Monday, 14 January 2019

The Spiritual Work of Memory

Over the last two years I've spent hundreds of hours scanning my paternal grandfather's extensive photography collection. My aunts and father have shared with memories they had forgotten, jarred loose from some mind crevice after seeing an old photograph.

Gathering family stories together is about more than names and dates. Much more, in fact.

For me the work also carries with it certain spiritual dimension. Through discussions with living family members combined with my own memories, I am able to extend the lives of my relatives beyond the grave.

All of us called to do this work are a kind of ghost whisperer, conjuring our dearly departed ones from the edges of our minds and bringing them to life again through the beauty of the internet.

My great grandmother, Martha "Petee" Lapin, was born in Rush Center, Kansas in 1883. She was married at 16 and buried a baby daughter within a year. ⠀
Of her remaining three children, one boy was dead at 3 and a second son died by 28. Only my grandmother survived. She lived to be almost a hundred.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Color photo of Petee Lapin with her two younger sisters.
My great grandmother with her sisters. circa mid-1950s.

Life was extraordinarily hard for Petee in other ways, too. She grew up in rural poverty before the spread of automobiles and never created a career for herself. But like so many western women, she made the very best of it, planting and canning with each new season; moving to find work, including leaving her adolescent daughter with friends to work the oil fields of Texas; celebrating her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

She was one of the shortest people I've ever known. In this photo I am probably 7 and almost as tall as she is. Were she to step off the back porch, we would probably be the same height.
Petee with me on the back porch of her home. Taken in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
I remember this back porch very well. In our time together she had already lived in this tiny house for probably thirty years. When I was a kid and visiting her and my grandparents and my two aunts, I stayed in the tiny house opposite the one in the picture below. My grandparents and aunts lived in the second house for a few years.
Martha Lapin with two unknown adults and my father. Idaho Springs, Colorado

She is probably in her mid to late 40s in this picture. My father thinks the two unknown adults might be the couple who "opened their home in Denver to mother when she was attending East high school and Petee was in the oil camps."

The outhouse I used as a kid is behind her, the tiny house-like structure sitting in front of the mountain.⠀
Our time together was compressed. In all my memories she had lost her eyesight and most of her hearing. In 1975 Montgomery Wards, the old catalogue department store, transferred my father and us to Hong Kong.

Sometime between the photo of me and Petee on the back porch and 1975 Petee moved in with my grandmother and grandfather and succumbed to the ravages of dementia.

Like so many children, my grandmother cared for her until her death, washing and feeding her, and distracting me and others when Petee would follow whatever haunted her mind and scream her lungs out. Sometimes she yelled for what seemed like hours at a time. By 1976 she was dead.⠀⠀
If anything, I grew up not with Petee the person, but with Petee the legend: tiny western woman, a single mom, working odd jobs, doing what had to be done, before indoor electricity, before indoor plumbing and before indoor heating. ⠀

The legend grew out of the truth of her life. But we never had opportunities to discuss her life, her choices or her interpretation of all of what happened to her. Even so, she seemed bad ass to me.⠀
Her life always reminded me of the Hank Williams, Jr. lines from "A Country Boy Can Survive"⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I can plow a field all day long /⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I can catch catfish from dusk 'til dawn/ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke, too.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Our family line will end when my brother and I pass on. When I go there won't be anyone to remember Petee, or me, quite frankly. The work I am called to do with my grandfather's photography archives is a spiritual one.

These memories and reflections, are, for the time I am alive, a kind of life after death for Petee and my grandmother and grandfather.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The brave new world of cli-fi? By Alex Marchant

In 2006, I started writing seriously again (‘seriously’ in the sense of aiming for some sort of goal; ‘again’ in the sense that I used to write in my teens and early 20s, but was sidetracked by that annoying thing called ‘life’). Little did I know at the time that I was embarking on an example of what was then a newly coined genre of fiction. Or in fact, not yet quite coined, as I discovered this week.

That newish genre is ‘climate fiction’, or ‘cli-fi’ for short – an abbreviation that is rather apt as often cli-fi appears as a theme within science fiction, although it can be found within many other genres. The term was apparently coined in 2007 by journalist Dan Bloom, although it didn’t take off in the literary mainstream until 2013. Climate change was a theme within fiction for many years before either date (for example, Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole (1889) and Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971) – it was just that by 2013 it was recognized as a rapidly growing literary trend, in poetry and drama as well as prose.

