Why Golden Age crime writers banned ‘The Chinaman’ and other notes.

I spent the past weekend at the annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference, and as always, came away with a broad range of interesting notes and thought-provoking questions. This year, the papers explored the question of genre: asking just what is crime fiction? So here are just a few things that came up, necessarily in brief.

The conference opens on Friday evening with drinks, a dinner and a guest speaker. This year that was Ted Childs, the TV producer who brought ‘Morse’ to the small screen. It was fascinating to hear how that all came about, back in the day when ITV was still very much a collection of regional broadcasters. As well as an affectionate and nostalgic reminder of John Thaw’s talents, among others, his talk was also a reminder of just how ground-breaking the production was back then; two hour episodes on film rather than video, recruiting writers and directors from stage and movie backgrounds. Without Morse, it’s fair to say the TV landscape of today would look very different, and not just for detective dramas.

On Saturday morning, Elly Griffiths looked at the changes in domestic life, particularly domestic interiors from the Regency to the Victorian era when crime fiction first emerged. As her slides showed, the Victorians surrounded themselves with stuff in a way their forebears never had. In this age of uncertainty, as science challenged religious certainty, as new philosophies challenged political certainties, the home became a sanctuary, filled with all this stuff holding emotional resonance and value of its own. Thus invasion of this home, in an age that could feel so threatening, becomes all the more shocking and transgressive? The home itself could become claustrophobic and tyrannical, provoking extreme acts and emotions. There’s a lot to think about there.

Jane Finnis proposed various lines to be drawn between fairy tales and crime fiction and not just the restorative justice aspects, though that is certainly important. Consider how many fairy tales involve looking for clues and solving a puzzle. Once you start looking, you can find a lot of fairy tale themes that crime fiction has retold, reinterpreted and developed for the modern, mass-reading audience. Issues of trust, deception and self-reliance. Then there’s the formula of ‘a long time ago, in a land far far away’ which removes the threat, the abominable acts, the violent retribution, to a safe distance while still allowing the reader to see the value of using one’s wits and challenging evil. Consider how many people who read mystery fiction really do not like true crime writing and how many writers feel uneasy about drawing too closely on real atrocities and tragedies. ‘Far too close to home’ is a telling phrase.

This was of particular interest to me given I’m increasingly convinced that folklore and fairy tales are an undervalued precursor to epic fantasy fiction in its current form. Especially when you look back to the original tales as collected by Grimm, Perrault etc, rather than their subsequent sanitised forms. Where, incidentally, female characters can have a lot more agency than later versions allow them, as was remarked on at the weekend.

Conference Guest of Honour Lee Child went even further back. He proposed the thriller as the original fiction that everything else has stemmed from, thanks to its original evolutionary purpose. If you want to know more, you’ll be pleased to know that this was livestreamed at the time and you can watch the recording here.

And all that was just Saturday morning! After lunch, Martin Edwards looked at the resurgent interest in and fashionability of Golden Age crime fiction – principally those books published between the World Wars. He’s involved in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics now being republished, editing their anthologies and consulting on the series as a whole. A closer look at those writers, their themes and their villains does give the lie to the ‘snobbery with violence’, ‘Downton Malice’ interpretation based on partial knowledge of Christie, Sayers, Allingham et al. He drew on a good few parallels with concerns then and those of our own times, most notably distrust and disillusion with politicians and rapacious money men as villains and unsympathetic victims. Carol Westron explored the various ‘Rules’ for detective fiction that contemporary writers produced back then and once again, closer examination shows that the genre writing of that era was considerably more complex than a glance at these supposed guidelines might suggest. Most of the successful writers broke them wholesale.

Something both speakers touched on was the ‘No Chinamen!’ dictum of the time, which can and has been held up as a symptom of that era’s endemic racism polluting crime fiction. Except… looking at contemporary discussions of that point, a great many more interesting angles arise. ‘The Yellow Peril’ was the bogeyman of the age, to such an extent that at one point, no fewer than five West End plays in production were blatantly sinophobic, not to mention the on-going hostility and shock-horror stories about ‘orientals’ in the popular press. Genre commentary at the time warned crime writers off pandering to such ill-judged and unsubstantiated prejudice – and of the dangers of bad writing in doing so – by so lazily seizing on the villain of the moment. The parallels with contemporary islamophobia are striking. Of course, views on race and ethnicity nearly a century ago remain a world away from our own but this is a salutary reminder that the past is a good deal more nuanced than we might be tempted to think.

