Monday, December 31, 2012




imageChildren can be a lot of trouble, but I have always been fond of them—in general—and my own kids in particular. Like most parents, I guess, I have sometimes wondered why. They are high maintenance and they can be decidedly unpleasant in their teenage years—and for some years after that. Then, with luck, they turn into relatively normal and pleasant human beings. Or they may become serial killers. It’s hard to know.

It never occurred to me not to like babies. I was the eldest of 12, so was actively involved in nurturing such small pink things from a very early age. I guess I was four when I started. Thereafter, I put in serious baby time except when I was at boarding school. And I nursed piglets when I stayed at my grandmother’s farm. Piglets were very similar to babies, but they had tails. 

Hard to believe that babies turn into hulking young men; or forceful young women—or whatever—with all their associated complications. Sometimes I think life would be much easier if they had remained small and biddable—though are children ever really biddable? I doubt I am the first parent to have such thoughts. As for babies, however sweet they are, they do have their disadvantages. They fall off things, and get into things, and pull the cat’s whiskers—and they have anti-social sleeping habits, and tend to leak a great deal. Still, when buffed up and freshly packaged, they can be very sweet. I rather miss that stage.

I have five children in all. Kira is a performance artist. Christian is a playwright. Shane is a banker. Evie is in the restaurant business. And Bruff (the youngest) has just graduated and landed not just a First Class degree in History and Political Science—not an easy thing to get—but Trinity’s Gold Medal for academic excellence. Trinity is Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland—established by Elizabeth the First in the sixteenth century to try and civilize the Irish (a vain hope). I went there too, though how I ever got a degree is something I have often wondered about.

I’m proud of them all.



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Sunday, December 30, 2012



Before I get into the detail of commenting on THE GENERALS, I would like to declare an interest.

For a time, I was going to write a book on that very same subject with retired U.S. Army colonel, Douglas Macgregor—a genuine original thinker—whose book WARRIOR’S RAGE I spent considerable time on (and edited). As it happened, we did not complete our generals project, but we did do considerable groundwork on the subject—and, of course, Doug—as a serving officer and decorated war veteran has had extensive operational experience of today’s generals in both peace and war. For instance, he was at West Point with General David Petraeus—who I first met when researching the 82nd Airborne Division for a book THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT—and he was in command during the Battle of 73 Easting.

The U.S. Army is a large institution, but at the top everyone tends to know each other, or of each other—particularly if they have been members of the same branch. Once you become a general, you are supposed to give up your branch loyalties, but pigs will be flying bicycles before that ever happens. Getting a star doesn’t really mean that you leave the Airborne Mafia, for instance. If you have spent two decades or more being conditioned to think ‘Airborne,’ its culture is in your blood.

What is a branch? Last I checked, there were 17 of them and they range from Airborne to Engineering to Artillery to Aviation. True, they work together and there is some cross pollination; but, at the core, they have a disconcerting tendency to function as separate fiefdoms (or clans or tribes). And each fiefdom is guarded jealously. If you wander, as like as not you will be told: “Stay in your lane.”

The Army really doesn’t have much time for holistic thinkers. In fact, it isn’t really structured to accommodate thinkers at all. Thinking tends to be treated as something of a social disease; so if you show signs of being an original thinker, you stand a very good chance of being squeezed out; or hammered down. Probably both. Write a thoughtful piece on land warfare which departs from the conventional, and you will be very lucky indeed to make it past colonel. The Army is an authoritarian organization and doesn’t take kindly to soldiers who question the status quo in any way. Since thinking tends to lead to questions, both are frowned on. Besides, it is part of the general officer culture that only generals really know anything worth knowing. 

Tom Ricks’s basic thesis is that there has been something seriously wrong with U.S. Army generals since the Korean War which would be largely resolved if we reverted to General George Marshall’s WWII habit of relieving generals with alacrity when they fail to perform. Furthermore, he establishes his case in some detail and his book contains some fascinating content and is highly readable. In fact, it is an important and timely book—as far as it goes. But it is my strong view that it doesn’t go far enough.

The issue of flawed generals is fundamental to National Security and deserves vastly more consideration that we give it. Here, I’m not thinking of National Security merely in terms of warfare—although that is important enough—but in the widest possible sense with particular focus on the economic impact. On the one hand, our defense costs are obscenely high to the detriment of the U.S. quality of life. On the other hand, despite having the most powerful military the world has ever known, we have a highly debatable track record when it comes to actual combat. Thanks to overwhelming firepower, we tend to win the fight, but lose the war. Given our national tendency to go to war with disconcerting frequency, that is something we should think about.

I believe Tom’s highly readable book would have been much better if he had explored:

  • The promotional system in the officer corps in more detail.
  • How generals are selected.
  • How generals are educated and trained.
  • Why mediocre officers are promoted to the rank of general.
  • Careerism in general.
  • The mismanagement of procurement.
  • The lack of intellectual depth in the Army.
  • The role of retired generals.
  • The role of generals in the MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional complex—with a particular focus on conflicts of interest and double-dipping..
  • The culture of the general officer corps.
  • How successful generals are evolved in other countries.
  • A plan covering how the Army might improve the caliber of its generals significantly.

It might also have been particularly interesting—if provocative-- if Tom had linked the deficiencies in our general officer corps with the authoritarian corporate mindset which is now so dominant in the U.S. Here, the Army tends to put forward too arguments.

The first is that since soldiers are selected from the population is a whole, the Army is inevitably—and rightly—broadly representative of that population.

The second is that the officer corps—and general officers in particular—hew to higher standards than the population as a whole and are the guardians of the core values of the nation. General officers are superior.

If you notice a certain inconsistency in these arguments, I am right there with you. And it might also be useful to note that the gap between what many generals say and do is deep and wide.

Still, I don’t want to end on a gloomy note after reading such a stimulating book—and let me assure you that the Army does have some generals of exceptional caliber in its ranks—though whether it makes adequate use of them or not is an interesting question.

I’m watching with interest.


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Saturday, December 29, 2012



I am the eldest of twelve children, but my upbringing was so oddball that once I became old enough to leave home, in the interests of retaining my sanity, I did just that. An unfortunate side effect was to create both a physical and emotional distance from my siblings which wasn’t helped by the fact that my mother moved to Spain from Ireland, got re-married and became a countess. Yes, I know that sounds like something out of a novel, but it just happens to be true.

These events have resulted in my seeing most of my siblings only rarely to the point where I now have numerous nieces and nephews whom I have never met at all. That’s sad, I hear you say—and I cannot but agree, and hope to remedy that situation in 2013. Why didn’t that happen earlier? Living 6,000 miles apart hasn’t helped and the sheer pace and complexities of life made another contribution.

My brother Rex’s tragic death by drowning in later 2011 was the catalyst that started to bring me back into the fold and particularly to reintroduce me to my sister Lucy. Lucy is the youngest in the family, certainly the sanest, and may well be the prettiest.

Once she grew up, she married a Ghanaian and produced remarkably gorgeous children. Good genes will out—and her father, my much loved stepfather, Alfred, possessed movie-star good looks.

Two of sister Lucy’s stunning children, my nieces, are pictured above. They are respectively Faith and Victoria—and I am fiercely proud of them—and above all of Lucy, who has proved to be a mother of singular courage and determination.

True grit, indeed.


