The Sound and the Fury

I went recently to see Fury, the new film starring Brad Pitt, set in the penultimate month of WW2 in Europe and following the crew of a Sherman tank, the eponymous ‘Fury’, as they advance through Germany.

Tanks for the memories

Tanks for the memories

I was really looking forward to this film. I like war movies; Brad Pitt has made some really good films when he’s been given the right kind of role (Se7en, Fight Club); Shia LaBeouf was rumoured to be not terrible on this occasion; the director is the same guy who made the excellent Training Day; and the technical guys had done their research properly and had secured the use of the only working Tiger tank in the world. Oh, and hello to Jason Isaacs.

And by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. The bits of Fury that worked worked extremely well. The story follows Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman, most recently seen starring in the Percy Jackson series of childrens’ fantasy films), a clerk who has been in the army for all of eight weeks, as he replaces Fury’s co-driver and bow gunner, who has been splattered across the interior of the tank. Ellison’s first task, in fact, is to scrub down the seat in which he is to spend the remainder of the war.

Pitt, the sergeant commanding the tank and nicknamed ‘Wardaddy’, leads his group of four Shermans as they go to relieve American forces pinned down in a town they have just liberated. On the way, war happens, including an infantry-supported assault on anti-tank guns and an encounter with a vastly more powerful Tiger.

The technical bits of the film, like I say, work extremely well. A couple of comparisons are worth noting. To me (other opinions are available), the film at its best is reminiscent in tone to Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Cross of Iron. It also has the most accurate tank battle I ever recall seeing. There are a lot of Shermans in A Bridge Too Far, for instance, but none of them ever looked as though they were doing anything more than providing movie-magic pyrotechnics. These tanks look as though they’re actually hammering lumps out of each other. They also – and this seems to be an obscure point to highlight, but bear with me – look as though they’re firing real tracer rounds, which criss-cross the screen like lasers from Star Wars. In fact the comparison with Star Wars rewards further scrutiny, because the last tank battle I remember seeing on a big screen is the finale to The Phantom Menace. That, too, is a film featuring armoured warfare but it’s clearly a children’s movie. Those tanks float over pristine green turf: these ones grind through the mud and over corpses and clatter and howl and batter through a landscape that must submit to them.

But for all that, the points at which this film falls down are precisely those points at which it does not acknowledge its own childishness. Although its nods towards real life and the real experiences of tank crews are very well done (one of the most gruesome – but accurate – scenes in the movie involves a Sherman, a tank notorious for carrying a lot of petrol in a relatively thinly-armoured hull, fully living up to its German nickname of ‘Tommy cooker’) it misses the most fundamental and oft-repeated recollection of the tankers whose memoirs I have read, which was that the job was mostly about ‘just getting on with it’. It might be grotesque or terrifying but you had no option but to get on with it. Fury on the other hand attempts to freight every moment with significance. At its worst it adopts a kind of ‘Boys Own’ stance that it tries to simultaneously endorse and deny. Inserting something like a love story (not a love story, exactly, but certainly something that owes more to This Means War than, say, Bad Lieutenant) into the middle of it seems like a bad idea (although the tension of the subsequent ‘dinner party’ offers the most suspense of any scene in the film); while the very end falls horribly into schmaltz of the worst kind.

Fury is half really good movie and half Hollywood nonsense. It’s great to see a war movie that looks this good: if only it had had the courage of its initial convictions and overcome its poe-faced desire to be A Movie About Something Important it might have been a good war movie. B+

Shermans on Starlingford

Shermans on Starlingford

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Pillow Talk

I am firmly of the opinion that a man’s bedroom is his castle. When I was still living at home this impression was only reinforced on those occasions when I found my mother glaring in at me like a gargoyle that had got itself turned around in a high wind, but that’s parents for you: swanning around the place, acting like they own it, unaccountably annoyed when you conscientiously file every article of clothing you possess under ‘F’ for ‘Floor’.

