Friday, 12 November 2010

Cleïs, Beyond Elaionas

This is not about Cleïs, reputed daughter of our world's Sappho, but about Cleïs of my own Kateverse's antiquity, the Incomparable and Fairest.

Cleïs, Beyond Elaionas

White, they call her now! By death washed white,
Marmoreal of she who weightless bore
The world down with a feather?

Or by light
Of cities burned to please her? Tides of gore
And tears have flowed to bear her name to heaven,
And will she bear the wyte?

- My hair was white,
And white my bones through parchment. Tall kings came,
Each olive in our grove a separate flame
To light their way to glory.

White in ash they lie,
And white my love beside them. Deathless, I
Will follow - not to heaven.

Ask no more,
But since you too must die, call out my name,
And I will blaze your banner in the Night.

White Cleopatra.  Marble bust of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, Altes Museum Berlin - public domain - via Louis Le Grand at Wikimedia Commons

Cleïs is greatly praised in song for her wit and beauty, and greatly blamed for being this sort of person:

Cassander having conquered all the world,
His Cleïs wept, that he might win no more.
"What, love?" said he. "Behind thine azure eyes
A thousand worlds are born with each sunrise,
And by thy hands before my feet unfurled.
There let us walk, nor dream again of war!"

Cassander, needless to say, gets only the praise. There are various stories of what happened to them after that, but all agree on their abruptly dropping out of the picture. In one legend of Morgander, where my tales are set, they are depicted as vanishing to grow old and obscure together in their secluded olive-grove at Elaionas. They are rediscovered by Cassander's warring successors under dramatically convenient circumstances, ending in Morgan the Man's getting told off to found a kingdom which Cleïs prophesies will one day exceed even her lover's empire in honour and glory, and generally the way things usually end up when a minstrel is catting for a patron's attention.

But the improbable retirement to Elaionas - if not the Manifest Destiny of Morgander - seems to have struck a poetic chord, and has become widely attached to the imperial mythos across at least a continent and a half.

Its heroine is sometimes poetically named 'white Cleïs'; contemporary depictions of her suggest that this is rather like carrying on about 'white Cleopatra', and no-one really knows any more how or why that got started. The in-world author of this piece seems to have taken this as his inspiration.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Time Out

Time Out

Got me born, got to school,
Knuckles whacked with a pointless rule.
Got me mates, got a job,
Raised some Cain and I played some hob.
Learned the truth of my mind and hand
Was the one true faith I could understand.
Met my only Laura Lee -
And the time was running away with me!

Best of friends, better soon,
Loved long weeks in an afternoon.
Married in June, baby in May,
Worser work and a wedge more pay.
Played up hard, earned some more,
Earned the keys to our own front door.
King of a castle in Bermondsey -
But the time was ticking away from me!

More kids came, first kid grew,
Turned me grey and my language blue.
Made more bread, made my name,
Hardly at home but to catch the blame.
Worked all week, drank weekends,
Separate lives and separate friends.
Missed our anniversary
While the good times rattled away from me!

Gold or girl? Laura won.
Leaner times but some time for fun.
Kids grew up, grew up well.
Rat race over! Time to sell!
Time to ramble and time to ride!
Time for me and my young heart's bride!
Bought a bungalow by the sea,
And our tide was rolling away with me!

Got me sick, got me bulk,
Got to live in a riddled hulk.
Got to hear my doom was nigh.
Got to see my Laura cry.
Got to throw one last big feast
To spit in the wind and to spite the Beast.
Ten thousand things I've still to see -
And the time is taken away from me!

Monday, 8 November 2010

He Jumped From Koshtra Belorn's Peak Without a Feather Fall

I've been distinctly dyspectic and wakeful this past weekend. In consequence, my progress with what is supposed to be a powerful, scary, and romantic scene in the novel has been... not great. On the other hand, stuff like this is sliding out of my system as if my darling Muse had just administered me a great big plate of fig rolls...

The Tragical History of Wally the Wizard


He Jumped From Koshtra Belorn's Peak Without a Feather Fall,

to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic

with apologies to generations of campfire-singers everywhere.

Now Wally was a wizard of the second-ratey kind.
He couldn’t score with Tailor-Tash, and tried to charm her blind,
But Tash the Shears resisted - what she did then, never mind,
But he ain’t gonna charm no more!

Wally, Wally, what a wizard!
Wally, Wally, what a wizard!
Tailor-Tash, she docked yer lizard,
And you ain’t gonna score no more!

He conjured up an ifrit from the City made of Brass
To take a fearful vengeance on the ticked-off tailor lass.
The ifrit broke his magic wand and rammed it up his ass,
And he ain't gonna rant no more!

Wally, Wally, consternation!
Wally, Wally, consternation!
Ifrit give yer constipation,
And you ain't gonna call no more!

He prenticed with a ghoul to learn the necromancer's art
Till he could haunt young Tailor-Tash, and freeze her fiery heart.
The ghoul gnawed both his legs off, boys, which jinxed it from the start,
And he ain’t gonna stalk no more!

Wally, Wally, got the wind up?
Wally, Wally, got the wind up?
Ghoul is chewing both yer shins up,
And you ain't gonna stalk no more!

He died and out of peevishness he rose a dwimmerlaik,
And studied spells six hundred years, the maiden’s soul to take,
Till Tash looked down from heaven - sniggered, "Pass the angel cake,
'Cos I can't bloody take no more!"

Wally, Wally, fell and frightening!
Wally, Wally, fell and frightening!
Saint just struck yer down with lightning,
And you ain’t gonna rise no more!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

"Marrow of My Marrow"

Et in Arcadia Ego, saith the Great Leveller - Nicolas Poussin, 1637-8 - public domain, via Yorck Project and Wikimedia CommonsFinished another chapter and got Kate's party to Garcastle. All three main antagonists here sprung major surprises on me, putting both me and my characters very much on our mettle. The Young Duke especially is coming alive much earlier than I'd expected him to, which will make the end of the Rising arc work a deal better - unless he manages to prang my whole plan. We'll see.

Less happy with the excess of archaic fustian at this juncture, and I'll need structural change to get rid of it - there are just too many diplomatic introductions and official positionings for the dialogue to get much more natural. The obvious least-cost way to prune it is to tell some of the less important preliminaries in summary, rather than showing them outright. I'm not sure how desirable this will be otherwise, or how likely it is to be sufficient. One for the redraft, that!

The good part is that all the formal posing is out of the way now, and that I can rack down the tone to natural human speech again.

Two more chapters before the arc climax, I think.

The most unexpected aspect of this whole telling was discovering how - just as the endemic wrongs visited upon the helpless small-folk of the Dales are sending Fiery Younger Sister off into heroic and terrible orbit - they are bringing my harsh old battlecrow Kate down to earth. I've known since the latter chapters of Katy Elflocks how much pinched and denied compassion she's always had in her; known since the middle of this yarn how extravagantly it can burst forth, in these last days when she has found her compass at last.

But always on a slant - higher to lower, hero to victim, and with action at the end of it. To feel it on a level, fellow to fellow, though there is nothing to do about it but laying a stone on her nameless dead countryman's cairn? I didn't even know she could feel that way, until she brushed my opinions aside and did it anyway.

Never half-measures, never foreseeable, always more herself than ever...

About the three-quarter mark of the tale, now. My Golden Kate is still not, even by mediaevaloid standards, a nice person. But by the Sun, Moon, and Stars, I think I'm going to miss her when we're through!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

"We Are Not Your Lords in a Mirror."

