I’ve only just catching up with Giles Fraser’s reactionary warm-beer-and-cricket bexiteering spiel, though I gather that there’s been lots of twitting about it for days. So here’s an excellent counter-spiel from a blog called Wee Ginger Dug – with links to the original – tellingly titled A shit argument for Brexit. I imagine that Mr Fraser’s folly has already been a big generator of bottom-oriented puns.
The blogger’s titular ginger dog is as good as any an illustration for this article!
“Essentially, Giles’ argument about why ending freedom of movement is a good thing boils down to this. When you’re old and incontinent, it means that your kids can wipe your arse for you instead of some social services worker from the EU, and that’s great for family cohesion. We can all bond as a family over soiled toilet paper.
It’s telling that Giles in his piece felt it was the role of a daughter to wipe her father’s arse.”
I wrote a blog article last night which was published in the wee smaa hours. Then this afternoon I published the weekly dugcast. So I had reckoned I’d done enough for one day to keep readers of this blog amused. But then I came across Giles Fraser’s apologia for Brexit and ending freedom of movement on the digital site Unherd, and now I’m fuming.
I’ve not been this angry since Magrit Curran was my MP. First off, a word of caution. Please don’t read on while eating. This blog deals with some unpleasant realities about the human body.
Essentially, Giles’ argument about why ending freedom of movement is a good thing boils down to this. When you’re old and incontinent, it means that your kids can wipe your arse for you instead of some social services worker from the EU, and that’s great for family cohesion. We can all…
So I was lost for words on 9 November… and while I’ve managed to scrape together a few of them now, I think it will be a work in progress.
The gloom cast by the US election results deepened when Leonard Cohen’s death became public a couple of days later. I loved Leonard’s music when I was growing up. Now, perhaps I’d be critical about some of his idealised images of women. But a lot of the music still works. One of my favourites is The Partisan, a song that he didn’t write but popularised for a new audience in the late 1960s. And this song needs to be shared now, more than ever.
Like many I’m full of fear and foreboding, and I’ve indulged in many a post-apocalyptic meme along with some darkly satirical ones.
Meanwhile, I’ve been inspired by the expression of strength, endurance and hope as well as grief in “The Partisan”.
A line in this song – the frontiers are my prison – has haunted me since I first heard it decades ago. It echoes in my mind as we prepare to resist those who aim to impose more borders and frontiers within our societies and throughout the world.
And then there are these lyrics:
“Oh the wind, the wind is blowing Through the graves the wind is blowing Freedom soon will come Then we’ll come from the shadows”
It’s early days, but we’re already fighting. I read stories about growing opposition to Trump & what he represents – this includes longer term initiatives as well as demonstrations. The American Civil Liberties Union is taking up the mettle, city councils declare their determination to remain cities of refuge to immigrants despite threats to cut off federal funding; universities, legislatures and other bodies are declaring to stand firm. We’ll also see what happens when more US workers find out just what billionaire Trump’s promises to them are made of. Meanwhile, struggles such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock continue.
I’ve also been trying to take hope from the high proportion of young people involved in the demonstrations.
Yes, winter is indeed here but perhaps we’ll see a hot and lively spring…
There I was, volunteering to organise a workshop on Universal Credit and benefit sanctions for working people (aka ‘in-work conditionality‘) at the London Anarchist Bookfairwhen something went ping in the twisted passages of my brain as I noted the date of the bookfair – 24 October. Could that be… yes it is… the same date as Fantasyconin Nottingham! Yes, I had double-booked myself, despite the many lists made and calendars defaced. As a friend suggested, this clash of events is a classic #booknerdproblem.
Usually Fantasycon takes place at the end of September, but this year it’s moved to the end of October. A couple of years ago the World Fantasy Convention took place on the last weekend of October, just after the London Anarchist Bookfair and it was fun to go from one to the other – I wrote about this in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland. But it’s bookfair weekend rather than Halloween weekend this time around.
Since I had arranged everything in Nottingham, Fantasycon won out. It did give me some pause for thought. While I’ve been ruminating on the conjunctions between political action, creativity, weirdness and writing, have I been caught in a situation where the interests of geekery, fantasy and activism stand opposed?
Not entirely… The story I’ll be reading in my slot is about in-work conditionality too – kind of – with a definite twist of weirdness. Plus, the panel I’m on will tackle alternative social structures in imaginative fiction. And of course, the anti-austerity anthology Horror Uncut is shortlisted for the best anthology award.
So here are my events for the weekend. And no doubt I’ll also also be hanging out at the bar…
PANEL: Saturday 24 October
The Fantastic Mundane: Imaginary Social Infrastructures 12 midday (Conference Theatre) Health, wealth, law, government & learning are key parts of our lives, but how are they depicted in genre writing? What do these and other ‘everyday’ social establishments offer within created worlds?
My personal starting point in this discussion will be Ursula K LeGuin’s comment: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” I’m also interested in how we can envision alternatives when writing speculatively about ‘real’ settings as well as secondary and far future worlds .
Moderator: Karina Coldrick
Panelists: Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Hounsom, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Williamson
READING: Saturday 24 October
8.40pm (Reading Room)
I plan to present “Keep Them Rollin'” from the anthology We Need to Talk. Quantum computing meets Universal Credit! This is my first truly ‘short’ short story that I can finish in one reading.
Afterwards, I’ll be heading to the launch party for Undertow Publications, which will celebrate the launch of VH Leslie’s Skein and Bone and Aickmann’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas. I gather there will be wine and conversation until late. Anyone wanting to chat afterwards is welcome to join me at the launch.
