A carrier bag for the planet

Via a convoluted route through the internet, I discovered Ursula K Le Guin’s article on the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.

This is great. It chimes perfectly with my views on what I studied about prehistory and human evolution and how agriculture developed.

We forget what is lost in the decay of time, and come to believe it never existed. Carrier bags, for example.

We find ancient amulets, their edges worn smooth from years of gentle abrasion inside a leather pouch. We discover ancient baskets, ancient bowls, in dry places far apart across the globe – Chile, Egypt, Siberia.

Never mind the folk who pop up to say “what about teh leatehr used to make teh bag dint u need to kill an animal to skin it so u need weapons lol”.

You don’t need a leather bag.

You can weave a bag with whatever’s to hand. You pick up a big leaf, and fold it in two, and you have a carrier.

All things organic decay. Bones and stones are left. We treat as special the ivory carvings from the Palaeolithic because – along with cave paintings – they’re all the art we have left from those times.

They are special.

“Venus” of Brassempouy, her hair in woven braids

But you don’t start carving ivory, or bone. You start with something softer.

You start with wood.

You don’t start making bowls from fired ceramics. You start with something softer.

You start with wood.

And you don’t make bags from tanned animal hides that take weeks to cure. You don’t even start with knotted sinews or strands of rawhide.

weaving esparto grass, Spain

You start with something easy.

Something to hand when you’re gathering things you need a bag for.

No, not wood this time – you start with grass, or reeds, or whips of bark stripped from suitable trees.

You weave.

You knit.

You knot, and net, and crochet.

You make boxes from birch bark.

This carrier bag approach is hidden but it’s close to how we began.

We talk of the first settlements, and why they appeared when they did, where they did, without considering the precursors to a village with farms that need protection.

For centuries before the farms were needed, we chose the seeds to keep and the seeds to ditch.

We bred the wheat from abundance, not scarcity. We picked the seeds from wheat and barley over thousands of years, each time choosing what pleased us, and the seeds we left behind became next year’s crop.

Somehow, someone, at some point – and it’s likely to have been an intelligent woman – said to themselves: “Hmm, this stuff keeps coming up, and it’s a pain in the grass to harvest the grains in ones and twos, why not see if some of those freaky ears with double rows will grow as well as these.”

So the process begins.

Lo, the wheat germinates and grows, and produces more double row wheat.

ears of wheat
landrace wheat, England

Our Gatherers like this. It takes less time to harvest a handful of grain. That’s more time to sit round the fire gossiping, or taking a swim, or staring at the sky while stoned and giggling.

Time moves on. The double wheat is fine.

Slowly the climate changes, the plants become less abundant and we start to worry there won’t be enough for everyone.

Year by year, we stay longer at the wheat site.

We take care of those little grains.

At some point, we leave a group of folk behind to look after the wheat fields. These might have been blokes. Let’s pretend they were.

Now, it isn’t much fun guarding wheat fields. You sit around all the time chasing away hungry birds and mice. You wave wildly at wandering goats to keep them off the crop. You wonder how the women are getting on without you.

Once in a while, some of you go off into the mountains and take potshots at ibex with a slingshot.

You see huge animals down in the valley eating grasses you can’t eat yourself.

You head down there to see what’s happening – to see what they are – and your mates dare you to climb onto one as if it were a pony (maybe it even is a pony, who knows, this is fiction).

You’re bored. You have a go. If you’re lucky, you fall off without being gored, or trampled, or crushed.

You start to tell stories about your once-in-a-lifetime trip to the valley of the horses, mammoths, whatever.

When the women come back from whatever they were up to (wimminz things, clearly, and no business of yours) you tell them of your Fabulous Adventures Taming Wild Mammals With Your Bare Hands.

They stand there and look at the wheat, and maybe they say “good job”.

Maybe not.

And then winter comes on, after the harvest, and this year it’s colder than ever. Your shelter just isn’t enough. Your tribe cuts down more trees, and builds a wee hut, and hunkers down there in the dark.

Once in a while you set your wee hut on fire, when you’re tired or stoned or just careless. Eventually you run out of trees and build a hut in bricks, made of mud, and then you start to leave archaeological traces we pick up on thousands of years in the future and *suddenly* farming begins.

And the women still walk to the valley beyond with their children in slings on their backs, digging sticks at the ready, their woven weed bags filled with grain for the feast and their voices raised in song.


Feminist archaeology, in the 1970s, asked who was keeping the armies alive when the menfolk went off to fight battles. They asked who kept hold of the slaves when Caesar was bedding Cleopatra; who turned over the soil when the army was parked outside Troy.

women at harvest with an ox-drawn cart

We hear and read so much about history from only one perspective.

The history of what goes on behind the scenes, underpinning society, holding the fort while others go off to war, isn’t the narrative we’ve been sold.

That’s the point of the Le Guin article. Our world is built according to the story of the hero’s journey, and in order to be a hero he must have a foe to defeat, an enemy to conquer, a valiant deed to wow the crowds on his triumphant return.

It feeds our current fantasy response to COVID19 in the UK. It isn’t something we can beat with grand sweeping gestures or heroic deeds. Our sacrifice will be in vain.

We need to approach the pandemic with a different mindset – one which holds the future safe for everyone, like a carrier bag for the planet.

Plain, careful, unspectacular. Small steps. Soft steps.

