How Much to Distract a Writer?

I’m trying to write. No really. Seriously. Don’t look at me like that. I know it may not look like it but, inside this lump of bone, plots are being sketched by my gelatinous gloop of neurons, characters developed and moved around by neurotransmitters and synapses are firing with story arcs. Oh that was close! No, I can multitask. (I can’t, no one can, of any gender, they just do everything badly) I mean it’s only football isn’t it?

I don’t even like football and its 10 o’clock in the morning for goodness sake, but my son (let’s blame him, he can’t argue on here) has put Switzerland vs Cameroon on the television. I’m like a cat with a ball of string, it knows it can’t eat it but it still can’t ignore that prey response. Moving object plus thin dangly bit behind equals mouse, never mind it smells wrong doesn’t squeak and tastes horrible. I don’t know what mice taste like by the way but my cat seems to like them, at least the faces which appears to be the bit he eats mostly.

I like rugby union, well I did before the changes in the game to accommodate professionalism moved it increasingly towards a low attention span game, like rugby league or basketball. But football never got me. Or I never got it. Being sent off at school from flattening my mate who kept going past me probably started the rot. Frustrating. When I went to senior school and was introduced to a game that positively encouraged knocking down people with the ball, I was a lot happier.

I still played a bit of football, training for rugby, work five asides, kickabouts with mates, that sort of thing but my heart was never in it. The most fun I had was with my son in the park playing football, long after I had given up rugby, but that had a different vibe to it altogether. He’s my son; I’d have done synchronised swimming if he’d been into that.

But World Cups bring out something else, and the sheer unpredictability of what is supposed to be a bit of a breeze for the big teams in the group stages has been intriguing this year. Saudi beating Argentina saw me doing triple takes when my son told me, and I confess I reached for the internet to check it wasn’t a massive windup.

Rugby seldom does that. Occasionally in the past a team few had heard of like Western Samoa emerged to cause an upset, it felt like usually to Wales. Think what the whole of Samoa would do boys! Well we found out and it wasn’t pretty. Unfortunately for Samoa, economics kicked in with the professionalisation of the game and Samoa is back to being an also ran team as the rest of the rugby world pits its South Sea Islanders against everyone else’s South Sea Islanders. Can’t blame Samoans, Fijians and Tongans for wanting to exchange physical prowess for family security but the diaspora has shown vividly what happens when Capitalism drives labour migration. Teams like Cote d’Ivoire in the past and Portugal coming up may entertain for a game or two but mostly you fear for their safety and a repetition of Max Brito’s horrendous injuries in the 1995 World Cup.

But I shouldn’t be bothered about rugby or football. I’m supposed to be writing about an eighteenth century retired British Army officer pompously recounting his memoirs in comedic fashion. Maradonna’s ‘hand of God’ aka cheating bastard handball is going to be difficult to work convincingly into that narrative. Although cheats and chancers abound in eighteenth century military affairs.

Distraction is easy at the best of times, but wall to wall football seems to be impossible to ignore. It’s that rolling ball effect that snags the cat’s attention. People running, chasing a little rolling object seem impossible to ignore. I like watching Wales, sort of, though why they only played for half a match last time out defeated me. They are on again at 1000 tomorrow but there are four games televised between now and then.

It will be the nineteenth century by the time I return to the comedy Battle of Minden at this rate.

Hey ho, what’s the score?

About $229Billion. Billion! At the last count. That’s a lot of dosh to distract a writer of an homage to Brigadier Gerard.

Hasta La Vista Médico!

‘Your call is very important to us… blah’

I tuned out again as I looked at the time on screen. Not too bad, just the sixteen minutes so far.

I tuned back in as the recording of some electronic background music, unrecognisable so no copyright, so no royalties payments, ambient ersatz, faded out. Was I going to be…’Your call is very important to us, please continue to hold and you will be connected to an agent as soon as possible.’

No I wasn’t going to be…connected to anyone. Not yet, maybe never. The last time I’d called a doctor the system had sounded different, there had been a number in the queue countdown. That had been reassuring in a way but obviously had provoked some adverse comment or reaction as we had gone back to chirpily annoying slack mouthed Essex Girl vapidity. When did sitting in blind hope there may be an answer become preferable to a realistic announcement of the wait length? Some idiot focus group assessment no doubt.

The previous few occasions I remembered being on this system my call had been so important I had been cut off after half an hour and dead aired. On occasion I had been returned to a ring tone that went on presumably to eternity as it never reconnected with the chirpy vapidity. Vapid chirpiness? You choose. I have been transferred into an electronic abyss by the system and been greeted with bemusement after I rang back and explained it was me again. I have been transferred, waited in some holding room limbo and then been answered by the same receptionist, my apologies; Care Navigator. You know how desperate a service is by how arcane and Byzantine the renaming of basic functions and personnel becomes. Receptionists now stand as gate keeping Care Navigators and must be informed of your most intimate physical and mental secrets if they are to deign to allow you the vague hope of speaking to, not necessarily seeing, a doctor.

Name, date of birth and address are not the three questions you must answer to pass the Keeper of Care Navigation, that is but the First Test.

The system seems to be designed to keep you from seeing a doctor, not facilitating or Navigating towards that consummation devoutly to be wished of seeing someone qualified to know what is wrong with you and having it treated by them.

