Archive | February, 2015

If Dying is Easy, What’s More Difficult Than Comedy?

23 Feb

The most difficult thing about building a galactic empire of your very own doesn’t lie in populating it, or organising it, nor is it in writing the history, predicting the future or understanding how it works. The real difficulty is in finding names for things; people and places that don’t make you cringe when you try to use them.

Obviously writers of fantasy have much the same problem and JRR Tolkien had a major advantage in as much as he was familiar to some degree with a wide variety of languages classical, modern and medieval. (Something more than 20, I think).

Doubtless this facility with languages was a major asset in creating his own languages which, in turn, allowed him to produce all manner of names for places and people which not only sounded plausible, but also had a certain coherence to them. As a matter of fact, he was very often able to produce a number of different names for any one thing. So a particular place might have a name in the Common Tongue, and another in Elvish, a third in Dwarvish and maybe another in one or other of the tongues of men.

This is an enviable ability. (Not to mention deeply exasperating for those of us who struggle with such things).

For my part I’m only really fluent in English. I can vaguely recall a bit of High School French, but not much and I know a few (a very few) words in German, mostly technical and esoteric terms. I also know a little Ancient Greek and Latin (who doesn’t) and I can be quite rude in Russian. I even know one or two words of Japanese. (None of this is desperately impressive, if you think about it, most of us know a fair number of words and phrases taken from different languages depending on the vagaries of education, interests, employment and hobbies).

Needless to say, this is not altogether sufficient to produce a series of plausible names as and when required.

Sometimes, when you can’t rely on your wide-ranging knowledge of foreign languages ancient and modern, you can fall back on typos, misreadings and other gifts of accident and error. But many of these will not only be gibberish, they will also read and sound like gibberish and therefore be pretty much useless.

Of course the problem was much less acute for a writer like Charles Dickens.

For one thing most of the places he was writing about were quite real and even where they weren’t they were, at least, in Britain. (More specifically England). There was the odd exception, but where Dickens needed a name for a place in Africa he could quite happily concoct a nonsense word like ‘Borrioboola-Gha’ because the name didn’t have to be plausible. It just had to sound exotic and comedic in a, sort-of, African kind of way, to people who would mostly know very little about Africa or African languages.

In any case Borrioboola-Gha doesn’t play a huge role in Bleak House, it’s a piece of throwaway humour used by Dickens to take a satirical swipe at what he called ‘telescopic philanthropy’. (If you want to know what he meant by that, read the book. You might find the length intimidating but it’s a pretty easy read. Once you get started you’ll fly through it, but watch out for the pathos, it’s Dickens’ biggest weakness).

But even where Dickens wanted a name for a character who was going to play a significant role in his story, he still had a great degree of latitude.

That’s because, while he often dealt with serious themes, he did so through humour which meant that, to a degree, realism was often an optional extra. That’s not to say that Dickens ever wrote pure fantasy, his work was always rooted in real life even if he chose to show it in a heightened, distorted, sometimes fabulous and often grotesque way. So he could have characters like Gradgrind, Lady Deadlock, Fezziwig and, of course, Bob Cratchit.

Typically, for Dickens a character’s name was an extension and reflection of their personality or situation. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge. The surname may well be derived from an obscure English verb ‘scrouge’, meaning ‘squeeze’ or ‘press’, but the reader doesn’t need to know that to get the point. With a name like Scrooge, you pretty well have to be a tight fisted, grasping sort of character. (At least until the end of the book).

Similarly, the relentlessly cheerful co narrator of Bleak House is called Esther Summerson. Once you know the name, you know something about the character as well.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will doubtless be aware that JK Rowling did much the same thing in naming many of her characters as did Mervyn Peake. (If you haven’t read the Gormenghast books, then maybe that’s something else to stick on your ‘to do’ list).

This is not really an option if you’re trying to write something with a bit less humour. (I was tempted to say ‘something a bit more serious’ but sometimes Dickens was quite serious, and doubtless fans of Harry Potter would make much the same claim about JK Rowling. I’m reluctant to offer a definitive opinion, however, because while I’ve seen the films, as and when they’ve been on TV, I haven’t read the books).

Of course writers of ‘serious’ science fiction ( and some may doubt there even is such a thing) do sometimes apply names that have some degree of significance to characters, places and races. The most obvious example being Gene Roddenberry using names like ‘Romulan’ or ‘Vulcan’.