Discussion of cli-fi came to my notice in a book I’m copyediting as part of my day job (I don’t generally keep up with trends in the literary world, rarely even reading the review section of my preferred newspaper). It’s a fascinating volume of essays on the relationship between climate and literature, from the earliest historical writings to the present day, covering subjects as diverse as classical attempts to explain weather patterns, the influence of climate on the Romantics and the rise of the Anthropocene. I’d not appreciated before just how important climate is in Shakespeare – despite long ago studying both Macbeth with its ‘hurly-burly’ and The Winter’s Tale with ... well, I guess that’s fairly obvious now I think about it... (And as for other authors discussed, I will just mention at this point how much wuthering there is going on outside as I write this, here in the depths – or I should say, rather, the heights – of the Bronte moors.)

Top Withens, thought perhaps to be the model for Wuthering Heights

I love the variety that my day job brings. I work on non-fiction books for academic publishers, tackling a range of subjects, from archaeology and anthropology to history and international relations. And every so often something crops up that feeds into my writing - maybe an idea for a new piece of work or a tidbit that provides background colour for a work in progress. This is the first time, though, that I’ve discovered I may have been ahead of the curve in terms of contemporary literature.

Well, maybe I wasn’t, if I’m being totally honest. Although I began writing my ‘cli-fi’ novel, Time out of Time, in 2006, and even finished a draft with which I was mostly happy about six years later, it’s still sitting on a shelf waiting for me to do something more with it. I submitted it to a few agents and publishers, but then was sidetracked (again) by the idea for the books that I have now actually published. My aim for this year is to return to and polish the earlier novel in order to self-publish – when (or if) I complete a first draft of the third book in my ongoing sequence, The Order of the White Boar. So it might be next year... or the year after.

When I began Time out of Time, I chose to work on that idea rather than another I’d had because the theme appeared more timely. A children’s adventure book about human influence on the environment and climate over several centuries – exactly what was needed to encourage kids to become eco-warriors, I thought. But here I am, thirteen years later... Is there a phrase to denote ‘after the curve’? Maybe it’s ‘missing the boat’.

Having said that, the academic essay laments the non-realistic nature of much cli-fi. Whether it takes the form of ‘climate thrillers, science fiction, disaster novels, crime and conspiracy novels, cyberpunk, horror, or fantasy’, the authors reckon that ‘the extreme scale of climate change has all too often led writers and film-makers to opt for implausible tipping-point scenarios [and] engage in an almost comic telescoping of the time taken for climatic change to unfold’. One genre that is not mentioned anywhere in the essay is ‘time-slip’ fiction. Given that Time out of Time is just such a novel, perhaps it’s not too late for me to be a groundbreaker with it. A child protagonist slipping through time and witnessing the gradual destruction wreaked by human beings on their own planet over eight hundred years perhaps doesn’t represent either ‘implausible tipping point scenarios’ or ‘comic telescoping of time’. But then again, maybe the term ‘realism’ doesn’t quite apply either. Nor is a realistic solution to the problems necessarily offered. (Alternative/splitting universes may not actually be a plausible answer to our current climate issues....) 

Still, perhaps I’ll give it a go. If nothing else, it might keep me out of the twenty-first century for a while longer – which at the moment might not be a bad thing.

(c) Ellie Foreman-Peck

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Learning from the Moomin Stories - Bronwen Griffiths

