stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Return Of The Britishers

Suicide Club logo

Xana-La, Hairy London, The Humour Mines, Pharaday Lemmington’s Various Adventures, Anglocide, The First Britishers In The Moon... may or may not be a complete list!

Anne Charnock’s FCC story shortlisted

Great to see Anne Charnock’s FCC story shortlisted by the BSFA. Here’s the FCC on it.

Fictions: My Third Story

My third and final story in the FCCs ongoing thought experiment Fictions: Health & Care Re-imagined is published today. This story is about the hidden assumptions in data, not least medical data.

Read the story, then get involved in the debate!

Writers’ Lab free online event

The Shrewsbury Library Writers’ Lab is hosting a free online event on Tuesday 9th February from 5.30pm – 6.30. Myself and a host of other authors will be reading from our works – fiction, poetry, flash fiction and much more. I’ll be reading from Hairy London.

Roll up, roll up!

Carnival Row tv series

My second recent television series was Carnival Row, first broadcast by Amazon Prime in 2019.

*

This review contains spoilers and is of the entire 8 episode series.

*

What would happen if refugee Fae from Tirnanoc were racially abused and discriminated against? What if they suffered violence at the hands of another people in a foreign land? This is the premise of the eight-part television series Carnival Row.

The setting is basically nineteenth century London with added Fae, Pucks and other sundry fantasy folk. Orlando Bloom plays a detective investigating a series of grisly murders in the Burgh, but this main character has a secret which puts him in a dangerous position, one symbolised by his Fae lover (played by Carla Delevigne) and his human one. Elsewhere there is much by way of politics, not least because the underlying theme of this series is racism. All fantasy races are discriminated against. Pucks are not allowed into polite society, being servants or other working classes. Fae are outsiders in all regards. Religion also plays a part – there’s a form of Christianity with a hanged martyr.

There’s a lot to like about this series, not least the theme. Too rarely do we see such clear explorations and depictions of casual racism. But there’s humour, wit, and plenty of twists and turns too. The pace of the thing is good, with episodes three and four being terrific flashbacks from which the latter half of the series then proceeds. Visually it’s stunning, with the grimy, dark city superbly photographed.

As the series progressed however I began to become aware of a flaw in the concept. For me, Carnival Row is a mash-up too far. The nineteenth century stuff is fantastic, anchoring the plot, but the Fae – winged, and that just doesn’t work – are to my mind bolted on. The wingless Puck aren’t so obvious a bolt-on, I think because they seem to fit in better. The series is the television equivalent of wizards in spaceships: fun, possibly, for half an hour, but entirely lacking depth and stylistic coherence.

Having said that, the acting was terrific and the scenario overall was enjoyable. I do think Orlando Bloom was perhaps a little too restrained in his performance – monochrome with hints of sepia – though Delevigne was superb. The supporting cast also contained gems, notably the racist policeman and the delightful posh girl/Puck-made-good couple who provide a lot of the wit and humour. I watched the series to its end, and wanted to find out how it ended – and it finished with a great plot twist.

Yet I remain ambivalent about the thing as a whole. Two halves too disparate are patched together here. It’s rather appropriate that the concept of the Darkasher represents the series as a whole – created from dissimilar parts and only animated by force of will. How ironic!

Xana-La, narrated

I’m delighted to say that my short story Xana-La, published ten years ago in the Eibonvale Press anthology Where Are We Going? has been narrated by Roger Watson, who did the podcast and audio book versions of Hairy London (Moonlightmakers and Jeeni.com respectively). We hope that the new narration will be available soon via Jeeni.

I’m also now able to announce that I’m working on a new short novel set in the world of Hairy London entitled The Humour Mines. Where the original book asked “What is love?” this new work asks “What is humour?” The novel once again follows Sheremy Pantomile & co. in a surreal, bizarre, but deeply meaningful quest. I can honestly say I’m having enormous fun returning to my absurdist world!

xana
Xana-La cover

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 5

To conclude Hairy Podcast Week, I’m taking a quick look at the man with the voice… R.D. Watson Esq.

Roger Watson is an award-winning British male voice artist and Grammy nominated record producer. From studios in west London he works for clients in the UK and overseas, who hire him for the strong, trustworthy quality of his very English accent and his range of British accents. Roger Watson is a winner of the Audiofile Award for Narration.

