Political Language And Why The Words We Use Matter

In which I talk about dragons and fascists.

At time of writing, a suspect is in custody for the murder of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The details of the atrocity are gut-wrenching and difficult for decent people to contemplate.  Equally hard to accept is the slow-dawning realisation that this may well be the new normal.

Across western society, we are having to fight battles we thought we’d won, ones we thought we’d never have to fight again.

There are numerous causes.  Hate-filled demagogues.  The Communication Age giving a voice to people who probably shouldn’t be empowered.  The disillusion of those who are finding it impossible to adjust to the 21st century.

But all this leads towards one outcome: the normalisation of things that in past times were so far beyond the pale they wouldn’t be discussed in polite society.  (“Mainstreaming’, in a piece of jargon – something I will get on to shortly.)

And key to that normalisation is the use of words.

When I began writing my urban fantasy series, Age of Misrule, about ancient myth and legend transforming the modern world, I began with one very key decision.  I’d be using some familiar tropes.  Concepts that we all know extremely well from childhood through the fairytales and mythic stories that we’re told almost from the moment when we understand what a story is.

As an author, this created problems for me.  These fantastic ideas would be so familiar to readers they came pre-loaded with assumptions, descriptions and prejudices.  In my books I wanted them to be seen with new eyes – the wonder caused by the shock of the unfamiliar – and free of any symbolism and metaphor so I could use them in my own way.

So I could give them the meaning I wanted to convey.

That’s why I decided to call them by unfamiliar names.  Dragons were Fabulous Beasts.  Vampires were the Baobhan Sith, the blood-drinking supernatural figures of Irish mythology.  And so on, with all the other core concepts of myth and legend.

Hopefully all those preconceptions would be re-set as readers tried to work out who the Baobhan Sith are, say.  It seemed to work.  The books sold all over the globe, and are still selling.

It’s an important lesson.  Tell someone the thing they thought they knew well is now called this new name, and they re-set their opinions.  They start working out how it now fits into their own worldview.

This is how fascism becomes just another strand of the Left-Right political battle, rather than a reprehensible philosophy that caused the death of millions.

The term Alt-Right is key.  It’s thrown around in the media as if it’s simply another strand of Conservatism, harder edged, more pure, something that young men (usually) can jump on to to appear cool when they can’t get girls, or boys.

The Alt-Right is, as Wikipedia tells us, “a grouping of white supremacists/white nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-Confederates, Holocaust deniers…and other far-right[2][3][4] fringe hate groups.”

Nazis like Hitler.  Fascists who slaughtered Jews in their death camps.

Does Alt-Right make you think of that?  No, it makes you think of some sub-genre of music that all the cool kids like.

Don’t use Alt-Right.  You’re helping them win.  You, you and you.  And, yes, you, CNN, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the other media organisations.

Words are not about what they mean.  They’re about what they make you feel.

The name Incel – Involuntarily Celibate – was self-selected by boys who can’t get girls and feel very sad about it.  That one word allows them to become a movement, disenfranchised victims who should be treated like any other minority.  It allows them to terrorise women – as a right.  To ‘mainstream’ hatred and even to justify murder.  One word.  Because without that word, everyone everywhere has their perception of who and what they really are.  They’re very clever, mainstreaming their own troubles.  It gives them legitimate reasons to both feel bad and be collective victims of a societal problem.

Revenge Porn.  We all know what that is, right?  It’s there in those two words.  Porn – “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Wikipedia again).  Porn – a bit dirty, but a bit good too, yes?  ‘Arousal’.

Except it’s Domestic Violence.  The psychological abuse of a woman, and sometimes a man.  Not so kinky now, is it?  Not so much arousal.

Stop calling it Revenge Porn.  Call it Domestic Violence.  Then we’ll feel it, instead of grasping to understand it.

This goes much wider and deeper.

People used to fighting political battles understand each other.  They use a shared language, packed with technical terms.  And while they have no problem with understanding, and while the public may generally know what the jargon means, it doesn’t have the gut-punch of a well-used word. It doesn’t convey meaning.

Anti-semitism is seemingly the root cause of the atrocity in Pittsburgh, and was a major issue on the other side of the Atlantic all this year with allegations levelled at the British Labour Party.

We know what antisemitism is.  But we don’t feel it, do we?  Call it Jew Hate, then we get it.

Many of us know what misogyny is.  It’s a term bandied around by political campaigners in the UK and US.  Talk to people on the street, and they know it’s bad, in that detached I-kind-of-understand-what-that-means way.  Call it Woman Hate, then they get it.

Words matter.  All writers know that.  But they matter more than any of us may realise in shaping the society we live in, and the one we want to live in.  George Orwell understood it when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Let’s re-learn that lesson so we don’t have to keep re-fighting old battles.

Into The Wilds

The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.

We all need to return to that natural state from time to time – if not, too much sanity will drive us mad.  It’s particularly important for creative people.  This is how you tap into the unconscious where stories and art and music are borne.

