Monday, July 27, 2015

The Wise Daughter

It is the ninth anniversary of this blog. As is traditional for such milestones I will quote from the first post:
Hopefully, this blog will never have anything of interest in it, and, even if I make a mistake and it does, only three people will ever read it. 
Still works[1]. It's like I plan this stuff! But enough of old posts. Let's get on with something I should have put up last year: a story for creative writing class intended to pay homage to the oral tradition. I call it:

The Wise Daughter
This story is about love and death
(Because all stories are about love and death).
There was a young woman who loved a young man
And the young man loved to explore in the woods
Which as we all know is a foolish thing for a mortal to do.

One day he met a stranger dressed all in black and gold
And he asked the stranger about the tree he sat under
Which had green leaves and white flowers and red fruit
All together on that chill autumn morning.

The stranger smiled and told him not to touch the fruit
(He would not be a stranger here, amongst us, amongst the fey).
Mortals call it Malus fera, the Fairy Apple Tree
And wise ones know not to touch it.
We know it as Bio-tachyon Receptor Construct Class C
And harvest it but once a century.

The young man ignored the warning
Took an apple and ate it and vanished.
Three days later came the young woman
Looking in the woods for her disappeared young man.

She met the stranger (who is not a stranger to you and I)
And asked him had he seen the young man.
“He ate an apple,” she was told.
“Is it forbidden?” she asked.
“It is unwise,” he replied.

He told her what had happened
That a mortal who eats the fruit
Un-diluted, un-processed, un-prepared
Will leave this world and walk the halls of probability
Of what might have been and what never was.
“Will he come back?” she asked.
“It is not impossible,” he replied.

He took her to the pool of viewing
And they looked for him amongst the never-worlds;
He took her to the goblin market
And they bought advice but none that helped;
He took her to the sky harbour tree
And she learned the secrets of air and fire;
But none of this brought her any closer to her young man.

“He may come back, or he may not
But nothing I can do will help or hinder him,” she said.

“Yes,” said the stranger, who is well known to us here.
It was a year and a day since they had met.
The lesson had been long and hard for a mortal.
He considered it time well spent,
For amongst the fey all we have is time
And we are rich with it.

So she went home and all the village celebrated
Her return from the fairyland was unprecedented
And she married and bore a daughter
(Eyes like stars, hair like flame, skin like milky tea)
And seven years to the day she went into the wilds
And found the tree, ate the apple, left behind her child.

Earth has danced with sun a dozen times since that night
And the daughter draws near to our town of tents.
I will tell her the tale – we shall tell her the tale
That much has been foreseen.
Then she will choose to return and live a lifetime with the mortals
Or she will decide to wander eternity with the fey
Or she will take an apple and walk the world as it is not
Or she may die, or flee to the ends of the earth
Or take a brand and burn us all.
We do not know what she will do
For all her decisions are foolish
And all of them are wise.


For anyone who wants to see this taken to pieces and laid out in the workshop there's several things to unpack here.

1. Malus fera, the Fairy Apple Tree is from another piece for the creative writing class, that I thought I'd put up here but apparently haven't. When I get round to it I'll put a link here. Note that is has blossom and fruit simultaneously, which is not a natural state for a tree.

It's other name (oh it has three names? Is that significant?) Bio-tachyon Receptor Construct Class C comes from my idea of elves having lived through many ages, including one when they were scientists with high technology. Although they've stopped doing that, they haven't given up entirely. The sky harbour tree just might be a rocket port.

2. There's some foretelling, and talk of probability and possibilities. These elves are not my regular elves; they're closer to the weird and dangerous personification of the dangers of the wilderness, with some techno-babble stuck on top.

3. Despite that, this is filled with bits from classic stories. I mean the boy eats an apple; a girl goes looking for her mother who is kidnapped by fairies; I keep tripling things up. I almost think of this as a folk-tale remix.

4. Because all stories are about love and death. This isn't literally true[2].

5. And I still love Earth has danced with sun a dozen times since that night. That line alone it makes this post, maybe even the blog worthwhile. Maybe I should reuse it: blog has danced with muse nine times since that day? Maybe not.

Also I wrote and re-wrote that last paragraph - stanza? - many times. It gives me chills to read it. I hope it does you too.

