AJ Reid

Notes from the Paradise Peninsula

Category: Politics

The Horseman’s Dream: A Tale of Conspiracy, Corruption, Cruelty and Conditioning in Post-Disaster Britain

Fifteen years ago, I had the idea for this book in the waiting room of an MOT garage.  Usually, I move quickly through projects: done and on to the next one.  But not this one.

When I began writing it, I had no idea that the duration of my protagonist’s exile would match the time it would take me to complete the book.  I like to think that I would have carried on regardless had I realised, but fifteen years is a long time.  Happily, I can now stop worrying too much, because it’s finally finished, edited and ready for a printing press.  No doubt there will be some who won’t like it and to those people, I can only apologise, because this is fifteen years of me doing my best to say something that might be worth your time.  It’s about something intangible, yet powerful, like the scent you catch in the air every now and then that makes your heart swell with nostalgia or the child’s smile that brings a tear to your eye.  It’s about something good that still exists in a bad world.  Like the lone snowdrop on the rubbish tip, this beauty will always find a way.   This is the best story I can come up with to frame the notion of a force within all of us that can survive anything: grief, addiction, trauma, enslavement, conditioning and, in near-future Britannia, even a natural disaster and the rise of a terrifying new brand of fascism.

An early map for The Horseman’s Dream, showing how the British Isles have been reduced to a tiny archipelago by a near-extinction level natural disaster.

When I came up with the idea for the story, I had a job working late shifts in a local restaurant and that morning, I could barely face sunlight, I was so tired. I poured a styrofoam cup of scorched coffee from the MOT garage’s grotty percolator and sat down to check out the reading material on the table. Next to the mountain of Heat, Hello, Ok!, Cosmopolitan, Loaded et al sat a pristine hardback of the Holy Bible. The juxtaposition of the literature seemed absurd, even more so when flicking between them. It made me consider how human consciousness might have evolved over two millenia, if at all.

Two years earlier, 9/11 had brought religious fundamentalism into the spotlight with an event that was truly shocking to witness live on TV. It felt unreal, like a waking nightmare. I’d stood on top of one of the buildings a year previously and the memory made me shiver. A toxin was leaking into my bloodstream through the television as I watched these hellish events unfold. It was tough to escape the feeling that somebody had crafted this nightmare for a specific purpose: to alter the consciousness of the world, to upset the balance to serve their own ambitions, whatever they might be. Someone had turned down the dimmer switch for humanity and all its higher virtues, leaving us all suspended in a darkness, not of physical light, but of the spirit.

I set down the literature and drank my coffee, none too keen to wriggle any further down the rabbit-hole without more caffeine. I could feel The Horseman’s Dream rumbling in the distance or so I thought. Turned out to be my car failing its MOT on a knackered exhaust.

I was thinking about my experience at Ground Zero, where it was all no longer just on the TV.  Since I had been booked for label showcases in New York before 9/11, I assumed that they would be cancelled, but I was wrong.  They went ahead anyway in the November.  Getting on a plane became a totally different proposition overnight.  Twitchy faces seemed riveted to their headrests, casting anxious glances at their fellow travellers and security checks both in arrivals and departures took so long that you could see the weariest visibly ageing as they stood in line.  It wasn’t just the time it took or the draining effect of air travel: they had been poisoned like me.  They were afflicted by the same sadness that took control of the veins, arteries, nerves, muscles and ligaments, not just the brain or the heart.  A genuine malaise that saw altruism and other romantic imperatives smeared from the collective consciousness and replaced with a cold objectivism.

An early impression of what the broadcasting corporation’s logo might look like.

Reading the tributes amidst the still-rising smoke and dust at Ground Zero was harrowing.  As a young man, I had been looking forward to writing stuff that would comfort people and encourage them to be kinder to each other, to make the world a more interesting, peaceful place.  It suddenly seemed a most naive, childish ambition, and my motivation to write faltered badly during the following two years.

