Monday, September 04, 2017

The beauty of scepticism: a review of Murmurs of Doubt by Rebecca Fox

A review of Murmurs of Doubt by Rebecca Fox (Graphic novel, Ockham Publishing, 178pp, £11.99) See: http://doubtcomic.com/.



Today I read that according to a new survey over half the people in the UK don't subscribe to a religion. I don't know what they do believe. I can only speak for myself. After being brought up Church of England, briefly flirting with evangelicism, I became an atheist– or rather a nihilist – by the time I left school.

This didn't fill the religion-shaped hole in my conditioning, however, and I spent half a lifetime looking at other, particularly Eastern religions. I've flirted with chaos magic and the I-Ching, practised meditation, been on a Zen retreat, practised tai ch'i, loved the idea of animism (but only as a metaphor), rejected astrology and homeopathy and most new age thinking.

And for most of my adult life I've subscribed to the New Scientist.

The point is, I've wanted to believe, but only in something that can be supported by evidence. Science relies on doubt, especially of its own findings, in pursuit of further and deeper truths.

Religion makes you feel as though you belong to something bigger than yourself. So does contemplating the universe.

Organised religion gives you a social group. But so does any shared interest group.

Religion can provide redemption: but so does counselling or therapy.

Religion can provide peace of mind: so does meditation (which I still practice).

For everything religion does, something else can do it less harmfully.

At university I studied (besides art) philosophy, including the philosophies of mind and religion. Amongst the tools of this discipline is Occam's Razor, which says that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the best.

Religion is a very complex solution to any of the above problems, and the alternatives, believe me, are much simpler.

And more likely to be true.

Rebecca Fox's beautifully drawn graphic story collection is an account of her own similar journey, and that of others, through the mists of doubt. The twelve tales it contains are set in many cultures: Western, African, Chinese, Indian and more.

They illustrate the many facets of belief, and of the value of questioning received 'wisdoms'.

Anyone who has ever felt the limitations of handed-down customs and conditioning will appreciate the examples given by these tales.

As the character in 'Pillow Talk' – a lesbian justifying her position to her partner – says: "I'm not an athiest because I'm angry. I'm an athiest AND I'm angry . I'm furious because this bullshit hurts people".

Having just re-watched Louis Theroux' documentaries on the Westboro' Baptist Church, I'm in total agreement.

We live in times where religious belief has been afforded too much respect. It has over-reached itself in some quarters. Freedom of speech should be respected but only to the extent that it does not permit to speak those who would remove others' freedom to speak.

If you're confused over where this line should be drawn, then this is the book for you.

The first story is about a Tibetan Buddhist monk who rejects the dogma of reincarnation. Of course it is possible to believe that meditation has a value without believing in Buddhist precepts. That value is based on your experience. So I will agree with the monk's assertion that "I want to experience this world through eyes unclouded by doctrine and superstition".

Fox follows each story with a page of discussion and references. She very much views the book as a learning tool. She is anxious to explain everything. She has many reasons to be justified in this. Amongst them is the motivation for the story 'Mayfly'.

In 'Mayfly', a young Indian girl's curiosity is a reason to be afraid, because in her culture, if she chooses the path of knowledge then her family will see it as a rejection of them and their culture. To us in a liberal country it might not seem so much of a big deal, but in some communities it is reason enough for violence to occur.

I left out a motivation for religious belief above. The prospect of the end of our lives is the biggest fear we can face. The ideal of an afterlife in which there is reward or punishment for our deeds is the engine behind many belief systems.

But if you don't believe in an afterlife, then the prospect of death is absolute finality. It is this prospect that's addressed in the story 'Dying in the Light'.

The final tale, 'Unreal City', addresses the paradox felt by most philosophers who have questioned everything. A nurse, commuting on the London Underground, meets a fox – the embodiment of the author – and confronts the value of her life-saving skills, asking: what, in truth, can I take for granted? If it is nothing, then I am totally alone. But I don't want to be alone.

Doubt must end somewhere. For each of us it will be in a different place.

Wheeling starlings decorate the cover of this beautiful book and its accompanying website. They are, for Fox, a metaphor for the illusion of our desire to see patterns where none exist. But it's a beautiful illusion that some may prefer.

If I have a reservation about this ambitious and unique book, it is this: the stories have the feel of parables, one told for each apostle of Jesus; or perhaps all of them for doubting Thomas. I feel as though I am being given a sermon, just as I did as a child sitting in a pew when forced to go to church.

