More People of the Forest

Here’s a third extract from People of the Forest, the new novel I am writing. Meet Len and Samir, a couple of Trackers, law and order officers charged with keeping an eye out for people’s movements, especially criminals and dissidents. Everyone is fitted at birth with a self-expanding anklet that cannot be removed. It serves to track people and is permanently connected to the secure TrackNet. As for Isla Whitehead, mentioned here, you’ve already met her, she was the girl in the second extract I published, … and what about the girl? She’s a screen wizzer, a magician with computers. And here is a link to the first extract: The birth of a new novel.

Remember this is a draft and could change in the final book.

“Get your stunner,” Len said as he buckled the belt of his holster around his waist.

“What’s up?” Samir asked, biting an outsized chunk off a sandwich he’d fished from the machine.

“The two cams came back on at Mack’s shack.”

“It was probably a bug. Anyway, we can’t both go. Somebody’s got to man the screens.”

Len shook his head. “Two cams don’t just switch on and off on their own. That’s no technical glitch. Someone’s messing with TrackNet. You were right about a distraction. This is big stuff. We both go.”

“What about my sandwich?”

Len rolled his eyes. “You’ll get fat.” They were all getting fat stuck behind screens all day. They hardly ever went out on a mission. Seeing his friend’s offended look, he ran his fingers through Samir’s hair. “Bring it with you. I’ll drive.”

They were just out the door when an alarm rang on one of the screens. Samir halted. Len grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the Pod. “Check it on your Tab.”

Len slammed on the brakes as he was about to pull out of the Pod park. The Governor’s sleek Pod slid to a halt blocking the road. The sight astonished and alarmed him. The Governor never visited the Tracker station, lest it be for some flashy photo op with the press.

“What the…” Samir said, rubbing his head where he’d banged it on the windscreen. He’d been reading the alarm message on his Tab and hadn’t seen what had happened.

Len grabbed Sami’s arm to silence him and ordered his window down. The Governor did likewise. Seated next to him was the head of Trackers. “Where are you two off to in such a hurry?” the Governor asked.

“Two cases of untagged suspects and an agression,” Len replied.

“That can wait. Get back inside. I need to talk to you.”

Samir began to object, but Len backed their Pod out of earshot as he ordered the window up. “That’s the Governor, you daft idiot,” he muttered under his breath. “Cool it if you wanna have a job tomorrow.”

In the Tracker station, the two Trackers stood to attention as the Governor sprawled in Len’s chair. Next to him stood the Head Tracker, looking embarrassed. Over the Governor’s shoulder, Len and Samir had a good view of the archeological site on the screens. A youth was rampaging through the ruins knocking over sign posts as he did. Close on his heals loomed an angry bear. Abruptly the youth halted. Ducking under the bear’s outstretched claws, he drove a long knife between the bear’s ribs. The bear faltered, opened its mouth in a silent roar and collapsed forward, trapping the boy as it did.

Both Len and Samir were so engrossed in the action that neither heard a word the Governor said. “What did I say?” the man asked, getting to his feet. He was taller than both of them and much fitter. Some people apparently had the time and the means to work out. Len just stared back, at a loss what to say, but Samir pointed at the screen, his mouth open. When the Governor and the head of Trackers turned to look, they saw only mournful monuments. Neither the bear nor the boy were visible. The Governor frowned as he fixed the two before turning to their chief.

“I’m beginning to wonder if these two wouldn’t be better doing another job.”

The chief nodded in agreement, staring at his feet. So much for siding with his men.

“I’ll give you a last chance to redeem yourselves.” The Governor pulled a photo from his inside pocket and slapped it down on the table. Len, Samir and the head of Trackers inched forward to get a closer look.

The girl was probably about fifteen, though she looked younger. The lines of her face were full and rounded as if yet unmarked by life. Her lips compared to the relative plainness of the rest of her appearance were surprisingly sensuous. The way her chin protruded hinted she knew what she wanted and expected to get it. Her pale brown hair hung to her shoulders and partly concealed a prominent forehead. There was an intelligent look in her eyes although Len had the curious impression she was making an effort to appear normal and nondescript.

“Ilsa Whitehead,” the Governor said. “Don’t be misled by her apparent innocence. She is a very dangerous specimen that just escaped from one of our top security reform schools.”

