Tag Archives: Nineteen Eighty-Four

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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Breasts. Some of us have them. Do you have them? How often do you think about them? (You may answer this question even if you are not thinking of your own.) Do you worry about their size, what people you meet think about their size, or whether sexual partners are turned off by their size? Are you always comparing your breasts to those of others? Do you find it impossible to enjoy even long-wished-for experiences because of thoughts like these? Even in moments of danger does your mind stray to the size of your potentially inadequate breasts?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are a highly sought after physical therapist with a sideline in lucrative contract killings, you should probably do everyone a favour and stop obsessing. Call a plastic surgeon, use some of the pile of money you have sitting in a safety deposit box and get the blooming things done. Go up a cup size. Or two! Get the silhouette you have always known you deserved. And then we can get on with the rest of the book because you are one of two main characters in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and frankly, there are bigger things to worry about than the size of your breasts (sorry… Not sorry.)

In over 30 years of breast-owning, I have never thought about a pair as much as I have about Aomame’s. It feels cruel to a writer whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but someone needs to say: ‘Haruki, give it a rest, lad’. In his defence, it could be argued that Aomame is living out a suspended adolescence, where girls can fixate on such superficialities, and that when given the chance to change her appearance in order to evade capture more effectively, she declines. However, when this happens:

Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.

The reaction is laughter rather than sorrow. Only the weight of the tome and an unreturned rental deposit on my apartment prevented me from throwing it across the room with great force, à la Dorothy Parker. It isn’t as if Mr Murakami is some crazed misogynist who doesn’t know any better. Countless examples prove that he can write women well, when he manages to lift his literary gaze higher than their chests. Aomame’s boss, the Dowager, is the kind of kick-ass old lady that everyone needs on their side: tracking down powerful abusers, maintaining a haven for their victims and dispensing quiet justice from a hothouse filled with butterflies. Fuka-Eri is a precocious literary talent, despite suffering from something akin to dyslexia. Yet her ‘beautifully developed’ full breasts are the feature that rates a mention almost every time the teenager appears. To add balance, so do her small, beautiful ears, if you are playing Haruki Murakami Bingo. Prepare to shout ‘full house!’

What bedevils 1Q84 is the makings of a great story trapped somewhere within these pages, that unfortunately isn’t one you can read unless you want to get busy with a red pen, scissors and glue. Editorial input seems to have been limited to pats on the back while waiting for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. It is all the more frustrating because the amount of time that a book this size demands in investment would suggest that readers be rewarded in return. There are small glimmers of interest. The author is particularly good on the subject of cults, the origins of the Sakigake group are gripping and the menace and influence they are able to wield genuinely alarming. Underworld lawyer Ushikawa’s backhanded property dealings are a nod to the asset price bubble which is about to inflate, hobbling Japan’s economy for two decades and counting. The Little People are another frightening entity on first appearance, albeit later defanged and left woefully under-utilised. Tengo’s co-conspirator Komatsu has a great deal of interest to say on the nature of publishing stardom and the manipulation of the reading public, bestseller lists and the patrons of literary prizes (ahem). Unfortunately these potent elements are diluted in a soup of double moons, cats and small breasts, until it begins to feel like a parody.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, remembering the many memorable characters that inhabit Murakami World, is the weakness of the two leads. It is difficult to feel the affection with which we regard, say, Watanabe’s meanderings into maturity in Norwegian Wood, for the romance of breast-obsessed Aomame and her opposite number, Tengo. Tengo could be an early forerunner of the much lamented ‘herbivore men’, except that he seems to be getting more than his fair share of the sex, which even by Murakami standards is decidedly icky. Haunted through his most intimate moments by a brief sexual memory from infancy concerning his mother, fantasising about the 10-year old Aomame, a sex scene with Fuka-Eri so cringe-y it was nominated for a Bad Sex award, Tengo could be a poster boy for abstinence. Vaginas are hairless and appear ‘freshly made’, in which case they are entered, or possess ‘thick, rich [pubic] hair’ in which case they are not. Murakami could be satirising the youth-fixated sexual landscape and its effect on women’s bodies – or he might just dig really young girls. And we are meant to root for Aomame and Tengo as star-cross’d lovers, despite him getting his rocks off with young girls and her prowling Roppongi bars to pick up balding middle-aged men. It is all a far cry from Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League.

