Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Alienation by Bill Kirton


There were no cars, no people, just me on my bike. Not surprising, though. I wasn't on a road. It was just a track, more or less – between hedges, past vineyards. The one I took home from school every day. But it wasn’t just the absence of cars and people I was noticing; I was actually wondering why I was there. I didn’t remember leaving school. Usually I chatted with colleagues for a while, hung around in the staff room, but today, or even recently, there’d been no transition from work to ... well, the rest of the day. Lessons, the usual English conversation classes, didn’t even feel like a memory because somehow they didn't seem to have actually happened.



The track wasn’t the same, either. The surface was as rough and clattery as ever, the same mixture of gravel and bits that were perfect for pétanque but not great for slim tyres, but it somehow wasn’t right, didn’t seem familiar. In fact, as I gradually realised, it wasn’t even going in the right direction. Usually, after just over a kilometre, I'd jump off and turn to wheel the bike left through the gate to the Presbytère we’d rented for the year’s exchange.

And the longer I rode on, the more convinced I was that I’d somehow made a wrong turn or just taken a totally unfamiliar road and had no idea where I was going. Which was all confirmed when, at the end of a long, steep, freewheeling descent, I arrived in a typical but unfamiliar market place with stalls selling vegetables, wine, bread, cheeses and the usual items of casual clothing.

I propped my bike behind one of the stalls and joined the crowds, basically to find out where I was. Strangely, even though I’d never seen the place in my life, I knew it was called ‘Digne’, but no-one spoke to me. I was pretty sure I was trying to ask them questions, but they all moved around me, ignoring me – not from rudeness, not even keeping their distance, but as if I weren’t actually there.

I went back for my bike; nothing. It had gone. It was the same stall. I hadn’t looked behind the wrong one. There was nothing there but the stall owner’s Deux Chevaux, so I just accepted that I no longer had a bike. I also had no wallet or money. This wasn’t a sudden realisation; it was just that my circumstances had changed, and my disorientation felt complete.

Then I noticed a big man with whitish-grey hair and moustache, wearing the traditional smock and pants of a paysan from that part of the Midi. He was watching me, with a big smile on his face. He pushed himself away from the wall against which he was leaning, beckoned to me and walked through the crowds towards a tiny sort of shack. Grateful that at least he seemed to acknowledge I was there, wherever ‘there’ was, I followed him, pushed through the door after him and was immediately engulfed in the crowd which filled the place. He shouted something incomprehensible in which I distinguished only the word ‘ensemble’, then he was gone.

I had no idea where because, cheek by jowl as we were in the stuffy interior, I suddenly felt a shaking and the unmistakable ‘thwock, thwock, thwock’ of rotor blades turning.  I had no reference points, no way of getting home, or even knowing where ‘home’ was, no bike, no money. But suddenly it didn’t matter. No-one else in the interior seemed to be bothered by the noise. Jammed together, they laughed and chatted away, the air around them thick with garlic and gauloises.

And we were flying. So I stopped worrying. And the man with the white hair and moustache was somehow right beside me again, his smile still broad, and he said, ‘Tu vois, mon ami? The ‘me’ always comes back’.

Monday, 6 April 2020

When Truth is Stranger than Fiction - Debbie Bennett

So I started writing this bog in early March, conscious of my failure to come up with the goods in February. Early March, when reports were coming in and the world was just starting to wake up to the fact that this Chinese Thing might be something we ought to take seriously …

Sunday 5th April. And the world as we knew it has changed forever. Which might sound a bit over the top, but personally I don’t think things will ever be the same afterwards. If there even is an afterwards and this pandemic isn’t something we will have to learn to live alongside. Too many people have already lost their jobs and livelihoods. Have we done the right thing? I have to admit I’m in the camp which thinks that the cure may actually be worse than the disease and that more people will die from the economic impact than the virus. But we are lucky – we are healthy, we still have jobs and can work from home.

I suspect that over the coming years, the post-apocalyptic novel will be the Next Big Thing in the literary sphere. Cormac McCarthy, anyone? I confess I’ve not read The Road. I just can’t bring myself to wade through the lack of proper punctuation – for me it detracts from the story and jumps me out, and it’s just too much like hard work.

