Friday, 24 April 2009


I've got loads of blog posts on the way, but first I thought that I'd post a link to a fascinating blog I (as well as doubtless many others) found the other day. Nightjack is an anonymous detective, and his blog has just won the Orwell Blog Prize. And no wonder; it is exceedingly well written and the subject matter is fascinating.

Take a look at this post, along with the other eleven stories in the series. I did, and they deeply moved me. Forget the Bill; this is real life, real crimes and, unfortunately, real people.

It was a well-deserved award win.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Book review: "The minutes of the Lazarus club"

This book starts off with a man trawling the Thames for debris; this is somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Dicken's 'Our Mutual Friend'. He picks up a decayed woman's body; all of her internal organs have been removed. This passage is well-written and very descriptive; it also sets a suitably Gothic tone for the rest of the book.

It is written in first-person, and details the hero's trials and tribulations after he gets invited by Brunel to write the minutes of the mysterious Lazarus Club. The protagonist and narrator is a Doctor, Doctor George Phillips. He is a specialist in anatomy, and therefore a series of similarly-mutilated bodies are bought to him for dissection.

Early on there is a brilliantly-written description of the first aborted attempt to launch Brunel's behemoth, the Great Eastern. The most famous picture of Brunel depicts him standing beside a large chain drum on the Great Eastern, and the author has the protagonist there as the photographs was taken. At the last moment, the protagonist ducks out of the picture. Indeed, the great ship is so dominant that she almost becomes a character in the story.

The 'Lazarus Club' of the title is a grouping of the famous scientists and engineers of the day - Darwin, Bazalgette, Russell, Stephenson, and two of my heroes, the irascible Babbage and the brilliant Whitworth. This is a group of men who literally made the Victorian world, and the author does a superb job in introducing the reader to their lives.

Another of my heroes, the beautiful mathematician Ada Lovelace, makes a rather macabre appearance. The only other female character of note in the book is the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale. If you are after strong female characters, then this book is sadly not for you.

I am not sure that some of the history is accurate - it is said that Joseph Whitworth and Babbage first met in the club, but in reality they worked together much earlier on in their careers. However, such minor inaccuracies take nothing away from a book of such ambitious scope.

The biggest problem with the book is the way that the ambitious scope makes the plot slightly unwieldy - the book could easily have been two-thirds of the length by shortening the plot. I had assumed that the final denouement was going to occur on the Great Eastern during her trails, which would have given the book a natural span - from the launch of the ship to its first disaster. Yet the plot continued on after this, and not always successfully.

The author has an undoubted love of both medicine and of the period; this shows throughout this piece. The descriptions are full and believable,

I would give this book four out of five stars.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The wedding (non)planner

We're going through all the hassle of planning the wedding at the moment. Şencan bought her dress whilst she was in Turkey, and I am resisting the urge to have a peek - I want to to be a surprise on the big day. The next things to be done are sending out the invites (most people have already been informed by phone), booking the photographer (which frankly, we might be able to do without), and deciding on what entertainment we want.

Over the last couple of months we've spent a fair amount of time going through wedding magazines, brochures and books, looking for ideas. The problem is that neither of us are particularly struck by the contents. I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago, who said that planning her recent wedding was massive fun. It is not that way for us. Yes, it's interesting in an intellectual way, but neither of us have ever had grand dreams of walking down a church aisle. We have no fantasy around which we can drape our wedding.

As an example, we were just looking through a bridal magazine and studying the 'Real-life Weddings' section, where they dissect people's wedding ceremonies for ideas. We both looked at some of the details and thought: "Nice, but expensive". Yes, it woul dbe nice to wear Gucci shoes. But will it really make the day extra-special?

The fact is, we want to get married to each other. That is the first and biggest priority. We have an unusual venue, and we know that our immediate family are coming along with almost all of our best friends. The venue, caterers and registrar are booked. This is what matters. Anything else is just additional niceness ;-)

We're even planning to do something unusual for the stag and hen nights - we're probably going to have a joint day out somewhere, ending at the theatre or cinema. After all, we've been living together for a couple of years now, and the time for a 'last night of freedom' would have been just before Şencan moved in. We're also in our mid-thirties, and neither of us are particularly heavy drinkers. So we'll go and do something that we'll both enjoy.

I am so looking forward to the wedding, and particularly to seeing Şencan in her dress. I want to make her so happy, and I want the day to be perfect for her. That is the priority.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Family ties

Apparently my paternal grandfather's great aunt was George Eliot. I wonder if I have inherited my writing genes from her - after all, I've inherited my love of the outdoors from Grandad.

The only problem is that I have a great deal to live up to. You see, I don't just want to be a good writer, I want to be a great writer. That's one of the reasons that I'm not submitting things to publishers just yet - I want to learn the trade. I do not just want to write one good novel, I want to write great novels.

Malcolm Gladwell claims that to become an expert in anything you need to do it for 10,000 hours. This apparently holds true for Mozart, the Beatles, and many others. Whilst there are many valid arguments to be made against his claims, it seems like an interesting target to have.

So what does it mean? If I am in the flow then it takes me roughly an hour to write 1,000 words, and at least another hour to edit those words. (These figures are almost certainly under-estimates). That means to reach the 10,000 hours I would need to write 5,000,000 words.

So far, I have written about 750,000 words. This figure will be a large underestimate - it does not include this blog, my website or any of the other writing I do. It also does not include any of the other peripherals of writing - the planning, characterisation or research. That 750,000 words would mean that I have been writing for 1,500 hours. It certainly feels like more.

'Devices' was the first attempt that I made at writing a novel four years ago. I spent half an hour reading some of it yesterday, and it is quite amazing how much my writing has improved. The law of diminishing returns means that another 1,500 hours will not cause a similar increase in quality, but there will be a corresponding improvement. I started off writing from a very low base. Although my command of English was fairly good, there is much more to writing than being able to string together a coherent sentence.

This does not meant that I will want to write for 10,000 hours before going to a publisher. I will submit stories to publishers once I believe that they are good enough. I am reading extensively (the book reviews on this site should give an indication of the breadth of my reading), and am aware that my writing is already better than some of those books. Sometimes the books are so bad that I do not even bother reviewing them.

