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?

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.

Fourteen tips for getting the most out of your Zoom time

Now that we are all getting comfortable with using online video software, there are certain do’s and don’t’s that we really should all be following.

Online you can find dozens of Zoom etiquette guidelines. They’re couched in earnest helpful tones; they tell you stuff that’s basically obvious, common sense so they’re sort of useful. But if the earnest common sense annoys you, here are some less obvious gender, race, age and ethnicity nonspecific tips for getting the most out of your time in Zoom meetings. Our fourteen pointers start with what not to do. Why fourteen and not five or ten? Well because fourteen is four more than ten and four more than five is nine and nine is my lucky number.

During Zoom meetings don’t …

1. … pick your nose (You can do this if you do it behind your hand, but it’s unlikely to go unnoticed so only do it if you’re desperate.)

2. … wear see through clothes (They’re distracting and while this can be a useful way to put off colleagues you want to get into trouble, it’s unfair for everyone else. But if you want to send some people into a frenzy, choose the outfit wisely.)

3. … file your nails under the desk (This is especially to be avoided if you are prone to gazing rapturously off screen, however it could be diverting in very dreary meetings. Choose your moment wisely.)

4. … stroke your dog’s head under the desk (Stroking even the shortest dog risks you coming across as elsewhere; coughing and moans as you struggle to reach make it worse.)

5. … take your computer to the loo (If you have to wee or more hold it for as long as you can, but keep a straight face and keep still. Jiggling is a no-no.)

6. … shout at the screen without first checking that you are muted (This is a really big no-no, unless you are angling to be furloughed or fired)

7. … make rude gestures at the screen without first checked that video is off (see 6.)

8. … hum (you might find it soothing and a tricky habit to break, but humming means you’re not listening to whatever drivel is coming through. Remember that humming can happen subconsciously.)

9. … practise your impressions of colleagues during the meeting, especially not those in the meeting (take notes of particular traits and tics for future use)

10. …if you’ve mastered the art of sleeping with your eyes open, remember not to snore

11. … forget to pay attention (It’s impossible to fake a look of thoughtful pondering on screen when it happens suddenly.)

12. … play video games in a secondary window (Although it might look like you are paying attention to the meeting, you might inadvertently go mental. This disconcerts colleagues and undermines your appearance of engaged attentiveness)

13. … try to answer emails if you are prone to talking to yourself 

14. … get drunk unless you do it discretely and can be sure not to go red in the face as the booze kicks in

Of course there are some useful things you should be doing during online meetings.

… do

1. … use the Chat function to warn that your Internet connection is playing up so that you can duck out when you’re fed up with the ramblings

2. … wash your face and dress (if you only dress your top half, remember not to lean too far sideways if you have to reach for something. If you think there’s a risk of your bottom half coming into view, wearing big, fancy underwear.)

3. … nod slowly and thoughtfully no matter what’s being said, by whom (Make sure to practise your nodding beforehand, so that it isn’t too mechanical.)

4. … mute yourself when talking lovingly to an unseen pet, as this could easily be misunderstood

5. … keep your wine/beer/cocktail glass discretely hidden, ideally on a tray the floor to avoid it slipping over and spillage (you can slurp whilst retrieving a dropped pen see 6.)

6. … appear to be taking copious notes (Asking people to repeat themselves can reinforce your apparent commitment, but don’t overdo it see 5.)

7. … keep your expression engaged, with no eyerolling or heavy sighs (Remember to change your face from time to time.)

8. … clasp your hands under your chin if you need to stick out your tongue at half-wits

9. … hide the plate and napkin when you’re eating (Avoid spicy or messy food that might lead to choking mishaps and eye watering as this can be misinterpreted as sincere emotion.)

10. … remember to ensure your chat messages only go to the intended person and that most of your colleagues are likely to have had a sense of humour bypass

11. … prepare for the meeting in advance, or at least appear to have done (Shuffling notes and looking over your glasses helps here, as does looking at your watch.) 

12. … get there early to check everything works and to be first for maximum creepy creep points (See 11.)

13. … be well rested or use makeup to hide the bags under your eyes; sunglasses are a no-no.

14. … snap back promptly when you hear your name, and remember to blame the connection when you ask for the question to be repeated

Chapter 2: The Three Bees Under Attack

Asian hornet looking for bee meat.

