Saturday, December 17, 2016

Post-Brexit Britain is in crisis. But where is Captain Britain?

It's 40 years since Britain got its own Marvel superhero. To celebrate this anniversary Marvel has put out a new collection of stories, Captain Britain: Legacy Of A Legend. And guess who has written the introduction and some of the stories? 

This pick of stories from 1975-86 is a perfect introduction to the Union Jack-clad hero, and also strings together a virtually seamless single epic that launches the Brobdingnagian cast that has formed the bedrock of all his subsequent narratives.

But right now, Captain Britain does not have his own comic book, tv series, film or anything else except the odd appearance in other comics. There was talk of a tv series or a movie, but Marvel Studios has no plans for either (I asked them – even sent a script).

Is he having a mid-life crisis?

With a name like Captain Britain the character inevitably taps the many resonances of British culture. Different creators have picked up on different aspects: Spidey clone, Arthurian hero, secret agent, trans-dimensional warrior, Carrollian surrealist, and protector against the paranormal threats... 

Perhaps it's no coincidence that, right now, Britain itself is having a kind of identity crisis.

Since the 52%-48% vote to leave the European Union the country has been riven in a way not seen since the 1980s days of the miners' strike. Crimes of racism and homophobia have increased as queues at the food banks have lengthened and wage levels stagnated, and nobody knows where the country is heading. Political leadership is nowhere to be found and the country is stumbling to find its way in the world.

In the media, arguments rage over what it means to be British. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are frequently at odds with the English government. Post-Brexit, here we are in our time of need.

But where is Captain Britain? Could he save us?

The character has, in some writers' hands, sometimes strayed far from his own core identity. Perhaps that is why he has never been as successful as Captain America or Spider-Man. His very name is problematic: what is he a captain of? Unlike Captain America he was never in the armed forces.

He is an orphan, a twin, from an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. He is a physicist who practices a form of magic. He is a liberal who wears the flag. He is the husband of a psychic half-fairy gypsy. He embodies, in other words, a mess of contradictions. Just like the United Kingdom.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about him. I've been trying out all kinds of storylines, including a reboot in the manner of Marvel's Ultimates series. I'm still thinking.

I have come to believe that key to his potential mass appeal is his ability to be a slate onto which others will project their hopes, wishes and fantasies about what he might be and what values he might represent. Yet he himself is his own man, picked for his heroic qualities by the wisdom of Merlyn and Roma, who back him up, and he is able to draw on the possibilities and lessons to be learned from the other versions of Britain in parallel dimensions, and on the legendary Celtic magic of Otherworld.

I believe a Captain Britain tv series should be made in Britain. In the context of Brexit and renewed soul-searching up and down the country about national identity, I think funnily enough that the country actually needs one. 

Just as, in his time, Captain America has been a prism through which writers have viewed the politics of their country, a national British superhero series could also act as a focus for our national hopes and anxieties to play themselves out. 

For example the tv series Sherlock and Dr Who both have a wit and dynamism that energises British themes and experiments imaginatively with quintessentially British icons. These echo throughout the world and are wildly successful.

With fantasy, it's possible to project and reflect different extensions of modern real-world trends without being didactic or partisan. That would never do.

Captain Britain is a cipher. A powerful vehicle for playing harmlessly but fruitfully with ideas about British culture now and in the past and even in the future. 

As for the man behind that mask.... what would he think of all this himself?

Now there is a good question....

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]

My writing course can be taken online. Contact me if interested.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

For the Greater Good

I wrote a short story for the Weatherfronts commission. The brief was to respond to the themes and the discussions arising from a two day Weatherfronts event that took place at the Free Word Centre earlier this year.

This event brought 50 writers/artists and 50 climate change scientists together to discuss creative ways to respond to climate change.

My 8000 word story was called For the Greater Good and I've just had feedback for it from the editors:

"We really enjoyed reading it! This was a great read. The human relationships here were very believable and there were some strong emotions conjured quickly, to pull the reader in to this new, alternate world. This was a great unpicking of the moral and societal dimensions that were raised at Weatherfronts, and it broached pertinent moral questions in a plausible and non-didactic way."

That's a relief!

The story will be published next month and there will be a launch event at the Free Word Centre on January 19. Maybe see you there?

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The 12 stages of the Hero's Journey – Are they real?

This month I thought I would publish the slides from a presentation I gave this week at my writing course.

I wanted to delve deeply into the idea of plot and structure and then test the popular technique writers are taught that quest, discovery or journey type stories all have 12 stages. I did this by analysing two recent films and book that are very different indeed: The Girl On A Train and Doctor Strange. If you haven't seen these: spoiler alert! Don't read the penultimate two slides!

