you can do for some people before you have to give up, for your own sake.

For my part, I’ve sobered up and written five books (each successively better than the last). Because of that and other achievements, I’m happy with what I am, as are those still around me. I made a mess of my life and I sorted it out, with the help of others (and I thanked them). Then I helped others with their own problems, and they remained friends.

It seems that some people are incurably deluded, and not a little jealous (including of the company I keep), when they themselves are stuck in the same place (and people). But it’s of their own making and they’re best left with their own kind, a gradually diminishing, near-extinct minority sub-species. Stunted by evolution, they will fail and die out.

I said in a previous post that I’d start to separate the fact from the fiction this year and to exorcise some more toxins, so this was a good start. I’m a writer and a blogger and I’m left-wing, so I can say what like (within Amnesty’s definition of free speech as a human right), about the right-wing, the religious zealots, the abusers of power, sex or trust, the haters and the doubters, or anyone else who might be looking for themselves.

All but the most fortunate can see their own third, inner self. The really unfortunate ones are those who can’t see the first or second either. They don’t see how other people see them, nor how they themselves look. They are delusional, like the witches in classic fairy tales, who looked in the mirror (and at each other) and only saw beauty staring back at them. A truly false reflection.

To those still gazing inwardly, some advice: If a two-year-old offers you a toy phone, there’ll probably be someone on the other end. Try it, then you might know what it feels like to be human.

David Bowie taught me it was okay to be different and to speak out. Sometimes I still wish upon the dark star. Happy birthday Starman.

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Pondering evolution through regression (80s mix)

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

1980s Desk

It’s interesting (to me) how some of the greatest pleasures are the remembered ones: The things which definitely happened, because they’re recorded in the past. I’m a futurist and a sci-fi writer, but nostalgia still tugs at me.

Lately on my planet, I’ve been getting into radio, specifically BBC6 Music. I’ve got a hefty old bit of Cambridge Audio kit and I’ve always loved music, discovering new stuff and buying loads of old CDs in virtual record shops (because I don’t go out). The radio introduces me to more new music and I’m quite enjoying the company of some chat and documentaries on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. Like Benjamin Button, I’m evolving in reverse. But as my mind expands, I’m finding the joy I never found before in low tech, like radio. My typewriter is a perfectly contemporary laptop, and I’m connected, but like a 21st century version of all those American geeks in the 80s, who’d now be on the dark net. But I’m frustrated, like those nerds, yet I’m finding my identity.

In another move back to the 1980s, I’ve started wearing a headband, while I decide what else to do with my hair (it’s getting long). It’s fascinating as a study of human psychology. To anyone who’s never seen me before, me wearing a head band isn’t a new thing; perhaps a little eccentric but unlikely to illicit a response. When anyone who’s not seen me for a while sees me, they may comment. Those who don’t know me but who see me regularly (local shop staff, for example), do give me a second glance. I have to remember my cognitive behaviour therapy to remind myself that they’re probably looking at me in a positive way. I shouldn’t care: I feel comfortable with the way I look at home, it’s practical and comfortable. But social anxiety breeds paranoia, so it’s still a personal challenge to go out. Now it will be an evolutionary process in microcosm, and probably a few weeks before the people who see me regularly think it normal for me to be wearing a head band. I predict it would take several months for it to become a trademark: “You know the guy: Wears a headband.” I’ll try to keep wearing it, because it feels right.

Often when I return home from my daily mission to Tesco Metro, there’ll be boxes and barrels of produce at the bottom of the iron staircase leading up to the studio. Where once I might have been jealous, bitter, or perhaps even inclined to steal, now that’s changed. For starters, I wouldn’t steal any more. I did that, got caught, realised you always will, and gave it up on the advice of the law. It would alienate me from my neighbours and it would be morally wrong. No, nowadays, I smile inside when I’m confronted with fresh goods below the flat. It’s beer barrels, boxes of bottles of wine, crates and cartons of fresh fruit and veg, mainly from independent organic suppliers. Those are destined for the restaurant / bar downstairs, next to the coffee shop on the village high street. In those establishments, people have a nice time and it improves them. It’s nice to see things from the liberal left wing and live in a studio perched on top of all that life.

My village is a personal nirvana anyway, but twenty years ago, when I used to go out a lot, it would also have been perfect: I’d have a light meal at the restaurant downstairs (there’s an Indian next to it), then off to one of the four or five pleasant pubs in the village. But that’s not me any more. The tranquillity which I’d have enjoyed after hectic nights out locally, is the one I have almost 24/7. And it’s peace and quiet which I most crave now, it’s fed to me in spades. What did I do to deserve this? But I still live every day with the other side: The permanent reminders as a life sentence. But how do you deliberately finish something you’ve learned to love dearly?

