Life As A Shortie (something to infuriate the wokers)

As a very small person (VSP) I have lived my life looking up to my peers, willingly or not. Throughout childhood I expected that would end when I grew up, but I hit 4’11” and there I stayed. A life of shortness was all that I could look forward, or up, to and so far it hasn’t been all that great. Handrails are always too high, stair steps too tall. Mayonnaise jars are just that little too fat to hold safely and I have to jump to reach the car boot to shut it.

Even on tiptoe and in high heels, I am still too short to see what I am doing.

Understandably the giants in primary and high schools, and the grown-ups everywhere else tend not to notice short people. Why would they? We’re below normal human sightlines, our voices are just a bit too squeaky and far down to be heard. And we’re just so easy to trip over and step on. Elbow bumps have a whole other meaning for VSPs. Standing sociably in a group, stray elbows can send your cup of tea or glass of wine flying, or intrude unexpectedly into your plate of food. Breadroll mayhem. Let’s face it, small people are in constant battle with a world designed by and for nonVSPs.

We face prejudice in so many ways. Grown-up clothes and shoes are invariably too big, even in their smallest iterations. That shop assistant sneer when they tell you, “we’ve nothing that small”. We face perpetual, organised and deliberate discrimination, with constant daily reminders of our shortness. Mirrors in public loos and restaurants are invariably too high. VSPs must jump to see more than the tops of their heads. The same’s true for peep holes in apartment and hotel room doors. We need a chair to use them, or once again must jump. Discrimination in shops is common because we’re below most people’s sightline and justifiably ignored. The counters in chip shops and bakeries and the like are always too high to see, or be seen, over.

Antagonism takes many forms, intended or not. Like the time I gave a speech standing in high heels on a box behind a podium. A delegate congratulating me, afterwards suggested that next time I ask the organisers for a box to stand on. When I pointed to the box already in place the redness of face was priceless. And like when people you’re meeting for the first time tell you they hadn’t realised you were so short. Or when you’re assigned a gym locker the key to which you cannot reach. And airline seats that bury VSPs making them invisible to cabin crews. We have to stand up to reach the air, light and call buttons and cannot reach the overhead bins without standing on the seats. We have to stand on the lower shelves in supermarkets to reach stuff and shower heads are always too far up to adjust. Cameras and smartphones are mostly too big to hold in one hand. Glasses too. Order a gin and tonic and watch the normals grasp the bowl, all elegant and suave. The VSP has to hold the stem and be so very careful when tipping the glass to sip, or otherwise hold it with two hands. Elegant and suave no. Add cups and mugs to this list, along with powertools, round doorhandles, fuel pumps, wing mirrors that block our view of the road, pump action shampoos and soaps, kitchen counter tops and most gym equipment. Getting onto and off of chair lifts and ski tows is always a challenge, although it’s privilege to have the opportunity. Reaching the slots at toll booths and car parks invariably requires getting out of the car, inviting invective and antagonism from the queue behind. Be patient we’re doing our best with limited capacities!

Like everyone, VSPs possess different behavioural traits. This makes them uniquely special and endearing. Observe how they duck away suddenly from the spit storms typical at parties and receptions. Watch them wrestle with supermarket trolleys because they lack steering leverage. See them clamber awkwardly onto a bar stool struggling once up to turn to face forwards without falling off. A simple lift of a hip is not an option for VSPs. We invariably sit too far forwards on our chairs. It’s a behaviour not due to anxiety or eagerness to join in. Most chairs are too high for a VSP’s feet to reach the ground and the seat too deep for them to sit on without their legs sticking out. Their arms are too short to reach the table. We do look quite adorable though as we struggle.

Despite the odds, VSPs can lay claim to a few significant social, political and cultural achievements. Haile Selassie former emperor of Ethiopia was only 5’1″, Gandhi was 5’4″ and Judy Garland a mere 4’11”. Danny de Vito’s only 4’10” and Genghis Khan tipped in at 5’1″. Anne Boleyn was 5’3″, quite tall for the time but she died some eight inches shorter by when being a VSP didn’t much matter.

VSPs are daily subject to microagressions. We are told how dinky we are and told that our little wrists are just so teensy. We know. We’re the butt of jokes about being able to reach the bar, or hang up our coats. Look at those tiny shoes, and your hands are so small they say. “You look so tiny in that mask”. It’s all very jolly so we’d never say back “and you look so fat in yours”.

