Writer of Speculative Fiction and Masher of Notes for the Broken-Hearted

Category: Wirral

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

It’s taken me nearly 20 years to write The Horseman’s Dream: its origins lying somewhere in the ashes of the Twin Towers and the ensuing maelstrom of disinformation.  It’s about something good that still exists in a bad world.  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.

I started writing it in late 2002 in an MOT garage. I poured a styrofoam cup of scorched coffee from the percolator and sat down to check out the reading material. Next to the mountain of Heat, Hello, Ok!, Cosmopolitan and Loaded 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 remembered 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.

Back in the MOT garage, 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.

The words reminded me of the apocalyptic dread I’d felt 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 something more esoteric. 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 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.  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.

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.  What did I expect? What a ludicrous notion that he might even read it.  

Alternate Cover

I put the episode out of my mind until a few weeks later when I received an email from Will (him)Self. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared of opening an email.  I needn’t have worried: he was polite.  It wasn’t the “kind of thing he usually read”, but he said it was “full of fascinating ideas”.

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

UPDATE April 2020: Get your download of The Horseman’s Dream here.

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Who is Dianne Doyle?

Dianne Doyle is the antagonist of my novella A Smaller Hell: based on a department store manager I worked with.  She used to get kicks out of reprimanding staff and subverting our relationships.  A maestro of negativity, she’d often lure us into making mistakes, just so that she could degrade us.

The longer I worked there, the more intriguing she became.  She used the workplace hierarchy for her own ends, few of which were concerned with profit margins.

This, and certain other experiences led me to study psychology in a bid to demystify cruelty.  When writing A Smaller Hell, I took an example of a philanthropist in Joseph Williamson and summoned him in the founder of the department store: Commander Clarence Tanner.  The idea was to have Dianne Doyle be a personification of corporate psychopathy in contrast to Tanner’s long-standing philanthropist.

I find it creepy when people say something morally dubious is “good for the economy”, as if it were an idol we should worship. Tanner was the antithesis of that and the waning of his philosophy in the world scares me.

Dianne Doyle is the face that I’ve given to those fears: a mischievous authoritarian, whose greatest act of deception unfolds to reveal that:

“The Devil can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing.” – Robert Louis StevensonFacebooktwitterredditpinterest

Heswall Graveyard

Heswall shore: a muddy beach/marsh in the north west of England that will always be in my heart.  As well as being my playground since I was a little boy, I’ve worked, fought, bled, cried, fallen in love and broken up there.

When I was a personal trainer, I used to have a client who was a wealthy venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager.  He employed me for a few years and we became good friends, always interspersing our workouts with  conversation about allsorts of things.  Being in the type of job he was in and having that kind of money, he was well-travelled and would regale me with stories of derring-do from far-flung corners of the globe on a regular basis.  One day, we were taking a break from interval sprints, overlooking the Dee estuary, and he said something to me that has stayed with me ever since:

 

‘That’s still the best view in the world.’

‘Because it’s home?’

‘Not just that: there’s nowhere else like it.  Lots of places look like other places.  This doesn’t look like anywhere else.’

 

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I’d never taken the views for granted, nor the wildlife.  Foxes, bats, herons, peregrine falcons, hen harriers and short-eared owls are just some of the wonderful creatures that can be spotted and heard.  There’s always something to look at, including the wrecks that make up the infamous Heswall graveyard.  Weathered dreams set in fibreglass and good intentions caked in mud and marsh grass left to disintegrate.  Some people complain, but if it’s such an ugly sight, how come we see so many intrepid photographers holding their tripods aloft like soldiers with rifles as they cross the perilous mud, leaping the gutters and sinking thigh-deep on a mis-step?  Personally, I love it all before I even look up at the Welsh moels and moors tapering into the Irish Sea near the lighthouse at Talacre: a view which reaches its zenith as the sun is going down.Facebooktwitterredditpinterest

The Shed of Revelations

Occasionally, a few friends and I undertake clean-up operations on the local beach. It was during one such outing when we discovered this mysterious thing.  

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We went a little closer to investigate and found something odd:

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No-one knew what to make of it.  

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Someone had meticulously stitched pages of the Bible – mostly from the book of Revelations – with fishing line and suspended them from what remained of the ceiling.  Some had been sewn into surrounding bushes, vines and roots, also.

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We stood in silence as the pages fluttered in the summer evening breeze, the sunlight catching the pages and creating strange shadows on the collapsing walls of the shed.  Someone finally spoke up:

‘What does it mean?’

No-one answered.

That night, I dreamt about the shed of Revelations.  The next day I knocked on the door of the house that was nearest the shed.  A lady answered and I asked if she knew anything about what we’d seen the day before.  She grew pale and denied any knowledge of it at all before slamming the door in my face.

What happened to it?

The next day, it was gone, sadly.  Not just the fishing line and the pages from the Bible, but the whole shed razed to the ground.

