This morning, I was watching breakfast news (it gives me something to shout at to start my day) and happened to catch a report on the rising cost of food bills. According to most of these reports (and there have been many in the past few years), the prices of an average grocery shopping trip has risen by about a third since the start of the economic collapse–although my personal experience is that it’s closer to doubled. Certainly, it’s something that I’ve noticed every week as we desperately try to save as much money as we can. The news this morning was that the cost of food is actually rising more slowly than it has been–as though that’s meant to reassure, when most have had our wages deadlocked for years and many, many more are losing their jobs all together.
But it made me realise something: despite seeing hundreds and hundreds of reports like this since the start of the so called credit crisis, I have never once seen an explanation as to why this is happening. Most of these news articles talk about it the same way that they talk about the rain, with all our attention being carefully focused on what we can do to save money, and how grateful we should be because things aren’t getting more expensive quite so quickly any more.
And so I did a little bit of reading to see if I could find out what’s going on behind the scenes, and maybe why the media doesn’t want us thinking about it too much. What I found out (through a little poking and prodding) is rather worrying: the rise in the cost of food isn’t down to any one thing, but rather is the result of a perfect storm of different problems. There is a well-documented relationship between the wealth of a country and the food intake of its population which means that developing countries are increasingly consuming more. In addition to this, there are just plain more of us. Around 75 million more of us per year, in fact, and that’s a lot more hungry mouths to feed. Meanwhile our capacity to supply all of this extra food is rapidly declining, with climate change driven factors such as the droughts, floods, and various diseases combining with the increased cost of fuel needed to ship our foodstuffs halfway around the world, and the escalating amounts of land given over the the generation of biofuels. All of this means that there is just plain less food to go around.
And it’s rather concerning, isn’t it? Don’t you think that’s the kind of thing that we should… you know… hear about? Not least because all of these factors are cumulative, and none of them seem like they’re going to go away any time soon. Instead, some segments the media continue their silence, and when the matter is mentioned, it’s usually with reassurances that technology will somehow magically save us all. Despite the fact that genetically engineered crops, aside from everything else, plain don’t increase crop yields. Not to mention the fact that the companies producing GM crops are holding life itself in copyright, and more often than not, to ransom.
After discovering all of this, the next thing I did was try to find out what the hell I could do about it. Unfortunately, every single site I looked at recommended a bunch of stuff that we have already been doing for years. Things like:
- * Use foods approaching their use by dates instead of throwing them away;
- * Buy in bulk;
- * Cook in bulk;
- * Freeze in bulk, and also use it for any freezable perishable goods like bread;
- * Keep an eye out for discounts and reduced items;
- * Don’t shop hungry;
- * Plan a week’s meals in advance;
- * Don’t shop without a list;
- * Cook from scratch;
- * Go veggie (or vegan!);
- * Develop a good system to manage and freeze leftovers.
A few years ago, I could quite comfortably feed myself, my partner, and our two cats on £50 a week by doing all of that. Now, if I’m lucky, I can get it in under £90.
So, I started to think about what else I could do to help myself, given that the situation has the look of something that is only getting worse.
Here’s what I came up with:
Grow Your Own
It doesn’t matter how little space you have. You don’t have to go from zero to self-sufficient all at once (and self-sufficiency might not be such a good idea anyway). Honestly, I have been experimenting with with vegetable gardening for the past three or four years, and if it’s taught me anything then it’s that growing your own isn’t something that you can just step in and do. It takes (at least, it’s taken me) a lot of practise, trial and error, and mostly with things that I can’t learn about on a forum or in a book. Things like what grows best in your local weather and soil conditions. That’s the kind of thing that only comes through experience, and it can be hard learning for someone like me who has never had any practise growing anything before.
If you only have a concrete yard, fill bin bags with compost and seed potatoes–they manage with only periodic sunlight, and are one of the easiest things I’ve grown. If you have no outside space at all, grow herbs or scrambling tomatoes in window boxes. If you live in a windowless oubliette, then get on the waiting list for an allotment or check out a local landshare program. Try, fail, and try again. Eventually you will get better at this stuff, and be grateful for all the practise you managed to get in.
Investigate permaculture, which can often help to work with Nature and save some space and resources as well. Plant flowers that will attract bees and other pollinators–those little guys need all the help they can get. Learn the names and uses for the weeds you keep pulling out month after month. A lot of them are either edible or medicinal. So start small and get experimenting!
Preserve What You Grow
This one’s important if you don’t want to end up letting your hard-won veggies go to waste. The internet is your friend here, and can tell you everything from how to make jams and chutneys, to freezing broad beans and peas, and how to store potatoes in sand to stop them from spoiling!
Collect Your Own Seed
Whatever you grow, collecting your own seed is a great way to cut down the cost of continually ordering new batches every year–which can get damned pricey. Be aware, though, that a lot of the things sold by nurseries and seed merchants can’t be used for harvesting seed, because they’re the result of crossing two different strains together and won’t breed true. Avoid anything marked as an F1 Hybrid, and try to purchase your initial stock from somewhere that’s explicitly friendly to seed collecting.
Explore Wild Foods
Some things, like wild mushrooms, can be tricky to identify and potentially fatal if you don’t get it right. Even so, there are varieties that are prolific, tasty, and can’t be confused with anything poisonous. And if mushrooms scare you, then there are hundreds of other wild foods to try. Again, the key is to learn your environment. Do you live near the coast where you can find a handy source of kelp? In mountains where crab apple trees grow everywhere? Are the hedges around you hazel, and potentially good for finding hazelnuts? How about chestnut trees growing in local parkland? Almost everywhere has something you can collect, preserve, and eat. Even if it’s blackberries growing on waste land, or one of the hundreds of apple trees that spring up on roadsides out of discarded apple cores. Give them a damned good wash (or peel them, if you’re worried about pollutants), and you’re good to go!
