At this time of year I am sometimes pursued by a black dog. There have been years when there has been a pack of them, unruly and barking.
It used to be that I was afraid of the black dog but that made it worse, there was a mental frenzy of trying to dodge it and the more I dodged Black, the more legs he sprouted to trip me up, until, finally, he was in fact Sleipnir the Dog, born of Loki and Greyfriars’ Bobby no doubt.
Over the years I have learnt to whistle for Black, because that way he must come to heel and I am in charge. I can offer him small treats, a little stress here, so sinewy and chewy, over there I can lob him a little melancholy shadow for him to settle into. But that way I manage him. I see the lowering of the lights and know that his paws will pad towards me. The rustle of the leaves as they fall from the trees disguises the panting of his bone-strewn breath.
He’s a mythic beast. His fur is thick and dark as the night terrors, inked in with all my woes and griefs over the years. He is not a welcome companion but at least he is no stranger. I wrangle him nowadays and realise that as well as bringing all the griefs back for me to pick over and spill tears on, he can also take those troubles and upsets that have gathered. I can load him up as I reach to ruffle around his shaggy neck. He licks them from my hand, snaffles them from the floor where I drop them.
If there comes a moment when he snarls and I know that he will turn on me, that I will be not devoured but savaged, bitten, wounded, then I must find an escape. This, is the only time I ride a horse.
Long ago, when I was at university at Warwick, my mum and dad arrived for a visit and we visited Ragley Hall. There was a stable block and, unusually for a stately home, there was in fact a horse in it. Only when you have seen a horse in a stable like that do you have a true idea of the power of the horse. It was a wild, whirling thing caught behind wooden planks and wrought bars. The scent was strong but the energy of the beast was stronger, you could almost hear its heart thudding. It made a nickering sound, low and rumbly and in the distance another horse whinnied out in reply. The horse in the stable listened, ears pricking and with a rearing motion that hinted at a possibility that it might escape up through the ceiling, the horse let out a neigh. The sound was vast, a wave washing around myself and my dad, silencing us both. I have never forgotten it.
This is the memory I use if Black decides to misbehave. With his jaws snarling with the past, with the worry and doubt and anxiety dripping from his teeth I lift my head and ask Horse to come out of the wood.
Horse arrives, heavyhoofed and wild eyed. My fingers clutch at mane and I lift my mental self up and out of the landscape, the rhythm of hooves, the smell of horse as he rises, up, up into a starlit sky to where there is nothing but breath and forged iron.
On Radio 4 in recent weeks they have been asking the question ‘Can robots take over your job?’ and I’ve been wondering.
Asimov was the first to think about this and make laws for the legion of mechanical beings who might, if we’re not careful, rule the earth. Robot, the noun, is Czech, taken from the word ‘robota’ or ‘forced labour’ so they’re already on a loser. Sci-fi has not helped what with Hal and his obsession with airlock security and the mayhem that was Dark Star. In more recent days there has been the Will Smith epic ‘I Robot’. Need I draw further attention to the perilous shenanigans of the Fembots in Austin Powers?
They ask a lot. Robots. They make us question ourselves and our idea of our own importance. We’re already being overtaken, not all robots have a face. There are the self-service slave tills in your supermarkets and, during my library tenure, members of staff were regularly replaced by the RFID machines.
Can they do my job? Probably. I’m churning out words and we’ve tried the monkeys and the typewriters so why not give the Bots a quill and some ink. There is bound to be some science nerd somewhere coming up with an algorithm for the imagination, the creation of story.
They were talking this evening about the 3D printing of houses, curvy modern buildings that Kevin McCloud no doubt drools over. The engineer being interviewed commented that we haven’t changed our building methods since Roman times and won’t it be lovely when the builders don’t have to stand out in the cold in their high-vis vests, instead they can be indoors operating the 3D printers.
Maybe that is so. It depends upon the builder. I think that if someone wants to be in a factory operating a printer then they might have chosen that kind of career path. There will be brickies and roofers the length and breadth of the country who love their work, who like to be in a trench or drylining a luxury flat. They don’t want to be indoors, they enjoy their skill.
