A Quick Ride to the Random

The way humanity interacts with the random seems one of the more interesting aspects of life. I have long been fascinated by that, and sometimes like to play around with it a bit. When I heard of the app Randonautica, I was intrigued since using a random location generator to generate some destinations around East London that I could cycle to sounded fun. Anything for some exercise, while lockdown madness storms onwards, right?

Of course, Randonautica bills itself as something a bit more than a random location generator. There is a lot of pseudo-science tied up in it based around “mind-machine interaction” and that most pseudo-sciancable concept of all, quantum physics. If MMI is a thing, it pretty much certainly wouldn’t work in the way that this app seems to be suggesting, which borders on mind reading. The idea is to think of an ‘intention’ while using the app’s generating function, which will influence the quantum nature of random number generation and increase the probability of the generated point being relevant to your intention.

And … the Randonautica app does have a bit of a strange reputation and a thoroughly memified cult of odd occurrences among its users. Search for it and you will find all sorts of videos – people blundering into weird and horrible things in ways that almost verge on the supernatural. “Do not use Randonautica”, they warn, which is, of course, a pretty good way to get people to use Randonautica.

Well – I’ll play along. 🙂 I set as my intention something quite easy (for London) – Art. Guide me to some street art, Randonautica! And for an agreeable evening, I was navigated around the quiet residential streets of Dalston, Stoke Newington, Homerton and Hackney. Did it guide me to any art?

No.

I went past some art getting to these random points, and I had a lot of fun exploring small streets that I’d never looked at before – but the points themselves revealed absolutely nothing.

This is where the whole topic of the random truly starts to kick off. I didn’t expect any miracles because I am pretty familiar with what random means. I know very well that if I’d kept going, I would eventually have found what I was looking for. I also know that I would have had to keep going for an unknown but fairly substantial period of time for that to happen. And when it did, I’d go to that art and I’d think “ooh!” – and I’d remember it. I’d be thinking “Oh yes, Randonautica guided me to this cool mural”, which has a lot more weight in the mind than “Randonautica guided me to a random stretch of pavement. There was a postbox there.” Crucially, it is not only likely that with a sufficient number of tries Randonautica would send me to something marvellous, knowing that there is indeed street art in London, it is just about inevitable. It WILL happen. It will also inevitably send me to a dead body, or to my friend’s house, or to a dropped £20 note, or some such. The probability varies, but the probability is always there – and an improbability is a thing that can happen, not a thing that cannot. To find out how many tries it would take to find my street art, we’d need to know the percentage of ‘places’ with art compared to those without – which could theoretically be measured though I sure ain’t going to!

Confirmation bias. The tendency of the mind to generate patterns and to look for meanings. That’s what all this boils down to – indeed, it’s one of the more interesting examples of it that I have seen recently. And now, back home and in bed with a hot water bottle, I am musing. If I believed a word of the pseudoscience that surrounds Randonautica, what would I be thinking now? Would I be disappointed? Would I be thinking that I’d been impatient (actually true, given the laws of probability)? That it must be me that was wrong? That I’d not tried hard enough? Not thought my ‘intention’ loudly enough? That I’d not been ‘sensitive’ or ‘fervent’ enough? Even that I’d not ‘believed’ hard enough? Or alternately, would I be thinking I was playing the whole definition of art wrong? Would I be spinning philosophies in my head about what art is in an effort to justify what I’d just done? There were lots of Christmas lights, after all. Are they art? I see no reason why not!

There seems so much of the human condition tangled around this app because it is human nature to search for these patterns and meanings. The bottom line is not the arguments and mental twisting – it’s that a wish has crept in, almost unnoticed. We want this. On the trite level of my little trip – yeah, I wanted street art! I was looking for it. Street art had weight for me at that point, and that is powerful. But on more profound levels, far removed from this app, we find things like the urge to explain the unknowable, the need not to be alone, the fear of vacuums and endings, the phantasmagorical yearning for ‘meaning’ even as we are not quite sure what that ‘meaning’ means – everything. This wish lies at the heart of all things, and it is where this wish meets the random that it really becomes fascinating. The ways we can comfort ourselves or delude ourselves that what we want to exist does, that the world works how we want it to. And the role the random plays neither proves nor disproves any of this. Instead, it is the ultimate neutral. It provides a blank canvas – it provides us with miracles and coincidences and improbable events and horrible shocks and moments of freak-out, just as it will provide us with mundane streets, empty spaces and forlorn postboxes. It will always do this, as an ocean on which we navigate the small fragile ships that are our awareness.

The Randonautica app has a bit of a strange reputation … of course it has. I’d be more surprised if it didn’t. Because sooner or later, the improbable must happen. And because we tell stories.

Published in: on January 19, 2021 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Quick and Dirty Street Photography for a Festive Lockdown

Welcome to Christmas – Lockdown edition.

