Charlottesville: On the moral case for passing judgement

August 14, 2017

America today is debating the implications of the extremist demonstrations in Charlottesville, and weighing leadership responsibilities for the rioting and murder of a peaceful counter-protester

The unpleasant and unacceptable demonstrations resulted in the death of a peaceful protester, and two police officers acting in the line of duty.

President Trump eventually made a statement which sounded statesmanlike but brought down on himself criticism for his failure to make any reference to the nature of the demonstration.

The objections to this were summarised by U.S. Senator Kamala Harris

From Senator Harris’s statement

As we all now know, this weekend in Charlottesville, hundreds of white supremacists gathered with torches, shouting racial, ethnic and religious epithets about Black and Jewish people, chanting Nazi slurs, waving the Confederate flag and banners emblazoned with giant swastikas. A peaceful protester was murdered. Two brave police officers lost their lives.

And as the country grappled with this tragedy, we were told that “many sides” should be condemned. Many sides.I often advocate that we look at many sides of an issue, walk in someone else’s shoes, and identify and reject false choices.

But there are not “many sides” to this.

“Many sides” is what kept children in this country at separate schools and adults at separate lunch counters for decades.

“Many sides” is what turned a blind eye when Emmett Till was lynched and stood silent when marchers were beat in Selma for “disturbing the peace.”

“Many sides” is what my parents and thousands of others fought against during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Many sides” suggests that there is no right side or wrong side, that all are morally equal. But I reject that. It’s not hard to spot the wrong side here. They’re the ones with the torches and the swastikas.


Beyond the moral injunction

The Senator shows the importance of looking at context behind the literal words. President Trump said that all violence should be condemned. No argument with that is there? Until the context is added. Then, the high moral tone of Presidential words requires more precise interrogation. Is he saying that ‘We the people’ are failing to condemn violence against White Supremacists, and that he will help us reach his own moral high ground?

Is this a President who has a track record of seeking to defuse violence, and who avoids condemning those “on other sides”?

And what about Jeremy?

The Spectator found a way of dealing with today’s story by referring to the repeated use of a similar sounding argument by UK labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In particular, Corbyn is often challenged for his association with revolutionary figures. Corbyn asserts that he wishes to avoid, not promote, violence by meetings with, among others, the IRA leadership decades ago, while they were still engaged in bloody violence against the state. If I follow the logic, the objection is that Corbyn did not condemn the IRA violence, thus showing he is on the side of the IRA.

Enough people voted for Corbyn in June to suggest the case against him in this respect is not a powerful one.

Post Script

Within minutes of my posting the above, news reached me that Kenneth Frazier, the Afro-American CEO of Merck, had quit an advisory council over the President’s failure to deal adequately with the implications of the Charlottesville events. Mr Trump found time to tweet some unpleasant comments about the defection, before offering a moving and complete repudiation of racism in all its manifestations.

So, that’s all right then

To be continued

How not to write a novel

August 4, 2017



How Not To Write a Novel, by Newman and Middlemark, [Book review]

In a last-minute search for a birthday present recently, I was browsing for a book at the Simply Books No 1 emporium. As I did so, my eye was caught by an instruction manual entitled How Not to Write a Novel, (HNTWAN), by Sandra Newman and Howard Middlemark.

I added it to my shopping trolley. This proved to be a sound investment. As they say in many a blurb, I read it long into the evening, as the battles for tennis supremacy at Wimbledon passed me unheeded across the room. The book promises to supply 200 ways your book will fail to get published. In a mischievous and at times snigger-producing way they do just that. Page after page I found examples of why I should stick to self-publishing. I extract some which I underlined for future reference. You may wish the use what follows as check-list.

“What works for me”

The belief that what interests you interests everyone. A passion for an obscure chess club may not sustain interest of itself. The universals of passion, unfulfilled dreams, treachery, a quest may be there, but there is still need of an engaging plot. A central dilemma is needed for connecting the pawn pushing to those wider themes.

“The slow build-up”

Bit like the start to this blog post (oops). This is where the opening pages could be left out with no damage to the story:

‘Reggie boarded the train at Montauk, found a seat… read a newspaper…

(10 pages later) As the train pulled out of Montauk …

(10 pages later) …and that was how I met your Aunt Katherine.’