What else is out there currently? You have to kick off with the grand-daddy of the virus tale – good old Captain Tripps himself, from the pen of the great man Stephen King in The Stand. First published in 1978, I read this sometime in the 1980s and I’ve not yet tried the extended version, but I have to confess The Stand for me is forever entangled with Brat-Pack actors Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald et al from the tv mini-series I saw in the mid-90s. Not that that’s a bad thing and it’s an excellent example of the post-apocalyptic novel. Continuing the SK thread and we have Cell, with the virus as a pulse on a cellphone network – if that ever became a possibility, the entire teenage population of the world would succumb within minutes!

There’s also Fever by Deon Meyer. One of my recent favourites – a post-apocalyptic tale of survival after the virus in South Africa. It was even a corona virus, I think. And AR Shaw’s China Pandemic – scarily accurate and currently seeing a resurge in sales.

Or space-viruses anyone? Cold Storage by David Koepp. It came from outer space – well this nasty little fungus-bug thingy did. Shoved deep underground for decades until everyone forgot exactly why they were supposed to keep the deep-store bit of the bunker nice and cold … can you tell I loved this book? And of course there’s Tess Gerritson’s Gravity – which is why you should never do experiments in space, anyway. And of course, the classic Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – who remembers seeing this on tv way back in the when?

But no zombies please. We could get into The Strain and The Passage – I don’t think either book actually mentions the Z-word, although that’s quite clearly what we are talking about. While making curtains, I’m half-watching Z Nation on Netflix. Same old, same old, but it passes the time while on lockdown!

Should we even be reading these books? Is it all too close to home at the moment? But that’s what we do as writers, face these fears and then skin them right down to the bone and analyse them. As a reader – and as a writer – we come out the other side having learned something new about ourselves. Let’s hope we can do it in real life too.

Stay safe, people.

www.debbiebennett.co.uk

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Schooling and Unschooling (Cecilia Peartree)



I've been reading with interest some of the reports and social media jokes about home schooling during the pandemic. My sympathy goes out to parents who have been suddenly forced into this situation, although I think in many cases they and their offspring will benefit from spending more time together. Two of my work colleagues are finding it a struggle to work from home, as we are all supposed to do, with children around all the time, and I feel for them particularly.

When we were plunged into home education, as it is more often known here by people who choose it rather than having it foisted on them, the circumstances were rather different, partly because it was forced on me not because of an unexpected and sudden government decision but because I had a child who voted with his feet not to go to school. I mean that more or less literally - it was even possible to drive him to school and then have him refuse to walk the thirty metres or so to the door. If we ever did get him inside for an hour or two he was quite capable of ducking out at morning break and going home, once he was old enough to do so.

We went through variations on this theme over several years, but my personal breaking-point came when my son had to choose his subjects for the following school year. One of the subjects he chose was drama, which was his favourite out of school activity, but we were told there wasn't going to be a drama class after all so he would have to take accounting and finance instead. I think this was when I realised that in some ways the entire British education system was geared towards preparing students for life in Victorian style counting-houses. We walked away from the school together that day, never to return.

Although the circumstances were far from ideal, I was fortunate in having more time to prepare for home education than most of the people who have started in the past few weeks. A while before the accounting and finance debacle I had joined an email list for home educators, hoping to learn something about this in case we had to start doing it urgently, and started reading up about it and getting ideas for projects. It became evident from the content of the email list that many home educators chose to do this because it fitted in with their philosophy of life. In a sense the home education movement, if it was indeed coherent enough to be a movement, was generally anti-authoritarian. I found myself sympathetic to this in some ways and not others. For instance, I came across quite a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment which I completely disapproved of, having seen my younger brother rushed to hospital as a young child with complications from measles. But some of their ideas, even the more unconventional ones, were really useful. There was the concept of 'unschooling' whereby children decided for themselves what to do, and it didn't matter if they watched cartoons all day or played with sand or whatever. That wasn't the way we operated but I could see the sense in relaxing a bit and letting things happen, and certainly we worked together to try and cover topics he was interested in. I had always felt as well, when my other son was at the same age, that what he actually learned at school between the ages of ten and about fourteen could probably have been compressed into one school year. Such a lot of time seemed to be wasted on the containment of trouble-makers and on bureaucracy.

Unlike some online commentators, I don't really have much advice on how to go about home education, except to say that parents should not waste one big advantage they have over professional educators, that they know their child. If indeed they do! Of course another advantage is that they almost certainly won't be expected to teach thirty pupils at once in their home, although in  some cases two would be too many. It was a fortunate coincidence that the child I had to practise on was actually quite like me in his interests and abilities.

