The Knee/Jerk Reaction

I too easily forget just how recently the United States became a representative democracy. For the first two hundred years of its existence it was a slave state; for the century that followed it was an apartheid one. It’s only in the last fifty years that it ceased to be a racially divided one, at least as far as its governing legislation is concerned. Sadly, however, the divide continues, and appears to be deepening.

The current situation is a deeply disappointing one. It is also one that has been misrepresented – and continues to be misrepresented – to a degree that would be farcical if it weren’t tragic. A number of players of American team sports, mostly football, have knelt rather than stood for the national anthem. They have done so because they are following the example of Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year to protest, and start a conversation about, the ways in which the police treat or mistreat black Americans or other people of colour. “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in the flag of a country that oppresses black people,” he said in a press conference shortly after he began his protest. This was a protest that came in the wake of a slew of videos showing police officers shooting unarmed black men on American streets.

If it hadn’t been for the intervention of Donald Trump – a man who is to unenlightened discourse what gasoline is to a dumpster fire – the protest would probably have fizzled out of its own accord: Kaepernick is insufficiently influential on his own to give his movement the critical mass it needed to trigger the conversation he wanted to have. But Trump, whose ego will not allow him to confront the grim reality of the polls that show a steady decline in his support, instead saw an opportunity to appeal to his shrinking base of diehard supporters by recasting the players’ actions as an assault on the sanctified American Flag, rather than as a gesture that drew attention to the failure of the state to live up to the very ideals that that flag is meant to represent. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,'” Trump said at a rally in Alabama, using language less temperate than that with which he described white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville (some of whom, you’ll remember, were “very fine people”).

The result of this intervention was pretty much exactly what you’d imagine. Far more athletes started copying Kaepernick’s actions, while the President’s counter-narrative has also gained increasing traction. But lost somewhere in the middle of all of this is a different debate,, and it has to do with the meaning of the word ‘patriot’.

Trump’s argument is not a stupid one. He knows very well the sway the flag exerts over the American public. But my contention is that ‘the flag’ is no longer the focus of patriotism. It’s not even the focus of nationalism. It’s a fetish object.

You can teach a dog the difference between ‘the finger that points’ and ‘the thing at which you’re pointing’, but this seems increasingly to be a distinction that eludes those who talk about ‘disrespecting the flag’. The flag is just a piece of patterned fabric. It’s not important. What’s important is what it represents, and the patriot, unlike the fetishist, concentrates on those national ideals. They are what truly defines a nation. In America’s case, most of them are written down in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

The Constitution begins thus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When you have officials of the state demonstrating evidence of a systemic bias towards shooting unarmed black men, those national representatives are displaying that as far as they are concerned all men are not created equal, that their rights are not inalienable, and that there is no reason not to deprive them of their lives, their liberty or their pursuit of happiness. Those state officials are, in other words, un-American. They can no longer be considered national representatives, regardless of whatever badge they wear, because their actions do not accord with the ideals upon which the nation is based.

Patriots understand this, and are honour-bound to draw attention to it. “If these individuals hide behind a flag and use it to cover their appalling actions, they may do so only on the understanding that I will refuse to acknowledge that flag as anything more than a figleaf.” This is a perfectly logical and patriotic response. The patriot, remember, doesn’t care about the flag; he or she cares about what the flag represents. Meanwhile the fetishist sees the flag and only the flag, and views anyone who isn’t similarly monomaniacal with at best suspicion or at worst outright hostility.

(It is a bizarre twist of historical irony that the President, who after all is the one who sought to create the false division between ‘patriots’ and ‘those who kneel during the anthem,’ that he has offered solace to the people who by any rational standard most oppose the Stars and Stripes and what it stands for: those who seek to honour the wielders of the Stars and Bars, the Confederate flag, who represented the greatest existential threat to the United States in its history).

