stories

DOES WHATEVER A WRITER CAN

It’s hatching time again. Creative projects have different phases. The stakes for this one are big. I’m comfortable with that, and the intent is to create a television series that could occupy a good chunk of my attention for several years.

One reality of that is I’m in no position to actually script it myself. Professionally, I don't have the credibility to head up a project that someone would invest a ton of money in. But I can at least conceive the story, and write my take on a pilot episode, to give a feel for how I want it to be in case anything does happen with it. Right now, the task is just do it, regardless of outcome.

What matters more than anything about all this is honouring the idea I’ve found. Sometimes, it seems the idea has found me. I don’t express that kind of thinking in some quarters, but that’s pretty much how it is on occasion. Stories are of various sorts. There are those I can bolt together by bringing together a mix of research and prior examples, the sort of work I’ve often done when commissioned to write by someone else.

My own ideas tend to be something else. Often their identity isn’t clear to me at the time I write them. It wasn't until I wrote a script about army bullying that I realised I was writing about experiences much closer to home. The short film White Lily wouldn’t have been possible without a particular relationship. But knowing that’s where they came from wouldn’t have helped me write either, and realising beforehand I was exploring my history with reference to bullying would have probably deterred me from going anywhere near that script. And, White Lily has ideas about identity and memory and language that owe nothing to any relationship though do figure in my fascinations. The bullying script was the start of a longer investigation into masculinity.

This is all bubbling away while I’m mulling over stuff to do with King Arthur, Brexit, and - since yesterday - the utter joy that is SPIDER-MAN: Into The Spider-Verse. Trust me, it’s an extraordinary animated film that casually brings together multiple versions of the same character from different realities, allowing them to occupy a shared space with their own distinct visual styles. The one the story is most concerned with is Miles Morales, whose dad is African-American and mum Latina, with a knotty family situation every bit as compelling as that which drove Peter Parker to don the Spidey suit after his selfish actions led to the death of a beloved uncle.

Each and every one of those Spider-characters has an equivalent drive to put the world right. Never mind the costumes, the powers - what matters is characters striving to do what’s just both despite and because of the history they bring to the outfits they wear as they swing around town. Deep in the soil those characters are planted in, emotion and morality connect in powerful ways. That grounding allows the film to be visually playful to the point of joyous absurdity, because it’s always in the service of a coherent narrative the viewer is committed to seeing the outcome of.

Actually though, it’s not even that.

We know very well that Spider-Man will win because of course that’s what going to happen.

What counts is whether that victory is earned.

Somewhere in all this - homelessness and Excalibur, Spider-Man and story structure, deep character foundations and whizzbang visuals, remorseless logic and the importance of surprise - a script is finding its way into the world -

A million people are thinking the same as they hover over the keyboard right now.

Maybe you’re one of them.

Here’s to getting it right.

DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis. 

 

 

OH DELILAH

You've probably heard of Schrodinger's cat. This imaginary creature was the subject of a thought experiment involving a cat being placed into a box which deadly gas would be released into at a random moment. The question was, without looking into the box, whether you can know at a given point whether it's alive or not.

Never mind the details and ramifications of that - the last thing I want to do is add to the body of badly explained quantum physics, a field where my knowledge would barely cover a postage stamp. My interest is in noting that in all the years I've been aware of Schrodinger's cat, not one person has complained about it being an experiment on animals - because this moggy exists only in the minds of those thinking about it.

Meanwhile, there are Welsh politicians planning to ban rugby fans from singing the Tom Jones classic Delilah. Their case is that the song glorifies violence against women. Never mind that Delilah is entirely fictional, and exists in any sense at all only when the song is sung. Real people whose job it is to contribute to the British political process are complaining about the fact that an imaginary woman dies in a song. She's not a flesh and blood person - Delilah is a literary device, allowing Tom Jones to employ his stirring voice in the service of an epic ballad.

