The Shadow of a Passing Year

As I write this, I am sat on a train heading north from High Wycombe to Nottingham (transfers at Banbury and Derby). It is the 31st December, the last day of 2015, and I am once again collecting my thoughts before heading to a New Year’s Eve party. Apart from that, in almost every sense, I am very far from the point I was at this time last year.

2015 has probably been my worst year, even considering life-threatening illness, injury, and other sundry miseries that have afflicted my life. I’m choosing not to dwell because there’s little point, but the first nine months of the year can be accurately described as in the shit. I am in no hurry to revisit them, so I shall move on to when things picked up. Similarly, and perhaps a little selfishly, I think that for all the tragic events of this year, others have said it better than I. Sometimes, the only appropriate response is silence.

I have been living and working in High Wycombe for three months now. My job, which I won’t go in to for security reasons, has been going well enough. The people I work with are quite nice people, though many of them are leaving in 2016, including one of the two who have been coaching me in my role. As is always the case when someone departs, there is a wistfulness for those who remain as the change forces them to reflect on their own position. Largely, it is a job and like all jobs something that is done to pay for the things we like – capitalism fails – but right now the novelty of a monthly pay cheque has not worn off. For my part, I am hopeful that the new year will offer me chances to continue my development. I work with a place that offers excellent access to training and I intend to exploit it to the fullest.

If my workplace has been welcoming, my new lodging has not. Nothing sums it up more fully than this: Having returned from my visiting my parents’ over Christmas, I found a Christmas card left outside my door. The message? “Please remember to empty the bins once a week and switch off all lights.” None is the worse tyrant than the petty one.

Socially, High Wycombe has been challenging! I’m not, nor have I ever been, the kind of person who can just go in to a pub or café[1] and start making friends. Yet I did not wish to live in isolation in my new home, if for no other reason than it would be quite boring. I have made a few efforts to meet people that have had some success, using the site meetup to, well, meet up. I have gone to a coffee meeting in Marlow where I met a group of older adults. They were friendly and chatty but I found I had little in common with them. I have also signed up with a reading group, which I really enjoyed and will be going to again at the end of January for The Martian.[2]

The largest and most active group has been the most challenging. After a shaky start at a comedy club, where I largely did not get to talk to anyone, I had two more events with them. The first, at Halloween, was a complete farce. I up alone in costume walking the streets of London as they had missed the train. The next time I met them, for brunch at a local bar, was similarly fraught, as they chose not to sit at the table they had booked. I elected to give it one last shot for a Christmas meal in Marlow. I admit that, with so many false starts, I was a little trepidatious. I half expected them to have changed reservations at the last moment. Thankfully, I went through with it and had a chance to speak with everyone. They seem like very nice people, so I was glad I did.

I have been able to read a great deal more, despite having less free time. I think this is probably a result of having to give structure to my days, what with having demands on my time. I have meant to write a little on the books that I have read since coming to High Wycombe, but I suppose there I but up against the limits of my time. I’ve moved back on to non-fiction for the last little bit of they year, having just finished Flynn’s new biography of Genghis Khan. At some point I will try and look back on some of the things I have read; Rivers of London, in particular, was both better and more thoughtful than I expected.

I continue to write, much the same as I did last year. Having finished ‘The Mountain’s Shadow’[3] I returned to an old, old idea of mine. I first came up with what was then titled ‘Zodiac Rising’ on the train to Stoke-on-Trent to visit my then girlfriend while she was at university. The bones of the tale, a journey of self-discovery, remain; all else – gods, magic, monsters – has gone. I’m a very slow writer but I try to put in 500 words a day – some days I do more – and it currently sits at 100,000 words. Some months ago I returned to rewrite the beginning, which is extending things somewhat. I had originally intended to do one and done but I am now thinking that perhaps it could work split in to two parts. The vital thing for now is to focus on getting it finished, then I can worry about the rest. I suspect this time next year I shall still be writing about it!

