Buzz!

Something has changed about my Steam Highwayman project.  For several years, it was an idea in my head that I occasionally mentioned to my brother or sister, or toyed with on my laptop.  Then I saw other people standing up and making a success out of their writing, using their brains and passion to push something from their imagination into reality.  80 Days, by Inkle, wasn’t a commission.  Nobody asked for it or told Jon Ingold, Joe Humfrey and Meg Jayanth to write it: they chose to and made it work.

So in September 2016 I changed my attitude about my writing: I was unlikely ever to meet a patron who would sponsor me in comfort and style to create something with the perfect brief, giving me creative control but enough direction to get going.  I had to make it work.

I chose to work on Steam Highwayman because, unlike my efforts in writing novels, I had good example for a printed, multi-volume gamebook in Morris and Thomson’s Fabled Lands.  I also believed that I could produce something with a limited, defined scale of success.  I recognised that, despite my inherent need to develop and surpass any model, I needed to choose a ceiling to bump up against.

So I began writing, first using Twine to create something that could be made available to modern readers on their phones, but soon changed to focus on producing something I have a much stronger understanding of: a printed book.

And then at Christmas 2016 I had to defend my decision to my dad.

It was great: he grilled me in front of my family and my wife and I had enough answers.  Not every answer, but enough.  He was a self-employed multi-discipline artist/manager/technician at an architect for a quarter century and knows a thing or two about breaking ground, managing yourself and finishing projects.  And about making it happen.

I think that was the beginning of the buzz.  When I began to see that Steam Highwayman, if successful, would become much bigger than I could imagine – that people would discuss it without me being directly involved in the discussion – that it would be strong enough for me to not have to defend it or explain it.

So now it has all changed.  This weekend I promoted the project with a live reading at a Steampunk event in Surrey.  Before the end of the afternoon, there were several dozen people talking to each other about this character, the Steam Highwayman.  THE Steam Highwayman – as if he or she had an independent existence.  At one exciting moment, I was introduced as the Steam Highwayman, but when I demurred and asked ‘Who is the Steam Highwayman?’ I was met with the ringing reply, as my friend pointed to those around, ‘You are the Steam Highwayman!’

Last night I dreamed I was travelling along a dusty road and, stopping to refuel at a petrol station, overheard two strangers discussing what they had been reading.  You guessed it: in my dreams, unconnected randomers are discussing Steam Highwayman.

Then in the last few days I’ve been privileged to have the support of several volunteer proof-readers, a few of whom are close friends or family, but more are people I would have never known before pushing this idea into reality.  And then there’s Ben, who has been so inspiring to work with as an illustrator.  Somewhere out there tonight, in the US, the UK and New Zealand, there are people reading extracts of the adventures of the Steam Highwayman – an invented character in an invented world that had no previous existence until I began to share it.  Elsewhere there is a man who is devoting his time to visualising a story that is entirely made-up – but he wants to get it right and do it justice.

I’m a little bit mind-blown.

Psalm 119 145-152

I call with all my heart; answer me , O Lord,

and I will obey your decrees.

Like Hannah, calling from her sorrow and the Lord speaking in sorrow to Samuel regarding Eli’s sons.  I call – you answer – because we are in a conversation.  This isn’t a deal – ‘I will do what you say if I can hear you say it’, but ‘I will obey your will because I have heard your voice and hearing it shows me how to respond.

I call out to you; save me

and I will keep your statutes.

My cries result in salvation – Romans 10:10 teaches that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved – this is living the rich, full life and enjoying your daily salvation – continually confessing that Jesus, the saviour, is one with the Father, and that the Father is a saving God.  To do this is to be obedient in the greatest matter, keeping the first statute of all statutes.

I will rise before dawn and cry for help,

I have put my hope in your word.

My existing hope does not lead me to isolation – I cry for help regularly – daily – for the day to come.  Your word is living, so I can hope in it with my spirit as much as my mind – in fact, often my spirit should be better equipped to deal with a day than my mind, because even if I do not know what is coming, I have confident faith of my Father’s provision.

My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,

that I may meditate on your promises.

And my spiritual eyes even in sleep!  Chewing and digesting the goodness of this diet means sometimes staying awake to study, pray and experience God’s promises being fulfilled.

