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Read what you like,
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I hope you will find this site creative and innovative. The core of it is that you can download any of my books and read them before paying (or not) what you judge they have been worth to you. The rules are simple.

1

Download Book

2

Leave a review and make a contribution. This amount can be anything from zero to a king’s ransom!

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That’s it. You can see that this inverts all normal buying habits. It puts you in charge.

 

You deal directly with me, the author, both by contribution and feedback. No middlemen. No Amazon. No need for prior reviews in the literary columns.

I hope you all become a fan of the site and tell all your friends, or tell me what you think of it here.

Jack

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Dentist Blues

Friday, October 13, 2017

I had white teeth like the keys on a Steiner
They were cut to fit, you couldn’t get finer
When I smiled you could see me across a full diner
Then I got the bad teeth blues
Then I got the bad teeth blues
*
Sugar and booze each and all took their toll
Until my pretties got rotten with holes
But my wife and my friends never acted cold
I got the bad teeth blues
I got the bad teeth blues
*
One day a dentist set up in town
Had a pretty assistant that drew in the crowds
She booked me in and calmed me down
I got the bad teeth blues
I got the bad teeth blues
*
She leant forward as he gave me the dose
I could have kissed her soft lips her face was so close
She patted my tears and smiled at my woes
I got the bad teeth blues
I got the bad teeth blues
*
I froze on his couch, my knees knockin’ like drums
My eyes went wild like an old drunken bum’s
And I moaned as I watched his needle come
I got the bad teeth blues
I got the bad teeth blues
*
He drilled and he filled with the shiniest gold
And polished the enamel so it shone as of old
And my grin was a wonder for all to behold
No more bad teeth blues
No more bad teeth blues
*
Now everyone calls me Mack the Knife
I’ve lost my job and I’ve lost my wife
No-one trusts my smile with their life
I got the good teeth blues
I got the good teeth blues
*
When I think back I feel an old ache
For the days when my teeth were a pair of old rakes
Before my mouth fired-up like a birthday cake
I got the good teeth blues
I got the good teeth blues

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Lords of Disruption

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Beware the Lords of Silicon Valley

Who create new worlds in binary code

They’ve convinced themselves they’re freedom fighters

They believe they’re Kerouaks On the Road

 

They vow to eradicate injustice

They vow to shake the Powerful’s hold

But every act has its consequences

Whose ends can never be foretold

 

We are on display as algorithms

Our very natures sold and bought

It is the end of incognito

It is the end of private thought

 

They’re creating tools of mass deception

They’re adding windows  to our souls

Despite the wish to fight for freedom

They’re creating tools for mass control

 

Beware the Lords of Silicon Valley

Who create new worlds in binary code

They’ve convinced themselves they’re freedom fighters

They believe they’re Kerouaks On the Road

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Bobbies on the Beat

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

I lived through the period of bad policing under Thatcher and after. Racism in the Met and beyond, corruption in the West Midlands force etc BUT I have always felt that community policing, sensitively done, with officers of diverse skin colour, religious and social backgrounds, is essential in developing a tolerant, open minded and pluralistic society. More guns and fewer police creates authoritarianism and, eventually, the seeds of dictatorship. It is ironic and devastatingly tragic that, as the government spends more on technological anti-terrorism, those that would cause devastation become anti-tech in their modus operandum. What use is hi-tech against a kitchen knife, a van and implacable psychopathy? Only men and women officers on the ground who care for their fellow beings, can counter such primitivism by being the eyes and ears and shapers of society, fully trusted by the people they work among.

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OJ Simpson: Made In America and The Keepers

Friday, May 26, 2017

There’s been much made of the changes in viewing habits in the last decade. The move towards box set blow-outs being one of the trends. On the one hand they satisfy an audience’s desire for gorging gratification and on the other they turn a TV series into a vehicle for writers, directors and actors to explore complexity and nuance which might be denied them in a 2 hour film. The two most recent unswitchoffable documentaries to stalk my eyes and adhere me to the late-night sofa are: O J Simpson: Made in America (BBC4 catch-up) and The Keepers on Netflix. Both are documentaries. OJ (you think you know the story – you don’t) tears American so-called democracy into naked strips and hangs them on the line. Race, trial-by-emotion, Shakespearean tragedy, social inequality and the interior landscapes of all the lead players make it a proper Oscar winner. You are left certain of guilt – but it is guilt on a massive, national scale. Meanwhile, The Keepers is a strangely conceived and deeply disturbing investigation into a decades old cold case of a Nun’s death – uncovering a paedophile conspiracy of police, Catholic Church and prominent members of the Baltimore political establishment. The detective work is driven by two unobrusive women who had been children in the school at the time and had no inkling of the obscenities that lay behind the school priests’ doors. Layers are stripped back, appalling suppressed memories are released by victims with a courageous frankness that sears and you are left contemplating darkly about how large a percentage of the world’s (male) population have desire in them to commit acts of such depravity.

 

 

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Corbyn’s Terrorism Speech Today

Friday, May 26, 2017

Corbyn will be vilified by the right wing press and politicians for raising a passionate critique of UK foreign policy in the Middle East. It is already being said that he is using the awful and appalling Manchester attack by an Isis-trained killer as a political football. There is absolutely no defence for the bomb, the bomber and the ideology that cares not a jot about innocence and humanity. But if we do not clear our heads and seek reasons from the current and past picture of British foreign policies, then we are cowards and imprisoned in false beliefs about our much vaunted open, democratic society and its ‘British Values’. As I write the people of Yemen, among the poorest in the world, are being bombed to a bloody dust by Saudi-led forces and supported in it by the UK and the US. This follows Cameron’s foray into Libya. And Blair’s in Iraq. The intelligence agencies warned Cameron and Blair that there would be consequences on our own shores.

Corbyn has every right to raise the issue. And it is the electorate’s responsibility to listen to his case.

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The Ballad of Theresa May (The Mary Poppins of Brexit)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

 

Cynical MPs who piss-take our voters

New laws that further impoverish our sufferers

A Cabinet of ears with nothing between

These are a few of my favourite things

 

Ever more food banks to feed low paid workers

Concessions to Company high-paid tax shirkers

Houses affordable for those with some bling

These are a few of my favourite things

 

Leaving the EU with huge unpaid bills

It’s all jam tomorrow plus the ringing of tills

Trolling Claude Juncker cos’ I’m hard and right wing

These are a few of my favourite things

 

But if you doubt me

And say that I am mad

I inanely repeat that I’m stable and strong

And then I don’t feel quite so bad

 

mary-poppins

 

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Thirteen Reasons Why

Monday, May 1, 2017

It’s time to jettison misconceptions – unless you are under 21! The threat to one’s sense of identity as a mature consumer of all things cultural should surely prevent even glancing at the first episode of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why. An American High School setting. Early forays among late adolescents in a world of rocky identity against a volcanic background of sexual awakening does not augur well for box set bulimics. Yet, a glance became a stare and a stare became hours of intensely disturbed concentration. Thirteen episodes of subtly appropriate young adult dialogue in which deep, eternal issues are played out through the behaviour of a brilliant cast, leaves you drained but frighteningly educated. For those parents with teenagers it is a must, a connection with this rapid-filled period of parenting in a world they themselves have never experienced, the centrality of technology in self-identity and the fear of falling foul of others. For non-parents of the age group and the rest of us it is a prism revealing darkness and light, as much a journey into an opaque culture as The Wire. Add to this its moral core against the unrelenting motifs of rape and suicide and you have something very extraordinary.

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Europe Farewell?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

 

In 2016 the news went fake

The Brexiters were on the make

Politicians lied and more besides

The poor got austerity and the rich got cake

 

(chorus)

It’s sad to say we are on our way

We won’t be back for many a day

Our hearts are down, our heads spinning around

We’ll need a visa to be Europe bound

 

They said we wanted no EU law

Despite being forced to clean up our shores

They said we’d have cash for the NHS

And our borders would have signs saying No not Yes

 

They said we’d be free to trade to excess

And turn the map pink with our exports’ success

And we’d all be rich, an easy feat

For the world would want to sit at our feet

 

—————————-

 

Now it’s 2026 and we have British laws

Once banned toxins now cover our shores

Hospitals are downsized to A & E

It has to be spent on security

 

Everywhere you look it’s Social Care

The City of London has a derelict stare

Its ledgers suggest that our GDP

Will not even buy us a cup of tea

 

Oh we yearn for the days of cheap flights and vacs

With wine in our hands and the sun on our backs

And those friendships made with foreign hosts

Who ignore us now as turncoat ghosts

 

We left the EU for liberty

With a Church a Crown and democracy

We may have a Third World economy

But there is nothing like feeling proud and free

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The history of human vice

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The History of Human Vice

 

The Brexiteers have blocked from view

Why we should stay in the EU

Which is that a Higher Court of Peers

Can clip the wings of profiteers

Of human shame

Who’d otherwise be free from the blame

Of comforting those regimes

Who use every heinous means

To strip human rights at their very seams

Or downgrade international compassion

As if it was a card to ration

Or appeasing megalomaniacs

Who make all criticism a criminal act

Or succouring Merchants of Misery

In banks, conglomerates and military

 

The history of human vice has shown

Little virtue comes from going it alone

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Leaving Europe

Friday, June 24, 2016

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm,

this LITTLE ENGLAND

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Utopia Channel 4

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Thoughts on TV series ‘Utopia’. I’m watching Season 2. Cult status. Critical acclaim. Brilliantly perverse. Mould breaking plot. Seasons 3 and 4 pulled by Channel 4. Why? One suspects the best conspiracy thriller in a decade has fallen foul of conspiracy itself. Weaving fiction with allegations of CIA MI6 dirty deeds involving real time events (assassination of Airey Neave and other politicians across Europe), the Bilderberg group, 3 Mile Island… Utopia plays with history as science fiction ought. Given that many (Enoch Powell et al) believed MI6 were killing their own for dark political reasons, this bleak comedy pulls no punches. The central moral dilemma – if we kill 95% of the world’s population now with a virus, we’ll actually save the future for humanity – is reasonable and appallingly grotesque in equal parts. Methinks Channel 4 felt the full weight of the Tory establishment and ran screaming to their Deal No Deal bland safety net.
HBO are remaking 1 and 2 and adding 3 and 4. Good for them. Hope the actors are British if only for the regional accents…

 

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The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

Sunday, November 29, 2015

I’ve just seen ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’ directed by Julian Temple. The Dr Feelgood guitarist is filmed during a revelatory last year of life as he is given ten months to live from pancreatic cancer; a William Blake ecstasy as all material things come into transcendent existence, from scenes round Canvey Island to monasteries in Japan, from shimmering pavements to majestic trees against the sky. He is an atheist who fears no death. Rock and roll is for many theultimate zen of living-in-the-moment and he discovers and describes what that truly means. Try to see it. You’ll cry but be uplifted. Even changed.

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Fargo Season 2

Sunday, November 29, 2015

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll’s Jaberwocky in my childhood day was the precursor to The Goon Show and Monty Python. Daft and gentle. In a stroke of dark, venomous humour the poem is put into the mouth of Bokeem Woodbine, a Kansas City killer as his car travels an ominous empty road towards conflagration. It becomes a hitman’s anthem. Fargo Season 2 is even better than 1. The fabulously inflated classical allusions, the death toll, the black humour, the wonderfully diverse cast. Utterly fantastic.

 

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The True Cost

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Would you buy clothing from the High Street if you knew that the article in your hand came from a country where: millions work for less than a living wage, village water supplies are routinely poisoned, vast numbers of children are born malformed and with severe cognitive impairment, staff are beaten at work for any complaint, hundreds die in factory accidents, Govt, troops fire on protesters asking for higher wages, 250,000 farmers commit suicide in cotton field land grabs? In fact more than 90% of all fast fashion clothing comes from appalling human misery in these countries. High Street brands force wages down annually, turn a blind eye to the social consequences and rake in huge profits. Watch this new documentary and take a breath as you enter a shop… The True Cost (2015) Andrew Morgan.

 
 

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Sense8

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Matrix was breakthrough sci fi eye candy with the sufficiently strong philosophical message that we are all dumb sleepwalkers, mere scripts in machine programming. There are philosopher-scientists who believe this could, in fact, be our reality. Anyway, the directors of that film, The Wachowskis, have created a new tv series called Sense8. With the strap line that sense8s are one chromosome different from normal human beings, the 8 are spread across the world; India, South Korea, Kenya, Mexico, US and Iceland and were all born on the same day and month and learn to enter each other’s lives and help each other out in bad times. This Cluster of chromosomally different homo sapiens are hounded by their nemesis who looks alarmingly like a Tory make-over of Jeremy Corbyn. The intermingled 8 story lines have drama and punch and plenty of issues, the on-location filming brings different cultures into vivid juxtaposition, different mores to challenge the viewer. The actors are uniformly good. The gay sex scenes are more natural and fervent than most films have ever managed and the movement in and out of Cluster realities feels innovative. The tension is provided by the question; what’s to become of them? Will normal, nasty, isolated, war-mongering, acquisitive humans find them and exterminate them for being different, X-men style? Back to the Tories and Jeremy Corbyn.

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The Mental Traveller

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New review!The-Mental-Traveller

An intriguing exploration of what happens when a writer is disturbed by thoughts of sharing his life with another and faces a choice between the unknown consequences of intimacy against familiar well-ordered solitude. Emerging against a series of digressions and flashbacks, this central concern maintains suspense as the story draws to its conclusion.

Vanessa Ahlberg

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You are what you sing

Monday, September 14, 2015

The last refuge of biography in dementia is where musical memory is stored. You are what you have heard, danced to, made love to and sung. The vinyl, the CDs and tapes, the pirate radio stations, the downloads, the shuffles of your chosen greatest hits. Remember this. Document it. For when you are apparently lost to dementia, it is the one thing that will keep your self alive. The brilliant film, “Alive Inside” shows wonderful old people, having not communicated – sometimes for years, faces blank, hands wringing, wheelchair bound, being gently strapped into headphones. The effect! With IPods playing tunes from their histories, their faces light up, their hands dance, their feet tap. It is breathtaking. Then their eyes suddenly clear talk and they talk coherently. Even if you never watch the documentary, remember that this is how you can open a channel of life and light to someone with dementia. One day it could be you.

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X + Y

Friday, September 11, 2015

X + Y = A Brilliant Young Mind – a terrific film of depth and perception about a maths genius of a boy’s shut-off, asocial awkwardness as he edges towards warmth and belief in others. It’s extremely funny, tear-jerking, sensitively acted and reminiscent of say, Kes or Billy Elliot. Centred on the British team’s preparation for a ‘Maths Olympiad’ it follows the boy’s attempts to grapple with his mother’s love, his tutor’s brave and balefully funny management of multiple schlerosis, a maths ‘training camp’ in China whose culture and exotic ways comfort him momentarily and the (to him) pain-inducing idea of competition against international peers. Truth is beauty and therefore, QED, maths gives the young man beauty in his isolation. We all feel alien at times in our lives and so it’s no step at all to occupy the shoes of the boy and relive all the emotions to which painful aloneness can give rise. It also reminds us of our responsibilities in our relations with others.

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Mr Robot

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Looking for a new box set? Waiting for the experience of an obsessive nightly fix or a gross-out weekend of end-to-end viewing? Fargo Season 2 is on the horizon but a gem lurks and it’s up and running.

Mr. Robot.

It’s brilliantly scripted, wonderfully photographed and unerringly acted – but might not accord with those who steer clear of the picaresque. Drugs and computer coding form a dark wallpaper (the program coding is nailed on by experts to keep geeks happy) against which druggie/idealistic hackers seek to save the world from multinational cyber barons. It raises, in its tense depiction of extremes, the slithering underbelly of modern, technology-dependent life.

 

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Melancholia

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Melancholia (2011): Is it a drama, is it a sci fi, is it a study in psychological depression? One thing is certain, it is a film by Lars von Trier. The studied authorial eye is as beady and detailed as always, as is his drive to subordinate art to a philosophical thesis. Imagine landscape gardening by Capability Brown, aerial shots of country lanes with magnificent galloping horses, mists, a stately pile and the most appalling nouveau riche wedding you might ever encounter and you have the setting. Counterpoise this with a bride’s disintegration into depressive aimlessness and involuntary bursts of escapism and cap it all with the impending arrival inside  Earth’s gravitational field, of a rogue planet, once hiding behind the sun and you have the ingredients of maybe the best von Trier film. Whether you read it as a treatise in individual human fragility in the face of a harsh and pointless existence or an entire race’s collapse in the face of an externally imposed, insuperable finality, the effect is the same. It is disturbing to watch as you realize that Kersten Dunst’s character is not an irritating, self-advertising, selfish melancholic so much as someone’s response to having a clairvoyant’s understanding of impending disaster – so where is the meaning in marriage, above all else?

The film contains one of the most wonderfully constructed scenes in cinema. The approaching planet – the Melancholia of the title – begins to fill the entire horizon. Dunst’s character, until now a black hole of emotion which those around her have tried perpetually and unsuccessfully to fill, takes charge and comforts her sister and her nephew, the only ones remaining in the house with her. She has them build and occupy a magical defence against cosmic annihilation, a skeletal pyramid of sticks. Huddled inside, their hands clasped, they draw succour from Dunst’s nihilistic preparedness to face whatever might come.

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Enemy

Saturday, August 15, 2015

 

I once walked from Bungay to Ditchingham across the Norfolk/Suffolk border by a back road. An old man came down the hill and passed me by. We did not speak. When I looked round a few moments later, he had disappeared. The reason I turned was because he seemed familiar. Too familiar. He was my older self.

The notion of identical selves occupying the same time and space has preoccupied creative minds often enough. The latest film on this theme is Enemy (2013) with Jake Gyllenhaal playing two identical men, one of whom sees an actor in a film and pursues him to discover why they are identical. The feel of the film is of cold war East Europe with its leached browns and yellows, totalitarian architecture and complete absence of human warmth. As the characters and their female companions begin to mesh and grind in a hopeless foursome, the foreboding in the film increases. A small review cannot be a spoiler, so I will only say that Gyllenhaal is remarkably subtle in demarcating the two characters he plays, that a strange, unfathomable symbolism appears and reappears, hanging like a black pall over the city, that there are some disturbing extremes of human behavior and that it ends with a single moment of abject terror.

 

It has elements of Christopher Nolan, of Wim Wenders and of Michael Haneke but it is also impressively the unique work of its director, Denis Villeneuve.

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True Detective 2

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

True Detective 2. A mesmerising mix of Grand Guignol blood and violence and powerful emotional characterisation, Season 2 provokes both bewilderment at sudden, unfathomable plot lines and eyes-on-stalks tension as key events unfold. Fantastic credits with Leonard Cohen’s “Never Mind” growling over industrial decay, a uniformly brilliant evocation of a society whose toxic margins are creeping into the mainstream, excellent and at times sensational acting and a conclusion both better and worse than Season 1. Mullholland Drive married to Infernal Affairs with the occasional glitch of easily editable B movie indulgence. Colin Firth and Rachel McAdams are terrific, the sense of a social world spiralling into moral, environmental and political degradation is unflinching and the risks it takes are sometimes exhilarating. Roll on Season 3.

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Of God Particles

Thursday, August 6, 2015

For everyone who wants more from a film, in particular an engagement with that prickly darkness that resides below every day consciousness wherein we dare to question how much freedom we actually have, then ‘Frequencies’ will be a delight.

In a new book of aphorisms I am cooking in the oven there is one that is pertinent to this review:

We exist in a God’s first novel; our lives are full of paradox, blind alleys, weak characterisation and illogical endings

 The feeling that under the deepest scrutiny life just does not add up suddenly grips us from time to time. It can be unsettling and we tend to banish it to the depths and ‘get on’ as best we can knowing full well that we are choosing to gloss over our unrest. Have we free will or are we fated to live our lives according to an opaque grand design? Is there, in physics, perhaps at the quantum level, a code that defines what we are and the limits of what we can do?

Frequencies’ is a brilliantly unorthodox film, a perfect other world, a story of code-crossed lovers, of god-creation and of a society where each must play a designed part until …

 

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To be or not to be

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

 

It’s a pleasure to have a seriously challenging sci fi series on tv. Not the futuristic, philosophically hard-wired, Interstellar-style but creeping, unsettling daily life sci fi. We have two Roombas in this French house. They are programmed to come on and vacuum floors in the period between coffee in bed and being up and about. They speak several languages. We prefer English. One had ‘her’ being reprogrammed by my twenty month old grandson to speak in Spanish and start work at lunchtime. These magnificent non-sentient disks of hard labour are as far removed from sexual appeasement as can be conceived. Not so in Humans Channel 4. The blurred lines between android or ‘synth’ and ourselves cause moral mayhem. Picking up the same theme that is core to the film Ex-Machina, reviewed earlier, the viewer is forced to question whether, if in every possible way except being built of flesh and blood, a synth acts human, then shouldn’t we treat it as such and get on with congenial cohabitation. Humans provides the viewer with a variety of synths upon which to meditate, from lackey to sex worker to the fully conscious (and, in some cases enigmatically seductive).  It is unsettling. You both identify with the faulty, imperfect error-prone human beings and at the same time are drawn into the plight of these newly created creatures with their Munch-like screams of human consciousness locked inside. The plot is great. It’s full of the unpredictable. There are good lines. If you have missed it, watch the re-run or rent the set from Netflix when it arrives.

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Under the Skin

Friday, July 3, 2015

 

Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johanssen in a quease-making central role, underlines one of the age old adages of cinema – first class novels make second class films and vice versa. I’d read the book before seeing the film. The result was curiously schizophrenic. Watching the movie was overlaid by hovering images that had remained with me from the book. These two bands of experience were almost completely different. It was only afterwards that I could tease out one from the other. While the book is a little above average, the film is innovative, shot largely in darkness and with an eerie, neck-tingling soundtrack. Using only a twisted fragment of its source material it creeps insidiously under your guard. It’s great cinema if you want your horror cerebral and you prefer not to be spoon-fed with predictability.

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Ex Machina

Friday, July 3, 2015

Would you be happy if your child married an android?

 

When you meet someone new, your bio-chemistry does an autonomous evaluation: do I fancy her? is there something dangerous about him? will we get on? etc. The overriding sense of the interaction boils down to authenticity. Can I believe this other person enough to trust him or her? Maybe we can be friends – or more. Alan Turing (the subject of The Imitation Game where he is played by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) is a kind of hero in Sci Fi in that he suggested a methodology for testing an android or robot to discover whether or not it is sentient and, therefore, human. Ex Machina is a film which pivots on this methodology. It is a philosophical tale of horror where there are strange inversions of the Beauty and the Beast motif. It calls into question our assumptions and attitudes towards ‘others’. The film, The Matrix, was a winner partially because it is based on what many science-philosophers believe to be a possible reality (that we are just clever scripts in an advanced computer program) and in the same way Ex Machina (like Blade Runner before it) asks us whether, if Turing’s tests for sentience are passed, could we eventually treat androids as fellow humans? The film is a discourse on this enigmatic theme, with enough blood and guts to oil the cogs and wheels of its artificial beings. It’s good. It’s chilling. It makes you wonder about the nature of the species.

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Bobby Dazzler

Friday, July 3, 2015

 

 

I’m much the same age as Bob Dylan and he has grown and changed beside and in front of me all my life … (I first heard his ‘protest’ songs a year after Russian ships approached Cuba and I had waited in panic for the US to broadcast a four minute warning to the world that a nuclear strike had taken place). His genius as a poet, soothsayer and philosopher to capture in songs what has preoccupied me as I have wrestled with the deeper, more intimate questions of the here and now, is matched only by his refusal to wear the straitjacket of a fixed sense of self. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, after all our years together, still symbolises liberation from the shackles of my own or anyone else’s expectations of what I can or cannot be.

 

 

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Channeling

Friday, July 3, 2015

 

 

Like catching a big fish in a darkening lagoon just as you’re about to put away your tackle, I found Channelling on Sky Premier almost not seeing it breaking the surface. Unexpected. Hardly a review. Nothing on Rotten Tomatoes. No publicity. Winner of a minor London sci fi best film award 2013. But never ever going to a cinema near me or you.

It’s a bit flaky at times but has a raw magnetism. It’s Rebel Without A Cause in the era of Facebook and live streaming from the intimacy of the bedroom and building up your followers to prove you exist and being egged on to go naked or commit a viral act and be famous for five minutes. No place here for the poetry of the ambiguous phrase, gesture or gaze. We broadcast therefore we are. Now, what if we were to take it further? What if we stream those acts that border on the socially unacceptable or cross the lines we call taboos. What if our contact lenses contained cameras, connected to our smart phones and our lives became truly ‘live’ and our unscripted moment by moment acts became an unending serial reality …

 

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The Duke of Burgundy

Friday, July 3, 2015

 

 

Our fingerprints, our retinal configuration and all else about us are unique, including our perceptions, dreams and fantasies. Even so we talk about being ‘normal’ as though it is a virtue. Society pressgangs us into conformity. To stray outside the fencing that society erects to herd us along the path of life is to risk certain  vilification.

When I directed a research study many years ago into the behavior of children playing computer games in their homes, an unanticipated by-product of the data gathering was the complete lack of pattern across families’ behaviors. 100 families equalled 100 eccentric ‘cultures’. Once inside the front door of a house rules seem to be invented and invoked, either explicit or implicit, which each family regards as normal and acceptable. It is a conundrum. Society values highly the sacred autonomy of family life but still demands the gloss of public conformity. Only when behaviour spills over into the socially unacceptable are front doors breached. Yet, under the guise of household normality, the bizarre, the strange and the problematic co-exist without constraint. It seemed in our research that no two families were remotely alike. We couldn’t cluster them in categories. Yet, in all their wondrously divergent ways, they created viable and relatively stable habitats, no matter how outlandish they might appear when one examined the detail.

The Duke of Burgundy is a film about intimacy. What is depicted in its slow, erotic flow is a range of behaviours between two women which necessitates keeping the front door firmly shut. They do together what their obsessions demand of them. Their ‘normality’ is not a recognizable one. It has a recurring life cycle, like the butterfly of the film’s title, with alternating phases of sexual dominance and subservience that reach a crescendo before beginning all over again. Wonderfully filmed in deep shadows and claustrophobic rooms, close up and intense, it is a terrific cinema.

We all think we know what love is. We may be daft enough to think that others experience it as we do. The film, like the research mentioned above, suggests otherwise. The love of the two women is unlike anything society might imagine as normal. Yet it is definitely and unequivocally love.

 

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You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How much do we sleepwalk through life, imagining that all is fine and it’s a blessing to be in the ‘free’ world? Meanwhile, what we assume to be a ‘democracy’ subtly and inexorably sucks the juice out of our liberties. Whether it be GCHQ mass surveillance a la Snowden, reduction in free legal support for the poor, increasing observation of households through computers in the home, unfettered criminal banking behaviour, the impunity with which the Cabinet Office at Westminster and senior police officers cover up high-level corruption, including paedophilia, the insidious pressure of the multinationals in shaping government policy and deregulating  ‘red tape’ to ensure profit, regardless of the consequences for the environment …

… but this is a blog, not a list…

Three films to watch which will turn the viewer into a radical revolutionary, if he or she can be credited with any critical consciousness at all, are the portrayal of real-life freedom fighters in The Internet’s Own Boy (Aaron Swartz), Citizenfour (Edward Snowden) and Kill the Messenger (Gary Webb). They are unadorned documentaries compiled from footage of interviews, events and documentation. Though ostensibly about unbelievably vicious and unwarranted US government attrition (sadly, largely under the Obama administration) they also point up how freedoms are being eroded by all governments.  Wherever one lives, the films are a testament to the need to arrest sleepwalking.  The brave, central figures in these films wanted to seek the truth, to expose government criminality, corruption or the repressive docking of freedom of expression under the guise of protecting national security, while they were actually serving the profit-motives of the rich and powerful.

Webb and Swartz committed suicide in inexplicable circumstances and Snowden is in hiding in Russia.

It is easy, with elections looming, to believe that life is all about the pound in your pocket or foreigners taking your jobs. It’s not, it’s about the loss of civil liberty, the freedom to speak out against injustice, empathy with others and the will to curb the powerful. Better to be a little poorer in a compassionate society than witness, silently, the draconian laws being passed almost daily by authoritarian, scare-mongering governments.

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Marketing – By Royal Appointment

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The gullibility of a population knows no bounds but even then some kind of psychic sea-change may bring down a Tzar, a wall in Berlin or produce a velvet revolution elsewhere in Europe. One day Putin will lose his credibility. He bought it in the first place, his marketing men orchestrating his he-man image, hoisting his half-clad, heroic body on to a photogenic nag. But equally there is a power to dethrone, even in the face of total media control. What is it? It is the ordinary person’s eyes which can suddenly see through the deception of the president’s new clothes. Enough eyes and the veil of seduction and trumpeting propaganda is lifted and it is all change. Glib, self-aggrandizing politicians come to know this at election time. What seems like certain victory becomes a crushing humiliation.

Prince Andrew is today embroiled in allegations of rape. The House of Windsor have categorically denied his culpability. Twice in two days. This tottering institution on its high, ornately fashioned heels, wigs and frock coats has become a skilled master at managing modern marketing ploys. A word here and there in high places, in the ears of police chiefs, newspaper barons, military generals and the lickspittles of Westminster and bad news stories are scuppered before they even tickle the deaf ears of those in the common herd who drool at pomp and ceremony.  And when they do and ears become unblocked, and all hell seems about to pay, the oily palmed machine bursts into full throttle. The manner in which Prince Charles’ and The Family’s treatment of Diana and the elevation of Camilla has been reconfigured as an acceptable royal history is a remarkable feat of social engineering. The royal weddings, the babies, the interminable visits abroad, the New Year Honours, the garden parties, the Princes at war, all go to present a continuous pageant of meticulously manicured superiority. The population pays the royals a queen’s ransom for the honour of being Her Loyal Subjects. The institution is sold, seductively but falsely, as being as good as the Disney corporation in bringing foreigners to the UK to marvel at its archaic spectacles. It provides glamour. It is a current day opiate for the masses.

It is an absurdist theatre, scarcely credible to anyone with a belief in rationality, fairness and equality in all things. It has nothing to do with democracy for it perpetuates the inordinate, selfish power of blood and wealth in a country kept free by the blood-sacrifice of selfless, impecunious ‘subjects’. Robert Graves’ ghostly footage appeared on television today. He was bemoaning the celebration of victory at the end of the Second World War. For him it merely presaged further wars to come. Market the end of war well and people will return to the trenches willingly when the next one comes along. From their run-down urban estates, their agricultural villages, their benefits-reduced poverty, they will heed the call to queen and country. And they will believe it and be proud of it. That’s the power of marketing.

Yet even on the sceptered isle one day the veil will be lifted. Forcing the BBC to pull its documentary on royal media manipulation will not prevent it.

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The Times They Are A Changing

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The death of any soldier causes distress. Distress for loved ones, for comrades and for those that are protected by military action. Yet the individual significance of such an end to a life quickly melts into stone, another name inscribed on a monument by a village green, or becomes another ceramic poppy in a gigantic art installation. War is obscene, made more so by soft handed politicians’ callous and hypocritical motivation in sending the young to experience the horrors of killing and maiming, more often for economic gain than anything resembling a universal morality.  Such behaviour is exacerbated further by underwriting, in so-called peace time,  acts of torture that defy the Geneva Convention.

There was a period in the nineteen fifties when, because of the hell of the First and Second World Wars, many of the young (I was a teenager) refused to wear poppies. It was not disrespectful towards the dead but represented a deep antipathy towards what was seen as a glorification of something hideous. There was a feeling that too many had died in vain, that much suffering could and should have been avoided and that war was a crime. It was at the same time that I remember some of us refusing to stand for the national anthem in the theatre or cinema (a ritual at the time) because we associated such needless death with a British establishment whose keystone was the queen. I came to realize in those formative years that death rituals involving carriages and cannon, medals and uniforms, black ties and overcoats, hats with veils and shiny shoes, plumed horses and flag covered coffins were a grand illusion, a deception, a marketing campaign to instill in the bereaved, pride in a family member’s death, a form of mass hypnosis persuading them that to fall in battle represented a supreme act of giving, not losing.

The sixties intensified people’s mixed attitudes to pomp and ceremony. White poppies made an appearance. Vietnam saw flowers in gun barrels. Polished wood gave way to body bags. It became harder for politicians to pull the wool over the people’s eyes. A bishop giving blessing to a nuclear submarine provoked outrage.

Yet there is one thing sure about humanity. It swings on a pendulum. The levers of power will always regain control. Today, marketing is again in overdrive. The townsfolk come in their thousands to pay their last respects. The bereaved show gratitude for the momentary majesty afforded their dead sons and daughters.

And the politicians and the powerful, made up for the occasion, stare soulfully into the cameras and then go about their business.

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The Professional Pyramid: posturing on paedophilia

Thursday, November 20, 2014

 Having spent my working days at every level of education from primary school to PhD supervision, as well as doing five years in intensive residential social work, and finally having spent the latter end of my toils doing research on nationally funded projects, I suppose I feel I have some kind of obligation to tell it how it is. The thesis is this, the higher you go up the career ladder, the easier the work is, whether in health, social work, policing or education. In fact, the better educated and more articulate you are, the more you can slip into senior positions, pick up the lie of the land and spout persuasively about what needs to be done, what lessons ‘need to be learned’ and what strategies should be followed. This applies to every level up to ministerial.

I am reacting to one of the darkest manifestations of human behavior; the rape of young girls and boys by men, whether in gangs drawn from specific social or religious backgrounds through to networks of the most powerful individuals in the country whether they be teachers, celebrities, politicians, senior police officers or army generals. Yet another report released this week, this time by Ofsted, criticizes the lack of cooperation between agencies to protect the young. (Ofsted itself has a deplorable record in uncovering child abuse over the last decade!) Similar reports in the last twenty years have located this lack of integrated work between all relevant agencies as a root cause of the lack of protection. But nothing has changed.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the career of individuals is a greater motivating force than the distress of the young. Careers are made in separate professional worlds, the territories of specific disciplines. They are mini-cultures with their own languages and ways of seeing and doing. In each, defenceless children are their units of currency and they don’t take kindly to passing this currency on to others for fear it might weaken their bargaining power. In effect, each profession builds its empire on the pain and suffering of its young ‘clients’.

The second reason for the complete inadequacy of professional bodies in understanding, empathising and finding ways of assuaging the terrible hurt of the young, thus giving them a chance to break with their troubled pasts and construct better futures, stems from the same source. Working with desperate individuals in the throes of extreme distress is as hard as it gets. To bring about change requires extraordinary skills and aptitudes plus an exceptional emotional stability. Within the career structures of agencies, such people are paid the least and the most is expected of them. The best among them are soon promoted and leave the raw nature of the field. As managers or supervisors they no longer face the vile expressions of inhuman acts every hour of the day. As they become senior managers even less. But the higher the tier, the higher the pay, and the more distant the involvement with on-the-ground staff. Over time they become utterly divorced from the rapidly changing cultures of deprivation and depravity. They have less and less understanding of what constitutes torture in the daily lives of those they are charged to keep from harm. Good current examples are internet-based paedophilia and bullying.

But they are, nevertheless, articulate middle class professionals, well rehearsed in admitting corporate guilt and suggesting what should be done.

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Trolls

Sunday, October 26, 2014

 

When I was young, trolls used to live under bridges and reach up and grab your ankles and drag you down into their gnashing-toothed depths. A regular song on the wireless ran, “I’m a troll foldy roll…”The symbol of the bridge is significant; a division between two realities, the every day and the otherworldly. Plato theorized about the very same. Do we truly exist in the every day or is life a fantasy and we are mere shadows on a cave wall? Today physicists posit whether we can exist in parallel universes, quantum beings with myriad identities?

Human beings tend to make realities out of their imaginings. We dream, we play with ideas, we invent. If we believe strongly enough in the possibility of something existing then it becomes, to all intents and purposes, real.

The metaphysical battles fought between philosophers over the nature of existence  have paled as your average man and woman have embraced alternative realities. They live shadowy lives in cyber space. Under noms de plume they tweet, blog, buy and sell, and form otherworldly communities of similar taste and inclination from the virtuous to the visceral, from the moral to the perverse, from the mundane to the bizarre. Everything is possible out there in the ether.

The Internet becomes a cosmic therapeutic playground wherein its users enter via an airlock between one reality and another and create new rules and roles to be played out on landscapes as malleable as their earthly one are bound. In their Wonderlands they can unleash what has been repressed in them over time from overseeing parents to the policing of society.

And people believe they exist there with impunity. They become trolls and expect the bridge to protect them from visibility as they let loose their atavistic nastiness on the world that passes overhead.

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Trolling

Saturday, October 11, 2014

After last week’s eulogy to the freedom of the Internet and its capacity for anarchy and the puncturing of pomposity (and notwithstanding its propensity for the exposure of lies and tyrannical behaviour of all sorts, its soap box for the disenfranchised, the successful tilting at windmills – for example yesterday’s culmination to the campaign by Greenpeace against the Lego/Shell tie-up – there is another side to the picture. There is always another side of course. There is the dark net, the shrouded world where, we are informed, terrorists, gangsters, sexual predators and the like roam. But in the broad daylight of the everyday, publicly-lit platform for views, comments and opinions, one can find degrees of behaviour that defy one’s instincts for the virtual good of the medium. ‘Trolling’ is central to this disheartening statement on human potential. The other day a woman committed suicide after trolling the mourning McCanns. Her village friends said afterwards she was a wonderful friend and a pillar of the community. She had been outed by a reporter for her bizarre on-line vitriol, accusing the McCanns of murdering their own child. Teenagers have committed suicide all too frequently as a result of trolling from school peers. And at the back of the Internet, where human ants write codes, engineer platforms, create the virtual habitats that we can enter at home, misogyny and sexual harassment rule. It is as though the Internet is sand and people put their heads in it and fantasise, imagining that no-one can see them as the authors, that the medium guarantees anonymity. In today’s Guardian on-line there is an insightful article:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/09/trolls-men-witch-hunt-internet

with the premise that it is mostly men who behave appallingly and that they are so enamoured with their beliefs in the ‘heroes’ of the medium that they refuse to accept any contrary view – resulting in the forms of misogyny mentioned above. If you are fans of Richard Dawkins and Julian Assange, read it to test your credulity.

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Mashing it up

Friday, October 3, 2014

In a political world where for centuries the individual had been a statistic, a mere single vote, a consumer of political rhetoric and high street junk, a loyal, unquestioning soldier, a cupcake on a table laden with gastronomic desserts scoffed by the multinationals, the banks, the church, the royal family, the landed classes, the judicial system, Westminster politicians and all the rest that make up the establishment, the elite, suddenly along came the internet, created by hippies on LSD. It looked ripe for a commercial and political killing, the latest invention in the capitalist dream of seduction and control, a way to individualise the clarion call to the cash till and the ballot box. But, built into its DNA, in codes so basic that they hid in broad daylight, conceived and developed on tables heavy with cocaine and whatever else fired the synapses of Silicon Valley, was the Anarchist Gene. The Web, the roaring tiger of universal communication, had a tail so dumbfoundingly capable of transforming the beast into a spitting, unmanageable demon that the once despised and benighted individual could suddenly change the direction of mass markets, expose the pompous face of the rich and the would-be powerful, the duplicitous nature of government actions whether despotic or pseudo-democratic, the obscene exercise of power in all its forms from paedophile priests to preening presidents, secret government agencies to globally corrupt corporations. And with the technology came the individual heroes and heroines, the committed evangelists for a new order, the righteous campaigners, the rule-breakers, the scoffers, those once-humiliated but now retaliating millions of voices. All worms turning. From cassetteboy to Edward Snowden they each have a voice that once would have been muzzled.

(see youtube.com/watch?v=0YBumQHPAeU)

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History Homework

Friday, July 25, 2014

Having tried a story in seven tweets once, I quite liked the challenge. So here’s another for your delectation and delight.

 

1

The Captain was finishing a coloured picture of a new species of fly. His ship rocked gently under a hot sun.

2

As he added the last brush stroke there was a little pop. He was gone. Just like that. It was as if he had never been.

3

A time and a half later a girl called Xanxy was doing some homework with a history hook and line. She twitched it.

4

“Stop that at once,“ said her mother. “That’s your Father’s. It’s not a toy. You can cause all sorts of time knots at your age.”

5

She looked inside Xanxy’s collection tank as a bewildered man in a uniform appeared, carrying easel, brush and inks.

6

“Have I done it right, Mama? It says, Research and illustrate the shipping terms Captain and Shanghaied and present them  to class”

7

“Don’t ask me,” said her Mother. “Just make sure the poor creature goes back where he came from, once you’ve shown him in the lesson.”

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A Tale in 7 Tweets

Monday, July 21, 2014

I was struck by the notion of David Mitchell’s (not the comedian) attempt to create a seven tweet story. Each tweet the usual 140 characters or less, including spaces. Below is my own foray into the form, the Twitter version of a haiku-like constraint.

 

1.

“Rainin’ in my heart”: The song bounced off the bone inside his skull in time to the trolley’s squeaking. The drug made it symphonic.

2.

Blurry masked faces. Transparent tubes and steel. A whistling dive into darkness and the grim recall of a somersault into a sycamore’s trunk.

3.

Observing from the ceiling. Heart out.  New heart in. The surgeon’s reddening gloves. The robot’s precise blade.

4.

His body welcoming the flesh and blood prosthesis. A sense of his memories being torn and fluttering.

5.

Wife, children, house, dog, job, university, school, childhood, babyhood are shreds in a storm. New images emerging.

6.

The delight of soil, beetles, worms, fermenting fruit. A leather muzzle. The sweet seduction of truffles.

7.

Whistling back to consciousness. Identity returning.  But something else – an overwhelming craving to root his nose deep into damp earth.

 

 

 

 

 

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Unkind cutting

Saturday, July 5, 2014

I haven’t written a blog for some time and with this one I am breaking my flow of childhood reminiscences.

I was talking on Skype to my son in Japan. I said that once you hit seventy you have a prevailing picture of the Grim Reaper, scythe glittering in the sunshine, walking down a long hill towards you. If you are feeling particularly good in yourself, he recedes up the track to become a dot on the horizon whereas if you feel under the weather in some way he becomes increasingly magnified. The fact of the matter is that, at seventy, you are in his stalking territory for this is the killing field of the Hooded One. Around you friends and acquaintances of approximately your own age are dying with terrible regularity. Cancer and heart attacks. There is a harsh imbalance to it all. Why can’t we all go together in one merry swipe of the blade? Instead we have this haphazard genocide and as much unpredictability as can be squeezed out of what is, of course, the most predictable of our seven ages. It is true, too, as I mentioned in a recent tweet, that you age, usually become somewhat wiser but have less and less time and energy to employ your hard earned wisdom. This vicious irony is further exaggerated by the brain’s consistency changing from mature cheddar to Emmental so that sagacity deconstructs into quicksilver, sliding away from attempts to focus upon it long enough to communicate it to those around you.

Anyway, I went for knee replacement surgery here in France. The events of that carving and remodelling of some of my body parts are now a surreal dream of lumpy mattresses, debilitating pain, morphine-induced visions, a mad woman screaming through the night, padding nurses carrying hypodermics and pills to thrust into my quivering body at all hours and feats of endurance to get to the toilet and somehow evacuate my bowels as a consequence of the plates piled with food that reduce your appetite from minimal to non-existent. And finally the kinés, the physiotherapists with their softly growling machines-diaboliques, into which your leg is strapped and which bend the resisting, swollen joints into something  vaguely resembling their original L shape, regardless of the pain.

The operation itself was a miracle of modern surgery conducted by a gentle and humane man. Everything now seems straight and true. I now have my own machine on loan at home and am a masochist working my way back to happiness.

Better still, the cowled character on my landscape has retreated far into the mists of my blue-remembered hills.

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I am a Camera

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I was an advisor to the British Board of Film Classification for ten years, bridging the twentieth and twenty first centuries, a member of a lay panel that debated public concerns regarding children’s viewing habits, trying to establish guidelines that might help parents. Everyone’s life has threads that only become apparent in retrospect. This one began when my parents brought me to England from India where I was born. Apart from losing half of my bilingual skill on the boat trip and having the undoubted trauma of leaving my personal Ayah behind, the equivalent of half a mother, we arrived in a very cold Leeds to stay with my grandmother. The winter was so severe and rationing so limited our ability to heat the house, that I was taken every day to an Odeon cinema to be put next to the hot projector. What did I see, a short-sighted four year old not yet in spectacles? What did I hear? I can’t remember but can only imagine the coloured flickerings and loud, echoing voices and thrilling music. Hot celluloid, occasionally bursting into flame. Oily whirrings. The laying down of a lava bed of dimly-discernible, melding worlds.

Where the thread went next is more clearly caught on the hook of remembrance. My father bought a Rover. It was his pride and joy. It smelled of leather and the scents of the landscape we trundled through. By now we lived near Durham in the north east of England, in a village recorded in these scribblings; Shadforth. Around us were the pit villages above their coalfields. Within twenty miles, a half dozen of these linear developments each boasted a cinema. My father was typical of the ex-military. Austere and unable to show too much emotion except when closeted in the darkness of a Gaumont or an Essoldo where none could see his face. He took us to musicals with Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and religious epics such as The Robe.

Later again, as a seventeen year old, living six miles from Newcastle now, I took the bus to watch foreign films at The Tatler News Cinema on Northumberland Street. None of my footballing and fishing friends did. I was a Martian to them, a weird otherworldy fellow. I had to walk home along Scotswood Road at 11.00 at night past the yellow-lit, piano sound-tracked, boisterous pubs, disgorging their drunken revelers, my head full of the Nouvelle Vague.

Since then I have gone to cinema to watch everything and anything with any pretension of quality, from the popular to the esoteric. Film has competed with literature all this time. Its encoded realities have taken me into weird and wonderful worlds, into the psyches of strangers, into near-death experiences, into heroism and cowardice, into sentimentality and tragedy. It has always encouraged me to think and go beyond. I am still ready to be as spell-bound as a four year old as the lights go down and the Pearl and Dean jingle swells. 

When I became a research professor, it was little wonder that I directed an early British project about video and computer games in the home. This successful study of the ways families related to each other around their televisions and the cheaply available images, was a tying of knots. It took me to the advisory role at the BBFC.

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The Day Trip

Sunday, May 18, 2014

“Oh where are we going,” asked the children, staring wide-eyed at the driver.
“Far, far away,” came his wicked-smiling response.
“Will there be sweeties?” they asked as one.
“Everything you always wanted. Just settle down and don’t ask questions.” With that he turned to the steering wheel and the doors closed with a metallic clang. The vehicle grunted into life and left the village empty of its young, silent save for the call of birds and the bleating and snorting of farmyard beasts. It was the one day in the year that tranquility eddied around their mothers while far below the rumbling tyres their fathers hacked away at black rock, helmet lamps barely piercing the gloom, a life-saving canary warbling dismally in a swinging cage.

The shiny red tube bounced along; out through the meadows and small, golden, cereal-waving fields, under the green gloom of interlaced branches and past the short ribbons of back to back housing. There was a swelling chorus of “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountains” with screeches of laughter and a gasping red-faced halt at the verse, “She’ll be wearing smelly knickers.” Notes were passed among the cargo, not one of whom was under five or over ten. “Will you be my boyfriend?” “Bruce wants to go out with you.” “Jenny says you stink.”

Then, after hillocks and mounds, gorse and broom, the conveyance topped a final rise to screams of, “I can see the sea.” There was a lurching halt in a potholed car park and everyone was made to sit still for a moment. “Make sure you have got everything with you.” Four adults, who seemed to have materialised suddenly at the front, and the driver, dismounted and watched beadily as boys and girls jostled down the aisle, lovingly prepared carrier bags of picnic food, towels and costumes clutched to bosoms. A straggly, jigging line made its way down and on to the sand.

I had no idea who the driver was and had only the barest inkling of the grown-ups. If you had asked me about where we were I would have stared at you in puzzlement. It was immaterial. This was the Miners’ Mystery Trip and its details remain just that, even today. My main memory was padding back from the water’s edge and finding I was lost. I had left my spectacles on my pile of clothes. There were blurred faces all round. A geyser of tears erupted from my eyes. I sobbed wildly, “I want my Mummy” and someone whose face I never saw took my hand and led me across the sand before passing my subsiding form to a life-guard who guided me to the lost children’s hut. Inside there were several children, becalmed. The only sound was the noise of placatory toffees being worked into fudgy balls. The silence, the gravity and the sense of being lost rushed through me again and I burst into more tears. The hut erupted as all the seated occupants started bawling in sympathy and it remained like that until one of the four grown-ups came to claim me and pluck me away from the purgatory.

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Looking for Eric

Friday, May 9, 2014

I cannot be compared to Eric Cantona, either as a boy or a man. I would never have progressed beyond the school football team and I never did karate. But I like to think I am a better philosopher. I might even be a better actor. Anyway, bridging to the last blog-post and the search for my former self, it is football and our dissimilarity that concerns me here.

Even in the early nineteen fifties most boys loved football, although few probably had aspirations of playing for their local professional team, in my case Newcastle United. I learned a big lesson from my father, a Captain in the army’s PT corps; practice makes you better at everything and can give a shine even to the most lacklustre of performers. So it was that I practised for hours, days and weeks with balls of all sizes and eventually developed a modicum of trickery. Being tall and liable to be toppled by low-gravity, thickset tanks of miner’s sons was a perennial problem but the plus was that I was never in the last batch to be chosen for the two teams in class games. And being in the middle ground of competence also meant no ridicule and no bullying. Basic acceptance. I could breathe easily.

The culmination of my football talent occurred one day on the sloping field at Blaydon Grammar School in my fifth year. I was playing on the right wing and up against the school’s left back. I received the ball midway in his half, lifted it over his despairing tackle with sumptuous ease and hit it on the half-volley goalwards. It was a screamer. Top corner. Goalkeeper in the mud. The whistle sounded and I turned for plaudits only to see the teacher pointing for a free kick somewhere behind me. He hadn’t seen the goal. He was separating two boys, red in tooth and claw. Nor had anyone else seen it except the goalkeeper and the left back. And they weren’t going to say anything, were they?

Whether that was the source of my recurring, unrequited, fruitless dreams with their unwanted denouements, I don’t know. But when I wake up these dreams often contain the same element; myself as would-be hero, about to wallow in success and approbation but losing it all in a terrible twist of fortune that only a Stephen King or a Maupassant might devise.

This idée fixe now percolates my writing. Everything I do has to have a twist ending, bringing the reader up short with a gasp at a story’s culmination. But not necessarily, I hasten to comfort the prospective follower among you, a twist for the worse.

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Autobiography: to have been or not to have been

Thursday, May 1, 2014

I tweeted recently (@profjacksanger) that “The past is but a blank page on which the historian writes fiction.” In many ways, the business of autobiography follows suit. We re-write our histories incrementally as our lives progress so that they fit and augment our circumstances at the time of writing. Whether we recognise it or not, we are the lead players in our histories and everything is refracted through the prism of our reminiscences. If you are an avid reader of people’s reflections on their lives, it is worth remembering that they are always more fiction than fact. The project of trying to reduce their histories and contain them in nutshells is such a preposterous violation of reality that they cannot be claimed to be anything other than some vague after-taste of what might have transpired. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a great piece about the accuracy of maps when representing reality:

On Exactitude in Science

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map
of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

In other words, unless we were mad enough to write everything down as it happens – which means we wouldn’t have time to experience anything and our lives would be stuffed with writing and little else, a diarrhea of words about nothing – we must accept the evils of selection and reductionism.

Here’s a tale. In an early blog I, Jack Sanger, described the change that took place in my psyche at the age of eighteen at college when I decided to take my middle name, Jack, in preference to my name of the previous seventeen plus years, Eric. As in some drama of film or stage, the change was from an introverted, shy individual to an outgoing socialite, actor, scriptwriter, stand-up comic and serial lover of women. I include the latter, not as an attempt to inflate my sexual standing (which, you will have gathered from above, might well be the case) but to reminisce on the effects of this change of name upon my behavior with the said young women.

For some months as I settled uneasily into this new persona, I vacillated between these two characters; the introvert and the extrovert. When I kissed and fondled and was touched in turn, I had the distinct impression that it was not Eric who was enjoying life so royally but the new outer person, Jack. Jack was having all the fun and Eric was a mere onlooker – or, to be more accurate an outlooker.

As time went on it became easier. I was Jack. In the psychic battle between my two selves, Jack subsumed Eric. Where is he now, the old Eric? He is called up by the magic lamp of my keyboard for he is the object of all my autobiographical blogs up to the age of eighteen.

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The fruit of knowledge

Friday, April 25, 2014

There are windows in our lives that open momentarily and shut forever. They reveal where we have come from and point to where we will eventually go. Like angels balanced on the points of pins, we are given a gift of knowing and then it is taken away from us. We are young and in our minds there is a maelstrom of memories which jostle, incapable of articulation because the tongue cannot yet act as the brain’s tool. We have just learned the glimmerings of what it is to be an ‘I’ and the enormity of separateness. Only if some empathetic adult intuits that the window has opened and teases out our pictures, will the revelations pour out before it shuts again.

I was sitting with a tiny girl not yet three years old, at a gathering for a meal. The hubbub acted like an insulation. I asked her about her first memories. No, before that. Before the pram. Before the milk from your mother’s breast. Where did you come from? She sighed and looked at me as though I should know the answer but told me, nevertheless.

“I was an apple in an apple tree. The tree stretched up into the night full of stars. One day I fell slowly though the branches. I landed on grass. A man with a beard came with a knife. He wrapped me and gave me to my mother.”

The room had gone silent. The magical little vignette hypnotized the guests. Then the little girl’s mother whispered that when she had been born they had used old green towels and the doctor was a bearded man. But, like the rest in the room, she had no explanation for the apple tree and the stars and the velvet night.

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Sanity not vanity in the author

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ok, think about a bordello. Think about one of its rooms. Think about what happens inside it in microscopic detail. There is a sperm with its single imperative. Where’s the egg? Oh there it is. Isn’t it huge? Like a sun about to supernova. It must beat its tail harder. It’s a marathon and a sprint and millions of others are in a line. Just one final effort and a scream of abracadabra and the portal will open and it will enter and achieve singularity and meltdown.

The bordello is the world of publishing. The egg is the publishing house. The sperm is the writer. The medium in which they all exist is the literary landscape.

What, on this landscape, apart from competition with other sperm, complicates and exaggerates the quest to penetrate the egg? Well, there is a lack of signposting. Gone is the well-trodden relay of readers and editors giving thought to every well turned phrase, sifting out the most fertile tail that wags its owner. Instead there is a new kind of eugenics. The traditional primitive, lusty, organic coupling has given way to a laboratory wherein the sperm are spun through the centrifuge of a literary agent’s subjective criteria to separate strong from weak. The DNA is configured so that the egg will allow it to break through its semi- impermeable shell. The ovum prefers this outsourced, artificial determinism and waits in a kind of languor for the fission of new fiction.

The other way to achieve conception is to swim in different waters in another room. It is a laboratory in which there is no eugenic differentiation. Eggs are as abundant as sperm. Every sperm can find fusion. Here e-publishers make the latter-day supernovae look like mere candles in the cosmos. This is the black hole of e-publishing. No-one ascertains the viguor of the wagging tail or the profile of the DNA inside it. It is a compressed Darwinism. Millions of couplings. Millions of births, all but a very few strong enough to survive for more than days or weeks. Yet every snuffed out spark of life has still contributed to the egg increasing in size and being greedy for more fertilisation.

There is a third way.

Create your own laboratory with your own eggs and sperm derived from your own stem cells. Couple them. Nurture your self-propagated offspring and let them live in this world you have conceived. Let them be promiscuous with strangers. Allow them in turn to be intimate with your creations and, as before, enjoy an earthy, lustful unpredictable intimacy. Then, as they leave the bordello, they can place on the bedside table a payment for what the experience was worth.

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A Room With Two Views

Friday, April 11, 2014

I’m in Soho, London. The sun is bright but does nothing to mask the purgatory of the city’s coagulated humanity. I know that I must be seeing it like a Martian because I have been a mountain man for months. I have overwintered beside a wood burning stove as the snow piled ever higher on Mount Canigou above my house.  I’ve shut the shutters each evening as the early dark approached, hiding within the four walls in semi-hibernation. The physicality of tending to flame has given way to the passivity of  a hotel’s central heating, the shutters to double glazing, the vistas of successive ridges in their lines of ever-darkening blue to rearing concrete and brick cliffs pressing against my chest, blocking sight lines, cramping my breath. People sacrifice their bodies to be here. They relegate their needs. They promote their wants. Rats fight to the death when their living space edges towards point zero. It feels like that here. The oppressiveness is only driven back into the shadows by tantalising artificial rainbows with their lure of crocks of gold and better times ahead.

I sit on my bed and look out of the window but, as in the short tale on this website, I don’t see the street and the tops of determined human voyagers but a corner shop at the end of a village green, at a t-junction. I see through time’s window, scales fallen from my eyes. There are no cars on the road. I swing round and round a lamppost and fall, breaking my arm, and sprawl on to the stone-chip tarmac, perfectly safe, crying for my mother. I stumble into a bush of deadly nightshade and spend the night, imagining I am going to die. I plodge in the stream knowing there is a troll under the bridge. I see ghosts dancing on my moonlit bedroom walls. I hack at a y-shaped branch, perfect for a catapult and gouge a hunk of flesh from my thumb.

But, counteracting all such traumas and fearful visions, I walk on my own to Cissie Joyce’s shop with a ration coupon in my hand. I buy a bulls-eye, so big my cheeks ache accommodating the rough, sugar coated ball, tongue just free enough to lick its sweet surface, smoothing it and by doing so changing its colour and reducing its size. I go to the farm shop to buy home made dandelion and burdock and to the house that, in autumn, sells bags of robin pears. At five years old I am free to do as I wish, go where I please, and like my hero William, be an incorrigible boy far away from his parents’ gaze.

The scene fades and now, below my London bed, I see uniformed children returning from school, hands firmly grasped in those of anxious adults, unseeing, deaf, marching parallel to the growling traffic and the horns, through the obstacle course of swinging briefcases, protruding umbrellas, puncturing stiletto heels and home to the sanctuary of bespoke bedrooms, televisions and games consoles. Far away from their parents’ gaze.

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This little site of mine …long may it shine

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I sometimes believe in reincarnation. I look at a tree and think, “That’s a bit like me,” that mountain ash. Or, imagining my future self as a hawk. Or experiencing the conundrum of seeing myself suddenly as another human being; precipitated by a child’s eyes or bearing. A life lived can often result in these momentary refractions of wonder about what might come next when all is over. New lamps for old is a theme I often write about. And so to this website. It is another stage. Another me. Another incarnation.

It proposes an unusual thesis; take the act of consumerism and turn it on its head. Let the reader enjoy (or otherwise) the product and then decide what he or she is going to pay for it, if anything.  Thus, its brief is to remove all the marketplace trappings between the reader and the writer. No need to wander around a bookshop or a library armed with the latest reviews. No need to choose by dustjacket and blurb or a sly riffle through pages to try to gauge style. No jumping on the bandwagons of Waterstone’s or Amazon’s  hit lists. No, the responsibility  is merely to exist in that narrowed gap between conjured text and scanning eye.

Writing is done in the isolation of mind over matter. When it is finished the result is inverted and becomes matter over mind in that a story now takes up a space in the world and occupies the thoughts of its readership. Every tale takes days, weeks or years to make. What results takes a fraction of that time to absorb. There has always been this barter, the alchemical trade between storyteller and audience, since those days of being illuminated by a fire in a cave to today’s backlighting of an e-reader or the collection of bound leaves in the hand. At the beginning, as the raconteur finished a tale, there would be an immediate reaction of approbation or otherwise. Today, on this new website, response is not physical but virtual. A few words from the reader to the storyteller to say he or she has entered and left the author’s world.