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]
My (12-stage, of course!) writing course can also be taken online. Contact me if interested.

Friday, July 29, 2016

New course: Writing for Fun and Profit

You know what they say about those who teach? So I'm teaching a writing course again...

Wednesdays 7pm to 9pm, YMCA, Gerwyn House, 19 Market Square, Llandovery SA20 0AB. From September 7th.

I'll be running this course – which I've run before elsewhere and has proved very popular – from September 7th. It's for anybody with an interest in writing.

It will offer support and constructive feedback and aim to build an enthusiastic, supportive group, whatever type of writing you are passionate about.

For those who have an interest in being published there will be advice and pointers about the different kinds of markets.

All types of writing and genres will be covered, from children's and adult fiction to scriptwriting, online (e.g. blogging), interactive computer games, comics, journalism, non-fiction and specialist technical or business-to-business writing – except for poetry, as there is another group which specialises in poetry in Llandovery.

It will begin with a taster session on September 7th, price £3 to cover costs. After that it will be £5 per session, £4.50 concessions, or £42 (£38) for 10 sessions, on Wednesdays 7pm to 9pm.

I am a full-time professional writer and have taught hundreds of hours of creative and scriptwriting classes. I'm a novelist and winner of a HarperCollins contest to find a new children's writer with his young adults novel Hybrids.

I've also written, edited and commissioned many comics and graphic novels including for Marvel, and am a co-founder of the London Screenwriters Workshop.

On the non-fiction side I'm an author of thousands of journalistic articles on renewable energy and sustainable development and of over ten practical or technical/academic books on how to live more sustainably.

I'm also also a director of Cambria Publishing Co-operative and a member of the Society of Authors.

If you want to find out more before coming along, phone me on 07901 925671 or 01550 721476.

Here's a Facebook event link to share.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why have linguistic standards slipped in books for older children?

One of the most successful novels ever written for older children is perhaps Anne of Green Gables. Written in 1908 by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery for all ages, it has been considered a children's novel since the mid-twentieth century.

I have been reading it to my mother, now 93 and in a care home, because she read it as a child – and several times since – and she loves it.

The novel recounts the adventures of Anne Shirley, an orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who had intended to adopt a boy to help them on their farm in Prince Edward Island. She starts the novel aged 11 and ends it at 16, when she leaves school.

Anne of Green Gables has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into 20 languages. The book is taught to students around the world.

Why do I mention it? Because I was struck strongly by the difference in language level in this book and that of books published nowadays for similar age levels.

Here are two samples. Firstly, the opening:
"Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof."

And from a little further in:
"Anne started off irreproachable, arrayed in the stiff black-and-white sateen, which, while decent as regards length and certainly not open to the charge of skimpiness, contrived to emphasize every corner and angle of her thin figure. Her hat was a little, flat, glossy, new sailor, the extreme plainness of which had likewise much disappointed Anne, who had permitted herself secret visions of ribbon and flowers. The latter, however, were supplied before Anne reached the main road, for being confronted halfway down the lane with a golden frenzy of wind-stirred buttercups and a glory of wild roses, Anne promptly and liberally garlanded her hat with a heavy wreath of them. Whatever other people might have thought of the result it satisfied Anne, and she tripped gaily down the road, holding her ruddy head with its decoration of pink and yellow very proudly."
Nowadays, writers for children are offered a number of pieces of advice: 'show don't tell', 'keep the language simple' and so on. These texts break all of these rules, containing 'difficult' words, extended subordinate clauses, use of the passive tense, and more.

The opening does not feature the main protagonist, nor a dramatic or emotional hook.

Let's choose a modern book to contrast with this, also aimed at girls of a similar age, Shannon Hale's The Princess Academy. It opens like this:

"Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house’s stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day."
This does start with the protagonist, and contains no words longer than three syllables, and only one inverted sentence structure, with no other subordinate clauses.

There is nothing linguistically unusual about this passage either in relation to the rest of this book, nor to dozens of others published in recent decades and marketed to the same age bracket. None have anything approaching the complexity and subtlety of language which has helped make Anne of Green Gables such a success.

But I bet you anything that if this title were to be sent anonymously to modern editors or agents it wouldn't stand a chance of publication.

So my question to you is: why? What has happened in the intervening 108 years? Have the reading powers of 13 year olds worsened while their numbers have mushroomed? Have educational standards lapsed? Have editors deadened the stylistic inventiveness of writers?

Because whatever else you may say, the uncompromising linguistic complexity of Montgomery's work did nothing to dull its popularity – even if it may not be amongst the top ten books for contemporary young girls. And my mother, despite her dementia, can still follow raptly its complicated sub-clauses.