Much has been made of the inspiration provided by Nineteen Eighty-Four (nine in Japanese is ‘kyu’, hence the ‘Q’, the Little People as the opposite of Big Brother) but it is a struggle to note any deeper connection between the two. However, if Mr Murakami is looking to George Orwell for inspiration, there is this passage, from Why I Write:

I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it…

Perhaps Murakami has outgrown his own motifs, writing with more than half an eye on the judges in Stockholm blurred his focus, or it is possible that he went and sat in a well halfway through and the publishers got a ghost-writer to finish it from screwed up notes retrieved from the bin, or via a box marked ‘patent pending ACME MURAKAMI THEME GENERATOR’. Like Fuka-Eri’s work, Air Chrysalis, this is a book crying out for a determined editor backed by a ruthless publisher. In tests, 8 out of 10 talking cats said ‘It’s no Kafka on the Shore, now, is it, mate?’

J. C. Greenway’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is 266 pages long and she has never tried to throw it across a room.

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Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Monday 21 January was designated by someone as Orwell Day, in commemoration of the anniversary of the writer’s death. Penguin Books offered a generous discount off the ‘Classic’ editions of his works and various media outlets took the opportunity to highlight his journalism. Lib Com had one of the best examples, this essay on the myth of freedom of the press, as evidenced by the difficulties Orwell experienced in finding a publisher for Animal Farm. The New Statesman went one further and declared Orwell Week, prompting the Spectator to point out that the writer and the NS editors had not always seen eye-to-eye, quoting this from an Orwell Tribune column:

Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly turn to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.

As someone who has always preferred to mark Orwell’s birthday, I suggest ignoring all of this hoopla, especially as it seems a reasonable bet that he would have hated the idea of Orwell Day. Instead, pass some time with Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, a mixture of travel, historical and political writing, which contains much to surprise and inform even the dedicated student of Orwell.

FindingGeorgeOrwellinBurma

Despite having spent over two years living in Asia, before reading this book I had to confess to ignorance of all but the broadest facts of Burma’s recent history. How the country journeyed from the colonial past depicted in Orwell’s Burmese Days to control by its straight-out-of-Nineteen Eighty-Four military junta via the betrayed revolution of Animal Farm is detailed here, not only with factual observations but also through the lives of Burmese people. On her travels through the cities and countryside – ostensibly researching locations that Orwell and his mother’s family lived in and visited – Larkin encounters former prisoners, booksellers, journalists, teachers, the remnants of the Anglo-Burmese population and many others determined to share their stories in spite of the dangers. On expressing her surprise at their vitality, one friend retorts:

What did you expect? That we would all be sitting around on the pavements crying?

That would certainly be one likely response to coping with Burmese levels of doublethink, elements of normality everywhere from the tea shops – ‘an integral part of life’ – to the love of books and reading for pleasure – mention that ‘books are sold… at the night-time book bazaar in Mandalay’ and my ears prick up. Yet those same tea shops are ‘treated by the regime as potential breeding grounds for anti-government activities’ and thus the happy hunting grounds of informers, while one writer tells her that they are:

free to write whatever we want. We’re just not free to have it published.

Visits to dilapidated colonial buildings, old Christian cemeteries and key locations in Orwell’s history carry the story along, including one to the Police Training School – still used to house policemen today – where the young Eric Blair was trained in the methods of surveillance and population control that the military continued so enthusiastically after the British left. As a foreign female tourist, Larkin attracts attention from Burma’s diligent security operatives wherever she goes. In this fascinating interview, she talks about the methods she uses to avoid attracting attention and to protect her sources. (She also selects her five favourite books about Burma if, like me, you are keen on further discovery.)

