happy birthday to me and my story school!

https://ukstoryschool.com/

It’s my birthday today, which shouldn’t be very exciting since I’ve had so many of them already. But this year is different because today I’m also opening the doors to my own school. I’ve always wanted a school, but thought it would take a lot of money – for a start, I’d need a spooky castle with its own grounds, a moat (obviously), and a dungeon for anyone who gives me cheek. Seemed like an impossible dream. It wasn’t until the Advent of Pandemic Catastrophe, when I started to teach online, that I realised I could build a school out of internet mulch. So it’s here! Well, it’s kind of here. Internet mulch will only get you the illusion of a school. A real school needs students.

So please check it out and maybe even give it a go! And please do share THE STORY SCHOOL with anyone who might be interested.

out of the darkness

The people at Unsung have been busy putting together an anthology of stories “raising awareness of mental health issues” with the proceeds going to a mental health charity, Together for Mental Wellbeing.

There are some amazing writers featured in the anthology, including Aliya Whiteley, Alison Moore, Nicolas Royle, Malcolm Devlin and many more. I’m one of the ‘many more’ – my story is called The Lightness of Their Hearts. I have forgotten everything about this story, to the point that I’d forgotten the title and keep calling it The House on the Moon, which might have been its title once, some time in the distant past. It’s the only short story I’ve written in quite a long while, and I’m just too scared to read it now in case I want to change/delete it all. All I can tell you is that it features a house, the moon, some balloons and some post-natal depression. Hopefully it passes muster as part of this wonderful-looking anthology.

If you’d like to support the anthology and get hold of your own copy, details are here. And please share with friends and on social. Most of us are only too aware of mental health issues, but what sometimes escapes our attention is the fact that others are aware of us, and sharing our troubles. I hope this anthology will make its readers feel understood.

the red slipper-socks

Kind of like the red shoes, only somewhat less bloody and tormenting. Quite a lot less, in fact. But I can’t stop dancing. It is the perfect way to release the pressure, to shrug off any dealings with the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world, and to immerse myself in music. The slipper-socks allow me to slide and swivel over the floor which is also very enjoyable*.

In this weird year, my life has narrowed down and become focused on daily tasks, routines, and pleasures. I find this a generally positive development, even though it’s one that’s been forced upon us. Working from home is great and I make sure to divide up my day with walks before and after work. They are mostly in the dark now, down along the river path. In the mornings the birds are loud and aggressive, defending their territory from my stomping past. I’ve seen some rather glorious sunrises. It’s pretty good.

The year has sped by and now we’re hurtling towards the end of it and I’m thankful, really, for the time and space and change of perspective afforded by these disasters. Thankful, too, to have meaningful work and a pleasant home, and books and cake and dogs and music. I miss people, but I know I’m very lucky and maybe even blessed. Bring on the Christmas spirit!

*ETA: Did you know that Mariah Carey’s 1980s hit ‘Fantasy’ is a cover of the Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’? I somehow got through the whole of the eighties without noticing this at all (and yes I was a fan of both.)

Also on the subject of cover records, this has to be one of the most surprising and brilliant. Still danceable but now a lot more angry.

well, if this isn’t nice, i don’t know what is

My short story collection This House of Wounds has been nominated for a British Fantasy Award. So that’s nice! The other nominated authors are Maura McHugh, Laura Mauro, Paul Tremblay and Aliette de Bodard, so obviously I’m not expecting to actually win!

Having said that, I was surprised and delighted to take home the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction for my story White Rabbit a couple of years ago, so who knows, I might get lucky again. That story’s in This House of Wounds, along with another story called Her Bones the Trees which was also nominated for the Best Short Fiction award last year. So it’s a lovely honour and I hope it will spark some interest in the book. Apparently my collection is now available at The Last Bookstore in LA and I’m very much hoping that Charlie Kaufman will wander in and buy a copy. I assume he lives in LA. If not, this plan is a bust. His films have been a huge influence on my writing. I love how he turns reality inside out, and I think my writing tries to do some similar things. I’d maybe even go so far as to say that if you liked his latest movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, you might also enjoy my stories. But I digress. (Buy my books!)

I was very pleased to see Julie Travis’ fantastic Tomorrow, When We Were Young nominated for the Best Short Fiction award this year. It’s a book I absolutely loved and which filled me with wonder, and was one of my standout reads of last year. Congrats to all the nominees in all the categories. I’m only sad we won’t all be having a drink together at the award ceremony!