The comb was barely pressed soft and cosy to their shapes, before the boys woke to a terrific buzzing and the choking fug of bee commotion. A wild storm of pheromones clogged the air and all about them was frantic motion. A nanny bee bustled up, antennae akimbo and sticky with fresh nectar from a minor collision with an incoming worker. “Get out, get out of the way you fools” she squeaked in near panic pressing herself against the side of the hive, one leg stretched protectively in the general direction of Burly, Curly and Twirly. Sleep drenched and hazy they watched wide eyed as dozens of workers dropped their loads and martialled into tidy rows, creeping as one across the comb towards the hive’s opening. It was almost clogged with the serried rows of massed bees, all facing the same way moving in steady robotic lock step. Stretching his neck which gave a little crack as it reached maximum stretch for the first time, Burly looked slightly to one side and hissed with what he hoped was menace (it wasn’t) at the little nanny bee: “what’s going on, we were asleep. You woke us up. We’re hungry.” The little nanny bee ignored him, and pressed her outstretched leg tighter against Burly’s abdomen. Curly, peering out from behind his much bigger brother, added by way of encouragement: “why aren’t you feeding us?”. The little nanny bee paid no attention. Instead she pulled in her leg and started moving carefully towards a new row of bees creeping slowly and deliberately towards the hive’s exit. She was soon pushed back by an incoming forager: “not so fast you, you stay here with the brood and youngsters. You’re not ready for this.” The little nanny bee’s head dropped disconsolately, antennae drooping, wings still as she moved aside to let forager and guard bees go by to join the ranks. Moving away from the exit, she headed towards the stores to fill her belly and return to feed the three sleepy drones. Burly and Curly watched her go in anticipation, oblivious to the shoving and jostling as more and more bees scrambled by to form new lines.

“What’s happening?” Twirly mumbled through a half yawn as he snuggled deeper into the softened comb. He was still recovering from his birth trauma, wax still sticking to parts of his face and dozily he rubbed his massive eyes. In the near darkness he slowly focused on the mayhem that was all around. “We don’t know, but something big is definitely up” Curly hissed. “All the bees are being called up and the guards are yelling orders.” Burly stared after nanny bee, looking forward to getting something to eat, but Curly was urgent. “Now’s not the time for food. We can’t wait. Something big is going down. Follow me”. With Curly weaving a careful way through the colony and Burly and Twirly struggling to follow, the three bees started moving towards the hive wall where the traffic looked easier to navigate. It was slow going, and as they moved forwards they saw more and more ranks of bees crawling steadily on. But no nanny bees stopped to give them anything to eat. All nanny bees had been ordered to guard the brood chambers, to keep the gestating baby bees safe and to feed those grubs whose chambers were still uncapped. These were the most vulnerable and possibly hardest to protect, but they were the colony’s future. They had to survive the drama at all costs.

As the three drones got closer to the hive entrance, they could hear the sounds of guard bees snarling instructions and a terrible humming sound that stopped them in their tracks. The guards were calling all workers to come straight to the entrance and to organise themselves into tight exit facing formations. The three youngsters could just about make out teams of bees as they lifted off no longer in tidy rows but in what looked like a state of chaos, of turmoil, random and messy. They jumped out into the air flying at alarming speeds whilst inside the hive the signal was spreading and the ranks of defenders lined up row after row after row awaiting instructions. Twirly, now suddenly wide awake and in a state of extreme agitation was turning tiny circles in a complete panic, his little legs sticking and tripping and hooking onto one another making him lose his balance. As he twisted and turned he stepped into the paths of harried bees now moving in many directions, who cursed him as they passed. “Useless drone. Get out of our way”. Most moved towards the entrance to join the guards and their rapidly assembled army, some were in search of their queen and some to rally nurse and housekeeping bees and order them to the brood cells.

Poor Twirly was the one who understood what was happening although he didn’t get it quite right.“Attack” he squeaked, “we’re under attack, we’re going to die, even though we’ve only just been born, we’re going to die, to die” and tiny bee tears misted his oversized eyes, as he tripped over another bee, blind and consumed with unnamable terror. It was useless drama and Curly watched quietly as Burly bumped hard into Twirly’s abdomen, before whacking him resolutely across his gaping and hysterical jaws, which suddenly stopped their frantic opening and shutting. Burly had a forelimb raised for a second swipe, but with a twist of an antennae Curly stopped it. Twirly’s tears did not stop but his wild motion calmed and ceased. He sniffed and whined in a little whisper “we’re going to die, to die, we’re going to die. All of us.” And he sniffed some more. Nursing the slight bruise to his foreleg, Burly was inclined to believe him, despite the fact that he was totally unaware of what attack his brother was on about.

Burly’s thinking didn’t stretch so far as to wonder if the colony had the strength of numbers to see off whatever it was. “What is it?” muttered Curly his tiny bee brain working at top speed to process all the signals he was getting. It was no use, he would have to get away from the terror pheromones emanating from his companions and clogging his senses. As Curly moved away, he could hear Burly and Twirly offering small mewing sounds of reassurance and comfort to one another. They were following him, which did little to help Curly’s mood. For a moment he stayed still in the mayhem, masses of worker bees and newly conscripted guard bees eddying around and over him. Gradually the signals got clearer and Curly could sense a strange scent in the air. Slowly he came to understand that something was circling some short distance from the hive entrance, picking off tired workers as they returned heavily laden with nectar in their bellies and pollen in their legsacks. He understood that the something had been chased away but only to hover at a slight distance, beyond the range of the usual guards. It kept coming back. The guards had started sending emergency communications shortly before the three bees’ sleep had been disturbed. The colony had flown into action with the more experienced guards responding to signals from the hive to get more ranks of defenders into position so that they could counter attack in large numbers.