Larkin seemingly has her own version of doublethink, captivated by Burma’s beauty while despairing that the army’s control can ever be relaxed. It must be like visiting a good friend serving a life sentence in prison, as one interviewee describes the population as the 50 million hostages of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi – released from house arrest since the publication of the book – and her National League for Democracy perhaps offer some hope. Yet, as she travels, Emma Larkin muses on Winston Smith’s words from Nineteen Eighty-Four,

Where does the past exist?

and their relevancy to Burma, where all mention of the huge uprisings which took place in 1988 and their suppression have been erased from official histories. Restoring the country and its people to ‘normality’ will be no easy task.

A quote from the New York Times on the back of my paperback edition of Finding George Orwell in Burma notes that the book

uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar.

It is an excellent and engrossing read, informative yet not in a dry way, featuring characters who, although they must be heavily disguised, remain vital and lively companions. I found it to be an illuminating tour through a country which shaped Orwell, informing his most celebrated books and turning him from disaffected colonial policeman into a writer unafraid to denounce totalitarianism, wherever he found it.

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Top 5 doomed literary loves

Perhaps it isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the season, as everyone loves a happy ever after, but sometimes it has to be acknowledged that the really great literature lives elsewhere.  With that in mind, and with Valentine’s wishes to all readers, here are ten minutes hate’s favourite star-cross’d lovers…

1. Anna and Vronsky – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The fairytale prince (though really a Count) escapes his destiny to marry the sweet-as-sugar Princess Kitty and skips off with the more captivating Anna instead.  Russian society at the time taking its cues from Paris, they might have been forgiven for carrying on behind her husband’s back.  Yet it is when the pair decide they can’t breathe without the other in the room and decide to throw career (him), family (her) and sanity (both) on the bonfires of love and lust that all hell really breaks loose.

Anna watching her lover fall from his horse mid-race and having to contend with his possible death under the suspicious eye of her husband is one of the finest scenes in the book, or possibly ever written.  And while the parallel story of Kitty and new love Konstantin provides a more realistic portrait of the early years of a marriage as well as acting as counterpoint, it is the raging, ultimately destructive, passions between Anna and Vronsky that linger long after reading.

2. Helene and Jean – The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir

Few things are more tragic than the discovery of crucial knowledge too late to do anything useful with it.  Witness reluctant hero Jean Blomart’s night of remorse and reflection as he only realises how deeply he cares for on-off girlfriend Helene after she has taken a bullet helping her ex escape from the Nazis.

The long vigil allows him the chance to reflect on the choices he has made in his life, politics and behaviour towards Helene – while wrestling with the decision over whether to send others out on a similarly dangerous mission – all in a suitably existential manner, of course.  But the philosophy never detracts from what is a cracking tale of betrayal, deceit, love, and ultimately, death.

3. Jake and Anna and Hugo and Sadie – Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Perhaps not since A Midsummer Night’s Dream have the forces of love got it so spectacularly wrong, with emotions in Murdoch’s first novel entangling to such a degree that no-one seems likely to get what (or who) they actually want.  Perfectly capturing the often comic choices of still-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better hero Jake Donaghue as he attempts to sort his chaotic life out enough to get the money, the acclaim and – of course – the girl he deserves.

His continuing mis-steps on that path to contentment, made due to his unvarying misconceptions of his world, are handled with such a light touch that it is impossible not to sympathise, even while desiring to give him a good shake!  A scene where he trails Anna through Paris, seeing her without her ever realising he is there, is beautiful in its longing and sense of loss.  This is another philosophical novel which never betrays the humanity of its central characters.  The inadequacies of language in conveying our perspectives – the ‘net’ of words we are all caught in – will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to tell someone they love exactly how it is and how it’s going to be.

4. Robert and Maria – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The whispered conversations, while curled in his sleeping bag, their hopes for their life together, the brutal intrusion of their final goodbye.  It is a short yet grand passion, full of idealism and beauty, despite – or perhaps due to – the death and horror that surrounds them.  The earth even moves.