[1] Still overusing commas in the first draft.
[2] For an example on this blog, there's this piece of nonsense that is about hats, port and crime. No death and no love in sight (unless you count love of port. Or hats.)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes on a Pencil

Continuing my occasional series of putting up old Creative Writing tasks, here's one from March last year. We were given an item and told to write something about it. Mine was a pencil and here it the homework:

Notes in Pencil

On the pencil is written the word ‘camel’, named not for humps or endurance but for the sandy colour of the paint on the outside. It sits on the desk beside the pristine writing paper waiting patiently for it to be used.

I will pick it up soon.

Usually the pencil lives in my pocket, next to a miniature notebook. It doesn’t look like it, but this pencil has been used many times. It has drawn maps and plans, sketches of flowers and butterflies, crude scribbles that look like faces. It has made hearts, hand gestures and hairy dogs. Timelines have been laid out, stretching forwards to the future and backwards into history.

I’ve written letters with it. Words spilled deliriously onto the page telling everything about everything. Quiet days and frantic nights, long lazy summer evenings as golden light caresses the trees and grass. A drink with friends turning into an improvised dinner that goes on as we plot and plan until suddenly we see the dawn ghosting into view.

I will use the pencil again soon.

I wrote about a set of Christmas Eve parties, moving from house to house in the cold sharp winter air. I drew the fireplace from one, the tree from another. An obnoxious cat that sat on the mince pies I cruelly caricatured, turning his round furriness into fat, his lazy gaze into malice. Mulled cider, sweet and warm and slightly sparkling, contended with dark winter ale in my letter, both losing out to a rich red Burgundy at the last stop.

I saw you at New Year, outracing the postman to arrive before the letter. I must have known that would happen. I wrote anyway.

I pick the pencil up. Next to the word ‘camel’ it says ‘made in Japan’. The distance it travelled to reach me is further than it has travelled with me; half the world to the shop where you bought it. There is a heart on the eraser at the end. I wonder if there is a more perfect analogy.

I put the point down on the page to write one last note. I know what it will say. I have it all clear in my head. I have only one question left; which will break first, the pencil or the heart?

This is slightly different to the direction I went in when given it in class:

On the side of the pencil is the word 'camel'.

On the back of the camel is a box of pencils.

Thrown in to a trade at the last minute. surplus to both merchant and caravaner's needs. (Also on the pencil, the word "made in Japan").

Saturday, July 18, 2015

More On Motive

As might be expected, having shot off my mouth on motive while halfway through Dorothy L Sayer's Whose Body?, Lord Peter returns to the topic later in the story. When someone suggests that the proposed reason for the crime seems unlikely as it revolves around an event that took place many years ago, rarely leads to murder, and that the suggested perpetrator had remained on good terms with the victim, Lord Peter replies:
People have been known to do that sort of thing. You're thinking that people don't keep up old jealousies for twenty years or so. Perhaps not. Not just primitive, brute jealousy. That means a word and a blow. But the thing that rankles is hurt vanity. That sticks. Humiliation. We've all got a sore spot we don't like to have touched...
This is bolstered by an authorial footnote:
Lord Peter was not without authority for his opinion: 'With respect to the alleged motive, it is of great importance to see whether there was a motive for committing such a crime, or whether there was not, or whether there is an improbability of its having been committed so strong as not to be over-powered by positive evidence. But if there be any motive which can be assigned, I am bound to tell you that the inadequacy of the motive is of little importance. We know, from the experience of criminal courts, that atrocious crimes of this sort have been committed from very slight motives; not merely from malice and revenge, but to gain a small pecuniary advantage, and to drive off for a time pressing difficulties.' - L. C. J. Campbell, summing up in Reg. v. Palmer, Shorthand Report, p. 308. C.C.C., May 1856, Sess Pa. 5 (Italics mine. D.L.S.)
(This is from a famous poisoning case, apparently. I have tracked down some other citations; copy and paste into the search engine of your choice for more.)

So here Lord Peter and (for the purposes of fiction at least) Dorothy Sayers agree with Lord Campbell, that although we must have a motive, it does not have to be a compelling one. Our criminal does not need to be forced to logically commit the crime as the best of a set of poor choices, it merely has to be one that provokes that particular person. Insults or difficulties that another character might ignore or tackle differently lead this character to murder (or steal, kidnap, burn down, blackmail etc.)

