Which Way?

The purpose of taking November off from ‘organised’ work was twofold, as those of you paying attention will know. Firstly it was to get NanoWriMo not just to 50k words but beyond (which is what has happened, more on which will be retro posted in the next 24 hours.) Secondly, but probably more importantly, this month was to take a look at what my Patreon produces, and to see if what I’m asking and offering is fit for purpose. This is the moment where my conclusions are cohesive enough to make public.

Not Enough Content I Enjoy Making


Poetry has been the revelation since June: that I can write it, and that occasionally it hits the target. However, poetry was never my primary goal when I started the Patreon. To produce output I enjoy, and to do so consistently, is taking over increasing amounts of time I’d like for fiction and other projects, and as result it is probably time to reassess generally how much of it is written and when. The same is true of the Book of the Month essays, and what will now happen going forward is an acknowledgement that creativity is being stifled by possessing too rigid a framework. That’s why my November Instagram project has stalled: there’s insufficient nutrients required to feed the idea.

What this means is that I’ll be deleting the November ’30 Things About Me’ posts on Instagram and starting fresh in December. Next month there’ll be more thought given to meaningful content I enjoy making, not just things to fill space. Planning is important, but only if I can stick to timetables, and that means becoming flexible with pre-planned output and occasionally being more spontaneous. Just occasionally though, because you and I both know what happens when you let the plan go out the window…

More Fiction, Less Fact


One of the overriding advantages doing critical essays for three weeks out of four is that it allows me to have time to write fiction in the spaces in-between. However, what became increasingly obvious as time went on was I much preferred the stories to naval gazing. Therefore, starting next month, there’s going to be an attempt to do more of the fiction with an emphasis on shorter stories and other forms of storytelling (looking at you Instagram and Twitter.) I like the Book of the Month ‘concept’ and what has thrown up, but for now want to be focussing more on the borders between what is real and what the Internet tells us is the same.

Therefore, the Book of the Month ‘concept’ is being retired to every third month, beginning in January 2018 with Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. There’ll be more on this, and on how the BoTM concept will change in the next few weeks.

A Better Portal, Properly Organised


The biggest single takeaway from my feedback is that people like what I’m doing, and want more of the same. To make sure this happens therefore this website and the layout therein are not really fit for purpose. They weren’t to begin with but the last few months have gone to demonstrate that I need better presentation and more organisation at this end. More importantly, Patreon itself is not selling me as I would wish, and that too needs to be altered.

Therefore, December will see me thank my Patreons with personalised Christmas Haiku, a seasonal thank you for their generosity and support, before I redefine all my Tiers  for 2018. All existing Patrons will be receiving physical gifts regardless of what tier they are on, with all rewards then going digital only starting next year.  I’m also committed to a full web redesign over the Christmas period, meaning that when we start the year anew in 2018, both Patreon and this site have a cohesive design and are far easier to navigate.

What this means in terms of content here is still being planned. I’ll have more news for you on that front starting next week.

The Great Big IoW Survey

IoW Feedback

I promised, back at the end of October, that I’d be giving everyone who reads my blog (i.e., THE ENTIRE INTERNET) a chance to offer feedback on the Internet of Words content thus far. As I am a woman of my word, there’s now a lovely Survey available (via the wonders of Google Forms) which I’d like to invite y’all to have a gander at. It should take no more than 15 minutes of your life to complete, and will help me considerably in working out what happens next for my ‘brand/franchise’

You can find the form here:

Thank you in advance.

Beautiful Dreamer

autumn schedule

Okay, next week is November, and I need to get my arse in gear. There’s a plan in place for Haiku to cover the entire month (more on that on Monday) and I’m going to announce on that day the subject matter for the month’s worth of Micropoetry in one hit. This allows me to plan ahead, write everything and schedule which will give me MORE TIME FOR WRITING NANOWRIMO.

NaNoWriMo 2017

I’m positively vibrating with excitement over this year’s NaNo: the best idea I’ve ever had, already planned and plotted, confident of not only coming in under time but over word count in a decent form to edit. Next month I’ll also be making Xmas gifts for friends and writing seasonal poetry for Patreons. If it does all go as scheduled I’ll be as pleased as staggered: never having planned something this extensively before, there is no idea of how well (or otherwise) it will all go. I am, I will say, cautiously optimistic.


