Over the years I’ve written a lot of stuff online. Most of it was written for earlier versions of this blog and go lost in various changes to the site. On this page is some of the more interesting stuff I’ve carried over.

Note that, since most of this was dashed off quickly for the blog, it’s a little rougher round the edges than my published writing.

Pandemic and the Limits of Entrepreneurial Government

Once again the government has used a high-profile announcement of an apparent technological breakthrough (the “game-changer” this time is the promise of ninety-minute diagnostic tests) to try to distract from their general failure to effectively address the pandemic (and, in this particular case, to grab front pages from the embarrassing story of a former minister being accused of sexual assault/rape). This raises a number of points. One of them is the persistent failure of journalism during this crisis to meaningfully question repeated and obviously spurious government claims about “magic bullet” technologies – indeed they’ve repeatedly played the part of loud, credulous cheerleaders. I’m going to come back to that one day soon. But what I want to focus on here is why these initiatives have, so far, all failed – spectacularly and often expensively.

The reason is simple. Despite the loudly-stated enthusiasm of key figures in this government (most notably their éminence grise Dominic Cummings, but also from ministers such as Raab, Gove and Hancock) for the language and trappings of “disruptive capitalism” their understanding of how this system works appears limited to a fascination with the glossy hagiographies of tech bro billionaires and little grasp of how disruptive capitalism works as a system and as part of a wider economy.

The government’s attachment to an ideology of disruptive capitalism goes beyond a traditional Conservative preference for private sector provision of public services and embraces a belief that the creative destruction of existing economic relationships is inherently good. It is not enough that businesses do the work of government – through the contracting out of services, for example. The revolution must go further and deeper. Existing patterns of thinking, ways of working and relationships must be broken down and rebuilt. All sectors of industry and government will be made more effective and efficient by bulldozing existing safeguards and embracing the buccaneering, free-for-all approach of their idealised vision of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. It is an approach that, typically, lionises a handful of high profile (if not, always, high-profit) companies and a tiny number of billionaires.

Continue reading
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The way in which Corbyn and his mates have been using the issue of Brexit as a weapon in their desperate attempts to retain control of the Labour Party is, I think, revealing. The most common criticism of the Labour Party they inherited was that it wasn’t ideologically pure enough. That it was too concerned with “triangulation” and compromise in its policies – too weak in chasing the lowest common denominator (on immigration or business, for example) to be true to Labour’s roots. So it’s odd, then, to see the attack on “centrist remainers” in the cabinet (by which they mean, I presume, Starmer and Thornbury, not McDonnell. But who knows the inner workings of the politburo?) framed entirely in terms of the fact that it cost Labour votes. That we should have adopted a strong leave position because it would have preserved our position on the “red wall” – it would have won us more seats.

Continue reading
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I was just reminded of this after a random comment on Twitter (hi @redrichie). I wrote this review back in 2014 for Arcfinity. The row over inequality hasn’t moved on much and, reading it back, I think some of the things I said are still relevant – we are certainly no closer to a political response to growing inequality and mainstream economics seems to have slipped back into its comfortable irrelevance.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century is a number of things. It is, most obviously, a forceful argument in favour of putting inequality – a subject long plagued by “an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact” – back at the heart of intellectual and political debate. In addition, and almost as importantly, it is giant single-fingered salute to economics as it is most commonly done. Capital is a trenchant criticism of the way in which the study of economics has become dislocated from history and reality, focussed instead on abstract models and “laws” that seek to universalise the particular and the specific. Piketty’s theory is based on carefully collected data and lived human experience – a book that seems to spend as much time considering what can be learned from the novels of Austen and de Balzac as from the theories of other economists. And Capital is also – and this is not something to be lightly dismissed – a social sensation. A seven-hundred-plus-page economic thesis has become an international bestseller and the subject of near endless debate, attracting praise and opprobrium in about equal measure. Continue reading

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The BSFA’s Vector Review of 2017 was delivered today, which includes a piece I wrote on the bit of genre reading that stuck in my mind most clearly in the past year. I chose a few panels from a crossover comic book. The piece got a bit mangled in the production process (some repeated text and confusion) so this is the definitive version.


My genre highlight of 2017 is really just a handful panels from a comic book. It’s from Occupy Avengers #8 (June 2017), written by David F. Walker and drawn by Martin Morazzo and Jorge Coelho. The story is a tie-in to the Secret Empire crossover that dominated Marvel’s line of books in the middle of 2017 and, at a casual reading, the panels are easy to overlook.

The story features those resisting the authoritarian rule of Hydra (led by the briefly evil Captain America) which has taken control of the American government. In one panel a black man is being shot. He seems to be standing in front of a group of black men, trying to protect them. In the second panel the unidentified man lies dying on the ground and the people he was trying to protect are being gunned down by white men in Hydra uniforms. Seven pages later, briefly and a bit obliquely, we learn that the man we saw being shot was an out-of-costume superhero, Nighthawk. Continue reading

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Like lots of people, I’ve been thinking about the current row about Cambridge Analytica and their supposed influencing of the US election and Brexit and possibly other elections around the world.

I understand people’s anger and I understand the degree of fear that comes with the idea that we (or, more usually, some other group: “them”) are being manipulated to undermine democracy. But there are good reasons to be sceptical over the claims made for and by Cambridge Analytica (CA).

The basic story is that CA scraped user data off Facebook. Some people equate this with stealing data or an elaborate hack of Facebook, but what they actually did was take information that users left lying around about themselves because they couldn’t/didn’t want to/didn’t know how to make it private. It wasn’t particularly clever, if my interactions with people studying social media are anything to go by then there are probably quite a few academics standing around with their hands in their pockets trying not to look guilty as the current row rumbles on. What sets CA apart is the claims they make for what they did with this information. Developing psychographic profiles of millions of individuals which, they say, they used to create online advertising that was uniquely persuasive and effective. They’ve also claimed, in the Channel 4 videos, to “seed” viral information around the web and to indulge in various types of dirty politics.

I’ll come back some of the other stuff in another post, but first I want to talk about online advertising and why I consider it an unlikely tool for manipulating “the masses”. If your goal is to persuade anyone of anything you could hardly choose a worse weapon than the online display advert. Continue reading

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The High Ground by Melinda Snodgrass (Titan Books, 2016)

When I was a child I loved the breakfast cereal Ready Brek – instant porridge whose television advertisements used to feature a young boy protected from the winter elements by a warm glow of healthy goodness. I would eat Ready Brek for breakfast, supper and, basically, whenever I could persuade someone to give me a bowl. If I’d had my way I might have eaten nothing but Ready Brek. Recently, in a moment of nostalgic weakness, I thought I’d revisit my childhood obsession and made myself a bowl. I’m not sure what my seven-year-old-self saw in the stuff, but I can tell you that I was left wondering why anyone would eat this flavourless, textureless, pap.

Melinda Snodgrass’s The High Ground is a lot like Ready Brek – easy to consume and familiar but also bland and unappealing. Unlike Ready Brek this book does not leave the reader with a warm, protective glow. Continue reading

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Hannibal Barca
Last night I watched the first episode of The History Channel’s Barbarians Rising. The episode dealt with Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and it was not good. It started with a definition of barbarian (“anyone who was not Greek or Roman”) that would have embarrassed the most imperialist 19th Century historians, but it was actually when it staggered haplessly into an attempt to make links with contemporary concerns that it really fell to pieces.

The decision to try and make a link between Carthage’s war on Rome and the American Civil Rights struggle (Jesse Jackson and Clarence B Jones appear as talking heads) was misguided and badly handled. The lowest point comes when Jones said “it was the barbarians who opposed slavery, they were the first freedom fighters”. Continue reading

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Jeremy Corbyn set out his 10 point policy plan today – with lots of good intentions in it, though it didn’t quite address the concerns I have about Corbyn offering actual detailed policies – it remained a bit vague. In a speech full of non-specific hand-waving the biggest blur was how it was all to be paid for. I’m a big fan of ambitious investment plans for government, but they do have to be realistic, and Corbyn’s numbers today are pretty wild.

In 2015 the size of the UK economy, measured by nominal GDP, was around £2.2trillion. Corbyn has just promised to spend £500million (half a trillion) over 10 years through a National Investment bank.

This is a pretty astonishing number. That’s a sustained, additional, annual government spending of 2.5% of the current (and since we’re not looking at any economic growth over the next year or two – the near future) size of the UK economy – which is pretty unprecedented. In the crisis year of 2008, the Obama administration dropped that level of money into the US economy – but only for one year.

Asked how he would pay for this investment, Corbyn said it would be paid for by “a stronger economy and by cracking down on tax evasion”. Continue reading

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George Eaton’s Tweets (above) made me think about the pattern of Labour history and how the current mess is part of a cycle that goes right back to the very first Labour government. Here’s roughly what happens: Continue reading

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jeremy-corbyn-tuc-conference-september-2015-gestureSo, today, Jeremy Corbyn launched his leadership campaign. It was the opportunity for him to make the case that he was the genuine radical that his supporters have been claiming. To put his case that “Corbynism” was the revolutionary (perhaps that’s too charged a word) change that some see as inevitable if he is re-elected.

The speech, though, was a damp squib. There was almost no content and what there was as neither new nor particularly radical. Continue reading

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The referendum is over but that doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that the fight for Britain’s future in Europe is done. Forty-eight percent of the British people voted to remain in the European Union, and they did so in a campaign that was dominated by Leave promises that are rapidly and very publicly unravelling. There is no pot of gold for the NHS, there is no way to keep the economic benefits of membership of the single market without allowing free movement of labour and there is no magic wand that can be waved to reverse the global flows of migrants.

And, it turns out, all those “scare” stories about the economic impact are coming true. Those pesky experts weren’t lying after all.

The Leave campaign clearly never expected to win and have no immediate plans in place for a managed transition to a future outside the European Union. Boris Johnson, or whichever Brexiter leads the Tories after the summer, will almost certainly want to hold an election believing that, with the Labour Party in disarray, they can achieve their own mandate and a larger majority with which to exert control over a deeply divided party.

And, in this election, we’re going to have a serious problem. Continue reading

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article 6So, as the last comic book fan with a blog to express an opinion about Captain America: Steve Rogers No.1, I thought it’s probably necessary that I have a suitably clickbait-style headline so that people might pay some attention. For what it’s worth, though, I do believe that the current treatment of Peter Parker is worse (more disrespectful to the character, less interesting and less smart) than what appears to be in store for Steve Rogers, and I’ll come back to that at the end. On this new Captain America, I think that some of the reaction to what is, after all, the first chapter of what seems planned to be an extended story has been ludicrous. And some of the responses to the fact that Captain America utters the dread phrase “Hail Hydra” (and seems to mean in) in the final panel seem to have missed or deliberately ignored everything else on all the other pages of the book. In fact, given the approach to extremism displayed so far, I’m quietly hopeful that this comic is going to go somewhere worthwhile and, perhaps, will deal with extremism in an interesting way rather than blandly restate the usual vapid comic book platitudes. Continue reading

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A quick follow up to my last post. I’ve had people insist to me that it is perfectly valid to compare the latest local election results with the 2015 elections. So I want to make clear why this simply isn’t true.

