A very early work

I still have this story which I must have written at school when I was four or five. The full text is as follows:

Once upon a time there was an old man he lived in a church but he didn’t like it

The man cried very loud so he said I want a house to live in

He heard the door bell He peeped out of the window and saw somebody he would like

Now it was evening and the person said can I live with [you]

Yes please said the man

I will said the person.

They lived in a lovely cottage and they loved it and they wouldnt move house again

A smart car came to fetch the person but the person said I dont want to go

and the man in the smart car said you must go

and the old man shot the man in the smart car

Funny thing is, the story works pretty much like the stories I still write. It takes things from my own life and and mixes them up with imaginary things. There are recognisable autobiographical elements: I had not long moved from a terraced house to a large hollow house which might well have seemed like a church and was probably for various reasons associated in my mind with unhappiness.

Rather longer ago (when I was less than 2), and probably already outside of my conscious memory, an au pair girl who had looked after me – and (so I hypothesise) was warm and fun compared to my depressed and unpredictable mother – had returned to Germany, presumably collected in a car (by a boyfriend, perhaps, or maybe just a taxi driver?) I know I was very distressed by this, so it seems to me that this story was me rewriting that painful scene as if I had some power – murderous power, no less! Look at the old man smile as the smoke and flame comes out of his gun.

There’s a primitive magic in stories and pictures. It’s as if at some level we think by naming or depicting things, we can control them.

It’s interesting to me how the old man is allowed an age and a gender, but ‘the person’ is given neither, even though in the pictures she is clearly a woman or girl, as if this someone I wasn’t supposed to name. I’m struck by how the old man reaches out towards her from his window with both arms when she’s still outside his front door.

I’m still terrified of moving house and have lived in my present house for forty years.

Idea for an Alternate History

The so-called culture wars have a tendency to map all debates into two pre-existing camps: us and them, and this can result in certain positions becoming associated with one side or the other in a way that seems almost arbitrary. (Why, for instance, would we associate concern about the environment more with social liberalism than with social conservatism?)

This polarising tendency appears to be particularly pronounced in America but my sense is that it is more pronounced in Britain than in other European countries. If this is true, I wonder whether it is a product in part of ‘first past the post’ electoral systems which tend to result in a competition for power between two dominant parties, and make it hard for third parties to make headway? (For isn’t that what we mean by ‘culture wars’: the intellectual equivalent of an adversarial two-party system?)

Anyway, I think it may be partly as a result of this kind of binary thinking, that Liberalish, Remainish people often lump the Brexit vote together with the election of Trump, as if they were exactly the same phenomenon. This is understandable but lazy. Of course there are large overlaps, but there were people who voted for Brexit who wouldn’t have dreamed of voting for Trump, and there were reasons for voting Brexit that had nothing to do with Trump-style nationalism.

So much of politics is about projection. ‘We’ project things we don’t like onto ‘them’ and mock the things they value, while projecting everything that is good and virtuous onto the things we do value. Indeed the very fact that ‘they’ despise something, makes us value it even more, to the point of uncritical idealisation.

A narrative emerged among some Remainers, for instance, in which they mocked or condemned patriotism but declared themselves proud Europeans. But is there any moral difference between identifying with a country and identifying with a continent? (If there is, I’d be interested to know what exactly is the the land area required for identification with a piece of territory to become virtuous?)

Breaking away from larger entities, defending the integrity of large entities, and joining together to form larger entities are, it seems to me, all quite common political processes. They can all be presented as progress, and can all in different circumstances be associated with political positions that may be described as left-wing, right-wing or neither.

I find myself imagining a parallel timeline where it’s the right-wingers who are the biggest fans of the European project, because they want to enhance and perpetuate the global power of the wealthy, developed, culturally Christian countries that once divided the world between them. and it’s the fascists in particular who want to unite the ancestral homeland of the white race into a single giant state. (The lefties in this universe would be advocates for organisations such as the Commonwealth or the Francophonie that build links between countries across the global North-South divide.)

If you imagine something that seems plausible, it sometimes turns out to already exist. (I didn’t know that ‘rogue planets‘ were really a thing, for instance, until after I’d invented one for a story.) After writing the above, I learned that the British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, did indeed advocate uniting Europe into a single state.