At the library it was depressing to me that we were told to push people towards the RFID and not deal with them personally. In the face of government cuts and austerity the big push has been towards a reduction of staff. Let the machines do it. Along the way the idea was forgotten, or perhaps dismissed, that many people come into the library in order to interact with a human, some people are lonely or isolated and they wanted to come in and rant about the inadequacy of the seafaring adventure novels on offer.
That said there were plenty of library employees only too happy to be excused from dealing with the great unwashed British public.
No preparation is being made for this Industrial Revolution Part II so perhaps we ought to look back to history and consider; the desperate violence of the Luddites, the starvation of the handloom weavers because, in the end, the people at the top only care about the people at the top. No one is looking downward and seeing trouble, they can be replaced, these serfs and servants and slaves. They don’t care now and they won’t care then when they can ditch everyone and make better profits because they no longer have to pay a Living Wage to a workforce of Golems, written into life with software and electricity.
It might be wonderful, this robot utopia. It might be that the government brings in the Universal Income where everyone is given a sum of money to live on regardless of means. We all get a base income of say £12,000, the figure currently bandied about. With the freedom from labour offered by robots we all have time to concentrate on the things we love to do rather than those that must be done to pay the bills. We can open a petting zoo or take up watercolour painting. We can spend that time with our family at last and take care of our own children. We might find a different and better meaning for life, one that is not circumscribed by status anxiety about the fact that we never did make it to CEO. We might, in the shadow of the robots, remember what it is to be human.
It’s that Samhain time of year again when I pull out my stripey leggings and think about foggy nights in front of the fire.
Not that I have a fire. I have radiators, not quite the same effect so I tend to have to go out into the garden and light the fire basket, which is where the fog creeps in as I pull up a cobwebbed deck chair and start reading. Of course, at Halloween it has to be something spooky.
I’ve long been a fan of Alice Hoffman and Practical Magic is one of my favourites. It has everything, a vast Gothic style mansion in New England, an undead ex-boyfriend and broomsticks. It’s filled with rich everyday magic and an idea of not messing with the occult unless you know what you’re doing. I like my magic doings to have a solid foundation in reality. In Practical Magic the sisters have a deep and troubled connection to their home town and their witchy powers and the book is about family and accepting who you are. The most gifted sister hides her witchcraft and only through a crisis does she finally realise how much a part of herself this gift is and that it was a mistake to try and tamp it down.
Another big favourite is M R James. Be careful. You have to ration yourself on these short stories. Their quiet, sinister quality will make you jump at every creaking floorboard and see figures moving at the edge of your vision. Again it is that basis in the everyday, in reality that makes them somehow more spooky.
That’s the key I think, you have to choose your monsters. The most obvious firebreathing Godzilla is scary but it’s only a surface terror, like a rollercoaster ride, you know you are strapped in and along for the loop the loop. Once you make the monster have a human face you are really plugging into the primal fears.
I make no bones about the fact that my two Desert Island books are (chuck out the Bible) Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf with, as its companion volume, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is no surprise then that another go-to for spookiness and delight is The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke. I love Clarke’s writing and this collection of stories is one I am always turning to in a moment of reading need. I love the title story, exceptionally spooky and also feminist/empowering. A close second is ‘Mrs Mabb’ in which poor forlorn and forgotten Venetia takes on quite a powerful fairy. That makes it sound like high fantasy but again, these stories are rooted in reality, albeit an historic 18th century folkloric one. For spooky humour turn the page to ‘Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower’. Conan Doyle’s Cottingley fairies were never like this. I have read this collection a thousand times and never tire of it.
A long ago read that has stayed with me and is always a good one for a Halloween, is Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Again we’ve got darkness seeping into the everyday. I first read this as a teenager. I was terrified and yet I could not put it down. You think you’ve got bad neighbours? Think you can trust a kindly little old lady? Think you can trust your own ambitious husband? Think again. This novel makes even pregnancy into, well, spoiler alert. To this day whenever I see anyone wearing a little pot-pourri style silver pendant round their neck the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Read the book, you’ll understand. That’s the power of words, imagination and Tannis root.
I know, I know, this is a lot of wordage and there are only 24 hours in Halloween. Probably wise to open a portal and skim through several different Hallow…Wait. Did you hear that? Is there someone there? Hello?