I am an alien and proud to be one


 “We raise our fists in salute, not in threat but as a sign of solidarity. In those fingers held tight we embrace everyone however different they may be. Gay. Trans. Straight. Black. Brown. Yellow. White. All colours of the rainbow. All are welcome in our London.”
Annie Wight, London Whatever


Do you ever feel like an alien, a stranger in your own body? The sensation of being different, of being at odds with yourself, of being out of sync with the daily routine. For many, it has little to do with where we hail from. It’s about how we experience life, how we approach the world. Rather than berating ourselves for our foreignness and suffering at being different or worrying we are going crazy, why not relish the strength and the heightened discernment that feeling alien brings.

See that cat over there as it rolls on its back flexing its legs in the air. Can you feel the tautness of the skin around its jaw as it yawns or its joy at being free and able to move? Listen to that thrush half-concealed in the foliage driven to ceaselessly chirp an ever-changing song. Watch those rooks zigzagging across the sky and marvel at how they know where to fly. Take root like a tree and feel the earth rich beneath your feet and the ever-shifting wind ruffling your hair. Let a burgeoning flower or a sustained note make tears spring to your eyes. Lay a hand on your chest and unknot tensed muscles or soothe a suffering liver. Listen to the unspoken thoughts of little children who have yet to find the words to voice their mind. Savour the conviction that you are being watched although no one is there to do the watching. Marvel that you know how most drivers are going to react even before they do, while a stubborn few remain impenetrable and unpredictable. Stand still as scenes surge from the past with all the potency of memories that you can’t possibly have had, not in this life at least. Relish the attraction of a person you’ve never met, someone who inexplicably has your pulse racing at the very sight of her. Delight in the quizzical smile of a pretty boy or the hop and skip of a handsome girl that summons your own ambiguity and leaves you yearning for another world, for a past that could only have blossomed elsewhere.

Feel your way tentatively through those upside-down answers that spring to mind in response to the unrelenting shocks of politics and big money. Like staking out common ground with longtime rivals who were hitherto locked in a bitter fight for territory. Or nurturing local bonds and encouraging the out-held, helping hand when communities harden identities and table on exclusion as they scramble to ward off rampant globalisation. Or agreeing on the meaning of keywords with opposing parties who were stuck in slinging swearwords at each other. Or reshuffling the cards when past options appear immutable and people cry out, “Impossible!”. Raise your clenched fist, not as a mark of defiance or hostility but, like Annie the unexpected hero of my new novel, Stories People Tell, as a sign of solidarity and the will to embrace diversity. I am an alien and proud to be one.

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Being English

Me!

England for me is singing as a boy in the church choir in cassock, surplice and ruff. It is the treble descant rising in the nave and the hiss of the organ as the stops are pulled out. It is the clang of bells ringing changes and the rise and fall of colourful sallies in bellringers’ hands. It’s the dread of returning to school after the holidays as announced by the smell of a newly bought uniform. Cap, tie, blazer and pressed trousers, all dull grey contrasted with the stirring bottle green of the girls’ pleated skirts. It is the trembling excitement of first light as the sun rises over the moors on midsummer’s day. It is the surge of joy as waves break on a shingle beach and wind-borne cries of gulls fill the salt-ridden air. It’s a thrush greeting dawn at the turn of a mist-shroud lane. It’s being enveloped in smoke on a bridge across the rails as a train chugs to a halt or the tantalising hint of a coal fire carried by a cutting wind on a cold winter’s night. It’s baked beans on toast and crumpets and chocolate flake. It’s a puddle of melted butter in the middle of steaming porridge or warm scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream. It’s the dreaded spotted dick of school dinners and the headmaster’s vengeful cane. It’s my tears of shame and rage as I am forced to stand head-bowed before my fellow pupils. It’s roaming the countryside alone on my bike, dreaming up worlds that forty years later will people my books. It’s the timid uncertainty of being that threatens to flicker out at the slightest breeze and the unstoppable force of creation that bowls me over and lifts me up.

The politics of elimination

Stories People Tell front cover

A systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving.

According to certain newspapers including CNN, the New York Post and the Washington Post, the use of seven words are to be banned from the budget of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) by the Trump administration. The words are vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, foetus, evidence-based and science-based. The news is so outrageous  and outlandish, it is hard not to suspect it is a fabrication or to shoot back with the suggestion, “Let’s do away with the word trump.” Elimination is an enticing solution when dealing with a man and an administration that further enriches the rich and privileged while wreaking havoc, misery and destruction on everybody else.

