- No Enemy but Time: A New Pamphlet of Old Poems July 16, 2017
- Farewell to 2016 – and Cancer December 31, 2016
- From Indeterminate Cats to Interfaith Cathedrals December 7, 2016
- ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ . . . and Fascism November 21, 2016
- A Farewell to Chemo: With Fireworks! November 3, 2016
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As FB friends know, I’m just back from an incredible two weeks in the Middle East; first in Lebanon, as a member of charity Interpal’s Bear Witness women’s convoy, visiting refugee camps; then the West Bank, where I was exploring the Palestinian eco-resistance to the Israeli occupation. I chose to write about my trip on Facebook partly because I didn’t have time to travel, share on social media *and* blog, but also for security reasons: Israel and Lebanon are not the best of mates, and I was worried about storing my photos of the camps and Beirut on my camera and laptop, which Israeli airport guards have been known to rifle through. Posting my pix each night to Facebook was the answer, and it was only natural to turn my albums into photo diaries, a habit I continued in the West Bank, again because I wanted to delete any evidence I’d visited Palestine before I went back to the airport. (My devices weren’t searched in the end, but I wasn’t wrong to be paranoid: I was interrogated on the way in about my choice of reading material – turns out The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran is a suspect text to Israeli security!) I also tweeted the links, but although it was great to share my travels as they happened, the problem with FB and Twitter of course, is that your posts soon compost down into the mulch of dead news. Photo albums at least can be accessed via links, so to assuage my guilty blogger’s conscience, I’ve decided to collate them here, in two posts, one for each trip.
BEARING WITNESS in LEBANON with INTERPAL: Feb 14 – 19th 2016
DAY ONE: Syrian Refugee Camps in Bekaa Valley
Barelias and al-Farah are two of the better-organised Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, a fertile plain between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, across which lies Syria. More photos and reflections here.
DAY TWO: Nahr el Barad Camp, Northern Lebanon
Nahr el Bared camp was shelled by the Lebanese army in 2007 in an effort to rout what I was told was a Syrian branch of Al-Qaida. The camp was destroyed and its 45,000 Palestinian inhabitants evacuated to nearby al Beddawi camp, seriously straining its resources. Nine years later, Nahr el Bared is only half-reconstructed. More photos and reflections here.
DAY THREE: El Buss and Jal el Bahr Camps, Tyre.
No photos were allowed of el Buss camp, where we visited a women’s programme center and two centres for children with disabilities. But waiting to get in, we took a snappy stroll along Tyre’s beautiful old corniche, and later on in the unofficial camp of Jal el Bahr, Haneen and her friends were happy to have their picture taken. More photos and reflections here.
DAY FOUR: Ein el Hilweh Camp, Saida.
Ein el Hilweh is the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon with about 100,000 inhabitants living on top of each other in its chaotic concrete maze. Between buildings collapsing in storms, and clashes between illegal Syrian Islamist militants and the camp’s internal security force, Ein el Hilweh is a dangerous place. But the many murals of Palestine keep the dream of return alive. More photos and reflections here.
DAY FIVE: Shatila, Beirut.
We ended our visit to Lebanon in the camp that, more than any other, is synonymous with the brutal persecution of the Palestinians: Sabra-Shatila, where between 800 – 3500 refugees were massacred over three days in September 1982 by a Lebanese Christian militia, who left the narrow alleys and small rooms of the camp littered with the bodies of raped, tortured and butchered civilians. Today the camp is also home to Syrians and Lebanese, and a few creative NGOs, supporting schools and community projects in the overcrowded buildings -which also host many declarations of the Palestinian commitment to return to the homes they were forced to leave 68 years ago. More photos and reflections here.
Well, that’s my online experiment for the day. I hope it’s not too fragmentary, is easy to navigate, and gives a sense of this remarkable journey. Next, Palestine gets the cross-platform treatment!
Dec 31st and not only do I realise I haven’t blogged since July, but I find myself unable to post the traditional list of the year’s top ten books, films, or significant events. Far from this being the year of living listlessly, I am afraid the only tallies I can provide right now are a sad roll call of friends who have died in the last four months, and a long unscrolling moan of all the marking, household chores and writing projects that the year will now leave undone. Since September I’ve been teaching full time (though unfortunately not for full time wages), and the Christmas season, lovely and indulgent as it’s been, has seen me careening madly from tissue paper hats to stacks of undergraduate poems, essays and novel chapters. Work, especially satisfying work, does help stave off grief, and as well as staying up late to write poems in memory of novelist Irving Weinman, postcolonial scholar Bart Moore-Gilbert and translator Yuri Drobyshev (the late partner of my PhD supervisor Carol Rumens), I’ve paced myself with the marking, allowing ample time to relish my student’s talents. Teaching (and moaning about it) aside, it’s an unwritten part of the writer’s job to nurture new generations of wordsmiths, as Bart, Irving, and another late friend Lee Harwood, did so warmly for me.
I am especially pleased to be now starting the pile of submissions for Making It Strange: Writing the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Modern Gothic Novel, the first module I have solely designed and delivered in my teaching career, introducing students to (sneaky all-time book list alert) classic texts including Octavia Butler’s tentacular dystopia Dawn, Russell Hoban’s linguistic tour-de-force Riddley Walker and Monique Wittig’s avant-garde lesbian feminist call-to-arms Les Guérillères, as well as to my own ultra-zealous worldbuilding methodologies (hey kids, don’t stop at a map, why not write your world’s own wikipage!). The students’ enthusiasm has been incredibly rewarding, and reading the first two submissions, I feel tingles of pride in what they have accomplished.
Professionally, 2015 was a milestone in many respects. At Chichester, balancing out my still precarious part-time status, I was one of 14 university-wide recipients of a Research Development Award that will fund several research projects over the next two years (more on that below). I also became my department’s Equality and Diversity Champion, and have done my best in the role to support students with issues relating to access and inclusion, including learning more about autism. I can report that one stereotype has been smashed already: reading a book on Asperger’s Syndrome I learned that two of my favourite writers, Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats, are thought to have had the condition – as my own students have taught me, being on the spectrum doesn’t necessarily mean an inability to think metaphorically. On the subject of diversity, my appearances this year at four conferences, History Matters (discussing the dearth of Black British history teachers and scholars), the SOAS Spring Literature Festival (exploring Cultural Confluences), Blind Creations (celebrating the relationship between blindness and creativity) and the Muslim Institute’s Winter Gathering (which I left fully signed up as a new MI Fellow), all greatly deepened my knowledge of cultural resistance on many fronts.
