Friday, 14 September 2018

The Quietus Symphony - Flash Fiction

The undertakers were professional enough to keep the high wheeled bier sufficiently oiled so that it did not squeak, but the downforce of the wheel caused the wet grass to part crepitant beneath its plucking tread.

Col Legno
With the tapered geometry of the coffin squared flush to the scooped earth’s breastwork, the rain rapped dull knocks on the roof of the wood as if devilkin demanding ingress.

Those vertical, aligned to the perpendicular, began their horizontal assault of mosaic effacement, as steel shovelled clods of earth lapidated the pine with a reverberant timpani.

Amid the straining coarctation against the confining coffin, could be heard the tiny scritchings of various mocking phases of the life cycle of flies; the hatching of larvae from the eggs; the chirr of the maggots at feed and the bursting out from the pupa of the imago. 

What was wholly absent was the swish of angel wings or the thrash of devils’ tails. No sweet soul music emanating from the vaporous excretions of decomposition. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Bathtime Reading

I do most of my reading on my 45minute Tube train commute to and from work. When I do read at home, chances are it’s during a long soak in a nice hot bath. Anything up to an hour, or until the water turns too cold. All the years I’ve done this, (not being a shower person, ever!), I have only lost one paperback to the water. Can’t remember which one it was now. Mind you, should be easy to spot in my bookshelves.

Being a long-suffering insomniac, I am always on the look out for cures. One of my booktube followers Jacqui McMenamin shared that she was also a sufferer and recommended  Epsom salts in a pre-bedtime bath to relax the body sufficiently so as to be unable to resist sleep.

Now you can’t oversoak in a bath designed to relax the muscles and the body as a whole. Instructions on the back of the packet advise 20 minutes. So no more hour-long reads during this experiment. Can’t have the radio or music playing, since I go to bed later than most in my household, so any noise risks waking them up.

I came up with a solution. A dedicated bathtime reading book. One that is sufficiently light so as not to overstimulate emotions or thoughts when the whole aim of the bath is to wind down towards sleep. Something with nice bite-sized chapters so that they fit into a twenty-minute reading window. Something I’m reading in parallel to my main read during the commute, so that it has to be totally different so they don’t bleed one into another.

The book I hit on that meets all these requirements was one already sitting in my TBR pile. It’s non-fiction so no clash with my daytime read. It has the requisite short chapters and is humorous which is always good for lightness. It’s Mark Thomas’ “Extreme Rambling – Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier For Fun”. A book that does what it says on the tin, in which an Englishman undertakes that very British activity of rambling, only in a conflict zone, and all the people on both side of the divide that he meets and talks to. And very entertaining the first 37 pages were last night too. Could be 20% of the way through the book after tonight’s immersion.

The only shortcoming I see with the Epsom salts bath, is washing your hair. I don’t think it’s great to get  Epsom salty water in the eyes, so probably going to have to forego the infusion on hair wash nights. But other than this slight snafu, I’ve rather taken to the concept of a bathtime read, separate and distinct from whatever book I happen to be reading.

Do you read in the bath?

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Society And Children

Why do we have children? A simple enough question. After all we uniquely of all species have liberated ourselves from biologically-driven seasonal reproduction. We have instituted choice in the matter. Most likely having a child together with a partner is the ultimate expression and affirmation of that loving relationship. A creation of new life bearing elements of both partners, but which is a being in its own right, whom the parents can guide and educate to set them on a path of life that may even eclipse their own achievements. Geneticists would probably tell you such sublime rationalisations are us fooling ourselves, since at base we are still propelled by a biological instinct to pass on our DNA. 

Yet there are plenty of bad reasons for bringing a child into the world. To help try and save a relationship. To preserve the numbers of a race or a religion in a demographics war. To produce someone who will love the parent back unconditionally, because that love doesn’t seem available from adult sources. As an expression of your own status as you may hothouse a child to follow your profession, or exhibit as a clothes horse, or to push towards securing a lucrative contract as a sporting superstar. Or perhaps the worst reason of all, no reason. An accidental, unplanned conception taken through all the way to birth in the same aimless manner.

It’s pretty difficult to say whether early 21st Century Britain is a worse place to bring children into than previous eras. Statistics of child poverty still can’t compare with the degradation of the Victorian era workhouse. Headlines of historic child abuse that abounds in the media, revolve around the key word ‘historic’, that is, it is not new. However Rotherham suggests that with social care starved for resources, though we are a society more enlightened about children’s rights, in practise we are little better at affording true protections. 

While children today benefit from technological advances that allow them to overcome social isolation, such connectivity manages just as easily to force them into further retreat in their bedrooms. There is a dearth of real-world meeting points for collective activities, as youth clubs close and playing fields are sold off. The adverts and calls to consume with which they are bombarded is as never before, because it is both remorseless and virtually invisible as their metadata is harvested from their social media ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ in order to profile them as consumers. Children’s mental health is being threatened by this assault upon their senses, to buy, to conform, to perform. The notion of a job for life has been shredded, so that the pressures to achieve an education in order to secure decent employment, enabling the purchase of a house, foreign holidays and the latest tech, probably have increased in the face of these anxieties. Then there is the pressure from children themselves, to foreshorten the period of their childhood and attain adulthood at an earlier and earlier age. To have spending power as consumers. To be sexually active. Children have imbibed an amorphous vague sense of their rights and make demands accordingly as they compare themselves to what they see their parents do. 

