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 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 – 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

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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It takes years to shape a life

When we look through old diaries and notebooks, we find snippets of the person we were in the past.

Maybe a letter from our younger self, asking questions like “How did you cope?”, “Is [sweetheart] still The One?” or even “Are you still there?”

Diary of Anne Frank in St Nicholas Church, Kiel, Germany
Diary of Anne Frank in St Nicholas Church, Kiel, Germany

Ambitions unfulfilled. Dreams, hopes, frustrations.

You probably didn’t run away to join the travelling circus (although some of us could have done, but that’s a different story).

Some of us did marry a childhood sweetheart, or brought new life into the world, or focused on writing to the detriment of everything else.

What’s usually striking is the similarity between day-to-day life in the past, and the same today. We rise, we eat, we wash and dress ourselves. We go out into the world to make our way.

With the pandemic, some of that has changed focus.

For good or bad, working from home has become familiar now in a way that commuting used to be. I don’t see a rush to cram back onto the train, or sit in traffic for an hour, to arrive amongst people you don’t feel connected to, in a job that leaves your heart hollow.

Even when we find ourselves in a mid-level profession we’d no hankering for when young, with colleagues we find agreeable and a just cause to promote, there’s often a pull from the world beyond.

What would the younger you have said if they’d seen what you’ve become? Does it matter, now, that your teenage self had different views on some things?

Or would you be satisfied, looking at Now, from a past – a Back Then – where your life was still pretty much dormant?

The patterns of our day-to-day lives may have stayed the same, but the fabric is a thicker weft shot through with gold and grief.

We change over time. It’s the whole point of stories, real and imagined.

Life throws us off-course.

Rivers rise, and change the landscape.

People come and go, accidents happen – miracles, too.

Maiden Flight by Vita Tugwell - Cover

In the earliest of the Petticoat Katie short stories, The Missing Mermaid, the characters barely showed themselves to me. I had to write more, world-building as I went, building up characters and scenarios and wild steampunk gadgets throughout The Nessie Collector, The Weather Thief, and the others.

Petticoat Katie, by the end of Monkey Business, is more than the lass who took off in Maiden Flight. Her companions are likewise enhanced, enriched, their interlaced lives taking turns I couldn’t have guessed at when I started to write the first story.

These changes take place in a short space of time – there’s barely a year between the events of the first story and the last, with only the passing seasons making a mark.

But I’ve tried to bridge decades as well.

At the start of SHADOWBOX, Louis Beauregard is a moppet of selfishness who stays that way all through the book. His opposite, Godfrey Woolverham – well, that would be telling.

But something’s missing, I know, between the young Louis Beauregard in 1832 and his elderly counterpart of 1888.

Many years shape his life. Many influences – some benign, others evil – take sharpness to his person and aim to change his mind.

He fights off death. He learns about himself. He changes, substantially, in between the two novels I’ve already written.

It would be mean of me not to explore how that happens.

It would be even more mean not to share that with you.

This week’s links:

Rewilding: Death metal baron rewilds his estate in Ireland. Most of us don’t have 300 hectares to spare, but it’s nice to see someone who does making an effort. Lord Dunsany – yes, descended from the novelist – is also a film-maker and writer.

Music, drama, passion: Mozart’s Requiem, Lacrimosa (Youtube, Gregory Carreño conducting the Coro Nacional Juvenil Simón Bolívar de Venezuela and Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela). I’d always considered Mozart to be all twiddly piano stuff until I heard this.

Art and life on the move, shaping a different way of life for more than forty years: Barry Howard (pinterest for lots of fabulous images and diversions), The Aimlessly Wandering Artist. Check out his bicycle-drawn caravan!

Published in: on August 8, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Birdsong #2

Back in the early days of Lockdown 1, before I began regular postings, I wrote about birdsong in lockdown.