There’s also a plan to have more Patrons by the end of November than currently exist at the start: to do that there needs to be compelling and exciting content. I’m hoping to get your help in creating more of that: watch this space for how you can influence how Patreon goes forward and WIN FREE STUFF in the process.

Time to get this show on the road.

Book of the Month: Seed

This month, I’ve tried to channel Ian McEwan in my own short story, inspired by his work. I hope you enjoy the result.

In my head, you and I are lovers…

There is dust on the picture frame: light dusting of decay, inescapable march of time unhindered. Her smile however remains incandescent, eyes dancing in the pose, all smiles that are about to explode into laughter. This moment was the best, before things began to sour. She didn’t realise the truth, and because of that there was no judgement or condemnation. Instead, this body was light, brilliant and willing to be captured.

Eventually, everything comes to an end. Secondary school biology taught the theory, but only when his father died did the young man grasp the inescapable march of time. There is no way to bring people back: however, you can remember them. The faded photograph of him and dad next to hers is stark contrast: no colour, just memories of that past now long gone. However, this woman would always be bright, spirited: modern photographic techniques means the digital picture is the same vibrancy regardless of light and days.

For her, it was more than that. She hadn’t left him. Somewhere in Central London, this woman remained.

He would find her, and get her back.


The coffee shop’s central heating does nothing to take the edge of a cold, winter day, and Lucy Brandon’s headache isn’t shifting. Rummaging in her handbag for paracetamol, there is too much else on her mind. The elderly couple by the window are about to move, and that’s the seat that’s really needed so that the view down to the High Court is clear and unobstructed. She’d promised Alice to be here for as long as she needed after the verdict, and that was what was going to happen.

The couple have left their copy of the Daily Mail on the table: Lucy’s nausea reappears from a hurried breakfast. On front page is a picture of the man who Alice has stood up in court opposite for the last two days: Andrew Gresham. Serial internet pest, online stalker, professional intimidator. Sitting down, the contents of her opened handbag spill onto the table: half-drunk coffee remains on the table by the toilets, and she is a mess.

A lovely woman brings the cup over and offers to help tidy up, but Lucy doesn’t need support, simply a chance to regroup and swallow painkillers. If this is the acuteness of anxiety felt just by association, how must Alice be right now? This case has become consumingly high profile: countless cameramen and film crews setting up down the road are testament to the interest this judgement has on a wider stage. After all, everybody’s had a problem with somebody like this in their lives. Only now has the Internet allowed pests the opportunity to target countless women with seeming anonymity.

Her mobile lights up, Mum’s picture instant reassurance, and handbag rearrangement can wait.

‘Hello? Are you at Court yet?’

‘Yes I’m here, they’re not done yet.’

‘They said they’d deliver the verdict at 9.30: it’s 9.45 now, have you seen her?’

‘Not yet, there’s a lot of TV outside, I’ll know when someone comes out.’

‘I’m so pleased you decided to move back home Lu, I was worried having you out there on your own with lunatics like this on the prowl.’

‘Mum, he’s not a lunatic, he’s an idiot. He’s an idiot who thought he could get away with hassling a few women online without consequences.’

These aren’t her words, but Alice’s: braver than she could ever be, able to stand up and be counted. If this had been Lucy in the dock she would have folded, crumpled under the pressure of exposure to all these disparate factors. Of the twins, there was undoubtedly a dominant personality.

‘Your sister will appreciate having you at home too. She may not have said as much, but I know what’s the case. Thank you for doing this for us both.’

There’s movement, suddenly: scramble of people by the Court entrance. Lucy’s about to tell her mother to stop talking but time seems to be slowing, oddly detached in her head, as if the drugs taken aren’t paracetamol but some kind of hallucinogenic. At the entrance to the large, stone building there’s some kind of struggle going on: a flash of bright light that could be a camera, pop that might be a car backfiring and then chaos explodes. A man is running towards her, like his life depends on escaping, and her next move is on instinct.