Worldbuilding

Someone quoted the following quite widely-cited passage from M John Harrison in something I read recently:

‘Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

‘Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.’ [More context here]

Do I agree? Well, it depends what kind of worldbuilding he means. Some worldbuilding is necessary to any sort of story-telling – all stories need a context of some kind, and sometimes the context is at least as important as any of the characters – but some worldbuilding isn’t necessary in that way, and too much of it can be counterproductive, even if it doesn’t make us ‘very afraid’.

Of course Harrison is right that for a writer to construct a whole world is in any case impossible. Even to precisely describe a wooden chair would take more words than the word count of the average novel. The reader must be allowed to do much of the work (work to which we are well accustomed, since in life also, we must assemble a sense of a complete world from a collection of fragments and guesses.)

Harrison’s own novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is actually, I’d say, a rather good piece of worldbuilding. The story ostensibly takes place in contemporary England, partly in London and partly in the Midlands, but the setting is an imaginary place nevertheless, and one of the main pleasures of reading the book, and the thing that most lingered in my mind afterwards, is this place’s peculiar, queasy, dreamlike flavour. (The one moment that jarred for me was when the narrator mentioned ‘the debacle of Brexit’, thus ceasing to be the unfolder of a fictional world and becoming just M. John Harrison talking about this one.)

The Sunken Land is saturated with watery imagery: flooded fields, flooded houses, flooded gardens, dampness, houseboats, phials of muddy water, things that live in water, the River Thames, the River Severn, taps, kettles, toilets, a map of the oceans, the pools that form in sodden fields where you can still see grass and flowers beneath the glassy surface… This squelchy stuff, which all of us can easily assemble in some form or other from our own watery memories, comes together in the book to form an extended metaphor for the main protagonist’s depressed, sunken state (and, in a less clearly defined way, a metaphor also for the country we live in), so it’s absolutely essential to the whole enterprise that we enter into it. But he coaxes us to do this, not by precisely describing and explaining everything, which would be impossible (as he says), but by convincing us that he has immersed himself in it.

Lots of novels fail to do this. I have given up reading many books because I can’t experience their settings as anything more than clumsy cardboard cutouts, which no one has ever really inhabited. And if even the author hasn’t been there, why should I as a reader even try? But my point here is that this is worldbuilding, and there wouldn’t be much left of The Sunken Land without it.

What Harrison dislikes, then, is not worldbuilding per se, but a particular kind of worldbuilding in which the author gets overinvolved in making stuff up for the sake of it, fussily providing piles of detail which have no thematic purpose and get in the way of our own imaginations. The classic case of this is Tolkein’s imagined languages, alphabets and the whole vast historical/mythological backstory he created for the Lord of the Rings (though, to be fair, he summarised much of this material in appendices to avoid overloading the books themselves). Tolkein clearly had fun coming up with all this detail and, since I used to make up languages, alphabets and mythologies myself as a kid, I understand the pleasure of it. It’s the sort of activity that feels comfortable and safe because it’s intellectually engaging but also emotionally neutral, a bit like doing crosswords, or sorting out a stamp collection, or playing solitaire on your phone. (These days I look things up on Wikipedia that have no bearing on anything important to me at all. I find it restful.)

I don’t myself see anything sinister in this sort of activity, but it certainly doesn’t have much to do with story-telling, or the literary arts, and most of us probably wouldn’t want to feel that we’d spent too much time on it at the cost of other more lively and more outward-looking pursuits. It can be an escape from stress, though, and readers as well as writers find it so, which is where the ‘nerdism’ comes in. Some people enjoy absorbing themselves in the minutiae of imaginary worlds such as Tolkein’s, or J K Rowling’s. Some people learn to speak Klingon, or enact scenes from their favourite fictional universes, taking a holiday from the real world in those non-existent places. The kind of worldbuilding that Harrison disapproves of is (I think) the construction of these sorts of intricate non-places to hide in, something that is often referred to as escapism by those who dislike science fiction and fantasy.

I’m sort of with him. Yet at the same time I think it can be a hard line to draw, this line between necessary worldbuilding, which Harrison’s novel is a good example of, and the escapist kind which he despises and which, as he puts it, is not ‘technically necessary‘. After all, any novel or story, however literary, however serious, however engaged with painful and important topics, is necessarily in part an escape from the quotidian world, for writer and reader alike. Even a discussion such as this is in part a nerdy escape of that kind. Even the learned arguments that take place amongst eminent critics and distinguished scholars.