Further papers looked at the development of various sub-genres within crime and mystery fiction, from past to present. Andrew Taylor looked at historical fiction, while Shona MacLean considered the challenges of writing such books from the professional historian’s viewpoint. Kate Charles reviewed the origins and growth of clerical detectives as a niche while Chris Ewan looked at humorous crime fiction. Sarah Weinman reviewed the originators of domestic suspense – because these books were being written decades before the current slew of ‘Girl in/on/who’ best-seller titles as the ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ collections make very clear. Lastly but by no means least, Marcia Talley looked at murder least foul – the ‘cosy’.

I can’t attempt to summarise these papers as they were all wide-ranging and came with copious examples of writers laying the ground work for such varied writing as far back as the 20s and 30s. Many of them were women asking questions of women, which has now somehow been airbrushed out of popular memory. Looking at the ways in which each sub-genre is still reflecting and testing the core tenets of crime fiction, its central themes and archetypes was and will continue to be fascinating for me.

The frequently under-estimated skills required were mentioned more than once. The challenge of making historical characters both of their time and accessible to modern readers is significant. Using humour not to make light of the awful reality of murder but for example, to hold up the corrupt to ridicule alongside grim events, is no easy trick. Similarly there’s considerable craft in achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief to make an amateur sleuth work in this day and age without tipping over into the ridiculous. And given the protagonists and primary market for cosy mysteries are mostly women, it’s hard not to conclude there’s quite some misogyny in the disdain those books so often attract.

Regular readers here will be seeing the echoes and correspondences with ongoing debates within SF&Fantasy that I did. I found many of the same concerns we have about our own genre with regard to retail and publishing trends. This is primarily a conference about the fiction but you won’t be surprised to learn I had a few shop-talk conversations with other authors. Publisher mergers and restructuring have caused similar carnage of late, especially among the mid-list. Editorial decisions seem to be driven by marketing and retail assumptions based on highly debatable reasoning about what will or will not sell, with scant consultation of actual readers. Frustrating levels of risk-averseness were mentioned, all infuriatingly familiar.

But I shall try not to dwell on that. Instead, I shall start working my way through the list of authors and titles now added to my To Be Read List. Thanks to the magic of ebooks I can do a bit of that this week and next as I am currently in Holland, thanks to the demands of my Husband’s work colliding with our holiday plans and seeing us both head out here a week earlier than our planned trip to the Ardennes. So bear in mind I’m only going to be online intermittently – I’ll be very interested in your observations in comments here but won’t be replying or answering questions in a particularly timely fashion.

Do raise a hand in comments or somewhere online if you’re interested in details of next year’s conference. Then I can pass on the information as soon as I get it.

Guest Post – Gaie Sebold on Villainous Pleasures

With a week away now in sight at the end of the month, I’m stockpiling holiday reading. One book I’m very much looking forward to is Gaie Sebold’s ‘Shanghai Sparrow’. I really enjoyed her Babylon Steel books – an entertaining and intelligently different take on epic fantasy. So it’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with the themes and ideas of Steampunk and I’ve invited her to share some thoughts on the book here. Over to Gaie.

Shanghai-Sparrow-smallVillainous Pleasures

When I started writing Shanghai Sparrow, the first book in the Gears of Empire series, I knew I wanted to write about the grimy, smelly, exploitative underside of the Victorian period. This may have been at least partly in response to a certain writer’s remark about Steampunk being ‘fascism for nice people,’ which, as a longstanding Leftie, I regarded as…well, more of a challenge than anything.

So my heroine, while originally from the most respectable of backgrounds, ends up surviving on the streets of London under the kind of circumstances that inspired Thomas Barnardo to set up his children’s homes. Evvie, however, did not meet Thomas Barnardo. She met Ma Pether, a woman who runs a group of female pickpockets, fraudsters and breakers-and-enterers.

