Posts belonging to Category culture and society

In which we discover Anne McCaffrey was a lot more prescient than me!

As the news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone racing round the world, to a wide range of reactions (to say the very least!) my response has been perhaps a little different to most.

Because I remembered writing this, back in 2012, when I wrote an appreciation of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ for SFX magazine’s Book Club column.

While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, …

Shows how much I know 🙂

The specific story where Dylan’s music plays a vital role is ‘The Ship Who Killed’, first published in 1966. Helva, the brainship, is partnered with Kira, a practising ‘Dylanist’. What’s that? Kira explains:

‘A Dylanist is a social commentator, a protestor, using music as a weapon, a stimulus. A skilled Dylanist … can make so compelling an argument with melody and words that what he wants to say becomes insinuated into the subconscious

A really talented Dylan stylist … can create a melody with a message that everyone sings or hums, whistles or drums, in spite of himself. Why, you can even wake up in the morning with a good Dylan-styled song singing in your head. You can imagine how effective that is when you’re proselytising for a cause.”

For those who might like to read the whole piece, I’ve added it to my reviews page. Hopefully I can find time to add a few more recent reads there sometime!

Here’s an Amazon link to tell you a bit more about the book, always remembering you can buy it from any other retailer online – or why not visit your local bookshop?


Good things on the Internet – SFF Writers blog for mental wellness #HoldOnToTheLight

The best writing reflects real life and day to day challenges to mental health are a reality for everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. Through September and October dozens of authors will be blogging about mental wellness, mental illness, depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD treatment and related issues.

Gosh, that sounds like a whole load of fun… really?

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t some worthy gloom-fest. Look at that hashtag #HoldOnToTheLight. This initiative is about illumination, about exploration, about using the power of the Internet for something positive.

Few things are as isolating as the struggle for mental health. This campaign is already highlighting that whatever your particular challenge may be, you are not alone. If you’re desperate to help a burdened friend but don’t know what to do for the best, see what you can learn from the experiences of those who’ve already been there and done that, from both sides of the issue.

So check out that hashtag on Twitter. Keep your eyes open on Facebook and other social media. I’ll be writing my own post towards the end of this month.

Meantime, here’s more from Gail Z Martin about the project.


Holiday reflections (and eagles)

We’ve recently spent a week in the Ardennes, Belgium. Specifically, in a miniscule village about 8 miles outside Bastogne. We rented a ground floor apartment in a barn conversion with thick stone walls, tiled floors and those continental shutters that the sons still insist on calling ‘blast doors’ after first encountering them at the age of ten or so, when they were really getting into the thrills of SF. So even with outdoor temperatures in the high twenties centigrade, that was a wonderfully cool place to relax, especially after a week spent working in the Netherlands in 35C heat.

Why Bastogne? Well, both Husband and I are interested in history and this area is famous as the arena for the World War Two ‘Battle of the Bulge’. We have a particular interest in this as my brother in law is a historical re-enactor with a group honouring the 101st Airborne, The Screaming Eagles, who were besieged in Bastogne by the German counter-attack of December 1944. When the Germans invited them to surrender, the U.S. commanding officer, General McAuliffe sent back the simple reply ‘Nuts’. This apparently baffled the Germans comprehensively.

If this is all new to you, I can seriously recommend the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ for an overview of post D-Day WWII. If you’re already interested in such things, we visited and can very much recommend the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson Memorial, the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne itself and also the Bastogne Barracks, still a Belgian Army base where the soldiers offer guided tours of what were the U.S. HQ buildings, now with historical displays, along with one of the finest collections of World War Two military vehicles we’ve seen, including some real rarities.

If you’re not interested in such things? If you consider all this to be ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’? I’d still recommend a visit to the area as it offers wonderful opportunities for outdoor pursuits of all kinds; hiking, cycling etc, through a beautiful region. While you’re there, you might like visit one of those museums and I think you will find more contemporary relevance than you might imagine. Exploring the rise of fascist nationalism in the 1930s, displays used contemporary documents and sources to highlight the failure of the political establishment as parties in all countries became more interested in internal back-biting and rivalries than tackling the very real, severe economic hardships and social inequalities which ordinary people faced. The demagogues – to the extreme left and the extreme right – offered simple-sounding solutions. They promised to sort everything out, they pointed the finger at easy scapegoats – and no one countered their deceptive narrative.

