Saturday, 19 March 2016

Mindfulness, Observing, and discovering a fad before it became popular.

Just recently I have been hearing talk about something referred to as ‘mindfulness’. It seems to be in vogue. My wife mentioned it a week or two ago and a trainer on a work course that I am attending also brought it to everyone’s attention. I found this both rewarding and a little baffling. The reward comes from realising a notion that I have is being widely and, to me at least, suddenly accepted. I find it baffling because I thought that it was self-evident.

A few years ago, on another course, another trainer set up a big introduction for what they termed ‘a revolutionary new idea’. They talked about who there are always opposites, good-bad, high-low, hot-cold, peace-war; that sort of thing. The point of this revolutionary exercise was to make us realise that a characteristic in one person can be interpreted in two different ways. I did not like this person’s bombastic style and, perhaps a little irritated, I challenged the notion that what they were presenting was either new or revolutionary. It was just Aristotle’s dichotomies dressed up. This did not go down well with the trainer and we had something of a public falling out, but that is another story. The point is; I began to feel uneasy that this situation might be repeating itself.

Fortunately the trainer introducing the concept of ‘mindfulness’ lacked a bombastic style and made no unsubstantiated claims for it being either new or revolutionary. This put me at ease somewhat because for as long as I can remember I have been living a ‘mindful’ life.

My own particular brand of mindfulness does not come from studying Philosophy, in fact it predates that. I believe that it comes from my situation of being disabled. When I started school I wore short trousers, which was the norm back then and not some weird predilection of my own. Actually, I was desperate for the day when I would graduate to the year where boys were allowed to wear long trousers. This was because I wore a calliper, or leg iron, or ‘ironmongery’ as my doctor referred to it, on my left leg. Such an orthopaedic device was blatantly obvious when worn with short trousers.

My disability presented itself at a very young age and despite my best intentions it stopped me from doing ‘normal’ school activities. Over the years my mobility became more and more impaired and I, as a result, became more of a spectator than a participant.

I do not remember ever feeling resentful about this happening to me. I was born disabled and my state of being was all I had ever known. If I had had a period of normality that had been snatched away by some progressive disease or serious accident then maybe I might have grown to hate my situation, I really do not know. As I lost my mobility through slow degrees I became more and more an observer of life.

Discussions with my wife, often held over a bottle of wine, have revealed that I am a very observant person. I see things that others never seem to. Sunrises and sunsets are obvious examples, but I expect lots of people see them. I see other things, some of which are beautiful, like wild animals, some of which are not, like a crime being committed or someone feeling lonely. As my life progressed I became acutely aware of the existence of the moment, this one right here, right now, and understood that in reality it is all we have.

The past is an imperfect memory, the future an aspiration at best. The only thing that actually exists is the moment.

I became aware of this truth at a relatively young age and, I think, it helped me cope with situations that
others often express disbelief at, my numerous bouts of major surgery or my chronic pain for example. I use those because people often tell me that they are some of the things that they fear the most; suffering pain or going under the knife for a prolonged period of time. Been there, died on the table, got resuscitated, done that.

It seems to me that the reason why I loved events like Christmas so much is because I was living so much in the moment, attune to the festival season, valuing being with my family during a period of holiday, even when young.

Of course true mindfulness is not just about raucous events like Christmas; indeed, I think that it is more about the little events, things like just sitting still and being silent. Watching, listening, and developing an awareness for what is around you. Hearing your heart beat. Following a cloud as it drifts across the sky. Living in the moment that is all that we have.

I have done that for a long time as well.

To be honest being mindful has helped me deal with the trials and tribulations of being disabled as well. They do not, however, go hand in hand together. Mindfulness is not some esoteric wisdom given to the disabled as some form of compensation. Perhaps you need a certain kind of mind to form this kind of perception independently of any teacher? I may well have developed my own brand of mindfulness even if I had not been born with some physical disabilities? They are interesting but largely pointless questions.

For me mindfulness is seeing what is important in life and letting go of all the rest. That other people seem to have discovered, or maybe that should be ‘rediscovered’ because like Aristotle’s dichotomies this idea has been around for a long time, is a good thing. Anything that helps people deal with the pressures of life, to attain a healthier outlook, has to be a good thing. Be mindful, be happy.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Time, again!