All of which is great fun, but rather pointless. A bad author could write for 10,000 hours and still produce rubbish, whilst a novice may produce a brilliant piece of literature as a first book. But both of those are outliers. If practice makes perfect, then all I can do is practice.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Book review: "A year in a life of an English Meadow", by Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin

This book was another that I came across at the Bath Literature Festival, when I attended a talk by the author, Polly Devlin. It was a passionate and heartfelt talk about her love affair with an English meadow.

The book starts off with a description of the meadows of previous generations - land that provided for man and nature alike. It is a beautifully written lament for those days. With some justification she compares modern fields - seen by many as the epitome of nature - as green deserts, where nature has been choked into supporting one solitary species. Hedges are grubbed out, land dried and trees uprooted; the loser in this process is undoubtedly wildlife diversity.

Polly Devlin admits that she was not particularly interested in meadows at first, and that it took a road to Damascus moment to convert her to the cause. She and her husband bought a ramshackle farmhouse in the middle of some fields; they bought the house itself and some of the surrounding fields, whilst the majority of the land got sold off to other farmers. Six months later, the landscape had been transformed. All of the other fields except one had been devastated, and her mission began. She bought that field at the last minute, and this book is about her love affair with that field.

I try and look back to my childhood in the seventies and I do not get the same memories - the house I was raised in was surrounded by arable fields, and I was more likely to find the broken black remains of clay-pigeons than any flowers. I was born to late to remember meadows in their prime. As she says:
To take just one county, the county where we live: Natural England now knows of fewer than twenty wildflower-rich meadows in Somerset, when there were probably well over seven hundred in 1984. For years these wonderful fields were designated as Unimproved - there's newspeak for you.
The first inspection of the meadow after she bought it revealed 88 different plant species; now there are over 130. But the meadow is far more important than that; the plants support insects; the insects supports birds; and the birds support birds of prey. The meadow is at the base of a pyramid of life that has been lost in so many areas of the country.

It is a shame that the book has failed to capture the power and passion of Polly Devlin's speech that day in Bath - then again, it is exceptionally hard to capture vivid oratory on the printed page - it was as though her tears formed a new type of punctuation.

The pictures make up for this. The book is lavishly illustrated with images of the flora in the meadow, both general photos in-situ and more detailed images of pressed flowers. These alone are worth the cover price of the book. They are arranged in chronological order; the sorts of plants that you will see at whatever time of year. They are all here; from the sedges to the daisies, the grasses to the thistles. The pictures have been expertly taken, and are vivid enough to be taken into a field to identify plants.

Having said all this, there is one significant point that this book misses. The timeless image of the country meadow presented in this book is false. The country meadow she is protecting is as manufactured by man as our current landscape is. It suited our predecessors to have meadows; so they had them. The fact that so much work is needed to keep the meadow as a meadow shows the fragility and unnaturalness of it. Will people in a couple of centuries' time be working to preserve a late-twentieth century arable farm?

It is a minor criticism. The work that they have put in to preserve the meadow is to be applauded, and the book has caused me to take a closer look at the flora and fauna when I walk.

The book ends with a short story, 'a night in the meadow', where Polly and her husband attempt to spend a night under the stars in their meadow. It is a cold, dewy night and their dogs constantly bark, but her love for that meadow is evident. Again, the short segment of the text is brilliantly written.

The richness of the text in this book makes up for its sparsity, and each of the exquisite images counts for a thousand words. It is a word of art. I would give this book 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


I am currently editing one of the first scenes that I wrote for S&V. It is one of the first scenes that I wrote, and requires a very heavy edit. I thought that I'd reproduce part of it here as an example of how I edit my writing.

This short paragraph features two of the main characters in the book: Alan Hooke, a barman in his early thirties, and Karla, a woman he is growing attached to. She is sitting at the bar whilst he is serving another customer.

Original version:
By the time he turned back to her, a teenager, already half-drunk, was making a half-hearted attempt to chat her up. She was replying, but her eyes kept on moving back onto Hooke. Hooke gave the youth a glare, then: "How old are you, son?"
So what are the problems with it?
  1. Show not tell: 'already half-drunk'
  2. Impossibilities: 'eyes moving back onto Hooke'. Eyes do not move onto someone; a gaze does.
  3. It feels very impersonal.
  4. Repeat usage of both 'Hooke' and 'half' close together.
So, how to rewrite it? Firstly, what is the point of this paragraph? It shows two things: That Karla does not particularly object to someone trying to chat her up, even if she is not interested (her eyes flicking Hooke up and down). Secondly, it shows that Hooke does not appreciate the youth chatting her up.

After a little work, I come up with this altered version:
A teenage boy, already half drunk, stood next to her, his elbow resting against the bar in an attempt to look nonchalant. Hooke overheard some of the classic chat-up lines, ones that he remembered swapping with his schoolfriends. Karla was smiling as she replied, but her gaze kept on flicking back onto Hooke. He glared at the youth then asked: "How old are you, son?"
This is better, but I'm still not quite happy with it. I think the first sentence is weak, especially the 'already half-drunk' snippet. Therefore I came up with the following:
A teenage boy was standing next to Karla, his elbow resting against the bar in an overwrought attempt to look nonchalant. His voice slurred as he told her some classic chat-up lines, ones that Hooke could recall learning from his schoolfriends. Karla was smiling as she replied, but her gaze kept on flicking back onto Hooke. He glared at the youth then asked: "How old are you, son?"
I'm still not fully happy with this, but it is certainly better than the first version. I'll work on it some more when I do the next edit.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Book review: "A gladiator dies only once", by Steven Saylor

This was another historical novel that I picked up from the library. It is a collection of nine short stories following Gordianus the Finder, a professional detective (or 'finder') in the days of the Roman Republic.

Gordianus is a very well-written character that has featured in many previous novels by Steven Saylor. Gordianus' investigations vary wildly; from poisonings, to murder, to an apparently stolen recipe and a child's missing toys. His unique talents leads him to meet many of the greats of that period of Roman history - he is friends with Cicero and many other famous Romans.