These names are obviously drawn from existing human cultures. I’m not quite sure why Roddenberry chose the name ‘Vulcan’ for a race who tend to be Saturnine in appearance, although I suspect it was probably just because he thought it sounded right. (I’m sure someone will know, but I just watched the series, I’ve no claim to the esteemed title of ‘Trekker’). Having said that the significance of the name ‘Romulan’ for a race with a largely militaristic and authoritarian culture seems pretty obvious.

The term ‘Klingon’, while it’s given rise to a certain amount of scatalogical wordplay, particularly in the West of Scotland, is a little more obscure. But it kind of sounds right anyway and that’s all that really matters in the end. (Having said this, maybe the reason ‘Klingon’ seems to work so well has something to do with the fact that we’ve been hearing it for decades now. Familiarity, at least for made up names, tends to breed credibility, not contempt).

Of course this kind of thing can go horribly wrong.

Consider The Chronicles of Riddick, for example.

Here you have Riddick’s people the ‘Furyons’. Is that a reference to ‘the Furies’ from Greek mythology, perhaps? After all, Riddick does turn out to be the avenger of his race. Or maybe it’s supposed to suggest anger or violence. (Having said this Riddick seldom seems to be angry as such, although he’s frequently violent).

And then there’s the prison planet where it gets very, very hot in the daytime, ‘Crematoria’. Bit obvious, don’t you think?

Maybe a little more work was required here.

Although the truly abysmal example of this kind of thing comes from James Cameron’s Avatar.

I mean, ‘Unobtanium’?

Really?

It’s not even as though the term is used ironically.

What on earth was he thinking about?

Obviously there are plenty of people who really enjoyed Avatar (although, personally I found the plot predictable and the characters pretty unpleasant so I gave up part way through), but I think my point still stands. Giving a made up substance a name like ‘unobtanium’ is just liable to jar anyone out of their suspended disbelief.

So that brings me back to borrowings from what little I know of foreign languages, typos, misreadings and other happy(ish) accidents. Because I do need quite a few place names and nothing screws up your narrative flow quite like having to stop to make one up.

The only solution I’ve found is to take some time in advance of writing the story in order to make up a stock of names I can apply as and when I need them. Needless to say, some of them make me cringe when I try to use them, but when that happens, I can only hope that I have enough spare made up names in stock to fill the gap.

Maybe I should just write a comedy or something. Edmund Keane (or was it Donald Wolfit) said ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’. (Which may well be true, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t died yet.) But if comedy is hard, making up sensible sounding names derived from languages that don’t exist, for places and people who don’t exist, is much harder.

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15 Feb

Recently I posted a comment on Facebook about a government minister that caused some offence to someone.

I don’t particularly wish to rehash the ensuing exchange, but it did prompt me to think a little about why I even bother to comment about these things.

After all, it’s not as though any comment of mine is actually going to change anything, is it?

For one thing I have no idea how many people actually read anything I post on Facebook and for another, I have no idea to what extent any comment I post actually affects anyone’s thinking or behaviour. Probably not much, as a matter of fact.

So maybe all this commenting on Facebook is completely futile, or worse, a form of narcissism.

Which brings me on to a different, but related topic; i.e. online petitions.

Like almost anyone who has ever been online I have signed and shared the odd online petition and it’s possible that some of these petitions have had some kind of effect. Organisations like Change.org, Avaaz.org and 38 Degrees will obviously claim significant achievements for the petitions launched and supported by their members and I’m sure they’ll have convincing evidence to support those claims.

On the other hand, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I receive notifications about new petitions on a daily basis and I’m aware that there are far more online petitions out there than I will ever hear about and this is the bit that troubles me.

In a way it’s a good thing if anyone can start a petition if there’s something that they feel strongly about. But in another way I think there’s a problem here. With so many online petitions flying about there’s a risk that support for a cause that has general support will be divided amongst half a dozen petitions, thereby making it that much easier for the powers that be to ignore each petition in turn. Something that might be more difficult to do if there was just one petition signed by everyone who cared about that particular issue.

