Loss of Privilege

It’s been hard for me to make sense of UK politics ever since the start of the Leave and Remain campaigns for the Brexit referendum. Some politicians lie, we have always known that. After all, people lie and politicians are people too. We saw this type of behaviour in spades during those referendum campaigns of half-truths, fear and wilful deception.

Yet it feels like something else is going on since the June election, the triggering of Article 50 and the start of the Brexit negotiations in earnest. Among all the obvious political examples of the Peter Principle*, the blatant U-turns and ship-jumping to maintain personal or party advantage over the interests of the country that became almost established party policy in Cameron’s time, I think there is something new. If I’m right it is something that will profoundly affect us all for generations, whatever our political views or position in society. I think it is this – Loss of Privilege.

For the first time in decades the UK is no longer negotiating on the world stage from a position of authority and power. We’re not even negotiating from a position of equality. This has cut the ground out from under the established assumptions of what our current government can do or say and how everyone else will react. (I’ll say now I have little confidence Labour would cope any better, they too are a party that is used to power and the ways of behaving with power. Possibly only the Liberals and/or the Greens could cope in this new world, they are parties used to junior partner status and used to the realities of what kind of deal can be made when you have limited influence.)

The result of this loss of privilege is that the assumption that when the UK speaks the world listens is gone. The business as usual principle that a deal, a compromise no matter how good or bad, enlightened or grubby and self-serving, however good or bad in short or long terms can be made on the international stage and sold to the electorate as some kind of win no longer holds. What used to work no longer works. Our government has no idea what to do or say. It lacks the self-confidence to lead. It no longer knows how to behave.

Which is why we have ‘Brexit is Brexit’, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, and all the other empty bluster, culminating in Johnson’s recent petulant baby-tantrum the EU can ‘go whistle’ for money owed.

I’ll reverse a little here. We didn’t actually lose those privileges, we gave them up. We gave them up when we decided to leave the EU and try to become a plucky little nation forging its way through the international seas led by the spirit of Drake, or Churchill, or Christmas. Whatever. Sure, it’s our national right to do that, just as it was my dad’s right to spend half his pension on gold-plated sixpences from the Franklin mint. It doesn’t mean that behaviour was wise, in our best interest, or entirely rational, we’re free to do it. I know it continues to make some of us very happy just as it made a part of him happy – for a while.

Michel Barnier’s response to Johnson’s ‘whistle’ rhetoric is the perfect example of how far away and how fast that privilege has now gone. ‘I am not hearing any whistling,’ he said, ‘just the clock ticking.’

If my love of history has taught me anything it’s that change can happen very fast and be very unexpected. When it does happen leadership flounders, collapses into indecision, and a series of ‘palace coups’ introduce a period of chaos. Societies recover, the sense of self as a nation is a powerful thing. Most of the rich stay rich, institutions and business keep running, people work hard, the lines of wealth and health drawn through the population move up and down.

I think we’re in the transition from being the United Kingdom with all her garnered privileges from Empire and Power to being just another country on the world stage. A county with huge assets and cultural, artistic, intellectual and scientific resources, but just a country after all. We’ve probably been that for quite a while but the inertia of international status-quo means that the rest of the world have only just sat up and noticed. And that only happened because we made them. I think it’s going to hurt. Long term I think this loss of undeserved privilege will be a good thing.


*Peter Principle – Promotion is based on performance in the current not future role. Managers therefore rise to their level of incompetence. Laurence J. Peter, 1969

Science for Fiction 2017

Yesterday and the day before (6/7 July) I was in the audience at the annual Science for Fiction event at Imperial College London. This is organised and presented by the brilliant Dr David Clements,  astrophysicist and SF writer.

There were 6 presentations over the two days:

– The Square Kilometre Array and the Epoch of Reionization: Dr Emma Chapman
– Titan and Cassini: Dr Ingo Mueller-Wodarg
– Ending the Universe: Prof Arttu Rajantie
– Visiting Mars: Prof Sanjeev Gupta
– Extremophiles and Synthetic Biology: Dr Robert Weinzierl
– Forming Stars & Planets: Dr Tom Haworth

Everything was brilliant, the presentations were fascinating, exciting, and on more than one occasion mind-blowing. During and after each talk we had many questions and moments of enlightenment.  One highlight was the VR demonstration of Mars. Yes it was VR, but I walked on Mars!
Here, in approximate order, are just a few of the things I learned:

1. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is one of the next great big-science projects – a radio-telescope comprised of thousands of small dishes and aerials with a total collecting area of 10^6 square metres. The data rate from the finished array will be hundreds of gigabits/second. This is about 10x current global internet traffic and it  will need to be processed in near real-time. That will need supercomputers more powerful than any that yet exist, equivalent to one hundred million 2013-era PCs.

2. Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to  have precipitation and open liquid on the surface. Large lakes of liquid methane and ethane, about the same size as the North American Great Lakes, lie towards the north. Elsewhere mountains of solid water ice rise up to 3.5 kilometres high. All this at -180C under a chemically active atmosphere of nitrogen and methane 1.4 times as dense as ours.

3. The Higgs field gives mass to particles. Unlike other fields energy does not rise steadily as field strength rises, it dips then rises again. Higgs particles repel each other until extremely high energy levels (10^10GeV), when they attract. This attraction could lower the field strength to below zero. If this does happen, and as more Higgs particles are spontaneously produced from vacuum, a bubble of negative energy would form and expand at the speed of light annihilating everything it touches, destroying the universe!
Fortunately we can’t make particles of that energy – yet. Unfortunately quantum tunneling could allow a Higgs particle to tunnel under the high energy curve of the field to the low energy zone beyond and kick-start the annihilation process! Even more fortunately this is unlikely. Quantum mechanics is probabilistic, the probability of this happening is in the order of 10^600 years, longer than the life of the universe.

4. A significant problem of looking for life on Mars is the likely places for life are banned for exploration because of the risks of contamination. Manned missions and all they imply with regards to organic contamination will pose a severe problem.

5. Archae are a new kingdom of life unknown until about 40 years ago. Externally they resemble bacteria, internally their biochemistry is more like multicellular life.  Many are extremophiles, living in very salty, high temperature and pressure environments (up to 120C and 200 atmospheres).
Archae and bacteria are the earliest living life forms. As the earliest forms of both archae and bacteria are thermophiles (heat-loving), it suggests life originated in a very hot environment.

6. It’s currently believed around 50% of stars have a super-earth type planet (one to a few earth masses). Most planets discovered so far are very big and orbit close to their sun. Free-floating planets do exist, in unknown numbers. An earth-analogue planet has not yet been discovered and neither has a solar system similar to ours. One reason for this is the detection methods used, based on the dimming of a star as a planet passes in front of it. Multiple events are needed to confirm a planet and the orbits of planets in our system are too slow, or the planets are too small, for current survey methods.

My thanks to Dave Clements for organising the event, and also to  Emma, Ingo, Arttu, Sanjeev, Robert, and Tom, for their time and sharing their expertise and knowledge. My apologies if I made any mistakes transcribing the information above. If you want to know more I suggest you follow their links and check out their websites, publications and other notes. Science for Fiction 2017 was inspirational, informal and great fun. I am really looking forwards to next year’s event.


Another Year of micro-Loans

This year I continued making micro-loans to people all around the world through Kiva. Although it wasn’t as easy as in previous years I still managed to grow my fund – plus birthday and Christmas contributions from friends and family – Thank You!

If you’ve not heard of Kiva, it’s a way to help finance loans to people around the world who have no access to other forms of borrowing. Often they need help with basic things I take for granted such as a sanitary toilet, access to clean water, electricity, schooling, or medicine. When they repay the loan I can lend it to someone else. Obviously there are losses – if there’s a hurricane in Haiti that loan you made is probably not going to come back in full, or maybe at all.

I really like the idea of helping people to help themselves, and that by adding a little each month I can actually begin to contribute in a useful way.

I started lending through Kiva in 2012 and by the end of that year I’d made 30 loans. This year it was 203. This month I’ve lent money to farmers in Kenya, Myanmar, Colombia and Tajikistan, households in Vietnamese and Cambodia, market traders in Toga, Philippines, Pakistan and Liberia, and a Mexican needing medicine. It feels good.


Review – The Beauty, by Aliya Whiteley

The BeautyAn isolated group of men live in a world without women.  Over the years they have learned to accept this fact, and that they will be the final generation.  It has not been easy. Each of them has their demons and they have all had to reconcile themselves to the different ways the other members of the group have chosen to live their lives.

Then,  unexpected and unasked for, the possibility of companionship emerges from the world. And if wanted, love.