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Friday, December 28, 2012



When I started blogging, I used to keep a file on blogging ideas—and try and plan the thing as much as possible. I guess, in a way, I was looking for a formula which would have wide appeal. I was also unused to writing short pieces on demand. My forte, up into recently has been The Big Thriller. How big is such a book? Think 450 to 500 pages, or around 150,000 words. In contrast, a blog such as this should be around 500 words—though I often go longer.

My crime—in blogging terms—was that I was an intermittent blogger. I just didn’t seem to have enough ideas to come up with something fresh every day (unless I wrote about politics). Alternatively—since, in reality, I’m rarely short of ideas—perhaps I wasn’t serious enough about blogging. In short, my problem wasn’t creative. It was a matter of focus and execution. I wasn’t following through enough.

The whole idea of blogging, as far is I am concerned, is to keep in touch with my readers, potential readers, family and friends. But what do they/you want to hear about. Well, based on my fan mail, fundamentally they/you want to hear about more books (that is THE demand) but they also like some insight into what else is going on in my life, how I think—and so on. But the dominant theme is definitely MORE BOOKS!

What has stopped me writing more about my books is that I have been going through a period of uncertainty while setting up a small publishing company. This has progressed steadily, but there have been enough setbacks for me to be reluctant to be too specific. In short, I guess I am embarrassed to air my mistakes in public; and, what is more, I am embarrassed to admit that. It contradicts my basic belief that a blog, such as this, should be as candid as possible—short of being commercially stupid. Unfortunately, we live in a world where wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve can be hazardous to one’s health. It is protected by one’s rib cage, and padding, for very good reason.

Such reservations aside—and I will return to that subject another time—I decided that when I re-started blogging, I would focus on consistency of output, but otherwise not plan at all. I would simply write about whatever popped into my mind and treat the whole thing as an exercise in stimulating my creativity—before getting down to the serious business of book writing.

Now, NOT planning not only goes against my nature—I’m obsessive about planning, though my execution needs work—but is counter-intuitive. After all, if you intend to blog every day, it would seem only commonsense to accumulate a store of ideas—be a squirrel, so to speak.

The reality is that spontaneity has worked. By saying that, I’m not claiming for a moment that I think each blog is a creative gem—a happy aspiration—but more that I have never failed to find something to write about within a couple of minutes of sitting in front of the computer. Frankly, I find that incredible—but such is the situation.

Blogging has also become very important to me for reasons I don’t quite understand. Whereas initially it was a chore designed to help market my books, now it is a creative pleasure and not knowing what I’m going to write about—or how a specific piece will turn out—is half the fun.

I don’t literally blog every day because life is rarely that convenient—though I do blog most days. However, my bargain with myself is that if I do miss a day, I’ll write an extra blog later and fill the space with a backdated blog. In addition, sometimes I write ahead a little—though rarely more than two or three pieces.

Photo of tilted horizon showing helicopter flying above barren land with rectangular patches of green grass.My good friend, retired U.S. Army officer, Tim Roderick, really deserves much of the credit for this blog. He thinks it will become important to my books sales over time, and has pushed hard for me to stay with it. He is a good example of the kind of friend a writer is fortunate to have. Does he nag? No. That is not his style. But he is persuasive—and unremitting, as befits a former Apache attack helicopter pilot. As a consequence, even when I have been feeling like death with flu (or some such mysterious ailment) I have blogged—before collapsing.

The hardest part is ending a blog. I like to find some kind of twist—much as ends a good short story—but that isn’t always possible. Failing that, I look for a punch-line. Sometimes that too does not come to mind.

But normally it does.


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Thursday, December 27, 2012



I’m really not a believer in rugged individualism—though most of my American friends seem to be be. It strikes me as a selfish sort of an attitude, and inaccurate into the bargain because we are all helped, one way or another, by others. Are there exceptions to this rule? No, I don’t think there are any, though I know plenty of people who regard themselves as “self made.” They aren’t.

You might think that a relatively solitary occupation like book-writing would virtually define personal accomplishment, but I doubt I would have written a line without help from others—and since I was first published nearly a quarter of a century ago now (a sobering thought) I have had a vast amount of help (plus not a little obstruction).

When I talk about help, I don’t mean help in actually writing. I have had very little in that regard and some of my editors were downright destructive. Instead I mean help in terms of moral support, encouragement and sometimes in a practical sense such as financially. The totality has meant a great deal to me and I just wish I could acknowledge it adequately. Of course, I have tried in terms of book dedications and credit in speeches, but such gestures don’t come close to recognizing the full extent of the support I have been given.

A book writer tends to need most help before he or she is published. That can be a bleak time in a world where so much of one’s status and self worth is tied up with one’s job. Indeed, during that period—which can last for years—one can feel rather like a cockroach in a world of giants wearing heavy boots.

It is all too easy to have your spirit crushed when you are unpublished—and one of the best antidotes is to have few people who believe in you. Arguably best of all is a wife or husband, but if one is not fortunate in that regard, a few close friends—or even one—can help you keep the faith in your creativity. Trust me, that is not an easy task when you have sold nothing, have no agent, have no money—and know far too many people who regard you as a wastrel at best and should get a proper job (and write in the evenings if you really have to). And on top of that, you are at a dead end with your story—a situation which gnaws away at your self-esteem every waking minute.. 

What you really crave, when unpublished, is respect and to be taken seriously as a writer—at a time when you have little or nothing to support your claim to credibility. Since respect is normally earned within a particular context, that is a hard result to achieve during such a period.

I have been very lucky in having supportive friends during some very difficult times. One was a true prince of a man called Niall Fallon who I was told was “difficult” before I was first introduced to him and warned that I might well not like him.

As it happens I found him demanding rather than difficult, and we became the best of friends. Niall was an assistant editor on The Irish Times, an author of several non-fiction books, extremely intelligent, and a thoroughly decent, generous and warm-hearted human being. Typically, I would go and stay with him for a day or two—at fairly frequent intervals—and then we would ramble across the countryside and talk about anything and everything; and I would leave refreshed and invigorated. Niall was a great walker, fisherman and naturalist, he was happily married to Patricia—and his home in the country not far from Dublin was the happiest haven you could imagine.

Sadly, he died prematurely of a heart attack but I miss him to this day, and think of him often. He was the epitome of a fine human being—and I owe him more than I can say.

I feel much blessed at having known him and I’m deeply indebted to Kate Hammond, one of his closest friends, for having introduced us.

Christmas is a time for feeling nostalgic.

Happy New Year Kate—and the rest of the Hammond and Fallon clans.







Wednesday, December 26, 2012



One of the oddest things about this Great Country—the United States of America—is its attitude towards rest. Whereas the rest of the developed world mandates several weeks of paid vacation—as many as five weeks in some cases—the U.S. figure is ZERO. And it is not particularly generous with holidays either. May I say, with all due respect, that such a situation is insane.

Perhaps its worst crime in the vacation/holiday area is that Americans go back to work the day after Christmas—known as Boxing Day or St. Stephens Day where I come from. Boxing Day refers to the long established tradition of giving Christmas Boxes (small gifts, normally of money these days) to the people who look after you like the postman, garbage man etc.

I regard this Scrooge-like behavior towards vacations and holidays as uncivilized to the point of being barbaric—and thoroughly unproductive. If people don’t rest, they don’t work particularly well—and their health suffers. That is not just an opinion. There is plenty of research to support that view. All work and no play doesn’t just make you dull. It undermines your quality of life and kills you prematurely.

