December Twenty First, Twenty Five Years On

I stand on top of Parliament Hill and look out at the city.  Up here I can see it all. The mass of brick and concrete cut through with tangled roads and alleys, the rich complexity of the old stones piled up one on top of another.  Every day millions of people walk among them, carrying their past, their present, their future.

I’ve done my share of walking these streets.  Night, day, drunk, sober, there isn’t much of the city that I haven’t seen.  I once walked from here to Tower Bridge, late one drunken night.  It was a very long way past increasingly old landmarks: Camden Lock, the gothic façade of St Pancras, the long dead length of Grays Inn Road to St Paul’s, the Monument, Cheapside, the Roman wall, to the Tower of London and the distant Thames flowing slowly in the grey dawn.

That’s six miles, as the crow flies.  Six miles.  I look up into the sky.  The contrails of two planes have left a giant X across the heavens like the signature of a great illiterate god.  I look back down in the direction of the Thames.  Six miles.  A long way to fall.

London Peculiar/London Personal

“Michael Moorcock died of lung cancer, aged 31, in Birmingham last year. The whereabouts of Karl Glogauer are presently unknown”.
James Colvin, introduction to Breakfast In the Ruins.

On a trip back to the United States from India earlier this year I left my copy of ‘London Peculiar’ on the plane. I didn’t realize it until I cleared customs and immigration, and once I did it felt as though I had abandoned a friend. I could visualize Mike’s mischievous face looking out from where I’d left it in the storage pocket of the seat in front of me. It was a strange sense of loss and one that brought home to me how much I’ve enjoyed reading this collection of his essays and diary entries.

Mike is very much still with us, of course, and that moment of realization reminded me of an experience I had back in Maidenhead, England, where I finished my high school education in the late 70’s. I bought a copy of ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ at Sneath’s Books in a run-down row of shops off the high street. I had been a big fan of Moorcock’s fantasy writing since picking up ‘The Stealer of Souls’, and regularly scoured the few local bookshops for new titles or reprints.

In those pre-internet days, as a middle class kid in a mid-sized, anodyne commuter town, I didn’t see many options for finding the books I loved and didn’t yet have common sense enough to ask the bookshop to order them for me or to take the train to London to the treasure trove of Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Those things came later, along with wandering Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road looking for a scene and people that had long since departed to other destinations on the moonbeam roads.

The sense of loss and confusion when I opened ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ and read the introduction is tempered by time but remains real to me to this day. It may seem ludicrous now, but I didn’t know then that Colvin was a pseudonym and I took the introduction at face value. As far as I knew Moorcock was gone, and we were left with whatever he had written up to that time, and there would be nothing else to come. To a teenager invested in the heroes he’d come to know from his writing, this was a real sense of loss.

Some time later – I don’t recall when but mercifully before I saw him walk on and perform ‘Coded Languages’ onstage with Hawkwind on the Sonic Attack tour – I learned that this was not true. I was grateful that he was still very much alive and kicking and that there was much more to come.

‘London Peculiar’, then, has special resonance for me, drawing together as it does writing that spans his life. In doing so it touches on many of the places where his writing and the scene in which he moved has been a part of my life. This is a personal selection, and it is easy to respond to it personally.

The book is divided into sections – London, Other Places, Absent Friends, Music, Politics, and Introductions and Reviews – but I’m a peripatetic reader of collections such as this, so I found the organization largely irrelevant. Each piece in the collection stands independently from any other, so sampling at random is as good a way as any to enjoy it and given Moorcock’s prolific and diverse writing perhaps the best.

In fact, the breadth of the selection makes the title of this volume a little misleading. There is discussion of London here, but equally as much of Paris and Austin and Barsoom, and more besides.

London is where it begins, though, and the first piece, ‘A Child’s Christmas In The Blitz’ is one of the standout pieces in the collection. You don’t need to have read a Moorcock story or be a Londoner to appreciate it, but the essay will resonate more fully if you have experienced his descriptions of ruined cities, the perfect sanctuary of Tanelorn, and the theme of entropy that he returns to periodically. I’m a generation later than Moorcock – my father was born the same year – but the essay evokes stories my aunts and uncles shared of their experiences during the Blitz.

