At long last: X Marks the Spot, Great God Pan the opera, Eastercon and a belated tribute to Vi Subversa

book_x_marks_the_spot_front_2It’s been a while since my last post, to put it lightly. What can I say? Deadlines, deadlines, day job and all the usual. I should know by now that the best way to blog is to fire off quick items, otherwise you’re faced with the prospect of knitting together disparate events. But that’s life, a series of disparate items.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll have a story in an anthology X Marks the Spot, published by NewCon Press to mark its tenth anniversary in July. It doesn’t seem long since I went to an event to celebrate the publisher’s fifth anniversary.

I previously published with NewCon in the anthology Conflicts. Some time ago at a bar, editor and writer Ian Whates told me he wanted stories for an anthology called Conflicts. Conflicts? You want conflicts, I’ve got conflicts! So I sent him “Harmony in My Head”, a story set around the time of the 2005 7/7 London bombings and the anti-G8 mobilisation in Scotland. Tinnitus and parallel universes were also involved.

It turned out that Conflicts (2010) was primarily a collection of military SF, which my story wasn’t, but Ian published it anyway. At least one reviewer expressed bemusement that the only military hardware in the story was a quick glimpse of a Chinook helicopter in a newspaper photo.

I’m very pleased and proud to have a story published by NewCon again, and be on board to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Easterconeastercon cate and rosanne
I attended Eastercon at the end of March. It’s been my first Eastercon for several years. I felt sentimental about it being in Manchester, site of the first con I ever attended – Eastercon 1998. I went to some good panels, but now that I’m looking back over a few months and my memory is hazy I have to admit that a high point was dinner in the Greek tapas bar over the road in the company of Simon Bestwick, Nina Allen, Cate Gardner and Priya Sharma. And here’s a nice photo of myself (left) and Cate (right), taken by Cate. I’m notoriously camera-shy but I’m glad I gave in to the cajoling for a selfie. A ‘good’ photo of myself is one where I don’t look like a zombie or an axe murderer – so I think this one fits the bill.

Great God Pan – the opera
Those of you who enjoyed Helen’s Story might be interested in a forthcoming opera based on The Great God Pan. While I’ve not been an opera follower myself, I’m taking a great interest in this one. Composed by Ross Crean, the opera sets out with similar aims to give the vilified Helen Vaughan a voice. In her final aria she sings:

We will raise the living dead
Through the power of horned head,
Cloven foot and revelry.
Thus the Lord of Trickery will
Set this mortal coil on fire
With every succulent desire.
Pan is all, and all is Pan,
And we will hence return again!

Here’s a clip with some background information and music. Apparently, the production will be given a steampunk aesthetic. I really hope I have the opportunity to see it some day.

Vi Subversa (Frances Sokolov) 20.06.35–20.02.16
So now we’re going to hark back to earlier in the year… If you recall, my last blog ended with reactions to the deaths of David Bowie and Paul Kantner. Since then, we’ve lost even more creative people, including Prince, Victoria Wood and Vi Subversa.

Several months gone, I still want to say something about Vi – guitarist, singer and songwriter with feminist punk band Poison Girls. She died at the age of 80 last February.

I first went to see Poison Girls in 1980, and went to their gigs many times throughout the decade. Conway Hall, Chat’s Palace, the Cricketers at the Oval, the squatted ambulance station on the Old Kent Road, other venues with names that have long slipped away into the spaces between my brain cells.

I also remember when Vi performed at a picnic in the garden at the occupied South London Women’s Hospital in the summer of 1984. She was accompanied by one guitarist, 17-year-old Debbie Smith. I have a vivid recollection of Vi performing “Under the Doctor”, very appropriate to the hospital setting: “What I’m trying to say… is you’ve got to be strong, so strong/Because nothing takes the pain away for long!” Sadly, the garden  where this took place is now a carpark for the Tesco superstore that replaced part of the hospital.

In December 2015 I went to Brighton to attend what was to be Vi’s final gig, thrilled to see her performing again. Along with her own songs she sang several Brecht & Weill compositions including “Pirate Jenny”. Her voice was perfect for Brecht. Songs such as”Old Tart’s Song” and “I’ve Done it All Before” (just about the only love song I can stomach) acquired even more resonance when sung by an 80-year-old woman. I especially liked the little polyamorous flourish she added at the end: “I’ve done it all before, but not with you… and you… and you.”

