April 2019 was the centenary of the Amritsar massacre. An event which arguably marked the beginning of the end of Britain as an imperial power - and which was also an excellent expression of the true nature of the British Empire.
The way the British establishment talks about the empire is a perfect illustration of collective myth-making.
I was looking at the night sky earlier - a frosty sliver of moon and a bright morning star - and I thought of Galileo, and what happened to him as a result of his ideas. In a nutshell, he was arrested, tried, and spent the rest of his life deprived of liberty because he believed in something we now see as too obvious to question: that our Earth revolves around our Sun, and not the other way around.
Galileo didn’t come up with the idea, and the reasons for his arrest were also political and personal – but nonetheless, he was tried by the Inquisition, told to renounce his heretical ideas, and denied any further publication of his writing. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. At least he wasn’t burnt alive as some of his contemporaries were.
On two separate occasions in the last week, I have heard people attempt to bring an end to a conversation by saying, “But that’s all about the past.” In the context they meant to say that we should forget the past, and that it’s more important to look to the future. But you only have to look around to see that the past is never over.
“Huge Solar Storm set to slam Earth tomorrow!” Daily Mail online.
During the last week, as I write, that was just one headline warning of imminent disaster at the approach of a great solar storm which would cause disruption to radio communications including cellphones; to satellites, including the GPS system; break our electricity supply networks, causing power cuts, oh, and there’d be terrific displays of the Northern Lights, right down to northern England.
I wrote this recently as a guest blog on Radical Soapbox: Housing in Britain is broken. Everyone agrees, yet the discussion goes round and round the same narrow circle of choices. Nobody seems to realise that there’s no cosmic inevitability about things as they are. London gets another set of empty towers or a garden bridge (or not), not because of some abstract destiny, but because people – actual human beings – decide it shall be so. And so, for a different approach to housing, I offer you the city of Vienna.
I notice a trend for certain groups to make an amount of noise about the past. Most recently as I write, an argument over renaming the Colston Hall in Bristol, because Colston was a prominent slave trader. Previously there was a campaign to tear down an Oxford statue of Cecil Rhodes because of his part in the British Empire’s record of subjugating and plundering the countries it “acquired”. To retain these monuments, the argument goes, is to endorse the opinions and actions of these bad people of the past.
I think this misguided and naïve.
I’ve just seen “La La Land” – a little late, but there you go. I admit that what follows is influenced by a reaction to the level of hype the film has received, and also to the director’s previous film, “Whiplash”, which was also hyped to the heavens, and which … well, it’s possibly the only film I can say I hated. But that’s another story.
At its best, reading historical fiction is like a journey to a fabulous new place – familiar, and yet totally different – from where you see your “normal” everyday world through fresh eyes. But sometimes there are bumps in the road. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction, and I’ve read a lot of contemporary fiction written over the last three hundred years or so. In writing stories set in the past, I’ve found one of the most difficult things to gauge is how much detail to include.
I’ve been reading some diaries lately. Not mine. Those of far more interesting people. It’s been like listening to a friend who’s just come back from holiday, telling you all about it. Not just any friend, but a really good story-teller who brings all their experiences to life. Of course you weren’t actually there, but it feel as if you were in the next room, watching and listening. And what I find really entrancing in my recent favourites is that they’re writing about their everyday lives two or three hundred years ago:
Language changes all the time. The way we speak now is very different from the way our ancestors spoke in the time of, let’s say, Shakespeare. And written and spoken language change at different rates in different ways.
I’ve been re-reading a couple of the James Bond books. Most of them were written during the 1950s, and they’re fascinating period pieces. But most of all, they’re interesting because they show what hasn’t changed. They explain a great deal of what we’ve been seeing in Britain in 2016.
There’s a gap in the posting dates between this and the last. That’s because we’ve gone west: moved from one side of the country to the other.
What that means to you probably depends on where you live. In the New World, going west was always a fulfilment of Manifest Destiny. Go West and Make Your Fortune. The West a direction of opportunity.
We all say we’re story-tellers, don’t we? But the simple expression covers a world of difference – the difference between those writers (and readers) who value the first part (story) over the second (teller) and others who think the opposite. In a nutshell, what’s more important to you, the story, or the way you tell it?
There’s competition in every genre of writing, but there is one where publishers are actively looking for new work, and that's Young Adult. At least half of YA fiction seems to be set in some kind of dystopian world, so here’s a quick check-list of what you need to create one:
I put a picture of a murder weapon at the top of this and nobody blinks an eye. If the picture showed a breastfeeding mother and baby – or, even worse, a female nipple with no baby attached – the picture would be censored. I can write, “he died in a hail of bullets”, and you nod and move on.
I’ve just published my short novel “The Ballad of Billy Bean” through pronoun.com. UPDATE Pronoun was purchased by Macmillan and closed down. I've re-published "Billy Bean" on Kindle.
Through one of those cosmic but meaningless coincidences, I’ve recently come across a cluster of articles on various subjects which all have the same thing in common: they all assume an inevitable and continuing state of progress. The present is automatically better than the past. And, even more strangely, they assume that we are now necessarily better people than everyone who lived before: more sensible, less innocent; more understanding of “issues”.
fan mail to Edith Nesbit
I don’t remember when I first read “The Treasure Seekers”. I think I was probably eight or nine years old. And I felt at once that I knew this family and wanted to be part of it. Their story was told a good sixty years before I read it, but they felt real, and I liked them.
In a literary novel I recently read (the title of which I’ll keep to myself) the book's hero walks past a number of muse cottages. And I wondered what they might look like. Does one Muse live there? Or are there several Muses? And how would you call on them? Would it be like a kind of market, where you could select a suitable Muse for your mood and needs? A sort of Red Light District for the bits Up There?
Who says you’re a writer? or Schrödinger’s chair.
Some people have no hesitation: “I’m a writer!”, they proclaim to anyone in earshot. When pressed, they might admit that they haven’t actually written anything - but they’re working really hard on a great state-of-the-nation novel; or thriller or horror or airport bestseller that’s going to make them obscenely rich. Admirable ambition.