Urgent action needed before the EU authorities tell each other how digital VAT is working out fine!

As the dust from the Irish Revenue Fiasco settles, we can now see what Europe’s smallest businesses think of their chances of selling digital products online, six months after the new EU regulations were introduced. Alongside the opinions of the up-and-coming digital entrepreneurs and other companies keen to expand into international online trade, to drive the knowledge economy and generate employment and growth.

From 7th-9th September, the Fiscalis Summit in Dublin will see representatives of every EU Finance Ministry discussing how well or badly implementing these new rules has gone.

So we have until that conference to convince the Finance Ministries that this current system is damaging for all businesses and unworkable for those who simply cannot meet the administrative burdens and costs of compliance necessary to sign up for VATMOSS.

Otherwise there is no realistic prospect of seeing meaningful changes to this destructive legislation before 2017/2018.

We need everyone to act, most particularly those outside the UK, to prove this isn’t just a UK concern, which is something far too many other European finance ministries still believe. They’re still only talking to business organisations and the largest companies who can handle all this far more easily than the rest of us.

They need to hear the specific details of the ways this legislation has hurt your business and the changes you’ve had to make in order to just keep trading. However well the VATMOSS payment processing system itself might work is irrelevant if the administrative burdens and costs of compliance are so damaging.

European finance ministries and the tax officials handling all this need to hear from the sole traders, the one-person companies, the part-time start-ups and side-businesses who have been hardest hit by all this, precisely because the Internet now offers so many opportunities for small-scale, direct e-commerce.

Some of those start-ups could have become the next Apple, Amazon or Google. But as long as these new regulations raise such an off-putting barrier to entry into the digital single market, those giants will continue to dominate.

A longer/detailed version of this post is over on the EU VAT Action website

You can find the contact details for European finance ministries here

And here are the EU VAT contact details for each country’s finance ministries

Last but by no means least, we’ve also navigated PayPal’s rules and regulations to set up a Donate button, for those of you who’d prefer that route for making a contribution to the campaign. All money received will only go on direct expenses. We all continue to donate our time for free – yes, even after ten months of this…

A writing update – let’s hear a cheer for anthologies!

While I’d very much like to be under contract for some novels, with the upcoming expense of Junior Son’s university years ahead, it’s actually a very good thing I’ve not got deadlines like that to handle at the moment, given the way EU digital VAT has eaten my life this year…

So I am intensely grateful to have anthology invitations to keep me writing amid all the hassle of trying to reform EU legisation…

‘Fight like a Girl’ is a collection forthcoming from Kristell Ink – details here – and that has a story from me that just happens to be set a few years ago in the Lescari Wars, for those interested in Einarinn fiction. Obviously, there’s no need to be familiar with that scenario; the story stands alone for newcomers to my work. So do click on over to find out who’s writing alongside my tale Coins, Fights and Stories Always Have Two Sides.

Next year will see me having another crack at Science Fiction! Fox Spirit will be bringing out an anthology Eve of War and I have a story in what promises to be another very strong and interesting collection. Details forthcoming in due course.

If you can’t wait for that, and are keen to read something new by me but simply couldn’t spare the cash to contribute earlier to the ‘Temporally Out of Order’ anthology, now’s your chance to buy the mass-market paperback or ebook. My story’s called ‘Notes and Queries’ and I wrote about my inspiration for it here a while back.

Once you’ve read that, or if you’ve read any of the previous anthologies edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray, you really should check out this new Kickstarter, looking to fund two new collections, one on Were- well, whatevers, and one on alien artefacts. I’ve signed up for Alien Artefacts, and that’s definitely a go, as you’ll see the Kickstarter is already fully funded. New authors joining the fun now include David Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) and CS Friedman.

But wait! You can still make a real contribution to enhancing these anthologies, along with snagging some very fine advance goodies and bonuses for yourself.

For instance – Katharine Kerr (author of the Deverry fantasy series and the Nola O’Grady urban fantasy series) will join the anchor authors of the WERE- anthology if we reach $12.5K. (I’m particularly excited about this one as I have admired her writing for literally decades!) Then Jean Marie Ward has donated an ebook of a novelette called “Glass Transit” for those that pledge $6 or more if we reach $15K. And much, much more besides.