Well, despite myself, the seasonal listmania seems to be taking hold . . . and as it does seem important to reflect on the year’s political events, I will just mention that I was glad to give a talk this autumn on the cultural and academic boycott of Israel at Brighton’s regular eclectic salon, The Catalyst Club, and also delighted in being a very naughty voter, paying my £3 to help get Jeremy Corbyn elected, hurrah! Rather less joyfully, I also wrote to my MP, cold-blooded Tory Simon Kirby, several times, protesting cuts to the Independent Living Allowance and the government’s plans to bomb ISIS while ignoring Syrian calls to combat the genocidal Assad regime by instituting a no fly zone over the country. I wrote to Brighton Pavilion’s Green MP Caroline Lucas about the latter issue too, and was pleased to see her later step down from Stop the War, which has so shamefully blocked Syrian voices in this urgent debate. The vote was lost, as we all know, and the war continues, toward its sixth year. It is very hard to know how to help, but I tried to do so this year by donating to Migrant Offshore Aid Station, who rescue refugees at sea, Middle East Children’s Alliance, whose Christmas appeal supported Palestinian and Syrian refugees, and the White Helmets, an unarmed volunteer force who, at huge risk to their own lives, pull people from the buildings Assad bombs.
2015 also saw the publication of Rook Song, and the launch of Astra in North America and though my lists of things to do to support both books are largely still unticked off, I will be getting back to the peculiar task of self-promotion in the New Year. For all that teaching will pay off in 2016 as I don’t go back in the classroom until September. Next semester is earmarked for research, which brings me to the happy announcement that, weaving my political, cultural and literary interests together, one of the top hats I’ll wear over the next two years will be the editorship of an anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation, forthcoming from Smokestack Books in 2017. Work will start in earnest in February when I visit Palestine to research permaculture and biodiversity in the West Bank for an article for the Nature issue of Critical Muslim. The anthology will be a mixture of established and new voices, and I am determined, if at all possible, to include Palestinian poets from Syria.
But first I have to proofread the next book in The Gaia Chronicles, and start the final novel of the quartet. . . Between teaching, writing doorstopper SFF, and trying to keep my poetry oar in, I do feel like a storm-tossed craft at times, but so far I have managed to land at most of the islands in my small archipelago. Except the one called Goodreads . . . I was heartily buoyed, though, to see Rook Song end up on an Effing Best of 2015 list, and I do still want to write about my talk for the Muslim Institute Winter Gathering, though, so the promise of a full post (plus my own blinder of a list!) on my current reading focus, Islamic SF, seems like a good note to end on – along with my best wishes to you all for smooth sailing and admiral adventures in 2016.
As the Greeks vote a resounding NO to austerity, here in the UK disabled activists prepare again to storm Westminster on Wednesday to protest the abolishment of the Independent Living Fund – everywhere the war on the poor is cutting deep, and people are fighting back. We living in desperate times, and yet also there’s an exciting spirit of defiance in the air. My dream is of a global grow/volution – a gradual and profound revolution, the transformation of our cruel and corrupt global economic system into one rooted in the principles of human rights and respect for difference. Gradual, because while sudden change is a great catalyst, too many radical upheavals breed insecurity and violence, while the creation of a just society requires reflection, compassion and co-operation. Just back from Blind Creations, a 3 day micro-arts festival and conference on the relationship between blindness and the arts, held last week at Royal Holloway University of London, I am more convinved than ever that such a world is possible.
As I told organisers Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne, and will now officially state, Blind Creations was the best conference I’ve ever attended. The weather, food and setting certainly helped. The campus’s Founders Building, a vast feast of red brickwork and Corinthian columns, chimney crenallations, stone corbels and quoins, is set in lush woodlands, while the catering included asparagus soup and a BBQ picnic in the grassy quadrangle, with grilled haloumi and aubergine kebabs for vegetarians. All this during Mediterranean sunshine levels! Yes, ivory or red brick, the towers of academia have their perks. But privilege is there to be redistributed – check out sustainable agriculture company grovolution, who use technology first developed at NASA* – and sometimes universities, as institutions of learning and communication, do in fact provide space for real cultural exchange and change. At Blind Creations, the programming and, above all, the people involved, made this gathering a powerful opportunity for sighted people – and institutions run largely by them – to learn from the experience of blind and visually impaired people.
To start with, there was a marvellous breadth of knowledge on offer. As an SF ‘world builder’, I thoroughly enjoyed the multidisciplinary approach – art, history, philosophy, literature, sociology, museum studies, media studies, film, technology, theatre, post-colonialism and linguistics were all represented. It was also exciting to be part of such an international occasion, with delegates from countries as far as India, South Korea, Japan and Brazil, while I enjoyed giving my schoolbook French an outing and – for a particular reason I will disclose in my next blog – the presence of so many Canadians gave me a happy sense of connection with the land I grew up in. But though the intellectual and geopolitical range of the conference were hugely stimulating, for me, the social atmosphere was most revelatory aspect of the experience. While student volunteers were on hand to support the visually impaired participants, on the first day Vanessa asked us all to co-create a culture of ‘support and respect’ – if a blind person needed help navigating the space, they were asked to put up a hand, and sighted people were asked to respond. I had already begun approaching blind delegates to say hi – this was no time or place to be shy – and was already discovering that the conference etiquette was an ice-breaker into warm waters.
