Neither is this one

... and in the end, the problem with the blog turned out to be a sodding virus. This was finally proved by the fate of one poor person's laptop (sorry Kate), which got melted. Thankfully, the laptop seems to now be working again, and after three hours last night spent re-installing stuff and hand-cutting the virus code out of the many php files where it had insinuated itself, the blog does, too. So for my third waste of time that you'll never get back, I'd like to add the evil, thieving, brain-dead little fuckers who write viruses. As a Mac-user, I'd forgotten just how destructive the work of these empathy-less sociopaths could be.

And if you're out there writing one, just imagine - you might be able to crash someone's computer when they're on the edge of a breakdown, helping push them over the edge. You might even be able to steal the hundred bucks someone needs to avoid foreclosure this month. Just think how proud you'll be!

Virus-writers of the world, give yourself a big hand.




This is not a proper post

No really, it's not. Feel free to go back to whatever you were doing. I'm just slinging up a post to see whether doing so fixes one of the borkednesses about this blog at the moment, which a week or so ago suddenly started looking like the output of a deranged mind - and then wouldn't let me log into fix it.

Having replaced most of the Wordpress bits and pieces, it has started working again, but still looks borked on the originanl theme I had, while working fine on some others - which is why it now has this somewhat functional look about it. I have no idea why this might be, but in my fuzzy, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" kind of way, I'm throwing up a quick post to see whether that straightens out any oddness in the SQL database which I believe holds the actual posts. Though I may be wrong on that. There may be an elf hidden somewhere on the Internet whose job it is to remember everything I say. Poor little bastard. No idea why the problems started in the first place. It could have been cyber-falfeasance (some people have been getting a virus warning, though I suspect that's just the php files being weird), or the new build of Wordpress breaking some custom themes… or it could have just "gone wrong", in that ineffable way computery things sometimes do. I don't know. I'll probably never know. Ah well.

While I'm here, here's a couple othert sources of lost time that you'll never get back:

1. Children who won't leave one place for another. The forty minutes it can take to get a kid to put his or her ****ing shoes on before they leave the house; or the fifteen minutes you may stand in a drizzly carpark while they clamber into the front seat and experiment with the horn while you smile tightly at the passing parents of better-behaved children.

2. Telephone menu systems. I would so respect a company that put up a message saying "We're too cheap to hire enough customer reps, so please call back at three am," instead of sitting you there on the line for twenty minutes while getting you to input your account number and select from thirty diffierent options to better help them serve you… only to eventually wind up with someone who is blissfully unaware of all of those choices, treating you with a total lack of preconception which might be delightful in other circumstances but is a screaming pain in the brain when you've just wasted a chunk of your life stabbing your finger on a dial pad.

Both pretty obvious. So - what are some of yours?



Yes, Insanely Great

I’m sitting with a Macbook Air on my lap. My iPad is close by, as is my son’s iPod Touch, and my iPhone. The latter is no surprise. I have my iPhone with me at all times. Unless I’m actually in the shower, then if I’m awake it’s within a yard of me at the most. I make or receive hardly any phone calls. The device isn’t about communicating, at least not for me. It’s far bigger than that. It enshrines my entire life – my attempts to organize myself, my fascination with the English language and attempts to learn others, stuff about the countries I’m living in or wish to visit, my news about the world, the music I listen to, the photos I take...

But you know the score. You’ve probably got an iPhone too (though you may not own over two thousand apps). The iPhone is a very recent love affair and  obsession, however, if you’re a long-term Apple diehard. I wrote my first short story by hand back in 1987. After that, from the second story onwards, every single thing I’ve written has been on a Mac. My father scored a Mac Plus on an academic subsidy, and it ended up under my control almost immediately (he knew I’d started to harbor ambitions to write, and quietly let me have the thing, with the subtle kindness that’s always been his hallmark). That was back in the days when you could put the entire OS, a word processor and your files on a single 400k disk. The first Mac I encountered was running, I believe, System 4.2 – I certainly recall System 5 coming in, and being a big deal. I kept using the machine at home to write stories, and then, when the company where I worked as a day job decided to bring the magazine they produced in-house, I convinced them to do it on a Mac, in the face of spirited and bitter resistance from the deputy director, who wanted to do it on some piece of crap called 3b2 (which quickly vanished without trace). Since then, in two decades, I don't think a day has gone by when I haven't used one.