Aliya Whiteley has written a compelling, unsettling story.  If you want, read it simply for the strangeness, the near-magical otherness of this tale and its odd and sinister humanity.  If you want more  it is there. The Beauty is a deeply human and thoughtful book that poses absorbing questions: How do we survive when there can be no survival? How do we love when there is nobody to return that love? Is it possible to truly know someone? How do we reconcile ourselves to each others unknowable differences?

In the end are there really no answers, only ways forward?

Unsung Stories continues on its mission to publish original, entertaining, and thought provoking fiction. The Beauty is an excellent example, and a great place to start. Highly recommended.


Travellers – Writing to my MP

I don’t often write to my MP, and I go public even less often. This petition needed a proper response.

Scully Traveller petition.jpeg







So this is mine.

Scully Traveller response





If Paul Scully is your MP and you feel the same way, feel free to use my letter as a template.


Craftwork – Two Masks

GreenMan 1A few weeks ago I ran my first leather craft workshop with the aim to teach some friends how to make scabbards for the bronze swords we made earlier in the year. It went pretty well, except I’d under-estimated the time needed to teach and make something that was a mildly ambitious project. As a result most people went home with nicely dyed and finished scabbard fronts and backs that needed stitching together. The finished items will look similar to this, though everyone came up with their own designs for tooling, and colour.

GreenMan 2


This is something that I’d like to do more of, and the weekend has given me confidence that I actually do quite enjoy teaching leather crafts, and that the people I taught got plenty out of it.


Hern 1I’m now trying to work out how I could do demonstrations or maybe two or three linked one-hour sessions at a convention. It might be fun, but logistics could be tricky. We’ll see.

Back home I got on with the first of the wet-moulded masks I’m making for sale via The Cat & Cauldron shop in Glastonbury. ‘Green Man’, the full-face mask, is a variation of the one I made for myself for Jack, my druid LARP character. This new version is more ornate, better tooled and much better finished.

In particular, I used rags instead of swabs to apply the base dye. This might not sounds like much, but it gives much better control of the dye density. This lets the leather grain come through and if you’re careful it also leaves any stamping grooves undyed. A slower method but I really like it, and the mask looks great.

Hern 2

The half-mask I call ‘Herne’. I’ve made this mask before, and again I’ve spent more time on the stamping, tooling, and finishing. On this one I used swabs to apply the base dye, so there’s no outline to the leaf stamps. I also added an embossed leaf pattern to all the hair curls..

I’m very pleased with both these masks and plan to make more, and other designs.


Excellent News

I could not be happier! I can now share some news that I have known about for a few days:

My short story ‘Warm Gun’ has been awarded first place in the 2016 BFS Short Story competition.

This is an annual competition that’s growing in strength and reputation and I’m really properly excited to have won this year.

Big congratulations also go to the second and third place authors Rowena Harding-Smith, for “Flotsam and Jetsam” (Second place), and C. L. Raven, for “The Eden Project” (Third place). I’m very much looking forwards to reading both of these when they appear in BFS Horizons soon.


Review – The Honours, by Tim Clare

The HonoursThis is a bold, brave and brilliant book, just like its hero, thirteen years old Delphine Venner.

It’s 1935 and troubled Delphine, recently expelled from school, goes to the isolated Alderberen estate with her mother and equally troubled father. An odd community live in the great house, invited by the ancient and dying last lord of the estate. Part political commune, part new-age retreat, the inhabitants struggle with the psychological damage of war, paranoia, anger, illness – and something else. Something vast and secret. All is not what it seems.

Left to her own devices Delphine runs loose in the house and the estate. Creeping in the secret passages between the walls, the forgotten tunnels under the estate, and in the company of Mr Garforth, a dangerously pragmatic gamekeeper, she listens and learns, and discovers that nothing at all is what it seems. The whole world is beyond sinister.

The Honours is a brilliant gritty fantasy joining this world and the other. Delphine is a wonderfully well-drawn unhappy child and hero, struggling to hold her family together and her father struggles to mend his mind. When it’s all too much she retreats into the adventures of her own imagination – and discovers those adventures have equipped her well for the real-life dangers that erupt and consume everyone on the estate.

There are layers and layers in this story, Clare is a masterful story-teller writing with colour, emotion, and evoking a haunting landscape. The best books don’t necessarily win prizes, this one wins mine. The Honours is one of the best books I’ve read and if there is a sequel then I cannot wait.


A Song for 2016

Oh, the world is full of anger,
That ain’t nothing new.
It’s why I cold-brew coffee,
To get a smoother brew!

Those islands of cool reason
Feel far between and few.
That’s why I learned to swim;
Trusting neither boat nor crew!