Crow on a cherry branch by Ohara Koson

Each type of bird has its own preferred landscape. The bird-life of a place can tell you how healthy is the land, how fertile the soil to produce insects or green shoots for food; an overlooked part of world-building in fiction, from the ground up, painting the background to take the reader somewhere familiar, or somewhere out of this earth.

Wildlife matters, in fiction as well as in nature. With a dab here, a whirring insect there, you can paint a picture of place or climate or something not quite right, seeding that into the reader while they wait for the story proper to begin.

Now, I’m no naturalist. I’m a child of the woods and fields, a tree-climber, a mud-pie maker.

Wildlife was part of the background, until a bite or a sting.

Days of summer we’d hurtle along rural roads on a bicycle, feet up on the handlebars down scary hills while we mangled an ice-pop, whipping past hedgerows with only one ear alert to oncoming farm vehicles.

Avoiding cows (and cowpats). Poking sticks at puffballs or decomposing things.

Not a Silent Spring, but not as lush as some remember. We had no plague of ladybirds where I grew up, but if you watch TV archive programmes you’d think the whole country was blanketed every flippin’ summer.

The peace and quiet of the countryside isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Tractors, cows, sheep, light aircraft – all part of the soundscape.

Traffic jams, especially in summer when tourists and day-trippers flock to the Trossachs or Inverary, badly-tuned cars and diesel coaches clogging up narrow twisty roads on their way home from some midge-plagued Highland Games.

I once lived in a house backing onto mixed woodland where a large estate house lay buried. Pretending I was Hiram Bingham, I’d creep through the woods to the ruins of its walled garden and root through the undergrowth for treasure. Once, for a fleeting moment, I spotted a pine marten there.

Two pheasants in snow by Ohara Koson

No squirrels, no badgers or foxes, no fancy wee birds.

Blackbirds and song thrushes and wood pigeons; ducks from the marshland down by the shore, and occasional geese stopping by over winter.

Sometimes the krik-krik of a pheasant from the woods, sometimes the sound of a corncrake from the marshes.

The place was always hoaching with rabbits too, a veritable Watership Down infesting the fields around the house and scuppering the family’s attempts at self-sufficiency in a vegetable garden sadly absent any stout brick defences. The little beggars would even stand on tiptoe to nibble the shoots off daffodils in pots and planters.

While badgers and foxes are supposedly the quintessential animals of the countryside, I never saw a badger until I lived in a city.

Foxes likewise – arriving dead and mangy in the back alleyway in some dark hour to be found when I left for work in the morning, or scampering between houses on a midnight raid.

Fox in the reeds, woodblock print by Ohara Koson
Fox in the reeds by Ohara Koson

Sometimes we’d hear cock-crow from a garden nearby that kept chickens. Currently I can tell when the neighbour three doors down is going to mow her lawn, as her little dog goes nuts every time it sees the mower come out of the shed.

Two white geese, woodblock print by Ohara Koson
Two white geese by Ohara Koson

All landscapes, all diverse, all similar. Showing with sound and movement and animal life what the scenery is like, the location, setting the scene for stories.

Even the most urban scenes are teeming with wildlife, often in the most unusual spots – not just pigeons on statues or the otters in Singapore stealing James Dyson’s ornamental carp.

At one workplace, on a landscaped campus complete with tiny reeded lake (pond, people; pond), my morning coffee run involved side-stepping goose-poo spattered on the paving slabs, and in springtime the territorial honking was loud enough to put you off your emails.

In the Office From Purgatory there was no visible wildlife. The plants were strictly controlled and non-official plants were off-limits. Sheesh, even jokes were off-limits and conversation was whispered, side-eyed, as if we were all five years old.

cubicles! partitions! oh how we yearned for partitions!

Elsewhere, three floors up, I could sit at my desk and watch crows nesting in a conifer only twenty feet away. Strangely enough I’d never thought about lady crows before then. Crow mamas. The crows made no sound while I was there, but I didn’t see them hatching any chicks. A watched corvid never broods, perhaps.