In a further toxicity, Trump and his supporters have sought to equate ‘kneeling during the anthem’ with ‘disrespecting the sacrifices of servicemen and -women’. This is iniquitous. First of all, members of the armed forces understand – with a clarity that perhaps Trump lacks – exactly what ideals their nation is founded upon. Second of all, they understand that those ideals govern how – and, crucially, why – they fight. Or as Maria Tillman, the widow of former NFL player and US Army corporal Pat Tillman, who was killed on active duty in Afghanistan, put it:

“Those that serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. They and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.

“The very action of self-expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views. 

“It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.”

Colin Kaepernick wanted to ignite a public debate. He succeeded, but sadly so far all we have learned from it is that American public morality is never so outraged as when it is forced to examine itself.

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“We may our ends by our beginnings know”

And so, Dear Reader, we get to the end. After fifteen years, 3 books, 742,571 words (320,291 of them in The Wings of the Dawn) and untold numbers of cups of tea, The Fulcrum War trilogy is finished.

It is, it must be said, a very strange sensation. Knowing that I have finished the story, that the phrase ‘Actually, I’m writing a book’ is no longer applicable, is most peculiar. I am 33 and I had the idea that formed the basis of these stories when I was 16: more than half my life has been conducted against a background containing the trilogy. Having it no longer be there is almost unsettling.

Then there are the characters to whose voices I have become as attuned as to those of my own family. They have nothing left to say, and I find their silence discomfiting. I have said before that finishing a book is like losing a friend, but I have never felt the truth of that quite so profoundly as I do now.

I have tried, as best I can, to finish in such a way as to give the reader a sense of ‘unexpected inevitability’ – the idea that, in retrospect, the book and the story finish in the way that clearly they had to end. But the objective is to make it obvious only in retrospect. I think – more accurately, I hope – that I have done this, but the better judges will be the readers. They haven’t lived, as I have, in the knowledge of what will come. I worked out the ending years ago, and I have had to keep it to myself until now…

I have been writing pretty consistently and speedily of late: the sight of the finish line, the clarity of the end goal, makes it easier. (The problem with doing that, of course, is that by the time you actually cross it you’ve built up a fair bit of momentum and suddenly there’s no use to which to put it!) Now that the job’s done (I finished it yesterday, at lunch time) I intend to celebrate. I have been saving a Romeo y Julieta #3 for the occasion, and for once Zeus smiles upon the garden; it’s a lovely evening, and there is a lawn chair with my name on it…

So I shall sit back, and enjoy some Thomas Tallis on the iPod, and watch the cigar smoke rise in the still air, and think –

What shall I write next?

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Many Moons Ago…

The Wings of the Dawn opens with an attack on the furthest inhabited outpost in the Solar System, a place – a real place, or so I thought – called ‘Karla’. When I wrote it all I could remember about it was the name, and it was always in the back of my mind to fill in some more of the fine detail. So, earlier this week, I went on to Wikipedia, hunting for a moon or an asteroid… and didn’t find it. There is no mention of a ‘Karla’ there.

This made me, as you might imagine, question myself. I was sure I remembered something called Karla. But I also knew that whenever this was, it was mentioned to me before I went to secondary school – which is now long enough ago to make me wonder if I had mis-remembered something else.

My first idea was this: I had misheard the name Quaoar. Quaoar is a dwarf planet half the size of Pluto (its diameter is about 1100km) that orbits the sun roughly 43x further away than the Earth (in other words, it’s about 401,907,000,000 miles away). Unfortunately, this doesn’t work – Quaoar wasn’t discovered until 2002, long after I’d heard about whatever Karla was.

This got me thinking – perhaps I should stop looking for the rock itself and start considering dates. The first trans-Neptunian object (i.e. a part of the Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune) found was Pluto, in 1930, and the second was Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in 1978; but the third wasn’t discovered until 1992. It rejoices in the name ‘(15760) 1992 QB1‘ – romantic, I know – but its discoverers, David Jewitt and Jane Luu, nicknamed it ‘Smiley’. They did so because as they waited for the computers to crunch through vast amounts of astronomical observational data they read John le Carré novels, and decided to name their first discovery after le Carré’s foremost protagonist, George Smiley.

