“The system is taking over,” says Ben, smiling, aware of the cliché.

We’re sitting in his back garden; it’s around eleven in the evening; warm, a near full moon overhead; rich dark hulks of bushes and trees fill our vision from the decking where we’re drinking whisky and talking about the world of books. His bookshop is still struggling, which may be why every time we meet he has a new theory for what’s wrong with the publishing business.

“Wasn’t it always?” I say.

“This is worse than the man, he says. This is the men, and the women, and the kids too.”

“Do you mean everyone’s finally been taken over by the system?”

“No, I mean everyone is the system, and now the system eats itself.”

“This isn’t going to be about how the man lost control for just a brief time in the 60s but is now more in charge than ever, having learnt his lesson?”

“Not quite. Leaving aside the commercial hacks who’ve always been around, the way it used to work with the good writers was that they just wrote. And when they’d finished writing, they gave it to their publisher who published it. Then the reader read it. End of story. So to speak.”

“Like Philip Wylie.”

“Yes! He was driven by ideas and passion and challenge. Remember that book he wrote where all the men on the planet disappear and in parallel all the women disappear. Right in the middle of it he sticks this thesis about men and women; says to the reader, you can skip this bit if you want but it’s why I wrote the book.”

“‘Generation of Vipers’ – an all-out attack on the American Mom.”

“And he created Superman without hardly noticing. Of course a couple of hacks stole the idea, sanitised it and made millions.”

“And Wylie wouldn’t get published today?”

“It’s worse than that: he probably wouldn’t write today. In his time, readers weren’t a system. They were the great unknown mass of unconnected individuals without a voice. There was no internet; just letters and mostly only two people ever saw those. Readers got what the writer wanted to say and the writer hardly ever knew or cared what the reader thought. Wylie wasn’t writing for readers. He was trying to smash a way through the system.”

“There’s that time his doctor told him to take a cruise as a break from writing but he spent the entire trip shut in his cabin writing a hundred and twelve thousand word novel.”

“Doctors are part of the system. And they want their patients to join the system, to do as they’re told, to take their medicine. Supplied by the drug companies which run the bigger system that controls the doctors’ system.”

A neighbour’s cat creeps onto the decking like a lateral thought. We hear the gentle tinkling of cutlery from the house backing on to Ben’s.

“In Wylie’s day,” says Ben, “the publisher’s system was sandwiched between two unknown non-systems: the writer and the reader. But now the writer is outnumbered because the readers have become a system that works in tandem with the publisher.”

I know what he means. I think about recent writers’ workshops I’ve been on where intelligent people, stuffed with craft and story instinct, are often bowed down by the requirements of a system that wants more and more of the same, with just a little twist of different.

“The worst thing that happened to writers was the creation of interconnected fans,” he says. “They’re demanding and powerful and full of cash so they now dictate what appears in books or screens. They love Sherlock Holmes and Batman and the X-Men and Doctor-Bloody-Who but they love them their way. And publishers and producers are too artistically spineless to tell them to go screw themselves, that they’ll get what they’re given and take a chance on expanding their creative comfort zones whether they want to or not.”

“Even Stan Lee . . . ” I begin.

He laughs. “Even Stan Lee! Even Stan Lee, commercial genius that he was, could create characters outside of the system. The comics system wasn’t as inflexible as it is now so he could dream up all kinds of outlandish new superheroes and Marvel would just give it to their readers.”

“But, hey, you and I are old farts out of touch with the world. I bet if we had a bright teenage comics fan here, he’d tell us there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on outside the mainstream.”

“There probably is, but it won’t be denting the sales of the commercial giants, and most people won’t have heard of it. Which the system can accommodate easily enough. It even gives it authenticity: it can claim there is more variety in comics and books today than there ever was.”

The whisky takes me back to when he and I were younger, and we’d sit up all night talking about the universe and where it ends, or why grass is green. Now, we know too much about what’s wrong with the world to let the wonder out very often.

“Does it really matter?” I say. “Even if there’s just one great book that says something real, and only one person who reads it, and gets changed by it – doesn’t that mean the world’s a better place?”

I think he shrugs; it’s hard to tell in the dark. “The other problem with systems today,” he says, “is that they can edit the truth faster and more effectively than ever. I was watching this BBC programme the other night, all about pop stars who grow old. Because it’s a programme made for the system, it has to have a simple message. So it had a succession of old sixties artists who are still singing the stuff today they sang back then. Why not? the programme says, if the music’s good.”

“Well, they’ve got a point,” I say, “especially when you think of One Direction.”

“But their nice neat system of organising the sixties’ singers didn’t have a place for Scott Walker, so he wasn’t even mentioned. He had massive success back in the day but you won’t catch him singing the bloody sun ain’t gonna shine any more at the Albert Hall any time soon.”

“I nearly had a nasty accident the other day because of Scott Walker,” I say.

“Come again.”

“I was in the bath, listening to his latest album for the first time: ‘The Childhood of a Leader’. A lot of it is very orchestral and fairly normal for him. Anyway, I was enjoying it when suddenly there was this rasping, hacking, ugly sound. I thought the washing machine was about to blow up. So, I jumped out of the shower, slipped, and bashed into the door frame. Which was when I realised the horrible noise was part of the music.”

We’re quiet for a moment, musing over the thin line between art and the seriously bonkers. Then Ben says, “Well, you won’t knock yourself out listening to Olly Murs, that’s for sure.”

I know he’s right about systems, and how they’re more in control than ever, yet in the west at least, disguised much better than before. Increasingly, however, I’m seeing that there really is no choice. Even if it means I never publish a story again, the duty of an author is to avoid complying with systems with everything he’s got.