Finished the chapter of the Langdalehead uprising in Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland. Man, this draft is rough. There's one stand-out visionary scene that sank like hot nickel-iron towards the centre, where I discovered what Fiery Younger Sister is really all about, and what is going to happen with her at the arc's climax. The rest has been writhing like a handful of squid as I write it: bluff and manoeuvre everywhere, and a phoney war which nonetheless is genuinely capable of swallowing all concerned down into the grave if anything about it goes wrong. Of course, the nature of war being what it is... can everything go right? Yeah, sure!

Curiously for such a mediaevaloid setting, the single resource I've found most useful in planning Luke's strategy is something the US Marines went and told me.

I suspect that the diplomatic side - which will take centre stage in the severely tricky chapter to follow, where all my knots draw to their tightest - is going to require a lot of polishing of these shenanigans on the second pass. I am not yet convinced that the form in which the Cunning Plan leaves this chapter is going to convince anybody but me. There's been a lot of... improvisation... as my heroes dodge obstacles and seize opportunities I've only just noticed. Won't know most of what must stay or go until the Rising's done and dusted, the first time around.

The fundamental issue that's been riding me more and more with this chapter is one of the old themes of this whole story. It's about a profoundly necessary revolution, sponsored by somebody with no least illusions about the disastrous nature of that particular enterprise. It's reconciling the need to run a 'good' revolution against a full-on, no-quotes evil aristocratic regime, with the brute fact that the oppressed peasants are pretty well as systemically evil - or otherwise - as their 'class oppressors'. If I wanted to be really mean to my Fairfields good-guys, I could accuse them of trying to wage War for Peace, or on Terror, or one of those jobs like that. Granted they mostly don't suffer either the screaming hubris or bloody-handed cynicism that usually goes with such crusades, they surely have the same contradiction between means and ends. And they've a very real, very personal sort of devil rustling her wings together in the shadows, knowing she's due to collect her house percentage whether they flare or gutter.

Their true and secret game is to beat the dealer. From a distance, this looked like a violent and convoluted, but ultimately solid scam. Up close - Solid? Hah!

I so, so don't want this to end up as either the old story where the good guys are okay by fiat, nor yet the depressing would-be modern kind where everything gets sucked down into one flat grey moral quicksand. My chief characters were, I thought, pretty much proof against both faults all by themselves. It now turns out that there is a lot more devil in the detail than was evident before I started getting my own hands dirty in earnest.

And out of said detail, I can hear her laughing at me.

But as the Kateverse's maker, I still reckon I'm qualified to laugh later and louder. Since I'm only its maker, though, and nothing more inhumanly exalted...

...the last hands are still to play...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

"Why Did You Come Too Late?"

Another chapter of Killer-Kate finished. Now the story returns to the Dales with a vengeance, and every character and their pet aardvark is finding tactical flaws in my plans and charging through them. And the Rising's barely even started yet!

The heart of this chapter is in Clover Clough, an attractive but not very fertile little limestone dale whose trefoil streams divide the great hills of Bulkefell and Hareborough. If you have the unspeakable misfortune to be reborn as a Northdales peasant, the Clough for all its hardscrabble inhospitality is probably the place to pick for it. Its lords are marginal aristocrats and fair-minded unpretentious paternalists, who have noted that if you want to cut your coat according to your cloth, it helps to be on frank and free terms with tailors. Their latest generation has set the record, with the younger son marrying a fairly remarkable woman who was essentially an upper servant (not his own). That is all part of the great elided story between the two halves of my diptych, and hardly comes explicitly into this tale at all. But it did point me rather clearly to the road my first Fairfields embassy would take into Allingdale. More is coming of that than I expected:

"He wielded sudden summer and he surfed the ocean skies:
He dived and broke his head upon a pair of icy eyes.
He swept a bow and from his sleeve he whisked the compass rose -
She cut it off with silence and her little penknife nose..."

Not very good, perhaps (as Bilbo might say), but to the point. Here I really meet for the first time somebody who began as a plot person with one crucial and heroically cynical line. She is still only a minor character, but were this story told from another angle, she might be as good a protagonist as Katy Elflocks herself. I don't know how many people could bear to read that tale - and I know I couldn't bear to write it - yet, even so. One of my secondary characters may owe his entire survival through the Great Speckled Redraft to the way that he's now met her.

As to this story... her advent really brings home what I was groping at in that earlier post. The Deed of Katy Elflocks is ultimately an ironical fairy-tale: Katy does great things, eventually because somebody needs to do them and she is the only one with the heart or sense to clean up after the hopeless Great Folk - but it's the failures who get something very much like what they thought they wanted, after learning the 'lessons' they were best disposed to draw from the affair. I think, and Katy certainly thought, that what she found was infinitely better. But...

...Killer-Kate is all about the ashes of the happy-ever-afters people thought they wanted, and what wonders might yet rise from them. It's also about the downtrodden masses who not only didn't get to be the Magical Princess, they didn't get to be fairy godmothers or even common guests at the ball either. All they got was dreams of hot iron shoes. Some of them looked for better than that.

Some of those are still limping from the hot iron shoes their betters rammed on them for their presumption. The sharper of them have not forgotten how it was also their own peers who held them down for it. Nor have they missed the 'Good Witch's' abject failure to aid those small folk whom her burgeoning legend lured to ruin or madness.

Part of what I'm coming to grips with here is how that, too, is part of the legacy of What Katy Did - every bit as much as the kindly counter-Utopia of Fairfields. Justice in some sort is coming, because this is still a fairy-story at heart, and because at the last bones-roll I can't write a story in which it is not. But if Katy's followers will judge, then judgement by their own lights they must abide.

Nor can even I prejudge that, or else dull lies must come of it.

The rumour runs wild through the Dales that at last, Good Katy Comes.

And now somebody at least as smart as I am - and a much braver mensch into the bargain - limps forward to make the case that it couldn't possibly matter.

Diplomacy next, and elsewhere the positive uses of what nobody sane wants to be saddled with: a war limited only on their own side. But inasfar as you get to choose the limits, sometimes there can be possibilities...

Friday, 8 October 2010

These Songs Are Our Songs

Via Boing Boing, I learn that Woody Guthrie in the early 1940s was in the habit of using possibly the best copyright notice ever:

"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do."

- Found by Joel Blain in Woody Guthrie: A Life, by Joe Klein.

This masterpiece returned to public attention, and thence by courier snail ultimately to mine, in 2004, when the bottom-feeding corporation which then claimed the necromantically reanimated 'rights' to This Land Is Your Land unsuccessfully used them to try and suppress a parody poking scattershot fun at the political establishment of the day.

Who certainly have no vested interest in conjuring a ceaseless stream of new 'intellectual property rights' for their friends and bankrollers out of blue ether. Nope, they're just looking after the humble author's title to his own natural creation!

Ain't they, Woody?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Roger Rock Candy

Luilekkerland, that is to say Cockaigne, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567 - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This is a not very nice Kateverse folksong about a not very nice person. It's from Alland, about eighteen years after Katy Elflocks and twelve before Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland. Aren't millennarian insurgencies just peachy?


Roger Jackson got good drunk,
Dreamed as the Good Witch shared his bunk.
Said as she gave him an ashwand sword,
And bade him slay both priest and lord.

Hey, hey, Roger Rock!
"Pig wrapped up in a damsel’s frock!"
That’s how you named him, bold Sir Hugh -
Roger Hog was the bane of you!

Took to the hills with his hungry men,
Took all the lords stole, back again.
Wound about with Amend-All's charms,
He took no hurt from mortal arms.

Hey, hey, Roger Rock!
"Vaunting shriek of a dunghill cock!"
That’s how you scorned him, Lady Jane -
Roger Cock made you shriek again!

Knights charged forth, no foe did find.
Spies slunk out, doom struck them blind.
Rodge Rock Candy banged the drum,
And swore if we followed, Witch would come.

