Vision Back On

About five years ago my then optician peered closely, and said, “You are developing cataracts.” He advised there was nothing that needed to be done, nothing to worry about. Two years later came the same warning – still nothing needed to be done. Last year another optician said, “You have cataracts.”

By this time I knew: when I looked at bright lights they were surrounded by haloes, daylight from windows tended to dim the rest of the room. Reading small print in books was becoming a problem. Cinemas invariably projected films slightly out of focus. Driving still felt safe enough, unless I needed to read direction signs – as by this time we were living in Devon, where most of the road signs are still the old-fashioned wooden sort, that sometimes led to confusion. One night, driving for many miles in thick fog between the endless high hedges of Devon lanes, I became totally lost. I was ready to have my cataracts fixed.

But then it was explained to me that the NHS administrators in England required a certain threshold of foggy vagueness to be met before I could be referred for an operation, and I was still a long way below that. Six months later the result was the same. I did not meet the NHS threshold. I continued to blunder onwards, sometimes missing things, bumping into things at other times.

We moved to Scotland, a new optician and a slightly different version of the NHS. This optometrist scoffed at the whole idea of a threshold, and promptly referred me to the local hospital.

Last week (after a couple of months of nervy anticipation), the deed was done. Although I would not say I enjoyed the day of the operation, the pleasantness and professional skills of the nurses and doctors at the Golden Jubilee Hospital on Clydeside made it painless, swift and effective. Like many people who have direct experience of the NHS, which these days is endlessly at risk from the mendacity of politicians, I believe it to be a fantastic service of which the rest of the world should be envious. (Note to Trump supporters: it’s completely free at point of use, it’s open to everyone resident in the UK, it’s terrific.)

The next day I wandered around the town, soaking in the detail, my sense of visual perspective regained. Above all the colours: not just brighter and more intense, although they were, but the subtleties of colour, the shades, the contrasts. The town was under a silvery light, every tiny wave on the surface of the firth was sharply delineated. Oh, joy!

Next year, my other eye will be repaired. I can hardly wait. Here is an approximation of the improvement I am experiencing:

An American Story

At the beginning of last week I completed and sent in my new novel, An American Story. It is partly set in the USA, partly on an island – but not the Dream Archipelago. I would describe it as being at the speculative end of the spectrum of fantastic literature, rather than in the more central scientific or mythic bands.

As a teaser, here is an image from an old photograph, showing one of the main locations in the story, a place in the USA (unlikely though that might seem at first glance):

 

Here it began, here it ends

In 1962 I was working in the City of London as the world’s worst trainee accountant. I hated the job, and they hated me too. They should have fired me, but they couldn’t because we had signed articles (a binding agreement for five years) that meant I could not leave and they could not fire me. (In 1965, the articles came to an end. They fired me.)

However, early in 1962 I was still there, and a teenage passion for science fiction had suddenly made life more interesting. One of the writers I most admired was Brian Aldiss, who had written several intriguingly unusual short stories, and two or three novels which I thought were pretty good. One of them, Non-Stop, a brilliantly mad and inventive subversion of a trad American science fiction theme (a big spaceship lost in space), had so enthralled me that it had convinced me I should one day like to become a writer too. It took a while to get there, but I never forgot the epiphany of realizing that writing was a human activity that was achievable. Brian Aldiss had also published an anthology called Penguin Science Fiction. (Published by Penguin Books, and full of science fiction, of course.) In the short biography of the editor it mentioned that Mr Aldiss was the president of something called the British Science Fiction Association — I imagined it to be a place where people with mighty minds and vivid imaginations would meet in conclave.

One evening I read a review in the London Evening News of a new novel by John Christopher called The World in Winter. The review gave extravagant praise to this book, but ruined everything by going on to complain that the novel had been marketed as science fiction, which the idiot reviewer described (but not in so many words) as a despicable commercial genre that of course no one could take seriously. This is a customary put-down of science fiction (still in use, no sign yet of its fall from usefulness) deployed by inexperienced reviewers who are trying to impress readers they assume to be even more stupid than themselves. Although I was only 18 I had already spotted this type. I felt weary contempt for whoever it was. Didn’t know what to say.

Not Brian Aldiss, who had also seen this annoying review, and as president of the BSFA wrote a witty letter of complaint to the newspaper, pointing out what a dullard their reviewer was. They published his address at the end of his letter.

I therefore wrote to Mr Aldiss, complimented him on his letter, and timidly asked if it was possible for nonentities like me to join the BSFA, or was it only for writers? Brian Aldiss responded at once, complimented me on having the right attitude, said that of course the BSFA was open to anyone (and passed on the contact address) and went on to urge me to attend the annual science fiction convention, where he would love to meet me and have a good conversation.

