Monday, 30 November 2009

Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes, Don't Let the Muse Break Your Heart

Don't let the Pleiades make you cry - Image of M45 star cluster by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons - public domainI've just run across a really admirable posting from Justine Musk on why being a good Writer does not necessarily help you write. (Hat tip: Emma Bull at Dark Roast.)

This resonates rather strongly with me, since I know I'm at my quickest and best when writing in a total spirit of what-the-hell. Katy Elflocks was written that way, for instance. Killer-Kate is much harder, because the characters have become much more important to me, and I badly need to finish their story right, and in any case the best way to get Katy published will certainly be to complete the whole triptych. The same thing happened years ago - firstly when I loosened a writer's block by discovering fanfiction, and secondly when certain fanfic itself started to become a duty. Yes, it is important to respect one's art and cultivate its craft, but I think Ms Musk has an excellent point about how writing may flourish best around the edges of a life ardently lived; and that as she says -

It deserves to be taken seriously, and yet somehow we have to find a way to treat it lightly, hold it lightly, so it doesn’t slip away from us.

Today's musical offering is brought to you because I couldn't resist the post title, and because there is no such thing as gratuitous k.d. lang. (How many other singers, let alone arch-liberal ones, would have had the sheer playful perversity to respond to the Springtime of the Smoking Warden with an album like Drag? Answers on a postage stamp, please, &c.)

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Kyra from Kazandry

The damnedest things come to me as I begin to surface from sleep. Presumably because an old soldier's song plays a big part in the Killer-Kate scene I'm working on at present, another one from the same world presented itself to me Sunday morning before I'd fairly opened my eyes. As far as I can tell, it is that world's answer to Mademoiselle from Armentières. It is basically a madonna/whore song, albeit somewhat more sympathetic than that trope usually works out. The form suggests that it can be sung round and round without limit, until the singers get bored with it or somebody makes it stop.

There is no possible excuse for introducing this into any story I can think of, so I present it here. It is somewhat indelicate in spots, and the nice of disposition may wish to look away round about now. As may any lady bearing the most excellent name of 'Kyra'...

Kyra from Kazandry

Kyra from Kazandry, Mamzel out of Lisle -
Kyra with her kisses, boys, and Mamzel with her smile.
Mamzel ties you to her strings, but Kyra makes you rove -
Mamzel's what we marry, boys, but Kyra's what we love!

Kyra from the Old Bazaar, Mamzel from the Spire -
Mamzel she's the dream, me boys, but Kyra is desire!

Kyra she don't get much love, four wives to one old man,
So give her some attention, she'll be kindly as she can.
Mamzel has four suitors, but they never get no luck -
Mamzel wants a wedding ring, but Kyra needs a fuck!

Mamzel she's a maiden, a shy delightful tease -
Kyra she's a wily wife who'll love you on her knees.
Mamzel takes ten years to catch, she'll be there when you're old -
Kyra takes ten minutes, she'll be gone with youth and gold.

Kyra she's a nasty lass, and Mamzel's mild and good -
Mamzel is a prissy miss, but Kyra's bold and rude.
Mamzel whispers Kyra plays the widow of the grass -
Kyra cries that Mamzel wants a pepper up her arse!

The Sisters brought up Mamzel to be sweet, demure, and true -
Kyra laid your sister down when she was bored with you.
Mamzel dances in your dreams, and Kyra on your lap -
Mamzel gives you heartache, boys, and Kyra gives you clap.

Mamzel can't forgive your sins, she'll send you from her side,
But Kyra is a sinner too - her wicked heart is wide.
She'll hold you in her honeyed arms, she'll kiss away your pain,
She'll mend your mind for Mamzel-dear to break it all again.

Mamzel has a brother who will hold you to your word.
Kyra has a husband with a great big bendy sword.
If each should kill the other, and the seas should turn to wine,
Then get both girls together, and you'll get along just fine!

Kyra from Kazandry, Mamzel out of Lisle -
Kyra with her kisses, boys, and Mamzel with her smile.
Laughing Southron strumpet, and lonely Island star -
Mamzel's what we sing about, but Kyra's what we are!

Kyra from the Delta Sands, Mamzel from the Stream -
Kyra she's desire, me boys, but Mamzel is the dream!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Tactical Nuclear Penguin

Imperially Stout emperor penguins, waiting for the pub to open - image by Josh Landis, US National Science Foundation - public domain Move over, little Sir John Barleycorn - there's a new spirit of beer in town! (Hat tip: Brad Taylor.)

I have had my eye on BrewDog ever since they managed to get themselves panned by the do-gooders for launching a low alcohol beer - and calling it Nanny State. I haven't seen a corporate style I liked so well since the heyday of Death cigarettes. Now they excel themselves again with the magnificently named Tactical Nuclear Penguin. Scottish health campaigners have searching questions about this product:

Jack Law, of Alcohol Focus Scotland, described it as a "cynical marketing ploy" and said: "We want to know why a brewer would produce a beer almost as strong as whisky."

Seek and ye shall find. It's to annoy the likes of you, laddie! I have conducted a serious ethical analysis of this ploy on my own account, and come to a sober and justly-reasoned conclusion, and present it as follows: w00t w00t!

My own concern is that 32% alcoholic drinks, whilst capable of almost every human and social virtue, can surely not include 'being beer' among them. This sounds to me like a bit of a stretcher. I will believe that Penguin is to beer as brandy is to wine, but I don't call the medicinal supplies in my cupboard 'brandy wine', either. BrewDog's offering is supposed to remain an Imperial Stout even after being freeze-distilled by the eisbock method (i.e. repeatedly throwing away the stuff that turns to ice). Are we not in need of a new generic term here?

