Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Dorothy Rowe RIP

I discovered Dorothy Rowe and her work by accident. Reading Erich Fromm and Nicholas Humphrey at the time, I was attracted by book cover quotes citing the humane quality of her work, her interest in meaning and uncertainty, and her capacity for compassion for those in psychological distress. As Fay Weldon put it: ‘She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.’

Born in Australia, ill during childhood, and suffering difficult family circumstances, she somehow had the inner strength not only to come through those times but to use her experiences in her work. A trailblazing explorer of depression, she came from an entirely different place than her overwhelmingly male counterparts, explaining that depression was a condition of meaning, not necessarily of biology.

As a feminist and an atheist she was fearless. I loved her quote that the Christian church “… gave her plenty of work as a psychologist.” She derided the way men run the world and did a huge amount for the feminist cause, for which we all, male or female, should be grateful.

Her books were amazing. Gifted with a clarity of prose that matched her insight, every book was full of gems. Beyond Fear was of particular importance to me, although the true significance of its message didn’t reveal itself to me until I was a bit older. Her work on money, meaning, success, and the nuclear bomb was all groundbreaking.

Alongside Fromm and Humphrey she was one of my great influences, which was why I dedicated the second volume of the Factory Girl trilogy, The Girl With One Friend, to her. Alas she was not as well known as she could have been. Her books were as complex and hard-hitting as real life, which meant she did not find the wide audience she deserved. She offered no easy answers because she grasped that life is difficult, requiring effort and persistence in order to find peace, love and happiness. Truth therefore was fundamental to her, and she realised that our best interests lie in facing up to it, not ignoring it or pretending some random spiritual belief system to be true. But even at the height of her writing success that was not an easy sell to those used to the platitudes of Californian self-help gurus.

We are fortunate to have so wonderful a legacy as the work of Dorothy Rowe. Perhaps in years to come her books will be reassessed and made more popular by those who, like me, consider the truth of our human lives to be the benchmark for a compassionate, peaceful, just and wise society.


Language In Prehistory by Alan Barnard

Language In Prehistory is a tour through the academic world of proto-language and all things symbolic leading up to the acquisition by early human beings (quite which ones being a matter of guesswork) of full language. This is quite a scholarly book with not a huge amount for the general reader, but I did enjoy it, especially towards the end as the author got into matters mythical and storytelling. The conclusions are fascinating and the whole book thought-provoking. A bit advanced for me, but I’m glad I read it.

lang pre

The Trickster

The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.

Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.

Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.

But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.

The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.

Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.

Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.


Beltane 2019

An extract from Memory Seed for today, May 1, Beltane.


On Beltayn Eve, Haquyn, acolyte of the Goddess, chaperoned children around southern Kray, helping them in their task of decorating twigs and branches earlier snapped off by defending groups. The younger children – at least, those who did not spend time teasing their elder siblings – made crossed hoops of bedecked cane, straw dolls and garlands for decoration.

Meanwhile thousands of young friends met at inns serving free ale throughout the night. From safe roofs and from the open windows of high towers came the sounds of horns and drums, klaxons and conches, and reed pipes three yards long, accompanying the festivities.

But in the Green and the Archaic Quarters, in the passable districts of the Andromeda Quarter – even down as far as the Temple of Felis – and in those parts of the Carmine Quarter smothered by plants overflowing from the Gardens, there was silence. Silence, except for the swishing of trees and the pattering of rain. North Kray heard no music. This year, Beltayn was confined.

At sunrise Arrahaquen returned to the Carmine Quarter with her charges, everyone singing, then let them go in order to begin the house decoration; well-liked people would be favoured with flowers and leaves around their windows and doors, while the unpopular had nettles and creepers thrust upon them. Gifts could then be requested from Kray’s older residents. Arrahaquen looked upon all this with the eye of one who had lived most of her life in the bland buildings of the Citadel.

Collecting Zinina from the house, Arrahaquen led the way to a dew pool. It was the custom for women to bathe their faces with dew to ensure what in Kray was the ultimate beauty – a clear complexion.

An hour after dawn, they walked south. A light mist of yellow drizzle fell from bright clouds, filling the air. Already, feats of strength, singing and dancing, pyuter graphics and archery were being exhibited in the streets. Food and drink was to hand in every road – free from the Food and the Water Stations. Arrahaquen gazed east towards the Citadel. Somewhere atop its summit the Portreeve would be sitting at breakfast, apart, with a sour face.

