Yea or Nay

Three years ago, along with a lot of other people in Britain, I placed my vote in the European referendum. The next morning I woke up to discover that overnight I had been labelled a “Remainer”, and was informed that my vote was on the losing side and that I therefore no longer had a voice in what would happen as a result of the referendum. All that has continued to be true ever since.

I voted to Remain for what I felt were uncontroversial reasons.

Firstly, in the last forty years or so I have travelled in more than half the European countries who make up the EU. Although none of the countries represents a perfect world, an ideal place, I grew to like the way European countries ran things. Social problems are everywhere but they appear to be dealt with more effectively, more humanely than here in the UK. From my personal perspective there was effective environmental legislation in place, the rights of workers seemed protected, and the arts were better supported. Going to a book fair in Spain, or a literary festival in France or Germany, is an eye-opening experience from a British point of view, and wipes away forever the conceit that the UK is one of the most literate, book-loving countries in the world.

Secondly, having worked in the UK court service for nearly two decades I have become thoroughly versed in the importance, subtlety and civilizing quality of the European Convention on Human Rights. Incorporated into UK law in 1998 it has had what I see as a profound and desirable effect, if largely unrecognized and sometimes misunderstood, on many aspects of daily life in this country.

Thirdly, I lived in the south coast town of Hastings for nearly a quarter of a century. When I moved in it was a seaside dump, with many closed businesses, deteriorating housing stock, a horrendous drug problem and a pretty view of the English Channel. The view never changed, but our partner countries on the other side of the Channel were feeding millions of euros in subsidies and grants into many derelict British towns, including Hastings. All through the time I lived there the town was being cleaned up, repaired, invested in. By the time I left in 2014 it had been transformed. Hastings has become an attractive, prosperous and interesting place, with many cultural and artistic activities. (Now that I am living in Scotland I am starting to find out what similar EU investment in the past has done to improve lives and the environment here. Scotland is already a mini-European country in outlook and effectiveness. NB to people in England: after a few years of moratorium Scotland has just placed a permanent ban on fracking.)

So in a mild way, I felt the EU to be in general a good thing. It never occurred to me that many other people would have the strongly antagonistic feelings about it appallingly revealed in the months that have followed the referendum.

The “Leave” campaign in 2016 was largely run by three secondrate Tory politicians (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith). They were a front for a sinister cabal of secretive businessmen and political opportunists. Laws were broken, and lies were told. Lies were told every day, in fact, some of them so blatantly untrue that they have become a sort of stock-in-trade for comedians. (Mentioning £350 millions a week for the NHS still gets a cheap laugh every time.) The campaign they ran was emotive, it fudged detail, it avoided real issues, it appealed to people’s baser instincts about foreigners and immigrants and hospital waiting lists. Again, these tactics were so conspicuously dishonest that I assumed most people would have the sense to realize what was being said.

Interestingly, as the weak Tory government has tried in recent months to negotiate what they always call a “deal” (a horrible word made popular by Trump’s dishonest practices), it has become blazingly obvious that none of the real issues of leaving the EU, none of the serious problems, were ever mentioned by anyone in the Leave campaign. Does anyone remember the Leave campaign explaining how the problem of the Irish border would be solved?

So it is apparent that many people who voted to Leave were either gulled by the lies (or chose to ignore them after they were exposed), or they were not informed of the reality of what they were voting for. They followed their instincts instead.

The referendum was an opportunity to succumb to the temptation to push a sharp stick into the eyes of the Tory nobs who ran the country. (Not such a bad idea, in socialistic fact: David Cameron’s cabinet contained a majority of public school boys, and at least eleven millionaires.) It was a protest about foreign workers taking up jobs that should have been given to British people. It was a fear of being swamped by immigration. It was a complaint that operations for varicose veins, cataract implants, replacement hips (and treatment for more serious emergencies, like cancer, stroke, etc) were the subject of long delays. It was anger that the schools were crowded and underfunded, that doctors’ surgeries were crammed with freeloading foreigners, that jobs were hard to come by …

All these are genuine concerns, and many people feel disadvantaged by them. But the root cause is not the arrival of refugees from dysfunctional regimes abroad, or Polish workmen, or Bulgarian fruit-pickers, or the policy of freedom of movement, or the unpoliced borders that inadequately protect our island. The truth is that we have been suffering from weak governments dominated by businessmen and hedgefund operatives, short-sighted policies, endless restrictions in the name of “austerity”, and above all a thoroughgoing lack of awareness about what many ordinary people care about on a daily basis, and the problems they have.