Masquerading as a record executive, Roger has been on the international radio airwaves  for nearly forty years. His natural aptitude for accents precipitated his posting from Oxford Street to Sunset Boulevard in the mid-1970s. In London, he provided the  promo voice for acts such as Jethro Tull, Leo Sayer, and Ten Years After. In Hollywood he had to switch accents to suit their requirement for a very British voice – and heralded the arrival of Spandau Ballet, Billy Idol, and the iconic Blondie.

Roger provides English voiceovers for audiobooks, radio and TV commercials, and narration for TV, animations and industrial videos – a reassuring and authoritative British voice for Interactive Voice Response and On-Hold recordings, as well as jingles and readings for radio shows and podcasts.

I am thrilled to hear Roger narrating Hairy London. His rich voice works perfectly with the prose, and many of his character voices are terrific; the three leading men in particular, but he also does a very good Valentina Moondusst! I also love his Cockney voices, and the many and various Marxist-Leninist malcontents who brew revolution on the streets of London Town. I was also struck by the voice of the chief of the Vauxhall tribe, sounding uncannily like Ray Ellington, whose occasional acting parts in the Goon Show included the dreaded foe of the British Empire the Red Bladder…

Hairy London: the audio book at Jeeni.

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 4

Today, to celebrate the audio book and podcast of Hairy London, I’m re-posting my blog of a few years ago “Hairy London, Beardy Marx.”

*

In Hairy London – a very silly novel with a very serious theme, which is set somewhere in Victorian/Edwardian times – I used a few real people as fictional characters, including Karl Marx. One of the main characters, Velvene Orchardtide, scion of the landed gentry and rather fond of stealing from his parents, is forced to leave the bosom of his family home and undertake the Suicide Club quest initiated by Sheremy Pantomile, which is to find the true nature of love. Early on, Velvene and Marx have an inconclusive meeting in Highgate Cemetery, where Velvene has crashed his bovine balloon:

Velvene described as best he could the purpose of the Suicide Club and Pantomile’s wager, concluding, “I found myself short of funds, and so put my name forward. I mean to uncover the true nature of love and win the money.”

“Huh,” Marx grunted. “A waste of time. You are a crippled man in a crippled society, journeying around your Empire as if it were a playground, while the common person, the authentic person, struggles against the oppression of the upper classes.”

“So you say,” Velvene retorted, “but some of us who find ourselves, through no fault of our own, born into wealth become philanthropists-“

“An illusion! What use is some? You are alienated from everything in your world. You know nothing of real life, of poverty, of work, of struggle, of disappointment, of the crushing of opportunity. And here you are now, jousting with me and daring to tell me you seek the truth of love? You would not know love if it clung on to you with the passion of a young woman.”

Velvene at this point has little understanding of himself, of his curious circumstances and of the nature of the struggle suggested by Marx, but as the novel progresses he does gain understanding, and in the end becomes something of a hero. But what was Marx on about in the cemetery scene above? What was Marx’s concept of humanity?

In Beyond The Chains Of Illusion the radical humanist, Marxist and former Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm noted that one of Marx’s fundamental points is that the nature of “man” (i.e. human beings) is comprehensible, a concept which at the time went head-to-head with the prevailing idea that we are all a blank sheet for culture and other forces to write upon:

Marx, in assuming the existence of a nature of man, did not concur in the common error of confusing it with its particular manifestations. He differentiated ‘human nature in general’ from ‘human nature as modified in each historical epoch.’

Yet even Erich Fromm at this stage in his life’s work would add:

Human nature in general we can never see… what we observe are always the specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures… In his earlier writings, Marx still called ‘human nature in general’ the ‘essence of man.’ He later gave up this term because he wanted to make it clear that ‘the essence of man’ is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual… For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilisation.

In my own work I’ve made a few changes to this stance, using the term ‘human condition’ to mean the unchanging, biologically/evolutionary-determined aspect of ourselves, and ‘human nature’ to be the historically dependent, ‘visible’ aspect. The human condition in my view is inviolate, and leads, according to cultural conditions, to various types of human nature. I also disagree with Fromm in that in my opinion there is no bar to what I’ve called a scientific description of the human condition. Fromm was insistent in all his later works on humanity assembling of a full understanding of the human condition, a process he was very much a part of and which he memorably contributed to in his seminal work The Sane Society.

