Thursday, 15 December 2011

Iraq: the US is gone but not forgotten

So the US is finally out of Iraq – well sort of, I guess they still have some mechanism for meddling. And apparently it's been such a success. You only have to utter the 'S' word in this context to realise the horrific joke. Then there's the 1 trillion dollars the US spent. You could have done seriously good work in Iraq with that kind of money. But no spend it on destruction.

What I really want to comment on is most of the press coverage. Last night on the BBC Newsnight program we saw a typical example.

Want to cover US troops leaving Iraq? Well, it's obvious, you travel to a US army base somewhere in the United States where Obama is speaking. Of course.

Has anyone looked at a map; seen where American is; where Iraq is?

Want political comment on the US withdrawal? Well, it's obvious, interview Washington insiders and pundits.

But what you should never do, never ever do, and something that would never cross the narrow pathetic mind of a Newsnight 'journalist' in get the opinion of an Iraqi. What! Allow someone who has to live with the consequences, and is from the region, to have an opinion. Never; it's not allowed. Not a single person from the region was interviewed; not one single person of any political persuasion. It was all white skins, American accents, and safe Washington advisers or military, well, lets be honest, criminals, murderers. Anyone with the wrong skin colour or accent is simply not allowed have an opinion or, worst of all, be seen as some kind of expert.

This is tantamount to racism on the part of Newsnight.

Monday, 12 December 2011

I Want To Go

My little flash fiction story Control-Alt-Delete has appeared today on 365tomorrows. This site publishes a daily piece of flash fiction in the science and speculative fiction genre. It's something of a mix with miscellaneous types of science and speculative fiction. Also the quality varies from many intriguing pieces all the way to the occasional why-the-hell-did-they-bother.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

I Hate Christmas – Homeless

He slumps hunched up in the doorway, dirty red coat drawn in tightly; a vain attempt to keep out the cold.

He mutters: “Bloody supermarkets did me in. Bloody supermarkets.”

Hours pass and no sleep; forever tired, exhausted, but no sleep. The city streets empty but the street lights glare on.

He mutters: “Bloody supermarkets. No one wants craft no more. Bloody supermarkets.”

A police car passes, stops, drives back. The policeman in the passenger seat gets out.

“Can't stop here.”

The man struggles blearily up.

“Name?”

“Santa, Santa Claus.”

“Fucking cheek. Now fuck off.” he raises his fist but does not strike. Just threatens. Just threatens!

Santa scurries off as best he can. The policeman gets back in the car watching.

“Just some gobshite,” he says to the driver.

Fifteen minutes later and Santa is back in the doorway. There's nowhere else.

A nearby club chucks the stragglers out. They cascade drunkenly down the street kicking trash cans, cars, each other. A taxi passes and they try to flag it down, it speeds up, drives passed, they scream obscenities as it turns the corner. They spot Santa, trapped vulnerably, in the doorway…

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I Hate Christmas – Sledge Ride

Mrs Claus peeked out of her cottage door and onto the icy flat wastes. She looked out as the wind and sleet cut into Santa as he struggled to load up his sledge. She watched as he trudged between workshop and sledge with box after box. Standing there in her deep red overcoat she watched with the door slightly ajar. Then, as the wind became more bitter, Santa fetched the reindeer from the barn and started to hitch them up. Just as he finished she open the door more fully, poked her head out and called out:

“A little something before you go?”

Santa looked up, nodded, smiled; it wasn't often Mrs Claus was generous; it was better to show willing than risk retribution later. He entered the kitchen and closed the door behind him. A lovely respite from the wind.

“Stick your feet up,” said Mrs Claus, hot toddy in hand.

“Ta.” Santa sat by the piping hot stove, took the glass and had a little sip. The warm felt good inside. “Not too much now, plenty to drink when I'm on me round.”

“You sure you won't let me this year?”

“Na-na.”

“You're getting on, you said it was hard, you know, after last year.”

”Man's work my dear.”

“Still, I'm fed up all stuck here, waiting.”

“I know me dear. We's all got our jobs to do.”

Mrs Claus went to the stove behind Santa. He relaxed and took another sip. This hot toddy was a good one.

Santa looked down, something was tightening around his belly, a rope, another rope, he was pulled back tightly into the chair. His arms tightened, handcuffs snapped against his wrists and pinned his arms to the chairs arms. That delicious hot toddy fell to the floor. His legs, pulled, pushed and bound to the chair. He was about to call out when gaffer tape was plastered across his mouth. He uttered a muffled scream. It was all over in seconds then Mrs Claus was standing in front of him, hands on hips, smiling.

“It's my turn, don't you think,” she said, starting to button up her coat.

Mrs Claus put some more coal on the stove and prodded it with a poker.

“You'll keep nice and warm now,” she said.

Moments later and the front door slammed behind her and Mrs Claus was gone. Santa uselessly struggled in the chair, swearing fit as no child should hear, not that they would have heard anything more then muffled venom.

A blow for good old fashioned, do it yourself, women's liberation. After all Santa is old and far too fat to deliver the toys.

“Ye-heeeeeeeeeeee,” Mrs Claus sang out as the sledge took off, climbed, and disappeared over the horizon.

Friday, 2 December 2011

I Hate Christmas – Flight Control

The tiniest little blip flickered on the Heathrow air traffic control radar. A vigilant controller just spotted it; after the haranguing from security they'd had only that morning on home grown terrorism.

Fighters were dispatched; and the unconventional aircraft was forcibly landed on the tarmac; quickly being surrounded by police vehicles and marksmen.

The reindeer were bundled off to the cat meat factory and Santa headed towards immigration; the sledge impounded.

Two years later and Santa is still in detention, identity unverified, and awaiting deportation – to where? who knows? – they cannot find a country that will have him.

I Hate Christmas – Christmas Business

It was a cold dark night and the road behind the cathedral was almost empty. There were a few parked cars, lightly covered with snow, and the occasional woman standing at corners plying their trade. A thin grey man slipped out of the shadows, crossed the slushy road hugging his dark overcoat around him, he hesitantly walked towards the nearest woman. Momentarily his pasty grey face was highlighted under the street lights.

On arriving at the corner he looked up and seemed to have second thoughts. She was fat, boy was she fat. Unwashed, the stench cut though the cold air. The harsh red dress she just about wore was dirty and tattered; the result of months of continuous grime.

“Business,” she said. “Come on big boy you know you want to. Only £10, for you special offer.”

Meekly she look him by the hand the they slipped up a back alley where the snow was undisturbed.

In the darkness of the back alley, and otherwise engaged, they did not see the men running towards them, batons in hand.

“Whore, scum,” they shouted. The woman, on her knees at the time, was smacked over the head, the baton swung down at the perfect angle for a vicious blow. “Take that you bitch.”

Then the rest piled in boots, batons striking the woman in a frenzy. The grey man stood, aghast, back pressed tightly against the wall, trousers down, shrivelled manhood exposed.

One of the men shouted: “Stop now, mustn't kill the whore, much as she deserves it.”

A few more blows and the rest stepped back. “Chief Constable's new policy on whores,” another of the men shouted at the battered woman, “zero tolerance, get up you bitch.”

The woman dragged herself up clutching the wall, semen still dribbling down her chin, blood gushing down her face, bruises everywhere. It was only then that it sunk in these were the police.

A constable shone his torch in the grey man's face. “Blimey you. Sorry sir, archbishop sir. The church really does take vice seriously this time of year. Better run along now. Sorry for interrupting, sir. Off you go, double quick.”

The grey man slunk off as fast as his thin legs would allow. The constable turned to the woman.

“Name?” he demanded.

“Mrs Claus.”

“In the circumstances we'll say no more. Why do you do this?”

“Someone's got to pay for all those bloody toys.”

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

I Hate Christmas – My Lovely Rudolph

“Just the one,” said the elf, “what harm can it do?”

Santa lay in a crumpled heap on the barn floor. He'd been sobbing.

The elf poured a little bit of something from the bottle he was holding into a glass and held it out. “Need to get started soon. Lots of kids waiting for you. Tonight's the night. The big one. Horrible little sprogs I think. But never mind.”

Outside the barn Santa's sledge was piled high, reindeer harnessed, all that was needed was the solitary designated driver – Santa.

“So this Rudolph turned you down, said 'he's not that kind of reindeer,' said 'lets just be friends,' said 'strictly no snogging, mistletoe or no mistletoe.' There are plenty of other reindeer in the… well, it can't be 'sea'. Agh yes… There are plenty of other reindeer in the wood.”

Santa blew his nose and the sledge and barn rattled. There was no Rudolph on the sledge.

