A Midnight Haiku

A girl in my room,
her colour faded. My touch
will make her blush again.

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You want a constitutional crisis? You’ll have to do better than this.

© Martin Rowson 2009
© Martin Rowson 2009

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I do not write about politics very much, for reasons that will become blatantly obvious below. Wrongheadedness, unfocussed ranting and eye-watering naiveté are part of the territory, I’se afraid.

You have been warned.

So, Michael Martin becomes the latest high-profile victim of an expenses row that seems to be fuelling itself on it’s own rhetoric. (Insert hot air joke here). The punishment hardly seems to fit the crime. A million pound pension and a seat in the House Of Lords? Cruel and unusual, eh?

I’m still not entirely sure why he’s been hounded from office. The inference seems to be that somehow the rampant fiddling of expenses in the most self-righteous house in the country is either his fault, or that he did not do enough to prevent or rein it back. (Or, if one was to be especially critical, that he didn’t do enough to hush it up.)

Well, hang on. If that’s the case, then why is it Martin’s fault? That’s surely making the accusation that the whole situation is limited to this speaker, to this set of MPs, to this government. And that’s obviously not the case.

And why is it such a surprise that they can? Any politician that claims that their life is one of poverty and sacrifice would be laughed out of the room. The ability to claw back expenses is a perk that every executive of a certain level enjoys. If it wasn’t taxpayers money that was being so gleefully squandered, and the timing of the revelations of said creative accountancy wasn’t so lousy, then I doubt we’d give a monkeys. It’s hardly corruption or mismanagement on the scale of the global banking crisis, is it? In fact, it’s almost laughably petty in the grand scheme of things. Putting in claims for TV licences and dry cleaning? I frankly wish more MPs had the balls to really abuse the system, rather than being witness to this tawdry penny-ante fiddling.

Of more concern, there are still pertinent questions that have not been asked about this whole grubby little affair. For how long have MPs been able to claim back their moat-cleaning and phantom mortgages? (Actually, there’s a simple answer to that, and as usual, it’s all the Tory’s fault.)If it’s so constitutionally dodgy, why is no-one asking questions of the House Of Lords, whose members for the most part must have benefited from exactly the same perks and privileges as the sorry bunch squinting up at the spotlight now? The Lords seem very slow to condemn, which is unusual in the current climate. Is this indicative of a claim culture in government as a whole, and if so do we need to be looking more closely at the accounts of every senior civil servant?

In short, this is a system that has been poised to fail for years, based on a false assumption on the innate honesty of our elected officials.

Let’s be frank. If you were introduced into a culture that positively encouraged you to claim back your mortgage, your car loan, your cleaning bills, then could you honestly tell me that you wouldn’t take that opportunity? Because, as the reports are starting to show, you’d be in the distinct minority if you refused.

Even now, the reforms that are being so loudly praised as root and branch reforms do little more than put a cap on the spending, and that’s just a temporary measure. I’d be very interested to see what a supposedly independent panel comes up with in the autumn to replace it. And who, incidentally, will be voting it onto the books.

Private Eye, as usual, have the right take on things.

Most worryingly, though, is the way the comedy parties like the BNP and UKIP are making heavy gains out of this sorry mess. There’s nothing more sickening than watching a toad like Nick Griffin gleefully grabbing the moral high ground, and my fear is that voters will fall for his rhetoric of honesty and the power of the protest vote, without actually considering the end result.

With local elections coming up, the whole political spectrum in Britain is poised on the edge of a paradigm shift. When Gordon Brown talks about root and branch change in government. I wonder if he realises just what that could mean.

The Laptop Activist

Get yer vote on .. online, that is!
Get yer vote on .. online, that is!

So far this week, I have written to my local MP to urge him to vote against a sneaky government move to stop members of parliament from having to declare their expenses, helped with a fund-raising effort for a campaign to abolish the death penalty in the US, and signed an Amnesty International petition calling for accountability for alleged war crimes in Gaza.
All worthy causes, all of which came directly to my inbox, and none of which took more than 10 minutes to do.
This is one of the joys of the internet for me. It is easier than ever to involve yourself in protests, sign petitions and annoy your local elected representatives without leaving the comfort of your sofa. I take great pleasure in annoying Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, by the way. It gives me a great sense of involvement and mischief.