Every day, focus on a simple task: wear the mask and stand apart.

We need better stories to deal with this threat, because the stories we need to deal with climate change have to be familiar before the threat has the power to kill us all.

I believe we already have the stories. We have the storytellers, the audience, the means of sharing the words.

Do we have the time?


This week’s links:

Ancient pottery – cooking bowls – found in the Amur region of Siberia, suggest we’ve been making these things for some time. The article is badly titled but the text says “…these people used nets, most likely made of plant fibre… as we found stone sinkers for nets” referring to a site twelve thousand years old – a time of different climate change, in a world with a lot more resources. Human adaptability at its best.

Back in July the world Heavy Metal Knitting championships took place in Finland. ‘Nuff said!

Probably because much of the early story-gathering by Europeans in the wilderness where hunter-gatherers live(d) was done by the sort of explorer who shot tigers and elephants and liked to be photographed next to dead heaps of ’em, comparative history spends too much time on the big mammoth fable and not enough on the small scale stuff, like making leather from fish skin. Carrier bag, anyone?

Bonus book link: The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory (not read this yet; sounds interesting).

A Very Short And Silly Saga

On a journey through northern England some years ago, we passed by the town of Ribble. Famous for having a viaduct, Victorian, and a very fine example of the type.

ribblehead viaduct in sunshine through clouds (c) Michael Bryan

As we drove on, the car was overtaken by a local builders’ van from Ribble, which sped off into the distance ahead of us as if on urgent business.

I wondered whether they were demolition merchants: Ribble Rubble.

And if they were a rambunctious, mischievous, troublesome bunch, they might be the rabble from Ribble Rubble.

The Ribble Rubble rabble.

But what if one of them decided not to be a bad lad? Chose to take a stand against the outrageous antics of his fellows? Would that not make him a rebel?

Of course.

The Ribble Rubble rabble rebel.

He might chose to take them on a walk in the countryside to tame their restless spirits; a stroll, perhaps a jaunt, but definitely a ramble.

The Ribble Rubble rabble rebel ramble.

Although, being the riotous sort of chaps that got this whole thing started, they’d misbehave. Rustle some sheep, maybe; go for a joyride on some farmer’s tractor; plan a heist on an unsupecting rural Post Office.

The Ribble Rubble rabble rebel ramble rumble.

At which point, thankfully, our journey reached its destination safely and our imaginary bunch of merry-making demolition men on a countryside crime spree made their uproarious way into a pub, over the border in Scotland, for a good old drinking session.

The Ribble Rubble rabble rebel ramble rumble rammy.

Thank you, and good night! You’ve been a wonderful audience…


This week’s happy links:

Inktober! A fabulous idea for artists and illustrators and anyone else really, a month long art challenge to improve drawing skills and “develop positive drawing habits”. Illustrations, drawings, sketches and the like, in ink, one a day for the month of October. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you wanted to join in a bit late.

Brainpickings, this week’s archive post: The Cure For Despair.

“On This Day She” – a new book from poet and writer Jo Bell, online at The Bell Jar. “366 people who did amazing, unsettling or unorthodox things, and who deserve to be remembered, every day of the year”. Also on Twitter.

Published in: on October 10, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Out Of Darkness We Must

Sometimes the darkness seems overwhelming. This last week has been one of those times, when the details of a murder appeared in the press and the sheer unpleasantness of the deed became apparent.

Pamela Colman Smith Tarot: The Hermit

I try to find light. I look, and sometimes it’s only a twist of the eye away, an old-fashioned time-slip story into positive spin.

Sometimes the light in the darkness is hard to find.

Sometimes, finding it takes longer than expected.

Sometimes it just isn’t there.

Other places online will tell you of horrors, of outrage, of mundane persecutions we just can’t imagine from a safe, warm, loving home. Sometimes, that home is built on foundations forged from cruelty and tragedy, and the safety and warmth and love are hard-won, cherished, a treasure hauled from the sea after a dangerous voyage.

Sometimes, real life inspires stories that would otherwise go unrecorded, heroism not shared, simple actions averting disaster or one step away from catastrophe. Crime fiction, especially, appeals with neat endings and justice delivered, no matter the cruelty through which we have to travel in order to reach them.

As a writer I shouldn’t find it difficult to imagine places where darkness thrives. Whether I want to go there is another matter.


And yet, while dreadful things happen and the world burns, there are small moments of respite. This doesn’t mean we can ignore the darkness in the world; in order to face it, we need strength and hope. This week’s links:

Wild beavers, reintroduced to the southernmost part of the Scottish Highlands in the last decade, now number more than a thousand – The Guardian.

Basement Geographer postulates the longest train journey in the world, from Vietnam to Portugal (or the other way round). Expensive, unpredictable, possibly impossible right now, but wow, what a trip!

Autumn this year looks like being spectacular for those of us who enjoy looking at – and walking amongst – woodlands. Here’s a story on Twitter about the life of pollarded willows, by Prof Susan Oosthuizen, Professor of Medieval Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

Published in: on October 3, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Three-Quarters Update

Nine months into the year, how am I doing against the goals I set myself in January 2021 – Look Ahead?

Those goals were simple:

  1. One non-fiction project.
  2. Write more, including fiction and poetry.
  3. Submit poetry to online journals.

There have been updates before now. The first one, Project updates and links, seems a long time ago now, and the progress I made on at least one of my goals was going well.