This house has sparrows and blackbirds during the day, owls of two types at night. I’ve seen song thrushes scamper across my path on my morning walk, and someone said there were ravens on the old tower crowning the hill on the horizon.

Oh yes, ravens in the tower. Now that’s a story for another day.

And now for this week’s links, nature-themed:

A victory in the High Court against the plans to tunnel under Stonehenge. This is yet another milestone in the decades-long and ongoing discussion over how to manage traffic around the site, as well as maximise its potential (it’s the biggest money-spinner English Heritage manages) and preserve the landscape.

Brainpickings on The Cosmic Miracle of Trees. You can also subscribe to a Wednesday newsletter from the BrainPickings archive, fifteen years of pick-me-up essays. Goldmine.

When I last looked at the webcam on the Visit Angus website, a wee fishing boat was making its way into Arbroath Harbour across a still, silver sea. You can also watch sparrows stealing all the peanuts from the bird feeding station in Montrose.

Juggling with knives. And potatoes.

With the recent jump in temperature as we approach the summer solstice, and the old adage of Write What You Know uppermost in my mind, I’m reminded of summer jobs I worked at in my youth.

Mostly juggling knives. And potatoes.

Stood between a range cooker and a hostess cabinet serving hot food under hot, bright lights. The kitchens were so hot we’d open the windows for a breeze, then the midges came in and all hell broke loose as we itched and scratched and tried not to look like pariahs. We’d put on the big noisy extractor fans instead, and have to use sign language to make ourselves understood.

Sweat gathering in the folds behind your knees, trickling down your legs as if you’d peed yourself. Still smiling at customers fresh from a dip in the nearby river, leisured holiday-makers paying your wages.

Another kitchen, hovering over a deep-fat fryer the size of a washing machine. Praying a customer would order something other than saveloy-and-chips so I could stand in front of the fridge – or the freezer, yay! – for a few seconds while the cool air seeped out onto my blotchy ankles.

Walking home, the dust on the road sticking to my bare skin and my hair stinking of fryer grease.

Offices too, often too cold in winter and far too hot in summer.

One building with an air-circulation system that moved air from one floor to another – how’s that faring these days, now that COVID is airborne?

Another office, in full sun all day under a corrugated steel roof; we’d trip the electrical circuits using fans where none should have been needed, but the building was made in a time before computers and printers and photocopiers, and designed for half as many people.

I’m mindful of these experiences when I write.

In the Petticoat Katie novels, my characters don’t swan around country houses with servants to bring them iced tea by the pool.

They don’t stride across the countryside with their companions on a quest to throw a gold ring into a volcano.

They don’t zip through time and space in an air-conditioned police box larger on the inside than the out.

My characters have to work for a living.

They travel by Tube, and the journeys are often crowded, hot and gritty.

On other occasions they travel by airship above shimmering city streets or sandwiched between forest and thunderclouds, cocooned: oppressive, humid, inescapable.

a chimpanzee seated at an old-fashioned typewriter

Petticoat Katie has an office filled with monkeys in an inner-city block built in the Victorian era. Small windows, one door, and did I mention the monkeys which must not be allowed to escape?

Sledgehammer Girl spends her spare hours in a cramped cellar workshop inventing cute gadgets. Much activity with hammers and drills and flaming torches of the non-pitchforky kind.

In summer both locations are unbearable, the first too hot with the stench of bananas and typewriter ink, the other too breathless for brazing or fabrication.

Each place is similar enough to where I’ve worked that I can make a guess on its conditions. Where I have to put my characters into an unfamiliar situation – as we all have to as writers, especially SF or historical fiction – there’s always the research of other writers or the testimony of witnesses.

The more you know, the better you can imagine.

(And right now, I’m imagining ice-cream on a seafront promenade with just enough breeze to be comfy.)

This week’s links – happy, happy.

Moderna HIV vaccine to begin trials.

Great news – Laziness Does Not Exist. Interesting article on, which emphasises the link between situation and response. Worthwhile reading to consider when you’re creating new characters.