Taken altogether, I would posit that our society is probably not ideally set up for bringing children into it. The break-up of the stable family unit, with kids bouncing from pillar to post between the houses of biological mother and biological father and not infrequently being held out as the stakes for which warring parents are playing for, taken together with the break up of communities which used to provide extended child care, mean many children have a less stable, less reliable home environment. Even when parents stay together, they are working longer and longer hours, meaning less time spent at home, prodded by the same employment and money anxieties that will afflict their children on attainment of adulthood. Bringing children into the world I think demands a certain amount of commitment to spending time with them to help their development. With so many things available now to take parents away from their children, through work, leisure, consumption and perhaps having to re-devote time to affairs of the (broken) heart, children may slip down the priority list. It’s a bit of an old fashioned concept these days perhaps, but children really ought to come first and that may involve an element of parental sacrifice. Of course the child’s precocious demands to be recognised and treated as an adult cuts against this, since the parent may give into it and allow the child to fend for itself much more than is healthy.

I knew from quite a young age that I wanted both to have children and to be heavily involved in their upbringing. I was fortunate enough to achieve both and adapted my circumstances accordingly. By mutual agreement with my wife, I eschewed any notions of a career and worked part-time so I could do the majority of the childrearing for our twin boys. We have no car, have taken no holidays and live in a small house. I don’t view any of these as a sacrifice, but were made as rational decisions with regard to our household economy. I saw recourse to public transport in place of a car, as conferring a practical and self-reliant ability to navigate around London for my boys. And though they complained mightily as the school run was performed by bus, even they have both now turned twenty, neither has ventured to undertake driving lessons. (Of course we are privileged to live in a major metropolitan area which has good public transport, such an option isn’t readily available in many parts of the UK). While they are still unencumbered by responsibilities, the boys are taking advantage of travelling and discovering other countries for themselves and don’t seem to have missed out too much on not having been dragged around visiting galleries and museums that their parents view as interesting, or being palmed off with child activity reps as mum and dad just wanted to vegetate around a swimming pool. I always viewed holidays as necessitating the same logistics and catering for the boys as when we were all at home, just without the familiarity and ready provisions of our own house. I don’t have my books around me because the house is too small to allow for wall-to-wall bookcases, which instead reside in a garden shed at the foot of the garden. But with property prices as they are, I feel fortunate to be a homeowner at all. However one of my sons told me he scarcely invited friends round from school, because he was embarrassed how our home stacked up against theirs. So you’re never going to get it right 100% of the time.

To become a parent is one of the biggest decisions and accordingly ought to be an informed one. But whatever detail we apply to the task as parents, I can’t help but feel our society doesn’t support us in bringing the maximum to the role of being a child rearer. 

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Monday, 27 August 2018

The Politic Body - New Political Metaphors For A New Politics

Splicing Biology with Politics has not spawned happy outcomes for mankind. Social Darwinism and Eugenics led to racial justifications of imperialism and the racial purity policies of the Nazis. Alongside all the hopeful medical prognostications made for the Human Genome Project, were also bathetic questions as to whether we would discover the gene for left-handedness, artistic creativity or homosexuality. 

Yet in addition to the dividends of pathological prevention, our understanding of the human genome perhaps surprisingly also offers models of organisation that can be applied to our rather careworn and fraying political frameworks. The human body is a republic at the cellular level. Stem cells are basal structures, from which any of the some two hundred different cell types that make a human body can develop. That they have such potential to provide such a diversity of specialisation is truly compelling. 

Then during the development of the foetus, we have cells that are purely structural support cells, that is they form the scaffolding that allows cells to shuffle along and fall into position. When those cells are in place, the scaffolding cells turn themselves off through apoptosis and die away. Consider the gaps in between your fingers, if the programmed cell death of apoptosis fails for some reason, those scaffold cells remain as webbing between the fingers. While hardly promoting for a campaign of voluntary suicide, such ‘selfless’ sacrifice again embodies the true egalitarianism of cell division and development. 

Of the three hundred million genes contained in our genome, at the latest findings, only some 19-20,000 actively code for proteins. The rest are dubbed ‘junk’ or ‘pseudo’, implying they are without function. However, to dismiss them linguistically as such, overlooks valuable contributions they may hold. Firstly they may bear witness to all the diseases long since defeated throughout human evolution, serving for our biological logbook. But more pertinently, as indicated above, human structural development is spatial as much as chemical. Just because a gene seems to have no overt activity, does not mean it fails to supply an important role as a spacer, for the more active genes to reach across in order to turn their fellow genes on or off. Chemical valency, that is the concentration of atoms which determine chemical bonding, is crucial to the development of the foetus. Cells clumping together may be inert, until the valency of the clump is such as to throw the genetic switch for the next phase of sculpting form, or to initiate the next cell division. The structural development of the foetus allows follows the same order through time, unless the code is damaged or the structure compromised in some other way. The spatial arrangement of all cells in any locality of the form is crucial to the common weal, therefore every cell has a purpose and a stake. The same holds for genes, demonstrably active or not.  

It is these concepts of locality and community, of egalitarianism and diversity rooted in singularity, that I believe are worth further thought as to whether they can be applied to our ideas on politics and political systems. A role for both the scientists as they continue to probe the human genome, but also for artists with their metaphorical input that sometimes can short cut the process. After all, everyone one of us are part of the body politic and we each model it within our very biology. 

