Thursday, January 31, 2013



Theodore Roosevelt

I run across quotes from Teddy Roosevelt frequently, have read about him a great deal, but have never actually read any of his original works.

I am somewhat surprised at this—because he was a prolific author. On the other hand, I have never seen any of his books on a shelf—though I have seen many books about him, and read several. Nonetheless, the picture of him that I will always focus on is that of Brian Keith (as TR) in that magnificent movie, THE WIND AND THE LION.

If you haven’t seen it, your life is unfulfilled. Drop everything, and go hunt. It is a veritable feast of visual spectacle, action, irony, humor, and positively brilliant writing by John Millius.

This is what Wikipedia says about it:

The Wind and the Lion is a 1975 adventure film. It was written and directed by John Milius and starred Sean Connery,Candice Bergen, Brian Keith and John Huston. It was based somewhat on the real-life Perdicaris incident of 1904.

This movie blends historic facts into a violent fictional adventure in which an American woman, Eden Pedecaris (played by Bergen), and her two children are kidnapped by Berber brigand Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli (Connery), prompting U.S. PresidentTheodore Roosevelt (Keith) to send an armed invasion and rescue mission to Morocco. (The real Perdicaris incident involved the kidnapping of a middle-aged man and his stepson, who were not harmed.)

There are all kinds of things in life to love and take pleasure in, but I agree completely with the above Teddy Roosevelt quote. It summarizes exactly what I feel about writing—and does so with brevity and elegance.

The quote was sent to me by my friend, Tim Roderick, who has an uncanny knack of sending me the right quote at the right time. If I waiver—and I do have my weaker moments—in comes a quote with the impact of a war arrow smashing into a shield (You will, of course, be familiar with such a sensation). Hard not to pay attention.

Albeit in a somewhat aggressive way—these guys don’t mess around—I   seem to be much blessed where friends are concerned (and bruised).


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Wednesday, January 30, 2013




Packing continues, and I am beginning to solve some of the trickier problems. It is really not a mammoth operation, but books weigh heavy, and ring-binders in volume can be awkward. Unless packed tightly, the mechanisms can be damaged, and then they are virtually unfixable—and refuse to stand upright.

I feel civilization would be greatly advanced if someone developed a robust ring-binder that would stand on its own, and not flop. In Europe, people use lever-arch files—which have only two rings and are generally a standard robust width—and they don’t flop. They are particularly popular in Germany where I doubt they would dare to flop. Germans take administration very seriously. They also—along with the rest of Europe—use a different size of paper (A4 – 8.267” x 11.692”) which is just different enough to be an absolute menace. I confess I prefer the standard U.S. letter size (8.5” x 11”). To me, it just looks better, and such details are important if you spend a considerable time immersed in them.

And don’t suggest either a Kindle or an iPad! In fact most of my files are now electronic, but for certain purposes—like having a backup and editing--I still like paper.

While pondering such mighty thoughts—we authors are serious thinkers—I ran across an article from the admirable featuring extracts from a Paris Review interview with Ray Bradbury. That led me to Google the Paris Review Interviews and to recall how helpful I found them while on my long pilgrimage to become a writer.

They were started by that unorthodox maverick, George Plimpton, decades ago and he managed to make them sound like frank conversations between friends—which frequently they were, because he knew everybody—and to draw out the personalities of his interviewees. As a consequence, the actual conversations tend to be candid, amusing, provocative, informative and thoroughly entertaining.

Let me quote a short extract from the Ray Bradbury interview to give you the flavor:


Why do you write science fiction?


Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

Imagine if sixty years ago, at the start of my writing career, I had thought to write a story about a woman who swallowed a pill and destroyed the Catholic Church, causing the advent of women’s liberation. That story probably would have been laughed at, but it was within the realm of the possible and would have made great science fiction. If I’d lived in the late eighteen hundreds I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.


Does science fiction satisfy something that mainstream writing does not?


Yes, it does, because the mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.

But why do I recommend you read such interviews when, quite possibly you are focused on just trying to write? Or don’t give a damn.

Well, apart from their intrinsic entertainment value—which is considerable—they help you understand and appreciate the mindset of a writer, and what all of us tend to have to go through at some time or other. Here I refer to rejection by publishers, shabby behavior by agents, terrible reviews in the press, factually incorrect criticism, long periods of waiting, financial uncertainty, editors without manners, family difficulties—and much more besides. Foreknowledge of such matters won’t necessarily mean you can avoid them, but at least you are likely to be better prepared.

