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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

GUEST POST: on the NHS by Dave Palfreyman

I generally avoid talking about Brexit, I don’t consider myself an expert, there are many more educated on the subject than I. what I can talk about is the NHS. with 24 years service I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years and managed many transformation processes. Like everyone else in the UK I am also a user of it as much as I’m an employee of it.

The brainchild of Aneurin Bevan, then Deputy leader of the Labour party in 1948, the NHS is now in the top five largest employers worldwide, it rubs shoulders with the US Department of Defence, McDonalds, Walmart, and the Chinese Army. We treat something like 1 million patients every 36 hours. It costs us approx. £2.4billion per week to do that. Those who are good at maths will have already worked out that this is about £125billion a year. That is some serious money.

The Health budget in 2016-17 was 19% of the national expenditure so the government of the day understandably want to make it as efficient and effective as possible.  The single biggest problem that we the NHS face is that of constant demands for reform and scrutiny. We have no issue with scrutiny. We should seek to improve our game, but reform, dear gods, another one? The problem is that we never stop getting reformed. The NHS reals from reform after reform after reform, like a punch drunk boxer. staff constantly have to deal with reversed decision making that leaves them feeling uncertain and vulnerable. Not an ideal situation to be in when you have others to look after.

We spend millions on change every year. The costs associated with investigations and reports from Francis report, the Cavendish report,  the Keogh report and the Berwick report etc, make your eyes water.

Right First time. That’s one of the many ethos’ of the NHS to which we aspire to, but sadly despite our best efforts, we occasionally fall short. We waste millions a year on dispensing medication that does not get used and has to be thrown away, supplies that are past their best before date gets destroyed despite still being in a sterile packaging. We lose hundreds if not thousands of hours on missed appointments, waiting lists though significantly better than two years ago are still pretty high for some services. more so when you talk about children and adolescent mental health services, because its funding is peanuts by comparison. Trying to get appointment with the GP is a nightmare and we the patient often feel like we are not listened to leading to frustration and anger.

We are often told the NHS has too many managers, yet the Kings Fund analysis suggests we have has less than is required for this size of company, particularly given the complexity of health care.,  Cost improvement savings are often born by the management teams rather than the front line services. Twice I have “taken one for the team”, and agreed to be redeployed to protect front line staff and services putting my livelihood on the line for sustained service delivery.

When we as customers are not happy we complain. When it comes to the NHS  we demand that our MPs sort it out, who then demand reform, and around we go again.

What’s in it for me?  Well, the flag ship service obviously is its critical care departments, including good old A&E. If you are critically injured you can expect the best possible treatment. The NHS will do its utmost  in trying to save a life no matter the cost. After that, the NHS offers a bewildering array of services from regular health screening to palliative care, and everything in between. We have become all things to all people. It is the envy of the world, and we are proud to be number 1 in a list of the top 10 health services in the world.  But it comes with a hefty price tag as I have already said.

Paying for it long term is a constant issue for the government, and the NHS.  recently the NHS Confederation has said it needs an increase of five percent per year to meet the demands currently placed upon it, and none of the parties in the last election proposed those sort of numbers. That big red bus was nothing more than a figment of our imagination.

The House of Lords NHS sustainability committee in 2017 said we need a 2.4% increase just to stay in line with current inflation. Over the last few years we’ve had about 1 – 1.5% I think we got .4% this year.

So what is the answer? Well the simple answer is if we want a free health service like the one we are familiar with then we have to pay for it in taxation, possibly a further few pennies in the pound. We could reduce the amount of services we currently get for free, and pay for them through private health insurance, this already happens with dentistry, and most social care. Or we could just scrap everything except critical care.  That would certainly put a lot more money in the government’s spending pot. But that does not help older people that have retired and have no money. We would see mortality figures rising sharply over winter.  I believe the UK does want an NHS and it is prepared to pay for it, so we are stuck with option 1.

Long term funding not just for the next 5 years needs a consistent sustained increase to remain offering the services we currently are able to access. We have been cutting for so long that services are failing and failings at best mean long  delays or appointments getting cancelled. At worst it could, and has led to failure of care that has had catastrophic consequences to peoples lives.

After all that what’s the conclusion?

Yes more money would be helpful,  but that’s only half the story. we the NHS recognise that we are not perfect. Sadly we are prone to human failings, however we make every effort to learn from our mistakes and attempt to prevent them happening again. We should be accountable to the government for the delivery of public services but we need a buffer that protects us from the eb and flow of political manoeuvrings so we have time to make sense of the latest round of changes we’ve just gone through.

What really is not helpful is another reform. Please, no more. A cross party governance process that has a single vision and direction with some stability  would give us a chance to consolidate the changes that are constantly being imposed so that we can develop and improve. Consider the NHS as an oil tanker, which you are asking us to manoeuvre like a speed boat. Go easy, handle it with care, after all its 70 years old you know.

