A Fairytale

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there was a very purple potato and an exceedingly twisted paperclip.

The potato was very vain and he wasn’t content to stay underground, like all the humble spuds. Instead, he threw his weight about and levered himself up through the soil until he managed to get a place in the sun. There he lazed, belly up in the back garden, and occasionally flopped over and lazed some more. As the sun grew warmer, the potato grew lazier until his flip-flops from lying on his frontside to lying on his backside got longer and longer apart…and his potato skin got more and more purple!

Meanwhile, upstairs in the office space at the front of the house, the paperclip was busy at the computer — tapping out a poison pen letter to herself. (She hadn’t always been a paperclip and had actually started out as a long straight crocodile clip. However she hadn’t liked just being in a box with all the other small stationary items as she felt herself destined for greater things. So she’d started to cry crocodile tears, to get attention, but all that had happened was that they’d rusted her snapping jaws…until they’d broken right off! All she’d been left with was her long steel stalk and, when she’d thought about how unjust her fate was, she’d started twisting sideways and had bent herself so much out of shape that she’d become a paperclip!)

Just as the exceedingly twisted paperclip finished the email to herself, and tapped “SEND”, a movement outside the window caught her eye. She twisted around and looked out.

There she saw a beautiful snow white songbird, with wings flecked with vivid green and purple. The paperclip saw how the songbird soared and swooped around the house and sang — and she envied and hated her. She had to find a way to bring that beautiful free bird down!

As she twisted herself off the desk and out of the door, along the landing and down the stairs, a plan started to form in her twisted steel brain. Twisting into the kitchen and out the back door (picking locks was very easy for a clip of her talents) she headed right up the garden path, ignoring all the lovely green and white and purple flowers around her, until she arrived at the potato patch.

The fat potato, presently sunning his big purple belly, was very surprised indeed to see a mangled item of office stationary twisting up the garden path. “Not In My Potato Patch!” he thought, starchly. He was even more surprised when she ignored him completely and instead bent back to peer up at the netting covering the strawberries in the wooden cold frame. “Well!” thought the purple potato, “what about ME?” And he flipped and flopped his big belly and his backside until he was balanced, precariously, on top of the wee wooden posts that made up the low fence around the vegetable patch. “She’ll have to see me NOW!”

But the exceedingly twisted paperclip had a plan and she was sticking to it. Twisting herself past the potato patch and up one side of the cold frame, she poked and twisted and tore…and pulled the netting right off the strawberries! Twisting back down the side, pulling the netting behind her, she paused when she got back to the potato patch.

A huge, discoloured, fleshy potato was lounging on top of the low wooden fence, obviously trying to pretend he was comfortable and that he wasn’t looking for attention! She eyed him for a moment and then stared down at the netting. A gleam came into her eye. She twisted round to glance up at the songbird, still flying freely and singing sweetly, then twisted right round again.

“Hello spud! Want to help me bring down that bird?”

The fat potato opened one eye, and then shut it. Not pleased at all at this blatant lack of respect for a potato in his position! However, suddenly he realised that she might go away and he’d get no attention at all — and that was the worst thing ever! So he tried to sit himself up, but potatoes of that age and size aren’t very flexible so all he succeeded in doing was to fall off his perch. Right on top of the paperclip!!!

“Je suis pomme de terre!” He said, in what he hoped was a passable French accent. Then added. “I will help with your scheme. That bird has been annoying me all morning! Flapping about and squawking! I hate attention seekers!” But the paperclip, deciding on action rather than talk, stabbed her steel point up into his abundant flesh, scuttled sideways to entangle his bulk in the netting then twisted as she had never twisted before and threw the purple potato up, up into the air towards the songbird, with the netting trailing behind like the tail of a comet!

The potato was horrified at the thought of being stabbed through the heart but, fortunately, he didn’t have one so it was only a flesh wound. Hurtling through the air he looked below to see if the flowers were looking up at him. But they weren’t. They were giving all their attention to the bees and the butterflies.

Then, the potato struck the side of the guttering, flopped over and rolled in, just as the netting flipped over the songbird, who had just alighted on the roof to sing from there.

Startled, the songbird suddenly found herself entangled, her wings pinned to her side and her feet caught in the netting! She let out a trill of terror…and all the green and white and purple flowers lifted up their pretty heads and saw her plight!

“Help me! Help me!” sang out the songbird. “This could happen to any of us! Flower fairies come to my aid!” The songbird was a great friend of the flower fairies, and she often sang songs for them while they danced in the sun or the dew or the moonlight.

The potato couldn’t understand the language of birds and flowers because he only understood selfishness and cruelty. Beauty and compassion were beyond his ken. So, while he was huffing and puffing and humpfing his great discoloured bulk along the gutter to try and see what was going on, he didn’t know that three great bands of flower fairies had risen up from the green and white and purple flowers to fly to the aid of their friend.

Suddenly he saw them all! The sky full of whirring wings and colour as the clever fairies, used to helping each other, lifted the netting right off the struggling songbird — and flew it back down to the cold frame. But then they saw that it wouldn’t stay in place as it had been ripped away from the little tacks that held it. One sharp-eyed fairy spotted the paperclip and joyfully caught it up in her agile hands, using it to lever up the tacks so that the netting could once again be stretched over the strawberries. There was only one place left where the net was too torn, so the fairy drove the point of the paperclip deep into the wood and that pinned down the netting safely.