The book does not require too much knowledge of Ancient Rome - many terms are subtly explained within the book (the exception being patrician, which I had to look up). You get a real feeling for the period and locations, something that is often difficult to achieve in short stories. Most films concentrate on the dramatic aspects of Roman history; this book gives you a feeling for the more mundane, everyday aspects of life in Rome.

As usual with a collection of stories, some are stronger than others. The title story, 'A gladiator dies only once', is one of the strongest - Gordianus is asked to investigate how a gladiator he saw killed in a fight in the arena could have been seen walking alive around the streets of Rome.

I very much enjoyed this book. The stories are mostly of high quality, although some of the subsidiary character are less well drawn than I would have expected. I give it four out of five stars; I am tempted to read some of the novels in this series.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Derek Draper emails

It is hard to know what to say about the latest scandal to engulf the Government. For anyone who has been inside a cocoon for the last couple of days, Damian McBride, the PM's political press officer, sent a political blogger, Derek Draper, an email in January that contained scurrilous allegations about top Conservative politicians and their families. The claims in the email were untrue, and were to be part of an ongoing smear campaign against the Tories. A website was registered for this purpose. Another blogger, Paul Staines, got a copy of the email and has publicised the smear attempt.

The emails were sent from Damian McBride's official Number Ten email address. He has already fallen on his sword and resigned, but it looks as though the political ramifications will continue for some time.

What this comes down to is an appalling lack of professionalism by everyone involved.
  • We have civil servants in the guise of 'special advisers' selling a totally partisan line. In doing so, they are not only briefing against the opposition, but also against any MPs from their own benches who appear disloyal.
  • We have the media reading unauthorised and often unverifiable comments on blogs and using them as fact. This is what McBride and Draper hoped would happen.
  • We have bloggers acting like children. If you have a point to make, make it in a sane, educated manner. Do not take part in playground antics. (This goes for both Draper and Staines, although in interviews Staines appears far more reasonable and adult than Draper).
  • We have politicians and party apparatus that really do not get the Internet or (yuck) Web 2.0
I want - no, I demand - my politicians and civil servants to be professionals. I want them to look after the interest of myself and the rest of the electorate. I do not want them acting in such a highly crass, idiotic, wounding and infantile manner. Yet it appears that we have some truly nasty people right at the heart of our Government. People who would be willing to spread all sorts of lies to take their own agendas forward. The contacts these people have gives them power, and it is evidently power that they are willing to use against anyone they dislike.

Damian McBride has shown himself to be unfit to hold any position within the civil service or government. It will be interesting to see what sort of package he gets now that he has resigned - surely he deserves nothing after such an almighty own-goal. At best it is either gross negligence or misconduct. Neither should he be found another job within the Government.

The PM has lost a great deal of his moral authority due to this incident. Apparently Damian McBride's nickname in the corridors of power is 'McPoison'; yet Brown has seen fit to associate himself with this 'attack dog'. Alistair Campbell had a reputation as being not a very nice person (to put it mildly), and it appears that the Labour Party is surrounding itself with such people. People for whom the victory is the important thing, regardless of the means by which they get that victory. Alistair Campbell was a past master at this sort of thing; it is interesting to see on his blog that he calls this 'nasty' and 'incompetent'. I only half believe him.

Brown does have questions to answer. Apparently he was McBride's immediate superior, so it is his responsibility to give orders to McBride. I am not saying that he ordered McBride to create these lies and slurs, but Brown should have known what was going on. After all, it was two or three months between the emails being sent and all of this coming to light. When Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand made leud comments on-air last year, they were suspended and the controller of BBC 2, Lesley Douglas, resigned. If the controller of BBC 2 has to take personal responsibility for what her underlings do, so should Brown.

The Labour Party has also lost a great deal in this kerfuffle - especially the MPs and other people who appeared on TV trying to mitigate what had happened. Political parties need to be seen to have integrity, and this incident makes it look as though the New Labour project has none.

Additionally, there has also been another attempt at distraction politics, but this time Labour are sending out a confused message. Yesterday they were saying that the emails must have been obtained by Paul Staines 'hacking into' the Number Ten email system. They are trying to divert the story by making it into one about hacking, and also smear Paul Staines at the same time!

This is a serious claim to make, and I would like to know what evidence they have for it. If it is true, then questions need to be asked about Number Ten's security systems. Liam Byrne (the minister for the cabinet office) was on BBC One Breakfast News yesterday, trying to spin the story by saying, 'however these emails were obtained'.

Unfortunately for Labour, how the emails were obtained is not the story (and I very much doubt that the Government's email systems were hacked into). The real story is that these awful lies were invented and then sent out from an official email address. Why think hacking when it could just have been someone forwarding the emails on? Occam's razor would say that it is the latter; forwarded emails are the simplest explanation.

What's more, if they really think that their email accounts have been hacked into, why haven't the police been called in? What other information may have been gleaned? Has the email system been taken off-line whilst the security is upgraded? it appears the answer is no to all these questions. If the email system was not hacked, then Liam Byrne was probably lying to the nation.

It is surprising the way that the Labour Party - usually very media savvy - has totally lost the plot when it comes to the new media. Perhaps this is because anyone can become a political commentator on the Internet (including me), and it is therefore harder for them to control the output. Labour has relied on attempting to control the media for the last fifteen years, and the Internet makes the task harder, if not impossible.

Having said that, I am surprised that the Conservatives appear to be doing a better job. Iain Dale's blog is a good right-wing blog, and Paul Staine's Guido Fawkes blog is now infamous (and he attacks Tories as well as Labour).

In comparison, the official or semi-official websites are much poorer. ConserativeHome is fairly cluttered, and Draper's LabourList is even worse. It is the more independent bloggers who seem to do it the best - Tom Harris MP's blog is much better; it is clean, well laid out and the information is easy to access. It is like comparing the Yahoo search portal with Google's back in 1998 - LabourList is messy and visually confusing. Is this really the sort of message they want to send?

This story appears to have legs. The question is who in the Government and the Labour Party knew about these emails? If they knew about them, why did they not step down on them hard and report them up the hierarchy? Failure to do so would mean that they at least gave tacit approval to the content of the emails and the plans to smear the opposition.

