Archive | February, 2012

Good Evening Mr Bond.

24 Feb

Yes, I have a white cat. Every now and then she sits on my knee and I stroke her while refining my plans for world domination. Then she usually bites my hand, hisses and scampers away like the furry little psychopath that she is.

It never happens like that in the Bond films.

It never happens like that in the Bond books, either. As a matter of fact, there’s no mention of Blofeld having a white cat, or any other pets, in any of the Bond books (Although he does have a rather impressive collection of toxic plants in You Only Live Twice).

I first read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels  thirty-five to forty years ago and, just while we’re waiting for the hype to crank up over the release of Skyfall, (currently scheduled for October 2012) I thought it might be fun to give the books another look.

Of course the books are very different from the films. For one thing they are period pieces now. They were published between 1953 and 1966, so they were a little dated even when I was reading them, and by now I suppose they would qualify as historical fiction.

Having said that some of the best of the Bond films, notably From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, also have a period feel to them now.

So when you have all the glamour and the gadgets, not to mention up to date settings, costumes and dialogue, why would you want to bother with the books?

Well the obvious place to start is the fact the Ian Fleming was just a really talented writer. He had been a journalist back in the days when that meant a bit more than phone hacking, door stepping celebrities and rehashing press releases. Back in those days, journalists were supposed to be able to tell you what, where, when, how and why, and they were expected to do it reasonably coherent, and if possible elegant, prose. (The late Marie Colvin is proof that are still some journalists who try to follow this tradition, but if they had all been doing that over the last few decades we wouldn’t have needed the Levinson Inquiry).

The Bond books have been described in terms of  ‘sex, sadism and snobbery’, (and as a writer you can’t go too far wrong with that combination), but there’s more to them than that.

I know it’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating that Ian Fleming was very, very good with locations and with things.

He was widely travelled and he was good at noticing the significant little details and then using those details to create a vivid sense of place. He was also a man who knew about things,  specific, physical things.

In particular he knew about the very best quality things. In Dr No he can not only tell you about the right guns, toiletries and alcohol to have, he also knows the very best firm to employ if you want a lift fitted into your secret underground headquarters. (Weygood Otis, if you’re interested).

It’s tempting to assume that his apparently effortless competence in writing about places things somehow means that he wasn’t as good at writing about people. I think that would be a mistake.

Bond villains tend to be larger than life grotesques in both the films and the books, but it’s only in the films that they have sometimes tended to lapse into cardboard cutouts.

Fleming is happy to make Goldfinger an oafish ogre in appearance, but he is an ogre with some depth to him. He is intelligent, ruthless, boorish, meticulously efficient and dedicated to his cause.

Dr No also has his peculiarities, he has his heart on the right, and not the left side of  his chest, he has his steel claws and his contact lenses, but none of this is impossible and as a character he has the psychological depth to live and breathe as much as any written character can.

Fleming’s female characters are also generally well-developed and often very strong, but I have heard it said that all the Bond books follow a pattern involving Bond encountering an assertive, independent female character who represents a challenge to his authority, but who is finally, and inevitably, subdued and obliged to submit to him.

This model may apply to some of the films but there are too many exceptions to this rule for it to apply to the books.

To provide a few examples. At the end of Dr No, Honeychile Rider more or less tells Bond to shut up and do as he’s told (he owes her ‘slave time’). At the end of From Russia With Love Bond ends up literally on the floor at Rosa Klebb’s feet. In Moonraker Gala Brand leaves Bond flat because she’s already engaged and has no interest in his seduction technique.

There are exceptions, of course. Pussy Galore becomes quite suddenly (and in my view a little improbably) submissive at the end of Goldfinger, for example, but Bond certainly does not always end up as the all-conquering hero in his relations with women.

I’m not trying to suggest that Ian Fleming was some kind of proto feminist, all I’m saying is that his female characters are more than just the bland eye candy that they sometimes were in the films. (There were obvious exceptions, even in the earlier films, and it’s a tendency that’s far less evident in the more recent films).

