There’s a lot of talk about being taken ‘Back to the 70s’ also called the Dark Ages because of all the powercuts. Brexit of course, ha, that’s the future isn’t it? That’s not a shift back to the 70s is it? Towards Empire and a class and social chasm that will prove unbridgeable? No, what sort of xenophobic idiot would vote for that?
I won’t get into the politics, clears throat. Pause for glass of Vimto, 70s beverage par excellence.
I remember the 70s. I grew up in them, flared pants, skinny ribs and all. People are always very derogatory about the decade but I had fun. All of my family were alive for a start and my childhood consisted of a network of relatives, of Sunday dinners and picnics in our Renault 12, christened the Pink Panther because it was a very pale shade of pink. The handbook said ‘French Beige’ but the family myth maintained that some poor Monsieur had clearly slipped off a gantry into the vat of paint. We did over 100,000 miles in that car.
When you could get petrol? I hear you shriek. Strangely there was petrol enough to go round because families tended to only have one car, unless they were a former racing driver.
I recall the powercuts and I remember them with glee and fondness. For us they were glittering candlelight and spooky darkness and the explosive fun of a hotpot cooking in a pressure cooker over the Camping Gaz.
I recall Road Safety and being handed out a mini cosmonaut outfit of reflective clothing when someone in 1971 decided to adjust the clocks one winter and we had to go to school in the dark. I remember hot porridge sprinkled with a crust of sugar and a pyjama bag shaped like a poodle.
You could eat sugar then, it was green vegetables you had to shy away from. All the pesticides and fungicides and herbicides made vegetarianism into a game of Russian Roulette.
Ah yes, the Russians. They all peeked out from behind their Iron Curtain and did ballet and gymnastics.
Mushrooms reminded us all of the Nuclear Threat and the necessity to hide the government under a table in the event of the four minute warning. This was something like the four minute mile only without Roger Bannister. I once developed a tv series set in a nuclear bunker (it was cheery, I promise) and as I researched Kelvedon Hatch and all the other subterranean metropolises that had been dug out and dry lined, I did wonder why we were only saving the government bods and who they thought they would be governing over? Zombies were not so much in vogue back then. Even they couldn’t survive the appocalypse.
Terrorism has altered only slightly, the terrorists were rather more Christian based in those ancient days. I recall the IRA and their fight, they seemed quite polite by comparison, ringing up beforehand to say ‘You might like to check under the train, there’s a bit of an old bomb under there.’ Plus ça change for terrorism and wars on any fronts. We are always at war somewhere and one man’s terrorist is, of course, another man’s freedom fighter. Back in the 70s we also had the Welsh Nationalists who were good at gaining their firestarting badge in the Scwts.
What we also had was reality, a more solid reality than now. No one spent their time gazing at a tablet unless they had a headache and were looking at a fistful of chalky Anadin. If you wanted to watch a film you had to go to a cinema where you would watch several shorter films and possibly a cartoon before the main ‘feature’ and on occasion there was a ‘double feature’ which meant an entire afternoon in the cinema for about 20p. We usually went to the cinema with my paternal grandmother who made up a picnic of Blue Riband biscuits and orange squash decanted into reusable Five Pints bottles. Five Pints was the branded powdered milk she used. She reused and recycled as did my maternal grandmother who always had a shopping bag in her handbag. These ladies had lived through an actual war, not a Cold one but a red hot on your doorstep one.
Clothes were made in Britain and lasted a long time and no one had to be thin, they had to eat eggs and butter and Cadbury’s Flake. The sun scorched Britain in 1976 and dried up some of the rain that had poured down from 1970-75.
My mother made my clothes on a third hand sewing machine. We were measured for shoes at Clarks and Mr Simon was our NHS dentist.
We didn’t have Netflix but we had three channels and they were peopled by London Weekend and Anglia and Granada and HTV and Yorkshire, each region had its own tv flavour. As tv big cheese Bill Cotton once said to me, “We made programmes because we wanted to tell the story, we liked the idea, not because of the demographic.’ The only daytime tv was for schools.
