What’s in their cans?

Francesca is a period piece – I hesitate to call it a historical novel for fear of how that ages me. Invariably the characters were shaped by their times, and no more so than with regard to the music they liked to listen to.

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Robert Plant in full flow at the height of Led Zeppelin’s fame

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem both Eddie and Amanda had pretty good taste, though it wouldn’t have looked that way to music critics of the day. Hard though it is to believe in an era where people will pay several grand to see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (Eddie’s choice) at an O2 reunion concert, or keep a show like the Abba inspired Mamma Mia (Amanda) running for decades, both these acts were widely despised by the music establishment of the early to mid 1970s.

So far as these worthy arbiters of taste were concerned, Abba was throwaway bubblegum pop and Led Zeppelin music for adolescent retards. In a contemporary review of Led Zeppelin II Rolling Stone magazine described Robert Plant as “foppish as Rod Steward, but nowhere near as exciting” before going on to deride Jimmy Page as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs”. Back in 1976, if you’d tried to predict who would be listened to forty years on and cited as significant influences by the top artists of the early 21st Century, you’d have got very long odds against these two.

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Abba’s Agnetha Falkskog

The self styled intellectuals who controlled the music press were more into prog rock bands that if they haven’t been forgotten, are rarely talked about or heard on the radio: Yes, Hawkwind, Rush, as well as the more durable Genesis and Pink Floyd (though I would argue that Floyd were never really prog). When the Indonesian army marched into East Timor Peter Gabriel had just left Genesis, though his avant grade theatrics were less to Eddie’s taste than artists like Hendrix, the Stones and Jim Morrison, all of whom have been treated pretty consistently by the judgement of history.

Of course Amanda knew how deeply uncool it was to admit to liking the Swedish pop quartet, and whenever asked about her preferences would instead cite David Bowie, who was in the process of shedding his glam rock skin to emerge into the Thin White Duke.

To me what’s most poignant is all the music neither Amanda nor Eddie listened to because it hadn’t been written yet. It’s hard to imagine Bowie without Heroes, China Girl or Wild as the Wind, but that’s how it was. If you’d been sitting on a bar stool alongside Eddie with a can of Tiger in the early evening Kalimantan breeze and started discussing REM, Radiohead, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Blondie or The Clash, he’d have wondered what on earth you were talking about. An Elvis called Costello? And as for revering that icon of global peace, the late John Lennon, back in 75 and 76 when he wasn’t feuding with Paul McCartney he was boring the world to death with hits tedious agitprop.

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Bowie during his Thin White Duke years

And of course it was all on vinyl, 8 track cartridge or cassette. But if you’d really wanted to throw both Eddie and Amanda, not to mention every other character in the book, all you’d have to do is tell them you were about to order your copy of Francesca online, and read it on a Kindle.

It’s out!

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I am delighted to announce that Francesca was released earlier today, and is available worldwide through Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.

To purchase a copy click here

Please feel free to post comments here on this site, and reviews on Amazon.

Alternatively, you can email me at donaldfinnaeusmayo@yahoo.com

With many thanks,

Donald Finnaeus Mayo

 

It’s on its way…

An important skill for any waiter, as I learnt years ago during a stint in a faux American Rib & BBQ joint, is delivering unpalatable news about the status of customers’ orders.

It really will be here very shortly… Image by acebal

It really will be here very shortly… Image by acebal

People tend to get tetchy when they’re hungry. Mild mannered wallflowers who’d normally do anything to avoid a confrontation will become aggressive consumer champions, demanding this and insisting on that.

“This place is a disgrace,” they snarl at you.

“You’re absolutely right, it’s terrible,” you reply, trying to remember those mirroring techniques they taught you in the sales module of your half day induction programme.

“We’re never coming here again.” And they haven’t even seen the kitchen.

Trouble is, the honest reply to the question “Where’s my food?” is all too often something you can’t say to their face.

