CONNECTIONS

The human experience is one that seems to be defined by so very many different ideals. Money, beliefs, family and community to name a few. But when you review these things and try to come to a conclusion of the worth of a single life, they all land squarely on the shoulders of others.

We can chose what we do with our lives, we can decide to turn left or to turn right, to have the extra scoop of ice cream or not but when all of those things are collected together, it falls to others to make the overall assessment of a life’s worth.

I was told a story from the bible years ago which the person talking used to highlight a question. The story was longer than this but this was the bit that got the questioning running.

‘Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.…’

Lived for two hundred and five years (!) and all that’s worth noting is that he died in Haran.

Now I understand that there’s more to the story than just that and Terah did do more than that but it does seem a little dismissive that there was nothing more of note to point out. From the time of moving to a location to the time of death is lost. It’s been said before that life is the line between the dates on a headstone but shouldn’t we all be looking to live a life that won’t fit into that tiny space?

I don’t want my life to be scorching through the history books for all of humanity to see but I also don’t want to just be lost to the mists of obscurity.

So how do we go about being remembered?

Now I think I need to point out that I’m not talking about fame or indeed infamy at this point. As a writer, I’d love for my books to stand the test of time and to be read long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil but I imagine the individuals reading my work rather than faceless swathes of people on sales sheets. Granted I’d love the money that JK Rowling has but I’m not fussed on being the internationally recognisable figure she is. I really enjoy that connection I have with those people who’ve read my stuff and have had a chat with me about it. Of course, I’d love to be successful as an author and I’d love to be able to continue to tell all the stories that possibly go running through my head but my overall legacy, as it were, is going to come down to how others see me.

All in all, I think we all have the same need to be thought well of and then remembered. Maybe all we really need to do is just make sure that the world is a better place for having had us in it. I think when we drill all the way down to the real core of the point, we just want to know that our little entry into the wildly varied writings of human history will be enough to mean that people will consider us worthy of at least a little comment.

HELP

When the world is ganging up on you, your hobbies can provide a wonderful distraction from the nightmares.

My writing has been where I go to close the door on my own demons but over the last few months I’ve struck a problem.

I may be locking my mind in a small room away from the nastiness of reality, but the walls of that room are proving to be very thin. The monsters can’t get to me but I can hear them chattering to themselves. I can hear a hideous breathing and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can hear them all so clearly that I can’t push my mind past listening to them.

Despite my best efforts to use all the tricks I have to stay on track, the things on the other side are all pressed up against the walls, just making more and more noise until I can’t keep my mind on the page I’m working on.

It’s an easy point to overlook in storytelling but there will always be the chance for the monster to triumph.

Sometimes, despite everything we do, all the countermeasures we deploy, the pain of the real world wins.

THE IN-CROWD

Are you a part of the in crowd?

Have you ever been?

It’s likely that at some point in all of our lives, regardless of environment or situation, we’ve found ourselves on the outside looking in. From school to college to work to family to hobbies, there will always be a time when you didn’t know the ‘cool’ joke, or understand the ‘cool’ saying. You may have found yourself overlooked. “We all thought someone else had invited you”, “We didn’t think it would be your thing”, or indeed you could be outright excluded.

Schools are terrifying places and can show a very clear picture of the very worst of human experiences. Cliques and groups are formed by shared interests but also by shared dislikes. And it’s from here the vines of bullying can take root.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been heading off to conventions all over the country with my banner and bag of books, doing my best to tell my tales, and I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people attending these events would have received some form of derision for the hobbies and passions they have.

Whenever I admit to my obsession with science fiction and fantasy, of my love for both Star Wars and Star Trek, (gasp!!!) or speak animatedly about dragons and magic, very often I can see the other person kind of glazing over. Then comes the ‘Aren’t you a bit old for that?’ or any other of a hundred responses which question the sanity of me liking what I do. There are not many like me in any of the places I’ve worked and there’s always the sniggering from some at the thought that a man of my age would like such nonsense.

I’m very much outside of The In-Crowd’.

So when I witnessed someone being heckled and berated at a sci-fi con because they not only understood, but also enjoyed, sport, it made me wonder.

Conventions for TV shows, films, books or any genre idea should always be a welcoming place for the diverse fandoms which are out there. When I sat at my table at Em-Con Nottingham over the weekend, there were countless examples of cosplayed characters which I recognised but there were also countless that I didn’t. That didn’t matter. Everyone there knew that this was the place to let their geek flag fly ( including someone with an actual flag from the show Community – E Pluribus Anus).

