A brief history of anarchy and optimism

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome (especially if you subscribe to predeterminism) but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. That’s one of a few philosophies which have helped me over the last four years.

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It was almost four years ago now that I first found myself sitting in McDonald’s, with a school exercise book and a bookmaker’s pen, starting to write notes. When I look at what’s happened since, it was optimism and activism which got me through.

It’s only in the last few months that I’ve had the security of a rolling tenancy with a social landlord (having passed a “probationary” first year). I had to work for what I now have, and it was optimism and a determination to better my lot that got me here. Having spent three months street homeless, a further six months in a squat, seven months sofa-surfing, then a year crammed into an illegal, overcrowded flat above a crooked landlord’s pub, I feel I’ve earned my modest but comfortable life.

Those early notes made up the oldest entries on this blog, as I’d go to the library for an hour a day to type them up. Then some of them formed the basis for my first novel: A semi-autobiographical flash fiction tale of a man, looking for answers among lost souls, while dealing with personal demons. Fast forward three years and I’ve published an anthology, an award-winning children’s book, and soon a second novel. My current typewriter is the year-old laptop my mum gave me (“I thought it might help with your writing”). My studio, in this tranquil little village, is just up the road from where George Orwell once lived. It’s all rather splendid. I earned it, I was optimistic, and I worked hard to get where I am. Temporarily at least, I’m happy. But I’m also restless.

Normally, happy people make shit activists: They lack the restlessness which drives change. A world full of them would be a passive and complicit place. But it’s being a commentator and occasional activist which makes me happy and was partly responsible for getting me where I am. And besides, peaceful civil disobedience is fun.

Sometimes when I was homeless, I wished I was a dog, because then life wouldn’t be so complicated. Dogs have such low expectations of life: Take them for a walk, throw a stick, or open a packet of biscuits, and a dog is happy. They’ve got every day nailed. But I’m restless; I question things: If I throw a stick for a dog, is the dog perhaps bringing it to me because he’s humouring me by playing along at what he thinks is my favourite game? In some ways, dogs are anarchists, depending on one’s understanding of the term.

Like my particular brand of atheism (I don’t deny the possibility of superior beings, I deny God in man’s image), my anarchism is refined beyond the stereotype of chaos often used to depict anarchy.

My conventional political standing is one of liberal socialism, but I see how that can be just one small remove from communism. My anarchism has its basis in the works of Naom Chomsky, who defines anarchy as “…a tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and sceptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.” Anarchy is people working together, where exploration and discovery aren’t suppressed or monetised. Dogs do that really well.

What I’ve achieved over the last four years, I’ve achieved by working with the system, learning how it works and respecting those who work within it. I can’t help thinking though, that it all would have been a lot quicker if those people weren’t employed by government.

Life is like a jigsaw puzzle: All the pieces fit together eventually. But if you follow convention and complete the edges first, you’ll finish the puzzle too quickly. Think differently.

Cyrus Song will be published on or before 17.08.17.

A prelude to the Cyrus Song

THE WRITER’S LIFE

So, there’s going to be this book. I may have mentioned it once or twice. That’s because it’s a good book, and it’s not just me who says so. And everything surrounding the book has just happened, by weird coincidence and by virtue of the number 42.

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Coincidences are there to be found in many things, if you look enough. It just so happens that Cyrus Song took about seven months to write. Since then, it’s gone through another two months of compiling, editing and re-reading. In my own eyes, it’s perfect. There are one or two reviews due back from test readers in the next few days, but the reviews so far have been good:

I don’t think I’ve read anything else which is as funny as it is deep.”

A worthy tribute to Douglas, but it’s totally its own thing.”

Very, very clever.”

I love all the little tributes buried in here.”

And so on (names and addresses supplied).

There’s much more besides, happening on my own planet and in the wider world, but I’m pre-occupied with getting this book out. I’m still suffering separation anxiety from my characters while they’re in the care of the beta readers. So what about when the book is published, and Simon fry, Hannah Jones et al, are in the hands of (hopefully) many readers? By then, they’ll be characters I’m proud of enough, and confident in, to send out into the wider world. I love them anyway: They’re people I created, including all their problems, and they’re people I care about. While they’re still with those remaining test readers, they’re still effectively out on approval. They’re like my children on the first day of pre-school.