Frankly, I have been sickened by the whole episode. The sad thing is that I am not surprised. There should be an inquiry into this whole mess, and into the role of Special Advisers in the Government.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government

There was much merriment at the end of last month over the handbagging Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for Southeast England, gave Gordon Brown during a speech in the European Parliament.

For one thing, the speech was well delivered; a surprising number of politicians appear to be incapable of such good oration. More importantly Daniel Hannan was also, in my opinion at least, right on most of the points he made.

Amazingly, a video of the speech was the most-viewed video on YouTube. That is a spectacular achievement, and one that many other politicians will wish they could replicate. This popularity had been put down to a viral spread rather than specific publicity; people liked it and sent the URL onto others.

I foresee this occurring increasingly frequently during the run-up to the forthcoming election; the parties will use their best orators (not necessarily the politicians with the highest profile) to make stirring speeches that will be put straight onto the Internet. This gives them a very different route to reach the electorate than the traditional media-based approaches.

Will it succeed? Will it actually help them? Possibly not. But it is an exceptionally cheap way of getting your message across. It also cuts out the traditional media, which, whilst being attractive to political parties, could have problems for all of us.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Highlander script

One of my favourite films - perhaps, if I am truthful, my favourite - is the original Highlander film, made in 1986 and starring Christopher Lambert as the immortal hero, Conor MacLeod. The film is a sword-and-magic urban fantasy about a bunch of immortals who have to kill each other until only one is left (believe me, it all makes sense in the film).

Whilst looking for some photos of the villain Kurgan (played brilliantly by Clancy Brown, see right), I came across not only the script of the film, but also an earlier version of that script.

The script of a film allows you to see the way the production process takes raw, textual words and crafts worlds around them. In this case, I had the opportunity to see a script much earlier on in that process. It is strange how different the early script was from the film; certain snippets of text and sentences are recognisable, but the plot follows a generally divergent route.

The female lead (Brenna in the early script, Brenda in the film) is a much stronger, capable character than her film incarnation. The early script also goes into much more detail about her search for the truth about Conor MacLeod. Another, perhaps more important, difference is that the Kurgan does not exist in the early script. Instead, you have a mysterious Knight searching for Conor. The Knight does not seem as malevolent as the Kurgan, and his character is not as richly developed.

There is the same chop-changing through history, between the Highlands and modern-day America, and again this is part of the charm of the story.

There are several parts of the early script that explain things in the film, for instance this quote from Romirez (Ramirez in the film), which explains why the older immortals are such a bloodthirsty lot:
You are young, inexperienced. You
do not know what time can do. How
it can sap all pity, all love.
The film never puts it quite as bluntly as this. There are other major alterations from the film; for one, Conor says that he has fathered 38 children - in the film MacLeod is infertile until he has killed all of the other immortals.

The two scripts are so different they are really two different stories. There are aspects of each that I like; the Kurgan in the film is a far better villain than the Knight, and Brenna in the early script is a much more rounded character than Brenda in the film.

Even if you have no intention of writing a script, it can still be instructive to read scripts that other people have written. They condense a familiar story down to the raw elements, removing all of the fripperies of acting and special effects. In many ways it is storytelling in the raw.

Try it with a film you love.

Friday, 10 April 2009


As much as I love the music of the Pet Shop Boys, I doubt that my fandom has ever got anywhere near as 'interesting' as this: . Safe for work.

Much kudos to them.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Would the real Liberal Democrat leader stand up?

It looks as though the Liberal Democrats might be having some trouble with their leadership. In mid-December last year, Nick Clegg took over the leadership of the party from the temporary interim leader Vincent Cable.

Since then, though, Nick Clegg has been virtually invisible on the television or the radio. Instead, Vincent Cable, or "The sage of the credit crunch" as a Radio 5 presenter called him, has been getting the majority of the airtime for the Liberal Democrats.

No-one would deny that Vincent Cable has been doing a good job. His short stint in charge of the Liberal Democrats brought some stability to the party after the ructions caused by the two previous leaders being forced out. He is obviously an extremely competent, intelligent and careful politician. The same cannot be said for Nick Clegg, but only because he comparatively rarely appears on TV or the radio. What does he stand for?

Nick Clegg needs to be concreting himself in the minds of the public, and instead the majority of the Liberal Democrat air-time is going to his predecessor. When the credit crunch struck this seemed like a sensible policy - Vincent Cable is widely respected in the economic arena. Unfortunately, it has continued. On a recent Radio 5 interview, Vincent Cable was not only discussing the economy, but also many other policies.

I have yet to see any polls, but I would guess that Vincent Cable is much better known (and regarded) amongst the electorate than Nick Clegg. As the election approaches, this may well become a problem for the leader.

And there might be other problems; despite the media stating (with varying degrees of credulity) that Vincent Cable was the only politician to warn about the current recession, the Liberal Democrats are not improving their position in the polls - they are still stuck in the late-teens. Could it be that the electorate do not equate Vincent Cable with the Liberal Democrats?

It is not clear what Nick Clegg can do to correct this. He could try coming to a gentleman's agreement with Cable to appear in the media less, but I can see the media agreeing to this. Vincent Cable is very much a media darling at the moment, and I can bet that the media would prefer to have Cable on over Clegg. What might happen is that the Liberal Democrats as a whole get less attention. Is it a choice between having Vincent Cable on the TV, or no-one?

This will become more of an issue as the next general election draws near. What the Liberal Democrats need to do is associate Vincent Cable with their party in the minds of the electorate without - and this is the important part - making him their leader. It may be an impossible task.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The rise of distraction politics

We are heading into a new and alarming era of politics - the era of 'distraction politics'. It is a tactic that Labour, with all of their skill in handling the media, is increasingly using.

The Labour Party knows that it is sometimes impossible to keep a story out of the news. Indeed, any attempt to get a story out of the news will probably just backfire on them, especially after the "A good day to bury bad news" debacle.

