Everything That Is Wrong With Everything

4 Comments

Everything That Is Wrong With Everything

If you’re in the US you may have heard about IRS phone scammers, of whom there is a rash at the moment. I had one of these calls a week ago, then saw that I had a message from an unknown number this morning. In the spirit of irritable inquiry, I called it back to see if it was the same thing. Literally nobody ever wants to speak to me usually, so it seemed like a safe bet. It was, and — if you don’t know already — here’s the bottom line: 

Some people don't realize that other people are people too

Specifically, the scammers explain you’ve defrauded the IRS (or at least not paid enough tax, maybe by mistake) and that action against you is already under way. They will have your phone number and address, and will ask for confirmation of the last four digits of your social. The fact that you can skirt around this by saying you’re not comfortable giving such information over the phone is an early sign the whole thing is bullshit. But they evidently also have your phone number on file, and will be able to call you by name if you’ve called them back after a message. It’s pretty convincing. 

Over the course of really quite a long time they’ll then scare you about the fraud charges against you and their impact (potential arrest, confiscation of property, destroyed credit rating), and finally — if you seem like you’re buying in, and want to resolve the problem — kick you up the ladder to a Manager. As you presumably seem like a hot prospect by this point, this second guy is even more polished and convincing, and he will keep you on the line — and in fact insist that you stay on it, as the call is allegedly being Federally recorded and may be used in evidence in the courthouse in which you’ll end up if the situation is not resolved. 

Over the course of fifteen minutes (with huge amounts of detail and semi-convincing jargon, and the quoting of his “Federal Badge Number” and private phone line) he’ll explain that because of your prior good behaviour, he’ll be able to take your corner in this instance and hopefully call off the criminal charges and arrest warrant PROVIDING you pay the outstanding tax (plus legal fees and fine) today. Calling off a pending warrant requires special arrangements, it would seem, including routing fees in rather specific ways. Via, in my case, a Best Buy Gift card, with whom the IRS apparently has an arrangement. I’ve heard they also have an arrangement with CVS. Who knows, maybe they also have one with Safeway, and Al’s Muffler-a-Rama and Lube Shop.

It all sounds ridiculous, but these guys have a good script and keep up the pressure, and I can absolutely see an elderly or stressed-out person falling for it. I let the guy run for 25 minutes, feeding him where necessary — I was bored, and also pissed off because I hate these people — and then asked what would happen if, when the Government Representative turned up at my door to take possession of the Best Buy Gift Certificate for $9218.28, I punched him in the face. The guy on the other end told me I’d get a cattle prod up my ass. So I then had a concerted try at seeing how many short Anglo Saxon words I could pack into one sentence, before he cut me off.  

For good measure, because I was pretty riled by this point, I called back half an hour later and let a different guy get five minutes into the same process, before asking him if his family knew he defrauded old people for a living. He suggested that I fuck off. 

Why am I telling you this? Because these people are the scum of the earth — about once a week I have to explain to my octogenarian father that he can safely ignore the man calling from Microsoft to tell him he’s got a virus that can be fixed for a fee. A phone scam may seem trivial in the face of the rest of the dumpster fire, but it's not — because it's part of the the same thing, and it's everything that is wrong with everything. Liars, cheats, thieves, people who regard distant others and strangers as nothing but marks to be fleeced. People who don't understand that other people's problems and fears and anxieties and life experiences are real, or that the money they steal can't now be used to pay for somebody's education, bills or food. People who are prepared to ignore the humanity of others in search of an easy buck, a cheap win, a bitter and nasty score. I’m crowd-sourcing the resistance to these low-level, bargain-bucket assholes.

The lines change regularly, but below is the number I got called on this morning. If you’re bored and live in the US, feel free to waste some of their time this afternoon — blocking the lines so they can’t get through to someone who might actually fall for it. Let's share these numbers, and try to show the assholes of the world that we really are done taking their shit.

253 237 5124

4 Comments

That Feeling When It Turns Out Your Granddad Is Best Friends With The Devil

8 Comments

That Feeling When It Turns Out Your Granddad Is Best Friends With The Devil

You’re not going to want to do this, but I need you to briefly picture me in the bath.  It’s okay. You can think about something nice again afterward. 