But first reactions are not always the best. Talking about doing away with the man would mean aligning our logic on that of Trump. Elimination is the hallmark of his ‘policies’. Eliminate North Korea, ban Muslims, deny climate change, do away with abortion and birth control, ban transgender people from the army, remove funding for social services, repeal net neutrality laws, fix voting laws to exclude those who don’t vote for you, dismantle federal government, disqualify the press, and undermine the notion of truth and, with it, justice.

In the sense of the word used here, the Oxford Dictionary of English says of elimination, the complete removal or destruction of something or the removal of someone or something from consideration or further participation. What the dictionary does not mention is that a systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving. George Orwell’s 1984 was a story about a state that sought to eliminate opposition. Totalitarian states are held up as perpetrators of government by elimination. What is so striking about the Trump administration is that it should systematically apply elimination politics in the heart of a society supposedly based on liberalism and diversity.

To be able to eliminate, or at least try to, Trump and people like him have to undo the links that bind people together so to minimise the backlash from solidarity and natural human concern for others. Isolating segments of society and pitting one group against others as well as fostering rampant individualism are part and parcel of a strategy to eliminate.

The close ties between elimination and the breaking down of social bonds point to an alternative strategy to counter elimination. Rather than responding with further elimination, the only viable way to combat elimination politics is to strengthen grassroots links between people and to nurture a form of solidarity that embraces diversity.

In my forthcoming novel, Stories People Tell, it is by just such a drive to strengthen the bonds between Londoners and to celebrate diversity that Annie Wight and the women’s movement she epitomises seeks to respond to Mayor Nelson Kard who aims to drive the gay community out of the capital and have Annie silenced. 

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Stories People Tell – Sample chapters

Catch a glimpse of the new cover of Stories People Tell and read four sample chapters here. On sale early 2018.

Stories People Tell

Annie, a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, wasn’t looking for love or notoriety when she got swept up in ‘London Whatever’, a grassroots movement offering support and healthcare to gay girls and women. Yet in the struggle to end violence against women she stumbled on the love of her life and grew to be a key public figure. The movement bore the brunt of homophobic attacks from Nolan Kard, Lord Mayor of London. Rich entrepreneur turned politician known for his off-hand attitude and tasteless humour, he campaigned to ‘Keep London Straight’. Annie became his number one target and that of his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghostwriters, the nightmare of all his enemies.

Stories to make sense of the world

 Above, the author reads Stories to make sense of the world.

We make sense of the world by continually spinning stories about it. Stories? They are not the kind you would necessarily tell someone. Unvoiced, they are very often little more than fragments but are generally in tune with a larger personal narrative. That overarching narrative may be composed of distinct parts which don’t need to be coherent with each other. It is as if we need to fit events into a coherent narrative, at least ‘locally’, if we don’t want to blow a mental fuse. We are comforted and strengthened by them. These everyday fragments can be so tiny and the making of them so natural, we are often unaware we are drafting them. This narrative sense-making may become abruptly apparent when our stories are at odds with those of others and conflict ensues. Here’s an example.

An old woman sits alone at the dining-room table, the breakfast things arranged neatly in front of her.  “Enjoy your meal,” her long-time companion says as he enters. Glancing at the table, he realizes she has already finished. “Too late,” he adds. Hasty words which don’t quite express what he wants to say. If he had had time to reflect, he would probably have explained his well-wishes arrived too late. “You didn’t make much effort to join me!” she replies testily. He storms off, angry.

When she speaks, her words do not follow from what went before. This sort of discontinuity is a sure sign something is amiss. Just as is an outburst of emotions that doesn’t fit the context.  This rupture, seen from the outside, appears incomprehensible. It reveals that she has quite a different story in mind. It sounds like it has to do with being neglected and the resulting hurt feelings that have been a long time in the making. While he, who was trying to be considerate, is left with a feeling of being misunderstood, unjustly cast in a role he is not currently playing. Of course, there is no guarantee that either of them will become aware that they are spinning stories about each other or that the ill-will between them might have its roots in that. The emotions sparked by the dissonance are generally so strong there is little room for distance or introspection and the opportunity for deeper learning is lost.

We often weave stories not just to make sense of what is happening in the present but also to predict the outcomes and act accordingly. In any given circumstance, there are many possibilities and the one that actually happens may not be what we imagined or what we wanted. Our misjudgement is often due to the influence of a personal narrative that is at odds with reality. Here’s an example.

A young student walks to the building site where he is doing a holiday job. Each day he passes a pretty girl his age waiting for a bus. She is alone at the stop. He has no idea who she is and knows nothing about her. She never looks his way and they do not exchange a single word. Despite this lack of communication, he frequently imagines going to the cinema with her, so much so, it seems a viable possibility. On his last day in the job, he plucks up the courage to talk to her. He is shy and ill at ease but he plants himself in front of her and clumsily invites her out. To his immense surprise, she clutches her bag to her chest and turns away aghast, refusing to reply.