Therefore when a negative story breaks, they give the media another, connected story, something that will play well with their core constituency and remove some of the fire away from them. If some embarrassing statistics are coming out, they look for someone else to blame or divert attention to. It is an old trick, but has been taken to a new level by this Government.

Some examples:

1) The Dominic Grieve affair. At the end of last year, the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve was arrested over leaks of Government documents from the Home Office. Firstly, the Government actions were massively hypocritical, considering they (and especially the Prime Minister) used leaks extensively before they came to power. Secondly, all of the information that made it into the papers was of public interest, and was (to a certain extent) being covered up by the Government.

The investigation was mishandled by the Government, the police and the Commons authorities. An search was made of Dominic Grieve's office in the Commons (against protocol, and with the Speaker, Michael Martin, rather spectacularly denying any prior knowledge).

All of this came about because the Government, embarrassed by the leaks, tried to divert attention away from the bad-news stories by initiating a mole hunt. This should have had a secondary effect of making them look like victims and pushing some of the blame on the most likely suspects, the Tories.

Unfortunately for the Labour Party, it misfired badly and they were made to look incompetent at best. Firstly, information control within the Home Office was so bad that the leaks were allowed to happen. Secondly, the Government overreacted to the leaks. Thirdly, the inquiry was ineptly handled. All in all, they made Dominic Grieve appear like a victim rather than a villain.


2) The bonuses scandal and Sir Fred Goodwin. This is a classic case; RBS did fail, and few can argue that Sir Fred Goodwin's pension is far too generous given the circumstances. However, there is no doubt that his pension was, and is, legal. Additionally, it appears that every decision Goodwin made when he was Chief Executive of RBS was within the law. The company appears to have followed the Government's rules and regulations at all times.

The failure of RBS has been a massive embarrassment, not just for the bank, but for the whole country, and especially Scotland. It highlights the Government's inaction in controlling the banks via the Financial Standards Authority during the good times.

In order to push the attention away from their role in the failure of the bank, the Government have tried to focus attention on Goodwin's pension. In the larger scale of things, it is insignificant. Yet several Government ministers have made increasingly dark warnings about the pension - Harriet Harman even came out with this incomprehensible statement (from the Telegraph):
“The Prime Minister has said it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted. It might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that’s where the Government steps in.”
This was seen as an attempt to change the law to try and claw back some of the money. Unfortunately, this is even more immoral than the original pension. An attempt to create a quick retrospective law, directed in solely at and in reaction to one person, is a very worrying thing and should not be allowed.

Then the embarrassment for the Government deepened when it was alleged that Lord Myners, who signed the pension deal for the Government, knew all about the details. It must be stressed that he denies this allegation. This story is still running in the background and refuses to die, with claim and counter-claim being made. The simple fact is; if Lord Myners was not aware of the details of the pension, then why wasn't he? He was in charge of signing it off, after all.

Another attempt at diverting the media away from the real story (in this case the Government's incompetent handling of the economy) had failed. Unfortunately, it has had rather negative side-effects, with Fred Goodwin's house in Edinburgh being attacked.


3) Then there is the latest scandal. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has just been involved with a personally embarrassing story about her husband watching two pornographic movies. In many ways this is a total non-story; the amount of money involved is trivial, and it has the appearance of being a genuine mistake.

There is a political aspect to the story. Jacqui Smith is the Home Secretary, and she many now find it harder to do her job. For one thing, it may be harder for her to create rules for the sex industry (whenever she tries to do anything, she will have this spectre hanging over her head).

It has been very embarrassing, not just for Jacqui Smith and her husband, but also for the Labour Party and all the MPs.

Then came the 'distraction politics'. The day after the story broke, there was a headline story on the BBC news website. A Labour MP has made an accusation that someone within parliament is leaking information to the newspapers on MP's expenses. The very timely story diverts the attention away from Jacqui Smith, who would probably have still been headline news the next morning after more information came out about her second home expenses.

Therefore the story has been skilfully turned away from Jacqui Smith towards a 'mole' who is selling information for up to £300,000. Now, this may be the case, but the only evidence is from a Labour MP, Sir Stuart Bell. It is still essentially the same story, but it has been diverted away from the real target. I am also dubious that the person who 'leaks' this information about a leak, Sir Stuart Bell, is also in charge of the 'Speaker's Commons Estimates Committee', which will investigate the leak. Can we expect him to do a thorough job when he has already been making partisan statements to the press?

Note that I am not saying that a mole should not be investigated and, perhaps, punished; just that the media should take the claims of an MP with a pinch of salt when there is no backing evidence. After all, it is very convenient, isn't it?


In all of these cases, the Labour Party has attempted to turn the fire of the media away from themselves to a certain extent. It is skillful media manipulation, even if in two of the cases it failed.

There will be more of this as the election draws near; whenever an embarrassing story comes out, the Labour Party will attempt to divert the media's attention to a related side-issue. It is a sign of how some of the media and the Labour Party are in each others' hands.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Book review: "Sword Song", by Bernard Cornwell

Although I had read several of Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' series of books, I had never read any of his other historical fiction before.

'Sword Song' is set nearly 1,000 years earlier than the Sharpe series, in an England that is split into four kingdoms and riven by two worlds - the native Saxons and the barren savagery of the Norsemen and the Danes. War and violence is everywhere.

The protagonist, Uhtred, is half Saxon and half Dane, and has to live his life balanced on a sword-edge between the two worlds. He worships the Norse Gods, yet has sworn an oath to the Christian Saxon King Alfred.

It is written in the first person, and is told as a memoir; Uhtred is looking back on his life, and in particular a period of time in 885 when the Viking raiders held London, at the meeting point of the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Anglia. Uhtred is commanded by Alfred to capture London back from the Vikings, a task that forces him to decide in which world his loyalty really lies.

Like the Sharpe books, the pace is very fast, with frequent frantic action that keeps you reading on. The characters are also very well drawn, from Uhtred himself, to Pyrlig, the obese warrior-turned-priest.

The ending is very satisfying; as it is a first-person memoir you knew Uhtred would survive, and so Bernard Cornwell wisely does not make this the main drama in the book. Instead, the fate of King Alfred's daughter, Ǽthelflaed, lies in the balance.