Try Skipping/Dumpster Diving
Maybe this isn’t for everyone, and I personally have never had much luck with it myself (all the supermarkets and smaller shops around me seem to either lock their bins away, or use nasty compactors), but if you don’t fancy growing your own veg (or even if you do!) then try living off some of the huge amounts of waste that our society already produces. A dizzying amount of food is thrown out every day because it isn’t uniform, or is past its best. Most of it is, however, still entirely edible. The trick is to avoid times when these places will be busy (going late at night is always good), then just act with confidence and as though you’re meant to be there. Find out where your local food shops keep their bins, get yourself a good pair of gloves and a torch, and get stuck in!
Despite what you might think, I’ve personally found that shopping for vegetables from a local greengrocers or farm shop is substantially cheaper than buying them from a supermarket. They’re also really great for making sure that you eat in season and have to improvise and innovate accordingly–good preparation when we run out of cheap oil to ship strawberries all the way from Africa in December. In the case of farm shops,they also give you the chance to form relationships with the people who work your local land day in and day out–so you can find out what is working for them, and what isn’t. In addition, many places these days run local ‘veg box’ schemes, providing you with locally grown fruit and vegetables.
As well as buying your food as locally as possible, it’s a good idea to meet and talk with other gardeners, and learn as much from them as you can!
Support Co-Operatives (and bulk buy)
Do you have a co-op owned farm near you? Or a small, independent co-operative shop? Get out and join them! In return for a few hours work here and there, they’ll give you discounts on whatever it is they sell or produce. They’re also building some good, old-fashioned resilience into our local communities.
Another alternative is to buy from larger scale co-operatives like Suma, which allow groups of friends or even individual households to register with them and buy bulk foods. This is an excellent way of stocking up on shedloads of rice, dried beans, flour, pasta, and other dried goodies in a way that will save a lot of money down the line. Suma also support foods that are vegetarian, fair trade, organic or ethically produced, so you win all round.
Of course, no ‘solution’ is going to be perfect. Not when the problems that we’re dealing with are so huge in scale and complex in nature. But right now is the best time to learn skills that we all might well need in the future, before we have to rely on them as a matter of life or death.
And, if technology does come along and magically save us all, you’ll still have a bunch of cool ways that you can save money, tread more lightly, and impress your friends.
Suffering can feel like the total collapse of our entire world.
But most of the time it is not a torture, and it is definitely not the end of the universe. As much as I personally can resist admitting it, a lot of the time suffering can be good for us. Part of our process of becoming more fully ourselves. Discomfort and pain are both catalysts for transformation.
Two important things have changed in my life since the start of this year. Firstly, Dylan and I have taken a step further into our process of exploring polyamory, and have found a third person to begin the work of forming a triad. Secondly, I have applied myself fully to doing Shadow work, the process of confronting my own dark side and learning to re-integrate it into myself rather than allowing it to fester and rule me. It’s something I’ve been flirting with since Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ excellent ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves‘ drew me towards the myths, legends, and calling inwards of Jungian psychology, however it’s taken until now to feel I have the resources I need to fully devote myself to the process.
Right now, in this moment, I am ready.
That being said, Shadow work is damned hard. It means taking 100% responsibility for everything that happens in my life, instead if externalising the reasons for my hurt, upset, and anger onto whoever has invoked it. It means learning to recognise the sudden spikes of emotion that are a sure sign of my Shadow at work. And, when I have fully accepted responsibility for my temper, my selfishness, and my pettiness, it means learning to love those parts of myself. The parts which I have spent my whole life trying to hide and bury.
I am glad I came to it now. Building a triad is a difficult balancing act, and one that requires equal amounts self-knowledge and constant communication. And the work I am doing means that, first and foremost, I’m learning to recognise the times when I am projecting my own darkness onto my lovers. Acquiring techniques for dealing with it that don’t involve smothering my emotions until they explode outwards in a torrent of hurt and anger.
Bringing a third person into a relationship makes any cracks and flaws in the primary relationship more visible, and in more urgent need of attention. Counter-productive or destructive habits that have been ingrained over many years suddenly need to be weeded out and addressed.
The culmination of both of these things is that, more and more frequently, when I come up against situations that cause me pain or make me angry, instead of digging my heels in and snarling with my Shadow, I take the opportunity to withdraw. Specifically, I shut myself in the bedroom, and begin the work of convincing myself that I want a resolution to the problem more than I want to be hurt and angry. It isn’t easy, but when it is done I’m in a better position to realise what wounded me in the first place, and what thought-processes are lurking underneath. It isn’t about “letting go of my anger”or running away from my darkness. It is about acknowledging it, embracing it, accepting responsibility for it, and moving on.
By the time I come out of that room, I am in a position where I am more equipped to know where my boundaries and limits are, to understand calmly why I have been hurt, and to be more reasoned about negotiating a way for things to go a little better the next time.
As we go about our lives, all of us have times when we are passed through fire. When life is hard, trust is difficult to give, and betrayal it feels like a total violation of ourselves and everything we stand for. When the work that we are doing makes us vulnerable, and opens us up to pain at the very time when we are least able to defend ourselves from it.
But it is worth it. More than that, it is necessary.
One of the things I have started doing when discussing pain and points of friction with my partners is to stop asking them to avoid hitting the issues that are difficult for me. Of course, some issues are more sensitive than others, and there are some that need to be handled with a great degree of care, but if I teach them to avoid hitting the parts of me that are wounded, then I will never gain the experience I need to learn how to be hurt. Those wounds will never be torn open, and I will never have the opportunity to re-heal them. To see that flesh and bone are re-set well. That the poison is scraped out, and the process of regrowth and rebirth can begin.
It has me thinking about alchemy, which fascinated Jung as much as it has fascinated me. He saw the alchemical teachings for transforming lead (or more often: mercury) into gold as symbolic of an inner transformation. A process by which we are transmuted by life itself. He realised how, if we are present and conscious in our suffering, it can become a process of refinement.
In order for base matter to be transformed into the philosopher’s stone–the symbol of perfection and immortality–the alchemists believed that it had to go through four processes, each with its own colour. That the prima materia must pass from black to white to yellow and finally to red, before it was pure and perfect and complete. Likewise, in order to refine and cleanse the base matter of ourselves from a chaotic, unconscious state into a state of consciousness and completion, we must pass through the same four gateways.