But having one hobby that you’re passionate about doesn’t preclude you having another.

I’m also a massive rugby fan. I used to play (including getting representative honours for my county so I was pretty good) and I always do my best to find a TV to watch Wales play – which included at a sci-fi convention where I ended up watching with another welsh man, Gareth David Lloyd, from Torchwood.

So I consider the way the populations of these two groups would behave if someone from each was switched around.

I suspect no-one would really care too much but there would be loads of odd looks at the one who was out of place. But it would only take one person to start making comments of a confrontational manner and that individual is quickly on the outside and being made to really feel it.

Now, the examples I’ve given here weren’t driven by malice in any way shape or form. The comment at the person at a convention was in jest and everyone concerned recognised the fact. I myself have never been picked on openly in that way and I happen to think that when push came to shove, the populations of my passion’s fandoms are decent people who just want to talk openly and happily about their loves but there still lurks that darkness of the human condition which wants to point at someone or something which is different from everyone else and to mock or attack it.

Are we all so obsessed with fitting in to our in crowd that we can resort to crushing anything which doesn’t agree with us? Our group mind says X so if you don’t agree then you must be evil or must be mad. If, for so long, you were one of the ones on the outside looking in and you found a place to belong, shouldn’t you then want to be more understanding of what it feels like to be on the other side? Shouldn’t we recognise that opinions counter to our own will never be welcomed into discourse if all we want to do is expel anyone who doesn’t agree?

The melting pot of humanity is a wonderful thing and I enjoy looking at things in a different way than expected. At so many points in life, it’s when we do that that we start to make real strides in a positive direction.

You can see in these pictures that everyone is just having a blast regardless of what they have a particular passion for. I’d certainly advise people to come and join in with all manner of new hobbies.

COOL?

I myself, am not cool.

I can happily admit that I’ve never been cool. Well, I can happily admit it now, as a middle aged old duffer anyway.

Cool is a concept far beyond the nature of a description of temperature. It’s a way of being. It represents to so many that which is the nebulous goal we should all be struggling for. Have a watch at the way Xander Harris in Buffy the Vampire Slayer debates the question.

To be cool is to be hot in some ways but not in others. But cool is also seen in cases of being very much not hot. But that doesn’t mean cold. And as cool doesn’t last, it also doesn’t mean you’ve become hot if you’re no longer cool. You don’t warm up or cool down.

Clear?

Cool as a relative state changes and grows every day but no-one can truly know what is cool until ‘it’ lands. If you could go back in time and suggest that the term ‘on fleek’ was going to be something which sweeps the world, entering our cultural lexicon as a marker of somethings relative coolness, I’m sure that whoever you spoke with would question your sanity. But nonetheless, here we are with that ridiculous phrase.

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand it that it makes no sense in terms of it’s cool? So if that’s the case, who needs to understand a thing to allow it to be considered for cool?

Cool is very often the focus of the younger of our population and there are armies of people working day and night to give them their fix for cool. But is it? Even as I write, I consider ‘proper’ grown-ups of my age or older and am forced to admit that the cool is there as well, just about different things. Parents seem to perpetually be comparing children. Their abilities, their achievements, anything. Not only will they be showing off that they are better than everyone else but there is that level of prestige which comes from going on the ‘right’ holidays, sending the kids to the ‘right’ schools, and the classic, driving the ‘right’ car. Don’t believe me? Watch the mighty Bruce Campbell and see what you think.

So does this mean that cool is nothing more than a manufactured construct which can be guided by the power brokers of the world by making sure that the right messages are being seen and repeated by the right people?

Yes and no.

Yes, the armies of people working on the next One Direction are following a plan of how to create this commodity and the members of the group themselves are a tool as well but on the reverse, aren’t they all labouring under the huge risk that their product isn’t deemed cool? No matter the amount of time and effort which goes into a project, ticking all the right boxes to make a big splash, there will always be the risk that it just fizzles out. That would leave huge numbers of people at risk, livelihoods crushed, business going under, families at risk.

I write the stories I write, not in an attempt to be cool, to be ‘on fleek’, but to be a writer of those stories. I wanted to read them so I wrote them. I’ve given up hunting down the elusive cool because it just doesn’t make sense.