There were other similarities to castles and suchlike fortifications. It was in my bedroom that I came under aerial attack from the USAAF. A model of a B-29 bomber, an Airfix kit with a wingspan of several feet, slipped off the top of my wardrobe (in retrospect I shouldn’t have set it on the steeply-angled slope of an empty lever arch file) and struck me in the face as I slept below. There are good ways and bad ways to wake up, and a Superfortress in the teeth is one of the most confusing, as well as one of the more painful. Thereafter the big planes were suspended from the ceiling.

(Many years later, armed with lighter fluid and as many caps as I could lay my hands on, I blew up the model in the back garden. I felt suitably revenged.)

My bedroom then – and indeed now, and to a far greater extent – was also my library. (Castles should have libraries, and not just for books like ‘Siege Warfare for Beginners’. I distrust anyone whose bookshelves hint at monomania. A range is vital, even if it’s only a narrow one, or one where the deer and the antelope play.) I must have had a couple of hundred books. This may not sound like much of an achievement – certainly not by comparison with today’s bedroom-cum-athenaeum, as it goes marching bravely and helplessly toward the two-thousand-book mark – but it’s what I spent my pocket-money on, and it therefore represented my chiefest priority. You can tell a lot about someone by what they choose to spend their disposable income on: make what you will of my determined acquisition of the complete works of Terry Pratchett.

There were CD players of various sorts over the years, culminating in a very nice one that is still in my parents’ house (I call that suspicious), but one thing I never had was a television. My parents were absolutely firm on the matter. To this day I can take or leave the goggle box (although I am unendearingly bereft when denied my laptop), so perhaps they knew what they were doing after all. I had, briefly, a little plant that I called ‘Joshua’ (I was listening to a lot of U2 at the time), which had been a birthday present from my sister. It is still alive, but that’s mainly because my mother now looks after it and it lives downstairs where she can keep an eye on it. There was a desk, or at least a sort of wooden support structure for towering stacks of paper that otherwise would more accurately be described as ‘compost heap, with strata’; and there was a near-empty wardrobe that to reach you had to mountaineer your way over heaps of discarded clothing. There was an ancient swivel chair that even then had reached hitherto undreamed-of depths of disreputable decrepitude, and which I still have, here in my bedroom in Aberdeen. There was paint and glue and all the other paraphernalia of an inveterate hobbyist; there was a coffee-mug stain somehow on the ceiling.

Nowadays the picture is little changed. I am trying to wrestle the clothes back to their rightful places; I am fighting a desperate rearguard action against an avalanche of literature that threatens to descend from every shelf. The desk may yet have a clear space at which I can work. The model aeroplanes at least are diecast and have stands, sitting on the tops of my bookcases: I no longer fear miniature bombing raids. There is still modelling material lying around, though – only a couple of months ago I gave myself an experience in unexpected agony when, still blearily half-asleep first thing in the morning, I snatched up a can of deodorant only to discover a little later that I had accidentally sprayed myself with matt varnish that had cemented my underarm hair to my skin and made moving my shoulders an exercise in unbelievable pain.

Some day, of course, I will live in more than one room. Some day the words ‘my bedroom’, ‘my office’, ‘my study’, ‘my library’ and ‘my hobby room’ will not all describe the exact same geographical location. In the meantime, though, I shall man the battlements, pull up the drawbridge, stand by the cannon… and keep a weather eye out for gargoyles.

Not quite as big as a B-29, a Lancaster would probably be equally unpleasant if dropped on your face!

Not quite as big as a B-29, a Lancaster would probably be equally unpleasant if dropped on your face!

 

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On the Beaten Track

A picture post this time, I think. Having been home recently, a couple of weekends ago and before that at Christmas, both times going by car and ferry, I was able to take back with me a lot of the rolling stock for Starlingford that has been accumulating over the last few years here in Aberdeen. Allow me now to introduce it to the wider world… As always, click on the images to enlarge them.

First, the locomotives of the London and North Eastern Railway and, later, the BR Eastern Region:

Gresley A1 'Royal Lancer'

Gresley A1 ‘Royal Lancer’

Peppercorn A2 'Sugar Palm'

Peppercorn A2 ‘Sugar Palm’

Gresley A3 'Flying Scotsman'. This is the locomotive as she appeared in 1947, rebuilt from A1 to A3 standard and still wearing her wartime austerity black livery.