Interesting that Canadians live two years longer than Americans.



Tuesday, December 25, 2012



I read Tom Rick’s book, THE GENERALS, in the morning. So far, I haven’t learned much I did not know already, but it is still nice to have it all packaged together so neatly. But will he prove his case re the generals? I don’t know as yet. I have only read 100 pages and it’s a long book. Highly readable though.

The photo is of Tom who looks vaguely like Father Christmas out of uniform—so I guess it is a suitable photo for Christmas Day. I met him years ago in Quantico during a MOUT demonstration. MOUT means Military Operations in Urban Terrain. I recall him as a demon note-taker. It was a beautiful day and extremely cold.

Much later, I spent time trying to get comfortable with my little Olympus WS-801 recorder. Years ago, I used to swear by my two Olympus micro-cassette recorders (one was a spare) but they eventually broke—after much abuse at the Army’s National Training Center in the Mojave desert—and somehow I never adapted to the digital versions—though I experimented many times. Primarily, I found the things too fiddly and longed for a better interface.

The Olympus WS-801 interface may have converted me. It is straightforward by the standards of such machines (simplified complexity). Better yet, the recording quality is excellent. I didn’t appreciate that at first when playing back using the machine’s tiny loudspeaker—but was agreeably surprised when I stuck the Olympus’s built-in USB stick into my computer and played the recordings back using the computer’s audio.  The operating reads the recorder as if it was a USB thumb drive. Very cool.

The results were outstanding for my note-taking purposes—not quite broadcast quality, but close enough. I then copied the files onto my computer, and, after that dragged and dropped one into Evernote. The results were excellent once again. I seem to be back in the audio note-taking business—and it is truly marvelous that I can store audio within my Evernote database. It makes the whole process seamless.

I have experimented with other tiny digital recorders—Sony comes to mind—but have always returned to Olympus as yielding the best results while being more robust. That said, any really tiny recorder is vulnerable if you are in rough terrain. But, then so are you—the operator. Here I speak from experience. After chasing tanks in the Mojave, I pulled a thigh muscle and was in considerable pain for two weeks. A media friend needed back surgery. You have been warned.

The secret with equipment is to practice with it so often its use becomes intuitive—and have a backup. In effect, muscle memory takes over.

To bed at 2.27am. Not quite the lazy Christmas I had planned, but immensely satisfying. 


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Monday, December 24, 2012



It’s really madness to do any shopping on Christmas Eve but I needed some office supplies and hoped to find a copy of THE GENERALS by Tom Ricks, so made the trip—and found the book.

The thesis of Ricks’s book is that there is something wrong with the current crop of U.S. Army generals, and that we would be better off if we reverted to the World War II practice—as espoused by the then Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall—that generals who did not perform should be relieved as soon as possible. Indeed, Marshall sacked an extraordinary number of officers, either for being over the hill (as he saw it) or for incompetence—and the results were impressive. Just for starters, we won the war. Since then, if you think about it, we have largely ceased sacking generals, and one can make the argument that we have drawn or lost just about every war we have engaged in—despite the use of truly massive resources.

It is a great pity we don’t think more about the military. It soaks up a truly extraordinary amount of this nation’s treasure, yet we rarely question either the expenditure itself, or the uses to which it is put. And when war comes—which is all too often where the U.S. is concerned--we rarely question the conduct of it. The Republicans wrap themselves in the flag—as if neglect of their oversight duties should be equated with patriotism—and the Democrats have been so terrified of being accused of being soft on defense, they have been equally negligent. Instead, we are a democracy (a debatable point in itself) where the MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional Complex—has been given something close to a free hand.

My interest in the generals goes back to the early Nineties when I started researching the U.S. Army with a view to writing a series of military adventures. That research gave me considerable access, and I became quite curious about the competence of the more senior officers. Some, up to the rank of colonel, impressed me greatly. Their superiors, by and large did not. Most could not hold their own in an hour long interview. Simply put, they did not come across as particularly intelligent men. They were defensive, unimaginative, lacking in intellectual curiosity and seemed to be primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo. In essence, they were bureaucrats in uniform—subject to some notable exceptions.

Subsequently, in 2001/2002, I worked in the Pentagon for a while—met many more generals—and there found my previous reservations reinforced. There was indeed something seriously wrong with Army general officers—and the conduct of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan illustrated that fact in good measure.

I’ll comment further when I have finished Tom Rick’s book.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


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Sunday, December 23, 2012



Subject to some notable exceptions like my beautiful sister Lucy and her family—and fortunately the list is expanding—my family is so difficult that I tend to focus on friends during Christmas week—which, roughly speaking is December 23 until midnight on New Year’s Day.

True, that is slightly more than a week, but let’s not get technical. The point is that it is a natural break and a chance to reflect upon what one has done last year—and one’s hopes for the next. And when you reach a certain age, you start thinking about death, and what you can accomplish before that time comes—or at least I do.

I hate the thought of dying without completing a book I’m working on. How frustrating for the reader! And, bear in mind, that the first reader of every book is the author.

Ironic to die while wondering what comes next in your own book—but entirely possible.

A further factor to note is that the author does not necessarily know in detail how his story ends. I always know in general terms, of course, but the reality is that the story normally grows on the page. By that I mean that the actual process of writing stimulates creativity to the point where unplanned ideas are introduced, and where significant plot changes take place—and, in addition, characters have a vote and a volition of their own.

Writing, for most of us, isn’t a cold sterile process where you merely assemble ideas—and then expand on them. It’s a much more dynamic, interactive, emotional and creative business which can be as surprising and spell-binding to the author as to the reader. Nonetheless, I will confess that one’s characters—no matter how complex—are still easier to handle than real people. I became a writer for good reason.

I have always thought of friends as people I liked and respected, could  talk frankly to, and trust. Over time, I have learned that it is much much complicated than that—and, for instance, where many people are concerned—friends are no more than well connected people who constitute a route to self-advancement.

I have never been able to adopt the latter philosophy though I have come under great pressure to do so on multiple occasions. It’s who you know that counts. In purely careerist terms, I suspect that is true, but it is a depressing way to live. It’s a kissing cousin of greed—and life has to be better than that. Just for starters, greed lacks values and is impressively boring. 

Throughout my life, despite every adverse circumstance, good friends have been a constant in my life. Christmas week seems to me to be a good time to think about them—and communicate with them. I never do quite as well as I would like; and sadly, some are dead. Still, as with life, you do what you can.

The trick is to remember the good times—and there have been many of those—and they were a lot of fun. But I’m understating the importance of friendship. The real trick is to recall the intimacy, the camaraderie, the warmth and the trust—and that fleeting sense that one does not live, and die, alone. Of course you do—but it is a heart-warming thing to be fooled for a time.


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Saturday, December 22, 2012



Seattle specializes in gray, rainy days—but, paradoxically, there are enough truly gorgeous days to lift the heart. Today is such a day—though it is cold. I was out walking this morning doing various chores, and enjoyed it greatly. There is something quite uplifting about a brisk, cold, sunny day. Also, I am much relieved I can walk normally again. Earlier this year an old tendon injury flared up and, for over four months, I thought I might be limping into my old age. Not so, evidently; or not so just yet. I am much consoled. I love to walk. Perhaps an understatement.