Beyond that, it is vastly consoling to know that such unfortunates survived the hazards of our generally precarious existence, and went on to fame and—in many cases—to adequate financial security.

Fundamentally, THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS make the writer—published or otherwise—feel a little less alone—and, above all, they encourage.  

George Plimpton died in 2003. It warms my heart that the fine traditions he established live on.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2013




Being a writer, I have always taken issue with the expression, “A picture is worth a 1,000 words,” but I have to admit the above graphic makes the point with a vengeance. I think it is a tragedy. Here is this wonderful, richly endowed country—and, essentially, it is being hogged by a tiny minority. Meanwhile, the majority—the 90%—are getting poorer by the day. That is a scenario that cannot end well.

I know most people hate statistics—and I am not exactly a fan of the statistical approach to economics myself—but the figures about where the U.S. is heading would scare a nun out of her habit (I grew up in the days when nuns wore such things—and then one day I encountered a nun in a mini-skirt at a school reception; and life has never been the same since). But back to the matter at hand.

Here are some details from a recent Robert Reich blog:

A newly-released analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the super-rich have done well in the economic recovery while almost everyone else has done badly. The top 1 percent of earners' real wages grew 8.2 percent from 2009 to 2011, yet the real annual wages of Americans in the bottom 90 percent have continued to decline in the recovery, eroding by 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Not even the very wealthy can continue to succeed without a broader-based prosperity. That's because 70 percent of economic activity in America is consumer spending. If the bottom 90 percent of Americans are becoming poorer, they're less able to spend. Without their spending, the economy can't get out of first gear.

That's a big reason why the recovery continues to be anemic, and why the International Monetary Fund just lowered its estimate for U.S. growth in 2013 to just 2 percent.

Almost a quarter of all jobs in America now pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 7 out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage -- like serving customers at big-box retailers and fast-food chains.

If they were rational, the wealthy would support public investments in education and job-training, a world-class infrastructure (transportation, water and sewage, energy, internet), and basic research -- all of which would make the American workforce more productive.

If they were rational they'd even support labor unions -- which have proven the best means of giving working people a fair share in the nation's prosperity.

But labor unions are almost extinct.

The decline of labor unions in America tracks exactly the decline in the bottom 90 percent's share of total earnings, and shrinkage of the middle class.

In the 1950s, when the U.S. economy was growing faster than 3 percent a year, more than a third of all working people belonged to a union. That gave them enough bargaining clout to get wages that allowed them to buy what the economy was capable of producing.

Since the late 1970s, unions have eroded -- as has the purchasing power of most Americans, and not coincidentally, the average annual growth of the economy.

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of 2012 only 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector were unionized. (That's down from 6.9 percent in 2011.) That's the lowest rate of unionization in almost a century.

The average pay of a Walmart worker is $8.81 an hour. A third of Walmart's employees work less than 28 hours per week and don't qualify for benefits.

Walmart is a microcosm of the American economy. It has brazenly fought off unions. But it could easily afford to pay its workers more. It earned $16 billion last year. Much of that sum went to Walmart's shareholders, including the family of its founder, Sam Walton.

The wealth of the Walton family now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.


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Monday, January 28, 2013




Recently I ran across an article by Mark C. Crowley—in in which he which he stated that according to research by the Conference Board and Gallup, more than half the U.S. population hate their jobs. That is a truly worrying statement.

It adds up to quite an indictment of American management—particularly because a great deal of research, not to mention common sense—has shown that unhappy workers don’t work nearly as well as contented ones. The value of this loss of enthusiasm has been estimated at $300 billion, but I suspect the reality is much, much higher—and that is before you count in human misery and the other consequences of stress (illness and death being just two outcomes).

Worse—generally speaking—U.S. management seems to be largely indifferent to this situation. Instead, it seems to be quite content to engage in management by coercion, to drive down earnings wherever possible, to destroy unions, and to steadily degrade the quality of workers’ lives. The defined pension is going the way of the dodo; the cost of healthcare is increasingly being dumped on workers; and the U.S. remains the only country in the developed world where the law does not mandate adequate vacation time—if any—and most workers can be discharged on a whim. The majority of non-government American jobs offer virtually no security.

Management will respond that corporations survived The Great Recession in surprisingly good shape, and that corporate profits are now at an all time high. Very true. But meanwhile the U.S. market, which underpins U.S. demand, is steadily being drained of purchasing power—thus undermining longer term corporate prospects (if they are dependent on the home market).