Turning on the phone’s camera his approach is recorded: there’s no acknowledgement from him of the action, blind determination in the sprint away. She can hear her mother desperate for a response, call still active, but instead all that matters is the body of the young woman lying on the pavement of the east London street, blood slowly running off into the gutter.

From this distance, the twin has no idea if it is her sister or not.


This wall is full of newspaper cuttings: not haphazardly placed as some lesser beings might manage but organised, categorised by date and subject. He’s even managed to group by publication: no mean feat considering the number of column inches the gutter press have devoted to his case. Of course, up until yesterday nobody grasped the mistake that had been made, that the Metropolitan police in all their infinite wisdom had arrested the wrong man. He’d left clues, but as yet nobody could work out their meaning.

They’d arrested a patsy, discussed to death on TV talk shows and radio programmes, who looked like he was most likely to offend. It wasn’t unusual: even the police were swayed by the vanities of modern life. If he looks shabby, smells like he hasn’t bathed in a week, is overweight… yeah, he’s a stalker. This man’s misdemeanours, if the quality press were to be believed, were still considerable, but he’d not killed anyone. There’d just been a passing threat or two, nothing truly serious.

He’d been at court to photograph her sister, proving without doubt he could tell the two apart… and then some moron had pulled a gun on one of the other idiot’s victims. Some jealous lover or imbecile trying to protect his own sorry crimes. Running away on instinct, only now did he realise the stupidity of his mistake. Some girl in a coffee shop had captured it on video, an opportunist with a mobile phone, thinking he was the shooter. Sometimes the unexpected was just that, and now nothing could be done to salvage the situation.

The audacity of his ability should be everywhere, TV filled with professional crime. Not this fat, stupid idiot but the calculated, brilliant operator who’d killed dozens across a decade and continued to evade capture. There was clearly no justice in the world.

From the corner of his eye, staring at the topof -therange gaming computer, there’s a flash of momentary recognition.


Her sister is awake.

Lucy’s hand grasps, pale hands the same colour as the hospital linen. Alice is alive, sitting at her side, wide smile all that is needed to allay fear. Then she stands up, coming over to hug, solid reassurance from the woman who wasn’t afraid of anything.

‘You gave us quite a shock, you know. Doctors aren’t sure yet, but they think you might have pneumonia, Mum’s looking at the X rays with them now.’

‘I thought… I thought it was you he shot. I thought it was you.’

‘I was inside the lobby when I heard it, thanking my barrister for the thoroughness of her work. It’s easy to see why you might think that at a distance, we looked a lot alike. I was more worried about you though, I’ll be honest, Mum called 999 as soon as you stopped answering her. She’s been thinking you’ve looked unwell for a while… and she was right. Staff found you passed out on the floor: I came here in the ambulance.’

There is something going on outside the curtain that passes for makeshift privacy wherever it is Lucy is lying, and a nurse appears through the gap, with a look of some irritation.

‘I’m sorry to interrupt you but I have a police inspector who’d like to quickly talk to you about the video you took: would that be okay?’

Something is bothering Lucy, at the back of her brain, itch the same as it was when she’d started watching the man, running away. This was not a random stranger she’d managed to capture on her camera phone, anything but. Memory appears, unprompted: the last week of finals, in the bar in Oxford. The quiet guy in her Economics class who’d managed a First class with Honours even before they knew final dissertation results. The loner whose dad had died a year earlier.

The idiot who couldn’t tell her and her sister apart.

Lucy might not possess Alice’s strength, but she knew when she was being stalked. That night, she’d told him in no uncertain terms: there is nothing you can do to impress me. I don’t care what you do, or how clever or organised you are, I am not interested in a relationship. You will never have me, not now or at any point in the future. Go die in a fire.

The female policeman stands with a picture in her hand, graduation photo she remembers being taken. He’d stared at her the entire ceremony, and she’d gone up to him again at the end and told him again. I’m not interested. Leave me alone.

‘Christian Hardwick. I was at college with him. Did he shoot that woman?’

‘That’s what we need to talk about. We’ve been looking for him for some time now.’

Lucy suddenly feels the desire to vomit.