Let's be clear - no women were harmed in the writing or performance of Delilah, just as I doubt Nick Cave killed anyone in the process of recording his album Murder Ballads, and question whether Bob Marley actually shot a sheriff. And to suggest imaginary corpses fuel real violence is to go down a road where little is certain, and any alleged evidence is met by equal and opposite counter-evidence.

Thing being, the whole issue is a demonstration of numptiness. Stories and songs are part of the fabric of our imaginations. And in our minds, few of us are rational and operate according to moral strictures. Look at the stories we tell children. Women living in forests cook children in ovens. Grandmothers are slain and wolves take their place (wolves are also serial destroyers of homes in another tale). The stepsisters in the original Grimm version of Cinderella hack off chunks of their own feet so that they may fit the glass slipper.

There is some very curious and dark stuff here about gender and sex and families and violence, for sure. But stopping people from experiencing songs and stories where these themes appear does not change their behaviour. Where attitudes to women are concerned, it's behaviours that make the difference. And one thing we know about behaviours, is that they're a consequence primarily of what we experience around us and mirror in our own actions. Stories shape the world less than they reflect it, and where stories are contentious it's likely to be because they concern matters that right thinking people would prefer their attention didn't go when the lights flicker out...

A LIKELY STORY

There's a tendency I notice in some of those partial to personal development. A habit, when someone says something sad, angry, or that the listener otherwise doesn't approve of, to dismiss such expression as being 'just the story you tell yourself'.

The implication here is that the story shared is a fiction. Not any old fiction, which personal development types love if Paulo Coelho's book sales are anything to go by. A fiction is fine, at least when it is an allegorical expression of a spiritual quest.

When the accusation is made that someone is telling their story, what's implied is that the tale should be edited, preferably deleted. Essentially, it's a way of requesting that someone shut up, so that their bleating about unhappiness or injustice not be heard by those whose ears are tuned into higher frequencies.

You can, if you wish, go on a weekend workshop and be told in front of the assembled attendees that your story is a lie, a convenient and self-serving fabrication. And you will be encouraged after seeing through your delusion to be naked in the expression of your will, all the better to get ahead in the world.

My experience is that people who buy into this aversion to stories can be a pretty cold bunch. And I think I understand why...

Stories are complex. They are rich and contradictory. They are how we explain ourselves to the world, and the world to ourselves. And yes, they are partial and inaccurate and everything else that goes with all that. You know what? That's alright.

We are storytelling creatures. Above anything else, that's what defines us.  And to wade in and tell someone their story is invalid because it doesn't fit our preferred way of perceiving the world is ugly. It's a symptom of a quick-fix approach, which is characteristic of much cod psychology. Buff yourself up, don't hang round with the smelly people. Gotta broadcast that you're a winner 24/7, and that means not paying attention to those who don't do the same.

This fixation with being perpetually on-message is tiresome. Never mind that some of the happiest and most successful people I've met, or heard talk, don't play the game. The notably high-functioning billionaire visionary Elon Musk credits his success to his assumption that he's going to fail - and does everything he can to avoid it. That's working pretty well for him.

Stories change. And so they should. They change as we develop. The light of experience is faster than the sound of our internal voices. Sometimes I realise that the story I'm telling about a particular facet of my experience no longer applies. Sometimes, I find that the story itself changes as I reach for it in conversation with someone new.

I trust the wisdom of that process of self-editing and rewriting more than I do the hectoring concern of those so anxious about the fragility of their own tales that they can't bear to be exposed to those presenting an alternate understanding. Get down to it, and none of the stories we tell are true. That's not the same as saying they're arbitrary.

Stories connect us, a skein that we are all woven into. The cold aloof note that some strike by hacking away at stories they are uncomfortable about makes sense because in judging what others say, you're judging the teller too. Disney's versions of fairy stories omit much of the darkness and complexity at their heart, and the result is two-dimensional characters with no depth and a fixation on a happy ending. I'm inclined to suggest that the same applies to some of those who've signed up for internment in the New Age as their ears are assaulted by tales from the wider population.