Yet, like the Republic they are fighting for, it is not destined to last.  As with The Blood of Others, Fascist bullets ultimately prove too strong for even this perfect love to overcome.

5. Winston and Julia – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

What else could it be?

Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy realises that is because he wants girl really.  Boy gets girl.  Boy convinces girl to join him in overthrowing a ruthless dictatorship.

Fails.

Looking back over my choices I realise that perhaps there is a common theme, that love can’t survive in a world bedevilled with totalitarian regimes, Fascist atrocities and the stern disapproval of a rigid society.  Those structures will always be incompatible with such deep feelings because, as noted by Jonathan Carroll, in his excellent tale of un-doomed love, White Apples:

…real love is always chaotic. You lose control; you lose perspective. You lose the ability to protect yourself. The greater the love, the greater the chaos. It’s a given and that’s the secret.

The idea of love as anarchy works better for me than all the diamonds and flowers and chocolates paraded at this time of year.  Perhaps Saint Valentine, killed for his opposition to the Roman Emperor, would approve.

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One glorious year of ten minutes hate!

ten minutes hate celebrates its first birthday today. Twelve months of venting spleen on the internet and having it vented right back at me has been funny, inspirational and thought-provoking.

I have had help from some exceptional people, especially the lovely ladies who designed my Penguin-tastic header, but, today of all days, I will avoid the temptation to get too ‘Sally Field Oscar acceptance speech’ on your asses.

Instead, it is time to show some uncharacteristic love to you, dear readers.

This copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, 1954 edition, will be awarded to the writer of the funniest or sharpest comment on any ten minutes hate post, new or old.

Of course, this isn’t my personal copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four but, rest assured, it is infinitely doubleplusgood, with a great cover as well as including that authentic second-hand book mustiness.

You could choose from the most popular posts of the last year: Stop being a sap!, I had this perfect dream or Victory cigarettes for all, my reviews of subjects as diverse as Kraftwerk in Manchester, Ross Kemp: Middle East or bloody Lark Rise.

Alternatively choose a subject via one of the tags in the ‘Memory Hole’ on the right.

You can have as many attempts as you can fit into the next seven days without risking becoming a non-person at your Ministry for excessive internet use.

What do you have to do to lay your grubby mitts on the book?

  1. Comment on any ten minutes hate post, from today until midnight on Sunday 14 March
  2. Post anonymously, but if you want a chance of the prize, please be sure to leave a real email address
  3. My decision is final and will probably be completely unscientific, but realistically, any comment which makes me laugh out loud stands a good shot at winning (no pressure)

Forward, brothers and sisters, to Victory!

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ten minutes hate

Seems perfectly made for a job at the Treasury, doesn't she?

ten minutes hate, the absolutely amazingly well-written and thought provoking website you are currently reading, famously takes its name in part from Nineteen Eighty Four.  However, there is another use of the term ‘ten minutes hate’ and that is to describe the final run-up to any hard-fought election.  It is meant to be the time when the gloves come off, the punches aren’t pulled before, inevitably, one of the challengers smacks the canvas.  [That’s enough terrible boxing metaphors, thanks, Smith – Ed]

However it seems that the UK election, which everyone surely knows is now taking place this May, is going to build up not so much to a ten minute hate as to a ten week stupidity.  Increasingly vacuous, lacking in concrete proposals and with politicians of all stripes outdoing each other to deny courses of action which we all know they won’t be able to avoid taking once elected, whether because circumstances or natural inclinations will force their hands.

And, just when you thought the political discourse in this country would struggle to get any more vacuous, up popped noted number-wrangler Carol Vorderman, to display about as much sense as she did in those adverts encouraging you to take out loans against your home.  In shrill tones that brought Sarah Palin to the memory of more than one viewer commenting on Twitter, she played to the gallery, dismissed other panelists who disagreed with her and – perhaps most surprisingly given her television experience – seemed to be reading from prepared notes.