In the era of Trump and Brexit, that should give us all pause for thought. From the UK perspective in particular, I was struck yet again by how different the European experience of World War Two was from the British one. These museums make plain the impact of the war on the civilian population. There were the posters detailing requirements for the compulsory registration of Jews. Turn up on the appointed day and give all the details of your family, your parents, your grandparents, everyone’s dates of birth, addresses etc. – or else. Sabotage and any other resistance activity was strictly forbidden – warning posters specifically included such things as turning up late for work, or not doing your job with sufficient enthusiasm…

I recall my grandmother talking about getting twin babies and a dog down to the air raid shelter night after night on England’s south coast. They were in very real danger, as were all my relatives. In Bastogne I saw a video of a woman of much the same age, recalling spending two nights outdoors hiding in a wood in freezing temperatures with her baby. Driven back into the town by hunger and desperation, she was caught in a bombardment and both were injured. Her baby died of his wounds two days later. There are people suffering the same today. The 101st Airborne Museum has an audio-visual presentation in one of the building’s cellars. It gives you something of the experience of the townsfolk sheltering in those very cellars as the war raged overhead. Sitting there, with my ears ringing, dazzled by the flashes of light in the darkness and feeling the floor shake beneath my feet, I was forcefully struck by the thought, ‘This must be what life is like in Syria now’.

It’s not just the museums. I’m used to English village war memorials listing tragic losses through 1914-18 and 1939-45. I wince when I see the same surnames repeated, as families lost successive generations of fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, uncles. In Europe though, as I saw time and again on this trip, these memorials also have lists of ‘civilians’, ‘resistants’ or simply ‘shot by the Germans’. In some cases those outnumber those who died in the armed forces – in villages of under a hundred houses. No wonder the peaceful co-operation of the European Union (yes, with all its flaws) is so valued across the Channel. No wonder the couple of ordinary people who raised the subject with me were so baffled and politely indignant about the UK Referendum – both the campaign’s distortions and lies, and the vote’s outcome.

Gosh this all sounds very serious. Yes, such things are, and they matter, and I value these experiences which inform and expand my understanding. We also had plenty of fun as well as relaxing with books, DVDs and computer games according to taste. We had some splendid meals out; the local cuisine is good, hearty, farmland food. The countryside is lovely and the people are friendly and welcoming – and French speaking which was a relief as my Dutch is still really minimal.

We visited the Musee des Celtes and that was well worth the trip. It’s small, six rooms over two floors of an old building but with some nice artefacts well displayed, plus a replica Celtic chariot since chariot burials are a notable local feature. Overall it does a sound job of focusing on the specifically Ardennes Celtic populations and archaeology, within the overall context of Celts Europe-wide. That was interesting of itself to us since we’re so used to the Celtic focus being Scots/Welsh/Irish. There’s stuff to keep children interested, plus a wrap-up display about Celts in popular culture today, featuring Asterix, naturally. An interesting side note was the display on the 19th century Celtic Revival in the context of Belgian nationalism. I think I learned more specifically Belgian history that week than I’ve ever known before.

The displays and audio visuals are primarily in French but there is a English booklet offered which translates all the display case cards – in some cases rather amusingly. ‘The defunct’ instead of ‘the deceased’ raised a grin. Not that this party of three with two non-French speakers is in any position to feel superior, you understand. Overall, through the week, I was pleased/relieved how well my French held up as the family’s sole communicator, given I’ve never been properly fluent and I don’t use it overmuch.

By contrast, the Chateau de Bouillon is one of the biggest castles we’ve visited. It’s high on a rocky outcrop – and substantially built into it – dominating one of the river valleys that’s been a passage through the Ardennes for Germanic invaders heading west for, well, forever. Consequently this castle’s defences have been successively used, refined and updated from 968 to 1944. The views from it, and of it from the town, are spectacular and its long history is fascinating.

It’s also the only castle we’ve visited where dogs are banned specifically because the resident and apparently highly territorial eagles will see them as prey and attack accordingly… There’s an impressive collection of birds of prey with excellent daily displays featuring assorted owls and raptors from sparrowhawks to steppe eagles. Unsurprisingly I am now thinking how to integrate the new things I learned about falconry into my next fantasy project…

As promised, here are some pictures.