Here are the results from the latest local elections presented in a map (see it in all it’s glory at Democratic Dashboard):

2016 actual local election results

2016 local election results

As you can see, there’s a lot of white space on this map. That’s because not everyone in the United Kingdom had the opportunity to vote in these elections.

That’s the main reason why trying to compare this election to the 2015 general election is silly. It’s different boundaries, a different electorate and, in places like Scotland and Wales, it’s even different electoral systems. It is, like your primary school teacher told you, wrong to try and add apples and oranges.

But the other thing it’s worth doing for Labour Party members (at least those who are genuinely interested in getting a clear view of where the party now stands and what we really need to do to win in 2020) is to look at those white spaces and think, for a minute about what kind of England they represent. Continue reading

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I don’t want to be one of those people in the Labour Party who constantly moans about the leadership. My natural instinct is to loyalty. I want Labour to do well because I believe the people I care about do better when Labour is in power and I think that constant infighting is, literally, self-defeating.

However, I think it’s also important that the Labour Party is honest with itself. I understand the desire to present the latest election results in a positive way, but it’s important that – as the dust settles – that we look plainly at the figures and assess where we are. And, the truth is, that we’re in a very bad place if our goal is to replace the Tories as a party of government.

The first thing to note is that, while it made sense to spin the election result as a step forward to journalists, being able to point to an increased national vote share of 2% since 2015 is a “good news story” – especially when you’re a leadership under pressure – it is not an honest story and we shouldn’t let the story we tell others lead us to delusions.

We have to set aside the spin when we, privately, look at the results and what they mean.  Comparing a general election to a set of local elections is like comparing apples with oranges. Not every part of the country voted yesterday, not everyone voted using the same electoral system and, despite the temptation to believe otherwise, local politics and local candidates do matter.

The only fair comparison is not with 2015 but with 2012 – the last time these specific wards and elections took place at the same time. And when we look at that, the picture is much less encouraging. Since 2012 Labour’s share of the vote has fallen, dramatically, everywhere:

-9% in Scotland
-8% in Wales
-7% in England

Yes, the 2012 result was a good one – the omnishambles budget – had the Tories in significant disarray. But this year’s Tory party – with another disastrous budget and constant bickering over the EU, a strike in the NHS, the steel industry’s implosion and everyone in the cabinet positioning themselves for the coming leadership contest – is hardly in a better position than it was then.

And yes, you can argue that it’s not fair to compare the performance of “peak-Miliband” – almost 2 years into a parliament and his leadership – with Corbyn only 8 months in the job. But comparing Corbyn’s performance with the 2011 election (when Miliband was in the same stage of his leadership) doesn’t do this performance any favours either. In 2011 local elections Miliband increased Labour’s national share of the vote to 37% (up 2% from the previous general election, 10% from the previous cycle of local elections) – a significant step forward in a way this very definitely wasn’t.

So, what next?

Corbynism isn’t going anywhere. He (or someone with the same beliefs) would walk a leadership election held in the foreseeable future. Fantasies of a coup are nothing more than fever dreams.

Labour needs the team around Corbyn need to do better. The last eight months have been littered with self-inflicted public relations disasters and a basic inability to identify, stick to and deliver a campaigning agenda that strikes a chord with the public outside their core supporters. Yes, they face a hostile media, but so do all Labour leaders, and their often inexplicable choices have made things worse. Someone needs to be ruthless with people who are plainly not up to their job, and everyone needs to do better.

And, for god’s sake, stop talking about foreign policy.

And the wider circle of people who support Corbyn need to realise that not all criticism is disloyal. Sometimes it’s okay to apply a critical eye to what the party is doing, no matter how much faith you have in the leader.

Of course there are also those whose constant moaning and whinging needs to take a less hysterical, less publicly damaging form. If some of those who oppose Corbyn devoted as much time to building a credible, intellectually coherent and popular alternative to Corbynism as they do to screaming insults, the Labour Party would be in a better place.

But, to the public (and it is the public, after all who will decide the future of our party) it is the leadership that matters most, and that means the leadership has got to look at these results and recognise that things are going badly wrong have to change.

The bunker mentality that has developed around the Corbyn leadership will, if it continues, lead Labour to disaster. No matter how important you consider your principles, there’s no way to win an election in the UK by pursuing only a core of ultra-committed supporters. Especially not for a Labour Party that has lost Scotland (and has only narrowly avoided a disaster in Wales).

I didn’t vote for Corbyn. I don’t think he is the best leader for the Labour Party. But since he is the Labour Party leader, I would like him to be the best leader of the party it is possible for him to be.

So, be honest Corbynites.

Look the situation we’re in and – privately, if not in public – start to address the fact that this week was a very bad result and, that if you really want to be a party that replaces the Tories, you’ve got to do better.

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One of the defining features of modern conservative politics is a fixation with the building of walls.

In America some of these walls are real – the notion of “securing” the US southern border with a physical wall, no matter how medieval that sounds, is now mainstream politics. It’s not just the wild rantings of Trump, all of the remaining prospective Republican candidates are committed to some form of a physical barrier between the USA and Mexico. So popular are walls amongst Republican activists that Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and mayfly pursuer of the GOP nomination, went so far as to suggest a mirror project that would seal off the lower 48 states from the terrifying threat of marauding Canadians.

In Europe the walls are mostly, so far, symbolic. The disastrous crises in Africa and Asia have created unprecedented pressures that are far beyond anything any of our institutions were designed to manage. Faced with the horror of mass human suffering, many European conservatives have sought to retreat behind border restrictions and threats to rebuild legal walls that have been eroded by nearly seventy years of ever closer union. Continue reading

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War has always been a topic that has caused the Labour Party problems and it seems increasingly possible that whether or not Britain should bomb Syria has the potential to create deep, and possibly irreparable, splits in the modern party. There’s a particular oddness in this situation, since Britain’s capacity to have any significant influence in Syria is almost zero. But the symbolism is crucial, I suppose. It is, however, depressing that this moral debate has become a weapon in the battles of Labour factionalism.

Over the last week I have listened to those who oppose war at any cost and I wonder if some of them are aware that people are dying in their thousands at the hands of ISIS and Assad (and, indeed, those who are opposing both of these regimes). As long as they don’t have anything darkening their conscience this group seems willing to turn a blind eye to slaughter done by others. Not so much “Stop The War” as “Stop Some Wars”. By the same token, I listen to some of those who support intervention and I hear no realistic plan to achieve meaningful change in the region – nothing that dissuades me from the belief that, for many, bombing Syria is about satisfying a desire to smash someone, anyone, in frustration at not being able to do anything useful. Continue reading

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So, in my last post I responded to a post that claimed that there was a resurgence of Labour support identified in local election results. I thought I’d follow that up with a more detailed look at how things are going.

Labour local election results

The chart above tracks the change in The Labour Party’s share of the vote in local authority by-election results since the beginning of October and the trendline marking the overall direction of travel.

The most recent results show a very definite decline in Labour’s electoral fortunes.  Continue reading

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A recent article in Tribune claimed that: “Big swings to Labour are being reported in a number of council by-elections since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party.” As far as it goes, it’s certainly true that some swings to Labour in local authority by-elections have been good, but the article then goes on to claim “Labour’s surge in membership at grassroots level is starting to pay off in getting councillors re-elected and in one case gaining a seat.” And that masks a somewhat more complex truth about the current electoral situation.

In the last month there have been 21 local authority by-elections. In three Labour didn’t stand: Hellingly (Wealden), Chatteris (Cambridgeshire) and Aird & Loch Ness (Highlands) and one, Bolsover South, was previously an uncontested Labour seat so change figures are meaningless.

That leaves seventeen contested local authority by-elections in the last month. In those by-elections Labour’s vote went up in nine and down in eight. Continue reading

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So David Allen Green (@jackofkent) wrote a very good piece about the legal questions around yesterday’s  government announcement that it had used a drone to kill a British citizen fighting in Syria for ISIS. I’m not a lawyer, but his reasoning seems eminently sound.

There are also, I think, sound moral reasons why a government shouldn’t do things like this – even when the person they are targeting is a very bad man planning to do very bad things. I have no problem with people like ISIS getting a good hard smack around the head – they are murderous wretches whose threat isn’t to the West (they best they can hope to inflict on us are relative pinpricks) but to their neighbours – and the poorest and most vulnerable of their neighbours at that. At the same time, I think the decision by the government to take on the positions of judge, jury and executioner on a case like this opens a moral trapdoor that could swallow us all.

But another good reason for thinking that this action is wrong is political. Continue reading

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I have quite admired Harriet Harman in the past, insofar as, as a woman on the left of British politics, she’s had to put up with a lot of shit thrown her way and she’s coped with it with a certain amount of grace and occasional flashes of humour. However, I fear that when the history of this period of Labour politics is written her reputation is going to be tainted by her final, brief, but disastrous period as interim Labour leader.

When(if?) Jeremy Corbyn wins, he had better have a bunch of flowers ready for her, because Harman (and whoever has been advising her) has done more than anyone (certainly more than Corbyn himself) to ensure his victory. Continue reading

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One of the many weird things about the Labour leadership election has been, as a member for nearly 30 years, getting lectured about Labour values by people who – to my certain knowledge – have never been members of the Labour Party, are not members of the Labour Party, have spent a great deal of time attacking the Labour Party, but who now feel that they have some god-given right to instruct me on my “duty” in this election.

At the start of the campaign most of this pontification was coming from the right and it was in support of Liz Kendall. As the campaign has gone on, increasing amounts of it has come from the left and is in support of Jeremy Corbyn. As the weeks have passed the debate on both sides has become foam-flecked and ranting. Anyone who dares to disagree is a “red tory”, a “crypto-communist” or a “traitor” – a selection of the more friendly epithets thrown at me lately by both sides.

I’ve never voted for the winner of a Labour leadership election. I didn’t vote for Smith or Blair – I could afford to be contrary in these elections, to be sure, since their victories were assured but in both cases my vote went to the candidates I thought represented Labour’s left-of-centre (Gould and Prescott). I didn’t vote for Ed Miliband as my first choice either. So I don’t suppose Kendall or Corbyn’s campaigns will be particularly fussed that I’m not voting for them. Continue reading

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Mark Ferguson seemed like a decent, thoughtful bloke who did good work as editor of LabourList, so I was disappointed when he announced he was going to work for Liz Kendall’s campaign. I was even more disappointed today when he went out of his way to (i) misrepresent the work of Keynes and (ii) appear to set the stage for Kendall’s campaign to fall into a gaping hole dug for them by George Osborne.

