Taking back control?

Never in the fields of ingenuity – and marketing resources – have so many people been so deluded by the prospect of this season’s must-have item: ‘independence’ from the EU.

Forget arguments about economics which cannot be proved either way until events transpire to overwhelm us.  Forget arguments about immigration/ control of our borders/ racism.  Having continued access to the single market promised by the Leave campaign requires agreement to the free movement of people (ask Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein).  One argument that has resounded again and again and has never been analysed in any depth is the idea that voters in the UK can ‘take back control of their government’.

Let’s break down what we mean by government here in the UK.

First, the government in Westminster is called ‘HM Government’ which means ‘Her Majesty‘s Government’.

Second, though Lizzie Windsor has always maintained – in public, at least – a politically neutral position, she retains the power to dissolve parliament.  Remember that the UK is a constitutional monarchy (albeit one without a written constitution).  These vague powers also require that her First Minister of the Treasury (or, what you oiks call a Prime Minister) attend on Lizzie to give her a regular update on the business of her parliament.

Third, just because HM Government has debated and voted on what items should be made into law, those bits of legislation don’t reach the statute and become law until Lizzie Windsor signs them off.  Every odious bit of rank bullshit passed by HM Government in the last six years – including the additional taxing of bedrooms required by disabled people for medical equipment/ live-in carers etc – has been signed into law by Lizzie.  And don’t say she can’t refuse because on at least one occasion – The Local Government etc Act (Scotland) 1973 – she has.  (Thank you Fife Regional Council for digging your heels in on that bit of needless meddling by Westminster).

Fourth, the monarchy is not the only unelected, antidemocratic force in the UK, whether in or out of the EU, at this time.  The House of Lords.  That’s 800 gallows needed right there.  A mixture of tax-dodging political donors and former MPs thrown out of office by voters who wanted someone to better represent them in the lower House of Commons.  Only the Chinese government has more uneelected bums on seats making laws.

Fifth, the presence of unelected Parliamentary Agents in the House of Commons.  There are at least five appointees with the power to order your elected MP out of the chamber.  You can’t get rid of these people who variously represent the monarchy, The Corporation of the City of London and others.

Sixth, and perhaps not least.  Before we were members of the EU, everyone was a ‘subject of the Crown’.  In effect, you, your family, your possessions, your right to fair representation in the courts and so on, were at the discretion of the monarch, which is to say that you were property, a slave in effect if not in so many words.  Today, you are a citizen of the EU.  A citizen is one who takes part in the process of selecting governments and in other civil acts.  If, after today, you are not a citizen of the EU, you are demanding the right to once again wear the shackles that previous generations fought so hard to be rid of (and that, Jeremy Corbyn, is the argument which as Leader of The Labour Party you should have been making).  Even if you like Lizzie Windsor and willingly refer to her as your queen*, do you trust the people advising her?

For all its apparent complexity, the EU works on simple basis.  The EU Commission proposes laws to national governments.  Those elected governments then debate between them what should be considered for legislation.  This proposed legislation is then put to the EU Parliament where MEPs elected by you then debate the merits of these proposals before voting on them.  There are 50 thousand bureaucrats for the whole of the EU (of which a third are translators making sure that the laws are properly codified and stated for all 28 member states).  There are ten times that many bureaucrats for the UK alone.

If you think the EU is anti-democratic or unrepresentational then perhaps the problem – and the solution to that perceived problem – is closer to home.  It might be a different referendum from two years ago but the same issues remains in contest: who should lead us?

Remember that when you vote today.

(* I’ll call her ‘queen’, ‘Your Highness’ or whatever when I get a chance to vote on who should be my Head of State… which kind of defeats the point.)

Brian Catling, The Vorrh

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Brian Catling’s novel ‘The Vorrh’ is quite unlike anything you have read before. In a just world, where bland, conservative middle-class literary types who’ve never journeyed much beyond the M25 except on a gap year did not get to decide that only books about failure in middle-age, divorce or a distrust of ethnic minorities in a multicultural urban setting should be the accepted standard for literary fiction, Brian Catling’s novel would be getting hailed from the roof-tops as the very best fiction published in years. There is a strong argument to be made that this novel is in fact one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.

The novel’s many failings as literary fiction include its categorisation as fantasy; it is set in a mythologised version of equatorial Africa and is a critique of British Empire at its peak but is not based on real-life events; it has a man born as a cyclops as one of the main characters; there are ghost-like forms and the suggestion that the great forest is alive, and; it doesn’t spoil the book to mention the extraordinary first chapter where the protagonist turns his lover into a bow. This novel is not quaintly described as a work of ‘speculative’ fiction but instead plants it’s flag proudly.

But ‘The Vorrh’ is much too exciting to be just a work of literary fiction. It is a work of fantasy and all the better for it. There are no dragons here. There are no swords and sorcerers and certainly, no derivative fellowships or demonic Bad Guys attempting to take over the world. There is also no Final Battle in which the forces of good overcome evil and all is made good in the end… and thank f*ckety f*ck for that.

‘The Vorrh’ re-imagines fantasy. It goes further and re-imagines imagination. Though a greater part of the narrative involves two journeys – one taking the protagonist on a physical expedition through the great forest, the other taking a young woman on a journey to the dark interior of her heart and mind – the majority of the tropes familiar to readers of fantasy are going to find themselves on very strange domain. In short, Catling has taken the rulebook created by Tolkien and used it as a wick to light the candle to altogether deeper depths of the imagination.