This is not a diatribe about how great the 70s was. It wasn’t, in the same way that any decade isn’t. There were swings and there were roundabouts and we played on them whereas now Health and Safety measures have taken away the slides and playing out has to be ordered exercise regulated by fitbits and swimtags.
I’m reining it in, I promise. My point is that I grew up during the 70s, it is my early backdrop and there was nothing much wrong with it because then some fools voted Margaret Thatcher into power and everything that was strong and stable was torn down. In the 70s you could catch a bus, they were run for infrastructure and transport reasons not for bus company shareholder profits.
The robots are coming of course, as promised in the 70s, so we should all be in safe hands. Shouldn’t we, Hal?
‘I only ever buy free books’ said one lady in the library, actually several ladies have said this in the library on various days over the last few years with not even a wink at the linguistics of it. Another confessed ‘I’ve got 250 books on my kindle and they were all free.”
‘I only ever buy free books’. Hm.
Free books. Hm.
Several of my own outpourings have been free this week because sand in my head is shifting and forming dunes and just recently I’ve decided to go with its soft but seismic flow.
Free books are not a new thing. Libraries were invented for the free sharing of this epic luxury item. The Book. The repository of secrets, knowledge, story. People coveted them. People wrote them out with illuminated letters as a means to share the ephemera that is thought. ‘I think and believe this’ they thought and believed, ‘and if I scratch it onto parchment and draw a dragon round the first letter you might read what I have written and think about it too.’ Or you might not.
Books were few and far between, in those days, O Best Beloved (Kipling credit here) books were like diamonds, rare because they had to be painstakingly hand written and back then people did proper handwriting or ‘calligraphy’ to give its correct title and this took ‘some time’. I know this for a fact because my mum, not a monk or abbess, just an enthusiast, did some calligraphy as a hobby including illuminated stuff for our church and it took a lot of time and effort and considerable squinting through reading glasses. It involved inky fingers and Winsor & Newton and cartridge paper and vellum.
We think it is bad now when books fell forests in a welter of papermaking, at least these days the sheep are sighing in relief. “For a minute there I thought I was going to be Parchment.” and instead they are simply sheared into jumpers.
Back in those days you might be privileged enough to be able to read. You could share in a library if a local nobleman or abbey let you in through the hallowed and creaking doors. Rebels and revolutionaries grew hoarse trying to spread their words of anarchy and misrule and so something had to be thought up.They began to clutch at the idea of teaching everyone to read, to empower people through words.
So, we moved onto printing with a press and all the monks could take a breather and go and tend the fish pond or brew mead for a bit before being Reformationed the hell out of here.
Hm. Books. Something quite good that these religious bods did, some thought. Other people began to put their ideas onto paper using Mr Caxton’s patented Potato Press. You could have any font you liked from the ones on offer then: Maris Piper, Pentland Javelin, Arran Pilot, Sarpon Axona.
Public Libraries became a thing, starting with circulating libraries and the gradual pushing of that most illustrous of drugs, that greatest high, the rushiest rush, STORY. People joined libraries so that they could share in the bounty of the word. They could glean knowledge and follow the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel or find out about sharks. Other heroes and vertebrates were and are available.
Books were still pretty pricey to purchase though until the advent of the Paperback book, the book for everyone, that they could carry in their pocket. Now you literally could carry dreams in your pocket, straight from the head of DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Dorothy L Sayers.
Libraries hung on in there because there is always room for free bookage. When I used to take my two scamps to Storytime we often borrowed books which we then loved so much we (well mainly me, the scamps were too wee and didn’t have bank cards) felt compelled to purchase, ‘Avocado Baby’ by John Burningham ‘Horace and Maurice’ by Dick King-Smith, ‘Not Now Bernard’ by David McKee to name but three. That was the key. We loved them and needed them to be within reaching distance. There is no point banging on the window of the library at half past two in the morning because you’ve woken from a bad dream and are in dire need of Preston Pig (thank you thank you Colin McNaughton).
