I owe everybody a bit of an apology, and it is probably time there was some honesty with myself in the process. The pace of literary progress has been a bit too much for me to keep up with, and with the sheer range of writing content, I’ve suffered from a definite case of overreaching.There was too much to do, not enough time, and some quite unpleasant emotional fallout resulted from last week’s essay. As a result, over the weekend, I simply lost the plot.
Now, it is time to pick up the pieces. There are some gaps in the schedule that will magically fill as a result, starting with the Haiku missing from October 6th, and after that… I’ll go and stick in the missing stuff back on a chronological basis. Because of the way I work this will mean EXTRA CONTENT this week, but filling in the gaps from the last ten days. Most people, I suspect, won’t even notice the difference, but I’ll know. In the end, after all, I’m doing this for myself most of all.
This is probably a good moment to thank you all for sticking with me whilst I get all this stuff organised. I really do appreciate all the support and encouragement too.
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.
Okay, people. November’s always been a big month for words in this parish, and 2017 is already shaping up to be the most significant yet in terms of how I do the entire writing gig. I have decided what I’m writing and it is one of the many Works in Progress that has existed on my hard drive for some time. In fact, I even got as far as making a book cover and a lovely Twitter synopsis, both of which will be retooled along with the original narrative. Having read through all that I have to begin with yesterday, to say I’m excited is an understatement.
For me, the biggest single problem that occurs in a NaNo ‘month’ is the conviction of an idea from inception to completion. This time around, I’m tackling a complete plot (with the exception of a hole in the denouement) and updating my writing style, plus adding some vital background and depth along the way. Getting to 50k this year, therefore, is of largely secondary significance to having a working and complete draft on completion. That’s my bigger aim: finally, finish a piece that I feel is one of the strongest narratively that I have ever produced, then set about seeing if I can’t get someone to want to publish it.
So I can devote 100% attention to this task, I’m taking November off from the Book of the Month project and the various stuff that normally takes place. However, there will be content here for the whole 30 days, with a subsidiary project that’s already in the planning stage. If you follow me on social media, I’ll be mentioning it as time goes on, but it is being created in the hope that I can give back to the Community that has helped me to fulfil my own potential as a writer in the last few years.
In the buildup to November 1st, I’ll be sharing some of the thoughts I’ve had on this process, and there’ll be regular writing updates throughout November itself. If you want a more personalised view on how things are going, here’s a reminder that my personal site exists and that I’m far more likely to swear and challenge your traditional notions of sexuality there than anywhere else.
If there’s one thing I hate more than Robot Twitter accounts, it is real people who pretend they’re not using follower tools when on Twitter. Once upon a time, it was really easy to spot the people who’d be using Crowdfire (or any of the numerous ‘grow your audience’ online apps) because as soon as you followed them, a DM would unceremoniously appear asking you to sub to their YouTube Channel. Not anymore. Individuals are getting smart, and they think their schemes will lure you into participation but really… it’s the same shit, just in a different package.
Last week I received what must be the smartest DM I’ve been sent for a while.
This is really clever, because it uses a typo as ‘confirmation’ that the person sending the DM is clearly a) human and b) paying attention to me… except, of course, I wasn’t in this guy’s notifications. This was sent before I’d had a chance to post anything. The account I get sent to was for some shitty energy drink that also increases my intelligence (the irony was not lost on me) so of course I sent him a DM back to see if I’d get a reply back and (unsurprisingly) there’s not been a peep from him since this message. He’s blocked now.
DM’s are becoming a good benchmark for whether the large-follower new arrival is worth my time: how they’re written, whether the person is listening or not, or if they’ve spent any time even reading their Twitter feed. That’s why I also make a point of going to the person’s Tweets and Replies section on the official Twitter webpage to see if they interact a lot with people. The latest person to turn up was a lovely bloke who’s using music to help people with depression:
It’s all very legit, and he spends a fair bit of time talking to the people who buy his stuff but, I’ll be honest, it is not the kind of ‘relationship’ I’m looking for, however worthy the cause. I think that the DM message was what really turned me off, because I’d never send out random stuff like this to anyone who followed cold. I’d find ways to interact with them using the platform as it is intended to be used. What these ‘robot’ apps do is build numbers, but have no soul. For me, it matters far more to do the work, and sometimes pay the price for caring too much about the people who follow me.
