Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Books I Read In December

'The Origins of the Second World War' by A.J.P. Taylor
Initially reading this book I was pleasantly surprised by its strengths.  Though the version I read was published in 1964, it is still of value for anyone studying the history of this period today.  In some ways Taylor treats the reader maturely.  He does not include loads of dates and figures, assuming that you can pick these up from other places.  Instead he digs into explaining what happened and why.  I like the fact that he overturns many myths about the lead up to the Second World War which in most cases seem as prevalent today as they were in the 1960s.  He also shows how historians have come to certain conclusions.  Again, because these have proven persistent, his insights remain valid also.  Taylor highlights individuals such as MacDonald, Halifax, Benes and Bonnet who often get left out or wrongly interpreted even nowadays and it is good that he shines a light on them.  He also shows effectively the extent to which British policy and, in part, French policy was driven by a sense of 'morality' and doing what was 'right' rather than any strategic perspective.  Thus, even once Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, British politicians and officials believed that they could hold an international conference to resolve the issues.  The British did not value the rights of different countries equally and saw the demands of Germany as of a far higher status than those of Czechoslovakia or Poland.  This does help explain the strange policies the British governments adopted, applying one principle until it was trumped by the other, but consequently divorcing them from any Realpolitik.

Taylor is, at times, refreshingly self-critical too.  In 1963 he added a new opening chapter to his 1961 book in which he analyses his own failings of analysis.  Few historians seem capable of doing this even now.  Before moving on to my difficulties with the book, I would note that it is far better than 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) by Taylor that I read in April.  That book careered through the history in a frenetic way and if he had applied that approach to the events covered in this book then it would have been almost impossible to read.

Now, the problems.  Taylor criticises historians who have sought out the 'guilty men' of the lead-up to the Second World War, though smugly he says he believed Hitler should have been contested right from January 1933.  However, throughout this book he is imbued with perfect hindsight.  Whilst he might not portray those involved in the events as guilty he certainly repeatedly points to them as naive, foolish and vacillating as if the way events would turn out were visible to them and they simply ignored them.  This smugness becomes very difficult to swallow as the book goes on.

At the time of publication, Taylor was condemned as writing a book which was pro-Hitler.  Now, there are two reasons for this.  One is that Taylor does seem to give (perhaps grudging) admiration for Hitler for having one approach and sticking to it throughout.  He shows that repeatedly Hitler would not take the initiative if he could get another country to do it for him, hence the dangers of appeasement.  Taylor is right to show appeasement as advancing the Nazi agenda more effectively than Hitler himself.  Taylor cannot stand vacillation and as a consequence every other leading politician is shown in a poor light.  It is not that Taylor lauds Hitler it is because of the principle of one man seeming to step forward from a line because all the others have taken a step back.

The other complaint people had at the time but seems irrelevant now was that in showing that it took the bulk of Germany to bring about the Second World War, he somehow let off Hitler from responsibility.  This is a false impression.  Taylor simply aims to counter the view that Hitler was to blame for absolutely everything that was nasty about the Nazi regime, whereas in fact it required many thousands of men and women, not all of the German, for it to be effective in that respect.

There are some minor quirks that distort Taylor's book, some of which you see in others he has written.  One is that he does not believe that there was any German resistance to Hitler.  He cannot comprehend any of the attempts to halt or remove Hitler at any stage and is sneering about any reference to these.  He utterly dismisses the French and Italian armed forces as irrelevant.  The French military was utterly wasted in 1940 because as he identifies elsewhere defeatism had already debilitated the French state.  However, if used effectively it is clear now that the French military could have blunted severely if not indeed halted the German offensives against Poland, Belgium and France in 1939-40.  In Taylor's view that was impossible.  The Italian forces might have been weak but their advances in Greece and North Africa caused delays and casualties for the British and drew Germany into regions it might have otherwise avoided.

Another thing is that Taylor is so much a 'child' of the era of Keynesianism that he finds it impossible to consider any other approach to the economy as legitimate, ridiculing the deflationary policies pursued in Britain in the 1930s.  I am sure he would be startled if he returned today to find that for the past thirty years such economic policies have been the economic orthodoxy and Keynesianism is utterly forgotten even by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats.

