War of the Words

Call of Duty: Black Ops Annihilation. Photo (c) Dekuwa
Call of Duty: Black Ops Annihilation. Photo (c) Dekuwa/Flickr.

As a published writer of short stories, I’ve long been interested in teaching imaginative writing in schools. When I was training to be an English teacher there were some topics I felt wary of: grammar, poetry, the works of Shakespeare. These were all areas I wasn’t overly confident with; I knew I’d have to rely on planning and research to teach them effectively. Imaginative writing, however, was supposed to be my specialty. A doddle. It was something I had studied. Something I had practiced. Something I actively did myself. There was no doubt in my mind that my pupils would spawn insightful prose and chapter upon chapter of scintillating narrative while I sat in the corner, fingers steepled, silently smirking at the factory-line of writers I had moulded.

It has not worked out like that. The first challenge I’ve had to face is trying to unpack everything I know about writing and trying to quantify it in some way. I realised that I had actually internalised a lot of the things I do when writing, that I am not conscious of many of the techniques and strategies that I use. The other major obstacle is the pupils themselves and the manufactured environment of a fifty-five minute lesson. Personally, I am a binge writer. I go days and weeks without writing anything at all, and then I’ll spend hours spewing everything out onto a keyboard. If somebody sat me down four or five times a week and told me to write solidly, silently, for a set amount of time, I’d find it incredibly difficult. I’d complain. Find excuses. Procrastinate. Is it any wonder that teenagers do the same?

Raymond Soltysek’s paper ‘Wind them up, let them go: the primacy of stimulus in the classroom‘ articulates a lot of the concerns I have with teaching creative writing in schools. It discusses the importance of pupils researching their stories, being allowed thinking time, and getting an audience for their work. Overall, Soltysek’s arguments are excellent, but all the same, I take issue with one of his main tenets. He believes writers should “write a little, often”. He feels that young people should be allowed to spend a short time each day on writing projects — ten minutes at the start of a lesson, perhaps — and then they should move onto something else. Personally, I’d find this horribly frustrating. I would either sit staring blankly at the wall for ten minutes, or hit a rich seam of ideas and be cut short just as my momentum was building.

Soltysek correctly points out, however, that the writing process is not just about sitting at a desk. I only hammer away at a keyboard sporadically; for much of the rest of the time, I am writing in my head. I am working things out, developing characters, playing with dialogue. Perhaps I should go further and sketch these ideas down as they come to me, and maybe this is a skill worth instilling in young writers. My pupils have anxieties about imaginative writing, mainly centred around two problems: what to write about, and how to start — both perfectly valid concerns. So I always spend time with my students providing prompts and developing their ideas before asking them to put pen to paper. The Writing Prompts tumblr is an excellent resource which can be used with all ages.

Over the last year, I’ve noticed a strange trend for teenage writing that is clearly inspired by (or stolen from) video game narratives. This is storytelling medium which, admittedly, I know very little about, but I’ve marked stories set in war-torn bunkers, full of lurid descriptions of improbably-acronymed bazookas, dialogue delivered in clipped Hollywood soundbites, medical packs found in caves which immediately cure near-fatal injuries, anonymous bodies piling up which conveniently vanish from the landscape, and characters who display a complete lack of empathy or internal compulsion beyond some befuddled urge to reach the next level. What all these stories lack is a sense of authentic characterisation, and in my feedback I always ask my pupils to think about how their characters feel about their predicament. Do they have sympathy for the man whose head they have just turned into pixels? Do they miss family or friends from home? Do they have motivations, flaws, weaknesses? These things, for me, are where the story may be found. But teenagers all too often imagine that the story is created by exotic locations and the ever-more-sophisticated weaponry their characters wield.

When writing, teenagers seem to be obsessed with the small details. They can spend half an hour trying to think of a good name for their main character, and even a suitable date of birth. They genuinely believe this is crucial to the success of their story, despite being told that it is not. To show them, I usually use my own process as an example: when writing a story, I name my characters things like Hovis, Fanta, Cadbury, and so on in my first draft. Then, when the story’s taking shape, or is nearing the end, I’ll go back and fill these in with more suitable names. I encourage pupils to use stage names to kickstart their writing. The character’s name doesn’t matter; it’s what the character does and says that’s going to make the story worth reading.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the names of characters, and weapons, and mythical creatures, and far-flung planets are more important to a story than I think. Nobody ever said there was only one way to write. I believe teenage writers should be free to express themselves however they wish. Perhaps if I listen more and explain myself better to them, we can find a quiet, productive no-man’s-land where we can meet and agree upon the same terms.

Still, these problems are all, of course, for us teachers to worry about. Teenagers who enjoy writing will always write, and those who have a talent for it will produce impressive work regardless of our meddling. Pupils under my guidance have written wonderful work, and there is nothing more satisfyingly galling than realising that a pupil has more natural talent than their teacher.

