Memorial to the Mothers

Several years ago Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who has long cartooned under his pen-name of Brick, his graphic memoir Depresso made my best of the year list in 2011) were trying to put together an interesting project, an anthology of stories to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, To End All Wars, to be published by the fine Indy UK publisher Soaring Penguin Press. Along with others in the comics community I put out a signal boost (on the sadly now defunct Forbidden Planet Blog) for the call for contributors, with a desire to avoid jingoism and nationalism, to include writers and artists from different countries who would tell tales (often inspired by real people and events) taking in the different sides in that dreadful conflict, the many arenas, from the hell of the Western Front to the frozen slaughter in the Alps, beneath the waves, in the air.

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(cover for To End All Wars by Elizabeth Waterhouse)

As 2014 approached there were many plans to mark the centenary, more than a few in very respectful and emotional ways. But, as ever, there were those who (usually for political, ideological reasons) who tried to argue this was not an occasion for reflection but tried to claim the more “glorious” side of war (yes, Michael Gove, we’re looking at you and your ilk). Above all else none of us involved wanted that, if anything we stood by Wilfred Owen’s line about “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country. We had no time for those who would hide horror in some imagined glory, we wanted to tell stories about actual people caught up in this vast conflagration, the people behind those awful lists of statistics of dead and wounded and missing.

In the end more than fifty writers and artists would take part, from thirteen different countries, including Brick and Jonathan who also created stories as well as herding the cats by bringing together and editing all the stories from those different creators in different countries. No-one felt comfortable with earning anything from this, we decided that monies instead would go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that has and continues to help  victims of wars. I’m told that overall we raised some £3, 500 pounds for that cause. The anthology got some nice coverage on the BBC site, and at the annual Eisner Awards, the major comics gongs, given out at the huge San Diego Comic Con, we found ourselves with two nominations. We didn’t win, but for an anthology like this from a small Brit publisher to get to that level of recognition from fellow comickers was wonderful (I am still happy to tell people I was in a double Eisner nominated book!).

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(one of the personal crosses in the Garden of Remembrance which has just opened in Princes Street Gardens)

There were some people I knew taking part, such as Brick himself, Selina Lock, my old pals Andy Luke and Sean Michael Wilson. So many I hadn’t heard of before, some of whom would create stories here that have remained in my head ever since, such as Stuart Richards’ Il Gatto (a wordless tale following a real-life event of a cat who went between the lines in the war in the Alpine peaks), Ian Douglas and Stjepan Mihaljevic’s Dead in the Water had haunting imagery from the U-Boat war, both the sailors above and those in their steel coffins below.

Near my home in Edinburgh there is an old cemetery, the centre deliberately allowed to overgrow to offer a mini wildlife refuge in an urban area. As with many such places it contains Commonwealth War Graves. One in particular has always captured my attention as, unusually, it is a double memorial a father, Private James Allan, and his son, Pipe Major James Allan, both from the famous Royal Scots, the father killed at the end of The War to End All Wars, his son killed in the war that came after that one, during the fall of France. Eerily both were the same age when they lost their lives. I often wondered if the father had comforted himself during his battle that at least his young son would grow up safe, because who would ever be foolish enough to start another war after this one?

Dalry boneyard 05

I had shown a photo of their gravestone to Brick, who commented that there was a story in there, and perhaps I should consider trying to pen one myself. I thought about it, and the first ideas seemed too cliched. I let it sit in the back of my head until an idea just came to me – two names on there, father, son. But there was a third casualty, whose name didn’t appear there, the wife, the mother. And as I thought of that I realised by extension that all of the many war memorials, from the smallest wooden tablet in an old church hall to large stone obelisks in city centres, also lacked the name of those other casualties, the mothers, the wives, the sisters. Women who had loved those men only to see them ripped away violently from them, left with a wretched wound that went down to their very souls, the walking wounded whose names were never etched on any monument.

I had my way into the story; I wasn’t satisfied unless I could find an emotional key to it, I felt it had to have that emotional weight, partly for the reader, but also partly from respect for what those mothers had gone through. I think I channeled a lot of my own grief from the sudden loss of my own mother into the writing. I write every week, but since we lost mum I hadn’t penned a story, reviews, interviews, articles, yes, but the spark for narrative was dampened, but I had a strong urge to do this one, and wrote it in a few hours without stopping, stream of consciousness style, then did a little pruning and editing. I thought perhaps I put too much into it, took some out, but Brick and Jonathan told me not to hold back, put it all in.

Kate Charlesworth, veteran comicker, fresh from creating the art with Mary and Bryan Talbot for the superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, kindly agreed to do the art. The rest of the collection is in comics format, but our story, which would close the book, was prose by me with illustration by Kate. My few visual ideas weren’t terribly insightful, but as Grant Morrison once said, writers should trust their artists on the art – they know more about it than scribes. And Kate came up with some beautiful ideas I’d not have thought of, such as the little mementoes like baby boots or locks of hair that mothers keep, or the bookending of the pages with a group of women from all walks of society (because this conflict crossed all lines) seeing their men off to war with a similar image of mothers from different cultures and countries clutching pictures of their lost loved ones from all the too many damned wars we’ve had since then. It was beautiful, emotional, worked so well with the words, and I admired that Kate carefully avoided using any military or combat imagery.

