Friday, 26 October 2012

What Makes a Good Photographer?

I just bought a new camera. What a rigmarole. Some years ago I found that my old Olympus OM1 SLR film camera (long retired and resident in my attic) had become no more than a pretty-looking rear lens cap. I decided that a digital camera was now a must, so I got a nice little Kodak Easyshare thingummy which had a zoom and a flash and could be kept in a pocket or even stolen without much trouble. It took some good pictures (I had little to do with the process apart from pointing it in the right direction.) But there did come a time when I hankered after something more.

The way to buy a camera these days, it seems to me, is to decide how much you want to spend on one, then triple it. It will still not be enough to buy the top camera, but you have to have something forever unobtainable to lust after or else what is the point of living?

Choosing a camera is not easy. Camera companies are rich and powerful and they are not above bribing all sorts of plausible-sounding numbskulls to extol the virtues of their particular product. There's a thriving industry of persuasion out there. The first task of these "independent reviewers" is to convince you that if you don't have the latest must-have item, then you personally are a totally worthless piece of garbage with no redeeming human features.

This approach I have met before.

Have no fear, noble readers, I am solidly armored against these tactics. I know what I am and I know what I want. Therefore I approach the matter thus:

1) What sort of camera do top snapppers use?
2) Get one like that.
3) If it is too expensive (it will be) get the next one down. (Keep applying rules 2 and 3 until you've got yourself a camera.)

Lastly, beware the imbeciles who continually trot out the mantra that "an expensive camera won't make you a good photographer." Ha! This is patent rubbish. Of course an expensive camera will make you a good photographer: that's what you're paying all that damned money for! And as proof, let me offer this insight: you don't catch professional photographers using the sort of camera I used to rely on.

It Doesn't Matter Who You Vote For ...

I think it was Winston Churchill who once drily observed: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

In the West, by which I mean any country begining with "United" but not ending in "Arab Emirates," we tend to pride ourselves on being "democratic." But how democratic are we?

We don't have "direct democracy" in which each of us has the right to vote directly on issues, instead we have "representative democracy" in which we vote for epresentatives and give them the right to vote on issues on our behalf. (Why we should allow this I leave you to figure out.) Worse still, we have political parties, which bind those representatives to one ideology or another, and threaten them with dire consequences if they do not vote according to the wishes of the party leadership. Thus is "the will of the people", for want of a better phrase, watered down to the will of a political elite.

In the immortal words of Neil Innes*: "No matter who you vote for ... the government always gets in."

( * Neil Innes is an honorary Python - and if that means nothing to you, then you have some serious Googling ahead of you.)

It's That Time Again

I hear you're having one of your four-yearly democracy fests, where everyone troops out and puts their tick in the box of their choice. Well, have fun. Over on this side of the Pond we get to vote every five years, which means, I guess, that you have 20% more democracy than we do.

For a long time as a kid I was confused about politics. I heard a varied lot of stuff pouring out of radios and TV sets, and I jig-saw puzzled the parts together as kids do. I also, on rainy Sundays, liked to watch old black and white movies on TV -- it would have been useless attempting to watch color movies because the TV was in black and white. One of the movies I saw was called "Duck Soup," which showcased the Marx Brothers.

It was then that my young mind made the vital connection: these men were Russians! And they were the ones the TV said were trying to bring down Western civilization!

The thing was: they didn't seem much of a threat, so I blithely forgot about politics for a few years and played with my train set. When I came back to it (politics, not the train set) I was old enough to realize that politics is a reflection of the power urge in human beings, and an arena of competition. Some men (and it is usually men)  seem to have this urge to power in a very serious way. It's hard for me to understand, noble readers, because I have very little urge to have others do my bidding. Hitler, Stalin and Mao, on the other hand, had it in spades. History is full of these peculiarly insane characters who invariably cause other people a lot of pain and suffering before they finally melt away.

As maturity slowly crept over me I eventually decided that the noblest aim of politics should be the discouraging of people who wanted to have power over others. This, of course would leave poltics with a dilemma: how do we design a system to detect and marginalise those pushy devils who are best at getting to the tops of hierarchies? As voters we must refuse to vote for anyone who puts himself forward as a candidate. Perhaps we could introduce a candidate lottery, whereby our representatives are chosen at random. Think how dismissive the political classes would be over that suggestion.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Show Me the Way to Go Home

My last blog was about the class duality found in the English language, the one that comes from its Germanic / Latin roots. What I should have remembered to mention was an old song devised to illustrate these very points.Recall, Noble Reader, the song that featured in Steven Spielberg's "Jaws", which goes:

Show me the way to go home,
I'm tired and I want to go to bed,
I had a little drink about an hour ago,
And it went right to my head.
Wherever you may go,
On land or sea or foam,
You will always hear me singing this song,
Show me the way to go home.

A catchy ditty, if ever there was one, and probably all the catchier due to its use of "low" English. Not much Latin there. But an unknown wit then wrote a parody, which goes like this:

Indicate the approach to my abode,
I'm fatigued and I desire to retire,
I imbibed a soupcon of beverage some sixty minutes ago,
And it went immediately to my cerebellum.
The context in which I perambulate:
Terra firma, ocean or atmospheric vapor,
You can always hear me cantillating this anthem,
Indicate the approach to my abode.

It doesn't scan quite as well as the original, and it makes the singer out to be a very superior personage indeed. In the world of creative writing it's as well to avoid any hint of pomposity, so you may like to bear this in mind when editing your next draft.

The Careful Use of Latin

Hot on the heels of the idea that the message is affected by the medium comes the notion that word choices in English are also going to affect your voice as a writer. If you want to write novels, word choice is an essential skill to master.

The English language evolved over centuries, but was mainly created by the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Famously, the Normans beat the Saxons and so over the next few decades they proceded to turn the latter into a conquered people. This eventually led to the welding together of a Germanic language known as Old English and the Latin-based Norman French. It has left today's English speakers with a duality that is worth noting. English usually has a "low" word and a "high" word for everything. Where a Saxon would "buy" something, a Norman would  "purchase" it. Where a lowly Saxon would look after "sheep" and "cows", the lordly Norman would eat "mutton" and "beef."

This distinction is historically grained-in deep with us, no matter where we speak our English. In England there is actually a "Plain English Campaign" that seeks to unpick the efforts of government officials who try for a note of authority but end up communicating in ludicrously lofty terms that can hardly be understood by the rest of us.

Good style requires the writer to be on the look-out for the appropriate word to use in every context. Back in the day when books were expensive status symbols, writers would pepper their sentences with lots of Latin-derived words -- a sort of high-flown jargon that was meant to exclude the lesser educated person and give the book buyer a snobbish sense of superiority. In these more egalitarian
times, Victorian style often seems almost unreadable -- and it's largely for this reason.