The other risk that follows from having so many online petitions is that any one petition, no matter how worthy, is liable to be swamped by the sheer volume of other petitions, however worthy in themselves. There is also the risk that politicians, amongst others, will find it all too easy to dismiss online petitions and the people who sign them. Already we’ve had Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler using the term ‘rent a mob’ and Simon Burns MP (a sometime Health Minister) describing members of the petition website 38 Degrees as ‘almost zombie-like’. (This is a very politician like smear since it gets across the basic ‘zombie’ insult, while the qualifier ‘almost’ allows plenty of wiggle room in the face of any challenge).

So there is a question about whether or not the sheer accessibility of online petitioning and campaigning effectively undermines the message being sent as a result of so many messages being sent.

You could avoid this problem, or at least reduce it, by having some kind of filtering process in order to avoid duplication of effort or even to weed out the cranks. (To some extent 38 Degrees, for example, does this because it will only go ahead with a campaign on a particular subject if there is a strong consensus amongst its members behind it). But the risk involved in ‘weeding’ anything out is that some perfectly justifiable point of view is suppressed simply because it’s unfashionable, or because it goes against the hang ups and prejudices of whoever’s doing the weeding.

Which brings me back to my original question. Is there really a point in making a comment, signing a petition or sending a letter or email to your MP when you can be pretty sure that it’s going to have no real effect in practice?

As an aside, it’s worth noting that on February 2nd 2003 an estimated million people turned out to protest against the American led invasion of Iraq. (This in spite of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, instructing the Royal Parks Agency to deny permission for the use of Hyde Park for the rally. This decision was apparently taken on safety grounds and in order to protect the grass. The decision was later reversed and the rally took place with, so far as I can gather, no great risk to anyone’s safety, although there may have been some

damage to the grass).

This protest, probably the largest in UK history, achieved absolutely nothing in terms of changing government policy. We had a pretty bland comment from Toy Blair (The Prime Minister at the time) about respecting other people’s views, but then the invasion went ahead anyway. (It’s very possible that Mr Blair means something different from the rest of us when he talks about ‘respect’. I think in his lexicon to ‘respect’ means to ‘ignore’).

So was there a point to that rally?

Probably.

If nothing else it was an attempt to speak truth to power. (Something that’s probably always worth doing). And if nothing else it means that no amount of lying, spin, or history revising will ever allow supporters of the war to claim that the Blair government had the wholehearted support of the British people on this issue.

Which brings me back to my habit of commenting on various issues on Facebook. (A somewhat more modest proposition than rallying a million people against a war, I admit).

Why should I bother?

I suppose most of the reason is because it relieves, to some extent, my frustration and irritation at the behaviour of people in power. To that extent, I suppose, it’s therapeutic and therefore has some value, if only to me.

As for anyone else?

Well, of those who actually see anything I post on Facebook, I suppose some will simply scroll on until they find something more interesting. Others will at least read what I’ve posted. Of those some will agree, others will disagree and from time to time someone will take offence.

In any event the world will go on with its turning and the price of cheese (amongst other things) will remain entirely unaffected).

Except that maybe someone will be made aware of something that they might otherwise have missed and maybe someone will think about something they might not otherwise have thought about and maybe change their mind. (NB I make no claim that I will be able to change anyone’s mind, I’m deeply sceptical about my ability to do that, but I do think that people can change their own minds if presented with new facts or maybe a point of view they hadn’t encountered before).

Which brings me to a brief digression on the subject of angels.

Our word ‘angel’ is derived from a Greek word for messenger (ἄγγελος or ángelos). Angels turn up, of course in various religions and mythologies, particularly Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions, and more recently in some New Age belief systems.

One, rather fetching, take on angels that I heard once, was provided by a Rabbi who said that anyone could be an angel. His view was that an angel was simply someone who said something, perhaps quite inadvertently, that changes the way you see things.

But then again, my chances of acting as an angel are probably no better than anyone else’s, and probably greatly reduced on Facebook since most people on social media are less likely to be seeking enlightenment than funny pictures of cats. (Or glamorous pictures of horses).

So again, why bother?

Well, I suppose I have a vague notion that when we come across something we think is wrong we shouldn’t just let it pass. Ideally we should do something about it, or if we can’t do anything, then we should say something. Even if no one’s paying any attention.

This is because I think if we just let things carry on as they are, even when we know that what’s happening is wrong, then we become complicit.