Meanwhile, up on the roof, the fat potato was outraged that once again he wasn’t getting the attention he deserved! Rolling over in indignation, he almost went over the edge of the guttering and flopped sideways to save himself from falling off the roof! But, so intent on the beautiful songbird and her helpful friends, he didn’t see the downpipe beside him and fell right into it! Down and down and…right down into the drain below than washed down into the sewer!

The exceedingly twisted paperclip is still stuck in place, finally doing something useful, but what became of the fat vain purple potato no-one knows. (Or cares.)

However, the songbird is free to fly and to delight the flower fairies with her songs as they do her with their dancing. After all, they sport the same three colours — and they know that, with love and freedom and mutual aid, good fairy magic will always triumph over the evil plans of the envious…and beautiful songbirds will keep singing!

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How to succeed in fairytales

As the end of Lockdown approaches our perspective may change (if we’re at all wise) from fighting a fictitious plague in our immediate vicinity to resisting a very real transnational – and transhumanist – adversary. One whose plan is to take over the world and subject all us common folk to perpetual surveillance, harvesting our biodata to better the algorithms that run the robots. You think this sounds like bad Science Fiction, don’t you? Yet it’s already happening in China. And, are they resisting? In China? Puleeze!

Don’t be so smug – after all, you’re not resisting either, are you? You don’t even want to admit what’s really going on. If you did, you’d then have to wonder what you could do about it. The problem with that is, at the moment, no-one seems to have much old-fashioned gumption. (That’s a mostly Scottish word for initiative, enterprise, lively intelligence, know-how and opportunism.) Thinking about what to do about this global techno-fascist takeover would involve thinking about what to do about other things that need sorted out – and that means the dishes and the laundry basket and the back garden and the TV aerial and that squeaky board on the landing upstairs. As well as your family, friends, romantic relationship and bank balance.

So, instead, we tend to just make more coffee, break out the biscuits and watch another episode of some TV series with the same plot as all the others (mildly marginalised ambitious young pretty White woman beats the boys and the Blonde Complete Bitch with the help of her friends: fat/ disabled, geeky/ gay and African-American with European features). Because it’s easier to imagine an upbeat ideal life of conquering adversity than to deal with the depressing downbeat reality of our own.

Well that’s not how they succeed in fairytales. (And it’s not how to get ahead on Netflix either, but that’s for another blogpost.) To succeed in fairytales, there are rules you must follow – and the first one is to ACCEPT THE REALITY OF YOUR SITUATION. Sounds trite and unhelpful, and yes Cinders did sing Someday My Prince Will Come but she also swept the floor, and it was because she was hardworking and could follow instructions that the Fairy Godmother bothered to turn up at all.

Which leads us to the next one: USE WHATEVER ADVANTAGES YOU’VE GOT. Fairytale heroines tend to be beautiful, it’s true, and the heroes tend to be at least agile and often strong (Jack was a farm labourer, and the Woodcutter cut wood, which means they both had muscles, Aladdin was a street urchin nifty on the rooftops to evade capture, which means he was skilled in parkour). However there are more natural advantages than being muscular, lithe and beautiful. ABILITY TO TAKE ADVICE is essential – especially when the advice is unconventional, even counter-intuitive (which means it sounds daft). USING YOUR SKILLS is key. And false modesty here is only cute the first time, then you have to get on with it. “Oh but I’m only a cow herd” is fine but if that’s what the plot calls upon you to do, get herding!

You do get extra points for having a skill that everyone else thinks is useless. Because, in a time of crisis, sure as Fate it’ll turn out to be just the thing! A Prayer for Owen Meany is a lovely modern American fairytale illustrating that very point.

Furthermore (as my students will write) it’s good to have ambition, as that may be rewarded – as long as it doesn’t shade into hubris, which leads straight to disaster – but the important personality trait is OPPORTUNISM. Now, you have to be careful with this because some do succeed by jumping off the back of a bigger animal at the last minute and so winning the race (I’m looking at you, Lunar Year Rat!) but that’s risky because another winning quality is KINDNESS. Especially to the old, the young, the marginalised and, of course, animals. People have entertained angels unwittingly. Be kind. You just never know who you’re dealing with. Yes, it’s its own reward – but if anyone has the secret recipe, or that old rusty key, or the map to the buried treasure, it’ll be that minor character you helped back in Act 1. Be kind. It’s worth repeating.

WORK HARD. What? You thought this was going to be easy? You try climbing a skyscraper beanstalk or walking right through Wilderland, including the Barrowdowns, Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains, from west to east. PERSEVERE. You’ve switched on the kettle and the TV, haven’t you? Next rule: DON’T KEEP MOANING! The audience will go right off you, Tinkerbell will flutter by and the woodland creatures will turn up their pretty noses and just scamper off. Complaint is so unattractive. There are worse off than you. Just stop it!

BELIEVE. I know I’m going to get into trouble for saying this but it doesn’t really matter in what, as long as it’s better than this. However, be canny, don’t be misled, DISCERN WELL. How do you know who to trust? BE OBSERVANT and FOLLOW YOUR HEART.