With any historical novel, it is important to have the facts correct. In many ways this becomes easier the further back in history you go - the less that is known about an era, the less you can be accused of having got wrong. This book certainly feels authentic; the attitudes of the Saxons to the Vikings and the Vikings to the Saxons seem realistic, as are the way that the various religions are depicted. If there are any mistakes, then they certainly do not detract from the story. At the end of the book there is an historical note, where Bernard Cornwell details some of the concessions he has made to history. Additionally, at the start there is a fascinating glossary of the place names, converting them from the Saxon used in the book to the contemporary.

It is interesting to compare this book to the last one I read, Karin Slaughter's Triptych. Both are violent books - it is hard to write a book about the Saxon - Viking wars without having violence, yet in some way the violence in 'Sword Song' is so much less obtrusive. I would almost say that Bernard Cornwell writes the violence effortlessly. The violence in 'Triptych' was like being bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with a hammer, whilst that in 'Sword Song' was like having a lullaby sung to you as someone stabs you in the back. Just as nasty, but strangely relaxing.

I would give this book 4.5 out of 5. It was engrossing and fun to read, and I definitely want to read more in the Uhtred series of books.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Gordon Brown and respect.

A few weeks ago Jeremy Clarkson insulted Gordon Brown by calling him a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot' during an interview. Despite the fact that two parts of the statement are factual, and the other debatable, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some Labour MPs (in on orgy of publicity-seeking overreaction) even called for Clarkson to be sacked. In the end, Clarkson apologised.

In Prime Minister's Questions this week, Gordon Brown yet again referred to the Liberal Democrat party as the 'Liberals'. He has been doing this for many months, and it is apparently meant as a joking insult - calling the party by a name it last used 21 years ago, as though their policies were similarly aged.

The only problem is that the 'joke' is old. Friends of the PM demand respect from Clarkson, yet the PM himself is not willing to give his political opponents that same respect.

It is almost as though Brown and the Labour party are trying to define the term 'Liberal' as an abusive word, and to attach that term firmly to the Liberal Democrats. If true, then they are way off mark. Or is that he is mistaken, and thinks he is addressing not the Liberal Democrats, but the reformed and much smaller Liberal Party (1989)? Is our illustrious leader actually losing his mind, and is incapable of calling an opposition party by its proper name?

It is a small matter, but an important one. How would he like it if the other party leaders started referring to the Labour Party as being the Fabian Society?

He wouldn't like it, of course. It is silly and puerile. The PM should be above this. If he wants respect, then he should grant respect to his opponents. Unfortunately, it does not look like he is capable of respecting others. He certainly does not respect his political opponents, and it is starting to look as though he has little respect for the general public either.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - day six

The sea was slightly more choppy when I awoke this morning, and again the same stale smell assaulted my nostrils. I could hear the generator going, but the engines seemed, to my inexpert ears at least, not to be running. After doing my morning ablutions I put my harness on and went up onto deck. We were not anchored or moored, as I had guessed, but were instead going around Dublin Bay in circles. The slow speed accounted for the motion of the ship.

There is a lift bridge on the River Liffey that has to be negotiated for the boat to reach its berth, and that could not open until 10.00. For this reason, the ship had been going in circles at a slow speed since early in the morning. It was surprisingly chilly on deck, and I soon disappeared down below once more to fetch my coat.

Breakfast was served, and after a nice, warming bowl of porridge my watch started. I was on the helm for ten minutes, and then got asked to go on watch with Natasha. I grabbed a quick egg roll, then went forward. There were a number of ships around, and there was a line of squally rain in the distance. Land was visible, and not for the first time I wished that I had a map available to study.

After a while Rob set myself and the others on cleaning the heads. So far on the trip I had managed to escape this duty, but it was only fair that I take my turn. It was not that enjoyable, especially as the swell was making my feel slightly queasy. It was also very warm down in the heads, even though I had taken my coat and harness off. It was a relief when the job was done, and I could wash and head up onto the deck.

I went onto watch, this time with Neil. We were starting to motor into the bay now, and an increasing number of buoys became visible. The captain told us to ignore these, and to concentrate on moving targets. Aside from one motor boat that cut across out bows, there was nothing. I sat back and chatted to Neil as I enjoyed the views. The waters underneath us slowly became darker, then positively oily with pollution being swept downstream.

Slowly we entered the harbour, passing the breakwaters before progressing up the river. The twin chimneys of the Poolbeg power station greeted us - they towered into the sky like monumental Eastern European architecture. More people came onto the bows to join us as we passed various ships being unloaded and loaded. It was certainly not the best way to approach Dublin. A Belfast - Liverpool - Dublin ferry was in port, but the surroundings were hardly plush - a typical port, really.

As we went further upstream we passed a lovely white sailing ship, which someone said was the German Navy sailing ship, with the crew visible in their neat uniforms on deck. As we passed the regular crew tried firing off a spud gun, but did not seem to have much success. There was a roaring sound as the gas ignited, but then nothing. After two attempts they abandoned it.

A cross-river ferry naughtily crossed our bows as we headed upriver, and then we slowly came to a stop in front of the bridge. We hung there for ten minutes as we waited for the bridge to life; a river ferry passed us, heading upstream and under the bridge. It seemed incredibly low against the water from where I was sitting.

Eventually the bridge lifted and we continued upstream. On this side of the bridge the signs of Dublin's revitalisation were visible - many office buildings were under construction, the old mingling surprisingly well with the new. Soon we reached the end of the journey and out mooring right outside the Citi Bank building - the Captain expertly brought us around, whilst the bosun's mate and second officer went round on the little boat ready to tie us up.

People were standing on the quayside watching us come in, and a few were taking photographs. It did not take us long to moor, and I helped send out both of the lines at the bow. After this, I went below for one final wash then started packing.