And, while I’m not a big fan of podcasts, there are plenty of interest at Fourble including many BBC radio comedies and drama series. Here’s A Canticle For Liebowitz, an SF classic novel adapted for NPR.

Published in: on June 13, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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What stories are we missing?

In amongst all the written stories of the pandemic so far, tragedy and outrage are dominant.

Rightly so.

The UK government – and others – spectacularly, disastrously failed to address the problem in a suitable manner. Tens of thousands have died, so far.

Stories which grab the headlines are not in short supply.

It’s fitting that we share the stories of those who have suffered, and you don’t have to go far to find them underlying all the grim statistics. Most of those who died, did so needlessly. Most of those who live with long COVID need not have caught the illness in the first place.

All through the pandemic (so far) I’ve watched the stories in the media play out, tugging attention one way or another, broad generalisations which are meant to apply to the population as a whole without dissent. And I’ve yet to see much that reflects my own experience, and perhaps that means my household is an outlier.

I have not partaken of a single Zoom meeting. I didn’t Eat Out To Help Out (madness), didn’t rush to the pub the minute the doors opened, didn’t hasten back to the shops or the gym or the hairdresser.

Much of that lifestyle didn’t apply before the pandemic arrived, and I ain’t changing my habits now just because there’s plague in the air.

But the stories are there, untold.

Those of us who stayed at home, not chafing against the boundaries suggested to us. Those of us who had a safe home to stay in, with people we love and like, and enough put by to tide us over until restrictions were lifted. Those of us who were not furloughed or trying to run a business, nor in dangerous work, or important jobs which kept the NHS and the economy ticking over.

Those of us who were lucky.

A year before COVID appeared, my situation would have been very different. What seemed like catastrophe (health-related) in 2019 forced changes to our lives that resonate with us still.

My household was lucky.

More than a year later, and as long as COVID is around, that luck may change in a moment with an unguarded breath in a busy place, or a visitor to the house unknowingly infectious, or an unforeseen event that takes us unplanned into a crowded location.

Our lives are not spectacular. Our stories are not told, the headlines given over to those who need action or rescue or simple attention. Quiet, ordinary, cautious, we endure.

And yet we fume against the mass injustices performed upon our fellows.

Let not our quiet watchfulness be taken as approval.

In the meantime we stay alert and stay at home and wonder what the world is like outside. Will there be time, one day, to hear the stories of those like us in times of plague?

The Procession by Bertha Lum

This week’s links:

Life Beyond Act One: Why We Need More Stories About Older Women – Why have so many authors, past and present, refused to let their heroines age? (Note that the beloved Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg began as older women, and just improved)

The Charitable Brotherhood of St Eloi – a Grauniad article from 2020, on “the French brotherhood burying the dead – rich or poor – since 1188”.

Workhouses – an incredible website on workhouses and their ilk, including stories of emigration and destitution from centuries of small lives lived in the shadow of misfortune and poverty.

Published in: on May 30, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on What stories are we missing?  
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Books: tree spirits distilled

Long before social media began to harvest our preferences from every online interaction, what books we read were an insight into our minds. Our bookshelves, be they ever so sparse, told others what our preferences were, our inclinations, our interests.

The influence of books and other reading material was so potent that some books were banned – in some places, still are.

This love of books needs careful curation. Book as artefact, more important than the story within? Or enhanced by text and typeface, space and spacing, illustrations and colour plates or just plain, justified just so.

Books made of paper, made of trees, made of dryads and tree spirits distilled. They feel good in the hand. Fitting, because touch is part of the experience of reading. The smell of a new book, the smell of an old book, the artefacts contained within books. Whole towns and cities have become famous by their link to books, to libraries, to the storage of knowledge.

