Thursday, June 30, 2011


This Spitfire Mk 2A, now owned by the Battle o...

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Back in my early teens, a friend invited me to stay with him in the Curragh in County Kildare, Ireland.

The Curragh is a 5,000 area of largely open grassland which is primarily associated in Irish minds with horse breeding, racing and training – and plenty of grazing sheep. It also boasts an Army base, the Curragh Camp. The latter used to house the British Army, but it was transferred to the newly formed Irish Army after peace was (more or less) made. 

Some of the scenes in the move, Braveheart, were filmed there. 

One evening – it was after dark - when we were cutting across the damp grassland on the way to a cinema, I was completely taken aback to find a barbed-war enclosed  floodlit compound, complete with watch towers and armed soldiers, off to one side.

Together we crept as close as we could to gaze upon this extraordinary sight, and then hunkered down just outside the floodlit area. We were transformed into secret agents. We were on a mission though quite what that was seemed a little unclear. But we knew we mustn’t be detected. There were machine guns in those watch-towers (and if there were not, there should have been).

It looked like a classic WW II prison camp out of every movie you’ve ever seen. And that is exactly what it was. But this was the late Fifties, so who were they holding there? This was very exciting, and thoughts of the movie faded, as we gazed upon the real thing.

It turned out it was several hundred IRA who were not yet reconciled to the idea that a treaty had been signed with the British in 1921 – and the fight against them was supposed to be over.

I was reminded of all this by a story in the BBC magazine of June 27 2011. Ireland had been neutral during WW II, and it explained that the Curragh Camp had held both British and German internees – as well as some IRA – and that the British and Germans, at least, had been allowed out to the local pubs, have visitors, and generally to pass the time as best they could without much restraint. The Irish soldiers were armed, but their ammunition was blank. It was a very Irish solution to a tricky diplomatic situation.


The sole American internee was a pilot called Roland “Bud” Wolfe who had been serving with the RAF in an Eagle Squadron flying Spitfires, but who had been forced to bale out over Ireland. He had been cheeky enough to escape from the camp – scarcely difficult under the circumstances - but the British, concerned to maintain good relations with the Irish, and who still occupied Northern Ireland (a situation that hasn’t changed), had sent him back.

“Not the done thing to escape when they’re not really imprisoning you old chap. Bad form, don’t you know.”

Bud Wolfe tried to escape again, but was caught. The Irish security services may appear casual but are surprisingly effective. He was finally released in 1943, and he went on to serve again in WWII, as well as Korea and Vietnam, before finally dying in 1994. Probably of exhaustion. This was a warrior.

As we speak, attempts are being made to excavate his crashed Spitfire from a bog in Donegal.

Though Ireland was neutral throughout WW II (1939-1945 as far as Europe was concerned) more than 100,000 Irish served with the British Army during that time. Some say it was because of a shortage of tea in Ireland during the war. 


One, John Lentaigne, was a relation of mine. He was a young officer in the Rifle Brigade and was killed at the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa fighting against the Afrika Korps. He was awarded the Military Cross.

His name, picked out in gold, was carved into the paneling at our school, Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, England. He was a warrior too; and he is remembered. As he should be. 



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Wednesday, June 29, 2011


French Foreign Legionnaires coming back from a...

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The topic of beautiful women and writing came to mind because of a piece in the Huffington Post a couple of days ago.

It was by Best Selling author Dani Shapiro. Now, I have never met her, and probably never will – she lives in Connecticut and I live in Seattle - but twenty years ago, around the time I was being published for the first time, I was shown Dani’s first book, and a mutual friend suggested we meet up.

The encounter never happened, but Dani’s photo was on the back of her book and sent tingles up my spine. The woman was different, and she wrote beautifully. And she had that elusive quality.

Two decades and three marriages later, now apparently happily married with a young son, it is clear that she still does; and not only her books, but her blogs, are well worth reading – particularly if you are a writer.  Her advice is absolutely on target, and, in some cases, extremely amusing. I particularly liked her comment that if you want to write, don’t go into publishing, but get some experience of life first. Go work in a bar or something. And the French Foreign Legion (see above) is always an option.

Their uniforms are terrific; and you’ll lose a lot of weight. And their paras weight their green berets with a very distinctive sense of style and elan.


No, I didn’t enlist, but I did some weeks researching them in Corsica – a beautiful island - and had some interesting times with a woman I was deeply in love with. Yes, there really are bandits there.

It is not true that you can only write about what you know – in the sense of having experienced such events personally (imagination is a wonderful thing) but it is entirely true that it helps to have a few steamer trunks full of emotional and other adventures before settling down to polish your craft. And that you need to to top up your memory banks every now and then. There is no age limit to adventure.

Go read Dani Shapiro (yes, that’s her) and enjoy.

DaniShapiro - larger

Dani reminds me of an incident when I was in Bern, Switzerland, researching Games Of The Hangman. I was walking back to the apartment where I was staying, just a few minutes from the River Aare, when a truly beautiful woman in her early twenties, laughing, stepped out of a school about twenty feet in front of me, turned, said something in Swiss-German, and then slung her bag on her shoulder, crossed the road and vanished out of sight. She was young, gorgeous, happy, and as her camel hair coat swung open, I saw she was pregnant; and that her coat was lined with some crimson material. The impact of that flash of color was extraordinary.

I have never ever seen such a stunning evocation of  the joy of life than on that occasion; and I was so impressed that I came to a halt to just savor the moment. It was beautiful visually, emotionally, spiritually, and dramatically. I was entranced.

I never learned who she was, or what she did, or what happened to her. I never tried to find out. Yet I have never forgotten those few seconds, and I never will.