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.

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!

Reflections on death and writing in the wake of recent, grim events.

Along with so many, I am profoundly troubled by the recent murders of gay clubbers in Orlando, Florida, and of Jo Cox MP in the UK. Consequently I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2011, as a guest for some website or other though alas, I have lost the details of precisely where. Because those of us who write about death for entertainment need to be very clear that what we are doing is the exploration of real world violence, not its exploitation.

I do not propose to add to the debates about the motivations, mental states or ideologies of these killers. Please do not make any comments along those lines here. Bluntly, you risk igniting the incandescent fury I currently feel for those who claim the right to take another’s life. If you wish to discuss those aspects of these atrocities, there are plenty of places to do so elsewhere on the Internet.

Meantime, I will fervently hope and work for a day when a post like this is no longer so horribly relevant.

Do you ever get writer’s block? No, but I do get stopped dead.

Writer’s block. It’s one of those questions we all get asked, those of us sitting up at the front on panels at conventions, libraries and literary festivals.

To be honest, no, I just don’t have time for writer’s block. With two teenage sons at school and college and a husband whose (very) full-time job keeps us all fed and sheltered, holding up my end of the family deal by running this household means my writing time is precious and I’m not about to waste any of it. Okay, there are days when the writing goes more smoothly than others but that’s different.

But some things stop me dead in my writing. Death. Real world death. There’s the personal. Last year my father in law died. In this past month two friends have died. Other years saw other losses. There will be more to come. I have learned that trying to set such things aside and apply myself to the book in progress simply doesn’t work. Sod the mandatory daily word count. I need to take the time to look squarely at such loss, to pay tribute to the departed through the rituals of such occurrences and with private recollection and appreciation of the part they played in my life. Then I can move on, knowing that I have given them their due.

Then there’s the kind of death that makes global headlines. Specifically the death wrought by human malice. Famine in Africa, the ongoing plagues of malaria and HIV, multiple fatalities in a Chinese train crash. These all give me pause for thought, and prompt donations to appeals as appropriate but they don’t stop me writing.

The Norway bomb and shootings stop me. The July 7th 2005 attacks in London. The Madrid train bombings 2004. The World Trade Centre 2001. The Admiral Duncan nail bombing 1999. Oklahoma City 1995. No, that’s not a comprehensive list but you know what I mean.

It’s not grief that stops me writing. Thanks to all the powers that be, I lost no one in any of these atrocities, though a couple of pals came frighteningly close. So claiming any sort of personal anguish is wholly inappropriate and frankly, in my opinion, insulting to those so appallingly bereaved and whose lives are truly changed. Those of us beyond the immediate impact can only offer sincere and honest condolence.

But every time, I have to stop and look at what has happened and then stop and look at my writing. Because I write about people killing each other, whether with swords or sorcery. Sometimes it’s up close and personal with a dagger or a wizardly duel. Then there’s the big-picture stuff when I sit down and draw up an order of battle, work out what twists deliver the outcome which I want and then calculate the losses on each side for the effect on the ongoing plot. Yes, really. I have the casualty numbers (killed/wounded) for every battle in ‘Blood in the Water,’ the second of the Lescari Revolution books. I’m currently looking at forthcoming events in ‘Darkening Skies,’ second of the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and working out who will die amid the sort of violent magic which would blow a summer blockbuster movie’s sfx budget. Even Harry Potter.

And I’m doing all that for the sake of entertainment. I’m killing fictional people off, right, left and centre, in the service of a thrilling story. But real world death isn’t thrilling or entertaining. It’s heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening. It has real world implications for our security, our laws, our freedoms, for the abuse of ‘others’ by the prejudiced and the opportunist in this age of global media and social networking. This stuff matters.

So I need to know that my writing matters. I need to be certain that my characters suffer loss in a way that doesn’t belittle a real bereavement. That the effects persist as they do in real life – or if they don’t, I need to be clear why that might be. When high heroic deeds deliver triumphant outcomes, I must always make sure that I acknowledge the cost to those who had no choice or chance to opt out. Not to the detriment of the story overall but just using enough light and shade to paint a realistic picture.