It won’t happen naturally.  How you do it is down to you – I have many ways that work for me.  One is to make sure I get away into the wilds a few times a year.  Trek across wind-swept moors where there’s not a soul around for miles.  Sleep under the stars.  Dive into the ocean and let the swell carry you.  The Wild forces the front-brain to switch off.

And when you do, you start to see strands of myth all around you – like the installation above. And myth is the way the Wild communicates directly with the unconscious – the real – you.

I took this photo at the Eden Project (Motto: Transformation: it’s in our nature) on a recent journey through Cornwall, one of my favourite places.  If you want to see more of what I do in my life, make sure you follow me on Instagram.

The Stories We Need To Tell Ourselves

There is a shiny red apple filled with poison and a crone with eyes like steel. There is a virginal girl as pure as snow, a sleep like death, and a kiss that wakes her into a new life of Happy Ever After.

This tale has survived from ancient times because it was always more than just entertainment. It was an instruction for living.

We’re moving into a new age now, one of unparalleled and accelerating technological change. Every aspect of our existence is being transformed. Hang around in the coffee shops and bars and you will catch murmurs of unease. Old friends are vanishing by the day. Familiar, comforting ways of doing things lost. Nowhere seems safe.

Never has there been a more important time for stories that instruct and guide and explain. A new narrative for a new age.

Read it all here, by me, on Medium.

Get Pendragon At A Knock-down Price

If you’ve ever considered trying the work of my pseudonym, James Wilde, now’s a good time.  Until the end of January, Amazon is offering Pendragon for just 99p as part of the Kindle Monthly Deals.  That’s a whopping £14 saving.  Will appeal to anyone who likes Game of Thrones, Arthurian myth, Age of Misrule, and historical fiction.  Here’s the link.

The blurb:

Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…

It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.
But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world – a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde – in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.

A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon.

A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself – each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.

Why We Need Camelot

Arthurian lore is stitched deeply into my new book, Pendragon, published in just a few short days.  This is a story-telling tradition that may well go back one thousand five hundred years.  Perhaps even longer, if – as some think – Arthur was not a real, historical figure but based on a mythic hero arising out of tales of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld of gods and magical beings.

Arthur matches the promise embedded in T H White’s title, The Once and Future King, by returning time and again in fireside tales, books, films, radio dramas, comics, and in every one slightly reinvented to speak to the concerns of the time in which the story is being told.  That’s because Arthur’s true importance is as a symbol, rather than as an historical figure.

And it’s a consideration of this element which lies at the heart of my telling: why do we need the myth of King Arthur so much that we keep bringing him back in new forms?

Pendragon is set one hundred years before Arthur was supposed to have lived and looks at how the man, the legend, both entwined, might have arisen out of historical events.  It’s decidedly and defiantly different from the Arthurian fiction you may be used to – no re-telling of oft-told tales.  All the familiar elements are there, but we come at them from oblique angles in the hope that the reader might see them in a new light.  In that way it’s a meditation on the meaning of King Arthur, as much as being about Arthur himself.

Or as the review from Parmenion Books says:

Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.

This constant reinvention of Arthur is a turbulent process, but the anchors remain the same to hold the idea fast – Excalibur, Camelot, the Round Table and the rest.  And they too are symbols, more powerful than their mundane appearance suggests.

Folklore speaks to why we keep calling Arthur back into our world.  He is the hero who sleeps beneath the hill with his loyal band of followers, waiting to be summoned in the hour of England’s – or the world’s – greatest need.  The saviour.  The ideal.  The non-religious symbol of something greater than ourselves that speaks to the highest callings – of service, of sacrifice, of the values, the striving for goodness, that bind us all together.

There are times when we need Camelot more than ever.

This is one of them, I think.

The UK has never been more divided.  The US too.  Divided socially, politically, geographically, financially, divided in how we see ourselves, in our purpose.  It’s important to look to greater principles to find those ties that bind, if divisions are ever to be overcome.

And lest we forget, symbols are more powerful than words, more powerful indeed than the men and women who purport to lead us.  Countries which marshall their national symbols thrive.  Those which don’t, struggle.  The USA, a country built on symbols, now almost wholly communicates with them.  From images of an eagle, or stars and stripes, or the gunslinger standing alone in desolate landscape, we understand very complex, multi-faceted ideas about the philosophy of that nation.  And that communication is more powerful than anything when the USA is selling itself across the world.

King Arthur is also a symbol of Britain.  He sells a layered but powerful idea of who we are as a nation.  As we edge out into an uncertain world, we need that too.

Winter Stories

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Winter is a time for imagination.  For reflection.  For stories.  We bolt the door and huddle around the fire, listening to the voices whispering in the chimney.  Ghosts, of the past year, of the family members we’ve lost, of ancient ancestors.  Ghosts as metaphor, ghosts as memory, ghosts as the very essence of all we fear, and sometimes all we desire.

Tuesday December 22 is the Winter Solstice, when the sunlight hours are barely there and the night reaches on and on.  It’s a time I value.  The traditions.  Crouching next to the warmth and mulling on things gone, and things yet to come.