In the middle of the year there was 2021 – updating my intentions, which was altogether more realistic

So…

  1. Non-fiction project – this has ballooned into a variety of non-fiction projects, as usual. I have the unshakable conviction that non-fiction is easier than fiction, so I can work on more than one project at a time. I need to remind myself of words of Andy Warhol: “real artists ship” i.e. if you’re serious about this you produce the work and get it in front of paying clients/customers/fans.
  2. Write more – I will say this has been a success so far. I’ve written a third of a novel, and published fifty posts on here = 55K words. I’ve written a dozen poems and finished a handful more. Plus 20K words of nonpublishable stuff, and another 29K words of ideas and snippets to work up into posts and short stories and similar. So, thus far this year, a total of about 100K. More than last year, certainly.
  3. Submit – well, no. This hasn’t happened after that first burst of enthusiasm. Is it worth pushing myself to do more of this, with the material I have to hand, in the next three months?
Bee on white oregano flower

My excuses this time is that it’s been summer, and there has been time for friends, and a fruitful garden, and household maintenance (not quite fixing the roof while the sun shines, but close).

By far the most valuable part of my writing this year so far has been the discipline of publishing a post on here every week.

I might even have enough material from this year’s posts to compile them into a book, which would also let me mark Goal #1 as a success, although there’s another three months to go until the end of 2021.

The end of 2021. Given what went on in the first half of the year, and the chaos approaching the UK towards Christmas, will we all be glad to see the end of 2021?


Time for some uplifting links, methinks:

A vast area of the Scottish landscape – the Affric Highlands – is set to be rewilded over the next 30 years, a Trees For Life project to reinstate swathes of the ancient Caledonian Forest. Part of Rewilding Europe: hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of wild land from the Atlantic coast to the mouth of the Danube.

One of my favourite books is now in graphic novel format courtesy of the Rickard Sisters (Twitter link, lots of other graphic artists to follow from there), The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has a message still relevant for the 21st century at a time of global disruption.

Positivity from BrainPickings, including some rather delicious illustrations: The Good Luck of Your Bad Luck.

Published in: on September 26, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Extraverts and Introverts and Crazy Artists (Revisited)

The original version of this post appeared in 2013. I’m busy this weekend with household maintenance while the sun shines, so I thought I’d cheat a bit and re-post this from the archives.


Why are artists always portrayed as eccentrics?

Are people drawn to the archetype of the crazy artist – sensitive, touched, otherwise unhinged – by the flamboyance of some, or is there a more mundane reason why writers and artists and actors all seem to be painted as odd?

If we accept the premise of introverts and extroverts, that one group flourishes in solitude and the other in company, this explains the artist-as-wacky-eccentric in both ways.

#amwriting

Introverts, being naturally reclusive, are happiest on their own.

When an introvert artist has a gallery show, the opening night – all those strangers begging to tell you how fabulous you are, asking you about the inspiration for this piece, or that title – must be fraught with tension.

Crowds unsettle this artist.

Nervous to start with, the addition of the acclaim or otherwise of other people reacting to their art is hard enough without the extra effort needed to be polite to them all.

So the artist becomes fractious, voluble, effusive, burbling, anything, just-please-let-me-back-into-the-studio behaviour.

Wacky.

The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous...
“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.” ― Salvador Dalí

Extroverts, on the other hand, are happiest surrounded by people.

The extrovert artist struggles to lock themselves away in a room or studio to create their body of work.

When they hold a gallery opening, or present a book signing, the same trepidation of will-they-like-it is overwhelmed by the extravert’s natural eagerness to talk to people.

Crowds fascinate this artist.

They’re nervous, of course, but they engage with others, are encouraged to enter into expansive gestures, flamboyant, thank-the-gods-I-finally-get-out-of-the-studio behaviour.

Wacky.


The reason I chose an image of Salvador Dalí to illustrate this post is because he’s fascinating. Oh, I don’t mean his art, or his politics – “Picasso is a communist, me neither” – but his personality. Not the public persona either, the one he’s most famous for, with his signature moustache and silly expression of surprise.

No, Dali is a character of contrasts. Mystical, mocked or magisterial, he remains interesting the more you learn.

He was still alive when I first heard of him, in his eighties and in frail health, a late epoch of solitude after the death of his wife and muse, Gala. Surrounded by “freaks” and oddballs in what looks like barely-managed chaos verging on elder abuse, he struck a pathetic figure, alone & bereft yet belligerently flamboyant.

As a young man he visited Paris in the company of Luis Buñuel and Man Ray, later spending time in New York (every winter, in his later years, once terrifying Andy Warhol).

He was incredibly prolific across a variety of different artistic media – sculpture, theatre, film as well as painting.

When he returned to Spain to live under Franco, this led to a lifelong spat with Picasso and the rest of the Surrealists, espousing right-wing views at odds with his Bohemian lifestyle.

It’s the combination that fascinates me about Dali’s character – extraversion in his public persona, flamboyant gestures, exhibitions and exhibitionism; yet introversion in his work ethic, choice of where to live (under a right-wing dictatorship, not an obvious safe choice for a surrealist artist but very definitely surreal) and obvious camouflage when in public.