Christian stares at Lucy’s picture with sadness: eventually, all things must come to an end. He’d wanted to kill her the first time he’d seen her: she would have been number three in his series, but was the only woman who ever saw through the veneer, and as a result gained a reprieve. It is ironic therefore that had he killed her then, she would not have been alive to capture his image on video. Now all the careful planning and organisation has been for nothing. She has ruined his final act, the means by which a brilliant run of terror would have been exposed to the World.

The flames begin to consume her digital picture: dad and he have vanished, ash circulating around the ceiling, black marks on perfectly plastered walls that are beginning to blacken and peel. When it became apparent his crime was no longer his own but had been taken by the most brutal of circumstances, it was time to grasp Lucy’s words to heart. She had been the one who had told him to kill himself, all those years ago, and so he will. Nobody will get closure, pain on his actions all the more brutal and raw.

The biggest casualty, in the end, will not be him but her. Photographic memory, incandescent smile. She will remember what was said, and her guilt will be enough.

By exposing him, Lucy condemned herself.

The food on the hospital tray remains uneaten, and she stares into the middle distance, suddenly aware that all eyes in the ward are upon her. At the nurses’ station the staff are in furious conference: they’re already talking about moving her to a private room, that her health is fragile enough without being affected by something this traumatic. She stopped looking at the communal TV five minutes ago, but the female commentator is still discussing the discovery, morbid fascination in detail.

The upper class assassin, they’re calling him. No indicator until now that he’d murdered countless women and men, no sense of the certifiable individual he’d become. The secret room in his Chelsea flat that had been revealed after he killed himself, and several other people. The fire escapes he’d sealed to make sure nobody got out. The care he’d gone to document every murder… oh and the pictures. On one wall of the room, portraits of his victims, and one of a woman police had yet to formally identify.

Lucy’s image is everywhere.

Book of the Month :: From Page to Screen

Most of my friends, if asked, could cite at least one favourite literary work that has been ruined during the process of adaptation from page to (small or large) screen. For me, it was the cinematic version of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: immediately obvious that it would be completely impossible to distil down the brilliance of a bunch of radio comedy episodes and a couple of books into the format. Douglas Adams’ vast raft of source material would never effectively support a static, limited running time adaption.

Some writers work asks a lot of its readers, and expects you to do a lot in return. When you consider why Ian McEwan isn’t nearly as successful a writer as should be the case, there’s an argument that his work is simply not accessible enough to a general audience. Undoubtedly it is the subject matter he chooses to write about that is responsible: it remains a tough ask to adapt in order to gain larger critical success (and in turn drive book sales.)

However, as we discussed in the last essay, that’s not necessarily an issue anymore as an author: McEwan has begun to benefit from how modern audiences are themselves evolving to accept more extreme narratives that do less to entertain and more to challenge. It is also a reflection of the changes in current society that the desire to question contentious issues and decisions is coming to the fore, far more than was the case back in the early 1980’s when McEwan began his life as a writer.

For cinema audiences, it was Atonement that has became the most accessible and relatable of novel to screen adaptations, which benefited from the popularity of both leads (Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy) and a sweeping view of London and Northern France during the Second World War. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Score and the BAFTA for Best Film: of a total of 122 nominations for awards in its eligible period, 34 were given to an adaptation that was probably the most wholly satisfying of McEwan’s works at that time.

The key difference here, one has to initially argue, is the depth of field that Joe Wright gives to the visuals linked with the ability of screenwriter Christopher Hampton to create not simply a faithful reproduction of the narrative, but something that presents the significance of a quite complicated (yet ultimately linear) structure. However, for me at least, this novel is the most accessible of all his written work to begin with. The series of events that bring together Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, and then drive them apart relies far less on the conceits and emotional dysfunction that earlier works use to drive the plot forward.

If one looks at Enduring Love as an example of how book and film are the same but somehow different, one can understand the complex set of variables at play which needs to be aligned to produce a consistent result from page to screen. However, as we have already established, what one person considers as ‘faithful’ can move a long way from another’s perception. In this case, the whole plot in the novel hinges around the obsessive nature of Jed Parry’s relationship with the main protagonist, Joe Rose. It doesn’t help that the film then significantly reduces the ages of these characters (which is not uncommon in adaptations to begin with) and that large amounts of depth from the original text is simply lost in the process of translation. There are flashes of brilliance in the visual adaptation, but not enough of what makes the story so quintessentially McEwan is preserved in the final version.