I was just putting the finishing touches on this post, when I went over to Facebook and discovered a somewhat relevant article in the Mirror. 16 of the scariest things we just learnt about benefits reform should definitely appeal to horror fans, and it also features an incident involving time travel, or at least the expectation that claimants have access to some means of time travel: “One man received a letter telling him about an appointment on 27 June 2014. It was dated 26 June 2014 and told him he had to go to the appointment one day previously – 25 June 2014. Even though he showed officials the letter, he was sanctioned.”
To end on a more cheerful note, the second printing of Soliloquy for Pan is out. According to the publisher, about half were sold by pre-order so get in there if you want one. And here’s a review from When Churchyards Yawn. The blogger, John C Nash, writes appreciatively about the physical presentation and feel of the book, accompanied by luscious photographs of the book in autumnal settings:
“The foliate arabesque cartouche surrounding the gold-foiled Pan on the front cover and the gold-foiled Trajanesque typeface on the spine is reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement; which is, of course, the perfect choice for the theme of the collection as there was a massive resurgence of interest in Pan at that time.”
I certainly feel honoured that my story, “The Lady in the Yard”, is encased within an object of such beauty. Meanwhile, I hope that John enjoys the text as well… 🙂
We Need to Talk has just been released by Jurassic London, the same folks who published Jews vs Aliens. I have a story in this new anthology, which is themed on ‘difficult conversations’. I am very pleased with this because it’s the only story I’ve written that comes to a mere 2000 words. When I’ve previously submitted 2000-word things to critiquing groups, I received comments along these lines: “This reads like the beginning of a novel.” But wow, here’s my first proper short short story. I’ve pretty much decided on this one for my reading at Fantasycon.
Jurassic is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in charity and benefit books. It worked with the Kindred Agency to produce and promote We Need to Talk, and proceeds will go to the Eve Appeal, a charity dedicated to supporting research into the early detection and prevention of women’s cancers. The stories were selected by Susan Armstrong, Anne C Perry, Anastasia Scott and Athena Lamnisos.
My story “Keep Them Rollin” in this anthology involves Universal Credit, quantum computing and multiversal weirdness, which results in a very difficult conversation indeed… It was inspired by my involvement with Boycott Workfare, which campaigns against forced unpaid labour and benefit sanctions.
When I was researching ‘in-work conditionality‘, the extension of sanctions and compulsion to low-income workers who claim top-up benefits, I never expected it to turn into a story. At the time, I was investigating a pilot scheme that started last April, reading through the DWP’s guidelines for ‘job coaches’ (once known simply as advisors) who would be harassing working claimants on these pilots. They were advised to initiate ‘challenging conversations’ with their ‘customers’.
And then when Jurassic London sent around an email announcing a competition for short fiction about ‘difficult conversations’, the story took shape.
A few of my friends have died from gynaecological cancers, so that’s another reason it means a lot to be in this anthology. I’d like to dedicate “Keep Them Rollin'” to my good friend Jill Allott, who died in 2012 from a secondary brain tumour related to ovarian cancer. Here’s a photo and a link to a little bio in History Made At Night. This was based on a Facebook tribute I wrote before I’d joined the blogosphere. Jill was a former stalwart of Brixton squatting and a wonderful friend, whose enthusiasm boosted many anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay and community projects.
Jill has also come up again in my thoughts because I’ve just been interviewed for a forthcoming documentary, London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s, which brought back many memories of her. In fact, we went together to the infamous Treworgy Tree Fayre festival in 1989 – referred to in the story – along with a posse of other friends. So this story belongs to Jill in many ways. And it is now available here on my Free Fiction page!
Jill Allott on drums in our late 1980s-era band, the Sluts from Outer Space
This is just a quick last-minute heads-up for a free event this Friday 4 September – an evening multimedia extravaganza at the Wellcome Collection devoted to the theme of rest and its opposite, presented by the Hubbub team.
It will include talks on fantasy and fiction, free time and mind wandering, and an audio piece exploring relaxation and cacophony. And I’ll be helping out with an interactive presentation that will ask “What’s Wrong With Work?”
Fed up with work? Don’t want to work? Actually hate work? Maybe work isn’t ‘good for you’. Explore and express what’s wrong with work: record your thoughts on tape, do a video or write a post card to your boss, the Chancellor, your work mates telling them what you think. Or just start a debate with the person next to you about everything and anything that’s wrong with work.
Johnny Void writes in his blog: “As wages and working conditions decline then unemployment will be seen as an ever greater sin. The Victorian workhouse principle of ‘less eligibility’ – meaning the life of somebody unemployed must be less eligible (more shit) than the life of the lowest paid worker – must be maintained. The screw is being tightened for everybody and as benefits shrink so will wages. It is more important than ever that we start to question what’s wrong with work.”
It certainly is when work for work’s sake or simply for a mirage of employment is expounded by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith. “Work is good for your health” the head of the Department of Whoppers and Porkies proclaims. But we’ve seen how this ideology has led to death by sanction, and contributes to general ill-health. Work-related deaths are one of the largest causes of premature death in the UK. With authorities pushing a political religion of work – done for free or very little – let’s ask heretical questions and look at ways to oppose this.
The Friday Late will run from 7-11pm at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Euston is the nearest station; for accessibility information see Wellcome’swebsite. There will also be a bar, in case you were wondering.
To finish, I’ll share a few of the #fakeDWPstories inspired by the DWP’s fabricated spiels from ‘Zak’ and ‘Sarah’ delighting in their benefit sanctions – all thanks to a Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly. We’ve heard from Mr Morrissey already; others that resonated most involved ‘real’ fictional characters! I must apologise for the messy patchwork below, but unfortunately WordPress won’t let me decoratively arrange them. Not like InDesign!
Recently I marked the 30th anniversary of the eviction of the South London Women’s Hospital occupation with five or so friends.