So, fellow writers, extravert and introvert – are you one or the other? Or a bit of both, depending on the circumstances?


This week’s links:

Art, of course. Salvador Dalí’s sculpture and three-dimensional work at the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí. Is the artist serious, or mocking us? Or mocking art?

Quiet Revolution for the introverts hiding amongst us and those of the others who want to understand more, including six illustrations that explain an introvert’s thinking process.

Another interesting snippet – Alice Cooper and Salvador Dalí, on Sickthingsuk. As if it couldn’t get any weirder…

Throwback to the UK’s COVID-19 Lockdown 1, in May 2020 – for introverts, a chance to play to inbuilt strengths.

Published in: on September 19, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Day Later And No Heroes Involved

As storytellers, we need to recognise the best way of telling a story.

We choose our characters and ask them to carry the tale for us the way Frodo carries the One Ring to Mount Doom, although much of the world goes on in the background like Gaffer Gamgee turning over his potato patch and asking if you’ve seen the cost of pipe-weed these days.

My story today isn’t a Frodo story.

No heroes are involved.

Small though it is, a day later and not in the thick of it, this is my potato patch story of September 11.

(I didn’t keep a diary back then, so my recall is a little hazy, but the broad picture is good enough. Think of it as an Afghan kilim, its pattern seen more clearly from a distance than at the eye-level of the knotter.)


Twenty years ago, I was working a temporary job at a freight forwarding agency.

Clerks on the newly-introduced minimum wage, voices raised in a noisy open-plan office with faxes and phones ringing, we arranged space on container ships to send socks from Southampton to Sierra Leone, cocoa to Cadbury’s from Cote d’Ivoire.

Long-distance phone calls via satellite, where the cost of a two-minute call was more than I was paid per hour, with a time delay between every phrase that often led to you talking over each other.

No smartphones back then, nor Skype.

After the attacks on the USA, every consignment became more urgent. With aircraft grounded across much of the world, even for a few days, surface shipping became suddenly popular, and ships filled up fast.

My fellow clerks and I spent a lot of time explaining to new customers that they couldn’t, in fact, put The Thing they wanted to send overseas into a container and hope for the best.

No, it wouldn’t arrive Just In Time; if you’re lucky, it might take a few weeks, but you’re looking at months if it has to go round the long way.

And the paperwork.

So. Much. Paperwork.

Customs forms. Goods declarations. Safety certificates. One pallet of stuff in a single container led to a whole shipment being turned away at the destination port because there was woodworm in the pallet planks. Child’s play compared to the supply chain issues we’re currently facing in Britain, but still awkward.

You couldn’t make it up.

When the invasion of Afghanistan began my colleagues found themselves working long hours as shipping vessels filled up with military hardware, leaving little space for the usual toys for Christmas shops and light-bulbs for Land Rovers.

By that time I’d left the freight office for another job: better paid, with more prospects, more spreadsheets and emails and regular hours. I began writing a novel that would become The Last Rhinemaiden. And I started to dig a potato patch.

Air freight resumed. Bombs fell on Afghanistan. Rubble was cleared, carefully, in New York. The world carried on, as ever, big stories in the news, ordinary lives destroyed or untouched by events.


So many stories surround the events of twenty years ago this weekend.

Many of them are hero stories.

Many of them are potato patch stories that turn into hero stories, years in the making or suddenly, overnight, in the wake of more terrible events.

Half the world today doesn’t remember what happened twenty years ago in a world city they’ll never visit – too young, or not yet born.

Half the world.

Life goes on.

Stories keep being told.

The challenges the world faces every day are not just hero stories but stories of people at potato-patch level – growing melons in the waste-water outflow of a military camp; repairing a makeshift tent on a hillside far from home; packing up troubles in their old kitbag with a smile, smile, smile.

We need to hear these stories and recognise their power. We need to hear stories of ordinary life, life disrupted, life persisting.

Stories that don’t end – or begin – in glory.

We need to hear these stories because small lives matter. A small life is what most of us are born for. Some of us, cast into disruption, yearn for it.

So dig, not too deep. Move on.

And let stories connect us.


Seeing the world move its goods around, still mostly on the high seas like in the days of tramp steamers and clipper ships, was fascinating.

Stories abound. Cargoes embargoed in foreign ports; stowaways risking their lives in containers stacked high on open decks; consignments washed overboard like so many rubber ducks.

When they say “write what you know”, in some cases you’d never believe me, like Jack London skippering a fishing boat in San Franscisco bay before he wrote Call Of The Wild.

Sometimes you’ll just say “potato patch”, and turn the page. The story goes on.


This week’s links:

Take a tip from this writer, and consider keeping a diary – “What exactly have I got to tell this black book about a life that we share all day, every day? What secrets can I possibly be keeping?”

Shipping link of a sort: Lego Lost At Sea on Twitter, regular posts on plastic washed ashore from shipping accidents and just plain litter. Beautiful photos of beachcombing in the Anthropocene.

A story about those who treasure the details of everyday lives: The secret world of diary hunters – “people love a story, they love a narrative, even a mundane diary can turn into a little drama”.

And a bonus extra link – The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K Le Guin (on The Anarchist Library, found via this Twitter thread of storyteller and cartoonist Ramzee).