Nineteen minutes on the screen and they were still convinced my call was important to them. I had the computer screen up because I needed the number to call. I used to be able to make appointments online but when everyone realised you could do that, appointments were booked up as far as the system would go – usually a month in advance. So that stopped. They were looking at new ideas when Covid arrived like a Godsend for them. It suddenly was not only understandable they would suspend as many face to face appointment interaction opportunities as possible, but it was welcomed as a means of preventing the Dread Plague. So we went back to phoning for appointments. But phoning for appointments for telephone calls not actual appointments. I’m beginning to think GPs are being replaced by AI algorithms.

Don’t laugh. The idea is out there and we are being softened up to accept the ‘inevitable’ surrender of our health outcomes to machines. There are already causal machine learning algorithms that allegedly do a better job of diagnosis than 70% of GPs. Just don’t ask who decided the percentages. But given how the world works, say Goodbye to Dr Foster up to his middle in a puddle in Gloucester and say hello to the Cyberdyne Systems Doctor T101 up to his abs in Skynets new Care Navigation Sector, ‘Hasta La Vista Baby!’

Twenty six minutes and there’s a disturbance in the Force, and a human voice tries to say ‘Hello’ and then coughs.

Before I can be rerouted I say ‘Hello’ to grab the attention of what sounds like an actual human Care Navigation Assistant.

We politely go through the poker playing of what I want. I lead out big and bet a Doctor’s Appointment for my son. She raises with a request for his date of birth etc. I call, revealing his details with faultless memory. We get another card and I check. She bids an offer of would he be available this morning? Stunned I am about to see her when I decide I’ll call and wait another round. Yes he would. She goes all in with The doctor will ring this morning then. I see her. He wants an appointment. She reveals a Royal Flush of Doctors always ring first and she cannot book face to face appointments. I am broke and wander off to the balcony overlooking the bay and ask if may borrow a Casino Webley.

She feels pity and we eventually agree they will ring back after eleven o’clock and he can just mumble that I can speak for him. He can’t marry without my permission and he can’t join the army without my say so but I can’t speak to a doctor about him.

Now all I have to do is try and wake him up. I feel a certain amount of schadenfreude, tinged with karma not entirely unrelated to being woken at four in the morning by the sound of him practising a Metallica tune on his electric guitar. I mean it’s not what I want, but you know, who am I to argue with the demands of Doctor Arnold?

He’ll be back.

We hope.

A Confession Regarding Ghosts

Photo credit: National Library of Ireland on The Commons on Visualhunt.com

A thought popped into my head this morning. It happens occasionally. I normally try and ignore them but on this occasion an odd twinge of doubt made me stop and unpack it, put it on the table and spin it around for a good look.

A couple of days ago I posted ‘Ghoulies and Ghosties’, a piece principally about why I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet at the beginning of September I posted what was in effect a sort of ghost story. And I have written several other stories with supernatural themes and intend writing more should the mood take me.

Is this a problem?

I mean, am I lying somewhere along the line, to readers or to myself? Do I really believe in supernatural events? Psychics, poltergeists, spirit mediums, psychic surgeons, astrology, vampires, werewolves etc etc? Or am I really a complete sceptic trying to perpetuate a belief in the occult to make a few bob?

On the first point, definitely not.

On the second point, definitely not, I think.

So how did I get into this Orwellian state of mind, believing two apparently contradictory things at the same time?

I really enjoy certain types of horror story. Now horror seems to have morphed over my lifetime, at least in publishing classifications. Horror now seems to be mainly slasher movies and stories that deal with physical violence perpetrated on the vulnerable, using as many power tools as possible, madness in these days of excessive electricity bills. In my youthful brain horror certainly could include elements of physical danger, but the main threat was to the protagonist’s spiritual and/or mental wellbeing. Yes the victim may be bitten and drained and eventually die at the teeth of a vampire, but the horror started after death, and for eternity you had to dress in outdated, over fussy fashion with no mirror to see how bad you looked in the afterlife.

But the classics like Dracula and more or less anything by MR James and a few others by contemporary authors still make for an enjoyable read in this period of the year particularly, between Hallowe’en and Christmas when the boundary between this world and others weakens and occasionally tears. At least in fiction and Celtic mythology.

In reality I have little time for the maunderings of the True Horror brigade. In some instances I have genuine sympathy and concern for some of those caught up in the events exploited by this genre. Those who are living with manipulative partners, upset teenagers or  mischievous  children have my sympathy, especially when people who want to peddle a world view antithetical to logic and science encourage them in explanations that rely on otherworldy interventions rather than psychological insight, divorce courts and firm parenting. For those suffering from sleep paralysis, waking nightmares and types of mental disturbance then good psychiatric intervention is the answer rather than an exorcist or worse still an investigative paranormal journalist.

