“I’ve been thinking,” says Nige. He pauses. Takes a long swallow of his lager. It’s eleven-eleven, and he has two more pints waiting after this one. Ordering three just before last orders is a hang-over from when it was always eleven in the Tavern. These days, it’s difficult to know when the place will close but Nige, despite his elastic thinking at times, is oddly ritualistic where drinking is concerned.

His paint-splattered hair is a little American Indian tonight and his eyes indeed have an eagle-watching distance to them. I sense a builder’s stream of consciousness may be ready to erupt into the Monday night calm of the Tavern, like psychedelic Dulux from a paint gun.

“Apparently,” he continues, “we’re all surrounded by our own unique microbe cloud, Tel. Our germs and bacteria and various poxy particles make up a signature that’s as distinctive as our fingerprints. Which means if the police could find a way to measure said cloud they’d be able to track down criminals dead easy.”

“Don’ they already have fingerprints?” I say.

He sighs. “Yes and villains have gloves. But you can’t slip a latex sheath over your microbe cloud can you? But crime-fighting isn’t what I was thinking about, as it happens. For bleedin’ centuries, people could only tell what’s what about other people by their physical manifestations. Because we couldn’t measure or even know sod all about microbe clouds, we could only spot obvious, and often un-germane differences between folks. In other words, we’ve never got in the habit of looking for the stuff about other people that you can’t see.”

I resist the urge to remind him that in fact many people over the centuries have claimed to be able to see the invisible emanations we apparently make, and to interpret what they mean. One reason I don’t is that while I more or less believe such emanations exist, I’m not convinced that many people are very accurate at interpreting them.

“For a start,” he says, “I reckon the most distinctive invisible stuff we all give off is the fantasy cloud. Everyone spends the vast majority of their lives fantasising in one way or another. They picture themselves with muscles they ain’t got and high cheekbones which are actually obscured permanently by McDonald’s blubber. Blokes are constantly picturing women without their clothes on; and running through a brilliant speech they’re going to give their boss to destroy the bastard’s hold over them and leave him a whimpering wreck. And the fantasy cloud is self-perpetuating; it feeds back into our brains so we actually come to believe it, to the point we think the real world is just some bleedin’ intrusion into our real reality.”

As he talks, I look around the room. In one corner is a table of regulars. I can’t hear what they’re talking about but their expressions, eye-shine, confident tone says that they believe they’re right. But almost certainly they won’t be. Maybe Nige is on to something: our fantasy cloud is self-infecting.

“As you know,” he says, “I’ve been trying to help you teach self-deluded writers how to write fantasy.”

“I didn’t say they were self-deluded,” I say.

He picks up his pint again, shaking his head pityingly. “Unless a writer understands his own fantasy cloud, he ain’t got a chance of producing anything that won’t read like Wayne Rooney’s auto-bleedin’-biography. And if he’s writing fantasy, then the unconvincing distance effect is compounded.”

“Come again?”

“I ain’t no teacher, Tel, but the first question I’d ask a fantasy writer is: what’s in your characters’ fantasy clouds?”

I laugh and take a long swallow of my expensive craft beer. I don’t understand exactly what he means but the authentic noise of it is like a great resounding bong on the Rank Movies gong of truth.

“Let me have go at this,” I say. “Us real world types are surrounded by fantasy clouds, so it’s logical to assume that characters in fantasy novels will be surrounded by reality clouds.”

“No, that’s false logic, mate. Characters in fantasy novels are real to their world. They won’t have clouds around them that reflect our world; they’ll have clouds full of fantasy what pertains in their world.”

“Okay, so what would be in Gandalf’s fantasy cloud?”

“Good question and possibly unique in the history of Lord of the Rings fandom. So, what does the most famous wizard in fantasy history fantasise about?”

“Being a hobbit,” I say, “settling down with a nice hobbit woman and drinking beer in a hobbit tavern, philosophising with his hobbit builder/decorator mate about what David Copperfield fantasises about?”