Marx, then, grasped that human nature at least could be assessed and discussed, if nothing else. And of course he saw the consequences of not understanding the true needs of human beings:

Marx chuckled. “You’ve read Montesquieu then,” he remarked. “If a person becomes active, productive and independent, then yes, they may be counted authentic. But it involves releasing themself from chains of illusion. And you? Look at you. You wear clothes created from the subjection of the masses in Lancashire. Your chronoflam is gold removed from a foreign country that your King rules but has never visited. Your club for the idle rich employs servants who make the myriad delicacies upon which you feast, and all for a few pennies. Wager? I wager this – that you have never done a full day’s work in your life.”

Such is Marx’s early challenge to Velvene Orchardtide.

What then of love? Is it something forever beyond grasp, a phantasm, an illness, a spiritual affection perpetually enigmatic? Or did it evolve over hundreds of thousands of years, along with emotion and a host of other aspects of the human condition? Hairy London presents three possible answers to the question at its conclusion, but Velvene and Marx had a second encounter much later in the book, where the two are somewhat more courteous to one another:

“And what of love?” [Marx] asked.

“My research continues.”

“Who then have you questioned?”

Velvene, annoyed again, decided to oppose Marx by attacking. He replied, “Tell me, do you believe, as Freud and Reich do, that man is a tabula rasa, or do you side with Jung, who believes all men are born with unconscious personality already within him?”

Wrongfooted by this question, Marx peered long and hard at Velvene, then glanced away and said, “I suppose I side against Jung.”

“Then we are born, effectively, a blank sheet of paper?”

“Yes.”

“Well, where then do our personalities come from?”

Marx considered, then replied, “I suppose they come from the real world, from our experiences, placed inside us through memory.”

As this conversation develops, I take Marx away from his real stance:

Do you suppose that more might be placed inside us, perhaps through the actions of our parents, our siblings, our family, eh?” [Velvene said.]

“I suppose that to be perfectly possible.”

Velvene considered. “Then it must be that love, and all the other psychological templates, are also placed inside us, in such a way as to chime with the theories of the estimable Mr Darwin.”

Again Marx considered this point, before answering, “You mean, because we are all of the same species, descended from apes, we all partake of the same mental template?”

“Yes, sir!”

Marx… said, “What a remarkable idea. What then shall we decide about love?”

Velvene felt ideas flooding his mind as the implications of his notion arrived. He replied, “Though we all partake of the same mental template, we all grow up in different conditions, eh? The working class man has a different experience of life to the imperialist. Therefore, it must be that we all approach love from different angles.”

“And yet every man and woman across the world experiences love in the same way.”

“Well, true, true…” Velvene murmured. He thought for a moment, then said, “You must be correct, Mr Marx. Though we are all different in the circumstances of our lives, love is universal. It must therefore be an aspect of our mental template.”

“Moreover, it must be a deducible aspect – as with any scientific theory.”

Velvene nodded, intrigued. That was a notion he had never considered. “By reasonable extension of what he have decided so far,” he said, “love must be an aspect of the process of placing experience inside us as we grow up.”

“But what aspect?”

This takes Marx well away from 19th century thought. Although the idea of different classes of people in, say, British culture approaching life differently is in accordance with Marx’s historically-dependent ‘essence of man’ notion, the pair do agree that love is essentially a universal experience.

“But my point is this,” [Velvene said.] “If a man truly… loves a woman, would he not want everything possible for his beloved, eh? Including her freedom, her happiness, her enjoyment of life.”

“He would want that,” Marx replied. “I certainly wanted that for my wife.”

“Then this surely is what love must be. It is the way we most profoundly understand the beloved, so that they may experience the best of what life has to offer. After all, we enter this world knowing nobody – yet we, as a social animal, have no option but to know the people around us.”

“Indeed!” Marx said. “Then love, understanding, and freedom must all be words for the same thing.”

Velvene felt excitement course through him. “They must be! And though I have heard it said amongst cynical, and often very young men that love is blind, the opposite must be true. Love is like spectacles. We see better through it.”