This book still has value for people studying the lead-up to the Second World War.  However, Taylor grandstanding with a very dismissive, arrogant attitude to almost all those involved in the events is very tiresome and detracts greatly from what he is trying to communicate.  This book is most useful for challenging many of the myths that still appear in popular histories of the period, notably the Hossbach Memorandum.

'Tart Noir' ed. by Stella Duffy & Lauren Henderson
This collection of twenty stories proved to be a real disappointment.  I was enthused by the concept, i.e. female authors writing crime fiction with female protagonists.  The emphasis is on strong, sexually liberated women in control.  However, the stories contained really failed to live up to my expectations.  Perhaps I was wrong to have imagined that there would be more female detective stories contained in the book.  I do not think I was wrong to not expect fantasy stories to be contained within it.  In any collection written by multiple authors there will be stories that you find better than others.  However, for me the overall standard was too low.

Perhaps the stand-out story is unsurprisingly 'Metamorphosis' by Val McDermid which quickly conjures a sexual obsession and then the overwhelming need to get the person out of your life.  This was the kind of story that I expected throughout, but was sorely disappointed.

I do think they should have warned the reader that one story, 'Stormy, Mon Amour' features scenes of sex between a woman and a dolphin.  I guess I should have remembered the movie 'Max, Mon Amour' (1986) about a woman's sexual relationship with a chimpanzee which caused uproar at the time and is clearly being referenced by this story.  The resulting birth of a mermaid is simply fantasy but of a very dreary kind.  I almost abandoned the book at this point, but pressed on because I thought it might improve. 'Labia Lobelia' by Lisa Jewell is another fantastical story.  The protagonist calls up the ghosts of Judy Garland and Joan Collins.  If it had not been for the book's rules, I would have assumed she was a transvestite.  However, she turns out to be a woman with magic powers.  She turns her neighbours' flat into vast (and smelly) labia and a vagina. 'Talk Show' by Lauren Henderson has a talk show, unsurprisingly, but featuring Medea and Phaedra from Greek myths and Lady Macbeth.  It is better than a secondary school balloon debate or an Oxbridge skit.  Bestiality features once more but at a distance.  Overall, though, it is more an intellectual entertainment than a 'noir' story; it reminded me of 'The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul' (novel 1988; radio serial 2008) which features Norse gods in contemporary London.  I would almost put 'The Wrong Train' by Jenny Colgan into the fantasy category.  It is about an administrator at MI6 who gets on a train full of immigrants with TB being ejected from the country.  It turns out to be a government conspiracy story, but for much of it reads as if it is an offshoot of 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman (TV Series 1996; novel & audio book 1996; graphic novel 2005; stage play 2010; radio play 2013).  It could have been scarier and better.

A number of the stories are about revenge.  The two most memorable are 'The Best Revenge is Revenge' by Chris Niles.  A touch light in tone at times, it seems credible in featuring a TV presenter getting revenge on the executive that sacked her.  In a short story, the relationship with male characters is handled well, a kind of push-and-pull between them.  The snobbery of the narrator is maintained well.  'Martha Grace' by Stella Duffy herself shows very skilled characterisation of the eponymous protagonist.  Like the best of these stories, it shows the unusual but without becoming unbelievable.  You want to see Martha in other stories. 'Africa' by Jenny Siler, does feel like an episode of 'Spooks' (2002-11; movie 2015).  However, it quickly builds up a complex story and portrays Morocco very effectively.  This is one story you would have liked to have seen developed further.