My own conclusion (not wishing to put words into the mouths or writings of Sayers, Lord Peter or anyone else) is that motive stems from character at least as much as circumstance. Some people might attack when threatened or provoked to their face; others will harbour hatred of what others would see as minor slights. Match crime to character and character to motive. Of course this all depends on where you start; has one created a cool person who you want to commit a crime? Or do you have an especially compelling murder and need to figure out why someone would commit it? Can one begin with motive and derive crime and character fromthis seed?

Personally I find that actually writing warps all plans; as character comes into focus it transforms the motives and crime; focusing on getting the mechanics of the crime right changes character and thus motive. Edit, re-edit, draft and re-draft until after enough iterations they come together (or not in some cases).

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Motive

Reading Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers[1] I came across this passage in the middle of Lord Peter's explanation of how murderers get caught on page 122:

"Oh, yes," said Lord Peter, "but most of us have such dozens of motives for murderin' all sorts of inoffensive people. There's lots of people I'd like to murder, wouldn't you?"

"Heaps," said Lady Swaffham. "There's that dreadful - perhaps I'd better not say, though, for fear you should remember it later on."

"Well, I wouldn't if I were you," said Peter amiably. "You never know. It'd be beastly awkward if the person died suddenly tomorrow."
This is of interest because this is precisely the opposite of my theory of motives, although in effect it is the same in that it discounts motive as a detection tool. Here's my protagonist Schneemann after summing up the possible motives for each suspect:
Schneemann waved it away. “As I said it was a rumour. I would not usually mention it, but if true it might provide a motive. Still, although all of these are plausible, they seem a little thin don’t you think? Nothing that would insist that the man be killed. Not to my mind.”
It is my contention that in most (fictional) cases the motive for murder is inadequate. In general people provoked, threatened or injured in that way accept the circumstances and get on with their lives. Indeed it is this very failure to justify their crimes in this way that makes us condemn the criminal. A hungry person who steals to eat is a figure deserving of our pity; a rich person who kills to protect their position is a monster.

EDIT: Originally I said I would have more to say; as might have been expected Lord Peter also had more to say on motive which I came across on page 164. You can find it in the following blogpost which I imaginatively titled More On Motive.

[1] Currently on page 152 of 214. Recommended on what I've read so far.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hero of the Soviet Union

Heroes with feet of clay was the topic the writing group chose back in September last year. I wrote this:

Hero of the Soviet Union

April 12 1961 (and later)

George was fascinated by the news that a man had flown in space and then returned. Everyone else seemed worried. The Russians had won the space race and now everything outside the Earth would be communist. To George, avid reader of The Eagle and Dan Dare fan, it was like the real world had caught up with his imagination.

As the days passed he clipped blurry photos of Yuri Gagarin from the paper and added them to the posters of Dan and Dig and Professor Peabody on his wall. When better pictures appeared in the magazines he moved the poster of his beloved Spurs (destined to come third in the league that year) up to the ceiling to make room. He considered scribbling out Khrushchev holding up the hand of the cosmonaut. He left him in, but it made him uneasy.

March 28 1968

Exactly how close the Vostok 1 mission came to failure was not revealed until later. The capsule was so weight restricted they couldn’t fit in a parachute that would allow it to land safely; it would crash into the ground too fast for the cosmonaut to survive. Gagarin had to eject from the craft at 7 km (22,000 feet) altitude. George found it difficult to imagine; flying into space for 90 minutes, then having to leave the spaceship and drift on a parachute for another 10 minutes.

Gagarin had been made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his only spaceflight. That had been followed by an endless round of publicity tours. He had taken too much advantage of the Russian habit of every social occasion involving large amounts of alcohol. There was also the rumour that his wife had caught him with another woman. During the incident he had escaped off a second floor balcony, falling and injuring his forehead so hard it left a scar.

His later career sometimes seemed more farce than tragedy. That had changed yesterday when the Soviet authorities’ efforts to protect their hero had come to an end. Gagarin had crashed his MiG-15 while on a training flight.

None of that mattered today as he walked into the white room to be greeted by the nurse.