You can only see part of this story, because if someone ever wants to publish it, or if it is to be submitted for a prize, it cannot have appeared on a website.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin) – A Book Review

Daniel Kehlmann and Ross Benjamin have together created an updated version of the tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel, trickster. There is a long line of retellings of this man’s story. He first appeared in print in a pamphlet published in 1515 which has Tyll born in Brunswick in the 1300s and dying of the plague in 1350.

Since his original appearance this impish man and his tales have been revamped in many contexts. In Kehlmann’s Tyll, Tyll’s life and times have been transposed to the Holy Roman Empire’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) one of the most brutal and longest wars in history. Tyll is the magic thread connecting a miscellany of stories and characters, reaching from the late English Reformation and Guy Fawkes, through to the death of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden.

As a young boy Tyll leaves his home village somewhere south of Mölln Schleswig-Holstein, with his friend Nele. For many years the two of them travel the length and breadth of the Holy Roman Empire taking up with vagabonds and minstrels, learning many tricks along the way. Tyll juggles, sings, tightrope walks and dances with Nele shocking their audiences, entertaining and manipulating them and never staying around for very long. As they travel across devastated lands they bear witness to the horror and fragility of life in a world where war defines life and death, and everything in between hobbles along in grim parade. We traverse a world of terrifying primitiveness, despite the trappings of educated religious authorities. It becomes quite clear that fear and how to wield it, is the currency of the times.

Tyll Ulenspiegel (Owl Mirror) is all of us, our glories and our not-so-glories, our ambitions, wants, all of it including our deviousnesses and dishonesties. Kehlmann’s Tyll is part philosopher, part scholar, always moving never certain, never fixed, fluid like the mill stream in which he got his second baptism and nearly drowned as a boy. Kehlmann links Tyll, Nene and multiple other characters to a series of secondary stories that mostly work. Through these vignettes we learn more, too much even, about the Thirty Years War and its destruction of so many lives.

Ross Benjamin’s translation is excellent, capturing the rhythm and nuances of the original German. His English version is lyrical and evokative of the grim reality of times when there is rarely enough to eat or somewhere safe to rest. Roving labourers, be they mercenaries or mill hands, are as much victims of their times as the famers and villagers trying to grub a living surrounded by danger and threat. No one is safe. Disease and superstition are rampant and as Tyll and his various companions move across the landscape, Kehlmann shows us just how deadly even a tiny dose of either can be. Interweaving folklore, myth and religion constantly juxtaposes the most basic questions of life (gas-food-lodging) with our need for spiritual comfort, enlightment and protection. Ignorance and Christianity are as much enemies as friends and the fears of Protestants for and of their Catholic breathren weaves throughout the texts. Like Tyll on his tightrope, they are another reminder of the precariousness of existence both in life and afterwards. Fear of what God and the devil might do to you is constantly balanced with fear of what your fellow man might do to you. This tension runs through the narrative and is evident in most of the digressions into different characters and their stories.

The need to rationalise is with us still, as are the motivations of many of these individuals, from wanting to help and heal, through to wanting power and legacy. There is always a risk that deliberate motivations and rationales will lead to corruption. Destruction and death is obviously a powerful a theme in this book, but neither is constrained to the times of the Thirty Years War. We come to understand that death is just another state or phase of existence. In the seventeenth century that state of light or dark was not necessarily so dreadful. At least not when compared to existing in a world shaped by war, want, disease, loss and futility, spells and relics. Read Tyll  and feel the slippery touch of those times.

The Three Bees Chapter 1

Burly, Curly & Twirly

“It tastes like crap this wax. And just because they told me I have to eat my way out, doesn’t mean I have to.” An oversized drone honey bee spat out some half chewed wax, smearing it against the wall of his cell as he did so. He paused a moment, peering through the tiny hole in the hatch at the mass of bees crawling back and forth. Within his dim view he could see that there were also loads with half their bodies deep in the honeycomb cells. He harrumphed as well as a bee could manage, and shifted his copious weight against the six tight walls of his cell, contemplating how to get out without having to chew at the wax which clogged up his mouth parts and left what he was certain were unsightly crumbs on his gleaming mandibles. After a few moments he had it.

With a few heavy shoves at the hatch with his big head, the burly drone heaved his way out of his too tight cell and was born. He paused a moment at the edge of the cell, letting his outer skin harden and his body become accustomed to the warmth and the space. All around him a mass of bees, all of them female and all of them muttering instructions and comments, none of which were addressed to him and none of which he could properly hear. His first thought was food, more food, and nicer food than the measly dribs and drabs they’d left him when they sealed him inside his cell to grow from grub into drone. On second thoughts, maybe it was measly in amount but it had actually been quite tasty especially in the beginning, a nummy mix of honey and royal jelly. But that ran out pretty quick and what they gave him later just wasn’t the same and now here he was full of heft and hunger.

Honey bee drones are much bigger than the ladies, and the Queen is much bigger than all of them. Here is a drone and a couple of worker bees, which are ALWAYS female.

You can only see part of this story, because if someone ever wants to publish it, or if it is to be submitted for a prize, it cannot have appeared on a website. Let me know if you want to know what happens next.

XX by Rian Hughes – a Book Review

I don’t generally read a science fiction, so reviewing Rian Hughes’ XX in the context of its genre is impossible for me: I can’t point out clever references or offer witty insights. I wasn’t much looking forward to reading XX because tackling a 977 page first novel isn’t something to undertake lightly, sci fi or not.

