Saturday, 24 January 2009

My Worst Week

Looking back in my life there have been bad weeks. Ones that probably stand out were in 1986 when I failed my 'A' levels and one a couple of years later in 1988 when I was diagnosed with diabetes. I forgot the week in 1993 when I failed my teacher training course and was bullied by one of the tutors standing on my doorstep trying to get me to sign a document absolving the college. Being dumped twice by the same woman in different parts of 2003 probably comes close and was no less painful the second time than the first. This week though, must be somewhere in that hall of notoriety. Given the physical symptoms I experienced and the exhaustion I have faced since, I think I was close to having a breakdown. I bellowed at colleagues and stormed out of a meeting. I think having six days of disasters of holiday last year as my only break and no holiday before that since 2005, plus the tensions of Christmas and worries over my employment prospects were already leading me into difficulties.

Taking some time off work and simply slumping in front of the television seems to have remedied things a little but there is still quite a toll to pay in the months to come for what happened this week. I know there are people out there suffering job losses, bankruptcy and house repossession so my worries must seem minor. However, this blog was always about getting the tension out of myself, in that Roman style throwing away that lead tablet in the waters of the internet and making myself feeling just a little better, so I make no apologies for doing that now. This week my computer gave up the ghost against the assault of constant Trojan attacks (surely they should be 'Greeks' rather than Trojans as it was the Greeks who built the horse that went into the city of Troy, so Troy represents your PC and the Greeks are the attackers; perhaps it is because Greece still exists and Greeks might be offended, but when did you last meet a Trojan and I do not mean the condoms). It took PC World 6 days to fix it. My car engine now sounds like it has a lawnmower in it, it is tapping in a strange way which could just be lack of oil or the big end having gone. I was told by my most optimistic boss that there is no hope for me at my current company. I have six months to find a job until my contract expires but it will mean moving yet again to find work, having been in this current house only 13 months so far and in three others since 2005.

The woman in my house is coming home early from the USA, having had her son removed from my care because I threw up my hands in despair at looking after him. In fact given the approaching breakdown though complex with hindsight it was probably the best thing to do. My girlfriend is also splitting from me too. I suppose given the need to move for work, perhaps these are not bad things and may make the next steps easier. Disentangling the mortgage is going to be the toughest aspect. I have absolutely no optimism for my future now. If it proves to be as tough as this week I imagine I will get clinically depressed or will collapse from excessive blood pressure as felt would be the case earlier this week. I have no doubts by January 2009 I will be writing this blog using a dial-up connection from a house in Coventry where I will be renting a room as a lodger. To reverse New Labour's terribly misplaced slogan, 'things can only get worse' and the newspapers, radio and television keep reaffirming that.

(The optical mouse I am using has started going haywire now too and keeps logging me out soe even this short posting has been a real labour. I feel at present everything I touch turns to dung.)

P.P. 29/01/2009 - well it may be becoming my worst fortnight. I managed to get the woman in my house back from the USA without difficulty. I think I was on the verge of a breakdown and having spent four days simply watching TV and DVDs feel a lot better equipped to face the world. However, the car problems got far worse and I had to take it in for repair as it began losing power. It turned out the head gasket had gone, a repair costing £500-£1000 depending on the damage and as I had only spent £1600 to buy the car, which is 12 years old now, even the mechanic said not to bother repairing it. We found it difficult to get a scrap merchant to take the car, two refused because there is a glut of scrapped cars (many newer than mine) in my home town, but ultimately I got £70 for it. Today I am off to see if I can buy a new car. I do hope that tomorrow, Friday, the current spate of problems will come to an end. It is both very wearying and expensive.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Never (Even Temporarily) Be A Father

Back in July 2008, I warned men about the hazards of becoming a father and advised that any sane man avoid doing it. To some extent circumstances have led me to go against my precept, but the outcome has simply reinforced my feelings on this issue. There may be some men out there who can be a father, though I think they are fewer in number than those men who think they can be a father, hence why so many men leave relationships when their children have not yet become adults. Regular readers of this blog know my domestic set up: there is me; a woman acts as kind of housekeeper whilst running her business from the property and there is her 7-year old son. Despite no legal grounds the boy often perceives me as a father figure. Despite the multiplicity of shapes of families these days it is incredible how children still expect some 1950s-style family. He goes to a Christian school so perhaps they teach that that is how families 'should' be (they teach Creationism too) and he has latched on to me as the missing piece to complete the jigsaw puzzle of a 'proper' family.

Despite having lived as a single parent for over three years the woman seems to totally underestimate the difficulties of raising a child alone. I do not think this is an exclusively female perspective nor than all women are good at raising children, some clearly are not. However, it is a very difficult job filled with constant stress even when the child is safely packed off to school. The woman has gone to the USA for about 17 days and convinced me that I could look after her child while she was away. These days schools are very strict about taking children out in term time and the school just pointed out that a child away for 10 days, i.e. two school weeks, would only attain an attendance level of 95.6% whereas the target for the school is 96.4%! For fear of losing a contributor to the mortgage at a time of such housing depression I complied. That was the worst mistake I have made in a long time and regular readers of this blog will know I am very good at making bad mistakes. She left on Thursday and we are now at Tuesday and the stress is causing real health issues. I have pain down my left side, my head feels like it is in a clamp, my breathing is laboured and there is so much acid in my stomach that I have retched close to vomiting already this morning.

Children of 7 have set patterns that they are unwilling to break even when circumstances have changed. You cannot get them to understand that they cannot continue behaving the way they do when Mummy is around when she is not around. If I could have done I should have taken leave for this whole period as holding down a job 30-46 miles (depending on which office I am in that day) from where the child is schooled makes things difficult. I pleaded with my employer (which is supposedly family-friendly) to not have things scheduled to clash with school times and they simply did the opposite. In addition, one department has kept setting meetings at short notice and moving them around as if we are all entirely flexible. To cope with the situation I have been compelled to use a childminder but it is very difficult if I have to keep ringing her up to say, do not collect the child this afternoon as the meeting is off, but could she do it on Thursday and then ringing back the next day to say, now Thursday is off, it is back to Wednesday. I know single parents cope with this kind of stuff all the time, but I imagine most do not work full-time in the next city along.

I lack the authority of a genuine parent, I accept that, so I am left with cajoling, bribing, threatening withholding of treats and simply begging to get the child to comply. I am effectively sharing a house with a 65-year old Classics professor, he is so pedantic and insistent that everything is done 'just so'. There is no room for variation. I imagine I would be a bad candidate for someone caring for an elderly person too. I have not even begun to explore that type of caring. I suppose I could just let the child do what it wants, stay up all night and live on crisps for 17 days, but I worry the school will then get upset and complain. His school is unwilling to act in loco parentis on any occasion (e.g. when the child is vomiting they simply stick him/her in the corridor and shriek down the telephone for the parent to come and collect the child no matter what they might be doing), but is happy to police what it feels is wrong at home. The lack of compliance with what seems even a sensible suggestion got me to such a state last night that I was tempted to telephone social services and get the child taken into foster care saying his mother had skipped off across the Atlantic, which, in fact is the truth. Selfishly, though doing that would mean the end of the mortgage payments from her and me having to move for the fifth time in four years. Of course if this stressful situation leads me to a heart attack then that will have to occur anyway, so it might be just a matter of time. There are 11 days still to go and a lot could happen in that time.

Anyway, men, learn from me. Do not let yourself be tricked into looking after a child for more than a few hours. It is a near impossible task especially as you are having to start from scratch with the child and they will fight tooth and nail to adhere to their normal day-to-day pattern as well as trying to see how far they can push you. If you find yourself in such a situation and are not trapped by financial arrangements, blame the mother for desertion and hand the child over to social services, they are trained for dealing with these things, you are not.

P.P. 22/01/2009, my health was deteriorating as a result of my blood pressure rocketing due to looking after the child. My head felt like it was in a vice, my breathing was laboured and I had pain all down my left side. My emailed demand to the woman to return from the USA led her to send her sister immediately to collect the child and he has gone away to stay with her. The woman is furious that I have failed in my duty and is trying to fly back early though this is proving difficult due to the Obama effect. Naturally she is equally angry that I have wrecked her holiday. I was in an impossible situation from the start, if I had tried to stop her going there would have been complaints (there are anyway now that I have asked her to come back) that I was restricting her life. Equally I am not physically or emotionally able to raised a child on my own, and I had said this all along.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Female-Male Household Chore Balance

I have mentioned before in passing how the song 'If I Was a Boy' by Beyonce which seems to have been on the radio for months is so unpleasant. All women pop artists seem to record at least one song about being cheated on and sometimes one about the experience making her stronger. I accept that for securing a female audience for their tracks this is a sensible thing to do. However, the impression it gives is that there are no decent men at all in the USA, that every man that even someone as independent as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna or Christina Aguillera is ever going to meet is going to cheat on them, be lazy and probably steal from them.