From July 1984 to March 1985 hundreds of women occupied a hospital near Clapham Common to oppose the closure of the only hospital where women can be treated by women. This started with a staff ‘work-in’ that kept the hospital running. However, as doctors and staff accepted positions elsewhere the action turned into a community occupation. We kept up a 24-hour picket and turned the hospital into a campaign and community centre. We invited other groups to use the space, and held activities like jumble sales, tea dances, picnics and public meetings. A radical nurses’ group and an Asian women’s health group also met there. We linked up with other occupations and Women Against Pit Closures, hosting women from mining communities when they came to London to campaign or take part in demonstrations. Women from Greenham also joined us.
And then the date this occupation came to an end 30 years ago snuck up on me. Was it really that long ago? I still remember the intense weeks that preceded the eviction – the noise of hammers as barricades went up, sleepless nights and speeches from the balcony, the songs, the relationships that started and ended.
However, the eviction of the occupation also marked the beginning of other initiatives as women regrouped across South London and carried on other struggles. Our get-together has reminded me again why anniversaries like this are important, and why it is so pleasurable to reaffirm ties of common purpose and comradeship over the years. I previously wrote about the occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland, and this entry also stressed that history is not only about the past.
We met on Sunday 29 March, though the actual eviction date was 27 March. The weather wasn’t up to much and storms were predicted. This might have put many people off, but we still had a good afternoon in each other’s company as we checked out the changes. The old hospital building is now the site of a Tesco and a block of flats – social or private, I’m not sure. The Tesco superstore now encompasses the former outpatients and what might have been Cowdray ward. Most sadly, the nurses’ home and the garden where we had picnics has been replaced by the Tesco’s carpark. The former Preston House –along with the 4th floor ward AKA ‘Cloud Nine’, it was associated with the more cosmic girls – had been torn down and the main building extended in its place.
We took a walk to Cavendish Road cop shop, where we debated the chronology of eviction day. There was some confusion over the sequence of events but it went like this: first they got us down from the roof (I remember sitting on top of the cover of the hatch while the cops were pounding at it and pushing it up). They nabbed two women, shoved the rest of us about and eventually let us go. Then there was further pushing and shoving and the proverbial ‘scuffles’ during an attempt to de-arrest our two friends.
After they were carted away we went to Kennington Police station where the two women were being held (In fact, I don’t remember going there, but I’d written an account that mentions that, so it must be true). Then we went to picket the police press conference at the Cavendish Road station. We intended to go to the ‘Burger Bar’ for a long-delayed breakfast, and as you can guess this Burger Bar no longer exists. But we first thought we’d have a look at the hospital… before we knew it, the cops were nicking someone for allegedly spitting on the ground near them. There was another extended ‘scuffle’, joined by a bunch of local schoolgirls, and six women were arrested. Happy days!
We’ve all been affected by gentrification, yet I was still surprised at the state of the Windmill pub. At least half of it’s been turned into a hotel so it was pretty crowded and choco-bloc with the plummy and yummy. It’s hard to believe I had a birthday drink here in 2001, when it was a sprawling place that sold decent real ale along with admittedly vile microwaved food. While I don’t miss the microwaved food, I do miss the space and relative friendliness of the old Windmill. Claiming a table for our crew was like mounting a new occupation in itself. Eventually, we more or less squatted a table in the grand tradition of the SLHW occupation.
Even though this was reunion, we talked a lot about what we are doing now. Current issues in the NHS and fighting cuts was a major concern, since a few of us still work in that area. I’ve concluded that holding events like this are much more than an exercise in nostalgia. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past…” as George Orwell put it. Documenting our history and keeping it alive has implications for the future, and how we try to live in the present.
And speaking of the past.. I was last in this area around 2005 and enjoyed a cheap and tasty South Indian meal on Balham Hill, where there were several places to choose from. But these eateries are no longer with us, replaced by Costa, M&S and other chains. So when we left the WIndmill we found a Turkish/Mediterranean place near Clapham Common tube, where we enjoyed a leisurely dinner and a good gossip.
When I got home I found that a few new members had joined our the South London Women’s Hospital occupation Facebook group, including a young woman who was born in the occupied hospital in 1984. It’s been great catching up with people, previously lost to the pre-internet past. People are welcome to join this group here. Maybe you’ve taken part in the occupation, visited once or twice – or maybe you weren’t even around at the time but would have liked to be. Perhaps you have a general interest in direct action, anti-austerity struggles, the state of the NHS and women’s health. This group is for you!
We’d particularly welcome more photos. There were loads of women were taking photos at the time. At one point when we started to barricade, we got stopped for a while by a videomaker and a photographer while they documented the hospital in its pre-barricaded state. But with this taking place in pre-internet and pre-Facebook days we’ve all lost touch, and perhaps this group can change that.
For further reading on the SLHW occupation and hospital occupations in general, I’d recommend Occupational Hazards, a dossier compiled by those fine folks at Past Tense Publications. It includes a spiel by me, for starters!
You can also find some great photos online here by Sarah Booker, which include Greenham, Women Against Pit Closures, Clause 28 demos, various defence campaigns – and the South London Women’s Hospital occupation.
As I sent in a round of corrections on a piece recently, I realised that most of my work on a clutch of short stories has come to an end. Is it time now, I wondered, to face that novel I’d put aside (again) to finish those stories? I was gathering my wits as I prepared to enter the 15th-century setting of my novel-in-progress Heretics, then remembered that I haven’t posted in my blog for about six weeks. Ah well, tomorrow is another day…
You see the panelists from a distance in this shot, but you get a good view of that bloke’s jumper – which I rather like
This unfinished blog business includes a follow-up to my previous post about Horror Uncut. A few other folk have already blogged about our Manchester launch. But with the passing of the date marking Joel Lane’s death (25 November), I’ve decided to do that now. As co-editor and friend and an inspiration to many of us, he was certainly present in our thoughts at the event.