 Tove Jansson is the well-known author of the Moomin books, although she also wrote stories for adults.  Commendable as these stories are I have to admit it’s the Moomins I return to, over and over.  Not only are they wonderful stories, populated by a mix of weird and wondrous characters, but Jansson’s atmospheric black and white line illustrations also add an extra dimension.
     Jansson’s characters may be small creatures who don’t exist in the real world but their attributes are all too human. They are certainly not one-dimensional characters – and some are really quite odd and eccentric. There’s the lonely Groke who turns everything around her to ice, the pompous and bossy Hemulen, the fiercely independent Snufkin, the courageous and reckless Little My, the ever-curious Moomin, the shy and tremulous Sniff, and then there’s the ever present earth-mother Moominmamma, always available to comfort those in distress. But even the soothing Moominmama has another side to her personality. One day, feeling homesick, she paints a mural of Moominvalley on the lighthouse wall (Moominpappa at Sea) and vanishes inside the painting for hours.
            On the surface the Moomin stories appear to be about a family, and its friends and hangers-on, but Jansson writes about serious issues - our human need for love and acceptance. Loneliness. Anxiety. Loss. Uncertainty. Mortality.
Toft began thinking about himself again. His dream about meeting the family had become so enormous it made him feel tired…the whole of Moominvalley had somehow become unreal, the house, the garden and the river were nothing more but a play of shadows on the screen…He had been made to wait too long and now he was angry. (Moominvalley in November)
Toft is mad because the Moomin family aren’t home. Now, at the end of the book, as he wanders lonely and angry in the forest, he begins to understand that his view of the Moomin family and of Momminamma in particular, is idealised and unrealistic. He has grown-up.
Jansson writes so beautifully about our human foibles - our need to be loved and accepted, and to love in return. In Finn Family Moomintroll, after Moomintroll tries on the Hobgoblin’s hat, he becomes unrecognisable to his friends. ‘Your eyes are like soup-plates,’ said Sniff – ‘Moomintroll’s are small and kind.’ ‘Yes, exactly,’ Snufkin agreed. You are an imposter,’ cried the Hemulen. But Moominmamma recognises Moomintroll, and the moment she does, Moomintroll returns to his normal form.
            In Moominpappa at Sea Jansson writes about our need to be needed and to matter in the world. One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about in his garden feeling at a loss. He had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done or was being done by somebody else.  He decides to take the family off on a trip to an isolated island, which gives him purpose.
            While the family are away a number of other creatures visit Moominvalley (including Toft mentioned above) hoping to spend time with the Moomins. But they are disappointed. The Moomins do not reappear and an assortment of odd and rather obsessive creatures have to find a way of living together in the Moomin house without the family. Moominvalley in November – the last of the Moomin series – is about loneliness and disappointment and how to cope with it.
            Jansson also writes about what it is like to be an outsider. In fact most of the characters, with the exception of the Moomin family themselves are outsiders but the Moomins accept anyone with grace and kindness – except perhaps for the Groke who seems to be beyond saving. When the Muskrat appears at the door one night Moominpappa not only lets him in and offers a bed for the night but also offers him a glass of wine.
Jansson’s books tell us something about our place within the universe. In Comet in Moominland the earth is about to be swallowed up by the comet. Luckily, at the last moment the comet veers off course. If it had come a tiny bit nearer to the earth I am quite sure that none of us would be here now. But it just gave a whisk of its tail and swept off to another solar system far away, and it has never been seen since.
Jansson was originally a political cartoonist and her first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, written at the end of the war, is a reminder that life can be both unpredictable and frightening.
             The Moomins live far away from cities – theirs is the world of the forest, the mountains and the sea. The natural world is a place of great beauty but sometimes great terror. Here is Toft again. The forest began to thin out and huge grey mountains lay in front of him. They were covered with depressions full of boggy ground right up to their peaks…up there was nothing, just the wind. The sky was vast…everything was enormous. Toft looked behind him and the valley was just an insignificant shadow below.
            What we can learn from Jansson is how to write about the complexity of human relations. There is humour, pathos, fear and love in her work, as well as beautiful descriptions of the natural world.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels, A Bird in the House (2014) and Here Casts No Shadow (2018), and a book of flash fiction, Not Here, Not Us – stories of Syria (2016). Her flash fiction has been widely published – one of her latest pieces appears in the Bath Flash Fiction anthology of 2018. She lives on the East Sussex/Kent border.
Follow her on Twitter

Friday, 11 January 2019

365 Objects by Misha Herwin

The year in 365 objects

January 2018: Oppressed by bulging wardrobes, drawers that refused to shut and surfaces on which piles of papers teetered precariously, I resolved that I would begin a life laundry− a clear out of all superfluous objects. 

I had watched the programmes where chronic hoarders were helped to rid themselves of their stuff by professional de-clutterers; I’d read the articles that told you that unless an object filled you with delight then it had no place in your life. Neither, apparently, did garments that had not been worn for over a year. All these things should be moved on, rehomed to clear your house and so give you space that would work on both a physical and psychological level.

On one level, all this resonated with me. I knew I had too much stuff. The trouble was I did not have the mental, or emotional energy for the sort of clear out recommended by the professionals. Faced by the prospect of all my clothes being laid out for me to decide which were to be kept, which recycled and which binned was too much to contemplate. The very idea of taking them all out of the cupboard drained me of energy and enthusiasm for the project.

The only way for me, was to start small. Very small. So I decided that every day for a whole year I would get rid of, throw away, recycle or rehome one thing. It could be as big as a pair of shoes I had never worn, or as tiny as a pencil sharpner, but each day something would go and to make sure I kept to my resolution (and that what had been relegated to the throwing out pile could not sneak its way back) I would note down what I was decluttering in my diary. 