“The false clue”

A vivid detail which has no further relevance. Aka The gum on the mantlepiece, cleaned up later, leaving readers puzzled unless they learn the gum was quickly cleaned up by a fastidious character in the book

“Plot polygamy”

In which plot line after plot line tumble across the pages in confusing fashion…

“Not avoiding the rule of three”

As a public speaker, I believe utterly in the rule of three. Telling what you intend to say, saying it, summarizing what you said. For novelists, or humble thriller writers, the rule of three is a non no. (Aka:where the set up reveals or weakens the payoff.)

“The second fight in the Laundromat”

Damn. I have an exciting fire which breaks out in chapter ten, and now I would like to write another in the climactic scene in chapter fifty two.

“Santa’s too sexy for his beard”

In which she a protagonist sees through the ‘best friend or nice neighbour’ . The authors give this the thumbs down. ‘[S]he must be attractive on some level, not just safe. We get enough of real life.’

“Confessional from the super-villain”

Compulsive and implausible spilling the beans In the interests of plot closure by the super-villain.

“Vocabulary flauting”

Speaks for itself, often in irritating fashion. (‘Nobody likes a show-off’)


‘Cliches become cliches for a reason.’


Don’t use lists  A well-respected novelist argued the opposite and I guess ‘use lists with caution and awareness’ might be a refinement to this principle. Lists are for description not as an inventory.

“Time management”

Useful extended treatment. How you can cheat on linear time in writing fiction, but not if it jars in the reader’s mind.

“Relentless accounts of natural functions”

Too common, and obvious (when pointed out). Even crude characters do not belch and fart every time they appear.


Advice worth the price of the book. It takes practice or an innate gift to write like you you think your characters people speak, (or even harder to write in the way readers accept as the way the characters ought to speak).

“The dangers of elegant variation”

For example, when the author goes to stupid lengths to avoid using ‘he said’.

“Style and lack of it”

Rich set of thought-provoking suggestions. Virtues and dangers of the narrative voice, reported internal monologue, multiple points of view, and more.

“Sex, jokes and post-modern flourishes”

If you can’t write any of these well, stop fouling up your chances of successful publishing. Your best is not good enough. The crushingly bad examples of how not to write sex scenes are particularly funny, but you will have to read the book to enjoy the humour of the accidently botched lubricious.

“Marketing No Nos”

More deadly humour here on how not write to publishers.

For me this was a five-star read. I found the book seriously funny, and seriously thought-provoking. So did earlier reviewers.

Creative design ideas: Harrods gets a face-lift; Jodrell Bank sends another message into space

July 24, 2017
A designer looks at the historic Harrods  building, and conceives a great design idea. It reminded me of an unfulfilled dream of mine after gazing at the main telescope disc at Jodrell Bank
The image from Twitter jumped out at me. The grand old Harrods building in Oxford Street had acquired a giant pair of cool sun-glasses. I’ll spare you technical stuff about creativity and design. (Well, OK, for those interested, here’s one article on the subject.)
Not Banksie this time
I wondered whether Banksie had been at work with another of his pieces of urban art.  No, it was from a business  trialling vending machines for sun glasses, currently operating in and around Los Angeles.  The mini-display inside Harrods does not yet have a vending machine for shades, and you will have to visit California for that experience.
Hubble trouble and beyond
There are  connections between the technology of high precision lenses of prescription glasses and lenses for optical instruments. Remember the near-disaster story of the Hubble telescope trouble, [or to give it its fancy name its spherical aberration? ]
The Harrods specs reminded me of a great piece of astronomical engineering, the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. It remains up there with Manchester University’s contributions in nuclear physics, computing, and Graphene science. I  drive past the giant assembly regularly, and am reminded of it by the front-cover image of a text-book on R&D management which I have since mislaid.
The unfulfilled dream
My crazy unfulfilled dream for some years is based on the idea that the Jodrell Bank disc would make an ideal surface on to which images could be projected. Why not make it the University’s largest publicity display, viewable from passing aircraft, satellites, or even deeper space sites.
I think I’ll have a word with some of the boffins to be found appreciating the excellent hostelries of Holmes Chapel and surrounding townships.

Book Titles: The long and the short of it

July 17, 2017

IMG_0373[1]Ever wondered why some book titles are very short, and others are very long? Here’s an explanation.