'Hopka' won't fly, since eisbocking beer apparently loses the hop component of the flavour even as it concentrates several others. 'Frisky' is frankly gimmicky, though 'brisky' has a certain je-ne-sais-wooaaargh in my opinion. 'Muh... uh... BRAIIIINS!' may well win out in terms of actual usage on the street, but the good folk of Brains Brewery got there first. Even calling it right good stingo has one or two things against it.

Can anybody help me out with this puzzler? Failing that, my blogly duty is clear. If anybody will procure me a sample for analysis, I hereby undertake to investigate its beer-nature pro bono publico.

Call me rash, call me selfless, but don't bother calling me that evening...

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Free Speech SOS UK

Minister of Truth and Lord High Everything Else Peter Mandelson is at it again, pushing the Government into new legislation aiming to disconnect UK households from the Internet if they are accused of repeated illegal downloading of copyright material. (Hat tip: Charlie's Diary.) Accused is the operative word - guilt is assumed, and due process of law excluded. Since we can safely assume that Joe Bloggs Esq, Author of Renown, cannot similarly knock any media corporation off the Web with a corresponding accusation, this seems to amount pretty much to a one-way licence for selected oligarchs to silence any critic who doesn't have heavy political cover, provided they will first take the trouble to snap their fingers imperiously.

The thought that they might also make some selected allegations purely to oblige the politicos who grant them this special privilege is, of course, unthinkable in a modern and civilized democracy.

Nonetheless, after due consideration, I am very much against this proposal indeed. Do read SF author Charles Stross's counterblast here, where he also draws our attention to the petition ISP TalkTalk have started against it at the 10 Downing Street site. This is shiny and new and has near on 25,000 signatures so far. (Update: had this morning. It appears to have lost over 9,000 signatures over the course of today. Has anybody else noticed this, and what the blue blazing hell?!) The Don't Disconnect Us snowball needs to keep growing, ideally into the early millions, and the sooner the better. There is an election coming up very soon, and if this bill of goods looks sufficiently unpopular, New Labour may well have to row back on it.

More significantly, the Tories - still the front-runner to form the next government - could find it convenient to knock seven barrels out of Labour on the subject, in which case they will be most unlikely to terminate their political honeymoon instantly by reviving the wretched thing in a hurry. Particularly since they are not on course for a particularly stonking majority! They will need to be given reasons to commit themselves, though, or they'll surely yield to the temptation of getting the new powers without copping the blame for them.

Please, fellow Brits, take a moment to sign the petition. I almost never touch such things, but this one is rather serious and has a chance of actually influencing something for a change.

If this crapload is allowed to bed down before we all get excited about it, it may become a little less convenient to whinge publicly about it afterwards.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Morning on the Marches

I woke up this morning, my woman was dead my houseplant had left the booze had run out from a long and rambling dream, strangely combining the merry shenanigans of my kinsfolk with Terry Pratchett's dark Discworld literature and Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic romp The Idiot.

Pointedly refusing to interpret the above, I found myself oddly refreshed, and over my sultana bran finally settled down to take up the tale of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland where I'd left it off all those months ago. Where I'd left it off in waking life, this time, as opposed to in my dreams...

They have spent their last night in the desolate woods with their arms full of dry leaves, and old Kate has played chanticleer to their personal doomsday, her face and fierce eyes burning with the fires of a red-gold dawn. I have risen up with Luke to join her, and we are all heading for the Featherhowe again - and for other things they less suspect.

It's good to be back!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

I Know What They Are, but What Am I?

In the wise words of Agatha Christie's immortal detective Hercule Poirot, I have a thoroughly bourgeois attitude towards murder - I do not approve of it, even if the victim deserves it. I think, too, that we can agree similarly upon abduction, robbery, and many other such unsavoury but familiar behaviours. Where we differ is that M. Poirot considers 'legitimate authority' to be the only tolerable excuse for killing, capturing, shaking down for money and so forth. For him, subordination to church and state is the only thing that stands between us and an earthly hell in which everyone is their own stealthy and ever-more-corrupt judge, jury, and executioner. Rebellion may be right and moral on occasion, but only in the direction of forbearance and mercy. Well and good, as far as it goes.

This doesn't quite satisfy me. (At the very end, it does not entirely satisfy the great detective, either.) If I disapprove of murder and all the other business, it is not clear to me that leaving it to a wholesale monopoly called the Government is improving either my character or the public situation. Worse, because unlike M. Poirot I am a raging malcontent in these matters, I would argue that 'government' itself is just exactly the power relationship where rulers have a licence to commit what would otherwise be recognized as crimes, and ruled persons an obligation to suffer them quietly, and both sides generally believe this to be legitimate or at least inevitable.

It is that last clause which both stabilizes government and makes it, in most societies, somewhat tolerable. Rulers may claim 'sovereignty', i.e. a licence to commit any crime whatsoever against anybody, but it is doubtful whether any ruler in history has really possessed the full Monty. There is always something you cannot safely do to somebody, because if you do then sooner or later it will cause talk, and more and more of that talk will eventually be along the lines of "The Senate sends you this!" Unfortunately, not having absolute sovereignty does not exclude having inexpressibly more power than is good for anybody, as me old mucker Kim Jong Il was wont tearfully to confide over a pint of Old Genocide after honking up his third lobster thermidor 'n' chips.

On this fancy rock set in its polished pewter sea, we still have some pretty strong constraints on what the rulers may get away with as rulers, as opposed to what they may do only on pain of being hunted down in their capacity as ordinary criminals. This distinction is what is called the constitution of government, and every nation state other than the UK has also got a paper version which sets out the official story. In places where the real constitution is strong, the paper version serves as a vividly blazoned shield against the worst kinds of abuse. In places where the real thing is weak, the paper version might as well be printed on perforated rolls, with the motto Now Wash Your Hands on every leaf.