I wasn’t expecting Ma. She created herself on the page, striding in, pipe asmoke, fidgeting dangerously with explosive mechanisms and creating bizarre aphorisms. She turned out to be a lot of fun to write. Almost too much fun – it was difficult to stop her taking over every chapter in which she appeared.

The same could be said to apply to the villainous Bartholomew Simms – though unlike Ma, he can’t really be said to have any redeeming features. At all. A thoroughly nasty, dangerous, sly, violent and brutal man – but with a certain style and turn of phrase that makes me look forward to writing him.

And then there’s Evvie herself – who occasionally aims for respectability but just isn’t terribly good at it. She’s too good at being bad, too good at fraud, deception, and thievery.

But she is the heroine. She has moral boundaries and dilemmas, she has struggles with her conscience. Just not always, perhaps, the same ones that most of us might have when faced with whether or not to nick something or rip someone off.

Yet she’s most fun to write, in some ways, when she’s just enjoying being good at what she does best – being a trickster and a thief.

And therein lies the question. Why are villains such fun to write? What is the appeal of going outside the moral boundaries within which I live quite happily most of the time in the real world?

I’m talking about my own personal moral boundaries, of course, which while they are going to overlap with many people’s are not always going to be identical. But I don’t steal, or commit fraud, or act violently to others. I don’t, as a general rule, want to. I fear the consequences, yes, but also, I don’t want to be a con-artist, a fraudster, a murderer. In real terms these are people who damage lives or end them, and I don’t want to do that.

And yet, on the page … it’s so damn much fun writing people who don’t have those boundaries. People who say those things, and do those things, and (sometimes) get away with it. But the point isn’t necessarily whether they get away with it in the long run – the fun part is that they get to say it and do it right now, right there, before our very eyes!

Some of it, certainly, is a form of wish fulfilment. I’d sometimes like to treat the law like the ass it occasionally, indisputably is. I’d often like to be able to turn the tables on our Lords and Masters, who rip off whole societies, whole countries, by outdoing them at their own game of fraud, deception and theft, but with a fraction of the resources and ten times the wits.

I might not want to murder, but I would like to be that bold, that scary, that tough. Especially when the vicious and violent of the world are making me feel threatened, I’d like, for once, to be the one who has conversations fall silent and glasses slip from trembling fingers when I enter the room, to be able to quell would-be opponents with a glance, to have my reputation go before me as someone not to be messed with.

I’d like the power that comes with going outside the legal and moral boundaries. But since I’m not going to do that, I have to find another way. And until the world becomes a place where (all questions of hard work and persistence aside), being nice and obedient and lawful is the best way for a woman to get respect, I guess I’ll keep on living vicariously through my villains, and enjoying every moment of it.

Gaie Sebold was born some time ago, and is gradually acquiring a fine antique patina. She has written several novels, a number of short stories, and has been known to perform poetry. Her debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, came out in 2013. Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk fantasy, came out in 2014 and the sequel, Sparrow Falling, in 2016. Her jobs have ranged from till-extension to bottle-washer and theatre-tour-manager to charity administrator. She lives with writer David Gullen and a paranoid cat in leafy suburbia, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and cooks a pretty good borscht.

Her website is www.gaiesebold.com and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold.

Introducing the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom – coming this autumn from Wizard’s Tower Press

Writing an extended sequence of novels like the Tales of Einarinn and my subsequent series set in that world doesn’t stop a writer like me from having other ideas. In many cases, that idea will be a one-shot wonder just right for a short story. Sometimes though, that short story turns out to be the first step on a longer journey.