All the characters unfold their narratives in monologues or dialogues with very similar voices. They don't seem to have differentiated existences independent of Fox. I like to be shown drama in a story, not be told about it.

Instead of dialogues between two characters with differing viewpoints I would prefer to see them dramatised. High drama, with plenty at stake, forcing protagonists to make life or death choices, which compel me to ask and decide (rather than be told): what would I do in their position?

Possessing the luxury of doubt means being given the space to do so.

Find out more here.

Friday, September 01, 2017

New creative writing courses starting on Wed. 13 Sept.

I'm looking forward to the new classes starting soon!

  • Last years' evening course will continue at 7pm for advanced writers and those wishing to continue from last year. New members are welcome to join that too, but will have to catch up a bit faster with the modules!
  • Less confident writers thinking of beginning a new work might prefer the afternoon session, from 2-4pm. Both are held in the YMCA on Market Square, Llandovery, SA20 0AB, on the first floor in the youth club room.


What to expect:
The course is designed to create a safe space for writers to learn about aspects of story-telling, the creation of believable characters, of a good plot and realistic dialogue, and, above all, how to make readers care and want to read on and on... Students are encouraged to offer kind, constructive criticism to each other.
 
Which course should you come on?

  • Afternoons: For people curious about writing and those wishing to start a piece of work. Each lesson studies a particular aspect of writing, with practical exercises. These are often aimed at helping students develop a short story, novel or script. You work on your own story idea, developing it, and apply the exercises to the development of your work, stage by stage. You bring in the result of your exercise each week, and these are discussed by everyone in a spirit of mutual support. We begin with character creation, moving on to plot & structure, & so on.
  • Evenings: For students from last year who are in the process of working on the novels they began before, plus anyone already well into working on a long piece. Students will set their own challenges, in consultation with the tutor and class, and bring in the resulting work for discussion. We will concentrate on advanced issues such as: how the story unfolds beat by beat; style; convincing dialogue; editing; pacing and suspense; advanced structural changes. The aim is to finish the work and market or publish it. All students will also learn about the publishing industry, agents and marketing their work. I've been amazed at how much fun and how popular it has been last year.

Online course:
If you can't make the lesson times, you can take the course online. The following link also tells you more about the course content and contains testimonials from previous students. You can do a combination of online and 'real world' modules if you can't make every week's session: http://davidthorpe.info/online-writing-course/ or call 07901 925671.

Cost:
  • First taster session (beginners) £3.00
  • All other sessions: £5. Concessions: £4.50
  • A block of ten sessions: £42 (save £8)
  • Each online module: £8 (includes individual feedback on your work)
Last year's students' work:
Life: Ten Slices from the Cutting Edge, is a highly readable collection of the work of ten of the many students who attended last year. Download it at no cost as a PDF here: http://davidthorpe.info/life.pdf.

David Thorpe, hello@davidthorpe.infohello@davidthorpe.info Tel. 07901 925671

Monday, August 28, 2017

My talk on September 8 in London on climate fiction


I'm speaking about 'The rise of climate fiction: beyond dystopias and utopias' at this free event below:

Friday September 8th, 10-5.30pm: Fate, Luck and Fortune: Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk, a workshop exploring the nature and role of the concepts of fate, luck and fortune in different types of narratives. 

Speakers: Nick Alfrey (Nottingham University), Claire Craig (Royal Society), Karen Henwood (Cardiff University), James Lyons (Exeter University), Joe Smith (Open University), David Thorpe (author and journalist), and Jonathan Wolff (Oxford University). To find out more and to register to attend: https://goo.gl/BnPWDN 

The evening before there is also this: Thursday, September 7th, 6pm: Professor Jackson Lears (Rutgers) on “The Return of Animal Spirits: Toward A Vitalist Narrative Of Environmental Risk” A public lecture. To find out more and to register to attend: https://goo.gl/rjdrqF
    
They are free and will be held at: University of Liverpool in London (Seminar Room 9), 33 Finsbury Square, London, EC2A 1A.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Launch party for my writing class' collection!


We're launching a collection of ten highly varied pieces of fiction by local writers at a party in the YMCA, Broad Street, Llandovery this Wednesday at 7pm! 

The stories in Life: Ten Slices from the Cutting Edge are the work of ten out of many more students who have been attending my local Writing for Fun and Profit course since September 2016.

The collection will be freely available to download online, as a PDF. The stories illustrate a wide range of imagination and genre.