[David Thorpe is the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.]

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When William Shakespeare met the Gunpowder Plotters

As a contribution to the commemorations of the fourth centenary of the Bard's death, here are some facts and idle speculations, plus an imagined conversation...

Several of the conspirators in the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Protestant English Houses of Parliament in 1605 not only came from the Midlands, where Shakespeare and his Catholic family lived, but were related to the playwright – many of them his cousins.

So how much might Shakespeare have known of the plot?

Shakespeare's Catholic family

Robert Catesby, born in 1572, was the lead conspirator of the plot. He was William's cousin through his mother, Mary Arden. Mary was the daughter of Sir Thomas Tresham, and came from a well-known Roman Catholic family. She was second cousin to the father, William Arden, of Edward Arden, who in 1583 was sentenced for his part in another Catholic plot against Elizabeth I.

Edward was uncle to Catesby and Francis Tresham, another Gunpowder Plotter; both these plotters shared Catesby grandparents, Francis on the maternal side.

Robert Catesby recruited more of his cousins: Robert Wintour (born 1568), his brother Thomas (born three years later) and their half brother John. De facto, they were, too, cousins of William Shakespeare.

Robert Catesby was married to a niece of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, whom many biographers believe was William Shakespeare's first aristocratic patron.

His next patron, Henry Wriosthesley, Earl of Southampton, was arrested in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 (of which more below) along with co-plotters Catesby and Tresham.

It gets thicker, and the likelihood that the conspirators and Shakespeare knew each other greater.

William Shakespeare's daughter Judith married, and her brother-in-law Adrian Quiney was himself married to Eleanor Bushell, whose aunt Elizabeth Winter was the aunt of the three Winter brothers.

Furthermore, their sister Dorothea was married to another plotter, John Grant, who was the grandson of William Shakespeare's father John's business partner Edward Grant.

Lord Monteagle
Still with me? Now, the man credited with betraying the gunpowder conspiracy was another cousin. He was William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (born 1575, right), commonly known as Lord Monteagle. His wife Elizabeth was Francis' sister, the daughter of Sir Thomas Tresham and Muriel Throckmorton. They were of a wealthy Catholic family from Coughton Court in Warwickshire; Tresham had been Sir Robert's ward. He helped to organise Thomas Winter's mission to Spain in 1602, to win support from the Spanish crown for the plot.

Monteagle was 'turned' by Robert Cecil, the King's (and Queen Elizabeth's before him) head of security as Secretary of State, and was rewarded handsomely for his troubles. There is strong evidence for suspecting that Monteagle was not just a double agent, pretending to be a member of the conspirators while relaying everything back to Cecil so he could coordinate the sitting of Parliament and the 'discovery' of the plot to maximum effect, but also an agent provocateur who helped to buy the conspirators time when it took longer than expected to dig the tunnel, and obtain the gunpowder, which would have been very difficult to do otherwise since all gunpowder (a rare commodity) was held under licence by the government, and then get hold of the keys to the cellar beneath the Parliament hall when the plan to build the tunnel failed.

The context for the plot

Robert Cecil
The Gunpowder Plot was the most famous in a line of Catholic plots against the government, the most famous of which prior to that was the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in 1586. Just as now, with Islamic terror, and during the IRA mainland bombing campaign of the 1970s-80s, the state was on high alert for plots.

Sir Francis Walsingham was made responsible by Queen Elizabeth for setting up the first Secret Service and a network of paid informers, who would regularly inform upon one another. His agents tortured victims and suspects, and brought him notice of suspected Catholic plots. He was succeeded in 1590 by Robert Cecil, who became the first Earl of Salisbury, and the most powerful man in England when he was appointed the leading minister in 1598. After Elizabeth's death he went on to serve King James, the Catholic in whom the conspirators put so much faith that was not rewarded – quite the opposite.

What happened to the gunpowder?

Have you ever asked yourself why the gunpowder was not exhibited at the trial of the conspirators as evidence?

There was a minimum of 36 barrels, weighing 3,600 pounds or 1633kg – not a small amount. My theory is that it was because the government, which had a monopoly on gunpowder for its arsenal, had already had this precious commodity transported to Ireland to support their colonial programme.

The man who led this subjugation of Ireland was Sir Henry Bouncker, Monteagle's brother-in-law, followed by Henry's son and Monteagle's nephew – William.

The discovery of the plot occasioned a massive clampdown on Catholics everywhere, including seizure of their property, which enriched Cecil and his colleagues. Did you think it would be distributed to the poor?

Was Shakespeare aware of the plot?