When I’m creating a villain, whether a loner or a leader, I must know and I must show what drives a man or woman to such corrosive spite, treachery, brutality or murder. In the context of my story at least. I cannot hope to uncover any universal truths of the human psyche that might explain such headline-grabbing carnage.

Then maybe, just maybe, I can leave my readers with something to think on, once they’ve closed the book? Something to help their own understanding of entitlement, arrogance, hatred, bigotry, the myriad impulses and experiences that result in a mindset that sees violence as some sort of valid solution? Something to help inform their opinions and their actions when politicians and special interests try to use these abominations to advance their own agenda?

To help to show, to quote Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister “… that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté. That is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.”

Then I can start writing again.

“I Dream of Genie” Guest post by Lisa Tuttle, on searching for family history

Just at the moment, I’m thinking about the relationships between writers and a couple of things, one of which is the personal, oral, family history which we learn (proverbially and frequently literally) at our grandmother’s knee. When I’m up to date with current obligations, I plan on blogging accordingly.

Meantime, imagine my delight when I was interviewing Lisa Tuttle for the upcoming issue of Interzone, and conversation turned to this very topic. She’s very kindly expanded on this in a fascinating guest post.

(And do keep your eyes open for her forthcoming novel, ‘The Curious Case of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief’ (Jo Fletcher Books). It’s excellent!

I Dream of Genie – Lisa Tuttle

Young Mrs Clarke

To me, the experience of doing family history research falls somewhere between what it feels like to read a novel and writing one. These people were real, not fictional creations, but their stories have been lost….only scattered references, clues and hints, the occasional memory or newspaper references remain, so I must use my imagination to try to bring them back to life.

The figure who first caught my interest in this way was my great-grandmother, my father’s paternal grandmother, Eugenia Ash Tuttle – “Genie” – who died a couple of years before I was born. Here’s what my Aunt Gracia (my father’s older sister) remembered:

“She travelled all the time, all over the world, and crossed the Atlantic 17 times. When my father was a little boy, he lived in Paris, and spoke French before he spoke English. His mother had great E.S.P. and believed she was clairvoyant. She studied astrology in Egypt. After she divorced Mr Tuttle [this was her third divorce at a time when it was rare], Genie moved to California and starred in silent movies. Late in life, when she was down on her luck (like me) she went to live with her son in Birmingham, Michigan, but she could not stand the quiet, missed the excitement of her life in California, so back she went!”

Genie’s first husband – my great-grandfather — was Robert Elliott Clarke. He was ten years older than 20-year-old Eugenia, who had known him barely twenty-four hours when she married him in Chicago in 1886. He was the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, left school at fourteen, had worked as an actor and as a voice teacher. Their son, born in 1889, was years later adopted by his stepfather, Clarence Tuttle, and became Robert E. Tuttle.

My grandfather never saw his real father again after the age of about five, and I suspect any discussion of Clarke was verboten for at least as long as Mr Tuttle was around, but later he did some investigating of his own – the copy of his parents’ marriage license was my own starting point, decades later. The story that came down to me was that Clarke had been “physician to the Court of St James” at the time of Queen Victoria.

From a biography of Queen Victoria I learned she’d had a personal physician named Sir James Clark. Could this possibly be my ancestor? The dates did not fit, nor did his life – he never went to America, and nor did his son, who had no children.

My reading was too random to be classified as research. Only after the internet came along, and the wonders of searchable digitized archives and newspapers, did I make a real effort to unravel this old family mystery, and discovered this headline from Washington, D.C. in February 1891:

“Robert E. Clarke Disappears – He Left Many Checks, but No Bank Account”

He’d been selling bogus shares in property investment, and skipped town just in time to avoid arrest. Thanks to the many digitized records available through, I was able to find out where he “disappeared” to: In March, he applied for a passport, to include his wife Eugenia and their little boy, at the American Embassy in Berlin. He claimed he was a “merchant” from New York.