There is a good argument to be had about the merits of constitutional government as a means of limiting, channelling, and minimizing the total crime in its domain. Accepting that theory solely for the sake of argument, I still think I am entitled to count the actual acts of 'government' that do take place as crimes that are to be minimized, just as if a criminal had done precisely the same things. I do not care whether the perps are doing it for God, or Society, or Their Ineffable Entitlement. I only care about what it is they are doing.

This sentiment, since I am not persuaded that government is the least possible evil, makes me an anarchist. It does not make me in favour of what is usually called anarchy, which is what happens in places where government collapses. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where people believe in government, and one is taken away, a hundred candidate governments instantly spring up to fill the void, each essentially at war with everybody who does not submit to them. Most of these candidates will, for obvious reasons, be pretty bad. The war will be bad, by definition. The winner, if any, is likely to be determined by excellence in delivering the crudest kinds of unpleasantness to the disobedient. None of this is conducive to a general improvement in civilization.

Likewise, a sudden coup replacing one government overnight with another is apt to be all about ruthlessly single-minded specialists in acquiring power and using force. So I can't be a willing revolutionary, either, without defeating my own ends (and supporting the sort of crime I am supposed to detest, into the bargain).

I do not approve of government. I also do not approve of destroying government. What am I, then, if not just tooooo gooooood to liiiiiiiive?

Well, let us reason by analogy. I do not approve of murder. I disapprove, though, even more profoundly of the sort of measures that would be needed to ensure that there was no murder at all - universal lobotomy, or suchlike. But I most heartily approve of condemning murder, and teaching children that it is evil; of learning self-defence, and coming quickly to the defence of those who are menaced by thugs; of doing one's bit, in fact, to build up a more civil society in which the law against murder becomes more generally effective. This will never lead to a totally non-murderous society. But it can surely lead to one with less murder in it.

Taking that stance for all the Big Crimes, and never nodding them through whenever they happen to come under the aegis of government, is a beginning. Consistently declining to confuse society's rulers with society itself is a lantern in the dark. Living as far as possible in civil society, relying on and being relied upon in rich networks of voluntary friendships, compacts, and support - that is meat and drink. And the wisdom to know when to avoid bandits; when to bolt from them like lightning; when to meet them and yield to their demands for a time; and when there is nothing for it but to fight forlornly back-to-back until a rescue comes, or an ending - why, that is just survival, and always has been.

But there is no ending, no Utopia on the other side of the forest where the bandits are no more. There are only places where bandits prosper less, or are bored of visiting, or are tending to think it a better life selling you venison instead. Government may wane as civil society waxes, and the things we know as governments may conceivably one day pass from the earth - but the process of government, like the processes of murder and theft, will haunt us as long as we are human. The price of getting rid of any of them would be too great. That is not a good reason to want any of them in themselves!

That is the kind of anarchist I am. I am for rolling back government by undercutting consent for it. I also think that this can only endure, in any sphere of life, where there is something voluntary to which people can switch their support - and which works well enough that most will do so on its own merits, rather than because they have been sold the idea in high-falutin' screeds like this. The screeds might, after all, be wrong.

And at the moment, most people really do consent to the idea of government, even if they think their particular Government a right shower. To roll back government without the consent of the governed is doomed to failure, and also looks like an act of... y'know, government!

So I am a Gov-Sceptic, a Very Patient Anarchist - perhaps even a Fabian anarchist, though the adjective presently has such dubious associations that I hesitate to invite people to throw it at me. Fabian strategies have been known to work once or twice before.

As for which particular tactics this day calls for, I have seen more clever and ardently-defended suggestions than a runaway dog has fleas. I shall occasionally examine some of the more interesting in subsequent posts.

Luckily, which anarchist faction is best-suited to oversee the heavy labour of reform is... not a sensible question.

And even if it were - it could be murder making the answer stick!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Fox, Goose, and Cabbage

Fox trying to look innocent - by US Federal Government, National Park Service - public domainStill reeling from Golden Kate's counterstroke against my continuing attempt to write Three Katherines of Allingdale, I turn my attention again to the intractable second tale, Crown of Foxfires - which belongs to the variably wicked witch Kit Fox, just as the first yarn belongs to Katy Elflocks and the third to their mutual old enemy Kate.

Another major figure therein is the Crown Prince's awkward, shy, and unprepossessing bride, a rich grocer's daughter spitefully dubbed 'Cabbage-Caro' by her detractors. Kit is quite fond of Caro - but Caro is in Kit's beloved husband's way...

Which led me, this morning, to a little insight about how Act One of Crown might be approached, and what it is probably called. I have no idea why I didn't think of it sooner. Here is a new-minted and utterly characteristic piece of wisdom from Kit - now moving in exalted circles as Princess Dolly of Morgander - which may or may not eventually serve as an epigraph to that section. I think it can offer a Very Special Lesson To Us All.

The Fox, the Goose, and the Cabbage

They tell that Astrobal the Wise once came to Morgander, and propounded before the court a pretty fable of a fox, a goose, and a cabbage which were to be got across a river; but the boat would bear only one of them across with the peasant, nor might he leave any two alone on either bank, if the one would devour the other. The court confessing itself vanquished, he showed the changes that would speed the errand at last; and the moral was, how the wise man must sometimes go seemingly backwards if he would advance to his desire.

But Princess Dolly cried, "Nay, his errand was spent before it began; for why would a peasant carry a fox with him ever, unless it were wittier than he, and had tricked him into it?"

