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Just back, fairly fired up

I’m just back from a week spent at a ‘writing for children and young adults’ workshop run by the ARVON FOUNDATION, a long established provider of encouragement and advice for those who want to write.

It was held at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, once the home of Ted Hughes and before that the home of the owner of the mill that now lies derelict at the bottom of the valley. The photo shows the autumn trees and autumn skies above the site this morning.

I hope it has fired me up enough to do the rewrite that I think my completed project needs and the nerve to keep on submitting it should anyone be so foolish as to reject my masterpiece.

And I had a flash of ideas for another more humorous work. Let’s see how it goes.

We had a large group of frighteningly talented people there, all women but me and one of the tutors. I found myself singing PRETTY WOMEN as I stood outside waiting for my lift out (Thank you Lindy!) but quickly realised that given the source it could be misunderstood…

Speaking of morbid matters. this is one piece I didn’t get to show off at the workshop, an assignment to do a ‘gothic’ story. I may post other samples here if my self-confidence and vanity last.


“Yes, yes,” said the old man impatiently. “It is always sad when such great houses fall into desuetude. But I hope we are both men of business. You did not drag me out here to exchange platitudes, Mr Pulsifer.”

The slight, pale young junior solicitor begged the bookseller’s pardon. He was more than a little overawed by the old man, hair as white as snow and as long as any maiden’s, falling like fine lace across the black velvet of his jacket. The old man who his senior partner had insisted be brought in to assess the Library at Hellvellyn Hall.

J.D. Sombre, Bookseller and Antiquarian

1 Valterrerea Chambers W2

said the business card in tiny, elegant and nearly unreadable text.

The old man sniffed down the entire length of his nose and allowed himself to be conducted up the worn spiral staircase to the locked door at the top of the North Tower.

The junior solicitor fumbled at the huge ring of heavy antique keys he’d been entrusted with and after much effort managed to open the door into the tiny turret room, lined with books and smelling of mildew on parchment.

The old man was not impressed.

“The Sumerian scrolls, or rather the the alleged Sumerian scrolls are inferior copies from Egyptian scribes. Worth more as parchment than information. The Von Juntz your senior partner made so much of in his letter is a third edition and heavily censored. The medieval witch trial evidence might be valuable to a few collectors of curiosities I suppose…”

The old man sighed and took off his pince nez to polish them. He leaned back in the chair the late Master of the Hall had read so much dubious lore in for so long.

“Didn’t he ever,” the old man grumbled, “apply his reading? Did he have no dark fire in his soul? Did he never do anything or only read?”

The junior solicitor protested that he had understood the older man to be a bookseller.

And Antiquarian!” came the stern reply.

Ah, said the junior solicitor and led the other down the spiral staircase and into the courtyard where the late (and last) Master of the Hall had been found face down in the lily pond.

A gilded statue of a naked nymph stood in the centre of the pond, vainly covering her maidenly parts as if startled while bathing.

The old man glared a question at the younger who in his turn merely gestured across the pond as if to say ‘if you would but observe…’

The eyes of the nymph blinked and looked, from side to side as if seeking a way of escape, from the older man to the younger man as if looking for some mercy where she knew there would be none.

Only the eyes lived. The rest was frozen and inhuman.

“Ah,” said the old man. “Now we can negotiate!”

Three categories of junk

I have been sorting through the top drawer in my desk.

I started by looking for the thirty Euros I had left over from visiting Finland last year to add it to the Euros I’ve just bought for my trip to Germany. Having found the notes I’m now giving the drawer a good sort out both because it needs it and because it’s a good way to avoid the things I really ought to be doing this evening, like finishing my A&E contribution.

There’s three categories of junk here. There’s the stuff I kept because I thought it might be useful which includes the huge number of loose rubber bands in there, which are being sorted into a ziplock bag when found. I’m also chucking out Viagra which is past its sell by date and other things I think I no longer need.

There’s the stuff I’m keeping because I’m sentimental, like the collection of old con badges and lanyards. Those are going into a large brown paper envelope marked ‘OLD CON BADGES AND LANYARDS’. Actually the lanyards may see further use at later cons especially the Handycon ones: they operate on a budget and ask you to reuse your lanyard. Additionally, I came across an old Bodleian library card with a picture of me in my twenties on it. I should probably put that into the scrap book.

Finally there’s the stuff I was too lazy to throw away. I feel some sort of justification for stuffing the used batteries in there (they need to be taken down to Sainsbury’s to be disposed of) but why did I keep a piece of plastic with the words ‘Ben Sherman’ on it? I think I bought some of their shirts once?

I’ll spend some more time getting it cleared up but I’m not fooling myself that I’ll ever get my life organised. Overthrowing the habits of a lifetime isn’t a thing I’ve ever been good at.


Well, the fit of tidiness is over now. I really need to get together a bigger one to get the flat ready for visitors to come in and feed Monty while I’m away. But supper is my next project.