Beyonce's is probably the worst in which she envisages herself being a man for a day and she portrays the life of a slob not bothering with his appearance, doing bad things he knows he will get away with and being inconsiderate to his girlfriend. The man portrayed has no redeeming features and because she speaks about it generically, not referrring to a particular man it is seen as an admonishment to men in general. She gives not chance for the man, 'because you're just a boy, you don't understand' and never will. It is interesting that the word 'boy' is used especially from a black US artist. Perhaps she has no knowledge of its history. You can photographs from the 1950s of black men with placards saying 'I am not a boy, I am a man', because 'boy' was used to denigrate black men in segregated America to make them seem inferior or at least juvenile. You still hear South Africans (and not just white ones) refer to their 'garden boy' or 'the boy who fixed the car' to refer to black men in menial jobs even this long after apartheid finished. I know that like the word 'nigger' in US culture, boy has to some extent been recaptured as a kind of knock-about phrase, see 'Boyz N The 'Hood' (1991), 'Bad Boys' (1995) and 'Bad Boys 2' (2003) for a young man. However, with one swoop Beyonce has almost reinstated it as a derogatory term.

That is sorted then, why not just go off and become a lesbian because clearly no man stands a chance with you Beyonce. Probably more accurately no woman would either, as a lot of what she is talking about is selfishness. There is a sense that if a partner is not in 100% agreement with what the princess wants then he is not listening properly. Has Beyonce (or her song writer - BC Jean, aged 21) ever actually been in a relationship? If they try to run them like this then they are doomed to failure. All relationships are about balance, however, by bringing up daughters to think they are princesses the balance is being shattered. A princess feels she deserves to have absolutely everything she wishes. Some find men who will comply, but the women in such situations become insatiable and a lot of the bad debt in the UK is caused by unsustainable demands in the average household because no-one is willing to say 'let's stop and think if we can afford it' or even 'no'. This is the crux of the matter. On Beyonce's basis any man saying 'no' is simply not listening. What is neglected entirely, is that as adults we can listen and yet still disagree with someone. I accept that people say 'no' sometimes on an irrational basis, but then if you think that you open up dialogue. The female attitude that every request/demand must be complied with or it simply proves that the message has not been heard is very unhealthy and helps wreck relationships. Relationships that succeed are a fine balance that needs constant work from both parties. If one side keeps simply demanding and will not accept any other opinion then it is as much fun as being on a see-saw with one side concreted to the ground.

Relationships are supposed to be about fun are they not? They may be hard work at times, but that hard work is put in so that you can get some fun out of it. If the man is simply fuelling a consumer furnace (or conversely the woman is simply fuelling an eating, sleeping one; I am not saying all men are blameless) then there will never be fun and you might as well not bother. Of course in our societies people may be dependent on others economically and so have fewer options, but basically if you are not having fun with your relationship, why bother? I will be interested to see what the forthcoming movie 'Revolutionary Road' about a couple in small town USA (played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio) triggers off on this issue.

Women, you have to accept that a man you enter into a relationship is a man, he is an adult and so can make choices. These choices may differ from yours but that does not make him necessarily selfish or deaf to what you are saying. Presenting the options is the basis for discussion, and dialogue and debate are the only ways modern day human interaction can prosper whether it is within your family or at work or on the road or in the supermarket or wherever. The problem is, that in contrast to my generation, people are not taught that 'you can't always get all you want', if you admit that these days you are seen somehow as a fool or weak, but it is in fact an eternal truth of humanity and a lot of dissatisfaction arises from not recognising it. Treat your man like a man and talk with him rather than at him. Most men struggle to give their partners everything they want but at times they cannot or disagree that it is the right thing. A different opinion is not a crime (of course US culture's attitude tends to view that differently too, which may be a root cause of a lot of this).

Now, there is one issue on which men do fall down and that is domestic chores. A lot of the statistics come from the USA but it does seem that in the past thirty years the amount of housework done by men has risen by only 15% and time spent with children has trebled. However, men still totally underperform in the household chores. Though women now make up 46% of the workforce in the UK (and about 53% of the total population, though they are far more numerous among the over-65s) they do an average of 3 hours housework per day compared to 1 hour 40 minutes by men. This does not include shopping and childcare. In Spain in 2005, the government introduced a law to compel men to do 50% of the chores in the house. In that country women do up to five times as much housework as men who in turn only spend 13 minutes per day with their children. Men with younger wives and from better educated and better paid jobs are far more likely to do housework than men from lesser paid jobs. When the man earns far more of the income than the woman he is also less likely to work in the home. To some extent this all cuts back to the long hours and low pay that many people are expected to tolerate, especially in the UK. However, it also returns us to the 1970s perspective that running a house is a job for which people should be paid by the state, especially if child rearing is involved. The internet age has helped and being able to order groceries online and shop 24 hours per day in superstores has brought some flexibility. Interestingly men reduce the amount of housework they do when they marry their partner (presumably they feel they have caught her and no longer need to impress her) and after children are born because additional work derived from child rearing is seen as purely the woman's job. Given the rise in women doing 'do-it-yourself' activities such as fixing and installing things, roles that were previously seen as exclusively male, the overall balance of what goes on in the house seems to be tipping even further back towards the women.

Now, many women make the mistake of setting up home with a man who has come straight from his parental home (36% of boys and 23% of girls do no housework while growing up which is a neglectful attitude from parents). It is far better to pick a man who has lived alone for a while. Of course if he lives in utter squalor then pass him by. However, most young men who live alone get themselves together sufficiently to vacuum clean, wash dishes and wash clothing not least so that their property is not a health hazard. Men who rent property have it checked, depending on the landlord/lady, once every 1-6 months so cannot let it get too bad or they will be evicted, something they usually try to avoid. Having found a man you want to live with, talk to him about domestic chores before you start living together. You may be in love with each other but you are also becoming housemates. This may be why better educated men do more housework as they have usually lived away from home (though this is declining in the UK) while at university and been compelled to do chores, often as part of a rota. Another good source of men who can do chores are the armed forces.

Too many women do not talk through these things when the moving in together is being discussed and instead somehow expect the man to know who is to do what. Of course, despite what women think, men are not mindreaders (nor are women) and then she gets frustrated. Do not accuse him of 'not listening' when in fact you have never raised the issue. Talking about washing and cleaning is not sexy, but it helps a relationship run more smoothly. Both US and UK researchers have concluded that women who see their man doing more housework feel they are being treated more fairly and are more likely to engage in sexual activity with that man. How hard is housework? It is boring yes, so put your ipod on or iron in front of your favourite DVD, then it is little different to if you were simply watching TV or listening to music. Also think it is liable to win you more sex too. For some light physical activity you get quite a lot of reward.

Successful, enduring, fun relationships often are founded upon hammering out quite mundane and tedious issues. There is no point starting assuming that the man is incapable of understanding what is needed, you might as well give up right away. Beyonce, labelling men as irredeemable every morning on my radio is not helping gender relationships. Let us have a hit song about a man and woman discussing what has to be done and then getting it on because they feel there is a balance, and above all discussion, not simply dictation, in their relationship. Let us have less 'If I Were A Boy' and more of McFadden & Whitehead's 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now' (1979): 'There's been so many things that have held us down/ But now it looks like things are finally comin' around/ I know we've got a long, long way to go/ And where we'll end up, I don't know/ But we won't let nothin' hold us back/ We're puttin' ourselves together, We're polishin' up our act, yeah./'

Religion, Posters and Public Transport

You may have read about all the furore this month around the posters expressing doubt in the existence of God. They have been termed 'atheist' posters and the £140,000 campaign (€140,000; US$207,000) has been run by the Atheist Bus Campaign fronted by writer Ariane Sherine. It was lauched in June 2008. The campaign needed £6000 just for the advertisements in London but within two days of being launched donations had reached £87,000 and ultimately rose to £135,000 allowing the campaign to expand. It has inspired a parallel one in Washington DC in the USA where in November 2008, the slogan, 'Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake' appeared inside 230 buses. In the UK the posters will appear on 200 London buses, 600 buses across England, Wales and Scotland (interestingly not Northern Ireland with all its religious difficulties) and a further 1000 posters on the London Underground, I do not have the details, but I assume this is both walls and inside trains. This extended campaign has cost £140,000. The UK slogan is much more ambivalent, saying 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life'. I would argue that the 'probably' makes it agnostic rather than atheist and in contrast to the US version it seems to suggest replace a moral code enforced by a deity simply with hedonism. This is rather missing the point as it neglects to point out that atheist viewpoints such as Humanism do have a moral approach to life. In my experience, all the Humanists I have met have a much more caring attitude to humans as a whole than the bulk of Christians, Muslim and Jews, many of whom seem to want to categorise people and criticise and neglect, even oppress those in different categories to them, even when they follow the same religion.

