Writing

14 September 2015: Taking ‘the strangers case’

Thomas More

Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527.

Tragically, when it comes to human behaviour there is little new under the sun. Despite all the evidence that immigration and the settling of refugees is good for a country’s soul, not to mention its economy, many people give in to bigotry and fear and make victims of those who are already desperate and vulnerable.

In 1517, young male apprentices rioted against foreigners living in London. Ultimately, large numbers of the rioters were arrested, and though most were pardoned a handful were executed.

The riot started on the evening of 30 April and carried over to the early hours of the next day. The event has since been known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day.

One of those who attempted to forestall any violence was Thomas More, who confronted the rioters and urged them to return to their homes.

Two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, celebrated this act of courage in their play Sir Thomas More, written sometime in the early 1590s.

The play was revised by several writers, and it is now generally accepted that one of those was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare rewrote Moore’s speech to the rioters when he implores them to take ‘the strangers case’, to imagine what it must be like to be a refugee facing at best a lack of compassion and at worst outright hostility.

“What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

In 2015 there are many people – and some countries – who do indeed take on ‘the strangers case’, and open their hearts and homes to those fleeing terror and persecution.

But not all of us, and almost none of us all of  the time.

[The extract is taken from the text put up at Project Gutenberg.]

02 April 2015: The Art of Effective Dreaming

AOEDSample-500x524Last night I had the privilege of launching the new book of friend and colleague Gillian Polack, The Art of Effective Dreaming. This is what I said:

It is April Fool’s Day, and this is no coincidence. As Gillian Polack’s new book so perfectly illustrates – as fairy tales are wont to do – “We shall not grow wise before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.”[1]

Fiction and reality share one thing in common: each is only half-true. In The Art of Effective Dreaming, Gillian shows that for those who love and lose, for those who love in vain, for those who love in expectation, the sharpest truth is the half-truth, and therein dwells the realm of the fairy tale.

Carved from both our conscious world and our dream world, the fairy tale is where courtship is better than sex, where life sometimes refuses death, and where hope shines stronger than despair. As the book’s protagonist Fay says, “I’m not a big one for reality.” Fay by name and fey by nature, then.

These are some of the things Gillian’s new book teaches us about fairy tales:

  • in a fairy tale people grow old in wisdom rather than years;
  • in a fairy tale it is magic, not rain, that renews;
  • in a fairy tale there are always answers, but the answers you need and not the answers you expect;
  • in a fairy tale beauty is not beauty;
  • in a fairy tale ogres live in houses not under bridges;
  • in a fairy tale homes are gardens and gardens are homes;
  • in a fairy tale being right is never enough;
  • in a fairy tale it’s impossible to keep your balance;
  • in a fairy tale love is always a burden;
  • in a fairy tale love is always a curse;
  • in a fairy tale love is always salvation.

Gillian knows that the fairy tale is first and foremost a folktale, and that the natural accompaniments for folktales are folksongs, folk-dancing and riddles. These are the stories and the songs, the dances and the mysteries, our forebears shared with each other when the weather closed in, the wind and the wolves howled outside the door, and summer was just a memory. They echo in that part of our brain that still sends a shiver down our spine when dark clouds bank on the horizon and the edge of the forest seems a tad too close for comfort.

Gillian also knows that in fairy tales almost everything cradles a surprise. A gentle landscape hides low-hanging branches and foot-snagging rocks. Bridges don’t always cross rivers. The rugged coast hides kelpies as well as selkies. Castles can be traps as well as sanctuaries. Friends are not always friends. Your worst enemy is sometimes yourself.

But, Gillian being Gillian, The Art of Effective Dreaming is so much more than a fairy tale. It is a novel, and like an old river, it is a novel long and deep, and the deeper we delve the darker it gets. While evil gets its due – if not its comeuppance – good also suffers. Indeed, good suffers disproportionately, but who are we to spite the one true connection to our own world?

In this book there is a genuine conversation between author and reader. If this was a play, the protagonist would be constantly breaking the fourth wall. Fay wants to take us by the hand and bring us into her dreaming universe, and as we merge ourselves with her character the border surrounding our own reality starts to blur. The colours of faery bleed into our world, making it brighter, sharper and more perilous.