While the underlying framework of the city – the river, roads, ancient buildings, parks – remain constant London has changed since then, in many ways. In reading the essays that have London as a theme, it’s easy to share with Moorcock the sense of sadness at the work of the commercial heritage industry in co-opting and exaggerating every exploitable corner of the city. Those dark corners and strange alleys, little-visited pubs, baroque architectural growths, and peculiar odds and ends that we think of as our own.

As a native of Fulham, and a long time wanderer of London’s streets, I feel rather proprietary about the city. Like most Londoners who take the time to think about it I have my own version of London mapped out in my thoughts and feelings, and it’s jarring when you find someone has layered an ersatz version on top of it. It’s an invasion of your own experience of the city’s psychogeography.

And there’s a word I hadn’t heard until relatively recently, although it has a long history, and one that gets a good deal of discussion in ‘London Peculiar’. I’ve more or less given up reading modern fiction, since most of it isn’t worth the effort. I have the good fortune to have a brother who sends me things he thinks I’d like, though, and he’s usually spot on. ‘The Sunday Books’ was a recent hit, along with ‘Slow Chocolate Autopsy’. If you’re a fan of Sinclair, you can imagine the feelings I experienced on picking up one of his books cold.

Moorcock visits the theme of psychogeography repeatedly in ‘London Peculiar’, providing context and insight into Sinclair’s writing, and adding further perspective through his commentaries on other authors – Ackroyd and Kersh, for example – who have filtered London through their own unique consciousnesses. The term psychogeography seems to me to be in danger of literary overuse these days, but Moorcock’s essays show you the original masters and help you understand why their writing is important.

And the mention of those authors brings me to a more general observation about the book. This is a truly literary collection, encompassing Mike’s thoughts about art, literature, politics, music, and other artists. The reflections on writers – Ballard, Peake, Carter, Sinclair, Kersh, Story, and others – are rich with the sort of personal observations that are only born of close relationships. You’ll also get a cracking reading list out of his mentions of authors that you’ve never heard about before. Many years ago I read ‘The Urban District Lover’ because of Moorcock’s involvement with Savoy books and his mentions of Jack Trevor Story, and I have just picked up a copy of ‘Fowler’s End’ because of his review here of Kersh’s novel.

Beyond that there is the broader context of the development of fantasy and science fiction, the pathways opened up by writers such as H.G. Wells and the many unique and individual voices, now largely forgotten, that brought the genres new life. You’ll also find here discussion of the role played by Mike and his peers in breaking open the comfortable enclave that those genres lived in. If you know nothing of the impact that ‘New Worlds’ magazine had in leading the New Wave of science fiction during the 60’s, this is as good a place as any to learn from the man who made it happen.

And there is so much more than the literary world in here. Mike’s often humourous observations on life in general, and particularly for me (also an expatriate) his asides on life in the United States, span a wide range of interests and encompass a broad understanding of history, art, music and politics. Whether you agree with his point of view or not, you won’t fail to be entertained.

A final point. Mike’s work includes repeated motifs, themes, characters, and the complexity of their interrelationships rewards wide reading of his books. Readers of this volume will also be rewarded more greatly in proportion to their familiarity with his work and those around him. This is a very enjoyable collection in its own right for those who are completely unacquainted with his work but the more you know about it the more nuggets you will mine.

I hope that whoever picked up my copy of ‘London Peculiar’ from that Air France Airbus doesn’t drop it into the rubbish or the lost and found, but takes the time to open the pages and read just one of the essays contained within. I know that if they do they’ll take better care of it than I did.

‘London Peculiar’ is a wonderful collection. To my grateful eyes it’s a happy artifact that my 15 year old self never could have hoped for after reading that introduction back in the 70’s. There are very few people outside my immediate family and close friends who I shall miss when they are eventually gone, but Michael Moorcock (for the second time) will be one of them.

Edit/Delete Message

Of Dice and Men

I picked up David M. Ewalt’s ‘Of Dice And Men‘ on the strength of the embossed D12 on the cover. My first thought, as someone who spent three of his teen years deeply engrossed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was ‘why a D12 and not a D20?’ but I’ve learned to let those things go. If you have no idea what a D-anything is, bear with me; this book might still be for you.