 

We need to talk about race

I’ve just finished the book that is the image for this post. It’s a book I read in one sitting today, sat on a plane that hasn’t gone anywhere because of unidentified baggage that needs to be removed…the sweet ironic serendipity of that occurrence is not lost on me.

It’s a book that’s given me some language for feelings and experiences I’ve had throughout my entire life – stuff that I’ve not been able to articulate properly, scenarios that I’ve entered into time and again and thought were perhaps unique to me. Turns out they and the feelings they provoke are not unique to me at all.

A little then on what’s going on from reading this book.

I grew up in a school where I was the only boy of colour. There was a Hindu girl called Aneeka. Later on there were a couple of other people of colour four/five years below me. When they arrived, the four of us were dragged into a new lunchtime club whose only participants were those of us who weren’t white. The person running it told me they’d written to my parents but hadn’t heard back. When I asked my mother about this she angrily responded that she didn’t want me going to it. I didn’t understand why then although I already thought it wasn’t relevant to me and didn’t go back for my own reasons. I experienced a lot of racial hostility growing up – not least from the kid next to me writing NF on everything I owned whenever he got the chance (I was clueless what it stood for and found it hilarious that he was so insistent on writing such nonsense on my pencil case, my skin, my books). I managed to avoid getting beaten up for being brown more than I got beaten up – most often I’d just start talking about how beating me up wouldn’t make them feel better and they often just walked away. Having said that it didn’t always work.

I didn’t know any other brown people, didn’t know anything about Indian culture – didn’t eat curry at home until I was 15 because my white father didn’t like it (except he did and ate it on the sly for years until my mother caught him…you can imagine the row that provoked, and the liberation afterwards. It’s almost comic now). I remember finding a book of racist jokes in the glove compartment of the car – not that the jokes were ‘racist’ the title of the sheets of paper with literally hundreds of racist one liners was ‘racist jokes’.

I remember the normal fights I had, the ones that are about growing up, about nothing more than being a boy, in school with lots of other people with hormones. But I also remember the calls of paki, nigger, twix, that I smelled of shit, of curry, that I should wash better because i was dirty.

I could go on.

I remember the people who were racist because of ignorance rather than hatred – those who thought my ‘eyes shined’, that my teeth were whiter because i was brown, that I must be able dance well or have a bigger penis. That they didn’t see me as brown or black, that they didn’t like blacks but I was ok, ‘not like them’. That I must know ‘XYZ because they’re one of your lot’ or that I’d be good at this subject because my lot are.

More recently I’ve also experienced the opposite – the people who wonder why I don’t speak Urdu or Hindi, who realise I’m a ‘coconut’ and stop talking to me. I’m not trying to virtue top-trump here, but I’m stuck in the middle. Belonging to neither side properly. Heck, I’ve got six different nationalities in me – the largest two being Jewish and Italian…not that racists realise they’ve got more than one reason to despise my very flesh for the crime of existing. Miscegenation is something most racists don’t realise I’m also the guilty product of. Quite where I’d be sent to if ‘sent home’ I don’t know…Poland maybe?

I also remember being friends with people, with having good times where it didn’t matter that I was brown. (I shudder to write that). Kids have a keen sense of difference but not context, so in many cases although they’re aware of the differences, they have no measure of significance – you’re different to me because you’ve got blue eyes, you’re smart, you’re rich and you’re brown – they’re all true and all unremarkable. I remember being punched out of nowhere in a pub and a dozen people standing up and surrounding me – letting the aggressor and their three mates know in no uncertain terms they’d better leave or end up in the ground. All while I stood there wondering what the hell had happened.

I was brought up in a home where race wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t. I think I’m probably fine with that at the moment.

Taking a look at myself in the light of this book I see how I’ve grown up trying to be safe – and I mean that literally – to build a life where I, Stewart, was unassailable. Where I could weather the hostility of public places like trains – such as people asking if I was sure I meant to enter first class.

I come at life therefore with the scars of not belonging, of having been rejected simply for existing. I think these lead to a certain set of triggers that I’m generally aware or and I believe that, most of the time, I’ve turned to strengths.

  • I find it hard to accept people lying to me. Maybe not uncommon and it’s something I can forgive but it’s also liable to induce blind rage in me because I experienced so many friends at school be friendly only to then use that friendship as a way of getting in with others by racially abusing me.
  • I expect not to be listened to – now, you might think I’m very well listened too, but I’m not talking about actuality here, I’m talking about what’s in my head. This is a subtle one – it’s the ‘why would we listen to you’ point. Now, I have a generally too high opinion of myself – but I think that desire to be smart, to know stuff, to be in control (oh so much control) comes directly from the desire to be safe from those who’d harm me.
  • I find it hard to be open about my insecurities – I find that I’m ready to read teasing as a personal attack more than others. I look at some of my best friends a observe how much they tease one another and I know people don’t tease me the same way and I wonder just how prickly I am because my default is to assume people want to hurt.
  • I find it hard to take sides. I am indifferent to conflict – at ease with it because I’ve experienced so much of it. This marks me out on its own. However I’m also an inveterate refuser to take sides and to hide the truth. I have experienced this only confirming my fears about being rejected because I have a tendency to test whether people want me for myself or because they want me on their ‘side’.
  • I have a sleeping anger (see above) – although part of that is a Hotston thing I see in all the members of my family. It’s a flash bang kind of anger and it really rarely shows itself. I’ve never, ever, entered into violence on the back of it, but it’s there and its horrible. I’ve used it to very positive effect throughout my life – whether negotiating big deals or dealing with bullies. Anger, on its own, isn’t a bad thing.
  • I’ve gotten used to caring about stuff most of my friends don’t care about (in the same visceral way). I have friends who care more if I swear than about the subject I’m swearing about – if you see what I mean? Their cares come from a place of such mundanity that they have literally no way of accessing the more primal, existential issues I find myself dealing with.