In addition to the ziplock bag full of rubber bands, I ended up with another containing an assortment of Christmas flavoured present tags which my family will recognise again when I use them on their presents this year. I haven’t yet checked in the storage in the hall but it’s likely they’ll recognise the paper I use too…

Buying more than you need is dictated by the fact that chain shops don’t want to sell you things in just the quantities you need. Keeping the spares for later is a habit those of us brought up by parents who lived through the 1930s have imbued in us: it’s hard to give up.

What I am dreading is getting the old person’s syndrome of getting a spare one ‘just in case’. I’m living in a one bedroom flat that is already overcrowded with books and games and I can’t afford the storage space that my Aunt Kath used to put things she bought and used once and then put away. Nor the spare frozen food. Mind you one of the categories of things tidied away from the top drawer is spare batteries that I picked up from her store of them when I tidied the house.

I think it comes from two things: forgetting you’ve got enough in store already as your memory fades and not trusting that your good fortune will last and you’ll still have money tomorrow. I know a bit of that latter fear myself and I try my damnedest not to let it consume me. The insouciance of the true artist who despises money! That’s the pose I’m working on. I sometimes convince myself.

If the Brexit negotiations go as badly as they look like going at the moment and we crash out, the fear and hoarding behaviour of the elderly population especially is going to be something to see next spring.

And then they came for the bureaucrats… A Rant and a Review

For reasons more to do with habit and compulsive completism, when my friend Rob mentioned last week that he’d picked up the new Honor Harrington book UNCOMPROMISING HONOR, I got onto Amazon and picked up the Kindle version.

This is the point where I should mention that I’m probably not going to get through telling you how much I loathe this book without some serious spoilers. If you haven’t read it yet and anticipate getting any pleasure out of it please skip this review until you have. If you’re looking for reasons not to bother read on.

The earlier novels about Her Grace Dame Lady Admiral Honor Stephanie Alexander-Harrington, Duchess and Steadholder, were fun enough in a gung ho military fashion that I could ignore the political agenda in the background. They were about Our Heroine commanding a single ship or a handful of ships and thwarting the other side in high style.

I think the last one I really enjoyed was the prison breakout story in ECHOES OF HONOR but even there the dread disease of high command was waiting in the background. The viewpoint of the novel was split between the genuine derring-do of getting her and everybody else who wanted to come off the prison planet and the developments of the war among everybody who was left behind.

It only got worse as time went on. In the latest one we’re jumping around between Honor’s viewpoint, the viewpoint of other people on her homeworld, the viewpoint of people among her allies, the viewpoint of her chief overt enemies the Solarian League’s bureaucratic overlords, the viewpoint of the people in the League who are secretly investigating the hidden secret enemies who are manipulating both sides,the viewpoint of the said secret enemies, the viewpoint of the smaller states caught between the two big navies…

Attempting to give us an overview of the development of the war renders any sort of coherent or comprehensible narrative impossible. And Weber has a terrible habit of giving us named characters whose viewpoint and tragedies are on stage just long enough for us to form some sympathy for them before they die horribly along with millions of others. The slaughter in this one is astounding! It makes me wonder that anyone can build up any sort of civilization at all when weapons striking from space can do so much damage. And the Nasty Sneaky Tricks of the Hidden Enemy are there to add a cherry on the top of all the destruction.

The worst bit is when Honor is given her excuse to go all vengeful (it doesn’t really last: she gets a deus ex miracle for the core part of her loss and she’s not the only character who gets that) so that she can struggle against her murderous impulses and her staff can look at her appalled as she only at the last moment decides to accept an enemy’s surrender.

She does this in the course of pulling something off that if she had done it about four books back would have brought the war to an end: it seems to bring it to a victorious end in this one except for mopping up the Nasty Hidden Enemy. I don’t recall any technological or strategic development that makes this only possible after the previous books but that said the weapons R&D stuff is the second hardest bit of these to get through, the mass slaughter in the battle scenes is worse.

But the worst thing about this book is the nature of the Open Enemy which is the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ of the Solarian League government. It seems plain to me that this concept, meme, slogan, catchphrase or what you will is one with ‘communists’, ‘globalists’, ‘international financiers’ and others. It is an excuse to hate people on principle. At the climax (REALLY BIG SPOILERS HERE) Honor forces the Solarians to arrest the ‘Mandarins’ and hand them over to Manticoran justice. This happens as the result of what I can only describe as a military coup: it is plain that the servants of the State in uniform are the only servants of the State that have any decency in the Honorverse and the rest are petty bullies, out for what they can get, corrupt, perverters of the Constitution and general nogoodniks. Military officers who break their oath of allegiance and rearrange the government to their own satisfaction are just patriots doing their jobs.

(Oh, and she tells the Sollies to go and write a new Constitution and if Manticore doesn’t like it she’ll come back and beat them up some more.)

