Lying Time

23 Nov

Up until a little over five years ago I had a reasonably sensible, secure job. Then, for reasons too tedious to go into, the place where I worked closed down and I was made redundant. Since then I’ve been in and out of work, taking whatever jobs were available, usually low paid and insecure, and frankly most of them have been pretty much of a slog.

I’m well aware that none of this is unique, or even particularly unusual, it’s the reality behind the much-vaunted ‘flexible labour market’ that our political leaders are so proud of. And anyway, it’s not my purpose to whinge about any of this. All I’m doing is providing a little background as an explanation of how I managed to get into a particular situation.

To continue, one of the conditions if entitlement for Jobseekers Allowance is that you have to be ‘actively seeking work’. This is not unreasonable; the clue is, after all, in the name of the benefit.

Needless to say, there is some flexibility in how you might determine whether or not someone is actively seeking work, and the exact requirement specified by the Department of Work and Pensions has varied from time to time. At the time I’m writing about the criterion was to engage in at least 20 work related activities per week. A work related activity, for those who don’t already know, could mean visiting a web site, submitting an application, engaging in some form of training or doing voluntary work if it’s likely to lead to some form of gainful employment.

So it was quite possible to meet the requirement if you were willing to put in a bit of time and effort, which, quite frankly, you should be if you’re unemployed and able to work. (The position is obviously quite different for those who are not able to work, but that’s another issue for another day).

On the other hand, whatever kind of work you’re looking for, the availability of suitable vacancies varies from time to time and sometimes you have to be a bit flexible in the kind of work you’re willing to do. And sometimes you may have to be a little, shall we say speculative in your applications. (I don’t mean by this that you should apply for jobs that you clearly and obviously aren’t qualified for, but if there are grey areas then you might as well exploit them. I think that employers who can’t or won’t be clear about the skills and experience they’re looking for have no right to complain if they’re swamped by unsuitable applications).

During one of the periods where I was struggling to find suitable jobs to apply for, I submitted an application for the post of ‘Mystery Shopper’. (I’m going to be a little vague about some of the details because I have a vague recollection of signing some kind of confidentiality agreement). The post required some knowledge of motorcycles, a basic degree of computer literacy and a confident telephone manner.

It wasn’t the kind of work I’d done before, but I’ve worked in call centres, ridden motorbikes and used computers. The post was low paid and temporary, with no prospect of advancement, but there wasn’t much else going that week so I submitted my application and moved on to the next thing.

Somewhat to my surprise I got the job.

I had assumed when I submitted my application that the job was to do with customer service and that I would be expected to declare my identity and purpose at the end of the call, since that was my previous, rather limited, experience of mystery shopping.

As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. The purpose of the call was to find out which products were offered by the retailer, at what prices and which, if any, promotions were mentioned.

And, of course, I was not under any circumstances, to reveal that I was anything but a genuine customer enquiring about the products on sale.

There are a couple of problems inherent in all this.

The first is that the job veered a little too close to fraud for my liking. I was, after all, obtaining a service through deception. (Which is not a bad definition of fraud when you think about it). But I assumed, since I needed the job,

that my employers had looked into the matter and assured themselves that what we were being asked to do was quite legal.

The second problem is less a matter of law or ethics and considerably more practical.

Most bikers know far more about the workings of their bikes and are far more actively involved in servicing and maintaining their bikes than drivers tend to be about their cars. A car driver, for example, could quite plausibly claim to have no idea what tyres you have on your car, but it would be a very strange biker who did not know exactly what tyres he, or she, was riding on.

The inevitable result of this is that you can’t really phone a retailer and just ask what’s available. The expectation would be that you would know what products you’re using on your bike and that you will want the same again unless you’re not happy with the product you’re using. And since we were discouraged (to put it mildly) from claiming to be unhappy with any specific product, in case the distributor ever heard the call. And since we were also required to claim to be the owner of the bike, as opposed to someone calling on behalf of the bike owner; the options for getting the retailer to offer products were limited. (Non-existent in fact).

The job was further complicated by the fact that our calls had to be based on a scenario specified in the computer generated form we were supposed to use and, quite frankly, some of those scenarios were totally implausible. (For example we would be given a product to enquire about that would be totally unsuitable, sometimes dangerous or even physically impossible to fit, for the bike specified in the scenario).

After a while, and one or two really uncomfortable phone calls, you would learn to spot these scenarios and, with a bit of research, you could adjust the details to produce something more workable.

Another problem with the job was that, after a while people start to recognise your voice. This is less of a problem with big retailers, or outlets in big cities, but when you’re calling a small shop in a small community you’re very quickly going to find yourself being asked why you called the week before asking about components for a completely different bike.

And, of course, people don’t like being deceived and having their time wasted.

Of course some of the big retail chains have staff who are employed to do nothing except answer the phone and give quotes. It doesn’t matter much to them who they’re talking to or whether or not the call results in a purchase. But there’s a real problem when you call a smaller outlet where time spent answering phone calls is time they can’t spend on doing something else and where they don’t always have a quick and simple way of providing quotes for products and sometimes have to phone their own suppliers.

So it was not, all things considered, my all time favourite job. The fact that we were also put under intense pressure to meet targets that were, in my opinion, quite unrealistic, just made the whole thing worse.

In fact, I think the only positive feature of the job (and a somewhat dubious positive) was that I learned how to be quite an efficient liar. This was not a skill I had any particular ambition to develop. As a general rule I prefer to be reasonably honest most of the time, but the circumstances didn’t seem to allow me much choice. (Bear in mind here, that if I had simply resigned from the job, I could have been considered ‘voluntarily unemployed’ and therefore not eligible for benefits. And since I’m not independently wealthy, I have to either work or claim benefits. I don’t have a third option).

So I stuck with the job until the end of my contract and I learned to lie.

The essence of being a convincing liar, I discovered is in having access to sufficient detail. This does not mean volunteering huge amounts of detail. That can be just as much of a give-away as being too vague. It’s about having the details worked out in advance so that they’re right there, in your mind, ready to be used if the need arises.

To give an example. If I had to call up about a particular set of tyres for a particular bike, I would have some idea of what kind of bike I was talking about, what it would be used for and therefore what kind of tyres would be appropriate to fit on the bike. (Hard wearing tyres for a tourer or commuter bike, softer tyres for a racing bike etc).

I would also have some sort of idea of who I was pretending to be.

Sometimes I was using the bike for day to day travel and I would have a pragmatic approach, other times the bike was pretty much of a toy and I was willing to be quite extravagant. Quite often I would have just bought the bike second hand and be looking for advice about whether or not the tyres fitted by the previous owner were suitable.