Mystical figures appeared as the dances became more boisterous. The Leaf Man, a woman jigging in a bulky costume, danced along the street, flowers and coloured ribbons decorating her face. Elsewhere stalked the Moll and the Fool, the latter, dressed all in white and attended by girls in white jumpsuits, attacking those already drunk with a bladder affixed to a hazelstick. Arrahaquen, not quite able to join in with the jollity, feigned insolence and was rewarded with a clout on the head. Zinina laughed at her, but Arrahaquen’s face remained glum.

They walked on. The drizzle stopped, though the sky remained overcast. Music swelled from windows and from street bands led by aamlon conductors with leaves in their cuffs. Noon passed by. The two women walked to the garland-strewn Market Square, where this year’s Kray Queen was to be crowned. It would be a momentous occasion for many since it was widely believed that today marked the city’s final Beltayn. Girls wreathed in flowers danced around poles, the slabs below their feet a ring of colour where their adornments had fallen away. Others sat on leafy posts that they had made, comparing size and quality with those of others. From behind a vacated post Arrahaquen watched the tall, blonde and rather mysterious priestess Tashyndy crowned. She had nominated herself Kray Queen on Vert Day.

Taziqi, the High Priestess of the Goddess, had departed the temple to see her spiritual student crowned. People avoided her. Dressed in a sheath of lime and emerald silk, emeralds on her fingers and toes, she wore a three-faced mask, to the left a maiden, central a woman, to the right an old woman. When she spoke in encouragement, silence fell…


Beltane is for love.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

The Origin Of Our Species by Chris Stringer

Chris Stringer is well known as a senior scientist at the Natural History Museum, his area of expertise human evolution. The Origin Of Our Species wittily riffs on Darwin’s classic work, providing an overview of the state of our knowledge about human evolution.

The book was published in 2011, and a few things have changed since then, mostly down to ancient DNA analysis. This however being a Chris Stringer book means it remains essential reading: wide-ranging, entertaining, packed with fact and theory. He is generous with the work of others, but not afraid to take on those, e.g. evangelists of the Multi-region Hypothesis, with whom he has struggled before. And as he points out, the Out Of Africa Theory which he helped develop is now widely supported and accepted.

The book covers palaeontology, the importance of scientific techniques, the limits of interpretation, then a brilliant few sections on deducing human behaviour and trying to determine how and when modern cognitive thinking developed.

Some reviewers have criticised this book for being too dry. I think that’s well off the mark. It’s not dry, it’s sophisticated, comprehensive and written from immense experience. A fascinating coda for instance explains how ideas that we’ve stopped evolving are nonsense.

Highly recommended.


Gene Wolfe RIP

I quoted Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun as the greatest SF novel ever written on a shelf strip when I ran the SF & Fantasy section at Waterstones in Exeter. After hundreds of sales over four or five years from that recommendation, only one person returned it, as I recall because he said it was mis-described. Not a bad record!
Of course, Wolfe really was one of the all-time masters of SF, and I felt perfectly justified in naming his magnum opus as the greatest genre novel.
And so, two weeks ago today, he passed away aged 87, a stack of plaudits at his side, and any number of adulatory obituaries.
Why was he so great? I remember reading TBOTNS for the first time – I was instantly smitten. The world was deeply imagined, complex, haunting and evocative. I devoured the books, then began recommending them to my SF-loving friends. Wolfe had a way of using mystery, enigma and beautifully written prose to convey a world profound in its operation and sensual in its feel. He really made you imagine you were there – the mark of a master craftsman. Add to that wit, humanity and wisdom and you had the whole package.
And he was left-handed, as am I. Sometimes I wonder if that 10% fluke of nature added to his imagination. Although I don’t subscribe to the old dominant hemisphere theory of neurology, I do think left-handers have something a bit different about them, which often comes out in creativity.
His other novels showed a wide range of interests and skills. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus was labyrinthine in its plotting and deeply enigmatic. Free Live Free was funny and light, There Are Doors moving, the Soldier books fascinating, and he was one of the greatest writers of short stories going – his collection The Island Of Dr Death & Other Stories & Other Stories being essential reading.
I didn’t like everything he did. I think for instance that most of the remainder of the Sun books were flat in comparison with TBOTNS, especially the second series.
So, what should I say in conclusion about this extraordinary man, who delighted, entertained and influenced me, and so many others? That the world was a better place for having him in it. He took from the world, he enjoyed it and learned from it, but he contributed too in equal measure.
His legacy will live on.