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Writing As Metaphor

In my new novel, one of the main metaphors is that of writing. But it is not a book about an author or the act of writing itself, I always feel that is rather self-indulgent. It is more about the role that language plays and how it works (and more significantly how it transmutes) when written down. 

In the late 1990s, all over the globe there was the race to decode the human genome. To set down the language of every one of the 20,000 genes (out of the 3 billion we possess) that constructs and formulates us. Despite the complexity of the DNA molecule, there are only four chemical bases that bond with one another to form genes. This being chemistry, these four bases have conferred a letter abbreviation to stand for them, so the DNA ‘alphabet’ contains just four letters, ‘A,G,C &T’. 

Yet from such a small palette, a myriad of chains of these four letters spells out the complexity of DNA, genes and ultimately us. Our bodies and our consciousness. The human genome is one of the 3 voices of my novel. Being inanimate (at least in the pre-protein expression state), the genome cannot speak for itself, but in the novel it uses our computers it is hooked up to, in order to berate, challenge and bait us; we may have a 26 letter alphabet with which to express every complex idea and invention we’ve ever had as a species, but we get nowhere near approaching the intricate complexity of the DNA molecule and its mere quartet of characters. To the genome, it is as if the alphabets are reversed, we humans only have 4 letters to work with, while it leaves us in its wake with a full complement of 26 characters to permutate meaning from.

The genome wryly comments that its mechanism is the polar opposite from Medieval Monks and Jewish scribes transliterating perfect copies of liturgical texts; one error in transcription and the whole volume is junked, whereas the genome relies on misprints in order to foster variance and mutation to drive evolution. The modern age has come upon the genome with the human desire to ensure there are no errata in its transcribed language and if there are, they can be corrected through science. It is no longer sufficient to operate at the level of the word and the sentence. Now there is a need to drill down to the letters that form the words, as the very DNA of the words themselves. 

Online in the virtual world, you are also dealing with code. With hyper-text and binary computer code that also combine to project personas and people and ideas and well, everything. Just like with genes, hypertext can code non-sequentially, unlike our plodding written syntax of predicate, verb, object noun. The second voice of the novel ‘exists’ incontestably online, but it is entirely unclear whether that equates to a real person in actual life. It is a persona that only announces itself through the electronic written word, yet it appears to present feelings, opinions and have dreams. But can this language be trusted? And it seems to fail to obey the laws of time as it evanesces and disappears from view, only to reappear elsewhere, like the Cheshire Cat. 

The third voice is a mother who confides into her journal in order to retain some vestige of adult conversation, having been surrounded all day by two young daughters. But the pages of her journal are out of chronological order. The development of her daughters which proceeds in a fairly fixed sequence controlled by their genes, is fractured in the non-linear reportage of her writing. Where she lives in sectarian Northern Ireland, murals, colours and the visual image out-trumps the written word. In trying to shield her daughters from the violence, she is trying to assert the primacy of the written over the visual.

But all three are unconsciously writing part of one of the others. The online voice is threatening to use the open source data about the human genome, to undertake some radical genetic engineering of her own. Which is possibly why her compound is currently under siege from the authorities, an event followed online by the mother far away in Ulster. And she herself is battling with the stages of maturation pre-programmed in her daughters by their genomic programme, trying to support their development, including helping them to learn to write. 

So this is a book about language and writing, but it is not about writers. It is about a pre-coded language, working away at the unconscious level. And it is when this writing goes wrong, when there are errata, it can produce dire consequences. A mutation changes the replicated code within a gene and can lead to a debilitating genetic condition. The mother is stymied in trying to trace the development of her second child, when the journal reporting that of her first child is shuffled out of order. While the online written broadcasts to help save fellow souls, has attracted the wrong sort of attention and has lead to a siege that is likely to end catastrophically, pursued by men with three-lettered acronyms stencilled on the back of their flak jackets. Men whose lives are entirely ordered and prescribed by their three-lettered alphabets such as FBI, ATF, DEA. Her online posts are attacked by viruses and digital interdiction that unravels the very letters of her typed words. 

We are all written, yet none of us are characters in a work of fiction. 

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Book Launch - Reading & In Conversation with Lee Rourke

So my novel "Three Dreams In The Key Of G" was officially launched at Burley Fisher Books in Hackney with a reading and then hour long discussion between me and fellow author Lee Rourke about the book's themes; reality and fiction, feminism and the patriarchy, biological determinism and culture, consciousness and imagination and the role of language.

In conversation with Lee Rourke


Watch out for some big news about the book to be revealed next week!

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon  and all good book shops in the UK

Sunday, 12 August 2018

I Stand with The National Gallery 27

The first ever political demonstration I ever participated in was during the mid-1980s when I was a student and we were protesting against the new government policy of privatising State-run services. In this case it was the cleaning services of National Health Hospitals, which were the first in what was to become a creeping tide of such government ideological driven policy. The justification was always cost efficiencies, but what panned out was a loss of all the institutional expertise built up over decades and a lack of inherent commitment as the drive was the private contractor's profits and not any allegiance to the institution being serviced. The rise of the hospital 'super-bugs' (hospital acquired infections) was a direct consequence of such corner-cutting and cost-saving. 

