Saturday, December 31, 2011

Seeing off the year

I realised that if I didn’t write something today then there wouldn’t be an entry for December 2011, which would be a shame. What has happened to this blog, once a goldmine of every kind of creative outpouring?

I blame Facebook. This blog used to have everything from single-line pensées to longer pieces like this. Nowadays the shorter stuff goes on to Facebook, which is where most of its likely readers are anyway (those who aren’t, get over there; chances are good that I know (of) you so I’ll accept Friend requests) and it’s much easier to share and interact and generally carry on the conversation. Of course I could put it here and stick a link in Facebook – but even then, all the carry-on and carry-over stuff would probably stay on Facebook. So there it goes.

Don’t get me started on Google +.

So anyway. 2011.

The downs immediately come to mind, but there were ups too. A couple of very enjoyable holidays in Vence, Provence, France and in Sweden; singing in Messiah; a nicely lucrative slice of ghostwriting; and Bonusbarn finally entered the wonderful world of higher education. Of course, being Bonusbarn, he couldn’t do this the easy way, i.e. embrace the system that is there to help him, No, no. Of his first two choices he put the one he actually wanted second; and when he got offers from both of them, he declined the first one when he should have asked them to reject him, which meant he automatically went into clearing and officially had no offers at all. Ho hum. But it all worked out.

The biggest downs of 2011 are that I started the year having no friends with cancer and ended with two. More accurately, I suppose, they both probably had it a year ago but it was only diagnosed in the intervening months. No further reports to add on this – consider it a work in progress, and as one of them so eloquently expresses it, “poo to Mr Crab”.

What made the biggest impact on me was being made redundant halfway through the year. Previously I had been quite enthusiastic about the new marketing regime but I underestimated their desire to sweep clean. I wasn’t the target and was merely caught by the edge of the broom, as shown by the fact that they wanted to keep me on as a freelance provider. There was no malice involved; it’s just that being marketing types with no grasp of the small details, minds too full of the big picture, it was handled so ineptly that I had to think very hard about whether I really wanted to stay. I should have remembered my previous conviction that marketing is like the church and the military: you want it on your side but it should never ever be given power.

The redundancy offer was statutory but still generous, so the pressure to find work immediately was off. This also coincided with the start of the ghostwriting, which got me the equivalent of a novel advance for a month’s work. So I gave the old place the benefit of the doubt and signed a contract that would guarantee five days work a month; more important, it guaranteed I would be paid for five days a month. If I didn’t do five days, well, I could owe them a bit more work the next month.

All well and good, until they insisted on me billing them for July, in which month I had had a two hour meeting and that was all. At one stroke, I owed them nearly a month’s work, and they carried on persistently not using me. I had seven years’ experience that could have helped in so many ways, but no, I was the tool kept on the shelf for when they wanted some scribbling, or for when a job was too boring to waste the salaried staff on it.

Outside of the old place, I honestly intended to give the freelance life a workout, but external factors conspired to convince me that it isn’t for me. I had several leads, all given to me by people I trust and who had proven experience that these leads should work … but this is Austerity Britain and No One is Hiring. Not one of those leads actually led to anything. Sure, I could have done more – actively tout my CV around the numerous science parks that dot our landscape in this part of the world – and perhaps I would have if I really had no choice. But the thought of doing that for the rest of my life … no. Just, no. At the old place I was doing more than just writing: I was engaged on many levels; I was contributing to an enterprise I really believed in. I wanted that back.

The most enthusiastic proponents of the freelance life – the two people I was reporting to at the old place, both of whom coincidentally had well-paid fulltime jobs – tried to assure me that freelancing is wonderful and rewarding, you can choose how much work to do … well, maybe on the fees they get, but at my level you need to keep working regardless. You might also think, might you not, that with all this free time on my hands, the extracurricular writing career would burgeon? Well, no, not really, because I don’t currently have any work under contract. It’s all on spec at the moment, and when you’re writing on spec, you’re not earning. So, no. The writing suffered too.

I know successful freelancing is possible, even in my sort of field, because I know people who do it and enjoy it; but none of them as far as I know had it thrust on them at a moment's notice. I lacked the patience and the willpower to tighten the belt for the next few years to make something happen.

And then, out of the blue, along came the dreamed-for job ad – a maker of scientific instruments that required someone with just about my full skill set. Sent off the CV, got a call that same evening inviting me to an interview, got sent an editing test, got invited to a second interview, came away convinced I’d blown it and then got invited back. Terminating my freelance contract requires two months’ notice, so for the time being I’m on three days a week until I can go fulltime at the end of February. The old place should squeeze one more newsletter out of me, and quite probably a quarterly report too, if they have any sense.

So, I finish the year in an unexpectedly different place to where I started it, but no hard feelings. I have a student stepson, an added arrow to my writing bow that wasn’t there before, and my wife is lovely as ever. Happy new year, and poo to Mr Crab.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A dream fulfilled

At the age of 13 I vowed never to sing again in a choir, which was a bit unfair to the choir I was actually in for four years. It was quite fun and it had its advantages. Choir practice occurred during the long midday break, so we got an extra half hour added onto our bedtimes by way of compensation. Or, in the summer term when everyone got the extra half hour, we got an extra sweet ration. We had a good choirmaster, and we learned a good mix of religious and secular songs. We often got the day off to go and sing at weddings, for which some form of edible recompense was usually available. I remember us all being invited to the reception, once, where I learned that caviar tastes exactly like you would expect fish eggs to taste. There were occasional ventures to singing festivals or competitions in the area and I remember being part of a multi-choir festival thing singing ‘Carmina Burana’ to a packed house.

But it was also all a bit too much like hard work for something that was meant to be enjoyable, and after the mandatory term in the choir decreed at my next school for all new boys who could sing, I exercised my right to leave for good. I still know how to sing in tune, keep a beat and hit my notes - all useful skills.

As an adult I’ve toyed with the idea of joining up again, here and there, now and then – a local choral society, maybe, or something G&S – but again the thought of all those rehearsals to be any good just seems too time consuming where I could be doing something else. But when your local church advertises the chance to do Messiah, rehearsals and performance in one day only - experienced soloists and orchestra, otherwise no experience required - what’s to lose?

And so I was one of about 100 volunteers of varying experience – knowing every note backwards down to complete debutantes – who turned up at Christ Church on Saturday morning. I was ahead of some in that I had actually sung in a choir before, albeit 33 years earlier. The church was arranged landscape format to accommodate choir and a small orchestra, and we were left to self-sort into soprano, alto, tenor or bass. I guessed I would probably be bass and this turned out to be correct.

I presume that anyone who was totally, irredeemably, awfully flat (and I know for a fact they exist in our congregation) would have been gently turned away, but that didn’t seem to happen. There again the organisers may have adopted the Florence Foster Jennings philosophy - “they can say I can't sing but they can never say I didn't sing.”

As a final shakedown we ran through scales and phrases, with the advice that “if you can’t sing this then you’re a [whatever comes next down]”, right up to the point where bats fall out of the sky as the Hallelujah Chorus’s “King of kings” gets ever higher and higher. And then we started.

I had vaguely assumed different workshops for different voices but no, we worked through the whole thing together, chorus by chorus and learning to put the right emphasis on “Wonderful counsellor”, the right scorn and disgust into “iniquities” (say it like you’re Michael Howard, is the answer to that one), the right sarcasm into “he trusted in God”.

The assumption was that everyone who came at least vaguely knew the piece already, which is a dangerous assumption because when you have to sing a specific voice you come to the sudden realisation that you don’t actually know the tune. You know “the tune”, i.e. the bit you could whistle or hum if you listened to a recording, but you don’t know the specific notes you ought to be singing which sometimes are completely not the notes you thought you knew. Fortunately I was sitting next to one of the knows-it-backwards crowd (whose friend was a Doctor Who fan, I discovered by virtue of wearing my TARDIS cufflinks), and I can read music well enough to tell how many beats each note should last and approximately how further up or down the next one is than the last one, so all in all I got by.

My school choir only had one voice – unbroken boyish treble, and if you had the nerve to start adolescing in the run-up to some concert or other big do then the choir master’s disapproval was made plain – so I had never really appreciated what it is to sing in parts. You’re much more aware of feeding in to a greater whole; you feel much more part of the organism that is the choir. Team work! And over a gap of 33 years all the old habits came flooding back – how to stand, how to hold the score, how to keep an eye on the conductor – so, no problems there. Actually, at school I would have got told off for closing my score with a satisfied snap after the final ‘Amen’, but I make allowances for myself.