Facebook is full of campaigns that very quickly accrue memberships in the millions. Ok, a lot of them are quite frivolous (I’m guilty of joining a few of those myself) but the point is that you can  make your voice heard on any issue that you feel strongly about with very little effort. This can be desperately important. Amnesty’s Urgent Action Network uses email alerts to very quickly garner responses to rapidly developing human rights crises, and let’s face it, the government seems to be happy with the idea of online petitioning.

Mobilising vast numbers of people quickly and easily is always going to be the best way of raising awareness of your cause, and the push towards social networking here at the start of the 21st century has really helped that along. In our way, we’re all armchair activists now.

With that in mind then, a bit of a confession.

Really, this post has been all about highlighting some of my favourite causes of the moment in a fashion that may just inspire you to click on some of the links, and maybe, just maybe, start contributing. Go ahead. Grab yerself a cuppa and have a nose. Do something good in your tea break.

Continue reading The Laptop Activist

Twelve Finger Boogie

Right. Here we go. Three days in, over a thousand words over schedule, and the damn story’s pouring out of me. I can barely hang on to it to organise my thoughts enough before it’s on the page. And yes, it’s cringeworthy in places, and yes, it’s all over the place stylistically, and no, I can’t spell, but holy crap, I do believe I’ve remembered why I do this to myself every year. When it works, and it’s working at the moment, flooding out a story for Nanowrimo is the greatest feeling there is.

Well, nearly.

Widget to the right for word count. And because it was asked for, yes, an actual request, here is a fat chunk of chapter one, written on Saturday between 10 and half 11 am, before we went to the brother-in-laws for the wettest bonfire party on record.

January 31st, 1872

The Basker Estate, Holme Pierrepont, Nottinghamshire.