The best holiday I ever had in my life was a walking holiday in Devon, England. I was based in an old inn in Chagford and made forays across Dartmoor. I love to walk. It’s a strange activity which leaves one exhausted—if you have walked enough—but feeling marvelous. As with so much of life, that seems to make scant sense—but there it is.

Dartmoor is famous for its beauty, its notorious prison—which I saw from a distance—and for The Hound of The Baskervilles—which I neither heard nor otherwise encountered. Nor, sadly, did I meet up with Sherlock Holmes.

2012 started badly with the tragic death of one of my nephews in January. That followed a veritable year of loss in 2011 to the point where I sent out a somewhat whimsical Christmas e-mail at the close of 2011 forbidding any recipient to die. It seems to have worked—though it was a near thing where my friend, Greg Wilcox was concerned. He was attending a Fiftieth reunion at West Point—a three day event—when he suffered a heart attack. Evidently what they say about the doings at such occasions is all true! Anyway, thanks to my e-mail—with a modest contribution from the medical profession—he has made an excellent recovery.

My old boss, Jack Clary, did die but he was 86 and had lived a long and productive life. I was quite upset nonetheless. I held Jack in high regard—and liked him personally. He gave me my first big break in life when he allowed me to set up and run Addmaster UK—the subsidiary of his company, the Addmaster Corporation of California (Fifty years in being this year). It—the British operation—was highly successful, though I left it eventually to write—a decision which made no financial sense, but which has brought me riches beyond dreams in other ways—with some financial success thrown in.

Such events apart, I wrote a 500 plus page website—which has still to see the light of day—did a great deal of planning and editing (vastly more time consuming than I expected, but well worth the effort) wrote over 150 blogs, consolidated my database approach (a subject of scant importance to anyone but yours truly), continued my research into the U.S. economy, engaged in extensive correspondence with siblings, relatives and friends—but did not write any new books (an omission I hope I will not repeat while I have strength). Unless I’m writing a major opus, I would like to think I can write a book a year these days.

That doesn’t seem much for a year’s hard work, but writing is rather like painting and decorating—it’s the preparation that takes the time. Actually, that is not entirely true. Preparations can be extremely time-consuming, but where the totality of writing is concerned, it is the preparation, writing, re-writing, editing, and marketing which consume one’s days—with marketing constituting the greatest distraction. How to reconcile writing with marketing is the writer’s dilemma in this internet age—especially as most writers are modest, introspective types who regard self-promotion as anathema. “Just not done, old boy,” as they used to say at school. Well, times have changed.

What constitutes preparation? Experiencing life, reading, focused research, interviewing, travel—together with all the work which goes into recording one’s impressions so that you can recall them on demand years later. Unless one is lucky enough to be born with outstanding recall, that requires developing a mindset which takes the trouble to remember any and all experiences. Given that most Americans seem to suffer from mass amnesia—certainly in relation to the news—that kind of recall is scarcely a common facility so developing it takes work.

I suffered a number of setbacks in 2012—both in health and financially—but also had a few lucky breaks so have ended up the year slightly ahead and looking forward to 2013. Why not, indeed. Despite the sorrows of the world, writing is such an extraordinarily uplifting activity—and the world is a fascinating place.






Friday, December 21, 2012



File:Adrano normanisches Kastell.jpgAs it happens, my Irish family tracks back to Calvados, Normandy, France—but I think I would have been fascinated by the Normans anyway.

They were both phenomenally aggressive where it came to the conquest of land—and their ambition seemed to have no bounds. And they were also devastatingly competent. They grew up learning to fight and by the time they were adults, their skills were both practiced and intuitive.

True, an armored knight was extremely hard to kill for a period—until the longbow, crossbow and then gunpowder came along and were widely available—but even so their sheer chutzpah is what is so remarkable. They would dare practically anything, and they had a system of administering the lands they conquered that proved to be highly effective—though it wasn’t much fun if you were at the bottom of the pile. Little has changed in the latter regard.

Their best known conquest was England in 1066—after the Battle of Hastings—but they seem to have ended up the length and breadth of Europe, though they scarcely shined when it came to the crusades. There, they encountered maneuver warfare—an area of debate even today—a hostile climate, and were heavily outnumbered—but they still remained formidable. Unfortunately, they had a bad habit of sacking places which did not necessarily belong to their enemies. Cyprus was one. There were others. They were, so to speak, somewhat impulsive in that regard. One might almost say bloodthirsty. Once the tactically necessary killing stopped, it was exceptionally hard to rein it in. Killing was what knights did—and they were exceptionally good at it. 

One of the best historical novelists who wrote about the Normans—and much else besides—is Alfred Duggan. Highly recommended.

The above keep is broadly similar to that of Fitzduane—as described in GAMES OF THE HANGMAN. As it happens, this particular specimen is located in Adrano, Sicily. Distance was no barrier to the Normans. If there were lands to conquer, they sought them out—seemingly regardless of the forces they were up against. I’m not sure they made for very comforting neighbors, but they were amazing people—brave, resolute, disciplined and ruthless. Better to read about than to know. Fascinating nonetheless.


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Thursday, December 20, 2012



We are divided by a common language. A biscuit—in my world—is a hard cookie whereas a biscuit in the U.S. world is more like a scone. Think hard cookie in this case. Very hard; several inches across; perhaps half an inch thick; and tasteless.

After I graduated from university—and had flirted somewhat disastrously with opening a restaurant and Ireland’s first disco—the madness of youth—I  decided that formal training in something useful might be appropriate. Mind you, I still wanted to write; but writing paid so badly, it was a pipedream. Little did I know then that writing was an obsession—and that practicality would be rendered irrelevant. This was my period of trying to do the right thing, the decent thing, the morally correct thing—as in holding down a sensible corporate job. The gods laughed. They knew full well that I was doomed to execute the inevitable thing—to become a writer. They were playing with me.

It took me about a month to find a job, and it would have been impossible except that I stayed with my much loved grandmother. But she housed me and kept me fed—and suddenly, after filling in many forms and knocking on doors (you have no pride when you are desperate) I was offered a job with Meredith & Drew—a newly acquired subsidiary of United Biscuits, a food multinational.

I was hired to be a Product Development Manager but, before long, I was promoted to the ranks of Brand Manager—and dealt with Marks & Spencer—a legendary U.K. retailer whose ethics were extraordinary. Good grief! They were obsessed with quality; actually cared for their staff; paid well; and were obsessional about their customers. And they were profitable. I thought they were wonderful—and still do.

One of my jobs was to find new products for M&S. We had an excellent research department, but I also scoured existing products. Was there anything that we currently sold that we could re-package under the M&S label?

The one item that truly baffled me was an amazingly tough baked item that, apparently, had originally been a ship’s biscuit—or sea biscuit. It had been designed to last almost indefinitely, but it had been the practice in the navy, in days gone by, to tap the thing a couple of times on the table in order to eject the weevils—unless you really needed the protein.

But why did it sell in the late twentieth century? It practically needed a chisel to break; its taste was bland in the extreme; it wasn’t flavored with anything; and all you could say in its favor was that it was a good chew.

All we knew was that it sold best through pubs—so we surmised that it was munched to soak up an excess of liquor.

Research was commissioned. Of course it should have been done earlier but the item hovered below best-selling lines and really didn’t justify the expenditure. But several of us pushed, We really wanted to know why a nearly inedible product sold so well.

