It was the best of times. It was the worst of times

31 December 2016

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

2016 will forever go down as one of the strangest years of my life. There have been so many ups and downs over the last 12 months that it’s honestly hard to keep track of them all. But suffice to say, I can’t remember a time when I was so heavily invested in the events playing out on the news or so sickened by so much of what I was seeing there.

This year’s negatives write themselves. Not only did 2016 see the death of pretty much every good musician we had left (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen…), but there was the Brexit vote to contend with, not to mention Zika, the war in Syria, the US presidential election and the death knell of liberal democracy itself. Oh yes, and the Euros happened as well. England, predictably, did not do well.

In terms of the world as a whole, then, this year was pretty much the antithesis of everything I hold dear. All across the world, the centrist, moderate politicians around whom the global axis of power has turned for so long seem to be falling by the wayside to be replaced by hordes of angry, misinformed people blaming literally every problem on globalization and immigrants.

And yet… in my personal life, this year has been one of constant surprise and change.

In January, I moved into a new house, one which actually belongs to me. In October, I changed my job so I don’t have to work during the night any more. And then, over the summer, my wife and I received the news we’d been praying about for months: we have a baby on the way. A little girl. She will be born in February.

All of this puts me in mind of the last time the world went totally crazy. That year was 2008 – the year of the global credit crunch. At the time I was working for Lehman Brothers, who you might know were once one of the world’s largest investment banks. Until, that is, the US housing market suddenly collapsed, the sub prime mortgage bubble burst on a pillar of bad debt and dodgy insider dealing and the world was plunged into the biggest global recession since the 1920’s. A recession, which, in many ways, it still hasn’t recovered from.

Since I was only working as a temp at the time, I was one of the first people out the door when the bank finally realized just how much trouble it was in. Considering how quickly the job market was shrinking, I knew I had to find a job fast, so I applied for the first thing I found: a job working on the news desk of a business magazine. A few months later, I bumped into a young French girl who was doing an internship at the same company. We started dating. We fell in love. One year later, we moved to Poland.

Today, that woman is my wife. It is with her that I now have a baby on the way.

So, in short, I can look back on the 2008 credit crisis and I can say with my hand on my heart that it led directly to my daughter being born. Without that critical moment in world history, over which I had no more control than any of us did, I never would have moved to Poland. I wouldn’t be married to my beautiful wife. My life would be completely different.

I look back on the crisis today with mixed feelings. On one hand, of course I know on a cerebral level that the world in 2008 was in a terrible state. The global economy was tanking, the US was haemorrhaging more than 250,000 jobs a month. Whole industries were collapsing or else being propped up through massive government subsidies. The EU found itself slugging through almost a decade of banking crises and austerity.

And yet, despite all the people who lost their jobs and all the livelihoods and businesses which went up in smoke, I can honestly say that at least one piece of good news came out of that period. I met my wife. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Perhaps, in time, I will come to feel the same way about the events of 2016.

It’s worth remembering that global events never occur in isolation. Just like how a butterfly beating its wings in one part of the world can lead to a hurricane in another, events link together in ways we cannot predict and lead to consequences we cannot expect.

So my advise to anyone who is as worried about the year that was 2016 as I am is don’t worry about it. The world will take care of itself. Don’t try to make sense of the events playing out around us. They’ve been playing out in much the same way for as long as mankind has existed.

Instead, look for the unexpected good that comes from the bad. Because for every Trump or Brexit or Syria or Zika, there’s a boy who meets a girl and falls in love.

And life goes on.

To all of my readers, have a very happy new year. May 2017 bring you everything that 2016 year didn’t, and even more of the things that it did.


Poetry and I

15 June 2015

Poetry anmagnetic-poetryd I have never got along.

That’s not for want of trying either. I’m a writer: Poetry and I share a lot of the same friends. We hang out in the same places. We work on the same street. For some reason though, we’ve never seen eye to eye.