Having watched a number of the authors’ works adapted, undoubtedly it is The Child in Time which does the best work at giving the sense of genuine loss and disbelief that is prevalent in a great many of McEwan’s other narratives. It is undoubtedly due to the presence of someone who is a great fan of the source material: however, this too suffers greatly in the adaptive process. The first ten minutes are genuinely difficult to take in: the rest, however, is far less about the nature of space and time than this viewer would like, especially in the painting of other characters who effectively take away from the central roles and the point of the plot.

The overriding feeling I’ve got exploring these adaptations is that sometimes, books should never get translated into visual versions of their literary metaphors. In the modern world, however, it is almost an accepted norm that successful novels will, at some point, motivate somebody to want to translate their vision of events to a wider audience. Without this kind of inspiration, we would be so much poorer as a society: the problem with the individual adaptive process comes when attacking anything that has a particular fondness related to it. One need only look at the entire Marvel and DC Comics output in cinematic terms to know how some readers almost violently object to how somebody else paints their favourite heroes and heroines.


It is a sign of a wider acceptance of the contentious that there’s a raft of McEwan adaptations in the pipeline: On Chesil Beach and The Children Act will both be on cinema screens in 2018, and neither are easy reads. However, what may be more likely to save these two productions against of all that has preceded them is that the author has returned to adapt his own work. It is ironic as the man worked as a screenwriter in the 1980’s with a string of film credits during that time before his literary career truly took off. He even took a stab then at translating his own work, back in the 1990’s: The Innocent is a woeful rendering of the original novel and seemed to cure McEwan of any desire to continue the task.

The adaptation market for novelists, however, is big business, and the subject matters of the two upcoming movies (sexual awakening in the early 1960’s and the dilemmas of high profile legal cases including minors) could not be further apart in tone. From the early reviews, there appears to be at least some agreement that the heart of both novels has remained intact. However, it is unlikely that either will come close to the success of Atonement, which ultimately benefited from becoming a product of the period in which it was created. Of all the adaptations I have seen, if I am honest, no-one including the author has ever managed to successfully find the means to create a true visual representation of the pictures I was able to conjure in my own head.

I am left therefore with the increasing opinion that some books should remain the property of the reader and them alone. It is possibly significant that a large number of my favourite novels sit in this bracket: it is not simply down to the subtleties of language as a storytelling device, but the simple belief that some writers do their best work when the reader supplies the visuals. There’s a brilliant and often forgotten interface that is lost when all your stimulus comes from imagery, after all. Forcing the imagination to fill in the gaps is a far better means with which to scare or challenge thought process in the first place. If all one wants is escapist entertainment, then the cinema is likely never to be bettered, but to produce a work of power and gravitas using simply pictures and words is still a big ask.

It is here that books cannot be ignored, and why it would be more sensible sometimes not to imagine what might happen were our favourite book to make it to cinematic status. In these cases, it is far more sensible to allow imagination to be the director, and the pages present a screenplay that relies more on the reader’s rapt attention than it does special effects or a bankable star. In my world, I get to cast the actors liked most in the main roles, and send them on these adventures that someone else has worked hard to create on my behalf. Certainly, when it comes to Ian McEwan’s work, I’d rather the page remained the only way I could consume his stories.

Book of the Month :: Traversing the Fringes


Book of the Month
In my youth, I read a remarkable amount of science fiction, the majority of which was fairly safe and non-confrontational fare. In the summer of 1984, as an impressionable and naive 18-year-old, I was urged by a friend to read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and overnight my literary outlook shifted. I may yet choose this as a Book of the Month, but its mention here is to begin a dissection of literature as a mirror for how we as readers deal with the process of difficult subject matter. Considered as one of the top 100 books of the 21st Century in a 1997 poll, it left me with a profound sense of disquiet. I realised that I didn’t want to read about this kind of seemingly mindless violence, however popular or critically acclaimed it might be.

