“Strewth, Tel,” says Nige, “I was nearly blinded by your bleedin’ bike light earlier tonight, coming down the street.”
“Sorry,” I say, secretly pleased however that my new light is so powerful. It took me quite a bit of research, on the internet at least, to find one that’s such a great balance between brightness and battery longevity.
We’re in Brockley’s London Beer Dispensary which Nige feels split about. On the one hand, it’s full of a wide variety of beers. On the other, most of them cost too much which according to him is a result of the increasing middle-classification of the area.
“And how much did you pay for it?” he asks.
He raises his six quid pint of Penge IPA to his lips and smiles. “And normally you need one as bright as that because you’re mountain-biking in Snowdonia in the dark, right?”
“Not exactly. I’ll probably only use it in London.”
He probably does. Nige has a bike that cost considerably less than my light. I consider countering his evident cynicism by reiterating that on the whole I haven’t succumbed to the lycra, aerodynamic back-pack, speedo computer, cleats, goggles sporting fashion world of modern commuter cycling, but decide not to since I can’t deny that my light costs around ten times more than a perfectly adequate normal model.
“It was really useful on Lundy,” I say, “for getting back from the tavern at night.”
“Really?” he says. “You write fantasy, don’t you?”
Uh-oh. “Sometimes,” I say.
“How much would a character in one of your stories pay for a flaming torch to get him back from the inn at night?”
“Well, he probably wouldn’t bother with a torch. He’d just use the moon or stars or, if they’re not out, go by memory.”
Nige doesn’t reply for a while. Instead, he finishes his pint and I go fetch two more, leaving him to think about new ways to drive a mental spanner into my bike wheel of creativity.
“One of the reasons I don’t get on with fantasy,” he says after I return, “is it’s full of fancy gadgets instead of utilitarian tools.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There are plenty of tools in Game of Thrones,” I say.
He raises an eyebrow. “It’s not just the actual devices; it’s the mind set of those operating them. Look, fifty years ago there were only two types of bike: racing and ordinary. The ordinary ones were ridden by people who just wanted to get somewhere quicker than by walking. They fixed their own punctures and wore comfortable clothes. What they didn’t do was see the tool they were on as some kind of personal statement.”
“And there’s nothing more certain to get you killed on a pre-industrial battlefield than wielding a weapon that’s more a personal statement than a killing tool?”
“Yeah, but isn’t the kind of fantasy you write a personal statement?”
Only this week, I received some round robin email advice from an author about how to avoid a dead-end career as an author. One piece of advice was to ‘choose your turf’. He went on to say that as an author you have to figure out ‘whom you want to become’. By which he didn’t mean as a spiritual entity but more as, say, ‘the John Grisham of hard science fiction’. This was somewhat contradicted by other advice he gave which was to not be ‘a one-trick pony’. But I think I get his point: if you want to succeed at writing, you need to make it less about the world it describes and more about your personal statement.
“Not enough, apparently,” I say.
“‘Course, the irony is,” he says, “that most of these different personal statement brand bikes you see today are all made in the same far east factories.”
“Are you saying that all modern fantasy novel personal statements are actually made in the same mass western author factory?”
“Yes, because mostly they’re just gadget fiction.”
“But surely that’s the point of fantasy: to take us away from the utilitarian.”
He shrugs, somewhat annoyingly, it has to be said.
“Do you remember that day,” he says, “when you and me did a complete service on your old Morris Minor?”
I do. We got covered in oil and crap. It took hours, partly because Nige explained how every part worked and what it did. It was great fun but I never did it again and probably couldn’t anyway since the Morris is long gone and my modern replacement doesn’t lend itself to DIY servicing.
“For me,” he says, “there ain’t enough nuts and bolts in fantasy fiction. I may be wrong but there’s very little detail about how, say, a castle actually works. I mean on the engineering level. Or where the shit goes. And without them things, the characters aren’t real to their time. They’re just actors with implausibly whole sets of teeth, clean underpants and heads full of, well, the same superficial story stuff as their creators.”
I think about arguing that what he’s just said is actually the strength of fantasy. But then I recall a story I once read in a top fantasy magazine, about Robin Hood and Maid Marion, dressed in designer gowns, singing to each other across a moonlit woodland lake in Sherwood Forest, illuminated by fireflies. By fireflies, for God’s sake.
“Yes, but not everyone reads Haynes Manuals for fun like you do, ” I say.
“Well, if they did, maybe fantasy would be better than it is. You’d have readers coming from a position of knowing how stuff bleedin’ works and what tools are actually for, wanting to be entertained. And if the author did the same, the stories would start from a proper, real set of foundations. Ideas can soar from a solid base. Instead you have a bunch of readers who take their bikes to the bike shop to get a puncture fixed wanting to read about designer warriors who never need to eat, sleep, oil their bleedin’ swords – ”
“I think that’s a bit unfair; I’m sure I saw someone polishing his sword once in Lord of the Rings – ” I begin, but Nige is in full rant mode now.
” – my point being that great innovations and discoveries are always made by technicians stretching out, not by artists pretending they know how things really work but who can’t be bothered to actually learn how.”
He sits back, folds his arms, apparently satisfied that he’s nailed it. But I’m not too sure what ‘it’ is. I think we’re saying that real fantasy, or rather fantasy that’s based in reality, or perhaps we mean reality that supports believable fantasy – whatever, that as with bike culture these days being mostly all about fashion and very little about adjusting one’s own spokes, maybe fantasy fiction has moved too far from Tolkien’s folklore-based DIY and into J K Rowling’s flat pack ready-made generic branded simulations.
“It’s a long way from the Hobbit to Harry,” I say.
He takes a long swallow of his American IPA. “It’s a long way from Watney’s Pale Ale to this,” he says. “The yanks grabbed hold of something we took for granted and reinvented it, in the process learning more about the brewing process than us.”
I refrain from pointing out that this reference appears to be going in the opposite direction to mine. Instead, I take a long swallow too and the wonderfully dark kick of flavours against the back of my throat makes me determined to avoid choosing and sticking to my turf at all costs.