Lacking a sense of word choice is called "having a wooden ear." Be warned: wooden ears produce leaden prose.

The Font of Wisdom -- the Medium Affects the Message

One of the things I discovered long ago when trying to learn the noble art of writing novels is that the medium affects the message.

Suppose you scribble out a hand-written message. Now type it up on a keyboard and print out the words in Courier font -- that's the one that looks like an old-style typewriter. Ask yourself which of the two looks the more authoritative. I bet you didn't choose the hand-written one.

Now try printing the same words in book-style print -- Times New Roman is the choice of champions here. Another leap in authority has been achieved.

When I used to read my favorite authors' books I was affected by their authority, but some of this authority came from the words having been presented in an authoritative way. Professional book designers make a living out of this art. (Most books will contain a note telling you which font has been used -- a detail which shows that book designers are proud of their art.)

Advertising people know all about fonts too, and they use them to persuade you to buy stuff. So next time you go by an advertising board or look at a packet or a can label give the text on it more than just a passing thought -- it has been deliberately designed to snare your mind. 

The Olympics are now over and ...

People who believe, contrary to Olympic doctrine, that there are no prizes for coming second are all around us. We may not see them, but they are there.

A less-than-famous boxer commenting ruefully on his erstwhile career, had the wit to say recently: "In my time I was the second best boxer in the country. I had 120 fights and I came second in every one of them."

But a new sport has arisen in recent years, spurred on no doubt by people whose countries have not done as well as they would have liked in the standard medals table: the invention of alternative medals tables, where teams that come second no longer have to.

"It's not fair!" their inventors cry. "Of course we were beaten by China, they have a billion more people than we do, and probably a lot more that they're not admitting to!" Thus is born a medals table by national population (in which we happily recover our lost prowess.) And there are variants: medals tables by size of team, for example, in which presumably a country which doesn't send any athletes at all will always do very well. Tables weighted according to gross domestic product have been championed in the cause of "fairness", and all manner of other statistical manipulations tried to achieve the nicest possible result. 

I particularly like the sport of examining the medals tables (I prefer the standard ones) for the ratios they yield of gold-to-silver and silver-to-bronze. Proponents of this sport see it as an index of the vigor of a particular nation's attitude to winning. It's obvious, so the theory goes, that if a country's gold-to-silver ratio is high, this is an indication that said country is not interested in coming second.

Well, there's a potential debate, if ever I saw one. But, too late! The Olympics may now be safely ignored for another three-and-a-bit years.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

It's A Bloody Bicycle Race for God's Sake!

Lance, oh, Lance ...

On the Other Hand ...

It is possible to take things a little far when searching for the perfect shot. Have no fear, Noble Readers, this is not your bold correspondent in the picture!

My Photography Mania Gathers Pace

Sometimes you just can't help feeling that the gap between worlds ancient and modern is finally becoming impossible to bridge.

Smile ladies ...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My Connection with the President.

Well, he's not the President now, in fact he died some time ago, but the connection is there anyhow. They say everybody is connected to everybody else by just six steps. I don't know if that's true, but it makes a person feel he's more a part of the world.

What about this: I wrote a novel called "Death Valley Scotty." Unknown to me was the fact that there was once an old TV show called "Death Valley Days". And guess who hosted it?

Ronald W. Reagan.

About as tenuous a connection as there ever was, I suppose, but interesting nevertheless. Ronald Reagan never came to visit the road on which I used to live, but another POTUS did. The 39th. I have a much stronger connection him. I won't mention his illustrious name, just pass the peanuts ...

Well, you know. Family.

Soap -- "Make the Sniff Test Yourself"

Dynamic English strikes again! Here's a word that has adopted another meaning, and one we all use. When a person tells you they've been "watching soaps," you know they don't mean to say they were in the bath all day long.

Today a "soap" or "soap opera" is a drama series on radio or TV. Originally these shows were sponsored by soap manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble, hence the adoption of an unlikely word.

One of the early TV shows was "Death Valley Days." It made the famous "20-Mule Team" brand of borax washing crystals even more famous. That, too, is peculiar. As a name for a brand it's not one that would be recommended by any modern advertising executive.

It'll sell a million ...

Noble readers of this blog will know that I have more than a passing interest in the evolution of advertising. Well, here by way of experiment, are a couple of short sponsor ads from the "DEATH VALLEY DAYS" TV show from way back in the dark ages. Take a look, and when you've finished rolling on the floor and weeping, let me know what you make of it. What were they thinking?


Friday, 28 September 2012

Death Valley Scotty -- Stock

In the novel "Death Valley Scotty" by - ahem - me, Scotty's association with Z. Beldon Gaylord leads to the floating of The Death Valley Scotty Gold Mining and Developing Company. Below is a picture of one of the actual stock certificates.

More on Bills

Integral to the story of Death Valley Scotty is the way our hero distributes large amounts of cash to the people of Los Angeles. Scotty was also famous for his use of large denomination bills.

When I remember back to when I was a boy one of the things that still sticks in my mind is when I used to walk home from school and call in at the local store to buy bubble gum cards. One year the cards were "American Civil War" cards, showing educational and often gruesome scenes from that great conflict. But what really stood out was that each waxed paper pack contained a genuine Confederacy bank note.

Of course they were not genuine, being cheaply printed bills on poor quality paper, but to me and the other kids in the school yard they were MONEY. They came in all denominations and part of the fun was that you never knew what you were going to get. After a while we all had huge bankrolls in our pockets and we felt like millionaires. What I learned from that experience is that people will remember something fondly if it gives them money. It doesn't matter if the money is real or not.

Los Angeles -- Stars and Cars and Refugees

"Look, I hate Los Angeles, like everybody else ... but I have to work here because
in any other part of the country I'm unemployable ..."

I recently came across this jewel quoted on the Web, and being in the middle of publishing my latest novel, "Death Valley Scotty", which is mostly set in Los Angeles, I pricked up my ears. Having visited Los Angeles several times I am well aware just how peculiar the place is. It's amazing how a town which in 1900 was pretty much on track to becoming a regular city has managed to become so irregular.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those snooty Brits who like to regard Los Angeles as beneath their dignity. I'm prepared to fall in love with just about anywhere if I find enough good people there. But I was interested in how the city got to be so unusual. My take is this. It's all down to just two evils: cars and movies.

Cars have been accommodated in L.A. like nowhere else. The rights of people who want to go from A to B have been placed above those who want to stay in either A or B. This has been a mistake. As soon as you build a good road it instantly attracts twice as many cars as can comfortably fit on it. Sprawl is what results when a city encourages cars. Sprawl means that place A and place B are so far away from one another that it's impossible to reach either of them except by car. Thus the car makes itself indispensable, and the last thing you want is an indispensable machine.