In most of the books Bond doesn’t have much of a sense of humour (this changed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in response to Sir Sean Connery’s portrayal of him), but that doesn’t mean that there’s no humour in the books and a good deal of it is at Bond’s expense.

As a matter of fact, while Fleming seems to like Bond and to share a lot of his values, tastes and opinions, that doesn’t stop him having a bit of fun with him. (I’m sure there’s a decent PhD thesis for someone in the study of the relationships between authors and their characters. Dorothy L Sayers seem to be a little in love with Lord Peter Whimsey, while Agatha Christie apparently couldn’t stand Poirot. Pity she never saw David Suchet’s portrayal, it may have changed her mind).

So we see Bond being taken to task by M like an errant school boy over his near death at the hands of Rosa Klebb in Dr No. He is pretty thoroughly ridiculed in the opening chapters of Thunderball, even his conflict with Count Lippe has an air of the ridiculous about it. In You Only Live Twice, he is put on the defensive about Britain’s post war performance compared with that of Japan, he is also shown at various points to be a snob, a ‘faddist’ and someone who is generally prone to silly prejudices (ie his notion that there is such a thing as the perfect boiled egg).

So he doesn’t have the intellect of Sherlock Homes, nor does he have the virtue of St George, and he’s certainly nowhere near as professional as later literary spies, most notably Quiller and George Smiley. (Although he’s arguably the first more or less professional in the genre, previous to Bond you generally had heroes like Richard Hannay, who was really an engineer but just seemed to fall into adventures by accident).

Having said all that, Bond is still a hero. Flawed, sometimes silly, and often selfish, but he’s a hero nonetheless. When the chips are down, he’s the man we can rely on to sort things out, shoot the villain and, usually, whisk the girl off for drinks, dinner…

He represents an idealised view of Englishness (for all the Scots parentage that was another gift from Sir Sean Connery) and I think Ian Fleming intended him as a sort of morale booster for the British at a time when the British had quite a lot to be miserable about.

There are a couple of odd features that I’ve noticed in many of the Bond books. I think they all start very well, the opening chapters in almost any of the Bond books are typically very well written, but I sometimes wonder if Fleming got a bit bored with them after a while, because that standard of writing doesn’t always seem to be maintained throughout the books. (Maybe that’s just me).

There are also a couple of occasions when Fleming seems to linger a little over the physical description of his male characters, most notably the detailed anatomical description of Grant in From Russia With Love. It’s hardly surprising that he spends a good many words in describing his female characters, they’re there, at least in part, to be gorgeous and Fleming was known for his active interest in women (often other men’s wives) so it would be reasonable to assume that he expected most of his readers to share his interests.

Inevitably, I have sometimes wondered why Fleming was so interested in describing some of his male characters. I think it has a lot to do with the way he builds characters in his writing, but I did wonder for a while if he might have been a little bit gay. (There have been enough biographies written about him for me to find out if I was really interested, but I don’t suppose it really matters, it’s just an idle thought).

One think that is clear about Ian Fleming’s preferences is that he really wasn’t that interested in virginal little ingenues.

When you read the Bond books, you consistently find that the ‘Bond girls’ have been through the mill to some extent or another and they often seem to have been the victims, or more accurately survivors, of rape or sexual abuse.

Honeychile Rider was raped and had her nose broken, Tiffany Case was also raped while Pussy Galore was sexually abused by her uncle. There’s no mention of Domino Vitalli being sexually victimized, but she has clearly had to use her sexuality in order to get what she wants, while Tatiana Romanova is put through a course of what we suspect would be the thoroughly charmless SMERSH training in the arts of allurement. 

What’s interesting about all of these women is that they don’t come out of these experiences as timid little victims.

Honeychile Rider in particular isn’t the type of girl to just lie down and take it, she kills her assailant with a poisonous spider (Good for her). While the other Bond girls are shaped by their experiences, but not destroyed by them. They’re tough, smart, resourceful characters, and they deserve Bond’s respect as well as a good deal of lust.

So maybe Ian Fleming wasn’t the sexist dinosaur you might have been led to believe.