Do you ever get the feeling that you will never have enough time? I don’t mean just in terms of your expected lifespan, I mean to do all the things that you want to do. I am beginning to feel that way. It is a strange sensation. It gives rise to feelings of frustration, stress, exasperation, futility and even, to some degree, melancholia. Now I believe myself to be by nature an optimist. I am also quite positive and reasonably confident, but I must admit that I have had my brushes with depression as well. I expect most people have. I do not think, however, that my recent moods have anything to do with that.

No, I do not. Looking back at this last year I seem to have accomplished an awful lot. I have traveled to Norway, a country new to me, and experienced the joys of a sea cruise. I have been learning to drive, successfully, and even recently bought my first car. I love cars. I have admired them from an early age, so actually getting to own one is quite a wonderful thing. Okay, my car is only a Vauxhall Corsa, not an E-Type Jaguar, but the thing is, it is my car. Soon I will be taking my practical driving test and, hopefully, I will pass and get to indulge another long held ambition, driving on my own.

Also, I recently went to see U2 for the third time and it was a fantastic concert. One experience included with many more. It has been a good year for experiences. Oh, and I also bought a hat. A small thing perhaps but even the small things add to the accumulative total of everything that we get to do.

That said I have also experienced a significant degree of frustration. One area has been at work, but I am not going to write too much about that. I am a wage slave, nothing more, and, again, probably just like many other people are. That fact was reinforced recently by various incidents and decisions at work where it was made blatantly obvious that it is not what you know but who you know. Enough said. Next year I can take early retirement if my financial situation supports such a decision. It does not at the moment but that could change. I hope that it does.

Putting all that aside, another area that has proved frustrating is writing. It is not as if I am struggling for ideas or anything, in fact it is the opposite. I have lots of good ideas all waiting to see the light of day, but I lack the time to do anything about them. I was hoping to have my third novel out this year but that has not happened. The book is in review mode at the moment, I am pouring over the grammar and spelling, trying to get it smoothed out and polished. I am also rewriting and editing a few pieces to raise the tempo a little. It is a lot of work for one person to take on but then that is the fate of the independent author. I am not playing the violin here, I do not want sympathy. I chose to become a writer while holding down a full-time job, I still hope that it will take over as my primary occupation, but I am lacking a very valuable asset, perhaps the most valuable that any of us can own; time!

Currently my working days are twelve hours long, including traveling time. Unfortunately I cannot read when traveling, it makes me feel sick, so even though I have a tablet I cannot use it in the four hours I spend commuting. Stupid travel sickness. By the time I get home, have dinner, wash the pots if it is my turn, I am usually too tired to bother with my laptop. More often I am just left with the weekends but lately, for some reason, even those appear to have been eaten up by other necessary activities. Curiously, I cannot recall what they are. Probably something mundane, grocery shopping, oiling door hinges, things like that. The fact is that each one eats into my precious time.

There is no real solution to this of course, well, not one that I am likely to accept. I like being a married man with a family. I love my wife. I do not believe that all housework is ‘woman’s work’, I live there as well so I do my share of the chores. I also enjoy cooking; I will be doing that this weekend. Nope, I am not considering a life on my own even if that might seem to promise more time for writing.

I am hoping that when I get my full licence the fact that my commuting time will reduce from four hours a day to only one will lead to me recovering some precious time. I will be coming home at a more amenable time of the day and with higher energy levels. I like that thought. Also, I will be able to undertake chores like grocery shopping anytime that they are required, because I will have a car. I will be able to consciously move such shopping from the weekends, which will then be free, to a time immediately after work when I am already on my way home.

In the great scheme of things I am not going to win back a lot of time, I know that. Realistically it would take one of two things to happen, such as winning a substantial prize on the lottery or one of my two books that are already published suddenly turning into a million copy best seller! Well I can dream, which is quite fortunate because it is my dreams that I turn into stories, if only I had enough time to commit all of them to paper!

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Agent, the Author, and their Passion

I previously wrote about how I am submitting Eugenica to literary agents and so it should come as no surprise to discover that I have had my first rejection; well a few of them actually. Rejection is to be expected in the literary world, it happens to practically everyone including the most successful of writers. Armed with this knowledge and previous experience of submitting by books The War Wolf and For Rapture of Ravens I feel reasonably armoured against the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Actually of the very few rejections that I have received for Eugenica most have been concise and in the form a ‘thanks but no thanks’ and a couple have encouraged me to keep on trying. One I received very recently struck me quite forcibly however. I was thanked for making my submission but as the agent had to feel passionate about their work they did not feel that they could take my book on.