Nigredo. Albedo. Citrinitas. Rubedo.
The first of these four stages, the nigredo or ‘blackening’, is suffering.
A dark night of the soul in which we are reduced to ashes and black matter by the fire, and in that darkness we confront the darkness in ourselves.
Sometimes, it doesn’t help to remind myself when I am suffering that I am transforming into something stronger. Something more self-aware, and more capable of being myself. We are all human, and sometimes we fail as much (or even more) than we succeed. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are still there in that alchemical oven, and that we are still trying. That there are still times when I am shut away in my bedroom, twisting and straining in the heat and the pressure of transmutation.
That bedroom is my crucible.
And, when things boiled over earlier this week and I was finally done crying and complaining and feeling terribly sorry for myself, I became conscious of a sound that had been rumbling away in the background while I was too caught up in my own pain to pay any attention to the outside world. Low and steady and rhythmical.
In the field across the road, they were gathering the first crop of the summer hay.
I watched that hay baler trundle up and down the field for almost half an hour–hypnotised by the pulse of internal combustion, the steady up-and-down rhythm of the feeder forks. As I watched, a deep stillness crept out over me, mingled into the dry and smoky, incense-like smell of the hay. I realised that the world hadn’t stopped. That life was still out there, in the dusty summer evening.
That it was still going on, and that it was tugging me along with it like the current of a stream.
These last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about anger, despair, and willful ignorance. Anger and despair increasingly look like both opposite states from each other, and like a reaction to one another. Most pertinent here is how despair arises from situations where we feel incapable of expressing our anger. But this kind of despair isn’t useful. It’s a poison. It doesn’t change our situation. In fact, the only thing it changes is how miserable we feel about ourselves and the world that we live in.
But let’s backtrack and provide a little context, shall we?
Recently, a group that I admire immensely removed a post from their Facebook page because some of their members found it distressing. The link it question was to a petition calling on the Indian Prime Minister to take serious steps to address the culture of rape and violence against women. It was prompted by the rape and murder of two girls in Uttar Pradesh, and the comments of a minister from the ruling party that rape is a “social crime… sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong”. The petition included a blurred out photograph of the bodies of the two girls, where apparently “the villagers had sat in a tight closed circle around the mango tree, refusing to let the bodies of their girls be taken down, until the authorities and the media had to pay attention.” [via the BBC]. At the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of people complaining about things coming up in their news feed that are ‘upsetting’. Talking about hiding, blocking, or defriending people who post activism-related articles, images, and petitions that cause them distress.
I personally don’t sign online petitions unless they seem likely to actually achieve something. But in this case, international pressure seems to be one of the best ways of forcing the Indian authorities to address the caste- and gender-based violence threatening the country’s women. It is one of those situations where we comfortable members of wealthy Western states actually have more power over what gets done than the women and girls who actually have to live in a culture of fear because of it.
To call for posts about this petition to be removed (not least from a community who really should be invested in a culture of activism, both environmental and human) because it causes us distress is to exercise an immense amount of personal privilege. More than that, it is to take part in a culture of willful ignorance that actively supports the systems of oppression, discrimination, and exploitation that destroy our world and our communities.
The people who lived in that village put their their own bodies between the authorities and the girls’ corpses to force the world’s media to see them, knowing that the most effective thing that they could do to prompt change was to get the images of their broken bodies out there. To ensure that the whole world saw, and shared in their outrage. These pictures are meant to shock us. And if they cause us upset and distress, then get fucking angry. Then, when you are good and angry, go out there and damned well do something about it. Because if you allow all of that hurt and anger to turn inwards, if it makes you despair, and if in that despair you hide yourself away from it all, then (whether you like it or not) you are contributing to the status quo. More than that, you are complicit in a system in which this kind of shit is going to keep on happening.
This kind of willed ignorance isn’t just limited to issues of sexual assault, or to matters that solely affect places far, far beyond comfortable little lives. It supports horrific working conditions in factories that produce our clothes, personal electronics, and consumer goods. It enables the mind-blowing cruelty of factory- and mechanised-farming that fills our supermarkets and puts food in our kitchens or on our tables. It is complicit in mountaintop removal, open-cast coal mines, the poisoning of the water, earth, and sky, the copyrighting of life itself, and the catastrophic effect that we are having on our own atmosphere in order to keep our lights on.
Ignore it. Ignore it. Ignore it.
Having to deal with it is too difficult. Too painful. There’s nothing I can do to change it. All I can do is stop myself from getting upset by stopping myself from coming into contact with anything about it.
Damned right it’s painful. Damned right it’s distressing. But do you for one moment think that it’s as distressing for you as it is for the people (and animals) who actually have to live with this shit every single day of their lives? Do they have the opportunity to just close their eyes, wave their hands, and forget about it? Of course they don’t.
Instead of feeling sorry for yourself: get angry.
It’s a difficult emotion. Believe me, I understand that. I grew up in a very violent home, and (like many with abusive childhoods) have repeated that same pattern in my adult relationships. I have been so scared of anger that the sight of it in anyone else is enough to make me bolt and hide. When I feel any trace of it in myself, more often than not I don’t have a single idea of what to do with it. It is chaotic, impossible to control, and if I allow it to fester then it will eat away at me for days and days until every living cell in my body is poisoned. Anger is a big, red, squirming nightmare, and I have to somehow find a way to live in a world where I’m exposed to it all the damned time.
This rant is a part of that process.
Similarly, it occurs to me that posts on social networks (like this petition) could be distressing to some individuals not because of a culture of willful ignorance, but because it is directly triggering to survivors of sexual assault. That one is a difficult circle to square, for sure. Trigger warnings are an important part of the healing process for a lot of people, and a vital exercise in compassion for those of us fortunate enough to not have been traumatised in that way. However, to a specific person under specific circumstances, almost anything can potentially be triggering. Yes, it is important that we show some good old-fashioned empathy when thinking about the people who might be exposed to these images and petitions, but it’s also important for those of us who aren’t personally triggered to continue to share and shout and scream about these issues so that we can make a damned difference to it all.