It transpired that our guesses were wrong. Subject to rare exceptions, the ship’s biscuit wasn’t eaten by humans at at all. Primarily, it was bought to keep the dog quiet while the dog owner enjoyed a few pints.

It’s amazing what companies don’t know about their own products.

Think of this as a crumbly dog story.




Wednesday, December 19, 2012



One of the great regrets of my life has been that I have never succeeded in keeping a diary for longer than a year. Given the imperfections of memory, it just seems to me that life unrecorded is life lost.

That is not exactly true, of course, because the fact that an event has not been recorded does not mean it has not happened—but, it is just the way I feel. Call it a writer’s bias, if you will. It is actually a rather odd notion because it suggests that the written word is necessary to confirm the validity of something happening, or even that the written word is more important than the event itself.  Arguably, it frequently is—in the sense that by its communicating to others it enhances both the perceived veracity and the significance of the act in question.

These musings stem from my just having re-read Hornblower and The Hotspur by C.S. Forester and being struck—yet again—by what an extraordinarily fine writer Forester was. It wasn’t just that he wrote a series of fast-paced and fascinating naval adventures—set in and around the Napoleonic wars—about the fictional Horatio Hornblower. It was more that he was a maestro of the written word. He not only knew what word to use, but he excelled at pacing a story; and knowing what to leave out; and his sense of place was phenomenal. If you want to know what it was like to command a man of war in the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries—down to the last weevil in your sea biscuit—Forrester is the man to read. He was also astonishingly prolific and achieved an output that would put most authors to shame even though he died at the relatively early age of 66. He had yet another claim to fame in that he was also the author of a work that is probably best known as a movie, The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

I wish I had kept a diary if only to recall the truly remarkable writers who introduced me to the craft of storytelling. There is now so much choice that my sense is that some of the finest—widely read in their day—are in danger of being forgotten.

In future posts, I shall try and recall some of my favorites in this blog. It is the least I can do.

By the way, the actor who played Hornblower in the TV series is Ioan Gruffudd—illustrated above. He was a fine choice.


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Tuesday, December 18, 2012



A memorial set up outside St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Conn., where funerals were held Tuesday for two young victims of last week's school shooting.We live in a highly stressful society—unnecessarily so, in my opinion—so consequences are inevitable. Add in serious mental problems, and the chances of negative—even disastrous—consequences are high.

It has been reported than no less than one in five American children suffer from some kind of mental condition. That, in itself, is an appalling statistic which should have us all asking: Why? What are we doing wrong? Or is there something wrong with the medical profession?

Instead, we are focusing, yet again, on gun control—albeit an important issue in itself—instead of questioning the American way of life which seems to lead to so many adverse situations. Let me advance the view that if we are poisoning ourselves—and our children—tragic consequences are inevitable. And that is just what we are doing. If you are uncomfortable at my choice of the word “poisoning,” feel free to pick “contaminating” or “polluting.” The end result is equally lethal.

But this is a staggering accusation. Prove it.

A blog is scarcely the place to go into detail—but let me proffer some areas worthy of further investigation:

  • All of the U.S. is polluted by some chemical or other—whether it be by rocket fuel, pesticides, the detritus of cold-fired power stations—or some toxic brew made up of all the contaminants we release without thought into society.
  • The side effects of most chemicals are not researched—the situation is different in Europe—and we know almost nothing about the effect of combinations of such pollutants. However, where we do have research—as on lead or asbestos, for example—the findings are terrifying. For instance, we know that lead significantly impedes neural development.
  • Half of adult Americans, and virtually all seniors, are on legal medications—and frequently cocktails of such items. Not only do these have unknown side effects, especially when used in combination, but the resultant excreta contaminate the water supply—which we have no way of filtering as matters stand. In effect, we are poisoning ourselves and our water supply—and our children (both unborn and born). We don’t understand the full implications of this, but we already know some of the consequences are hideous.
  • We have opted, or have been conditioned to accept, Industrial Food. Whether eaten in a home or a restaurant or fast food outlet, this is inexpensive—but equally we know that the raw material is sub-standard—and that the end result, where the food is processed in any way, is laden with fats, fillers, salt, sugar and sundry other additives and chemicals to an extent that is actively harmful to our health (and that of our children).

Pump powerful chemicals and bad food into children, and it is inevitable that there will be adverse consequences; and that some will end in tragedy. Does that mean that guns are not to blame. I don’t know the answer to that, but I am fairly sure that deeper issues are involved—and that they are receiving inadequate attention.


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Monday, December 17, 2012



File:The USS Arizona (BB-39) burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - NARA 195617 - Edit.jpgRecently—technically from December 2007 to June 2009, but actually much longer—we experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression at a cost to the country of something in the order of $13 trillion. That is such a large number it is virtually impossible to grasp, but in practical terms house values dropped like a stone, personal net worth was slashed, and millions were arbitrarily put out of work. The scale of human misery was gargantuan—and, to a substantial extent, it continues; and will do so for a considerable time.

The Great Recession was not only a disaster for the period of the recession itself, but it stole much of our future growth potential for years, and vastly increased the National Debt. All in all, it inflicted truly terrible damage on the the economic welfare of most Americans—apart from the Ultra Rich who, along with the Big Banks and Big Business, have come out of the whole affair even richer.

Now you might think there would be coast to coast fury at such a development, and that those responsible would have been imprisoned—but instead the perpetrators were bailed out with taxpayer money, and the rest of the population largely left to sink or swim on their own.

And as for the outpouring of rage one might expect after such a financial Pearl Harbor, in practice there has been nothing of the sort apart from the Occupy movement, which seems to have fizzled. That is rather as if we had rewarded the Japanese for the attack on Pearl Harbor—and added a line of credit so they could buy more ships and aircraft with which to attack us once again; and that particular act of infamy had far less direct economic impact on the U.S. economy that the 2008 Great Recession.

Frankly, I don’t understand it; and I’m far from sure it indicates either a healthy democracy, or a well informed electorate. Instead, it smacks of deep disillusionment compounded by apathy—matched with a political system and media which are both either owned or dominated by the very same group whose actions cause the Great Recession in the first place. In effect the foxes are in charge of the hen house.

Well, maybe they will leave us alone. No, they won’t. Foxes naturally prey on hens and they will continue to do so until the hens realize there are more of them—and counter-attack.

The logical person to rally the population and lead the counter-attack is the president, but so far he has been such a cautious centrist that it begs the question: Is President Obama a fox or a hen?

Let me leave you with a few rather shattering data points taken from an Economic Policy Institute press release.

Between 1979 and 2008

  • Average incomes in the U.S. grew by $10,401.
  • ALL GROWTH went to the richest 10%.
  • Income for the bottom 90% DECLINED.

The situation has further deteriorated since 2008—and costs for the average family have risen. A reasonable person might be forgiven for questioning the fairness and validity of an economic system which delivers such a dubious result. Yet the national silence on this crucial matter is deafening.


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Sunday, December 16, 2012



File:First flight2.jpg

The above photo features the Wright brothers’ first flight. Orville was at the controls and the aircraft flew 120 feet in 12 seconds on December 17 1903. That was scarcely an impressive distance, but subsequent progress was truly astonishing. All in all, it’s a fascinating story.

