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Telling stories…

So inspired has New Journal reporter Dan Carrier been by tales he has heard in the course of his job that he’s now written some of his own

02 October, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Dan Carrier: ‘What if I could have a conversation with an octopus?’

WHEN molluscs and their cousins branched off from our species on the evolutionary journey, a sub-group, the octopus, kept developing at the same rate as homo sapiens – and the upshot is they appear to have reached a similar cranial capacity as humans.

This intriguing fact made me wonder what we could learn from an animal that has similar cognitive abilities to us.

Then a thought popped into my head: what if we could have a conversation with an octopus? What would they say to us? What would we learn? And then I thought – why not build a robotic octopus that can decipher the octopus language and learns to “speak” to them?

Science fiction, perhaps, but the idea grabbed me, so I wrote a short story about it.

The outcome is Doctor Zipp’s Amazing Octo-Com – the title story of a collection of tales published this week, in which the life’s work and mysterious death of a marine biologist with an interest in cross-species linguistics is one.

In Christopher Booker’s book Seven Basic Plots, which took him 34 years to write, he says: “It is a curious characteristic of our modern civilisation that, whereas we are prepared to devote untold resources to reaching out into the furthest recesses of the galaxy, or to delving into the most delicate mysteries of the atom, in an attempt, we like to think, to plumb the very last secret of the universe, one of the greatest and most important mysteries is lying so close beneath our noses that we scarcely recognise it to be a mystery at all.”

He is talking about why we tell stories.

“At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar forms of human activity,” he adds.

“In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images we call a story. They are far and away one of the most important features of everyday existence.”

This may sound obvious, but it is something we rarely consider. I am aware of it, as I have spent my working life listening to people tell me their “stories” and then translating them into something to pass on.

They are a reporter’s currency, so after hearing and telling them for years through the pages of newspapers, I decided to write this collection.

Working at the New Journal has taught me that everyone has a story of intrinsic value – and I have heard thousands of them.

They range from tragedies to celebrations, and can be wonderful, heartbreaking, amazing, soul-destroying or enlightening. All reveal something of what makes us who we are and what makes the community we share so special.

So I hunkered down to write 10 of my own, some of which are based on things you may recognise, while others are unquestionably a figment of my imagination.

As well as the life and curious death of animal linguist expert Dr Zipp, hear about the adventures of Bobby Dove, a serial bus joy rider. Discover the unlikely link between Elvis Presley and meals on wheels, and find out what happened when a retired council worker vowed to solve a 70-year-old mystery…

I wanted my stories to have a twist – after all, who doesn’t enjoy Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected? – and an arc that would transport the reader from one place to another. I was keen for each one to have an element of “you’ll never guess what I just heard”.

I wanted the book to celebrate our wonderful city and the people who live here and make me smile, and I was interested in examining why people behave the way they do – what motivates someone to do something. Above all, I wanted them to be the sort of tales I would like to be told by a friend over a pint in a pub.

Doctor Zipp’s Amazing Octo-Com is not autobiographical. I love reading books based on my passion – newspapers – from fiction, such as Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary to factual, such as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All The President’s Men. It is possible to write books about papers without them being too clichéd or cheesy, although, being a hopeless romantic about the medium, I have read and enjoyed many that are both.

However, none of my stories is factual – this isn’t a book about life as a reporter at the New Journal. My colleagues can breathe easy.

I am not the narrator – the reporter could be any man or woman. They are simply a conduit for other people’s tales to be told.

It is fiction – they are from my imagination. But, as with all novels, there are kernels of truth within. Essentially, these stories are inspired by working at this newspaper for almost two decades.

I hope people enjoy reading them.

• Doctor Zipp’s Amazing Octo-Com. By Dan Carrier. London Books, £9.99
• A launch event to mark the book’s publication will take place at the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town Road, from 6.30pm onwards on Wednesday October 4. All welcome.

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