Where have all the heroes gone?

Oscar Wilde used to be my hero. I was mad about him: from my late teens to early twenties, he was the epitome of all that I aspired to be (in artistic terms, at least). Back then I had lots of heroes (and heroines). The Marquis of Montrose, Jane Austen, Brian Wilson – a real eclectic mix. But no more.

Last September I attended the funeral of an old friend. It was held in the vast cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris, which is so packed with heroes that you really can’t avoid them. So I took the time to visit Oscar’s grave. I suppose deep down some part of me felt the need to pay homage.

It’s rather surprising, being Art Deco rather than Fin de Siecle: but I think he would have liked that – looking forward rather than back. And of course it set me wondering, where have all the heroes gone? The world seems run by morons and scumbags and not a hero in sight when you most need one.

The cause is internal. We have been made cynical by discovering that all our heroes have feet of clay. We know too much about them. I read the entire works of Oscar Wilde when I was twenty and my hero worship survived that; but by the time I’d finished reading his biography by Montgomery Hyde, although I still admired his brilliance, I had killed the magic.

Which brings me to why I was in that cemetery. My friend, Robert Gallagher, was a larger than life character. A gourmet cook, a connoisseur of wine, a raconteur, a bilingual Franco-American draft dodger, a brilliant, scathing wit and a bon viveur par excellence. This picture sums him up.

I know that I will never meet his like again, any more than I will get to meet Oscar Wilde. I am also well acquainted with his faults. What I need to do, what we all need to do, is to relearn the ability to recognise and celebrate the heroic in those around us. And he was a hero: bold, uncompromising, ruthless in calling out bullshit or ignorance and totally unapologetic.

In short, he was the kind of person we need more of. The fact that he often made us uncomfortable is exactly the point. I lost my faith in heroes because I thought they were meant to be perfect and I became disillusioned when they were not. I should have realised that heroism is about speaking truth to power even when your voice is drowned out by a thousand blustering fools and your feet are made of clay and you can feel them crumbling beneath you.

Where have all the heroes gone? They are inside us: we just need to find the courage to give them voice.

Newspeak

Yesterday’s cockup at the Home Office centre in Croydon provides some textbook examples of how Orwellian “Newspeak” infects the service sector. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-immigration-croydon-queue-sopra-steria-a8867706.html

Both the Home Office and their contractor, Sopra Steria, evidently aim to outdo the airlines in their use of vacuous phrases that combine phoney earnestness with a hint of contempt for the people they are meant to serve.

One of the favoured techniques of companies that have given disastrously bad service is to affirm what ought to be the truth, as if that turns their cock-up into an exception that proves the rule. So a services company whose system failure leaves scores of people out in the cold declares that, “A positive customer experience is vital to the service we provide…”

Indeed, one might have thought so. If only they had said, “Our customers ought to receive good service but they didn’t because we screwed up; and if we don’t fix it fast then the Home Office is going to terminate our contract and we’ll all be out of a job.” Now that would have won back some respect.

A particular favourite with companies that have stuffed up is to say, as Sopra did on this occasion, “We are working closely with our customers…” How else were they considering working with them: remotely? Doubtless they would if they could.

The Home Office trotted out the same meaningless babble: “We are working closely with Sopra Steria to ensure that any customers affected…blah blah blah.” Judging by the customers’ comments, most of them would probably prefer the Home Office to stop working with Sopra Steria altogether.

An especially annoying tactic of the services industry is to try and downplay the severity of a problem by belittling it. On this occasion the company’s spokesperson said that a technical problem, “affected our ability to process a small number of appointments”. How comforting for those affected, to know that they were just the unlucky few.

The airlines are far and away the best at this kind of newspeak. Consider that popular classic, “The delay to your flight is caused by the late arrival of the incoming aircraft”. Service companies love this kind of language because it avoids owning up to any fault, whilst not actually lying. It infuriates us because we want to know the origin of the problem; and the airline’s evasiveness reinforces our suspicion that they are concealing something that would affect their reputation, like the captain having been arrested for lewd behaviour (to cite an actual case).

This linguistic disease infects everything from the most trivial cases to the most serious. How many times have we heard statements like, “The safety of our customers is our highest priority”, in response to an air crash where the cause is suspected to be a failure in the safety procedures of the company making that claim? Orwell coined the term Newspeak in part to convey the dangers of misusing language to pretend one thing while meaning the opposite. We have a duty to call it out whenever we hear it.

Some Guys Have All The Luck

I’ve always found that watching a really great band live on stage is inspirational: it makes me want to rush home and start writing in a way that few other things do.