In case this seems to be a one-sided tirade against the Tories, let me add that I consider the principal scoundrel responsible for the Brexit mess to be the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Where was the opposition during the referendum campaign? Who challenged the glib lies? Who raised the problem of the Irish border? Not Jeremy Corbyn, who apart from one self-evidently insincere little speech about supporting the Remain side, was all but invisible. His absence created the unfailing impression that the referendum was really just a squabble between two factions in the Conservative Party. Since the referendum, Corbyn’s endless vacillation and unconvincing announcements have only added to the ineffectiveness of this man. He is more responsible than Cameron, May or even Johnson for the mess we are in. There is a place reserved in Brexit hell for Jeremy Corbyn – I’d like to think of him spending eternity in a cell with Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith.

Today was planned to be the last day of our membership of the EU. Thankfully postponed yet again, it has become instead the first day of the General Election campaign. I have never voted Tory in my life, and in the past I worked as a campaign volunteer for the Labour Party. But should you sense even the whisper of a bat’s wing of temptation to vote for Corbyn’s party, I recommend you first to read Tom Bowyer’s biography of Corbyn, just so you know what you would be voting for.

There is only one solution to this mess. The best “deal” is the one we have. Referenda have no constitutional position in the UK. They are advisory only. The next government should swiftly consult the advice of the 2016 referendum, disagree with it, politely reject it, then revoke Article 50 and mend fences with our European friends and say sorry for all the botheration. Corbyn’s head on a stick might be enough to soothe their justifiable irritation with our otherwise green and pleasant land.

Further reading, if you can find a copy – Amazon.co.uk have a few copies at 50p each: Yea or Nay? – Referenda in the United Kingdom, by Stanley Alderson.

Anna K. again

I see my last entry here was more than two months ago. There has been a period of delay, not at all my doing. Meanwhile, I have news of two or three public events in which I shall soon be taking part:

I shall be at Novacon 49, at the Nottingham Sherwood Hotel, from 8 – 10 November. I shall be accompanying my daughter Elizabeth Priest, currently famous all over America since the Wall Street Journal unironically reported that she had not only ironically stockpiled Nutella, mozzarella and lactose-free milk in case of Brexit, but had eaten her way through the lot as one Brexit postponement followed another. More interestingly, Lizzy has just signed up with Luna Press for three more novels in her Troutespond series.

On 14th November I will be at Waterstones in Notting Hill, London W11, where we will be discussing the life and works of Anna Kavan, the fascinating author of the novel Ice, as well as several more novels and collections. She is still, in spite of the best efforts of the likes of me, Brian Aldiss, Doris Lessing and her publishers Peter Owen, woefully underrated. From 7:00pm to 8:30pm — tickets £3.00 from the website linked here.

A week later, on 21st November, I shall be at Cardonald Library, taking part in Book Week Scotland. Admission: free. 6:30pm to 7:30pm. Cardonald Library is on the main road between Paisley and the centre of Glasgow, halfway along. There is a map on the website.

Epi-cycle

The composer John Hodgson has, with astonishing speed and dedication, written a suite of music based on my collection of stories, Episodes. It illustrates, or complements, the book.

Each of the eleven stories has its own composition – I have played the whole suite only once, so I am still absorbing. The entire album can be listened to on the SoundCloud website, here.

Hodgson has also written musical complements to books by Mark Morris and Jeff Noon. They can be heard on the same website.

More Stooge

Rogelio Fojo’s remarkable film of my short story ‘The Stooge’ has gained another festival screening, this one the Burbank International Film Festival, 4-8 September 2019. The story itself (the film tie-in, if you like, although it came first) appears in my new collection Episodes – see below. This will be on sale later this week.

Here is another still from the film:

Episodes

This is my new hardcover from Gollancz, to my mind a well designed and handsome edition. It will be published on 11 July, available in bookstores … and of course may be ordered through Amazon and other online retailers.

Episodes is a collection of short stories with something extra. Each story has a Before and After, two short essays describing how the story came to be written, and what happened to it after that. The idea was to show how tangled the background to the appearance of a short story can sometimes be. For instance, ‘An Infinite Summer’ is a harmless story about innocent love, but it had a pretty aggravating time in the hands of a particular American editor. The full account of what happened to that story is here, and I believe that this is the first time the professional activities, or more accurately the unprofessional non-activities, of that egregious timewaster have been reported accurately in the world of general publishing.