Shouldn’t we do things because they make us happy rather than just because it’s cool?

WHAT TO EXPECT?

When we go anywhere, do anything, we already have ideas in mind of what we we’re going to experience. We gear ourselves up or calm ourselves down with the knowledge that we’ve already put together a picture of what we can expect. Pretty often, the image we create is bang on or at least, close enough to show that we were completely justified to have the picture in our mind to start with.

But there are more than just a tiny handful of times where the picture we had in our mind about what we’re going to feel or experience is miles away from the reality. We think a visit to a certain place will play out in a certain way and that’s turned on it’s head when we actually get to the location.

So can our expectations of things have a larger effect than we’re aware of?

An example of expectations playing an effect come from the delightful time I had when I had my first tattoo. It was a tiny design on my shoulder but I went in ‘knowing’ that it was going to hurt. I’d heard the stories where people said that their tattoo’s had hurt and I went in with the expectation that it was going to hurt. And guess what? It did. But not in the usual scratchy kind of way that a tattoo on that part of the body would usually feel. I went in ‘knowing’ that everything was going to be agony and by the time I sat down with the needle poised above me, I’d practically convinced myself the artist was going to be hacking at me with a rusty nail as he dug out lumps of flesh.

I expected an outcome and it came to pass that what I expected became the reality.

When I went to have another design put round the original, at the same parlour on the same location on my body, this time I knew what to expect and I practically fell asleep when the work was being done.

I’d been a victim of my own expectations the first time. The truth had nothing to do with what I had in my mind. I knew what I had to expect and it came to pass. When I went the second time, I knew the reality of what was coming so I didn’t wind myself up, hence the much smoother time.

So the power of expectations can have far reaching consequences.

When I speak to people about my books, I’ve sometimes been confronted by the response that they don’t like urban fantasy. ‘I prefer more hard sci-fi’ or ‘Urban fantasy isn’t for me’. Now I understand that some will have favourites which do include material like mine and others won’t, but I wonder how many people have just built their expectations to a point where they already ‘know’ what’s going to be in the book despite not opening the pages?

Expectations can create a picture in our minds which we then force reality to fit with but we just have to be careful that our version of what’s going on is truly accurate. We could be missing out on all kinds of things.

ARE YOU SITTING COMFORTABLY?

I understand the need for comfort when settling in for some time reading and can see clearly that the importance of comfort for anyone being read a story is equally as vital. I’m sure we can all imagine the sheer delight of a fidgety child while we’re trying to keep them still to listen to what is being said.

But should we always be comfortable when we read a story?

Horror stories are the first port of call and it’s easy to see that they need to be unsettling and scary but is that the only place that we get to unveil the really uncomfortable things?

I’ve come to this consideration thanks to the radio.

Recently, on a very mundane journey home from work, Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffri started playing. A good song from 1987 which, thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I can tell you, peaked at number four in the UK charts. Now that doesn’t really make anyone think anything. Those facts are nothing more than nuggets of information and you can nod your head as you register the facts, and then you’re on with the rest of your day.

But there is a great deal more to the song.

Labi Siffri penned the song after watching a TV documentary on Apartheid in South Africa where white soldiers were seen shooting at black civilians. The lyrics he wrote conveyed a message of steadfast resistance to the horrors of the inequality in South Africa but that resistance would come in a non-violent form of just being more than those looking to grind people down.

The song was an easily accessible route for the world to be exposed to what was happening in another country and for the world to take notice. The song, as with any and all others, formed a plank which a wider understanding was then built upon. People were then able to make their voices heard about a brutalising topic which seems to be very much at odds with the usually relaxed and cheerful lands of the popular music charts. By using a medium not usually associated with such things, a message was passed on.

Now this isn’t the only example of the music industry making comment on social issues. Band Aid being possibly the greatest example but there have been many more examples where a serious topic is used as a focus for a narrative. Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 was aimed at the Troubles from Northern Ireland, Bruce Springsteen never ducked away from a controversial topic but music wasn’t alone.

Sport had the international boycott of teams playing in South Africa and everyone is familiar with the raised, gloved fist salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics.

In each of these examples, an uncomfortable point is made directly within the belly of a situation where it isn’t expected. The viewer / listener will be caught off guard by the subject matter and suddenly they are forced to acknowledge a truth they may not be happy to. After their gloved protest in Mexico, the two US sprinters received death threats and the IOC were more concerned with the potential breach of it’s rules on political statements rather than the racism it was highlighting.