Hear my voice in accordance with your love;

preserve my life, O Lord, according to your laws.

Perfectly reciprocal relationship here: God longs to hear our voice – this is what he loves – and he desires to preserve us – his laws actually legislate for long and satisfying life.  So when we ask him for these, he will fulfill our requests.

Those who devise wicked schemes are near,

but they are far from your law.

It is distinct and plain, isn’t it?  Sometimes people planning wicked things – and there is not righteous thing outside God’s word and promise in Christ Jesus – are very near by us, in our family, or physically near, even encroaching on us.  But their distance from the correct path means that we shall always leave them behind as we continue on our walk to Jerusalem.  Their schemes are to preserve themselves or improve their lot: our call is to be changed by remaining in Christ’s company.

Yet you are near, O Lord,

and all your commands are true.

Staying close to his word is close to him and the words he says become more and more true as we try them and live them.  Amen!

Long ago I learned from your statutes

that you established them to last forever.

Yes – as a child I knew that your Word is eternal – and now I increasingly know with experience and am beginning to know that lasting forever is a joyous life you have prepared for me too.

Psalm 119 137-144

Righteous are you, O Lord,

and your laws are right.

God’s correctness, goodness and justice inevitably overflow into his spoken instructions – laws – which come from God’s heart, just as our words come from our heart.  The difference is that our heart is changeable, so our words are passing, but God’s heart is faithful and unchanging, so his words are laws, permanent descriptions of what has been, is and will be.

The statutes you have laid down are righteous;

they are fully trustworthy.

All God’s past utterances are equally valuable – he does not delete – and we can reap their benefits at any time, any year, on into the future, without fearing them, knowing all of scripture is God-breathed and good for teaching, rebuking, correcting and making us holy.  The laws to the Jews are like fine wines, laid down and stored, but still so good to drink.  Some might strike us as old-fashioned – but consider how well they stand up, even though they were brewed for very different tastes, written by God to a people far away in time and in a very different culture.  Yet these laws are only the impressions of his own speaking self – his heart – that Jesus summed up in another way – the command to love God and our neighbour without holding back.

My zeal wears me out,

for my enemies ignore your words.

It is exhausting to be zealous, and rightly so, for it should be a drawing out of the depths of ourselves, like exhaustion, seeking with a whole heart, because there are no examples in the world of righteousness and no easy answers.  We cannot simply rest on our brothers’ and sisters’ abilities to find God’s way but must each go direct to God to seek him and his law for our lives.  How does your unchanging character, O God, impress commands into my life and my culture and my daily life?  I have seen how your law pushed into the Jews’ world – now how about mine, today?  Exhausting work!  Zeal is travelling, seeking, walking.

Your promises have been thoroughly tested,

and your servant loves them.

We have only good testimony of God.  His utterance is tried, refined, purified, his Word was refined through the desert, his promises have no weakness or flaw: they are coherent, complete, proportionate, lovely, strong, living and have every appeal to a servant, for they are what we need – not orders but promises, principles rather than simply instructions, so we are free to act for ourselves with full conviction of purpose.

Though I am lowly and despised,

I do not forget your precepts.

No!  It is exactly then, when we do not enjoy the world’s recognition, that we can be most sure of the goodness of God’s word to us.  We are each lowly, despised by the worldly for having these principles, but forgetting them would be the despicable thing.  We must remember through action – by continuing to enact.

Your righteousness is everlasting

and your law is true.

The eternity of God’s character and nature gives integrity to his speech: he alone can claim such a thing.

Trouble and distress have come upon me,

but your commands are my delight.

Oh joy and celebration in trouble and worry – let this be in my life, Lord, for your commands are designed for these times – whether it is difficulty from someone else or our own inconsistent confidence, we can feast on God’s word and his place in our life.

Your statutes are for ever right,

give me understanding that I may live.

They hold the key to eternal and abundant life, and oh, understanding of God’s ways is life indeed!  Being changed by them is really living – a life that will continue beyond the grave.  Ah, Lord God, I long to live with real understanding of your word in me, knowledge of your Son, intimately.

