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.

The trials of getting your novel published part 2: Some more of the journey (January 2020)

Last week seemed overrun with other peoples’ work, technical stuff, reading fiction (a 723 page work of historical fiction completed over an immersive four days), wrestling with social media and of course keeping the website alive and active (hah).

There was also a bit of helpful wrestling with a fellow author at Unbound whose book, Draca, is due out on the 14th May 2020. Geoff Gudgion is bravely considering a London book launch and this brings to mind all sorts of wild imaginings. The most important thing isn’t the venue or how much nosh and booze to order, but who will be there and making sure they’re the best candidates for the job of promoting the book.

It got me thinking about whether I should do the same for The Draftsman which is supposedly due out in May or June. A needling steely voice in my head says yes, but the rest of me, limp and weedy, says no. Why is that? Money? Publisher’s support? Neither. The reason is that despite 30+ years experience with press conferences, speaking and running seminars, I find the whole idea of a book launch quite terrifying.

Think about it. You have to invite people to show up (having found them first). What if they don’t, and how do you bear yet more rejection? Then, with as much gushing sincerity and enthusiasm, you have to welcome those few brave souls who do come, and hope that none of them are people you already know. What do you say to them? How do you talk about yourself without sounding like an American (sorry Americans, but I know you know what I mean)? How do you talk about your book in a way that doesn’t come across as either unbelievably pretentious, embarrassed by it, or just plain bombastic? And if you are able to raise a modicum of passion about what you want to say what tone do your strike? How do you keep from ranting and scaring everyone? How do you avoid making idiotic jokes that no one will understand? How do you keep yourself from necking too much wine before, during and especially after the presentation?

Martinis are always an excellent option too.

When I reached that point in the anxious wondering about having a book launch, I went for the nearest slab of Cote d’or Belgian chocolate rather than imagine any more of the awfulness. It’s fine, wonderful even, that Geoff is getting on with it, and in a way a launch would be okay for me to try. But mostly it just wouldn’t without involving a lot of chocolate and champagne first, and that really wouldn’t do. But maybe that’s the germ of an idea for how to manage it? Don’t manage it, succumb to the chocolate and champagne, bite the nails until they bleed, don’t speak or see anyone that you care about in case you lose it. Instead accept that you will turn into a screaming wild banshee for a little while and go for it. Get a list from Unbound of all their peeps who cover book launches and who have a proven track record of getting their stuff published. Get a venue willing to dish up just chocolate and champagne. (You could also contact Ann Cater who organises blog tours.) Get people along to talk together about what they do and what they look for in new releases. Encourage them to sit and sprawl on comfy furniture. Ply them and yourself with ample gobs of chocolate and champagne (you might have had enough by now and be onto the gin instead). Chat some more about what they want to write about and then lie as much as necessary about the book. All that remains is to finish the remnants of chocolate and champagne and probably gin (shame to waste it) and job done!

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.

The trials of getting your novel published part 1: The journey so far

Let’s ignore the dramas of writing, rewriting, fear of writing, panic when your brain is just not up to the task. And especially let’s not talk about the contact problem, the one where your bottom refuses utterly to make contact with the chair. Let’s assume you’ve safely gathered in all the words you need and that you have your work of fiction, collection of poems or short stories, whatever, ready to sell. This is a massive assumption, one that immediately alienates a whole slew of potential readers of this blog who still sail the rough seas of WIP. The intention isn’t to alienate though. This blog might help you feel less alone and more like carrying on nurturing your ideas, meeting people who don’t yet exist and harvesting the right crop of words to get them and their doings onto the page. Once they are captured, here’s what you can expect.

Manuscript in hand, you need to sell it so the obvious place to start is with a literary agent. Of course, an agent, that rare and fickly breed of wonderful salespeople, will take somefinding. The name agent is really not accurate in the wider context of commerce. Agents are sales men and women looking for what they can most successfully pitch to buyers in an open market. These buyers are the commissioning editors and publishers who will take a punt on a title and/or an author in the hope that the book will sell. Depending on how confident they are the publisher will then invest, one hopes, enough money to get the book edited, designed, produced, printed and distributed to as many outlets as possible. 

Would you buy this book? Would you sell it?

This is a mammoth task at every step of the way. Pity the poor editors wrestling with some 100,000 words, most of which are superfluous, choking a brilliant storyline in confusion. The designers have to decide what the book should look like, what cover best reflects the contents, what typeface, leading, page layout and so on. And they might even have to read the thing. The production and printing will be the easiest bit, because these are automated processes: spit digital files in and printed book blocks out. 

But the hardest bit, the bit that makes all the difference and the bit that only a worthy publisher can do is the distribution part. This is about sales, persuading book sellers to buy your book so that they can sell it to your hoardes of adoring fans. This has to be harder than writing the thing in the first place, and hats off to the amassed armies of people who do this. You are the people who bridge the gap between the author and the reader and you are the people who make sure that the market gets the works it wants, across the market and that’s a tough call.