The first question that organiser and contributor David McWilliam asked the panel – myself, editor Tom Johnstone and fellow contributor Laura Mauro – was about how Joel influenced our work. This is something I’ve become even more aware of in the past year. As I wrote in last year’s blog post, discovering the work of Joel and others in TTA Press’ Last Rites and Resurrections was like hearing punk for the first time. That was when I began to find my own voice as a writer. It is truly a mark of an extraordinary writer if he or she can write words that are so powerful they inspire others to reach inside themselves and find their own.
Tom read Joel’s story, ‘A Cry For Help’. He later said: “It feels really strange that we should all be here reading from the book and discussing it without Joel being here.” Laura read from her story “Ptichka” and I read from “Pieces of Ourselves”. I was aware that I could only read an extract, while others read entire stories. Someday, I swear, I will write a story that is short enough to complete in one reading stint. I once wrote a story of 2000 words and felt very pleased with myself, until people in my writers’ group said it needed to be longer. Maybe someone even uttered those dreaded words: “This should really be the beginning of a novel.” Flash fiction is definitely not my forte.
Here are some accounts of the event – from Priya Sharma, David McWilliam, Laura Mauro and Neil Harrison. All suggest that Horror Uncut is a step towards creating speculative and dark fiction that can reflect on austerity and inspire readers to question and resist it. One of these blogs refers to a forthcoming anthology called Neoliberal Gothic, which sounds fascinating and timely. Let’s see if I can get my hands on it.
To my knowledge there have been two reviews of Horror Uncut. The first one is by Anthony Watson, who writes:
“Horror Uncut may not change minds or influence policy but it’s an excellent collection of stories that do have important things to say. It has to be said it’s unlikely to appeal to Daily Mail readers – which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it.”
Of my own contribution, he says:
“A more subtle, tangential approach to the effects of the austerity measures on individuals is exhibited in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s Pieces of Ourselves and Stephen Bacon’s The Devil’s Only Friend, affecting ghost stories both.”
“Rabinowitz’s work — of accretively obsessive, self-harming shavings and skeins of skin from the male protagonist’s body and the memento stone box where he collects them — becomes a highly sensitised vision of something beyond the cuts, a vision that rationalises the demos and fights against the cuts as part of a pattern of his past life, austerity further pared, his exes, his travels, his thwarted ambitions, the patchwork people, his “Feeling bolder”, a sometimes clear, sometimes confused vision that enticingly is the potential core of the horror uncut ‘book bloc’.
These are all thoughts that came up during the discussion of Horror Uncut. And at several points I was almost expecting that Joel would see fit to do some haunting and turn up to utter some ghastly and eldritch puns. That’s one ghost story we would have all enjoyed.
As 2014 draws to a close, many of us have been reflecting that it’s been a very bad year for losing beloved writers and friends; as well as Joel we have recently lost Graham Joyce and Eugie Foster. But I remember that last weekend in October was also a time for relishing the pleasures of life. The joys of friendship come high on the list. After the reading, we spent a long and lovely afternoon in the pub, which was an opportunity to spend time with some friends in the north I don’t get to see much. And then I returned to my temporary base near Huddersfield, where an old friend was celebrating her 50th birthday the next day. A time of food, drink, music and merriment ensued.
So here I am… doing a bit of ‘spoken word’ in my friend’s honour, a wee bit rosy-cheeked after a few bevvies.
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease is now out! This anthology from Gray Friar Press includes my story “Pieces of Ourselves”: a librarian goes on an anti-cuts demonstration, gets caught in a police cordon and starts to suffer from a strange skin ailment that links him with a significant past. The story actually started with a dream that lingered with a disturbing image – and I’ll leave you to guess which image it was that kicked the whole thing off.
This is one of two recent stories that take place around the anti-cuts clashes of 2010/11. The other is a ghost story that I’ve discussed in my post A Matter of Masks, which will appear in the Joel Lane tribute anthology The Dispossessed. I’ve come to regard these two stories as companion pieces.
As I was researching and writing these stories, trying to get my mind back to 2010, I had the strange feeling that I might as well be writing that thing called ‘historical fiction’. But it’s not so long ago, is it? How quickly ‘now’ becomes history. And I wonder what became of that wave of anti-austerity activism. For many of my younger friends, 2010 was it. One said something to the effect that 2010 was their ’68 (and perhaps 1981 was mine).
The memory gets hazy; I geek out at the computer as I search for the crucial details that will recapture the anger, the excitement and also the fucking bloody cold of the winter of 2010/11. However, in this case I had the help of YouTube videos, which were not available when I was writing about the regime in Millbank Prison, the Blackfriars Rotunda and the reform riots of 1831 and certainly not the Harelle revolt of 1382.
There will be two events to launch Horror Uncut towards the end of this month. Twisted Tales of Austeritywill take place on 24 October 12 noon to 2pm at Waterstones on Deansgate in central Manchester. I’ll be reading along with contributor Laura Mauro and co-editor Tom Johnstone, who will read a story by fellow editor and extraordinary writer Joel Lane. The readings will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.
Tom Johnstone says this anthology ushers in a ‘new era of socially engaged but entertaining and darkly funny horror fiction, which may not change the world but will, I hope, change the way we look at it’. And here on contributor Priya Sharma’s blog is an excellent interview with Tomabout the anthology. I particularly found the discussion on horror vs SF interesting: “Horror often thrives on hard or uncertain times, allowing people to see their real fears play out in the form of fantastic imagery.” And he suggests that a large body of science fiction accepts a colonial or neo-liberal narrative.
I tend to view all these genres as part of the rich stream of speculative and strange fiction. My story may start off hinting at the trope of ‘body horror’, but it ends on some science fictional notes too.