Said Astrobal austerely, "Highness, it is naught to this demonstration what a low fellow will be wanting with a fox."

"True," said Dolly, "but it's everything to it, what the fox is wanting with the cabbage!"

- A Better Mirror for Princes, by Lord David Cauldale

Of course, some might say that coming right out with that in front of everybody is not in itself a spectacular display of wisdom. It is, however, as spectacular an example as you like of what Kit and her big mouth think are funny. She is not really Loki in drag - but she'd probably enjoy a few beers with him.

And yes, this particular variant of the problem really was the first one I stumbled across, way back when. I did look for a link that referenced it, but I couldn't find one that didn't annoy the blazes out of me.

Do geese really go for cabbage at all? I don't know, but this goat with the wolfish moniker does. If brussel tops aren't in season, anyhow...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Set Phasers to None!

C.elegans, a worm you need never fear again - by Zeynep F Altun at Wikimedia Commons - under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 Licence Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada have been playing with the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans - a sort of Albert the Experimental Rat of the invertebrate world - and, according to the universal Press spin, developed a Star Trek-like phaser in the process, which stuns the hapless worms until they are artificially revived. This is almost as cool as finally getting my personal jetpack!

Well, yeah... almost.

Okay, it is not exactly like a phaser.

Okay, it only works on worms, and nobody is sure how it works, either.

Ookay, the 'stun ray' is actually just exposure to ultraviolet light. And the revival technique is exposure to ordinary light.

Ooohhhh... and it kills them quite a lot of the time, too. More like a sort of long-distance cosh, then?

Ooops... and it doesn't actually work at all unless you've already fed the worms with dithienylethene photoswitches. And it wouldn't work then, if the beasties weren't transparent to begin with.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. It can do one thing that a phaser can't - it can turn its victims blue.

Consider our situation logically, Captain. We have the means to safely stun the aliens. Provided it is acceptable to kill many of them in the process. And that they are completely transparent. And that we are able to surreptitiously poison their food first. And that they only attack at night. And that blue is your favourite colour. Under these conditions, this 'phaser' of which you speak could indeed prove a valuable weapon!

I admit to being somewhat... fazed. This otherwise perfectly respectable bit of research is 'reminiscent of a Star Trek phaser' in much the same way that Lady Gaga is reminiscent of Doris Day. There are certain resemblances, but few of them especially persuasive or amusing.

If this sort of near-random bubble-blowing is what scientists have to do to get funded these days, what can we expect next? A stimulant pill for bullfrogs that renders them unpleasantly photosensitive in the middle of the visible spectrum will, presumably, 'grant powers reminiscent of DC superhero Green Lantern'. As for the lazy obedience of huge swathes of the media in faithfully transmitting this daft bit of prepackaged press-release whimsy as if the angle were all their own - I mock them mercilessly, I flay them verbally with a deadly wit and panache reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac his very self! Yes I do! Yes it is! Come on then, you journos! I'll even send you a press release to say so, if you like!

Or, better: I will give you the point to the Phaser story.

Lead researcher Neil Branda doesn't want to brag too much about the potential of his discovery:

"I'm not convinced there's a legitimate use of turning organisms on and off in terms of paralysis, but until somebody tells me otherwise, I'm not going to say that there isn't an application," Professor Branda told BBC News.
He goes on to speak hopefully of future control applications for photodynamic therapies, which are used in treating certain forms of cancer.

Professor Branda is an innocent abroad, and does not see the legitimate use which is staring him in the face.

Civil disorders are deadly things, and police reactions to them can be just as lethal. Here are the seeds of a way for the government to guarantee public tranquility without harming anybody.

Cut down the death rate from switch-off, or at least procure statistics to show that it is actually better for you than five portions of fresh fruit. Refine the technique so that it can affect humans, and penetrate clothing as well as opaque flesh - likely via the infrared or microwave spectra. Fiddle around with the on/off trigger frequencies, so that ordinary conditions don't flick the switches either way.

Now mass-medicate the general population with photoswitches in their drinking water and their daily bread. At the first sign of trouble, a whole area can be flooded with the switch-off radiation. The security services can then calmly and at their leisure remove the paralysed plebeians to be revived individually, in safe havens where they will be given an opportunity for recovery, counselling, and the payment of a small tow-away fee before release. The ringleaders and other rascals can instead be revived in situ through the bars of their new cells.

There will be no need to rough up even the most obstreperous of villains, nor to be roughed up by them. We could even give our honoured public guardians special Free From Rations, and thereby immunity from stunning in their turn. Everyone's a winner, baby!

The R&D will be tough, but what a prize lies at the end of it!

Yes, we may yet live to see a Utopia every bit as shiny as Captain Kirk's benevolent Federation.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Bring Me My Pad of Scouring Steel

T'other night I finished re-watching Peter Jackson's film version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was fun but excessively hurried and choppy. I've seen the extended version once, which was much more coherent, and engaged my emotions and sensawunda far better. I really must get the upgrade some time pretty dashed soon...

One thing I won't find in any film version is the dénouement section called the Scouring of the Shire. In the book, the hobbit heroes ride back home in triumph - to discover that their idealised little England has been spoiled and oppressed in their absence by a petty strongman who has closed down all the pubs, set his thugs 'gathering and sharing' everything in sight, and plastered every available surface with long lists of mean-spirited Rules. Our heroes respond with proper contempt - sending the first thug they meet howling into the night, tearing up Rules, trespassing on state property, and committing many other such acts of anti-social behaviour. The witnesses are frightened by their daring, but do not seem exactly put out.

