Sunday, 30 December 2018
My top 10 novels of the year (read in 2018, not necessarily published in 2018).
Wednesday, 19 December 2018
I am not a fan of myth. While it served a purpose once in pre-history and may be interesting to study from a sociological and anthropological perspective now, in a modern world with greater comprehension of cause and effect so as not to have to prescribe supernatural causes to natural phenomena, I can see no place for myth to still resonate.
In this video I explore this and go on further to explain why I am not interested in modern retellings of myth in literature.
Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments.
In this video I explore this and go on further to explain why I am not interested in modern retellings of myth in literature.
Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments.
Sunday, 18 November 2018
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
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
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.
The Grenfell Fire
I Stand With The National Gallery 27
Sunday, 28 October 2018
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
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?
Sunday, 21 October 2018
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).
Wednesday, 17 October 2018
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'
Saturday, 29 September 2018
The Iron Age woman preserved perfect but leathery in the peat bog, now lay preternaturally mute on the temperature controlled examination table. Yet it was peremptorily determined she had to be the bearer of a story, so the reconstruction bard with a scalpel for pen, was charged with divulging it. To unfold the telltale signs of her composition. The graphology of her biography; her story; her history; his version of herstory. Using his nuclear tools to penetrate her unclear make-up.
Her tattoos professedly painted her an aristocrat, so she was dubbed a princess. An anthropological one rather than one borne of fairy tale, though no less mythic. A carbon-dated apologue from modern science’s non-apologists. Her backstory back-dated 28 centuries to compound the public’s interest. The voice from and of the past, the mother of the nation, itself bogged down by present day economic realities.
The hempen ligature around her neck excited proclamations of a summary execution. The expostulations centring on whether she had been dispatched as a human sacrifice, renouncing her life to put the tribe in good odour with the gods, or as mere criminal, which would give the lie to the previous cast of her caste. Less a matriarchal figurehead, more a primordial victim of domestic abuse. Competing modern day fablers speaking for her in a myriad tongues, when she herself possessed none; it having been removed around the time of her death, so she could not report from the afterlife and cavil with either god or carnal authority.
Her tattoos were, in actuality, geometric. Imparting as much narrative delineation as the chance creases and folds of her flesh under the force of the fusty water. Though the bog had held decay at bay, the word in today’s parlance comes to stand for baulking progress. As has become the word ‘story’. (S-)tale.
Thursday, 27 September 2018
To look at them, you wouldn’t necessarily figure them to be brothers let alone twins. There is a significant height differential, while one has his mother’s blue eyes, the other my brown. The only physical trait they share, is the same coloured hair tone. But twins they are, ‘double trouble’ and ‘double the work’ we were cautioned. Not one bit of it, except at the very beginning. Double the fun was my experience as the main child-rearer.
But those first six months were indeed challenging. They were born five weeks premature so were very small and impossible to wind them after feeds since their systems were so underdeveloped. Feeds could last three quarters of an hour, the vast majority of which was trying to expel the air from tiny pockets in tiny bodies. With two mouths to feed, it would be virtually constant during the night once you include changing. My wife and I hit on the strategy of sleeping in separate rooms, with a Moses basket in each. In the middle of the night we’d meet in the kitchen on the way to the fridge, and zombiefied all we could muster was “Yours awake?” and a grunt in the affirmative. When the feed frequency slackened off a tad, my wife and I adopted a new approach; I would do the midnight to 5am shift and she would take over from then. I was a lifelong insomniac, so being up through those small hours wasn’t that discombobulating to me, but in 1998 there wasn’t much on through-the-night TV to keep me company.
“It will get easier” counsel those who have been through the process before. And it does. They started to go through the night without feeding. They graduated from Moses Baskets to cots in their own room. The separation anxiety expressed through crying could not possibly work on us; with twins there was no real option to resort to the easy life option of taking two wailing babies into the parental bed. We were strong by circumstance only. We avoided virtually the entire ‘Terrible Twos’ simply through adopting the strategy that whenever one of the boys threw a tantrum, we went and lavished love and attention on his brother. Pretty quickly they learned that there was no benefit to having an almighty strop, whether through our impervious attitude, or glancing over at his twin to see that he didn’t seem to be labouring under the same perceived injustice.
While battling to get on a bus or tube train with a double buggy always presented a challenge, we benefitted from the fact that they were both at the same developmental level and sharing similar interests. If you have young children of different ages, it is much harder to split your focus and keep them both entertained at their respective levels of interest and ability. Ours could genuinely play together. And I think they were able to entertain each other at a much earlier age than if it were two differently aged siblings. My twins represented two-sevenths of their junior football team and with such a block vote, perhaps it wasn’t wholly surprising that I ended up managing their team. We did probably err in doing too much for them that they should have been doing for themselves. For when you’re just trying to get out the front door to meet an appointment, the tendency is for you to put on their coats and shoes just for speed. Sometimes that would extend back to getting them dressed completely. It probably explains how one of them to this day is extremely lazy and expects others to do everything for him, but then his twin is the opposite so, where does that leave the Nature versus Nurture debate?
We were members of TEMBA (The Twins And Multiple Births Association) and met up with other families of twins in our locality. It was a really useful support network, but could be a bit sci-fi experiment, when you’re sat in somebody’s lounge among a constant parade of different identical twins passing in front of your eyes. Mind you, if we thought we had it tough with twins, meeting parents of triplets soon put that into perspective. We settled for our twins as our complete family in one fell stork swoop, as we did think that it would be incredibly hard for a younger sibling to break into the tight bond between twins and could end up feeling isolated. To help twins develop their own separate identities, the advice is to dress them differently and to try and do activities with them individually as well as together. I would offer one further instance of this, in that when I talked to them, I was very careful to address each one directly and not to just aim my words somewhere in the space between them. Even if that meant I then had to repeat what I had just said to his twin, it was good discipline to find some different words.
The only time their being twins has since posed a problem was when it came time to choose universities. I ended up doing a mini tour of the United Kingdom as each were visiting five or six. Open days that were scheduled for the same day at opposite ends of the country and my wife would divide the escorting duties with me. But when they both attended the same university open day, only for different courses, then it proved trickier as each demanded that I attend the key presentations with him and I couldn’t split myself in half. Those days did not run smoothly. Fortunately they have solved the dilemma of graduating on the same day at opposite ends of the country, as one decided to transfer so is now a year behind his twin.
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK
Friday, 14 September 2018
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.
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
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
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.
Monday, 27 August 2018
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.
Saturday, 18 August 2018
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.
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK
Wednesday, 15 August 2018
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!
Sunday, 12 August 2018
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