The difficulty with being robust about the defence of rationality in many of these cases is that we live in a world of compulsory acceptance of any belief system, however wacky that comes down the track. If I think seances spirit mediums and talking to the dead are in all cases demonstrably false and the product of charlatanism and wishful thinking, I am not only being a killjoy and rude, but I am guilty of some sort of hate crime against an alternative belief system. The point being that if you suspend your innate tendency to be polite and respectful of people telling you they are suffering from some spiritual malaise; a haunting or possession or poltergeist phenomenon, you can usually explain the ‘phenomena’ quite simply. Put bluntly people often lie to get attention and when they get in too deep, rather than come clean, invent ever more rococo embellishments to the story to throw people off the scent. It doesn’t always, perhaps seldom, start off with bad intentions; it’s a bit of a joke, a livening up of a boring day or just a desire for attention. Or to take the mickey.

 Confession; I’ve done it myself. Years ago as a teenager I turned the lights out in a hallway to some toilets. The toilets were in an extension to a church hall behind a church and there was a youth club discussion group in progress upstairs. There was a break and people went off to stretch their legs, have a cigarette (you could smoke indoors in those days, even as a teenager if the leader pretended not to see) and go to the toilet. I slipped out and, unseen by anyone, flipped the lights off. Late on a Sunday night in midwinter it was quite ‘spooky’ and the returnees told a great tale of hearing all sorts of odd noises and then all of a sudden the lights went out and etc etc. The tale grew in the telling and took on a new lease when we discovered the extension was built on an old, uncleared, Presbyterian burial ground from the late eighteenth century. I never fessed up and no doubt there is someone even now writing a ‘true ghost story’ about the incident.

Would I have spun it further if a journalist had turned up? Probably not. I hope not, but as an intelligent, bored teenager with a creative storytelling bent who knows.

Not all ghosts are the product of malicious little ******s like me, some people are more sensitive, not to the spirit world, but to life and fly to first answers. If that answer is a draughty house and a faulty electricity meter you may be very scared but not spiritually. If that’s ‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ it could still be the electricity company, but you’re more likely to think of the supernatural power surge and a witch coven.

So if you must make ‘investigative’ programs or articles about Highgate Vampires or haunted houses, let’s have some hard hitting examinations of the logical explanations as well as open mouthed credulity of the oddball solutions.

But for preference; leave the supernatural stories to fiction (and nasty little teenage boys).

Ghoulies and Ghosties…

Photo credit: Cask Creek on VisualHunt

I don’t know why the phrase came to mind, except that it is coming up to Hallowe’en and thoughts turn to such things. My mother used to say around this time of year, as a joke, a prayer or saying she had heard as a child:

‘From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.’

Now as a small child this both amused and slightly worried me. It sounded funny and several of the words were not ones I was familiar with and sounded archaic or possibly made up (“archaic” probably wasn’t what I thought aged seven of course, although I did like and collect odd words even then) and so it stuck in my mind for that reason. There was also however the element of “what are ghoulies, ghosties and long legeddy beasties”? and perhaps more concerning for its linguistic ordinariness but inexplicable auditory reality, ‘things that go bump in the night’?

There was also a slight worry about the existence of these things God was supposed to be delivering me from. Mum always made the point of saying they didn’t exist, but the niggling question of why anyone would formulate a prayer against them if they didn’t exist wouldn’t go away. I would seek reassurance from time to time that this was just an amusing piece of old time stuff we didn’t have to worry about now, and duly received same, but it obviously lurked in my mind, as you can see from this if from nothing else.

Harder to admit was the sneaking suspicions I had about God. If you couldn’t see Him (and it most certainly was a Him in those days) how did you know God existed? People said He did, and as the schools I attended until age eleven were called St George’s and Christ Church you may imagine that they were quite keen on the idea of believing in the existence of God. Indeed they were quite keen on belief in the existence of the Devil, not the boring generic secular concept of evil that serial killers, war and Disco inflict on the world, but a real supernatural entity after your eternal soul.

School also, independently of my mother I assumed, regaled us at this time of a co-opted Samhain or Calan Gaeaf, with tales of witches, and ghosts and this prayer was trotted out as an example of folk wisdom asking God for protection from the unknown evils around us.

The ‘deliver from’ was not as problematic to me at seven as it may be to seven year olds these days. Postmen, again, definitely men in those days, delivered letters but I was aware of the concept of delivery from evil in the Lord’s prayer and once explained I had no problem with the idea of words having nuanced meaning.

So where did it come from, this prayer or folk saying/request? I don’t know that anyone said where it was from. I always had the feeling it was Scottish, whether this from something someone said when they told me about it or whether the odd syntax and words just sounded Scottish to me I am not sure. It certainly didn’t bother me sufficiently to seek out its origin or if it did, for me to commit it to memory. And then today when it popped back into mind I thought I’d do some in depth research on it. Yes friends I Googled it.

‘Nobody knows’ is the executive summary.

The two front runners in terms of repeated claims are:

A prayer from a Cornish Litany.

A Scottish prayer.

There is also an honourable mention for a Hausa origin in a book c1918.

The earliest written explanations for the origin of the prayer cluster around the early twentieth century, the earliest written claim I can see is from 1905 but presumably the use they are referring to was late nineteenth century. There are a few unsourced claims for a sixteenth century origin but for all sorts of reasons I am suspicious. The Cornish would have been speaking Cornish in their everyday lives at this period and litanies would be in Latin, and Scots would likewise I suspect have more distinctly Scottish (not Gaelic) words in a vernacular prayer and again litanies would be in Latin.