Every month I scan a long list of book titles that I have compiled for further study. Recently, I noticed the remarkable variety in the lengths of titles. In general, books purporting to be for minority audiences tend to be very long, books for popular consumption were on the short side.

For an example of the longer variety, here’s a twenty-six-word mega-title.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, Richard Reeves, Brookings Institution Press, 2017.

In earlier times, the lengthy book title was commonplace for tales where the author felt compelled to spell out their redemptive message or cautionary tale in some detail. This practice was well and truly inverted by Jane Austin’s one-word titles Persuasion, and Emma. These made her three-word titles Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice appear, well, wordy.

The longest book title in English

The Guinness Book of Records (where else) accepts the claim of a Dr S. Subramonian for producing the longest title in English.

The book, is about Daniel Radcliffe, best known for his starring role in the Harry Potter movies.

According to Atkins Bookshelf

The longest title begins with

Daniel Radcliffe the story of the not so ordinary boy chosen from thousands of hopefuls” and after about 1,000 words ends with “whom let many more laurels be blessed with to his ever royal crown of fame.

Atkins Bookshelf provides the entire title, on the link I have provided.

The book itself is a mere 123 pages long. Like other Guinness Book of Records entries, this one is a blatant bid for a claim for fame.

Not so with the book of the play:

The persecution and assassination of Jean Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Chareton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade.

In word length, this just just creeps ahead of Dream Hoarders etc etc.  Its title was insufficient to deter playgoers and literary commentators.

Why such long titles?

Presumably the trend to long titles has something to do with selection algorithms, that recent electronic illustration of Darwinian theory.  Such a title permits large number of keywords which increase the chances of a book reaching the attention of its niche audience.

My modest proposal

Shortly after this week’s post was published, The Economist accepted a briefer version, shown below.


Leadership and The Third Imposter Syndrome

July 13, 2017


The magnificent draw by the Lions’ in New Zealand earlier this month, is followed by widespread outbreaks of The Third Imposter Syndrome

The spectacular rugby series in New Zealand ended in a hard-fought 15-15 draw. The result was in doubt to the last minute. The teams had each won one of the othr two games for the series.


A feeling of flatness followed

Most commentators have shown the signs of being in the first stage of mourning, expressing a feeling of flatness and being unable to experience emotions. One sports psychologist suggested that biologically we are hard-wired to compete and strive for victory, and equally fight to avoid defeat. (Flight or flight drives). We are not able to deal with the experience an unresolved conflict or draw. I’m not sure of this, but it is an entertaining idea. It also brings to mind Kipling’s ‘Two Imposters‘ of Triumph and Disaster.


Minutes after the game, Lions’ captain Sam Warburton spoke articulately about it, adding that he felt ready for extra time. That was a natural first response. It might be added, in context, the draw was secured by Warburton, after some special pleading with the referee to reverse a penalty as the final whistle approached.

The third imposter

Dealing with grief is natural, and only later are there other reactions as feelings of numbness and denial diminish. If this first reaction persists, we will fail to celebrate the magnificent rear-guard action fought by the Lions last weekend.

We have not overcome those two impostors triumph and disaster, but been become gripped by that third imposter, frustrated ambition.

Have we forgotten the way we celebrate other great sporting ‘draws’ in Cricket test matches against Australia, and last-minute victories denied stronger opposition in football? And even more spectacularly, how we continue to cherish acts of spectacular courage such as The Great Escape and Dunkirk?

Chewbakka Jones and the Temple of Doom

July 7, 2017

Chewbakka Jones?

I was browsing yesterday for a book on horses in the Simply Books No 1 emporium. As I did so, my eye was caught by an instruction manual entitled How Not to Write a Novel.

Horse book nicely installed in its gift-wrapped box, I add How Not to Write a Novel to my purchase. It was a sound investment. And, as they say in many a blurb, I read it long into the evening, as the battles of tennis supremacy at Wimbledon pass me unheeded across the room. I tick off various crimes against publication I commit on a regular basis.

Mind reeling from what I had learned, I cross out a load of post-modern film-flam from my uncompleted novel. My previously unnamed narrator gets a memorable name, and  faces more heroic challenges.