Gresley A3 ‘Flying Scotsman’. This is the locomotive as she appeared in 1947, rebuilt from A1 to A3 standard and still wearing her wartime austerity black livery.

Gresley A4 'Kingfisher'. Note the absence of the side valances: these were removed from all the A4s during WW2 to facilitate maintenance and were never restored.

Gresley A4 ‘Kingfisher’. Note the absence of the side valances: these were removed from all the A4s during WW2 to facilitate maintenance and were never restored.

Robinson J11. These Great Central locomotives earned the nickname 'Pom-Pom' for the distinctive sound of their exhaust.

Robinson J11. These Great Central locomotives earned the nickname ‘Pom-Pom’ for the distinctive sound of their exhaust.

We now move across to the London, Midland and Scottish Railway – the LMS – and its succeeding BR Midland Region:

Riddles 4MT. This class was based on a design by Fairburn for the LMS, but it was actually introduced after BR was formed, so it never wore the LMS livery! This model is a Wrenn, based on the Hornby Dublo tooling, which is contemporaneous with the real thing. As such, it is very heavy, and the motor polarity is reversed - set the controller to 'forward' and this thing will set off smartly in reverse...

Riddles 4MT. This class was based on a design by Fairburn for the LMS, but it was actually introduced after BR was formed, so it never wore the LMS livery! This model is a Wrenn, based on the Hornby Dublo tooling, which is contemporaneous with the real thing. As such, it is very heavy, and the motor polarity is reversed – set the controller to ‘forward’ and this thing will set off smartly in reverse…

LMS Class 2P. Based on a Midland Railway design of Johnson's, this particular example was shedded at Kittybrewster, Aberdeen, not far from where I live.

LMS Class 2P. Based on a Midland Railway design of Johnson’s, this particular example was shedded at Kittybrewster, Aberdeen, not far from where I live.

Johnson 3F. This heavily weathered example is at the head of 12 12-ton ore hoppers. Bachmann produced 512 sets of three wagons each: 4 such sets are in this photo.

Johnson 3F. This heavily weathered example is at the head of 12 12-ton ore hoppers. Bachmann produced 512 sets of three wagons each: 4 such sets are in this photo.

Fowler 4F. The train comprises an array of wagon types and very much lives up to the name 'mixed goods'.

Fowler 4F. The train comprises an array of wagon types and very much lives up to the name ‘mixed goods’.

Class 03 shunter. One of these, D2094, can currently be found on the Royal Deeside Railway.

Class 03 shunter. One of these, D2094, can currently be found on the Royal Deeside Railway.

Turning south, we find the Southern Railway and, later, the Southern Region:

M7 tank engine. This engine, No. 111, was nicknamed 'Three Woodbines' for the number painted on the tank sides.

M7 tank engine. This engine, No. 111, was nicknamed ‘Three Woodbines’ for the number painted on the tank sides.

Bulleid Merchant Navy 'Bibby Line'. A powerful pacific locomotive such as this would have made short work of the short train of 6 Maunsell coaches seen here. Owing to the surfeit of pacific power on the Southern, however, such impressive engines were sometimes to be found pottering along branch lines pulling a single coach!

Bulleid Merchant Navy ‘Bibby Line’. A powerful pacific locomotive such as this would have made short work of the short train of 6 Maunsell coaches seen here. Owing to the surfeit of pacific power on the Southern, however, such impressive engines were sometimes to be found pottering along branch lines pulling a single coach!

Still in the Southern sphere of influence but very much a law unto itself lay the Longmoor Military Railway. The purpose of the facility was to train army locomotive drivers who might have to work overseas ferrying troops and materiel around behind the battlefields of Europe and further afield. The railway continued operating until the 1960s.

350HP Derby shunter 'Basra' - a Modelzone exclusive limited edition, as are the four wagons it's hauling...

350HP Derby shunter ‘Basra’ – a Modelzone exclusive limited edition, as are the four wagons it’s hauling…

Finally, a number of model aircraft I built for the Aberdeen Modelzone store have now come home and are displayed over Starlingford:

A Messerschmitt Bf-109K in an aerodynamically slippery polished aluminium finish finds itself pounced on by a much bigger and heavier P-47 Thunderbolt.