A literary agent has to feel passionate about a book before they take it on? Right. Okay, I understand that feeling passionate about your work generally means that you are in the right job for you. People who feel passionate about what they do generally work harder and longer and go that extra mile. That is a good thing. In fact to have such a literary agent would probably increase the chances of an author’s success – and here comes the inevitable but!


What about the author? What about the passion felt by the writer for their work? In my case it is my passion that drove me to spend over a year researching a contentious subject, dredging up my own experiences of being a subject of medical science, of writing and re-writing and editing and compiling and all the other aspects of writing that most readers do not even know goes on. I feel passionate about the story that is encompassed in Eugenica, that passion is one of the driving forces that has gotten me to the end of the project. It is the same passion that is going to drive me beyond the actual writing when the manuscript is finished, polished and submitted for publishing – probably on Kindle – and I need to start the publicizing of the book. There is still a lot work to be done and then, because I am passionate about what I do, I will start of my next novel.

You may be thinking at this point that I am just having a whinge, just a sorry little complaint about how unfair life is but actually I am not. The literary agent is, to all intents and purposes, a facilitator. They represent the writer to publishers and if they have a reputation then they can secure a publishing contract in most instances. They are necessary because publishers rarely go looking for new authors themselves. They exist to make money by getting authors published with hopefully the same success as enjoyed by J. K. Rowling, who also experienced several rejections in her time. If a literary agent feels passionate about what they are doing then that is good but it is a different kind of passion to that which inspires a writer.

Writing is difficult and good writing even more so. There are hacks and there are authors. The hack writes for money and does not care about what they produce. The author, and here I am dependent upon my own motivations, writes because they have a story to tell. The quality of the end product is important. The response of the reader is important. The feeling of having created something worthwhile is very important. A good author weaves their passion into their story. Many readers can perceive within the text the author’s commitment to what they have written.

When it comes to submitting a manuscript to a literary agent the author’s passion for his work is not required to be demonstrated. What they want is a covering letter giving a brief portrait of the author, a synopsis of the book of varying length between 1 to 2 pages depending on the agent’s whim, and the first 3 chapters.
Now I said that a good author weaves their passion into their story so it might be considered reasonably to expect that it would surface somewhere in the submission material would it not? Well, to a degree. A novel is a big work, on average 70,000 words; Eugenica is approximately 160,000 words. Irrespective of the length a story is not linear, that is, it does not flow at the same pace throughout its telling. There are emotional highs and lows, tension is developed, twists are introduced, characters develop, themes arise, conflicts resolved, ideas explored, and the various strands of the plot woven together for the climactic conclusion. If all this happened in the first 3 chapters then it would be a very short book!

As people we do not express our passion for something in one continuous gushing outpouring of emotion and activity; it would leave us drained very quickly. Similarly an author’s passion for their work is not maintained at a single level throughout the story that they are telling. This is because the book as a finished article cannot possibly contain all of the passion that went into its creation. There is passion also in the more mundane aspects of writing, in the stylesheet, the back-stories of the key characters, the research, the copious notes, the illustrations (something that I do), the workbook that contains key dates, observations, notes, the timeline, the first draft, and so much more flotsam and jetsam, the long hours spent alone, the missed meals and drinks because you are working on a key point or simply so lost in the world that you have created that you do not notice the day passing by. None of this is seen by the literary agent who passionately turns up for work in office hours and then goes home again.

I know that there are practical obstacles to literary agents finding good authors as they are, apparently, swamped by submissions, however, if passion is to be a criteria for the agent taking on a book then should it not also be one for considering the author? Being a reader as well as a writer I know when a book has been written by someone who has a feel for their subject matter. There is a depth to a book that is written by someone who is motivated to inspire a reaction from their reader and a shallowness to a text that was written just for the sake of writing something. Perhaps if a literary agent wants to be passionate about a book before they take it on to sell to publishers they should take the time to discover just how passionate the author is about their work, something that I think cannot be captured in a brief covering letter, an even briefer synopsis and rarely in the first 3 chapters.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Why on Earth Would You Want to Write about Eugenics?

“So what is your next book about?”


“Eugenics, what’s that?”

“Put simply the idea that if you breed good with good you get better.”

“Why on earth would you want to write about that?”

“Good question!”

