Monthly Archives: September 2014

Polaris

There is no fixed point in the universe. That’s what she used to say to me, with that half smile, lips together, eyes dancing, back in those early days when I fell for her. You’re the fixed point is what I’d told her and that’s what had started it. Later she’d told me that it had felt too soon to hear something like that but I still remember catching, just momentarily, the startled look of delight that surfaced on her face as I’d said it. As quickly as she’d revealed herself it was hidden away again and she settled her features back into that half smile. We were walking home from a bar and though the lights of the city dimmed the canopy of stars above us she picked out one, pointing up at it and grabbing my shoulder so that I looked. That’s Polaris she told me. Teased me that it was sometimes known as the guiding star and that perhaps that was what I was looking for. Did you know that it’s brighter now than when mankind first looked on it ? She didn’t tell me this, I looked it up later. She had been teasing but she was right; I was looking for a guiding star and though I never told her I saw some equivalence in the steady brightening of that distant celestial body and our relationship as it blossomed between us. We came back to it, as our little lover’s in joke, again and again. It’s not fixed she would insist. It might as well be I tried to reason with her, all of the other stars in the Northern sky appear to rotate around it. We can take our position in space relative to that point. She used to laugh and assert that everything was inexorably expanding out from the moment things began, that everything was getting further away from everything else. More distant. Nothing was fixed. I would pretend to be sad and playfully detach from her, taking literally her inference that all things pull apart until she’d give in, wrap her arms back around me and whisper that changes in the universe were happening so slowly that we’d never even notice it. The universe won’t pull us apart I would whisper back.

I remember this each year, particularly as the season turns to Autumn. The sun always hangs lower in the sky and it more directly catches my attention. I find myself staring at it, the most prominent star that we can see, marking out our days in constant motion.

There is no fixed point in the universe. Not anymore.

……

This is the third story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share if you liked it. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

10 favourite books

There’s a meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment to list out your 10 favourite books. At risk of turning this into Buzzfeed I thought I’d note my choices here, mainly in the spirit of trying to reflect on what, if anything, I could glean about my own writing from my selection of reading. Other than oh-my-god-I-could-never-write-as-well-as-that, of course…

Subject to change on a whim, with a break in the weather, or depending on what I’ve just had for breakfast here are the 10:

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey. This is my all time favourite and the book that fired my entire interest in 60s counter culture in the States. From here I went back to Kerouac and forwards to Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Sadly I never drove across America in a brightly painted bus with flowers in my hair but perhaps there is still time. If you know the film then you’ll know that it is a brilliant thing but the book is far richer and more nuanced. It works as a straightforward story but also allegorically to describe the entire movement Kesey was associated with: a freeing of the mind from tradition and authority. It’s very funny, deeply sad, and, by the end, redemptive and hopeful.

The Lord Of The Rings – JRR Tolkien. Yes it’s somewhat predictable. And yes I have read many fantasy genre books since that I consider “better”. However, this is the one that opened an 11/12 year old me up to an entire genre that has given me significant pleasure and escape over the past 30 years. If there’s a fantasy closet then I’m coming out of it. Two books in and another that’s possibly now more famous for the film version which may say something about either my taste or the steady decline of Western Civilisation. Or both. Either way the films nail the scale and scope but the key to why I love this, which the books inevitably had long before Peter Jackson could speak, let alone speak Elvish, is imagination. All of that stuff. Out of one person’s head. Imagination was Tolkien’s great gift to me.

Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James. I’m not sure if the rules for this list specified works of fiction. I’m not particularly sure that Clive James took much notice of the fiction / non fiction distinction in his collection of memoirs anyway so it probably evens out. This is here simply because the man writes so beautifully; few craft a phrase as eloquently as James and few could guide you through their formative years with such humour, candour, and grace. His command of voice leaves me mildly awestruck – each page is perfectly and consistently him. This is the book that made me look at fifteen odd years’ worth of diary entries and want to chuck them all in the bin.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams. Eminently quotable, much cleverer than it’s given credit for, and extremely funny. I think, reflecting on it, that what I really like about Hitchhikers is the sheer number of ideas in it. Whilst it’s difficult to know how much ended up on the cutting room floor I like to imagine that Adams chucked everything in that was running through his head, inventing ever more complex problems for his narrative to solve. The slight cheat, of course, was that he was writing both SF and comedy so when things got too tough he could always fall back (with a knowing wink) on deus ex machina.

