Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From the Flames; Brief Re-Read of Harry Potter Part 2

So Dumbledore on Phoenixes:

Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes...
Fascinating creatures phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing properties and they make highly faithful pets.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 12 The Polyjuice Potion. Italics in the original.

Dumbledore, as will be revealed later, called his cabal/guerrilla army/superteam the Order of the Phoenix. Die and reborn from the ashes, carry immensely heavy loads and of course, being highly faithful are themes we'll see coming up. Tears for healing I'm not so sure about; that may be plot-relevant rather than thematic. Maybe we'll see later!

Both Harry Potter and Voldemort had phoenix feather cores to their wands, of course.

Tom Riddle of course makes his appearance. Possibly the most brilliant student ever at Hogwarts Dumbledore says. As well he might; frankly most of the wizards we see in the books are distinctly average. This, I assume, is a side effect of the size of the talent pool. Estimates differ but the number of wizards and witches in the British Isles is in the thousands to tens of thousand range; medium sized town to large town numbers spread out over the country. Who do we see who is actually brilliant? So far just Dumbledore. Maybe Hermione, although she's mostly great at finding out what's in the library. Anyway I've got distracted: more on Tom Riddle and what the numbers of wizards in the country mean for Voldermort's plans later.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Return to Hogwarts; Brief Re-Read of Harry Potter Part 1

Previously I have published a post called The Last Thing I Have To Say About Harry Potter (which was not the last thing I had to say about Harry Potter). But having watched all eight films in seven days maybe it's time for a re-read and a re-examination. Here's what may be the turning point in Philosopher's Stone at the end of Chapter 10: Hallowe'en:
There are some things you can't share without liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.
It is shared experiences that bind people together and it's the events here, where Ron and Harry accidentally lock Hermione in the toilet with a troll, then go in to rescue her, following which she has the presence of mind to take all the blame on herself, that begins their friendship.

(This, incidentally, is why I accept the canonical Ron-Hermione relationship lasting. Not because they're well matched; they're not. But they both know the other one is always there for them no matter what.)

Dumbledore of course is brilliant and terrible. When he declares that all he sees in the Mirror of Erised is himself holding some socks, struck Harry that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful.
Well yes. He's protecting Harry, teaching him the skills he needs to survive and also positioning him as the back-up plan if he, Dumbledore, fails to stop Voldemort. He suspects, but is not sure, that Harry is protected. It is, of course, Harry's best hope if Dumbledore can't stop him. Yet if your plan involves setting an eleven year old boy in the path of a terrifying Dark Wizard, I really hope your deepest desire is for more than socks.

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.