Appearances, Identity, Truth
Where did the story come from? It was a long time ago, but I can remember a dream, and I usually say that that was the starting point. I think it was the start. I think it was the spark that took some ideas I was working on and put life into it, ignited my passion for it, urged me to find out more about what preceded the strange scene I had dreamed, and what might happen after it.
I was taking a sabbatical in Malaysia for a couple of years, practising the craft of fiction by writing short stories that were for my eyes only – crazy stuff that was just me allowing my creativity free reign. There was even one about how giraffes, all over the world, were suddenly able to fly. Mad, embarrassing tosh, but it was good practice. If you want to be good at your craft, whether it’s writing or painting or whatever, It’s important to keep the pen or brush moving, keep your hand and mind working. You should work on the disciplines of it in tandem with that, but keep producing and keep having fun.
Then something very un-fun happened. I was browsing online and I came across a video that was claimed to show the brutal murder of some Nepalese workers in a far away land – which land, I cannot now remember, nor do I want to remember. I hesitated to watch it. It was an important story, but what would be the benefit of watching such a horrific thing? They were apparently lined up, lying prone on the dusty earth, trussed up like pigs for the slaughter, with their heads over a rut in the ground, and then beheaded with knives. It would be a truly nightmarish, hellish thing to see. I clicked play.
Then I quickly stopped play. I chickened out. I had seen very little. It was very unclear and the camerawork was shaky and unfocused, but I was able to get a rough gist of the scene and I wanted out. The problem was that the image had stopped moving but there was a delay in the sound stopping. What I heard haunted me for years after. Thankfully, I have managed to forget exactly what I heard. I don’t want to try to remember, so we’ll leave it at that.
It disturbed me deeply. I couldn’t understand it. There is nothing in this world, no dreamed up set of conditions, no cause, no belief, no politics, that could ever bring me to even think of cutting another human being’s head off, let alone actually do it. Nothing. Ever. How could a person do that? I remember that question hitting me clear and hard. OK, there are psychopaths in this world, but how does a group of people come to take part in such a horror? Surely the non-psychopaths among them would say, ‘Er, guys, what are we doing here? We were only joking, right? Only messing with them. You’re not really thinking we were gonna do this? You what? Give me the knife, Colin. You’re one sick ****. Seriously, get help.’
It was, I thought, a very important question. Events such as this were and are used to justify government actions around the world, such as going to war, broader foreign policy, limits on our own personal freedom in our own lands. It matters in a very real way to each and every one of us exactly how and why that group of human beings who murdered those completely innocent Nepalese workers even began to think it was a) something that was justifiable and b) something that would serve any benefit to their cause. That second question was what puzzled me most.
What was wrong with the murderers? Could they not see the utter futility of the act? It was worse than futile, it served only to ultimately intensify actions against their supposed cause. It was obvious that it would. It was purely self defeating – such actions always are. Insane. Something was not right about it and I needed to find out what that something was. I began to research. A lot.
I should point out that this particular incident with the Nepalese workers is not referenced in the novel. The nature and causes of the broad phenomenon of which it is an example is the target of the allegorical scheme in the novel, which references two, larger scale examples. Because it's important the target should never be publicly named, I've taken to using the acronym UMDIP whenever I need to refer to it (Unnamed Modern-day International Phenomenon).
As I furthered my research into it, I felt the urge to explore the phenomenon in fiction. How I would do that, I didn't know. The Gog of Magog prophecies of Ezekiel intrigued me in relation to the phenomenon, but that's all I had, so, I began researching all there was out there on Gog and Magog, too. That’s when I came upon the central Eurasian mythology about Alexander the Great and the story about the Caucasus gates (with its marauding tribe of Gogmagog), which resonated with both the Ezekiel prophecy and UMDIP. In wondering what the real people of the Caucasus looked like, I found the magical photograph above, of a Dagestani couple around 1910, taken by S. M. Prokudin-Gorskiĭ.
Separately, I also had begun to explore a character inspired by a woman I used to work with, Lydia (her real name was Linda). She was a bit eccentric and had a remarkable appearance in several respects. I wanted to write about her and how her appearance related to her identity and to what degree our appearances truly reflect or inform our identities. For some reason long forgotten, I tried writing a scene of her at a supermarket, inspired by The Clash's 'Lost in the Supermarket'. It wasn't going anywhere. I was just toying with it. I thought it would be a light and quirky short story unrelated to both UMDIP and Gog of Magog. Then I had the dream.
It was a simple stalemate in an otherwise deserted tube train in London. Sitting opposite one another were two people who attended a project I used to work at, a project for people with experience of mental health and homelessness issues. The woman was calmly pointing a handgun at the man, resting her gun hand on her lap so it didn't get tired. They were both still and silent. In real life, I don't recall them having anything to do with one another, they were very different sorts of people, so the scene was most peculiar.
I was elated when I woke up. This brought together the two separate subjects I was feeling compelled to write about (UMDIP and Lydia). It was soon consolidated further by my recollection of a girl at school, who had been named 'Gog' by some boys I knew, which tied both subjects to the Gog of Magog prophecies and the Alexander Romances. I had to reverse engineer what might have brought the two people to such an impasse, relocating it behind a supermarket, and then work out what might happen next. I Am Not Gog was published nine years later.
As far as I can tell from my disorganised records of the time, about two years into the very relaxed development of the story, my research led me to have a paradigm shift in my understanding of UMDIP, and from that my broader world view. The story was turned on its head. I had no idea how to take it forward, so, it all got put on hold for a few years until I could figure out how to make sense of it.
Then my father became critically ill, and I had to rush home to England. It took a couple of years for the dust to settle after his death. I started tinkering with the story again and forcing my way through the problems to search out a way forward. Suddenly it dawned on me. Lydia needed to follow her own path of discovery as I had. And, most curiously, after this convoluted process, the original themes of appearances, identity, and truth are even more relevant than before it all got turned upside down.