So, is she a British version of Palin’s ‘soccermom’?  Judge for yourself, here.

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Lark Pies to Cranchesterford

It has almost become a new blood sport to bait the BBC for its perceived failings. Left and right, Christian and atheist, lovers of Terry Wogan and those of Chris Evans, it seems hardly anyone is content with the organisation we were once happy to call ‘Auntie’.

And ten minutes hate is no different. Except that, being particularly sensitive to historical revisionism, I count expunging the records of some of this country’s most radical writers to be amongst the Beeb’s greatest misdeeds. Half-comatose on the sofa this Yuletide, unable to muster even the energy required to battle with an Aged Relative for the remote control, it was my misfortune to watch some truly insipid programming. My disappointment was made much the greater because of a betrayal of works which should leap as boldly from the screen as they did from the page before they had the choice meats of their stories reduced to a spam sandwich of an adaptation.

"Miss Matty, I'd like time off on Sundays and the right to vote, ta very much." "The impudence! I'll have you shot!"

At first glance, Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford would not, I am sure, strike you as being hot-beds of radical thought. In fact, I am certain that you saw them in the schedules and thought ‘oh no, another bloody historical drama of no significance to me in my 21st century battle to keep the wolf from the door, the central heating bills paid and the snow from blocking the driveway’. But you would be wrong, dear reader, you would be very wrong.

The writer of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, was no romance writer. She counted amongst her friends some of the most important thinkers of her day and was herself no slouch in the brains department. Her books were not set in some sleepy, picturesque hamlet but in the North West of England, at that time the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, home to ‘dark, satanic mills’ and the people who manned the machinery within them. She was no passive observer of the rich-poor divide but passionate in her support for education and other means to bridge that gap and outspoken in her fears for the future if it was not reduced.

John Barton, trade unionist and Chartist father of Mary, is a typical Gaskell character; mourning his wife and son he first forbids his daughter from working in a factory and is eventually reduced to extreme action by the poverty and inequality surrounding him. Barbara Cartland territory, it ain’t. Instead her tales are firmly rooted in the city where troops once fired on peaceful protesters, where a local girl founded the first Suffragette society and where conditions prompted two Germans to write books that would change the course of history.

Because, before it gave us evil football franchises and the near-nightly hysteria of Corrie:

Manchester changed the world’s politics: from vegetarianism to feminism to trade unionism to communism, every upstart notion that ever got ideas above its station… was fostered brawling in Manchester’s streets, mills, pubs, churches and debating halls

That eulogy from ‘Pies and Prejudice’, Stuart Maconie’s excellent tribute to all things Northern.

Admittedly, Cranford is set a little distance away from the belch and smoke of the factories and mills, but not too far: it is based on Knutsford in Cheshire, where Gaskell grew up. Cranford is an adept skewering of the attitudes of those who are not as close to the top of society as they would like to be and just a few slips or financial missteps away from the bottom. The ladies of Cranford would sooner die than admit to poverty and work hard at maintaining their values of ‘elegant economy’. However, to think of them as the idle rich would be a mistake. The mills of ‘Drumble’, the Manchester stand-in, loom on the horizon ‘distant but only twenty miles on a railroad’.

By contrast, although Flora Thompson, writer of Lark Rise to Candleford, did set her stories in a sleepy, picturesque hamlet, she was no writer of cosy, bucolic romances either. Writing from a perspective of 40 years after the events she was recording allowed her tales to demonstrate the seismic changes to a rural life previously anchored by the same seasonal events throughout generations. Mechanisation, better communication and urban expansion were to alter the countryside of Thompson’s childhood beyond the imagining of most of its inhabitants.

These changes were faithfully recorded and the stories shaped by Thompson’s background because, unlike many of the rural chroniclers, she was a member of the working class. Her father was a labourer in possession of thwarted dreams of becoming a sculptor and an interest in radical politics which occasionally made him unpopular with the neighbours. Some of her first stories and poems were printed in the socialist Daily Citizen. Instead of going off into service like so many of her peers, she began working for the local postmistress, a career woman with some daring ideas by the standards of the time, who would lend the young Flora ‘On the Origin of Species’ by that other higher thinker, Darwin.