The point of the campaign was to provide a balance to all those Biblical tracts and advertisements for various gurus that have appeared particularly on the London Underground for years. No-one complained about a whole slew of things some of which indicated that if you were not following the particular line they were promoting, eternal damnation awaited. I would have welcomed a more ardent atheist text saying something like 'Stop wasting your time reading the Bible/Torah/Koran it was written long after the events portrayed and in a way which helped promote the interests of the men who produced it. Instead go and do something to help real people in the 21st century.' Instead we have a very British, very tepid approach, which in the words of Theos a UK 'religious think tank' which told 'The Guardian' newspapr that '[t]he posters will encourage people to consider the most important question we will ever face in our lives. The slogan itself is a great discussion starter. Telling someone 'there's probably no God' is a bit like telling them they've probably remembered to lock their door. It creates the doubt that they might not have.' I just had to laugh at this phrase: 'a bit like telling them they've probably remembered to lock their door'. People are dying around the World over issues of God, it is not like leaving your door unlocked. Religious warfare is alive and well in this century, just ask Christians in Iraq or Iran or atheists facing prejudice in the USA or non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, let alone anyone who lived under the Taliban or lived in Northern Ireland at any time, especially since 1969.

Now a bus driver in Southampton has baulked at driving a bus with one of these posters on it. Given that millions of us have had to travel on public transport for years with religious slogans all over the place this is rather rich. However, it does expose the fact that though Britain (i.e. the UK outside Northern Ireland) is ambivalent to religion there is a tough resistant prejudice that actually we are all guided by Christianity are we not? This is the worst form of religion in the UK. Most of the followers of what you might term 'society Christianity' are not that moral. They are in fact usually self-righteous, very selfish and intolerant certainly to difference. They do not really follow Christianity's morals and yet use it for disapproval and to beat others they feel are 'different' or they simply do not like the look of. This is the state religion in the UK today, far more than people who actually attend church. They pick and choose among the elements of religion to give themselves a social control tool. For these people who number in their millions in the UK I suggest a poster 'you say you're a Christian, well, behave like one then!'. The Advertising Standards Authority has received 232 complaints about the atheist posters and to some degree these people are just being indignant for the sake of it. I am glad we have not had the avalanche of indignation that seemed to be a fashion at the end of last year. The posters are so bland that there is little to take offence at and it is irritating that some people are unwilling to give a centimetre, to even allow any challenge to their way of thinking even if they only pay lip service to what they say is their 'faith'.

The bus driver in question, Ron Heather, I accept is probably a genuine Christian, but he wants to police what his passengers are exposed to and that is not acceptable. It is pathetic that he says that many of his passengers are over 90 and/or ill and it is bad to suggest to them that there might not be any God. This is a terribly patronising view of the elderly, most of whom, I imagine will have made their minds up long ago about what awaits them after death. They might welcome some stimulus to discussion at the bus stop or to provoke them to think something different. The elderly do not need anyone to silo them into what is seen as nice, comfortable pathways. Heather totally neglects the fact that many thinking of being judged by God will worry that they have not lived good enough lives and may have such fears alleviated by thinking they will simply dissolve back into atoms and become part of the World. We need to challenge those who think they are 'good' but their definition is that they are because they can shop for their family and charge around in their 4x4 with little concern for anything beyond their own desire.

I welcome having some theological/philosophical debate on our public transport. I think the Atheist Bus Campaign has missed an opportunity to really create this and instead have ended up with a tepid British approach to these things. I look forward to more ardent slogans on buses I see, ones I hope will challenge people to actually live a moral life, one that concerns itself with the welfare of all of our fellow humans.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Bitter Legacy of Recession

To people of my grandparents' generation (my grandfathers were 17 and 29 in 1929) there was one 'Depression' the economic downturn which affected the World from about 1929-36/9 depending on where you lived; New Zealand and Australia had been facing difficulties as early as 1927. Anyway, it was a period of economic slowdown leading to mass unemployment, peaking somewhere over 6 million people out of work in Germany in 1933 and globally unemployment was around 22% of people of working age in 1932. In the UK my grandfathers generally escaped the severest of the problems because they worked in the modern parts of engineering and were based in the South-East of England, the most prosperous part of the UK. Elsewhere in the UK, notably the heavy industrial regions of South West, North-West and North-East England and Central Scotland there was far worse times leading to hunger and deprivation. In those days the welfare state was minimally developed so there was little protection for those who were unemployed or their families. As always the wealthy saw it as an opportunity to grab back rights over individuals and for example, to compel women to go back into domestic service at low wage rates as in the 1920s it had proven tough to get cheap servants as more employment opportunities had opened up for women in the wake of the First World War.

Looking back in the 1970s, the Depression was something that these men and women never expected to see a repeat of. Anyway, the welfare state that had been constructed since 1945 made it far less harsh on people than had been the case forty years before. Then of course came the Thatcher years when the Conservative government engineered an economic downturn for political gains, primarily to smash the position of the trade unions, lower wage rates and make a workforce that was more compliant than the one they felt their government had inherited after the industrial unrest of the 1970s. Of course in 1974 the UK's industrial base for the first time had a majority of service sector jobs over manufacturing jobs and the decline of manufacturing continued apace across the western World. However, in the UK it was accelerated by hostile government policies. Added to this was an ideological element. In line with the American New Right attitudes, unemployed people were made to feel guilty for not having a job, they were portayed as lazy, unwilling to be flexible in finding work and somehow even 'sleazy' for accepting welfare payments in order to stay housed and feed their families.

Despite the complaints that British workers were unwilling to move to find work (viz Norman Tebbit's cry to 'get on your bike' to find work - though given the sharp differences in house prices the Conservative insistence that you were nothing if you did not own your own house actually reduced labour flexibility) I constantly encountered men who had travelled from other parts of the UK to South-East England where the service sector was prospering and lived in cramped accommodation often with many men to a single bedroom, just the way that foreign immigrants had typically done in the past, so they could earn money to send home. Let alone those Britons who went abroad to find work. Many people refer to the drama series 'Boys from the Black Stuff' (1982) as encapsulating the era, but they should also look at the comedy 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (1983) about British builders in West Germany to show another facet.

To people who had lived through the Depression or knew its history, we seemed to be back in those times once again. Unemployment officially was around 3.4 million in the UK at its peak, but on the way we measure it now it would have been something like 4 million. Certainly given the rise in female employment throughout the 20th century and the need since around 1966 to have two adult incomes to sustain a family of four, made exclusion of married women from the unemployment figures wrong.

Of course, often with hindsight people see the 1980s as an era of 'greed is good' and people able to make millions. Because some people did, this was used to show us that all of us could. However, the fact that much of such sums were derived through asset stripping other industries and forcing down wages shows the lie. Most of us had to be exploited by such conditions in order for those people to make their profits. Sound familiar?

I was growing up in the 1980s, I was 13 in 1980 and 23 in 1990. I managed to avoid most of the problems because I lived in South-East England and went to university and had prosperous parents who did not lose their jobs. Yet even I was aware of the impact that the Recession of the 1980s had on people. The key impact which still lingers today, was fear. Parents in particular were terrified of what would happen to their company. Life became grey, holidays were cancelled, people even complained when people on benefits had a television or wanted hot food. Families were broken up by the unemployment. Even at university, where we were the privileged (only 6% of 18 year olds went to university then compared to over 40% now) we all feared a long period of unemployment ahead of us at graduation. Despite graduating in 1990, I did not earn above £10,000 (€10,000; US$14,800) until 2001. When colleagues at work talk about how long the second recession of 1990-3 actually went on, lingering to 1996 and beyond, I wholeheartedly support them in their statements. In fact between 1981-96, the British economy as the bulk of the population experienced it was in a bad state and unemployment in reality was always far worse than statistics made out.

I find it ironic that there is a current radio advertisement encouraging young people to go to university and 'taste the opportunity' and 'be everything' that they 'could ever be'. Recession as were are experiencing now and will at least until 2015 if not longer clamps down on opportunity. Of course tens of thousands more young people go to university now than they did in 1985 and they have been lied to that for the thousands of pounds of debt they are incurring they will have a chance for a good job. This is utter rubbish. They have little chance of a job let alone a good one. Unemployment is set to return to 3 million and there is no sense it will stop there. This time we do not only have structural readjustment and a consumer downturn but we have vulture funds wrecking established companies for nothing but their own gains. Unemployment among people aged under 25 is at least 40%, i.e. 1.25 million people and unemployment in this age group is rising faster than among other age groups. Unlike their predecessors graduates in this group have massive debts that on a normal basis it would take years to clear, but this will be prolonged by a long period of unemployment.

Of course graduates are those with greatest privileges, they tend still, mainly to come from well off families and by definition to be best educated. So if they are being pushed into unemployment what about those young people with lower qualifications. Even in the mid-1990s you would see graduates hiding their degrees from their CVs so that they could get the low paid jobs that were going. Carl Gilleard, chief executive of Graduate Recruiters has advised graduates to do this, to take the mundane jobs. Of course this simply displaces the less qualified from those posts. For young people at whatever level of education, there is now no opportunity. You fight tooth and nail against everyone just to secure that job in a call centre as you know there is nothing else. When there you make no protest and simply work harder and harder, knowing that simple dislike from your line manager is sufficient to doom you to unemployment.

Everyone seems to forget the terror of the 1980s. Of course it was deliberate, the wealthy felt that workers were not sufficiently obsequious let alone grateful for their jobs and sufficiently subservient in the way they should be. Of course to any employer such things should be part of the natural order, whereas of course, I will contest such things as giving up human dignity. Once again with the years of New Labour, the employers feel we have become too cocky, slack and lazy and certainly not cheap enough employees. Back in July 2008 I talked about how employers felt they had insufficient unemployment to be the necessary 'whip' for their workers and of course now they have it back.

The legacy of the 1980s was enduring and I feel it has damaged British society. For a start people seek scapegoats and there are already warnings of rising tensions, often ethnically focused, on the UK's housing estates. People forget that the 1980s was renowned for rioting right across the UK and only some of it was directed at government policy, the rest of it was directed at people's neighbours. Now we have immigrants again who no doubt will form the focus of such attacks. In return the police gets heavy armament and restricts our civil society even further. The authoritarian state that Tony Blair so loved, ironically will come a step closer through the failure of New Labour's economic plans.

The other thing is that people stop taking risks. This means that they do not travel, they do not learn other languages, they do not set up businesses, they stay at home as a meek pool of labour. The wealthy do not want the masses to travel and to be educated because then they might start challenging their position. The whole thing about expanding university entry, lifelong learning, staying in education until 18, is now being undermined by the whip of unemployment. It smacks down people but it smashes their dreams far more. The reason why immigrants come to the UK, and increasingly from places like Eastern Europe and South Asia where they have been well educated and instilled with an enthusiasm to better themselves, is because so many people born in the UK have had all desire to take risks or get ahead, beaten out of them. It was beaten out of their parents in the 1980s and it is being beaten out of young people today.

Recession sees the redistribution of opportunity back to the wealthy and privileged who have always had the greatest opportunities and yet seem loath to even share them. This week I came across the trend of the 'New Olympians' as outlined by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson in 'The Gods That Failed' (2008). They argue that the current situation is not some error or mishap of the global economy, but is in fact engineered by the powerful who feel that it is right that they should be serviced by the bulk of the population and that any movement away from that is wrong. This suggests that the post-1945 consensus or even the post-1848 perspective, that privilege should be challenged and that those in privilege should accept responsibility for their actions has been overthrown. In its place we have returned to some kind of medieval attitude, shorn of any Victorian philanthropic or even simply Christian elements, back to the anointment by God of certain individuals who it is wrong to even attempt to constrain in the slightest. King Charles I would feel very much at home as a vulture fund head, but people, he was a 17th century monarch, not someone of the 21st century. Are the gains of the past four centuries not worth struggling for.

Recession creates the passive UK society that so many with money and influence have been creating and seeking to maintain for so long. People now talk of 1945-73 as an aberration, instead we should have the hierarchical society in which everyone knows their place. Interestingly privilege is already receiving a boost. Even among universities employers are now only going to Oxford, Cambridge and the three colleges of London University: University College (UCL), Imperial and London School of Economics (which has the worst organised library I have ever seen). Attempts to widen access into the legal profession (only 10% of barristers have gone to a comprehensive school), the civil service, the military, are being attacked openly as 'class war'. People are no longer afraid to protect privilege even though it means that the top people in most of our state arms are from select private schools (and private schools in their entirety only educate 7% of children). Everyone especially in the middle classes, somehow thinks they are exempt, that they and their children will have opportunity. This is a massive delusion. Those who have opportunity are probably less than 7%, probably less than 1% of the population of any country. Yes, you might be able to get your child a job when others are out of work, but in fact they have no more chance of improving themselves and in fact no greater security than an orphan from a poor housing estate. There is the elite and there are the bulk of us, in-fighting in order to get the scraps the ultra-rich toss down. Of course they might not even select to distribute any scraps in your country they might all go to Poland or India or somewhere else. Do not delude yourself it is ever different.

The recession, as in the 1980s is being used in the UK to close down social mobility once again. No-one seems to have learnt the lesson that in the long-run this will damage the UK, because the bulk of successful new businesses in the UK are created not by those in the Establishment (they have no incentive to labour or innovate) but by 'outsiders' whether socially, ethnically or in terms of nationality. The UK is increasingly like China at the end of the 19th century more eager to cling to its out-dated structure than to move with the times to actually help the state to survive. The UK needs a social mobile, educated, confident population not a restricted and fearful one.

The current recession has come about through greed and game playing by the very rich. However, they are far from averse to it and its consequences as they recognise that twenty years on it allows them to jolt the bulk of society back into servile manners. States have found, that in contrast to the mid-20th century (and even then it was tough if you look at how governments were powerless to restrain oil companies) states have found that they cannot even get utility companies to behave in a decent, humane let alone altruistic manner. The ultra-rich are beyond government control and now they are effecting the kinds of society they want, totally unchallenging to them and enabling them to squeeze yet more profit.

I have seen cartoons recently in which Karl Marx is adopting an 'I told you so' manner. What Marx missed entirely is that even hiccoughs in capitalism let alone any steps towards seeming 'collapse' so terrifies the bulk of people, so divides them, so gives the justification to repression that no-one with revolutionary sentiments can come forward. Even in the 1980s I never anticipated that these circumstances of restricted mobility and economic hardship would persist so long, yet, now I know that whenever I die I will feel that I have lived through bad times and any periods when that was not the case were brief aberrations in the sustained period, through economic means, of fear and restriction of the bulk of the population of the UK.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Publishing On Demand: Sales the Only Quality Control?

I have a feeling that there are going to be fewer postings on this blog in 2009 than in the past. Though, if, as I anticipate, I lose my job in August and my house in December (possibly sooner) then I will have a lot more to write about the difficulties of finding work and renting again after reposession. The newspapers are jammed with information about collapse and especially unemployment. Having lived through the 1980s, the one thing I must say is that at least the government is making some efforts to ameliorate the situation with schemes for the unemployed, especially the young who are over-represented and trying to kick the banks into freeing up credit flows. In the 1980s, the government did nothing except worsen the situation, such as by shutting down the coal industry. We were told it was 'necessary' and that to complain about it we were naive or foolish and if we were out of work we were lazy. Of course the people saying that were in good jobs and saw their salaries rise. I do not think the government will achieve much in countering what is a global problem but at least this time we will not be made to feel guilty for the foolish policies of bankers and/or the government. I just wish the woman in my house, like many others would refuse to discuss it. She complained last year that I was overly gloomy when I simply predicted a slight fall in house prices and now when things are many times worse than I said they would be she still complains that I should not discuss the impact on this household. Effectively I need to move to the Midlands where there is work in my field and hanging on while my company sheds more and more jobs is short-sighted and will lead to more upheaval in the end.

Anyway, this was not meant to be a posting about the economy, you can find enough about that at present at every turn. Instead I was going to look at a trend which anyone who has been interested in writing fiction will have been aware for the past few years: publishing on demand. Living in Milton Keynes it was a trend that was apparent locally because we had a big Amazon warehouse near us and the online booksellers Amazon, is the major outlet for published-on-demand books. Now, I am not really certain what the difference between published-on-demand and vanity-published books is. Someone I know who is about to publish-on-demand recently condemned another author had had published that way as simply spent on vanity publishing, so it seems that even authors operating in this field are uncertain about the boundaries.

Vanity publishing was around certainly throughout the 20th century and probably for much of the 19th century. You paid a fee to a disreputable publisher, equivalent to some thousands of pounds these days and they told you your novel was wonderful and published it, but did nothing to market it or promote it. To some extent with the cost of promotion and the uncertainty of sales, many mainstream publishers have sort of moved in this direction anyway. They would not charge you a fee, but if they accept your book as being worthwhile publishing, they will do that but then leave most of the marketing and selling up to you. They do take the risk of publishing the books but reduce their overheads by adopting this approach. To some extent it fits the standard publisher's view that the author sells their book rather than the book selling the book. Intriguing authors can make sales of poor quality books and boring, mudane authors will bring down the sales of even the best written or interesting book. Having publication by a proper publisher, however, for you as an author is nice, because you feel that your book has been approved on the basis of quality. In addition you have not had to pay the vanity publishers' fees, but, even so, your book may rarely appear in any bookshop and its sales may be very low.

Technology shifted the balance in the 2000s. With the computerisation of printing it was possible to simply run off a single copy of a book rather than spend time and effort resetting the printing presses for each one. It did mean that unit costs do not fall the more you print, it costs the same per unit if you print one or ten thousand, but it did allow publishers, and increasingly authors to match supply more closely to demand rather than filling up those remaindered bookshops which still seem to be present in every town with unsold stock. I suppose it is better for the environment too. Perhaps, also, publishers will be willing to take more risk and publish books from different genres that are less mainstream, less worried that they will be left with loads of unsold books if a gamble does not pay off.