“I know all about the Alcoholics Anonymous stuff; too much sherry. Not supposed to touch this but the state you're in, just something for the journey, to keep you going, what harm can it do? Need to get started soon, sun's going down.”

Santa started to cry.

“You just have to get over him; red nose or no red nose. He's not worth it… don't blubber I didn't mean it like that. Sorry. Just one little swig to get you through.” The elf held out the glass again.

Santa grabbed the bottle.

“Steady on there,” said the elf.

* * *

Blearily Santa woke up Boxing Day morning in a solidifying pool of his own vomit.

I Hate Christmas – Christmas Kisses

Santa spun round, Mrs Claus had entered the bedroom and caught him admiring himself in the mirror; just as he was grooming his beard.

“Been shopping,” she said. “You look gorgeous, new suit.”

Trust her to notice; she would notice. This was the most expensive Santa suit in the shop and made from the plushest deep red velvet, all hand stitched and embroidered inside with gold, and trimmed extravagantly with the most exotic white mink.

“Looks nice.” Mrs Claus sat on the edge of the bed and admired him. “Got everything you want?” She crossed her legs provocatively.

“Not yet,” Santa said, daydreaming of Rudolph and the sprig of mistletoe above the barn door.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

I Hate Christmas – Santa the Criminal

Santa Claus was getting fed up with this Christmas thing; really it was getting to be a bit of a bind. Do one good turn one year and everyone expects you to be shelling out forever. This year it was going to be different; Santa had taken a look at how bankers and those at the top of financial institutions behaved; he was as good as they; so he decided to operate in the same way.

The first house on Santa's itinerary this Christmas eve was that of Thomas and his parents. Santa had a look around; a TV set, that would be nice; a freezer, a bit heavy but he'd have it anyway; jewellery, just rubbish not even worth taking. As he loaded up his sledge Santa spotted a few other items worth taking: a laptop, some ornaments – the latter weren't worth much but they looked pretty. But the games console was old; even the elves wouldn't want that.

Just about to head back up the chimney when Santa realised he'd almost forgotten something. Santa reached into his bag and pulled out a box; he placed the box in the fireplace; unwrapped; a small model car; 50p from the local supermarket; fair's fair thought Santa.

And so it went on throughout Christmas night. TVs, computers, freezers, several bundles of cash, bank books and credit cards. At each house he left a small toy; the most expensive of which must have cost all of 70p. As the night wore on Santa became even more picky; he only took TV sets greater than 42 inches; jewellery had to be gold or have precious stones.

Poor Rudolph was exhausted; weighed down by all this extra weight. At the last house Rudolph kicked out at Santa; only missing his prime real estate by inches; Rudolph would get him next time.

Early Christmas morning Santa headed back to Lapland with his sledge piled high. Most of the stuff he'd nicked he could never used; but he'd enough to nip round the pubs offering cut price deals for hard cash; that would keep him occupied for the rest of the year.

Santa liked this new free market Santa.

I Hate Christmas – Santa the Terrorist

Inspector Haswell was perplexed. This year they had been extra vigilant with security; what with strikes, the occupy protesters, and just the general hatred that was around. The inspector wondered from room to room through the smoking embers. How had they gotten in? Why was there nothing on the CCTV? Why had no one seen anything right here in the centre of London and right in front of the world's press and TV crews?

There was a general commotion in the cabinet room. Inspector Haswell stood by the fireplace and watched. Forensics were swabbing and bagging anything that looked remotely like evidence. MI5 and MI6 were rushing around and acting like the useless idiots they were. Round the cabinet table were the charred bodies of the government still surprised by the explosion that had ripped them apart. How had anyone been able to plant a bomb right in the centre of 10 Downing Street and only a few days before Christmas?

He heard the cheer go out as the still smoking body of Nick Clegg was taken outside. Then the Inspector noticed something odd. He bent down; reindeer droppings; what! reindeer droppings; how can you explain reindeer droppings? They must have fallen down the chimney. No it could not be, surely not; not Santa Claus and a Christmas present to the nation. How could he put that in a press release and not be laughed at?

* * *

Far away in a lonely retreat the archbishop had just finished his prayers. In the kitchens everything was being prepared for his nights entertainment: the slap up dinner, only the six courses, after all he was on a diet; the scantily clad dancing girls; the silver platter piled high with cocaine; the boys for his night time amusement. Just time for a few tumblers of sherry and a doze in front of the telly. When there it was on the early evening news: explosion in Downing Street and all the cabinet killed. He watched the crocodile tears of the politicians and pundits and the tears of joy from everyone else. Then a malicious thought slipped into his mind: he stood up shocked; maybe there really was a god; he'd never acted as if there was one before; maybe his prayers really had been answered.

I Hate Christmas – Vampire Santa

Santa had scrambled down the chimney and was surprise to find a completely empty room; there was a carpet, a few pictures; but no furniture, no curtains. Santa did not do mistakes.

But there it was on his list: 'Girl, Anna 7, Dolls House, Jigsaw' and, no doubt about it, this address, the satnav on his sledge was never wrong.

He looked around the room again; did that picture flicker; the large one above the fireplace; he went over to take a look and noticed the inscription: 'Anna Thompson Aged 7 – 1898'; she was a pretty little girl. Well that was it; some elf had made a huge mistake and would pay for it; well over hundred years late was a bit much.

Santa hated lugging dolls houses up chimneys. Down was not too bad; up hateful. He packed up the dolls house and resisted giving it a kick; some little horror could have it next year. He was just pushing his sack up before him, and trying not to swear, when the girl in the picture metamorphosed into a bat; swooped down; sank its teeth into Santa's neck. Santa flailed about striking the bat with his fist; the blood mingling with his red suit. Exhausted Santa fell to the ground. A few more thumps and the bat was dead. After a few breaths he reached towards his neck and pulled out the dead bat; dropping it on the floor; where it fizzled leaving only a brown stain.

Next year Santa will have an extra little present for all the children he visits. His fangs are already starting to grow.

I Hate Christmas – Goodbye Santa

Santa's dead. His reindeer are dead. And the elves, well they bit the dust long ago.

His sledge had been wheeled out on the snow last Christmases. Designed before flight was officially sanctioned. It looked decrepit, the one modern convenience was the gaffer tape that held much of it together.

Santa had finished the gifts for most of Europe and was just starting out for the States. Having shed much of his load he cracked the reindeer hard. High over a bleak rainy London he whipped the reindeer again. If the sledge was light then Santa was not. With all the mince pies he was feeling bloated. And this feeling was nothing to do with the vast amounts of sherry he'd consumed: no he was not drunk in charge of a sledge.

The Boeing pilot had no chance. In the dark he could not see Santa: no lights. And smack; the plane barely felt a ripple; a surprised Santa plummeted; the reindeer following.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Book Review – 1911: Art and Revolution in Liverpool by David Bingham

David Bingham's book covers much more than Liverpool in 1911. Primarily it is a biography of – as the subtitle suggests – the life and times of Albert Lipczinski.

Born just outside Danzig in 1876 Lipczinski's early years are a matter of speculation though he had begun his artistic studies. The twenty year old Lipczinski then made his way to Liverpool to continue these studies.

Much of the book is taken up with these Liverpool years; mostly because these years were the most eventful but also because they are the ones most documented. Here Lipczinski met the remarkable 16 year old Elizabeth Milne; a girl of Irish descent who became his muse and he eventually married. In many ways Elizabeth contributed as much to the limited success that Lipczinski had throughout his life.

With Elizabeth's help he was on the fringes of a number of social groups. He mixed with the early academicians in what was becoming Liverpool University. He dabbled in gypsy life. He was a student at the Sandon Studios, a rival, freer, more adventurous, artistic body to the official art institutions. And later he became more involved with exhibiting at these Studios.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

And

“And,” she said.

“And what?” he said.

“And I was just thinking.”

“And about?”

“And nothing.”

“And do tell.”

“And what about starting a sentence with 'and'.”

“And you should never do that.” And a bad tempered scowl crossed his face. “And it's disgraceful. And the best writers never do it; and never and ever.”

And she took one step backwards. “And I though it was not so much frowned upon these days.”

“And the old ways are best.”

“And what about when you have a really, really long sentence, that sprawls about all over the place; and just meanders this way and that; and going nowhere; and seems to go on for ever; and ever and ever; and would just be so confusing for the reader?”

“And you should always rewrite it.” And now the scowl seemed to affect his entire body.

And she muttered, almost under her breath: “And why not just throw in a full stop and an 'and'.”

And he shouted: “And that would be lazy, lazy, lazy.”