He said this today on Twitter…

and then linked to this older blog piece. I’m assuming that this signals thinking within Kendall’s campaign that suggests that they are looking to find a way to “neutralise” Osborne’s latest trap by falling straight into it. Continue reading

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In his piece in The Guardian today, positioning himself as a contender for leadership of the Labour Party, Chuka Umunna wrote:

Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to that house with a garden.

It echoes what Tony Blair has said, demanding that Labour shift back to the “centre” of British politics (as if that was a fixed point hasn’t shifted dramatically rightward since he became leader) to be the party of ambition.

Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. “Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.

This sounds great but what does it mean?

Let’s start with the facts:

So what does it mean to offer people “aspirational” policies?

It seems to me that the policies that people like Blair, Umunna and Kendall have been objecting to today are the policies that sought to address inequality. Looking at Labour’s policy offer at the last election, that “anti-aspiration” agenda they appear to be criticising include policies like:

  • Making the rich (like non-doms) pay taxes they’ve avoided.
  • Introducing modest tax increases on the very wealthiest.
  • Taxing inherited wealth, which institutionalises inequality.
  • Making businesses carry some of the load that poorly paid jobs have placed on the state.

So we have a situation where, if you ignore the sub “American-dream” rhetoric, the opportunity for young people today to improve their life chances are as low today as they’ve been at any time since the Second World War. At the core of those declining opportunities has been increasing inequality. Therefore, failing to address inequality reduces notions of aspiration and ambition to, at best, empty phrases and, at worst, part of a lie that keeps people in their place.

The “aspiration” that Umunna and Blair are so keen on Labour embracing is, without the guts to tackle inequality, simply a shield to preserve the wealth of those who are already more than comfortable. The handful of lottery winners those who do improve their lot are held up to shame those who “just haven’t worked hard enough” to better themselves even though the system is fundamentally rigged against ambition.

Labour should be the party of aspiration. But aspiration isn’t enough. People have to have real opportunities to achieve the goals to which they aspire. And, if we’re serious about that kind of ambition, we have to be serious about tackling inequality.


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There’s no shortage of people dissecting the election result but here are my initial thoughts.

  1. Labour did not lose because it wasn’t left wing enough for Scotland – even if Labour had taken every SNP seat in Scotland, it wouldn’t have won this election. In any case the policies Labour offered at this election were not the cause of the shift to the SNP – which started before Miliband developed his policy offer and developed a life of their own thereafter.
  2. Nor did Labour lose because it wasn’t left wing enough to appeal to voters in London – if the swing in London wasn’t huge, it was certainly big enough (if repeated across the rest of the country) to have delivered a non-Tory government.
  3. Labour’s failure to win was primarily because it didn’t breakthrough in the Midlands and South of England. It seems to me that the majority of votes Labour needed in these areas went (perhaps indirectly) to UKIP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.
  4. In these areas there is no scope for squeezing traditional opponents like the Lib Dems (who’ve practically ceased to exist) or the Tories whose vote remained more or less unchanged since 2010 at a little above its core base vote.
  5. There is no progressive majority at the moment in the UK. UKIP and Tories combined took 50% of the vote. Add to that the rump Lib Dem vote (most of whom must have been content with their party’s behaviour in coalition) and almost 60% of the electorate voted for the continuation or deepening of regressive politics. Remove Scotland and this regressive majority accounts for about two thirds of the electorate.
  6. Labour task, therefore, over the next five years is to try and persuade those (mostly white, mostly working class) voters who voted UKIP to back a progressive party that actually has their interests highest on its priorities but that won’t pander to their prejudices.

Now you’re expecting me to offer you my solutions.

But honestly I have no idea and, the more I think about it, the less confident I am that there’s a strategy by which The Labour Party can reach those voters while still presenting a recognisably progressive agenda – as opposed to rehashed (or even watered down – without Brown’s moral purpose) Blairism.

I believe the populist nationalisms that are driving divisions in England, Scotland and (weirdly through UKIP) Wales are only likely to become increasingly forceful in the next few years. Deeper austerity, slowing (and perhaps catastrophically unstable) global economies, rows over Europe and devolution are likely to feed the distrusts and deepen the divides in Britain rather than make them easier to bridge.

Today I am pessimistic.

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If you spend time on social media of any kind then the “flame war” (to use a fading phrase) is likely to become a way of life. Hate seems to be the first, and sometimes only, language of the internet.

Sometimes the divisions that prompt these furious engagements are obvious. “GamerGate” – whatever its origins – has come to pit Neanderthal sexism against the rights of women to express themselves freely. That the young men who scream abuse at, and threaten the life of, women dress themselves in the cloak of victimhood is perverse but it is also indicates something about the way in which online communications insulate people from reality and the consequences of their words.

The notion of belonging to certain “online communities” has come to be an important part  of how some people define themselves. But I have never found one. If fact, I believe that “online communities” do not exist. Continue reading

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So, another set of elections, another ungood night for Labour. Admittedly it was a much worse one for the parties in government. Indeed it was so bad, that  if the swing against the Conservatives and Lib Dems was repeated at a general election, Labour could achieve a substantial parliamentary majority without adding a single vote to its disastrous showing in 2010… And that would demonstrate that the political system is fundamentally broken.

There are those who are hoping to sit back, stay cautious and let the electoral arithmetic edge Labour over the line, judging that a significant but limited recovery of the share of the vote (from 29% in 2010 to 35% in 2015) will be enough to nudge Labour over the line. They are probably right. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy. Because the next Labour government needs more than a victory, it needs a mandate. It needs to convince people of its reason to lead the country.

Labour’s policy platform suggests they more-or-less get it. More taxes on the richest (albeit still quite modest), investment in people and infrastructure, standing up for the rights of workers and consumers, more emphasis on the “green shit” and the repeal or rejection of the worst of the coalition on things like the NHS Bill, Bedroom Tax and European Court.

Labour can’t and shouldn’t pander to the worst instincts of those who switch to UKIP. A race to the bottom on migration would be morally wrong, economically ruinous, strategically stupid and electorally useless.

Nor can Labour – as I still think many Blairites and Brownites believe – fight 2015 as if it was 1997. Labour’s problem today is not convincing “aspirational” voters (who eluded Neil Kinnock) that we aren’t the vanguard of a Bolshevik-style rampage. Labour’s problem is convincing the working class voters on whom the party was built that there’s still a reason to get out and vote.

So “What does Labour do?”

The Labour Party needs to talk loudly and use simple words. I’m not saying we treat the electorate like idiots, but we should definitely find representatives who can turn up the volume and turn down the jargon.

I know a lot of people hate Ed Balls, I’m not one of them. But his caution and the fact that he is wedded to a political approach that was successful in the last century but is looking increasingly ropey in this one, makes him (and those who share his views) a significant drag on the party. Shape up or ship out.

There are people suffering terribly under this government. People who, I know, the overwhelming majority of us in the Labour Party want to support, protect and offer a better future. It wouldn’t do any harm to start communicating that. A little moral outrage and some practical help, shorn of the Blairite good poor/bad poor rhetoric, could go a very long way.

Yes, yes, being economically trusted is very important and so is sorting out the debt problem (everyone knows, no one will admit, the answer to that is “a bit of inflation”+”time”). Now stop talking about it. Labour can’t win on austerity because, no matter how hard we try to convince people that we’re going to be tough on the causes of debt, no one really believes us.  But, what our traditional supporters hear is that we care more about “big money” than we do about their lives. Ed Miliband was right: forget about it, stop talking about it. Shut up!

No more pussyfooting around. UKIP are taking the votes of people who want a better NHS, fairer taxes, stronger social services, roads that aren’t full of potholes and a government that’s not operating in the interest of millionaires. If the media won’t make it clear that the party they are looking for isn’t UKIP it’s Labour, then we have to. Over and over and over and over again.

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I am chuffAlbedoOne45-Covered to be able to point you in the direction of the latest issue of Albedo One (no. 45 – available in ebook form from Smashwords and Amazon) which features my story, “King Rook”.

The story is one set in Northern Ireland in the mid-eighties and while none of the important stuff in the story is autobiographical, I really did grow up in a housing estate that was in the shadow of a rookery and it really was slowly sliding into a bog.

Anyway, as always when one of my stories is out there, I’m only too aware of its shortcomings and not about to suggest that my deathless prose will change your life but I would recommend that you pick up this (and every other) issue of Albedo One, it’s a very good magazine that deserves your support. And, at just a couple of pounds for the ebook version, it’s very reasonably priced.

I also realised that I haven’t mentioned on here that another of my stories, “And Dublin Wept”, was included in Pandemonium: Big Jim’s Shadow from Jurassic London. This is a flash story (just 750 words long) set in 1914 during the bitter industrial dispute that was the Dublin lock-out lead by the ITGWU You can get the book from Goodreads for free and for 77p from Amazon.

It felt a bit odd having this story in a collection dedicated to James Larkin, since the story pokes a some (gentle) fun at the trade unionist’s reputation as a great orator. It has as it’s central character a fictionalised version of William X O’Brien – a less celebrated figure in Irish labour history. The story is an alternate history that twists around the fact that Larkin at one point proposed sending the children of the strikers to Ebig_jims_shadowngland and Scotland to live with the families of British trade union members. He hoped to ease the burdens on striking families but, more importantly, he hoped to spread support for the strike to the rest of the UK and thought the children would elicit sympathy. However, the combined forces of a hostile press and an equally hostile Catholic Church scuppered the idea.

The lock-out petered out in 1914, with both sides exhausted and forced to compromise. The ITGWU was badly damaged and things got worse when Larkin went off to North America and then, in 1916, James Connolly was killed by the British for his part in the Easter Rising (the leader of the bosses in the lock-out, William Martin Murphy, used his newspapers to agitate for the execution of his old adversary).

William X O’Brien was the man who rebuilt the ITGWU, turning it into a major force in Irish politics. There are songs about Larkin and Connolly but, as far as I know, no songs have been written about William X O’Brien.

The story also features a mention of the SS Connemara, a ferry that plied the route from Greenore to Liverpool. The ship did sink in Carlingford Lough, but not until November 1916. All aboard the real SS Conemara were lost, including my great uncle, Private Robert Kenna, who was returning to the war in France after recovering from injuries.

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I, like lots of other people, got a bit excited when the organisers of Loncon3 sent out the draft schedule for this year’s Worldcon – but I’ve had some ongoing website problems, so it’s taken a while to get this online. But, at last, for anyone who might be interested, these are (provisionally, I think) the panels I’ll be appearing on at what looks like being an absolutely massive convention. Continue reading

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So this year’s elections are over, and lots of people are using the results as an excuse to try and shift their favoured political parties around, so I thought: “Why should I miss out?”

I don’t think the European election results are either disastrous or brilliant for Labour. You can’t look at the raw figures and say this performance (25%) isn’t good enough, because since 1999 the European elections haven’t looked anything like other British national votes. UKIP, the BNP and the Greens have all made different “breakthroughs” at Euro elections that haven’t been followed up in subsequent General Elections and, if I was a betting man, I’d be willing to bet that UKIP’s vote will fall back significantly before next year’s election.

