Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury about Palestine

There's a whole lot of stuff I have to blog about at present (like product reviews, opinions, plugs, books and much more) but I can't, at the moment, consider writing about anything other than this:

Which is a tad tricky, when you think about it. Because, quite frankly, it leaves me speechless!

To give you some background, a friend of mine who worked for many years in the middle-east and is a regular church-goer (chorister, then lay-clerk as myself) wrote to the Archbishops of both Canterbury and York to ask what the Church was doing about the plight of the Palestinians.

Having received a helpful, sympathetic and supportive letter from John Sentamu he hoped for something similar from the nation's senior bishop, head of the Established Church and holder of the most ancient Christian office in this country.

And that (above) is what he got.

Quite apart from the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a member of the British Establishment with a seat in the House of Lords - the utter lack of Christian charity, ignorance of the all-compassing nature of Christian involvement in world affairs and simple absence of love for one's neighbour is, quite frankly, astonishing.

I certainly am. (Astonished, that is!)

The Rt Rev Justin Welby clearly chooses to pass by on the other side, to 'wash his hands', and like Dives, keep the problems of the world at arm's length.

Meanwhile, in the real world...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Time Flies!

... especially on this day in 1752 when Britain changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

If you'd gone to bed last night a little over 260 years ago it would've been September 2nd. Then, at dawn this morning, it's suddenly the 14th September and you're 12 days older than you were the night before!

Except you aren't, of course: not really. Only the names (in this case, the numbers) have been changed. 

And changed in order to synchronise our human written calendar better with the only one that really matters - the calendar of the skies and the sun and moon and seasons.

Even that isn't 'right' of course, given that the earth inconveniently takes 365-and-a-quarter days to orbit the sun (which is why we need a leap year every so often).

All of which brings home how artificial this human construct, 'time', is.

Tell that to the boss next time you're late!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

An eye for an eye?

This is neither going to be a popular post nor is it an easy one to write.

In the wake of the frankly mind-boggling abuse trials and inquiries recently, the jailing yesterday of a 26 year-old PE teacher for an affair with a 15 year-old pupil would be insignificant, were it not for the general hysteria that currently surrounds even the mere mention of sexual abuse.

But... (deep breath).

Unwanted sexual behaviour and unwelcome advances constitute assault. There's no doubting that. In fact, the effects of such abuse can be more devastating and longer lasting than from physical assault. Mental scars can be longest to heal, if ever. So the perpetrator in this and similar cases must be punished. No doubt.

But fifteen months in jail?

Let's put that into perspective. Baby P's mother Sharon Connolly, for example, received an indeterminate sentence. But with a tariff of just five years. (She has since been released from prison on parole.) Another defendant in that case received three years. And the main perpetrator of the death of the vulnerable two-year-old got life - with a ten year tariff.

Despite popular opinion, jails aren't an easy option. More especially, perhaps, for educated, middle class offenders. More to the point, perhaps, is the question of what purpose such a sentence serves in cases such as this?

Is the teacher being punished as an example to the rest of us?

Well, possibly. Although, frankly, I doubt there'll be many people out there reading their newspapers and immediately taking vows of celibacy. I've been a teacher long enough (twenty-plus years) to remember the days when affairs between members of staff and sixth form pupils weren't exactly unknown or even especially frowned upon, still less prohibited by law. Indeed, I can recall certain teachers discreetly keeping such relationships a secret and then, after a decent interval, marrying their former pupils. And as far as I'm aware remaining happily married to them for many years thereafter.

So is the idea to 'right wrongs' - to see justice done or, in other words, to get revenge? Well, maybe. Although its hardly a very civilised or noble motive. But if jail satisfies our taste for blood then surely a career (rightly) in ruins and a reputation tattered might be punishment enough? Why punish anyone further in a situation like this? The tragedy of the case alone will ensure that wrongs are not forgotten, still less forgiven.

Will it help the victim?

