Thursday, December 10, 2015

Star Wars Pre-Reading

"What Star Wars products do I need to have consumed to understand the new film?" is a question that no one will ever ask me after I spent ten minutes explaining the plot of episode IV and realised I had not mentioned Darth Vader. Ah the trip to see the special edition of The Empire Strikes Back with someone who had not seen the original. So many happy memories.

Still, in case you are curious, here's what I recommend to get you up to speed for The Force Awakens.

1. Droids Cartoon Series.

It only lasted 13 episodes and didn't even have Kenny Baker as R2D2. Still this really gets to the heart of the position of droids in the Star Wars... oh who am I kidding.

2. Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi fighting game.

Why is every character in the original trilogy all learning the same style of Kung Fu? Who cares, fight! Also has Leia in her slave outfit, officially the most modest clothing of any female character in a fighting game ever.

3. B4-D4 section of Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

You're already ten hours into the game by now. Might as well do it! Hard mode: Lie in every conversation.

4. Splinter of the Mind's Eye

This novel was written as a sequel to the original Star Wars film with the possibility of making it into a low budget movie sequel. Instead it made a lot of money so George Lucas made up some other stuff.

5. The Glove of Darth Vader from The Glove of Darth Vader

Darth Vader's glove can deflect blaster bolts, but he can already do that with his force powers AND his lightsaber. Belt, braces and safety-pinned to his shirt! It's that kind of triple-checking and attention to detail that is his hallmark

Anyway, that should bring you up to speed. If after watching the film you still have questions then I can only point you in the direction of The Phantom Menace graphic novel after which your Star Wars curiosity will undoubtedly be satisfied.

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.

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.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fraud and Dickens

This piece, from 2014, was in response to a writing class task about Dickens.

In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens describes the workings of the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. It is a fraudulent organisation run by the con-man Montague Tiggs (or Tiggs Montague); specifically it is a Ponzi scheme which attracts investors with promises of high returns. However payouts come from the money given by the victims rather than from any profits.
Ponzi schemes (named after Charles Ponzi, who was not born until 1882, 38 years after Chuzzlewit was published and 12 years after Dickens’ death) are nothing new. The Roman Empire had insurance scams, fake investment schemes and real estate bubbles. The interesting thing to me is the con, or confidence part of the con-game. Montague Tiggs has connections throughout London society. He gives lavish dinners and has very posh offices. Various people who, and it is important to be clear on this, are definitely not employed by the company talk up what a wonderful opportunity it is.
Charles Ponzi was an Italian immigrant to the US and most of his clients were from the Italian-American community. This kind of crime is known as affinity fraud, in which the confidence in the con-man comes from them having something in common with the victims. The con-man is seen as ‘one of us’ and uses the connections in the community to promote his schemes.
In 2008 Bernie Madoff, a Wall Street investor, was arrested for securities fraud. Investigators estimated that the size of his firm’s liabilities was in the region of $57 billion, although they recovered $36 billion in assets, making it the largest fraud in US history[1]. Up until his arrest Madoff was prominent in the American Jewish community, who were amongst his biggest investors. His offices and lifestyle were those of a successful Wall Street investor. Although many financial firms were suspicious and did not deal with him, he continued to attract new customers right up until his arrest.
Some people have suggested that we need a new Dickens for the 21st Century. In this, as in many other cases, perhaps we should start by paying attention to the Dickens we already have.

[1] Although not the largest in history. That continues to be debated, but a leading candidate is Alvos dos Reis who instigated the Portuguese Bank Note crisis of 1925, one of the causes of the 1926 coup d’etat. It indirectly lead to the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister (and effectively dictator) of Portugal from 1933 to 1968, an economist who stabilised the economy as Finance Minister.


More on Martin Chuzzlewitt can be found in my review of the book, part of my (re-) read of Dickens.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Read Books: India Black

I Review The Book

India Black by Carol K Carr is an adventure novel set in 1876. The eponymous protagonist, India Black, is the madam of a brothel who finds herself caught up in an espionage plot (hence the series name, Madam of Espionage).