So do check out the kickstarter! And if you’re an aspiring writer yourself, start brushing up your ideas about aliens and/or were-creatures. There will be open submission slots available for both anthologies and Joshua and Patricia are genuinely interested in seeing new work and giving new voices their first chance at publication.

And meantime, alongside Cheryl Morgan of Wizards Tower Press, I’m working hard on preparing the Aldabreshin Compass ebooks for release soon, really soon… And yes, I know I keep on promising this but honestly, cover art and map reveals will be forthcoming shortly. Trust me, they’re worth the wait!

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and prepare for tomorrow’s HMRC Digital VAT Working Group meeting…

“The Irish Government wouldn’t send out a letter with the Guinness logo on it!”

When dealing with the VATMOSS fiasco, laughs are few and far between, so I did enjoy this contribution to the weekend’s online debate over whether or not letters from Dublin demanding insane amounts of money were a scam or some Irish Revenue office cock-up.

Well, for those unaware of the harp’s history in Irish heraldry, here’s a starting point from Wikipedia

Meantime, it’s now been established that the letters did indeed come from the Irish Revenue but no, they’re not actually demanding that money. They were apparently generated by a system error and an investigation is underway. Apologies will be forthcoming. So that’s that, okay?

Actually no, it’s very far from okay, and let’s not just draw a line under it and move on.

Not when members of the EU VAT Action Team and of the HMRC Digital VAT Working Group had their weekends so thoroughly disrupted by all this – along with the HMRC officials trying to get answers for us.

Not when these letters have generated so much concern and annoyance. Some recipients getting demands that weren’t for tens of thousands of Euro genuinely thought they were in danger of being aggressively pursued for a mistaken debt, while those convinced this was all a scam were very worried indeed about the data breach presumably indicated by the amount of genuine and supposedly confidential information in these letters about them and their businesses.

And if I was an Irish tax payer, I’d very much want to know how much money has just been wasted on printing and posting hard copy letters internationally to potentially ten thousand or so companies.

This is the second time a ‘computer glitch’ has generated a batch of bogus letters. After the first quarter’s VAT returns, the German tax system sent notifications to companies in the UK and the Netherlands with details of the tax office in Kleve they’d be required to deal with, complete with reference and registration numbers for all future correspondence. Once again, opinion was split between scam or screw-up – along with those genuinely worried that they were now required to deal with a tax office in a different country and language.

Because we cannot safely dismiss any such letters as a scam. The assurances we were given back in January that any queries from foreign tax authorities would be directed through HMRC have proved worthless. Small businesses in the UK have been contacted direct by tax offices from Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Luxembourg so far, over discrepancies in their VATMOSS returns for as little as five pence sterling. Yes, really.

Though doubtless some people who aren’t following all this debate online still believe that assurance from HMRC. What’s going to happen when one of them bins what turns out to be a genuine letter sent direct to them? How much trouble will they find themselves in, for wilfully failing to respond, as punitive interest is added to what they might owe?

On the other hand, what’s going to happen when some sophisticated scammer sends out a few hundred thousand emails using publicly available data gathered from Companies House, because some of those will be registered for VATMOSS, right? And some of those will be persuaded that they are somehow required to pay a non-ridiculous but non-trivial sum of money. Especially those operating at the small-scale, direct e-commerce end of the businesses all caught up in this. People without accountants and without much experience of either governmental cock-ups or the increasingly common online scams.

And what does this say about the VATMOSS systems we’re supposed to rely on, as we invest hundreds of pounds and hundreds of hours of lost working time attempting to comply with this legislation? It’s already apparent these rules were devised by people with a wholly inadequate understanding of the Internet and direct e-commerce. Now it looks like the computer systems handling all this have been put together and run with a similar lack of skills.

Let’s not even get started on the problems people across Europe have trying to get answers out of their tax authorities when something like this happens. Callers to the HMRC fraud line this weekend found themselves talking to staff who had no clear idea what VATMOSS might be, still less how scammers might be misusing it.