Verses 73-80

Your hands made me and formed me;

Give me understanding to learn your commands.

From the same hands come creation and training, both acts of love.  Initially we are made – and well-made – but spiritually unformed – and then formed by the growth of understanding as we learn to obey God and follow his law.  His chosen method of explaining – his Spirit – is required to learn about his laws.  That is unavoidable.  To know of his commands is only the beginning, since we are designed to relate to them and to relate to him through them.

May those who fear you rejoice when they see me,

For I have put my hope in your word.

A ruler or king can be trusted when he hopes in God, which is enacted when he looks for goodness in God’s utterance.  People around don’t simply receive pleasure but joy!

I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous

And in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

We can have factual knowledge and know, without any experience, that God is good, but to be faithful to his promise to teach us, God will judge us in the law – and then in the new law.  He couldn’t leave us thinking we knew him and his ways when we had never been tested or had opportunity to depend on him.  So Jesus prays in the garden “Your faithfulness to your own plan requires this suffering.”

Let your compassion come to me that I may live

For your law is my delight.

Without his compassion, I would surely die, but I seek your compassion because I love your law – because I love your living word.  I know what your compassion is like and look for it where it is likely to be found.

May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause;

But I will meditate on your precepts.

The causeless actions of the arrogant bring more actions – caused ones and reasoned ones.  So God repays chaos with order, deceit with truth, evil with good.  But meditation is not a reaction to the arrogant.  It is separate, quiet, peaceful.  Arrogant actions are slander, treating people unjustly and describing them inaccurately.  Meditating on God’s precepts stops this in us.

May those who fear you turn to me,

Those who understand your statutes.

Everyone who really knows God’s way of business will be drawn to holy kings, good leaders and true servants of the Gospel.  Our fear of God allows us to relate to people who have ordered their life that way.

May my heart be blameless towards your decrees

That I might not be put to shame.

How?  My heart must be revived and renewed.  I must have learnt your word – not simply know it or know about it, but I must have been taught by it, changed by it.  I must be living a new life – I must be redeemed and sealed by the Holy Spirit – for that is the blamelessness promised to us, free of condemnation and living within the law.

Wine and Water

A glass of wine might slake the thirst

But water, sure to rest the soul

Runs freer, less in our control,

The next draught swifter than the first.

 

Yet still we have this drink to share

Through time, across a world made small,

I drink with poets, saints and all

Distracted, dreaming, trying to care.

 

Blood.  It does not mix with oil.

Another source of cleanliness

To sluice the cuts that nonetheless

Are stinging, tinctured with the soil

 

Of all the everyday, and night,

The bringer of our rest or pains,

Should heal us as we sleep, but veins

Of running sorrow bleed us white.

 

So washing off all worry’s marks –

Cold splash of spring-fed water, or

A brassy jug of wine to pour

So rainbows shine in ringing arcs.

City Lights

A mile away the city lights –

The ancient, banking city, lit

With red and white and sure to fit

All today’s money – those clear sights

 

Which stand on towers stood to the South

One half the distance to my school,

They blink and glimmer like the pool

Reflecting stars from night’s broad mouth.

 

From here I see them every dusk

And every morning, if I rise,

They shine beneath plane-brightened sies,

They flood the morning like rich musk,

 

A smell of money?  Or of time?

Perhaps of youth?  But none I know,

The choices I took long ago

Forewent this wealth, undid this crime

 

To eat while others starved and cried,

I chose to eat the children’s bread

And rest upon a narrow bed

That barely rests me on my side.

 

But then it was no choice for me –

There never was an enchantment

About the interests money lent

So how can I claim virtue’s fee?

 

Our hearts each lead us where our minds

Can tell us that our calling dwells

And all the lies that rumour tells

Are as the rusted swords time finds.

 

As years pass, they seem less and less,

All worn by soil, by water, salt,

And distant tongues grow hard and halt

While living words grow and possess.

Kon Tiki

Between the lines the story tells

I hear an author’s voice distinct.

Convinced that he and I are linked

I hope to set such stirring spells.

 

Adventure, or a sudden loss,

Alike speak truth when men can stand

And see themselves as earth of land

And venture futures on time’s toss.