Life is always interesting, and it can be truly wonderful. And even in the worst of times, some memories are very special.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Queen/Shabanu Soraya, Tehran 1953

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In truth, I’m somewhat of the antithesis of a celebrity buff, but as a writer – my professional excuse - now and then find myself both fascinated and intrigued by certain people; and as a man, as is the way of things, more often than not, I find the person in question is a woman.

Let me stress, I’m not primarily talking about sexuality here – though that is certainly a factor when a woman is involved. Instead, I’m talking a quality that has a very particular appeal, and which has an unusually powerful emotional impact. I’m not sure it has a name. 

Such people, where I am concerned, tend to have an enigmatic aspect, and, I suspect, it is that very elusiveness which is part of their attraction. Yet even if the encounter is only at a distance, and perhaps only for seconds, they have made a difference – for the better - in your life. You are intrigued, captivated, uplifted and, perhaps, for a second or two, in love; or, at least, infatuated. And you are left with a sense of beauty and feelings of loss – a bitter-sweet feeling that can linger for years. Unrequited passion does have its uses. Or perhaps, you are just lost in admiration. Either way, your life has been enriched.

My very first encounter of that nature was when I met Princess Soraya at Le Beach (a private beach club) in Monte Carlo while carrying out my very first journalism assignment. At the time she had just been divorced by the Shah (the emperor of Iran in those days) and was somewhat older, and even more attractive than the above picture suggests. She had grown into a mature woman. What is more, she was wearing a one piece black bathing suit, and had a tanned, svelte figure that more than did it justice. To say she was stunning does not get close. I was still in my teens. and impressionable. Frankly, when it comes to someone like Soraya, I’m fairly sure I’m still impressionable.

Our encounter was brief, but I was left awestruck. It was summer and – as normal - Le Beach in Monte Carlo was full of truly gorgeous women, many sunbathing topless around the pool; but Soraya was exceptional. Many decades later, the feeling still lingers. 

The shah (see below) divorced her because she couldn’t bear him a son. I debated his judgment then, and  have had no occasion to change my mind.  Her re-married, lost his throne and died. Little did we know how events would unfold. Little do we know now as Iran progresses to become a nuclear power.  


I spent quite a few summers in Monte Carlo when I was growing up. Soraya set the bar high when it came to beautiful women. That said, beauty is a subtle thing, and is far from just being physical.




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Monday, June 27, 2011


Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918

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There was a very interesting piece about Army Leadership by Greg Jaffe (a consistently excellent journalist) in the Washington Post of June 25 2011. It carried the provocative headline:


Let me quote briefly from the piece:

A major U.S. Army survey of leadership and morale found that more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants had directly observed a “toxic” leader in the last year and that about 20 percent of the respondents said that they had worked directly for one.

The survey of about 22,000 Army leaders was conducted by the Center for Army Leadership and comes during a year when the Army has removed or discipline three brigade commanders who were en route to, or returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Selection to command a combat brigade, which consists of about 5,000 soldiers and is commanded by a colonel, is highly competitive in the Army.

The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making.

…..About half of the soldiers who worked under toxic leaders expected that their selfish and abusive commanders would be promoted to a higher level of leadership.

Hmm! The Army’s findings are disturbing though I guess that the good news is that the subject is being discussed in the first place.

Personally, I have great affection for the U.S. Army (insofar as one can have feelings for such a vast organization) which was why I spent many months with units in the Nineties, and have followed its activities so closely ever since. In fact, most of my American  friends are either serving or retired military, and the majority of those are Army. My interest is both personal and professional. Where the latter is concerned I planned a series of books around that institution. So far, only The Devil’s Footprint, which features the 82nd Airborne, has been published, but Getting To Know The Warfighters is due out shortly, and other military related books will follow.

Based upon both my field research and experiences, the Army has a long way to go before it gets its leadership up to the standard required. The reasons are structural so extremely hard to eradicate. They include:


  • The fact that the best and the brightest tend not to go into the Army. This doesn’t mean that there are not some notable exceptions, and that there is not considerable competence, but more that the Army, as a service, does not attract restless, cutting edge talent. Worse, its culture actively discourages intellectualism and academic brilliance, particularly when it comes to the more senior ranks. ‘Clubability’ rather than talent is preferred. Bright people tend to question the status quo and the last thing Army generals want is the very system that treats them so well to be questioned. Dave Petraeus and a few others are exceptions – though they shouldn’t be -  but the overall standard of generals is not high  and the Club of Generals, both serving and retired (informal but no less real for all that) likes it that way.
  • An excessively authoritarian and rigid culture that, by definition, discourages creativity, initiative and original thinking. After all, if you are conditioned day after day, and year after year, to follow orders, and regard The Army Way as being the only way, you are scarcely likely to question the system particularly as the system actively discourages such behavior. Such action is typically a career breaker. In contrast to ‘The Big Army, ‘Special Forces’ have considerably more autonomy and and freedom to use their initiative, and the results speak for themselves. This raises the whole question as to whether as to whether Special Forces training and culture should not be adopted more widely.
  • Careerism has become endemic to the Army culture. There are various definitions of careerism, but few are as pithy as this one from  careerism - the practice of advancing your career at the expense of your personal integrity. Needleless to say this scourge is not confined to the Army but is widespread in politics, business, the professions and academia.

I could write much more about this, but will save it for a longer paper. But the overriding point is that the whole question of Army leadership is vastly important; and, up to now, has not received the attention it deserves.