A year on and my dairy is full of headings such as, white bowl, old notebook, grey socks, china frog.
My experiment had been successful. The house was minus 365 unwanted, unused, un-loved or superfluous objects.

The frightening thing is that in spite of having shifted so much, there is no visible sign that anything has been removed, which shows how much of what I owned was neither necessary, nor life-enhancing. Most of it, I held on to simply because it was there. Among the last objects of 2018 were six soup bowls that had not been used in over twenty years. 

Now that these are gone, there is more room in the cupboard, but only marginally. There is still more crockery than I will ever need and no good reason for keeping it, except for a residual fear that one day it might come in handy.

This is the classic hoarder’s reasoning and totally spurious. It won’t ever be needed and if on the million to one chance it is, you can always buy or borrow another one.

I thought when I started this, that I would find it difficult and there were times when it was hard to decide what must go, but in general I found the whole experience liberating. Alghough as I said before, the house doesn’t look any different, it feels it. There is something very constraining about too much stuff. It presses down and hems you in; a cluttered workspace makes it more difficult to make decisions, let along wastes time that has to be spent in searching for that piece of official paper, which should have been filed, but which you didn’t get round to doing and is now buried deep in the in-box basket.

For some people not filing a document immediately is anathema, for others discarding one is impossible. I fit somewhere between those two extremes, but I now know that when everything is where it should be, I feel better, lighter, more relaxed. 

A year on, I crave more of that feeling of liberation. I have learned that very few things are irreplaceable and that the fewer things you have the easier life becomes.  No more staring blankly at six pairs of trousers deciding which one you will wear today, or scrabbling through the scarf drawer to find the one you thought you remembered from five years ago which would go perfectly with that particular outfit. 

Another thing I discovered was that while some things have so much emotional baggage attached to them, by taking a picture and filing that away, it is possible to move those on too. 

All in all 2018 was a de-cluttering success. So much so that I’m repeating the exercise in 2019.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

At Water's Edge | Karen Kao

Abandon the shoes that had brought you here right at water’s edge
This line comes from a magnificent poem called Finisterre. It was written by David Whyte, a poet, speaker, and healer of souls. I met him not long after I had abandoned my own shoes.

Finisterre is about pilgrimage: the ancient road to Santiago de Compostelo and the village that lies beyond, perched at the end of the world. It’s a poem about journeys, impossibilities and redemption. You, too, can come to the end of the earth and walk on water.

on the road

All writers start out on the same road. For some, the writing alone is enough. Writing is good. It cleans the blood and opens the pores. You can feel more when you write.

For years, I wrote and then I stopped. I felt too much. The moth emerges from its chrysalis to become a butterfly; I only wanted to crawl back inside and hide.

It’s easy to do. You fill your calendar with things to do, right away, more and more and more. Doing is easier than feeling. Doing makes you tired at night. It makes you tumble into bed and fall into a black sleep. No dreams. No writing.

None of us can live for long like that. You have to break out of that chrysalis or it will crush you. It almost happened to me. But I was lucky to escape the golden bonds that I had woven around myself. I began to write once more.


Silence is the theme that haunts me. The inability to speak, the shame of being heard. It’s a theme that crops up in all my writing, consciously or not. And still I struggle every day to speak, to say something meaningful, words that could only come from my heart.

I have an out-sized bulletin board that serves as my mind map. It’s an actual map of Shanghai, blown up many times over. I use it to follow my characters through the streets of Shanghai for the interlocking novels I hope will someday comprise The Shanghai Quartet. My mind map bristles with photos, old and new, newspaper clippings and bits of artwork. Anything that sparked my imagination when I first saw the city of my dreams and might again.

There's also a copy of Finisterre on my bulletin board. It's there to remind me to let go. To dare to walk on water.
not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread
Finisterre is from the collection Pilgrim by David Whyte.

Kurashiki, Japan. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This blog post originally appeared 2 November 2016 at Shanghai Noir. It was one of the first I ever wrote. Since this piece is about beginnings, it seems like the right time to share it here. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

‘He thought of the noise of the wind in the shrouds…’ by Julia Jones

And old Peter Duck looked down at her from the top of the quay and wished he was going too. 'Going foreign she is, to blue water,’ he said to himself. And he thought of other little schooners he had known, on the Newfoundland Banks and in the South Seas. He thought of flying fish and porpoises racing each other and turning over in the waves. He thought of the noise of the wind in the shrouds, and the glow of the lamp on a moving compass card, and tall winds swaying across the stars at night. And he wished he could go to sea once more and make another voyage before it was too late.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this passage (from chapter one of Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck) without a sense of longing. I’d like you to read it at my funeral, should you happen to be there. We printed it as the frontispiece for my mother’s service sheet, together with a photo of her climbing up the jetty at Eversons in Woodbridge in about 1947. 