Holloween with Horror Uncuttakes place in Brighton at the Cowley Club on 26 October. I won’t be there myself because I’ll still be travelling down from the north. But if you’re in the area, do go! The Cowley Club itself is a great community venue, and it promises to be a fun evening.
Meanwhile, you can read the first review of Horror Uncut here. My story – along with Andrew Hook’s “The Opaque District” – is described as an “affecting ghost story”.
Most bloggers already have LonCon summed up, done and dusted. But as soon as I sat down to write about LonCon, I realised that the next convention is coming up on 5 September – tomorrow!
So it looks like I’ll write about LonCon and Fantasycon and the reflections or hangovers they provoke later on.
Meanwhile, my special commemorative Shirley Jackson Award nominee pebble has arrived! The ‘detailed description’ on the customs form attached to the package describes the contents: “Rock”. No fooling around there.
As I own a strictly antique phone, I’ve tried to take a photo with the Photobooth thingy on my Mac. So here’s my special rock, arse backwards. It’s a nice little thing, well-polished and smooth and somehow calming to hold. Maybe I’ll take my rock with me to Fantasycon this weekend.
While the programme at LonCon was impressive, I’ve been looking forward to the relative coziness of Fantasycon. So what are some of my plans for the weekend? Well, if you see me mumbling in a corner in the bar on the Friday afternoon, be assured that I’m practising for my reading.
This will take place at 7.20, sandwiched between Simon Bestwick and Simon Kurt Unsworth. I’m planning to read from “Pieces of Ourselves”, which will appear very soon in the Gray Friar Press anthology Horror Uncut: tales of social insecurity and economic unease, edited by Tom Johnstone and the late Joel Lane. Joel will certainly be in the thoughts of many of us at the convention, and we’ll be meeting for a drink and readings from his work at 6pm on Friday – just before my reading.
On Sunday 7 September at 10am I’ll be on the panel below. Yes, it’s kind of early. Strong coffee has been promised!
10.00am – A Working Class Hero is Something to Read?
“Fantasy often focuses on characters at the extreme ends of society, but is frequently written by middle-class authors who bring middle class assumptions to their princes and peasants. The panellists discuss class in SFF.” Gillian Redfearn (m), Joan De La Haye, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Sarah Lotz, Den Patrick
I’m not sure what I’ll be doing the rest of the time, but meeting up with friends, schmoozing and drinking and eating and attending a panel or two will certainly play a big part. Rustblind and Silverbright is up for best anthology, so I’ll be at the awards ceremony… perhaps clutching my special rock for good luck. (No, I have no plans to throw it at anyone.)
And looking ahead to next month, I’ll announce an exciting event coming up as part of the Gothic Manchester festival. Info is now out for Twisted Tales of Austerity, a reading on 24 October that will mark the launch of Horror Uncut. It will take place from 12 noon to 1.30pm at Waterstones on Deansgate in central Manchester. The readings will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.
Co-editor Tom Johnstone says this anthology ushers in a ‘new era of socially engaged but entertaining and darkly funny horror fiction, which may not change the world but will, I hope, change the way we look at it’.”
Just a few weeks ago I was exchanging emails with Joel Lane about an anthology he was co-editing, Horror Uncut. I congratulated him on his World Fantasy Award for his collection Where Furnaces Burn, thrilled to see him receiving such well-deserved recognition. I asked after his mother, who had broken her hip, and told him that I had enjoyed meeting her at Fantasycon 2012.
And meanwhile, I was planning to nick the copy of The Witness Are Gone that my friend had received in his freebie bag at the World Fantasy Convention.
Then the postings started to appear on Facebook: Joel died in his sleep on the night of 25 November 2013 at the age of 50. This was a shock, though I was aware he faced some health issues. Two weeks later, I am still stunned. Social media has been awash with grief and an outpouring of memories and love. It helped to be able to share these feelings in such an immediate way, with scattered friends and acquaintances and even people I hadn’t met.
I only started to get to know Joel in the past few years, though I had been reading his fiction well before then. Around 1996 I picked up a book called Last Rites and Resurrections: “Sixteen stories of loss and hope, beauty and terror, drawn from the award-winning magazine The Third Alternative.” Joel had a story there, along with writers like Nicholas Royle, Julie Travis, Neil Williamson and Chris Kenworthy.
Last week I retrieved my copy of Last Rites and Resurrections and revisited his story, “Take Me When You Go”. A nameless narrator recounts a youthful friendship and obsession with boy called Jason, bound by a fascination for flight and magic. The story explores the relationship between the two boys and the passage of time as their lives take very different directions. The protagonist visits the once-charismatic Jason years later, who is now suffering from depression.
Jason had returned to his parents’ home to Walsall, where he feels confined but incapable of going anywhere else. On a walk though a run-down park Jason points out a ‘fibrous mist’ on the horizon… a crowd of starved faces pressing against it, trying to break free. The narrator refuses to acknowledge seeing it, though see it he does. Later, a form of this vision follows him home to Manchester.
This story shows the merging of social realism and strangeness that I enjoyed in Joel’s later work; a mapping of family estrangement, loneliness and longing. It is full of telling details like a ‘green-skinned’ lake in the park, a grey stone Victorian comprehensive school where pupils anticipate beatings from the police or the National Front and worry about survival in the hyper-competitive Thatcherite world. His narrator observes: “There’s always a link between deprivation and fantasy.”
I was hooked. I subscribed to The Third Alternative, the forerunner of Black Static. TTA’s current of “extraordinary fiction” was just what I wanted to read at a time when I was still finding my own voice, bumbling and bumping against the boundaries of fantasy, science fiction and realism. Discovering this kind of fiction was like hearing punk for the first time – it was a revelation, a homecoming. This was what I loved to read and what I wanted to write.