The Army, despite its massive power tends to be excessively sensitive to criticism – ‘defensive’ would inadequately describe its mindset. Accordingly, let me soften my words by paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway. The above photo is of him in Milan in 1918. 

The U.S. Army is a fine institution; and its leadership is worth improving.

We pay for its inadequacies in both blood and treasure.










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Sunday, June 26, 2011


Pain in acute myocardial infarction (front)
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As I recall, I’m supposed to be working up to a serious post on economic matters, but meanwhile you (my merry band of readers) are due a report on Microsoft’s Windows Live Writer. Consider this an interim report because I’m damned if I yet know how it all works.

I guess it is supposed to be intuitive, but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in wanting a HELP MENU. There isn’t one. This is Microsoft country where all the Microsoft Pharisees already know what to do, and the rest can go and do anatomically impossible things.

I remember the days when I was introduced to a program called Word Perfect, and thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was pretty much WHYSIWYG and it had a marvelous set-up page. In it, you merely chose what you wanted – ‘defaults’ in the jargon of the medium - and it did exactly that until YOU changed it.
Today, software seems to have a mind of its own; and I don’t take kindly to it. I set the FONT SIZE at 12 point and it immediately changes to 9.9. And so on! Yes, I know that there is probably a simple solution to all this – if one is familiar with the ‘Microsoft Way’  - but I regard such an assumption, in the absence of a HELP MENU, as arrogance.

There is no doubt at all, but that software is improving, but I still have a suspicion that the people who write software, and real people, come from different races; and from different planets at that. They certainly come from different cultures, and, believe me, that shows.

I hold Microsoft – its movers and shakers - in debatable regard for the following reasons:
  • For most of the last quarter century plus, they have marketed operating systems that have overpromised and under–performed to the great distress of hundreds of millions, probably billions, of users. I hate to think how many businesses they have bankrupted, suicides they have caused, relationships they have destroyed, and heart-attacks they have induced.  Personal computers are personal, and the consequences of their failure are just that.
  • They are a monopoly, and have long abused their dominant position.  They have maintained it though unethical behavior. In fact, I see scant evidence that Microsoft has a moral sense.
  • They don’t have a healthy corporate ethos. Whereas Google has thought through the obvious fact that treating people well pays – consider the corporate environment and 20% time to do what you please – Microsoft just believes in long hours, and divide and conquer. As their architecture reflects, they are remarkably dull slave-masters.
  • I don’t know what goes on in the bowels of Microsoft, but their people come across – particularly when considered in relation to their resources – as lacking the innovation gene, and excessively corporate in mindset.
Apple’s courageous decision to switch to a more reliable Unix based operating system illustrates the contrast. The corporation took the risk that its user base put up with having to buy completely new software because the new Apple OS would not run legacy software – and it paid off. Apple has the proven ability to generate significant customer loyalty over the long term. Microsoft primarily trades upon corporate inertia.

I think I’ll leave my latest comments on Windows Live Writer for another day.

Regarding UNIX, I came to the conclusion years ago that I should using it. I was talked out of by all my DOS/Windows support system on the grounds that I wouldn’t get the support I needed, there wasn’t enough software available and it would cost too much to run. In the end I went with the prevailing wisdom. It is frequently, perhaps normally, wrong. It was in this case.
It’s a foolish thing to defy one’s instincts.


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Saturday, June 25, 2011


Royal Marines

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The first death I ever witnessed was that of a motorcyclist descending a hill beside the common in Chalfonts Saint Peter in Buckinghamshire, England, who failed to make a turn, crashed into a wall, and broke his neck.

I was about five when it happened, and only a few yards away from the point of impact. I remember the crash, and the fact that his head was at a funny angle, but I don’t recall any blood. He was wearing a helmet and leathers. At that age, I didn’t know what death looked like, but he looked – and was – dead. I didn’t stick around. I went on home with my carton of cigarettes and told my mother what had happened. She didn’t believe a word.

Today, children aren’t allowed out by themselves at such an early age but that was then, and I had a fairly unusual mother. From the age of five I had been sent down to the village to buy her cigarettes. I normally bought them by the carton. I was known as “the little boy in the pith helmet who likes Craven A.” The pith helmet was a military affair, given to me by one of mother’s many boyfriends, which fitted me little better than a basin. But I loved it. The only outfit, that I know of, that wears such headgear today is the Royal Marines (see photo).

I am always feel mildly jealous when I see them in action. I thought I had the monopoly on such cool gear. The point of a pith helmet was to keep the sun off – scarcely a threat in England in those days. My helmet was made out of some kind of insulating cork composite, covered with cotton and a spike, and was wonderful in the rain. It was like wearing an umbrella.

Thereafter I considered myself as a person of experience and capable of dealing with death. When relatives and family friends died off, I wasn’t particularly phased. I was never taken to the funerals. Death was normally a line in a school letter; and remote. Face after face sort of faded away. I wasn’t entirely unaffected as the ranks thinned, but I rationalized that it was the natural order of things.

I dreaded my grandmother dying. She was the person I loved most and was closest to, and a constant support under any, and all, circumstances. She didn’t fuss and she didn’t nag. In times of crisis, violent or otherwise, she was as cool as a cucumber. When I was bought home at dawn by a police car after being mugged and injured by a gang in north London – we chased and caught them and they were imprisoned - she didn’t turn a hair. She merely helped me out my torn clothes, and cooked breakfast. She had been a nurse in WWI and an Air Raid Warden in WWII during the blitz in London so death and injury just went with the territory. When she died, my heart was broken. I knew life would never be the same; and it hasn’t been. 