Normally at conferences I feel a degree of social awkwardness, but here the combination of shared interests, a shared journey and physical touch, infused these navigational encounters with mutual good humour, curiosity and a delicate intimacy. I felt comfortable asking for help in my guiding technique – am I giving too much info, too little? I had discussions about touch in different cultures and families; I stopped to explore my tactile environment. Conversations felt warm and personal, as did the atmosphere of the conference as a whole. Though the place was filled with experts in their fields, even celebrities, there was no sense of big egos bumping up against each other here. Rather people chatted as though we were all old friends, the conference generating a social force field perhaps akin to what blind theorist Piet Devos called ‘relational identity’ – it was interconnectivity in action, or as Canadian writer Ryan Knighton put it ‘an economy of trust’. During our plenary session, Ryan was also responsible for a quip about urinals that sent the whole auditorium into gales of laughter, a long moment of wonderful uproar I can’t recall experiencing at any other conference I’ve attended. Overall, the palpable sense of community at Blind Creations made me think about the nature of inclusion – what is gained from the active inclusion of disabled people in society is a rich and genuine sense of being stronger together, creating a world where caring for each other is not a devalued and monetised job, but a shared human experience. As plenary speaker Georgina Kleege concluded her talk: ‘when we open up the culture, we change the culture’. This, to me, is a truth at the heart of the grow/volution.
Blind Creations also provoked more personal reflections. Though I was invited to discuss how I created my visually impaired characters in The Gaia Chronicles, I write about a range of disabilities, and am also the Equality and Diversity Champion in my Department at the University of Chichester. I know that there are links between my creative and political involvement in disability studies, and my personal life, though I still find it difficult to fully articulate these. As readers of this blog know, I have a history of anxiety and depression that dates back to early childhood. I am well aware that mental health conditions are sometimes considered ‘hidden disabilities’, but for various reasons I have shied away from claiming, officially or otherwise, this identity. Disclosure and self-identification, here, at work, in my writing – is something I still need time to reflect on. But this blog is already so long, I will postpone all that yet again! For now, I just want to celebrate the remarkable and joyful time I have just had – an experience that in some ways was a great antidote to anxiety – and to share some of the things I learned. The Blind Creations programme and audio archive are here, but these (with photos for the benefit of what plenary speaker Georgina Kleege helpfully terms the SVP or ‘Severely Visually Dependent’ community) are five of my personal highlights:
1. Encountering ‘Too Big To Feel’ by blind artist David Johnson
Hannah blogged about the installation of this piece, but did not say what the braille phrase meant. I tried to discover online, but could not find a key to Grade 2 Contracted braille (in which some braille characters stand for syllables, not letters). I sensed that part of the point of the piece was to demonstrate inaccessibility, but nevertheless I wanted to know what was being said. Finding myself sitting next to the artist I plucked up my courage and asked him to reveal the secret. At first David said he wanted to preserve the mystery of the artwork, but when I persevered, saying how much I liked the title’s pun on ‘too big to fail’, he kindly relented and told me the phrase was ‘seeing red.’ As I replied, knowing this did not at all reduce the piece’s power to me – quite the opposite. Rather, I felt the anger expressed directly linked disability campaigners to the current crisis in Greece, making a braille-iant comment on austerity. The phrase also described the conference itself, with its goal of ‘reading’ vision, and the artist’s own vision, which he told me can sometimes be a field of red. Visual impairment, as the conference discussed, is a varied and individual experience.
2. Learning about ‘the grammar of touch’ from Russ Palmer and Riitta Lahtinen
Readers of Rook Song will know that one of the book’s central characters is Asar, a deafblind young man with learning disabilities, who communicates by touch with his partner, carer and manager Sepsu, and is viewed as a prophet in his society. I was at the conference to talk about how I came to create Asar and the other visually impaired character in The Gaia Chronicles, Hokma Blesser. In the course of my research for Asar, I had taught a creative writing workshop at Stay Up Late, a charity that works to ensure people with learning disabilities can attend gigs, but my other research had been online, and not as detailed as I wanted. So I was thrilled to hear a presentation by the married couple Russ Palmer and Riitta Lahtinen on using social haptic communication (touch-based language) to interpret art for visually impaired people. Russ, who is deafblind with two cochneal implants, and Riitta, the Head of the Communication Unit at the Finnish Deafblind Association, later generously allowed me to ply them with questions about their work. I would have to write another whole blog post to share what I had learned, but suffice to say I am now excited about returning to Asar in Book 4, armed with a far greater knowledge of his language.
3. Meeting the Indian delegates
Being the descendent of a nineteenth century Scottish missionary in Calcutta, and having spent time in India looking into my mother’s family history there, I was glad to meet the blind Indian delegates Aravinda Bhat, whose talk on Borges led to a shared appreciation of jokes in Finnegan’s Wake; and Hemachandran Karah, whose talk on blind Indian writer Ved Mehta I missed, but whose conversation on the last day brought me up to speed on Heidegger in India, and Kindle screenreading technology for the visually impaired. I was also very pleased to make the acquaintance of blind Indian-American scholar Sejal Sutaria, whose work on Dalit and Indigenous activist writing in India is leading her to desire an active connection with the Palestinian struggle. Overall, there was a strong post-colonial thrust to the conference that I hope can be built upon in future such events – it would be very good to hear from blind and visually impaired African and Middle Eastern speakers, or (considering their absence here) to understand what obstacles they might face in attending international events.
4. Experiencing the Singing Bowl Table
Rook Song readers will also know that Asar gives his prophetic counsel accompanied by music, most significantly Himalayan singing bowls. According to legend, these are made of seven metals, including meteorite iron which the lamas believe helps meditators enter into astral travel. So it was the most marvellous serendipity to meet artist Aaron McPeake at the conference, and see and play his bronze singing bowls. Holding the bowls on my flat palm, up near my ear, Aaron teaching me how to play properly – keeping the wooden stick moving with a steady pressure and constant speed – I felt the overtones carve out their strange, calming space within me. A former stage lighting designer who has met Samuel Beckett (in a London caf; Sam was almost chirpy), Aaron lost much of his sight by 2002, provoking a move from stage lighting design into art. He also makes slate works, films, responses to Icelandic landscapes, gongs and bells all of which you can see and hear here.