With publishers expecting authors to do more of (or entirely) their own marketing, some authors have moved towards a much more direct connection between themselves and their reader/buyer. Back in the early 2000s I attended a talk by a man who had retired early and had gone on various travels around the World, increasingly sponsored for charity and he had begun writing up his exploits as books. He had paid to have these published-on-demand and what he was doing was going around the UK to individual bookshops and offering to signings and talks. There he would take orders and then telephone his publisher and run off just as many books as he needed. He of course had a few samples with him and he would pay a fee to the bookshop for hosting him. He also spoke at other venues like writers' groups, book groups, womens' groups, etc. which had lower overheads for him. In return they got an entertaining speaker. Now, obviously not all of us can tramp around the country selling our books in this way, but it is the path for some. The way more people can do it is via the internet. It is not difficult to have a website set up to sell your books. You can even simply sell them through eBay if you like. There are overheads but they are comparatively small and no doubt you will soon get a feel for if your book is going to sell.

The relationship with publish-on-demand publisher is not free. You pay a fee but usually of only a few hundreds of pounds, well below the old vanity rates. In addition, the more you are willing to do yourself, such as typeset and design the book cover, the cheaper the rate is. The best thing, though, is to make sure you get a page on Amazon because they you become open to the global, English-speaking market. Of course you may never sell thousands, but for the average author even knowing one hundred people have bought their book and are most likely reading it, is a huge step forward from just having it read by friends and family. Of course, you do not even have to have a paper copy, I came across a woman who writes Jane Austen pastiches, who just sells e-books of them off her website. Now, presumably there is sufficient demand otherwise she would not have kept bothering. She still seems to be there even seven years since I first ran across her.

The issue that arises is about quality. Getting a book published in the traditional way you first had to attract the attention of an agent because publishers hate getting books sent directly too them. Getting an agent could be difficult especially if you were writing in a genre which was not mainstream. Then your agent had to find a publisher who would read it and even the best agents were not 100% successful in doing this even for good authors. Then the publisher had to approve your book and move ahead to publishing it. All of this could take time. There was an assumption that poor quality books would not get through, though we all know that that is not the case. Think about all the 'bonk busters', 'shopping novels', 'airport thrillers', celebrity 'auto'-biographies that get produced and sold in large numbers. In particular, influential people often write books whether fiction or non-fiction that get published with little concern for quality and anyone, like me, who has been involved in writers' groups know there are tens of authors in each county who write excellent stuff that will never be published. However, with publish-on-demand there is no quality control. Anyone who can pay to have their novel published in this way will get it out there, and this is why I feel there remain overlaps with vanity publishing.

The one element of quality control of publish-on-demand books is customer demand. If no-one buys the book, none will be printed and presumably no-one will be waiting for the author's next book. The worst of it will be that it is held in some Kb on a computer somewhere until author or publisher decides to delete it. You can argue that publishing on demand is truly democratic publishing. However, this neglects the issue about how people find out about the books in the first place. I was asked by a friend of a friend how he could publicise his gothic-style contemporary thriller more effectively. It had been published by a proper publishers, not on demand, it had its Amazon page but people were oblivious to it. He might as well have published-on-demand and had to get out there and sell it himself. So, there is a need for the kind of publicity that publishers can give. Perhaps blogging can fill in part of this role. Back in July 2009 I followed a link to the 'Eve's Alexandria' blog: which is a blog book reviews by this Eve. I read very slowly, it takes me about three months to get through the average novel, otherwise I would be tempted to have a blog which reviewed publish-on-demand novels.

Quality control by sales can be seen as a way for good books to come to the fore, if only over a long period of time, and assuming they can get equal exposure. Of course, people writing for a particular genre, might simply want sales to a particular audience, such as Goths, and for them that is sufficient. I was interested in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. Last year they had 5000 entries and these were whittled down to 800 from which excerpts were exposed to public vote on a regional basis. I contributed my views on a few, but was severely put off when it came to the final 10. They seemed to be the most blandest of the bland novels and I refused to comment on them thinking of the much better ones which had fallen by the wayside. Perhaps I am out of step with current trends in contemporary novels, but I did despair that the repeated distilling of novels from local, regional and national levels simply left us with the least offensive, but also the least engaging examples that had been produced. When they emailed me to see if I would comment on any novels in this year's competition, I simply ignored it, feeling there was no point in me contributing as the things I felt that were of the poorest quality will always win.

Perhaps being too democratic leads simply to sameness and we need an eclectic mix to creep in around the sides, and maybe published-on-demand novels provide that. Given my Gothic tastes I am much more likely to see novels that interest and even, dare I say it, excite me coming through the more informal route (though I acknowledge that the cost in itself is a filter keeping back a lot of the kinds of people who would be interested in Gothic fiction). Such 'leaking in' benefits the mainstream too. I do not know the total sales for the novel 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis De Bernieres but it sold over 420,000 copies on Amazon alone and was made into a Hollywood movie in 2001 (which he disliked, but I feel has a far more feasible, though more romantic, ending than the book). I would challenge you to name another of De Bernieres's novels, though he has written six, the first in 1990, and short stories too. 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' was first published in 1993 but it took over two years before there were any significant sales, and then it exploded. The reason for this was recommendation through word-of-mouth rather than any sophisticated marketing approach. To some extent his example has encouraged 'viral advertising' of new books and television programmes, though this does not always work the way people hope/expect.

So, not shaking off my concerns about quality control of publish-on-demand novels, I can see they are a way to get a wider variety of writing of all sorts of quality, some really excellent, out into the marketplace. I am optimistic that there will be quality control via sales, and if people want to pay to read poor quality novels, then I guess that it is their money.

If I had not had such a tough time financially (the capital gains tax was finally settled yesterday!!!) I might have been tempted to go down the path of publishing-on-demand. However, I now know that it would be an utter waste of time. I have been running this blog since May 2007 and it has some of my best writing on it, but not a single one of my novels has attracted a single comment. Clearly there is absolutely no demand for my writing. The novel I put on Gothic Steampunk Phantastic was read by 114 people in a year and that was probably because it was free. Perhaps authors thinking of publishing-on-demand should do what I have done, first, and test the water. If, like me, you generate not an iota of interest, instead spend the money on a decent graphics package, make up your own book cover and simply put a copy on your shelf where it will get the most appreciative audience.

P.P. 24/01/2009 - If you ever had any hope of being published except by paying for it yourself, something I read in 'The Guardian' today will douse that belief. Apparently, Harper Collins, just one of numerous publishers in the UK receives 1000 (one thousand) unsolicited novels every month. On top of this must be added the ones which they commission or come through agents. Publishers refer to where most of these novels end up as the 'slush pile'. Uniquely Harper Collins has introduced a rolling system a little like the Amazon breakthrough voting system, i.e. they allow authors to upload the novels on to a section called Authonomy. Apparently it already has 12,000 subscribers who read and rate the novels. Clearly if you are short of cash and want to get fiction for free or want to pass the time at your PC it is a good place to go. Some novels rise to prominence by being voted on by readers and Harper Collins has now given contracts to three that reached the top. While it is good that these authors received prominence, you do wonder about the quality. I anticipate that the same factors will prevail as with the Amazon competition and innovative novels will sink without trace and the most bland will float to the top. Interestingly, one that has succeeded actually has already been self-published, but the author uploaded it to Authonomy to get a better profile. Knowing the level of competition that I face has made me abandon hope of ever being published. Here is likely the only place you will ever see my fiction and given the lack of response, no-one out there is interested in it anyway.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

The Challenge of ONN Vacuum Cleaners

Well, this may appear to be a bizarre issue to concern myself with for the new year but it is something that has caused frustration and if I alert you to it, it may stop you falling into the same trap as I did, especially given that this is the time of year when people buy electrical goods. I had owned a small 1100 watt, 1.5 litre vacuum cleaner since 2001 when I lived in a two-bedroomed flat. When I moved into a larger house but lived alone this was sufficient. When I moved to the five-bedroomed place with more residents, the housekeeper had an identical one (though hers was grey and mine was yellow) so one was kept for upstairs and one for downstairs which seemed sufficient. However, in the course of 2007 both of these machines being at least six years old wore out. I decided to replace them with a larger single vacuum cleaner. I was hesitant to spend too much, as having seen just how many Dyson vacuum cleaners end up at my local dump thought that something a little larger than the 1100 watt one that I had bought from Tescos would suffice. I bought a 1400 watt, 4.5 litre ONN vacuum cleaner from Asda last summer.