A Messerschmitt Bf-109K in an aerodynamically slippery polished aluminium finish finds itself pounced on by a much bigger and heavier P-47 Thunderbolt.

The pilot of the P-47 lines up on the Messerschmitt...

The pilot of the P-47 lines up on the Messerschmitt…

Guy Gibson's Avro Lancaster 'G George' of 617 Squadron flies over Wyndham army base as it slides down to its attack height of 60' on a pre- Dams Raid training op.

Guy Gibson’s Avro Lancaster ‘G George’ of 617 Squadron flies over Wyndham army base as it slides down to its attack height of 60′ on a pre- Dams Raid training op. The locomotive emerging from the tunnel is a Robinson O4, itself a war veteran: they were built in enormous numbers during WW1 as the wartime Railway Operating Department’s standard freight locomotive.

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Morning Has Broken

I remember, once upon a time, not having sciatica. What I am finding increasingly hard to remember is what that felt like.

It is 05:22. I have been awake since 03:50. The reason for this is that something right at the bottom of my spine is pressing on the sciatic nerve, and this is painful. In my case, there are a number of ways in which this hurts. Sometimes it feels like that knotting sensation you get just before you get a cramp, afflicting my knee, calf and ankle all at the same time. Sometimes it feels like the hot racing sensation you get after your hands have been chilled making snowballs and you suddenly start thawing out. Sometimes it feels like my thigh is badly bruised. And sometimes it just feels like I daren’t put any weight on my leg because it doesn’t feel like it will hold me.

I used to suffer from chronic insomnia, so I know a little about these abandoned watches of the night. This is traditionally the time I watched movies. (I am, right now, halfway through Elysium. I’m writing this because, if I’m honest, it’s not gripping me.) Sometimes I wrote; sometimes I read. Sometimes I lectured – I would pick a topic and construct a talk on it, and then – silently – deliver it (to universal acclaim, naturally).

The stuff I wrote was usually the ongoing business of the novels. Back in October 2012 I submitted the first of them to Harper Voyager, who had an open call for submissions. For fifteen months I heard nothing, which was initially not surprising because they received 4500 entries, and then increasingly encouraging because that number kept getting smaller. Finally, on the day of my 30th birthday, I got a rejection. I was one of the last 250, which is encouraging, but as they say: close, but no cylindrical smoking thing. For those of you interested in what a rejection email from a publisher looks like, this is what mine said:

Thank you very much for providing us with the chance to read your novel, and for your continued patience during the submission process. We are sorry to say that at this time we don’t feel it is right for the Harper Voyager list. Due to the volume of submissions we were fortunate enough to receive, we are unable to provide personal feedback, however, please be assured that your work received thorough and fair consideration. We wish you the best of luck with your writing career, and thank you again for thinking of us.

So there you go. I have it printed out and sitting at my desk. I’m not massively masochistic, but the desire to prove the author wrong provides useful impetus in getting on with finishing the story. (When I wrote for the Gaudie, the student newspaper here in Aberdeen, I had use of a computer in a little cubbyhole in the offices in Luthuli House. To provide similar inspiration, there was a notice taped across the top of the monitor, written by someone who understood very clearly the relationship between the paper and its contributors. It read simply “Be funny, bitch”.)

I am very fortunate in that I have friends and supporters who will, from time to time and without prompting, send me encouragements. One such person – whose name, suitably amended, now appears in the story – texted me as recently as yesterday to say

Have begun Teeth of the Tiger and abandoned it in disgust. I know Clancy inspired you, but you should know you are so much the better writer, whatever Harper may think.

Which is very kind, even if wildly optimistic. (Just for the record, I hated The Teeth of the Tiger too. It’s so woefully written I wonder if it was either a) ghost-written or b) produced as some kind of contractual obligation. Clancy’s good stuff is great fun; this kind of turgid dross is a misery for everyone involved. And as for what happens to the character of Robby Jackson…)

The current word count, for those of you interested in how TWOTD is progressing, is 135190; I have the next couple of chapters fairly thoroughly mapped out, so they should come quite quickly. Thereafter things get more complex, but I know how to resolve the knottiest problems, so nil desperandum.