A big benefit of getting in touch with the home education movement was that we got the chance to join in with some special home educators’ events. We even travelled almost the length of the UK to go to a seaside festival run for home educators at a site on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. The first 'highlight' of the holiday for us was that we arrived at the station to catch the only train that went anywhere near our destination to find it had been cancelled, and we embarked on rather a nerve-racking journey in the course of which we had to change trains 4 times, gradually working our way southwards until we reached Exeter, from where the train company organised a taxi to take us to the station we should have arrived at, and from there we managed to get a ride in a complete stranger's campervan the rest of the way. It was a long day's journey. The real highlight was going fossil-hunting on the beach. We didn't exactly mingle much with other home educators but it was interesting and at least we felt part of something larger!

We also joined in with some local events, including a march to the Scottish Parliament to publicise home education. It was rather ironic as I had taken part in a march to protest about school spending cuts not long before. The main thing I remember about the march was that I had to hastily look in the other direction when we spotted the television cameras in case my mother, who was a retired teacher, saw us on the evening news. She never did find out we were home educating, thank goodness. She would never have understood.


Friday, 3 April 2020

Getting It Together Six Feet Apart - Umberto Tosi

Colorado Symphony's "Play On" virtual ensemble
This changes everything! We repeat this mantra with every crisis, disaster, plague, and war. There's truth in it, despite that our ways may change, but human nature not so much. COVID-19 remains rampant worldwide at this writing, while our cities hunker down to stall its spread and buy time for our doctors and scientists. Squint, and you can see the outlines of changes to come in a post-pandemic world. I'll leave analyses of the cultural, economic and political tectonics to others, and note only the vibrations we're already feeling in our world of writing and publishing.

It's early days, but reports indicate a surge in book sales as might be expected what with so many of us sequestered at home with time on our hands. It's difficult to tell if this will be a longterm trend, but demand for books seems to be surging at the moment, particularly for e-books - delivered electronically without risk of transmitting infection.

More substantial changes, however, could manifest in the way we communicate with each other and with our readers. The crisis does bring out the worst in some people. It's difficult to discern whether America's Hair Hitler and his enablers' incompetence is outdone by their malevolence or vice versa. At the same time, we see the best of humanity as the current pandemic spreads - brave healthcare workers and dedicated people who keep things running, for example. “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves,” wrote Albert Camus in his 1947 allegorical dystopic novel, La Peste (The Plague).

Amazon reports high demand online for The Plague and other pandemic scifi - including Stephen King’s The Stand and Dean Koontz’s eerily prescient, 1981, thriller, The Eyes of Darkness which centers on a fictitious "Wuhan-400" virus. The latter jumped to third place in Amazon's sales rankings last week - as if people haven't gotten enough of the real thing.

Were Camus around today, he might note the elegant irony that both of the horrific challenges to humankind's future on this planet - the pandemic and the climate change crisis - require sensible, worldwide collaboration at a moment when we've not been so widely torn by authoritarian, irrational tribalism since the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. We must get it together, folks, while keeping six feet apart at the moment. That's why the good Lord - being us - created the worldwide Web. We're turning to the tools of electronic communication - of video chats, Skype and teleconferencing to keep calm and carry on.  I'm used to using these tools to stay in touch with friends and my widespread family already. Now we're turning to them more and more for creative work and collaboration.

Koontz, dog, and prescient book
An ensemble from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra performed a gorgeously inspiring, digital flash mob performance from Beethoven's 9th - using Web conferencing tools on YouTube that quickly went viral last week. They called it: "From us, for you." The legend elaborated: "...We’re adjusting to a new reality and we’ll have to find solutions in order to support each other. Creative forces help us, let’s think outside of the box and use innovation to keep our connection and make it work, together. Because if we do it together, we’ll succeed. ..." A dozen "virtual orchestras" have followed suit, springing up daily on YouTube.

On a personal level, I received from a digital birthday party invitation a dear, longtime friend the other day, tailored for our sequestered situation. She was throwing an online cyber-party for herself and friends, using Zoom, the popular Web conferencing platform favored for remote team meetings and by online teachers to conducted lessons with "classrooms" of students in real-time.

She sent a link, passcode, and easy access instructions to her invitees, to pour themselves a glass of their favorite beverage and gather online at a specified time and date. I'm only used video conferencing once or twice in my life - the first time years ago when the reception was dicey, but it still seemed a wonder to me!. Now, seeing opportunities as well as wanting to attend the cyber party I hurried to brush up.