A little background might be helpful here so that whether you’re a gamer or a civilian you can see where I’m coming from. I played D&D in the 1970’s, back in the early days when it was becoming a craze. For about three years, my final three of high school, I played the game solidly. It wasn’t the only thing I did, but it occupied a lot of my spare time. After I finished high school I quickly drifted away from playing the game, but stayed involved with the role-playing and boardgaming world for a while, writing for fanzines and dropping in on conventions)1.

At this remove from those heady days I had no expectations in picking up the book other than to see what Ewalt as a fellow gamer might have to say about the hobby. His publisher, however, sets a high bar in the margin notes: “Now the authoritative history and magic of the game are revealed…”. This is a little at odds with Ewalt’s introduction which says more modestly of his book “bear in mind it is largely intended to explain the phenomenon of D&D to a mainstream audience”. I’ll say at the beginning that Ewalt’s self-description is more accurate than that of his publishers’ marketing department.

D&D was indeed a phenomenon, one that’s hard to grasp in a time when online fantasy games are commonplace and the cinemas routinely screen 2-hour fantasy epics. Few people give any thought these days to the idea of a fantasy game with an ongoing narrative, or the concept of characters leveling up, but until D&D arrived those concepts didn’t exist.

In fact fantasy itself was a somewhat disreputable and marginal genre – largely a doughy loaf of pulp fiction leavened with the high fantasy of E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and J.R.R. Tolkein. In the UK the new wave of fantasy that was being championed by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds and in his own writing was starting to gain traction, but it was far from the level of general popularity that it now enjoys. It is against this background that D&D arrived, the product of years of development by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Ewalt’s narrative approach in telling the story of that evolution is to frame it within his own journey back to D&D. Like me, and I suspect many others, Ewalt played the game exhaustively until circumstances and life changes led him to abandon it. His book chronicles his journey to understand the origins and evolution of the game, and in doing so he makes side trips into the parallel worlds of tabletop wargames and real life role playing.

The book is organized into chapters about the evolution of the game, the company history of its publisher TSR, and Ewalt’s side excursions. The overarching story is interspersed with narratives from Ewalt’s role playing adventures. I have to say that I did some wincing during these narratives – it’s long been a tenet of mine that descriptions of fantasy role playing adventures are really only interesting to those who were there, and they often sound really naff – but Ewalt carries it off better than most, another tribute to the generally high quality of his writing.

The best parts of the book for my money are the origins story and the mid-section when Ewalt describes how the gaming empire that D&D funded fell apart. Much of the turbulent days at the publishing company TSR and the corporate dynamics that went on during the 80’s was a mystery to me, so I found these sections fascinating.

‘Of Dice and Men’ tells how the small town boys from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, had made it big to the point where Gary Gygax was living it large in Hollywood trying to get interest in a movie based on the game. The company had investments offshore – among other things TSR(UK) owned a property on the Isle of Man, a tax haven close to my heart – but the picture was not as rosy as it might have seemed.

In fact by the mid-80’s the company was in dire financial shape. It had gone from a basement business to a booming company to near bankruptcy in the space of a little over 10 years. Ewalt does a good job of putting the company story in the context of societal reactions to the game – the ‘D&D is satanic’ years – and the waning interest in the hobby in the early 90’s.

He treats the material fairly, quoting the point of view of each of the principals in the drama when it would be easy to point to someone as the villain of the piece. This is a role that Gygax often fills in some people’s estimation. It was Gygax who took the game and ran with it (shutting out his collaborator Dave Arneson, who later sued for his share of the treasure), and who in modern parlance, figured out how to ‘monetize’ the game.

This involved (not unreasonably) exerting strict control over his company’s intellectual property. Gygax made a number of public pronouncements in official publications about how he felt about his imitators and those who published their own D&D related material. He didn’t mince his words: “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt…”

Perhaps it’s self-serving, but to me this seemed at the time all but impossible. The very heart of the game is about improvisation and figuring out for yourself how to make the narrative work. British fanzine writers in the late 70’s, me among them, were in high dudgeon about Gygax’s edicts on indie publications and the characterization of those who wrote and published them as jackals. Having invented a free-form game that encouraged creativity, he seemed to us to be hell-bent on stifling it. This didn’t stop us, of course, but it did drive a wedge between us and one of the fathers of the game.

The gap widened when TSR published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) in 3 books spread out over the space of about 2 years. The books were hard to use as stand-alones and contained contradictions and changes from the original D&D that were hard to reconcile. They were also far more table-driven and prescriptive, and moved further away from the original D&D aesthetic that had attracted us.