This entire scheme is not fit for purpose. The EU Commission has already acknowledged the regulations need reviewing and a turnover threshold applied. That process could take up to two years.

So far, so good, but meantime, it is wholly unacceptable to insist that businesses continue to try to comply, using these VATMOSS systems which are now inspiring zero confidence.

These regulations need suspending with immediate effect until a system that’s proven to be fit for purpose can be agreed.

The EU VAT Action Team will continue to represent the interests of all those online businesses and traders who were never consulted, still less considered, when this legislation was devised.

Please help us to help you. Whatever donation you can spare, however small, to boost the fighting fund will be most gratefully received.

The EUVAT VATMOSS Campaign. Fundraising to attend a VITAL meeting

I may not have blogged about this lately but there’s been plenty going on over these past few months. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Brussels shuts up shop for the summer while everyone heads for the beach. The emails and calls have been going back and forth as busily as ever.

We now have a chance to convince the EU that they must take decisive action to put a stop to the damage these regulations are doing, at the EU Finance Ministers’ summit in Dublin, 7th – 9th September. As long as we can afford to send a representative to speak up on behalf of everyone so badly affected. The EU VAT Action Team has held off asking for money for as long as possible but now we need financial help.

Let me explain how we got this far…

With the ongoing and invaluable assistance of MEPs Vicky Ford (Con), Anneliese Dodds (Lab) and Catherine Bearder (Lib Dem), we’ve continued to make the case for reform and interim suspension of this legislation which is still proving unworkable and hugely damaging for the digital small business sector. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s already killing the digital single market at the grass roots level.

Thanks to ongoing pressure from all the campaign’s supporters, through letters and calls, Deloitte have now been instructed to work with us and to accept our evidence as they prepare an impact assessment for the EU Commission.

Here in the UK we’ve been working with senior figures and VAT experts within the accountancy profession and other business organisations, as we continue to collect evidence of the hugely disproportionate costs of compliance, for the sake of paying trivial amounts to the tax man. We’re talking typically under £10. Yes, really.

We’ve also been collecting evidence of ongoing problems with the entire system. Such as small businesses in the UK being hounded directly by other countries’ tax offices over discrepancies which aren’t even their fault, of under £1, €1, and in one case, 5p. Yes, you read that right. The supposed agreement that such queries would be directed to HMRC simply isn’t holding.

Once again, letters and calls from all the campaign’s supporters to their MPs and other representatives have bolstered the EU VAT Action Team’s case. Feel free to continue writing!

We’ve reached the point where EU Commissioners Donato Raponi and Andrus Ansip are convinced this legislation needs a threshold to make the system workable. And while the details of that are worked out, we need an interim suspension for the smallest businesses who’ve been the hardest hit.

Now we need to convince all 28 EU Finance Ministries. To do that, we need to send a representative to Dublin. At our own expense. Welcome to modern participatory democracy – your voice will be heard as long as you can pay to play.

So we’ve set up a Just Giving page, with a target of £3000. If we don’t reach that in a month, every pledge will be refunded. And, obviously, we won’t be making the case for such desperately needed changes in Dublin.

Assuming we can reach that target (and passing it would be good!) the first priority will be meeting the Dublin trip’s costs. After that, we’ll refund the expenses the EU VAT Action Team have been covering out of their own pockets thus far, pro rata.

For instance, my own tally for train fares and other direct costs is now approaching £500. That’s used up most of my own business travel and promotions budget, so if you’ve been wondering why you haven’t seen me at SFF conventions this year, there’s your answer.

(We’re not even trying to calculate the hundreds of hours and thousands of words we’ve spent on this, in meetings, writing letters, briefings and blogposts… And the rigmarole of setting up a bank account has been another saga in itself…)

Once those direct costs have been met, any surplus will be donated to Kiva, a non-profit microfinance company alleviating poverty in the developing world by enabling people to create their own opportunities, meeting their own communities’ needs.