Back in 2008 I was invited to contribute to an anthology entitled ‘Imaginary Friends’. I began thinking about the ways in which such a friend could be both real and imaginary – to one person at least. If everyone knew what was happening, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But if only one person could see this mysterious friend, what then? Comedy? We’ve all seen that episode in every telly SF/fantasy series and in films from ‘Harvey’ onwards. What if this is something darker and more mysterious? Monsters from the Id? That’s one classic Science Fiction answer – but what if there are no such easy explanations?

window on different worlds A

What if there’s uncanny magic at work, something imperfectly understood? Because magic doesn’t always have to be codified and organised by learned, collegiate wizards like those in Hadrumal. What if such magical creatures come from a parallel realm of superstition and myth? Let’s imagine a world with different layers of existence like those glimpsed in a picture that’s been hanging on my wall ever since my sister gave the family our pick of the pieces she did for her Art A Level?

But no matter how dangerous it might be, some people will always make use of magic, or at least, they will make the attempt. Meantime, surely some of those with such perilous power will feel a responsibility to protect those who remain unawares? Who will watch over the vulnerable? Who will watch the watchmen? What could I do with such universal SF and fantasy questions in this particular setting?

I’ve been exploring these and other ideas in various stories and one novella set within the River Kingdom ever since. The more I’ve written about it, the underlying concept and this new fantasy realm without the fixed and comforting borders of coasts and seas has steadily expanded. Now I’m seeing possibilities for further and longer stories set in this world, exploring the relationships and conflicts between its tangible and intangible aspects. So the time is right to offer this collection – with the addition of one entirely new story. Those who’ve come across one or two of these tales thus far can now enjoy them all. Those who’ve only read my Einarinn books can enter a whole new fantasy world.

As always, I am indebted to the talented people I’m working with, providing key skills that I lack. Ben Baldwin, who you’ll recall did the fabulous Aldabreshin Compass artwork you can admire to the left of this post, has produced another stunning cover. Sophie E Tallis is working on a truly awesome map. Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press has been getting to grips with all the intricacies of making the book available in paperback as well as electronic formats.

Further details and dates will follow in September. Reviewers interested in a PDF ARC in due course, feel free to email me.

Interesting things from the last little while – and explaining the recent link posts

I’m doing a lot of background reading, world-building and story-plotting at the moment, as well as the admin and other stuff associated with getting the next ebook out. Then there’s all the domestic administrivia which is mostly down to me at present since Husband’s currently working 12-14 hour days, six days a week, on a demanding new project for a prestigious new client. So me finding time for reflective and interesting blog posts isn’t really happening.

Fortunately there are all sorts of interesting things crossing my radar online.

On the history front – “Vatican library digitises 1,600-year-old edition of Virgil”

The 1,600-year-old document is one of more than 80,000 manuscripts, running to 41m pages, in the library, which was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V.

A major project to digitise all 80,000 documents will ensure that scholars have less need to consult the originals, and also make the texts available to the general public.

“Our library is an important storehouse of the global culture of humankind,” said Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library. “We are delighted the process of digital archiving will make these wonderful ancient manuscripts more widely available to the world and thereby strengthen the deep spirit of humankind’s shared universal heritage.”

On the equality in SFF front – “Eisner Nominee Renae De Liz Shares Short Guide for Artists on How to De-Objectify Female Characters”

Renae De Liz, the Eisner-nominated artist and writer behind such series as The Legend of Wonder Woman, The Last Unicorn and Lady Powerpunch, shared her thoughts on how to draw women without objectifying and oversexualizing them. In her impromptu guide, she tries to dispel many assumptions people have when they set out to draw women because of deep-set trends in comics.

And I found this prompted me to consider the assumptions people make about writing women because of deep-set trends in SF&F

On the technology front – “Slow-motion replays can distort criminal responsibility”

“Researchers found that slowing down footage of violent acts caused viewers to see greater intent to harm than when viewed at normal speed.
Viewing a killing only in slow motion made a jury three times more likely to convict of first degree murder.”

As a lifelong crime and mystery fan, in books and TV/film, I found this very interesting. I’m also thinking about the ways in which perceived technological progress can turn out to be not so helpful after all. When I get round to a longer blogpost, that’s something I want to discuss.

On the SF conventions front – no, I’m not going to discuss the debacle of this year’s World Fantasy Convention programme. For those of you coming late to this story, this particular convention has a long-established lousy record for offering interesting or up-to-date panels and this year’s offering might just as well come with an introductory, explanatory note saying “Yes, we hear you explain how everybody gains from diverse and inclusive programming. WE JUST DON’T CARE”

So how about trying one of the many conventions that offer a packed programme of fascinating discussions between people with plenty of relevant things to say?