That is why I will keep yelling about this stuff even though, as a friend pointed out, these sorts of posts will bomb on social networks compared to pictures of my cat. I’ll keep working on opening my anger up to the air, washing out those wounds, and learning how to dress them and bind them so that they can heal. And when I see these issues being pushed aside and ignored because it makes people uncomfortable, I’ll continue to cause a damned fuss.
Because this shit is important. Because it might be the only way that anything will ever change.
For the last fifteen years, I’ve kept a closely-guarded secret: I am not one individual but many, all sharing the same body. That’s to say, I have multiple selves.
On the few occasions that I’ve confided in people, I’ve used clinical terms like ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ or the freshly-updated ‘Disassociative Identity Disorder’, but the more I think about it the less I self-identify with them. I’ve never really fitted the definition of DID particularly well: there was no huge traumatic event that caused my identity to shatter, and the memory loss that I get is as result is generally mild. But it’s more than that: I have never, and will never classify what I experience as a ‘disorder’.
Some of the people that I’ve trusted with this have been accepting and supportive. The majority have been confused and uncomfortable. Either way, I’ve spent many, many years convinced that if I ever revealed the truth about myself, then the best that I could hope for was mockery, ostracism, and to be classified as a ‘faker‘. At worst, I fully expected to fall into the black hole of our mental health system and never get out. It’s hardly surprising: every time I see depictions of people with multiple selves in the stories that we tell ourselves, they are always dangerous, unstable, and ultimately end up either committed or ‘cured’. And I don’t have very much desire for either.
So, why am I suddenly ready to talk about it? Well, the older I get the more I realise that the most important thing that I can do in life is be authentic to myself. Like a lot of folks, I’ve spent most of my years trying to the hide parts of myself I didn’t like, in the hopes of making other people like me. It’s nonsense. I’ve learned from experience (as we all do sooner or later) that hiding who I am only leads to making friends with people who care about someone that I’m not. Ultimately, these things have a way of worming their way to the surface. When they do, the result is almost always pain, feelings of betrayal, and broken friendships. Hell, for all I know, this process of constantly concealing and burying parts of myself is how I ended up with multiples in the first place.
Either way, I’ve become convinced me that I need to be myself. All of myselves. Even if that means being strange or unpalatable to others. At least then I know that anyone who cares for me isn’t going to up and leave the second I let something slip when I should have buried it instead.
The other thing that’s changed is that I’ve slowly come to realise how constrictive and oppressive modern, clinical ideas about ‘mental health’ can be. And I’ve happened upon some awesome groups (and individuals) that are carving out another way. That process started during the two workshops on re-wilding the mind and post-civilised mental health at last year’s Uncivilisation. I’d gone to them hoping to find some ideas for helping my partner live with severe depression. What happened instead was the deeply-moving (and profoundly painful) opening up of hearts and minds of almost everybody in the room. People shared story after story of their own struggles with depression, grief and anxiety, and the struggles of the people that they’d cared about. Almost uniformly, these things were exacerbated and made worse by professional mental health institutions–which I suppose is to be expected at a counter-cultural place like Unciv, which will tend to collect people who are mistreated and dissatisfied by mainstream systems.
To me though, it was a revelation. The reading that I’ve done since about places like the Hearing Voices Network, and the conversations that I’ve had with the wonderful Steve Thorp have helped me see just how incredible the human mind is in its capacity for developing identity and expressing itself in many and manifold forms. I’ve started to understand how complex our personalities actually are (far more complex than our current, blinkered view of ‘reality’ accepts) and to hear stories from people who have resisted the pressure to be labelled and pumped full of drugs. Forging their own paths, and treating their non-neurotypicality as a part of their journey, rather than a disease to be cured. Of course there are going to be times when people require help, support, therapy and even drug treatments for some issues, but it isn’t the whole answer, and it ain’t for everybody.
For what it’s worth, I have always viewed my many selves as a strength rather than a weakness. They allow me to view myself from outside myself, to explore facets and feelings that have been hidden, Shadowed or ignored. Sometimes, they provide a release mechanism for when I feel completely overwhelmed and unable to function inside myself. At other times, they’ve provided me with a different perspective on the universe, inspired me, or just fucked with the radio station I listen to in the car.
I have no idea what my friends, family and colleagues will think to all of this. I hope they’ll be accepting. But, more than all of that, I hope that it provides some tiny modicum of support for anyone that’s in the same position I was fifteen, five, or even just one year ago. I hope this shows someone like me that they are not alone, and that their world will not fall apart if they can (finally, after however many years) find the strength to be honest about who they are… and to hell with anyone that doesn’t like it.
February this year is time Steampunk Hands Around the World a project that aims to celebrate global steampunk community. So many people have helped and supported me since I first got involved with steampunk back in 2009. Many of them have quite literally changed my life. This feels like the perfect opportunity to honour some of them.
If it wasn’t for Magpie, then steampunk and I would likely have been little more than ships that passed in the night.
I met Magpie a few days after finding out that steampunk was a thing. At the time, I was editing a tiny Doctor Who fanzine called YANA–mostly just as an excuse to draw stupid comics and write silly stories. I’d happened upon some pretty cool pictures of a Steampunk TARDIS, which in turn led me to SteamPunk Magazine and messaging Magpie to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his “Yena of Angeline” stories. At the time, I didn’t even realise that he was also the editor.
About a week later, he messaged me to say he was actually about to wrap the magazine up, and before I knew what I was doing I was messaging him back to say “I’ll take over!”. I knew almost nothing about steampunk, literally nothing about the politics that SPM was built on, and even less about how to edit, layout, and run a magazine. In Magpie’s place, I’m pretty sure I would have responded with: “Thanks, but I have no idea who you are”. Magpie, being the incredible human being that he is, came back with: “Sure, why not”.