Four years on and the book is almost out of print – you can’t find it on online bookstores like Amazon (except second hand), but Soaring Penguin still has a very few left, so you can buy it from there (and two pounds from each book sale still goes to MSF). We started this journey to coincide with the 1914-2014 centenary. As this November sees the centenary of the Armistice in 1918 I wanted to do something, and after seeing the Garden of Remembrance opening in Princes Street Gardens a few days ago I thought perhaps I could post the pages of my and Kate’s story online for anyone to read, and take from it what they will. I asked Brick and Jonathan and Kate, and they all were supportive of the idea, as were Tim and John at Soaring Penguin.

So here we are, from To End All Wars, prose by me, art by Kate Charlesworth, “Memorial to the Mothers” as our little but heartfelt addition to this centenary year, and, hopefully, a reminder to always, always hold those who would lead us into violent conflict to account, because it is those in power who make those decisions, but it is rarely them who pay the price in blood and broken bodies and heartbreak.

And it’s over – So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Well, the day I have been dreading for several weeks has come to pass: I’ve been living under the cloud of imminent redundancy, and as the termination date has crept closer and closer I felt increasingly bad. It isn’t just the practical side of things – having to look for a new job, the crushing feeling of not getting posts you are well suited to, the way it saps your morale and sense of self worth, the worry about being able to pay your bills – it’s the emotional side. Not just that it fuels the wee black voice, there’s also a sense of loss: having drinks with some of my colleagues yesterday was very odd, I’ve worked next to some for thirteen and a half years, I’ve known them since before some of their children were born and it is very peculiar to think we’re not going to be part of each other’s daily lives anymore, quite upsetting. We’ll see each other from time to time, but it won’t be as it was before.

Always hard moving on, even when it is by choice, when it is forced on you it makes it harder. Here’s a copy of my final post from the Forbidden Planet Blog:

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Richard has already taken his final bow on the blog (see here), and now it’s my turn. Truth be told I have been putting this off all week, and here I am typing it now, on my last day at FPI. Quite emotional, as you can imagine; I’m trying to persuade colleagues in the Edinburgh store, beneath which the Blogcave lurks, deep under Edinburgh’s ancient Old Town, right above the haunted undercity, that they should play the sad piano music from the end of the old Hulk TV show as I walk out for the last time tonight.

Thirteen and a half years: I started the blog when I began working on the webstore for Forbidden Planet International, looking after the graphic novels and books. I had pitched the idea to Kenny of using a blog so we could highlight some of the titles we sold in the stores and online, celebrate them, draw reader’s attention to them, recommend books, use it for announcing news, not just our own but news and events from others in the comics community, to give them an added voice (especially in pre-Twitter days). To his and FPI’s credit they agreed and also supported the idea that we would keep the blog pretty non-commercial – of course we’d trumpet our store events and offers, we’d link reviews to the webstore where you could buy the graphic novel we were reviewing, but that was about it, it was left mostly as a space to celebrate comics, science fiction, fantasy, horror and animation, all our geek loves. I think Kenny saw it as a nice way to give something back to the comics community, and that’s a nice way to think of it.

As time went by more contributors came onboard, allowing us not only to cover more, but also to take in a more diverse range of tastes. Richard continued from the sort of recommendations and reviews he had done when he worked in our Nostalgia & Comics store in Birmignham – it was something we had in common as I too had organised mini-reviews and staff recommendations in my old bookstore, and I knew that A) readers loved those personal recommendations and B) it often gave a new creator a chance to be spotted by readers. To be honest, as time went on Richard was less a reviewer and more a co-editor with me; I can’t imagine having run the FP blog this long without his help, as well as his articles and reviews, and while we all reviewed numerous small press works, Richard was king on those, writing up on so many small press comickers that it often felt like they saw us as “their” site, which frankly we loved.

Then Our Man In Belgium, Wim, provided us with Our Continental Correspondent columns, bringing European works and comics trends to the Anglophone audience. I think any of us who truly love the medium are in awe of the status of the Franco-Belgian comics market, where bande dessinee is seen as “the ninth art”, a respected status those of us in the UK, Canada, America and other countries could only dream of (although that has changed a lot – look at Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Costa Award win for instance – and is still changing for the better here). Wim not only brought us news and reviews of European comics, from new talents and revered veterans, he did it the way I hope everyone on the blog did, with their own personality and passion for the medium (I think we all used our own voices, kept it personal, never a house style or corporate tone, and I think that’s another reason readers liked it).