It was on that first demo I learned that if you're using bed sheets for your banners, you need to ensure you cut holes in the fabric for the wind to pass through, otherwise your banner serves as a ship's sail and you get blown about like a vessel on the high seas...!

I no longer go on demos. The reasons why are explored in my novel "Not In My Name". I also happen to have as one of my roles in my day job, an oversight over HR and the attendant legislation. So it grieves me that some 34 years after that first protest against cutting jobs under the supposed reason of 'cost saving', that recently another example has come to my attention.

After government ideology pursued privatising a whole raft of local and national services, then they attacked the arts. Previously the arts were partly supported by state funding because it was viewed as an asset to the nation, be it our souls, our welfare, our mental health, our personal development or whatever. The Arts were held to be a good thing and worth supporting in a modest way. But that cut cut cut 80s ideology (these days dressed up in the guise of 'Austerity'), demanded that Arts funding should be slashed and that the Arts had to support itself, that only the bottom line of profit would determine what art gets made. This had a chilling effect, in that less commercial art was less likely to be ventured and risked by both venues and artists themselves. 

But though at a lower level, the Arts are still supported from central funds, through the Arts Council. Museums that are free entry are supported by government funding. And yet here we have a national museum, The National Gallery, who are still pursuing the turkeys voting for Christmas policy of cutting their own costs, in this case through legally dubious and ethically abhorrent means (see below). Instead of standing up for the rights of arts, some institutions are complicit in the creeping assault on them by allowing that the government are right in pursuing these policies. 

In the case of the National Gallery, they have made a group of 27 arts educators who had worked there for many years, redundant without any of the usual attendant employment rights and compensations. They have used the ploy of saying that such workers were self-employed. The workers not unreasonably are taking them to an employment tribunal, but as is ever the case with any legal process, that costs money and they are seeking to raise funds so that they can at the very least have their case put forward and heard. I am not an expert on employment tribunals, but longevity of work for the same employers usually entails full employment status with all the attendant rights. Thus they believe they have a strong case and in the UK, tribunals often find for the workers claiming rights have been denied.

So I am squarely with the @standwithNG27 and you can find out about their case and offer support if you are so minded here

As it's going to tribunal, at least I won't have to cut holes in any bed linen.


The Grenfell Tower Fire - How local government ideology has directly led to this tragedy

Monday, 6 August 2018

Sacrificing Children On The Altar Of Literature

The two questions any author gets asked the most, are ‘where do your ideas come from?’ and ‘do you use real life people for your characters?’. If the answer to the latter is yes, the follow up question, is ‘do they know?’

The child psychologist Jean Piaget drew up his theories partly through observation of his own children. Sigmund Freud psychoanalysed his daughter Anna and though anonymised, she was the case study for “A Child Is Being Beaten” published in 1919. Neither author was challenged at the time over any questionable ethics, though some of Freud’s modern critics have since rounded on him, not just for the ultimate in Oedipal/Electra Complexes concerning his own daughter, but accusations of virtual incest through opening up her deepest intimacies on the analysand’s couch. 

Both authors would have likely offered up scientific method in any putative defence. However, fiction authors have no such recourse when frequently asked whether we base our characters on real life people. And while our attempts at anonymising (through fictionalising), may just about get us through condemnation for identity theft and lack of consent, when children are used for material that is feasibly an invasion of privacy too far.

I knew I wanted to become a parent, through observing my own childhood as a singleton with a certain dissatisfaction and some resolutions on how I might do it differently.  I was an observer by nature and writing seemed well suited to such a temperament. I started writing stage plays, but when my twin boys arrived. I switched to late night novel-writing since I could no longer devote the time hanging out at theatre bars networking. My early novels barely mentioned children, but now that my sons have attained the age of majority and fledged from home by attending university, I've turned my literary observations to writing about parenting and children. In doing so, have I betrayed their privacy?

The comedian Stewart Lee had a routine about now that he was a parent, his entire life was in service to his children, driving them around to play dates or watching kids’ movies with them, so that he had no real life material to draw on to create a new comedy routine (which of course he adroitly subverts by offering up plenty of comic evidence, eliding Scooby Doo with the political woes of our nation). When you become a parent, one of the things it does is prompt memories of your own childhood in offering perhaps a ready reference to apply to that of rearing your own children. But I had already covered this happenstance through my own reflections that had fed into my desire to become a father in the first place. I may not have always prefigured my parenting actions correctly, but I wasn’t taken by surprise. So the first childhood experiences I offered up to the altar of literature were actually my own. Not quite the scientific method of Piaget and Freud, but I do probably hold the intellectual and emotional rights over my own experiences.

But such content was not enlisted in isolation. There was an echo with the more recent layerings provided by having my own children. But a good deal of what I put into the novel were certain universals about children and in particular child development, rather than details that would identify and out my children as the raw material of the book. Piaget outlined developmental stages which all children go through as their brains mature and although his timeline for such phases has been challenged, the principle remains generally accepted. The same in my book, that language really only enters the picture once the child is able to take on solids through the resultant change in the anatomy of the throat. How we then gain words through imitation long before we know how they are spelled, before we acquire knowledge of the alphabet and the school-borne struggles of mastering the stroke of our pencil to write our letters. From these universals I could proceed to consider how we all acquire our personal forms of self-expression, how much it stems from our parents and how much it deviates as we are able to individuate ourselves. I don’t credit I am betraying any confidences in sharing some observations on these developments. Indeed, one of the arts of novel writing is to make its themes universal enough to speak to a wide diversity of readers. A novel that remains subjective to the experiences of the author is far more likely to fail to communicate. 