The title? One comes to mind. But I fear for legal challenges at a later date. Still, I can at least make it the topic of this week’s blog post …

“Chewbakka Jones and the Temple of Doom”

Sports psychologist Chewbakka Jones is attempting to rescue his academic career by identifying the ingredients of sporting success. His most promising pupil is Tim, a would-be chess-boxing champion.

 His research, which takes place in a sleepy community centre, is disrupted by an invasion of bats, and disturbing ghostly manifestations. The setbacks are connected to a feud between a wealthy businessman and the Dalai Lama, leader of a secret society operating at the Hall.

When Tim and the Dalai Lama are kidnapped, Chewbakka is reluctantly dragged into a perilous rescue attempt.

The Queens’s speech, and how we get The Leaders We Deserve

June 29, 2017
 I have written often about leaders and their actions in Leaders we deserve for over ten years and in a thousand posts. The State Opening of the new Parliament provides me with yet another case example.
The event [wednesday 21 June 2017] took place after a spectacular disruption of events in the UK. A year ago, the unexpected result of the EU referendum dislodged Prime Minister Cameron. Infighting finished off leading pretenders, and outsider Theresa May took over unopposed.
At the start of the election campaign, the Prime Minister faced a Labour Party opposition led by the unpopular Jeremy Corbyn. She resisted the temptation to call a premature second election but then changed her mind. The campaign was badly run, May campaigned weakly on a platform of her being a Strong and Stable leader. Corbyn offered his expected radical alternative. The result shocked most observers, and left the government worse off in seats in Parliament .Rule with a minority of votes was a possibility. An attempt to boost numbers of seats by support from the Northern Irish DUP (Democratic Unionists Party) was being negotiated. The State Opening of Parliament took place without resolution of the matter..
Meanwhile, events conspired against the wounded leader. Several dreadful terrorist attacks, and a horrendous tower-block fire, reinforced her difficulty in revealing her deeply-held emotions. Her description as robotic, The Maybot, gained traction from regular political sketches by John Scace, and entered political vocabulary.
The Ritual Opening of Parliament
The Queen eschewed the customary State Carriage with its requirement for full ceremonial dress. This was announced earlier, but the occasion retained its air of unreality and still with much ritual. There were plenty of weirdly dressed personages. The Queen arrived in a very large car. The royal crown arrived it its own car, and had its own special place as she read out ‘her’ speech. The charade of knocking on locked doors and enacting the mystical relationship between monarch and parliament is enacted.
The proceedings are transmitted to a bemused world, showing what a funny place this country is. The image make up a simulacrum, a fiction based on an original which never existed of Olde England.
In the space of a few hours, a scene unfolded which captured the stability, perhaps the over-stability of the culture transmitted around the world. The bizarre trappings of the State Opening of Parliament have ossified over centuries and reinforce.the image of the funny old-fashioned country we are.
The Queen’s Speech and Brexit
I concentrated on the speech. It had been made widely-available earlier. The main focus was the departure negotations from the EU.
“The main focus of the speech was breakfast,” says a TV reporter, adding “Brexit, not breakfast. Sorry, I knew I’d get that wrong, sooner or later.”
Brexit was indeed much-mentioned in the speech, which was briefer than usual. It had been revised hastily to remove mention of the policies on which the Government fought and dismally failed to convince the electorate, during the General Election.
The little problem of the DUP
“The DUP are very experienced in these matters” Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP and ultra-committed Brexiteer said afterwards, trying to explain why the planned confidence and support arrangement is still being negotiated. This leaves the Government with a parliamentary minority.  It has not go unnoticed that the Government’s negotiating difficulties with ten DUP members does not auger well for the tasks ahead with the EU team of crack negotiators..
The Great Repeal Bill
An excited Brexit advocate insists the social benefits of membership of the EU will be retained by the Great Repeal Bill which will incorporate all Euro legislation. I need guidance, I can’t make sense of it and look to be enlightened in the debate on the queen’s speech. If the original legislation was bad, why take it over with the claimed intention of not changing anything?
Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the speech.
Corbyn began with his deepest regrets of the loss of life in the recent disasters, and from the Houses of Parliament. He moved on to strong condemnation of the paucity of policy in speech. He welcomed absence of several undesirable policies in the manifesto, including new grammar schools, offering a new vote on fox-hunting, and repealing the triple-lock on OAP pensions.
He asked for a response from the Goverment mostly on points just about exhausted during the election. He also offered a few signals for attack points to be expected, during the further days of debate. The speech was not exactly a block-buster. Unlike the effect of many of his earlier efforts, the noises from the government benches sounded half-hearted in response.
The PM rises to respond
First she sends best wishes to the hospitalized Duke of Edinburgh. Then she chooses a less combative style than usual in her opening remarks about terrorism. Soon however, the orchestrated questions return her and viewers to the same old PMQ culture.
The PM seems uncomfortable with the requirements of being heart-broken, and needs a little more practice.  Her first attempt at a joke was a dreadful pun over the missing (Alex) Salmon, but was applauded loudly by her loyal supporters.
When challenged about the election result, the PM tries to rouse the ranks with a ploy which used to work, three questions requiring a crescendo of triumphant cries in answer. Something went wrong amid points of order. Something has changed about the House. She was not helped by the lethargy behind her. In contrast, Corbyn had more support from erstwhile opponents in his own ranks. She continued pluckily, but the speech always promised to have an uninspiring end. In that,  I was not disappointed.
Dinosaurs and unparliamentary language
DUP interventions give an indication of hallmark truculence and easily-roused resentments in Northern Ireland’s political encounters.  Sir Geoffrey Robinson objected to reference to his party as Dinosaurs. Speaker Berkow  assured him it was not unparliamentary language, and anyway, dinosaurs existed for a very long time. It is easy to see how the Goverment discussions with the DUP were taking longer than anyone thought at the outset.
Corbyn and May: Compare and Contrast
Image and reality. Since her unelected accession to leader of the Conservative party and prime Minister of HM’s Government, Teresa May has appeared as a dominant force in the public showings in Prime Minister’s Question Time. Her weekly humiliation of Jeremy Corbyn showed a streak of cruelty in her cleverly constructed put-downs. All polls suggested a sudden election would produce a landslide. The encouragement from the Main Stream Media prompted the PM to complete a U-turn on the grounds of obstructive behaviour of opposition parties at a time the country needed strong and stable leadership. This was to become her at the election slogan, and one which contributed to her party’s election misfortunes. Her performance increasingly revealed her skills at Question Time were not replicated in unstructured situations. Corbyn was winning large audiences of young people who were immune to the daily venom supplied by the Conservative Sun and Daily Mail, partly because they got their information from social networks and media.
The Guardian’s John Crace produced a series of brilliant political sketches during the Election campaign. His description of Theresa May as the  Maybot has moved into popular use. Here is an extract from his take on the State Opening of Parliament.