Consider some options:

The printer in the kitchen jammed just as your order went through and the bit containing your selections was accidentally scrunched up and tossed in the bin while the KP was changing the roll. ‘Fraid it’s going to be another 40 minutes even if I put it in again now…

We’re a little short staffed this evening as the sous chef just got an emergency call from his lover who’s been arrested for heroin possession. No, I’m afraid I’m not in a position to confirm whether he participated in a needle exchange programme…

I had a row with the chef the other day over a steak he sent out well done when I specified medium rare and ever since then he’s been getting back at me by delaying all my orders so my tables will stiff me…

No one wants to hear stuff like that. It doesn’t matter that it’s the truth. They want reassurance, they want the certainty of knowing their expectations will be satisfied, but most of all THEY WANT THEIR FOOD!!!!

So I would resort to the old standby in which I didn’t have to lie by making renewed efforts to appear energetic, as if flapping my hands and poking my head through the hatch into the kitchen would really make any difference. And if the duty manager would wear it, comp a round of drinks.

All wrapped up with the non-specific promise, “It’s on its way.” My only consolation was the knowledge born of long experience that when their meal finally did arrive, provided it was up to scratch, their anger would almost certainly be forgotten once the food had found its way into their bellies.

It’s how I’m beginning to feel about Francesca.

She’s on her way.

Having initially promised a September publication date, September slipped to the vagaries of Autumn, which in turn drifted into November. Definitely in time for Christmas, my publisher nervously reassured me. Like the irate diners, I have no idea what technical, logistical or human problems are behind the delay. I can snarl as much as I like about missing out on valuable Christmas orders, but it’s unlikely to make the book appear in print any faster.

Chances are, I’ll never get to the bottom of it. All I know is we are close. The final draft’s been edited and proofed, and all I’m waiting for are the galley proofs before we can hit the PRINT button and you will be able to hold it in your palms (or your e-readers) and consume it. Hopefully with relish.

Until then, watch this space…

Could Suharto have tamed Pussy Riot?

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Pussy Riot in happier days. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the tests applied to any society that aspires towards democracy is the way in which it responds to dissent, or challenges to its authority. Recently Vladimir Putin has found more attention than he would have chosen focused on an unlikely thorn in his side, namely three members of the Russian punk collective, Pussy Riot.

Their crime was to burst onto the space in front of the altar in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012 and stage an impromptu concert. The intention was to highlight the cosy and corrupt relationship between the Russian Orthodox church and the Putin government. Perhaps they were inspired by the scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and turned over the money lenders’ tables, decrying how the religious leaders of the day had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12).

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Inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of Pussy Riot’s notorious gig. Photo by Bruecke-Osteuropa, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If so, the assembled worshippers and the Russian authorities certainly didn’t see it that way. So far as they were concerned the Pussy Riot stunt was nothing more, nothing less than a blasphemous insult perpetrated in one of the most sacred places of their faith. Their sensitivity was almost certainly heightened by the fact that the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown to smithereens by the Soviets in the 1930s, only being rebuilt following the fall of communism.

Either way, three of the young women in the collective were arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment. One was then released on appeal, the other two were let out just in time for Christmas.

In the process they managed to become an international symbol of opposition to Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule, garnering a worldwide following and massive attention in the western media.

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Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot on trial in Moscow. Photo by Denis Bochkarev courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pussy Riot is a band in the loosest possible sense of the word. Their musicianship is non existent, and despite the enthusiastic support they have received from rock aristos like Sting and Peter Gabriel, their guitar work puts Sid Vicious up alongside Eric Clapton. It’s a shame really, because the name alone is to die for. But that’s the whole point. It’s not about slick, prepackaged music downloaded to your Apple app. Pussy Riot is an artistic and political statement, and if you don’t get it it’s because you’re part of the problem yourself. It’s more Dada than some global mega act from Live Nation doing the rounds of the world’s football stadia.

I don’t think Indonesia’s President Suharto would have “got” Pussy Riot either. If Nadya, Maria and the rest of the girls in the collective feel hard done by at the heavy handed treatment they’ve received from the Russian judicial system, they can at least console themselves they didn’t try to pull off a similar stunt in Suharto’s Indonesia.