I learned a lot more about European comics through editing Wim’s posts, and it only sharpened my hunger to see more of these works translated and published in English. And, rather wonderfully, that sometimes happened because of his pieces, especially his Translation, Please columns where he would champion some astonishing new comics work he’d seen in French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, and highlight why this was an author and a book Brit and North American publishers should be looking at and thinking of buying English language rights to. Several publishers told us they looked specifically for those European publishers and creators on their trips to continental conventions on the back of reading about them through Wim’s columns, and several ended up making deals and translating those books. I call that a pretty good result.

More people joined us through the years, some for a short time, others longer, but all added to a plurality of voices and tastes and subjects covered. My old Irish chum from our days on The Alien Online (early SF & comics review site some of you may recall fondly) Pádraig contributed some long, thoughtful interviews, not least with the mighty Alan Moore, Zainab brought a new perspective with her own tastes and an eye for creators and titles that were not as well-represented as they should be, especially women and ethnic creators (an increasingly happening area in comics coverage, I am glad to see, but Zee was doing it well ahead of the curve and continues to do it now), Nicola, then working at our Glasgow store (now a Grande Fromage at the Glasgow Comic Con) brought an impassioned fangirl rush to her picks from the week’s new releases (and got me reading some I would otherwise have walked past).

Matt Badham would do us some great pieces and some cracking interviews, which, in what I thought was a nice touch of solidarity and cooperation, would be published by ourselves and John Freeman’s Down the Tubes at the same time. There was something nice about that – not competition, working together, all part of the bigger community. Hannah Chapman wrote some great pieces on the Indy scene and on women in comics and webcomics, now she’s a creator and pushing the splendid Avery Hill comics. Malachy from our Belfast store and my book group chum Misti joined me in my eternal love of good science fiction and fantasy, so we could cover more of the prose side of geekdom as well as the graphic, Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name, was our resident movie fiend, and another Irish chum, James Bacon, would contribute not just reviews but all sorts of interesting articles, from a gallery exhibition of comic art to some science fiction stage plays and reporting from San Diego Comic Con (along the way also chatting to local comic store owners in California and getting their views).

And that’s not counting everyone – a lot of others would contribute when they could (remember most of us were doing all of this in our own free time), and then we had numerous guest blogs. That was something I always wanted – when we ran our guest Best of the Year posts each December we would have a different writer, artist, editor, publisher, reviewer every single day in December, picking their favourites, before the blog crew chose their own; it meant we got a wider net, more reading tastes, that works we hadn’t seen or had time for got shout outs. Most sites would have a Best of the Year article around December, but I don’t think anyone did it quite the way we did with so many diferent guests getting a chance to shout out their faves.

Similarly our guest posts gave creators free reign to use the blog as a platform to talk directly to the readers about their work. We had reviews, previews and interviews, but it seemed to me there was something missing – reviews are our opinion, in interviews creators only get to answer the questions put to them… Why not have a feature where we removed ourselves from it and gave the slot entirely to them, to talk about their new work in their own words, in any way they wanted to. It gave readers some insight into the creation process, what elements of the story meant to the creator and why they worked the way they did, and at the same time served to highlight their new work and interest readers.

I remember one year we did a whole themed Director’s Commentary run with not just the winner but all shortlist nominees for Myriad’s First Graphic Novel prize, after one of the judges, Bryan Talbot, commented on the high standard of all of them, so we arranged to let each and every one of them do a guest spot about their entries. I know I am biased, but I think that was a damned good use of the platform we had to share. After the debacle of the all-male creator Angouleme shortlist a few years back a whole bunch of women writers, artists and publishers did a coperative guest spot with each highlighting women in the medium.

We loved being able to use the blog for something like that and other things, and as we’ve been seeing with certain sad groups attacking women, LGBT and ethnic creators virulently, it’s important those with a decent platform use it to defend diversity: more diverse voices means more intersting and unusual reading for us, which is a win-win situation. And, simply, it is the proper and decent thing to do; comics and scifidom are communities, and communities support and celebrate one another, and when we do that, we all win. Many are continuing that push, and all power to them; the blog here may be going quiet, but those of us who worked on it still have your back in the comics and SF community.

We’d all love to have done more, to turn the blog into a virtual journal, perhaps. But we all had work and life and other commitments, and we were all doing most of our reading, viewing and writing in our own time, after the day job. That’s a lot of hours of our own time, and always there would be more good stuff out there that we just couldn’t get time to cover. In a way though, that is a sign of how much comics, especially in the UK, has changed even just in those thirteen and a half years of the blog’s existence. When we started we had a pretty vibrant small press scene, with a couple of yearly events like Caption and then Thought Bubble celebrating them, and just a handful of UK graphic novel publishers, like Cape, or veterans like Knockabout. But then more events – mainstream and small press-friendly, from tiny local, small town events to European style comic art festivals like the Lakes were added to the calendar, and the already thriving small press scene got bigger, better, more diverse and interesting.