We’ve already demonstrated that a lot of small voices protesting together can have a big impact. Now a lot of small donations could very quickly give us the sum we need to see this campaign achieve the changes to the legislation that all of us so desperately need.

Please give us whatever you can afford, and spread the word as far and as fast as possible.

Many thanks.

(For those of you who prefer to use PayPal, we are looking in to that option and will post an update as soon as that’s available. But as with setting up the bank account, getting a Donations button turns out to be an unexpectedly lengthy and complicated process.)

Edited to Add
If you click through to the Just Giving page, you’ll now see we’re fully funded, thanks to the outstanding generosity of the video games company Rebellion, who are also the parent company of Solaris Books and the comic 2000AD, and as such can see exactly how bad this is for digital creatives.

Since this affects so many people in all three of those areas, games, comics and books, they decided to guarantee we’d be representing the self-starters and independents at that vital meeting!

So now, if you can add your contribution, however much that might be, we can hopefully send a second delegate to provide administrative and moral support to our speaker at the conference!

And please keep spreading the word!

Alien Artefacts and Were-(whatevers)! Another chance for me to write some SF!

As regular readers will know, ZNB is a small press run by Joshua Palmatier, with the able assistance of Patricia Bray, that’s establishing a solid reputation for anthologies exploring all manner of quirky corners of SFF. They really do have a knack for finding subjects to inspire and entertain both writers and readers. Because one of the most fun things about writing for a ZNB project is seeing what everyone else comes up with!

Here’s the newest book they’re proposing – or rather, books. This new Kickstarter will fund TWO science fiction and fantasy anthologies, titled ALIEN ARTIFACTS and WERE-, containing approximately 14 all-original (no reprint) short stories each from established SF&F authors in the field – including Phyllis Ames, Jacey Bedford, Patricia Bray, David B. Coe, Walter H. Hunt, Faith Hunter, Gini Koch, Gail Z. Martin, Seanan McGuire, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Steve Miller & Sharon Lee, and Jean Marie Ward, and me, plus others. Because as well as anchoring these anthologies with stories from established authors, ZNB also offer open submission slots for other writers – with professional pay rates and cover art that any author would be proud to see on their book jacket.

Alien Artifacts:
Life is out there. Alien civilizations have grown and died and been reborn again since the dawn of the universe. Some of those civilizations have left behind signs of their existence, hidden in the ruins on unexplored planets or floating in space in the form of ghost ships. In this anthology, 14 of today’s best short story writers will tackle what could happen if, in our exploration of space, we run across some of these ancient alien artifacts. Will they catapult humanity to new technological heights … or reveal our darkest secrets and destroy us?

Edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier, this anthology is the one I’ve signed up for and will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of 6000 words each. You’ll also be enjoying short stories by: Jacey Bedford, Walter H. Hunt, Gini Koch, Gail Z. Martin, Seanan McGuire, and Steve Miller & Sharon Lee.

Were-:
We’ve all read hundreds of stories about werewolves … but what about the less famous of the were-clans – the werelions, wereducks, and wereferns? These underrepresented families need to come out of the dark, full moon or not! From light and humorous to dark and serious, this anthology will explore other varieties of were-creatures and tell their stories. No werewolves allowed! This anthology will include short stories by: Phyllis Ames, Patricia Bray, David B. Coe, Faith Hunter, Gini Koch, Seanan McGuire, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, and Jean Marie Ward.

Cover Art:
The images that will be used to design the cover art are commissioned pieces called “Alien Artifacts” and “Were-” created by Justin Adams of Varia Studios. The concept cover art for “Alien Artifacts” has been completed and you can see it over on the Kickstarter page. That’s where you’ll find other scheduling details, and the full range of fun offers, special rewards, add-ons and stretch goals

It’s a measure of the enthusiasm readers already have for ZNB projects that this Kickstarter is already more than half funded within its first 24 hours. No, that doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax. Head on over to make sure you don’t miss out on the early backer incentives and to guarantee those stretch goals!