I spent a number of years supporting myself as a half-assed designer, coasting solely on the fact that few people realized how easy the Mac made tasks that had previously been hard and time-consuming. I did colour work on a greyscale screen – that's all there was. I used Photoshop and Quark when they didn’t have numbers after them, when you’d set the former to do a simple Gaussian blur on a small image, go off for lunch, and find it had still barely started on your return. I scammed typefaces from setting bureaus. I sent off for shareware disks from America – the mecca of all things Mac. I went on a comedy tour of US universities immediately after college, and the most exciting thing that happened was at Harvard when I managed to score a disk with some new sounds for SoundMaster. I spent hours and hours using ResEdit to hack the system, including trying to allocate individual icons to folder when it was all in black and white (and it was actually impossible, it turned out). When I side-stepped and started to screenwrite for a living instead, it was on a Mac. I wrote my first novel on it (and all subsequent ones). I even wrote a story on a Newton, for God's sake. I rediscovered how much I like music through the iPod – early-adopting, as always, from the very first one. I like to think I have personally funded the research and development of at least one tiny Apple innovation, down the years.

And when the iPhone and the iPad came along I thought hell yesthis is what I’ve been waiting for. More than once has it been pointed out to me that a device I put into my first novel, ONLY FORWARD, bears quite a resemblance to the iPhone. Throwing out that kind of idea in fiction – and I was nowhere near the first – is easy. Actually making the thing happen... that takes a Steve Jobs. Anyone can speculate the future. He made it so.

I met my future wife when I went to work for her as a graphic designer. I later put my marriage proposal together... on a Mac.

I could go on and on about the way to which the Mac OS and Apple products are bedded into my personal timeline, but I’m sure you get the picture. If you’re a Mac user and have Apple in the blood, it’s doubtless been the same for you. I make no apologies for the personal nature of this piece, because something the anti-Apple brigade have simply never understood is how unbelievably personally Apple people do take their computers. We love our Macs, love them to bits, and we always have. Some of us have been with Apple for a very long time, weathering the dustbowl years when there was little or no software, when they were outlandishly expensive and crashed the whole time, when the company seemed to be losing its way and falling apart.

The faithful stood firm – and yes, when it comes to Apple, the parallel with a religion is wholly apt – and felt justifiably triumphant when the company came back from the dead and kicked the tech world’s ass. It's still kicking it. It doesn’t matter that the adverts are sometimes kind of annoying and that a touch of West Coast smugness creeps in from time to time. What matters is that the company represents a unique way of joining technology and design, beauty and functionality, fearsome power and effortless ease of use... into products that became central to our existence. Jobs was sometimes exasperatedly accused of operating a ‘reality distortion field’, but the fact is that yes, he really did change our realities. Apple – and Steve Jobs in particular – turned the computer into something we want at the core of our lives, rather than merely tolerate there. That's the step from the past into the future. Jobs was the guy who got us here.

The near future seems a lot less bright tonight. It doesn’t seem as easy to believe that something new and insanely great will always be just around the corner. The next few years will show whether Jobs was able to leave enough of a legacy to keep Apple lighting up our personal and working lives with nuggets of wonderful technology – and if there’s someone with the vision and bloody-mindedness to steer the ship after him. I hope so.

In the meantime, RIP Steve Jobs, sleep well: thank you for all the very cool stuff, and also for changing my life.



Not Being Here Now

A few nights ago I watched a fascinating program called “My Life As A Turkey”, about a man named Joe Hutto. Hutto is (amongst other things) a hardcore method naturalist, and this drama-documentary detailed a period back in 1995 when he lived as the 'mother' of a brood of endangered wild turkeys — an experience he wrote about in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on order) but the documentary was spell-binding, an hour in the company of a rather extraordinary man.

One of the most striking things evoked by his experiences was how, while he was fully-integrated with the brood and operating as one of them, it was as though Hutto’s entire environment (the flatlands of Northern Florida) unfolded and opened up to him — as if the other creatures basically took the turkeys’ word for it that this tall, denim-clad dude was, effectively, a turkey, and behaved as they would as if a human wasn’t around. Deer played in his presence, larking around with the young turkeys. From glimpsing a handful of rattlesnakes a year, Hutto started running into them every day. By removing himself from humankind and going wild turkey, he stepped through a hidden door into another world, as an equal.