It is, of course, possible that this election has “broken the mould”, but the probability is always against breaks with history. Continue reading

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specyfiction72ppiSo, the Hugo nominations are out, and there are a number of things I like and many things I have absolutely no interest in. In the end I weakened and nominated some stuff, just so I could feel properly entitled to moan at the final shortlist. I think four of the items I nominated made it onto the final list of 90 or so nominees – I’ll be expecting cash from the lucky few in the next post.

But the really important news about the Hugo nominations isn’t that some weird, slightly cultish, distinctly Tea Partyish, group of American writers have got their arses in gear to exploit the nomination process – anyone with a background in student politics will recognise the effect of organising lists in popular voting – Hackery101. It will be interesting to see if this is the start of a trend of progressive/reactionary organisation for awards. Continue reading

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I have no interest in nominating anything for the Hugos, but people have been bemoaning the shortage of things they can nominate for the Short Form Dramatic Presentation category outside the usual television episodes. I like short movies, and think it’d be nice to see more of them recognised, so here are some short movies you could consider. I haven’t checked the eligibility but they’re all dated 2013 and all between 8-15 minutes long.

And, if you’re not interested in the Hugos either, hey, they’re still good little movies.

West of the Moon
Based loosely, apparently, on interviews with children about their dreams. This is kind of lovely, fantastic and peculiar.

Time travel. It’s a familiar idea – how to change the past – but it’s very nicely done and affecting.

C: 299,792 km/s
A Kickstarted movie, and a really enjoyable one. Old-fashioned in style and production (complete with Sagan-ish inserts) it’s a pacy space story done well.

Dr Easy
A robot doctor is sent into a siege situation. A Film4/Warp film with very high production values and Tom Hollander from Rev. It ends a bit abruptly.

Unable to face the things she has lost and return home, a miner on the Moon makes a decision. A touch melodramatic and edging towards the sugary but nice.

Other options: I liked Cargo better than anything in The Walking Dead ( but it’s touch obvious; A Little Bit Behind  ( is a funny Australian effort but it’s really just a sketch;  From the Future With Love (  has near-future cops doing stuff – should have ended after the bit in the diner; Abe ( frankly a bit unpleasant, effectively a robot slasher movie, but undeniably well made.

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the-echo-by-james-smytheSo my grumpy review of James Smythe’s The Echo is now online at Arcfinity.

I’m not normally bothered by the science being wrong in fantastic fiction if it makes the story better – that’s normally true when the author has made a deliberate choice to warp or twist reality. What bothered me by this book (and it’s prequel) is my feeling that the scientific stuff that was wrong didn’t add to the story – indeed that it distracted from it – and that the author was obviously capable of not making these mistakes.

I note that one paragraph from the review got edited out, that’s fair enough, it was too long, but it explains why I think the wrong science matters in this particular case. Continue reading

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Okay, so, if I wanted this to be any use to anyone I’d have done it weeks ago, but I didn’t and there was always just one more book to try and squeeze in… And if I wanted this to be remotely interesting to anyone, I’d probably have written a long explanation as to why some of these books didn’t make my nominations – I have long and tedious explanations for the absence of both The Adjacent and Ancillary Justice from my nominations – but I didn’t have time.

The deadline for the British Science Fiction Awards nominations is tomorrow. If you can but haven’t nominated your favourites: DO IT NOW!

If anyone cares, here’s what I’ve nominated for the BSFA Awards this year: Continue reading

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Last night my Twitter feed filled, briefly, with closely cropped images of protestors in V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes masks making some noise outside the Houses of Parliament and comments criticising the BBC for not covering what was, obviously, an epoch-making event 1. I made some snarky comment about the size of the demonstration and its meaning in the greater scheme of things and got told by one enthusiastic responder: Continue reading


  1. Of course the BBC did cover the demonstration – but this was considered insufficient
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Adam Roberts has written a (typically) interesting blog post about the division between the “Booker culture” that favours formally complex and “clever, clever” writing and the popular arts that have set “the parameters of the Great Human Revolution of 1950-2020”. You need to read his post to get the full force of his argument but, simplifying, he argues that there are three great forces of change that dominate our era: technology, globalisation – particularly the way it encourages (or forces) people to interact with different cultures – and the extension of childhood deeper into adult life. His point is that literary fiction, of the kind that dominates the Booker shortlists, fails to deal convincingly with any of these forces. Continue reading

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I’m a strong supporter of Labour’s links with trade unions and the work of unions in general. I’ve worked for two different unions (more than ten years, in total) and the first thing I do in a new workplace is dig out the details of the recognised trade union – not always an easy job – and sign up. I’m a long-term member of the NUJ (my professional union) but I’ve also been a member of Unison, GMB and Amicus amongst others over the years.

Unions play a vital role in society and ordinary people need stronger unions. We live in an era where power has swung dramatically in favour of employers: jobs are outsourced, wages are falling, employment rights have been undermined, the public sector – the final bastion of mass union membership – is being more than decimated. We are at precisely at the moment when unions should be at the forefront of a battle on behalf of working people.

But, for far too long, the union movement has been pointing in the wrong direction. The relationship with the Labour Party is important – crucial, even – but unions’ real political strength never came from the internal wrangling of Labour politics. Generations of general secretaries have obsessed over getting their way at Labour Party Conference or in the National Executive, but all the while the real source of their influence has been slipping through their fingers. Continue reading

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strange_bodiesMy review of Marcel Theroux’s new novel, Strange Bodies, is online now at Arcfinity.

When this arrived in the post I realised that I had actually read Theroux’s previous novel – the Clarke Award nominated Far North – but had absolutely no recollection of what it was about. I spotted it on the shelf, reread the first chapter and remembered none of it. It had made no impression on me whatsoever. That was worrying.

Further inspection of Strange Bodies revealed a blurb from John Gray, the philosopher-prince of miserablism, on the rear in which he claimed that this novel challenges “everything we believe about what it means to be human”. My heart sank further. How many terrible reviews of terrible novels have I read which praise the exploration of “what it means to be human”? What else are novels about? What would be the point of a novel that didn’t explore what it meant to be human?

So, bad first impressions. Did the novel live down to my expectations? There’s only one way to find out – read the review.

(I think I’ve started to write trailers for my own reviews… that’s worrying.)

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solarisrising2So with Solaris Rising 2 being released tomorrow, the people at Solaris asked the anthology’s authors (you can read my effort, “The First Dance”, in those pages along with some stories that are really, really good) to write something about our favourite short stories.

I couldn’t pick one.

So instead I talked a bit about the first science fiction short story that lodged itself firmly in my memory and that had a huge effect on the way I thought about the world, “The Star” by Arthur C Clarke.

You can read what I wrote by clicking here. And, by poking around a bit, you can read what the other contributors picked.

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From issue 59 of Focus the fourth of my pieces of flash fiction “inspired” by the common writing errors and bad habits catalogued in The Turkey City Lexicon. This time, it’s all about pressing buttons with clichés.

Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties. Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,” clichés calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted.

A Song to the Sea of Tears

The tears were warm on Alicia’s silken cheek. The movement of the ocean stirred a susurration, sea against shingle, that seemed to grow more insistent as she listened. Seagulls screamed, wheeled beneath fast-moving clouds, and turned inland. Alicia saw none of this.

Her true love was lost.
Continue reading

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specyfiction72ppiAnother publication announcement – let’s us hope this doesn’t start happening too often, I’m sure we’d all get terribly bored. This time it’s for a piece of non-fiction, my review/rant on Stina Leicht’s first two Fey and the Fallen books has been selected for Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary

As is often the case, I find myself in the kind of company in which I have the vague sense that I’m the idiot boy in the corner that everyone is patting on the head and congratulating for only spilling a little of his weak lemon drink down the front of his shirt. I’m sure the Germans have a word for that…

Despite all this, I think this is book is a great idea and I’d have been buying it even if my essay wasn’t in there. I am, therefore, especially chuffed to have a piece included, and I’m looking forward to seeing which the other pieces that the editors, Jared Shurin and Justin Landon, have selected. And I’m already looking forward to the 2013 edition.

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So I was waiting for a work call and I picked up RH Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society off the top of a pile of books. Published in 1920, the introduction contained some good advice which, I fear – as I am now listening to George Osborne beat the UK’s head against a brick wall for another year – no one in government can hear.

There are times which are not ordinary, and in such times it is not enough to follow the road. It is necessary to know where it leads, and, if it leads nowhere, to follow another. The search for another involves reflection, which is uncongenial to the bustling people who describe themselves as practical, because they take things as they are and leave them as they are. But the practical thing for a traveller who is uncertain of his path is not to proceed with the utmost rapidity in the wrong direction: it is to consider how to find the right one. And the practical thing for a nation which has stumbled upon one of the turning points of history is not to behave as though nothing very important were involved, as if it did not matter whether it turned right or left, went up hill or down dale, provided that it continued doing with a little more energy what it has done hitherto; but to consider whether what it has done hitherto is wise and, if it is not wise, to alter it.

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solarisrising2So busy with stuff I hadn’t noticed that the table of contents for Solaris Rising 2 had been announced. I’m chuffed to be in this book alongside a list of very fine writers.

I’m only slightly worried that I’m the one whose been stuck in to make everyone else look good.

Still, it’s a very good content list and Ian Whates has done an impressive job of putting it together. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Continue reading

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Dan Hartland has posted a review of Rocket Science, the anthology edited by Ian Sales, and he has commented on my story “Pathfinders”. [I’ve always loved Elvis Costello’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – please hum along as you read this post.]

For instance, Martin McGrath’s “Pathfinders” returns us again to Mars, and again to an international team of scientists. As in “A Biosphere Ends,” a catastrophe leads to intense political fallings-out: “The Russians hugged one wall, the Americans the other. The Europeans sat at the table. No one spoke” (p. 101). Meanwhile, China is elsewhere, seeking to outdo the rest of the world. There’s something in McGrath’s admittedly tense and well-turned tale, however, which speaks to a weird lack of inclusivity in Rocket Science: not only is China’s emergence as a power in the space game routinely depicted as something to be feared, but space travel is still largely seen as the province of square-jawed men. McGrath attempts to allow space for queer voices—his main character, Chen, is conducting a homosexual affair with one of the Americans—but even this takes place in light of the fact that “Brad was married with children and neither of them had ever pretended that the relationship had a life beyond the mission” (p. 93). Needless to say, things do not end well for the lovers. There is a real clumsiness about McGrath’s efforts which are very much embedded in a broader set of assumptions evinced at almost every stage of Rocket Science, from its characters to its roster of writers, only five out of twenty-two of whom, for example, are women.

Dan Hartland
Strange Horizons

Never respond to reviews. That’s the rule isn’t it? Never respond to reviews. This is particularly difficult when the reviewer seems to miss the point of your story, even at the most basic level: in this case “Pathfinders” is not set on Mars, it is set on Earth – Antarctica, to be precise (to be fair, there is some deliberate misdirection in the early part of the story and Hartland isn’t the only reader whose missed the switch – so it must be partly my fault). More fundamentally, though, it is frustrating when the reviewer assigns attitudes or views to you or your story that are the opposite to those you hoped to get across.

