Reflecting on 2016. Do I really have to?

Around this time of December, I usually do a sort of round-up and conclusions from the past twelve months post, before signing off until the New Year.

This year? I really don’t know what to say. The future, politically at least, looks so uncomfortably uncertain, here in the UK, in so many parts of Europe and in the USA. The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election still beggar belief, for me at least. So what do we do about all that? I wish I knew.

And that’s by no means all the ugliness in the world, as the news from Aleppo and the Yemen show, just to mention a couple of horrors.

What about the work stuff? The vagaries of the book trade continue to challenge me – and not in a good way – along with so many other writers. Can I come up with a realistic way forward for 2017?

Okay, what about the personal stuff? Well, the family is all well, and settled in our various studies and occupations, so let’s be thankful for that. Older relatives continue hale and hearty overall, so let’s be thankful for that. The siblings and their children are ticking over fine, so that’s good. Friends are mostly okay, and where they’re facing challenges with infirm, elderly parents or similar, we’re offering what support we can.

So I suppose that’s the thing, isn’t it? We do what we can.

So I’ll continue to donate to the local foodbank, and to those charities at home and abroad which are working to help those whose lives are being so wantonly destroyed by the selfishness and violence of others.

I’ll use my vote and voice where and whenever I can, against the intolerance and deceit that’s corrupting our media and public discourse.

I’ll keep writing, and I’ll keep working with the many good and generous people I know, as we share the things we continue to learn about the ever-changing environment for authors.

Here’s to a better 2017 for us all.

A VATMOSS update. What? Did you think we’d given up?

Not a bit of it. Throughout 2016, whenever we’ve been told ‘there should be some news by such-and-such-a-month’ we’ve noted that in our diaries, and followed up accordingly. No one has been left in any doubt that we’re not going to let this drop, in the nicest possible way.

We’ve stayed in touch with our contacts in Whitehall and Brussels, and with the MEPs and their teams who’ve been working with us – most notably Catherine Bearder (Lib Dem), Anneliese Dodds (Lab) and Vicky Ford (Con). This has continued to be a cross-party/non-partisan effort, and we are tremendously grateful to them all.

Now we have real and definite progress to report! The proposed threshold & simplifications for EU VAT have been announced. This is a solid proposal backed by the key decision makers in the EU.

In summary – businesses exporting below €10k of digital sales into the EU (excluding their home country sales) will apply their home country VAT rules, not digital VAT. Those above that but with sales below €100k will be eligible for a ‘soft landing’ of just one piece of data, to prove the customer’s location.

This will help many thousands of micro businesses to continue – or resume – trading, without having to move to 3rd party platforms (costing them 30% or more in commission) or hampering their prospects with geo-blocking.

There’s more detail over at the EU VAT Action website, along with links to the full text of the proposal and the EU Commission Press Release.

So are we done? No, not quite yet. This is a proposal and now needs to become law. There are also some issues in the fine detail that need addressing, as well as questions about what happens in the interim. You may rest assured that we’re tackling those.

For now? We celebrate! Bear in mind that two years ago, those self-employed women and solo entrepreneurs who were worst affected by this, who’d never even been consulted, were told categorically by a government minister and senior officials from HMRC, HM Treasury, and the European Commission, that the VATMOSS rules were now set in stone and there was no possibility of changing them because they had been agreed across the EU, as implemented on 1st January 2015. Business organisations and pundits told us the same.

We refused to accept this. We got busy. You all got busy. Every single person who wrote a letter to their MP, their MEPs, their Treasury or Finance Ministry, who signed online petitions, wrote blogposts and joined in the Twitter-storms contributed to this success. Everyone who contributed to the crowdfunding which enabled us to send representatives to Brussels, to Dublin and to lobby key officials. All those with expert knowledge of tax, finance and political campaigning who shared their advice and insights with us. We couldn’t have done this without you.

So keep your eyes open for opportunities to help us next year, so we can get this done and dusted once and for all, as swiftly as possible!

If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?

We all get used to the idea of little white lies; of resorting to minor dishonesty to smooth over social difficulties. Saying ‘I’m so sorry we can’t come to the party, I’m coming down with some sort of cold and I wouldn’t want to spread it around’. When actually, it’s just been an exhausting week at work and we’d much rather spend Saturday night on our own sofa with a movie on Netflix. Okay, it’s fudging the truth but surely that’s better than causing needless offence?