Today the last deep coal mine in Britain closed.  Soon there will be ghosts of entire industries.  King Coal used to rule round these parts.  I remember my grandfather telling me of the ghosts of dead miners that haunted the long, lonely tunnels.  When they were working alone, sometimes the men would hear these spirits knocking, or calling out, urging the living to join them in the dark.  The tales weren’t peculiar to this area.  As far as I can tell, they existed all over the country, and in tin mines as well as coal mines.  Nobody will hear the dead miners any more.  But they will echo on in the stories, as they do in this one I tell you, which will live on in your head, and, perhaps, be passed on by your tongue.  The stories never die.

We’ve been thinking about this for a long time.  The primary axis of Stonehenge is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, as is the entrance tunnel to the neolithic monument at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.  This moment has always been important to us.

Here in the old Kingdom of Mercia, ghosts flicker in the forest that presses tight around my house.  Along the old Roman road that curves around my boundary hedge.  I listen to what they say, and I learn.

Tree-climbing Carnivore Rabbits And Other Monsters

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We tell ourselves stories all the time. Some are real and some are not, but they all help us make sense of the world.  I’ve always been particularly interested in the stories of folklore, really, since I was a child leafing through my parents books.  They’re very peculiar, folkloric tales, existing in some misty area between fact and fiction – because there was always someone, at some point, who swore they were true.

And folklore is a living storytelling experience.  Some of those tales go back hundreds, even thousands, of years.  But others are being invented all the time.

I live in an area that was once, in part, a blasted industrial landscape.  In some villages, waves of coal dust swept halfway up houses, spread by lorries trundling from the pits.  Many of the coal mines and their tunnels are so old, they’re unmapped.  Some date back to Roman times.  But now the area has returned to the greenwood.  That photo above shows the trees encroaching on the path of a former industrial train line.

The pits were capped, evidence of the mines washed away.  But they’re not forgotten.  Recently, stories have emerged of carnivore rabbits which climb trees to attack squirrels.  There have been several sightings, apparently.  These are, allegedly, the offspring of rabbits which originally found their way to the underground tunnels and were forced to adopt new behaviours to survive.  One of these included learning to love the flesh of rats to prevent themselves starving.  Now they’ve found their way back to the surface.

We also have a ‘black panther’, one of the Alien Big Cats (ABCs) which are regularly reported in different parts of the UK.  Private zoo escapees, natural species that have never been tamed – there are plenty of attempts at explanations.  The Beast of Bodmin is probably the most famous.  Our local cat has been seen several times, travelling along the old, abandoned train lines, like the one above.  In this way it can cover a wide area while keeping a wide berth of people.

There’s probably an entire thesis or two to be written about what these tales tell us about ourselves.  But I’ll just settle for the intrusion of the magical and otherworldly into the mundane.

And just as a reminder, The Eternal ebook will be going on-sale next week, but you can pre-order it at a ridiculously knockdown price.  Here’s the UK link.  Here’s the US and world link.

The Wind In The Willows And The Voice Of Old Gods

Memories are strange.  When I look back on my childhood, I remember scenes from books as potently as the real, mundane things that happened to me, as if I lived them with the characters, walking a few steps behind.  The groves of Middle Earth.  The coal-dusted backstreets of Swadlincote.  I swear they were on the same map, and I wandered in and out of both.  I recall the smell of them both, how things tasted, the quality of the light.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is a book that I now realise had a big, big influence on my life.  It was less the story of Mole, Ratty and Toad, I can see now, and more the world they inhabited.  A rural idyll long-lost to the modern industrial world, a bucolic landscape where it was still possible for the uncanny to exist only a step or two away.

And the key chapter was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where (and…sigh…spoilers) Pan appears to the animal characters.

‘Oh Mole! the beauty of it!  The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!  Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!…’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed.  ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’

As a child, I found that chapter haunting and strange.  Strange because it had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet there it was.  And strange because even though it was a narrative cul-de-sac it affected me so deeply.

Animals had their own gods?

And yet it wasn’t even that oblique revelation.  It was the feeling that magic could intrude on the world I knew.  That it was there, in the woods, under the hedgerows.  A power in nature.  Something very old, and alien, and entrancing, and sometimes frightening.

I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I enjoy the urban life.  But I still get a frisson when I visit the wild, as I regularly do.  The moors, the coast, the mountains, even the lanes that wind around my home.  Those are my cathedrals.

And clearly I wasn’t the only one to recognise the power in that chapter.  At infant school, when our class read through The Wind in the Willows, we skipped The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  My nine-year-old self was baffled.  I tried to get some sense out of my teacher, a man who loved books and encouraged my wider reading.  He hinted at the reason, but seemed incapable of giving me a full explanation.  Now I realise it was a Church of England school, a state school where the church was allowed some influence in the education.  The Church didn’t want the children reflecting on that chapter at all.  I guess, in their own muddle-headed way, they were right: words have an alchemical  power.

But I do wonder if we hadn’t skipped that chapter, and if it hadn’t been flagged up to me that here was something potentially…dangerous?…the Great God Pan might have stayed with Mole and Ratty.

As it was, those authorities made sure his voice rang through clearly.  And I can still hear the pan-pipes today.