So, sod the rule. I’m going to respond to the review. Or, at least, I want to reflect on it a bit. Continue reading

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Things have been quiet here for a few weeks and are likely to remain so for a while longer – apologies. However, I’d just like to draw your attention to the appearance of my story “Eskragh” in issue 12 (titled Night Legends) of Dark Fiction Magazine.Thanks to the editors for selecting it and transforming it so artfullly into a podcast.

It is a very strange thing to hear my words read by someone else – especially this story which is quite a personal tale. “Eskragh” first appeared in Albedo One.

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The blurb in the back of The New Few (or a Very British Oligarchy) by Ferdinand Mount (Simon & Schuster, 2012) rather modestly describes the author as a former columnist for The Spectator, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times, editor of the TLS and former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit. What it omits is that his full title is Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet, that he was very largely responsible for the radical 1983 Tory manifesto that defined what we now call Thatcherism and that despite being too “wet” to ever be what Thatcher called “one of us” he is – having attended Eton and Cambridge and, amongst other things, served on the board of a merchant bank – most certainly “one of them”.

All that serves to make the first section of this book, an analysis of the way in which the bankers and executives have, over the last thirty years, steadily accreted to themselves obscene amounts of wealth and power a critique that is significantly more devastating than it might be have been had it come from another source. The second section, which looks at the state of our politics, is more problematic – Mount encounters a number moments of cognitive dissonances as the logic of the argument in the first half of his book conflicts with his patrician conservative outlook, but it still contains a number of interesting insights. The third section suffers slightly in that Mount’s enthusiasm and optimism regarding the Coalition government appears to have been overtaken by events in significant areas – this is a problem for any journalism published in book form. Nevertheless the programme of reforms Mount sets out in an attempt to reduce inequality and to rein in the power of the elite few who have taken onto themselves the power of oligarchs remains and interesting and potentially radical. Continue reading

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So last night I finally got around to watching Richard II, the first play in the Hollow Crown season currently running on BBC One. It was, I thought, a very strong production of what is quite a difficult play – lacking as it does an easily sympathetic protagonist and realistically portraying politics as a complex, knotty and morally uncertain business – which fails to provide anything that resembles a satisfyingly neat plot arc. Still, I enjoyed it and if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it.

Then I made the mistake of watching the accompanying documentary in which Derek Jacobi discussed the play. For the most part this was an interesting show, though perhaps it skewed too often towards the perspective of actors rather than talking to people who knew anything about the history of the era of either Richard or Shakespeare, or any real insight into politics. However it was spoiled, for me, by the ten minute diversion into the realms of Shakespeare-denial. I hadn’t realised that Jacobi was an “Oxfordian” – someone who believes that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and attributes the works to John de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Continue reading

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Dan Ariely is probably the best known voice in the popularization of behavioural economics. Behavioural economics represents the most significant challenge to the ideas of classical economic theorists built around notions of more-or-less perfectly rational individuals who calculate and diligently pursue narrow profit maximisation. Building on the insights of behavioural psychology – especially in its focus on the use of experimentation to examine how people actually act in certain situations, rather than how the “should” behave – behavioural economics offers often surprising insights that undermine many of the basic assumptions of the prevailing classical model. Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home (Harper, 2011) follows up the excellent Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins 2009). As the title suggests this book seeks to place a more positive spin on our irrationality, making the case that our irrationality represents much of humanity’s better nature. And, crucially, Ariely argues that we should construct our social, economic and political structures on the an understanding of how people actually behave rather than how we imagine they will or should behave.

To be sure, there is a great deal to be learned from rational economics, but some of its assumptions—that people always make the best decisions, that mistakes are less likely when the decisions involve a lot of money, and that the market is self-correcting—can clearly lead to disastrous consequences. (104-6) Continue reading

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Michael J Sandel opens What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) with a list (3-5) of some novel items that can be bought:

  • In California prisoners can pay $82 a night for better, quieter cells.
  • $8 to drive alone in a car pool lane during rush hour in Minneapolis.
  • Western couples can pay $6,250 for an Indian surrogate mother.
  • $500,000 will buy a green card and permanent residency in the US.
  • Hunting endangered black rhinos in South Africa: $150,000
  • Concierge doctor service – including 24 hour mobile phone number – up to $25,000 per year.
  • The right to emit one metric ton of carbon in the atmosphere, €13.

And some new ways to make money:

  • Sell tattooed advertising space on your body.
  • Act as a human guinea pig in drug trials.
  • Serve as a mercenary in Somalia or Afghanistan.
  • Stand in line overnight to secure a place in US Congressional hearing for a lobbyist.
  • As a student, get paid to read a book in Dallas.
  • Lose weight and get paid by your insurance company.
  • Buy life insurance for someone you don’t know who is sick or elderly.

The last three decades have been a period of market triumphalism and market values have invaded our life as never before. This is was not a choice we made but “economic imperialism” has spread stealthily so that the logic of buying and selling applies not just to material goods but the whole of life. The financial crisis has shaken faith in the practical application of markets, but has also raised other questions about the morality of markets. The issue is not just a few greedy bankers, we must ask what markets are for, what areas of our life do we want them to manage and whether there are some things that money can’t buy. Continue reading

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The best joke in the Finnish Nazis-on-the-moon movie Iron Sky is, ironically, also the one that best demonstrates the film’s weaknesses. Idealistic Nazi teacher, Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), shows her young class a sharply edited (ten minutes long) version of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and, as the Jewish barber disguised as Hynkel dances with the globe, she proclaims to her pupils that it demonstrates Chaplin’s “wish that one day the entire world should be held in the great Fuhrer’s wise and gentle hands”. It’s a cute moment, but the problem in invoking Chaplin’s classic is that it reminds the viewer that if you’re going to make a comedy about Nazis, you really better have something important to say about them.

Iron Sky fails this test. Indeed the biggest problem with this film is that it doesn’t really understand Nazis at all, and certainly fails to grasp why we should continue to abhor them. Continue reading

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The Triads of Ireland by Kuno Meyer (1906, available from Project Gutenberg) is a collection of a specifically Irish form of poetry popular amongst Irish bards that probably date from the Ninth Century[i]. They are, as the name suggests, based on threes – they’re sometimes witty, sometimes profound, sometimes strange and I discovered them recently while reading David Greene and Frank O’Connor’s A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry: AD 600 – 1200 (Macmillan, 1967). A lot of ancient Irish poetry has the kind of sparseness that we associate with Japanese verse (there are beautiful, brief, precise poems like “Writing Out Of Doors” and “Winter” in the Greene & O’Connor volume) and best of the triads seem, to me, to have a haiku-ish thing going on. They do make me wish that I’d paid more attention when people were trying to teach me Irish since something is lost in translation. Still, I was delighted to discover them.

Some of them are bland and for some of the meanings are long lost in history, like this one:

107. Three wonders of Ireland: the grave of the dwarf, the grave of Trawohelly, an echo near.

But, here are some of the finer examples that caught my eye – they either give an insight into the ancient mind, express wisdom that reaches across time, they just made me laugh or I found the images they evoke to be striking. Not all of them are exactly politically correct… and there’s quite a bit of ale. Continue reading

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I want to start this post by saying plainly that I believe that it is possible for writers to create important and insightful work about cultures to which they do not belong. There is a somewhat crude (but, it seems to me, increasingly common) form of postcolonial criticism – often proceeding from a partial, or second-hand, understanding of the work of Edward Said – which argues that this is not the case. At its most strongly stated, this position dismisses all use of “exotic” (usually third world) cultures and locations by “privileged” (usually first world) authors as straightforward cultural appropriation, simply reproducing and reinforcing power dynamics that were set in place by European imperialism. This can lead to the belief that the “right” to write about specific cultures, particularly marginalised or oppressed communities, belongs only to those from within that culture 1.

In disagreeing with the crudest form of this argument I don’t want to deny Said’s basic point: culture played and continues to play a key role in reinforcing the position of the powerful in relation to those they seek to dominate. Nor would I want to underplay the threat posed to marginalised groups by cultural appropriation. But, like Said, I believe that there are dangers in oversimplifying this issue. Continue reading


  1. The definition of culture here is, for me, complicated. What “culture” is mine? How is my “ownership” of a culture proscribed by geographical, ethnic, social or temporal boundaries and how do I prove my “rights” to that culture? How far, for example, does my “Irishness” give me the right to write about those who have radically different histories within Ireland? There are obvious potential limits to my experiences – I can only speculate about the different perspectives that are afforded with different genders or ethnicities. In the deeply divided culture of Northern Ireland, how valid are my speculations about a Protestant (I’m Catholic) character even if we share many characteristics? And cultures are rapidly evolving things – I would similarly be speculating, for example, if I tried to write about someone whose character was formed in generations outside my own. The Northern Ireland I grew up in was radically different from the one my parents’ generation knew and it has changed even further for those who grow up in Northern Ireland today. I know the history but it is not my experience. I can get angry or upset when I read about what was done in the past but these sympathetic emotions are not the same as those that surface when I recall what happened to me and my friends. I am sceptical, therefore, about those who claim that they possess some unique signifiers that allows them to speak authoritatively for large groups of people who they describe as belonging to “their” culture.
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Robert Reich has been banging on about the risks to advanced economies of increasing levels of inequality for longer than most.  The Work of Nations (published in 1991 and the book that got him headhunted by Bill Clinton’s campaign and, eventually, appointed as US Secretary of Labor) set out pretty accurately how the “global” economy would allow the elite to accumulate vast wealth while the rest were left behind, the steady squeezing of the middle class and the end of public investment. If things have turned out somewhat worse than Reich believed – the new class of “symbolic analysts” that he predicted emerging as an independent and powerful social force have (except for a few superstars) found their wages and status just as squeezed as those who worked in the “old” economy – he can, at least, always claim that he saw the shape of things more clearly than most.

Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it (Alfred A Knopf, 2012 – eBook only[i]) is a snappily-titled extended essay that first tries to cut through the chaff about the causes of the problems facing America’s political and economic system and then makes a powerful case that collective action can still make a difference – that it is still possible to reverse the trends that threaten the democratic state.

Reich’s book is entirely focused on America – and particularly on trying to mobilise progressives to press for a more radical agenda for the forthcoming Presidential poll and beyond. However, there are obvious parallels in many of his arguments that apply beyond the borders of the US. Continue reading

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I am slightly worried, given the brightly coloured cover of this book and the snappy title (screaming exclamation mark and all), that Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! (Melrose Road Partners, 2012) is going to end up in the hands of a lot of disappointed people looking for a quick fix for the their mental health problems. In fact, while Krugman does his best to be upbeat and make the case for a set of positive, quick and straightforward policies we can use to solve the current economic crisis, there’s a risk that reading about the shocking, self-interested and deliberately disingenuous decisions that have served to lengthen our current economic woes will only make those who are prone to melancholy feel even gloomier.