Yes, I do know that “Lift-off” really applies to rocketry, but I was searching for a metaphor to match my cheerful mood, and “We have lift-off” seemed to fit the bill. Good grief, the effects of the dreaded bug seem to be receding and my strength is coming back; the cats from hell are gone; and I am gradually getting Spinnaker to work the way I want it to. True, there is still a long way to go, but currently I’m feeling like Orville—and it’s a wonderful feeling after a difficult few months.

Yesterday, I got my second monitor up and running so I can now have reference material up on one screen and write on the other. The only trouble is that I have had to put the second monitor on the right instead of on the left—where it normally goes—because my mouse wouldn’t cooperate otherwise. I’m sure there is a solution to that; but, so far, it has eluded me. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if the right might not be better after all. I pay a great deal of attention to the layout and ergonomics of my work area and find the effort well rewarded. Writers tend to be nutty about such things—which is scarcely surprising given the amount of time we spend in such surroundings; not to mention the peculiar qualities of our respective personalities.

I’m truly amazed at the number of cables I seem to be finding. I seem to have more cables than gadgets. Do cables procreate? One can but wonder. Actually, I think it is more a case of my detaching some device as no longer being necessary without bothering to crawl around the floor to remove the cable. Very human, but the end result is confusing.

What do I have attached to Spinnaker?

  • Second monitor – Samsung
  • Wireless laser mouse – a Logitech
  • Altec Lansing mono speaker
  • Seagate 500GB external hard drive for backup
  • Brother Duplex Laser Printer
  • Epson Workforce Inkjet Printer
  • Seiko Smart Label Printer
  • LinkSys Phone Adapter
  • Yeti Microphone
  • Belkin USB hub
  • LinkSys Wireless Network Router

Eleven peripherals—and that is before factoring in thumb drives. Mind-boggling!


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Saturday, December 15, 2012



Reportedly, there was a time when a samurai could test the blade of his sword on some unfortunate peasant—and no one would question his action. Today it would be frowned upon, and action would be taken. In modern Japan, as like or not, the samurai would be hanged. Cultures, together with their associated beliefs, do change; albeit sometimes very slowly.

Yet, generally speaking we are strongly discouraged from questioning the system on the grounds that it is both futile and socially disruptive. Indeed, conventional wisdom dictates that one should just get on with life.

I have never been able to accept such a viewpoint, and have had a tendency to question just about everything from an early age. Such an attitude has often been dismissed as “complaining,” but I have long held the view that if one is given a mind, one should use it—and a mind needs exercise.

The greatest opposition to such a questioning approach comes from: (1) Vested interests. (2) Peer group pressure. (3) Social conditioning. (4) Ignorance. (5) Laziness. (6) Fear.

In the U.S., I suspect fear to be a major factor because if you question the status quo within a corporate environment—where you probably spend half your waking life for five days a week—you stand a very good chance of losing your job, even if you are good at your job. And if you lose your job, you may well lose near everything else—from your personal dignity to your health care; from your car to your house. The U.S., despite the hype, is heavily authoritarian, and rarely more so than within a corporation. That is a truth we don’t face up to because merely to discuss such an issue would put our careers at risk.

I question because it is my nature, and because I find the process both intellectually stimulating, and rewarding. It is rewarding because I have found that the more I question and research, the more I find that there are answers to most issues out there; and that the world could be a vastly better place if we only bothered to look. True, there are some matters which are extraordinarily difficult to resolve—“wicked problems” come to mind—but I have found these to be in the minority. In short, what makes questioning the issues so satisfying is not just the pleasure of the journey, but the knowledge that that there are solutions to most of the questions—and that in many cases the solutions are already proven.

Although it tends to be our practice to specialize—to focus on specific issues rather narrowly—I deal with such matters holistically because, in reality, issues tend to be connected much more than we care to admit. For instance, housing directly impacts health, education, employment and the environment—not to mention the economy as a whole.

But what kind of issues am I talking about? Frankly, they run the gamut from the macro (big issues) to the micro (small issues), though I tend to focus mainly on the macro—at the personal micro level, I tend to be impractical. Here are a few examples of the subjects I think about at a macro level.

Unemployment The thing about unemployment is that it is not just a personal tragedy, but it is a cost to the community and the economy as a whole—with unemployment pay being only a small part of that cost. When someone becomes unemployed they go from paying taxes and spending their income—mostly in the immediate area—to needing support. Add up all the costs involved, including healthcare, and it would be surprising if the total real cost to the state was not, at least, $50,00 a year. Faced with that, it is hard not to wonder why we don’t treat the creation of jobs more seriously.

Unemployment inflicts untold misery on millions of people—and not just the unemployed. Many of those with jobs feel extremely insecure when unemployment is high.

Whatever is said publicly, business is heavily biased in favor of a fairly high rate of unemployment because it vastly strengthens employers’ bargaining power, undermines the power of unions, and keeps wages in check—if it doesn’t force them down, which is frequently the case at present..

Whether employers have given adequate thought to the fact that high unemployment depresses consumer demand is a good question. I find it unlikely.

Job Creation Republicans argue that job creation must be left to the free market and that government job creation projects are nothing but an expense which hard-pressed taxpayers cannot afford. There is no truth to that statement if the jobs created genuinely add value—a stipulation which applies with equal vigor to the private sector. In short, government could create jobs if it wished. So far, Republican intransigence has blocked that course of action. Worse, since the 2008 Great Depression, large numbers of government employees ranging from teachers to firefighters and police have been laid off by Republican controlled state governments.

Paradoxically, Republicans resist all efforts to cut defense spending even though there is an abundance of evidence to show that much of such expenditure is both unnecessary and grossly inefficient. In fact, if we switched a proportion of of our defense expenditure to other purposes, research indicates that we would create many more jobs with the same investment. Given that a strong economy is the primary support of National Security, it is fairly clear that we are currently misallocating our resources.

Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the vast bulk of both government support, and that of the Federal Reserve (which is not a government institution in the full meaning of the term) has gone to support the Big Banks, and through them, Big Business—which thanks to ultra-low interest rates can borrow at minimal cost. Meanwhile, savers are deprived of an adequate return on their savings—bank interest rates being typically less than inflation—and the real economy is capital deprived. In particular, mortgages remain difficult to get and Small Business is significantly under-capitalized.

In practice there is a great deal that government can do to reduce unemployment and accelerate growth.

  • Set up a National Infrastructure Bank to remedy the $2.5 trillion shortcomings of our infrastructure.
  • Set up State Banks along the lines of the highly successful North Dakota State Bank.
  • Set up the modern equivalent of the Great Depression era Works Progress Administration on the basis that it is better to have people working than being marginally supported by a large number of administratively heavy, not very effective, schemes.
  • Implement a National Energy Strategy.

The above will never happen as long as Republicans have the majority in the House because they are motivated by ideology—regardless of the evidence--rather than by a focus on what works. Meanwhile, millions of Americans suffer unnecessarily.

The Role of Government. There was a time when Americans had considerable trust in government. Today, after more than three decades of demonizing government, Republicans have severely damaged people’s faith in government without really replacing it with any alternative institutional support system. Nominally, the private sector is supposed to be the solution to all our needs, but the behavior of Big Business, in particular, has been so egregious—with a particular focus on the Financial Sector—that clearly it is not the answer. So what are we left with? Cynicism and the hollow feeling that we are on our own. Some people may want that. Clearly, judging by the popularity of such programs as Social Security and Medicare, most Americans do not.

