We’ll come from the shadows

“Yesterday I was a writer who was lost for words. I expect to find them again soon…”

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This was my Facebook status on 10 November, prefacing a link to an article in the Independent about spontaneous protests responding to the election of the fascistic Donald Trump – and I’m not one to use this particular F-word lightly. For more details check out the links on An anti-trump masterpost and A final response to why Trump is a fascist.

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.

winter-is-hereLike 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…

Fantasycon, book nerd problems and book love

Book_nerdThere I was, volunteering to organise a workshop on Universal Credit and benefit sanctions for working people (aka in-work conditionality‘) at the London Anarchist Bookfair when 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 Fantasycon in 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 Mirror16 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… 🙂

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Universal Credit and the multiverse – and a tribute to a friend

6a00d8345295c269e201b8d12175b2970c-200wiWe 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.

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Jill Allott on drums in our late 1980s-era band, the Sluts from Outer Space

What’s wrong with work?

CMy9gZTWsAAF1QvThis 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 whwork-makes-meat’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’s website.11917677_10153534487197359_5655180196874825367_n 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!


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History is not just about the past…

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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.

11080973_1026554550705237_2999057420019525871_nWe 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.

EvictionAfter 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 10708500_10153332996572228_7840531236355312206_oturned 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.

occupational-hazards-225x300For 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.

That last weekend in October

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…

Twisted reading

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.”

And then we have one of Des Lewis’ epic real-time reviews. He’s not one for sticking down a few stars and calling it a review, our Des!

“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.Me at Marion's birthday

Tales of social insecurity and economic unease

Horror UncutHorror 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.

Launch events
There will be two events to launch Horror Uncut towards the end of this month. Twisted Tales of Austerity will 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 Tom about 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 Uncut takes 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”.

And here’s a full table of contents…

A Cry for Help by Joel Lane
The Battering Stone by Simon Bestwick
The Ballad of Boomtown by Priya Sharma
The Lucky Ones by John Llewellyn Probert
The Sun Trap by Stephen Hampton
Only Bleeding by Gary McMahon
The Lemmy / Trump Test by Anna Taborska
Falling into Stone by John Howard
Ptichka by Laura Lauro
The Devil’s Only Friend by Stephen Bacon
The Procedure by David Williams
Pieces of Ourselves by Rosanne Rabinowitz
A Simple Matter of Space by John Forth
The Privilege Card by David Turnbell
The Ghost at the Feast by Alison Littlewood
The Opaque District by Andrew Hook
No History of Violence by Thana Niveau