As a retired low level bureaucrat I am alarmed by this depiction of the grey-suited, grey-minded paper-pushers I once found myself among. As a citizen I am much more alarmed. I see a growth of authoritarianism under the guise of populism, a determination that anyone who disagrees with or advises against the current fashion in politics needs to be dismissed at best, put on trial and shot at worst.

There’s nothing easier for a politician to do than blame his own folly and shortcomings on the permanent staff. When Weber was going on about how his made up nations proved that ‘Socialism!’ (1) was a bad idea I thought it quaint and ignorant. But the diatribe against ‘unelected bureaucrats’ is an active force in the world and an inimical one.

It’s all a big pity. As I said, I enjoyed the early books.

(1) ‘Socialism!’ with the exclamation mark is the thing that American right wingers fear. It has more to do with the inside of their heads than it does with actual political policy in the world.

Epidemiological observation

Either the ‘Fine Calvados’ I got from Morrison’s has improved after being left alone in its bottle for the best part of a year or it doesn’t taste so bad when I’ve got a cold.

Oh, look a new obsession…

Moving right to the top of my if-I-win-the-Lottery fantasies…

Well, given the price tag, make that my if-I-win-the-Euro fantasies.

There’s something about living on a private island off the coast of Britain that appeals to me, especially if it comes with a ruined Napoleonic fortress and underground tunnels. The last island I obsessed on kept turning up in my games: it was smaller, cheaper but also had a Napoleonic era fortress and was put to good use by Edom, the British vampire fighting/exploiting agency in NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS.

It would probably be bad for me to realise these fantasies and not only financially.

I liked the second episode of the new season of DOCTOR WHO. Wise not to extend the ‘Search for the TARDIS’ motif too long though I’m sure there was some temptation in that direction. Moral of mutuality being better than isolation: check. Prefiguring events that have already happened to the villains but not to the Doctor: check. Nobody actually said “It’s bigger on the inside but we did get a Cute British Moment with a custard cream.

Next week recent American history. Wonder if they got some production money out of that idea.

Further depressing thoughts

Jane, if you ever did go and look at that Quora thread, don’t worry about whether you need to tell me I was in fact being rude during it. I have stopped worrying about that (what stage is Acceptance?) and am now worrying again about whether I’m going gaga.

Reason being there are two occasions in that thread when I make a comment and the other person says: “What do you mean? I clearly already answered that?”

And I go back to check and lo, they have.

Still more worrying than that is my instant self-justifying thought: Perhaps they are editing the posts to confuse me… (I tried checking but I can’t figure out how to see if someone is editing their comments. It’s quite easy to do when you’re checking main question threads.)

I’m not sure if accepting that I’m going a bit lacking in the comprehension and noticing things department is any saner but it’s definitely the politer course to say ‘Oh, never mind: it must be me.”

The other depressing thing was a thought that struck me when I was getting supper. “This universe I seem to be experiencing shows a striking resemblance to an Alien Space Bat intervention. Really, really unlikely people are having political successes.”

I’m sure you must have had the same thought, if you’re at all an sf and alt-history fan.

But the really alarming question is what sort of alt-history the Space Bats are going for.

Is this an honest ‘what if Donald Trump and Brexit had won back in 2016′ intervention?

Or is it one of those alt-histories that have a thesis about how things would have been wonderful if only their heroes had got the fair chance they deserved.

Or in other words are the ASBs Trump and Farage fans? Will they continue to distort reality?

If you hear that I have been smote down in the next few days, have the police check for crop circles and scorch marks in the area. Just sayin’

Am I an ogre?

I ask purely because I’ve been accused of frothing at the mouth, disrespecting other people’s experience and lashing out at everybody around me in my rage and frustration.

Now this was on Quora during a discussion of Brexit but I’m still a little concerned.

Perhaps being in the Far Isles for so long has been a bad influence on me. I play the role of a retired monarch, a Cardinal Archbishop of the Catholic Church and so I have a tendency when in character to say unto one ‘go’ and expect that he will and that right speedily.

Or maybe it’s the Oxford influence. I’ve never thought I was one of the elite. I’ve met a few and they didn’t welcome me into their company with glad cries and mentions of Old Times Sake. But perhaps the attitude has rubbed on along with the accent.

And there was the moment in New York when Ann said to me that I really couldn’t address the people preparing my breakfast in those tones even if they had got my order wrong.

I have, as a matter of policy, stopped being polite about Brexit though. It is hard to get an idea into the mind of someone who is hostile to everything about it so I can’t claim I’m fighting to convert Leavers into Remainers. what I think I am doing is fighting the memetic battle for those people who aren’t sure or who don’t much care.

And a voice at the back of my mind says: How many of those do you think are hanging around on Quora, you old fraud? You are really there for the pleasure of having something you give a damn about to argue around and about.

Well, maybe. I yip like the little dog in the Tarot card, trying to keep his master away from the precipice. I drop words in people’s ears and hope against hope that things might swing back my way.

Which is, of course, the way of sanity and sweet reason. Trust me on this.