Government is far from innocent in this matter—the bureaucracy and inertia of the Civil Service are legendary—but it strikes me that we might be better employed trying to make the government work better rather destroying it. Why so? Because government is, or should be, no more than cooperation writ large—and cooperation is the basis of a civilized life. Rugged individualism, for all the sloganeering, doesn’t get you very far. In reality, we all need help and all accomplishments—no matter how individual they appear—are achieved with help.

But what exactly do we want government to do? This is too big a question to answer in this blog, but essentially we want government to handle the things we can’t—without being too intrusive. Maintaining that balance is not easy, but it is critical.

Can we make government more efficient? The short answer is: “Yes,” and the quickest way to check that out is look at other countries and see what they get for their taxpayer dollars. For instance, Taiwan gets one of the best health systems in the world for less than half the U.S. cost as expressed as a percentage of GDP. Similarly, Israel maintains one of the most sophisticated military forces in the world but had a budget of only $15 billion in 2012. In contrast, U.S. total spend on defense in 2012 will be in excess of $1 trillion. But we need to garrison the world will be the immediate defense by the Military Industrial Congressional Complex. Do we really?

Apart from the fact that the Constitution clearly needs an overhaul (it was never designed to be treated as a sacred cow) it strikes me that our greatest problem with government is that it acts as if it was a separate entity, and feels remote and singularly lacking in both compassion and common sense. Can we overcome such attitudes and bridge such a divide? I don’t know the answer to that but it strikes me that perhaps the public and private sectors might become more integrated. For instance, perhaps it should be normal for people to work partly for the government and partly for business—splitting their week, so to speak. There may be better ways of working out the logistics but I was struck by the fact that most of the administration of the Swiss Army is done from within the private sector at minimal cost to the government. Such duties are just part of a citizen’s obligations—and they don’t seem to stop Switzerland being one of the most prosperous countries in the world.


Well, I have only touched on a few issues here, but I trust they illustrate the point that questioning the status quo is not necessarily harmful to one’s health, and that the U.S. might be a better place if we looked around a little more.

The answers really are out there.




Friday, December 14, 2012



When I was young, I remember thinking that what I wanted, above all, was a life full of adventure.

Where did such notions come from? Blame books of high adventure too numerous to count; a vast number of movies; and a rather extraordinary home life dominated by my very difficult but charismatic mother—who believed that life should always be both interesting and entertaining.

I wasn’t thinking in terms of military adventures, or climbing Mount Everest (I hate heights though admire the courage of the intrepid who defy them). Instead, I craved unusual situations, encounters with fascinating people, involvements in ground-breaking projects, and travel to stimulating locations—all spiced with enough intrigue and danger to keep the adrenalin flowing. I have too much imagination to be physically brave, but if I sense there is a story in a situation—an adventure by definition—I tend to subordinate my fears and thrown caution to the winds. Afterwards, there tends to be a reaction, and I swear I won’t put myself in harm’s way again—but then another crazy situation looms, and I can’t resist. I’m not so much an adrenalin junkie, as curious.

I also thought it would be decidedly pleasant to punctuate such an existence with  an active love life—preferably with highly intelligent and sexual women. I have never seen the attraction of bimbos, but I find a good brain combined with wit—and that certain something—immensely appealing.

Needless to say, the pressures of real life initially conspired me to put my ambitions on the back-burner, get a real job, and get married—but eventually my true nature broke through the barriers that guarded my conventional existence—and after that I pretty much lived as I had hoped to, and paid the attendant price of insecurity, and of being something of a social outcast. Where adults are concerned, the world, after all, is primarily structured for married couples—or, at least couples. The intermittently single adventurer is not much catered for.

It is actually better to travel alone if one’s objective is to accumulate experiences to write about. You are totally focused on the task at hand; you are seen as less of a threat; people invite you into their company; you can write as and when you want, and you can go where your instincts dictate.

Do I have regrets I haven’t lived a more stable life and done all the sensible things people should do to provide for themselves in their old age? Well, I have regrets about all sorts of things—normally involving people—but, in all honesty I cannot regret the fundamental choices I have made. Overall, difficult though it has been at times, I have had a fascinating life and have been involved with some truly wonderful women along the way (together with a few who were not so wonderful).

In contrast, subject to some exceptions, I found normal work soul deadening and dull to the point of bringing on madness. In addition, I find I can’t really buy into an economic system which allows a few people to become immensely rich, but squeezes the economic life out of the majority in the most blatant manner. Not only do I believe there has to be a better way, but I have seen it. An economy such as this doesn’t have to ratchet down the earnings of the Middle Class month by month, have nearly 48 million people on food-stamps, have its infrastructure in urgent need of 2.5 trillion dollars worth of repair, be over $16 trillion in debt, and lock up 2.3 million of its citizens. There are better ways to run a nation—and I live in hopes Americans will soon wake up to that fact.

For my part, after the vicissitudes of the last few weeks—I count five serious setbacks in all—I am currently in THOUSAND YARD WRITER’S STARE mode—but before you assume I have hit burnout, appreciate that no small part of that look is searching for the next adventure.

I may be shaken, stirred and shattered—but one recovers—and I am ever curious.

You’ll be able to read all about this in CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK-WRITING MAN.


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Thursday, December 13, 2012



I am, of course, joking. After my recent experience, it will be a long day in hell before I wish for a living, breathing cat. In fact, I have long held the view that if a writer wants to have a pet, it should be stuffed because real live pets are distracting. Much the same applies to babies—which should be kept in the washing machine (I write on the basis of some experience—I am the eldest of 12 and the father of 5). As for wives (or husbands), I’m not sure we should have them. Writers—of either sex—are notoriously difficult to live with; and all of us are polygamists at heart.

Lovers? But, of course. Writers need sex—for relief and research purposes—and there is nothing more romantic than love without commitment (unless it is love with commitment).

It’s tough being a writer. On the one hand we exist to illuminate the human condition; but on the other hand humans are grossly distracting in a work environment where focus is all.

As you may gather, I’m going mildly stir crazy. It has been a week, and I’m not yet over my bug, though both my appetite and energy seem to be returning, which is a decided relief. A warm bed, a good book and lots of sleep are working yet again—and without medication. Yet, I have a great deal of work to do and would like to get at it. What to do? I shall ask Voltaire. He has views on most things.

No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."
French writer, historian and philosopher

Doubtless very true—but not much help. Also, one of the side effects of being sick is that you don’t think as clearly as when you are well; and I’m still running a temperature.

Back to bed, and a book, and sleep.




Wednesday, December 12, 2012



For the purposes of this blog, I am the tortoise—largely because my little publishing project is coming together so slowly. That said, it is coming together, piece by piece—a veritable mosaic of enterprise—modest enough in itself, but immensely satisfying to me.

Sometimes I don’t really notice the very real progress I am making. I guess distraction has a great deal to do with it. To quote an old saying: “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is hard to recall that your task is to drain the swamp.”

Well, alligators weren’t my problem recently: Cats were. I suspect I would have preferred alligators. They would, at least have had novelty value—and I could have let them loose in the corridors of this condo building for entertainment.