And she shouted back: “And what about other words: like 'but', or 'however', or, what's what word, 'also', yes, 'also' that's it? And can you start a sentence with them.”

“And that would also be lazy.” And he shook his head in exasperation.

“And are you sure?”

“And you've gotten it wrong. And so wrong.”

“And I should not do it?”

“And I never do it.”

“And I'll try.”

“And.”

“And.”

“And.” And he walked off in a huff.

And she muttered after him: “And, and, and.”

Saturday, 12 November 2011

International Socialism 132

I've not long finished reading the latest issue of the International Socialism Journal.

There highlight in this issue, for me at least, was the reviews of Ian Birchall's new bibliography of Tony Cliff; maybe it's just me reliving my youth. I heard Cliff speak a few times but never had the chance to speak to him. Christian Høgsbjerg's review is complementary but I found that of Nigel Harris most interesting. Curiously, in a footnote, Harris says he's refused permission for his book on China – Mandate of Heaven – to be republished; this is sad as I still think it's one of the best books on China ever written.

The paperback edition of Birchall's biography has just been issued and I already have my copy.

The fightback and rebellion against the cuts and crisis has taken a number of forms; some politicly focused and others chaotic. The exact trajectory has depended on a countries tradition of rebellion and also on the nature those groups who have been first drawn into protest. In this ISJ issue Andy Durgan and Joel Sans describe the events of the 15 May movement in the Spain. Then Jonny Jones describes the recent riots here in Britain. The real problem for socialists is how to provide these protests with the focus to win without stifling the creativity of those newly drawn into struggle. This must be a two way process where the old revolutionaries learn new forms; but also one where revolutionaries are able to point to past struggles and draw on lessons of history. Anti-capitalism, after all, has a long history; almost as long as the history of capitalism itself.

There's a solid chunk within this quarters ISJ discussing the current state world economy. Mike Haynes gives a largely factual account of global mega cities. Along the way he looks a population and class trends within the world poor. There is much interesting detail presented here. This is useful as the facts alone help dispel many of the cruder media myths about many areas of the world.

Guglielmo Carchedi looks at some of the key aspects of the world economy. The most important part of the essay is an examination of the trend of the Rate of Profit for the world economy since the late 1940s. A difficult thing to do as governments tend not to produce statistics that easily map onto Marxist economic categories. This measure is importance; the lower the Rate of Profit the more difficult it is for the capitalist system to extricate itself from or avoid cyclical crisis or other shocks to the system. Carchedi's data shows that trend for the Rate of Profit fell from the late 1940s through to the mid 1980s. It then fluctuated or even rose somewhat – but did not return to, say, 1950s levels. Interestingly Carchedi also shows that most of this later rise was a result of the increasing exploitation of workers. In other words even in this period the underlying Rate of Profit fell. And this is the root cause of the growing financialization the economy. This is an important, if necessarily technical, discussion.

The next piece on the economy is a somewhat petulant book review by Joseph Choonara. Not having read Tom McNally's book I cannot say if he is deserving of such petulance. If you look past Choonara's tone then there appears some valid points. Even if his accusations of exaggeration, while technically correct, do seem a little… well… exaggerated. In the final paragraph of the review Choonara seems to recognise his bad tempered tone and offer a few conciliatory words. But by then, of course, it's too late. In many ways the previous article by Carchedi is a better answer to Tom McNally.

Colin Wilson looks at Queer Theory. This is a current fad among some radical elements in the LGBT movement. Wilson seems to offer a somewhat inconclusive assessment of this theory; or maybe I should read the essay again – it could well be this. For a more general history of the LGBT movement see Wilson's earlier interesting essay. And Wilson provides some background to Foucault see here.

The long history of blacks in Britain is often undervalued. Even more so those, like Robert Wedderburn, who rebelled or had radical ideas. Wedderburn (1762-1835/6) grew up at a time when such radicalism was expressed through non-conformist religious ideas; though he took these seriously enough to be jailed for his actions. Michael Morris introduces us to this fascinating person and his essay is a useful debunking of many stupid myths about 'Britishness'.

You should order your copy of the ISJ now. But if you really want blurry eyes and are a cheapskate then you can read it all nailed to your computer; and all for free, you reckless cheapskate you: http://www.isj.org.uk/http://www.isj.org.uk/

Review – A Week in TV Comedy

If there is one rule in comedy it is a very simple one: be funny. So much can be forgiven if you get this basic guideline right; from non-PC stereotypes to ill-judged satire. Ricky Gervais and Co. Inc. seem to have forgotten this. Rather they think their self proclaimed super start status and large pay packet will automatically guarantee success. If anything proves their egos wrong it is Life's Too Short. The lack of humour exposes Gervais nasty side. In Gervais previous shows you laughed, mostly, at the Gervais character; here you are expected to laugh at disability. But the writing offers nothing funny so the result is, at best, simply embarrassing. From the trailers the program looked as if it would be dire. The only reason for watching was the previous success of The Office and Extras. And presumably Gervais had to do some work to make these so amusing. Now he assumes his mere presence will guarantee an audience; no longer is there the need to think things through. The rubbish presented proves this is not true.

On Thursday night, prior to the sad Gervais, was another new comedy. Rev is about a hapless vicar. It was conventional, contained the occasional laugh and was not wildly exciting. It was the best thing reviewed here largely because everything else was so disappointing.

After Mr Gervais we had Mr Frank Skinner apparently being opinionated. There was the occasional smirk here but the program was largely nondescript. Skinner presents himself edgy and topical; largely achieved by being safe and trivial. I shall not be bothering next week.

Overall comedy seems to by playing it safe theses days; so safe that it does not deserve to call itself comedy. Hopefully if there is a rising tide of anti-capitalism, growing protest against the cuts, Tories, banks and establishment then a few comedians will have the courage to buck the corporate quagmire.

Monday, 31 October 2011

King Gambrinus

(Gambrinus: A legendary Flemish king who was said to have invented beer.)

King Gambrinus wobbled into the hall where all the assembled court dignitaries were gathered. The wooden door slammed behind him and, momentarily, he held his head in his hands. This jolt caused something to stir within his royal veins. He staggered to a thin window, and vomited. This truly was the work of a king who had had a very good dinner. A poor, startled, serf below looked up, shook his fist, then recognising his master slunk off, not daring to vent his anger.
King Gambrinus himself also slunk, in his case to the floor, vomit still dribbling from his mouth.
“Hic,” groaned the king.
The Queen rushed forward; but even she dare not touch. “Master, master,” she wrung her hands, “what ails thee?”
“I've invented…” The king unable to continue fell asleep. No one dare touch the crumpled royal heap sprawling on the floor.
All night the hall shook and throbbed to the king's snores. Early in the morning the queen entered the hall and watched over him. Throughout the morning she watched as he slumbered. Around midday the king began to stir.

Book Review – Dear God by Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann takes us through a wild romp describing the shear insanity of religion. Mostly he targets Catholicism in his home country of Ireland; but, along the way, he also manages a few detours to other parts of the world. What's described here, obviously, has its analogues for other religions and countries; there's nothing that special or original about Christianity or Catholicism. No religion has a monopoly on lunacy.

Dear God: the price of religion in Ireland is pieced together from snippets of journalism McCann has produced over the years. This does give the book a sense of immediacy and of dealing with hot political topics. However it also results in some deeper issues being overlooked. For a source for some of the articles see here where the story is continued and other, non religious topics, are also discussed.

So much of religion is bizarre. It almost appears the more weird the ideas espoused the more this demonstrates commitment to some lunatic faith. If you're totally wacko then you're a real believer and to be honoured. In itself this may not matter and could be dismissed as a few harmless cranks. But many of these cranks have quite offensive political ideas. Most of those lionised by the church recently have been extreme right wingers and some downright fascists. Quite how embracing former Nazi sympathisers and making them venerated saints enhances the church is hard to explain. It's not the kind of advice any reputable PR company would give to its corporate clients trying to make its way in the modern world.

Marxism is not just about poking fun at religion; entertaining as that can be. Equally, if not more, important is explaining why so many still believe. After all religion fails so many tests: logic, rationality, the remotest connection with the historical record. So poor is the connection with reality that some theologians suggest treating religious texts more as fables with a profound moral meaning. If that's true then why believe one set of fables over another. Alas, this book does not really go into this question of the persistence of religion. A useful starting point might be found here (and by someone with similar ideas to those of McCann).