When urged to read The Comfort of Strangers by my English lecturer at College, I could not finish the book when it became apparent that Robert had broken his lover’s back and that Caroline had remained with him after the event. For me, what is a crucial dramatic device in the plot was a reach too far. Decades on, I have finally read the novella from end to end and find myself wondering why my younger self found this narrative such hard going, and that in turn has led to some rather revelatory understanding of how, as humans, our own experiences colour the lives we choose to experience through entertainment.

Ever since an eyeball was sliced open in Un Chien Andalou in 1929, outraging viewers using visual imagery has become a massive industry, but has always remained a product of the particular era within which those shocks were conceived within. Cinematic history is littered with movies that were banned for transgressing rules put in place often not to protect viewers, but to preserve what governments and academics considered as the boundaries of decent behaviour. Looking back on films such as The Devils (1971) and The Human Centipede (2009) it is easy to see why time will not remove the indignation from some works which, quite frankly, were probably only ever made to be controversial in the first place.

Fortunately for everybody, literature is a far more subtle beast, relying exclusively on an individual reader’s reaction and rarely on a group response, though the sensationalist works would rely on such reactions as a convenient means of selling more copies. It means that those most capable of writing the horrific as mundane and compelling as acceptable and normal can get away with a great deal inside the auspices of their own narratives. This is, in essence, Ian McEwan’s greatest strength: the ability to present the beauty of an unnamed city in The Comfort of Strangers and use it as the backdrop to use and then expound on a story of individual perversion and malice.

How much one can stomach in terms of horror is as unique as one’s own fingerprint, and will be dictated by the life led but also by the ability to rationalise what is real and imagined. For most, books are a means of escape but on very specific terms: when an author suggests contentious plot twists with which you may have had a measure of personal empathy, for instance, that may instantly colour a previously compelling narrative as far less attractive. It is why, when authors attempted to break barriers of decency or challenge religious sensibilities as has been the case with film-makers, their work has often been summarily banned. Famously Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 caused such outrage that the author had a fatwā issued against him, calling for his death over a story which now seems tame in light of the state of world affairs.

The power of the written word can be traced back centuries, of course, and there are countless examples in modern history of the power that literature continues to wield, often by accident: even now, certain religious schools in the US will refuse to acknowledge the existence of key scientific figures such as Charles Darwin and effectively attempt to erase his observations on the nature of Evolution from history and their children’s textbooks. It does not matter whether you believe these theories or not: that is the choice of the individual to decide when reading the evidence, not the responsibility of others to impose.

Literary freedoms too have come to the fore in the last few years with the emergence of the post-truth movement in politics, which use their own versions of news and understanding of current affairs, science and education to effectively retool history as we know it unfolded. If it is necessary to take someone to court to prove that the Holocaust during World War Two took place (see the movie Denial for a decent potted history of Irving v Penguin Books Ltd and why Holocaust apologists became newsworthy) there are some worrying issues to address. It appears that many have reached a stage as educated human beings where the ability to understand the truth and separate it from our own perception thereof is becoming worryingly warped.

For me, McEwan’s work is a watershed, for several reasons: primarily it has pushed my own ability to dispassionately separate reality and fiction, and be able to accept both in mature, academic terms. This is undoubtedly a result of my own personal history, and events which mean that violence is something I often like to pretend simply doesn’t exist. However, in what has become a climate of increasing understanding and acceptance of the difficulties those of us with mental illness face, plus my own attempts to better communicate and explain the shortcomings I know are possessed, I can sit and grasp the issues and begin to find enlightenment in works that previously were simply too emotionally difficult to cope with.

Social media has a part to play in this personal renaissance: the willingness of people to not simply discuss their issues, but find people who will sympathise, support and offer advice is undoubtedly on the rise. In this regard, it is with renewed confidence that I am tackling subject matters that previously were intimidating, and actively pushing myself into the process of analysis. Undoubtedly, we learn best as human beings when able to control and dictate our own terms, and the more complex forms of literature give a perfect opportunity to challenge ourselves whilst at the same time offering a measure of distance between the issues and our own perception.