But sadly we are complicit in all this because we generally ignore insensitive, substandard treatment taking it as the norm. We don’t want to make a fuss and you probably wouldn’t take us seriously in any case. VSPs don’t expect much to change, despite our enhanced health risk in the days of Covid-19. You see, we’re closer to the ground, where all the virus loaded mist drifts as it falls. We’re unavoidably caught in the the snot and droplet line’s trajectory, masks or no.

Despite aspiration and idealised values for all of us, small people accept there can be no equality. We can’t magic height except by wearing high heeled shoes. This is always an option, but not universally feasible. Equality is always undermined by something. High heels must not be worn on airplane escape slides for instance, and they don’t work with skis. On city pavements they invariably get stuck in the cracks unexpectedly pitching their wearer headfirst towards the ground. 

And yet much as we want to fit in and be like everyone else, we still want to be different, to be recognised as unique. At the very least it’s a conversation starter. Like everyone else we want an acknowledged identity that lets us participate in socio-economic, political and cultural hierarchies on our own terms. We want our difference celebrated, simultaneously both acknowledged and ignored. So let’s not forget to remember each other, to remember that we are all survivors, that we are all of us damaged, disadvantaged and incomplete. And all of us need each other’s kindness, patience. Spare the opprobrium. And spare a thought for the struggle to strap skis onto high heels, for the scrambling onto bar stools, the random elbows in the eye and getting trod on without thought. Spare a thought for all of us, everywhere. And let’s try hard to make it a kind one.

(In case there is any misunderstanding amongst readers, this is satire.)

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

Serious Suggestions for a Serious Problem

Following is a copy of my response to the Bookseller, following their Climate Issue. This response was published in the Bookseller, 29th October, 2021. I am not sure who’s copyright it is, but it doesn’t matter given the need to get this problem aired and addressed. Sorry if I have broken the rules.

The Bookseller‘s recent Climate Issue (October 15th, 2021) successfully addressed the intertwined problem of commercial and environmental sustainability from a range of perspectives. This is vital to encourage broad engagement and hopefully commitment to change. But is the action the publishing industry is taking fast and far-reaching enough?

In the issue, the Editor’s Letter rightly pointed out that the climate emergency is immediate. Closed loop supply chains are one possible solution, but do we have time to wait for ideas, research-backed or otherwise? Net zero deadlines are too often vanities without action. If the end goal is achieved too late to change outcomes, action is meaningless. And there is much that can be done now.

The interconnections between commercial interests and sustainability are central to progress, so the risk of greenwashing is ever present. And trying to educate readers is never going to be enough without leadership and example. In this, the graphics industry in general and the book trade specifically can do much more. Radical, risky, creativity and investment from the major publishers would provide leadership and inspiration for smaller businesses, and for readers too.

Details, not despair

We do not need hystrionics to scare people into change. The prospects for a do-nothing approach to the climate emergency are grim and widely recognized, and terrifying proclamations and doomsday scenarios risk turning people away. More important is to recognise that there will be life after climate collapse, but we may not want or be able to live it.

I humbly suggest that a closer look at the Publishing Association’s (PA) Publishing Declares pledge might offer more substance in addition to the five prongs. Net zero fine, but how? Work with resource efficient (que?) supply chain partners. How? Use sustainable processes and materials. What are these? Support climate literacy. How? Raise awareness and drive positive climate action. How? Fortunately many of these questions already have answers and tangible options are available to the pledge signatories. Equally fortunately, most of those signatories have the resources and market clout to drive implementation.

A few suggestions for what publishers can do now

1. Set up an inhouse Environmental Management System (EMS) and only work with suppliers who also have an EMS. ISO 14001, based on principles of continuous improvement to environmental impact mitigation, is an excellent tool for this.

2. Require print service providers to calculate the carbon footprint of each book printed at their production sites. Here too ISO has a useful tool. ISO 16759 is a carbon calculator for print. Its requirements address all aspects of a printed book’s production to calculate its carbon footprint.

3. Create and share an environmental management policy or manifesto with customers, service providers and the rest of the supply chain. If the PA could come up with a single Book Publishers’ Sustainability Manifesto, so much the better.