His attitude toward race I suspect may have been a little less enlightened. He seems to have a tendency to represent non-white characters as being almost childlike creatures (Quarrel in particular).  So while I don’t think he was racist in the sense of being hostile to non-whites, I do think you could say he was a bit patronising at times. (Mr Big could be seen as an exception, he’s pretty formidable).

In conclusion, I would suggest that if you really like the Bond films then you may find Ian Fleming’s books a little disappointing and certainly unfamiliar. You won’t find too many gadgets and Timothy Dalton’s portrayal is probably the only one that comes anywhere near Fleming’s idea of Bond.

Having said that, Fleming is very good at creating detailed settings. He then populates those settings with vivid, sometimes likeable, often larger than life, but always engaging characters, and then he keeps those characters busy with all kinds of heroic, villainous, glamorous or sleazy, but always interesting things to do.

Destitution Cooking (Lentils, What can you do with them?)

19 Feb

You can make almost any kind of soup if you start off with a small onion and a rasher of bacon and some vegetable oil, but lentil soup’s cheap and filling and it thickens if you keep it in the fridge so you can add water and make it go even further.

Simply chop the onion and bacon as finely as your knife skills allow (Not very, in my case). Or run them through a food processor of you’ve got one.

Heat the vegetable oil (I wouldn’t go for olive oil, I think the taste would be a bit too strong) and then add the onion and bacon. You don’t want the oil too hot, you’re aiming to soften the onion and bacon, not fry them.

Once the onion is translucent and soft, you can start working variations. (What that means is chuck in anything you’ve got that’s lying around and you think will taste nice add the stock of your choice, bring to the boil and then simmer until the ingredients are cooked and you’ve got soup).

For a basic lentil soup I’d put in anything up to 2 pints of chicken stock and about 200g of red split lentils and one chopped carrot. (If you don’t have a carrot, try a small tin of mixed, chopped vegetables. You could also try any number of other root vegetables if you’ve got them lying around and you think the taste would be suitable).

Then all you have to do is bring  it to the boil and let it simmer for 20 – 25 mins or until the lentils are soft. (The key to using any dried ingredient is to make sure it’s properly cooked. You really don’t want this stuff rehydrating in your digestive tract, that can be distressing to those near and dear to you).

You can puree the soup if you want a smooth texture, but I never bother. I like my food rustic and I can’t be bothered anyway.

If you have any left over, it can always be reheated later, but I wouldn’t keep it for more than about three days unless you can freeze it. Even if it tastes alright, it’s liable to sit in your stomach like concrete.

One word of caution, however, lentil soup looks terrible when it’s cold, (pretty much like vomit, in fact), but don’t worry, it’ll look and taste fine once it’s heated up.

(Serves 3-4 depending on how hungry they are).

When it comes to green lentils, the first thing you need to do is go through them carefully to remove any little bits of grit. (Rick Stein has apparently never found any, but he’s wise to go on checking because they do turn up from time to time and finding them in your mouth is really not a fine dining experience).

Once you’ve picked through your lentils, you need to wash them thoroughly.

Having done that, I would put them in a saucepan with plenty of hot water and bring to the boil, then simmer for about 35 mins, or until they’re soft. (Green lentils retain a certain amount of texture unlike their red counterparts which soften into mush).

The instructions on the package suggest boiling green lentils for 10 mins, then simmering for a further 35, but when I tried this method I felt they were over cooked. (If all this makes you nervous, then you can always use tinned green lentils).

The problem with green lentils is that they taste pretty bland on their own, so you need something to go with them. (They do have lot’s of sodium and fibre and all kinds of other stuff that’s apparently good for you and, as per my general theory of destitution cooking they can make more interesting and expensive ingredients go a lot further).

My suggestion would be reverting to my personal Holy Trinity (olive oil, garlic and a tin of tomatoes).

In this particular case I also added in some onion and smoked pork sausage (veggie options might be chopped potatoes, maybe chick peas or mushrooms. But then again if you’re a vegetarian you can probably think of more and better meat substitutes than I could). If you’ve got some left over chicken or something you could use that instead of the sausage. I’m not sure I’d use chorizo for this recipe, I think it might be overpowering, but you can always give it a try if you feel like it..

