Writing Update

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I’m just waiting for my beta-reader to finish the manuscript of The Night Bus – the collection of poems and short stories I hope to publish later this month – with my fingers crossed that any further editing will be quick and painless. But what of the book I said I was just finishing, a couple of months ago?

Ah, yes. Having had my first beta-reader go through A Good Place and my mulling over both the feedback from their Red Biro Of Doom and my own thoughts about parts of it I already felt weren’t really strong enough, I’ve decided to sit on it for a while and then go back and change a few things. Well, okay, a lot of things. A huge number of things, maybe. In the meantime, I shall concentrate again on The Assassin’s Garden which continues to make steady progress in the background, and which slowly becomes more complex month by month.

And I was struck by something I heard on an interview with Phillip Pullman on Sunday TV, after the screening of the first episode of His Dark Materials; (which was excellent, BTW) he commented that after the books he had already written and published, His Dark Materials was the book, and by inference the world, he had always wanted to create. And I feel that way about the world I’m creating in The Assassin’s Garden. It both is this world and is not this world, with elements of both the fantastic and of fantasy (disclaimer – my definitions of those may not be exactly the same as yours!). And it feels like the culmination of all the fantastical elements I’ve ever written into stories in the past.

And don’t forget if you’ve already read Making Friends With the Crocodile and not left a review on Amazon / Goodreads / Anywhere else, I would be eternally grateful if you did. It’s a really important way of reaching others who might be interested in buying the book.

Is it time to open the wine, yet?

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

Five o’clock

I’ve been away from the computer for most of the last week, but now I’m back with a slightly longer poem than I usually write.

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At five o’clock the fire is lit.

Around the table we all sit,

With buttered bread and eggs and ham,

With cups of tea and cake and jam.

The idle talk is of the day,

The work now done, the latest play,

And ‘Anything to watch tonight?’

Or in the warmth and soft lamplight,

Perhaps we’ll read and play a hand,

Of whist, or bridge, you understand.

And ‘Don’t forget, at half past nine,

The radio – it’s music time.’

Then bank the fire, put out the lights,

The household settles for the night.

 

The heat blasts out in every room,

And lights and games and TVs soon

Take over so completely that

It’s pointless even trying to chat.

The sounds of gunfire, screaming cars,

Exploding buildings, and on Mars

The aliens armed with laser beams,

Are killed on several different screens

In different rooms by different boys,

With highly deadly killing toys.

The evening mealtime’s such a treat,

With pizza, chocolate, crisps and sweets.

Although it seems they all are eating

Different things at different sittings.

 

‘A cup of cocoa? I don’t think

That that will do, an energy drink

Is what I need, the evening’s young,

And there’s still much that’s to be done.

And if I cannot concentrate,

Upon this game, it’ll be too late,

The zombies will have won and then

I’ll go back down to level ten.’

It’s one o’clock, they still can’t sleep.

There’s not much point in counting sheep,

‘cause they’re all battery-powered toys,

Just so much electronic noise

And moving parts all running round,

And round and round and round and round.

 

I’m standing now beneath night skies,

Pale silver light from fresh moonrise.

I’ve walked for almost half a day,

It takes that long to get away

now, searching for a quiet place

Where I can pause and have some space.

I’m thinking how it used to be,

At five o’clock, the time for tea.

It seems to me that what we’ve gained,

Is not worth any of the pain.

And even more what we have lost,

We should have saved at any cost.

But anyway, now it’s just me

I have my flask, I’ll pour my tea.

 

The Christmas Story!

 

Well, it’s now December, so I suppose it can’t be too long before we begin to see the first of the Christmas decorations going up in the shops, and then, ooh, another week or so and we’ll start seeing some Christmas adverts on TV.

I said I definitely would not do another Christmas short story this year, so here it is. Part one of three. Probably.

In a way, this continues on from last year’s Christmas stories; I’ve put the links to them at the bottom of the page if you’d like to refresh your memories!

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It was almost the end of another tough year, another year of scrimping and scraping and just getting by. It didn’t seem right, somehow, that Santa should be on the breadline for most of the year, for that was how Henderson thought of himself now; Santa.

He didn’t really think they would take him on again this year, though. Not after what had happened the previous year, that is. But to his surprise, Nicol had smiled at him and said ‘Yes, it’ll be great to have you back on board again,’ without the slightest trace of sarcasm in his voice.

‘How have you been?’

‘Well, my back’s a bit stiffer than it was last year.’