It came at them out of the treeline, silent as death, swift as a bullet. It moved like a spider, it’s six legs blurring in a dance of geometry. It never faltered, did not have to consider it’s moves. It was not will, it was not thought. It was action, purity of form, purpose and intent.
It would have killed them all if Sam Caulderdale hadn’t turned at the right moment.
“Down!” Sam yelled, at the same time demonstrating the action by leaping at, and knocking over, Henry Baskin. The timing was impeccable. The Beagle had already committed to it’s leap, hurling itself at the target at head height. If Sam had not acted so swiftly, the creature’s speed and momentum would have sheared Basker’s head clean off his expensively clad shoulders.
The Beagle landed, and turned in it’s own circumference. The spidery legs flickered, and swung it back round into a second killing vector in a heartbeat. It’s head, such as it was, a truncated dome that housed the sonic apparatus the thing used in lieu of eyes, wagged from side to side, echo-locating it’s prey.
It did not, therefore, see Molly Hoptree as she came at it with a shovel. Molly was no gardener and useless at cricket. But she had always known what to do with a spade to a mechanical threat to herself and those that she had pledged to serve. She swung the shovel, hard and true, and cracked the Beagle with a fine upward cut to it’s left flank.
She did more damage than she imagined. Chips flew, and a crack appeared in the Beagle’s carapace. It hopped backwards and away. It began to emit a strident buzz, mixed in with the kind of low mechanical chattering that an electremegraph gave out as it spat out a message. It retreated, but slowly, and still facing Sam and Basker. It had Molly’s track too, as well. The Beagle would not be as easily fooled again.
Sam bent, and picked up one of the shards that Molly had knocked free. Molly, moving up, shovel at port arms, took one look, and nodded.
“Ceramic,” she said, aiming a stink-eyed glare at Henry Basker, who was now shakily getting back to his feet.
“Your infernal machine’s made of pottery!” Sam added. Basker, brushing dirt from his coat, shrugged.
“It’s light, strong, and much less expensive than steel. Also, the family has interests in a pottery factory in Nottingham. It seemed to make sense at the time.”
“We were told you had a rogue Beagle.” Sam stepped up to the older man, eyes aflame. “You didn’t mention any off-warrenty modifications!”
“What possible difference should that make?” Basker bent again, and picked up his homburg, which had been mashed into a pancake by the impact. He attempted to push it back into shape. “After all, whatever it’s made of, it’s still just a flaky meccanoe with a screw loose!”
Molly strode up to Basker, bristling like a furious porcupine. Basker had easily six inches height and the certainty of his manhood against the Kentish girl. But Molly was no servant girl, and had nothing but contempt for the effete landowner with the blond muttonchops. She shoved her sharp features up into them, giving Basker no choice but to retreat if he wanted to avoid a head butt.
“The difference, you blinking nonce, is that factory-issue Beagles are steel-clad and metal skeletoned. Which means that we can pick it up with the Field Megnetogram!” She pointed at the solid, heavy-looking backpack she had borne without complaint since the hunting party had set out from Basker Manor, some three hours earlier. “As your meccanoe doggy ain’t metal, the only job this thing’s good for is to batter it into pot-shards!”
“If you had told us before we had left, I could have directed Molly to bring more appropriate tools for the job at hand.” Sam’s voice was cool, but the struggle to keep it controlled was clear. “You have left us under-equipped and endangered against a dangerous foe, Basker.”
“Not to mention the Field Megnetogram weighs a bleedin’ ton,” Molly added, sliding the backpack off her shoulders. It slid to the ground with a thump, and sank three inches into the damp gorse.
“A redundant argument at the moment,” Basker sneered, moving away from the blast-heat radiance of Sam and Molly’s anger. He shored up the sinking feeling that he had indeed endangered them all by putting up a ballista of disdain. “The object of our attention appears to have done a runner.”
Sam looked around. The flat marshland around them did indeed seem to be devoid of life, organic or otherwise. Sam cast a cautious look back towards the scrubby copse from which the Beagle had previously erupted. That would appear to be the one logical hiding place. Sam cursed inwardly. Getting into an argument with the client was not only professionally foolish. It had distracted them from keeping track of the meccanoe’s movements.
“It will be close,” Sam said quietly. “It has us now, and it’s programming won’t give it the choice to retreat and tend to it’s wounds. Molly surprised it. The vile thing is simply ensuring that we have nothing more in reserve before it strikes again.”
“Can’t sit still for long, though,” Molly added. She too was checking the terrain, moving back towards a second pack that had fallen as the Beagle had attacked. This one was a long, thin burlap sack, strapped about with leather and brass. She knelt and began to unbuckle it, not once taking her eyes off her surroundings.
“The Beagle’s battery, it’s motive force, is driven by an internal flywheel,” Sam explained. “Like the automatic movement on a watch. That flywheel is topped up by the creature’s own movements. Once out in the field, it can effectively keep running for ever.”
“But if it stays still for long, it … winds down?” Basker sensed the danger that the meccanoe hunters he had enlisted had detected a long time before. He reached to his hip, and the Bax-Enfield repeating pistol he had strapped there.
“S’right,” Molly said. She had undone the parcel now, and drew out an elaborate rifle whose barrel ended not in rifling, but a flared copper bulb. “So it won’t. It’ll feel itself slowing, and run around a bit to warm back up. And as it knows we’re here, why, it’ll run straight at us.”
“Unless, of course, there are any other modifications you’ve neglected to inform us of?” Sam reached out, and took the strange weapon from Molly. There were three toggle switches on the side of the stock, and Sam flicked them on in sequence. There was a deep clunk in the heart of the device, and it began to omit a low, urgent hum. “A second battery to allow it to stalk us for a while longer?”
Basker felt a blush of anger and embarrassment coming up through his collar. Caulderdale and the frightening harpy in britches who seemed half maid and half help-meet were supposed to be under his employ. If he was therefore in charge, then why did he feel so utterly helpless before their disdain?
“Nothing,” he said, gritting his teeth.
There was a rush of movement off to the left. A blur, low to the ground, hissing through the gorse and just as instantly stopping.
“Fifty yards,” Molly said quietly. Sam adjusted a calibrated knob on the side of the gun. The hum came up in volume.
Another scurry of movement, closer, and vectoring in towards the right now. Basker drew his weapon, and clicked back the hammer. Molly watched him, not bothering to hide her amusement.
“That’s a big gun, Mister Basker,” she said. “I do hope you know how to use it.”
“Caulderdale, keep your bloody doxy in check!” Basker spat.
Sam just grinned.  The fool deserved to be wound up.
Molly stuck out her tongue, and blew Basker a juicy raspberry.
The three of them had formed a loose triangle, facing outwards. They were circling, slowly, intent on any movement or sound. It was a still day, and apart from the hush of their boot-treads on the marsh, all was silence.
The moment stretched, creaking under the pressure.
Basker said, “What if…”
And the Beagle leapt. It was closer than they had thought, and further to the right. Sam and Molly were facing in completely the wrong direction. It whirred through the air, it’s sharp-tipped legs flexing. It smacked into Basker, knocking him off his feet. As he fell backwards his gun hand came up and he yanked on the trigger. The pistol boomed, expending it’s seven-round load in a second and a half, emptying death uselessly into the thick foggy air.
The Beagle rounded on him. Basker tried to get to his feet, but could do no more than scramble backwards, half-upright. He brought up his gun again, and pointed it at the belly of the beast as it reared up to pounce. The hammer snapped uselessly on air.
The rapier points of the Beagle’s foot-tips glinted in the instant before they plunged into Basker’s chest.

