Fernweh, homesickness, and the ever-elusive Here-and-Now

The Germans have some smashing words, Fernweh being one of them. Fern = far away, distant, and Weh = pain or woe. It means that you’re homesick for a place you haven’t necessarily been. Very Sturm und Drang.

I experience something similar, or in between, with England and Wales. Neither of them is my country, and yet… Gah. If Britain were a person, it would be “the one that got away”. It’s always there, like an evil siren, pretending to be something it’s not. Calling to me with memories whose silver nitrate sheen has nothing to do with truth. I know my image of the place is very different from the reality of living there, but there’s no accounting for childhood impressions. You feel what you feel.

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But I can also get homesick for the place I actually am. Filled with yearning for the present moment. When something is so overwhelmingly good in a banal sort of way, and yet impossible to handle or reach or know what to do with, because feelings are unwieldy beasts and my brain is too small for their limitless nature. How many times have I asked myself when I’ve actually been in England or Wales, “How do you wrap a whole country in your arms? How do you hug this sceptered fucking isle?” And the answer, of course, is that you don’t. You can’t. A country is vast, and you are small. We’re not built for it.

Except… we are. Humans, for all their flaws, have one redeeming feature: artistic expression. Through this one divine spark, we can touch something like the truth.

Which brings me to this little gif. I know posting it borders on creepiness, since it depicts such vulnerability. But it’s also the perfect illustration for what I’m trying to say in this post. How do you embrace something that’s a thousand times bigger than you? The only way is through music, through writing, through art. You don’t try to hold it for longer than it takes you to play it, describe it, or paint it. You accept it, and let it wreak its havoc with you because really, there’s no alternative unless you want an ulcer. Life is a fleeting moment of euphoric dread. Those who feel it deeply can touch fingertips through the very best of us who have the gift to make it tangible.

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”Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” (Much Ado About Nothing, 2.iii).

In this case it’s Sibelius who provokes the reaction, but for me it’s always Elgar. The man whose auditive paintbrush is dipped not in the darkness of a Finnish forest, but in the misty green of rolling English hills. Who somehow looked into my soul before I was born and wrote the music that described my homesickness for a place I can never call mine.

And they say INTPs are emotionless machines!

I’ve written a few songs myself that try to embrace the full scope of the heart-bursting present. Some of them about England, others about peope – and this is one of them: Next Year Jerusalem. The inspiration for it came from a group of students I taught French. I don’t think they ever knew the impression they made on me. How they were the reason I got up in the morning.

Because INTPs are good at pretending to be emotionless machines…

Next year Jerusalem
we will not die
’til we’re through with life
Here on the other side
skies are bright
and breathing light

Sweet Jesus
I never thought I’d see the day
Sweet baby
you have saved me

This is where we ended up
This is where we’ll drain the cup
This the fountain of youth
Maybe we were meant to be
Straying in the wrong alley
only to see
that we are essentially free

Next year Jerusalem
we have time
even though we’re dying
We’re on the road today
here we’ll stay
’til we’re ta’en away

Somehow we found
water from the holy land
flowing like wine
through the desert sand

This is where we ended up…

Nostalgic ramblings

“And I don’t recall how I became the one I used to be…” (IQ, Frequency)

Today I’ve been distracted. Pulled back by memories and earlier versions of myself. I sometimes miss younger incarnations of this person I play, Ingelas that knew how the world worked and what was True. I’d like to blame the dissertation for “sucking every shred of fun out of me” (to quote a friend), but it happened way before that: the disillusionment with dogma – which is a good thing, surely?

But somehow it used to be so simple. I watched an interview this morning with a person from a lost world (lost to me), and he was so eloquent and serious and convinced – of things I used to be convinced of too. And I miss it.

Genuinely?

I don’t know. If I came back in contact with it, I might rebel again. Dismiss them all for snobs. But it used to be me, and it’s like when you smell a pastry from your childhood – you can’t handle it in a rational way. You’re seduced. I’m seduced. And I want to press my nose to the window once again and almost belong.

This is all pretty abstract, I know, but it’s hard to explain the background. I’ll let an old song speak for me instead – one that, in hindsight, is strangely fitting.

There’s a window
in this town
No lamp, no Christmas candles
can compete
And I am a house
that implodes

And she still
has white nails
’cause she still
is a saint
But I know
I am wrong

My living room
smells of death
I know I should have buried you
months ago
like I threw away those herbs
when you died

But I still hope for a breath
from that husk of yours
And I still believe there is
something you haven’t yet seen

But I know
I’m wrong


A world of stars

Chains of Being Cover

Time to make some noise about my latest book. Lo, an excerpt appears!