For the characters of these two unconventional writers to be reduced to bonnets, forelock-tugging and ‘yes ma’am’-ing for a sleepy, Sunday audience is a travesty. The firebrands on the page are now simple creatures, homespun and happy with their allotted status in life. Perhaps the powers-that-be are hoping that a little of it will rub off on any potential modern day troublemakers? The nineteenth century saw a deluge of ideas in politics, science and literature alongside improvements in education, health and living standards. Ordinary people fought for, and gained, lasting social reforms that we enjoy the benefit of today, perhaps less valued as we don’t recall the manner of their winning. It is a shame and we are left all the poorer for this two dimensional view of life in that vibrant and radical time.

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The Golden Country

Picture 032Picture 033 Last night I got home from work and watched the evening sun play across the wall for about an hour.

In 1984, the Golden Country is a place of escape, untouched by Big Brother and the Party and remote from the cares of everyday life in Oceania.

More posts to follow…

(Photos by me, for once.)


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Back to the politics

At times, there is an awful lot of chatter about how ‘1984 is coming true’ and a blog with the title of ten minutes hate is probably no place to try to argue the opposite.  So I won’t bother.

1984 is here.

You’re a citizen of Oceania and you give the state your full, unquestioning obedience or they will put you in a room and cage hungry rats to your face so they chew off your nose.

Except they won’t actually be so inventive.  That level of creative cruelty is probably beyond their imaginations.  So instead, they will stick to the old, tried and trusted methods.

They will pull out fingernails:

…he was whipped, beaten, deprived of sleep and sexually humiliated. At one point three fingernails were ripped out of his left hand. He says this was done slowly, over a period of days…

They will take away children for spurious reasons and, despite eventual proof of innocence, refuse to give them back:

Despite the finding of the tribunal, the social workers have remained determined to hold on to the children, with a view to their care being determined in a county court on Wednesday.

They will use the smokescreen of war as a distraction from what is really going on:

Millions of farmers will have to give up traditional crops as they experience changes in the seasons that they and their ancestors have depended on. Climate-related hunger [may become] the defining human tragedy of this century.

The sad truth is that I fall for the distractions every time.  Happy spending time going to gigs, watching telly, indulgently writing.  Not lifting one finger of my untortured hand to do anything to stop it happening, just passively drinking the Victory Gin and telling myself nothing will ever change, so what’s the point?

Hat tip to Tom Paine for the social services story and the Bleeding Heart Show for the Oxfam one.

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1Q84

Very excited to read today that Haruki Murakami has revealed some of the inspiration for his new book:

Murakami has now admitted that he had “long wanted to write a near-past novel similar to George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984”

Only slightly tempered by this:

It proved an instant bestseller in Japan when it was published at the end of May, but there is no word yet about when an English translation will be forthcoming.

Now that should be all the inspiration I need to become fluent in Japanese…

In the same article, Mr Murakami also talks about how he writes, something he also covers in the excellent and translated into English, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’,

In my case, if I start out by thinking about the plot, things don’t go well. Small points, such as my impression of what is likely to occur, do come to mind, but I let the rest of the story take its own course. I don’t want to spend as long as two years writing a story whose plot I already know.

This is the way I write too, although it is definitely more time-consuming that way, so it is heartening to learn that Murakami’s been working on his book for two years!  It is also not the way my English teachers at school would have encouraged anyone to write, insisting when we wrote stories in class that we spend time planning them out, ensuring they had a beginning, middle and an end, before we were allowed to start writing the things.  I am sure they meant well, but it leads to formulaic writing as well as taking some of the fun out of discovery.  Part of the appeal of writing something longer, which I’ve been doing for about a year now, is that I am telling myself the story first.  I only have a vague idea of how it is going to end and a faint hope that if I am enjoying the tale, one day other people might do too…

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