Ewalt makes an entertaining tale of what could have become a yawningly dull story of corporate growth and decline set amid a gaming phenomenon. There are omissions in the tale that long-term hobbyists might grumble at, but this is almost of necessity since D&D is such a broad topic. The one I do wonder at is the lack of even a mention of Runequest, whereas Tunnels & Trolls and Traveller get a reasonable amount of space. Runequest, for my money, is one of the richest fantasy role playing settings that has ever been created and while it may be tangential to the story of Dungeons and Dragons, it at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

Be that as it may, Ewalt writes well and this makes for a very readable and entertaining book. I think he accomplishes his own stated goal of explaining the D&D phenomenon to a wider audience, and fills in a few gaps for the hobbyist along the way. This isn’t going to satisfy those who spent a prolonged and intense period of their youth down in the dungeons, but it’s a breezy trip through the highlights.

 

1 If you’re curious for more information on those years, you can find it here in a narrative geeklist I wrote on RPGGeek a couple of years ago (you’ll find it easier to read if you click on Hide All Comments at the lower right of the introductory section at the top).

Le mot juste

In the recent round of edits that my editor Karen completed on Dark Streets she pointed out a recurring tic in my language that I hadn’t noticed. In my descriptions of London at night I used the word ‘obsidian’ to describe the Thames no fewer than three times in the first dozen chapters.

There is nothing like edits and rewrites to focus you on your writing style and repeated themes, and this sort of thing is to be expected, but it got me to thinking about why this word in particular? Why ‘obsidian’? Is this just happenstance, or is there something about the word that goes deeper than that.  At the risk of gathering enough navel fluff to knit a sweater I thought I’d dig into it a bit.

Let’s be clear at the outset that it’s the perfect descriptive word for the river at night. I want to convey that it’s black, but has a faint sheen. I want something a bit exotic, but also of plain meaning.  Obsidian is volcanic glass, and at one time it would have flowed, so describing the river as obsidian extends some meaning beyond the obvious. At slack tide the river seems hardly to be flowing at all and at night, in my London at least, it looks like a solid sheet of black glass. This is the world of Dark Streets, after all, and the river is a sort of dark street that winds through the city, a street paved in obsidian. Or something of that sort.

In any event, it carries multiple layers of meaning in a way that other words can’t.  Black, dark, Stygian, bituminous, other words don’t really cut it, each for its own reason.

As to reasons other than it being entirely apposite, there might be something in my past that explains my affection for the word. In high school I studied geology, and was very taken by the language of rocks. Out of the three ways that rock is formed, volcanicity is the most interesting to the teenage mind and I loved learning about pahoehoe, volcanic tuff, basalt massifs, and underground magma reservoirs. Geology is about physical material influenced by physics and the elements over time, and it is filled with interesting words, quite a few of which are in common parlance but many of which are novel to the everyday ear.

Then there is the influence of the writers who have most impressed me over the years. From the age of about 15 onwards I devoured everything I could find by Michael Moorcock, who was then and is now one of the finest genre and literary writers to come out of London. I was especially taken with his fantasy work and I think it’s there that I picked up a penchant for words like obsidian. It features in a number of his works, including the Elric series, and there is a story in the Eternal Champion sequence titled ‘Phoenix In Obsidian’1.

More than the immediate obvious meaning of the word, it carries an extended meaning in my personal literary psychogeography.  This may be a false memory, but if I remember correctly there’s at least one end-of-all-things Moorcock story that has a protagonist standing on the black sand coast of a weary ocean watching the molasses-thick waves lap at his feet. I might be mixing that up with Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ series of short stories, but the influence on my associations with the word is there, nevertheless. When I hear ‘obsidian’ I think of those things. It’s a word that speaks to me not just of a vitreous darkness, but also of time.

So where am I going with this, other than to wonder where the words come from and why we obsess around some particular words? Not very far, and if you’re feeling like you might have to reach in really high to grab my ankles and pull me out of where I’ve gone, it’s probably time I stopped.

It’s merely this: the choice of the correct word in the correct place is the essence of writing. Sometimes you realize that there is too much of a good thing and you have to choose not to use the correct word and find something almost as precise. I wonder if Marlow would have told the story of his travels in Africa sitting on a boat bobbing on the piceous Thames?