Sometimes I would be an experienced biker who was confident in servicing the bike, more often I would claim to have a friend who would help me out with these things since it allowed me to plat dumb if I had to.

There were also times, if I was challenged on something and I didn’t have the information I needed to give a sensible answer, when I would claim to be phoning for a friend who had tinnitus and couldn’t use the phone very easily. (This was frowned on by my employer, who always wanted us to claim to be the bike owner, but it was a workable scenario).

Of course quite a lot of retailers wanted to call me back with the information I had asked for. This was generally because they didn’t have the information to hand when I called them, but I think it was also, sometimes because they knew perfectly well that some of the calls they received were bogus and they were trying to see if I was a genuine caller. (A mystery shopper typically won’t want to give their phone number; most legitimate callers will be quite willing). In this situation, I would claim to be working in a call centre and therefore unable to take personal calls. I would then suggest calling back ‘on my break’. This had the additional benefit of giving me a lot of flexibility about when I called back. Call centre workers work all kinds of shifts and therefore they can have breaks at any and all times of the day.

The call centre scenario had the additional benefit that I could claim, quite plausibly, that I wasn’t allowed to have a mobile phone while I was working. Many call centres are very strict about where and when employees can have their mobile phones switched on, particularly if they have access to customer’s bank or credit card details.

So, in a nutshell, the secret to efficient lying is to have a scenario worked out in advance. To start by giving just enough information to get by but be able to provide more detail if and when challenged. Oh, and be confident. You can tell most people almost any load of old tosh provided a) it doesn’t contradict anything they already know and b) you can create the impression that you know what you’re talking about.

And don’t worry too much about the people who claim to know when someone’s lying to. The people who can actually do this are few and far between, your chances of meeting one are slim. As for the rest, they’re generally the easiest people to deceive since they’re starting off from a position where they’re already deceiving themselves.

After six months my contract came to an end. And I would have to say that I was quite happy about that.

Like a Detective Story – But With a Lot More Helicopters

9 Nov

Saigon… shit.

The first line spoken in Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film starts with the sound of the fan set into ceiling of Captain Willard’s hotel room (or is it a helicopter) then the images of yellow smoke, palm trees and a napalm strike all played out over ‘The End’, by The Doors.

(It has been said so many times before, but while the Vietnam War was such an incredible disaster, not only for the US, but even more for most of South East Asia, the sound track really was outstanding).

Captain Willard goes on to muse that ‘everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over I never wanted another.’

When I mentioned to someone, some years ago, that I had always felt that Apocalypse Now was a lot like a detective story I was laughed at and never really got the chance to explain or develop my idea.

(This seems to happen to me quite a lot. It’s frustrating. It’s one reason for starting a blog, however, because now I get to develop my ideas without being interrupted).

So anyway, I still think of Apocalypse Now as a kind of detective story, and more specifically I think it’s a lot like the kind of ‘hardboiled’ detective story that was often adapted into film noire in the 1940s and 50s. (Even if it does have a lot more helicopters than say The Big Sleep).

On the face of it this might seem like an odd idea given that classic film noire were shot in black and white, very often in highly claustrophobic settings and usually lit with the intention of creating deep and unsettling shadows around the main characters.

Clearly none of this applies to Apocalypse Now.

The look of the film as about as far removed from classic film noire as you can get. To illustrate this point, Willard says of one of the other character (Mr Clean of the South Bronx shithole) that ‘the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head’. And between them Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro (his cinematographer) capture that light and space beautifully. It really is a remarkably beautiful film to look at.

Having said that, many of the later scenes are dominated by shadow and darkness, and it seems to me that the firefight at the Do Lung bridge acts as a transitional scene, both in the look of the film and in Willard (and the viewer’s) perception of the war.

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this scene portrays a confrontation between light and darkness. (Which could have been nothing more than a clichéd metaphor for the conflict between good and evil, but in this case, the conflict seems much more elemental and amoral than that). But I think it goes beyond just the look of the film.

Up until the scenes at Do Lung the war has seemed to be efficient on a tactical level but lacking in strategic purpose. (Kilgore’s assault on the Vietnamese village is supremely effective, but his purpose seems to be as much about securing a beach to surf on as following the orders he apparently never received to help Willard on his mission). At Do Lung the war lacks even the tactical coherence Kilgore can offer.

This point is brought home to Willard when he asks one man who’s in charge only to be asked ‘ain’t you?’. The point is reinforced by Roach, (a disturbing, almost shamanic, figure who effortlessly drops a 20mm grenade on a VC soldier apparently by pure intuition) who, when asked if he knows who’s in charge, just says, ‘yeah’, and then goes about his (possibly drug fuelled) business.

From this point on it becomes clear that this war isn’t just misguided and brutal, (most wars are) it’s downright insane.

From this point on we move through dense fog towards Willard’s confrontation with Colonel Kurtz.

These scenes are pretty much dominated by shadow. (To a degree this was forced on Coppola because Marlon Brando he put on an enormous amount of weight and was apparently so self conscious about it that he insisted on being shot entirely in shadow – call it a happy accident, or maybe just making a virtue of a necessity).

So you could say that Martin Sheen’s scenes with Marlon Brando are the only ones that are truly reminiscent of the visual style of film noire, but I think there’s more to it than the use of shadow as a visual metaphor.

I suppose it starts for me with the voice over. Not an obligatory feature of detective stories, or even film noire. You don’t find it at all in such classic film noire such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But it was common enough in film noire nonetheless and it also refers back to the first person narrative that was such a common feature of the pulp fiction that was so often the source material for film noire.

There is also an element of enquiry in Willard’s mission. His orders are to ‘terminate’ Col. Kurtz’ command and the instruction to pick up information along the way is almost an aside, but that isn’t quite the way the mission actually plays out.

In essence Willard, and the audience through his eyes, is learning about the war and about Kurtz. He’s gathering evidence, almost inadvertently, but the physical journey towards Kurtz in the patrol boat is matched by Willard’s progress towards understanding the man he’s been sent to kill.

What’s unusual for a detective story, and it’s definitely not what the Army wants, is that, however reluctantly, Willard is gathering evidence that turns out to be for Kurtz’ defence, not his prosecution.

And as in any decent detective story, there’s even a crime. Kurtz is accused of murder, the reason given for his execution, although it’s a charge that, as Willard notes, makes about as much sense as handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

This brings me to another feature of Apocalypse Now that I find reminiscent of film noire, and more generally the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, which is the fact that Willard the (sort of) detective can’t trust his (sort of) client, the army. (By this I mean, not the ordinary soldiers, but the ‘four star clowns’ as Willard calls them, who’ve sent him on his mission.