I have a regard for the work of Victorian antiquarians and folk tale collectors but also a healthy distrust of taking too seriously much of their disquisitions on the origins of what they collected.

And how have long leggety (another version) beasties fared in the meantime? Much the same as God I’m afraid. Interesting examples of pre-Enlightenment attempts to explain the world’s unknown boundaries since refuted by science and logic. There may be more things in heaven and earth than exist in Horatio’s philosophy but if he were alive now he’d probably be working at CERN and ghoulies, ghosties, long leggedy beasties and a bearded creator would have been long ago struck off the list of unknowns.

I love a good ghost story, tale of a vampire or a lycanthropic romp, especially at this time of year, but the suspension of disbelief required is greater, or perhaps the reigniting of belief in the face of the evidence is what is required. Whichever it is, I am happy to put the Enlightenment on pause for a few hours while I watch a seasonably unsettling film or read a troubling tale of terror. Just don’t expect me to be seeking deliverance from non-existent bumps in the night when the credits roll.

HOPE

Born in the 1950s I grew up in hope

in a 1960s that promised much,

a break with stodgy McMillan and Home

into a white heat of technology

Socialism and Science leading us forwards

into the bright sunlit uplands.

There was no hope for those who yearned,

for whatever bizarre reason

for Victorian Values, for hate over love

for the resurgence of VD

to punish indulgence, by which,

they meant enjoyment

formerly reserved for the few.

A yearning for war that made us great,

for an austerity that tested will.

No hope of a return to that world

where welfare was stigma

where looking after the poor

was the act of lady bountiful

on a church parade of doom.

But it was a flash.

A flicker of time when we could laugh

when we could know that

old orders were changing

love and welfare would enrich us

would let us grow and know

our real place in the world.

A meritocracy where those

Privileged through ability

would look after the rest,

appreciate everyone’s contribution

we really would all be in it together.

Gone in a flash too,

sparked by those with power,

who knew already the war of the flea

better than the guerilla,

retreat, regroup and wait

until the party rolled and then

and then.

Where are we now boys?

Mines gone, Factories gone.

Peace gone. Europe gone.

The City, ah the City.

Still reigns supreme but not for Britain

Not for Britain, boys

Not for Britain, Maggie

Not for Britain.

The City as ever reigns for the City

but as the deregulated behometh grows

we will lose even that.

No longer a back door to Europe

dealers and brokers and financiers

and the Gods of modern globalism

the entrepreneurs will depart

leaving a hollow little shell

of third world, low rent service jobs.

Would you like fries with that?

and my sister is very clean and cheap

I can get you boys if you like that mister.

What a great nation we are

saved from equality and socialism

and joy and wealth by politicians

pulling levers no longer attached

to anything but panic buttons

and a rapacious global capital.

I’m glad I didn’t have too much hope.

Historians: Stick with the Past

I’m reading ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’ by Norman F Cantor at the moment. This is a study of the lives, work and ideas of twenty historians whom Cantor characterises as ‘The Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century’. He was himself a medievalist of some renown but perhaps more in the public transmission of ideas about medieval history than in academically recognised works, although his doctoral thesis published as ‘Church, kingship, and lay investiture in England, 1089-1135’ was a major contribution to understanding of English Church, State relations. His interest generally lay in the sweep of medieval developments and their effect on later society. The encapsulation of the lives and work of historians who have made a mark on the interpretation of what the Middle Ages were really like in various aspects is a fascinating read of itself. Perhaps more interesting is realising, as one reads, is discovering the implied belief systems and assumptions of the historian writing about the background and assumptions of other historians and how they affected their interpretations. If you aren’t careful you can find yourself spiralling into ever decreasing circles of self referential historicism.

The second chapter deals with the work of Frederick William Maitland, not perhaps a name on most people’s lips, even those with an interest in medieval history. He was however the main author of Pollock and Maitland’s ‘The History of English Law before Edward I’, still the definitve work on the development of English law in this period . Maitland sneaks in as a twentieth century medievalist by surviving to 1906, although he was born in 1850 and the main work he is remembered for was published in 1899.

Cantor argues that Maitland’s interpretation of medieval law correctly identified what medieval English Parliaments emerged to do, and it was not to represent any expression of popular will or proto democratic involvement on the part of the people, but rather to be an efficient mechanism for legal and admin officers of the Government (the crown at that point) to conduct Government business through the common law.

 Interestingly as a Canadian American, Cantor sees the enormous influence of English Common Law in America, both legally and politically. So far so uncontroversial, American law is generally based on English Common Law and the American Revolution (The American War of Independence) is often traced back to the beginnings of the English Civil War and Sir Edward Coke’s resurrection of Magna Carta. But the twist in Cantor’s interpretation of the influence of Common Law on American and thus the world is that Coke’s flurry of revolutionary fervour was not that important to American development  and it was the ‘unruffled revival of the culture of the common law in the late seventeenth century and its transmission to British North America’ which drove the revolution in conjunction with the Scottish and French Enlightenment.