And what a thing it is to sing, eh? A cunning selection of Bible verses that take you from the bright and bubbly “And the glory of the Lord” through to the lowest points of the Suffering Servant and then onwards into Heaven where everyone is praising God. For ever. And ever. And ever. Hallelujah. At the end you can almost believe that’s where you are, until you go out into the cold, dark car park and think, “okay, still a little way to yet.”

For the last two years on this weekend we've been to Salisbury cathedral's candlelight Advent service to kick off the season. No candles this year, but otherwise a fully satisfactory substitute.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Japes joy

My short story collection Jeapes Japes has been reviewed, which is nice; favourably, which is even better; and it’s the first time my entire body of short fiction has come under the critical spotlight, which is absolutely wonderful. Though I say it myself, I appear to be quite good. Or maybe I should say that I appear to have been quite good, as I haven’t written short fiction now for over a decade. By the time my last piece appeared (“Go with the flow”, Interzone, 1999) I was into novel writing mode and life is too short for both, sadly. At least, mine is.

The line I found most interesting was this:
“The stories contained in the collection generally find the characters tending to merely support the novum of the story, rather than being the centrepiece of the tale. The tales therefore better present ideas rather than uniquely interesting characters, and after each the reader dwells more on the notion presented than the personalities.”
Yup, I’ll agree with that. (And while I’m here, may I add that the reviewer is quite fond of the word ‘novum’ – it turns up once or twice later on too.) I strongly suspect it’s the influence of too much Asimov in my youth, and it’s very nice of the reviewer to make a strength out of what I would still regard as a weakness. A beginning writer will usually write about nothing but the idea, and the story either grinds to a halt or turns out not very good because you need – gasp! – characters, who are interesting enough to make you care what happens to them, and another couple of ideas to make it into a proper story. I got the hang of that, but the originating idea always dominated. In novels, this was not such a problem because the originating idea inspired lots of other stuff and eventually it could just merge into the background. In short fiction I never had enough room for that to happen.

This is actually something I am trying hard to shake off, because I would love to be able to write just good ol’ adventures, pure and simple. Someone gets out of bed one morning and pow! Things start happening in their life. Some writers can do that as easily as breathing. I’m working on it.

I’m very glad the reviewer considers “Pages out of order” (F&SF, 1997) to be the stand-out story, because so do I: it’s one of the most personal contributions and also one I would really like to expand into a novel, if I can just do all the necessary working out. It might not be the only time travel story set in an English public school – though no others come to mind at present – but I’d bet good money it’s the only one ever published by F&SF. “Crush” (Interzone, 1993) was also quite a personal one to write, getting a lot of stuff off my chest, but I had no idea I had done it well enough for it to be described as a “rather chilling tale of obsession … Jealousy, obsession and incarnate rage are all wonderfully snippeted in this brief tale”. Cor.

So, what are you waiting for: buy from the publisher Wizard’s Tower or, if you’re one of those people who absolutely insist on patronising evil empires, from Amazon. Let’s give the reviewer the final word so you know what you’re getting:
“The stories leap sporadically from one genre to another, without flow or warning and yet they still somehow all work so well together. A reader gets far more from the ideas and suggestions each story creates, than from the characters themselves which are never really explored to much depth. This augments Jeapes Japes as the classic SF short story writing that gives each tale a striking novum and characters far more incidental to that central idea. Indeed it is not the characters that stay with you when you put the book down, but the rich and exciting ideas that burst from this collective library of short stories.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

Everything I know about banks, I learned from Paddington

That was a good weekend, that was. Friday was a performance by the Osiligi Maasai Warrior Dance Troupe at Christ Church in Warminster: 90 minutes of hypnotic close harmony singing and chanting and dancing and jumping. They do it to raise money for their community back home and very good they are too. Like a low-budget Peter Gabriel concert but even better.

The Saturday was BristolCon, which I enjoyed more this year than last probably because the discussions seemed more book-themed than media-themed. Also I wasn’t spending the sessions beaming ineffective telepathic death signals at the prune from SFX who gave The New World Order such a braindead review. And I got to meet Philip Reeve.

And in the 45 minute train journey from Warminster to Bristol I read a brand new copy of Paddington Abroad, which I found in my parents’ spare room. Apparently it was a freebie giveaway by the Daily Telegraph. I even remembered bits of it from when I was 5 or 6, though my reading speed may have improved since then. It's one of the first books I remember.

The gist of it – what we would nowadays call the story arc, I suppose – is unsurprisingly that Paddington and the Browns go abroad, on holiday to France. This was in the days when you drove your car onto a plane, which dates it a bit. I remembered bits of it, like Paddington going to see a fortune teller, who tells him to cross her palm with silver. He obligingly does so. She explains that he’s meant to stop halfway and let the coin go. She is then puzzled by his very long lifeline, which turns out to be a chunk of marmalade.

I also remembered the cheerfully Francophobic scene where the Browns tuck into a delicious dish of escargots, prepared by Paddington, before reacting like any smugly complacently ignorant middle class Brit would when learning what escargots are.

I had forgotten the pictures – the wonderful line drawings by Peggy Fortnum who manages to catch everything that is so earnest and loveable about our hero bear in just a few lines. There was one that made me laugh for a good five minutes. Paddington is invited to play the bass drum in a French marching band, but because the drum restricts his view he doesn’t realise when the band have turned round so he keeps on going. The picture stretches across the top of both pages. At top right is the band, just very small silhouetted stickmen, marching off the page in one direction. At top left is a very small silhouetted bear marching off the page in the other, still earnestly beating his drum.

I’ve very glad that the statue of Paddington at Paddington is based on the Fortnum version, rather than the TV puppet.

But the real gem which has stuck with me all these years is the second chapter, where Paddington goes to the bank to take out some money for the trip. I remember my father explaining the jokes to me.

The bank is called Floyds. I learned there is a bank called Lloyds.

First he learns that his savings have accrued about 10p of interest, which he doesn’t find very interesting. I learned about interest.

He is shocked to find that the number on the note he is given is not the same as the number on the note that he handed in. In fact, the coins are different too – different dates and not highly polished like his were. I learned about the fungibility of money, though probably not the word "fungibility".

The cashier also explains that his old notes has probably been burned by now. I learned … well, in short I got a pretty good idea of how banks work. For a 5 year old.

Paddington complains that his note had a promise to pay bear the sum of five pounds on demand. The cashier explains that the word was bearer.

Of course, this being Paddington it all ends in chaos, with him convinced that his savings have all gone up in smoke and the emergency services being called in. Quite prescient, really.

Eventually all is smoothed out and he is offered a nice new bank note to make up for it all. He prefers to keep the old one as he now has so little faith in the banks he would rather have a note that’s been tested.

With that off my chest here are the Osiligi Maasai warriors again, singing in a church somewhere (not ours). This was a more restrained performance, possibly because it is apparently a hymn they are singing.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The nest empties

If you're sending your only (step)child off to university, you ought to make an occasion of it. There's no reason you can't spin the weekend out a bit, so we did.

Departure time was set by mutual pre-arrangement for 10.00, Saturday morning. At 05.00 he finally rolled in from saying goodbye to his friends. At 09.20 he was finally persuaded that if he wanted to make the journey washed and fed, now would be a good time to get up. At 09.45 he was saying, "look, can we speed this up a bit?"

An uneventual journey, apart from learning that Pease Pottage actually exists - or at least, motorway services of that name do. Luggage unloaded, new housemates met, and his mother allowed to make his bed, after which we were politely but firmly shown the door. And quite right too. I think I went through similar with my own mother in October 1984, apart from the making the bed thing.

So. Beloved had never been to Brighton before, so into town we went, me pointing out the church that actually features (though not by name) in The New World Order. Parking charges and crowds of no less than a couple of thousand put us off cultural activities like looking around the Pavilion. We edged our way along the sea front for a bit, then retrieved the car and drove along the coast from Brighton to Eastbourne - not least because Sandi Toksvig did exactly the same journey in a bus on Excess Baggage a couple of weeks ago and it sounded nice. Every now and then we would utter something wistful, like "I am so glad he got a house in Brighton and not Eastbourne, like the university were advising him to." It's a beautiful 20-mile trip, but a very long 20 miles.