The above are the big, obvious ones. I find that the stuff Eddo-Lodge is writing about is so much more sub-surface. It’s the everyday micro-aggressions of white men and women who think they are the norm, that my colour is an exception, that I’m probably muslim, that I’m probably unsafe if I’m angry, and why am I angry anyway, why can’t I speak about my outrage in a calm, rational way? And if I can do that, it can’t be that serious after all can it? It’s the fact that racism is structural. That I always have to justify why it exists, to prove that people are being racist not just in themselves but also within their organisations. There are the times where because I’m so primed to see it that I’ve called it completely wrong (as my good friend Ned will testify over a specific event in Denmark many years ago). That moderates are the worst. That moderates think we should obey the law and everything will be ok…as if Stephen Lawrence was just an unfortunate event and not a sign of deeply rooted state sanctioned racism. That somehow there can be reverse racism…there can only be racism if power is involved, otherwise its simple, individual prejudice. Racism, in my mind at least, involved power, involves groups of people impacting others’ lives purely on the basis that they don’t like their appearance.

I am also aware of how few people respond to me when I bring these issues up. Of particular disappointment to me is how few Christians (and I am one, so not singling them out except that I am a part of that community) seem to have any awareness of the issues and, worse yet for me, any apparent care for them. This isn’t a post designed to have you come up to me and say any of the following by the way:

  • I’ve been meaning to talk to you
  • Sorry
  • I’m supportive

Mainly because a lot of people in my life are supportive and do talk to me about these things and humbly and humblingly try to work out how to walk this path with me – they’re just not Christians – which, as I say, is a particular disappointment.

I’m suddenly at 1700 words and realise I could write and write on this subject but I’m not sure I could shed any light. Eddo-Lodge’s book has made me realise that so many of the things that make me angry are about those tiny little actions that confirm you’re being judged on how you look. That these triggers can flip me over a table. They help explain why I’ve spent so much of my life driven to succeed – because I want to have enough to be safe. How sad is that – that I can’t be happy except that I think I’ve got enough buffers to be safe. I’ve read books on the holocaust and on slavery and how racism, fascism and the like grow from minor actions to ways of oppressing millions because ordinary people didn’t object. I look at those paths and see my own self sitting precariously exposed, the first in the line for if the majority decided those who weren’t white needed to suffer.

It’s why I mourned the brexit vote because it was driven by fear of the other for so many people, because it was a siren call to people who were closet racists to be more open about their hatred, to embolden them.

Britain is racist. Beyond the normal facts that we all harbour prejudices. It is structurally racist. Now – it’s so much better than almost every other country on earth – don’t get me wrong. BUT. I see in Eddo-Lodge’s book a reflection of myself that made me weep on the train home today, because I suddenly see that when I was angry because I was being singled out for being a trouble maker, or for refusing to conform to a white idea of normality, it was just that – because somehow I was resisting being turned into something I’m not. That it’s ok to be me.

I’ve been joking for some years with white friends of mine about my colour, openly talking about the skews against me and in their favour simply because they’re white. Many of them can now talk back to me about it – we’ve all been on a journey to where that’s possible. They’ve been respectful to me in that journey because none of us had the vocabulary to talk about it meaningfully when I first realised I needed to talk about the subject. It’s a difficult balance. I joke about it often because to challenge each and every instance in which I see those prejudices expressed would be exhausting beyond belief. Humour is a much easier and communal response even when I’m actually deprecating my own position. Fortunately, I’m a successful bruiser of a man who’s also pretty confident in who he is – so I can roll with it and be provocative and see fumbled attempts at entering that debate without losing my shit.

Ok, this is now officially too long for a blog post. You want to talk about this? Talk to me in person because this is important to me and I will make time for you 🙂

Slavery and economics

Today I bought myself a couple of books on slavery – not novels or histories on different slave systems through the millennia but actual books on how people who kept slaves went about keeping slaves.

The most interesting one is by Jerry Toner although attributed to the Roman cipher of Marcus Sidonius Falx. It’s called How To Manage Your Slaves and considers subjects such as

  • when they should be allowed to have sex
  • how to be a slave master
  • when to buy
  • what makes for a good slave
  • why they shouldn’t all speak the same language and,
  • why freedmen are a problem

It’s tongue in cheek but also solid history (as Toner is a fellow of Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge).

