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.
Published by Dead Ink Books
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
Monday, 6 August 2018
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.
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK