Letter to Thoreau – Published in Brev Spread

This week I’m delighted to announce that my short story, Letter to Thoreau, has been published in a literary/arts magazine called Brev Spread. You can find it at their homepage or directly download the magazine hereLetter to Thoreau is a playful epistle, a gentle pastiche, the unaware writer of which challenges Henry David Thoreau’s conclusions that he famously reached in his volume Walden.

In addition to my story, the issue is packed full of artwork, short stories, essays, poetry and an interview. Starting at the very beginning, particular personal highlights include the melancholy front cover artwork by Annlyn Huang (visit her website for more here ), which features a heartbreakingly tender moment of a lonely red car singing its life story to itself, and to unknown distant observers, as it navigates a tangled road. Is it driving towards a future life, or is it heading back in time into the confusing morass of memory, which becomes evermore difficult to unpick and navigate with any reliability the further back it reaches? The red car is us, and we it; we must explore our individual memories alone.

A second highlight is an extensive interview with Rob Wilson, a poet and Professor of Literature, Creative Writing, and Cultural Studies at the University of California. The discussion is chock-full of thought-provoking deliberations on poetry, the act of writing, philosophy and the purpose of education & universities. I leave you with an excerpt from Promise Place by Rob Wilson, which I found particularly striking.

But the name must not eclipse the cenotaph

of your photography or wild barley brush growing over origins,

asking no one for help.

Brev Spread Issue 14 - Front Cover

Front cover from Brev Spread Issue 14 – Travelling Nostalgia by Annlyn Huang

 

 

Trees Are Made Of Air

We are stardust.
Billion year old carbon.
We are golden

as Joni Mitchell famously sang in her song Woodstock, a beautiful piece of poetry that contains a scientific truth.

In the following short video, we see the opposite, as the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Fenyman produces poetry out of scientific exposition.

In his explanation of how trees grow he says “they come out of the air”, the carbon, the water, almost everything they need to grow comes from the atmosphere; trees are made of air.

Then in the reverse process, piled up in the wood-burning stove or fireplace, the flames that we see, that spectral light and heat, “That’s the light and heat of the sun that went in… it’s stored sun.” A tender truth to warm the heart and what beautiful ways to look at everyday things.

Inch Forward To A Metric Language

In Tom Sharpe’s grotesque yet hilarious novel The Throwback, the protagonist Lockhart must find his natural father and, in order to fully meet the terms of his grandfather’s will, flog the man to within an inch of his life. With a suspect at hand and gagged, the officiators of the will begin to debate the practical meaning of the will’s instructions.

‘An inch of life,’ said Dr Magrew, ‘leaves us in fact two inches to play with, one before death and one after.’

After much humorous discussion, the solution is reached, and a crime scene outline is drawn on the wall around the soon-to-be victim, at the precise distance of one inch from the body.

‘Lockhart, my boy, you may go ahead and flog the wall up to the pencil line and you will have flogged the man to within an inch of his life.’

An inch of his life. Don’t give an inch. To inch our way forward. Inch by inch. In these metric times, though time itself is not yet that, perhaps these Imperial nouns and verbs should give way to their modern, metric descendants.

Lockhart must thrash the man to within a centimetre of his life, never giving a centimetre. A centimetre is shorter than an inch, we have short-changed our language, diminished the story, perhaps we should have used an exact conversion. We 2.54-centimetre our way forward to a solution, 2.54-centimetres by 2.54-centimetres. Taking the definition of a metre from the 17th General Conference on Weights and Measures, we can even say that Lockhart must flog his father to within 0.0254 of the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Completely modern and scientific language. Progress. On second thoughts, maybe not.

Review: The Ring by Roberto Saviano

In Gomorrah, a book for which Roberto Saviano received both awards and death threats, Saviano’s target was the Camorra (a mafia-like organisation). While that book stood proudly in plain sight on bookshop shelves, the words within unfortunately sent him into hiding. Uncowed, in this slender but powerful book, The Ring, two short stories, told in two distinctive voices, see Saviano once again sets his sights on the mafia, but they are not the only target.