Hay-on-Wye, England’s self-titled “book town”, seeps flammable treasure from every corner. There I encountered “Dogs of the Greek Islands”, for example, as well as a well-thumbed copy of Dion Fortune’s “Moon Magic”.Book cover Dion Fortune Moon Magic woman in pharoah costume

Every new book, every new author, is a possible gateway to new worlds, or new ways of viewing our own world, and peering into small places, hidden places, to see through someone else’s awareness how the world works.

Astronomers such as Maggie Aderin-Pocock, looking at the night sky, see it differently from most people – reading a map written in the stars like an ancient mariner would have done, from Abyssinia to Peru.

A botanist like James Wong, looking at a garden, sees an interconnected web of plants sending chemical messages to each other, understanding how this works when he designs his next terrarium.

Through illustrated books we see the world we’d never otherwise encounter – and other worlds imagined by those with hands more adapted to brush and paint and ink than pen or pencil. Lush landscapes in almost realism, or pared down to slabs of colour.

When our favourite characters – or the characters we create – are plunged into a whirlpool like Corryvreckan or similar dangers, how those characters react and deal with the problem is an illustration of learning: Do we agree, or disagree, with their choice?

Curiosity too. For some of us, encountering the real world comes too fast, too furious, a pace we can’t control. Books allow us to take life in chapters and to close the book when the information comes too fast, allows us to keep the pace to one we control, allows understanding to sink in.

Books permit a return to check what was said, what went on, what implications, where we are now came from.

Writing books allows us to make clear our thoughts. To share the worlds that crowd in on us, to show where dragons and hobbits live, to explore another set of choices and opinions and reasonings.

And answers.

Answers to the questions we don’t always think we ask – how do you deal with this? – where this can be grief, or love, or betrayal, or loyalty, or happiness, or travel, or monsters. Or even how to be.

“In many ways I can trace much of my life’s trajectory to that encounter with a single book at a delicate age — a time when all the world’s paths are laid out before you, and you wait for someone or something to beckon you on to one instead of another, into one self rather than another.” – Amal El-Mohtar

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mythical place in the Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón – is a marvellous creation for those of us who love books. There’s similarity with the forbidden library in The Name Of The Rose, secret stash of murderous monks and equally labyrinthine in design.

Those of us who read – and write – are convinced that books are more than simple entertainments. We like to believe that this love of books, the collecting of books, marks us as part of a tribe, a caste almost: Brahmins of reading and lore.*

But we also like to believe that where we store those books are palaces.

“Where libraries are concerned, I need to believe they’re all one, that I’m loving all of them when I love one of them. I couldn’t choose a favorite library any more than I could choose a favorite limb.” – Amal El-Mohtar

Writing lets us feed that mausoleum of trees, the library, in love-letters to librarians.

Custodians of learning. Mages of lore. Curators of our collected wisdom, hoarded for us. Procurers of strangers to entertain us. Pushers of our favourite drug.

Librarians are keepers of the sacred flame, the leaf, the folio. Keepers of knowledge. Love books, because books are knowledge distilled.

Hoarders of useful things as well as pretty.

We’d like to believe we are all building our own tiny part of Timbuktu – our own Alexandria. Sure, the stories are immortal, but the books show us how to age.

*Considering the ephemeral nature of most books, and the similarity of stories throughout time all over the world, there are less noble descriptions we could apply.

This week’s three Happy Links:

The City of Lost Books at Glasgow University

Whimsical machines at The Rowland Emmet Society

My Breath My Music: (link in Dutch language) helps people with often severe physical disability make electronic music.

Published in: on February 21, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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COVID, One Year On

Today, 24th January 2021, is exactly one year since I started taking notice of COVID-19. Here’s a little history of the past twelve months (as seen from my writing desk).

painting of flooded flat lands in weak sunlight

Floods in the Arun Valley, by William H Clarkson

One of our visitors that New Year lives in Hong Kong. We’d had a long chat about the protests in parts of the Territories which, at that time, was the biggest news from that part of the world. He flew home in early January.

Then news of the new SARS variant appeared on social media. I emailed his partner to ask if he was safe (yes) and continued doom-scrolling as the disease spread across the Chinese mainland.