In other good news, my copy of Aliya Whiteley’s latest novel Greensmith arrived this morning and it looks amazing. I’m a massive, MASSIVE fan of her books. The cover blurb from Irenosen Okojie calls it “a brilliant, mind-altering, intergalactic delight.” Eek.

Je suis Samuel

This is distressing, heartbreaking, and terrifying news. Samuel Paty was killed for doing what good teachers do: sharing knowledge, modeling critical thought. By all accounts, Samuel was a beloved teacher who encouraged debate and diversity of ideas.

I understand that Samuel had complaints from a parent of a child who wasn’t even in his class, that there was some kind of social media campaign against him, that it all escalated to the point that he changed his route home from school, fearing that he may be attacked. And then he was attacked, brutally attacked, and beheaded.

Horror, and revulsion. It is overwhelmingly evil. Samuel’s students are 13 years old – this is a trauma that will carry through generations.

We have to learn from this. Schools, colleges and universities have to do more to protect the safety of teachers. Why didn’t Samuel Paty’s school take his concerns seriously? Why did they allow a campaign against him to go unchecked and instead put him under investigation? It is horrifying to see how quickly this escalated from a classroom tension to an act of terrorism. It is terrifying to see how little it takes to go from a normal teaching day to some kind of hell.

We must be able – and society must enable us – to speak, write, teach, counsel and converse without fear of violence. If not, then a leader can’t lead, an artist can’t make art, and a teacher can’t teach.

Don’t be cynical in the face of this tragedy. We have to end this stupid war.

Je suis Samuel. Je suis prof.

a dreadful person says…

God knows I’m no paragon of virtue. I’ve been wrong and done wrong plenty of times. I’m not even that nice, generally speaking, personality-wise. People who like me tend to be those people deemed to be unsavoury, beyond-the-pale types, or those who have a certain reckless joy de vivre (erm… I think these people might actually be dogs). So I’m not standing on a pedestal (or a horse) when I say, I’m pretty sure some things are just wrong. Aren’t they?

Like, I think if you try to defend the practice of threatening to rape a woman to death for saying something some people didn’t like even though they have no idea what she said and are making up outright lies in order to justify rape and death threats and kill-your-children threats and put-your-abuser-on-the-front-page-of-a-national-newspaper threats, then there is probably something a bit wonky about your moral compass. Can compasses be recalibrated? Because that’s what I’d recommend.

But then, I suppose, I could be wrong about that. Maybe it’s okay to send a deluge, a plague, a tsunami of rape-to-death threats, kill-your-family threats, hope-you-get-cancer threats to people you don’t like? I doubt this point of view would ever have occurred to me, were it not for the fact that it is the point of view espoused by so many people I happen to know. To be fair, most of these people exist mainly on twitter, which as we know, is the place where independent thought goes to die, usually in the throes of some histrionic demonstration of pure, mad outrage. Desperate for those likes and retweets. Pure desperate.

I watched The Social Dilemma the other evening and thought, jesus god, this explains so much. I’d already ditched my social media months ago (one day I’ll get through a whole blog post without congratulating myself for this) so I was able to enjoy this horror story whilst clutching to the thin comfort of my own smugness. But thin comfort it was, indeed. It will take a lot more than a few of us deleting our social media to derail the crazy train. Social media is a giant mind control experiment, and there are a lot of minds being controlled. How else to explain people defending and justifying rape-death-cancer threats? How else to explain the furious urge to cancel and silence all dissent, even that which is simply the expression of basic moral principle?

The idea that other people aren’t subject to the mind-control that you’ve succumbed to must be utterly enraging. And the deeper you sink into the giant mind, the more likes you get, the more retweets, the more addicted you become, the more this jealous bewildered fury consumes you and the more you lash out in rage at all you cannot control. Dear god, you are being eaten alive!

on attempting to reason with a fly

I find that of all the flying insects that sometimes fly into my flat, flies are the least amenable to any form of reason. Wasps are also often intractable, especially when angered. But flies are just stupid.

Now a bee, on the other hand, a bee will listen to reason. A bee will buzz in, lost and confused, but when I show them that the open window is just there, and invite them to leave through it, off they go. Indeed, there have been times when I have been too busy to gesture to a bee, and have simply explained that there’s a open window in the other room through which they may exit. Bees are smart and they want to understand.