One of my friends happens to lead the world’s top Rod Stewart tribute band, so inspiration is available almost on tap (they’re continually touring all around the country and beyond). If you fancy a quick jolt of inspiration, click on the link to find where they’re playing next and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Paul Metcalfe performing in The Rod Stewart Story

https://www.someguyshavealltheluck.com

Right, plug over, why does that method of inspiring ourselves work so reliably? It can’t be just the effect of experiencing great art because I don’t get the same impact from looking at a Renoir, for example. In fact I don’t always get it even from reading great literature (although I’m more likely to do so if it’s in a similar genre to my own work, or the kind of thing that I would like to write).

I guess it must be due to getting a simultaneous hit of adrenalin and endorphins, creating both a high and a buzz of energy. Perhaps it’s also because human beings respond most enthusiastically to other human beings who are performing right in front of them. That goes all the way back to the cave men and the earliest forms of music. We now know that music is rooted in the earliest rhythms that we experience, in our mother’s wombs. So music must be the original art form, before even cave painting: and it speaks to us at a subliminal level that nothing else can.

Play on, Rod.

Heat Wave

They say that anyone who knows two cultures lives two lives. One of the oddities of being an Anglo-Australian family is living with the constant awareness of what’s happening on the opposite side of the world – which is opposite in so many ways.

The most obvious contrast right now is the weather, where Britain is revelling in “Snowmaggedon” while Oz is suffering the most extreme heatwave ever recorded. January stayed above 30 degrees every day in NSW and there have been temperatures in the mid-40s for days on end, as a hellish culmination of years of drought (unless you are in north Queensland, in which case you’re probably under water).

As if this needed emphasising, we held an Australia Day party on 26th January where the inside of our house was filled with reminders of the heat and sunshine Down Under, while outside it was pissing down with rain and freezing cold.

I’ve also just finished reading Jane Harper’s great debut novel, “The Dry”, which perfectly captures the feeling of the heat and drought in rural, inland Australia over the last few years.

Probably as a result of all this, we started going through old photographs and found some from this time of year a dozen years back, when a bunch of us went to the races in rural Australia. That trip inspired the story “Last Race at Dederang”, which you can find under the “Awards” tab above. If you want to know what the current heat wave feels like, the picture I’ve posted there gives a taste of it.

So, which do I prefer – England or Oz, too hot or too cold? It’s an impossible choice: each has it’s own upsides and downsides and they are both equal and different. The only good answer is that it’s a wonderful blessing, to be able to keep going back and forth and living two different lives.

Publication Day

Why is publication day like New Year’s Day? Because after all the anticipation, nothing much happens. Both are arbitrary dates that we try to instil with a significance that they don’t really have. We throw parties to celebrate them precisely because there would otherwise be nothing to distinguish them from the days on either side.

Except, of course, that publication day does provide us with something tangible to show. Granted, many of the sales are now virtual sales of eBooks; and online bookshops like Amazon enable pre-orders; but still, after long gestation the author’s baby has finally emerged into the world. Pregnancy is a good analogy for the long drawn out effort to create a book, so perhaps publication day can best be thought of as childbirth without the pain.

This time around I decided to dispense with the book launch party (or rather, to merge it into an Australia Day party, when everyone has got over the post-Christmas blues and the self-flagellation of “Dry January” and is gagging for some fun). Between then and now I have three weeks to grapple with one of the two great disadvantages of being born British: an inhibition when it comes to self-promotion. So, excuse me while I skip between three leading manifestations of the Anglo-Saxon psyche: the Brit, the American and the Aussie. I think I just might enjoy this..

In keeping with my new American persona, if you have trouble finding the paperback version of Searching for Satu on Amazon and can only see the eBook, just click on the author link to Alan Brunstrom that is shown under the eBook title. It will take you to a page where you can find the paperback and place an order. Just saying.

The Last Mile…

It’s always exciting to receive the first proofs of your new book: and I’ve just received them for the paperback version of Searching for Satu. She has been out of print for 18 years, so this is pretty special. I actually have two versions sitting on my desk: one from Amazon and the other from IngramSpark. The production characteristics are slightly different, in ways that only interest the author; but I’m very happy with both of them.

I particularly like the cover, designed by Jessica Bell of IPA, which manages to capture the spirit of the book and to provide a link to the original Citron Press edition, in the form of the hands reaching for each other across a lake.

Satu is also available as an eBook with both IngramSpark and Kindle Direct Publishing. Pre-orders are already open, in advance of the official publication day on 5th January. Between then and now my I’m focused on a promotional campaign that involves a lot of things that I haven’t done for years. It’s lovely to get back into the groove of being a published author; and although this will be a soft launch for a 2nd edition, rather than a big bang for a first publication, it’s great preparation for the next two books that I aim to publish by 2020.

Watch this space!