Trepidations aside I did really enjoy this book. It helps that technology plays a big part and although there were a few holes, for the most part the technical stuff’s convincing. More significantly this book exploits everything it’s possible to do with digital technology for page layout, composition and printing. Hughes uses typography and exploits the precision of inkjet digital printing to convey the characters’ experiences, often in ways not possible in the pre-digital imaging age. 

The eponymous XX is one of three Digital Memetic Entities, DMEns created online but connected to a wider world through their digital iterations in digital channels. XX’s colleagues are Girl 21 and the 19th Count, both of whom play bigger parts in the story than XX. The DMEns are characters borne of ideas, ideas that drove the last three centuries and they have agency. The DMEns are made tangible by the genius of a computer geek working on AI applications for digital games. Jack and his colleagues are amongst a handful of people able to understand an obscure transmission coming from outer space. The Signal, picked up as sound waves, is actually a huge binary entity. Its digitally defined parameters are referred to as the Grid, wherein numerous lost civilisations and creatures are embedded and transported. The Signal’s connection to a curious crash landing on the dark side of the moon gradually becomes apparent and through the subsequent investigation, we meet Dana an astronaut who becomes intimately entwined with the Grid, its Shepherds and the DMEns. That much I got. I think.

It’s tempting when hefting XX onto your well-muscled lap or sturdy table to assume that the book is overwritten, but this isn’t the case. The writing is sharp, tight, pacy even, but the narrative is almost overwhelmed with creative possibly fictitious support material. Unexpectedly the diversity and volume of evidence for the main premise (still trying to work that one out) actually does help drive the narrative.

The lists, internet references et al provide necessary context for some of the themes addressed. These are many and the most important one isn’t obvious until the very end of the book. Symbols are stories. Words, letters, graphics and glyphs of all kinds, binary and digital, are messengers, possibly sentient beings. Symbols and digital algorithms shape perceptions, facts, ideas, truth or lies, reality. Broadcast datastream signals can provide common voice, or have unique and granular meanings. Examples used in XX range from BBC News websites and newspaper clippings through to Wikipedia entries and extracts from classified meeting transcripts. Unfortunately all voices in the various background stuff sound the same, like Jack, so it’s hard to have the patience to read these sections. Maybe this is ok in a sci-fi novel? 

Excess detail such as the frame by frame analysis of the Daedelus footage images, and numerous coding examples are definitely annoying to read. But they demonstrate that meaning depends on how a description, or symbol, is interpreted and the response to that interpretation, whatever the medium. Meaning is ascribed by the receiver of the data. Ideas are not fixed or immutable.

So we understand that this story is well written and pacy, but is it just too much? Possibly, except as the book proceeds and the end is in sight, the excess background experiences take on more meaning and relevance. The long descriptions can be a drag and undermine the slow moving drama, but at around the last third of the book the pace picks up. What is basically a pedestrian story gussied up in philosophical posturing, then becomes exciting and compelling.

Certainly there are too many digressive rambles and rants to hold many readers’ attention. But XX is part sci-fi, part graphic story and part philosophical treatise. Through the demonstration of the value of recorded history, from pictograms and letters through to data archives, we appreciate the evolution of ideas, their persistence and power. We are reminded that to counter a bad idea you need to have a better one. The rendition of ideas in words, page design, images and type pushes typographic composition beyond anything seen in a first novel, or indeed any other. XX exploits digital prepress and production technologies to amplify the expression of page design and composition. 

Things get much more exciting as XX approaches its conclusion, despite the exhaustion of the preceding breezeblock of pages. The author may be bludgeoning reader with content to give the experience of what the universe is undergoing. The heavy use of typography and layout add another dimension to our ideas of what a novel should look like. It’s wonderful to see technology add such a fabulous new creative dimension to our concept of the book. XX is an extraordinary achievement and quite unprecedented.

Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – A Book Review

It’s rare that a novel, especially a first novel, transports the reader so completely and so persistently into another space. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is set in a large but unspecified Indian city. Young children have started to disappear from a local basti, a slum. The eponymous Djinn Patrol is a small group of children led by nine year old Jai, a little boy who along with his friends lives in the basti. Obsessed with television cop programmes and keen to become a detective, Jai decides to investigate. He co-opts his friend Pari who is much brighter and much more diligent than Jai. Faiz has a job as well as going to school and is convinced that Djinns are to blame for the disappearances.

Jai’s story, and that of his world, is woven into the story of the team’s efforts to track down the killer. They look for clues, interview witnesses and catalogue their evidence. They don’t get very far but in their many journeys, including to the city centre on the purple train line, we are immersed in the world they inhabit. We learn bits of Hindi on the way, like basti and daru, which is some sort of booze. We also learn about Indian food, and about managing day to day living in extreme poverty. Jai, his family and those of his friends and neighbour live the same routines as everyone else: food, transportation, home, family. But they do it without much in the way of cash or mod cons. And they are at the sharp end of most peoples’ prejudices including those of their neighbours.