The cruellest thing I ever did to Mum was to bring her inland. For many good reasons of course, just as Arthur Ransome’s character ‘Peter Duck’ has settled, apparently contentedly, on the inland waters of the Norfolk Broads, visiting his three daughters whenever the breeze sets fair in their direction, but privately compelled to come and sit on a bollard in Lowestoft Inner Harbour 'to look at the boats and the fishermen and to smell the fresh wind blowing in from the sea’.

Carl Herman Sehmel, Arthur Ransome's original 'Peter Duck'
Once Mum was stranded in agricultural Essex I had to stop reading her John Masefield’s Sea Fever -- it was too painful. We cheered ourselves with Wordsworth's daffodils and shivered at Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners which she loved both for the traveller’s horse and the reliability of the traveller himself, ‘“Tell them I came and no one answered / That I kept my word,” he said’.
As music lasts longer than speech so poetry outlives prose. Try this with scansion and line endings and the secret of its power becomes clearer:

And old Peter Duck looked down at her from the top of the quay
And wished he was going too.
‘Going foreign she is, to blue water,’ he said to himself.
And he thought of other little schooners he had known,
On the Newfoundland Banks and in the South Seas.
He thought of flying fish and porpoises
Racing each other and turning over in the waves.
He thought of the noise of the wind in the shrouds,
And the glow of the lamp on a moving compass card,
And tall winds swaying across the stars at night.
And he wished he could go to sea once more
And make another voyage before it was too late.

On the morning of Mum's death my brother, Nick, who insists (believably) that he never opens a book from one year’s end to the next and scarcely looks at a newspaper, went immediately to her bookshelf and turned to a poem. 

Iken Church
From the river’s edge
The sunlit tower invites you
To a pilgrimage.

Larks rise to meet you.
Round the tower in flint and stone
Saints wait to greet you.

 His single poem became two more when he looked a little longer in the slim, privately published book Wave Watch written by a family friend, Dr Ian Tait. 

The Need to Let Go
Today the waves are leaden,
Surprised by their own weight.
They lift themselves
For one last time
And collapse on the beach.

After so much travel, for ever
Holding themselves in shape
In all kinds of weather,
Their only thought
The need to let go. 

The Gulls
Orford disappears.
The sky sits down on the river’s edge
And sheens the tide-laid mud.
Sheep graze the river wall,
And little terns catch the eye
As they plummet into water.
I am sailing down river
On the last of the ebb
And the sea is waiting.

So, Nick and his children read Ian Tait's poems in the service and Claudia Myatt followed them with her lovely ‘June’sSong’. Francis recited a psalm, from memory, confirming it as poetry (or song). There were more words and hymns: a solitary flautist and the ever-evocative organ.

But when Nick and I took Mum’s body to the crematorium – just the two of us (our other brother Ned was unavoidably away) – we had no music, only poems and a prayer. The final poem I read to her before the curtains closed across the catafalque, the poem that had lasted longest in her life, almost to the end, was Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat 

The voyage was over, the wind in the shrouds had stilled

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, 
   They danced by the light of the moon, 
             The moon, 
             The moon, 
They danced by the light of the moon.

Peter Duck off Everson's jetty

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

PLS clear - a website to bookmark • Lynne Garner

Several years ago I was working on a story where I had a character reading aloud from a well-known book to an older relative. I wanted to include a few of the lines that were being read out. However I wasn't sure how much of it I could include, if any. I also had no idea how to get the permission I might need. So, when I rewrote it I still had my character reading aloud I just didn't include the words being read.      

How many of you have been in a similar position? Wanting to include a quote from someones else's book, feature, article etc. and not knowing how to get consent for that use. Thankfully there's now an easy way to gain the permission you require, PLS Clear.

Visit to quickly and easily request
permission for use of copyrighted material

PLSclear is designed and operated by the PLS (Publishers' Licensing Services) who collect revenue generated by people/companies paying to use a publishers copyright  (similar to the ALCS, who collect monies on behalf of an author every time their work is photocopied or used by someone anywhere in the world). 