Hey, hey, Roger Rock!
"Rotted fruit of a gallows stock!"
That's all you drad him, Eaton Town -
Roger Rot plucked your dead sons down!

We broke and ran at Blaxton Neck
And all the Witch's boons did wreck.
The knights rode down our Roger brave.
Their curs to kennels home they drave.

When Roger Rock by Katy's kiss
Is raised from death to lively bliss,
The Dales-boys all shall fight like men,
And gentry heads we’ll reap again!

Hey, hey, Roger Rock!
"Come home soon, 'cause it's late o' the clock!"
We'll follow when thou bang'st the drum -
To Candy Country march us home!

In the 'real' Kateverse, Roger Jackson was turned out of doors by his lord for idleness and brawling. After some obscure months of tramping, he reappeared claiming to have been chosen by the Good Witch Katy Deathkiller as her lover and prophet, and sent back from her Sugar-Loaf Country to deliver his comrades from their false masters' oppression.

Fiery and infused with a new and wonderful eloquence, he swiftly rose to head a band of fellow-outlaws, and won fame by killing the unpopular and arrogant Sir Hugh de Beazle, staff against sword. With each success his following and his claims grew, and as 'Roger Rock Candy' he became a sort of evil Robin Hood figure to the downtrodden peasants of mid-Regency Allingdale. At last he came to lead a general uprising by the many disaffected of Lower Alland, raiding manors at will from his fastness in the broken and unprofitable country between Haresborough and Fenny Side. 'Lady Jane' seems to be a fictional figure, and none of the high nobility ever fell into his power - but the character and conduct of Roger and his rabble were by all accounts just like that.

When the free town of Eaton refused to join his crusade, he took it, burned it, and slaughtered all the burghal families, as well as every male over twelve who had not joined him. But now Roger had too large a force either to hide or to well control, and earned many mortal enemies among the commons by his massacre. Pursued by Lord Dunstan Hammerfell's heavy cavalry from the north, and menaced by a strong combined force mustering at nearby Wark under the able Sir Raymond Ridout, he rallied his folk by the promise that Good Katy herself would join them if they dared to meet the knights openly in her name.

So inflamed, the rebels cut off Lord Dunstan at the pass of Blaxton Neck - an excellent move, had they not shattered at the knights' first charge. Good Katy conspicuously failed to prevent Roger's ignominious slaughter, and a detachment of light horse and woodsmen sent in a surprise flanking manoeuvre by Sir Raymond made bloody hash of his fleeing followers. The entire rebellion lasted one summer, and had no lasting effect except to impoverish the rich lands of Leadale and to increase the general level of class hatred and oppression.

Naturally, Alland is full of people who want nothing better than for Roger to come back and do them even better next time. Needless to say, had Katy Elflocks ever really met him, she would have loathed him far more even than she loathed her personal aristocratic back-monkey, the Golden Margravine of Alland.

Only the faintest trace of this is likely to appear in the actual story, but this is the kind of crap my good guys have to work with. I could almost feel sorry for them, sometimes!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Attacked by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photographed 1859 by Macaire Havre, engraving by T O Barlow 1871 - public domain, via Josette at Wikimedia Commons

A Diet of Lizzie

How have I loved you? Let me taste your ways:
First tender, fresh like chicken (I was chicken too
Until you made me answer!); sweet like cake;
And hot as chilli pepper, all in turn.
Then course on course of wedding-banquet, capped
With Extra Cheese and corn; and honeyed moons
And moons of sundaes, till our palates cloyed.
Next, bread and butter, beer and Ploughman’s years
And hot sweet tea like kisses, cockshut time,
And kisses too, like blood-flushed vintage wine.
And last: tough, gamy, strong as good jugged hare,
And salt and full of pepper – so I loved you best!
Now one more course, and here’s my heart to eat,
For there you go, served up as broken meats.

Oh, I could count our ways! – But who’s to care?
They all add up to Blot, now you’re not there.
My tongue is shrivelled and my lips are dry.
My eyes scooped out, or something there should cry.
Our feasting-days have come to one last crust –
I’ll taste you when it’s time to bite the dust.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Felicity, Indeed

Last night I dreamed a dream and thought it true. Now, when an Englishman of a certain age happens to dream about Felicity Kendal, he generally ought to count himself lucky and shut up about it. Alas - and despite there being quite a lot of impropriety in the backstory - none of it was onstage, or with me, and it was not that kind of dream at all.

The basic conceit of the dream appeared to be that Kendal's characters in The Good Life and Rosemary and Thyme are in fact one and the same person, at different stages of her life, the latter being a self-reinvention after the catastrophic failure of her first marriage. This was mostly Margo Leadbetter's fault, and of course my fabulator decided to dramatize not the mildly kinky comedy-slashfic episode implied, but its lasting emotional fallout many years later. Played absolutely straight. I wonder about my Muse, sometimes.

So, you pointedly refrain from asking, just what did I and the fair Rosemary spend this dream doing? I will tell you. We spent most of it trying to rescue my maternal grandmother (here alive, but about eighty and desperately infirm) from the high-tech Villain Compound of a vile and brutal SFnal dictator. We never ran into the Big Bad himself, nor did I know nor care about his name; but supremely unreliable sources have since dropped me a heavy hint.

We went in as sneakily as we could, but inevitably got involved in enough unarmed action heroics that both Ms Kendal and I will certainly have to resort to the services of stunt doubles in the forthcoming blockbuster movie. At some point we became separated, and I never did ascertain whether Rosemary made it out. I managed to break out with Nan, and to get her to a hospital - where the docs also detained me, since I had incurred rather a lot of damage along the way. The end of the dream was devoted to bluffing and dodging searching stormtroopers, whilst waiting for medicines, test results, and emergency surgery. In this phase I also contrived narrowly to avoid being eaten by a big shark, though precisely how this became an issue in a hospital A&E department is now strangely opaque to me.

This morning I am ever so much tireder than I was when I went to bed last night. And yes, it is because I spent most of the night dreaming about adventures with Felicity Kendal. I would not previously have expected that total experience so closely to resemble that of dreaming about being shot to shit by the Governator!

However, at least I did unearth a good Goat Quote, during what passes for my research when perpetrating posts such as this. Interviewed about her rôle in Mrs Warren's Profession by the Independent's Rhiannon Harries, Kendal makes this timely observation:

"...the classics are the classics because human nature does not change. The emotions are the same – love, loss, jealousy, greed. We haven't invented a new emotion.

"But what we don't have a lot of these days is the acceptance. It's all 'Look – baddy! Baddy broke the rules!' My question is, maybe we have to change the rules, because at the moment it doesn't seem like there are enough people able not to break the rules. And if people think that it's only the wealthy or famous, I really think we have no hope."

Very true. It's not just the way the state sets up more rules than I like - it's also the prevailing tone of shrill, frivolous, and hollow-hearted legalism across so much of our culture, which sets up the foundation upon which our evil overlords' high-tech Villain Compounds must rise, or else sink ignominiously into the clay. Zero Tolerance. That Is Not Considered Appropriate. He Broke The Rules, End Of. She Must Be Accountable For Her Example. Love It Or Leave It. Obey Or Die...

Here is another rule, for those whose entire business model does not depend on maximizing the rattling of empty vessels. An honest gentleman faced with the same urgent question as Kendal once resolved it thusly:

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. (John 8:7, King James Version.)

And who better than Kendal to highlight how that peaceable ridgeway, and not the stony slide downwards, is the only path with any hope of leading through a Good Life?