Night street photography is something rather new to me – as you can probably tell! In the past, I picked up the basics of long exposure night shots and took hundreds of them – they’ve been all over my Flickr stream with their luminous colours and eerie empty feel. I love them, but I have recently been trying to crack the secrets of its converse – it’s wilder and rougher sibling that is night street photography. That’s where, instead of spending ages faffing around setting up a shot and then waiting several seconds for it to expose, you are on the prowl, camera in hand, grabbing short-exposure handheld shots, quick and dirty. Walk, see, pounce/click! The trick here seems to be to learn to love the rough edges because, while you can never avoid the grain and blur that I fought so hard in my long-exposure work, they also come with a totally different energy.

One reason for this energy is because for the first time, my loved and hated London is populated! With long exposure, any figures that did happen to be there tend to vanish out of existence or be reduced to vague ghostly blurs – but now the action, night-life, people comes alive. The only problem is that during Lockdown, there were very little of that. In a way, that only made it even eerier – a technique that should have been bustling, wasn’t. This was a London quieter than it ever should be.

Around the festive season, I was out and about quite a lot on my bike, prowling the city. It was a time of drifting through London as though in a dream. Stopping in the middle of usually hellish junctions to snap photos. Taking roads I would never dare take under normal circumstances. I hopped the lanes in Camden. I took Euston Road and the junctions around Kings Cross. I passed through Shoreditch, which should be perilous with drunken revellers stumbling into the streets – by far East London’s most riotous area.

I was out on the night of Christmas Eve, when London seemed distilled into its absolute bleakest by lockdown, with those who can mostly off the streets leaving blend of determined wanderers and the sad wreckage of Tory Austerity centre stage. It was not complete silence – a few cars were still passing, a few people. Some guys singing wildly outside Camden Tube to the empty city – two women dancing tipsily at a bus stop, the odd shadow skulking in a corner, a few people walking home, arm in arm … if anything, that was worse than complete emptiness would have been.

And on New Year’s eve, my exercise took me to the Thames, where a sparse scattering of people were seeing in the new year in spite of all, watching the laser lightshow from the Shard. Some of these photos were almost destroyed by the low light and my inexperience, and I used a few filters on them to try and extract at least something. I might have tossed them but I didn’t because, while they may be disasters, they are disasters with a memory. A moment. I suppose in a way, these weird photos with their festering toxic skies and grainy ruined textures fit the mood of this most horrendous of new years – horrendous in more ways than just the lockdown etc.

Quick’n’dirty night street photography is something I will hopefully learn to handle better over time. You can see more of these and others on my Flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eibonvale

Published in: on January 18, 2021 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Covid Immunity – A Long Sciencey Post

Immunity! It was interesting to see this topic suddenly going viral around the news and networks recently – I was always rather confused why this whole subject was so little talked about, especially given that it is this very immunity that the vaccine is targeting. We’ve known for quite a while that immunity to Covid was continuing fairly normally. Of course, it was and is impossible to make assumptions about the future, both scientifically and in terms of precautions – the science is new and fuzzy and confusing – but even so, there were times when I was wondering whether it was deliberate, basic details of how the immune system works barely taken into account and the news deliberately slanted to keep us terrified. We were bombarded with reports about antibodies fading away, that people were being reinfected, that we could all be vulnerable pretty much forever, that we were all doomed …! I am a science fanboy, but I knew little about the intricacy of the immune system. I’d have expected to be told these things, though! Instead, I had to dig into the scientific literature and higher-end science reporting to find out much. The following is a hint of what we currently know, AS FAR AS I, A NON-EXPERT, HAVE BEEN ABLE TO WORK OUT in a tangle of new science, incomplete data, educated speculation, spin and chaos. Check for yourself rather than take my word for it, of course, and stand by for further developments.

The picture now seems to be that the immune memory is actually pretty good for most of us, even in the case of mild infections. As time has passed, there has been a steady parade of studies that basically reveal “yes, still immune now”, with the latest I looked at being just a few days ago (published in Science). The immune response is coordinated by B-cells and T-cells in a very complex choreography, with antibodies as just one part of that. It seems that in some people, antibodies may last longer, and in others the antibodies fade (a normal occurrence) but immunity persists from other mechanisms such as the T-cells. But at heart, immunity is still continuing for the vast majority. The reinfections reported are aligning with the fact that some reinfections are normal for any disease, probably for any number of reasons, including compromised immune systems. Even the classically one-off ones like chicken pox can reinfect to a certain degree (4-13% of so of cases). So far, none of this suggests a reason to panic or to see us as helpless in the face of the Covid virus. Whether immunity will eventually tail off and in the future some of us will need annual Covid jabs like the flu, or whether it will last a much longer time like SARS remains to be seen but for the moment, if you had a case of Covid at some point, it seems significantly more likely than not that you are still immune right now. And THANK YOU mainstream media for finally acknowledging this!