All through my life I’ve tried patching things up between us. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve knocked on Poetry’s door one day, all smiles and pleasantries with a blank notebook in hand, only to have the door slammed in my face. Poetry simply never has time for me.

And I, in turn, have learned to shun it.

At school, whenever I was asked to read a poem, I would find myself feeling nothing but confusion towards the words I was seeing. It was a strange experience for me, considering the instant and visceral impact that other forms of writing have had on me since my early childhood. Theatre and novels I can get behind. But poetry? “In what way is this supposed to be entertaining?” I would ask my teachers and they would simply chastise me in reply for being rude to their friend.

During my A-levels, I struggled through Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. During my GCSE’s I forced myself to choke down Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Ted Hughes – the heavyweights of the modern era. At university I Cliff-noted my way through Keats and Wordsworth, Byron and Shakespeare and more.

So many more… So many poets with so many pages of mind-numbingly cryptic jibber-jabber and all of it dull, dull, dull…

Look at him all smug and pretentiously muse-ful. Damn you John Keats you ruined my teenage years

John Keats: look at him all smug and pretentiously muse-full. Little does he know the sheer hell he will make out of my teenage years

However, that’s not to say I hate everything Poetry has done.

I’ve always enjoyed the Raven by Edgar Alan Poe, for example. I like the rhythm of its sentences. I like the feel of it in your mouth. There’s a relentless beat to the poem which drives the reader on. And yes, there is a plot, which is a nice change of pace from most poetry because it serves to keep you entertained. Ultimately, though, it’s not the plot I like about this poem but rather the feel of it.

Read this now and listen to the natural beat that forms. You’ll see what I mean:

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

It’s the same when I listen to music. I almost never listen to a song for its lyrics – in truth, I rarely even hear the lyrics. For whatever reason, my brain just isn’t wired that way. Instead, when I listen to music, it’s the rhythms and the harmony that my ear focuses on: the chords, the instrumentation and the underlying structure of the song. This is what’s important. The idea of listening to music in order to hear the message of its lyrics… it’s ludicrous to me.

That’s probably another reason why Poetry doesn’t like me very much. I’m kind of rude to its friends.

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!

My second favourite poem of all time is the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carol. I like it because it’s practically a tailor-made example of what I just described above: a poem made up entirely of rhythm and rhyme. The actual meaning of the poem? Well, it is literally nonsense but it sounds as though it means something.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

My third favourite poem is the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Again it has a rhythm. Again it has rules. And again it feels fantastic in the mouth:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Call me old fashioned but I’ve always found myself leaning towards poetry that follows a set of rules. Rhyming schemes, a solid and unwavering metre, neat stanzas, a beat: these things are essential for a poem to be a success in my mind. The way I look at it, poetry has existed for as long as humans have been writing. And for 99% of that time, Poetry has followed fixed and defined rules. We lump those rules into categories and put labels on them. “Sonnets,” we call them. “Villanelles”, “Sestinas”, “Haikus”… There are many names but they all come with a long and proud tradition.

Whenever a poet chooses to write one of these poems, they aren’t restricting themselves or stiffing their creativity – far from it! – rather they are adding to a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. They are entering a dialogue with all of the poets who have come before them, building on what has come before and helping the genre to grow.

I always have the impression that modern poetry has forgotten this fact. I think that’s why I don’t like it very much. When your poetry can take on literally any form it pleases and still be called a poem… well, it’s like calling an unmade bed art.

Some people call this art. Fair play to them but I know I wouldn't want it on my wall

Some people call this art. Fair play to them but I know I wouldn’t want it on my wall

I know most people will disagree with me. I’ve made my peace with that fact. Poetry is a very popular guy round these parts. He has a lot of friends. Nearly everyone I know has rubbed shoulders with him at least once in their life. They invite him over for tea at the weekends. They buy collections of his greatest hits and write down some of his pithy quotes to pin to their office walls. Those people tell me I’m stupid for not understanding their distinguished friend.

Perhaps they are right.