The Horseman’s Dream was the idea that broke the drought.  My styrofoam coffee cup now empty, I scribbled as many notes as I could fit within the confines of Ben Affleck’s forehead, before I had to move on to Jennifer Aniston’s dress on the next page of the magazine.  I inconspicuously removed the notated pages and stuffed them into my pocket before diving back to the Bible.   Flipping it open randomly landed me in Revelations.

I remembered that feeling of apocalyptic dread as I watched the Twin Towers fall on television. It made me wonder whether the apocalypse would take the form of something so awfully spectacular in the physical world or whether the apocalypse of the soul would be the thing to finish us off. This imperceptible parasite travelling through airwaves and feeding on higher virtue seemed to me to be a grave, real danger and it was clear that we had all been affected by it.  Infected by it.

I still like this idea for a cover. What do you think?

I took the idea of a reality TV mogul rising to power and using media and technology to control and ultimately destroy the minds of a population to achieve complete dominance.  I had always been disturbed by the incredible influence that the media has over people, but post 9/11, it became an assault rather than an influence.  Something wasn’t right. And that pristine passport.  Building 7.  Temperatures required to melt steel beams.  I don’t know if you remember, but people were openly talking about these things in polite company.  I remember when the phrase “conspiracy theory” wasn’t dirty, laced with ridicule or used to undermine alternative opinions and ideas.  The manipulation of that phrase became a source of suspicion in itself.  Conspiracy theories about conspiracy theory.  To the shadowy forces at the helm of this dark vessel cleaving through the waves of the collective consciousness, tampering with crime scenes seemed like more of an afterthought.  Their real quarry seemed to be our very souls and it was jaw-dropping to see truth and logic escape from family and friends as they belched and regurgitated the desired narrative, becoming more exhausted and enraged by cognitive dissonance by the day.

This was the beginning of fake news as we now know it.  The parasite no longer lived only in the airwaves, now it had fibre-optic broadband and the ability to create hate, confusion, polarisation and foster narcissism, cruelty and desensitisation in anyone on the planet in microseconds.

Fortunately for the resistance, short wave radio still works in Britannia.

And it’s still working.  The ego is inextricably entwined with social media in a way that TV, radio and print has never been, creating more profound lacerations to the user’s psyche and generating slow-burning, but dark consequences for our society.  A week ago, a seven-year-old boy was slashed with a knife only a few miles from my home.  I recently received death threats for intervening to prevent a woman being verbally and physically assaulted by four men outside a local bar.  The hunt is still on for the man who thrust a pint glass into someone’s face at the bottom of my road a few weeks ago.  Not far from the supermarket, a running street battle with machetes took place last month, resulting in some horrific injuries.   And in true Ballardian fashion, someone recently smashed up a police mental health support vehicle while the officers were in a nearby house, attending to an emergency call.

And all the while, funding for health and emergency services is being strangled to death.  Or to privatisation, I should say.

I don’t think it takes a genius to see that someone is conducting a symphony of chaos from the wings.

The arrival of dreck like the Jeremy Kyle Show and X-Factor fed the parasite, which had found its natural home online for the reasons outlined above.  These programmes were designed to appeal to the lowest aspects of our humanity: merely an update of the Victorian freak show, so that people could give air to their desperate need to sneer at the pathetic plights and dreams of the poor, vulnerable and mentally-ill.  Like a self-sufficient, perpetual eco-cycle, the circus continues ever apace, gathering more momentum every day under the watch of leaders who care nothing for us and everything for their offshore bank accounts.

And all this before I’ve even mentioned Brexit.

The Horseman’s Dream became a revenge story for the meek and a tale of justice for the abused.  A protest against faceless, psychopathic corporations controlling our governments and our minds.  The perpetrators would see their own cruel weapons turned against them amidst the howl of trumpets from the skies.  I wrote that the horsemen would not come as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, but in the form of an institutionalised, 16-year-old catatonic.  His weapon would not be a flaming sword or burning bow, but something else altogether more nebulous and abstract.