From an MIT article: “The researchers found that antibodies in the body declined moderately after eight months, although levels varied wildly between individuals. But T-cell numbers declined only modestly, and B-cell numbers held steady and sometimes inexplicably grew. That means that despite decreases in free-flowing antibodies, the components that can restart antibody production and coordinate an attack against the coronavirus stick around at pretty high levels. Crotty adds that the same mechanisms that lead to immune memory after infection also form the basis for immunity after vaccination, so the same trends ought to hold for vaccinated people as well.”https://www.technologyreview.com/…/covid-19-immunity…/

Some are speculating that the immunity provided by an infection may be stronger than that caused by the vaccine – at least the current generation based around the ‘fake’ protein spike. This might make sense, if proven, since in an actual infection the immune memory will presumably have much more to work with and ‘save’ in its database. This is not to say that the vaccine is ineffective, by any means – it will strengthen people a lot. But in general, according to the WHO, those who are confirmed or certain that they had Covid need not rush to be vaccinated – it is possibly worth stepping to the back of the line to make more available for others. That’s a tricky one to call, of course, because how sure are you? And also, this is where the somewhat skewed reporting about and lack of focus on immunity starts to bite because there has been so little acknowledgement of immunity in our lives so far, and none at all in any regulations, that I’m not sure many people will even think of that. The good news is that taking a vaccine on top of existing immunity should have no ill effects and will likely boost your immunity a little further. The bad news is that this has made the roll-out of the vaccine that much less efficient.

There are some secondary questions here that are also important. One would be “If one is immune, can one still spread the virus?” This is actually one of the less known areas and looking into it drops you into a dizzying tangle of maybes and not quite sures and we’re working on its. But as this is pretty vital for getting a normal life back again, it’s of huge importance. At heart, it’s a bad question though, because the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’, as the news and soundbites keep repeating. It seems that if one fights off a new infection of Covid following immunity, one may briefly be infectious during a period of virus shedding – less so, of course, but the crucial thing is how much less? The likelihood is that it will be drastically less than a full symptomatic Covid case, given the lack of symptom-based spreading mechanisms and the low viral loads, and possibly even reduced to near-zero. The WHO stated at one point that such transmission is very rare, and indeed this seems a common assumption among the scientists – but for the moment an assumption is what it remains, as far as I can tell. This is one thing that will need more work to prove and should come clearer as the vaccine is rolled out wider and time passes. It seems fairly safe though to say that Covid immunity is very good news for others as well as yourself. The fact that the vaccine is being given urgently to careworkers working with the very vulnerable, as well as the very vulnerable themselves, suggests that policy is being driven by this, at least up to a point.

The last question is maybe the biggest of all right now – “does this immunity apply to new variants?” The answer appears to be ‘probably’ – and a scientific ‘probably’ is very valuable – though it is important to remember how new this is, meaning that info is limited and to a degree speculative. Conversely though, it’s important to remember that the virus has varied almost endlessly since it appeared, with over 12,000 variants known, so even though what we have now is a fast spreading variant, it is by no means a unique event. The details of how mutations and immunity work are also positive here. According to Imperial College London: “With the emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, many are asking what implications this poses for immunity either after natural infection or vaccination. The results of the current study reinforce the idea that most people, even following mild infection, carry antibody and T cell immunity to many parts of the virus (epitopes). While the new variant makes 17 changes to the virus’ coding sequence, most aren’t necessarily within epitopes. Therefore, the immune system will likely still be able to recognise and respond to the virus.” https://www.imperial.ac.uk/…/covid-19-immunity-lasts…/

Needless to say, none of the above detracts from the reality of what is happening or is an excuse for being dismissive or reckless (my disclaimer since a disclaimer always seems to be needed!). Science is fuzzy – a slow grind of data that can say many things, yet eventually focuses down into a more defined consensus. And for that, nothing substitutes time and work – we’ve had a vast amount of the latter but not much of the former. However, this is a sad portrayal of the way the news and viral media works, with the most sensational pushed and shared while quiet scientific detail and nuance gets ignored. Maybe the government as well, since it is well known that they have used scare tactics, as advised by SAGE. The worst is reported with great gusto for clicks and OMGs, the good news notably quieter. Exactly when this immunity knowledge will filter through to the increasingly finicky and ever-changing regulations is another question. And as people and society buckle under fear, either breaking down or lashing out at each other, it would be so nice to see some more nuanced reporting.

But it’s more than that. The government and the media stand accused with very good reason of scaremongering but to my mind, the more they do that, the more they whip up terror and emotional distress, the more they themselves are discrediting the issue itself. It is no surprise at all that more and more people will take a look at the overall tone of the info that they are being fed and switch off the whole thing, no longer taking any part of this seriously. They are utilising a polarising tactic that pushes every one of us either towards terror or denial.

Published in: on January 18, 2021 at 2:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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We Really Need to See Less of Each Other

This is … horrible! It has to be one of the most toxic ads I’ve ever seen. The original Magritte painting is, of course, a tragic one – the stifling effect of inescapable isolation as a force within you even as you strive to overcome it. I remember it well and there always seemed an emotional depth hiding within his cool and rather stark images. Yet there’s no way I can believe there’s any irony in its usage here – it’s not a statement on the tragedy of lockdown, which doubles down on those feelings so intensely. They’ve inverted it completely – the tragedy is good, moral and by implication, positive. It’s a classic Orwellian inversion, and I try not to compare things to him lightly. This is as an entire population buckling and breaking under the horrorshow that is our wrecked lives and the eternal and eternally confusing micromanagement from the powers that be – while being told stuff like this, which for some people will leave long-lasting scars. I am emphatically not ok through all this – is anybody? I doubt it. And this farcical poster feels a very strong reason why – the feeling of being played, both self and society. Me being coaxed to feel guilty about being lonely, whether I do anything about it or not. And society divided and turning on each other, stoked to judgementalism through moral manipulation that drastically lacks nuance. (Remember the days when people would get into screaming froths over exercisers merely sitting on a bench for a few minutes?) Seeing this for the first time felt as though someone had stuck a metaphorical knife into me – it was a tear-jerking moment, and a real blast of rage against a society that can’t handle the situation without the fingers that are this image digging into our brains and twisting.