The next couple of years editing SteamPunk Magazine honestly changed my life. Not only has the experience given me confidence in my abilities, it’s influenced my politics, the skills I possess, and the whole way that I see the world. And I owe so much of that to Magpie–who was always there to recommend the right books on anarchist politics, walk me through how the hell to deal with InDesign, advise me on how to find printers and get the magazine into physical form, and offer encouragement and support.
I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it wasn’t for him, and I almost certainly wouldn’t be involved with steampunk. I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked him for everything he did for me, so I guess that this is my chance
I have a terrible admission to make. Despite living less than two dozen miles apart, John Reppion and I have never actually met. We have, however, exchanged a bunch of emails over the last few years.
I got in touch with John not long after taking over at SPM, because at the time he was writing an ongoing story for the magazine. At the time, the whole editing thing was damned new to me, so I was glad to meet another writer–since I at least had some idea of what was involved in that. John and I also shared a love for the occult, the esoteric, and the downright supernatural, so we got on famously almost right away.
To talk about the biggest way that John has helped me out, I have to talk about ‘Journeys‘. This started out as a vague idea to create a steampunk shared world anthology with some of the many awesome writers that I met while working at SteamPunk Magazine. Sadly, we could never quite get the collection to gel together as a whole. The energy eventually ran out, Magpie released a couple of the stories that came out of it as ‘White is the Color of Death‘ through his new project (with one of the other writers involved) over at Combustion Books, and I consigned my own contribution to the cutting room floor.
A lot of time passed after that. My life went through some tectonic changes. To some extent, it fell to pieces. And right then, out of nowhere, John dropped me a little email to say hey, why didn’t we pair our stories up with the one that Dylan Fox had written and publish them ourselves? To this day, I think that John feels like he kind of put me to a lot of effort with that, but he’s dead wrong. The truth is that when his email dropped onto my screen, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I felt directionless, and increasingly depressed. That one little email from him gave me something to focus on. Not just stories to edit and layout to do, but a whole micropublisher to re-found. On top of that, he gave me the opportunity to put a collection of stories together that I am damned proud of.
Jaymee needs a special mention on this list for being more patient with me than I had any right to expect anyone to be. I’m not sure how we first got talking, but I do know that post-colonialism and anti-racism was still a complete bewilderment to me when it happened, and that Jaymee is pretty much responsible for me getting at least a tenuous handle on my own privilege.
There were several long (doubtless incredibly frustrating) conversations over IM about white privilege, post-colonialism, cultural imperialism and exotification. More than that, when I had the (in retrospect, utterly stupid) idea of organising a huge online debate for every steampunk on the internet to scream at each other about politics, Jaymee was the only person to stand up and tell me it was a really bad idea. She was right, and I ignored her, but when everything went to hell she didn’t slam the door in my face.
I owe her a hundred thousand thanks for that, and for continuing to pour her blood and sweat into her post-colonial steampunk blog at Silver Goggles, where I read and read slowly learned exactly where I’d gone so badly wrong. Jaymee, along with fellow post-colonial steampunk Ay-leen (who she introduced me to) have done wonders to diversify steampunk–to make it something other than an echo chamber of white, Imperial wet dreams. For that, I think that we can all be bloody grateful.
Carolyn was the first ‘real’ steampunk that I ever met in the flesh. I think I’d been editing the magazine for a couple of months at that point, and was still feeling out of my depth. All of a sudden I was stumbling across strange new ideas like feminism and anti-racism that shook me out of my quiet, self-obsessed little world. Then I went to Whitby Goth Weekend to see Abney Park play, and found myself face-to-face with this fierce, independent, vintage-motorcycle-riding, Californian civil engineer who’d written a couple of articles for the magazine that I didn’t really understand yet. Needless to say, I was kind of terrified of this lady, and of her finding out that I didn’t actually have a clue what I was doing.
Carolyn and I have kept in touch ever since, and she doesn’t scare me any more (at least, not quite so much ). She’s taught me how to waltz, to polka, and how to do at least two different Regency set dances. She helped me put on the first ‘Steampunk Magazine Spectacular’ weekend in Oxford, let me ride her 1940s Royal Enfield J2 (his name is Henry), fed me from her allotment, introduced me to Ursula LeGuin, and blew my mind wide open with everything she knows about the process of Progress and gender politics.
I still think of her as fierce, independent, and as one of the most terrifyingly intelligent people that I’ve ever met, but she’s also a damned good friend, a hero, and has left me a hell of a lot smarter than she found me.
There are dozens and dozens of other people who have helped me out, taught me things, or just been there to offer support over the past few years. That’s part of what makes steampunk so great. Sure, we have our fair share of trolls, bigots, and assholes. Every group and subculture does. What makes steampunk different is the incredible spirit of invention amongst its communities, and how eager so many of these people are to share their skills, knowledge, and inspiration with others.
I haven’t always had the most straightforward relationship with steampunk, but it’s immensely valuable to look back from time to time and realise the things that you have. And steampunk? Steampunk has introduced me to a whole panoply of wonderful, funny, intelligent, caring people. That is an awesome, awesome thing.
via Elephant Journal
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.”
Something has been wrong with my car for a long time now. In truth, I’ve not had much luck with them for years. Wheel bearings fail, batteries catch fire, cam belts snap and destroy every value on the engine block… When I went to trade in my last car (a little Renault Clio) for the current nightmare (a Skoda Fabia, which is meant to be reliable) the dealer asked me if I’d ever had an accident in the Clio, then turned his screen around to show me that it was written off by the previous owner. A certain amount of this is not asking the right questions when we invest in a new car, a certain amount is the fact that we’ve never been able to afford to ask the right questions.
The day before Christmas Eve, I finally got the news that I’d been dreading for a while: the head gasket on our latest nightmare had failed. Fortunately, we (just about) had the money to get it fixed. However, since then there have been an endless stream of additional problems slowly bleeding us dry at a time when we’re meant to be saving to move house.
But I don’t want to spend this post talking about my car problems. I want to talk about how we deal with worry.
