30 January 2015

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was seventeen, and was aware even then that a thorough understanding of Catch-22 was not the best preparation for an unclouded adulthood.

To me, the most notable manifestation of Catch-22 is any organization set up to ameliorate or eliminate a perceived problem. I should make it clear that this principally concerns the public sector, which nowadays includes certain charities, many of which receive much or most of their funding from the taxpayer.

At first all seems well. Progress is made and everybody is keen to see the organization succeed. But some of those employed in it soon begin to perceive that amelioration or elimination of the problem is not in their best interests because this will cost them their jobs. The more idealistic members of staff – typically those who, at the outset, were the most enthusiastic – either resign in frustration or are sidelined and dismissed. The people left behind are the ones interviewing replacement candidates and will obviously engage others like themselves. An ethos develops in which jobs in the organization, and the organization itself, become more important to its members than its original aims.

The organization next undergoes another change: it henceforth exists in order to perpetuate and if possible exacerbate the problem. Exacerbation of the problem allows the organization to grow in size and (as far as the perception of society at large is concerned) value. Those at the top, those directing the organization, can thus command higher salaries and juicier perks, and join the ranks of the great and the good.

The evidence is all around us. It is not in the interests of the police to eliminate crime, of the National Health Service to keep the populace healthy, of your local council to be efficient, nor of the bodies dealing with race relations and gender politics to promote harmony. Most damaging of all, it is not in the interests of those in government that welfare dependency and the national debt should do anything but grow.

It is possible that our armies of politicians, quangocrats and civil servants think they are doing the right thing. It is equally possible that they don’t. The more senior they are, the more suspect their motives.

In ancient China, apparently, doctors were paid only if their patients remained healthy. A solution along those lines might be conceived: but, really, no one can do anything about this problem, because that would mean setting up an organization to deal with it, and that, my friends, is the biggest catch of them all.

26 January 2015

Not quite there yet

Alerted by Nate Hoffelder’s blog to the ingenious Text Clock by Ross Goodwin, I next had a peek at Mr Goodwin’s blog and noticed that he has devised and made public a fiction generator.

Of course I tried it out, feeding in some character-names and adjusting the “depravity” slider leftwards (I’m a prude like that). Then I hit “Generate”. The machine did its thing, drank some coffee, smoked a cigarette, did its thing some more, guzzled a bit of whiskey (or so it claimed), and came up with a shiny new novel, all 209,687 words of it.

Here is the opening paragraph:
Chapter 1
Other Scrapovitch?”
, a comprehensible ship, no more than a manageable handful could be sur- veyed in two glances; Iona looked, and was where Iona was and what to do. But in this liner Seara for an able master. In that ship Anaia could see at once way to take unless Kamil had a good memory. No understood could not see where Iona was, and would never know which designed with a cunning informed by ages of sea-lore to move came to Jett in that hall of a measured and shapely body, non-irritant skin permitted to stand there to afford man an New York’s skyscrapers, which this planet’s occasionally daring. But with the knowledge that this wall must be apparent reason to be gratified with Iona’s own capacity and that little opened in Anaia’s altitude, Iona found Iona in afloat there came no sense of security when, went through, for Iona was puzzled as to direction. Iona’s last ship a spacious decorated interior which hinted nothing of a ship.
(I did not input any of these character-names, though the ones I did suggest occur later.)

While this may not make the New York Times bestsellers lists, one can see clear evidence of phrasing and sentence-structure. There is only one spelling mistake and (with a few trivial exceptions) there is no problem with the punctuation. It is an impressive feat, several steps on from the poetry generators (like this one) that take advantage of the free form and, frankly, pretentiousness of much modern poetry. Prose is less elastic than poetry and demands less effort on the reader’s part.

As a means of understanding language and our response to it, trying to write a fiction generator is an interesting and useful project. It also reminds us how advanced and amazing – in the true sense of that word – are the abilities of the human brain, for Nature and education have gifted us not only countless thousands of quirky and unique fiction-generators but millions upon millions of equally complicated fiction-interpreters.