How people do business is entirely up to them. I have said before that I feel that treating people like statistics will ultimately make everybody’s lives less fulfilling, and individuals using the platform like this simply reinforce that feeling. This is your weekly reminder that simply following everybody who follows you has pitfalls, and sometimes thinking before you click a button will have long term benefits to your health.
Everybody, after all, has their own particular reasons for wanting you to follow them.
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.
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.
An Introduction to the Challenging: Ian McEwan’s career began with difficult, often disturbing narratives that would challenge a reader’s belief in the goodness and sanctity of modern society. That edge still remains, but with age has taken on a deeper significance: we explore his body of work and how the subject matter of his novels never fails to cause some measure of controversy…
Traversing the Fringes: Our Book of the Month is one of the first stories McEwan wrote in what has become commonly known as his Macabre Phase. How much is a reader prepared to accept in a narrative before the subject matter becomes simply too difficult to stomach?
From Page to Screen: McEwan’s work has been widely dramatised both on TV and Film, most recently by the BBC who took on what many thought was the unadaptable A Child in Time. We examine the work spawned from this writer’s output and look at the difficulties of adapting challenging narratives to produce compelling viewing.
Seed: (Short Story)In my head, you and I are lovers… Sometimes, what is the truth and what are lies becomes impossible to adequately divide.
This month’s exclusive Patreon content will consist of poetry based on the breadth of McEwan’s work, including Atonement, Enduring Love, The Ploughman’s Lunch and A Child in Time.
Pledges for the site begin at only $2, which grants you full access to all exclusive material.
I’m here on a Friday to celebrate what has been a successful month for this little site. Starting on Monday is the very real possibility of multiple posts a day and a really rather packed schedule all the way until Christmas. Having already pre-warned you about Think-Tober, I went away and made better graphics, and that will begin via Instagram on Sunday. I suspect there’ll be a compilation of seven days worth of posts in this medium at some point across the weekends in October too.
We’re still behind a bit, but once October’s Book of the Month titles are posted on Monday along with the last of the outstanding acrostics, there’s no excuse to keep up to date. This month will also see an alteration to Patreon tiers in an attempt to attract more interest, plus some subtle changes to the concept’s major remit. I’d planned to reassess every three months, so this part of my plan is still on schedule. Looking ahead, the Book of the Month will be taking a one-month hiatus in November to accommodate my participation in the 2017 NaNoWriMo event.
I’ve written on and of for NaNo across five years, but only the last two have been serious efforts. This year, the plan is to come up with something I will turn into a potentially saleable novel. That level of completion and professionalism has, as yet, eluded me, but I believe I’m in a decent position this year to make that a reality. To make sure I’m utterly focused, rethought and re-organised Patreon content will launch again December 1st. Everyone who is currently a Patreon will also be getting an exclusive (and personalised) Christmas gift, as a thank you for your continued support.
Until then, you can expect an increase in the amount of poetry being written, original works appearing and all sorts of other TOP QUALITY GUBBINS.
This year, poetry for me became something more than dusty pages and old blokes in church halls. When terror ripped through the lives of people who never asked for a war, killing the truest, most innocent lives, poetry galvanised an entire Community. One bloke stood up and, for a moment, everybody listened to his words and were moved to tears.
Except the smart people know that poetry has never just been for books and schools, it’s for everybody. It is the blood that drives every song on the radio, from manufactured pop to the anthems of a generation. Revolution is everywhere, and in every syllable, even now. When I was young it was Pink Floyd and Bowie sewing the seeds of diversity, swinging at authority. Now there is a new generation of poets, whose words have such strength as to stop even this cynical old woman in her tracks. I defy anyone with a soul to really listen to Tunnel Vision and not think, at least for a second, of the legacy the actions of a few have wrought on our Planet.
The greatest agent of collective human advancement is not free markets, despite what our leaders might have us believe. It is the ability to express ourselves without fear of attack or reprisal, of thinking beyond ourselves and collective greed to something better, nobler than wealth as aspiration. It is the means by which the World exists together, side by side and stronger, living longer, place where nobody is persecuted for being different. Poetry has always given a voice to the darkest recesses of the human condition: that window on our souls is never more needed than now, this moment, every second.
