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!