Many people reading the book, may actually learn a lot. Not just from the story itself, but from all the factual information in there. I always do a lot of research, and that’s certainly true of this book. All the science is plausible, and many of the places actually exist. When it comes to London Zoo, the animals in the book are the animals actually at ZSL Regent’s Park at time of writing: Kumbuka, the silverback gorilla, is real, as are the pair of black mambas in the reptile house. And there are many others, from Aardvark to Zebra.

Now that the manuscript is otherwise complete, and the book proofed, I can take a stab at a publication date (which adds up to 42): 17.08.17. Whereas – like Douglas – I’ve previously loved the whooshing sound a deadline makes as it passes, this may be one where I can jump off of the train while it’s still moving, and hit the platform running: If anything, Cyrus Song should be released by that date, so possibly before. I’m sure I’ll find a way of making 42 from whatever numbers they are.

And now that the time approaches and I’ve had almost all feedback, I can write a longer synopsis to the one on the back cover of the book:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones is a veterinary surgeon. She has a quantum computer, running a program called the Babel fish: Like its fictitious namesake, the Babel fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is fairly sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus Song is the story of Mr Fry’s ponderous mission to find answers to questions he never knew he had, about himself, life, the universe and everything. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. But in a way, it is, because the book is a greater story: Animals talk; There are pan-galactic microscopic animals; and there are white mice. There’s a rabbit, because all rabbits always look like they want to say something. We find out the truth about many animals, including what the cats are up to. There’s an accidental human clone, a large supporting cast of characters, and many tributes in cameo roles for people whom I admire. I’ve buried some Easter Eggs in the book too.

And there is an answer. There’s an answer to life, the universe and everything, besides 42 (although 42 does get a mention). It’s a tribute to Douglas Adams and I saved the best review till second-to-last:

This is a worthy offshoot of Douglas’ books, and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A tribute, but very much original.” (Name and address supplied).

It’s science fiction but it’s plausible; It’s deep in meaning, and very funny. I can’t say much more beyond the extended synopsis, because of what’s in the book. People may read this book and choose not to give too much away: A bit like the film, The Cabin in the Woods, talking about it could reveal spoilers. That’s what I hope for most: for those who’ve read it to say to others, “You just have to read it.”

Soon my creation and my characters will be out there in the wider world, and I have every confidence they’ll do well. You have been listening to the prelude to the Cyrus Song, brought to you by the number 42.

How the fuck did you think of this? Where did you get the idea?” (With my imagination).

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The Unfinished Literary Agency (First edition)

FICTION

As I continue to write short stories for a second collection, there are two so far in that next book from The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a theme which pops up in other stories, but the agency itself has published four stories so far. This was the first, and it’s in my first anthology…

Horror writer desk

The Unfinished Literary Agency

The Unfinished literary agency was like no other that I’d worked for. In all my years of writing, I’d simply not heard of them. The first I’d ever heard of them was when I received a letter on headed paper. It was a rather fine letterhead: an off-white recycled stock, with the agency’s details die-stamped in blue ink. Intriguingly, the telephone number was prefixed “01”: an old, old London number. The letter said that they had some unfinished work which they would like me to complete: I had been summonsed by – or from – the past. I had neither the time nor the inclination to visit them in person, although I did some research and found that the agency was above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington.

It was a hot summer afternoon when my friends found the diaries. Just in time too, as it had begun to rain and the smell of wet dust filled the air as water hit arid pavements. The diaries were in a battered green skip, outside a building which was being demolished.

There were 126 volumes in all. Some were faux leather-bound journals, some A5 refill pads and even a few school exercise books. Most were stuffed into boxes; one once filled with Xerox toner cartridges. Other books were thrown in amongst the bricks and debris from the building. They weren’t numbered or dated, so I had no way of arranging them into chronological order. They simply sat in boxes in the order they’d been retrieved from the skip by Jasper and Mole.

One journal almost audibly begged to be read, with its lurid New York taxi yellow cover. As I picked it up, it felt like I held a life in my hand, or at least a part of one. In bold, black letters on the front cover was the legend: “I hope these are found when I’m gone. Within these covers, a heart once beat.” There was no hint as to who the author might have been: The writer was simply “I”. “I” had seemingly lived and died there, in Upper Street N1, then been thrown into a skip.