After trudging through the more touristy parts of SoHo, we finally reach the Aquarian, a pub that allows plus ones but is still moderately tasteful. When I get my card out and press it to the bouncer display, I feel Timon tense beside me, but the laser reads the card and makes a happy chirp: confirmation that I have the requisite aspects to frequent this particular pub.

I usually don’t reflect on it – I’m eligible to enter almost anywhere – but this time, with Timon at my side, I wonder: what is it about my chart that makes me such an attractive customer? And more importantly, what aspects would result in a beep and a red light?

Azods can’t get in anywhere on their own, of course, since they don’t even have a card. But there are also less obvious fences. Some places don’t want people with badly aspected Mars, since it’ll always result in a fight. Shops are wary of Neptune square Mercury and their potentially thieving ways. Even the university has taken to turning away students with Mercury retrograde in the first house. There are challenges, and then there are challenges. No need to put people through the wringer if they don’t have it in them.

“What are you having? Heineken?”

“Kilkenny,” Timon says, and I go to order for both of us. Sure, places like this might pride themselves on their open-mindedness, but there are limits, and the handling of money is one such limit. As the charted one, I’m responsible for my starless tag-along, and my right to bring him can be revoked at the slightest hint of trouble.

While I wait at the bar, I look around the room. It’s filled with the usual rabble of show-offs and hang-arounds. I don’t like the Aquarian. Half the people here are the type to tattoo their chart onto their necks or advertise their most attractive trait with a pendant. But I’ve promised Timon a drink, so the Aquarian it is.

The bartender gives me two overfull glasses and I walk over to the booth Timon has found, foam sliding down my hands. When he takes his glass, our fingers touch and I stiffen. I want to wipe it – because of the beer foam, nothing else – but now we’ve had skin contact, Timon will probably think I do it out of disgust.

My phone beeps and I automatically wipe my hand before reaching for it. Shit. The screen shows a notification from StraightDate. Putting the date into dating, the slogan announces. Cheesy, yes, but I work sixty hour weeks and don’t have the time to look for love the traditional way. I open the latest message to see a flirty smile.

“News?” Timon asks sweetly.

“It’s just this dating site I’m a member of.” I flash the screen at him to make sure he understands. A slow nod is his only comment, and I narrow my eyes. Is there an element of disbelief in there? Fumbling to put away my phone, I clear my throat. “Just so you know.”

Timon snorts. “Know what?”

I shoot him a glare. “What kind of people I date,” I bite out, regretting having notifications on that stupid app in the first place.

Timon gives a wan smile. “I have no problem with who you date.”

“That’s not what I…” I break off with a sigh that sounds too exasperated. “I’m just saying.”

“Well, this isn’t a date, so.”

“I know that.”

“Just… if you were worried.” Timon gives me a mischievous look, but before I can retort something clever, he changes gears. “So anyway, this study you’re conducting…” He takes a sip from his drink. “Were you on the cusp of a breakthrough or something?”

Jarred by the shift, I try to stall. “Why do you ask?”

Timon cocks his head. “It’s my job to know everything. What kind of scopiler would I be if I didn’t draw exaggerated conclusions from flimsy evidence?”

I give my beer a pointed look. “You’d make a great researcher.”

“Hah. Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?”

I make a repentant face. Someone like Timon can never get into research, so perhaps joking about it is perceived as a taunt? I give him a searching look, but he doesn’t meet my gaze. Instead he studies the pearls of condensation running down his glass.

“Whoever killed the professor doesn’t want the study to go forward, right?” he muses.

I hesitate. “Uh… maybe.”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Why else kill an old man who wouldn’t hurt a fly?”

“Well…”

“Which tells me the study was on the verge of a breakthrough, and someone knew. It also means you’re in danger.”

I take a deep swallow from my glass and put it back down too hard. The bang makes me sound angry, but I’m really not. I’m just… sick of it. Of everything. The world feels like an itchy sweater I can’t take off. I have a sudden urge to talk to Feona, even though I know I can’t confide in her. Emotional support isn’t her strong suit. Sure, she can pat a hand and offer advice she’s memorized from a book of quotations, but to actually listen and be there… that just isn’t her. Blame her Aries ascendant or Mars in the eighth house, but Feona Hollander is a doer, not a feeler.

Unlike Timon, who seems able to channel every emotion under the stars.

He’s drumming his fingers on the table now, deep in thought. “Maybe you should take a few sick days. Lie low for a while.”

Sudden anger surges in me. “I can’t let this psycho scare me into silence. I’m a searcher for truth. If I abandon my post, what’ll the world come to?”