Published in: on September 12, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Pencils In Space

As a child, when the first Star Wars film came out, I was hooked. I wanted one of those cars that floated above the desert. I wanted an underground house like the one Luke Skywalker’s family lived in.

princess leia with a gun

I wanted a lightsaber.

For Christmas I got the novel. The grownup version, not the abridged one for kids; the one with George Lucas listed as the author, not Alan Dean Foster.

Similarly, I had a Star Wars book of the future. It may still be on a bookshelf somewhere, a relic of another age.

By 2001, the book promised, we’d have floating space stations like something out of 2001:A Space Odyssey. The new Space Shuttle would bring about a new era of space exploration, an end to the Cold War, a future where everything was possible and a new life, off-world, could be ours.

We even had snacks shaped like space stations.

That imagination flushed through culture like the Egyptomania craze in the 1920s fuelled by Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Some of its influence still lingers, not least in the stories we tell ourselves.


This year, August has been a month of cautious visitors.

One, stealing a couple of days away from his caring responsibilities for the first time since before the pandemic, arrived exhausted from a long car journey, alone. We talked of gardening, and beer, and the joy of hearing orchestral music in a proper auditorium.

Others, two couples, came separately. In both cases we talked about recent bereavements, and the pandemic, and space exploration.

Building a station on the Moon, and a colony on Mars.

Disregarding the complexities of these aspirations, once the visitors were gone I got to wondering, as I pruned the summer raspberries:

Why don’t we build solutions for the planet we already have?

Like the old-time sailors prepared for a long Trade Winds voyage, I can see historical trends building up for the next stages of space exploration. In the Western world, we’ve spent the last half-millennium chasing the “empty” places on our maps.

Never mind there were people living there already, people who called the place home, tending fragile ecosystems so strange to us they seemed like wild Edens. The engines of the west, steam and diesel and now electric, demand fuel and roads to run on.

Feet – padded feet, bare feet, webbed feet – cross mountains and swamps with equal agility.

The big flat feet of kangaroos, and Dark Emus, paddle the shallow soil of Australia’s grasslands, the shallow roots of the native grasses vulnerable to upheaval.

Sheep, so vital to 16th-century Britain that the Woolsack sits under our Lord Chancellor in Parliament, have little picky feet to perch on rocky mountainsides and hills, feet that poke holes in shallow soil. When sheep eat, they rip the grasses up instead of cropping – no problem when the rain-thirsty grass is kept wet and your dirt is deep like in Wales or Patagonia, with roots adapted to the conditions.

In Australia? Hmm.

Onwards, the engines of the West thunder. Gobbling up landscapes, pushing aside nations, bringing new diseases to vulnerable peoples.

Expansion, at all – any – cost. The world has run on these rails for so long now, it’s hard for us to come up with suitable alternatives. Especially when the people we hear from are steeped in the current setup, so deeply their view of progress can’t see over the lip of the cup, except straight up to the stars.

We can’t all move to the Moon, or Mars. Many of us don’t want to. Why should we, when we have a perfect planet right here beneath our feet?


We all seem to love a big spaceship story.

Maybe it just attracts comment, because it’s so clearly Last Century’s Dream.

If we’re doomed to live on a wet Earth where the only habitable areas are at the polar extremes, and ⅞ths of the population has to die so the remainder can survive, in a hundred years more or less – where’s the solution? Where are the ideas?

That proportion of the human population who believe in relocation to another planet aren’t the ones with the solutions. They are, however, the ones with all the headlines.

Humanity has gained many technological advances from the space race, not least the understanding that money might bring you a pen that defies gravity but it’s easier to use a pencil.

So where are the pencils in the 21st century? Where’s the simple solutions that will enable the billion survivors to endure?


If we want to find new ways to deal with the future, do we look to the past, or to the side?

Hurtling along the road marked Progress, we’ve sidelined the societies and civilisations that live – lived – in closer harmony with nature.

You might picture hunter-gatherers in loincloths in the southern wilds of the Kalahari when the words “harmony with nature” appear. Are we programmed, by a society that depends on an appetite for technology, to be frightened by a life that appears to have none?

cave painting of human figures and animal figures by san bushmen
Rock art in the Kalahari

But closer harmony with nature can be managed. We do have the technology. We’ve had it before, for centuries.

The latest excavations of Angkor in Cambodia show that – at its apogee – the city was not some massive standalone temple complex surrounded by dense jungle like it is now. The city spread across hundreds of square miles of jungle, its houses and streets threading through forest gardens and irrigated ponds, living in close harmony with nature for centuries until climate change brought about its downfall.

Likewise the desert pueblo cities of the Anasazi (“Ancestral Pueblo”) people in what is now the USA. Thriving communities, dependent on a water source that disappeared from easy reach before the invention of the electric pump. Their descendants live in 19 sovereign nations within the borders of modern New Mexico. Why did they move into the pueblos from the canyon floor? Why did they abandon those pueblos, so easily defended, in less than a hundred years?

Some parts of the planet we can’t repair. We’ve damaged so much of the ecosystem, the life flows, that some of them can’t regenerate without thousands of years of evolution filling the gap we’ve created by overfishing, over-hunting, or just plain extermination.

Like with surviving coronavirus, we don’t have thousands of years. We’ve just got Now.

But because looking into the future on a planet as bruised as this one, so perfect for us and so damaged, seems terrifying.