And the number of Indy publishers also grew in the UK: Myriad, Blank Slate (run by our own Kenny), SelfMadeHero, Soaring Penguin, Avery Hill, Nobrow and more. And many of those bloomed over those following years: suddenly UK comickers went from thinking why don’t we have our own Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf or Fantagraphics here to having those and seeing them prosper and reach new audiences. Just last month I chaired events with SelfMadeHero and Nobrow authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest literary festival on Planet Earth, and there were our Indy comics presses strutting their funky literary stuff, alongside small press creators given their own comic fair on opening day. We also saw some of those new Indy publishers here translating European comics for an English language audience, and then, oh so gloriously, taking their UK titles to European festivals and seeing them picked up for translation there. Wow. So many good changes over those years.

I’m honoured we got to be a small part of those changes, that we got to enjoy reading those works, and had a megaphone to shout out those creators and publishers and watch others pick them up, other sites like Broken Frontier coming along and adding their voices to this flowering of talent and creation. It has been a remarkable time for comics, especially in the UK. And it still is; if anything it is just getting better and better, and I hope very much that lending our voices to the chorus helped those creators and publishers, and I know more than a few readers who have told us over the years they only knew about a new work because of one of our articles, that they picked up a book they would never have seen otherwise. That, my comics chums, is a very, very nice feeling when you hear that.

(I’d like to think this is Richard and I going out in a blaze of six-gun glory, but fear we are more Pooch and Sunlounger than Butch and Sundance, and no, I don’t know which of us is which)

And… well, there’s more, but I have already gone on far longer than I intended to. I meant this to be shorter, pithier, but I am writing it on my last day here as it comes into my head, and I think I’m going on so long because I am reluctant to finish, because it is my last FP Blog post. Like David Tennant’s Doctor “I don’t want to go.” But go we must, things change, and let’s face it, thirteen and a half years is a pretty good innings for a comic blog. It has been a pleasure to be able to cover so many fine writers and artists, to celebrate the success of new publishers and watch comics culture flourishing as never before, from small press and Indy to the maintream, covering every subject from adventures to gender to health to science to poetry and more, and quite wonderful to have been a small part of that. I’m sad to leave the blog, to leave FP, the thought of not seeing colleagues I have worked years beside is, naturally, upsetting. But mostly I am proud of what we did, with few resources and a bunch of book and comics readers working away in our own time simply because we loved good reading.

So long, and thanks for all the fish. And always, always know where your towel is.

And keep reading. Always keep reading.

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And there it is, the last post after thirteen and a half years. I think we did a lot within our constraints and I’m pleased we helped a lot of writers, artists and new publishers to get noticed. But it’s over, and I’m looking for new work, still. So any publishers out there, bookseller for hire with decades of literary knowledge, passion for promoting good reading, huge range of experience in highlighting good authors through events, reviews, interviews, social media and literary festivals. I’m also house-trained.

The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.


And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

All the world’s a stage…

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Four hundred years to the day since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil, a popular playwright in his own time, he may well have been just a footnote in literary history like so many others, and yet, partly due to the posthumously published First Folio collection in 1623, put together by his friends so that Will’s work would not be forgotten after his death. Could any of them have imagined that these would become part of the absolute canon of world literature, told and retold endlessly across the centuries, adapted to new mediums and new ages…

shakespeare folio portrait martin droeshout

(the portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio, by Martin Droeshout)

How many ages hence,
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Julius Caesar

Four hundred years on and Shakespeare’s works still suffuse not only the cultural heritage of Britain but, appropriately, given the name of his famous theatre, the Globe, so many lines entering the popular language, used even by those who have no idea they are quoting from the Bard. They’ve been adapted again and again into new media that Will could never have dreamed of, from radio productions beamed into our homes through the ether like some magic by Prospero to the glories of the silver screen, and re-interpreting his works and life as inspiration for new tales – witness Neil Gaiman’s remarkable use of Shakespeare several times in his magnificent Sandman comics, both the plays and the man and also looking at the act of artistic creation, the cost of crafting stories (using the medium of stories to examine stories…). I’ve been a bookseller for more than two decades, a reader all my life, and I know full well that of the many stories published each year some can go on to become hugely popular, bestsellers as we’d call them today, and yet ten or twenty years later even those bestselling writers can slip into out of print obscurity.

sandman_gaiman_vess_shakespeare_prospero

(One of the Shakespeare elements of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, from on of my favourite plays, The Tempest, Prospero and Miranda, artwork by the incomparable Charles Vess)

Save for a precious  fraction of all the authors who have ever been published – the Jane Austens, the Charles Dickens, the Cervantes, the Borges, the Walter Scotts, eternal Homer of course, Mark Twain. These remain in print, always re-read, across the world, loved and admired and passed on to other generations, translated into languages Shakespeare would never have heard uttered, read again even in nations which didn’t exist when Shakespeare walked the streets of Stratford. As Gaiman has Dream tell his version of Shakespeare, there are some stories which are simply forever, which will always need to be retold as long as human tells stories – and storytelling is in the very blood of humanity, we’ve been doing it since we sat around fires telling oral ballads and drawing on cave walls. Times change, but people are people and the best stories say something about our nature, about what it is to be human, and that makes them forever pertinent to any age. And of course they’re also just bloody good stories to enjoy!