It was a marvellous letter for an insecure and bookish teenager to receive. I treasured it and kept it, and to this day it remains the first item in my huge archive of correspondence.

In fact, I was too hard up and too shy to go the SF convention, and did not meet Brian Aldiss in person until about 1965. Then, when he found out my name, he said, ‘I remember you — you wrote me that intelligent letter! Come and have a drink!’ It was the first moment of a friendship that was to last, with the usual ups and downs of any friendship between two difficult men, for more than half a century.

This is a photograph taken in June 1970, by Margaret, Brian Aldiss’s second wife. Brian had generously invited me down to their house in Oxfordshire to celebrate the publication of my first novel Indoctrinaire. Also there was Charles Monteith, who was not only my editor at the publishers Faber & Faber, he was Brian’s too. He had been responsible for buying and publishing all the early Aldiss books, including those short stories I had admired so much, and the fabulous bravura of Non-Stop.

Today I learned that Brian had died, one day after his 92nd birthday. When someone has had such a long life, living to a great age, the end will not come as a surprise to those around, but none the less this news came as a profound and upsetting shock. I was privileged to write a long obituary for the Guardian, but a formal article is not the appropriate place to express fondness and gratitude for everything. His work shines out as an example to us all, a standard to strive to equal. His professionalism was legendary. His conversation was something to stay up all night for, and his sense of fun was marvellous. He is irreplaceable.

 

Before I forget

Since the beginning of April I have been working on a new novel. It has occupied almost all my interest and most of my time since then, so I have rather neglected writing anything here. The novel will be titled An American Story, and I hope and plan to deliver it in the next few weeks.

(It did have a “The” title for a while, but I began to think it was time to put that to rest for a while. Also put aside, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever, is the Dream Archipelago. I have not lost interest in either of these signature marks, but they were indeed starting to feel like signature marks. I hate being pigeonholed, so An American Story will be something new and different.)

Something old: my most recently published novel, The Gradual, is now out in paperback in both the USA and the UK (Titan and Gollancz respectively), and I have a new short story about to appear in an anthology called 2084, from the indie publisher Unsung Stories. This book is a celebration of George Orwell’s best known novel, a hundred years on. Although I rate Nineteen Eighty-Four as a genuine classic, I believe Orwell’s most important work, at least in terms of the great influence he has had on those of us who follow him, lies in his non-fiction, notably his social and political essays. My story is therefore called “Shooting an Episode”.

My small, specialist literary agency (est. 1981) has recently been given a refreshing boost of new legitimacy in that I am now representing the Belfast-based writer, Sam Thompson. Sam is the real thing: a new and thrilling literary writer of genuine and original talent. His first book Communion Town was a brilliant and radical exegesis of ten modes of fantastic fiction. (The subtitle was: A City in Ten Chapters.) It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in its year but went no further. As is often the case its fascination with the fantastic reduced its chances of being treated as a serious work. (Familiar problem.) It should have walked into the Booker shortlist, and been a strong contender for the main prize — but that was not to be. One day it will be recognized for what it was, and the Booker judges for what they were. Anyway, Sam has now produced a second novel called Jott, and we have sold it to John Murray in the UK. It will be out in the summer of next year.

Last month I recorded a 35-minute unedited interview with BBC Radio Scotland, in their Good Morning, Scotland strand. No doubt most people missed this (not everyone), but you can catch up with it here. Warning: it starts suddenly, and there’s a huge photo to get past.

Coming soon:

Nina and I will be joint guests of honour at Fantasticon in Copenhagen, 2nd-3rd September.

I will be at the Gollancz Festival, held in Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, on 4th November. Tickets and details here.

On 13th November I shall be doing a reading and a Q&A at Glasgow University, in their series of Creative Conversations.

And on 25th November I shall be at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, giving a talk at the conference Weird Fiction and J. G. Ballard. (I don’t appear to have a link for that yet.)

I hope I can get the new novel delivered before most of that lot kicks in …

An Elephant in the Room (really)

Since the beginning of April this year I have been absorbed in writing a new novel, which has led to a general paucity of entries here. It has also meant that I have neglected to mention something rather unusual and (for me at least) thrilling. The MSU Broad Gallery (patrons Eli and Edythe Broad) has mounted an exhibition of artwork inspired by my novel The Prestige. It is called The Transported Man.