Fantasycon by the Sea 23rd- 25th September in Scarborough – guests of honour Mike Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, Scott Lynch, Adam Nevill and James Smythe>

Bristolcon – 29th October – guests of honour Fangorn, Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

Creative writing in Witney – our second guest speaker is Mary Hoffman

A further update for the Writers in Witney course. Our second guest speaker will be Mary Hoffman, sharing the breadth and depth of her experience in writing for children, teenagers and adults, as well as her perspectives on the changes she’s seen in publishing.

You can find an introduction to Mary and her work here.

You can find the full course programme here.

As before, please spread the word with aspiring writers you may know within striking distance of Witney.

Creative writing in Witney – this autumn’s first guest speaker is Ben Jeapes

You’ll recall me mentioning the creative writing course I’m offering in Witney this autumn? Since I know from my own experience how valuable a range of perspectives and experience is for writers, I planned to include guest speakers from the outset.

The first of these will be Ben Jeapes. For those of you who don’t already know his work, do check out www.benjeapes.com

There’s an update on the Writers of Witney website here.

If you know any aspiring authors within striking distance of Witney, do please let them know 🙂

Cool things for a hot week plus a Newsletter question

It’s unusually hot here in the Cotswolds. The cats are unimpressed and I’m working in the garden as much as possible, thanks to the marvels of wifi. Moving on to the cool stuff.

If you have access to BBC programming don’t miss Artsnight on BBC tomorrow, Friday 22nd July.

“Is fiction the best way to access the truth? Award-winning Scottish crime writer Val McDermid explores the relationship between fiction, video games and real-life crime documentary. She talks to Ken MacLeod and Richard K Morgan, whose science fiction novels offer a commentary on current political events. She meets Malath Abbas, the designer of Killbox, a new game about the ethics of drone warfare, and Lucas Pope, whose Bafta-winning Papers Please examines the moral and political decisions faced by an immigration officer. McDermid discusses the importance and the pitfalls of covering real-life crime with veteran documentary maker and criminologist Roger Graef.”

Here’s a link to the BBC website though I suspect access will depend on your location.

For more outstanding SF, here’s an update from the SF Gateway

“Today, we direct your attention to one of the great forces for good in modern SF, the one and only Pat Cadigan.

Twice winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award: in 1992 for Synners and then again in 1995 for Fools, Pat has also been shortlisted multiple times for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, BSFA, World Fantasy and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, among many others. In 2013, she won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for ‘The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi’.

Many are the good and great of the field who have lined up to praise her. Can Neil Gaiman, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling all be wrong? We think not. Nor could fellow Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Paul McAuley, who wrote an astute review of Fools in the early days of this very blog.

OK, we’re sure by now that you’re champing at the bit to sample some of Pat’s extraordinary work – but where to begin? We’re glad you asked!”

So click on through to find out how to get reading!

Apropos good reading, you may – or may not – be aware that I really don’t do Horror. I simply don’t get it. Whatever – that’s just me. I have a good many writerly pals among horror authors and find they have a lot of useful and interesting things to say about both the craft and the business of writing. One of those is Adam Nevill. Here’s the latest news from him, if horror’s remotely your sort of thing.

I’m offering a FREE full-length book, CRIES FROM THE CRYPT: SELECTED WRITINGS, for folks who take my monthly newsletter, and it’s now available to download from my homepage.
CRIES FROM THE CRYPT is a selection of uncollected short fiction, unpublished chapters from my novels, advice for writers, features on horror, and some favourite interviews that accompanied the publication of my books. I guess it’s a horror companion and weighs in at 70K words. Just register at my homepage and collect your free copy.

Click through for a full table of contents and other information on how this will work.

Now for my question. That news from Adam got me thinking about newsletters. Increasing numbers of authors I know are doing them and as a reader myself, I see why. Facebook, Twitter and other such social media are increasingly ‘curating’ their content with algorithms and such which ensure you see what they want you to see (and make money from) rather than what you necessarily want to see.