The implications of this interpretation are huge and it is a clear reflection of  a view of Cantor’s that flows very much from the time of his writing the book. Inventing the Middle Ages was published in 1991 and clearly bears the marks of late revision in the light of then current international political events. Maitland’s interpretation of the role of Parliament apparently is a ‘foreshadowing of the political consensus that runs from Washington through London, Paris and Berlin to Moscow in the closing decade of the twentieth century.’  Francis Fukuyama rides again. The overweening confidence, not to say arrogance of an academic class in a political empire on the apparent crest of a wave is shown in the commentary on a book itself written at the height of another soon be defunct imperial splendour. Maitland’s cocoon of Anglo British self confidence would soon shatter on the modernist battlefield’s of the Great War and what has become of that straight line of ‘political consensus’ running from Washington to Moscow?

The blip of French Enlightenment revolutionary fervour in America allowed it to shake off the yoke of Britain but was soon itself apparently shrugged off to allow the common law to reassert itself in America. The particular model of civil society that Maitland identified as being spawned by the common law, the ‘incubus of competitive market capitalism’ is a means of legal order that enables the free operation of corporations, communities and individuals within the framework of the state. This framework is limited and constrained by the law. This ideal state is that which ‘the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, burdened by long histories of successive centralising and overly privileged authorities, are now groping’ in 1991.

The message being that the state is ‘there to make the lives of ordinary people secure and comfortable’. Small state, rule of law, perfect happiness. And this has led to what in 1991 Cantor described thus: ‘Now with all political passion spent, government everywhere falls into the hands of those who can administer the instruments of state frugally for the common welfare and this means the necessary power of public-spirited, well educated bureaucrats and lawyers largely free of ideological fanaticisms.’

A great example of how historians and historiographers drag their own hopes wishes and prejudices kicking and screaming into their work.

I wonder how rampant right wing populism in Europe, especially those liberated Central and Eastern European states fits with this ‘end of history’ enthusiasm? All political passions spent in the US? Moscow aspiring to administer the instruments of state frugally? London – least said the better at the moment.

History, like economics is great at describing what happened in the past. Just don’t try and predict anything with either of them.

Cat

Photo credit: Mike Deal aka ZoneDancer on VisualHunt

The cat is watching me.

He started doing it about a week ago. I suppose there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a cat watching you. Normally cats ignore you unless they want something. Even the actions that appear to be affectionate have an ulterior motive. Rubbing their head on you? Marking you as ‘theirs’ with scent glands. Sitting on your knee? Warmth. Following you to the kitchen as you make a coffee?  You do know that’s where you also prepare food don’t you?

No. Cats seldom want you for you. For what you can do for them, certainly. But they feel no separation anxiety like dogs. No joy at your return. They aren’t pack animals.

So what does he want?

He’s pretty brazen about it. He sits or lies in odd places and stares unblinking at me. Not in my general direction, not casually, but continually. I’ve  taken to googling things like “why cats stare?” You get all sorts of weird answers from people purporting to be animal psychologists. Really? Is that where all the Freudians have gone? If so I’m pretty sure patients, or rather the patients’ theoretical owners are wasting their time, and let us not forget, money. I am pretty sure the cat is all id and no ego or superego. No-one is riding the id’s mad stallion. ‘Want, have, kill. But not until we’ve played a little’ is more the cat’s motto. Perhaps more Nietsche than Freud.

But given the cat’s will to power, what power is he seeking over me? Perhaps more worrisome yet is the thought that the cat has an even more basic philosophical grounding than Nietzschean will. A sort of Cartesian derivative perhaps; “Neco ergo sum”: “I kill therefore I am” is what drives a cat’s life.

So how worried should I be? Has he decided that in my dotage I am weakening to the point where it is worth ‘having a go’? Has he perhaps already tasted human flesh? Perhaps the kind old lady in the next road who fusses over any and all felines and gives treats as they pass through her domain has perished, as yet unfound? Now he, replete with her new bounty is seeking fresher fare. He is fastidious in his refusal of food that has been contaminated with fly eggs, so, let us assume she perished some days before he began his unusual attention manifested itself. She will be undoubtedly now be replete with maggots and he, seeking fresh supplies of his new favourite food. Should I call? Call on her? Notify the authorities?

‘And why are you worried sir?’

‘My cat is staring at me.’

No. There will be an ambulance for sure, but not one destined for A&E or the mortuary but a local mental health assessment centre for certain. Perhaps I’ll take a stroll past her house later and see if there is a light on? Maybe take a packet of cat food along and knock on the door and make a neighbourly joke about doing my bit for local catdom. I won’t ring anyone yet.

I’ve perused all the clickbait ‘what your cat is desperately trying to tell you’ sites, and his face is nothing like any of the litany of cat faces trying to tell you about diabetes, cancer or torn claws. His is more, appraising. More a sort of certainty that at last he has my measure. I have been making sure I shut the bedroom door at night and have checked under the bed and behind the curtains to make sure he is not in the room before I turn off the light. My wife keeps giving me odd looks as I do this and I made the mistake of explaining why I was doing it. She says she hasn’t noticed anything different. Maybe they are in it together? Can you train a cat to kill on command?  Why would she? I love them both. Where’s the motive?

Maybe I am a little overwrought about it. It’s nothing. Maybe he needs worming? Maybe I’ll ring the vet? How could I get them to see what I mean. I pick up the phone and get ready to take a picture to send. The cat looks away, rises to all fours, yawns and walks off, tail erect, confident and insouciant. He knows I know.