As for the movie industry, that too has distorted the city. In every bar and restaurant at least half the waiting staff are just filling in time. They are only acting at being waiters and waitresses while they figure a way to break into Hollywood. What they don't know, and don't want to know, is that Hollywood was closed long ago to all outsiders who happen to exhibit talent or charisma. Such individuals just serve to show up the well-connected but untalented and charisma-free crowd who now occupy virtually all the sought-after positions. (See Carter's Third Law: "Nepotism kills.")

The result is a wannabe wasteland where everyone hopes they're on the way to somewhere better. It's not good for a city to have so many people who are, in a very real sense, refugees from their own lives.

The Castle

There is a stylish monument to the Death Valley Scotty story just 300 miles from Los Angeles. It's the most impressive building in America's greatest wilderness, both inside and out, with lavish detailing and furnishings. I don't know how many people visit Death Valley each year, but 150,000 of them tour Scotty's Castle and hear recounted some of the many hilarious anecdotes that originate with the man.

Frank Lloyd Wright was consulted over the plans to build the Castle. It took over a decade to construct and was never completely finished. Today it is owned and operated as a museum by the U.S. National Park Service. It provides a lasting focal point for the Death Valley Scotty legend, and a wonderful reminder for anyone touring the region.

Scotty's grave is on ground overlooking the Castle. The plaque which memorializes the grave sets out his "four don'ts" . Actually, Scotty is one of the few men to have escaped his own grave. Shortly after he was buried a flash flood carried off his coffin and he had to be committed to the earth a second time.

It just goes to show that you can't keep a good man down.

The Spirit of Death Valley

The Indians called it "the Burnt Land". At 130 degrees, it's one of the hottest places in the world, and at 286 feet below sea level it contains the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. It's a place of desolate, forbidding beauty. It's called Death Valley with good reason: its beauty is of the deadly kind.

What better backdrop could there be for those contemplative moments that point up the amusing, touching or dramatic scenes in a busy narrative? At the heart of the novel I have Albert Johnson and Scotty alone together in the desert. Johnson listens to Scotty talk about the meaning of life. This is a crucial moment on which the whole outcome of the story turns. I wanted to write it so that a reader would have the opportunity to capture scenes of rare natural splendor in his or her mind's eye.

I want readers to come away from the book appreciating what is out there waiting for them to see.

Death Valley Scotty -- True Gold

There is a mystery at the heart of the Death Valley Scotty story. Did he or did he not have a gold mine?

What first compelled me to write this novel was the thematic richness of Walter Scott's story. It seemed to say that money is what we all think we want, but what we really want is contentment -- and the ingredients of contentment cost surprisingly little.

This novel is about love and friendship and the truly important things of life that we are apt to take for granted or to overlook. They are encapsulated in the freedom from pain (Albert Johnson's injured back), the realization of dreams, the establishment of real friendship, the leaning how to laugh and the appreciation of the beauty of the natural world. The gold here only plays the role of 'siren' -- the seductive distraction that draws us off the proper track of life. When true contentment is gained, the ownership of gold becomes unimportant.

This philosophy is heartwarming and uplifting. It has a consolation for the common man who has no hope of riches: that the rich man has gone up the wrong road anyway. It asserts that we're all as good as one another, irrespective of what we own, which seems to me to be a noble idea that I may have heard somewhere else ...

Death Valley Scotty

Death Valley Scotty

This is a name well known to many Californians and Nevadans. It is also the title of my latest novel.

Walter E. Scott was born in Kentucky, but he lived almost all his life in California, and he is buried in Death Valley. He was a "true character". His fascinating life spanned the transitional years from the Old West to the new, the youth of Los Angeles and the creation of Hollywood, many of whose stars befriended him. It was quite a surprise to find that a novel had yet to be written about him, so I decided to write about him.

Scotty began as a cow-puncher, later rode in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and became famous as a gold millionaire, but his real skill was keeping people guessing. He managed to keep himself in the newspaper headlines for half a century. Scotty's life was so rich that I found myself with the luxury of having too much material to choose from. Events represented in the novel as all having taken place during the summer of 1905 actually took place over a much longer period but I telescoped time for dramatic purposes. It's what we writers do.

"He sleeps quite as well one place as the other. But he does like to keep his body clean and is always bathing; and I have never seen Scotty in my life when he wasn't freshly shaven. Part of the water in his canteen is always kept to shave with."

So said Albert Johnson's wife, Bessie, who grew to know Scotty well. Scotty's story has for me something of the true American spirit about it. He was a natural showman who could ride and shoot and prospect along with the best  but he was hall-marked with some particularly American virtues - a shrewd self-reliance, a man of the great outdoors, a man who knew how to live free. There's no doubt that he loved razzmatazz, but he could recognize life's true values behind the tinsel. California is, even now, still a young place, and whenever I'm there I find a yearning for history and for historic figures. Walter Scott is to me an authentic Old California hero.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Yes, I have just bought a camera ...

Is this  a picture of:

a)     structures growing on the surface of Mars?
b)     the top of my lawyer's bald head?
c)     something else entirely?

Answers on a postcard please. And apologies to Clive Anderson.

Still living in Snowland

Well, the Olympics are over and there's a sense of national regeneration in the air here in London, but
I'd just like to remind you of an aspect of our culture that still needs to be raked out and stamped on. But first a few questions:

Do you, noble reader, consider yourself well educated? If you do, then answer the following:

1) Do you know what a ribosome does?

2) Could you state any one of Kepler's laws of planetary motion?

3) Are you able to write down an example of a differential equation?

A big "no" on all three? Don't know even where to begin? It doesn't matter, you can always Google it, right?

Actually, you shouldn't be having any trouble, because these are all pretty basic questions if you have a nodding acquaintance with science.

We are still living in the Snowland of 1959, C.P. Snow's divided culture, and you should look him up on Google. Suffice to say that Snowland is a place in which the properly educated make the half-educated feel uncomfortable, and the ignorant are marginalized without knowing it.

Only a fool misunderstands the difference between stupidity and ignorance. In this context, "ignorance" means having never learned any science or maths, while a true fool is one lacking the ability to understand either. Fortunately, there are many more in the former condition than there are in the latter. The basics of science aren't hard to grasp, they aren't hard to teach and they aren't hard to recognize as important. They can be taught generally, while engendering a tremendous sense of wonder in the student, but most importanly this stuff must be taught to the kind of people who go on to form our elites. If it isn't obvious why, then you really are a fool.

In a society that will soon have to make its living once again by knowing how to profit from understanding how the world works, comprehending the works of Michael Faraday is going to be far more important than digesting the works of John Keats. The point here is an important one. All the scientists I know (and I know a few top ones) have usually had a representative exposure to poetry, but the literati I've know have absolutely no idea about science or maths, and what's more: they tell you so with a degree of pride.