Flies, it seems, are impervious to all forms of reason and evidence. Flies fly in (or arise, unbidden, from their hideous secret places) and it doesn’t matter how much you point to the WIDE OPEN WINDOW in front of them, or how much you wave and create drafts and patiently explain and give instructions – flies just keep buzzing around and around and around, gradually inviting their own destruction at the hands of an increasingly annoyed woman who has only been trying to help.

This is not, of course, a metaphor for anything. What in the world could resemble a stupid buzzing insect flying around in a trap of its own making, when nothing is standing between it and its passage into a clear bright day? What could remind one of such stupidity, such refusal to acknowledge what is blindingly obvious, such mindless, idiotic devotion to a completely mistaken course of action? What, indeed.

50,000 bumholes

A wise person once said that opinions are like bumholes, in that everyone has one. This has always struck me as the perfect expression of distaste towards the unsavory practice of having opinions. I would, however, counter it by saying opinions are not at all like bumholes, in that no one has 50,000 bumholes.

I myself am in possession of several thousand opinions, few of which have the slightest merit or basis in anything other than sheer whimsy. Indeed, I have been known to opine at length on subjects in which I have literally no expertise, knowledge, or even interest. I consider this to be a terrible character flaw, albeit one which I share with most of the population at large. Hardly anything is less pleasant than listening to other people’s untutored, unfounded and ignorant opinions. But to be the expounder of such opinions is delightful. It’s so much fun to just talk, to say whatever inane nonsense passes through your brain, without a care for truth or honour. It’s especially fun to get worked up into an outrageous steaming froth about the sputterings of some random twitter egg or facebook not-friend.

(As I am one of the elite and enlightened few who has eschewed social media, I no longer suffer from the constant urge to express myself online. I now reserve this disagreeable activity for close friends and captive audiences at bus stops and in the post office queue.)

Another way in which opinions are not really like bumholes is that hardly anyone identifies with their bumhole in any meaningful way. Most people probably couldn’t even pick theirs out in a line up, unless it was an especially fancy one. Yet many people do very rigidly identify with their opinions and consider themselves to be the sort of person who thinks this, that, and the other. The thinking of this, that, and the other indicates to the world that they are the right kind of person and that they are very good. Such individuals tend to have clusters of opinions that go together and often these clusters merge with other clusters to form one giant opinion which is taken so seriously and treated with so much gravity that it takes on cosmic mass and becomes a giant bumhole of groupthink. This enormous bumhole hoovers up all the messy freeform thought that swirls around it, and pulls it down into its dark mysterious depths, never to be seen again. Now the person-with-important-and-correct-opinions finds themselves in thrall to a giant bumhole, a position which requires some careful manouevring if they are to escape unsullied. Many individuals, however, seem to take comfort in the giant bumhole, which is warm and crowded with others just like them, and they find shared purpose in patrolling its rim, defending its integrity from critical observers, and fighting off anyone who attempts to help them get free.

A third way in which opinions are unlike bumholes – and yes I am now fully committed to this analogy, although I admit I do have some regrets – is that while a bumhole is a sturdy thing that with luck and care will last you a lifetime, opinions tend to be fickIe and flimsy and floaty. There is nothing really basic or fundamental about opinions. They come and go, briefly providing the illusion that you know what you’re on about, before disappearing in a puff of logic, evidence, growing up, or having a change of heart. Opinions drift about like brightly coloured balloons, looking joyful and attractive until they float into a tree and explode. Weeks later you find their withered fragments shamefully littering the grass. They are, put simply, not to be trusted.

Maybe, then, we should detach from our opinions. Maybe we should all be less concerned with what people think, and a lot more interested in how they think. The ability to use logic, reason, deduction, evaluation and analysis is more profoundly valuable to society than knowing the right things to say to appease the great giant bumhole in the cloud – or even to rail against it. There is no reason to aspire to having good or correct opinions, any more than one would waste time wishing for extra bumholes. Far better to aspire to knowledge, insight and wisdom, the lubricating unguents which soothe the inflamed haemorrhoids of cancel culture, thought-control, and always-being-right, and which should, therefore, be applied liberally.