I’ve bought this not because I’m about to go out and re-enact the plot of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout but because I’m developing a pitch about a society whose economy and culture relies on slavery. It’s not enough when world building to know you’re against slavery. I want it to feel authentic. I want you to know, when you read it, what slaves deal with beyond simply being someone else’s property.

Having said that, the subjects covered by Toner are ones you’ll find discussed by economists lamenting people not doing as they’re supposed to right across the world. When people try to design our societies, the language and categories they use for ordinary people are, frighteningly, close to those slave owners use for their slaves. Where capitalism is more unfettered this is often especially the case – where workers are resources like light, space and licenses they are also worryingly open to being treated as if they were just that – inanimate resources. In this light, the best worker is the one who doesn’t get pregnant, doesn’t need lunch, doesn’t want to unionise and certainly doesn’t get sick. I’m reminded we should always be careful of ‘liberalisation of employment legislation’ because it’s really just code for ‘being able to treat workers as commodities’ and that is the very definition of being a slave – being someone else’s property.

My pitch, a fantasy novel with gods and magic, is obviously fiction – but it’s going to have economics, politics and people desperate to find their way to being human and not someone else’s commodity. Part of me hopes that when the book’s written and assuming the pitch is successful, you’ll imbibe my warnings about those who would make us slaves and hold in your minds the actions you might be called on to make if you want to remain free.

 

 

Can democracy survive?

It’s clear to many of us right now that much of what we’ve taken for granted these last forty years is under threat. Even more than that for those of us who’ve become adults in the last twenty years is that much of what we count as progress – sexual equality, conversations about justice in race, culture, history and even language, identity, representation are under threat by a whole host of voices that shout loud, hate dissent from their point of view, have no sense of irony and are, in the end, pretty damned smart about how they play their tunes to get people onside.

I’m not going to rehearse the litany of actual people, events and decisions that challenge me everyday at the moment. I want to examine here two related subjects that don’t need us to look at whether Presidents are racist or if Parliament should be sovereign.

The first of these is whether democracy can survive. This seems like an overly dramatic question. I can hear people saying ‘don’t be so extreme’. Except it’s a question worth asking, right? What if people who we see calling ‘fake news’ and not giving a fig about being caught lying repeatedly really don’t care for other people having a say? What if the right wing press hates dissent and fact based decision making because ideologies don’t allow for other points of view being valid?

When someone breaks with the social contract, makes an argument that’s extreme or completely selfish or focussed only on their own interests to the lack of all others, ceding ground to them normalises their activity and also provides space for them to take from the rest of us permanently. In these cases ceding ground to the edges (be it left or right, intolerant or utterly apathetic) is a slippery slope. I used to hate the slippery slope argument as being vacuous. I was wrong. It’s slippery because once these people start to get their way they are able to control the narrative, to cast the rest of us as fools, as weak, as too straight for our own good. ‘Look,’ they say. ‘The world didn’t end just because I got my way.’

To an extent they’re right. Except they’re dead wrong as well. Each time they take, each time they shut us down, each time they hate on us, they’re changing the world a very little bit. In the end they want no dissent and will change the world to make it so. It’s creeping, it’s hard to see the piano move when it’s only an inch at a time but make no mistake. It’s moving.

Most people like this, most BULLIES, for that’s what they are, work on the assumption that the majority won’t stand up to them and they’re generally right. Most people walk on by. Not all, but sometimes it’s enough to let them get away with it. When these people are in power they cluster together like turds in a rock festival portaloo. When they’re unchallenged newspapers start to print their narrative, culture starts to make their arguments for them, their opponents are lost because they’re moving to oppose them too late with arguments that are now too little, too redundant to get their supporters active.

The second is our inability to believe in evil. I don’t mean the kind of evil we associate with serial killers, they seem unbelievable even if fascinating. I mean proper evil, the mundane evil of following orders, of Nuremberg defences, of bureaucracy killing people because the rules said it was right, that we needed a hostile environment. I mean austerity that kills people of cold and hunger, of disability tests that humiliate and impoverish. Of the approach that assumes rich people are morally better, that they should go to jail less, that they don’t have to live by the same rules. Am I concerned with racism? With sexism? Of course I am, but these other things are precursors or metanarratives that provide fertile, non-conflictual ground within which racism and other forms of prejudice can grow without fear of being weeded out. Why? Because all forms of evil render those around us as less than human. As soon as dehumanisation of anyone in society is considered acceptable evil has taken root. Left unchecked it leads to children in cages because they’re no longer human, no longer deserve to be treated like ‘us’. It leads to MPs objecting to upskirting laws, it leads to trolls on line who hate on those different to themselves.