Despite the fact that Indonesia in the 1970s never seemed a particularly devout Muslim society, I shudder to think what the consequences would have been of staging an impromptu punk protest in a Jakarta mosque. Off to the cells for a thorough aperitif beating, followed by several rounds of gang rape and torture as a main course, with a garrotting for dessert. Far from becoming poster girls for the likes of Madonna, they’d have more likely disappeared never to be heard of again. And that was before the strains of fundamentalism we in the west have come to associate with Islam really kicked off.

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Would these guys take any crap from Pussy Riot? Image courtesy of asiasociety.org

The heroine of my novel Francesca may well have “got” Pussy Riot, though in all likelihood she would have been perplexed by them. Having suffered dreadfully at the hands of the Indonesian military machine, she lacked the strength to take on a tough regime intolerant of dissent. She didn’t have an urge to change society, so much as to be left alone by it to live in peace.

I’d be fascinated to hear from readers, especially in Russia, Indonesia and East Timor. What are your views on Pussy Riot? Did Putin score an own goal in allowing his courts to crack down so hard on them? How would the situation be handled in today’s Indonesia? Feel free to comment, tweet, retweet and link back in.

Francesca, my novel set in 1970’s Indonesia is available now from Betimes Books.

Could Louise Hay heal Francesca’s life?

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Louise Hay speaking in London. Image by Heiko Antoni, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many years ago I was dragged along by an actor friend to a small pub theatre in north London to see a one man show featuring a burly, six foot two transvestite whose roots lay in a traditional Nottinghamshire mining family. My sole memory of the performance was a scene in which he dressed up in a frock to deliver an impersonation of Louise Hay gently rocking on a garden swing, reciting affirmations to the general amusement of the predominantly gay audience. Later, in the bar, I overheard this strapping young man continuing to mock and deride Miss Hay, again to much mirth from his coterie of friends and admirers.

For those who aren’t familiar with her, Louise Hay is the queen of the mind body spirit world. Having just celebrated her 87th birthday, she is best known for her 1984 book “You Can Heal Your Life”, which to date has sold over 40 million copies in some 30 languages (I could be so lucky). From her headquarters in Carlsbad, California, she oversees one of the largest and most profitable independent publishing empires, whose stable boasts many of the heavy hitters in this field, with the likes of Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Christiane Northrup firmly under her maternal wing. You can follow the Hay House conference circuit around the world, treat your inner child to a Hay House cruise and even bring out your very own healing or recovery book through their self publishing arm.

With her positive outlook on life and emphasis on saccharine affirmations (try staring into a mirror and saying I love and approve of myself ten times), Louise Hay presents a tempting target for a confused, self loathing young man with deep unresolved gender issues to take pops at. It was only much later, when I learnt more about this remarkable woman, that I fully appreciated the irony of that otherwise tedious evening.

When AIDS first hit the west coast of the USA in the mid 1980s, it triggered elemental, widespread panic. People diagnosed as HIV+ were treated like modern day lepers, often disowned by their own families, and certainly shunned by society at large. Such was the extent of the hysteria guests began to bring their own cutlery and glasses to parties out of fear of contagion.

Into this climate of stigmatisation stepped Louise Hay, then practising as a private therapist in the Los Angeles area. Where many so called professional healers and carers didn’t want to know, she embraced these terrified men (at the time most of them were men) and set about creating a support group for them, which rapidly grew and eventually became known as the Hayride.

It’s a chapter in her life many evangelical christians, who have been scathing about Hay’s scornful stance towards original sin, guilt and the need for redemption, might do well to contemplate. It is hard to think of someone who embodied Jesus’s admonition “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40) with greater authenticity and dedication. Where were you, hellfire and brimstone preachers spewing damnation and judgement, when these people reached out for help?