More positively: a beautiful landscape of rolling downs, sparking sea, quaint villages, Roedean looking like a cross between Hogwarts and an HM penitentiary clinging to a cliff, Beachy Head, and just one man urinating at a bus stop while his fellow future passengers showed resolute Englishness by queuing in the opposite direction and ignoring him. Cream tea in the Victorian Tearooms on Eastbourne pier, then a cross-country trip through more lovely rolling downs bathed in sunlight to stay the night with an old school friend who lives in the vicinity.

Sunday morning: exploration of Horsham and then, finding it unexpectedly close, Guildford Cathedral. We wanted to go somewhere to kneel and say a brief prayer of thanks for the boy finally entering higher education, and where better than a place firmly associated with the Antichrist?

So it was perhaps ironic that the place was full of several hundred Masons, all in full aprons, medals and other forms of togs, gathered together for an annual service of thanksgiving. Seats were reserved for men with titles like "Provincial Grand Steward", which frankly I think is setting your sights too low. If I was going to be a Grand Steward, no way would I settle for being merely Provincial. Fortunately we still had about an hour before the service began so could explore in relative peace, if not quite the quiet we were hoping for. I stood next to one of the gents in the Gents, and found jokes about funny handshakes filling my mind. I'm quite glad none of them slipped out.

Then home, finally, to a strangely empty flat. You'd think that if we just shut his door and drew his curtains then for the rest of the flat it would be just like him still being there, but no, apparently not. I took the opportunity to hoover his room and could have sworn the carpet screamed: "stop! What is this strange thing you are doing to me?"

Followed by: "Hmm, actually that's quite nice."

And then: "Oh yeah, baby, more."

At which point I stopped.

Five years ago he couldn't wait to move in. Five years later he couldn't wait to move out. The mind and the spirit left some time before the body. This is life, and it is good. And now we see with no small level of interest what happens next.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bits and pieces

Someone has built a 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer out of Lego. The 10-year-old Ben would have enthused. The 46-year-old article merely ventures, ‘meh’.

First of all, what can you do with a 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer? You can hardly hold it in your hands and make it swoop and soar, which is the object of any Lego-created offensive weapon. You could leave it on its table and buzz it with handheld fighters – though very small, undetailed fighters if we’re talking the same scale – which would be a reasonably faithful reproduction of various key scenes from the movies but not much more. And it would be a right bugger to rebuild after the required climactic explosion, which would surely be the point of any attack scenario.

Second, what’s the fun of building it in the first place? From the pictures, it’s obviously a 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer kit. There are pieces here that could not be meant for anything else. If it had been cobbled together out of standard parts – now, that would be worth noting. But this? Meh again.

In my youth I would often be given a Lego kit for birthday or Christmas. Rarely anything very exciting, at first glance. I would dutifully build whatever appeared on the front of the box, for form’s sake. But then. Ah, then. The name of the game was cannibalisation.

Sure, I would try to model my favourite spaceships and other such machinery. That’s only to be expected. The joy, the triumph was in bending the set pieces to my will. Those 45-degree fins at the front of Fireball XL5? Four-blob roof bricks. They gave the fins a slightly more stepped appearance than Derek Meddings would have recognised but my model was clearly a superior variant.

I think the only model I ever had with one-use only pieces was an air liner. This had two blue, flat, roughly triangular pieces that could only be wings – well, control surfaces of some description. Wings of a small plane, tailplanes of a larger one; maybe the fins of a Stingray-derived submersible. The fuselage of the air liner, being long and thin as such things are, was two or three 8-piece blobs with four windows painted on either side. Now you’re talking! Air liner windows, Pah! They could so easily be the openings of gun barrels, or rocket exhausts, or some kind of grill or just a bit of detail added to make a model look that bit more interesting.

Actually, I did have an electric motor, which very soon failed because I lost the wires that connected it the battery section and then lost the battery section anyway. It was a quite distinct, idiosyncratic shape, not easily adapted to other uses – but on the other hand, it was solid and heavy and so served as the base or chassis for all kinds of construction requiring a solid anchoring.

The standard 8-blob hinge pieces could be retractable landing gear, or supply the elevation to guns, or be landing ramps or hatches or … or anything requiring a hinge. The circular 12-blog turntables could be the attachments for helicopter rotors or gun turrets or a handy twirlable control knob on some gadget of my own devising (possibly a tricorder). There were some designs I never could quite crack – I never did quite master gullwing doors, for instance – and I will admit I sometimes wished they could have made backward-sloping roof bricks, i.e. with the smooth part on the inside. But the joy was in the trying.

It would be fun to cannibalise the many parts that went into the 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer. It would even be fun, I suppose, to build it once as seen. But that’s all.

And anyway, a Battlestar could whup an Imperial Star Destroyer, any time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 thoughts and memories

I suppose it was my generation's defining "Where were you when ..." moment, like Kennedy for an earlier generation, trumping even when Thatcher resigned and Diana was killed. (Funny how all but one of those spawned conspiracy theories.) I was waiting at the Frilford traffic lights en route to work in Witney when the Classic FM news announced preliminary reports that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. Like everyone from George W. Bush down, I assumed it was a small propeller plane that had got off course.

Over the afternoon, further reports began to come in, but I was working in an office with very restricted bandwidth and no radio and so we couldn't really keep up. I only got the full brunt of it on the drive back home, listening to the car radio.

I had set the video at home to record Channel 4's showing of That Hamilton Woman starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. During one ad break, Peter Sissons popped up to break the news; at the next ad break, the film was put on hold and it became non-stop New York footage. I had to wait for Channel 4 to repeat it months later to learn how it ended (though I had a shrewd suspicion).

The next day, Classic FM had suspended its usual programme and was just playing appropriate requests. Someone requested "Lacrimosa" from Priesner's Requiem for a Friend, and that was the point my eyes filled with tears and I almost had to pull over.

This wasn't how we wanted 2001 to be, was it? We wanted a thriving moonbase and orbital colony and all the petty affairs of mankind put behind us. Instead, apparently, exactly one American was off-world at the time, up in the ISS and all this was going on below. In the unlikely event of an alien intelligence monitoring us from the Moon, I think the gist of the report home would have been, "avoid." But to be quite honest, that describes most days before and since.

Personally I think 9/11 was also a Titanic moment - a foreseeable, avoidable tragedy that nonetheless saved thousands more lives than were lost. After the Titanic, ships carried enough lifeboats. Before 9/11 you could have got an elephant through US customs but not after; 9/11 may well have prevented the Great Al Qaeda Nuclear Strike of 2015. As part of the package we also got less than fond memories of George W. Bush, an extremely dodgy war in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security ... but to be quite frank, if we hadn't had those then we would have had something else. We've never lived in a paradise and, this side of the end of time and space, we never will.

Sometime after 9/11 we heard in the office that Sarah Ferguson had apparently had a meeting scheduled in the WTC for later that day. There was a moment's thoughtful silence among all of us, and then the boss exclaimed, "Shame on you for what you were just thinking!"

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Fame and fortune and everything that goes with it

Along with the usual random collections of invitations to bid to write someone's medical research paper or biographical squibs for a website featuring nude Bollywood stars (I know, I wish I was making this up too), this morning's inbox delivers the following treat.
"Dear Ben

This is $SCAMMING_COW from $SCAMMING_COWS_INC. [Names changed not to protect the innocent – as if – but because I have no intention of publicising their scamming set-up.] We are a full service media relations company that works with authors, speakers, thought-leaders, coaches, internet marketers, business experts, health and wellness leaders, etc. to secure media exposure for them and their businesses. We've taken specific interest in you and your business as someone we'd like to represent and would like to further discuss the possibility of representing you."
Well, I do have an agent, y'know, but okay, I'll read further. Nice to know someone thinks I could be a thought-leader, or even a thought leader.

My eye is caught further down by a very promising list of prices. If these people can get me these, I'll be laughing.
  • Online radio: $60 per booking
  • Terrestrial radio: $100 per show per market (for example, If a show is syndicated into Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago that appearance would be $240)
  • Television: $150 for local, $500 for national
  • $1000 for major network shows
  • Print media: $750 per placement
  • Blog features: $50 per appearance
  • Webinars-hosting and inviting attendees -$250
(Incidentally, are you picking up the vibe that these people think I'm American?)