Over the years I’ve experienced death in various ways and in various forms but I have never had so many friends die as over the last six months. It started with Jo who killed herself as a small group of her friends, including me, stood around her bed. She was dying anyway, in enormous pain, so all she really did was chose the time and circumstances; and I salute her for that.

Since then, one more person who I knew well, has died in this building, as have five other friends elsewhere – mostly of cancer.

I guess I should accept all this with equanimity, but the truth is that the death of each friend has hit hard. It doesn’t fit my self-image. I like to think of myself as reasonable compassionate, but stoic.

I fear that is not the case. Perhaps, on balance, it’s  a good thing. But I still feel sad.







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T.S. Eliot photographed one Sunday afternoon i...

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The  Huffington Post often tends to look as if it was edited by someone on roller skates zipping around a warehouse full of piles of potential material; and grabbing stuff at random.

It lacks the professional feel of a New York Times. That said, there is plenty of content in it, and every so often one finds a gem.

Besides, I admire what Arianna Huffington is trying to do, especially in the context of the massacre of the media that has been taking place over the past decade or so.

Big Media (as in big corporate media) has not served this sector well. It seems to have forgotten the vital role that the Constitution dictates for the press (in all its forms). Profit it a fine thing, but the role of the media has never been (should never be) just about profit.

There is also its mandate to keep the electorate informed. If the electorate is treated like mushrooms,  it will vote like them. I guess  you know what they say about mushrooms. The Son Tay raiders (you can Google this) had a badge made up which said, more or less: “Kept in the dark, and fed horse shit.”

One could apply that remark to the American public with one proviso: All too many of us seem to want to remain, if not in the dark, in a state of  legally drugged distraction. Prescription meds constitute our hit of choice. And we are worried about the Iranians getting The Bomb! We already have it; and apparently most of us are permanently high, or otherwise not in full command of our faculties. Am I joking? I wish I was. I would have thought that the fact that more than half the adult population is on drugs would be a source of concern, but apparently not.  I guess that is one of the primary effects of being drugged.

I have just been reading a book about the Son Tay action – The Raid – which I thoroughly recommend.

But, let me return to my finding, that veritable gem of erudition (made all the more so because I agree with it)..

Such a gem is a piece by Johann Hari, a columnist for the London Independent. It’s entitled In The Age of Distraction, We Need One Thing More Than Ever: Books Unfortunately, this hyperlink does not seem to work so go search manually.

The more important point is: Bully for Johann!  The following is an extract. The full piece – if you can track it down - is well worth reading.

A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now. The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says "the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy." It's precisely because it is not immediate -- because it doesn't know what happened five minutes ago in Kazakhstan, or in Charlie Sheen's apartment -- that the book matters.

That's why we need books, and why I believe they will survive. Because most humans have a desire to engage in deep thought and deep concentration. Those muscles are necessary for deep feeling and deep engagement. Most humans don't just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals. The twenty hours it takes to read a book require a sustained concentration it's hard to get anywhere else. Sure, you can do that with a DVD boxset too -- but your relationship to TV will always ultimately be that of a passive spectator. With any book, you are the co-creator, imagining it as you go. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, literature is the only art form in which the audience plays the score.

T.S. Eliot called books "the still point of the turning world." He was right. It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds.

If that  last paragraph doesn’t resonate from your gullet to your zatch, you’ve had one pill too many.




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Blue Angels

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I like to sit and just think every now and then (ideally every day) because I find thinking without distraction both productive and fun. I call it working.

Ideally, I’d think while standing on my head – it really does seem to work – but I’ve never had the discipline to take up yoga. Besides, writers tend not to be joiners – except in the interests of research. If writing is involved, we will probably go anywhere and do anything. 

Quite how far one would push such a concept is an interesting thought. How can I write about killing if I have never killed etc. Ponder that next time you read one of my thrillers.

Today, I was trying to think about thinking, but the Blue Angels were screaming across Seattle’s leaden sky so it was rather hard to focus.  They come once a year to do dangerous things on July 4, and they rehearse in advance just so they don’t hit Mount Rainier. You never quite know what might set that thing off, and in case you’ve forgotten, it’s a volcano; and really quite close.

No one can see the Angels of course, given Seattle’s climate, but they sound terrific unless you are trying to think. God invented AAA and guided missiles for very good reasons. Triple A is Anti-Aircraft Artillery as you probably know.

Since I didn’t have a Patriot missile battery to hand, my thoughts bounced around a bit, but I did come up with the thought that writing is rather like sailing. A disciplined writer normally doesn’t suffer much from writers’ block (except when the Blue Angels are around) but there is no doubt at all that sometimes – as when a following wind obligingly makes an appearance – the words flow more easily. My tendency then is to make the most of it because the feeling then is so strong, it is virtually an imperative.

Does that conflict with one’s other duties? Of course it does; but so does life in general. 

I’m not quite sure what to do with my sailing metaphor though I might if I knew more about sailing. In truth my experience with the sea has been mixed. It tried to drown me when I was six by sweeping me out to sea at Brittas Bay in Ireland. I learnt to swim in a hurry, I can tell you. 

It tried to drown me again when I was fifteen when I discovered, after I was well out to sea trying to avoid Dun Laoghaire harbor (that’s in Ireland), that the canoe I had just bought had holes in it. Damnably awkward timing. I was about two miles off shore with the current against me.

I drowned. I exaggerate.

A fishing boat hauled me out a couple of hours later by which time I was so cold I couldn’t move. Thus, I learned all about hyperthermia the way a good writer should – first hand. If an early morning walker  at the end of the mile long pier hadn’t lifted his binoculars and noticed something bobbing in the sea… I’d have had to research sex with the mermaids. It probably would have worked out. You have a lot of sexual energy in your teens.