I was working on another project at the time, ghost writing an autobiography. I was a blogger by trade and I surely didn’t have time to read through 126 volumes of someone else’s life. What was I to do? Hand the books into the police and be laughed at? After a period of time, the diaries would be destroyed if no-one had claimed them, or returned to me. Would I really miss the tatty old boxes cluttering up my studio? That life in the skip had already passed. What were my friends to have done if they’d not pulled the journals from the skip though? To leave them there would surely have been criminal. So I kept them, as they’d been dumped in my studio. Jasper suggested I might like to write about the anonymous life found in a skip. As a fiction writer, I could be a biographer who didn’t have a clue about who their subject was. I’d get around to them eventually.

Two terrible things happened in the month that followed: Mole, ironically, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and began an intensive course of chemotherapy; Jasper was killed, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Everything can change in a moment, without warning and forever. For several weeks afterwards, I looked at the journals in their boxes and wondered how I’d feel as I read them. They represented a time when all was well, when Mole and Jasper had found them. Perhaps I ought to leave things that way.

The journals languished in their boxes for a year before I finally started to read them. I’d resisted before because I knew that my inquisitive nature would turn the books into a personal mission: who wrote them? Who was “I”? Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. The journals provided a link to Mole and Jasper. To be honest, I needed an escape into someone else’s life.

It wasn’t the yellow taxi volume I picked up first. The one I started to read was an anonymous black book, much like most of the others, and chosen at random. It started in the middle of a sentence: “…I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed. My blood is everywhere…”

I didn’t know who I was reading about and that anonymity meant that each sentence was a story in itself: Who was this? Why was he bleeding? What on earth had happened? Despite the fact that he was bleeding, the writer continued with sufficient clarity as to maintain a tidy style of handwriting: the individual letters were scribed with care; grammar and punctuation were perfect. He just carried on. Occasionally there were dates: days and months but not years. Sometimes the writing referred to events which I could attach approximate dates to – mentions of news events and programmes on TV – but still, there were 125 more volumes to comb through.

Eventually I pieced sufficient volumes together to work out that the stabbing incident had occurred when “I” was 14. But when was this? How had a 14-year-old boy been stabbed and what were the consequences? With no means of knowing which journal to read next, I was drawn into the story: I may have to read all of the volumes to fit things together. There is no recording of the time of day that the stabbing happened. The volume I was reading could even be the last: “I” could have died aged 14.

The text in that particular volume became gradually more rushed. Words clashed with the edges of pages as they hit. The author was trying to fit as much in as possible before the pages – or time – ran out. I was just skimming; hoping to find out. Maybe I should hand these diaries in to the police after all? But “I” hadn’t. It were as though he’d entrusted all of this information to the journals and my job now seemed to be one of unravelling, in private.

I managed to find the volume which followed the book of the bloodshed. I realised that the easiest way to achieve this was to look at just the first page of each notebook: I was simply looking for a sentence which began part way through, because the last page of the bloodshed book ended mid-sentence, with I “…bleeding from my insides, spilling my guts for all to see. How am I to explain something which I don’t understand but which has nonetheless happened? I feel light headed, like the blood is draining from my brain and pouring from the same exit wound…”

And that’s where it ended. He’d bled through a whole volume. An exit wound? Had he been shot? Is this why he couldn’t go to the police? Was this the last chapter? I longed for “I” to take me further. I don’t recall how many first pages I read but the one that stopped me was the one which began, “…and all because of my sex.” Was he homosexual? It mattered not a jot but it was the only thing I could think of.

As I read further, the river of blood slowed to a trickle and was eventually stemmed. Perhaps if I’d been less presumptuous, I’d have realised sooner that the poor young lad had been having his period. He was a girl.

Why wouldn’t I want to pry around a teenage girl’s intimate thoughts? The diaries became more than curios from then. No longer was it just a mystery thriller; now it was eroticism. I had metaphorically tasted virginal, vaginal teenage blood. Now I had an angry angel. I wanted to know who this young writer was, why she had died and been thrown away.

I continued to read the journals in the same random order: just as they’d ordered themselves when they were dumped, as though that was the way the writer had intended. Perhaps I was over romanticising. “I” described things in a way which made me wonder if she ever expected or wanted anyone else to hear about them. But it was manna to a voyeuristic fiction writer with an anonymous autobiography at my disposal.