The Ring - Roberto Saviano

The Ring by Roberto Saviano

Opening with a quote from French writer Boris Vian, “If you must have blood, then give of your own, if it so amuses you.”, the thematic tone of the book is set and one can hear it throughout – a subtextual refrain, delivered in a wearied anger. The first story, The Ring, tells of a mafia revenge tragedy, recounted by a friend of the victims. Deft touches reveal cultural traditions without fuss, while the narrator tries to make the reader and an old female friend understand the truth of his situation. His frustration is clear, as she presumes his friends to have been mafioso. The mafia saw them as guilty by association and had them killed, she sees them guilty of being mafioso because the mafia killed them. They’re guilty either way, no matter what, condemned for being alive.

This Catholic idea of original sin runs throughout The Ring, apparently the mafia have found it to be just as useful a tool of social control as the church has. Extending the religious parallel presents the town as a kind of purgatory, the inhabitants of which are eager to leave if only they could find the opportunity. But there are none, there never are. By his repeated emphasis of this point, the author surely intends an implied criticism of the Church. Where are they in all of this tragedy?

In the second story, The Opposite of Death, a young girl is widowed before she can even reach the altar, her husband-to-be killed whilst serving in Afghanistan. The narrative unpicks the negotiation of the aftermath of his death, which death too is put at the feet of both the government and mafia. The young deceased enlisted in the army to escape the clutches of organised crime. Violence seems inescapable. Only the state-sanctioned version has the veneer of respectability, yet it’s clear, through the enumeration into blurred forgetfulness of “the latest war”, that Saviano takes a dim view of his government. For in both organisations, power and reward flow equally to the top, leaving those at the bottom to suffer, and how.

If it is the young men who suffer most directly, their women and families left behind are shattered, destroyed in a different way and able only to mourn and to reach some reconciliation with their fate. It’s not clear that they ever will. Throughout the book, the ring of the title is a recurring motif and an appropriate symbol of the apparent eternal state in which his country and its citizens are destined to reside. Wedded, too – a marriage of convenience to organised crime, with no prospect of a divorce.

Altogether the book runs to an economical 75 pages, but the one thing Saviano refuses to be economical with is the truth. On the front of the dustcover there is a quote from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago:

I feel humble, almost insignificant, faced with the dignity and the courage of the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano.

I’m with you, Saramago; literary heroes, I’ve discovered, are transitive.

On Liberty

On the occasion of the campaign group Liberty‘s 80th birthday, the Guardian published the thoughts of such writers, thinkers, and activists, as Julian Barnes, Edward Snowden, and Shami Chakrabarti, on the topic of liberty. I highly recommend that you read it, and to that illustrious list, I add some of my own thoughts below.

On Liberty

Of the many things that are passed down to us, our individual freedoms and liberties count among the most important. Codified in law we are protected from overreach and abuse by the state, but we cannot live off past triumphs forever. And there have been some major triumphs – the UN Declaration of Human Rights, The Geneva Conventions, The International Criminal Court. Yet these achievements are not monuments for us to admire; they are not merely to be a reminder of our forebears’ courage and intelligence. For if we treat them as such, they will surely become so.

As with any monument left out in the cold for too long, they will be corroded by the political climate, denuded one liberty at a time, as we are made to believe that it was only the loss of ornament and nothing fundamental. That is until one day the monument is toppled in an inverted revolution. If we have walked past it every day with our admiration turned to indifference, how will we notice if it is gone?

These liberties we possess are strong and they give us strength too, but, like us, they are not indestructible; their vulnerabilities must be met with energy and vigour. Campaigning, letter writing, petitions, protests, defending the powerless, donating time and money, correcting always the self-interested arguments of the powerful, and guarding too against our own exploitable prejudices. If we do nothing, we will find our revered monuments to be made of sand, which as Jimi Hendrix sang, “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.”

To see what you can do, please consider visiting the websites of Liberty, PEN International, Amnesty.

Due Care and Attention

This birthday cake is literally as big as a house!

