The Empire of Things by CJ Stone
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This book has been compiled from stories from a number of different sources: from my column in the Whitstable Times, which ran from 2000 till 2008; from my column in Prediction magazine which ran from 2003 till 2008; from a short-lived column in Kindred Spirit magazine, which appeared in 2009; and from my column in the Whitstable Gazette, which began in 2009 and continues to this day. Other stories appeared in the Independent on Sunday, and in the National Federation of Occupied Pensioners magazine.
Many of the stories, however, have never appeared in print before and have only ever had an on-line existence, where a few of them have enjoyed moderate success. The story called “Vlad the Impaler”, for instance, has had, at the time of writing, approaching 29,000 hits. That’s not bad. Knowing that my entire collection of on-line stories has been seen by over 177,000 people has been a major boost, even if most of those people just stopped by on the way to somewhere else. At least some of them must have spent time with my work. I know that because many of them left comments.
For a while, in fact, if you put “Vlad the Impaler” into your search engine you would have found my story at the top of the page. It was number two after the Wikipedia entry; until Google decided to smash it, that is, and to undermine any possibility of me earning any money on-line, by withdrawing me from their Adsense programme. Which is no bad thing really. The money was never any good anyway. I think, in my entire on-line existence (from 2008 to 2013) I only ever earned about $100. That’s $20 a year, or about 0.1 cents per hour at a rough estimate. I was never going to become rich that way.
And for any of you out there considering a future as an on-line writer: beware. Google have total control. They are judge, jury and executioner. They are proprietor, ad agency and editor. There is no appeal, and once you are cut-off from your source of income, you stay cut off. Such is the new “free” world of the digital age: one global Leviathan controlling all advertising revenue on the World Wide Web. No appeal process. No regulation. No come back. No law.
They did me a favour. I was using my on-line presence as a replacement for real publishing. Looking at my stats, counting up my hits, had become a substitute for seeing my work in any real, physical form. And in a way, that devalued it; not just financially, but spiritually too. There is something about on-line reading that diminishes the work. It appears as nothing more than electronic drizzle. The words pulsate with the frequency of a cursor on a computer screen. Bundling up the work into this form, in order to make a book out of it, removing all the links and the fancy graphics, the jpegs and the YouTube videos, has given the content of this book new weight. It is real at last. I am real.
So you will read a whole host of stories that have appeared nowhere else. Mothers Club in Birmingham. Robin Hood’s Day. Ranters Lane. The Stonehenge stories. LSD Refugees. Requiem for a Dreamer. We’re Here Because We’re Here.
I could go on. Possibly half of these stories are being published for the first time. And I think you’ll find – I’m not being vain here – that a substantial number of them deserve recognition: they deserve their place in history.
Just to mention one: We’re Here Because We’re Here. If I’d only ever written one story in my life, and I could choose which one, it would be We’re Here Because We’re Here.
It was given to me by Warren Hughes, a colleague at the delivery office where I work. He gave me the outline one day, and asked if I would be interested. I think he thought it might amount to a line or two in the local paper. But it was always much more than that to me. It took several weeks before I had enough material to make anything of it, and several more to write it, but, once it was written, I knew I was in the presence of something real.
And then, after that, well what was I to do with it?
I sent it off to a couple of papers, received no reply, and then gave up. It has had a sort of ghostly existence on-line since 2008, and it has made me a number of friends, but it really hasn’t had the recognition it deserves.
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The same goes for a number of the other stories. Bear Nation, for instance, is a chapter from a book that was never finished. There are several more of those tucked away on my hard-drive. And The Home Front is series of columns I wrote for a newspaper which didn’t exist. It ought to exist. In a parallel universe, maybe, it does exist. But meanwhile, despite the quality of the writing, despite the warmth and good humour in a situation that was actually very painful for me, no newspaper or magazine, in the UK, or anywhere else in the world, has ever published these stories.
And more fool them.
Even amongst the stories which have had a previous incarnation on paper, there are substantial changes. So the story called “Drug Problem or Drug Solutions?” – another one of my on-line hits - is actually made up of a series of columns I wrote for the Whitstable Times. And the first two stories from the collection called “Money” are sets of 350 word columns from the Whitstable Gazette, stitched together to make some sort of sense, I hope. Of the four stories that make up “Tales of Ordinary Magic”, from Kindred Spirit magazine, only three of them were ever published.
The largest group of stories, however, come from my column for Prediction magazine. There are stories from Prediction scattered throughout this book, from the chapter called “Time”, to the chapter called “Therapies”, and I will always be grateful to Tania Ahsan, the editor at the time, for taking me on. It was that 1,000 word column, once a month, for nearly five years, which kept me from going insane: which kept my word count going up and my self-esteem from going down; not to speak of earning me a little pocket money along the way.
As in any collection, there are some inconsistencies here. I’ve tried to create a narrative of sorts. I’ve interspersed story pieces with opinion pieces, in a way which I hope balances them both out. There are more stories than opinions, and what opinions there are, are meant to illustrate the stories. But some of the facts are dated. Some of the columns come from as far back as 2003. So in one of them Gordon Brown is still the Prime Minister, and in another Michael Howard is still refusing to deny that he had ever smoked marijuana. I hope these minor blips don’t detract too much from the overall design.
You can think of it as like a decorated room. Yes, it’s got new carpets and curtains, and a lick of paint on the walls; but the objects on the mantelpiece are vintage now, the clock doesn’t tell the time any more and the pictures of the kids show them when they were young. There’s a certain nostalgic appeal. You can’t throw away old photographs just because the children are grown up. And I can’t throw away my work just because some references are out of date.
The bulk of it, however, remains contemporary. Just to point out the story from which the title is taken: The Empire of Things. It was written in the aftermath of the riots of 2011, but acquired new relevance after the death of Margaret Thatcher. I chose it as the title of this book because I believe it genuinely describes the state of our current world.
The story is made up of snippets collected from facebook in the days following the riots, with added commentary. So that’s how up-to-date it is: a story constructed and informed using facebook. But the theme is very old and the story still holds true. We are being duped by our world, and by the culture which controls it. We are being mislead and misdirected, misinformed and misrepresented. It’s like a magic show. The magician makes a great display on stage to dazzle our senses, while behind the scenes, hidden away and in secret, he’s messing about with the end-result to make sure it comes out to his advantage.
That great dazzling display is the Empire of Things of the title: the shallow and the superficial, the empty materialism of our contemporary world-view.
All I am asking of you in this book is that you take a deeper look, beyond the surface, to what lies elsewhere.
© 2013 CJStone
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