Other stories have their own backgrounds of personal provenance. The elderly woman who arranged for branches of trees to be slung at my car. The bank which thought literature could be made into a staff training device. The weird coincidence of two tragic deaths in train stations: one in the story, the other for real. The previously undescribed horror of an alphabetized book collection.

Also published on 11 July is the paperback edition of my most recently published novel An American Story. For readers in the USA the only way to obtain copies is through internet retailers. Here is a link to amazon.co.uk, although I suspect amazon.com will also make it available. It is still the case that this story of a broken love affair, and the untrue story that obfuscates it, is deemed unsuitable for American readers. (However the novel has done OK in Russia, France, the UK, etc.) Distribution in the US of the British edition is likely to follow in due course, but I know not when.

It is Done

I have not written much here in recent weeks. I have been working on a new novel, and today I sent it in to Robert Kirby, my agent. Uniquely, in my experience, I had a period of more or less six months without interruptions, and I made the most of it.

I was at Utopiales, in Nantes, at the beginning of November, but returned feeling worn out and over-extended. Too much travel, and a heavy cold contracted because of Easyjet’s tight-fisted habit of overcrowding their unforgivably minimalist cabins, laid me flat during much of the rest of the month. I rose from the bed at the beginning of December, and almost immediately began work on the novel. I was refreshed, renewed, and had at last stopped coughing.

Amazingly, to me if not to anyone else, I had completed the first draft before the end of February. I began the second draft the next day, and that was completed mid-May. (The sole interruption during that period was Easter weekend, when I was at Ytterbium in London.) For the last couple of weeks I have been doing last minute corrections and amendments, but today it is all done. Overall, writing the novel was a happy experience. This morning the sun is shining, the Firth is mirror-calm, the ferries are sailing to and fro. I am free.

The new novel is unlike any of my previous novels, and stands as a sort of antidote to what happened to the first edition of An American Story. (We suspend judgement on what the trade will do with the paperback of that, due next month, along with a new hardcover collection of stories, Episodes.) No publishing arrangement has yet been made for the new book.

I shall be at Cymera, a book festival in Edinburgh, this coming weekend. Details: Sunday 9th June, 4.45 p.m, in Upper Hall, The Pleasance, 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh. EH8 9TJ. Details of my gig are here. Details of the Cymera festival are here.

On Friday 12th July, Nina Allan and I will be at BSFG (Brumgroup): 7:30 p.m. for 8:00 p.m., First Floor, The Briar Rose Hotel, Bennetts Hill, Birmingham. More details of BSFG here.

The Stooge

This is a still from the film of my short story, “The Stooge”. It was directed by Rogelio Fojo in Los Angeles, and runs for a fraction over 20 minutes. It’s another film about stage magic, but this time not set in the period of grand theatrical magic, but a much more modern, realistic, down-at-heel time.

Other than writing the original story, then drafting a screenplay, I had nothing to do with the production process. The first I knew about it was when I was sent a finished copy. To say I was surprised by the result is an understatement. It strikes me as an extraordinary accomplishment. In many ways it looks as good as The Prestige, but was made on a budget literally .05% of that film, for all its famous stars and legendary director. Fojo has achieved as much, working with less. The Stooge is offbeat, intriguing, thoroughly cinematic, sometimes funny, it has beautiful photography and music … and real magic. The opening credits show the workings of a sleight — a few moments later you see the sleight again, and you still can’t see how it’s done. Pure magic.

Practical details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database. (If you’re interested, similar details of The Prestige can also be found here.)

Although The Stooge was completed last year, it has just achieved its first professional booking. It will be shown at the North Hollywood Cinefest, 20-28th March 2019. I hope this will be not only the first festival to exhibit it, but many more to come. I am now allowed, indeed urged, to display this token:

“The Stooge”, the original story, is included in my new collection, Episodes, due from Gollancz on 11th July 2019. Early details here.

Travels, 2019

Winter in Scotland is always a bit of a challenge, but so far this year we have been let off fairly lightly. The weather here on the west coast is much milder than most people realize, but it’s also unpredictable. Anyway, both Nina and I have been working hard: Nina has delivered a new novel to her agent, and I am coming towards the end of the first draft of another. This has kept us in the house for the most part, while the storms rage outside and the cats come in looking a bit damp and indignant. But the new year is here, and I will be getting out and about. Do come along if you can and say hello:

22nd March – I shall be appearing at the Glasgow book festival Aye Write! This will be at the Mitchell Library, starting at 6:00pm. Details here.