Laurel Lindström Unagented but happy.

For the author and the aspirants wrestling with an unruly WIP, the trick is find an agent willing to take a chance but with so many of us, hopes of success are meagre at best. The only option is to work and work some more to make your book either as commercial as possible, or as unique as you are. For most of us the latter is the preferred course, but it’s unlikely to get you an agent any time soon.

A Country to Call Home

A Country to Call Home – edited by Lucy Popescu

I’m not much in the habit of writing book reviews. There are so many people much better at it and far more committed to it than me. And anyway I am not really sure how to go about it. And I’m lazy too which doesn’t help. Most of the book reviews I read by online bloggers are summaries of the book in question, that they mostly like. When I read those books I mostly don’t like them, so the online-blogging-book-reviewers club is not one I want to join. At least it wasn’t. Having read A Country to Call Home I find it is such a powerful piece of work that I have to share my views. 

This book is an anthology, a collection of pieces about and by young refugees, put together by editor Lucy Popescu. According to the book’s introduction children make up half the world’s refugees. Gloom alert right there, so this wasn’t a book I was desperately keen to read. I was sure it would make me completely miserable, but fortune had other plans: conscience and curiosity slapped hard my emotional cowardice.

As soon as I finished the first couple of pieces I was so glad I picked up the book, even if I had done so with some reluctance. I picked it up with a sigh, and put it down with a sigh, but one of a very different sort. Once I started A Country to Call Home I literally couldn’t put it down, not least because of how the stories, poems and interviews are organised. They showcase a diverse range of voices, ordered so you’re constantly tempted by what is coming next. What comes next is mostly unexpected, which also keeps you hooked. When I did finish this book, I immediately started leafing through to reread my favourite pieces. How did I jump from dutiful to delight in a mere handful of pages?

It was the breadth of the writing, the voices and the balance between anguish and joy, the jolting realities. It was the horror and the threats, as in “Now you tell the truth or you will end the same way” said to a child in Christine Pullein-Thompson’s I Want the Truth. It was the insensitive and lazy renaming of Jamal and Daoud in Miriam Halahmy’s The Memory Box. There are 30 such  contributions in A Country to Call Home ranging from the ones mentioned above through Brian Conaghan’s poem Just Another Someone, to Sita Brahmachari’s Amir and George. This is the longest of the stories and my personal favourite. There are contributions from Michael Morpago and Eoin Colfer, Kit de Waal and Simon Armitage to name but a few. There is also an interview with Judith Kerr, an unreluctant refugee from Nazi Germany, and illustrations by Chris Riddell throughout.

These stories, interviews and poems resonate and will touch different readers in different ways. They are rather like filters through which we can see our own experiences, which is why Moniza Alvi’s poem Exile is especially resonant for me. And in Bali Rai’s the Mermaid, I totally relate to the line: “I am just like the mermaid by the harbour. Stranded far from home. Forever.”

Dealing with such complex and personal experiences in a collection that doesn’t exclude or numb the reader, for whatever reason, takes light touch and care. The weight of the awfulness of the refugees’ horrendous experiences is balanced with hope, and an appreciation that we can hear these voices. We learn to listen, to try to understand and relate to the human stories behind every statistic, every deportation, every internment, every death.

This collection addresses a difficult and emotive subject, but you should read it because it will change you, especially your emotional responses to immigration horrors. It may also help you cope with your own tangled fears and hopes, as you consider the fates of the people in the book and for the scope of what wider awareness of their experiences might achieve. A Country to Call Home adds new dimensions to simplistic sound bite renderings that cloak truly awful human experiences with insensate numbers. All credit to editor Lucy Popescu for a sensitive, inclusive and provocative collection.

Where does getting your novel published actually start?

Obviously with writing the thing in the first place. But then what? Most first time wannabee authors, me included, haven’t a clue about the publishing business. We all think that the most important thing of all is the manuscript, but that is niaïve and foolish. Very foolish.

It’s foolish because the most important thing about the book business, as with any other business, is sales. Sales dictates how every other part of the complex machine that is fiction publishing functions. You think it’s just a simple process of designing a cover, getting an ISBN number, plus a bit of editing argy bargy and some layout and your work is ready for the press. However the process that leads to you holding a copy of your printed novel in your grateful clammy hands, is entirely sales driven. This is something to keep in mind when you are working, and even if that idea offends your sense of art and ego, it’s fundamental to getting your work published.