 

1 Mike has other writing tics with respect to favoured words. ‘Sardonic’ is one of them, as anyone who has read Elric and Jerry Cornelius will testify.

Going Underground

In the spirit of my previous post I spent some time last night talking with Karen, my editor, about realistic goals in terms of my current works in progress. If you’re dropped by here before you’ll know that I have a cyber-drawer full of material in various stages of completion, and my original overly-ambitious goal was to publish two novel-length stories by Christmas.

I’ve been at this game a little while now, and I have a better sense of what’s likely versus what I’d like. What seems realistic now is to aim to have Dark Streets ready and published before Christmas, and then do the rewrite on Shadow Paths in the New Year. Patience and persistence are the name of the game here. They’re not qualities that I possess in any great measure, but more or less anything is achievable is you keep the end in mind.

It’s back off to near future London, then, and the darkest corners of that city’s underworld. To get myself back in the mood I popped over to Bradley Garrett’s website and took a look at some of his fantastic pictures of abandoned and hidden places.

© Bradley Garrett

Dark Streets is set in multiple locations around London, some real, some imagined, and one of them is a disused Underground station. The picture above of Aldwych is one of many London images that Garrett has on his site and does visually what I had in mind when I wrote one of the early chapters of my story.

If you know London at all, you’ll know that Aldwych is in the heart of the city and there’s something fascinating about this underground world that used to echo to the feet of thousands of commuters now lying dormant and empty beneath the feet of those same people. What I was after for Dark Streets was the feeling of a secret place, abandoned and in disrepair, below the streets of the city. Anything could be happening down there and no-one would ever know.

Here’s another of his Underground images:

© Bradley Garrett

Great stuff. Ghostly and compelling. Pop over to his website and take a look at his other pictures. The nighttime shots of London, and the pictures of Battersea Power Station are among my favourites. I was also pleased to see that he’s been to my current post-apocalyptic fave city, Detroit, where he captured some great images of some really interesting abandoned buildings.

If the London that I’m putting together in Dark Streets conjures for the reader even a fraction of the atmosphere that Garrett has captured in his photos, then I’ll be very happy. To which point, now that I’ve fed my imagination I’d better give it some exercise.

I’m going underground.

A Writer Writes. Always.

Writing here on my website today I’m surprised by the passing of a month between my previous post and this one. I shouldn’t be. Life has been busy in the interim – family members have moved homes, work has been very demanding, and there has been the usual plethora of autumn activities. It’s been a very lively time.

What frustrates me about the gap in time is that despite my own best reminders to myself and my urging of fellow writers to “write every day” very little of it has been filled with writing.  I used to laugh at Billy Crystal’s exhortation to Danny DeVito in ‘Throw Mama From The Train’ that “A writer writes. Always”.  It struck me as being somehow trite or stating the obvious, but like most clichés it’s also a truism.

Here I am a month down the road with a large stack of editorial comments and revisions to review and incorporate into rewrites, and chapters screaming to be written. I had an ill-formed notion that somehow I was going to be able to complete both of my current works in progress by Christmas. After all, I’d written them once. This was only going to be about editing and revisions, right?

Well chalk one up to experience. I’m more sanguine about the speed at which I can move. I know one thing very clearly, though. I have to follow Billy Crystal’s advice.

Hopefully my output will be a little more sophisticated than the pop-up classic ‘Momma, Owen, and Owen’s Friend Larry’.

Getting the hang of things – my first short story is now free

This self-publishing lark involves a number of compromises, especially with respect to writing time vs publishing time. For a few weeks now I’ve meant to try to find a way to put my first short story – The Facebook Genocide – out for free and I’ve finally got the hang of it. I think.

It’s now available for free by clicking here: Smashwords or on the cover image at top left of my home page, and selecting your preferred format. It’s available in a variety of standard formats as well as for iPad, Nook, and Sony Reader. As it propagates from Smashwords to the various distribution channels, the price reduction will also appear there.

From what I can tell getting it out for free on the Kindle takes a little more work as Amazon set a minimum price of 0.99c, which is only lowered if it can be demonstrated that it has been available for a lower price on other major distribution sites. I’ll hassle Amazon about that once the free price point is out there on Nook so I can point to it.