19th to 21st April – I will be at Ytterbium, the British Eastercon at the Park Inn, Heathrow, London. My daughter Elizabeth will be with me: her second novel is being launched at the convention. Contact Ytterbium.

23rd to 26th May – Assuming I still have a valid passport, post Brexit, I will be at Imaginales (le festival des mondes imaginaires). This is the annual festival in Épinal, Vosges, and greatly to be enjoyed in the early summer weather. Do get there if you can. Imaginales.

7th June – I shall be at Cymera 7, in Edinburgh, described as Scotland’s inaugural SFF festival. All details here.

12th July — Nina and I will be at Birmingham SF Group, Briar Rose Hotel, Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham. 7:30pm for an 8:00pm start.

30th to 31st August – I shall be in my old home town for the Hastings Litfest. Details here.

Shameless (and proud)

I can only say this once, so pay attention! Concrete Faery is a novel written by my daughter, whom I adore and admire, and for all sorts of obvious reasons is a writer I can say nothing about in public without arousing deep suspicions of nepotism. Onward …

Concrete Faery is Lizzy’s first novel, a YA fantasy, written engagingly and with a constant sense of dry and sceptical wit. It has an amusing idea at its heart: that if faeries did in reality exist, nosey teenagers would (a) notice them before anyone else, and (b) turn out to be the worst people to have to deal with them. It is set in a bucolic nomansland, the English village of Troutespond, instantly recognizable, worryingly weird.

This is the first novel in a series – Book Two, The Changeling’s Choice, will follow in April next year and be launched at Eastercon, and the third novel, Midsummer Dance, will follow later in 2019. A total of twelve Troutespond books will make up the series – Lizzy has already completed drafts of several of them, and is working on the rest.

I had nothing at all to do with the writing of these books (dratted children do things behind parents’ backs), and apart from an early introduction I had nothing to do with getting the books published. It is all Elizabeth’s own work, and I hope she does well with them. Luna Press, who have an interesting left-of-field list of fantasy and related books, are to be congratulated for taking her on, and for producing such an unusual and good-looking edition.

Copies are available in both print form and Kindle from Amazon.co.uk – and here is Elizabeth’s own website, and Luna Press’s.

I’ve said it once — now my lips are sealed.

Cognition and dissent

An American Story will be published in the UK and France this week, on 6th September. I shall be discussing the book in Waterstones in Argyle Street, Glasgow this evening, and on Wednesday evening (5th September) I shall be at Waterstones in Gower Street, London. After that I shall be in France for a few weeks, for some similar events in Paris and other places.  I am concerned, though, that the book is not available in the USA. American readers will only be able to buy the Gollancz edition as an e-book, which will be available worldwide immediately. Next year, Gollancz will distribute their print edition in the USA.

Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower (the TV adaptation is on Amazon Prime), said that any writer who takes on the subject of 9/11 is venturing into hallowed ground. (‘Hallowed ground’ is a phrase sometimes applied to the Ground Zero site in New York City.) I’m beginning to see what he meant, as the rejection of my novel by American publishers, large and small, is complete.

Given the known risks of seeming to be an unlucky writer venting his outrage at purblind publishers, here’s the story. I am not new to the problems of finding American publishers. At least two of my books, The Quiet Woman and The Dream Archipelago, have never been published in the USA, and The Separation received a similar thumbs-down from trade publishers until it was picked up by Michael Walsh’s niche imprint, Old Earth Books. (The Separation still has not found a mass-market edition in the USA.) Even The Prestige, which has been in print for more than two decades, had a struggle to find an American offer back in the day. Now it is happening again, this time to An American Story.

As a writer you have to take the rough with the smooth. No one owes you a living. You learn to shrug these things off, although shrugging off non-publication in the world’s largest English-language market is not easy if you make your living from writing books. By no means am I the only writer this has happened to – many others in this country and elsewhere have suffered worse than me.

Looking through the editors’ notes of rejection, and setting aside the opening lip-service compliments about my wonderfulness as a writer, presumably an attempt to soften me up, a consistent theme of negativity emerges. They worry about the subject-matter, the difficulty they perceive of selling a book that deals with 9/11, also their wish not to stir up the feelings that such a book inevitably, as they see it, would arouse amongst readers. The word ‘conspiracy’ appears several times.