Speaking of knotty problems, my back has eased up as I’ve been writing this. Of course, that just creates a further dilemma: do I go back to bed for the remaining half hour before I need to get up for work, or does my day start now?

I guess the day starts here. On the plus side: nice long shower and no fighting for the bathroom… And early to work means early home. Could be worse.

In any case, here is your moment of Zen for today:

617 Sqn Lanc Over Base

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Joys Forever

I am an aviation nut. I know that some of you, Dear Readers, may well be wondering by this stage if there is some aspect of nerdishness that I do not adhere to (there is: I don’t do, and have never done, computer and video games) but this is one of those cases where I throw up my hands and say “I know! It’s just the way I am!”

I am an aviation nut. I love planes. I particularly like military planes. For many years, I had an interest solely in those of World War Two. I liked the fighters, like the Spitfire and Mosquito; I liked the four-engined heavies, like the Lancaster and Sunderland. I have a familial connection to the Sunderlands, in fact: built in Belfast, in Shorts, the steel from which they were made was ordered in to the factory by my late great-aunt. I have built models of most of these (although not, as it happens, the Sunderland – I have two kits of those still waiting to be built) but over the last couple of years I have found myself getting interested in what happened after the war.

I worked in Modelzone, and as a result of the healthy staff discount I was afforded I was able to collect some of the diecast metal models that have started to come on to the market in recent years. These are lightyears ahead of the old Matchbox toys – these are proper scale models that look wonderful. Although you always run the risk of encountering manufacturing problems and errors, the finish on them is still better than I can manage, and they do look awfully good on the bookshelf I have set aside for them.

But because these are primarily display models (rather than kits built to be suspended over the railway) it’s worth being a little bit picky. It’s worth selecting them for their aesthetic merits. It’s worth sitting down and thinking which are the nicest looking. To that end, might I present four of what I think are the most attractive jets ever built?

Fighter planes, they say, come in generations. The first of these came immediately after the end of WWII and lasted until roughly the mid-1950s, when aircraft started to come along that used air-to-air missiles as their primary armament rather than guns. But of those initial cannon-armed fighters, I suggest that the most attractive was the American F-86D Sabre Dog.

largeF-86D Sabre DogThe F-86D was a single-seat all-weather interceptor developed from the earlier F-86 Sabre (the easiest way to tell them apart is the nose: the Sabre Dog has a radome where the Sabre has a simple air intake). Larger, faster and more powerful, a Sabre Dog went on to set the world speed record at an altitude of only 125 feet (remember, air is thicker lower down, so you go slower). But records like that fell easily in the 1950s and 1960s, and the next plane on my list took things to a whole new level.

The F-101, nicknamed the ‘F – One Oh Wonderful’ by the people who flew it, was officially called the Voodoo. Initially designed as a ‘penetration fighter’ (i.e. a bomber escort), and then reconfigured as a nuclear strike fighter, the two-seat F-101B was built as an interceptor and used for air defence. Deployed from 1959 onwards, they lasted until 1982 in the role, although by that stage they no longer carried the Genie nuclear air-to-air rockets that they would have used to shatter formations of inbound Soviet bombers.

McDonnell-F-101-B-Voodoo

The big engines you see extending beneath the tail of the aircraft were sufficient to get it up to Mach 1.85 – not bad for a plane in active service before 1960.

The third generation of fighters saw increasing specialisation, and so after a pair of American interceptors can I turn your attention to a training aircraft from the other side of the world? The Mitsubishi T-2 was introduced in 1975 as the first Japanese-built aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight, and bore a striking resemblance to the Anglo-French Jaguar – which was not surprising, since that had been the plane the Japanese initially wanted to buy and, when stymied, used for inspiration. In 1981/2 the Japanese air force display team, ‘Blue Impulse’, re-equipped with the type and gave it their distinctive livery. The result was a wonderful-looking aeroplane.

t-2x2

Which takes us up to Generation Four, which for most of the world is where we are now (the only ‘fifth generation’ fighter in service is the F-22 Raptor). We return to America and to an emphasis on air-to-air superiority, and to the fighter that was advertised as being designed with ‘not a pound for air-to-ground’. Able to go supersonic in a vertical climb, so aerodynamically efficient that one was able to remain in controlled flight after a collision tore its entire starboard wing off, and with a victory roster that boasts over a hundred kills for no losses, the F-15 Eagle is one of the best aircraft of any type ever to take wing. Chuck Yeager – the first man to break the sound barrier – described it as his favourite airplane. F-15C Eagle

I said at the beginning that I have display models of these. If you are interested, these are they:

F-86D Sabre Dog

F-101B Voodoo

Mitsubishi T-2 ‘Blue Impulse’

F-15 Eagle

…But these are just my preferences. What are yours?