“Congratulations Mr Mackenzie. You’re the father of a beautiful little girl!”

He was stopped in his tracks. “A little girl?”

“Over here.” In his wife’s voice he could hear the you idiot she didn’t say. She was holding a bundle of cloth with a tiny pink face at the top.

Sometime later they were interrupted by the nurse again. “Would you like a cup of tea?” After they agreed they did, she went on “Have you thought what you’re going to name her? The registrar will be coming round later.”

“I... hadn’t thought about it. Ellen, what do you think?”

“I’m too tired. But, you’re not going to name her after that terrible Russian astronaut.” He agreed. It was too morbid, too soon. This was a new person, who should have a new name.

Ellen had other concerns. “His name sounds too much like wee.”

“I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe Joceyln?”

She shook her head. “Too old fashioned. It’s 1968! We should be broadening our minds.”

“How about Laika?”

“That’s the name of a dog. A Russian dog.”

He frowned. “Perhaps... Comet?”

“That’s Supergirl’s horse.”

He looked up. “What?”

“I said, it sounds like something from a comic. Look I don’t see why this is so hard. All we need is something modern, distinctive and not too silly sounding.”

He paused, concentrating for a while. “Then how do you feel about Andromeda?”

19 February 1989

George answers the phone “Hello?”

“Hi Dad, it’s Andi.”

“Hello sweetheart. Shall I get your Mum?”

She sighs at this 117th repeat of his joke greeting. “No, I’m actually calling for you today.”

“Oh? Are you short of money?”

“No. Well not really. I’m actually calling because we’re getting a guest speaker for SpaceSoc. I thought you might be interested. It’s Valentina Tereshkova.”

 “Valentina Teresh-who?”

“Daaaaad. You know perfectly well who. Stop messing about. Do you want to come and meet her?”

He nods, then realises she can’t see him. “Yes. Yes I would. Thank you darling.”

Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, carried a flag at the winter Olympics in Sochi; last year at the age of 76 she expressed interest in joining a proposed one way trip to Mars.


It's worth noting that I was NOT named after Neil Armstrong, but I am aware of other Neils who were named after him.

EDIT: It's also worth noting that for wordcount and topic reasons I am cruelly unfair to Gagarin's later career, in which he was in charge of cosmonaut training and spaceflight safety at various times, making important contributions to both.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


A writing group suggested the topic Confession. So obviously I wrote some fanfic.


I confess. I am the vigilante. I am the one who goes out at night dressed up in the costume to beat criminals to a pulp with my bare hands.

It’s not a sex thing.

I’ve never liked bullies. Even before the event – the thing that happened to my parents – I hated the ones at school. The squealers, the brawlers, the sneaking gossipers. But worst of all were the stealers, both the thieves who got into everything and the daylight robbers who baldly demanded tribute. I told my parents, the teachers, even the prefects. None of them did anything.

So I stood up to them. I picked the worst, a gross slab of muscle called Kent. No one liked him, so no one would back him up. The only disadvantage was that he was two years older, six inches taller and half again my weight.

It was a brutal fight. In the end I won. The endless hours with the child psychologist that resulted were worth it, because every time Kent tried to extort anything I was there. One glare stopped him in his tracks. The rest of the bullies avoided confronting me but continued their foul schemes on other victims.

I had learnt a lesson; that if you face down the villains, you become a target of the authorities. So I began to use guile. I spied on them and arranged for their secrets to come to light, for their lockers to accidentally come open, or their bags to fall apart when they carried the most incriminating evidence. The most cunning of them I followed and, identity hidden by a ski-mask, I beat them into surrender.

I was still a child, still believed in justice. The mask is just to hide my identity from those who would use it against me. It isn’t a sex thing.

Later came the hard times. With my parents gone I knew that if there was to be justice I would have to make it myself. With my own hands and feet and most of all with my mind. I learnt how to disappear, how to fight six men at a time. How to out-think them so that I had won before the fight even began. And I learnt to bury my guilt with anger, to hide it all in my fight against crime.

I won’t tell you where the equipment is, or where it came from. I won’t tell you who helped me. You've heard rumours that I was endangering children, even recruiting them into an army. It’s not true. If you ever find them – if they ever give themselves up – you’ll learn they were all adults, all volunteers. Even if some of them are not as tall as me.