The elderly two cats proved to be a much more serious distraction than I could ever have imagined—because they were cats from hell! I had them to stay because my friend, Jane Carrdus, had just had a hip transplant; and she rightly felt she could not cope until she was somewhat recovered. I was glad to oblige—little knowing what lay ahead. Also, though not particularly a pet person, I have, in the past, had a long and happy history with cats—though they were all active animals and spent a great deal of time outdoors.

Nonetheless, there is a big difference between one’s own cats and someone else's (I guess it is probably the same with alligators). Also, I now live in an apartment six floors up so cats can’t wander and do what cats do in the great outdoors. On the other hand, they came with a litter tray and were, supposedly, trained to use it.

No good deed remains unpunished. Charlie (Charlotte), a striking white cat with three legs and considerable intelligence, dutifully used the convenience provided—but then threw up on the carpet just about every day. Chester, a beautiful Himalayan of no brain and worse habits, did not throw up, but decided that real tom cats didn’t use litter trays—and opted for my floor and elsewhere instead. And when he wasn’t asleep, he howled; and howled; and howled. Oddly enough, he even howled after he was fed.

Because Jane—who is eccentric—normally gets up at around 3.00 am to start her day (she likes to have her evenings in the mornings) and feeds the cats then, both animals expected me to do the same. If I didn’t oblige them, both scratched at my door and Chester howled; and howled; and howled. And so on.

Multiply by three and a half weeks, and the consequences can be imagined. Think water-boarding. As they say, everyone breaks. And writing requires a well rested brain and absolute focus!

Fortunately, I was able to return the wretched animals last Saturday. Jane is recovering at a rapid rate, and positively glowing with energy and good health. Clearly, we should all have such surgery.

I am in bed, ill, trying to catch up on my sleep, and suffering from the aftereffects of PCSD (post cat stress disorder) which has symptoms akin to bad flu—and may need to be treated with alcohol. And so much time has been lost! Grrr…

But wait: Doesn’t a cat called Charlie feature in my latest thriller, THE BOOK-LOVER’S MOVE? Indeed he does—and his fate lies in my hands.

It’s fun to be a writer; and quite tolerable being a tortoise.


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Tuesday, December 11, 2012



I blush to admit it, but it has been so long since I studied grammar and punctuation that I have forgotten most of the terminology. True, I can recognize a noun in good light, and almost everyone knows what an adjective is, but when one gets into more arcane terminology, and its rules, I’m in trouble. Ask me what a preposition is, and I’ll stutter and stammer.

I guess that is a terrible thing for writer to admit, but it is no more than the truth in my case. Instead I rely on my muscle memory to do the right thing, and I guess it is a tribute to my early education that—mostly--it doesn’t let me down. Nonetheless, like most writers, I still develop bad habits and make mistakes, so need to be corrected every now and then; and I put considerable effort into self-correcting. In particular, I tend to read and re-read my work as if I was reading out loud—and if the rhythm is not right, I correct accordingly. But no, my lips do not move when I read.

Recently, I’ve decided to brush up on my school-work—one should revise every half century or so—and here let me refer you to the rather marvelous Jane Strauss who knows how to explain all this stuff with impressive clarity. Highly recommended.

Grammar and Punctuation come into the “Know the rules to break the rules category”—in that they allow considerable flexibility. In contrast, spelling is just something you have to get right.

Personally, I take the view that I need all the help I can get—especially with spelling—and make extensive use of Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammatical aids.

But you make mistakes in your blogs! I hear you cry. Yes, I do—and I’m not happy about it—but here time is an issue, because I have real writing work to get to. This is not to decry the value of blogs, but more to say that I cannot afford to be too perfectionist about such informal musings.

I shall try to improve.


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Monday, December 10, 2012



wages productivity inequality.png

Every now and then my keen interest in economics breaks through even though this blog is primarily to do with my creative writing—and all that goes with it. Then again, why cannot one write about economics creatively—well, in style anyway? Being creative with facts is frowned upon unless one is of a political persuasion.

The merit of the above chart is that it is extremely clear. On the face of it, it implies that if you don’t get yourself a good education, you are toast from an earnings point of view—and have no one to blame but yourself.

Certainly, this argument is much advanced by the Right Wing who are addicted to the ideological notion that we should should all be rugged individualists who should be able to fend for ourselves. Once you are out of diapers, you are on your own, kid!

While not denying for a moment the importance of education, and the concept of personal responsibility, it seems to me that other issues are in play here too.

  • Though numerous reports have commented on the generally poor state of U.S. K12 education, we seem to be remarkably slow at improving it.
  • If we really believe that U.S. education is as important as we preach, then why don’t we invest in it?
  • Since most competitive educational systems are reasonably transparent and have been researched thoroughly, why don’t we copy their best features—instead of almost making a point of doing something different?
  • Why shouldn’t corporations—whose profits have never been higher—accept much more responsibility for both education and training?
  • Could it be that the downward pressure on the earnings of all except college graduates and above, have as much to do with the corporate war on labor (which includes the destruction of the unions) as anything else?

As matters stand, we seem to be set on a path of creating an ever larger underclass—with the children of the fast declining Middle Class being mired in ever increasing debt if they want to go to college.

How is it that our competition do so much better?

One extra thing: the above chart understates the situation. Matters have deteriorated considerably since the Great Recession.

Sunday, December 9, 2012



I doubt very much that it is possible for someone who hasn’t been through a World War to appreciate both its immediate impact and its consequences. I was alive for only one year of the European War—I was born in May 1944—but my early years were spent living with the truly disastrous consequences. Europe was wrecked, drained and exhausted; and Britain, and its fast fading empire, were scarcely in better shape.

We lived in Britain for much of the first six years of my life—and I went to boarding school there from the age of nine. Primarily, I recall extensive bomb and missile damage in London, and shortages of just about all the basics—rationing was still very much in force—and consumer goods were practically non existent. Then, when the latter did appear, the quality was awful. British manufactured goods seemed to be particularly bad. Whatever about Britain’s pioneering role in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, its design and manufacturing expertise had largely been replaced by myth in the mid 20th. It all added up to an impressive lack of choice—and there were even fewer good choices. Indeed, not infrequently, there were none.

I have been thinking about that period while familiarizing myself with Windows 8. While I’m impressed with it in many ways, I cannot help thinking that Microsoft’s consistent habit of presenting the user with numerous different ways of doing the same thing is choice carried to excess. It is as if its designers lack faith in their own instincts and judgment, so are adding complexity instead of clarity—and have never heard of simplicity.

Such an approach also creates false choice. Here I am reminded of breakfast cereals or financial products where endless variations on a theme disguise both poor quality, and the lack of any genuine consumer concern.

Microsoft could bring genuine choice to the marketplace by introducing a completely new computer operating system free of the tortuous inner workings of Windows (which means that it can never be as innately reliable as it needs to be). Instead, it worships at the altar of backward compatibility, and eschews vision, clarity, simplicity and reliability.

This is the classic behavior of a corporate monopolist.

UX, by the way, is an acronym for ‘User Experience,’ and Microsoft prides itself on its investment in this area. The results have been excellent in some areas—such as in relation to Hotmail/Outlook and SkyDrive—and decidedly erratic in others, such as Windows 8.

The lack of direction, and of a clear and consistent vision, is palpable.

There is lack of choice—which few of us would wish for—real choice, where one can select between competing visions of quality—and the illusion of choice, where near monopolistic corporations offer endless variety of the mediocre backed by a permanent barrage of advertising.

Real choice would be a fine thing.