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The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I had an interesting conversation earlier today. My brother and I and our friend Bruce were talking about the pleasure that exists in difficulty.

By that I mean both the pleasure one takes in accomplishing a difficult thing, and also the related pleasure that exists in recognising the difficulty of something someone else accomplishes. For instance, a lot of the music that I like I like partly because I know it to be very difficult. I know that the people making it are supremely talented. I can hear their talent – it’s on display, and it should be. There’s a tendency in this country, as part of our societal programming, to downplay the extent of whatever talents we possess. This is sometimes called humility, but it isn’t, not really; it’s actually a very perverse form of pride. In any case, here are a couple of examples to demonstrate what I mean.

I play the drums. I have done for a while. I’ve done it for long enough, in fact, that I have a fairly clear-sighted knowledge of my shortcomings. I know I am not a particularly talented drummer – I am a competent one, but I simply do not practice enough (or, for that matter, have the opportunity to practice enough) to promote me to any level above ‘reasonable’. That said, I am good enough to understand and appreciate greatness in others. On that note, have a listen to this:

There is some debate among rock drumming fans as to who is the better drummer – John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin) or Ginger Baker (of Cream). I’m always going to come down on the side of Bonham, because I think he understood – better than Baker, although of the two of them Baker was probably the more musically gifted – how to use a kit as part of an ensemble and how to use a kit to communicate with an audience. And I think his technique was better. Incidentally, the song above is the first track off Led Zeppelin’s first album – that was their debut, their announcement to the world that they exist. Which makes the ambition of it even more startling.

There are other great examples of this. I love Mark Knopfler’s music. I love Elton John’s. Both of them excel at making complex music accessible. Elton John in particular is notable for making music that seems simple until you actually see it written down and realise that the chord progressions involved are nothing like as straightforward as you assumed. Take, for instance, ‘This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore’, which seems to feature an introduction of sequentially descending chords -

- which it does, but not the chords you think they are. They are so much more intricate than that. They are fascinatingly non-conventional. Observe:

19398758As for me, I like doing things that are difficult if I can do them well enough to satisfy my own demands (of course getting to that stage is nowhere near as fun….). So, for instance, I like railway modelling because getting it to a level I am satisfied with is not easy. I really like the cliff faces on Starlingford, for instance, but for them to work took an awful lot of effort over days and weeks:

T9 Cliff #3 DMU

I like intricacy in other things too. Jo once kindly complimented me on my ability to write multi-stranded plotlines for novels, but I do that because I like to do so. It’s the way that story makes sense to me. If I’ve got any talent in that direction its because I had to work hard at learning how to tell stories – and as the stories got bigger and more complicated, so too of necessity the tools used to tell them grew more sophisticated. I think I’m drawn to form and formalism in poetry for the same reason – there’s an intricacy, a cunningness wrought from the layers of structure, that chimes with me on some deep level (it’s one of the reasons why I chose to write my PhD on Paul Muldoon).

So on that note… a poem, a sestina to be precise, that I wrote a few years ago. Sestinas are complicated but fun – it’s all about the end of each line, a cyclical pattern that repeats, but differently in every verse, and finishes with a coda that contains all the end-words. It’s easier if you just see it, so….

Anseo

They think there might be vanishings again.
Everyone remembers, though they’ll refuse
To bring to mind bitter pills ill taken.
Everyone here wears their patches,
Allegiances in a kingdom of shreds;
Flags run ragged in the changing winds.

The whispers are abroad again, ill winds
Taking them to all the numb ears again;
All the little dignities torn to shreds:
Disinterestedly interred, the refuse
Who were never mentioned in despatches:
All those who couldn’t walk away. The taken.