 

Pay-for-pleasure

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A Peeping Tom and War Poetry

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bingo, a peeping tom and war poetry
It would be hard for any technology-using child of the 21st century to put themselves in my place in 1953. Earlier posts on this site draw pictures of an innocent time of nesting, damming streams, fantasy medievalism with lances and shields, a tiny primary school of 23 pupils and only the occasional fisticuffs creating small dark clouds on the horizon. I can’t recall much to fear in those days, though this may be due to heavy caution and some capacity for adroit language in staving off incidents before they erupted. I recall being paralysed up a tree as I witnessed older boys lying in the grass and inducting younger girls in the arts of having foreign fingers moving like furtive crabs claws inside their knickers. Though I must hardly have known what was involved, I knew that it was a transgression and both boys and girls would get into trouble.  I knew telling tales would have me kicked and punched. Better to hang there like a frozen fruit and wait for the call of the school bell ringing in the teacher’s hand outside the main door, setting everyone scarpering the quarter mile to be in on time. Better no-one ever knew that I knew.
Surprisingly, I did not suffer from stage fright. Nor have I ever. From plays to speaking at UNESCO to hundreds of delegates, I have been able to create a zone and stay in it, impervious to the possibilities of pratfall or the humiliation of sudden silence. When I was into double figures, age-wise, I embarked on a concert tour with another boy called David Salinger. I was a soprano and he was an alto. Our duets would seem today to be a bit sugary and designed to melt old ladies’ hearts, I suppose. Maybe we simpered as we learned to play on audience emotion. The concerts were organized by my father to raise money for the construction of the village hall in Shadforth. The acts were redolent of a post-war period. A handsome twenty odd year old crooner called Lennie sang The Old Rugged cross:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame;
and I love that old cross where the dearest and best
for a world of lost sinners was slain.
… so that a mournful, reverent hush fell upon the audience, many, I realize now probably having had family members killed during the recent war. Another individual, nameless now, a drama queen in his middle aged splendour, recited J. Milton Hayes’ The Green Eye of The Little Yellow God. It began..
There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu,
There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.
It was a poem from the Raj. My father may have been behind its choice. He never really recovered from his prominent status in the army in India. The concerts always ended with a prize draw and Bingo, then called Housey Housey, a communal competition to win a prize too big to be easily got with ration coupons; “Two fat ladies sixty six, one and one legs eleven, six-oh blind sixty…” I know you could have heard a needle drop, the intonations of the caller and the silence of the audience only interrupted by the screech of “House!” from a winning contestant.

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Father and Son: an end to certainty

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

God, the father and son: an end to certainty.
How old is a child before he knows his father is not omniscient? How old is he before he knows that the village priest is an empty vessel? The latter is easy to answer. It came to me when I asked, during choir practice, “Who made God?” The answer was pat, as I remember. Perhaps I  embroidering it by suggesting that Canon Tillard had a look of smug, priestly insincerity as he stared down at me and said, “God made himself.” Even if he said it in all piety, it did have an extraordinary effect upon me. The vaulted Romansque Anglican church, given to Latin mass, white surplices and incense swinging, reverberated with his words. Its stones’ echoing hollowness amplified what seemed to me to be the absurdity of his reply. Even in science fiction, as promoted in the Eagle comic, the most fiendish of aliens did not make themselves out of nothing. Something could not come out of nothing. Whatever laws of reality I held dear in my head at the time were so confounded by his reply that I abandoned the choir and Christianity. I was eleven.
Around the same age I was selected to represent Shadforth C of E primary school in a road safety competition with another school. My team (the only three pupils in the top age bracket, about to take the 11+) spent a week or two swotting up the Highway Code. My father offered to test me. When it came to the sequence that traffic lights go through, he stopped me and said I was wrong. I showed him the Highway Code. He said that it was a mistake in the text and illustrations. He had driven for decades and the sequence was different. He rehearsed me to remember it. Needless to say I was asked that very question. I can still remember the conflict as I struggled with the book’s authority and my father’s. He was in the audience of course. I opted for his version. I was wrong and as a result received three out of four marks for my answer.
It marked the beginning of the end of his omnipotence. Where once I had believed everything he said with an almost fierce fervour, doubt now lurked in my childhood Eden, in all its snakiness. It was the underpinning of my skepticism regarding all forms of certainty in later years, even, ultimately, feeding into my PhD on observation methods in qualitative research. But I don’t want this to sound like retributive carping against my father. He was a fine father in many, many ways. But he was a product of Edwardian England, the army, subservience to the establishment, fair play, the importance of rules and undisputed male dominance within the home. Suddenly seeing him as flawed helped me to be aware that that all people have their weaknesses. I am sure he suffered terribly that evening in the school, sitting among his fellow villagers.

Loss of pride for a man of his generation was even greater then than today. The unimpeachable justice of the father was integral to his sense of identity.

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Slates, frozen milk and green woodpeckers

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Slates, frozen milk and green woodpeckers

My slate was a rectangle, big enough it seemed to my small hands. It was bordered with wood, maybe pine but probably beech. The writing implement, my stylus, was not chalk but a smooth cylinder of slate, too. I have no memory of  the holders. They were probably owned by the children of families whose parents used something similar for cigarettes …! My parents, who both smoked at the time, certainly never provided them. Cigarettes in our house came in soft, colourful packets.

There were two school rooms and a small kitchen. The bigger room also contained the hall and was used by the five to eight year olds while the smaller one was for the older children on their way to the eleven plus. When school milk arrived it was put in the kitchen. In winter the milk was frozen in the bottles and had to be thawed out. As I write this I have an involuntary recoil at the memory of over-heated milk. Cold milk with a shake of icy creamy froth on top, was perfect. Older children thawed out the bottles. The little kitchen was also used for monitorial purposes. Apart from my sister, when she was three, I must have helped teach many children to read and write.
I remember being caned by the class teacher for laughing too much; that involuntary, impossible to stop, eye-watering laughter that feeds itself and those around. The caning was administered with a four foot, unwieldy garden cane. The teacher was not adept at sadism and every time she tried to lift and bring it down upon my hand, it caught the table and went askew. This fuelled more side-splitting laughter and led to less punishment.
An inspector came to the school and looked at all the children’s work. He singled out a composition of mine because I wrote that King Alfred’s ships were like swans in the bay. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy from that moment. A later teacher, at grammar school, scrubbed out my word ‘nadir’ and said the word did not exist.
I was somewhat proficient at art and had pictures displayed on the wall. I painted or crayoned birds and football teams. There was a strong thread of shimmer in them. I liked the clashes of green on red in a woodpecker and my teams also had green and red stripes, though no such strip existed.

My two bibles then and later were the Observer Book of Birds – I learned to recognize every species together with the patterns on their eggs – and an annual three inch square book of the previous season’s football recorded in tiny print with results and tables throughout the season.  I had a favourite team for every division and knew the home strips of all teams in all divisions.
As I have said in a recent post, colour dominated my life, as though it depended upon it. Later, much later, in my fifties, I discovered that I had a genetic abnormality, one which made me both short-sighted and vulnerable to retinal detachment.

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Distance lends confusion

Friday, December 13, 2013

Distance lends confusion
I have just looked up the village in which I spent seven years, from 1947 to 1955, Shadforth. Now it has a small website and a sort of potted history which, if not directly contradicting my memories, at least allowing little place for them. ‘Potted’ here is a metaphor as in the reduction of a pig to Spam. The village green where Sir Lancelot and Gawain fought is now part of a conservation area. The houses around it, including the school I have recently described, are part of this embalming of the past by today’s well-meaning bureaucrats. The rough grass,  overlooked by these dwellings, upon which wickets fell, a boy had an epileptic fit so massive we all ran away in fear of the Devil and where my compatriots skipped, bowled hoops, ran races and fought until blood was drawn and we were separated by minimally concerned adults, carries no scars or trophies of those days.
This insulated sphere of my childhood’s adventures has lost its unique otherworldliness on today’s internet. It is overshadowed by a village a mile away called Ludworth. Ludworth has Pele tower remains and a more historic lineage. Shadforth is only unique for one thing – its name. There are no other Shadforths (“shallow fords”) in England, according to the data on the site. In my early years there was a dome around Shadforth as palpable as The Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. To venture beyond its security brought trepidation into the heart. Immediate unfamiliarity crowded in on the wanderer. Perhaps half way to Ludworth (a place where unspeakable roughnecks roamed) along a country path, was a big pond. The way to it was through this alien territory. To leave it could mean death. But here was where newts could be caught, in all their red livery, as exotic and mythic to us as Golden Salamanders. It took days of planning and hardening of the heart to make the trek, one which you never made alone.
I remember, though I was too young to take part, that a battle was to be fought between the Ludworth and the Shadforth boys. It was heralded for weeks, vying in our credulous minds with the battle of Bosworth Field. The stomach tightening fear and anticipation of the event has erased any knowledge of the result.
This blood-thickening nostalgia is more than a spurious, dewy-eyed tug at the heart strings. It is more than a Proustian episode. I want to reconquer, to reclaim the world that was Shadforth, to be an enfant sauvage, to enable childhood ghosts to walk again, to see the school spilling out at lunchtime, to regain the totality of life under the dome.

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The Fields of Dreams

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Fields of Dreams
The green sward stretched out before us. Ladies in fine gowns held the favours of their champions as they sat in the gallery waiting for the tourney to begin.  Knights, to a man, were armoured and horsed with lances held perpendicular by their saddles. Shields protected them. Some were like Lancelot, in disguise, willing to deceive those they loved. Some were like Galahad, pure and unaffected by earthly temptations. There were no green Knights as I recall.
The jousts took place at lunch break on the village green between the school and a stone wall which became the balcony for the fair ladies of Arthur’s court – the girls in the school’s two classes. The lances were wooden vaulting poles. The shields were dustbin lids. The favours were ribbons used to denote teams in PE. The whole organization can only have come from the heated imagination of one or two children like myself who, ahead of their reading age, loved Arthurian legend. I recall winning a joust and galloping over to the balcony, turning to allow a young damsel from the first years’ class to ride upon my back as I celebrated my victory. Courtly love was everything to a nine year old.
In the winter, the battles were grimmer. No fair ladies. Feet beating the snow, woolen-wrapped, heads in balaclavas, Brussels sprouts stems in hand with their thick bulbous clay-bound roots and only the ubiquitous dustbin lids to protect us, we set about each other. The lids were dented out of shape by the barbaric onslaught of our medieval spike ball maces, never to fit their bins again.
I lived in a world of Norse Gods and Heroes, sagas such as Beowolf, children’s versions of Malory’s Morte D’arthur, Greek and Roman myths. And they seamlessly elided into the modern, the Superman and Batman comics, The Eagle, The Rover. Fantasy knew no real boundary. Superheroes populated the imagination in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of rational underpinning.

I wonder now whether my imagination was my universe and reality amounted only to meals and sleep.

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Intimations of Mortality

Friday, December 6, 2013

Intimations of Mortality
I need to backfill slightly for those of you who have not read an earlier post this year but which kicks off the present one. I was born in India. By the time my family returned with me to the UK I spoke Urdu and English. By then I was aware that my elder sister had drowned and it took three or four years for my parents to conceive me. Four years after me they produced a girl, too. Until I was forty five or so I had the story of my sister’s death imprinted on my brain by my mother. She would say, “Little Margaret would be fifteen now” or “Little Margaret would be twenty five now”. In other words my dead sister was ageing as I was, a ghostly precursor to my life. She died, I knew – I had been told many times – at the age of a toddler, two or three, found drowned in the water tank in the garden. She had apparently climbed over the little protective fence. There she was found, like Ophelia.
I returned one day with my dying father to find my sister’s grave. He was reluctant. Maybe the prostate cancer and the catheter made him feel unprepared. Anyway we went. We found the grave. It had been partially defaced with strange hieroglyphs. We interrogated the register in the little church. There was her name, Margaret Sanger. There was her age. Six years. Now, can you imagine? Six? But she was surely a toddler! Finally my father talked about that distant time.
Margaret was born with a fear of water. She hated being bathed and would scream. When she was eighteen months her screams brought adults into the garden to find her pointing. A toddler was drowning in the fountain but her prompt but precocious warning saved it. She wanted to learn to swim. When my father took her to the swimming baths she grew rigid as she approached and turned blue when he gently eased her into the water. He taught hundreds to swim in his later life. He became a swimming pool manager after the army. But not his own daughter. Not Little Margaret. The very strange thing about her death was this: the post mortem showed no water in her lungs. My father could not explain it except that she may have died from fear. Or, I told myself, she had been asphyxiated and thrown into the tank. Who knows?
The reason for repeating all this is that I must have had some kind of preternatural cognizance of what death meant from the very beginning. One cannot walk in the footprints of the dead all one’s life without some extra sense of it’s presence. But, as you will have gathered, my mother never let it inhibit my freedom to roam, to play beside water, to take chances. She was not a character that could have fitted in the plot of that terrifying film for all parents, Don’t Look Now.
The first deaths I can recall were those of the wrung-necked chickens. Then there were the annual cub wielding forays in the barns of the farm next door as the rats were smoked out. We always had a cat and so I have many images of the creature bringing presents of mice, voles and moles to the dining table. A boy, climbing the sand quarry at the top of Shadforth, fell and was suffocated. It did not stop us going there for Sand Martins’ eggs. I climbed another cliff and took a young Jackdaw for a pet, one day taking it to school on my shoulder. It did not fare well in the hen coop where I kept it and died. Fish died in jamjars or the ponds I made in the garden, lined with clay. Death was everywhere, as natural to me – even if intimidating – as the business of living. The mother of a school friend and teacher in our tiny school, died of cancer. And, to connect with the last post, an effect of death is the fading of colour; in the eyes, in the flashes of red on a fish’s flank and even in the gleam of the coat of a kitten killed by the warning snap of our dog protecting his dinner bowl.
I’m not so frightened of the prospect of the last journey, that Arthurian float across the waters that divide, because death was there from the very beginning, sniping away. Being inconsiderate. I wonder whether life can be truly lived without an acceptance of it’s constant presence?

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The Colour of Memory

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Colour of Memory
Modern life is destroying colour in a kind of genocide, a universal clearance of the natural spirit of tone, shade, tint and hue. So it appears to me in retrospect.
The following lines by A E Houseman encompass the notion that for each of us, memory has its own presiding colour. For him, blue represented a time, an age to which he could never return.
INTO my heart on air that kills
  From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
  What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
  I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
  And cannot come again.
For me it is colour in its very being. As I have already ventured, I became a putative Zen Buddhist in its early adolescent form though without any such label. The brief vignette in an earlier post in this series recounted the rhapsodic nature of being in a lilac tree or the extraordinarily vibrant flashes of blue and yellow in corn fields that were not yet annually brutalized by spraying. Those were the days when a farmer or gardener fought cunning battles with predators, with their blood constantly on his hands, and had a kind of grudging respect for his foes, even though today we might regard the strung up carcasses of birds and animals to deter further predation, primitive and inhuman. We now prefer mechanised killing on a grand scale from planes, from tractors and from genetic laboratories and have a growing population of city estate children with no knowledge of where eggs or milk or the beef in burgers come from, or of nettles and thorns or wild fruit and fungi. No, those playful days provided arrays of colour in the hedgerows, meadows and cultivated fields that burn in the mind’s eye.
Nothing since compares in my mind to the spectacular spectrum of colours to be found in birds’ eggs, their positioning next to each other in cardboard containers lined with cotton wool. If a rainbow had been constituted from the colours to be found in my box, it would have stretched right across the sky. I suspect that in those immediate, post-war British days where the range of paint was limited in houses, where products in ironmongers and department stores were similarly lacking in much beyond magnolia, green and brown, when fathers wore dun and grey utility attire and women had not cultivated the seeds of fashionable independence, eggs were a wonder. They were a child’s stained glass windows affording a view of the spiritual essence of existence. Since then industrialisation and mass production have led us to a point where we cannot pick wild flowers without guilt and where more and more flora and fauna are necessarily added to the lists of the protected. It is said that 96% of all species that have ever existed have become extinct. In my own private lifetime with its unique visual history, it is the bleaching and extinction of so much colour, wild, savage and limitless that causes the pang of loss. It is as if, as I age, Death, the robber, has begun to visit early to begin pilfering my sensibilities from me.  
He is particularly keen on colour.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Autobiography 5: How to be a man
My father found it much easier to show affection to a daughter (hardly surprising, having had the terrible heartbreak of the first born girl’s death by drowning) and to the youngest versions of me, his son. As I grew older, the physicality of touch diminished until, one day in his seventies in Lanark, when he looked a bit wobbly and I put a hand on his shoulder, he leaped away from me as though branded. He knew my liking for literature and was fulsome in his condemnation of D H Lawrence who was essential reading in the 1960s for anyone interested in the sexual revolution. I wondered later whether he had conflated him with T. E. Lawrence whose extra-military exertions with Arabs would have been, for him, obscene and worthy of a hanging. He was an excellent crossword puzzle solver, doing the Daily Telegraph offering each morning – providing my mother did not get there first. She told me with great amusement one day that he had not been able to solve a final clue whose answer was lesbian, and when she put it in, he was visibly shaken when she told him its meaning.
But in my childhood and youth he was a powerful role model of what it was to be truly male. I believed in him. It was a principle not to lose against either my sister or I at the games that children loved then, whether draughts, cards, word games, football or cricket.  Nor did I begrudge him his victories. It added to his aura of invincibility. And it made me competitive. I suppose I was a fragile child in some ways, thin and awkward, knotted in the knee and wearing glasses. He bought me bright red boxing gloves when I was about seven and set up a bag for me to punch. I was given a pewter-coloured, grey potato and lead slug pistol that required strength to spring load it and when I was a bit older an air rifle. I watched him wring the necks of chickens we kept in the garden and follow their awkward post mortem zigzags between the denuded Brussels sprouts’ stalks, their heads dangling. My mother helped in this conscious stiffening of my male resolve by taking me out on to the back step to watch the thunder and lightning storm approach. She talked wistfully of India’s monsoons.
He did create a tremendous sense of privilege and camaraderie, a Boys Own bubble at times. I would be sent to bed on time but told that he would wake me up in the night for the Big Fight from America. I know it happened a few times but I distinctly remember sitting in front of a roaring fire in the early hours, with the lights off, wrapped in a dressing gown, feet in slippers as the crackling commentary was relayed from Madison Square Garden or some other pugilists’ paradise. Particularly, I remember Rocky Marciano’s bouts with Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, not the fights but the celebratory ambience of the sitting room. My father would be like a hairpin, bent forward, elbows on knees, staring into the middle distance, living every described punch. He had been a Captain in the PT Corps of the Lancashire Fusiliers, seconded to the Indian Military to help build the officers’ training centre in Dehra Dun. He had boxed, high dived, done gymnastics, played football, tennis and cricket, all at a high competitive standard. What stopped him from becoming a Major was his leaving school at 14 to work in the mines to support his mother. He was not privately educated. “Not officer material’ was stamped across his otherwise exemplary record, the best anyone had ever encountered both academic and physical. How he could remain a Tory supporter after that rebuff I never could work out.
When I was young I marveled at the changes that had occurred in my parents’ lifetime: television, jets, man on the moon, domestic technology. Yet even more change has taken place in my own. But the sheer domination of the monolithic walnut encased wireless in those early years is a far cry from the range of whizzbang electronic media  today. My favourite stood tall and slim and had wings that ran down its sides similar to the accretions on American cars. The dial shone like a halo. The sound emanated magically from some Mount Olympus..
www.chronometerpublications.me 

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Autobiography 4: From the Big Bang to Steady State
The latest scientific speculation suggests that there had to be something before the Big Bang, poetic flat universes like bed sheets occasionally coming together to create a terrific flap and give birth to yet another. If the first of this series of posts on my childhood began with a memory of my own big bang – the lighter striking fire and the curtain conflagration, I’d like to borrow from the pre – Big Bang scientific supposition and make mention of what existed before.
My first memory did not kick start my life, of course.  That was done in India. I was born into an exotic, even traumatic medium of events and emotions which are now, at least temporarily, lost to me. I was a second child, the first, a sister, having mysteriously drowned aged six in India before I was born. From having a dedicated servant and hot earth I was in no time seeing only white skins with a cold ground under my feet. From bilingual at four – Urdu and English – I was made monolingual by the new culture of the unrelieved, accented English of a Geordie pit village by the time I was five. I started wearing spectacles suffering from very short sight.
All this pre-history and early existence conspired to make me feel different, a bit of a loner, at least this is what my adult self now informs me sagely.  I remember having many friends but no blood brothers. My sister came along four years after me and by then my sparateness was somewhat determined. I spent the first hour in bed this morning trying to uncover early memories after the Big Flame.  Here are a few.
A square cube known as a ‘blue bag’ on the kitchen window sill to ease the pain of frequent bee stings. My mother’s horror at a jam jar of pond water and a beetle so big inside it, it seemed to fill it entirely with its black back and red belly. Plodging in the stream on the way to school and through the dark and terrifying tunnel under the road to the other side. When I revisited this landmark as an adult it seemed impossible that a child could have crawled through, never mind stooped his fearful way in his wellies. Birds eggs in boxes padded with cotton wool. Butterflies in jam jars as well as bees. A man my parents called my ‘uncle’ who was a magician and bandaged his thumb and cut it off making it bleed copiously before re-engaging it and restoring it to health upon undoing the bloody linen. He gave me a silver coin of some kind. Our pebbledash, tiny cottage with its two small bedrooms, and in winter the ice on the inside of my bedroom window which refracted illumination from the street lamp outside, casting monsters on to the bedroom walls. My father having his zinc-filled bath before the fire and the prudery of him. Our dog which was a black Scottie and yapped. Our cat, that frequently attacked a neighbour’s Alsatian so that it cowered, ears flat whenever passing our house. A peck on my willy by a hen that came to watch me pee through chicken wire, causing me to scream and my mother to laugh for minutes on end. Reading. Every day a new book from the village library which was in my primary school and was on revolving shelves that served the children by day and the adults after school and on Saturdays. By six I did not differentiate and the librarian indulged my tastes. I can still see Captain Hornblower R. N. by C.S. Forester in its vivid, adventure suggesting dust cover. The Scarlett Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.
These memories are like dots, not joined up yet into proper pictures, isolated stars not yet sufficient to make the Milky Way. But, as Dylan Thomas says in Welsh Incident , “I was coming to that…”

www.chronomterpublications.me

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Autobiography 3: Abandoned child, wild gorse and honey bees
I think I may be dashing about in time. I cannot really put things in date order. My memory seems to be a bit like a dark night sky wherein a star suddenly appears and I fasten on to it with my telescope.
My parents drove me to friends of theirs where I was to spend a week on holiday. We went in the new (second hand) family car, a big Rover with walnut dashboard and leather seats. My father must have been doing well as a soft drinks salesman. He had given up on the motor bike which, once every few months, he would dutifully strip down and clean in front of the fire. I never knew why I was ejected from family life like this. Until I left home for college this was the only aberration in a continuous existence at home in Shadforth. They cannot have lived too far away and they were called Donaghy. They had a much older son in his mid teens. They lived in what was a piece of Durham’s mining-related architecture, a hamlet of houses, a handful strip of each on either side of the road. Their toilets were out the back and communally shared with other houses on that side of the street. A horse and cart came once a week to remove the contents of the joint septic receptacle which ran along under all the wooden toilet seats. You sat in your cubicle, above the floating mayhem of drunken miners and their Edwardian pursed lipped wives, hoping to be quick and to get out before being overcome. Constipation was a slow death – not that I can remember having it.
Two memories of this visit. The first was that my father gave the teen of the house a steel compass and other mathematical tools, embedded and glittering in a velvet and wood box, as a present. I know I felt jealousy. They had been in the Shadforth house for some time. They were MY heirlooms. Many years later my father gave someone else my half-size slate-bed billiard table, much to my volubly expressed anger. He said I had gone to college and didn’t think I wanted it. It was a curious element of his complex personality. He seemed to need to be seen as generous even at the expense of his son. Or is that too harsh? It was a table I had paid for.
Behind the latrines was a small field, though large enough for me. It was a meadow but inundated with dock, dandelion and gorse. It must have been summer when I was there. I spent much of the time catching bees in a jam jar with holes in its lid to help them breathe. The art was seeing how many you could capture. Many times you might lift the lid to entrap yet another and accidentally release one or two. Stings were common. I put flowering dead nettles inside to make them comfortable.
Why was I sent to the Donaghys? I assume with the jaundice of adult wisdom that something must have been up at home. My sister, four years younger than me, was not excommunicated. When you think back you find certain events which have nestled in your brain as unchallenged, isolated islands, suddenly develop a hidden plot, a conspiratorial odour. My child-like, lonesome distraction from wondering about the motives of my parents could be found in jars full of yellow striped or red-bummed bees. 

www.chronometerpublications.me 

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Autobiography 2: Earth, Air, Water and Blood
So my earliest memory was fire. Casting my mind back I have a sort of metaphorical sense of what memory is. It’s a concertina which, when pulled out reveals all that extra capacity that cannot be seen at the outset. Or like a set of books whose spines are all that is visible on the shelf, with vague titles which must be lifted out, one by one to reveal their mysterious substance. Memory is two dimensional for the purpose of retrieval and multi-dimensional once you get hold of it. Nothing is actually forgotten but it can take unusual circumstances and lateral purchase sometimes, to draw people, events and perceptions back into consciousness.
Since an autobiography, to be true and accurate in all respects, would be vast and never-ending, to embrace the span of a life, it behoves the writer to provide vignettes, fragments that suggest the whole like shards of a hologram, isomorphic representations.
After Leeds we moved to Shadforth County Durham. We lived for a few months across the village green, opposite the school. Here are a few flashes from that time. Becoming lost and eventually found in the neighbour’s dog’s kennel with my arms around a dog notoriously big and feared by the postmen. Going to the toilet just before playtime (not yet five) and using one of the girls’ outside toilets. Just as I flushed it the bell went and I had to barricade myself in by jamming the door closed with straight legs, as I sat on the seat, trouserless. I was petrified with anguish and embarrassment as girls hammered on the door keening that they knew a boy was in there. 

Yet, not far away across the concrete yard was a lilac tree. It was here that my immersion in Zen began. I recall climbing it and reclining in its branches, curtained about by pale purple panicles, shutting my eyes and swooning in the heavy scent, my ears drowning in the deep buzzing of bees and higher pitched drones of other insects.
In that Elysium of nature, a stream ran close to the bottom of our garden. Above it swept down a hill of corn, hosting the electric blue of cornflowers, the golden fat yellow of buttercups and the powdery white branches of old man’s baccy. Has my sight faded? This memory of colour is almost-trip-like in comparison to today’s perceptions. Perhaps my present eyes do not deceive but in that natural wild-foraging state of early childhood I saw the very essence of colour, its very spirit as one finds in Shintoism. All since has been facsimile, perfectly serviceable but without the power to truly burn the retina.
I dug deep holes on the little path that ran around the field and covered them in thin sticks and grass and leaves to trap the farmer. A gang of us trekked to a nearby quarry and stole a length of rope which we tied high above the stream so that we could swing down from the high bank on one side of it, screaming like our muscular hero in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan And The City of Gold. We made dams. We tightrope walked the narrow concrete divides between the effluence tanks of the sewage farm.
The last snippet, cut from the cloth of that time, is of a birthday party. I must have been five, I suppose. Perhaps four or so boys had been invited. They brought presents. The only one I can remember was from a boy whose parents had no money, or so my mother informed me. He gave me a tin cow, a Guernsey I can now affirm. One leg had been broken off. I took the treasure and placed it on my shelf in the sideboard cupboard. I can see it now, just managing to stay upright, all on its own, lit by the searchlight of inexplicable pleasure.

It was when I learned that it is the thought that counts.

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In an autobiography, a thousand memories must begin with one

Monday, November 18, 2013

In an autobiography, a thousand memories must begin with one
Writing an autobiography represents a worrying collision of two gropes of thought. I am not talking here of the autobiographies of those who have jumped to fame on the serendipitous back of media-enhanced celebrity and deliver their usually ghost-written accounts of their first years of fame. I am more concerned with autobiography as the summing up of a life, a kaleidoscope of events and characters, memories, dreams, reflections and might-have-beens which together comprise the vaguely stable core at the heart of the ever changing mist of what has been experienced by the author. The two ropes of thought, at least for me, comprise firstly a superstitious fear that writing it might have the same import as a will and may somehow mark the end of my imaginative writing. The second is that if I leave it too late then the record of my life will become too faded, my ink drying in the pen and the very tool of my imagination, the carefully wrought word and phrase may give way to something so prosaic it has none of the character of my writing when all my faculties are present!
With autobiographies, timing is all. It must be got down before the brain is more colander than crucible.
So, beginning at the beginning, I have no memories at all of India where I spent my first four years or so of life. Suffice it to say that India has still been a dominating motif, affecting my sense of self, a background like the foundation glue an artist uses to prepare a canvas. No, despite being bilingual, nothing remains of those early naked-running native years in Dehra Dun. My first images come from Leeds, a cold northern city where we stayed for a few months with my father’s mother, not the most gracious of individuals I am told. It was there, or in some subsequent accommodation that I took my father’s cigarette lighter and hid behind the curtains, flicking it on and off. I seem to recall the mystery of this fire-maker but have no vision of the burning curtains as they exaggerated that tiny spurt of flame into an ascending line of fire and thence to the Christmas decorations.
It was the only time in my life that my father came close to hitting me, if I am to believe my mother who I am sure would not have lied about such a traumatic early event. I am assured that he did not, instead sending me to my room. The fact that he did not strike me is surely the perfect education for a son. After all, a room going up in smoke is among the worst of scenarios. I have not hit my own children and I am sure they are the same with my grandchildren. Scientists now believe that genes can be switched on and off during a life. I have displayed on occasion the willingness to battle, to use fist and foot, so the warrior gene can burn brightly if the button is pressed – but not within the fomenting confines of familial relations.

I realise, writing this, that it is possible that autobiographies might delineate more exactly the characters of those around the author than the being of the author himself. 

My father will, no doubt, not be immune from this.

For free novellas and other work go to www.chronometerpublications.me
For the Azimuth Trilogy go to www.jacksanger.com


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Ghosts in the Machine

Monday, September 9, 2013

Ghosts in the Machine
I have just finished the second or third draft of a short story called Rupture. The title has strong resonances for me. Life contains ruptures though, being survivors, we try to gloss them over, smooth them out, fill in the voids and talk ourselves through the miseries they cause because we want our lives to be frictionless, running like the well-oiled wheels of dreamy steam trains. From broken relationships to relocation, from children’s injuries to their untimely deaths, from dying parents whose desire for a last, healing conversation went unrequited to unspoken praise and cowardly refusal to challenge, our lives have events which rupture our hopes and fantasies about ourselves. The aftermaths of these accidental or willful intrusions stay with us forever, popping up in our dreams or causing us to adopt aberrant behaviours dislocated from their cause by denial. Life is tough and in the main we prefer to recount and make ourselves believe the glossy, Hollywood version of it. Dwelling on the ruptures makes us morbid and unsavoury companions.
In the short story of which I speak, a ghostly piece, the main protagonist undergoes a massive rupture of his delightful existence. The hemorrhaging away of warmth and intimacy begins when he views, like a peeping tom, a videotape of the family life of people he does not know.
It was like watching an old cinema classic in which he felt deep pangs of longing for an actress who might by the time he was viewing it have lost her glorious early beauty or even died. All old films contained moving death masks.
I am drawn to old films, not because of their reputation necessarily, though that helps me to swallow the pill with a coating of sugar, but because of the surreal sense of rupture. The past has been ripped out of its continuum and is dangled before me. These once flesh and blood actors, plying their trade with one-time verve and optimism under the spotlight of fame, now parade their wares on a screen in my sitting room.
They unsettle me.
Twitter @profjacksanger

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

New Review for The Azimuth Trilogy
Jack Sanger’s sprawling epic, Azimuth is a trilogy that brings to mind myth and folklore of times long gone. It conjures memories of a barely remembered past; one that feeds the subconscious and brings to life archetypes almost forgotten, yet still resonate in our collective unconscious; the stuff of dreams and legends. The narrator, Kamil has been commissioned to tell the story of the Magus – ancient patriarch of the current dynasty – to Sabiya and Shazrad, royal princesses of the court. The story is a dual revelation; one of origins and the other of court intrigue and danger. It is reminiscent of such fables as Morte D’Author, Lord of the Rings, The Arabian Nights and the Adventures of Ullyses; even stories of Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita from ancient India. Its appeal is multicultural and encompassing; something for everyone. For those who revel in that nebulous region where myth and memory blur, this book is for you; and for those who simply love a great read. The story is broken down into chapters, each one relaying the life and adventures of the Magus; stories of magic and mystery. Each chapter is self contained yet the stories are connected and masterfully intertwined with the myriad plots and conspiracies of life at the royal court, which are the backdrop to this amazing adventure. I give it a Five Star rating and recommend it to all lovers of myth and pre-history. Can’t wait for the movie!
Dr. Rachel Campbell
More reviews at www.azimuthtrilogy.com/reviews

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Monday, August 26, 2013

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The Hidden Persuaders
Working in a convent home for the care of emotionally disturbed adolescent girls can throw up insights into the hidden worlds of communication. Telepathy, empathy, subliminal advertising. I remember Vance Packard wrote a book in the late 1950s, called The Hidden Persuaders. That was sometimes what it felt like as an atheist working with committed religious women. They were kind, generous and philosophically open, as earlier blogs will vouchsafe. Anyway, more of their strange powers a little later.
A form of communication which will have by-passed most men’s knowledge (and some women’s) is via hormones. All the women and girls in the convent had synchronized periods. New girls would fall into the same menstrual cycle within a couple of months of arrival. I remember taking a nun into town for three months supply of sanitary towels. They filled the back of the mini van!
The fact that we communicate with each other in subliminal ways seems to be within most people’s experience. It is usually laughed off as statistically inevitable that synchronous thought should occur. Despite all those Russian experiments during the cold war to produce secret agents who might gain the west’s secrets via telepathy, it remains an unlit area of scientific progress – unless you add in the latest thought controlled cursors in computer technology or quantum theory which stipulates that any observer will change the patterns of movement within atoms by observing the interactions. My vignette is more prosaic and easier to follow than Heisenburg’s masterful theory.
We took all the girls to the Lake District. Climbing big hills is symbolic for urban girls who do not know that milk comes from big grass-munching beasts and that there are places where you cannot see a house no matter how hard you look. The nuns had a sister convent up there with dormitory accommodation and some separate rooms. We arrived in the evening after a long drive from Norfolk. Nothing much happened to me that night. The next day was a successful hiking, climbing, blistering, prickling, stinging sort of day. The girls were tired out. They went to bed early and that was that. I retired eventually. I lay in bed and was about to fall asleep (or did so, who knows) when I was presented with a shimmering figure of Christ. The apparition, delusion, actuality did not speak but communicated mind to mind, as it were. It was trying to persuade me to become a Christian. It was surprisingly powerful. I remember my stock reply was something along the lines of “That’s not why I am here in this life”, thereby opening a door to the notion or reincarnation perhaps but nothing more. This struggle of wills went on for a few hours. The Christ figure in hippy beard and long hair, robes etc (a rather late version of him as artists cloned this image from a Roman god; all the original images being hermaphroditic, bare-faced and late adolescent) eventually disappeared. I slept a couple of hours and then faced the day. The nun who accompanied our party from the convent in Norfolk asked whether I had experienced anything unusual during the night. I felt a bit embarrassed to recount what I had seen. Before I described it, she said;
“You see, we were all praying for you until late in the night, hoping you might see the light.”
There  are many levels and forms of communication of which we are either unconscious or only dimly aware.
Twitter @profjacksanger

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The bearable lightness of dying
The last blog presented a sliver of the existence I knew as Sister Daphne. I have always – well, since a teenager – been preoccupied by the fundamental question of what is this thing called life? And as a corollary, what is this other thing called death? In fact, going back to the college days represented in a blog a week or two ago, I remember I was writing nihilistic poetry for it seemed as if I was teetering on the edge of the abyss. Fortunately my character never embraced any notion of suicide no matter how bleak the answers to these questions might turn out. Rather, I realized that there was time ahead of me. And with time might come an answer to what constituted my mortal coil. It was this train of thinking that still finds itself shaping what I write. Azimuth is a trilogy about the search for meaning. www.azimuthtrilogy.com The four novellas (three free downloading) I completed earlier this year all dance around a totem pole with a death’s mask at the top. www.chronometerpublications.me  And Twitter is especially good for fashioning aphorisms and the like which prove to be arrows pointing at my perennial affliction. For example at @Profjacksanger you have the following:
It is curious is it not that people want to die in their sleep after a lifetime of waiting for that moment?
A peer of Sister Daphne was Sister Katherine. I liked her very much. She was translucent. Unlike Sister Daphne she was pure convent nun. There were no doubts in her and yet there was no attempt to proselytize either. She emanated goodness. I used to enjoy conversations about life and death with her, sitting under an oak tree.
I hadn’t seen her for some time and asked after her health. “She’s a bit weak,” came the answer, “but she’s sitting in the garden at this moment”. I went to find her. Not the usual place. A glade, more secluded.
“How are you?”
“Couldn’t be better.”
‘The Sisters said you were a little weak.”
“Oh that. Yes.” She paused and then said, “I am going to die next week on (I’m sure she said) Wednesday.
“Of course you’re not!” I huffed, no doubt feeling she needed some uplifting jollity.
“I am. It is my favourite Saint’s day. We often die on our favourite Saint’s day. I don’t think there’s anything else I want to do and so another year is too much.” She smiled her wonderful, engaging smile.
Sister Katherine died the following Wednesday. Having not seen a physician for a long time, there was a post mortem. Her body was riddled with cancers and had been, the doctor judged, for years. He wondered how she had kept going for so long.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

On Exorcisms
You’ll find references to an exorcism I attended if you check the blogs for December 2012. Writing about Sister Daphne in the last foray into my biography reminded me of another one. (Memory is like thousands of bags full of substance but which are tied at the neck to each other so that you have a metaview, like a list of contents but have to untie each neck to get at what is harboured there.)
As I said, I worked as a social worker in a convent. We had about a dozen extremely emotionally disturbed adolescent girls, twenty or so staff and used a technique called regression therapy to enormously beneficial effect for most of them. Despite its efficacy it was never taken up country-wide because of its sophistication and cost in terms of skilled staff required. Anyway, imagine the premises we worked in on the convent estate. A truly gothic, mullioned, slit windowed red brick building with turrets. Very tall, particularly in morning and evening mist. Bedrooms along narrow corridors. A chapel which frightened the girls, situated between their rooms and my flat. Better than a thousand locks.
One girl came to us and Sister Daphne and the head of the unit, Sister Rita, were soon perturbed by  the girl’s smell. So were the other boarders. Though she washed and had clean clothes she exuded something which made the hair rise on the nape. She had a thin small voice coming from somewhere deep within her overweight body. She seemed to look from a depth so deep in her skull that you could not imagine its source. She heard voices.
One day we heard a noise that antennae told us wasn’t right and raced into the kitchen just in time to disturb the girl strangling another and thereby saving her life.
The priest to the convent at the time was called Godwin, believe it or not. Because we were not equipped to deal with psychopathy, the would-be strangler was moved to secure accommodation elsewhere. There were those among the staff who swore that she was possessed. Despite her leaving and much use of powerful cleaning products, her room retained her otherworldly odour. Father Godwin conducted an exorcism of the room. The smell disappeared. As girls left, so did its temporary history of  succour to the malevolent.
Twitter: @profjacksanger

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

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Sister Daphne’s Dilemmas
When we first met I was in my fifth year of teaching. It was the time of liberal studies in colleges of further education. The naming of courses is always political. Liberal Studies became General Studies and then Communication Studies as the cultural imperative to give apprentices and those returning to education after failing at school, a broader sense of the world, a critical consciousness and a capacity to see behind the media’s gloss and bias, slowly foundered on successive governments’ strategies to force social engineering to the forefront, whereby the young would be fitted for what was called ‘the world of work’.
Anyway, as a liberal studies teacher I taught psycho-drama to professionals (doesn’t that have the ring of the times?) The acid generation, the hatred of the establishment, the dropping out, the hair and gaudy attire, the last great surge towards personal freedom and anarchy, were all part of an optimism that helped constitute and drive the curriculum.
One of my students was Sister Daphne.  I set up a mining accident in the classroom. Lines of chairs became tunnels. The game revolved around whether you would escape or save others at risk of dying. One of life’s great dilemmas. Sister Daphne died on the classroom floor. In tears. Afterwards she said it was totally disturbing. She also came to me with dreams she was having. I don’t remember them now except that they revolved around the shattering of structures – including the convent walls.
When she joined the convent the biggest day of her life was the day she would leave her novice status and take the ring of Christ. A bride. She was overjoyed and after the rituals and prayers she told me she ran outside, flinging her arms in the air in exultation. Her new ring slipped away into the bushes.  The search took hours. Once repatriated with it, she said that the sun shone every day for five years.
This did not mean that she was immune to tests of faith. Her most graphic story involved her at Evensong prayers. Her mind began to slip away from a holy focus. A darkness seemed to cloud her thought. Her head ached. She put her hand up to ward off the pulse of evil and her hand contacted an enormous spider, sitting over her ‘third eye’.
I was very fond of her. She was always open about her internal battles between faith and skepticism, always tolerant of others and it was she who asked me, an atheist,  to work in the convent, to care for emotionally disturbed adolescent girls, an experience that has coloured my social and educational philosophy ever since.
Twitter: @profjacksanger

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ch ch ch ch ch ch changes…
David Bowie’s song came to mind as I started writing this blog. I was reflecting on the mysteries surrounding what we call fate. Fate is often a rationalizing of events that have occurred and which seem to have conspired some change in one’s life. A trauma, a chance meeting with someone who becomes one’s partner, an act of god, a range of domino-like incidents that then create a context which enwraps one in its coils. In an earlier blog I recounted how such a train of events over decades became a pattern – in hindsight – that led me to live in Ghana.
When I left school in 1962 and went on to a teachers’ college in Sunderland I took a spur of the moment decision which completely changed my life. Until I walked into the men’s hostel room which I had been allocated I was known by family, school and village friends as Eric. Now Eric was a quiet, retiring, shy boy in glasses, somewhat askance at the very sight of a pretty girl. Until the last couple of years he had been thin, bony and gawky. Then he had applied himself with some discipline to body and mind. He became a good tennis player, cricketer, swimmer. He did weights in his bedroom. He meditated on a cigarette lighter to levitate it from its resting position. He read Zen. I suppose Eric was both consciously and unconsciously preparing himself to be a different person. Like a snake his skin was too tight, too dull and too unattractive.
In the hostel, a young fellow from a nearby room wandered in and introduced himself, following this up with the “what’s your name?” question. “Er…Jack,” I answered, using my middle name for the first time. Within an hour I had met a dozen or more new compatriots and was known by my new monicker. I remember my brain turning rapidly on the axis of this newly discovered ‘Jack’. Who was he? Well, he was the opposite of Eric in many ways. He was outgoing. He was easy with the girls, he was sporty enough but didn’t mind being philosophical. He wrote poetry. He acted. He directed plays. He wore sideburns and a quiff. He played bass. All these things I admitted to within that first day. All these things became me and were expected of me. Are me. Although, over the years as I’ve experienced more and reflected more, the two sides of my character have melded. Introversion and extroversion only dominate in certain contexts.
There seems to me little doubt that major changes can be effected at any time in a person’s life despite the obvious caveat that the later one leaves it the harder it becomes because one’s history and one’s current circumstance tend to combine to force one’s ‘self’ into the straitjacket of social expectation. A close friend told me, when dying, that a sudden revelation in the previous weeks had led this individual to a sense of a life misplaced, of cards badly played, of an unnecessary subordination to social forces. Of a sense of loss.
I feel a lot better for being Jack with a bit of Eric going about his business happily underneath than the other way round; a timidly unassuming fellow with an increasingly frustrated other self wanting to burst from its constraints.
Twitter @profjacksanger

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hail Stones In the Pyrenees

Thought I’d digress from the current flow and describe an event, yesterday. Imagine the scene: sunshine, reading Montaigne on the recliner, rearing cliffs behind me with crows and woodpeckers creating a drum rhythm. A blackbird chortling solos above my head on the pear tree. All hot and humid and very south of France. Ten minutes later a towering black cloud breasts the peak of Canigou. Indoors I wander, taking stuff from the washing line on my way. Ten minutes more and hell unleashes its fury and a Mordor darkness descends. Giant hailstones crash and crush, stripping the fruit trees and the tomato plants, holing the parasol canopy, dimpling the metal on the car roof and bonnet, destroying the plastic laundry basket. A great brown river rushes down the road past the house carrying stones and tree branches. Everywhere is covered in white cobblestones.

Later I hear that cars have been junked, Velux roof lights shattered and bedrooms filled with ice.

Here’s a bit of doggerel on the event:

Twas a normal day in Ol’ Casteil
The sun it was a shining
Then all went black
The lightning crack’d
And crumbled heaven’s lining…

www.chronometerpublications.me
www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Friday, July 19, 2013

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“Dream Lover Where Are You…”
Hearing accounts of other people’s dreams is about as tasty as eating cheap mozzarella. They may intrigue, exhilarate, perturb or cause great distress to those who experience them but today’s listener generally remains turned off  by the telling – unless s/he is some kind of eager interpreter. Those who, like myself, find them uncannily redolent of parallel worlds, may have been influenced by Jung’s great work, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Every primitive culture accords the dream with significance. In the so-called sophisticated west we have generally forgotten – or deny – their importance in our lives. While science attempts a rational explanation of the brain’s machinations while we sleep, it is their very irrationality which links us to a kind of other-worldliness.  Waking up out of a dream state is like emerging from an underwater swim and finding life above its surface momentarily foreign. The dream, still clinging wetly to us, then falls away in droplets as we transit from one world to the other until. When we are dry again, we have divested it from our consciousness.
Maybe like you, I sometimes wake with such a sense of yearning for what I am leaving and a rejection of what I am re-entering that an angst stays with me as a dull ache all morning. It may have been a landscape or some other aspect of nature which I discovered like an intrepid  explorer or a realization that I was in an ongoing, deep and intimate relationship with people in a world far removed from my usual conscious one.  At times, when this sensation of having enjoyed another life with an individual or network of people is especially strong, I am convinced that it is the world into which I have woken that is the fraudulent one, the illusion, the true dream state. I feel absolute despair at not being able to continue my life with them.
After one particular event in which it seemed as though I loved, to my core, a woman who bore no likeness to anyone I have ever met, I started writing what turned out to be a novella called Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story. The narrative plays with the notion described above: which is the more authentic reality, the conscious one or the unconscious alternative?
@profjacksanger for tweets

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Zen and the Art of Psychic Maintenance
We had moved to a village called Ryton, close to the Tyne. I was about twelve. Naturally I joined the public library. In the earlier village of my childhood I was taking out adult books. By twelve I had read the vast bulk of the better American crime noir by Chandler, Cheyney, Wallace et all and was now on a lifetime’s cruise through space and time with Sci Fi. Another reason for attending the library regularly was that there was a pretty young librarian and fellow tennis player called Joyce Strong. The library was at the end of a ten minute walk, which included a graveyard.
Anyway, enough of this cursory filling-you-in. Despite Joyce’s undoubted charms, I loved books and was able to leave her at the desk and lose myself among the shelves. One day I succumbed to what Arthur Koestler called The Angel in the Library. For this angel to aid you in your life’s quest, you must clear your mind of trivia and/or a premeditation concerning what you want to read next,  and wander with your eyes virtually shut, up and down the aisles. At some point you will open them and be staring at the spine of a tome that will solve a current impasse or help shape your destiny.
I took down a book with Zen in the title. Zen has been my companion since that day. I published a relatively successful little book called An A to Zen of Management (the last few are boxed in my cave here in France) which consists of seventy odd aphorisms to open the minds of business leaders. The woman who illustrated it with Japanese calligraphy is now my son’s wife. My book, Azimuth, has a newly minted Zen aphorism to begin each chapter. Finally, I took to Twitter like a Zen intoxicant, finally finding a medium where the interplay between concise language and infinite thought could become an every day discipline.
So you see, that day in Ryton library when I, the callow youth, took down, unsuspectingly, an obscure collection of writings on paper within board covers, once opened proved to be a portal to my future life.
Examples:
Abandon what you have lost before you carry it
The impossible is the stillborn child of the unimaginative
Is your life-script the consequence of your authorship or your readership?
The Azimuth Trilogy:  www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Twitter: @profjacksanger

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

I said I’d write a sequence of blogs on the mysteries that attend my life. I am assuming that I am not unique in being subjected to uncanny forces beyond my powers of reason. I expect most people, if they spent a bit of time in personal reflection, would dredge up the inexplicable in their own lives. The fact of the matter is that if we do experience events beyond the pale, then we tend to consign them to deepest memory because we know we’d be ridiculed if we intimated we believed them. Our friends and acquaintances are always ultra-rational when it’s not their own lives held under a spotlight.
In the last couple of blogs I have introduced what Jung terms synchronicity, events that are bizarrely connected across time and space and seem to defy normal forces. Here’s another example, a vignette which speaks of the irrational.
I was born in India. By the time my family returned with me to the UK I spoke Urdu and English. By then I was aware that my elder sister had drowned and it took three or four years for my parents to conceive me. Four years after me they produced a girl, too. Until I was forty five or so I had the story of my sister’s death imprinted on my brain by my mother. She would say, “Little Margaret would be fifteen now” or Little Margaret would be twenty five now”. In other words my dead sister was ageing as I was and as a ghostly precursor to my life. She died, I knew – I had been told many times – at the age of a toddler, two or three. She was the daughter of an army man and his wife. My father was a significant player in building India’s military academy in Dehra Dun, a couple of hundred miles north of Delhi. He was seconded to the Indian military whilst also a captain in the PT Corps. He helped stage those old TV  events at Earl’s Court where services competed in assembling canons, doing gymnastics and the like.
My sister was found drowned in the water tank in the garden. She had apparently climbed over the little protective fence. There she was, like Ophelia. It nearly destroyed my father and my mother had to be strong to hold their relationship together.
Moving on forty years. I accompanied my dying father back to this place where he had been ‘the man’ and where my ghostly sister began her immaterial ageing. Being an academic I was invited to address India’s leading military trainers and stood before a packed lecture theatre with my father sitting in the front row, observing his son doing something he had done forty to fifty years before. We had tea in the bungalow where I first crawled. This was my first return after the intervening decades.
I decided to find my sister’s grave. My father was reluctant. Maybe the prostate cancer and the catheter made him feel unprepared. Anyway we went. We found the grave. It had been partially defaced with strange hieroglyphs. We interrogated the register in the little church. There was her name, Margaret Sanger. There was her age. Six years. Now, can you imagine? Six? But she was surely a toddler! Finally my father talked about that distant time.
Margaret was born with a fear of water. She hated being bathed and would scream. When she was eighteen months her screams brought adults into the garden to find her pointing. A toddler was drowning in the fountain but her prompt but precocious warning saved it. She wanted to learn to swim. When my father took her to the swimming baths she grew rigid as she approached and turned blue when he gently eased her into the water. He taught hundreds to swim in his later life. He became a swimming pool manager after the army. But not his own daughter. Not Little Margaret. The very strange thing about her death was this: the post mortem showed no water in her lungs. My father could not explain it except that she may have died from fear. Or, I told myself, she had been asphyxiated and thrown into the tank. Who knows?
I went to see her grave the next morning early. I had arranged for the gardener to put flowers on her stone. He had filled an indent in her slab and rose petals floated there. I heard a little girl crying in my mind. Self-delusion, no doubt.
My parents had more luck with their second daughter. She took to water like the proverbial duck. In fact she became one of Britain’s leading women breast-strokers, aged only thirteen.
Little Margaret would be 74 now.
www.chronometerpublications.mefor free reads and ones to buy.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Daydream believer

I’ve had a number of readers kind enough to compliment the direction of these blogs. Well, that’s not quite exact. There have been more compliments as the blogs begin to entertain the mysterious and the uncanny. Read the last few and you will see what I mean. The place of strange events in our lives gives rise to all sorts of mental hocus pocus. It’s the same unconscious foundation in our brains that gives rise to religious faith, fatalism and alien abductions, I’d guess. In some far-off blog which the researchers among you might be able to weed out I commented on the brain’s ‘god spot’. Put an electrode in there and even Richard Dawkins would be seeing angels. Another blog, at a different time, at some point in December 2012, recounts the adventures of yours truly as I extricate a friend from the belief that he has been sent to this earth to tip the devil back into the darkest pit for another one thousand years.
As I mentioned the other day, I’m not really given to beliefs in the paranormal. There have got to be explanations for these events even as they happen to me but it doesn’t stop me being bemused and unsettled by them. The most recent has been discovering that I had written the future, in the early eighties (described in my last little essay here) and one that has since come to pass. On reflection in bed this morning, allowing the dawn chorus to permeate my spirit with its songs of the infinite cosmos, I realized that my life has been punctuated by mysterious events. Given the interest the last one or two have generated, I’m going to continue in that vein. First a bit of background.
I was born in India. At four I was perfectly bi-lingual; Urdu and English. On the sea-going trip to Britain which lasted a number of months, I lost all Urdu. It probably blighted by academic development. It’s a well known syndrome. However, my starved bilingualism led to an inordinate desire to write in the one language remaining. A school inspector visiting Shadforth  C of E junior school commented that I was going to be a writer. He read out, “King Alfred’s ships floated in the bay like swans.” Something of that ilk. I was a very imaginative child. I had the whole school (thirty children) playing jousting knights with Brussels sprouts stalks for clubs, sticks for lances and dustbin lids for shields on the school field. Girls sat on a wall watching and we gave our favours (bits of ribbon) to the Guinivere we loved best, upon a victory. After such a tournament I wandered off down the steep meadow, to cross the stream to my house. As I approached a hedge I remembered I’d had a dream of a nest in just such a bush. It was the shape of a spinning top and had three eggs. I moved excitedly among the blackthorn and found the place. There it was, exactly as dreamt. I took one of the three ovals for my collection. But it was with a curious sense of power. If I could do this, maybe I could use this force at will.
I couldn’t. But I could do it without will. Over the years whenever I wanted something that might progress my immediate train of action, it would drop into my lap. Second hand shops were perfect territory for disgorging valuable pieces of the jigsaw of current life. It proved a strong version of serendipity. When I got to be a student in a teacher’s college in Sunderland I always ran out of grant at the end of the term and my father never subbed me what he was supposed to. I went off with my last ten shillings to the bookmakers and won what I needed to last until the end of term.
It’s very low level, this capacity to bend fate to my will. I haven’t won the lottery, for example.
I know this is all a bit weak and lacking in force majeure but it’s a start. (Believe it or not I wrote the French just now and had to check what it meant. Yet another example of writing from the unconscious tolling the years back to King Alfred or onwards to the eventual creation of The Azimuth Trilogy.)