In real life I have twin boys. In my novel the protagonist mother has two girls. So my experiences standing on the touchline managing my twin’s Under-9s football team to an FA Fair Play Award couldn’t feed into the novel. However, the overweening ambition of some of the other parents stood there on the touchline screaming at their scions, did inform the novel’s contemplation of the hazy line between a child’s individuation and the parent’s overlaying of it with their own projections for the child, rooted in the parent’s own neediness or unfulfilled dreams.

I also have scenes set in the nursery school playground, but again the mother of girls demands a different depiction than my actual experiences of a father waiting to collect his boys at going home time. Though the playground politics of who talks to who and who shuns who, is likely a universal scenario, standing as a man huddling close to the smattering of other fathers among the preponderant women does ineffably change the dynamics. So while the portrayal of the fictional mother’s isolation reflected my own, I’m happy to report that the by extension isolation of her child, did not reflect the true status of my own twins who were perfectly blended into the social scene of the kids at their school. My fictional mother doesn’t even have the consolation I managed to utilise, of quietly imagining that I would assuredly be in possession of the best record collection of any parent stood in the playground, seeing as I worked in an independent record shop at the time. See, one doesn’t require the direct experiences of one’s own children to get into an infantile mind, one just probe’s one’s own stock of such behaviours.

Further novelistic reflections of pester power in the supermarket, or of the end of service for a teaching toy as all its peripherals are finally and unutterably lost, each represent my reflections looking back on similar incidents; they happened while bringing up my twins, but again there are dual refracting lenses, me as a father casting back to when I was a child so that the outcomes written about is a new synthesis, neither truly representing my childhood nor that of my twins. The choking on a raisin never to the best of my knowledge afflicted either of my boys, while the panic over the body dysmorphia engendered by dolls, was never any direct translation over from “Action Man”TM, seeing as I wouldn’t provide my boys with anything military in the toy department. So a good deal of the work just comes from the imagination, rather than transliteration of actual events, that in another register might appear in a memoir or biography. 

And this is the rub and which returns us to the questions readers ask of authors. Novels do many things, but one of the most significant is that the author takes you inside the mind of his characters, someone likely to have different experiences and thoughts to that of the reader. But where do these characters come from? They come from the mind of the author of course, but ultimately authors are writing about themselves. They may pick characters seemingly diametrically opposed to themselves, but in doing so they are likely tapping into lesser seen parts of their own personality, exploring or imagining themselves in these guises. For a writer cannot write wholly outside of their own experience. Even if a writer employs an anecdote someone else told them, or something they read in a newspaper or saw in a film, it becomes part of them if it enters their stock of memory enough to be recalled when the writer decides to use it in a book. Second hand experience rather than first for sure, but still from within them. So I don’t believe I have pillaged the lives of my children for my novel, only myself. If I'm wrong in believing this, then I guess they will call me out on it. I'll let you know if that's the case.

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon  and all good book shops in the UK

Sunday, 29 July 2018

What can fiction tell us about real life?

Absolutely nothing. Fiction can only tell us about fiction. But that can offer us rewards too, in addition to the entertainment and pleasure value of reading a novel.

No fictional character ever existed in real life. Not even in Historical Fiction which takes real people from history for their characters. The Historical Fiction novel creates a version of the real person to suit its narrative needs. Even memoir, which purports to be a true record, is fictive, in that any human life, while unfurling chronologically, is not experienced as such and any written narrative imposes retrospective order and pattern on a life that is likely to have been lived oblivious of them. The subjects of memoirs, only head towards a destiny, an outcome elicited by the end of the book, through the narrative’s arrangement, no less than with fictional characters.

So we follow a novel’s characters through their lives and events which never actually happened, or versions of actual events. To what advantage? Well in our so-called ‘real world’, fictions abound. Firstly you have phenomena such as the spin of politicians, the dark arts of advertisers, the myths and fables of religious preachers, which an appreciation of fiction might possibly provide some ability to detect and parse. Fake News anyone? We’ve been reading it for years, only in an already avowedly admitted fiction. 

But deeper than that, you have the notion of ‘hyper-reality’ which affects us all. Our very own memories, experiences, elements of our own identities and how we see ourselves, may have originated externally rather than from within, though we have absorbed them and unwittingly ascribed them to all our own mental work and personal experience. If you hear a point of view of an argument that speaks to you, you may well remember it and roll it out in future discussions without attributing it to the original citer, not out of wilful plagiarism, but more likely because that argument has settled down so comfortably in your psyche, you come to believe you thought of it yourself, or at least that it is very much seared into your marrow. If someone tells you an anecdote and you trip it out in future company, are you careful to frame it as a story told to you by someone else? Even if you are, how do you know it really happened to them exactly as they told it, or even that they too haven’t borrowed it from the person who first told them? None of this really matters in terms of consequence, but it reveals the mechanisms by which we partly acquire and retain information. On one level that anecdote becomes part of my experience because it resonated enough for me to remember it; on another level it was never part of my experience because I never lived its story. Just as with fiction and its imaginary characters.