ONN is the name for the own brand electrical goods produced by Asda. Having Asda stores in my vicinity I have gradually bought a range of things in their range including a (very noisy) electric kettle, a decent television and two DVD players, all of which have functioned well. Now, the problem with the ONN vacuum cleaner is not that it does not work, it does its job fine, it is just that it has no designation. Dyson has its DC17, DC19 and DC20 which are 1400 watt, Bissell has its 5200 FLIP IT, Vax its VZL -118AT and its VZL6012 and even its V-123 WET & DRY in this size too, Dirt Devil has the DD2430, Electrolux Z 4170A and Hoover, the 100 watts more powerful, TAV 1620 Xarion and there are many more besides, but each has a clear designation. In the ONN range you have the 'small one', 'the slightly larger one' and so on. This may be to make them sleek and mysterious but it causes an immense problem when you come to find replacement bags. I had used up the three that came with the machine and so had to hunt down replacements.

Buying vacuum cleaner bags is comparatively simple these days, there are online suppliers who deliver in twenty-four hours (if their website is working, I had to complain to one that it did not let me pay for anything in my shopping basket, I had no response and went and shopped at one of their rivals). However, if you have an ONN machine you have to guess, by looking at the pictures. Given that mine is the second size up, I guessed (wrongly) that the ONN size designated '002' by bag suppliers no doubt also frustrated by ONN's unwillingness to designate their machines. I was wrong. I went back to Asda assuming that I could get the correct bag to match my machine, but again I was wrong.

It is not an issue of not being able to get 4.5 litre bags. With no designation for my machine I have been searching by capacity and by wattage. I have bags that fit my machine perfectly, but for one thing, the piece of thick cardboard which sits at the front and holds the bag in place so that the suction can work, is of a different shape (a long vertical rectangle rather than a horizontal rectangle) to every vacuum cleaner bag I have been able to buy. I have a drawer of useless bags and have been tempted to ship my ONN to join all the Dysons (predominantly the upright ones, they bring greater colour to the dump) to the recycling yard. What I was compelled to to do was cut the thick cardboard to fit my ONN machine. It is not as easy as it appears as it is three layered thick cardboard and keeping a straight line is difficult as you strain to get your scissors to cut. Cut off too little and it will not fit in. Cut too much and the seal is not good enough and it will not suck well or simply distribute the dirt into the interior of the machine. Cut unequally from each side of the cardboard and the hole in the centre will not line up properly with the hole in the machine again reducing suction and meaning dirt does not get into the bag.

I do have a vacuum cleaner that works but it seems incredibly inefficient that I have to line up and carefully cut up bits of cardboard whenever I want to put in a new bag. Part of the problem stems for ONN not having any designations for their vacuum cleaners and part of the problem is their non-standard cardboard piece. So, if out shopping for a vacuum cleaner think about whether you, like me, about six months from now will be struggling to get a replacement bag in so that the vacuum cleaning can be done.

What If King Edward VII Had Been Assassinated?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Down Other Tracks: Alternate Outcomes of the 19th Century’ by Alexander Rooksmoor.  It is available for purchase on Amazon:

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Books I Read in 2008

I have decided to again detail the books I read in the previous year.  My first shot at this can be seen at:  I pretty much enjoyed reviewing the books and in 2007 I did not seem to read anything that I would warn people away from and in fact had a number of recommendations.

Looking at 2008 the first noticeable difference is how many fewer books I read compared to the previous year, only 15 in total in 2008 compared to 31 in 2007.  Admittedly I read two books over 1000 pages long in 2008 compared to shorter ones in 2007, but I think that being busier at work, especially working through my lunch breaks and having a less conducive setting for reading in the house I moved into in December 2007 has had an impact.

As last year, I have split the books into fiction and non-fiction books.  Generally I read one non-fiction book for every three fiction books I read.  Of the fiction books, as I outlined, last year, I have long adhered to a pattern of moving through different genres in sequence to ensure I read a range of fiction.  This year, as in the past, the bulk of my the books I read came from charity shops and the availability of the books in any given shop (I have moved to an area with 9 charity shops selling books, in a five minute walking distance of my current house) determines a lot of which particular books I read.

Rather than listing the books strictly chronologically, when I have read more than one by the same author, I group those books together as sometimes I make comment about the author's work in general.  Anyway, here goes my review of my reading habits of the last twelve months:

'The Assassin's Touch' by Laura Joh Rowland.
The 11th book in the Sano Ichiro series of detective stories set in 17th century Japan.  The hero is now moving at the highest levels of the Shōgunate's government.  As I noted last year, the main hero is rather too worthy and too bland, but his rivals are well drawn with human motives and flaws that make them intriguing if not admirable.  I always reading detective stories set in societies with very different rules to our own and seeing how the constraints of such societies shape the investigation.  This particular story would also interest those into martial arts stories as well as early modern Japan.  Rowland's stories move along at a good pace and if her central character was deeper then these would be excellent rather than good novels.  Concerns about his wife's behaviour have appeared before but Rowland is too kind on her leads to let them suffer too much.

'Looking for Jake and Other Stories' by China Miéville
I came across this book by accident, but it seems that Miéville is a leading light of science fiction/fantasy writing of the moment.  In some ways he reminds me of a modern day Michael Moorcock crossed with Bruce Sterling.  Many of the stories are fantastic realist in approach rather than out and out fantasy, but all the more intriguing for it.  I love the conceit of a society for spotting appearing and disappearing streets and a story based on real events during the 1991 invasion of Iraq in which Iraqi soldiers were buried alive in trenches by bulldozers driven by the US-led forces was both chilling and showed a contemporary awareness.  Not every story worked for me, but the author does have a good sense of place and interesting ideas many of which are worked well.

'The Female of the Species' by Sapper [Herman Cyril MCNeile]
This is another story from the 'Classic Thrillers' series from the 1980s of reprints of adventure stories from the early and mid 20th century.  This is a Bulldog Drummond story and features as usual bullish men charging around the British countryside.  The interesting thing about this story is that it is a sequel to the one in which Drummond's nemesis Carl Peterson has been killed and it is his mistress, Irma (who is often referred to as Irma Peterson, but there is no indication she married Peterson) who kidnaps Drummond's wife and later tries to kill Drummond and his associates in a bizarre manner tied to a replica of the Stonehenge structure.  Irma is interesting being in a 1928 novel as the key criminal in a story and a woman (though this was not the first time this had happened, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (1891) the antagonist had been a woman, Irene Adler).  Also interesting is how she uses a younger man devoted to her to carry out her plans but treats him utterly cynically remaining loyal to the dead Peterson.  I have a soft spot for these kind of adventures, I suppose because the hero can get things done in contrast to our society when the average individual has minimal influence over what happens to them particularly when crime is inflicted on them.

'Victorian Detective Stories' ed. by Michael Cox; 'Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' ed. by Alan K. Russell; 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' ed. by Hugh Greene.
These are three anthologies from the 1970s and 1980s featuring detective stories from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, i.e. 1837-1910, though the span of the stories in these is actually 1845-1914.  The detective novel did not really get going in full force in the UK until the 1880s and was often serialised in one of the numerous periodicals of the time.  Some of the same stories feature in these different anthologies.  Whilst it is interesting to see the different characters and approaches and particularly female detectives, notably Loveday Brooke, having read these you soon realise why the Sherlock Holmes has continued to be popular whereas all of these 'rivals' have fallen into obscurity.  A lot of it comes down to the quality of the writing.  There are some good ideas, though after a while you do see some of the same plot devices repeated.  There is often a sense that making an assault on an individual particularly bizarre or nasty is going to keep the reader's interest, but instead makes the story fantastical so undermining the aspect of the cold logic of the detective which is the real draw for the reader. 

You can see the genre working to find its footing and the fact that Conan Doyle did this having extraordinary events but keeping them grounded and having an eccentric detective but one who adhered to deduction without it becoming tedious and who was willing to resort to fists, a weighted cane or a gun, made his stories stand out among these others.  Too many of these detectives are without flaw compared to the crotchety, drug addict Holmes.  Many contemporary detective story writers know you have to make the detective as least as interesting as the crime to keep the reader.  Some of the stories in these collections were decent enough, but some were incredibly tedious.  Read these then go back to Holmes knowing why you do.

'The Golden Key' by Melanie Raion, Jennifer Roberson & Kate Elliott.
I tend to avoid doorstop fantasty novels, this one totals 1075 pages. One reason why I embarked on it was because it is not book one of an epic series but self-contained.  It is broken into three and I wonder if each of the authors wrote a different section.  The setting is a kind of Renaissance Italian/North African fantasy continent in which paintings have magical abilities.  The book drops into different periods over centuries, tied loosely by a single protagonist who finds a way to remain immortal through manipulating magical paintings.  There is a lot of dynastic rivalry and the society is conjured up very effectively with its own culture, religion and even language.  Without the fantasy element it could have been one of these historical drama/romance novels.  Reflecting on the book I think of it more kindly than I did at the time of reading it.  I think it could have been a little less overblown and a little further away from Italy of our world.  However, it is an interesting entry into the fantasy canon, and trying not to be sexist may appeal more to female readers.  That may have been the point, to attract women to fantasy in the way that The Women's Press sought to in the mid-1980s publishing authors like Joanna Russ.  Though I am not rushing out to read any of these authors single authored books, if I saw one in a charity shop I would pick it up.