5. Clarifying My Perception of Blindness
Due in part to significant relationships I have had with highly creative and successful blind people over the years, I do not perceive blindness as a personal catastrophe. As a fiction writer I have aimed to convey my visually characters as people with complex identities and active roles in their societies. Nevertheless, I enjoy my sight and – not even liking to lose my hat – would not welcome losing it. And one of those relationships, a difficult one with an employer, did leave me with the impression that the person’s blindness was a factor in their inability to trust other people, and concomitant need to control them. That’s an impression I am reassessing, and in any case certainly wouldn’t generalise from. As a sighted person, I know that I have far more to learn and unlearn about blindness. But the sheer happiness radiating from so many blind people I met at the conference was a powerful reminder of the truth of the refrain of Hannah Thompson’s blog Blind Spot – that blindness, far from being a tragedy, is simply another way of being in the world, and one that can offer many pleasures. At the Gala BBQ I watched David Johnson encounter, with delighted surprise, half a baked potato on his plate. Suddenly, a slightly altered phrase from Peter Pan popped into my head: ‘To be blind must be an awfully big adventure’. Tinker Bell, of course, says ‘To die’, but except in the sense that they are both experiences that many people fear, I don’t at all associate blindness with death. For a sighted person going blind is by its nature a loss, but that is not the end of the story. Any loss is also fundamentally a change. Life continues, allowing new growth, both radical and subtle, to occur. Returning from Blind Creations I am more certain than ever that should I become blind, I would adjust, and find value, pride and beauty in my new mode of being. Life, after all – as my CBT counsellor tells me – is to a large extent how you look at it. So thank you again, Hannah and Vanessa, for the tremendous and re/visionary experience of Blind Creations.
*For the record, I hit on the term ‘grovolution’ as I was writing, then Googled it. I rethought my spelling, as I don’t want to infringe on copyright, or cause confusion, and in any case I like using the whole word grow rather than something snappier. Growing is usually a slow process, with breaks and reversals, hence the back slash.
Home from ten days in Greece, a defiant indulgence in the face of my own turbulent finances, and my fourth trip to the country, the first I ever visited in continental Europe. A three month stay during the first Gulf War resulted in a sequence of prose poems; two trips in the noughties with my then-partner produced a stormy DIY arthouse video and a three generation family holiday. For me the blue waters of Greece are emotional reservoir and creative wellspring. With their secluded beaches and balmy climate, blazing bourgenvilla and silvery olive groves, kids zooming about like fireflies as their parents welcome artists, writers, history and sun seekers, if you’ve got a little spare cash the islands offer intense beauty, and the timeless illusion of freedom. But what I’ve also always loved about the country is its sense of political urgency, born perhaps of its place in the crosscurrents of continents. I first came to Athens to stay with anarchists, and when those relations proved combustive, was befriended by a South African anti-apartheid activist who, with her Palestinian husband, nurtured the seeds of my own anti-Zionism. Now, of course, as Greeks pull Syrian refugees from the waves, Alex Tsipras and Syriza are, with Spain’s Podemos, leading the fight against European neo-liberalism, a struggle we all need to win.
Not that I was going to throw stones at American Express. This visit was a reading and walking holiday, time to relax and recuperate from a spring filled with work deadlines. And apart from a few political posters in Corfu Town no crisis was in evidence in Corfu or Paxos – no queues at banks (not that we saw many banks), no demonstrations, the hotel we stayed in the first night fully booked. Paxos especially is insulated by its summer Med Set clientele – though our small village had resisted the cruise ships, the beach taverna had served Kate and Wills on their honeymoon, sending the food out to the royal yacht on a dinghy – but of course the economic meltdown was on people’s minds. A taxi driver liked Tsipras for being on the Left and standing up to the EU; our young cocktail bartender said she was planning to work in London; but the best conversation I had about the situation was with a older gent with the most fabulous fleecy white moustaches, who arrived on a small boat with his two grandchildren as I was swimming on an isolated beach. He said the country’s economic problems stemmed in part from irresponsible lending – retired now, when he was working he had been coldcalled every five days with offers of collateral-free loans of up to 50,000 euros. It was the same in Ireland, I replied – an Irish friend’s builder was constantly getting phone calls from the banks; he could take the train from Dublin and by the time he got to Kildare be 100,000 euros richer. But while the banks are ‘too big to fail’, and bailed out to the tune of over a trillion pounds, Greece is insulted, raged at, and made to beg for, in comparision, a meagre £7 billion. What price not only an entire country, but the dream of a real European Union?
My bewhiskered Poseidon asked me to tell people to keep coming – the last things Greeks need now is a wash-out summer season, and as long as you bring enough euros with you, even a run on the banks won’t affect your holiday. The biggest disturbance in Loggos was the bull carcass that washed up on the beach one day, front legs bound and smelling to high heaven. I recalled the myth of Europa, kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a bull, who swam with her away from Crete. Europe now seems to be dumping Zeus, and the situation stinks. Rich nations shouldn’t be punishing Greece, or any poorer countries. Europe has got a chance here to live up to its ideals, and though I don’t hold out much hope of the IMF waving the flag of economic equality, perhaps the threat of Putin profiting from Syriza’s rebellion will be enough to force a deal. Yesterday’s concessionary funds suggest a game of brinkmanship that may yet keep a Grexit at bay.
What’s really needed, though, is a new sense of being in this crisis together – a green social democracy that empowers the disenfranchised and forces the wealthy to, as Pope Francis has just decreed, take responsibility for healing the earth. It’s still hard to see how our how current political system will deliver this, but it was good to come back to the news that Jeremy Corbyn has entered the Labour leadership contest. Personally, I can only live in a way that honours my radical politics, spirituality and creativity. I read Zorba the Greek on that beach, and while my friend Glen on FB – one of the true male feminists I am fortunate to know – bemoaned the hero’s atrocious behavior toward women during the war, to me it seemed Zorba learned a profound lesson from his violent past:
‘My country, you say? . . . You believe all the rubbish your books tell you? Well, I’m the one you should believe. As long as there are countries man will stay an animal, a ferocious animal . . . But I am delivered from that, God be praised! It’s finished for me! [. . .] That miracle over there, boss, that moving blue, what do they call it? Sea? Sea? And what’s that wearing a flowered green apron? Earth? Who was the artist who did it? It’s the first time I’ve seen that, boss, I swear!’