Of course, the population was not great at that time, families contained many children, and it would be common for somebody to have many cousins. So it would not be statistically unusual for Shakespeare to be related to many people in his same social class, in the same geographical area. But would he have known the conspirators? And if he did, would he have been sympathetic?

William's father was a Catholic recusant who paid a huge amount in fines. He kept a priest hidden in a bolthole in his home to take confession. His sister married Thomas Habington, also a Roman Catholic. Most of Shakespeare's family were Catholic, and William himself was brought up a Catholic.

There has been much discussion about whether Shakespeare himself continued to be a Catholic throughout his life. His father's gardener in Stratford was a priest, and Shakespeare himself never wrote a good Protestant churchman in any of his plays, while his Jesuit priests are upstanding citizens. There is also no record of Shakespeare attending a Protestant communion service if he could help it.

Clopton House was the seat of the gunpowder conspiracy. Adjoining it was the Welcombe land where Shakespeare had acquired a freehold estate. Sir Hugh Clopton built New Place – bought by William Shakespeare in 1597 and the grandest house in town at the time. It was situated opposite the Catholic Guild Hall. It is easy to imagine, given this, that Shakespeare could have met at least some of the conspirators.

Three years before the plot was 'discovered', Shakespeare was involved obliquely in the Earl of Essex Affair, a Catholic uprising. The writer himself played John of Gaunt in a performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre, mocking the Queen's rule by implication.

His cousin Robert Catesby was so inspired by this that the following day he led the revolt in the Strand. William would have been heard to utter:
Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committest thy anointed body to the cure
Of those ‘physicians’ that first wounded thee.
Given what had happened to the members of his family, Shakespeare, a political animal to the last drop of his blood, would know better than most that it would be necessary, if he wanted to be successful at his prime passion, to conceal his Catholic leanings.

After the Essex affair he was very careful to do so, while his contemporary rival, Ben Jonson, became a Catholic and consorted with the plotters. Theatre was, after all, traditionally Catholic with its mystery and morality plays, and the Puritans hated theatre, calling it "the chapel of Satan". The pressure to be seen to conform could hardly have been higher.

Robert Southwell, the poet, martyr and another cousin of Shakespeare's, urged Shakespeare to use his talents to good ends: "In fables are often figured moral truths that covertly uttered are to the common good which, without masks, would not find so free a passage."

If Catesby met Shakespeare

I have made several attempts to turn the above research into a play or script. A play of mine with a title Plot! was performed by an amateur dramatic society in my then hometown of Machynlleth. This version interweaved the above story alongside another, of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, all set up by agents provocateurs, Catholics falsely imprisoned on terrorist charges. History repeats itself.

I still haven't arrived at a satisfactory draft, but in all versions I imagine a scene, perhaps on the border of the Welcombe and Clopton estates, in which Robert Catesby tries to persuade William Shakespeare to join their cause because he is aware of the power of theatre to motivate the crowds onto the conspirators' side, and because of Shakespeare's fame and influence.

In my imaginary conversation both Catesby and Shakespeare make their arguments for and against the plot using quotes from Shakespeare's own plays.

If such a conversation ever took place, William would have been far too canny to sympathise with Catesby's arguments. He knew the direction in which history was travelling, and he knew on which side his bread was buttered.

He might have responded to Catesby as follows:

SHAKESPEARE (as the Duke in Measure for Measure):
Thou knowest not what thou speak’st
Or else thou art suborn’d against his honour
In hateful practice...
  ...Someone hath set you on.

CATESBY: (Measure For Measure)
Be not so hot!
My business in this state 
Made me a looker-on here in ... London ...
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’errun the stew...

Your words fly up, your thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go!

CATESBY: (becoming angry: also Hamlet)
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action -

SHAKESPEARE: (triumphantly)
 - with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature!

CATESBY: (from MacBeth, which Shakespeare actually wrote just after the plot was discovered) 
Screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.

SHAKESPEARE: (MacBeth too) 
The attempt, and not the deed...
will confound the land...

CATESBY: (mocking; back to Hamlet) 
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their actions turn awry
And lose the name of action.

SHAKESPEARE: (sadly remembering his own father, whom this line is said to be about:)
...His beard was grizzled, no?
(answering self)
It was, as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silvered.

CATESBY: (seeking to capitalise on the emotion: Hamlet still)
Ay, murder most foul was it...
(not quoting)
Your very father, - for his Faith... as mine -
(quoting again)
That you, with wings as swift
As meditation, or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to his revenge.

Pause, while SHAKESPEARE recovers his wits.