Timon stares at me. Then he laughs. “Wow, Doctor Hammond. You do take yourself seriously.”

“And you don’t? What if you started guessing at crime scenes? Plucked theories out of thin air?”

“That’s kind of what I do, actually.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Timon shoots me a cheeky look. “Believe? I thought you were a ‘searcher for truth’. Aren’t you supposed to know?”

I roll my eyes. “Okay, one-nil to the starless.”

Timon falls quiet, mouth open for words that don’t come. Oh, wait… ‘starless’ isn’t a PC word anymore, is it? I seem to remember a columnist cautioning against it in some Sunday supplement or other. As I scrabble to take it back, Timon waves a dismissive hand.

“It’s, um… a bit difficult to keep up, you know?” I attempt to defend myself. “These terms change all the time, and…”

“It’s your job, though, isn’t it?” Timon’s dark eyes issue a blood-freezing challenge, and I swallow drily.

“That doesn’t mean…” I half-whisper, gesturing vaguely. “I mean… I fuck up. I’m so sorry.”

“You said.”

“Yeah, but…” But you’re obviously not forgiving me. I take a sip from my beer to avoid looking at him. Tension hangs heavy over the table, dissuading further conversation. Yeah, I’ve fucked up, but come on. Three months ago, that word was fine. Sure, I’m an ‘expert’, but not in the way Timon thinks. I don’t socialize with Azods, I only work with their blood. I’m in a lab, for stars’ sake. I don’t frequent websites devoted to Azod rights, I only read research papers and tables full of blood metal levels. Where would I even get the memo that ‘starless’ is no longer an okay word?

Not knowing what else to do, I take another gulp, but the beer tastes sour now. Timon looks sullen and unreachable. I want to explain, but it’ll only make things worse. Sighing, I prepare to empty my glass in silence. This was a crap idea to begin with. A doctor and an Azod, pretending at friends? It’s laughable. Bound to go wrong.

Intrigued? Find out what happens in Chains of Being at your favourite online store.

In a world of stars, #WhatsYourSign?

Doctor Hammond is the darling of the constellations. With a genius birth chart and a doctorate in Astrology, everything points to imminent academic stardom. But a danger lurks at the heart of Hammond’s research, and when Timon the Azod enters the stage, a collision is inescapable – because Timon is Hammond’s polar opposite. Navigating the world on intuition alone, he represents the chaos Hammond tries so hard to control. And in a society built on the zodiac, he’s the unthinkable: a man without a chart.

In another part of town, actor Sean Matthews prepares for the role of his life. Together with posh boy co-star Alastair Chesterton, he’s about to make television history. But when the show starts bleeding into reality, Sean has to face some difficult truths – about himself, about Alastair, about reality itself. In the clutches of a narrative that’s stronger than him, he’s faced with the ultimate choice: to play the part he’s been given, or to risk it all and go off script.

Set in a London close to our own, this story shows a world about to crumble – or be born again.

 

 

An author’s messy mind

The eternal question: “Where do you get the ideas to everything you write in your books?”… We can never quite answer it, can we? At least I can’t, not off the top of my head. But today, as a special treat as I kick off my blog again (yay! streamers and party horns!), I’m going to give it a serious try. I’m going to go through a whole page of a fanfic I wrote last summer and tell you all about my inspiration for it!

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First, the section I’m going to dissect. We’re on a battle field where God and Satan are fighting it out for the wooing rights of humanity, but our heroes (Papa and Special) are just unwitting pawns in the celestial battle – as they’re about to become aware…

Orange-tinted clouds roil overhead. Bats and ravens circle the swaying silhouettes of trees. Dust swirls in dense pillars, and bright patches of light appear and disappear on the helmets of soldiers. Sparks fly from clashing swords, and the air reverberates with thunder and the whizzing of spears.

All the church bells across the globe are tolling. Every tower of prayer is echoing with proclamations, every cymbal, every drum that calls its disparate congregations together are resounding in an unsupervised cacophony. Nobody at the helm, no one to keep the pace. Voices like choirs, like the dead howling in Hades. The clash of weapons and shields, it’s a din never heard. The air quivers with sulphur and salt, with smoke and blood.

Papa stumbles over the fallen, sword heavy in his hand. Back to back with Special, he parries the blows from monster-faced angels bearing down on them, keening blades flickering with celestial fire. Around them, demons release their giant ballistas to send iron arrows zinging through the sky, ripping through feather and fabric. Bows are smashed, wings are torn. The angels nock and release at a furious pace, slicing through demon skin, spearing their bleeding husks into the ground.