Some of the revenge stories feel as if they could have fitted into 'Tales of the Unexpected' (book 1979; TV series 1979-88) especially the televised versions which tended to be edgier than the stories in the book and the two that succeeded it. 'Enough was Enough' by Martina Cole fits that category.  It is a very capable portrayal of a wife drawn into her husband's sexual fetishes and then baulking against them. 'What He Needed' by Laura Lippman is of a similar quality and nature.  Not as good, but not too bad is 'The Man' by Katy Munger.  It is a straightforward revenge story with all the bodily fluids featured.  You could argue whether being a gigolo is worthy of revenge, but in this book it clearly is. Munger's description of the gigolo is very well done. Not about revenge, but with the twist beloved of the 'Tales of the Unexpected' is 'The Diary of Sue Peaner Marooned! Contestant' again has the bitch narrator.  The outcome is not unexpected and in many ways given how extreme these survival programmes are her behaviour does not seem too extreme.  This story does include cannibalism but it is passed over so lightly as not to really impact.  Like some of the other stories, the lightness naturally undermines the 'noir'.

Two of the stories are what I would term 'shotgun shack' stories.  They are noir in a different way.  In large part the woman is disempowered by the structures that the men in their lives create, leading to tragic outcomes especially for children, that seem unavoidable.  These two could appear in books simply about the lives of many women in modern USA and UK.  'Alice Opens the Box' by Denise Mina is the UK one and 'Necessary Women' set on the border of Alabama and Georgia.  In these stories murder is the only power the women have to survive; though you do wonder about their sanity.  These are bleak stories rather than true 'noir', primarily because the protagonists are so disempowered.

Some of the stories do have the detection element that I anticipated.  'The Convenience Boy' by Sujata Massey stands out because it is set in Japan with Japanese cultural perspectives whereas most of the other stories are set either in the UK or USA and all of them have the cultural norms of those countries as their basis.  This story is almost sweet rather than noir.  It is a nice peek into a different setting especially if you have not read crime fiction set in Japan either by Japanese or Western authors, though there is a lot more easily available in English these days.  'I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside' by Jessica Adams has a lightness about it.  It features a seaside clairvoyant able to detect crimes very easily.  It features many Brighton [UK version] tropes including a range of gay characters,  It was entertaining but not really 'noir' and Madame Romodo is not really a protagonist, more a spectator.  'Pussy Galore' by Liz Evans is set in London and rather erratically, but ultimately, effectively, switches between being cosy and sinister.  I found the old woman character credible, despite her great claims to a past in spying because in a part of London close to where the story is set I attended a discussion with former members of SOE, who like the character in this story retained some of the 'old skills'.

Some stories you feel 'so what?'.  'No Parachutes' by Karen Moline is in this category really simply detailing how the protagonist gets turned on by violence on an aeroplane, just as the author confesses she does at the end of the book.  'Take, for Example, Meatpie' by Jen Banbury is very much in this category about a woman who seduces a 16-year old schoolboy and introduces him to poetry and music before casting him loose again.  Yes, she might be in control, but there seems to be no real outcome so you are left dissatisfied.  'Queen of Mean' by Liza Cody is better, but is really simply a 'slice of life' story about a woman who with a mentor changes her life.  It lacks the necessary 'noir' but is interesting as a straightforward short story.

'Timequake' by Kurt Vonnegut
In theory, this book is a novel.  However, it is in fact more fitted to Vonnegut's short story and autobiographical books, 'Fates Worse Than Death' (1991), and 'A Man Without a Country' (2005).  This is a real mess of a book, really an assembly of fragments.  Some of them come from the first book he started writing called 'Timequake' which envisaged that in 2001 the universe reset by about ten years and everyone on Earth was compelled to live the preceding ten years again with no ability to change anything until the reached the starting point in 2001 once more.

Much of the book is a stream of consciousness about the author's career, members of Vonnegut's family and a number of fictional characters, notably Kilgore Trout who is a kind of older alter ego of Vonnegut's.  Little happens and the whole tone is like an old man (Vonnegut lived 1922-2007; the book was published in 1997) rambling on about things as he recalls them.  It encompasses themes that Vonnegut liked exploring.  He thought television was killing writing, reading and imagination though many of his statements could be used unchanged today for commentary on use of the internet and social media.  At times the book is juvenile in tone, especially when referring to sex and death, but maybe, despite his aversion to a lot in US society, Vonnegut is simply tied down by all the euphemisms that many Americans seem compelled to use, especially if they were born in the 1920s.  This may be in part to be humorous but it quickly becomes tiresome.

