Sunday, 10 November 2013

William Blake - the first graphic novelist

That's a pretty big claim and others may want to suggest alternative candidates for the first graphic novelist, but I've always been struck by the way the Blake was master of both word and image, and mixed them both on his engraving plates with unrivalled skill.

I thought, since my first graphic novel, (co-written with my brother Julian Sedgwick and illustrated by Marc Olivent and John Higgins) came out this past week, that it would be a good idea to write a little more about why the book is called Dark Satanic Mills, and why William Blake is such a large influence on the project.

Blake: poet, painter, engraver, and visionary. Born 1757, died 1827.

There was a massive exhibition on the life and work of William Blake at Tate Britain some years ago. I remember peering through the glass of a display cabinet at one of Blake's handmade books, on one spread of which was a picture of the human anatomy. Not content with the depiction of the exterior of the body, Blake had made paper flaps to be opened, to reveal the organs inside the chest too. This probably makes Blake the first paper engineer too, but it's just one small example of the inventiveness of this rebellious, dissenting figure.

Dissent was at the heart of Blake's credo - his creation of a personal mythology that rivals that of more than a few small nations' remains both at once his greatest achievement, and the reason, I believe, that he remains underrated and unexplored: his works are simply so vast and so impenetrable that they defy easy understanding. It would take a lifetime of study to understand Blake fully, but that's not the only reason he does not feature as highly on the list of British cultural icons as he should. I also think that we're not very good at celebrating the genius who excels not just in one field of artistry, but many. I believe there's a prejudice; no one can be that good at so many things. But Blake was.

And yet he was largely ignored and derided in his own time, and part of the reason for that is his dissension. If there is one simple message you can derive from studying Blake; it's this: believe what you want to believe, not what you are told to believe.

Which brings us to Dark Satanic Mills. Those famous three words from the poem nowadays known as Jerusalem are often thought to refer to the factories of the Industrial Revolution. But to Blake it meant something different; the dark satanic mills were the churches of orthodox religion; which he saw as places of enslavement and oppression; which did not allow man or woman to follow their own spiritual path. Blake came from a long line of dissenting believers, but he took things to a new level.

Which brings me at last to our graphic novel; a world set in a near-future Britain in which the climb to hegemony of a new church threatens anyone who does not share their beliefs. It's no longer safe to believe in any other religion; it's not even safe to be an atheist, as one of the book's heroes is. Thomas Aikenhead is an atheist preacher, and is, incidentally, named after the last man in the British Isles to be executed for being blasphemy.

Our message, if we have one, is Blake's: create your own system of belief, or be enslaved by another man's. To put the reverse case, to put it more positively; again in Blake's words: "Lord of thyself; then thou art lord of all."

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Winner of the She Is Not Invisible writing competition

Last month I ran a small competition on the website  - the challenge was to write a short story about coincidence in exactly 354 words; 354 being the number that's hidden throughout my new book, She Is Not Invisible.

It's a cliché to say it was hard to choose a winner, but it really was, especially as I was left choosing between four very different pieces. I would like to commend Kieran Salmon, Rob Perry and Joe Greaves for their entries, each so different from each other, and each very different from the winner, more of which below.

For me, the purpose of such a writing exercise, i.e. writing to some kind of restriction, even one as simple as an exact word count, is that it forces you to consider your words. When you're paring down that 400 word draft to 354, you are made to consider every word for its merits. Every single word gets inspected and peered at and tested, and, if it doesn't really merit being there; it has to go. So once in a while it's a good exercise to try, to really sharpen up what you write. It's all too easy to throw words on a page as if good ones are easy to come by. Personally I think it's better to write fewer better ones, than more average ones...

If you entered the competition, thanks for doing so. Sorry we could only have one winner; competitions kind of suck, really, don't they? But it was good to see so many cool stories, and as I said, it really was hard to choose the winner.  (Incidentally, I was able to read the stories without knowing a thing about who wrote them).

The winner is called Of Grace and God and it's by Ian Kenworthy. I liked it because it manages to do many things in a short space of time; it's well written, it builds a small world in your head, and it's poignant. Most of all though, I chose this story over the many other great entries because it manages to do one of the hardest things of all; it actually conveys that sense of strangeness that we feel when a coincidence happens to you. Having just written about book all about coincidences, I know that's a deceptively hard thing to do, and Ian gets it just right. I hope you enjoy it too.

Of Grace and God by Ian Kenworthy

No atheists in foxholes? Wasn’t that the saying?
Sergeant Lane could see why. A foot deep scraping, the only shelter on a muddy battlefield.
Hardly more protective than a prayer.
Another barrage. Shells thundered from above. Ground erupted nearby. So close. A rain of fine grit –Patter-patter. Pitter-patter. Thump. A body flung itself down into the dirt beside him.
Inches above, cracks and flashes and sounds of Apocalypse.
“God save us.”
So I was right.
The barrage subsided, ushering in an eerie silence.
“Is it over?”
Slowly sitting up. Close in the scraping.
“For twenty minutes or so. You get used to it. I’d say don’t worry, but you will.”
Shaking hands. Close as brothers.
Frank Lane.”
“Eddie Parkes 76th  Infantry. Just got here today.”
 “Quite a welcome.”
 “Yeah.” Eyes tilted to the heavens. “Funny, you’d think the sky would be grey, not blue.”
“The sky is always blue when the angels descend.”
“Ha, used to know a priest who said that, old Father Margrove.”
Silence. For once not dreadful silence.
“Not, Saint Agatha’s Old Unitarians?”
A shared smile. Dare they speak it?
“Used to holiday there.”
A spark.
Eddie Parkes…?”
Away from this foreign field to a church field. Beneath the layer of grime and age were two boys. A summer spent defending battle lines with a bat and ball. Days of laughter, of trying to win hearts. Of hopes. Of japes and jealousy.  Eddie who could always hit a six. Always smiling. Always said he would…
“…work for my dad’s cotton company, worked.  Not been to Ashby in years, not since I met my girl. I got a picture, want to see?”
Everyone says that. I’ve seen so many pictures.
Except this was no girl. This was Grace Hopkinson. Darling Grace. ‘Met a lad from the city and moved away’, found happiness.
“You okay?”
“Just, remembering. Remembering home.”
“Feels so far away, right?”
“What are the chances of us meeting like this? From the same church, meeting up in the same field. What could be more of a coincidence than that?”

The answer, the whistle of an incoming shell.

© Ian Kenworthy 2013