For authors/writers seeking permission to use copyrighted material PLSclear is free to use. It allows you to secure the permission you need via an online account. It has a simple five step process, which allows an author/writer to search over 50 million titles. All you need is an online account and either the title of the book/magazine or the ISBN or ISSN. Once you've completed the online form the request is sent to the correct publisher and if your request is successful you can also pay any fee due via their service as well.   

I've not tried the service yet but I've bookmarked it just in case I write a similar scene. Perhaps it's a website you might want to bookmark as well.



Blatant plug time

Love a short story? Then why not check out my various collections of short stories (available as ebooks and paperback)?

Fox of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Coyote  (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Anansi The Trickster Spider (ebook £1.49/$1.49 - 16 stories)

Monday, 7 January 2019

Cold with no comfort by Bill Kirton

Mtpaley at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Furado., CC BY 2.5,

We’re all indebted to Sir David Attenborough for continually adding to our knowledge of the natural world over the many years of his broadcasting career. There is, however, one question (perhaps the most important) which I’ve never heard him answer – or, worse still, ask. It was brought home to me again by his BBC series last month, Dynasties. It was magnificent, enthralling, and all the other adjectives one usually applies to his revelations, but it was the second in the series that provoked these bloggy musings.

As a species, we humans (especially the advantaged ones in Europe, the Americas and, for all I know, Australasia) have to tolerate incomprehensible phenomena such as politicians and existential angst, but imagine being an Emperor penguin...

To begin with, they all look exactly the same – males, females, geriatric ones, those in the prime of life. Around 4 feet tall, a couple of little splashes of colour – orangey yellow around their neck and pink along their beak – but no other visible tone except black and white anywhere else. They’re shaped like giant upright marrows with bits on. They take  a new mate every year and remain faithful until it’s time for a change (to a partner who looks and acts exactly like the previous one, of course). The old joke of two blokes looking at a group of women (or vice versa) and saying ‘I don’t fancy yours, mate’ means nothing to them. On the other hand, Pascal’s ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’ might have been coined specifically to describe their life choices.

Evolution knows what it’s doing, of course, but it hasn’t been kind to them. With such long, bulky bodies and just a pair of claws close together at the bottom for support, walking is more of a precarious waddle. Eagles soar, albatrosses glide, swallows flit, but earthbound penguins just wobble. If you’re a bird, my guess is that your best bits are your wings. Not for penguins, though. Theirs are rubbish – maybe good for swimming (which, most of the time, they’re not doing) but little else. Even when they get into an argument, attempts to use them to hit the opponent result in the individual just slapping himself or herself on the side of his/her own chest.

(And there are plenty of arguments. They gather in huge, noisy colonies – maybe tens of thousands. The only privacy they get is on the long, solitary annual treks which males, and, later, females, have to make across the frozen Antarctic wastes to get food for their chicks and their partners, who stay at home for months [in the colony] baby-sitting.)

But let’s stay with evolution, because that’s where the question I mentioned at the start comes in. A highly abbreviated account of the average year for an Emperor penguin is:
  • Several months standing on ice without food in really crap, freezing weather;
  • A couple of hours (that’s a guesstimate) choosing a mate;
  • Maybe 5-10 minutes (another guesstimate) copulating;
  • Solitary males wobbling miles across the ice to get fish to bring back to partner and chick;
  • Who, in turn, are condemned to stand waiting for months in the freezing huddle;
  • The males taking over the baby-sitting while females make their own icy trek to catch fish, having not eaten for months.

And the ‘crap weather’ is an understatement. They have to keep trying to shuffle away from the windward side of the scrum or they’ll literally freeze to death

Only a third of juvenile penguins survive into a second year. The others are killed by the cold or eaten by giant petrels or skuas. And, waiting for those adults who make it to the sea, are leopard seals and killer whales.

So, in all of that, where’s the fun? Well, you’d think evolution would have the answer. What’s it all for, after all? Natural selection. Yes, the continuation of the species. So surely, amongst all that hardship and stress, evolution would make sure that the act of procreation, the act which produces the unfortunate members of the next Emperor generation, would provide a commensurate reward – the usual increase in production of oxytocin and its accompanying surge of opiate-receptor-activating endorphins. In other words, a few moments of other-worldly bliss in the perpetual torment.

But no.

Imagine 2 identical giant marrows copulating (or, if you can’t imagine it, watch the programme). It’s yet another catastrophe. Marrows and Emperor penguins are not designed to balance lengthways on top of one another, let alone carry out precise manipulations of the relevant bits if they do manage it. And the option of foreplay doesn’t seem to exist since there aren’t any bits to do it with.