‘You’ll welcome the new changes, then,’ he said, bitterly.

‘Changes?’

‘Yes. I’m afraid the government has taken an interest in us this year. That could spell real trouble in the future – if you come back next year, I expect you’ll find we’ve been privatised. They’re already making noises about cutting the number of presents.

‘It started last year. The Equality Commission visited us with a long list of what they called ‘positive changes’ that we needed to make.

‘Every single household with children needs to be visited, they said.

‘We do that already.

Each child needs to receive gifts of equal value, so that no one can think themselves disadvantaged.

‘We do. We always have done.

And you need to log each visit.

‘We do, it’s computerised. Has been for years. We have records going back to Victorian times.

‘And more crap like that. It feels like the writings on the wall, now.’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, this year they were back again. So if your back’s a problem, you’ll be pleased to know that all the sleighs are wheelchair accessible now; or they will be,’ he corrected himself, ‘just as soon as we finish making the changes.

‘It was sprung on us at the end of November. Some twat with a clipboard and one of those stupid plastic ID cards hanging on a chain around his neck turned up unannounced in the office. He had come to find out whether our employment record reflected the government’s ‘investment in diversity’ – whatever the frick that means. Had we heard that a shopping mall in the USA had a black Santa this year? Yes, I said, we had. And over the years we’ve had sled-loads of black Santas. And brown ones. Pink ones. One year we even had a yellow Santa. Real yellow, I mean. Jaundice, it turned out to be.’ He sighed. ‘That one didn’t turn out well.

That’s good, he said, and ticked something on his clipboard. Then: What about disabled? You’re Joking, I said. How’s a disabled Santa going to get up and down chimneys?’

‘But I didn’t have to…’ Henderson began.

‘Yes, but he wasn’t to know that. That’s for you to facilitate was his reply, though. Bloody hell, can’t these jerks even speak English? Oh, well, that won’t be a problem, I told him, I’ll just put ramps and a ladder in each sleigh.’ Nicol ground his teeth together and looked really angry. ‘I was trying to wind him up, but the bloody idiot just smiled and said oh, well done. I’ll tick that one off too, then.’

‘If I haven’t met that bloke, I’ve certainly met one or two like him.’

‘Oh, there’s more. I’ll need to come and take a look at your sleighs, now. He said. And I should have seen what was coming, then.

‘What?’

‘Now they’ve all had to go back to the workshops to be made wheelchair accessible. We’ve only got two available at the moment, which means things are a bit hectic.’

‘Does that mean you really have to take on Santas who are…well…in wheelchairs?’

‘Fortunately, not.’

‘I’ll bet that’s a relief.’

‘Just elves.’

‘Elves?’

‘Uh-huh. Elves.’ He shrugged. ‘No reason why not, I guess. You know how it works, it’s just a bit slower than usual. It means I put in a requisition for two more sleighs and teams to cover the timings. Probably the biggest pain is the changes to the delivery program.

‘Anyway, that doesn’t affect your team. Here’s your schedule.’

 

They were both rather thickly built, unshaven men. One was smoking a roll-up.

‘They don’t look much like elves’

‘You don’t look much Santa Claus.’

‘I look more like Santa Claus than they look like elves, though.’

‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s your team. They are fully trained and know what they’re doing.’

‘Are these guys from the same agency as me?’

‘No, they’re long-term unemployed. From the Job Centre. Another government stipulation, I’m afraid. Forty-two percent of our intake this year have to be candidates who have been out of work for a year or more. But they’re okay. I did a trial shift with these two yesterday and they were, er, just fine.’ Henderson stared at him. His experience with elves the previous year had made the subject a rather sensitive one. Then he looked at the elves, who stared back at him in what seemed a rather unfriendly manner.

‘No need to gawp,’ said one. ‘Ain’t you never seen a bloke in a pixy hat before?’

‘Not for a while,’ he conceded. ‘I’m Henderson, by the way.’

‘Come on then, Henderson, let’s get in,’ said the other. ‘Let’s get this crap over with, so we can go home.’

‘Put that cigarette out first, Edwards,’ said Nicol, sharply. ‘You know the rules!’ Edwards glared at him, then threw the cigarette across the yard.

‘Bastard!’ he muttered, under his breath. Henderson took his seat at the front of the sleigh and waited for the ‘elves’ to get in.

‘This will be fun,’ he thought, gloomily.

***

If you’ve read this far, and my thanks for doing that, then you might like to read last year’s Christmas short stories:

First one

Second one

Third one

Fourth one