How ever did she manage that? The place was reputed impregnable. It was the latest generation, high-tech establishment for young offenders that boasted all the latest security gadgets.

“Not only did she break their security system, but we suspect she deactivated her anklet.”

“How did she do that?” Samir exclaimed.

“We know she is a screen wizzer. It was messing with government security systems that got her into reform school in the first place.”

People of the forest

Almost every day I go for a long walk in the forest above our home, pausing from time to time to sit and write the next paragraphs of my latest book. As I walk, I turn over ideas and words for my book while trying to fend off the myriad other stories that  bustle for my attention. I examine the world around me and take photos or film from time to time. I had been meaning to film the funicular which crosses the path at one point but as the train goes by only once an hour, my passage rarely coincides with that of the ‘Funi’. Today I was lucky.

But it is not only flowers and birds and inspiration to be found in the forest. As I walk, exploring further and deeper each time, I meet a rich variety of people who have also opted for the forest. Here is today’s selection.

The man with gray stubble for a beard opens his plastic bag and proudly exhibits the mushrooms he’s found before plunging behind trees and around bushes in search of more. A Kurd plodding steadily along the road, leans on his sticks. “It’s diabetes,” he says. “And the heart.” He talks of his doctor and the hospital and the precautions he must take. But today he’s decided to be more daring and walk as much as he wants. A woman struggles after a husky up the steady incline as she does everyday. Taking it in turns with her husband, she exercises her dogs whenever using the sled is not possible. A man in a t-shirt, shorts and running shoes cuts through the forest extolling the virtues of getting in amongst the trees. When challenged about the dangers of ticks that are prevalent in the area, he replies, “I’ve been vacinated.” I didn’t now a vaccin against Lyme Disease existed. Finally there’s the lumberjack sawing off lengths of trunks with a cunning measuring device he made himself. Once cut and dried, the wood heats his home and brings “warmth and light” to his friends. When asked whether ecology or cost-saving motivates his work, he replies, “Both. But above all the pleasure.” He talks with evident relish of the different types of wood, how they dry, what they smell of and how they burn.

Protect Net Neutrality

Wednesday July 12th 2017 has been singled out in the States and elsewhere as a day of action in favour of Net Neutrality. If the Trump administration through the FCC reverses earlier decisions and gives the right to Internet access providers to pick and chose how they grant access to the Internet it opens the door to partitioning the Net between haves and have-nots, with ultra high-speed broadband services for the rich and pitifully slow Internet, if any access at all, for the poor and marginalised. In terms of content and content providers, it would give access providers the right to decide what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’, where acceptability may depend on the company’s commercial or political interests rather than any concern for the public good or for the underlying democratic nature of the Internet. To learn more about the question see (amongst many others);

John Horwood: inspired by a wood

At a time when a wood is inspiring me, it seems appropriate to return to the masterly writing of one who was deeply inspired by Duncton Wood, John Horwood. If you haven’t read the Duncton tales, I highly recommend them. His descriptions of places are magic and the story he tells is both thought-provoking and moving.

… and what about the girl?

If you read my last post, you will know a lot of the writing on my new novel has been done in the forest. Should it rain while I’m out walking, and that seems likely as the weather has changed for the worse, I can always shelter under one of the arches of the funicular (see above) to write.

I suspect the first extract from the draft of new novel I posted a few days ago may have given the impression that it’s all about a young guy called Jake. Well it is, but there is also a girl called Isla and she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Jake after their first brief encounter. Here’s an extract from the beginning of chapter two. Remember this is a draft. Remember also that things aren’t always as they seem…

Isla cupped her hands under the fountain for the third time and swilled water round her mouth unable to rid herself of the taste. What if the boy had some dreadful disease? She’d bitten him, damn it! There’d been blood and he stank. Spitting the water onto the ground, she straddled the monoPod ready to ride off if necessary  and pulled out her Tab. If she’d been a normal person she’d have denounced the attack. The boy was frankly dangerous. She’d thought he was going to molest her.

Her heart pounded as she recalled how he’d flung himself on top of her. He’d been about her size, but he was much stronger. She’d felt his muscles. His arms. His legs. His weatherbeaten face had been so close to hers. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. The whiff of mouldy cheese had almost had her gagging. And the wild look in his eyes. Like a cornered beast. No. More lost and perplexed. As if he thirsted for an answer.