Friday, 1 October 2010

A Very Sanguine Maxim

Carmilla Karnstein pre-emptively strikes to save Laura from the lustful Turk, or whoever.  David Henry Friston (1872), via Wikimedia Commons - public domainThe whole world knows that I am very far from being its bravest man. But over the last week or so, I seem beset each way I turn with voices demanding I imitate the world's worst coward and dastard, for fear of what Osama bin Liner will do to me should our masters' stern but fair vigilance be abated for an instant. - Or their cashflow. - Attempting to get my head around this clash of worldviews, I have come up with the following rough-and-ready explanation:

The authoritarian securocrat thinks that giving up our liberties for fear of terror is like having a mole removed when it starts itching. They were unsightly, useless, and not very salubrious at best. When a question of danger arises, we dispose of them soberly, and are only improved by having the occasion to do so.

The liberal securocrat thinks that sacrificing our liberties is more like gnawing off one's limb when it gets caught in a deadly trap. We have really lost something. We hope it is a finger-joint - at worst, it may be an arm or a leg - and we bitterly regret the necessity; but it is done, and there is no undoing it, and it is surely better than the alternative.

But people like me think that sacrificing our liberties for fear of terror is like letting Carmilla Karnstein suck out your heart's blood, because she has sensibly convinced you that you are at severe risk of a recurrence of malaria.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

"Shall I Raise Her Banner?"

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?  - The Queen of Sheba riding to meet Solomon, from a fresco in Gondar, Ethiopia - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.The Council chapter of Killer-Kate has sped unexpectedly to a conclusion - it seems that now the action is picking up, this first draft can carry on a way further without a revision. Perhaps all the way to the end, which would be best, since then I'll know exactly what raw material I have to work with at every stage. But a little way further at least. The Rising is here. War is here, and reckoning, and a deadly rush for peace before all peace goes down in flame.

It is the homeward stretch and the great surge of the tale, and I am here at last. They say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I wonder how far that will prove true for me, too, though I am only telling of war and not living it?

It has been a strange chapter and a stranger synthesis of ideas. I'm not sure there isn't a lie - a lie subtle and almost cruel - in the end result, that none of my characters are capable of seeing in their newfound resolution. Ah well, they have sold it to themselves, and if it proves false they will no doubt feel it buckle. But it will bear some thinking on by me.

If people believe their great hero when she says that she is only the banner-carrier, and she inspirits them by showing that the hero hymned in the songs could only possibly be all of them together - how much does it matter that they can only believe it because she, personally, is their great hero and told them so?

This may or may not matter in the story. I'm pretty convinced it matters in the world outside my window.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

They Don't Know Jack

With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character - Illustrated London News 1888 - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In the morning paper, some hit-and-run text opinionator made this killer point which I have only heard about thirty million times this year:

"Sure, most Muslims aren't terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims..."

Wherefore Muslims shouldn't get upset if non-Muslims look at them funny - or maybe do a little bit more. This is speciously plausible enough, that even plenty of otherwise smart people I know seem to find it conclusive.

So because I've run out of patience this morning, here is another argument of the same logical form:

"Sure, most white males aren't serial killers, but most serial killers are white males."

More than this, the bet that a given serial killer will turn out to be a white male remains a disproportionately good bet to make in this country. Therefore, both the literal statement and the unstated implications of each proposition are true in exactly the same way.

Nonetheless, if Jamila in the street starts giving me the hairy eyeball on the strength of my abnormal propensity to imitate Jack the Ripper, then I shall feel fully justified in ripping into her arguments with the keen blade of my SCOOOOOOORN! Because it will plainly be the toot she is talking.

This implies, necessarily, that she has an equal right to lay on with the fool-flayer if our positions are reversed.

Excuse me, Mr Opinionator. I feel one of my funny turns coming on.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Fix Is Out

On John Scalzi's excellent blog Whatever, commenter Dave is obligingly and productively wrong on the Internet:

"...why would anyone in Michigan vote against the party trying to jump-start the economy in favor of the people who deride government intervention in the apparent belief that the economy should be left to fix itself?"

This is such a usefully pithy expression of a very common plaint, that upon reading it I was struck with unexpected insight.

"Fix the economy." Surely only a dumb or malign person wouldn't want to do that? Even if I have no confidence in government intervention whatsoever, shouldn't I want to fix things by making the government and its cronies stop digging? Shouldn't I try to do my own personal bit, if I have systemic reasons for distrusting our now-dominant institutions?

Well, yes - partly, and sort of kind of. But the truth is, while I object to bad economic conditions as much as the next wolf-warder, I don't want to fix the economy at all.

Because when Dave (and, I think, most people across the political spectrum) talk about fixing the economy, they show thereby that they think of it as something like a machine, which can and must be serviced by expert engineers during its occasional and inevitable breakdowns. Another Dave on the political Right has even gone so far as to suggest that British society itself is a broken machine, which badly needs him and his crew to reconstruct it! And as long as we accept the metaphor, the response is actually a sensible and spirited one.

But even the economy is not much like a machine. It is only a subset of society, which is a set of social relations between people. When the relations between all the people in a population are considered merely as the components of a machine for achieving whatever it is that the machine-handlers are after, then we are thinking in terms either of a very unattractive society or a very inefficient machine.

So I don't, intuitively, think of the economy in mechanistic terms. This is an intuition which has taken me a long time to come by - the policy wonk and the SFnal engineering geek in me both have a natural tendency to think in terms of design and art. Still, I think I'm mostly cured by now.

Once one gets as far as thinking of the economy, not as a machine for producing output, but as a bunch of people choosing to do stuff among themselves - then the "We need to fix the economy!" cri du coeur suddenly acquires a very different ring to it.

Because we have just gone from comparing intervention with fixing a broken machine, to something more like fixing a football game or an election. That is not the sort of intervention that usually works out in favour of the punters.

I would like to un-fix the economy! I would like to yank the magnets out of the bent bankers' roulette-wheels, short out the power to the self-stimulating bureaucrats' printing-presses, and chuck a monkey-wrench into the special interest cartels' legislative sausage-machine. Since these all lie somewhat beyond my modest powers, mostly I just get to grumble, and seek out the most honest games in town where I have any choice at all.

But I think this explains why full-spectrum liberals like me on the one hand, and progressives and conservative paternalists on the other, so often seem to be talking past one another and shaking their heads at each other's unfathomable idiocy, as per Dave's quoted comment and a million others like it everywhere.

It isn't idiocy on either side.* It's just that we're working from such violently clashing metaphors for what an economy is, that it's almost impossible for one of us to state any proposition about it without sounding either imbecilic or wicked to the other. Unpacking the implicit bits of the metaphors might be a start in narrowing down the reality of the disagreement. I wonder what the next step would be?

* Especially not mine, obviously.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

"All Measures Always, Kate."

The Wedding Dance in a Barn, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons For the second and I hope final time, I've just finished the concluding chapter of the Wassail arc in Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, after a mostly fallow summer. This summer consisted mostly of various non-writing activities and gaddings about, all of it worthwhile, but all of it with the dread of chapter-completion lurking miserably in the back of the mind. The dread turned out to be justified, since the intended ending was all wrong. When I finally did the deed, I realized that it started the next arc in the easy way and not the true way, and that I would incur a good deal of punishment for this in the course of attempting to write the Rising arc without bashing my brains out against the nearest convenient wall.

So: the true ending as I see it is now provided. This leaves my protagonists finally reconciled to things they've been struggling with or against all their lives, and with a prospect of honest fellowship and happiness they've never known.

Which, being who they are, they must and will now push back into the fire - and hope besides hope that it will come out again, glowing.

Because one good answer to the forgiveness of unpayable debts, is freely to give away more than ever was asked or was due, in some coin in which one finds oneself presently richer.

The coming Council chapter needs to be terrible, not cosy or softened by helpful circumstance, if wonderful things are to come of it. I wish my backbrain had noticed this in a more helpful way over the past couple of months, but hey. There is going to be a lot of back-ripple into existing sections as I write this part, too: it's one of the bits that defines how much of my Fairfields setup is and isn't essential to the line of the story.