Utopia can wait

Two kinds of statement seem to come from the more radical wing of climate change activists:

(1) Unless we end greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years it will be too late and we will see a catastrophic collapse of civilisation and of the biosphere,

(2) We will only end greenhouse gas emissions if we completely get rid of the present capitalist political/economic system.

While I accept the possibility that both these statements may be true, I really hope they’re not, because there is absolutely no way that a completely new and fully functional political and economic system is going to be constructed in the next few years.

I mean, it’s not even as if we have blueprint of how such a system might work. You can’t just say you want ‘a society that values people more than profits’, or ‘a society that lives in harmony with nature’, and call that a plan! How are resources going to be distributed? Who is going to be in charge? (Oh, the people are going to be in charge are they? Is that the same ‘people’ who voted for the governments you say aren’t doing enough?) What is going to prevent the pursuit of short term gains that lead to long term harm? What incentives for work are there going to be? What is going to prevent the system being hijacked by its own elites, like Communism was? etc etc.

Lots of different kinds of people have their place of course, and this may in part be a matter of temperament, but speaking for myself, I am much less impressed, when it comes to combating climate change, by radical heroics than I am by meticulous practical work. XR cofounder, Roger Hallam, apparently thinks that nothing will change without a major insurrection that leads to large number of activists going to prison. I can’t see myself that large numbers of people being sent to prison will necessarily have the desired effect. I can imagine all sorts of possible consequences of insurrections of that kind, including the rise of authoritarian governments with no interest in climate change at all.

Remember that Lenin believed he was leading the Russian working class on the fastest route to socialism – and that Russia ended up with petro-capitalism and Putin.

Personally I’d rather see large numbers of people working on problems such as mass energy storage, affordable green fuels, and carbon neutral cement. It’s solving problems like these -and the political and business headaches that come with them – that’s going to stop climate catastrophe. Utopia can wait.

Lorry Drivers

I heard a news item on the radio last week about the department store chain, John Lewis, getting ready for Christmas. It concluded with a reassurance from John Lewis that there would be no shortage of lorry drivers because they had put up lorry drivers’ pay and were busy recruiting. In fact, they have put up pay by £5,000. Many other chain stores have done the same.

The current shortage of lorry drivers in the UK is due in part to Covid, but there seems to be general agreement that Brexit is also a factor, because companies can no longer recruit drivers from other parts of Europe.

I’ve seen this presented in Remainer contexts as another example of how bad Brexit is, but if I was a lorry driver who’d voted for Brexit, I wouldn’t take that view. I’d see it an example of Brexit helping me, just as I’d hoped, and I’d be pleased. Driving lorries isn’t an easy job, and up to now it hasn’t been particularly well paid. £5,000 a year is a big raise.

And, if I was lorry driver who’d argued in the past that companies were holding wages down by bringing in workers from poorer parts of Europe, I’d be angry. I’d be angry that up to now I’d been told that this was a myth put about by racists and xenophobes.

A very Remainer friend of mine once said that Brexit would be bad because we’d no longer have access to all these excellent plumbers and cleaners from Eastern Europe. Bad for the cleaner- and plumber-using classes perhaps, was my thought at the time, but not necessarily bad for the cleaning and plumbing classes.

Dead Fly

R.I.P. dead fly in my window. It died trying to get through a pane of glass to the sunlit world outside.

I learned some time ago that when they want to collect semen from a prize stallion they put it with what is called a ‘breeding mount’ – an object that (see link) doesn’t resemble a real horse at all, but does look something like a gym horse with an artificial vagina at one end. My momentary initial thought was that this demonstrated how simple and easy to fool horses were compared to humans. But then I realised this wasn’t the case at all. How is the stallion climbing onto the breeding mount more stupid or easy to fool than, say, a human male jerking off over porn? At least the breeding mount is a three-dimensional object, and not just a pattern of pixels on a screen.