Through her characters, the author deftly reminds us of some basic truths people in general and about modern India in particular. At his job as a tea-shop boy, one Sunday Jai observes “If Pari were to see me now, she would say this is why India will never be world class like America or England. In those countries, it’s illegal to make children work.” There are many such uncomfortable reminders in this book.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line offers an original perspective on modern India, that of a lowcaste little boy, aspirational and ambitious but easily distracted. He and his friends and family take in stride the country’s casual racism and class divisions, evident pretty much everywhere. We see the aloof disregard the wealthy “hifi” people have for the poor people who serve them. We see the callousness and priviledge, and the complete lack of respect spoilt wealthy people can have for others beyond their social class, beneath their caste. We come to understand that these hifi types simply don’t see them as people. One would like to think the hifi types know better, because they should, but they mostly don’t. Their unfeeling disregard is shocking, anachronistic in people who pride themselves on the advances India has made over the last 70 years. That a mother daren’t ask for time off to searching for her missing child, because she could lose her job is as sobering as it is distressing.

The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, between the hifis behind their high walls and the slum-dwellers with no running water and shared bathhouses is an ugly reminder of how easy it is for people to be blind to the world around them, to simply not notice. That applies not just to broken down buildings and running drains in Jai’s basti, but also to domestic violence, child abuse and kidnapping and corruption, especially in the police and local government. Too easily it can all become quotidien, and those priviledged enough to push for change, immune so they do nothing.

Anappara’s array of characters, savoury and not so savoury, are presented with sympathy and sensitivity. Main characters have back stories to help us understand how they are shaped, showing their multiple sides. Truly evil characters have no shape other than evilness. Anappara’s heroes and antiheroes are vulnerable and inconsistent, and as we learn to get to know them we are encouraged to want to know them more, even the unpleasant ones. Many are uncertain and changeable. Even Jai struggles with self-doubt, at one point telling Pari “we can’t be detectives anymore. What can we track? We done even know the Muslim children’s names”. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims in modern India clearly run deep, even amongst children.

Like India this story is one of contrasts, from the blend of kindness and cruelty of Mental towards his gang of child thieves, through to Jai’s assessment late in the book that “our basti has become famous and the opposite of famous”. The author keeps her various narrators’ voices clearly distinct, from Jai whose nine year old perspective remains that of a child throughout, to the young schoolboy thug, Quarter. He is one of Jai’s suspects but is really not so different from the younger boys he terrorises. But Quarter’s advantages are enough to give him power over other children, as Jai explains: “His father is the pradhan [leader] of our basti and a member of the Hindu Samaj, a shouty party that hates Muslims. We hardly ever see the pradhan anymore because he has bought a hifi flat and only meets hifi people.”

Jai makes many such observations throughout this book and the reader is right there with him. We share Jai’s life and his world: “For safekeeping his father wrapped the ironed clothes in clean but worn bedsheets.” Jai’s father is a press-wallah, anxious that changing times in his neighbourhood will soon make him redundant. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is witty, sensitively observed, a story of hideous crimes and of the ordinariness of innocence. Jai and his friends are aware of their world and its limitations but they are unconcerned. Their world is school, avoiding getting into trouble, exploring and having adventures. In this they are the same as children everywhere. Their difference is that they live in a world where child abduction and kidnapping, murder and police corruption are too readily ignored. But such darkness does not have to be ignored and that it is, should be India’s shame.

Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte – a Review

Years ago I read pretty much all of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels and short stories. Stray words and phrases from his work have stayed with me and might be why reading Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte reminded me of those years. 

There are plenty of references in Quichotte to chew on, from Nabokov, Shakespeare and Homer to US soap operatsIt’s a multilayered story blurring various narrators’ identities and the boundaries between parallel and increasingly porous stories.

Quichotte starts off as a retake on Cervantes’ 1605 story of Don Quixote, sometimes considered the world’s first novel. Don Quixote is a man of uncertain mental health who has visions and takes to the road with his squire, Sancho. But Don Quixote’s tale is just a starting point for a more complex story in Quichotte. The reinvented modern Don Quixote is Ismail Smile (I smile, I smile), an erudite old Indian American who lives in his car and motel rooms, and is obsessed with junk television. Highly educated and a little unhinged, Ismail Smile works as a salesman until his cousin at Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc fires him. Ismail Smile now has the opportunity to woo and win the heart of Salma R. a talkshow host celebrated as Oprah 2.0.

Advance warning of this story’s slipperiness, the uncertainty of identity, belonging, reality, comes early in the book. Ismail Smile says: “Perhaps this story is a metamorphosed version of his own?”. He wonders if “the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history”. I don’t know much about Salman Rushdie, but would bet that there’s a lot of him in Quichotte. Most of the characters are Indian with some connection to Bombay, so Quichotte might be an elaborate expression of the author’s identity as man and writer, of reality and fiction’s confused subjectiveness. With this in mind I was tempted to learn more about Salman Rushdie and his achievements, but resisted. I’m reviewing the book after all, not the author.