All religions force feed their followers some form of family values. Some of the most moving sections here show how Catholicism has torn many families apart. The gamut runs from everyday oppression and subdued violence of religious run children's care homes through to the abuse, both physical and sexual of children. And along the way we find priests cohabiting or using their position to gain sexual favours. With all this immorality you wonder how many Christian types really believe in God or eternal punishment in the afterlife. In all of these cases little concern has been given to professed family values and indeed the real life families of the victims.

Have these relig-idiots no shame? The answer is a resounding: NO. Those who practice institutional religion never themselves act as if the religion they preach is supposed to be true; or is something they themselves should follow; it's always something to control the lower orders. And above all protecting the institution of the church counts above everything; there's a lot of power and prestige at stake, and often cold hard cash as well. Doctrine and humanity are well down the list.

This book is a great read with some wonderful descriptions. (And just the occasional klutzy sentence, every half dozen pages or so, where McCann seems to have become carried away by his bravura style. Or is it that, as the book is made up mostly of journalism, there has been little editing applied.) A book well worth digging out.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Moment

It is not so much,
To wait, to view a vision.
For a brief glimpse,

To lightly hold hands, briefly.
For you so little,
It would mean so much for me.


It is not so much,
To ask, to plead, beg, to hope.
To dream again, soon,

Of crushing the tears inside.
For you so easy,
For me, alone, impossible.


A moment of your time,
The most precious thing of all.
Is it not so much?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Disappearance

Earth's free Millennia
The Origin of Species
Evolution rife

We emerged
Mankind now rampant
Conquering

War
Pollution
Death

Gone

Thursday, 13 October 2011

View

Outside my window
a modest patch of grass
rough cut; weed ridden.

Through this a slab path
dark grey from the night dampness
to two bungalows.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Together

Powdery blue, white, shielded denim, the blond energetic, ecstatic, how could you, joyous
They're together, the rapture

A sight so wondrous
Watching, stunned, enthralled
To dream, to touch, then...

Bright red, thin black, shining flowery silk, the black responding, enthusiastic, so amazing, brilliant
They're together, the rapture


Beautiful vision
Watching, staring, mesmerised
To dream, to touch, then...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Autumnal

Looking out, hidden:

The final flourish,
Late summer sunshine fading.
Wind, gusty, colder.

The old oak, sways, majestic.

The sky greying; light rain.
Reflected off window tops,
Pink distant sunshine.

Leafs near cascading.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Ouse Bridge, about 1928

By Laetitia Marion Hamilton (1878 – 1964)
I was always waiting at my end of the bridge over this river. That's where we'd meet, Me and Alfred that is. We went out two or three times a week and he was always one for being late. Yet again, that night, he was late.

We'd been going together for almost three years then; it was three, I counted. So I was thinking we should move on in our relationship; you know, as you're supposed. Move on somewhere, not sure where, but move on. I had tried mentioning other boys, but, alas, nothing could provoke him into being jealous, not Alfred.

To try and force something out of him, that night, I was going to suggest a trial separation. Didn't like the idea, but I couldn't think of anything better, not when dealing with Alfred. If he did not respond then this was going nowhere. Better to move on and find someone else. I loved him, but you simply have to be practical.

When, at last, he arrived we went into a nearby pub, just along the waterfront, where we usually go. Just the few regulars in the room.

Later in the evening I managed to get the idea out; I suggested the separation. Having made my announcement we sat there in silence. He always did that when he didn't like something. Alfred just calmly drank his beer. He was never one to waste good beer. Then he got up and left; walked out just like that. It was then I started to cry, head in hands crying, others looking on, it was not the outcome I wanted.

Now, whenever I see this bridge, I wonder if I did the right thing. We never did see each other again.

The Volunteers, 1860

By Frederick Daniel Hardy (1826 – 1911)
See these children, take them, take them outside, strip them, strip them all. Then take them, drag them, to the open field with the canons prepared, lined up, ready. Shackle them to the barrels, make the ropes tight, their fate is preordained. There will be no entreaties, no pleas for mercy.

Call the drummer to strike up and to his beat light the fuses; one-by-one. Now watch their little bodies be blown to bits in a cloud of bloody smoke. All that will be left is their arms and legs, their blackened heads falling to the ground with a resounding thud. And the air filled with smoke, dust and a mist of blood; listen to the unholy echo, fading.

Of course I would not do this to these particular children, to my children, to these little darlings playing here. But I did it, not so long ago, to young men not that much older; men with brown skins and smelling foreign. Such an act might have been in the newspapers had it been performed in this country. But it was not; no such act is noteworthy when performed far away in India. Out of sight of civilisation and as revenge for a mutiny.

I remember long ago marching behind a similar drum as a child, dreaming of the intransigence of empire and of service to God and country; of the noble deed and valour in the face of the heathen. As we youngsters played the rest of the family gaily watching on; cheering. Later, of growing up, so quickly growing up, and that joyful moment of enlistment, and the tears when I first walked off, so proudly, to the railway station.

My father, here, standing behind me, was also a military man, but he never hinted at the miserable reality, not then in this our bright playroom. But I, also, am too ashamed to speak.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Book Review – Some Books on Writing

I've been reading a few books on the craft of writing recently. And if I've learnt one thing it is that mostly you're be better off spending the equivalent time reading and thinking about classic novels. Now don't get me wrong; most of these books contain reasonable advice. What they say is mostly true; and despite the claims on the cover to some unique insight they all contain pretty much the same advice; just each book gives it a minor twist in its presentation. However most this reading is a yawn; how come writing about writing is so boring? And mostly it somehow misses the point.

There seems to be a pattern to the kind of author who writes these books. (With only a few notable exceptions like Stephen King.) Obviously each author started out with a love of writing and wanting to earn their living from their craft. Each has achieved a modicum of success, enough to produce a CV that looks impressive, until you realise you've never heard of anything they've written. In order to expand their income they've taken to editing or acting as a writing consultant or taken on teaching. And then they spent most of their time running workshops on writing or trapped in some more or less formal classroom. From then on most of their time has been spent in such ancillary writing tasks. What has ground to a halt is their first love: any kind of original creative writing.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Book Review – The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

The first thing that catches the eye is what appears to be a sticker on the book's cover; the same sticker, in a variety of colours, appears on the cover of other books by Nesbo. On closer inspection, and to my disappointment, the 'sticker' is printed and could not be pealed off.

The 'sticker' makes a bold claim. It reads: 'THE NEXT STIEG LARSSON' INDEPENDENT. A claim that invites comparison; and such comparisons may not always be flattering.

By way of investigation lets take what, at first, seems a wild detour. Marco Aurelio Zani de Ferranti (1801 – 1878) was a nineteenth century classical guitarist and composed many likeable works for his instrument. (Simon Wynberg provides a useful biography of this musician.) Zani de Ferranti knew the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini and made use of this association. He was one of a number of guitarist – and other instrumentalist who did a similar thing – who labelled himself as a sort of Paganini of the guitar. Zani de Ferranti had more claim than many to this title having a testimonial from Paganini himself.

Zani de Ferranti was a good performer and composer; there's no doubt about this; his music deserves a place in the repertoire. And, in fact, it deserves to be performed more often than it is currently. But will his music ever replace more established classics? No; definitely not. The comparison with Paganini tells us something: Zani de Ferranti was good, even very good, he's well worth listening to. But he was never as good as Paganini. Given a choice Paganini wins every time. There never was a time when Paganini would have been called: the Zani de Ferranti of the violin.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Still Life of Fruit, Flowers and a Bird's Nest on a Marble Ledge

By Jan Van Os (1744 – 1808)
You wouldn't think our little village show would engender such bitterness. But it does; so it does. You see, every year me and Myra would enter the floral competition down at the village hall. It's not much of a show, not much of a competition; and not much of a prize. Just some printed out certificate from the vicars PC and a supermarket gift voucher. I won't mention the name of the supermarket; it's something so down market, I never go there myself – though Myra did. I swear she, Myra that is, she was too friendly with the judges, there was something going on there, sure there was. She was like that; Myra that is. She had always been a bit too chummy with those on the parish council; there was gossip there was, don't take my word for it.

So this floral competition: for years now, she would get first prize and I would get second; like I said, she was too chummy with the judges. That's always niggled me. Just once in my life I'd like to be first. Then, this year, she passed away, didn't go to the funeral, wasn't invited. So I thought: my turn. At last my turn has come. So I pulled out all the stops. Spent weeks designing this; looks too much like an oil painting in this picture; but it was good, really good, even though I say so myself. And what happens? Third. Blooming third; those judges again.

I've been criticised for making my displays look too old fashioned. Well they are old fashioned; I'm getting on a bit now; so I am old fashioned in every possible way. What do they expect?