Except that I then read the bit just before:
"We also now offer pay as you go PR. Experts can join the PR company and pay per booking that we get them."
So … you want me to pay you $100 to get me on a radio show? In fact:
"Our media relations representation packages start at just $500 per month and guarantee a minimum of 5 engagements per month!"
So I'm paying you $500 a month. My incentive is presumably the carrot you dangle in front of me of fame, fortune and media exposure. What exactly is yours? You're getting $500 a month, and I'm also paying you for the extra promotion. Why do you want to do anything at all on top of that?

Answer, you don't. Children, if you get anything like this, it's a scam. Genuine PR agents take a cut of your earnings: that's standard and accepted and it's what makes them tick. No earnings, no cut. That's how the big wide world works. Sadly, it is a feature of the same big wide world that there are people like $SCAMMING_COWS_INC. out there always ready to prey on the needy.

Like all good scams it finished with a morsel of truth.
"All of the MEGA best-sellers were born in the mass media (Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Tipping Point, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Success Principles, etc.) here's your chance to do it in a very cost effective manner."
Well, yes, they grew big through the mass media – but I promise you, their authors did not pay $500 a month for a minimum of 5 engagements. Or even:
"Reputation Management $250 a month -in which we control the search engine to overtake any negative reputation harming search entries and articles."
Oh, and on the credit card authorisation form that they so helpfully send, they manage to say "Public Relaitons" instead of "Public Relations".

Back to the attempts to earn an honest living {sighs}.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Quarterly report

Well, it's been three months since the Morning of the Long Knives. How's the freelancing going?

It ... goes. I think.

To recap: summoned to a meeting early at work, told the department was being restructured, warned I was at risk of redundancy, sent home for a week (which turned into three weeks) to think things over. On the understanding that I would be retained to work for the old place for 5 days a month, I took the redundancy and became a freelance technical writer.

Later on the same day as the Morning, I went into London to meet some nice people who wanted me to do 36,000 words of ghost-writing. That was fun, and lucrative, and it kept my mind off worrying what to do next. Sadly that's now over.

In the meantime I was signing up with various agencies who handle people like me. They were all saying essentially "work's always thin on the ground at this time of year but it picks up in September". It's now September so I'll be holding them to that.

And meantime - oh, dear - meantime I signed up to websites like and I helpfully get sent daily lists of jobs being offered that I am invite to bid on. At first this was almost suicidally depressing; now I just keep getting the alerts as incentive - a dreadful insight into what could be.

Example, in today's post:

"I will need 500 articles of 100 word length as soon as possible ... All writers will be given a list of keywords to write at. You MUST be able to do at least 20-30 short articles a day ... My budget is $30 for each set of 100 short articles (100 Words Each)."

So, $30 for 10,000 words.

The only thing more depressing than the tenders is that there are people who still make bids, with persuasive notes such as:

"Respected Sir, I want to establish long term business relations with you because I can do your project and it will help us to develop healthy business relations.Sir, I will provide you high quality work under dead line."

On the bright side, the 5 days a month at the old place pays the mortgage and fuel bills, so at least I can starve in the warm and dry.

To be blunt, I miss working in a team that I got on with doing work that I valued. I miss my friends and I would much rather have a full time job. However I don't want one so badly that I'll just take anything, and I don't want to have to take a step back: hence, no real desire to return to journal publishing, for instance. I'm a realist and I know that beggars can't be choosers - but I'm not yet a beggar, and shouldn't be for some time to come.

And now, if you'll excuse me, it's September and I have stuff to do ...

Monday, August 08, 2011

Cake or death?

Interesting item on this morning's Today programme, and on the BBC site, about the baptism of hundreds of Jewish children in Vienna in 1938, so that they could have baptism certificates which would help them get out of the Reich.

Not everyone is for it, which looking back does seem a little odd, but you do have to recall where these people are coming from. It is a sad fact that over the last 2000 years forced baptism has been offered as the only alternative to torture and death, both options very often carried out by the same people.

I would not say that this is the same thing. If I believed in any kind of God (and, oh look, I do) then to be worth believing in, he would be quite capable of looking into the heart of the lucky convert and knowing exactly what is going on. Anything else just reduces the baptism ceremony to the level of magic. "Sorry, mate, you've had the water treatment. You're now a Christian for ever and ever and ever, whether you like it or not, ha ha ha ha ha!"

Not everyone agrees with my enlightened insight, not even clever people like Jewish historian Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway, University of London, who
"... is appalled by what appears to him like a crass recruitment exercise of vulnerable people by a proselytising church.
"Any Christians who took advantage of the pressure on Jews to baptise them were doing just that. They were using leverage of the most terrible sort.[1]

"There were many other ways that members of the Christian clergy could have helped Jews - offering hiding places, false papers and other kinds of assistance.[2]"
[1] Well, yes and no, yes and no. If they were being expected to renounce their religion and their heritage for all time, else be shepherded into a waiting room from which the Gestapo could come and collect them, that would be one thing. If on the other hand the Revds Hugh Grimes and Fred Collard, who performed the ceremonies, knew that they were just doing this for show and had no expectation of the baptismees ever actually becoming Christian - so what? I repeat: this is not magic. God knows what's going on in your heart and that is what counts.

[2] Well, that may be so and it would make a great movie. Alternatively, for five minutes of your time and a bit of water, you get a Get Out of the Holocaust Free card. Why is that such a big deal? Let's see. Trickle of water on the head vs an expenses-paid sojourn to Auschwitz ... hmm, tough one. Let me think about it.

So with the hugest respect to Prof Ceserani, whilst humbling acknowledging and not in the least belittling the centuries of genuine Christian persecution of the Jewish people, I do have to say (as the ancients might have put it if they had Google Translate), transire ipse, te magnum crustum.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Memories of a godfather

The only thing that stops me being smug about having a godfather who was in the SAS is that I actually have two of them. Or had. Now down to one, Uncle P having died a couple of weeks ago.

I was at the thanksgiving service, though I hadn't seen him since (I think) I was a teenager. I was told by his second wife, who I'd never met at all, that he often said he could have been a better godfather. When I became a godfather myself I vowed I would stay in touch with the boys for as long as was possible and they wanted: to be fair, they're still boys (okay, young men) and staying in touch is quite easy as they tend to be, more or less, in the same place as their parents. And we have Facebook. Not when I was a lad, we didn't, and anyway, I honestly can't see my father or Uncle P embracing that particular technology. So it's quite possible he stayed in touch for just as long as a not particularly religious godfather could reasonably be expected to. He certainly came to my Confirmation.

Two things I learned about him that made me wish I had known him better. One is that he was at the famous Farnborough airshow where a plane crashed, killing 27 spectators, almost including him. Fortunately his military training had taught him to duck.

The other was when P and a friend were having a late night drink in P's flat and it became obvious from noises off that in the flat below a man was beating up a woman. P went downstairs, kicked the door in, and informed the man that he thoroughly disapproved and the lady was to be allowed to go home now. Which she did. The next day the man crept upstairs and tentatively asked if he could borrow a screwdriver.

In a film of his life, of course, kicking down the door would have just been the overture to some lavishly depicted surgical violence, and everyone would be cheering. Real life is so much better. Kicking in the door released P's aggression, and indicated the violence he could have unleashed if the man didn't stop. Against that kind of backdrop the implication of violence is so much more effective, and gentlemanly, and self-controlled; anyway, P had to continue with this guy as a neighbour.

Definitely my kind of godfather.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The day I met a Knight of St John

Many years ago my good wife was au pair to the families of a pair of sisters, whose mother was one of those ladies often described as 'indomitable'. The kind on whom the British Empire was built. I had the privilege of meeting her once but could happily have done with more. She died at the age of 92 and on Friday we were at a thanksgiving mass for her life.

Born in Kenya, she apparently had this recent exchange with a Kenyan immigration official:

"How long are you staying in Kenya?"

"I don’t know."

"Have you visited Kenya before?"


"How long did you stay then?"

"Sixty years."

Anecdotes about her life included finding a gun lying around in the house of one of the suspects in the White Mischief murder. "Don't ask," she was advised, so she didn't, and quietly put it back.