Not only does this educational black hole make them dangerously ignorant, it often makes them resentful. The BBC, and especially its Radio 4 "Today" Programme, became notorious for slighting comments about newsworthy science items, with shy-away phrases like: "We'll have to get a boffin to explain that to us", and: "All rather beyond me, I'm sure." Announcers who had no trouble pronouncing the name of an obscure African dictator, would stumble over the most commonplace scientific term, and the stumble would be worn like a badge of pride rather than the stigma of ignorance it actually was. The sub-text running through this kind of treatment is, "Neither you, Dear Listener, nor I, know what these outlandish people (the aforementioned boffins) are talking about, and we don't really want to know, do we? But we've been aked to report it, so there it is."

Not really good enough, is it?

Some years ago I had reason to visit a cubicle in the lavatories of one of Oxford University's science labs on South Parks Road. A wag had drawn on the wall an arrow pointing at the loo roll; above that he had writtten, "Humanities Degrees, Please Take One."

Be warned.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A Place by Any Other Name

Can somebody please explain to me why the Indians have changed the names of three of their best known cities?

I refer, of course, to: Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. (I'm sure these places are not alone, and there is a rolling program of doing this.) There is a governmental foolishness about this kind of thing that defies description let alone understanding. It's like London being renamed by some crazy despot "Londinium", or the American government foisting "New Amsterdam" on New York.

What purpose does it serve and who is the maniac behind it? Perhaps his brother is a publisher of atlases and globes.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Thousands of emails have been pouring in, telling me that Namgyal Wangdi wasn't the man who first climbed Everest along with Ed Hillary in 1953. Well, I exaggerate: I have received comparatively few emails on the subject. But the concensus seems to be that it was someone called Sherpa Tenzing.

Well, you see, I set a trap for you, my noble readers, because Namgyal Wangdi was Sherpa Tenzing. Actually, referring to the man as "Sherpa Tenzing" is rather like referring to Ed Hillary as "New Zealander Ed", because Sherpa Tenzing's actual name was Tenzing Norgay. (Norgay means "lucky".)

So, who's this Namgyal Wangdi feller?

Ah, well, the name Tenzing Norgay was a name given to Namgyal Wangdi when he was a child by the prior of Rongbuk monastery. It means something like "lucky pilgrim." Isn't that fascinating.

Bizarre Economics

Mervyn King - no, not Mervyn "The King" King the darts player, and not Mervyn King the England bowls international, nor even Mervyn King the South African judge - I mean Sir Mervyn King - the Mervyn King as it were, current governor of the Bank of England ...

Has there been a wager over how many times Mervyn King can be mentioned in one short blog? Am I going for the name droppers' world record in Mervyn King mentions? Is this some curious experiment connected with search engine optimization as regards Mervyn King?


I just wanted to say that even Mervyn King, with all he knows about money (presumably), could not explain a recent lump of modern economics that recently befell me. Get this:

I have an old Sony camcorder, and old Sony camcorders have a screw thread at the front on which you can mount accessories such as filters and the like. This thread has a diameter of 37mm (don't ask me why.)

I recently found, on my beloved ebay, a pair of lenses: one x0.5 wide-angle, the other x2 telephoto, contained in a handy little leatherette case. It seemed too good to miss, so I placed my bid, and at the fall of the notional hammer I acquired the same for a bargain £3. This bargain soon more than halved, however, since to actually take possession of the item I had to stump up a further £3.50 in postal charges, a tad more, note, than the actual value of the item.

Once the lenses arrived, I discovered that they were not threaded for 37mm, but for a measely 28mm. Since it would have cost me a further £3.50 to return them to the remote isle from whence they came, I sucked it up and went hunting for a gadget that would solve my problem.

The gadget in question is called a 37-28 step down adapter ring. Not an ideal solution, as the photographers among my readership will know, but it will probably suffice for what I want, which is rostrum work.

There is, these days, only one recourse when a body wishes to acquire an item as specialized, not to say exotic, as a 37-28 step down adapter ring. To attempt to find a small, friendly local photographic shop would be absolutely out of the question. This is, after all, London, and small, friendly local photographic shops are hard to find, mainly on account of the rents, which are not inconsiderable hereabouts. Add to that the traffic chaos of the Olympics and ... no, no, no, no!

So it was back to ebay.

There were five 37-28 step down adapter rings listed. Four were from China, which three out of the four spell "Hong Kong" since they know that the average Brit will trust "Hong Kong" more than "China." (This is an artefact of our imperial history and need not concern us more here.) The point is that the four Chinese rings were priced at between £2 and £2.50, including shipping. The one remaining ring, sourced from a UK distributor based in Britol, weighed in at a whopping £8.99 including shipping.

More than three times the price!

Now, I know we're not talking gigantic Mervyn King-like sums here, but it's the principle: the Chinese can get one to me, despite being 10,000 miles away at less than a third the cost of the one coming from Britol, which is, what? A hundred miles away?

To add insult to injury, they all come from China anyway!

Good luck sorting this economics stuff out Merv, old buddy. It's certainly beyond me.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

How many p's in ipod?

Can you name either of these two august gentlemen? They are as my gandmother used to say, like two peas in a pod. The answer shall be disclosed hereabouts in coming days.

Word Love

I guess it might be a little surprising to hear that a writer of fiction would choose as one of his most loved books a work of reference, and such an unconsidered one at that.

It happened like this: when I was a kid I happened across a little dog-eared gray-blue hardback that must have come from the 1920's because in the back was a section on "Terms of Special Note in Modern Warfare." It mentioned words that had, I supposed, come out of the First World War. It also had an art nouveau pattern on the cover, which I found oddly compelling and an impenetrable title: Blackie’s Compact Etymological Dictionary.

I went to a proper dictionary and looked that peculiar word up. Now I know that some people think 'etymology' is something to do with bugs, but actually it's about the origins of words, which was interesting to me, because even at that tender age I loved words. It's not unknown for writers to get interested in the tools of their trade. I became that kind of writer. I love words. I love their organic chemistry - the ways they'll fit together, or won't fit together. I love the music they make, and the way they're able to arouse the strongest of passions.

Of course I love all that, for manipulating words has been my chosen art. But I also love words for themselves. To me, they are like seeds that carry inside them the essence of culture. No English speaker can entirely forget the Greeks or Romans, while we still have a word like 'television' hanging around in our vocabularies.

As an English kid in Sydney, Australia, I got my first taste of where words came from, and why they’re spelled the way they are. I began to appreciate the many different sorts of English we have and how they got to be that way. That, in turn, fed into an interest in history. I found out, through examining words, that each age stamped itself on a language, and that the past was another country where they did things differently. Years later, I started to understood the many ways in which words could become mightier than swords.

So let's hear it for Blackie’s Compact Etymological Dictionary. One of the books I have loved the most.

Even More General Arthur Cigars ...