Is terrifying. Killer heatwaves. Killer floods. Killer plagues. Coming to the West, on fading Trade Winds, to shake our grip on this world’s imagination.

So we look to the stars, to the Moon and to Mars, believing if only we tried hard enough we’d all live forever. In a galaxy far, far away.


This week’s links:

Archaeology of human evolution continues to surprise, as does theory of human language. The Dawn of Language: How We Came to Talk by Sverker Johansson (book review on The Guardian, with links) discusses the driving force behind the evolution of language (hint: it’s the wimminz)

Explore the city of Angkor Wat on Virtual Angkor, especially good on a VR headset apparently. To see how the place looks today, the official website is Visit Angkor.

You want music? More music? This time, Verdi’s awesome Dies Irae, here performed by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. (Click on the link if the video doesn’t load for you). This piece is Verdi’s interpretation of the Day of Judgement in Christian mythology, when the dead rise to face the judgement of God at the end of the world. Makes my hair stand on end.

Published in: on September 5, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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The mysterious case of the deer with an extra leg

The Mysterious Case of The Deer With The Extra Leg: a meandering tale for the August Bank Holiday (EN). Also features a dog, an archaeologist and the enduring effects of the last Ice Age.

File under: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?


man in furs and dog stare into hole in ice sheet
Briton Riviere, The Last Of The Crew

When I wrote A Walk In The Mesolithic, I linked to a FutureLearn course on Star Carr, the most impressive and well-known Mesolithic site in England. I started the course late, after many email reminders, so I missed the chance to join the comments thread when it might have been relevant.

But a couple of things triggered the storyteller in me.

During the most recent excavations at Star Carr, archaeologists discovered the carcass of a red deer, which turned out to have two left hind legs.

“Hmm…” I thought to myself.

They also discovered the skeleton of a dog which “had been placed in the water”, articulated i.e. still in one piece before decomposition started to set in.

Double “Hmm…”

This, in common archaeological parlance, “is of ritual significance”.

(Can you hear the next “Hmm…”? You wait for ages and then three come along at once)

red deer stag with raised head and antlers in mist
Thomas Henry Gibb: Thus Far (c) Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

Now, I’m not a professional archaeologist. I finished my degree many years ago – hence my interest in learning what’s new at Star Carr – but I know the phrase “ritual significance” is used, in many cases, as an explanation when all other rational explanations fail.

The storyteller in me always sees another explanation – one which is, of course, entirely imagined, and would have no place in an excavation report.

Excavation reports are scientific in their dryness, with little in the way of fanciful extrapolation. You write about only what you found in the ground.

On a purely evidential basis, much like a police procedural thriller goes along the pathway of crime scene – SOCOs – pathologist – Forensics – etc. to reach a conclusion for the cop characters to chase after, the various professionals provide evidence for the detective.

Rebus.

Morse.

Vera.

Or, in this case, the archaeologist.

Building a case against the suspect – telling the story of the crime – comes much later, using the evidence gathered during the investigation. Similarly, archaeologists use excavation reports as their evidence when writing academic papers and magazine articles, or big long popular nonfiction books, which have the advantage of not having to be peer-reviewed.

This evidence can often be interpreted in various ways – mainly because it’s often scant, and mysterious, in a “how the blazes did that get here?” kind of way.

One of my lecturers had an ongoing, decades-long academic battle with a contemporary who held opposing views on the possibility of Stonehenge being linked by trade with Ancient Egypt.

It’s a long story. I won’t go into it here – but safe to say, both of them had good reasons to believe they were right, based on the limited evidence available and a “modern” approach to not believing everything they’d been taught as students in the 1950s-60s (by lecturers whose own training had been given thirty or forty years before that).

The world changes.

Opinions change, and geopolitical upheavals combined with enlightened social mores, lead to reinterpretations. In its own way the insight brought about by radiocarbon dating was as shattering and controversial as the current uproar in certain circles over the National Trust telling us about how slavery (and state-sanctioned piracy, and exploitation of the UK workforce, but mainly slavery) funded stately homes.

New evidence comes to light with every excavation. It can take decades for that evidence to accumulate into a large enough sample across a wide enough area to change opinions on what actually happened back in the day.

Sometimes it explodes our knowledge of Else-when in a single dig. Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 was one of those moments.

And sometimes, it just throws up snippets which can be used by writers to trigger fancy thoughts, like the deer with the extra leg.

So my thoughts on the deer and the watery dog run like this:

The Mesolithic was a period in time when climate fluctuations were quite radical. The UK had only recently (geologically speaking) been under a mile of glaciation, during the last ice age.

Winters were still harsh.

painting of ice skaters on the frozen Thames in 17th century
The frozen Thames, c.1677

Even more harsh than the Little Ice Age in the 17th century, which saw trade fairs held on the frozen Thames and The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch.

Game of Thrones harsh.

It’s not long after the end of the ice age. Much closer to the ice age than we are now. The ice sheet, retreating from Europe, left behind Doggerland and a pathway across the landscape which is now the bed of the North Sea.

A group of people living in Star Carr back in the Mesolithic – by the edge of a mere, or lake, evidenced by pollen samples and suggested by the structures they built and the harpoons they fashioned from bone and antler – might have spent time there in winter.

A Mesolithic winter was much more vigorous than we’re used to in the UK.

What happens to water in winter? It freezes.

