Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Squeezing The Middle

Every now and again I seek out something I have always disliked or missed the point of and endeavour to start afresh with it, to reset and retry on the offchance I might actually like it now. Occasionally this bears fruit: suet dumplings, custard and stilton, for instance, turned out to be far tastier in adulthood than as a pasty schoolboy (unmixed, I might add) - but more often than not I turn out to have been right the first time, which is oddly depressing.

I'm forty-two now, which is the same age as Bond and is likely the exact midpoint of my lifespan, since I neither smoke nor drink and my genes are good. I've had occasional midlife panics for the best part of a decade now, where I seek out something new and unprecedented to add to my being in an attempt to prove to myself I've still got the poorly-defined, elusive 'it'. I've always assumed that this was simple nostalgia for youth, when everything seemed new because it was, that this sense of discovery was what the midlife man tries to replicate.

I've never been convinced that it's really about trying to be young again. Men don't age that way: most of our role models are middle-aged, because getting to middle age is how they got to be role models, by gathering the wisdom of years and surviving the process. You can't really look up to someone who hasn't survived something. Talent isn't an accomplishment, application of talent is. Now I've been in the midrange of life for a while I think it's probably just about change.

We are supposed to resist change as we age, but we don't - we just resist the worsening of the world around us, which seems inevitable and perfectly sensible, really. When a man is trying new things in midlife he isn't striking out to recapture lost youth: he's trying to prove that losing youth isn't a drawback, that it doesn't make us any weaker or less than we were. Men are fine with growing up, we just want to use it for something. In a sense I have an advantage over most men my age in that I have no wife, kids or mortgage to drain my time and opportunities - on the other hand I have no money either, so I can't just take a month off plying the roulette tables of Monaco in search of new experiences.

As is so often the case, I have the refuge of writing. I occasionally resent the lack of performance in my field - you can't really demonstrate authorial creativity at parties, in the same way a saxophonist might blow or a singer warble - and I'd give anything to possess some kind of social artistic talent, like dancing. But for the habitual loner, which every man is at some point in his life, writing is perfect: you only need a pen, and you probably have one. When you invent worlds you're never short of new experiences.

I've been in the middle of things for a long time: in the middle of The Vagrant And The Snowflake, in the middle of some lifestyle alterations, in the middle of various disasters and accomplishments. I've made some changes, while some other changes have remade me, and right now I'm watching some of the mid-2000s dance movies I've always eschewed because, you know, what if I was wrong? I'm probably not, but it's as well to make sure.

It's chaos, midlife. It's a mess of past and present and future, of maintenance and progression, of wisdom hard-earned and glorious new ignorances discovered. But it's a chaos that we've earned, that we're comfortable with, that we're able and willing to handle and shape. It's only called a crisis because it looks like one from the outside.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Unhomesick

I journeyed far and found refuge abroad
Leagues away from where I lay my head.
Now I've returned, this place seems all but dead:
My home is not my home. This bed and board

Holds nothing for me now, and yet I'm trapped
By history, the knots tied in my life.
Knots can be cut loose - where is my knife?
Freedom calls me: history be scrapped!

But wait... must I escape, or change my mind?
Is the grass I seek no greener than
That on which I stand? A thirsting man
Beneath a waterfall would heaven find...

Wisdom needn't rush. For now, no haste.
I'll keep my knife at hand, though, just in case.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Horsey to Queen Bish Five

I've been trying to learn chess, again. I know the moveset, learned in childhood, but have never learned how to play it: like driving, playing chess is not merely the press of pedal and turn of wheel but the contextual application of those motions.

Chess is one of those things I want to like, because it seems to fit my personality. There are other things like this, cultural artefacts that need to be approached and addressed in order to benefit - opera, theatre, ballet, musicals, Tolstoy - and not merely absorbed. I like difficult movies because of the effort they require; I like modern art because it isn't easy. You have to think, you have to meet the artist halfway, involve yourself. I want to be involved in the art I enjoy.