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

–>
The sorcery of scribbling
In a blog, many moons ago, I wrote about the creation of The Azimuth Trilogy. I was fascinated by the act of writing myself into knowledge. Since I had placed the novel in ancient times and wasn’t a historian, everything in the books came from my imagination. When I had finished the thousand or so pages I became suddenly concerned that the work would be embarrassing. What if I got my facts wrong so badly that I would be a laughing stock? So I checked. It was amazing that my sure-footed imagination had dredged from somewhere a whole world that had truly existed. In incredible detail. You can search through the early blogs on writing to flesh it out but the basic tenet is that writers can be conduits to the shared experience of homo sapiens. Mystics call it channeling but the term may a bit too mystical for me.
Then, only two or three blogs ago, I wrote about the mysterious experience of finding myself in Ghana and how some imperative had drawn me there, despite myself. It consisted of a series of synchronous events, spread over time, strange in themselves; portents, if you will.
I am experiencing much the same again. I discovered the delights of the OCR recently. This is computer software that recognizes scans of printed pages and turns them into editable word files. Now, in my writer’s war chest, I have a number of novels. I always wrote even when leading a reasonably fulfilling academic career as a research professor. It was a necessary complement to the less glamorous life I was leading.
When I finished my novel earlier this year about a super-heroine in a dystopian future Britain, A Woman Who Kills, I turfed out one of these novels. It was typed and legible enough for the OCR. Three days later I had transcribed it into a word file. It is called Middle Ages and deals with the vicissitudes of a group of overweight women and their husbands in Norwich, England. Middle class angst. A dark comedy of manners. Coming eventually to a kindle near you. Or a shop. What is completely engrossing is that I hardly remember writing it, have no idea of the plot and find it a real revelation of life and mores in the early 1980s. It stands up as a sociological exposé of those Thatcherian days. But (segwaying back to the beginning of this blog) what is truly occult is that the names of the characters, chosen at random when I was writing, have all become key names among my friendships and associations, developed in the years long after the book was finished. Not only that but all the issues about being overweight for a woman are headlines in the media.
And, of course, those who are following these blogs would know that I married someone four years ago, Helen Teague, who designs clothes for large women and is in partnership with Dawn French the comedienne and writer. Imagine me, therefore, editing this novel, written by a former self some thirty years ago and finding in its pages, all sorts of foretellings of what has since come to pass. Creepy or what?
More of my writing at www.chronometerpublications.me
The Azimuth Trilogy at: www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Helen’s and Dawn’s clothing website is: www.sixteen47.com  

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

I write therefore I exist – but only if you read
If a tree falls in the forest and there is no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound? is a well known philosophical conundrum – since sound is only a vibration in our ears. Those that write e-books are posed with a parallel train of thought. If an e-book is written and posted on various platforms but is never downloaded, did the author ever write it? After all, text on a screen can only exist once a brain with eyes deciphers it. Even then the author may be forgiven for believing  s/he exists as a book’s progenitor only when a review pops up on Amazon or elsewhere.
We humans are vulnerable creatures. Evolution of our central nervous systems has led us to conjecturing whether we are here at all. Does everything around us merely constitute glorious figments of overactive imaginations, bound to dissolve into nothingness upon our decease? If every man and woman is an island then our creative artifacts represent home made rafts upon which we attempt to cross from isolation to the mainland of human gregariousness. Writing books bound for e-readers, those electronics clutched by our customers and whose screens become filled with the outpourings of our imaginations, are our acts of attempted escape from the unbearable isolation of being.
So, Dear Reader, if you download avidly, remember the author cannot exist until you review what it is that you have read. It is a great responsibility; the existence of the author!
More writing from Jack Sanger aka Eric le Sange can be found at:

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

–>
Ghana and Synchronicity
Perhaps you know about Jungian notions of synchronicity but if so – bear with me a moment as I explain. If events occur that seem more than mere coincidence then they are synchronous. I begin this way as a preamble to three such experiences, occurring at different points in my life which came together in some kind of otherworldy fashion and point to the extraordinary.
The first of these connective events took place some forty years ago. A close friend at the time, Vic Clarke (publicly known as Lindsay Clarke, the writer) and another writer and myself met once a week to discuss our latest outpourings. Vic published a novel called Sunday Whiteman which was loosely based upon his experience as a teacher in a village in Ghana.
Some ten years later I was living in a terraced house in Norwich and came across an old lady who had been a teacher in Ghana, also writing a book while there, called Ashanti Boy. I wrote a poem after her death which I am including at the end of this blog.
Then, some twenty years on, my son Joseph was invited to play keyboards with the reformed Osibesa, a Ghanaian Afro-pop band that was very big internationally in the 60s. He went over to Accra and spent time with them playing at weddings and funerals (!) before a tour of the UK also involving a few days at the Edinburgh Festival.
Some fifteen years later I communicated via chance circumstances with a woman in Accra, the business partner of Dawn French in a clothing venture – fashion for the larger woman. We met up – and became married.
The point is, prior to my meeting with Vic, I knew nothing about Africa. I am sure the idea of going there was beyond any desire or fantasy. India (where I was born) filled that particular niche in my psyche. Now I have lived in Accra for four years, sharing it with France. But it’s a strong case for synchronicity, don’t you think? I was drawn to Ghana whether I wanted to be or not though the pull did not become a conscious force until the very end.
Here’s the poem:
Nocky
She carried, deep within her, an unwritten past in Africa
and held it smouldering in a bricked kiln of stern pride
through whose vents the Norfolk winds whistled up the shapes of things gone by
in sudden snurts of flame.
Halfway through her second book, Nockv died,
Africa gripped by a final writer’s block.
She’d walked this grey brick Norwich street beneath the gathering charge of swallows
pulling shopping, her grey hair awry, like any other of our heavy ankled folk
stumping out of life.
Yet behind her slightly batty eyes no dementia hid or interminable
list of trivia; but Africa dipped in pen and pressed
against each page, dark and bleeding still,
Africa behind the still net curtains and heavy-bolted blankness of her house,
Africa silent in the eyes of her cat
stiffly waiting at the window.
So when the police broke in with their neat removal of a backdoor pane
to find her fallen open like a dried flower,
the curtains shook and the cat stretched and Africa was at last let out
in time to seek a home-going on the black dispatch of
attendant swallows’ backs.
More writing at www.chronometerpublications.meincluding 3 free novellas to download.
My wife’s company with Dawn is: www.sixteen47.com
The book of mine I’d like you to read, in particular is at www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sex with her indoors 16th century style
Apologies for the non-PC heading but it serves a purpose. Well, two. The first is to garner some attention and the second is to point to the fact that times haven’t changed much since Montaigne wrote the essays for which he is now remembered. I am basing this on Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book: How to Live which is a sort of discursive biography of the man.
Though he apparently loved his wife (more as time went on) the very idea of having raunchy sex with her was not on the ticket. He would have been sick at the thought. In France in the 16thcentury it was a cultural no-no. The belief was that if you decided to try the various positions one might find in the Kama Sutra you could easily turn your wife into a nymphomaniac. Sex had to be sober and a duty rather than a pleasure. If you wanted a bit (well, a lot) on the side you should find it elsewhere in affaires or pleasure houses.
Montaigne liked sex very much, even if beset by the small problem of his diminutive penis. Nevertheless, amusingly,  he had much to say about female ardour. If a woman’s heart is not in it he says that she ‘goes at it with only one buttock’.  In similar vein he addresses the lover whose mind is not on the job but is fantasizing about another man altogether; ‘What if she eats your bread with the sauce of a more agreeable imagination?’  He points out that the graffiti daubing the walls of stately homes, which show male appendages at three times life size, have the dual effect of raising unrealistic hopes on the part of passing women while making men cower in low self-esteem.
The realization for any sociologically minded person in the 21st century that the place of sex in society is largely determined by convention rather than the result of some universal verity, should be enlightening and lead to more challenge of what is regarded as the norm. The assumption of what is unacceptable is rarely universal. Religions reveal their shaky foundations as they try to proscribe certain sexual acts. Governments likewise. Travel round the globe and cross not just national boundaries but sexual ones too. Or dip into history.
For various depictions of sex, from the unvarnished to the highly embroidered, you could try my various books, some of them free at: www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

 
Big is beautiful
Watching a Sky Arts panel discussion  chaired by Mariella Frostrup at the Hay Festival, I was struck by an author I did not know called Lionel Shriver. She (she had assumed the male first name by choice when young) has just brought out a new novel, Big Brother, which echoes her personal tragedy of losing a middle aged brother to obesity. It is not the book that has prompted this short essay but what she said in response to Frostrup’s remark that she might have problems of her own regarding food. She denied the problematic nature of her eating habits but defended them from a quite novel perspective.
She has coffee at 11.00 am and eats at 11.00 pm. Why? So that she can regain the lost innocence of childhood where eating was unconditional until you felt full. No thoughts to health or fashion, just a response to the body’s immediate needs. Shriver said that she eats as much as she wants until replenished. She also said that by eating this way she has a closer intimacy with food. Her experience of what she eats is greatly accentuated.
The idea of a lost innocence or at least a lost world of natural eating, seems insightful. She went on to say that nearly everyone has some kind of neurotic relationship with food. Eating habits are the consequence of cultural imperatives. At the furthest extremes of anorexia or obesity they are profoundly self-evident and become visual markers worn on the sleeves of the sufferers, social taboos that are not confronted person to person but are nevertheless discussed without any sense of empathy, behind the individuals’ backs. For Shriver this is a profound injustice. Not only do people have to manage their organic, physiological debilitation but they have to navigate public denigration, mostly, she feels, resulting from a fearful projection on the part of critical onlookers that they, too, may one day succumb. They are somehow blamed for what they have become and are lesser human beings as a consequence.
My wife designs fasionable clothing for the larger woman and receives, daily, tributes to her Company’s wares because they enhance customers’ body shapes in the same way any fashion house’s products only do for those of slim proportions. Customers feel valued and respected and no longer the outcasts of a society dominated by a narrow view of so-called normality.
See the clothing at: www.sixteen47.com
Literary works by Jack Sanger aka Eric le Sange, including 3 FREE novellas at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

–>
Living with Montaigne in the mountains
I was reading Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, How to Live, on the writings of Montaigne, today. You can imagine it; me laid out on my French terrace, blue skies, rearing mountain cliffs behind me, spring blossom from the Wisteria above, the ratcheting croaks of carrion crows in the woods and a particularly tuneful blackbird mimic on the very top of the pear tree. I suppose being only three hours from where Montaigne lived adds a certain piquancy to reading about him. He was extraordinary. Possibly the first blogger – because that is how we might view the ‘common place diary’, today – he wrote about what was happening about him and wanted to know why. Why do we feel the things we feel, what is life, how do we know the experience of another person?  How do you live a good life? I find it riveting and a little chastening that what he has said and inscribed is as pertinent at this moment as it was then. Apparently, it is the experience of most of his readers over the last few hundred years, from the finest philosophical minds to the every day person keen to extend his/her view of existence, that we all feel we could have written exactly what Montaigne wrote. He plumbs the business of being human.
One vignette jumped off the page as I was indulging in this sun and silence. He talks of  a historical event. A man is found guilty in court and is due to be hung. Just before the execution another man confesses but the justice of the time ignores the new evidence. They go on with the hanging because they don’t want the the judge’s verdict to be brought into disrepute.
As I was saying, the relevance to today is striking. In every western, so-called developed society, police and judicial criminality is regularly covered up in the interests of ‘trust in the law’ or ‘the national interest’. Meanwhile, politicians of all persuasions, judges, senior police officers and the rest are outed and held to account by bloggers or the media (when it suits them) with appalling frequency.
In A Woman Who Kills, my new book to be published later this year and set in a dystopian future Britain, corruption is everywhere. Rather than have my characters fight a holier than thou war against the pervasiveness of their cancerous culture, I found them refusing to seek insurrection. Instead, they choose to chip away at the rottenness and not risk a complete breakdown of stability. Better the semblance of justice than none at all.
While I absolutely hate it as a notion, this is the way that societies exist and flourish. Something in me as a writer was rather pleased to be in accord with old Montaigne. It’s murky out there. Murkiness is part and parcel of our lives. We know this even as we strive to bring clarity, tolerance and harmony to our societies.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

 Telling it how it is – Azimuth
A marketer said I should be more explicit about the story of the Azimuth Trilogy. Here’s what I have written. It’s now on the site.
A royal historian, Kamil,  is called to the court of his emperor. He is commissioned to write the history of a famous man, a magus,  who lived many centuries before and whose thoughts and deeds influenced all the major religions and moral practices thereafter. The history is to help educate the willful teenage daughter of the emperor, Sabiya. He writes the history and proceeds to read it to her. As he does so he discovers that she is intelligent, provocative and manipulative. Not only that but she realises that this plump, middle aged man has a forensic brain and enlists his support in protecting her against her enemies, who would either kill her or find the means to disinherit her.
So Azimuth consists of two parallel stories like a double helix. The life adventures of the Magus represents one aspect of every chapter and the doings of the court and Kamil’s entwinement in the world of Sabiya, represents the other. The Magus’ story is told in separate adventures, chapter by chapter and each is prefigured in sequence by the esoteric major Arcana cards of the Tarot pack.  They, mysteriously, give some inkling of what is to follow but they are cryptic and obscure.  At the same time, wrapped round these adventures or tales, the story of the court with its intrigues, devilment, passions and bloody violence, maintains a tense narrative that frames the historian’s readings.
Book One: The First Journey, begins with the Magus’ extraordinary, almost magical, arrival in the world and follows his growing up and his discovery of his talents, his relationship with his ‘foster’ father and his questioning of everything around him including his heretical attitude to religions and their gods. Each of his 22 adventures is like a short story, yet is linked to the next. We see him grow, make mistakes, face great dangers, come upon worlds peopled by extraordinary three dimensional characters and display a maturity of thought far beyond his years. By the end of the book he is a powerful warrior of a man, a sage in the making and his impact upon the lives and cultures of those he has met is exceptional. Each story challenges the reader to think about aspects of life and death, of love and of belief but never intrusively.
While these stories unroll, Kamil gradually becomes embroiled in the machinations of the court and shows he is a dab hand at solving murder and unraveling a scheming plot against Princess Sabiya’s life. But will that be enough to save her?
Book Two: The Second Journey, has 22 more tales, headed by the same sequence of Tarot cards. This is the middle stage of the Magus’ life and encompasses what he became famed for. He is more of a sage, has crystallized some of his thinking about the nature of existence but is faced by the likelihood of a terrible war which will lay waste to the populations of  east and west. His journey to resolve this awful, impending conflict is again broken into separate adventures, linked and then fused as the book reaches its tense conclusion. All the while the Tarot cards display more and more influence on events both within the tales and outside them. And Kamil’s readings of the tales help to influence Sabiya’s desperate fight to save her prospective empire.
As in Book One, Kamil’s life and power within the court slowly grows. Princess Sabiya is now a young woman. She is to become empress one day and is much sought after. There arrives in the court a strange, malevolent Rasputin of a creature called The Red Man who seems bent on the court’s destruction, as well as sullying Sabiya’s physical and emotional world. Kamil may be her only defence against the man’s hypnotic, rapacious powers. All the while, Kamil’s own life undergoes change, much of it orchestrated by Sabiya, herself, who has taken an interest in changing him from a ‘dry old historian’ into a social, attractive man of the court.
Finally we arrive at Book Three: The Final Journey. This is the final phase of the Magus’ life. He is recognized everywhere for his power and authority, his wisdom and central philosophy. He is now known as The Magus. There are 22 more chapters but the tales are now melded into a flowing narrative as the Magus journeys with a man of extreme evil to discover the secret of immortality. There are still tales within the overall tale, bloody adventures and disturbing conflicts, as good and evil edge towards a climactic and utterly unexpected conclusion. Who will be victor? Who will gain immortality?
This part of the history of the Magus is read by an older, wiser Kamil to Sabiya’s daughter, Shahrazad. Sabiya is now empress and commissions Kamil to write a third book about the Magus and to read it to her daughter.  Again, Kamil is faced with protecting a willful, manipulative late adolescent girl who is at least the equal of her powerful mother in bending fate to her will. But here, instead of threats to the court, he is drawn into the mystery of Shahrazad’s very being and her desire to discover her blood roots. Kamil and Shahrazad embark on adventures that vie with those of the Magus himself in their mysterious, almost magical nature and their chilling  danger. Tarot cards occupy their lives even more, though their profound messages are often difficult to interpret until after events have taken place.
And thus The Azimuth Trilogy comes to a close, two narratives ending in the last chapter, each with a conclusion that is spellbinding and unforeseen.
For more on The Azimuth Trilogy go to: www.azimuthtrilogy.com 
For other fiction plus #free books go to: www.chronometerpublications.me 
For tweets go to @profjacksanger


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Monday, May 27, 2013

–>
Bare faced liars
I watched a programme made for the telly about the Dark Ages and how light they actually were. This one focused on Christianity in the first 400 years after the supposed birth of Christ. It examined the art of that period. For three hundred years there were no depictions of Christ at all, only ciphers, codes, anagrams. Then there emerged the first portraits. Since there is nothing in the New Testaments to guide the artists, no lean-jawed, steely-eyed, hippy peace-lover, they did exactly what games programmers do today and sketched the ideal. For them it was a beardless youth, androgynously breasty and sweet of lip. Christ was both male and female. He carried a magic wand with which he did tricks called miracles. Like computer programmers they had cast around for useful prototypes, the bisexual equivalent of a Lara Croft or a shoot-em-up platoon leader. They found it in Roman art. Apollo was ideal. Blonde and curly haired, appealing like David Bowie to both sexes. The suggestion made in the programme was that there were no female figures to idolise in Christianity at the time. Then along came depictions of the Marys, the virgin mother and Magdalene the lover (eventually twisted into a new shape and vilified as a prostitute). Now that the female aspect was clarified the artists and the aggressively developing Christian church could look to the Roman God Zeus for new inspiration. Bearded, mature, a powerful leader, lord of all he surveyed. What better image for their proselytizing?  What an archetype! It has lasted a couple of millennia. Christians the world over, black, white and every colour in between, regardless of the place of beard and hair in their cultures, venerate this ubiquitous image of the hairy saviour.
Advertising is a powerful tool if you get the symbolic essence right.
www.chronometerpublications.mefor free novellas and other books to buy
www.azimuthtrilogy.comfor the best of all worlds where the invention of a sage is highly visual!

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

For Queen and Country
A soldier dies in London, hacked to pieces by two extremists. It is horrific. It is in broad daylight. The killers display a crazed imperturbability to the hand held cameras of ordinary passers-by. A woman bravely accosts them. Police arrive and shoot and injure them before they themselves are attacked. The media circus follows. The soldier’s family are put on camera in their desperate grief. Every news broadcast takes the viewer to the growing mounds of flowers and tributes. Politicians talk of terror. Low-tech attacks like these cannot be prevented. We are all in danger. We should be afraid. Now the Home Secretary wants to reintroduce a snoopers’ charter which will enable everyone to be watched, followed, have his or her privacy undermined. The dead man fought for Queen and country in one of the most unpopular wars imaginable. Britain is in Afghanistan supporting its corrupt government. Britain is in Iraq where the toppling of a tyrant has led to vicious tribal war and the disintegration of its society because Britain and its allies did nothing about ensuring peaceful transition after the dictator died, having first supplied it with arms like most countries in the war torn Middle East. The death of the soldier helps the government. Cameron talks about the country being stronger for the murder, united against terrorism. He can project himself as the resolute leader. Still the media roll the images. The dead soldier’s town. The priest at his memorial service talking about the local lad who fought for Queen and country and who died on the streets outside his barracks. The poor man suffered his death in the worst circumstances imaginable but it was never going to be a personal tragedy. It was going to become something else, a cynical opportunity to raise a population’s defiance, an opportunity to divert their thoughts from the dead soldier’s fellow men and women who are being killed overseas every day in wars that could never be won and where the civilians’ obscene  death toll continually mounts. An opportunity for manipulation. An opportunity to rewrite history, gloss it over, emphasise what a democratic country Britain is and how just, therefore, must be its overseas campaigns. An opportunity to get people onside. To induce support for the military. To deflect focus away from the political establishment.
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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Writing “A Woman Who Kills”
I’m about half way through a final edit of A Woman Who Kills. It ended up being 230 pages rather than the fifty or so that I had imagined. (See last blog.)Having finished Azimuth, got it printed and then put on every conceivable device platform, I wanted to keep writing but at a less intense level. By this I mean that The Azimuth Trilogy is deeply philosophical, a moral maze, a facing up to the quandaries of this existence. It is not religious in the usual sense but deals with spirituality as seen from a skeptic’s point of view. It is a big book. It is my opus. It is what I wanted to write before I died. Now it exists in real and virtual worlds. The reviews have been more than kind. Anyway, this preamble was to explain my desire to write a few novellas. I wrote three in five months, a science fiction called Future Imperfect, a tale of facing death called The Sense of Being Sinbad and a curious soft horror story called The Visionary. They have been (to my eyes anyway) hugely successful. As I write, 167,000 pages have been viewed in three months. A friend asked me what it was like to know that your words have been consumed by so many people. Not quite like having sex with a stranger, I said,  but a virtual me having sex with virtual strangers. In other words it is a form of twice removed intimacy.
A Woman Who Kills began as yet another, different again, genre novella. I liked the idea of a challenge to live within the means of a new set of expectations. But it grew. I liked the main character, Grace Dart, who shares with the Magus of Azimutha certain amorality. The genre (if it is one – it is in film, of course) is superhero or super-heroine. In this case I loved the whole Kate Beckinsdale, Michelle Pfeiffer, Angelina Jolie package of the sexy woman who is more than an equal of men, physically and the ballet of the choreographed action. The girl in Hanna, the replicant women in Blade Runner also come to mind.
The challenge was not the gradual changes in Grace’s character or evincing a dystopian Britain where the global collapse of the internet brings the country to its knees but the action itself. Superheroes have many battles, the genre demanding that they be against individuals, groups and massed ranks of opponents. Making each bit of action different and full of tension is mind stretching. I have had some compliments about the visual nature of my writing and here I had to ‘see’ every tiny element of the big picture of physical conflict. It’s been great!

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

In with the new….


I started what I thought was a novella before Christmas, following the somewhat successful completion of three novellas which I offered free on my website and which have amassed nearly 150,000 pages viewed in just over two months. See them at: www.chronometerpublications.me
Like best laid plans in life, the novella has gone astray. 200 pages astray. The end is in sight for the first draft which I thought you might like to taste here. It is the first short chapter and exactly how it came out on the page. It’s called A Woman Who Kills and is a take on superheroes, here set in a dystopian future where the internet has gone kaput.
Chapter One 
She sat hunched with her back against a broken dry stone wall on the hilltop of a bumpy ridge in the Farmsteads. The bony line of uplands ran down most of the centre of the country so she could see hundreds of square miles to the east and the same to the west, sugared with frost. Not far away, its motor chugging on vegetable oils like a steamroller, stood the camouflaged car. Built like a tank, every external element of it was designed to withstand bomb and bullet. It had three rows of seats, the central one for its cargo; the wealthiest of private passengers, senior civil servants, gangland bosses and Cabinet Ministers. And her.
Far away, coming out of the southeast, its fuselage flashing in the low winter sun, was an armoured tank of a car with two motor cycle outriders moving in a shallow arc up the escarpment towards her. Her mobile phone had sent her exact co-ordinates towards it. The newly positioned tele-communications satellite was making work that much easier for those with membership of its elite population of clients. Everywhere, people had mothballed their once state of the art video-phones against the day that prices dropped sufficiently for them to subscribe to the new network. For at least another couple of years the devices would be worth next to nothing. There was talk that Spacecell Inc., which had launched the satellite, was planning to keep the new systems incompatible with the old.
She stood up from her shelter, into the wind, its razor edge making her eyes water. Then she stepped gingerly over the springy bog turf towards the meadow with its circle of standing stones. The car drew to a halt fifty metres from the prehistoric site. A tall man in a long black cashmere coat and balaclava climbed out. She pulled a scarf around her nose and lower face and entered the circle. He came in from the other side.
“Grace,” he acknowledged with a moneyed accent.
“Sir,” she greeted him in return, her tone light and amused at the lengths he went for secrecy.
“Are you well?”
“Fine.”
“No news from your father?”
“No. None expected.”
‘He was always a reprobate. But we must be thankful that he and your mother produced you.”
“It was no fluke.”
“Indeed. Your biography confirms it. Time for the ultimate work now.”
“I am listening.”
“It’s all on here,” he said, taking the drive from his pocket in a yellow, card envelope and passing it over.
“I’ll take a look.”
“Good. Threat to Parliament. Plots against our noble realm. The prevention of a meltdown of life as we know it, eh? As if we hadn’t melted enough already. Nobody is exempt. Even me. ”
She laughed. “I hardly know you, so that won’t be a problem. What about my relations with Bloque?”
“Maintain them as normal. Bloque is especially interesting which is why I introduced you. He eats too well for a Service Head. He will suggest you eliminate a retired she-hag. Do so. She deserves retribution. But use his commission to seek out her network. She is not far from the centre of my concerns.” The man turned away. Then he looked back at her, offering a small metal badge stitched on to leather. “You might need this from now on. You’re official. Show it sparingly.” He took a pace away, “It’s good we could meet here. My first visit to Arbor Low. Gives a bit of spice to our rendezvous. What do you think of its ambience?”
Grace stilled her mind. She picked up a faint fizz of static. “It has presence.”
“Yes. Once the communications satellite of its time. Ok Grace. You can go. I’ll meditate awhile.”
Her last image as she glanced over her shoulder was of him facing the keystone with its hole for the winter solstice, arms crossed in front of his chest, palms on shoulders. Everyone to his own. 
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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Azimuth Trilogy (New review (2))
“Azimuth may well be intimidating to some, such is the considerable heft of the trilogy, though this may be one advantage of reading them separately – or on a Kindle – where you get all the joy of the text, without the workout of holding up the book.
 
Once opened it is a joy.
 
The first thing to note is the ambitious structure, a story within a story, twin plots running simultaneously,separate but with certain parallels, generously spelt out, in case you were in danger of missing them, by Kamil. For me it works unusually well. I often find stories composed this way lack symmetry, leaving the reader (or viewer) interested in one story disproportionately relative to the other, and impatient when faced with the “lesser” story. Azimuth finds an admirable balance. The longer, perhaps senior, story-within-the-story, is captivating and will linger in my memory, I suspect, for a long time. The circumstances surrounding the reading of that story serve as book-ends either side of each chapter, and are themselves engaging and worthwhile.
 
The pace is pleasing, and the prose beautiful and evocative. The characters have real depth and it is interesting that so many of the strongest characters in the book are female. Extraordinary attention to detail makes it a very visual book, with descriptions of clothes and scenery putting you in a world that is magical, mystical, beautiful – but not excessively fantastical. Many reviews compare it to The Lord Of The Rings, an obvious and understandable comparison, not least because it is a trilogy. But for me it is also a misleading one. This is not a world of ogres, elves and goblins. In the first book, particularly, the book I was reminded of most was Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, a similar blend of journeying, fictionalised history and religious philosophy – and of course with similar references to The Magus.
 

That feels like the crux of the book, a biography of a fictional character, the imagined father of atheism – or humanism. The evolution of his Right Path feels like the genesis of a great religion, making The Magus akin to Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha. It sounds heavy, but there is enough travel and adventure to lighten the mood.

www.azimuthtrilogy.com/reviews
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thatcher
I’m not going to say much. I have been watching Sky, BBC and various other news stations. I have seen the jowly conservatives in obeisance.  I’ve seen the angry younger generations of those she abused, celebrating her death like some medieval pageant. I’ve seen the re-writing of history. I’ve heard over and over again that Thatcher ‘saved’ Britain. That she was a great leader.
My definition of a great leader is, like Mandela, one who brings about reconciliation. Thatcher was incapable of such a sentiment. Class war exists today in the UK. The poor are ever more downtrodden, more ill-educated and unhealthy. It is the inevitable consequence of free market capitalism.  Remember that it was Thatcher that broke society. Deregulation and privatization have been an unqualified success for the few and a plague on the houses of the many. The very idea of a state-like funeral ceremony for a woman who had no empathy for ‘society’ but saw the all-conquering individual as the deus ex machina of change  is, quite frankly, appalling. She protected Pinochet. She supported the whites during apartheid in South Africa.
I was brought up on council estates in mining communities. Good, hard-working people. Their bonds irrevocably torn asunder by a mercenary police force. The same kind of force that was responsible for the death of football supporters and the lying vilification of working class Liverpudlians in the Hillsborough disaster. Thatcher quashed an early, critical report of the police’s actions in Sheffield on the basis that people should not have their trust in the police undermined. If Thatcher had been a great leader she would have dealt with Scargill, summarily,  and found a way of bringing the miners and other industrial workers onside. Of softening the blow of unemployment. Of making people feel valued. Of saving their towns and villages and culture.
Instead we got the gross greed of the loadsamoney generation. The conspicuously rich making money from privatizing industries and ripping them off while the country’s infra-structure was allowed to rot.
Politicians are extending their sympathy to her twin children. One of them is an arms dealer and a gun-runner. It’s all too sick for words.
Ceremonial funeral?
It is as though nothing has changed in man’s inhumanity to man. You might want to read:
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And there are free books at: www.chronometerpublications.me

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Monday, April 1, 2013

Latest Review of The Azimuth Trilogy
I decided to wait until I’d read all three of these excellent books before reviewing, because I knew in advance that the threads of the first continue all the way through to the end of the third. Now, my memory of the first book is almost as a prelude to the other two.
There are two main stories in the trilogy: That of “the Magus”, a semi-historical, semi-mythical warrior/philosopher; and that of Kamil the historian, set centuries later in north Africa (but a long time before the present day). Throughout the book, the tale of the Magus is told by Kamil to Princess Sabiyah, the impetuous and fiery – yet sharply intelligent – heir to the throne.
In the first book, we get to know these and other principle players. As the history of the Magus’s youth unfolds, and his character is forged in fragments of history (each linked thematically to a Tarot card), Kamil and the princess become embroiled in dangerous politics and – of course – their own destinies begin to be affected by the Magus’s tale.
At first the reader may assume that Kamil’s is the “main” story, but as the first book nears it’s conclusion the legend of the Magus gathers pace and becomes gripping in it’s own right. However, I never felt that the changes between the two worlds were jarring or contrived – I was allowed to slip gracefully in and out of the different periods in history (or legend).
In the second book, the Magus is now a man, and so his story becomes less fragmented, and has more direction and momentum; meanwhile a unique and fearsome enemy enters the lives of Kamil and Sabiyah. This new character’s terrifying exterior and malevolent intent are perhaps my most vivid memory of the whole trilogy, and events are set in motion which have repercussions right through to the startling double-conclusion of the third book.
All of the characters are dynamic, fascinating and occasionally shocking. The rotund and studious Kamil in particular is a delight, as he reluctantly becomes entangled in a sinister and complex plot.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a “fantasy” novel. Rather it reads like a mix of history and legend. An “alternative history”, perhaps, which reminded me in places more of “Le Mort D’Arthur” than “Lord Of The Rings”, though with the concise descriptiveness of William Golding’s “The Inheritors”. As a result the trilogy has a timeless quality – it seems impossible that it could have been written at the dawn of the 21st century. This will surely become a classic.
Joe (Japan)
www.azimuthtrilogy.com/reviews
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

–>
Water water everywhere – but sometimes nought to drink?

I don’t think it has rained more than three times since October when we got back to Accra from France. The UK may be suffering the coldest Easter on record with temperatures of minus ten degrees (I remember swimming in the North Sea at Easter up near Newcastle, at much this time of year and, though cold, my genitalia didn’t completely retract) but Ghana is drought-like. Temperatures stay up around 33 degrees and the humidity is around 80. Even Ghanaians are suffering heat rashes. The consequence is water shortages. And water wars.
The latter are fought between the well-to-do in the much sought after areas of the city. Here, half acre plots boast large houses and tropical gardens. Every house has a decent-sized water tank to see it through the days when the mains water does not run. This was fine until someone realized that if you add a pump to the tank you could exert extra suck on the mains and fill up even when water pressure is low. Soon, the inevitable, either you get a pump or you have no water.
Where we live (a mix of large houses and shanty squats) there is less water acquisitiveness but it does not mean we are out of the loop of steadily escalating self-interest. We had a full tank the other day, enough for two weeks, normally. Two days later it was nearly all gone. Why? We have theories. Leaks? Not likely as there are no damp signs on the soil. Neighbours burrowing under the wall and putting a T joint on our house supply? Again, no signs. The gardener selling water to locals (a common reason for sackings at the big houses). No – he’s a good feller and I am in the house, writing, when he is around. The neighbours joining the water pump army and sucking water from our tank? Possible. Anyway, our plumber is coming to fortify these precious resources. Also we will soon have the bore hole fully operational and be able to draw water when and how we like. In this latter respect we are, to use the North Korean metaphor, going nuclear.
All this does not disguise the potentially frightening issue of water becoming more precious than any other resource, even in Ghana. The country has the financial wherewithal and the climate to provide water for everyone all of the time. It is now oil-rich. But a governmental ideal that everyone, from the poor upwards, should be cared for, is sadly lacking. Thus the rich secure water by whatever means and what is left is spread thinly among the rest of the population.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

–>
Of flying horses and thwarted lions
Encouraged by my interest in his forefathers, the gardener tells me another tale. It is magic realism at its best. I’ve repeated it to one or two people and they don’t get it. To them it’s mad, bonkers and childish. It doesn’t feel like that when you listen to it. Something about the eyes of the teller, the excited expression, the relief that someone is listening without criticism. Anyway, it goes like this:
“My grandfather’s brother built a house which stretched from here to the junction (he is indicating about a half mile). This house was so big a stranger would never find his way out again. My grandfather’s brother had thirty wives. Every wife had many chickens. His brothers had wives but only six or eight each. There were thirty thousand chickens around the place. When strangers came to the gates, my grandfather’s brother had to greet them himself. Then he would find out their business and arrange for them to be taken into the house.
One day he had to travel to Burkina Faso. There were no roads and there was jungle everywhere. He went on horseback. His steed had been prepared like the dogs in the previous blog. Four lions stalked him, wanting to eat the horse. They came at him from all sides. My grandfather’s brother made his horse rise into the sky, just above the mouths of the biting beasts. Here they stayed until the lions became tired and left them alone. He continued his journey in peace.”
I believe he believed it. I believe that such stories have some intrinsic symbolism that I can’t fathom and that my friend, the gardener, has sad eyes because he has lost the understanding as well. He knows that these stories will end with his generation. Those that have come afterwards are full of Christian  or Muslim mythology and symbolism, grafted on over the last decades.
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

–>
Giving dogs super powers
Our part time gardener is of an indeterminate age. He does his job on a timescale known only to him. He moves around the compound cutting grass and shrubs and attending to the dogs in a slow, inexorable pattern. Sometimes he sits in the shade for a hour or two and sleeps. Remember that temperatures in Accra hover always above 30 degrees with high humidity. The sun is like paint stripper on the skin. We have anecdotal conversations once in a while. Because I research local medicinal plants and we grow them, I pass on what I glean. Locals here have forgotten the efficacy of what burgeons around them. For example, a shrub called bitter leaf prevents malaria. Chewing the leaves kills parasites in the blood.
He was saying yesterday that his forefathers knew such things. He was busy coating the Doberman with shea butter and spraying both it and the bitch, a blonde Alsatian, with a spray I concocted from soursop leaves. This is a summary of what he said.
“My grandfather had six dogs. To protect them he went into the bush and collected plant leaves, bark from trees and roots. These he boiled and then bathed the dogs in the juice for a week. This made the dogs strong. In those days there were lions and animals with long back legs and short front ones. They could open doors and kill your creatures (chickens, cattle) but once the dogs were ready nothing could harm your beasts. If a lion tried to bite a dog it would jump back as if it had touched an electric fish. The dogs could not be cut by anything. Anyone coming to the village with a gun could not shoot the dogs. The bullets would never hit them. This knowledge has died with the forefathers.”
Our gardener became a Muslim in 1977, the only one of his generation. He is sad that the old ways and the old knowledge are not being maintained and that he, himself, does not carry them inside him. He knows that they are at odds with modern religions which stamp out ancient lore in the interests of a single god..

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

 

New Gods for old
Further conversation with a young Ghanaian male about his unshakeable belief in Christianity provides insights into cultural dissonance. That is, between him and me and between him and his traditions. There is little doubt in my mind that one of the reasons why Africans take to Christianity with a fundamentalist zeal is that its rituals are sacrificial and mysterious. His blood. His flesh. There is also the Old Testament with its patriarchal, forbidding and vengeful God. Since the white man brought ‘the book’, the new religion had the effect of breaking down social infrastructures within tribes. Where once women ran commerce and saw to the delicate business of maintaining the balance between labour and survival, the imperialist empire builders, brandishing their words from God, would only deal with males. Rupture followed. We see the consequences today, everywhere. And now the men have guns and women and children become ever more vulnerable.
Fortunately, for the time being, Ghana is peaceful and there are strong remnants of the old world co-existing with the new. Women choose tribal chiefs. Land is still passed down the female line. But the traditions are being eroded by land registry and other western business practices which tend to discriminate against women.
Back to my young Ghanaian friend, the one who laughs hysterically at the notion that I might not believe in ANY god! In northern Ghana, he tells me, The crocodile Chief in the river has a ‘red cap’. He will not kill humans. You can sit on him. He is a kind of godly manifestation in the water. But kill any of his tribe and humans will die as a consequence. He tells me another story. The tribal custom is to bury the umbilical cord of every human birth in a particular spot. The Chief travelled to the US and married a white woman whom he brought back. She set about, in a western health and safety kind of way, clearing up this site of decomposition. Once cleared the Chief’s body underwent encroaching paralysis; hands, arms, legs…. A further myth or traditional reality is that before you die you must be ‘instructed’. If this happens then you can communicate with the living and vice versa.
He tells me these stories with a curious reticence which gives way to enthusiasm as I don’t deride them like the Christian priests do. Pagan black magic. It reminds me of the extraordinary nature of churches all over the UK. The believers stand, sit, kneel and pay their respects to the One God and all around them are symbols of pre-Christianity. The Green Man. Fornication. Images of Lilith who preceded Eve. Bestiality. Christianity was the progenitor of imperialist (and capitalist) subjugation of the old traditions. And it is still doing it consummately well, here in Ghana.
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hypocritical Oaths
Closed minds are like houses shut up for the winter only to find that their owners are never returning. They become dusty, dark, places of foreboding and creepy crawlies. You have to break in from the outside to lever off  hinges on doors or windows to let some light in. Well, it may be an overplayed analogy but it represents my feelings of utter dismay when it comes to discussing serious issues of life with Ghanaians brought up in villages in an educational system that sometimes makes creationism look like a liberal intellectual’s dream philosophy.
Coming out of DVLA in Accra the other day, refusing to pay a bribe to go to the front of the queue, a young Muslim accosted me.
“Is that your wife?”
“Yes.”
“English?”
“No. Fanti.” (A coastal tribe in Ghana.)
“She is white.”
“Yes, but her twin is black.”
“God is wise and works miracles.”
“No. It is called biology.”
“You are a Christian?”
“No. I do not believe in God.”
“You have a long way to go.”
“I have been further than you will ever travel. There is no God.”
“God makes everything, sees everything, even the smallest thing.”
“You pay bribes?”
“It is how things are done.”
It comes to my mind that in this Ghanaian world, where corruption is endemic, praying to God and giving your weekly tithe, is just another form of bribery.
A young man, who has progressed from illiteracy to being a photographer and user of Photoshop in five years tells me that in Ghana you must be whipped if you are late or absent from school. He was. (And left it, illiterate, as I said.) There is no other way. There is no tie up to the Christian principles of love thy neighbour or parables about lost sheep. Nor can their be any open discussion with the teacher or the priest about the foundations of thought and belief.
Earlier blogs give accounts of  mandatory prayers at medical conferences introducing drug company reps with their latest spiel on the efficacy of innovative compounds, at new bank launches or before politicians’ speeches at the hustings. To deny God in Ghana is to invite anything from rib-tickled disbelief to aggression. The notion of having a critical consciousness about ALL things is not on the table. Churches rule daily social lives. The only learning they vouchsafe comes from within the tight parameters of the bible. The same young man, mentioned above, talks about “When the white man brought the book …” as the point of change for the better in Ghanaians lives, though he has no idea what life was like before the missionaries. Looking at Ghana’s remarkable, world-beating GNP, little of it is percolating down to the poor from its religion-embracing Ministers of State. Meanwhile, the poor pray for miracles to change their living conditions because it is in God’s hands. The illusion of Heaven drives all religions alike. Everything will one day be wonderful, you will find yourself at God’s feet, serving His will. Meanwhile, just suffer with good grace.
The adherents of the world’s religions here steal as much as they bribe. It is occupational. Gangs come and disconnect your electricity at night and come to put it on again in the morning, at a price. Kilometres of cabling are stolen regularly leading to blackouts. All the country’s essential services are regularly ‘chopped’ by  staff wanting backhanders to do normal work, selling equipment taken illegally from central stores, demanding bribes for releasing imported materials and so on. The same folks invariably go to church on Sundays for their various forms of absolution, their prayers for consumer items, their hopes for the future. They see little inconsistency in week long criminality and Sunday holiness.
Before you think this is a rant from some racist outsider, please take stock of other blogs I have written. I (as a long time educationalist)  see the blame for Ghana’s troubles at least partially at the door of religions. They breed closed minds with absurd certainties and they (as they have done through time immemorial) keep the poor in its place. While religious institutions exhorted their followers to enjoy a peaceful presidential election recently, one can’t help thinking that their real concern was the status quo, their hold on the purse strings of the poor.
For other writing:
Three FREE novellas at www.chronomterpublications.me
The Azimuth Trilogy www.azimuthtrilogy.com First TEN chapters FREE.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

–>
Have you got anything for me?
Generally, we don’t get the law enforcement we deserve.
I suppose a great litmus test on the quality of a culture is the behaviour of its police force. In the UK, a vast, conspiratorial network of corruption has recently been uncovered relating to football tragedies, phone hacking, framing suspects and everything in between. But on the streets, generally, you feel that law and order prevails without the taint of bent behaviour on the law’s part.
Wherever I have travelled, either for work or for pleasure, I can, more or less, remember what the police were like. Back in 1968 when I was in Paris during the student revolt as an active supporter, the police were baton crazy against these leftist destabilisers of the State. On one occasion we were relaxing away from the barricades having a picnic on the Seine. A police van drew up and a half dozen stick wielders charged down. “Speak English, for God’s sake,” said a French friend. We did. They said we were there for sex and would soon have our clothes off. We pretended, vociferously, not to understand. Eventually they went off, batons unbloodied.
I was in an insolvent New York in the early 1980s. The train from the airport was as heavily guarded as I can ever remember. In fact an entire train had been ‘stolen’ not long before. I had to ease past two police officers at the doors of an extraordinary caterpillar of a machine, multi-coloured carriages with inner city graffiti, as though it was camouflaged to pass through downtown garishness. They were brusque – and frightened. When we set off they walked up and down the aisles as though one of us was Matt Damon from the Bourne Trilogy and they were going to discover who. What do you do? Shut your eyes and ostrich the journey out, hoping that when you open them you will be in Grand Central Station and safe?
In Uzbekistan I was giving an impromptu lecture on the street when I got jostled by secret police, remnants of the KGB, I assume. They had taken exception to my using the word democracy. I remember that their firearms seemed more threatening because they were in plain clothes. As though wearing a uniform ensures that the would-be shooter is constrained by ‘procedures’. While in Tashkent, a Canadian friend had some money stolen. The police came and took away the house staff and beat them for a couple of days until one owned up. We never knew whether the boy had committed the act or couldn’t take more bruising. We wouldn’t have told the police had we known – even though the theft was quite major.
I could go on and on with stories but want to say something about police in Ghana. Everyone without fail here knows that corruption is everywhere. Whatever your misdemeanour (mostly on the roads) you will find yourself searching for a polite way of offering them money. They are not interested in your explanation of being stranded on a crossroads because you avoided being hit by a taxi running a red light, for example. An attempted explanation is met with the non-sequitor, “Are you trying to tell me my job?” In this case I eventually dredged up a useful phrase from my wide lexicon, “Can I make a contribution to the police station?”  And we were free.
A driver of ours, gentle and late middle aged, was cuffed and thrown into a police cell for training a learner without his licence which he had left at home along with the boy’s. They were taken to court and outlandish fines levied by a judge whose complicity with the police was painfully evident and whose loyalty to the State’s revenue stream via fining was paramount. Police can use a variety of indirect requests for palm greasing but my favourite euphemism, at a barrier on the way to Cape Coast, is “Cleanse my blood.”
Ghana has everything to be a prosperous nation. It has an extraordinary GNP largely from oil and cocoa, a genuinely peace-loving population, enough rain to help farming feed its population. There is no reason why corruption should be endemic from politicians all the way down to a police force that is reimbursed reasonably well when compared to the rest of the population. But everyone pays their bribes, from doctors to road sweepers, from water sellers letting traffic cops take a sachet without payment to allow them to sell illegally by the lights, to bankers wanting to park on yellow lines. You cannot deal with governmental bodies such as customs without bribes if you are in international business, or your goods could remain forever untouched and gathering hamatan dust in a bonded warehouse.
For Ghana to become a developed country, corruption has to be tackled. Loyalty to family, clan and tribe – which pressurizes individuals to bend the rules and siphon off money – must somehow be subordinated to a loyalty to the State. In return the State must reward public loyalty with fair justice for all. Trust in the police at a day to day level is paramount or the economy will always fail.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Intelligence intelligence everywhere but who can stop to think?
A young man here in Ghana is expanding his knowledge of the world by asking questions. He came from a village in the north and much of what he believes is so indelible it is difficult to shift. He believes that female circumcision keeps women from being promiscuous “and many women ask for it’. When I ask him whether it should be the case that any man who has a woman circumcised should also be circumcised, he doubles up in laughter. What kind of world is that? He believes that it is impossible to not believe in God and finds my extreme agnosticism part of a stand-up comic routine. He believes that the sun goes round the earth and, on occasion, the moon swallows the sun. He thinks that the moon is small. The idea of a moon landing has never made itself part of his consciousness. He believes he cannot bring me bad news and so won’t tell me when things might be going wrong in the business. He lies, in western terms, when he says he is not smoking to an older woman who is working alongside him and finds the odour reprehensible. Three times. Biblically. Later I ask him why and he says it is wrong to inform his ‘mother’ of such things. He was brought up to treat all older women as his mother and all older men as his father. He has been taught by the Company to use the internet, Photoshop and Word though he has only been speaking and writing in English for five years. He is the best photographer we have ever encountered. He has an eye for how to bring out the essential nature of textiles. At the same time he has no sense of how the internet works and connects people or that there are satellites in the sky or that people have unique postal addresses.
Being from a village and uneducated, his existence was different before he came to Accra seeking a better life. It was opportunistic. A matter of survival. Very little was planned. It was a matter of reacting to what was thrown at you. Only the imperatives of sowing and reaping and husbandry necessitated planning. So, with his very clever mind, he does work of a very high standard – but he cannot plan it yet. His approach to problem solving is as opportunistic as when he was in his village. Scattergun. Trial and error. No methodical steps. He is learning chess to try to lay down a sense of strategy in his mental processing, the moves that might make the future better for him – and the Company.
Sometimes he is so certain that he is right that he cannot hear you ask him to do something at odds with his world view. He is the product of a lack of educational provision and an evangelical Christianity that does not encourage critical thinking. Jesus has supplanted the old Gods and provides an answer to everything. Just pray.
We have thirty plus ‘blue collar’ workers. We pay them three times the national basic wage for the work they do. We bring in free literacy and numeracy and IT. We train them. They work according to western notions of a seven hour day and a five day week. They are all bright and intriguing individuals making their way in a new culture, far removed from their upbringing. The demands are often alien to them. They cannot see what is going on, what is behind what they are being asked to do. The peoples from developed countries are born into something that they are not.
To run a company along western lines in Ghana requires a very sophisticated sense of cultural dissonance and a realisation that sheer intelligence, which is everywhere here, is compromised by early conditioning in worlds so far removed from what a foreigner might assume to be the case. The logics that underpin the way that people from developed countries behave are not the logics of the traditions of village and tribal life. Ghana’s GNP is among the highest in the world. What will it spend its oil money on? Health and education? Hardly. There is little middle class desire to change the lives of the poor. Ghana needs its own Marx. A velvet educational revolution.
It is saddening in the extreme.
The Magus travels among a hundred cultures and discovers cultural dissonance for himself! www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Friday, February 8, 2013

–>

Feeding the five thousand
A funeral. 500 mourners. The body of the deceased on display for the file past. In Ghana it is hard to gauge how many people will turn up. You don’t send invitations after all – you post the day of the funeral in the popular press. Ghana state television also has exceedingly long sections where the obituaries are read out and the place and the time of the funeral are stated. Dress can be critical. Black for an untimely end. White for a ripe old age. Certain mixes representing subtleties of life span and illness.
The problem in Ghana is that people you would never expect to see, turn up. As I have said before, funerals are social imperatives as well as having their obvious, deeply spiritual side. Rather like being one of the five thousand being fed, it is possible to go to a funeral once or twice a week and be fed. No-one is going to question your presence. There is also the widely held conviction among Christians that the more that turn up, the better the acceptance in heaven. It has a prid pro quo element, too. When it comes to your turn to take the bus to that far off land from which none return, everyone will reciprocate and be there for your collection of the ticket and making sure you are seated comfortably with paeans of praise ringing in your ears as the coach draws away.
As a religious ritual, I found the 18thand 19th century hymns dreary. Their view of a just warrior god, smiting his enemies and meting out justice with arcane references to Babylon and the time of David, was surreal. The tunes (Methodist) hardly lifted spirits, even the post-formal ones with a sprightly reggae beat from the all purpose electronic music-box. On top of this, the bishop, rather than spending time on the biography of the deceased, chose to vilify Christianity’s competitors, highlighting ‘universalism’ which he defined as allowing everyone from any other religion into heaven. This could not be. His God was very particular and certainly wouldn’t admit into the vaulted reaches of heaven, those who strove under the base illusions of karma and reincarnation.
What was moving was the reverence for the dead and the desire to venerate the departed in her last moments as an intact person (no scattered ashes, yet.) The very elderly, some a decade older than the 82 year old deceased, filed past her on walking sticks and in wheelchairs, gazing upon her embalmed and not-too recognizable features, seeing in her marble austerity their own faces and their own ends of days. To some extent it raised a celebratory breath in my lungs, despite the grim solemnity of the proceedings. It was stirring and authentic.
There are blogs before this one that suggest we write living wills, choreograph our endings and decide exactly how much of our mix of good, bad and indifferent should be the subject of tributes. This might be in a church, mosque, temple or synagogue or a venue of humanist irreverence. Choose your hymns NOW, or your classical pieces, or your rock anthems, write your autobiographical parting or record it– the last everyone will hear from you about your life; what joys and tribulations you are leaving behind. Decide on your mode of transport to infinite oblivion or the golden-lit, crystal sea beaches and verdant pastures of paradise and give your mourners a break. Liberate them from mouthing homilies and glossing uncomfortable truths. Let them say what they actually think. That is the mark of a true celebration of a life.

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Laying to rest
The laying out of the dead happens in many religions. A final procession of the bereaved to gaze upon the face of the dearly departed seems inextricably bound up with primeval feelings. It is the equivalent of putting your fingers in the nail holes of Christ. It is a public affirmation before witnesses that this person is no more amongst us. For some it is also a last glimpse of the wholeness of the individual. In the Azimuth Trilogy there are many encounters with death and the handling of it among different peoples and sects. The most ghastly punishment to be inflicted upon the bereaved is to cut up the body and distribute it where it cannot be found and made complete. I have long held the theory that the dismemberment of corpses by psychopaths harks back to such primitive rituals.
Someone close to me has just died. In Ghana this means the preparation of the body for the (in this case) church and the last viewing where the congregation queue to pay their final respects (sometimes as indicated in an earlier blog, up to a year after the formal pronouncement of death, the body being kept nearly frozen – not actually frozen as ice crystals form and disfigure). Preparation involves making the person as near to the original as the cadavar will allow. There is much veiled criticism if this is not done with sensitivity. The shroud (ie the clothes to be worn in the coffin) must represent the style and character of the deceased (a bohemian cannot be buried in dodgy stodgy old people’s dress). They must be white for the marriage to God (or death as I, as a non-Christian, see it). They must be specially made to be worn the once. The hair must be brushed at the very last to be as naturally consonant with images people have of that individual, the face must be made up with the cosmetics she used, there should be white socks and often there must be extra undergarments so that the slow decay into fleshless bone which often happens with the elderly, is disguised. In other words, the final picture should be of rude health, a person somewhat younger than in this final reckoning.
The Egyptians were rather good at all this but the superstitions and taboos linger today. The send-off on the last great journey requires many protocols, even, as in Ghana, where there is suspended ‘inanimation’ before the final goodbyes.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

–>
Jacking up death
An amusing coda to the recent musings on death and how we might stage it arose the other day at a friend’s countryside retreat here in Ghana. A powerful figure on the political and economic landscape for decades here, my friend was commenting on a recent bereavement and the disposal of the body. As I said the other day, cremations have arrived in Accra.
He did not take to the notion at all, the reason being that he was worried that he might be in a coma when the all-consuming fires embraced him. I suggested that the crematorium might try burning a tiny part of him to check his state of consciousness but no, burial was what he wanted. He said that if he was not dead but woke up under the ground, he might then lever the lid off his casket. I said that he would need to leave instructions that the lid should not be screwed down and that the earth above should not be too deep. (It reminded me of Tarantino’s Kill Bill scene where the alluring assassin, Uma Thurman, uses her karate powers to break free from the earth, pounding the coffin lid until it splinters under her bloody knuckles.) I also suggested that he should be interred with a car jack to facilitated awakening from his deceptive sleep of death.
In Azimuth the dire warning that you will cut up and scatter your enemy’s dead body across a terrain to prevent the soul’s journey to the next place, is dramatically realised.  You cannot cross the divide, less than whole. It is a harsh deterrent to those who might mess with you, your cult and your god.
Nor has this atavistic belief completely disappeared. Recent distress in the UK at organs being appropriated for research without permission from hospital mortuaries and, as a consequence, offering up the body, incomplete, attests to it.
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Authoring your own funeral
Did you ever see The Big Chill? Friends gather for the funeral of one of their own tight group. It was very funny at the time but what brings it to my mind was the soundtrack which included The Weightand other 60s and 70s rock hits from The Rolling Stones et al. Part of its fascination was the notion of a funeral being other than an airbrushed and glossy choreography of a life. As my last blog explores, funerals tend to be for the living rather than the dearly (?) departed. As a consequence they can leave the mourner feeling bitter about what remains unspoken, or unresolved or that the quirks and failings in the deceased’s character have not been addressed and embraced. It seems extraordinary that it should be so. In Ghana there is a latter day Christian tradition that the dead should be given a warts-free send-off to the next place. As though the Christian God is mindful and persuaded by a funeral’s carefully orchestrated marketing.
If you live in a land where your last wishes count for anything, you can choreograph your own funeral and take the ticklish issue of people being forced to distort their public views of you, out of their hands. This is sometimes called a ‘living will’. Some undertakers provide you, in advance, a comprehensive document to fill in, covering every aspect of your funeral-to-be. So – you can ignore, deny, evade the responsibility of ensuring that your funeral is true to the curious mix of strengths and weaknesses that make you who you are, or you can wrest control from people’s failure of courage or desire to project a one-sided picture of you..
Arranging the final curtain can then be seen as your last act, a self-portrait, an autobiographical creation to hang before the congregation, whatever their religious or atheistic leanings. Imagine, you are reaching across the Great Divide and saying, “Hello, this was me and don’t you forget it.” I think it is within your last rights to exert this last opportunity to shape fate and leave a tasty mix of sweet and sour in people’s mouths, resonating with the memories of the person they once knew.
A wry novella I wrote last year describes an unusual choreography of death and can be downloaded FREE from www.chronometerpublications.me

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Monday, January 14, 2013

A Dying Art
Last week I heard of a birth and a death on the same day. Both events very close to me. The door to the place beyond seems to be a revolving one.
Here in Ghana much of people’s lives is spent doing the rounds of births, deaths and marriages. (The extended family can run into hundreds of people!) It is a phenomenal industry and involves the collection of funding from all family members to support it. I suppose, in emergent countries, there is a greater likelihood of old traditions sitting alongside modern life without conflict. Anyway, it is possible to go to one of the events mentioned above, every weekend. It is THE social activity and it brings food and drink to everyone and constantly cements tribal as well as family loyalties.
The death part of the equation is steeped in protocols. About 80 % of Ghanaians are Christian and the death alluded to above, was of a Christian woman in her eighties. Normally she would be made a wedding dress for laying out in public view in the church as she is being married to God. Her hands must be covered in gloves, her hair washed the day before, her feet covered by ankle socks and her face made up to look as she might have done earlier in her life. None of this is executed by an embalmer (as in Six Feet Under) but by a female member of the family, perhaps the eldest daughter.
A body may be kept in the morgue for up to a year before burial as members of a family’s diaspora are contacted and make plans to return home from the UK or the US or wherever else. It is the group of family elders (always driven unseen by the women) who ensure that protocols are met. It is very inflexible. There is a ten page guidance document which covers every conceivable element from food to flowers, from seniorities to attendant roles and functions. Only certain accessories are allowed in the coffin. Even if the deceased is famous for some symbolic piece of clothing, it will not be permitted to be with the body as it lies in local state. While the young want to spread ashes poetically where an individual made her mark on life and land, the elders may insist that the urn is buried. The elders determine everything. If my wife, for example, asks me to follow certain steps (no service, a humanist end, cremation, certain songs and no hymns) the chances of her wishes being carried out are negligible. I cannot overrule the female seniors. Funerals are for the living and the living are very adamant about what is permitted.
In Azimuth, a fanatical religious sect cut up their enemies into tiny pieces and spread them wide and far because they believed this would prevent the spirit from ascending to the place beyond. It also made the sect’s enemies very frightened of it! (www.azimuthtrilogy.com). Thus it is in Ghana, at least in my limited experience.
I suppose death preoccupies me as one of the great mysteries of existence. I’m a believer in the atoms untangling and spreading across the cosmos at death, some sticking around to be part of the constitution of a new life (the revolving door again.) My last novella The Sense of Being Sinbad is a sort of meditation on what is actually possible, leading up to one’s death. It is free for you to download. Tell me what you think about it at: www.chronometerpublications.me

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

New lamps for old

The west exports lifestyle assumptions to the world, constantly. This includes medical accessorising, designer brands for every conceivable disease or malaise. The Ghanaian population are more and more hooked on the flagrantly disseminated notion, “new cures good, old cures bad.” Despite drugs growing on trees all around, they are quickly forgetting their bio-heritage and opting for packaged alternatives. There is an extraordinary advertisment on television at the moment for paracetamol, finishing with an entire, grinning, happy family celebrating the father’s cure of a headache, by synchronised dancing and the father holding up the product and pointing to it. It is truly bizarre. (Equally strange is the activity of a friend of ours, a famous veteran of Ghanaian folk songs who has gone round the isolated villages, singing and play acting about Unilever products – followed by a lorry from which villagers can buy them.)

Back to drugs. There is a cultural battle going on. Old treatments or new? Doctors here are trained mostly in allopathic medicine and few GPs give credence to the old ways. Meanwhile, foragers from the drug companies go trekking round the outer limits, sniffing out traditional treatments in the hope of finding new cures – to be packaged in glistening cellophane, in tablets and capsules. It is worth remembering that these companies cannot patent the natural world but CAN patent extractions.

Anyway, here are two natural drugs that grow on trees in our garden. I am starting with the caveat that I cannot be held responsible for the efficacy or otherwise of the two. You can start searching the internet for verification.

The first is bitter leaf. Now this shrub (I grow a hedge of it) is the natural killer of parasites in the blood and so is helpful in preventing malaria. It also cleans out the organs, reduces sugar in the system for diabetics and cures most skin diseases.

The second involves the dark green leaves of the soursop fruit tree. Boil ten of these in a litre of water for 30 minutes and drink a cup or two every day of the concentrate. Soursop is vaunted to be 1,000 times more effective than chemotherapy against 8 of the major cancers.

Are these just folk lore or is there something almost magical in their essence. Am I living in false consciousness (see the last blog) by taking bitter leaf and no anti-malarial prescription from the chemist? Likewise with my daily dose of soursop? Is it any worse than going to the pharmacy and believing what is scripted on the wrappers?

www.chronometerpublications.me
www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Another dollop of false consciousness
You may recall – or didn’t need me to tell you in the first place – that when people, mistakenly, believe something to be true when it isn’t and the evidence suggests it isn’t, they are suffering under an illusion we call ‘false consciousness’.  Once it is ingrained it is hard to shift. Like creationism. Like the place of patriarchy in current world religions. Like the world ending on the 21stDecember 2012. (Although, for several thousand people it must have been their death knell!).
When you come up against it personally it certainly raises a sense of the surreal, sometimes the tragically absurd. Like you are Alice and this is a bleak Wonderland
Talking with a man who has a very good and expanding brain the other day, someone who in four or so years has left his village to become literate, bilingual, an ace photographer, adept at IT and a senior manager in a clothing factory, I came away disconcerted. Despite my protestations and careful arguments based on concrete evidence and even biblical or moral evidence (he is an avid Christian) I could not shake his belief in female circumcision, in women not being the equal of men and that God is behind every act in a person’s life from the great to the small. My suggestions that the world should be – and often is – otherwise, was greeted with cackling laughter, as though I was the greatest stand up comic of all time. There was no way in to unseat his moral universe.
Openness to evidence and a critical consciousness are all we have to counter such resolute beliefs in the indefensible. And they have to be taught from birth whether it is to the young of Ghana’s many tribes, or Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus or the communists of North Korea and China. Once such consciousness is properly released and matured, it cannot be put back in the locked box of social conditioning.
But the powerful know this, from the corrupt democracies of the west to the corrupt dictatorships of the East.  Heavily proscribed education that imposes the authority of the state and the inviolability of the curriculum is always the prize tool of social engineering, whether in faith or secular schools.
For a riveting and mind-expanding read on the moral mess we call life, read: www.azimuthtrilogy.com
All my published work can be found on www.chronometerpublications.me 

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

–>
Last Stop
O it was a moonless night suddenly filled with dark foreboding. The invisible  birds had begun their metallic piping, the bats were squeaking among our ripe mangos and a thousand supplicants in a distant evangelical hangar were laying down a keening back beat. Then, like a solo singer to this orchestra of sound, there was a noise we had never heard. A grunting. A flapping. A scraping. Somewhere, close to the house, was a terrible manifestation. It had surfaced from the depths of our ancient fears. And it was working its way around our house.
Not given to craven submission to the agents of hell my wife opened the main door, fearless and intrepid. No weapon in her hand. Just vulnerable flesh and blood.
She disappeared into the Ghanaian night, submerging herself in its hot, thick embrace.
The malevolent sound reached a crescendo and then stopped abruptly and I heard her in-drawn gasp as clearly as if she was sitting beside me. It was followed by a terrible silence as if an unspeakable act had eradicated the very signature of life itself.
The door opened and there she stood like a female Beowulf carrying the gory trophy in her hands, a piece of folded card with thick glue on one surface. It was Last Stop, a trap for black mice the size of British rodents.
Our big but gentle Doberman, Sirius, had had it stuck to his paws.
www.chronometerpublications.me
www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

–>
You are who you write
I wrote a short story recently – which will appear for free on www.chronometerpublications.mewithin a week or so. It’s called The Sense of Being Sinbad and deals with the last three months of a man’s life. I sent it to a friend who is wrestling with the best exit strategy for one who feels everything must be planned in advance of transit to ‘another place’ as he calls it. He reviewed it just as he would a student’s work, liking the prose style and some imagery. However, he then went to some lengths to tie me to the main character. He seemed certain that it was ‘future autobiographical’ and I would follow the lead of my character as the days wind down. Now he is very intelligent and so cannot be easily dismissed for his views. Does it mean that I have planned the last weeks of my life? In my deliberate renouncing of the usual narratives of death in modern society, religious or atheist, was I doing a bit of advance mapping? Was the novella, in fact, wishful thinking?
Of course, to some extent writers cannot escape themselves when they create characters but to say that I am a rapist, a murderer, a fat detective, a sixteen year old girl, an ancient magus and so on would be over-egging it a bit. The alternative view is that they are all fantasies, sometimes wishful and sometimes acting as a form of exorcism from the troubled depths of the unconscious. A third version and one to which I adhere, is that we are gem-like in our personalities and every facet represents different aspects of our characters. Each facet then can find its way into fully-fledged existence on the page.
I think that writers do what they do because they want to live other lives. It is very convenient. They don’t have to go ‘missing’ or seek a divorce. They just shut themselves away and split into their parts, each one of which graces their prose as a flesh and blood creation, a simulacrum of reality.

www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Magyck, Mystery and Morality

A brief discourse on the making of Azimuth so that you know what you are in for!