So while the lentils are simmering what you can do is chop your onion and garlic while a little olive oil’s heating in a small pan. (Don’t let it get too hot). I always put the onion in before the garlic, because I want the onion to cool the oil a little. If you’ve ever tasted burnt garlic you’ll understand.

When the onion’s softened, add the tinned tomatoes. (If you’re using fresh tomatoes and you’re not blessed with a really warm climate then you should probably add a little sugar).

I let the tomato sauce simmer until the lentils are ready and then added the sausage. (If you’re using the Traditional British Banger, then I would definitely brown them a bit in a frying pan, or the oven or under a grill and make sure that they go into the tomato sauce early enough to cook through properly. If you don’t brown them first, they’ll cook in the sauce and probably taste fine, but they’re liable to look horrible and I would find the Freudian imagery off-putting).

Once the lentils are ready, simply drain off the water and then add the tomato sauce and sausage mix and serve.

(Also serves 3 -4 adults depending on appetite)

There are plenty of other things you can do with lentils, but these are two suggestions that work for me.

(And by the way, if you know of a recipe that uses red lentils for something other than soup I’d be interested to hear about it, but please note, I had an unfortunate childhood experience with curry and it’s left me with an irrational dislike of Indian cuisine. It’s a prejudice I’ll really have to overcome some day).

Talking about God (Or Not) Part 4

16 Feb

There’s been a certain amount of fuss recently over whether or not Professor Richard Dawkins can remember the full title of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

My response to this is to ask ‘who cares?’

I wouldn’t criticise the good professor for being unable to recall the full title of Darwin’s book when he was asked to do so by Giles Fraser, but I would criticise him for being silly enough to accept the challenge. What he should have done is to ask what the former Cannon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral thought he was trying to prove by asking this question.

(For anyone who’s interested the full title on publication was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life).

The Origin of the Species does not stand as ‘The Bible of Atheism’, or indeed of evolutionary theory or anything else. It was a revolutionary book in its time and I gather that it’s also very well written, but it is unlikely to be required reading for anyone studying evolutionary biology these days. Science has moved on since the 24th of November 1859 when the book was first published.

(Perhaps some of Professor Dawkins’ critics should bear these points in mind before overestimating the significance of his embarrassment on this point).

And maybe this is the point that Giles Fraser was missing. Maybe he fell prey to that tendency we all have to assume that other people fall into the same patterns of thought and behaviour that we do and he simply assumed that atheists need a bible in the same way the Christians seem to and that Darwin’s best known work must be that bible.

I could be wrong about this. I know very little about Giles Fraser and quite frankly I think far too much has been made of this whole puerile spat.

Having said that, the reason the exchange came about in the first place was the publication of the findings of a poll carried out by MORI on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. (Just for the record, I think I might have a lot more sympathy for Professor Dawkins if he didn’t have a foundation named after him, it seems just a little immodest, somehow).

According to the 2001 census 72% of respondents identified themselves as Christians, while the 2011 census found that this figure had reduced to 54%.

Obviously it’s beyond the scope of the census to look much further into people’s religious beliefs, it’s an instrument designed to help shape government policy and to direct government resources and in any case, I don’t think I want the government to go poking into people’s beliefs in any great detail.

Having said that, I think it was high time someone asked a few followup questions. I’m sick and tired of people claiming that the UK is ‘a Christian country’ on the strength of that 2001 census figure.  

This isn’t due to ‘aggressive sceularism’ on my part. I just don’t like it when people make glib claims that gloss over the complex issues lying behind the terms they use. I think that’s dishonest.

In this case, the two issues that would seem to require scrutiny are; a) what does anyone mean by the term ‘Christian country’ ? and b) what is it people really mean when they identify themselves as Christians?.

The 1555 Peace of Augsburg stated that the ruler of any given country had the right to determine the religious faith (in practical terms this meant which Christian sect) was followed by the population. Historians will recognise this as the law of ‘cuius regio, eius religio’.