Published in: on January 5, 2021 at 1:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Morphing

I am really wrestling with one of the basic contradictions of being a writer here. As a person, I am a shy little man who suffers far too much anxiety and basically wants everybody to like me. As a writer, I get the strange, shivery feeling that I am turning into a bit of an enfant terrible in my small way.

Am currently engaged in a collaborative project at the intersection point between pornography, psychology and sci-fi …

I just finished putting an anarchic alt-punk singer into low-earth orbit where she can watch the final demise of global civilization while fantasising horrible things about the players in the doomed political system and singing to a silent world (need to start shopping that one around soon) …

The current novel in progress is a deeply anti-authoritarian slipstream fantasia touching on the East London protest scenes, alt sexuality, stiflment, political rot, censorship, experimental art and music etc. …

Even Hunters will probably raise a few eyebrows when it comes out later this year and that is OLD now – an angry and argumentative book written at probably the deepest point in my own depression.

I more or less gave up battling ideas on Facebook and other comment threads – it was starting to seem pointless in the face of the judgementalism, fashionable mystification, partisan nonsense, wooden-headed conviction, absolutism and sheer cartoonish absurdity of the world around me. But maybe I just ended up funnelling all that straight into writing … because I can. And why the hell not? I always admired books like J G Ballard’s Crash for daring to go there and Kathy Acker’s works for just opening her mouth and letting it all out. I also owe a vast debt of gratitude to Rosanne Rabinowitz for her supremely politically aware and sometimes ferocious writing, demonstrating that it can be done and needs to be done – and can be done well. All of these and others reinforce that writing can be strong and vicious and uncomfortable and deep-diving – and beautiful in that. That’s no new revelation, of course, but that’s kind of what I am staring at right now.

But the basic problem of how to reconcile these two sides of me, I am rather less sure about! Well – they say you can write what you want to be.

Published in: on May 31, 2019 at 2:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s time to wake this blog up!

I have been way way too quiet on this blog lately – it’s definitely time to start using it properly.  There are writing developments that mean I need to start communicating properly – notably the release of my first novel A Blast of Hunters in a couple of months from Snuggly Books and my first attempt at historical fiction, which turned out as strange as anything else I’ve done. I will write more about those soon, but in the meantime, I have reasonably up to date info on my home page now:

http://www.davidjrix.co.uk/

Published in: on May 28, 2019 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

That Tiny Circle of Firelight

We have always existed in a tiny circle of firelight and everything outside that circle is the great ‘Other’ – something from beyond, something out there, something to be treated with suspicion, aggression and terror. It’s one of the most fundamental instincts we have – responsible for so much of our behaviour from gang warfare, to a lot of horror fiction, to joking about the French or those south of the river, to caring more about the terrorist attack in your own city than on the other side of the world.

This is why science and the basic spirit of enquiry has such power for me – it has pushed beyond that circle of firelight into the surrounding darkness and attempted make connections with what lies beyond. It’s expanded our horizons so much that it is dizzying – the universe, the world, other people, the hidden depths of ourselves, the lies that we have told ourselves – simply the act of looking and asking questions is so immeasurably powerful. It’s the most powerful antidote we have to the basic small and aggressive repugnance of the human entity, if I may be rather dramatic! In comparison, I’d say that imagination (powerful though it can be) is entirely constrained by the circle of our awareness – whether that circle is a fire-glow or a universe.

That is why I find the anti-science arguments so bemusing – indeed, they fill me almost with a kind of grief. I think that word fits. Some find science cold, but what it reveals could hardly be warmer because there, removed from as much faffing around as possible, is ourselves and the world we live in, not as some unknown Other but as a partially known entity that we can then connect to and relate to. Some even accuse it of being materialistic, though how a tool and a basic human instinct can be that I am not sure. Instead, it is striving to be realistic – and what people do with that reality is up to them, as always. Some just seem terrified of the whole thing, seemingly desperate to bring that encircling darkness crashing back for all of us. Is it because they themselves never left it? Do they still feel all that old fear and hate and can’t face the act of revealing what is out there? Can’t cope with the scale of the universe and even of themselves, of humanity?