Although “I” was now a girl, I still didn’t have a name. In a way, I preferred it like that: the anonymity gave the diaries a universality. They were impersonal, so as to reduce the voyeurism a little, and yet “I” wrote of intensely personal things. I figured it was okay to write about these things because she didn’t want her name to be known.

Nothing is certain. That’s the number one cancer cliche. 18 months after Mole’s first course of chemotherapy, the tumours returned. It was difficult to tell which was murdering him quicker: nature or medicine.

My focus now was to try to establish some kind of time line. If I committed to reading all of the journals in detail, I should be able to use the clues I’d previously identified to string things in some rough order. This became an obsession, as I read more and more intimate parts of this girl’s writing. I could almost hear her voice as her pen strokes betrayed her mood. She was always alternately angry and hurried when she wrote of her father. He taunted her regularly, verbally and physically assaulted her. I had to relive episodes with her over and over again, as I placed things in order.

It was her father who shattered one of the biggest illusions for me. Up to that point, I had no idea what “I” looked like but I had imagined her: She was of course small, slim, blonde and extraordinarily pretty. She wore her hair in a pony tail for school and let it down when she got home. She’d sit in front of a mirror and describe herself in her father’s words in her diary: “I’m fat and ugly. I’m useless at everything and never get anything right. I’m stupid and weak. I’ll never amount to anything in my life. When I die – which will hopefully be soon – my epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Vicky Francis, who did nothing, went nowhere and was loved by nobody.’”

Vicky.

I missed the nameless girl of my imaginings. I’d been robbed of my floating abstract, now squeezed into a finite thing. I’d liked this girl with no name, whose every feature was of my own design. I enjoyed her clumsiness, her irrational moments and her occasional desires for outbursts of violence. So what if she was called Vicky?

Vicky had been to many places. In the mid 1970s, she was living with her father in London. From social and current affairs of the time when she wrote, I worked out that she was in her early 20s by then. There seemed to be no-one besides her and the old man and he was drunk most of the time. Vicky paid the bills with cleaning jobs and bar work. The more I read, the more the story changed in itself and the expectations of the reader. It gained greater depth and breadth as first Vicky’s appearance was revealed, then her name. Now it took on some of the period piece, with the addition of a place and time in history: 1970s London, Soho in fact.

Vicky wrote of the seedy Soho of legend in salacious detail: encounters with pimps, prostitutes, punters, gangsters and drug dealers; Hostess bars and clip joints: she didn’t say if she worked in any of them but she wrote with an intimate familiarity, as though she worked around them. She had wild and ambitious plans and was in a hurry to record them in her diary. Some days and hours were dozens of pages long. Vicky would record one day in minute-by-minute detail, then say nothing for a week. I missed her when she was away and would search for the next entry in the journals.

In the little spare time she had, Vicky was working on a project: a biography in fact. She didn’t name her subject but I should like to learn more of him for the basis of a fictional character. The man was a monster: Some kind of tutor but he abused his students when they got things wrong. He was apparently in a permanent drunken state, unable to remember his abuse on the morning after the day before. Very little more is written of this man. Like with so much else with Vicky, once she gets her teeth into something, she disappears while she pursues it. Perhaps it would be dangerous for her to document the details.

In Vicky’s story, this older man was a full 30 years older than her main protagonist. Her character is also 14. The man has much in common with Vicky’s father but he doesn’t abuse her directly. The tutor allowed a young girl’s adulation to get out of hand. Vicky’s father demolished her confidence and ruined her ambitions, over a period of at least a decade. It was an intense and abusive period in her life.

After 1985, the story became vague. The content of the diaries grew gradually more sketchy, as though an outside influence was distracting Vicky, or indeed the character she was writing about: the stories had merged together.

Toward what now appeared to be the end, when Vicky was in her 30s, she was homeless. She was scavenging food from supermarket bins and using a single hob to cook. A typical meal was the one she cooked herself for her birthday that year: an out-of-date chicken madras microwave ready meal, which she over-cooked “to make it a bit safer.”

Mole was nearing the end of his time too. He implored me to step back a little, to stop reading the 126 books so intently and focus – as I was supposed to – on putting them into some sort of order; to form a backbone for the story, then add the bones and fill in the gaps. Maybe then it would take on life. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed to see the whole of Vicky and not selected highlights of her eventful life. I suppose I’d resisted because so many of my assumptions about Vicky had been false. How many others were?