It’s for these reasons that when I created my anthology of short stories a few years ago I named it Metrophobia, the fear of poetry. It was a little in-joke to myself. I don’t understand it, I said, therefore I must fear it.

But never let it be said that I am one to shy from my fears. Today, I thought it might be fun to share with you a few examples of the many times I have attempted to crack poetry over the years. I am well aware that most of these examples are terrible. As I said before, Poetry is not my friend. I lack even the ability to discern good poetry from bad but I know that my poetry is bad because people have told me that it is and I believe them.

1. Haiku

OK so let’s start with a poetic form that everyone knows. A haiku is a form of ultra-short Japanese poetry. It’s made up of three lines composed of 17 syllables. The lines are arranged in a 5-7-5 syllabic structure.

There are certain characteristics which almost all modern haiku share (this list is taken from the Wikipedia article linked above):

  1. A focus on some aspect of nature or the seasons
  2. Division into two asymmetrical sections, usually with a cut at the end of the first or second section, creating a juxtaposition of two subjects – e.g. something large and something small, something natural and something human-made, two unexpectedly similar things, etc.
  3. A contemplative or wistful tone and an impressionistic brevity
  4. Elliptical “telegram style” syntax and no superfluous words
  5. Imagery predominating over ideas and statements, so that meaning is typically suggestive, requiring reader participation
  6. Avoidance of metaphor and similes
  7. Non-rhyming lines

My example:

Concrete office blocks.
A lonely pigeon takes flight
Into a grey sky

2. Villanelle

OK, so a haiku I’m sure you were already familiar with. Consider that one a warm-up for what follows. Now we’re getting into the real poetic forms. A villanelle (you’re probably thinking “what the hell is that?”) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five three-line stanzas followed by a four-line stanza at the end.

What makes this form interesting is its use of repetition. There are basically two lines in the poem which repeat over and over again, alternating at the end of each stanza before finally appearing together at the end of the final quatrain to drive home the poem’s point.

Because of this use of repetition, the villanelle is a poetic form that deals very well with themes of obsession.

THE MODERN POET

Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought
He sits in the dark playing word games all day,
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

“Why won’t they read me?” he cries all distraught
“Surely there’s no one who can’t see my way?”
Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought.

He sits and he muses, ‘til ideas are caught,
Scribbles it down before all goes away,
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

He rejects all the old and all that’s been taught,
“I am a genius,” he thinks, “that’s all I will say!”
Formless and pointless more feeling than thought.

His eighteenth rejection is hard to retort,
There must be conspiracies flying his way!
If only he could see through his black and white fort.

He starts once again. “C’est ne pas mort!”
He writes and he dreams, “One day, oh one day!”
If only he could see through his black and white fort:
Formless and pointless, more feeling than thought.

3. Sestina

Here’s another form you’ve probably never heard of. The sestina is one of my favourite poetic forms, mostly because even though no one has ever heard of it, everyone understands it as soon as they see it.

It has six stanzas of six lines each. The thing that makes it special is that the words it uses at the end of each line repeat throughout the poem, rotating around each other in a set pattern.

Like this:

626px-Sestina_system_alt.svg

From the Wikipedia article linked to above: “Because a sestina demands adherence to a strict and arbitrary order, it creates a very interesting effect. Stephen Burt notes that, ‘The sestina has served, historically, as a complaint”, its harsh demands acting as “signs for deprivation or duress’.”

ON MEETING AN EX NOW  BETROTHED TO ANOTHER

I chanced to see that small, begotten ring,
upon her second finger. It was clear
to me that she was gone. And I was pain
inside and burned asunder. She was mine.
If I could but pretend that she was gone,
then all would be okay. But then I’d lie.

We broke apart in truth because she lied,
that I would wait at home for her to ring,
at night, and tell me where it was she’s gone
to stay the night with Jan. “Hon, is that clear?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Your words aren’t hard to mine.”
And then I’d cry all night, my heart in two with pain.

And as the rain did patter on the pane,
I went into my room to have a lie
down and there I wondered what was mine.
Certainly not that gem encrusted ring
that donned your finger thirty carrots clear.
I saw it, smiled and knew that you were gone.

Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone!
My fragile heart did echo with its pain,
That now this creature that I loved was clear
to leave, to drop, to break and mend and lie,
and never even tell me of that ring,
but left me dark with thoughts: “You should be mine!”

But who am I to say what should be mine,
unworthy fool whose compassion has gone,
to pieces long before I saw that ring,
before me, dealing out its holy pain,
to my wounded, shattered ego. Lies!
It seems my path has never been more clear…

No it has never and now it’s clear
To me what I must do to thee and mine
only. There I’ll find you where you lie,
throttle you in sleep ‘til you are gone
and I am safe from fear and hate and pain.
When I am done you will regret that ring.

It will be clear to me then you are gone
forever. Mine, the cause of all my pain,
will lie upon your coffin. And I shall rule that ring.

4. Free verse

Free verse is my most hated form of poetry. Stripped of all rules or patterns, these poems often serve as a dumping ground for pithy sounding thoughts and little else. This is where there shape of a poem is important. This is where a single word or an exclamation point can somehow be turned into a poem. This is where pretentious strings of vaguely connected words hang out, masquerading as divine-inspired utterances. It’s anarchy turned into poetry and I hate it.

Is this poetry?

Is this poetry? One might argue that in years gone by this sort of thing would have served as the foundation of a poem, not the poem itself

Needless to say when I was asked to write a free verse poem during my second year of university I strongly objected. It was by far my most hated assignment during my entire studies. I am not at all happy with the end result. Still, you’ll notice that even though this poem follows no established rules, I still tried to interject some sort of rhythm and order into it, if only to save my own sanity from the lawless cavalier attitude of the genre.

BORDER RATS

Like vermin we scuttle – Border Rats –
each of us more than the sum of our parts.
Each of us hiding, striving to find someplace else.
And why? There are other ways,
but our destiny stumbles through this black and white haze:
and this world holds no passion from when it was made
and we know
that we don’t want this.

As ghosts we toil – Border Rats –
each of us statements of some other truth.
Each of us trying, dying to make something new.
And why? The system stamps down,
our colleagues they flee in the shadows of doubt
for money they run with no thought to themselves,
but we know
that we don’t want this.

And now starving we die – as Border Rats –
and all that we’ve lived for is shattered and burnt.
Nothing is showing, growing from that void that is us.
And why? The system has won,
our legacies fade in their commercial tune,
is there escape from this musical doom?
Oh dear god,
I don’t want this.

5. Found poetry

And finally we come to the one type of poetry I’m actually good at.

Found poetry is great simply because it turns anything and everything into a poem. Some might argue that this is the same as in free verse, where any random phrase can be called poetry, but I disagree. Found poetry is about imposing order onto disorder. It’s about taking that which already exists and pulling the art from within it.

The idea is simple. You take something that has already been written: a book, an article, even a political speech and you carefully select words from it. In this way you create a poetry that never existed before and yet was lying the whole time beneath the pattern of the words.

Like this:

Below is an example with I made based on a text about grammar which my teacher gave me on my first day of university. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the original document anymore so I can’t show it visually like in the example above. In a way that might be better, though. The original work is gone. All that remains is the poetry.

WORDS

A word can be combined,
Interpreted, replaced.
A word must be the centre of an act.
For voice, for mood, for aspect rather full.
A word is major clauses numerous.
To indicate, to specify: distinct from something else,
A word should preposition a degree
Of denial. Or connect and express on clause content.
A word lies in a phrase misunderstood.

I like this poem because just like in the Jabberwocky, it almost sounds as though it means something. Again there is rhythm. A beat. And your brain tells you the poem must mean something because it’s so consistent in the way it’s written. Here we have “words”, “voices”, “phrases”, “clauses”… it’s all clearly related (and indeed it is, since it all came from the same page about basic grammar) and yet it isn’t.

As such your brain tries to stretch through all the nonsense searching for some shred of meaning buried inside the words and in doing so it somehow places its own meaning onto the poem.

