Category Archives: Diary

Things that happen to me, or things I do

Schrödinger’s Scotland

scott-monument

Today the people of Scotland voted on whether to become an independent country. The polls closed about an hour ago.

Don’t let the silence of this blog on the issue fool you into thinking I was not interested in the campaign. Far from it. I’ve been following the battle as closely as work and family life will allow. Despite exhibiting the Englishman phenotype, I have Scottish ancestry (coal-miners of Fife, poets of Edinburgh) and of course lived, worked and loved in Scotland for many years. It always felt, and still feels like my country.

So I’m a natural unionist, and the promotion of division, separation and the creation of a new barrier (however conceptual) makes me feel sad. That said, many of the arguments for independence are beguiling. There is something enticing about a political tabula rasa. Talk of building a nation is inherently constructive and delivers an endorphine shot.

I’ve picked probably the most useless time to post a blog on this issue. The polls have closed so I cannot persuade anyone. And yet none of the vote tallies have been reported so there is nothing to analyse. Its funny to think of all those marked ballot papers, piled and yet to be counted, and consider that the result already exists as a fact of the universe, even if no-one knows what it is yet. Schrödinger’s Scotland: is it independent or not? We have to open the box to find out.

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”? Two Retorts

One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.  I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.

But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument.  Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people.  They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us.  They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people.  In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.

Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers.  First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall.  I quote at length without apology: Continue reading

Our Human Rights

Last month, the essential Labour Campaign For Human Rights (LCHR) launched Our Human Rights.  Its a campaign to highlight how the European Convention of Human Rights, and the British Human Rights Act, have helped ordinary citizens get what they need and deserve from the state.

Too often, human rights laws seem distant from the ordinary person.  They are portrayed by those hostile to the concept as being little more than a tool for terrorists and illegal immigrants to game the legal system.  As I have written before, speaking about human rights only in terms of the most extreme cases does not persuade the ordinary voter of their importance. Continue reading

Literary Gaza gasps for breath

As the destruction and death persists in Gaza, we should be thankful that creativity has not yet been suffocated.  Incredibly, authors continue to write through the bombardment.

According to an email from Ra Page, director of Manchester-based Comma Press, which recently published a collection of short stories from writers in Gaza, “all of the Book of Gaza contributors are writing away like crazy, whilst they have power.” (Eighty percent of households in Gaza currently have only up to four hours of power per day as Israel has badly damaged the Strip’s electricity infrastructure.)

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On the killing of children

The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.

In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.

What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?

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Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?

There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship.  They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not.  Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.

I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”.  Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris.  If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood.  They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.

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Photo by ElBidule on Flickr

(0,0) featured on Pornokitsch Weekly Fiction

To tie in with the announcement about The Good Shabti, my story (0,0) has been published on the Hugo-nominated Pornokitsch website, in their weekly fiction slot.  The story, you may recall, was originally published in the Crossroads anthology.

The story begins

Hi there, friend. Is this seat taken?

Click over to the Pornokitsch website to read the entire thing.

Announcing… The Good Shabti

Exciting news: Jurassic London have just announced the forthcoming publication of my novella, The Good Shabti. Here’s the beuatiful and incredibly scary cover art by award winning artist Jeffrey Alan Love.

shabti-frontFrom the publisher’s description:

The Good Shabti is a story that spans thousands of years. In the twilight days of Pharoah Mentuhotep, a slave stumbles into the path of imperial ambitions. And in contemporary times, a brilliant scientist and her ruthless companions come close to achieving the impossible: the revivification of an ancient mummy. The two stories weave together in a tale that combines science and myth, anticipation and horror…

I will almost certainly post some commentary and little nuggets of extra information about Pharaoh Mentuhotep IV or the writing process or something, between now and the launch in September.  You know, to create a buzz…

Those who have been really paying attention will recall that Jurassic London published a short story by me a little while ago.  if you wanted to read that story for free, well, if you subscribed to the Pornokitsch Weekly Fiction mailing list, then maybe , just maybe, something to your advantage will materialise in your inbox tomorrow morning.

How British values influence the European Court of Human Rights

In the past few months, I’ve given over a couple of posts to the Labour Party and human rights. See my report of Yvette Cooper’s speech, or Sadiq Khan’s speech, for example. As such, its worth bookmarking a recent Daily Telegraph piece by Khan, on the Human Rights Act, and Britain’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights.

The lay-reader may appreciate a quick overview of these human rights mechanisms. First, the European Convention on Human Rights incorporates basic protections into a Europe-wide treaty. The UK government must protect human rights because it has signed a treaty saying it shall do so—the rights have not been ‘imposed’ on us by European bureaucrats. The convention also establishes a court (at Strasbourg) to hear cases of human rights abuses. We in UK and the other signatory states are bound by the rulings of the court because we chose to sign the treaty. Continue reading