Assuming that Heston Blumenthal were not involved in the baking, the cake is almost certainly of standard proportions. It’s an oft-lamented and well-noted abuse of language, the use of literally when figuratively were the correct choice of word, thought it’s worth noting that the noting of such has apparently done little good. I confess to feeling annoyance too, but I do my best to remember that I probably also transgress other rules of grammar and meaning, offences of which I remain ignorant. Matthew (the safety conscious) 7:3.

The example I gave above, no harm done, but imagine if our imaginary speaker had said, “I’m literally going to kill you!” We may perhaps assume from the context of the speaker themselves that they don’t mean it literally, but then we also shouldn’t prejudge their character, so perhaps we should assume that they mean it after all. If so, our actions should be appropriate to the situation. Whatever their subsequent denials, the semantic cat is out of the bag and he won’t go back in without a fight. Get the antiseptic at the ready.

It is held that ignorantia juris non excusat, that is, ignorance of the law does not excuse. My question is, if ignorance of the law is no defence, then is ignorance of language no defence either? If you were to utter the threat above, should you be arrested for making credible threats of violence? Or perhaps we could institute some lesser offence – talking without due care and attention?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part Two

In last week’s blog post I considered how a self-destructing book might alter the approach we would take to read it. This week I continue on the theme, taking that cautionary tale into the realm of possible nightmare…

Imagine that your self-destructing book now disappeared word-by-word, line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence. Read too slowly and the words would disappear before you even had chance to look at them. It’s a booby-trapped book – as soon as you open the front cover the timer begins to tick, and won’t stop until it has devoured all of the words.

Presented with such a gift would you start at the beginning and try to read fast enough to stay ahead of the wavefront of disappearing ink? All done in the hope that you were not reading so quickly that you weren’t actually reading at all but merely glancing over the page with deadened eyes. Or would you start further in, sacrificing the front portion of the book in the name of the latter pages? That way all the better to absorb the words that you did manage to read. Either way you lose.

There is an app, Write Or Die, aimed at encouraging writers to overcome the hesitancy of perfectionism and creative block, to “just write”,  by gradually deleting their words if they type too slowly. Perhaps it’s time there was an equivalent for the reader? Previously beyond technical reach, the app as literature opens up these new possibilities for the form and allow us to examine our relationship with a text.

Imagine now the next step in the evolution of this self-deleting book: we join it not at a clearly defined beginning, but catch it at wherever it happens to be in the story. We don’t know how much we have missed, we don’t know how much is to come. Would you want to read a book like this? In some sense this book would be the epitome, the very embodiment, of realist fiction. Life happens and once the moment is passed, all we have is our unreliable memory of it. Moreover, as we soon learn as children, life is happening continuously, whether our eyes are open or not. The ephemerality of life and text become one. In such circumstances the oral tradition might once again become preferable.

Assuming that you did decide to enter into this mirrored reality, what if it was the most enjoyable and interesting that you had ever read? So captivating that the thought of having to stop is unbearable. You’d have to eat, sleep etc. at some point though, and while you were gone, the words would continue to appear and disappear, and you’d never know what they said. Worse, the subsequent material might no longer make sense and you might no longer enjoy reading it. That great pleasure of your life would have vanished. And so perhaps you’d try to keep reading and reading and reading until your met your demise.

The final situation I’ve described seems to me to be analogous to “The Entertainment”, the fatally addictive film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A film which, by the way, claims more than a few victims in that novel. If a book like this existed – one both potentially unending and maximally entertaining – would you choose to read it? Would you dare take that risk? Or would the risk lie in not reading it?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part One

Your mission, should you choose to accept it… As always, should you or any member of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

Fortunately, most objects are much less prone to self-combustion than the tapes and discs handed out to members of secret spy teams. Imagine though, for a minute, if our books did behave like that. What would it do to the way you approached the text? First though, the acknowledgement that paper books already are self-destructing – the paper will yellow and then crumble and the ink will fade under daylight – but the processes by which this happens move so slowly that, outside of history departments at universities, no one really gives it a thought. However, if the rate of destruction were to be increased by several orders of magnitudes, from centuries to days or even hours, such that the destruction is likely to happen whilst we are still reading, then we might not be so blasé.