But where do we draw the line? How far will we go, insisting that the ends will justify the means? I first recall this debate during the ‘Operation Countryman’ investigations into the UK’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1970s. Among the allegations made was the police fabricating evidence, justifying this on the grounds that the crook in question might not be guilty of this particular charge but he had got away with so many other crimes that fitting him up for this one was serving justice regardless. Or that these people were so obviously guilty, even if no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, that the police just gave the prosecution a helping hand by burying something that undermined their case. Wrongdoing for the greater good is excusable, surely? It’s even got a special name now; ‘noble cause corruption’. Just try that phrase on for size a few times. Noble cause corruption. Isn’t it seductive? We all want to think we’re doing something noble. Except, as so many cases have shown, the consequences can be appalling miscarriages of justice. Who’s left feeling so noble once those truths come out?

What has this got to do with storytelling? Well, as the writing cliché goes, conflict is the essence of drama. Writing epic fantasy across four series of novels, I’ve set up my heroes and heroines with all manner of conflicts; murderous sneak-thieves, brutal invaders, arrogant nobles waging war to serve selfish ambitions, and renegade wizards threatening everyone’s peace. In all these stories, a broad array of characters are all serving the greater good with courage, guile and their quick wits. Granted, there’s deception and misdirection involved but that’s understandable and excusable. Noble, even.

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin
Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

But what if we take this one step further? What if the truth about something is so dangerous, if the consequences of it being revealed are so horribly dangerous, that bare-faced lies must be told to conceal it? Where’s the heroism in deliberately upholding something you know to be calculatedly false? What if those who discover this truth must be silenced by whatever means prove necessary? Where’s the heroism in using violence and threats to coerce innocent bystanders who’ve accidentally stumbled onto a secret? How does someone convince themselves that this sort of behaviour is in any sense noble? If they can’t, but they still have no choice but to act this way, what will that crisis of conscience mean for them? How corrosive will those lies be for their soul? This is the tension that underpins the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom.

Not that I consciously realised this, when I started writing these stories back in 2008. But that’s the thing about fantasy fiction. It has an uncanny knack of reflecting the world we live in right back at us.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where the celebrity-obsessed rolling-news media are so seduced by ideas of ‘narrative’ that they persist in fitting ‘breaking news’ events into a pre-existing framework before even half the facts are known. When inconvenient facts emerge later, proving something significantly different happened, the truth will struggle to catch the lies which have already gone round the world.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where ‘reality’ TV no longer means documentaries bringing harsh truths into the light but ‘scripted’ and ‘constructed’ entertainments masquerading as real life. Somehow all this has become normalised, even acceptable, even as it colours attitudes and reinforces dangerous prejudices about religion, unemployment, poverty and black and minority ethnic issues.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where massively significant political victories are currently being won by people who tell deliberate and calculated lies. People who just shrug and carry on lying when the truth is waved in their face. Why are they doing this? Because those liars are getting their reward when those desperate and disadvantaged people who desperately want to believe those lies are voting for the lies not the truth. Because, to take just one example currently applicable to the UK and US, the lie of ‘vote for me/my plan and I’ll bring those old jobs back’ is quicker to tell and easier to swallow than a detailed explanation of decades of economic and industrial change which means those jobs are gone beyond recall and creating alternatives requires focused investment, hard work and new thinking.

What’s our excuse for letting such lies go unchallenged? We’re not trying to keep out the monsters from a shadow realm. In our world, allowing these lies to take over means the monsters get a hold over us all.

An update on updates

Right, we’ve hit the halfway mark on the Desert Island Books (and music) list, so this looks like a good time to put those on pause. I’m off to Moniack Mhor on Monday, and that’s going to be a full-on week of teaching and mentoring – which I am really looking forward to – so I don’t expect to be blogging or doing much, if any, social media, until I get back.

I do have one more piece to post, which will follow this. Retrospective posts are all well and good but I’ve also been reflecting on the current state of play in politics and culture. We need to start thinking more seriously about what’s going on at the toxic intersection of fact and fiction at the moment. If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?

Right, now I have workshops to prepare, student submissions to critique, and the fun and exciting game of working out how much warm clothing I can pack in a suitcase that meets Flybe’s size and weight requirements for hold luggage. It’s a nine to ten hour journey on the train from Oxford to Inverness, so I am taking a train to Birmingham airport and flying from there instead. In a plane where I suspect goggles and a long white scarf will be issued on check-in. Mind you, the Highlands are currently warmer than the Cotswolds, according the BBC Weather website.