A portly and dry historian is commissioned by an emperor to write a trilogy, a history of the progenitor of all modern morality, a man remembered as The Magus. He reads the first two volumes to the daughter of the court and the third to the daughter’s own daughter. As he reads to them they draw him into the machinations of court life with mysterious murders, plotting against the throne and occult events. His life is changed as he becomes a detective, a Poirot of ancient times, falls in love with a brothel keeper and kills for the first time. Each of the three volumes consist of twenty two tales recounting the adventures of the Magus. They are set in chapters which also describe the trials and tribulations of the historian. So, like a double helix you read about the historian’s own day and then fly back through time to the journeyings of the Magus and his search for the meaning of his existence, involving him in the conflict between good and evil, religion and reason, life and death. His skills as a warrior are gradually superseded by his desire to find a different way to live among people. Reading the tales affects the lives of the historian and his listeners, too. The two narratives begin to intertwine.

Each volume concerns a different journey lasting many years. The Magus ages and becomes wiser. The 66 tales are headed by the images of tarot cards whose interpretation by the historian add a mysterious frisson to proceedings. Each chapter is underscored with a cryptic statement, an aphorism, a zen-like pronouncement. For example:

Chapter Two
Believing what is seen is a form of blindness

The book is a roller coaster of action and philosophy and is full of mystery and suspense. The early reviews say it all:

www.azimuthtrilogy.com/reviews

At this same site you can download the first three chapters, free. I hope you do!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

 Some Reviews of the Azimuth Trilogy

“Reading great book. It is either for learning and information, or for pleasure and escape. Azimuth combines both of these. I was fascinated and transported but also what I learned about meditation and spirituality in this epic has helped me on my own path. It is a must read and must own.” – Andrew, Lord Stone of Blackheath
“I love it. A brilliant read, an extraordinary story………..It was compulsive reading — dusting went undusted, vacuuming unvacuumed.  I even ate some meals in front of my computer. How gross is that? “– Val, a Canadian reader
“I wanted to write and say a heartfelt thank you for bringing these stories to life. I took so much enlightening and thought provoking thoughts from them all, and yet, far from feeling like I was in a dry lesson,  I revelled in the excitement and suspense of the storytelling, yearning to know what happened next at every step and relishing each new discovery. At the same time, I loved each reminder of a philosophy I had forgotten but which now appeared as an old friend with new clothes. I think I have some catching up to do with some of them…
Much to my dismay I discovered that I don’t have the gifts of the Magus and couldn’t see what was coming at all -which meant it was hardly possible to put the book down. Although of course it is this capture of curiosity and emotions within a tale that I love so much about reading a good book.  Each time I moved from Kamil to the Magus and back again my heart would fill with sadness that I was leaving one and yet joy that I would find out more about the other. I’m in awe of your talent!
I feel so excited about what I’ve read that I could ramble on but as there’s no point preaching to the converted, :-) I’ll save it to encourage more people to read the book.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the book will continue to reveal further insights and secrets on each reading depending on one’s own place in life, much like in the way each traveller saw something slightly different when they looked at the fool’s card. And I’m excited to know the book will be on my bookshelf to provide inspiration in future.” Lizzie, UK
“I loved the way the plot came together. Surprises but ones that didn’t strain credibility.
The second two books seemed to me to have tremendous jeopardy – both in the holding story and that of the Magus.
It built to a real crescendo in the third book – both stories absolutely compelling.
The whole turned overnight into a page turner. There’s also something very new about what you are doing in the book. Something to do I feel with the tarot cards
and the aphorisms and the female characters but I am not familiar as you know with the genre”.  Vanessa UK
“Story telling at its absolute best!!!! If you would like to be transformed to another world, rich with real people, human beings with all their frailties, and share their gripping journey then read this book. It has all the suspense and excitement of an adventure novel, but much more than that, it offers magic and mystery, it offers the opportunity to suspend disbelief and enjoy and engage with your and the author’s unboundaried imagination. As you travel through the trilogy, you will find yourself unsure as to whether to race ahead and discover what happens, or hold back savouring the opportunity to immerse yourself in each chapter’s revelations and reflections.
Whichever you decide, the wonderful world of Azimuth is somewhere well worth escaping to.” Heather UK
“Jack, in “About the Book” you tell us that it has taken 10 years to write Azimuth. Believe me, it has been time well spent. I love both the story and the way that it is told; the trilogy has been keeping me company in planes, trains and automobiles for a few weeks. The book functions and succeeds on so many levels, whether it be as an adventure, as a tale of court intrigues, or as an examination of some of life’s more profound questions. The trilogy is written in a highly visual style and I think that it would lend itself well to becoming a trilogy of films; this would be a fitting tribute to a man who loves cinema so much. The opening paragraph is beautifully crafted and hooked me from the outset; as I am sure that it is intended to do. The pace and energy continued to carry me through page after page; chapter after chapter; and eventually, volume after volume. I read the book in Kindle format, which deprived me of Holly Etheridge’s beautiful artwork on the cover, but the electronic form is kinder on my arms when I am travelling. However, my partner has just bought the paper edition, so I can still admire the artwork and the quality of the paper by proxy. I shall post a review of the individual volumes when time permits.” (Greg Switzerland)
Excellent trilogy, definitely up there with the Northern Lights trilogy and Lord of the Rings books.
I have recommended this to everyone I know! (Drew UK)
“Un libro fantastico. Debes comprarlo!”. Libro entretenido desde la portada hasta el contenido. Lleno de aventura, magia, bien escrito y caracteristico lleno de fantasia. Merece la pena leerlo. Inmerste en un mundo de magia y aventura. Disfruta de la imaginacion de este fantastico autor. Maria UK/Spain
Sometimes I feel sad when I finish a really good book because I can’t live in its magical world anymore. This time I’m delighted as there’s a second and third part to come! I read this on holiday and had the luxury of being able to read for entire days. I didn’t want to leave the world of the Magus. I love the magic and the story and the questions of faith / destiny / contemplation. I think actually it would make a really good film, a lot of the journey of the Magus there’s no need for speech and the open landscapes conjured by the prose could be filmed beautifully. It’s spiritual, romantic, exotic, intriguing and a real page-turner – un-put-downable. Jennifer UK

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Friday, December 7, 2012

“The Devil you say…!”

We human beings are a credulous lot. We will turn a bush at night, into a lurking monster, the creak of a floorboard into a ghost and some coincidental meeting or act into evidence of Fate. We have invented the history of God, a fairly full life for Christ and sit and shiver in fear as we imagine the Grim Reaper or the horned beast. Close to my home in France, people are gathering for December 21st 2012 when the world will end. In a broad sense this will mean we will all go happily together rather than individually in the ragged, patternless way that leaves us bereft when family and friends die or we go before them.

In philosophical terms all of the preceding are the consequence of what is called ‘false consciousness’, that is that if enough people believe, they make it happen or they insist it is true. Human beings set up conspiracies of belief, from Santa Claus for the under fives to creationism or reincarnation. There are many who believe in vampires and werewolves, in spells and potions, in the power of distance healing through prayer and in the Second Coming or the Antichrist. It is possible because we are born into a mysterious flow of life forms and events for which we have no explanation but it is so richly varied that we can impose whatever we like upon it and any hypothesis seems to fit the facts. “If men believe a thing to be true it is true in its consequences,” said W. I. Thomas, or words to that effect. Magicians the world over play upon our capacity to believe what is not and cannot be true whether it is sawing a lady in half or climbing a rope hanging from thin air. Groups of people will convince themselves that someone should be lynched for crimes despite having no evidence. Politicians and generals will wage war, stating that their strikes against targets are forensically exact and do not have a child or woman’s face on the end of their missiles. Propaganda is what human beings do best to vindicate their actions or assuage their fears.

And now a tale. A few decades ago I came across a friend who was undergoing an episode. He believed he had been chosen to throw Lucifer down the bottomless pit for a further millennium. This man had suddenly developed a hypnotic power and with it he had collected a handful of women (married, in their thirties and forties) whom were necessary to help him in his fight against evil. His wife, alarmed by this turn of events phoned me and explained that her husband was naked, standing on a special carpet with a Persian motif, he on the central abstract shape and the women on smaller, peripheral shapes. She felt he was possessed. I got in my Morris Minor, put a crucifix around my neck and phoned a friend to ready himself. When I picked him up he was in his priest’s habit, a bible in his hand and a book on exorcism. We arrived and were shown into the house of devilment. While my friend went round the place waving his burning censer, I entered the room and stood before the man. He put his hands on my shoulders and began to intone that I had come as he had directed and would now fulfill the destiny that had been prescribed. The hypnosis was very powerful but did not lull me into credulity. My priest friend arrived and between us we talked him into lying down and sleeping, there on the carpet. As if a curse had been lifted, the women hurried off to dress. The next day he was in psychiatric hospital. Whether this was the right place for him is a moot point.

Looking back I am not sure how much is true in my current telling. Everything, actually, I believe is the truth, except for the naked women. I think this could have been relayed to me by the wife before I arrived. She was certain that part of the relations he was having with his female acolytes was sexual.

What intrigues me in this set of events is that the man was able to convince the women of his and their place in biblical history, that he was ‘talked down’ by an old fashioned exorcism and that I felt sufficiently alarmed as to wear a silver cross, though my religious beliefs are non existent. I do remember feeling very anxious as I drove towards the house.

I’d like to believe in reincarnation. I’d like to think that when I return to this earth I will find a sane civilisation of rational, humane, loving human beings who get on with life, knowing that this is their one chance and are making the most of it!

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

–>
Janus, the writer
I thought I’d offer you a debate to be held after Christmas with your arty friends. It’s one that can get very passionate and it’s as old as paintings on cave walls.
“Can you be totally captivated, informed and elevated by the work of an artist who, you discover, is an appalling human being?”
There have been many writers who have led disreputable, even loathsome lives but whose work still grace the shelves of the great and the good. I happened to see an old edition of QI the other night and Edgar Allen Poe was featured at one point. Illegally marrying his 13 year old cousin and an alcoholic, he was also the founder of detective fiction, science fiction and came up with the Big Bang theory eighty years before science could catch up with him. At the extreme end, Eric Gill, a Catholic multi-skilled artist, sexually abused his children and his dog as well as having a sexual relationship with his sister. Hitler loved Wagner’s work. At a dinner with friends in France last year a close friend said he detested Woody Allen and would not watch his films because of his social behaviour (including his current and long time sexual relationship with his one time adopted child). Another friend said he’d never watch a Stephen Fry programme, given what he did to Simon Gray. The fact that he is bipolar was not, for my friend, an excuse.
So, can we divorce the biography from the work? There is no doubt that many artefacts that we currently consider to be exquisite works of art may have been fashioned by people we would have liked to have imprisoned for life for their inhumanity.
A lot of you, reading this, will be writers. It is possible that you divorce who you are in the day to day, from whom you prefer to be as an artist. On the one hand you may lead a blameless life and create works of disgusting sadism and on the other you may be a sadist to all who cross your path and create wondrous works of beauty.
What are we to do with you?

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

You might like to read a whole short story in the hopes that it will seduce you to read other books of mine at www.chronometerpublications.me

–>

The Visionary
By Eric le Sange



Chapter One
Jen Cord had not known that she possessed the gift.  It made itself known to her on a day that was indistinguishable from any other in the working week. She had entered the ophthalmic operating theatre early, as was her habit, to prepare to receive her staff rather than arrive after them. Jen was aware of role modelling. She was also anxious not to take anything for granted in her work. Human error lurked in everyone.
Despite being an attractive woman in her early thirties she had not married nor it seems did she have a partner in tow of either sex. In the flesh, blood and disease intimacy of surgical theatres someone as beguiling as she  was singularly odd,  enduring, as the male doctors saw it, the privations of a solitary life. There were many who would have liked to put an end to her solitude for though assiduously non tactile, she was warm, engaging, amusing, alluring and unconsciously seductive. During the time that she had worked in the hospital men from various strata of the institution drifted towards her hopefully only to find themselves gently repelled by some force within her, as though her magnetic core was designed for that sole purpose.
She never discussed her private life with anyone, having chosen this job among the many offered her because it was as far from family and friends as it was possible to imagine on this overcrowded island. Her mother had died giving birth to her. Her father had then filled the gap of her absent mother, offering her limitless love and forbearance, sacrificing a social life to attend to her growing up. Then, one day, the purity of their relationship, the unequivocal bond, was snapped by an event that, whenever she thought of it, coiled in her stomach, turning her intestines into snakes. The pain of discovering what she had been too blind to see led her to return to medical school within an hour of its revelation. She did not answer his calls or emails or texts, eventually changing her numbers and addresses to emphasise her desire for an irrevocable break. Even then he found her easily since she was on the national register of ophthalmic surgeons. Now and then she received a long, laboured, handwritten letter in his awkward, spiky script. The length of their separation eventually stretched to a whole decade, yet, despite her anger and sense of betrayal, there was not one day when she did not think about him.
There is a special preternatural calm about a silent operating chamber. The battles for vision, the pain necessarily inflicted, the concentrated minds of staff, the electronic bleeps and liquid gushes of the glittering machinery, are temporarily banished. It is as though the theatre has become a sleeping beast in the waiting darkness. She switched on a beam above her head and looked down the list. It was short, in inverse proportion to the complexity of the cases. Each would take at least two hours. She had arranged it some days before with the managers, as best she could, to allow some variety, knowing her predictions of what might constitute severity would probably be proven wrong.
Settled in what she termed her ‘driving seat’, she studied her notes. Her attention was caught and held by the first name on the list, Sandhi Dalah. It broke a dream that she had had the night before. She remembered that she was walking on a thin peninsula of land on the Mediterranean coast, towards the sea. A man with his back to her was painting a canvass on a full easel. Her foot caught a loose pebble sending it skittering into the water. He turned violently, his face angry, his long waxed moustaches erect at their ends.
“Who dares interrupt the work of Dali?” he growled.
“I am an eye surgeon,” she replied firmly as though that was reason enough. His face instantly changed to subservience. “Ah,” he said plaintively, “There is no resisting a witch such as you. You open and shut the windows to the soul.” He closed his eyes as if to demonstrate. But the lids had slits in them which opened, regardless,  to reveal dark holes. As she watched the holes merged and became the growing mouth of a long tunnel, swallowing Dali’s face, then his entire body and then the easel. The darkness gave way to light at its far end where the ocean’s small waves could be seen rolling over one another. She approached the water and found steps leading below the surface. Descending them she discovered herself in a vast cave. Artefacts floated in tidy rows everywhere, from the every day to the exotic, from the recognisable to the surreal. Each was inscribed with Dali’s famous signature. She reached out to touch a painting. It was of a giant eye, large, singular and forlorn, drooping shapelessly over the edge of a shelf. As her fingers brushed it she was pulled backwards by a sudden force, back from the chamber, back up the steps, back through the tunnel and back into herself.
The image receded and she was staring at the name Sandhi Dalah again. She knew enough about Freud’s work to recognise that there was sufficient similarity in the sound of the name to that of Salvador Dali’s, to have precipitated her dream. She studied his notes. 46. Anglo-Indian. Samanera. Member of a western Buddhist sect which had set up a community on an island in Scotland. As coincidence would have it she had intended to visit it a couple of years back when on a touring holiday but the weather was atrocious and the narrow channel of sea, spitting enormous white topped waves, precluded any crossing. Dalah was suffering from a sudden loss of sight in his right eye. The optometrist who had sent him to her had found a strange patina on the surface of the retina, like a scattering of a single layer of cells, pale and a touch opaque. She cast her mind back but could not remember her first consultation with him. The waiting rooms were overcrowded these days and patients were pushed through the investigatory processes in industrial numbers. He seemed not to be British or of British extraction. His name suggested Tibet but it might be an erroneous connection. She had a sudden image of unnaturally green eyes. Were they his?
Her thoughts were arrested by the arrival of the first of her nursing team. She gave instructions regarding what would be needed. Within five minutes the entire team was assembled, the technology was blinking and piping high notes and then the patient was led in. She was troubled that she hadn’t been able to remember him. In fact she now had misgivings as to her state of mind at their first meeting, so idiosyncratic was he. Something must have interceded between her visual appraisal and her memory store for there to have been such a blanking out. Yes he had green eyes but he also had olive skin and luxuriant black hair scraped back and tied in a long, intricately woven ponytail. His features were hawkish like a Parsee’s and those green irises burned with a feverish intensity.
“Please sit,” she motioned at the waiting chair. “We are going to make a couple of pinpricks to numb the eye and make it immobile. Then I’ll put a protective shield over your face, exposing it for surgery.”
“How long will this last? he asked, evenly in a slightly accented voice.
“It might be brief. It might take an hour or two.”
“And I will be fully conscious throughout?”
“Indeed. Rest your head back. Good.” The mask was put in position and the injections administered. “You can talk at any time, if you want to. Tell me to stop if the going gets hard.”
“Hm.”
“You are a samanera it says here, from that Buddhist island in Scotland? What does that mean? ”
“You asked me that last time. A novice.” This further unsettled her. She had great pride in her memory of useful, associated facts regarding her patients. She stayed silent so as not to expose her failed faculty any further. Once he was settled and the eye perfectly still and levered slightly from its socket for her to begin work, she began a preliminary examination through the enlarged pupil. She focused the magnifying lens into the dark centre of the emerald halo and turned up the light. A moment later she recoiled slightly in disbelief but forced herself to bend forward again as her incredulity gave way to unprofessional curiosity. Instead of the cavern whose walls should have been covered by the rods and cones of the retina and substratum of blood vessels, her beam was lighting up a photographic album. It was as though her light was exciting memories in the retinal cells and they were conspiring to project images from Dalah’s life. It was mesmerising as snapshots flashed, one after another; meteorological, topographical, urban, wild, nocturnal and diurnal, flames and water, people and houses, jostling together as though competing to be the one, final and most memorable, single image. The cascade suddenly ceased and there, before her was a vast Buddha, carved into an immense rock face. Half of it was lit by golden rays and the other half remained in a dark shroud.
The Buddha spoke in a deep, sonorous tone, “To love with only half your being is not to love at all. Ambition is unworthy of a samanera.”
Upon these words the Buddha disappeared and her view of the faintly white retinal surface returned. She quivered from the unworldly experience but covered her reaction with her normal, cool expertise and set to, probing the vitreous chamber with her instrumentation. It did not take her long. Needles removed and stitches inserted, she settled back.
“Relax,” she said. A nurse slowly raised his chair. She pushed away the gantry above them so they could sit face to face.
“What was it? he asked, “The gauzy stuff on the retina?”
“There was something and nothing,” she said. “It may be real and may be an illusion.”
He looked at her, his face expressionless, “Then what must I do?”
She turned to her team and said, “Give me five minutes with the patient, will you?” They looked a little bemused but left quickly. She turned back to him. “I do not know how to tell you this.”
“I can take whatever it is. WI have been trained.” He looked at her calmly.
She pursed her lips and started, “In your eye I saw something…I think it must have come from your frontal cortex … an image … I saw a huge Buddha, carved in a stone cliff. One half of him was lit and the other dark. He said, “To love with only half your being is not to love at all. Ambition is unworthy of the samanera.” Sandhi Dalah’s face crumpled and he began to sob silently, his entire body shaking. She took his hands in hers until he subsided. When the nurses knocked and entered quietly they found them like this in a silent tableau.


Chapter Two
She told no-one her experience, continuing her work as if nothing had happened but her mind revisiting the event, every time she looked at a patient list. A few weeks later she received a letter from the leader of the Buddhist island community. It thanked her for her expertise, not surgical but spiritual. Sandhi Dalah was a changed man. He had recognised that he was not ready for the contemplative life and must find the half of his being that was not yet at-one and so he had set off on a journey to find that which he did not know. The letter brought back the vividness of her vision from inside the man’s eye and in all likelihood precipitated her next surreal adventure. Once again a dream precipitated a novel reality which she only recalled when she saw her list. The name that arrested her attention was Helena Trott and the consequent dream had some similarities to her encounter with Dali. A woman was standing by an ocean in a long flowing robe with a golden hem. She held an ornate eyepiece to her face of a kind Jen Cord had never seen. Sails of innumerable ships were creeping over the horizon towards her. Again, something she did, some clumsy act that communicated itself to the woman, made her turn in fury.
“Where are my guards? No-one can approach a queen in this vulgar, unsolicited manner.”
“I am a doctor of eyes,” she replied.
The queen took a step back. “I fear all physicians. They are little more than legalised murderers. Many suffer intolerable pain or die from supposedly efficacious potions dropped into their eyes. Where once there was clarity, the disease of the white curtain is pulled across vision, denying the soul’s view of the living world. If it cannot see, we have no evidence of our purity.”
“What of those born blind?”
“Damned to helplessness. Victims of the sins of their parents.”
That was all she could remember of her dream. She looked at her notes of her first meeting with the patient. Helena Trott, aged 90. Living in a small hamlet close to the city. Frequent retinal tears over the last decade. Regular laser treatment. Like the samanera she had had a sudden onset of blindness in her right eye. A scan had revealed the same faint smattering of a white deposit on the retinal surface, like a carpet of cobwebs on the lawn that you sometimes find on an autumn morning. An amusing vignette came to her mind in which she turned the dried old husk of Miss Trott upside down and shook her so that the white dust floated everywhere as in a child’s glass snow scene.
With a heightened sense of anticipation she had her team prepare equipment for possible surgery on the old lady’s eye. Trott was helped to the patient’s chair. They shook hands; the elastic fleshed, pink-nailed firmness of one, encasing the fleshless, hard-boned, mottled skin of the other.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Not so well,” said Helena Trott. “The last ten years have dawdled along and then this sudden blindness arrived to shake me up.” Her voice was firm and a little self-deprecating.
Once the eye was immobilised she shone her magnifying light into the wide pupil. The ageing cells and filigree nature of the retina with its dusting of powder gave way to a cliff top cemetery, eroded through time so that only one stone had not yet fallen into the sea. On it was inscribed:
Helena Trott
Home at last where she is truly loved
As with Sandhi Dalah, there was no instrument fine enough to scrape away the single cell layer of film from the retina, whether a trick of the ancient eye or real. She finished her probing, in case there was something she had not itemised and put away her instruments. Then, with a mounting sense of entering a disturbing new pattern to her life, she asked her team to leave her alone with the old woman. After explaining that she could do nothing for the eye for the condition had not been encountered before by the medical profession and would need much research to ascertain its pathology, she told her haltingly about the vision she had seen. Helena Trott smiled in sudden rapture, nodding her head repeatedly and placed her old fingers on the surgeon’s wrist.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
The inevitable letter arrived several weeks later. It bore a foreign stamp. The address was typed using an old typewriter so that letters were not perfectly spaced nor in a neat line. It read:
Dear Doctor Cord
You have wrought a miracle. Miss Trott, our beloved benefactress, returned to her estate here in Kerala after fifty years absence. She spent a last blissfully wondrous week of her life on the bougainvillea covered veranda of her old home, submerged in beauty, eyes drinking in the ocean, waiting, if I may be overly poetic, for a barque to carry her to that shore to which we all must one day sail. Here she wrote a final will, sound of mind I can assure you, leaving this estate to myself and my family forthwith for which we are eternally in your debt, for it was your gift to see inside the dark well of our desires that determined her homecoming.
Your humble servant and grateful friend, always,
Khumi Kurup
Estate Manager (Grandson of First Estate Manager)
The English Villa
Gokarna
Kerala
India


Chapter Four
By the end of the year she had had a dozen encounters of this extraordinary kind, always presaged by dreams involving well known figures from history or characters from classical fiction. The names, as in classical psychoanalysis, related to those of particular individuals on her lists, sometimes in a crudely obvious fashion and sometimes requiring a more labyrinthine interpretation. They all suffered from sudden blindness in their right eyes with a seemingly related fine carpet of something alien on their retinas.  It was almost comical the way her mind functioned at this Freudian level of correspondence and symbolism. The pageant of famous personages that passed by her inner eye was often little more than a cluster of tiny sketches held together by some well known anecdote or singular characteristic, mental figments from her early school days. She wrote out the list of her patients’ names in one column and beside it in another, the dream inhabitants.
Sandhi Dalah
Helena Trott
Robert Heinz
Belle Bird
Colin Tick
Christian Pillar
Casey New
Shirley Mansion
Michael Roddie
Bee English
Sandy Angel
Sally Eye
Barnaby Richardson
Mary Aspray
Salvador Dali
Helen of Troy
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Karl Marx
Christopher Columbus
Casinova
Sherlock Holmes
Mickey Mouse
Elisabeth the First
Martin Luther
Salome
Charles Dickens
Margot Fontaine
In every case a letter had followed her entry into the mind of her subject extolling her for her miraculous gift of prescience and her ability to use it to change the life of a sufferer or a victim. It was occult how these lives had been transformed in profound ways owing to her intercessions. As she stared at the list, wondering if there might be a deeper significance holding these names together, there was a knock at the door and the registrar stuck his head inside her office.
“Coffee Jen?” he asked.
“No thanks,” she replied without really seeing him. But what had caught her gaze and kept it fixed there was her nameplate on the office door above his head. Jennifer Cord. He looked at her and then up at the plate before shaking his head and shutting the door.
Meanwhile, with gathering emotion, Jen Cord allowed the dream that had just burst into her consciousness, to run across the inside of her eyes like an old scratchy film. In it she was walking in the garden of her childhood in a winter’s early snowfall. Her father was burning leaves and the dead heads of roses and twigs. He stood silhouetted against the flames and the white landscape and then turned to face her. He had grown a moustache and wore a strange red uniform. He smiled wolfishly at her, baring his teeth and then, with a crooked forefinger, he directed her gaze to the blaze. She looked past him and saw a stake at its centre and a woman tied to it, naked, skin blistering, bubbling and falling from her. The rapid dissolution of her flesh left her a skeleton except for her two eyes, piercing and urgent in their bony sockets. The skull spoke but she could not hear the words because of the crackling of the leaves and the explosions of the twigs.
She sat, alone in her office, a cold fear making her shiver. She added her name to the bottom of the patients’ column: Jen Cord. And then opposite it she wrote Joan of Arc.


Chapter Five
Jen Cord, ophthalmic surgeon, finished her list at six and returned to her apartment in an elegant square in the old part of the city. It was the most minimal tribute to her history. The furnishings were sharply geometrical and toned from white, through greys, to black. Only the light beech, highly polished  parquet flooring offered a contrast. It was a haven for internal dialogue, there being nothing to distract her from listening to music, reading or contemplation. Here she laid out case notes and her columns of names together with summaries of all her dreams. As she stared at them the vision in her right eye started to dim. She put a hand over her left and, as she looked on in despair, the writing first became indecipherable and then disappeared into a blackness. The last name that remained distinct in her mind was her own.


Chapter Six
It was two in the morning when she arrived back at the hospital. The genial, fat uniformed man who was manning reception and acting as a guard smiled and raised a hand before returning to his television screen. She walked through the waiting room and bumped into the registrar, now on night call, going through a file of case notes. A patient sat holding his head in obvious distress. The registrar looked puzzled but did not question her presence nor did her fixed, stern expression suggest he could ask her for help.
She keyed in the code for the operating theatre and entered, closing the door firmly behind her, at the same moment switching on a low, ambient light. Then she went over to the patients’ chair and switched on a small overhead beam. She sat down and faced her invisible surgeon, imagining their conversation.
“And how are you, Miss Cord?”
“A little tense. Somewhat concerned. This kind of operation is experimental … you know. “It is unpredictable.”
“Have no fear, Miss Cord. We know what we are doing. Now, I’m just going to put some drops in your eye to enlarge your pupils. Look up.” She administered the drops by pulling away the bottom lid of her right eye and dripping the chemical into the pouch she had made. While the drug began its work, she set up the ophthalmic magnifying lens with its tiny bright beam of illumination. Experimenting with the beam and lens she focused it and watched as the image from them was relayed on to a small monitor above her head. There was her brown eye steadily dilating, her untended lashes and one brow in need of a good plucking. It was a little crude but satisfactory for her purpose. With the beam turned very low she waited for the dilation to be complete and then began to increase the illumination, focusing it through her pupil and on to her retina. Perfectly healthy she thought until she saw the almost invisible flakes of white dust, like motes in sunlight, falling on its surface.
As she looked at the little screen she found herself being drawn into it and through the falling powder so that it gathered on her hair and shoulders. The vault that she had entered expanded and became a cold scene of dark sky and crisp white snow. A single house stood in front of her on a hill side. Below it, terraces caterpillared down into the valley below where there were was a small industrial town with factories and chimneys giving out black smoke. She walked towards the house, her high heels making circles in the snow, her thin red silk dress, clammily cold against her calves, her black satin shrug with its glittering fake diamond brooch pinning it at her throat and the black pillbox hat with its red feather perched jauntily on her head.
She came to the door. Everything was familiar, the hard cold iron fluting of its handle as she turned it, the hallway with its flowery Victorian tiles, the oak stairs. She climbed without hesitation. This was her home, as intimate to her as her very skin. She opened the bedroom door with an expectant smile upon her face and froze. Lying on the bed was her father, older and greyer than when she last saw him and, nestled against his naked body, was herself, Jen, his daughter.
A terrible screech startled her and she lifted her head from her father’s shoulder to look at the doorway where she had been standing a moment before. In her place there, was her father’s young wife, in a white nightdress. Ten years before she had been her closest friend, her confidante, like a sister so tight was the bond. As she watched, tears coursed down the young woman’s cheeks, hands fluttered and her body twisted and convulsed against the door jamb. The bereft waif was keening something repeatedly, her eyes fixed upon Jen’s own, until finally Jen could just make out the words, “Is this what you want? Is this what you want?”
“No! No!” she heard herself cry as the scene dissolved.


Chapter Seven
Slumped back in the patients’ chair, Jennifer Cord lay with her eyes closed. A cavalcade of ghostly figures walked under her twitching eyelids. All of them, led by Dali and Helen of Troy, bowed to her as they passed and then vanished into the air. Last of all was Joan of Arc, now returned to flesh and blood, voluptuous, breasts bare, shining with the light of intense purpose and holding a gleaming sword above her head. As she, too, disappeared, Jen heard the door of the operating theatre open. The registrar stood there.
“Is that you Jen? Are you ok?”
Her gaze took in his handsome, swarthy features and his intrigued, concerned eyes and she felt her body twist as though it had a magnetic core and the poles had just reversed. At the same moment her mind became clear and her vision lost its right sided opacity so that she saw him in almost transcendent three dimensions.
“A bit shaky,” she whispered, over-dramatically. “Give me a hand.”
He stepped quickly to her side and helped her up. Self-consciously she pressed a breast against him, her head looking over his shoulder, smiling.
                                                                  End
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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Leveson and the UK

It is in every author’s interest to contest any attempt by the State to introduce legislation regarding what can or cannot be the subject of media interest. Freedom of the press (TV, art and literature generally) is the cornerstone of a critical society that keeps its politicians in check. Democracy implies ‘the voice of the people’ and that voice must never be muted. We know that when there is oppression of any kind, people will tend to shy away from speaking up. They need the media to speak up for them.

To maintain an ethical code for decent, informative and investigative journalism merely requires heavier penalties for criminal and spuriously invasive activity together with front page retractions and apologies. A resort to existing law should always determine whether privacy violation is criminal or for the greater good.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rock of Ages

I watched successive television news coverage of the Rolling Stones at the O2 arena the other night and was struck by the ageist tenor of much of it, particularly on Sky. Plucking the main threads from their verbiage I was left with they are very old and they are charging a lot of money. Indeed a couple of the presenters, attractive women in their mid-thirties, screwed up their faces into pictures of prudish disgust at the thought of going to a Stones concert. Dirty old men. Just as similar women did when the Stones were young and brash and irreverent and a banner headline in a middle page spread asked, “Would you let your daughter marry one of these?”It is curious to have grown up with them. I am around the same age as Jagger. I don’t feel particularly venerable. Whilst they may be tame compared to those early days they still have retained a symbolism among those who have grown older alongside them. Rebelliousness. Maybe they have stopped a sizeable proportion of people from becoming atrophied and truly old in their minds and slippers by mirroring their desires to be freer agents.

We have three dogs in a large compound in Accra. A male Doberman, a female blonde Alsatian and an Alsatian/lurcher cross. We bought the first two because our previous two dogs died of a reasonably old age (very old for Ghana where a dog’s life expectancy is low owing to diseases and heat.} The latter is 14 now and quite deaf and blind (what news presenters imagine The Rolling Stones should be). He was  a curious animal when his first two companions were alive. Third in the pack, always craving attention but generally impeccably behaved except when there was a fight between the other two. He’d see which way the battle was going and join in the maul with the victor. He wanted to belong. Nowadays this deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean chase the ball. Actually he’s not dumb, he barks lustily as he vaguely follows the other two in their chase for balls, mangoes and oranges. Sometimes he wins because his nose is as good as ever. We give him the prime cuts from the offal, helping him to eke out his comfortable and occasionally exciting old age. To say that he was revivified on the two new pups arrival is an understatement. Now they are big dogs aged two. And his old tail whirls and he prances on his toes, occasionally half-falling from a stab of arthritis.

The point being that ghettos are bad for everyone. The old need the young and vice versa. They both need rock and roll to energise their desires for nonconformity. Those Sky “ladies’ could do with a bit of naughtiness.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shadows on the Cave Wall

I know what Plato meant when he said that we could not apprehend reality directly. Everything is an echo or a facsimile or obscured or misrepresented or a lie. We are islands unto ourselves and though we build bridges to each other’s habitats, we never actually cross to them. Love is our best word for reaching out and almost touching the other. Abandonment is the horror of discovering that it is just one more slippery word.
As writers we are experts in the field of deceptive realities, though, paradoxically, we believe that our fictions contain more truth than the most meticulous academic factual account. I have just finished the first draft of the novella, now with a changed title. Easeful Death has become On Being Sinbad. I am working on the dialogue. It says too much at the moment. It is too literal. Literality does not really exist in the world of human communication. Approximation is all there is and that’s when you’re really good and have a real handle on words words words. Cutting back the dialogue so that it is truly spare enables the reader to make it his or hers by filling in the gaps. That’s what we like as humans. Filling in the gaps others leave. We are not then faced with the enormity of being on islands and uncomprehending of each other’s plight.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Casting Bread Upon the Water

I made the point some time ago that writing e-books was akin to putting messages in bottles on your desert island when what you really wanted was a full-size steamer to come by and save you (a book publisher). A friend muttered the other day that he did not want to broadcast his thoughts, implying that tweeting and blogging somehow involved a dumbing down of the high arts. I pointed out in return that there he was, nearly seventy, and unable to pass on his worldly wisdom because of fear of exposure. In other words, since he felt he could not measure up to Tolstoy then he had better keep his powder dry for reincarnation.

I once wrote in an A to Zen of Management (www.chronometerpublications.me) “Tell everyone everything there is to know about you and they cease to have power over you” That’s it, really. Exposing oneself in tweets, blogs and e-books begins in acts of faith that you have something to say and ends with a sense of empowerment because you have added your individual voice to a discourse. We are made to feel embarrassed and a failure in our schooling and this carries on through life unless we use aversion therapy – which, in this case, is publishing and broadcasting our views.

Writing blogs and tweeting are both acts of personal exposure but also of marketing. Read my blogs and you might read my books, should you like the style, the humour, the insights…

www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cheating Death

As you will have read in the last blog, I am writing a novella about what happens when a man is given three months to live. Maybe this preoccupation with death is just my age. Close friends have died this last year. It’s a conundrum to have them alongside me one moment and then not, the next. Thus it is that odd phrases are caught, mid-air, from what people say or from what appears in text. Phrases that stop you ‘dead’ because you hadn’t interrogated their meaning in depth. ‘Cheating death’ is one such. It is used a lot. People escape from infernos, the water, severe diseases and other seemingly impossible situations and we say that they cheated death. Death is personalised. The Grim Reaper. In The Seventh Seal the hero plays chess with death and can live as long as the game can be drawn out. But the end is inevitable. Cheating Death is anything from a momentary experience to a life long one. Babies cheat death. People live to a ‘ripe old age’ before succumbing to the scythe.

I’d like to cheat death for a little more time yet. I may be doing the right things, who knows? It appears it is all dependent upon telomerase. Look it up. If you have long ones you will go on awhile. If you have short ones then get your pen and paper out and write a fancy will. The startling news is that you can lengthen them. Diet, exercise, purpose in life and social networks. Can you be bothered? That’s the thing. Most people can’t until it’s too late. Once the sentence has been handed down, then they start scrabbling around for their 5 a day.

In Azimuth, Death is a Lifetaker and differs according to the person’s psychological baggage. S/he can be anything from a cuddly pet to a devil with horns. We live uniquely and we die uniquely.

www.azimuthtrilogy.com
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Easeful Death

As a subject for a novella, proscribed time is very powerful. This is the common enough eventuality that you will know exactly how long you have to live. Until the surgeon tells you and you are in a care home or a hospice or you are finally returned to your bed for the last few days, you tend to disregard it. Throughout our lives time is attenuated to the point where it seems infinite on the one hand and crudely finite on the other. You can keep both notions in your consciousness at the same time, sliding from one to the other, almost unwittingly. I would assume that we have evolved a mechanism in our brain which mutes the prospective horror of an eternal blankness to enable us to get on with our daily round.

Given that it is the subject of my current writing – whose working title is also the title of this blog, I wonder what line you might take in constructing a fiction about it. Would you put yourself in the place of a friend who endured such an end to his or her life, documenting sadness and loss, bitterness and rage? Would you make it the subject of a thriller narrative as in Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith and the great film, The American Friend by Wim Wenders, in which a man given weeks to live, is offered a fortune which will take care of his family after his death – IF he commits a murder. Would you focus upon the effects upon his or her children? Would you offer the tantalising bitter-sweet picture of falling in love with no time to go? Deeply psychological treatments can be found in Golding’s novel Pincher Martin and the quite brilliant little film called Incident at Owl Creek or in Becket’s novel Malone Dies. The transition from life to death is one of the two great changes in our lives. It makes for magnetic reading but is a huge challenge to the writer. Like the bad sex awards given to writers who hump their prose to the point where it becomes risible, there should be bad death awards for those who create such a cloying sentimentality that we are asphyxiated in the syrup. The film Love Story comes to mind and the death of Little Nell.

Maybe with that baggage in my mind, Easeful Death is a tale wherein there is no sentimentality, no empathy and very little sympathy.  As such it might fall into the category of black humour. But maybe it shouldn’t be put in that box. Maybe it is the best way out for us all!

Eventually it will appear at this portal:

wwwchronometerpublications.me

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Friday, November 9, 2012

 
“…two nations divided by a common language”

This quote is likely to have issued from the lips of George Bernard Shaw and, of course, refers to Great Britain and the United States of America. Having watched, or had inflicted upon me, the election carousel for the American Presidency over the last few months, I become more aware how language causes cognitive and emotional dissonance. In other words I am at a loss to fully comprehend or believe what is actually being said and felt by US citizens. This goes all the way from manual worker to the President himself, whose rhetoric can be so overblown and flowery it has me trying to uncurl a tightly locked bum. Of course I wanted Obama to win but at what cost? The amount spent on the election (money that would have wiped out Sandy inflicted debts) the continual reference to the United States as the greatest nation on earth, the projection of the US as ‘one family’, the over simplification of issues, the relative lack of reference to the disastrous Bush years and the negative campaigning seemed less like a democracy in action and more like a mammoth, self-inflicted character assassination. When I worked in Uzbekistan after the break down of the Russian confederation, the whole impetus of American businesses there was so capitalist, market hungry and self-aggrandising that I could not work with them. Not that the UK, in its own unique way, is any less paradoxical when it comes to self-presentation. Or France. Or Ghana. Each imagines it is democratic but has a different way of demonstrating it and conjuring it up in language and behaviour that is hard for outsiders to penetrate fully..

Having worked and lived in Accra for nearly five years, partially supporting my wife’s business www.sixteen47.com which involves around forty staff on three times the national average wage for their lines of work and with free literacy and IT programmes, medical support and western working hours, the difficulties of expressing exactly what I want from colleagues are manifold. They are equatorial people without many UK/US business reference points such as seasons of the year, postal addresses, disposable income, legal process, reporting, appraisal and so on. It has taken over a decade to create a critical mass of staff who understand the disciplines of working as one team, planning and being strategic within a global marketplace. This is often because these concepts are utterly different from the world of their upbringing in an oral culture that is opportunistic, dependent on largesse and reactive to harsh daily circumstance and the often corrupt practices of the powers that be. Even though they speak English as well as tribal languages, everything still has to be painstakingly defined by stripping down concepts to their absolute essence. The consequences can be gratifying for everyone. Now, every worker can go to a cyber cafe and download his/her paycheck, every one has a bank account, illness through poor diet has decreased measurably and the ethos of the work place is vibrant and lauded by regular inspections from Ministry agencies. These days there are no senior managers. Everyone is in a team and has a supervisor with strict parameters of responsibility. Individuals who were illiterate a few years ago are handling orders, stocking the website, taking fashion photographs, discussing problems with UK colleagues and supporting their sometimes irascible customers.

The point I am making is that cultures are often deeply antithetical even when a language is shared. The effort to establish shared meaning requires intensive intellectual labour and dedication to the notion that it is lack of opportunity and experience that prevents a village man or woman here from aspiring to middle class wealth and achieving a career and a future for his or her family. Ghana suffers from poor to non existent universal education and health programmes. Its middle classes are not overly disposed to raise universal standards.

On top of that there is this problem of language. As a Star Trekker might say,  “It is the English language but not as we know it Captain.”
















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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Prose Portal

You might take a look at www.chronometerpublicatons.me which is my portal to books I have written. The Mondrian design presentss an instant summary of what I have to offer. The two novellas I have completed since I published Azimuth are yet to be added. They will supplement the range of genres. What you have is the Azimuth Trilogy, a one thousand page saga following the life or death adventures of a man in search of enlightenment, embedded in a further narrative of political intrigue; a noirish, mordant detective story called The Strange Attractor in which chaos theory plays a significant role in catching the criminals and Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story which approaches the taboo boundaries of family life. To be added is a sci fi story about the death of one civilisation and the birth of another called Sex:Future Imperfect and a surreal fantasy about an eye doctor who operates on her own eye called The Visionary. Currently I am working on Easeful Death, a novella about what you might do if you are given three months to live.

As you see, #writing is now my way of life. It keeps me sane. It is a fantasy land, every bit as real or unreal as every day life. It is a conversation with the unconscious that draws self-knowledge from the well. It is a bridge between my world and yours. It says far more about me than any attempt at direct self-description. It is a curious paradox that we hide so much from each other in the normal to and fro of existence but if we become writers we disclose far more than we might like. The writer exists in a goldfish bowl of his own making.

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Saturday, November 3, 2012

To be or not to be

I love The Unicorn by Rilke, a fact I have mentioned before. It goes to the absolute essence of human credulity.

O this is the animal that does not exist,
But they didn’t know that, and dared nevertheless
To love it…and Because they loved it, it came to
be a…pure creature.
They always left a space for it,
and in that space, clear and set aside,
it lightly raised its head, and hardly needed to be.

We live in a world of make believe and erroneous assumptions. For example Americans firmly believe they enjoy one of the world’s great democracies and that they are a leading light in bringing freedom to foreign climes. But it is a society which is dominated by money and roughly half of it sees no reason why the other half – the poorer – should be supported in any way by State largesse. Nor does it question unduly its history abroad which is riven with appalling self-aggrandising policies, wars and sinister interventions in far off places the vast majority of its population couldn’t find on a world map. In Ghana here, cultural differences become apparent after a few years. Romantic love,  which drives much of present day western advertising, social networking and daily fantasies, hardly exists at all in a country that sees its people more concerned about relationships which provide food and shelter than ones that put stars in their eyes.

Religious people believe in an unprovable God. Here, in west Africa the evangelists encourage adherents to pray for worldly goods like houses, cars and washing machines. Religion as pure capitalism.

The point of these few examples is that the more you travel and explore the psyches of other nations and the day to day rituals and beliefs of their populations, the more you realise that everything we do and believe is constructed by human imagination and has no great basis in fact. There is little that is universal.

Good writing reveals the absurdities, false assumptions and personal belief systems of its characters. Sometimes this is called irony and sometimes it is more direct and polemical. The paradox is that a good writer lures you into yet another world of erroneous assumptions and persuades you to believe it, just as you believe the one in which you are currently living. Reality is a grain of sand that promotes a pearl. But the pearl is precious only because we believe it to be. The pearl is fiction.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Great Unread

In a recent tweet I coined a very Omar Khayyam type couplet:

Our lives are kisses on the surface of the river,
Tiny whorls that catch the light and then disappear 
It represents what faces us all; transiency. For the writer (there are previous blogs on this) the making of books is probably a spurious attempt to lengthen, if not one’s life, at least one’s name on the lips of others. In short it is an attempt at creating legacy. Writing Azimuth has already fulfilled a major ambition for me. It’s a trilogy which investigates the meaning of this short life through adventure, fable and mystery. The reviews are great and the paperback version is a little showcase in cover design and printing.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com/reviews
But, even knowing I have achieved even more than my optimism hoped for when beginning the work, the fact remains that it is not yet a best-seller. Sales are slow. Only by employing a marketing company or spending all my time as a salesman, will I push sales along. But I want to write, not market. Something has to give.

The surprising thing in all this is that many people (friends, acquaintances) I expected to buy the book, haven’t as yet. The days of patronage are over! So its pages await the multitudinous hands of  readers, anonymous or known. II would like to think of it as an unknown treasure. Whether it is at the end of a rainbow or for real, only time (and money or labour) will confirm.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Volcanic Eruptions and Purple Prose

I started a new novella the other day. It began well from a purely eyes down, words per minute point of view. Like most of the prose I write these days (as opposed to academic writing where I used to plan, make a flow chart, look for supportive and critical references, do drafts and finalise in bored exhaustion), what I do is organic. One word leads to the next, decisions are taken at a less than conscious level most of the time and the story is revealed to me much as it will be to the reader. We are always warned by sages (most of whom have never written a fictional sentence even in jest) to beware our purple prose. If by that they mean sudden lurches into ornate, too clever by half, swamped with metaphor, writing, I agree. But most serious writers have those days when they are like the Romantic Poets and, in a purple haze brought about not by laudanum but a sudden transportation to the deepest levels of the imagination, their work explodes on to the page. Hours later they stare in unfeigned amazement at the ten or so alien pages that have appeared on their screens or in their note books.

As I said, I write organically. The story is plucked berry by berry from the thorny brambles of my mind. One thing leads to another and the pie awaits the totality of the picking, washing, cooking and baking. I suspect that the pie has always been there and I am unwrapping it, as if from a delicatessen. In Zen terms the pie is baking me. At the moment I have a story about a man who is given a short time to live. What does he do? It’s in the second person singular which I’ve never utilised before. It’s hard. I keep drifting into the third person and I have to go back and amend. But it’s curiously direct. Even more so than the ‘I’ of the first person. Anyway, he has met a drug dealer and a woman who researches the moment of death. All three are about to meet for the first time as a trio. I’m agog.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

More Liberty from Insanity

The title is only half in jest. As life imitates art so does an article on the BBC site proclaim that many writers would become mad, save for their art. I’ve never felt close to mad, even when I worked with mad folks I never felt any contagion. But I did write a blog to that effect and constructed a couple of tweets on the subject. The basic theory is that genius and madness are divided by a cigarette paper and writing keeps such people from falling into the abyss. At a lesser level (I am not claiming great things for my prose) writing keeps me from feeling profoundly angry with my lack of literary output. I don’t like sulking and so to have begun another novella leaves me at the end of the day feeling chipper. Here’s the beginning. It seems to be called, Easeful Death. I have plagiariswd phrases fom the 19th century romantic poets for a couple of recent titles.

Easeful Death

What should be your reaction when the Messenger speaks about the end of days? Your end of days? Had you really considered it before this point? Had you taken notice of the nods and winks and grimaces of your physiology or the raised eyebrows and sudden stern expression of the harbinger of this prognostication, your GP? Had it even sunk in when you first set off to meet the Messenger in his swivel-chaired, Formica den with its strip lighting and touch screen computer, linked to all the data bases of the hospital?

That’s how it starts. How it ends I have no idea but the notion of being told you have six months to live has stimulated the flow of words. Six pages in two days is better than no pages in two months.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Whose Death Is It Anyway?

I was struck by a personal illumination a week or two after returning to Ghana. I had had the long hard summer of the expected operation for a hernia but then was forced to undergo the assault of treatment on my right eye’s detached retina. The effects are recounted in the Latest News diary at www.chronometerpublications.me. Now, reading the diary, I see the brave face I was putting on. I managed to do much that was part of my daily disciplines: writing, reading, driving, exercising. But it was in a twilight world where verve and vibrancy had been banished to the margins. I only realise this now. I felt at the time the transiency of life and the speeding up march of death. This, as I have inferred above, changed once I got to Accra and started swimming every morning and luxuriating in a heat that is constant, humid and cosseting. I reconnected with my sense of immortality (entirely spurious I know!).

But it got me thinking. We always assume that the mind (brain) gets to the point when it has had enough of life. “She lost the will to live.” “There was nothing left to live for.” But supposing it is not like that? I wrote recently that the heart has its own separate brain and it now seems possible that different organs also have neuronal complexities, communicating with the brain but also autonomous at times. I also read that eye conditions often presage an earlier death. So my thesis at this current point in my life is that the body tells the brain to shut down as often as the other way round. It makes sense. The body is in a slow but quickening downward spiral from our early twenties and there may come a point when gradually it turns its lights off.

It suggests that the focus on staying alive (if that’s your plan) may need far more concentration on making the body a temple to vibrancy through diet, exercise and social tactility, at least as much as doing crosswords and taking up a new hobby. Then the brain is forced to reassess and do its job, if grudgingly.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Drama of the Mundane

I watched Another Year by director Mike Leigh last night. It is a year in the life of a relatively uncharismatic group of individuals, The script is excruciatingly accurate. Anyone who made an early decision in his or her life to leave the predictable and eventless world of their parents, wishing to become dramatic figures on a different landscape, would feel totally exonerated. The central couple play out their habituated lives with in-jokes, sly smirks and public togetherness, exhibiting an aura of the steadfast rock of the family and with a self-satisfied all-knowingness in their small canvass way. They tolerate the desperately seeking woman who visits regularly at the times they decree, privately amused at her indiscretions, failures and social ineptitude. They are entranced by their dour son’s new girlfriend who, in her jolly effervescence, is on their wavelength. The slight change in their behaviour, which only amounts to a brief admonishment to the hapless woman for turning up when she has not been invited, represents the only real dramatic shift in the film. It decimates her. Otherwise everything remains dull but they don’t see it that way. For them this is a life of ups and downs but to the viewer they are little more than perturbations on a flat-line graph.

It is billed as a comedy and it has some of the same qualities as The Office in this regard. More funny peculiar than funny ha ha, most of the time. With our toes curling and our horror mounting at the wave of banality swamping us, we are transfixed by the awfulness of it all.

I have my own childhood memories of my council estate family house and its mausoleum of a front room, my father (an undoubtedly clever man, if right wing and gender-discriminating) doing the Telegraph crossword and picking his horses for the day and my mother, loving but generally flattened by the unchanging days and months and years. Remembering this, Another Year brings cold recognition to my bones. Yet this is life. It is somehow horribly authentic and makes me ask whether I view it with the angry snobbery of someone who did flee for a different landscape or, more to the point, whether I can dredge up some empathy for their human capacity to make much of little and be happy with their lot. That’s it, actually. The film makes me feel less of a person for my deeply prejudiced view of the family’s unflinching humdrum, self-satisfaction.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Purposeful living

I’ve just returned to Ghana after five months, mostly in France but also in the UK and Spain. During this time I have to say that one or two people have really irritated me by the blithe way they have discovered I am an author and then interjected, “I’ve been meaning to write a novel”, or “When I have some time I’ll write a novel”. In those simple sentences they effectively diminish your achievement at not only writing novels but completing them! Having sufficient purpose to work at your art in a disciplined way and forcing your path through the brambles and thickets of stubborn and willful characters, cul de sacs in your plots and distractions from outside your fingers and brain is quite a challenge and these would be authors have no notion of it.

In the brain there appears to be some defective mechanism that would stop you doing all this – let’s call it fulfilling your destiny. It seems to operate from the simplest of tasks to the most severe. I have just done some gym work before settling down to the keys. It was an effort to go and start. The actual exercise was not unduly hard and was even pleasurable in a sober kind of way. Such an essential part of my daily round may well keep me alive for longer. Certainly I have not succumbed to paunchiness or a multiplicity of chins. Yet even knowing it is good for me both from a vain and physical point of view does not have me go to the gym with a light heart. I go there grumbling. Similarly I have not practised French for three days or picked up the guitar. The retrograde part of my brain resists me doing anything regularly which is for my own good. People admire my productivity but have no notion what an hour by hour battle is involved.

I think that is why I wrote Azimuth. The whole enterprise is about Purpose – probably the one thing that differentiates people into classes, from the spineless sloth to the hyperactive renaissance artist.

www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lost times

Sometimes you see something in a documentary and it is so poignant, you wished you had written it in your dialogue as an author. I saw a couple of programmes when I returned to Ghana both on case histories of people with exceptional memories. They were so exceptional we watch flabbergasted at the thought of being able to do it ourselves. There was someone who can do a dozen Rubik cubes within a few minutes and even do three, blindfolded, having only seen the layouts first. There was another who could tell what day of the week it was for any given date and a further couple of individuals who could remember what they were actually doing on any day of their lives post six or seven years old. Memorising a pack of cards instantly, remembering and being able to draw architecture you have seen once or being able to play a complex tune after one hearing are all baffling to those of us who have memories that seem to to be disgorged as fast as they are taken in in and which require diligent techniques to fix them in our brains.

A problem for us is that, though memories are concertinaed in our brains and we cannot immediately retrieve them, when we write we have an unconscious conduit to them so out they pour. Many of them will be rehashed or partially remembered bits and pieces from other authors’ work. A bit of every author’s work must include unwitting plagiarism. If you are like the cases described above you probably could never write fiction as everything would be lifted from some page or other!

Anyway, back to the poignant line in the documentary. The young man who has a brilliant memory of every day of his life is sitting with his boyfriend. Both at university. His lover says to him sadly that this day, as they sit on a cut lawn sipping white wine and looking into each other’s eyes, will fade from his own memory but not that of his boyfriend who will be able to call it up at any instant.

Before seeing this I never really considered how relationships that have long histories also have innate difficulties since those long histories will not be recalled in the same way or to the same degree. For one the glass of history is half full and for the other it is half empty. The conflicts that ensue are the stuff of life and it is messy and awkward.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Killing them softly

I saw this film last night. It was brutal, a choreographed montage of everything that lies beneath the self-deceiving hyperbole of American politics. Set against the electoral rhetoric of Obama, Bush and McCain the script is taut, gutter-dirty and with a self-contained obscene morality that is so authentic it makes you reel. Life is brief for all of us and most of us realise it far too late to do much about it. In this film it can be so brief that the characters have barely time to lift a head in wonder as the bullets arrive. To die incidentally, as minor protagonists in an unknown plot, is the worst of all deaths whether as ordinary folk in state terrorism, as a result of famine in an ignored catastrophe or as  pacific followers of the wrong religion in a certain place at a certain time. We would like to think of our deaths being somehow the noble ends of lives well lived, even when our final months are distressingly ignoble.

I wrote a tweet in homage to Omar Khayyam recently:

Our lives are kisses on the surface of the river
Tiny whorls that catch the light and then disappear

Gentle and poetic I hope. The perfect antithesis of Killing them Softly

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Time and Space in a Story

It is said that Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time is the least completed book by its readers in inverse proportion to sales. The more it sold the less it was read. It was the title that seduced its buyers. I think this is because we want answers to deep questions about our existences. When we are young, life seems inexhaustible and when we are old it most painfully is not. What’s going on with time? Time is synonymous with gods and the mysteries of birth and death.

I’ve just travelled from the very south of France to the UK by train. A whole day’s movement through changing landscapes. I felt a day older at the end of it. Much of our lives is spent in dislocation from realities, in artificial environments, in cabins and offices and untrained to make the most of each passing moment. Our lives leave us in their wake rather than the other way round. Maintaining a true grip on second by second reality is not part of our armoury.

Why I liked writing Azimuth was because it was about how people gain this true grip. It contains three long journeys, each lasting many years and the time and space for its central character to begin to understand what his life is all about. Despite the obstacles, the battles, the deaths and meeting individuals with vastly different outlooks on the preciousness of existence, he comes to a point I hope is within us all. A sort of rich acceptance of the brief history of our time.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Abandoned not ended

Even the above introduction to the character of Jennifer Cord has had to be changed slightly. The description of Jennifer so that her qualities are consistent with the tale that is to follow. It’s right to say that no act of writing is ever finished, merely abandoned. This has been attributed to just about everyone though Paul Valery is possibly the first documented. Writing is its own tyranny to those who have fallen into the pit of the unconscious. I like the Robert Benchley remark to the effect that it took him fifteen years to realise that he couldn’t write but by then he was famous. Writers (and I am no exception) are pathologically desperate for attention. Unlike those with various forms of emotional and psychological illness our acting out tends to be virtual. I’m writing this on a creamy warm morning in the mountains. It infuses me with the desire to write creamy prose. By that I mean warm and seductive. This is probably why Jennifer’s character has been slightly altered!

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In Azimuth there is a scientist who ‘sees below the surface’ using a glass fashioned from crystal. The idea of the eye not seeing reality is the stuff of philosophers’ musings. I have just finished the first draft of a novella in which the eye is not quite a window to the soul but at least a window to a hidden and sometimes repressed reality. I wrote it one-eyed on a recliner on the terrace with the mountains guarding me. You can read the full diary of this awkward eye in Latest News at www.chronometerpublications.me But I am digressing from my intent. This is to mention the first ever recorded forensic examination of a murder. It took place in China, centuries ago. A man is found dead from a cutlass slash in a village. Solving the crime is beyond the headman who sends for an investigator from the capital. This man asks for all cutlasses to be brought to him. They are arranged in the sun. There is, of course, no blood on any of them. He waits. After a while tiny flies congregate on one blade. Invisible flecks of blood have attracted them. The murderer is revealed. Our eyes need back-up, even on an every day basis!

Seeing all these CSI-type documentaries on TV plus films that purport to utilise the latest investigative gadgetry makes you wonder why crimes take so long to solve. I quite like whodunnits which relay less on technology and more on plot, character and the psychology of the killer. I saw some of Manhunter last night, a rather well-wrought film by Michael Mann which seems to me to be superior to Silence of the Lambs which used the same plot. The investigator enters the mind of the killer, despite having had a break down when he did this once before.

Find out about Azimuth at: www.chronometerpublications.me
or from the dedicated website: www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

 A great film needs a great writer

I added this to my diary Latest News at www.chronometerpublications.me just now. And it fits here as well.
Had a two hour walk today down the mountain to Vernet Les Bains, once the home of Rudyard Kipling. The eye held up ok in the heat. Thought about a clutch of films I have seen this year: The Good Shepherd, Page Eight, Tinker Tailor (plus the old TV series) and, last night, A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg’s take on Jung and Freud. Why bind them together like this, apart from the costume drama nature of them? I like the writers’ penchant for telling lines, the fact that they all had a literary, stylized feel and they had an eye for period psychology. Keira Knightley has leapt to the top of my want-to-see actresses. She is phenomenal in the last named film by Cronenberg. In a sense, this latter film is just as much a spy drama as the others in its emotional subterfuge, deceptions and uncovering of truth. Trust is at the heart of all the films – broken, abused and rarely unshakeable. Just So stories for me. It made me want to get back and write a bit more of the novella about the eye surgeon and her discovery of the conduit to the soul.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

On The Road Again! And another short story

Thanks to Canned Heat and a bit of Kerouac for the title which sees me writing this in Millau – the place of the greatest bridge this side of St Peter’s Gates. As The Latest News window mentioned ( www.chronometerpublications.me ) we were in an Auvergne B&B last night. The host, Francois, appears to have done everything the 20th century hero should have done. He’s a pilot, a seagoing captain, a mountaineer, a hunter, a driver for ambassadors, a wine maker, a cheese maker and has the capacity to talk the hind legs of a herd of donkeys. Less of that and more of something else. He said he could never write, though he keeps a diary. In due course he told me about his father – a perfect little tale, which I will convey to you with all the lack of frills of Borges.