Why has the cat stopped watching me?

Caveat Author

Photo credit: Brickset on VisualHunt.com

I had an email on Friday from the Secretary of the local writers group. He was forwarding an unsolicited email from a ‘publisher’ to writers groups, announcing the opening of a new short story, flash fiction and poetry magazine!

Yay! I thought, how bold and brave and exciting that there are people, in these times of financial restraint willing to make a stand for the arts and help people to share their writing.

Then I followed the link.

Here it is if you want a look. https://shortfictionmagazine.com/

My advice however is to think extremely carefully before doing anything other than look.

A quick look at the website of the magazine’s parent company, Taboo Books https://taboobooks.co.uk/ , might make us think twice about any relationship we, as authors, might have with it. Taboo claims to be:

“Not Like Other Publishers!”

Regrettably it seems all too reminiscent of many people claiming to be alternative or hybrid publishers today.

Taboo has several routes to publication. The first is:

‘Traditional Publishing Route’ – you send them your manuscript and if they like it they will publish it … but with a difference.

They show you how traditional publishers do it: agent, submission contract, and then things get odd – according to Taboo ‘traditional publishers make you pay for proof reading and copy editing, do ALL your own book promotion, and ask you to organise and pay for your book cover to be designed and produced. I’m beginning to think we aren’t talking about ‘traditional publishers’ at all, but old vanity publishing outfits.  Yes publishers are getting ****ing lazy about publicity in many cases, and expect you to social network and if you’re lucky, go on tour to signings and fairs and events, but they don’t normally let authors anywhere near the creative side of the look of the book. And yes they have cut back on editing but there is definitely something odd in the list of things required by ‘trad publishing’ according to Taboo. But…

“Taboo Books is Different!

If we offer you a contract, we’ll:*”

And then they list a whole lot of things you’d expect a publisher to do anyway – bog standard stuff like issue an ISBN, stuff which is either in the other list explicitly like the ISBN bit, or should be – print and hold copies of your book and place and fulfill wholesale distributor orders.

But note the asterisk, which leads us to…

“*Services are offered, depending on the Author membership level you are subscribed to.”

“Membership”? I thought this was a traditional publishing route? You send the manuscript, they publish if they like it?

What is this membership?

They don’t tell you on this page. But:

  1. You have to join the site (free) to submit a manuscript for starters.
  2. There are three levels of author membership:

New Author: £24.00 per month!

Promo Package: £39.99 per month!

Monthly Promo Package: £74.99 per month!

Remember the ‘traditional’ publishing route?

I was told something many years ago and it still holds true (annoying though it is if you aren’t getting published):  “If the money is flowing into your account you’ve got a proper publishing deal. The moment any cash flows the other way, there is something badly wrong, get out!”

Now I’ve no problem with self publishing, done it myself, but I laid out no cash and I made money on the deal thanks. If you want to self publish and pay for services, that’s fine too, but check how much and get the details up front. Companies that promise something with no details of costs or confusing cost packages that keep adding things as you go on, are to be avoided.

Taboo also offer an Assisted Publishing route – which they offer if they don’t offer you a ‘traditional’ contract. Goodness knows what that costs. [Having just followed a few links from that option, they take you back the “Author Packages” above with individual services available as for the “Traditional Route”.]

But that isn’t Taboo’s Short Fiction magazine imprint is it?

No. It isn’t, but the same marketing strategies appear.

You can send stories in to appear online for free (you have to join the site with your email details of course, “keeps the spammers out” and you’ll want to receive updates on prizes, deals and promos won’t you?) but while no overt mention is made of it, it is clear that to be eligible for the £1,000 prize there will be something else required. As I haven’t joined (and am not going to under any circumstances) I can’t be sure what those requirements are but I suspect cash. Similarly to be eligible for consideration for hard copy publication in the ‘anthologies’ you need to do more.

Now I’m sure Taboo and Short Fiction aren’t breaking any laws here, but they are getting free content to fill out their new website (good content costs), and they are advertising cash prizes without making it clear how access to that prize draw (voted for by the readers) is gained. A new prize of  £250 per week is being touted after the £1,000 prize is won.

I may be obtuse but how did ‘Sally from Romford’ get Zoom recorded when Short Fiction told her she’d won £1,000, when the competition still has 104 days to run and the site just opened on 9 September? https://shortfictionmagazine.com/add-a-story/

Now at least she’ll have some money to pay to “copyright protect” her work via the site’s “Copyright Service’, a bargain at only £30 (£29.99 actually let’s not overstate the cost). As they say in the blurb just above the form to get your cash “In the UK there is no legal requirement to register your written work for copyright” Indeed there is no facility to do so as it is not required to prove copyright. Your copyright vests in you the moment you write it. Yes, someone could copy it if it is online, but this “Copyright service” doesn’t look for breaches of IP, it simply claims you’ll have a date stamped record of your work. This may be evidential perhaps if Spielberg decides to film your work someone else has sent him under their name, but Taboo aren’t checking the web to see if it has happened. You’re paying £30 for them to keep a copy of your manuscript with a date stamp. But you have the drafts and the time and date marked original digital files saved already on your computer or USB or disc or whatever you saved it on don’t you?