His eyes were brimming over.
‘Zorba!’ I cried. ‘Have you gone off your head?’
‘What are you laughing at? Don’t you see? There’s magic behind all that, boss.’
He rushed outside, began dancing and rolling in the grass like a foal in spring.
The sun appeared and I held out my palms to the warmth. Rising sap . . . the swelling breast . . .
and the soul also blossoming like a tree; you could feel that body and soul were kneaded from the same material.
– Zorba the Greek, Nicos Kazantzakis (Faber, p245-6)
The book is very much about patriarchy, and though the depictions of women are often problematic – a figure of fun, a nameless victim of lust and murder – Zorba himself evolves from rapacious soldier to anarchist pagan, and his appreciation of older women’s sexuality is rare to see in literature. I could forgive much though, for in their striving for fulfillment and transcendence, Zorba and the narrator, the ‘boss’ on his Buddhist writerly quest, embody the Greece that keeps pulling me back to its wild warm shores – to drink wine from tin carafes, flirt, read, swim, sketch the cliffs and the sea, recharge for the challenges ahead . . . its going to be an interesting summer, but for now, I’m still basking in my Grecian urnings, so more on future plans anon!
So. Here I am, a Kemp Town resident, bleating at the gates of the newly declared Green Socialist People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove to be let in. Not that a change of post code would make much difference. I could move to Liverpool or Glasgow and still be a lost goat chewing down on a rusty old banger with three flat wheels someone’s spraypainted blue with a yellow racing stripe – desperately trying to digest the indigestible. It will never be possible to accept that this country is really going to spend the next five years engaged in full scale war on the most vulnerable members of society, starting with cutting Access to Work funds for disabled people, and moving swiftly along to scrapping the Human Rights Act.
But the People’s Republic does have an open borders policy and a powerful aura. After a weekend doing Tarot in the sun on East St, debriefing with good friends, and being kind to two strangers,* I am now over the first sickening shock of the general election result. The horror aside, there’s yellow-caped crusader Anti-Austerity Sturgeon to cheer on, and hope in the form of the growing call for electoral reform. But the first draft of Astra 3 is due May 31st and I have to write 28,000 words (guestimate, might be more) in three weeks, plus read Tarot at weekends and see the semester out at Chichester, so for now I would just like to go on the record with the following thoughts:
Though all my principles have been wrung through the washer of realpolitik over the last few days, they are not fading but getting Greener by the minute. I joined the party earlier this year because – with the exception of its shady links with Stop the War and kneejerk rejection of foreign intervention – it pretty much stands for everything I believe in. (Blog readers will know I had a falling out with the party here in Brighton last year over Stop the War, but the candidate Davy Jones took the time to meet with me and apologise for his part in the debacle, which I appreciated and respected. A sincere apology is a rare thing.) My only conflict with the Greens running up to the election lay in the guilt I felt over not campaigning for them. I was away for a couple of weekends and otherwise working a lot, in part on Astra 3, but also taking what jobs I could to cover an unexpected large rent increase – the housing crisis is real for me and on my current income I can’t really afford to live in the People’s Republic much longer. But that’s another blog post. To do my bit for the Greens I had stuck a poster in my window and determined to vote for Davy on the day. The night before the election though, I had a wobble.
Several Brighton Facebook friends posted heartfelt pleas to vote Labour in my ward, a marginal seat held for five years by Tory Simon Kirby, and being contested by Labour’s Nancy Platts. Of course I understand the urgent call to keep the Torys out, and suddenly I doubted, not my convictions, but my strategy. So I checked The Guardian, and when I discovered they were calling my ward for Labour, I decided to stick to my jade guns. In the morning, I learned Platts lost by 690 votes. I felt ill. Was I wrong?
I spent much of the weekend thinking and talking about this, and I can only answer no. At least not under the prevailing circumstances. For Labour didn’t decide not to target Brighton Pavilion, thinking ‘let’s not challenge Caroline Lucas, a fellow progressive and a natural ally should we need to form a minority government’. No, they threw their weight behind their candidate, Purna Sen. So why should Labour expect Green supporters to sacrifice our own party loyalty for them? Had Labour diverted more volunteers to Brighton Kemptown, maybe they could have won those extra 700 votes from undecideds.
I also strongly believe, as this election has made clear to so many, that First Past The Post is profoundly undemocratic and long past its due by date. Tactical voting as an individual only perpetuates the two horse race, creating a false impression of Labour’s actual support. And vote swapping, as was available online, seems unreliable (how do you know your ‘match’ will keep their promise) and open to abuse (think of those Russian oligarachs buying up votes). So from the moment I woke up on Thursday I have been promoting electoral reform. Having said that I do see the sense, under FPTP, of co-operation between parties on the Left. Caroline Lucas addressed this issue at her celebration party, saying she had been in talks with Polly Toynbee and others about the possibility of finding ways in future to negotiate ‘deals’ between leftist parties to support each other’s chances in particular wards. (Which makes far more sense to me than establishing ‘Left Unity’ as yet another small party on the ticket.)
For myself, much as I think she and Sen hold some sound views, I am glad I didn’t vote for Nancy Platts. She would have lost by 689 votes, and I would betrayed my beliefs, missing out on being part of the record 1.1 million people who said last Thursday that they believe this country can deliver justice and abundance and a healthy planet for all. I have read the Labour Manifesto, and while much of it I agree with, it doesn’t go nearly far enough toward the kind of society I would like to live in, and which I believe we all deserve.
The Green Manifesto, on the other hand, presents a costed utopia, a state that offers a basic income to all its citizens and a non-fossil fuel future. In many places, it brightly outshines Labour. Just two examples, close to home:
I’m a lecturer, teaching students who work three jobs while studying for a BA. My own job, only a quarter-time post, will be in jeopardy if enrolment continues to drop due to tuition fees. Labour proposed to cut these from £9000 p.a. to £6000 (effectively still doubling it from 2010); the Greens would make higher education free. This is not key lime pie in the sky thinking. Scotland has free HE, and Germany is currently making its universities free for foreign students. This is a proposal worth fighting for.
