Beyond the division between child and adult

Powerful Girl Pretty Boy

I have just completed the first draft of Powerful Girl. Pretty Boy, my 14th novel, the third in the Boy & Girl saga. When I began writing this new novel some five months ago, I was sure it would be all about Peter’s dilemma with gender. After all, he was up against a fast approaching deadline and he’d very soon have no choice but to stop taking the hormones and accept he was a man. Living as he did in the early 60’s, there seemed to be no alternative, especially as circumstances conspired to force that outcome on him. It was a dismal prospect that had me hesitating about writing a follow-up at all. 

Clinging on to that ambiguity in the no-man’s land between boy and girl was like trying to suspend time when Peter’s natural inclination was to intervene in the world, helping and healing others and combatting those who sought to do ill. If he was gifted in any way, it was that treading a delicate line between girl and boy preserved him from the soaring ego that often gets in the way of those who seek to do good.

That tension between a thirst for eternal youth and a drive to intervene in the world to set things right led him to a realisation. The artificial distinction between childhood and adulthood was a major stumbling block to both him and Kate reaching their full potential and doing great things. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they could find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems that adults had turned their backs on.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Kate Tempest on Traps and Lessons

Kate Tempest
Kate Tempest at the Alhambra, Geneva, 2019.

At the Alhambra, Geneva, yesterday evening, Kate Tempest was greeted by a packed, enthusiastic crowd of which I was one. She whipped up a deluge of words and music breaking over us, wave after wave, constantly reminding us, bringing us back to a forgotten fundamental, that language is a union of sounds and sense. Out of the interplay, sounds rubbing against sounds, or clashing in unexpected dissonance, the whole underscored by music, meaning thrust out like leering faces surging from a crowd, unexpected, startling, only to be lost in the next wave of the storm.

Hurled so loud, the amplified beats replaced the racing heart in our chest. The words blurred in our ears such was the volume. Was the loudness a gain? Maybe. Force fused words till at moments all was but music. The sheer mass of words itself made music out of them. However does she remember so much? The blurring between words and music was reinforced as her voice slipped and slid between the two, bending the spoken word to a rythme that was not its, the stream of words, sometimes suspended, sometimes almost bursting into song, was like a jogger walking fast who breaks into a run only to slow to a walk again.

Was the excessive volume a loss? Surely! Much of the beauty of the play on words and sounds was drowned out. That it could be listened to otherwise was evidenced by her latest album, A Land of Traps and Lessons. Every word of grim reality and of heart-rending visions, every clash of sound and meaning can be heard and appreciated. Whatever. I don’t regret having been present.

As the initial applause died down at her entry, Kate Tempest walked to the edge of the stage and peered out through the spotlights, saying, “Let me see your faces. I like to see your faces.” It made her feel less strange doing what she was about to do she said. Her concert ended with People’s Faces, a heart-wrenching battle-cry, at least I imagine it did, I had to rush off to catch the last train. In that final track of her new album, she says, “There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces” and concludes, “… the current’s fast but the river moves slow and I can feel things changing, even when I’m weak and I’m breaking and I stand weeping at the train station ‘cause I can see your faces. I love people’s faces.”

The choir – a flight of the soul

The centenary Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, 2018

During the later part of his life, my grandfather was organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s, Wareham. As a child, whenever I visited my grandparents I would sing in St Mary’s choir. At home, not far from Windsor, I sang as a treble in the local choir till, sadly, my voice broke. Every Christmas, my mother would tune into the BBC to listen to Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge. Those carols, old and new, have remained with me all this time and move me every time I hear them. No wonder then that, when I came to write Boy & Girl, Peter, the boy in the story, was head chorister in the choir of his local church. Here’s an extract about Peter and the choir followed by the video on YouTube of the 2018 Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, the last such broadcast in which the choir was directed by the late Stephen Cleobury who was born in the same year as myself. I have added a gallery of screenshots from the video. The BBC thoughtfully avoided filming Stephen Cleobury close up. Only once at the end of the broadcast when the Dean Revd Dr Stephen Cherry mentioned that it was to be Cleobury’s last Nine Lessons and Carols did the camera linger briefly on the choirmaster. I have included that image in the gallery. The last of the series.