If we lost all that though and did indeed slide back into some kind of new dark age, I can barely even imagine the contracting of our horizons – can barely imagine the claustrophobia of that firelight, surrounded again by the hurricane of fear …

Published in: on September 28, 2017 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Shell Collection – Unearthed After Decades

Under my bed, unseen by all but a few eyes for decades, is my shell collection.  Even I almost forgot it existed.  Dozens upon dozens of shells of land snails, freshwater snails, sea shells, all gathered when I was a kid, some quite rare, some no larger than grains of sand. They are completely chaotic and out of order, largely unlabelled and packed in … well!  I used to make paper polyhedra, and I guess they were quite good recycled into boxes here. Inside them is package after package, some shells inside emptied vitamin capsules, some just wrapped in tissue. It is just about the most eccentric thing I have seen in a long time!

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It seems an ignominious fate to be boxed up and forgotten down there in the dust. I really need to get in there and sort this out – get them into order, and repackage them so they are easier to actually look at.  I would also love to image them all and make a gallery, but to do that I’d need a digital microscope, I am sure.

However, I am actually not going to open this stashed land snail shell collection any further just yet. I am going to wait until I have thought it through and decided what to do with them to keep them safe.

What I did find was two microsnail specimens that had been separated and stuck on decades-old blu-tack for some reason. Here they are popped on the scanner with a new pound coin and the resolution turned up to the maximum.

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This is the kind of thing I was playing with when I was a kid – hours and hours or years of work hunting these things down in various places around the country. And you know … opening them up now feels really really weird. Quite emotional.

I will hopefully get some much better images of these in the future.

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 29, 2017 at 9:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Marked to Die – A Tribute Anthology to Mark Samuels

 

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I am delighted to be a contributor to this new anthology just released from Snuggly Books. Among many great writers’ names is nestled my novella Slag Glass Lachrimæ.  This is a big piece about lots of things – living in London, suicide, grief, lapidary work, books etc. – all with a subtle supernatural overtone. It’s also the story where I came up with the concept of crying rooms – hidden places around the city of London where one can go to express the grief of living in this world – museums filled with trinkets and oddments and stories. Slag Glass Lachrimæ is a bleak piece but also one where I feel I managed to express a small part of something I really wanted to express. Some small echo of my own desolation, yet shaped on the page (which is after all much larger than the creating brain itself) into something that can cut quite hard. I have no idea whether it will affect anyone else – but it turned into one of the stories I feel most emotional about in my very small writing career.

Technically, it was a strange project to work on.  There was no word limit on the contributions for this volume, hence they got a full-sized novella out of me, a major project that took me over for quite a while.  It was also a very steep learning cliff since I knew very little about Mark Samuels at the time the invitation came in. I still don’t really, in all honesty!  This story reacts off my reading of him as a presence in the Wierd Tale scene, without my knowing anything about the man himself – probably my preferred way of reacting to any fellow writer, really!

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And what is slag glass?  It’s a glassy or obsidian-like byproduct of metal processing.  It is hugely variable, sometimes coming in startling colours and patterns.  This story is true on many levels – not least that the glass itself is very very real.   It really is weathering out of the Thames bank, as in the story. Above is an example of the black version that made its way into the story. My own polyhedral of the black tears!  However, in reality it is not restricted to black:

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This remains one of my stranger finds since visiting London.  And it gives me a nice feeling to have immortalized it!

Order the book here – and make it quick because the hardcover is limited to 75 copies and is selling out fast!

http://www.snugglybooks.co.uk/marked-to-die/

Published in: on June 22, 2016 at 8:52 am  Comments (4)  
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Interviewed by Frank Duffy

I was recently given a lively interview by Frank Duffy on Facebook – great fun to answer and I wish all interviews were this energetic.  I am publishing the full text here:

 

Who the hell are you?  (In 200 words)

As authors go, I feel like a misfit.  I have my roots in horror fiction (the classic atmosphere of Machen and Sarban etc.), yet also chafe against it – partly because I am a rationalist and the things I am afraid of are more social/cultural than spiritual/organic.  I venture into speculative fiction as well, yet it is still not home.  I cannot call myself ‘literature’ by any means, yet I am not ‘genre’ either.  I guess I am Slipstream – the parasitic writing that feeds on everything yet is aligned to nothing.  I work slowly, producing a small number of very carefully crafted longer pieces – a work plan that almost guarantees obscurity.  And yet I believe that writing matures like wine and I can imagine no alternative.  My publications include What the Giants were Saying, A Suite in Four Windows, Brown is the New Black and the novella/story collection Feather, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill prize. I am currently working on several novellas and two novels, one big, one small.  Who knows which will win?  Almost at the 200w point now – so here’s some magic words: human identity, contemporary classical music, the seashore, urban underground, railways, rocks, homes, poverty, canals.

 

Questions on writing:

  1. In the modern age of the jobbing writer, is there such a thing as an average writing day for you?

Nope.  I try and get at least some writing and/or editing done every day, but don’t always succeed.  I try and keep several projects on the go at once, but there’s always days when I utterly loathe ALL of them, and then there is little to be gained by fighting with them.  And yes, sometimes there’s just days when I haven’t time, or the needle of my brain meter is squarely on empty.  Maybe there is a norm here after all: that of struggling to avoid the most important activity of one’s life being squeezed to nothing by things you don’t particularly want to do.  I imagine that is the default for many or most writers, and the negative energy of that must have infused the entire literary scene!

 

  1. How often do you feel a seething envy whenever one of your writer friends posts about their latest publishing success?