A lovely service with some good tunes: 'How great thou art', 'I, the Lord of sea and sky' (a surprisingly modern choice) and, um, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'd quite like that last one at my own funeral, but for me the only version worth having is performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the vicar might have something to say about that.

Anyway. I was moved by the service and also by something else even closer to my heart. There’s a biblical passage where we're enjoined not to take the seat of honour at a gathering, because someone more important may turn up and we’ll be hideously embarrassed to have to go and sit somewhere else. Instead, says Jesus, sit at the back so that you can be guided up to a more important position by the host.

Which is exactly what happened to us. All prepared to sit quietly at the back, one of the grandsons that Beloved had looked after as a small boy firmly guided us further up the church, assuring us (well, her) that we're family. That was just the start of an afternoon that made me feel truly privileged, because men and women she hadn't seen for decades were falling on her and hugging her and thanking her for coming, and I realised how much she had touched their lives way back when, and now I have the blessing of being married to her.

And the Knight of St John? He was actually the priest conducting the service. I noticed this strange cross a bit like the Blue Max bobbing at his throat as the service went on, but as he probably wasn't a German WWI fighter ace I had no idea what it could be. Afterwards we shook hands, and I asked, and he told me. Cor, knock me down with a feather.

The Reverend Father knows, let's say, how to work a room. Voice trembling with emotion – he was an old friend of the departed – he told during his homily how, on the day she died, he had been driving in the country, and stopped for a sandwich, and a little robin alighted upon his arm, whereupon he fed the small creature a few crumbs and it flew off again. "I don't know what you think of that," he finished.

Later the oldest grandson privately told us exactly what he thought: "I think you’re a f&^%ing liar, Father!" But he said it with a big smile, and grandmother would have had a good laugh.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The fundamental things apply to rock carvings and Earthsea

The west coast of Sweden is flat, fertile farmland, except where it isn’t. Where it isn’t is because of rocks – large, red-grey protrusions, dropped and worn smooth by ice thousands of years ago and jutting out of the soil. At the bottom end of the scale are the ones the size of a small car or maybe a house – they can be landscaped around. At the top end are the ones tens of metres high and the size of a city block. These are more accurately known as geography and there’s no landscaping here – they are the landscape and you just go around them.

At one point, the flat farmland disappears below sea level but the rocks remain. At this point you now have an archipelago.

Fjällbacka is a town on the west coast, overlooked by the 75m high Vetteberget. I decided that if I weren’t already married, this is where I would have proposed. We were there at about 5pm in the afternoon, which is nowhere near sunset at that latitude but still the sun is low enough to sparkle on the water and the black dots of the islands stretch as far away towards the horizon as you can see. If you’ve never read Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea novels, now would be a very good time to start.

It was also a favourite haunt of Ingrid Bergman and they remember her fondly.

We also took a boat out to Väderöarna, largest of the islands and Sweden’s most westerly inhabited possession. Now I was not only thinking of Earthsea but also of I, Claudius, as the fate of several characters at one point or another is to be exiled to a small barren rock in the Mediterranean – the worse your downfall, the smaller and more barren the rock. If Sweden went in for that kind of thing, this place would be littered with exiles. So inevitably I got to thinking up plots and, do you know, I might actually write a story – now there’s a thing.

But there’s things to see inland too. What actually brought us to the area in the first place were the rock carvings of Tamunshede – a late Bronze Age, World Heritage phenomenon. 3000 years ago someone worked out another use for those rocky surfaces – you can carve on them. (Rather, chip away at them to a depth of between 0.5-1cm.) There are four main locations all within a couple of miles, all on south- or east-facing stones, and all on stones where the water continues to run down for a while even when it’s stopped raining. They have been coloured in by present day experts so they can actually be seen – they are so faint as to be invisible in their natural form.

Of course, we only have modern day interpretations to go on, but …

A lot of the time, men are attacking each other with axes.

At one point they are distinctly on a boat as they do so. Were they having sea battles back then?

From the design, the boats are clearly ancestors of the Viking longships, though experts say boats that size couldn’t have been built back then. Therefore, these boats have a symbolic, religious meaning – maybe a way of voyaging to the afterlife. Well, maybe – but even so, were the longships eventually built that size because someone realised that in principle there was no reason they couldn’t be?

And if the boats are symbolic, why are guys still fighting on them?

All the bows found from that time are longbows but these are quite distinctly short, like those used by Asian horsemen. Was there contact? No reason why not. All you have to do is keep going east (or from the horsemen’s point of view, west).

You can’t help but notice just how male the men are – for some reason the women are identified by long hair rather than anything, um, organic. To the right sort of mind it gives rise to all kinds of humour – no, change that, I mean one particular kind of humour. I may have thought up a few jokes but I won’t share them and I didn’t buy the book.

And (we learned) the reason horsemeat isn’t generally eaten in Sweden is because eating horsemeat was seen as a pagan practice and therefore discouraged by the early church. So religion has its uses.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Witney Book Festival: 9 days and counting ...

May I particularly draw your attention to the excellent events of Sunday 19th, though I should add I have never claimed to be the author of 18 novels.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Where's Michael Winner when you need him?

Friday morning: bin collection day. The binnies can come quite early so we always put the bins out the previous night. This week, grey bin and food bin.

Except that when I left the house this morning there was no sign of the food bin. I stopped the car at the entrance to the drive to ponder its absence. Had it been abducted into the food bin slave trade? Was it an early victim of tomorrow's Rapture?

No, it was lying in two pieces on the other side of the road, and our split-open food bag was lying in the gutter. I'm sure it led to much entertainment for the rush hour traffic as I dodged cars to get across and bring back the fragments. I'm guessing someone moved it from the driveway into the centre of the road, for the lulz. The driver who hit it probably isn't accountable. Probably.

Sorting it all out meant popping back upstairs for kitchen roll and a fresh food bag, trying not to touch anything because my hands were filthy, then loading up the fresh bag with the remains of the food. Coffee grounds ... egg shells ... rotting vegetables ... lovely. At the back of my mind I was aware of a car beeping its horn but I wasn't too worried because I could see no one was trying to leave the property, so I didn't think I was blocking anyone.

Turned out I was blocking someone trying to gain access, though, to visit our neighbouring flat. Immediately I noticed the car I went over to it, filthy hands held up in explanation, but she got in first with the dialogue:

"Look, are you going to move your car?" (says the total stranger with no access rights to the person who actually lives there.)

"I will. I'm having an emergency." (Hands still up, plus she had just clearly seen me put the remains of the food bin into the grey bin.)

"What emergency?" (Explanation of emergency in rising tones of irritation.) "So is that my fault? Are you going to move your car?"

Oh, how I wish I could have that five minutes back again to be decently, properly rude instead of just blowing my top at the uncivil ungracious self-obsessed baggage, which is the easy option and loses moral authority. Suggestions from helpful colleagues when I finally got into the office were:
  • The Michael Winner option: "Calm down, dear ..."
  • (holding hands up) "Do you want me to touch you?"
  • (leaning on bonnet with dirty hand) "Now look, sweetie …"
  • "Give us a kiss and tell me your problems ..."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

In a real hurry to do some shopping

The car on the left, number plate obscured, is ours. We were there first. We came back from the shops to find the car on the right, black Citroen no. LC04AWA, had urgently parked next to us. So urgently it was choosing to ignore the niceties of white lines and other conventions like that.

Seen from the front, the artistry of their not quite hitting us becomes apparent. To get into my own car, I had to climb across from the passenger side.

Let me stress that under no circumstances should the words "learn to drive yer husband's car, luv" be used in this kind of situation, unless of course you can guarantee you're offending the right person. Just bear in mind it might have been the husband driving and have the courtesy to refine your offensive jeers accordingly.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Compliant department

Once upon a time - early to mid nineteenth century, from the available evidence - someone built a large four-storey out-of-townhouse on the far outskirts of Abingdon. It was an earlier, more innocent age. Smoke detectors and fire alarms hadn't been invented and the only noticeable fire prevention systems were the tiled floors around the fireplaces that unexpectedly come to light when inhabitants redecorate and lift up the carpets for the first time. (I said innocent, not stupid.)

In the mid 1970s, the house was converted into flats, one per floor. This was also an earlier and more innocent age, and possibly a more stupid one too, because they still didn't pay much attention to what would happen in the event of fire. The front doors off the flats were still the original doors off the hallway and landing and the only means of escape other than gravity was the central stairwell, so if that caught fire, that was your problem.