Zhiiinggg, one sharp arrowhead slices Special’s arm, and blood wells from a superficial wound. He clutches it, face contorted by exhaustion and pain, and Papa grabs him by the lapel, an echo of the ritual – how safe and fake that moment was compared to this! “You need to keep your feet. You need to be prepared when –”

He gets no further. A sound reverberates over the hills, and the air brightens to the point of blindness. They raise their arms and shield their eyes, but this is no earthly light that can be so easily warded off. It is a light that shrieks, a sound that descends in a searing halo – the electric storm that once brought the God-seed from heaven to hearth, from the clouds to close quarters, impregnating the very first victim of their creed. The Holy Ghost.

Papa has the time to see dismay shatter Special’s face – there is no way he can defeat that, ordinary man that he is. Now, in this moment, he realizes that the devotion he’s known means nothing. The swaying hands in auditoriums, the raptured faces – they may have seen otherworldly power in him, but he’s still a mortal, still a mere earthly soul with a penetrable husk, and the Holy Ghost is pure aether. Its gaze incinerates, its breath corrodes.

He’s defenceless against it.

A giant wolf comes bounding out of the light, the Devil himself on its back. “I’ll take you to him.” He grabs Papa by the scruff of his neck and pulls him up. Wait, Papa tries to scream, but the wind stops the sound. His throat fills to bursting, his protest a chokehold of air.

Special…

He turns and looks at him, at his minuscule form receding behind them. Alone, a puny blade in his hand, the Holy Ghost descending on him in sparks of white and blue. This is his moment, this is his chance, but it will be his last.

And Papa has his own enemy to defeat. The battlefield rushes past, death and destruction a mere red blur. The Devil drops him off on a desolate spot, far from the fighting. “Make me proud.” The sword is fitted anew into Papa’s hand, the vow is spoken. The time has come to fulfil his mission – but why? Special won’t be there when he’s done.

This is the end of his tether.

Turning heavily, he stands face to face with the Son.

“And so we have come to this.” It’s a sigh on the wind, barely a voice at all. It’s the weariness of eons in auditive form, and the brown eyes in that well-known face are tired beyond resignation.

Okay. Let’s look at the thought process behind all this. I’ll repost bits and pieces and comment after them:

Orange-tinted clouds roil overhead. Bats and ravens circle the swaying silhouettes of trees. Dust swirls in dense pillars, and bright patches of light appear and disappear on the helmets of soldiers. Sparks fly from clashing swords, and the air reverberates with thunder and the whizzing of spears.

The whole description of the battle – and indeed the idea to have a battle between heaven and hell in the first place (you know, apart from the Bible…) – is based on a vague memory of the battle in The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the Golden Compass series. But I sort of felt something was missing there, so I wanted to make my own version. And I did!

All the church bells across the globe are tolling. Every tower of prayer is echoing with proclamations, every cymbal, every drum that calls its disparate congregations together are resounding in an unsupervised cacophony. Nobody at the helm, no one to keep the pace.

Since the fic is based on a band, music and sounds play a big part in the imagery too. Here the context is also religious, hence the church bells etc. The idea is that the world has been abandoned by both God and Satan. As if they’re conductors of a global orchestra but have left it to set both pace and harmony by itself. So I guess it’s my childhood, spent/misspent in concert halls, that gave me the inspiration.

Voices like choirs, like the dead howling in Hades.

Haha, “the dead howling in Hades”… that was nicked verbatim from an early review of a Rush concert. I don’t support the sentiment, but the alliteration and the imagery work.

The air quivers with sulphur and salt, with smoke and blood.

More alliteration. Sometimes I just like the feel of words. Of course, sulphur and smoke is pretty straightforward Hell stuff, but salt got included because it makes me think of sweat. Also it refers back to an earlier part of the story where Papa and Special “embrace in salt and blood”. I’ll leave you to your deductions…

Papa stumbles over the fallen, sword heavy in his hand.

This is Shakespeare’s Henry V – specifically Branagh’s version where the English king struggles through the mud with heavy armour and weapons, seeing his soldiers and boys fallen.

Back to back with Special, he parries the blows from monster-faced angels bearing down on them, keening blades flickering with celestial fire. Around them, demons release their giant ballistas to send iron arrows zinging through the sky, ripping through feather and fabric.

Ripping through feather – that’s an image from Elfquest, where a winged elf’s wing is penetrated by a thick arrow… actually now I think about it, the whole scene here is probably inspired by the Elfquest battle for the palace of the High Ones. I didn’t realize that until now! Even the back to back fighting is from those scenes.