RISK. Yes. Maybe not everything and certainly not all at once. But take a chance on life. The tales of Sinbad the Sailor are all about the ups and downs of Fortune. Now you can get religious about this and start talking about the Will of God and all that. And maybe that’s the point of the 1,001 Nights of Scheherazade, the epic and inventive storyteller who wove tales to save her own life. And succeeded. But whether or not there’s a Divine Will controlling all events, what’s plain as the nose on your face is that (despite all those tedious New Age teachings to the contrary) it’s not you and it’s not anyone else.

That means that your road is open for you to follow and no-one stands in your way. The Universe may not be conspiring for you but it’s not conspiring against either. So get out there and get on with it! FOLLOW YOUR DREAM.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)

Gloomy forest around a mysterious lake

Thanks to Larisa Koshkina for releasing her image Gloomy Forest Background into the public domain.

The Sunday Philosophy Club – Review

To interfere or not to interfere? Thoughts on The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith (author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency & series set in Botswana) with mention of Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone. Listeners familiar with the adventures of Isabel Dalhousie may be quick to point out that it is her housekeeper, Grace, who is described as ‘douce’, but I think my point still holds – though the Ivory Tower version is rather more anxious.

https://gumptionology.podbean.com/e/the-sunday-philosophy-club-review/

Writing About Sex

“Pushing her back on the veranda floor and ripping off her thin chemise, she knew she’d get more than splinters if he got his wicked way”

was how an arch undergraduate friend of mine sent up a certain popular genre of literature. But with reports of fatal ‘consensual strangulation gone wrong’ rising 90% in the last decade as a niche (gay/ solo male) porn practice became mainstream – note the massive sales of 50 Shades of Grey: book published in 2011, film released 2015 – surely writers have a moral duty to think carefully about the possible social effect of how we write about sex.

The romantic origins of “The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries” lie in my experience of flirty relationships between gay/bi and strait men. What fascinated me was that they tended to be mutually flirty. Bruno comments on this in Tricks of the Mind, where his libido-fuelled mind is playing very nasty tricks indeed!

Justin came out of the shower towel-drying his hair. With the towel he would otherwise be wearing. […] People don’t believe me that strait (sic., yes it is my revenge) men go on like this. A woman, despite a post-Freudian century of glossy shelf-fillers to the contrary, cannot convince a man of his masculinity: he needs a man for that. Prowess on the camp of Mars may simply lead to the conclusion ‘I am a good footballer/ ruggerbugger/ tiddlywinker’ but not necessarily to ‘I am a manly man’. That’s where we are called in – the ambiguous court of Mercury […] man enough to have an opinion that counts and guaranteed to fancy anything male and therefore affirm its shaky identity. And watch out if you don’t. The huff they go into!

Poor Bruno sublimates some of his frustration into massage – which Justin willingly accepts, and even asks for – but, despite his protestations of being undesirable, men do react to Bruno’s charms and, inevitably, they end up in bed.

Here I had a choice. The bookends of erotic writing are Victorian lovers sinking fully-clothed (with perhaps his necktie and her hair undone) into the long grass at the close of a chapter and blow-by-blow graphic descriptions of flushed erogenous zones and stimulated genitalia.

The first instance, in Tricks, is closer to the former:

I’d hardly slept for two days and the reason lay inches from my face. He had the perfection of an ice-cream sundae and I was the cat who’d got the cream. [He] stirred in his sleep, stretching a smooth arm over his head to rest it on the pillow, making his chest even bigger. […] I laid my head on his blond biceps, slipped an arm over the perfect plain of his waist, my nose lying next to his ear. As I drifted off I wondered if he could feel me purring.

By the time we get to Tìr nam Bàn, the fifth book, it’s definitely nearer the latter, especially in the passage immediately preceding this:

…the scene that [they] saw was no more scandalous than one of three fairly-clothed men lounging on cushions and having coffee out of earthenware demitasses. One man, admittedly, with his head on his lover’s chest having his hair tousled while the third massaged his feet (and occasionally sucked his toes). Had they entered just fifteen minutes before, the scene would have been one of three naked men covered in sweat, lube and semen lying in each others’ arms, panting and occasionally kissing.

The reason is not only that I was now less scrupulous (I’d banned my family from reading my novels and my brother, who did read this one, skipped some pages – and had the kindness to say he also did that with Ian Rankin). I also was more confident about my reasons for writing in a certain style.

The point of the passage in Tricks is (eventually) to establish Bruno as an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t know why people do things, but he thinks he does. In the later book, the details of this scene of joyful, safe and consensual adult gay sex are provided to problematise our assumptions of morality. One of the participants has just found out that unspeakable horrors are being carried out by supposedly respectable people. So the scene is meant to shock the reader into reflecting on the nature of innocence.

I don’t tend to write about heterosexual sex (with one exception and that, hopefully, written with respect). I find much of that kind of writing demeans women and, in any case, it’s hardly new. To read of gay sex, decades ago, was a part of my liberation. Some books at that time (and now) went over the score and were either just plain porn or gay sex manuals – but I believe that writing such scenes for a conscious purpose can contribute to the story in a way that writing about other biological functions does not. Sex is also social and at least has the possibility of romance.