Isla ran her fingers over the screen of the Tab. It had been hidden in the saddlebags of the monoPod she’d stolen. She had immediately disarmed the location software of both the Pod and the Tab, but using the latter to notify the Trackers was still risky, if not plain stupid. They could trace the call and would want to know how she came to be alone in such a remote spot when she was supposed to be at school.

School? Reform school they called it. A pretty name for a prison for youngsters. A school where teacher was synonymous with warden and learning meant sweeping the floor or clearing away the cardboard Boxit each and every meal was delivered in. A place where brawls were commonplace and abuse, especially of girls and the young and weak, was the norm. In her short stay, she’d spent her time trying to go unnoticed. If they sent her back she’d be in big trouble. Inmates didn’t appreciate kids who tried to escape. As if escaping insulted those who were left behind. She’d bear the brunt of years of pent-up anger. Especially with her being so different. Few of the others could read or write, let alone programme screens. The authorities would surely have twigged she’d busted wide open their precious security system. They’d never let her near a screen again.

The birth of a new novel

As I reached the end of the draft of my latest novel, Stories People Tell, I was concerned that no idea for a new book sprang to mind. Normally I have to put a brake on the new ideas that jostle to be heard as the current book nears completion. But this time nothing moved, even if I nudge and prodded it. What if my source of inspiration had dried up? A worrying thought I tried set aside. I was three-quarters through the first edit of Stories People Tell before an idea came for a possible novel and in unusual circumstances.

My hip had been playing up and rather than try to rest, I decided to start daily walks, hiking first four then eight kilometres early every morning. On the second day, as I neared the eight-kilometre mark I came across a clearing off the well-used track. Littered with moss-covered rocks and some felled trees, the place had a magic quiet to it that appealed to me. I sat on a rock (see photo below), pulled out my iPad and began writing a story that took shape in a very similar place to that one. Every day I paused to sit on that rock and write, except the one day in the month when it was raining.

It was not  immediately clear where the story was going but now I have written twelve chapters (of about one hundred to be written), the direction is becoming apparent. Unlike most of my other books, I have not immediately decided on a title. I just call it New Book. It will be my twelfth novel.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning of the opening chapter. Remember this is a draft and it will probably change before the book gets published.

To think he’d walked so close to the ruins on his foraging trips through the forest, never suspecting they were there. Jake glanced at the scattered slabs of stone now covered with moss and rampant ivy. Despite their dilapidated state, he could make out the sacred ring amongst the oaks culminating in one majestic menhir still intact that towered above the others.

There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes a moment and bowed his head, acknowledging the spirits that inhabited the spot. Having ensured that no entity was settled on the rock next to him, he eased up onto it and shrugged off his backpack. The miles of trekking were beginning to take their toll and his legs ached. He stared at the sullen standing stone a long moment, undecided if it was welcoming or hostile. At least the site, nestled in a hallow in the ground that hid it from the main track, offered suitable shelter to break his fast.

He pulled a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese from his bag and bit into it. The bread was getting stale and the cheese dry. If only he had some pickles. The moment the selfish thought crossed his mind, he berated himself. The priest would have called him twice cursed, for covetousness and gluttony. The sour-faced man was very free with his condemnations, especially when it came to Jake. All the same, he had to agree. Craving more in the circumstances was really a sin.

A tear trickled down Jake’s cheek at the memory of his mother sneaking into the castle kitchens to filch food. Begging her to cease was pointless. How else was she to feed them? The pittance she earned as a maid was far from enough. One day he’d walked in on her spreading ointment on the wheals on her back. The sight of the swollen gashes had been a shock. Never had she complained of the whippings. She was lucky, she said, not to get beheaded like other thieves. He brushed the tears angrily from his face and returned the remaining lump of bread to his bag.

Jake was reaching for his water bottle when he froze. In the distance, approaching fast, a group of horses cantered along the main trail sending birds squawking into the air. The Baron’s men. No other group could be out in such numbers. Surely they couldn’t be looking for him so soon. He shouldered his bag and shot a look around in search of the best place to hide. They were bound to stick to the well-used trail, but better to play safe.