Generation X – Douglas Coupland. I’m instinctively wary of something that had the whole “defines a generation” tag foisted on it but this book caught me at exactly the right time. Reading it in my mid 20s it felt authentic to me at a time when I was wondering what else was. I haven’t read it since and suspect that it may not speak as loudly now as it did then albeit it’s interesting that the central premise of the book – that three disempowered friends tell each other stories as a means of expression – is one that I seem to have unconsciously processed and am vaguely channeling in this year’s writing project.

The Lions Of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay. There are a number of fantasy books (other than LOTR) that I could have picked but Kay has steadily worked his way to the top of my pile in recent years. His early work was very Tolkien-esque (relatively unsurprising given that he worked on editing some of Tolkien’s unpublished writing) but he has subsequently mined a richer seam that weaves fantasy with historical fiction. Al-Rassan is set in a parallel mediaeval Spain and chronicles a regional power struggle between various political and religious factions. The central characters are brilliant, it’s tightly plotted, lyrically written, and a fabulous exercise in world building (or, I guess, world borrowing).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera. Another book I read in my mid to late 20s and which, I think, stuck with me precisely because it was so overtly philosophical. It was probably the first time I’d encountered a style that very consciously called out the themes that the book was seeking to explore in its narrative, often directly framed to the reader almost as non fiction. I like that authorial voice speaking from the page alongside the narrative voices and I like that this is a book that is unashamedly about the big stuff: existence, love, being, life.

Stoner – John Williams. The newest book on my list in terms of when it was read. This popped up last year to a fair degree of fanfare as a “lost classic” and I picked it up whilst taking a 6 month sabbatical from work. In that sense it’s probably another case of right book at the right time given that it deals almost exclusively in reflecting on the course of a relatively ordinary life and its significance. It’s quite slow, nothing much happens, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly sad.

The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald. I read it for English Literature A level. I didn’t get it. See also Pride And Prejudice. I had one teacher, a man, who taught me Arthur Miller, dystopian visions of the future, and Shakespeare. I got all that. I had another, a woman, who taught me Gatsby, Austen, and the Romantic poets. For a long time I didn’t get it all. She persevered with my immaturity and wall of rationality until, between us, we knocked it down (or, at least, took a couple of bricks out). Gatsby is magical, poetic, heady, dizzying, and, in a common theme for me, also, at its core, very sad. I love it now, just as I also learned to love Austen, and Keats, and anyone else that understood how to make your heart beat a little faster through words.

Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl. This is the one I read and read and read as a child. Reading Dahl again now, to my daughter, is a great pleasure but this was the one that I loved as a kid and probably most obviously started me off into all of the other books listed above. I also loved those Enid Blyton books about all girls’ boarding schools as a kid: not really sure what that was all about and perhaps best we let that one lie…

Tomorrow I will remember with a groan something really obvious that I’ve missed out. Let me know in the comments what your favourites are and what I’m missing out on.

Fission

“His wife’s dead lieutenant.”

“General ?”

“She’s dead. The British know she’s been dead since ’41 but they’ve been keeping it from him so he stays… stays motivated shall we say”. General Groves sat back in his chair behind his impeccably tidy desk and motioned to his subordinate to stand at ease. There was no trace of doubt or regret in his voice.

“He’s asking for news again sir.”

“My hands are tied lieutenant, this is for the British. Rotblat’s with Chadwick and I don’t think they want that group disrupted. If Oppenheimer needs Chadwick and Chadwick needs Rotblat then our job is to make sure nothing gets in the way of that.”

“Then what do we tell him sir ?”

“Use your initiative lieutenant. Find out what the British are telling him and tell him the same. The Soviets are going to take Poland, it’s a mess. No one knows what’s going on in there. Tell him we’re doing everything we can to establish contact with her.”

The lieutenant fell silent and lowered his eyes to the floor. There was a short intake of breath as if he was about to speak but then thought better of it. Groves noted the reaction implacably.

“Do you know the story lieutenant ?” he asked suddenly.

“Sir ?”

“Rotblat’s story. How he got here.”