Years later, when a coiffured tangerine was elected as the most powerful political leader in the world, I knew that The Horseman’s Dream was coming true.  I worried about Alice Grosvenor being a  “pantomime” antagonist until I saw this guy delivering his address from the White House as if he had won an episode of Big Brother (somewhat ironically – George Orwell would have had much to say about this hot mess we live in, I’m sure).

Political Reform: Wheel of Fortune Edition

The polarisation of the public in the UK and the USA continues to worsen, aided by technology and social media to create wider and deeper contamination and control of our people. It’s highly recommended to be a hustler, a playa, a gangsta, an outright narcissist or a gold-digger in our culture: anything else and you’re “weak”.  The sneering attitudes fertilised by reality TV (or reality “programming” could be more apt) have become the norm, while the wretched mantra of the staunch objectivist might as well be tattooed on our foreheads: “I’m alright, Jack.”

As a protest and admonition against that, I wanted to create a shrivelled, cruel near-future where a tipping point has been reached: a world where kindness, honour, loyalty, compassion and altruism would finally be rewarded by a mysterious cosmic power operating outside of the grimy reach of the Establishment. A power that makes their attempts to control others appear quite ridiculous and futile. A power that meets their unkindness with a vengeance a thousand times more powerful than anything they could muster. A power to whom we could all be grateful for liberating us from our slavemasters’ thrall.

When I finally finished the novel last year, I went through a stringent drafting process and reluctantly let go of about 30,000 words, leaving the final draft at 75,000.  In a fit of childish enthusiasm, I offered the manuscript to Will Self after attending one of his lectures in Liverpool and he was gracious enough to accept it.  It was an exciting moment for me until I returned to my car and realised what I had done: I had just given a manuscript to one of the most complex, capable (and acidic) novelists ever for a review.  I never knew I harboured such masochistic tendencies.  What did I expect? What a ludicrous notion that he might even read it.  A novelist of Will Self’s level has much more important stuff to do than read my twaddle.  I blushed even though I was alone and drove home, cursing myself as an idiot for most of the journey.

Alternate Cover

I put the episode out of my mind until a few weeks later when I received an email from Professor Self. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared of opening an email.  I needn’t have worried: he was most polite.  It wasn’t the “kind of thing he usually read”, but he said it was “full of fascinating ideas” and said that he would speak to someone who might be interested.  Although I’ve not heard back since, I’m still relieved that I wasn’t completely eviscerated, at least.  Just having one of the finest novelists of the last century read my work at all gave me a confidence boost, which has since been bolstered again by a few tough beta-readers who have come back to me with enthusiastic reviews.

I’ve been knocking together a few ringbound proofs in anticipation of the next step, which is to print a short run of paperbacks to sell from the website and perhaps the odd art/book fair here and there in a bid to remain as independent as possible.  If you can’t wait and would like a ringbound proof, email me and we’ll work something out.  Readers have bartered beer, guitar strings, homegrown vegetables and cigars so far, all of which I will continue to accept as tender until the paperback is released.

Ringbound proofs with holographic foil covers.

If you have any thoughts on any of the above, feel free to put them in the comments or send me an email.

Misprints feel like such a waste, so I deployed Arthur here as a beta reader.

If you’d like to read a few snippets The Horseman’s Dream (and others) and check out some weird doodles, click here

If you’d like to read the odd sarcastic tweet or see some nice art (I RT a lot of paintings/photography), go here

If you would like to be kept up to date on release dates and special offers, sign up to my mailing list by clicking here 

Lots of love,
AJ

 

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Visiting Ypres at 13 Years Old

Monday marked the 100th anniversay of the start of the “third battle of Ypres”: Passchendaele.  This poem and piece of music is my tribute to all those who died in the trenches.  Sent over the top as fodder to the Maschinengewehrs, often packed with amphetamines to quell their terror, some as young as 13 years old, raced and palpitated towards a lonely, painful death in the mud and barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

I remember the atmosphere on the coach heading towards the trenches we were due to visit on the first day of our week-long school trip: laughing, play-fighting, general high spirits.  The mood upon our return to the bus was silent shock.  No-one spoke to each other: we just filed back on to the bus and sat in our seats in silence until one boy burst into floods of tears.  No-one laughed at him because most felt the same way, including myself.