Hmm, let’s see, what time is it now?  Nearly 8PM … so that would be …

I know I know, in this business of specialist presses and tween-genre literature, when one succeeds we all succeed … divided we fall.  In fact, succeed and we’ll probably fall anyway.  And yet, it’s not exactly envy but there is a certain desolate feeling that comes trickling into the brain when I watch more prolific authors yelling with excitement over publishing their six hundred and twenty-fifth story this year while I am still toiling through the foothills of my second!  It’s not envy because – oh ok, who am I kidding? It’s most definitely envy!  Not of success but of speed!

 

  1. Should prolific writers be tied to a chair for a few days, before being allowed to post constant updates on social media sites relating to their literary prowess?

It’s one of the most miserable and embarrassing admissions of my entire life that I sometimes actually use a blocker app to shut down facebook for a period.  I dunno about my literary prowess, but it is the mother of all distractions as I sit there scrolling through what everyone else is up to, twitching slightly as the fix takes hold.  So I suppose if someone else is involved who would care to take on such responsibilities, then great.  Yes ma’am!

 

  1. How long does it take you to complete a short story from start to finish in the age of the internet and Facebook?

As I pontificated earlier, I am a slow writer, with the slowness of a strange gnarled tree growing while all the little bushes come and go in a heartbeat.  Your story goes from a gleam in your eye to that mournful feeling when you know there’s unlikely to be any more reviews, time and again, and I am still sitting there, patiently putting my piece together, polishing it and maturing it … and occasionally I am defiant enough to delight in that.  It can take months,  even years.  In fact, there is a part of me that knows stories are never finished.  You just reach a point when you can’t face fiddling with it anymore and have to draw a line under it.

 

  1. Can controlled substance abuse really aid the writing process?

Booze (not controlled so much as hassled) can work up to a point. Some of the others though … I am not sure one CAN write under such circumstances.  The sheer poetry of the way the lines intersect in the corner of the room is too interesting, or you are too busy hugging every single one of your friends for the thirteenth time.  Even with booze there’s several caveats, the biggest being you will have to do a LOT of editing afterwards!  I have been known to get drunk while writing scenes about people getting drunk to try and catch some of that splurge of thoughts and feelings.  The results were good, though as I said, they needed a lot of editing to fit them into the rest of the piece.  Writing is not just about inspiration and ideas, it is about craftsmanship, consideration and hard work, for all of which you probably want as little impairing your faculties as possible.

 

  1. What are your thoughts on setting word targets each day? Are they constructive, or is it something only an insufferable pedant would claim essential?

I dislike it intensely for the unarguable reason that I can’t bloody do it.  Discipline?  Oh yes, I think I heard that word once …

 

  1. Would you like to be a reviled and unpopular obscurantist if it meant having worldwide success in the literary world, or are you a true artist who would never dilute the substance of their art?

I would NEVER sell out.  Hmph!  I mean … no matter how much, how much, um, how much could you make again?  I mean – no, no way!  That’s not a way for a human to be remembered … even if it does mean maybe having somewhere to live one day.  Which would be kind of nice really …

Hey – can I use the same pseudonym as question 13?

Seriously though – do we really have any choice about this?  I suppose some may, but I at least find it very hard to change writing styles or to put myself in different places.  The biggest ‘smash hits’ – e.g. Twilight, 50 Shades, Harry Potter, all seem to fill a fairly predictable hole in our culture, something people desperately yearn for yet not something that would scare or challenge them.  Fairly conservative romance, exciting alternate sex, a dose of magic and adventure – all the while being decidedly non-threatening.  Yes, even 50 Shades, mostly.  Even the most popular genre works seem to know very much what hole to fill up or what universal push-point of the modern world to push on, though again without being hugely threatening.  The thing is, I suppose, that to write something that fills such a hole, you have to own that hole yourself.  I’m not sure I do.  Such is the nature of the outsider.  We can’t fake our way into mainstream resonance any more than we can fake our way into being a social butterfly.

 

  1. More importantly, how often are you involved in an online argument among other genre writers bemoaning the state of the writing community?

I usually just read through the long Facebook threads, trying to trace them backwards to see who has got into trouble this time, then dolefully wander away, hoping it never comes to me.  Maybe it will though.  Not all ding dongs are nice wholesome massacres of bigots or racists, any controversial idea can cause a lot of hot water.  AND YET THAT’S OUR JOB!!  To push at things and question things.  However, personally, I tend to keep the controversial arguments and thoughts to my fiction work.

 

  1. What are the most common gripes that authors make on social media sites which drive you bonkers?

I am tempted to say I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I might incriminate myself!  But naah.  I suppose it pisses me off when anyone tries to lay down the law on what people should or should not include in stories – even more so if anyone suggests certain topics are off-limits for discussion.  Aside from that … not much really!