So fiction could help us unravel the more direct experiences for ourselves, from those imported ones. This could be particularly acute for things we absorb more passively than a friend telling us a story, but from films, or reading a news story, or the dread advertising and politics implanting ideas we later imagine we originated. Think about how we may acquire our identity for example, when we explore commonalties with others in our ‘tribe’. Some of those perceived shared values will undoubtedly originate from inside you, but when the historical and political dimensions are added, such as how your group is excluded or oppressed, or viewed in a certain light by other tribes, have you come up with all those connections yourself, or have they been supplied by the commonality that unites you all together? The historical and analytical context is held by the collective and passed on to you so that it informs who you are and where you derive from. Then you plot your own experiences against its matrix. 

Since narrative provides pattern and order on the events it portrays, this can mirror the same techniques we use to make sense of our actual world. Human nature craves pattern and order in order to render a familiar and negotiable landscape in which we move through. Imagine the menacing chaos if the everyday was not recurring and cohesive, our flight or fight reflex would be constantly triggered every minute, with every step we took. It would be exhausting. Our evolution has raised us from the minute to minute awareness of threat, experienced by all animals except possibly those at the top of the food chain. But in order for it to have done this, we have constructed hugely elaborate fictions to regulate our environment, to make it predictable and readily readable. 

Our perception system is not the one way directional of what the eye sees, the brain interprets. Rather it is largely the other way around, the brain has preset templates of what the eye should be seeing, so that the eye is really only scanning for variation from that normative vision. Pattern and familiarity are thus fundamental to our perceptive functions. And this is fine, but there also exists both the opportunity to look beneath the pattern and arrangement of both our actual environment and also to somehow elucidate its reciprocal relationship with those templates in our brains. To probe the fictional elements inbuilt into the structure of our ‘reality’. Fiction can echo the analytical wavelengths to reach some of these realisations, for narrative too is predicated on order and pattern. It can show up the processes by which we manage to obfuscate our own fictional creations, which we have managed to install as a hard and fast reality over and above ourselves. Challenging that self-reinforcing feedback loop. That way lies madness? Bring it on I say, who knows what illuminations it may yield us. 

The other thing fiction can explore is a language. For words are all a novelist has, their only tool. Yet language itself is a pretty blunt tool, especially when it comes to its primary function, that of communication. JK Rowling, Jonathan Franzen and Martin Amis all speak the same language, yet produce wildly divergent types of books from each other (even taking Rowling’s adult novels, not her writing for children). Readers speak the same language as the writers whose work they’re reading, unless reading in translation, but the range of possible response is myriad; if different writers can’t agree on a single method of communication within the novel, what chance the poor readers? We all speak the same language, but how we interpret it is almost infinite. 

In ordinary conversation, speakers need the cues of facial expression, gesture and inflection to interpret each other’s words. For example if someone says “that man looks nice” while pulling a face, the listener realises that the speaker means the man doesn’t look nice at all. Then you need context as well. If a speaker says ‘he did this, then he did that’, is she speaking about her father, her boyfriend, a mugger or her pet dog? You need something establishing who the subject was, or failing that, a reference to digging up a bone might place it as the dog, unless she happened to be speaking about a scene of crime technician or an archeologist. Well you do at least always get context in a novel. When someone says they are hungry and need to get some food, they are communicating a pretty literal state of affairs as they are experiencing it. They may additionally employ a metaphor for emphasis, such as saying they’re so hungry they could eat a horse. So everyday speech can be either literal or metaphorical, whereas writing in a novel is always metaphorical, because the people & the situations are always imaginary. And here we face the problem of language in the novel. Even though a novel can provoke an emotional response in the reader, (tears, laughter, irritation, rage etc), authors cannot write actual emotions. They can only set down words that approach emotions, that represent emotions, not the actual emotions themselves. 

The artist René Magritte produced a painting called “The Treachery Of Images”, consisting of a pipe and the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). His point was you couldn’t smoke his pipe, since it was an image of a pipe not a real object. Additionally it wasn’t just an image of a pipe, it was a painting of the image of a pipe, so the object if anything is a painting, not a pipe. But consider this, without his helpful caption smeared on the canvas, would the layers of meaning and reflection upon images and objects still exist for the viewer, or is it really only cued up by the linguistic element of the painting? In which case the material object is as much a piece of literature (commentary/question/philosophical axiom), that is a text, as it is a painting? Yet the text is only commenting on the image/symbol of a pipe. The metaphorical nature of the painting rather relies on the caption and the title existing in words. You can’t paint or write pipes, only their symbol, their referents. Now consider this for something that doesn’t even have a material existence such as emotions. (for more on this

What is fiction for? It exists to entertain us. With the happy boon of potentially enabling us to question the real life in which we exist. 

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Out Now

Published by Dead Ink Books 
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

What's in A Name?

I write under a pseudonym. I have always sought to distance my writing life from my domestic one and psychologically that seemed an important facet of that compartmentalisation.

But I have always been fascinated by people operating under different names and have written about it in several of my novels. In my debut novel "A,B&E" a gangster's moll faked her own death to try and avoid the contract he'd put on her head, and needed a fake identity sharpish. 

For she simply cannot afford to be tracked down by her name. She can't appear on any bureaucratic lists. She has no driving licence, no social security paperwork, no health insurance records and no credit card in her (assumed) name. She has nothing to her name, not even her real name. 

"My assigned identity was forged for me by someone I’ve never even met. Karen Dash. My new moniker. A bit of a giggle. An in-joke on my way out the country." 