4. Develop company-wide recycling and sustainability policies that authors, booksellers and readers can conveniently support. Offer collections for returns and set up dedicated Free Book community websites. This can work on a massive or teensy scale.

5. Use direct digital printing for on demand production and develop a robust network for this form of sale with bookshops, large and small. Only work with printing companies who use process-less printing plate imaging, which cuts out the chemical processing stage of printing plate production.

6. Build in-house toolkits to support the development peoples’ knowledge development of climate change mitigation, and that explain what they can do now (colour management at the start of book design processes, the sustainability limitations of different substrates, matching run lengths to printing technology, designs for end-of-life and recyclability etc.). Such a toolkit could become a standard that all publishers use.

That pledge

The PA’s pledge is a solid start but tangible, realistic and measurable actions can be taken now. The annual report anticipated for later this year might be more useful if it includes some sort of call to arms rather than merely confirming what we already know: we’re knackered, if we don’t change soon. A talking shop “a safe place for collaboration” as one of your interviewees put it, is not enough. Chat doesn’t cut it.

The materials index the PA proposes is a great idea, and will be tough to implement because it depends on cooperation from materials and services providers. It might be more helpful to provide the carbon footprints of the most popular substrates and embellishments used in book production, along with guidance for designers. Such questions could be part of the membership survey.

E-books

The thorny matter of e-books and other digital content also needs more knowledge sharing and understanding. We have a dreadful digital habit whereby we want to store every single digitised dimension of our lives. From photos of breakfast through to email archives, we want it all out there across multiple competitive platforms. Rarely is the heavy emissions burden this carries ever considered because, as Climate Issue contributor George Walkley points out, we assume “that digital publishing has a lower overall environmental footprint than print”. Not necessarily, as he also explains.

Unlike e-media, print’s carbon footprint is stamped during production. Its use does not depend on electricity, devices, networks or server storage. It is a durable and emissions-free archive. How secure and environmentally friendly are electronic media archives? Will we still be able to open an e-book in 600 years time? And if so, at what environmental cost?

Now is the time

I am sorry to rant so, but our industry is at a crucial junction. Action to make print media supply chains environmentally accountable must begin now. Is writing a company’s environmental policy really so hard? Is it impossible to choose suppliers who have one and can demonstrate the results of their efforts to mitigate emissions? No, not really. It’s all out there. The bigger shout out is for individual and corporate commitment.

Laurel Lindström (writing as Laurel Brunner) has worked as an environmental commentator for the printing and publishing industries for over a decade, as well as writing about the technologies used to produce printed matter in all forms. She has seen the industry undergo profound changes since the advent of the Macintosh and PCs in the 1980s. Their effect was a massive reduction in print production’s environmental impact. This was thanks to technology but also to the existential threat technology posed to the previously proprietary and polluting prepress and printing industries. The shift to standard operating systems, digital data formats, process automation, colour and production quality management cut emissions, waste and remakes in the industry. They continue to do so.

A smiley shot from 2018. Three years older now!

Goodbye Dolly

This time last year, October 2020, our companion pony had to be put to sleep. It was a very sad day and the short piece that follows reminds me of how much love is a filter for all of our other emotions. 

Since Dolly died we have had a new and unexpectedly sparky addition to the family. The Greyhorse didn’t immediately fall in love with Birdy; he still grieved for his wheezy little Shetland. But after a few weeks this fiesty little Welsh Section B mare won his heart.

When Dolly Died

It’s only a pony but only a pony is so much more. When the vet said “she can’t go on like this” it was bad enough. When he ran through the vital signs, “heart’s racing, breathing 47 breaths a minute, and should be 22” When he sighed a heavy sigh and gave us that long look. Little Dolly staring blank at the soft autumn air. The Greyhorse standing off pulling at his hay, suddenly nodding every minute or so, squirrels bold bouncing across the ground to hide acorns almost as big as their heads. The air was so still in that moment, and there was no longer the crackle and wheeze of Dolly’s breath. Her lungs had so much scar tissue that there was no movement sufficient for a crackle or a wheeze. She stood with her hind legs stretched behind her ignoring the remains of her lunch. We’d been desperately tempting her with all sorts of yummy food, every hour something else, every morning looking in hope to see if she’d finished her last night’s food. But she didn’t and now it was time.