World Book Day

Today marks World Book Day. No secret on here, my love of reading and writing and the magic of words. I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, I really can’t recall a time when I didn’t read; I still have those fragmentary, dream-like images of partial memory from my youngest days as a very small boy, even before school age, reading my comics, enjoying children’s books. More memories of a little older and being taken to the local library regularly by my mum and dad, and always more comics each week (those were the days when kid’s comics like the Beano etc sold in the million, every kid in every playground read them). Making that weekly diet of comics more fun was the fact that my dad would often read them too and would riff on them – each year on holiday there was a small shop that always had some US imports, including kid-friendly titles like Sad Sack, and he’d read those too then use some of the lines with me during the day.

I’ve been a reader so long my body and brain have evolved; like many readers I can breathe words. In fact like many other readers I need to breathe words. I need words like I need oxygen and food and water. They mediate my existence, my view of and interaction with, the world and they shape my response to it. And on World Book Day I would like to ask you to pause in your busy life of work, family, chores and worries and responsibilities. Not just pause to read something and refresh your soul a little, but pause and consider something so seemingly mundane, so everyday that most people for most of the time – even those of us who live in books – forget that it’s not everyday, it’s not mundane or ordinary, it is nothing short of miraculous. I’m talking about words. Language. The mere fact that somehow in our long, convoluted evolution this most remarkable faculty in the universe came forth.

world book day 2015 banner

Argument still rages over how our ancestors evolved this remarkable ability of language, of speech, and all that goes with it, and probably there will always be various theories over how it happened, how both our physical form (lips, larynx etc) and our mental abilities (that growing, big brain that marks out homo sapiens) both grew to make complex language possible. Other animals have communication, a very few have highly complex communication – the great whales and dolphins, for example, may well have a linguistic system as complex as ours, in its own way. But how utterly astonishing it is we have that language – we can’t conceive of thought without language, we need thought to shape language. Our linguistic ability allows us to shape thoughts, emotions, even abstract reasoning and ideas from expressing “I love you” to composing poetry to articulating the design for a rocket to the Moon.

And then we slowly learned to take those words from our lips, from our minds, and to put them on papyrus, on stone, on clay tablets, vellum, paper, digital screens. We learned to write them. And suddenly we had books – we had exo-somatic memory, that is memory that lives on outside of our heads. When the wise elders of the tribe passed away before the written word, we had only our oral tradition to remember their important experiences and knowledge. And impressive as the oral tradition of our ancestors were (think of the great bards of the Homeric era singing the entire Iliad long before it was written down, or the druids of our own land training their memories to store vast amounts of knowledge), it can never store as much information as books can, and it can’t, crucially, communicate them as widely. With Gutenberg and moving type print books moved from hand-written to mass-produced and ideas spread like wildfire across the globe. Now the internet does the same (not always in the best ways, but not all ideas are good ideas after all!).

gutenberg and printing press

And on this day I’d like people to pause for a moment and just reflect briefly on how utterly amazing this aspect of human life is. We sculpt ideas inside our minds, our voice can articulate them, even complex or intimate ideas, and communicate them to others. We can put those words down on paper or screen and share them with anyone who cares to read them. The written word, a medium which allows telepathy, the transference of ideas and images and thoughts from one mind to many others and back again in a complex, interactive web. And we’re so used to this casual miracle we don’t often stop to think just how amazing it is. And how amazing that we turned that astonishing faculty into an object – the written word, the book – that we can share, which can still share out thoughts and ideas and stories when we’re not present personally, even after we’re long gone, a piece of thought made into a sculpture of printed words to traverse time and space in a way our frail physical form cannot.

Science fiction is fond of the scenario where an advanced alien species judges humans and finds us primitive, dangerous, violent and demands to know why we should be allowed to continue. I would take them to one of our great libraries and simply say “we created the book.”

To End All Wars

This month sees the publication of To End All Wars, a graphic anthology of twenty six tales by over fifty writers and artists from thirteen countries, all marking the centenary of the start of the First World War – the ‘war to end all wars’ – this year, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick). With this centenary year, while there have been some good documentaries and personal histories we all feared there would also be those who overlook the mud, the blood, the millions slaughtered and mutilated in mind and body on a scale of warfare no-one could have imagined before… So the brief was for stories that would take in all sides, different fields of conflict and service, from the early U-Boats to the trenches to the nurses who travelled all the way to Russia to give aid to the animals who were used in the war. Linking all of them was a desire to avoid those monsters, jingoism and nationalism, which have fueled (and still fuel) so much bloodshed, to, as the poet said, show our contempt for “the old lie – dulce est decorum est, pro patri mori” (how sweet it is to die for one’s country). Yes, Mr Gove, with your ill-informed public views on history and the Great War, we are looking at you and your ilk…


(end papers by Bern Campbell)


(Between the Darkness by Patri Hanninen and Neil McClements)

The subjects are diverse, taking in all sorts of fields of conflict from the First World War and all sides, even the role of animals, and there’s a wonderfully satirical piece by Brick which imagines all the leaders of the nations in that war on trial at the Hague for their war crimes, being cross examined by the Good Soldier Svejk, but all are inspired in one way or another by actual characters or events.