The real problem I have with evil, beyond that it’s evil, is my own response to it. So many times I’m too weary to fight back, too worried about how I’ll be perceived, about the fact that relationships may falter, that people will think it’s all I care about. THere’s a price to standing up to evil, to those who hate us and it exhausts us fighting it all the time, hollows us out, tempts us to be like those we oppose. If we oppose. So often I’m on my way somewhere important, I’ve got other responsibilities to satisfy, work to do. It isn’t easy to think that if I do risk so much it will make a difference, that it will change anything! It’s easier to think ‘I’ll just keep on cooking eggs, because it’s really unlikely they’ll do anything to hurt me or mine.’

Except of course when they do it’ll be too late to resist it.

So what then? Is democracy doomed? Is liberal society finished as strong men (in that horrible utterly toxic sense of strength) pat each other on the back while crapping on those who would build consensus, who would think carefully about consequences?

Quite possibly, but I think we have plenty left in our arsenal to oppose these enemies of ours.

Here ‘s my list of how to defeat them.

  1. Recognise them as what they are – your enemy. It will be emotionally challenging to have an enemy, to live with that. But they see you that way already and it doesn’t take two to start a fight, just one person will to hurt another.
  2. Find a way to articulate what you love. We spend so long calling out their bad behaviour or crying about how bad things are going to be that those around us could be forgiven for wondering what we’re actually fighting FOR. For instance. I love equality of opportunity, I love mercy, I love grace and justice. I love respecting others around me. I am a PROUD social justice warrior and I’m proud to say that I want to treat others as if they matter, to help them do better, to help them be all they can be. It’s what I love about humanity and this world I’m in. I will fight FOR that.
  3. Get active. See the cost and do it anyway because this is what we forget: the cost today to oppose our enemies is infinitely SMALLER than the cost that will come when those who hate, those who care only for themselves, get their own way. Look for opportunities to get involved in your community, in charity work, in acts of forgiveness and in acts of saying ‘this is the way to live – the way that values others.’
  4. Resist the urge to become like those who hate the way we want to live – be they craven politicians or compassionless rich or fundamentalist ideologues – oppose them by being defiantly who you are. After all, that’s what drives them fricking nuts in the first place. Call them on their behaviour unapologetically, insistently and don’t back down until you’ve got your way. It’s ok to be a pain in the ass. For goodness sake they are.
  5. Focus on what matters. I see allies splintering apart because they’re played by the enemy or because they’re too worried about the pennies to realise the pounds are slipping through their fingers. Hold on to your perspective, hold on to dissent (unless the dissenter wants you to become less human and/or dead – then kick them hard where it hurts) and make sure you support others who dissent as well.
  6. Finally, in my list of 5(+1) write to those in power, talk to them, don’t block them out, don’t let them live in a bubble, in a world in which they hear only those who approve of their craven ideologies. Act within the rules as much as possible. There may come a time for physical resistance but it’s not now.(after all, nearly all major societal changes involved some form of violent protest alongside long term peaceful protest – be it enfranchisement, ending slavery, equal rights for minorities etc. etc. etc.)

Remember – we’re all flawed, we’ve all got stuff the enemy can attack us over. So it goes – but don’t give up or shy away just because of that. Get into it and fight for what matters. We were naive to expect the fights our parents and grandparents had to settle the matter once and for all. Now’s the time to waken up and be prepared to get angry, to hold that anger and to act for the type of society we love – one built on respect, support and dignity.

Post Cyberpunk Larp

Got your attention? I hope so.

I challenged a friend of mine a few months ago on whether they’d be interested in and whether they could think of a way of turning the world in which A Family War exists into a LARP.

The problem with any sci fi LARP is really getting into the details of scifi – you know, those computers, AI, futuristic weaponry, hacking and the like.

My mate Andy has come up with a neat solution for the physical aspects and I think I’ve worked out how to do the electronic side so that players could experience both.

There are pinterest boards, ideas for plot and I’m going to start thinking about approaching the site and asking a small, select bunch of people if they’d be part of the team that could put this together…

However, the other important thing to note is that it’ll be kind of a post-cyberpunk theme. Beyond the cybernetics and implants that made cyberpunk such a thing. Gibson has been writing it for ages (ie, he moved on from cyberpunk a long time ago) and I realised in talking to Andy that The Oligarchy is also post cyberpunk.

Funny how these things emerge…

More news as it’s ready but for now this is very much at ideas stage. One thing though…if you were interested it would be great to know.

The game’ll be limited numbers and limited run – and it’ll be openly pvp (although pve will be the main focus), cos what’s drama without conflict?

Reflections from a noob on the conservation of information

This weekend I went to Fantasy Con here in the UK and it was brilliant. This is the second convention I’ve been to, after Nineworlds a little earlier in the year. It was a little smaller than I was expecting but filled with people from across the industry – writers, readers, editors, publishers and even an agent or two. I was supposed to be at a LARP (but a broken tarsal put paid to that) but requests that I do a couple of panels sold me on going because, hey, I quite like talking about stuff when asked and in this case they were topics I felt I could at least contribute to without looking silly.

I also went to a bunch of panels and worked hard on BarCon (which as you can imagine included alcohol). There was a sinister room of which Allen Stroud kindly took a few of us on a tour – only to regret it almost instantly.