If you’re not yet familiar with ZNB’s collections, do check out Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs Aliens and Temporally Out of Order. Before striking out independently, Joshua and Patricia also masterminded After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar and The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, both of which are well worth reading.

A brief Aldabreshin Compass update

In among a great many other things on the To Do List at the moment, I’m writing up website pages on divination in the Aldabreshin Archipelago, to go live when we start publishing the series in an ebook edition.

I’m aiming to strike a balance between providing clear and comprehensive explanations and creating confusion through information overload.This is trickier than you might expect…

Other preparations are going well, notably the map and progress on the cover art. Keep an eye out for updates!

Online life for authors. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Three unrelated things last week have prompted a series of related thoughts on aspects of life online, particularly for authors. Because while the good is self-evident, in terms of interaction with readers and other writers that’s never been possibly before, it’s by no means an unmixed blessing.

The first thing was an author whom I’d don’t propose to name or link to, posting an explanation for cancelling a particular engagement. Not a guest of honour gig or something like that, just explaining their absence from an upcoming event. Because that author was forced to explain in order to quell successive waves of speculation. Simply saying, ‘unfortunately I won’t be there’ wasn’t sufficient. The author had tried that, only to find people were attributing this absence to a particular controversy tangentially involving them. No, the author said, it’s nothing to do with work, it’s a personal matter. Cue another round of speculation about possible domestic discord and such things. No, nothing like that, but a medical matter in the family. Oh no! Is it—?

At this point, the author chose to explain that a close family member is undergoing a challenging medical procedure that now clashes with the aforementioned event, and the author wishes to be on hand for their relative at that time. And rounds off that blogpost with a fervent wish that those reading this information will now forget it, since explaining has involved giving details about the family member and their condition which would otherwise have remained known only to close friends and relatives.

Which is why I am not linking. If you know the author, you don’t need telling. If you don’t, you don’t need to know who they are in order to think about the level of intrusion that’s increasingly hard to avoid when authors are now routinely expected by publicists and fans alike to live their lives online. Just to be clear, there’s no question that the vast majority of that concern for this author stems from positive motives. People wanted to know what they could do to help, what support they could offer. And that’s by no means a bad thing. All of us will be able to think of instances where online support, whether we’ve been offering it or receiving it, has been invaluable in the midst of some sort of strife, on or offline.

But managing how and when to draw demarcation lines between public and private life is becoming increasingly difficult.

On the other hand, there are some crucial things which an author is very much expected to never go public with. I’ve been thinking about that since last week’s second thing. A journalist contacted me asking what I thought about the Society of Authors campaign for fair and enforceable contracts for writers in their dealings with publishers.

You won’t be surprised to learn I’m all in favour of this. Because, since signing my first contract in 1997, I’ve seen attitudes among publishers to contracts that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry. By no means all publishers and certainly not all of the time, but things which have been clearly agreed are not infrequently completely ignored, from supposedly guaranteed time for a writer to review edits and proofs through to print runs being cut back or clearly contractually agreed editions of a book being cancelled without warning or recompense. I recommend having plenty of time and strong drink to hand before starting any conversation with an author about their experience of trying to get their rights in a book reverted.

Sometimes a publisher will offer a justification, invariably based on their business interests and unconcerned about the damage to a writer’s career. At other times the protesting author gets the email equivalent of a shrug and ‘if you don’t like it, lawyer up’. Right, because that’s something very few authors can ever afford to do.

And there’s always the implication, mostly unspoken though on occasion mentioned as a barely veiled threat, that an author who goes public with anything like this will be tagged as a troublemaker whom other publishers won’t ever want to work with. Because the book trade is a pretty small world.

It’s getting worse. These days, non-disclosure clauses are starting to crop up in publishers’ contracts, notably for anyone dealing with Amazon’s in-house imprints. This is a very worrying development. How exactly is a new author supposed to find out whether or not they’re being taken for a fool, if they’re not allowed to compare notes with better informed and more experienced writers?

So we’re expected to live our lives online, including sharing aspects which we’d personally rather keep private, as a trade off for the undoubted benefits we get – while at the same time, there are business matters vital to our own interests which we’re very firmly discouraged from openly discussing.