And frozen things keep for longer.

Back to this deer with the extra leg.

brush painting of a deer
A Reindeer in a Landscape; Wellcome Collection

To me, this sounds like a successful hunting party returning with more venison than the community can handle at one time. You don’t want to waste it – especially if the weather turns nasty and you don’t want to go out hunting for a while – so you hack a hole in the ice at the edge of the jetty and drop the carcass in, cover it with a layer of water and overnight – tada! – your venison is stored as fresh as a modern factory freezer.

When spring comes – or a thaw – you’ve either forgotten about the venison in the ice and buggered off to new hunting grounds, or the community has gone away for a big celebration somewhere else with the extended tribe, or it’s “gone off”.

“I am not touching that venison, it’s been in the water since the Solstice and you can smell it from Huddersfield”

“Ooo, not for me thanks – Mrs Ogg had some last Friday and her family were in the privy all weekend”

“Kids! Stop poking sticks at them dead deer! I don’t care if it is funny, them maggots are not toys!”

And so to the dog in the water.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Dog eats dodgy venison the minute its owners aren’t looking (eating anything when its owners aren’t looking is standard dog behaviour; internet will confirm).

Dog feels a bit iffy (which is a surprise if you know anything about dogs, but let’s go with the story). Dog feels a bit iffy, and has a lie down.

And it snows, and the dog with an iffy tummy isn’t allowed into the hut or shelter (trust me, it’s unpleasant enough in modern times with old newspapers and a mop), so it goes and lies down for a kip.

mediaeval manuscript of a dog eating something under trees

Being in an iffy state, the dog does not move when the temperature drops.

The temperature continues to drop.

Hypothermia sets in.

The dog, feeling iffy (and in a state of hypothermia), falls asleep, dies of the cold, and then gradually freezes solid. Same as the deer.

Snow covers the dog. Its owners spend a day calling for it, cursing it for running off, and gradually forget they had a dog, until they get a new one.

When warmer weather comes around the Star Carr families head off to that big celebration elsewhere, leaving the frozen dog to sink into the lake, perfectly articulated.

To be recovered by archaeologists eight thousand years later, whose clinical response is “???” (closely followed by “ritual significance”).

Now, this is entirely conjecture. I have no reason to believe the dog and the deer were placed where they were found for any other reason than the archaeologists have suggested. But so often we don’t know how something arrived at its final resting place that conjecture is how we reach a conclusion.

It’s the basis of most crime fiction, right from the start.

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

How else could the dog and the deer have got there? Any ideas?


This week’s links – diversions in a week of ongoing unpleasantness:

A discovery of fossil DNA in Indonesia from the time of the earliest pyramids in Egypt (meh! I hear you say, we have just read a story about the Mesolithic eleven thousand years ago, what’s so special about this? Well, it’s rare to find fossil DNA in the tropics. The discovery tells us surprising things about the movement of peoples in the past. And remember, the Indonesian island of Flores is home to Homo floriensis, the ‘Hobbit’ humans who lived about 17,000 years ago… only six thousand years before our Mesolithic folk, who were around only four thousand years before the owner of that newly-discovered DNA).

Discover manuscript illustrations of a dog eating ts own vomit and similar beasties on the Mediaeval Bestiary. Or go to Art & Snippy Comments on Tumblr for a more humorous take, and more you may have seen as memes elsewhere.

ART UK, which holds many of the images illustrating this post, has opportunities for freelance writers to create stories around their art collections – see How To Pitch to ART UK for details.

Published in: on August 29, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Bring Light

There’s a lot of darkness and disaster in the world right now. In fact, there is always a lot of darkness and disaster; we just don’t usually hear about it.

Beside the immediate situation in Afghanistan, the pandemic, and the ravages of climate change, it’s easy to forget that there is still light, and beauty, and hope in the world.

Kind words are all very well but they don’t pay the bills, or mend broken bones, or rebuild homes. As a writer I am often left with a feeling of senselessness – why write, when what’s needed is action? Why write, when others are suffering, and I’m doing nothing but putting words on a page?

We write to make sense of the world.

We write to compel others to feel the same as we do about a situation, or to explain what’s going on, or to heal.

We write to shake ghosts out of our heads and onto paper.

We write to tell others that it’s okay – or wrong – to behave in a certain way, and to show different viewpoints and experiences.

We write to bear witness.

We write, to change the world we live in.

Let’s make it better.

Bring light, and do not shy away from what that shows us.

Let’s try to spread a little of it, even just here, amongst ourselves, without forgetting that others elsewhere are suffering, or enduring hardship, or facing ruin.


To that end, lots of links this week.

artwork showing a defiant woman holding dandelions behind her back while a tank approaches in the background
Art by feminist graffiti artist Shamshia Hassani. Using the bomb-damaged walls of abandoned buildings as her canvases, Hassani paints murals that depict a universal female character whose face, while unveiled, is still obscured apart from lush, expressive eyelashes. Her latest artworks are defiant. I hope she’s all right.

Brainpickings – thirteen life-learnings from thirteen years, including links to some excellent articles on the usefulness of art and literature to maintain culture under duress.

Confessions of a Museum Bunny by Deborah Walker of Milford SF Writers. I’m a big fan of museums as a big source of characters, gadgets and other interesting snippets that may or may not make it into the story final.