14 January 2015

Leave it out

Part of the story-teller’s craft is knowing what not to describe. Omitting an inessential scene has two benefits: the flow of the narrative is improved and the reader is drawn in deeper. Besides inviting him to create images from the words before him, you make him fill in the gap. This is done by providing him beforehand with the building-blocks to construct – in any way he sees fit – the missing material for himself. His vision can be modified later with references to what happened during, or arose from, the absent scene. Correctly handled, this technique may cause the reader to believe, once he has finished the story, that he has actually read what isn’t there.

(Omitting whole scenes is analogous to the excision of unnecessary words, particularly descriptors. Parsimony with descriptors leads the author to search for the right noun or verb, improving the flow still further.)

A writer can get into trouble if he doesn’t understand that some of what he has imagined should not be exposed. Sooner or later his ploughshare will hit a rock.

I got stuck like this with The Tide Mill, which is set in the 13th century. The story opens with the arrival of the economic-refugee protagonist, aged nine. I was satisfied with the first chapter and in the next continued with an account of the nine-year-old’s new life, but after a thousand words of that I came to a halt and didn’t know why. I assumed the problem was in the first chapter and rewrote it several times, even changing from third-person to first-person narrative. In the end I gave up.

Months later I was listening to a radio adaptation of a novel and noticed that the author had, without ado, jumped his narrative forward by a number of years. I finally realized that the next significant event in my hero’s life required him to be older and more independent, so I junked what I had written of Chapter 2 and started it again, three years along from the end of Chapter 1. That second chapter is one of the easiest I have ever written.

Eliding those three years indicates that they are of little interest and brings the spotlight to bear on the central event of Chapter 2, which determines everything that follows. Moreover, the reader’s perception of the missing years is enriched as the story unfolds and he learns more about the setting and the local way of life.

I believe that writer’s block is usually caused by an instinctive or subconscious awareness of a technical fault. Sometimes the fault is huge – the whole idea of the story is unbelievable – while at other times it can be trivial. In this case I got blocked because the first version of Chapter 2 lacked momentum. Like a shark, a story must keep moving forward. If there is excess baggage the narrative will be slowed down and made less readable. If the baggage proves too cumbersome, the story may even be impossible to write.

This phenomenon helps illustrate the mysterious and wonderful collaboration between reader and writer. The reader finds unnecessary prose tiresome; if there is too much of it for his taste he will lay the book aside – as will the author himself, temporarily or not.

4 January 2015

Tales of Chinatown

Tales of Rubovia was a TV puppet show for children airing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was seriously and addictively bizarre, owing much to steampunk. The creator was Gordon Murray.

“When asked if the costumes might suggest that Rubovia is set in the Queen Anne era, Gordon Murray made it quite clear. ‘That would be a big mistake,’ he said. ‘The time is the present. It’s just that Rubovians are out of touch. Everything in their blissful country stopped at gas and steam. They love clockwork, and spring-driven gramophones, and things worked with bellows and bits of string. They’ve no telephones either. You see, they’ve never heard of electricity. That’s why they're so happy.’” (Radio Times, 19 January, 1963): quote found here.

The hero was the ingenious Mr Albert Weatherspoon, who bore an unsettling likeness to a younger Winston Churchill. His inventions and interventions often saved the day, likewise his companion, a misshapen cat named Rubia, whom he used to address as “Puss”.

You can see that the production was not very sophisticated, but then neither were we. We liked the simple plot-lines, the gentleness, and, without then being aware of it, the confection of English values and sensibility. Fairness and right always triumphed.

Certain sayings from the show became playground mantras: “Ye-es, my love” was one, taken from moments when the henpecked king assented to yet another intractable demand from his haughty queen. These demands always seemed to devolve upon Mr Weatherspoon, drawing from him the ejaculation “Ooh, Puss!” once he and Rubia were alone again.

This last has remained with me all my life. Now and then I find myself thinking or even uttering it when faced with an imponderable. Usually, these days, the imponderable is nothing like those that once beset Mr Weatherspoon.

Anyone with an internet connection can explore alternatives to the mainstream media. Here conspiracy theories are aired, potentially libellous material is posted, and ordinary people try to make sense of globalism and its integral themes of social division. We read of powerful individuals corrupting the institutions of state. We are told about horrible crimes committed by the highly placed, about victims and whistleblowers silenced – some permanently. How much of it is true? I have no idea.