The judges complained that putting a doll in there looked a bit sinister. But I never thought of it that way. It was just my memory of my former rival; a little joke you see; Myra looking out from the grave; but they didn't like my little joke.

Look at her, this new winner she's behaving like some third rate Prima Donna. I can't be doing with that. And she ain't been in the village more than a year. She moved into Myra's old bungalow; some lawyer or something, it would be wouldn't it. And she's already well in with the parish council; well she would be. At least me and Myra had some dignity. We were always polite, didn't go lording it about over everyone. Look at her now; swanning about; it's a disgrace.

So Myra still beat me from beyond the grave. This is the last time for me. I doubt I'll see another year out. That's it for me; I'll die a looser.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book Review – The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield

George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) is one of those books that has been on my 'must read' list for something like twenty years. It's a well known classic, at least on the left, though more 'well known' when I first heard about it than today. A book with a reputation like this can often disappoint. The myths created in your mind dissipate when you finally get round to opening the volume. That is, when the historical turmoil that made it essential reading have long since passed. Fortunately this book did not disappoint.

We are living in times when the subject of this book is very apt; more apt than when I purchased this volume; a whole £2.95. There seems to be a significant parallel between the events described and those of today. In both cases liberal values are threatened as society tumbles into crisis – both political and economic. Today's British ConDem coalition government only proves that when it comes to political practice, what politicians actually do when in office is nothing remotely like the values they espouse when trying to gain election.

The whole book is filled with a brilliant mixture of nostalgia and cynicism for an age that was dying. A more establishment historian would have concentrated on the nostalgia and produced a phony tomb detailing parliamentary debates and the exultant deeds of so called great men. He/she would have missed the social context and the real forces at work shaping those ideas. And above all missed the deep hypocrisy of the establishment figures involved. A more socialist writer then the liberal Dangerfield would have concentrated more on the cynicism. While this alternative may have been factually truer with Dangerfield the cynicism is all the more biting coming from a believer. (Just like some of the most vengeful critiques of religion come from those once hoodwinked into believing.)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Dovecot, 2007

Ceramic by Paul Young
We hardly speak now. Live in the same house, hear him snore every night, but he rarely says a word; not to me anyway. Now he's retired he spends most of his time out back; out there; out in his shed, horrible, draughty wooden thing it is. Out there he is, with his miserable birds; dam pidgins. I hate the things, mess all over the place; vermin I say; flying rats.

One time, I thought, I'd show an interest; you know, see what all fuss was about. Couples are supposed to have something to talk about; something to share. So I spotted this thing; down high street it was; little shop sells ornaments and bits; nice stuff but a but pricey for likes of us. Wasn't cheep; not cheep at all. Had to save up for it. Put a few pennies aside out of the bit of housekeeping he gives me. Anyway, weeks later popped in for it; snooty woman behind counter looked down on me like; but I'm as good as any one and I gets it. Pleased with myself I was.

See it's an ornamental dovecot, birds and everything. Wrapped it all up; all nice like; made a fuss of it. Only he laughed at me; laughs at me he did. There's a first time for everything, never heard him laugh since, never did it much before either.

I keep it here, right on top of the telly. Right here where he'll see it every night. Right when he's having his dinner. Just to annoy him. I can see he don't like it; it's not authentic enough; so I make sure he has to look at it.

He's out there now; with his birds; he talks to them.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Six Jugs, 2007

Ceramic by Philip Eglin
“Look what I've found,” said a boy excitedly to his brother. They had been digging in this disused quarry looking for fossils. That morning they had not found much. Until now.

“Look here's another one. Another jug,” said the brother, prodding the ground with some stick used as a makeshift spade.

“How many do you think there are?”

The brother shrugged and examined what he'd just ripped from the ground. “Do you think they're old? They look old.”

“If they're old we could be rich.”

“If mum's rich dad will have to come back.”

“Keep digging.”

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Half a cup, please, 2006

Ceramic by Penelope Batley
“This is nice... lots of sugar, nice and sweet... just the way I like it, you know the way I like it... nice and sweet... nothing like a good cup of tea, that's what I always say... it's good we can let bygones be bygones... talk again... just like the old days... before the divorce and all that... now that wasn't a happy time for either of us... but lets not talk about that... surprised you phoned... even more surprised you wanted to see me... yeah, that did surprise me... nice here... never been here before... had a bit of trouble finding it... it's a bit out of the way... nice though... on the phone you said you're emigrating... that's nice, glad to see you're moving on... got to let go of the past sometime... me and... all right, I wont talk about her... you didn't say where you're going... surprised you wanted to talk, I can say... after what you said last time... still, that's all in the past... best forgotten... we can still be friends... I always said we could be friends... for the sake of the kids... they're grown up now... though Katie will still not talk to me... she'll come round in the end... you'll see... good we can sit here and chat... you're not saying much... it was always you that did the talking... we did have some good times, at the beginning anyway... I could do with another half cup, my throat still feels dry... you look a bit apprehensive... anything wrong... no need to cry... it'll be all right... mind you I feel a bit of indigestion coming on myself... must be something I ate...”

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Wave, 1898

By Roderick O'Conor (1860 – 1940)
I often come and look out there; to stand on this desolate embankment and look out over the sea; hoping to view The Wanderer on the horizon. A dim dot disappearing and revealing itself, growing larger, and yes it really is. But I know it will never happen, not after all this time. He's out there somewhere.

We were never happy, had to marry him. They said 'you'll have to pay for your fun,' but I never had any fun. Not up against the back wall; him drunk forceful.

Most of the time he was out there. But I paid the price when he came back, yes I paid the price.

He was jealous, for a long time I never knew what about. I never had any time to make him jealous, what with all the young'uns he forced on me. Nothing I did could please him, no nothing. So I decided to give him something to be jealous about. That's when I fell in love for the first time. Not some pretty lad for sure; he was older; set in his ways; and kind. The bast I was going to get.

I was going to divorce him when he came back. We were going to go somewhere, anywhere, away from the sea, start a new life, in a town. And there are not many who will take on another man's children.

But he never came back. The only time I wanted him back he never came back. What could I do? I was still married and no one will wait forever, not round here.

He's out there somewhere. He left me but I never got rid of him. It's too late now; all I can do is look out there.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Playground

I never did understand how I got into this mess; of where they all came from; of how the fight started.

Albert was one of the 'in' crowd, everyone knew him, who he was, and those he despised steered clear. Unkempt, scruffy, he lived somewhere on the council estate. The estate I had to walk through on the way home from school. I wasn't part of his clique; I most definitely wasn't.

All the other kids in the playground seemed to surround us; forming a tight circle; a barrier through which there was no escape. No teacher came to the rescue; they never did.

Really it was no contest. Albert was tougher; he knew it; he was known for being a bully, took pride in his fighting prowess; and, most of all, enjoyed it. I was there to be beaten; the weak unpopular one who deserved it. All the other kids where there to watch the inevitable. This circus show could have only one conclusion; all were rooting for Albert.

One kid, I little knew, held my blazer with embarrassment; folding it tightly over his arm. A pack swarmed around Albert's blazer, cheering and laughing; their blazer the victors prize. Much as I wanted to run there was no option but to fight. As best I could I kept aiming to the side of his face.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Book Review – Vathek by William Beckford

I'm something of a lefty, a revolutionary socialist, a Marxist. Then there's William Beckford late Eighteenth Century elitist spendthrift; reputed the richest commoner of his age; and, for a time, a Conservative MP for a rotten borough. So what should someone like me make of a novel written by such a person? What would political correctness demand? In fact things are far more complex than crude political diatribes would allow; this is a far better novel than might be expected.

William Thomas Beckford was an extraordinary man. His money came from daddy, also confusingly called William Beckford. Along with eyewatering amounts of cash came land and several Jamaica sugar plantations. The few biographers I have read seem a little vague on details. But surely this is just another way of saying his money came from slave labour; from black bodies worked to death. Even today, it seems, biographers disgracefully want to cover up for the slave trade; literally to whitewash history.

And could William Thomas Beckford spend? He managed to fritter away his fortune in a way that makes modern celebrities look positively frugal. When you see the gaudy gold plated crap that passes for style these days at least Beckford had taste. He managed to buy up some of the greatest artworks from his age.

Just as extraordinary is Beckford's Gothic novel Vathek. First published, in French, in 1786 and influenced by The Arabian Nights it presented itself as a contemporary translation of an ancient text. I don't think modern scholars would have been fooled; though a non-expert, like myself, could have easily been taken in.