Okay, that’s commerce for you. But how to make sure you don’t miss the latest news from a favourite author? Do you want that landing in your inbox?

If you’d be interested in a newsletter from me, let me know in comments. I’m interested in whatever thoughts you may on the pros and cons. How often might you like to get such a thing – monthly, every two months, quarterly? What sort of thing would you be looking for? Snippets from work in progress? Bits of idle flash fiction?

Any and all observations welcome.

What we did on our holidays

We’re back from a much-needed break in the Lake District. It’s somewhere I’ve never been before, while my husband went several times in his teens, doing ‘Outward Bound’ with the school – sailing, canoeing, rock climbing and such. (He tells me the hills have inexplicably got steeper since then…)

The idea was to get away from work, his and mine, and as it turned out, from the utter chaos of UK politics at present. So we made good use of our National Trust and English Heritage memberships as well as enjoying the scenery and solitude.

Ullswater

On our first day we went into Kendal and had a bimble around the town, which turns out to have a very unusual layout going back to medieval times. It also has quite the most convoluted one-way traffic system we’ve ever come across, so if you’re up that way, be warned! Later in the week we climbed up the hill to the castle ruins and that vantage point helps make a bit more sense of it, when you can see the layout of the hills and the river, as well as other impressive views, so that’s a walk well worth doing.

We found the museum that first day, and that was very interesting, not least to see what today’s curators can do with a collection of bequests from the days of Empire when British naturalists mostly went abroad to shoot things to prove they existed… A real added bonus was an exhibition of art inspired by the works of Beatrix Potter, and as a huge fan of Bryan Talbot, I was thrilled to see original artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat.

Since it’s the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth, there’s an awful lot going on to celebrate and promote her work. We visited Hill Top, the farm she brought with her own money after Peter Rabbit’s success and that was probably the most touristy place we went. It is well worth a visit, not least to learn how much more there was to her than writing little books about cute animals.

One thing in particular worth noting is her commitment to supporting the Lake District as a working, thriving community. It’s one of those parts of England where an important industrial heritage deserves to be remembered – and the consequences of its loss on the modern day population needs to be addressed. We visited the Stott Park Bobbin Mill which used to produce literally millions of bobbins and cotton reels for the textile mills of Lancashire and beyond in its heyday. And that was only one of more than seventy such factories. Highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Victorian and earlier industry. If you can get there on one of the ‘in steam’ days, to see the machines at work as we did, so much the better.

Not that the Victorians were all about work and no play. We also visited the Claife Viewing Station, once an elegant assembly rooms for Georgian tourists come to admire Windermere. It’s ruinous now but there’s an Aeolian harp installed as there was in its heyday – and since we were there on a blustery day, that added a distinctively unusual note to our visit.

Windermere and the towns around that particular stretch of water were busy – which must be a good thing for the local economy which does look to be under some stress. Quite a lot of commercial property was vacant, everywhere we went, along with plenty of house for-sale signs to catch the eye. But you don’t have to go far to find peace and quiet and leisurely country walking. We spent a very pleasant day in the hills above Patterdale – being overtaken by enthusiasts in Gore-Tex and lycra as we ambled along, enjoying the views of Ullswater. And on the way back, we rounded a corner on a country road and both saw a red squirrel sitting on a tree in a patch of sunlight, waiting just long enough for us both to say ‘oh look!’ before it bounded off.

After a day of walking, we fancied a sitting-down expedition, so went over to Coniston for a boat tour of the lake. Since I spent my early years reading about sailing small boats rather than doing so like my husband, I was pleased to see places which I remembered from the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books which I adored. I’m seriously considering giving them a re-read.

We also visited Wray Castle which is a very curious place, built as a Victorian exercise in ego for a wealthy industrialist by an architect who really didn’t know what he was doing – and who apparently drank himself to death. Since then, the National Trust hasn’t really known what to do with it and at present, it’s given over to fun activities for children, which seems an ideal use of the place. So if you’re up that way with a young family, bear it in mind!