But these days most of us recognise religious freedom as being a basic human right, so what does it mean for a country to be ‘Christian’ these days.

In my opinion, not much.

It’s just a glib and careless phrase that I suspect is used by some people who want their ideas or institutions to have some kind of unearned privilege over other ideas and institutions.

So what do people mean when they identify themselves as ‘Christians’.

In theory it should mean something like being a follower of the teachings of Christ. (I suppose you could follow Christ’s teachings in the same way that you might follow the moral teachings of Immanuel Kant for example ie with no particular reference to belief in God, the resurrection or Christ’s status as the Son of God, but I doubt if many people follow Christ’s teaching without also accepting these beliefs).

On the other hand, according to the recent MORI poll only 28% of those who would identify themselves as Christians believed in the teachings of Christ, while 72% of those who described themselves as Christians  did so as a result of having been baptised or having been born to Christian parents.

Only 38% of those who identified themselves as Christians stated that they did so on the basis of personal belief.

There were various findings relating to church attendance, reading the bible and other activities one might associate with being a Christian but I’m not sure what any of that proves. You could certainly be a devout Christian and never go near a church.

I tend to think that reading the bible and prayer are probably more important aspects of being a Christian, but since I’m an atheist I don’t want to be too dogmatic on the subject.

In any case I’m not concerned with the state of  anyone’s soul, I’m just interested in what people think and do.

All of this may be deeply discouraging to those who want to see Christianity as an important factor in the life of the British people.

Personally, I’m interested but not elated.

The findings that I find encouraging are more to do with the 74% of those questioned who agreed that religion should not influence public policy and the 92% of those who agreed that the law should apply equally to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs. I also find the relatively small number of respondents who expressed hostility or disapproval of homosexuality quite encouraging.

It is my conviction that homophobia is no more acceptable than racism or any other form of irrational prejudice and I see no reason why we should be tolerant of anyone’s intolerance just because they claim a religious basis for their hang ups.

Crap is crap and should be treated as such even if the purveyors of that crap can quote the scriptures in order to support it.

In conclusion, I don’t want to see religion banned and I don’t particularly hate, mistrust or despise those who are religious, but I do think that religion and politics often make for a toxic mix and I believe that the founding fathers of the United States (none of them wild-eyed fanatical atheists as I recall) were quite right in specifying the separation of church and state.

(I think that this is even more important now that we are becoming more of a multi-faith, multi-cultural, pluralistic society).

And it would seem that a growing number of people in the UK, even those who identify themselves as Christians, share the view that church and state should be kept separated.

My Hero

12 Feb

I used to know this cat called Ringo.

He was a grey and white stray who certainly walked like a gunslinger (as most tomcats do), but to me he always looked more like Robert Mitchum than a cowboy. He had that sleepy-eyed, world-weary, slightly hung over look that was always Mitchum’s stock in trade as an actor.

I never really knew where Ringo came from. He just seemed to drift into town one day, very much as though he was the hero of his very own private Western.

I suppose he had been a house cat at some point, most truly feral cats avoid people when they can, while one thing Ringo never lacked was confidence around people. He didn’t exactly crave company, you understand, but he was willing to share his space with you as long as you were properly grateful for the privilege.

Across the street from me lived a lady by the name of Mrs Hannigan. She was smallish and roundish and kind of pink with grey hair. She had that quality of warmth that you might associate with the smell of freshly baked bread in a clean and tidy kitchen.

I haven’t seen her for years, but whenever I think of her, I always see her with a smile. She certainly had her share of problems, not least her health, but she always seemed to be a cheerful sort of person. She was also a bit of a soft touch for waifs and strays, particularly if they had fur and whiskers.

Mrs Hannigan lived with an elegant lady called Smokey. She had the most sleek and elegant blue grey coat and she would watch you through her calm and knowing amber coloured eyes with a quietly reproachful air. She knew all our sins.

I used to think that Smokey got her name from the colour of her coat, but it was actually because of her fondness for smokey bacon flavoured crisps. She would apparently sit on the sofa munching on her crisps while Mrs Hannigan watched her TV.