Paul Krugman [obligatory reference to Nobel laureate goes here] is a smart guy. Back in 1999 he published a book called The Return of Depression Economics – it was a book that I read and digested and used to parrot bits (usually without attribution – hey, I want to look smart too!) at the drop of a hat into conversations that were often only very tangentially concerned with economics. What I discovered, and I’m sure Krugman has experienced this a thousand-fold, is that in the good times no one likes to be warned of the disaster that is around the corner. No one, it turns out, makes passes at Cassandras who predict losses. Continue reading

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I first read some of Frank O’Connor’s short stories (and translated Irish poetry) when I was at school and they made an impression because when I picked up a second hand collection recently, some of the stories came back to me word for word and, I realised, they’d been pickling in my brain for decades. So, when I discovered that he’d written a book called The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (Melville House Publishing, 2004), I was pestering the internet at once.

O’Connor was born in Cork in 1903, his best writing is a sharply observed insight into the world of my grandfather (who was about the same age) – rural Ireland seen through an amused, slightly cynical but generally sympathetic eye. The Lonely Voice, then, is a remarkable book to be written by a man who grew up in the poorest of circumstances and received little formal education. It is based upon a series of lectures he gave at Stanford University in the early 1960s, not long before he died, and it ranges widely across the “greats” of the short story form, with chapters on, amongst others, Maupassant, Turgenev, Flaubert and Chekhov. Continue reading

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Chris Beckett’s third novel, Dark Eden, is a complex thing. It draws, as the title suggests, on the ur-biblical theme of the fall from innocence but it is also the story of an isolated human community culturally (and physically) devolving. It belongs to a sfnal tradition that has its roots in works like Lord of the Flies by William Golding and Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. From this, relatively familiar, starting point, Beckett teases out an examination of how power, in its variety of forms, is exercised within groups and how history is shaped and moulded by those exercising that power. The result is a psychologically rich, morally tangled and intelligently written novel.

The story opens 163 years after misadventure and disaster stranded two humans, Angela and Tommy, on a very strange planet. Dark Eden wanders without a sun, somewhere between galaxies, but heat drawn from the core supports a compellingly weird and believably intricate ecosystem.

“… and off we went again, under redlanterns and whitelanterns and spiketrees with flutterbyes darting and glittering all round us and bats chasing the flutterbyes and trees going hmmph, hmmph, hmmph like always, until it all blurred together in that hmmmmmmmmmmm that was the background of our lives.” Continue reading

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So, I did a recording of my story Eskragh for a friend, and then I thought about putting it up here. And then I didn’t. But since this seems to be an unofficial Irish-themed week on the blog and since I haven’t done this sort of thing before – what the hell.

This isn’t the most professionally recorded thing ever placed on the internet. And you’ll have to put up with both my accent and my slightly croaky voice making the whole thing more-or-less unintelligible but if you want to listen to me mangling my own story – rated (preposterously) as one of the best pieces of short fiction published last year by Tangent Online – then here’s your chance.

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Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape, 2012) is Kevin Barry’s second collection of short stories, following There are Little Kingdoms (2007) and his spectacular first novel, City of Bohane (2011). Given the long and rich history of Irish writers exploiting the short form, from the roots of the Irish oral storytelling tradition through the unavoidable James Joyce to the post-war Cork school, new writers are burdened with a weight of history that has the potential to crush flat their ability to express themselves. So when I say that Barry isn’t just a spearcarrier in that tradition but that he takes it forward and finds new ways of expressing himself within it, I’m aware that I’m ramping up the expectations to very high levels.

There are, of course, ways in which Barry’s short fiction reflects those that have gone before. You can, by turns, find in Barry’s writing those moments of epiphany, the concern with those struggling to stay afloat on the edges of our society and the flashes of humour that mark out the best of the Irish tradition (Joyce, O’Connor and Ó Faoláin, respectively), but Barry has a voice that is also distinctly his own. Not the least of his advantages is that he can offer a sometimes bitter reflection on the all-to-brief brush with economic good fortune that marks Ireland’s recent past as dramatically distinct from its deeper history. Continue reading

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This piece was written as part of the BSFA’s Vector Reviewers’ Poll for 2011. Vector reviewers get to nominate their five favourite books of the previous year. In 2011 my five were:

  • Silver Wind, Nina Allan (Eibonvale Press)
  • City of Bohane, Kevin Barry (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Islanders, Christopher Priest  (Gollancz)
  • By Light Alone, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • Osama, Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

I chose to focus on just one of them. I picked Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane primarily because I expected there would be plenty of other people smarter than me to heap praise on the other books I’d chosen…

The thing that strikes me about my list of favourite books of 2011 is that none of them come from the genre ‘core’. This is unusual for me. Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone probably comes closest to being a straightforward science fiction novel but, being by Adam Roberts, it’s anything but straightforward. If I had to recommend one book from 2011, though, it would be Kevin Barry’s City Of Bohane, which just edges out Chris Priest’s brilliant The Islanders. Continue reading

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Writing in defence of politics and, indeed, politicians is always a potentially risky pastime. The overwhelming public perception of politics is so cynically negative that anyone who speaks out in favour of those who take on public office is immediately the subject to suspicion (mostly of “being ambitious” or, more kindly, of “being niave”). And, often enough, politicians let you down and do stupid or venal things. There have been strange moments of cognitive estrangement this week reading Matthew Flinders’ Defending Politics (Oxford University Press, 2012) and agreeing with most (though not quite all) of what he writes while another Tory minister is revealed to have behaved like (at best) an idiot.

And yet, even as Jeremy Hunt’s foolishness or corruption deals another blow to the public image of politics, this week has also contained clear indications of the far higher price that accompanies the absence or abandonment of politics. In The Hague, the way in which Charles Taylor manipulated the bloody anarchy in Sierra Leone has been revealed. In Norway, Anders Breivik’s belief in the unassailable moral superiority of his opinions and the demonization of politicians led him to murder 77 people whose primary “crime” was a desire to make their community better. And, on a smaller scale, in Northern Ireland the absence of a trusted legal framework caused a mother to take her drug addict son to an alleyway and watch him get shot twice in the legs by vigilantes take the policing of a community into their own hands. Continue reading

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A Country is Not a Company by Paul Krugman, (Harvard Business School Classics, 2009) is a brief essay that highlights the fallacy behind the notion that success in business automatically provides individuals with the insight necessary contribute advice towards the management of a national economy.

A country is not a big corporation. The habits of mind that make a great business leader are not, in general, those that make a great economic analyst; an executive who has made $1 billion is rarely the right person to turn to for advice about a $6 trillion economy. Why should that be pointed out? After all neither businesspeople nor economists are usually very good poets, but so what? Yet many people (not least successful business executives themselves) believe that someone who has made a personal fortune will know how to make an entire nation more prosperous. In fact, his or her advice is often disastrously misguided. (1-2)

Krugman makes the point that the style of thinking necessary for success in business and success in economic policy-making are very different. He offers two examples of how the experience of running a successful business can actually lead people astray when they come to think about running national economies. First he looks at the relationship between exports and jobs and, second, at the relationship between foreign investment and trade balances. Continue reading

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Something different this week, because, some days, it feels like I’m living through a terrible remake of the 1980s directed by Uwe Boll…

The Redskins are a celebration of hope and pride. Amidst all the dross of the music scene, all the kajagoogoo-gaga imbecility and whinging shite, there’s, like, only a handful of bands that have got any spirit. And at a time when people are getting really battered, when the Tories are really sticking the boot in hard and it’s not like 1976 anymore, with just a million plus on the dole and a few cuts in welfare. It’s 1983 with three and a half million plus, four million unemployed and the Tories like systematically dismantling the whole of the welfare state and yet the hardest music that’s coming out is on the level of griping about the sorry state we’re in and the same hundred words rearranged a hundred different ways to paint the same sorry picture of misery. There’s too many rock and roll philosophers about, the point is not to interpret the world but to change it. And there’s three things, three things you need: Continue reading

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I have in my clammy little paws my contributor copy of Rocket Science, the new anthology from Mutation Press, edited by the estimable Ian Sales. This fine looking volume of short stories and non-fiction features my tale of a (sort of) Mars mission, “Pathfinders”. Continue reading

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In their introduction to Politics and the Emotions (Continuum, 2012)  Simon Thompson and Paul Hoggett point out that models based on the unwavering rationality of the individual have dominated the social sciences for much of the last century. Like sociology and economics, political studies

“eschewed considerations of the emotions. It was assumed that political subjects were essentially rational actors busily maximising their strategic interests even while sometimes constrained by their limited information-processing abilities. This strange and lopsided account of the political subject split cognition from emotion, and reason from passion.” (1)

While economics has, over recent years, had an increasing number of voices arguing for a break from rigidly rational models – particularly in the field of behavioural economics – political theory has continued to be dominated by the work of authors like Habermas and Rawls who, in their concern with communicative rationality, have argued for the exclusion of emotional attachments from political debate. Continue reading

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If Britain were going to have a superhero team made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual characters, then you’d expect them to live in Brighton. It’s the obvious choice. But that’s about the only predictable thing in Martin Eden’s indie comic series, Spandex. There’s an awful lot to like in these books, the twisty-turny storytelling, the simple, colourful and striking artwork, the memorable characters, and, for the most part, it all works extremely well. The fact that its lead characters are LGBT and that it deals smartly and sensitively with the issues raised by that fact is integral to the story, but it’s almost a bonus on top of what is (for want of a better word) straightforwardly engaging storytelling.

Eden originally conceived Spandex as taking the form of a single book containing five non-consecutive issues (1, 4, 8, 12 and 15) pulled from an imaginary on-going comic series, leaving the reader to fill in the continuity. As someone who grew up reading random issues of American Marvel comics I picked up (mostly on seaside holidays in Donegal), this struck me as a brilliant idea – this was precisely how I first encountered superhero comics. Continue reading

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I am very pleased to be able to say that the judging process for this year’s James White Award has now been completed and the winner chosen – to be announced at the BSFA Awards ceremony on Sunday 8 April.

In the meantime I can now announce the full shortlist with the names of the authors.

The shortlisted authors for this year’s James White Award are:

Gaea Denker-Lehrman – “Solvers”
Darren Goossens – “Circle
David McGroarty – “A Traveller from an Antique Land”
CJ Paget – “Invocation of the Lurker”
Sarah Stanton – “Chrysanthemum”
Tori Truslow – “Train in Vain”

Thank you to the JWA judges – Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Juliet E McKenna and Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock from Interzone and to all the authors who took part. Everyone always says in these things that picking the winner was very difficult, and no one really believes them, but this was a proper, close competition and the final decision really was difficult.

If you go over to the James White website, you can read the opening passages of all six stories and learn a bit more about the shortlisted authors.