But for this night and this chapter's end... I will leave my heroic old villains dancing.

Friday, 3 September 2010

From Each According to Their Heart-Strings

By upbringing and by conviction, I am an individualist and proud of it. But the word 'individualist' has acquired a nasty taint of selfishness and conceit, by association with that sort of self-styled 'rugged individualist' who, not content with letting everybody go to the devil in their own way, stands ever ready to assist them along that road of all roads, and will gladly brag of this manly virtue from arsehole to breakfast time.

This brag needs calling. A true rugged individualist, who goes through life caring only for one individual, is almost as far from sincere individualism as it is mathematically possible to be. There are at least seven billion individuals whose interests he is blatantly discounting, and seven billion to one against is lousy odds in my book. He might as well call himself a socialist for single-mindedly promoting his golf club, a conservative for zealously protecting his rare edition of the Marquis de Sade, or a Green for being nice to his bull terrier. An atom or two of the right stuff is present in each instance, but it won't stretch far enough to deserve the breath it takes to claim it.

It's all about me is not the mantra of the individualist. We already have a word for that belief: it is called solipsism. If somebody believes that the rest of the world really exists independently of them, and behaves as far as possible as if it doesn't matter anyway, then so much the worse for them. From where I'm standing - as a dues-paying member of the Rest of the World - if it walks like a solipsist and quacks like a solipsist, then for all practical purposes it might just as well be a solipsist. Conservatives and classical liberals who consider this a bit harsh are invited to consider it in the light of the ever-useful Doctrine of Revealed Preferences.

The consistent individualist cries, not It's all about me, but It's all up to me! Which is a motto much less comfortable, if more exhilarating, and far too frequently something worth crying about.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to their needs," is a vile philosophy of government, because both ability and needs are determined by a third party, who has the ability to make everybody else satisfy their peculiar and oft-perverted needs. I am far from convinced that it is an ignoble philosophy of self-government. When that judgement is made by each according to their own ability, it strikes me as a merely natural and honourable consequence of taking one's own and other people's individuality seriously. Only it is not the sort of judgement that can, or may, ever be made for another.

My favourite wording of this rule is, unsurprisingly, not a traditional Marxist one. It is, more surprisingly, due to that arch-collectivist, somewhat misanthropic, ultra-Green radical feminist and unsurpassed proponent of the High Fantastic Slapstick, Sheri S Tepper - one of those brilliantly wrongheaded curmudgeons and unrepentant Individuals whom her mirror-enemy G K Chesterton would have instantly recognized and, on his better days, celebrated with a skill unmatched. Saith Tepper, and sez I:

"To the weak, succour. To the strong, burdens."

And the strong we shall know, and become, by their burdens freely chosen and borne. The cosmos has no work fairer nor more rugged to offer.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Return of the Billy Quote

Outfall of the Cloaca Maxima, by Lalupa at Wikimedia Commons - public domain
Every couple of years, I get an irresistible urge to re-read everything Lois McMaster Bujold ever wrote. In Shards of Honor (1986), her hero Aral Vorkosigan offers this characteristically pungent assessment of his homeworld's pressing problem:

"But it's past time someone took on those damned bureaucrats and their pet spies. They imagine they're the wave of the future, but it's only sewage flowing downhill."

From his mouth, to our ears...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Should Bansturbation Be Allowed?

A wild monkey.  By Chris huh at Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic Licence. Bansturbation, n. (1) That form of social self-abuse whereby a society's prominent members seek to ban everybody from doing everything which they assert to be undesirable. (2) The pleasurable stimulation obtained by such members in the process. (3) fig. The self-pleasuring contemplation of all the things one would ban, if everybody had their rights and one was therefore the biggest member of all.

- Concept due to Harry Haddock; much popularized by Tim Worstall; definition by Guess Who.

I work in a school, and I read the press, and I get quite unspeakably tired of the following ubiquitous and quietly aggressive question:

"Should $THING be allowed?"

It is frequently framed as neutral, which the hell it is. It sneakily puts the possibility of banning $THING on the table as the default action, when the reverse is logically and morally the case. To allow something is, in most cases, to do nothing at all. To ban something requires active effort and coercive force. Somebody who thinks that this is the default response to anything set before them, is probably not a very nice person.

So why is such a question so commonly put, "Should anchovy-eating be allowed?" rather than the more appropriate, "Should anchovy-eating be banned?"

Why, for no reason other than to make the 'action' of allowing anchovy-eating something that requires an active defence, when it is the preposterous suggestion of banning it that has yet to justify even the effort of considering it. If the stunned target cannot immediately unpack an explanation of why this random emission is toss, the bansturbator claims a cheap victory by default.

I do understand there is a concern here. Lord help us - if we recklessly allow anchovies without stopping to think about it, next thing we'll be allowing biltong and celeriac and Danish blue, and before you know it we'll be so busy allowing stuff, we won't have any time or resources left to do anything else. Oh, the humanity!

But let it never be said that I am a mere doctrinaire libertarian, incapable of understanding that some sacrifices of personal freedom must be made for the greater good. I hereby reach out to the paternalist and the professionally outraged by offering them a brand new ban that will stimulate all our spirits nicely.

I propose to ban the question, "Should $THING be allowed?" in any case where 'allowing' $THING does not, in fact, require any action whatsoever.

This will still allow them illegitimately to imply that the allowing of $THING is a dubious case which the permissive party has the onus of proving - given only that some bansturbating bastard has successfully prohibited $THING already. That would be a rhetorical disgrace, yet an improvement on the present state of public discourse.

In a few cases, "Should $THING be allowed?" is the reasonable form. If Mad Axe Molloy were to inquire of me, Whether murder ought to be allowed, I should call that a much more sensible question than, Whether murder ought to be banned. Indeed, the most reasonable riposte to it seems to be, "Can murder be allowed?" I don't see how it even could, since victims and their associates are so reluctant to play their parts in these affairs peaceably, that not even the full majesty of the law can reliably compel them to do so.

Most things are not murder. Most things do not need to be 'allowed'. And most of those other things should not be banned.

Not even public exhibitions of bansturbation, in a perfect world. But I like to think of myself as a reasonable fellow, always ready with a neighbourly compromise.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Balls and Chains

A golden ball and chain - public domain.Iain Duncan Smith - the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and founder of rightist anti-poverty thinktank the Centre for Social Justice - has noticed one of the ways in which his and previous governments keep people unemployed against their will:

"Often they are trapped in estates where there is no work near there and - because they have a lifetime tenure of that house - to go to work from east London to west London, or Bristol, or whatever is too much of a risk because if you up sticks and go you will have lost your right to your house," he told the paper.

"The local council is going to tell you that you don't have a right to a house there, the housing association is not going to give you one.

"We have to look at how we get that portability, so that people can be more flexible, can look for work, can take the risk to do it."

Very good. The gamble, especially for people with family commitments, is patently skewed and insane: maybe a little extra money for a while, or possibly actually less money, in return for a certainty of losing one's most valuable resource. So what is he going to do about it?

He did not spell out exactly what sort of commitment would be offered on rehousing, but an aide said ministers would provide incentives for people to move, rather than force them to do so.

Ah. Much cry and little wool. Now, if 'incentives' meant some form of property right for current council tenants which was portable so that they could safely choose to take up a job elsewhere without life-changing losses being imposed in punishment, that would be very good news.

If it meant that some form of pressure, short of actual force, will be used to evacuate them from areas where they are not wanted and relocate them to others chosen by their betters, that would be very bad. It would also be an extremely difficult central planning problem, as unpopular in the destination areas as in the source, so it is probably not going to happen in any big way. But the fact that ministers talk of 'providing incentives' rather than removing their artificial disincentives and letting human nature do the rest, suggests that there is a weasel under the cocktail cabinet somewhere.