It could well be that if you speak out, you’re only talking to yourself, but that’s not such a bad thing even if it only serves to remind you of what’s right or wrong and how to tell the difference.

And it seems to me that the alternative is to simply acquiesce. And the risk of doing that is to allow things to become acceptable when they should be completely unacceptable.

There is also the fact that big problems don’t have to be solves all at once and sometimes the non-negotiable demand for a complete, all in one, solution ends up being an obstacle to taking any action at all.

(For example, in a city plagued by slum housing, the local authority may wish to institute a large-scale campaign of urban renewal, demolishing the slums and building new homes for all the people displaced from the slums. Obviously this campaign will cost a huge amount of money and require a great deal of careful planning and organisation. Obviously this will be a huge benefit to the community if it all goes well, and the temptation would be to stop carrying out basic repair work while the big plan is pending because the big plan will make all that repair work redundant. Or, what’s worse, to ignore the basic repair work because fixing one person’s leaky roof doesn’t address the big problem and the big plan will do just that. But what happens if there is no big plan? Do you fix the leaky roof, or do you just complain that fixing a leaky roof won’t provide a complete solution to the big problem?).

So I think we should speak up in the face of things we think are wrong. I also think we should speak plainly and speak the truth. (If we can and in this context, FactCheck.org, Snopes and Mythbusters all provide a useful, if much underused service).

It might not do any good or it may only do the least conceivable quantum of good. But if it does any good at all then that’s better than nothing and little things can accumulate until they become quite big things. A tiny effort by enough people can become an unstoppable force.

Which is not to say that the full extent of our moral obligations is to post a snarky comment on Facebook. If we can do more then we should. But registering some kind of protest is a perfectly acceptable first step and if that’s all we can do then that’s what we should do.

Where We Are Now. (Or Why We Still Need The Labour Party in Scotland – Heaven Help Us).

9 Feb

I don’t really like politics and, as a rule, I’m wary of people who do.

On the other hand, I have little patience with people who ‘don’t do politics’.

That’s because, while I don’t like politics, I do recognise that politics matters and the reason for that is because when things go wrong in politics, people get hurt and when politicians are allowed to operate without proper scrutiny, you can guarantee that things will go wrong.

So there we are.

Political engagement is necessary in the same way that locking your front door and guarding the PIN for your bankcard is necessary.

And, of course in political terms, we’re having some interesting times in Scotland at the moment. Not perhaps quite as interesting as they were during the Independence Referendum campaign, but they’re still interesting.

There’s been a lot of comment about the aftermath of the referendum and, in particular the peculiar ironies of the respective prospects for Labour and the SNP.

Put very simply, and just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t noticed, the SNP should be in the doldrums because the Scottish electorate (in their collective wisdom) rejected independence, and Labour should be doing very well. As it is, however, all the available evidence suggests that it’s the SNP who’re doing well while Labour is in the doldrums. More than that, some polls suggest that Labour may be facing a complete disaster in the forthcoming election.

Reactions to this oddity vary from elation, on the part of some SNP supporters, to perplexed indignation on the part of a good few unionists. And not all of those perplexed indignant unionists are Labour supporters.

Now, I’d have to say that I have no great love of the Labour Party.

Having lived my whole life in West Central Scotland I think I can claim to have seen the worst of Labour. I’ve seen Labour dominated local authorities behave with callous arrogance towards the people who voted them into power and I’ve watched local democracy being reduced to petty vicious squabbles between different factions of the Labour Party. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the spectacle and I don’t think any of it has been healthy for democracy or for the people of Scotland.

Having said that, I don’t think this malaise was due to some peculiarity of the Labour Party as opposed to any other party, I think it’s the inevitable consequence of any party staying in power for too long.

This is why I think that, in the longer term, the most significant even in Scottish politics since Devolution wasn’t the Independence Referendum, I think it was the replacement of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition with, firstly and SNP minority administration and then by an SNP majority.

Obviously, it was this event that allowed the referendum to take place in the first place and the general consensus seems to be that, whatever the referendum result, the campaign itself brought a huge number of people into politics who would otherwise have been disengaged and, therefore, disenfranchised.

(As an aside, I would mention that, while many of us think this was a good thing, there are some career politicians, notably Jim Murphy in a recent interview, who still like to present the referendum as being nothing more than a distraction. The theory seems to be that Scottish independence was nothing more than a vanity project on the part of the SNP in general and Alex Salmond in particular. I would have thought that the 84% turnout would have been pretty conclusive evidence against this theory, but apparently not.)