The Ghost in the (Fruit) Machine

(c) Christian Heilmann

I think my brother writes computer games for Jesus because, for a long time, he thought, and maybe still does, that our father was a fruit machine.

You may have heard of some of his games. Exodus, where you take the character of Moses; in each level you gather objects to visit a plague upon the Egyptians. The main character resembles a pixelated Rock Hudson, since the digital rights to Charlton Heston’s likeness were deemed too expensive. His other top seller is a first person shoot-em-up; you play Jesus, fighting your way through Romans, using special move combinations to turn water into wine (press A then B on the console), produce fish from nowhere (C, D & X) and heal the sick (A + R1).

[private]Whilst the gameplay is fast and the character of Mary Magdalen is voiced by a former pornographic movie star, the games (and others in this stable) are not meant to be fun. They have a Purpose. Evangelism first, entertainment second. In the twenty-first century the battle for young minds and their imaginations is fierce and the road to salvation is rendered with digital distractions.

My brother is a convert; a true believer in the faith of ones and zeros, heaven and hell, and the binary state, but if there was any form of baptism it was not in the sea but rather above it, on the south coast of England.

We lived with our mother just outside the peeling seaside resort of Hastings. Under the unblinking eyes of a mournful, black statue of Queen Victoria, as she presided over offerings of last night’s salty vomit and rancid chip wrappings, Hastings had expanded from a fishing village to a poorer man’s Victorian Brighton, and over the twentieth century had continued to decline gently as a refuge of last resort. In the nineteen sixties the central government paid increased benefits to those who chose to move to Hastings to not look for work. In the eighties it became the suicide capital runner-up for England, narrowly beaten by Manchester in the young male category. As one letter writer wryly observed in the local Rye Observer, ‘Why can’t we ever win anything?’

It was this blend of economic hardship, depression and the trappings of a decayed Victorian holiday camp that had made the place. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Hastings Pier. It had been half closed for two decades and the chief adult attraction amongst the local cognoscenti was a three-bar portable gas heater, advertised by word of mouth and a cardboard sign proclaiming in black felt tip the legend, “Free and Warm.”

The twin aims of human existence were here, available to anyone. The prime positions right in front of the heater were always reserved for local dignitaries, of which my father was one. Three deck chairs were in permanent residence. The central position of honour was kept for Len, the pier manager. At his right hand sat our father, who notionally ran the Penny Arcade. To the left was Pat, a shaggy redhead of no fixed abode or employment who resided solely by dint of cronyism since he had gone to secondary school, briefly, with the other two men. He had been expelled for selling stolen wristwatches, but not before he’d let Len have one for cheap for his dad’s birthday. Len had never forgotten this small act of generosity.

I had always been closer to my mother so my parents separating had less of an obvious impact, but evidence of my brother’s distress was obvious. When at home he was withdrawn, hardly unusual for an eleven-year-old boy, but his withdrawal was not just verbal but physical. He was increasingly absent from school. My mother resorted to taking a day off from work, something any of us could little afford. Waiting outside the school in a borrowed car she followed him slowly in a pair of superfluous sunglasses down to the seafront and the rusting pier.

My father, apparently, treated him in the same way on every visit, barely stirring himself from his fireside banter with the cream of Hastings’ vagrant greybeards. Often without a word he would dip his hand into his pocket and produce a bag of assorted coppers, and if feeling especially paternal would pat his son, with what he imagined was affection, then gently shove him in the direction of the Penny Arcade.

It was there that the father-son relationship was nurtured by proxy, though increasingly as my brother approached puberty, the attractions became less familial and more like lovers. He would murmur to them, fondle them, coax them deftly to pay out their meagre jackpots with all the attentiveness of a young man in love for the first time. He became a virtuoso, learning their moods, their patterns, their rhythms; when they’d pay out, when they’d clam up. Warm copper coins eased gently into their gaping slots, with a tenderness and patience uncharacteristic of his gender and teenage years. My brother, the Casanova of copper coins.

And then my father died, buried by an avalanche of broken bones and coffins on his way to work. The cliffside graveyard in St. Leonards, as had long been foretold and ignored, after a particularly violent storm, had surrendered its dead; disgorging its contents, which had fled, along with much of the cliffside, at the earliest opportunity, to inter the one living person on the Undercliff path below. My father, thou art in Hastings.

He was buried with the rest, by far the youngest corpse there, in a new plot on the Ridge. For my brother this was not the end, only the beginning. The absenteeism increased until one day he came home red-eyed, with a bruise like a storm cloud just below his left eye. My mother made a lot of noise and fuss, the sort you think is unnecessary when you’re not yet grown up but will miss forever when it’s no longer there. My brother, uncharacteristically, gave what was, for him, an explanation:

‘They’ve banned me from the arcade. They won’t let me see Dad.’