But the Chief has sneaks everywhere, and soon his Big Men come storming down to set Frodo and Co. straight on the New Order of Things. They do not take well to the comprehensive cheeking they get in return:

"So that's your tone, is it? Change it, or we'll change it for you. You little folk are getting too uppish."

They try to adjust our heroes' attitude, and find that the little folk are feeling even more uppish than they thought. The Chief is overthrown in a swift popular revolution, and his ruffians slain or sent packing. This has been the news from Middle-Earth.

In our larger and less idyllic version of England, it is reassuring to see that some things still hold. The Chief's Big Men know what to do when little folk get uppish over here, too. The Cambridge News brings us this tale of an elderly householder who was seized from his home in a dawn raid by police, three days after... swearing at a housing official who was trying to order him about on his own ground. This, after the zealous Plods had already visited him and questioned him about the matter on the day it occurred.

The Cambridge cops are clearly very, very over-resourced indeed. There must be no serious crime in their area at all! Let us by no means put more bobbies on the beat, lest more of them be made available to deliver object lessons to unruly peasants accused of cheeking their betters!

Of course, it is possible that the Council creature's version of events is closer to the truth than Mr Catcheside's, as reported above. Supposing this for the sake of argument, can anybody yet convince me that this was anything other than a straightforward political raid, intended solely for the purpose of cowing an uppity subject? They will only need to satisfy me on the following points:

* That had Mr Catcheside complained to the police of being similarly offended by a Council creature, the same action would have been taken.

* That descending upon Mr Catcheside's property in full force at buggery past five in the morning, is either a customary or a reasonable way to deal with any such allegation.

* That the police really do consider accusations of common assault to be a 'serious matter', and not for instance a no-crime or mere 'anti-social behaviour'.

If that last is indeed the case, maybe they could extend this stern seriousness to such other infractions as rape and violent campaigns against disabled kids by gangs of gutterspawn cowards. Possibly the Cambridge police force already does so. Certainly this episode does not fill me with any confidence that they are among those who have their priorities right in these matters!

Since raising the shire to run them off with pitchforks and arrows is neither a credible, nor even a particularly inviting, response to this little sample of political terror low-tar ultra-lite, what is to be done? Clearly, the good folk of Cambridgeshire can judge their coppers better in the round than can I.

The Conservative Party would like to see this addressed by allowing local people to elect their own police chiefs. One obvious danger is that the police will simply be nudged further towards acting as a purely political militia, especially come election time. One perhaps less obvious opportunity is that they might collectively be less vulnerable to the most dangerous source of this pressure - namely, the sovereign national government. At this point I'm somewhat sympathetic to the suggestion, on the grounds that most of the obvious abuses it might entail appear to have happened pretty much untrammelled without it. But I don't think it will improve things overmuch.

In particular, it seems guaranteed to throw up a breed of police chief worthy of standing alongside the great statesmen of contemporary Britain. That's agin it! So rather than deny this vote, may I suggest that we give people another alongside it?

Alongside each name might appear the proposed police take from local taxes, which they would not be permitted to vary except by standing in a new election. All funding from other sources would, necessarily, be strictly illegal.

If we are not to be allowed either to choose our overseers, or to maintain a Hobbitry-in-arms in order to discourage the Big Men from thinking too Big for their boots, then at least we can demand the option of cutting off funding for the helicopters and tasers and door-knocking squads in the dark hours, should they start directing those things at us on the grounds that we are getting too uppish. And this greater equality of force will, in the usual way of the world, breed a corresponding improvement of police manners, so that we can all be jolly good friends again!

Some might complain that this rosy picture is not in fact plausible, and that no such reform would be permitted even if it were so. Especially if it were, cometh the voice of the cynic.

I reply that it is, at any rate, an easy improvement to imagine, and well worth thinking through. Also, it is a peaceable, lawful, and eminently democratic suggestion for which I cannot possibly be arrested.

'Scuse me, must sign off here. Somebody at the door...

The Duchess Strikes Back

Kathleen Turner should so play Golden Kate in this last story! So I cracked the big block on Three Katherines of Allingdale, right? Once I knew about the bit where Golden Kate's Duke slaps her face in front of all their peers, I knew also what she would do and what her first love would do, twenty years after in the disenchanted woods. I only had to go back to that soaring moment when, out of the depths of despair, they saw the lark playing against the ice-blue winter's sky. After all this time, I knew what happened next and it made sense.

So of course I went back to it.


I should have known better than to offend my Duchess. All three Katherines have always had a way of pulling something that totally blindsides me when pushed into a corner - and if anyone's motto ever ought to have been Touch Not the Cat Bot A Glove, then it should have been Golden Kate Alland's. I should have known she would get me!

I went back to it.

There were no skylarks over the Featherhowe. There was no morning of beauty and doom, no song of Sweet Alyson and no discovery that she and her first love knew different words to it, nor why. They were back in the depths, in the slough, burrowing under the leaves and dregs of a collapsed goblin-warren that seemed to have dried up and died for no better reason than that they were old now, and all enchantment long drained out of their lives. I remembered writing the piece that dragged them out and onwards, and how exalted I was myself when I realized that it could and should really lead them to that glimpse of the skylark.

Where had I put it? I ransacked all my files on all my computers. I even checked the one at work, though I knew I hadn't written it there. Nothing, nowt, the big zip.

And then (with Golden Kate's vengeful laughter ringing in my ears, and Kit Fox's witchily delighted whoop, and even a crooked half-smile from kind wise Katy over the edge of the maps) I understood the fearful truth about how I wrote that most excellent passage, and what had become of it. And now I must commit those words that every writer worth their salt hopes will never pollute their keyboard, for somehow my old Duch. has arranged that I am to meet my doom in turn.