“A remarkable analogy, sir! I believe I may put that in my pamphlet.”

And so it is a universal experience. In The Art Of Loving, Fromm wrote:

… mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls separating man from his fellow men, which unites him with others… In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

Love, understanding and freedom are all words for the same experience:

“There exists however,” Velvene said, “a dilemma in the experience of our lives. We, ourselves, are most vividly and continuously experienced. We know our own deeds and wishes, our every idiosyncrasy and foible, feeling, thought, hope and desire. But no other human being, however close, is experienced in this intimate manner, eh? There is always the impossibility of feeling precisely the same feelings as another, of having different thoughts, of remembering different experiences – in short, of being different people. This dilemma is resolved by the experience of union.”

“What do you mean by union?” asked Franclin.

“Well, I mean love. Our need for communication and our need for union are similar in the sense that they draw people together through society. But union has a more profound quality. Communication between people is an aspect of living, though it can in some cases be deep… But union does not have any aspect of chance. We do not live, as it were, casually creating union with others. Union has a different meaning. Union relates, as Marx pointed out, to the actual experience of the human condition, to the experience of living a human life. Union is the exchange of the experience of life, whereas communication is the exchange of information relating to life… union, by which I mean love, is the experience of understanding others. Union indeed is an inevitable part of life, because we simply have to understand others.”

“Love is inevitable, then?” Franclin asked.

“We are born,” Velvene replied, “without any knowledge of the world, and so we have to create our memories by learning about life. At least, most [psychologists] think so, Mr Jung being the notable exception, eh? Love, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of our evolution from apes.”

“What then is your wager presentation?” Lord Blackanore asked.

Velvene turned to face him. “The purpose of love is to facilitate the appearance of other human beings in our minds. It is our method of bringing other people, wholly independent of the self as I have explained, into our minds, to be understood. The experience of love is the experience of union. Indeed sir, loneliness is unbearable precisely because true understanding of the self and of life is inextricably bound up with the true understanding of others.”

“I do not follow.”

Velvene nodded. “… Love is indeed a paradoxical experience, eh? It preserves the integrity and independence of those involved. Love requires freedom to exist, for without freedom, Blackanore, why then it would be but a tie of necessity, eh? Love and freedom and understanding are therefore conceptual equivalents… You see, love is not blind. In fact it is the very opposite, eh? Love gives us an improved experience of others, since it is the very experience of the truth of these others, not just the perception of some surface quality.”

Thus does Velvene Orchardtide redeem himself.

Check out the full audio book on Jeeni!

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 3

What was the inspiration for Hairy London? Well, as I mentioned on Monday, the inspiration was a call put out by Eibonvale Press for short stories fitting the anthology Where Are We Going? edited by Allen Ashley. The idea of this anthology was to visit locations on planet Earth which had either been too little or never explored. Enthused, I found myself thinking about Jules Verne’s classic Around The World In 80 Days, with its wager theme and Victorian adventure. At once the theme and style of my tale Xana-La (a collision of Xanadu and Shangri-La) were set.

But there was much more. As a young man, I was thrilled by and addicted to the Goon Show, that never-to-be-repeated work of genius from Spike Milligan, Larry Stephens, and Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Wallace Greenslade (with an honourable mention to Michael Bentine). I adored the madcap, surreal flights of fancy, I loved the absurdist word play, I loved the characters, the sound effects and the whole vibe. I loved the fact that the cast frequently collapsed into laughter at their own brilliance.

Later, I loved Monty Python and other comedy with a surreal, absurdist style. This is without doubt my kind of comedy: the humour of strange juxtaposition, of accidental mash-up, of impossible thematic collisions. So when I came to write Hairy London, knowing that I’d used and enjoyed the humour of Xana-La, I knew I had to continue that style. Hairy London had to be as daft as a brush: surreal, illogical and yet with its own cast iron logic, absurd and whimsical.

No doubt those early listens to the Goon Show remain engraved upon my subconscious, because there is one episode, The Choking Horror, in which some buildings become hairy:

SEAGOON:

Now listen, London is in the grip of a choking horror. Hair is starting to grow on monuments and buildings.

