Sunday, 18 November 2018

Politics & Fiction

I regard myself as a political person. I also regard myself as a political writer. Whatever that means... 

I've written a novel about homegrown terrorism. My current novel is about post Peace Agreement Northern Ireland and also has a character who launches an assault against the symbols of patriarchy. So two absolute touchstone political themes given the centrality of Northern Ireland to the current Brexit farrago and the MeToo movement.

Yet my books will not bring about any change. They will have not one iota of impact on these issues. Not just because a well read literary fiction book means having had up to 2000 readers, a tiny drop in the ocean when it comes to influencing political power. Even J.K.Rowling whose books have been read by millions, and significantly she got readers when they were young and impressionable, yet when she ventures to express a political opinion, her views are dismissed and she is told to concentrate on addressing what she knows about, boy wizards. Britain, the country that in the Brexit referendum were offered the opinion that we no longer trust experts, has never really trusted, or been terribly interested in the opinions of its artists, outside of their art.

Somewhat of a pity I think. SJ Bradley's book "Guest" asks the question how could the British state ever credit that it could penetrate environmental protest movements as threats to national security; and to allow the police force to plant undercover officers who set up false families with members of these groups to the point of siring children whom they then walked away from once their operations were deemed over. Her novel ought to prompt inquiries into both of these legally and morally dubious events. Haroun Khan's novel "The Study Circle" which represents every possible shade of thought, identity and values throughout the entire spectrum of British Muslims, should be compulsory reading for any politician who would review the anti-terrorist "Prevent" strategy, which is not fit for purpose and incidentally is racist in its profiling. I have an 18,000 short story/novella about youth knife crime. But amidst all the hand-wringing currently indulged in by politicians and the judicial system as another 5 young lives bleed out on London streets in the last week, would any of them in their calls for contributions of causes and solutions ever conceive of admitting the offerings of an author like me? 

So you can call yourself a political author and it really amounts to very little in reality. In my case my work goes a lot further than these specific issues. It is radical, calling into question accepted notions of the consensus of what we call reality, or truth. And especially the notion that out language develops organically and therefore is neutral since no one is in control of its development. But no matter how radical the challenges to received/accepted truths, they are only offered in the context of a work of fiction. Being radical within your narrative form may tilt at some sacred cows within the history and heritage of literature, but counts for precisely nought in the wider world. Fiction, by its very name, is largely offering escapism into the world of the novel, rather than direct engagement in the real world. It's called suspending your belief, not a great catalyst for real world analysis. 

All an author can do is contribute the ideas contained within their novels to the repository of all human knowledge and who knows, maybe it will eventually reach critical mass through readership to change people's perceptions. But don't hold your breath. Orwell's lacerating visions of Soviet Communism in "1984" and "Animal Farm" did nothing to hasten their collapse. And Harriet Beecher-Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" may well have influenced some thought in the Northern United States, but it still took a bloody civil war (fought as a struggle of competing economic and cultural ways of life rather than any idealistic liberty reasons) to dismantle slavery. 

You might also be interested in:
Can fiction writers also be political activists?
What Can Fiction Tell Us Of Real Life? 
Remembering Clause 28
The Author - holy fool or underground revolutionary?
The Politic Body - New Political Metaphors For A New Politics
Grenfell Tower Fire - A Dereliction Of Political Duty

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A Literary Scavenger Hunt Around Paris

Join me for my Paris vlog - invited there for an event, I took the opportunity of checking out a couple of Paris' most famous literary spots. Musing on art and death in Montparnasse Cemetery and generally being an Englishmen abroad. Enjoy! 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Remembering Clause 28

I recently read a (sub-)cultural history of the UK from 1967-2005 through the eyes of a Radio DJ who presided over that era with all its changing musical and social trends (You can view my review in the second half of this video). The author had given context to each chapter with an item from the national news from that year, which kindled my memory as much as the music he wrote about. What struck me in particular were the host of politicians who were brought back to mind, but who have long since disappeared from consciousness. Any legislation they were responsible for, has disappeared along with them; either repealed, fallen into disuse, or just being of utter inconsequence to deny them any kind of legacy in the history books.

However I want to talk about one MP in particular whom I will never allow to lapse from my memory, through his iniquitous contribution to the laws of the UK. His name is David Wilshire and he was responsible for one of the grossest acts of prejudice and inequality ever committed to the statute books. 