It is fast paced and amusing. Several historical characters turn up showing slightly more disreputable faces than the history books tend to emphasise. This is not unexpected in a plot that revolves around ridiculous political skulduggery, 19th century European politics at the down-and-dirty level and also prostitutes. The book declares it is not that sort of prostitute's memoir, although it does get quite bawdy (mostly by implication and the strategic use of telling details).

There's quite a lot of people getting captured and tied up, a briefcase of secrets to keep out of the hands of various parties (that turn out to not be quite as vital as might be thought) and some actual history going on if that's what you want. India Black has a distinctive voice; witty, a little world-weary, cynical and self-interested, and wanting just a bit to show these fine gentlemen that she may be a woman and a prostitute, but she can get the job done.

Period hats and clothes are described appropriately, but are not the main focus of the novel.

I have, of course, some nits to pick, most of which are quite unfair. If you're not interested, then skip to the end where I have my recommendation.

I Pick Nits

It is, of course, not written in actual Mid-Victorian English, and thank goodness for that. Mostly the vocabulary, phrasing and slang are suitable, using words and phrases appropriate to the period but in a streamlined 21st century manner. Only once was I jarred out of the book by a poor choice of word: "The tobacconist's shop was only a few blocks from Lotus House..." is not something that a Londoner would say, even today. Blocks are for rationally designed cities, not maze-like London.

(Exactly where Lotus House is located does not seem to be defined, which is probably wise)

Later there is a long coach chase in the snow from London to the channel ports. Now coaches were widely used at this time, especially for short trips and across the countryside. Nevertheless long distance travel would more usually take place by train.

This is not precisely a problem. The pursued are spotted in a coach driving out from Greenwich, apparently on their way to Dover. Knowing they are being pursued, it would make sense to avoid railway stations. Yet I'm not convinced. Here are the lines:

"I followed 'em as far as Greenwich. I'd say they're 'eadin' for Dover."; and

"I jumped off when they got near Greenwich. I figured they was on their way to the coast."

Now they inform their agents at Dover (and presumably the other channel ports - see later) to watch for the pursued, so it does make sense to follow them. And when they do follow them and they stop to change horses at inns, the horses are terrible, as you'd expect when long distance posting is dying due to competition from the railway. And finally it turns out that (SPOILERS) they're not leaving from Dover, but from a small fishing/smuggling village somewhere nearby. So that bit makes sense.

Except the assumption of Dover is odd; leaving London via Greenwich why could they not continue along the Thames estuary and catch a boat, from Gravesend, Chatham or Ramsgate? If they turn to go to the south cast, they might as easily depart from Folkestone, or if they want to go out of their way end up in Deal, which would be a good candidate for smuggling/fishing, although it was (and is) somewhat larger than the place described.

(For that matter, although it is night and winter and snowbound, they find that Kent is very rural, with country inns and hamlets. Presumably the people they are pursuing are avoiding the main highways and major towns of the county. Exactly how they know to follow this path rather than the direct route through (probably) Dartford, Rochester and Canterbury is left unanswered.)

(Exactly where the smuggling/fishing village might be located is a bit of a puzzle too; I can't tell if they are on the north, south or east coast of Kent.)

Anyway, this is completely unfair of me; the author apparently lives in Missouri in the 21st century and her version of 19th century London and Kent is superior to most who write in that setting. Adding more explanation of why they're travelling by coach or how Vincent knows they're going to Dover would simply have given me more and different nits to pick. I am interested rather than aggravated, which is probably a good result.

I Sum Up My Thoughts

Buy This Book: For an amusing, clever 19th century adventure-thriller with good research but not too much consequence
Don't Buy This Book: If you find melodramatic chases, farcical break ins and people continually taking each other prisoner and making cutting remarks are of no interest. Also if you insist on the geography of Kent being absolutely accurate and important to the plot.
And One Other Thing: The name of the author: Carol K Carr. It's quite fun to say.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

150 Words of Crime

 I wrote this for a flash fiction crime competition with a limit of 150 words. I don't think it quite works, which is probably why I never sent it in or posted it anywhere. As it was in January 2014 floods were topical.