(Above: Il Gatto by Stuart Richardssees a curious feline running between the lines in the Alpine war between the Austrian and Italian lines in the frozen mountains; below: Dead in the Water by Ian Douglas and SM shows the chill brutality of a new form of warfare, the U-Boat campaign, from above and below the cold, dark seas)

My own story is the only prose piece rather than comic, but Memorial to the Mothers boasts some gorgeous, touching illustrations by Kate Charlesworth (who recently created the art for Mary and Bryan Talbot’s superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette), and it closes the collection. Memorial to the Mothers was inspired by one of my own photographs, which I took of an unusual war grave in Dalry Cemetery near Haymarket in Edinburgh, one which remembers a father and a son, both the same regiment, eerily both the same age at death, the father killed in the First World War, the son in the Second World War. I often wondered if the father consoled himself during his trials by thinking at least his wee boy, when he grew up, would never have to endure the mud, the blood, the screaming of young men dying on the wire in No Man’s Land, because how could anyone ever, ever think about starting another war after this slaughter of nations? And yet here is a memorial to both of them, the son killed only a couple of decades later in the war which came after the “war to end all wars…”

Brick had seen that photo after I had put a call out for contributors for the book over a year back, and he commented there was a story in there and perhaps I should think about doing one myself instead of just spreading the word about for contributors to try out. And looking at it I suddenly realised there was another casualty who wasn’t on this memorial, the mother and wife. And by extension all of those war memorials in counties all over the world which list the names of the fallen too, behind each of them a veriable regiment, a division, an entire corps of mothers, wounded in soul and spirit and heart, casualties as surely as their loved ones who were mown down on the battlefields. That gave me the angle I needed to tell a story, not so much of this sad father and son memorial, but for all the mothers of all the fallen, from that war and all others, and I poured as much emotion into it as I could, drawing, I suspect, without thinking, on my own ever-present sense of loss and grief and trying to channel it into empathy (something our world needs more of), for those legions of mothers, and Kate created some wonderful illustrations, from little items mothers keep, like baby boots, to some haunting images of the mothers left behind, with their loss etched into their hearts eternally, feeling the pain of loss of their young lads as surely as the maimed soldier feels phantom pain from a limb long since left in the mud of the battlefield. Hopefully readers find it as emotional.


(the father and son war grave in Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh, which inspired my story Memorial to the Mothers)

To End All Wars is published this month in the UK by Soaring Penguin Press and money from each sale is going to help Medecins Sans Frontiers, who offer medical help in many countries, in war zones, disaster hit areas and more, and goodness knows they could use all the donations they can get to continue their work, so I hope that we raise some money for them and that readers find our stories interesting. Jonathan and Brick have accomplished a great feat in herding the cats that are numerous writers and artists (from many countries) to bring this book from idea to actual finished work, and I’m proud of the work of my fellow contributors and myself. We weren’t there, none are left now after the death of Harry Patch a couple of years ago, who served in that dreadful, industrial slaughter, but I think I can say we all approached this with a sense of respect and deep emotional empathy. And with the last veteran now gone to well-earned rest it is all the more important we remember, that we never allow politicians and others to glorify war, because that makes it far, far too easy to for those same so-called leaders – different century, but same sorts of people seemingly in charge, always, too quick to find excuses for war but themselves never in the line of fire, always other people’s sons and daughters, all too often sacrificed to propaganda and political or economic reasons, not the principles they tell the soldiers they are fighting for. Never trust the bastard who speaks of glory in war, never let a leader try to drag us into another conflict without questioning them (yes, Mr Blair, we mean you, you two-faced Judas with your blood-soaked hands).

On the BBC

To End All Wars, the World War One comics anthology I have a short story in, has a nice, big feature on the BBC site today, and yours truly’s contribution, alongside that of Kate Charlesworth who created the wonderful art for the story, is about two thirds of the way down the article. The book itself, edited by Jonathan Clode and and Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick), is published by Soaring Penguin Press towards the end of this month (so I’ll have my copy in time to ‘casually’ tuck under my arm as I stroll around the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, where I am chairing a couple of author talks again this year). Two pounds from the sale of each book will got to benefit Médecins Sans Frontières medical charity, so I hope folks will give it some support.

to-end-all-wars-cover-Lizzy-Waterhouse

The stories take in a large number of creators from different countries, with many tales inspired by real events or people and telling stories from all sides of that awful conflict which, even in this centenary year of it’s commencement, still echoes down to us, even after the last of the elderly veterans from that war have faded into history and gone to their rest, and takes in the war in the trenches, the seas, the mountains and the air, the humans and the animals who were used in the war effort, the front line and the home. I strongly suspect Michael Gove will not appreciate the sentiment of most of the stories and also suspect that most of my fellow contributors would be quite happy that he would hate it (I certainly would be). My own story is inspired by one of my photographs, of a war memorial in a cemetery just a few moments walk from my flat, a father and son war grave, the father killed in the Great War, his son in the fall of France in 1940. You can also read a special guest post by the editors talking about how the book came together over on the Forbidden Planet blog.