I ended up sitting across a table from Vi before she went on stage. She was talking to one of the gig organisers, then to another musician. I wanted to say hello since I interviewed her for radical women’s magazine Bad Attitude in 1995, which marked the release of a retrospective CD and a grand reunion gig at the Astoria. I also went to her 60th birthday party and had the pleasure of getting to know her a little then.

But as I sat there at the Brighton venue I was thinking: ‘Better not disturb her before she goes on stage, she might be preparing for her performance and getting into the mood… etc etc… I’ll catch her afterwards.’

But I didn’t manage to find her that night, so that didn’t happen. Perhaps she left just after her performance. And now I know it won’t ever happen.

I deeply regret that I was too stupidly shy to say hello, but I am grateful that I had a chance to see that wonderful gig. Vi Subversa was – and still is – an inspiration to me.

Here are a couple of songs from that gig, “Persons Unknown: and “Old Tart’s Song”. As you might expect, the acoustic version of “Persons Unknown” is quieter than the original, but even more powerful: “Survival in silence isn’t good enough no more…”

And here’s the original “Persons Unknown” for a bit of contrast… I believe this was the first Poison Girls record.

I’ll now share a scan of the article I coauthored in Bad Attitude. The other article on the spread is about an ill-fated UN women’s conference in Beijing, in case you’re wondering. Back in the day I suppose our prevailing aesthetic was: “We’ve got a new font and we’re gonna use it!”

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If you have fond memories of any Poison Girls gigs or want to find out more about Vi and her wonderful music, you might be interested in joining a Tributes to Vi Subversa Facebook page. There you can find personal reflections and links to music videos, interviews, obituaries and tributes.

There may be trouble ahead…
Now I’m just getting up to speed. The events of the past few weeks weigh heavily, but this post is long enough. I’m sure more ranting, writing and serious thinking is called for in the near future. So at the risk of appearing flippant, I’ll close with a certain old Nat King Cole tune…

 

The Vatican Vaults are open!

1795476_1084280334918889_265400601105857995_nIn Going Retro: Ringing the Bells of the Harelle, and the Pikart Posse Returns I wrote about my story “Bells of the Harelle”, which was accepted by David V Barrett for Tales of the Vatican Vaults in Constable & Robinson’s Mammoth Books series. Now this anthology has been let loose upon the world. As befits the series name, Vatican Vaults is a substantial 500+ page volume packed full of stories and helpful editorial commentary.

It’s based on a unique alternative world premise: Pope John Paul I did not die a month after his accession in 1978. Instead he lived for over 25 years, and opened up the most secrets parts of the Vatican Library to scholars. We will find all the manner of strange and suppressed stories within…

I tend to dip in and out of collections of shorter fiction between novels, so I’m only just beginning to read through this anthology. I’ve found it fascinating just as a casual reader as well as one of the contributors. Each story has a preface and an afterward giving scholarly comments on the contents. This has let to a lot of excited googling, wanting to find out what’s real and what’s made up. So this anthology is wonderful in the way it blurs the boundary between the real and the fantastical. Sarah Ash had me looking up the history of Allegri’s Miserere: yes, it really was forbidden to transcribe this piece and those who did would be excommunicated. And what is the connection of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Order of the Golden Dawn, as explored by JM Brugee in “Songs of Love”? While tantalising to the historically minded, these rollicking tales also entertain in their own right.

My own contribution,”Bells of the Harelle” is a chronicle of fourteenth-century rioting and eroticised heresy; it also reveals that certain medieval sects had stumbled on scientific mysteries much earlier than we imagined. In some ways this story is a prequel to my novel-in-progress about a woman leader of the Pikarts or ‘Adamites’, an anarchistic and free-loving faction in the Hussite revolution of fifteenth-century Bohemia.

As I wrote “Bells of the Harelle” I grew very fond of my character Seraphine. We meet her as a young wife in Ghent, where a revolt by weavers in the 1380s gives her the impetus to leave her unhappy marriage and dedicate herself to changing the world, a mission that takes her to the turbulent streets of Rouen, to Brussels and Tournai. After the Inquisition cracks down on Seraphine’s sect of sensual heretics, she ends up as a refugee in Prague on the eve of the Hussite revolution. And that’s where my novel Heretics begins.