As always, I’d appreciate any reviews or comments. I think the story has become more relevant in the context of the flurry of NSA activity in the months since I published it, and I hope it strikes a chord with readers.

Flowers in the Ruins – further reflections on a visit to Detroit

In an earlier post, Visions of the Apocalypse – a visit to Detroit, I gave one side of the story of a visit I made to the city a few weeks ago. My focus then was on the sad state of much of the downtown and surrounding areas, and I used it to reflect on the role of cities in post-apocalyptic fiction.

With the news today of Detroit becoming the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy, I thought it might be a good time to do as I promised in that earlier post and write about the positive side of the city. As it goes through the pain of dealing with the fallout from bankruptcy, I’d like to talk a bit about the  beauty of the city – firstly the remnants of the golden age of industrial Detroit, and secondly the new flowers sprouting in the ruins.

Remnants of the Golden Age

It’s almost axiomatic that a city have had great wealth at some time in the past. Without the attraction of a means of making a living, why would people go there? Detroit is no exception, and you can still see the high water mark of the city’s prosperity in some of the buildings and artistic treasures.

We gained part of our view of the glory that was Detroit through a walking tour with Urban Adventures, which I highly recommend if you’re thinking of visiting the city.   The tour goes through the downtown area, and takes in a number of the major landmark buildings.

Guardian Building

One of the most extraordinary is the Guardian Building, a 1920’s skyscraper also known as The Cathedral of Finance.

Detroit has an interesting downtown vibe. Although it has a fair bit of high rise it also feels open. It’s not as open as Paris, but you don’t feel enclosed by the skyscrapers the way you do in Manhattan. Even looking up at the Guardian I didn’t feel that sense of intimidation that big buildings can sometimes give off.

The Art Deco designs at and above street level are interesting enough, but the real stunner is inside the lobby.

Detroit - art deco 2

The details on the walls and ceiling are remarkable, and are done in a Native American theme. The ceiling is painted canvas, a technique I hadn’t heard of before, and the walls in the entrance lobby have beautiful tiled murals. It’s a space clearly meant to impress, and it would do so in any city in the world.

Spaces like this offset the feeling of decay and absence that you experience elsewhere in Detroit. The contrast between this kind of extraordinary architecture and the crumbling houses and empty lots elsewhere in the city is striking. Of course, there is today a certain irony in a building known as the Temple of Finance being located in a bankrupt city.

Fisher exteriorFisher hallway

Away from the downtown, in an area called the New Center, is another great Art Deco building, the Fisher Building.

This one was put up in 1928, across from the General Motors building (or Cadillac Place as it’s known now, also a fantastic piece of architecture).

The Fisher Building also has a wonderfully decorated interior, with huge chandeliers hanging from ornate ceilings. It’s home to the Fisher Theatre, a National Historic Landmark, and radio stations still use the antenna at the top of the building for local transmissions. Walking through the building, a masterpiece of design with wonderful art deco detailing including golden elevator doors, you feel the empty magnificence of it all.

And the New Center does feel as empty as the downtown area. It has some of the same odd characteristics as the downtown in that you can walk a block or two from a beautiful urban space and find yourself in a semi-derelict neighbourhood. The feeling is made all the more pronounced when you walk another block or two and find yourself in a neighbourhood of mansions, one of which was lived in by Henry Ford.

A short drive away you find yourself in Hamtramck, a neighbourhood populated by a wide range of immigrants looking to make a life in the city, and beyond that the derelict Packard Automotive Plant that I talk about in my earlier post.

The final place I want to mention in this section about the legacy of the money that flowed through the city is the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum has one of the best collections of art in the US, art that might end up on the auction block to pay off Detroit’s debts.

They have a wide selection, including Van Gogha self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh (whose acquaintance I just made again in a Dr Who episode). The modern art section is very good, too, with works by Picasso, Gilbert and George, and Max Beckmann. The real masterpiece of the collection, though, is the mural paiRiveranted by Diego Rivera in one of the ground floor halls.

 

Known as the Detroit Industry Murals, the work covers all four walls and contains a wealth of detail and symbolism. It alone was worth the price of admission. When Detroit comes out of bankruptcy I hope the city is able to hold on to its collection of art – they’d certainly have trouble taking the Rivera away, in any case.