It was frustrating, because I would have liked to find out what would drive someone to go to all that trouble.  On the other hand, the fact that it was only there for a day or two made it all the more mysterious.  Was it meant to be art?  A message?  A creative cry for help?  A warning, even?

I suppose we’ll never know …

If you’d like to know how the mystery influenced a dystopian/existential/psychological horror novel, check out The Horseman’s Dream.

“Full of fascinating ideas” – Will Self
“Shockingly prescient” – Paul F (beta reader)
“One of the best books I’ve read in ages. I really love the pace of it and it just completely sucked me in. Barely noticed where we were and that last line was so poignant.” – Jade G (beta reader)


Learn more about Wirral’s mysteries and dark legends here.

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Wirral: The Paradise Peninsula

Over The water. The Dark Side. The One-Eyed City.

The Wirral is a strange place: a peninsula onto which you venture, rather than into. Argue this one with the natives at your peril. Beautiful landscapes and Viking history make up as large a part of its identity as shipbuilding, promenades, pop music and now, (2020 edit) Coronavirus.

Curiously polarised by time, towns which appear sleepy and civilised by day become havens of hedonism by night. Despite (or maybe because of) living on three-quarters of an island within an island, escapism is a priority.  Some natives insist that they most certainly are keeping up with the Jones and everything is fine.  The good ones (of which there are many) just don’t care, but a conspicuous few, drunk on our narcissistic mainstream culture, act out their reality TV fantasies in public to terrifying effect. Sometimes, life on the Paradise Peninsula is downright surreal, almost as if its geography intensifies the drawbacks and benefits of small-town life. Like a magnifying glass to the merits and madness.

At 18, I was working in a local restaurant and fell in love with a waitress.  We started a relationship and suddenly, the princely local rugby players became a problem.  Every time they would leer at her or make a comment, I would have to keep my mouth shut and continue working.  Many was the wine glass cracked by rage polishing.

A few snotty rugger buggers is one thing, but a national/premier league footballer is quite another.  My girlfriend told me that he got her number from the management and phoned her up to offer private “football lessons”. I asked him if he’d like a private boxing lesson, which he declined. I lost my job, kept some dignity and never forgot that people will often choose to side with money/fame/power over doing what’s right.

This is just a small vignette of the sociopathy acted out by the self-appointed royalty of the Wirral.  The footballer’s entitled behaviour echoes archaic rights for the privileged, as per jus primae noctis.  More currently, it brings to mind austerity, the clampdown on our civil liberties, the hourly infringements on our privacy and many more bigger-picture problems that exist in Britain right now, courtesy of the elite classes who are terrified of the word meritocracy, but swear up and down that they believe in social mobility.

So, I wrote A Smaller Hell, examining small-town hierarchies through a department store in Birkenhead, representing the split-personality of the Wirral, and Dianne Doyle, the kind of person who would seek to exploit and perpetuate it for her own amusement.  I wanted my first novella to reflect my fear of how low people are willing to go when they’re rich and bored.  Dianne Doyle is an enigma: she’s something far worse than what she appears to be, but as Robert Louis Stevenson said, The Devil can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing,

Having said all this, you can see why many call this the Paradise Peninsula. Most of the photographs below were taken on the southern coastline, but there are myriad beauty spots all over the Wirral.

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attractions-g1420760-Activities-c57-Wirral_Merseyside_England.html

Come and visit us soon, but don’t feed the footballers.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. – John Milton

 

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Adventures on the Paradise Peninsula

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The Boatyard

The wind howls up the slipway, clinking through the sleeping masts of the sick and dying vessels, bringing with it the defining scent of my childhood summers: salt, mud and a hint of sewage.  The yard – like its inhabitants – is unkempt, but highly functional.  By day, tattoos quiver on weather-beaten hides all round the yard, under the strain of ropes, chocks and barrels.  Faces more accustomed to snarling into the sea wind clasp frail rollies between their lips and mutter antique expletives as their gnarled 60 year-old hands take on tasks that would challenge men four decades their junior.  There is no shortage of laughter between the men, but it is not given away – especially when the job might cost them fingers if they turn their head for half a second.

 

107It’s all about mud down here.  Without wellies, you’re only half a man, a teaboy, a landlubber. No-one minds if you don’t have a boat, but if you don’t get stuck in the mud at some point, you’re just not one of the gang.  If you fall over in it, extra kudos is given, depending on your reaction.  A decent bloody wound is valuable currency, especially if you’ve sustained it helping someone else out with their boat.  Once again though, one must be careful not to undermine such currency with inappropriate reaction.  Whilst moving a trimaran downriver one rainy Saturday, I made the mistake of mentioning Tetanus after slicing my hand open.  Conversation trailed off pretty quickly in the dinghy on our way back to shore, until Goz struck up a shanty to save me the social embarrassment.  The sheer profusion of blood from the wound on to my boots and a hearty rendition of “Leave Her, Johnny” was enough to absolve me from my sin until we reached the boat yard again, whereupon I slinked off to apply Germolene from my first-aid kit while no-one was looking.

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