These people give Willard some information, but not enough for him to fully understand what he’s doing and what information they do give him seems to undermine the case they’ve made for wanting Kurtz dead.

This leaves Willard is in the dark, metaphorically if not literally, the imagery actually gets darker as Willard learns more. This tells you something about the nature of what Willard is learning, but is also indicates that as Willard gains in understanding he loses whatever certainty he started out with.

And in Willard himself we even have just the kind of flawed central character that we’d expect to find in film noire. Most detectives of the ‘hardboiled’ school were distinctly compromised as champions of truth and justice. (Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe is a bit of an exception here, he was a knight in a slightly threadbare suit, rather than shining armour, but a chivalrous figure nonetheless).

When we first see Willard he is alone, drunk and naked in his hotel room and one of the first things he tells us about himself is that, on his return to the United States after his first tour of duty he hardly said a word to his wife until he said ‘yes’ to a divorce.

He’s not exactly the clean cut, all-American hero type, then. For most of the film he’s a passive figure, observing as he’s ferried up the river, passing judgement, but seldom acting. When he does take the initiative, however, it is shocking. He seems to instinctively understand Kurtz’ views on ‘clarity’.

“…what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

Or as Willard puts it, “It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.”

This is the opposite of the dreamlike state that so many of the characters in Apocalypse Now seem to inhabit, from Kilgore and his beach party to the USO sending Playboy models into a war zone, to the ‘timid lying morality’ that Kurtz claims to be beyond. The same ‘morality’ that is behind Willard’s orders to kill Kurtz.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters. More than you find in most detective stories anyway. And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters, more than you find in most detective stories anyway.

And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

One Big Question

2 Nov

Sometimes you can anticipate the big questions that future historians will ponder over. Questions like why did the Scottish electorate vote against independence in the 2014 referendum? Why did VHS win out over Betamax? (You’re showing your age if you even understand that one). Or why did so many people buy into the whole Twilight ‘twinkly vampire’ thing?

 

There are other questions that will doubtless occur to academics in the future that we can’t possibly anticipate. To take an example, just think of the way that contemporary historians would dearly love to understand the experience of ordinary people from past ages. This is something that the people who were actually recording events at the time totally failed to anticipate, hence the frustration of contemporary historians and their absolute delight at coming across treasures such as the Vindolanda tablets. (Hundreds of wooden leaf-tablets dating from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD, written with carbon based ink. They were found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda – hence the name. Some record official military matters, others are private messages, including invitations to a birthday party and letters written by Roman squaddies to their mums).

 

Having said that, one question that I can be reasonably sure will never trouble any academic of any discipline in any future period is the vexed conundrum of why the hell I bother to self publish on Amazon Kindle Direct.

 

The reason I can be so sure about this is because one of two things will happen.

 

Either a) I will become a hugely successful author in which case it will be obvious to everyone that my efforts to self-publish were all part of a cunning plan that worked out beautifully in the end or b) no one will ever bother to read any of my work, which means that no one will ever hear of me and future academics will be spared the trouble of wondering why I ever did anything at all. (I must admit that the second possibility seems rather more plausible at present).

 

Of course there is the possibility that future historians will ponder the question of why people in general ever published anything on KDP and its equivalents, but that’s a different and rather more general question.

 

In the spirit of generosity towards future academics, however, and just on the off-chance that I’m wrong and someone does take an interest in this question, I’m willing to offer an explanation.

 

The reason why I publish on Amazon KDP is because I’ve never managed to persuade anyone remotely connected with the publishing business to take any interest in publishing anything for me.

 

There are probably sound reasons for this.

 

Undoubtedly, one of these reasons is that some of the stuff I’ve sent off to magazines, publishers and agents was, quite frankly, crap. Or at least it was immature and not particularly well thought out or well written. (More to the point, they weren’t particularly well rewritten. The essence of good writing is rewriting – as many of us come to learn).

 

I had confidence in what I had written at the time, obviously. I wouldn’t have sent it off otherwise. But having reread the material some time later, I could certainly see flaws that weren’t apparent to me when I sent it off.

 

I suppose that’s inevitable. We all develop over time and the only way to learn to write is to keep writing and keep reading. (In particular that means rereading your own stuff in spite of the fact that it makes you cringe. Or rather, precisely because it makes you cringe. That’s how you learn to avoid writing stuff that makes you cringe).

 

So clearly some of my submissions have been somewhat (shall we say) optimistic, and with hindsight I can’t really blame anyone for rejecting them.

 

More recently I think my work has improved and I can go back to it months, and even years later and still not cringe. But I still can’t persuade anyone to take it on.

 

Maybe that just means that I’m still writing crap and I’ve just become more cunning in deceiving myself. On the other hand, I have had a few positive comments from people who really didn’t need to make any comment at all if they didn’t want to. (As opposed to friends and family who often find it really hard to tell you that you really ought to take up knitting or stamp collecting instead of writing because you’re really not very good at it. I know about this. I was once asked to give ‘an honest opinion’ about some truly appalling poetry and I too found it very hard to be really honest about it).

 

 

Of course on one level it really doesn’t make much difference whether or not I’m any good at writing. I don’t write because I think I’m good at it, I write because it’s just something I’m compulsive about doing.

 

(Someone once said that an artist isn’t someone who’s good at art, he/she is simply someone who would go completely crazy if they tried to stop making art. I have no delusions about being an ‘artist’, but I think the same basic principal applies).

 

So I’ll carry on writing whether or not I’m writing crap and, like most people who write, I’d be rather pleased if someone actually chose to read something I’ve written. (As opposed to being semi-obliged because I’ve asked them to). As a result I publish stuff on Amazon KDP because I really don’t have a better alternative right now.

 

Of course the big problem with this form of self-publishing is exactly the same as the big advantage with it. That is, anyone can do it. And of course, because anyone can, lots of people do.

 

Of course this is the point where some people will be inclined to comment on the quality of the material being published in this way and those comment will inevitably be pretty negative.

 

I don’t propose to make that kind of comment (mostly because I’m probably in a bit of a glass house here and I shouldn’t start chucking stones about, but also because I’m acutely aware of the fact that my personal opinions aren’t necessarily a reliable guide to literary merit. I could give you quite a long and impressive list of great works of literature that I’ve found unreadable).

 

Having said that, one point I would make is that the sheer volume of what’s available does make it very difficult to stand out from the ground and make any kind of connection with anyone who might be interested in my writing. (And there is also the fact that my shortcomings as a writer, however great they may be, are as nothing compared to my shortcomings as a self-publicist).