Writing the seventh book, The Marrying Maiden, now, occasionally describing the sexual life of a couple gives me the opportunity to allude to their romantic history:

…he’d pounced on me. Taking full advantage of the thick walls of the cottage as he threw me around the bed with more than his usual display of strength. Since our painful separation last year, lasting from the previous year, he’d been markedly emotionally sensitive and physically possessive of me. His whole purpose seemed to be to avoid any possibility that I would ever feel unwanted again.

So what social effect do I want my writing on this earthy topic to have? I leave you with the prophetic and mysterious words of Imogen, in the fourth book, Qismet:

“No. You have to hear this. ‘Malkhut’ is the Creation. The world and all that’s in it. The universe. My father, G_d rest him, forgot that it’s good. The word in Hebrew is ‘tov’. It’s used seven times in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. […] The seventh use is ‘tov meod’. It describes all of Creation, including human beings, all of Creation. It’s the first description of the whole thing, in a book where words matter so much, and it’s not just a description, it’s a judgement. ‘Tov meod’. It’s such a simple phrase in Hebrew, we use it all the time. For a nice meal, for a good plan, ‘tov meod’, it just means ‘very good’.” There were tears in her eyes now. “My father forgot that Bruno. He died in Sfat, it Safed I mean, raving about the angels of the upper sefirot. He’d forgotten about the lowest one. The one where we live. The one that’s very good, in the eyes of G­_d. I know you think I’m a materialist bitch. No don’t deny it, I know. And yes we did nickname my mother ‘Imelda’ because she likes shoes. Why not Bruno? Shoes are pretty! They’re very good! You go about disdaining human handiwork and ultimately, in materials, in ingenuity, the work of G_d! But Bruno, men no longer regard the world as the worthy object of their admiration and reverence. This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the past, the present and the future, is in danger of perishing…”

A chord sounded from the guitar she was holding, and broke her trance. I sat rooted to the spot. I recognised those last words.

Tricks of the Mind is free, in various eBook formats, on Smashwords.

Writing the Uncanny

I saw a ghost, once. A friend in Edinburgh wants me to tell him all about it, but I’m not sure I can. The last time I tried that, talking to other friends in an arty professional flat in Stockbridge, and forgetting to psychologise the psychic, a big black cat jumped through the window and scared the living daylights out of them. I’d presumed the cat was theirs – and I’d forgotten that White British rationalist urbanites don’t believe in ghosts. At least not officially.

I’m White too and, though I prefer more rural locations, I’ve also lived in cities. But I’m allowed to believe in the spectral side of life for two reasons: I’m religious and I’m a writer. The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries make some mention of both monotheist and polytheist faiths and of Buddhism – which, arguably, is neither. But, as well as the relationships and adventures of a group of friends, they mostly dwell on the uncanny.

It’s a difficult subject to write about without being constrained by genre expectations: if you write about vaguely angelic inspiration, it’s Inspirational; if the focus is on getting what you deserve from The Universe, it’s New Age; if evil spirits are involved it’s either Evangelical Christian or Occult (some would say they’re the same thing); if it’s girlpower with candles and pentacles, it’s Wicca; fairies, it’s Folklore; dragons is Fantasy; and teen wizardry is (now) a knock-off of a certain very successful series of books and films.

Andre Norton, usually classified as a Science Fiction & Fantasy writer, has a character with the gift of Unasked Sight. My grandmother’s first language was Scottish Gaelic and I grew up familiar with this kind of (Second) Sight that is a well-known and rarely-mentioned phenomenon in the Gàidhealtach, even in its lowland diaspora. The immediacy, urgency and evidential impossibility of this gift make it a good topic for a storyteller and it continually disrupts the otherwise ordered existence of my protagonist.

But I didn’t want to transport Bruno to another realm. I wasn’t interested in my characters going through some portal (a wardrobe or a wall in a train station) from a presumed central location of unproblematic normality (such as the English shires surrounding London, or the city itself) or inhabiting a place in a parallel universe (such as another Oxford or alternative Southern California) where vampires and werewolves and witches exist among us – unseen by those without the power or the courage to discern their existence.

I’m interested in the uncanny as experienced, today, in Scotland. Rarely-mentioned and well-known. With this, reserved, attitude, the Scottish culture of the uncanny occupies a middle place between the cool Anglo-Saxon scepticism of the English (so, no, I don’t include the Cornish, the Cumbrian or the Manx) and the entertaining self-conscious blarney of the Irish.

Narration in the first person is the literary equivalent of the hand-held camera. There are no panoramic establishing shots, instant cuts to another simultaneous location or smooth travelling transitions but, as well as the already-limited point-of-view of the protagonist, writing (almost exclusively) this way enables me to use the altered perspectives of anxiety, dream, drugs, drunkenness, euphoria, hypnosis, memory, sadness, tiredness, trance and vision. So there are already many explanations of the phenomena experienced by the characters. I feel it’s important not to force the reader into accepting a particular one.