A sense of justice, achieving closure and moving on are all essential if the life of any victim, whatever the crime, isn't to be eternally blighted. But after the headlines and the brou ha ha, who will even remember the victim? And what help will she receive? It costs money to send people to prison and if there isn't an urgent need to protect the rest of us I'm not convinced that the money shouldn't be better spent on counselling for both victim and offender and on training or on programmes of re-educating or any number of more healing and forgiving and caring options and sanctions.

After all, as Ghandi famously said, an eye for an eye and we will all be blind.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Shropshire Lad

This time last week we were eagerly anticipating our annual visit to the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. Thanks to major engineering works on the West Coast Main Line we were unable to travel to London by train. No matter. On a Sunday, parking and other restrictions are often lifted and traffic is relatively light. Look how close we managed to park!

The concert itself was moving, amazing and utterly captivating. It made an immediate impact with a profound and original piece by a little-known German, Rudi Stephan. Stephan was killed in the First War just a few months later. And war, and loss, and tragedy, were the themes of this commemorative Prom, never more so than in the pre-war settings by George Butterworth (killed on the Somme, 1916) of six poems from A.E.Housman's cycle, A Shropshire Lad.

That book was - after the Bible - the most carried volume in the trenches. It's not hard to see why. The words evoke the timeless beauty of the English landscape but seem to hint darkly of the darkness and tragedy to come.

Roderick Williams (baritone) was the soloist on Sunday evening with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze. You can catch the performance on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks and I'd urge you to do so, especially if the setting is unfamiliar. You'll probably not hear a better performance, ever. Here's the link:

'The lads in their hundreds...' Ludlow, seen from the castle.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

He is not missing...

I'm writing a book on the first war. (Who isn't... or hasn't?) But - and it's a big but - mine is about the aftermath, the immediate aftermath, when France and Belgium were slowly rebuilding and first the Army followed by the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission were burying and reburying thousands and thousands of bodies and slowly creating the vast memorial cemeteries that are now such a universal symbol of the human cost of war.

My protagonists - a group of soldiers eager for demob but kept on in Flanders after the Armistice - form one of the many companies whose unenviable task it was to search the shattered land for the missing, to exhume hasty battlefield burials and then to establish the now famous concentration cemeteries like the largest of them all, Tyne Cot.

It was a grim task. But many such men volunteered for the work (and not merely for the extra 2/6 a day). Some even remained in Belgium after demob and found work as IWGC gardeners. A sizeable British  community in Ypres between the wars had its own school and church and remained there until the Germans once again invaded in 1939. Then came a hastily arranged and hazardous evacuation.

In the meantime, the monuments to the missing had been built. Massive structures like Thiepval, the memorial wall at Tyne Cot and, of course, the famous Menin Gate which was inaugurated by Field-Marshal Sir Herbert Plumer ('Daddy' Plum, one of the few high-ranking officers to have escaped the 'donkey' epithet and to have been universally respected by the troops) on this day, July 24th, 1927.

In one chapter of the book I'm writing the men - by now ex-army IWGC gardeners and labourers - gather at the Menin Gate for the ceremony (as actually happened - medals, but not uniforms, were worn). They listen as Plumer delivers his speech:

One of the most tragic features of the Great War was the number of casualties reported as 'Missing, believed killed'... It was resolved that here at Ypres, where so many of the 'Missing' are known to have fallen, there should be erected a memorial worthy of them which should give expression to the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice and its sympathy with those who mourned them. 

At home in England, at the same time on that July Sunday morning, congregations gather in churches up and down the land to listen to one of the very first BBC outside broadcasts - a live relay from Ypres - and, perhaps, to follow the service in the specially-printed feature in the Radio Times.

You're not, perhaps, meant to be moved by your own words. (Although Dickens cried at the death of Little Nell.) But I find even my own modest description of that event, culminating as it did with the playing by buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry of the Last Post (the start of a tradition that continues, famously, to this day) followed by pipers of the Scots Guards playing the Flowers of the Forest lament as the men who fought there remember their comrades who died and are commemorated on those walls quite unusually affecting.