 

In terms of personal goals I wanted to meet people in the industry, get to know them, explore current trends and figure out where I go next. Talking to someone about pitches (I think it was Jon Oliver from Solaris/Abaddon) reminded me that I hate being sold to and although as an author I need to find a way to communicate what I’m passionate about writing, I was committed to actually having a good time, laughing and making some new friends (if that last isn’t too bold).

I was delightfully entertained by Nate Crowley every time we crossed paths and I hope we get to crew together at Empire next year because I think we’d make a frightening double act.

I have lots of people to thank, not least David Moore and Jon Oliver for always being around to chat to, Adrian Tchaikovsky (and Annie), Phil Sloman, Simon Bestwick, Allen Stroud, Jeanette Ng, Anna Smith Spark, Theresa Derwin and David Tallerman for all being sparkling company and having interesting stuff to say.

The highlight though was that after my comment last week that I wasn’t quite sure what to do next and entirely different option as presented as the most obvious answer. Roped into a discussion about cosmology (in the theoretical physics sense) I got a bit fanboy about information theory and how there’s a great first contact story in it and someone said – ‘don’t just talk about it, write it because I want to read that story.’

I was pleased to hear it but then it was pointed out that they were a commissioning editor. So guess what…I’m now writing out and planning that very novella. Which involves me reading information theory thermodynamics papers from Arxiv.org…oh, and the stages of grief as it’s that kind of story.

At the same time I got an open invite to pitch to another publisher whose work I love. I’m now also frantically editing that piece because it’s in need of it but there you go. I’m not sure it’s for them but everyone who’s read the alpha version thinks it’s the most compelling piece I’ve written so you never know…

Drafts, FantasyCon and taking over the world

Short post today. Really to ask for some thoughts.

Tonight I’ve finished an edit on the first book in the fantasy series I’ve got with Ticketyboo Press. This was mainly to tighten the opening based on some beta reader feedback and to bring the overall use of terminology and (some elements) of world plot into line with book two and where I’m going with the story. There’s now a full edit on their side to do – about which I’m pretty excited.

Which means I’ve reached a cross roads.

I’m not ready to start book 3 of that series yet. I need a little break from it to recharge. So I have the following options in front of me which I’ll be mulling over at FantasyCon in between going to panels, being on a couple of panels (which I’m totally excited about) and maybe having a few jars with friends.

  1. Write book 3 of The Oligarchy and finish that series
  2. Edit Immortal Daughter, a fast paced thriller set now which is basically Taken crossed with Logan
  3. Start book 3 of this series!

As we head towards book 1, Dreams of Darkness, coming out, I’ll also be sending out a free copy of a new anthology of stories to people as a thank you for all the support – that’s basically ready to go, it’s just about timing…!

I’ve actually got to sit down with my mentor in the next couple of weeks and work out a plan for drawing up the next story – they want me to focus within a specific genre and then write to its very edges. I’ve got two story ideas I want to rip to pieces with them and hopefully come out of that with something intentionally commercial without losing what I love about writing – the chance to explore my own ideas.

So…feel free to tell me what I should concentrate on next. And if you’re at FantasyCon, come by and say hello.

Slavery

If you follow this blog even a little you’ll have read posts from me about racism, inequality and other related themes over the years. However, it’s in reading the three books I want to talk about here that have really challenged me over the last year.

WARNING – I use racial terms some of you may find uncomfortable or offensive. This is not meant as anything except a review of how these books have effected me but consider this your trigger warning.

The first of the three is Lincoln’s biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book that is epic in its scope and puts a number of subjects into sharp focus for me. The first of these is the cause of the civil war in the US. It’s clear it was about slavery, it’s also clear from this startling work that modern debates about ‘heritage’ mean slavers’ heritage of being able to claim that it’s ok to enslave non-whites because they’re sons of Ham, and it’s ok to treat them as worse than cattle (for what farmer would beat their cattle to death with regular abandon?). From Goodwin’s meticulous description of the events of the time, it’s very clear that the heritage argument is one for white people being at the centre of all and for everyone else to be disenfranchised.

Furthermore, I have very few heroes but Lincoln is one of them. A flawed man capable of change, of growth and, most importantly, seeing how to get what he wanted – even if that took years to achieve. A man capable of welding together people from all walks of life, of winning them over and of creating coalitions capable of achieving more than anyone thought possible. My heart aches over the possibilities lost in the aftermath of his murder.

It also highlights just how dangerous it was to be someone who was abolitionist. It wasn’t an opinion one had, it was, for those who were committed, a way of life that involved fighting, violence (both political and actual) and real danger. I suppose this isn’t different to most political movements – they’re founded on the recognition of incipient violence for a cause. This last point is one our political systems today suppress with every tool at their disposal because the possibility that we would be that politically conscious threatens the system most of us live within (and prosper from). It may feel that these people were the same as us but their lives appear, when you think through what they really faced, a distance from me that makes it an effort just to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Their concerns were different to ours, their perils alien and their fights distinct.