This was the point at which all that reading of thrillers finally stood me in good stead: Smiley’s shadowy antagonist, his Soviet opposite number, is known as ‘Karla‘. So I plugged David Jewitt’s name, along with Karla’s, into Google, and found an Independent newspaper article describing the discovery of (181708) 1993 FW… which they nicknamed ‘Karla’.

It’s an unprepossessing piece of real estate, at only 155 miles in diameter, and it’s even further from the sun that Quaoar is. Light from the sun reaches us in 8 minutes; it won’t reach Karla for nearly 6 hours. It’s cold and barren and, therefore, a suitably remote station, in my books, for the safe refuelling of military starships. But what bemuses me in all this is the fact that I remembered it at all. There’s nothing special about it; nothing to thrill or excite. It was, presumably, mentioned at the tail end of the evening news one night in April when I was 9 years old. Yet for some reason it stuck with me ever since, and now it’s in my books – and, as far as I can tell, no one else’s. To me, if to no one else, it’s no moon – it’s a space station.

I can only hope doctors Jewitt and Luu approve…

Your moment of Zen for today:

D11 Marne & C1 Double-heading #1

Robinson D11/1 ‘Marne’ pilots an Ivatt C1 Atlantic through the cutting at the head of a heavy express train.

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Parts 7-13 of…err…10: ’21 down, 9 more to go’

Good news, peeps; a little behind the deadline, perhaps, but I’ve finished the chapter!

And I can prove it:


A brief explanatory note. I write chapters of more-or-less 10,000 words each. There are two reasons for this. One is that I am ingloriously dreadful at maths and this makes the sums easy. But the other, much more artistically-relevant reason is that 10,000 words is enough to get happily involved with. You can do a lot in 10,000 words (among other things, in other contexts, you can write a Master’s thesis in 10,000 words). 10,000 words gives your characters room to breathe, your action room to advance and – most importantly – the consequences of your actions room to be explored.

This can happen in one of two ways. Either you can build the chapter around some big event – have it as the centrepiece, the focal point of the whole thing, with the lead-up and the aftereffects balanced – or you can plonk it right at the end, which gives you 10,000 words of a run-up, a cliffhanger, and then a nice big new chapter to explore things further. And if you’re really clever, you can do both, by having the event at the centre of the chapter and then have the aftermath of that event suddenly twist, and use that twist to propel the narrative in the next chapter.

I have seldom been that clever.But when it works, my friends, it is awesome.

Then, when you’ve written the thing, you start farming it out to your beta readers (obviously, you’re the alpha reader) – hey Jo – and get their feedback. I’m terribly fortunate in that the benighted souls on whom I inflict these first drafts are good at giving useful critiques. And, occasionally, they say things like “I think you’ve made a mistake here” and I get to say “Haha, I know why you think that, but you need to trust me on this one because I know what’s coming up 40,000 words down the line and it’ll all make sense.” That’s fun.

And now I get to carry on. ‘Rubicon Calling’ is written; ‘Nachthexen’ awaits. (On that note, incidentally, the book I was waiting for that was going to help with the chapter has arrived – and it’s no use at all. Back to Amazon I will go. Thank goodness it was payday recently.)

Research never ends…

Here is your triumphal moment of Zen:

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Parts 5 & 6 of 10: ‘Oh, the weather outside is frightful…’

Sunday, 21:16 – After a day spent getting up to dickens – at least, as much as one can when stationed behind a drum kit in a Presbyterian church – I have written about a hundred words. I am too distracted to write, but I have at least kept some heat under the story: I know how I’m going to carry on tomorrow. That’s one small achievement; the other was taking the chapter across the 6,000-word mark. In other words, I’m 60% done with ‘Rubicon Calling’. On to the next thousand – tomorrow evening (and for a reward afterwards: the first episode of the next series of Game of Thrones!)