The council who’d called it a ‘glorified call centre’ when justifying cutbacks had stopped complaining when the floods came. Now Amber’s calm voice and excellent planning skills were in great demand in the fire brigade communications centre. She was putting in a lot of overtime, as were her friends from Blackwell Station, the next on the list to be closed.

“Hello Flood Assistance Helpline.”

“You’ve been forced to leave your house. No one got left behind? No pets?”

“I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t mean to imply anything.  I have to ask, even if you’re a county councillor. What was the state of the property?”

 “You had to leave in a hurry? I’ll see if we can get someone to take a look at it. If you’ll just give me your address.”

“Well, that’s lucky. Blackwell Station are nearby in their boat. I’m sure they can give it appropriate protection.”

Friday, May 29, 2015

I Read Books: Return of a King

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, 2013

Keen readers of Night of the Hats (which after this long hiatus is probably a cohort of zero even including myself) may recall that in 2011 I read and reviewed a book called Signal Catastrophe: The British Retreat from Kabul, 1842. I commented at the time that "A little more documentation from the Afghan point of view would not have hurt the book."

My note was, of course, criticised as such records were rare and mostly unavailable. Point taken. Entertainingly, at much the same time as I was reading Signal Catastrophe, William Dalrymple had already been to Afghanistan and tracked down several Persian Language accounts of the First Anglo-Afghan War and was in the middle of writing his own take on the topic. Having now read this history, I will not only stand by my earlier statement, but expand on it: The Afghan sources greatly enhance the book.

To continue my unfair comparison between the two books, Signal Catastrophe was narrowly focused: Why was there a retreat, What happened and How did it go so wrong? Return of a King takes a much wider view, looking for the roots of the war in Anglo-Russian relations and attitudes to Central Asia, the role of Persia, the Punjab and to a much lesser extent other countries in the region. It investigates the dynastic and tribal background of the important factions and players in the Afghan kingdom. When the war begins, it looks at the major actions and representative smaller skirmishes. It is especially good at giving us a view of what was happening in Shah Shuja's court, and how as they lost control the British sidelined him more and more, and the ways this fatally made their position untenable.

Perhaps less good are it's views on the outcome and legacy of the war, which are detailed in a handful of pages. (To be fair the final chapter finishes on page 487 and is followed by 80 pages of Author's Note, notes, glossary, bibliography and index, and a proper history of the results would make the book at least half as long again. At least.) Dalrymple draws explicit parallels between the First Afghan War and the current occupation, although he doesn't dwell on it, and keeps in mainly for the introduction and author's note at the back.

Because I can't sum up, let me finally give you a couple of interesting bits from the text. Firstly a quote from Emily Eden, sister of Lord Auckland the Governor General on a problem with the post*:
"We try all sorts of plans; but, first, the monsoon cripples one steamer, and the next comes back with all the letters still on board that we fondly thought were in England. Then we try an Arab sailing vessel; but I always feel convinced that an Arab ship sails wildly about drinking coffee and robbing other ships..."
Secondly, in his summing up (because, as a decent popular historian, he can), Dalrymple notes that in the Afghan documents the British forces had no respect, and would loot and rape and treat them dishonourably; as he puts it:
"The British, in other words, are depicted in the Afghan sources as treacherous and oppressive woman-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect Afghans to look at us."
Read This Book: If you have any interest in Afghanistan, British Imperial History, Central and South Asia or, anything related to that. Also if you want to see what a well-researched, really excellent popular history should be.
Don't Read This Book: If all this stuff is boring or depressing to you. If I have a criticism it's that Dalrymple's prose is mostly simple and inelegant reportage, but since he quotes extensively from letters, journals and even Afghan epic poems of the events I can't really criticise his wordsmithing**.
Am I Going to Plug My Brother's Central Asian Tours? Under no circumstances.

* The regular post ship having been sent as part of the flotilla to occupy the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf.
**His writing is more interesting in City of Djinns his memoir of a year living in Delhi (where he now lives permanently I believe).