Flowers in the Ruins

The other beautiful aspect of Detroit is the urban art and the renewal that is taking root in odd corners.

There’s a cycle path and walkway called the Greenway Trail that runs inland at 90 degrees to the Detroit River. It’s an old railway route, aDetroit muralnd it’s now a strip of green with a pathway. It runs from the Rivertown Warehouse District up to the Eastern Market where there is a marvelous farmer’s market and some great places to eat. The route passes beneath a number of bridges, and murals have been painted to brighten up the spaces.

Detroit - Unity

 

There is one odd feature of the route, which are the signs that have been hung at regular intervals along the way. They hang from light poles and carry slogans that I’m sure are mean to be inspirational, but occasionally come off as the sort of thing you’d expect to see hanging in cities on Airstrip One.

Still, you can see the effort they’re making build a sense that Detroit is a place that can rise from the ashes and create for itself a new vibrant future.

There is one more example of flowers in the ruins that I’d like to mention, and it’s one of the most extraordinary – the Heidelberg Project. This is one of the most unusual urban art projects I’ve ever seen. It has been put together over many years by an artist named Tyree Guyton, and is partially a protest at the state he found his neighbourhood in after he returned from service in the army.

What Tyree has done is to decorate the abandoned homes and streets in a wide variety of ways. It’s hard to describe the experience of being there – if you go to Detroit, make sure you go and walk around – but it’s by turns surreal, charming, ominous and inspiring. Nothing you’ve seen before can prepare you for it.

Detroit - the LP HouseFor example, one of the houses is completely covered in vinyl LP’s. The theme of the circular records is echoed in polka dots painted on the sidewalk. You find yourself just staring at it from different angles, it’s such a strange sight. A little further down the block though is something even odder.

The animal houseIn England we’d call this a Cuddly Toy house. In America, it’s a Stuffed Animal House. It’s covered on the outside with all kinds of soft kids toys. They’ve been out in all weathers, so they’re showing the marks of the exposure to the elements. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find out in the woods in a particularly creepy slasher film.

As you walk around you can see other animals looking out at you from the windows. It’s a strangely disturbing sight, and I can only imagine how it might look at night with some uplighters to enhance the effect.

Notwithstanding the oddness of some of the decor, you get a feeling of hope looking at the artwork on display. There’s hope in the fact that someone is taking a blighted urban landscape and transforming it into something else. Here’s hoping that Detroit can continue to transform itself and that there will be in the near future a lot more flowers sprouting from the ruins.Heidelberg 2

 

Download The Facebook Genocide for free

While I’m getting the hang of this self-publishing lark, and figuring out how to offer content on Amazon for free (they have a minimum price of $0.99), here’s a coupon code to download The Facebook Genocide from Smashwords for free.

Just enter the code JW77U before you check out. Smashwords makes stories available in multiple formats so you should find one to suit.

If you read the story, I’d appreciate it if you could rate it or comment on it either on Smashwords, or Goodreads. Thanks very much!

What’s next?

Like everyone else getting into the self-publishing world, I’m learning as I go about how to make my work available and create as many opportunities as possible for someone to find it. I’ve now put The Facebook Genocide out on Smashwords, from where it will hopefully get to Barnes and Noble, and on Goodreads, where if anyone ever reads it I hope to get some reviews.

There’s an interesting balance to be struck as you go down the self-publishing road in that the time taken to organize and promote your work on the internet is time taken away from finishing new work. A wise man has already talked about this balancing act, and his choice to spend more time completing and making a body of work available than promoting the heck out of one or two works. It’s advice I intend to take. For me, this is more about finally getting out stories I’ve developed over decades and which have languished in desk drawers and forgotten folders on hard drives. It’s about giving them a chance to be read.

And so I’ve already moved on to the next work – the Dark Streets part of the title of this blog. It’s a novel-length story about near-future London that’s been gestating for a long time as a series of inter-connected short stories. I found a way to tie them together as one long narrative, and so I’m rewriting them into a coherent single story with multiple threads. My current plan is to publish Dark Streets at the end of August.

After that it’ll be time for Shadow Paths, a young adult story that I wrote about 8 years ago. It needs an extensive rewrite and I’m eager to get to it, but as I wrote in my first blog post this is a journey of a thousand li and I need to take it one step at a time…