I hope I die as peacefully as Mole did. The sudden but not unexpected ending of one life shone a light into the gaps of the one I was writing about. Vicky revealed a secret so massive that I was momentarily thrown and yet she didn’t write a word about it. After plotting a timeline of the period of her life which I held, I realised what a small part it was. The late 1970s, the whole of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s were missing. Those stories from 1995 still seemed to be the end though.

I estimated that the 126 volumes I’d still only skimmed over, amounted to about 15,000 pages, or 5 million words. Using that as a benchmark for number of words per year and knowing roughly the period of Vicky’s life which I knew about, I calculated the size of the diaries including the missing years. Using this very crude method, I reckoned that there could be close to 1000 journals somewhere: 40 million words, waiting to be heard. Vicky was a very prolific diarist and it would be a lifetime’s work for a biographer to record her life. In which case, a partly remarkable life is lost. And so I had to continue.

But how would I find all of those missing years? Why were there only edited highlights in the skip? I couldn’t believe that Vicky would have stopped for those periods. She always found time to write, whatever she was doing otherwise. If she’d married or got a job, she’d have written about it. It wasn’t so much the sudden ending of the diaries which intrigued me as those big gaps in the narrative. A life which was missing the 80s was a tragedy. Vicky came back afterwards, so where had she been in that defining decade? As a fiction writer, I could fill in the gaps but there was too much of the real story holding me.

I simply couldn’t think where those missing years might be. I didn’t even know exactly where Jasper and Mole recovered the original diaries from because at the time, I’d been so wrapped up in my own world that I’d not bothered to collect them myself. I hadn’t even thought to fucking ask. I’d lost my two best friends, and the one who confided her diaries to me. So I returned to being a fiction writer.

I resolved to confront this man, these men, the people in general, who had made Vicky’s life, so many lives, intolerable. I’d written about many such people: Evil but charismatic; the antagonists in my stories sometimes, but more often than not, the narrators. People who charmed their way into lives, leaving indelible marks. Characters so calculating as to ensure those scars were only on the inside: no-one could see the real harm. Characters whom I’d made anti-heroes and whose appealing looks and personality disguised a black heart. Invisible people.

Just as it is impossible to find someone if you don’t know where they are, it’s easy if you know who you’re looking for. Not only did I know who he was but I knew exactly where to find him.

We had a very pleasant evening together and I was seated at this very writing desk as I poured our last drink. In fact, this very manuscript of Vicky’s and so many others’ unfinished stories, was protruding from the top of my typewriter as I looked through the open curtains in front of the desk, out into the night at the street lamps. A sheet of off-white paper, bearing an unfinished story, the end of which would be determined by me, as I pressed the keys and the individual letters embossed themselves on the sheet. One keystroke, a metallic hammer into a soft surface, changing the story forever.

I stared back at myself from the window as I typed and reflected on such a tragic life, like a rabbit in the headlights:

“The end…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. My publishing schedule is on the book shelf page of this blog.

And you’ve been so busy lately (time in the think tank)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If I could hang my hat on a short story I wrote, it would be Echo Beach. If I can hang my hat on a novel, it’ll be Cyrus Song. If anyone were tempted to read one article on this blog, I’d point them here for now.

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There are many more short stories planned, as well as whole new books. But recently, I’ve had to move things around a little. I’m planning what I think is a very appropriate Christmas gift for my parents (and I’m out of the horror market for now). When you’re given the opportunity to look forward five years, certain plans take shape.

In my last blog post, I mentioned a book which I was planning for my dad. Now that I’ve had time to start plotting it out, it’s going to take longer than I originally thought to put it together. But I’ve resolved to make this book before I move onto the next one. Why would I post this here, in a public forum, and now indelible? The reasons are as simple as the ones I have for writing the book: To hang my hat on a blog post, step forward and offer the chance of final judgement for those who still hide in the background, and who will remain there.

I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter to me, and those who will come after them. And they will attest to this, but not in a kangaroo court.