Sizergh Castle is much more of a proper castle, and home to the Strickland family for over 700 years. The history and evolution of the house, from fortified manor to elegant residence is fascinating, with a lot of original features still in situ including fabulous Elizabethan panelling and carving. The family history is just as intriguing, especially their involvement with Jacobean politics and the exiled Stuarts in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth centuries. Then there are the splendid gardens – complete with a very friendly and sociable black cat. Possibly because, as I discovered reading the guidebook over a cup of tea, the herbaceous border he was so comfortably ensconced in includes a generous planting of catmints.

So that was our holiday in summary, and very enjoyable it was too. While I was up there I did acquire some reading – a scholarly biography of Beatrix Potter and also a book by Christina Hardyment detailing her searches for the places and people who inspired Arthur Ransome’s books. Those will warrant a separate blog post.

And now we’re both back to work. And yes, I’ve been places and seen things which have given me ideas for the stories I’m working on at present, as well as for future projects.

A VATMOSS, politics and holiday update

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t blogged in over a week, just look at the UK newspapers…

Given I’ve committed hundreds of hours, thousands of words and an incalculable amount of energy and concentration as part of the EU VAT Action team trying to secure meaningful reform of the 2015 EU digital VAT rules, you won’t be surprised to learn that was uppermost in my mind. Had this collectively disastrous referendum decision thrown all that hard work in the bin?

The short answer is no, for which I am profoundly thankful. Clare Josa and I went into London yesterday for a meeting with our Whitehall contacts to discuss the Brexit vote implications. We shot a quick update video in Green Park immediately afterwards, which you can find here. To summarise the key points arising, I’ll quote from the EU VAT Action site, which is where you should link to spread the word to other interested parties.

The UK is still in the EU and has the same rights and obligations as before, so EU Digital VAT continues to apply, worldwide, as before.

The EU Commission still intends to propose the promised legislation for a threshold and a simplified ‘soft landing’ area above that threshold, by the end of this year. This is a huge achievement, since a year ago they did not believe there was a need for either of these.

Another major achievement is confirmation that the Commissioner proposing the Digital Single Market legislation WILL include a provision to permit geoblocking for the purposes of reducing legitimate administrative burden, such as EU Digital VAT

The UK will continue to have a voice in the EU Digital VAT negotiations, whilst the UK is in the EU. However, once Article 50 is invoked and the formal leaving process has started, other Member States may choose to give less weight to our opinion

This is an issue because the UK has been the most vocal country over the new EU Digital VAT rules. So it is more important than ever for micro businesses outside of the UK to make sure their Finance Ministers, Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament are fully aware of the challenges you face with these rules. We are happy to help you get creative in making your voice heard, if traditional routes aren’t yet working for you. (See Action Challenge, below)

Whatever the outcome of the UK’s EU negotiations, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) trend is for more countries to implement similar place of supply rules to those from January 1st 2015 in the EU. This means that you need to keep taking actions to upgrade your business systems, so that you can prove where your customers are located.

Whilst the OECD recognises the need for thresholds and simplifications for the smallest businesses, it is imperative that we keep up the pressure on our shopping cart providers and payment processors, to supply us with the data that we need, to be able to comply.

The VATMOSS system in the UK will remain in operation for the duration of our negotiations. What will happen to it after that, no one knows. But please don’t make major business decisions based on guesswork, at this stage.

Next steps: we will continue to give you a voice within the UK government and the wider EU. The campaign has already achieved recognition in Whitehall, Brussels and at the OECD. Together, we have achieved the breakthrough that these decision-makers now understand that micro businesses – especially the smallest that are running on a laptop from a kitchen table – must be considered when changing legislation.

None of this could have been done without your support and the actions of the thousands who have supported the campaign. Thank you.

And here is the action we need you to take, please: And we need your support now, more than ever. We have been asked to put together a technical paper for the OECD Working Party on VAT, summarising the specific technical challenges that micro businesses have faced with complying with this legislation, over the past 18 months. So:

Please write to your Finance Minister, MEPs, Member of Parliament and copy to us (euvat @ clarejosa . com) to tell them:
Specifically why you cannot comply with the EU Digital VAT rules – or why it is difficult for you.