Actually, I want to talk about how we deal with worry, and anger, and resentment, sadness, and a whole bunch of other emotions that are sometimes useful and necessary, but often just end up getting in the way of going about my life.
Three years ago, Dylan and I up sticks and moved fifty miles down the coast to live closer to my best friend. This friend was (at the time) the centre of my world and although he had previously pulled a vanishing act on me, I felt comfortable in his assurances that it would never happen again. A little less than two years ago: it happened again. He started refusing to speak to me, and told me that he never wanted to hear from us again. I haven’t seen him since, and all of a sudden, Dylan and I were fifty miles from everyone we knew and we couldn’t afford to go back.
The only reason that this is relevant is because I still, two years later, hold onto a lot of resentment (even rage) towards this ‘friend’–not to mention all of the pain that’s lurking somewhere underneath that anger. I’ve told myself that I have to be patient. That the pain and that resentment will pass when they’re ready. That so long as I sit with them, and they aren’t actively jeopardising my life, I’m ok to go on living with them as my (increasingly occasional) companions.
And I think that’s about the right of it, to be honest. Forcing myself to move on seems as though it would be counter-productive. And I have no desire to hide from my dark side, or push it back into the shadows. I think that we can spend far too much of our lives trying to insulate ourselves from darker feelings and emotions, trying to live perpetually happy lives with a forced, rictus grin on our faces. I’ve never much seen the point in that. Darkness has a place in our lives, and in ourselves. It should be worked with and embraced when it appears. But there are times when these feelings can be utterly unproductive, can sabotage us, or they can just outstay their welcome at a time when we need to let go. And it’s this refusal to let go that’s the real issue here.
In the same way, I worry about the little ‘Check Engine’ light flashing on the dashboard of my car and my rapidly diminishing (and horribly hard-won) savings, even though I know that worry is entirely pointless (as neatly illustrated in the diagram above). It serves no purpose but to hang over me like little black thunderhead.
So why clutch onto these things so tightly when they aren’t useful? In my case, the unfortunate answer is because I feel entitled to them. I feel entitled to the anger at my friend because he betrayed me. Because I’d come so far to be near him and felt as though I’d given him so much of myself, and the second things got tough I was discarded seemingly without a second thought. In the same way, I feel entitled to worry about the ‘Check Engine’ light in my car. Like I have bled my savings deep enough and been patient and laissez-faire about the whole thing for long enough now, goddamn it, and the damned thing should be fixed. But it’s not, and that makes me feel entitled to throw my toys out of the pram.
(and pull faces a bit like this one)
Feeling that kind of entitlement towards anger, worry, upset, and even outright depression is an odd thing, when you think about it. It brings with it the idea that I can somehow punish my friend with my resentment, even though I haven’t even seen a glimpse of him in two years now. Even more ridiculous: that I can somehow punish my damned car for continuing to break down and cost me money. (To be honest, I think that with that one I’m not trying to punish the car. I’m trying to punish the universe for giving me such endless, shitty luck.)
In both cases like our guy with the proverbial hot coal in the quote at the top of this article, the only person I’m punishing is myself. But that doesn’t stop me, and why should it? Our society is full of people who punish others through some form of self-harm–from a man who threatens to kill himself if his partner doesn’t stay with him, to another who descends into alcoholism when she leaves. We see this sort of shit all the time. Even worse than that, our media is full of examples where this kind of intentional self-sabotage works. Where, if you can just suffer long enough and hard enough… if you can only fall into a deep enough hole… then sooner or later the universe will come along and set things right again.
Needless to say, the universe doesn’t really feel one way or another about the whole thing. Fairness and what we ‘deserve’ are only concepts that we’ve brought into it, not absolute rules of reality.
A supernova doesn’t care whether it’s fair to the people living on nearby planets.
(Oh, I’m sorry. Were you sitting there?)
I don’t say that to be nihilistic. The universe is a beautiful, wonderful, incredible place. It just doesn’t give a shit whether I moved all the way out here to live nearer to a total asshole, or whether the ‘Check Engine’ light is still on in my car.
What makes it even stranger is that no one ever feels ‘entitled’ to happiness in the same way. Sure, there are people who keep their heads up and keep smiling when the whole world is going to shit around them, but it’s rarely out of stubbornness. Nor have I ever met anyone who tried to help another person by doggedly clinging onto their own love, sense of accomplishment, courage, and honesty. And yet we seem quite happy to accept that the reverse side of things is true.
I don’t have any answers on what to do about this whole state of affairs. At least, nothing beside continuing to remind myself of the innate stupidity of what I’m doing, and hope that sooner or later it begins to sink in. Because that’s the only way things are going to change. There is no universal balance of ‘fairness’ that’s going to put that light out on my dashboard, or give that former friend an incredibly uncomfortable case of piles. Believing that there is won’t change reality, and it certainly won’t help me feel any better. I’ll just end up trapped in this same cycle–making myself miserable in the hopes that sooner or later someone or something will notice. That sooner or later, someone or something will rescue me.
But the truth is that you are your own Prince Charming. And if you want to be rescued, then you’d better strap on your breastplate, pick up your sword, and get to work.
“The knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”
- “The Magical Power of Words“, S.J. Tambiah
It’s always fascinated me is when art is liminal. Something that exists in the inbetween. Not quite one thing, or another. Performance that combines music and film, novels that are written to echo the shape of a symphony… And there’s something captivating in creating something that’s neither fully one thing or another, too. Making something that has a foot in two worlds.
I can’t remember when I first started thinking about the similarities between stories and spells, but I was reminded of it again last summer when I was lucky enough to see the awesome Tom Hirons and Rima Staines telling the Lithuanian folktale The Sun Princess and the Fortieth Door. Tom introduced the story by talking about how stories have always been a form of spell, and ever since then I’ve been considering…
It’s always seemed like the most tangible kind of magic is the kind we work within ourselves as we grow, develop and change to better adapt to our environments, or to the dreams we want to chase. Moments of incredible insight and profound understanding aren’t by-products of magical experience, but seem to constitute a form of magic in and of themselves. Considering that anything that we vividly imagine is indistinguishable from reality in the effect that it has on our brains and body chemistry, and that our minds are actually more receptive to reprogramming when immersed in something fictional, it seems pretty obvious that stories really are a kind of invocation. That they are spells woven from life itself in how the writer uses their own energy and craft to shape the narrative and the characters, but they’re also life-creating in the effects that they have on the minds of the people that read them.