Extract: Boy & Girl – The choir sings

He got off his bike at the back door to the church just as the ringers reached the end of a series of changes and began ringing rounds. He was late, but there would be just enough time if he hurried. He shrugged off his jacket as he entered the vestry where the other boys were already lined up for the procession into the nave. Peter hastily donned his cassock, fixed the ruff around his neck and pulled his surplice over his head, straightening it till it was just right. Taking the medal of St. Nicholas, patron saint of choirboys, from his cassock pocket, he hung it around his neck and made his way to the head of the line of boys, nodding to the others as he did so. Just then, the organ struck up the first notes of the introit, time to open the door and lead the choir into the sunlit nave.

It was one of his favourite moments. All heads turned in their direction as the congregation stood. He walked, his head held high, swinging his hips slightly in time with the music so his cassock swayed from side to side as he walked. He let himself be absorbed by the music till it buoyed him up. Behind him he could just make out the footfalls of the other choirboys when the organ played pianissimo. Above, light was streaming in through the stained glass windows, flooding the church with warmth and colour. 

His soul fluttered into wakefulness and flew up to join those of all the others flirting with the rays of light as they floated on the organ music. What better moment to burst into song as he sang solo the first verse of the opening hymn. The notes of the organ softened to give his voice the room to soar and join his soul. A solitary tear of relief and gratitude rolled down his cheek and it was time for the others to join him and his voice could once again take refuge in the body of the choir.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Video: Nine Lessons and Carols 2018 from King’s

Gallery: Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s

Click on a screenshot to see the full picture and access the gallery.

Peter forced to see a shrink

Boy, Girl, Whatever! is the third in the Boy & Girl series. It returns to Peter as he nears the age when maintaining gender ambiguity entails serious choices. Kate’s destiny seems more easy-going as she leads the successful Lost Girls choir. But circumstances are going to force both their hands.

Boy, Girl, Whatever! is the third in the Boy & Girl series. It returns to Peter as he nears the age when maintaining gender ambiguity entails serious choices. Kate’s destiny seems more easy-going as she leads the successful Lost Girls choir. But circumstances are going to force both their hands.

The novel is currently being written. I have just passed the eighty-thousand-word mark or about two thirds of the final book. Below is a brief extract relating the discussion between Peter, who has been forced to attend a girls’ boarding school run by the church, and the psychiatrist whom the headmistress has obliged him to see.

Extract: Peter at the shrink’s

The man let out a weary sigh, as if Peter were the last of a long line of difficult cases he’d been lumbered with that day. “If you unbuttoned that,” he pointed at Peter’s duffle-coat, “your problem would be visible for all to see.”

“Is what I’m wearing a problem for you or for me?” Peter asked.

The man shook his head as if Peter were beyond hope.

“Answer my question,” Peter insisted. “Where does the problem lie? With me? With you? With the headmistress? With the church? With society at large?”

“Clearly the problem lies with you,” he said, peering over his spectacles at Peter. “You are the one pretending to be a girl.”

At last the reason for their encounter was out in the open. Relieved, Peter burst out laughing, causing the man to jerk back in alarm. “I have no problem being dressed as I am,” Peter said unbuttoning his coat to reveal his girl’s uniform. “In fact, I feel much better like that. The only problem I have is with people like you,”  he pointed a finger at the man whose face was a picture of disgust, “or the headmistress, people who try to force me to dress the way they think I should. What is wrong with you all that you are prepared to resort to violence to impose your will? Why do you feel threatened by my clothes? Maybe you should analyse your own feelings of insecurity about gender before questioning mine.”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

On the wings of fantasy

(Traduction française plus bas)

I chose to use the above photo as the new header for my Author’s Notes blog because it fills me with an immense joy but also a great sadness. It is a photo I snapped during the 2019 Fête des Vignerons in Vevey. Julie, the young girl who threads her way through the many musical tableaux that make up the festivities, is initiated into flying by a fairy godmother. At least, that is how I interpret what I saw. A benevolent young woman who takes a girl under her wing and encourages her to launch into the air, into an imaginary world where everything is possible and in so doing become a magical fairy herself. I relish the sheer joy of flying as the girl soars over a make-believe world, her dress fluttering about her like the plumage of a beautiful bird. As I watch, it is as if my soul soars with her. In that youthful flight lies my joy. But that joy goes hand in hand with a heart-felt yearning tinged with sadness, for deep down I long to be young again, to soar high above the world, to experience the impossible, to be her. 