It tried to do me in a few years later when I was swimming off Tangier, Morocco. I got severe cramp and suddenly couldn’t move. I wasn’t too far out, but I was beyond shouting distance. My waves were interpreted as being social. In the end I floated until the pain passed. It took some time. I got nicely sunburned while bobbing around.

And when I finally went sailing in a real sailing boat with a mast and ropes and windlasses and things – and a crew who knew what they were doing - I seem to recall spending most of my time trying to avoid being decapitated as the boom swung from side to side. What a loss to literature that would have been!

Still, I can recall that feeling of exhilaration I experienced when I had no more lunch to throw up, the wind was doing what the wind ought to do, the crew were doing all the work, and the boom was spending a few minutes in one position. I guess I felt for that brief time as if I could conquer the world. It was a  truly wonderful feeling.

I guess writing is like sailing without a crew, and without being sea-sick.







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Friday, June 24, 2011


Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk I

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I’m a great believer in the idea that one should learn the tools of one’s trade so well that one’s muscle memory takes over, and their use becomes a reflex rather than requiring conscious thought. That approach is the basis of military training, and, whatever you may think about the military, it works.

I can still remember exactly how to use the first rifle I ever trained with – a  bolt action .303 Lee Enfield No.4 (a commendably accurate weapon) even though it has been half a century since I have used one. My instructor was a Guards Sergeant Major and he was superb. He told us that the first thing he and his men had done after landing in Normandy was polish their boots. Then they had killed Germans.

The basis of acquiring such reflex skills has traditionally been made of: a good teacher; a good manual; and constant repetition over a period of time until the necessary skill is mastered. I stress the importance of time because  although one can often master principles fairly easily and quickly, only repetition over a period – weeks, months and years rather than days – ensures that reflex skill that is so desirable. Musicians, singers and shooters practice regularly for exactly that reason.

Mastering computer software seems to require a different approach largely because however straightforward it seems to be initially, in reality most software is complex, powerful, constantly evolving, and there is so much of the stuff.  Research suggests that most of us seem to cope by learning only what we think we need to know; and ignoring the rest. Indeed that has been my approach for many years. I held to the view that I should focus on writing, and anything that didn’t support that goal was nothing more than a distraction.

Over time, I have come to the view that such a narrowly focused approach is not good enough, and that a writer today needs to have a much deeper understanding of the application of computer technology than is necessary for pure writing. My reasoning is that writing is more and more going to be linked to multimedia; the very formats we read are changing; information management has become increasingly important; and distribution technologies are going to change beyond recognition.

When I first went to school, I learned to write with a pen one dipped into an ink pot; and I regarded a fountain pen as advanced technology. 

Can one adapt? I don’t think any of us have any choice in the matter. Besides, it’s fascinating (though it can be MADDENING), so I look forward to becoming as comfortable in this new world as I once was with my rifle. 

But where do I find the computer equivalent of Sergeant Major Hennessey? I shall polish my shoes and meditate.







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Thursday, June 23, 2011


It Could Happen to You (film)

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But, I’ll be an exception I hear you think ( we authors have special powers , you know).

Perhaps. Could happen. But, let me tell you, it doesn’t happen that way for most of us – even if we have early successes.

Part of the reason is that it takes a truly incredible amount of time to become proficient at the core skills of writing; and part of the reason is that you just need time to build up experience of life; and learn to understand, and then communicate, its nuances and complexities. And then there is the business of dealing with agents and publishers. That requires the skills of a Sun Tzu combined with the pragmatism of a professional hit man. And body armor for your back is strongly advised. Those people think treachery is just another form of socially acceptable behavior, are born stiletto in hand – which is why they naturally gravitate to publishing - and like to keep in practice. Many are charming.  Check out the sexual orientation of the target in question before making your move.

How much time are you talking about? Take a deep breath, sit down, and have some medicinal brandy at hand. Absinthe used to be all the rage, but that is no longer so popular since it shrank Toulouse Lautrec.

I’m talking decades. Those ten year things. A couple, possibly more of them. Marathons are easy in comparison. Writing is more akin to going on the Crusades, probably several times,and could well have the same casualty rate. Fortunately, chastity belts no longer come into the equation. When it comes to sex, we writers don’t do as well as poets and painters, but we do ok. In the interests of research, you understand. And sometimes that’s the only way you get to know what’s going on. Think of it as REE – Research, Espionage and Exercise. As for love, that’s why poets were invented.

But, how do you – we - keep going? We write a lot and while we are writing we don’t think of our problems. That’s the whole point. Better yet, after a while, when you’ve learned to get in the zone on demand, you will find the process both exhilarating and curiously calming. And then there is wine, the company of friends (who won’t understand you, but will support you in other ways), the pleasures of the sex you feel drawn to – and books. If you are going to learn to write, you have to read. A lot.

Any suggestions? Too many to list, but I will draw your attention to the Paris Review series of interviews with writers originated by George Plimpton. They’ll give you a taste of the world you are entering. And then there is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which will convey a pretty good sense of the emotional costs that accompany this very dangerous quest. It’s supposed to be non-fiction, though that is arguable, but, either way, it’s a beautiful book. And what finer purpose has a writer, but to create such a wonder.

All will be forgiven if you do – especially if you are dead.







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Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Author Evan Hunter, March 2001, at a book sign...

Image via Wikipedia

A press release from Amazon came in today announcing that the company had acquired 47 books written by mega Best Selling Author Ed McBain, best known for his 87th Precinct series. His real name was Evan Hunter, and he was a successful author under that name too. He died in 2005. This picture of him was taken in 2001. He looks agreeably lived-in, and his books reflect that fact.