Every day Smokey would take her constitutional around the neighbourhood, prim, refined and watchful, just to make sure that we were all behaving ourselves. Smokey’s companion on these excursions was always Ringo.

He wouldn’t walk with her, exactly, he just, sort of prowled along behind her at a respectful distance. Ringo was a cat who always had something of the prowl about him regardless of where he was or what he was doing.

On one particular day, having once again satisfied herself that nothing was amiss in our small community, Smokey was returning home, Ringo, as ever in her train, when a large dog decided to offer his compliments. He was an exuberant collie full of the impetuous energy of adolescence. He was also loud. Picture Lassie on amphetamines and you get the general idea.

Elegant and refined ladies are never hurried, of course, but the pace of Smokey’s departure should have informed the collie that his attentions were not welcome.

Ringo for his part did what only he would have done in such a situation.

He simply sat down in the middle of the road and waited for the collie to bring his face conveniently in range. When the dog was in exactly, precisely the correct position, Ringo swatted him down with a pawful of claws.

As I recall the impact was quite audible from across the street, but I’m sure that’s just because my memory has become exaggerated over the years. Nevertheless, it was rebuke that was delivered with admirable emphasis and precision.

Needless to say the dog decamped somewhat quicker than he had arrived.

Having resolved the potential unpleasantness to his satisfaction, Ringo then continued his progress with consummate cool, watched from her vantage point under a hedge by his lady friend with a suitably adoring gaze.

My Hero.

Talking About God (Or Not) Part 3

6 Feb

“Religion is unique in its power to make good people do bad things.”

This is, in my opinion, one of the sillier things said by more or less intelligent people on the subject of religion.

The reason I think it’s a silly thing to say (in spite of the many hideous things that have been done, apparently, in the name of religion) is because it seems to me that this apparently uncomplicated sentence takes a number of complex ideas and treats them as though they were very simple.

To begin with, what exactly do we mean by ‘good people’.

Most of us have met people that we think of as being ‘good’ and in general we tend to think that we would know a good person from a bad person when we meet one (or at least that we could make some kind of assessment once we’d been able to get to know them), but how would you define a ‘good person’?

Is a good person someone who is entirely free from any bad qualities? (Hopefully not, because then we’re going to be a bit short on people that we can call good).

It seems more plausible, then, to say that a good person is someone who, in spite of a few flaws and failings, is generally speaking more good than bad.

That being the case, even a good person will have some qualities or attributes that are not good, so it shouldn’t require too much explanation if, every now and then, they do something bad.

It’s also true to say that opinions differ as to who’s good and who’s bad. After all there are some people who see Osama Bin Laden as a virtuous and heroic figure. (Not a view I share, but it has to be noted that it is certainly a view held by some people).

When we’re talking about ‘bad things’, as in things that people do that are bad, there will be similar problems. Opinions differ as to which things are good or bad depending on your perspective, and opinions also change over time.

So we can say with certainty that William the Conqueror invaded England in the year currently designated as 1066 CE.

That is a matter of fact, and it always will be.

What’s more problematic is whether or not William himself was a good man and whether or not his invasion and subsequent reorganisation of England was a good or bad thing.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we then come to the idea that religion ‘makes’ people do things.

We can be absolutely certain that some people will claim that they are motivated by their religious faith. And to some extent, I suppose, faith must play some part in the motivation behind someone’s actions if religion is at all important to them. But the extent and nature of the role played by faith as a motivating factor can be hard to assess.

For example, Hernan Cortez was certainly a Roman Catholic in the sense that he was raised in that particular faith. My understanding is that he did have some genuine religious faith. I don’t think he was a complete hypocrite when it came to religion, so you could argue that religion played some part in his motivation when he invaded Mexico. (As I recall the Pope at the time was quite pleased with his efforts in delivering so many new souls to the faith).

On the other hand, we also know that ambition and greed also played their part in Cortez’ thinking.

(As did a fair amount of fear, I suspect. He was disobeying orders in launching his expedition and he was not well liked by all of his superiors so he could have expected pretty short shrift if he had returned with anything less than a dazzling success. His force was also vastly outnumbered and he could expect no mercy from the Aztecs, or even some of his allies if he’d been defeated).

