Aten’t dead

Image from, nearly a year since I last did any kind of blog post. A record, and not a good one.

So here’s an update. I’m still here and I’m still writing. Since the last post we’ve moved house twice. We moved into rented accommodation so that our old building could be rebuilt and made safe for habitation – and therefore, the buyer who had just agreed to buy the place when we discovered the need for the work could finally get a mortgage. It took 18 months from her first expression of interest to the sale going through, but she hung on. Then, with lots of lovely cash in the bank, we bought a new place. Frankly it was all frazzling enough even with the security of renting somewhere in between, and how people manage to sell, buy and move all on the same day without an interim lifeboat is beyond me.

The reason for the lack of bloggery is of course Facebook. Facebook brilliantly supplanted the blogging industry with its microblogging newsfeed, and then made it unsearchable and so randomised that at best what you’ve written will vanish into the ether, never to be seen again; and at worst will never be seen at all because its algorithms don’t find it interesting enough to tell other people about. And I have fallen into the trap, like millions of others, and don’t really have the strength of will to get out of it again.

I still manage my monthly post for More than Writers, though.

After Facebook and my lack of willpower, the biggest culprit is the day job. I’m writing full time, lots of words every day, and just can’t muster the energy to be creative and witty and bloggy at the end of it. I could maybe try harder at being creative and witty and bloggy at the start of it, of course, which is what I’m doing now. I have contracted work and wordcounts to keep me busy until late 2018, which is nice, and I always welcome more. For this month only I’m on a writing deathmarch, as having agreed to write something in two months, deadline end of November, I was then asked if please, please, pretty please, is there any possible way at all you could do it by the end of October? If you knock a month off a six month deadline then that’s irritating, but if you knock it off a two month deadline then you’re reducing the writing time by 50%. I could have said no but frankly I’m interested to see if I can do it. And if it’s any good at the end.

I’ll be at the Sutton Courtenay Day of Books this weekend, opening the proceedings with a talk on ‘A writer’s path’. There’s no such thing as a typical writer’s path, but I’ll describe mine: how my career developed, with especial attention to how the unexpected or sheer strokes of luck can play a part. I’ll make occasional digressions into how the writing business actually works, and hopefully be informative and instructive. If time permits (and it probably will) then I’ll give a reading and take questions at the end.

More on this when the publisher produces some publicity material that I can share, but David Fickling Books is publishing a series of biographies, in the style of Horrible Histories, but better, of famous people like Emmeline Pankhurst and Amelia Earhart and Elon Musk. I’m doing Ada Lovelace, who was an amazing woman and has been a fascinating subject to research. I’ll send the manuscript in next month.

And then there’s stuff of my own, always bubbling at the back of my mind, never with quite enough time to get down and get cracking on.

And for now, back to the day job. See you again, hopefully before October 2018.

BristolCon 2012

Thoroughly enjoyed myself last Saturday at BristolCon, which is now its fourth year and therefore an established tradition of fandom. Bristol is an excitingly science fictional kind of place (see here if you don’t believe me) and full of surprises. Like, I hadn’t expected to be the opening and closing act.

Okay, that might overstate my role – but I was on the first panel of programme 1 and the last of programme 2. The opening number was a discussion on “Colonising the Solar System”, with Michael Dollin, Aliette de Bodard and Dev Agarwal and moderated by Guy Haley: could it happen? Would it be economic? Would we actually want to live in a Martian colony? And so on. That last question of course needed some clarification. Would I want to live in a small capsule buried beneath the Martian topsoil to escape the radiation? Not really. Would I want to live in a Robinson-style town-sized community inside a domed crater dome with full access to the natural wonders of Mars? Hell, yes!

For the closing act, I moderated a panel of Dolly Garland, Joanne Hall, Jonathan L Howard and Leigh Kennedy on “Nano or Nono – How to survive a writing challenge” – mostly discussing NanoWriMo, which three of the panellists had assayed but Leigh and I had not. We could all talk knowledgeably about the art and discipline of writing, though, and I think we  gave value for money. Favourite anecdote: Jonathan L Howard on how Dennis Wheatley once met a tax demand by retreating to the library (his personal one, of course) with nothing but a box of cigars, a crate of champagne and a typewriter, and banging out yet another occultic potboiler. At the words “library”, “champagne” and “cigars” alternative suggestions for how he might have met the tax demand did begin to come to mind, but I suppose the life of a wealthy gentleman writer must be a hard one.