He woke up. It had all been a dream...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Mot du Jour: Naughtobiography

No, this is not a new word coined to celebrate the coming-out of celebrated courtesan-diarist Belle du Jour, though it sounds as though maybe it ought to be. I am not one of Dr Magnanti's followers myself, because I get enough of the old nine-to-five for most of the year as it is, and reading about how somebody has managed to turn sex into the same old grind would just be too depressing for words. Kudos, however, to her for beating the sin-sniffing truffle-hogs of the Daily Mail to the revelation. And likewise to her employers at Bristol University, for the rare good sense of their response, namely that the affair is none of their blooming business. In an age which seems increasingly determined to canonize Paul Pry, truly they are an unvandalized drinking-fountain of reason in a manky municipal park. Yay them!

As a writer, I note one point of special interest about the literary Belle and the real Dr Magnanti. Being essentially identical for the two autobiographical books, they then parted ways in the third - Belle living on as a fictional character in her accustomed niche, whilst her author went on to pastures new. This is an uncommonly clear highlighting of just how close to fictional characters our 'real' personae are, and how the difference can disappear entirely when engaged in 'giving an account of oneself'. Storytelling seems really to be close to the heart of what it is to be human - without that power, would we 'have a character' at all? Some entertaining thoughts in this vein can be found in Terry Pratchett et al's different cut of semi-fiction, The Science of Discworld II, which offers some memorable sidelights upon the storytelling chimps of our Roundworld. Highly recommended.

Leaving sex-bloggers and call-girl diaries behind at this point, I proceed to the promised definition of a really degraded form of literature:

Naughtobiography, n. An insignificant slice of the banal life of a person of ephemeral notoriety.

Usage: I walked past my local bookshop and it was promoting Busting Out All Over, the latest naughtobiography from failed starlet and soaraway reality TV sensation Kitty Obvious. Her ghostwriter tells a moving tale of a year spent launching fashion ranges, slagging off haters, and falling out of nightclubs while the world watched in awe! Now with cutting-edge Pop-Up™ technology! Feck, I need a drink!
This usage was used, approximately, by me, and yesterday, in the course of walking past Waterstone's.

And I reflected that the world is full of people who read these books, and wish that they, like the Kitty Obvious du jour, could sublimate the everyday characters that are their very own into personae more fictional and starrily sellable. You've got to search for the hero inside your market niche, apparently. That is what 'living the dream' cashes out as. That is modern celebrity.

But actually becoming that Thing, instead of just playing it on TV - that looks to me like little more than a fancy form of suicide. And if the whole shtick is that one's life is all on TV, oh ye would-be Kitty Obviouses and Tom Thumps out there, what then? What shall it profit a chick if she shall gain the whole world, and yet a cartoon bimbo shall have eaten her soul? Mmm?

Give me a Brooke Magnanti any day of the week, who knows better than to offer anything quite as intimate as that for public sale. She is apparently working on some new line of fiction now, and I should not be at all surprised to learn that she really is a high-class writer, if you like that kind of thing. For if there is one gift that a writer of fiction needs in more than common measure, it is a razor-edged ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy. You cannot do the maker's work of mixing and matching the two otherwise. You might as well be a painter who can't tell the difference between light and shadow.

The people who dream of being naughtobiography material are dreaming of living in the light all the time, and hoping to forget everything they ever knew about darkness and obscurity. But there is no making in that, neither of a story nor a painting nor a life: only a flash in the pan, and then the long blind dark.

It is a very naughty fig-tree indeed, and I hate to see so many honest-to-goodness human beings jumping and jostling and belly-crawling to get their one fatal chomp at it.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Liberty Versus Licence

Broadcasting House, lair of the BBC - by Briantist via Wikimedia Commons, public domain What a rare pleasure it was to get home the other day, and find a TV licence bill for £140 and some change flopping malevolently on my doormat!

I don't ordinarily enjoy being charged a hefty whack for unsolicited goods, but in this case it is worth every penny to get my annual fix of that Soviet theme-park experience. A licence from the State to listen to what is being said on the open ether? Reassuring. Dire warnings that the inspectors may descend on any business premises that uses subversive technology like computers, and hand out the smackdown if some luckless clerk is found to have sneaked a crafty Internet peek at the World Cup? Heart-warming. Orwellian adverts warning that They Know Where You Live, and can barge into your house at any time to make sure you don't possess unregistered reception equipment? Priceless!

But this year turned out to be something special. This is the year I discover that 46 BBC managers are paid more every year than the Prime Minister's pittance of £194,250. The Director-General, Mark Thompson, bags £834,000 per annum, and also seems to be scarfing down better than £1,000 a month in expenses, over and above his daily bread. Seldom have I felt a warmer glow at doing my bit in the fight against poverty. Thanks, Auntie!

It is true that, out of all this, the BBC produces some really good stuff. It is also true that Bruce Springsteen is a veritable god of rock, to whose music I hardly ever get tired of listening. But if he financed himself by sending New Jersey mobsters round to extort 'loudspeaker charges' from every person and business suspected of owning stereo equipment, my opinion of him would descend quite radically. How about you guys?

In order to complete the trio of toss, Minister of Truth Peter Mandelson has been obligingly warning that the BBC might be in a questionable position come next election if its news coverage picks up on stories started by Rupert Murdoch's populist Sun - now that he's undemocratically switched its allegiance away from New Labour.