Stories are words of power, then. Literally evoking something greater than themselves.
All of which has me thinking about ways in which you could write stories that consciously and directly mirror the form and structure of a spell. Or spells which took the shape of a story, for that matter. On the surface, the rituals of modern Wicca would seem to be the simplest place to start–with their set structure that involves calling the elements, casting a circle, and consecrating it with water and with fire. However these are essentially modern creations, and I can’t help but be tempted to explore the possibilities of something older.
The oldest surviving Western spells are Anglo Saxon, like this one to stop bees from swarming:
Sitte ge, sigewif,
sigað to eorðan,
næfre ge wilde
to wuda fleogan,
beo ge swa gemindige,
swa bið manna gehwilc,
metes and eðeles.
Settle down, victory-women,
never be wild and fly to the woods.
Be as mindful of my welfare,
as is each man of eating and of home.
(By far the most enticing thing about this spell is the way it calls the bees ‘sigewif’. Siege wives, or ‘victory women’.)
There are a few other scattered collections of these spells, charms, and talismans-of-words around, but they’re mostly structureless which makes them difficult to emulate, so I’m kind of out of ideas on that front for now.
Instead, I’ve been occupying myself by toying with other ways. Not just in how a story can literally echo a spell, but in how they can ultimately serve same purpose: encoding deep knowledge. To offer cryptic roadmaps for learning like alchemical manuscripts once did, or like the physiological readings of myths presented by modern druids and Jungian psychoanalysts. Stories have always taught us how to cope with life in all its pain, stress, difficulties, and glory. But what if this could be done more consciously, through metaphor and allegory?
I had a shot at this with ‘The Weed Wife‘ (it isn’t out yet, but will be by the spring). Superficially, it’s a story about environmental destruction, but it’s also about what The Lord of the Rings (or at least something broadly similar) might look like if the Ringbearer failed, and their companions limped back to their homes while the Dark Lord’s influence slowly swallowed everything.
With ‘The Weed Wife’, the companion in question is a knight named Ser Marchlyn, who has crawled back to her family’s seat–desperate, and essentially suffering from post-traumatic stress. In theory, the whole story is supposed to serve as a kind of subconscious map for navigating the aftermath of a traumatic event, and finding a path back towards healing. You’ll notice the operative words ‘in theory’: I’m by no means anything but a rank (but enthusiastic) amateur in Jungian psychology, and there are undoubtedly ways that it could be done better. But it was a hell of a lot of fun trying, and I’m looking forwards to the opportunity to try again.
I’m also deeply interested in whether anyone else has been trying this kind of thing. I’m pretty sure that I can’t be the first person to think about it. There must be other folks who have consciously played in the space between story and magic, but I’m damned if I know who they are. If anyone knows them, or has tinkered with this sort of thing themselves, I’d be really interested to hear about it.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll just keep fumbling around with my little invocations by trial and error–waiting to see what I summon, and how much interest it has in eating me alive, or dragging me down to the Deep Ones.
I’m horribly excited to let you know about my little story ‘The Labyrinth of Thorns’ which is out today in Interzone #250.
If you like experimental little cyberpunk meditations about descent (and the Shadow of a city as well as the self), then you should go and check it out! If you have any particularly awesome news agents near you, then they might stock it. Otherwise, you can order print or digital copies through the TTA Press website.
And, if you do happen to read it, be sure to let me know what you think!
So, I wanted to take a few moments out from a festive period full of writing, editing, and re-watching ‘The Wire’ to look back at some of the most awesome things that I’ve read this year. First, let’s take a look at some novels, shall we?
One of the most awesome novels that I’ve read in a very long time, Joe Abercrombie wins the award for the most convincing female character I’ve ever seen written by a man–in the shape of Monzarro ‘Monza’ Murcatto. Monza’s quest for revenge is the whole thrust of the novel, and shows her as a brutal, remorseless, and ultimately profoundly unsettling human being. Intense without being a grind, entertaining without being vapid, and an awesome study of a very complex character.
When Gravity Fails – George Alec Effinger
I happened upon 1986 Nebula nominee ‘When Gravity Fails’ while doing searches for Islamic cyberpunk, and it turned out to be probably the most technically proficient and elegantly-crafted example of the genre that I’ve read. It’s my favourite form of cyberpunk: hardboiled noir; plot inexorably tied up with the world’s technology; questions about power and identity; and murder. It also wins out by having great representation of trans characters, for a storyline focused personality ‘mods’ that people can slot right into their brains, and for the Budayeen itself. Cyberpunk needs more non-Western settings, and this one seemed very well done to me.
Game of Thrones/Clash of Kings/Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin
I’m very aware that George R.R. Martin’s writing isn’t perfect. Despite some points for trying, his writing on race, gender, and sexuality often falls far short of the mark for me (Rainbow Guard? Honestly? You may as well have announced Renly’s Kingsguard with “Look out, lads, here come the queers!”). His turns of phrase are sometimes inelegant, and the man cannot write a fight scene to save his life. And yet…. I cannot stop reading these books. I think there may be some sort of addictive substance on the pages. The combination of excellent characterisation, sweeping world-building, fantastic balance between different characters and their agendas, and plain old fashioned-page turning writing has got me tearing through these suckers. Even if I do feel the boiling urge to punch Jaimie in the face every time he calls Brienne ‘wench’.
And now, the short stories. I’ve read shedloads of them over the last twelve months, and here are some of my favourites:
Now Ix, He Was a Lover – Hannah Strom-Martin – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #130
Not sure what I love most about this story. I’m a sucker for non-Western fantasy, for tragic love stories, and for the barest whisper of sensuality. The story of a woman’s ill-fated not-quite-affair with a distinctly un-Legolas-like elf, in a world that feels incredibly rich and textured.
