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.
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