The winners will be announced over on the James White Award website on Sunday, or hear it first at the BSFA Awards’ Ceremony if you’re at Eastercon.

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Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism by George A Akerlof and Robert J Shiller (Princeton University Press, 2010) starts with the argument that traditional economic models based on rational actors and perfect markets cannot explain the economic crisis we currently face and cannot point us in the direction of policies that will solve that problem. At the most basic level, they argue that economic textbooks:

“do not give much enlightenment about the ultimate drivers of the economy. They do not do so because the understanding of drivers must lie somewhat outside the traditional boundaries of economic research, in the realm of psychology… which is an intellectual tradition alien to most economists. Macroeconomists have found it difficult to formalise the concept of animal spirits on their own terms, so they have largely neglected it.” (iii) Continue reading

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I wasn’t going to comment on the Clarke Award kerfuffle caused by Chris Priest’s blog post about the shortcomings of the shortlist and his attack on the committee – but everyone else seems to be getting stuck in, so here is my somewhat late (I’m having internet connection problems) take on the situation. Continue reading

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I always have more than one book on the go at any given time.  There is always one novel and one work of non-fiction work (usually something on politics, history or economics) on the go. Actually, I’m usually part way through several works of non-fiction at any given time and, when I commuted, I was always reading two novels (one paperback for the train, one hardback for home). Since I’m not travelling regularly into London any more, however, these days it tends to be just one novel. Added to that, I read comics (or graphic novels, or whatever) and  subscribe to at least two dozen magazines.

I’m not saying you this to brag about how much I read – actually it’s a stupid habit since I’d be far better off concentrating on one thing at a time, but I lack that discipline. Continue reading

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Generally, when someone says a Hollywood blockbuster is “the worst film ever” my reaction is to ball my fingers into a fist and beat him soundly. It’s not that I want to defend big studio releases or even that I think The Matrix Revolutions, Pearl Harbour or John Carter are good films. They’re obviously not.

But… Worst. Film. Ever!?

Not even close.

The reason I want to beat the (patently wrong) opinion-spouting fool to within an inch of his life isn’t because he is displaying faulty critical judgement. It’s because he clearly hasn’t done the legwork necessary to have the right to an opinion on a matter of such importance.

He hasn’t seen what I’ve seen. He hasn’t been where I’ve been. He doesn’t know man. He just doesn’t know… Continue reading

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Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale by Debra Satz is a work of political philosophy that critiques the assumptions that underlie much modern economic theory and the implications of those assumptions in the application of markets to real world problems.

Satz starts from the principle that markets have their value and their place but that both are, in the real world, limited. Markets are often conceived, by both neoliberals and egalitarians, as “an all-purpose remedy” for the defects of government and state control. But, as markets have been applied to new areas, new concerns have arisen about their morality. In arenas such as the sale of human organs, sex, reproductive services, blood diamonds, weapons and (medical and recreational) drugs the application of market solutions elicit very different reactions from markets in other commodities. Satz believes that such markets “strike many people as noxious, toxic to important human values. These markets evoke widespread discomfort and, in the extreme, revulsion.” (3). Continue reading

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John Carter of Mars is going to go down in the history books as one of the biggest flops in cinema history . It might have been cheaper for Disney to actually build a pile of money and climb to Edgar Rice Burrough’s fabled Barsoom rather than make this film. The early reckoning is that the film will lose around $200 million – in simple cash terms, not allowing for inflation – that would make it the biggest flop in cinema history.

Which is notable, because while John Carter is dull – two long hours of unengaging piffle – it isn’t any more dull than a host of other blockbusters that justify their existence by raking back enough cash to keep the studio wheels turning. Continue reading

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Since issue 58 of Focus is now off to the printer, I thought I’d put up this from issue 57 – the second in what appears to be an ongoing series of flash fiction pieces inspired by common writerly errors indentified by The Turkey City Lexicon. This is a slightly longer version than the one that saw print, which was cut to fit.


The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M Disch)

The Turkey City Lexicon

Continue reading

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A bumper mailing includes:


Featuring all the shortlisted short stories…
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley
Covehithe by China Miéville
Of Dawn by Al Robertson



Continue reading

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No one should go into director David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense expecting a light-hearted romp. This apocalyptic romance is a slow-burn – despite packing four separate-but-linked disasters into a brief 88 minute. Its characters exist on the edge of the world (well, Glasgow) and can only watch and wait, essentially incapable of influencing the flow of events, as the end of civilisation creeps inexorably towards them. The film’s focus is not on impressive special effects or derring-do but on the emotional turmoil of a damaged couple. Continue reading

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Despite the garish cover and silly title, John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010) is a book with a serious and timely intent – to rescue our societies from the disastrous effects of right-wing economic orthodoxy. Quiggin begins by quoting Keynes’ contention that practical men “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” and that economists, philosophers and politicians tend to get stuck in patterns of thought that have long outlived their usefulness.

Ideas are long lived, often outliving their originators and taking new and different forms. Some ideas live on because they are useful. Others die and are forgotten. But even when they have proved themselves wrong and dangerous, ideas are very hard to kill. Even after the evidence seems to have killed them, they keep coming back. These ideas are neither alive nor dead; rather, as Paul Krugman has said, they are undead, or zombie ideas. (1) Continue reading

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This week I read Strange Divisions & Alien Territories: The Sub-genres of Science Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) edited by Keith Brookes. It’s a collection of essays that, the blurb on the back says:

explores the sub-genres of science fiction from the perspective of a range of top SF authors, combining a critical viewpoint with exploration of the challenges and opportunities facing authors working in SF today.

I can’t honestly say that the book fulfils that blurb. As with most collections the quality of the essays varies – although in Strange Divisions & Alien Territories that range is broader than most with some very good pieces and some that, well, just aren’t[i]. A few too many of the essays descend into long lists of books that fit into various categories, lacking any critical framework. And a number of the essays (indeed many of the better examples) deal with topics that don’t seem, to me, to represent a “sub-genre” by any definition of that term. Adam Roberts writes about religion and sf, Paul di Filippo discusses people possessing superhuman powers and Tony Ballantyne considers post-humans in SF – these essays are interesting, but they seem to me to be discussions of themes within SF, not sub-genres. Continue reading

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Hugo is a beautifully made film with a big heart. Every frame is overflowing with the director, Martin Scorcese’s, obvious love and enthusiasm for the medium in which he has immersed himself during his career. Every part of the film fits together as neatly and as intricately as the clockwork mechanisms that feature so frequently through the course events. The wonderful cinematography, the precise framing and the spectacular use of 3D effects mean that Hugo is a magnificent spectacle, and a fitting monument to cinema as a medium of sensation.

But that’s not to say that Hugo is a particularly good film. Continue reading

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The Cost of Inequality: Three Decades of the Super-Rich and the Economy (Gibson Square, 2011) by Stewart Lansley is an interesting book that seeks to build on recent works, such as Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, by arguing that the case for a more equal distribution of national wealth isn’t just ethical and social but also economic. The grossly unequal distribution of wealth found (especially) in America and Britain has a destabilising effect that undermines profitability and economic growth and destroys industrial dynamism.

Lansley begins by rehearsing the increasingly well-known, but none-the-less strikng evidence for growing inequality in the UK and the US. Lansley identifies a “limit to the inequality that is consistent with economic stability and dynamism” and goes on to identify the creation of a two-track economy. Continue reading

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One of the things that I’ve got back into thanks to the purchase of a tablet is regularly reading comics bought via Comixology. Having got the taste electronically, I’ve also started to pick up a number collected editions and graphic novels. So I thought I might start off putting together a monthly review of the stuff I’ve read. We’ll see how that works out, but here’s the first attempt, looking at a new Daredevil, Mystery Men and Goliath. Continue reading

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Chronicle is the story of three high school kids: Andrew, a “troubled” loner from a poor family with an abusive father and a sick mother; Matt, his smarter, more popular cousin; and Matt’s friend Steve, the token ethnic character. “Troubled” Andrew has recently taken to carrying around an improbably large video camera, which is lucky because almost at once Matt finds a mysterious hole making strange noises[i]. Displaying the utter lack of an instinct for self-preservation required of characters in lazily-scripted teen horror films, our witless trio plunge into the hole and get impregnated by a (presumably alien) monster. Instead of dying, or having something interesting leap from their chest, our boys get a superpower – telekinesis – and, in a single leap, they cease to be a group of annoying, whiny teens and become, instead, a group of annoying, whiny teens who can juggle Lego, crush things with their awesome brains, fly and get regular nosebleeds. Continue reading

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So, the 60 novels submitted to the judges for consideration for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award have been revealed over on Torque Control. There’s also a competition to pick the likely shortlist, which I’m not eligible to enter as I’m on the BSFA Committee – although I should make clear before going any further that this doesn’t mean I have any clue what the actual shortlist will include.

Looking through the list, I’ve read at least part of 16 of the novels that were submitted this year: Continue reading

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This week I have been reading Sparta: The Body Politic (The Classical Press of Wales, 2010, editors Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson), which contains a number of interesting essays on ancient Sparta but the one that really got me thinking was “Gynecocracy: How Women Policed Masculine Behaviour in Archaic and Classical Sparta” by Thomas J Figueira. In it Figueira looks at the evidence for gynaikokratia (“rule by women” – Aristotle’s phrase for “an unusual influence over public affairs and social relations” enjoyed by Spartan women) and the attitudes towards it. The essay  is interesting because while there are an increasing number of people writing about the economic, sexual and political influence of Spartan women and the notion of their “liberation” (or absence thereof), Figueira attempts a partial reconstruction of the social psychology of Spartan society (and non-Spartan Greek and Roman attitudes to it) based on the existing sources. Continue reading

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I originally wrote a post attacking the household analogy for American debt on July 30, 2011. It remains one of the most frequently visited posts on the site. Yesterday Chris posted a lengthy (and sometimes angry) response. I wanted to reply to his points seriously and at length but it was uncomfortable doing that in the comments section (because my response was even longer) – so I’ve pulled it out as a separate post. Unfortunately, you may need to read the first post and Chris’s response for all of this to make sense. Continue reading

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I’m a bit late to getting around to David Estlund’s Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, 2008) but it’s a major work of political philosophy. It is very much in the American tradition of political philosophy strongly influenced by John Rawls’s political liberalism. Estlund defends the core of that project and makes the case that a liberal political schema – a deliberative democratic process, universal suffrage, an attachment to fairness – remains the preferred  mechanism for organising a decent society but his justifications are distinctively his own. Continue reading

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Half term means I’ve not had much time to blog this week – but it does means I got to spend time with my daughter watching The Muppets, swimming and letting her thrash me at ten pin bowling (ahem!). Anyway, instead of something new, here’s something from Focus 56. I’ve been writing little pieces of flash fiction for Focus, the BSFA’s magazine for writers, to illustrate/make fun of some of the common errors made by writers as identified by The Turkey City Lexicon. This is the first one:

“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp”

A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.) Continue reading

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This week I picked up Andrew Pearman’s The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis. It’s a book with a title that seems designed to disappoint readers as it isn’t really an analysis of New Labour, Gramscian or otherwise. Much of the book is an excuse for an ex-communist (turned Green) to complain that New Labour wasn’t communist enough. There are a lot of good reasons to criticise New Labour but complaining that they weren’t communist enough is a bit like kicking your cat because it doesn’t bark enough and calling that a “Gramscian analysis” is like claiming the kicking is a form of practical zoology. The book isn’t a total washout, however, as it does provide an interesting (though partial and shallow) history of the uses and abuses of Gramscian theory by various parts of the post-war British left.