This is the part of a book review where I'm supposed to give a you a long winded précis of story. So when you finally get round to reading the book you get annoyed because I've given away the plot. So lets just pretend I've done my duty here and fake it. After all Vathek masquerades as something of a fake.

I read two other smiler works recently. These being the more well known Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson and The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. All three cover broadly similar themes of fantasy and the leadership role of kings. Also Rasselas is set roughly in the same region. Personally I think Vathek is a best of the three; there's more substance to the plot. Otherwise writing skills are about evenly matched; the rival works being well worth reading.

The edition I read contains copious footnotes and, be warned, not all editions appear to reproduce them. These footnotes, I assume, are by Beckford himself and an essential part of the text. As the work presents itself as an ancient text, having been translated, the footnotes apparently being added by an editor, they give the novel an air of being a scholarly work. I like them, they show the experimental nature of the late eighteenth century novel; it's something later novelists could learn from.

I could see this novel making a great film. It could become a blockbuster mainstream movie; something in the manner of Lord of the Rings, and if the produce/director was really creative something actually interesting. Beckford writing is very pictorial; many of the scenes would prove expensive to stage – but not more costly then many lesser works. However any movie would be one where you lamented: read the book it's better.

The First, The Only One, 1859

By John William Haynes, active 1852 – 1882
Am I to end my days here in this little room. Not what I'm used to; but better than I deserve.

Our families had known each other for years and I got on well enough with George. We grew up; played together during the school holidays; at first he was like a brother. He looked well enough and everyone said I must be pleased with the prospect of such an auspicious match. But I sensed an anxiety and restlessness within him; I wondered - should I.

Despite little recompense of love our families expected us to marry and set great faith on our union. I did my duty; I did what I had to do to keep him. But it was all to no avail. It was far easier for him to escape the demands of society than I could ever have hoped for myself.

For months I had no idea I was in disgrace. The very sentiment filled me with fear. What could I do? I reached for all sorts of potions to try and save a yet more disgrace. But none were effective and only served to heighten my melancholy.

I had taken to wearing ever more extravagant dresses to hide my growing expanse. And had almost starved myself to try and deny my predicament. But when it was far too late there was no denying the unsightly truth.

Little was said; but looks could shame. It was then that I was sent here. To have the child out of the gaze of enquiring eyes. I blame my abstinence for a week and sickly darling. They don't expect it to have long to live. Society will have its revenge on me.

I cannot let myself get too attached to the little fellow. But I cannot help praying for its survival. All I can accomplish now is to watch with anxiety. I cry when they say it's for the best.

The consequence is I'm unlikely to ever have another child again. Something I have spent my whole life desiring and planning. It's the only task I have been brought up to accomplish. I'm damaged goods and no one will endure me.

So my life is forever over. I can see what beholds me, to die a sad spinster, passed from one resentful relation to another, ever dependent on their goodwill, ever looked on in unspoken shame. And never to speak of this pain again.

Many would, no doubt, condemn me if they knew the truth. But none could torment me more than I do myself.

Monday, 5 September 2011

George Goes Home

It was closing time and George had been there since finishing work some hours ago. He was not drunk, it took a lot to get George drunk, but he was certainly merry.

Picking up his large best coat he said, “I know, let's go for a meal. Famished I am. I know this place where-”

“No, had enough,” said the last remaining of his colleagues, also buttoning his coat. “The wife, you understand. See you.” And this colleague hastily made his getaway into the pub car park.

It had been some celebration. George had at last become salesman of the year after being runner up for the previous four years. It had been a hard slog and George had made an extra special effort to be even more genial than usual. Twenty years as the office joker and what had he to show for it?

On stepping outside he found everyone gone. The promised lift had evaporated and a cold wind cut into him. George shuffled to the bus stop and was just in time for the last bus home. On the long meandering journey George huddled as best he could in the corner. Winter was early this year.

It was pitiably dark as George struggled up the steps outside the Victorian terrace where he lived. On the bare floorboards inside he looked upon the hall table; no mail. Huffing and puffing he made his way up to the third story. In the dim light and out of breath he slid his key into his flats door.

Inside his bedsit he put on a single bar of the electric fire. Keeping his coat on he slumped in an uncomfortable threadbare chair. He reached for the whiskey bottle but there was not enough remaining to get a man of George's size or experience tolerably drunk.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Return

The upstairs flat was strangely quiet and had been all that Sunday evening. Such bliss, such solitude meant I had taken advantage and read, read, read, and then been surprised to find it was nearing midnight; that, sad to say, was way past my normal bedtime. It was then I heard that fateful sound that I knew would disturb this unusual and welcome solitude.

The buzzer for the upstairs flat emitted its nauseating screech; and I knew what that harsh, incessant rasp meant almost as soon as it shuddered down my spine. I rose and crept into my own hallway and turned off the intercom for my downstairs flat in this two story block. The buzzer continued its metallic cacophony and would annoy the entire block, and probably most of the street. No sound came from the upstairs flat this hateful sound was aimed at. I inched towards a window that looked out onto the blocks main doorway then drew back fearing I should be seen. Was it a him or a her?

Ten or more minutes had elapsed as the buzzer rasped with only the occasional momentary relief. Also there had been the occasional loud 'hic' as the insistent, would be, visitor appeared to have the hiccups. Then the pattern of previous nights followed, one that I had diligently prepared for; the person at the doorway began to ring the buzzers of the other flats. I was most definitely not in, asleep, or otherwise engaged; intrigued as I was, I was not getting involved. Still no one dared answered.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Book Review – The wings of Icarus by Laurence Alma-Tademe

This is a curious novel from the last years of nineteenth century by Laurence Alma-Tadema (1865–1940). She seems best remembered today for some fairly conventional poetry and while this short novel may not be the best ever written it is certainly worth reading.

The full title is the grandiose: THE WINGS OF ICARUS: BEING THE LIFE OF ONE EMILIA FLETCHER AS REVEALED BY HERSELF IN 1. Thirty-five letters, Written to Constance Norris between July 18th, 188-, and March 26th of the following year; 2. A Fragmentary Journal; 3. A Postscript. Gosh: such a long title for so short a work.

At first it seems a conventional love story. Though you wonder, at the start, who Emilia is in love with; at least when reading with a modern sensibility. Could it be the young, attractive and defiantly female Constance Norris herself? Could this be a lesbian novel that dare not state its intent? And did the author realise what she was writing? Alma-Tadema never married herself; but the little reading I have done from web based biographies reveal no other woman in her life. But who knows?

Then the novel's male love interest enters; dull convention restores itself. But only to a limited extent and the moral question arises of should a marriage be about love or duty? To say more would ruin the story.

The novels structure is unusual. Starting with a series of letters from Emilia to Constance. Incidentally these letters show an interesting use of the second person point of view and show this can have its uses. The novel then moves to a change of scene and a diary section. Finally there is a postscript which I first though was going to be a suicide note; but this turned out to be... well, you'll just have to find out for yourself. I think this structure is interesting and inventive.

There is a theme throughout the novel of the role of women within marriage. While this holds back from completely endorsing feminism you do get some notion of the swirl of ideas that resulted in the Suffragettes. Also there are doubts cast on the church and religion; again Alma-Tadema holds back from outright atheism but goes further than might be expected.

A novel that may not be top of your reading list but it's short and interesting enough to dig out when you have a little time to spare.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Afterglow

Death.

Death,

Like
Stone.

Death,
Grey,
Like clouds.

Death,
Like
Ashes,
Baked, now cold.

Death,
Like
Savage
Icicles.
Unforgiving death.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Jean Abercromby, Mrs Morison of Haddo, about 1767

By Allan Ramsay (1713 – 1784)
Every morning I have to clean this room and light the fire. Everything has to be neat and tidy before they all come down in this big draughty house. Then my mistress runs me around all day, fetch this, get that. Even when you make an effort nothing is good enough for her. Never stops complaining.

That's her picture up there, up above the fireplace, looking down on me, looking down on everyone. As if it's checking up on everything I do. That's her picture allright, though she's a lot older now. Everyone says she's some great beauty, but I can't see it. Not as pretty as my sister. But I suppose they only say that because she has all that finery.

She sent my sister away. She used to clean this room, like me now. Accused her of stealing some silly trinket. Not that you could get away with taking anything around here. Those lot keep an eye on everything they've got. One little thing out of place and they fine you. Or you're out, no references.

Then they go and find it again. Her up there had mislaid it, taken it upstairs somewhere. I'm not allowed up there. Does she apologise? Does she bring my sister back? Of course not, they just carry on as if nothing had happened. They don't care about the likes of you and me. It's over there on that side table – horrible, ugly thing isn't it. Good mind to take it myself, get revenge. Only then my life wouldn't be worth living.