To torture the analogy to its painful conclusion, I propose that opinions, like bumholes, should be a private and somewhat embarrassing concern, of no interest to anyone outside your most intimate circle. Forget about your opinions. Cultivate ways of thinking, learning, and knowing; aspire to wisdom and insight. Develop your core values, decide what is of fundamental importance – I humbly submit that you will find deep cares for truth, justice, freedom and equality, cares which seem to be baked into most human hearts. Identify with these, and let your opinions go like so many farts, dissipating into warm air.

ESCAPE ROOM: SOPHIE ESSEX

This is not a writing space

My writing space is a lie. I’ve never written here. I put the desk together myself during late-summer, whilst video calling a friend, in cheap cotton panties and a camisole. Those metal legs are chill year round. I haven’t been gagged with the unicorn duct tape, the truffle-coloured bunny remains nameless, I am forever European. Out of sight is an Ikea bookcase that displays my collection of plastic lo-fi cameras, and five envelopes containing poetry chapbooks. The wall to the left is crumbling from damp. There is a promise somewhere to fix it.

Folk say you ought to write each day but I find I’m too precious with words, I can’t seem to let-go. This is how I write: I’ll discover a word, then I’ll sit on it for a while. Or a title. Currently it’s ‘Terrible Grasshopper’ which I’ve been with since before the new year. I’ll add to it now and then – on scraps of paper, via notes on my phone, I’ll leave a thought with someone. Until.

I like to let music bleed into my work. Bjork, Maximo Park, something poppy and melodic. Though more often than not I prefer being read to. Salvador Dali’s ‘Oui’ is a favourite, or wikipedia articles, Nabokov. I like the process of tuning-out, of taking no notice on a conscious level and letting the subconscious pick up what it wants.

Life is a distraction. Little Cora Vespertine. My anxieties. Love. Fear of never being read, understood, appreciated. I can’t write without a pen; utilised as a false moustache.

The most enjoyable part of writing is not writing, it’s sharing my words and my weirdness with another who doesn’t desire an explanation. I find this is also the least enjoyable part.

I’m proud of everything I write. It often feels like a challenge to get the words out – if you know me you know I don’t talk much, that voicing my thoughts doesn’t come easy – so every finished something is a little ‘yay’. My first proper chapbook ‘Some Pink Star’ was released about a year ago through Eibonvale Press. David Rix did a stunning job, and I am still besotted with it.

Right now I’m working / not-working on a series of insect poems though, of course, they’re not really about insects. I think ‘Ant Eating With Three Fingers’ is my favourite title so far, or perhaps, ‘Honeydew or Number One Sugar Daddy’ which is about aphids and age-gap relationships. I’m excited to see where I take them.

Sophie Essex is a poet, organiser of spoken word events, and a publisher. Her chapbook Some Pink Star is available here. Her small press Salo publishes both prose and poetry.

just monster things

Have been off social media for a week or so and it’s clear to me I made a great decision. I feel very free. I also have a lot of thoughts and ideas about what social media is doing to writing and writers, but I’ll save them for another day.

Just a quick heads up for anyone who enjoys podcasts, ghost stories, or being read to: this fantastic podcast by Tony Walker is one you won’t want to miss. He recently did an episode on Little Heart, from my collection This House of Wounds, and it was such a wonderful experience. Tony’s reading brought so much insight into the story and we had a great discussion afterwards about what it all could mean.

It inspired me to write some story notes about my novella Honeybones, which weirdly enough tie in with a lot of my thoughts about social media. I suppose it’s not that weird, given that Honeybones is a story about mind control and violence and not living in reality but inhabiting a simulated world which is designed to disempower you and alienate you from your material existence… Anyway, it’s interesting to think about, and if anyone wants to have me on their podcast or blog or publication to talk about this stuff, that would be great.

CYMERA 2020 took place online a couple of weeks ago and was a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed all the panels I saw and appreciated how much work went into making them run so smoothly. My own panel was on ‘writing the weird’ with Laura Mauro and Kit Power, and was a really fun and interesting chat. But my highlight of the weekend was Penny Jones, Tracy Fahey and Katie Hale discussing ‘The Female Monster’ – they covered so much in the discussion but it felt like they could have gone on for hours, and I would have been there for it! All the panels from CYMERA are on youtube and worth checking out.

That’s all for now! Hope you are all staying well and safe <3

the real world