What a little, not-so-little, cutie.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. Two weeks before we had heard awful news of the death of an old friend. A friend whose death was expected, though not so soon. It was too soon, always too soon for those we love. And standing there in the golden light Dolly was waiting. Standing there in the golden light there was a door, a passage slowly widening, and slowly filling with immense leaden sorrow. Sorrow for those left behind, for those whose strength is falling away, for those whose life is soon ending. And through it Dolly passed, gently, easily and soon lay still, still with us but gone. All that we have lost remains somewhere, somehow.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t go to the funeral because there are limits on gatherings, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t visit the frail because we might kill them. They might kill us, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. The shepherd is waiting. Good bye Dolly.

The 10 Freedoms of Brexit (from February 2020)

A lady was bleating on the radio the other day, euphoric that the UK was out of the European Union and that she was free. Apart from concerns as to the curious life the lady must lead, it occured to me that she was right, absolutely right that she, we, all of us are now free and here are ten reasons why. Ten or two*. Choose the ones that matter most to you. Add to the list.

  1. The freedom to buy health insurance for European travel.

2. The freedom to for pets’ passports not to count anymore.

3. The freedom to bring back a lone bottle of duty free booze.

4. The freedom to queue at European immigration desks.

5. The freedom to pay more for using a cash cards in the EU.

6. The freedom to pay more for flights.

7. The freedom to bathe in polluted rivers and seas.

8. The freedom to pay more for cheese, avocados et al.

9. The freedom to have an understaffed NHS, too few hauliers and food processors.

10. The freedom to be vulnerable to energy supply shortages and high prices.

*There are two kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

There are more freedoms …

The freedom to pay VAT, duties and customs fees on parcels from Europe.

The freedom to worry if medical supplies are slowing.

The freedom to sit in endless jams at the ports.

The freedom to carry green card proof of insurance plus the extra premium, when driving in the EU.

The freedom to enjoy cratering quality of life.

The freedom to have to buy an international driving license.

The freedom for scientists to work alone and with reduced funding.

The freedom for students not to participate in funded foreign exchanges.

The freedom to not go on duty free booze runs to Calais.

… and pity (or not) the poor expat Brexiteers who are being chucked out of Spain.

Keeping the passion alive?

Whether you’re a writer or not, sometimes doing the same old same old day after day can get a little dreary, tedious even. And you find the contact problem gets harder and harder to solve. Much as you want to, you just can’t seem to keep your bottom in contact with the chair or your fingers in contact with the keyboard.

Any excuse will do: answering emails even the really uninteresting ones, checking to see if the postman’s been, having yet another cup of tea and having to go to the loo even more often. Doing the laundrey. You start to wonder if you should rearrange your knicker drawer, or straighten your speaker wires, maybe colour code the food in your freezer. In extreme cases, even the hoovering is irresistable. And the contact problem isn’t just about making contact with the chair. How often have you decided that your keyboard, screen and mouse need a thorough clean or at least a good scrape around with your fingernail or the scissors? Anything but look at the screen and keeping your fingertips in touch. But the contact problem must be brutally addressed, otherwise your chosen profession becomes a hobby. Don’t use excuses of any description, especially not that you have writer’s block. Sit down and get on with it, even if it’s just a limerick or a haikuor a comment on someone else’s bookish blog.

As you sink reluctantly into place, cracking your knuckles, fiddling with mouse and screen angle, it might help to remember that writing is like any passion. What keeps it alive is doing it over and over again because you love it, even if you might occasionally forget that you love it. Like sex it can get better every time, but not necessarily always, every time. You know from experience that there will be lows and highs, and even just middlings. But you never know which it will be so you keep at it. You hope and know that this is something you have to do, because without it you’ll turn into a neurotic and potentially violent mess. Remember that you learn from every encounter, whether it is with a lover, a favourite walk, or a book, or your work. Doing it is the point, and avoiding it will make you miserable.

This is definitely not a good way to solve the contact problem. No matter how much you love your shoes, keep them and your feet underneath the desk and get on with your work.