“No. No sir, I don’t. He doesn’t talk about it to us.” By “us” Groves assumed the lieutenant meant the military personnel on the project. He nodded briefly in acknowledgement.

“He’s a brilliant man. All of them, of course, are brilliant men lieutenant. We won’t build this thing without that. They need to be able to see this..” he thumped the desk abruptly “…and this…” he rolled a piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger “…in a way we can’t comprehend.” He stood and spread his arms to take in the room. “All of this lieutenant, this desk, this room, you and I, they need to understand all this as matter, as constituent particles, as the building blocks of the universe.”

“I don’t think I understand sir”

Groves laughed.

“I don’t need you to lieutenant. I need you to make sure that nothing distracts them from their task. Rotblat’s mind should be on atoms and nuclei and reactions, not on flesh and blood. They are scientists lieutenant – I need them to deliver the most extraordinary science project man has ever devised not ponder on the nature of humanity.”

“But he keeps asking after his wife sir.”

“Rotblat left Poland two days before Hitler invaded.” Groves paused. He was a practical man and war had hardened his pragmatism but he was not entirely without heart. “She was supposed to come back to England with him lieutenant but she was unwell. He was needed back with Chadwick and left her behind. Way I’ve heard it she was supposed to follow as soon as she was well enough. She never left Poland and our intelligence suggests she died, maybe in Majdaenk, maybe in the Warsaw ghetto.”

Groves sat down again behind his desk and lowered his voice, almost as if voicing his private thoughts aloud, softly.

“He writes to her. He still has hope. He writes to her every week, mailing the letters to his old address even though he’s heard nothing for almost three years. He knows about the camps and he knows what’s happening in his country but he still writes. Hell, somewhere in that head of his he must know we intercept every piece of mail that leaves this base. What does he think ? That we’d allow correspondence from the most important project in the war to a country occupied by the enemy ?” Groves shook his head. “He doesn’t think that. He knows those letters don’t go anyplace. I think he just writes to remember. I think he writes because it’s the only way he can talk to her.”

“So when he asks… ?” started the lieutenant.

“When he asks…” snapped Groves, his precise military tones returned, fixing his stare directly on his subordinate. “…you tell him what the British are telling him and keep his mind on the work.”

……

My dearest Tola,

Forgive my habits but I trust that you understand them well enough by now. I must write to you each week, the thought of you reading my words sustains me through the project and I fear that I need that sustenance now more than ever.

I am a foolish man writing letters that may never be read but I carry their words in my heart and will tell them all to you when we are reunited. It is my intention to return home soon to do whatever I must to find you; the Soviets loosen the Nazi grip on our home daily and surely the war’s end must be near ?

Our work here is close to being done Tola but the nearer we get to completion the more my concerns grow. Chadwick is committed and I owe him so much that it pains me to even contemplate what I am coming to realise I must do. The work itself is exceptional. You would not believe what we have achieved ! It is truly a miracle of scientific co-operation. We have come so far in understanding the power in the tiniest fragments of matter in such a short time. It is overwhelming and impossible not to be caught up in the thrill of such an endeavour.

And yet, at the same time, my doubts grow. They brought us here to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, to unleash an energy never before unleashed in the world. I understood the urgency; we all understood the consequences if the Germans built a fission weapon first but I don’t know that I believe that they can anymore. They still have Diebner and Schumann but everyone else of any standing is here, the sum total of our knowledge of atomic power is here. When I see what we have achieved I can’t believe they could have done so much. How could they without Oppenheimer ? Without Chadwick ? Without Fermi ? Even without Groves. I’ve never seen a man so driven, so certain of an outcome.

Only now I don’t know what outcome Groves seeks. What is he being asked to do ? We dined at the Chadwick’s last week and, quite off-the-cuff, I heard him remark that the project was really designed to subdue the Soviets. He laughed it off but I took something of truth there in what he said. Are we building a bomb to end this war or to start the next one ?

My love I will be with you soon. My mind is almost made up. The price of us being split apart was perhaps worth paying to end Hitler’s menace and free our home but my conscience will not allow for that price to be the end of all things. Patience, sweet Tola. Wait for me a little longer. I will be with you soon.