One day I'll get her up there back, you'll see. I can bide my time.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Liverpool at Night

Car,
Stoned.
Shop-burns.
What do they?
Police run away.

Kids,
Run,
Fightback.
What glimpse?
One brief moment of power.

Cops,
Stoned,
Rampage.
What of they?
Spewing racist filth.

Car,
Stoned.
Shop-burns.
Where are we?
The crowd victorious.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Demonstration

Fear,
Hate,
Loathing.
Unwelcome
feast of yesteryear.

Strike,
Riot,
Rebellion.
Harbinger
of the new free age.

Portrait of a Man with a Book, about 1524

By Francesco Mazzola,
called Parmigianino (1503 – 1540)
I've searched everywhere for this legendary book. In all the great libraries of Rome, Athens and China. Whenever I could gain employment in the library of a noble house, I was there, offering my services.

Now I have stumbled across it here in this miserable place. In this rainy English market town, hidden in the unused library of a brainless aristocrat. Too stupid to understand the treasure he possessed.

At last in my hands The Secrets of Alchemy. The turning of base metal into gold. I shall possess great wealth beyond my dreams. All I have to do is escape with this treasure. They'll never notice it missing: most of the books here are left rotting.

It has cost me everything to find. I have lost my precious Parma estate with its wonderful orchards and fine wine. My beloved wife of noble birth and family. All my wealth and honour. And almost my very mind.

Now it is in my hands what is the secret? That wonderful secret of the ancients. Nothing. Nothing I have not already read a thousand times. Nothing that I have not tried and has proved a dismal failure. My whole life's work is over, it is in ruins.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Wrong Twin

Malcolm's wedding was all too rapidly approaching and he found himself inundated with details that held little interest. These were the usual boring, tedious, despicable wedding day details: flowers to order, most of which he could not tell apart nor name nor describe; places he had never heard of that suddenly became of paramount importance; people he had no idea of, had never heard of and were somehow related; seating plans with the complexity of Fermat's Last Theorem; and transport arraignments that made Heathrow Airport look decidedly simple (and potentially with almost as many bags lost). Is it any wonder Malcolm took to daydreaming and reminiscing?

* * *

Oh yes, reminiscing, back to the summer when he was eleven, was it eleven? Something like that, anyway it's not important, just that it was a far simpler time. Such summers of your youth are always bright, sunny and endless, especially the ones remembered with such deep affection. Hence that indisputable fact probably wasn't true. Most likely it was just as cloudy, rainy and dull as the one heralding his wedding and with as few miserable flickers of sunshine.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

My Wives

This was the final load. Malcolm was up unnaturally early this Wednesday morning as he had been on this day every fortnight for the past few months. Throwing on yesterdays clothes and not bothering to take his normal shower he opened the curtains onto a dull day. He was now vaguely used to what six in the morning looked like and he did not find it tempting.

A heavy parcel was on the living room table where he had left it the previous evening. Then he had meticulously wrapped its contents in several black bin liners. Carefully picking up the parcel and lumbering to his first floor flats front door he opened it as silently as possible. He edged down the stairs, clinging onto his parcel, and out to the back of the block of flats. It was here the bins to the flats were located. He opened them searching for one that was half full. Having found something suitable he carefully moved some of the other waste bags to one side. Then he kissed his parcel goodbye before ceremoniously laying it flat in the bin. He covered his parcel with some other waste bags making sure it mostly hidden.

Looking down at his half covered parcel he now took time to say his farewells. Malcolm felt it was necessary to say a proper goodbye even so he was most fearful that any prying eyes should inspect his bin or see his deeply felt ceremony. Then he closed the lid and patted it, almost caressing it. The whole process was so much like loosing a much loved friend.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Please Don't Open the Box

Whatever you do, please, please don't open the box. I'm asking you, begging you, please don't open the box.

Erwin, that vindictive son of a bitch, put me in here. “A little thought experiment,” he said, “come on step inside, here, kitty, kitty. Look at this shiny bottle, here, kitty, kitty.”

That shiny blue bottle sure did look intriguing. He knows, that Erwin knows, us cats like to play with such things. He's had plenty of experience of tantalising us cats. I know that now, when it's all too late.

Then he slams the lid closed on me. Boy did I screech when he shut that lid. I fought back I did. I can be quick when I want – admittedly it's not that often – and I almost got away. But I was not quite quick enough this time.

I think I caught him a good one, just before he closed that lid, three right nice scratch marks right across his smug face. I saw the blood trickling down his cheek just as the lights went out. Serves him right now everyone will know I fought back. Yes, I fought back. And I heard him complaining, moaning, asking for help, help, help. Like a little baby he was, wanting it all bandaged up. Then he's crying like a little girl when his wife put iodine on it. Yes, I fought back.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Messages to the Leader

Shahid Rafiq Tarar was ensconced deep inside the Pavlov Institute. Here he reminisced about when this institute was bright, new and gleaming. Then it was teaming with students, with researchers and academic discussion of the most vibrant kind. Then it was something to be part of an institution named after a famous Earth scientist. The institutes' path breaking research into human and other life forms behaviour had long since ceased. Tarar was too old and cantankerous to consider moving and so he spent most of his weary final days deep inside one of the institutes' bunkers. There he might elude the worst effects of the drones.

The bunker he had chosen was large and almost empty being built when the Institute was first starting its decline. No star light could penetrate the kilometres of rock and the artificial light was extremely dull. To Tarar shame everything was covered in dust and he was too old – and too proud – to demean himself cleaning. Sitting at a makeshift desk he was writing a message in the ancient style, a style that was once fashionable well before the institute was ever conceived. Tarar was still unskilled in this ancient art of writing with Biro on paper.

Monday, 25 July 2011

I Want To Go

My little flash fiction story I Want To Go has appeared today on 365tomorrows. This site publishes a daily piece of flash fiction in the science and speculative fiction genre. It's something of a mix with miscellaneous types of science and speculative fiction. Also the quality varies from many intriguing pieces all the way to the occasional why-the-hell-did-they-bother.

The hominid life forms at 365tomorrows must be super brave and have hardened arteries of lead as this is the second story of mine they have dared published – such is their reckless abandon. The other piece was A Quiet Drive.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

14 February 2096

It was here again. After years of evasion; years of hoping he was free; years of knowing it was out there, somewhere, waiting, always waiting; Hasif knew it was here again; he just knew. It had found him. There was no real evidence, nothing you could say was proof, definitive; just a murmur, a rustle in the stillness, something watching in the blackness, waiting. It was back again allright. And it wanted him.

He would have to go on the run again; before it was too late. This really annoyed Hasif; he was just starting to get his life back together again; again after the last time. He had a new name, a new job, and a few new friends. The job was nothing special: he was just some anonymous clerk performing tasks considered too lowly for the main computer; still he got by, just about, and it was better then nothing. The friends, also, were nothing special: just some people he could have a conversation with; but he would never let them close, they could never be trusted. Could they have? No: he was sure he had given nothing away. It had just found him; hunted him down; just like the last time.

Hasif returned to his small cramped apartment and started, sadly, packing his things; he would not regret leaving this place, it was not much for all his years of work. So far he had not seen the whatever-it-was; the murmurs were enough, or was he overreacting? Then he glanced out into the walkway below the apartment block. And there it was; waiting, lingering, looking up. It looked older, more tired, battered; he supposed even androids or whatever-it-is must grow old, wear out. It was still recognisable from the first time he had seen it. That monstrous brown sludge of an android. The thick set legs; unaccountably fast from Hasif's past experience. The hollowed out muddy brown face; if you can call it a face, and Hasif did not want to get close enough to find out. Hasif stepped back and out of sight, then peeked, It was still there; waiting, lingering, looking up.

Friday, 22 July 2011

With God on Your Side

Father Nick Portman arrived hurriedly and late to take confessional. Wednesday was the day Pete intoned his weeks miscellaneous trivia and Father Nick was not looking forward to it. The one saving grace was that Father Nick had managed to twist his schedule so Peter Crane was the only Wednesday recalcitrant. The more interesting and mostly female reprobates being reserved for other days. That way Peter's monologue could be cut short with claimed urgent pastoral duties. Usually a comforting glass of sherry. But there would be no sherry today as Father Nick had a prior appointment.

Flinging the church door open and Father Nick did not see the dullard he expected. Harry Tate was anxiously pacing the aisle. The sudden sound causing the thick set Harry to spin round and almost loose his balance.

“Got to see you Father,” he said, his large hand grabbing a pew to steady himself.