It felt as if some kind of shadow had crept into my young bones or gas into my unsullied lungs.  Some of the lungs and hearts were only the same age as ours when they had been stilled by a machine gun round or a cloud of gas.  They had ceased to be people: used only as meat.  I was horrified then and I’m no less horrified now.  Their training, physical condition, intelligence or raw bravery made no difference to their chances of survival once they went over the top.  They might as well have been stepping off the edge of the world, launching themselves into a cold, airless vacuum.

I’m not sure if my History teachers intended the trip to have this effect, but I set about learning why these boys had been hurled into a meat grinder in the way that they were.  What I discovered has led to a lifelong mistrust of hierarchy, a hatred of propaganda and a yearning for meritocracy and diplomacy.  How’s the fight going, you ask?  Turn on the TV, read a newspaper or click on social media.  Depressing, right?  Nodding your head solemnly at remembrance ceremonies doesn’t make you patriotic and is not going to prevent this happening again.   I’ve marched in enough remembrance parades at Hamilton Square to realise this.   Diplomacy, intelligent research/debate and a refusal to be drawn to our basest instincts would be of much more use.  Although, when I posited this to a newspaper editor, he told me that any newspaper selling virtue over scandal would fold within a week.

War is big business.  Don’t ever underestimate how cruel humans can be when they are corrupted by money/power.  Let’s all keep fighting the warmongers, instead of each other.

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The Tory Commandments

1. You shall have no other Gods except her nibs.
 
2. You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it, unless it’s good for the economy.
 
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, unless you’re really desperate during an election campaign.
 
4. You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.  Be sure to remind any zero-hours, minimum wage plebs working for you that day.
 
5. Respect your father and mother, especially when the dementia tax comes into effect.
 
6. You must not commit murder, but selling arms to extremist regimes to bomb kids in schools and hospitals is by proxy, so it’s fine.
 
7. You must not commit adultery unless it’s with a dead pig’s head.
 
8. You must not steal, unless you’re stealing from an entire country and it’s really, really worth it.
 
9. You must not give false evidence against your neighbour, but we’ll always let this one slide if you work for Uncle Rupert.
 
10. You must not be envious of your neighbour’s goods, but if you are, you can always redistribute publicly owned assets in two-for-one deals for your family and friends.
 
 
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Oh, Snap. A General Election.

Everyone’s seen for themselves what a polarising and destructive force the media can be. Hopefully, we’re all a bit more savvy this time around and won’t fall into the trap of attacking each other for the sake of appearing dominant on social media (how empty does your life have to be?).  Yeah, right.
I hate New Labour as much as I hate the Tories. It’s not a partisan thing. I have both left and right views on various issues, but I don’t like being lied to, manipulated or controlled so that politicians, bankers, arms dealers, pharmaceutical companies or other major corporations can continue “gaming” the system to line their pockets at the expense of people at home and abroad. We’ve been told that there’s no money for the NHS, yet local councillors are pocketing six-figure salaries for doing piss-all. Even worse, further cuts have been given to corporations who are taking millions from the British public, but paying disproportionately small amounts back into the coffers.
 
It’s all a big con. We’ve known it for a long time and I think we should encourage radical changes for the well-being of our country. Don’t believe sensationalist crap that you see online, in the newspapers or on the gogglebox. Talk to people around you in good humour, with fairness and humility over a cuppa, and try to examine what you know to be true, moreso than what you speculate to be the case. We all want the same thing: a happy and peaceful future for our loved ones with plenty of opportunity to earn, learn and freedom to pursue the things that make us feel alive.
 
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