The decent part of the book is Vonnegut's discussion on the challenges of writing short stories, something he was able to live off for parts of his life.  By the 1990s he saw it as a dead art because of the dominance of television, not foreseeing its revival through self-published e-books and indeed free to view story websites.  You cannot make a lot of money off short stories but there are certainly numerous outlets across a massive spectrum of genres.  Vonnegut discusses the difficulties of ending a short story without killing everyone, a challenge I have encountered with my own short story collections especially when writing about war.  There is an implication that the short story must end with a 'big bang' even if it is simply a surprising revelation.  Amateur reviewers seem to insist on this, even arguing that a 'slice of life' story is not really a story at all.  One of Vonnegut's editors told him something along the lines of have the hero get on his horse and ride off into the sunset or an appropriate equivalent dependent on the context.  I do not know if that would satisfy many amateur reviewers who seem not to know what they want from a short story but certainly know what they do not want; some even see the approach as entirely illegitimate.  This is ironic given how much a boost short stories and episodic stories have received from e-book readers.  I would have liked more on this topic in 'Timequake'.

Overall this a very unsatisfactory book.  It would have been better if he had simply written a straightforward autobiography.  He could have discussed the same topics and even the same fictional characters as feature in this book, but it would not be the shambles that 'Timequake' is.  I can only imagine his age and standing in US science fiction were what meant a publisher would permit this book to come out.  It is really nothing more than a shabby scrapbook and the ramblings of a man whose talents had clearly dimmed.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Biscuit Blog: Lotus Speculoos biscuits

Given the bad reviews of my books with people feeling that English is not my first language; that I focus on the wrong aspects of history, my stories are too long/too short/not even stories and that my history essay collections are 'BORING' (to quote feedback), I have been advised to stop writing fiction and instead focus on other activities.  It has also been pointed out to me that with the bookshops filled with books written by vloggers, e.g. 'The Pointless Book: Started by Alfie Deyes, Finished by You' by Alfie Dyes [there is a sequel too], 'A Work in Progress' by Connor Franta, 'The Amazing Book is Not on Fire: The World of Dan and Phil' by Dan Howell and Phil Lester, 'Girl Online - Girl Online 1' by Zoe Sugg [a.k.a. Zoella - there is a book 2 as well], 'Life with a Sprinkle of Glitter' by Louise Pentland, 'Binge' by Tyler Oakley, 'Hello Life!' by Marcus Butler, 'All I Know Now' by Carrie Hope Fletcher and 'This Book Loves You' by Felix Kjellberg [writing as PewDiePie],  if I want to stand a chance of getting a book contract I would be better off starting online wittering on about stuff first.  The person suggesting that seemed to neglect the fact that I am not young, ditzy or glamorous enough to appear on the cover.

The suggestion was that I move my blog to being about biscuits.  These have an appeal right across the age range and you can express opinions on them without being attacked as a bigot or not 'understanding the real world'.  In addition, I lack the skills to cook food or make handicrafts, so sampling and reviewing biscuits made by others.  I am not sponsored by any company for this.  All the biscuits featured have been bought at my own expense and photographed by me.  This is not advertising because I am sure many of my reviews will be ambivalent, some even hostile.  However, given the range of biscuits out there, I hope I will enable customers to make the choices which are appropriate to them.

Lotus Biscoff Speculoos Biscuits

Given the time of year, it seemed sensible to start with a Speculoos biscuit.  I used the bastardised French term for them as is common in the UK.  They are know as Speculaas in Dutch/Flemish.  They are associated with the feast of St. Nicholas in early December.  However, you may be familiar with these biscuits from getting them on the side of your saucer in coffee shops.  They are medium-hard biscuits with a crystalised, 'sandy' texture.  They are lightly spiced though sweet and make a tasty counterpoint to coffee.

This particular brand came from Lidl.  You will find I buy quite a lot of my biscuits from Lidl as well as Asda, Co-op and Tescos.  In part this is because Lidl is cheap, but also because unlike the other three stores, they tend to stock a lot of products from continental Europe especially in the period around Christmas, which means you can break away from the standard British biscuit types common throughout the year.