The curator of the exhibition is Marc-Olivier Wahler, previously director and chief curator of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the gallery is at Michigan State University in Detroit. It opened on April 29 and continues until October 22. I have not seen the exhibition myself, nor have I even seen the catalogue, but I know that M. Wahler has been planning this for nearly a decade. Originally it was intended to be mounted at Palais de Tokyo, but he has recently moved to the USA and is now Director at the Broad.

Information about the gallery is at the Michigan State University website, there is a review of the exhibition at The Detroit News, and an extended interview with Marc-Olivier Wahler here. I am unlikely to be able to get away from my desk until I have delivered this novel, but if you are near enough to Detroit to visit the gallery I should be greatly interested to know what the exhibition is like.

Buy and Read This Book NOW

The title is On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, written by Timothy Snyder and published in the UK by Bodley Head. It is terrifying and illuminating, and in my view it must be read as widely as possible.

You can order a copy of the paperback here, or download a Kindle edition here. Better still, buy a copy from your nearest bookstore.

George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Professor Snyder’s short book (a mere 126 pages) is a succinct and up-to-the minute reminder of the past, and therefore a timely analysis of the real dangers manifested by the present occupant of the White House. Nowhere in the book does he mention the name of the President, but it is of course clear exactly who he means. The past of which Snyder reminds us includes the events in Germany and Italy during the fascist era, and in Russia during the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.

On Tyranny - SnyderSnyder’s twenty lessons cover some familiar ground, at least in the early pages, but all are written with great clarity. The book gains weight and power as it proceeds. I was particularly impressed by his analysis of the perversion of facts and language, and the Orwellian doublespeak in which journalists, judges, political opponents, senators and almost everyone else are suborned. Even Orwell did not think of “fake facts”.

Snyder is also acerbic about Brexit. His critique of what is happening in this country now, this month, this week, last week, strikes me as a new insight, original and extremely alarming. Even if you aren’t worried stiff by the current US President, the Brexit passage alone will energize a whole new area of dread and dismay in your soul, especially perhaps if you voted to Leave.

Snyder cites a writer I had never heard of before, Victor Klemperer, a German scholar and chronicler. Born in 1881, a Jew but also a German patriot, Klemperer remained in Germany throughout most of the second world war. From his daily experiences Klemperer analysed in his journal the way in which Adolf Hitler and his Nazi appointees subverted language to reject legitimate opposition. (E.g. presuming to speak for “the people” without any kind of constituency.) Klemperer said there were four modes of address associated with Hitler:

1. Open hostility to verifiable reality, presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.
2. Shamanistic incantation, endlessly repeating fictions to make them plausible until they become familiar shorthand – examples include “Germany was stabbed in the back” and “The Jewish conspiracy” – and in modern times “Crooked Hillary”, “Build that wall”, etc.
3. Magical thinking, or openly embracing contradiction. E.g. boost military spending, renew the infrastructure, eliminate the national debt, and also promise to cut taxes, all somehow at once.
4. Misplaced faith. E.g., he alone can solve all the problems, unquestioning belief in him as a leader and salvation, a self-image of himself as an outsider from the political class, an ordinary man who has a chance to speak for other ordinary people.

Reading this, it was quite a wrench to remember that Klemperer was talking about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and not the ignorant and dangerous lout who in the present day has taken power in the USA.

Snyder describes how despotism takes hold, the tyrant opportunistically using some unforeseen disaster or violent event to enhance power. Hitler’s hold on Germany was confirmed after the fire at the Reichstag, Putin used terrorist outrages to climb the ladder of power in Russia. This sort of thing is what I myself fear most, simply because it is likely to happen. The President has shown himself to be a weak and ineffectual leader, one after another of his executive orders nullified by the checks and balances of the American system … he covers his sulk by going away to play golf with his rich friends, then jets down to his Florida playground. But what would be the consequences for democracy of another 9/11, of a major natural disaster, of another Hurricane Katrina, of a new financial crash?

Read this book soon. A year from now you might not be able to.

One Afternoon

“Utah Beach”

Some forty years ago I sold an anthology of new short stories and novellas to my then publishers, Faber & Faber. It was called Anticipations (a nod to H. G. Wells), and Faber published an attractive hardcover in 1978. An American edition from Scribner followed in the same year. Paperbacks followed, as did a few translations around the world. It contained eight new stories by Ian Watson, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw, myself, Harry Harrison, Thomas M. Disch, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss (I arranged the stories in reverse alphabetical order by author).

Anticipations gained some favourable reviews, but its life was short and it has not been available for years, although several of the stories were re-anthologized or included by some of the writers in collections of their own. Now that we have finished moving house, and I have a whole room dedicated to storing the papers, books, contracts, cuttings, etc., accumulated over the years, I have started looking through the immense heap trying to impose order. Small and forgotten surprises have emerged from the chaos of old files and folders, including the photo above.