SHAKESPEARE: (Softly: Merchant of Venice)
Mercy is above the sceptred sway...
It is an attribute of God himself
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

CATESBY: (contemptuously, last attempt: (Hamlet)
What a falling off is there!
             What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed?
...A thought which, quartered, hath but one part 
And ever three parts coward ...
Witness this army of such mass and charge 
ranked now with us -

SHAKESPEARE: (Closing the discussion: Measure For Measure)
Might but my bending down
Reprieve us from our fate, it should proceed.
I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death;
No word to save thee.

SHAKESPEARE walks sadly off. CATESBY watches him go.


My sources for all of this are many and varied. I spent some time in the British Library researching. Chief amongst the books are: The Gunpowder Plot by Hugh Ross Williamson, published by Faber in 1951; Shakespeare and Catholicism by H Matschumann and K Wentersdorf (NY, 1952). I know there have been more recent scholarly studies; a more recent one is The Heart of His Mystery: Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith in England by John Waterfield (2009). Here is a reasonable online deconstruction of the official story of the Gunpowder Plot, although it stops short of the conclusion to which it points, that Monteagle was an agent provocateur/double agent. Hugh Ross Williamson also dramatised the events above (minus Shakespeare) from a Catholic perspective in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, his 1951 play. I have it in an edition published in that year by Elek Books.

David Thorpe is the writer of the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It's 30 years since Chernobyl. Let's have a party!

It's 30 years since the world's worst nuclear accident. Something worth celebrating? Only if you have the darkest sense of humour.

But that is precisely what Doc Chaos has.

With such a dire subject – an accident that was the product of farcical behaviour within a maniacal industry – gallows humour is a perfectly legitimate response.

That's what I thought at the time and I still do. My response was to write my satirical novella: Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect. Published by Hooligan Press in 1988 and illustrated by the finest of comics artists at the time, it was a great success in the independent publishing world.

Front cover
Back cover

I donated the proceeds to the World Information Service on Energy, which campaigned then, and still does now, against nuclear power. They provided an afterword to that edition.

Four years ago the story was published in a new e-book edition together with a new Doc Chaos short story, The Last Laugh.

I continue to campaign against nuclear power and was recently invited to join the Nuclear Consulting Group.

One of its members has published an article to coincide with today's anniversary, assessing the death toll of the accident, in which he reaches the not very surprising conclusion: "[Chernobyl] raises the vexed question of trust in governments and international agencies, which, for many people, does not exist or has been eroded after Chernobyl and Fukushima."

No kidding.

Who is Doc Chaos? He's the radioactive peddler. As he says in The Last Laugh:
"The first time around, I gave them the promise of cheap energy and a Cold War that must have saved millions of lives. The second time, I gave them low carbon energy, and prolonged their illusions by a couple of decades. I play the long game. Don't worry I'll be back."
How can you trust the authorities when they are so gullible to the peddlers of nuclear technology like EDF, who promise the world and either fail to deliver or spike your drink with caesium. then try to reassure you that everything is just fine.

Later, the good doctor muses:
"I am the smiling conman, the artful bodger, the devil spawn of Prometheus, the quantum Quixote, the quixotic salesman with the quack cure, the fast-talking, fusion-pushing fantassin of plenty, peddling the fantasy of foison forever. And they bought it.
"'Do you remember,' I reminisce wistfully, 'How I persuaded them that despite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and terrorists running around with truckloads of depleted uranium, that I could save them from global warming?'
We share a gentle chuckle as the shadows lengthen.
'Those were the best of days... Feted at high level conferences, brokering billion-dollar deals, shafting the anti-nuclear do-gooders, sweet-talking the politicians.'"
The last laugh – you've got to have it.

You can buy Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect here

Is the end in sight for the Very Hungry Caterpillar?

Once upon a time, about 4,000,000,000 years ago, the world began, in the era called the Hadean. A very long time later came the human race, just 200,000 years ago, altering the planet forever as it spread.

From the beginning it's likely mums and dads told stories to their children, to preserve social memory and teach them what they needed to know to survive. These stories always changed over time according to need and circumstance.

It's suggested that we are now in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, that's to say an epoch overwhelmingly defined by the influence of one species over all other factors: ours. What influence, if any, is this having on the stories we give our children today?

Some of the writers on this website grew up reading stories published around or before the mid-20th century. This period is now being suggested as a likely candidate for the beginning of the Anthropocene, and this will be confirmed in a few months when the body set up to evaluate this (a working group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, sitting within the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), whose job is to set international standards for global geological time-scales), has finished sifting through the geological evidence for the start of the Anthropocene.

Since this epoch began, we have seen a vast increase in human population, from 2.5 to over 7 billion; an increase in mass extinctions; the deposition of nuclear isotopes around the world; and of plastic waste; climate change; massive destruction of natural habitats; mass resource extraction; and mass exodus from the countryside to cities.