The first thing you notice is a pleasant warmth in your hands, something to counter the artificially-chilled room, followed closely by the delicate smell of smoke, the source of which your repeated sniffing is unable to discern. You look down and see the energy manifest as the visible. You drop the book to the ground and stamp on it, but tenderly, trying to quell the burgeoning flames, at the same time looking for a glass of water, anything wet, to quench the fire. But it’s too late, the book is far more burnt than not, and you give up. The words are no longer yours to read, its wisdom, poetry and pleasures taken away from you forever and you must walk away and try your luck elsewhere.

Suppose that this spontaneous combustion were not the product of TV spy-craft or the overactive imaginations of internet conspiracy theorists, but a well-documented risk associated with all books. Trojan books that are the logical conclusion of those destroyed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What would it do to your pace of reading or your approach to the text if you knew that the next time you returned to the book it might no longer exist?

Would the book be more valuable due to its potential scarcity or less so as a now unreliable storage method for information? Once you’d acquired the book would you try to read it deeply to maximise your enjoyment and insight from those sentences that you had read, or would you read it quickly hoping to find the most important bits of the book before they disappeared in flames? Would you take notes as you read or try to copy each page wholesale? Or perhaps you’d decide to abandon the book as a format and occupy your time with something entirely different?

Now, I confess, this is all merely a hypothetical danger, no one is going to make and sell a book that could scar the reader or burn down their house. The publishers’ legal departments would see to that. The firemen of our society are not those of Bradbury’s fictional world. We’re safe after all, sorry to have alarmed you.

Ebooks, on the hand, burn with a cold flame: delete the file and smother the memory chip with layer upon layer of random binary digits, the original document now rendered truly irretrievable. As it happens, the terms of service of ebooks bought via Amazon or Apple, mean that the book can indeed vanish in that manner, as these cases here and here, rare though they may be, confirm.

So I’ll ask again, how would this change the way you view your books?

Mr & Mrs Smmc

Nowadays, particularly living in a large city, it’s hard to imagine a time when one’s profession was a unique enough identifier to be the source of a surname. Cooper – your maker of barrels and other wooden vessels, not to mention his assistant Hooper. Fletcher – arrow-maker and medieval arms dealer. Butcher – your go-to guy for the slicing and dicing of tasty, dead animals. Smith – the basher and shaper of heated metal. All reasonable and logical enough, though I think the Kings were probably getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Even though the English language as a whole is ever-changing – new words and grammar brought in and others dispensed with by the language’s capricious users – surnames are staunch hold-outs from the past. Perhaps that’s a reason to treasure them, they provide a link to our history, which the popularity of genealogy-as-hobby surely shows is something we value. However, let’s suppose we wanted to refresh this aspect of the language too and bring it into line with modern circumstances.

One option is to do as they did before and base them on current job areas. Consultant. Actuary. Programmer. The problem is that maybe there are now too few job areas to usefully name everyone. So, we could be more specific, for example, social media marketing consultant or the infamous and barely-fictional self-facilitating media node. For those reluctant to completely rid ourselves of the historical connection, as a compromise position we could artificially age these words with some retro spelling: actuary, now actuaerie.

This process of going from an occupation to a personal identifier is one of the principal functions of language – the naming of things. Perhaps now is the time for names, or our naming of things, to give something back to language? Some of these names, in their multi-word form could get long-winded and tedious, so let’s abbreviate. Social Media Marketing Consultant: SMMC. Primary school teacher: PST. Self-facilitating media node: SFMN. Ignoring capitalisation convention in the name of innovation we arrive at Mr Smmc, Miss Pst, and Mrs Sfmn. Hard to pronounce, agreed, but they’re new words, a contribution to the language and as Wittgenstein said:

A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.

They might look like nothing now, but from them could sprout fresh, new argument.