Off the beaten track some turning taken
Led to unofficial graveyards. Paths wind
Through saxifrage and hare’s tail patches
To unremarkable pools. Here, again,
The unremarked will disappear. Refuse
Will be treated as such by those who shred

Their orders on receipt. And never a shred
Of doubt, they say, about those they’ve taken.
They changed their throats, they say, but refused
To pay more than lip service. The wind’s
Picked up again, carries thin anguish again,
Wails in the valleys and the mist-filled patches

Of fields laid across a land still restless: patches
Masking open wounds. And tatters and shreds
Of flags, broken harps, cut hands torn again
Flutter though unquiet dreams. The past’s taken
Too long to live through to let it wind
Out like a torn thread behind us. We refuse

To cast off broken pieces. We refuse.
Threads are rewoven into patches,
Patchwork recollections that re-wind
Loose ends; the makings of redemption shreds
Or shrouds – or shrines, their statues weeping, taken
As a miracle, faith to find again

All the refuse interred in careless shreds,
Under patches of bog orchids, taken
From the sides of winding roads – remember them again.

Posted in Beginnings, Home thoughts from a prod, I'm Your Boogie Man, Model Citizen, Tyrannosaurus Lex | Leave a comment

Debt of Honour

I am one of those people who doesn’t have a problem wearing their influences on their sleeve. I am also one of those people who regards the lit-fic crowd with a definite mistrust. I consider story to be the be-all and end-all, and someone who compromises their story in order to appear more arty, more erudite or more critically acceptable will raise my suspicions and my hackles in equal measure.

There are many, many criticisms that can be laid at Tom Clancy‘s door. And many of them are entirely valid. He had an ideological agenda that made him the poster-boy for conservative Republicans. He was capable, on occasion, of committing the most grievous atrocities to language. And my friend Jo makes the argument that The Bear and the Dragon was, in parts, just flat-out racist.

And yet…

I owe Clancy a debt of honour. (The novel Debt of Honor, incidentally, is my favourite of the Jack Ryan series). It is a big debt, and one that possibly requires a little explanation. It is this: if it hadn’t been for Red Storm Rising, I would not have written Ghost Among Thieves.

But first, a diversion. My love of science fiction as a genre began in several places more or less simultaneously. The most important of these was the library in Ballyholme Primary School, where they had an enormous collection of the Target novelisations of Dr. Who episodes.I started reading them and my parents, perhaps not fully realising the power of prohibition as a motivation, promptly forbade me from reading them on the grounds that they might give me nightmares. What this meant was that I then read them all - but in the library, where they couldn’t stop me.

A few years ago there was a scene in a Doctor Who episode, ‘Family of Blood’, that had a character describing the Doctor. I loved the scene, because it was the writer of the episode talking directly to the seven-year-old me, about the Doctor we both knew. And who could not be entranced by such a creation?

The second major factor in my love of science fiction was a cassette sent to me by my aunt, who at that time lived in Cardiff. As a result I only saw her maybe a couple of times a year, when she came back for Christmas and Easter, but she sent me mix tapes that to this day influence my taste in music. From her I get my love of Pink Floyd, Simple Minds, Led Zeppelin… and The War of the Worlds, because she copied the whole of Jeff Wayne’s musical version on to tape and posted it to me. (Don’t worry, Mr. Wayne; I have long since bought my own copy).

So Dr Who introduced me to science fiction in general, and The War of the Worlds, even with its long-outdated technology, introduced me to the idea of a science fiction war. But we remain with my aunt for the final piece of the puzzle, because she was the Tom Clancy fan. Again, my parents were not enamoured of Clancy (mainly because of his use, on occasion, of four-letter words) but I, albeit unknowingly, was already a huge fan, because my favourite film of all time was (and remains to this day) The Hunt for Red October.

My aunt had several of Clancy’s books, but the one that, as a thirteen-year-old, absolutely captured my attention was the story of the Cold War going hot, with the Russians invading Germany, seizing Iceland and attempting to dominate the Atlantic in the hopes of staving off American reinforcement of NATO ground troops. This was Red Storm Rising, and it did something I had never seen attempted before: it attempted to tell not just a war story but the story of a war.