They have their own reasons for helping me, for disguising themselves and fighting crime. It’s not a sex thing.

So I confess to it all. I am the vigilante. I am the dark knight, the guardian of the city, the caped crusader. I am the reason criminals are afraid to go out at night.

My name is Selina Kyle and I am The Batman.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I Watch Films: Lucy

Until it started I had not realised that Lucy (2014) was a Luc Besson film. When his name came up I adjusted my weirdness expectations upwards to what turned out to be appropriate levels.

In fact here's what I knew about Lucy, from the adverts when it was released last year: Lucy is played by Scarlett Johansson; people only use 10% of their brains (I'll come back to this) but for some reason she's using more and so gets superpowers; Morgan Freeman is the scientist who explains stuff; and there's some kind of link to the early hominid skeleton called Lucy, the oldest ancestor of mankind (I'll come back to this too).

And basically all that stuff IS in the film. There's also a fairly standard drug-mule-double-cross plot which is how Lucy ends up with a drug in her system that allows her to use a greater percentage of her brain, and is also used to create action scenes and tension. This doesn't really work because...

Okay so let's start again.

Most action films are actually pretty childish, with thrillers tending towards the adolescent. This is not a problem; if your film is about spectacle, then why not have a cursory story to hang your action scenes on and rely on the charm of your actors to carry it through? Nevertheless, it can get tiring watching dumb heroes doing dumb things to create big dumb explosions. When a film steps forward into the Sixth Form to look for ideas, I can only applaud.

Like most Sixth Form Common Room debates, the ideas in this film quickly fall apart. Firstly the "We only use 10% of the brain"[1] fact is actually a myth. Although some brain functions are a mystery, most areas of the brain have been observed doing something for various reasons at various times. This, and other bad science, gets ignored because Morgan Freeman is pretty damn convincing. The cutting between his lecture on what might happen if we used more of our brain and the initial events in Lucy's story are an interesting choice, giving us calm moments between the tense scenes of the drug-deal-gone-wrong[2]. (We don't need to liven his lecture because Freeman is the best lecturer as was proved in the series Through The Wormhole)

By the 40 minute mark (the film is a pleasingly brief 89 minutes, so once we remove time for the credits, this is just about the halfway point) Lucy has gained control over 30% of her brain giving her invincible superpowers. This leaches tension from almost all the action scenes from then on, as the question stops being "can she get out of this?[3]" and becomes "what cool special effect will this lead to?" Besson tries to replace this with a more philosophically tense question: "What happens when she reaches 100% brain use?"[4]

The answer to that, or rather the question that she's trying to answer is "time". So as her brain shifts gear into the 90%s she has visions of the past, while also extruding a black-organic-cable looking supercomputer, which at the end offers Morgan Freeman a big USB stick with Total Knowledge on it. I'm dubious.

I'm dubious because in her vision she travels to New York, then goes back in time. When all the buildings are gone and there's just grass and trees, some Plains Indians on horses appear. So 1. No not in New York. 2. The first Native Americans to embrace the horse, the Comanche, did not have enough horses to mount their tribe until 1730. 3 In 1730 New York City had a population of over 10,000.

This is all moot, as she meets Lucy, probably not the oldest known ancestor of humanity, a native of Ethiopia. When she blasts off into space after this meeting, it's clearly from Manhattan, so I guess this isn't a literally true vision, just a bunch of stuff. Which calls into question everything else she sees.

In the end the Sixth Form Common Room philosophical debate is a bit of a flop. "Everything is connected and Time gives existence meaning." Thanks Lucy. Well done. Are you sure that was 100% of your brain you were using?

(That was mean. 7 out of 10, Film of the Year)

[1] "So what do we use the other 10% for?" as I inevitably reply. Sorry.
[2] My favourite part is when she's confronted by Chinese gangsters (in Taipei) and none of them speak English, so the boss gangster calls up a translator on speakerphone. Why hasn't this been used before?
[3] The answer up until then is mostly "Yes, but she ends up in a worse state."
[4] It was possible that she would hit 99% and then the Chinese gangsters would kill her, stopping the Ultimate Revelation and/or Armageddon in it's tracks, but that's not what it seems to be ramping up to.