Several are aimed at children: Jacqui Hyde's Trials follows the path of a boy from a Welsh hill farm wanting to be a footballer. If you've ever wondered what diarist Samuel Pepys might have got up to in the Civil War as a child, then you might get a clue from Julian Dutton's amusing, eponymous novel extract. And Primrose by Stella Starnes gets inside the head of a young teenager growing up in a local village under the thumb of her mother.

Two are in the genre of speculative fiction: Mike Tomlin's Guardian is from an ongoing published ebook series about the discovery of a hidden alien presence in our midst, while Pete Barker's Share & Enjoy tracks a small band of rebels in a dystopian future and is the opening of a completed novel. If you enjoy a sardonic take on life, there is nothing better in this collection than Mari Mitchell's A Dish Best Eaten Cold, another novel opening.

Four short stories are of the classic type where an unexpected twist at the end throws the whole story into a lovely new perspective: Ciaran O'Connell's The Rose Blossom, about a misunderstanding on holiday, Henry's Story by Mary Thurgate, in which a chance, trivial event has life-changing consequences, and Assistance by Kathy Biggs, on the theme of 'what goes around, comes around'. In The Cunning Man's Last Day by historian Sara Fox, a fortune teller from the upper Tywi valley in the last century seeks to escape the fate he has seen for himself.  

The writing course
The writing course itself is designed to create a safe space for writers to learn about aspects of story-telling, the creation of believable characters, of a good plot and realistic dialogue, and, above all, how to make readers care and want to read on and on... Students are encouraged to offer kind, constructive criticism to each other. Each lesson studies a particular aspect, with practical exercises, often aimed at helping students create a long work, be it a short story, novel, or script. They also learn about the publishing industry, agents and marketing their work. I've been amazed at how much fun and how popular it has been. There is certainly much talent in this area.


A new course starts for new students next September from Wednesday 13 September from 2-4pm in the afternoons in the YMCA on Market Square, Llandovery. The existing evening course will continue at 7pm on the same date and new members are welcome to join that too, but will have to catch up a bit faster with the modules! Or, you can take the course online and also find out more at this web page: http://davidthorpe.info/online-writing-course/ or call 07901 925671.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The real story of The Magic Money Tree

Does the Magic Money Tree really exist? Theresa May says no, Jeremy Corbyn says yes. This little girl went to find out...



Once upon a time, a little girl called Layla was crying in the street.

After a while, up came a man with snow-white hair and a snow-white beard. "Hello, my name is Jerry. Why are you crying?" he asked her.

"I wish that my mother had some money so she could buy food for me to eat," she said in between snuffles.

"Never mind, little girl," said Jerry. "I can tell you how to find a magic money tree, and you can pick some money and give it to your mother so she can buy food for you to eat."

"Really?" Layla was happy upon hearing this and stopped crying.

But suddenly up popped an iron-grey-haired woman who said, "Don't believe this man, Layla, there's no such thing as a magic money tree. He just wants to lure you away and bad things will happen."

"Who are you?" asked Layla.

"I am Terry, and I am in charge and I know everything," said the woman. "So you have to trust me."

But Jerry insisted he was right and what's more he told Layla where to go to find the magic money tree.

"Who shall I trust, Jerry or Terry?" Layla thought to herself. "Well, there's only one way to find out."

So Layla packed a bag with some jam tomorrow sandwiches, which Terry gave her, and some milk of human kindness, which Jerry gave her, and set off walking.

She followed a river upstream and along the way she met a boy her own age. "Excuse me but can you tell me the name of this river?" she asked.

"Certainly. This is the River of the Tears of the Low Waged."

"Thank you," said Layla. "That's what I thought. I'm on the right track. But can you tell me now how far it is until I get to the Bank That's Too Big to Fail?"

"Not far, just keep walking up the river for about an hour and you can't miss it."

It was indeed impossible not to notice this bank because it towered above the left side of the river, just as Jerry had said.  Jerry had told her that she had to climb to the top of this bank but she thought she had better sleep first because it looked like a long, hard, climb. She lay down and went to sleep.

In the morning she woke up refreshed, and for breakfast drank some of the milk of human kindness, which was very nice, and tried to eat some of the jam tomorrow sandwiches, but they seemed to melt into nothingness as soon as she put them in her mouth.

Anyway, she washed her face in the river and started climbing. By midday she was halfway up. The river looked very small far below.

By half past four she had got to the top. She was so high up that she was above the clouds and could no longer see the River of the Tears of the Low Waged.