But then, that's down to the event itself, the memorial, and the men it commemorates. Just to see the 'intolerably nameless names' - almost 55,000 - filling the walls and arches of Reginald Blomfield's great edifice is moving enough.

It takes but a little imagination to appreciate the impact it must have had on those present that day, those for whom the countless names were living people, comrades, friends and of whom, at last, in the words of Herbert Plumer, the world could now say:

He is not missing; he is here. 


You can read an extended extract from the beginning of this book on the Authonomy website.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Why I'm an Amazon fan

It's become fashionable to knock Amazon; a raft of best-selling, well-paid authors have been urging us all to boycott the online retailer and to use local bookshops (or even Waterstone's) instead.

There are no doubt some genuine grievances, perhaps even on both sides. If I were a Hatchette author and Amazon appeared to be dragging its feet listing my book I'd be annoyed. 

But I'm not. I'm a jobbing writer with books published by three different (small) publishers and guess what? Amazon sells my books. Waterstone's doesn't (in spite of my best efforts). Indie bookshops don't often do so either (although they will order a copy for you should you wish).

No. If you want a copy of one of my books or a copy of probably the majority of titles by many if not the majority of authors, Amazon is where it's at. Or where they are. The books, that is. 

Ok, so there are sometimes eye-watering discounts. The terms can be extortionate. There are serious competition issues. And John-Claude Junkers granted Amazon some pretty decent tax breaks when he was Premier of Luxembourg. 

But no matter. Bookshops, wholesalers, publishers all take a cut of the cake I bake. And they do so (at least, the first two) at no risk to themselves either. If a book doesn't sell they send it back. Authors can't unwrite their words.

So my best chance of reaching a wide readership and making a little bit of cash into the bargain is through Amazon. I know it's not fashionable to say so. And I know it won't make me a fortune. 

But what's the option?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

The first comprehensive survey of writers' income in the UK since 2005 has thrown up some shocking figures, not least the fact that our income has fallen by almost 30% in the past 9 years.

The median - in other words, the middle of a list that starts at the bottom with me (probably) and ends at J.K.Rowling or E.L.James - is a mere £11,000. Compare that to the £16,850 the Joseph Rowntree Trust says is necessary to achieve a minimum standard of living and you get some sense of the problem.

And that median, you know, comes in the middle of long list. Everyone knows that 10% of authors earn over 90% of the money made by writers. But if the remainder can at least earn a crust by their efforts, well... we can always move into that garret can't we?

It's not hard to see why most authors are poor. Although I sometimes see people raise their eyebrows when I tell them where I live and why I ride a bike instead of driving a rolls. So, just to be clear, here's how it works:

An advance, first. I've had a few. (But then again, too few to mention.) But that's an advance against future royalties - a loan if you like - so you don't get anything else on top. Not until you've paid off your debt (out of royalties, that is.)

And that, dear reader, can take an awfully long time. Two of my books retail at £9.99 per copy. My fairly standard contract means I get 10% of the net royalties on each sale. So do I get 99p? Do I ever...

Because the tenner you hand over in the bookshop goes to the bookseller, who will have bought the book you're now holding from the distributor/wholesaler for considerably less (let's be generous and say £7).

But that £7 goes to the wholesaler. I'm nowhere near my slice yet. Because the wholesaler buys from the publisher for around, say, £3. They've got a business to run, after all.

I'm sure you can do the maths. It's that £3 that I get a tiny fraction of (because let's not forget the publisher has overheads too). And so you'll see that it takes an awful lot of sales to make a living. And that's without mentioning a host of reasons why we might get paid even less - such as bulk discounts, library or Book Club editions, and, of course, the 'A' word - Amazon .