Although grounded in tales of individuals, the book delivers a grand political overview.

The work of fiction, The Underground Railroad, delivers the personal account to go with the political of Lincoln. Set before Lincoln (and indeed, mashing up several periods of time to tell its story) the novel follows the life of Cora, a typical black slave living in the south of the United States. Owned. Referred to as it because property doesn’t have the dignity of being recognised as human or gendered.

It is a brutal book – in that it doesn’t flinch from detailing actual events and treatments of slaves as they happened. It’s easy to watch films and see slaves treated as indentured workers but this isn’t how it was for much of US slavery’s existence. With a sickening post-hoc rationalisation, white slave owning culture was comfortable with lynching people (both white and black) for helping slaves escape, it was comfortable with torture and that torture was carried out by children, women and men. Children informed on abolitionist parents. Runaways were lynched (if they were lucky) or tortured to death in public if they were unlucky.

In a sign that everyone knows that slavery is iniquitous, blacks are killed for learning to read and a black library becomes a focal point for white violence because it’s too many ideas for a negro. The culture was one of ‘natural order’ where White people were in charge and any ‘negro’ who thought beyond being a slave was uppity, dangerous, asking for it. Freedmen were killed by ‘recovery patrols’ with impunity because they’re only one step away from being chattel.

One argument was that to deal with the fact that there were more slaves than whites – sterilising them would solve the problem over time – especially it would help if they decided to rise up and treat the whites like they’d treated the blacks.

There is no freedom from slavery – even freedmen know this, their dreams replete with memories of beatings, of those who were killed or abused by those whose power over them was utter and unaccountable. Being oppressed twists the mind, breaks the heart in a way that may be impossible to recover from. It raises questions of whether, decades after the end of segregation, the US can safely conclude that the legacy of slavery and the suppression of the ‘other’ has passed or whether it continues to influence the culture, say in laws passed during Jim Crow, in basic cultural tropes and in the application of funding, judgements and a myriad other handles that impinge on civic life.

The character in the book is deeply suspicious of all whites. That may be unfair, but let’s be real – a slave has good cause to hold this view – even when a small minority give their own lives to help them. It questions whether there is a ‘black’ culture and challenges its own main character as to whether there is a ‘white’ culture. There’s reference to Europeans, Whites, Irish and the like. All of which the main character rejects even as the author makes sure to make the distinction. It’s a masterful presentation of the issues in and around a story that is deeply focussed on the personal disaster of being a slave from birth.

You may think Game of Thrones has a high body count (among it’s almost exclusively white cast) but this is worse because it’s not just murder, it’s the complete massacre of agency through repeated abuse followed, eventually, but the death of the body.

If the thought of slavery doesn’t make you sick you’ve either not understood it or there’s something wrong with you. It’s really that simple.

And so we come to the last of the three – The Sellout. This is a vicious, acid burning satire about living as a black person in the modern US. It’s about a black man who ends up owning a slave (who volunteers to become his slave) and the world they both live in that can find space for this relationship to arise and then how it responds to it.

It is harsh, whipcrack smart and extremely funny but it presents a society which I realised that although I’ve seen representations of elsewhere, is one I don’t know and one I don’t experience. It was more alien to me than both Lincoln and the life shown in The Underground Railroad. Which was a shock – that something contemporary was so much more alien than I expected.

Both novels are hard reads in their own way. I know plenty of people who will not read them because they present difficult subjects and all they want from their fiction is ‘escapism’. I lament the intellectual torpor of these peers of mine and I worry that their apathy is half of why the issues discussed in these books persisted for so long in the first place. Fiction like this should be essential reading because it can awaken the heart, it can shake us out of our comfortable self-indulgence. For people who claim to be ‘good’ or ‘moral’, fiction like this should demand their attention because it reminds us all that we’re really not very far away from such horrendous times. Moreso than any non-fiction, because fiction makes it personal and thrusts it into your face and asks you for your empathy.  Sorry – this is my ‘why fiction is so important’ rant.

I recommend all three books. They’ve each served to awaken my political sensibilities more than much of the news on the same subjects in the last year (although the two have worked together I’m sure). I’d start with The Underground Railroad because it’s the most personal, the most accessible.

In the end, slavery and its legacy is still very much alive for most of us both directly (for isntance, find a stone built house in Bath or Bristol not made possible by  the slave trade) or indirectly (US culture is so heavy with its legacy it’s impossible to list all the ways their language, tropes and stereotypes code slavery into the mainstream consciousness). This triplet of books opens a door into this discussion.

As a writer – these books have challenged me to present worlds and stories that take the lives of all those involved in these kinds of relationships more seriously. It’s a frightening task that I know I’m not up to.

 

Do you like losing?

No one likes to lose.

Except…that’s not true is it?

We play games like Lost Souls, where the point is to win but only through grinding loss. We read grimdark in massive numbers where the hero isn’t and no one really wins; traumatised survival really being the best outcome.

In the UK, at least, we love the heroic failure so much there are even books about them that we cherish as national icons.