It’s as true for readers as well as writers. They and we want to keep on reading and writing because we are all constantly looking for connections, big or small, intense or feeble. We write to express something we don’t necessarily understand, because it takes a reader to give the work meaning. Otherwise it’s just hollow words on a page, a bunch of random shapes and glyphs. I have spent pretty much my entire career selling words and continue to do so, but not every one of those years of articles or projects has been an unmitigated thrill. Many times I still sit down and stare blank and empty at the page or screen. I watch the clock out of the corner of my eye. I see it tick away the moments as a deadline slowly rises dark and gloomy into unwelcome view.

For writers there is no other choice, but to ignore the gloom and distractions and to keep on writing. It’s the only thing to ease back into place the wayward screw that’s floating loose somewhere deep inside our heads. We keep on writing because without it, the world makes no sense. We must exercise that passion, intense, fleeting, irrational, wild or even crazy as it seems. Passion is about what we cannot rationalise. It’s about the intangible, the indescribable and momentarily knowable, about stimulation and response. Its fleeting nature keeps us coming back for more, like gin and chocolate and all those other marvellous intoxicants that lead us elsewhere from ourselves.

Social media is one such intoxicant. It’s one of the best ways to overcome the contact problem, but it is also corrosive, distractive. It eats away at time and motivation and the depth or durability of its merits are questionable. It strokes our vanity (all is vanity), encourages our voyeuristic tendencies. At its best it’s a tool for finding writers to share with or for growing our readerships. But mostly it’s time-wasting noise. For the rare few to have found a place amongst the noise, that place provides comfort, reassurance that someone hears you, is listening. They may even respond with something sensible beyond the expectation of a response in turn. That might be why whole days can go by with the contact problem solved, and not a word written other than social media monitoring and replies. Overcoming that rather different contact problem is much harder.

Discontent leads to progress

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” (Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance (1893
― Oscar Wilde https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/

Without discontent there can be no progress, which is probably how I have ended up here, doing this, writing blogs about writing and fiction. Not that life’s been an endless series of gloomy torments, because it hasn’t. But discontent is a powerful driver borne of dissatisfaction and suffering. I did all my suffering a very, very long time ago. Ever since, I’ve struggled to keep it in a strongbox, chained, padlocked, buried in some dark and chilly recess. Mostly that is where it stays, ice cold, frigid. Occasionally I unlock the padlock, loosen the chains, lift the lid and stare into blackness that only gets lighter, if I have the courage to keep staring for long enough. This was never often, but it’s getting more frequent and slowly the blackness recedes.

So it is with all of us, although too soon we slam down the lid, grab at the chains with wet, tearstained hands, and clasp tight to shut the padlock once again. This is a bad idea, because the next time you open the box the blackness is deeper and denser. Next time, if you let it the blackness starts creeping out of the box, stealing its evil way into your head and heart. When this happens, brutal exercise can help but only if followed by a long and lazy bath, preferably with someone you love. And if this doesn’t work, the box must once again be opened. This time make a diamond of your head and heart, take hold and scream as loudly as possible the names of all those terrible demons who want to own you. The diamond head will add the necessary light and the diamond heart won’t be broken again. Where were we?

Ah yes, discontent and progress. Discontent that leads to progress is something other than the agonies of our personal black worlds. This wider discontent is borne of anger and frustration, of an awareness of universal frailty and vulnerability, frustration with the lazy belief that individuals can make no difference, that we are all sad and passive players in some abstract horror story. The list of reasons to be discontented is long, from climate change and the environment, to the suffering of so many displaced and untethered people in so many contexts.

So what’s to be done? Nothing much in truth. It’s as it ever was. But each of us can still take tiny steps, no matter how miniscule they are towards a more positive world. Far better than bleating about whatever and moaning and looking for scapegoats, people or histories to blame. Far better than wallowing in our own wonderfulness or victimhood. Put it behind you and accept that the why of the what isn’t always the point: mostly the why is beyond us or our capacity for understanding the what.

Yes something can be done to make a difference. Engage, recognise and own your own truths with harsh honesty. Have compassion for those willing to listen to you and do not judge. Be more than your audience. Embrace as wide a view of the world as you can manage, and do it with patience and kindness, with sympathy and empathy in every part of your day. Without complaint, without blame, without recriminations, harness discontent so that it really does lead to progress no matter how small the step.