My last pre-Covid-19 reading.
Playing e-catch-up is nothing new. I've been doing it for decades, I realize. I learned word processing and emailing in the 80s. As a magazine editor, I grappled with desktop publishing in the 90s. In the oughts, I tried my hand at Website design and early efforts at online publishing - all things that seemed almost alien at the time.

Here I am an octogenarian scrambling to learn new software again and adapt it to the peculiar needs of the writing life! Web conferencing, is not new, of course. It's been widely used in business and in online teaching for decades. To this end, I hastened to get some tips from my eldest daughter, Alicia who lives in Mexico City and is a veteran English literature instructor adept at creating cyber-teaching courses. (We have kept in touch by video chat for years now.) I also talked to another of my daughters, Cristina, whose special needs son attends remote workshops via Zoom in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I realized a wealth of possibilities. It dawned on me that we writers here at Authors Electric could use Zoom (or similar platforms) to do literary readings - like those we've long done at bookstores - on the Internet. Over the past seven years, I've been reading at and helping organize live readings with Chicago Quarterly Review. But these won't be possible for the duration of the pandemic crisis - likewise for those sponsored by other publishers. Inspired by those Rotterdam musicians, I proposed using Zoom to present a series of online readings with my colleagues here at Authors Electric. Eight of our fine writers stepped forward immediately, ready to contribute. As I write this, we're planning programs, promotions and formats. Other groups apparently have similar ideas - a trend that could well continue well after the pandemic subsides. Zoom.us usage has jumped more than 500 percent as of this writing. This has some security experts shaking their heads about the platform's vulnerability to hackers - and indeed, prank attacks by Zoom trolls appear to be on the rise. This could lead to upgrades but probably won't stop the trend. The need to communicate is in our DNA after all. Stay tuned!

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This post marks five years of monthly posts as a member of this imaginative and distinguished writer collective. I find the task remains as challenging and as gratifying as on day one. I thank my AE colleagues for their support, friendship, and inspiration, and bow to our many followers for their attention and fine comments. I hope to continue into the foreseeable future, as long as I am granted the time and strength and am not booed off the stage, which is always a possibility. Onward together now, people! Now perhaps we will take it to another level in the post-COVID-19 era once we manage to survive it.

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On a pre-COVID019 Chi lakefront stroll.
Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com



Wednesday, 1 April 2020

This year's April Fool's Day is no laughing matter, reckons Griselda Heppel

Worksheets - completed before breakfast, of course. 
Happy April Fool's Day, all! 

Somehow I don’t think there’ll be a lot of pranks played today, at least not in the media. Maybe in households up and down the land cries of ‘Worksheets? What worksh- oh those. Yeah, all downloaded and done before breakfast,’ will strike joy into the hearts of parents – before they discover they’ve been had. But no one will be combing the national press for stories about spaghetti trees or 
straight bananas,


Looks straight to me.
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
and it seems that Google has actually cancelled this year’s April Fools’ jokes, judging that no one will be in the mood. (Though given this example of the best techie prank of 2019 - 
      Spotify… put together a "Discocover Weekly" playlist that is largely disco covers of non-disco songs.
   - I am tempted to wonder, à la Dorothy Parker, if anyone will be able to tell.)
    The world in the grip of covid19 is in much need of cheering up; yet there’s no trick you could play in current news stories that wouldn’t be tasteless. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but the point is that April Fool pranks are just that, tricks (to make you look silly) rather than jokes (to make you laugh) and anything that mocks people going through such a scary and insecure period just isn’t funny. Highlighting some of the weirdest excesses of human behaviour, on the other hand, is perfectly fine, and releases much needed merriment. You only need to look at the rich crop of bog roll jokes all over the internet to feel the benefit of that.
A rich crop of bog roll jokes

   So no April Fool’s Day 2020. This has led me to wonder what other effects the pandemic might have on the national psyche. For years now, certain tropes have dominated Young Adult literature and spilled over into the middle-grade age range (8 – 12 years). Stories are set in dystopias where war, famine, pestilence and anarchy have created a brutal society in which the hero, having gathered together their trusted friends, has to fight for survival against cruel overlords running totalitarian regimes. These are often extremely well-written and deserve their popularity. They allow readers to escape their safe, cosy, predictable world and inhabit the personas of teenage warriors in an alien landscape, ravaged by disaster and uncertainty.