This last represents the biggest change for children, since most children growing up now will not be near where the wild things are, but will be ringed by concrete, tarmac and cars.

This changes the way young readers will respond to the stories told just seventy years ago – even twenty years ago. When Rudyard Kipling wrote his Just So allegories, the rhinoceros, the leopard and the elephant weren't endangered.

Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling cover

When most meat for the table is battery-reared, a commodity in an industrial process, doesn't this turn picture books of farm animals in the farmyard into modern fairy stories?

Illustration for a Google farmyard app for children
Peddling nonsense to kids: an illustration for a Google farmyard app for children. What on earth has this to do with reality?

What are most children to make of forests featured in traditional fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, when they've never seen a real one? Perhaps they will never have the opportunity to even read these tales because publishers will no longer see them as relevant. Has this already happened? I don't know.

Hansel and Gretel peer out of the forest at the house of danger
Hansel and Gretel peer out of the forest at the house of danger.

Children in recent decades were treated to cautionary tales warning them of the impending danger of the extinction of big mammals and the destruction of rainforests. The guilt of adults was laid onto them with the vain hope that, when grown up, they might work to prevent the inevitable. Yet today, most of the trends that trace biodiversity remain travelling in the wrong direction.

RainForest by Helen Cowcher

For children, tales of anthropomorphic animals offer the chance to objectivise human emotions and traits – but say little about the animals themselves. Tales of dark forests present opportunities to confront subconscious fears. Stories set in wild nature nurture a fantastic imagination.

But all three types of story at least place humans within the planetary context, a biosphere, an ecology within which we play just one part among millions.

The Anthropocene, if it is a useful concept at all, reminds us that we have tended to see the rest of the world as just a reflection of ourselves, there if not for us to plunder, then to entertain us, that we regard ourselves as the most important and dominant species on the planet. What hubris! What a change from the stories our distant ancestors and tribal people told their children, which nurtured respect for the wild world around them.

But if we are to save nature, and therefore ourselves, then we must first empathise with nature, on its own terms, not on ours. I've written before about some of the great books that do this.

But this post is asking a different question: are modern published books for young readers whose experience of the world is largely urban interiors, vehicles and digital entertainment now being set primarily in this world, because that is what they recognise? Or is a fake nostalgia for a way of life now gone (if ever there) being peddled by editors and publishers?

I wrote in my novel Hybrids about how we are becoming enmeshed with technology. Modern children, from the day of their conception, grow within a lacework of electronic connectivity, becoming quickly familiar with the means to extend their sensory and social reach to the far side of a world that they do not yet appreciate.

The system that they perceive to be supporting them is as much virtual as tangible, vibrating with the power of circuitry, translucent filaments of data threatening to fuse with their nerves and dendrils, seeming more immediate and visceral than the mesh of life itself – our perfect atmosphere, the churning soil, the miracle of life that is distant from the street, seen as just a thin strip of blue above and between the buildings, ragged pigeons squabbling on the windowsill, a windowbox.

Storybooks for young readers: should they then reflect this reality? Are they doing already? I don't know.

But if so, one can imagine a scene a few decades hence, in a warmer and more impoverished world: a child picking up an ancient, well-thumbed copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, found in a dusty box in attic belonging to a grandparent, and asking: "Mummy, what's a caterpillar?"

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Goodbye house

When the childhood home is gone, a part of your childhood leaves too.

This month I have to clear out my parents' house ready for sale – the house I grew up in and which I have been visiting ever since.

With some help from my cousin and his wife, I clear out the patterns of family life that had accrued over 58 years. It is both physically and emotionally gruelling.

The bedroom I occupied as a child is, now, nothing like it was when I inhabited it. But the shades of those times have lingered.

Out of the corner of my eye, or in the dim twilight, I can watch the ghosts of our former selves going about their business, engaged in their familiar habits.

It is in the nature of habits to strive to live long after they are needed.

A house has its own habits: the timing and the manner of the closing and opening of curtains; the operation of doors and windows; the simple management of cookers and washing machines.

A child experiences these habits as the given scaffolding supporting its life, unquestioned. An adult maintains the habits without much thought.

As the possessions disperse from the house, as my father's paintings leave the walls and the furniture is lifted off the floors, their impressions remain, paler or darker shapes, the evidence of their former existence. Cobwebs and dust are revealed to admonish the change.

The rooms look bigger. Voices echo. The light is harsher.

The child within me wanders around the house trying to make sense of it.

He finds schoolwork and project work he had forgotten about. He sniffs his grandmother's compact case, kept all these years by his mother, and suddenly she is there again after thirty years, brought to life by the scent of her.

It's what happened in the house. All the good times and the not so good.