Twitter showed eerie footage of Wuhan, a city larger than London.

Empty motorways. Giant machines spraying disinfectant along the streets between darkened, shuttered city blocks. And people in high-rise flats calling out to each other, whistling, cheering, shouting Keep-Calm-And-Carry-On-style slogans across thin air twenty storeys up.

A month later, five hundred million people were in lockdown.

China cancelled Chinese New Year.

There may still be a Wuhan diary online – the link is for Day 6 (28th January 2020), the first post in English – but by the end of February those cheers had turned to cries of “I want to go out”, and stories began to circulate of tragedy unfolding in silence. As ever, those most affected were those reliant on others to care for their needs – children, frail elders, or disabled.

By then, hospitals in other parts of the world had begun to see the new infection seize hold of their vulnerable citizens with alarming impact.

Maybe my research for SHADOWBOX had given me some insight into pandemic disease to which we had little resistance.

Maybe it was history telling how Native American populations were devastated by new illnesses brought by Europeans.

I began to feel wary of the UK response. Our new government seemed blithe, nonchalant – oblivious.

Then, in March, Denmark closed its borders.

Ireland cancelled St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Finally, lockdown – proper, hard, everything-shut lockdown – came to Britain.

In April I walked to the local post office with a parcel. The houses on one residential street were decked with mannequins – on the porch or balcony or front garden – with bunting strewn in the spring sunshine as if there was a royal wedding on the way. NHS rainbows in crayon stuck to front-room windows. Applause, once a week, for care workers, when what they really needed was proper PPE.

Since then, the only reason to go out has been for medical appointments or running the car around the neighbourhood to keep the battery charged.

What was summer like? We stayed at home and kept to ourselves, watching in disbelief as people danced the conga at VE Day celebrations, thronged trains to the coast, jammed themselves into restaurants as if the Masque of the Red Death was a new flavour of sundae.

Enraged, I wrote “The First Ten Thousand Dead” and hoped I was over-reacting.

Autumn came and went. Christmas, New Year, not going out, cautious of strangers and careful to disinfect deliveries.

Now the dreich days of January are back again, floods obscuring the riverbanks like December 2019. A whole year has passed by, time stood still for those of us lucky enough to be safe at home.

Seems like Plague Island is the New Normal, adrift off Europe.

buddha head statue with sage bush backgroundGrim though it feels right now, summer’s coming. We are being vaccinated at pace.

It’s a long way off, but the bright days of sunshine will come again. The wasps in my woodpile will let me know when.

While I have writing goals for this year, I also want to keep up the habit of posting on here at least once a week. Some posts will be long and rambling (like this one), some poems (mine and others), hopefully some updates on progress against the writing goals I set in January.

I will try to be positive and truthful, and endeavour to bring some light in otherwise dark days.

With that in mind, this week’s Three Bright Spots:

  1. The USA Presidential handover. Oh, I know there’s only so much one man (and woman) can do to change the world. But there are challenges right now that need attention, globally, and the focus has been on the wrong subjects for a long time, so any change that might address those challenges in some positive way is welcome. So much to hope for.
  2. Look out of someone else’s windows on Window-Swap
  3. Travel back in time, across (part of) the USA, without leaving your chair: Nomadic Research Labs

Summer’s coming. I promise.


Published in: on January 24, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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January 2021 – Look back

Last year, I wrote about fifty thousand words. Apart from the posts on my blog, none of those words were published. Most of them weren’t publishable – weren’t connected to a novel, or story, or anything else creative. Much of them were journal entries.

There was a lot to muse over. Coronavirus, having appeared, proceeded to sweep across the world and curled itself into a cosy corner of northwestern Europe called the UK, and has been hogging the duvet here ever since. In my household, this is a cause for concern. Hey, if it isn’t a cause for concern in your household, 1. where have you been and 2. don’t bother coming round to explain.