It was sent to me by J. G. Ballard, after I had bought the story he submitted: “One Afternoon at Utah Beach”. (The story was later included in his collection The Venus Hunters, 1980.) The photograph arrived in a small envelope, plastered with low-value postage stamps – a total of 6½p, in 1p, 1½p and ½p stamps. I think he did this habitually, as several other letters I received from him arrived similarly covered in stamps. On the back of the photo he had written “Utah Beach”.

Essex Book Festival, 25th March

I shall be at the Essex Book Festival on Saturday 25th March, in conversation with Sarah Brown about The Gradual, and other books.

The venue is Lord Ashcroft Building, Anglia Ruskin University, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford CM1 1SQ – the event is from 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm. More details, of course, can be found here. See you on the day, I hope?

Hello to All That

The Fowlesian warning

Above the door to the room that has become my new study there is a sign: WAITING ROOM. Shades of John Fowles! In Fowles’s brilliant novel The Magus (1965), the protagonist Nicholas Urfe is warned: “Beware of the waiting room.” It takes a while for Urfe to understand the true import of this warning, and in a similar way my new room just feels like a good place to have an office. The sign stays up, but I’m on my guard.

(There is a similar sign over the door to the adjacent room: SURGERY. We quickly worked out therefore that this house was formerly used by a GP. I am currently looking around for the inevitable pile of much-read old magazines.)

From all this you may assume that we have arrived safely in our new home. We have moved out of England and are living on the Scottish island of Bute.

The Firth – Cowal Peninsula in the distance

We now have a daily prospect of other islands, of distant mountains, and of a sheltered inland sea. Bute is both romantic and workaday, wild but tamed, under-populated but busy and self-sufficient. It is situated in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow as the crow flies, forty-five miles or so, but by being an island it is naturally isolated in practice and in attitude, and is therefore a different world.

We were in Devon before we moved – you never in fact tire of being in Devon, because it is an unassertive place of natural beauty, of as-yet undamaged countryside and a quiet way of life, but we had been there for two and a half years and felt, rather reluctantly, it was time to move on.

Why Scotland? Many reasons, not least being the fact that we love the Scottish scenery, the glens and the lochs and the almost endless variety of the island and mountain landscapes, but in reality we felt it was not practicable for us to live in the Highlands, so we have not moved there. Another motivator for the move was the incompetence and dogmatic conservatism of the present Westminster government – they are cutting back on schools, hospitals, social services and renewable energy sources, yet encouraging frackers and seacoal burners, and any kind of presumed financial service they think might massage the economy. There is almost zero support or encouragement from the philistine London government for writers, painters and other artists, while in Scotland the arts are taken seriously at many levels of society. And then there is the matter of Brexit, something I consider to be a disaster, now in the process of being bungled into a disaster of historical proportions by the present UK government. Every part of Scotland voted Remain in the EU referendum. Anyway, we are not farmers or crofters – we need to be close to bookshops, cinemas, theatres, galleries, grocery stores, takeaway food, the Post Office, and more mundane services such as those of dentist and doctor.

Rothesay is the only town on Bute, and it provides all of those (and more), while maintaining the generally intangible aura of being on the edge of the elements. A mile from the centre of town is a huge roadless zone of high moor and windswept hills. The edge of the sea is literally fifty feet from where I am sitting at my desk. Ferries to the mainland come and go at 45-minute intervals all day and every day.

MV Bute leaving Rothesay Harbour

Yesterday the Firth of Clyde was swathed in thick sea fog, and as dawn came up I managed to catch this photograph of one of the ferries just about to head out to sea. Two miles in the opposite direction to the hills and the port is the gothic masterpiece of Mount Stuart House, one of the most astonishing stately homes anywhere in the UK. Less than a year ago a complete First Folio of Shakespeare was discovered in the library.

I intend to get back to writing my next novel pretty soon. The short first draft manuscript I was working on a month ago is in one of the boxes heaped up next door – I’ll keep searching.

Goodbye to All This

We shall be moving house a few days before Donald Trump enters the White House. A small domestic upheaval before a seismic disturbance of historical significance.

I fear and loathe Trump, in the same way I feared and loathed the bullies who dominated my life when I was six and seven years old. I was a middle-class boy with the London accent I had picked up from my Londoner parents (they had been exiled to the north of England by the German bombing). I was sent to a primary school largely populated by kids from the slum-clearance estate that had appeared suddenly on the edge of the Cheshire village where I was born. They too had been exiled by the bombing, in their case from the narrow, mean backstreets of central Manchester. Even at this early age they were tough kids, looked it and acted it. Few of them could read or write, many of them thought with their fists or their boots, and a nervous middle-class kid who had a London accent and liked reading books was for them a heaven-sent opportunity. I shed my London vowels as quickly as possible, but I have never been a fighter and nothing could put a stop to the violent class war that broke out around me and on me. (When I was eight I passed an entrance exam and was moved to a different school.)