Who are all a bunch of chancers
Who refuse to take and do
The advice of seasoned experts
Sifting falsehoods from what’s true.

They think they all know better
Fear and anger made them fight
For what they want, not what is best
Vote winnners must be right.

Now we have a world where reason
Is to blame those who warned you not
To do the things you shouldn’a done
For the pain that you’ve now got.

And it’s a pain that I can now
In truth and honesty say
(Whatever the fuck those things are)
I’m sharing day by day.

My advice? I’m not an expert,
So therefore can’t be wrong,
Is don’t get your philosophy
From this rather silly song

And though there’s contradiction
In that verse what I just wrote
It’s the egos of bigots on left and right
And their lies that will sink our boats.

So do yourself a favour
That it all don’t end in tears,
Whatever your gender or sexuality or race or age or faith or politics or economic prospects (which I do admit are bloody important and I sometimes lie in bed worrying about that myself… Where was I? Oh yes, gender, sexuality, race, age, faith, or politics.
Don’t be driven by your fears.

So, Ouch and ouch and fucking ouch
As we spiral round the shitter
And ouch to this and ouch to that
At least the coffee isn’t bitter.

The Egg Timer of Science Fiction

Milford TimerThat egg timer in the picture has some history.  I am its new keeper.

I’ve been to the Milford SF conference three times now. Every time was different, every time I  learned new things about being a better writer. Every time was fun, hard work, and in the company of an interesting and varied group of people.

This year I left Milford as the new chair of the committee. When I told Gaie she said, ‘So being a Clarke Award judge wasn’t enough for you?’ It made me think, and my internal answer was ‘Kind of not, no.’

Milford is hugely useful in less immediately obvious ways. My SF novel, Shopocalypse, might never have been published without Milford, because I met someone there who introduced me to someone else. If you’re a genre writer I really recommend you try to go at least once*. This is what you’ll get: fifteen writers, one week, a whole lot of reading, critiquing, and conversation.

The first time I went it was pretty scary – there were WRITERS there. They had AGENTS and had been PUBLISHED. By PUBLISHERS. I soon discovered they were pretty normal really.  The second time was different, I knew the ropes, I learned different things. I came away re-energised, just like the first time. The third time, a couple of weeks ago was the same, and it was different again – I learned more new things, and got some great advice. And I realised something else too  – It felt a bit like coming home.

I’ve been to my fair share of conventions but I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider. I’ve never felt excluded but I also never really felt like I was really part of the thing itself.  Maybe it’s my version of imposter syndrome, maybe it’s because Milford is smaller, maybe I just like hanging out with other writers. So when I heard Sue Thomason was stepping down after several years as Chair, I thought I could take that on and help contribute to running Milford.  Thanks for being such a good Chair, Sue, I’ll do my absolute best to be the same. So, I am a chair, but according to some philosophers chairs don’t even exist. Others say nobody actually knows what a chair is. If I find out I’ll let you know.

We’ve got some plans to do more at Milford over the next couple of years, ideas for some extra events around the country. Longer term, maybe even extending to two full Milfords a year if there are the numbers.  And of course there’s the Milford bursary**. Check out the web site for details, sign up to the blog, or keep an eye out on Twitter. See the end of this post for more details.

SO, that egg timer… At Milford everyone gets three to four minutes to deliver their crit. These days we time people with a mobile phone, but back at the first UK Milford in 1972 it was an egg timer. That’s the one in the picture, and it’s in front of me on the table now.  It’s interesting to hold it and think about all the people who have been timed by that egg timer. In no particular order they include:

James Blish, Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, John Brunner, Liz Williams, Christopher Priest, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Aldiss, Alastair Reynolds, Samuel Delaney, Jacey Bedford, Robert Holdstock, Gary Kilworth, Kari Sperring, John Clute, Jaine Fenn, Geoff Ryman, Diane Wynn Jones, Colin Harvey, Gaie Sebold, Colin Greenland, Charles Stross, Bruce Sterling, Cheryth Baldry, Paul Kincaid, Mary Gentle, Maxim Jakubowski…

The wood glass and salt of that egg timer must be imbued with some kind of SFnal talent vibe by now. If I’m lucky some of it will rub off. If not, the next Milford I go to, in 2018, will help do the job. Maybe see you there.


* Going to Milford – All you need to know

** The Milford Bursary is a fully-funded bursary for self-identifying science fiction/fantasy writers of colour, i.e. of black or minority ethnicity

Follow the Milford Blog