These biscuits seem to fit the requirement for Speculoos biscuits perfectly.  They were not too sweet or too spicy.  They did not go soft too quickly and yet they were not overly sharp in terms of the sugar crystals.  Maybe it is beginner's luck, but I felt I had got off to an excellent start with my biscuit selection and had something that was ideal for the Christmas season.


Monday, 28 December 2015

Out Of The EU. But How Far Out?

To me it seems probable given the high level of hostility in the UK to membership of the European Union (EU) that in 2016 at the promised referendum, a majority of voters will opt to remove the UK from the union.  I no longer mix with politicians but do come across middle and working class members of the public who seem happy, especially at this time of the year, to talk about politics.  They assume the EU is a bad thing and that leaving it will 'free' the UK from all its rules.  I was speaking to such a man just before Christmas and for me he summed up the next difficulty that the UK faces which the government does not seem to have considered, but I imagine (I hope) that civil servants are working on contingency plans for even now.

I said that the question of whether we left the EU seemed settled.  However, the question of what relationship we would have with it afterwards had to be hammered out.  I used the example of three countries which are outside the EU but have very different relationships with it: Norway, Morocco and the USA.  He dismissed this as any serious concern, because he said the referendum would simply be in/out.  I accepted that that was the case, but said that someone had to work out the precise details of the relationship.  I asked him what he thought the relationship would be like and he seemed to believe he could have his cake and eat it.

Norway is often cited as the model that Britain would favour, but it is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which means that while it has no right to vote on any EU legislation, it still has to accept the free movement of EU citizens into its country.  Now, the free movement of EU citizens is one of the key reasons why parties like UKIP and fellow travellers want to leave the EU.  Consequently the UK moving into the EEA would not remove that aspect.

Morocco is an associate member of the EU.  This might be the model most favoured by those seeking UK exit from the EU.  There are a range of associate agreements; they were started in 1961.  However, typically they allow the country to have access to specific markets, e.g. in agricultural or industrial goods or more recently free trade with the EU.  They have been focused on the Mediterranean littoral, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but there are agreements with former colonies and states across the world.  Interestingly even this kind of relationship implies that the country works towards political, economic, trade and human rights reform to bring it in line with the EU.  Given that the UK is not a full democracy (the House of Lords is unelected as is the Head of State) and is seeking to abandon human rights legislation, we might find it difficult to get an agreement.  However, this one seems to be the status that people would favour, retaining the trade privileges without being bothered with the mobility of people or quotas.

The USA is friendly to the EU and has some bilateral agreements such as on extradition and on airline ownership.  There have been efforts at tariff agreements but anyone who has bought anything from the USA or tried to sell stuff there knows you get customs duties slapped on them at one end or the other.  It is the administration of these which is as painful as the actual cost.  If the UK wants to be out of the EU as much as the USA does, then this would be the model for selling even to France or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where much more stringent border controls would have to be introduced.  The UK could close its doors to anyone under this model just as the USA does and we could insist even daytrippers from France needed a visa if we so chose.

The thing is, no-one is yet speaking about the model that the UK will end up with, no doubt at the end of a lot of discussion.  You cannot simply walk out of an organisation you have been tied into for over forty years, especially if you want to keep many of the privileges that a majority of the anti-EU Britons seem to think are their right and not the result of that membership.

We spoke about the need to disengage from EU legislation in the British legal system.  The UK would be free from EU quotas on farming and fishing, but human rights legislation which is at the top of the list for many of those opposed to the EU, does not come from the EU, it comes from an often forgotten body, the Council of Europe which is entirely separate.  Unlike the EEC (the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU), the UK was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949.  The EEC was not established until 1957 and the UK did not join it until 1973.  The Council of Europe has 47 members; the EU only 28.  Thus, if we are to purge human rights from British law, the UK will also have to leave the Council of Europe and, as yet, that is not on the cards.