Always yours,

Jozef

……

Joseph Rotblat was an extraordinary man: winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and the only person to leave the Manhattan Project on grounds of conscience before its completion. Most of the bare facts in this story are – I hope – true although the devices by which the story is told are all fictitious. I have no idea if Rotblat wrote to his wife but I like to believe that perhaps he did.

This is the second story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share if you liked it. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

Beginnings ?

There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end, right ? That’s how stories work. So you’re probably wondering what this is ? The beginning ? The end ? Somewhere in the middle ? 

Let’s give ourselves something to work with. I’m clinging to the hand rail on the Severn Bridge, wind blowing in my face, cars rushing past behind me. Does that make this the end ? I haven’t told you on which side of that hand rail I am standing. What did you suppose ? Is this just an innocent walk from England to Wales or the prelude to a plummet into the tidal depths of the water below ?

I’m clinging to the hand rail, retching across the side of the bridge, watching flecks of my own vomit disappear, whipped in the wind, down towards the river. There’s a stationary car behind me at an angle across the carriageway, driver’s door open, headlights on. So perhaps this is the middle ? The reaction to what happened in the beginning but with somewhere still to go.

A hand on my shoulder startles me into pulling tighter on the hand rail. I look round to see a woman, her face furrowed with concern, her car pulled to an abrupt halt behind us, headlights left on to illuminate her route to me. She asks if I’m alright and I note the sadness in her eyes even as the wind wraps her long, dark hair across her face. A beginning then ? Two strangers meeting at the mercy of circumstance.

I want to tell her what happened and why I come back. Why it always leaves me like this; physically sick, violently forcing the memories back out of my body. I imagine that you want to know too. That’s how stories work, isn’t it ? If this was the end you’d already know, if it’s the middle then you’d be finding out, but if this is the beginning then you only know what I want to tell you. Perhaps I will tell her and you can listen.

I tell her that I’m okay. She frowns and I don’t blame her. I’m throwing up over the side of a bridge in the middle of the night. I’m clearly not okay. She asks me again, this time assuring me that she just wants to help. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and let go my grip on the rail with the other. Really, I tell her, I’m really okay. Just a sudden wave of nausea. Maybe vertigo. Now she starts to look annoyed. I don’t know why I bothered lying or at least I don’t know why I didn’t come up with something even half way believable.

She starts to turn away to return to her car. The bridge isn’t busy at this time but I guess she’s suddenly aware that she’s blocking up the inside lane, was in such a rush that she didn’t flick on her hazards. I take a step after her and start to speak. She looks over her shoulder and says that she’ll be back in just a minute. I watch her clamber back up to the road and walk back to her car, a featureless black silhouette in the headlights.

It’s the hazards that do it. I notice them wink on and then off and it all comes back. Lights flashing on this bridge a year ago. Lights that I could see reflected off the thousands of pieces of broken glass, the fractured remains of a windscreen. Fractured as I’d been thrown through it and onto the tarmac on that still, cold night. I thought it was the end.

And so I come back. I come back because it wasn’t the end but it won’t leave me. I am stuck in some kind of middle.

She finds me again sitting and weeping, my head buried in my knees, wrapping myself up tightly against the echoes of the accident. This time she doesn’t ask if I’m okay, she just sits beside me and puts her arm across my shoulders. I tell her about my friends and our trip to Wales. I tell her about the minibus and how I’d taken to slipping off the seatbelt when I sat in the front so that I could turn around to speak to everyone. I tell her that I should have known he was tired, that we should have done more to share the drive home. We were so close to home though. I tell her that I was thrown out when we hit the central reservation before the bus span around in the road, turned up onto its side and was ploughed into by the lorry behind us. I tell her that I only survived because I wasn’t in the bus. That’s what the police said later. They called it a miracle.

Now that you’ve listened to me telling her I guess this is the end ? This is the first time since I’ve been back that anybody stopped, the first time I haven’t stood on the bridge alone. It’s the first time that I’ve told anyone what happened. It’s the first time I’ve cried. With so many firsts perhaps this is actually the beginning ?

She still has her arm across my shoulders, that worried furrow creasing her forehead, and those sad eyes watching me with concern. I wipe my eyes clear of tears and ask her for her name.

……….

This short story is the first in a series of 42 to try to raise awareness and money for Mind, the mental health charity. Please feel free to share it if you enjoyed it. More details here:  https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/