 

The rafts of dreamers, mad or sane,

Carried by inhuman streams,

Rivers in the sea, strong beams

Of balsa wood and bamboo cane,

 

Light as light and fragile, lithe,

Barely count to city minds

But when the rocks and anchor grinds

Rafts pass swift on, serene and blithe.

 

For those who share the water-rolls,

Split and crash through frantic swells

A floating scrap of wood impels

No certain theory, proves no wholes,

 

But if you have become relaxed

And let the currents rise and dip

Allowed them lift you, turn and tip

Theories convince untaxed.

Mozart, Christe Eleison

Christe eleison bright rises in my ear,

The melody I learnt long since resounds again, so near.

To watch one gifted retch and pale

And see his talents fail,

What response, but a quiet and sincere

Christe eleison.

My friends I choose to address quite clear:

Your gift is great, although few hear

The music written when you nightly wail

Christe eleison.

 

Every maker takes his chance to disappear,

Lose himself in his creation, let the seen be seer,

If that’s the way to weave a tale

Or hang a phrase upon harmony’s nail

Then what is any art, but a mere

Christe eleison.

Seeking Beauty

I used to think you had to understand,

To know your place in history’s line,

Your form, your pace, your isocline,

And hold your past and future in one hand,

 

The hand that holds the pen.  No more.

The pattern of art’s providence

Is far more complex, fractal, tense,

Than any art can frame or store,

 

And when I’ve walked through quiet pines

I’ve heard the boughs that yawned and swayed

That beauty isn’t something made

But something found between straight lines.

 

Hear Mozart tumble with his tune –

He knows how long to tease and tweak,

But try and numerate that feat –

Retire, and learn to play bassoon.

 

I wrote three thousand words today

In just two hours, to do what’s due,

Delineate some skill’s debut

And teach a child to make work play.

 

But that was not enough, I missed

The target I had had me aim

And have drawn out this writing game

To be the whole week’s stretching list.

 

What better?  Suffer?  Write and sob

Or inject laughter, distract noise

Forget my children, leave the boys

The girls, the classroom, drop the job?

 

I am one man – I have one heart –

And when I test it, stretch it out,

The pain is like a desert’s drought,

The muscle rested pulls apart.

 

Then only through life’s constant work

Can I find rest from doubt or debt.

There’s no relaxing here, not yet,

So I’ll pick up the pen I shirk.

Now Send Flesh

That coat of gentle, ginger suede,

Real warm, perhaps the sleeves too long,

No inside pockets, can’t belong

To this me, since such fabric’s frayed.

 

The leather’s bright as bought, except

A collar-line; the buttons tied,

All rethreaded, worn with pride;

I’ve thrown out others – this I’ve kept.

 

For weeks I’ve followed round my ghost

Counting when I wore that first,

When she gave that, bit lip, cursed,

To find her hand was still on most.

 

But this I purchased long ago

When I was first at leisure, rich,

And chose to rise to pleasure’s pitch

And wear the mirror’s happy glow.

 

I bought it yet before I knew

The name that now distends my fears.

I’m tied to something through the years

That has no will to say or do

 

Yet speaks, forgiving, soft and smooth,

The skin like skin I miss to touch.

Ask, ‘Do I miss her?’ ‘No, not much,

Except when breath my lungs would soothe.’

 

On every surface, every door,

Fingerprints and darkling hairs.

I find her when I walk upstairs,

She rests in blankets even more.

 

The pencil pot, the chopping board,

The tent, the grout for fixing tiles,

The dreams of treading sunny aisles,

And every single guitar chord.

 

I haven’t yet resolved this rage –

Am I to amputate my past

And lose the years I clung to, fast,

And blanken all my diary’s page?

 

Don’t give advice – don’t share your grief –

I know already that time heals,

That when a nerve is cut it feels

But later leaves its torture brief.

 

Can you imagine I want that?

A heart which soon will cease to care?

A place to hide?  Oh, how unfair

To know distraction or combat.

 

So either suffer every jab

And let no-body lift a share

Or betray, regret, then forswear

The once-bright future, paint it drab.

 

That jacket though is still as fresh,

And I still like it as I did,

And while I hated, cried and hid,

I petrified.  But now send flesh.