I asked the man whether he knew how difficult it is for people from outside the EU and EEA to travel to countries in the EU.  Anyone in the UK who has relations from Australia or South Africa or a host of other countries (though US citizens do not need a visa for tourism) knows how difficult it is for them to simply 'pop over' to France from the UK.  Generally it means 8 hours being interviewed at the French Embassy in London in order to be issued for a visa lasting 6 months.  The man said he was sure the French would not impose that on the British and surely we would go back to the situation in 1972.  I said that was making big assumptions about the willingness of the other EU states to tolerate the British leaving perhaps even the EEA but still making use of the benefits.  I also pointed out that the world of 2016 is very different from the world of 1972 in terms of protecting borders.  Given that those who want to leave the EU want to close the gates on EU citizens coming to our country, why can we assume the French and others will not simply do the same in return?

From this I moved on to how many Britons live outside the UK in other EU countries.  There are 761,000 living in Spain alone, probably augmented by about another 200,000 who live there for part of the year.  200,000 Britons live in France and again many others own property there; 115,000 live in Germany; 44,000 in the Netherlands; 28,000 in Belgium; 26,000 in Italy and 18,000 in Greece.  There are around another 48,000 in other EU countries.  This does not include UK students who study in EU universities; 9,500 UK students study in France, Spain, Germany and Italy.  Many of the Netherlands 41 universities have hundreds of British students.  With free movement of citizens Britons can apply to these universities and in some countries like Denmark have to pay no fees.  With numerous courses taught entirely in English (as these appeal to Chinese students as well) it is very easy to do.  However, once we leave the EU this will stop.  I know many who support the UK leaving the EU have no time for students anyway, but is is just another factor.  The man I was talking to said he did not think Spain or France would eject Britons resident in those countries.  I said: why not?  Given that UKIP has spoken of sending EU citizens home what is to stop these other countries doing the same in return?  An influx of over 1 million Britons being sent home, many of those from Spain being elderly, is going to be worked out.  Remember, before Greece joined the EEC it did not permit foreigners to own property in the country and Australia does not allow this either.

This is one challenge for those pressing for exit from the EU.  They assume that the rest of the EU will let the UK go quietly and to retain many of the privileges that it has in relation to those states, unchallenged.  No-one seems to be thinking this through and simply making assumptions that it will be all very nice for the UK and that EU states will not be resentful to Britain.  I know Britons think their country is special, but they have to recognise that other countries see it very differently.  The UK has long been a troublemaker in the EU and is exacerbating this situation at a time when the EU has enough to deal with handling terrorist attacks and the refugee situation.  The UK is making no concessions but in return expects the EU to just go on allowing tens of thousands of Britons to live, work and own property and to travel freely back and forth even when the UK is trying to stop that for EU citizens coming in.  To expect the rest of the EU to tolerate such treatment of their citizens and not seek a balance against UK people, is incredibly naive.  If we must leave the EU we need to be far better prepared for the consequences than is currently the case.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Animals - One Of Only Two Things That Will Get British People To Talk

A South African friend of mine who has lived in the UK for over a decade still complains about the lack of community in Britain and how that British people, even when neighbours, simply ignore each other.  I have lived in lots of different places in the past couple of decades from London to a rural Warwickshire village and many towns in southern England and some in the Midlands, somewhere in between in scale.  Aside from when I lived in Poplar in East London and that was in the 1990s, I have found her experience to be the same for me.  When people say 'they kept to themselves', in fact that goes for everyone in the street even the person the newspaper, radio or television journalist is talking to.  British people may gawp at their neighbours - I have had people literally standing in their front gardens staring at me but not acknowledging my greeting, most recently in the house I moved into this September, but they will not talk to them apart from in two exceptional cases.

This is in contrast to some other countries.  Yes, there is a fantasy of US suburbia where everyone talks.  I am sure my South African friend would find the community of her youth has now faded.  I have encountered it a bit in Belgium.  The pull by global society is always to be suspicious of your neighbour and have nothing to say to them.  The concerns about immigrants and terrorists, very often linked in people's minds, simply exacerbates this situation.  However, in some parts of some other countries, a basic level of communication has to be eroded.  In Britain, suspicion and silence come as the norm and it is only exceptional circumstances that shift this, not the other way around.