I’m a cyclist. I haven’t owned a car since my early twenties. When I fly, I pay my carbon offset, and unless to Northern Ireland or Northern Scotland I don’t fly within the UK. Labour proposed to establish a National Rail body to co-ordinate private companies, and allow a publically funded service to compete amongst them; their manifesto says nothing about air travel and very little about buses. The Greens transport plans fill pages. In contrast with Labour they would renationalise the railways, oppose the expansion of airports, and take strong steps to ensure a de-carbonised future.
There is much more, funded in part by borrowing. (Labour promised not to borrow, which is laudable, but the Greens promise to overhaul the entire banking and welfare system.) By the way, I am describing the Labour Manifesto in past tense, because I expect they will have to rip it up and start again now. The Greens can just keep refining theirs. Labour supporters will argue that’s because the Greens don’t have to worry about delivering on their promises. But our economy is morally bankrupt and our planet may not be able to sustain us much longer. We need to think and act very differently, and that has to start somewhere. While it might seem impossible to get to a Green UK from where we stand here, the very fact people have produced this detailed and visionary document gives me hope.
As my friend Bart Moore Gilbert cogently argues here (in remarkable detail considering he’s just got married and is about to go into hospital to have a cancerous kidney removed), the Labour project is finished, torn apart by its own inability to please all its factions. Especially with the new situation in Scotland, we won’t get a majority Labour government in the UK again, and to survive the party will be forced to move more and more to Tory-lite policies. Profound change to the electoral system isn’t a dream, it’s the only option for people on the left. UKIP would benefit from such changes, but its clear now that UKIP took votes from Labour, and as Hope Not Hate demonstrated in the door-to-door campaign that demolished the BNP in Barking and Dagenham, it is possible to effectively address the fear that causes such xenophobia and intolerance.
I do feel strongly about all this. Currently, I am an SF novelist on a tight schedule and spending much of the time in another world entirely. Non-Land is a strange place to be when the real world is so pressing. But I’m making my per diem wordcount, and expecting to be demob happy in June and totally up for the already massive The People’s Assembly anti-austerity protest planned for that month. See you there!
*I gave some money to a panhandler and we had a long chat, sparked by his dog, who’s been muzzled for life by the courts because his owner likes nutting coppers (‘better than sex!’). According to him, the headbanging arose from unprovoked police brutality, which I don’t find too hard to believe. I also helped a teetering gent with a walking stick across the road, who gave me a dazzling smile on the other side then promptly fell down the moment I let go of his arm. Nightmare! But his neighbour ran across the street from the bus stop and together we got him back up and on his way with his fish and chips.
Ahoj! Here I am back from Prague, where esoteric author Cyril Simsa had arranged for me to bring The Gaia Chronicles to the Renaissance bower of the Anglo-American University, and troubadours John McKeown and Lucien Zell had invited me to read poetry at Pracovna, an ultra-chic café and ‘co-working space’ built from repurposed factory palettes and hub caps. There’s no pic of me and Cyril sadly (our conversations were far too occult for digital snaps) but I look pretty happy with the poets in Zizkov, and really it’s true, I had a radiant time.
It was my first visit to Prague, but as I wrote before I left, thanks to a childhood friendship I believe my imagination owes a debt to Czech SF and I was keen to research the history of the genre in the city. My first purchase was a slim book of tales of the Golem, that lumbering husk of a man created, as the myth has it, by the 16th century Rabbi Loew to serve his household and, when occasion demanded, protect the often scapegoated Jewish community. Though animated from clay in an occult ceremony, the Golem is a proto-SF figure, an acknowledged influence on the major Czech writer Karel Čapek, whose classic play R.U.R. gave us the word “robot” (suggested by his brother, from the Old Church Slavonic robota, or “forced labour”). Though it’s now accepted that the tale came to Prague in the 18th century, in the U Golema restaurant (how could I not!) I found a laminated article from The Fortean Times arguing that the myth was possibly grafted on to a historical figure, a man with learning disabilities or epilepsy, taken in by the Rabbi, whose violent death was hushed up. Speculative, but interesting to contemplate in relation to the hidden history of disabled people: someone perhaps remembered negatively as frightening and monstrous, yet who was also cared for and later became a symbol of the power and vulnerability of his entire community.
Prague means Kafka of course, and I loved the new multimedia museum exploring the writer’s relationship to the city, a long phantasmagorical attic filled with music, shadows, a mirrored cinema and black shiny filing cabinets. ‘Prague won’t let you go: the little mother has claws,’ Kafka wrote, and after reading his painful Letter to Father (seventy pages of complaint his father never read), I thought perhaps for some writers cities make better parents than people do.
Personally, I fell headlong into Prague’s clutches. Lucien’s poetry revealed that the name means “threshold”, and for me even the tourist trap Old Town seemed a liminal metropolis, a dream city forged by mystics and revolutionaries as much as monarchs, tanks and neoliberal agendas. Sure, hordes of pleasure seekers brandishing selfie sticks can make Gothic towers, ravishing Art Nouveau buildings and Soviet era blocks seem little more than the set of a Eurotrash theme park, but for me the influx of Easyjet setters could not ruin Prague’s essential mystery; if anything they intensified its strong absurdist streak. Anywhere else I would have found helmeted tourists beetling around on Segways vulgar intrusions; in Prague they seemed anarchic harbingers of the future metamorphosis of urban transportation. It must be said though, that the discovery the castle had over the centuries housed fortune tellers including “Madame de Thebes”, had perhaps overly tinted my vision . . .
I began constructing a tower of my own, its foundation being Cross Roads, a collection of Karel Čapek’s metaphysical short fiction from the enterprising Catbird Press, who have made most of the author’s work available in English. Cyril kindly gave me a copy of In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman, the inventive but a little dated SF stories of late Czech psychotherapist Josef Nesvadba, and also some of his own translations of Czech SF and decadent literature – my favourite being an extraordinary story by Jan Weiss, ‘The Apostle’, a haunting cross between Bladerunner and The Gulag Archipelago. I was also grateful to Cyril for an essay on Weiss and a pamphlet of short writings by the feminist critic and former SF author Eva Hauserová, whose thoughts on cultural biodiversity seemed to mesh with her current enthusiasm for permaculture gardening. I also came home with Lucien Zell’s beguiling collection In Body’s Bright Garden, and the refreshingly acerbic A Guided Tour Through The Museum of Communism by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, a series of political fables set in various ex-Soviet bloc countries, all narrated by animals, beginning with a Czech mouse reflecting on the Prague Spring. Perhaps I’d only built the steps to the doorway of Prague literature, but it felt like a start.