'Oscar and Lucinda' by Peter Carey
This book attracted a lot of attention, winning two awards at the end of the 1980s and so for a while, like 'Jaws', 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' and 'The Da Vinci Code' was a book you would find in every charity shop you walked into.  It is about two compulsive gamblers, the Oscar and Lucinda of the title, who end up in Australia in the 1860s, if I remember rightly.  It is pretty well written and gives you a feel for Australia at the time.  However, the characters are too quirky, particularly Oscar, a failed clergyman.  The climax of him travelling on a boat inside a church made of glass as part of a bet is utterly ridiculous and undermined the whole novel.  I guess I am prejudiced as I do not like stories set outside Europe and certainly feel dragged down by the barreness and hostility of Australia shown in this novel.  Overall I think it was far too self-satisfied; perhaps a tendency of books verging on fantastical realism like this one.  I was annoyed by this novel and regretted reading it. I advise you to stay a way from this book, it is very depressing in so many ways.

'Labyrinth' by Kate Mosse.
This was an interesting story.  Mosse clearly has a love of France especially the region around Carcasonne (which I visited as a boy) and further South into the Alps.  The story jumps between the crusade about the Cathars in that region of France in the 1230s and a modern day archaelogical dig uncovering artefacts from that period.  However, it strays into 'The Da Vinci Code' territory (both books were published in 2006 with Dan Brown's book being the only one to outsell Mosse's in the UK that year) as it has the Cathars protection a kind of 'grail', a series of three ancient Egyptian books which show people how to live for hundreds of years. 

Both in the medieval setting which the 21st century heroine often finds herself fusing into (reminds me very much of the 'Assassin's Creed' computer game) and in modern day, sinister, powerful people are seeking to take and protect these books.  Both settings are well written with credible characters and behaviour and if you can look beyond the incongruity of a secret way to very long life then this is an enjoyable book.  Having read the non-fiction 'Montaillou' (1975) by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie about a Cathar commuity in the late 13th and early 14th centuries it was interesting to see the facts given flesh with fictional Cathars speaking Occitan a lot of the time; you learn quite a lot of that language by the end.  The medieval parts remind me of Ellis Peters's Cadfael series of novels and that is no bad thing.

'Spheres of Influence' by Lloyd C. Gardner.
An unexceptional account of the beginnings of the Cold War following the Second World War.  It certainly needed better editing and I seem to remember a historical error but cannot now recall it.   I found this one dry and because of the poor editing, sometimes difficult to follow. There are better books covering the same topic. 

'A History of British Gardening' by Miles Hadfield.
Having studied some gardening history in my time I was disappointed by this book.  The focus is very much on long namings of various gardeners in British history and the large gardens they worked on.  It is rather disparaging of gardening outside aristocratic estates.  There are some interesting bits on how different plants were brought to Britain but Hadfield does not really follow through.  There is no real analysis of what motivated the shifts in approaches to gardening, different fashions and technologies and the social and even political context which had an impact on these things.  This book would be better called 'A Narrative of British Gardening' and after a while even someone interested in the subject as I previously was, is going to tire of wading through name after name and disparaging of Scotland in particular.

'The Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans Before and After' ed. by John Pimlott.
Does what it says in the title.  Well drawn maps with interesting details on the plans for various battles in history and how they actually turned out.  A useful book if you do any kind of wargaming or want to see how unpredictable battles can be.

'The Second Russian Revolution' by Angus Roxburgh.
This books fits the observation that history never moves on to the third of anything.  We are always experiencing the 'second' industrial revolution.  As Russia experienced three revolutions 1905-17, anything subsequent should at least be the fourth, but Roxburgh, a journalist rather than a historian, conflates those earlier revolutions and this book looks at events in the late 1980s in the USSR.  I came to it too late because I knew what happened into the early 1990s which overtook much of his speculation in the book.  It was reasonably well written but being a very much 'of the moment' book it now felt incomplete.  As a result I also chucked out a book on Eastern Europe written around the same time as I envisaged it would suffer from the same problem.  I can deal with history books stopping at a certain date, but I imagine it was because these were popular level journalistic books that made their stopping before all the events had played out jar for a reader coming to them more than a decade later.

'Dreadnought' by Robert K. Massie
Despite being over 1000 pages long, I found this book very readable.  It focuses on the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany before the First World War.  However, despite this being the core, it encompasses a far wider appreciation of the political context in which all of this was happening and the tensions inside both countries as well as between them.  There is detail but the book is written deftly and so you do not feel drowned by it.  This is the best kind of historical writing.  It is not surprising that this book still turns up in charity shops despite now being 18 years old.  If you read one book of modern British history in the near future, I suggest it be this one.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Historical Detective Stories and Political Correctness

The detective novel in the UK rose to prominence from the 1840s and having come to a peak in the late Victorian period has never really dipped. Each decade seems to refresh the genre with new characters and styles. People see 'golden ages' of the genre such as the 1890s and the 1930s but in fact the detective novel has constantly evolved to reflect the changing society in which we live. The genre has always straddled different elements of British society. Sherlock Holmes mixed with royalty and street urchins and everyone in between. Crime is something which touches on all levels of society and the motives such as greed, lust, jealousy, anger, etc. are universal. Detective novels reflect our society or certainly our view of our society. In the past three decades there has been a desire for grittiness and authenticity, partly in reaction to the 'country house party murder' styles of the mid-20th century and also reflecting the trend to more realistic writing and drama which came in the 1960s. As the detective story has penetrated into every corner of British society and, increasingly into other countries too, people have sought out other times and places in which to set such stories.

As a brief aside, in terms of places for detective stories, the detectives have always been well-travelled, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot solved crimes in Egypt and Iraq. He was a Belgian operating in the UK or its empire and so worked within the norms of contemporary British society. US detectives became very popular in the 1970s with a whole slew of television series coming from the USA to the UK. However, the first detective stories of note in the UK, with a character working completely in a foreign setting, were the Maigret novels, written by the Belgian Georges Simenon, but set in France. He wrote 72 novels and 28 short stories featuring police detective Jules Maigret. Part of the attraction for British readers/viewers of these, often bleak stories, was that they were in a different legal, and to some extent, moral, setting. One reason why I think that the novel 'Gorky Park' (1981) by Martin Cruz Smith was so popular was because of that aspect, i.e., of trying to solve a crime while working in the Soviet state machine. For the same reason I was always interested in the detective novels of Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89) set in modern-day Italy with the detectives facing corruption and influence, and the four Lieutenant Boruvka novels of Josef Skvorecky (born 1924), set in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule during the 1960s-70s.

Simenon set his stories in the times they were written (1931-72) but they now have been conflated in the popular imagination to a period in the 1950s. Of course, many fictional detectives have very long careers. Poirot was middle-aged when he appeared in his first novel in 1926 and yet, was not killed off until 1976; like Simenon, Christie set her stories in the contemporary world. I suppose, in theory, Poirot could have still been operating in his late 80s or his 90s in the 1970s and Maigret could have had a forty-year career, but to some degree such longevity would have stretched credibility if articulated. As a result, we now tend to see these stories of being of a particular decade and Poirot, on television, has now been assigned the 1930s; as Maigret and Miss Marple have been given the 1950s (though Marple seems to have been shifted back a bit in the recent, poor quality, overly light-hearted ITV episodes).

Though Simenon's Maigret is well known in the UK, there was another foreign-based detective that had already made it into UK culture, though, these days he is pretty much forgotten. This is Judge Dee (the 7th century CE Chinese detective not the 2000s fictional British judge). There were 15 novels written in English by Dutchman Robert Van Gulik between 1949-67; you can still find some paperback copies in second-hand bookshops. Van Gulik had originally translated Chinese stories from the 14th century CE featuring a detective-cum-judge of the 7th century and then went on to write a number of his own. There have been a couple of attempts at televised versions, but the use of Caucasian actors to play ancient Chinese in the six episodes produced for the UK's Granada Television company in 1969, hardly boded for success.

Of course, we have long had historically-set detective stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not publish 'The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes' until 1927 though it features stories set in the 1880s and 1890s. The Sherlock Holmes stories were published 1887-1927 and feature cases set 1881-1914. Aside from Van Gulik, however, historical detective stories (as opposed to stories written in the past but at the particular time they were set) did not really come to the fore until the advent of Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael series (published 1977-94) with twenty novels and a short story collection. These stories are set between 1137-45 CE, a time when England was in civil war. Her series was boosted by the success of Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' (1980; in English from 1983) featuring another medieval monk-detective that seemed to give literary legitimacy to such stories. Since then, the floodgates have opened and I have read detective novels in periods from the 1330s BCE in Ancient Egypt through Ancient Rome and Roman Britain to Elizabethan England to 17th century Japan to Russia of the 1860s to post-war Germany of the late 1940s.