The first occasion when British people (and indeed anyone from abroad who catches on quickly) talk to each other, even those they may have been living next door to, is when something goes seriously wrong.  You need a whole spate of burglaries, not just a few, for the ice to be broken.  A murder or an abduction is usually necessary to really get people to talk to each other.  A big fire or a riot will have a similar effect.  There is a finite time for which this effect will last.  It is dependent on the severity of the incident and how long concerns about it go on.  The politician Tony Benn noted that when travelling on trains, people only began to talk to each other when the train broke down or was severely delayed.  Often once the journey resumed they returned to their silence.  Generally, if everything is going normally on public transport and you try to speak, people will distance themselves; will not respond and may even complain that you are a 'nutter'.

The tendency of crisis encouraging Britons to speak is probably declining itself as indignation, even fury, has replaced simply moaning as the UK's prime pastime.  These days I find it is mainly the elderly who speak during a problem; the younger people, even the middle aged, now simply text or tweet furiously about it or even shout into their phones, rather than complain about it with the people around them.

Twice over the past two years, I have discovered the other thing that will get British people to magically talk and that is animals.  It is said that the British love animals more than they love children and I think this is probably true.  While having a child can be a link to colleagues to strike up a conversation, an animal can do this with complete strangers, including your neighbours.  Two years ago I was renting in a room in a house owned by a Lithuanian family in South-West London.  They would often be out at work during the day and sometimes their bitch a golden Staffordshire bull terrier, who was very well kept and friendly and had the run of a large garden, would be whining to be taken for a walk when I got in, often hours ahead of the other residents.

One day to calm her I took her for a walk.  I had no experience in walking dogs except handling a friend's black Labrador for an afternoon about twenty years earlier.  In addition, I quickly learned that she only understood commands such as 'sit' and 'stay' in Lithuanian.  Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in Europe which has not undergone much change except increase in vocabulary.  Proper nouns of all creatures including humans and dogs depending on whether they are the subject, object, being ordered, etc.  Anyway, with a gentle but firm hand I was able to walk the dog along the local river bank.  She was exceptionally well behaved, heeling and lying down if another dog approached.  The thing was that she was a key to suddenly a whole host of people talking to me.  Despite walking down the same streets five times per week, without the dog I was invisible; with her I seemed safe and worthwhile talking with to men, women and children of all ages.

A similar effect has happened now that I have returned to southern England.  As noted above, I have been renting this house since September, a little over three months now.  I have waved and tried to introduce myself to the neighbours in the close I live at the entrance to, to no avail.  No-one has given me their name or even responded to me walking up and saying 'hello'.  I know I look a little odd and people are particularly suspicious of middle-aged men, but the woman who lives in the house, who is younger than me, has had a similar reaction.  After three months, we have no idea of the names of any of the neighbours and apart from one man who drives a company van, no idea of what they do.  We have picked up scraps of information from seeing them coming and going, but nothing more.  If someone said to me that the person next door was called Mr. Smith and he was a local footballer or if they said he was Mr. Korzeniowska and he was a terrorist, I would have no idea if either of these statements was true or not.  I know he has two expensive cars, a blonde woman and small girl and a small dog, that is it.  I have not even seen his face in these dark evenings.

Now, this week something changed.  A cat decided that it lived in our house.  Every time we opened the front door it would run into the house and be reluctant to leave.  It is well tended and had a collar and bell but no tag.  We have been advised to check if it has a chip implanted but it is difficult to get her in our car and we do not know if we will have to pay to have this checked.  Given that this is a large housing estate with houses back-to-back and labyrinthine closes, she may have strayed off her usual patch and be confused how to get back.  She likes none of the food we have offered and keeps looking for toys we do not have.  The woman in my house went to everyone in our close and because it was about a cat suddenly they began talking.  It was none of theirs, but people who had ignored us repeatedly were suddenly giving their names and speaking.  Even the man who lives opposite who parks his van to block the exit of my car because he has lived in the close longer and feels he has that right, suddenly introduced himself when he saw us with the cat.  Putting up posters about her got complete strangers from neighbouring streets talking to us at random.  Our appearance has not changed; our behaviour has not changed, but abruptly we are perceived as people that can be spoken to.