Another filmed production has lately come to my mind: the 1974 movie Chinatown. Its world is the very obverse of Rubovia. I think especially about the final line of the script. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Now that I am much nearer the end of my life than the beginning, that seems to me a better response to the imponderable.

1 January 2015


The British conundrum: what do you do about an intruder in your house? No one is on your side, least of all the state. And when things goes wrong, and you have a nosy neighbour who sits on the Police Authority, your nightmare is only just beginning …

Annie and Laurence Trent are a young, professional couple working in financial services and living in a London suburb. Laurence is beset with worry: about money, about his job, about the economy and the future. He and Annie long to start a family but can’t afford to.

It is 18 December, 2009. Just before midnight, she urgently turns and wakes him. There are sounds of intrusion downstairs.

Laurence arms himself with the hammer they keep by the bed and ventures out to the landing.

He waits and listens at the rail; and with a surge of relief decides the thief or thieves have taken what they wanted and gone.

Then he realizes someone is still below: still below, and heading for the stairs.

Dismemberment: first chapter

“Laurence. Laurence.”
     He was not yet fully asleep.
     “What is it?”
     With the same urgency, she whispered, “There’s someone downstairs.”
     “I heard a noise.”
     His wife had become obsessed by her fear of burglars. That was why he had installed the alarm. If an intruder so much as tried to open a door or window or fiddle with the wiring, the bell would start and the light flash and an automatic message would go to the police. Since the bell wasn’t ringing, no one could be downstairs.
     The alarm was so sensitive that it sometimes went off for no reason. Annie distrusted it. For all the reassurance it had given her, Laurence might as well have followed his inclination and had a dummy box fixed to the wall.
     Because she could put no faith in the alarm, Annie still, every so often, thought she heard burglars. To placate her, he always went to look. But tonight he was very tired. Even so, he would have to make the effort. This evening, for the first time in weeks, they had quarrelled. He had sulked for two hours before accepting the need to apologize.
     He raised himself on his left elbow and turned to peer at the display on the clock-radio. “It’s not even midnight,” he said. “I don’t think —”
     Then he heard something himself.
     Annie’s grip on his forearm tightened.
     Rising from the living room, deadened by intervening plaster and timber and carpet, an alien noise had just reached his ears.
     It was followed by another, of slightly different character.
     In trying to ascribe the noises to something other than their obvious cause, his mind could produce only a sparse list of alternatives: the central heating, an electrical fault, even a foraging mouse knocking an object from a shelf. Examining and being forced to discard each of these in turn, Laurence became aware that his heart was already pounding with the certainty of what was happening downstairs.
     His first impulse was to lock the bedroom door, but the key no longer turned. Indeed, the key itself had disappeared. It was probably somewhere in the chipped vase of odds and ends he kept on a shelf in the built-in wardrobe. It might be possible to barricade the door, to drag the bed in front of it and heap stuff on top. But then whoever was downstairs would hear. In hearing, he would become bolder, and inclined, perhaps, in parting and in spite, to set fire to the house; or else he would want to get in and punish them. Earlier in the year, just a few streets away, a masked intruder had found a young woman living alone with her small daughter. They had been subjected to an ordeal so protracted and depraved that even the national press had reported it.
     If it would be dangerous to barricade the door, it would be even more dangerous to do nothing and lie here in the hope that the thief would just take what he wanted and leave. And suppose there were more than one. Suppose there were two, or even three. What might they do to Annie, to him?
     Laurence thought of the bedside telephone. Using it would cause the LED to turn green on the base unit in the living room. The man would see, pick up, listen. Laurence’s only advantage would be thrown away. As for his mobile, that was in the study. He said, “Where’s your phone?”
     “Downstairs. Why not use this one?”
     “He’d see the light.”
     And even if they were able to call the police, how long would it be before they showed up? Judging by recent trends, they might prove just as reliable as the alarm system.
     “What are we going to do?”
     He didn’t know.
     Another noise came up from the living room. There could be no doubt. They were being burgled. Burgled while in occupation, while lying in bed; burgled by a criminal who was so brazen that he didn’t care whether they heard him. He knew they dared not intervene. They, like the rest of the society on which he preyed, were too cowardly to resist. So cowardly, in fact, that if he felt like it he would come up to their bedroom and to his evening’s profit add sexual gratification and the realization of his most perverted fantasies.
     Then Laurence remembered the hammer. How could he have forgotten it? The hammer. A sixteen ounce claw-hammer in hardened and tempered chrome vanadium steel, fitted with a dark-blue rubber grip perforated for sweat drainage and better adhesion. He had used it only a few times recently, mainly for hanging pictures when they had first moved in. At Annie’s insistence he had taken it from his toolbox and left it, helve pointing upwards, next to the skirting board under his bedside table. He had thought her paranoia absurd; now he felt a flood of love and gratitude for her foresight and good sense.