One of the matters I noticed, while I was doing the necessary research for the novel, was that there are almost no investigative books about 9/11, fact or fiction, from trade or commercial publishers. There have been several novels in which the attacks are mentioned and discussed openly, describing the trauma, the shock, the feelings of anger, etc., and there have been memoirs and books about people’s horrifying experiences and the losses they endured – but there is almost nothing about the immense and intriguing controversy that surrounds the US authorities’ version of what happened.

Most of the books I could find on that subject were either from independent or underground publishers, or were self-published. Many of these books are poorly written. In a similar way, the internet is awash with video material, much of it dealing with shocking, controversial or passionately argued exposés of the events and the official explanations of them, but almost without exception these videos run and re-run familiar images, often in poor video quality, and are amateurishly put together. Overall they lack objectivity or journalistic skill. The internet is one thing, but the almost complete absence of responsible literature from established publishers is a disgrace. The appearance of An American Story from mainstream publishers in the UK and France is therefore a small breakthrough.

My novel (and it is above all just a novel) is in effect about a condition psychologists describe as cognitive dissonance. This identifies a state of mind in which two versions of reality or understanding are held at once, even though they are in conflict with each other. A simple example of cognitive dissonance is the mindset of a tobacco user, who in full awareness of the dangers of smoking clings to certain false beliefs: that there are many other risks in daily life and smoking is no worse than any of those, that smoking is calming and helps concentration, that the medical evidence is wrong or exaggerated, and so on. Heavy drinkers of alcohol make the same sort of denials. Individuals are of course free to make such arguments, because (apart from drunk drivers, etc) most of the damage they do is largely restricted to themselves.

On the macro scale, though, cognitive dissonance is dangerous. Several current examples spring to mind.

The UK government must surely realize the extreme dangers and chaos that their obsession with Brexit is leading this country into. Apart from the unreliable result of an ill-argued referendum there is not a single good reason to pursue this suicidal policy – all the objective evidence bespeaks economic and social ruination. Yet they push on with it, knowing the issues but doggedly ignoring common sense, the lessons of history, the essential qualities of the British nation.

It’s even worse in the USA. With Donald Trump presently occupying the White House, the USA is living under not only the worst and most dangerous president in history, but the one likely to be the worst ever. The evidence of Trump’s incompetence, his low intelligence, his increasing dementia and above all his immoral outlook is everywhere – there are so many proven examples that in the end you start forgetting some of them. Yet he stays in place, apparently secure in his important office because a majority of people in the US are suffering cognitive dissonance. They know full well what a terrible man this is, completely ill-suited to be president, and that he should be removed. But they do nothing. They make excuses, they deny what they know is true.

Then there is 9/11, of which I have written. My novel is about the cognitive dissonance that sustains a myth. Everyone in America knows what happened that day, everyone knows the story that eventually emerged from the US authorities to account for it. Most people have also heard that the story (the ‘American story’ of my title) is full of illogical reasoning, omissions, bad science, inconsistency, implausible explanations, but they go on preferring the official story because it’s simpler and it maintains the status quo ante.

Those unwelcome doubts are raised by people the American media call conspiracy theorists; others are described as ‘truthers’. While loony conspiracy theories spring up these days about almost any publicized violent event, the ‘truth movement’ in the USA is of a different stripe. They are usually lumped in with the cranks, written off by the contempt implicit in the label as oddballs, troublemakers, fringe activists. But in reality the truth movement consists of professional engineers, architects, chemists, airline pilots, physicists, air traffic controllers, scholars, defence analysts. All of these groups (and in membership they number several thousand) have mounted sober and rational dissent from the official story. In every case they back up their arguments with evidence, hard science, clear logic. Necessarily they have had to work outside the mainstream of publishing. The dismissive labelling of them as ‘truthers’ avoids the disagreeable necessity of having to think about what they are pointing out, and more so, takes away the need to do something about it.

9/11 was a disaster of international proportions, its deadly consequences continuing into the present day, but because the attacks happened where they did, the Americans have grabbed the rights to the story. Not all stories are true. Some are cognitively dissonant, full of denial.

My book is a novel, and it stands or falls in that respect. I make no claim for it other than the fact that it is not part of a conspiracy, that I do believe in the truth, and that one should always listen to dissent.