Sur les ailes de la fantasie

J’ai choisi d’utiliser la photo ci-dessus comme nouvel en-tête du blog Notes d’un auteur car elle me remplit d’une joie immense mais aussi d’une grande tristesse. C’est une photo que j’ai prise lors de la Fête des Vignerons 2019 à Vevey. Julie, la jeune fille qui se fraye un chemin à travers les nombreux tableaux musicaux qui composent les festivités, est initiée au vol par une fée marraine. Au moins, c’est comme cela que j’interprète ce que j’ai vu. Une jeune femme bienveillante qui prend une fille sous son aile et l’encourage à se lancer dans les airs, dans un monde imaginaire où tout est possible et ainsi devenir une fée magique elle-même. Je savoure la joie de voler alors que la fille survole un monde imaginaire, sa robe flottant autour d’elle comme le plumage d’un bel oiseau. Pendant que je regarde, c’est comme si mon âme s’envolait avec elle. Ma joie réside dans ce vol de jeunesse. Mais cette joie va de pair avec un désir ardent empreint de nostalgie, teint de tristesse, car au fond de moi, je désire être jeune à nouveau, planer au-dessus du monde, faire l’expérience de l’impossible, être elle.

Out of chaos, a new gender paradigm?

I am currently half way through writing a new novel in the Boy & Girl Saga entitled Girl, Boy or Whatever. The following article inspired by Chaos Theory takes a different look at gender and healing as part of the reflection behind the new book.

From waking to sleep

Let’s begin with sleeping and waking. It is relatively easy to wake a sleeping person. Moving the other way is less easy. How do you fall asleep? If you are wide awake, sleep seems almost unattainable. If you are tired or drowsy, sleep is much easier to reach. In fact it calls to you and the closer you get the more irresistible it becomes. Till finally you have to fight not to drift off. It is almost as if sleep were like a magnet. So you have two very different but related states, both anchored in tangible bodily reactions, which draw you all the more strongly the closer you get. If you get too close, you are pulled in and held captive by that state until something happens to jolt you out of it. Looking at the phenomenon in more abstract terms, you are continually in a delicate state of equilibrium (whether awake or asleep) that could swing to the other state but doesn’t immediately do so because the current state exerts an attraction holding you in place. However that attraction rapidly diminishes the further you move away.

Multiple forms of gender?

Now here’s the major question. Given the licence that fiction allows, what if gender as laid out in the blueprint of each cell and expressed in the form of our bodies and the perceptions we have of ourselves were a similar phenomenon? What if the current binary gender set-up were only one of many possible forms? What if, given the right conditions, we could switch from one gender form to another, without the aid of drugs or the surgeon’s scalpel? Admittedly it would seem that the attraction of the rigid binary form we are familiar with is particularly strong, giving the impression it is the (only) natural state of affairs.  However, in an increasing number of cases the human body has adopted more flexible forms. This variation is all the more pronounced if we consider only people’s perceptions of their gender rather than their physical attributes.

Mind over matter

Why does our current dominant form of binary gender seem ineluctable? It is tempting to reply, because it is inscribed in the blueprint of our cells and consequently in the physical form we take. But if we examine the question more closely, this argument hinges on the primacy we grant to matter over mind. What if mind could shape matter? What if our perception of gender, seen as a far more fluid way of being, could have an influence on the blueprint itself and bring about changes in our bodies to align them to the way we perceive ourselves?