As with the Maigret novels, we are interested in seeing how detectives operate in societies with different moral and legal codes to our own. This is where the challenge that I want to address in this posting, comes in. We want our detectives to be heroes, even if they are highly flawed ones. To a great extent we want them to act as a force for what is morally right, often against the hostility or ambivalence or disinterest of society. Most of us expect the detective (whether private or employed by the state) to restore things to the status quo ante, the situation of the norm of before the crime occurred. Of course, it is never back to the previous situation entirely, but that is the nature of stories, they move on even if the ending is similar to the beginning.

People are critical of novels actually written historically for including attitudes that we would not find acceptable today. This week I again read a passing criticism of John Buchan's novels as being casually anti-Semitic and racist (interestingly his support of Scottish nationalism was lauded, something he would have been criticised for in the 1910s) and that leaves a bitter taste in our mouth and dampens our enjoyment of the stories. The implied criticism is that these things should now not be reproduced, in whatever media, at all.

People often comment that women are portrayed in submissive or purely auxiliary roles (partly this is because we are unfamiliar with the female detectives of Victorian stories, notably Loveday Brooke, a series of her adventures would do very well on television; there is also a Mrs. Paschal I have not come across yet in my reading). Interestingly, of course, women in the Sherlock Holmes stories often play more active roles, sometimes as the instigators of crime, notably in the first ever Holmes short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (1891) in which a woman outwits Holmes and in 'The Three Gables' (1926).

To some degree, looking back to the past, people, including authors, often see the suppression of women as greater than was the case. Whilst they were second-class citizens they were often far more active in society than most people credit. Medieval England, especially during times of wars and crusades, was often effectively run by women; abbesses were often immensely powerful. To some extent, this is why the medieval Church so much promoted the portrayal of the Virgin Mary as a 'proper' woman. She is shown as a woman who takes little control over her life and is used by God and shipped across the Middle East by Joseph. It is more likely that, even in the 1st century CE, she would have been back in Nazareth running the business while waiting the birth of her child leaving Joseph to go off and register in Bethlehem. Do not even start me on writing Mary, wife of Jesus, out of history for the same purpose. If I had a time machine I would go and back and interview Mary the mother and Mary the wife about the challenges of living with the man; their great involvement in his career and tell them how their roles would almost be erased by historians.

The big bugbear of historical novels of any kind, but especially crime novels, because they often involve assumptions about types of people, is the racist aspect. Racism has been with us forever, but, interestingly, again, our societies, especially in Britain, were far more ethnically mixed in the past than people assume. Roman Britain had people coming to it from right across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. People from Syria have been found buried in the city of Bath. Britain had constant links to different nationalities and races. The crusades revived such connections and Elizabeth I introduced racial legislation because it had become a factor. It is interesting that the dramatisations of Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart stories and 'Doctor Who' episodes under Russell T. Davis in the 2000s are seen as odd for featuring ethnic minorities in past settings. However, in fact, they are far closer to the truth than most people realise. Britain has always been diverse and there have always been people who discriminate, just as today.

Where does this leave our fictional detectives who work in such racist, misogynistic settings? Well, to some degree, despite all the attention to detail, the author is almost compelled to make them anachronistic. The series that made me most aware of this was 'Heat of the Sun' (3 episodes in 1998) starring Trevor Eve and Susannah Harker. The series was about a superintendant sent from Scotland Yard to work in the British colony of Kenya in the 1930s. It was a picturesque setting and an interesting one given what I have said above about detection in different contexts. However, what jarred was how liberal Eve's character, Albert Tyburn, was. In fact, he was more so than the Superintendant Peter Boyd character, that Eve has played since 2000 in the series set in contemporary UK , 'Waking the Dead'. Tyburn's attitude to Africans and to women seem very peculiar, especially when characters around him showed the racism and misogyny of the times in such a colonial setting. More accurate, on this basis, was the movie 'White Mischief' (1988) which is also set in Kenya in the same era and also features the actor Joss Acland. I suppose that to have shown Tyburn as dismissive of blacks and women would have made it impossible for most viewers to have engaged with him as a hero.

Another similar situation develops in the first two of Philip Kerr's 'Berlin Noir' triology (called that even though the third book is set in Vienna), 'March Violets' (1989) and 'The Pale Criminal' (1990). They are set in Berlin, respectively in 1936 and 1938, and feature a private detective called Bernhard Gunther. He ends up working for the Nazi police machine. However, Gunther's character is again too liberal for someone operating in that time frame. Of course, not everyone in Germany in the 1930s was anti-Semitic and many people opposed the Nazi regime, but they tended not to be police officers (we can get into a great debate here about the Communist sympathisers among the police ranks before 1933, I know there has been research on this).  Any with such sympathies would not have been in any position of influence by 1936 and certainly not being employed by Reinhard Heydrich by 1938.

To some extent, Gunther is a counterpoint to the set-up in which he is operating. Reading detective stories we tend to accept the state approach as a 'norm' and, in this context, it could lead us to accepting Nazi attitudes which clearly, Kerr, knowing he is treading on risky ground having a novel set in the Nazi regime, is keen to avoid. (Looking back at those novels I was embarrassed to find Kerr has a character called Otto Rahn and in my Beckmann stories I have a character called Otto Beckmann and one of his detective constables is called Bruno Rahn. This is despite my efforts to stay away from any similarly named characters.) Whilst I am not expecting Kerr to have a full blown anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobe character as hero, he could have made him less 'nice'. Perhaps the gritty detectives are reserved for our bitter times which strive for equality of all, so allowing the characters to be different by not being so politically correct.

I am not arguing for novels featuring hate-filled xenophobes and male chauvinists, but I am hoping that we can have 'heroes', or at least detectives in a leading role, who are not so out-of-step with the times in which they are operating. This has sometimes been the case in some of the historical detective stories that have been produced in the past thirty years. I am tolerant of historically-set detectives to a greater extent than some people I know, I think because I recognise that you cannot make them so alien that readers find no connection to them. One friend of mine condemned the Cadfael series as total fantasy as he argued that in the medieval period the local lord simply arrested whoever he felt was guilty and had them executed, or tortured and then executed, and that there was none of the forensic analysis that Cadfael conducts. To some extent, you see such behaviour in the stories such as seeking to detect witches by floating women in the river. Cadfael, despite being a monk, because of his worldly nature (he had fathered a son by a Syrian woman whilst on crusade), is allowed to be more rational and, to some extent, bring in apparently Enlightenment thinking. That is what you assume until you remember that Greek logical analysis and Occam's Razor were intellectual concepts that would have been familiar to most medieval monks. Working with Occam's Razor you have the same kind of deductive thinking that Sherlock Holmes employed. I suppose I am wanting my cake and to eat it, but I do believe a balance can be struck to allow modern readers to access the characters, not feel turned off by their behaviour and yet not make the whole process overly anachronistic.

To find ways of achieving this, I return to Robert Van Gulik. I read a fascinating interview with him when he was asked how he dealt with the issue I raise here. It would be useful if his attitude was made more widely known to authors of historical detective stories. What he did was to have his Judge Dee character as a very devout Confucian. Whilst Confucianism still provides a foundation for many modern day Chinese attitudes, a lot of its elements would be unacceptable to Western readers, for whom van Gulik was writing over an 18-year period (1949-67). Of course, this period itself saw vast changes in attitudes in Western society.

Van Gulik argued that Dee operated to a moral code that he, the author, accepted was out of step with the contemporary world, unsurprising given the 1300-year difference. Yet, it was a moral basis from which the character was motivated and behaved. Elements he highlighted was the fact that Dee has a number of wives, whereas, today polygamy is seen as wrong. In particular, Dee, as a good Confucian, emphasised filial loyalty to the extent that he forces two sisters to return to slavery into which their father sold them. Interestingly, van Gulik also returned to aspects of the original stories, such as the functioning of lesbians in the era. This gave him more room in which to operate and, to an extent, shows the complexity of 7th century China and the wide scope of writing of that time. Van Gulik did play down the supernatural element which was common in detective literature of that time, but his settings are often spooky and one can understand the supernatural attributes people of the time would have attached to them and the occurences that happened there.

Ellis Peters, in contrast, would not have been able to find such a rich basis in the 12th century literature available to us in the way 7th century Chinese writing could be accessed by van Gulik. However, all things that happen in our contemporary society have been happening for millenia. Humans remain humans with all the desires and discriminations that they have had through the centuries. In my own writing I have tried to stick to van Gulik's approach and have made my Otto Beckmann a good Bavarian Catholic with mild discriminatory tendencies, which, as a policeman, he can be brought to face the consequences of. Any discrimination actually blinds you to facets of particular humans, something dangerous when investigating crime. His perception of women is in line with his society, and so, out-of-step with much of ours. I make no apologies for that. If historical detective stories are not only going to be entertainment, but, like all detective stories, tell us about the society in which the detectives operate, then we need to tolerate our 'heroes' behaving a little less anachronistically.