Cortez may seem like a bad example, in a way, because religion never seemed to be his major motivation, but you could look at the leadership of the First Crusade and see a similar messy tangle of motives.

For example, there seems to be little doubt that Raymond of Toulouse was motivated very largely by his faith. He was a wealthy and important man in France and he sold up all his interests in order to go crusading with the clearly stated intention of never coming back to France.

Having said that, he also had more secular interests as well. (Other leaders of the Crusade, notably Bohemond, were clearly much more venal in their outlook, but even Bohemond probably wouldn’t have set off for Jerusalem without Urban II’s call for Holy War).

So to put it briefly, all sorts of people do things for all sorts of reasons and to say that religion ‘made’ them do something is naive to the point of stupidity.

One last point.

Even if we ignore all the complications that I’ve cited above, there is one final point that should be painfully obvious to anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the history of the 20th Century.

Religion isn’t the only thing that ‘makes’ people who might generally seem to be good, do some hideously evil things.

Think about the Cold War for a moment.

Not only were our political leaders willing to blow the entire planet to hell over a difference of opinion regarding relatively transient socio/political and economic systems ( I’m not for a moment trying to understate the sheer horror of Stalin’s USSR, but think about it, the Soviet system was never going to last for more than a few decades, while global thermonuclear holocaust would have been about as permanent as anything I can think of), but both sides in the conflict played some really nasty little games in their Third World proxy wars.

(As a matter of fact, even though I would always agree that the West was preferable to the Soviet Union in terms of how people were treated on either side of  The Iron Curtain, when it comes to the reality of their policies in, and towards, developing countries, I’m really and truly not sure there was very much to choose between the two sides).

But then again, the Cold War was never really about a debate over political policy or economic theory.

It was just the same old same.

Young men killing to keep old men in power. Innocents dying in their millions of violence and contempt and the whole thing praised as ‘duty and service’ by a bunch of self-righteous clowns who are always willing to pay any price for the particular brand of exploitation that they call freedom. Just as long as it’s paid out in other people’s lives.

But the worst of it is that the footsoldiers on either side  of the Cold War (as in all wars) were not necessarily evil people.

Some of them probably were just bad people doing bad things because that’s what they wanted to do and Cold War politics just gave them an excuse for it. But many of them must have genuinely believed that what they were doing was justified (or at least necessary) in the context of the historical situation that they found themselves in.

So back to good people doing bad things. (Yet again). 

And this time it was all for truth, justice, freedom and the folks back home (wherever that home might have been) and religion, if it played a part at all, was really only a bit player.

So all I can really say in conclusion is that when you’re so right that it’s worth killing someone, then you’re wrong.

Shameless Self Promotion

3 Feb

I’ve made some general comments about my ideas on writing fiction in an earlier post ‘Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them’.

I’ve also had some more specific comments to make about vampires, zombies and werewolves in a few other posts, notably ‘Vampires, What Can You Do With Them’, ‘The Sociology of Vampirism’,  ‘On the Natural History and Lifestyles of Werewolves’ and ‘Implications of the Geometric Progression for the Undead’.

This may have led a discerning reader to suspect that I sometimes write stories.

This is, of course, quite true.

I do write stories. And I’ve written quite a lot of stories over the years that no one’s ever going to read because they’re really not very good.

I was advised a few decades ago, that there’s a long apprenticeship to be served before one becomes a writer and  nothing that’s happened over the intervening years has led me to disagree with that assessment.

I like to think that I’ve learned something in the process of producing badly written stories, however, and now I feel pretty confident about my writing and since the general idea of writing stories (for me at least) is for other people to read them, I think it’s about time I stopped keeping the whole thing such a big secret.

I’ve had the usual frustrations with publishers and agents, so after a while I decided to self publish on Amazon. This doesn’t cost anything (unlike conventional self publishing which takes a fair wad of money and probably isn’t a very good idea unless a/you know what you’re doing b/ you have some savings that you can afford to lose and c/you have a real passion for self  promotion and marketing. None of these happy circumstances apply to me, which is why I went with Amazon).