Because here’s the thing. After I’ve bathed, I have a specific way of drying. You may even do the same. I don’t get out of the bath right away. I dry all parts of me except my feet, while still standing in the water. Then I raise one foot, and dry that, before putting it down on the mat. Then I dry my remaining foot, before finally departing the tub. This has the benefit of meaning I don’t drip water all over the bathroom or turn the bathmat into a sodden mess, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I learned it from watching my father when I was a small child. The real question, therefore, is why he did it that way — and I only thought to ask him when I was older, and the habit was permanently ingrained. He explained that when he was a student at university in Nottingham, the lodgings where he lived had no heating — and so he developed the technique to stay in the warmth of the water as long as possible. 

I live in California now. Most of the time, it really ain’t that cold. The way I continue to dry myself when I get out of the bath — last mention of this, I promise — is thus wholly a result of the frigidity of the the digs where my father lived in the faraway black and white era of the 1950s, long before I was born, in a country five thousand miles away. 

Increasingly I've come to realize that’s how life is, all the time — each of us shaped and constrained by emotional characteristics, behaviours and world-views that we’re often not even aware of. Some come from personal histories, our own paths, but others were born in the lives of forebears, passed down like strange heirlooms. We’re never just ourselves. We’re everyone who came before us, doggedly manifest in the shadows of our souls, in some sense still alive.

And that’s what my new book is about. 
Well, partly. It’s also about a four-foot-high talking mushroom called Vaneclaw.

 

This week marks the official publication (in UK stores, and on Amazon, and for the time being it’s also available in the US here) of HANNAH GREEN AND HER UNFEASIBLY MUNDANE EXISTENCE. It’s not quite like anything I’ve done before. I’ve made something of a habit of writing things not quite like anything I’ve done before — as my agent/s, publisher/s and probably some readers will wearily attest — but this one’s even more of a swerve than usual. 

The title is noticeably long (and was originally even longer, with “The Story of” at the front, but there’s a limit to how many words you can fit on a book especially when your name already has three parts). The novel’s road to publication was pretty long, too. When my son Nate was younger I put him to bed on alternate nights. For the first several years I’d read to him, but then — while he was in a sustained phase of believing “Ben 10” to be the most compelling piece of entertainment ever conceived by mankind — one night I started making up a story involving its characters. This almost immediately stopped bearing the remotest relationship to the TV series, but Nate enjoyed it (and soon wouldn’t accept any alternative); it saved me having to try to read a book in low-light conditions; and while on some evenings it was a struggle to make up story in real time when I’d spent my entire day doing exactly the same thing, it had the advantage that I could tailor the narrative to his readiness for sleep… slowing the action as he got drowsier. And it was kind of fun.

So we stuck with it, for over two years, every other night, across two countries, three houses and more than a few hotel and motel rooms along the way. 

Eventually there came a point where Nate had long-ago stopped watching “Ben 10” and I’d gone through every conceivable combination of circumstances the characters could endure. So one night back in 2013 I started a totally different story — about a girl called Hannah Green, who lived in Santa Cruz. It got zany and dark pretty quickly and I fell into the habit of making a short note of whatever random stuff I’d come up with each night. I can’t recall why the story was abandoned halfway — possibly because of an abortive attempt to read Nate some Ray Bradbury — but a while later I came upon the notes I’d made and realized that I'd like to know what happened next. 

The rest of the book came quickly. It was, however, unlike anything I’d produced before, and so I didn’t know what to do with it. I showed it to my wife, who said it was worth putting out there. So I then sent it to my then-publishers, who did the publisher equivalent of staring at the manuscript as though it was a half-chewed mouse deposited on the kitchen floor by a cat. In their defense, it was nothing like what I’d promised, nor even a new version of the book I was actually supposed to be rewriting for them at the time. So I put HANNAH to one side and got on with hacking away at the other novel — in the end, unsuccessfully. We couldn’t agree, and parted company in 2015.