The poetry night was memorable for the blend of piano, percussive guitar and four very different voices – taut McKeown, “mythistoric” Zell, meditative Rumbler and footloose Foyle. On the SFF front, the AAU night generated so many questions that I wound up being interviewed for their online journal At the Lennon Wall by the Russian cultural studies major Anastasiya Shishkina. Anastasiya said I was the first female writer she had ever met – which did seem to justify the carbon footprint of my flight! Finally, to top off this spring frenzy, I returned home to the publication of my interview on ‘FEM SF’ in Writers’ Forum – I’ve got PDFs, but as I’d like to end with a few more Prague snaps, I’ll post them next time. In the interview, though, I mention Mary Shelley as the first SF writer, though I now think that proto-SF, including the Golem and the Arabian Nights, deserves special mention. There is no evidence, by the way, that Shelley was influenced by tales of the Prague Golem, but if anyone uncovers any please let me know – Cyril will owe me a drink!
(An version of this post appeared on the JFB blog today too.)
I head to Prague tomorrow, on a trip I’m starting to think of as a pilgrimage – a chance to pay homage to the silvery Czech spores that seeded my science fiction fate . . . I’m recalling here my best friend in Canada in grade eight, a Czechoslovakian girl called Nora, with whom I collaborated on a ‘space opera’ epic that expressed our pubescent emotions and burgeoning awareness of the politics of power, but also, I now suspect, her Czech literary heritage.
I knew Nora in the late seventies, and I assume her parents had fled Soviet rule, though I can’t recall if I was ever told the story of their emigration. Nora would have been an infant during the Prague Spring of 1968, and it’s entirely possible her parents took part in the creative and non-violent resistance that characterised that brief period of hope. Did her mother go out with a pram and paint over a roadsign to confuse Warsaw Pact tanks? Did her father stand in the street waving a banner reading ‘An elephant cannot swallow a hedgehog’? I don’t know, but I do remember how fascinating and sophisticated they were. Nora’s vivacious mother wore lipstick, earrings and dresses every day, her father was burly and bald and exuded energy and ambition; twice a year they forced Nora to don an evening dress and attend the opera, and while my family’s fridge magnet was an ad for the local real estate agent, theirs asserted: ‘When sex is good, it’s great, but even when it’s bad, it’s good!’. If I tell you that my British mother, when I was sixteen, would leave on my pillow a sealed letter containing instructions on how to find the condoms and sex ed book she’d hidden in her sewing basket, you’ll understand why I became incredibly shy in Nora’s kitchen.
As well as embodying unspeakable glamour, Nora’s parents also clearly harboured melancholy at the loss of their homeland, and a driving desire for their daughter to be fully Czech and a successful Canadian. Dinners at their house were an education for me – there I first learned how to say grace in a foreign language: Dobrou chuť, a phrase I recently discovered hiding still in my head. Nora probably enjoyed my parents’ relative lack of interest in our intellectual development; at least, she and I were most often to be found at my house, cloistered in a fortress of sheets we draped over the basement ping-pong table. There, to lamplight, in between endless rounds of canasta, we created the frankly sadistic world of Zandonia. The Zandonians were tall, ruthless humanoid beings with ant-like heads, dedicated to colonising their entire solar system. Commanding hitech military spaceware, planet by planet they enslaved all their gentle, playful and zesty neighbours, forcing them to milk and mine their own natural resources for export to the overlords’ home. Nora and I had zero interest in plot and character, but exhaustively catalogued a history of this brutal empire, illustrating the various conquered inhabitants in male and female, and ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings. I remember Tunnelus and Trainus, a small planet that (possibly defying all known laws of astrophysics) passed through a hole in its larger neighbour; and the standard tattered loincloths the slaves were forced to wear. Our collaboration filled pages: looking back, we both seemed in the grip of an awful, gleeful vision of life as relentless oppression.
In my case the impetus was probably psychological. I had been bullied throughout my childhood, and perhaps this was a chance to be on the winning side; or perhaps I was rebelling against my parents’ pacifist Quaker values. But certainly Nora would have understood state violence and now, reading Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, I wonder if her contribution to our imaginative effort was also influenced by Czech SF, works like Čapek’s classic play in which humanoid drones labour for the benefit of their creators, until design changes provoke them to revolt. More on Čapek in a later post; for now I’ll just mention that unlike him, we did not remotely entertain the notion of uprisings against tyranny, let alone the ultimate triumph of love. There was an Earth in our solar system, but its human inhabitants were subjugated as efficiently as the tiny Trainusians.
We bound our Zandonian history in an orange folder, long-lost, and were separated when our families both moved. I visited Nora again only much later, during our university years, when she was studying to be a vet and I was a poetry scribbling philosophy student. We didn’t have much in common anymore, and when she proudly showed me photos of an elephant dissection, the crimson and blue intestines sprawling over the clinic floor like giant alien worms, I suddenly felt I would not be able to follow my former best friend into adult life. But when I consider Astra and Rook Song, IMBOD, the Gaians, and the fierce young Lil, maybe I have, after all.
Thanks to an invite from Cyril Simsa, author of the SFF short story collection Lost Cartographies (Invocations Press), I’ll be reading from The Gaia Chronicles at the Library of the Anglo-American University on April 9th. Thanks also to fellow Waterloo Press poet John McKeown, and his Prague mate troubadour Lucien Zell, with whom I’ll be reading poetry at Secret Cords on the 13th.
Rook Song: Book Two of The Gaia Chronicles
my Science Fantasy epic from Jo Fletcher Books
launches in Brighton Feb 6th – please come & help it fly the nest in style!