“My father was forty and knew he was going to die. He bought a coffin and placed it in the front room, near the front door. Every night he slept in it for practice for the final moment. He died when he was forty three. When the autopsy was done it was established that he was perfectly sound and there was no reason for his death.”

You see? We writers imagine our tales like card players but constantly find our hands outplayed by life. For my own yarns, longer and fleshier, go to:

www.chronometerpublications.me

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Empathy and Reality
I was struck, after my two hours plus fully conscious operation for a detached retina (gory details in Latest News: www.chronometerpublications.me), how doctors must inflict pain to do their business. Also that, in the main, they will have little idea of the depth and variety of pain that a patient suffers. The best they can do is empathise. Maybe we wouldn’t want them to fully comprehend and feel our suffering at their hands. It might impede their cool professionalism and disinterested decision making. Emotional doctor? Probably not.
When it comes to writing, the picture changes. Travel books are enormously popular. So are cod historical fictions with a researched background such as The Da Vinci Code and remarkable classics such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. People read them knowing that the writer is giving a first hand account of his or her experiences. Autobiography in all its forms is exceedingly seductive.
So, is out and out fiction better for the writer having experienced what his or her protagonists are being put through? Is the fact that I have had the eye battle more likely to improve my depiction of suffering, generally? I think so. Having read some Joseph Conrad recently, it seems likely that his books are enormously enriched by his experience on the oceans and rivers of the world. But having had extreme experiences does not make a great writer, per se. It is how the writer can them move on and apply the essence of such experiences to events they could never have encountered, themselves.  For example, Sci Fi writers have not experienced space or time travel but something in their biographies may provide the raw material for it.  William Golding’s sea trilogy is based upon general knowledge of the history of the colonisation of Australia by British immigrants plus the reading of a single manual on ships of that period. But Golding could then infuse his refined understanding of human psychology within this exotic canvass.
William Blake suggested that you can see the world from the bottom of your garden. We write from our histories, whether limited or expansive, but the greatest literary imaginations can utilise personal experiences like cookery ingredients, making an array of cakes, varied and delectable and extraordinarily different from the originals. They combine empathy with reality.
When I wrote Azimuth, there was much of it that was based upon my growing experience in a natural pre-internet world – but transmuted into fable, adventure and action that bore little relation to my biography.The pain that the Magus suffers at various points in the trilogy is probably better expressed because of the pain I once suffered. Maybe I could now write it even more grippingly after recent events!

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Writer as medium

The joy in writing what you could never have known to be true until afterwards is both spellbinding and uplifting. During the ten years of Azimuth’s emergence from my unconscious I learned to leave control over the destiny of the narrative to my imagination. What transpired was occasionally quite spooky. Characters with strange lineage, implements that they used, landscapes and cataclysmic events, the stuff of fantastical fiction, later proved to have more than a grounding in fact. Checking it later was at times like a history programme searching for evidence of solid events which might have given rise to what we have always regarded as mere myth: Atlantis, Ulysses or astronomy of the Ancients.

Writing has this capacity to transcend mundane reality, to travel across time, to make miraculous connections so that, in a sense, nothing need ever be lost from the human experience. It makes a writer feel like a medium, a little bit of a shaman not a sham.

www.chronometerpublications.me

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Life Imitating Art
This is going to be brief because my eye hurts! But it has resonances.
I wrote Azimuth over a ten year period and regard it as my ‘legacy’. It is a strange book, both an adventure story and an agnostic’s search for enlightenment. Much of it was written in a divine effluvia, a semi- unbridled outpouring from the unconscious. Looking back, a two month work posting from the EU to Uzbekistan must have kindled much of the landscape and history which is a backdrop to the trilogy. Samarkand is a truly magical place.
This week I had a decidedly gruelling eye operation for a totally detached retina. Two hours and fully conscious with lasers and needles and oil. The woman who did it? A young, beautiful Uzbek, straight off Azimuth’s pages. The chances of finding an Uzbek eye surgeon in the UK must be zilch. To discover her as MY eye surgeon? Jungian synchronicity par excellence..
Afterwards, in an act of circularity that you might find in a Borges labyrinth, I gave her a signed copy of Azimuth. A thank you to her and also to Samarkand.
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Mind muscle
The mind is a strange sleight of hand trick of the brain (to mix metaphors), without which it cannot exist. Damage the brain and the mind is impaired. Nevertheless, we differentiate them so that the mind becomes the subject and the brain becomes the object in their relationship. The mind represents the driver and the brain represents the vehicle which carries us through life. The most significant element of the mind is the will because (we are led to believe) it precipitates our brains to do things for us. Unless it fights the mind’s battles for it, we become slaves to everything around us. It makes us a puppeteer rather than a puppet, autonomous rather than dependent.
I know this is a rather slanted and reductionist summary of a vast literature on mind and brain but it gets me to my main thrust, one I have approached in previous blogs. One that bears innumerable mentions, I feel, for any writer or thinker.
When you say that you want to stop trying to master something because your head hurts, that is the time to keep going. You have to exert your will (therefore your mind) to make your brain do the business for you. It is best to treat it as a tool that needs constant tempering. This is why I have said that only by writing every day do you begin to perceive real subtleties in the relationship between imagination and expression. Encapsulating as much information in as small a wordage as possible can only be achieved by practice and the brain actually learns how to do it by constant exercise. Thus your very wordy one thousand page book is reduced to 300 pages because you use metaphor and simile and concise phraseology.
I am intrigued by this process. Having produced a book of aphorisms called An A to Zen of Management I turned latterly to tweeting. The restrictions on length of tweets should be seen as a mind-muscle challenge. How much can you say in so little wordage? Most tweets say very little. They appear to be vomited on to the page rather than sculpted and placed there.
It does make your brain hurt but mastering the concise sharpens your brain tool fantastically!
Tweets at @profjacksanger

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

All writing is fantasy 

These blogs are shoehorned into travel. I am now in England after days in Cahors, Chartres and Calais. Whether they are stylish and durable footwear is another thing.

I tweeted the title of this piece this morning @profjacksanger because I was taken by the notion that whatever I have executed as a writer, whether in the guise of an academic, a novelist, a playwright or a poet, required, even at the most stringent point in my portrayal of realities, imaginative dressing. No matter how diligent I was at stripping words of any spurious, arty-farty subjectivity, the results were never more than a nod in the direction of verisimilitude. As I said in a recent blog, we are what we write. We are never utterly disinterested and objectively scientific. Life since Plato’s illuminations, has been seen to be illusion and writing does little to pull back the curtain that veils the truth of the nature of existence. Thus it is a relief to have left academia and its false gods and self-deceptions for the rich, imaginative world of ‘fiction’ which, to my mind, luxuriates in its lack of pretence that it is actually nailing reality.

In that unalloyed modesty, it may say as much about our universe as any so-called factual account within the scientific establishment.

www.chronomterpublications.me

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Writers and Jung

In the deepest well of the writer’s imagination is all the good and evil of the universe. In this we must be adherents of Carl Jung. In many of my preceding blogs about the art of writing (should that really be the psychology of writing?) I am taken with what that Jung proposes: there is something beyond the mechanical, projected, intentional in our scribbling. Derrida talks of ‘meaning leaking’ from our work no matter how much we try to control it. The universal unconscious is, indeed, the deepest well where everything lurks, good or evil, fantastical or prosaic. The more we write and allow ourselves to trust this repository of human experience, the more we will drag, dripping from its depths, stuff beyond our ken – and the ken of humankind.

www.chronometerpublications.me

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

 The Writer is revealed

Writing is meditation. The page is a mirror. Khayyam’s moving finger traces our changing features as we age. We write ourselves into knowledge. All of our history comes into play. Not only what we think we remember but also what we don’t know we remember.

In Azimuth the assassin comes from east of Samarkand along the Silk Road. The place is an explicit (and exquisite) memory as I visited there just after the Russians pulled out but there are many elements of his sudden, mysterious eruption on to my pages that came from beyond my knowing. The same with the African mercenaries. Bits come from my time in Ghana regarding their values, much from somewhere else.

We are what we write – but we are also written by our writing.

www.chronomterepublications.me

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Sci Fi Fo Fum, here comes the blood of a future man
Writing a short sci fi novella this last month was a pleasure. (Sex: Future Imperfecti). Pure imagination. No research save for the years of reading that no doubt helped to shape it. Twist ending. Voila. Here’s a snippet, taken after a rather visceral opening, an account of a player’s death in a game simulation:
He was recovering fast. As always, he could not recall the mental trauma just before death though he knew it had been intense. Even with players like him the psyche needed careful protection. There were concoctions that could replay it from his memory again but unlike many of his friends he never dwelt on the past, it was the transiency of pain that appealed. “Fantastic!” he laughed. “Phenomenal! Outrageous! Worth a month’s pay.”
“That’s what Mortality costs,” said ABZ-, admiringly. “You certainly know what to spend your allotment on.” They lay side by side on the bed of air in the vaulted chamber, their fashionable loose fitting white bachelor robes floating around them.  A-Prime107’s apartment was chic and hi-tech in the extreme. There was not one retro appliance or stick of furniture or soft furnishing anywhere to be seen. He loved the air-press islands that, on his voice-activating command, would provide bodyfit shapes on which he could recline, wherever and whenever he felt like it. He loved the shell’s capacity to become any colour he desired, currently the palest blue, as well as the opaque or transparent modifications that came as basic. At this moment they lay on minutely rippling air which massaged A-Prime’s aching physique. A-Prime tended to have the shell of the chamber on mirror-translucent, maintaining privacy while allowing him to look across the urban wrapping, ninety percent of which was silvered bubble like his own.
“It takes it out of you, doesn’t it?” reflected ABZ-, “The body suffers from the mind’s torture.”
“I’m ok. I got on to level 7.”
“Arghh! That’s no-go! You are a freak. That’s why you have a Prime rating!” ABZ- had never gone further than basic, level 1 on the death programs before feeling sick. Indeed, he was worried that they sent back info to the authorities if anyone got as far as A-Prime was doing. Everyone knew that there were built-in detectors. Every game could be looped back to Central.
It’ll be out in a month or so, when my editor has put down his scalpel, needle and thread.
All my output at: www.chronometerpublications.me

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Being Caught short: the novella
It was like this. Having spent ten years writing Azimuth and pouring into it everything I could regarding the metaphysical, the fabulous, the adventurous and the quirky so that it became an adult’s fairytale without fairies but with gods and heroes; no that sounds a bit of a put-off, as well – allegorical, that’s the word. Oh, read it and be enthralled and tell me what it is! Anyway, like any long term relationship come to an end, I soon needed the thrill again. So I wrote Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story about taboo in family life. Meanwhile, I continued to market books through these blogs and tweets but the old yearning took over again and I have just today finished Sex: Future Imperfect, a science fiction novella.
Novellas are an interesting form. You haven’t time to really develop characters through action but have to make them rounded enough to be believable, immediately. It’s akin to going to a party and chatting with someone and ending up in bed with a relationship to look forward to, it seems so right. They must jump off your page ready formed in the same way. Also, in my case there has to be more of a sense of the ending at the outset to help drive direction. Normally I refuse to think about it, wanting the characters and the events to push the plot along and discover for myself the ending almost at the same moment as it comes into sight on the page.
In novellas, too, there is a bounty placed on every word you don’t use. Spareness counts. The plot drags you in and spits you out, even if it is a psycho-drama. In the case of science fiction, a future world has to be painted in a few sentences and it must be sufficiently technological for the reader to feel that time has moved on and that it is a believable step away from the present. Anyway, I suppose the novella should feel that it could have been a fully-fledged novel but there has been a distillation which gives it the punch of a glass of spirit.
From what I’ve read, the novella is the medium with the message for today’s computers who want to read a whole story in a day. The sound byte generation. We shouldn’t be snooty about it. At the end of the day we are providing a service, a refueling of the imagination.
All the books mentioned above can be found at:
and in one form or another on Amazon Kindle where I write as both Jack Sanger AND Eric le Sange

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Let the Good Times Not Roll too Soon
I have been heavily involved in writing a novella over the last four weeks, which led to its completion this morning, at least in first draft. It’s the first time I have written sci fi (in my Eric le Sange body) and, like most novellas, it had to have a twist ending. Somehow, the idea of writing a fifty to a hundred page story without a big clout of an ending seems to me to be anathema. Even in Azimuth, each chapter has twist endings and the two narratives, at the end of the trilogy have proven already to have upturned its readership with delighted surprise.
I approached the ending of the sci fi story: Sex: Future Imperfect with mounting excitement (excuse the unconscious pun!). After all I only worked out the twist myself as I was going to sleep last night. So, I began developing the narrative towards my imagined ending and then, just at the point where the twist is introduced, I downed tools and went off into the garden to look at the mountains (see photo in last blog). Why? Deferred gratification. Indulgence and delight. I was putting into practice something that I have learned over the years. Defer the best bits as long as possible to let your mind envelop them and tease out all the ins and outs and consequences. Really enjoy being the author for moments like this are to savour. You are the first reader of your own work. Make it great for yourself.
www.chronometerpublications.me
www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reasons to be Cheerful Part 2
Here’s the view from my window as I write this. As you can see I am not in a bordello.
Part One, if you remember, advanced the notion that the business of writing contains within it an almost mystical reward. For a man it is his, admittedly minor, sublimation for not being able to give birth, in the real sense. For a woman who is childless, maybe the same, I have no idea. For a woman who has been fruitful in flesh and blood terms, maybe it acts as a delightful coda. Perhaps someone could enlighten me!
Part Two is a bit of a hazy ramble I am beginning to feel. One or two friends have written asking me whether my ebooks are half as successful as 50 Shades of Grey has been. I feel confused at what my response might be. Do I just say no!, truculently, and forget it? Do I enter into a disquisition on how I am pursuing the noble, artier end of writing not the seamier end? (This is a dodgy response since sex plays a key role in two of my books under the name of Eric le Sange, an appellation which separates my genre writing from my heroic (!) offering, Azimuth!) Do I just say that I don’t need to write a bonkbuster for I can get by in my garret here in the Pyrenees on a modest pension and my reason to be cheerful has already been covered in Part One. Maybe I could say that my offspring (curious how some of the progeny of sixties hippiesque creatures like myself are a bit coy and defensive if their father writes any sex scenes at all) would find it difficult to have a father renowned for his prurient pen wielding.

The sins of the father have probably been bad enough without that. So, taking immense pleasure in the act of writing is sufficient, even though having a much greater audience for it would be, as we used to say, a real turn-on!

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Communication from Beyond
Before you get uppity and think I am an adherent of spiritualism, I am not! But since this is a meandering set of blogs about the process of writing, I thought I’d take a look at inspiration. Even for the hardened writer, never mind someone suffering from the dreaded block, there may be a brief period when he or she casts around for some catalyst or other to propel the pen across the virgin page. In earlier blogs there has been much discussion on the gathering of data for the novel but where does the author find a state of mind that might precipitate looking for a launch pad?
It is easy to make a list of possible sources of inspiration; autobiographical events, news stories, criminal cases, anecdotes, books you have loved, people you have met. Yet these represent the mechanical beginnings, explicit sources that you can link to your tale. What about prime movers that are non-explicit but somehow make it possible for you to cast around for one of the above stimuli? For example, some writers submerge themselves in music. The nuances of emotion that stem from such experiences are not literal but nevertheless causal – or at least contingent. Then again, writers have always been known to isolate themselves in landscapes, whether they be the lake poets of the British C19th or present day hideaways in Provence. There is a growing band who immerse themselves in other cultures, imbibing the mores, the sights and sounds to give their novels an exotic ambience. The need to research is these days a precondition for a large group of authors, a troubling fact for me. I spent a great deal of my professional life as an academic researcher (look elsewhere on this blog site) and have come to fiction largely because I want to exercise the imagination rather than fit stories into real, well-realised settings. Though I enjoy this house in the French Pyrenees with its stupendous setting, the people here and their customs have never entered one line of prose in my books. The mountains may have, but incidentally, not as a result of copious note taking. The mountain that frames the final book in Azimuth is more like a Japanese Fuji than Canigou, the sacred Catalan/French mountain upon which my house perches.
But, as an amusing post script to the above, a stimulation I have felt on a few occasions has been the visiting of the graves of writers. It’s certainly not a religious experience.  It’s not spiritualist. Maybe it’s a bit Buddhist or Hindu if you follow the line that when we die we disaggregate into individual atoms and become part of the future aggregation of another individual. Oh, and another aside, I don’t make trips to graves as a central thrust of travelling. But If I’m there and one turns out to be nearby…! Thus, Robert Graves in Majorca, T. E. Lawrence in some country churchyard in the west country, Robert Frost in New England, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey and, by far the greatest experience Novodevichy Cemetery in St Petersburg. Here, in a really small area in the middle of the city are truly majestic poets, writers, composers and artists. Phenomenal. If ever you want to write but can’t get the pen out of your desk drawer, try communing by the grave of one of our own, a writer now deceased. People tell me that I am the least sentimental person they have met – so what I say is not sentimental. It’s more like a private ritual in a belief system of one! This very motif is played out in Azimuth. How much of what we seek and believe ‘out there’ in the world, is really ‘in here’?
www.chronometerpublications.me
www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Friday, July 13, 2012

A Reason to be Cheerful: staying true to your art
Even if you are not interested in the lives of great artists I am sure common knowledge will have filtered down, like rivulets and streams into the great river of shared consciousness, that many artists we now regard as ‘great’ were not recognized as such in their own lifetimes. By artists I am including every medium, not just Van Gogh and his ilk. Perhaps writing is the least tenable part of this thesis in that, unlike the paint stroke, the word has a capacity to become rapidly dated and best sellers particularly so – unless you go back to Dickens and Tolstoy et al. Will Booker prize winners be read in twenty years time? One or two but the majority not. This is because writing has the quintessential capacity to speak of the now and most reading revolves around the now just as pop makes up the vast proportion of music, being immediately gratifying and then unsatisfying. Most art fulfils a primary criterion and that is to give pleasure to the passing of time; the series of connected nows, if you like. The greater the art, the more attenuated the sequence of nows, stretching even across generations and epochs like Shakespeare.
There is obviously a scale of values implicit in this debate. Because of the technological revolution the writing media is now more varied. Tweets, blogs, articles, essays, poems, plays, novels are all forms that we have to fit consciously into our subjective measurement of worth.
In the end it is the Jungian universal unconscious which will be the final arbiter because great art communicates through it via a mysterious process of connections, both explicit and implicit. Catching the zeitgeist can make for overnight success but slow burners get there too – and sometimes only after translation into another language or medium such as film.
As artists and here we are discussing novelists in particular, we can and maybe should be driven to try to reach the highest levels of expression but we shouldn’t be dismayed that our oeuvres are not recognized in our lifetimes. We must console ourselves that the fulfillment of making narratives that would never have become born without our individual existences and unique experiences, is a particularly major reward.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Janus in the writer
I tweeted a couple of hours ago about schizoid writers, of which I am obviously one!  Why do it? Why be two people? Why write under different names? We know that for many reasons writers have (like stage and television celebrities) opted for an alias (in this case a pen name). This can enable them to lead a private life as well as a media focused one, or become a different gender more acceptable to the reading public of that genre, or disguise a profession which might not take kindly to a writer of outré fiction. Whatever.
For me there was a decision to be made. I had an academic career as Jack Sanger and when it ended I wanted to write at least one fine book. It turned out to be a trilogy and took me ten years. Azimuth was its name and you can read the early reviews at: www.azimuthtrilogy/reviews
I was happy with my name moving over to embrace fiction at this point. But what next? I felt the need to go on writing and many of the blogs before this one talk about the motivation and psychology of writing. I also wanted to be experimental in different genres to see how it went. I had already written plays that had been produced – though not in the West End? What about crime fiction? What about  an intense sexual novel? What about sci fi, of which I am an expert but so far only as a reader?  Yet writing these would not be the same as writing Azimuth. That book distilled so much knowledge and experience of what I had learned as an academic; philosophy, sociology, psychology and tried to transmute it into a saga, an odyssey of strange and fabulous adventures which would lead the reader to question the nature of reality just as I had.
So, wishing not to besmirch the brand of Azimuth, yet try to establish a reputation as an adept, amusing and highly capable author I opted to wear the garb of Eric le Sange

www.chronometerpublications.me

The name was half-lifted from a 1970s French film called Serail where an English writer named Eric Sange, stays in a French house to pen a novel. And here I am in France in my French house, penning away!

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing: the heart of the matter
I am feeling a sense of dismemberment. My greedy hands that played until recently with the minor characters in Azimuth are itchy to do something else. The fifty blogs on writing that preceded a foray into the literary lives of walk-on parts, represent a sizeable contribution to the debate on how a writer’s psychology is played out in his or her work. Not that my hands direct my writing. Do they? Sometimes I go into a haze and letters, words, sentences appear before me, filling the page with unique meanings that no-one else could have written. It’s deeply meaningful, this act of creation. When I was about twenty, my close friend, a pianist – now dead – used to say about  la difference, “Women are, men do.” His musical compositions were sublimations of giving birth, he used to aver.
What is this leading to? I tweeted yesterday about a programme on television about the heart. A rather intensely sad presenter was wandering like a ghost from expert to expert trying to work out why his heart was broken at the loss of his wife to severe clinical depression. All he was sure was that it was not a brain thing. It was a pain in the chest thing. He started with Leonardo’s heart drawings which showed the dissected heart not as a pump but as a mysterious chambered glory of swirling flows. He compared it with the science of the ipost-ndustrial age which isolated the heart, emphasising its mechanical utility to the body. This view has pertained until very recently. At school I was taught that the heart was a pump. Indeed, it turned out later during my life that a mechanical pump could take the place of the diseased organ and circulate the blood admirably.
However, in the last few years of medical exploration the heart is shown to be so complex, the blood flows so reminiscent of Leonardo’s drawings that one is mind-blown at the infinite complexity of its workings and purpose in the body. It is a wonderful creation of chaos and order. But what turned present day research into a vindication of anecdotal and poetic understanding of the heart over thousands of years of human history, is the discovery that the heart has its own neural network, independent of the brain. Indeed, when it comes to emotion it can be the heart that informs the brain how to react to events in the world. Heartfelt, broken hearted, heartless, a heavy heart, lighthearted. Terms we took as symbolic are actually attached to real, organic responses to the world.
I have often felt that really good writing comes about from a melding of the intellect and emotion, creating a sort of controlled passion which we call the creative imagination. Now, at no risk of sounding like a cross between a writer of bodice rippers and academic treatises, I can say that fine writing must involve both the heart and the brain.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Minor Keys No. 15
The path of a book to the heavenly library is strewn with good intentions. The character of Raashid in Azimuth was one I always imagined I would develop. As you can see from this extract, he is a favoured friend and potential lover for Princess Sabiya. In this sense a novel mimics life in that you meet people and you think that a great friendship might ensue but somehow the fates deny you, or your emotional needs become satisfied elsewhere – or they turn out to be less attractive the more you get to know them. Indeed, a friend of mine often quotes his acquired one liner, “The greater the friendship the greater the treachery.”
Later that morning she was visited by a handsome young man, a noble dressed stylishly in the silks of the day, his burnished hair made up into a topknot, -Your wig is a work of art, she giggled, -Was it taken from the living?
 -In truth, yes. It is a woman’s head of hair which I purchased and had made up, so. It cost silver. When my normal hair grows enough after my interlude as a scribe, I will store it until I have use for it, again. His eyes were mischievous and bold and there had been moments when Princess Sabiya felt that she might make him her first lover but, somehow, the feeling always passed.
Why am I drawn to him? I suppose in my own life I have always found charming reprobates attractive, whether men or women. Being a double Libran, I am told, magnetises me to beautiful, creative people. Whatever, Raashid is a naughty young man but noble and loyal despite his errant nature. He grew up the apple of everyone’s eye, a sort of Hamlet in court life (before the killing of his father), a lover of the arts, a frequenter of gambling dens and an indulger in high class courtesans. He grew up alongside Sabiya but could never quite rid himself of his sense of her being more like a sister than a potential lover, despite his blood being aroused by her beauty. As we know from Azimuth, he is a theatre director and actor, taking much pleasure in lampooning key figures in court life. He is also an adept drummer and swordsman. Raashid is, in fact, the most eligible bachelor in the empire.
Despite the events in Azimuth, where, because of his loyalty to Sabiya’s daughter, he crosses her formidable mother, he is forgiven and eventually made commander of all the armies of the empire. Whatever it was in his upbringing that made him seem at times feckless, he never displayed it as a military general. He was adroit, tough and uncompromising when it was needed. However, his charm and lateral cast of mind meant that wars were few and harmony prevailed between the empire and its neighbours. He made an exceptional marriage, following the trend set by the Emperor Haidar in marrying a black-skinned Ethiopian from Sabiya’s blood line and had seven children by her. He was responsible for the first ever public health programme, entrusting its management and development to two young doctor friends of Sabiya’s daughter, Shahrazad and he rewarded all clan chiefs who ensured that their people could read and write, a silver piece for every one who could pass a test for literacy. It was owing to his efforts that there was an enormous explosion of science and the arts across the empire, which was then responsible for a general renaissance of intellectual striving in occidental societies. Raashid lived to a venerable age and was given a state funeral of extraordinary splendour by Shahrazad, which was attended by dozens of heads of state from across the continents. He proved the theory that, if you put your trust in a man of the arts rather than a professional politician to run social affairs in your country, you can develop a culture which is fair, just and responsive to its people.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Minor Keys No. 14
The importance of food in societies through time has two obvious sources. The first is that we eat to survive and so we ritualize food and exalt it, making it central to our various measures of the quality of life. We are what we eat. The second is that it represents the most obvious route to friendship. We offer food to bond with another. Traditionally, particularly in more nomadic or isolated societies, a stranger is housed and fed and no questions asked. Do you bite the hand that feeds you? For royal courts the opportunity to eradicate the ruler, at the moment when all guard is down, is always there. Food poisoning was an act that struck at the heart of the ritual of proclaiming friendship and kinship, where all enmity was supposed to be banished. It is hard today to feel the intense power of this human tradition given that everything we do today has become distanced and displaced, particularly through our virtualising of relationships with mobile phones, laptops and social media. People still go out to restaurants to eat together but the act is almost always a carefully choreographed one, even on first dates with strangers. They are not usually invited into the home for a first viewing, nor is a cold call knock at the door answered with, “Come in and eat.”
To guard against the royal guard being dropped, so to speak, food tasters were employed by courts. None took this more seriously than the head cook whose very life depended on food reaching his/her masters, perfectly presented, tasting sensational – and carrying a guaranteed list of healthy ingredients excluding additives such as strychnine or arsenic. In Azimuth we never meet the head cook but he is referred to here, by a royal maid:
“The head cook is well liked as a master. Though he swears and shouts he is very fair to all. Why, he had to dismiss a young cook only yesterday for pilfering but he still took pity on him and gave him a week’s wages.”
I’d imagine, like many of the minor characters being fleshed out in these blogs, he comes from generations of cooks. From an early age he was groomed by his father, himself the revered chef of a noble family, to go out to the market, to choose produce carefully, to experiment with complementary flavours and textures, to explore the staple crops, herbs and spices of other cultures, to research the effects of food on sexual activity, physical health and sleep until, in the end, the head cook became an expert all round therapist.
To remain at the top of his profession – head cook to the emperor – he had to be a harsh task master. He was sympathetic, if loud and dictatorial, to his staff and developed a tight coterie of loyal workers. It was very hard for any family to get a son apprenticed to him for he refused bribes on that score. His most difficult emotional issue was in the employment of a food taster. It was a paradox that this individual , the recipient of all that was great in the culinary arts, would be the ultimate indicator of the head cook’s professionalism at the kitchen end of the food chain. At the other end, at the emperor’s own table, was a second taster who tried everything on his plate in case an assassin had poisoned the food en route from kitchen to table. He was never allowed to meet this second taster in case the bond that they developed would represent an Achilles heel in the security of the Emperor. The head cook’s fame came not only from his immense gifts in cookery but from the fact that at least ten tasters had died in his kitchen, defending the emperors with their stomachs. The head cook consoled himself while crying bitter tears, by insisting to himself that these victims had tasted food that would have caused the very gods to salivate.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Minor Keys No. 13
How many men have a fantasy of a harem? It has been the stuff of literature and actuality over the centuries, whether based on a historical Persian model, the tribal realities we may still find in parts of the world, the brief epoch of free loving hippy communes or the strange megalomania of religious cults. The latter I have always found most unsettling. In my own journey through life, a reasonably varied and entertaining one, I have come across a number of individuals and communities with religious pretensions of the more esoteric kind who conflate sex and religious ritual with a perverse dynamic energy. I wrote in a recent Twitter one liner that it was a measure of a religion’s value to humankind, how it embraced sex (@profjacksanger). Sex has the capacity to be a wild demon, capable of reducing priest, nun, king, queen or law-abiding spouse from any stratum of society from  God-fearing conservatism into obsessional irrationality. Whole kingdoms are thrown away as the lure of sex transcends the most ingrained social conditioning. Sex and power can hardly be divided. It is likely that hundreds of thousands of men and women alive today have more than a smattering of Genghis Khan genes, such was his prodigious sexual appetite. Indeed, you may come across a similarly driven individual in the third book of the Azimuth trilogy. And it is not just in the extreme embrace of lustful desires that we can see the odd relationship between sex and the theological. In the social control of whole populations religions have sought to maintain their hold via a vice-like control over the sexual instincts of their adherents with complex regulatory rituals and measures regarding what is permissible and what not. In Azimuth there is not just one minor character representing this awkward area of human endeavour but many, the numerous women living harmoniously with the man who saved them from sexual slavery and death. Their saviour is speaking here:
So here I was in this mountain refuge with so many women. None wanted to leave. They had been soiled by life. At first they thought they might set up a religious clan but I persuaded them otherwise. Believe in yourselves, I said. Make this retreat a place of delight, a sanctuary for your spirits. You will find god in other ways if that is what you need.
Their background, if we are searching for commonality, is that they are all village women from the fields. Their entire lives until their kidnap by armed pillagers would have been spent following a daily round with little exception, brightened only by feasting at births, marriages and deaths. Having been captured and their men and children killed, then taken to a mountain hideout, their future was condemned to be little more than slavery, abuse and death. Suddenly all this changed. Like a dervish, their saviour came with his sword in the night and dispatched all their captors. Now free they could have gone back to find husbands in other villages but they chose not to. They preferred instead a harem life with the one man they could trust. In return he gave them protection and education and he fulfilled whatever sexual and maternal desires they had. Life was now different. It was no longer a question of having implicit social roles. Each day could be entirely as they wished. The effect upon them was profound.  To have lost their husbands and children was appallingly traumatic. To have found liberation and autonomy was utterly magical. Which life would they have chosen now that they knew both?
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Minor Keys No. 12
Some lines of poetry guide you through life. Believers may find them in the Koran, the Bible or the Vedas but for me the distillation of meaning that a poet achieves occasionally is inextinguishable, burning like pure sulphur on water. Here is a quote from one of Rilke’s poems about The Unicorn.
O this is the animal that does not exist,
But they didn’t know that, and dared nevertheless
To love it…and because they loved it, it came to
be a…pure creature.
They always left a space for it,
and in that space, clear and set aside,
it lightly raised its head, and hardly needed to be.
Why do I find it so powerful? It is an emblem of the imagination. I wrote in a recent tweet, “Reality is limited only by a lack of imagination” (@profjacksanger). Literature is an outlet for boundless thought as in all the arts, including film – Tarkovsky’s Stalker comes to mind as having similar power in fuelling my own imaginative output. The key for me in the Rilke lines is that the artist creates what was not there and it becomes ethereally extant, a new reality for those who see, touch, read it, affecting their lives forever, in some way small or big.
Creating the other world of Azimuth allowed me to construct a space where I and my readers could play. All the elements of life that are hard to fathom – death, love, war, existence – could be explored, shaped, remodelled, dissected and in such a way that we become one step closer to understanding the nature of our living reality. But lightly, with amusement and tolerance for how patched up and imperfect we all are as human beings.
A minor character that makes just one appearance in Azimuth: the Second Journey, is the assistant librarian. He is introduced thus:
Where were the vibrations from above made by slippered feet or the movement of furniture? Even though it was just daybreak there should have been much servant activity. Then he caught the sound of someone coming down the circular stairs. He was unnerved but fought off the desire to hide and sat facing the bottom of the staircase where three steps were visible. First a pair of red slippers and then the hem of a robe became visible until finally his assistant turned the bend.
His story (beyond the pages of Azimuth) is a familiar one. He was born into a family which for generations had been literate. Not scholars, you understand, but the kind you still see today in countries where education is sparse and who sit at desks with typewriters in village squares preparing documents for their illiterate fellows so that they might navigate the imposing tyranny of a country’s bureaucracy. Apart from an arranged marriage and the rare day when he is allowed to see his wife, the assistant librarian’s whole world is encompassed by the circular walls of the royal library, his vitality sucked from him by the shelves of dry parchment and arid tomes. He has none of the gifts of the royal historian, being, essentially, a trained orderer, tidier, cataloguer, categoriser of the artefacts that are collected for the royal library. He reads enough to place them where they can be found again but little more. There is too much to be done and his existence does not allow for the self-advancement of his mind. Thus he lives and dies – and it would be hard for anyone, no matter how much s/he believes in the value to humanity of every individual’s life, to make a case for the assistant librarian’s as offering anything to the common good.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author (and aka Eric le Sange) at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Minor Keys No. 11
As an agnostic, Buddhism has many attractions, not least its refusal to give any oxygen to discussions about the possibility of a god. Azimuth debates whether a god exists but surreptitiously, like a niggling little voice at the back of the reader’s mind while s/he is engaged in the Ulysses-like adventures of the Magus or the labyrinthine plots and mysteries of court life. Writing an engaging discourse on the nature of reality, religions, life and death via the vehicle of an accelerating historical saga full of everyday AND extraordinary events was intoxicating and I hope that this is conveyed to you when you read the book. The inner tales of Azimuth are set at a time before the Buddha, containing much of the great man’s practical advice for living a good life and within them there is plenty of opportunity for other theological debate. A minor character with much to say about such matters is the Scientist who lives on an island in the middle of a great river, somewhat like the Volga. We meet him thus:
A short while later the door re-opened to reveal a tall, white-haired man in the silk robes of a merchant. His eyes glinted in his smiling face. He strode forward and embraced the Warrior heartily. Then he turned and gave the woman a graceful bow.
  -I was expecting you, Warrior and this woman.
  -My Mother.
  -Nay, she is too young and delicate to have birthed such a lion of a man! The Warrior smiled at his mother’s confused pleasure at the traditional compliment.
It was a joy to write about this man even if, as I have said, the words passed through my brain without touching the sides. Why? Because he represents progression and rationality in civilized enquiry. We know that scientific advances are haphazard. Great breakthroughs occur and are not recognized for what they are for decades or even centuries. Some advances such as gunpowder or the crossbow were discovered and used by the Chinese hundreds of years before their ‘discovery’ in the west. Columbus was pre-dated in his so-called discovery of America by numerous unsung heroes. The Scientist was full of exceptional discoveries. One such which he showed to the Magus and his mother was a prototype of a magnifying glass revealing much that the eye can not discern. A wonderful little conceit for the novelist wanting to allegorize about reality! If there is more than meets the eye then whatever else might exist beyond human perception?
So what is the back story regarding the Scientist? What might I tell you that might provoke a little curiosity so that you want to read about his influence on the narrative of Azimuth?
Well, he was obviously precocious from a toddler onwards. Being from a rich merchant family he picked up language alarmingly quickly and accompanied his father along the Silk Road to the east. Wherever he went he sought out alchemists, philosophers, poets musicians and adventurers to further his fanatical curiosity. He could play twenty or thirty instruments. He concocted new cures for illnesses, he smelted rare metals and used them in the construction of strange mechanical machines, he mapped the heavens and developed further ancient astronomical knowledge of the way that constellations affected the affairs of humankind. He was skilled with weapons and fought with the best, enjoying the physical respite from the intellectual storms that shook him. In short he was a an all round genius, brilliantly perceptive and probably having more effect than any other single scholar on the history of humanity. In his lifetime he fathered several dozen children because he had developed a theory that a genius had a responsibility to make his blood available to humankind, given his rudimentary sense of how hereditary factors affect human progeny. Hadn’t he received his father’s language skills and his mother’s musical abilities and his grandfather’s astrological prowess?  He was utterly apolitical, feeling that the leaders of peoples were generally of low intelligence, ignorant of everything that was important in life. He lived to a ripe old age, around a hundred and twenty years, influencing great thinkers and, in his last decade, conducting experimentation on life after death. Was he successful? All I can say is that he succeeded in getting me to write about him, anonymous though he might still be. And how could that happen?
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Minor Keys No. 10
The last character to catch my eye in Azimuth, The First Journey, is revealed briefly in the following action and dialogue. Again, a minor individual, meriting just a few lines of prose, is actually a prime mover in a grand narrative. In philosophical terms, you and I are here today because of a ludicrously cosmic series of events. From the Big Bang (if that was the very beginning) to today, the billions of years of what may be termed fate (something the Magus must grapple with in his journey towards understanding) has led to this point in time when I write and you read. Each of us is the product of an almost infinite number of forces, changes and twists of fortune, genes, happenstance and serendipity from amoebic life to the complexity with which we are now endowed. Even as you read this you are in constant change and so am I. So, in a narrative such as Azimuth, a character’s acts before the book begins is just another perturbation of the surface of the ocean of fate, yet the book was written with some kind of implicit recognition of prior events. That is in the nature of all narratives, is it not? We never write from ground zero. Our first words contain assumptions of what went before. So here is the first reference to the individual at the centre of this blog.
Gradually, one after another placed a hand on his heart with the other offered towards the Warrior, palm stretched out and turned up. Except one. The Warrior saw him without moving his eyes. The man was standing at the edge of the circle, drawing a bow. Yet, even as he did so, there was a whistle of a knife, the sound as it struck the man’s body and the sight of him falling to the ground. The bewilderment for all was that no-one could tell who had thrown the knife. The three on horseback had seemed not to move, nor had the six behind them and yet the knife had impaled the man’s chest. One of them must have thrown it.
-Who was he? called the Warrior, eyes probing the crowd.
I am not going to give the answer to the Warrior’s question here. It will spoil the narrative. Instead, let us go back in time to that point (a bit like the Shire in Lord of the Rings) when everything in the valleys was rosy. In one valley a girl is born and in the next valley a boy, younger brother to the rapist-heir to the chief. All their lives become extraordinarily intertwined later but at the moment they are separate. They know of each other via their clans but do not meet. Azimuth contains much information about the girl’s eventual life but elder and younger boy remain ciphers to be partially broken at the very end of the first book. The younger sibling idolizes his oldest brother. From a baby, just able to crawl he follows him around, despite being occasionally harshly treated. When their mother dies, their father has little time for all except his heir, the eldest son. There are no women left who are related by blood to raise them and so the clan chief decrees that his fourth wife, known by all as ‘the witch’ because of her tendency to curse anyone who stands in her way, to make spells and to attempt the healing of those inhabited by spirits – not very successfully. The younger boy becomes wilder and more ill-disciplined, seeming to try to elicit his eldest brother’s love through more and more bizarre acts to gain his attention. Though this does not succeed, he is, nevertheless, accompanied by his brother on escapades where he commits acts both lewd and felonious while his brother watches in amusement from a distance. When the eldest takes a first wife to maintain the blood line, he hitches to the woman’s sister whom he treats disgracefully. He becomes increasingly bitter and falls out of favour with everyone in his clan, save that of the beloved brother to whom he is a useful tool and accomplice. His one arena of excellence is archery, for which he is universally praised. It is an irony that this single métier should be the cause of his ultimate downfall.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Minor Keys No.9
Late on in the first book, the Magus, now beginning to really question his role as a warrior who kills, sets out a strategy to encourage villagers to protect themselves. He teaches the art of bow making and offers a reward to the best bow-maker;
-Who made this? No-one stepped forward, -I repeat, who made this? It has a balance that sets it apart. A girl, new to womanhood, stepped forward. Some men allowed their indignation to show.
-I did not speak at first for I thought you were about to mock me.
He smiled at her, -It has a special quality. He took an arrow and notched it. When he released it, it flew over the heads of the circle of watchers and embedded itself in the centre of a tree. He spoke loudly, -She found wood such as we brought back for drying. She has cut it well so that the balance graces the hand. It is small but carries the power of many a larger weapon. He gave it back to her and offered her one of his arrows. She aimed at the same tree and the missile struck it just below his own. There was a shout of approval from the villagers so that her face reddened.
-You have a choice of reward, he said, -I have face colourings from alchemists far away in the east or a bow maker’s knife, crafted by metal workers in the City in the Mountain.
-I will take the knife! 
There are many instances in the Azimuth trilogy where women’s roles are questioned and plenty where women’s traditional roles are reversed. It is one of the pleasures of writing that you can question current mores and, being a management consultant for so long, in this case explore the ‘glass ceiling’ preventing women’s advancement in allegorical forms. The Magus has now developed a consciousness where he sees no difference in the capabilities of men and women in many arenas and insists upon their equality therein. As you can see, a warrior female from a peasant background creates cognitive dissonance among her male peers.
So why was she so different? And what happened to her after the Magus left the village? I suspect the following is true. She was secretive and somewhat androgynous, if not in physical attributes, at least in her psychology. From a child she harboured both female and male aspirations. She wanted to be a mother but she did not want the skivvy drudgery of being the marital slave of a village man. She did not like the boys, nor the men around her, including her father whom she had to avoid because of his prying eyes and obvious intent. She would take herself off into the fields and practise physical movements which, she imagined, would serve her well in battle. She stole a knife from a boy bully and learned to throw it with accuracy despite it being not constructed for this purpose. A little while before the Magus came to save the village from mercenary soldiers her father trapped her in her bed. In an instant her knife was at his throat, making a neat superficial incision. She enjoyed his jabbering apologies as he fell off her and then stumbled out into the darkness. Her mother scolded her saying that a daughter was her father’s first to take and her husband’s second, everyone knew that.
As happened to many who were affected by the Magus’ calm, unemotional convictions about respect and harmony, she resolved to leave the village and seek her future elsewhere. Her story had a happy ending unlike so many recounted in these ‘extra pages’ of Azimuth. She came across a merchant who travelled with a small band of guards to bring chinaware from the south in exchange for northern mountain wool. Her female nature meant that she could dress as his wife and enter the halls of the rich where his armed guards could not accompany him. On the occasion that would have brought his death, her knife throwing saved his life. His smouldering interest in her blew up into a raging flame and he pleaded with her to become his third wife. She agreed and became his favourite from that day on. She taught her children, three girls, the arts of knife and bow and then her grandchildren.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Minor Keys No. 8
I came across a minor character towards the end of the first book of Azimuth and realized I could have made him the first to occupy my pen since he appears early in the first chapter. He is Sabiya’s most loyal guard. You cannot imagine him turning on her like Indira Ghandi’s assassin or any hit man in history who has wormed his way into the confidence of a ruler. We first meet him in the section below:
The door swung open, an enormous armed guard peered at him and then stood aside to allow the Princess to enter. She was too slim to be beautiful to Kamil’s eye and too tall for all but a royal family member. Her black skin revealed her father’s predilection for Ethiopia. Her eyes were a glittering blue set wide apart above the family’s long shallow nose. Her rich plump red lips pouted at him.
Characters write themselves on to the page and once there create a tiny vortex which has minute but inevitable effects upon the storyline, the equivalent of the beat of a butterfly’s wing. They may take no greater part than opening doors and hanging around like any minder but the fact that they are there is always significjust ant. Why? Because, for example in this case, any jeopardy that envelops Sabiya must be written to take account of her faithful mastiff of a guard, having established his perpetual presence.
I like this fellow. It is deep seated and probably goes back to the playground years. Big, muscular boys who can crush you and your spirit are potent. If they are kindly then all and sundry love them because all and sundry realize that with the flip of a psychological coin the world could have gone dark.
He was such a boy, ragged robed and genial, doing extremes of manual labour long before he was a man. He was often seen pulling his plump child of a mother in a cart, shepherding his four sisters through the market or taking on all challengers in weightlifting sheep and calves. The Emperor Haidar saw him one day, with a sheep under each arm, laughing uproariously in his deep baritone and marked him as a likely guard for his baby daughter, Sabiya. He paid his mother for him and put him in his military training camp where early attempts to bully him were met with many ringing skulls. He could not be daunted by man or weapon and was soon installed on a pallet in a tiny chamber close to the little girl. He was her favourite after her doll Walidah, doubling as crawling mount and giant protector. As Kamil discovered, even as a precocious girl, Princess Sabiya had a maturity about sexual needs and she arranged a search party to bring her loyal defender the perfect young woman from a village on the lap of the sacred mountain. This robust creature was given a house near the outer palace walls and he was allowed to visit her when Sabiya was safe in her father’s company. Many children ensued, fast upon another.
In spite of his repetitive opening and closing of doors and general baleful, roving gaze for anything untoward in the vicinity of the Princess he remained a constant feature in her life, so much so he often seemed to disappear from view, despite his enormous frame. But even this consistency, as predictable as sun and moon, was to fracture in the flow of impassive Fate.
But for that you must read Azimuth.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Minor Keys No. 7
Sometimes characters in books have no description to make them physical entities in the mind’s eye yet they still provide volition to a narrative. One such is an envoy in a city where the Magus agrees to protect a young princess from assassination. There is a deadline, for the attempt on her life must take place within 24 hours of the first sign of her first menstruation. The envoy reveals much about this time of wandering warriors when he pleads that the Magus should accede to his queen’s request for protection, as follows:
-She wishes to entertain you. You are a great warrior and have magical powers. A shaman. Such men are rare.
-Such men may not exist at all except in the minds of the gullible.
-Yet you are such. There are many tales about you. How you wield an invincible sword. How you can throw a knife with the deadly accuracy of God’s blessing. How you can cure kings. How you speak with your horses as easily as with people. These stories are true?
-These are just stories. Is there a face in the moon?
-Some can see it.
   -That is my point.
One of the central themes of Azimuth is how a moral code comes into existence and becomes the basis for civilized social life. Today, in film particularly, whether we are talking about Kurosawa or Tarantino or manga comics, I feel the popularity of the genre owes much to modern warfare’sanonymity, the political indifference to civilian death or, indeed, the death of the young men sent by politicians to kill for their country. Samurai codes and behaviours represent a return to a time of face to face mortal combat on a human rather than inhuman scale. Whether we have blood lust or are pacifists, it is far more comprehensible than a military drone.
Anyway, in the envoy’s words above the mystique of a warrior’s skills are revealed.
So what kind of man is this young fellow? He must have been born of parents loyal to the throne and with the income of at least the semi-skilled. As soon as he is able he runs errands for all the nobility. He is good natured and with a quick smile and generally trusted for he learns to say nothing of his go-between activities, some of which border upon deception and unfaithfulness. The queen likes his looks as he enters manhood and ties him to her with gifts and social elevation. He even stands outside her chambers and tries to shut his ears to her moans beneath the thrusting noble thighs of courtiers.
Meeting the Magus, even for this brief few seconds, stirs in him the desire to emulate and when the iconic stranger has gone, he also leaves in order to find fortune and skill with the blade. He finally finds a sword school led by a retired mercenary of some repute who does not feature in the pages of Azimuth, though his roguish exploits would have been worthy of Kamil’s inclusion. He does well and establishes himself as a leading apprentice here but, as with so many young men enamoured with fantasies of personal invulnerability he is killed in face to face battle with a man from the east, a man who is seeking out the Magus to add him to the list of his victims thus adding lustre to his growing infamy as a feared assassin.
You can find details of Azimuth at www.azimuthtrilogy.com 
This and my other books can also be found at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Minor Keys No. 6
The next characters momentarily to cross the pages of Azimuth are the Spice Traders. They make me think of Fellini’s Satyricon, strange creatures that inhabit the margins of social life. Given that Azimuth is an arterial river of a book, fast flowing and dangerous enough for the intrepid adventurer on the surface but with depths to satisfy the seeker of hidden treasures, minor characters can bring jeopardy and unexpected insight in equal measure. This is how the women are introduced:
He and the girl permitted themselves to be seen at some distance. The richly coloured robes of the two caught and shimmered in the sun. They were both women as like each other as two fruit from the same branch. He tried to restrain the hope in his mind. They each rode a horse and towed a mule. The horses were wiry mountain beasts. The women themselves were tiny with facial features unlike any he had seen before; moon-like, angle eyed and with unblemished skin faintly greened by colouring powder and shaded by wide-brimmed hats. Their hands were gloved.
At this point in their own great adventure, the Magus and a small girl he has saved from a child abductor come across the spice traders selling their wares on the endless trail which runs across the great continents, east to west. The hope he feels in the extract above is that they will take the child off his hands. The women, though occupying little space in the grand design of the Azimuthtrilogy, nevertheless have a much significance in the development of the Magus’ thought about life’s purpose. They pass on to him a small fraction of the wisdom they have acquired in their ceaseless travelling.
I expect, in the fifty or so years of their lives they endured extraordinary privations, abuse as well as the degree of idolization which was usually afforded exotic travelers passing through the isolated and culturally insulated villages of that time. Born twins, within a minute of each other, they brought good fortune to their parents for a while, being heralded as having occult powers owing to their ability to speak in seamless sentences, beginning and finishing each other’s words, their telepathy and the gift they quickly developed for cosmetics.  They cut hair, dyed it, painted faces for weddings and other festivals and gave advice on jewelry and other accessories. But, as so often happened to money spinners of this sort, they were abducted and made to work for the owner of a caravan train before they had reached their first blood shows. On a night when storms the like of which had never been seen brought violent rain, frogs and fish falling from the skies and a burning light that crossed the heavens to plunge into the earth close by, they took advantage of the fearful disarray to lead two frightened horses away from the chaos and into the battering darkness. Thus began their nomadic life. Befriended and protected by horse traders they travelled across great steppes, learning at first to trade by gathering plants and soils to make paints, creams, ointments and medicines. After years of journeying from east to west and back again they gained more wealth by buying and selling herbs and spices common to certain places but rare in others. They gave their bodies  happily to the horse herders as payment for their peace of mind but never conceived children, having ways of preventing it, as well as ways of ensuring their bodies remained free of disease. Finally they travelled alone being older and less in demand for their bodies. The terrible acts that were perpetrated on them prior to being saved by he Magus did not break their wills. Their lives remained in constant movement with an empathic sharing of the wisdom they gained regarding people, gods and nature. It was as if this was sufficient Purpose for them. When, by mutual consent they felt that enough was enough and no further knowledge might be gained on their travels, they stepped off a cliff together, hand in hand, carrying their wisdom with them and smiling in exultation.
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Minor Keys No. 5
A tiny character (in every sense of the word) that next catches my eye in Azimuth is the girl who works in the brothel that the rather staid and portly librarian, Kamil, visits. Nothing much is said about her, even in inference – save that she appears conditioned by the culture of prostitution so that she has no moral perspective on its practices. Here’s a snippet from her short visitation to Azimuth’s pages.
The young girl stood before him, -You wish Madame Aidah to entertain you? He shook his head, asked her to bring him iced water and mopped his brow. He would have liked to throw off his cloak such was the heat in the room. She brought it, -You want another lady? Young? Older? Connoisseur? Her accent was from further to the east.
   -I would like to speak with the mistress.
-She not for sale.
-I do not wish to buy her … her services. I need to talk with her. The girl stared at him unmoving, -Go! She turned perplexed as though she felt she had misunderstood his request. Time passed.
Reading it now brings home to me (oft discussed in my blogs about writing that precede the current run, is that the idea of the girl may well have been planted in my mind by a film I saw some twenty to thirty years ago, Pretty Babyby Louis Malle. If I remember it clearly, the film was controversial because of the depiction of a girl in a brothel. Whether the similarity ends there is for others to decide.  In Azimuth she appears to wait on tables and run errands. There is no information regarding what else she might do.
I understand (now I interrogate my imagination) that she’s pre or early teenage. She is the daughter of a prostitute who once worked for Baligha, the Mistress of the House of Senses, who had to take her as a ward owing to the following circumstances. Her mother, a slip of a young thing herself, failed to take the precautions of that time demanded by Baligha of all her courtesans, either before sex or after with one partner. She had become obsessed with a young noble who marked her out for his sole ministrations. She was narrow hipped and frail, so much so that despite medical help she died in the last hourse of pregnancy and the child had to be cut from her body by the distraught and guilty Baligha. As a baby, toddler and young child she was mothered by all the prostitutes. They followed a code laid down by their Mistress that the girl should not be witness to any unseemly act though it was impossible to stay her curiosity about the work that they all did. By the time we meet her in Azimuth, she is on the cusp between innocence and experience. But what happened to her later, after Kamil had constructed his Tales of the Magus?
In effect Baligha groomed her to manage the brothel while inculcating in her a sense of obstinate pride in her virginity. By the time Baligha gave up her ownership of that lucrative business, the girl was in her twenties and was protected by her own guard of loyal, honest swordsmen. Her fame spread across the empire and it was natural that young men fell for the allure of her virginity and beauty in this place of famed and highly skilled sex goddesses. Curiously, she never married nor lost her maidenhead but, when she retired and passed on the business to another, a little like herself, wrote an autobiography of her times with frank and quite explicit details of the desires of men and how women might satisfy them without ever losing their dignity and sacred sense of their bodies.
A single poem survives from her writing:
O callous phallus you prey in red the maidenhead
But know that tenderness in ingress helps virgins burgeon
(Azimuth by Jack Sanger also in Kindle books at Amazon)
All works by this author at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Minor Keys No. 4
The barber stepped forward nonchalantly, his attendant following with a tray of combs, razors, scissors, brushes, oils and hot water. Kamil sat while a towel was placed around his shoulders. The man was quick and sure. His face moved round Kamil’s, close enough for him to see the coarse skin filled to smoothness with stiff cream and smell the unguents that had been massaged into the cheeks. Following the cutting and shaving, similar fragrant oils were applied to him.
We are at a point in the ‘framing’ narrative in Azimuth where Kamil the historian has been revealed as only 41 and Princess Sabiya pretends to be perturbed that he might have base sexual fantasies about her. She has seen him thus far as a decade older and more like a grandfather. In her coquettish way she decides to spruce him up. Hence the barber in the extract above.
Who is this barber and why has he appeared in the narrative? Part of my novelist’s brain seems to have been working autonomously on the backcloth to the main stories in Azimuth. Many readers have loved the visual nature of the book and being transported to a recognisable yet alien world and, I suppose, it is through a minor character like the barber that so much is said about court life in a few literary daubs.
Unlike the physician the barber is the latest in a long line of his profession in the court. His name in the language of the day meant ‘son of my father the barber’. Even when just able to wield a pair of scissors, a comb and a shaving razor he was given coconuts to shave, shredded linen balls to cut and a donkey’s mane to groom. Living within the grounds of the outer walls of the palace meant that he was privileged to a degree. Despite his homosexual certainties he followed the dictates of his blood and produced enough sons to ensure that one, at least, extended the barber line. His wife took lovers from among other similar professions in the royal household as was the accepted way. As he grew older, the barber maintained his sexual interest in boys about to become men. Built in to his behaviour, a sort of genetic engineering, was the capacity to be silent in the company of royals, obsequious in body language but rarely in word. He was proud of his skills and though much disliked in the main by his aristocratic masters he was indispensable to their vanities. And this is how he lived and died, never challenging those above him, autocratic to those below, enjoying young flesh while secretly loathing the ageing skins upon which he mainly worked.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Minor Keys No. 3
Our next minor character is the physician who tends the king in the City of White Stones (I turned the pages of Azimuth Book 1, just a moment ago and this character caught my eye – thus, I am going to write about him as a stream of consciousness now and see where we get.) It is here that the young Magus’ inherent power to heal first comes to the fore as he and his father are drawn to the court of the city. It is also one of the earliest examples of CSI in human history! The boy examines the king’s wound, the result of an arrow strike.
-The tip in your husband’s body has been sawn from a poisoned hunting arrow, he told the queen,  -The kind of arrow which is used to slow the death of wild beasts. The shaft you can see here has no clean break. The royal physician removed its metal head and then inserted the tip of a corrupted hunting arrow in its place. Your husband would have recovered quickly enough from his wound had it not been for the introduction of the poison. This man chose his venom carefully to allay suspicion. The shaft would have been thrown away and no-one would have suspected him by the time the king died. If another physician had investigated his body it would have been unlikely that he would find such a small tip. If he did then it would have been seen as an understandable oversight on the part of the doctor.
What happens next with regard to the royal physician you will have to read for yourself. Remember that Azimuth is a trilogy with serious intent, despite its being cloaked in fable and adventure. It is a discourse on philosophy and religion, too and people’s search for meaning in their lives.
So, to the physician!
He began medicine as did most at that time. His family were not well-to-do, surviving on low level trade, buying and selling corn and other staple crops. Wanting something better for their eldest son they paid for him to become a physician’s apprentice. He had an aptitude and did well. He was ambitious and managed to hide it under a generally fawning exterior which helped him develop his own clientele. After many years he was approached by blood relatives of the king who wanted to supplant him as ruler and within a short time the king’s old physician disappeared mysteriously on an errand to save the life of a nearby noble. He now became a mole in the court but was instructed to do nothing by his secret employers but ingratiate himself with the royal couple and after some time became trusted. All the while his wealth increased, his patients being attracted from a richer stratum and he tended to the king and queen in a most proper manner. He built a most admirable house, enjoying the advice of the king’s architect, married well and had five children. He was a key figure in the temple and was seen to pray longer and harder than any other, always making lavish gifts to the god of that city. No-one suspected that he was the cause of royal still births nor his judgment that the queen suffered from an imbalance of elements in her womb that could not be remedied. Satisfied that there could be no competing heir to the throne, his fellow conspirators finally moved to act and it is at this point that the young Magus and his father became instrumental in the events above described.
So there we are. The physician. Funny business writing isn’t it? All the while you are telling your tale you are excluding strands in your imagination which you might otherwise follow because there are more important characters developing and choking page space!
www.azimuthtrilogy.co
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Minor Keys No. 2
So, the first significant minor character we meet in Azimuth is the High Priestess who is the first woman to influence the thinking of the young Magus. It is she who drugs him, changes him momentarily into a woman to give him the experience of motherhood and the realization that the world he inhabits is dominated by male power. She only appears on a couple of pages in Azimuth and she is described by the boy’s father as follows:
They were lying on their beds. The night candle spluttered, offering an intermittent yellow light.
-What is she?
-The wisest, noblest woman you will ever meet. A true shaman.
-What does she…? He couldn’t think what he was asking.
-It is best to think of her as a high priestess but one who has no god of her own. She offers wisdom to those who come to her. For many she is the difference between joy and despair. But for others she is someone to hate. It is only because she is protected by the ruler of this territory that they have not moved against her.
-How can anyone hate her?
-They have their gods.
-For that?
-For her all true gods are of the same essence. She says that a true god is a conduit for love. Some choose gods of war, some vengeance and some the oppression of the poor. These are many kinds of gods. Not all are true.
 -This is obvious.
- It is. But men who seek to have power over others choose their gods carefully. She says that they make gods out of their own tribal histories to justify their futures.
-I have no sense of any god, said the youth.
I sense now that this female pope is ageless, one of those individuals in a generation who has had an uncanny wisdom since birth such that she learned quickly how to manage her parents demands. She left her family in the night when she was fifteen to follow a burning inner directive and travelled, disguising her femininity, to places where holy men and women gathered willing crowds around them. In these arenas her questions confounded with their sharp insights but as soon as the credulous supplicants tried to install her as their new seer, she left again. She took lovers. She learned the relationship between gold and men’s hearts and their chosen deities. With ease she used her powers to establish herself, protected by a Lord who venerated her wisdom, in a modest palace filled with aesthetic artifacts brought to her as gifts by those seeking her counsel. Here she became a kind of oracle, a pre-Sufi intent on supporting and developing all that is good in the hearts of humankind whether practical or spiritual. She favoured no one god.
After the events involving her meeting the young Magus in Azimuth she continued her benevolent work until the army of a despot ravaged the land and took the Lord prisoner. Refusing to flee she was imprisoned in a cave and became an anchorite but the despot dared not kill her for all knew of her power to change the path of fate. Here she remained until she died, meditating on goodness and aware that every thought to that end was a breath in the wind that battled with the storms of evil. Her thoughts reached out to untold numbers of seekers of truth who assumed they were of their own making, unaware of her existence.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Minor keys No. 1
I thought I would take a break from writing directly about writing. 50 blogs is quite sufficient for the moment and they are all there for the interested reader. What I intend to take their place results from the comment of a keen follower of Azimuth who, a bit like the fanatical fan of the writer in Misery (no, it can’t happen to me, can it? I’ll just hide the sledgehammer!) was distressed at the end of the trilogy not to know what happened to the half-humans once the book had ended. “I love them,” she said. “They are real.” Now these magnificent seven adventurers may still be living in the cosmos. I may have created them or they may have made me create them but the fact is that they go on existing albeit in some pure thought form. This not such a bizarre concept. Indeed I saw a documentary asking serious questions about the basic quantum force of the universe and ‘thought’ was one hypothesis. Just as in The Matrix films it is posited that we are all actually a few lines of clever code in a vast computer program (again some scientists posit this as a strong possibility to explain present human reality) the characters that authors create may also live on after the last page of a novel in another medium. Rather a charming notion if we look back over great literature, don’t you think? Anna Karenina enjoying ethereal conversations with Hamlet and Bilbo Baggins. In this alternative universe all the characters every author has created, don’t die but exist in an ‘elsewhere’. The notion that minor characters in novels and plays have been unjustly marginalized by authors is not so new. Immediately I think of Six Characters in Search of an Author by Pirandello or Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. The conceit in these and other literary artefacts is that we, the readers, are desperate to know more biographical detail about them than the author allows or even knows.
Since Azimuthcontains dozens of minor characters, there could be plenty to write about. It will encourage me to go into a channeling state, like a batty medium, and make contact with them again. One knock yes, two knocks no. My encounters with them might entertain you and at the same time lead you to buy the core material, Azimuth the Trilogy. I can’t be more frank, can I? This is marketing but not as you know it, Captain. Tune in for the first minor character’s extended life tomorrow.