There was one passage that struck a particular chord with me: Continue reading

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Superficially, the opening passages of Kill List  could be taken as the introduction to another Brit-made gangster movie. The central characters, Jay and Gal are guns for hire – mercenaries who do very dirty work. They’ve got a history together, including a visit to Kiev eight months before that, it is suggested, went very wrong. Whatever happened in Kiev, Jay emerged damaged and hasn’t worked since. Money is running out, tensions are growing between Jay and Shel, his wife, and Gal is pestering him to take a new job.

The opening twenty minutes could be the set up for any other “just-one-more-job” crime movie. But no one who sits through Kill List’s first act could be in any doubt that there’s something much, much stranger going on here. The opening sequences are domestic, the relationships between Jay, Gal and Shel (Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley and MyAnna Buring – all excellent) are wholly convincing but the mood is brooding and almost unbearably tense – underscored by intimate camera work and a sparse, menacing score. Continue reading

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Mitt Romney and George Osborne: Proof of an alien communist conspiracy sent to foment a worldwide revolution?[i]

Although I have no proof to support the assertions I am about to make,[ii] this article will argue that the leaders of the world’s conservative parties (and their fellow travellers in the global uprising that has become known as “The One Per Cent”[iii]) have been subject, over many decades, to infiltration by a cadre of alien communists. I want to claim, without much justification, that a group of long-term sleeper agents, now established in positions of influence, have been activated by their alien overlords in a concerted attempt to change the course of human history.

The goal of this (extremely unlikely) conspiracy is nothing less than a worldwide communist revolution and the creation of a single world state. Continue reading

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TAFT 2012

Science fiction doesn’t often do politics. There’s no shortage of sf writers willing to explore ideology or, more frequently, shove their personal ideology down a reader’s throat in the crudest way imaginable, but engagement with the real way that societies make policy decisions is not often the focus of interest[i]. However, Jason Heller’s debut novel, Taft 2012, is a sf&f book with a politician on the cover and a blurb on the back that makes clear that the story is concerned with an American presidential election campaign.

In Taft 2012 one-term US President William Howard Taft disappears on the day that Woodrow Wilson, who had just defeated Taft in the 1912 election, is to be inaugurated. One hundred years later, in a way that is never explained and doesn’t need to be, Taft emerges from the earth of the Rose Garden lawn during a presidential press conference and is immediately shot in the leg by the Secret Service. This miracle rebirth makes him a sensation so, as Taft attempts to come to terms with the 21st Century, he finds himself dragged back into the political turmoil of an election year and ends up campaigning again for the one post he never really wanted, US President. Continue reading

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This week I have been reading the Penguin Classics edition of Sappho’s poetry (Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments). It is a wonderful little book full of extraordinary language. One thing that made me stop was this bit from Aaron Poochigian’s introduction

The Spartan poet Alcman’s First and Third Panthenia (‘Maiden’s Songs’, seventh century BCE) provide evidence of socially sanctioned homoerotic attachments. In the First a chorus of maidens expresses admiration for the awe-striking beauty of its chorus leaders, Agido and Hegesichora. In the Third the chorus looks on Astymeloisa’s beauty with “limb-loosening desire.”(xxv)

That phrase, “limb-loosening desire” is wonderful, a perfect invocation of lust – Sappho uses it (21 – trans. Poochigian):

That impossible predator,
Eros, the Limb-Loosener,
Bitter-sweetly and afresh
Savages my flesh.

I have fallen in love with the little moments in Sappho that stop your heart. Here’s another that made my limbs go loose (35).

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush

These lines manage to be both spare and incredibly lush – so little says so much. One more (29)…

Moon and The Pleiades go down.
Midnight and the tryst pass by,
I, though, lie

Isn’t that beautiful? And isn’t heartbreaking that perhaps 90% of Sappho’s poetry is lost to us?

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…and also the department of, in the politics of image control, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

“A distinguished scholar of Macedonia and Alexander, the Cambridge historian GT Griffith, once observed with a certain amount of frustration: “It is one of the paradoxes of history (and of historiography) that this king… should have been handed down finally in history as an enigma.” Alexander had gone to the lengths of appointing an official historian, Kallisthenes, setting a dangerous precedent; and he always took immense care that his image – understood in the literal, physical sense as well as metaphorically – should be disseminated widely as possible throughout his empire in the forms that he personally had authorized and approved. Yet a fertile combination of nonsurvival of the contemporary primary literary sources, the survival of a relatively small number of contemporary official and unofficial documents, and the immense controversies that his career generated both during and long after his lifetime has ensured that attempting to reconstruct the historical Alexander is almost as problematic as trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus.”

Paul Cartledge, Introduction to The Landmark Arrian (xv-xvi)

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There is, when you think about it, a surprisingly long list of very good films about boxing. Consider just the biopics: Raging Bull (the story of Jake LaMotta); Somebody Up There Likes Me (Rocky Marciano); The Hurricane (Rubin Carter); Gentleman Jim (Jim Corbett); Cinderella Man (James J Braddock); and The Fighter (Micky Ward). On top of that can be added purely fictional stories like The Harder They Fall (Bogart’s last film), On the Waterfront, Rocky, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Million Dollar Baby, The Set Up and all the way back to the magnificent Wallace Beery in The Champ. And then there’s one of the finest documentaries about sport ever made: When We Were Kings.

The most affecting boxing movies are often stories of redemption, of strong men (and very occasionally, women) finding a space between the ropes where they can transcend their frailties. Despite the tough guys and the brutal fighting, boxing movies are most often tales of human weakness.

It’s a fact that makes Real Steel’s decision to remove the human from the ring either brave or stupid. Continue reading

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I have been thinking recently that a lot of the science fiction books I’ve read in the last few months are particularly cruel about the lives of ordinary people. Take this passage by James Lovegrove in Redlaw, which attacks The Daily Mail reader mentality:

“There’s a reason why that rag is as popular as it is,” said Lambourne. “It mines a seam of middle-class paranoia, the dread of the comfortably-off that their prosperous existence could be upended at any moment, all their meagre privilege and material advantage snatched away. It exploits a flaw in the psyche of a particular stratum of society, very profitably.”

What’s notable about this passage is that it does not attack the journalists, editors, owners and supporters of The Daily Mail who pursue profit by cynically playing on their readers’ insecurities. Like most of us, the middle classes live in an unstable world where it is far from inconceivable that they might really lose the “meagre” comfort and security that they value and that everyone, not just the middle classes, seeks for themselves and their families. One might argue that The Daily Mail readers’ constant dread of impending disaster are entirely undertandable, even if they are not always logical. Mail readers are being ground in the maw of predatory capitalism along with the rest of us. That is not the same as having sympathy for the way that political and commercial interests seek to twist those insecurities to foster division and to turn fear into anger. But Lovegrove’s chooses not to attack The Daily Mail and its fellow travellers, in Redlaw he turns his fire on the people who feel insecure – they are the ones with a “flaw in the psyche”. Continue reading

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Well, I nominated four of the five shortlisted novels for this year’s BSFA Award (and Kim Lakin-Smith’s Cyber Circus came close to getting a nod too) so I can’t complain about the shortlist.

Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Mieville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

I was pleased to see Lavie Tidhar’s Osama on the list, I thought it was an outsider to make it on to the shortlist because I wasn’t sure how many BSFA members would have picked it up but it absolutely deserves the recognition. I’ve already reviewed Adam Roberts By Light Alone – a book that I thought was excellent but it was a review that took ages. I thought about reviewing Embassytown, The Islanders and Osama but they’re even more complex books than By Light Alone, there are lots of perceptive reviews of them out there and I’m not sure I’ve got anything to add except to say that I think all five books on the shortlist are worth your time. I’d back the Chris Priest for a win, but I wouldn’t begrudge any of the books an award. Continue reading

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Somewhere in the heart of Love is a very good short film being brutally battered to death by a writer/director intent on driving home his “VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE” without subtlety. That’s not to say that there aren’t good things in Love, but you have to work to dig them out from a film that is almost buried beneath a landslide of indulgence, borrowed imagery and sloppy thinking.

Love is the story of an astronaut, Captain Miller, abandoned on the International Space Station in 2045 as a mysterious disaster engulfs the planet below. Miller is forced to come to terms with the fact that there will be no rescue and then try to cope with the extreme isolation. There’s a subplot that features an American Civil War Union soldier who escapes certain death in a bloody battle when he is sent to investigate something strange in the wilderness. The action in the film is also intercut with faux interviews of people opining about their experience of the wonders of love and the importance of relationships. Continue reading

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If you’re a member of the BSFA and you didn’t get around to nominating your favourite novels, short stories, non-fiction and artwork for this year’s awards then you’ve got a final chance…

You can email your nominations to or you can go here and fill in the form.

You have until 10:00pm Thursday 19 January to take advantage of this opportunity to have your say.

You can see my list of nominations here but that’s just my ideas.


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I’ve never avoided cracks in the pavements. I stroll with insouciance (but appropriate care, I’m not stupid) beneath ladders. I don’t check my horoscopes. I’ve never even sacrificed a small animal in the hope that its freshly spewed innards would provide some an insight into the future.

I have never been superstitious.

Never, that is, until I began submitting myself to the mind-breaking, soul-shattering, self-confidence-destroying exercise in futility and humiliation that is trying to get editors to accept (and, preferably, pay for) the stories I’ve written.

Now there are signs and portents everywhere. Continue reading

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The last time the Labour Party lost its place as the “natural party of government” at the end of the Wilson/Callaghan era in the late 1970s, the party descended into internal chaos and a state of open warfare existed between three poles in the party – the left and right of the Party hated each other and would do anything to see the other embarrassed, no matter how badly it damaged the Party in the eyes of the voters. Between these grinding stones were the bulk of the Party’s members in the centre, loathed by both sides as compromisers and traitors. Continue reading

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So it’s that time of year again, the deadline for nominations to the BSFA Awards is fast approaching (midnight on 13 January, if you haven’t done your duty yet) so it’s time to think about what I’d like to see on the shortlist. You can see what others have nominated here.

As usual lots of people online have complained about the quality of stuff they’ve read this year, but I felt like I had a rather good year of novel reading and coming up with a shortlist wasn’t hard – in fact I had more trouble narrowing the list down to a remotely sensible length. Continue reading

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