After the defeat of the 'Harelle' in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

After the defeat of the ‘Harelle’ in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

When I first started writing Heretics, Seraphine dies early in the novel. She was getting on a bit, after all… But now that her character has grown more in “Bells”, I now feel like I’d rather keep her around longer. She’s sly and salty, tough and humorous, as well as a bit grumpy.

So that’s yet another decision looming on the horizon now that I’m looking at this book again. Is dear old Seraphine one darling I’ll have to kill? Yet gratuitous character carnage always annoyed me as a reader. Oh we need something dramatic, let’s shoehorn in some of that Hollywood Screenwriting 101 brand of ‘Conflict’ – eeny meeny mighty mo, that one has to go!

No doubt I’ll have more thorny thickets to clear out as I work on Heretics. Meanwhile, if you want to meet some of its characters and read some enjoyable stories, Tales from the Vatican Vaults is available in paperback and on Kindle. You might even find it in a non-specialist bookshop on your high street.

And since we’re on publication news, I’m pleased to announce that Soliloquy for Pan will have a second printing at the end of September, so those who missed out on the first run will have another chance. The second edition will also feature some new illustrations. Watch this space or visit the Egaeus Press website for more news.

Another great development is that Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Unease has been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s best anthology award. The winner will be announced at Fantasycon at the end of October. I’ll have more information relating to Fantasycon in the very near future.

Helen’s Story is half the price at PS Publishing

Helen’s Story and other Shirley Jackson Award nominees are now on sale at PS Publishing for half the usual price. So even though the £12 unsigned editions of Helen’s Story are sold out at PS, you can get the £25 signed and jacketed edition for £12.50.

PS has certainly made a strong showing on the Jackson shortlists. Other books featured in this special sale are Stardust (containing nominated novella “The Gateway”) by Nina Allan, nominated novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki by Ramsey Campbell, Exotic Gothic 5 edited by Danel Olsen (with nominated short story “The Statue in the Garden” by Paul Park ), and Michael Marshall Smith’s short story collection Everything You Need. All these books are half the usual price at PS now!

And if you’re in London, you can also find a couple of unsigned copies of Helen at the Freedom Bookshop

Meanwhile, you can read more here about Helen’s shortlisting and my gibbering joy at the news, along with some background on Shirley Jackson.

Helen's Story coverStardustGla'aki Exotic Gothic Everything You Need

Helen’s Story shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson award!

I’m very pleased to announce that Helen’s Story has been shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson award in the novella category. I first read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in school (along with Edgar Allan Poe) and she is also the author of The Haunting of Hill HShirley Jackson award logoouse, which I read when I was 12. I never suspected that I’d be nominated for an award in her name “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. I’m thrilled. I’ve resolved to read more of her work now, and revisit what I read long ago.

When I received the email informing me of my nomination, I was gibbering in surprise and amazement in a way that would do any Lovecraftian cultist proud. It appeared in the email account connected to this website, which I often forget to check. But now I resolve to be more diligent about logging in there, because you never know what you’ll find.

I couldn’t sleep that night either. Insomnia’s always been a problem for me, but it made a welcome change to be sleepless for the right reason – joy and excitement.

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

When I eventually related this news to my friends, I realised that Shirley Jackson isn’t very well-known in the UK. So for those unacquainted with this classic American writer of dark fiction, the Weird Little Worlds blog gives a good summary of her life and work. Meanwhile, the Criminal Element website provides some fascinating background to “The Lottery”. In the post-war US, many town governments across the country sponsored weekly cash-prize lotteries to draw people in from the surrounding farms. They aimed to stimulate the economy for local merchants. And this takes on an especially sinister turn in Jackson’s story…

When I had a good read-through of the shortlists, I realised that I was in some fabulous company. I was very pleased to see fellow PS publishee Nina Allan among the novella nominees. She is shortlisted for her excellent novella “The Gateway”,  which is in her collection Stardust. In addition to reading more of Shirley Jackson, I’ve decided to check out as much of the nominated work as I can. It turns out that Burning Girls is available as a free ebook from Tor.com, for those who don’t enjoy reading longer pieces online. Another PS-published writer, Ramsey Campbell, is also on the list for The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.