     “Let’s call the police.”
     “No,” he said. “The phone light, downstairs. We can’t risk it.”
     Laurence must have already made a start, without knowing it, on climbing out of bed, for she now clutched his arm even more tightly and whispered, “Laurence, don’t.”
     “I’m taking the hammer. It’s probably just a kid. Maybe a junkie after Christmas presents. I’ll scare him off.”
     She urged him again to call the police.
     “Wait five minutes. Or until I shout. I’ll shout ‘police’. All right?”
     “Don’t go. Please.”
     “I’ll have the hammer. If he tries anything he’ll come off second best.”
     “Suppose he’s got a gun.”
     “Believe me, he hasn’t. This is London, not Los Angeles.”
     Laurence’s feet touched the carpet. Having put on his glasses, he groped for the hammer. His right hand moulded itself to the shape of the grip and the underlying steel of the shaft. As he slowly raised his arm, exaggeratedly avoiding the bedside table for fear of touching it and making a noise, the weight seemed satisfyingly, comfortingly right: neither so little that the weapon would be ineffective, nor so great that it would slow his swing or impair his aim.
     “Please, Laurence.”
     “Don’t try to use the phone till I say. Promise?”
     “I promise.”
     As he rose from the edge of the mattress he felt her hand momentarily touching his naked back. “Be careful.”
     He could not help but compare the present Annie with the Annies of all those false alarms.
     The sodium lamp across the street was near enough, and the curtains were flimsy enough, to provide dim illumination of the room at night. Laurence pushed his toes into his slippers. He took his dressing gown from its hook behind the door and put it on. Parking the hammer in his armpit, he tied the cord at the waist. He took a final glance back towards the bed and Annie’s anxious form and realized he was being brave. He was showing courage. Physical courage, something he had never thought he possessed.
     His glance back, like his grasp on the unresisting lever of the door handle, like the cool December air entering and leaving his mouth and nostrils, like the impersonal drone of the traffic on the distant North Circular Road: his glance back seemed both ominous and inevitable, as if whatever was about to happen had been written in the stars. For all that, his heart was now thumping so hard that he was afraid his hearing would be impaired just when he needed it most.
     With agonizing stealth he opened the door and, pulling it almost shut behind him, flitted across the short expanse of carpeted landing to the banister rail. He placed his hand on the knob and leaned over, waiting for more sounds from the living room.
     From here, part of the hallway could be seen. Panels of orange sodium-light were being admitted by the glazing in the front door, augmented by a more subtle, pervasive glow, drawn from above, the aura that each night bathed the whole metropolis and its mile after mile of suburbs.
     The authorities paid for the electricity. Laurence had no say in the design or placing of the lamp-posts, including the one opposite, outside Number 21, which polluted the air throughout all hours of darkness and deprived him and Annie of any chance whatever to gaze up, from their modest and grotesquely overpriced property, and admire the heavens. Somehow, tonight, that official, unflinching filament was rendering the staircase less familiar. It was as if they no longer owned it, as if they had never owned it, as if it were biding its time till their tenure ended.
     The descending banister was casting a complex geometry of shadows across the staircarpet and part way up the wall. He might be acting bravely, but still he was close to panic. His eye ranged down the treads and risers. He craned his head.
     A moment later he understood that the continuing silence from below meant the man or men must already have left. In a few minutes, when Laurence felt it safe to venture downstairs, he would find the French window wide open. The screen and the player, the hi-fi, his laptop, whatever else had been stolen, would have gone out that way, across the patio and along the side of the house to the street; or it might all have been passed over the fence to an accomplice. Laurence would call the police. They would make a few enquiries, dust without enthusiasm for fingerprints, and finally issue a crime number so he could claim on the insurance. Later, he and Annie would spend what remained of the night in a hotel. Anywhere but here.
     “Thank God,” he thought. “Thank God for that.”
     His heartbeat had begun to slow. It was all right. Even if they had to move house, it was all right. The insurance would replace whatever they had lost. Or they could live without it, sentimental value or no. There was never anything on TV and the movies were pernicious rubbish. As for the laptop, that belonged to his employer. His own machine, a desktop, was here, upstairs. Nothing they owned had any intrinsic value, not even his hi-fi. No property was ever worth defending. Nothing mattered, as long as Annie and he were left unharmed.
     He thought of her then, sitting up in bed. He decided to go back and reassure her. His hand let go of the banister-knob. He had even begun to turn away, towards their bedroom, when below, directly below, coming from the doorway of the kitchen, he glimpsed the advancing beam of a flashlight.