Personal heaven and hell is one of the underlying subtexts of a new sci-fi short story I’m writing: The afternaut, coming soon. It’s about a man who hibernates for four millennia between planetary evolutions, and other things. The difference engine will be on Schlock web zine this weekend, and on this blog.

Another recent evolution has been knocking off from scribbling at 2am instead of 3, then have the final hour before crashing, chilled with a joint. I favour the Blaze channel in the early hours: Ancient Aliens, Hangar 1, The Conspiracy files: Unsealed etc. Late night UK Freeview TV is like we used to see American teens watching on cable in the 80s.

But even while I’m trying to reboot, I have a notepad handy (there’s so much pulp fiction fodder on those geeky shows). I write longhand notes with my favourite pencil: The Staedtler Norris 122-HB. It’s the yellow and black striped one with an eraser on the end. It’s my favoured pencil, as explained in a story I wrote: Echo Beach. If someone were unfamiliar with my writing, I’d guide them to this. It’s one of 25 short stories in my anthology and the one I still sometimes hang my hat on.

Life’s good, apart from social anxiety preventing me from fully enjoying it. But indoors, in my studio and now as a writer in residence, I’m in a self-made mini utopia. Watching late night geek TV or listening to the radio, looking like Charlie Sheen with my head band, writing with a pencil. I’ve also had an original Rubik’s Cube for the last few months and I’m no better at it than I was 35 years ago.

Identity, mid-life, or existential crisis? I don’t know. It’s as though I’ve had to regress in order to evolve. As such, I’ll continue my battle with Ernő Rubik, without resorting to tearing his invention apart.

I suppose this was a letter to my present self, from my future and past selves.

A hall of mirrors | Reflections of yesterday

FICTION

Hall of mirrors
Hall of Mirrors, Caloptric Chamber, Mirror Maze in Petrin Park

Interrogation, introspection, introversion, group therapy…I’ve been doing a lot of talking to myself lately, and the best way to do that, in the absence of any outside help, is by writing: Pink Sunshine was a self-study in my writing, and so is this. Yet, such seems to be the complexity of my writing that I’ve been told I can pull this kind of thing off. If I’m pulling anything at all off, it’s just an ability to tell my own stories through the medium of fiction. There’s a part of the writer in all stories but anyone who doesn’t know me, wouldn’t know I’m in this one. So why mention it? Because I’ve been asked how I do it, and can I teach others? I don’t know. But I can provide insights as well as telling the stories.

At least one of the people who asked me if I could teach them, was one of my younger friends, now almost out of their teens. I’ve counselled them on many things and got them to look at things differently, which has helped them. This is just 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.

Effectively a message for campers? (2,3,7)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Assembled from old typewriters, sewing machines, cameras etc. (assemblique.com)

Among the many things I do to keep my brain in my skull is compile crosswords. Mine are cryptic puzzles, using a 15×15 grid and symmetrical on at least one diagonal axis. I employ the same methods as other compilers, so anyone familiar with the rules won’t be too troubled by the above clue. And it’s to that end that I attempt to write something which may resonate with others of a similar mindset: It’s in my head and it sounds like a college for large herbivores (11). This could equally be the story of what happened when an antique typewriter and a sewing machine got together (“Brother Singer”?):

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, I learned from writing: Defy conventions and where there are two choices, find a third; Keep people on their toes. Because it’s all been done before and people know what to expect. You are the writer of your story and you want it to be different.

It applies equally to life: If it seems like there’s a choice between A and B, choose C. In my case, I was apparently some way through the alphabet when I finally decided what I wanted to do with my life, aged 42 and a bit. I’m 46 and I’ve been doing this long enough now that I no longer feel like a fraud when I tell people I’m a writer.

Recently I realised that I needed a little more order in my days; Some structure to make me concentrate on what really could make me a modest living if I run it more like a business. Given my life, that’s like erecting scaffold around a snowman. But I needed to put invisible dividers between working for myself and one day hoping to make money from it, and working for others, with a similar aspiration. It is difficult and it’s a life which doesn’t take kindly to barriers but the fuzzy ones I have in place are working.

Even before the recent reorganisation of my time, the studio was the main game-changer: Before I lived here, I was homeless. After roughly a year each of living on the streets, sofa surfing and living in an overcrowded pub flat, it’s nice to have a place of my own. Here, the door locks. As such, I don’t have to worry about people coming in uninvited; or a fucking delinquent landlady throwing a lit tampon into the room (another story); or a landlord whose accent was as broad as my contempt for him. Just as I travel with my own portable atmosphere, that guy would do well to carry subtitles. Then I’d spend as much time reading them as I did listening to him. But that’s yet another story. Now I have time to write them.