Poetry is freedom, and expression to believe in ourselves.
It is a persistence of memory, growing old and looking backwards, looking forward with optimism to what yet might be achievable. It groans with angst and moans with pleasure and without it, I realise now, I was less of a writer. This year, I started writing poetry not as a chore, but with tentative ardour, and now my love affair is in full, glorious flow. It gives metaphors chances to illuminate unexpected corners. It has allowed a woman who was afraid of her own voice to once more stand upright, inhale and then speak her words with pride. It has transformed my existence, and there will never be the right couplet to express how grateful that makes me.
Never believe you’re incapable of change. I’m almost 51 and my poetic journey has only just begun: maybe if I’d started earlier… but there is no time for regret anymore. It is time to live each day as it comes and realise that it is us that makes life better not just for ourselves but the people around us. This day has given me the opportunity to share what I think and feel about a concept I hated as a kid, tolerated in my teens and then ignored for decades because I’d forgotten how to listen. Now ears and mind are open again, I can’t get enough of it. Poetry has transformed the course of my writing, and I’m grateful for one day where I can proudly stand up and admit that it will always be a part of my life until I die.
Poetry is worth all the effort. Take the first step into a wider Universe, and you may yet be surprised at what you discover not only about the world, but within yourself.
It may have escaped your notice that October starts on Sunday. A number of my art friends alerted me to a content prompt that takes place around this time: Inktober. This encourages artists to pick up a pen and paper and produce ‘traditional’ drawings… which one then reproduces virtually for promotion in an social media outlet of your choice. Understandably, there was a bit of fuss about this from those I know who are working exclusively in the medium of digital art… and it started me thinking. The thirty one prompts for the month are perfectly acceptable as words to use in… oh, let’s say Haiku.
Therefore, I’ve decided to produce my own version of Inktober, which starts on Sunday at 5pm BST.
None of the prompt words here are longer than five syllables, so that’s perfect for the short form I’m now beginning to embrace like a long-lost sibling. However, instead of using digital as my medium, I will write these in (some form of) ink, on thirty one different types of media, before post the resultant poems on the new Internet of Words Instagram account. It shouldn’t need saying, but as I know how the Internet works it will be anyway:I’m not trying to rip off, disrespect or ridicule the original idea in any way, shape or form (I see the TM and respect that for what it means.) Instead, I am thinking outside the box that is presented, as to me it appears a tad restrictive to begin with.
This tends to produce my best ideas anyway.
What this does is combine my poetry and make it… well, art (depending on the medium chosen) and provide a lovely project for me to do in what is my birthday month. I hope you’ll choose to follow this journey via Social media too. If anything it could be fun to see what I end up using as the media for my words… It also gives me the opportunity to flex creative muscles in a visual ‘environment’ and this is never going to be a bad thing.
Right now my daughter is spending a lot of time doing digital animation, and I appreciate the time and effort that goes into artwork far more than was ever the case. I spend too much time online to begin with, so making myself produce 31 different backgrounds for the haiku (and pushing myself to different locations as well as medium) is a challenge I am happy to grasp with both hands.
I look forward to hearing your feedback, and hopefully entertaining in the process.
Okay, so I have a confession to make: when this was published via Twitter, I forgot the last part of the micropoetry. It has now been replaced and is back in its rightful space. I’ve been following the compelling World War 2 as it happens Twitter feed and this was the direct inspiration for these pieces.
I hope you find these stimulating as well as enjoyable.
Once Upon a Time… Haiku Edition
A lifetime ago,
The World stood at War: now, we
Learn from these events.
Tyrants annexing countries,
The human cost, of
A few’s desire for power:
Decades later, comes
Chance to reflect: grasping why
These things came to pass.
Never forget: those
Years of suffering; landmarks,
Once Upon a Time… Micropoetry Edition
Heroes and villains:
Great battles defined.
Decades have passed, yet
The stories remain.
With time to reflect:
We must not repeat
Altered the future.
Change long-term outlooks.
It is up to us,
To alter the course
Improvement for all.