I was delighted to be reminded of the man. I hate forgetting an author whose work I admire, but though I’m fairly certain I have read the vast majority of his books, somehow his name slipped my mind. Shame on me!

A recent report excoriated the ignorance of American school children – and much of the population - when it comes to history. I find that extremely worrying because I don’t see how you can make a rational decision in a democracy if you don’t have context; and history is context. I love it because not only is is innately interesting (it’s stories after all) but it also helps explain why people are the way they are, and why they do what they do. If you want to know why the Greek economy is in such terrible trouble right now, just look at their history, and all becomes clear. And the same applies to this Great Country.

There is a clear line linking our current economic woes to our behavior in the past. Beneath the bombast and the propaganda, American economic history is not the story of near consistent economic progress we are led to believe in. True, there have been magnificent achievements, but our corporate state has also done some terrible things – and is still doing them. And whether we are progressing, or not, is a decidedly debatable point.

When I say the corporate state, I don’t mean the U.S. Government. I mean the coalition of corporate interests which currently dominates our daily lives both directly, and through its influence on the U.S. Government. The image of puppetry comes to mind; or do I mean substance? We are certainly close to that point.

The American Business Model isn’t the role model it has long been touted to be (though it could be) – which may help to explain why few other countries are following it. It’s a tragedy that we don’t know our own history, and an attendant catastrophe that we are so ignorant of the histories of other countries. Instead, we have seemed to settle for ideology – a remarkably poor basis for informed decision making – combined with argument by assertion. The convenient thing about the latter is that veracity is not required.

Studying history tends to change one’s notions of time, particularly in a culture which seems to suffer from collective amnesia unless the issue concerns a sports statistic. Personally, I don’t consider the Vietnam War to have taken place a long time ago, whereas of my friends, who are preoccupied primarily with the events of the day, and the immediate future, regard such an attitude as eccentric, at best, and probably nuts. As to when it comes to discussing past relationships, indiscretions and adventures, the ability of women to forget – or to appear to forget – is truly impressive. All the world is indeed a stage, and the fair sex are accomplished actors.

We writers tend not to forget such things because history is our raw material, and our own histories – however they reflect our philandering, imperfections and mistakes – are our point of departure. Even fiction emanates from somewhere.

Bear that in mind when you next have an author over for dinner.












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Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Cover of "Rollerball"

Cover of Rollerball

Short stories are notoriously difficult to write; which may well be why I have never attempted to write them. They need to grab you, suck you in, close with a twist – and be memorable; and that is no easy task to accomplish in a few pages.

How few? There are no precise rules except those laid down by the relevant publication. Keep going and you’ll end up with a novella. 

I grew up with short stories. My grandmother liked to read to me before I could read, and for a little time afterwards; and then I discovered Saki (H.R. Monroe), G.K. Chesterton, Somerset Maughn, and other practitioners of the art such as Arthur Conan Doyle. Then in my teens I gravitated to magazines like Argosy which published some excellent works in their day. And I read endless Science Fiction short stories – a marvelous vein of provocative literature.

The two stories that have stayed with me through the decades are: Leiningen Versus The Ants by Carl Stephenson, and Rollerball by William Harrison. Both were made into movies. 

I’m prompted to muse about this particular genre because I have just read a stunningly good prize-winning short story by Audrey Carlsen entitled Falling. It presses all the right buttons and ends with a twist – and I doubt I’ll ever be able to cross a  bridge in Seattle again without thinking of it. You can Google it, but to save you the trouble, here is the link  I gather Audrey plans a medical future. I wish her well in that, but the world of literature will be the poorer if she doesn’t keep writing. This is one exceptionally talented young woman.

Speaking of falling, reminds me of a rather bizarre incident which happened just outside my office window while I was out to lunch. My first floor office overlooked the stunning vista of the ramp that led to the underground garage. I was very junior management in those days. When I returned, I found a man hosing down the ramp and noticed that the edges of the wet patch were a reddish pink (a sight I was to become familiar with over the years).

Someone higher up in the building – both in rank and geography – had evidently decided corporate life was not for him. I was quite intrigued by this and went to try and find out the circumstances. In Ireland, such an incident would have proved to be a serious topic of conversation, probably good for days. But this was England, and London at that – and a very stiff upper lip environment.

No one would talk! No one would say a word. I was flabbergasted. It was then I knew that despite the peculiarities of my background, I was indeed an Irishman; and, as such, a stranger in that strange land called England.

I did eventually find out one interesting detail. When Mr. Mills, our buyer, had seen the victim in question plummet past his office window, he had immediately dialed 999, and only afterwards had opened his window and leant out to gaze upon the inevitable result.

British sang froid at its finest.




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Roman Army in Jerash

Image by OceanCreep via Flickr

Where software is concerned, I have long entertained the notion that those who write the stuff need an incentive to do better. The over-arching problem is that the programmers don’t use the programs they write, so that they are rather like house-builders who haven’t yet even gravitated to caves. They eat their pizzas in the rain.

Decimation, the quaint Roman habit of killing every tenth man to encourage the others, is the kind of incentive that comes to mind, and it should be carried out on an annual basis. Those who don’t write code that translates into a totally transparent user experience should die first. I don’t think programmers respond to subtlety. They are fixated on the large sums of money they get paid, and they absolutely do not understand what the users of the software they write have to go through. Meanwhile, we – poor users – blame ourselves for our lack of skill, and grovel over the phone to Indians with false names located in Bangalore in the hope of being dragged out of the mire. If we are lucky.