As the very closing act, immediately after that panel I gave a reading from Phoenicia’s Worlds to an audience of five, three of whom I didn’t even know. Needless to say I was plugging my forthcoming publication at every available opportunity. And on that sort of subject it was good finally to meet Colin Tate of Clarion Publishing who will be re-publishing His Majesty’s Starship and Jeapes Japes next year. Cover designs! Oh my! (Pictures will follow when available …)

And in between all that, a very busy, involving and rewarding programme of Lots of Other Stuff, including Guest of Honour interviews with Gareth L. Powell and John Meaney. But the most enjoyable egobootistical moment was derailing a kaffeeklatsch with Philip Reeve and Moira Young. The sequence of events in the first five minutes went roughly:

  • Philip opens his mouth to speak.
  • Fan 1: Are you the Ben Jeapes who wrote His Majesty’s Starship?
  • Fan 2: Oh, I really loved that! Will you sing my copy? [Produces it]
  • Fan 3: I really liked The New World Order.
  • Me: [having signed copy and absorbed praise] … a-a-a-nd back to you, Philip …

Lunch was a baked potato with tuna and salad and homemade drizzle cake in the Arc Cafe beneath St Mary Redcliffe, which I mention only because it deserves the publicity and I’ve never had a meal in a church undercroft before. Bristol is truly full of surprises and I look forward to going back next year.

Ben and the Race Relations Act

Sunday’s episode of Inspector George Gently – I watch period police dramas, I can handle it, I could give up any time – said nothing new but still much that was worth saying about race relations in Britain in the 1960s. The most telling point for me was that the BBC news, immediately after, was read by a black man.

I don’t believe this country is yet an interracial paradise. I do think it’s doing much better than it was in 1960-whatnot.

I had a sheltered upbringing and I know it. I spent 10 years in private, boarding school education, where the skin colour was not 100% white but the exceptions tended to be people like the future King of Swaziland – not really representative of the streets of Brixton. I found Constable Savage funny for its absurdity more than its satire. I suppose my personal wake-up call to the tensions out there, that I had so far either blithely ignored or been happily sheltered from, was the riots of the early 1980s. I have to admit that when I read some of the aired grievances of the rioters, unlike my mostly Tory colleagues, I didn’t find them that unreasonable. I’d riot if the police could, and did, stop and question me every ten paces for being suspiciously white.

I freely admit to using a particular word to describe black people, quite routinely. It was in my everyday vocabulary. And yet. I can honestly say there was no intended malice, and when I learnt how offensive the word was, I stopped. And even then I could tell the difference between casually saying of a man of African ancestry that “he’s a $WORD_THAT_ONLY_SAMUEL_L_JACKSON_IS_ALLOWED_TO_USE”, purely for descriptive purposes, and sneering that “he’s a …” with the clear implication that the one word was all you needed to know about the individual. I could tell the difference between unintentional and deliberate offence, and I was offended by those who chose the latter.

I even remember being branded as a “$THAT_WORD-lover”, believe it or not. We lived in Bangladesh when I was aged 12-14. It was a pretty comfortable, privileged existence and it did not make me an authority on the problems of the Third World or give me any searing insights into race relations – but it gave me marginally more than many of my contemporaries had. And so, in one quite heated discussion – can’t remember what, or why, or when – that was the soubriquet I acquired. One boy even went to far as to write on my homework – shortly before it was due to be handed in – “Jeapes for $LA_LA_LA_CAN’T_HEAR-YOUs”. I tipp-exed it out. The teacher scraped the tipp-ex off to expose the message, and wrote in the margin, “don’t be childish, or, choose your friends with more care.”

The irony is that the boy in question was probably the most liberal of us all in other regards. He was proud that his barrister father only ever defended, never prosecuted, and was vehemently opposed to the death penalty.

I was never quite sure what to make of the historical rebranding of, say, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little $DUM_DE_DUMs or the name of Guy Gibson’s dog in The Dambusters, but China Miéville at a convention a few years ago put it well enough for me to come off the fence. Roughly, paraphrased: which is better, to preserve the historical purity of the original text, or to do what we can to remove that word from the ammunition of race hate? If one less kid gets called that word in the playground then by all means call the dog Trigger or Digger or whatever. If you really have to, mention the fact of the original usage in a footnote, and leave it there.

I’ve no idea where I’m going with this, so here’s Constable Savage again, to finish with.