I promise you, noble readers, that this will positively be the very last time I will mention those annoying General Arthur cigars, unless of course, an overwhelming response to the contrary forces my hand. But, anyway, since I have allowed myself one more drag, I'd just like to say this:

As my noble readers will by now recognize, one field of human endeavor that I like to keep half an eye on is advertising. Now, General Arthur cigars vanished sometime during World War One, and it's always interesting when a brand fails, because there has to be a reason for it.

One obvious reason is the rise of the cigarette. But that only explains the decline of cigar smoking in general (if you'll excuse the pun,) and not the demise of our favorite brand in particular. I would like you to look at things from the point of view of Jacob Wertheim of 174 West Fifty-eighth St. New York, New York: the civil war was over and one of its victorious generals was General Arthur. (Actually, Chester A. Arthur didn't do any fighting. Being a lawyer, he was given the rank of brigadier-general and given the task of raising and equipping troops for the N.Y. quota.) After the war he returned to doing what lawyers do best: opening other people's wallets and using the contents to run for political office. Doubtless he thought that, as a political candidate, it would not do a man any harm to have his picture distributed around the nation on millions of boxes of cigars. It was, after all, the closest thing to television they had in those days, and if that didn't help get Arthur to the vice-presidency, then I'll eat my treasured Stetson.

When, in 1881, that other civil war general, James A. Garfield, managed to get himself shot dead, Chester Arthur became president. Having built up a brand called "General Arthur", Jacob Wertheim could now hardly change it to "President Arthur," so they soldiered on (if you'll excuse a second pun) with the old name. The trouble with a brand like that is that thirty years down the line, and well into a new century, not only was the civil war ancient history, but so was Chester Arthur - Chester Who?

In today's terms it would be like the J. Walter Thompson Agency trying to push "Jimmy Carter" cigarettes. No offence to Jimmy (after all, he is family) but it's not exactly what you might call catchy.

Of course, if you have (through reading this blog) become an avid fan of the General Arthur cigar, you may read about them again by purchasing a copy of "Death Valley Scotty" my latest novel, exclusively and electronically available to all readers at their nearest Amazon, Barnes and Noble, &c., &c.

Hmmm ... what was I saying about the hard sell?

The Only Way is Ethics

A few blogs back I mentioned the black hole at the center of moral philosophy, which is: because we can't know the full consequences of what we choose to do, our choices remain uninformed, and we have no way of knowing whether even our best intentions will ultimately lead to beneficial outcomes.

So how might we confidently go about shaping things for the better and not for the worse? How, in short, do we know right from wrong?

Biology, it turns out, offers us a clue. Our behavior as a social species has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, and shaped according to one main principle: the favoring of behavior that tends to help the survival of an individual's genes.

The ramifications of this idea are weighty and vast. It explains why we tend to favor close family over strangers, why we codify certain laws and even why different societies tend to develop similar taboos.

Our sense of right and wrong is largely a matter of reciprocity - do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or more precisely: do not do unto others that which you wouldn't have done to you. That gets us a long way, too. But none of the above amounts to a wholly consistent ethics, indeed the revelations of sociobiology seem to show that a wholly consistent ethics is not actually possible.

This is because seen from different standpoints different behaviors appear right and wrong simultaneously. Theft, for example, might be thought of as unequivocally wrong, but what about the poor mother who steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving child? To take an even more extreme example: murder may be thought wrong, but what about the man who kills an aircraft hi-jacker and so prevents hundreds or thousands dying? Perhaps that murderer deserves a medal.

Novelists usually operate in a god-controlled world, in that world the author is god. The real world may be quite different. What we are presently learning may not be what we wanted to find.

About a hundred years ago physics began to move into a new era where all the old certainties evaporated in the burning bright light of new discoveries and a new understanding. It looks to me as if ethics is presently undergoing a similar transition. For those people who crave certainty in an uncertain world, better strap in tight, because the ride is going to be a bumpy one.

Saturday, 28 July 2012


"You say you're into science, and yet your fantasy trilogy deals with magic!"

A fan of my Language of Stones trilogy accused me thus, recently. Well, this is true, but nothing stops a person who doesn't believe in magic in this world creating a fictional world in which there is magic.

Even hardened reality junkie scientists like to read stories set in imagined landscapes now and again. There's a great quote from the excellent Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame, to the effect that real magic is fake and fake magic is real.

The big man is right. (He usually is.)

I love the idea of magic. I love the idea of a system that can extend human power and control that which was once uncontrolable, and deliver a deeper understanding of the world. But, hey, that's a pretty good description of science too, isn't it? It was once said, and I forget by whom, that any sufficiently advanced form of science will look like magic. That (presumably) explains why the Little Green Men have done such a good job of hiding from us. Hmmm, I really must have a go at a science fiction novel one of these days.

A good friend of mine is Fay Presto, the magician. An evening with her is like no other. Apart from being intelligent, witty and kind, she is so skilled at close-up magic that a person like me is utterly amazed and thrilled by it. Close-up magic is delightful stuff to watch. I think the recent TV shows of Dynamo illustrate what I mean: watch the faces of the people he demonstrates his skills to. It doesn't matter how surly or mean they look when he starts, in the end those faces are lit up like light bulbs. Not much else can do that.

What Are You Trying To Prove?

If you've read my novel "The Sandboy", you'll know that astronomy was one of the first loves of my life. It got hold of me when I was a kid and has never really let go. I still own a telescope, and I still point it at the sky. I know what Brian Cox is on about when he talks about a "sense of wonder."

No matter what you do after studying science, it leaves a mark on you. One of the marks science left on me was impatience with people who pontificate about science without having any idea of what it is. So here is a short work of reference to settle the matter once and for all.

What science is: it is a method of accumulating a consistent body of information about the way the universe works. It doesn't prove right ideas right, but it does disprove wrong ideas wrong. It isn't some kind of religion, or something that has deliberately set itself up against religion, it's just a way of shining a light on the world and consigning descriptions that can be shown to be inaccurate to the waste basket of history.

So how does science actually work?

Surprisingly simple, really. You think up an idea, say, about the shape of the earth: "The earth is flat." Then you try to collect evidence showing that proposition is false: e.g. ships at sea seem to vanish hull first, and new stars appear in the sky when you travel south from Alexandria. (Neither of these observations fits well with the original idea of flatness.) Then you try to come up with a new idea that does fit the observations. It could be that: "The earth is a sphere."

You then just repeat the process over and again, slowly refining the idea each time and getting an increasingly accurate picture of the shape of the earth. Bingo!

But what if your new idea had been: "The earth is a cube"? Well, then that would have created another set of difficulties that clashed with subsequent observations and so enabled this erroneous idea to be done away with too.