So months of ice-bound deprivations, hardships and agonies and, in the middle of them all, by way of contrast, a brief moment of ignominy. That is what evolution (or some brain-fade by the Intelligent Designer) has decided is the perfect life-style for the Emperor penguin.


There. That’s the question that doesn’t get asked. What possible justification can there be for opting for such bleakness, such comprehensive joylessness?

These poor creatures aren’t just Pinteresque, they’re Pinter. His Caretaker needs to get to Sidcup. That’s where his ‘papers’ are. But when he gets them (which, of course, he never does), what then?

The penguins don’t even have a Sidcup. Pinter, Ionesco, Jarry and the other absurdist dramatists aren’t just purveyors of fashionable cultural talking points, they’re realists. The life cycle of these birds proves it. They don’t even have Estragon’s luxury of claiming ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’ They’re yet another example that, in life, absurdity is the norm.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Synchronicity - Debbie Bennett

They say it’s odd how fiction mirrors life. But how about life mirroring fiction? I was mooching around on Amazon the other day – as you do – and inadvertently signed up (again) for Amazon Prime. This is the 4th time I’ve made that mistake; I use italics because I am convinced that periodically Amazon changes the code behind its buttons and signs up whoever it chooses in the hope that either you won’t notice, or if you do, you will love it so much that you’ll stay …

So I cancelled (again) and thought I may as well enjoy my month’s free deliveries. Actually – come to think about it – maybe that’s why Amazon does it? They know you will order more if you have unexpected free delivery? And Andy is enjoying watching The Grand Tour on Prime, so everybody is happy.

But while I’m mooching, I find that Matthew Reilly has a new book out and I wonder how on earth I missed it. If I haven’t already said (and I probably have), I adore Matthew Reilly’s books. He’s an indie-turned-trad Australian author, who writes what I’d define as lad-lit. Big guns, impossible chases in cars/planes/ submarines, utterly ridiculous plots. He breaks every rule in the how-to books on writing too, with dubious sentence structures, weird layouts and way too many exclamation marks!!! But the guy can write. Edge-of-seat stories and totally gripping. I’d read his laundry lists – I really would.

So I buy the latest book, of course I do. In hardback – since it’s cheaper than the paperback and the kindle versions. And The Three Secret Cities arrives in less than 24 hours and I’m hooked on another Jack West saves the world from devastation story involving secret cities and mysterious rituals, Excalibur and other mystical weapons, and ancient religious orders. I do love a good conspiracy-theory … But one of these secret cities is Thule. And suddenly I’m reading all about NASA’s pictures of an object in the far reaches of the solar system – Ultima Thule.

I finish this book and I’m immediately flicking back through Reilly’s backlist for a re-read. Yes, I re-read most of my books – some of them dozens of times. And I come across The Great Zoo of China, in which our current heroes are talking about China’s place on the world stage and how the country manufactures lots of things for other people but has little of its own. And bang – today’s news is all about China’s moon landing!

Does Matthew Reilly know something I don’t?

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Quality or Quantity, or Both, or Neither (Cecilia Peartree)

Happy New Year 2019
I think it was about this time last year, or maybe it was the year before as this is a perennial thing for me, that I made a resolution not to write as much as I had the previous year. This does seem rather a contrary resolution for a writer to make, but it was a response to a kind of pressure I was feeling to rush the next book out instead of taking my time and perhaps producing something better. Assuming it's an either/or choice, that is.

Sadly, if it was indeed my 2018 resolution I have driven a coach and horses through it over the past year, at one point even completing and publishing two novels within a couple of weeks of each other. Being over-excited about the impending birth of my first grandchild was really no excuse, I told myself sternly. Actually I had several additional excuses lined up, including the fact that I wanted to enter one of them into the Kindle Storyteller competition which, with a typical lack of forward planning, I had only found out about a few weeks before the closing date.

In any case I am in two minds about whether taking your time over things always results in better quality. Sometimes it's the act of rushing at them that helps to focus your mind and create something new and surprising. When I was a history student all those years ago, that approach worked for me when it came to examination times. I know I achieved one of my best results in one paper where I had to use extreme lateral thinking to come up with any kind of an answer, and I only managed that because we were all trapped in a room with nothing else to do but think of something to write. No chance to edit or proof-read under those circumstances either.
I am not arguing against making sure your work is up to an acceptable standard of grammar and spelling, however. In that sense, quality is essential when you're expecting people to pay for what you've written.

