Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Drowned and Knighted at the Summer Solstice

Last week was the Summer Solstice. I spent the night in the fields around Stonehenge being drowned by persistent rain with occasional freakish cloudbursts for variety. Curled up in a foetus-like position, in order to shelter as much as my body as possible under my umbrella, I swigged rum from a plastic Dr. Pepper bottle and whiled away the hours trying to work out why, after 5000 years, no-one has got round to sticking the roof on the damn henge yet.

Most of my Big Hand colleagues decided to retreat to the warmth of their vehicles, but I took the view that it was important to stick it out. I was there to keep vigil through those black hours while we are turned away from the sun, so that was what I would do. And during those long, sodden, dark hours many questions flitted across my mind, the most common being "What the hell am I doing here?"

What was I doing there? I wasn't there to worship the sun. Don't get me wrong, I like the sun. It's not as cool as the moon or anything, but it's pretty damn great. If it had a volume control it would be awesome. But generally I don't go around worshipping stuff because I can't worship on cue. Can other people worship on cue? Is it a skill they have which I lack? I've long been suspicious that most people are putting it on.

So what was I doing there? The only answer I had to that was, well, it's what people do. It's what people have always done, for 5000 years: They visit Stonehenge on the solstices. That's about the one certainty we have. Everyone you know, every building, every political movement, every body of knowledge, every town, every eco-system, every economy, the language you speak - they are all in a constant state of flux and will change massively and unpredictably over your lifetime. Yet people will always travel to Stonehenge on the Solstices.

Currently, things that are supposed to be symbols of British stability are on shakey ground. In a few years, the Queen will be dead. The United Kingdom as we know it could be gone if the Scottish so desire. If that happens, the Union flag - so ubiquitous and merry this year, after the National Front spoilt it in the 1970s - would be retired. The Church of England looks set to tear itself apart. The NHS is being sliced up, and the House of Lords is on borrowed time. Yet people will always travel to Stonehenge on the Solstices.

And it's not just British people either, as all the accents you hear there confirm. People come from all over the world. And why not? They are all welcome. They come even though there is nothing there apart from some rocks in a field. There is no entertainment, or amplified music. Their presence demonstrates that 5000 year old fixed points are few and far between. Even Death and Taxes don't really cut it as certainties any more, as Vodaphone's accountants and some of the wilder transhumanists will attest. As fixed points go, we've got the North Star and Stonehenge, and not a lot else.

Finally the sun rose and the rain stopped, and I was knighted by King Arthur in the sunrise ceremony. Yeah, that's right. I suppose some explanation here would help.

Arthur and Sodden Knight
The knighting is a vow of truth, honour and justice, which you essentially make to your own higher self. It's an acknowledgement that life's too short for you to be a dick, basically, and that you take responsibility for your own ability to sleep at night. It's about no longer looking externally for validation. It's something that should be done, but not done lightly. You make the vow by going under the Sword of Britain - as recognised by the Royal Courts of Justice and, somewhat wonderfully, the same sword used in the film Excalibur. Setting and ceremony, of course, give it an extra oomph.

It's clearly a nuts thing to do, but then again, fuck it.

The man wielding the sword, as you can see in the picture, is the Once and Future king himself, King Arthur. Well he certainly looks like he is, anyway. He certainly believes that he is. More importantly, he has spent decades acting like he is, which is some achievement if you think about it. To anyone curious about this strange figure I would thoroughly recommend the revised version of his life story, which is out now and dirt cheap on Kindle. I'm not one for the idea of reincarnation, but if you meet Arthur you'll recognise that he has certain qualities which make him the ideal candidate to wield the Sword of Britain.

My decision to make such a vow came about through the strange psychological processes unleashed when I first printed out a draft of The Brandy of the Damned and showed to another person. Making that vow publicly, in that place, at that time, under that sword, wielded by that man, is about as good a vow-taking as I could muster. Which is the sort of thing that it is worth putting up with some cold and rain in order to claim.

Plus, my kids have taken to calling me Sir Dad, which has got to be a good thing.

Monday, 18 June 2012

A Writing Name

What has happened to my poor name? It has been replaced with an unfortunate Scrabble hand. I have adopted an initials-based 'writing name,' but why?

Traditionally, writers hide behind their initials if they are overly formal, if they are hoping to pass themselves off as a different gender or if they are seeking credibility which their writing alone doesn't provide. And clearly, none of those reasons apply here. They don't!

The timing is odd as well, because I used my normal name for my first book. A writer's name is his or her best asset in the quest to build a readership, so it is not something that is generally tossed away for a lark. So, why have I done just that?

A book apparently written by John Higgs
Two reasons, really, practical ones and personal ones.

On a practical level, it's the global Amazon era. When I wrote I Have America Surrounded, 'John Higgs' was a unique writer name, but times change and the amount of authors has increased exponentially. New John Higgs' arrived on the scene, such as the one who writes about Dealing With Danger, and old John Higgs' who are long out of print but still remembered by second hand book dealers have returned to the shelves.

This trend looks like it will only increase. Wrapping yourself in as unique a moniker as possible will become increasingly important. If you're in this for the long game, it will be better to go for it sooner rather than later. Already swinish writers have started adopting names like 'James A Patterson' or 'Nora A Roberts.' It won't be long until writers start trying to brand themselves with tag-like names such as WRiTR or S7EV3N K!nG, and you don't want to be changing your name in that climate.

Then there are the personal reasons. I know a number of people who have adopted new names at some point in their lives (As the blogger Tom Jackson pointed out, almost everyone involved with my publishers The Big Hand appears to be either dead, fictitious or using a made-up name). This can happen for a number of reasons, but it is often linked to a shift in the psyche, from being an individual that looks externally for validation to becoming someone who validates themselves.

For me, however, there was the fact that I had an excess of middle names which I've always ignored or denied. Having extra middle names may be normal in the Bullingdon Club, but I grew up as a free-school-dinners kid in a North Wales comprehensive where extra middle names were an embarrassment which needed to be hidden. My mum told me that she was completely blameless in the matter, and that the excess of names was my dad's idea. My dad died when I was three and hence was never able to explain himself, but apparently his reasoning was that it would look good "if I went into business." Which throws up the horrifying possibility that I could have been raised by someone who thought it would be good for me to "go into business."


Anyway, after decades of spurning this gift of extraneous names I suddenly realised that they are now exactly what I need, a unique and Amazon-proof identity. For the first time, they look great. True, they don't look that great written normally - JMR Higgs - because it starts all big and shouty and then trails off suddenly. It is better in a URL - jmrhiggs.com - but what really matters is what it looks like on a book cover, in capitals in Franchise font. And here, it looks pretty damn good.

So, I guess belated thanks are due. Thanks Dad!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Interactive Fiction

I've been experimenting with interactive fiction. If you're wondering what interactive fiction is like, click here and read my short story First Against The Floor.

Actually, that's a terrible title for a story, isn't it? Hmmm.  Don't be surprised if it's called something else tomorrow.

It's written using inklewriter. If you want a bit more background, head over to my other blog, Books Vs Apps, and find out more.

Readers of The Brandy of the Damned will recognise a certain character in First Against The Floor, or whatever it ends up being called tomorrow.