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Friday, June 8, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 50
I suspect that writing is changing and I don’t mean the usual changes that occur over time such as the treatment of taboo subjects or social observation or Joycean playfulness with words. The coming generations will not be wedded to the printed word or screen-based text in quite the way I was for most of my life. Their world is technologically different, they carry communication to the entire world in their pockets, they are receivers of visual stimuli constantly, they are interactive…
I remember running a research project many years ago (the book of the project is advertised on www.chronometerpublications.me) which was one of the earliest forays into the experience of children with video games and computers. Already there was the generational rift between the child and the luddite parent which these days is exacerbated by computer-based social media like Facebook and Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Friends Reunited. At the bottom end of the generational ladder users’ speed at managing the world of apps, fast tracks them beyond the ossifying brains of their elders. Now I am not up to date with any of it but I would still surmise that the plastic brain we all have (more amenable to learning the younger we are) is forming new ways of seeing and interpreting the world, influenced and even conditioned by these new technologies. Questions we dealt with on the British Board of Film Classification’s Children’s Advisory panel are even more relevant. Are people more likely to commit anti-social acts if they play video games constantly? Are the young finding it more difficult to distinguish the virtual from the real? Has everything got to be sound-byte size? What technology will be in our pockets or chip implanted brains in ten years?
For a long time a rattling good tale will still carry sway over readers BUT getting them to the book in the first place is the question. Even an e-book. Somehow we may need to be more innovative in our very presentation, syntax and lexicons to draw them in and appease their critical disinterest in the word. We may have to package how we write as well as what we write to fit the smart phone user. Some time ago Umberto Ecco made the point that people read in paragraphs now, hardly bothering to step heavily from sentence to sentence. Long books (Alas poor Azimuth!) may be too far off the radar of the young. They may need to be presented like a Dickens novel, in serial byte form though, I believe, various attempts to do this have met with mixed success. As writers we are in competition with so many media, vying for windows in the technological time of our customers.
Whilst I, as a novelist, try to be innovative, I can no longer stay at the bow wave of innovation (if I ever could!). All I can do is write more visually, borrow tricks from mould-breaking films and seek plotlines to illuminate the existential dilemmas that face oncoming generations as they grapple with human identity in a universe which conflates flesh and blood with pixilated other realities.
www.chronomterpublications.me

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 49
Time and continuity are essential ingredients in books and films unless the author or director is setting out deliberately to play with our daily conceptions of the its passage. So the film Memento travels backwards in its plot and Pincher Martin by William Golding envisages the entire action in the novel being the last few seconds’ thought of a dying man. Watching one of the new Nordic Noir series this last week (The Bridge), there were discontinuities which irritated so that, despite the production’s overall value, they detracted and undercut the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The serial killer simply could not have done what he did in the time available. Novels are much the same. Time is one of those ingredients that a writer must get right, not only in murder mysteries where it can be almost an ‘extra character’. I believe that it works at an unconscious level and even if the reader never investigates your plot (some do, of course and write to tell you, gleefully) it adds to a pervasive, if slight disenchantment with your tale’s integrity. Events in general fiction (by which I mean that fiction which represent life as lived) must adhere to certain principles. In Azimuth the Magus hunts and prepares and eats meals. Whether using shorthand or detail the time taken must be conveyed to the reader. In Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story it is ‘time the character’ which becomes an explanatory force, drawing together apparently unrelated hemispheres in the globe of the story. As mentioned in another blog, Azimuth covers sixty of more years of a man’s life. The central character has children with two different women, he ages, as does his mother and all the other character and so I ended making up a post-hoc time chart for myself which led me to make many small modifications. I didn’t want even an unconscious frisson of doubt to impair the story’s progress in the reader’s imagination.
The backcloth of time can help you in unusual ways, too but you must be explicit with the reader about what you are doing. As in film where we now expect flashbacks, slow motion and parallel imaging, a novel needs to signal exactly how the story’s time-line works, even if it is a post-script denouement or twist in the plot. In Azimuth a sage demonstrates how time is almost infinitely extendable and I conveyed this by setting up the different time scales being lived by three characters in a scene by using different punctuation and an explanatory preface within the account.
For verisimilitude, get your time scale right for the reader and aid his or her total immersion in your story.
Through a Mirror Clear and other works at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 48
The Inspector is a play about the conflict between a dynamic artistic culture and that form of philistinism perpetrated upon the citizens of a country  by the social engineering of governmental policies based upon skills, league tables, labour fodder and bottom line accounting.  Although it is yet to be performed on stage it has had a number of compliments from upcoming UK West End producers/directors. The problem is that they do not buy into a theatrical construction which is based upon tightly choreographed mirroring between the two time periods. The current preference is for more organic, sprawling artefacts rather than, say, a Borges-like cultivated labyrinth which passes back and forth between 1960s and twenty first century England.
The play balances the different ideological viewpoints through two characters who appear both as young students and later as a teacher and an inspector. Does a teacher proof curriculum, tightly controlled, produce a more humane and economically viable society than that of a looser edifice where art flourishes next to the 3 Rs, IT and continuous testing? How can we create a caring culture which is vibrant in its thinking and whose citizens are naturally critical of its politicians’ limited understanding of what enriches the spirit? Curiously I watched a news clip the other day which focused on how technological engineering had spurted when think tanks in industry included artists but how, when recession hits it is the artistic input which is junked first.
The play contains violence, sex and humour and in readings appears to be verbally seductive and visually gripping as well as intellectually satisfying.
For me, the difference between playwriting and other fictions is that everything is pared down to sound and image. Like one great Zen aphorism, all of life is contained in the space the audience sees before them and their suspension of disbelief is harder to inculcate in this public arena than in the private fantasy world of personal space where there are fewer intrusions from strangers in a strange setting and where the imagination delivers visuals at will and according to biographic need.
Having staged a number of my plays in small theatre groups over the years I learned a great deal about dialogue, about modulating it through adopting different voices and about exactly how much scaffolding is needed to keep the reader aware of who is speaking without interfering with its flow. Given that Azimuth my recently published trilogy contains so much dialogue and is not Borges-like, being more organic and sprawling then theatre people might find it more acceptable and buy into it! Maybe even make a play from it.
The Inspection by Jack Sanger www.chronometerpublications.me
Azimuth by Jack Sanger www.azimuthtrilogy.com and Kindle Amazon

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Friday, June 1, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 47
“It came straight through my brain without touching the sides” is my common response to questions about how I wrote Azimuth. Ten years may see forever even for a big novel but then life seems forever until suddenly your candle starts to flicker and then gutter. The psychology of spending a decade on a book, albeit in three volumes, seems to me akin to writing a diary; not the trivial, passing thoughts concerning events which you might find in ninety percent of Twitter or Facebook posts: “”I am standing in the crowd waiting for the Olympic torch to race by, drinking a Café Nero cappuccino”, more the serious log of someone at the heart of a struggle for independence,  a riot, famine or natural disaster. In my case it was like looking through a wormhole at two points in the distant past, one post-Mohammed and one pre-Buddha. I peeped, I saw, I recorded what passed before my eyes. I have said before in these blogs how characters seem to control your pen and this is precisely how it felt.
“The moving finger writes: and having writ, moves on,” declared Omar Khayyam. Just so. I couldn’t go back and head the characters off at the gulch, nor could I steer them one iota from the course to which they seemed committed. I was more like a commentator than an inventor, being complimented on my writing style rather like a TV guide to some social happening. This experience of being a conduit has happened to many other writers. You feel almost embarrassed when people say nice things. “Aw shucks! don’t flatter me, sing praises instead to the vital, mysterious source of my prose which gave vent to the divine effluvia that produced it.
Anyway, as I said, it is like being a medium, even if, in my case, a flawed one. What came out was not a perfect, glittering gem like Kublai Khan but required a deal of post-editing to sharpen it up. The experience felt Jungian, as though I was tapping into the universal unconscious and it feels like this should be taking the plaudits, not me!
Download Azimuth by Jack Sanger on Kindle Amazon or as a paperback and PDF at www.azimuthtrilogy.com
All my work can be found at www.chronometerpublications.me

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 46
I’d like to continue the refrain of Jack Sanger good, Jack Sanger not bad which I began in the last blog. It was in answer to the question I posed myself after my illustrious writer friend opined that I maybe should not deign to build a central character who is a successful writer. My first answer involved the notion of ‘critical introspection’ from my academic days.
Admittedly I am not (yet) a household name in the world of fiction but who knows, I have ambition! Let me think a little more about my weaknesses as a writer, some of which will have leaked on to the screen of previous blogs, more as incidental  remarks than focused literary self-criticism. So, let’s go. These are areas I have recognized I should watch carefully in order not to pollute my prose with infelicity.
I appear to have a problem with prepositions. I make more adjustments to prepositions than any other part of my syntax. Why? Maybe it goes back to childhood at school, maybe the cadences of my inner dialogue betray me with alliteration and other sound resonances which then produce the wrong word. Maybe it’s because I hate repetition in a paragraph and stick in an inappropriate preposition in an attempt at variety and then revert or change again, sometimes having to alter the whole sentence to avoid repeats. Occasionally I can’t think which preposition is the right one and stare blankly at my notebook or screen.
Another failing I have is over-extending metaphors. I begin well enough but find myself moving from fluidity into a stick morass as I chase the meaning into cul de sacs of ornate meaninglessness. Why is Kamil in Azimuth a fearful detective? Well, he is not used to it being a man of the library rather than of action. But, having spent a sentence or two delivering this picture I go on and on, reveling in his fears and historical anti-heroes.  The answer to this is worth a note. What can be said in an effusive paragraph can be spread more thinly through the whole book so that the picture of Kamil is in the form of a drip-feed and we have, from the novelist’s point of view, a kind of character striptease. Since, like most writers other than the most obsessively pedantic, I hate rewriting or erasing my ‘flow’, this was a hard lesson for me.
There are times when I am too pleased with the sound of my own voice. That is, I find my own views coming from the mouths of characters rather than theirs. It is obtrusive and crass and has to be scratched regardless of the sheer beauty of the text (!).
I can write pages of dialogue without the scaffolding of description or helpful positioning pointers, assuming the reader can follow who is speaking. This, of course becomes increasingly cryptic if there is more than one person involved in dialogue.
I rely too much on my own definitions of words and later I have to check in a dictionary what they actually mean. Occasionally it is the opposite of my assumption, a sort of malapropism. I used the word ‘enervate’ entirely wrongly at first. our This can then throw my careful building of  poetic expression.
Weaknesses become apparent over the years and we attend to them laboriously and somewhat truculently. That’s the way of it. We play to our strengths and excommunicate our evils. Now should I have used that word there?

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 45
Taking up the theme from blog 44, I’d like to enlarge upon this notion of the ego of the writer – or my own ego in particular! Having been a professor in my last but one incarnation (teacher, social worker, PhD student, researcher, chair in management research and management consultant) I probably have a different take on the process of exploring the mechanics and conceptual subtleties of writing novels than most. I was reasonably successful in those roles even if none of them gave me the ultimate sense of ego-value I probably desired. I always wanted to be a writer. Indeed this ambition saw me as a bit of a marginal academic in that I never really played the academic game; building networks, kowtowing to the bureaucrats and chasing the journals. I did publish a great deal but was more concerned with readability than aridity. What I am sure I was good at was generating research reports that had impact and supervising students to complete better than average PhDs. The quality of my writing was not the real issue here, it was a capacity and motivation to understand the processes that underpin social behaviour, whatever that might be, such as children’s experience with computer games, information handling in classrooms or the effects of appraisal of doctors on their medical practice. I had developed a style of critical discourse involving all those with whom I worked which meant that openness, frankness and fairness dictated how we approached everything we did. There was no room here for lily-livered sensitivities about personal expression. Everything could be contested for how else could anything be improved?
So when it came to writing up PhDs and research reports and the occasional book there was much dissection and self-analysis.
Now, at an age when it is unusual to think in terms of beginning a new career (fiction) I am honour bound to continue in the critical vein that I had established long before. I have written what I consider to be a significant contribution to literature (Azimuth) and also some titles which are less profound, more ephemeral but with elements that make them worthy of a reader’s attention. All of them can be found at the website listed at the end of this piece.
So these blogs are part of an introspective discourse on the processes of writing. I write therefore I am and because I am who I am I want to understand  what is making me! What is this mysterious process, this alchemy which has me pouring myself on to the page. There is a very nice Buddhist story, probably in Zen Flesh Zen Bones by Paul Reps, concerning a caterpillar or millipede being asked by a passing insect how it managed all its legs so wonderfully well. The multi-legged wonder considered this question for a moment and immediately toppled over. Many people believe that by being self-analytical we destroy the subtle processes which make our work what it is. I supervised a sculptor who felt this way. He made great steel installations for public spaces. He also wanted to do an MPhil so he could teach in an art school. By using stop frame photography and writing about what each frame represented in the process of his creation he changed his fundamental relationship with his work. What had been an opaque and magical process was now articulated in his mind. It lifted his work to a new level. The intellectual and the creative could walk hand in hand.
So, back to ego. I am not on a trajectory to prove what a great writer I may be but to be as honest as possible about what for me writing fiction involves.
www.chronometerpublications.me

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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 44
I spent the weekend with a writer, internationally well known and a long time close friend. We discussed my novella Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story, at some length. He had read it twice and made notes on it. It was the kind of experience most writers crave, if they are not too thin skinned, where virtually every sentence is turned over for sense and value. At the basic level he found ambiguities where I had not meant them, despite my attempts to produce sharp, clean prose. Yet it was in a subtler area of debate that I really benefited.
One of the pervasive threads of the novella involves the central character being a writer. It is he who undergoes ‘gothic’ experiences. My friend (who eschews publicity at all costs, unlike me!) felt that to have a writer as the main protagonist made me vulnerable to a particular kind of hazard. Since the hero of Through a Mirror Clear is very successful in his authorship, this possible pitfall is cranked up (or dug deeper). Not only is he internationally famous within the horror genre but his reading matter appears to be  from the top, classical drawer. What my friend argued was that by casting him in my tale thus, and by invoking his highbrow literary interests, I was by implication placing myself shoulder to shoulder with the greats and promulgating the merits of my own prose. How could I presume to invent such an individual and his world without antagonising the reader or at least inciting him/her to be far more critical of my work than would normally be the case?
So, does it take a great writer to create the life-world of another writer and provide the reader with a profile of the inside of such a person’s mind? I never thought so before. On this basis a novel which includes God as a character would be a step too far, even for Tolstoy.
To be even implicitly self-aggrandising was not my intent. I wanted to develop a drama in which the writer’s success in his genre might provide ironies and resonances when he became faced with strange and unsettling challenges to his reason, as horrifying as any in his own work.  What I would say is that it tests nerve and skill to include quotes from your author-character’s published text. I had to do some of this in Azimuth and found myself later scratching a lot of it out.
But, as I have stated many times elsewhere in these blogs, what the writer thinks s/he gives and what the reader receives can be two very different things. I suppose we hope that if most of the people most of the time are mostly unperturbed then we have done ok.
So there’s a thing to prick the conscience of any king of words. In the manner of Russian dolls, here am I in a blog on writing, discussing a fellow writer’s thoughts about the art of writing, particularly the problem of being a novelist writing about a novelist’s relationship with his writing. And finding it extremely problematical and labyrinthine!
All my own writing, including Azimuth and Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story

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Friday, May 25, 2012

The Art of Writing No 43
I have just finished reading a couple of Joseph Conrad novellas; Heart of Darknessand Youth. What strikes me as instructive for the aspiring writer in both of them is how Conrad’s knowledge of the sea and the technology of ships, albeit in the early days of metal hulls and mechanical navigation, becomes a kind of mystical manual for the reader who has not and will never spend such time on dangerous water. I suppose Victorian and Edwardian times, the era of empire building, gave writers licence to provide an early superhero identification and escapism for the reader. But I’m no literary critic!
What makes me turn over the experience in my mind is how expert knowledge can be presented in such a way that we are drawn into it as if being initiated into the mysterious rites of some exotic fellowship. The naming of parts, the special lingo, the daily round and the required practices of seafaring men all have a seductive appeal. Much of writing stems from such ingrained knowledge and it seems to me to be superior to that ‘researched’ backcloth to much of literature today. Why? Well, I would imagine that the telling of tales has greater power if expertise is implicit rather than explicit because it imbues every word we read and does not appear forced.
I remember Jorge Luis Borges’ satirical response to any crude writing which flaunts a writer’s expertise in a subject, in this case the taxonomical knowledge of the animal kingdom:
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies
What I take from this is that a novelist has an infinite set of possibilities at his/her disposal. Being keen to flaunt expert knowledge may restrict the flight of creativity. As Borges shows, we authors can be experts in fabulous taxonomies of the imagination.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 42
I mentioned plagiarism.
There is a form of it which divides writers down the middle. It can be subtle, invasive and even contaminating. It revolves around the issue of whether a novelist should read other writers’ fiction during the process of making a novel.  There are many writing manuals which focus on a writer’s need to read quality fiction in order to develop good habits rather like student artists being made to copy famous paintings in order to understand the strategies that great artists employ. I saw a documentary on Jack Cardiff, the finest cinematographer ever, who studied paintings in order to understand how light works to dramatic advantage on celluloid. The better the fiction, the more it instructs, though I feel that the process is one of immersive osmosis rather than direct imitation. What I mean is that the brain is so complex that it will mix your range of reading in a melange and bring out your improved literary expression. Read Timothy Galway’s The Inner Game of Tennis  to understand this. He argues that by merely watching another player, the brain assimilates so much information it reproduces good strokes in a way that pedantic, step by step teaching cannot achieve.
For myself, reading other authors while I am writing fiction is a no-no. Inevitably (because I am competitive!) I am constantly comparing my work with theirs and it slows me down. I also find myself with the wrong ‘voice’ in my head, that of a character in another author’s work. I use expressions which I know are borrowed.
Establishing your own literary identity is a hard won battle with every book you have ever read. My advice is to leave a gap between the last fiction you have read before starting writing, read non-fiction or listen to music or do a Cardiff and view art, anything to dislodge the last exciting chapters from your mind! It is only through time that your unique qualities will show and no-one will be able to point to unconscious plagiarism.
I wrote Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story(as Eric le Sange rather than Jack Sanger) because I was irritated by a Julian Barnes novella winning the Booker Prize for literature. I felt it was mechanical and artificial. There was little in it which was organic and truly of the heart. Not that I want you to compare the books, just to underline the effect that reading others’ work can have. We are private individuals are we not? We live in our fantasy universe and have to deal with whatever comes our way. I make sure now that these incursions are not from the prose of another artist!
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic love Story by Eric le Sange Kindle Amazon
Azimuth by Jack Sanger in paperback at azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth by Jack Sanger in three separate books on Kindle Amazon

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 41
In a long series of blogs about one subject, writing, there is bound to be crossover, overlapping and repetition, just the very things the blog warns you against! But, unless it becomes a blog novel, I don’t have to spend time doing excisions and elisions to give it a flow. This, of course, intimates that I have written about today’s subject before though this blog is tangential to the last offering on the subject
If you follow me on Twitter you will know that I am on a crushingly tough course to bring original thought to issues that perplex us. Every day I write a couple of zen-like mind benders. The art of reducing a complex concept to a few characters is time consuming even when you have developed the mental muscle to fashion such aphorisms. There are two purposes in doing it. The first is to continue to refine my mind-tool and practise control over language. The second is to persuade readers that my voice is intriguing, occasionally illuminating and a good test as to whether my novels are worth obtaining. Among my tweets are little adverts for my books. I hope they are sufficiently redolent of my other cryptic tweeting in their power to persuade.
My first tweet of today says: Stereotyping is how society tailors you a straitjacket
Stereotyping is a massive element in our lives far beyond race, gender and religion. We are conditioned to present ourselves from nursery school to the grave with  growing certainty, calling it maturity, as though we have discovered who we are and those around us can feel secure in our predictable identity. We learn to behave according to this template and find it extraordinarily difficult to do anything which contradicts it. Each time we try our society in the shape of friends, work colleagues and family try to push us back inside the casing we have developed. A great deal of literature concerns those individuals who break the mould, or have it broken by events and then try to come to terms with the changes forced upon them. The changes in a character give the reader the opportunity to identify with, and to play vicariously with, projected changes in his or her own life. There must be a novel which focuses on completely uninteresting people doing uninteresting things but, unless it is a post-modern (and unintentionally funny) antithesis of  the drama in normal literature, who among us will read it?
Most of the characters in Azimuth undergo change, even the minor ones and some undergo enormous geological disturbance. A minor character who brings an unearthly, sorcerous and mystifying colouring to the plot is my version of the old Lilith myth. If you don’t know her it is worth discovering how she refused to lie down under Adam and was booted out of Eden as a consequence. Since then she has been blamed for much of the wanton mayhem that erupts in civilized life. I won’t tell you who she is because the fact is disguised for much of the second Book. I advertised her presence like this among my regular tweets today:
In Hebrew texts Lilith was Adam’s first woman bringing blood, chaos and upheaval to humanity; she lives on in Azimuth: http://www.Azimuthtrilogy.com

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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 40
I had the problem that most writers have when they go back to draft novels they have written some time before, intending to refurbish them and flog them as ebooks. This is not to suggest that they are not good enough for publication on paper but, like hundreds of good to great pieces of fiction (!), they were declined owing to the subjectivity of the publishers’ new police, the agents. At least the internet provides a platform and if you can catch the zeitgeist of current literary preoccupations, your readers can do for you what that anonymous person in an office with rejection templates in front of her/him could not do. Or, better than that, you can break the mould and create new kinds of fiction.
Anyway, such was my problem with The Strange Attractor. I had worked like a slave on it but got many rejection slips, a few of which suggested that someone had read the first twenty five or so pages I had sent on their demand. I had a version of it on an old computer and so the raw material was there for a re-write. What did I discover about my former self, the individual who wrote it? What needed changing in the prose, characters and plot? As far as the ‘I’ that wrote it was concerned, the ten years had not made too much difference. I think I was less relaxed, possibly because writing was my night job. This evidenced itself in the sometimes cryptic nature of the prose. Given I could not give it the time I would have liked, somehow the prose reflected this. The dialogue was pared down too much. The descriptions were too skeletal. I think I was also being a bit too fancy dannish in my cleverness in an attempt to woo the agents. Perhaps there was an element of fantasy projection going on, too. Maybe I was looking for a new, exciting partner and created versions of her in my pages!
As far as the novel is concerned the most obvious issue that leapt from the page to smack me between the eyes, was how quickly it had become dated. Not in a good way. My re-writing involved being more tolerant of the need to explain, the desire to support the reader securely, to be less ambiguous, to ensure that the key turning points of the plot were well advertised (even in their veiled nature) and to revise street argot because it had already passed into retro-nerdism. The technology in the book (a key constituent) was what was prevalent before the miniaturisation revolution and even the attitudes between males and females did not sit well with the post feminist changes in society, so these, too, needed updating.
The re-write was slow and pernickety because it was  more a matter of changing the odd word or sentence on each page and making sure that everything in the book, spoke of a particular time in social history, particularly the way the ‘hero’ uses chaos theory to solve crime. (Strange Attractor is a key term in chaos theory but has undoubted strength in its metaphoric ambiguity, as a title). What I learned from the reupholstering of the book’s innards was to think more carefully about slang, the material things that date quickly and the social changes which make characters seem oddly behaved and out of place in the present day. Either I could have edited it as a period piece or brought it up to date. Doing the former would have meant a lot more research to couch my phraseology in those times (which is not my greatest skill) or refreshing as I went. That is what I did.
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange aka Jack Sanger, Kindle, Amazon

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 39
Here is the beginning of the novella, Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story,I have just published on Kindle, Amazon. I wrote about its genesis two blogs ago. I thought I’d try to explain how I set about trapping the reader (hopefully!) at its onset.
It had happened with increasing regularity if you looked upon it from the vantage point of today. He was sure it had not occurred in the first thirty years. There must have been
isolated outposts of it over the next decade which he had put down to daydreams and
nothing more. But hardly any time seemed to go past now without some singular event.
They were both disturbing and exciting, a sinister mystery and a delight.
What was the most teasing aspect was that if he tried to capture them, using his mind
like a high speed camera to create a still, the images with which he should be left were
blank leaving him swimming in a void. On the contrary, if he did nothing but continue
with the unfettered run of his thoughts, they remained as a blurry background, something parallel and almost incorporeal. Almost.
The latest visitations were the most definitive yet in that in them he had a strong sense
of a female presence, if not of a reality around it.
While the story as a whole seems to engage very well I was unsure for a long time about what to do at the kick off. I wanted to put the reader immediately into a puzzle, whet his or her appetite and, as the story progresses, get him or her guessing increasingly about what is going on. On the latter score I am sure it seduces as a whodunwhat.
Given that it is a long short story, I decided that all the ingredients of the puzzle should be in the reader’s mind within the first couple of minutes of starting the story. Hence the reference to strange visitations, the high speed camera line and the enigmatic female presence. Being a horror story about taboo, with technology as part of its setting, it seemed essential to create an air of mystery and immediately precipitate the guessing game. Also, I wanted to provoke reader identification with the condition the main protagonist suffers. Most of us have experienced daydreams, dreams, nightmares and peculiarly bizarre thoughts beyond our immediate control. We tend to ignore them even while a part of us wonders at their import. This human condition of being vaguely aware that there is something beyond immediate reality was what I was trying to capture in the novella.
There were, when I last read the literature, two kinds of human learning; serial and parallel. If you are a serialist you like information in building blocks, logically connected until you have constructed the whole. If you are a parallelist then you start from the whole and gradual break it down to the component parts. Parallelists like all the information at the start. This is a novella for parallelists. Within a couple of chapters they have all the information they need. After that all is embroidery. Only the last line confirms or disconfirms their hypotheses regarding the plot.
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story by Jack Sanger Kindle, Amazon

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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 38
Repetition is the bane of the author. There is a high incidence of the repetition of a word or phrase within a single paragraph, never mind chapter!
Consequently there are many writers who sit with a thesaurus by their computer or notebook. Not many of us have a labyrinthine vocabulary and having at hand a resource which provides synonyms can help us produce a much more involving and entertaining text. (There are free ones on the internet).The issue for the writer is that the more intensely you operate in the ‘zone’, with words spewing from your tommy-gun-like-brain on to the paper – for there seems to be nothing inside your head to impede their progress – the more clichéd your writing becomes. Arrestingly innovative sentences help make a book. Using alternative words and phrases gee us up because they create hooks for our imaginations, momentarily, by stimulating our pleasure in the new and fresh. You have to be a very great writer indeed to write in a fever of concentration and still maintain originality and freshness in your choice of words. I remember reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and twice, maybe three times he talked of the hero ‘gunning’ his car away from some scene or the other. I felt short-changed. His writing is never more than adequate. The better the writer, the more he or she tries to avoid repetition of a word, be it noun, verb or adjective. I remember seeing a rather fine film set in my home city of Newcastle, called Get Carter. An excellent phrase was used by either a gangster or Caine, I can’t remember which, but whoever it was described the eyes in someone’s face as piss holes in the snow.  Then I happened to see a B movie some couple of years later and there was another gangster using the same phrase, attesting to its B movie status.  The same happens with novels. It is careless and lazy to plagiarise from other sources, as well as being an act of thievery against a fellow professional. It is also careless and lazy to plagiarise from your own novel, either a previous work or the one you are currently writing! Remember, plagiarism can be unconscious – the mere duplicating of words and phrases you have used already.
Essentially, most repetition within your work breeds banality and a lifeless prose. Avoid it.
Having said all that, when my editor read the first draft of Azimuth Book 1,she said she could not remember who some of the characters were because I did not repeat the ‘handles’ which enable the reader to follow characters through the plot.  Instead, I had resorted to a variety of synonyms when describing them. I learned that repetition might actually be necessary. The cast of characters in Azimuthruns into the hundreds and since for most of the inner narrative there are no names to distinguish individuals, I had focused on making my prose rich and diverse, offering different adjectives to describe a character every time he or she turned up, thereby confusing the reader. Using the same noun and adjective to re-introduce a character helped. The ‘fat boy’ is always reintroduced at his next entrance as the ‘fat boy’, not the plump boy, the rotund boy, the obese boy…. It is the same when introducing characters’ appearances. Try to give a unique visual profile to every one of them so that there can be no confusion. This extends to names. Don’t even include names beginning with the same first letter. Books are made from words, not visual images. Generally we can differentiate people easily in films and on TV by their features alone but in books we have to be sure we are including enough detail to make a character unique.
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story by Eric le Sange on Kindle Amazon
Azimuth by Jack Sanger, in three separate volumes on Kindle Amazon
Azimuth, the trilogy, in beautifully produced paperback (and PDF) www.azmuthtrilogy.com
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle, Amazon

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Art of Writing No.37
Today, I have released a novella called Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Storyas an ebook on Amazon Kindle. I thought it might be worth a little detail on how it came about.
I had made all the agreements with printers, typesetters and illustrator to ensure that Azimuth the paperback would come out on time and in reasonable nick, in fact a paperback with beauty and weight. Whilst I was waiting for Azimuth to be produced physically and before I began the long, hard road of marketing it, I decided to write a novella. I wanted to try something different, testing myself with a plot, characters and writing style far removed from the historical imagination of Azimuth.
The idea came to me when I was being introspective about my brain and my mind. Why was it that I experienced visions of people, events and environments that I had never encountered before, in daydreams? Where did they come from? Was my brain driving my mind to experience these events for some undisclosed purpose? This was heightened when an unknown beautiful woman reappeared a handful of times in my thoughts, I had the germ of a plot. The Cheshire Cat-like woman took me back to a poem I liked when young, Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot. In it there is a mysterious, almost ghost-like woman who has probably inhabited my unconscious ever since first encountering her.
I had no idea about plot line other than finding a literary way of explaining her visitations. I invented a character – or at least one leapt to the screen – whom I named, as soon as the story permitted,  William Jethro Blake. Blake, as you may know, saw visions much as he saw other forms of reality. The Jethro element referred to Jethro Tull, the gardener.
My first ten or so chapters came off my keys in a strange, dislocated, haphazard fashion, rather as the visions did, themselves. In fact, iteratively, I had William (or he had me) musing on exactly this lack of cohesivness to the narrative:
The consequence was that he found himself interrogating his notebook’s words and phrases for a pattern of meaning but they would not cohere and make sentences and paragraphs. They remained obstinately asynchronous, discrete, islands unto themselves. The experience defied that essential human capacity to make sense out of partial information. He had run writing classes and given people exactly the kind of hotchpotch he was now staring at and they would come up with a wonderful variety of story threads, combining them all as if the words were polarized magnets and could twist and turn to clump together. No, here they were repelling each other and refusing any attempt at union.
I moved on to the second half of the novella, intent on drawing all this disparate information into one flow of sense, giving the story a punch-line such as I described in the last blog. It came to me. The ending and the reason why the first ten chapters were written the way they were. Alchemy took place in my unconscious and I opened a portal and let it out. Have trust in the imagination. Ah the brain and the mind, they are our tools but may become our straitjackets, if we treat them as servants.
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story by Eric le Sange on Kindle Amazon
Azimuth by Jack Sanger, in three separate volumes on Kindle Amazon
Azimuth, the trilogy, in beautifully produced paperback (and PDF) www.azmuthtrilogy.com

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 36
When Little Nell died she caused a national outpouring of grief in Victorian industrial Britain. Readers of the chapter by chapter novel The Old Curiosity Shopimplored Dickens to find a way out, a resurrection of the character. In its time it was the epitome of fine writing about a deeply difficult subject. But, not so long after, in the literary scheme of things, Oscar Wilde said,
“One must have a heart f stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Writing about death, to be effective and keep the reader’s attention and empathy, is a matter of hermeneutics. Everything about it must ring true to both the context of the story and the time when a person reads it. Of course we can read about the demise of Nell today, and enjoy it even while we regard it as mawkish and sentimental. We make allowances for the period and transport ourselves back to what it must have been like to have a Victorian sensibility. Most of us will write about death or the dead at some point. In The Strange Attractor I described an illicit visit to the morgue to watch a post mortem. That was easy in the sense that the bodies were dead and the act of dying lay outside the narrative. Also the attitude of the observer, Edward Silver, a private detective, was cool and detached. But in Azimuth, a major character is killed. I tried to write about grief and death within the context of the book, sentimentality not being a dominant trait among my characters.
They seated her body, her head bowed, on her roan, holding her there from either side and walked slowly to the nearest high ground, a small, exposed cliff of brittle red stone. They laid her along its base and the Warrior took powders from saddle bags and mixed them before working them into a crack in the vertical face just above her prone form.
  Whatever she had been before her death was no longer evident no matter how much he reached his mind out to her, -May your spirit go where you have always wished it, he said in a soft, caressing tone, -And may further life spring from your decay.
  -Goodbye my Grandmother, whispered his daughter in a breaking voice, bending to straighten the dead woman’s hair, so that her tears fell upon the lined face. She and her father looked down upon what seemed too tiny a form for so powerful a woman, dressed as always in a warrior’s garb, knife in her belt and sword in her hand.
Looking at it now I remember going over and over the lines which included:
  -Goodbye my Grandmother, whispered his daughter in a breaking voice, bending to straighten the dead woman’s hair, so that her tears fell upon the lined face.
Was I being mawkish? I think I certainly was in my initial descriptions of the burial. I said far too much about the granddaughter’s emotions. In the end I opted for these short lines of a sorrow that breaks through her disciplined and wise nature. You must decide.
When writing something like Azimuth (perhaps within the canon of moral sagas like Lord of the Rings, Beowulf or His Dark Materials) I was always aware that I had to integrate a modern day audience’s rejection of cloying emotion with the harsher times of my characters. It is part of the macro business of persuading readers that this vast, cyclical drama, though it is ostensibly about the changes in a man who begins as a warrior and ends as a sage, is relevant to people’s lives today and the period is immaterial when it comes to being human.
Books by Jack Sanger (aka Eric le Sange)
Azimuth by Jack Sanger paperback and PDF www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth, the ebook, by Jack Sanger in separate volumes Amazon Kindle
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Amazon Kindle
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story by Eric le Sange , Amazon Kindle

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Friday, May 11, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 35
Jacques Derrida and others of the postmodern literary circus, formulated a theory that it was impossible to produce unequivocal, unambiguous prose. Whatever you do as a writer, no matter how much of a Hemingway or Beckett you might want to be in the Spartan simplicity of your text, it will be read equivocally and ambiguously. Other meaning, said Derrida, leaks out. Reception Theory suggests that every reader reads with a unique interpretation. Fifty readers, fifty different books. Now I have said earlier that one of the ways we might attribute value to writing is to ask if a book lends itself to multiple interpretations. While acknowledging that even simple prose can produce wildly differing understanding (think about instructions to build a wardrobe), more complex expression extends it to infinity.
But the point to be made is this, the ambiguities of great literature are rich and lead to a far greater depth of discourse because the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts, the words. The very use of language, its poetry, its apparent verisimilitude, its authentic dialogue, its factual accuracy, its labyrinthine plots, its realistic and complex characters, all and much more, conspire to beguile the reader.  And the closer you are to achieving such quality, the more you must be diligent over key turning points in your narrative. For example, if you are writing a crime novel, you will lay down, you hope unobtrusively, clues that will later prove to be threads in the rope of the plot. For this to work, each character must be in the proper place at the proper time, every motive and relationship must be credible. Look through your narrative and decide where the key junctures are – and then go over what you have written at these points and make sure you have refined them as much as humanly possible. There is nothing worse than finding yourself (as I have mentioned before) in the position of  Raymond Chandler, caught out by film makers who discovered his plot did not stack up. As I have suggested, people will still interpret and believe they have read something that was not there, as a consequence, but on revisiting the vital section, they will grudgingly concede that you couldn’t have done more to inform them. Indeed, good writing leads the reader to acknowledge your arts in deceiving him or her, long enough to get a good tale told.
When I was writing Azimuth I became very befuddled because I was dealing with an extraordinary long time line and children were being born and growing up, events were happening that changed the course of later history, people said and did things which bent the fate lines. I had to create a flow chart at the end and check whether my time line actually worked over generations. I made alterations. I located passages that seemed to me to be main springs to the health of the book and worked on them again.
It is very difficult to get everything in a 300 page novel absolutely perfect but manage the key scenes for the plot to work and you will evade much criticism. Reading for most people, most of the time, involves unconscious editing as they go. They miss bits out of your writing without knowing it. They are not doing a Masters course in literary criticism so it does not matter to them.  Key scenes are their stepping stones across the river of the life of the novel. Don’t let your readership get swept away because you have not made the footholds solid and supportive.
Azimuth trilogy paperback by Jack Sanger available at www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth by Jack Sanger in 3 separate ebooks at Kindle (Amazon)

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 34
Once you are writing every day and your imagination begins to bulk up on its muscle, ideas come to you many times every day regarding plot lines. I said in an earlier blog how some writers carry an ideas book in their pocket and note down the significant in what they are experiencing whether it be the looks of a person, a few lines of dialogue, a landscape, or a telling aberration in their physical or mental worlds. Some writers have files of recorded data which see them through the lean times when, otherwise, a portcullis of a writer’s block might fall across productivity. The notion of having such a resource is more appealing as a concept than a reality for many writers. You only have to look at the planet to realize that humans find it difficult to plan and conserve, against the future. We exploit instead.
Anyway, as I said, ideas come to you (like dreams) the more you make ready for them and reward them with records of their appearance!
Here is a typical example. I watched a documentary last night on science and the light it casts on the nature of life. Like many such programmes it did not quench my thirst. I’d love to know what is the factor that stokes up the extraordinary mechanism that we call DNA. At one point in the programme it was stated that scientists over the next decade or two will create the first unicellular life form. Immediately I thought of a neat Sci Fi short story. At the moment these cells are made and escape from the laboratory, a cataclysm wipes out humanity. Over millions of years they develop into the varieties of complex life we see today; until scientists reach the point where they can create their first unicellular life form… The twist in the tale involves the realization that we are in a never ending loop of creation and destruction. Very Hindu. It would have to be written so that this is disclosed at the very end of the tale.
In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler suggests that creativity, in the main, comes from taking two disparate pieces of knowledge and bringing them together to create a third, already known but not, until then, with any connection to the first two. This happens in music, maths and comedy. In music, the final movement may resolve the countervailing nature of what has gone before. In maths, the QED in an equation (forgive my O Level knowledge) produces a pleasing line of proof from separate and hitherto unconnected pieces of mathematical information. In comedy we have the punch line.  I even use the latter to set the scene in the website for Azimuth:
A samurai once asked Zen Master Hakuin where he would go after he died.
Hakuin answered “How am I supposed to know?”
“How do you know? You’re a Zen master!” exclaimed the samurai.
“Yes, but not a dead one,” Hakuin answered. – Zen mondo
On a grand scale, a novel does the same. The ending should be an intellectually and pleasing denouement which brings together what seems contradictory or paradoxical and shows that a logic pertains to all the books events.
Azimuth by Jack Sanger (paperback and PDF at www.azimuthtrilogy.com)
Azimuth (separate volumes of the trilogy) as ebooks also on Amazon Kindle

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 33
I was reading blogs yesterday about the art of writing for ebooks. There were many interesting asides in them, comparing ebooks to traditional paper based literature.
The first one was the splendid (for the author) notion that a book is never out of print once it has been fired into the stratosphere.  It hovers forever to be discovered by generation after generation whereas books go out of print and an author is very lucky indeed for resurrection to occur once the publisher has disposed of the last copy. It also means that as fads and fashions come and go, a novel can come into its own at a time the zeitgeist chooses. Since one of the lines of argument in these blogs is that we authors are satisfying a desire for some kind of legacy through our writing, ebooks may be our eternal children, or our virtual tombstones with extraordinarily long epitaphs written upon them!
The second is the malleability of an ebook when compared with the traditional form. I spent so many months with illustrators and printers producing Azimuth to get the quality of cover image, paper and a layout that does justice to the complex multi-leaved essence of the story, but with an ebook this final form is never reached. I know that subsequent editions of a successful paper based book usually bring with them changes in art and format, yet the process is still static once these decisions have been made. With an ebook that does not sell, you can change its appeal. You can write a new, more dynamic synopsis, add a new front cover and even change the label (this being the way the book is pigeon holed; crime, romance, SF, fantasy…). It makes one think of Paul Valery, the French poet, who said “A poem is never finished, merely abandoned”. Thus it is with enovels. Indeed, should your reviewers all point to a passage in your book that that they feel undermines the book’s general quality, you can re-write it and insert the change.
Third, it is liberating to feel that your novel is not a hostage to fortune in the shape of the preconceptions and subjective judgments of agents and publishers, nor, if it leaps those hurdles, the reviewers in the press. It all comes down to your work and the reactions of your readers. Will they enjoy it? Will they text their friends and tell them how good it is? Will the book snowball on the back of a gathering storm of readership? However, your book is not in a bookshop. It is not a physical entity. And this classical way of selling stories is the one where currently the big money is made. Not for much longer, though. To counteract traditional selling techniques, you have to shepherd your audience to your ebook by equally effective, but innovative forms of marketing.
I write this blog and hope it directs readers to Azimuth. If they like what I say and how I say it, it can help persuade them I am genuine and the book should be a great read. I tweet aphorisms every day to a similar end: @profjacksanger. Today’s first one is:
Religions are insurance companies offering a single policy, life after death, asking you to take it on trust that there will be a payout
Then there’s Facebook and Linkedin. But marketing is hard work. Are you prepared for the daily grind and will your imagination’s well never run dry?
Azimuth (the paperback trilogy) by Jack Sanger at www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth by Jack Sanger in ebook in 3 separate volumes Amazon Kindle
Jack Sanger also writes under the nom de plume Eric le Sange and his work appears on Amazon Kindle

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Monday, May 7, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 32
The advantage of writing a blog is that you are not restricted by the logics of publication. Your various outpourings may overlap and reiterate what has gone before. Like much of writing it has a special capacity for helping you articulate what is an evanescence until it is put into words and becomes moored in your thought. When I was an academic we used the phrase, writing yourself into knowledge.  The act of writing can be, therefore, a primary act of formulation.
One of the absolute pleasures of writing is finding that you have conversed with your unconscious and drawn into view a flame which had, until then, remained a trickling line of smoke indicating there was a fire somewhere. This fishing into the depth of self becomes easier over time as you learn to trust it. Like a sportsman or woman, at the height of his or her powers, who plays intuitively, beyond the intercession of thought, you are hardly aware of the substance in what you have written until you examine it later, as its first reader. It is then that you have to decide how authentic it is, how much is plagiarised or pure! The pinnacle of such experience is in writing poetry which, like music, tells its truths as a potent alchemy that is more than the mere words on the page. Meanings echo and ricochet away from it, ad infinitum. The more you work with your imagination, the more it comes up trumps. The result can be an insight akin to that delivered by ‘automatic writing’ or ‘stream of consciousness’, a kind of authorial therapy, but it can also be the route that takes you into exciting realms beyond the conformity of your previous work.
This process evidences itself most in the way you manage the themes that underlie your work. I have already discussed their place in your narratives. Finding a fresh way to express the complexity of these themes can result directly from the unusual metaphors and insights that erupt from your unconscious, unfettered by the shackles of logic. And this is also true of descriptions of places, people and events. Having no fixed sense of any of these and allowing the creative juices to bring them to the fore can produce the strikingly real and unusual. The plasticity of your brain can either be increased by the appeal to the imagination or decreased by a rigid approach to expressing exactly what you have pre-ordained.
I watched a programme last night about human survival in the icy wastes of the far north. An igloo was built. It was almost exactly how I described an igloo being built in Azimuth. Now, many of you would have googled the strategies for building these ice houses before writing. Fine. But then you have the problem of making what you have researched seem natural and part of the flow of the narrative. When I wrote it, I WAS there with my characters solving the problem of how to survive a terrible night and so it came out in the very portrayal of traits, place and dialogue. I hope I am not sounding too vain here, it is as dispassionate as I can make it and, as I have said before, you can check my introspective analysis by reading the relevant section in the third Book, The Final Journey.
Azimuth by Jack Sanger, the paperback trilogy from www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth as separate E-Books, The First Journey, The Second Journey, The Final Journey) from Kindle Amazon or as PDFs at www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Art of Writing No 31
I have written about how the first paragraph of you novel can seduce the reader in the bookshop or on a website. The opening paragraph of a novel should really be returned to, time and again. It is probably the most refined piece of writing in the whole book. Almost equal to it is the final paragraph. Why it comes second is that usually it is not a factor in someone actually buying the book though I do know people who read the end first to see whether they are going to like it!
The worst that can happen in writing is finding too late that your novel is a cul de sac, that the end just will not come or cannot be satisfactorily resolved. The second worst problem is finding a perfectly adequate ending that leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed. The third worst finale is disbelief and anger at being led up the garden path to no purpose. The fourth is an artificial tying up of all the loose ends – even though people love closure and have done so since the time of Dickens. Modern audiences, however, want resolution tinged with a little uncertainty. Realism should prevail and life is never that tidy.
Best endings tend to be the reverse. As I was outlining above about opening paragraphs, repeated returns to the end game help you, consciously or unconsciously, to find a path to the conclusion which sits naturally in your narrative.
Since I write organically and have no idea of the ending, I use my growing reminder sheet at the bottom of my draft to suggest possible endings. Over time, these get scrubbed out, leaving the one that will go live and even that will be modified at the very end. In Azimuth there are two stories, like entwined DNA, both being long and complex and each ending falls, only two or three pages from the other, at the very culmination of the book. You can read the reviews of Azimuth on the Kindle site or on my Azimuth site (see below) to check out the effect the endings have on readers.
In Miseryby Stephen King, the story hinges on a female fan of a novelist who kidnaps him to try to stop him killing off the main character in a series of successful books. An ending she could not condone after all the endings she has read in the series. It is the perfect illustration that endings must satisfy. We understand her fiendish fanaticism and identify with it. Thus, King provides uswith a great ending about the nature of endings!
After reading Azimuth, a friend said she felt bereft. “But what is happening to those wonderful part-humans, now? she asked, “I miss them and worry about them.”
Azimuth by Jack Sanger in paperback and PDF at www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth  by Jack Sanger in separate volumes on Kindle Amazon

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 30
Returning to the subject of ‘themes’ in novel writing: a couple of blogs ago I outlined the thesis that you can elevate the quality of your work by having your characters wrestle with issues that are current, perennial, local or universal. In Azimuth one of my central protagonists spends his life searching for enlightenment but, in the mean time, being deflected from his course by adventures. A bit like Odysseus, unable to get home as the gods seek to thwart his plans. So, at the heart of the 66 Tales within the three volumes, this man returns again and again to this theme, exploring it through the eyes of the people he meets and via introspection on what befalls him. I hope there is no heavy sermonizing at any time. I am an agnostic but wanted to write in an open way so that the reader could follow his or her paths to personal understanding. The reviews suggest that many people were buoyed up and stimulated by this theme. Others just loved the mystery and unpredictability of the adventures themselves, as well as those of the historian who tells the tales.
All good novels smuggle in far more than their genre might require. A novel is a Trojan horse which you take inside the walls of your mind, willingly, and once there begins to stir up your thinking. If, as an author, you want to proselytize because you are, say, a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim – whatever – the effect could be somewhat censorious. The only people who will enjoy your work are those committed to your belief. Your books become self-fulfilling prophecies. But if you write in such a way that the ambiguities of belief, the case for and against, is represented naturally through the thoughts and actions of your characters, then you will draw in many more readers. You do not wish to convert them but merely get them thinking. Your dialogue becomes Socratic.  Representing good vanquishing all evil in a cut and dried narrative leaves critical readers thinking ‘but that is not like life’ and doubting the integrity of your tale. For me, raising critical consciousness is central to fictional writing. A critically aware population is far less likely to accept any form of totalitarianism.
You may think this is a bit high falutin’ when all you want to do is write something which is a good read. So be it. I believe that fiction has more purchase over the way people develop a skeptical approach to what is presented to them by all media than any number of sermonizing tracts.. Novelists have responsibilities, whether they are writing to a formula or are attempting something grander in scope.  The classic ingredients in storytelling; good vs evil, the so-called battle of the sexes, the moral dilemma of killing, utopian ideals vs messy human reality, innocence and experience and many more, if ignored in your work, may make it appear superficial. Touching on themes such as these, allowing some characters to play out their dramas around them, can lift your work on to a different level.
Azimuth by Jack Sanger www.azimuthtrilogy.com
The three Azimuth books also in Kindle Amazon

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Friday, May 4, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 29
A possibly difficult area for any novelist concerns writing about the opposite sex. We know that in a number of genres, male-written books tend to make women sex objects, crime victims and adornments to their hard drinking, all-action heroes. On the other side of the coin, there are women writers who portray men in an equally simplistic manner; lantern-jawed, tousle haired, romantic and strong. Or whatever. Dan Brown’s books give little insight into character, not that it has affected sales since the plot line appealed to a readership that wanted conspiracy and religion tied into a narrative bundle. And what better title than The Da Vinci Code? If Brown had managed real depth of character maybe the books would have won an even greater audience – and literary prizes. The point being made is that writers often portray the opposite sex as little more than clothes hangers.
I wrote earlier that  writers need to challenge and test the possibility of stereotyping in their work. Are the characters rounded? Do they do unexpected things? Are they shaded from good to bad? Are there as many female as male minor characters in the general background of your tale?
It is worth spending time on characters you have introduced. You may base them on people you have known or you may invent them from the mélange of types that swim in your head. If you are a male writer, are you sure you are making your women independent of you and not the stuff of your fantasies? Or payback for hurt? Or an unfulfilling relationship with your mother? The opposite for female writers. The cliché is that women are emotional and men are rational, women have intuition but can’t read maps, particularly dim blondes. Men are not in touch with their emotions and take risks. Women multi-task and men are serialists when it comes to work. Any reading of research on cognition would make you dismiss most of this as claptrap. It is better to evolve complexity and forget gender until it actually matters in conflict, sex or other interactions between the sexes.
In Azimuth there are many more strong and unusual women than men. The main protagonists are equally divided in gender. By being determined to display a whole range of types, both male and female, over the ten years of writing the three volumes, the pages became peopled by idiosyncratic individuals. As I’ve suggested before about writing Zen aphorisms, once you get into the swing of developing new ways of seeing and writing, the muscle hardens and the work becomes easier. Early female readers have told me they love the women and can find much to identify with. Perhaps you will find the same when you read it but I’d be as interested if you don’t!
Azimuth by Jack Sanger at www.azimuthtrilogy.com
Azimuth Book 1, 2, 3 separate also in Kindle Amazon

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 28
I began a writing MA at the University of East Anglia around 1970. I was the only student and I followed the year after Ian McEwan. I did not succeed the vagaries of the course which then required you to do two terms of the Literature MA. I left after the first term feeling I had more to offer as a social worker than a writer! My tutor had been Malcolm Bradbury. He said I had a messianic drive to offer answers to the unanswerable. Curiously, I hadn’t even thought of my work that way. Now I have written Azimuthand what is it about? – people who search for answers to the unanswerable, albeit on a rollercoaster of mystery and adventure! Probably many authors feel they have something to say that might change readers’ perceptions or attitudes to some aspect of existence, big or small.
Even among the majority of writers, those who make their niches within a strict genre, there is a desire to turn the odd phrase, expand on a concept, throw in a philosophical swerve ball, all to make the reader sit up and say Ah! as s/he experiences a shock of illumination. As I’ve said in earlier pieces, writers are the gods of the book-worlds they create. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author explores just such a theme.  The film The Matrixtransposes it to computer programs in which the avatars want to discover who has created them and rules their virtual universe. Blade Runner has replicants (artificially designed humanoid creatures who can work in deep space) returning to earth to find who built them.  The relationship between an author and characters sits on a spectrum, as I have said, between cipher and flesh and blood, three-dimensional reality. The more you veer towards the latter, the more your characters must influence the narrative. This often results in us asking the following lit crit questions; is the theme one that matters? Do the characters change and develop because of how they experience the effects of the theme in their lives?
For there to be a positive answer to these questions there need to be substantive issues running through the narrative which are returned to over and over again, explicitly or implicitly, via the actions, attitudes and insights of the book’s characters. They can be the thin skin of civilization in Lord of the Flies, the pantheistic glorification of sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, totalitarianism in 1984 and Animal Farm or agnosticism in His Dark Materials.  On the other hand, the themes may be small scale and intensely psychological but recognisable within most people’s lives, such as father and son relationships in A Voyage Around my Father. The more a book’s characters are engaged in some way in trying to handle and navigate what we all find complex and challenging, the more they grow in significance. They cease to be run of the mill, two dimensional appendages to the narrative. They become extensions of ourselves.
All literature, whether formulaic or idiosyncratic and organic, benefits from the author’s dexterity and focus on questions that vex most of us, from the apparently imponderable to the depressingly or upliftingly ubiquitous. They can be like a trace of spice in a bowl of rice or a rich and satisfying sauce on a meal that has taken days to prepare. Depends on what you are writing.
Details on Azimuth can be found at www.azimuthtrilogy.com
 

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Act of Writing No. 27
Excelling at what you do, you would think to be a basic human aspiration. It is not. Having, in my previous life, been a management researcher/consultant working with dozens of organizations, I found that a large proportion of staff in these workplaces were content to ‘get by’. This lack of drive to achieve cannot be tolerated in writing. Even if you are writing to strict formulae laid down by genres such as bodice rippers, manga-inspired graphic novels, zombie horror or elfin fantasies and your publisher or agent is draconian in what might or might not be included, a writer can never be less than rigorous in delivering the goods.
There is a received wisdom that one in a hundred novels is completed, one in a thousand is published and one in ten thousand makes money. The odds against becoming another J K Rowling, therefore, are heavily weighted against success. Writing, as I have advanced in earlier blogs, requires the individual to be convinced that this is as arduous as anything s/he has done in life thus far.
They say that everyone has a novel in them. As a general rule, the first novel tends to rest heavily upon personal history. So, a useful adage is that you have to be able to exorcise the demons of your biography in order for you to free yourself up to write, unencumbered by the almost conscious desire for expiation. There will be some whose novels are perennially snatched from their lives, so rich have these been but most writers do not share and have not experienced the environment, plot and challenges through which they put their characters. Most rely on a vivid imagination and empathy. This is not to say that an in-depth knowledge of a field of interest does not provide you with rich pickings to play with, a realistic context for your plot. In The Strange Attractor I write about a crowd arriving at a football match. Having worked on a research project for the Home Office on crowd control and having been a supporter of Newcastle United since I was six or seven, did me no harm. I was able to take my central character, an amoral detective, and place him in that context. I knew what he was going to experience BUT I was freed up to let him react to it in his own way, not mine. You can pillage your biography all the time but, having written the first novel, this pillaging becomes less an obvious reflection of how you navigated the vicissitudes of your life story and more a multi-textured backdrop to what your characters have to face. These characters are no longer different facets of yourself but capable of sustaining a rounded, independent existence from you.
That’s it in a nutshell. Once you jettison the need for therapy from your writing you can face the greater challenges and personal fulfillment of creating new worlds, ones that you have not and are unlikely ever to occupy.  A new kind of therapy takes over, not expiation for past deeds but a continuous flow of illumination about yourself that helps you feel capable of dealing with whatever the present throws at you. You establish yourself as a storyteller in your tribe. How energizing is that?
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle Amazon
Azimuth by Jack Sanger (www.azimuthtrilogy.com)

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 26
Many people reading this will be from the new medium of e-book writing. Given the extraordinary sales of e-readers over the last couple of years, it is obvious that this medium is going to be the main outlet for creative writing in the future. The previous blogs seem to me to be equally appropriate for physical and virtual books but there are notable differences that are worth a note or two.
Producing your book for Kindle, IPad or Sony (apart from a reliance on teckie knowhow, yours or an agency’s, to translate your book into an acceptable format) gives you a great deal of power over your finished product. It is you who decides how pages look, what font, what glyphs (symbols that act as dividers within chapters) and what cover. In other words you become a designer-writer. Some of you will baulk at the very notion, preferring to stick to what you think you know best but others may find this previously barricaded world, worth breaching. I read a friend’s new book this year and the cover looked as though it had been designed by an android. It had nothing to recommend it. Remember that a great percentage of buyers in bookshops buy books after being attracted by their covers. Now, when you buy e-books, you also have a facsimile cover to help persuade you.
My three recent books (five if you split Azimuth into its three volumes) gave me a great deal of pleasure in the formative stages of designing their covers. In two cases I gave the book to a designer to read and also outlined a rough brief. She (Hollie Etheridge www.holsterdesign.com) offered a variety of interpretations for me to look at. I chose what was nearest to my projected vision and suggested amendments and then, through this iterative process, all was accomplished, a JPeg was sen to me and I uploaded it in the relevant area of the site.
The front cover has to grab. Since Azimuth is a multi-layered, historical fable, the cover had to represent mystery, Tale-telling and adventure set in a Persian empire. Hollie produced the following:
In The Strange Attractor, a crime novel with echoes of Raymond Chandler, the aim was to have that nourish, amoral feel to it, harking back to the forties and fifties:
With Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Romance, I worked with my wife who is excellent at PhotoShop. This probably allowed even more hands-on decision making. The aim was to represent a novella which tells a tale about rupture in family life and which explores the capacity of the mind to deceive and inveigle:
So, you see, creating a book can be extended by new technologies and the author can have an even greater sense of omnipotence over his or her world!
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle, Amazon
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Romance

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 25
How deep do you delve into your main character(s)?
It’s a question that faces all novelists. Revealing character has a spectrum from the implicit to the direct but usually it has to be some mixture of the two. By implicit  (in the extreme) I mean that character is being explored through actions and without the author adding his or her pennyworth through direct descriptions of people’s traits and attitudes. The reader makes up his or her mind through the accumulation of evidence as the book marches on. At the other extreme, the entire character is laid on a slab and forensically dissected in a ‘pre-mortem’, so to speak.
Most readers appear to like some balance between the two. They like their characters introduced as they enter the fray of the narrative so that they can ‘see’ them and sense the same kind of information they would get at a first flesh and blood meeting. Then they would like them to develop as they navigate the extraordinary circumstances you have arranged for them. A well described character at the outset, who does not develop, results in the novel’s hold on the reader being entirely dependent upon the intricacies of plot, like in an Agatha Christie. Do we learn that much more about Poirot than we gain in the very first pages he graces? Poirot’s adventures are more like crossword puzzles than an illuminated manuscript. The characters are roughly daubed and tend to be stereotypes.
Here is how I introduce the Historian in Azimuth:
If a man could be said to be constructed from the tools of his work, then Kamil was just such a man. He laboured with pen and paper and from them he built history. His flesh was as dry and pale as bleached parchment, his blood so dark it could have been extracted from crushed beetles and yet his intelligence was as sharp as the knife he used to give edge to his quills…”
Kamil is a typical scholar of the period, fat and preoccupied with library affairs. Over the 920 pages he becomes a detective, falls in love, faces death and… commits acts of which he is less than proud. All the while we are privy to his inner thoughts about what he has to face. At the end I was very tied to him. He was more real to me than many acquaintances. But I am just one reader of my work. And it is for you to determine how three dimensional he becomes.
When you are editing your book, it is worth tracing whether the events you have included in your narrative are leading gradually to greater understanding of your dramatis personae or leaving abandoning them as two dimensional ciphers.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com (for paperback and PDFs)
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle Amazon
Azimuth by Jack Sanger  Books 1, 2, 3 on Kindle Amazon

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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 24
I thought I’d mumble on a bit about first person and third person characters in your writing.
In many ways, writing in the first person is more difficult because it challenges the reader to identify with the ‘I’ in your story as opposed to ‘he’ or ‘she’.  There is a far greater degree of distancing when your hero or heroine is depicted in the third person.  The reader has choice as to how much s/he identifies with your central character when ‘he ‘or ‘she’ does this or that, whereas if it is an “I’ who is doing it, the reader is faced with the direct question as to whether he or she would ever do such a thing or feel like that. Given the way that most narratives are, it is also easier to write in the past tense. The past tense also allows some distancing and emphasises the storification of people’s lives. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there“,  was the wonderful line by L P Hartley that emphasises my point. We are used to being entertained in this way, from early childhood fairy tales.
Writing in the present tense is not particularly unconventional but it is a strain on the writer. Having written a novel in the continuous first person present about a Marlowe-like Private Dick, The Strange Attractor’ I found when I started editing for the third time, I still had sections that had slipped into the past tense. You may be better at it than me! The real difficulty is in conveying dramatic action. “I am punching him as he grabs my throat. I fall back, half-exhausted” or, “I press my lips against hers and watch as her eyes half close but a glint…”  can be very effective and even seductive but you have to do it through the whole novel. The third person present tense is a little easier, maybe. But nowhere near as easy as third person past tense.
In Azimuth, all but the first Tale is in the past tense but in the first Tale I use the continuous third person present. I wanted to draw the reader into the birth of the central character in all the Tales and make it dramatic. It starts the whole train of events, lasting 3 books and 920 pages! Since it happens while the mother is being hunted down by assassins it was an effort of concentration to keep to the format.
Mixing first and third person narratives can give a multi-dimensional set of perspectives on a Tale as events are seen through different characters’ eyes. Mixing past tense and continuous present provides an equally rich range of possibilities as we move from a past period to the present. If you prefer to map out your work before you start, you can work out the different media you are going to utilize to make your work truly gripping. If you are more organic in your approach, you will find yourself wrestling with the narrative constantly – but, we hope, fruitfully.
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange, Kindle Amazon

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Art of Writing No 23
A game I used to play when waiting for someone in a bar or sitting waiting to be called to the departure gate for a plane, in fact whenever I had not had the sense to bring something along to entertain myself, was ‘scenarios’. Before developing the fluid structure of the game I had occasionally found myself wondering about one or two people around me because the way they dressed or talked or acted made them the centre of attention. Then I began to think of the sin  of omission – why was I not as attracted to the rest of my immediate humanity? I remember teachers in school being faced with describing the children in their classes. The research showed that there was a hierarchy of connection (good or bad) with a percentage of pupils but there were also many who just slipped through classroom life, unnoticed. Once I had started down this road and tried to observe people equally, life became immeasurably more interesting. I even wrote an academic book called The Compleat Observer for researchers.
My observation led me to create scenarios for the people around me; their histories, current circumstances, ambitions, sexuality, psychologies… It had the effect of broadening the range of characterization which was later to prove handy when writing fiction. The best bit about it (since we humans love solving conundrums) was seeing whether predictions about people turned out to be true. Of course, among strangers this was rarely possible but during an evening an occasional hit made me grin to myself. “He is having an affair with a younger woman and is waiting nervously for her”. “He is going to be stood up.” “ She is sad and waiting for a friend to join her and commiserate.” On the other hand, the occasions when my predictions proved utterly wide of the mark, showed how I, like many I know, have inbuilt ways of seeing that belittle the potential of those around me. They weren’t sad. They were not poor. They could be massively extrovert.
This all adds up to understanding what stereotyping really is and how dangerous it is for the writer. It is far more than crude gender dichotomies, race, religion and so on, it is within us at all times and is part of the way that we construct the world. A novelist has the advantage that all the characters in his or her novels are as transparent as needs be even when they begin as strangers to the author and gradually, as the plot thickens, take on a flesh and blood reality with any number of subtle psychologies. We read books where only the main characters have any claim to be life-like. The rest have walk on parts and may not even be graced with a description or name. Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a lovely poke at how we write off minor characters by giving them a complex life beyond anything Shakespeare had decided for them.
So, the point of this little essay is to ask you whether you are caring for the whole of humanity in your fictional universe. To be fair to your characters (whether good or evil) have you said enough to make them sufficiently real to please the reader? Have you looked round the bar of your novel and given time to those you would once have ‘written off’’ without even knowing it?