Dangerous ideas

Yes, unless it’s dangerous an idea does not really deserve to be called an idea. But these days where every little thought gets shared online and shredded, most new ideas are about as dangerous as a small and rapidly evaporating puddle on the pavement. Why is that? Is it because all the exciting ideas have already been had? Is it because ideas in and of themselves become less dangerous, the more widely they are shared? Or is it because truly exciting ideas engender fear, and the world’s got far too much scary stuff already?

© Sarony 1892 Oscar Wilde tells us (in Epigrams I think) that “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” So head for the edge, and dare ponder what’s beyond.

There is no way that all the dangerous ideas have already been had. Rather it seems we just don’t seem to embrace much radical thinking these days, perhaps because there is so little bandwidth for thinking things through with any great depth. Our worlds and headspaces are filled with trivial superficialities, reality television and a miscellany of horrors. From politics to climate change, from identity confusion to sex, processing all the data is quite exhausting and there’s always more information, and less focused indepth debate.

Ideas about who and what we are, what we share and our societal roles and identities are hard to express in a world where news bulletins range from the deeply depressing to vacuous and cheesy, deceitful. There’s a weird new scale for understanding how we are expected to relate to each other, ranging from abject confused victimhood to glittering fantastic stardom. There’s a creepy and even desperate need to place the individual, the self even, somewhere on that scale, to make it conform to some external construct. And yet most of the scale is about not conforming, about coming up with a category that no one else should be allowed to share. Yet they want to.

Of late this has provided quite a rich seam for fiction writers in all formats, but particularly works highlighting some of the horrible stuff that’s always been a fact of life, but that now people want to understand better. Yet apart from the human tragedy themes, in fiction the range of truly new ideas in début works is limited. The classic stuff about identity and the fear of change, of struggling to deal with new experiences, new people, the quest thing, it’s all pretty available if not terribly original. And perhaps readers understand that they should not expect truly original ideas, original writing. They can buy the book as an object, buy its packaging and the comforting familiarity of the themes the blurb summarises. Maybe they don’t much care about its originality.

The bright exceptions are those stories that have often taken a long time before finally reaching the light, and when they do their individuality gets lapped up: think Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. Then a torrent flows and washes around the reading universe, swamping everything else and turning the creators into megamillionaires, stars even. This is a good thing for originality, but it sets a very high bar for all the up and coming writers who lack a champion or the means to keep pushing their books for twenty years or whatever, before a publisher is willing to take a punt.

Moaning aside, it’s a great time for fiction because there is so much technology aiding writers new and old. Technology has also cut the risk of diverse publishing projects and created a host of new channels, making fiction available to global audiences. Once we all get over this and once expectations for what’s new and exciting shift, we can expect to see more brave, bold thinking. And that’s when we can look for truly dangerous ideas again.

What Would Laurel Lindström Say, As A Critic, About The Draftsman?

Laurel Lindström and a lot of ceiling. Room to grow.

What would they say?
In reading and critiquing Best First Novel Award contenders it occurs to me that I am too harsh, too demanding and way too mean to these brave writers. It makes me wonder what would I say about the Draftsman if Unbound puts it forward as a candidate? There is certainly lots to say about this book, starting with its basic premise: it’s about a brilliant but damaged man and is the story of his genius, his healing and a forgotten mystery. Well yes it’s all of that, but it took me ages to come up with this tight little distillation. Unfortunately it makes the book sound quite interesting, which I am not sure that it is.
 
It’s all about …
The Draftsman is about Martin Cox an untrained draftsman of 24. He’s accidentally rich, a heavy smoker, damaged, obsessive, binary. He buys a house in the country as an investment and to get away from his squalid London flat. The country landscape surrounding Shadowhurst Hall confuses and beguiles Martin, who obsesses with black and white contrasts and binary expression, facts, numbers, in a world of shades and shadows. The desolation and the twin lakes on his property exert a peculiar pull that he doesn’t understand, but which attracts him. He doesn’t smoke in his new house. Let’s face it, he’s weird.
 
The story slowly unfolds in a series of flashbacks which explain how the man came to be so wealthy, why he’s strange and how he might get better if only he would learn to be at least a little bit nice to people. Except that he cannot, at least he cannot until he starts getting interested in his new house and its history. Gradually he moves towards renewal, but not for any particular reason and this is perhaps annoying for readers.
 