First some context, it was the mid 1980s, AIDS was just rising to the public consciousness and was being solely portrayed as a "Gay Disease" by media and Conservative government alike. The Left in the UK was very much on the retreat in the face of the typhoon that was Thatcherism sweeping away every single institutional form of collective organisation and action. However, there was one last outpost for the Left, local government in the large cities, where socialism held sway and indeed was the incubator for the current Labour Party leadership troika of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonald and Diane Abbott. These councils were committed to policies of equality and diversity and despite having their budgets slashed by central government, funded a few organisations whose mission was to support those discriminated against in society. These circumstances formed a perfect storm.

With proposed new legislation being considered by Parliament to further restrict the funding for local government, David Wilshire tacked on an amendment called "Clause 28" which stated that a local authority 
"shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

The Bill with this Clause 28 was passed into law, thus enshrining prejudice, discrimination and homophobia within the British constitution.  Even at the time there were those dubious as to how a legal definition of 'promoting' could be established, but the mere notion that someone's sexual orientation could be determined through proselytising or whispering in the ear is as old and pernicious as saying that homosexuality and pedophilia are one and the same. This is further added to by the phrasing that a loving homosexual couple can only be a "pretended family relationship". 

Such logic represents prejudicial thinking and bigotry and nothing less. It is of the same warped logic that views Jews as controlling the world's finances, or that non-white races are inferior. It is buttressed around religious notions of family and children and all manner of biblical citations against same sex relationships. 

I wrote to David Wilshire MP to register my objections to a law that would not impact on me (unless one of my as yet future progeny identified as gay), but to my very marrow I felt was unjust and inimical to peaceful,compassionate living together in our societies. He wrote back saying could I address my concerns with my own local MP rather than bother him? I wrote back pointing out that this had been his personal amendment and therefore not unreasonable to request a response. He never replied to that. (This represents a failing in UK democracy, since all MPs represent a political party and if yours happens to be in a party with no power through being out of government, then they have no means of addressing any national issue that divides according to party lines).

Clause 28, as so many laws in the UK, proved unenforceable, because they are so badly drafted from a legal point of view despite the Parliaments of that era being dominated by MPs who were formerly lawyers. It was constantly being challenged as to whether it only covered the local councils themselves (who were responsible for state schools), or whether it extended to teachers, headmasters, school governors and guidance counsellors. The law wasn't used in an active way to prosecute anyone and was eventually repealed in the 2000s. It achieved precisely nothing other than to chill coming out, to deny opportunities for school guidance counsellors and to deal with anti-gay bullying in schools. 

What it did do was galvanise the Gay Rights movement in the UK and irony of ironies has led to where we are today legislatively, with gay marriage enshrined in law and homosexual partnerships broadly accorded the same status in law as heterosexual ones including child adoption. So much for the "pretended family relationship". 

I don't do political marches on the whole, (I dissect the purpose and efficacy of the political demonstration in my novel "Not In My Name"). But I marched against Clause 28. And it was the most enjoyable march I have been on. Through an actress friend of mine, I ended up marching with her under the "AARGH" banner of cartoonists and graphic novelists. AARGH stood for "Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia" and was started by the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. I've still got the issue of the original comic somewhere. The publishing company was called "Mad Love". 

No one remembers David Wilshire MP because his squalid little piece of legislation has been buried by events taking their course, to see such a mindset very much a minority position a mere 30 years later. However, there are still unpleasant echoes from that time, in that transgender people are facing claims that 'vulnerable' children can be convinced that they are in wrongly gendered bodies, that transitioning can be 'promoted' where its notion otherwise would not exist. We also still had a member of the UK Independence Party recently claiming that UK floods were a punishment from God for legislating gay marriage into law. So still some prejudicial barriers and thinking to be conquered then. Still, on the plus side, a likely further irony of ironies, is that the Anglican Church may very well destroy itself as it is split down the middle over gay priests, so where will that leave Biblical 'proofs' and citations against homosexuality? 