Bows are smashed, wings are torn. The angels nock and release at a furious pace, slicing through demon skin, spearing their bleeding husks into the ground.

Here the angels have taken archery lessons from Legolas in The Two Towers – he was pretty deft with that bow. 🙂 The demons are basically orcs in my mind… and their skin is like charred sausages.

Zhiiinggg, one sharp arrowhead slices Special’s arm, and blood wells from a superficial wound. He clutches it, face contorted by exhaustion and pain, and Papa grabs him by the lapel, an echo of the ritual – how safe and fake that moment was compared to this! “You need to keep your feet. You need to be prepared when –”

The onomatopoeic sound of the arrow is another Elfquest thing, or comic books/graphic novels in general, but Elfquest specifically is my jam. 🙂

He gets no further. A sound reverberates over the hills, and the air brightens to the point of blindness. They raise their arms and shield their eyes, but this is no earthly light that can be so easily warded off.

The Two Towers again, and Gandalf arriving at the top of the hill – but here a bit more sinister and also influenced by… what? I’m unsure. A blinding, evil light… Actually I don’t know where that comes from. Another film?

It is a light that shrieks, a sound that descends in a searing halo

The idea to blur the lines between the senses comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I see a voice: now will I to the chink / To spy an I can hear my Thisby’s face.” But this specific image is also taken from Jonna Jinton, who once described the bright light in hotel bathrooms as “screaming in her eyes”.

– the electric storm that once brought the God-seed from heaven to hearth, from the clouds to close quarters, impregnating the very first victim of their creed.

Here the priority was to create alliteration and tweak existing phrases like “heaven and earth” to be slightly different, and also to turn the idea of the blessed virgin on its head.

Papa has the time to see dismay shatter Special’s face – there is no way he can defeat that, ordinary man that he is. Now, in this moment, he realizes that the devotion he’s known means nothing. The swaying hands in auditoriums, the raptured faces – they may have seen otherworldly power in him, but he’s still a mortal, still a mere earthly soul with a penetrable husk, and the Holy Ghost is pure aether. Its gaze incinerates, its breath corrodes.

This is inspired by the film Frost/Nixon, where Jack Brennan says: “Well, in boxing, you know, there’s always that first moment, and you see it in the challenger’s face. It’s that moment that he feels the impact from the champ’s first jab. It’s kind of a sickening moment, when he realizes that all those months of pep talks and the hype, the psyching yourself up, had been delusional all along. You could see it in Frost’s face. If he didn’t know the caliber of the man that he was up against before the interview started, he certainly knew it halfway through the President’s first answer.”

A giant wolf comes bounding out of the light, the Devil himself on its back.

This is lifted from a Ghost song, Mummy Dust: “I was carried on a wolf’s back, to corrupt humanity.”

“I’ll take you to him.” He grabs Papa by the scruff of his neck and pulls him up. Wait, Papa tries to scream, but the wind stops the sound. His throat fills to bursting, his protest a chokehold of air.

Have you ever ridden on a rollercoaster? That’s the feeling I’m trying to convey here. I can’t breathe at those speeds, so that very physical sensation is the basis of this description.

He turns and looks at him, at his minuscule form receding behind them. Alone, a puny blade in his hand, the Holy Ghost descending on him in sparks of white and blue. This is his moment, this is his chance, but it will be his last.

My mental image here was a typical fantasy novel cover, where the tiny hero with his sword faces an overpowering enemy: a dragon, a balrog…

And Papa has his own enemy to defeat. The battlefield rushes past, death and destruction a mere red blur. The Devil drops him off on a desolate spot, far from the fighting. “Make me proud.” The sword is fitted anew into Papa’s hand, the vow is spoken. The time has come to fulfil his mission – but why? Special won’t be there when he’s done.

Somehow soldiers in films always end up away from the hubbub so we can hear and see properly, don’t they? And I’m not one to change a winning concept.

This is the end of his tether.

Of course, the phrase “end of your tether” is a commonplace, but I took it (and the connotations it carries for me) from Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams, with its symbolically tethered iguana. That play is the reason why I remember the phrase at all. Not that I understood much of it – I was maybe fifteen and saw a great production with Frances Barber – but I was a bit young to get all the subtext, I think. No matter: some things stick anyway.

“And so we have come to this.” It’s a sigh on the wind, barely a voice at all. It’s the weariness of eons in auditive form, and the brown eyes in that well-known face are tired beyond resignation.

The sigh on the wind comes from the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where the army of the dead are released from their vow and vanish on the air…

So there you have it. A lifetime of media consumption, sprinkled with a couple of personal experiences. That’s what makes a novel – or in this case a fanfic.