The poem is literally nonsense, I’ve already established that. It was discovered lurking beneath a perfectly normal piece of academic text. And yet by lifting it out, it now serves as a kind of naked template upon which the reader is able to place any meaning they chose.

For me, that is what poetry should be.

Poetry likes it too. For the first time ever, it’s like we’re waving to each other across the other side of a crowded room. I’ll never understand Poetry and he’ll never understand me. But at least I feel I can mingle with him at a party now and not feel like an impostor.


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 12

5 July 2014

Chapter 12: Sweet Release

POV character: Stuart

Length: 4,748 words

Synopsis:

Stuart is in a bad way. On the run from the law with a broken leg and a body weak with exhaustion, his only hope lies in following the strange voice in his head. What that voice is and where its taking him, Stuart has no idea, but now there are armed guards on his trail and Stuart is in no condition to second guess his situation. It’s going to take all his energy and guile just to face them and get out alive…

Notes:

A fun chapter to write.

Not only is it full of action and suspense but once again we get to see Stuart’s slow decent into whatever madness it is that’s taken hold of him.

There’s a big mystery going on at the centre of the chapter that I’m sure will raise a few questions in the reader’s mind but at the same time I was careful when writing it not to let that mystery overshadow the basic events that were going on. The important thing that’s happening here is that Stuart is struggling to escape captivity. Thinking up ways for him to convincingly do this while he’s trapped inside a maintenance shaft with a broken leg was pretty hard but overall satisfying.

One thing I should add about the writing process is that I actually wrote all of Stuart’s chapters back to back. Of course I’m editing the book in order but when I first sat down to write the chapters, I wrote all of Stuart’s plot first before turning my attention to the others.

My reason for doing this is simple. On the one hand Stuart’s plotline is the one that impacts least on the other three protagonists in the book so it was easy to write it separately without worrying about matters of continuity. More important than this, however, was the matter of consistency. In short, we’re seeing Stuart descend into madness right now and I really wanted to get it done right.

We’ve already seen one chapter in which Stuart feels disconnected from reality and then another in which he starts having hallucinations. Here, for the first time, we really see Stuart full on embracing the madness. He’s talking with the voice in his head even though he has no idea who or what it is and by the end of the chapter he’s completely relying on it for support.

Doing that while at the same time making it seem believable was a challenge to say the least. I felt I needed to write Stuart’s chapters back to back just so I could make this transition more organic and less jarring. After all, Stuart is still Stuart. Just because he seems mad now doesn’t make him any less the same character he’s always been.


Fifty shades of Grey — Part 2

19 July 2013

fifty-shades-of-greyAlright, so get ready for a bombshell: this book wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone says it is.

I know, I know, I’m just as shocked as you are. After the sheer unadulterated hatred this book seems to be garnering from every corner of the internet, I was certain I was going to have another Twilight fiasco on my hands, filled with dull characters acting unbelievably for the sake of plot convenience and a sappy feel-good ending tacked undeservedly onto the end.

To my surprise, it was none of those things.

Does that mean the book is good? Not exactly. As many people have already pointed out, the writing here is pretty amateur. E L James, despite her regular name-dropping of Literary Classics, appears to be allergic to sentences with more than 10 words in them. Try reading some of her sex scenes out loud (as I was asked to by my curious fiance) and you end up sounding just as breathless and incoherent as the characters themselves.

By the time the Subconscious and the (urgh) Inner Goddess show up, you end up just feeling like the main character is mildly schizophrenic and you really just want her to stop thinking so much just so you won’t have to read her prattling stream of conscious narrative anymore.

Bettajdbka

The Sub-conscious and the Inner Goddess were the main character’s equivalent of the classic angel and devil pulling her thoughts in conflicting directions. I quickly grew to hate them.

However, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy reading this book. Fifty Shades of Grey might not be the best thing ever written but it was interesting, even compelling at times. And believe me I don’t say that lightly.