And that, of course, is what all good story-telling should be about, whether it’s mimetic fiction or science fiction, swashbuckler or fairy tale: the created world must be as vivid and true as the real world.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book to all those who enjoy their stories long and deep. It has followed a sometimes torturous route from concept to publication, and I congratulate Satalyte for having the courage and foresight to publish it against all curses and contrariness. I take great pleasure in announcing that Gillian Polack’s The Art of Effective Dreaming has left the slipway and now is well and truly launched.

[1] Freidrich August van Hayek

16 March 2015: Terry Pratchett

Pratchett on shelf

A section of the family’s ‘Pratchett’ shelf.

Terry Pratchett died last Thursday, 12 March, at the age of 66. I heard the news without surprise but a great deal of sadness. He had been ill for some time.

I’ve been reading his Discworld books ever since 1986 when I stumbled across the second in the series, The Light Fantastic. I was hooked the moment Death, answering a summons by several senior wizards, appeared with a scythe in one hand and with small cubes of cheese and pineapple on a stick in the other.

“I was at a party,” he explained.

Pratchett’s humour, often ironic, frequently hilarious, never cruel, underpinned a fully realised but surreal fantasy universe populated with wizards, giant turtles, vampire soldiers, world-weary assassins, wise witches, evil elves and, of course, Death.

It is sad to think there will be no more Discworld novels. It is even sadder to think the world is now without Terry Pratchett.

03 November 2014: Wowed by Wells

WotWIt was 1968 and I was eleven or twelve years old when I bought my first book with my own money. This is a pic of the cover of the very edition I bought. Not only do I still own it, it’s in pretty good nick for a book that’s 47 years old (this edition was published by Penguin in 1967). I love the cover; it reminds me of the pseudo-Edwardian craze that briefly inhabited British art at the end of the 60s, reflected in everything from men’s fashion to the design of the Wild Woodbine cigarette pack.

I knew of H.G. Wells, but had never read any of his work. I also knew about The War of the Worlds, mainly because I’d seen and loved the 1953 George Pal film on television the year before (tragically, in b&w). I was reading every science fiction book I could lay my hands on, and I was curious to see how it would read. I think it cost me all of 60 cents.

I was sucked in from the moment I read the first paragraph: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own … intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic … ”

Thanks to Spielberg’s 2015 version, whenever I read those words now I hear Morgan Freeman’s baritone in my ears. To be fair, before Freeman it was Richard Burton’s voice I heard in my head, thanks to Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album. But whatever voice delivers the words, it is the writing – the phrasing, especially – that makes it ring.

The first section of the book, dealing with the invasion and its immediate aftermath, is still something I reread every year or so. And to this day I have not read or seen anything that imparts the same level of dread at the first appearance of a malevolent alien than the glistening, bear-sized mass that slithers from the Martian cylinder on Horsell Common. The only experience that comes close is the first glimpse of the creature in the Ridley Scott’s Alien, but that monster is clean-limbed and somehow thoroughly modern and mechanical, whereas Wells’ Martians are obscenely chthonic and organic.

The story’s influence on science fiction is probably immeasurable. Every alien invasion story owes something to Wells’ original.

For a long time I’d wanted to write something set in the same universe, or at least the same milieu. I’ve always admired Brian Aldiss’s homage “The Saliva Tree”, actually written to celebrate the centenary of Wells’ birth in 1866, and hankered to do something similar. In the end, my story “The Empire” unmistakably used The War of the Worlds as its spine, even if it mixes in rather a lot from the period, including music hall and Gilbert & Sullivan.

The film I would like to see almost more than any other, would be a version of The War of the Words that places the story in the period Wells himself placed it. Surely such a film would be the perfect vanguard for an effective steampunk invasion of the big screen?

03 November 2014: Article on HSC English Extension added

I’ve added an article I wrote in 2002-03 for the introduction of “Speculative Fiction” as an HSC English Extension subject for Year 12. Some things have changed a great deal since then, especially in the field of fantasy. I think the definitions and the sections on science fiction and Dune still hold up pretty well, however. It can be found here.