Where the limits of these challenges exist, of course, are often not solely regulated by individual taste. Sometimes, it requires a work of fiction to shine a light on areas where discussion of freedoms simply did not take place previously in order for seismic change to take place. When one looks at the public outcry (and subsequent court case) over D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960’s and realise it took over thirty years to have an unexpurgated version of the book published in the UK, it is apparent that the climate for sexual practices being openly discussed had come a long way since original censorship took place.

McEwan’s work, like Iain Banks’ early novels, shows a writer playing with the fringes of acceptable human behaviour as not simply an attention seeking device to bring their early work to prominence. This is more than sensationalism at work, but a cracking open of the thoughts and feelings that many of us consider, or have flirted with at times during our lives. What separates humanity from those on the fringes of acceptable behaviour is often the unexpected, the unwarranted or simply the unavoidable: all have the opportunity to make wrong turns and never come back from those moments. If circumstances had dictated our own personal paths to run in a differing direction, how much else of our personalities might have altered along the way? In essence, that is all that The Comfort of Strangers becomes: a story about how the choices made lead us sometimes to dark spaces that were never previously illuminated.

Learning from our mistakes is the way to free ourselves from such perceived tyranny, to find the means to remove that which restricts us from truly becoming the people we wish to be. It is incredibly easy to say but often almost impossible to do, and the measure of us as human beings is often counted by such actions. For me at least, by reading this novel, a ghost has been exorcised and greater understanding of myself attained. As an author, that is all I hope happens when others read my work: to gain greater knowledge of self and to strive to be better as a result. The best literature is truly capable of producing such change if you are prepared to approach each work with an open mind.

Book of the Month :: An Introduction to the Challenging

Book of the Month
I’m taking what might be a bit of a risk with the choice for October’s Book of the Month, the subject matter of which is not only difficult but considered by some as genuinely disturbing. I began reading The Comfort of Strangers on its release in 1981: the fact I couldn’t finish it is one of the compelling reasons why the narrative has been returned to and summarily readdressed with a fresh mindset. The best fiction is not necessarily that which entertains or distracts. Having the ability to make a reader think, or to travel outside their comfort zones is perhaps one of the most positive and life-changing qualities the written word possesses. Ian McEwan’s output has achieved this since those early works in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and continues to do so, even as time has mellowed both man and outlook.

By Thesupermat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15327467

McEwan was born in Aldershot in 1948 yet grew up in Asia, Germany and North Africa, wherever his father was stationed as an Army officer. Returning to the UK in his early teens he was educated at Woolverstone Hall School, followed by degrees first at the University of Sussex and subsequently at UEA in Norwich. His first book of short stories was published in 1975. Both The Comfort of Strangers and the novella The Cement Garden written during this early period were quickly adapted into film screenplays. However, the novel that won him the 1987 Whitbread Prize, The Child in Time, has only very recently been adapted for the small screen, taking thirty years to make the transition.

McEwan’s writing career between 1975 and 1987 is known as the Ian Macabre period: subject matters are disturbing and challenging, often ignoring and completely trampling over borders of acceptable behaviour. However, the Whitbread Prize marks a distinct change in tone: moral ambiguity and social challenge remain, but the subject matters become far more palatable. His 1983 screenplay for Channel 4, The Ploughman’s Lunch, is a savage indictment of the media world during the Falklands War and hints of his more political works to come. It was however with works which explored the subtleties and shortcomings of human relationships where McEwan began to excel, continuing to demand much from his readers.

Of these, there are stand out choices: Enduring Love is a brutally honest assessment of how fate can alter existence and how obsession (plus mental illness) will drive individuals to extraordinary actions. Atonement considers how an untruth can drastically alter the entire path of many lives and is probably the best known of McEwan’s work, due in part to the 2007 film adaptation which starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Both these novels, as is the case with all those that both follow and precede, hold an almost distorted lens to the frailties of human beings, and the means by which they rationalise their versions of ‘the world around them’ in order to try and understand existence.

In his later works however has come a far more politically active strand of narrative, including reflections on global warming, the right to die and the blurring of boundaries between artistic integrity and government propaganda. His works continue to be optioned for small screen and movie adaptations: On Chesil Beach and The Children’s Act have both been transferred to the big screen and were shown at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with the semi-autobiographical novel Sweet Tooth in development from the same company who produced Atonement.