50-shades-of-grey-movie-possible-leads82986361-sep-11-2012-1-600x475

He’s so beautiful… But he’ll hurt me… But he’s beautiful…

So then, the plot. Ana Steele, a young naive university student, goes to interview a rich businessman, Christian Grey, for her college newspaper. When she gets to the interview, she discovers that he’s an incredibly good-looking man and instantly falls in lust with him. He’s also pretty taken with her too and the two of them conveniently bump into each other a lot over the next week while he gives a speech at her university and other shenanigans ensue. So far, so Mills & Boon.

However, when Ana tries to take the relationship to the next level, things quickly start to get interesting. Grey forces Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement before revealing to her his biggest secret: he is a sadomasochistic and he gets off on chaining and beating women for fun. He wants Ana to be his new submissive and he offers her a contract to sign containing full details of what they both will and won’t do together.

Ana, however, is no submissive and is, in fact, a complete innocent in the world of sex. She is frankly appalled by what she discovers about Grey and yet, drawn by her attraction to this man, she finds herself unable to say no. She is plunged into the world of BDSM with no one to guide her and no point of reference besides the emotionally cold Grey. She feels trapped and helpless. She wants Grey in her life but having him will mean letting him physically hurt her and she isn’t sure if she wants that. What she wants is love and a real relationship, something that Christian is seemingly unable to give.

And so a cat and mouse story begins in which both parties attempt to force the other to accept a way of life that is completely alien to them. Ana wants love. Christian wants pain.

Who wins?

What did I like about this book?

Ana Steele is no Bella Swan

bella_Bella was one of the worst things about Twilight: an insipid, reactionary Mary Sue of a character who was supposed to be the reader’s avatar in the books but ended up just isolating us completely due to her lack of common sense. Her total absence of fear about Edward and the rest of the vampire clan rids the book of any tension it might have had and her instant love-at-first-sight reaction to Edward means there was little room for believable character drama in the story.

Ana Steele, on the other hand, is believable. Yes, she is still something of a Mary Sue and yes, she is still designed to function as the reader’s avatar in this book, but at least she feels like an honest-to-God human being. She questions herself. She second-guesses her decisions. She is caught between her growing affection for Grey as the man he is (and her subsequent desire to please him by giving him what he wants) and her own revulsion at the idea of what doing this will involve.

That’s not to say that she’s a fun narrator to be around. As said above, her constant referring to her Subconscious and Inner Goddess quickly grate, but luckily these moments don’t have a lot of impact on the story. (In fact, I dare you to prove me wrong on this one: delete every single reference to Ana’s ‘Subconscious’ or ‘Inner Goddess’ from the book and I guarantee not only will the book still make complete sense, but the writing would actually be better as a result due to it actually containing something in the way of subtlety.)

But still, a badly written character with her heart in the right place is still preferable to a blank cardboard cutout. As a main character, Ana’s all right with me.

Christian Grey is no Edward Cullen

Thank God. One of my biggest problems with Edward in Twilight is that from the beginning he’s portrayed as this goody two shoes vegetarian vampire who would never hurt a fly. Yes, he’s tempted by Bella but it’s never really a question in the reader’s mind if he’s going to hurt her or not. He isn’t dangerous and so the narrative lacks any sense of threat as a result.

Christian Grey, on the other hand, is dangerous. Unpredictable. Emotionally damaged. Complex.

He is, for want of a better word, a Bad Boy (albeit a rather suave one). I might be going out on a limb here, but a lot of women tend to be attracted to Bad Boys.

300_64448More specifically, a lot of women are attracted to the idea of taking a man who is broken and fixing him so that he’s perfect. It’s why a lot of women stay with their partners even through abusive relationships. “That’s not who he really is,” they say to their mystified friends. “You don’t know who he really is. It’s just the drink talking.” And so on. They want to control the uncontrollable.

And they can’t.