Harry Tate was robust, mid forties and not one to argue with on his way home from the pub. A couple of times a week he had his regular nights out at the village local and this only encouraged him to become belligerent. Fortunately it was only late afternoon so Father Nick hoped there was some reasoning with him in his troubled state.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Fermat Solution

Eekhout pondered his solution, it was elegant, very elegant, he was pleased with this morning's deliberations. A simple solution to Fermat's Last Theorem. Short enough that even the eminent Pierre de Fermat might have scribbled it in the margin of some ancient manuscript. Nice.

Back in the late twentieth-century, three centuries ago, when a solution was first proposed, no normal person could understand it. None but the most hardcore mathematician grasped its real significance. Eekhout solution would have been understood by any twentieth-century geek. Nice.

Leaning against the cold tiled wall he dreamed of fame and glory, accolades and prizes; and a nice swanky office here on the 32nd floor of the Wiles Mathematics Department.

“What you doing?” Swanwick, his boss, growled.

“Sir.” Eekhout straightened himself up. If he had not been daydreaming he might have heard his boss coming, such was Swanwick's thundering ponderous walk.

“Think you're some kind of genius do you? Well I can tell you: there are hundreds like you. Not worth nothing.”

Eekhout grabbed his mop and started pushing it around the floor in aimless circles, following some random path. He did so wish he was back in the twenty-first century. Then he would have been considered a great scientist, would have won the Nobel Prize or something. But they had stopped giving those out when every school kid was getting one for their end of term paper. That's progress, he supposed.

Swanwick wobbled with indignation. “You want this job? Do you? Well, get that mop moving.”

Swanwick wasn't so bad, not so long as you kept quite during one of his rants. Later on, in the staff cubbyhole, he'd have forgotten all about it and, if Eekhout was really lucky, be almost pleasant.

Eekhout loved working at the university, in building 704, up here on the 32nd floor, just being around all those wonderful minds, and he did not want to give that up. Even if it did mean having to clean the toilets. To have done a proper job here, something recognisable, you'd have to do a bit better than solve Fermat's Last Theorem – yet again. Such feats were so commonplace.

* * *

With Swanwick gone Eekhout could relax once more. He lent against the cold tiles again, mop in hand just in case, and began to ponder his other favourite subjects; some that were even more perplexing. You'd think, with all those so very superior minds, they'd find a better method of cleaning urine off the floor. Mop and bucket: so very old fashioned. Eekhout had other theorems to ponder: why couldn't all those great minds aim straight? Why did they keep missing the toilets?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Always Leaving

From the first I was determined to leave. It was not the most comfortable of interviews. Alice was a thin and starchy and appeared used to getting her way. It was hardly the most engaging of jobs: being a trainee at a hairdresser's. A hairdresser's with pretensions of being an upmarket salon. Basically I was expected to sweep the floor and make the tea. Even for that role she made me feel distinctly unqualified.

She was not a pleasant interviewer. She looked at my arm.

“You'll regret that,” she rasped.

I did not need to look where she was gazing. I was proud of my tattoo. The pain was worth the wonderful green snake coiled through one eye of a skull and hissing joyfully having twisted its way through the frontal lobe. I did not dignify her pathetic attempt at art criticism with an answer. Being twenty years older she was unlikely to understand. At least that's what I believed in my naive late teens. She looked harshly at me.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “you will. In time.”

I can't quite remember why I got the job it all seemed such an inauspicious start. There must have been plenty of girls willing to work at a hairdresser's – even without all those pretentious.

At first I did little more than sweep, clean and be constantly admonished for loitering with a sullen expression. A few weeks later and I had saved enough out of my meagre wage packet for a second tattoo. I'm not sure if this was simply to spite Alice.

This time the tattoo was just above my ankle and was smaller and less painful. I remember strutting into the salon defiantly. Just waiting for someone to notice the blue and gold butterfly its wings emblazoned with large green eyes. Alice did not say anything and remained taciturn all day. How I felt so pleased with myself.

Alice had money, some kind of social position, mostly assumed. With that came her expectation of being looked up to, of being treated deferentially, as some kind of authority. Me, nor the numerous other girls who passed through the salon, ever reciprocated. This only annoyed Alice and cause her to escalate the haughtiness. Behind her back it all the became something of a macabre joke. A comedy quickly pushed aside when she strode into the salon. Soon followed by fleeting, knowing smirks.

Fast forward twelve years of drudgery and being looked down upon. It was difficult to hate Alice even though I desperately wanted to. All this time I wanted to leave but somehow it was never the right time. Next week, month, when I had a bit more saved, when holidays, Christmas, that weekend festival was over. Then I'll swan up to her and tell her what I really think. Then depart never to return. A shocked Alice left behind standing mouth open. It was only a daydream, a vague aspiration.

The cancer and Chemo were having their affect. Alice's hair was just starting to fall out. She was always thin and starting to look emaciated. Little absences become more frequent with her constant trips to hospitals and doctors. These made the salon a more friendly, chatty, place to work. At least until her haughty and brisk return.

It was late one Friday afternoon and time for the weekend to begin. I made the mistake of not absconding quickly enough with the other girls.

“Off,” Alice said, looking in a mirror, “take it off, all of it off.”

It was starting to get dark and really I wanted to be away. Alice untangled the tight mop on her head and sat in a chair waiting. She had never trusted me with her hair before.

“You're absolutely sure?” I asked, hoping above all she would have second thoughts. It was not like her to be impulsive.

Alice nodded. Her black hair danced for the final time. I picked up the shaver and started. Alice never once sneaked a look in the mirror. The black, presumably dyed, hair cascaded to the floor I had recently swept.

I felt the pressure of the confessional: to divulge my hidden life and troubles. But the moment was far too unbearably intimate for me. Some things, many things she had no right to know. Pity was not on the agenda, neither for her nor me.

“Done,” I said, not an instant to soon.

The pity remained unspoken.

She looked incongruous, the smart designed dress and atop the skinhead look. The fine black follicles waiting to bristle and the occasional white blotches where all hair had already departed. She looked so much older the lines in her face highlighted and now no longer in shadow.

As soon as was decent I left. Alice locked up the salon with a thin scarf tied round her head.

And those tattoos: how I so regretted them now. My tastes have evolved and they no longer express who I want to be. Forever they will be a reminder of what I never was. How Alice – sitting in that chair and with me shaving her head – would have gloated over that confession. But I could never have tolerated that. It's impossible for her to know now. That, at least, is one good thing.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Film Review – The Long Good Friday

I will admit I hardly recognised the name of the director John Mackenzie when I recently heard his obituary while driving. I will also admit his film The Long Good Friday had passed me by, unnoticed, both in the late 80s and ever since – despite it, apparently, being quite well known. However the obituary did make this film sound quite intriguing and the sort of thing I might find interesting. It promised (not in exactly these words) a gritty comment on Thatcherism and all its horrors. So something that now seems very modern, what with the current financial crisis, government meltdowns, and hard right wing cost cutting agendas. I wonder why I never noticed this film before? All I can claim, in mitigation, is that I looked upon Bob Hoskins, who plays the lead role here, as, shall we say, overrated.

Before we get to the above film lets have a little aperitif. I first watched Just Another Saturday. This was part of the BBC Play For Today series, in 1975, and written by Peter McDougall and directed by John Mackenzie. There is not much of a plot: a young protestant lad goes on an Orange order march in Glasgow with his lodge band; he encounters some protestant verses catholic violence and becomes disillusioned; at the end he desires to escape Glasgow. Still it shows a slice of working class life and has both humorous and gritty moments. In the film's final scenes father and son talk of how these conflicts divide and rule the lower orders. I agree with the political point being made here but felt it was put across in a far too didactic form. Even so a film worth watching.

So after all the hype what was The Long Good Friday like? It's not a bad film, watchable, but overall a bit of a disappointment. It started with a long menagerie of disconnected scenes where you're not quite sure what is happening. Having such an opening is not in itself a problem; it's just here it goes on too long before the main story starts.

Also the film appears to have no protagonist with which the viewer is supposed to identify. Who is the protagonist? If it's Harold Shand, the character played by Bob Hoskins, are really supposed to root for this gang land thug? Having an despicable character as the lead can make for a good film, but when there are no, absolutely zero, characters with redeeming features then you have a grim time of it as a viewer.

Again Bob Hoskins as an actor is allright but I did not find him that exciting. He only appears able to play himself which leaves this character somewhat insubstantial.

I wish I could say better of a film I watched as a result of hearing an obituary. It wasn't a bad film, better than many, possibly better than most, but hardly a great film. Of these two films you should only watch Just Another Saturday.