By the way, the earth isn't exactly a sphere. Since it rotates, it takes up the shape of an oblate spheroid, i.e. one flattened at the poles and distended at the equator. Even that isn't the most refined description to date: the earth is no more uniform inside than it is outside. In addition, it has a magnetic field and a large satellite pulling on it gravitationally as well as a non-circular orbit around the sun which affects the strength of the gravity field that the Eath experiences. So Earth's shape is altering just a little bit all the time.

The process we call science has over the last 400 years or so addressed countless ideas like this, so that now we have a large body of refined information, and that makes it possible for technologists and engineers to produce helpful items like computer chips and GPS units and medical scanners and all the other good stuff that makes life less miserable, brutish and short.

So let's hear it for science!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Tour de France, Tour de Force.

I have never been much of a fan of competitive bicyling, which is odd, because I am a fan of engineering, and my trusty Brompton folding bike (a miracle of good-sense engineering) is one of the loves of my life.

But I digress.

Apparently, in 1953, (I can't say for sure because I wasn't there) there was an Annus Mirabilis. This is queen-talk for "a jolly good year." All kinds of good things happened, and chief among them - the Queen's Coronation itself notwithstanding - was the death of Stalin and the achievement of Sir Edmund Hillary and Namgyal Wangdi in being, so far as we know, the first men to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain.

Perhaps this London Olympic year will be another Annus Mirabilis, and Bradley Wiggins' mopping up of the French (and others) will be, like the good news that once came down from Nepal, an omen of Great Things. You can't beat a good beating of the French, if you're English.

Well Done, Bradley Wiggins!

More General Arthur Cigars

In a previous post I mentioned the once popular brand of cigar known as the General Arthur. I thought it a service to my noble readers to quote the ad in full. Its unhurried qualities may impress the mind with a sense of how much more hectored and bullied we are by the hard sell these days. Anyhow here it is:

           Every discriminating smoker has
         experienced the annoyance of being
          obliged to put up with inferior
          cigars while traveling. You can
         avoid this always and be sure of a
         reliable and satisfactory smoke by
           taking a box of GENERAL ARTHUR
          CIGARS with you when you travel.

           This cigar is beyond doubt the
             finest domestic cigar ever
        produced. It is made by the largest
         and best equipped cigar factory in
             America by men who have no
         superiors for expert knowledge and
          skill. It is make from the only
           stock of really choice Havana
          tobacco in the world. Since the
            Cuban war began most of the
        so-called "Havana" tobacco has been
           raised in Porto Rico, but the
         Havana of which the GENERAL ARTHUR
         is made was bought before the war
          commenced, and held by us to be
         used in the GENERAL ARTHUR alone.
          Consequently, no matter what you
        pay, you cannot secure the equal of
                the GENERAL ARTHUR.

           If you do not find it at your
        dealer's, send us one dollar and we
           will forward, prepaid, a dozen
          GENERAL ARTHURS, packed in a tin

          Send us a two cent stamp and we
         will send you a novel and striking
                   little folder.

Readers may also be impressed with the price. It just shows how much the dollar used to be worth in terms of buying power - and what other use can a dollar be put to, except perhaps to light one of those mellow General Arthur cigars?

Tall and Thin, or Short and Fat?

I am not now, and never have been, a scientist by profession, although I do hold a degree in astrophysics and two post-graduate engineering qualifications. That is enough to make me pretty scary to some people, especially those who know I make my living out of writing historical fiction.

How can one individual be interested in both the sciences and the arts? I sometimes hear them cry.

But to me, this divide seems like an artificial one, and something that arises from the education system. Schools usually make teenagers choose either one direction or the other so as to stand the best chance of getting into university: the pre-college kid who has Maths-Physics-Chemistry is easier to place than one with Maths-Art-Chemistry.

Is this a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing?

We want all people to live lives that are personally fulfilling, but on the other hand highly complex societies such as those we humans tend to live in need customized individuals just as much as ant hills or termite mounds do. And, like it or not, society has to create people who can become soldiers and workers and nursemaids and queens and ten thousand other kinds of specialist.

I realize that Renaissance Man is frowned upon nowadays - what use is he? - but I just can't help thinking that the old idea of a "rounded education" had something going for it so far as making a fulfilled life is concerned. On the other hand, when it comes to stuff like surgery, give me the specialist over the Renaissance Man any day.

However, something like my novel The Sandboy could not have been written by a person of narrow and specific interests. I have tried to keep both the arts and the sciences equally nurtured within me and I'm very glad I did.

Moral philosophy - a ray of hope

My post "The Great Scheme of Things" so appalled me, that I was inclined to think more on it.

We do have, most of us, a sense of right and wrong. Religions put this down to God, while those who do not adhere to any religion have recourse to the scientific view that this sense arises from our evolutionary past.

In the same way that we instinctively recoil from potentially venomous creatures such as spiders and snakes, our societies tend to create taboos around actions like incest and cannibalism. Acts worth avoiding in the interests of the greater good were eventually codified into cultural laws such as the Ten Commandments. An aphorism like, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," which is not biblical, I was surprised to discover, has the power to remind us, if not compel us, how best to behave.

Universal education (perhaps I mean universal moral socialization) within a society is expensive, but it is not as expensive as it may seem. It is probably our only protection against the creation of a large, barbaric underclass. Unless we envisage a return to God-oriented societies in the West and the physically repressive measures of the past, that is.


Since I wrote this piece the anniversary of the atrocity committed on Utoya has passed. I happened to be in Norway at the time. (I happened to be in the US when the twin towers came down too, but that's another story.) Another atrocity has been committed in Colorado. Both Anders Breivik and James Holmes (assuming the latter is found guilty) are individuals with broken minds. What broke them is immaterial. The fact that they have proved they are dangerous to others and cannot be trusted to move among the rest of us again, coupled with the certainty that we do not know how to fix minds as broken as these, means that they must be either locked up forever or done away with.  I will, in future posts, set out my views on both these options.

A Carp.

A carp? I hear you cry. No, no. Not the fish. I mean bellyache, bitch, bemoan ... in a word: complain.

We British are supposed to be good at complaining, but we complain in a singularly useless way. An American who is served a bad meal in a restaurant will likely complain to the restaurant and tell them where they were falling down on the job, and Brit will usually complain to his or her spouse during the car ride home, having betrayed not the least dissatisfaction to the waiter, chef or restaurant owner.

This is not moral cowardice or even good manners gone mad. We simply think that it's not our job to go around correcting the performance of bad restaurants. We punish them by simply not going there again, and we hope that in due course the erring business will shrivel up and die.

The French, of course, are excellent complainers. Not for them the constant miserable criticism of the weather - British weather is singularly mild and harmless, so we have developed a fetish over its many fine distinctions. But the French - they find a cause and go for it wholeheartedly, right down to throwing cobblestones through the windows of the local town hall. The last time a Brit threw anything at a town hall was in the reign of Edward the Confessor. And as a result we put up with a lot of misery, injustice and general slackness.