When the brood eventually split up and moved away, this passport was rapidly withdrawn. The other animals faded back into invisibility, once more shunning man as the animal-who-is-no-longer-an-animal. There was something heart-breaking about this process, and you couldn’t help believing that mankind as a whole was once more like this, integrated with our ecosystem and environment — living the kind of lives we hear of in legend and dismiss now as fantasy: and that our myths and old animal gods and modern bonds with pets speak of a deep and wistful yearning for when the whole world was this way.

The other insight Hutto focussed on was how the turkeys lived in the here and now, rather than ‘betraying the moment’ (his phrase) by casting their consciousness back or forward in time. This a far more commonplace observation (humankind’s tendency not to live in the moment is well-documented, and addressed with varying degrees of failure by a very large and profitable self-help industry) but it struck me for the first time how there’s now an added dimension.

We don’t just betray the moment any more. We betray place too.

Living out of time is an ancient human trait, probably the one that got us where we are today (for better or worse). It’s part of the educating and socialising of children from a very early age, after all — encouraging them to endure present tedium for alleged future benefits. Grill a five year old about their day at school and they soon learn to mutter a meaningless ‘Fine’, knowing a response is expected but unable to comprehend why anyone would care about something that happened somewhere else and at another time. Virtually everything that happens within the education system after that (and in the workplace, and life in general) is a sustained exercise in moment-betrayal. Living in somewhere other than our present locale, however — at first very occasionally through the written word, and then the telephone, and now continually via email, tweet and status update — is a more recent gift from our technologies (themselves a function of transcending the moment, the realisation that ‘it would be cooler tomorrow if we could...’), and one which takes us a dramatic step further from authentic existence.

From being in the here-and-now, we are headed toward forever being there, and then... and arguably this does not constitute ‘being’ at all, at least in the old sense. We are twice-dislocated from reality, bedded neither in time nor place.

When we experience the moment or thought, we’re being: but as soon as we start to compose the tweet describing it, we’re doing this other thing. If our minds are continually on what we’re doing in ten minutes' time, or with the utterances of distant strangers... then who or what is actually left here, in this space taken up by our bodies? Will there come a point when it is more convenient to simply park them somewhere comfortable while our consciousness flits across space and time, inhabiting every spot in creation except for the one where our corporeal form waits, experiencing the here and now quietly by itself? I realise this is a time-worn science fiction trope, but I’m not talking about sf. I’m talking about the way things are, right now. The future never presents the way stories say it will. We have no doors that briskly swish-thupp as they slide open and close. There are no hover cars overhead, nor robots with amusing insights into the human condition. We have laptops and smartphones instead, and actually leaving this ball of rock in a physical sense will merely be a matter of degree. We’ve already left the planet behind.

And that’s okay, and many fine things may come of it, but it’s also strange:

Goodbye, body, farewell — I will always be elsewhere now. But don’t worry, I’ll let you know where I am via status update, email and tweet: virtual postcards from anywhere but here.

Anyway. My point is that I’m going to compound this trend in my own small way by starting another Tumblr while I’m in the US — for stuff encountered while at large in Northern California. It will be found here, won’t start until the second half of August, may be brain-meltingly dull...

... and if you’d rather ignore it altogether and talk to the person next to you instead, you have my whole-hearted support.



The Sons of the Fathers

I'm off doing events in Manchester (tonight, 7:00), Glasgow (Thursday) and Belfast (Friday) this week, as tomorrow marks the official UK publication of my new novel, KILLER MOVE. The book is set in Florida, specifically in Sarasota and Longboat Key. This is an area I know pretty well from my childhood, albeit as a vacation destination — I grew up in the US until I was seven, mainly in Florida, and at some point started taking trips to Lido Key, the next island down from Longboat. This continued into my early and mid-teens, by which time we were living back in England.

We always stayed at a motel called the Lido Beach Inn, a classic of its kind: U-shaped, two storey, open to the beach at the end, a swimming pool between the arms. For somewhere that we can only have stayed for a few weeks in total during my life, it left me (and my sister, who by co-incidence is on vacation in Florida right now) with a number of very resonant memories.