Something else that I am looking forward to in the new year is my return to running role-playing games. I and two of my brothers had been dabbling, in a desultory manner, with gaming[4] while I still lived in Gloucestershire. I have invited a few friends to take part in a VOIP game session drawing inspiration from pretty much the entirety of my gaming life. Titled ‘The Road of the King’[5] the concept is that the characters are the children of a band of great and good heroes who were felled by an insidious and triumphant evil – the “King” – and it is up to this new generation to take up the fight. I’ve written a fair bit on the setting[6] and am really looking forward to it – largely because of the excellent character ideas I’ve already received.[7]

The past two weeks saw me back at my parents for Christmas. I visited Liam and Susie in their new home in Quedgeley, which is a lovely little house just right for them. He showed me his pride and joy[8] while Susie jetted off on hers.[9] I went to a Greek restaurant, the Mythos,[10] in Chepstow with Jim. I saw my parents, more of my brothers, and my nieces. I went for a run and, for the first time, fell over while doing so. The foresters appear to have taken a dislike to their trees, hewing them haphazardly and turning the paths in to mud-slicked nightmares. It rained a lot. I ate a lot. I played far too much World of Wacraft.[11]

With the liberty afforded me by salaried employment,[12] I’m actually able to play things for the coming year. In addition to ongoing little things like theatre trips and a triumphant return to watching an awful lot of awful films.[13] Like the world and his dog, I went to see Star Wars VII. It was probably my film high-light of the year.[14] I took two of my brothers on the trip and all three of us were absolutely thrilled. As we left the cinema, we were pleased but as we walked and talked, comparing the little details of craft and wonder, our esteem grew and grew. It was not a film that shocked or surprised, but rather a master-piece of intentional design – much like the original Star Wars film. Others may not have enjoyed it as much as I; I wouldn’t know, I stopped reading op eds about it even before it had screened. Unusually for me, I am keen to see it at the cinema again – I may go while in Nottingham, or when back in Wycombe.

I’m also hoping to get back in to regularly watching theatre. So far, I’ve restricted myself to National Theatre screening of plays, so as to recoup the cost of moving and setting up here in Wycombe, but I am thinking of going to see the Branagh production of Romeo and Juliet in the summer. I have been recommended the Wycombe Swan; at the moment it is panto season (which I do not care for) but hopefully something will tickle my fancy. There have been some mumblings among the social groups I have attached to about going to some cultural events – they’re still of an age where clubbing and rekt is the main diversion – and I think I would enjoy the company.[15]

I also have bigger plans in the offing. Having missed 2Cellos perform in London, I have looked up their tour dates and am planning a trip in late May to see them in Munich. That will be a bit of a double treat, as it will be a chance to see performers I greatly esteem and my first trip outside of Britain since 2012, when I went to Paris. It will be my second trip to Germany.[16] The chocolate comes highly recommended. I am also hoping to return to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival in August. This is being arranged with the Meet-up group so there is every chance it will go wrong. Finally, and most excitingly, my brother Jim and I are planning a trip to Marrakesh in time for Christmas/New Year’s for 2016. It will be the first time I have been off continent. I anticipate growing fat from all the tagine I will be eating.

[1] Not that Britain has a café culture. More’s the pity.

[2] I was a bit pleased that a group primarily focused on literary fiction chose a sci-fi book to start the year. On the other hand, a reviewer I greatly admire has made a good case that ‘The Martian’ isn’t a sci-fi novel at all. We shall see!

[3] At least for now. I have some further ideas to expand it.

[4] 13th Age for those who are curious and care about system.

[5] RPGs are where I get my latent pomposity out, I’m sure.

[6] RPGs are also where I allow myself the luxury of world-building – mental masturbation at its finest. For those who have read me elsewhere, this is a reimagining of the Xerxes/Sol Crucis setting.

[7] I don’t want to tell you about my character, but I really do about these guys! A demon-summoning warrior and the son of a Time Lord and the Old Woman of the Mountain. Sweet.

[8] Playstation 4

[9] A motorbike

[10] I am not an aficionado of Greek cuisine, but the food was excellent and the service great.

[11] I seem to relapse at Christmas. I got a rocket this year.

[12] It is amazing the difference money makes. People parrot the cliché that it cannot buy you happiness but the honest truth is that without it, you will be miserable.

[13] I was so excited for Black Mass and it let me down.

[14] But Fury Road is so close!

[15] I do have a theatre buddy in London, but she is occupied with work commitments most of the time. Those hyenas won’t hunt themselves.