This is a man who is no stranger to controversy in his personal life: married twice, part of a fairly acrimonious divorce including a custody battle, whilst also discovering in 2002 he had a brother given up for adoption during World War Two. He’s also been a very vocal commentator on both global warming and the state of the UK post Brexit-vote: no stranger to courting political controversy over his opinions or indeed the subjects he tackles, this traditional Labour supporter continues to mentally challenge both listener and reader when discussing a wide range of different subjects.

It is quite easy to present a biography of McEwan the man, far harder to sum up the depth of his work, and how it is often a slap to the face of far tamer approaches to controversial subject matters. Violence and sexual deviation are commonplace, yet at the same time, there is an intellectual depth and breadth of assessment which makes these variations utterly acceptable in the contexts of their particular narratives. When one looks at his more cerebral offerings, inevitably one common thread persists: the protagonists’ engagement with their version of the ‘modern’ world, and meaning of existence within it.

The world painted in The Comfort of Strangers is less to do with the city in which is it set and far more to do with the issues and desires of the characters: even in a novel such as Atonement where the Second World War becomes an important player in proceedings, it never overshadows the very human responses and actions of McEwan’s players. In fact, one almost feels that the backgrounds to his work are of secondary importance. However, the backdrops painted are a perfect combination of bigger picture and precise detail: drawing a reader in before shocking them with what they are told.

McEwan is not an easy read, or often a comfortable watch. That makes for searing, engaging narratives and important points presented. As readers, stories are often the places to which we escape in difficult times, yet when presented with concepts that cannot be easily rationalised, this can make for uncomfortable sensations. It has taken me three decades to return to an author whose ideas I’m now far more willing to embrace and explore: that long not because of him, of course, but me. Being willing to accept the challenging is often nothing to do with the subject matter presented, and everything about the mentality of your readership.


It is typical for us as human beings to only cope with so much in daily life: when reality presents events which are difficult to understand, immersing oneself in novels with challenging subject matters may not seem like relaxation at all. However, when you are the one dictating how such content is consumed, there are obvious benefits. It allows an opportunity to take back a notion of control, to dispassionately use a fictional narrative as a ‘what if’ situation for individual thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, as the story being read is not real, there’s the ability to treat it as such and not become overwhelmed by circumstance.

Books are not always presented as escapist entertainment, as is the case with all forms of media for the same purpose. The best experiences are often those that leave us uncomfortable, questioning the reasoning behind their production. As modern society becomes more and more indignant over the content of media, often without ever having consumed it for themselves, to begin with anything that challenges traditional comfort zones and forces a reader out of them is never going to be a bad thing.


It is up to us as readers to learn how to take contentious subject matters and consume them in a way which not only is comfortable but allows us to attack the narratives on our own terms. For that, there are tools that can be utilised, the ability to become more objective and less judgemental, and to look inside ourselves to understand why such things are possible. A blind acceptance of the World in our own image is not only dangerous, but ultimately selfish behaviour, and yet this is what happens with frightening regularity. This is played out in McEwan’s narratives too, often with fatal consequences for the characters involved.

The truth, of course, is that there is a World of diversity and horror that most of us choose to ignore, often for the sake of our own sanity. McEwan’s work flowers in the places between, where reality overlaps with fiction: worlds we recognise and that have definite ties to our own existence, but yet are often alien and frightening. He forces the reader to think of an ‘alternate’ version of reality where people act as us, but often seem like a version of humanity that makes no sense. It is this abstraction from realism that can allow the reader the means to step back and grasp the bigger themes at play, and how they relate to them… or indeed not.


It has taken over three decades for me to find the means to connect with McEwan’s style and presentation, and I’m returning with caution to narratives that were abandoned in the past with fresh, more inquiring eyes. His body of work is impressive, substantive and ultimately very satisfying, and if you enjoy The Comfort of Strangers it is simply a stepping stone into a far more complex world of novels and adaptations. I urge you to join me on this journey, and to expand your mind to the places just beyond the reach of your vision.

What can be seen there can be both surprising and significant.