 

There’s kind of an irony here, by the way. People like me really need an agent to promote our work, because we’re just not very good at promoting it ourselves. But the key to getting an agent is actually self-promotion – you have to ‘sell’ yourself and your work to the agent before they’ll even consider trying to sell it for you.

 

Of course, however exasperated aspiring authors may be with agents and publishers, the plain fact is that agents and publishers seem to be every bit as exasperated with aspiring authors. And they will, of course, deny that they’re the villains of the piece.

 

They’ll tell you, instead, that they’re not in it for the money, but because they really love promoting the work they believe in. Then they’ll typically complain about their ‘slush pile’ and probably chuck in a few disparaging remarks about how, contrary to popular belief, there really isn’t some huge pool of unpublished talent out there and the reason why most unpublished authors are unpublished is because they’re unpublishable. You may even get some comment about the prevalence of ‘hypergraphia’ amongst contributors to the slush pile.

 

(Hypergraphia – a behavioural condition characterised by a compulsive need to write, which may be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy. In this context there’s always the implication that the material being written is incoherent, or at least totally devoid of any literary merit).

 

There may be some truth in this, I wouldn’t know, I have no way of assessing the quality (or lack thereof) in the unsolicited submissions received by agents and publishers. What I would say, however, is that I really wish some of the people who make these complaints would try working a shift in a call centre or maybe try stacking shelves for a few hours.

 

Aside from anything else I really believe that, as a result of this experience, they would start to view their slush piles with some genuine affection. (And maybe even show a little bit of respect for the effort other people put into their work – although this may be just a little too much to ask).

 

I suppose this brings me to a fantasy that, I think, is very common amongst aspiring writers.

 

It goes like this.

 

An aspiring author (insert yourself here if you’ve ever written anything and hoped to get it published) writes something wonderful. He/she sends it off to multiple agents and publishers and is refused at every turn.

 

Finally through sheer persistence (or possibly some lucky chance – depending on your temperament, I suppose) this wonderful piece of writing gets published and becomes a massive worldwide success. At this point all the mean, nasty agents and publishers who rejected it are all summarily dismissed from their posts. (Or at the very least severely embarrassed at their lack of insight).

 

I can see the attractions of this fantasy, but it is, of course, nonsense.

 

Anyone who pays attention to such things can cite numerous cases of incredibly successful work that was rejected time and time again. And one thing I think I can be pretty sure of is that none of the people who rejected those works was ever disciplined, or fired, or even criticised for rejecting them.

 

In publishing, as in so many ‘creative’ fields, the tendency is always to be risk averse and the risk is always in accepting things, never in rejecting them. You may well hear, or read, about agents etc yearning for something original that will break the mould and break new ground and so on and so forth, but if you actually give them anything like that they will immediately start to panic about how it will break the bank if they try to work with it.

 

The art of making money in any ‘creative’ industry is to avoid being too creative. Essentially you need to follow the herd but try to follow from just a little (a very little) bit in front.

 

As a consequence, you’re much more likely to suffer as a result of accepting something that fails than for rejecting something that turns out to be a huge success in someone else’s hands.

 

So, it seems, the only way to be sure of getting something published is to a) be personally acquainted with someone in the publishing business, b) to have already had something published or c) to already be famous for something else. In other words to be a known quantity and to, therefore, seem like a safe bet. (Not that there is such a thing as a truly safe bet – Pippa Middleton’s book on entertaining quite famously failed to sell in any great numbers).

 

Since I fall into none of the above categories, and I don’t expect I ever will, I have no high hopes of finding an agent, far less a publisher in any big hurry.

 

As a result I self publish on Amazon KDP, along with so many other people of varying degrees of skill and talent. And I have about the same degree of success as everyone else. And it’s just as well I have a day job.

 

(Actually I’m working on a night shift at the moment, but the same basic principal applies).

 

Singular First Person

26 Oct

Many years ago, as a student of English Literature I was told to go and write an essay about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

I tend to feel quite smug about that essay, because I got a pretty good mark for it and (just for a change) my tutor seemed to think I was being quite perceptive. (Her normal feeling seemed to be that I was quite good at identifying interesting issues and then veering away from them without managing to say anything very interesting about them).

One of the insights I had to offer was in my essay was the suggestion that Conrad’s decision to write Heart of Darkness as a first person narrative was crucial to the success of the novel as a whole.

(It should be noted that there really isn’t any such thing as a typical Joseph Conrad novel. He often wrote stories about the sea, but having said that he ranged freely across different styles, techniques and themes and if you’ve read one of his books and you didn’t like it, then it’s probably worth having a look at some of his other stuff, because you never know your luck).

In particular, I suggested that Conrad’s use of a first person narrative not only allowed him to be suitably vague about the exact setting of the story, but also allowed him to leave out a lot of the boring scene setting stuff and concentrate on what he really wanted to write about.

These points might not seem very important, but I think they are.

Heart of Darkness is a very short, economical story and one of the key elements of the novel is a sense of disorientation. A key scene in the novel occurs when the river boat is travelling through a heavy fog and Marlowe describes his feeling of losing any sense not only of place, but also of time. Earlier in the story, Marlowe also talks of being feverish at times and there’s something of the hallucination about the whole story.

Had Conrad settled for the third person narrative, which he used to great effect elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that he could have achieved either the brevity or the dreamlike quality so essential to this novel.

So first person narrative is a useful device for creating atmosphere and also for limiting the amount of information available to the reader. By definition that reader can only be told what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to tell. (By contrast a third person narrator is effectively omniscient and attempts by authors to create uncertainty about ‘perhaps this’ or ‘maybe that’ always seems pretty artificial to me).

This makes first person narrative particularly effective for thrillers that depend on a careful balance between what is concealed and what is revealed to the reader in order to build towards a (hopefully) unexpected denouement. So it’s no big surprise that Raymond Chandler used first person narrative in all his novels and most of his short stories or that Dashiell Hammett used it in his ‘Continental Op’ stories (although, surprisingly not in some of his best novels eg The Maltese Falcon).

Even Agatha Christie (who generally used 3rd person narrative) used it from time to time and most memorably in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to produce a really nice little plot twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming. (No spoilers here – if you want to know what happens, read the book).

Another useful effect of a first person narrative is to make a character who might seem bland to most observers much more interesting by revealing his, or her, inner life in a particularly vivid manner.

Adam Hall does this especially well in his ‘Quiller’ novels, which are based on a highly professional ‘spy’ (he refers to himself as an ‘executive’) who cultivates anonymity as a key tool of his trade. (He works for ‘The Bureau’ – which has no official existence and unlike James Bond he’s not specially handsome, doesn’t cultivate a particularly glamorous lifestyle, doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble or get on first name terms with bartenders and head waiters).