Yet beneath the hugs, the warm, fuzzy affirmations and the soft rainbow colours of the Hay House aesthetic, there’s steel in Miss Hay’s spine. The central message in “You Can Heal Your Life” and its multiple spinoff volumes is that our thoughts create our reality. The implications behind this seemingly innocuous statement are massive and profound, and the principal reason why, alongside her diehard fans, she arouses such anger and contempt, particularly within the academic and theological communities.

What these critics find so offensive is that Louise Hay places responsibility for one’s life firmly back in the court of the individual. If your life sucks, stop blaming everyone and everything else for your problems. Abandon the pose of victimhood and wallowing in your misery; identify the root causes of your troubles and do something about it.

Liberals are another group who find the Hay medicine difficult to swallow. They have invested a huge amount of emotional energy in the opposite idea, that people’s thoughts and feelings are a direct consequence of their reality, usually a reality that has been imposed upon them, be it by corrupt governments, multinational corporations, global capitalism, abusive families, take your pick. It’s all very well for Louise, sitting on her mountaintop surrounded by her wealth and fawning acolytes; what about the single mother struggling to feed and clothe her child on welfare, the refugee from war-torn Syria, the baby abandoned in a Swaziland AIDS orphanage?

Rich and famous though she now is, Louise Hay has been no stranger to adversity. A child of the depression, she was raped when she was five by a neighbour, suffered sexual and physical abuse as a young woman, was cast aside by the husband she had finally learnt to trust when he tired of her, and experienced long periods of financial struggle and professional adversity.

It made me wonder how the heroine of my novel Francesca would respond to her. Could Louise Hay help her heal her life? Is it possible for a human being to “get over” something as traumatic as the holocaust, or being caught up in the horrors of a military invasion and its subsequent mass murders, such as that visited upon the people of East Timor by the Suharto regime? And what about the idea that somehow you might be responsible for these atrocities you suffered, that you manifested them in your life as a direct consequence of your thoughts? That’s a tough one, even for the most ardent Hay supporter.

I like to think the two of them would get along. For all their differences in background and culture, they share a remarkable life force, a willingness to accept life on its terms combined with a will to fashion it according to their desires. I think when they stared into each other’s souls they would see a reflection of the greatness and the power that lay within them both. I think they would share a common understanding of what it is to be human, to suffer, to force oneself to look at the very worst man can do to man, and yet still not be discouraged from reaching out to embrace the love, the goodness and the light.

You can order your copy of Francesca here.

Beyond the God Delusion

I’ll come straight out with it and say I haven’t read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, supposed bible of the new atheists. Truth is, I can’t really be bothered. I’m constantly aware, both as a reader and a writer, that I’ve only a finite amount of time to devote to the written word, and everything I embark upon has to at least promise to justify itself amongst the fifty or so books I can get through in an average year. (Booker prize organisers take note – I’m probably not your man for the judging panel!)

It’s one of the reasons I love the small independent bookseller P&G Wells in Winchester so much. It’s got about a twentieth of the shelf space of your average Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s, and a minuscule fraction of the stock held by Amazon. But rarely do I see, modestly laid out on its tables, more fascinating books in one place by authors I’ve yet to encounter that I’d really like to read.

It’s a testament to the exquisite taste of the owners. Check it out if you’re ever passing through, it’s in College Street just behind the cathedral. Not that I want to run down Amazon – nothing can touch them if you know what you’re looking for – and I’ve whiled away many a pleasant afternoon sipping overpriced mochas in B&N’s comfy leather armchairs. But if I’m just browsing, I’d prefer to be in the hands of a literary connoisseur than a computer algorithm spitting out suggestions based on previous purchases I or my children may have made.

But back to Dawkins. (I’m feeling a little rebellious today, inclined to defy the blog staasi with their strictures on keeping it short, sticking to the point and breaking up text with pictures, but I promise you, we will get there.) So why have I yet to succumb to the intellectual seduction of the God Delusion?