Switching forms of gender

In my series of novels Boy & Girl, the whole system of healing developed by the young protagonists is founded on the premise that mind can influence matter, that a healer can intervene to encourage the body to return to a healthy equilibrium by favouring the natural harmony and balance reflected in the cell’s blueprint rather than intervening from the outside, as modern medicine does, with drugs, rays and a scalpel. In other words, healing is achieved by strengthening the attraction of a natural healthy state as expressed in that underlying blueprint. Having ventured so far, the inevitable next step is to ask if mind can shift the body from one blueprint to another, from one relatively stable state of gender to a different one? Although such a move also relies on the primacy of mind over mater, doing so is not at all identical to the young people’s healing method. It requires changing the blueprint rather than strengthening it. Being able to do so would solve Peter’s dilemma of how to hold on to the apparent androgyny of prepubescence without suffering the long-term undesirable effects of blocking puberty or needing a surgical intervention. It could potentially do much more. It could enable his body to align with that wished-for, in-between state by being both boy and girl.

Gender as a social phenomenon

By concentrating on the cell’s blueprint and implicitly the primacy of matter over mind, we fail to take into consideration a major factor. Gender is very much a social phenomenon. The binary gender system we are familiar with is firmly anchored not just in a biological reality, but also in a web of social interactions and shared perceptions. If Peter were to manage to shift to a different gender configuration by changing the form of his body, growing breasts for example while retaining his penis, he would find himself at odds with the dominant social perception of gender as a rigid binary division. He would likely be the target of violent rejection if not outright attempts at eliminating him as an aberration. Attempts to modify the underlying blueprint for gender and its impact on the body would have to go hand-in-hand with efforts to transform the social perception of gender. The novels are set in 1960 when ideas of sex and gender were even more rigid than today. Nowadays, considerable advances have been made in a number of countries towards a more fluid vision of gender.

Pandora’s box?

Whatever the outcome of Peter’s fictional endeavours, a major ethical and practical preoccupation remains. His strivings are centred on the transformation of gender by intervening on the body’s blueprint. But there is nothing to stop those discoveries being used to modify other bodily features, opening the way to eugenics. That spectre alone and society’s likely abhorrence might well put an end to experiments like those of Peter and like-minded people, if ever they became known. Of course, aware that these different ‘sets’ of instructions dictating the form of life in a human body are the result of a delicate equilibrium, it is possible that many of the nightmares that fans of eugenics might dream up would not be stable and their corresponding life-forms unviable. Such a reliance on a higher force, embedded as it were in a ‘code’ of life that rules out aberrations, although appealing, is probably over-naive.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Still life – what an odd expression

Still Life

Still life, what an odd expression. Life is constant movement. We cannot escape it, even if we sometimes long for peace and quiet when the agitation becomes too much. Stillness, the absence of movement, comes only when life is no more, when our heart ceases to beat.

Symbolically this dried-up bouquet, its desiccated flowers falling to the floor as the water that maintains a semblance of life evaporates, really is a ‘still life’, an incarnation of death in life. Even the colours are washed out and fading fast. What more appropriate place than (the hotel) Eden, the paradise outside life with its once untapped potential waiting to be released now in the last throes of decay, to house such a paradoxical work of art.

Despite knowing there can be no life without death, we cling to life in our fear of death. The final moment when we pass from one to the other is a line our current consciousness cannot cross. For all our imaginings, both reassuring and terrifying, the other side must remain unknown till we traverse that frontier. Maybe that if why this still life, for all its beauty, is so terrifying.

Out and about: an author’s tale

“…you can’t sit around and wait for someone to discover you…” Olafur Arnalds, composer.

As an independent novelist, one of the major dilemmas – rather like the young Arnalds seeking to get his compositions played having not followed the traditional channels for a would-be composer – was that her novels only made sense if they were (widely) read. An ‘unfortunate’ corollary of which was that she couldn’t just bask in the pleasure of writing, but had to step out and get people to read them.

There were so many novels out there, some brilliant, others less so, begging to be read. She didn’t want to join the hoards clamouring to sell their wares. Not that she thought her novels were unworthy, on the contrary, but mercilessly plugging them would not only belittle her, she reckoned, it would devalue the books she had worked so hard to write and publish.

She had tried several times to court an agent and go down the traditional publishing route, but she’d had no success. So few authors were chosen and the curt replies, if ever she got them, were demoralising. She didn’t want to be discouraged from writing. It was her biggest joy in life. She told herself she’d be better off without an agent. She didn’t want to have to shoe-horn her work into pre-defined formats or toe the line to anticipated market trends. What’s more, she was impatient. Going through an agent and a publisher would mean delaying the release of her books for several years.