This is probably why I favour open-world videogames too: a recent Eurogamer article (and the comments thread that followed it) shows starkly that the ratio of art-to-entertainment in this particular medium is much lower than, say, cinema - leaving it up to us to make up our own experiences in devised worlds, an exercise that requires a Skyrim or a Liberty City. You can't meet CoD halfway: you have to be the character they press you into, let go, let them take charge of you.

There's value in that, if you enjoy rollercoasters, which many do. Personally I can't stand them. Finding joy in having your control taken away is a bit BDSM for my taste. In videogames I just want a toolset and a world, and to be allowed to go off and make my own entertainment.

Hence, chess. I should love it, but I don't, still. Every five years I try to love it again. I suspect I just need to play it against someone who is equally crap, so that we can learn it together, but the only chess players I know are skilled, lethal.

What comforts me is that yesterday's easy is today's difficult. Opera was once pop culture, Dickens was once throwaway pulp fiction. Take this, written in 1528 about chess:
And what say you to the game at chestes? It is truely an honest kynde of enterteynmente and wittie, quoth Syr Friderick. But me think it hath a fault, whiche is, that a man may be to couning at it, for who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.
 Yep, they had chess nerds back then. Basement-dwelling weirdos with Bishops Do It Diagonally t-shirts quaffing Mountain Dew at LAN parties. I find that reassuring, and I don't really know why.


Sunday, November 02, 2014

Ready!

Right, I've finished mucking about now. My new novel Take It is now available for Kindle from Amazon and in paperback from Lulu: very soon the paperback will be on Amazon too.

But there's more: all of my previous fiction can now be had on Kindle! Only 99p each (even the new one) so, y'know, go fetch.

But there's more more: I've reformatted all of them as A-format paperbacks, a bit easier to carry around than the 6" x 9" trade paperbacks I did originally, and prettied up with new jackets:


They'll be on Amazon in due course but until then, snap them up from my store on Lulu.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Shifting Some Furniture About

I'm in the middle of a backlist refresh: my new book is out any minute, and to prepare for that I've reformatted (and rejacketed) my previous ones, as well as creating new Kindle editions. While that's in progress, some of the links on this page may not work properly.

I know, I know, shocking disregard for customer service etc.

I believe you will recover from the anguish this has undoubtedly caused you, but either way I'll let you know as soon as I've got everything realigned.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Christian Epic Verse Noir With Swearing And Car Chases

I get asked often what kind of thing I write. It's the first question after the matter of my chosen craft comes up at parties, interviews, prolonged waits at the Post Office etc: people usually want to know what genre I live in, and they're usually disappointed with the answer.

I like to write what I want to read, and I want to read good stories. These can be found everywhere, as a quick glance rightwards toward my twenty year-old Argos chipboard shelves will confirm: crime, science fiction, graphic novels, thrillers, surrealism, high literature and low pulp are all represented. I still maintain that Alison Tyler's Venus Online is one of the most touching romantic stories I've ever read, despite it only ever being found in the lesbian erotica section at Waterstone's. The box you put it in doesn't determine the worth of a book, the story does.

I sometimes wonder if I'm alone in this, as publishers and marketers like their writers to stay in their damn box - Iain Banks had to adopt an M to write science fiction, the very notion of the same person writing about both love and spacecraft being so insanely difficult for the book market to grasp, allegedly. It's common for writers to adopt an entirely other name nowadays if they fancy a change of scenery (and let's face it, genre is mostly scenery), lest the poor befuddled reader, whose only desire is the-same-thing-they-read-last-time-but-still-somehow-entirely-new, become afraid and angry.

The reader is not an idiot, but marketing is. Brand is everything, colouring outside the lines verboten. Writers who write for more than one genre are hard to market unless their style is so unique that it can become a brand in itself: publishing is more brand-led than ever before as the money dries up and focus tightens along with belts.

