Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

It’s All In The Mind by Julie Warren

It’s All In The Mind: the Life & Legacy of Larry Stephens by Julie Warren

As a fan of the highly esteemed Goon Show, I was delighted to see that a biography of Larry Stephens – a name I only knew from the Goons, and whom I’d assumed to be a minor player in the Grafton Arm scene – had been written and published. I bought it with some anticipation. But it turns out that Larry Stephens was far from being a bit part in the Goon Show story.

This biography – published by Unbound after a crowdfunding scheme – and written by Julie Warren, a family relative, is in two parts, the first of which covers Stephens’ childhood and WW2 experiences, the second of which covers his life as a comedy scriptwriter.

The first part is quite interesting: vivid, well researched and well written. But for me the book really comes into its own after the war, when Stephens, a talented pianist, discovers his aptitude for writing comedy. And he was in with the Goon crowd right from the beginning, along with Tony Hancock, Graham Stark and many other notables. In fact, the main message of this book is that Stephens’ contribution to post-war comedy has been greatly undervalued, mostly through lack of representation. Julie Warren’s final line is a paean to that: ‘He deserves to be remembered.’

In my novel Hairy London I exploited my own silly sense of humour, so similar to that of Spike and the Pythons, and until now I’d assumed that Spike was the main “crazy” of that crazy gang. But he was not. Yes, there was a difference in writing style – Spike chaotic but inspired, Stephens’ inspired and ordered – but Stephens’ imagination was almost as feverish as the man who gave us Eccles & co.

This biography is highly recommended to any Goon Show fan, but also to anybody interested in the history of British post-war comedy. Congratulations to the author for her excellent work!

Escape To The Shire

Many people, myself included, find themselves increasingly repulsed by the modern world. This could in my case be a consequence of age – I’m in my fifties – but I think it’s true of many younger people also. When I see unchecked pollution, the razing of nature to make space for livestock to feed thoughtless consumers, the destruction of pristine environment for no humane reason, and the overall attitude that this planet belongs to human beings and is theirs to do what they like with regardless of the implications – a message reinforced in the West by its main religion – I feel revolted. I visualise too many fellow human beings as thoughtless devourers, uncaring, lacking even the most basic understanding of the consequences of their actions. Having said that, corporations are the main problem – with modern corporations humanity has written itself a story so dangerous it could ruin the planet. Corporations mesmerise too many.

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my summer rituals is to listen to the 1981 BBC adaption of The Lord Of The Rings, and often to read The Hobbit and The Fellowship Of The Ring, or to listen to Rob Inglis’ excellent narration of the novel (something I’m doing at the moment). Last night I found myself wondering why I do this, and whether the qualities of the two aforementioned books have a specific meaning for me.

I think they do. Tolkien was a lover of all things natural. He loved his West Midlands countryside, and, as is well known, the Shire is a fictional version of those fields, meadows and hills which he personally knew. Most Tolkien fans will say that nature – the land, the country, the weather, the geography of Middle Earth – is its foundation. Tolkien’s love of nature shines through his tales. Middle Earth, from dell and stream to mountain and ocean, is the heart of his creation as a whole. The Ents, to take just one example, symbolically stand for his love of trees.

So I think many people find themselves soothed by the lack of industry and vast open spaces of Middle Earth. Those people, like myself, appalled and disgusted by what humanity is doing to the planet, perhaps find themselves soothed by the bucolic, pre-Industrial qualities of The Fellowship Of The Ring. It’s the early chapters of that book – everything up to the arrival at Rivendell – which I find myself returning to time after time, especially the third chapter ‘Three Is Company.’ I don’t do this to reacquaint myself with the story, I do it to re-experience the soothing qualities of meadows walked at night under a sky of stars: unpolluted meadows, crossed beneath a sky unspoiled by sodium light pollution…

Many psychologists observe that human beings have a deep, intrinsic need for nature. It’s hardwired into us. Some cultures know this – I’m thinking of the Japanese art of forest-bathing. I think Tolkien knew this too, which gives deeper significance to the part at the end of the novel where Sandyman’s proto-Industrial Revolution is underway. I think this section, integral to the whole work from the beginning of its writing as Tolkien himself said, expresses Tolkien’s disgust at the pollution of the land and the ruination of nature. His sensitivity was shaken by such destruction, if not shocked by it. Though the section serves to deal with Saruman and Wormtongue, that is only the narrative aspect. The deeper aspect is the Mill and its black effluent.

I will continue to use Tolkien’s work to soothe myself at those times in which I need soothing – to escape to the Shire. His love of nature chimes with my own; and through it, I see the deeper qualities of his extraordinary creative achievement.


Nothing Is True Any More

Today social media delighted in a row of books behind Boris Johnson as, at Castle Rock School, he mouthed Tory propaganda and absolved himself of responsibility. I very rarely share political stuff on Facebook, but this story (perhaps because it featured lots of dystopian novels) tickled my fancy, so I shared it. A couple of hours later it turned out that the school librarian had made the display months before Johnson’s visit, as he departed his place of employment. The social media story was untrue. The message of the book titles had been left by the librarian for school managers.

My reaction was to share the Huffington Post correction and delete the original story, but the response of various of my friends was enlightening – and frightening. Many of them thought the original post appropriate, ironic, amusing etc. All a good joke at Johnson’s expense – opposing Tories more important than actuality.