What makes Quiller distinctive is his perverse, quirky, often bloody minded and possibly borderline psychotic personality. What is also innovative about the Quiller novels in contrast with the James Bond books is that Quiller has little trust and no affection for his employers. They give him what he needs, the kid of work he lives for, but he tends to refer to The Bureau as ‘The Sacred Bull’ (from which so much sacred bullshit flows). The clear implication of this term being that The Bureau is some kind of dark and oppressive deity that demands its regular tribute of

blood sacrifice.

Much like the classic PI in a hard boiled detective story, Quiller goes into his missions with just enough information to function – and often having been misled or manipulated into taking a job that he would never have taken on if he’d known what was involved. He often describes himself as a ferret who’s been sent down a rabbit hole, but usually with the implication that he might well run into something a lot more dangerous than a rabbit. All in all this setting creates an edgy, contrast between the concrete reality of what Quiller does and how he does it and the uncertainty of the background to what he’s doing. (This always includes the possibility that Quiller will be betrayed by his own people).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of effect using a 3rd person narrative, but where Adam Hall is particularly innovative in his use of first person narrative is in his action sequences. He has written some of the best fight scenes in popular fiction in my opinion, so much so the Eric von Lustbader was clearly inspired ( if that’s the word) to use a very similar style in thrillers like The Ninja).

What Adam Hall does in his action scenes is to use a fragmented, kaleidoscopic style that allows a very concise, immediate style and also reflects the vivid confusion that most people experience in a violent situation. (Most of us haven’t been involved in terminal confrontation with a professional killer, but if you think of any time you might have played a contact sport, or been involved in a car crash, you’ll probably get the idea).

It has to be said that Charlotte Brontë (whatever her other virtues as an author) is not generally noted for her vivid and innovative action sequences, but in Villette she did use first person narrative to achieve some of the same effects I’ve been describing in Adam Hall’s work.

Villette is a novel told from the point of view of Lucy Snowe. (Who, on the face of it has very little in common with Quiller, but she is also an individual who is somewhat at odds with her environment and the people around her. In addition, she tends to have a very low profile, although in her case this is not always a matter of choice, and she has little trust or affection for her employer. She is also stubborn, perverse and has a distinctly rebellious streak at times).

So what we have in Lucy Snowe is a not desperately pretty heroine who is really quite peripheral to the lives of those around her. She may depend on them to some extent, but for the most part they could get along quite nicely without her.

What, perhaps, makes her most like Quiller is the disconnect between her public persona and her private personality. The people who think they know her would be shocked rigid if they only knew what she was thinking and feeling. (Some, in fact, might be surprised to discover that she thinks and feels at all).

Where Lucy Snowe shows her character most clearly is where she hides and distorts information. For example, there is an idyllic, extended description of her passage across the English Channel that comes to an abrupt halt with the instruction to ‘cancel’ all that. Snowe then goes on to describe the truly miserable crossing that she actually experienced. She is also not above concealing significant information for a chapter or two for no obvious reason than her own perversity.

Of all the women in Victorian fiction, I think Lucy Snowe is my favourite.

Of course the last, and possibly best, reason for using first person narrative is simply that sometimes your characters speak in more interesting voices than you can.

This was certainly James M Cain’s reason. (For those who don’t recognise the name, James M. Cain vies with Ross MacDonald – author of The Moving Target, which was filmed with Paul Newman as Harper – for the title of The Other Great Writer of Hardboiled Crime Stories – alongside Raymond Chandler and Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Or to be a little more factual, he was the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Allow me to quote from the Author’s Preface to Double Indemnity.

…for ten years (I) resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel… I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put in the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they wanted to say.

So there you are; James M. Cain found that his characters were better storytellers than he was and he stepped aside to let them do the talking.

Of course there are problems with using a first person narrative. You can’t really jump from one character’s perspective to the another without using some kind of device. (eg Wilkie Collin’s use of written testimony from a series of characters in The Moonstonea device that I think he pulled off quite well but which I felt Bram Stoker struggled with in Dracula).

There is also the fact that if you’re writing from a first person perspective you have a certain theoretical lack of tension in as much as the reader ‘knows’ that the narrator can’t really get killed until he/she has fished telling the story. (Although you can get round that if you really try – see Sunset Boulevard). Of course this lack of tension is strictly theoretical. What a reader knows intellectually has little to do with how they respond to fiction, otherwise they wouldn’t respond to fiction at all.

Another problem is that in writing a first person narrative, you can feel quite exposed. Essentially you can maintain far more detachment from your central character as a 3rd person narrator.

On the other hand, to paraphrase someone I used to know; the more personal your writing is the more universal it becomes. And of course, you can’t make your writing personal unless you’re willing to take a few risks.

Stuck in the Middle with Who?

19 Oct

A story appeared in the media some time ago about what was reported to have been a near riot between rival groups of fans when two conventions, one of Dr Who fans, the other of Star Trek fans, were booked into adjoining facilities.

On closer examination it seems that, while there may well have been some tensions between some of the attendees at the conventions, the whole thing was actually something of a non-story. (Concocted, one assumes, by some tedious media hack who wouldn’t have known an Andorian from an android or a Sontaran from a Silurian.

Having said that both Whovians and Trekkers can certainly be quite intense, and those who get their jollies from soaps and ‘reality’ TV programmes are not very likely to understand them or to sympathise. (Although some of them can be equally intense about their favourite TV programmes).

To a degree I do understand both Whovians and Trekkers, I like both shows and I have no interest in running down either in order to praise the other. So I sympathise with both, although I wouldn’t identify myself as either and I suppose that, kind of, leaves me stuck in the middle.

Which, pursuant to my persistent tendency towards heresy, leads me to make a confession.

You see, the sad and shameful fact is that I really like Babylon 5.

As I’ve already said, I have no interest in running down anyone else’s favourite show, so all I really want to do is to say a little bit about why I like Babylon 5. If that encourages someone else to take a look at it, then that’s fine. If you’re still not interested, then that’s also fine. I don’t proselytise.

I’d have to admit that my initial reaction to Babylon 5 wasn’t necessarily one of immediate, rapturous immersion. I seem to recall making some comment along the lines of ‘first episodes are always tricky’. (It was a quirk of Channel 4 scheduling that they started off with Episode 1 ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’ as opposed to the feature length pilot ‘The Gathering’ – and in a way I’m glad they did, there were some pretty serious changes made between the pilot and the first season).