Nonetheless, absent weasels, the main idea would be an honest and humane one, yes?


Specifically, Ed Balls, whose considered response for the Labour Party is as follows:

"The Tory-Liberal government is doing this at the same time as cutting investment in jobs and industries and communities with a budget that will increase unemployment by 100,000 a year.

"That's why this policy is so profoundly unfair. We should be investing in jobs and growth to boost employment in our regions, not cutting it back and effectively abandoning high unemployment areas while telling people they should move house to get off the dole."

Yes, Ed, it is cutting investment in &c. by no longer spending on it all of the money which government does not in fact have, but which if it had it would be taking from &c. in the first place. Yet let us grant that your previous policy of investing in smoking wardens and crony capitalists was actually of benefit to poor areas like mine, or at least that it did no harm. After all, it isn't like the new boys are going to change it all that much anyway!

Why is it profoundly unfair to let people move from their current lord's estate without punishment, Ed? Why should people not leave crappy areas if they can make a living in better ones, Ed? Why would anybody want to keep large, generational concentrations of voters chained by the terror of lasting homelessness to posts where they depend upon your faction's policies for their bread, Ed?

This is so hard a question that my plebeian brain cannot cope with it, and I must turn it over to you as a member of our elected elite to enlighten me.

Bah. Had the Orchid of Westminster only waited for the actual proposals to emerge from the Cabinet, no doubt he would weaselly have found something we could all join him in booing. But no: his conscience bids him fire off at the very principle, for in his world jobs are just another handout from your lord, to be assigned or withheld as his whim and competence dictate. To entice his villeins to desert village and allegiance, when in hard times they are already well-cherished with the scraps and wise sayings from his table, is most monstrously unfair to all concerned.

Especially to their lord!

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Fairfields Wassail

So of course it is midsummer, and therefore I must needs do a wassail posting!

This is a Kateverse folk-song that is actually sung about the present point in Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, though in order to prevent an epidemic of book-wall moments I don't there stop the story to quote it. It is quite closely modelled on traditional English wassail songs, including my favourite, the Gower Wassail above.

The similarities tell you a good deal about my bolshy Lothlórien, my mortal peasant-founded Fairfields. The differences, though relatively few, may convey rather more.

One non-explicit difference from our traditions is that the wassail-song is sung in a full village gathering around a fire, as the year-ale is passed around. The door-to-door wassailing is reserved for the sick and the infirm (who are brought ale and gifts rather than being solicited for them), and for the various real and suspected spirits of place and boundary. These customs are likely local innovations for the most part.

The Fairfields Wassail

Wassail! drink hale! and pass the bowl round.
Our cakes they are white and our beer it is brown.
In good faith and good fellowship gather we here
And together join hands at the dark of the year.
Joy and love be unto you
And to you a wassail too,
And drink wakemead for the dying of the year.
Wassail the white bowl! Drink hale!

We are friends and no strangers who gather along
Nor is black night so hardy as threaten us wrong.
We will make such a noise as the woods never heard
For we roar like the lion, but we sing like the bird
With joy and loving unto you
And to you a wassail too,
And sing lusty at the turning of the year.
Wassail my neighbour! Drink hale!

But to strangers who find us by grange or by hold,
And to all of you wood-wights out there in the cold,
Here is beer and salt cake, here is fleet and here fire,
And it all do await if your heart do desire
Joy and loving unto you,
And to you your wassail too,
And bring comfort at the changing of the year.
Wassail the stranger! Drink hale!

To the earth and brave beasts and the trees we do keep,
Be awake for our blessing, and lie back to sleep.
We will hail you and watch you, by hand and by mind,
And we hope when you wake you'll be kindly inclined
For joy and loving unto you,
And to you your wassail too,
And sleep soundly through the dreaming of the year.
Wassail our fair fields! Drink hale!

To my lover, my elf or my lad or my lass,
Let us warm by our hearth till the winter do pass.
Let us quarrels and coldness forget and reprove:
Let us dance like the dragon, and kiss like the dove,
For joy and love I bear to you,
And to us our wassail too,
And burn ardent for the getting of the year.
Wassail my love-light! Drink hale!

Wassail! drink hale! drink deep and drink long!
Our cakes they are salt, and our beer it is strong.
In good mirth and good merriment gather we here,
And we'll sing and we'll dance till we see the new year.
Joy and love be unto you,
And to you a wassail too,
And drink kindly for the borning of the year.
Wassail a good year! Drink hale!

The wassail opens the wider year's-getting festivities, which take place on Midwinter's Eve, and combine sundry features of our familiar yule-feasts Christmas and Hogmanay.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Set Subsidy to Love

Now it's time to push on from my post on pro-freedom attitudes towards the family. There, I argued that ideological attempts to control the shape and dynamics of other people's families have no honest warrant and yield evil consequences. That was setting out my own view of a genuinely family-friendly policy, i.e. that the friendliest policy was for people to mind their own business about other people's living and child-rearing arrangements as far as humanely possible.

Today I want to carry the play into my opponents' half of the pitch, and argue that inasfar as their own objectives are credible, 'family friendly' economic policies must still tend to subvert and frustrate them.

'Family friendly' policies fall into two linked classes: those that promote marriage, and those that promote childbirth and child-rearing. For this post, I shall consider the former.

There are four typical pretexts for encouraging people to marry. These are: the promotion and rationing of approved sexual relations; the intrinsic benefits of marriage to the couple; the wider economic efficiency of marriage; and the promotion of child-rearing in a 'stable' home background. Here I'll look at the first three. What effect will economic incentives for marriage have on each?

The idea that people's sexuality will be affected by a tax break or benefit tweak is, to put it mildly, ludicrous even were its desirability granted. The idea that their fidelity or monogamousness - by no means the same thing - can be so constrained, is even more ridiculous. If the spouse is at least tolerant of extra-marital sex, the incentive has no effect; if they are not, then I would humbly suggest that the loss of a transfer payment will barely register on the horizon of Costs Of A Potential Break-Up. We can flush this turd right down the Toilet of Debate without more ado.

Alas, it is a floater. Back it comes bobbing up when we look at the other Number Two: the intrinsic benefits of marriage to a couple. According to this argument, marriage makes people happier, longer-lived, more virtuous, and quite possibly stops hair growing on the palms of their hands. However, it requires at least some sacrifice. The weak-willed may not be able to steel themselves to it; the indigent may simply not be able to afford the investment. A cheap and gentle boost over this hump may greatly increase the sum of human weal. So why not?

Remember, I am not this time concerned with whether romantic heterosexual monogamy (my private preference), or shacking up with one's closest possible cousin to produce a race of kings, or a cold-blooded rationalistic choice of the partner who promises the most future profit and pleasure, are good or bad things for anybody or everybody. I am only concerned with whether their advocates can buy with economic incentives what they think they are buying.

I say they can do no such thing.

Let us presume that, whatever the form of marriage favoured, it has the supposed benefits. For whom has it been observed to have such benefits? For the population of those who have hitherto chosen to marry.

Furthermore, by universal observation, not all marriages are equal. Some are very good partnerships indeed. Others are so bad, and so intimate and thorough in their badness, that at least one partner will kill themselves suddenly or by degrees to be shot of even the memory of them.

Those who are most inclined to marry, from amongst the pool of potential partners who will actually have them, are by definition those who have already done so. Whatever the intrinsic benefits of marriage may be, these are those who value them most for their own sake. Those who need an economic nudge will clearly be drawn from amongst those who value either marriage itself, or the specific partners whom they can woo into it, to a lesser degree. Thus, any material incentive can be expected to reduce the average quality of marriages. As the incentive increases, the initial quality of each new marriage added at the margin must decrease correspondingly, until at some point each new marriage becomes an actively destructive one.