Collections of material are unearthed that once interested him. He wonders if any modern collectors would want them, rejects the idea and they are cast into the recycling pile.

Every object in the house is sifted and a spontaneous decision made: to keep or to abandon? The weight of responsibility feels huge.

It is not the objects themselves, but the stories they represent. It is not the house itself but the shifting pattern of relationships it reveals.

The stories of the objects are held in the minds of those who knew them and lived with them. They die when those people die. To anyone else, these objects are just objects, with no further meaning. To know the stories is to know the meaning of the objects.

I think of the antiques emporia and the car boot sales around the country which are full of such objects now bereft of their stories, that nobody knows any more. They are in search of new stories.

It's the good times I want to remember.

As I dismantle the house, I feel that I am murdering the stories that are embodied within it, one by one.

Here is where I first wrote and decided I wanted to be a writer. Here is where I sat up in bed late at night, scribbling in my notebooks.

I would read by torchlight under my bed clothes when my parents thought I was asleep. Look: here is the space where my books and comics collection once lived.

A new family will live here. I've met them. There is a 12 year old girl. She is very bright.

When it emerged that I was a writer she was very interested. I gave her my last novel, Stormteller, and she began reading it straightaway.

She will create her own stories in this house. She will read late at night under the bed clothes.

Who knows? Perhaps she will become a writer too.

Perhaps that is the real habit of this house: to nurture writers.

Goodbye, house.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Call of the Wild

An argument in eight parts:


January is the time of year for soul-searching questions about one's life in the future, yet questions like these are asked constantly by teenagers all the year round: Why am I here? Why am I not more popular? Why am I not more beautiful/fit/clever/likeable? How will I pass these exams? How can I bear to go to school tomorrow knowing that those people detest me so much? What can I do about my enemies? Why does nobody understand me? Why am I so alone?


Things get too straight
I can't bear it
I feel stuck, stuck on a pin
I'm trying to break in
But I know it's not for me
And the sight of it all
Makes me sad and ill
That's when I want - some weird sin
Just to relax with
Yeah, some dumb, weird sin
For a while anyway
With my head on the ledge
That's what you get out on the edge.

 Some Weird Sin – Lyrics by Iggy Pop

The song describes the feeling of alienation, when all the choices available to you are no good. The pressure's too much, you need an escape, a way out, otherwise you will explode.

What could it be?


Self-harm, eating disorders, poor mental health, suicidal feelings, porn addiction, the huge obesity problem, alcohol and drug abuse, mobile phone/screen addiction. The list goes on. Pressures on children and teenagers are greater than they ever have been. The effect of this is seen in statistics on the increasing prevalence amongst children and teenagers of damaging behaviour.

In a UNICEF study released in 2007, the UK came bottom of a list ranking industrialised nations in terms of child wellbeing.

Yet despite all of this, many youngsters still courageously manage to achieve higher grades than ever before and are opting for healthy diets.

But whichever choice they make, the need for an escape is crucial when children and teenagers feel powerless and under pressure, as they too often do.

Where can they go?


"How has childhood become so unnatural? Children are enclosed indoors, caged and shut out of the green and vivid world in ways unthinkable a generation ago.

"[Seeking the answer to] the riddle took me to the spirit of childhood... the importance of woodland for the psyche; the secret world of a child's soul where the stories of childhood are whistled with a deft and fragile panache of poetry."

– from Jay Griffith's introduction to her incredible book about childhood and the need for the wild, of which Philip Pullman said: "Kith could have been written by no one but Jay Griffiths. She has the same visionary understanding of childhood that we find in Blake and Wordsworth. Her work isn't just good - it's necessary." (It's also published as A Country Called Childhood.)


"I used to love reading to my children at bedtime. The song about Mike TV's fate in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a favourite. In it, Dahl vents his wrath on the hated television: 'They sit and stare and stare and sit until the hypnotised by it.' ... What would Roald Dahl think now?

"The need to be close to nature is in our DNA... Wildlife Trusts work with many children to reverse the trend of young people not having access to the wild: in schools, in parks, in wild places. A wild childhood is good for health, well-being and nature. We want every child to be wild."

Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts in her editorial in the latest issue of the publication Natural World. (Coming events for children are listed here.)


If you are a teenager, what do you think about when you're lying in bed trying to sleep? What kinds of thoughts go round and round in your head when you are waiting in queues, walking, commuting? Would they be your worries, your troubles, the demons of self-doubt? How can you avoid their persistent nagging?

One way that is not self-damaging is to escape into stories you are reading. You imagine yourself as the protagonist of a great adventure, misunderstood, vilified, ignored or even obstructed by authorities, but determined to overcome every obstacle with your special powers to achieve success. So much more empowering, distracting and fun than to be dragged down into the dark, hopeless swamp of your own psyche.