Like the original Don Quixote, or at least the bit of Rushdie’s novel that nods to it, Quichotte is a parody of the nature of chivalry and love. In both stories the hero takes to the road in pursuit of love. The original has a squire called Sancho Panza, and in Quichotte Ismail Smile imagines into being a son called Sancho. But Ismail Smile and Sancho are themselves fictions, creations of a crime novelist whose pen name is Sam du Champs. Author, the writer known as Sam DuChamp, is referred to as Brother by his sister whom he calls Sister. Brother has a Wife, now ex-Wife and Sister is married to a crossdressing man. They call each other Jack and their child Daughter. Ismail also has a sister whom he calls the Human Trampoline, for unconvincing reasons. It’s a reference to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the quintessential roadtrip album. 

Author’s Son has disappeared as Sancho has appeared. Sancho wavers from real to unreal throughout the story until he reaches the end of his personal quest. Author and Son are reunited by a secret agent who goes by many names, one of which is Kyle, one of the Men in Black. This movie is about thwarting alien invasions and preventing the destruction of the planet, which is what appears to happen as the book progresses. The secret agent uses various last names. Oshima, Kagemusha, Mizoguchi and Makioka. The first three are Japanese film directors and Makioka might be from the Makioka Sisters a classic Japanese novel.

Nothing is what it seems as these multiple narratives overlap and converge. As in many Nabokov stories names are signals of intent, hints for how to read the narrative. Anderson Thayer, Salma R.’s assistant and bed buddy, might be named after the American painter Handerson Thayer. He painted lots of women and often gave them angel wings. Author Sam duChamps calls his son Son and Son calls himself Marcel DuChamp. Author’s primary character is alternately Quichotte and Ismail Smile. Fake names abound but only Sancho is uniquely referred to as Sancho (I think). Together with Sancho, Ismail Smile visits a town in New Jersey called Berenger. The name echoes Saunière Berenger the fraudulent nineteenth century priest whose story begat the Da Vinci Code. This lie or truth spawned multiple fictions in print and on screen. Ismail Smile and Sancho may or may not have visited Berenger but if they did, they found humans turned into Mastodons and behaving like idiots. Mastodons look like elephants, the symbol of Republican Party, and Trump supporters follow his lead.

As I started to wonder how much of this evaluation was true or prompted imaginings in my head, I started to feel buried and wonder if Quichotte is deliberately overwritten. This is especially true in the book’s early stages where the style is uncertain, repetitious and riddled with confusing and wearying lists. But it’s surely deliberate, a device to mimic a stranger’s encounters with the unfamiliar, of cultural anxieties. Rushdie hints at this often though I think he gets it wrong with Freddie Mercury. Of Author (Sam du Champs) he says: “Yes, the name on the books veiled his ethnic identity, just as Freddie Mercury veiled the Parsi Indian singer Farrokh Bulsara. This was not because the Queen front man was ashamed of his race but because he did not want to be prejudged, did not want to be ghettoed inside an ethnic-music pigeonhole surrounded by the bars of white attitudes.” Freddie Mercury was never in danger of being pigeonholed. He chose his new persona to step away from his Parsi identity towards a persona that was closer to his own reality: music, lots of wild sex and global possibly even interplanetary adulation.  

But that’s a quibble. Quichotte’s multiple narrators, none of them reliable, provide possible autobiographical expositions, possible documentations of stuff in Rushdie’s head and memory, what moulded him. The Quichotte narrators show us how stories, our own and others, shape us whether we like or can admit it, or not. And the movie and music references are key to that. Sancho’s reference to slavery from Randy Newman’s Sail Away: “sailed away and crossed the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay” is swiftly followed by Disney lines from Pinnochio: “got no strings on me”. When Ismail and Sancho approach New York city Sancho runs lines in his head from Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. They are in New York to find Ismail Smile’s love, not Sancho’s. Real or no?

The choice of film titles reflects the author’s interests, experiences, or perhaps that’s just what he wants us to think. The list is long but pretty much all of the movies referenced involve a journey, spiritual, personal or literal, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s through to the Lord of the Rings. But we are told throughout this book not to trust or believe anything anyone says, as when Sancho says to his father “… you’re maybe someone else entirely” . It’s just another means of layering untruths which may be why the Pinocchio references get stronger and more frequent as the book progresses. The lying puppet aided by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy becomes a real boy and lives happily ever after. Sancho has a different fate. 

It’s all quite entangled, the nature of creation and existence, the real and the unreal, the television story and the modern American story of opioid abuse, ingrained racism, corporate corruption, deep state manoeuvres and travel in time and space. And throughout there’s the undercurrent of recast identity for nonwhites in the USA, right down to quoting Creedence Clearwater Revival: “those old cotton fields back home”. This band evolved from an earlier group called the Golliwogs. 

As this book progresses, following Ismail Smile and Sancho through the seven valleys (the Seven Valleys is a Persian poem, but the valleys are not the same), it shifts into something between a philosophical treatise and a representation of creative struggle, illustrated by music, television and film references. Sancho reminds us that “Even my birth, my personal origin story, had its roots in fantasy. Is that who I am? A close encounter of the what is it kind? Yeah. I know. Third. Where’s my mother ship?” (Close Encounters).