Although it took a while before I was able to own my own copy, I nevertheless managed to reread it every time I saw my aunt for more than a couple of days (it only takes me a couple of days to read it. I am a ludicrously fast reader. This sounds like a gift but it isn’t: mostly, it’s expensive. When you read fast and you love reading, you wind up buying an awful lot of books). It sat in the back of my mind like an unfulfilled promise. “One day,” I told myself, “one day, I am going to write something like that.”

When I was sixteen I sat my GCSEs. During one of the English Language papers I was bored, very nearly, out of my mind, answering a question on the symbolic relevance of the squareness of some bin bags in a school playground, when the thought suddenly occurred that I could have a lot more fun writing a story. A big story. A big, science-fiction war story. Something with the scale and ambition of, say, Red Storm Rising…

It was at this point that the single most important idea I have ever had entered my head. I pictured a man, a hard, scarred man, running down a burning steel corridor. I knew little more than that, except for one thing: the corridor was burning because the scarred man had set it on fire himself.

And that, really, was my starting point. I went away from my exam and started drawing up bullet points – who the man was, what he was doing, what he wanted to achieve, who were his antagonists.

I even knew his name. I had been writing a techno-thriller called Stealing the Thunder which was a Dale Brown fan-fic (don’t judge me, okay? I was fifteen at the time) in which, in addition to Dale Brown regulars Patrick McLanahan and a heavily modified EB-52 Megafortress bomber (my version fitted with an experimental cloaking device and named Black Cat), a scarred colonel called Paul Ray was out to try to save the world.

Paul Ray had been kicking around my subconscious for ages. He had been the XO on the USS Nimitz in a previous aborted story called, variously, either The Seventh Phial or (drum-roll please!) White Waters Rising; he had been the commander on a British Challenger 2 MBT stranded in Chechnya at the start of the Chechnyan War when the Russian Army unit with which it was cross-training was wiped out, in a book to be called Challenger Deep. He even appeared as a kind of Han Solo figure in a work of actual science fiction called Ray’s of Light (in which he was captain of a ship called Graviton Panther – a name I was to resurrect and re-use in Ghost Among Thieves).

The problem with all of these stories was that Paul knew exactly who he was, and he didn’t quite fit in any of them. And then…when I had that image of the scarred man in the burning corridor, I knew exactly who he was. I knew that this, finally, was Paul’s story.

What I didn’t know, exactly, was how to tell it. But I knew it could be told, that it didn’t matter how complicated it was – because Tom Clancy had written Red Storm Rising, which was enormous, and structurally complex, and yet coherent and a rattling good yarn all at the same time. That said, I knew enough to be patient. I knew I wasn’t yet capable of writing such a thing. I noted my notes and plotted my plots but I didn’t actually start writing for another couple of years. Those teachers who knew about my pet project thought I was nuts. They also, increasingly, began to suspect I was all talk and no trousers – if I was really serious about the story, I would be writing it, not learning about tachyons, or free-electron lasers, or the kinetic physics of impacts on laminate armour.

Events, as they say, eventuated, and I found myself working aboard MV Logos II from 2002-2003. There, finally, I had the time and space to write the story. (I did, however, only have sufficient luggage-space to take two novels. One was Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. The other, of course, was Red Storm Rising). It took me ten months to get from the 2,000 words I had with me when I went on board to the complete first draft of 180,000+ words. That’s still shorter than Red Storm Rising but that’s okay: GAT is the first of a trilogy that by the time it’s done will be some 800,000 words (or, if you prefer, roughly 2,400 pages) long. It, like me, wears its influences on its sleeve: mention is made of the Terrestrial Constitution-class Fleet Carrier FSS Red Storm, and as recently as last week I was writing scenes in the third book featuring characters whose predicament brings to mind that of the Keflavik Marines.

Tom Clancy died two days ago, at the age of 66, in Johns Hopkins Hospital (the same hospital, coincidentally, in which his creation Cathy Ryan was an eye surgeon). He taught me that it’s okay, as an author, to dare to write big. He showed that it can be done. I owe him a debt of honour.

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