Except most of that isn’t really failure, not in the immanent, personal sense. Many people (me included) find games where repeated failure is the aim to be off putting. Most of us avoid conflict (if we’re lucky enough to live in stable societies where such a thing can be done). We avoid quitting jobs because of the risk, we worry about doing anything where we might not be great immediately.

Indeed, in many forms of fiction, failure is symptomatic of moral weakness or failure. Often bad guys are flawed in precisely this way – they have failed at something crucial and now are bad as a direct response to that failure.

Perhaps worse still – in real life, although we say we want authenticity, we want leaders who take risks…well we turn on them pretty quickly when they fail to deliver. Consider how so many people turned on Obama because he couldn’t deliver on what they expected from him. (Now you may say it was poor expectation management, but really? Are people so infantile that they believed the extraordinarily complex process of government could deliver whatever baggage they put onto Obama?)

Along with everything else I do, I play and crew a couple of LARPs. I do it because I i) love stories, ii) love hitting other nerds in the face and iii) get to meet a huge bunch of wonderful, kind and funny people in a field with booze and fancy dress.

We had a big battle at one of these over the summer where the players lost the battle in record time. Now, I’m not that interested in discussing here why that was. What I want to talk about is how we respond compared to how we say we respond.

Overall the response was positive – the system is one where if you get it wrong, well there’s some hand holding but not a lot. As far as I’m concerned, the players got it about as wrong as humanly possible.

The aftermath is where I thought it got interesting as it was, for me, like someone had put together a very specific social experiment all for me to observe. I saw all the classic forms of response to failure.

  • People denied it was a failure (the we meant to do it scenario)
  • People denied it was their fault (the it wasn’t my fault scenario, if I’d been in charge, it would have been different!)
  • People denied it was anyone’s fault (the it’s an accident scenario)
  • People blamed others (the It was your fault)
  • People blamed the system (The we were powerless! scenario)
  • People said it was fixed (The ‘we were always going to lose’ scenario alongside the ‘the others cheated’ scenario)

After the initial reactions bubbles took effect where small circles of people were able to claim that ‘lots of people’ agreed with them. Which is another classic case of self-reinforcing socialisation of ideas.

The leaders in that group did not publicly apologise for their role in the debacle, nor did there appear to be much reflection on how they got it wrong…except the next battle evidenced such clear learning that they came in and smashed it out of the park.

Now I wasn’t charged with responding to much of this – to be honest I do it in more challenging contexts (ie where actual money and lives are affected) in real life, so that’s fine by me, but watching the procession was no different to watching people process grief – which is fine, because that’s exactly what losing provokes in us. That dissonance between the world turning out one way and what we expect it to do when we consider that we’re in control.

I was considering how this intersects with real life and why it provoked such a storm of people responding in a classic instinctive sense and it occurred to me, in proper pop-science fashion, that we spend most of our real lives avoiding failure at all costs. I don’t mean that we spend most of our lives succeeding wildly so it’s not an issue. We’re a bit of a cross between Captain Kirk in Wrath of Kahn (who cheated the test designed to make him face failure) and Homer Simpson, who always (haplessly) chooses the easy way out.

We live in a safe culture, sure it has its grinding issues that we can discuss elsewhere, but  we’re bloody fortunate. However, extending Richard Sennett’s argument in The Corrosion of Character that proposes that work regulations are so tight that we no longer have to make moral choices on a day to day basis (which renders us weakly sensitive to them more generally), I wonder if the lack of living in circumstances where we can fail enough to learn how to innovate, respond to it and overcome such challenges does the same for us in terms of how we build the capacity to fail into our characters.

Think about when you failed last. I mean actually failed. Be it relationship, work, in being a good friend. Then think about the things you don’t do because you don’t want to look dumb, or foolish – like dancing, or speaking up in public, or in making yourself vulnerable. I think we actively choose not to fail in that we actively choose not to engage in activities where we think failure is an option.

No, I don’t like failing. I suspect you don’t either. But some failure is good for the soul because it stops us reacting to its inevitable arrival in other contexts like four year olds who think the world is targeting them personally and how dare it.

One of the things I love about the USA is its view of failure is very different. Even legally. Bankruptcy is just another process there – without moral implications of personal failure. It’s one reason why they’re better at taking innovation through from idea to actual business. Sure, it has its downsides as an attitude as well, but I wish we Brits were a bit braver in general.

For my fiction this means that I tend to want characters who are dislikable but go through some change, some failure that forces them to rethink who and what they are. It’s not always successful as many readers want characters who are more like them than not. I struggle with that; it’s not why I read fiction, personally. I want to meet alien ideas, people I detest but who are plausible and situations I’m not going to be in ever. Now, I don’t mind absurdist writing like most grimdark, or epic fantasy, where the characters operate in the far end of what, in our society, we’d designate as seriously mentally ill and in need to some immediate aid. But I prefer properly alien, properly other to the faux other of most fantasy and contemporary fiction.

I hope to write that too.

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