But it’s another money making scheme from something that worries many first time writers.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything legally wrong with Taboo and Short Fiction magazine’s model of alternative publishing. But it is nice to know what you are getting for your money and what you aren’t. There are many more publishers out there who offer similar packages and some are no doubt more expensive and less transparent about cost creep than Taboo and Short Fiction.

Have a look at https://jerichowriters.com/austin-macauley/#Austin-Macauley-A-Close-up-Look-At-One-Vanity-Publisher for one.

My advice would be to keep looking for an agent. If you want help then use a fraction of the thousands of pounds you might spend on vanity publishers pretending to be something else to get a genuine professional assessment service to read and comment on your work if you want help.

If you want to publish a book for family, friends or yourself, that won’t get a publishing deal because the interest group is too small, then there are genuine self help publishing services who will be open about costs and the likelihood of it going viral (< 0.1%) but will give you what they promise on time, on budget and no hard sell to spend more.

Happy writing!

Alan Garner: Treacle Walker

Alan Garner’s latest book, Treacle Walker, has been nominated for the Booker Prize Shortlist. This 150 page novel is physically slight but intellectually huge and it is all the more inspiring because Garner is 87 years old and will be 88 on the night the winner of the Booker is announced.

Garner’s work has enthralled me since I was about eight years old. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, his first novel was republished in 1963 and read aloud to us as a treat in my primary school class by Mrs Dale. Written in the late 1950s it was first published in 1960 by Collins who were looking for something fantasyish after the success of Lord of the Rings. It grabbed the attention of Sir William Collins, head of the company and it rode the wave of Tolkienism to initial critical and commercial success. For that at least, thanks to all those Hobbits and Orcs in Lord of the Rings.

Categorised as a children’s author for many years, Garner’s perceived target audience rose in age with each passing book. His ostensible physical settings seldom strayed far from the Cheshire, Manchester, Peak District triangle. The Owl Service jinks over the border into mid Wales with English interlopers but continues the exploration of Celtic folklore through a modern retelling of a Mabinogion story that earlier borrowings began. Strandloper, sometimes categorised as Garner’s first ‘adult’ book, takes us to Australia but via the transportation of a Cheshire man, an epileptic who becomes an aboriginal shaman before returning to Cheshire.

The concentration on the region may seem parochial, but by arguing from the particular landscape he knows so intimately Garner can the more effectively transport us to a deeper, more universal understanding of our spiritual undertones. By revealing the genius loci of Alderley, Cheshire, the Peak District Garner loosens our fixation on our own obsession with transient consumerism and leads us to a higher understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

Garner quickly fell out of love with the Weirdstone. The 1963 reprinting holds many changes he believed tightened the storytelling and by 1968 he was ready to condemn the whole enterprise as ‘a fairly bad book’. That description came as a blow to many who had read the book and continue to read the book with affection. Having read it since, while I wouldn’t agree with his condemnation as ‘a fairly bad’ work I can see that from a perfectionist’s point of view it could be better. But sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good and the story was out there introducing us to the idea that there were layers of experience in the world. Critical acclaim fell away as well as the 60s led children’s literature to different social models which tended to sneer at traditional storytelling.

The Weirdstone, and its sequel, the Moon of Gomrath, a noticeably stronger book in my opinion, entranced and entertained thousands, possibly over the years millions, of children and led them to an appreciation of a mythic past and a magical present. Garner however tired of the characters and story arc and moved on to older children protagonists, more obviously serious themes and then adult protagonists and possibly audiences, though Garner never differentiates his target demographic. After lean periods and constant calls from publishers and fans Garner rounded out the ‘Weirdstone Trilogy’ with its final episode (although there was never as far as I am aware any indication it was meant to be a trilogy).

Boneland, rather snidely characterised in his Wikipedia page as ‘nominally completing a trilogy begun some 50 years earlier with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ brought back one of the characters of those first two books as an older man, and explored the depths of  background beneath those two earlier books. It didn’t carry on where Gomrath left off, which upset people expecting a straightforward jumping off point of the battle at Errwood Hall. What they got was the feelings Garner had for the sense of place and connection to early man at the beginning of time as we understand it. Colin’s dislocation from reality, having lived through a period of such close proximity to a world we as modern post industrial society have chosen to abandon and ignore, reflects Garner’s own dissociation from the modern world, and the literary world which has proved a fickle friend. He says he has little to do with it and prefers the company of archaeologists.

He may have to put up with its attentions a little longer however, as his latest novel, Treacle Walker, has reached the shortlist stage for the Booker. No doubt Garner will treat those imposters of triumph and disaster as he always has with equanimity born of a sense of place and more important things than the glitter of transitory fame. But as someone who has read him and grown as his works have grown, who has been led to a better understanding of the past and the future in the present by him, I shall be rooting for him. It matters not because the book and the meaning is already there but it would be magnificent if an author so often misunderstood who cares not for the trappings of literary success were to win one of the glittering prizes.

The winner will be announced at the Booker Prize ceremony on 17 October at the Roundhouse in London.

LITERARY ARMAGEDDON POSTPONED

Photo credit: Pierre J. on Visualhunt

I was in the village on Tuesday enquiring about the possibility of using a local community space for hosting a writers group, either the local one I am already with or another one I may start. I haven’t fallen out with the existing group but we lost the library space we used due to a combination of Covid and refurbishment at the library and we now meet in person half as often as we did, six miles away. I would like to meet in the place we are named after and within walking distance.