Of course, there is no point banging on the window of half the libraries in Britain any longer, at any time of day at all. You can squidge your desperate story-deprived face up against the glass and dislodge some of the dust that is gathering on this palace of language and communication. The voice of the library, the citadel of the free book, is being choked into silence. Where cuts are to be made the library is seen as whipped cream, fattening to the brain and unnecessary, not like paying councillors extra bonus cash for attending various committees of their choosing.
So now we have the digital age where sad sacks like myself can throw our witterings into the wind. I know people have despised ‘self-publishing’ but there is a long and proud history to it. Virginia Woolf was, essentially, self-published. James Joyce got a group fund thing going on with Shakespeare and Company. When people cite the ‘gatekeepers’ who are editors and publishers they often neglect to mention the man who passed on Harry Potter.
I could write several blogs about publishing and its vagaries and adventures and they would all be written with blood and smudged with sweat. I love writing and I’ve sold enough books to know that some people, somewhere, like what I write. I’ve been to writer events where these people have turned up to have a chat so I know that they are not just in my imagination.
So. Free books. My latest books ‘The Witch Ways’ are published by Ipso Books, an offshoot of my agency PFD who decided to jump on the bandwagon that many recently redundant authors discovered. Why not cut out the middle man and DIY? I’d already done this for myself and was happy to join in when Ipso started up.
Digital books are not expensive to produce in material terms. In physical and mental terms they take up exactly the same amount of my life, the same days and breaths, the same heartbeats and yawns, the same man hours crunched up at my little garden table, Parker pen clutched in my hand.
But, because they are not something that requires a tree to be felled or a printer to painstakingly set into blocks they are like a kind of magical book. They can be free. Lots of people, some of my colleagues at the library included, brag about the sheer quantity of free books they have amassed. There are lots of websites that promote freebooks and how to obtain them, endlessly until the twelfth of Never.
In order to lure people into the world of The Witch Ways, you can, with a couple of clicks and an exchange of email addresses, obtain for yourself a freebie copy of ‘The Ice King’ one of the ‘Whispers’ the short form side order books of the series. The idea is, if we give you this, you might want to taste more. I hope so. I have enjoyed writing The Witch Ways tremendously.
One lady emailed my website and said how much she had enjoyed the book but that it ‘vexed’ her that it was free. She said that it had been ‘crafted’ and therefore it wasn’t right that it was just given away and this was made worse for her by the fact that she had enjoyed it so much. Needless to say I wrote straight back and thanked her, not least for her use of that wonderful word ‘vex’.
Just last week however, another lady wanted confirmation that the book on offer would be ‘a real book, not one I have to read on a computer’ and that if it were not paper and glue then she wasn’t interested.
I wrote back to say that sadly the book is a digital one, I did not waffle on at all about the difference in costs of giving away ‘real’ books. I thought about what she had written for a long time this week.
As a result of this and my gradual fury at the world in general, at austerity and inequality and Brexit, I’ve had an epiphany, one that says that I no longer care whether I make a living as a writer, I just care that my books get out there and, in these harsh times, I’m going to be giving them away when I can (Amazon allow 5 days out of 90 to be free promotions). It remains to be seen whether the free for all leads to further sales when the price clicks back. I have no problem with my digital books being 99p either. They are not made of paper, they are just made of my brain and my heart and my soul, those less tangible commodities.
I just ask that when you are busy scooping up your hoard of ‘free’ books spare a thought for the author behind them, for the time they spent in their heads, forging the story that you have loved and enjoyed. Just a brief moment, the one in the middle where you gasp and turn the page.
They gave you that gasp, they turned up the beat on your heart. And all for 99p.
Try it out. If it helps, the Ice King is one of my favourites. https://www.helenslavin.com/signup/