I also noticed that there are seven nominees for best novella, the longest shortlist of the lot. Does this indicate that novellas are burgeoning as a particularly creative form for writers of dark and strange fiction?

Shirley Jackson Lottery

A classic

This article from Buzzfeed gives further information about the nominated works, though it does not provide details in short story and novella listings. Otherwise, it’s a good brief guide for further reading. I’ll probably start with The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read Oates’ realist fiction, and have yet to investigate her fantastical and gothic work. This looks like a good place to start. I’m particularly fascinated because the book is set in Princeton, New Jersey and the nearby Pine Barrens. I used a similar setting for part of my 2006 novella In the Pines, which involved renegades from the Princeton physics department and an appearance from the Jersey Devil.

Pulp lottery

The pulp version

The Shirley Jackson Awards began in 2007, and they differ from many other genre-oriented awards because they are entirely chosen by jury. I’m probably very biased, but I imagine this gives books published by independent presses in small print runs a better chance.

When I vote on the shortlist for the British Fantasy Awards, for example, naturally I’ll choose the books I’ve read. Given the price of many limited edition books (and specialist publishers don’t always do ebooks), it’s unlikely I’ll have been able to read through the vast number of new books within the year of publication and unearth the gems. However, most publishers will send copies or PDFs to awards bodies straight away.

I am still getting pleasantly adjusted to the fact that five highly accomplished writers, critics and editors – who don’t know me! – have not only read my novella, but have also chosen to list it among seven of the year’s best. Whether or not I win, this is a compliment and honour of the highest order.

Going retro: ringing the bells of the Harelle, and the Pikart posse returns

After the defeat of the 'Harelle' in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

After the defeat of the ‘Harelle’ in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a tax on staples. The bell tower was later destroyed

After a flu-ridden and deadline-driven lapse in posting for almost three months, I’m pleased to be back with some new bloggage – and a double helping of news. And what better date is there to relaunch my blog than 1 May? So happy May Day, everyone.

My story “Bells of the Harelle” will appear in The Mammoth Book of the Vatican Vaults in spring 2015And a new version of my old story, “Return of the Pikart Posse”, will be published in June in the Midnight Street anthology.Though these two stories differ in many ways, they share common historical threads and concerns.

The Mammoth Book of the Vatican Vaults is an alternate history anthology edited by David V Barrett and published by Constable and Robinson. It’s based on a unique premise:

“Pope John Paul (I) did not die a month after his accession in 1978; instead he lived on for over 25 years to become the most reforming pope of all time… he also opened up the most secret parts of the Vatican Library to scholars. The deepest vaults of the Vatican Library contain information which, if true, would cause many parts of accepted history to have to be rewritten.”

My contribution will be a tale of fourteenth-century rioting, eroticised heresy and quantum entanglement. Perhaps it’s a prequel to my novel-in-progress, Heretics, which is about a woman leader of the Pikarts or ‘Adamites’ in the Hussite revolution of fifteenth-century Bohemia. The Pikarts stood for all-out warfare against the church and feudal order, and sought to live according to a vision of sensuality and freedom. You could compare them to the Ranters in the English Revolution; this lot eventually took over an island in the Nezarka River.

“Bells of the Harelle” is set among the French/Flemish refugees from Lille and Tournai who eventually travelled to Bohemia and contributed to the more anarchistic strands within the Hussite revolution. Historians have traced the ideas of these people to a sect of Free Spirit-influenced heretics in Brussels called Homines Intelligentiae or Men of Understanding, which faced a crackdown from the Inquisition in 1410-11.

Fragments from the proceedings against the Homines Intelligentiae also refer to several women of understanding, especially an older woman called Seraphine. She declares that spiritual love could not exist without carnal love, and such pleasures are as necessary to life as eating and drinking. From the scraps of information available from her persecutors, Seraphine comes across as a tough, salty and humorous character. So this story became Seraphine’s story. It begins with a revolt of weavers in 1380s Ghent, Seraphine’s decision to leave an unhappy marriage and a life-changing encounter on the turbulent streets of Rouen.