Well, now I have complained about complaining. Is that a first, I wonder?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

General Arthur Cigars

One of my interests is advertising. Since reading a book called "Techniques of Persuasion", which was about brainwashing, I've thought it wise to keep an eye out for techniques that may have been practised on me.

Part of the fun is looking at old ephemeral literature such as magazines and posters which once attempted, in a naive way, what modern agencies do nowadays in a snappier, more sophisticated way.

In my novel "Death Valley Scotty", set in 1905, the eponymous hero smokes a brand of cigar called the 'General Arthur.' I first came across this brand while examining vintage photos of Los Angeles, in which I saw the brand name painted on the side of a building. Subsequent research tracked down several ads from the first years of the 20th Century. Their texts are charmingly un-pushy and have no killer sub-text.
I don't smoke cigars, but if I did I would probably have been tempted to smoke General Arthur cigars by ads like these. Much more so than by modern ads, many of which succeed in annoying me and so creating actual sales resistance.

British readers will know precisely what I mean when I say I could cheerfully strangle a certain mustachioed TV tenor who sings "Go compare ...&c." in an effort to make us buy insurance. I will not buy insurance from that firm, not now, not ever. I will track down their holding company and put that on my blacklist too. And if ever a representative of theirs turns up on my doorstep, there will be blood running in the gutters ...

That's what I mean by sales resistance.

The Low Level Polymath

I was once rudely described (by someone I detest) as a "low level polymath." Now the majority of insults tend to bounce off my rhinocerosian hide, but this barb stuck in me enough to hurt, and I think I know why.

The interpersonal savager in question had made a career of insulting people, and so had gone out fo his way to acquire an arsenal of unpleasant techniques with which to practise his art. The one he loved best was "the arrow that comes closest to the truth." He would attempt to divine the target's prime weakness before custom-shaping his warhead, and that meant looking out for the target's most fondly-held idea about himself.

Now, I've always sort of prided myself on having acquired a hoard of near-useless, but to me interesting, information. So it wasn't the "polymath" I objected to, it was the "low level". Damned with faint praise, then? I guess so. But what sort of a mid-list author would I be if I couldn't handle faint praise, right?

I wonder if what had really hit home was the notion that, if a polymath was someone who knows somthing about everything, then what he had implied about me was that I knew virtually nothing about almost everything, This is not an enviable description, however true it may be, and translated to me as an insult.

But more: if I was a low level polymath, then there must be a hierarchy of polymaths, presumably topped at the giddiest height by Stephen Fry, a man who has repeatedly denied in the coyest manner possible that he knows virtually everything about almost everything, and so craftily forms general opinion to the contrary.

I'd like to state here and now that whatever level of polymathy Stephen Fry has reached, so have I.
So there!

Wow, I feel much better having gotten that off my chest.

The great Scheme of Things "Courtesy of Atrocity"

What are the consequences if human life as a whole, and yours in particular, has no discernable aim?

Does this mean that, since we would have no clue as to any end-point to which we should be working, we are therefore unable to judge which of our actions are right or wrong?

One solution, of course, is God, which supposes an overarching will and some human knowledge of it. The problem we have with that solution is that God seems only to make His revelations known through human intermediaries, and that's a very appealing open door to would-be practitioners of fraud.

So what else could be a guide? "Do whatever you think is best according to your own ideas." That is a possible solution, but I foresee a wake of blood with that because of the many psychopaths and sociopaths whose ideas regarding how to do what they consider best tend to lack community spirit.

How about: "Do what you will so long as it harms no one else."

Better, but wouldn't a community of pure individualists be no community at all? Wouldn't such a society lack the dimension of charity, and possibly even group endeavor, since most group endeavors require sacrifice? (Think of armed defense for example.)

Moral philosophy is, as far as I can see, the field within philosophy that shows the greatest promise, but it has at its heart, rather as mathematics has, a nasty, empty black hole. Consider this: if everything proceeds by cause and effect, and if we accept chaos theory's notion that small perturbations may end up adjusting the world at large in big ways, then every action that has taken place contributes to the future.

Now think about the world wars. They adjusted the world into what it is today. Moreover, they changed the very people who populate the world - my mother would never have met my father at exactly the right time to create me had not every last detail of the world wars taken place exactly as they did. This is as true for you as it is for me - whoever you are.

So you and I, and everyone else born after 1945, are only here courtesy of atrocity.

Watching TV

One of my interests is watching TV. It is possible to passively absorb TV, in fact some might argue that that is its primary use. But what I mean by "waching TV" is really monitoring the changes in how TV goes about its business.

My time working at the BBC taught me to see TV from the inside, and perhaps that's why I like to follow its evolution. This has come to include TV advertising too, a whole world in itself.

There has been enormous change in the nature of TV over the last 20 years. The emergence of what people call "Reality TV" has transformed the televisual landscape, as has the onset of "dumbing down" and of course helping us through it all is that squad of TV stalwarts the "stand-ups". Never have we been able to name so many, from the ubiquitious Stephen Fry, to the "Live at the Apollo" guy whose name you can just about recall (I mean by that either Jason Manford or Micky Flanagan.)

The present panjandrums of TV-land firmly believe that we (the audience) can best be entertained (and sold to) by amusing people with a high affability rating (comedians). Off the top of my head, how would I order the Apollo stand-ups in terms of those I'd like to see trying to sell me something:

Lenny Henry
Jo Brand
Dara Ó Briain
Rich Hall
Michael McIntyre
Rhod Gilbert
Rob Brydon
Al Murray
Lee Mack
Sean Lock
Andy Parsons
Kevin Bridges
Jack Dee
Alistair McGowan
Julian Clary
Ed Byrne
Sarah Millican
John Bishop
Patrick Kielty
Alan Carr
Russell Howard
Jason Byrne
Shappi Khorsandi
Stephen K. Amos
Frankie Boyle
Russell Kane
Jack Whitehall

I wouldn't buy anything, but I'd like to see them try to sell it. Who would feature at the top of your Apollo list?

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Ernest Borgnine Dies at 95

A few hours ago a friend of mine rang to tell me that Ernest Borgnine had died.

I'm a movie fan, and a fan mainly of movies made last century. That was when they had the idea of letting proper writers write movies (instead of somebody's nephew, who might or might not have done a creative writing course.) Back then there were no special effects worth mentioning, so movie moguls couldn't charge a wad of cash to have people stare at a bunch of gosh-wow dinosaurs/robots/toons/whatever galloping around to no discernable purpose. Actually, there are some very good 21st Cent. movies, but I don't see any remake of A Man for All Seasons topping the original.

Ernest Borgnine, as well as being married a stack of times, and winning an Oscar, was immortalized by John Cooper Clarke, punk poet and quasi-genius. Be sure to watch at least one of his films before you die yourself.