What went on (that would be me going into meltdown), is all squared with family and real friends: I got drunk. I was addicted (I’m still an addict, and always will be), I was on anti-depressants, which, combined with alcohol, can result in blackouts. But I re-live it, as it is not to be denied. I’ve got a medical record which convinced two tribunal panels that I am mentally ill, but otherwise well in the situation which took so much effort to win, and which now sits around me: A modest, secure home, with a social landlord, meaning long-term security. Now that I have that, I live as a diagnosed functioning alcoholic with chronic depression and anxiety. But I live: Perhaps some people will never be happy with the outcome. Finances are still lacking, so I have to make things. But I digress.

My mum (always affectionately referred to as ‘The Mothership’ here (Hi mum), because she gets me: she was a conspirator in making me), sometimes reads this blog. So am I spoiling a surprise? No. What this post does (if The Mothership reads it) is make a promise to her, in public. She trusts me now, based on the last three years of drawing ever closer as a family. So she knows that I won’t break my promise. And I know that I will be able to refer back to this post in five months or so and be vindicated in the eyes of remaining doubters. To be honest, those people bother me no less than an infection which can be ignored. My point with all of this, is to raise two fingers, with a sharp chop to my inside elbow and a reflex raising of my left hand. It’s my cure for cancer.

Will mum tell dad? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. The book I’m planning is one which they can both look forward to seeing in print. I’ve expanded my research a little, just into the history of the house and village where my mum lived, before she and dad lived together. The rest of dad’s life was spent with mum, in the same places. What occurred to me at first as a way to give a temporarily fading memory something to hook onto, has become more as I’ve plotted it. Now it will be a story of two people and how they left marks together, like names carved in a tree.

Every fine garden which my dad created and tended, will always bear his footprint. Every meal which my mum cooked, back in the family unit day, fed labour, and the imagination of a kid. My parents created the means to tell their story. I am that thing which they made, and this book seems an appropriate way to give something back and say a simple thank you.

I can write, compile, edit and publish a book, all from my desk. There will most likely be only a few copies given away, but the book will have an ISBN as part of the publishing process. My parents and those who know them will have a book. Anyone will be able to buy the book; a slice-of-life story from the Kent countryside (beware of spoonerisms). The bottom line is, I can immortalise my parents: I think that’s a nice gift from a writer, who was given the gift of writing (albeit unwittingly) by his parents. It’s something they can share. They gave me this IQ of 147, and now I know what it’s for.

And they are a proud couple, with every right to be. They are proud of me, and I will always give them every reason to be. They are proud to have such as a strange thing as a writer. I write bedtime stories for my kids now. So I can write a book which tells a brief history of how it all started.

All of which means I’m able to agree with myself that my future publishing schedule should go something like this(ish):

Cyrus Song: Now late August / early September, with 12 days left for final test reader comments.

Quietly, Through the Garden of England: Now the working title, being as it’s the journey of two people who would otherwise have gone unnoticed, but who made such a difference. I’m resolved to December publication.

Reflections of Yesterday (still the working title for an anthology): July 2018. I’m writing the fourth of 17 shorts for this: Longer stories, written in different personal circumstances from The Perpetuity of Memory‘s 25 tales. 42 in total.

Cyrus Song II: December 2018. If my confidence in the original is vindicated, this would be the right time.

Infana Kolonia: July 2019. This is still planned as a sci-fi epic but the current plot takes it to 1200 pages, so it needs some work.

Forgive me No-one: May 2020: My uncensored autobiography, if it’s noteworthy. And that all depends where eight published books gets me if I make 50. I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter, and those who will come after them. Despite what’s in my head sometimes, with this plan in place, I hope I live to be my parents’ age. Maybe then I’ll be half as wise as them.

In the meantime, The Afternaut is shaping up into something really quite original, but which still sticks to the brief sent into the Unfinished Literary Agency. It should now be out in the first half of August, and I think the idea donor will be pleased: Not just with their idea being turned into a story, but knowing that it’s out there and that anyone could read it, if they had time.

And you’ve been so busy lately
that you haven’t found the time
To open up your mind
And watch the world spinning gently out of time
Feel the sunshine on your face
It’s in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space…

(Out of Time: Blur, Ben Hillier, Marrakech, 2002).