My writing often involves some historical component, usually provoked by an obscure but fascinating footnote. I enjoy weaving a story from sketchy clues or speculations about a simple object or work of art, and bringing hidden history into the open.  Heretics was sparked by a reference to a woman leader of the Pikarts/Adamites called Maria. Less is known about her than Seraphine; all we have for Maria is a name.

The so-called Adamites (the term was first applied to the Bohemian revolutionaries by an eighteenth-century historian) received very bad press from the likes of Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium. He regarded them simply as thugs. But surviving historical accounts were written by the Pikarts’ enemies, whether they were conservative Catholics, mainstream Hussites or Cold War-influenced historians like Cohn.

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The Czech edition of Robert Kalivoda’s book, published in 1961

Czech historian and philosopher Robert Kalivoda tried to counter this in Hussite Ideology and Revolution*, denouncing the reactionaries that have heaped “five centuries of schmutz” on the unknown peasants and artisans who fought for their freedom and died as the premature “protagonists of the modern European revolution”.

“Return of the Pikart Posse” touches on the world of Heretics from the perspective of a former punk-squatter turned medieval historian with a specialty in heresy. And if you’ve read Lipstick Tracesa collection of rantage and word play on the common threads of punk, surrealism and medieval heresy (John of Leyden… John Lydon, geddit?), the connection between the character’s punkish youth and her current interests may not seem farfetched (or even if you haven’t read Lipstick Traces). In any case, our historian gets very close to her subject on a research jaunt to Tábor in the Czech Republic.

“Pikart Posse” originally appeared in Midnight Street in 2005, edited by Trevor DenyerMidnight Street and its forerunner Roadworks were fine publishers of speculative fiction in the 1990s to mid-2000s. According to fellow contributor Paul Finch, this was the “golden era of the UK small press”.

Trevor had previously published my work in Roadworks and featured me in Midnight Street 4, which included another story, “The Colour of Water”, plus an interview. Over the years I’ve held “Pikart Posse” in great affection. It came to mind immediately when Trevor asked me to submit a story to his forthcoming anthology, which will include Midnight Street favourites along with new work.

I’ve had stories reprinted before. But this was the first time there was such a substantial gap between outings. I’d been proud of “Pikart Posse” at the time, Trevor had obviously liked it and a few reviewers liked it too. But when I reread the story… Let’s just say I was not the happiest of bunnies. Did I really write this? Oh no…

Originally, I was planning to give the story just a little tweaking. The real-time parts take place in the early 2000s. The difference between a story that simply becomes dated and a piece that effectively portrays a moment in the past can be subtle. So how does a story written as ‘now’ – alongside glimpses much further into the past – make the transition to a narrative that evokes a time and place? Such a story will need more detail in some places, and less in others.

For example, who would remember Charles Clark, New Labour’s redundancy-mongering education secretary? The name would be a distraction. But a writer might need to pay more attention to describing places, sights or experiences that were taken for granted at the time.

Writers and editors take varied approaches to reprints. Some say we should respect the historical integrity of our old work, and limit tweaks to typos and grammatical errors that were missed the first time around. A piece of writing  represents a specific time or state of mind, so let it be.

Others will say a writer’s work is always evolving. So go on. Alter it is many times as you want. I also realised that I’ve developed conceptual frameworks over the years for certain themes and I wasn’t sure if the story held together without them. However, imposing such a framework could turn it into an entirely different story.

So I tried to steer a course between the two options. I gave the story a considerable overhaul, while trying to stay true to its original ambiance.

Writing “Bells of the Harelle” and revising “Return of the Pikart Posse” has helped me find my way back into a world where I’ve not lived for a while. So onward to Heretics

Meanwhile, prepare for further publishing news once covers, line-ups and bragging rights have cleared!

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* Kalivoda’s Hussite Revolution and Ideology is only available in Czech and German. A friend has very helpfully translated some passages from the German edition. Howard Kaminsky also quotes from this book in History of the Hussite Revolution.

From austerity to fairyland

bethnal green hospital occupation work-in nupe july 1978

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.WFC_small

Which brings us to the World Fantasy Convention in 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 Story and 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.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827Then 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.

SL Women's Hospital

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!

And with that I’ll sign off with a song…

Is it just about the boobies?