With hindsight I’m not sure why I was quite so lukewarm about this first episode, because having watched it again (more than once) I now find that I like it quite a lot. I suppose it does have a lot of characters and a relatively complicated setting to introduce in it’s 50 minute running time and that takes time that can’t be used for other things. On the other hand it’s well written and well acted, with interesting characters doing interesting things for reasons that pretty much make sense. It also look pretty good, although I have read comments from viewers who were distinctly unimpressed by the special effects. (My years spent watching classic Who and Trek were not wasted, I’ve learned to be tolerant of iffy special effects if only the ideas, the story and the characters are interesting).

So maybe I was just being a bit over cautious.

But I suppose it doesn’t matter, because I decided to stick with the show and over the next few years I did a pretty good job of catching each episode as it was broadcast, in spite of Channel 4s increasingly erratic scheduling decisions. I suppose Channel 4 never really valued Babylon 5. Initially it had a discreet slot on Monday evenings just before the news at 7.00 pm. (This was quite convenient for me, because it gave me time to get home from work, make something the eat and sit in front of the TV munching away as I caught up with the latest from the last of the Babylon stations). Later on B5 was moved to the wee small hours of Sunday night, which is when my VCR came into it’s own. (Yes, this was pre DVD or iPlayer and its equivalents). And this is how I came to miss the only half episode that I didn’t manage to see during this one and only complete run of all five seasons on terrestrial TV.

Essentially there was a spot of confusion as the scheduling of one of the episodes which resulted in the loss of about twenty minutes of the programme. Irritating.

By the time the last season was being broadcast, regular viewers (and I assume I wasn’t the only one) were having to play ‘hunt the schedule’ to find the next episode.

When Crusade (the short lived spin off) was shown, I suspect only a handful of us managed to see any of it because it appeared in the early hours of the morning with exactly no fanfare or publicity at all. I suspect Channel 4 bought it as part of a job lot or something and had no interest in promoting it at all.

Since this original showing on Channel 4, there has been a brief rerun of some of season 1 in the early morning over the Christmas period one year and since then nothing at all on terrestrial TV. I believe it was shown on one of the digital channels a few years ago, but if you live in the UK and you’re interested, you’d probably better watch it on DVD or maybe you can download it.

So Babylon 5 is a bit of a minority interest. And this extends even to one of the BBC’s Sci Fi nights where a good deal of time was spent (quite rightly) on Star Trek and Dr Who and time was also devoted to Sapphire and Steel and Lost in Space, but Babylon 5 was never even mentioned. (The irony here is that they had an interview with Bill Mumy – who was a regular as a child actor in Lost in Space, but who also featured in Babylon 5). Bit odd that.

But anyway, rather than griping about all this, maybe it would make more sense to suggest why the uninitiated might care to take an interest in the series.

To start with Babylon 5 depended very heavily on CGI and this gave the series a very distinctive look. A look that I always liked, but I suppose not everyone would.

There was also a decision made at a very early stage to avoid having aliens with ‘crinkly foreheads’. (Possibly a reference to Michael Westmore’s work on Star Trek Next Generation). This is a decision that may well have been regretted later on, given the amount of work involved in creating the aliens for B5, but I think it paid off.

There were some attempts, notably in the pilot and season 1 to use CGI and animatronic aliens. These attempts were largely abandoned as the series developed because humans in prosthetics gave better performances. (This is where it’s worth giving an honourable mention to Wayne Alexander who seemed to build a whole career out of playing a variety of aliens on B5 and consistently delivering nuanced and complex performances generally from under thick layers of latex).

It’s also worth giving an honourable mention to Christopher Franke (of Tangerine Dream fame) who scored all 5 seasons after Stuart Copeland (notable for his contribution to Police and the sound track of Rumblefish) was unavailable after providing the score for the feature length pilot.

Basically what Christopher Franke provided was effectively a separate score for each episode. (He did re-use some themes etc so that amounted to an average of 25 minutes of original music per episode. A lot of this work was based on his own keyboards but he was also innovative in his use of digital technology in order to incorporate the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra as and when the budget allowed).

But that’s all just technical stuff and it doesn’t address the question of why Babylon 5 is the TV Sci Fi series that I keep going back to again and again.

Well, the reason for that I suppose, is because in my view J. Michael Sraczynski and his

collaborators created a remarkably complete and complex universe.

(Doubtless Trekkers and Whovians will make the same claim for Star Trek and Dr Who and I do recognise that this is all very nebulous and subjective). But the point remains that Babylon 5 somehow created a sense of a universe that you could live in and in which you could hop onto a space ship and fly off somewhere and see some really amazing and unexpected things.

This B5 universe is not necessarily as optimistic as the one created by Gene Roddenberry. It’s a universe where humans aren’t much more enlightened (if at all) than they are now, and it’s a universe where humans aren’t by any means dominant.

In B5, humans rank somewhere in the same ballpark with the Narn and Centauri, at least in military and economic terms. That puts them somewhere about two thirds of the way up the totem pole, which is somewhere above most of the non-aligned worlds, somewhere below the Minbari and well below the Vorlons, who start off scary and get distinctly scarier as the series progresses. (And that’s before we even start on the Shadows but we’re not getting into spoilers here).

This is in marked contrast to Star Trek where there are certainly older and more advanced civilisations, notably the Vulcans, but somehow humans tend to be dominant. (This isn’t a criticism, just a comparison).

Another of the key differences between B5 and Star Trek can be summed up in the question asked by Galen of Mathew Gideon in the spin off Crusade.

“Who do you serve and who do you trust?”

Gideon has no answer to this question (it’s partly this lack of an easy answer that persuades Galen to join him). Obviously the exchange does not come from B5 itself, but there are times when many of the key characters in Babylon 5 would be equally hard pressed to answer these questions.

By contrast, these are doubts that you seldom find in any Star Fleet officer (Ro Laren being a rare exception).

Essentially Gene Roddenberry had faith in Star Fleet as a benign institution. Fair enough, he created it and he created it to be a ‘good thing’.It seems that Gene Roddenberry had faith in institutions, or perhaps he simply wanted to and this was reflected in his writing.

Straczynski’s, on the other hand, seems to be much more ambivalent about institutions. He, and most of his characters tend to put their faith in individuals.

A further contrast is that Roddenberry very largely excluded religion, politics and economics from Star Fleet and from the Federation. (This may have been because he believed that humanity would just have to transcend all that stuff if we were going to make it in the longer

term, but I suspect that he just wasn’t very interested in those subjects and didn’t want to write about them).

Starczynski, by contrast, is much more interested in politics and economics and especially religion.

In fact, one of the key themes of B5 can be summed up in Ambassador Delenn’s dictum ‘faith manages’.