It's no wonder so many established authors turn to self-publishing. (Incidentally, even J.K.Rowling has done it. The first of the Harry Potter books were published before the advent of the eBook and she very wisely kept the electronic rights of her books to herself and has now, effectively, self-published her back list in eBook format. Clever!)

But until the rest of us have anything approaching her reputation we'll need to do it the hard way.

I don't see the situation getting better in a hurry.  I mean, who seriously pays £9.99 for a book these days? A return to the rich patron of yesteryear would be no bad thing. In fact (here's a revolutionary suggestion) perhaps that top ten percent of hyper-rich authors should each agree to sponsor a struggling beginner, someone at the foot of the ladder? They'd get mighty kudos knowing that they're helping the next generation.

And who knows, the next generation might even include another J.K.Rowling...

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Here is the news...

And this was Richard Baker reading it, 60 years ago today:

Except you wouldn't have seen him. Because he wasn't on-screen.

That - watching a newsreader (who was in those days, like Baker, an actor) - came later. As did the notion of journalists (pah!) doing the job, all manner of fancy, patronising graphics and the ridiculous notion of having someone standing where the news is happening (at all hours of the day and night).

We've come a long way. (I say 'we' because we're as much a part of the journey as they are - aren't we?). Here's the BBC Lime Grove newsroom as it looked back then:

And here's the New Broadcasting House version, opened last year:

Quite a difference, eh?

Yes, the news has come a long way. It lasts a lot longer. But never seems to get any better.

Plus ├ža change...

Friday, 27 June 2014

World War One in a Nutshell

100 years ago today someone was shot in Sarajevo. Four years and 16 million killings later, the Armistice was signed and World War One ended.

The two events, of course, are causally connected. But how? Why did the death of the heir to the Austrian Empire lead to World War? If you've ever pondered on such things, and if you're knowledge of the facts is hazy, here's my brief guide to the Great War.

1. Bosnia, 100 years ago today, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the assassination was part of a campaign for independence;

2. Austria was a long-standing ally of Germany and when it finally got round to responding to the events in Sarajevo, it made sure it did so with Germany's complete support (the so-called 'blank cheque);

3. The problem was the Russians. Both Austria and Germany feared Russian involvement in any fighting in Serbia, and they were right.

4. On August in response to Austria's declaration of war on Serbia (basically, punishment for the assassination of the heir to the throne) Russia mobilised its army;

5. This meant France was now committed thanks to a mutual assistance treaty with Russia to fight against Germany;

6. Which led to the enactment of the Schleiffen Plan by Germany - invading France through Belgium and having a pop at the Russians through Poland.

Which is basically where World War One begins. See? It's not really that difficult is it? Meanwhile, over in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary was indeed fighting in Serbia, the Turks became involved and the Italians, Bulgarians too ultimately and the whole thing went to hell.

Monday, 2 June 2014

On this day

June 2nd 1840, Thomas Hardy was born. 

Musician, poet, architect, novelist, in that order, Thomas Hardy must surely rank as one of this country's greatest men. But why? His novels are wonderfully crafted social observations, historical records and moral commentaries but then, so are many others. His poems - a vast body of sometimes variable work - are immediate and memorable, original and musical. But others are equally good. His architecture? I can't comment on his skill as an architect though I can be pretty certain that he must have been a more than useful musician, given what regular duties he and other members of the Hardy family undertook.

More than anything, perhaps, is Hardy's immense influence on other writers: and what he most consistently speaks to fellow authors is the importance of honesty. Hardy is always honest, uncomfortably so at times, and his style and idiom are as honest as his themes and his subjects. 

That, probably more than anything else, is the true mark of greatness. It sounds easy doesn't it? But making great art out of honesty... that's another story!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Literary Calendar: April

This is amazing. It turns out that April in years past has been quite a month, from Jane Austen telling the Prince Regent that she could 'not sit down to write a serious romance' to the publication of The Great Gatsby and the birth of Vladimir Nabokov. Inspiring stuff. Must be something to do with sap rising.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Was WW1 the Biggest Error in British History?