Continuing Astra’s adventures, Rook Song opens her world up to many people’s stories – it’s eco-dystopia meets radical resistance, a polyphonic hymn to human diversity. To celebrate accordingly, I’m hosting an Open Mic at Brighton’s fabulous Red Roaster. Please come along and read, sing, chant, recite (or just listen to) poems, raps, songs, flash fictions, manifestos, on the theme of Birds & Revolutions.
Entrance is free and books will be on sale at prices even a magpie would pay. We’ll sort the Open Mic list on the night, so if you’d like to perform, please prepare 3 minute slot and come on time to sign up.
Friday February 6th
8-10 PM Red Roaster
1 St James St, Brighton
(A ten minute walk or bus 7 Marina from Brighton Station)
Farewell 2014, but may your turning tides continue to sweep us between the icebergs and whirlpools of political despair and environmental collapse, toward the hard-won shores of a fairer world. For though global disasters and injustices only seemed to intensify this year – climate change, Syria bleeding into Iraq, Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza, Ebola, Boko Haram, racist executions on the streets of America, and in the UK the continued dismantling of the NHS and the ethnic cleansing of the poor, to name but a few on-going explosions – it was also a year of significant victories for participatory democracy. Everywhere, people power is steadily rising, and with it a tangible sense of my favourite metaphor of 2014: sea change. For if Scylla and Charybdis also represent the Right and old Left, the nimblest ships sailing through them are whole new political paradigms – personally, I’m entering 2015 buoyed up by my recent discoveries of metamodernism and transmodernism, philosophies which view human difference as strength, and place ecology, feminism, anti-racism, equality and spirituality at the very heart of their concerns.
To start with, as Rebecca Solnit has argued persuasively, it was a watershed year for feminism, twelve months in which women demanded like never before an absolute end to rape culture, and began to win not just the argument but legal battles and international acclaim. Solnit discusses protests, hashtags, Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize, the courage of survivors ‘handing the shame back’ to the perpetrators. In Britain, a decisive moment was the conviction of Rolf Harris on the basis that women who had never met each other, but all told the same story could not be lying. Not every survivor of sexual abuse will benefit by public disclosure or legal action, but I hope 2015 brings more and more women, girls, men and boys to safe places where they are believed.
It was also a year when global fossil fuel divestment became a credible goal; the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign scored serious moral and economic hits against Israeli occupation and apartheid; Afro-Americans and their allies stormed the streets to protest racist police violence; Syrians continued to mount their phenomenal resistance to tyranny; disabled people insisted on being heard in the debates on assisted dying, and Ukrainians took a stand against Putin’s paramilitaries. I was invigorated by opportunities to participate how and when I could: joining the Green Party, speaking for cultural boycott at the autumn’s Battle of Ideas event, organising a meeting of diverse artist-activists at Fabrica Gallery, and visiting Ukraine to meet writers and activists there. I was also pleased to be appointed the University of Chichester English and Creative Writing Department Equality and Diversity champion, a position that will help me contribute to positive changes within not just my university, but also the wider field of British higher education.
Diversity can sometimes be hidden. This year many writers responded to the suicide of Robin Williams by openly challenging myths around mental illness. I took my own mental health seriously, in counselling and CBT sessions developing new ways to think about and manage my chronic depression and anxiety. As a result I feel happier and better able to direct my energies to rewarding endeavours. Taking a step back from social media in favour of books and personal encounters, I’ve also poured myself into my writing, completing a long essay on Ukraine currently seeking a publisher, and the second book in The Gaia Chronicles, Rook Song, due out on February 5th.
I’ve been calling Rook Song a ‘polyphonic hymn to human diversity’, though perhaps it is also a battle cry . . . A novel must create its own world, but also reflect the one we all live in, and for me as a writer that means engaging with politics and, more recently, political philosophy. Why philosophy? Because in neoconservatism and its mirror image, neoliberalism, in post-Soviet totalitarianism, in religious fundamentalism from ISIL to Christian Zionism, we’re up against massive ideological forces endangering the very possibility of life on this planet. As individuals or special focus groups we don’t have a chance of survival: even as we fight our own corners and water our own gardens we need to find ways to unite. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says we need new ‘masters’ – not leaders who tell us what we can’t do or think, but people like Chelsea Manning who show us we can all do far more than we dream possible. We also need to reconceptualise our overwhelmingly complex world in ways that empower us to act within it for the greater good. Eco-feminism has always been there for me, as have the basic principles of Marxism and solidarity with post-colonial and other struggles, but against the fragmentation of the old Left and consumerism’s paralysis of choice, an even more dynamic interconnectivity is required: generous philosophies that draw art, spirituality, literature, psychology, academia, and personal growth into the fold.
One such emerging gestalt is metamodernism. Coined in 2010 by two Dutch cultural theorists, the term describes the new ‘structure of feeling’ evident in the global shift toward social and political networking. Incorporating yet also rejecting postmodernist skepticism, metamodernism spins back into play notions of truth, authenticity and individual agency, urging passionate, eclectic and interpersonal resistance to the demoralising power of governments, corporations and the mass media. As Point 8 of the Manifesto has it:
We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage. Thus, metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons. We must go forth and oscillate!
I like the capacious sense here of openness to the other, the rejoicing in multiplicity, the bold attempt to move beyond the postmodern spectacle to something more like vision. I also like the inclusivity of celebrating everyday acts of collaboration and communication. But if I am going to oscillate in 2015, then my alternative pole will be transmodernism, which – as I understand it so far – also moves between and beyond modernism and postmodernism, but with a more profoundly global reach. Founded by Argentine-Mexican philosopher Enrique Dussel, transmodernism also celebrates diversity and embraces radical change, but it also respects the traditional structures of feeling of non-Western societies – religious faith, social beliefs and customs – and insists that any struggle for equality must honour these deep-rooted identities. According to leading proponent, the editor of Critical Muslim, Ziauddin Sardar:
We need to bring the life-enhancing aspects of tradition and the best aspects of modernity together. They need to be synthesized into a new way of looking at things . . . [Transmodernism is a] critically engaging process that takes the best of what was already there. It doesn’t disconnect you from history, but builds upon elements that can take you forward.