The significance of this change of administration, for m, isn’t so much about the wonders of an SNP government, although in general and with some grumbles on various issues I do think the SNP have done reasonably well in

government, it’s far more to do with removing Labour from power.

The response of the Labour Party to this loss of power has not been intelligent. Firstly we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Wendy Alexander trailing down to the Labour Party Conference in order to, in so many words, apologise for the Scottish Electorate having failed to follow the established script by not voting Labour.

(It’s tempting to describe this behaviour as ‘sheep-like’, but whenever you’re appalled by the votes cast by the electorate; you have to consider the available alternatives. Back in the eighties the re-election of Thatcher was described by at least one American commentator in terms of an exercise in masochism, but this simply ignored that fact that for much of the eighties the Labour Party was divided and shambolic and totally incapable of inspiring any degree of confidence in anyone but their most partisan supporters. Similarly the past 70 years or so of Labour rule in Scotland has partly been due to the lack of a viable alternative. The SNP, until the advent of the Scottish Parliament, was little more than a pressure group, much like the Liberals in the rest of the UK, who could cause the odd by-election upset but not form a government).

This particular incident might not have mattered too much if Labour had shown any recognition that there was a reason why they were voted out of government. (And it’s worth noting that in the 2007 election that resulted in the SNP minority government the Lib Dem vote held up quite well, it was the Labour vote that fell away).

Of course, we’ve heard all the usual platitudes from Labour politicians about ‘listening to the Scottish people’ and addressing the ‘real’ issues. (As opposed to what? Addressing the ‘unreal’ issues, presumably those that the people who beat them in the election are addressing).

What we haven’t seen is any lessening in the Labour Party’s collective sense of ownership of Scotland. Essentially the Labour Party in Scotland still seems to see itself as the ‘natural party of government’ in Scotland (in much the same way as the Conservatives have tended to see themselves in the UK as a whole).

This is not healthy. It’s not healthy for the Labour Party and it’s not healthy for Scottish politics more generally.

The reason it’s unhealthy is very simple. It effectively denies the Scottish electorate a viable alternative to the SNP as a party of government.

Essentially the position is this.

If Labour regains power in Scotland as things stand, they will simply assume that the past few years in opposition were just some inexplicable glitch that they can now ignore. It will, in short, be back to politics as usual so far as they’re concerned.

To me, and I think to anyone who really gives a damn’ about Scotland, as opposed to blindly following the interests of any one party at the expense of Scotland and the people of Scotland, this is not acceptable.

So for me, Labour is unelectable. And they will continue to be until they accept on a profound level that they are simply one of a number of options available to the voters. And, more to the point (and here’s the really important bit) that they have to work for the Scottish people in order to earn the power they’re given. (This is something all politicians will claim to believe, but few really believe if they can only get themselves elected into a safe enough seat).

But if Labour is unelectable, then in practice the SNP is the only option as a governing party. (My natural sympathies are actually with the Green Party, but at the moment but it would be rank folly to suggest that they’re likely to form a government in the foreseeable future).

If there is no viable alternative to the SNP then they will continue to be re-elected until they become every bit as corrupt and arrogant as the Labour Party has become.

For me that would be a tragedy.

That’s because it seems to me that the worst thing that can happen to the voters in any given constituency is to become a safe seat for anyone. The only politician worth a damn’ is the politician who’s in office, but who sees a real prospect of being voted out of office. Where a politician, or party, sees no prospect of being elected, or where they’re in power and see no prospect of ever being voted out of office, they’re in a position to take the voters for granted. This inevitably leads to self indulgent navel gazing, infighting and all the other nasty habits we’ve seen in Labour (and the Conservatives) in Scotland for years.

Labour must, therefore, learn humility. (Which, in my opinion, they won’t under Jim Murphy’s leadership). For their own good and, more importantly, for the good of Scotland, and even more importantly for the good of the people of Scotland.

All the polls seem to indicate that Labour will face a disaster at the next election.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what they need. But, even for someone like me who has no great love of the Labour Party, it would be a disaster if Labour was wiped out in Scotland just as comprehensively and (apparently) as permanently as the Conservatives have been.