* * *

Something about the torch-beam, the relaxed, indifferent way it was exploring the hall, expressed the contempt its wielder felt for this house and its occupants. The people living here observed the rules. Worked hard. Paid their taxes and their mortgage. Saved up for the things they wanted or bought them on credit. When the government changed the rules and made the game harder, as it did all the time, these idiots would conform. They would compromise themselves yet further to fend off trouble. They had no idea that the only freedom these days lay outside the law.
     Just a few motions of the torch-beam managed to convey all this to Laurence’s mind. Or perhaps the hand wielding the torch had conveyed nothing but its own approach, and the rest had been supplied by his imagination – for he was now functioning in a new and extraordinary way. He had until this moment never suspected the nature of his own true centre: receptive, limpid, working to a slower and more ancient measure. His eyesight had become fully adapted to the orange glow. He watched the torch and dark-gloved hand being followed into view by the intruder’s dark-sleeved forearm, his dark shoulders and dark-hatted head. In placing his free hand on the downstairs knob, he became Laurence’s exact counterpart.
     He was coming up.
     Laurence shrank back from the rail and into the doorway of the small bedroom he and Annie used as a study. It opened on the landing at the top of the staircase. The study lay in near-darkness: the curtains had been drawn.
     Though he could barely breathe, he could already smell stale sweat and damp rainwear. The odour grew stronger. At the familiar sound of the creak on the loose tread, he shrank back even further. The beam of light strayed across the door-jamb and passed on.
     The newcomer was bulky and tall. He reached the top of the stairs. His torch began to probe the vacancy of the study: and Laurence lost all grip on reason.
     He moved fluently forward and to the left so that his arm was given its freest, most powerful swing. For an instant of dazzle the torch-beam was in his eyes, but he knew just where to strike and the man had no time to react.
     The ferocious momentum of the swing, concentrated in the small, circular, hardened face of the hammerhead, drove the steel cylinder into the black woollen hat just above the forehead. Scraps of yarn were carried through and added to a few fine strands of hair, and on through the thin, greasy skin of the scalp. As yet only sparsely bloodied, the mixture of fibres pioneered a way through the splintering bone of the cranium, through the membranes surrounding the brain, and were then plunged into the folds of the frontal lobe. The momentum was only checked when the helve struck a lower part of the skull. The forward part of the hammerhead, sunken, jammed, dragged the rubber grip from Laurence’s hand as the man uttered a baffled grunt and fell backwards and sideways to the floor. His torch bounced once and lay still, its beam happening to illuminate the features, dragged and distorted by the carpet, of his face.
     His hand twitched once. He made a repulsive noise and lay still. Drool began to issue from the corner of his mouth.
     Laurence’s vision was being haunted by two dwindling, motile squiggles, the afterimages of the torch-bulb filament. Through them he stared at what he had done. He did not know for how long. His trance was interrupted by the realization that no one else was coming up. The man had been working alone.
     The door swung back and he said, at normal volume now, “Put the light on.”