This last point, I will admit, I got from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Always give them the ‘gas leak’ explanation. Otherwise they may either feel manipulated – or simply assume that, whatever world you’re writing about, it isn’t this one. So, when I write about the vibes or astrology or tarot, this form of non-local perception or mnemonic sequencing can be interpreted as coincidence, or an individual’s free-floating anxiety; telekinesis or spectral/ elemental phenomena witnessed by more than one person can similarly be dismissed as mass hysteria – if enough pressure is on the group at that time.

Even if such explanations are too far-fetched, the indulgent rationalist, if suitably entertained rather than preached at, will read the uncanny as magical realism – transported from its presumed home in steamy Latin America (even though the maestra of this genre, Isabel Allende, has written many of her novels while living in the USA) to rainy Scotland. Reading the adventures of Bruno and his friends might not result in seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden (especially if it’s raining) but it might make the reader wonder whether there are more things in heaven and earth than have ever entered into their rationalist religion or philosophy.

Tricks of the Mind, by Alan Ahrens-McManus, is free on Smashwords (where the whole series is available in various eBook formats) and – like The Lovers, Shades of the Sun, Qismet, Tìr nam Bàn and Transits of Terror – is also in print and Kindle on Amazon and other online retailers.  The Marrying Maiden, seventh in the series, should be out in September.

Pixie hat

Photo, Pixie hat in garden, ©Alan McManus, 2019. Use permitted with link to this post.  

 

Why I Write

An online friend asked a question yesterday: why do writers write? Is it out of love for writing or necessity? The question made me think. Here’s my, thoughtful, answer:

I used to create cartoon strips, about our household, as a kid. I’d love to go back to this subversive activity but, as my freehand skills aren’t great, it would probably be by using some kind of computer programme. As the Benjamin of the family (perhaps as unfairly indulged as Joseph), my earliest literary creations reflected my counterfactual belief that it was me and the dog contra mundum. My elder brother, who still has all his Marvel and DC comics from the 70’s, loved them. Alas, my infant creations didn’t survive long. Neither, tragically, did our lovely foxhound and it was this early loss and the much later acquisition of my beloved tan terrier, Ben, that powered Angels With Hairy Faces – a plea for humanity in our relationships with dogs, who can inspire us so profoundly.

One afternoon in the 80’s, at St Andrews University, an American neighbour in the student residence pushed a short story under my door. I was so intrigued by this action, and by the creation of this elaborate lie on paper, that I don’t think I even commented on it to him. For this I am truly sorry. Affirmation is so important to writers. I can’t remember what it was about, I just recall my first understanding of the magical agency involved in literary creation. During these years I began to write poetry, St Andrews is an extremely poetic (and pretentious) place. I still do, although I find my own poems even harder to evaluate than my prose. But sometimes I feel a powerful emotion that just won’t be communicated any other way. I felt this, as a new(ish) vegan, watching The Levelling in 2017 and by happy accident I was working my way through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, on poetry forms, at the time. The result was a villanelle.

Although I wrote some liberal student newspaper articles (which I thought radical) in a confessional and impassioned style which would now be called blogging, my first attempt at short story was inspired by dreams and memories and freewriting in the early 90’s at a college in California where I received the most excellent and author-empowering advice on asking for feedback:

  • Don’t say if you like or dislike it, if you think it’s good or bad, that doesn’t help
  • Don’t suggest changes, tell me what it does to you

A few years later, I revisited my infantile work with a caricatured melodrama in daily instalments starring my co-workers in a hotel on the Isle of Skye. To date, they have been my most appreciative readers. Never on a Sunday survives somewhere but is not for publication! Neither is my Mormon Christmas mystery, written for American flatmates, or the various (lively) extrapolations of dreams and desires I have since written as birthday presents for various gay men. People enjoy their dreams coming true but what they really appreciate is getting a mention. Mostly. (Do ask!)

Reading the Tales of the City series back in Scotland started my long preoccupation with the oddities associated with relationships between bisexual/gay and strait (sic) men. (We’re not bent, we’re broadminded.) That had various manifestations (on and off the page!) and culminated in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries. Tricks of the Mind was an escape from caring for my Dad who had dementia but it was also an exploration of the puzzling power of clairsentience widely experienced by empathetic people and usually explained away. This started a pairing of an aspect of esoterica I found fascinating with an underlying emotional drive. So The Lovers is a meditation on the cycle of life portrayed in Tarot but also on the urgency of love (all in a plot about hospital closures). Shades of the Sun (still my favourite) is a Scooby-Doo type adventure complete with creepy manor and masqued villain combining a now obscure branch of astrology with grief and PTSD. Qismet was meant by me to showcase my amazing ideas on education but the characters (Bruno, Justin, Imogen and Clara, principally) would have none of it and instead it became a ghost story about the evils of trying to rewrite the past. Often the motivations of the characters will remain unclear to me until the end. Then I understand not only what I’ve written, but why I’ve written it. Most of the time they just don’t let me in on their secrets until they really have to. Imogen and that crypt being a prime example! Tir nam Ban was born from the waves of the North Atlantic as they strike mysterious Hebridean isles. Of course it was inspired by many lives on many islands and in many communities, some of them mine, but really I wanted to do justice (however obliquely) to both the Celtic faerie tradition and Christianity and also to use a juxtaposition of sex and socioeconomic slavery to illustrate the rottenness of social respectability.