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Separation anxiety in nostalgics

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Despite suffering from diagnosed chronic anxiety in general, the separation kind is the specific one which I’m able to deal with most effectively. Obviously my main separation anxiety is with that from my children. But we all agree that things worked out in a funny way for the best, so the month between each meeting is one spent looking forward to the next. The most difficult separation to deal with at the moment, is the one from my own fictional characters. And then there’s the one my dad has, from the past…

Nostalgia pencils2

Simon Fry, Hannah Jones and the others have been away with test readers now for three weeks. Those readers still have just under two weeks left to do their thing, then Cyrus Song will be out not long after. While the manuscript has been out, I’ve finished all editing, other than any which might be suggested by the beta readers. So now I’m restless.

Part of the angst is anticipating the forthcoming launch of the book. I’d convinced myself it was a good book a long time ago, which is why writers need test readers. I’ve re-read the book after doing my best to ignore it for a month, and it’s still good. I’ve had positive comments and reviews from casual readers, but it all hinges on the two remaining test readers with whom I have contracts. As I’ve said recently and in the past, being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. And I still miss my characters.

I’ve started plotting the sequel to Cyrus Song, I’m writing new short stories (The Afternaut will be the next one, in a week or two), and I’m working on some freelance projects. I’ve also started a small personal project, which will benefit very few, but for those very few, it ought to be a nice thing. A little recent history will help to place things into context:

My dad (75) has had some neurological issues for some time now, and he was recently diagnosed with excess fluid around the cerebellum of his brain. He’s seen a consultant and had an MRI scan, and the hope is that the fluid can simply be drained to alleviate what is hopefully a temporary condition. An intelligent man, my dad has grown frustrated at times, because his condition affects his short-term memory and his orientation. Just as I envy my own children and the technology they will have available to them later in life, so it is quite tragic that my dad and many others don’t have access to, nor understanding of, current technology.

Dad is interested in many things, but mainly history. A labourer all his working life, he worked at stately homes and public schools, with all of the history and stories which such places hold. Like me, he’s not only interested in things but how those things work and how they came to be, and how we have moved on since. He’s interested in the history of places and things which he has a connection to: It’s a classic case of nostalgia.

Well, my dad’s own son (that’s me) is a writer, with access to technology and research tools. After some searching, I’ve managed to track down a reprinted copy of a book from 1917 about Ightham and the surrounding area. Ightham is the village where myself and my sister grew up, where our parents worked for a wealthy family and we lived on their private estate, in the grounds of Oldbury Place. It was a childhood filled with hopes and dreams, in a 19th century stable cottage built of Kentish ragstone, set in the middle of a private woods.

Beyond the grounds of the main house is Oldbury Hill and Oldbury Woods, with its caves and remains of an Iron Age hill fort. In Ightham itself, there are many buildings and places of note, the most famous of which is Ightham Mote. The village and surrounding areas have been populated by historical figures, landed gentry, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. It’s a small Kent village, absolutely stuffed with history and fascinating facts.

My dad’s not really one for reading, although my mum is. I’ll give the 1917 book to my mum as a keepsake, but short of her actually reading my dad bedtime stories, he wouldn’t gain much from that arrangement. So before I hand the book over, I’m going to do some additional research of my own, to pull in some points of interest specific to my dad. Then I’m going to write a book: A very small book, in large print and with pictures. It won’t be a commercial release; It’ll be a one-off. I can use the publishing process I’d normally use for a mainstream book and order printed book proofs at relatively low cost. So what my dad will get, will be a personalised historical record of some of the places he’s attached to, in an easy to read and digest format: Oldbury and Ightham, Yotes Court (an 18th Century house), and Tonbridge School (founded in 1553). In comparison to the places he’s worked, my dad is very young. And I want to take him back there with his book.

Perhaps there’ll come a day when I’m no longer judged by some people for my wrong deeds (which I made amends for and pay the price for daily). Maybe those same people might undertake some research of their own, so that they can see how alcohol and anti-depressants can lead to blackouts. They might one day even ask me themselves, rather than continuing to judge. Frankly, I have nothing to say to such people: It’s all in this blog. And a lot more besides, about the various ways I’ve helped others and continue to do so.

What I’m keen to be judged on, is the new novel. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks my separation anxiety will be over, when my characters return to me. Then me and them can get out there in the wider world, while we write a sequel. And soon my dad will feel younger again.Staedtler Noris 122Cyrus Song should now be out around the end of August. A Personal journey through the garden of England is pencilled in for December (with a Staedtler Noris 122).

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 🙂

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.