As the DG pensively runs up my bar tab at his five-star Las Vegas hotel, I hope he will spare a moment to consider a suitable response in the best BBC tradition. If he does, I shall publicly un-grudge him the price of a Brief Unconsummated Flirtation Up Against One's Standards, or whatever its sleazy Transatlantic cousin may choose to call itself. I'm sure I can't say fairer than that!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

MA Day

Mortarboard, via - public domain Hooray! My certificate arrived in the post this morning, and after years of being insufficiently arsed, I am now an MA (Oxon)!

As such, I can:

- No longer call myself a Bachelor in Zoology. This at least ought to stop me getting Fine Art requests from ignorant cads who misunderstand the natures both of an Oxford BA, and of my special interest in goats.

- Vote a big fat NO when the fiends of Pandaemonium run Tony Blair for Chancellor of Oxford University. (One of these days people may chuck in the farce of nominating used politicians to that post at all, but I'm not holding my breath.)

- Wear cooler academicals at University whoop-ti-ays.

- Place the sacred letters after my name, if I wish to convey a vague impression of being a school headmaster somewhere or other.

- Walk on college lawns, with other such pleasant and orgulous privileges.

- Wikipedia thinks 'attend Gaudies', and indeed it was my invitation to this Winter's coming Gaudy Night that spurred me to finally apply. But the invitation came before the application, and I find no official reference to the matter there or elsewhere - suggesting that this may be more of an expectation than a requirement, at least at good old Queen's.

Coincidentally, I had been reading Dorothy L Sayers' excellent Gaudy Night shortly before I got the invitation. It is the best of her Lord Peter Wimsey books in my opinion, and certainly the one best calculated to appeal to a chap of the writerly persuasion. Wimsey and Vane, like Sayers herself though in their own very distinct personae, have some excellent thoughts about the difference between live and lifeless characters; and there is very vivid romance and observation and dirty work at the crossroads besides. Highly recommended. As for my own Gaudy, though, I admit to hoping for a rather quieter one.

This has been a public service announcement from your new Master (bwahahaha!)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Slap Happy Moment

I've been hard blocked on Three Katherines of Allingdale for some months now. The middle story of the triptych is a fantastically complicated mess, of novelistic proportions in its own right, and I've tried umpty approaches and got nowhere at considerable length. Today I was turning over number umpty-one in my head - supposing I were to make the middle panel into three lapped stories, each with a different viewpoint? - when one of the scenes near the end mutated in my head. Golden Kate - the Duchess Katherine - is having a very important row with her choleric husband. In the old version, she loses, with fateful results for the kingdom.

In the new version, he slaps her across the face in public.

And as soon as I imagined that moment, not only did the scene spring to life, but also the other scene I was stuck on twenty years into her future. That is the deed that sets her on the road to her last tale. That is why - old, poor, arthritic and sick - she strikes the cruel soldier such a blow as he will never either forget or remember; and then, this other scene too being alive again, I see that she and her estranged lover do not walk away from it; and that their quest ends there instead of limping incidentally on; and that her dreadful oath is not sworn then, or in that way, at all. And that Personage they are to meet afterwards - she is involved much more purposefully in the whole affair than I thought. It is all good.

Best of all, the final destruction of Kate's earlier 'happy ending' no longer appears as a depressing piece of exposition long after the event, but as one sudden and horrid fall in the sunlight - in the story.

Reader, I wrote it. At once, without worrying about the issues of its containing narrative. I love my Golden Kate, for all that she is a really terrible person who can never reconcile herself to the fact that her world is not being written by E R Eddison - but since her doom is cast, I am glad that she has finally got to meet it onstage, as she would surely wish. I am glad I was there. And I am glad that, just maybe, I now have what I need to lead her and Luke onto the point where they can do something right at last.

At any rate this ought to be enough to take us all past their Disenchantment. Getting past Disenchantment is generally worth a load of trouble, all by itself.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Uses and Abuses of Wet Paint

Paint can and brush, via FreeClipartNow - public domainAfter yet another post turning the scorn hose on politicians in general, some of my readers may think it's high time I came out and admitted to some positive position of my own, other than 'the best seat I can find in the peanut gallery'.

I might with some justice suggest that "So what would you do, then?" is not, in fact, all that good a response to most political criticism.  True, if one is presented with a choice of opening the box or taking the money, and is going to be roundly abused by the same people for either option, this sounds and usually is pretty unfair of them.

President Obama, for instance, can expect to be savagely denounced for plotting against liberty even for an act of liberalization (kudos to Brad Taylor for catching and skewering this one).  In this case, he is the victim of ludicrous sophistry.  But a savvier debater than the average talking TV-head has access to a much better generalized attack, along the lines of, "Okay, this time you might as well take the money and scram.  But playing Take Your Pick is a really dumb way to make your fortune - why don't you try working for a living, huh?"

Or whatever.  The point is, that when you run with a crowd who have painted themselves into a corner, complaining that your critics cannot suggest a clean way out is rather missing their point!

There are several ways for a critic to respond to what I will call the Wet Paint Defence.

I've already hinted at the form I think is valid.  First, place the blame squarely where it lies - on the procedure of painting the room arse-backwards.  Secondly, explain the concept of painting from the far end of the room and working towards the door.  The defender will typically object that maybe that would theoretically work in ivory-tower land, but it is moot in any case because he is stuck right now, and is a practical person in need of constructive practical suggestions.

At this point there is the option of recommending either waiting for it to dry, or crossing it and sucking up the resulting damage to shoes and surface.  But this is dangerous: it is the response the defender wants.  The person who knows how to paint floors is not criticizing the damage done by the worse of the two choices - they are criticizing the damage done by the better choice, because that is the extent of damage which the painter has already incurred by their original mistake!  Any additional bad judgement they show by choosing the worse, is quite likely to prove a side-show by comparison.