Trump reminds me unfailingly of those troubled and inadequate kids, who saw me, and a handful of others like me, as some kind of threat to however it was they dimly and narrowly interpreted the world. Trump is my enemy, in the same way as those louts were my enemies. He is inexperienced, ignorant and crude. He is a sex offender, an abuser of women, a mocker of people with disabilities, a racist. He is culturally bereft. He clearly lacks the capacity for imaginative thought, for subtlety, diplomacy – or any kind of structured decision-making. Worst of all, he actually sees these major personality flaws as qualifications, as character qualities that give him the right profile to be president of the most powerful nation on Earth.

The prospect of this appalling man having any kind of political power, even for a short time, is terrifying. No good can come of it, and although in the past I have worried intensely about political leaders, and suffered by their policies – Margaret Thatcher, the Bushes, Vladimir Putin, Ronald Reagan – with hindsight the threats they represented seem laughably trivial compared with potential for the economic, political, social and military chaos that is likely to result from the bizarre prejudices and confusions of the offensive and disgusting Trump.

Our move away from Devon is not directly connected with Trump, of course, but our decision to move came after the full impact of the depressing Brexit vote began to sink in, and while Trump’s revolting election campaign was at its height. Maybe these two signal events of 2016 had an influence on our choice, but we maintain our motives are positive, not an instinct to try to flee. Devon is itself something of a refuge, of course, a place of presumed safety some people move to as an escape from the harsher realities of the modern world.

We have been happy in Devon: the landscape in particular strikes a resonant chord in me. To most people who live in Britain and who travel to the west country, Devon is a sort of rural prelude to the more commercially adept resort areas of Cornwall. There is nothing much in Devon: there are two big cities, Exeter and Plymouth, but neither of these is on the same sort of scale as the major cities of Britain, and both are well contained within their localities. Exeter in particular is a compact, attractive town. There are a few other smaller towns, but most of Devon is countryside: farms, woods, moors, river valleys, wild coastline. It is peaceful and beautiful, and although such passive countryside is openly vulnerable to exploitation, so far it has been left more or less undamaged by industrialization, by commercial enterprises, by intrusive housing developments, by the unwanted construction of trunk roads. It has not been entirely spared these modern features, but there are still large areas of the Devon countryside that have not substantially changed in centuries.

It has to be fought for. Housing estates are appearing on the edges of many villages, bringing dull modern designs to places better known for cob cottages and thatched roofs. Supermarkets are being built in many of the market towns. Even the one true wilderness in the heart of Devon, Dartmoor National Park, is at risk – many of the off-road tors are now being indelibly streaked with wide and muddy tracks created by trail bikes and ATVs, which are in any event a noisy nuisance to walkers. None of this is the reason we are leaving, because this is the modern world and people have to live somewhere, and anyway so far the damage is not irreparable.

The house we are leaving is situated on high land close to the valley of the River Taw. This meanders calmly between hills, through its flood plain, free of pollution, rich with fish, animals and birdlife. Not far from this is a tributary, the River Mole, flowing down from Exmoor to Kings Nympton, where it joins the Taw. In its comparatively short length the Mole has four of its own tiny tributaries, all more or less unknown outside the locality. They have lovely names: the Yeo, the Crooked Oak, the Bray, the Little Silver Stream.

Of any of this, Donald J. Trump knows nothing. He sees land as something to be bought and developed: he has purchased two golf courses in Scotland. (One of them was already there, but after a lengthy battle with local people and environmentalists he built the Balmedie course on formerly undeveloped coastline near Aberdeen, a bird sanctuary and a marine landscape of dunes and wild beaches.) He believes climate change is a hoax, played by China on the USA to make Americans lose their jobs – he has said that on taking office he will “cancel” all existing US climate change policies. He has “promised” to restore the torturing of political prisoners. He has discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Europe. He urged gun owners to turn them on his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. He –

I have always loved and admired the USA, but some recent madness has made Americans inflict this inadequate and troubled lout on the world.

For the next two or three weeks we will be packing our stuff, moving our stuff some 800 kms (approx. 500 miles), unpacking our stuff, getting our stuff to work again … we will be off grid for a while. By the time we are back on, well – see above.

Happy New Year!