He points his iSomething device towards the living room and we hear a great swelling of orchestral music, at a galloping pace, followed by that great baritone voice.

And if one day I should become, a singer with a Spanish bum, who sings for women of great virtue . . .

Which of course is one of the greatest songs ever about breaking out of the system.

Though I’d be drunk as I could be, still I would sing my song to me, about the time they called me ‘Jacky’.



“What’s up, Tel? You look like you swallowed a banana sideways.”

Nige sits opposite me, puts down his glass which is already half empty. The Farmers is quiet tonight; because it’s hot, most of the clientele are out back in the garden, swathed in fag smoke which obscures their view of the mildewed concrete floor and the weird shadows moving across the fuzzy glass windows of the undertakers next door.

I shut my laptop, the page still blank anyway. “I’ve been bothered about something for a long time now.”

“Richard’s manure heap that’s walking around on its own at nights?”

“No, the fact that so many successful books and movies these days just don’t have plots. Or at least not logical ones. And no one seems to care.”

He thinks for a moment. “I see what you’re saying. So, why don’t the writers put in a plot? They must know how to, don’t they? I mean, it’d be like me not bothering to fit a U bend under a sink, just sort of hoping the water’ll find its own way somehow into the waste pipe.”

“That’s what concerns me. They obviously could in a plot but they don’t; and it doesn’t stop them making a pile of cash anyway.”

“And you reckon they should do it for their own pride, even if the punters don’t care?”

“Oh, I think a few punters care a lot. They’re the ones that write very funny and detailed one star Amazon critiques of plotless junk like Prometheus but they’re outnumbered hundreds to one by the five star fans who loved it anyway.”

“Okay, but if they added a plot, wouldn’t that get the thinkers on board too and the fans will still be there anyway?”

“You’d think so but it just doesn’t happen. I’ve given up watching most TV because the lack of causal linking between scenes gets me too worked up.”

“Bar pause,” he says. He picks up my glass and heads to the counter to order two more pints. I’m actually keen to hear what he says when he returns. A curious quality of Nige’s is that his brain works best following a pause. And he pauses a lot. He pauses several times a day for tea while painting and decorating; and he often pauses during a tea pause to take a doughnut run pause. He also pauses frequently between pints although it has to be said that the lager itself doesn’t pause that much on its way to his stomach.

“You’re coming at this all wrong,” he says, sitting again. “You think the problem’s the writers but I reckon it’s the punters – the viewers and the readers.”

“Tell me more.”

“Okay, you’re often banging on about how the creative world ain’t controlled any longer by the artist. The punters shout loud about what they want; the sellers take note and tell the publishers what to publish, and the publisher tells the writer what to write. Right?”

“Well, it’s not quite that black and white. There’s always been a commercial imperative but these days it’s just got all-conquering.”

“Yeah, right, okay. But you’re missing the point.”

He smiles, rather like a civil servant who’s just been given a promotion for twenty years of doing the bleedin’ obvious.

“Hit me.”

He nods over his right shoulder.

“Paint fumes given you a head tick, Nige?”

I look over his shoulder and see a couple, both looking at their phones.

“Well, that’s nothing new: a couple who’d rather communicate virtually with their virtual mates than talk to the real person sitting opposite.”

“Yeah, but what has Tweeting, Facebook and texting got in common?”

“Sore thumbs?”

“They’re all plotless activities. Just one random scene followed by another. And people do it so much, they ain’t just avoiding plots, they’re scared shitless of bumping into one.”

I look at the couple. To anyone who didn’t know what the small plastic panels in their hands are for, the obvious conclusion to come to is that they don’t want to look each other in the eye.

“Real life is full of plots,” I say. “Marriage is a beginning, middle and an end. Every event in your life is the same, or it should be.”

Nige is nodding, white paint streaked hair falling into his lager glass. “Plots mean making decisions. Opening a video of a cat playing the piano, commenting ‘Aw, it’s SO cute!’, then passing it on to someone else, doesn’t require any decision-making.”

I remind myself again that I rarely see Nige with a phone in his hand, and while I know he has a computer at home in order to stay connected with all his conspiracy mates around the world, I’ve never heard him mention Facebook or Twitter other than in derogatory terms.

“So,” I say, “publishers and movie-makers have sussed that people don’t want plots in their lives, including in their entertainment, so they’ve replaced them with bright shiny isolated scenes?”

“Well, that would certainly explain Dr Who and Sherlock. But I don’t think it’s quite that nice and neat, Tel. I reckon the writers are probably suffering the same reality-avoidance as their fans.”

Suddenly, I feel defeated. I know he’s right. Even amongst what could be called the more serious writers today, I’ve noticed that many have trouble ending stories satisfactorily.

“Do you think there’s a particular fear of endings as well?” I say.

He snorts. “Well, Facebook never ends, does it?”

“So what’s a proper writer supposed to do?”

“You know that one-coat paint you can get these days? Well, it may save you time but it won’t ever produce the depth of finish you get from undercoating then applying several layers of thinned-down paint.”

“You think I should carry on undercoating anyway?”

He shrugs. “I just do what the punter pays me to do. The point is I can produced a deep and satisfying finish if I need to.”

I turn my attention to the pint of richly-hued American IPA beer in front of me, a third as much again as Nige’s lager.

“How come you just drink that cheap crap?” I say.

He nods at my pint. “Alcohol’s alcohol, whatever fancy froth you dress it up in.”

It’s late and I’m tired. I really don’t know if he’s still giving me lessons about writing. But I think he’s right that we live in a largely plotless world.