Monday, 19:34 – Time to start work…

20:57 – And time to down tools, 1,025 words to the good. ‘Rubicon Calling’ is now 70% done, and the pace suggests that I will indeed achieve chapter’s end by the end of the month. Oh, and I got to introduce ‘Task Group SYCORAX’. Finding cool names for things is one of the perks of this job.

And now, your moment of Zen for the day:


Driver leaning out of the cab, a Stanier 4P on a local passenger service crosses the water troughs.

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Parts 3 & 4 of 10: ‘The Late Late Non-Show, with G. T. A. Browne’

A late start, this Friday night – it’s after 10 already. But I don’t particularly have to get up for anything in the morning, so let’s do this. First, however, a quick moment of newly-possessive pride: a new Hornby coach arrived at my desk at lunchtime. It’s a green BR Mk1, and it’ll join my 1960s Southern rake – the beginnings of which you can see below:

BoB Winston Churchill Cutting Lupins Away

‘Winston Churchill’ heads off with the express. Observe the green coach…

Anyway, on with the show…

Friday, 22:30 – This was a bad idea. I can’t concentrate. I spent the day outside, standing in the rain, and then followed that with a great big meal, so I’m both tired and sleepy, and I can’t make that work. Tomorrow, however, I have the day to myself, and I know from previous experience that, if given my head, I can put down a lot of words in a single sitting. (I wrote all 12,500 words of the last chapter and epilogue of Ghost Among Thieves on a day off when working on the Logos II). I will pick this up tomorrow morning – 1,500 words don’t intimidate me… G’night.

Saturday, 11:15 – It’s a foul day outside and I am cosily inside admiring assorted sleet, snow and rain showers as they batter at the windows. I like to faff around on the computer for a bit before I start work just to get it out of my system, so why don’t you join me in listening to a hysterically funny 1958 recording of Gerard Hoffnung’s “Bricklayer’s Lament” (a masterclass in comic delivery), and then we can crack on.

11:22 – Oh, all right, one more: Bob Newhart’s “Inexpert Bomb Disposal“.

11:30 – Work begins!

13:05 – I plot in broad strokes only, which is why I’ve been able to do what I’ve just done: the scene in the newsroom (which you must have guessed was the setting I was writing about on Thursday) led perfectly to a scene featuring characters watching the news and deciding to do something about it, which in turn led perfectly to the people who had triggered the news report in the first place, which then led perfectly to the response against those news-creators, which finally (of course!) led perfectly into the next, tense set-up for those characters – all of which has made clear the protagonists’ next actions, as well as their antagonists’ response. None of this was plotted, as such; this was just me being willing to be led by the story. (The upshot of that willingness, incidentally, is very simple: better stories.)

13:45 – An opportunity occurs to refer to events that occurred in Ghost Among Thieves. I love when these little callbacks and pieces of connective tissue present themselves!

***Intermission, in which our hero has lunch and watches The A-Team***

15:55 – So I just blew up a city…

16:23 – I hadn’t even intended to. It just sort of happened. But several factors came together (the destructive power of the weapons used; targeting choices that were inevitable given two previous, failed attempts to eliminate one particular thing) in such a way as to make any other outcome impractical. Now, of course, I’m going to have to think hard about how this affects the rest of the book. My initial thought is that it will force the action – or at least the politics – to swing back to where I feel they always ought to have been, even if for a while that wasn’t a realistic option. Blowing up this city is a way of restoring the balance and re-centering the narrative. Sometimes being an author of war stories means you’re required to swing a big stick. It’s fun, but you have to do it sparingly, and with some idea at least of what the consequences might be if you do. (One immediate consequence is that I’m able to have a cameo appearance of a character we haven’t seen in the last 400,000+ words: that’ll be one for the really eagle-eyed readers to spot.)