Individuals’ overarching narratives may be little more than a direction, an orientation that colours every story. In the first example above, the woman is so convinced she is being neglected, no amount of solicitous behaviour could change her mind. In the second, the boy’s desire to befriend the girl and his belief in his self-worth, albeit shaky, left no place for the possibility she might be terrified at being accosted by a boy in filthy overalls in such a deserted spot. Rather like being stuck in a rut in the road, we find it hard to shift from an overriding narrative even when events dictate otherwise. In most cases, the result can be troubling but innocuous and might even offer a chance to close the gap between story and reality. Sometimes, however, it can be catastrophic. When the stories people tell themselves are persistently at odds with the world despite repeated warning signals, a line has been crossed and the storytelling has become pathological.

One of the underlying themes of my new novel, Stories People Tell, is the way people fabricate stories about the world around them and how those stories often miss the mark.

Experimenting soundscapes

I have just recorded an audio version of my flash fiction, Oratorio for a Wreck. Inspired by the work of Dirk Maggs who directed and crafted the sound of the BBC radio production of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as well as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I tried experimenting with multilevel soundscapes. I have neither his equipment nor his talent or vast experience, but it was fun and I am pleased with the result.

Many thanks to my son, Iannis, for his advice about the sound.

Oratorio for a wreck

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Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust and more

Philip Pullman on Book of Dust

I have just finished listening to the audiobook of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. Having been a fervent reader of the stories about Lyra, I was delighted to hear Pulman was to write a trilogy set in Lyra’s world. I will probably write more about La Belle Sauvage but in the meantime let me say that I was carried away by the story and couldn’t put it down.

To mark the launch of La Belle Sauvage, the first book of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Book of Dust, Pullman answers questions of readers and famous fans for the Observer.

Read also an extract from La Belle Sauvage published by the Guardian. See A foretaste of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust.

Photo: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

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Narrative Impulse – Keeping Fiction Alive

Narrative impulse

Read about narrative impulse – the constant flux to and from the character currently at the centre of a story. The movement flows from the particular to the general, from the individual to the relational, from the deeply personal to society at large, from extreme emotions to cold, hard facts, from heartfelt presence to time immemorial. The narrative impulse is the essential throbbing of narration that instils life into stories, conferring them with depth and breadth, with warmth and colour. It quickens or slows the pulse of the reader that beats in sync with the story. Read the full article.

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Kazuo Ishiguro awarded the Nobel for literature

In its reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro being awarded this year’s Nobel prize for literature, The Guardian writes: The author is a worthy recipient of the Nobel prize for continually finding his voice – and discarding it for a new one.

Photo source:  Ben Stansall/The Guardian/AFP/Getty Images

The Remains of the Day

I have written reviews of two of Ishiguro’s books. On The Remains of the Day, I wrote:

It is those very words, used by the butler to reflect on his life and his work and to perform his duties to their utmost despite the extreme circumstances that assail him, that both convey the intimate fabric of the world at that time, and reveal by omission that which is steadfastly left unstated by Stevens, the underlying emotions that animate the staff and visitors in this stately hub of English society. ()

The Buried Giant

Writing about The Buried Giant, I said:

By a cunning use of repetition and returns to the past, Ishiguro, weaves a mist around the reader who, at the slightest moment of inattention, loses track of where she is and flounders in an undivided sea of impressions. It is in those moments, cut loose from time, that a panic seizes the reader leaving her grasping for familiar landmarks. ()

The Guardian | The Guardian view on Kazuo Ishiguro: self-restrained force

Secret Paths – Thoughts on Books | The Remains of the Day (a review)

Secret Paths – Thoughts on Books | The Buried Giant (a review)

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, Faber & Faber, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, Faber & Faber, London, 2015

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Video: Jake on the verge of flight

Extract People of the Forest

Jake on the verge of flight. This reading from the draft 1st chapter of People of the Forest by its author, Alan McCluskey, was filmed in the forest which inspired the novel. The forest is situated in the hills above the village where the author lives in Switzerland. In this extract, Jake, in thinking of the forest, says; There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. There are several such places in the forests of Neuchâtel, but this setting is one of the most potent. It’s a joy to sit there just listening to the silence that rises and falls beyond the twittering birds, the squabbling squirrels and the wind rustling through the trees.  The full text of this extract can be found in The birth of a new novel. And more about the draft novel, including other extracts, can be found here.

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