This is the bit that the critic in me hates in the Draftsman. He moves so damn slowly from thing to thing and there are way too many words cluttering up his aimless meanderings. His friends are nondescript and his relations mostly dead. How can you have a central character who is so closed up and strange? Why would a reader want to know more about Martin Cox? Unless you want to categorise him somehow, which seems to be a popular sport these days.
 
Reading it as a critic this is what I would say. Of course as the author I have some power to fix it, but here’s a thing. Once something is written and finished it is really hard to go back and restructure it, rewrite it so much that it turns into something completely different. The only way I can correct my own omissions and errors, is to revisit Martin Cox and put him into a new and different context. This context will have to be Martin Cox as the intrepid brain, searching for the answers to the mystery that is only uncovered at the end of the Draftsman. Giving his razor wired brain something to unravel will give me some structure within which to elaborate the whos, whys and wherefores of Martin Cox without using imagistic flashbacks. One to think about.

More reviews here:

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1078

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1082

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1087

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1068

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1332

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1016

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57605484-the-draftsman

Invention is the mother of necessity

This is about the importance of reinvention, especially of yourself. It was originally published January 2020.

Where to start. Is it with what’s happening with the Authors’ Club and my reviews of Best First Novel Award contenders? Or is it where the Draftsman is in the Unbound publishing process (their doing design and edits)? Or who Laurel Lindström is (nobody really knows)? Or is it the familiar territory of graphics production technology? Ultimately that’s where I am most comfortable, but it’s also the world I am slowly turning away from, slowly and with considerable anxiety. Or is that world slowly turning away from me?

Starting in Malibu and ending in Eastbourne (yes, Eastbourne)

The beginning of this long and rewarding writerly career was on Cliffside Drive, Malibu, California, deep in the heart of the graphics industry way back in 1980. It started with a police car and a three month assignment for Jonathan Seybold and turned into a fourteen year spectacular before going tits up. Thank you to Agfa Graphics’ Marc Tinkler (now someone terribly important with Epson) for then commissioning me to write a 1000 word article for interface, their inhouse magazine. I can’t remember what the piece was about, but I do remember the £250 I was paid for it (freelancers always stay hungry). And thanks too to top trade mag Printing World’s Scott Beagrie, the then features editor and now a successful freelancer himself. Scott commissioned me to write 5000 words on colour repro systems. It took me an agonising and unnecessarily long six weeks to research and complete. But the end result earnt a lavish sum: £700+ I think. More importantly, it gave Laurel Brunner a profile in the printing and publishing industry as a freelance writer and journalist. From 1994 to date, I have been paid to write about graphics industry technology. Much more importantly I have had a life that has been and remains nothing short of amazing.

From wow to blah blah

Over recent decades the graphics industry has changed dramatically, so much so that now there is little challenge to understanding how stuff works, how well it works or whether it’s worth the investment risk. Today, with a handful of exceptions, there is pretty much no great investment risk especially in software. Hardware is cheap and plentiful, foundation technologies are proven and robust, and apart from a few renegade recidivists, inventors who might once have served the graphics industry are busy elsewhere.

Technological advances have been astonishing since well before 1994. Those colour repro systems I agonised over and finally wrote about a mere 26 (magic number, I’ll explain one day) years ago cost upwards of £10,000 a pop for the basic system. And they were cheap compared to the £100,000+ proprietary systems that preceded them. Today most, if not all and more, of what they did can be done in Adobe Photoshop. And for the £50 monthly subscription you also get InDesign for page layout and Acrobat for making perfect PDFs, plus Illustrator, Premiere Pro and XD (it’s for user interface design). Yes you might struggle at first to use these tools, but the online support ecosystem will sort you out for free. Quite a departure from the costs associated with the publishing front end systems way back in 1980.

Eyes front

Looking back risks a cricked neck and a stumble off the edge, so my view remains ever forwards, ever broader and ever wider. It’s about keeping up with technology and writing about it whenever there is something interesting to say. And it’s about inventing my own interesting stories, starting with now, here on this site, where someone called Laurel Lindström is telling new tales, while holding very tight to Laurel Brunner’s clammy inkstained hand.