In 1991 a callow young 26-year-old moved into one of the flats, and as an owner became by default a member of the management company, but he hadn't thought much about the deeper issues of life such as dying horribly in a fire and never even raised an eyebrow at the thought that he might be living in a deathtrap. And nor did the other owners.

'Twas only in early 2010 that the young man, now a bit older and happily married and also the secretary of the management company, as the only owner-occupier left standing, was persuaded by his wife that installing battery powered smoke detectors from Homebase might add slightly to the overall happiness of the human race. They were duly installed. Meanwhile a new tenant had moved in to the top flat with her two daughters, and her ex-husband was a fireman. The fireman took one look at the building where his progeny were now dwelling and was ... unimpressed.

The first the company secretary knew was when he received a call from the fire department to say that in response to "a complaint from a member of the public" (whose identity wasn't too hard to guess: options, fireman ex-husband of neighbour, or casual passerby who surveyed the building from outside and thought "hmm, probably not safe"), he had been to visit the property and noticed the absence of smoke detectors. This was in June last year. As the detectors had been up since March, he either wasn't very observant or had visited at least three months earlier and only just got round to issuing his report. This was finally followed up in September by a formal visit, suggesting the fire department themselves weren't feeling the urgency. He agreed the battery smoke detectors were a good stop-gap but not enough. In November we (you'd guessed, hadn't you?) received formal notification that:
  1. A grade D, LD3 automatic fire alarm system is to be fitted in the common parts of the house. This comprises of mains powered, with battery back up supply smoke detectors on each landing and a break glass call point by the front door, these need to be interconnected by either wire or wireless means.
  2. All flats, including those to the rear of the premises are to have domestic smoke detectors fitted, these can be battery powered.
  3. An emergency lighting system conforming to BS 5266 is to be installed in the common parts of the house
  4. Water extinguishers should be available at each level of the landing
  5. The flat doors opening onto the common stairwell are to be 30 minute fire resisting, i.e. solid construction, self closing, have a 25mm stops and smoke and heat seals
  6. A suitable Fire Risk Assessment should be carried out listing,
    a) the fire hazards
    b) the people who are at risk
    c) evaluation/removal of these hazards
    d) a record of findings.
    e) a planed review date.
To be on the safe side we both planed and planned the review date and in between other items like having jobs, having a life and so on, it all got done by the agreed cut-off point of 30 April 2011. And today we had our formal inspection, which must have taken at least 2 minutes, and I can proudly report that we are compliant!

Or as Bonusbarn puts it, if we all die in a fire now, we can claim on insurance. Well, quite.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Hole in the wall

This is exactly what you want to be the first thing you see when you pop home at lunchtime on a completely unrelated errand.

A hole in the wall by the side of the carpark.

At first I thought it had just crumbled and a couple of stones had fallen out. Then I saw the distinct dent in the concrete post in front of it and had one of those Pascal-like pensées: "some bugger's rammed this."

And then I went round to the other side of the wall, which is next to someone's driveway ...

Oh, dear.

There were no eye witnesses but there were ear witnesses. It happened shortly after 11am, so was probably someone making a delivery rather than a resident. That meant it wasn't hard to pin down who it might have been and after I'd contacted his company he called me to fess up: a charming Sikh gentleman who had actually been doing a quote for work on our downstairs neighbour's flat. His foot slipped on the brake, he was going to tell us but then he got a phone call and it completely slipped his mind ...

Anyway, all's well that ends well and our insurers are on top of it. We have however indicated to the owners of the flat that we would rather this gent wasn't in any way involved in work that might affect the structure of the building. Not if he's that absent minded.

It would be quite cool if the collapsed wall had revealed some hidden treasure or a map or a dead body or ... Nah, no such luck.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Kindle egg

They're suspicious people down at Amazon. Cheryl put up Kindle versions of His Majesty's Starship and Jeapes Japes and they promptly got taken down again until Amazon could be absolutely sure she had the right to publish them. They'd noticed paper versions exist, you see. Can't be too careful.

But, we were able to convince them and the Wizard's Tower Kindle editions of said books are now available - as already were The New World Order, The Xenocide Mission and Time's Chariot. So, the entire Jeapes oeuvre is now available Kindlectronically. Buy them now. It is your destiny.

Monday, May 02, 2011


So, Dr Who is off with a swing. It took its time, though. It's good to be thrown into the middle of the action ... but it helps to know why we're meant to care first. Last week's episode wasn't really the start to a series; it should have been about three quarters of the way through, having previously introduced Amy + Rory + River to any new viewers. It's nice to have my intelligence respected by a TV producer who expects me to work it out, but if I was a new viewer starting from scratch, I expect I'd have got about halfway through "The impossible astronaut" before turning off out of irritation. Hey look, they're all upset that their friend's dead. But he's not! Oh, he's a younger version. So why not tell him what happened anyway? Since when did this guy, of all guys, pay close attention to the sacrosanctity of the timelines?

But that was a blip. Last week was worth persevering with and this week we strike gold, with creepy tensions and some laugh-out-loud moments, the first of which was River's means of not dying by falling from the fiftieth floor of a building. And the mystery of finding out who the little girl is will keep me more hooked than the weird crack in the wall from last year.

The Moff does have a few leitmotifs up his sleeve that he likes to reuse, doesn't he? Decaying, creepy locations, possibly with cryptic messages scrawled on the wall. Inscrutable aliens who are nasty because they're scary and inscrutable but not very good at explaining their motives. Small children in danger. The inability of two people to have a simple conversation going: "look, please can you explain what's going on?" / "Why, certainly. As you can see, I'm in this spacesuit ..." He's good at juggling them but he doesn't have that many opportunities to use them left before they start being boring ...

So, as the late Nicholas Courtney's most famous character would have said, onwards!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

On abbreviations alone we have a clear winner

I've not yet seen last night's Dr Who so I'll talk about the other burning issue on everyone's mind.

I haven't decided how I'll vote in the referendum on how to vote. Both sides make some good cases. Both also make bad ones. Nothing winds me up more than people I agree with using bad logic to support their argument; because if you can't find good logic to support it, what exactly does that say about your case?

Sad fact about FPTP: it does not guarantee the winner is the guy with the majority vote, whatever nice Mr Cameron might say. Not if they got 40% and their two opponents got 30% each. Do the sums. You can probably do that even if you are a Tory. You will get a guaranteed majority winner only if there are two candidates - and, nationally, if all constituencies are approximately equal. Which they are not.

Sad fact about AV: the most popular candidate is not the guaranteed winner - it may well be everyone's second or third choice who gets in. But (and it's a big but) the policies that candidate represents are most likely the policies of interest to the majority of voters. There's a subtle difference but it's an important one. Suddenly no seat is a safe seat; no candidate can just cruise in because they're representing a constituency that has voted the same way since 1066 and the opposition needn't bother turning up.

A strong argument against FPTP is that twice in my lifetime now it has delivered prime ministers with such a landslide majority, and the personal conviction to back it up, that they can and did do pretty well what they wanted, unopposed; and yet they did not represent anything like the majority of the country. If I knew AV would never deliver another Thatcher or Blair, that would count very heavily in its favour

A strong argument for FPTP is that contrary to popular belief, it can even cope when you get a logjam in the political process and no one wins. Like, a year ago. Given that it still works in that regard, why change it? What is beyond dispute to me that FPTP has always, always delivered the government that was needed on election day. I will say that for Thatcher and I will say it for Blair, because in both cases the opposition was so untenable. And I say election day. It may well be that within a few years, months or even weeks it is no longer the government we need; but on election day, it always has been.

Meanwhile, there are more burning issues to tackle which will go a long way to making our parliamentary system fairer. Boundary reform so that every MP represents approximately the same proportion of the population. Sorting out once and for all the present cludge that gives some citizens of the UK two parliaments and some only one. Things like that. I have a sneaking suspicion AV is just paint on the cracks. FPTP is unfair. So's life.

So, how will I vote on Thursday? Haven't decided. AV has the better publicity but it will take more than clever cat videos to win me over completely and they have four days in which to do it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

His Majesty’s Starship, part 3: a bloody children's publisher?

Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion ... and approached it ... and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.