 

  1. How long does it take for you to decide if the story is a work of genius or utter drivel?

Normally I know quite soon whether a story is worth pressing on with – though if the impression is negative, then I am more likely to set it aside for the future rather than dump it.  It is later on though, as the thing nears completion and I am struggling with the seemingly unending polishing stage that the agony of doubt begins.  What have you created here?  Are you sure this isn’t crap?  I mean really?  I mean really really?  I mean – how would you know?  You wouldn’t know, would you.  You think you would, but you wouldn’t. You’d just be happily writing away and you would never know the utter crap tracing itself across your screen, would you?  Don’t deny it – you know it’s true.

This shadowy me can honestly go and swallow rocks and jump in the lake.

 

  1. Are beta readers a good idea, or are they the equivalent of your Uncle Bertie’s friends from the local library reading group?

I think they are an excellent idea and I love to get betas involved if I possibly can!  Because I am a human being and thus totally and completely and hilariously fallible.  Written works are big things – especially bigger pieces (um, yeah – you know what I mean!).  You can be surprisingly blind to some things while working on them.  Things like words you over-use or use in awkward ways.  Or crazy stupid things, like forgetting to actually introduce a character’s name (because you know it by heart) … or giving her two different hair colours … or just forgetting to explain something vital because it is so deeply lodged in your head.  And above all, how the story presents itself when seen for the first time, which is one thing the author will never ever know.  There is no legal requirement to take on board everything a beta reader tells you, but they can spot all sorts of things that you missed completely!

 

  1. What is the most difficult form of fiction to write, a short story, a novella or a novel?

Short story, for me.  Of course, novels are big – and holding one in your mind is like trying to hold a whole cow in your mouth.  But I have a much greater fear of the terrible and inescapable progression I tend to get with short works.  Works that slowly grow as I get more and more interested in them – until they are some sixteen times the length of the original word limit.  It is a very familiar sinking feeling.

 

  1. Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym to kick-start a lengthy career as a writer of erotica?

Oh yes, many times, and I probably will one day – it’s fun and actually very very challenging.  The only sad part about it would be the pseudonym.  I honestly don’t know why one should care in this age of dinosaur porn and 50 Shades mouldering away in literally every charity shop in the country, yet something about the sex industry persists in craving anonymity!  I suppose you are revealing things about yourself that you are not certain the world is worthy of knowing.  No – that’s wrong.  Things you are bloody certain the world is not worthy of knowing!  Not a world where you can discuss eating arse on TV yet a nip-slip causes as much shock and awe as a small war.

As an aside, it seems to me that the 50 Shades phenomenon revealed something about the world: the mainstream is interested in stuff.  And also that 50 Shades itself and the somewhat confused corporate forces behind it spectacularly failed to deliver it.  Frustrated and slightly repressed Mainstream was sitting there flushed with wanting, 50 Shades came along and teased, but maybe couldn’t quite get it up.  Mainstream says “hey that’s ok, could happen to anyone,” yet 50 Shades can see the frustration in her eyes, can feel a door closing in its face …  So – who knows.  Maybe in a post-50-Shades world, we can go places.  Erotica that’s well written?  Even willing to go to challenging and interesting places?  Why not?  And, thinking back to question 7 and outsiders like me, the fun thing about human sexuality is that it is one of the great unifiers of the human race, if we let it.  And that there is absolutely no end to that particular rabbit hole.  Maybe it even goes as far as literature.

 

  1. What has been the longest writing project you’ve embarked on? Was there any point at which you thought of abandoning the story so you could get absolutely sh**faced?

I am currently completing two novels, one quite large and pretty much finished.  See question 4, read it over maybe six times, slapping yourself in the face in-between each read.  That’s what it feels like.  Yes I have shed tears over them, got drunk over them, swore at them, moaned to friends over them, woken up at night over them …

Yet still I press on.  I rarely abandon things, anyway – I just set them aside until such time as I can make them work.  And if I die before that time, well – can’t help that!

 

  1. Have you ever lain awake at night and wondered why you write? Have you ever considered if other people lie awake at night also wondering why you write?

The thought that anyone else cares why I write is so strange that I might have to think about it for a bit.  Though hey, if you do, don’t be a stranger.  Pop over.  You can watch.  It must be fascinating.  And then maybe you can tell ME why, because I ain’t got a clue!

 

  1. Do you conduct research for everything which you write? Have you ever broken into a top secret facility to add authenticity in the name of research, or is Wikipedia your ultimate guide to authenticity?

Well that’s the problem, isn’t it.  I am pretty careful actually, and I value getting things right.  So the fact that I have never broken into a top secret facility is one of the reasons why I have not yet written anything about top secret facilities.  It’s a minor tragedy in my career.  Mind you – I do have a post-apocalyptic novel on the back burner, so how I am going to deal with that one I am not sure yet.  Problem is, I still need at least some readers around to read the damn thing.  I’ll figure it out.

Wikipedia, google earth, street view, youtube, field trips, memories, asking friends embarrassing questions … it’s all basic tools.  And there’s stranger stuff too.  Health encyclopaedias filled with gross images that the reader should be grateful they don’t have to look at.  Other archives with even worse things because I need to get descriptions right.  And online sex communities – hey, I’m a guy, there are certain things I just do not intrinsically know, and I do not want half my readers throwing a giggling fit because of it!

We writers get everywhere!