A door with a lock is obviously a good thing and the metaphorical doors in my life have locks for good reasons; They just lack hinges. Now though, it’s all a bit more under control.

The gig economy hasn’t produced anything much for the freelance writer, which is pretty much what I expected. It’s like pecking around on the ground for the last crumbs of bread and competing with all the other scavengers. Some of the work which is advertised is frankly ridiculous (someone’s idea made into a novel for an up-front fee of $250 anyone?), so amongst the pigeons, it’s easy to feel like a giraffe. But once the freelance work sites are exhausted, I can move on to other things, knowing that I haven’t missed out. There are a couple of freelance projects I’ve bid on and I’ve embellished my tenders with details which many jobbing bidders may have omitted: I’m a salesman and a pimp /whore.

More life lines have become blurred as I’ve felt ready and qualified to join writing groups and engage more with my peers. Writing is a lonely occupation, so peers are important. Depression and alcoholism are also isolating, and it’s been nice to discover some kindred spirits in the writing and blogging worlds.

With hindsight, it’s not been an exercise in separation but one of unification. Writing is my life now but I wasn’t able to embrace such a thing: It all seemed too good to be true, after all that’s gone before. Now I know better. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” (Paul Auster).

So even when I’ve gone through the emails from the freelance websites and I’m writing my own stuff, it’s not just my life but my job; And that reversal has been the eureka thing: The figurative light bulb above my head. Or maybe I’m the snowman who didn’t think that the sun might come out.

Because whatever I’m doing, I’m my own boss. This is my life, my story and my business. I have clients but I’m the freelance writer. As such, I have targets and deadlines which I’ll be measured on and it’s only me who’ll suffer if I take on too much. My clients aren’t bosses though: I’m still my own boss in a freelance contract, in which I will have set certain terms.

If anyone were to tell me to sit at my desk and write 1000 words in an afternoon, I’d probably go to the park and draw something whilst standing up. With only myself to answer to ultimately, and with a reputation to uphold, I’ll write what’s needed to fulfil a symbiotic contract.

The writer’s life is such that it never stops and part of my mental health problem is simply shutting my brain down so that I might sleep. So am I not antagonising that part of my depression? I spent too long fighting and now I’ve managed to embrace my misfiring mind; My one-time adversary is now my friend. Everything I watch, listen to or read; it feeds the sponge in my head. It was a simple mind trick which allowed me to embrace this. It was challenging: After all, this was my illness but also the life I wanted to make. Before this mental exercise, I had to have a notebook to hand when watching TV, listening to the radio or reading a newspaper. That’s what writers do. I wanted to be a writer but I wanted to be able to concentrate on working and relaxing equally but separately. Now, I can effectively divide or dissect my brain: I can touch-type, so I don’t need to look at the screen. Even if I do, I can cancel the part of my brain which was watching TV and concentrate instead on the sounds. The words then type themselves out in my head and I remember them for later. I don’t know if this is unusual: I know I am. Perhaps I need to be grateful to the poisoned chalice which is my IQ of 147 for something. In any case, the premise was to embrace rather than repel; To enjoy the two being the same: Writing is my life and my life is writing. I just needed to change the way I was thinking.

My fiction writing has benefited from the new, permeable, semi-opaque regime: I’m doing more of it. Well, of course I am; It’s my fucking life. The barrier was accepting something so wonderful as fact, when I spent my life dreaming; mainly nightmares. I’m sure that other writers, depressives or alcoholics will get some or all of what was an unholy trinity for me. Perhaps others will too. A, B, or even C: I got off around Q and realised it’s okay to be different but that there are others like me, however rare.

Although not as prolific on the free-to-view stuff now, I’m busier than ever as a writer and that’s a good thing for a writer to be. Besides the gig work and my ongoing novel, I’m writing some library stories: Fewer but longer and deeper. The next to appear in a ‘zine, then on here will be Echo Beach: a deep and unpleasant slow burner of a psychological horror.

I have sedatives to help me sleep now but I keep a notebook by the bed.

Postscript:

Effectively a message to campers? (2,3,7): To all intents

It’s in my head and it sounds like a college for large herbivores (11): Hippocampus

As Douglas Adams observed, the answer only makes sense if you understand the question you’re asking.

Beneath the padding, between the lines

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Image source: Deviantart

A padded cell is still four brick walls: That’s a fact. Rabbits always look like they’re about to say something: Another fact. All writers use metaphors and other devices: they’re the tools of the trade and yet another fact. Many writers use metaphors to describe what writing means to them, or how it feels. I’d liken it to having chronic clinical depression: because that’s what I have and I’ve had it for a long time. Beneath the padding, between the lines; You just have to look deeper.