Placing it with a publisher was quite atypically easy. Two friends from my writers group already shared an agent, Robert Kirby. Robert had been sufficiently tickled by their descriptions of the group to ask if he could have first refusal if any of the rest of us ever wrote a novel. I sent His Majesty’s Starship to him in August 1995, shortly before the Glasgow World SF Convention, which was my first worldcon. He finally accepted it, and me as a client, in January 1996. I had an agent! For a while I enjoyed dropping the words ‘my agent’ into conversation with friends, family and strangers.

(I recently came across an old letter from Robert thanking me for introducing him to his latest client, one Alastair Reynolds. Purveyor of retirement plans to agents, that's me. No finder's fee, sadly.)

And then Scholastic expressed an interest in it.


A bloody children’s publisher?

Robert’s precise reason for sending the book to Scholastic was, and I quote, “Gilmore seemed to me a sort of modern day Biggles and the level of sex and violence would not have raised the collective eyebrow of readers of Captain W.E. Johns.” As Gilmore, in the draft he read, was a divorcee from a group marriage with a teenage son, and there is an alien sex scene in chapter 16, I disputed this point of view, but it’s amazing the effect having a publisher actually express interest will have on you.

Further, I had been put off Scholastic by hearing horror stories from a friend who had had a novel published by their Point SF imprint which was systematically neutered to make it suitable for a young audience. (Or rather, one suspects, for the young audience’s parents.) The approaching middle age, divorced heroine became a teenager. At one point, in the original draft, she comes down first thing in the morning and finds the boyfriend having breakfast, with the implication he had stayed overnight; now he had to walk up the garden path first thing in the morning and ring the bell to be let in.

I don’t know who edited that book but it certainly wasn’t Scholastic’s David Fickling, a boundlessly cheery Roy Hudd lookalike and publishing genius. (All my writing breakthroughs seem to be thanks to someone called David: Fickling, Pringle, Barrett ...) Practically my first card on the table when I met David was that the alien sex scene stayed. “Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. I was to learn he said a lot of things cheerfully, including his careful enumerations of your novel’s precise faults.

David was the man who had signed Philip Pullman (Northern Lights had just won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction) and was looking for something meatier than Scholastic’s usual teen fare for a new imprint. Robert forewarned me that David thought the book was bogged down with too much detail. I went into the meeting determined to refute this viewpoint and I left agreeing with him. I also saw how it took far too long for the story to get going, and it finished too soon – about three quarters of the way through the book, with a lot of mopping up after. I needed to rewrite it so that it ended at, you know, the end.

The kicker was: if David suspected for a moment that I was just agreeing with him to get the book published, rather than rewriting with my heart in it, he wouldn’t be interested. Not that I would have just agreed with him to get it published ... but it concentrated the mind.

This began the first of quite a few rewrites: new opening chapter, throwing us straight into the action and highlighting Gilmore’s tactical ability. A space battle, a few people killed. All good stuff. I sent off the rewrite.

Early 1997: he didn’t like it. I began to see the problem: I had added more plot but left the excess verbiage in as well. David did me a huge favour for life at this point by recommending that I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, first of the Aubrey series. O’Brian’s characters just slide into the action: Aubrey has been through some considerable scrapes prior to the novel’s opening and we only hear about these second-hand.

I applied this to the novel and I cut out anything that didn’t directly relate to the action, including (though it broke my heart) chapter 8, in which the Rustie Arm Wild interviews the crew. That chapter was the key one to introducing not only the crew but also the alien mindset to the reader. The novel was now down to 92,000 words, from its first draft of 113,000.
Back to Scholastic, and David courted death with a casual comment along the lines of: “don’t I remember a chapter where Arm Wild interviews the crew? I quite miss that ...”

I restrained my homicidal impulse and learnt the lesson: anything that develops the characters is probably acceptable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the action. The interview was reinstated.
In January 1998 I sent in the final draft at 100,000 words, and it was accepted. And despite all the twists and turns over the last two years, it really was the story I originally wanted to tell.

I was struck by all the pluses of dealing with David, as opposed to the horror stories I had heard of other publishers: incompetent editors who want to be writers themselves and fiddle at every stage; who have no idea of science fiction beyond Star Trek; who bow to the High Priests of Marketing and tell you to put the sex here, the extra 200 pages there, and where’s that dragon when we need it? And all for a product that ultimately will have a life expectancy that makes a mayfly seem pensionable, because that’s how the bookselling system works. (Note: further on and many years later, I still have yet to meet any editors who match this stereotype ... but I was young then and, like it or not, the stereotype exists.)

I was bowled over by an editor who encouraged me to cut. Not willy-nilly, but surgically. Cut this, yes, but expand that, because you leave off just when the reader’s getting interested ... you see? And yes, I did see. David never lifted a finger to fiddle with the science fiction – that was entirely my own. He just concentrated on the story, and I came out the other end of the process a convert to the demands of children’s publishing: proper children’s publishing, not plot lobotomy as is sometimes practised. Just tell the story, then stop. That’s it. No more. Let it be as long as it needs to be. And you end with a story to be proud of: the story you wanted to tell.

I still had to stay on my toes. There were those within the Scholastic empire who clung to the old ways and David couldn’t control everything. Like, a frowning copy editor changed one character’s “Sod it!” to “Damn it!” We compromised on “Nuts!” (I had a vision of the guy wandering the corridors of their offices in New Commonwealth House muttering “Sod it / damn it / nuts / sod it / damn it / nuts ...”, perhaps looking to see which of his colleagues swooned at what.) Strangely, the occasional utterance of “Christ!” caused no upset at all; a sad reflection etc. etc.

The learning experience continued right up until the end. At proof stage, I was told it was one signature too long for its price range. Books are typically printed in multiples of sixteen pages – eight pages get printed on either side of a large sheet of paper which is then folded and trimmed. That is a signature. My choice was: cut it by sixteen pages, or let Scholastic put it up by a pound. I cut the sixteen pages. It’s humiliating to realise your book has sixteen dispensable pages in it, but it was an invaluable exercise.

His Majesty’s Starship was published in December 1998. My author copies were delivered while I was at work on the last working day before Christmas, so I had to go and collect them from the depot. As I drove away from the depot, with the holidays ahead and my first novel in the boot of my car, the radio announced that Peter Mandelson had resigned from the cabinet. And then it played the third part of Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, a piece of music I really enjoy with a triumphant trumpet fanfare.

I was pretty pleased with myself and with life generally.

Still am.

Life goes on …

It enjoyed modest success and some fairly nice reviews: I still relish the tingle when I saw SFX had awarded it more stars than the other book on the same page, a Star Trek: Voyager novel. It went out of print in 2002. A few years later I did a print-on-demand version because I was still getting a trickle of enquiries. And then, last year, I heard Cheryl was starting a new e-book publishing company ...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

His Majesty’s Starship, part 2: B5, bad guys and by golly, a sequel

Like me, Babylon 5 was also on a mission to do right what Star Trek got wrong. Its key innovation was the story arc – the idea of an overall plot across the entire series that would take many episodes to unfold. Nowadays it’s almost unknown for a series not to have an arc. Babylon 5 gave us a universe of consequences – if a character broke a leg in one episode, they were on crutches in the next. In one episode a fighter pilot was killed and the closing shot was of Commander Sinclair composing a letter of condolence to the next of kin. Humans in Babylon 5 were a minority species, one among many, as opposed to the apartheid-like setup of Trek in which humans are clearly the minority yet equally clearly in charge of almost everything. It was a universe where it was okay to be religious, without the right-minded good guys on the one hand ‘respecting’ your faith until their hearts bled and on the other quite obviously despising it as primitive superstition.

None of it was actually original in comparison to written science fiction, which had grasped all these innovations in the fifties or earlier. For television science fiction it was brand new and I felt a lot of moral support.

Babylon 5 also gave us a feisty Jewish-Russian female second-in-command; not a combination of features you would expect to be duplicated easily. Well, I got there first! Hah!

I enjoyed dividing the Earth into the political map of 2148, including such nations as the Confederation of South-East Asia, the Pacific Consortium, the Holy Arab Union, the South American Combine and the United Slavic Federation – and of course the Vatican. Then, once I had the entire planet neatly divided into political entities, I suddenly realised to my horror that I was doing what Trekkies do – I was neatly delimiting and parcelling up a potentially fascinating future to make it manageable. So the published version names a few nations, but many more are now implied.