To date I've written romantic comedy, psychological thriller, erotica, science fiction, nonfiction (that was weird, and I actually wrote that under a different name, thus perpetuating the weirdness, or at least outsourcing it to another facet of the Infinite Me) and, recently, poetry. Well, not exactly poetry, more verse novel. Well, verse noir. Well, Christian verse noir. Well...

Christian fiction isn't even a genre really: it's something akin to porn, or at least it is nowadays. Pornography (or its respectable cousin, the romance novel) is more of a delivery mechanism than a genre: it's designed to generate sexual arousal, and this has to be accomplished within a very specific structure. It can't be allowed to happen by accident (that would make it erotic, not pornographic. Stay in your box!). It has to do a job, and if you swap sexual arousal for spiritual you end up with the modern Christian fiction market.

Christian fiction publishers have rigid rules for what may pass their gates: some Googling will elicit better and more complete articles on this than I can muster, but the short version is that the good guys must win, the bad be punished, no sex is allowed (although it may occasionally be referred to within marriage, but only off-page), no swearing and no violence. Except violence is okay against the wicked, or against the protagonist if it meets with just retribution later.

In fairness, most ordinary thrillers will fall into this structure anyway. The no-sex-or-swearing thing though - that's downright bizarre, and highlights the real problem with modern Christian fiction, that it exists in a tiny escapist bubble that does not engage with the real world. Even high fantasy and hard scifi tell stories about the world we live in, and rarely disconnect from our lives so completely. Christian fiction is very, very keen on historical romance, and particularly on the Amish, the better to retreat from the real, sinful, imperfect world. Insiders call it Bonnet Fiction.

It's porn. It's a world where people just don't behave the way they do in real life, the better to serve the mechanism of arousal. And there's nothing wrong with that, to a point - the problem is that it's anti-story, and that there isn't an alternative.

Erotica is the alternative to pornography: stories told through sex, not sex hung on a scaffold. Erotica can touch the heart and inform the real life of the reader: it can break through, which is the whole point of stories, really. But Christian fiction seems to have got stuck, to have cut out every product except the spiritually pornographic: where's the modern Lord Of The Rings, or Narnia, or Out Of The Silent Planet? Why can't Christian fiction simply be fiction with Christianity in it? Stories told through Christianity, not Christianity parcelled and served? Is Christianity so insecure that it can't enjoy a novel unless it's advertising the faith?

The market as it exists now is perhaps best described by the Amazon subcategory title for Christian fiction: Religious & Inspirational. The Christian novel has to inspire, it's an inspiration gun or it's nothing. No other genre seems to exist in this peculiar state of total imbalance: even romance is not limited to Mills & Boon but can be found in literary fiction too - so why can't God?

Why does this bother me? Well, I can't find a Christian novel that I actually want to read, and that's depressing. I want to read stories, not merely have my Christianity gland stimulated. I want to see in fiction the same struggles and complexity that Christians deal with in real life, because that's where we bloody live.

I did say earlier that I write what I want to read: on this occasion it happened by accident. I was writing a new book - a noir thriller in verse, and yes it does rhyme, and yes I'll talk about that another day - but was missing a vital element, which turned out to be God. The story only started to work properly when faith became a part of it - it wouldn't work in any of my other stuff, and may not in the next book either, but for this particular story it turned out to be critical. So I find myself having written what appears to be a Christian novel, one with violence, bad language and no fucking bonnets.

I'm working on post-production stuff now - jackets, blurb and whatnot - but I have absolutely no idea how readers are going to take this. It started out as an experiment, but spending this last week editing the draft I've got the disquieting feeling that this may just be my masterpiece. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that I can't easily tell you what genre it's in. I'm not sure Christian Epic Verse Noir With Swearing And Car Chases has a section in Foyle's.

How the hell am I going to explain this one at parties?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Lenten Lantern and Other Stories

I did Lent this year, which is to say I gave a thing up for it. This is quite fashionable lately, from what I gather, among the secular: Lent is conveniently situated just long enough after New Year to put the failure of Resolutions behind one, and there's not a whole lot else going on. In fact it probably suits the unchurched better - as a Catholic friend of mine put it "whoever put St Paddy's Day during Lent needs shooting".