Further, it is not clear that such secondary material benefits as more robust mental and physical health could possibly inhere in marriage itself. If they are the products of mutual support and affection, then bad or merely insincere marriages engineered to obtain them are likely to prove grievously disappointing in their fruits.

The level at which incentives to marry become destructive of marriage's non-mercenary purposes, cannot possibly be extracted a priori from any honest value system. It may be zero. It may even be negative - that is, it is logically possible that only a marriage-fine (a custom with plenty of historical precedent) can possibly weed out mischievous marriages contracted idly, wantonly, and without the slightest intention of fulfilling any of the commitments involved.

Since there are costs involved in all involuntary financial transfers, as well as injuries done to the unmarried individuals from whose labours any marriage premium must be funded, the default assumption about that premium ought to be that it is zero.

All this holds true whatever the nature and benefits of marriage are supposed to be, provided only that marriage is not being promoted solely on the grounds that it increases the partners' economic efficiency, and that the results are positively correlated with the partners' free mutual choice of each other.

What about that third possibility - that marriage promotes economic efficiency, and is therefore a utilitarian candidate for funding?

If the gains accrue to the partners, then there is no case for subsidy at all - that would just be taking from those who have not, and giving to those who have. If they accrue to others, who are those others, and why should couples or n-tuples be paid to serve their interests?

The usual answer is 'children', and I will defer responding to that one.

Another credible possibility is that some class of rent-takers are able to extract special gains from the efficiencies produced by combining other peoples' households, and possibly to exploit marriages by other means as well. If these panders are in or close to positions of power, this would explain much about the 'family friendly' cant pervading the modern rent-taking policy-making community.

And, what do you know, I see several clear opportunities for just such enterprise!

I will inspect these in my next family friendly post.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

"The Horned Moon in Her Hair"

Roman statue of Luna, by - released under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence The latest chapter of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland just closed. I still haven't got up to the Wassail: some stuff previously placed after it came forward and changed the central conversation. Wassail this time! There is nothing but Yule-night in the new chapter, so it should have a harder job getting away from me.

Part of the difficulty of spinning this yarn lies in its internal logic. If my protagonists were just old villains turned heroes at last, it would be easier to tell of them. But this tale is in large part about heroism, and even true individual greatness, as a mutual venture between a whole bunch of collaborators. That needs a lot of differentiated characters putting their oar into the mix, without diffusing the focus on the people the tale is about. This is hard for the same reason it is worth doing, which is another reason that this middle section is going to need a lot of pruning before I'm done with it.

That's my dilemma. My principal non-protagonist character - the Founder of Fairfields - has her own, which has grown out of these exploratory chapters. On the one hand, she is much more powerful, reverend, and (in some ways) wise than any of her comrades. On the other, she believes much more strongly than almost any of them in the root equality of human beings. How far can she use her extraordinary ability and reputation to advance this cause, without fatally undercutting her own point? Conversely, if she avoids dominating the discourse, how far can she fend off people's natural tendency to set up heroes and hierarchies, or her community's understandable inclination to set her and her talented household at the top of the tree?

Whenever she escapes one horn, she inevitably gets tossed on the other. This was the chapter where the depth of her frustration, and the shape of its necessary workaround, came clear to me at last. And boy, what a workaround it will be if I can work it! She's seemed somewhat less than herself in many of her scenes so far: this resolution, I think, is heroic in the sense I want, and a defining moment for her character within the present story. Here is one of the big lights by which I'll want to do my rewrite.

The Kateverse is a fantasy setting, of course, on whose enchanted margins abstractions can turn suddenly and shockingly concrete.

I wonder how the same dilemma has been resolved, here in the fields we know?

And I wonder how often a gifted leader can bring themselves to attempt the feat? For real, I mean, and no bull!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Political Pudding

In today's Metro, chef Simon Hulstone offers a recipe for tansy pudding. There are eight needful ingredients and one optional. The optional one is the tansy!

These puddings must immediately run for public office. The Tansy Pudding Movement will go far. Hail to the Chef!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Benball Stair

Another Kateverse folk song! This one is Ewan MacColl's fault, the result of my needing to exorcise the diabolical earworm that great man made of The Bonnie Banks of Airdrie. It is sung to the same tune, though it is not about the same thing. Internal evidence suggests that it was written some time after the events of The Deed of Katy Elflocks, and that the original narrator was confused or fibbing or both.

External evidence suggests that I've been reading entirely too many Child Ballads lately.

The Benball Stair

As I came down the Benball Stair,
Lynx she slinks through heather, oh,
I met a maid beyond compare,
Cally cat a basie, oh.

Her hair was tangled like the brakes,
Her face was such as man's heart breaks.

"Oh will you have a pedlar's son
That never yet did harm to none?"

"If you will pledge me first in wine
That ripened by the cold moonshine."

"A kiss is vintage of moonshine,
And you may drink your fill of mine."

"If you will pledge me in a word
That never yet was spoke nor heard."

"A lover's look spoke never lies,
So all my word read in mine eyes."

"If all you have, you'll give me thrice,
Then this shall be my bridal price."

"My body only I do own,
So three times claim your bridal crown."

We loved so long on ling and stone.
On Benball Stair I woke alone.

What kisses crave I 'neath the Sun,
Who drank her nectar ere his noon?

What light seek I in maiden's eyes,
Who sees her wink from starry skies?

What body shall I hold now fair,
Who held the world all tangled in her hair?

When you shall riddle all these three,
Lynx she slinks through heather, oh,
The pedlar's son shall wed with thee,
Cally cat a basie, oh.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Bureaucrats Rule!

The young Franz Kafka, upon beholding his first Paperwork Reduction Act form - via Wikimedia Commons - public domain Of course they do. That is why their office has a -crat on the end. As a class they are exceptionally and justifiably unpopular, especially but not exclusively amongst the libertarian-minded. Very few people, except in self-deprecation, are so brave as to claim 'bureaucrat' for their trade. When we see an official with the heart and nous to face down the little tin gods and cut through the winding red tape in order to get make the system do something vaguely related to its ostensible purpose, it is hard to think of them as a bureaucrat at all.

And yet large, bureaucratic organizations dominate modern societies. Is this really just a case of every functional organization being eventually colonized by the maximum number of parasites it can bear, with a violently empowered state bureaucracy making sure that nobody gets to scrape off its brother barnacles, or operate neatly and nimbly without them? Or is it, perhaps, that bureaucracy really allows such extraordinary efficiencies in its normal unshowy mode, that it more than repays the cost of its rent-seeking abuses and Kafkaesque excrescences?

The latter possibility is so uncongenial to my prejudices and tastes, I find myself obliged to take it seriously.

Let us begin with an immediate distinction between administrators and bureaucrats. It is easy to call all paper-pushers and regulators bureaucrats, especially for somebody like me when my spleen is exploding. It is also completely unhelpful. By 'administrator', I mean anybody whose job is principally concerned with the organization's internal functioning rather than the direct accomplishment of its external purpose. There is no possible way for a large organization to exist without some such specialists, even if the specialization is only a part-time one carried in addition to other duties. Assuming effective organization to be a nontrivial problem, the need for full-time specialists is apt to increase with the scale and elaboration of the enterprise.

This administrative pool can be quite small. When my father began in the NHS, about 1960, a major teaching hospital had one chief clerk with a small number of clerical assistants. Today in 2010, certain of my clan still work in a somewhat larger teaching hospital. It cannot even ration itself to one personnel department - two separate departments exist for the hospital group, each of which must approve every person employed by a member hospital. Hospitals are, admittedly, larger concerns now than in the past. They are not as much larger as all that, nor is it clear that their mushrooming administrative establishment has served any good purpose whatsoever. What rational purpose is being followed here?