Having said that, B5 story lines condemned religious bigotry and intolerance just as consistently and vehemently as anything you’d find in Star Trek. It’s just that the overall ethic of the show accepts that some kind of faith can sometimes be a good thing and that religion will not necessarily whither and die as cultures develop an scientific progress is made.

And this is a bit of an oddity. As an atheist I don’t especially like heavy duty religious allegory mixed in with my Sci Fi. In fact I tend to find it irritating. But I have to say that the religious, not to mention mystical, aspect of B5 does add a certain depth to many of the story lines.

Another of the other key characteristics of B5 is its huge story arc. (Arguably much of this story arc was resolved by the end of season 4 and, in spite of still having much to enjoy in it, season 5 does tend to seem a bit like an add on).

This long story arc allows a degree of character development which would be difficult and probably impossible in a potentially open ended series like Star Trek. (Trekkers will doubtless have examples they can cite of character development within the series, but I stick to my thesis. The job of regular characters in a series like Star trek is very largely to be consistent, the job of many key characters in B5 is to change).

The most obvious examples of character development in B5 would be G’kar who starts as an angry, ruthless and sometimes dangerous character (albeit still capable of generosity at times) who becomes a far wiser and gentler character as he progresses. (One of the more perceptive points made in B5 is that G’kar grows in stature, he attracts more and more adulation from his people and becomes more and more frustrated by their persistent drive to force his message into a form that they’re already familiar with.

The other obvious example is Londo Mollari, who starts as a somewhat cynical and dissolute character with no real power, whose ambitions are largely drowned in booze, gambling and womanising. He makes something of a Faustian deal, which grants him everything he ever thought he wanted and costs him everything he had. Mollari’s story is made that much more poignant by the fact that, by the time he has to pay the price for his deal, he has grown enough to understand exactly what it’s going to cost him.

I could go on, but why bother?

It’s not a perfect show, some episodes were stronger then others, and there are moments (usually attempts at humour) that I’d rather fast forward over. Humour, as Emperor Cartagia would tell you, “is such a subjective thing”.

On the other hand, it was a highly intelligent and complex series that’s probably worth a bit more attention that it often seems to get.

If you’re interested, watch the show, if you’re not then do something else.

Either way, Straczynski and his team did a far better job of telling the story than I could.

Why Mandlebrot?

12 Oct

Why Mandlebrot?

Good question.

Although, as a matter of fact, it actually breaks down into two questions.

The first question is quite specific, ‘why choose the name Mandlebrot?’ and the second is the more general question ‘why use a pseudonym at all?’

So let’s take each question in turn.

1/ Why choose the name Manldebrot?

Well, Benoît Mandlebrot (1924 – 2010) was a Polish born mathematician with dual French/American nationality who is best known for his discovery of the ‘Mandlebrot set’. (Described by Arthur C Clarke, no less, as ‘one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics).

Briefly, the ‘Mandlebrot set’ is the mathematical basis for generating fractals. Fractals, for anyone who doesn’t know, are a form of geometric repetition (to quote Stephen Wolfram) “in which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole. Fern leaves and Romanesco broccoli are two examples from nature”.

Fractals are remarkably useful and have applications in various areas of technology including soil mechanics, signal and image compression, heat exchangers and the creation of really cool and trippy posters.

Mandlebrot in addition to being a highly gifted mathematician, was also something of a maverick and a visionary who wrote about mathematics in a passionate and informal style which made his work surprisingly accessible to non-mathematicians. He also published papers in applied fields such as information theory, economics and fluid dynamics.

I wish I could say that I chose the name as a tribute to the man and his formidable achievement. Unfortunately, the plain fact is that I must have read, or heard his name, probably while I was studying the history of mathematics a few years ago, and somehow the name stuck in my memory without necessarily connecting with anything else, although I suppose I must have known something about who Mandelbrot was, because I don’t quite see how I could have come across the name without knowing something about the man and his work.

However, the main point is that I wanted a name for the narrator of a story and the name ‘Mandlebrot’ kind of stuck.

I can only hope that Benoît Mandlebrot had a sense of humour.

2/ Why use a pseudonym at all?

I suppose lots of people use pseudonyms for lots of reasons. George Eliot used a masculine name because she believed, with good reason, that if she’d been known to be a woman, no one would have taken her seriously as an author.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson an Anglican deacon and academic wrote his best-known works as Lewis Carroll. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Queen Victoria was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland and eagerly asked Deacon Dodgson to send her a copy of his next book. History does not record exactly what she made of the inscrutable tome on mathematics that she duly received in response to her request.

But neither of these cases apply to me. I have no particular reason to hide my identity. I’m not a member of any kind of minority group that might result in my work being prejudged and I have no standing in the community that might be I undermined if it were known that I write stories.

So why bother with a pseudonym?

Well, I suppose the reason is best explained by illustration.

Donald Westlake was a prolific author who wrote in a variety of styles and genres. Many of his books were crime stories and while there are many kinds of stories you can write about crime one of the major distinctions is between ‘capers’ and ‘heists’.

If a ‘caper’ is essentially a light-hearted and generally non-violent crime story, then a ‘heist’ typically more violent and less humourous.

The structure of a caper would typically consist of two parts, the first being the exposition of an elaborate plan for a crime, typically theft, and the second part is a description of how the plan is implemented and how it goes hopelessly wrong.

In a heist the actual crime tends to proceed like clockwork and the complications typically occur in the getaway or in dividing the spoils or because of interference by other criminals. As a general rule, the law enforcement community are, at most a minor inconvenience, and more often completely irrelevant.

So Donald Westlake wrote capers about John Dortmunder, a genius and criminal mastermind who always seemed to work with highly eccentric confederates and had no luck at all and he wrote heists about Parker. Parker has no pretension to be a genius or a criminal mastermind. He is simply a ruthless, violent, career criminal. On the other hand, his plans work.

The key point for my present purpose is that when Westlake wrote about Dortmunder, he wrote under his own name and when he wrote about Parker, he wrote as Richard Stark, and I think the reason for this is pretty obvious.

Fans of the Dortmunder capers might, or might not enjoy the Parker books as well, and vice versa, but it obviously makes a lot of sense to make it quite clear that these are two very different series of books. If he failed to do that, he would have risked disappointing his readers by allowing them to come to his work with expectations that would not be met. And the simplest way to make a clear separation between the Parker and Dortmunder books is to use a different name on the cover.