My latest book is about the end of the war, the period post-Armistice when the pieces - literally, in terms of battlefield debris and unburied bodies, and psychologically in terms of the lives of the men who had served - were being picked up and a broken, shattered world was slowly being reassembled.

But no book on any aspect of the First War can hope to be complete without at least being informed about its causes, and by the debate that still seems to surround them a century later. For those involved, for the families affected, for the industries and economies ruined and not least for the men (and woman, and children - as early as December 1914 British children were being added to the casualty list) who lost their lives, knowing they were fighting, suffering, dying for a purpose, for a just cause, made the hardships understandable on some intellectual level even if emotionally they were scarcely bearable.

It's not unlike the argument that still surrounds the UK's involvement in Afghanistan and the legacy our troops will leave once their mission is complete. We owe it to the 500 servicemen and women killed as well as the thousands injured to make sure their sacrifice was not in vain.

In hindsight, of course, we know that the 'war to end all wars' was nothing of the sort and that many of the millions who died between 1914 and 1918 did die in vain. We know that thousands of men went to an almost inevitable but wholly unnecessary death as the result of the failures and folly of those in command right up through the forces to the War Ministry and the British Government and the aristocracy.

But should Britain have even gone to war in 1914? What would have happened if we hadn't fought? And what would the map of Europe have been like if, at 11.00p.m. on August 4th 1914 Britain had not declared itself to be in a state of war with Germany?

That's the fascinating question posed by historian Niall Ferguson who refers to World War One as 'the biggest error in modern history' in a recent article in The Guardian. Not that he argues that Britain should never have gone to war. Just that, with a relatively tiny army and without much by way of the resources necessary for a major land-based conflict, we shouldn't have rushed into the conflict as early as we did.

Ah, but the treaties - guarantees of Belgian neutrality and verbal assurances that we would support the French. Well, as Ferguson says, it wouldn't have been the first time (nor the last) that pragmatism, realism or merely blatant self-interest had overridden international obligations.

It's a fascinating thought - the notion that we might still have gone to war with Germany - just later when we were better prepared, perhaps, and with a clearer idea both of what we were doing and why we were doing it. Yes, there were at the time vague designs on parts of the British Empire and some sabre-rattling on the Oceans, but Germany in 1914 didn't pose a serious threat to Britain's homeland security and - arguably - might never have done so.

Of course, such retrospective raking over historical coals is a luxury we can afford. Those fighting, those who had fought and those for whom the Armistice wasn't the end of the war but rather the beginning of a lifetime's struggle to return the land and themselves to normal (or as near as possible) hadn't the opportunity to seriously question what they were doing or why they were doing it. They had to believe they had fought the good fight.

It is their story I am trying to tell. And of course it's a story that knows no future beyond battlefield clearances, beyond a halting resumption of family life, beyond the slow and careful creation of the monumental cemeteries designed to stand for eternity as a symbol of a war that was still thought to have been an end to all wars.

Lest we forget!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Radio Four Theme… RIP

Hard to believe it's almost a decade since this wonderful medley was what gently roused those of up who had to wake up early and whose radios were tuned to BBC Radio Four from our blissful slumbers.

Starting the station's day with a theme was thought something of an anachronism is the new, streamlined Birt-ian BBC. Now, instead of music, we get 'news briefing' which more often than not is a blatant infringement of Trades Description legislation. Most mornings, at five-thirty (following the Shipping Forecast) we early morning listeners are patronised with a main headline about something that hasn't actually happened yet, a second item about what they think someone might say later on that day and then, in other news, a cheerful list of things that happened 'on this day' several years ago.

Well I was listening this morning. And they didn't report the most momentous, monstrous and malign event to have happened 'one this day', in this case back in 2006. Anyone else lament the passing of this wonderful piece of music?

Let's all write in and demand they bring it back!