Pangolin Issue 58

The Aber Falls (which autocorrect wants to change to the Uber Falls) near Abergwyngregyn look impressive after a day’s rain. The sound was deafening, but what surprised me was the strength of the wind generated by that mass of falling water. This wasn’t an entirely new experience – I’ve been to Niagara – but it started me thinking about the forceful influence of such a relatively small cascade.

Driving back from Wales, where we had been to visit an elderly relative who lives alone, I was listening to a piece on the radio about the power of ‘influencers’ on social media and how they sometimes promote dodgy products inadvertently – in this case garments produced by sweatshop labour. I’m active on Twitter, initially because of my writing, though I get too distracted by politics. I confess that there’s a part of me, a side to my ego that I don’t particularly like, that wants to be recognised and praised for a catchy hashtag or a brilliant riposte. I cannot, for example, understand why my brilliant hashtag #wordbleating as applied to our PM hasn’t caught on. I am clearly not destined to be an influencer, in that sense of the word at least.

I follow many writers on Twitter, and a tweet by Philip Pullman last week has made me think. He wrote, in appreciation of Amanda Craig’s new novel The Golden Rule: … How to write about real people in a modern setting and infuse it with what used to be one of the great themes of literature – the difficulty and importance of moral goodness. Amanda is already a successful author and will no doubt see sales of The Golden Rule improve even more as a result of that endorsement. However, I was surprised to read that “the difficulty and importance of moral goodness” was a less common feature of modern literature these days. Are not these themes standard, even today? I should read more and tweet less.

Philip Pullman’s tweet was well-timed for me as I start on the final edit of Novel 2. I used to describe this process, tongue in cheek, as the last “sprinkling of fairy dust” so that every reader would be enchanted by my writing. I now know that the quest for the perfect draft is more like trying to get bindweed out of the allotment – initially satisfying, hard work and ultimately impossible. My stories, almost without exception, and at one level or another, deal with “the difficulty and importance of moral goodness”. Novel 2, which has been simmering on the front burner for the past five years, is more tasty because it occupies the edgelands between revenge and justice. You would think this would make it easier, if morality is the story’s calling card, but I am finding it more difficult. In the unlikely event of the thing ever being published, do I really want my name to be associated with a tale of sexual shenanigans and medical corruption? Well … yes … I think I do, if the story remains rooted in a world view underpinned by the “moral goodness” to which Pullman refers.

I’ll take a revised version of my last two chapters to the novelists’ group of Leeds Writers Circle in August. Having started the novel the best of friends, my two main protagonists are sucked ever deeper into what looks like becoming a vortex of mutual destruction. I’m inching towards an ending that will satisfy the reader without making any moral judgements of its own – some final paragraphs that are deft, not daft. I love the way in which the role and stature of a third character has grown in each successive draft of the story. She will be centre stage at the end, all I have to do is find the right words to put in her mouth, words that invite the reader to ponder their moral universe. In my wilder dreams (the consumption of blue cheese elicits the wildest ones), I hope that when the story finally lands it might create its own little breeze, however ephemeral.

Last month, the beleaguered real pangolins didn’t get a mention in this bloglet which was rude of me. One of the very few upsides to the Covid-19 pandemic is that the plight of these creatures is now much better known. I’m probably not the only person who occasionally thinks I wouldn’t mind being able to curl up in a ball of armoured scales and wait until the bad stuff goes away. Most of the time, I am able to channel my dismay and anger in more positive and engaging ways, like writing.

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