He ignores my attempt at circular irony. “I reckon he would fantasise about being a better soddin’ bloke, actually. I mean, he’s all beard and meaningful looks but that won’t cut it with a wizard chick. She’s going to respond more to creative humour and a manly strength that’s so confident it can open a window of vulnerability for her to see the true him through, what contains more real magic than anything his wand can ever summon up.”

“Well, now you may of course be alluding to the author’s own fantasy cloud and his unconscious suppression thereof.”

“You’ve hit it, Tel,” he says. “The fundamental problem with modern fantasy.”

“Hang on, let me get my notebook out; this is going to be a real scoop.”

“Until a writer is proper au fait with his own fantasy cloud he’s never going to produce characters with believable fantasy clouds. The bleedin’ reader doesn’t need to know what exactly these characters’ clouds contain, of course, but he has to sense their presence, and that takes the form of characters who don’t look and sound like they just switch off when they’re not in a scene and get hung up in the author’s various mental closets called ‘Wise But Boringly Dead Pan Wizard Unless He’s Slapping His Thighs At A ‘Joke’ That The Reader’ll Never Get Because Frankly It’s Not Very Funny’, or ‘Ballsy Princess Who Nevertheless Carries Around An Impressive Pair Of Knockers’ or ‘Villain Who Never Changes His Underpants’. If both author’s and his characters’ fantasy clouds was fully operational you could have your villain, I don’t know, just watching Panorama and looking like he’s a bit lost in big issues, and he’d be even more villainous for it.”

“If all this is true,” I say, “how come millions of readers seem to enjoy fantasy with cloudless characters?”

He looks sad and swallows two thirds of his second pint in one hit. “You’ve now hit on the other fundamental problem with modern fantasy.”

“Where did I put my pen . . . ?”

“The fantasy novel is the reader’s fantasy cloud, at least while they’re reading, or attending conventions or whatever. It prevents them having to try to understand their own real fantasy cloud.”

“Okay,” I say, “so, we’ve got authors who are not sufficiently aware of their own fantasy clouds, writing characters who don’t actually have fantasy clouds, for readers who are escaping their real fantasy clouds for a collective cloud made of the author’s subconscious cloud and his characters’ missing clouds, which together approximate a fantasy-fantasy cloud that by existing in a fantasy setting allows the reader, and probably the author too, to believe they are actually grappling with a legitimate fantasy cloud but in fact they’re just avoiding real fantasy?”

He nods, a little smugly it has to be said. “I knew you’d get there eventually, Tel.”


I’m with Steve in what used to be Mr Lawrence the wine bar but is now the London Beer Dispensary. Much of the furniture – old wooden tables and a range of chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy tavern – is the same. What’s different is there is now a lot of beer: beer in barrels, beer in bottles, beer – sorry, IPAs – chilled on tap. Being old farts who were pioneers of CAMRA back in the 70s we should really sneer keglessly at all this, well, variety, but we both have a sneaky liking for colder beer and therefore quietly hail the US-style IPA revolution taking place in the UK; at least, in the parts of the UK where people don’t mind paying £5.50 a pint; in fact, would be suspicious if they paid any less.

“I’ve been writing a blog series called ‘How to Write Fantasy’,” I say.

“That’ll get you noticed,” he says.

“Well, obviously, I’m trying to come at in from new angles.”

“Not really a very innovative genre, though, is it?”

I remember then that while Steve is a huge fan of science fiction, or at least SF from the 50s to the 70s when, according to him, there were at least some writers who were using SF to comment significantly on the world instead of playing at it, he has little time for fantasy.

“Surely by its very nature,” I say, “fantasy must offer the most opportunities for a writer to express his imagination.”

He holds up his pint of IPA with an unpronounceable name, checking, I choose to think, for specks of fantasy gold.

“I think it’s the opposite: most fantasy writers use that endless opportunity to avoid facing the real thing their genre should be producing.”