We All Have Needs

I had a rather thought-provoking message about The Autist via my author page on Facebook this week. Within it was a small comment; but that comment really made me think.

Two of the main six characters are sister and brother Ulu and Wombo Okere, who come from Abuja in Nigeria. Wombo is profoundly disabled, and, having been looked after by his mother for his early life, when it comes to his later life and the events of the novel he is in the hands of Ulu.

Ulu therefore finds herself in a difficult situation. She is a carer – perhaps too early in her life. And, like all carers, she has to push aside or even ignore her own human needs to ensure Wombo’s survival.

The messager remarked on Mary’s speech near the end of the novel:

“Ulu, it is possible to care too much. You have done so much, and you’ve forgotten yourself… If Wombo has more independence you do too. He is utterly dependent on you, but so are you on him. Don’t you see it? You’ve grown into a young woman who doesn’t know anything else, who has sacrificed her life for her brother. Ulu, I must be frank. You are an angry woman. That is because you are frustrated at how life has turned out for you. Share the burden. Let others join you. Then you will find happiness.”

This heartfelt declaration was thought unrealistic, even naïve, and this was the comment that really stood out for me in the message. But I don’t think Mary is unrealistic.

Some people don’t get their basic human needs met when they are children, especially for love and affection. In Britain, I suspect, a lot of children miss out. This means that by the time they’re adults they have acquired many years experience at concealing those needs – those feelings, those desires, those thoughts. They can’t admit to themselves and to others that they have needs. It’s a particularly awful form of mental anxiety, and it certainly affects Ulu, for whom I have the deepest sympathy.

Pretending you don’t have needs is a form of self-torture. It makes you behave in a way that gives the impression you don’t care about somebody, when really you do. It makes you pretend things don’t matter, when really they do. It makes you give excuses or invented reasons to yourself and to others, all of which serve to downplay or hide those basic needs. It makes you place the emphasis on others during personal conversations so that the emphasis is off yourself and your needs. It makes you pretend incidents are accidental, when really they weren’t. It stops you doing what you want to do, making you passive, so that all you can do is hope. Ultimately, it paralyzes you. And it makes you appear cool, not warm.

People like this have a strong urge to help, and they are often perceived well as a consequence – ironically because they care so much for others. But “Chronic Helper’s Syndrome” as I christened it years ago comes at a terrible cost. Those who haven’t had their own needs met can’t bear to see those needs exposed in others, and so they feel compelled to help them. Yet all the time they ignore, repress or deny their own needs. It’s a very painful existence.

Yet Ulu’s redemption, hinted at as the novel closes, comes via Mary’s simple observation. Ulu wants something, but she daren’t show that she wants it. All she has to do is accept that she has needs which have been repressed for so long… and then she could be free to act. All she has to do is be honest with herself; then she could be honest with others.

We sometimes forget when we’re adults that needs are central to our lives. Nobody can live lonely. Nobody can live isolated. Mary’s speech encourages Ulu to reach out so that what she wants turns from secret thoughts into reality. Mary, for all her manipulation of Ulu, is a human being who recognises that reaching out in genuine sincerity is best for all.

The Wisdom Of Wolves by Elli Radinger

The Wisdom Of Wolves is a book about wolves.

The subtitle however is: How wolves can teach us to be more human. In fact, although there is a little section at the end of each chapter on this theme, the book isn’t really about anything other than wolves and wolf society. Most of the human equivalences are either trite or so over-generalised as to be meaningless. This sounds like heavy criticism, but it isn’t really, because the human end-chapter sections are very short.

And the author really knows her subject – this is the joy of the book. It’s science, based in meticulous, loving study over a period of decades. Mostly the book covers the extraordinary and fascinating wolf societies of Yellowstone, and here the reader is left in no doubt that the author is a voice of authority. Several chapters stand out as fascinating, especially the one of wolf/raven interaction, and the one on how wolf packs manage old wolves and ageing.

The book has been criticised in some quarters for New Age babble, and there is a tiny bit of that sprinkled throughout it. There are also a few errors, for instance the bizarre reason given for wolf domestication during the Palaeolithic. But the vast majority of it speaks of the author’s immense experience of observing wolves and understanding them.

A rewarding read.


Shrewsbury library workshop

A couple of photos from last night’s workshop. It was good fun! Many thanks to librarian Joe Shooman for setting it up, and for the photos. Joe is in the process of setting up a writers’ group for Shrewsbury Library.


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The Stories So Far

The stories so far…