My academic work benefitted from my growing literary confidence (at least I thought so, a dense critical theory lecturer found my style ‘journalistic’) and Dreaming Anarchy was in the ethnographic tradition of thick description. Now I think I chose to write it for my Master’s dissertation because I was so tired of all the words about words about words, ironic lives lived cynically at a half-remove, that I wanted to live and publicise a more embodied politics. And you don’t get much more embodied than living up the Pyrenees with no electricity or plumbing.

Alchemy at the Chalkface was my homage to Dr Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and my analysis and application of his work first bore fruit in Only Say The Word when I realised that ‘Jesus loves me so you have to accept my lifestyle’ wasn’t a good enough justification for homosexuality when conservative Christians’ main problem wasn’t theological but biological: they just didn’t think it was natural. So I explored the nature of ‘nature’. That also helped with Life-Choice when I realised that women on both sides of the man-made barricades (and those very few trying to dismantle them) had completely different views on the nature of life in a woman’s womb, which their ethics (about what could be done with this life) followed.

Trans/Substantiation started as a departmental paper putting forward the view that ecumenical understanding on the Eucharist was being hindered more by metaphysics than theology but expanded when it struck me that beliefs about gender were exactly that: non-empirical and passionately held. This I found, shockingly, also to be true for establishment views on AIDS (as well as the more outlandish conspiracy theories on the syndrome) but here there was a kind of doublethink going on that, to a Roman Catholic, was very familiar. Researchers know (and so do readers if they read carefully) that the HIV-AIDS hypothesis doesn’t stand up but views contrary to those that sell the products of the pharmaceutical industry (a modern embodiment of Phillip Pullman’s Magisterium if there ever was one) are effectively no-platformed. Meanwhile multitudes of gay men, and Black Africans, especially, die from the known toxilogical effects of pharmaceutical drugs pushed onto populations whose mortality is considered inconsequential in comparison to profit. So, having ignored the subject for decades (because it frightened me) I simply had to write Silence and Dissent.

On a lighter note, there are my plays, dealing with dementia as subversive remembrance, homosexuality in the ranks, shooting shell-shocked soldiers, carpet-bombing and cold-blooded anti-Semitic murder. At least those are the topics of the two I’ve published so far, Mrs Atkins remembers and Redemption (the others are a bit more intense). I wrote the first out of my experience working with UK schools at WW1 memorials, my memories of my grandfather, blinded by mustard gas, and reading Lyn MacDonald’s The Roses of No-Man’s Land; the second because of a remark my Theatre Studies tutor made. It caused me to reconsider Dostoyevski’s negative portrayal of the old Russian pawnbroker, Alyona, and to try to imagine her life story.

Lastly, and just this week, I received the news that my booklet on nutrition, which I wrote out of concern for so many young people starving themselves (and ending up obese) is now an audiobook! Body-Logic is my first successful attempt at reaching the required level of quality in recording and editing (it’s been a very steep learning curve) but now I hope that, gradually, my novels and other reflections may be able to reach a wider audience for whom reading is either inconvenient or impossible. My inspiration for this move has been my mother, who can read but also loves to listen to story tapes.

Have I answered the question? Why do I write? For all sorts of reasons. Mostly because I feel I must, even the stories just have to come out. I’ve never been pregnant but I imagine it must feel like that – only a lot more overwhelming an experience! Do I love writing? Sometimes. But that’s really not the point. It’s about vivid reflection on life.

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Thanks (again) to Dawn Hudson who has released her illustration ‘Writing Hand’ into the Public Domain.

Bruno in January

As January, at least in Scotland, starts and ends with festivity but is infamously dreich (gloomy) in between, I thought it would be fun to do a search through my inclusive mystery series set in Glasgow, using the word ‘January’, to see what the protagonist of the Bruno Benedetti books gets up to in this month of mixed feelings. First of all, I discovered that sometimes it’s getting up at all that’s his struggle:

Waking up at two in the afternoon, in January in Scotland, means that you have about an hour and a half of light left and that situation is just not conducive to having the will-power to do any of the popular January pastimes which the radio assured me everyone else was up and at: de-toxing, joining a gym and committing suicide. I couldn’t even do the other one of ‘pulling a sickie’ like one in four male Glaswegian employees – if the Metro was to be believed. I reburied myself under the quilt and then thought that Justin might be doing his exercises, so I got up. (Tricks of the Mind)

In fairness, Bruno was working night shift. The next book of the series, The Lovers, is set in the four months from June to September, so January doesn’t get a mention. But in the following book, the first month is reported as unseasonably warm, as Bruno takes a short cut through a graveyard that brings back recent memories:

It was as warm as February seemed to be getting – our halcyon days had been in January this year, much to the disgust of most Scots of the third age who seemed to feel it their duty to warn those ‘casting a cloot’ that we’d pay for it. I decided: I would walk to the station and catch the train. I would still have time to get back to my house. (Shades of the Sun)

January, in the fourth book, is when Bruno first realises that the house on Luggie Road is no ordinary residence:

I can’t remember when the noises started, but I remember the first mention of them. Christmas and New Year were quiet and while my family were remembering the sadness of last year, my friends were recalling the horror. I made an effort and celebrated Burns Night in the flat (which is technically a house but that word feels far too settled) and invited everyone associated with the school. And Simone. I was slightly miffed that she’d apparently dismissed any involvement in the project. So it was one of those funny coincidences, thinking these thoughts, that just when I was reaching for another veggie haggis off the supermarket shelf another hand shot out and grabbed it.  (Qismet)