She maintained an eager online presence, as all aspiring authors were encouraged to do, and she was proud of what she’d achieved, but it rarely sold any of her books. In reality, she came to realise that platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter were stacked against her. They were only interested in locking users in while garnering as much saleable information about them as possible. Understandably, when every other post was a disguised promotional message, people’s engagement was rarely more than superficial as they shied away from all attempts to sell.

She sighed. The whole prospect was so gloomy. Whichever way she turned, the path was blocked. Suddenly she gasped, slapping the flat of her hand against her forehead with a resounding clack. She’d taken her experience of publishing at face value. What if she were telling herself a story? ‘Just’ a story. The thought had her feeling giddy. If it were a story, that would mean she could rewrite it…

Chimera: out now!

Chimera, a novel by Alan McCluskey. 412 pages, published May 2019.

Imagine you awake to find yourself sharing the body of a twelve-year-old boy. It’s bad enough that you are a girl, but, what’s more, he is autistic, cut off from the world, unable to coordinate many of the simplest movements, let alone express himself. Not that he is inarticulate. He’s a real poet, a wordsmith in his head. He showers you with colourful abuse in an attempt to drive you out. Luckily, you do not suffer the same handicaps. Instead, you are plagued by vivid dreams of the fall of Atlantis and a painful sense of failure, as if it was your fault you couldn’t save that world.

As you ward off the boy’s attacks, you are forced to survive in a world ruled by giant pharmaceutical companies where all natural food has been banished, replaced by government-approved pills. The sinister food police scour the land in search of those growing food and summarily execute them. And they are after you. Not that you have planted crops, but there’s a rumour that you might be a long-awaited saviour come to set the world right…

Find out more about Chimera, get sample chapters or buy a copy here.

What if? The telling of stories

Life is made up of stories. The ones we are told. The ones we tell ourselves. The ones that tell themselves. But above all, the ones we live. They are the building blocks with which we make sense of ourselves and the world. They govern our waking day. They people our dreams. They range from highly personal to overarchingly collective. As light as wisps of mist, they creep up on us, curling around our thoughts, surprising us, alarming us, delighting us. Or as stubborn as a brick wall, they stop us in our tracks, astounded, infuriated or at a loss about what to do next. Try to imagine a world without stories. That in itself would be a story. And what a story! Or would it? How on earth do you tell a story of a world without stories?

Modern media are feeding us stories, trying subtly, or less so, to affect the way we see the world, the way we act and above all, what we buy or what we vote. The star newscasters. The television hosts. The help-yourself streaming sites. The friendly web platforms where our friends congregate. The familiar podcasts. The drooling advertisers. The fervant opinion makers. The political pundits. The technical advocates. The all-knowing experts. A glorious cacophony echoed in the chatter of our neighbours. our colleagues and even the passing strangers. As the credits scroll up at the end of the series and we hesitate about what to watch next, doubt creeps in. A rogue story in the making. What if? What if this plethora of stories told for our benefit by others were a barrage to the emergence of our own stories. Like a constant noise that drowns out our troublesome thoughts but also stops us piecing together our own tale.

And when we do get to develop our own stories, what is to stop us sliding off the rails? Cut off from the so-called real world. Told only for ourselves, stories can be pretty paltry if not downright dangerous. Stories scaffolded in isolation are a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Pushing your story out there for all to hear is risky too. Intolerance and judgement abound. And what if your story really isn’t well told? We might all be, by nature, storytellers, but stories, like language, have structures, codes, internal organisation. Most of the time we are unaware we are telling stories. We take it for granted. It’s self-evident. Like thinking. Who would need to learn to think? In reality, few people are good at telling stories. Just listen to two kids on the bus describing a conversation they had.

So where does that leave us? Aware that stories are omnipresent and make sense of the world. Knowing that the many, many stories we are told seek to influence us. Realising that the battery of stories constantly flung at us tends to cut us off from our own stories. Our stories only become meaningful when we risk telling them to others. To tell stories well requires critical thought and practice but also the ability to listen for the essential in the stories of others.