Obviously, writers do chat about such things privately and discreetly, but that’s not much use to anyone outside those confidential circles. And this silence definitely does nothing to help eliminate the persistent sharp practise which most readers would be horrified to learn of.

One way around such problematic aspects of online life is the pseudonym, especially for whistle-blowers dragging bad practice into the light. Except that can be highly problematic as well.

The third of last week’s unrelated things relates very much to that aspect of online life. A blog post went up revealing the real identity of the thoroughly unpleasant person who’s presented herself at various times as Winterfox, Requires Hate and most recently as Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Who has assiduously taken advantage of online anonymity for many, many years, to be calculatedly vile to people, so that’s the ugly right there.

I’m not going to link to that unmasking post – googling will find it for you fairly easily if you’re that curious. Firstly, the post includes serious accusations unrelated to online activity by RH/BS within SFF, about events of which I have no knowledge, or any way to verify, so that’s a cause for concern as I’ve no wish to risk spreading misinformation. Secondly, those who have linked to the post, predictably, have been assailed online by RH/BS and her acolytes with exaggerated and downright false accusations. The RH/BS clique have also done their best to play the victim card with obfuscating deliberations over what does or does not constitute doxxing. I have far better things to do with my time than get dragged into such tedious games.

Lastly if you google the name itself, you only get a handful of not very informative posts. While these serve to confirm her background of significant wealth and privilege, this has long been suspected by astute observers of things she’s let slip. The key identification in this saga has been tying the fake innocently sweet masquerade of Benjanun Sriduangkaew to Requires Hate’s now-well-documented history of spite.

For the purposes of this discussion, the fact of this unmasking is sufficient. For me the question’s never been if the prime mover behind RH/BS would be revealed, but merely when? Because even someone as diligent in deleting their internet history is going to leave some traces, and when someone’s behaviour is as sustained and vicious as hers has been, sooner rather than later, someone who’s been on the receiving end is going to be sufficiently provoked to do the necessary investigation and circulate their findings as widely as possible.

And unfortunately, that goes both ways. There are plenty of instances of people acting with the best of motives, for whom online anonymity has been a vital protection, who have been unmasked by those with hostile intent, with serious consequences for them personally and professionally.

So what do we do? How do we allow people the privacy they should reasonably be able to expect and the protections of anonymity which individuals may sometimes need, as well guarding against the consequences of people being pressured into silence and defending those subjected to anonymous malice?

Because at the moment, the balance seems skewed and the Internet’s not going to go away any time soon…

Thoughts and comments are invited and welcome, though please do not post links to either of the posts which I’ve chosen not to link to.

Hugo and Puppy thoughts

I’ve not blogged about the whole mess that’s been made of the Hugo Awards this year by overlapping cabals of the narrow-minded and entitled along with a clique of politically motivated, spiteful wreckers. I am extremely busy and besides, I’d largely be repeating the main points from this post on the Great SFWA Uproar of 2014.Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

Also, a great many other thoughtful and engaged writers continue to explore the issues here. Two recent posts that I found particularly worth reading are

What’s the Point? Human Minds and Sad Puppies by Matthew M Foster, who shows remarkable level-headedness, considering this ego-driven exercise in malice and pique has effectively destroyed any chance of a posthumous Hugo for his late wife, Eugie More on that here.

BREAKFAST OF BULLSHIT: FUTUREPHOBIA, THE HUGOS AND THE INVENTION OF SF’S PAST by M D Lachlan – an emphatic deconstruction of the bogus arguments underpinning this nonsense – which have left so many of us utterly bemused and wondering just what SF these Puppy people have been reading and watching because their experience is light-years away from our own.

And now, back to my own work.

A quick glance at Waterstones recommended reading in June

Just in case you’re wondering I am still keeping an eye on Waterstones and gender bias issues. At some point I will do another analysis of their monthly promotional emails.

The latest for June will certainly help those statistics – a quick and dirty count shows ten books by female writers promoted alongside twelve by men.