Where Windows Live Writer is concerned, I have now been using it for a week and certainly find it vastly better than Blogger (faint praise). On the other hand, it lacks a HELP MENU, and is positively permeated with eccentricities. Fundamentally, it’s a Darwinian creative environment.

Software companies do have people who are qualified in UX (the ‘user experience’) but I have long been of the view that they might be better off listening to real live users. Simply put, the corporate culture of all too many software houses overwhelms the non-programmer.

Spleen having been vented, I shall persevere.






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Monday, June 20, 2011


David Lloyd George

Image via Wikipedia

I suspect I really shouldn’t have hinted that my great – great grandfather might have been Jack The Ripper -except that the idea just floated into my mind (an occupational hazard for us authors); and the co-location in London, and the conjunction of dates of both the murders and great grandfather’s invention was just (I’m searching for an excuse) too convenient.

But, I was just being mischievous; and by all accounts, Lewis Haslam was an admirable man.  Judging by his portraits, and the iron will of his daughter, Vida, he was certainly a forceful one.

No, the photo isn’t of him. It’s of Lloyd George. Think of LG as WW I’s Winston Churchill.

He. Lewis Haslam, went on to become an MP – a British Member of Parliament – and in 1911, Lloyd George offered to make him a peer (a lord). He turned that down on the grounds that Prime Minister Lloyd George was merely trying to pack the house of Lords in his favor (quite true), and that a peerage should really only be awarded for some service of note for one’s country (a debatable argument). King Charles had a habit of making his mistresses Duchesses, and being a cuckold  had promotion potential as well. The aristocracy have been as much bribed, as have served.

And thus we induct those who rule us. It all sounds remarkably like Congress to me. I was going to add “without the sex” but then sanity prevailed.

Personally, I should have thought that inventing the product, Aertex, that helped to keep the most intimate parts of the British cool justified such a title, but evidently great-grandfather thought otherwise. I gather he was also influenced by the fact that he had no son to inherit the peerage; merely two daughters: my grandmother, Vida, and her sister Lally; and he was proud of his own name, and certainly rich enough. In short he didn’t need a title, and didn’t want to be beholden to Lloyd George even though they were friends (they had adjoining constituencies in Wales and often travelled up to London by train together). Lloyd George was charming (and a notorious ladies’ man) but he could be tricky.

The British textile industry in the Nineteenth Century – the period of the Industrial Revolution – is normally associate with ‘Dark Satanic Mills,’ from a poem by William Blake, and deplorable working conditions. Whether that was the case where Lewis Haslam was concerned is doubtful for several reasons. His father had been the entrepreneur during the grizzlier days of industrialization; Lewis Haslam was a Liberal MP and stood for reform of working conditions across the board; and his daughter, my grandmother, was an idealist in the very best sense, and spent her life being socially concerned. She wasn’t a communist or even a socialist. Instead she thought society as a whole would be better off if people were treated decently and that workers would be more productive if adequately rewarded. Such was her father’s experience as an industrialist, and there was no doubt at all that that had worked out well.

All of this is my lead-in to my wondering why, roughly a century later, social concern in the U.S. seems to be so lacking, and unemployment so intractable. Surely, the U.S. Business Model is supposed to seek efficiency; and a demotivated workforce may be cowed, even obedient; but it certainly isn’t efficient  

To be continued… but now you have a hint as to why I collect economists (they keep well in formaldehyde). I am cursed with a curious disposition.



P.S. I have to wonder: Could this Jack The Ripper stuff be hereditary?










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Cover of "Zulu"

Cover of Zulu

My much loved grandmother, Helen Evelyn Vida Lentaigne (nee Haslam) – came from a very wealthy background. Her father, Lewis Haslam, was a textile magnate and politician, and, just to gild the gingerbread, had invented a revolutionary fabric called Aertex in 1888, which was the material of choice for shirts and underwear throughout the British empire. 

Essentially, it was a loose but robust cellular cotton weave with numerous tiny holes in it so it breathed – and cooled. Whether its use originated the expression “Keeping your cool” is a moot point, but it certainly contributed to that physical state. This was just as well because the British ran their empire with remarkably few people, and looking imperturbable in the face of any and all difficulties, played no small role in ensuring this practice’s success. For a supreme example of such behavior, I cite the movie Zulu – based upon the actual Battle of Rorke’s Drift – where 104 British soldiers fought off a Zulu impi of roughly 4,500. I would claim that Aertex was the British secret except that the battle in question took place in 1879 before Aertex was invented.  

You can look it up on Wikipedia or Google it, and there is even a web site dedicated the brand. Unfortunately, we don’t own it any more, but it made no small contribution to the family fortunes. Apparently, great-grandfather Lewis, got the idea for his invention when he observed women wearing lace gloves at a reception. What his motives were for observing the fair sex so closely is a family secret. We deny absolutely that he was Jack The Ripper though it is quite true that he maintained a large house in London and was around at the time. It is a complete coincidence that both the invention of Aertex and the Jack The Ripper killings happened in 1888.

To be continued…














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Thursday, June 16, 2011


Photographing a model

Image via Wikipedia

Gulp! I collect economists. When I say that, I don’t mean that I have them hanging in neat rows – as in suspended by the neck from the ceiling, or perhaps from a line of hat-racks  (though some undoubtedly deserve such a fate) but more that I’m constantly on the lookout for economists that make sense of our current chaotic economic environment; and, better yet, who have ideas of how we can get out of the mess we’re in; and make some progress in the future.

Where are those guys?