Dad's experience of hospital clerks in the old days was that they were extraordinarily useful and widely competent persons. They and their staff added, in fairly simple and transparent ways, a great deal of value to the work of the various medicos and auxiliaries who 'did the job' of actually healing and helping patients. Now when somebody takes boring and onerous chores off one's hands, and does them better and more cheaply, it is not unreasonable to want more of such assistance. This is particularly true when said assistants always seem to have their hands full. An under-administered place will then, reasonably, buy in more administrators, until the marginal value added by the last administrator no longer exceeds the cost of hiring them -


The economic logic works right up until we remove the implicit assumption that administrators are robots. In an organization where admin specialists are few and of only moderate status, they will indeed be valuable contributors to the direct purpose of their organization. Their self-interest will exist, but it need not particularly dominate.

However, when their numbers and/or influence increase - and the two usually go together - administration itself becomes an increasingly dominant end within the organization. Beyond a certain point, a phase change can be expected - from the administrators' tending to serve the organization's external functions, to the external functions' tending to serve administrative convenience.

I predict that where this critical point is well-defined, it can be identified by a sharp acceleration in the rate of administrative hirings and expenditures. The diminishing external returns from more administration were formerly providing net negative feedback. At the critical point, this is overwhelmed by the positive feedback from increasing internal returns for the decision-makers, until external constraints dominate again at a much higher level of administrative cost.

I further suspect that there are only two kinds of administered organizations - those which have such a critical point, and those which cannot sustain the weight of enough administration to reach it.

A post-critical organization is actually ruled by, and for, its now-dominant administrative institutions. It is utter folly to consult its ostensible purpose as a guide to its actions, and then declare them crazy. They are not crazy. They are mostly adaptive behaviour under a particular bureaucracy, which is to say ruling administration. Intelligent people who wish to prosper within a bureaucratic organization know this, and tailor their thinking accordingly.

A naïve view of the free market would suggest that this is not a problem, except by government interference. After all, when an organization reaches the point where it can no longer act rationally, it should then be outcompeted by less barnacled rivals, not so?

Not necessarily! If economies of scale are large enough, or entry barriers high enough, it is easily possible to imagine a field where the barely-tolerated functional behaviour at a bureaucratic organization's periphery can still outcompete any organization small enough to operate continually below the Bureaucratic Critical Mass. In this view, the essentially parasitic bureaucratic core is simply a necessary overhead of competitive production, and will not bring down the firm until and unless it becomes so grossly irrational as to no longer tolerate even peripheral functionality. It is an overhead defined by human nature (which will not change) and technologically and politically determined economies of scale (which may change, though not in a good way if self-interested bureaucracies have anything to say about it).

Further, the productive periphery of the organization will itself be adapted to bureaucratic rule. Simply 'cutting useless bureaucracy', if this can be imposed at all from outside, may not directly free the 'good' parts of the organization to work well. Someone who is genuinely good at expediting production by skillful bureaucrat-wrangling may not be at all a good performer in the absence of the obstacles they have - rightly! - concentrated their talents upon overcoming.

In the gloomiest view of this, bureaucratic capture and resultant decay may actually be as inexorable a limit on human institutional activity, as senescence is upon individual life. Virtuous bureaucrats and institutional cultures might stave the worst off for a while, but the Great Leveller will not forever be denied. Reformers might then do better attacking the technological basis of the economy of scale, making bureaucracy objectively less adaptive in their field, rather than zealously searching for their organizational Philosopher's Stone.

My main reason for describing this view as gloomy is not just the human waste and cost incurred when a big institution falls over, taking its members' life-niches with it. Worse is the identity of at least one class of obviously vulnerable organizations. The supply of coercion has a few economies of scale in it here and there, and governments invented bureaucracy in the first place. If I am right about rational producer adaptation to bureaucracy... then even a hypothetically libertarian government might find itself merely accelerating the functional decay it sought to arrest. We may have got ourselves into a position where most of our skill-sets are reasonably maladaptive to freedom - libertarians, for all we know, included. A grim thought, but not a wholly implausible one.

What counter-technologies might undercut the government economies of scale? What social inventions? How can total or partial government-crash be cushioned? Can bureaucrat-wrangling productive skills be co-opted as assets for non-bureaucratic organizations? Is it even possible to become familiar with, and accepting of, the process of institutional rot in general, without cynically becoming a fungus? There are more questions teeming here than even my nosy spirit can readily encompass, let alone solve.

Over to the Bureau of Debureaucratization, who are even now beginning work with a consensus summary report on their mission statement schema brainstorming protocol. They will get back to us when they have devised an appropriate presentational timeframe.

Administrators merely administrate, but bureaucrats rule!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

"If That's Not Safe, Where Is?"

Thunderstorm anvil at sunset - U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - public domainYesterday I finished the last of my three exploratory chapters of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, written to understand Fairfields and what ought to happen in the Wassail arc before its climax. This one went quickly and with painful intensity - predictably enough, since it's the first one written from Kate's point of view. If Luke is something of an enigma, an inane suit of shining armour painfully filled over a lifetime with the grit and gem-gravel and warm blood of the true world, then Kate is become like a glass overflowing with flaming aqua-vitae - clear and incalculable, illuminating and searing, fragile and lethal. Also hilariously obtuse and terrifyingly seeing at the same time, but please don't ask me to work that into one metaphor too!

This of course is how she appears to me, and perhaps my writing does not have to be all that good to accomplish that. Reworking the chapters to make her ring just as true to people who didn't invent her, and haven't previously been her... there will be the test of craft. But it is true, for all that, that inhabiting her violently high-contrast world burns me nearly as keenly as it delights me. Hence, presumably, the lack of out-and-out binge writing on this segment.

Arrival; Luke; Kate. Now for the Wassail itself, to which all this arc has been leading up. But afterwards, or during, I'm going to have to go back over all those exploratory chapters, and read and write and rearrange them so that the whole hangs together. One of the many things I discovered was this: Fairfields is not even functionally Lothlórien or Rivendell. Those are ancient strong refuges with single governing ideas. Fairfields is new, weak, untranquil, and polyphonic to its core. It absolutely needs to take a much larger slice of the story than any normal mid-story haven, and there is a lot more 'action' action in it than I'd foreseen. Indeed, I think it's now debatable whether it is much more the haven of the story than the crucible.

Also, this is a place infused with the spirit of my own politics and worldview - though certainly not much of its substance, the bulk of which would be so alien to my mediaevaloid characters as to seem perverse where not irrelevant. This has had the usual consequence of harrowing my own beliefs at a much more visceral level than simple discussion or theorizing about them: an improving but profoundly exhausting experience.

The last such harrowing that was even comparably intense is the one I went through during the eighteen months of my Great Fanfic Novel. Perhaps significantly, the protagonist there too was a passionate, intelligent, fundamentally unintellectual and conventional person, neither in accord with me nor originally conceived as heroic. I did not at all come to agree with my instantiation of Tegan Jovanka, though she was certainly a better and greater person than I - but I did something much more important: I came to disagree with myself. That project largely coincided with the shift in my self-identification from 'Green' to 'libertarian'. It did not provide the intellectual impetus or the temperamental inclination, but it may have provided much of the heart and the willingness to listen.

Kate is in many ways the exact opposite of Tegan. I wonder what she'll teach me, before the end? Mostly, so far, it's been that we have far too many of the wrong things in common!

So. Danger, terror, valour, and the plot thickening to critical. One of those folk-songs I was serenading my patient audience with through March turns out to come into it, as well. Subtle are the ways of Muses...

[MUSE fwaps AUTHOR with rolled-up website. Exeunt, squabbling.]