There are still issues – apparently women don’t write history/non-fiction as all those titles are by male authors.

But detailed analysis will have to wait as I contemplate the best way to tackle digitizing the Aldabreshin Archipelago map :)

Musing on the Half-life of Humour

I’ve been reading ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, a collection of non-fiction by the late and so very much lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. It’s an interesting read on many levels. There’s one trainee journalist I know who definitely should read it. But that’s not what this is about.

There’s reference made in passing to ‘Spem in Alium’, a famous piece of English choral music by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1570. I am incidentally a great fan of such choral music and sang in a very highly regarded church choir in my teens, got my Royal School of Church Music medals and we once sang in Salisbury Cathedral. But that’s not what this is about either.

The thing is, as an erstwhile Classicist, I can’t read ‘Spem in Alium’ without mentally translating it into ‘Hope in Garlic’ and inwardly giggling, as an inveterate fan of puns. It’s actually ‘Hope in Another’, for those of you who don’t have the Latin, as the late Peter Cook would say. (And how old do you have to be, for that reference to make any sense?)

Given I’m reading Terry Pratchett, I immediately think what a great Discworldian motto ‘Spem in Allium’ would make for a family of vampire hunters! Until they met the Count de Magpyr – but that’s a different story. ‘Carpe Jugulum’ to be precise. Which is another Latin based joke, of course, riffing on Carpe Diem.

So now I’m wondering, how long will these jokes be funny now that Latin is no longer taught in any widespread sense? Satirists like Flanders and Swann in the 60’s could get a roar of laughter in a packed theatre when they’re talking about newspapers on the ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ recording, and translate ‘O Tempora! O Mores!’ as ‘Oh, Times! Oh Daily Mirror!’ Could that happen today?

And this goes beyond Latin and indeed goes beyond humour. Just as Classics courses at universities now offer places to those with no Latin or Greek and include intensive language study from the start, so English Literature faculties are now including texts like the Bible in their first year courses because they can no longer assume that students will arrive with sufficient ‘cultural Christianity’ to engage as fully as possible with Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example. Is that a good thing, or a bad one? Or is it simply a thing to adapt to and move on?

What does all this mean for popular or indeed, high-brow culture? Who knows? But we can definitely see this shift taking place.

Not that this is a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by a conversation I had a few months ago with a Son. Son was passing through the lounge, where I was reading and there was a concert playing on the telly.

He halted, his attention caught by the music. ‘Oh, I know this – what’s it called?’
Me, not looking up. ‘Elgar, Nimrod.’
Son, affronted. ‘I only asked.’
Me, glancing up, slightly surprised. ‘And I only answered.’
Son, still indignant. ‘You didn’t have to call me a Nimrod.’
Me, putting book down. ‘What are you talking about? It’s the name of the piece – Nimrod, the mighty hunter. It’s by the composer Elgar.’
Son, baffled ‘How did that end up meaning a stupid person?’
Me, now equally baffled. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

Well, it turns out that for the sons’ generation, ‘Nimrod’ is indeed an insult and they have no knowledge of the Biblical reference to contradict it.

For that, believe it or not, we can thank Bugs Bunny. Back in the 1940s, he would refer mockingly to Elmer Fudd as ‘poor little Nimrod’, ‘what a Nimrod’ and so on. US cinema audiences began using it as an insult for buffoons like Elmer. With any knowledge of the Biblical origin? Who can say – but the mocking term was soon standing alone without any need for explanation, certainly in American English.

Given the exponential proliferation of pop culture these days, I am wondering where future writers, humorous and otherwise, will find sufficiently common references to draw on? What will they do, when there’s a distinct possibility that only a handful of people will get a particular joke? Use it or lose it?

What about the people who don’t get the joke? How will they feel? For instance, in the first Avengers movie, the use of a quotation from Ezekiel instantly identified those few of us who laughed out loud as the ones in the cinema who’d also seen Pulp Fiction. How distracting was that for the rest of the audience? Realising they’d missed something but having no idea what it might be. I still wonder.

I don’t have any answers. Anyone got any observations or thoughts?