The musical references suggest subjective multiple perceptions and possibilities, uncertain interpretations, finding voice, who knows. Lyrics  challenge the nature of belief and faith as in “will you still love me tomorrow?” by the Shirelles. In Nabokov’s book Look at the Harlequins! he creates a fictional autobiography to show how fiction reflects numerous realities in the author’s mind. Lies and lots of them tangled up with unreal events and people are what fiction’s all about. Fiction’s not truth. In Quichotte when Salma R. ponders her life, she observes that “a Russian writer had said, the one that preceded our birth, ‘the cradle rocks above an abyss,’ and ‘heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)’”. In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, he tells us “the cradle rocks above the abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). Rushdie omits Leonard Cohen’s lovely line: “there is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in” opting for Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX when Salma R. is striving to remember her childhood: “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought”. The next bit says And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

You mightn’t like this book and feel your time’s getting wasted in the early pages. I felt that way, but as the various stories unfolded I found myself wanting it to go on longer. As we approach the end of Quichotte time is indeed wasting. The world around the various narratives melts. Celluloid burning into light when the film reel gets stuck. As the book reaches its conclusion the cartoon and the real expand and contract, and more characters from Pinocchio come into the picture. The Blue Fairy warns Sancho not to pursue his quest then changes her mind when Sancho disagrees. Salvation or redemption?

And so it goes on. It is far beyond me to compress much more into a simple book review, but I am sure that there is a whole story in the selection of film and television and song references in Quichotte from the Beatles to Springsteen. The films dominate and here are a few in the order in which they appear in the book: the World According to Garp, Blazing Saddles, Psycho, Ghostbusters, the Wizard of Oz, the Man with No Name, Silence of the Lambs, The OK Corrall, The Godfather, When Harry Met Sally, Paris Texas, To Catch a Thief, Men in Black, Bonnie & Clyde, Who Killed Roger Rabbit. See if you can find them and let me know which ones I have missed, because even these choices might be shorthand hints for the narratives.

This is all a very long way from Nabokov, Homer and Shakespeare, and that’s why Quichotte is so very well worth the read and brainsweat. The book ends with what might be a touching reference to a long forgotten television soap opera. It’s about a fictitious hospital in Boston nicknamed St Elsewhere. In the final episode a little boy shakes a snow globe and we understand that the stories in the whole of St Elsewhere’s 137 episodes happened in his imagination. Quichotte ends with a similar reference: “That other world, which he now understood to be the one he himself had made, was a miniature universe, perhaps captured under a glass dome — a snow globe”.

Hilary Mantel at the Royal Festival Hall

On the 6th March, 2020 Alex Clark, a journalist and broadcaster, interviewed Hilary Mantel live on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. The two discussed Mantel’s the Mirror & the Light, the final part of her Cromwell trilogy that began with Wolf Hall. The conversation held an audience of some 1500 people absolutely spellbound.

The event began with two actors each reading from Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies to get the audience in the mood and to set the scene for the new book and the conversation’s context. As Mantel explained, for most of history Cromwell has been labelled a “bad man” and been viewed as such. Yet, as her books try to show and as she offered on stage, he was a man constantly climbing, looking always for the next opportunity for advancement, for ways to influence circumstances, and not always serving his own ambitions or those of his King. When Cromwell reaches the top of his ladder he’s reaching closer to God, drawn away into realms that his faith determines and of which he is unafraid. His tempting of fate is almost deliberate, logical.

Mantel said that after the success of the Wolf Hall trilogy she hoped that history would judge Thomas Cromwell differently. Perhaps opinions will move away from the “bad man” conclusions and towards more balanced thinking reflecting the man’s many achievements. She reminded her audience Thomas Cromwell was “a European … [engaged in] outreach to Europe” to strengthen trade, reduce risks of conflict, and religious fracturing. And he managed to do all three during the course of his life, despite the considerable personal risks involved. For instance, he was responsible for major reforms to how England was governed, reformed Parliament and drove improvements to the Poor Laws of the time.

The amazing Hilary Mantell (backstage?) © George Miles

It was a magical couple of hours at the Royal Festival Hall. We learnt that Mantel’s working day starts at 09:00 and ends “when my husband collects me from my writing place at seven o’clock”. We learned that the title of the final part of the trilogy refers to its mirroring of what went on in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and the illumination of how Cromwell’s inevitable downfall came about.

And there was much more besides, particularly insights into Mantel’s process and approach to writing and the origins of the Cromwell trilogy. The idea came to her quite some time before she started working on Wolf Hall because “sometimes you have an idea, [but] that’s not the time to carry it through”. She also said that “there’s always a prospect that a project goes stale on you”. Fortunately that didn’t happen with Thomas Cromwell, a character with whom Hilary Mantel has spent over fifteen years. She advised writers to “make sure you have a robust character on your side, if you’re going to have to hang out with them this long.”

Somewhat self-deprecating, Mantel also said that historical fiction is her preferred genre because “I have no idea how to make a plot, but history will do it for me”. Mantel works by creating the fiction equivalent of a collage, creating multiple parts and pieces that she brings together into a cohesive narrative. If she gets stuck, she just ploughs on with something else, anything because it is all part of the writing process: “it’s a question of doing it… because that’s the job, it’s showing up at the desk … even you just pass this process, if you don’t write you enter a downward process of self-disgust.” Mantel reminded her audience that “your wastepaper basket is your friend, you can always write something”.