On deck I had a word with Kendal, our cook for the journey, a man who hails from Portsmouth. The entire food for the trip had cost £200 pounds, and had stretched to feed 24 people over 5 days. That was under £2 per person per day, yet the food had been filling and good.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - day five

By the time I awoke the next morning I felt much better. I got up at around seven, put my harness on and went onto deck. On the way I passed a mirror, and my reflection was very pale - no surprise as I had not eaten anything in a day. There was a neat line of vomit on the railings where people had been sick overnight. The fresh air seemed to help, and soon I was walking around on somewhat uneasy legs. As the morning watch progressed I continued to feel better; Natasha had spent much of the previous night's watch on top of the front deck house suffering from seasickness; I could well sympathise.

Neil reported seeing Dolphins on the port side, but I could not see them from where I was sitting on top of the mooring ropes. I managed to eat half a bowl of porridge, and that helped me through as we washed down the decks once again. For lunch there was soup and home-made sausage rolls. Yet again the ship's cook had done a sterling job.

The Irish coast slowly came into sight, starting off with some wind turbines on a beach. We approached these, and the beach behind was apparently where the film 'Saving Private Ryan' was filmed. As we neared the shore a few blasts of the ship's horn signalled our approach to the captain's house, which was perched on a cliff above the beach. After this we headed slightly further out once more, following the coast northwards.

The evening watch went really well - I thoroughly enjoyed it now that the queasiness had more or less gone. There was more of the phosphorescence as the ship cut through the water, and the night skies were very clear, with three lighthouses visible to the east. I figured that at least a couple of these may have been on the North Wales or Anglesea coast, but could not be sure. The seas were fairly flat and calm (okay, they were very flat and calm), and all my queasiness had disappeared. I went to bed knowing that within twelve hours we would be on dry land, and slightly regretting that fact.

Friday, 3 April 2009

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - day four

I woke up to find that one of the watches had furled the sails overnight. We had just rounded Lands End, and now that the winds were north-easterly we had little chance of making any headway to Dublin by sail. It felt a shame that we were going to motor for the rest of the way, but it was unavoidable. There was a lovely red sunrise as I ate my breakfast whilst on watch - my harness clipped to a safety cable whilst my plate of bacon and eggs rested in my hands.

During the watch we furled the sails. I was still feeling a little queasy so opted not to go up again. Instead I stole occasional glances up at the people working high above me as I kept watch. We saw a couple of ships early on, but after that there was nothing, the sea was more or less deserted. After this there was more cleaning. Jim would wash the decks down with a hose whilst we scrubbed sand into the wood using brushes. Once we were finished Jim would wash the resultant sand off again. It was not hard work, but the short brush handles meant that I had to uncomfortably bend my back to use them.

Being on the helm is fun - you ignore the binnacle and instead stare straight ahead at the red numerals of a digital display. Beside the binnacle were two iron spheres; one painted red, the other green, designed to compensate for the iron in the ship. When taking over the wheel the person leaving says the course they are doing as three individual digits - say 2-4-0, and you repeat it in the same manner, saying that you are taking over. At all times someone had their hands on the wheel. You turn the wheel to the left to lower the course (i.e. turn to port), right to raise (i.e. a turn to starboard). Unfortunately the ship's reaction is not instantaneous and you have to judge turning the wheel carefully to avoid it running away from you.

I found it fairly straightforward; beside the digital display was another instrument showing the amount of rudder applied. You turn the wheel in the relevant direction, then as it starts to approach the desired course you start taking it off - if you leave it to late you will run past the desired course. It would then prove quite easy to remain on that course, until the current changes slightly or a gust of wind causes the course to jump up or down by a few degrees. You then need to bring it back around to the correct heading. It is the sort of simple challenge that I enjoy.

I skipped lunch, and afterwards I started to feel increasingly queasy as the swell started to build up. I went below for a lie down, and the seasickness really struck me. It was like being simultaneously very, very drunk, and very, very hungover. A splitting headache throbbed in time with the sound of the engines, and the ship's swaying induced the nausea. My body would go up, right, left, then finally down, a pattern repeated for hour upon endless hour. I lay in my bunk with my harness on, counting the hours until the start of my watch. When 20.00 came I was in no fit state to walk yet along work, so reluctantly I had to say that I was unfit for duty. It was not something that I enjoyed doing and I would not have minded being up on deck, but my physical condition totally precluded it. Somehow I actually managed to fall asleep after midnight, and actually slept well. Fortunately I did not have to use the bucket that had been kindly provided for me. As I fell asleep the groaning and creaking of the ship's timbers combined with the fierce slapping of the waves against the hull and the throbbing of the engine to form a surprisingly relaxing melody.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Review of March 2009

March has been a funny month.

For the second month in a row I did not get as much walking or writing done as I wanted, but I made progress in both areas.

With regards to walking, I got a couple of walks under my belt with a heavy pack on, and did a good distance on both days. This was the first time for a couple of years that I have walked with anything near full backpacking weight, and it felt good to be able to walk with it. However, I also know that I am not hill-fit. Most of the walks I have been doing recently have been relatively flat, and I need to get used to going up and down hills again.

For the first three weeks of the month I was blocked on S&V; it was exceptionally hard to progress it. I was writing it in a writing package that splits the story up into scenes; there are a few little bugs with this, but it has always been the way I thought I would prefer to work. There were a couple of annoying buglets in the package that scrambled the order of some of the scenes. Despite this, I continued with it.

At the end of the month, though, I finally called the experiment to an end and exported S&V into OpenOffice Writer. Since then, I have made some considerable progress with it - a surprising indication that the tool may not have suited me.

I have also written a good deal of the RSPFA story; I am slightly blocked on this until I get some research done (yes, I need to reserach fantastical creatures).

On a more personal note, Şencan went away to Turkey at the end of the month to see her folks and buy her wedding dress. I have also bene suffering from toothache yet again, which will hopefully get sorted with a tooth-pull at the beginning of April.

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - day three

The next morning I was still feeling a little queasy, but generally I was in a much better condition. I was a little green behind the gills, but most of the nausea had gone. I managed to wolf down a bowl of porridge, then went on watch for the 08.00 to 12.00 shift. The permanent crew were all doing running repairs to the ship - wrapping thick string around steel ropes to protect them, then covering the string with tar to waterproof it. Maintaining a ship like this is a full-time job, and seeing people do this fiddly task whilst high up in the sails was an impressive sight.