This will help to keep your problems top-of-mind, despite the background noise, and it will encourage Finance Ministers to vote to support the threshold and ‘soft landing’ legislation, when it is proposed.

So that’s the situation there. Phew.

As for the rest of it…

I didn’t think I could be more disgusted by Nigel Farage by now – but he managed it with his antics in the European Parliament. I’m thinking back to our VAT campaign visits to Brussels where I was able to see at first hand just how hard our MEPs and their teams of all parties – except UKIP who were an idle, know-nothing embarrassment to the entire UK delegation – have spent years working on so many vital issues in the interests of us all.

The Leave vote has thrown all that time, effort, passion and commitment from so many people into the bin for what’s already turned out to be a pack of lies.
Because Tory posh boys were more concerned with playing their power games than really thinking hard about the possible outcomes and the reality for the rest of us.

And now they are in absolute denial – or are totally oblivious – to the very real commercial damage this is doing from biggest to smallest businesses while the UK’s standing in Europe has already suffered more damage than we can hope to make up in a decade.

Meantime, the Parliamentary Labour Party has decided now’s the ideal time for a game of King of the Castle. When someone, anyone should be demanding answers from any and every Tory leadership candidate every hour on the hour to expose them for the charlatans they are. Yes, okay, I know it’s a lot more complicated than that – but honestly, the timing?!

Are there *any* politicians in England at the moment looking out for the national interest in the current crisis rather than serving their own narrow interests and ambitions?

I say England because Nicola Sturgeon and Scots MEP Alyn Smith have been showing how these things should be done!

What of the Greens? Plaid Cymru? LibDems? There’s talk of a progressive coalition. I would dearly love to see that gain some traction. And yes, I am in favour of proportional representation, even at the price of UKIP MPs. Having them in parliament would very rapidly expose the inadequacy of their position and skills for one thing.

Where do we go from here? As far as the big picture’s concerned, I honestly have no idea.

At the personal level, I’m going on holiday for a week with my husband, to the Lake District. We’ve been trying to arrange a break since March but what with one thing and another…

Anyway, I intend to have as much downtime as possible, especially from social media, and that’s why I’m disabling comments on this particular post.

When we get home I intend to get back to writing, and blogging about books, writing and the more usual aspects of my life!

Writers of Witney – I’m offering a ten week evening class this autumn.

One of the very first things I learned as a debut novelist nearly twenty years ago, is how generous established writers are, up to and including household names, with their practical advice, cautionary tales and other essential tips and tricks to help anyone and everyone write their best possible book.

Since then I’ve learned for myself how rewarding it is to share such things – and not just in some altruistic, let-me-polish-my-halo way. Discussing and working through different aspects of writing skills and challenges is an excellent way to realise something key to improving your own work-in-progress. That’s happened to me time and again.

I began teaching creative writing in 2003, stepping in to help out when a last minute crisis prevented the scheduled tutor from leading planned sessions at a science fiction convention. I was working with that original tutor’s teaching structure and all the feedback was very positive so that was clearly an effective approach. That said, it wasn’t my approach. So I started thinking about different ways to share the lessons which I was continuing to learn myself with writers who were as hopeful – but lacking essential insights – as I had once been.

Since then I have taught seminars and day courses at conventions and literary festivals, by no means only limited to talking about science fiction and fantasy. It’s the same skill set after all, whatever genre you may be writing in. I’ve been a guest lecturer for creative writing degree courses at Lancaster University, Edge Hill University, and Anglia Ruskin University, among others. I’ve also taught week-long courses, including one for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. The next residential course I’ll be teaching is at Moniack Mhor this December.

When I’ve mentioned these various trips and classes to local pals, I’ve often provoked muted howls of frustration because the time, the place, the whatever simply didn’t work for them. So I’ve decided to offer an evening class in Witney this autumn, drawing on all the material I’ve gathered together, and tried and tested, over the past decade or so.

Full details of the class programme and on the venue can be found here – Writers of Witney and news on guest speakers and views about various aspects of creative writing will be forthcoming.

Spread the word!