She was met by a man who was only one metre tall in a green hat. "How do you do." The man held out his hand. "I am Peter the Gnome, who are you?"

"I am Layla," said the girl, who was surprised that the man was the same height as herself. "And I am looking for a magic money tree."

"Then you have come to the right place," said Peter. "Follow me."

She followed the gnome into a forest in which every tree was different. There were big trees and little trees and trees of every conceivable colour.

"Some people say that the magic money tree does not exist," said Layla to Peter. "So I am very much looking forward to seeing it."

"The people who say that it does not exist wish to keep it a secret so that they can keep the money for themselves," said Peter.

"That's not very nice," said Layla.

"The truth is that the tree nearly died a few years ago," said Peter. "It was all we could do to keep it alive. We have looked after it very carefully. It is now much better and it has started producing money again. Look–"


The magic money tree was not well for a while.
The magic money tree was not well for a while.

They had come to a clearing. In the middle a shaft of sunlight came down from above and shone onto a beautiful tree. Its branches fanned out from the trunk, which was a golden brown, and its leaves fanned out from the branches, and were bright green. It was covered in big golden flowers and their smell was like the most fragrant perfume Layla had ever smelt.

"It's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "But where is the money?"

"Look carefully at the flowers," said Peter.

Layla approached the magic money tree. The flowers were twice as big as the palms of her hands. Each petal was the size of her ear and upon each petal was a pattern and writing. She gasped. "It says these are million pounds notes! Is that real?"

Peter nodded. "Yes, each of these petals is a million pound note."

The tree was adorned with thousands of flowers and each flower was made of very many petals. Layla thought that there must be billions, if not trillions of pounds on this tree.

Peter plucked one of the petals and gave it to Layla. "Here you are."

"Is this for me?"

Peter smiled. "You can take it away with you when you leave."

"And this is not a dream? And I will be able to spend it when I get home?"

"Yes. For you see this money was originally yours, or perhaps your mother's. Or perhaps it belonged to many of the people who now live at the source of the River of the Tears of the Low Waged. They paid it in their taxes to the government. But when the bank that we are standing on–"

"-You mean the Bank That's Too Big To Fail?"

"Yes, when it looked like it was going to fail and the tree was going to die, the government used trillions of pounds of that money to prop up the bank so that it wouldn't collapse into the river and the tree would live. Now it is all right again but they haven't given the money back."

"I'm not sure that I understand that," said Layla, "but thank you anyway."

She put the million pound note carefully in her bag and started climbing back the way she had come. On the way down she thought to herself, "Funny, but this story is awfully like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, except that I didn't have to kill a giant, and I didn't have to plant a bean. Well, I suppose it isn't really like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk at all in that case."

Somehow, when she got back to the river, she found herself in a different place from where she had started. "I must have taken a wrong turning," she thought to herself.

For there in front of her was a huge city of poor houses with holes in their rooves. She passed a hospital with broken windows and a school that was boarded up.

She came upon another little girl just like herself who was sitting sadly by the side of the road. "Excuse me, could you tell me where I am please?" Layla asked her.

"You are in the City of the Low Waged," replied the little girl. "We all work very hard but we never have enough to eat because we are not paid enough."

"But haven't you heard about the Magic Money Tree?" said Layla, giving her a drink from the bottle containing the milk of human kindness. She thought it strange that no matter how much she drank from it, it never seemed to run out.

The little girl shook her head.

"It is on top of the Bank That's Too Big to Fail." Layla took off her bag and got out her million pound note. "Look. I've just been up there and got this from the tree. There are plenty more where that came from."

"But we have been told by a woman called Terry that it doesn't exist!"

"That's what she told me too, but a man called Jerry told me how to find it."

"You mean I should trust Jerry and not Terry?" said the little girl.

"That's exactly right," said Layla, and went off to look for a food market.

David Thorpe's script for The Young Robin Hood tv series is currently being read by CBBC and he's busy on a novel of the same title. He grew up in Nottingham and Robin Hood was (and still is) his hero, so he definitely approves of a Robin Hood Tax. 

His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: Climate Change and The Stories We Tell. His novels for teens – Hybrids and Stormteller – can be found and bought here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

New imaginative writing to mobilise action on climate change

cover for e-book Weatherfronts: climate change and the stories we tell

An 8000 word story of mine about the future of Britain and Barcelona is included in a new e-book published this week by Cambria Publishing.


Weatherfronts: climate change and the stories we tell is an anthology of specially commissioned work by 12 writers and poets featuring their imaginative and very different responses to the topic of climate change.