Now I’m not saying that Ana’s relationship with Grey constitutes domestic abuse, but it does skirts so close to it at times that it actually makes for uncomfortable reading. Their relationship, by design, is one centred around control and obedience. Yes, they are consenting adults and yes, there is a contract for them to sign but from the beginning it’s made clear to us that Ana doesn’t really want the BDSM lifestyle she’s signing up for, she just wants Grey and she’s only goes along with the punishments in order to get him. It makes for some very compelling reading.

I once thought of this man as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight. But he’s no hero; he’s a man with a serious deep emotional flaws and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?

I’ve written stories on the subject of domestic abuse before and the seemingly cyclical nature of it and I have to say there are some seriously complex issues raised here that can’t be easily answered. At what point does ‘consenting adult sex’ cross over into the world of abuse? Is a contract really enough to turn what is apparently a rather unhealthy relationship into a mutually beneficial business transaction? Can you even do that with love?

E L James deals with these issues surprisingly well and, bad writing aside, I found myself genuinely moved at some points in the novel. In the aftermath of Ana’s first beating, for example, in which Ana is punished for rolling her eyes at Grey and is then fucked by him before calmly showing him out of her house and then breaking down into tears… it damn near broke my heart. The writing here was powerful, blunt, devoid of its usual prattling Inner Goddess nonsence. I’m not going to start prying into the author’s private life here, but if that scene wasn’t at least partially autobiographical, I will eat my proverbial hat.

I open the door for him and stare down at my hands. This is the first time I have ever had sex in my home and as sex goes, I think it was pretty damn fine. But now I feel like a receptacle — an empty vessel to be filled at his whim.

“You okay?” Christian asks tenderly as his thumb lightly caresses my bottom lip.

“Yes,” I reply, though in all honesty I’m just not sure. I feel a paradigm shift. I know that if I do this thing with him, I will get hurt. He’s not capable, interested, or willing to offer me any more… and I want more. Much more.

What didn’t I like about this book?

The Sex

There’s a quote I once read from Sharon Stone on the making of Basic Instinct. Unfortunately, I can’t find the quote anymore and Google isn’t helping me much on the issue but I remember in this quote she was complaining about a particular scene in which she and Michael Douglas have sex for the first time.

To paraphrase, Stone said something along the lines of, “I hated that scene. No woman can achieve orgasm in 30 seconds. It’s impossible. Scenes like that give unrealistic expectations to women and they make men think they don’t have to try.”

I kind of feel the same way about this book.

Here’s the thing: Ana Steele at the beginning of the novel is a virgin. She knows nothing about sex. She has never been attracted to men and has never even touched herself. She is completely disgusted by the idea of BDSM sex and is terrified of the idea of pain in general.

bdsm

If this was your first sexual experience, would you be turned on?

And this very same girl then proceeds to get turned on just by looking at Grey, has multiple earth shattering orgasms every time she has sex (and often just from foreplay) and is apparently a natural at all things sexual, especially blow jobs at which she can deep throat on command.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t women out there who are hyper-sexual. There are. But if you’ll forgive me for being crass, these women don’t tend to be 21-year-old virgins who have never masturbated.

Grey, too, is a freaking machine. He gets hard instantly, cums three times in the space of an hour and has the stamina of an ox. He also has incredible levels of control as he’s able to time his orgasms to match Ana’s with almost clockwork regularity.

Seriously, James? Have you ever met a guy who could do that? Trust me: I’m a guy. We tend to suck at that sort of thing.

What you have here is fantasy, pure and simple. It’s porn. Fap material. Not that there’s anything wrong with erotic fiction if that’s what floats your boat, but if you want Fifty Shades of Grey to be treated as a serious work of fiction and not as a bit of mild titillation, you need to show a more realistic side to this sexual relationship. Show Grey struggling to get it up. Show Ana getting frightened and overwhelmed by the experience and thus turned off by Grey’s overbearing insistence on fucking her hard. It makes Grey more of a monster in the reader’s eyes and Ana more sympathetic as a result.

And that in turn adds subtlety. Nuance. You get a better book.