It’s not all bad, of course. I’m lucky that I’ve found something which I love to do and which I use as therapy: The writing, not the depression. The reason I compare the two is that writing is my life now as well. They’re very similar in many respects but the main thing is trying to get people to understand how you feel, if you can get them to listen in the first place.

Depression is a deeply personal thing and it’s difficult to write about it generally without seeming selfish. It’s many faceted though, so there’ll usually be something which others can relate to, even if it’s something which they don’t get because it seems irrational.

I lived on the streets for three years and that’ll toughen you up. There were many physical assaults on my person and the occasional, messy retaliation. When I kick back, I’m not as pretty as I normally am. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of my temper. Sobering up and gaining some security in my own home calmed me down. Writing got me through. I’ll never go back to drinking because the people I hurt were mainly the ones who loved me most: my family.

The guilt I feel in sobriety is sometimes so great that I can understand why others lapse. I lapsed a few times myself before I finally got the drinking and the angry angel inside me under control. That guilt, like the depression, is a life partner; something I have to live with. Fortunately I’ve repaired most of the damage done in those dark days and I’m closer to my family than ever.

I’ve written about all of that on this very blog, since I first ended up on the streets. There are some who still judge me and I grew tired of them a long time ago, just as I grew tired of life for a while. Some things are worth persevering with though. I committed many sins, I paid the price and I got over it. Others forgave me. I didn’t have an epiphany; The opposite in fact: I lost my religion.

Nowadays this blog is all about the new life I’ve made but don’t think all is rosy: Depression is the big black dog, which is always there in the shadows. You can throw him a stick and he’ll go away for a while, but he’s always there. Despite those three years of living wild, or perhaps because of them, I get panic attacks; I have periods of anxiety; and I feel vulnerable. I’ve not forgotten what it feels like to be at rock bottom and although I’m grateful for where I am now, there are many others who still live in total darkness. I just want them to know: I still do too.

I’ve written about how frustrating it is to be held hostage by one’s own mind; of how my intelligence can be a poisoned chalice. I’ve written of the panic attacks which are the mental equivalent of being robbed at knifepoint (which has happened to me too); Of how anxiety feels like you’re being stalked and how sometimes, there’s an awful feeling of impending personal doom: It’s just there. Like my fiction work, it’s all there if anyone would care to read it.

I know how frustrating it is to be a game piece in the system: Waiting months for a medical referral, only to be stymied by a panic attack as you board the bus; Filling out forms and having a burden of proof placed upon you, to convince a total stranger that your mental impediment affects your physical ability to live a normal life; Sometimes having to get by on a budget so tight that you have to choose between topping up your electricity meter and having something to eat. I know, because I’ve been there. And despite appearances to the contrary as I may portray on here, I’m still there. It’s only writing which gets me through it all and many others don’t have such a luxury. They are as silent as I am unread.

I’ve written before of how I’m not a writer for the money. I would be deluded if I ever thought I’d make money from what I do. Even if my published work isn’t widely read, it’s in The British Library and it’ll always be there. I myself have a finite amount of time left in this life but I’m fairly comfortable that I know what comes next, through my scientific education. In the greater scheme of things, all of the little daily worries are just that: minor. To others though, those things can be all-consuming and I’m certainly not immune.

What am I trying to say with all of this? That there are many more like me, who suffer daily with mental health issues and that it would really help if more people listened to them, when they want to be heard. Most of the time, depression is a selfish thing: Most of the time, sufferers don’t want to talk about it. I’m lucky: I can talk about it and only those who read my writing will hear me. Whether that’s now, or long after I’m gone, it’s all there in the writing; Like The Unfinished Literary Agency short story I wrote: It’s all in those diaries, if anyone would have cared to look. The ones which were found outside the building that was being demolished.

There are deeper subtexts in most of my stories, including the more recent, longer and more whimsical ones. It’ll all be in the anthology, still due out in December. It doesn’t matter how well it sells: I’d give it away if I knew that people would read it and gain something. I’m told I’m good; I’d tend to agree. I’m more confident now but I still have my off days. To some people, there are more days which are off than on.

There are a very few people who have read this blog from the start, and who have read all of my stories and my books. To them, I am grateful and I hope I remain entertaining. I will never forget where I came from and I hope that my words are of use to the silent ones. I know that some of those readers are troubled teens I met whilst transient.

All I crave is followers and “Likes”: Not for my ego but because every single one means that I’ve touched someone. I don’t ask much and those who remain silent can sometimes ask for nothing: How can you ask for something if you don’t know what it is you want? Many of those same people won’t want to like this, for fear of exposing themselves.

The fact is, I, this writer, or whatever I am; For what it’s worth, I know you’re there and I get the frustration too. I know how it feels.

I look deeper: Some may not like it but that’s a fact.