School's out.

So what happens when something rocks the safe, cosy, everyday world we thought could never change… until it did? When at first theatres and concert halls, then restaurants, cinemas, cafes and pubs, finally schools, playgrounds, universities and leisure centres – all these places of security, rhythm and freedom – close down? When families are divided, and people lose loved ones and hospitals can’t cope?
Forbidden playground.
Photo by Anthony from Pexels
    It strikes me that dystopian fiction may lose its frisson of escapism once it finds itself mirroring aspects of real life. I mean, how many people seriously wanted to watch the film Contagion, shown on ITV2 last week? It reminded me of the hilarious detail in the spoof disaster film Airplane when the film that’s being shown as the aircraft lurches out of control is, er, the popular disaster movie, Airport
   Perhaps now that a hidden danger stalks the land, mowing down people of all ages and all walks of life, turning everyday life as we know it into a kind of dystopia, there’ll be a yearning for stories set in the real world, with heroes still needing to be brave and resourceful, still fighting off the bad guys; just against a normal, what used to be everyday, background. You know, going to school, dodging the bullies, stumbling on crime rings, running round town with your friends and getting lost in deep dark forests.
   It’s a dream.


Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:
and her (non-dystopian) children's books:
Ante's Inferno 
and 
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst

Sunday, 29 March 2020

WTF WFH: N M Browne

Staring into my screen in hope rather than expectation. 

I suppose I should write something funny about working in isolation. To be honest I have been ill for most of it so far – not desperately-not-breathing ill, more fall- asleep-in-the-afternoon- blancmange- brain kind of ill, which has been almost restful.
 Of course I’ve worked at home for years and, although I like going out as much as the next person and probably more than many, I have no problem with the weird world of home working. I feel a bit ashamed that I’ve never learned a language, become amazing at yoga or found out how to cook sixty tasty things with pasta and tinned beans, instead I’ve just quietly been battling my own inertia for years.
 My top tip for home working? Chill. Don’t worry about it. The world does not end if you are still working in your pjs at lunchtime. I’ve always regarded the relaxed sartorial standards of home working as one of its greatest perks. If I’m not in pjs then I never wear a garment with a waist band - it’s all comfy leisure wear or disreputable joggers – my favourite pair is at least fifteen years old and has so many holes that they are technically indecent but they are wonderfully ignorable, which is the point really.  I 'team' the dodgy sweat pants with several layers of mismatched sweaters and /or sweat shirts  because it’s wasteful to put the heating on for one. The combined look tends to terrify delivery men with its derangement, but I don't have to look at me so its all good. Having warm feet is vital, but that’s really the only thing that matters.  I have fur lined slippers my kids bought me for my birthday. I wear them  pretty well all the time I’m not in bed. There are too many days when I don’t brush my hair.
   I am a slovenly kind of home worker with a relaxed attitude to domestic chores because the battle to get anything productive done uses all my energy. I have mad cleaning days when I rediscover my office floor, re-home all the mugs lurking in forgotten corners and scrub everything to within an inch of its life. It is a joy to work in an atmosphere of civilised calm but then, once I get into whatever I’m doing, chaos re-emerges, papers couple and breed over my workspace. I lose things and get angry and then return to the central battle – the effort to write something.  There are worlds to explore in my own head, and the complex psychological games I play with myself to make myself create them is exhausting. I still don’t know how to do it after all this time. Every day is different even when every day is exactly the same. I wouldn’t worry about getting bored – in my experience it hardly ever happens – frustrated and furious with myself, yes often - but not bored.
 Those of you new to home working may be disturbed by the odd things that happen to time – the slippages and stalls whereby, though you swear you never left your desk, you have achieved nothing except lunch, which holds a sacred space in the home worker's day ( as does a six o’ clock glass of wine, and myriad other bad coffee and chocolate consumption habits. ) Embrace it. Slow down, get distracted by the play of sunlight on the carpet, stare at a bird on a branch. These things are what life is made of. Unproductive days often prepare the ground for productive days. That looping, divergent, random thinking that comes from staring into space is your brain gearing up for something hard and maybe something wonderful.
 And my final tip for home working – optimism. There are a lot of days which an unkind critic could describe as failures:dead end days when inertia wins. I don’t keep a tally. Tomorrow is going to be the day I nail it.