Completely gratuitous image of Montmartre Cafe Life to keep the blog staasi at bay. Image by ktylerconk

Completely gratuitous image of Montmartre Cafe Life to keep the blog staasi at bay. Photo by ktylerconk

The main reason is that I’m tired of hearing the many shortcomings of organised religion trotted out for the delightful scorn of modern, rational, enlightened man as if it was compelling evidence for the prosecution. Yes, the crimes perpetuated by and in the name of religion are appalling, from the inquisition and witch burnings of old, to the scandals that rock today’s churches. It matters little whether it’s paedophile Catholic priests destroying the lives of vulnerable children or Protestant televangelists fleecing little old ladies of their social security checks so they can flounce about in limos from one massage parlour to the next. It’s disgusting, hypocritical, repulsive and offensive, all of it. And we haven’t even started on all the religious wars or the horrors of militant Islam.

The trouble is, none of it furthers the argument against the existence of a divine intelligence one jot. All it does is highlight the potential for corruption inherent in all religious hierarchies and the essential flawed nature of humanity.

For the fundamental truth atheists, be they new or old, refuse to confront is that if there is no God it follows there can be no meaning, purpose or significance to life. And that fact runs counter to every reality I’ve experienced in my years on this planet, from the awe of swimming with sharks in the 3,000 foot deep waters of the Coral Sea to the tenderness of tucking my daughter up at night.

I’m prepared to put aside my prejudices and find room on my bedside table for The God Delusion if any new atheist can provide a compelling case for morality, and with it the objective existence of good and evil, that does not rely upon, or is underpinned by the presence of a supreme creative force or divine intelligence.

Because I don’t believe they can. The best the enlightenment thinkers could come up with was a low level utilitarianism, the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In modern times the most impressive attempt to construct a godless case for moral behaviour came from John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. But rather like Howard Hughes’ lumbering Spruce Goose, it couldn’t take flight under the weight of its own architecture, having completely failed to take into account the devious and wily idiosyncrasies within human nature.

The other new atheist tome to pass me by was the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, though I have long been an admirer of much of his other work. I wrote to Hitchens when he was dying, partly to apologise for the despicable behaviour of so called Christians who had gleefully informed him his agonising terminal illness was God’s come-uppance for a sinful life, and partly to confront him with what I believed was a critical moral question that went to the core of his life’s work.

Hitchens was primarily a deeply moral political writer and had in the past turned his attention to the Suharto regime, which forms the backdrop for my novel Francesca. As anyone familiar with his work would expect, he was pretty scathing about the Indonesian dictator, and was one of the small but prominent group of writers who helped publicise the genocide carried out by Suharto’s troops in East Timor.

It was classic Hitchens, deploying his phenomenal intelligence and articulacy to vent his disgust not only at Suharto, but also at former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. (One of Hitchens’ life ambitions, sadly unrealised, was to goad Kissinger into suing him for libel by repeatedly accusing him in print of being a war criminal. No doubt aware of the kind of mauling he’d be in for under cross-examination should he ever give Hitchens his day in court, Kissinger shrewdly declined to take the bait.)

Hitchens’ willingness to take up the cause of the underdog, the powerless and the oppressed was a theme that ran through all his political writing, from Chile to Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan, where he lost a lot of his erstwhile supporters on the political left. His essays on East Timor – incisive, tightly argued, his vehement outrage controlled yet clearly directed at his targets – epitomise everything that’s best about his writing.

My question for Hitchens was this: If there is no God, and therefore no moral force that compels us to behave in a certain way, what has your life’s work been all about? For in a godless, amoral world, what does it matter if Suharto murders a third of the East Timorese population, or the Nazis decide the world would be a nicer place without any Jews around? Of course it matters to the victims themselves, but why should anyone else not directly affected by it care? Because if the likes of Dawkins are correct, notions of common humanity are no more than sentimental illusions, our great loves, losses and passions merely neurons firing off in a random sequence.

And this goes to the heart of the Godless Delusion. I keep encountering this naive idea amongst the atheist community that if we simply abolished God and swept aside the churches and the mosques and the temples, we’d end war and injustice and set about building our own heaven on earth, a Jerusalem that looked a bit like Sweden with nice weather, the kind of world John Lennon sang about in the childishly sentimental lyrics of his otherwise beautiful song Imagine.