Also shared yesterday was The Independent’s video of the great Sacha Baron Cohen speaking passionately about the dangers of social media. I’ve written and spoken a few times about these dangers, but I’m becoming aware now that more people are just giving up on resisting (the main theme of my novel The Autist, which features a Thai anti-internet group called Fri – i.e. Free). So here are some thoughts on what’s happening and what those dangers are.

It’s a combination of two things – the intrinsic narcissism of most of us, which leads both to irrational belief and deliberate propaganda, and the peculiarities of the digital life, which allow immediate response, bypassing reasoned, “slow” (as Daniel Kahneman put it) thought. This then is the danger: by creating an environment which human beings interact with as if it’s real, yet which is abstract and able to fool people using a number of simple psychological methods, we’re tearing ourselves from our roots in the real world. If millions of people come to the conclusion that – especially if the internet is their main source of active participation in life – they might as well give up bothering to find out what’s true and what’s propaganda, then humanity is doomed as a sane species. We literally are tearing ourselves from our own minds, either by creating alternate realities which the majority of people accept as real and true, or by inculcating a sense of disbelief so profound the concepts of reality and fantasy merge into one thing – a mess of cynical disbeliefs too complex to untangle.

As Daniel Kahneman observed, people are usually too lazy to take the time to reason. As Erich Fromm observed, narcissism operates through self-delusion. And as Yuval Noah Harari observed, most people don’t know themselves. Yes: so far, the human race hasn’t covered itself in glory regarding its understanding of the real world – oh, except, of course, over the last five hundred years… “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.” – Carl Sagan, scientist.

For me, narcissism is the fundamental metaphor of the human mind. Overcoming it through life is our main task. The internet, and social media in particular, is an environment which facilitates and amplifies that narcissism still remaining in the human species. In ethical terms, it is a retrogressive entity. Personally, I think it’s a very dangerous entity. But I seem to be in the minority in thinking so – and in acting as I think. I deleted the untrue post and posted the true one. How many others did likewise? And how many of my friends laughed off the original post?

Well, maybe I’m too serious. But, then again, we are creatures of narrative. The human narrative for 100,000 years has been one lie after another, promulgated by religion and spirituality. But those lies were passive; and they were essential at the time, serving to explain the otherwise inexplicable. The new lies are far more dangerous because they’re active. Suddenly everybody can participate in what they believe. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred they believe whatever takes their fancy.

To paraphrase something else Yuval Noah Harari said: what’s so dangerous about our times is that, having discarded the stories of Socialism and Fascism, and now even Liberalism, the human race has no story. I think the human race needs new stories based on reality and humane ethics before it’s too late. But perhaps it’s already too late.


In Wales

Had a successful day yesterday recording more incidental shots for the Condition: Human films, this time in Wales (my favourite country).

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Avebury & West Kennet

I spent a terrific day filming at Avebury Stone Circle and West Kennet Long Barrow on Thursday. These were “incidental” shots – I wasn’t speaking to camera on this occasion, though if I had wanted to it would have been too windy. Some lovely images and shots.

The project continues!

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The Sensation Of Losing My Words

I’ve now done a couple of filming sessions for Condition: Human and the experience has been… interesting! Yesterday I spent an afternoon with my partner Nicky (director and camcorder operator) at a dell just outside Betws y Coed, and the first problem we encountered was the noise. The river was in full flow – tons of water coming off those Welsh mountains – and its roaring deafened us close-up. However, by filming a little away from the river and using the directional microphone we were able to get an acceptable balance between the background roar and my voice.

But the main problem (which I encountered when making my first recordings in Mortimer Forest) was the script. I’d written full scripts for the six short films earlier in the year, thinking that was the best option, but actually I’m not the sort of speaker who can remember his lines then deliver them. As I discovered when I did my presentation on consciousness at the day job last year, my natural mode is having a basic outline of the topics then speaking in extemporised fashion. Yesterday, as we nervously eyed the sky for rainclouds, I found myself often unable to remember even a few sentences. It’s a very strange sensation, going mind-blank. Even simple sentences were tricky! In some circumstances, after a few takes, I couldn’t deliver them at all.

So my plan is to amend the scripts so I have basic ideas – words, phrases – around which I’ll improvise. The other option I have is more voice-overs. Recently I analysed a documentary by Alastair Sooke (a presenter Nicky and I both like) to find that the ratio of to-camera delivery to voice-overs is about 55/45. My scripts were written thinking the proportion of to-camera work should be much higher.

Still, we had fun yesterday: enormous fun! This is a work I now know I can do, although whether I’m any good is another question entirely.


FCC Fictions: Second Story

The second story has just been published in the Future Care Capital’s series of twelve storiesFictions: Health & Care Re-imagined. It’s by the award-winning SF author Anne Charnock. As before, comments and debate are encouraged; this is the goal of the FCC.


30 at 20

A rare music-related post today – celebrating thirty @ twenty…

thirty at twenty

Tales From The Spired Inn special offer

Covid-19 has hit many people, including at Newcon Press. They’ve set up a special summer offer – check it out! Great books by great authors. If you didn’t get a signed HB copy of Tales From The Spired Inn, now is your chance…

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Goodbye response blog

Here’s a thought-provoking blog response to my Fictions: Health & Care Re-imagined story Goodbye, from the FCCs Dr Peter Bloomfield. Join the debate!

fcc steve