…any more, anyone?

The Problem With Phileus Fogg

Fogg, contemplating a spate of dickish behaviour.

My research leading up to this years Nanowrimo has led me to re-read Jules Verne’s “Around The World In Eighty Days”. It’s been a salutary lesson for more than one reason. Firstly, I haven’t read it since I was 11, and I’d forgotten just how tightly written and fast-moving it was. Its the perfect example of the kind of book I like to read, and the sort of book I want to write.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’d never realised that Phileus Fogg is a complete knob. Worse, he’s probably seriously mentally ill.

Let’s examine the evidence, ignoring the urbane charm of David Niven in the delightful 1956 Hollywood version, or indeed Willy Fog, the cartoon lion of the 90s kids show. No, the Fogg I am talking about is taken straight from the pages of Verne’s novel. This is a man with few friends, no family to speak of, and habits that are not merely regular, but obsessive compulsive.

 

During his brief interview with Mr. Fogg, Passepartout had been carefully observing him. He appeared to be a man about forty years of age, with fine, handsome features, and a tall, well-shaped figure; his hair and whiskers were light, his forehead compact and unwrinkled, his face rather pale, his teeth magnificent. His countenance possessed in the highest degree what physiognomists call “repose in action,” a quality of those who act rather than talk. Calm and phlegmatic, with a clear eye, Mr. Fogg seemed a perfect type of that English composure which Angelica Kauffmann has so skilfully represented on canvas. Seen in the various phases of his daily life, he gave the idea of being perfectly well-balanced, as exactly regulated as a Leroy chronometer. Phileas Fogg was, indeed, exactitude personified, and this was betrayed even in the expression of his very hands and feet; for in men, as well as in animals, the limbs themselves are expressive of the passions. 

He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions. He never took one step too many, and always went to his destination by the shortest cut; he made no superfluous gestures, and was never seen to be moved or agitated. He was the most deliberate person in the world, yet always reached his destination at the exact moment. He lived alone, and, so to speak, outside of every social relation; and as he knew that in this world account must be taken of friction, and that friction retards, he never rubbed against anybody.  

 

This is a man that will fire his manservant for bringing his shaving water two degrees too cold, and yet will happily drop everything and gamble his fortune on a club-room wager. Bi-polar? Quite possibly. This is a man that, on that journey, will show no interest in the wonders unfolding before him, preferring instead to stay in his cabin and brood over railway timetables and steam train schedules. This is a man, who when presented with the opportunity to rescue a maiden from an untimely death at the hands of Brahmin fanatics, chooses to do so only because his timetable has opened up enough that he has some free time to do so!

This is no hero, Readership. This is a sociopath. Phileus Fogg is desperately unstable, unable to relate to the outside world in a normal fashion, and frankly seems one rash, ill-thought decision away from killing himself and taking his travelling companions with him.

More of an anti-hero then, I guess. I swear, if it wasn’t for the more honest lunacy of Passpartout, the thing would be almost unbearable. I have to admit that I can’t stop reading, though. Not just to find out what happen at the end. To find out also if the so-called hero becomes any less of a dick.