Call it ‘slipstream’, ‘miserableism’ – or ‘horror’ or ‘weird fiction’ as Joel did. (Andrew Hook’s tribute points out that Joel was never keen on the term ‘slipstream’) Others describe it as a spare and starker form of British magical realism. In any case… I loved it in all its downbeat glory. I was also aware that that only two of the sixteen contributors to Last Rites and Resurrections were women, but later I came across Lynda Rucker, Charlee Jacob, Justina Robson and others in the pages of TTA.
This kind of writing was often dark and melancholic, yet suffused with the numinous. It revealed strangeness within the most ordinary settings and events, and found gritty, familiar surfaces and textures within the weird. When a new issue of TTA arrived I turned to any stories by Joel. I appreciated their strong sense of place, their rootedness in Birmingham and the Midands.
I had friendly chats with Joel every so often at cons and launches. But it was when I had him as an editor in Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascismthat I began to regard him as a friend and co-conspirator. Never Again was an anthology that Joel co-edited with Allyson Byrd, with proceeds going to the Sophie Lancaster Foundationand Amnesty International. Allyson had mentioned the anthology on Facebook and I contacted her about my story “Survivor’s Guilt”, which had been published in Black Static. Though I rather cheekily invited myself on board, both editors extended a warm welcome.
Through Never Again I met writers who I’ve also come to consider friends – if mostly online – including Mat Joiner, Nina Allan, Alison Littlewood, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Simon Bestwick and of course, Allyson and Joel. Allyson later wrote on a Facebook thread about Never Again: “I’m so happy we all became friends. That book meant so much to us all.”
Never Again brought writers together in a common cause and created lasting associations. But that is only one example of how Joel shared his time and talents with other writers. Mat Joiner and Adrian Middleton describe Joel’s generous support for other writers in Birmingham and his contribution to creative communities in his city. Mat and I both benefited from Joel’s feedback on a collaboration published in Rustblind and Silverbright. His perceptive critique helped us make “The Turning Track” into the story we wanted it to be.
As an editor Joel was both sharp-eyed and sympathetic – I was very impressed that he spotted a misplaced umlaut in “räterepublik” that even my German friend missed. Our collaboration on Never Again highlighted our mutual interest in political activism and social transformation, which became a major theme in our convention conversations. We talked about struggles against cuts and austerity, which were heating up in 2010. We often ended up talking about the tension between political engagement and our need for solitude and time to write. Very often high-faluting discussions of ‘art and revolution’ come down to: should I stay in and work on this story with a deadline or do I go to this action, this meeting, this demo?
At times I’ve wondered if I should have been concentrating more on writing the stories. Or whether I might have published my first book long before 2013 if I hadn’t spent so much time and energy in meetings, writing leaflets and pamphlets or running about (rather slowly) at actions or demonstrations.
My conversations with Joel put these doubts in perspective. He believed that creativity doesn’t flourish in isolation, but is fed by engagement and commitment. He also found ways to merge these two worlds, as exemplified in Never Again and Horror Uncut,the austerity-themed anthology that he was co-editing with Tom Johnstone just before his death.
In her blog Nina Allan relates an appearance on a panel alongside Joel in a discussion about ghost stories: they were “two Aickmanites against the Jamesians”. This provoked a few chuckles as I recalled a conversation where Joel gave me a rundown on divisions in the weird fiction world – along the lines of left-wing party splits. But here I’ll also stress that Joel was non-sectarian in his own outlook, as open and constructive in his politics as in his writing. Though we came from differing political backgrounds – Joel from the Trottish Socialist Party, mine is anarchist/autonomist/libertarian socialist/whatever – the K* word never reared its head!
I last saw Joel in July, at the event that launched Rustblind and Silverbright (which contained a contribution from Joel) and my novella Helen’s Story, along with Nina Allen’s Stardust, Jane by PF Jeffery, Defeated Dogs by Quentin S Crisp. Joel wasn’t very well at the time. Yet he was keen to enjoy the launch of books that involved so many of his friends. We all appreciated his presence, and now the memory of it is especially poignant.
As always, Joel’s actions reflected his belief that the best writing is fostered by community and cooperation. He will be missed, but he will also be celebrated.
**************** Here are more tributes to Joel and reflections on his work. I’ve already linked to some of these in the text, but I thought it would be good to list them as well. This isn’t comprehensive, so if you have a posting you’d like to add then feel free to contact me about it.
Bethnal Green Hospital 1978: The first work-in at a hospital casualty department
In the next few weeks I’ll be taking part in two very different events. At the London Anarchist Bookfair next Saturday – 19 October – I’ll contribute to a meeting that will look back on hospital occupations against closure and discuss their current relevance to defending health services. And at the World Fantasy Convention two weeks afterwards I’m on a panel about… fairies.
From austerity to fairyland: the leap between these two subjects first provoked a few bemused chuckles. Then I looked into these subjects a bit more, and you know… I had to think again.
So, the discussion at the bookfair will ask the question: “Occupying is good for your health?” This meeting is part of a stream of radical history presentations and discussions at the bookfair. The people from Past Tense, who are coordinating these meetings, write:
“We don’t see ‘history’ as a dry ‘subject’; it isn’t separate from our own experiences and the struggles, and situations we are part of now, and the ideas and movements we hope can help build a freer future. Our own stories are also history; but reversing that, history is made up of experiences, battles, events, individuals and mass movements – linked to ours by both resistance to the hierarchical and unequal social relations they faced, and the desires, ideas and dreams of what life could be, and how to get there.”