However, even if Wilshire has all but disappeared from people's memories, I just want to provide a coda on his fate. For a man who apparently believed in the sanctity of the family, even back in 1988 he was living with a partner as a commonlaw wife. A wife whom he employed in his Parliamentary staff and proceeded to channel public funds into a company nominally run by her. To such an extent, that his own local Conservative Party association wanted to replace him as their MP and under pressure he decided not to run for the constituency again. For a man who claimed that Clause 28 was not about bigotry, but about the use of taxpayers' money, funny thing was he wasn't above using taxpayers' money to make outrageous claims for decorating and refurbishing his second home in London -  this for the MP whose constituency was next to London Heathrow airport and therefore of dubious legitimacy that he even needed a second home in London in order to carry out his Parliamentary duties.  

David Wilshire, most people in the UK are unlikely to have ever heard of you, or certainly couldn't recollect you. But I will never forget your name, nor will I ever forgive you your bigotry. 

Related posts:
The Grenfell Fire
I Stand With The National Gallery 27

Sunday, 28 October 2018

11th Century Forest Folio - Flash Fiction

In the days before their wood was pulped for paper to record our stories and lore, the trees ranged tall and proud. Their canopied shrouds woven so dense as to shutter the pagan sun and shackle its chains of stippled light like that inside a cathedral. Thus was it hallowed and christened a Black Forest. The heathen wind beat at the foliose awning demanding its own profaning passage, but it too was unable to part the green sea’s verdant vault. Its bellowing huff only gusted voice to the boscage, stirring the leaves prattle and prating. Suspire and susurration. Their steepling descant the canticles of the forest. Cowled monks up in the gods looking down on the Mystery Plays enacted on the apron of the forest floor. Their incantational exegesis prompting the actors yonder, the same as ants palpated the aphids marching up and down their bark.

Who be those actors? Why they are the shadowy figures without shadows, moving across the leaf litter in the perpetual crepuscular gloom. Red crosses embroidered the length of their surcoats. Or crudely bodkined into the coarse jerkins of their peasant retinue. Emblazoning the furious stigmata of a turn-the-other-cheek god. Their hearts basted in Christian love and Jesus' blood. And then this tenebrous cortege is gone like dissipated rime. Confettied under the wedding troth arch, without any especial espousal nor sermon from the congregation above. For all the inflorescent chatter, do you notice what is absent from among this frondescence? Not a single birdsong to counterpoint the sonorous umbrage. For even a goshawk would be hard pressed to navigate any arrowed path through the copious legion of tree trunks. The aerial choir has been denominated utterly for the arboreal and to stand no avian parishioners.

Without birds, the forest floor was assigned the unchallenged kingdom of insects. Beetles, spiders, woodlice, weevils, earwigs, ticks, grasshoppers, crickets, centipedes and millipedes, patrolling the fallen leaves of oblation. In light of the lack of wind to disseminate the pollinated spores, and the dearth of birds to have the seeds strewn from their brimming maws, the insects are bringers of life and futurity to the trees. But still they also retained their customary character as equerries of putrefaction. The leaves they worked on the ground were desiccated, shrivelled and withered. Wizened blades curled back over, in contorted supplication for vain grant of continued life. Culled and purged, adrift of their ligneous lineages. Packed down upon one another. A tumultuous tumulus. A more brittle rustling patter under the tread of unseen trespassers, than that of the crepitation high above. Parched voices. Dried out and arid, their swathed wreaths are not those crowning triumphal evergreen firs and pines, rather those marking death. Preserved, frozen in the convulsive bearing of their deathly descent. A stopped up scream, released and reprised solely under the boot of human tread, or the padding of insect tarsus and palp.

Yet they are not solely respiring about their own demise. They have preserved an echo across their wan brown corpus. Victim speaking unto victim. Every crispy purl a murmured lamentation to a person slain by those shadowy knights. The hatred locked in their cruciform breasts, passing down like sap through their stride and graving its impression into the skein of the leaf litter. Each sepal a memorial flame for those who have no altars or grottos of their own to hold any such candles of commemoration. The Jews’ churches having been razed, their quondam settlements erected in clearings in the forest, now themselves cleared and returned to the bosom of the earth, the bones of their people to the soil. Soon there would be no sign that they had ever dared to carve out some land for themselves they had once called home. It was as if the knights had been summoned up by the forest to reclaim its dominion from these trespassers. Their sacred mutual blood bond to extirpate all usurpers both here and in the holy land. Each year retold by the tramp of the local villagers, the woodcutters and charcoal burners, the poachers and smelters who are deaf to the tale drummed up by their own boots. A fresh carpet folio of leaves each year, though gradually more of the forest would be cleared, greedily gobbled up by the town of Mainz, where in time the printing press would arise to preserve a definitive record and the leaves would have to recite the litanies of death for the People of the Book no more. But in a deeper time, considerably removed from before trees were culled for printing paper, their ancestors lay pressed and pulped far subterranean and submerged. A fuel source markedly outstripping that of charcoal and timber and one that would power the factories of death that would burn the descendants of the surviving Jews of Mainz, Worms and Trier. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Stay Tuned - Flash Fiction