Karen's new identity is that bestowed on her by way of a counterfeit passport. The name 'dashed' off the top of the counterfeiter's head. Referring back to the high quality Swiss colouring pencils of my and maybe his childhood. Where he first had his interest pricked in visual reproduction. Do you remember Caran D'Ache colouring pencils? At the time they were as ubiquitous as the Swiss Army knife and gave the lie to Harry Lime's contention that Switzerland had only ever produced the "cuckoo clock". Now they brand themselves as "Maison de Haute Ecriture" (maybe Harry Lime had a point after all).

Karen Dash never existed, despite her larger than life presence on the pages of the novel. It is a name wrought to prevent her true identity being revealed, found and then expunged. It is a dead end of a name.

In my novel "Not In My Name" a homegrown terrorist stalks the internet looking for a patsy and necessarily adopting whatever name he requires for his task. The world of the internet is populated by soubriquets and people hiding their identity. Yet he is able to track down one specific person's true identity for he needs to groom her for his purposes....

In my new novel "Three Dreams in the Key Of G" I've taken the opposite tack. the three central female voices all have the same name in terms of the sound of their name.

First is the mother of two young daughters in post peace-agreement Northern Ireland

My name is Jean Ome. Phonetically speaking. And in actuality too, though I have no passport to prove this (denied me since now they bear the EC’s {Papist} impress). Nor do my other personalised permits and financial enablers bear this out, since my maiden name has never been supplanted (not because I’m an independent career woman, instead just too much of a put-upon mother to have gotten round to it). So in all my transactions outside the house promising to the bearer, I am still Jean Malcolm. She of a whole lifetime ago. Who gleefully mocks and taunts me for my divergence from her.

The family name really should be Home as in ‘home sweet home’, ‘home is where the heart is’ or ‘home and dry’. As in arid. Home is a very important concept where I come from. A closed, reinforced door, buttressing the street, the neighbourhood, the community, the town, the county and the province. Home is the be-all and end-all of who you are. It’s what you stand for, rather than it standing for you. Bricks and mortar proprietary, or bricks and mortar projectiles. Indeed, how we do hail from our unwelcoming streets.

The second is a seventy year old English woman domiciled in Florida, where she runs a shelter for victims of domestic violence. If only it was that simple...  

My name is Jean Ohm and I’ve encountered major amplitudes of resistance in my time. In fact, I’m generating some right now, through this little social experiment I’m currently conducting. We’ve got FBI, DEA, ATF and all manner of sect-obsessed acronyms and cult-crazed codons pointing their telescopic, turned-up snouts, to tune in to our drop-out community...

My name, as conferred upon me by my parents. Marking me for life. Or rather expunging me, as it now appears. Draped around me like the orange garb of the death row prisoner. The name embodies me, even as I enflesh it. But it was ever thus. The ‘H’ kept apart the feuding factions of my parents. The capital ‘O’ I take from my father, buffeting the stout, lower-case maternal ‘m’. Each seeking my allegiance against the other. Pressed in upon from both sides, until I lose consciousness and slip under. Thus is my feminised ‘h’ silenced and rendered inferior. A typographical error. The ‘O’ and ‘m’ too hellbent on knocking seven bells out of each other, to let anything come between them.

The third character, the human genome itself. Complaining at its assigned nomenclature, at our febrile assaults to decode its life-giving (and removing) mysteries.

My name – My name in full, apparently, by your latest dead reckoning, contains three billion characters. It is not the book itself that you are after reading, all two hundred volumes; more the thirty-odd thousand letters in the appellation which should adorn the book’s spine. Yet I remain innominate.

The historical practise of a wife taking her husband's surname, as with Jean Malcolm/ Jean Ome above, is still extant, as a woman is stripped of her identity which she grew up with and has a patrilineal name conferred upon her. 

All three of the female character in this novel fight back against such impositions upon them, in order to preserve their sense of self. And just what is the psychic link that unites all three of these characters?
Published by Dead Ink Books 26/07/2018
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Monday, 23 July 2018

The Origins Of My New Novel

The novel developed from the idea of 'misprints'. 

When DNA divides in order to reproduce, that is when errors can creep in. Such transcription errors can lead to mutations, both serendipitous (evolution) and of course pernicious (hereditary diseases). These misprints are in the strings of letters representing the four chemical bases that make up the DNA molecule, A (adenine), G (guanine), C (cytosine) and T (thymine). A single one of these letters being changed for one of the other 3 anywhere along the chain may lead to a genetic mutation.

Before mass printing, books were produced by scribes working writing with quilled ink. For those scribes reproducing the Old and New Testaments, they could not afford a single wrong transcription or the whole volume would be junked. Since the Holy Writ had to be flawlessly reproduced in print, being the word of God. 

Perfection was the sole value for the human scribes, erratum was the driving force of genetic evolution.

Our development as infants takes place in a fairly fixed order. One of the first things babies have to learn to do is support their own heads. Then it will be sitting up, then crawling and finally walking. Babies start life only able to consume milk, but when they start taking in solid food, their throat undergoes an anatomical change (sparked by genetic programming) and it is this change in the throat that also allows them to begin the path of acquiring language. Such developments always have to occur in these sequences. 

I was interested in the concept of fixed sequences and the novel both portrays them and undermines them as that sequence becomes out of order in the narrative. Just why the narrative is out of order you'll have to find out by reading the novel! 