The book will be launched this Sunday at the Llandeilo Litfest and on May 25 at the Hay Festival.


The question of how to mobilise public opinion to do something about climate change using imaginative fiction and poetry was behind two weekend-long events that resulted in the works contained within it.

These were attended by over 130 writers and 50 scientists at London’s Free Word Centre and resulted in two sets of commissions for 12 very varied writers. The idea was – to reach the parts of people’s brains that scientists and politicians cannot reach!

The project has seen writers’ and indeed all artists’ responses to the subject of climate change grow far more sophisticated and extend in range and scope.

Reading this collection one can see this progression, from the sometimes didactic to the much more considered examination of particular times, places and aspects, greater use of imagination, and even of humour, in writing for children.

Different writers are also writing for different audiences.

So this collection presents twelve very individual approaches. The authors’ experience of the subject is very varied, but all have committed themselves deeply to their own interpretation of the theme.

All have also benefited from meeting and talking to scientists, social scientists and geographers to whom they have been introduced by TippingPoint.

The collection combines two publications only available previously as PDFs into one e-book.

From the first collection come contributions from writers Sarah Butler, Dark Mountain’s Nick Hunt, Stevie Ronnie, Dan Simpson, and a group of three activist poets, all with a deep commitment to social and climate justice, Zena Edwards, Sai Murray and Selina Nwulu.

From the second collection come Darragh Martin, with a delicious children’s story about ‘the shortest private detective in her school’, Emma Howell’s warm tale of the 1970s, Sarah Thomas’ exploration of her neighbours’ experience of recent floods, David Thorpe’s near future in which adapting to climate change has unfortunate consequences, and Justina Hart’s poetic evocation of the earlier inhabitants of what is now the North Sea forced off their land by the melting ice cap. Sound familiar?

If there is a common theme to these five powerful pieces of writing it is that their scale is personal.

As Peter Gingold, Director, TippingPoint, says: “This most grandiose and abstract subject is experienced at a very personal level, making its demands on the way we live with partners – or with friends, neighbours and communities. This must be fruitful.”

The pieces in this collection were commissioned by TippingPoint, Free Word and partners from 2014-2016. TippingPoint has since morphed into the project Climate Cultures.

Download Weatherfronts: climate change and the stories we tell.

Featuring work by:
Sarah Butler, Zena Edwards, Justina Hart, Emma Howell,
Nick Hunt, Darragh Martin, Sai Murray, Selina Nwulu,
Stevie Ronnie, Dan Simpson, Sarah Thomas, David Thorpe

Forewords by:
Peter Gingold, Director, Tipping Point

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Brexit: we blamed the wrong people and are now on the wrong track

Today Article 50 is triggered and the UK begins the process of leaving the EU. How and why has this happened?

Last night Nick Clegg could be seen interviewing pro-Brexit voters in Ebbw Vale on BBC2's Newsnight.

These voters said they voted for Brexit because they didn't like the way EU money was spent on ridiculous dragon street sculptures and shiny buildings they didn't want.

What they wanted was their old steel jobs back or proper training and apprenticeships in new trades that were real.

Fair enough. But they blamed the wrong people.

It would have been the great and good in Wales who decided what the EU money was spent on, not Eurocrats.

And the jobs these steel workers lost went to Chinese workers, with whose wages they couldn't compete without subsidies.

It's the same in the US for steel and coal workers. And Trump's response is to repeal Clean Power legislation – as if it could give back those jobs.

But the train is going the other way, towards a clean energy future, and that is where the training of workers should be subsidised by the state if it wants to create real jobs that have a meaning and give back dignity to people and communities.

UKIP has lost its only MP. All the Brexit cheerleaders have vanished, abdicating responsibility for the decision they persuaded the nation was best – with a cocktail of what we now know were untruths.

No one had a plan – or intended to carry one out.

The real task all along behind Cameron's decision to call the referendum was the unification of the Tory Party.

That is now job done with the Tories set to rule forever in England, all opposition wiped out or in disarray.


Never mind the future prosperity of the country.

May is triumphant and although the Tories make mistake after mistake there's no one to call them to order.

I wish we could hold another Brexit referendum. Remain might well win now we know the emperor has no clothes.

But the right wing press, Paul Dacre's Mail, porn baron Richard Desmond's Express and the Barclay Brothers' Telegraph are still too powerful in shaping the flow of skewed facts to suit their warped agenda... to keep the Tories in power so they pay less tax.