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 22
What differentiates a professional writer from a writer, i.e. any literate individual? In the last blog I showed examples of how we must interfere with regular brain patterns to produce something worth reading as a fictional artefact. Just because everyone can run doesn’t mean that they are athletes worth entering for prizes and being watched by millions. Obviously, being a professional writer involves discriminating your text from the humdrum realities of every day communication. Under normal circumstances your brain is tuned to do the minimum required to accomplish any act. So – knitting is difficult at first and requires programming the brain to do pearl and plain and follow graphic patterns but soon you can knit and watch the television – or, during the French Revolution, watch heads roll under the guillotine. Knitting is relegated to an autonomous part of the brain.
Establishing a unique style that is communicative and expressive and draws readers into your world needs an interference with basic brain patterns, as I have said. Just as with knitting, editing our writing is extremely onerous and laborious at first. By being ruthless with our work, appraising every word, finding better similes and metaphors, cutting out flab and all the tiny acts of improvement in which we must engage, our writing becomes more honed and effective. And, like knitting, as we exercise our brain muscle and write in a disciplined way every day, we find the need for drastic editing actually diminishes. Our brains become configured to what becomes known as our ‘style’. This does not mean that editing becomes eliminated. Not at all. But it does mean that editing can concentrate on felicitous expression rather than the chopping away of crude surpluses. Raymond Carver, long regarded as the master of the concise short story, never mastered it. Latterly, it turns out that his unheralded editor did it. Whether true or not, the essence of the story is that it is in the editing that style is finally nailed to the page.
It took me three months to edit Azimuth, with professional help and I still find slight wrinkles that irk me.It took my alter ego, Eric le Sange, a month to do the same for The Strange Attractor.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle Amazon

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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 21
A further note on writing dialogue.
People speak with different sentence lengths or breaks, they use personal metaphors, their language varies in richness and substance yet much of what passes for speech in novels is barely differentiated. The writer often uses his characters to talk the plot along but not deepen our sense of individuality.
Trying to separate out characters has to be done via our descriptions of what they look like, what they wear and some account of how they speak. By doing this the writer builds a mental construct for each character and should enter that construct every time the character talks. Reading aloud what has been written helps to pinpoint what is different about the individual – particularly reading dialogue aloud with or to a friend.
From the reader’s perspective each character is signposted. A verbose person is easily differentiated from a brusque one, a child’s metaphor and simplicity of language from an adult’s, an individual’s acuity from a dunce’s denseness. Gradually, as empathy with each character becomes more easily experienced and transposed into text, dialogue takes on a robust strength and the writer finds that he or she does not need to scaffold conversation with constant descriptions of how the character is speaking or feeling (“he interjected angrily”, “she said sadly”, “he agreed amusedly” etc). As I pointed out in an earlier blog, once framed  a conversation can elicit much that you don’t need to put into words. Much of the time a question mark, a few dots or an exclamation mark delicately steers the reader through the conversation as though he or she is listening with a glass at the wall of a private chamber.
In The Strange Attractor I tried always to maintain the central character’s flip, Marlowesque speech patterns but diluted by his sense of impotence at events. In Azimuth I spent much of the time in female characters. Many of them and all different. It was a test to create speech patterns that served their profiles.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle Amazon 
Twitter @profjacksanger

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 20
There is a very appropriate zen tale of the centipede who is asked how he manages to coordinate all those legs and promptly falls into a ditch. Like the centipede we do a hundred things without ever questioning them.
It is very difficult and takes a great deal of diligence and practice to refashion your writer’s mind. Recent developments in cognitive psychology show that the brain is almost infinitely plastic which means that by adopting new habits and rituals we can reinforce new ways of seeing and doing. The other day I watched  a documentary as a young man, blind from eight years old, had become a bat. We saw him cycling down a road making a clucking sound and navigating by the echoes. He had realigned his brain so that he could see with his ears.
Think of writing first as an every day activity. We do it. We send emails, letters, fill forms, make lists. We sometimes edit them afterwards, if we feel they are significant enough and would represent us badly should we not do so.  In the same way that we might walk down a road and use the experience to give directions to others, the process tends to be shorthand and reductionist. We don’t convey the full experience of walking down the road. Writing can be like that. A sort of minimal communication of a story, bereft of richness and vibrancy. Are there ways of intervening with what has become a knee jerk process? I think so. To change the very structures of thinking involves doing things differently.
I stayed in the countryside one year and while there I became interested in writing a book of aphorisms for management, based upon zen conciseness and depth of meaning. The first took me two days. Days! Ten words. Fifty letters. Pre-Twitter! The second took me a day. The third took half a day and so on until I could write maybe five in a day. Two months and I had produced An A to Zen of Management. The fact was that I began to see words and meaning differently. My brain became retooled. Here are two examples:
Autonomy: an illusion, very material to motivation.
Coach: every king needs his fool.
Since then I started to tweet using the same newly shaped brain. Today, for instance:
Each person comprises many selves but rarely develops more than one; the perfect subsistence culture (@profjacksanger.com)
In Azimuth I adopted a horrendous new punctuation for speech. My editor threw up her hands in disgust. But by using it I found myself studying the nature of dialogue completely differently. Instead of some superfluous conversation, it attained at times (I hope) a touch of zen.
You can check all I say against the proof in my books!
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle Amazon

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 19
There is a much discussed cliché concerning writing. This relates to the difference between a hard day’s slog and a seemingly purple day’s outpouring. The received wisdom is that the dufference is too minimal to make a case for inspiration providing greater quality than perspiration. A good friend and well known writer once said to me that writing prose was like pulling teeth. It was painful, hard and sometimes he only wrote a half page in a day. He won the Whitbread prize for best novel of that year.  I tend to agree with the overall drift of the argument. Purple patches are wonderful for the writer but the reader may never discern which bits of a novel have been created in this way. When I edit my work I have no recall over what came like a dream and what was a struggle though I have had experience of quickly written pieces being more like colanders than sturdy vessels that hold sense properly. Of course poets like Coleridge stimulated their imagination with drugs to ensure the purple patch effect!
The upshot of all this is to write write write. Develop a ritualistic behaviour which ensures a discipline. I tell myself that if I write three hours or so every day, I can finish a book in six months to a year. A book a year seems a reasonable return. In the 40s writers like Edgar Wallace were spent up and drunk every Sunday, wrote a crime novel between Monday and Friday and started the process of obliteration all over again at the weekend. But writing so quickly has its drawbacks. Usually these relate to fissures in the plot.
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep had a major discrepancy in the plot, not discovered by readers but by film makers when they came to put it on the screen: a telegram was sent to Raymond Chandler asking him “who killed the chauffeur?” Chandler replied, “Damned if I know.” I suppose a little anxiety I suffer from concerns such an obvious flaw line in the narrative. While writing The Strange Attractor meant that I could revisit and cross check easily, it being just over 200 pages, Azimuth is 920 pages with innumerable characters and full of ‘seeding’ of alternate plot lines, as described in previous blogs. Hence the author’s alerts list I regard as a necessity.
If every writing day is like the last, your desk is left exactly how you last used it, you also abandoned your prose for the day knowing exactly what your next sentence and paragraph is going to be, then the discipline of writing is being properly supported. Some days will be much slower than others but when the smell of ink has dried and the reader take up your book, none of this will be apparent.

The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Kindle books, Amazon
www.azimuthtrilogy.com for a complete guide to Azimuth by Jack Sanger

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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 18
The convenience of an ‘alerts list’ at the bottom of your growing draft novel is not to be underestimated. Take this note I placed there while writing Azimuth. I had just conjured it up in an early part of the narrative and was so taken with it I copied it for later reference:
  “Find the she-worm and feed his flesh to her as he sleeps the sleep of truth.”
Two things about this. First, when I wrote it I did not fully understand it. The words came through my brain without touching the sides but they had a Blakian feel to them and were obviously an answer to an as yet undisclosed hazard facing Princess Sabiya and Kamil the Historian in the Second Journey. So I copied them on to my list of reminders of all the seeds I was sowing for later writing. Every time I continued the narrative involving these two characters my eye would glance down at this note to myself. I would reject utilising it many times, patiently waiting for the storyline to reach the point when the quote could be reinserted to drive the story line through its deepest waters.
These alerts are like faint pointers to the direction of travel. They are not strong enough to take hold of the story but by having them in your mind when you are writing they act like mild currents under your vessel. It is still for you to steer. So, the second thing to say about the invocational words I copied is that the imagination will write for you if you learn to let it. Some of the best and most timelessly magical bits of Azimuth came to me without knowing and challenged me to incorporate them in the text.
In case my references to Azimuth seem to suggest it is a fey genre novel about pixies and elves, it is no such thing. The reviews at http://jacksanger.com/reviewsmay dissuade you. So might me saying, “It is an adventure story full of danger to its characters and their search for answers to why they are alive.”

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 18
A reader has pointed out that my dichotomy of clay and lego to crudely divide approaches to writing are somewhat patronizing and imbalanced. That was not the intention. By clay I meant organically developed narratives where the writer is only one step ahead of the reader in understanding what is going on, while by lego I meant that much of literature is plugged together from familiar elements within a genre.  Maybe I should have used plasticine and meccano as metaphors, though those remembering that latter are fewer on the ground as each decade passes! The reader pointed out that the terms themselves are from a child’s world, not from an adult’s. I tried to defend myself by saying (did I wholly believe it?) that authors should have a child-like playfulness to be properly creative. Engaging with the construction of a novel is akin to entering a playroom, bursting with potential, eyes wide and trusting.
Actually, the reason we have genres in writing is because there forms are so appealing. Most successfully rich authors are those who mine a stratum of precious metal efficiently, satisfying their readers’ desire for certain verities; structural topographies, a range of characters, degrees of credibility and satisfying narratives.  It does not mean that they do not borrow from plasticine’s organic elements. Better still if their novels belong to a series where the reader feels s/he knows the chief protagonists and their relationships, traits and modus operandi. If clay is an art and lego is a craft, all writers will try to utilize some elements from each.
A reader’s review I had the other day regarding Azimuth (http://jacksanger.com/reviews) said she loved the trilogy but did not know much about the genre. This nonplussed me. What genre is it? By stipulating a genre it might be easier to market it to a specific audience but that would obviously be limiting, as well. Most writers would love a crossover hit of a novel that appeals to everyone at some level or other. Azimuth contains elements of fantasy, fable, modern philosophy, labyrinthine plotting and pulsating (!) adventuring. A one name genre title would surely be too restrictive.
I realize this blog has been less practical than I might have wished so will tether an useful insight to it.
Because I write organically myself, wondering where the next paragraph of a meal is coming from and because it is easy to forget detail as I progress through my novel’s circumlocutions, I constantly make notes about people, places and events at the bottom of my draft concerning what has just been written. These are seeds which alert me to what MUST be dealt with later, what facets of character might affect future behaviours, what puzzles must then be solved, what an environment looks like, the colour of hair and eyes, the skills and/or character defects of individuals. Once I have satisfied the reason for keeping this self-advisory note in my later writing, I scrub it. Thus, I try to ensure that there are no loose ends that will trip up the storyline. It is the novelist’s version of ‘continuity’ in film. This does not mean being too smartass neat and tidy at the end of a book but rather that the integrity of character and plot has been maintained throughout , even if there are still poignant questions hanging in the air at the end.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 17
What I ended up doing in the last blog, was show how complexity in characters’ profiles provides a springboard for a book to go in many directions. We can demonstrate this by looking within the action of your own tale. You have three characters. If each displays only one characteristic (thus being a cipher) then you have a maximum of three believable outcomes when they interact with each other, since each acts true to this trait.  If not the reader dumps the book because the characters’ behaviours aren’t credible. But take the same three characters and build into their profiles ambiguities, paradoxes, dark and light and there can be limitless potential in the products of their interaction.
So much depends upon the setting up and evolution of the characters in your story. The greater the depth, the greater the potential for rich progression as the story moves on. However, we must also realize that authors have their limits of tolerance as far as open-endedness is concerned. For some, too much ambiguity and range can easily lead to writer’s block as they become swamped by infinite possibility. Finding the right balance between character depth and plot imperative is at the heart of a long piece of writing. I suppose we have to establish our ambition. We can earn our way in any of a number of genres by tamping down our characters just enough to augment but not impede the pace of the narrative. We can make them credible with rough brush strokes because readers of genre fiction have in-built tolerances themselves and have a less exacting expectation of character development. But if we take upon ourselves a higher brow ambition, then characters will vie with plot for which has the greater significance.  There are many great examples of  novels and plays which are practically plotless from the usual physical and geographical action perspectives but whose narratives are entirely concerned with evolving psychosocial relationships between protagonists. Becket, Joyce, Kafka and many more subverted the need for traditional plot lines in favour of exploring in the greatest depth, character. Authors must temper literary ambition with an awareness of personal capability. Books take a long time to write.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 16
Let me pursue this question of character complexity. What I said in the last blog was that those that people our pages, to be life-like, have to have shades of dark and light. There is a unique moral colour chart for everyone and it includes sin and evil. What is revealed it is a consequence of circumstance. So, even if you create a totally virtuous being as a character, he or she will only be believable against a backdrop of the mixed morality of those around him or her and similarly with a character who is wholly evil. Such completely exceptional natures must become a central focus to a novel or not be there at all. You just can’t sell a novel with a cast list where everyone is a monochrome figure. That is usually the stuff of comics, propaganda or puppetry. So think seriously about how you might explore right and wrong through the messy profiles that people actually have in life rather than by a crude simplification of character. To be enriched by the experience of a novel means that the reader leaves it believing they have had an experience which makes life more comprehensible and even a touch more manageable. A book is a vicarious and unique experience for each reader.
In Azimuth, one of my central characters kills frequently at first but over the course of the trilogy the regularity of death decreases as he gains a moral direction. Establishing this as main plot construct makes it attendant upon me to present him at first as a man in whom empathy for others is just a putative trait among many such as courage and honesty but one which grows through experience to dominate his profile. Each time he kills his internal conflict grows over his actions. To make this psychological tension vibrant, every death must be described uniquely, the nature of death itself explored and the impact on this character’s further experiences built in to the succeeding narrative. As readers we must not be able to predict when or, indeed, whether he will transcend his upbringing and gain enlightenment. Azimuth is a saga and has dozens of characters, from walk-on parts to those that affect the direction of the story line significantly. What I tried to do with each was provide enough ambiguity in the profile of each so that the maximum number of possible actions was open to every one of them. If you establish this as your modus operandi as an author, your plot becomes pregnant with continuous possibility. But if your characters are single trait ciphers, unpredictability  and tension will not haunt your pages.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com
twitter@profjacksanger

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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 15
The question of having characters as ciphers or as complex human beings who beguile, infuriate, seduce, anger, irritate and illuminate the reader in turns is crux. In much of fast food literature, written to formula whether bodice rippers, blood rippers, space trippers or crime grippers, women may be depicted in short authorial shrift. They fulfill the roles of victim, sex partner, wife or mother against a generally greyed out background to the fast narrative. Likewise, men have their stereotypical roles in this range of fiction as victims, progenitoirs of evil, husbands, killers and so on. The more formulaic the genre, the less human characters usually are. Descriptions of them are rarely truly interesting because the writer hopes that the imagination of the reader will fill in the flesh where it is missing.
The reason Dexter is such fine TV is that the hero (!) is a serial killer with whom we can identify. The complexity of his character and motivation is so multi-layered that we catch ourselves wanting him to get away with yet another macabre act and, as a consequence, wondering about the dark sides of our own natures. It is viscerally funny and poignant, disgusting and sentimental and utterly riveting. Clearly a writer can write about anything, no matter how taboo but getting away with it is another matter. By that I mean, inveigling the reader into a world he or she never normally occupies, making it familiar and then building identification with the characters’ struggles, therein.
Why characters have to have complexity is because it allows the writer to explore the unexpected. If, in formulaic writing, a character commits an idiosyncratic act that cannot be explained by depth of character, then that act is not credible to the reader. All of us buy books to suspend our disbelief. The writer, like any stage magician, does this through complex layers of human psychology in his or her cast list.
To tie this up to previous blogs, books are mostly about people in extraordinary circumstances in which they have sex, kill, love, hate, are terrorized by reality or otherwise, go to war, abuse their loved ones, engage in magical journeys… The humdrum is not what we are seeking when we pick up a book in a bookshop.  That is the place from which we may want to escape! Generally we want to know why these characters have got where they are and how they are going to navigate what is in front of them. The more we feel we know them, the better we believe it.
It is a necessary exercise to look at your book in its first full draft and take each main character through the interweaving plot. Are you creating a wafer thin profile? Are you ensuring there is no ambiguity or paradox in this person? Are you limiting his or her power to surprise us by transcending misfortune in some noble way? Can we understand and find credible the wonderful and terrible things characters do, equally? 

Can we identify with them, full stop.

I was asked at the launch of Azimuth (I did it here in Accra) after I’d done a couple of readings, with whom of my characters did I identify most, as the author. I said every one of them, even the most pathological of the killers and the most pure of those seeking self-knowledge. But, if pushed, I would choose the manipulative and occasionally heartless sixteen year old heir to an empire. That’s writing for you – a male writer, nearly seventy years old, creating a sixteen year old mixed race Persian princess who has become as real to him as any close friend.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 14
To bridge this blog to the last two, let me state that sex and death are inextricably linked in much writing because they are in life. The French call an orgasm un petit mort, as if to emphasise the point. In the BBC series about the neurotic, fat psychoanalyst who helps police solve cases by profiling killers, Cracker, the overweight fellow often refers to the buzz that killers get from killing which makes them want sex before and after murder. I met a Frenchman once who was elated because he had knocked down and killed someone. Now he had achieved this particular ambition in his life. Yet in much of writing, apart from high literature’s deep psychological studies, killing is almost an afterthought. It is wham bam and on to the next scene. When victims are mere ciphers and killers show little thought to death owing to the writer’s pen, then you begin to wonder. Are you writing a superhero comic, a run of the mill crime novel or something which educates and informs? There will be many future blogs on the issue of complexity, moral or otherwise so that’s enough for the moment except to say that all good writing must rest upon the author’s empathy with his or her characters, good or evil.
Azimuth’s three volumes depict, among other things, the gradually changes in a heroic figure as he comes to terms with killing. In this trilogy he deals with (and deals out) death easily at first but begins to realize the enormity of what he has been doing. Meanwhile the historian, Kamil, who has written the hero’s history, also kills under a strange force that leaves him powerless to do otherwise.
Kamil stared at the  dripping blade in his hand and a coldness swept his body followed by a momentary exultation which, later, he could not fathom.  Was it the relief at his survival or the fact that he had killed for the first time?  
You will have to read the books to follow the way that the characters’ experiences change their inner pathologies but nowhere in the book is death taken lightly. Because I, as a writer, have a repugnance for killing, whether by individuals or states, every act of death is a challenge to me to understand the act and empathise with BOTH killer and killed. I don’t want my idealism to result in proseltysing because the reader would see that as a sermon and not true to the awkward and contradictory nature of human profiles. As I said above, as writers we can attempt to understand complexity or we can play by established formulas and do little to advance the cause of human enlightenment.
Buy Azimuth at:
or download from kindle as an e-book

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 13
More nuts and bolts about sex, if that is not being too euphemistic! And euphemisms, metaphors and similes are often at the heart of scenes of physical intimacy.
Having discussed people’s sneering at hyperbole in the last blog, it may help in the writing of sex scenes to consider two steps. First, determine whether such a scene helps the plot along by being so explicitly detailed or should you make only passing reference to it. Does it deepen our understanding of our characters and therefore make plausible the scrapes they get into? The second step is attendant upon the first. Having decided you must explore how this flesh, blood, heart and mind activity affects character and plot development, play with the following (by no means exhaustive) strategies and see which works best for you: 
1               Write from the outside as though you are a forensic biologist
2               Write from the outside as though you are a Martian
3               Write from the outside but focus on one element of the act in such a way as to convey the whole
4               Write from inside the heads of one or both of the participants
5               Write from the physical reality of participants
6               Write from the emotional reality of participants
Meanwhile, use a thesaurus and try to provide a rich variety of terms for parts of the body and the convulsive acts, themselves.
As I inferred in the last blog, we are all possible experts in the basics of sex but the way we engage with others is unique. For a sex scene to be successful in your novel it might  educate, excite, challenge, amuse, create identification, surprise, induce longing. However, overriding everything, at the conclusion of it we should know more about the psychology of the participants. We shouldn’t feel that the writing was gratuitous or formulaic but that the writer navigated all the pitfalls rather adroitly, unusually and even – poetically.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

The Art of Writing No 12
It seems like a lot of you are now following these meandering blogs about writing. I have spent most of my life as a writer, both academic and fictional and there is much to pass on, be it idiosyncratic and personal. However, there must be much that is generalisable, should you take it and extrapolate it into your own context. Being a series of random acts, these insights are just how they arise in my mind. Maybe later I will order and refine them into a manual and put them on kindle for free.
Anyway, sex.
I wrote recently on twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/Profjacksanger) The pen penetrates the blank page in an act of copulation and the cells of the story begin multiplying.  In a Freudian sense, sex is in everything we do. If men think of it every ten seconds and women not quite so much, it must infiltrate (or inseminate) our writing. Nevertheless it still has an aura of taboo for the writer. How to describe the physical, emotional and intellectual consequences of such intimacy? Like fingerprints, everyone has sex as part of his or her make-up but, like fingerprints, the experience of it is unique.  So we are aware, when we write about the sexual act that if we over-indulge, people will scoff and if we take Wittgenstein’s view (that which cannot be spoken of, should be passed over in silence) the reader knows we are copping out. What kind of writers are we then?
Overwriting is a bit like Hitchcock discovering Freudian imagery in the sixties. Towers rising and falling, trains rushing into tunnels, shoals of little fish thrashing about. Hyperbole and sex don’t seem to go together. Sex-writing, like everything else, should be conditioned by the relationships and the setting in which it takes place. If the couple have an edgy relationship then does sex between them smooth out or intensify the edginess? Sex in a luxurious hotel may be very differently described from sex in a back alley or in the domestic bedroom where it has taken place hundreds of times and can show the break down of a relationship or, indeed, the rejuvenation of one.
So, when it comes to writing about sex, you must spend far more time on getting it right than when describing other human acts or scenery. Here’s something I wrote in The Strange Attractor (Kindle e-books Amazon):
“On the chair,” says your pleading voice between the probing tongue strokes in my ear. It stands waiting, a deus ex machina of odd limbs in the centre of the room. And now I am almost silent in my gorging as you fill all my horizons. You speak and croon to me in barely intelligible growls and moans. You are astride me and your naked thighs are rising upon me. The chair tips precipitously and my limbs strain into delicious pain as I hold you mid air so that you can let reason go and make your animal instincts blot out all logic. Your pincering internal muscles grip me and work on me as I bend to your breasts and lay hand and mouth to your nipples. Finally, we ride together, sound-tracked by your jolting whimpers, into a temporary eyes-shut darkness.
Does it do what I have said? Does it capture some aspect of the womanising male detective’s character? (He is the ‘I’, the first person narrator of the story). Is it sufficiently unique? Does the setting of the chair, an art piece installation, promote enough of an environmental difference? You could of course download the book and enjoy all of Ted Silver’s sexual and other exploits!
The Strange Attractor by Jack Sanger Kindle Amazon

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Art of Writing No 11
What I have found useful in developing plot lines is as follows. Given that in these blogs I crudely dichotomise writers into two camps, lego and clay, let me  look at how narratives are developed in each. Plot lines of the clay type writer are a little more mysterious than those of the lego. For the clay writer they are much more organic and evolve from an alchemical mix of characters’ psychology, previous action and the environment. There is a sense of the plot unfolding as the heady mix of interactions go on. To some extent you are at the behest of the characters that you have created, their will being stronger than your (maybe) desire to control them and speak through them! On the other hand, lego writers like to create a predestined pattern or formula for their plots, particularly in, say, crime fiction. What both camps desire is that the ending of a narrative cannot be guessed until it happens, whether this means that the guilty party is revealed or that an illumination of character and circumstance occurs which makes the foregoing plot line suddenly translucent.
The problem we have as writers is that we plagiarise unwittingly (if we are honourable!) and so it is easy for the reader to latch on to what has become a plot cliché. We borrow from films, books, the internet, news stories without realizing it.
So – before you go too far, whether you are clay or lego, ask yourself whether you can remember anything similar to the events you are portraying and, if so, scratch out and start again. Horrible to do. I have said on Twitter that writing is an addiction but editing is cold turkey! (@profjacksanger.com)You may have to take extreme measures to make your plots unique but also believable. Some writers begin with an extraordinary ending and then work towards it, some write bits of plot and character on study cards and then riffle them and try to cohere the new pattern of events. Some set up a group of characters and then introduce an act of god to see how they will behave.
I don’t see myself as a crime writer but have one book of that genre on kindle under the pseudonym Eric le Sange. In it I use a little knowledge of chaos theory and work out how a Private Dick solves crimes utilizing it. By this introduction of a novel detection technique both plot and character become different. Add to that the notion of a womanizing detective who is shamed  and blamed by most of the women he meets and a richness evolves. Good luck!
www,azimuthtrilogy.com
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange, kindle e-books, Amazon

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Monday, April 9, 2012

The Art of Writing No 10
Having a writer’s block is like having a terrible on-going organic ailment to the writer, particularly to the artist whose self-value is almost totally and inextricably tied up with the need to express himself or herself in words. How we live and how we die is a conundrum we try to solve (or evade) throughout our lives and the writer attempts it by giving birth to poems, novels and short stories which allow the reader glimpses through to vast panoramic insights into his or her existence. It can act as a tombstone (albeit one with rather a long epitaph!).
So not to write for such people is akin to a disease. Let’s call it stultification. Everything from the mind to the pores in the skin and the various other orifices of discharge, appear bunged up. What to do?
Here are one or two solutions for this, in no particular order, for the more major issues in blockedness (I dealt with incipient writer’s block in the last blog):
1               Ignore any thought about the entirety of a piece of work and just write, write write whatever, drivel through to well coined phrases. Every day. Perspiration eventually leads to inspiration. It is astonishing how you can suddenly find yourself in the groove and all you have to do is dump the meandering introductory riffs. It is also astonishing how themes emerge this way and your apparent discrete elements become cohered.
2               If the block is in the middle of your work, write the ending. Or write character descriptions for later. Don’t allow a silence to grow between your tapping keys and the screen, or pencil tip and paper. Stay with it. Trust it and your brain will come up trumps.
3               Organise your desk so there are no distractions. I always do this at the end of one project and the beginning of another. A spring clean, including the  desktop on the computer.
4               Attend to outside constraints (relationships, jobs, friends, environment can all lead to lower self-worth and a sense that you have nothing to say. You MUST give yourself the licence to do both write and sort out. Strike a bargain with yourself. Sorting out elements in your life will give you the reward of writing. Sort out writing and the joy of fulfillment spreads into your every day life.)
5               Take a notebook everywhere. Allan Ahlberg, the children’s writer, a life long close friend, makes notes everywhere he goes. Snippets of conversation. Paradoxes in adverts. Phrases used by writers he admires. Malcolm Bradbury, once my writing supervisor, wrote much of The History Man  and Eating People is Wrong by ducking into the toilet and scribbling down what academics were saying at parties. Never forget to write down an idea as it happens to you. Afterwards it could turn from diamond to paste in your memory, if not.
6               Think small and allow the big idea to materialize as a book progresses. In Azimuth, I wrote a short story about the birth of an extraordinary child in pre-Buddha days. Then another. Then I began to realize this was a biography of an early thinker…920 pages later, full of strange fables, adventures, illuminations, the book is out on show…
After writing Azimuth a lot of people asked me what I was going to do, knowing that the book had taken ten years to write. What I did was take my own advice. I began writing whatever came into may head. Suddenly I realized why I was writing and what the story actually was. A neat (I hope) novella emerged with a satisfying kick at the end, called Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story. The title is a quote from The Lady of Shallot… and will be on Kindle shortly.

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Art of Writing No 9
How do you leave your writing each day? Have you a tendency to writer’s block? In Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance by Pirsig there is a great vignette in which a student is unable to write, set the task of describing a building. The teacher tells the student to focus on a wall, then a line of bricks, then a single brick. The student begins to write. You may have to develop your own rituals but here is advice I gave to my many PhD students.
Never leave your notebook or computer (whatever medium you use) at the end of a chapter, paragraph or even sentence if you feel that you are completing a train of thought. The full stop that you insert at this point is tantamount to inviting writer’s block if you suffer from it. Instead, leave your writing in the middle of a flow where you can be more or less certain that you can pick it up again and continue with the sentence and paragraph. For example, in the middle of a description of a person, scenery or an event. When you come back you can complete it easily and on you go. Our brains have what is to come all ready and waiting if they are given the right signposts on the route of travel.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Art of Writing No 8
What’s in a name? A rose is a rose is a rose.
We are superstitious about names. Our personal histories are such that we attach significance to names for good or ill. We may scour books for the meaning of names before we register our children. We believe these names go back to antiquity and that they affect the character of the person, once the appellation is designated. All this may or may not be true. There are, in the case of my own name, good Jacks and bad Jacks. I remember being somewhat mortified by William Golding (one of the best writers in English in my reading experience) naming the sinister boy who undermines human virtue in Lord of the Flies, Jack. Why? Perhaps because Jack is a diminutive of John, the commonest name and he was intending to show that there is evil in us all.
Choosing names for characters in books can be a matter of instinct but then again, if you are to plunge into the history of names it may guide your development of characters on the page. In Azimuth I did a rare thing. I researched. Because there are so many characters in the trilogy, I wanted each to be defined further by what might lie implicitly beneath the surface of his or her name. This is because I believe, in the Jungian sense, that names act within us at an unconscious level. They are multi-layered with meaning accreted through the ages.
Take my three central characters, spread over the 920 pages; Kamil, Sabiya and Sharazad. Kamil, the middle-aged historian’s name means ‘perfect’ and in Azimuth he is God fearing and proper, always trying to aspire to goodness. Sabiya, on the other hand means eastern wind or morning. In Azimuth she represents  a new kind of woman, mixed race and manipulatively intelligent. Sharazad, her daughter, on the other hand, means ‘story teller’ as in 1001 Nights, a highly influential book for me because it contains two narratives, one encompassing the other and Azimuth follows the same kind of structure. By naming my characters I was also giving them an endowment to be that kind of person and it helped them to navigate idiosyncratically through the adventures that befell them. They ceased to be ciphers but flesh and blood to me.
(www.azimuthtrilogy.com)

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 7
Possibly one of the most irritating idiosyncrasies a reader has to put up with is the spattering overuse of “he said”, “she said” or “replied”, “retorted”, “interjected” and so on. I am not saying that they should not be used, far from it, but in dialogue they should be used initially to determine who is speaking and then sparingly thereafter.
Let me develop this further. Two people are talking. You have set the scene, as discussed in the last blog, so the reader has a picture of where the two characters are situated and one speaks and the other replies. From then on, if the dialogue is sharp, maintaining the characteristics of each of them, we do not need to be directed as to who is now speaking because the dialogue tells us everything. We know the speaker from the ping pong flow of their communication.
Here is an extract from Azimuth. Note how all the elements discussed above come into play. There are sections in my trilogy where whole pages are just dialogue and (I understand from feedback) are perfectly easy to follow:
Kamil pronounced his next words quietly, for emphasis, -It means a release from your petty pilfering and the attentions of the palace guard, a life reborn in another place where none know you. Now tell me why I have brought you here, do you think? Kamil levelled his eyes at the man so that they flashed behind his mask.
-I cannot say. They came in the night, the monks, and wrapped me in that blanket and took me to a cell, then brought me here blind to the world. For what reason I know not.
-I ask you once more. Why you? What have you done?
The man’s eyes were downcast. He still shook spasmodically, -I had thought all my debts were paid and now it is as if I have done naught..
-What debts?
-For stealing from the soldiers’ kitchen. It was wrong but my wife and child were without-
-And?
-A palace guard was spying on me. It must be so because I was too careful for it to be happenchance. He gave me a choice. He would cut off my right hand unless I did a certain thing about which I must say nothing.
-He gave you three names and told you to go to the captain of the guard with them. You were to say that you saw them meet the Princess’s maid.
The prisoner looked bemused and blurted out, -In the palace garden. You knew this already?
(www. azimuthtrilogy.com)

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Art of Writing No.6
To give a narrative authenticity the reader should be able to locate himself or herself  in the environment in which the characters play out their dramas. Whether this is a vast landscape of forests, plains or deserts or whether it is it is the interior of a single room, it is as well to think of the five senses and how you might prioritise them. Landscapes are brought alive visually first and then there is sound, smell and lastly touch and taste. An interior can be made to produce a whole range of emotive reactions by giving ascendency to senses such as smell and touch. Thus you can make it claustrophobic or warm and embracing, cold and lifeless, decaying or alien. By imagining yourself inside the character’s mind, how does this person navigate the environment you have created? Indeed, why have you chosen this environment? How does it further your tale? My editor pointed out to me that landscapes were like extra characters in Azimuth. The characters interacted with them and they played their part in adding tensions and volition to the narrative. So, if the location is to be a character in your plot, you cannot make it blurry and inconsequential. It must be substantial, four dimensional and provide challenges and aids to your characters. There must be enough detail of its effects on the senses to be believable and to persuade the reader that he or she is right there, for good or ill.
(www.azimuthtrilogy.com)

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 5
In general when learning your craft, it is better to simplify your expression. Long sentences exacerbate difficulties in a reader’s cognition (particularly the young, brought up in byte-sized management of information). Paring down your words to the minimum a la Samuel Beckett, removing adjectives and erasing all repetitions of nouns, will inform you as to whether you have conveyed the maximum information in the minimum number of words. Then, as you redraft, you can add what is needed to round out characters or give telling substance to the environment which sustains them.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 4
So, you have written a gripping first sentence or two for the browsing buyer in the bookshop but books get published by publishers and that means sending the first three chapters and a synopsis of the plot of the book to an agent. Hardly any publishers are interested in looking at new work, even from established writers and prefer the agent to do the wheat from chaff processing. It feels wrong, I know, to have to desecrate your work by amputating it in this way. 
For what it’s worth, agents are not necessarily that bright. They have fixed ideas of what sells, they want to do as little work as possible for maximum financial returns and that means often making crass decisions that nearly precluded Lord of the Flies, Harry Potter or Watership Down ever being published. So we can all curse and spit on their graves – but take heart, I suspect the democratising effects of the internet e-readers will level the playing filed eventually.
Having said all that, the first three chapters need consideration. Given that your opening sentence gambit presents a definite come on, then what follows must help to accentuate the reader’s curiosity. My advice is to get into plot as fast as you can and keep your long descriptions of people and places until later. I know that if you are a clay writer this can be difficult since you feel you are channelling your creativity from your unconscious realms but there it is. The fishing analogy is that many fish don’t bite on the hook straight away but need ‘playing’. Of course if you are the son or daughter of Dickens then your long descriptive opening is a lure all on its own. But its best we don’t have such high personal opinions!
Being brief at the beginning also serves two other purposes; the first being that the reader can exercise more imagination the less you attempt to nail everything and the second is that the discipline of saying as much as possible in as few words, carries you through the book. It becomes part of your style.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Act of Writing No. 3
How do you start a novel? You know yourself that when you go into a bookshop you will pick up books, maybe look at the dust covers and, more likely than not, read the first paragraph of the first chapter. Then you will dump it – unless…something arrests you, something which is like the shard of a hologram in that it encapsulates the possibilities and potential of the whole story to follow. It can be cryptic:
Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick)
It can be fulsome:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. (A Tale of Two Cities)

But, however you start it must not fail the test of the first few seconds’ glance in the bookshop. For those of you who are clay writers, the first line may have come to you before the novel really began to register in its full glory. For those of you who are lego writers, you may have written the entire book and then gone back to the beginning and thought to yourself, “what’s a good way to start all this…”
Here is how I started Azimuth. What do you think? (It came to me after I began the first chapter. I realised I wanted to take the reader immediately into the head of the historian who recounts the Tales of the Magus).
If a man could be said to be constructed from the tools of his work, then Kamil was just such a man. He laboured with pen and paper and from them he built history. His flesh was as dry and pale as bleached parchment, his blood so dark it could have been extracted from crushed beetles and yet his intelligence was as sharp as the knife he used to give edge to his quills. If in total he could be thought of as a book, it would be a thick, learned, heavily annotated leather-bound tome, with a simple modest title and his name in small letters beneath. And it would gather dust, rarely read except by other scholars, in the Great Library.
www.azimuthtrilogy.com
http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0934311.html

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Art of Writing No. 2

Novelists of the clay kind may begin with a great first sentence, a single idea, something overheard, a personal itch or trauma – whatever – and it becomes like grit in the oyster forcing the imagination to create a pearl. Novelists of the lego kind like to gather a mass of data in which to immerse themselves; historical events, genre expectations, real life scenarios, technical detail etc and cut and paste them into a narrative. Whereas the clay type grows the novel, through accretion, allowing characters to form and plot lines to develop as they will, lego types sculpt from the mass that they have collected, obeying self-imposed rules to maintain consistency and characters to further the plot. William Golding tended to read one book on factual information so that he could get jargon, terminology right for verisimilitude in his sea trilogy whereas Luther Blisset in Q had a mountain of data relating to the reformation. In some senses the clay type is homeopathic in approach while the lego type if allopathic. While, as has been noted in the first blog, the one bleeds into the other, pick up any piece of fiction and you can show quickly whether the author is clay or lego oriented.

I am a clay writer: www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Act of Writing No. 1
I thought I’d write a series of blogs about writing. Having just published a three volume historical fiction called Azimuth that has taken ten years and 920 pages, maybe I have something to pass on to those who wish to follow literary careers. (For the validity of my thoughts you can see for yourself at www.azimuthtrilogy.com)
Where does a writer start? Basically there is a dichotomy between clay and lego. If you are clay then your work is organic and you write to see what happens, everything unfolds and you have the feeling that the work is channeled through you. The end can be as much a surprise to you as to the reader. If you are lego then you adopt certain formulae. You immerse yourself in the expectations of a genre, you plan the plot line, you assemble the characters and you plug all the pieces together in a satisfactory whole.
If you are clay then the danger is in becoming rambling, unfocused and with no tension to your narrative. If you are lego then the danger is that your work is creaky and mechanical. You can see from this that to be successful and take the reader on a ride that keeps the pages turning avidly, clay needs to borrow a little from lego and lego needs to borrow a little from clay. A novel must please. In The Act of Creation, Koestler talks about the punch line in a joke. If it’s good we laugh out loud, pleased to have been brought to this happy conclusion. Books are more long winded than jokes, of course, but the same emotive element should endure through their pages. We must feel that reading has been worthwhile, we have experienced the unexpected and we have learned a little by proxy.

What kind of writer am I? www.azimuthtrilogy.com

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dead sure about doomsday

Another prophet like so many of his fellows has proven inadequate to forecasting accurately ‘the end of days’.  Instead of mass extinction last week, those of us who have not yet succumbed to natural wastage are readying ourselves for the next doomsday pronouncement, the very big one on December 21st 2012.  Soothsayers, exactly like the rest of us, have been dropping like flies for centuries suffering desultory demises long after the much promised final moment. Over their lives their apocryphal ambiguities will have hit the occasional mark in the manner of shot from scatterguns.  Because one or two pellets strike the target it foments their followers to dance and gibber, express themselves in tongues, while failing or not wishing to see that the vast bulk of lead shot is littering a still living landscape.
How do these would-be shamans magnetise their disciples?  I suppose there are many among us who wish to be saved from the horrors of mortality and would rather believe in a bizarre salvation than the occupation of a mundane slab in the mortuary.  Others, with exalted thoughts above their station, fall for the notion of being ‘chosen ones’, notwithstanding the fact that all supplicants of all religions have this as a germinating notion at the root of their belief.  For others it might just represent a sublimation of  suicidal tendencies.  Better being part of a mass rapturous exit than a solitary one from a ledge or a bridge.  Or is it for some that life is dull and this represents excitement in an otherwise nondescript existence and they are attracted by the buzz of projected mayhem like rubberneckers at a traffic accident up ahead?
Whatever, the fact is that anyone prone to prophesying, no matter how crass and transparently unbelievable he or she appears to the majority, will gather adherents.  Most of us are gullible and impressionable given the right circumstances no matter how much we might uphold rationality as our banner, as can be witnessed by the number of atheists and lapsed believers who recant on their deathbeds.  The spectre of death drives us into many a strange realm.
“I have seen the future and it is very much like the present, only longer.” Khelog Albran (The Profit).

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Death Divining Device

There is some interesting news today and long overdue, particularly if you are a science fiction reader.  For the measly sum of 400 pounds (a thousand cedi) you can undergo a simple test that gives you an indication of how much longer you are going to grumble and stumble your way across the planet!  Apparently chromosomes have little dangly bits which erode over time.  By checking the rate of wear a calculation will tell you how much life you have left in your carcass.  Though, as yet, the dangly bits cannot be lengthened, it is believed that their rate of decrease can be slowed by not harbouring the usual suspects of booze and fags, fast food and couch potato inertia.

This could change society as we know it, Captain.  Insurance companies could insist on the test before taking you on as a client, businesses may wish to see how long you can be reasonably seen to be employable, future wives and husbands might want to see if you are all flash and no stamina and you, yourself may wish to have conclusive proof that you should change your ways or get some living in before the great day.

Our western societies run on a strange premise and that is that you don’t know when you are going to die.  This ignorance insulates you from having truly to explore your natures with that concentration that comes at the prospect of your hanging.  Your relationships with near and dear as well as those you just about put up with would change dramatically as the dangly bits are seen to have all but disappeared.  The youthful, irresistible force of a personal belief in immortality which lasts well into middle age for most of us, will weaken until you are faced with the bare facts of the end being nigh.

Will you be more caring and empathetic to others, eschewing war and territorialism or will you become greedier for pleasure and riches and develop little instinct to love your neighbour?

The choice is yours – for 400 pounds.

 

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Black Hole of Islamabad

Continuing  the theme of asking how it is possible to square the assassination of Osama Bin Laden with the US’s avowed intent of exporting democracy and the principles of a justice which is universal and does not discriminate between rich and poor, I see that the American administration is cementing its story that there was ‘no alternative’ to the killing.  Obviously this is a nonsense.  Releasing pictures of Obama and the war cabinet viewing what amounts to a ‘snuff movie’ merely underlines the event as a global advertising campaign for the assurance that American vengeance will prevail everywhere.  In fact there were several senators who concurred openly with Obama on that score.  Far from being the least bad scenario in terms of its consequences for peace and harmony between creeds and races in the world, its very calculated and atavistic nature will enrage and incite those for whom life amounts to a jihad against anyone who is different from them.
I watched a programme on black holes the other night and there is a growing number of scientists who believe that there is a black hole nestling in the centre of our planet, having its most demonstrable effect on the Bermuda trench and the Marianna trench, resulting in the mysterious Bermuda Triangle history and the same heap of weird occurrences on exactly the opposite side of the Earth.  In fact the suggestion is that there are black holes everywhere, the biggest nearby being the super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.  Apparently our little, local one still packs a punch and could be having effects upon tectonic plates, volcanoes, weather patterns, the ocean flows and all else.  One of the outcomes of this likelihood is the theory that the constant creation of new life forms results from a physically changing earth.  The supreme violence of black holes leads to the birth of new possibilities.
No doubt Obama, who seems a straight fellow in most ways despite a certain religiosity that does not sit well with me, hopes that by exporting his own black hole into the centre of Pakistan, something creative will emerge from the act.  But what?  Stretching my mind I cannot embrace any likely good.  Instead, as with the Bermuda Triangle, all I see are more anomalous disasters, planes coming down, ships sinking, buildings, dams, railways lines, airports blown up.  The problem for Obama is that what he has precipitated and witnessed is in complete contradiction to his rhetoric.  He cannot now ever be a Ghandi or a Christ or a Buddha figure.  He has, like Macbeth, stepped too deep in blood to ever redress his extreme act and find redemption.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

To Kill A Mocking Bin Laden


I remember liking a film starring Paul Newman, called Hombre.  The scene which stuck in my mind was when the baddie takes off his weapons and goes to face Newman (white man brought up by Indians and despised because of it) who, nevertheless, is protecting stage coach passengers who hold exactly those racist attitudes towards him.  There is some verbal interplay where Newman refuses to bargain with the outlaw.  The outlaw eventually says he’s returning to his men.  Newman smiles and asks him why he thinks that is going to happen – and then shoots him.  For me it was my first example of a number of films where the hero ditches a code of honour and does the improbable – if you like to believe in fairness, justice and the right to a trial.  In fact, last night I was watching yet another episode of Homicide, Life on the Streets (by the team that went on to make The Wire, that beacon of confused and tangled morality, and currently, in season five, one of the detectives is under pressure because he killed a very unsavoury drug dealer and murderer when he could have taken him in.  Like Dirty Harry films, he believes that the villain will not see justice in the liberal courts.

So it is with mild surprise that I have not heard or seen anything in the media which challenges the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  He could be one of the worst villains around from the West’s point of view, whatever he and his followers believe to be justifiable in their acts but it raises the question of assassination being suddenly regarded as lawful (in David Cameron’s terms and acceptable).  Is it?  Obama gives the nod, watching streamed images of the attack and there is no jury, just a group of gawping politicians and soldiers.  Isn’t most western law so framed as to try murderers through an impartial judicial system? The problem for the Americans and liberal consciences everywhere is that by disregarding it, it brings the whole political game into disrepute.  Shooting an unarmed man in cold blood.  It justifies everything the Israeli death squads do around the world, the Russians, the Pakistani Mumbai terrorists, Chechnyans, Middle Eastern dictators, African state militaries, secret services everywhere.  If you can’t draw a line in the sand over such a high profile killing, then how can we uphold international law?

I am not sure we can use the excuse that to let him live until he is tried and hung like Saddam Hussein would have caused more terrorism.  If you are going to export notions of democracy to the world, there have to be hard and fast rules.  Haven’t there?

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Saturday, May 7, 2011


Spy-ders and webs of intrigue

I watched yet another programme about the end of the world happening on December 21st 2012, according to the Mayan calendar, the patterns in the I Ching, Chinese astrology, Revelations in the Bible, a variety of soothsayers and some scientists who say that the earth, the sun and the black hole at the centre of our galaxy are in alignment for the first time for 25,000 years which could lead to the poles reversing and untold doom.  I’d seen it all before and there is a part of every person prone to a hysterical flash of deep fear when presented with the presentiment of his own death, never mind all of humankind.  That having passed, there was a piece of evidence that I had not seen before and which lingered when calmness returned.

Apparently, by using spiders – search programmes – that run around the web, information can be gathered of even the tiniest import, which gives something like an accurate projection of events and when they will occur.  It began (naturally) as a means of forecasting the stock market (crashes in particular) and moved on to political, environmental and social events.  What I thought was intriguing was that the programmers believe that their spiders create a zeitgeist-like understanding of macro events because they are linked in to the combined consciousness of everyone who uses the internet.  Very close to Jung’s idea of a universal unconscious which he believed we tap into for our visions, dreams, innovations and creations.  Anyway, the spiders also say that December 21st 2012 is human race ground zero.  Of course they must be gathering all the other prognostications listed above in their travels around data topography which itself must be influencing millions of internet browsers but even so, it was a new perspective on doom.

No doubt these spiders or spybots are used extensively by all intelligence units throughout the world.  Every nation wants an economic, social or political edge never mind a military one.  But I have not read that the banks who brought us into economic ruin have been subject to our web creepy crawlies.  Of course not.  They are above rigorous investigation as are their auditors.  They eat and drink at the same troughs are our political masters and leaders of multinational companies, move across international borders with impunity and gamble the day and night away.  Wouldn’t it be good if a spider-handler did a wikileaks on them and we were given some illumination into the murky world of the hidden controllers of human destiny?   

At least until December 21st 2012!

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011


In the name of justice…

Well, it’s been a week of it!  Two billion watching the Royal Wedding just as they had when Princess Diana was the then royal bimbo of choice.  The War Cabinet in the White House watching Bin Laden being blasted off this mortal coil by a US assassination squad, Pope Paul passing Go towards beatification with Robert Mugabe there to watch the proceedings by special decree of the Italian Government.  We are a global viewing community are we not?  Cameras on mobile phones bring news to YouTube watchers of war, rape pillage and one on one humiliation, the content of which governments, special forces, girlfriends or classmates would like to suppress, CCTV everywhere and the media’s own trained sleuths with their nosey distance lenses capturing celebrities at it (it being whatever they want to think of as private).  If you can’t see a recording of it, it doesn’t pass muster in modern society.

There was something of Ancient Rome about Emperor Obama’s watching the assassination.  His thumb had pointed earthwards and so the dogs of war shimmied down their ropes to put an end to Bin Laden’s hateful stratagems of terror in a tiny arena outside Islamabad.  There was something undeniably unseemly and surreal about Paul being elevated towards sainthood on the strength of a nun’s recovery from Parkinson’s.  In front of a million flagwaving amnesiacs or deniers. This, the man who had presided over child abuse from his priests for more than two decades, his administration blocking investigations, covering up the horrors of it all, moving on bishops and priests to enact their life-shattering crimes over and over again.  And all this with Mugabe, apparently a devout catholic, given special permission to pass through Rome to be there.  Mugabe!  Special friend of the Vatican!  Given the history of Catholic atrocities, I suppose he must be regarded as a fellow traveller, bedfellow, bosom pal.

The Americans could have taken Bin Laden for trial. Benedict could have prevented his church from swimming even more in a filthy quagmire of hypocrisy.  Mugabe could have been told that his Catholic soul would rot in hell and no amount of last rites would bring absolution.  A litany of ifs and buts that bear no relation to the upper atmosphere of politics.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Royalty – the soap
Well it’s not exactly a day for republicans in the UK.  Gimlet eyed I turned on the TV to watch the world news and avoid any reference to the wedding, thinking that Al Jazeera would be the one to eschew the saccharine pomp and ceremony at Westminster Abbey.  What was their main news story?  The same as everywhere else.  Not Syria or Libya.  One becomes a sexist monster muttering expletives at the female kind as you watch hitherto calm and even intrepid reporters going girlie, ogling, eyelash fluttering and sugar voicing their way through the ‘making of history’.  David Cameron who just the other day told a female MP to ‘calm down dear’ several times, also warbled like a reed bunting about a thousand years of royalty and what it has done for Britain.  No killing of wives, imprisonment and executions of competitors or German take-overs there then!
A while back I did some work in St Petersburg and was fortunate enough to visit the Tikhvin, a small cemetery which contained the graves of many Russian composers, artists and poets.  I sat on a stone and wondered whether their still decaying bodies were throwing molecules into the air that I was breathing.  Maybe I was imbibing the spirit of creativity?   And I have gone on to write a three volume fictional piece which I begin to edit today!  Who knows?  As an atheist of a kind I am not averse to believing in some things and the way we pass on memories through our genes and atoms is one of them.  Anyway, in the Abbey is Poet’s Corner, a bit like that Russian quarter acre.  So the bride and groom will walk through the lush grass of approbation from the great and the good and ‘some ordinary people’ -Al Jazeera, and imbibe the molecules tossed into the air by poets turning in their graves.  Well, some of them: 
“The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living” – Epitaph on the memorial to T.S.Eliot.
The monarchy seems to me to be a palliative, a bit like football.  For so many people it arrests their development into critical members of society by filling their heads with dreams of princes and princesses, glass slippers, thousand piece tea sets and maybe a bit of acceptable bodice ripping, sexy phone tapped calls, murky deaths, disagreeable humour, racist attitudes and heavily regulated liaisons.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Of dogs and men
Away from the dogs of war in Libya, Cote d”Ivoire, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq – I suppose the list would comprise a whole, dispiriting blog without any further content but this is holiday time as those atheists and agnostics among us piggyback on the Christian calendar.  There are a number of churches within earshot of our half acre compound and Easter Sunday sees them in full flood,  vaguely Anglican hymns melding with ululations that sound as if they came off that Paul Simon African-inspired album.  In case you think that that must be wonderfully exotic, it is not.  It is loud and intrusive.  There have been a number of cases of complaint around Accra at the pain caused to neighbours by these open air  concrete hangars (not agnostic or atheist neighbours but Christians of a quieter, indoors, enclosed hue.)  Complainants have then been threatened and victimised by the proponents of the ecclesiastical loud speaker systems.  Recently I have come across a new dialogue here.  There are (admittedly academic) those who see the evangelical mission in Africa as a form of imperialism.  Since Ghana had an all-seeing, non-gendered, abstract notion of God before the missionaries arrived to infuse souls into pagan black bodies and promulgate Jesus-worship with its own pagan communion rituals, there is a harking back to what this colonialism has meant for indigenous culture.  What is being lost?  Whose god is it anyway?
Anyway, Easter Sunday is no different from any other day in the compound.  The three dogs play out their strange relationships and are an unceasing source of wonder and debate.  If you remember there is the old dog, a bit like Tommy, deaf, and blind but loudly not dumb and once about to die.  His two mutt friends for ten years or more both gave up on life, not raging into the night but happily sleeping under the bougainvillea and so we bought two pups, a Caruso bass Doberman called Sirius and a female, eye-lash flickering Alsatian called Andromeda, the daughter of Ghana’s leading drug-sniffer dog.  Andromeda goes in the pool every half an hour for a swim, a half-length at a time.  She is also likely to swim out to you as you do your lengths in meditative silence and try to get on board, nearly drowning you.  The Doberman is very big and excels in ball chasing, fending off the other two.  Heracles, the old boy is now frisky and excitable, enjoying his two young companions who seem to treat him with respect and can’t sleep unless he is nearby to reassure them.  Each wants to be the favourite of their human owners.  They bat each other away, Andromeda hangs on to Sirius’ collar and tries to drag him to the ground and Heracles cunningly waits and eases in for a stroke while the other two squabble.  They play tag with a tennis ball, the rule being that the one who has it wanders around, nonchalantly, chest puffed out and the others run in circles and wait for it to drop.  Sometimes they can be seen careering up and down the half acre, making up new rules for the contest.
If, as many have pointed out, dog is god spelled backwards, then our three  anagrammatic deities have shown that differences can be assimilated in fun and peace for the pleasure of all.