My most recently-published novel skips over January in terms of events but speaks of Scottish sensibilities around Hogmanay  (New Year’s Eve) and prediction:

However there is a strong aversion in Scotland to presumption. Despite the widespread belief and practice of divination in its many forms, as well as the respect for prophecy, it’s considered extremely bad luck to presume that an expected event will actually happen. This might explain the rather laidback attitude towards formal arrangements that prevails in the Gàidhealtachd, and certainly my avoidance of all my North American friends just after Christmas who persist in wishing me ‘Happy New Year’s’ before the Bells. “When it comes”, is my perennial answer (which should always accompany well-wishing previous to an event) as there is the underlying awareness that the wished-for event may not occur at all. (Tir nam Bàn)

The book I’m working on now, tentatively named Transits of Terror, starts in March but I envisage it covering at least till the next May – and with two men and a baby all getting used to each other, January should be anything but uneventful!

Tricks of the Mind Smashwords Cover

Thanks to Petr Kratochvl for releasing the photo of “Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square”, a detail of which I have used for my cover photo, to the Public Domain.

How Not to Introduce Characters

Don’t introduce characters like this:

Lesbian transsexual Orcadian Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski (KFL for short) swinging single and sole proprietor of Deli Smelly, San Francisco’s waterfront’s latest and tastiest locally sourced organic Wiccan charcuterie – because, hey, meat may be murder but business is business – backflipped her perfect twentysomething bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a bençao capoeira kick that sent the head of her android Sensei, Maximilian 3PO-Boombox, spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede. Where all earthlings and earthcities were now located. Cos of the Pulse.

Readers won’t know whether they’re reading Anna Karenina, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rotary Spokes or a Culture novel. Mostly they’ll just be confused. The author of this kind of fiction is generally the graduate of a creative writing course whose enthusiastic teacher has encouraged the class to ‘create diverse characters’. The result is like one of those toys that switch heads, trunks and legs – and what is supposed to be entertaining ends up as incoherent. Add to this confusion a method of direct exposition from narrator to reader similar in style to the rapid reading of T&Cs on adverts, and enjoying this style of writing takes a lot of hard work.

I admit that the opening scene of the first book of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries throws a lot at the reader all at once. However the reader is in the mind of the protagonist, and narrators are always unreliable. Tricks of the Mind is driven by a frustrated libido that makes Bruno mad, bad and dangerous to know. So when he enters, to find the object of his affection exercising on the hearthrug, his erudite consciousness is trying to focus on anything but the cheekily handsome face, glistening hard muscle and skimpy shorts of his cocky Cockney flatmate.

Readers hardly ever need to know a character’s surname, and the practice of varying between first name and surname (very common in thrillers) can cause them to lose the plot. Readers also don’t need to know everything at once. Let’s slow that example paragraph down:

Konstantina backflipped her perfect bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a kick that sent the head of her Sensei spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede.

Now it’s recognisably Sci-Fi girlpower chicklit. Let’s add some indirect exposition.

“Nice bençao!” rasped a metallic voice from the corner, “I told you the Terran martial art of capoeira was worth mastering.”

“Max it’s so creepy when you talk with your head off! Reattach!”

“And it’s very disrespectful when a student addresses her Sensei by its first name during training.”

“I mean no disrespect, Sensei 3PO-Boombox, I guess my mind is on the opening of the Deli tonight.”

The android reattached its head before replying. “Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski, your ancestors from far-flung Terra did not colonise this moon for the sole purpose of the provision of charcuterie!”

Etc.

I still don’t want to read it because all it’s giving me is information. When I care (marginally) more about the Yodayadda of a robot than the preoccupations of a lovely young lady, something is clearly wrong. Let’s try another tack:

Konstantina was almost afraid to touch the shimmering green fabric. The fragile tunic, gift of her Orcadian grandmother, was one of the few remaining articles of clothing made on Terra. There were no silkworms on Ganymede. A silk tunic belonged in the Hall of Memory. It should not be worn by the sole proprietor of Deli Smelly on her opening night. Not even if Ivanya would be there. Not even if she would be sure to notice that the colour, exactly, matched Konstantina’s eyes.

She glanced at the chronograph, sighed, and replaced the garment in the alcove at the back of her cave. She just had time to fit in a combat training session with Max. It would clear her head.

Okay, now I care. I want to bomb the deli, for its silly name, I want to know how this tunic is expected to survive (in an alcove, in a cave, on a far-flung moon) and I also want to know what happened to Grannie and if there’s life on Earth. And more about Max. Cos he’s probably dead fit and I’m going to be terribly disappointed if I find out he’s made of silicon and not carbon. Maybe. I’m not that bothered about Ivanya (I mean why does our lovely girl have to work so hard?) but I might be if she’s Max’s fiancée. And he’s secretly planning a sex change but is kidnapped by the besotted Tyrant of Ganymede. I want to know now. I know it’s got silly but, admit it, so do you!