We’ve lost Iain

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just come home and learned that one of the UK’s most innovative and hugely bestselling novelists, Iain Banks, had succumbed to the cancer he only announced he was diagnosed with recently. The news of Iain’s illness at only 59 was a real shock to many of us in the literary world; friends and readers (and readers are often friends in our book world) were shellshocked at his announcement. To find this evening that we’ve lost him so soon, when we still held some distant hope that a treatment may help prolong his stay on this planet is devastating. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of doing many a book event with Iain over my years in the book trade, and I’m sitting here right now, like many others I expect, thinking this can’t be bloody right, trying to square my mental image of a hugely genial, friendly, good natured bloke with a love of life with this news that he simply isn’t here anymore, and it makes me feel sick to think of it.  And he was genial and friendly – the first time I met Iain I found it hard to think this smiling, open chap I was chatting to was the man who devised the disturbing Wasp Factory (one of the most astonishing Scottish novels of the 20th Century).

Iain signing at Traverse 2
(Iain signing copies of the Algebraist back in 2008 in Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre. Books to sign for readers and a pint by his hand equals contented author. Pic from my Flickr)

Iain straddled literary genres with ease, creating his science fiction (including the remarkable Culture novels) and also his ‘straight’ literary fiction (if you could call anything Iain wrote ‘straight’!) and also deviating into some non fiction for his whisky tour of Scotland (he once told me one of the few books where the research required was a genuine pleasure to undertake). Few writers get to be successful in both a genre and be equally accepted in ‘literary’ fiction (a cumbersome, imprecise term), but Iain did, and both his fiction and science fiction both were covered by the literary critics. His science fiction, in particular his Culture novels, displayed a displeasure at the inequalities of the world as it is but, like Clarke and Rodenberry, a hope and belief that humanity could be better, more evolved, more equal, more caring, more enlightened.

Iain often stuck by those principles in his own life – when Blair and his acolytes fudged ‘intelligence’ to prove why we should invade Iraq Iain refused invites to Blair’s Downing Street gatherings of various artistic worthies and instead cut up his British passport in disgust at this action and said he would do without foreign travel and getting a new passport until the wars were ended or Blair out of office. I am glad that in his last few months he got to go abroad again, having a honeymoon with his long term partner Adele (many Edinburgh geeks will know her for her sterling work in the city’s Dead by Dawn film  fest). I received an email from Iain when he was away with Adele a few weeks ago in Venice. I replied saying I hoped he wouldn’t feel compelled to emulate Byron and challenge the locals to a swimming race down the canals. No chance, came the quick reply, I’ve seen what goes into those canals… That was Iain, humour always there, even at times like that, facing what he was facing.

The very evening before I was due to start here at Forbidden Planet several years ago I was treated to a huge, slap-up feed with Iain, Adele and fellow Scottish SF author Ken MacLeod. I had a bad experience with my former bookstore and Iain and Ken had been among the writers I had worked with who stood up and defended me, which was a huge morale boost for me at a very difficult time in my life. It was to be a cheer up, could be worse night out, but by then I had met with our own Kenny who had asked me to start at FP, so it turned into a celebration night. Huge amounts of curry and wine ensued. Despite his huge bestselling status for so many years Iain remained the same friendly, open and very approachable man, the sort of bloke you could just stand in the local pub and chat to over a pint. We lose him just before his publisher, the very fine Orbit Books, one of the homes to the best in British science fiction, could get his new book out. I know they have been rushing to try and get the book out much sooner than possible, everyone thought we would have a bit more time, but again that bastard devil Cancer has had its way instead (and in the words of the current advert series “up yours, Cancer”) and now the book will come out just that bit too late. And ironically one of the main characters is a man facing terminal cancer. Sometimes when art imitates life it is interesting; in this case it may well prove interesting but also rather bitter to the many of us who loved Iain’s writing. I’ve been so looking forward to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August, but the thought of that annual major literary bash without Iain’s usual presence seems so damned wrong.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar
(taken just last year, two of Scotland’s bestselling authors beginning with ‘I’, Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, enjoying one of Edinburgh’s fine hostelries, pic from my Flickr)

We’ve lost one of Britian’s finest writers (held by many to be among the top 50 most influential and important writers in the UK since 1945) and a major influence in our beloved science fiction genre, and worse we’ve lost a damned good man, and far, far, far to bloody young. If you enjoy a good drink then when you have a decent ale or even better a good dram of single malt, raise a wee toast for Iain, he’d doubtless appreciate that. And maybe as well as picking up The Quarry later this month from Orbit readers may, if they are able, want to consider a wee donation in his memory to Cancer Research, still fighting fighting against this damned disease which takes too many of us (are there any of us who haven’t lost a family member or friend to it?). In a small mercy his wife Adele said that his passing was without pain.