In one sense neither is fooled, since presumably the stallion doesn’t think the mount is really a mare, any more than the man hunched over his screen thinks he is really in the presence of another human being. But, since in both cases there is enough there, in certain circumstances, to activate and sustain sexual behaviour, their instincts, in a way, are being fooled: their bodies’ machinery responds as if this was a breeding opportunity, when in fact it isn’t.

It isn’t just sexual behaviour that can be so activated. People experience tension, fear, excitement, pity, when watching actors on a TV screen in the corner of their living rooms, or when scanning the black marks on a white page. They know the story isn’t real, but there’s enough there to activate real emotional responses. In fact you could make a case that pretty much the whole of human culture works like this: a vast system of things that remind us of things, that remind us of things, that ultimately remind us of something that’s able to set off some preprogrammed emotion or drive, and allow us in some way to act it out.

Flies see the sunlight and head towards it. Their vision isn’t good enough to detect the glass. When they hit it, they perhaps have no other response in their repertoire but to keep on trying to head towards the sunlight. There are two kinds of tragic scenario here. In one of them, an ironic one, the window is actually partly open, and all the fly would need to do would be to crawl over the lip of the upper window frame and it would be free. But that would mean not heading directly towards the light, and many flies die without ever learning that the way out was only ever a few inches away from them.

Flies are relatively simple creatures, but all the same there is nothing uniquely fly-like about this scenario, any more than there was anything uniquely horse-like about the breeding mount one, and it’s equally easy to think of human analogues. I would guess that psychotherapists might see their job as helping people to stop beating uselessly on the glass, and help them find a way to the part of the window that’s open.

In the second scenario, the window is closed. There is no way out. The fly can either beat on the window until its life is over, or simply give up, and live out its life inside the closed room. In some analogous human situations, it’s hard to know what the right choice would be. Is it better to accept that the outside world is lost forever, and settle for imprisonment in the dreary, empty room – or better to refuse to give up, to continue the struggle right through to the end, even when to an outside observer, it’s obvious it can never succeed?

Two Tribes: Harry and Michelle (paperback publication day post)

Although told from 250 years in the future, the main part of this book deals with a Cambridge-educated North London architect (Harry), and his relationship with a hairdresser from a small town in Norfolk who left school at 16 (Michelle).

When I described this to my friend Ian, his immediate reaction was ‘well, that would never happen’. You’d need to read the book to judge whether he was necessarily right, but it’s interesting, I think, that such a relationship seems so unlikely. I’m sure he wouldn’t have reacted in that way, if for example, I’d said the book was about a relationship between Harry and another architect who had, say, an Indian Hindu background. Nothing particularly unlikely about that. Which suggests to me that the cultural gap between different ‘cultures’ is actually smaller than the cultural gap between different classes.

Over much of my lifetime there was a kind of alliance between Harry’s class (which is also my own) -the liberal professional class- and the working class, both of which tended to vote Labour (just as both tended to vote Democrat in the US). In recent years, and notably in the Brexit vote, that alliance has fallen apart. Isn’t that what we really mean by the rise of ‘populism’? And that was the background against which I wanted to foreground Michelle and Harry’s relationship.

Two Tribes on Hive.

Two Tribes on Amazon

Two Tribes in paperback

Two Tribes is out in paperback this week, so here’s a short post to celebrate. (More info about the book here.)

This is a book with a simple moral, which (adapting Solzhenistyn) could be summed up as ‘The line between good and evil does not pass between those who like the European Union and those who don’t.’

Or: ‘It’s a mistake to assume you’re one of the good guys, just because you and your friends think you are. Pretty much everyone thinks their lot are the good guys.’

Or: ‘Just because someone doesn’t agree with you about politics, doesn’t make them a monster.’

Although mainly set in the aftermath of Brexit, it isn’t really about Brexit. It’s about social class, and specifically about the complicated relationship between the liberal middle classes and the working classes in Britain, and the way that relationship is changing.

I’m very proud of it.

Here’s another moral. ‘When there is more than one elite, each elite condemns the elitism of the others, but denies its own.’

Two Tribes on Hive.

Two Tribes on Amazon

‘Flags’

Richard Dawkins observed that every religious person is an atheist with respect to every belief system except their own. One could quibble with that, one could point out that, if we are to agree that this is so, his own particular conception of ‘atheism’ would need to be added to the list. But the point I want to make just now is that the same is true in politics.