[16] I stayed in Berlin while travelling Europe in my early twenties

Castles in the Sky

64. In what concerns war, their customs are the following. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle. Whatever number he slays, he cuts off all their heads, and carries them to the king; since he is thus entitled to a share of the booty, whereto he forfeits all claim if he does not produce a head. In order to strip the skull of its covering, he makes a cut round the head above the ears, and, laying hold of the scalp, shakes the skull out; then with the rib of an ox he scrapes the scalp clean of flesh, and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps, and hangs them from his bridle-rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks, like the capotes of our peasants, by sewing a quantity of these scalps together. Others flay the right arms of their dead enemies, and make of the skin, which stripped off with the nails hanging to it, a covering for their quivers. Now the skin of a man is thick and glossy, and would in whiteness surpass almost all other hides. Some even flay the entire body of their enemy, and stretching it upon a frame carry it about with them wherever they ride. Such are the Scythian customs with respect to scalps and skins. – Herodotus, The Histories, Book 3 (taken from here)

I have been packing the past few days. At the moment that involves putting books in boxes; as an adjunct to that sorting the various notes I have made in the past few years then secreted on shelves, between pages and other sundry places. It evokes a romantic image all those scattered musings on crinkled paper. A thought that has fetched through my brain, one that drifts through from time to time, is to combine the disparate strands I have written down into a coherent whole. Most of these scraps are not story ideas, they are outlines for secondary worlds or more accurately specific locations within them. Given that I have consistent pre-occupations that’s not such an impossible challenge. In some ways this is an extension of a habit I already have, taking several ideas and trying to make them into a larger whole.

When I was younger, had more time and played more Dungeons & Dragons I engaged in world building as an enjoyable activity in itself. In crudes strokes I would lay down a bit of terrain, the people there, their gods and heroes and shade in their relationship to one another. As fitted the genre I was working in, fantasy dungeon-hackery, it was constructed around the axes of conflict and adventure. It was and remains a great deal of fun but it is pseudo-masturbatory. This does evoke the image of the author hunched over their labours, but frames it somewhat differently.

Secondary world composition can be a self-indulgent activity that can provide framework to inform a consistent setting for the events off a story. A simile I like to deploy (and probably heard elsewhere) is that world-building provides the scaffolding for your story. Character studies and plot diagrams are materials in the same support structure. The trick is to exercise the discipline to remove the props without damaging the structure in place.

When I have used world-building techniques in the past I have found it mostly useful as a reference work to facilitate consistency. My current project involves using naming conventions from a European but not Anglo context. I have a reference document to keep all the names straight, especially useful as I proof-read. It also helps promote continuity within the story, as I know what each character is doing where. Liken it to an artist’s composition sketches. They pre-empt and prompt the finished art but (ideally) they should not be visible.

I don’t think that world-building exercises are exclusive to genre-fiction, though I it might be a peculiar vice of them. Books with pages in the 1000s filled with plodding exposition of the funerary rites of an imagined people is intended as window dressing but just serves to mud up the view. This is an absurdly reductionist idea, but the sometimes retrogrades passions of genre can need reining in. Kill your darlings indeed.

There is an unremarked conceit of literary or mainstream fiction that there is a substantial amount of this kind of composition going on; the evocation of a ‘real’ world within fiction allows can facilitate lazy reproduction but it is possible to re-present the world in such a way as to make us see it anew. Material conditions, psychological horror, or just plain old attention to detail and deployment of familiar themes bring to life a world that exists simultaneously on page and brain. Nowhere is this clearer than in visual media such as film and television; dress departments are providing a shorthand for the world via fashion.

It is also important to draw from sources outside your comfort zone, or try to. I grew up on a steady diet of conventional westernised fantasy; sub-Tolkien stuff with elves, dwarves and men. It is only in recent years that I have expanded from that and looked to other things and, I think no unrelatedly, my thoughts and fiction has developed as well. This isn’t a question of quality, but rather that the particular mechanisms of creativity feed from whatever resources you give them. There is a lot to be said for research, even when composing something fantastical.

I began with a quote lifted from Herodotus on the Scythians. I am currently working my way through the (gorgeous) Landmark edition, having read Xenophon prior to this. There is a definite poetic rhythm to his language; Herodotus was both born into a culture that valued lyrical composition, and the Histories are intended to spoken as much as read. His is a work of non-fiction, one of the earliest to come down to us, that includes the meat and potatoes of world building. Research can provide fodder for imaginary worlds; the most famous fantasies are largely derived from historical mythologies. In many ways culture is reproduction of culture (I might like to revisit this at some point) and we can only talk about the things we are aware of.