Goodbye, Iain, your inventiveness brought so many of us onboard and you took us with you on some extraordinary expeditions into the imagination, and on a personal note you and Ken and many other writers were there for me when I needed it and stood up for me, which I will always be so grateful for. Rather than dwell on losing Iain so damnably young I prefer to remember him smilingly signing books for fans, chatting away to them and other writer friends and booksellers after the author event was over, usually in the bar over a pint, beer in his hand and big, open grin on his face. My thoughts go out to Adele, his family and closest friends who have had to endure the thought of his dreadful illness and now his sudden passing. Somewhere, in the vastly distant future, when mankind has perhaps evolved to be more like the Utopian Culture he imagined I hope one day there will be a Mind piloting a starship and it will choose to call itself after Iain.

 

Ten years of the Woolamaloo

Just realised I totally missed my own tenth anniversary – the Woolamaloo Gazette traces its roots back to a satirical email spoof newsletter I sent out at college parodying current events and culture in the early 90s (when the internet was still the internet and not even the web yet) and the name stuck when I started blogging in early April, 2003. I was just looking back through that month’s posts and I see multiple discussions of books, from history to science fiction, from Richard Morgan’s then brand new novel to a chat with Iain Banks who  at the time had just told me his next book was non fiction, a book about whisky (and for once he was delighted to do the research needed for his writing!), there was a lot of movie talk, discussion about work and a large chunk of satirical posts about then current political events. Ten years of the Blog They Couldn’t Hang – and oh boy, did some rather unpleasant people (who I still think had their own agendas for their nasty actions) try to hang it and me, but it backfired on them in spectacular fashion, and deservedly so (with no small amount of thanks to many people who supported me during that upsetting period). So over ten years of the Woolamaloo Gazette as a blog and over twenty since I first coined the name for those satirical newsheets I emailed around the college and to friends in other institutions. Feels odd but also a little satisfying.

Falling

The king sighed deeply. So few are left, he thought, so few, the last of my troops surround this final redoubt, this last keep. Most have fallen and now lie still upon the earth; the enemy is at the gates, the deep, chill darkness closes over all we are and we no longer have the strength of our greener days to withstand it. A final charge and it shall overwhelm our tattered, broken defences. Again the king sighed and regarded his now ravaged, increasingly barren kingdom. We shall all soon vanish beneath the approaching darkness, he told his few remaining subjects, but, he told them, holding his head high, no darkness lasts forever. We shall rise once more and it will be glorious. The king of the tree made his solemn promise to his remaining leaves and turned from autumn to face the shadow of winter.

Rhythm song

As Britain (finally) after several centuries appoints a woman (and a Scot) for the first time to the post of Poet Laureate (which has until now been unremittingly the preserve of white, English males, despite being supposedly a post for the whole of the UK) the BBC is embracing verse, with a special poetry season across its various networks, with, as is now almost the standard practise, a good web site to support the programming. I know, I’ve banged on about poetry before and realistically I’m probably wasting my breath (or typing) as people mostly polarise into those who embrace poetry and those who say they can’t stand it.

Now I say they can’t stand it, but for most of them what they actually mean is they’ve never really tried and have written off one of our oldest art forms, a magical form of writing, which has spaned millennia of human development. Perhaps they were put off by a bad English teacher at school, perhaps they simply assume that its not for them without trying, but either way it shuts them off from a huge swathe of human culture. Bards have been a vital part of our cultural heritage literally for thousands of years; long before the written word and the novel and the play were commonly available using verse as a method to memorise tales was the method that was used, its probably how huge epics like the Iliad would have been transmitted across the centuries before it was written down.

I love the written word; its a magical power, to be able to communicate thoughts and ideas and feelings across time and space; it links people. And in the realms of metaphor and literary structure and notional worlds that the written word embraces, poetry is a special case all its own, a unique way of talking to the world and to the heart and to the soul in a way few others can. Writing was once seen literally as magic – Egyptian priests casting spells to protect the dead pharoah in the afterlife through the use of words, pictograms drawn on cave walls of Lascaux to drawn on the power of what they represent, the use of the exact, written form of a person’s name to give power over them. We’re so surrounded by communication media today we’ve forgotten how remarkable the act of being able to articulate thoughts and feelings in the written word, in a way that can go beyond ourselves to many others and even outlast us, actually is. Poetry is a direct link to that time when few could read and write, to magical incantations, but not to cast spells or summon angels or demons, but to draw and share emotions directly. And to hear poetry read aloud, by the light of candles and fire as it was for millennia is to partake in a ceremony of magic.