In death it seemed my dear departed dad had become something of a model parent, albeit mechanical. He was utterly reliable, and with time, predictable. He made all the right noises at the right time, and rewarded good behaviour with a series of high-pitched noises and flashes and, if played correctly, was a dependable source of pocket money. My brother had it in his head that my father’s ghost had chosen to inhabit a two-penny one-armed bandit—in itself not the most harmful psychosis, at least until the middle-aged caravan couple who now ran the arcade accused him of nudging the machines, and tried, with success, to ban him.

He fought. He lost. He was physically bruised but emotionally broken. My mother pleaded on his behalf to Len, the manager, my father’s old boss and school friend. His price was too high; he’d made a similar suggestion to my mother at father’s funeral, reeking of cheap spirits as he pressed against her hand-me-down black crepe dress. Whilst she was a devoted mother she was unwilling to prostitute herself indefinitely and he wouldn’t budge his considerable bulk, so that was that. My brother had nowhere else to retreat to and gradually a stilted normality resumed. His absences were now exclusively mental and he attended school mechanically, present to all physical purposes.

It was the closure of the pier that saw hope rekindled in my brother’s eyes. He wrote articulately, politely and unrelentingly to the local council. How were the games machines being disposed of? Would they be sold off singly or en masse? Eventually he received a curt, typed reply: ‘obsolete’, ‘no resale value’, ‘to be scrapped, wholesale.’ Their destination was a local junkyard and there at the bottom, best of all, was the name of the dealer.

So, on my brother’s twelfth birthday we made a family pilgrimage to the tip. My brother was wealthy by juvenile standards: hoarded pennies seduced from the machines had turned into pounds, placed with care in a post office account for an unspecified occasion, until now.

There in a corner, illuminated by a solitary ray of sunshine, on its side, was my father’s immortal remains. My brother, usually soft-spoken, haggled with the fierce and unrelenting tenacity of an Old Town fishwife. The owner knew almost immediately when he was beaten and we returned in the borrowed van bearing our prize with something like triumph. My brother was given permission to restore and maintain our father in the shed. A not entirely novel experience for him if immediate family history was to be believed.

A year or so later and his visits to the bottom of the garden became less frequent. He’d met a girl at the local church. Later still he beckoned me into the shed.

‘I don’t think it’s him,’ he said, not looking at me, ‘but I’d like it to be. I’d like there to be something left.’

And, reflected in the glass of the machine, perhaps there was.

‘The thing is, I’ve brought Sarah down here a couple of times, and whilst it’s good to have him here, would you help me turn him around. I just don’t want him watching us when we’re…’

‘I don’t think I want to know.’

‘It’s nothing bad. We’re just kissing.’

‘Give us a hand with this, if only to stop you talking. I don’t want to know the details, sordid or otherwise.’

A few days later I was surprised to find my brother, red-faced, clearly from crying but now trying to hide it by frowning unconvincingly at a rhododendron bush.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing. Sarah dumped me.’

‘Bad luck. What did you do?’

‘Nothing, it was because of dad.’

It seemed my brother’s faith had been misplaced: when she asked about the presence of the fruit machine facing the wall in their chaste love shed, he had made the mistake of telling her the truth. She split with him, not because he was the sort of person who believed his father was an electrical entertainment appliance, but for blasphemy. Paternal ghosts were reserved for Christianity’s first family, not the likes of him. The sad thing was not that they broke up; thirteen-year-olds break up, it’s what they do whenever they’re given the opportunity, and it’d be a stranger world if they didn’t. No, the sad thing was that, via Sarah or her family word got back to the church my brother had been attending. One Sunday soon after, the vicar took him aside after the service, much to Sarah’s father’s highly visible approval. Reverend Little was insistent; faith was a matter of belief, and that belief was quite clear. There was, in his philosophy, one less thing in heaven and earth than in my brother’s and if my brother wished to keep attending the church he had better audit his belief system to the sum of one surplus father. That evening I helped my brother turn the one-armed bandit around.

There it stayed. Girlfriends came and went, though Simon (that’s my brother) became more circumspect about whom he told, if at all. There was also a slight but lingering resentment towards the machine; in some ways he blamed it for his first break up and would continue to do so for any subsequent disasters in his love life. We both went away to university; me first, to London, then him, down the road to the University of Sussex, and the certainties of the Computer Science department. Dad’s remains remained with mum. I don’t know what she thought of it all. I had never asked. I suppose I had assumed she was indulging Simon the same way I had. Was it still wish fulfilment and nothing more? Perhaps I was jealous. In all the time since he had bought the bandit I had never found even the faintest hint of what my brother claimed to perceive. I had always assumed it was because there was nothing there.