So I now have two novels published as e-books on Amazon which can be downloaded if you have the requisite gadget.

If you’re interested and you have one of these gadgets then you’re in luck because from 12 noon (or thereabouts) on Friday 3rd February until 11.59 on Tuesday 7th February you won’t even have to pay for the privilege. (You can also download them as loans from the Kindle Library for a longer period, roughly three months, although this might be extended, I haven’t decided on that just yet).

Even if you miss this promotional period, don’t worry about it, you’d only be looking at paying $1.20 or its equivalents in euros or sterling. (ie not a fortune, I don’t expect to get rich from this so it’ll be  a while before I can give up this sordid life of vice and crime).

If you go to my profile page you’ll find a link to my author’s page on Amazon and also a link to my first novel, The Familiar.

You’ll also find a link to my Facebook page, but I’m not sure that would repay the trouble of a visit, at the time of writing, that’s still a work in progress.

So why would you be interested in my writing?

(This is where I make my sales pitch, I suppose and, as you may have noticed, it’s really not something I’m very comfortable with).

Well, I like to think I’ve found a new angle on vampire fiction, although all it really boils down to is combining vampire fiction with another genre (No, not another ‘dark romance’ I don’t do love stories, but I do like thrillers). So what I’ve ended up with is a sort of spy story, but with rather a lot more vampires and zombies than you might expect to find in a John le Carre, or Ian Fleming novel.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, I think that if you’re going to write anything with a strong fantasy element then you really need to ground it in real things, places or people.

So what I’ve decided to do is to ground my story in real locations in Glasgow (The city I know best).  I’ve also decided to avoid swirling capes, crucifixes and sleeping in coffins. (Only one of my vampires sleeps in a coffin, but he’s a traditionalist and a poseur and his coffin has been custom-made for comfort and security).

I have retained some of the traditional attributes attributed to vampires, ie no reflections, aversion to silver, garlic and sunlight, but otherwise they’re very fast, very strong and very, very hard to kill.

I have modelled my vampires on Apex predators from the natural world in that they are charismatic, powerful, confident (even arrogant), ruthless and, in general, they take a real pleasure in hunting. They’re also vain as cats and they don’t like being called vampires, they prefer to be known (where they’re known at all) as The Elect.

In terms of their social organisation, my vampires have modelled themselves on the Mafia.(ie close-knit, territorial groups with a disciplined, hierarchical structure). They live in cities, because that’s where their prey are to be found and that’s where it’s easiest for them to hide themselves and their activities.

I’ve adopted the idea of vampires being served and protected by ‘familiars’ ie those half way between being human and ‘fully made’ vampires. (This idea is implied in Salem’s Lot where Straker is described at one point as being a ‘half vampire’, but I’ve developed the basic idea a bit further for my own purposes and no blame should be attributed to Stephen King for the results).

So that’s the basic set up.

Now all I needed was something to stir up the action.

In The Familiar, the action kicks of in the outskirts of Paris where a new breed of assassin is turned loose by his controllers in order to test his abilities. This test run is observed by Alex, who is The Familiar of the title and who is employed in order to tidy up potential breaches in vampire security.

Alex abducts the assassin with a view to finding out where he comes from and how he came to be a Familiar, just like her. Except that he isn’t really a Familiar just like her, he’s in the process of losing his mind and turning into a flesh-eating monster.

The trail leads Alex to Glasgow where she forms an uneasy alliance with Roseanne Ellis, her human opposite number based in Scotland. It becomes apparent that tracking down the source of this rogue Familiar is the key to stopping the spread of a malignant prion which is turning people into the same kind of brain damaged cannibal that the assassin from Paris was becoming.

This task is made more complex due to the plots and rivalries of the local vampire community.

If you’re interested, follow the link below, you can read more blurb and have a look at the free sample chapters or you can just download the e-book for free.

If you like The Elect, then the story continues in Mistress of the City, but I don’t want to say too much about that, except that it’s got werewolves. (Spoilers).