I'm not a Catholic (for the same reason I'm not a drag queen: it's all a little showy for my taste, and I can't sing, and I have no desire to go there anyway) but I did give up alcohol for Lent, as well as takeaways. The latter was a bigger deal, to be honest - my circumstances do not allow me much kitchen time so resorting to expensive and caloritastic dialouts is an ever-present temptation, whereas drinking is something I've only ever done for entertainment, like watercolouring.

After doing my Lenten duty I returned to takeaways, albeit nowhere near as often as before. Drinking however didn't come back so easily. Forty days is not that long, even if you include the Sundays (traditionally one does not, apparently, so that Catholic priests can still do Communion), but it was long enough to break alcohol for me.

I tried hard to get back into it. A very fine bourbon reserved from Christmas, a few real ales, my favourite summer Corona... none of them drew me back in, although the bourbon came close. Alcohol had developed its own discrete taste while I'd been away, a sticky chemical tang. Occasions arose where I found myself driving to a party so that I would have an excuse not to drink - a necessity because, without an excuse, people in pubs think you're deliberately trying to spoil their fun by not drinking, haunting them with your sobriety.

I found myself a while back trying to explain to a teetotaller why people drink. It's very easy for someone who has never imbibed to believe it is purely a drug addiction, a weakness of character, a fleshly desire for cheap pleasure that drives the rest of us.

It isn't, of course: drinkers drink because alcohol helps us to empathise. It's not a modern drug, but modern society seems to need social lubricants more than ever - getting to know and trust people enough to be able to love them ('love' as in 'love your fellow man', not the romantic sort) is a difficult and time-consuming process for which modern life leaves little room. Alcohol doesn't have its own sensation: it only allows a normal human emotion to surface more readily. To be drunk - the good kind of drunk - is to feel love for your fellow human, an unnatural position particularly for the young, or the British.

It became apparent as I tried and failed to become a drinker again that it had simply ceased to be worth it. I have drunk less and less over the last few years, more and more through social obligation and habit rather than desire - I used to drink when writing anything difficult, but even that only seems to work 50% of the time these days. I've grown up enough to love my fellow man broadly unassisted.

So, I stopped. Or rather, I remained stopped. I'd like to be able to say I've been X days sober but I honestly can't remember when my last drink was - it just wasn't a big enough deal to note. In a way I feel like I'm devaluing sobriety by giving up when I wasn't an alcoholic, wasn't suffering liver failure, wasn't caught drink-driving (I've never even driven with a hangover, let alone a drink), wasn't at the crescendo of some drama demanding a life-change. I just didn't feel like the upside was worth the downside any more, and stopped enjoying the taste.

I still like beer, don't get me wrong: beer has a lovely flavour but the alcohol (or, in the case of Becks Blue, whatever acidic crap they put in to replace the alcohol) spoils it. Thankfully things have moved on since Kaliber (remember that? I first drank Kaliber at fourteen: that'll date me) and some excellent European NA beers lurk in my local Tesco. Now I don't have to worry about being able to rise early for a run or a swim, or not being available if I need to give somebody a lift in the car, or about all those extra calories... it's not a revelation or anything, it's just a few less things to worry about. And if you say in the pub "I've given up drinking" then people generally respect it, even if they do expect you to drink J2O, which is a crime against flavour and common sense.

Oh yes, I have a new car. A 2002 SEAT Leon mk1, in black: £1,000 worth of neglected and poorly hatchback which I have spent several months restoring to glory. Her name is Lucia and she drives like a dream now, like a Golf in a much sexier dress: she's not Sylvia, but there's something of Sylvia in her, I think. I choose to believe that one's car reincarnates, like the Doctor.

A few weekends ago I was in Eastbourne again, Lucia tucked up in the NCP car park, me sat outside a coffee shop on the beach scribbling in a notepad (the next novel: the title is Take It and I will tell more soon). Clear skies, clear head. It felt good.