So anyway, that’s my thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey. Overall it was an interesting book that turned out to be much more than the sum of its parts. It could have been a lot better, but then again it could so easily have been a lot worse and as an enjoyable bit of fiction it’s not so bad.

At this point I honestly have no idea why the book is so universally reviled but I think a lot of it has to do with simple knee-jerk reactions to its subject material. Do me a favour: don’t be a sheep. This book is so much more than mere fanfiction.


Poland vs. Britain: public holidays

15 May 2012

This is a post I recently wrote for the Queen’s School of English blog. I’m posting it here for posterity.

Last week saw not one but two public holidays in Poland, a fact that led to a good chunk of the country taking an entire week off work. Now you might think that’s a little excessive, having too free days in such close proximity to each other, but after three years of living in Wroclaw, I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that public holidays here are a bit like rainy days are in Britain; no matter what time of year it is, there is always one just round the corner and it’s almost always guaranteed to be situated at exactly the right moment to annoy you the most.

Last week was no exception. Poland’s annual “Majowka” (Mayday Picnic) on the 1st and 3rd of May were situated so precariously in the middle of the week that I’m pretty sure about 90% of the country simply ground to a screaching halt. Schools closed, banks shut, offices ran on minimum staff. And I, being a teacher, suddenly found myself with no lessons to teach, since most of my students were all off at the seaside cashing in on the great weather.

Maybe it’s just sour grapes, but being a foreigner I found it all a bit strange. You see, in Britain, public holidays usually take the form of what we call “Bank Holiday Mondays”. Sexy name, right? Well believe me, they are just as boring as they sound. There are three of them during the year — that’s right, just three — one on the first Monday in May, another on the last Monday in May, and the final one on the last Monday in August. Why do we have holidays on these days? Because the Government said so, that’s why.

At least in Poland, holidays come with some sort of sentimental reasoning attached to them. 1st May, for example, is Labour Day, so called due to a Communist tradition that dates back to 1890. The 3rd May is Constitution Day, so called because of the Polish Constitution signed in 1791 (one of the oldest in Europe). The 11th November is Poland’s Independence Day, the ninth Thursday after Easter is Corpus Christi and 6th January is Epiphany. Good reasons for holidays every one.

However, since Britain has never been Communist, has no written constitution, has never had to declare independence from anything and isn’t Catholic… we get none of those days free. Instead we get our three pointless Bank Holidays. Sure the banks are still shut, and the schools have closed and everyone gets a day off work but so what? Who cares? The whole of England is left feeling a bit like a child whose parents have just told him on Christmas Day that Santa Clause doesn’t exist. We still get the presents but damnit, the magic is gone now! Without some sort of meaning behind them, most of our public holidays are exactly like our rainy days — dull, meaningless moments to mark down in our calendar and instantly forget about. I have to admit, I’m more than a little jealous of the Polish system.

It’s not as though Britain doesn’t have days it could celebrate, either. The 5th November, for example, is Guy Fawkes night, so called because of a man named Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up the king with gunpowder 400 years ago. We remember him to this day by building huge bonfires, setting off fireworks and burning wooden people on the stake. It’s a fun time and the whole of Britain celebrates it… But it’s not a public holiday.

The same is true of Halloween on 31st October, a pagan festival in which children dress up as ghosts and other evil creatures and go from door to door begging for sweets. Lots of people celebrate it and many people love it… But it’s not a public holiday.

Well what about Memorial Day on 11th November, when we remember the end of the first world war? Or St George’s Day on 23rd April, the day we remember Britain’s patron saint? Or All Saint’s Day on 1st November? “No,” says the government. “Now go and enjoy your stupid Bank Holidays and stop bothering us!”

So remember this on 7th June, when Poland next has a day off work and Britain doesn’t. Remember Britain, the country that not only gets fewer public holidays than the Poles (8 versus Poland’s 12) but whose holidays all suck as well. Remember us as you take a whole week off to visit the lake district and bask in the beautiful weather. Remember that Britain sucks and so does its weather.

And that some people are very jealous of this fact.