Take the agent thing to start with. Most literary agents are totally overwhelmed by us wannabees, some receiving upwards of 500 submissions a week. Who can read all those synopses without help from a willing intern or three? If they’ve a stack of lovingly completed entire manuscripts agents and their minions generally skim, having dutifully read the first and last chapters. It’s a bit like being able to tell a decent wine from a crap one. That first sniff says it all.

And that isn’t even slightly fair because many first time authors work so hard at their words. Many however start off without warming up properly, without brutal focus on what they are trying to convey. They jump into their texts with no limbering up or stretching, no mental or emotional preparation and absolutely no objectivity. They may have plenty of the self-critical variety of objectivity, the beat-me-with-a-biscuit-until-it-hurts sort which is not the same as a rigorous editor in your head telling you what works and what doesn’t.

The excitement you feel when you see your first cover is matched only by the exhaustion of getting the edits right.

Ruthlessness from the very start is mandatory. If a sentence is too long cut it, even though you love the sound of all those luscious words. Remember that your work is not an extension of you, and just because you’re agonising over it and struggling, that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Usually the opposite is true. Good writing hurts not because of you and your personal agonisings, but because it’s hard to use words as building blocks for an abstract construction, a story that takes flight beyond you and your ideas.

Someone once asked me what advice I would give to people starting out as fiction writers, as if I had any authority. Of course I don’t but thirty plus years of writing and earning a decent living at it have taught me that you, author, are not important. But the work is, so do your best to keep your face out of the pie. 

This probably all sounds mean and unsupportive, but writing is about entertainment, engagement and expressing something that others will find meaningful, for whatever reason. If the work doesn’t achieve this on some level, interest will be sparse. And it comes back to sales. Much as we distain commerce in art, it is a reality that has to be respected because ultimately the market doesn’t lie.

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.

Fourteen tips for getting the most out of your Zoom time (from 2020)

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.)

© Wawaphotography

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)

© Johannes Kalliauer Obviously Zoom bombing is a bad idea.

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

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.

Asian hornet looking for bee meat.

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.

Curly processed all this data at speed, and understood that it could take much more than the usual few coordinated defence teams to kill off whatever it was. He wasn’t entirely sure what an attacker looked like or why it would be interested to invade the hive, only that the colony was in an extreme state of distress. A few moments pondering and he found himself creeping closer towards the outside, slowly moving along the wall to where the guards were coordinating their platoons’ departures.

As Curly approached the light he noticed a small hole in the hive wall. It was too small for him to pass through, but big enough to see out. Then he understood what was attacking. There were three of them, massive airborne insects magnificent in gleaming golden armour, giant eyes shining with malice, menace and malevolence, focused, coordinated. The huge yellow legs, barbed and powerful, were held in perfect symmetry from their immaculate bodies, their vicelike jaws ready. As the long black wings whirred and rattled in the air, Curly watched in fascination. The creatures dove and swirled into the clouds of oncoming bees, opening and shutting their iron hard mouths to capture bees that couldn’t move fast enough to get out of their paths. And with every thrust towards the hive entrance the defending bees, at top speed changed direction, confusing and deflecting their foes. What looked like mayhem was an aerial dance elegant and random, choreographed in precise and coordinated patterns. The bees were suffering losses, but stayed intent, agile and resilient turning suddenly and unexpectedly to pound and pound against the hornets again and again, tiny spitfires hurtling through the air to hit and sting with sudden impact the shining sides of the invaders.

At the first onslaughts of angry bees, the armour plated hornets, momentarily shimmied away before continuing forwards to meet the next swathe of bristling angry bees. Curly watched fascinated as the defending squadrons leapt into the air from the hive’s take off and landing platform. And slowly it seemed they were winning. A process of steady attrition was underway. The gold of the invaders seemed to shine less brittle bright, seemed to catch less and less of the slow setting sun, and the inclination to fight on through the defenders seemed to weaken. The noise around the hive was giving way to a softer and less frantic hum. Still close to the exit, Curly could see the guards conferring, casting their eyes over the readied ranks of foragers turned soldiers, assessing, calculating, deciding if more should be readied for potential sacrifice. And then suddenly it was all over. Inside the hive the ranks of bees were once again in apparent disarray, meandering about, deciding who should go where for nectar and sharing food with others before heading, bellies empty, back out to the flowers. Curly could see no more hornets, so he made his way carefully across the comb to find his brothers.

He found them in good spirits. Burly was happy because a passing bee had heard his plea for food and along with a few of her sisters was feeding him and Twirly. Twirly wasn’t quite happy, but his anxiety was subsiding and he was pleased to see that his little bit of honeycomb was still unrepaired and Twirly shaped. He eased himself back into his own personal nest, patting the comb beside him and signalling to Burly and Curly that it was time for a nap. They joined Twirly but Curly decided not to share what he had learned that day with his brothers. Instead he signed a tiny bee sigh and turned over zzzzzzzzzzzz.

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.