Books need antagonists and it would have been too easy to make the Rusties the bad guys. In fact their invitation to the nations of Earth was pretty straight, for the amount of information they chose to reveal. So, the tension had to come from within the humans. For the baddies I chose the Confederation of South East Asia. This was a superstate India and its puppet satellite states; Pakistan, Bangladesh (I take credit for the first ever Bangladeshi on a starship, I think), Afghanistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma. I really should add I had and have nothing against India – but the baddy had to be a global superpower of 2148, and I have no doubt that India will be one. Europe and North America will have long had their day by then. Whether India is a good or a bad superpower, only time will tell. In His Majesty’s Starship it’s just emerging from a mad and bad period, and there’s a tension between different factions who have different views of the past. Several of the Confederation characters are perfectly decent guys who just happen to have been born into this situation and so I gave the Confederation the NVN, an equivalent of the Waffen SS, who unquestionably are bad and not necessarily well liked by their compatriots. As I don’t speak a word of Hindi, NVN stands for ‘Not Very Nice’. NVN uniforms were plain green, based on the pyjamas I was wearing at the time. Depending which part of the novel you read, the uniforms are either dark or pale green, which has two possible explanations: dark green for dress uniform, pale for combat (or vice versa); or, they left the dark uniforms in the wash too long.

Then I unexpectedly started thinking of a sequel …

I honestly hadn’t intended to. But I showed some chapters at Milford 1994 in Rothbury, Northumberland and they came up with two unforeseen reactions. First, I explained the background plot and an immediate reaction was: that’s what the aliens want, and we’re the best they can do?! And second, a criticism was made that Gilmore was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! Thus his eighteen-year-old son Joel was generated spontaneously from the ether, together with a perfect rationale for the Rusties’ actions, and these two things together gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission: the only sequel I have written so far.

In part 3: finding a publisher and discovering I'm a children's author.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

His Majesty’s Starship, part 1: origins

The lovely Cheryl tells me His Majesty’s Starship and Jeapes Japes are available in the Wizard’s Tower book store. They’re out there! EPUB and Kindle! £4.99 each! Buy them!

All of which inspires me to reminisce. In the best spirit of present-day science fiction I shall do it in three parts.

When I was young I read Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. This proved upon retrospect, and indeed upon actually doing it, to be a bad idea because it’s terrible and I couldn’t believe it had been perpetrated by the same author as my beloved Starman Jones, which I read and re-read compulsively up to the age of about 13. However, there is a very brief mention in it of a Royal Space Force. That was an image that hung around in my mind for a long time after, but I didn’t just want to fling it straight into a story as a given. I wanted to know how such a thing had come about.

Also, much as I love good ol’fashioned space opera, with space battles and hyperspace jumps and lasers, I grew up on much more plausible Arthur C. Clarke-type spaceship stories, where there is no artificial gravity and ships must obey the laws of physics. I wanted to write a story that could start in a Clarke-type universe and plausibly end with whizz-bang-splody ships.

In my twenties, I read Hornblower. I had dipped into this before but now at a stroke I now read the entire series. I was struck by an aspect of Hornblower that eluded me as a child: his self-loathing. He is a hero and can never believe it. Every mission he undertakes he is convinced will be his last – and this at a time when the English had shot Admiral Byng on his own quarterdeck for messing up. That was my hero!

I almost had a novel. I didn’t know back then that the phrase ‘Hornblower in space’ was already fast becoming a cliché; I only had a vague idea who Honor Harrington was and David Feintuch’s Hope series had yet to be published. It probably wouldn’t have been a problem if I had, though, because both those others are set well after the start of their respective eras. I however wanted to cover the beginning. For example, why exactly would anyone want to arm a spaceship?

I also wanted to bring the limitations of nineteenth century naval warfare to space, as I think the principles will be pretty similar if it ever happens. In Hornblower’s day, ships were big and slow and couldn’t hide. If you were doing five knots and your enemy came over the horizon doing five and a half, then sooner or later there would be a battle, but you could spend all day just looking at your enemy as he crept closer and closer without being able to do a thing about it. There was nowhere to run to, and when the fighting started you just sat there and took it. And so, these principles were applied to the big space battle in the novel, when it came.

Mix ’em all together and I had my background.

In Asimov’s Foundation trilogy there is a throwaway line about Gilmer, the man who sacked the Imperial capital Trantor and brought down the remains of the Empire. This led to a vague resolution as a teenager, filed away at the back of my mind next to the Royal Space Force, that I would one day chronicle the future history of the Gilmer family. To kick them off, my depressive spaceship captain was named Gilmore. Michael Gilmore, because I’ve always liked Michael as a name: I’ve never met a Michael I didn’t like.

I kicked back against Hornblower’s depressive excesses. He never really accepts that actually he’s quite good and his self-pity becomes actively annoying to the reader. Thus by the end of the story Gilmore has good reason to believe he’s actually quite good at what he does.

Never assume an author is putting himself into his characters, but Gilmore’s lack of self-belief certainly mirrored part of my own personality. I began to write His Majesty’s Starship in 1993; I was still in my late twenties and had no idea what the future might hold. I had no idea if I would ever be called upon to lead a large body of people, or even a small one. I did know I didn’t fancy the idea in the slightest because I had no confidence that I could. And so far in my life, I’ve managed to remain a lone wolf.

And the required jump to a Trek-type universe by the end? Okay, I begged the question here: aliens, already technologically advanced, come to Earth with an invitation to the human race to help them develop a world they have available. I called them the First Breed, for reasons which become apparent; the humans nickname them the Rusties. When someone in my writers group said ‘First Breed’ sounded vaguely threatening, hinting at ideas of racial supremacy, I knew I was doing this right.

It took a while to finalise their physical form. At first I played around with all kinds of shapes in my mind but they all came back to the ‘man in a rubber suit’ syndrome; I could take them about as seriously as I could take Trek’s alien of the week. I certainly wasn’t thinking of them as non-human. Then I remembered the Hefn of Judith Moffett’s wonderful (and underrated) Ragged World (tales of the Hefn on Earth - geddit?) series, who are as at home on four feet as they are on two. I put the Rusties on all fours and, voila, aliens!

This also helped me right a grievous wrong that was perpetrated upon science fiction in the early nineties. There was an especially irritating story in Asimov’s called ‘The Nutcracker Coup’. Quite apart from being nauseously cute and upholding the right of all decent Americans to interfere in the affairs of less developed planets if they find the culture un-American or even if they are just plain bored, it featured a four legged intelligent race which – and I gaped with astonishment when I read it – still carried things about in its front legs, so that if one of them was holding a gun on you, say, it hobbled along on three legs while it kept you covered. An interesting take on evolutionary theory, I thought. How would these creatures ever invent the gun? Or any human-type tool that effectively disabled an entire limb if it was going to be used?

Thus, my Rusties had grasping tentacles on either side of their heads which they used the same way we humans used hands. Other things about them just came off the top of my own head. Rusties appear to human eyes to be flaking rust, hence the name (first I actually wanted them to be sweating iron oxide, but my biochemistry isn’t up to it), and when they are conversing face to face, humans have to fight the urge to pick the flakes off the alien’s skin. A Rustie’s nostrils are at the top of its domed head, above the eyes – they come from a relatively predator-free stock that evolved on the plains, so need to keep their airways free of dust and dirt – and thus humans tend to make eye contact with the alien’s nose. They communicate very much by body language, managing to transmit whole concepts in an instant with a gesture or a scent that would take a human much longer to say out loud; this meant I had to find a way of writing down a Rustie conversation from a Rustie’s point of view. And they are herd animals, which is very important.

Finally, the ship itself: His Majesty's Starship, HMSS Ark Royal. This was originally Raptor, a pun on Trek’s Bird of Prey, until I decided that the UK probably would call its first starship Ark Royal – and anyway, it pushed up the word count.

Much too much of my motivation for His Majesty’s Starship was wanting to do right what Star Trek did wrong; like, emphasising that my ship's have seatbelts and depressurise during battles. At the time, Star Trek was the only viable space-based series on television, other than repeats of the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century – both of which could only be loved for their classic cheese status. But then, in 1994, a few thousand words into the first draft of His Majesty’s Starship, Babylon 5 hit our screens and changed everything.

To be continued ...