I've been mulling this over during my seasonal down-time as I procrastinate over re-starting the novel I abandoned just before NaNoWriMo, and I think what I lose out on when I write too fast is not so much quality as depth. This is partly because I prefer to skim across the surface of life, avoiding the difficult topics until they rise up and hit me in the face, and only partly because I like to make people laugh and help them to avoid the difficult areas too, and I know I would feel guilty if I made them cry instead. If this means I never write 'Crime and Punishment', 'Wuthering Heights' or 'The Mill on the Floss', to name some of the grimmest novels I know (not that I know either of the latter except in passing since their grim reputation precedes them and I've never been able to face reading them), then so be it.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

The More We Know... Umberto Tosi

... the more we know we don't know. You can be just lying in your bed, watching a mindless video and an epiphany finds you. You don't have to go climb mountains or anything. You don't even have to want one, or anything.

For example, whilst recuperating from a nasty bug over Christmas - no way to spend the holidays - I was was half watching a You Tube video of what was supposed to be a romantic mountain train journey around Switzerland. I had the sound turned off. Watching trains lulls me to sleep somehow. It takes me back to being a little kid curled up in the swaying, top bunk of my parents' compartment on our annual winter cross-country rail journey from Los Angeles to Boston, Massachusetts back in the 1940s. The top bunks on the old Pullman cars used to have these little oval windows up where the carriage wall curved into the ceiling. I could slide a little plastic shade open and peek out onto a moonlit winter landscape with myriad stars above. It was like the train was travelling through space - and certainly a night wilderness. Once in a while I could catch sight of the locomotive's gyrating head lamp up ahead as it illuminated clouds of steam billowing out its stack.

Back in the present, I was about to drop off to sleep as I imagined myself on a train, when the video cut to early, 1900s grainy black-and-white film footage of mustachioed workmen wielding pickaxes. They were carving a tunnel through an Alp, presumably one that the modern train was about to enter with ease. The workmen looked heroic as they blasted granite blocks, and barely escaping once they lit their fuses. In one scene there had been an accident, and stoic-faced, grimy workmen were shown wheeling out the bloody injured and dead in one of the hopper cars. This was followed by scenes of triumphant completion, with bearded dignitaries in top hats dedicating the tunnel, now still in everyday use more than 100 years later. Cut to the the tunnel entrance - an impressive affair arching gracefully against the side of a mountain, with an elegant beaux arts granite facade.

Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach
I sat up. A thing of beauty, wrote John Keats, and so forth... Or for a long time anyway. When it comes to humanity's monumental creations - as opposed to those in nature, however - we generally only notice what is pleasing to the eye, and overlook deeper meanings that give them their power over our emotions. Namely, they embody what went into creating them and the manifold experiences of people who made use of them. Foremost among them are the imagination, knowledge, courage and struggle it took to conceive and build these landmarks in the first place, whether aesthetic or utilitarian, or both. I realized that I had learned this unintentionally from a theme that had emerged, purely by accident, in the writing of "The Flying Dutchman of the Internet,"  a short story that appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader about three years ago and now appears in my new paperback (and epub) short story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous.

I based the story on a notion I had about ten years ago, after several years of on-and-off dates and friendships via the free, online dating service OK Cupid. The main character, I thought, could be a chap of a certain age who perceives that he has become a sort of Flying Dutchman of the Internet, cursed to sail the Web eternally making port occasionally, but never able to drop anchor for good. Another protagonist appeared when I finally attempted to develop this idea into a narrative - a woman wrestling with tragedy and a curse of her own, and the place of their encounter, the maritime port I know best - San Francisco.

I didn't reckon that the Golden Gate Bridge would become a third and co-equal protagonist as this particular star-crossed love story unfolded. I put the bridge in for effect, because when you live in San Francisco, it's always there, in sight, or in mind, or both. But, I didn't get this until I saw the You Tube video of those 1900-era tunnel blasters, that famous, graceful, international orange suspension bridge image is much more than a postcard icon. I won't go into spoiler details, but without intending to, I populated the bridge with all those who have lived and died on it - the workers, the suicides, tourists and lovers - since it opened in 1937 (only a few weeks after I was born, by the way, giving the span a special significance to me.)

Maybe this sudden realization about my own story wasn't so much an epiphany as an insight, a broader, more dimensional way of looking at things, coupled with a humbling acknowledgment that there is a lot I don't know about the process of storytelling. The storyteller isn't me. I'm just a messenger doing my best to jot it down right. The storyteller has much to teach me, if I can catch it, but even if I can't understand a tale fully, it can be more than I think it is.

Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes RidiculousOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis 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. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals 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 grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and ZoĆ« Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at