In the unnerving void that followed I was drawn back to HANNAH. I did another couple of drafts, and got some positive comments, most encouragingly from my old friend Jo Fletcher. Eventually I was delighted to sell it to the best editor I’ve ever had, and my previous publisher — Jane Johnson, at HarperCollins.  

And… so here it is. It has a young protagonist, but there are grown-ups in it too. I wrote the book for adults, but also for kids, or maybe it was the other way around. And for old people. And the twenty percent of cats that can read. It really does have a talking mushroom in it. But also the Devil. And Big Sur, and Siberia, and Santa Cruz, of course — where I live. And a rollercoaster, and Bach, a handy map of the frozen foods section in Safeway, and quite a good recipe for pork rillettes. Okay, some of those last things aren’t true. But you may rest assured that nowhere in the novel is there any mention of me being in the bath. 

I have a lot of affection for HANNAH. Partly because it’s the result of making up whatever the hell I liked — without rhyme or reason or being bound up in commercial realities — for the first time since my first novel, ONLY FORWARD. Also because I remember those nights, nearly four years ago, when I sat with my back against the wall in the quiet dark, and made stuff up for my son.

The early years of childhood pass terrifyingly quickly in retrospect, at least for the parent. What at the time can feel endless will seem like the blink of an eye once it’s done. As I write this, Nate’s twelve, and generally finds his own stories at bedtime these days. I’m very glad to have some of our earlier evenings together preserved in this book. 

I’m excited to hand it over to you now, and I hope you like it. 

Michael

8 Comments

Another piece of annoying crap in your inbox

5 Comments

Another piece of annoying crap in your inbox

So I'm setting up a newsletter mailing list. You could join it.

Why on earth would you do that?

1. Well, “breaking” news — using the term incredibly loosely — will generally go up on Twitter when I get it, but the newsletter will bring it all together, along with useful links and whatever else swims into my ken that I think might be of interest.

2. In a world this full of strife and excitement, sometimes having something crushingly dull to read is actually rather relaxing.

3. There will be exclusive giveaways and competitions, along with the right to demand that baristas address you as "Your Worship", preferential access to experimental gherkins at the deli counter, and one (1) free instance of the ominous sound of footsteps approaching from behind in the darkness, in participating back streets and abandoned warehouses*.

4. Also because otherwise it'll just be me and my cat on the mailing list, and I know all this shit already and she frankly doesn't seem to care.

So do it

 

*T&Cs apply, plus some of it simply isn't true. 

 

 

5 Comments

What Are We For?

1 Comment

What Are We For?

A while back I read something interesting about the word “demonstrate”. I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but it was a real book, not some fake news site or that guy Keith who sits in the back of the bar selling cut-price but totally genuine iPhones that for some reason only run Android. The author cited the word as an example of how important it is to take account of subtle usage differences between cultures. 

In the West, for example, one meaning of to demonstrate (derived straightforwardly from the Latin demonstrare, to "point out") means to make a protest against something. Its traditional usage in Russia and some other Eastern European countries, however, was to make a visible sign of support for something. Not only is that diametrically opposed in intent, it manifests an interestingly different slant on activism.

The reason why I bring this up is the forthcoming marches over the weekend. Sounds like they’re going to be quite a thing. I really hope so. I'll be there. But a thoughtful friend of mine was dismissive of them the other day, questioning what people thought they were protesting, and what good it would do. He’s got a point. You can’t just “protest Trump”, or not meaningfully. While I understand (and fully share) the sentiment of #NotMyPresident, it is just that — a sentiment, and as of a few hours ago, factually incorrect. And I worry (excess empathy is one of the curses of being an elitist libtard snowflake) about what will happen within the psyche of a deeply insecure man who finds that even becoming the freakin’ president won't stop people ripping the piss out of him, his hair, his hands, and his achievements. He's never going to stop chasing validation, and the search may become more desperate and dangerous. 