The Television beamed a white singularity at its dark star epicentre, while broadcasting an emergency peal to extinguish it from its late night oblivion.

The gramophone’s stylus had obtained the run off grooves at the end of the cloverture and each revolution brought it back with a crepitant entreaty to put it out of its Sisyphean agonies. 

The spun bottle for a party of one, had ceased its vorticing having discharged its Dutch Courage truths and dispensed its incontinent dare. Happenstance it had come to a stop with its unsealed orifice supplicating the gap at the bottom of the back door, so that each time the breeze got up, the glass aperture fluted a wheezy invocation. 

The deadweight and gravity had conspired to silence the creaking twirl of the musician’s suspended corpse by comporting it to plumb line stasis. However, the periodic cracking of the distending leather belt syncopated the gouge of the stylus across the vinyl. 

Would the cadaver be discovered by the estranged wife returning their young son from an outing treat, before the reproductive cycle of flies burst bombinating from their pupal husks? 

Stay tuned… 

Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Author - Holy Fool or Underground Revolutionary?

Dr Rowan Williams did a fabulous TED talk about a Russian novel in the tradition of the nineteenth century greats and in particular the concept of the ‘yuródivyy’ or holy fool. Now the concept of people acting as fools or jesters persist in many cultures, Stewart Lee writes about the Pueblo Indians’ function within their societies as fools to both delimit and permit the boundaries of behaviour within that society. But while Russian holy fools also performed a social function, their’s specifically were to offer new ways of coming to Christ. Their unconventional behaviour and acts, was as Williams offers, utterly selfless, for the holy fool has renounced worldly trappings in order to serve others to come to Christ. 

So these holy fools sacrificed themselves, their egos and were ascetics in an absolute sense. I don’t think writers necessarily sacrifice their egos, after all which writer doesn’t want to head a bestseller list in their category or win a literary prize? But in a sense they do, at least during the writing of a novel, have to give up their own sense of self (or at least take it down a notch or two), in order to open up channels to be able to write others, that is characters, who might be very far removed from their own being in life. They do a service to mankind, they must be or why else would people read fiction? Williams’ introduction gives a fair perspective on what this service might look like to readers and what fiction offers.

But then there is another credo or articles of faith, also from nineteenth century Russia, that might be applied to fiction authors. Revolutionary nihilism. Below is the first part of the “Revolutionary Catechism” composed by nihilist Sergey Nechayev:

1. The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

2. The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilised world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.
3. The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order. 

Now, just replace the word ‘revolutionary” with the word writer, and the word ‘revolution’ with the word writing. (I have had a T-shirt designed with just this. I wore it for the launch of my new book).

For point 1 of the catechism, the writer effectively minimises his/her attachments because he/she stays in to write instead of going to the pub or the cinema. Writing is a solitary occupation, at least until the manuscript is delivered to the editor. As to point 2, some writers do take on established truths in their writing and critically dissect them in a way that may completely undermine them from thereon. Point 3 is both that the writer cannot be dogmatic in his/her approach, that is cannot restrict themselves through treating existing knowledge, values and ideas as sacred cows; but also that he/she must do their research in many fields of knowledge. 

So like the holy fool, the revolutionary too is an ascetic. He/she too operates outside the norms and codes of socially acceptable behaviour. He/she too is to have no sense of self, other than a pure embodiment of revolution. However, fiction writing is a poor instrument for politics and political change. Fiction writing is first and foremost entertainment and unlike say television, by and large only a small percentage of the population are reading novels. Though I regard myself as a political author writing (non-party-) political books, I also acknowledge that being an author is to political activism, what the sniper is to the battlefield; ensconced 3 miles safely behind your own lines, picking off victims who have no awareness of your existence and no right to return fire (our characters and society's holy cows we may take aim at).