This is a relatively sophisticated argument, and may not work in dumbing-down conditions like a TV soundbite-fest, the drunker stages of a pub conversation, or the presence of hot buttons on either side.  It also doesn't work if the critic isn't quite sure how to paint that room either.  These limitations give rise to at least three classic modes of failure:

1) Buying In. Getting diverted into the question of whether it is better to get painty feet and footprinty paint, or else to stand in the corner like a lemon for several hours.  On this subject, the competent floor-painter is not even guaranteed to be right, and is in any case reduced to quibbling about how to save farthings whilst forgetting about the sovereigns they saw rolling down the drain.  Example: passionate debates about whether to kiss bailed-out banks or slap their faces - blithely ignoring such questions as whether it was a good idea to conjure them back from the grave in the first place, not to mention whether we shouldn't be totally calling in Buffy to stake them before they drag us kicking and screaming into the Hellmouth!

2) Mounting the High Horse.  Through arrogance or ignorance, not being willing to suggest how the room could correctly have been painted, and harping on and on about how it is the painter's sole responsibility and fault.  This gives rise to the impression that the critic would not actually be any better of a painter, and is trying to hide it.  Example: just about any parliamentary opposition party, anywhere, all the time.

3) Walking the Dogma.  Through enthusiasm or dishonesty, being all too willing to suggest how the room could correctly have been painted, and treating the painter's failure as evidence that Correct Path Painting would have in fact done the job - whilst handwaving Correct Path's way to success, secure in the knowledge that it is too late to test it.  This gives rise to the impression that the critic is a painting legend  in their own brain-pan.  Example: just about any radical reform movement, anywhere, ad nauseam.

Buy-in is averted by sticking to the point, and emphasizing strategic thinking over a policy of pure reaction.

Mounting the high horse is avoided by saying what one has to say, and freely admitting lack of clue where it exists.  "Painting oneself into a corner sucks, and doesn't look like a logical necessity," is worth saying even if one has no certain strategy for avoiding it.  It has identified a problem, which the defender may well have reason to deny.

Walking the dogma is avoided by keeping mum about what one does not know, and freely admitting lack of evidence where it exists.  "Painting forwards from this door fails, and we ought to try painting backwards from that wall," is worth saying even if one has no clear proof that the latter will work.  It has identified a potential solution, which the defender again may have an investment in denying.

All three of these things can be fantastically difficult.  Each can be stymied by inclement debating conditions, an unreceptive audience, a failure of wit and preparation, or the mere demands of one's own ego.  They are, nonetheless, surely things to strive for.

And they do, I think, offer some clues as to how far one is really obliged to go in offering 'constructive criticism' in lieu of the mere hurling of peanuts.  If all I have is peanuts, and a target for them, then they may justly be hurled.  If Karl Marx had confined himself to the just hurling of peanuts or even brickbats at the vicious iniquities of the bosses of his day, he would not have become the great historical figure that he became through piling on the dogmatic alt-Hegelian claptrap.  But he also might then have deserved bouquets, rather than depleted-uranium brickbats.  And the world might be a much better place thereby!

Whenever I am, in my small way, faced with something like Charlie-boy's choice, I trust I shall always have the humility to remain an obscure hurler of peanuts from the gallery.

Conversely, I will have something more to be proud of if I really can suggest some alternatives to tracking paint all over the carpets.

After many years of thought - much of it profoundly dunderheaded - I do, in fact, have a few positive political suggestions to offer.  These will be exhibited to the peanut-zinging public in a subsequent post.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Come on, You Guys!

The other night, with much pyrotechnical wizardry, the Island of the Mighty and various of its associated shores celebrated Guy Fawkes Night - the anniversary of the ardently Catholic Mr Fawkes’ unsuccessful bid to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with lots of luvverly gunpowder.

As the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition has dwindled, and that of the British Tin Hitlers grown long, there has come a gradual change in popular sympathies. We still burn the old villain in effigy, or at least we do when Nanny doesn’t ban it. But judging by the jokes I see in every newsrag and hear in every pub, many of us are starting to entertain a sneaking suspicion that he was mainly to blame in being born four hundred years too soon.

Now I am not, PAY ATTENTION AT THE BACK MR SECRET POLICEMAN OVER THERE!, seriously suggesting that it would be a good idea for anybody to blow up the assembled Proud Pri Honourable Members of the United Kingdom Parliament with big explody bombs. The idea stinks, with brown sauce, on burnt toast. The world is sufficiently supplied with mass-murdering rat bastards already, and a recruitment freeze is long overdue. Still less do I wish any harm upon our mostly harmless and ornamental Monarch. But so long and so gallantly have her ministers and their trough-guzzling, arse-spelunking hordes of lobby-fodder striven to rid themselves of any taint of popular affection or even consent, that her Government’s traditional Public Exploder may be winning the battle for hearts and minds at last.

Soon may come a night when hot-blooded mobs descend upon bonfires throughout the nation, seizing the Guy from his peril and bearing him shoulder-high through the streets. Then let our leaders take warning, instead of what they are taking at the moment!

Actually, that is probably the best single idea for a political protest I have ever had. I’d certainly be up for it! Or to make it a game everybody could play, how about a nice democratic showdown with those who wished to haul Guy off to his doom? Hey, Mr Speaker! Betcha the rescue party would win, if we held it any time soon. Nyah nyah na na nyah!

This episode cannot conclude without a mighty salute to our age's very own and very much alive Guido Fawkes, whose merciless exposés of Parliamentary trough-guzzling did so much to detonate this year’s great expenses scandal. The Gadarene rush to an early and swill-filled retirement has not yet abated. That's what I call good value for a penny!