Those kind of statements should be kept away from sport / music / film etc. This isn’t the forum for your political views. After an event  of statement like the above the world is regularly then treated to all kind of talking heads pointing out that someone had gone too far or that sporting events or music shouldn’t be used in this way.

If it happens all of the time, the effect is watered down, everyone knows what’s coming. By making people uncomfortable, by shining a stark light on an issue without any kind of warning, you can shock the reality into the eyes of so very many more people. Yes you’re going to make people angry in some cases and there will be more than a little chance that fingers will get pointed at you as being irresponsible or callous but that is often the best way to cross the lines a great many people refuse to cross on their own.

In the best way imaginable, long live the discomfort.

DO CLOTHES MAKETH THE MAN?

This weekend just gone saw us head off to the Sci-Fi Weekender in North Wales. Jo won the tickets and after having last year off, we headed to the convention looking forward to all things sci-fi.

We didn’t go last year after the event shared the space with a prog. rock gathering and the amount of things going on that we were interested in became watered down a bit but this year was back to the full compliment so it was easy to make the choice to return. The addition this year though, I had a table in the trader zone.

All in all, this was the best convention I’ve been to in a while.

I didn’t get the chance to see as much as I would normally have done at this event, being at my table all day, but I did get the chance to speak with a huge number of people. All in all, I was able to chew the fat about all kinds of things and spread the word of my books with loads of people who had a shared enjoyment of the same kinds of things I enjoy. The mood of the event was wonderfully inclusive and the traders around me all said that they had a blast.

Now the crux of what I want to talk about this week is connected to the event but more about the trading side of things.

When I attend these events as a trader, I dress in a very specific way. If you happen to drop by my table at an event you’ll most likely find me wearing a tweed waistcoat and jacket, adorned by my pocket watch with my dragon headed cane at my side. I have a specific pair of jeans that I wear and I’ve recently purchased a new pair of boots to go with the rest of the ensemble.

When I ready myself for an event, I’m all about the visualisation of actually being in the thick of things and speaking with everyone about anything and everything, and I find that donning the ‘uniform’ of my author persona helps me overcome any nerves I may be feeling and surround myself with the mindset and attitude I need to be able to go out and do the business.

Clothes can play a vital part in how we perceive ourselves and others. We make decisions based on what people present to the world. How someone is dressed can affect the way they walk, the way they stand and therefore, the way that they are seen by everyone else. When I dress as ‘The Author’ I do find myself feeling very different. I become more able to channel all the energies in the correct way and, you know what?, dressing well in smart clothing makes me feel more confident. I stand a little taller (I’m already over six feet tall) and almost become someone else.

We all wear different clothes depending on the situation we’re going to be dealing with.

We go to work in specific clothes that fit the role we’re going to be paying that day. On a daily basis I live in jeans and a polo shirt, safety work boots and a hi-viz jacket. These things have an effect on me as well. I take on a different set of qualities when I go to work wearing the ‘uniform’ of my usual day to day. I feel the difference on my face although whether that difference is clear for all to see is still yet to be seen.

If we play a sport. If we don’t. If we work in office. If we don’t. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, we all know that dressing in a certain way comes as standard for all of the various things we do and that we can feel the power that comes with the addition of certain clothing as an almost tangible force running along our skin.

Could this be why cosplaying is such a popular activity?

We have the chance to become someone else – totally. By dressing as a character from a show, film or game, we suddenly find ourselves able to take on characteristics of said character and a once timid person can become the super confident Wolverine, any fear of wearing just a vest over a potentially less than Wolverine physique banished, because they’ve got the claws to do some damage.

Fans of sports teams don the shirts of their beloved sides and the closeness of that group bond is there for all to see. Businesses of all kinds have their staff wearing a set uniform to show that they all belong to the same group, all working for the shared goal. These things have an effect on everyone on both sides of the equation, changing how people behave in the clothes but also how people behave towards the clothes. I try to make sure that I include the garb of the characters as a vital part of who they are. Different people wear different things and these uniforms can be a touchstone for a reader when deciding what they should be feeling about people in any given situation.

Just another example of how the way we think is potentially twisted or nudged depending on certain details. It’s all extra flavouring for any story we tell so we have to be sure to always get those details right.

Yet another thing to keep in mind.