He’s the president now, God help us. Yes, it seems he’s an asshole and a philistine and a narcissist and a liar and would quite possibly not be in the White House were it not for the actions of a foreign state. But the latter has yet to be proved beyond reasonable doubt and negative personality traits do not explicitly disbar you from holding high office, as history shows. It seems possible Trump will fall foul of various constitutional restrictions, but he hasn't (impeachably) done so yet. Walking the streets merely yelling “Trump out!” and breaking windows and setting fire to things is not only futile, but a spasm of panic that leads nowhere — giving the #MAGA crowd another excuse to bleat about sore losers and Liberal Tears. 

So on what basis do you march? You borrow the other inflection of "to demonstrate". You march not against, but for. You march in favor of things. You demonstrate not to say how much you hate something or someone — that is the alt-right/Trumpie way — but to point out your ardent support for something. Anger is so much easier to muster than hope, but it’s the latter that leads to positive change. So you demonstrate for women’s rights, in society and the workplace and with regard to power over their own bodies. For the rights of the LGBTQ community — rights that not merely legal, but relate to the basic respect they are due. For voting rights. For racial equality, and the land rights of indigenous peoples. For the right  not to get shot — including in schools — just because some dickhead in another state yearns to own an assault rifle. For the crucial role of arts and humanities in our culture (the Trump team, FYI, is considering eliminating the National Endowments both for the Arts and the Humanities). For the protection of the environment. For support of public schools. For encouraging and celebrating diverse communities of race and religion, in a society that is open and inclusive and bold. For… I'm sure you get the picture. 

The Trump playbook is to keep throwing sticks — spewing little knee-jerk pieces of bile. It’s hard not to chase after every one, like desperate dogs, hoping that if we collect them all like weird chunks of ideological Pokémon then the world will realize what a moron the stick-throwing man is. That won’t work. He has infinite sticks. We all need to pick our own particular stick or sticks and chase them down… chewing until they break. The marches are for people to say what their sticks are — the things they’ll work to preserve or protect or improve. The marches aren’t against Trump, in other words, they’re for the things that matter: and as such are an extremely positive and long-overdue expression of the specific ways in which people care deeply about the world. That’s actually a great thing. It’s bigly huge, and it could lead to meaningful long-term victories. It’s just a shame an utter loon had to get into power to make it happen. 

Anyway, what the hell do I know and why on earth should you listen to my simplistic musings? No reason. I'm sure much of the above is implicit and rather obvious, but I guess I’m just trying to work the thing through in my head. The bottom line is that as of now, Trump is in charge. (Well, most likely it’s Steve Bannon, which is even more worrying, but Trump’s the guy with his name on the door). And my point is that — to VERY heavily paraphrase Obama in his farewell address — there's only one of him, and there's a lot of us.

The more clear it becomes that Liberal progress is not inevitable, the more actively and stridently it has to be chosen. You don’t march to say “no” to the bad things.

You march to say “yes” to the good.

1 Comment

Life vs Art

5 Comments

Life vs Art

I don’t mind being a writer. It's what I do — and that's a lucky position to be in. There are however few professions where the gulf between how civilians think is is, and the reality, is quite as wide. As a public service I’m therefore going to outline how a typical day in the life of an author works. But first…

WHAT PEOPLE THINK IT’S LIKE

I wake to the sound of my assistant standing outside the palatial bedroom suite, whispering the current bestseller positions of my most recently-published novel. By the time she reaches the news that it has held its #1 spot in Turkmenistan for yet another week — the same position it holds in the US and all of Europe and everywhere else — I am ready to greet the day. While I am in the shower the sound of the water drowns out some of the sales information about my backlist, but I am reassured by her frequent use of the word “unprecedented”. 

Arrive at my desk at ten thirty sharp. Spend a while being updated by my agent on negotiations for the upcoming book contract, specifically the advance money on offer. He is concerned that conventional mathematics cannot readily cope with numbers this large. I suggest he gets in contact with Dr. Stephen Hawkings — he’s a fan — and see if he has any advice. 

Work tirelessly for twenty minutes, in which ten thousand words of profound and moving prose drip from my fingers like nectar from a fecund bloom. 