16:46 – Now, at long last and 5,484 words into the chapter – hey, look at that, we passed the half-way point and I didn’t even notice – we get to the thing I actually intended to write about in the first place: an invasion. This is where all the reading I did some time ago on Operation Neptune will at last be useful. (There have already been little hints and allusions – the bombers are described as succeeding because they got to ‘point-blank’ range. ‘Operation Pointblank’ was the Allied bombing effort of the invasion areas in Normandy before the troops came ashore). But it does mean that I have to run a quick search of the other two books to make sure that the ship I’ve chosen as the vanguard – the Mollymawk – hasn’t been rendered invalid by some event I’ve forgotten…

16:56 – No, we’re good. Mollymawk is the minesweeper-in-chief.

17:47 – And that’s the target hit and surpassed. I’m finishing for tonight having taken the novel past 210,000 words (it’s 210,148 in fact) and having written 3,294 words in the last four days (which I’m pleased by, given that my target by this stage was 2,980). So we’re doing well, and now it’s time to think about dinner and maybe a movie for my evening’s entertainment. Until tomorrow…

And here’s your moment of Zen:


Two for one: a 56xx and a 45xx lead a heavy iron ore train out across the viaduct

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Part 2 of 10: ‘Shower Revelations’

Continuing on from yesterday, here’s today’s installment of “how to write a novel when you only have a rough idea of what you’re doing”.

07:15 – In the shower, pondering character development, I at long last solved a riddle that’s been bugging me for more than a year. There is a female character who has so far  served the ancient and honourable function of Moral Donkey, in that it’s been her task to carry some of the story’s moral weight. However, this has made her dull to write – especially because she doesn’t (yet) have much to say (and like I said yesterday, dialogue’s the fun part). But now I know what her narrative point is, I’ll be able to look forward to involving her a lot more and, when I come to redrafting, I’ll be able to perform some rewrites knowing what it is she’s eventually going to achieve. (As an aside, it’s always tremendously satisfying to have the rescued become the rescuer. Joss Whedon knows what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, go and watch or read literally anything Joss Whedon has ever done.)

20:07 – Finally manage to put away John Scalzi’s monstrously addictive blog and spend a few minutes reading what I’ve written recently. I know there’s a swerve to come in the narrative: I don’t want to veer into it too abruptly. By regaining my sense of the chapter’s trajectory I can make sure that it flows better.

20:16 – Finished the scene I abandoned last night; now on to a new one. This one will feature characters making subversive use of social and state media. Few things are more entertaining to write than characters who don’t know they’re being manipulated by some of Our Heroes… However, if said character is a new creation, and they are required to have a Gaelic name (because reasons), be prepared to spend an annoyingly long time with both  a book of Irish names and the special characters menu in Microsoft Word open in front of you. In the end (and this may provide too much insight into the way my mind works) I went with ‘Donelle Bròg’, because this character is a newsreader, and a newsreader I remember from BBC Northern Ireland is called ‘Donna Traynor‘, and ‘Bròg’ is the Gaelic for ‘shoe’…

20:46 – Go to iPlayer to watch the start of the BBC news not because I’m interested in the stories but because I want to capture exactly the framing sentences they use to introduce them.And, having done so, I now have to think up additional headlines. Rats.

21:36 – A brief excursion to Wikipedia to confirm that Oliver Cromwell’s title during the Interregnum was ‘Lord Protector’ (it was).

21:50 – Google: what’s the Gaelic for ‘Birdsong’? (Answer: nothing useful.) What’s the Gaelic for ‘Babble’? ‘Síor-rá’. Thank you Google – that’s much more helpful.

22:37 – Not an easy session tonight, but there we go: 796 words achieved. And I’m into the next scene, so I can pick up tomorrow knowing at least my starting point. G’night, all.

Here’s your moment of Zen:

J15 Pick-up Goods - Crop and Rotate

A J15 with a train of empty 13t opens clatters past the water tower and past some exceptional lupins.

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