What they did, how they survived, abroad for the next four years I don’t know. They moved around. They spent time in Paris (where my grandfather learned French) and in London. But I have no detailed evidence of their lives abroad, and that blank spot has inspired a curiosity, which has led to me a fascination with the period. I have read a lot about other people who lived in – and Americans who visited — London, Paris and Berlin in the early 1890s, developing a feel for the zeitgeist of the time. This led me to write fiction – not about my great-grandparents (I want to know them, not turn them into fictional creations) but set in that time, so I embarked on a series of detective stories….and the first novel in the series, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, set in London in October and November 1893.


My grandfather returned to the U.S. – for good – with his parents in April 1895. They left Southampton on 4 April 1895, on the Manitoba, bound for New York. It was a single-class passenger liner and there were only 26 passengers on board for that voyage, so they would all have become acquainted during the 12-day journey – I imagine it a bit like a floating house-party. Among the passengers were three prominent members of the Theosophical Society – Dr Archibald Keightley (who had been responsible for bringing the founder of that group, Madame Blavatsky, to Britain from America, paid her bills and supervised the publication of her book The Secret Doctrine), his wife Julia (formerly Mrs Verplank) and their close friend Alice Leighton Cleather. I feel sure Genie would have been fascinated by Theosophy as she was by all such spiritual, esoteric subjects.

On the passenger list, Robert E. Clarke claimed his profession was “Physician.”

I’m guessing this reflected a new scam he’d developed to earn a living whilst in Europe. And he continued to call himself a doctor after he got back to New York, as per an article that appeared in the New York Herald, Monday, 16 December 1895:


An Army of Creditors Call at His Former Residence To Find Him Gone


He Agreed to Cure Them Of Obesity, but Many Still Mourn Over Their Corpulency.

How He Made Men Taller.

The story beneath the interesting headlines says that he put the letters “M.D.” after his name on his card, although “he did not openly practice as a physician.” He sold bath salts that were supposed to aid in weight reduction, and special shoe inserts to make men taller. By the time he left – assumed to have returned to London – his wife had taken their son and gone back to her mother in D.C. She did not stay where he might have found her, but went to Chicago, divorced him, and – but the rest is a story for another time.

Interesting things of the week; thoughts on Tolkien, writing careers and gender stereotypes

Last night, Terri Windling explained some very interesting aspects of my current thinking and writing in epic fantasy. Not that she had the least notion of doing any such thing. She was giving the fourth annual Tolkien lecture on fantasy fiction at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was fascinating on many levels. It was being recorded and should that become available online, I’ll make sure to flag it up.

For now, I’ll offer you last year’s lecture in this series by Lev Grossman. Equally interesting while being distinctly different. It’s half an hour of your time, by the way, so grab a tea, coffee or other beverage of choice and settle in.

One of the many good things about Terri’s talk last night was the number of women writers she referenced and recommended. As you Bobs know, issues of visibility and diversity are a particular concern of mine.

This week Liz Williams wrote an uncompromisingly realistic piece on the nature of writing careers for Sarah Ash’s ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ blog series; Schrodinger’s Writer Authors, at whatever stage in the game, should most definitely read this.

Something I’ve been thinking about this week is the role SF and fantasy may well have played in me raising two sons to be young men well aware of diversity and equality issues. My younger sister, now also the mother of two sons, is finding her children surrounded by toys, popular culture and history where the message that it’s men who are important and powerful is constantly reinforced. So this video she flagged up to me was of great interest to us both.

Through the Inspiring the Future initiative, young children were encouraged to draw a pictures of a surgeon, a firefighter and a fighter pilot. Then their class was visited by women working in those three roles. Watch it for the evidence of assumptions already inculcated in those children, and then at the little girls’ reactions…

Still, we are making progress. The BBC reported this week on The men who are taking a stand against ‘dude fests’. Specifically, in recent months increasing numbers of high-profile men have been speaking up against the all-male panel at conferences. Which is excellent. While also illustrative of gender issues itself, in that this is now newsworthy because men are speaking up, in a way that the many women’s voices saying just the same has not been…

Sansa Stark’s joined the X-Men? Thoughts on popcultural cross contamination.

I’ve yet to see the X-Men Apocalypse movie, so I can’t comment on Sophie Turner’s performance. Her work on Game of Thrones – especially at the moment (NO spoilers in comments please!) – gives me every reason to expect she’ll do a thoroughly good job.