 Dogs and cats like me.  Other people's dogs will often come to my heel or even get in my car.  However, personally I cannot stand them; they all stink.  Furthermore I think people who focus on cats and dogs lack an essential element of humanity.  Yet, it is clear now that they have an important use.  We are not allowed to keep any pets under our tenancy and we need to get this one back to the owner, who we fear may be abroad or away over the Christmas period.  However, in a couple of days she has done us a great service in making us appear acceptable and finally we have some of the communication we had wanted/expected.  How long we can 'milk' this opportunity I do not know.  However, I do recommend that if your British neighbours give you the silent treatment, borrow someone's cat or dog and it will change their view of you in an instant.  It is clear that buying a dog was the best thing the Lithuanians could have done to be accepted quickly in their particular suburb.  I have no understanding why this situation is the case, but it is something I have finally learned.  It does not make me a fan of either dogs or cats, but I can see their use.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

My Writing Is So Bad That It Makes People Uncomfortable

I have commented before on the reviews I receive of my books. The reviews are largely bad. Sometimes this is because I produce books that people do not want. Apparently my counter-factual history books cannot be in the alternate history section because I do not make firm enough decisions on what might have happened. My books of analysis are criticised for not being books of stories and ironically my books of stories are criticised for presenting the world as it might have been. Despite having 'Factual' and 'Counterfactual' sections in my books I apparently do not make the distinction clearly enough. My syntax is bad because my sentences are too long and also too fragmented. My books are 'BORING' as well.

Apparently despite my research, my portrayal of certain historical characters is seen as being speculative. I am apparently wrong to feel a victory for the Confederacy in the American Civil War or a US victory in Vietnam would be bad outcomes for the USA, though given the words of Donald Trump currently receiving such support I realise that I come from a very different planet to many Americans so it is inevitable that my views are different. A book featuring stories set in Britain is condemned because it is just about Britain. A story featuring the Mongols is apparently insufficiently pro-Mongol to have any credibility.

Some feel '[t]he concept is really clever. Unfortunately the writing is far from gripping.', possibly because not every story involves a huge battle. Even those who feel my books are 'interesting' will not give me better than the mediocre 3-star rating. Positive reviews present me as writing obscure stuff far away from the work of Harry Turtledove, though my books are pretty much like many of his collections, perhaps again I simply have insufficient fighting.

Nothing I do in my books, how I re-edit them or re-categorise them is enough to satisfy the majority of people who commentate on my books. I cannot find the right category for some people. I cannot write in the precise way certain readers want, though I spell check and grammar check repeatedly and revise again and again. I cannot write in American English though I have tried. I cannot turn myself into a Trump supporter and I know that there are enough books out there on Amazon in that style that fans of his have no need to come anywhere near my books. I cannot afford to use the copyrighted images that some people insist upon.

These are problems I have faced with my writing. The strength of feeling often surprises me; commentators take real offence at what I have dared to do. The attacks from so many sides make me want to abandon writing, which I know is the objective of many critics. Today's posting, however, is to indicate how much power I clearly have over people that I somehow 'lure' into reading my books. One has said that 'Even though I knew what I was buying, it just was not an enjoyable experience.' which makes my book sound like it is heroin and at least an enema. Indeed one commentator has said he found my book '[a]lmost painful'. As a writer I must be something like a venus flytrap. I am able to lure people in to buy my book and read it; not to return it for a refund as they can easily do, and yet write so badly that I make them really suffer to the extent that they cannot simply stop reading my book, but they have to utterly delete it from their e-reader.

I clearly have a weapon that maybe the British or perhaps the US government might want to pick up on. With training and practice it seems likely that I can write a book which is both so intriguing at yet so bad that it will kill someone. I know it is said that 'the pen is mightier than the sword' but had not realised how literal that the saying was. So far I guess I have produced books like a razor blade and with time I may work up to a stiletto and then a proper dagger.