He puts down his glass and waits for me to say which is? But before I can, he takes on a distant gaze and continues speaking. At least, he carries on talking but at first I suspect he’s decided to change the topic.

“Years ago,” he says, “I went on this art course, in a big house in Yorkshire. There were fifteen of us and each night a team of three would cook the evening meal for everyone else. There were two women on my team but on the night one of them went sick, so it was just me and Mary.”

“Ah, Mary.”

“What do you mean, ‘Ah, Mary’? I’ve never mentioned her before.”

“Yes, but I think I know what’s coming.”

He looks deeply wistful, like a wizard who’s lost his clay pipe.

“If you know what’s coming,” he says, “you should be able to write a killer fantasy story. At last. As I was saying – Mary and I were in the kitchen for about three hours, cooking. I’d noticed her; couldn’t really not: tall, long black hair, kind but sometimes really fierce eyes. Anyway, we talked as we prepared the food. And because we were doing something practical, our conversation was sort of set off to one side of us. Which meant, without realising it we were sensing each other, and listening to the spaces between our words, and liking each other a lot but without actually thinking it.”

He drinks some more beer and gathers deeper into his memory.

“I felt liberated,” he said. “My normal cautious self was busy chopping onions. My free self . . . well, I really liked my free self. It joked about everything but warmly, spontaneously, included Mary without question; and she did the same with me until it wasn’t Steve and Mary any more. Harmony – it’s not a pleasant blending of different tones, Terry. It’s when two free selves rush around together like dogs off their leads in the park . . . And then there was this moment.”

I think I can almost touch the moment he’s talking about, like grabbing after the rapidly fading fragments of a dream you don’t want to lose.

“I was stirring a pot of bolognaise sauce by the stove,” he says. “Mary stood next to me, our shoulders just a couple of inches apart. She had a plate of chopped tomatoes ready to go in the pot. And right then, I knew, and I knew that she knew, even though nothing had been said and we weren’t looking at each other. We knew. Nothing before or since in my life has ever been so certain as that moment. It had no shape or substance and could never have been taught in a dating class or whatever. But it was totally real.”

“What happened?” I say.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t trust it enough. And I guess she didn’t either. And when we hesitated, our normal selves nudged themselves back into the moment and smoothed it off, rationalised it. I did make myself look into her eyes but I just couldn’t read what was there. But of course I couldn’t: because my normal self was already justifying my inaction. I never saw her again after that course.

“That’s what fantasy should be writing about,” he says. “Not poxy dragons, princesses, elves and talking hats.”

“But you can’t only write about those kinds of moments,” I say.

“No, but fantasy should contain more of them than any other genre, because it’s supposed to be about our not-normal selves. But if anything, it contains less per pound weight than any other form.”

“‘The Once and Future King’ has a pretty good ratio of moments to mass,” I say but I’m not really sure.

He looks oddly defeated. “I read the first book of ‘Game of Thrones’,” he says. “The last chapter is one of those moments. It’s fantastic – the writer’s free self really soars. But you have to wade through over 800 pages of stock fantasy normal-self shit to get there. Even if the other books end with those moments, I’m not reading them.”

I mentally summon objections to this; references to fantasy stories that have moments in them. But I say nothing since essentially I agree with him. There just aren’t enough. Modern fantasy has become a game of tomes, where the writer drip feeds tiny tastes of magic, and sometimes temporarily delivers at the end as a reward for his followers wading on so far with him, and for paying him to wade.

“There should be more,” I say. “It’s a writer’s duty, after all, to deliver magic.”

“Well said, Tel,” he says, “but I think you’re missing the point. I’ve only had one of those moments in over sixty years of living. The rest has been just the normal shit.”

“Are you saying fantasy writers who produce thousand page novels of tramping around boggy landscapes with just one moment of magic are accurately reflecting life?”

“No, I’m saying don’t wast your time reading fantasy.”