In this spirit, we will cast our eye back on campaigns in the 1970s through the 1990s when staff and patients occupied hospitals under threat of closure. I took part in the occupation of the South London Hospital for Women from 1984 to 1985, so I’ll bring reflections on that to the discussion. My friend Myk will share his experiences of occupying at UCH in the 1990s. Currently the NHS is under threat again. How is the situation different now? Are tales of previous occupations relevant? The NHS, vital as it is, has never really been under our control – are occupations a step in that direction? We’re also very keen to hear from others who are currently involved with opposing health service cuts and hospital closures.
The bookfair itself is well worth a visit and you don’t need to be a card-carrying or flag-waving anarchist to find something of interest here. The event takes place at Queen Mary’s University at Mile End and features workshops, stalls, books and music, talks and films. Two crèches are available and there is also disabled access. Check out the bookfair website for more information.
Which brings us to the World Fantasy Conventionin Brighton, from 31 October to 3 November. Though I’ve been to the UK Fantasycon many times, this will be my first world fantasy event. I’m looking forward to four days of schmoozing, socialising, panels and discussions, drinking, drinking, drinking, curries and curries… and meeting other readers and writers from around the world(ish) who are passionate about fantastical fiction. And I’m also excited to be involved in two programme items.
Tickets are no longer on sale for the convention, but if you happen to be going you might be interested in the following. On Friday 1 November I’ll be at the Reading Café 3-3.30. Given that one stream of programming at WFC will mark Arthur Machen’s 150th birthday, I’ll read from my novella Helen’s Storyand from “Lambeth North”, my short story in Horror Without Victims. As you can guess from the title, “Lambeth North” will shed a different light on a part of London that Machen had once described as ‘shapeless’, ‘unmeaning’ and ‘dismal beyond words’. But here South London holds its own.
Then on the Saturday at mid-day I’ll be on a panel, The Little People: When the Fairies Come Out to Play. This discussion looks at how Arthur Machen and other authors and artists have used folklore, the landscape, science and literature to create stories of the faerie otherworld.
So what is the connection between these topics? When musing on this, I had another read of Simon Bestwick’s excellent blog post, The Shrinking Space, which addresses a similar question. Simon describes the fallout from austerity and the ‘shrinking space’ it leaves for enjoying life and exercising the imagination. Simon also looks at the legacy of Arthur Machen, As well as a classic writer of dark fiction, Machen is often read as a father of psychogeography. An impoverished clerk in his younger days, he wandered the streets of Edwardian London to discover worlds of wonder and dread “a stone’s throw from Kings Cross station”.
But in the modern-day ConDemNewLab dystopia there’s little time for wandering, and the otherworldly and unworldly transcendence of Machen’s vision will find little room to thrive. Nowadays, those in employment face continual compulsion to work more and more for much less and give up their live to their work. The clerk of today would be subject to repeated performance reviews, team-building exercises and examinations of their ‘attitude’. Meanwhile, those who are unable to work or refuse to submit to this regime are hounded and starved by the DWP, ATOS and a vile cabal of poverty profiteers such as A4E and G4S.
Machen’s character Lucien Taylor in The Hill of Dreams “craves beauty and peace and seeks to capture them through prose”. But there’s no chance of doing that for those who get forced onto a workfare scheme or – as Universal Credit would have it – get forced to do time in the job centre if their clerk’s salary is too meagre without a top-up for stratospheric 21st century London rents.
Machen became a bit of an old Tory himself and waxed jingoistic over WWI, but Simon’s article nails how the literary legacy of his best work still stands opposed to the ravages of contemporary neoliberalism. I tend to think that ‘authorial intention’ is often distinct from how the core of a story is perceived by those who read it in years to come.
Moving on from Machen’s day, Johnny Void has also pointed out that a mere 15 years of neoliberal regression could have prevented Harry Potter (among the creations of many writers who put in a few years on the dole) from ever seeing the light of publication. “Under this Government’s plans for single parents, JK Rowling would have been on workfare rather than creating some of the most successful characters in children’s literature in history.”
On one hand, the regime of austerity and intensified work aims to crush any attempt to use the imagination. On the other hand, the active use of imagination is what gives social movements their power. Fairies might not have had much bearing on our occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital – though we did tell a few ghost stories about the walk along the underground corridor between the main building to the annexe, which happened to pass the morgue.
This is the balcony where we sang “What shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”, dressed up in nurse uniforms and surgeon’s masks. Good times!
But our campaign showed resilience because we went beyond traditional meetings and petition-writing. We didn’t only defend the health service as it was, but created a centre where women came together to take action, discuss and start to create the kind of health care we wanted. And beyond that – a vision of the kind of world we want to live in.
I still sometimes come across the idea that fantastical fiction is always escapist. It can be – so can anything. It can also be subversive – it is what we make it. In this context, a classic line from the 80s punk band Zounds comes to mind: “I’m not looking for escapism, I just want to escape.”
Is there a difference between escapism and wanting to escape? Answers on the back of a postcard, please!
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984
A page from Feminaxe, produced by some ‘dykes of Brixton’ in 1987. A fight with the police on Downing Street at a march against Clause 28 inspired the revised Clash lyrics
Since Margaret Thatcher’s death and her £millions taxpayer-subsidised funeral, this quote from Orwell came to mind many times. The political spectacle that followed revolved around much more than the death of a ‘frail old lady’, who just happens to be a leading architect of British neo-liberalism. Thatcher’s heirs in government dominated the airwaves and spent our tax money to celebrate a toxic heritage of austerity and repression and bolster their own regime.
I also remembered a book I read many years ago, Social Amnesia by Russell Jacoby. Social amnesia describes collective forgetting: “memory driven out of mind by the social and economic dynamic of this society”. Jacoby was writing about the US in the 20th century, but we have just seen an attempt by the UK state to impose its own version of collective amnesia in relation to the Thatcher legacy.