We did a clean below decks, brushing and washing the living areas whilst another watch did the heads. I chose to skip lunch as beans on toast followed by carrot and coriander soup was not too appealing given my somewhat poor constitution. The permanent crew are all tough people, a toughness that is visible even in the relatively calm seas and sunny weather. The seasickness of the previous night convinced me of something that I had assumed before I had set off - that I was, at heart, a landlubber. I still held out some hope that things might improve, and now that I was over the initial illness things would improve.

Seeing Start Point for the entirety of the four-hour morning watch was quite depressing. It hardly seemed that we were moving - because of the tide and the direction of the wind we were only doing one or two knots. After lunch we did better - seven to ten knots. However, Dublin still felt like a long way away.

The crew listened to some racing on a radio - there is a racehorse owner on board, along with his friend, who owns a stables. Of all the crew Jim seems the most archetypal sailor - he has a shock of white hair along with a long white moustache. His eyes look as though they have seen many different sights and lands. The captain is a very pleasant, friendly man, focussed (as is to be expected from someone in such a position) and experienced - he had been at sea for many decades.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - day two

I awoke this morning to be greeted with beautiful sunny skies. The watch system had not yet started, so I went up for breakfast at about 07.30 - a fry up and porridge. I had a fry-up and waited around. Several people seemed rather hung-over after the previous night - I was glad that I did not go on to the club. People seemed friendly enough, although, like the previous night, I had little idea of what was going on. Overnight the massive cruise ship 'Independence of the Seas' had docked - it was the reason we had to move the previous night. I had seen her before, but from the water I got a true sense of her massive scale.

Eventually we moved off, under engine power rather than sail for this first part of the journey. Soon everyone was assembled on the mid deck for training. We were instructed how to put on our harnesses and adjust them, and one volunteer had to put on an immersion suit, which were situated in various places around the ship. We were also shown all of the emergency exit hatches, which could be climbed through in emergencies. Then we all did the 'up and over'. This involved climbing the main mast up to a platform above the lowest (course) sail, and coming down the other side. I had recently twisted my right ankle, and the injury had been enough to prevent me from doing any walking. Despite this it was easy enough, although stepping on the ropes caused discomfort in my ankles.

What amazed me is exactly how many ropes there are on board the ship. The area around the masts are covered with pins onto which ropes are tied, and large areas of the side of the ship also have them. Each rope on each pin has a specific purpose, none of which I could fathom at first. Every piece of wood appeared to have elegant, flowing shapes, from the handrails to the pegs, the samson posts to the sails themselves. It was clear that a great deal of love had gone into the construction of the ship.

After a safety tour of the ship, we settled on deck. We were divided into watches, and I was put into the main watch - 08.00 to 12.00 in the morning, and 20.00 to 24.00 at night. I was not too displeased by this, as it meant that I would get eight hours in which to sleep at night. The only downside was that I would not get the opportunity to see sunsets and sunrises. As it was not yet midday the main watch was on - so myself, along with two men, Peter and Neil, and a woman, Natasha - were assembled by our watch leader and set to work.

Initially I was on watch on the bows, looking out for any obstructions. Unfortunately there were so many other yachts around in the river that it seemed like an endless task. One yacht came rather near from the port side, and the sail nearly hit our main mast. The manoeuvre was rewarded was a sharp blast on the ship's horn. After the watch I stayed on deck to watch as the day unfurled. It was fascinating to see the coastline that I had walked from the sea - there were familiar places that recognised everywhere. The Isle of Wight was on the port side, and on the starboard was the mainland. We soon passed Hurst Castle, which is built onto a spit that juts into the Solent, and then approached the Needles.

As we went further westwards the number of ships in the channel decreased. We had lunch, then we started assembling to prepare the sails. We unfurled the main sail and top gallant on the main mast, and the top gallant, main and course sails on the foremast. To unfurl them people had to climb up and untie the ropes - called gaskets - that tied them up. Then ropes had to be pulled to fully unfurl them. All of this was pretty much as I expected, but then came something else - we actually had to lift up the heavy wooden beams of the arms in order to tighten the sails. This was hard work, and I was glad that the lowest and heaviest arm, the course, did not have to be lifted.

Then the sails were angled in to wards the wind. Again, I had not been aware that this was necessary, but the ability to angle the sails into the wind obviously makes the sails much more efficient. In all the films I have seen of sailing ships the arms are set at right angles to the deck, and it was intriguing to see them tilted so much.

I stayed awake for our watch at 20.00. The Dorset headland of St Aldhelm's Head was visible in the distance. It was quite pleasing to be able to recognise it - I have walked over those hills twice before. The first watch was fairly boring. I spent some time on the helm, keeping the ship on course, and several hours on the bows, looking out for any lights. It soon got dark, and the chances of seeing anything other than lights were remote until, at last, the moon came up.

I quite enjoyed sitting on the bows as I chatted to my watch-mates. As we looked down into the white, foaming water at the bows I was surprised to see some phosphorescence - sizeable specks of white light that disappeared rearwards towards the ship. Neil and I asked many people about this during the trip, and we got six or seven different answers as to what the phenomenon was. At times there were many of these specks, at others very few.

Before I knew it midnight had come, and the next watch relieved us. But before we could crawl into bed, the sails had to be set. So for half an hour we pulled at more ropes, turning the sails more into the wind. Doing this in the dark added another level of complexity to it, and I was glad that experienced people were around to tell us which ropes needed to be pulled on.

Towards the end of the shift I was starting to feel a little queasy, and eventually this got too much for me. I was sick once over the bows of the ship whilst on watch, and then, about an hour later, from the stern. This was embarrassing for several reasons - firstly, because I was the first person to be sick, and secondly because there was hardly any swell. It slowly dawned on me that I am truly a landlubber!

Eventually we got to go to bed. In my naivety I had expected to sleep to just the sounds of waves lapping against the hull, but instead there was the muffled roar of a generator. By law the generator must be kept on at all times whilst we are at sea, and the noise was surprisingly loud - and my berth was midships, so it must have been worse for the fellows in the stern. The noise was not too bothersome, however, and I soon got used to it. I feel asleep, tired but excited.