He was wrong about their choice. The first of the mounted men trotted between the stones just as he ducked behind the largest of them. The horses snorted when their riders pulled them to a halt. There was a telltale click of buckles and stirrups as the men dismounted. “He must be here somewhere,” a gruff voice said. It was the captain of the guard, a thin-faced, vicious blighter who was the terror of the young ones in the castle, boasting as he did of eating little children for breakfast. Story or no story, the voice was so close it made his skin crawl. (…)

A foretaste of the Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust

The Guardian has just published a short teaser from Philip Pullman’s forthcoming book, La Belle Sauvage, the first of the Trilogy, The Book of Dust. In an interview posted by Random House Kids on YouTube  (see below), Pullman calls the new book a companion to the earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. This first volume is to be published on October 19th, 2017 in print form, electronically, but also as an audiobook.

What appeals to me in this short extract, apart from the evident air of family with the earlier trilogy which I immensely enjoyed, is the unassuming language. No fancy frills. Just words in the service of a story.

 

Potter: the author and the actor

I stumbled on a very informative discussion between JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe about the Harry Potter films. I was fascinated by the relationship between the two which is very hard to classify. There is genuine concern and interest on the part of each of them for the other. Both are still immersed in the story and common memories, but they don’t make us feel like outsiders looking in. I appreciated the self confidence of Radcliffe, his articulateness, and his overflowing enthusiasm and the candour and relaxedness of JK Rowling.

‘Lies’ photos tell

The ‘lies’  photos tell…. Read more about it on Secret Paths Artworks.

The gender of clothes

17 year-old Alex published a photo of a t-shirt on Tumblr that proclaimed: Clothes have no gender (1). Underneath Alex wrote, anyone of any gender identity should be able to wear whatever they want without facing discrimination. The statement is not so much about whether clothes ‘have’ a gender or not, but rather whether you can pick and chose to suit your taste or your deeper feelings of identity without being discriminated against. In fact, the justified indignation of victims of social constraints, if not harassment, about the way they dress, is a confirmation of the important role of clothes in gender. Clothing conventions are often explicitly used to enforce gender compliance. If you were born in a girl’s body but feel you are a boy, then the girl’s clothes your mother or father insist you wear are a way of forcing you to comply to someone else’s idea of your gender. That said, the original t-shirted statement, as it stands, is misleading if not incorrect. If any objects still retain and dictate gender, it is clothes (2).

So what do I mean by gender? An integral part of the person’s identity, gender is an individual set of images, ideas and personal theories that go to make up how the person feels in relation to the male-female divide. Talking of divide is misleading, as it gives the impression of a positioning between two poles, but the personal edifice that is gender may be much less straight forward and more flexible. It necessarily relates to a wider social system (tacitly) agreed on between people and institutions which is anchored in language, behaviour and objects, above all clothes. This relationship between the individual gender and the social norms can be a source of great tension if not suffering. Such a vision of gender as constructed by the individual in relation to wider social conventions is a relatively recent development.

Clothes are markers of gender

Clothes are eminently impregnated with gender, even those that purport to be neuter. In a society largely built on a binary division: male/ female, clothes stand out as the major markers of ‘gender’. This is less so in the case of women who can more readily dress in men’s clothes without causing a stir. But in most Western societies men wearing skirts or dresses, not to mention bras and panties, are seen as weird if not dangerous and threatening. That clothes are vehicles of gender explains why people who crossdress, like Peter in my novels Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls, go to such lengths to wear feminine or masculine clothes when society would force them to do otherwise. Something of the ‘gender’ carried by the clothes wears off on them, a sort of metaphorical fairy dust, that contributes to form their own gender and identity.

The threat that individuals perceive in people not adhering to gender related norms in clothing probably partly stems from confusing sex, sexuality and gender. But the perceived threat ma y also comes from a profound fear of confusion and ambiguity which could well reflect back to deep-seated uncertainty or anxiety about one’s own gender identity. The inherent need to be explicit is anchored in language. Is it Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms? Gender can be anchored in language differently depending on the language as I discovered when I tried to translate a small part of Boy & Girl into French. In English you can say ‘his skirt’ or ‘her skirt’ and it is clear in the first case that the boy has a skirt, causing raised eyebrows. Translated into French that becomes ‘sa jupe’ where the ‘sa’ says nothing of the sex (or gender) of the person whose skirt it is. More generally, most language is an either/or system when it comes to gender. There is no convenient alternative beyond ‘his’ or ‘her’.