We’ve been shielding since before lockdown in March 2019. We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone.

We realise this may be… some time. We are prepared for this.

In terms of creativity, I spent a lot of words noodling over what to write. And why to write. Does my voice matter? (of course it does).text says Write because your voice matters

Of the many stories I have waiting for me to give them form, which of them call me right now? If none, why not? And also, I told myself, why not just come up with some new ideas (e.g. Project NEVADA).

As I wrote here last time, January 2021 – Setting my intentions, nobody wants more junk.

So part of my new writing year’s resolutions is to write with more focus on work which can be published, to finish that work, and submit more poetry to online journals.

There’s scope, room, for learning more skills. For reading widely, online and on paper, to research and build the worlds my stories will occupy.

Scope, too, for reading the guidance and wisdom shared so freely online by other writers – Joanne Harris, Kris Rusch, Terri Windling. And scope for humility too, accepting that my work isn’t ready, that I need more practise, that I need to take my time to make stories that enhance my body of work, not blight it.

Saying that, even with a whole fresh year ahead of us, how many of us believe time isn’t precious?

One breath in the wrong place and you’re infected with COVID. And right now, the UK is near the top of the list of the wrong places. With six weeks of lockdown now in place over England, the old rules apply – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. (Might be longer than six weeks, but hey; six weeks is an old-skool beach-body diet plan…)

There are tales to be told of life on Plague Island, to be sure. Many will be horror stories, others tragedy. We Brits have a streak of black comedy a mile wide. What tends not to be noticed are the humdrum, daily dull, background stories of ordinary people who are managing, just fine or just coping.

Some of us aren’t struggling, although we’d like to get out more (but daren’t risk the plague).

Some of us can’t get out even if we’d love to (and to Hell with the virus), even in the Old Normal Age when disability kept us enclosed like rare, exotic pets.

Some of us are skating a thin line down the middle of Okay and Not-Okay, wobbling one way or the other from day to day, hour to hour, like a violin saw screeching not wrong but not-quite-right.

But there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news and the airwaves and online media will be detrimental to creativity.

Those fifty thousand words I wrote last year were mostly random musings. Life planning. Thoughts that wouldn’t stop bugging me until I wrote them down, let them flood out of my head through my hands and onto the screen, where I could pin them down like beetles in a Victorian collector’s case.

There’s a risk that this year’s writing might follow a similar path, if I don’t focus on specific goals.

I already have the skills to make this happen. I’ve written before about how I manage writing projects – spanners and screwdrivers at the ready – so I need to take my own advice as well as that of experts. I have to make a start on writing the works I want to see on my own private bookshelf by the end of the year.

More on that next time.

In the meantime, please enjoy the Yorkshire Musical Saw Players performing Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Yes, indeedy.

Other links I found while researching this post:

The Yorkshire Musical Saw Man(Charles Hindmarsh)

Saw Lady (Natalia Paruz)

Thomas Flynn & Co, the UK’s only musical saw manufacturer

January 2021 – Setting my intentions

Usually at the start of January, I have a burst of creative energy, planning all sorts of creative projects for the year ahead.

Some of these are writing; some are practical, like sorting out home improvements.

There’s a balance to be made between solitary projects and collaboration. Between enjoyable tasks, and chores.

Writing projects on my “Hmm…” list – stories and ideas that I can’t prioritise over any of the others – run to about forty, novels and non-fiction and series, over different genres. Project NEVADA is one of these.

Maybe I just don’t care enough about them. If the writer isn’t excited by the prospect of spending a few months coaxing the characters through the story, then the reader probably won’t want to spend a couple of days – or hours – doing the same.Vintage Typewriter with case

It’s easy to tell myself that if I’d thrown wordcount down on the page for those projects, I’d have something to publish, more novels to add to my body of work.

Another little voice tells me that I might just produce junk.

Nobody wants more junk.

So this year’s plan for creative works will be short.

What’s yours?

Published in: on January 1, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (6)  
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