 

  1. What piece of research might show up on your internet history and give your family cause to worry about your stability?

Why does a flying fuck not matter?  How to liquefy meat and bone?  Sleeper Shark.  Brazilian Waxing how-to.  Scar from Lightning Strike.  Do Tasers leave visible marks?  How to treat a severe head wound.  Vote Yes or be shot.  Police Riot Gear Diagram.  Nuclear Society of Slovenia.  Hand-Foot Syndrome.  Most Poisonous Caterpillar fatality rate.  List of communist nations.  How to prepare snails for food.  Earth Worm Burger recipe.  Poisoning by stove fumes.  Ustasha.  Do moths fight?  Nuclear Waste Train timetable.  IUD insertion.  Can one person drive a narrowboat?  Wahoo Fish?  What time are vending machines restocked?  Use a trouser press for cooking.  Affinity liquid chromatography.  Max Headroom Incident.  Transgressive art meat hook.

I think writers must be a kind of spectator sport for GCHQ – and seriously, I am dreading the day I need to write about something really contentious, like a bomb going off.  I can’t do that without knowing at least a little about it …

 

  1. What life experience has been the most advantageous in terms of writing a story?

Ummmm – oh boy, this is a tricky one.  There’s several.  Love troubles and loneliness are always great fuel – nothing like a bit of sexual frustration to fire creativity!  It’s a tricky thing to express and explore, especially when you are in it, yet one always feels the need to try.  Also the housing crisis etc. and the Doom that Came to London all had an effect – a drastically destabilising situation (and no, not just in London) that makes the future seem far from guaranteed.  I have to say though, the biggest thing was probably studying at one of the wildest alternate arts college in the UK.  People sneer about them for not equipping you for dealing with the ‘real world’, and that may be true but rubbing shoulders with crazy performance artists and playing around with truly experimental ideas does have an effect.  I am no avant-garde poet or performance writer – I tend not to write my novels on my body or express them in interpretive dance with Japanese shibari … but something about the aesthetic rubs off and gives you an edge that is a little different to other things.  It’s something I value very highly indeed.

 

  1. Should authors give advice to aspiring authors, or should they leave them to do things their own way? What was the worst bit of advice you ever heard?

Advice, yes, please do!  Instructions – maaaaaybe not!  Little tips and ideas for checklists or ‘things worth thinking about’ are great.  Laying down the law that thou shalt not use the word ‘suddenly’, thou shouldn’t write in such and such genre or don’t thou dare go above/below Y number of words are decidedly less so.  One should just write, dammit!  Ideally without creeds and bondage.  In the end, only you can really decide what you need to do.

 

  1. What are some of the most popular misconceptions about writers from the perspective of the public?

Bloody hell – I don’t know what those weirdos think about us!  Maybe that we’re sophisticated successful alpha males who can sweep you off your feet with our remarkable brains?  Or that we are hopeless introvert hermits sitting hunched in dark rooms muttering to ourselves and trying to remember which side of this world is real and which isn’t?  Oh wait – that might actually be true in my case.

 

  1. What was the worst rejection from a publisher you’ve ever had?

Ummm … ok, this is going to sound weird but I have never really had a nasty rejection.  A) my career has not been that long yet, and B) I work very carefully to hone a small number of pieces for specific purposes – and, um, haven’t actually had that many chucked back at me.  And the ones that were always seemed either a non-entity form rejection or perfectly courteous.  Dunno if I should ever admit that in public though – and, um, if any other writers are asking about me, I just moved to Sierra Leone.

 

  1. Have you ever thought of launching a secret hate campaign against a publisher who simply misjudged your literary genius?

Hey – I am a publisher myself as well!  Eibonvale Press!  That puts me in the curious position of being on both sides in the Great War.  It also means that leaving aside actual cases of rip-off, I am extremely sympathetic to the troubles of small presses.  It also made me a lot thicker-skinned in terms of those rejections I mentioned, since I have had to deal with those stacks of submissions, I have had to chuck out stories I loved.  I know, you see, that most basic truth – that a rejection doesn’t mean the editor was rolling on the floor laughing or needed treatment for shock.  Only sometimes.

 

  1. And finally, which would you choose, a commercial contract with stipulations about what you’re allowed to write, or a career in the Small Press with no restrictions on what you are allowed to write?

Tricky one – if it really was either/or then I’d have to choose the small press.  The freedom and the quality seem so much higher, purely because you can stretch out more.  I value writers who slip between genres, who have no allegiance to them, the area Slipstream occupies – and I value being allowed to do that myself, and being appreciated for it.  And I say all that as a reader as well.

Hey – maybe homes are overrated.

Not to say that commercial contracts are automatically the flipside to that, of course – but again, I have to reiterate what I said in question 7.  If someone offered an outsider like me a contract to write a tryptic of ‘young adult’ novels about a teen witch who fights evil undead estate agents in London, I might have to take them aside and have a quiet word, making sure they knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for.  But hey – if they really wanted to shove money at me for something that would probably turn out more like J G Ballard meets the Panty and Stocking cartoons, then I am hardly going to refuse, am I!

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on June 19, 2016 at 4:58 pm  Leave a Comment