And best of all, following the conversation, Mantel read a passage from the Mirror & the Light that took many peoples’ breath away, including mine. It’s towards the end of the novel and Cromwell is contemplating his life and its impending ending. Thinking of the dead, Cromwell sees that “They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.” If you’re planning to read this book but aren’t sure you’ll have the stamina to make it all the way through to page 904 go straight to page 866, where you will find this lovely passage. It and the following paragraphs might even inspire you to go back and plough through the preceding 865 pages, just to get the full force of these beautiful sentences. As Thomas Cromwell says somewhere, “endings, they’re all beginnings”.

Make no mistake this book is a challenge, because of its huge scope and the complexities involved in herding us along with Cromwell and the army of other characters as Cromwell’s end draws nigh. During the conversation at the Royal Festival Hall Mantel urged readers to take their time reading the Mirror and the Light because “you’re not reviewers, you don’t have to rush; you will not be paid to read it in 48 hours”. 48 days will be more like it.

However long it takes, many of us will feel bereft when they finally reach that last page and have to face the end of our intimate time with Thomas Cromwell sharing his world. It will be an awful moment, reading the final few sentences. But we can console ourselves with the thought that there will most certainly be another play and another television miniseries. As part of Cromwell’s growing body of admirers we can also console ourselves with the knowledge that Hilary Mantel has changed how he will be judged, and indeed how we judge history from now on.

Lindström Draws the Reader into Her Heartwarming Debut

Find out more from Bookhive: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Laurel-Lindstrom/The-Draftsman/25875852


(Not sure I would agree with “heartwarming”, but what do I know. Read The Draftsman and decide for yourself. Either way, many thanks to The Library Door @apaulmurphy https://thelibrarydoor.me/2021/05/29/lindstrom-draws-the-reader-into-her-heartwarming-debut/ for this review.)

I don’t how you did in school? Me? I was an average kid. Usually given the yard stick of looking up to my high achieving cousins by my well-meaning parents. But as is often said, everyone has their own unique talents and therefore just because maths or metalwork, languages or technical drawing isn’t your thing, doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Usually by the time you graduate college you will have found your true calling.

Some people may discover their unique talents earlier than most, because of being gifted or highly intelligent. This often leads to problems with socially interaction with their peers or being unable to develop loving relationships, unless they find someone or a group of other high achieving likeminded individuals. Usually, they turn into loners because no one can relate to them or understand what internal struggles they are dealing with. Thus, everyday routines that you and I may carry out almost naturally can be seen as a hurdle. Dealing with the complexities of being gifted is the main story of this months third book review, its The Draftsman by Laurel Lindstrom and published by Unbound (www.unbound.com)   on the 21st April 2021.

Martin Cox is an untrained, but gifted, draftsman, in his early twenties, who has become quite wealthy due to a number of shrewd technical designs. But he’s also damaged by his parents protective care and is obsessive as a result of his superior intellect. When he purchases Shadowhurst a large estate in the West Country as both an investment and a way of finding peace and tranquillity for his overactive mind, he soon discovers that there is more than a bit of history to it, and as a result he finds an outlet to occupy his mind, researching its history.

At five pages short of two hundred, this book is not to far off being a novella. Is it a one sitting read? That depends on the reader. For me, the first quarter of the book didn’t really do much and I had feelings of entering The Milkman territory – which I had to throw down after twenty pages. With The Draftsman, I felt adrift and unable to find a footing, but persevered and shortly afterwards when the back story about how Martin made his money was being told, I fell in love with it and from then on it made a lot of sense.

Martin is a beautifully written and a very believable troubled character trying to cope with his foibles and weird mannerisms, and as he starts to slowly overcome them, you feel happy and even emotional at times. Any fear you might have for him dissipates near the end as you realise he has some very good friends and family, including his old boss, Bill, who sees what a complicated character he is due to his high level of intellect, but slowly allows him to move from being just an office tea boy, to a skilled and much sought after draftsman.

Laurel Lindstrom

There is also the unrequited love storyline that takes place between Martin and his financial advisor Joshua. You get the feeling, Joshua wants something to happen, but in the end, Martin just too wrapped up in himself to notice.

Meanwhile the research that Martin takes on, around the history of Shadowhurst is straightforward, but the mystery that surrounds one particular part of it is lovely and excellently revealed at the end.

This is the debut novel of English author, technical writer, and journalist Laurel Lindstrom  (www.laurellindstrom.org) . She’s written a number of collections of short stories in the past as well two books of nonfiction Internet for Beginners (1997) and Past, Print, Future (2018). She has a degree in linguistics from UCLA and is a visiting professor at the Shenzhen Technical University in China. She currently lives in east Sussex.

So, if you are looking for short, but heart-warming read about a gifted individual that, then take up a pen and write a note reminding yourself that next time you are in your local bookshop to look out for it or put an order in.

Reviewed by – Adrian Murphy