Don’t chuck everything at the reader all at once. You are the creator of this world and of these characters. Take the reader gently by the hand and lead on, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs as you go. Remember, if you write, you’re a writer. Even God put in the best part of an intensive week of practice before creating human characters. Let yourself make mistakes, and above all enjoy it.

I have to sign off, I’ve suddenly developed an interest in Sci-Fi…

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Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her ‘Re digitized public domain illustration of a black and white human hand writing with a pen’ into the Public Domain.

Writing a Difference

I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.

Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.

I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.

When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:

‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’

and

‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.

The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.

I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.

This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.

On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.

Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.

Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.

Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.

And that makes a difference.

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Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.

How to survive Christmas

(Contains blatant advertising, sage advice, bleeding hearts, stereotypes, humbug, nuts)

I don’t have the stats, but I imagine the number of Americans shooting family members goes up during the festive season. We can hardly blame them. This post focuses on that annual family horror called Christmas but some parts may be applicable to other feasts involving relentless and compulsory goodwill; the forced proximity of adult siblings, in-laws and outlaws; sleet; treacherous pavements; overindulgence in stodge, sugar and alcohol; and the worst TV.

So how can you survive Christmas?

  • Get the good food in first. That’s the basic advice of Body-Logic, so you don’t need to buy it now (but if you do, it’s available as an eBook). You’re less likely to nibble if you’ve feasted first. And let’s face it, it’s the one and only time of the year where anything as sickeningly nutritious as Brussels sprouts makes you feel sentimental.
  • Plan your TV/DVD/online watching. It can actually be enjoyable to watch a film all the way through with selected family or friends. It is even possible to do so without addictively checking your phone for such urgent texts as: wotcha doin am wachtin fillum sborin? This countercultural practice may even increase the attention span of your hyperactive progeny to a length marginally greater than that of goldfish.
  • Retreat to your room/ broom cupboard with a good book. Some discerning readers have decided to catch up on the Bruno Benedetti inclusive mystery series (in print or eBook). And who am I to stop them? The benefits of reading an up-and-coming author is that it’s dead cool and you can shame your friends who have never even imagined that a mystery series could be inclusive. This will then activate FOMO. So you can be quietly smug.
  • Announce to the festive fiends frequenting your living-room and drinking all your sherry that, unfortunately, you have a paper/report on [anything but try Education, Philosophy, Alchemy, Sports Science, Social Work, Renaissance Studies, Quantum Mechanics, Music, Art, Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen] to hand in at the start of the new year. So you just have to read Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality from cover to cover (in print or eBook). In the airing cupboard, the only place that’s warm.
  • Dance. Seriously. Relocate the coffee table, push back the chairs, forcibly remove all the headphones from all the teenyboppers under 50 and elect yourself DJ Dictator. Command the stereo/ space-age musical docking device and get the tunes on. Jumping up and down, even gently, is THE BEST THING for lymphatic drainage. It’s the new blood pressure. It sorts everything. Google it. Ask your doctor. Get with the programme.
  • Walk. Take the dog. Take the neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have one. Believe me, this is a very welcome gesture. Yes I know old Mrs Biddy next door has taken the trouble to clear the pavement outside her prefab and hasn’t put down salt so it’s now a popular neighbourhood slide. But (wo)man up [told you I was inclusive] and cross the road where the pavement’s less treacherous. That’s sidewalk for our North American readers. You can even seasonally greet your neighbours. This is compulsory all over Scotland after midnight (AND NOT BEFORE!) on New Year’s Eve and voluntary during the year. It provides a nice alternative to shooting them.
  • Limit the time you spend together. Less is far, far more. Don’t say “come for Xmas”, say “come for Xmas dinner, we’re at church in the morning and out in the evening so we have the whole afternoon to spend with you”. Relief on the other end of the phone. Even the most trigger-happy relation should be able to keep it together for four hours. That includes time taken to unwrap presents and visitors and bundle them back into the car. God will forgive you for lying about church-going. She’s like that. And if you do do church, do one that preaches love, not hate.
  • Watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life if you must. Once you realise that one’s US military recruitment propaganda and the other a hymn to that oxymoron ‘compassionate capitalism’ it rather takes the sheen off the screen. I much prefer The Muppets’ Christmas Carol or The Bishop’s Wife for nostalgia. If anyone suggests The Grinch ask them, seriously, whether they would like to be trapped in a lift (elevator) with Jim Carrey. The correct answer is “no”. Don’t, whatever you do, make snow angels. This unbearably middleclass act of kinderkitsch is only allowable under coercion of a loaded firearm – and even then needs a careful weighing up of the pros and cons.
  • Act out your own murder mystery. Use one of those DVD & flashcard boxes if you wish, or use this wee festive freebie HERE. It may serve to sublimate those homicidal tendencies.
  • Give thanks. Use it as an alternative grace, sat round the table eyeing the fair-trade veggie feast (no harm to no fowl). Introduce it with “let’s all mention just one thing we’re grateful for this year. 10 seconds each. Clockwise. I’ll start”. If there’s 10 of you that’s already more than a minute and a half.
  • It’s only once a year.
  • Put these numbers on speed dial: 999/ 911; Childline; RSPCA; The Samaritans.

Good Luck.

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Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Christmas Crackers‘ into the Public Domain.