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Marginally less gratuitous image of P&G Wells in Winchester designed to deflect attention from the fact this blog is now exceeding 1000 words

History, though, suggests a Godless society actually looks rather different. We need take our template not from the social democracies of northern Europe, which are in fact built upon a broadly Christian ethos of social justice and protecting the most vulnerable, but from social experiments such as Lenin and Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Caucescu’s Romania, Kim Il Jong’s North Korea. Places where humans are reduced to units of production and the end can always be made to justify the means, the end usually being the ongoing survival of the human god who has replaced the divine presence.

I write all this in part because Francesca, whilst it is in many ways a political and historical novel, as well as being a passionate love story, is at its heart a search undertaken by the various characters. It is a search for meaning, for understanding, for connectedness, for the possibility of good in the face of overwhelming evil, for light amidst the darkness.

And yes, you will be able to get it on Amazon.

Character Sketches 6: Peter Adisono, shadow of a giant

Photo by puroticorico

How do you live up to the reputation of an intellectual giant, a leader of the masses, a martyr murdered by the Suharto regime?

Such are the concerns of Peter, son of the famous leftist intellectual, Rudi Adisono. Plagued by indecision, prone to well intentioned sentimentality, Peter seems to make a mess of everything he turns his hand to. Yet wherever he bungles he is protected from the consequences of his actions by his rich and influential family.

Whereas his father may have been an agitator who made the regime feel uneasy whenever he made one of his pronouncements or calls to action, no one is the slightest bit interested in anything Peter thinks or has to say. He would probably have been squashed years ago, or tossed in jail and left to rot, were it not for his connection through marriage to the notorious Benny Surikano. Uncle Benny, as he is ironically known, is married to the sister of Peter’s mother, both women being themselves the daughters of a once prominent general. Needless to say, uncle and nephew eye each other with mutual loathing, contempt and distrust.

So when Peter, who’d been set up in a nice comfortable teaching position, exposes his high school students to some slightly radical ideas, it’s not Peter who ends up in jail for sedition, but one of his luckless charges. Peter is removed from his post and found a position where even he can’t cause much trouble or mess things up too badly, teaching Indonesian culture to the children of the American and European expats.

Much like Eddie, Peter has drifted through his teens and twenties, letting life happen to him. It takes stumbling into Francesca’s orbit to introduce him to the virtues of decisive action…

Character Sketches 5: Reverend Ron Milliner

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Photo by frozen chipmunk

What does it take to winkle a senior evangelical pastor out of a prosperous small town American church and drop him in the middle of the inhospitable Borneo jungle? And what on earth is he going to do with himself when he gets there?

Could it be the humiliation of being left by his wife, Patti, awakened from her little woman persona by the radical feminism of the early 1970s? Or a sense of degeneration from a life that had become too complacent, too easy? Or disillusionment with the public morals of American life in the wake of Nixon’s resignation? Or the alienation of his children over his inability to accept their views on the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution?

There’s probably something in each one of these catalysts. Whatever the reason, 53 year old Ron Milliner finds himself abandoning his comfortable life to run a primitive mission station in a tiny kampong kissing the Equator, a good five mile hike from the nearest link to civilisation, a camp run by one of the American oil companies.

Ron is not the only one bringing his truth to the villagers. He faces stiff competition for their hearts and minds from the oil and logging companies, with their easy money and western vices. They may be happy to kit Ron out with the medicines he needs, but has he forgotten that out here there’s a price for everything? Neither will he be allowed to forget the spectre of the communists, ruthlessly purged by Suharto’s troops, their survivors hiding in the shadows.

Will Ron be able to overcome the physical challenges, the leeches, the snakes, the oppressive climate, the physical deprivations, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of the jungle? Or will the sheer enormity of it overwhelm him and eventually dull his evangelical zeal? One thing’s for sure; the people to whom he ministers are not the only ones who will be forever marked and changed by the experience.