The reason why this is seen as a vice – at least by the publishing business – is that authors are supposed to stay within genre; and stepping outside your label is frowned upon severely. Since I am best known as a thriller writer, I should stick to writing thrillers; or, at worst, write an economic thriller. Similarly, romance writers should stick to romance and so on.

I find this kind of mindset – this tendency to typecast people, and then to box them in - utterly frustrating, but it is all too common in this Great Nation. Perhaps we can only cope with such a large population if we label people; and we are certainly conditioned to respond to the concept of branding from an early age; and socially conditioned not to think out of the box.

My favorite story about such groupthink concerns a photographer in New York who had built up a very successful business photographing food, but now wanted to try photographing something else (intimate photographs of breakfast cereal can get monotonous). Though it was widely accepted that he was both creatively and technically brilliant, his efforts to diversify were entirely unsuccessful. Art directors had him classified as a ‘food man’ – and that was it. Eventually, he decided there was only one solution. He would, so to speak, clone himself, and set up another studio under another name. That rather drastic and expensive strategy succeeded – and he ended up being as successful in fashion as he continued to be in food. The irony here is that world of photography is small, so most of the art directors who commissioned work from him knew of his modest deception; but he still needed his two identities, and two studios, to achieve his breakout.

One of the truly alarming things about being limited to a genre relates to non-fiction. Non-fiction is typically sold to a publisher by way of a proposal a proposal, possibly accompanied by a sample chapter or two, but unless you are a celebrity or a have background specific to the field you are writing about, you haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of selling your work. The quality of your ideas and the elegance of your prose appear to have no value in themselves. I find that deeply troubling because often it is the very perspective that the non-specialist brings that finds the answer. A fresh mind is a wonderful thing.

In my own case, initially I started to collect data on this country shortly after I arrived in 2001 primarily just to learn about my new home – and I’m innately intellectually curious. Soon, I came to the view that the U.S. economy suffered from deep structural flaws. In 2004, I became convinced that we were heading towards a major recession. All of this research eventually lead to TITANIC NATION: How To Avoid Icebergs. The Case For Fundamental change In The American ay Of Life

I’m now convinced that unless we change our ways fairly drastically – which will require vastly more fresh thinking than we seem culturally able to either originate or absorb right now, our economic future will not be pretty.

But you’re not an economist I hear you say; so how would you know? Hmm! Well, of course I don’t know. I’m merely making an educated guess (otherwise known as an ‘expert opinion’). But, just to muddy the waters; as it happens, economists have a track record of being particularly bad at forecasting; and I confess I am one (courtesy of Trinity College, Dublin – plus some decades of subsequent study).

But, I write thrillers too.





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Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I Confess (film)

Image via Wikipedia

You may well be expecting me to confess to something akin to Congressman Wiener’s modus vivendi – but I fear I shall have to disappoint you (this time around). Perhaps in some cultures my minor obsession might be seen in a negative light, but I trust you will regard it with public tolerance – even if privately you think it is a little weird.

But what is “it” I hear you ask? What form of aberrant behavior are you going to confess to?

I’m overcome with a sudden burst of embarrassment. I’m positively choked. How can I reveal something so private?

I need time to think about all this.




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Sunday, June 12, 2011


Historic Microsoft photo of Paul Allen and Bil...

Image via Wikipedia 

I’ve long been frustrated at the layout limitations of Blogger, so, fundamentally, this is a test of a program called Microsoft Live Writer 11 which is specifically designed for blogging. Actually, it is set up primarily to work with WordPress, but it has a setting which supposedly works with Blogger; so we’ll see. The illustration, courtesy of Zemanta, features Paul Allen and Bill Gates, back in the early Eighties, plotting to upset my tranquil writing world by introducing a series of lousy operating systems which dominated personal computing for the next quarter century (and caused me more delays, frustration and grief than I care to think about).

Finally, they have partially redeemed themselves with Windows 7, which works reasonably well, but is still inferior to Apple’s OS offerings; and I’m still waiting for compensation from Microsoft for cruel and unusual punishment.

To all you writers out there – and anyone else for that matter – go with Apple, and it’s related products, unless you are crazy. Of course, if you are a creative type, a degree of craziness just goes with the territory.

My main complaint with the Edit mode of Blogger has been that it doesn’t really do WYSIWYG whereas Windows Live Writer really seems to. What I hope that will mean in practice is that my text will consistently appear in both the font and size of my choosing instead of being somewhat erratic. I know one can correct such things by learning a little HTML, but so far I have resisted. I suspect I’m fighting a losing battle. Also, HTML 5 looks pretty good.

It was a grim and grizzly business being involved in the early days of personal computing – and I was actually involved from 1981 when IBM introduced their first PC. At the time I was living in Ireland, and the people who were marketing it knew so little about it that my first machine was delivered without an operating system. I should have taken that as a warning, and run out and bought a quill pen, but instead I persevered through more computer misadventures that I care to think about. Look for them in my memoirs, and buy some tissues before you read them. Jeremiah Johnson had it easy compared to my hunt for a consistently reliable computer.

Around 1984, I had the good sense to order one of the first Macs, but my supplier went bust so that went nowhere.  Then I tried out a NeXT computer in 1988 but couldn’t afford it – which was just as well because the Irish distributors couldn’t understand it, and NeXT, itself, went out of business. Nonetheless, it was a great machine and laid much of the groundwork for Apple’s stunning success. Steve Jobs, as doubtless you know, founded NeXT.

I’ll write more about MS Live Writer when I have used it longer. It pains me to say anything nice about Microsoft, but - so far - I’m encouraged.











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