DigDelve, an online magazine showcasing the writing of garden designer Dan Pearson. Lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs; also recipes.

Elephant Bike, by Cycle of Good. Working out of a former pottery warehouse in Stoke-on-Trent, and workshops in Malawi, the organisation refurbishes former postal delivery bicycles.

Free resources on Milkwood (Australian permaculture) for home-based living, specifically during the pandemic. Which includes a link to the West Country School of Myth.

Deep Green Permaculture shows us before and after photos of a back-yard transformation, from bare to food forest.

The basic dance steps everyone can follow, part 2 of a brief series on Medium.com about the current phase of the pandemic. Yes, it’s still pestilence.

The Light-Bringers – little needle-felted animals with lanterns might not be your thing, but you can always make space for a weasel or a sweary badger. An uplifting book by artist and author Karin Celestine, available at Celestine & The Hare.

Finally, this week’s music: Bombs Turn Into Roses, by Syrian musician Maya Youssef.


And don’t forget to write.

From the edges of hope to the safety of home, the world needs your voice.


Published in: on August 22, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Luxury of Service

We had a meal, nothing fancy, at table. A white linen tablecloth, shiny cutlery, sparkly glassware and plenty of wine.

But when I laid the food in front of one of our visitors, a sudden wash of surprise overcame him and caught him unawares.

In the months since we’d last seen each other, their household had gone through some tough times, in the midst of what turned out to be a harsh winter and an ever more bleak lockdown.

Remember my posts from back then?

Remember the death tolls rolling out across the days, thousand upon thousand?

The simple act of being served food, like if you’d gone to a restaurant or café. But missing from life for what seemed like a long, hard time.

Many of us take this for granted. We’ve built into our lives – into society – a variety of places to be served a range of items, whether it’s food or drink or entertainment or all of the above.

Un_bar_aux_Folies-Bergère_d'E._Manet_(Fondation_Vuitton,_Paris)
Un bar aux Folies-Bergère – Manet (Fondation Vuitton, Paris)

Some of us are on the other end of that transaction, juggling knives and potatoes in a dead-end catering job or washing up the dirty plates and pans.

Even those workers have their days off. Most of us can afford a frothy coffee and a fluffy muffin in a museum tea shop or a motorway service station; perhaps a bacon butty from a roadside snack bar or a pie at some sporting event. A breakfast burger wolfed down between parcel deliveries.

Eating out, in its many guises, always involves someone else serving. Round and round it goes.

So what does this bring to our fiction?

Like many people I have a fondness for ensemble stories in films such as Gosford Park, The Remains Of The Day, and The Shooting Party. I’m struck by how the dynamics of the stories often form around the position of service – servant, and those being served.

How marvellous we all could be if we had someone else (or a number of someone elses) to do the daily work!

How witty our repartee, how energetic our discourse, how robust our sense of entitlement.

Downton Abbey carpet-bombed the idea of benign aristocratic paternalism into the ITV viewing proletariat

Stewart Lee, writing in The Guardian

That’s part of the reason I paused writing the Cuckoo Club stories – in SHADOWBOX my hero is a young over-entitled blond from a privileged background, and the world has had enough of them already thank-you. By the time he’s an elderly and much wiser man in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, he’s mellowed, but his background is still beyond the innate understanding of most people, this author included.

Luncheon_in_the_Studio_-_Manet
Luncheon in the Studio – Manet

People from his social class hold different expectations of the world from those of a more ordinary background.

If you want to continue a discussion that began over dinner, you don’t have to take it into the kitchen to carry on the discourse while washing up. You just wait until the table is cleared – or ask, and it will be done for you – and continue without a pause.

There’s no second thought about all those dishes piling up in the sink, waiting for you later, because: they’re not.

And so I began to realise that, while what I was writing had its own merits – and I’ll have to write the middle book of Louis Beauregard, because I need to show you how the entitled young frogspawn turned into the wise old warrior – it wasn’t actually what I felt compelled to write.

Petticoat Katie and Sledgehammer Girl have to wait for the weekend to start their Fortean investigations in The Nessie Collector and The Weather Thief. They both have jobs or other responsibilities which preclude haring off on a whim.

painting of a girl at a water fountain
Girl beside a Fountain – Renoir (Kasama Nichido Museum)

The secondary character in SHADOWBOX can barely take time off for a funeral, never mind tracking a murderer across the English Channel and through the inner slums of Paris.

I understand there’s a line to be drawn somewhere. A book about a kitchen porter or an office drone isn’t in my scope either.

Our adventurers take off on their marvellous escapades particularly because they have support staff of one sort or another. How would Holmes manage without Mrs Hudson? Wooster without Jeeves?

The expectation that someone will be around to pick up the slack, to carry the can, to look after the house when the owners are away, shapes our fiction the way a potter shapes clay.

Is there another way to create fiction so that those who do the work tell the story?


On that note, this week’s links:

What shapes the stories we tell? Michael Rosen’s Workers’ Folk Tales, plus a terrific article (“The Red Children“) on the background of the book at The Jacobin magazine.

Kit de Waal asks where are all the working-class writers?

An absolutely tummy-rumbling post from Terri Windling on Literary food – lots of links, and scrumptious photos.

P.S. Petticoat Katie & Sledgehammer Girl live on toasted teacakes and peppermint creams…

Published in: on August 15, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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