In the past week I’ve been delighted to see viewer numbers on this website shBlue-footed-booby_public domainooting up. And the new viewers come from all over: Cyprus, Brazil, Bulgaria, South Africa, Australia, Brunei Darussalam (first I heard of the place), US, Latvia, Vietnam, Peru, Kenya…

Is it likely that all these people – perhaps you, dear reader – have read one of my tales and want to know more about my work or the peculiar mind behind it? Or have new viewers taken an interest in some of the political issues I’ve touched upon or ranted about? Or maybe, just maybe a review of Helen’s Story has appeared in some mass circulation paper or website, which has somehow escaped the net of my repeated vanity googling…

So I’ve been sifting through my WordPress stats, trying to divine their meaning as if they are tea leaves or the entrails of sacrificed animals. As expected, the WordPress oracle reports a vast majority of search terms as ‘unknown’ or ‘other’. But I also get a solid number of search variations on ‘booby’, ‘boobies’, ‘boobys’, ‘boobi’.

It’s likely that the rise in visitors has something to do with that rather than my literary output. But what kind of boobies are we talking about? It could be the feathered, often blue-footed variety or a certain part of the female anatomy. Perhaps a mixture of both. One search term did specify ‘boobi bird’ and the critter on the right has been getting a lot of clicks. And when I did my own booby-oriented search on Google, the birds came up most. After all, breasts are usually called ‘boobs’ rather than ‘boobies’ by adults.

On the other hand, I suspect that the individual who searched for ‘boobies, boobies, boobies’ probably was not concerned with the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands.

I’m still bemused by this sudden surge in viewers because boobies have been a fixture on this site for months. I use a booby image as my WordPress ‘blavatar’, and I’ve posted a dancing booby a while ago to signify my pleasure over a positive review. I also wonder why the biggest portion of hits come from the US, when up to now visitors have been mostly drawn from my home turf in the UK. Could there be a huge concentration of booby fans in the US?

Booby appreciation
I also checked whether a booby appreciation week sponsored by a conservation organisation could be inspiring a spike in booby-oriented searches. The (UK-based) Galapagos Conservation Trust does indeed hold fundraising drives where supporters dress up like boobies and do booby dances, but according to the trust’s website the most recent Blue-footed Booby Day took place in June 2011.

I’ll hasten to add that the booby imagery was not intended as a crafty exercise in search engine optimisation. I genuinely like boobies. Perhaps you can recall a recurring drunken end-of-party conversation: “If you were an animal, what would you be?”

I often replied ‘Cat!’ because I loved cats. But come to think of it, as much as I like cats, feline really isn’t me. After all. cats take themselves very seriously. They’re cool. No… If you compared me to an animal, it would have to be a blue-footed booby.

Boobies are comical, they like to dance! And the dance they do reminds me so much of those 80s reggae moves that involved lifting one foot, than the other, swaying and knee-bending to heavy spliff-laden dub. So many fond memories there…

Your feet’s too big
Maybe I identify with boobies because I underwent plenty of piss-taking when I was a kid for having big feet. I heard that Fats Waller song ‘Your feet’s too big’ too many times. Finding daintier or more fashionable footwear was impossible, unless I went to an expensive specialist shop or had a rare stroke of luck at TK Maxx.

“Your feet’s too big, Can’t stand you because your feet’s too big, From the neck on up, I think you’re sweet, From the neck on down, Too much feet…”

But the booby is actually admired and loved for its prominent and colourful feet. What’s more, big feet are considered highly fanciable in the booby world – the bigger and brighter the feet, the more likely a dancing booby will pull.

So if you’re a booby lover stumbling on to this site by accident, were you disappointed? “What! Is that all the booby action you get? That’s some real sneaky SEO. Who the fuck is this Rosanne person anyway?”

Or could you be thinking, hey here’s another weirdo who likes boobies. So let’s look at this novella thing here. Could Helen’s Story be about one woman’s struggle to establish herself in the man’s world of ornithology?

But in any case, I’ll extend a big welcome. Maybe I don’t offer what you set out to find originally, but have a look around. The beauty of the internet lies in surprise. I’m very curious to hear what brought you here, so feel free to post comments. And if you like the boobies, you just might like the books too.