However, people weren’t having it! Those of us who had lived through the Thatcher years brought out the old banners and placards. At the celebratory street party in Brixton I chatted with a couple of dykes who sported very fetching and well-preserved ‘Stop Clause 28’ t-shirts, and I met an old friend who’d done time for the Poll Tax riots. I also bumped into younger friends who were active in protests against tuition fees and now face a future of bad working conditions, low wages and insecurity – or unemployment and forced unpaid labour under workfare schemes. Though these people weren’t around when Thatcher ruled, they live with the consequences.
From Bad Attitude: Poll Tax rioting and romance
In effect, we have just experienced a struggle over defining a past that has a massive effect on our future. History is not just for academics and officials to witter on about, but it is something we live with every day. And often, history is really made in the streets. The mass parties and confrontations, the jokes and the ‘wear red’ initiativewere indeed part of a refusal of social amnesia and present-day austerity. The ‘death parties’ were also a remembrance of the victims of Thatcherite policies – our dead and injured – and a celebration of our own survival. They were a tongue-in-cheek warning that the ‘enemy within’ will continue to erupt and disrupt.
Meanwhile, we had the laughable farce of the BBC virtually banning a 70-year old children’s song, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. But the BBC ding-dong embargo also illustrates the power music wields for invoking social remembrance of the past, and inspiring action for the future. Media buzzed with favourites, including a list of “21 angry songs about Margaret Thatcher”.
So here’s my own personal playlist. The proverbial ‘Hatred and Bile’ has certainly given us the best tunes. But many of these songs aren’t about Thatcher herself, but invoke memories of life in the world she ruled. Some reflect the era’s hedonistic side. Not all of them were favourites at the time. I wasn’t a big Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Boy George fan back then, but their songs make me smile now. And not all the music actually comes from the 80s – one ditty dates back to the 17th century.
I’m also missing some essential songs – for example, I couldn’t find any videos for Poison Girls’ “Feeling the Pinch”. I also searched for anything by the Happy End; they were local to my patch in Vauxhall and I often went to their gigs. No luck there – but some Happy Enders later formed the Communards so we’ll hear from them instead.
As a writer I strive to rend the state-imposed shroud of social amnesia. So let’s pick up our pens or boot up those laptops and continue to rip it to shreds – while listening and dancing to some excellent songs. And after we’ve tramped that dirt down, let’s move on to bring life to this Ghost Town…
Songs against social amnesia
Many of us remember Clause 28, a provision banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ with public funds, which could affect school curriculum, books available in libraries… you name it. Thatcher was blatantly homophobic . The video opens with a ‘statement’ from Mrs T: “The aim of this government is to make everyone as miserable as possible.” No change there…
I was a punk, reggae, ska and folk music lover and avoided anything glitzy or pop. But this got more than a few Thatcherite jocks in a strop at the time, and it’s hilarious to watch now.
This is another old song that sounds great now. Its joyousness stood out against a grey landscape then, and still does now.
Slinky jazz with surreal lyrics of love and rebellion. A better world is coming, so they say…
“You’ve never had it so good / The favourite phrase of those who’ve always had it better…” Paraphrases a similar line from Marat/Sadeas well as the Tory slogan of the day.
Back then the Pogues weren’t just for St Patrick’s Day. This song’s off their first album, and still a favourite… I was pleased to find this live version from The Tube. As you’d expect, it’s got a lot of period atmosphere. However, since it’s on TV the swear words are censored, which loses the flavour. But you can find an uncensored version off the album if you go to the YouTube page.
I still might have the cassette for this somewhere, an album called Vehixo Disco. I used to dance wildly to this song, under the influence…
At that bit towards the end of this song I sometimes thought the singer was shouting at the bass player to play faster (given that I was a bass player myself), but I suspect he was really shouting “bastards”.
And it won’t be the same in Fitzwilliam again…
This song is on target given new revelations about the case of Blair Peach, an activist killed by the police during demonstrations in Southall in 1977. In this live performance, LKJ changes ‘England’ to ‘Europe’: ‘Is Europe becoming a fascist state? The answer lies at your own gate, and in your hands lies your own fate’.
“It was in April 1981…”
On the heels of the ‘great insurrection’ we move on to New Model Army with “Spirit of the Falklands”: “The natives are getting restless tonight sir, they need some distraction… We can give them that.”
The best song to follow “Spirit of the Falklands” is this:
And if we’re playing NMA greats, we can’t leave out “Vengeance”.
“We all get together and a-thinking ahead, wake up everybody no more sleeping in your bed… We come in combination… to mash up the nation – Another one bites the dust!”
After Smiley’s death a couple of years ago in a police raid, this song is especially poignant.
Don’t push me I’m close to the edge…
Kill, kill the police bill…
Stand down, Margaret…
A darker take from UB40 with “Madame Medusa”.
And here’s a gloomy but somehow uplifting song from the Mob: “Idle plans for the idle rich, knitting the economy not dropping a stitch, destroying everything that doesn’t quite fit, waiting for the witch hunt…”
This song came along well after the 80s. In fact, I only heard it for the first time two weeks ago. But it’s catchy, danceable and angry, and it has to be played!
A song dedicated to the ‘enemy within’, though it predated the phrase by four or five years. It was actually inspired by the “Persons Unknown” trial in 1979, where six anarchists were accused of conspiracy to cause (non-existent) explosions with “persons unknown”.
I’ve played and sang this song many times, featuring different words and locations throughout the years – including a drunken karaoke version at a fundraiser for the MayDay 2000 actions. But I suspect most people would rather hear the original by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
“The gentry must come down and the poor shall wear the crown…” This is going really retro… to Gerald Winstanley and the Diggers in 1649!
And finally, ending with some optimistic if gritty anarcho-punk. “It’s your world too you can do what you want.” Awww bless – but it’s good to know it wasn’t all doom and gloom back then.