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Friday, April 15, 2011



 I know it’s only rock and roll…

I walked into a supermarket in Accra today and asked who was in charge of the poultry section.  A nice feller came up to me and said “I am the Eggman”.  I wondered whether he had heard of the Beatles and he looked pinched before nodding dubiously.  No Ghanaian wants to say no to anything.  We shop in supermarkets because there is more chance of hygiene being applied to food preparation and storage, though sometimes, when there is a gap between electricity supply going off and generator coming on, there is a smell that drives you to the food that is not raw.  We tend to buy in bulkwhen desired offerings appear on the shelves because there is no guarantee you will see them again for weeks.  Hence, the fruit and vegetables we juice every morning are at the centre of the shopping quest.  It is not unusual to see us making off with several kilo bags of carrots, beetroot, green beans, cabbages, ginger and the fruity rest.  There are scares about buying on the markets because sometimes root crops are grown in effluent.

Which reminds me of shopping in Tashkent, Uzbekistan a few years after the demise of the USSR.  There, the supermarket had what it had.  There was no rhyme nor reason for what was on the shelves.  I remember seeing a brass telescope next to umbrellas and tinned goods.  Then, next to them I became excited because there were piles of vinyl, albums by British and American artists, copied in the old USSR, despite their degeneracy.  I got everything that fulfilled my love of the riffs of progressive rock music or which, like The Eagles or The Band melded rock with country. 

So once again in 2011 I was shopping in that same opportunistic way, sticking my hand in the bran tub of surprise and pulling out a plum; Jack Horner rather than Jack Sanger.  I thought to myself, placing a half dozen big white eggs in my basket, that I was never the Egg Man, more Jumping Jack Flash which then reminded me to look for Brown Sugar.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dear Brother Leader and Sister Burqa


Some news items are difficult to write about. and some not.  Libyan citizens (apart from Gaddafi’s own tribe) have generally been oppressed for forty years with secret police instigated disappearances, torture and an absence of the freedoms they would like to take for granted.  The African emissaries did themselves much harm in toadying up to the dictator and offering a ceasefire that would consolidate his military hold on Libya.  To insinuate that he was in a club of like-minded African Heads of State did little to make the continent feel good about itself.  But then it has been Gadaffi’s oil money that has underpinned many an African dictator’s hold on power.  The Dear Brothers’ League of nations will continue to turn a blind eye to ordinary people’s suffering.

Some two thousand women in France consider themselves to be suffering.  They must divest themselves of their facial encumbrances if they want to go shopping.  They claim it is an attack on their civil rights.  Probably.  They claim it is an attack on Islam.  Not.  There is nothing in the Koran which preaches such extremes.  The nearest the Prophet came to limiting a woman’s attire was when he asked that she retained a degree of modesty. 

All religions appear to have a problem with sexuality – usually a woman’s.  Since the Romans, according to Foucault, first began to institute  laws to limit women’s freedoms in order to guarantee men’s progeny their right to property, women have been receiving a raw deal.  Most religions limit their powers to lead in their organisations.  Many still enshrine in ecclesiastical law, constraints on their sexual rights.   The burqa is the symbol of a property being owned by a man.  Imagine, in an Alice in Wonderland world if, in a religion, a wife must wear a burqa in the home but not in a public place.  How long would the religion demanding it, last? 

In Lysistrata the play, women stop war by withholding conjugal rights.  Zuma and company should be brought to heel by their African women for their patriarchal despotism.  Meanwhile, the French two thousand would do well to read the Quran and question what  their husbands are demanding of them.






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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Blind spots
I was reading a BBC website article on acronyms and the internet this morning and had one of those rude awakenings that my parents must have had after I first played a 78 of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock as it ushered in teenspeak from the United States which was completely unintelligible to them.  Grooving, cool cat, square, daddy-o, fast, free love and the like studded the language of teenagers, coined mostly by beatniks and black jazzers and the early mainstream drug pioneers.
My call to senses came when I read the following paragraph:
But many mistake “LOL” for “lots of love”, leading to some unintended “LOLs”, such as the infamous tale of the mother who wrote: “Your grandmother has just passed away. LOL.”
Now like the author of the message above, I always thought LOL meant lots of love.  After all, many of my female friends put it at the end of their missives to me.  Yet all the while their  communications may have been tongue in cheek, sardonic or, even worse, privately amused!  Ah well, you are never too old for schadenfreude.  It actually means Laughing Out Loud!!!
Here in Ghana there is much to learn in the mutation of the English language.  I got a touch of conjunctivitis the other day and was instructed to go to the pharmacy and ask for drops for Apollo, the common name for it.  Apparently a vast proportion of the population looked skywards imagining the moon landing and this coincided with a particularly virulent outbreak of the condition. One had obviously led to the other.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011



Upwardly and laterally mobile in Ghana

Maybe life is a struggle for everyone, rich or poor if you see it through the eyes of each individual but it doesn’t look like that from the outside.  While students in developed countries fight to maintain their grants and fulfil the expectations of having universal education, albeit with varying degrees of fee-paying in the latter stages, what happens when you are born and brought up in a Ghanaian village where, if you are lucky, there is some rudimentary primary education and little else afterwards for the vast majority?

I will try not to be sentimental about what follows.  A young man, in his early twenties came to the house as a gardener.  Illiterate and not speaking English (the post-colonial language of Ghana) he worked very hard and with intelligence.  He was moved to the factory which sells uniquely designed clothes directly to customers in the UK and elsewhere but not in Ghana.  Here the staff at all levels are paid three or four times the national average for their levels of work in the fashion industry.  Our young man became an ironer.  A couple of years later he was literate and taking photographs of garments (having a very rare eye, even for so-called professional photographers).  Now he is quality controller in the factory and patrols every phase of production with a forensic eye and a completely immovable force (resisting sixty staff’s desire to bend the rules has broken a few spirits!).  He is earning money he could never have dreamed of.  He still spends his Saturdays with us, cleaning.  Much of his income goes back to send his sister through school and for other family needs.

Where does he live, here in the sprawling morass that is Accra?   Every possibility exists, from under a tree to a sumptuous gated property with armed guards.  But the majority live in kiosks and rough-made dwellings built from any available material, usually small, windowless and in acreages of the same or – and here we come back to the protagonist of this blog – on any available land that has not yet succumbed to the builders, both private and municipal.  Just so with our man.  Yesterday he could not come to clean because the Accra Metropolitan Authority was moving his kiosk on.  At this moment his house will be on a trailer heading for a little plot he has had his eye on for some time.  This is his third such move in three years.  I expect he has found somewhere and I will hear about it tomorrow, at work in the factory.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The eyes have it but who cares?
I have always had problems with my eyes and, in the course of a fairly physical as well as intellectual life I have suffered just about every operation on them known to ophthalmologists.  If eyes are the windows to the soul, then whatever spiritual essence resides inside must be mutated out of all recognition!

Anyway, my retina managed to throw up another problem three thousand miles from my regular consultant in the UK.  A good friend arranged a private appointment with an ocular expert in Accra (actually, nearly all Ghanaian medical treatment is private).  I arrived at the clinic in good time, registered and paid for the consultation.  Then I sat and waited for the doctor to arrive.  His list was full and the waiting room crowded.  Nearly an hour passed and then he phoned to say he was stuck in traffic.  This is normal for Accra but, if I had been the doctor I would have taken account of it, wouldn’t you?  I decided to abort the appointment, feeling demeaned and angry.  I wondered whether a doctor who shows that much respect for his patients would be any good, anyway?  The more a professional feels accountable to customer, client or patient the more he or she ratchets up the quality of his or her work.  For a number of years I worked across the medical firmament in England, developing appraisal measures which might improve not only the quality of expertise among doctors but also their attitudes to patients, nurses, managers and juniors, their time keeping, their team work and their self-critical faculties.  It was a rocky ride because there was so much professional arrogance abroad at the beginning.  But it helped to change the culture.

Many if not most of the consultants here in Ghana train in the UK or US.  If in the former then they would have had to abide by the appraisal system to which my team and I contributed.  Then they return to Ghana and a proportion of them are too delighted to embrace arrogance and dump any notion of accountability.  They have re-joined the Ghanaian middle class.  When I asked the receptionist whether the doctor was usually late, she smiled benignly and said, “He is a doctor”.

In Ghana, accountability hardly exists in practice though the rhetoric is very western in language and structure.  If someone sells you a bum service there is little redress.  Socio-political reforms show hardly any palpable result. The general populace is utterly cynical about government bodies, professional services, corruption and backhanders.  It is sad because ordinary people in their towns and villages are remarkable in their general capacity to get by.  Change will only occur here when the middle classes forget about feathering their nests and maintaining their vantage point in the class system and begin to institute hard-edged offensives against corruption and grossly unprofessional conduct.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Skin deeper
I am writing this on the road back from Cape Coast to Accra.  We have just spent the weekend on the beach; long stretches of sand and coconut palms, a few local villagers walking to and from Elmina, a small and delightful fishing port.  From the chalet they are silhouettes, carrying large basins full of yams or firewood through the palms with the sea breaking behind them.  We ate fresh grilled lobster and squid, grouper and snapper under straw lidded canopies, walked the isolated sands and rested.   This morning we drove to Elmina on the way home to buy fish.  It is an enjoyable half hour if you like haggling and checking the species covered in ice in big pails.  All the while the sellers assume you will pay four or five times the price a black skin can afford.  Even with the help of a six foot female who calls herself the Queen of Togo, the bartering is in favour of the locals.  Not that I mind.  The redistribution of wealth is built in to skin colour.  If I can buy fish at half shop price and they can sell it to me at twice local price, then who can complain?  We are a bit late at the market so there is no squid or octopus and few of the more exotic shapes and colours but we buy two plump and richly red snappers, some silver fish which are flat ribbons, moss green grouper, barracuda and a bag of whitebait.  I like it at the market, the bustle and noise, the shouting of wares and the smell of a fresh catch.  It is redolent of childhood forays with my father to North Shields from Newcastle on the electric train, to fish off the quay at seven in the morning, catching crabs and coley and the occasional cod.  It’s strange how smells which might turn the nose of someone new to them become familiar, embracing and latterly nostalgic.

As I write we are half way to Accra and have just passed a couple of young men trying to sell grasscutters.  I must look them up.  One of my first Ghana blogs included a description of grasscutter stew.  The grasscutter appears to be a large rodent, a bit like a coypu but they are sold by the wayside in smoked form.  Imagine quite large bellows, flattened or spatchcocked, except the bones are visible like x-rays against the deep brown of the charcoaling and on being held in front of the vendor this gourmet’s delight obscures half of his body.

The skin colour based interchanges mentioned above work rather badly for mixed race individuals  Someone with a fair skin (for Ghana this means, say, Lebanese brown) may be the subject of racist abuse in Europe and then find himself or herself similarly dealt with over here, in reverse.  A victim in both worlds.  In general I have found Ghanaians remarkable in their ability to laugh at the racism they have experienced abroad, though I would have exploded with outrage, I am sure.  I interviewed a woman the other day who had been a supply teacher in the UK only a few years back.  She had arrived at one primary school and the receptionist told her to pick up an apron and join the canteen staff in the kitchens.  When she revealed her identity, the woman was embarrassed and said that because her name was so English sounding (traditional English names are common in coastal Ghana from the slave trade and gold mining) she had expected a white woman for the teaching job.

Managing staff can be difficult too.  Skin can get in the way.  Ghanaian culture, for example, has little evidence of what we might term depersonalised critical dialogue.  To manage anywhere in the world you need to establish the criteria upon which you judge a person’s performance.  But to tell someone that their performance is under par even when citing previously agreed and understood criteria can be taken very badly and the race card can appear.  We carry our skins like badges as we traverse the world.  A lot of the time and energy is spent in finding ways to disclaim responsibility for this birth-packaging.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Covering the Japanese Tsunami, UK style
I suppose that the more you travel, the less jingoistic you become.  I am three thousand miles from the UK these days and it seems like so many light years from home – not!  That’s it, really.  Home is for me an ephemeral outdated concept, maybe the place of my childhood or childrearing years but many like me are now wandering creatures,  itinerants in search of answers to questions we have had little time to frame because of our very movement, the constant change that has become our way of life.  We may, like the Buddha, seek through our journeys to find enlightenment, somehow knowing it is not likely to be found in the fixed geography of our history but what we discover are peoples in lands who are just like us, clueless as to what existence is all about.

The expatriated gypsy flunks the test of knowledge more often than not by assuming that coming to terms with a new location, a foreign culture is somehow the same as discovering deeper answers.  While engrossing and diverting, it rarely is.  We carry our history on our backs.  We live and die in new scenery, that is all.

Meanwhile, those we have left behind and who populate the ‘old country’  seem to become moored and mired in their unchanging homeland.  Everything is weighed and measured against its history, its traditions and its certainties.  Even when these stay-at-homes cross borders, they have one eye over their shoulders to make sure they can get back to safety as soon as the little adventure is over.

I  am digressing in this ill-formed way as a lead-in to something which seems obvious to me but may not be to those whose news service it is.  Watching the UK’s Sky News coverage of the tragedy of Japan’s earthquake and Tsunami, I felt somewhat ill at ease by its approach.  It had a team out on Japan’s east coast.  They made it seem that they were braving danger. They were concerned about the British who might be caught up in it.  They talked to Save the Children workers about what they might do to alleviate the horrors for Japanese children.  They rolled out the Minister who proudly boasted of the sixty odd crack force on a search and find brief.  They marvelled at the Japanese refusal to loot, their order and discipline, they produced little cameos of individuals searching flattened towns for their loved ones.  Worse, they played over and over the engulfing black sea of destruction as it took everything in its path, played it with their own version of  the sinister Jaws theme, deep reverberations and oriental cymbals in disharmony.  They played up the fears of radiation and how far it might be spread by winds.

In other words, it was news for those who can never shake off the notion of home.  It was a cake of horror and it was to be eaten by those who are safe and far away from it all.

Al Jazeera, on the other hand, gave it straight, without translation into a UK cultural context. 

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It’s life but not as we know it, Captain…

Leaving aside belief in gods, the hereafter, heaven and hell and the trappings of metaphysics, where are we when we drop, for example, the meta in the last domain? Where are we with science, generally? Do we believe it? The professions are certainly beholden to it. Law now has its forensics, medicine has its pharmaceuticals, the food industry has its nutritional values, the home has a complex reliance upon science in all its forms, from entertainment through heating, cleaning, birth control, depression and on to an induced good night’s sleep. Gradually, the science is outstripping our capacity to understand how it works. But hasn’t it always been so?


The arrival of margarine heralded a new healthy alternative to butter. It was decades before it was realised that trans fats in margarine were potentially lethal. Obesity is rising rapidly in all countries that adopt western fast and processed food regimes though the manufacturers stay on the legal side of the scientific protocols for what constitutes harm. Salt and sugar are being reduced but only after a few million heart attacks, diabetes and early deaths. Powdered milk is being sold to mothers in subsistence cultures as they are being weaned off breast feeding. Skin bleaches are sold openly across black nations with some terrible consequences. Cosmetic surgery is a growing trend for the emerging middle classes.


Thalidomide was sold as a safe drug until misshapen babies arrived. We were captivated by menthol cigarettes as a healthy alternative to straight tobacco; “cool as a mountain spring’ was a strap line. All the while, in ads, we see serious looking white coated professionals, still with clipboards, researching the efficacy of products. We buy the hype and then curse ourselves when the bad news filters out and it is too late. We assume, I suppose, that the tests are all finished with, that the beagles and rats and volunteer humans have given their bodies to make us safe.


That is why the Sky News expose of the maltreatment of Gressingham ducks in Hingham Norfolk, with brutal keepers holding birds by the neck to beat the others into the hangars, while dead birds lay untouched on the ground to rot, was so offensive. Trust was broken. These had been sold by Waitrose Supermarkets as having been regularly inspected by their scientific vets. They were sold as organic birds and were at the top end of their sales meat chain.


It was visual agitprop for how we have become disenfranchised in understanding the science of our own lives.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Enemies of the People


As Gaddafi unleashes sub-Saharan mercenaries, threatening to kill the children in every family that has protested against his tyranny, Cameron the UK Prime Minister is wandering with a band of British arms dealers around Kuwait. His snake oil salesman’s rhetoric runs along the lines of ‘every country needs to defend its borders’. After the Libyan foaming dog sent in jets against his own people we may allow ourselves a little vomit in our handkerchiefs. The jets weren’t built in Libya. They were sold to the country by previous incarnations of our grubby salesman.

Meanwhile, away from oil rich states and firmly among the oil poor UK, the same Cameron and his siblings of state have introduced a new health test to check on people’s capacity to work. In an eloquent article in the Guardian today, people with terminal cancers, distressing pains, traumatising depressions and the like talk about the humiliation of the testing procedure. Do you watch East Eenders or Coronation Street? To do so means you can sit for half an hour. Nice for office work. Not that there is any work waiting for them. It is symbolic humiliation only. In the UK there is no culture of sensitivity towards those unable to work. They are just like elderly bed-blockers, a barrier to the capitalist enterprise.


In Soylent Green, an old but good science fiction film, the elderly and the extremely ill can opt for a fantastic, almost heavenly euthanasia to get them off the eating register. Fewer mouths to feed. Not only that but their cadavers are recycled as food tablets.

Now this is something the Tories would love to get their teeth into!


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Sunday, February 20, 2011


The Courage of Convictions

Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid is a rather piquant quotation from Franklin P Jones. Watching the domino demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa where thousands march in the face of guns is a humbling experience. It is too easy to see small figures on a tv screen and allow the brain to comprehend it as a spectacle, a computer game, a film with a cast of thousands and somehow discount the fact that every person out there is facing personal fear. It takes such courage to put one’s life on the line for the principle of democracy. Time and again, determined faces come up close to the camera and say ‘freedom’, ‘no corruption’, ‘peace’, ‘fair elections’. Old, young, religiously diverse, professional and every day workers, march for a future for their children, their fellows and their country.


Meanwhile we have to witness the great ‘unbrave’, the milk-toothed leaders of western states and their foreign representatives pontificating on how these toppling regimes must suddenly behave towards their citizens. The very same individuals and their governments have supported these same criminal dictatorships for decades without a murmur, without a single proclamation in support of their downtrodden citizens.


Let us see what transpires. Meanwhile isn’t there a sense of schadenfreude at our first world governments’ Uriah Heap hand wringing as they reap middle eastern everyman’s repugnance for their hypocrisy?

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

History is egg-shaped


When I was a boy in Durham I used to go egg collecting. The tallest risk-laden trees for rooks’ eggs, sinking marshy waters for those of the black headed gull and flimsy attic floors for a starling’s ice blue oval. The lure of the colours, shapes and sizes, the art of blowing them, the need for some kind of natural lore to hunt and broaden the collection was time-intensive and obsessive. But all that changed. Even then we knew never to take an egg unless we could leave at least two. Now we protect and take none. Those who do so are rightly prosecuted.

The skull is a little like an eggshell. Indeed, scientists are called eggheads. Recent finds in Cheddar Gorge, England, suggest that Cro-Magnon man used the skull as a drinking vessel, either for religious ceremonies or for more prosaic dietary purposes, around twenty thousand years ago. It seems he did this in a brief warm spell between ice ages when Britain became temporarily accessible. We don’t do it now – unless we have some kind of Hannibal Lector psychosis!

The nearest I came to the skull being used in a less than meritorious way was in my early days of teaching. Students who were engaged in what was called liberal studies, broadening their apprentice shoe-maker curriculum, turned up for class with skulls they found on Dunwich beach in Suffolk. Dunwich was the same size as nearby London in early medieval times but slowly succumbed to an encroaching sea, a monk’s graveyard being among the last vestiges of its existence to fall from the retreating cliffs during the early nineteen seventies. The young would-be cobblers put light bulbs in them. You can imagine the lit eye sockets by your bedside. Strange to think of all those monks seeking illumination during their lives and finding it, perhaps, only after their deaths.

The times they are a changing fast; attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. Each one of us can find epitaphs to them within our own histories. Something Cro-Magnon Man and the Monks of Dunwich may not have been able to ascertain.

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Friday, February 11, 2011



On shellfish and the selfish


Paris in early February. Cold, clear and sunshine arriving by late morning. The whole city has a half-awake feel to it. Somnambulistic shopkeepers powered down, the lights in their eyes barely glinting. But the restaurateurs know that people have got to eat, especially the tourists who have come on cheap breaks and the business people who have to be here for the expositions. So they are zappy and chatty, unless you don’t speak French when, I am told, they turn an epaule froid and offer the service of a tundra-ready robot. Since I can converse at a level which manages the every day but falls short of the philosophical we can exchange mild jokes and gain the security of acceptable tables. All of which is a lead-in to a half dozen oysters in the Mascotte in lower Montmartre. They were as good as any I have had. Large and succulent, bedded in icy salty water, their taste so indefinably faint, their texture so softly enticing that it is an almost not-there flavour. Compared to the full range of gastronomic tastes available they are off the scale at one end where, say, three day marinated boar is off the other. That’s my spectrum anyway.

On another note I see that Manchester has closed all but one of its nineteen public toilets, some of which have been monuments to Victorian architecture. It is happening everywhere and now everyone runs the gauntlet of getting into pubs in the evening, using their amenities and exiting without buying anything. At the same time libraries are being closed. We will all have to have in-built brain chips, catheters and colostomy bags if this continues. Privacy in downloading everything from the word to the turd is the future. Personal rather than public conveniences.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011



History: It Never Lets You Go


Sometimes you encounter these odd triangulations in your life. As if it has all been a dream from which you have woken, temporarily. Three bits of your life juxtaposed, though years apart and from different countries, even continents.

I am on a Virgin Atlantic plane heading to London from Accra. This us MA what happened. I saw a film called Never Let me Go from a novel by Ishiguru. As I watched I saw countryside and coastal settings as familiar as the mind can recall. They were all in Norfolk. Places I had walked and talked. Places I no longer really saw because they were every day familiar. The film is worth seeing. It is both unsettling and also a period piece, set in the 1970s. The first decade of my time there. It is sufficiently unsettling to be classed as science fiction in a Margaret Atwood kind of way. I could almost have written it. It felt as if I had. After all I did the Creative Writing course at UEA the year after Ian McEwan and before Kazuo Ishiguru. What happened on that course might fill a number of future blogs!

I got up at the end of it to wiggle my toes and do what you need to do to stop deep vein thrombosis and caught sight of where the aircraft had reached on one of those moving maps beloved by early cinema and copied in Indiana Jones films. We were just past Barcelona and directly over the house I own in France, near Perpignan. Accra, Norfolk, the Franco Spanish border, Ishiguro. Triangulation is needed to tell you where you are. But it doesn’t tell you who you are.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011


You too can be a great musician

Both of my sons are musicians. One plays and creates using a number of instruments some of which he makes and the other composes using electronics. The older started with piano and the younger with guitar. They went to teachers, off and on until their teens. Somehow both managed to cross that divide into which the vast majority fall and never climb back up. I don’t really remember dragooning them into practice. I have heard a number of grown-ups say that they wished their parents had ‘forced’ them to continue so that now they might have a degree of musicianship, enough to entertain themselves and friends.

Vanessa Mae was compelled to practise by a very forceful mother (“I love you but it is conditional on you playing”) and now, at 30, she is beautiful and wonderfully accomplished at her violin. A sexy soloist. I say that because, in the documentary I saw yesterday there was film of her from 15 upwards in hot pants, bikinis and figure hugging dresses. Her mother made her iconic. Classical prodigy as pubescent pin up. She has not spoken to her mother in eight years….

Vanessa was asking herself a question: how much is my mastery owing to hard work and how much to some innate quality? Nurture or nature. She would have preferred the latter to have dominated. She didn’t want to give too much kudos to her mother. She went to experts in this and that who scanned her brain, tested her bravery, explored her extroversion and sought to discover how true was her ‘ear’ for sound. At the end the jury was half in and half out. You have to have aptitude but then most of us actually have. Then you have to practise for between 5,000 and 10,000 hours by the time you are adolescent to become a soloist. The brain is shaped by all this until you only need to exercise the desire and you perform.

I am glad we managed to encourage my sons to play. It is a huge part of their lives today. I have always thought they had aptitude, something lacking in myself. I can strum some chords and sing some songs but nothing like them. Now I realise I could have done it, too. But my parents did not think of it. And if they had forced me, my relationship with my father would have zeroed like Vanessa and her mother.

It all does prove something and that is that whatever we want to become is merely an exercise in willpower. You just have to want it enough to practise for 10,000 hours.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Myopia and mortality

There is little motivation among societies’ leaders to take a long term view when establishing policies. That’s why we have environmental disasters, genocide, diseases, poverty, multinational corporations overruling the interest of ordinary folks, bank collapses etc etc. Everything is measured in terms of their own lives and their own comforts. It is not just that they want to see immediate outcomes and benefits and bask in the glory of their achievements, it is, it seems to me, to do with a deep-seated psychosis at their own mortality. Human beings are egocentric and want as much history as possible encompassed within their own existences.

I was shunted down this train of thought when watching a programme on the history of soothsaying and the great prophets of doom. Nostradamus and the Book of Revelations, for example. The Bible Belt in the US has an alarmingly high population of believers of prophecies. In fact there is a two century tradition of Christian ‘prophets’ who forecast the end of days but always within their own life times! Thus they prepared their congregation for a rapture, an Apocalypse, an uplifting of their souls to God. When it didn’t happen they simply changed the date of the world’s extinction, claiming a simple error of calculation. Their credulous congregations swallowed it.

And the end hasn’t happened yet. Obviously.

Here in Ghana and wherever else the evangelists have hooked their pernicious doom-mongering claws into fearful people, whipping up frenzies during church services and running bible classes that promote its every written word as the truth, they proclaim that the prophecies in Revelations are about to happen now, in their lives, thousands of years after they were written by a mad, hermit isolate. In fact Revelations was just another example of doom-laden prophecy limited to the immediate world of its writer(s). Not beyond. Not for now. It related entirely to the horrors of Roman (Nero’s most likely) sadistic occupation and fears for the end of their race. Not 9/11, Stalin, Hitler or a present day rise of the Antichrist.

It is too much for men and women to believe that the important events of humanity’s extinction will fall outside their three score years and ten. They want them to happen now. Not even a generation or two down the line.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The drying of the will

The hot, dry winds from the Sahara still blow across Accra. The dust gets thicker and the attempts to stave it off become more desultory. Any notion you might have that equatorial Ghana is plush with forest, dripping water, snakes and crocodiles must be relinquished immediately! It is an effort to keep vivacity going through the long, hot days and it got me to thinking about the will and personal discipline.

What is our relationship with inner drives? We talk about how by strength of mind we can rein them in and channel them to our advantage but the fact of the matter is that for too much of the time they control us rather than the other way round. Let me take some examples. I’ll try to think of four. The first is keeping in shape. We now know that physical exercise elongates life’s path. Let yourself go and the brain suffers and you become prone to faster ageing and the various diseases associated with it. I have a pool, a gym and, separately, a treader with elastic skiing straps which I can mount and watch the tele as I go. This affords me the opportunity of watching documentaries and toning up. That’s the idea, anyway. But do I do it enough? No. There are days when something inside creeps out of the darkness of the unconscious mind and prevents me. I might go two days without pool or gym or treader. I feel really irritated afterwards but at the time I am blithely evasive about facing myself.

Now, what would be the second? Writing. I need to finish the third and last book in my fictional trilogy about the beginnings of humankind’s dallying with religion and the apparition of death. If I wrote two pages a day, I’d be finished by May. But there are days when I don’t write at all or prefer to do a blog like this or a number of emails to friends. My mind tells me that I need to think about the next piece of writing and allow it to gestate. But is that a fallacy? I know when I attack writing with discipline, no matter what corner my characters find themselves in, I can get them out by some alchemical process.

My third? I play the guitar and learn songs. I do this because it is good for me, I know. Highly meditative. I am not even averagely good at music. It is all a struggle to keep things improving. It goes back to when I was eleven and sang tenor to another boy’s contralto in concert parties to raise funds for a village hall. My voice broke and a deep musical depression fell upon me. So when I am playing and singing today I am facing the demons of early ageing!

There has to be a fourth. Probably hundreds more. Some things I manage without fail Diet, except when on holiday where I implode – or explode, actually! Daily raw fruit and vegetable juices for instance. Let me say, reading. There are books I should read. They would help in backing up my skimpy knowledge about the history of human thought but I just don’t. In fact, as I have said, I can’t bear fiction which is well researched because it seems to preclude the real power of the imagination. I read the odd page of non-fiction and a few bytes of the internet.

So, as you read this, what do you not do that you know you should? Why do you desist when you know the consequences could mean the lopping off of years of your life? What are the hot Sahara winds that lay you low and desultorily pondering?

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

The dust settles on Accra

I was reminded of Dickens’ Bleak House this last week because Ghana is experiencing the Hamatan. It is dry and the sir is full of Sahara dust. Read the quote from the beginning of Dickens’ novel and substitute dust for fog and you’ll get the picture!

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green lanes and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

The light is milky and it affects breathing and how clean you feel. Coming back from work reveals your clothes filmed in it. Our house here in Accra has no glass in the windows, just mosquito netting so the dust penetrates everywhere. It would take a whole below-stairs of Dickensian staff to keep it from being a repository of dunes. You just paddle about and ignore it.

The contrast couldn’t be greater when watching the horrors of water-logged Australia or the strangely surreal European snow reports on Sky News. At the same time our swimming pool, which ought to be called Wikileaks, is allowing the water to seep away so we are encouraging the process by bucketing it to the garden. It’s ankle deep at the shallow end and the new Alsatian pup, Andromeda, appears to be unlike her cowardly big friends, the Sirius the Doberman and Heracles the Alsatian cross. While they are bumptious on dry land, they run a mile when you suggest having a dip. She, however, a mere three months old, scampers in and thrashes her paws in the water making a fine spray. The other two watch her curiously as though she is an alien.

Meanwhile, back in the UK which seems less and less where I would want to live these days, the Tories have cut an education programme which gives free books to children from poor homes. Maybe three million or so? The Tories are the Hamatan of culture. Any notion that the reason why people might want to live and work in the UK is because it is a natural habitat for creative artists is quite beyond them.

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lies, damn lies and poor interpretations of statistics

Funnily enough, when I was flying back from Japan, I saw a programme called Freakonomics based on the book of the same name. I hadn’t read the book but understood it was a lateral look at the myths that can abound when people make wrong inferences from data. Well, two outcomes that stuck in my somewhat jetlagged nut. One related to Japan. The other to New York.

First the Japanese angle. What the documentary showed was that when a society has, it imagines, in-built ethics or traditional cultural behaviours, it will not face the consequences of these being brought into disrepute. We saw sumo wrestlers. Here is an ancient art, a rule-ridden battle between men whose weight is more significant than their body shapes. Giants who are fed like the carp in Japanese ponds until their mountainous flesh vies with Fuji itself. They fight their way to the top where the pickings can be massive and include enamoured, beautiful, slight-bodied women. And NO-ONE could envisage even the sniff of corruption in this stylised, mannered world. No single event had come to light until an ex-sumo coach said that fights were fixed. Uproar. The media tried to shut him up. But our intrepid statisticians looked at the data and, over thousands of fights they found an anomaly. There was a huge bias where victories by opponents did not hurt the losers because they had already enough victories under their great leather belts to progress to the next championships. The Japanese federation accepted that in certain cases, injuries among sumo wrestlers (some died in training) were the result of abuse but would not accept the statistical pattern showing that a big proportion of fights was rigged. This notion that culture has its purities that we need to believe in, regardless of the true state of affairs, rings a bell, does it not? Politicians peddle it when they defend the police, secret services, religious schools, the royals, foreign conquest and so on. We are not expected to challenge these verities. Wikileaks exposed not only the malady in ambassadorial life but also the hypocrisies that abound when people like Hilary Clinton defend their nasty email injunctions to spy on America’s friends.

The other angle was the New York one. I have to admit that I was a sucker for the story about how New York was reformed by its Mayor and its policy of zero tolerance. By jumping on the small details of antisocial behaviour (breaking windows, throwing litter, petty stealing) the big ones do not occur in the same numbers. What a great breakthrough in public order. Well, our number crunchers looked at the data. What did they find? Following Ceaucescu’s fall from power in Romania it was discovered that he had forced women to have babies to swell the labour market. Twenty years later these unwanted babies had inflated the criminal ranks of the country. At around this time, the American Senate passed what seemed to be an unpopular law which allowed women to have abortion. Twenty years later, the crime figures for New York and elsewhere had dropped sharply. Unwanted pregnancies had been so diminished. Of course, religious fundamentalists don’t like it that abortion is a possible tool for ensuring babies are born to their mothers when they are ready to support them. Others on the liberal front attack the connection on the grounds that it appears to be biased against the poor, suggesting they are poor parents and irresponsible. But the causality is striking, make of it what you may.


Two examples from Freakonomics. You have to be brave to challenge social orthodoxies that underpin your culture and you have to control your own destiny, regardless of the State. But you may die for such causes. Take Punjab Governor Salman Taseer who was assassinated this week for wanting to repeal blasphemy laws. Laws that do not stem from the Koran but from bigots who want to limit freedom of speech and frank debate about religious and other pillars of Pakistan society.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010


The Disease of Disney and the Solace of Zen


Japan is an oyster whose pearl is the asceticism of Zen and the consequent aesthetic of minimalism. Thousands of years of philosophical struggle with the eternal questions of existence and thereafter run a deep course beneath its modernity. I have to admit I am deeply affected by it. It needs protection from the global consumerism that reduces the spiritual and intellectual quest to gift shop retail. Of the latter let me make some vitriolic comments.

Japan has a strange fixation with cartoon realities. Everywhere you go, the shops, the people, the tv programmes have elements of humanity reduced to the simplicity of animated creatures, anthropomorphised into stylised representations of human characteristics. If there were seven versions of the human condition then the Seven Dwarfs would represent them. Kuresawa’s The Seven Samurai would involve Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy et al being ‘collected’ by a central, smiling, androgynous hero to take on the mission of saving humanity. Or the more serious version would be found in the vivid, sometime violent and perverse renditions of a Manga graphic novel. Walk down the roads of Electric City in Tokyo and you begin to believe you are a figment of the Matrix and there is no separation between you and the virtual.

That is the every day. Then go to Disneyland and what is already a twee world becomes exacerbated into the outlandishly infantile. Here, the garish and the glitzy, the caricatured and the personified become a treacle of mawkishness, as devoid of the sweat, flesh and blood or intellectual curiosity of the human condition as it is possible to experience. Millions visit every week. They can queue up to an hour for ‘rides’ and if they manage three special attractions in a day’s slog, they go home happy. Do not imagine I am talking about children. From my viewpoint, primary school and younger ones were actually a minority. Couples, mature professionals, pensioners and every other age group and type of worker wander about with blissed-out expressions as they take in the Disney experience. This chasing of the dragon of fantasy is an addiction. A friend of mine, known internationally for his pithy and delightfully creative children’s books was once visited by the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to the UK with her about to be married daughter. They wanted my friend to sign some of his books created for five year olds. He learned that they would be added to a ‘shrine’ of artefacts that the daughter was gathering her marital boudoir. English and American children’s books are much sought after.

I visited Miyajima Island on my last day’s trip to Hiroshima. The usual tourist traps were full of souvenirs, superficial replicas of the Buddha through to ornamented rice paddles and sake bottles and cups. The narrow streets, despite the bitter cold, were thronging. Only twenty metres above the main shopping street is a wonderful Buddhist building of ancient, polished planks and massive columns. Peace and tranquillity rule. The structure radiates an imperative to ponder on the shortness and superficiality of life and what meaning might be squeezed from its fruits. While I was there, there were only a couple of other visitors.

Disney and the Buddha emphasise that life is but an illusion, an unrolling celluloid that one day will flutter off the reel. Take your pick as to which one offers a path to enlightenment.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010



Masks or blindfolds


I am in Japan at the moment. It’s a relief to be back in a culture where there is no tipping of waiters, no backhanders to get things done, a country where people bow and show respect at all times (except the Yakusa!) . Not that I have ever been a traditionalist, bemoaning the behaviour of the young or writing hang ‘em-flog ‘em letters to the right wing press. Quite the opposite. It has always seemed to me that a radical youth is needed everywhere to stir up societies and stop them becoming moribund or reactionary, even though it upsets those who are approaching their dotage or who have a monopoly on power.

Wanting to shape a country’s culture shows a person cares about it. In the fifties and early sixties we teenagers felt alive and sensed we were dominating attitudes and beliefs. We behaved badly but the arts flourished with our headstrong attack upon the establishment’s control of what counted as culture and what didn’t. Eventually we were marginalised as our creative forces were subsumed in the new consumerism but much changed. This condition still pertains. Ideas are merchandise like everything else. Walk the streets of Tokyo or any other city in the world and you see fashion appropriating every form of disaffection, muzzling it or neutering it. The young are disinheriting the earth.

As I said recently, student revolt in the UK over fees bears little comparison with earlier student revolt over disproportionate power and control where the haves dominate the have-nots, keeping them firmly embedded in ignorance and powerlessness. Similarly, marching to Aldermaston or Greenham Common encampments had a different order of caring for a country, its people and humanity as a whole, than breaking windows at Tory Headquarters in London. When people march for their rights to gather, to be uncensored or not to be discriminated against. there is hope.

I visited the Hiroshima Peace Park, yesterday, for the second time in three years, with its museum attesting to the devastation of the Atomic bomb in 1945. The images and artefacts are so unsettling that the mind revolts against them, trying to deny them access. No human being could do this, surely? Harry Truman did and he was no Hitler or Stalin. The order was passed. The decision was made not to warn the civilian population. Days after Hiroshima the Americans turned on Nagasaki. The carnage was stupendously obscene. The bombs we have today are thousands of times more powerful. Many countries have them. Yet, in the main in the apathetic west we don’t protest about the world’s ills beyond our doors. We keep our heads down and let our politicians, our own Harry Trumans, do what they may. Even if we could be flattened by H Bombs or environmental suicide.

When I was forced to drink coffee in the smoking area of a restaurant in Tokyo, a young couple came in, their faces covered in those white anti-pollution masks. They took them off and lighted up cigarettes. It seemed to sum up the Wonderland we live in very well.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Charles and Camilla

One of those symbolic moments occurred the other day on Regent’s Street, London, captured in a short take of film by a lucky photographer. And from it was extracted a single frame of film in which Camilla stares open-mouthed and Charles in bemused consternation at the parallel universe beyond the glass of their vehicle. The world, in its unpredictable proletarian reality, was washing up on the shores of their royal separateness! The prince is not used to his subjects being other than forelock tuggers on his estates, or the Uriah Heaps of the royal retinue and the landed gentry of the county set. Of course, the Prince’s Trust has its charitable offerings to needy young folk who aspire to making it in business and the prince might have assumed that it was a conduit to understanding the downtrodden masses. Until now. Nothing had actually prepared the surreal pair for this rupture of their rarefied universe.

The most significant element of their brush with unwashed studenthood was the attack upon Camilla’s royal person. Was she, as was originally claimed but not really corroborated by the Home Secretary, ‘poked with a stick’? If so, how Neanderthal. Even today, in this world of technology, virtual aggression and climatically controlled vehicles, we can be prodded by an oaken branch, from the same genus of tree that another royal Charles once hid from republican Cromwell!

For Charles, rhetoric and reality are not considered complementary. He it was who paid for a planeload of black lilies or some such plant to be brought from South Africa for a swanky do whilst well into his cant on environmental sustainability and man’s odious place in that narrative.

As you will know from a previous blog, I don’t feel that much solidarity with the student revolt this time round as there seems little ideology or altruism in it but, at least, it has given genesis to that iconic photograph of the future king coming face to face with the people he must one day rule.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

You Dear Reader, may not exist…!

There is an excellent series on BBC Knowledge showing in Ghana at the moment. I suppose you may have been able to see it a year or two ago but time here does not behave like yours does. Last night I watched Morgan Freeman, who fronts it, ask what the latest scientific proof might be for God. Get to see it unless you are so smitten with your religion that you could not bear to be challenged. The latest theories were like a gourmet’s meal for famished philosophers. I’ll have to watch it again because my brain buckles with so much being thrown at it. Here’s what my depleted memory store can regurgitate for three of them.

Theory One: we are living in a simulation created by our descendents. In 50 years computer power will be so extraordinary that this world we know as our own, with you, me and everything could easily be created and because we are part of it, like in The Matrix, we cannot tell that it is not real. Think Playstation 50+ and the Sims. Evidence can be found by examining the very fabric of our world. On close inspection it is made up of pixels…

Theory Two: put a magnet over your brain’s right lobe and focus its power and even atheists have God-like experiences. Because we know death is an end to existence our anguish is converted into the means to alleviate it with spiritual experiences. Great prophets may have access to this part of the brain and thus ‘see’ God.

Theory Three: a beach bum with a PhD and a mind that has moved on since Einstein has come up with a theory for everything, mathematically speaking. It excludes God but is so elegant that it makes it appear that God or a supreme Physicist must exist. It (the metatheory) says that only by random do the constituent four theories of gravitation, electro-magnetism and weak and strong forces fuse together on this planet….

As I gurgled in a recent blog, our brains are undoubtedly capable of believing that what they conjure up, actually exists outside them and that our senses apprehend them.

Oh no! I have just realised that mine may well have done this. My brain is so capable of such creative self-deceit that it has fabricated this blog, Ghana, my life thus far, the programme called Through the Wormhole and even the illusion that I am an atheist…!

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Whose God is it Anyway?

There they were in Israel trying to change the course of nature which, according to Sky News had become ‘biblical’ in its form and effect. There is a seven year drought and we all know that plagues, pestilences, floods and the like go in seven year cycles in the Old Testament. God might work in mysterious ways but His ready reckoner tends to get stuck on seven.

“They’ who had got together to seek God’s intervention, were spiritual leaders of the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. Joint prayer. The paradoxical element of this is that there is widespread belief among adherents to different faiths that the God of each is not necessarily the same God. Otherwise why would Muslims and Jews be in a death conflict, or Christians and Muslims? Or are they saying that it is the same God but each road has different scenery and they are fighting over the view out of the window?

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a God? We’d all be happy and in harmony. But we don’t really believe it or we’d stop the bloodshed immediately.

If there is a God then I doubt He bothers too much about people praying and genuflecting to Him. A bit demeaning to His intelligence, don’t you think? What kind of Being finds His ego inflated by men and women on their knees? Hardly an all-seeing, all-knowing, loving God!

But there they stood on the dusty terrain, hedging their bets as they allowed each in turn to invoke the rain through God, whomever had the most scenic route to Him.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

On level playing pitches and moving goal posts

So, as I mentioned a couple of emails ago, FIFA had little intention of supporting England’s bid, despite it being the best constructed, most viable and economically beneficial to grass roots football throughout the world. The 22, largely old men, who are steeped in forms of negotiation and power that are beyond the comprehension and experience of the Brits had little compunction in saying they were going to support the English bid and then reneging at the last possible moment.

Why?

Well, I am a much travelled man and what you discover when you travel is that cultural norms differ wherever you find yourself. For example, in Ghana it is likely that, whatever you suggest will be agreed by your opposite number. This is a norm. It has little bearing on what your opposite number may decide to do. People here regard it as showing good grace. But they dislike intensely any criticism, implied or direct, regardless of the justification for it. I found when working in Uzbekistan that people agreed with your strategy and then went off to find out whether it was politically acceptable. Similarly in Russia. In France there can be a nationalism that rejects suggestions, theories and hypotheses from ‘foreigners’. In Africa, generally, everyone suspects voting results because they know the likelihood of rigging and many indulge in it for themselves, anyway. Bribes are part of every day interactions, as they are in most countries outside those with an investigative free press and openness to public scrutiny.

England was on a loser from the beginning (as were the USA and Australia). Blatter’s word sways delegates from the developing world because he has the power to award funding and doesn’t really hide it. He is also known to dislike the British. He has an overblown sense of personal legacy which, in his terms means that he has raised his profile as god of football as a means to bring about social and political development in his empire. It is no surprise that FIFA decided to hold two ballots on one day, making it possible for collusion between delegates to advance the causes of Russia and Qatar to the detriment of the traditional football playing nations, despite the odds. It is also no surprise that FIFA laid down one set of criteria (which the English felt made them pre-eminent bidders) but, at the death, changed the goalposts.

So, thinking about it, the English did not stoop (in their terms) to the internecine tactics of their competitors who then gleefully walked off with the prizes. Over time more will come out (perhaps through Wikileaks) but the chances that anything will be done about it will be minimal. The English and Scottish may have invented the rules but they were the rules of football, not of football politics.

And this latter point holds in it the promise of biters being bitten. Russia kills its investigative journalists with impunity. Its mafia roam free and its institutions kow tow to the old KGB. Qatar imprisons homosexuals, restricts peaceful assembly and has different laws for foreign workers. The votes of two women are generally regarded as equal to one man. The World Cup brings with it the cultural norms of other nations and there is nothing more liberalising than the every day traveller and his/her expectations. Alphadogs and Emirs are about to discover the cost to their power and influence.

Maybe Blatter IS a god and this was his strategy all along… Why do I doubt it?

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

The End of Days

This phrase, appearing in Revelations, has a deeply mordant edge to it because of its sheer poetic finality. Watching a programme about the battle between dark matter and dark energy led me to the speculation that it is no wonder some people find life intolerable and top themselves.

You see, it appears (in our latest scientific theorising) that dark matter keeps everything together like an all-pervasive glue, from the atoms in our bodies to the great galaxies of space. We are formed in it and then it supports us in an invisible miasma of togetherness. BUT, as in action comics, if Dark Matter is our saviour, Dark Energy will have none of it and seeks to tear everything apart. They call it The Big Rip. Currently, computer models show that the universe will break down, not in shreds but in sub-atomic particles.

It got me wondering about the stability of our psyches. We live and then we die. That’s painful enough and we invent all sorts of thinking to handle it positively (God, heaven, reincarnation and the rest) and those of us who have kids take comfort in our genealogical line heading off to infinity. Not in this universe. Even the sub-particles of God will succumb to the disintegration of Existence, He being a human construct and thought itself not surviving, even if science fiction suggests it might one day disengage from its physical home.

So, what is the point of being ‘alive’ when we discover the bus we are on is the number 13 and humanity is on the road to nowhere?

I suppose I gravitate towards Zen Buddhism because it acknowledges this in its maxim of living within the moment. That is all there is.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Prince Andrew: the Royal Right Wing

There is a genealogical line in the Royal Family I believe that has seen them, over the decades, breathily embraced with fascism. The Queen Mother had her somewhat tarnished reputation for all things Right and nasty, heavily glossed in the second world war, to make her appear a war heroine, one of the first campaigns over which Saatchi would have been proud. And she was just the latest in a long line of Nazi sympathisers. Oh no she wasn’t! Did not William go to a ‘natives and colonials’ party in Nazi uniform? The Queen seems to have kept herself to herself in most matters political but she did marry that consort to racism, Philip and thus they produced Andrew who, for some unaccountable reason, goes under the title of Royal Ambassador or some such toff tosh. The fact that he is figuring in Wikileaks is hardly a surprise. It turns out he hates the Guardian for its nosiness in business deals, particularly those involving arms sales to countries that have no compunction in using them against their own people or their neighbours. Like his father he is incapable of moral judgment. Given their generations of wealth acquisition, tax dodging and EU handouts in all sorts of dubious circumstances it is hardly a surprise.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taking a leak

I have been watching Hilary Clinton and the apparatchiks of the White House for the last two or three days in increasing amusement tinged with not a little disgust. The leaking internet is pouring their urine back over their heads and they are attempting to put up the sanctimonious umbrella of victimhood as though the world they live in is devoid of deceit and wrong-doing. A bit like Watergate in the early days. Diplomacy is being undermined, they thunder, through the fluttering eyelashes of denial. We cannot get on with our work of protecting democracies throughout the world.

At the same time, Sep Blatter and his corrupt cronies on the FIFA Panel are saying, more or less openly, that The Sunday Times and BBC exposures of vote-rigging for money (plenty of it) will mean that England will not host a World Cup.

The way the world is means that the virtuous cannot inherit the earth. These powerful groups within their establishments have got to their lofty positions precisely because they operate within what they call realpolitik. Like Putin the self-confessed alphadog, they claw and stamp their way to the top with sweeteners and threats their tools of the trade. And they expect the world to genuflect to their missions and admire them for it.

I once did some work for the Home Office in the UK, developing case studies on public order and the like, to help train police recruits to understand ‘complexity’. At the time, some branch of the secret service was tailing vicars, landowners and any proles who were supporting a campaign to stop nuclear waste dumping in Lincolnshire. I interviewed individuals who swore they were beaten up, cars trashed and whatever, as the then UK Government sought to further its democratic vision of a subservient and ignorant public. Is it any wonder we, the voters, who are normally excluded from the whispering corridors of power, feel duped and disenfranchised? The Unites States has a history of dirty deeds in the name of spreading democracy, undermining and toppling regimes it does not like. We swore it was going on and it always denied it. So we sit back and grin at the schadenfreude and sick sanctimony, scrabbling to find a way of presenting their incredibly expensive diplomatic machine as though it was a misunderstood and much maligned force for good. The fact is, reading some of the transcripts, they disgrace the name of democracy, are little more than the bilge of bigots and have as much cultural sensitivity as a whole legion of Prince Philips.

They don’t want us to know. Vive L’Internet!

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Right Royal Caper

There was a curious anomaly the other day. Research is needed. Nobody bought clothes for about 9 hours. You see, my partner runs a woman’s e-commerce business and sells all the clothes outside Ghana. High quality, classically designed and drawing 500 plus visits every day. Sales are great, even during these hard times. Then, at roughly 11-00 am one fateful morning last week, everything ceased, as if we were in a science fiction movie – you know, when everybody wakes up and discovers they have lost nine hours of their lives, checking their bodies for undulating movement under the skin. Kate and William announced they were to be married.

One assumes it was this and not something even more bizarre like a trial run of the virus that will end the world as we know it, that was the cause. What happened belied the science of statistics. Look at the patterns of buyer activity on any day and you have hot spots and cooler periods but you don’t have no activity for nine hours!

Now, the full royal machine is running on its well-oiled cogs. The right wing press is oohing and aahing. This is going to be a wedding for everyone! You are all invited. Westminster Abbey. 2000 guests. Everyone? Have an extra day’s holiday, businesses won’t mind paying the wages, the PAYE.

It feels like after the nine hours I woke up to discover that I had passed on the other side of the looking glass. Wars, famine, disease, nuclear bombs, killer viruses, Armageddon had all been left behind. Never mind all that, let’s have a nice cup of tea and watch the bluebloods at play. That’s the reality. And the royal confidantes have been on-screen warn us in their cut glass accents that the Windsors will have to be careful and make the wedding seem not too glitzy like the Charles and Diana do because the poor people won’t like it, you know, they are suffering a recession….

For me, for what it’s worth (not much, I know), having a royal family is having a keystone in the arch of a largely corrupt and iniquitous establishment. If you are a top stone, everything is fine. But the rest of us hold them up, unable to move because of the weight of their wealth and vested interests.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From Beatniks to Vandals

The Government in the UK have introduced higher tuition fees for university students. For the priciest courses the fees for a three year course can amount to nearly £40,000 or $60,000. It is a far cry from the free education of my beatnik youth and the reaction to it is very different from the heady days of 1968.

There I was in the heart of the French-led student revolt, in Paris, in Brussels and in Geneva, making the odd incoherent speech but not about education being a mortgage for life but about transparency of student records, open, critical debate, democracy. It was tied up with what was then called the counter-culture, West Coast American hippy idealism, flower power, the end of war and time to make love. Of course it all looks naïve and simplistic today but it wasn’t then. We were touched by idealism and wanted to change society and change the way that society thought about itself and its young. It was the inevitable politicising of rock and roll. OUR music.

Watching some students in London smash their way through glass panes in Conservative party Headquarters, there was none of that. It was all about money. In fact the multitude that marched peaceably did so about fees alone, as far as I understood it from the media and my armchair in Ghana. I don’t know where our idealism got society when our descendants, now at university, can only think in those terms. They were not talking about the quality of education only the price of it. Meanwhile the inevitable University Chancellors were doing their interviews, wanting more money for the trough in order to ‘compete with the elite universities across the world’. What a travesty of the truth. Over the last decades, university senior managers have become well off at the expense of education. Larger classes, lectures to hundreds and falling standards of teaching and research are the true indicators of what has been happening among our ‘elite’, together with tie-ups to multi-nationals in the private sector. In my time I have ‘saved’ PhD students from Oxbridge colleges who never saw their supervisors and were referred in their vivas. And the fee for a year’s work in helping turn these students round? £100. This was only a short while ago. The students in question were being charged £8000 PER YEAR. Academics are as greedy as bankers, in the main. Greedy to pursue their own careers by publication, greedy for status and about as altruistic as panhandlers in a river of gold.

Decades of education have not raised critical consciousness in the UK or American society any higher than it was in the fifties. Everyone has bought in to capitalism and acquisitiveness. The vital energies of the young are chanelled into intellectual and creative dead ends. It would have been remarkable if the march in London had signalled the beginning of a philosophy of a new world order but it was more about students feeling that they were being priced out of consumerism.

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Friday, November 12, 2010


Me greedy, you dead

We’re heading for another global crisis. It is another banking crisis, too. Not money this time but fat laid down around midriffs, bottoms and thighs. The OECD has just released a report showing that developing countries, as soon as their populations begin to join the middle classes, adopt western lifestyles. This means processed foods with transfats, sugars, salts and the rest. It means increased diabetes, heart attacks, early senility and many conditions where the correlations have not yet been done. Going into Accra Mall at the weekend provides you with plenty of evidence for this. Fast food, western style outlets buzz and waistlines increase. The Ghanaian middle classes are not eating a balanced diet. The Daily Graphic today was lamenting the fact that Ghana, which has wonderful potential for feeding itself and exporting far more food to the rest of Africa, was developing a cultural dislike for home grown rice and other commodities.

Meanwhile, watching a programme about the human body, it turns out that if we eat less than 2000 calories a day, we can rejuvenate our hearts and make them 15 years younger! Dieting rats outlive those who can eat whatever they like by up to 33%. That’s a lot. Now we can stuff ourselves like junkies with food that is bad for us and go down with our flags flying, in a hospital bed for months, saying that we preferred fewer years of life but stuffed full of crisps, pizzas, burgers, pre-prepared meals, chips, restaurant meals and the like or we can live many years longer on raw stuff we buy and cook for ourselves.

At the same time, food and water will be what is fought over in the decades to come and western lifestyles and protectionism will increase, exponentially, famine and disease elsewhere. When I overeat, another anonymous person dies.

On the same programme I saw a man who survived seventy odd days in the ocean by eating fish only. If he had been eating, as usual, as a westerner, he would have been dead in days but his brain overwrote his wiring and made him suddenly desire the eyes, liver, kidneys and other bits of the fish carcass that we routinely throw away. All the fish vitamins. The lesson in this was that if we change our eating habits, eat properly but far less, there will be more food for everyone. We would develop a taste for new, healthier foods that we chuck away (currently one third of all food bought in the UK ends up in the bin) or never buy. The body is a chemical machine, not an altar to greed. We need to learn to control it but it is a lifelong discipline.

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Monday, November 8, 2010







Peanuts in Space


I was watching the British Prime Minister yesterday talking persuasively about his mission to create a big society to be the senior partner of a much reduced government. At the same time the attack on the poor and ill-educated goes on. They will bear the brunt of the losses incurred by banking gamblers. But then, the poor, who make up a fairly big proportion of the big society have little going their way when it comes to influencing governmental thinking, so it was obviously not them to which he was alluding. For example, they wouldn’t be passing a bill to pick up litter in order to get their unemployment benefit would they?

We know that it is only at election time that would-be politicians genuflect to the wishes of the public, often fabricating what these might be to suit their ideologies, so, now in power, Cameron’s rhetoric is beginning to unravel in the way of all politicians. Under the urbane and much cosmeticised exterior (his photographer has now a paid post in the civil service) there beats a heart that is indistinguishable from those of Tories through the Ages.

It led me to wonder, as I have done before in these blogs, what alternatives there are to having Oxbridge boys, silver-spoon fed and chubbily self-important, running the country. I won’t pursue this, having done it before but what I did not discuss then, was the matter of their intelligence. Now, I have worked in delight and despair with people from all walks of life for decades, finding high intelligence randomly distributed across all the social divides. Yet, when I see and hear politicians, I find a low correlation with the world outside Whitehall. There is a level of articulation that passes the demands of media questioning but I have never sat back, shocked into serious thought, by anything a politician has ever said, as I have been by an artist or a philosopher or a scientist. It appears that only those who will never achieve the highest levels in intellectual and creative fields turn to politics. We put our countries in the hands of people who we could not elevate elsewhere.

The picture from the BBC science site shows what I mean. It is my metaphor for politicians, worldwide (with obvious exceptions such as Mandela, Ghandi et al). It is an asteroid, mostly ice yet with its own jet exhaust and comes into public view once in a while. It is a space peanut and does nothing for the rest of its universal kind and has been there from the beginnings of time. Sound familiar?

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Monday, November 1, 2010


If we were more like eels…


A while back I wrote an adoring blog about a meal I had in Paris which began with smoked eel, a rarer delicacy in England than France. Now I discover that the creature is, like too many species of animal, plant, fish and bird suffering huge losses in its numbers. What to do? My life seems to have spanned a post-war delirium of open fields, wild flowers, clean water and every bird and animal on the doorstep through to today’s dereliction of human duty to the environment.

First, let me persuade you that the eel, a creature that ties your fishing line into knots and covers your hands with slime, should be a symbol of the extraordinary, a true miracle in mucous. Eels were not born, according to the great Izaak Walton, they sprang from the “action of sunlight on dewdrops”. Actually they are born in the Sargasso Sea and stay there as ‘yellow eels‘, feeding and growing and swelling and darkening, for perhaps 7 years if they decide to become a male, and 12 if they’re female. (It’s always harder, being a lass.) But there you are. It’s the future for us, too. Soon, all humans will be making similar choices, in order to save ourselves and the planet. The Chinese are doing it under State edict. More and more people are choosing the gender of their children as a design statement. Not for long. Necessity will triumph.

The eel forgets about the need for genitals until procreation becomes a possibility. That is why Walton became so poetical about its apparent spontaneous combustion into life. Perhaps we would all be better if we grew genitalia later. No more prudery about the naked form. We’d be as blank down there as Angels in a fresco (in the pictures I have seen!). Maybe we’d only cover up later when we are about to procreate with our newly grown appendages. That would be the difference between ‘parents’ and those who have no children.

Eels can live undisturbed in forgotten pools for 25, 30, even 40 years. They are Zen creatures meditating on the meaning of existence, uninterested in sex, drugs and rock and roll. Then (read the BBC science blog) one dark night, usually in September or October, usually after rain and when the moon’s overcast, they get the call. No one knows why. They turn a kind of mottled green-black on top, silver underneath. They head downstream on the flood, and swim 3,000 miles back to the Sargasso Sea. Then they spawn, and die.

There must be a sense of completion in this mass sexual encounter at the end of days. Who would not feel ‘closure’ as the current cliché has it? Wouldn’t our lives be richer and more meaningful, if we ended them on an equivalent social high note?

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Mondo Cane: it’s a dog’s life….

We keep two or three dogs in the compound here in Accra. They run freely, are well behaved and well trained. Everything they do (in the main) is in the best possible doggie taste. But, as you may remember from a recent b