Published by Dead Ink Books 26/07/2018
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Parents And Children

From the moment they're born, our children are slowly, very slowly, moving away from their parents as they seek to become individual people in their own rights.

There are plenty of false dawns, incidents which bring them running back to mummy and daddy (usually mummy) with tears running down their faces, or a great terror plastered across their expressions. But they, with the parents help, dust themselves down and gradually venture forth once again. 

The parent is torn between keeping them safe, how we hate to see them cry of get hurt, and letting them go and fledge as we know they must. Of course some parents fail to acknowledge this push-me, pull-you dynamic, wanting forever to keep the child tied to them emotionally. 

What are the markers of this struggle and how do parents recognise that moment when their child has definitively cut the apron strings?

Here is a reading from my upcoming novel which explores just one of those moments and markers.

Published by Dead Ink Books 26/07/2018
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

The Etiquette Of Kids' party Bags - Novel extract readings







Published by Dead Ink Books 26/07/2018
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Friday, 20 July 2018

Lift The Siege 10 - Moscow Theatre siege

It's hard to know quite where to start with this one. So many of the facts are shrouded in mystery, from the number of fatal casualties, the precise chemical agent pumped into the theatre to start the assault on it, the precise number of hostage takers, to two instances of people walking in off the street and into the heart of the theatre during the stand off stage and both being shot dead. 

What can be established is that in 2002, 40 or 50 armed Chechens sealed off a Moscow theatre during a performance and rigged it with explosives as well as many wearing suicide belts themselves. Nearly 900 actors, production crew and audience members were taken hostage. Muslim Chechnya was seeking independence from Russia and was fighting the second of two brutal wars which has produced some of the best war literature since the Vietnam war. International opinion was that the conflict should be brought to an end and President Putin was supposedly feeling this pressure. One conspiracy theory is that a heinous act like taking 900 hostages suited Putin and united the country behind him and that the terrorists were given somewhat of a helping hand with double agents channeling them towards the theatre as a target and that their explosives were in fact non-functioning. There is no way of establishing this, despite allegations that two of the Chechens have disappeared without arrest, because they were FSB (Russian security forces) agents. 

The Chechens released several non-Russian nationals, saying they had no quarrel with them. They released mothers with their children and the sick, some 150 people in all. The siege proceeded as a stand off, except for the strange instance of a member of the public waltzing through police and security lines and marching into the theatre. 26 year old Olga Romanov then proceeded to remonstrate with the hostages that they should stand up to their captors, whereupon she was shot dead. Well known Russians were brought in outside to negotiate with the Chechens, singers, scientists and journalists (although in Russia, singers & scientists were also MPs).  Another man Gennady Vlakh repeated the feat of Olga Romanov, claiming his son was a hostage and was also shot dead. It was never established who he was exactly, since he had no son inside the theatre. 

After 4 days of the siege after claims that two hostages had been killed, and a leak that special security forces were going to storm the building in the small hours, they actually went in at 5am reckoning that the hostage takers would have been more relaxed having stood down from repelling the expected attack hours earlier. The assault itself was mainly conducting by pumping an unknown gas in through the building's ventilation system which knocked out the vast majority of the Chechens and many hostages. None of the wired explosives went off, all the suicide belted women were knocked out by the gas, while the failure to detonate the theatre explosives may attest to claims that it was dummy material supplied by the FSB agent provocateurs of the whole plot). Some of the Chechens had gas masks and engaged the security forces in running gun battles throughout the building, but all were eventually killed, save the mystery men who it was claimed were allowed to slip away as they were Russian agents.

In all, the 40-50 Chechens were killed, 130 hostages died and two special forces had died from gas inhalation. Of the dead hostages, only two were found with bullet wounds; the vast majority of them had been killed by the gas. many were evacuated from the building, alive but unconscious. However the exact nature of the gas was withheld from attending doctors at the site, resulting in the deaths of many of those evacuated hostages. 17 of the cast members of the play died, including two child actors. The authorities blamed the deaths on heart attacks and other health issues from being held hostage with little water and an unfortunate self-suffocation by lolling back in theatre seats when the gas knocked them out and their own tongues blocked up their airways. The gas itself was reported no to have caused the fatalities. Even though many evacuees died outside the theatre having already been poisoned by it. 

After a three year official investigation into the affair ground to an inconclusive halt, an independent commission set itself up to investigate, Two of its most famous members were Anna Politkovskaya (a journalist who had been part of the volunteer negotiators with the Chechens) and Alesander Litvinenko (an ex FSB agent, familiar with the operations of the Security Forces), together with Russian politician Sergei Yushenkov, all three of whom wound up being assassinated by the FSB. Their contention was that the whole siege had been precipitated by the FSB with inside agents and agent provocateurs. 


"Three Dreams In The Key Of G" has three female voices in a state of siege. One a young mother in sectarian Northern Ireland, just after the Good Friday Peace Agreement has returned paramilitary fighters from both sides back into the domestic realm for an uneasy peace there. The second a Waco-like siege in Florida, as the FBI, DEA and ATF surround a compound full of women, which they see as a threat to all of mankind. The third is in laboratories all over the globe, the Human Genome is being besieged by scientists as they try and uncover its code for life. 

The siege will be lifted 26/07/2018
Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

Lift the Siege #9 Iranian Embassy