Religious belief is not for most people a matter of free choice, but is closely tied to geography and to heritage. Go to rural Morocco, and you won’t find many Protestants but you will find plenty of people who sincerely believe in Islam. Go to the American Midwest and the reverse is true. Even when people consciously move away from the religion of their ancestors, they tend to do so as a group.

Support for different political ideas is also not randomly distributed across the country. There are Labour areas, Tory areas, and Liberal and nationalist areas, and there are also Leave and Remain areas. Below is the referendum result map for the East of England where I live. (Pretty solidly Leave except for the small Remain island of Norwich and the larger Remain island stretching south from Cambridge.)

EU referendum results from the East of England. Blue is Leave, orange is Remain. Sourced from Wikiwand here.

I see politics as consisting of two levels. In its essentials it is the process by which different classes and groups in society jockey for position, with each class or group seeking to defend what its has and, if possible, improve what it has. However most human beings like to see themselves as good, and so every group likes to have a reason why its demands are not in fact self-interested but in the interests of everyone (and usually there is at least an element of truth in the claim). As I think of it to myself, each group flies a flag.

And, just as we see through every religion but our own, so we tend to assume that the flags flown by rival groups are either the product of delusion, or a cover for self-interest, but take our own flags at face value, and find it difficult to accept that we too might be deluded, or that we too might have chosen a particular flag because it justifies our own self-interest. Many Remain voters, for instance, argue ‘we must be right because we are clever and well-educated’, without recognising that clever and well-educated people have their own particular interests as a class.

The main protagonist of Two Tribes is a man, Harry, who, in the latter half of 2016 notices that his own group’s flag is, after all, just one of several flags. He doesn’t reject it, but he becomes suspicious of the claims his friends make for it. He meets a woman, Michelle, who, so to speak, lives under the enemy flag. Both of them are intrigued by this because in other respects they like each other very much.

The story is told by another woman, Zoe, who lives two and half centuries away in the future. The flags of 2016 are not quite as remote to her as, say, Yorkists and Lancastrians are to us, because they still have counterparts in her world. But she knows things that we don’t know about the way that the culture wars of the twenty-first century played out, and she looks back at the period in a way that isn’t really aligned with either the Remainer or the Leaver camp.

More on Two Tribes here.

It’s not my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes

I am a slow learner. It was something of a revelation when I found out that the stories about the knights of the Round Table I enjoyed as a child were actually written for real knights, and that these real knights were not necessarily very nice people at all. (One of the sources of the Grail story, for instance, The High Book of the Grail, is dedicated to a knight who was a leading figure in two notorious bloodbaths: the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France.) It struck me then that most fiction is actually written to flatter its readers by making them, or people like them, the heroes of the story.

When it comes to Brexit it would have been an easy matter for me, as a ‘remain’ voter who writes science fiction, to do something of that kind. I could, for instance, have written a future dystopia, in which a ghastly caricature of the ‘leave’ camp is in charge, and noble, liberal, internationalist types are fighting a brave war of resistance. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have welcomed it.

But I don’t think it’s my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes, or big up the heroism of my own. If you want a simple ‘goodies versus baddies’ view of events, you can find it on social media, where whole armies of people are busy, night and day, proving how utterly and irredeemably bad those others are, and how very good they are. I’m sure this serves some useful psychological purpose, but it really isn’t my thing.

I don’t deny that there are bad people out there. And some of the nastiest and most mean-spirited aspects of British culture were certainly evident on the ‘leave’ side. But an exclusive focus on the shortcomings of others does tend to blind us to our own, and what I noticed in aftermath of the 2016 referendum was that, on the ‘remain’ side too, some pretty ugly things were crawling out of the shadows. Specifically I noticed the spread of a phenomenon which I’ve been observing for some time: middle class folk who, while describing themselves as on ‘the left’, somehow still feel free to express a sneering contempt for people less clever or less educated than themselves.

I say ‘ugly’, I say ‘nasty’, but the truth is that human beings are human, whatever tribe they belong to, and my objective, as in my other books –America City is probably the closest- was to write a story that looked at this particular time, not through the lens of ‘them and us’ but simply as human beings responding in different ways to their particular circumstances, as humans beings do.

Two Tribes cover image