The thing is, though, this is becoming A Thing for me. An amusement at the moment, rather than a distraction, but definitely A Thing.

I caught a trailer for A Knight’s Tale on the TV last week, which is one of my favourite movies. Now though? That’s the one where Robert Baratheon makes The Joker’s armour while The Vision bigs him up to the crowd…

Ripper Street? Did you see the one where Blackfish Tully dragged Bronn out of bed, possibly to chase after Jorah Mormont, or maybe Barristan Selmy, because both of them have turned up, and been up to no good.

Now, this is nothing new – Ronny Cox is merely the first actor who comes to mind for me, thinking about recurrent faces in fan-favourite movies and TV, going back to the 80s. Always doing sterling work. The same goes for Brian Cox. And other actors whose surname isn’t Cox, like James Cosmo.

And I’ve no wish to deny actors work. Their employment and earnings statistics make being a writer look like steady, well-paid work!

But I am curious. Why has this become A Thing for me? The cumulative effect of the sheer volume of stuff that I’ve watched in 50 years? Or because of the particular things I chose to watch?

But as far as my sons are concerned, Sean Connery is and will always be ‘Indiana Jones’s Dad’ because that’s the role they first saw him in. On the basis of one viewing, it seems that Vanessa Redgrave is permanently tagged as ‘Coriolanus‘s Mum’ for them. So maybe not so much.

Because we can watch what we want, when we want, so very much more easily these days? Instead of seeing things on release at the cinema or when they were broadcast – or not at all? So performances weren’t so apt to all come along in a rush?

But then, you could hardly escape James Norton on UK television earlier this year, what with War and Peace, Happy Valley and Grantchester, and that was all down to scheduling.

As I say, I’m curious. I don’t have any particular conclusions, beyond hoping it remains an amusement rather than becoming a distraction.

Anyone else finding this is A Thing?

Why knowing the history of history is vital for any writer drawing from the past

I once had an amiable conversation with a scientist who genuinely couldn’t see what so enthrals me about history. When it’s happened, the past is done, according to him. Once you know the facts, where else is there to go?

Ah, but whose facts? Because this isn’t maths where a particular equation always gives the same result or chemistry where adding Stuff A to Stuff B has a predictable, repeatable outcome. One of the most fascinating things about studying history is analysing the interpretations of a particular set of known facts and seeing what that particular view tells us about whoever drew those particular conclusions. Because historical scholarship invariably tells us as much about the time and place where it was written, and about who wrote it, as it tells us about the actual historical period under discussion.

For those who were interested when I talked about this at Fantasycon 2015 – and begging the indulgence of any genuine academics reading this – here’s a brief and necessarily broad-brush look at the ways in which classical Greek homosexuality has been viewed in successive decades. Because as the first hand sources make very clear, intense friendships between teenage boys and older men were common and even encouraged. This much is known – but what exactly does that tell us about the society of Athens in the 5th century BCE, according to the historians?

According to classical scholars writing in the 50s and 60s, these were perfectly wholesome relationships where gentlemen with more worldly and military experience would mentor and advise the next generation of Athenian citizens – and there’s absolutely no reason to assume any sexual component to these relationships. NOT AT ALL, according to the prevailing not-very-sub-text of those scholars, because as we all know, Decent Chaps Do Not Get Up To That Sort Of Thing! They would cite the mockery of effeminate characters in Aristophanes’ comedies as indisputable proof and move briskly on.

The thing is, these scholars were not in denial. They weren’t lying or distorting the facts. But they were most assuredly viewing the past through the lens of their own times and society. These are academics who would have been educated and be working in predominantly if not exclusively male environments where the Old Boy Network was a flourishing institution. Given study of the classical world was considered to be the study of history’s greatest thinkers and institutions, a shining example for civilized men to emulate ever since the Enlightenment, seeing similar relationships to their own at work in Classical Athens merely served to endorse their belief in the essential and inevitable benevolence of the patriarchal status quo.