Old Domes – J.Y. Yang – We See a Different Frontier
There were a few really great stories in Future Fire’s “We See a Different Frontier” (including the awesome ‘Vectors’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who has another entry below) and ‘Old Domes’ is one of the ones that’s really stuck with me. An exploration not just of colonised people, but of the colonised land itself–told through the story of a young woman tasked with hunting down the spirits of old colonial buildings in Singapore that are destined for destruction. In incredibly clever premise, and beautifully executed.
A Quest For the Vulture Gods – Melissa Yuan-Innes – Crossed Genres #9
Two Chinese princesses set out to find the Tree of Life to save their baby brother, and are joined by a wondering monk. This little story is charming and evocative, and the sisters are fantastically-written characters with their own strength and agency. Another one of those that I’ve just not been able to get out of my head. Easy to read and emotionally engaging.
A Death for the Ageless – Margaret Ronald – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #134
There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned who dun it, and ‘A Death for the Ageless’ is the best short one that I’ve read in a good while. A mixture of crime, investigation, and a highly unique fantasy setting with goblins and exiled gods, it’s evocatively written, clever, and has the essential well-crafted twist in the tail.
Artificial Nocturne – E. Catherine Tobler – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #126
There seems to have been something of an explosion of women-with-wings stories. I’ve read a good three or four of them over the course of the year, but this one is undoubtedly my favourite. A little dark and a little macabre, with a travelling circus thrown in for good measure. What’s not to love?
The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate – Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #118
I’ve read a lot of great stories by this author over the course of this year, but I think this one is probably my favourite. I’ve never quite been able to get the hang of writing relationships that aren’t just complex, but often bitter and unplesant, but I do sure love reading them. ‘The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate’ is a story of betrayal, and the ascent (or possibly descent) of a goddess. It’s always difficult to make short stories truly moving, but this one definitely manages it.
An interesting discussion about second person narration with Benjanun (who wrote the last one) led to her pointing me in the direction of this story. Second person is something of an acquired taste (I personally love it, but there you go), but this story mixes it in with some more conventional third person storytelling to really hammer home the feelings of dislocation, isolation, and identity loss. It’s one of those stories that has a lot of depth, and benefits from a couple of readings.
So, how about y’all? What are your favourite reads from 2013, and have you found anything I’ve missed?
I’ve spent the last week thinking about empire, as you do. It all started when I found myself watching BBC4′s “Shipwrecks” program which looked pretty interesting but ended up making me rage with it’s gung-ho nationalism. The moment when I knew that I had to stop watching it was when the presenter described the British Empire as “our global adventure”.
There are so many things so profoundly wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. Not only have our imperial aspirations caused war, famine, and exploitation in the past, but it has a legacy of everything from continued bloodshed to skin-whitening creams. It’s taken me back to an interview I did with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing during my stint as editor of SteamPunk Magazine. At the time, I’d not long heard ‘Blood Red‘ their bile-filled poke at colonialism and imperialism in the steampunk movement. It’s the kind of song that lights a fire in you. When I asked guitarist/vocalist Andrew O’Neill about it, he said:
“It’s weird, because there’s a lot of post-colonial writing about the Empire, but it doesn’t seem to have seeped into the consciousness of British people. We kind of think that we went there and gave them trains and roads. Yeah, and then we left with all their stuff. We were in charge of Zimbabwe and we took everything of value and then people say: ‘Oh, look, but we left and they’re killing each other’. Yeah, they’re killing each other because we took all of the valuable things out of their country. The Empire was essentially us raping the world, and anyone who is supportive of the Empire and racist needs to fuck right off. At the very least we owe the Commonwealth the ability to come and live in a country that is only rich because we stole everything of value from the places we invaded.”
- “Less Brass Goggles, More Brass Knuckles”, Steampunk Magazine #7
At some point while I was ranting about this on Facebook, someone mentioned the Romans. This kind of got me thinking about whether our own legacy of being a colonised country has something to do with the highly-toxic attitude that Britain as a nation has towards its “great global adventure”.
For hundreds of years after the Roman Empire collapsed, the accepted belief was that Rome had lifted Britain out of savagery, and set us on the path to righteous enlightenment. In short, it was a little bit like this:
This view only really began to be challenged in the Romantic Age, when the folklore revival left European citizens increasingly aware that their ancestors weren’t quite as primitive and savage as they’d been led to believe. Even then, this idea that the Roman Empire dragged us out of an Age of Ignorance endures to this day.
It’s somewhat beyond my remit here, but needless to say that pre-Roman Britain was far from an ignorant hive of scum and savagery. If nothing else, the wealth of incredibly complex prehistoric monuments, intricately-made artefacts, and astronomical calendars is testament to that. Pre-Roman Britain was a long way away from pre-technological, so why do we still hold this perception of our ancestors?
I think a lot of it has to do with the type of knowledge and technology that the Romans brought to Great Britain: written records took over from oral traditions, centralised governments from tribal ones, and (maybe most importantly) Christianity replaced paganism. These forms of learning aren’t necessarily any more or less valid than the ones we had before, but they came together as a whole package which we (as a people) swallowed wholesale. John Michael Greer has written numerous times (and with great insight and clarity) on how Christianity is innately tied to our modern attitudes towards civilisation, science, technology, government, and learning. It is basically the subconscious foundation our whole society has been built on, with its centralised authority, omniscient patriarch, hierarchical structure, and focus on the written word.
There is a damned good argument that it is an ultimately Christian ideology that underpins the great strengths and terrible failings of the world we have built for ourselves in the English-speaking West. And I find myself wondering whether holding such a dim view of our own pre-Christian ancestors… With ultimately feeling as though we had to be lifted out of ignorance by Rome and by the Church… Doesn’t have something to do with this horrific “we brought them trains and roads” attitude towards the Empire.
After all, if we believe that’s what was true for us, that the Romans came here and uplifted us with better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, then why shouldn’t we believe that’s what we’re doing, when we set out to conquer an empire of our own?