After a simple repast prepared by my personal chef, I spend an hour listening to my editor on the phone as she pleads that I not change a single word of the first draft of the novel I wrote yesterday: she insists that it is a thing of immaculate perfection, citing as evidence the fact that the head of the publishing company, upon reading it, “passed out with joy”. Reluctantly, I agree to leave it as it is. 

Read over my morning’s work, and am astonished by how good it is. I am sufficiently accustomed to my own prose to avoid losing consciousness with delight, though when I appreciatively read aloud one especially good sentence, my assistant — who has been standing nearby, fanning me with a palm frond — keels over into the corner and remains insensate for an hour. 

Spend the late afternoon choosing between cover quotes for the next novel. Decide against using the one from JK Rowling on the grounds it’s perhaps a little too gushing. Opt instead for the one that Ernest Hemingway insisted — unsolicited — on providing via a spirit medium. 

After a light supper I attend a book-signing event for my current bestseller, exchanging cheerful waves with people waiting patiently in the seven-mile-long queue. After inscribing a little over a billion copies, I allow the grateful store owner to ply me with foie gras and Chateau d’Yquem, before being carried home in a chair by the last four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who ask only for the opportunity to serve. The townsfolk doff their caps and bow as we pass. Only a cynic would put this down to the meteoric rise in house prices in the area since I moved in. 

Because I am tireless, on my return I spend an hour dictating responses to fan mail. How bittersweet it is to reply to the one from President Obama, knowing that he may be the last president who knows how to read. 

Retire contendly to bed. I drift off to sleep lulled by the distant sound of my assistant, who is now standing outside in the garden shouting the names of every A-list star who is desperate to appear in the avalanche of upcoming movie adaptations of my work. For all I know, this continues all night.

As opposed to…

THE REALITY

Wake far too early with a howl of despair, remembering it’s my turn to do the school drop-off. Enjoy a tiny beat of relief on realizing at least that means it’s not a day I’m supposed to go running. 

Lurch out of bed, putting foot in small but strategically-placed puddle of cat sick. Drink seven cups of tea. Wake child by hitting him rhythmically on the head for forty minutes with a brick. Haul him through process of dressing, eating breakfast, gathering school materials. Drive to school, late. 

Visit Safeway on the way back, find self standing blearily in checkout line with a basket containing nothing but capers and jam. Have no idea why.

Approach desk with weary trepidation at 8:45. Ignore emails from just about everyone, as they involve hassling me over things I’m late on. Explain to the credit card company that when I said I'd be paying their bill today, I meant “today” in a metaphorical sense. Also “pay”. 

Spend morning editing the previous day’s prose, wondering where on earth I got the idea I could write, and specifically why the fuck I thought this was a good idea for a short story, as it’s clearly a piece of worthless crap. Waste time on email instead. Notice that agent has started using quote marks whenever he refers to my "career".

Realize that child had clothes to wear, all the lights work, and the place is not a complete pig-sty. Assume all this has somehow been achieved or co-ordinated by spouse. Consider making mental note to thank spouse. Decide this constitutes extra writing, and will do later. Forget. 

Eat hurried lunch of whatever looks least dangerous in the fridge. Spend afternoon wrestling with editor’s suggestions for draft sixteen of the current novel. Consider emailing explaining that her apparently simple and uncontroversial suggestions will actually provoke the irrevocable collapse of the book’s structure, but settle instead for spending two hours banging my face on the desk instead. 

Enlivened by a mild concussion, have literally just hit my stride and am about to produce some real work when child arrives home from school, requiring immediate assistance with math homework that I don’t bloody understand. This takes approximately forever.

Drink a couple of moody beers on the porch afterward. Wonder if there is any other way I can earn a living. Conclude for the millionth time that the answer is no, especially after local circus issued a restraining order. 

Cook dinner, an improvised pasta dish whose main ingredients are capers and jam. 

After threats of physical violence fail, eventually get the child to go to bed before midnight by offering to give him fifty dollars tomorrow. Hope he doesn’t start comparing notes with the credit card company. 

Go to bed. Sleep fitfully. Dream of supportively attending the launch for a friend’s new book, to find myself joining the back of a line that is seven miles long. 

5 Comments