Eugenics Congress Logo
That is a brief account of a conversation that I had very recently. The person I was talking to repeated a question that several others have already asked me so I thought I might expand upon my reasoning a little. It might be a topic that is going to keep on coming up.

I came across Eugenics as a subject at a young age, I don’t remember exactly when or where but I do remember it being on my mind while I was still at school. Those who follow my blog will know that I was born disabled, that is, I have two congenital conditions. For a eugenicists this situation would be abhorrent, proof that the human species was slipping into an abyss of deformed, weak and deplorable life forms. The great white race of the western world was being brought low by racial impurity and the intercession of compassion that allowed the unfit to survive.

Curiously that is not how Sir Francis Galton, the man who established Eugenics as a ‘science’ in the early 20th Century saw it. He believed that humanity could be raised to higher level of perfection by a system of controlled human breeding. The logic was very simple, take a man and woman who are both physically fit and intelligent, let them make a baby and the resultant offspring would, in all probability, be superior to the parents.

In support of this principle Galton could turn to Charles Darwin’s new theory of evolution and how nature operated to ensure only the survival of the fittest. Gardeners and stock breeders had also known for a long time that there was an irrefutable logic to this principle of ‘good + good = better’, they had been enacting it for millennia to produce better crops and better cattle.

Although the logic of the eugenic principle seemed self-evident the science behind the transmission of human traits from one generation to the next was not. DNA would was confirmed 1956 by Watson and Crick although its existence was first promulgated in 1869. This presented a problem to the ardent eugenicist, they simply did not know how to proceed with their vision of creating a superior human race.

One of the themes of my new book Eugenica is the corruption of a simple idea into something more reprehensible. As Eugenics began to grow as an academic subject, spreading from Britain to America, Germany, and Scandinavia amongst other places, it did so against a social backdrop of a growing awareness of the population of existing disabled people. During World War One it was revealed that 2/5ths of the population that were eligible for conscription were found to be unfit for military service. It was estimated that there were some 16 million citizens of the United Kingdom who could be classes as disabled.

A Royal Commission into condition of the feeble minded reported in 1910 in an alarmist fashion suggesting a growing population such people that was in danger of swamping the healthier people of Britain. The commission’s report was taken seriously by politicians like Winston Churchill and Parliament enacted the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 that put into British Law the terms idiots and imbeciles.

Facing an impasse with the practical problem of implementing a eugenics based breeding plan for the human race, a problem identified by the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the author H. G. Wells as stemming from the social convention of marriage, eugenicists looked instead at what was seen as the menace of those feeble in mind and body.

Eugenics began to advocate for segregation and enforced sterilisation of the disabled. In the state of Indiana in America, and also in Sweden, they got their way. Very quickly the question of breeding a superior human race became one of dealing with the several million inferiors that already existed. This branch of Eugenics is termed ‘Dysgenics’. It is the version that most people today are familiar with because it is the one enacted by the Third Reich in Germany.

It is known but not always mentioned that the early Nazi government actively pursued dysgenic policies against the disabled in Germany. Adolf Hitler himself signed an order for a program called ‘Action T4’ that saw enforced euthanasia used to kill over 100,000 disabled German citizens. Many of the techniques used later at places like Auschwitz were originated and refined in the Action T4 program.

I doubt very much that Sir Francis Galton would have approved of dysgenics. He was not at heart an evil man, although some social commentators have since presented him as such. In fact Galton was a polymath, a genius, who made significant contributions in the fields of statistics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, geography, meteorology; he even devised a method of classifying finger-pints. Galton was a Victorian visionary who wanted to improve the world and his early theories on Eugenics were very much in that mould. The science of the time, however, fell very much short of that required to either support or refute his theory of Eugenics.

There is something appealing in the notion of a man and woman combining to produce a child who would be both physically and mentally superior to their parents. The notion that such a child would be free of illness of any kind is one that a parent can readily identify but we know now that genetics does not work that way. The capacity for genetic mutation is at the heart of evolution and adaptability. Every generation contains within it a countless number of mutations of the inherited DNA code. The vast majority of these mutations prove ineffective; they do not do anything. Some prove detrimental, giving rise to physical deformity and mental impairment. A few more prove very useful giving us singers, artists, geniuses. This is what early eugenicists did not know and lacking this information they could not defend their simple principle against the rise of the dysgenic interpretation.

Eugenics began with the best intentions but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and so it was proved.