MORIARTY:

What. Sapristi, Choking Horror part six.

SEAGOON:

Thank you, part hair. We must inform Parliament of this choking horror.

MORIARTY:

Yes…

SEAGOON:

(echoing in large hall) Yes honourable members of Parliament, well you may murmur rhubarb in Choking Horror part six, but it doesn’t alter the fact that in the past ten months the following buildings have also been declared hairy: The National Gallery; St Pauls; Nelson’s Column; The Windmill Theatre!

OMNES:

(loud grumbles and muttering, rhubarbs)

MP1:

(Milligan, nasal voice – Spriggs?) I tell you, please, honourable members

OMNES:

rhubarb

MP1:

Please, silence please

SEAGOON:

Custard.

MP1:

We must take action at once:

BLOODNOK:

I agree, I agree

MP1:

Well said.

BLOODNOK:

The Albert hall is a dreadful sight its hair is hanging down its back.

BANNISTER:

That’s nothing – Graham Sunderland’s portrait of Sir Winston Churchill is completely hidden.

CHURCHILL:

(Sellers) Thank heavens for that.

OMNES:

(muttering under)

SEAGOON:

Have no fear, I have taken action. I’m commencing with having the Albert Hall’s hair cut, with Mister Crun supervising.

CRUN:

Yes, I’m going to give it a real military hair cut.

MP1:

Military? The Albert Hall is a civilian Sir!

Later on, one of the buildings begins to develop a bald patch – classic Milliganese, which may well have influenced my expansion of the theme into every part of London…

Click here for the Moonlightmakers 31-episode podcast series.

HL
“Hairy London” front cover

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 2

It’s a given of writing technique that you should never leave the reader uncertain about the meaning of sentences – words, too. In Hairy London I chose to follow a different technique, inventing words and descriptions that, even in context, the reader could not be expected to understand. I did this because I wanted readers to bring their own concepts to the novel. That enigmatic ambiguity was a large part of the creation of the work, allowing, even forcing the reader to go beyond the rational as they imagined what might be happening – a kind of lexical Zen koan.

Some situations were ambiguous but comprehensible. The language of Velvene Orchardtide’s rooftop escape from his parents’ house suggests he is fleeing in something like a balloon and cow crossed, though, lacking specifics, the reader has to imagine what that might look like. Other situations left 100% room for the imagination. What is a diamond encrusted spigot? Still others could be deduced from linguistic trails: chronoflam, cigaroon and so on. This was all part of the absurdist style of the novel.

The other aspect of the book’s language that I want to explore here is the terminology I used for non-white peoples. It was part of the concept right from the beginning that three chauvinist, racist, entitled, upper-class men would in various ways have the scales removed from their eyes regarding the many iniquities of the British Empire. The best way for me to do that, I thought, was to use a close third person point of view – in other words, to see non-white peoples entirely from their privileged perspective.

As is these days all too clear, British Victorians and Edwardians considered other races inferior, if not actually subhuman, using a wide range of derogative words to describe them. In Hairy London I used those terms in the correct historical context to highlight such iniquities, which were part of the reason I wrote the novel – and many other novels, not least Beautiful Intelligence, No Grave For A Fox and The Autist; but also the Factory Girl trilogy, where at the end of the first volume I wrote:

… whose main character [Kora/Roka] is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent; technically, a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato. Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.

You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls, to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with appalling inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.

Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.

To this day, I believe the use in the correct historical context of such language is crucial to exposing the vile reality of racism. If we censor our language we reduce the impact of every past racist iniquity. That, I believe, is a mistake. Racism is alive and well and must be opposed by every means available, including within historical analysis.

Of all the reviews of the novel, I was most taken with Gary Dalkin’s. Though he found the book a tad long (fair point), he grasped the very serious themes amidst the gonzo surreality:

And yet within this Ripping Yarns-on-acid lunacy there is a serious exploration of themes of racism and exploitation, a dissection of attitudes which simply took prejudice as the default. There is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF of the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language, but in the monstrous character of Gandy, Gandhi distorted through the worst fears of white upper-class early 20th century inhabitants of the British Empire.

Cheers, Gary! You got it spot on. They really did see Gandhi that way: a monster. But we know different, and we see from a new, different perspective; the human perspective.