The Virtues of the Wok

Did I tell you? I love my wok!

Where did I get mine?

My local vendor of oriental supplies: Hoo Hing. (Ainsley Harriott, the excellent TV chef and guest star of  a recent Rocky Horror Show, loves the place as much as I do.) They stock a large range of Chinese kitchen equipment which means you can get the real thing.

Woks are made of thin steel sheet, so that as little as possible comes between you and the flame. But it's really the shape of the wok and the spade that comes with it for keeping contents on the move that is the wonder of the device. It has that quality, the one all good craft tools have: the look of what you might call "incorporated experience" It just looks like something that has evolved over a long time.

So - sweet chili sauce, canned water chestnuts, dried prawns, mushroom soy, tom yum paste, and fifty different sorts of noodle ... Looks like I'm going to be busy with my spade tonight.

And let's not forget the 24-pack of Tsingtao beer. You didn't know about Chinese beer? This brew takes me back to my time in Hong Kong when we used to get them for a HK dollar a bottle. Hong Kong can be hot and very humid at certain times of the year. That's when a throat cries out for Baltic ambrosia, or perhaps a good Chinese substitute. Tsingtao is just superb beer, and guess what, when chilled it goes perfectly with Chinese food.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Fridge Clearout - "Eat All You Buy"

I have a real downer on food being wasted. I figure that if an organism has been good enough to lay down its own existence in order to support mine, then the very least I can do is behave with a little gratitude.

For me, this means actually eating all the food that I buy.

The alternative is to flush uneaten food down the sink and into the sewers for the benefit of London's many rats, or adding to our land-fill problems. This question of disposal seems to me to be the practical reason to eat all you buy, but the secondary reason is the feel-good factor you get from knowing you've done right by the many other species responsible for keeping you alive.

The British war-time generation knew this very well. Instead of moving toward an Eat All You Can culture, we should be heading for an "Eat All You Buy" culture.

I think I ought to patent that phrase now.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Federer vs Murray

Oh, dear. Somebody had the temerity to say: "Let the best man win."

And, unfortunately, he did.

My brother, Mycroft, a man of the old school, remarks that it hardly should matter to an Englishman that the final was played between two foreigners, it's the taking part that matters. Let's hope his attitude does not prevail over the Olympic spirit, and that somebody from these islands wins a gold medal ...

The confluence of ideas

Looking back at my last two blogs, I see that there is something of a common vein: Hollywood mining old TV and movie material, the Victorians of the 1860's suddenly switching into backward-lookingness (I hope that's a word, though perhaps it shouldn't be.)

There seemed to be another, rather worrying, thought just a knight's move away:

Does the first sign of decline appear when a culture starts to take too keen an interest in its own past ...?

Civilizations rise and fall. The British have had their two hundred year-long day of glory. Their successor seems to be heading along the same twilight road, while other places appear to be on the up and up.

Interesting times.

A London icon betrays itself

A London icon betrays itself A while ago an out-of-town friend visiting me at Carter's Castle suggested we go down to take a look at the Tower of London. (We share an historical interest, he being an erstwhile Oxford historian.) I must admit that I had fallen into the Londoner's trap of never visiting our local places of interest until an out-of-towner came and forced me to do it.

Anyhow, I said "yes" and off we went. At some point after the visit, we sat down for a coffee nearby. He pointed up at Tower Bridge and said, "Just think, that was built in the late 1870's. Eleven thousand tons of steel and the very last word in bridge technology, and all concealed inside a casing of medieval stonework. It's actually got gargoyles on it, for chrissakes!"

I didn't immediately see what he was driving at, so he persisted. He asked me to cast my mind back a few decades earlier and consider Brunel and all the other great engineers who transformed Britain. "You wouldn't have caught Brunel or any of that crowd putting gargoyles on stuff." It was true. I had been led to wonder what had happened to turn a future-forging, forward-looking culture into one obsessed with its own past. Had Britain just lost cultural thrust and reached inevitable middle age?

And Klaatu barada nikto to you too.

I watched the re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still recently. Pure hokum, of course, but it had the rather solemn-looking Keanu Reeves playing the part of Klaatu, an alien visitor to Earth with an up-to-the-minute eco-agenda on his little green mind. Personally, I much preferred the classic '50s version which spawned the cult phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto" - and yes, you can get it on a T-shirt if you are prepared to encourage that kind of wardrobe. Being a writer, I thought: when will Hollywood stop mining the films and TV series of yesteryear instead of boldly commissioning sparkling new efforts such as my own? You can understand the profit motive, of course. I probably wouldn't have tuned-in to the 're-make' if it had been called something else. But to a man with a personal stake in creativity, and we all have that if we are comsumers of the end product, this kind of re-hashing does smell suspiciously like a con-trick. Perhaps we ought not to stand for it.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Shopping trolleys and Supermarket karts

I've always been fascinated by what other people buy. It's one of the few opportunities a person gets to look through a window into the lives of strangers. When I'm at a supermarket checkout I find myself looking through the various victuals that the person next to me is planning to consume.

Most of the time pleasure seems to outweigh health considerations, with many karts groaning under ready-made offerings that are chock full of additives and chemicals. Biscuits and cakes and cookies and and crisps ... all kinds of industrially manufactured items are usually evident in surprising amounts. Can't say I'm not tempted, but I do try to buy ingredients rather than factory produced microwave meals. I must be odd, because I actually enjoy doing a little cooking!

What's more, the results, after a few months of practice, are becoming reasonably edible. Writers can easily turn into porkers, so we have to be a bit self-monitoring. My solution was to buy a wok. (The Chinese know a thing or two about food.) And now I am leaving ready-meal purgatory and entering home-made chicken and bean shoot heaven!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Rights and Wrongs

This is a timely reminder to all e-publishing authors who have had dealings with traditional publishers to CHECK THEIR RIGHTS. If you are a hard-copy published author and are reading this, please check your own rights and forward this warning to others who may benefit. My own tale is a salutary warning:

Having put my four historical novels up for sale on Kindle and Smashwords, I set about preparing my "Language of Stones" fantasy trilogy. These books had been published in the UK by a major traditional hardcopy publisher who had also bought the UK rights to publish it electronically in the UK. However, when attempting to upload my version for the US market I discovered that my UK publisher were there ahead of me. They were selling the trilogy in a market for which they had not purchased the rights. This, of course, is very illegal. And it has cost me money. Naturally I am in the process of looking for a US attorney who might like to take an interest in the punitive damages this case must surely generate.

The purpose of this blog is to warn other authors that big publishing corporations are not above this kind of move. I doubt if I am alone, and if I am not I urge you to contact me so that we can create a wronged writers' group. So check your rights today and face down the wrongs done to you!