I found the person who runs the space and we were talking about checking availabilities and options for meeting there and it transpired that they do not have a website, they rely on Facebook. Facebook is possibly great for many things (I say that in an attempt to appear reasonable – it isn’t.) but it is lousy as a resource for finding information easily. I try and follow hobby sites and forums that have moved exclusively onto that platform and they may be immediate and simple to post on, but retrieving something you remember seeing two months ago is like trying to track down a work from the Great Library of Alexandria for all its accessibility now.

What has that got to do with writing? It reinforced a feeling that social media platforms are ousting web based information. Later that day I forgot and clicked on a link I have had stored for some years but rarely bother visiting now. I would visit more often, it remains interesting and informative, but it is moribund. As soon as I saw the landing page with its reminder that this site is no longer being updated I remembered why I hadn’t visited for some time. They still welcome you with open arms and invite you in to look around and enjoy the thoughts, links and celebration of the short story form. But one can’t help but notice that things like the ‘Lit Mags’ list is out of date.

I suppose part of the reason it is not longer being updated is that a source like ShortstopsUK is going to need constant attention if it is to remain relevant. The turnover in magazines has been huge and while solid stalwarts of the trade like ‘Granta’, ‘Ambit’, ‘Confingo’ and ‘The Fiction Desk’ are still going strong, the threat to many outlets old and new is highlighted in what remains of the lists in Shortstops. The number of titles, print and online, paying and not, bearing the dreaded red ‘CLOSED’ letters after their contact details is high. And trying to click on through many of the others reveals how even this annotated list is now inaccurate.

The site stopped being updated after January 2022 and the tumbleweed is beginning to roll through. I find this a real shame as I found it a very useful place to keep in touch with what was coming and going and who was rising and where to find them. It was of course also a very useful source of titles to place work.

Go and have a look, and if you are a social media user fear not, they maintain a twitter feed at https://twitter.com/shortstopsuk  which appears to include at least some of the features I found useful on the website. The Call for Submissions which collated magazines open periods for submissions and prizes and the like seems to slide in as one off tweets here and there, which may be okay, but is a nightmare to backtrack through from what I can see. I say ‘from what I can see’ because I am not tweeted up and twitter now blocks access after a couple tweets through and tries to force you to join to see more. I have a very oppositional nature and confrontational temperament so my main reaction is a string of expletives even if it does make life a lot harder.

I immediately wrote a piece about the demise of the web page and the takeover of social media. And then I had a thought; was this right? Had the web resource for writers disappeared to be replaced by an inefficient, short attention span social media storm? Or was I just being lazy? Me? Lazy!?

I started searching for writers/authors’ websites, blogs, fora. Sure enough the lists of lists popped up, 50 best sites for… etc. I picked https://www.scribendi.com/academy/articles/best_writing_websites.en.html for trial purposes, principally on the basis it had only 30 sites to check which suits my laziness/tight schedule but gives me more to chew on than ‘top 5’.

There are still lots of writers resources online so I can stop, for the moment, writing my ‘We’re all doomed!’ article (shame I like a good panic story) and look at what is out there.

It is worth noting first off that the list is two years out of date, but whilst three links were dead and a couple have morphed into related writing forms, the list seemed remarkably active.

This may be because most of them have commercial aims or at least spin offs – the number of free guides, booklets, newsletter was high but as I didn’t click through I can’t say how many led to pay-for classes, courses, books, guides etc. At least a few, because I did see several with links to content to buy, and there is a fair percentage of commercial outlets involved in this list. Two at least were part of a self publishing outfit.

There were hints in several that there were links to actual outlets for work, but none of them had that as their aim. The list was divided into ‘Advice’, ‘Lifestyle’, ‘Marketing and Blogging’, ‘Publishing’, ‘Writing Inspiration/Prompts’. There was a lot of overlap and in some cases I found it hard to understand why the link was in a particular category, but this was probably because bloggers had changed tack.

The general feeling was one of slick professionalism. Why did that feel worrying? There was a sense of glibness and a feeling a lot of them had been through the same course on how to sell a blog and that indeed a fair few were selling more for cash. That didn’t stop many having good, solid, engaging and interesting content. My reaction may be a Brit thing, I am naturally suspicious of surface glamour and glitz. The white bread may have a superficial promise of soft tastiness but I prefer a chewy wholemeal granary myself. And that is what Shortstops felt like to me compared with many of these sites. It had grit and maybe you had to work through a bit more, but I didn’t feel like I was being sold a snazzy looking confection that was a triumph of appearance over substance. Is that harsh on these sites? Probably and I would recommend having a look rather than taking my word for it.

It is probably part of my feeling that the web itself has lost its way in becoming part of the advertising industry it and commercial world it tried to subvert initially.

Still! Good news, there are writers and authors sites out there. I don’t have to sell my soul to the Metaverse or Twitter just yet.

[PS Not a natural Luddite:  Computer user programming Basic 1982, IBM mainframe TSO user 1984, PC and internet user since 1996. Smartphone Refusenik since forever!]