Having said all this, it should be pretty clear that the reason I chose to write Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did under a pseudonym is because I want to separate it from other things I might want to write. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1/ It’s a, sort of, children’s story. It’s about missing dragons, talking cats, flying on items of furniture etc. and I’m not sure I’m going to continue to write children’s stories. My previous, and almost universally ignored, work has involved zombies, vampires and a fair degree of violence. Not exactly suitable for small children.

2/ I’ve used a very distinctive narrative voice for this collection of stories and it’s not a narrative voice that would be suitable for other kinds of stories. It’s specifically tailored for these stories.

3/ These stories take place in a very particular world and they conform to a specific set of rules.

The rules are as follows:

a) No violence. (I’m following the excellent example of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin here).

b) Magic isn’t the solution, (magic can be included but only as part of the background, problems

are solved by thinking and doing and sometimes by talking, not by casting spells).

c) No one is a hero(ine) by virtue of their birth. Mattie, the central character is a little girl

growing up in a single parent family and her mother has to work hard for a living.

d) Things are true (or not) according to reason and evidence, not by virtue of authority.

e) No one is just born evil. People can be stupid, selfish, arrogant and so forth, but I’m not

having any characters who do what they do simply by virtue of being ‘a wicked witch’ for

example. People have reasons for doing what they do and while those reasons may, or may not,

be very sensible, but they have to have some kind of plausibility.

I think these rules are pretty good, and I may well stick with (most of) them if I write any more children’s stories. But I won’t necessarily stick with the same narrative voice and I probably won’t stick with the same world that the Fekesh and Mattie stories take place in and this, ultimately, is the reason for using a pseudonym.

 (Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did is available to download from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing).

A Paradox of Cats

24 Mar

We all know that a male cat is called a ‘tom’. Traditionally a female cat was called a ‘molly’, but the term ‘queen’ seems to have been widely adopted these days. I think this is a shame because the term was originally used by breeders and I think cats need breeders the way a fish needs a bicycle. I’d like to see a revival in the use of the term ‘molly’. I think it’s a nicer word.

What’s less well-known is that the collective noun for cats is a “clowder”, or alternatively a “glaring”, but I think the term “paradox” might be more appropriate.

It’s generally accepted that the term ‘pus’ or ‘pussy’, when applied to cats, derives from the name Bastet or Pashti, the Egyptian cat goddess. Oddly enough this term also applies to hares, but, other than superfecundity (the ability for females to bear young sired by more than one male in a single litter), it’s hard to see what the two animals have in common.

Or at least it’s hard to see what they have in common in terms of natural history. In terms of their position in human folklore, cats and hares have quite a lot in common. Essentially they are both considered to be strange and unaccountable creatures. (It’s  matter of fact that wherever we now find a rabbit in modern, sanitized versions of folklore -  eg the Easter Bunny, we would once have found a hare, this is because rabbits look cute and they’re relatively well understood, while hares seem wayward and enigmatic creatures even now.)

I should point out that there is a degree of exaggeration about the position of cats  in both Ancient Egypt and in Medieval Europe. Cats were certainly revered in Ancient Egypt, but so were a number of other animals and arguably some, notably cows, were held in higher esteem.

It’s also true that cats were reviled in Medieval Europe as being the familiars of witches, but once again, a number of other animals, weasels for example, were also seen in a similar light.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that cats do occupy a curious position in many cultures and it’s not just a simple matter of cats being valued in some societies and disliked on others. Traditions within any one culture also vary as to whether or not cats are benign or malign. The only thing that seems to be constant is that cats are never entirely neutral.

An instructive comparison here would be with the position of dogs.

I would never underestimate the bond between dogs and their owners, and dogs have often been vital collaborators in all manner of human activities, but no one seems to feel that it is either good or bad luck to have a black dog cross their path.

Don’t think I’m ignoring mythical creatures like the gytrash, the legendary canine who will doubtless be familiar to readers of Jayne Eyre and the Harry Potter series, but the gytrash is a specifically supernatural creature – who can also appear as a horse or a mule according to the traditions of Northern England, he is not a normal, everyday kind of dog and my point is that in folklore its common for all cats to have a preternatural aspect attributed to them.)

I think part of the reason for this contrast is that dogs and humans understand each other very well, incredibly well considering that they are completely different kinds of species, but this level of communication does not generally exist between cats and humans.

For example, everyone knows that if a cat walks into a room full of people, and there is one person in the room who dislikes cats, the cat will invariably approach that person.

To some this may seem like the natural perversity of the feline, but in fact it’s due to the difference between feline and human body language.

When a human looks at you it is generally an invitation to approach, but part of feline greeting protocol is to look away. So when a human looks away from a cat because he doesn’t want anything to do with it, the cat takes this as an invitation. (Some humans can be stunningly obtuse when it comes to communicating with their dogs, but this kind of generalised misunderstanding simply doesn’t happen.)

So the behaviour of cats can seem unaccountable because we don’t understand then as easily as we can understand dogs.

But even aside from this, cats also have a variety of odd habits, notably that of staring into empty space. And it’s not as though they’re simply gazing absent-mindedly into the middle distance, it’s more like they’re intently watching something incredibly important and fascinating that we can’t see. It’s not surprising that some people think they’re in touch with some kind of spirit world.

So even when you strip away the folklore and superstition, cats are still puzzling creatures. Elegant and comical, intelligent and ridiculous, aloof and affectionate, playful and lethal. Even the lowliest of moggies is a dialectic clothed in fur and whiskers.

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate this dialectic is to hold a cat’s paw in your hand. (If it will let you).You will find that paw is soft and warm and covered in silky smooth fur. But within that paw there are wicked sharp claws that can slice effortlessly through your skin and what you will also find, if the cat wants its paw back, is that cats are surprisingly strong. (Pound for pound cats are the most powerful of mammals).

Incidently this is the reason why I consider the practice of declawing cats to be tantamount to blasphemy. Aside from cruelty (no vet in the UK will perform the procedure) there is also the fact that cats are climbers and predators and that’s why they have claws. If you want to share your home with a cat, or perhaps more precisely if you want to share a cat’s home, you should accept them as they are, claws and all. If you can’t do that, then get yourself a soft toy and play with that.

So there you have it. Some people can’t understand why anyone would want a cat in their life, others can’t understand how anyone could live without them. No animal loves its creature comforts more, and yet they can tolerate extremes of discomfort. (I have known a cat with a back leg hanging loose and useless due to a compound fracture jump five feet in order to reach a favoured sleeping place, then curl up and purr. After some treatment, he later made a full recovery.)

In conclusion, I would suggest that whether their toms or mollies, mogs or felines, whatever else you might want to call cats, I think the term ‘paradox’ has to apply somewhere and it’s certainly as good a collective noun as any.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 130 other followers