I can remember going for banner meals at the Columbia Restaurant at St Armands Circle, a small and celebrated local chain that also has an outpost in St Augustine. I always had the black bean soup and the 1905 Salad, the dressing of which I painstakingly learned how to reproduce many years later. I can remember getting sunburned to a degree that would now have my mother handcuffed and hauled off in disgrace for crimes against juvenile skin — causing a fury of itching that turned more than one night into an endless wakeful purgatory — but that’s how we rolled, back then: sun lotion was for influencing the colour of your tan, not protection. I can remember being woken early each morning, too early, by my newshound father catching up on the early morning television news (a novelty to him, as England had no television before late afternoon in those days). I remember playing table tennis on the motel’s ramshackle table, a brief respite from the sun. I can remember turning a somersault in the pool and coming up to find my nose bleeding profusely — an indication that (a) it probably wasn’t such a hot idea to do that kind of thing when more-or-less straight off a plane and (b) I was already getting older. I remember long visits to the Ringling Museum, and getting burned to crap then, too. I can remember on later trips taking my very first and very early driving lessons in the parking lot, being allowed to reverse the car out of its space, turn it around and pull it up to the front of the motel. I remember encountering pineapple on a pizza, a typically ‘Floribbean’ culinary flourish that was strikingly controversial at the time.

I can remember walking endlessly along the beach, of course, looking for sand dollars, and what happened if you turned and headed left. This led you along an increasingly less developed stretch of the shore line, past a more upmarket hotel, and then eventually — when the tide was out, and you could get around the point — to the still-wild lower section of the island, a jungle place of scrabby trees and overgrown creek inlets that’s little-changed since early man first rocked up to that part of the North American continent, said “This place looks pretty chilled,” and then sat around inventing Margaritas and waiting for Jimmy Buffet to evolve.

For a long time these indelible mental postcards from the 1970s were all I had, but then, a couple of years ago, I went back. After a two-day stay in Disneyworld (during which my son was flamboyantly jetlagged and doggedly bad-tempered) we drove on down and stayed at a condo resort on Longboat Key. Two things struck me about the experience — which led, in large part, to my coming up with the story for KILLER MOVE.

The first is how things change, of course. St Armands Circle actually looks pretty much the same (including, thankfully, the Columbia Restaurant), but other things have vanished, or appeared. For years there was a large abandoned hotel not far from the Circle, whose looming form I always found wholly fascinating. There’s a new hotel there now. More shockingly, the Lido Beach Inn is gone, too. It’s hard to even locate its former site, but I eventually worked it out. There’s a small condo development on the spot, and even that doesn’t look sparkling new. Bill Moore, the main character in KILLER MOVE, goes through the same process of searching and recollection, seeing Lido Key through my eyes, or perhaps it’s vice versa. It’s very strange to stand on an emotionally-charged spot knowing that your younger self stood there too, with no inkling of the future passing of a later version of himself, one with a wife and a child and a grey hair or two, a man with deadlines and regrets and achievements, a man whose mother (she of the lackadaisical suntan regime, though to be fair it’s never easy to get kids to use the stuff, and she was unimprovable in every other way), is nearly ten years gone.

Strange, too, to stand on a street near a site that is so very charged in your recollection, and there be no sign of it, as if it had only ever been a dream. But it wasn’t a dream, or if it was, it’s still going on. There is still the heat, after all, and punishing humidity, and the air of cheerful dilapidation that’s characteristic of old Florida, especially on the coast. Pelicans still trace the waterline on their way home at the end of the day. The people are still relaxed and friendly and wearing deplorable shirts. The trees are still hung with Spanish Moss, like the ghostly remnants of some long-ago festivity. You can still buy bean dip and guacamole and tortilla chips, and eat them, your skin tingling, as you watch the sun go down.

You can go home again, in fact — and that’s because you are home. I can still visit the Lido Beach Inn if I want. It doesn’t have to exist. The world may change and erode and re-configure, but stored away in your emotional responses is every state of being that you have experienced, along with the facts about the world as they then stood. Within the museum of your mind, and your relationships to the people who really matter, is home.

The second thing that struck me is how these and other early experiences of America left me with a bond to the country — a connection which is leading this August, at the grand old age of forty six, to our family leaving London to spend a year in California. I’m aware, a little uncomfortably, that this adventure may have the same effect on my son as my childhood did on me, and that (many years from now, or perhaps only a few) he may wind up making the same journey across the Atlantic, looking for his memories.

When he does so I hope that he finds, amidst all the things that will have changed in the meantime, that some remain the same: that he is loved, and that he is happy, and I hope that should he happen to pass his younger self on the street one day, both are broadly content with what they have done.

I’d like to dedicate this post to my father, who’ll be seventy five in a week's time. I sincerely hope that when — and if — I get to that age, my son is as happy with the choices I’m making now as I am with the ones my dad made over forty years ago.