No one could say they weren’t warned. The Supreme Leader had promised a coalition of chaos if she lost six seats and a coalition of chaos was what the country was getting. What she hadn’t made clear was that the coalition of chaos would be all hers.

After a morning’s work of emergency repairs to her circuits, which had overloaded the night before, the Maybot was eventually in a fit state to meet the Queen shortly after 12 o’clock. Her husband Philip put her through her final tests. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am the Supreme Leader,” the Maybot replied, rather more confidently than she felt. “Strong and stable. Strong and stable”.

John Crace, The Guardian, Friday 9th June, The Maybot is trapped in the first phase of election grief – denial

The earlier perceptions of Theresa May as strong and stable, and Corbyn as wildly radical and unable to command respect were shown to be at best based on partial and temporary sets of beliefs. Both became leaders because other candidates were considered wanting. Both came to power almost my accident, Corbyn after forty years of activism on the fringes of power  Almost immediately, his parliamentary party suffered voters’ regret, and have been trying to get rid of him, and his unfashionably  and socialist policies and closest political supporters. ever since.
For the first time, the General Election result has made him perceived as an asset to his party. His popularity among new party recruits was a big factor in his apotheosis.
In contrast, May is considered politically toast (a dead woman walking, as the former  Chancellor George Osborne put it), with would-be successors lined up silently (for the moment) among her cabinet colleagues.
 May and Corbyn are in one sense the leaders their supporters wanted and worked for, the Leaders they deserved, for better or for worse.
Post postscript
The snarling debate on the Queen’s speech continues this week. The Government finds a £billion to ensure support from Northern Ireland’s DUP, to keep it going.
Jeremy Corbyn auditions for a career as a pop star while waiting for a vacancy to arise as Prime Minister.
To be continued