Making a show of gender

The choice of clothing thus contributes to the construction of gender of an individual. However not all choices are visible or ostentatious. Not all choices are meant to be communicated to others. Even if the plain black panties a man is wearing under his trousers are identical to the underpants of a man, the fact that they were intended for a girl or a woman can be important in how he feels about himself.

For some people making a show is important. One of the apparent incongruities of many of those crossdressing males who post pictures of themselves on the internet is that they ostentatiously dress in what society sees as female attire, all lace and pastels and curves, yet, at the same time, exhibit their swollen maleness, clearly stimulated by dressing up. Naively one might imagine they proclaim that they are on both sides of the gender fence. In fact, I suspect this raises a different question, that of the relationship between clothes and sexuality, rather than gender.

I once saw a short YouTube video by a charming transgirl (3) who was quite the contrary to flamboyance and exhibitionism. Soberly dressed in a long-armed t-shirt with little makeup and her hair tied up in mini pigtails, she explained that for most boys who dressed as girls it was what they had between their legs that was most important for them, whereas, for her, and here she pointed a downward index finger to a place on her body off screen, she hated what she had between her legs. “I wanna get rid of it,” she said. Clearly for those people she was talking about, dressing up as a girl has more to do with sexual stimulation than gender.

The magical narrative

Many of the photos of ‘traps’ – a term used to signify men who dress as women such that they might be mistaken for women – posted on the internet have short stories attached. Here’s an example: My mom changed me into a twelve year old girl. I’m kinda scared cause I asked her to do my hair after I picked out this really cute outfit. I’m real excited, we’re goin shopping, I’m gettin some more pretty outfits and mom says it’s time for me to start wearing a bra! (4) The telling of the story combined with a picture, despite possibly having no link to real world events, are a powerful evocation of a wished-for reality. And often ‘power’ words are used like ‘twelve year old girl’, or ‘cute outfits’ or ‘wearing a bra’. These words bring ‘magic’ in the same way that clothes acting as totems also bring ‘magic’.

People post pictures of sexy, sometimes boyish girls on the Internet, add a caption saying it is a pretty boy or tell a story about how his mum or sister dressed him up, and, rather like a metaphor, the juxtaposition of the two produces something quite different, something they see as exciting, something that opens new vistas, at least for them.

The divided soul

When an object, like clothing, takes on a key role in sexual gratification the unfortunate technical term used is fetishism. I say ‘unfortunate’, because it is difficult to use the word without conjuring up related negative social judgements that tend to cloud any discussion of the subject. The word fetish has however another more archaic meaning: the worship of an inanimate object supposed to have magical powers or to be inhabited by a spirit. It is possible to relate these two meanings in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of fetishism. Let me take a round about route to explain.

The Harry Potter books popularised the notion of hallows. That’s to say, the embedding of part of one’s soul in an object in order to protect it and oneself. That was how Lord Voldemort was able to avoid death by splitting his soul into seven parts and placing those in different objects and people. Yet the very act of doing so both weakened him and made him more vulnerable. What if the inordinate desire for an inanimate object were a similar phenomenon? What if unknowingly those men who dress in female clothes give the power to the female clothes, for example, to excite them, and in doing so, give away a part of their ‘soul’.

A distinction made by the transgirl mentioned above is pertinent here. “Crossdressing gay men buy girls’ clothes, whereas trans girls (like herself) wear them.” If I can amend that slightly, many crossdressers wear female clothes because of the magic and excitement of being transformed, whereas transgirls wear girls’ clothes because that is what girls wear.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who dressed as a girl in secret and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity about gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.

Notes

(1) Address no longer available. Used to be at: http://managedmarauders.tumblr.com/post/123214176406/my-tshirt-because-anyone-of-any-gender-identity

(2) Ivan Illich wrote a thought-provoking but difficult book about the gender of objects amongst other things under the title: Gender (first published in 1982)

(3) It was quite a while ago and regretfully I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

(4) Page no longer available. Used to be at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510032726527392107/