Though not precise matches of course, I think these two models are reasonable models for considering the role of the fiction author. What do you think? 

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Is Booker Winner "Milkman" An Experimental Novel?

I was delighted when Anna Burns' novel "Milkman" won the Booker Prize for 2018. From my review video below you can see I was rooting for it to triumph.

However, I was surprised to see it so often described as an experimental book.

It's a novel that works entirely through its language, an everyday speech (albeit lyrical in parts) that is restricted whereby certain words and concepts are not permitted for political reasons. This is what i admire so much about the book, that everything emerges from its language. Anthony Burgess did a similar thing in his book "A Clockwork Orange", creating a whole new slang language for his youth gangs to speak in. But like "Milkman", the language remains consistent and it's a question of the reader getting used to the vocabulary of these languages and then passage through the novel becomes easier. Therefore I'm dubious that this makes either novel experimental. What they are is unconventional.

What do we mean by experimental novels? I'm not sure it's a term that has much use to us in terms of better understanding the literature we read. Often it is used as a term of abuse; that somehow the author didn't have a clear idea in her head where she was going with the concept, or where it was going to end up, or that it's somehow unfinished or just a doodle, rather than a fully realised work. I reject these for the following reasons; If author, editor and publisher deem the book fir to be published, then it is finished; while there are plenty of authors writing mainstream fiction who start their new work without having a clear plan from beginning to end of the plot, because they like to see where their dialogue with their characters takes them and the book. It's what we call 'Pantsers' as in seat of the pants writers.

Yet the concept of experimental is fraught with problems. How many formalistic conceits (or devices) does it take to make a book experimental? I loved Tony White's novel "The Fountain In The Forest", which uses mandated language it has to get into each chapter, in this case taken from the solutions to the Guardian Quick Crossword from a specific month during the 1980s. It also has chapter headings from the French Revolutionary calendar that briefly swept away the Julian one we use. But other than those two elements, it is a police procedural on the theme of policing dissent and political protest. Are those two elements enough to make it experimental?

Another thing about experimental books is that the formalist conceit can only be used once to be considered genuinely experimental. If those that follow use the same device, it is no longer truly pathbreaking. So BS Johnson's 1969 book "The Unfortunates", in which the pages are in a box and the reader can choose their own way through by choosing which chapter to read next, is I think 'experimental', though I have no idea if anyone beat him to the punch previously. Those digital novels where you can choose the your path through the book are the same, only they operate with digital rather than analogue technology. 

BS Johnson himself is an interesting study in the concept of experimentalism. He called himself an avant garde writer rather than an experimentalist, but across his oeuvre, his books perhaps not unnaturally, varied in the amount of experimental conceits they employed. "House Mother Normal" for example is of similar form to Rashomon, many different perspectives describing the same event they all share as witnesses, but Johnson was beaten to the punch by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by 54 years. I made a video discussing the variable levels of experimentalism by Johnson across his oeuvre here

Finally I would offer you the example of Mark Danielewski's novel "House Of Leaves" which I read as a highly experimental novel that used words and sentences as architecture on the page to give clues or echo the architecture of the house at the centre of its story. I wanted to see what other readers were saying and was surprised at how many lauded it as a great work in the Horror genre, a notion that never even crossed my mind. What could be better than a book that works both as a high literary formalist work AND a genre piece? And yet, I got to musing as to whether it does work for most across both; if it never entered my head that it was a genre work, just as it seems not to have entered the heads of many of its fans that it's a work of high literariness, then can it be said to have been successful as either, at least for each reader who had a blindspot as to its other literary face?  

So while experimental work is never just tossed out in half-arsed fashion, the uniqueness of each experimental conceit disappears the moment it is realised, while there is no metric for when formal conceits weigh enough to render a book 'experimental'. I'm just not sure it's a useful term at all. And I speak as someone who has been called an experimental writer and whose current book "Three Dreams In The Key of G" has several formal innovations, but I have no idea if that classifies it as 'experimental' because there is no measuring gauge. 

I think we all confuse experimental for 'non-conventional' and it is perhaps an indictment that all us wordsmiths can't come up with a better word for just what it is we do than 'experimental'