More than that, given the way in which that particular system of education considered the classical world’s stamp of approval defined so much that was worthwhile and praiseworthy, the idea that these friendships could have been homosexual relationships is quite simply untenable for them. Because these men grew up, were educated and were writing in an age when homosexuality was illegal. And not merely illegal in a way that wasn’t actually a problem because kindly, blind eyes were turned. Gay men were imprisoned. They lost their jobs and their families. Some killed themselves. Some killed others to protect their shameful, filthy, guilty secret – as it was seen back then. If you want some idea of society’s prevailing views and their reflection in the media, look into the case of John Vassall, a British civil servant who was blackmailed into spying for the KGB. If the Profumo Affair hadn’t come along, Vassall’s case would be the definitive 60s sex scandal.

So for those scholars to uphold classical civilisation as an exemplary model on the one hand and on the other, to accept that it also included behaviour which they’d been taught to believe was repellent, was quite simply impossible.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s when legalisation and the gay rights movement meant gay men could be out, loud and proud, challenging prejudice head on. Now we can find classical scholars offering very different views. Of course all these relationships were fully and physically homosexual, as far as their equally honest and sincere interpretations are now concerned. Without the shame-based culture promulgated by subsequent religions, men in Classical Athens were able to express their natural sexuality exactly as they wished before the obligations of citizenship demanded wives and children from them. Bisexuality was effectively the norm, not the exception, certainly according to some.

Obviously, a degree of decorum was expected. According to this scholarship, that same mockery in Aristophanes makes it plain that the 5th century equivalent of aging, flaming queens were a joke. But homosexuality itself was entirely accepted and acceptable – which of course means that those gay rights proponents could and would now claim that very same Classical Civilisation Stamp of Approval previously so jealously guarded by The Establishment.

Fast forward again to scholarship in the 21st century and to current interpretations informed by the ways in which understanding of gender and sexuality is moving beyond a purely binary view. Not only as a result of campaigners’ efforts but also as an unforeseen consequence of other things. After decades of denial, the issue of AIDS forced civil and military authorities to acknowledge the reality of same-sex encounters in all-male environments such as prisons and the armed forces. Public health considerations required supplying condoms both for avowedly gay men and for those who would have same-sex liaisons even though they still considered themselves wholly straight and who opted for heterosexual relationships outside such environments. Which, for instance, casts quite a different light on Socrates sharing a blanket with Alcibiades while on military service and subsequently marrying a woman as a good Athenian citizen was expected to do.

These days the idea that young men might experiment sexually with each other before settling into heterosexual marriage is (hopefully) unremarkable. Now Aristophanes’ mockery is seen not as lampooning gay men for their sexuality but as targeting those whose excessive self-indulgence of sexual alongside other appetites mean they are failing in their duties as citizens. Provided a man meets those obligations, how he chooses to satisfy his sexual desires, gay or straight, isn’t the central issue, according to current readings. Add to that, there’s now plenty of evidence for male and female prostitutes working in classical Athens and no stigma in visiting them.

Which isn’t to say that these relationships between teenage boys and older men aren’t a concern for current scholars. It’s the cause for concern that’s changed. When 5th century sources say that the younger partner should be beardless and with hairless thighs, does this mean prepubescent? If so, academics are now very keen to discuss how very much later puberty occurred in the days before modern nutrition, with secondary sexual characteristics appearing as late as sixteen or seventeen years of age. And how old is the senior partner in that particular historical context? Primary evidence is emphatically cited for such relationships only being socially acceptable for men up to their late twenties or early thirties. Scholars flag up contemporary sources condemning those in their forties and fifties seeking out the very young – in other words, exactly the sort of men whom we now consider predatory paedophiles. It’ll be interesting to see if these interpretations still stand unchanged in twenty years’ time or if they are considered at least in part, as a reflection of this particular decade’s belated acknowledgement of, and overdue resolve to prevent, child abuse.

So it really is at least as important to look at who’s telling you something about history, and the time and context within which they are working, as it is to look at the thing itself. Personally I think this is particularly important for writers of epic fantasy who may well start out, at least, by drawing on the history they recall from school and on general resources, particularly online, which are far more likely to draw on recycled and outdated material than to be keeping current with the latest academic research.

And of course, looking at who’s telling you something is an equally valuable skill when it comes to analysing the pronouncements of modern politicians and the mass media so eager to push their own political and commercial agenda. As Cicero used to say – and he was no slouch when it came to manipulating opinion – ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?