Some of the children doing this may even make up their own stories and become the writers of tomorrow.

The Awakening of Childhood Heroes by Charlotte Soileh


When I am lying in bed trying to sleep, or when I am waiting in queues, driving, cycling or commuting, I spend hours solving the problems that my writerly life has set me: problems of plot, research, character, tone and structure. If I did not do this I do not know what would occupy my mind except the interminable, grotesque treadmill of self-doubts.

And when that fails, too, you can find me in the woods at the end of my garden, in the hills, by the sea.

In the wild.

Me kayaking in the stunning Mawddach Estuary
This is why I wrote The One Planet Life and why my kids grew up in and love the Woodcraft Folk.


“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.

"This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.”
― Jack London, The Call of the Wild

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Monday, January 11, 2016

In Memory of David Bowie

David, I loved you so much.

He was the chameleon
Changed with every day
He was the one I liked to remind me of
He dreamed himself up, came from Mars
Fell to Earth with a Venusian woman
Sold us the World and made it his home
And we all fell in love
With Aladdin Sane and the blinding white Duke.

The odd eyes had it, Supercreepy
He uplifted us, we were all Stardust
We only danced Outside, lovers by the Wall.
He sped through life, not all Hunky Dory
Low times hit, we were scared by the Monsters
The stranger from suburbia became a Young American
Reality rusted the Tin Machine
Post the Last Day it's Ashes to Ashes

But Major Tom orbits on.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

We need more writers who can make us feel

In November, fellow author Dianne Hofmeyr posted her response to the Paris terrorist attacks with a picture of bicycle locks.

The repercussions of the attacks led to the following Sunday's planned marches about climate change in the city being banned.

The organisers of the march instead asked people to place shoes where they would have marched. This led to the following image, one amongst many photographs that were taken on the day.
“The shoes are marching for us” @nicoleghio via Twitter
In the context of the loss of life caused by the terrorist attacks the sight of these empty shoes takes on an added poignancy.

Children and teenagers were either directly or indirectly affected by these attacks. Children and teenagers are also affected by the war conducted by and against ISIL. They are affected by climate change too.

To say that writers and artists cannot address social issues like these in their work is pointless. Social issues affect children in as many ways as they affect adults but children lack the conceptual apparatus to contextualise and understand them.

Both of the above pictures remind me of artwork by Ai Weiwei that I saw at his Royal Academy exhibition, which I visited after I went on the climate change march in London in December.

For example this piece contains hundreds of steel reinforcing bars, straightened after being mangled and twisted in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the number of bars corresponding to the number of victims, whose names are listed on the wall behind.

And, continuing the bicycle theme begun by Dianne Hofmeyr, this is a chandelier made from bicycles:

In all cases, repetition serves to reinforce the message, adding weight to the impact.

There was controversy surrounding the choice of David Almond's novel A Song for Ella Grey for the Guardian children's fiction prize, just as there often is for the Carnegie Medal children's book prize, because the winning books frequently address social issues.

Anyone who thinks that books for children that address social issues should not win literary prizes does not appreciate what it is like to be a child these days.

Whether directly – at home, on the streets and in the playground – or indirectly – on their screens – children are exposed to violence, drugs, crime, sex, exploitation, commercial pressures, manipulation, pollution, ugliness, danger and a whole Pandora's box of other pressures.

What should children do?

Most children strive to understand what they are experiencing. Unfortunately they don't always get the opportunity to discuss what is troubling them with either their friends or adults.

At least if they see that writers and artists are addressing these issues, this can help them think about them in new ways. They can find catharsis by empathising with stories that make them cry and laugh. Reading these books can provide a jumping off point for discussion too.

Children, and teenagers especially, worry more than anything else about whether what they are experiencing in their minds is "normal" or if there is somehow something wrong with them.

Again, art and books can help them to find an answer.

Even in fantasy and so-called escapist fiction, true to life characters can be found who struggle with problems that their readers can and do relate to. Often it's easier to relate to characters in fantasy novels or films, because they are removed from close-by reality.

At the rally in Westminster at the culmination of the climate change march, the enlightened organisers put poets and singers on the bill. But of course.

It was incredibly moving to see and hear Kate Tempest reading her new poem ‘Europe Is Lost’. Hundreds of young people were there to hear her. It actually made me cry. She is a poet for the new generation.

pic from @KateTempest

Almond's books move me too. His latest is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was the greatest poet of his time who had to suffer enormous loss in order to find poetic truth. It is probably my favourite myth.

Now, more than ever before, we need writers and artists to articulate what we feel.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.