My brother’s feelings towards the machine and mine towards him, for seeing something I didn’t, took a long time to percolate, but it happened at Christmas, at the end of the millennium. We had both moved out and my mother had sold the house and moved into a smaller flat in nearby Bexhill. I was in a one-room palace in central London and my brother had bought a house outside Eastbourne. He was doing pretty well in the games industry, even then, and since his place was bigger he kindly invited us to spend Christmas with him. I arrived at his on Christmas Eve and everything was congenial, until I stepped into the front room. It was warm and cosy with a cast-iron log-burner pulsing heat. My mother sat there awkwardly and the cause of her discomfort was clear: in the middle of the room, sporting a Santa hat, was the fruit machine. Mum and I sat uncomfortably whilst my brother fussed around, oblivious to our raised eyebrows and theatrical shrugs.

‘Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.’

‘Thanks, can I help with anything?’

‘No, no.’

In the dining room we chatted easily; mum had been quietly seeing Pat. Apparently dad’s death had really shocked him and the closure of the pier had literally got him off his backside. He worked in the local tourist attraction (The Smuggler’s Life, a permanent exhibition in nearby caves) gift shop and did tours. It was company for her and she was bored just being on her own.

My brother was quiet through this exchange. I can only assume he had not known. In a way that he had clearly seen on films to denote vast reservoirs of self-control, he very slowly placed his cutlery on the table cloth.

‘What about dad?’

Mum looked at him, genuinely puzzled.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, don’t you think it’s a bit disrespectful.’

‘Well, we were divorced.’

‘No, I mean talking about this when he’s in the other room. He still loves you, you know.’

‘Oh Simon.’

‘He told me.’

‘How?’ I interjected. ‘I mean how does he do it. One jackpot for yes, three lemons for no?’

Simon ignored the sarcasm.

‘Not quite, it’s more of a feeling. You wouldn’t understand.’

I nodded, saying nothing, but that was the moment I decided to do something. I wasn’t sure what, but something, if only to remove the look of self-satisfaction from his face. I couldn’t see the desperate sadness of someone who had never got to terms with his parents’ divorce, robbed of any chance to by his dad’s premature death. All I saw was a smug prick with his home-made religion. The rest of the meal and most of the evening continued in virtual silence. It was uncomfortable but my brother again appeared not to notice. Mum decided to head back to Bexhill and I offered to give her a lift, neither of us had had a drink and no one felt like sticking it out until tomorrow. Even so my brother made a big show of disappearing off to go and get our Christmas presents. Whilst he did this, I am not proud, but not particularly ashamed to say I swiped a couple of the fruit machine’s fuses. It was childish and I’m not sure why I did it; on reflection I think it was jealousy. Not of his relationship with the one-armed bandit, but what I perceived to be an impregnability about him. I envied that, and rather spitefully I wanted to take it away from him, however briefly, over Christmas.

He didn’t notice the theft, so intent was he on fetching our gifts. They looked bulky, identical.

‘Well open them now then.’

Mum hadn’t noticed what I’d done, and neither of us had the heart to refuse him. They were laptop computers, identical, expensive.

‘I got them through a guy at work I know. Top of the range. E-mail, the internet, everything. We can all stay in touch much easier.’

He seemed childishly enthusiastic, I hadn’t seen him this way since the penny arcades.

‘Great, thanks.’

‘Oh that’s really kind love, really thoughtful.’

‘No problem. Well, bye then. See you soon.’

I drove mum home. We talked, by unspoken mutual agreement, about everything except Simon and I wasn’t surprised to see Pat waiting at the flat to buzz her in. I declined the offer of a coffee or a bed for the night and drove back to London. The flat seemed very small and empty and I had already regretted taking the fuses. I popped them in a jiffy bag and addressed it to my brother, no note, and went to bed. The next morning I woke refreshed and with nothing planned, plugged in my brother’s gift. It was a thing of beauty—slim, light, sleek, metallic design. Elegant. I felt clumsy even switching it on. As it booted swiftly and silently I noted the operating system had come pre-installed, clearly by Simon, and the desktop showed an image of the fruit machine. There waiting for me was a solitary e-mail:


From: Simon Peter <[email protected]>

Subject: Attempted Murder

Date: 25 December 1999 23:52:54 GMT

To: Jude Thomas <[email protected]>

Hey Jude,

I know what you did and I know why.

I know you never loved our father.

Dad’s not in the fruit machine anymore, I built an emulator and transferred him. He’s on the ‘net, he’s on your computer, he’s everywhere. I’ve spoken to him though and we both forgive you. I pity you Jude and I love you.

Happy Christmas.




Outside, snow began to fall. On the screen the reels of the fruit machine simulation began to spin. If there was a pattern I couldn’t see it.[/private]

This is Giles Anderson’s first fictional submission.