If there was a list of ingredients for this novel, it would include M John Harrison’s, Pale City series and the writings of HP Lovecraft, there’d be a generous handful of Ursula Le Guin and a pinch of the nature writings of Nan Shepherd. Poetic language abounds and recalls Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, Rossetti’s The Goblin Market and a big heft of Blake. There’s a hint of Rider Haggard, David Lindsay and Conan Doyle and from more modern influences, there is a nod to Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Carroll and Alan Moore.

Right from when I first obtained a sample of the first chapters as a digital download to when I finished reading the hardback edition, I felt that this was not the work of a young, début novelist but instead someone who has spent a lifetime reading and enjoying literature, both high-brow and pulp, someone who has a very visual grasp of the world the characters inhabited and I resisted the temptation to Google any more about the possible identity of the author (and my determination to avoid clues as to the author’s identity, ensured that I read Alan Moore’s introduction last). It’s nice to know that as often as I’m wrong about things, I can still occasionally be proven right. If everyone has just one book in them then I’m glad Brian Catling took the time to write this one.

You can’t beat the publisher system

There are two ways to understand this.  If you saw the title of this blog as a challenge then it’s very likely that you have just self-published (or, are considering self-publishing) your novel.  If you saw the title of this blog-post as the encapsulation of a self-evident truth then you’re probably one – or more – of the following: (a) a publisher, (b) a literary agent, (c) an author who has jumped through the hoops, or (d) a bookseller who has had to again explain why this is so (and no, it wasn’t me on the occasion that inspired this post).

In the UK, a typical paperback costs around £8 or, in current terms, an hour of your employed labour before taxes.  If you worked in a typical job and spent all your money on books, you could buy – on average – 7-and-a-bit paperbacks per day but you don’t do that because there’s things called ‘mortgage’, ‘utility bills’, ‘credit card repayments’, ‘bank overdraft’, ‘insurance’, ‘pension’, children and so on.  The £8 cover price is a sum of money that each bookseller has to work hard to extract from the already tight household budgets of book-lovers.  Every time a book is bought, there is the inherent promise that the reader will be entertained for a few hours from a restricted budget that might otherwise have been spent in the cinema, buying DVDs, paying for swimming lessons, saving for a holiday… well, you get the idea.  Those bestsellers you hear about were not created by a certain online website because as everyone knows, the very best marketing is word-of-mouth and bookshops are where, despite the loud volume of social media, that conversation about new books begins.

So, if you are a self-published author and wondering why the bookshop won’t stock your book, ask yourself these very important questions:

1. Did you pay to have your book professionally edited?

2. Was your manuscript typeset by a professional who understands how the font and spacing of words can influence the enjoyment of your book?

3. Was the book jacket designed by a professional with an understanding of your target market?

4. Have you provided free copies to booksellers, journalists, fellow writers and bloggers in the hope that someone, somewhere might write a short review that will be widely read?

5. Have you ensured that you have a large print-run stocked in a warehouse from which replenishment stock can be re-ordered digitally on the off-chance – the most slender chance – that a sale will be made?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the questions above then you must know that the process of taking a book from manuscript to publication is a very expensive process, in other words… you didn’t do any of this.  You simply lost patience with agents and tiring of these elitist gatekeepers, you took matters into your own hands and now you’re left with a whole pile of books in a non-standard font, very likely printed in Times New Roman on very bright-white paper, with a very shiny jacket designed by you to your very exacting standards and this, this shop boy, is telling you ‘no, thanks’.

Booksellers are also gatekeepers of a sort.  Usually paid minimum wage or thereabouts and expected to work overtime for book launches and signings in lieu of time off next month (maybe), we also don’t get paid a commission for recommending the books we put in our customer’s hands.  In a straw poll of current and former colleagues, we reckon that with the exception of free proof copies from publishers, we see maybe one book a week each that we like enough to buy for ourselves.  There are around 190,000 new books published each year in the UK or, less than one in a thousand.  Booksellers don’t work in bookshops for the wages: we know that we’d get better pay employed by Starbucks (at least £1.10 per hour actually).  We’re in the bookshops because we love books and that’s the same reason that literary agents who receive upwards of 50 unsolicited submissions a week do what they do: the hope of finding that one perfect novel.

If literary agents said ‘no’, take it on the chin.  If you’ve been rejected a dozen times, it’s probably time to reconsider your novel and start working on something else (though if you’re serious about writing, you’ll be doing that anyway).  If you’ve been rejected a couple of dozen times, maybe throw that book away and start on something else because it’s possible you’re writing in the wrong genre or the wrong historical period.  Maybe, you should try writing non-fiction (but definitely not autobiography because if you really were that interesting, the publishers would have approached you) or tackle a screenplay.  Why not?  We learn by doing and trying something unrelated can open your eyes to different ways of seeing the world.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on scams and don’t – as happened last week to a former colleague in their own bookshop – shout at the guy behind the till because chances are, they are also an unpublished writer, albeit one who knows Rule Number One of Being a Writer: Don’t be a dick to the people who you need to sell your book.

Rule Number Two of Being a Writer: Always remember that everyone knows everyone else or at least someone who does.  Publishers and booksellers might take the mickey out of each other but the book business is like a family business and we don’t like folk who kick our siblings.

More helpfully, here’s a couple of very useful and informative links that very concisely give advice to new and emerging writing talent:

Chuck Wendig describes ’25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents’.  Read it.

Though some of the advice has an Australian slant (and therefore contains information particular to non-UK and non-US authors), Ian Irvine gives new authors some helpful tips about things to look out for and things that must be done in ‘The Truth About Publishing’.  He also writes very good fantasy fiction.