I don’t think it is an accident that Americans live substantially shorter lives than those of other developed nation—and get sicker as we age. There is no one reason. There is a multiplicity of reasons ranging from lack of healthcare to pollution—but I have no doubt at all that unhappiness with working conditions plays a significant role.

The truly disturbing aspect of all this is there seems to be no outcry at this situation. The unions have been virtually crushed. Politicians rarely discuss such issues any more—and workers are afraid to raise such matters because they fear—quite rightly—that they will be fired if they do. That is a truly ironic situation in The Land of The Free and suggests that our much talked about freedoms are heavily compromised in reality

All I can say is that this is a genuinely great country, and we should be able to do vastly better than this if for no other reason than treating your workers well can lead to vastly greater profitability. And it happens to be the right thing to do.

Some corporation do much better, and reap the financial rewards. Arguably there are many of them, though they are certainly in a minority. Google is widely considered to be one of them, but The Great Place To Work Institute considers analytics giant SAS to be the best of the bunch. There, vast effort is put into making sure workers feel both happy and secure. As a consequence, personnel turnover is 2-3% in an industry where 22% is the norm, the firm is impressively innovative, productive and profitable—and the founder is now the 47th richest man in the U.S. and is estimated to be worth $7.3 billion.

Could it be that treating one’s workforce well pays?

Capital and labor made peace in Europe after World War II. There had been so much dissension, and so much blood had been spilled, that it seemed like the only sensible thing to do. Workers were given significant rights, and such arrangements have stood the test of time.

Nothing similar has happened in the U.S. and we are now living with the consequences. One of them is that there has been no significant increase in worker earning power—if one allows for inflation—in forty years. Secondly, it is a simple measurable fact that currently the U.S. Middle Class is being crushed out of existence.

One of the people who understands this best is Robert Reich. He has proved to be right on the money over a number of years. May I thoroughly recommend his book


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Sunday, January 27, 2013



Recently, I have experienced a number of setbacks—so this topic is near and dear to my heart.

But do I have answers? I am far from sure that I have. However, I have become convinced that staying calm is, in itself, a prime virtue.

Calmness, like fear, is infectious. If you remain calm, there is a reasonable possibility that others around you will remain calm also. And you will think more rationally (which is not necessarily saying a lot).

As readers of this blog will know, I come from a large and complex family where emotional over-reaction was the norm. Here, the primary actor was my mother who, having worked herself up to an uncontrollable rage—the “tell” was that she would click her fingers as if counting down to an explosion—would then lash out both physically and verbally to a degree that makes phrases like “physical abuse” and “verbal abuse” seem entirely inadequate.

As for physical abuse, its primary form was a slap on the face delivered with all her strength. A slap from her was akin to a punch—and the fact that she wore numerous rings would add to the pain and the impact. Recipients would reel, or fall—and the pain was considerable. Worse was the psychological pain. It was often far from clear what you had done wrong wrong—if anything—and then there was the prospect of another unexpected, and frequently unjustified, blow. And, all of that apart, it was terrifying to be out of mother’s favor. Under such circumstances, you were a target.

Such a background was not conducive to learning how to remain calm—and, for much of my life, I have had a tendency to over-react. Nonetheless, I have steadily progressed to more Zen like behavior, and I am currently celebrating my fourth year without losing my temper. How have I managed that? I just decided to in a very conscious way—and then found the decision fairly easy to implement. Occasionally logic works. My intellect told me there was no upside to losing my cool. No one could be more surprised at the outcome than me.

My friend, Vaughn, says life is hugely about “managing one’s fears.” I tend to agree, but am far from sure how to do that. I wish I had answers—because this is a really important issue—but I don’t. I do know that a sense of humor, leavened with a sense of the ridiculous, helps. When I was growing up, that much used facility was known as “black humor.” Today, I’m told that is politically incorrect.

When I feel like panicking, I always think of a marvelous line delivered by Kris Kristopherson in BLUME IN LOVE. In it, he is asked—since his life is in the pits—why isn’t he panicking?

He replies: “I passed panic on Tuesday.”

That ridiculous, wonderful line has sustained me through more crises than I care to mention,


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Saturday, January 26, 2013




I’m completely convinced that the single most important thing to do—if you want to master the craft of writing (an impossible goal within a human lifespan) is to write every day for a decade or two, and then—with luck, SXC Eagle and a following wind—you’ll begin to get the hang of it.

If that sounds too grim a prospect, then you should probably find another line of work—and I say that respectfully. Writing is a hard taskmaster and not really a rational way to make a living. But those who are called have little choice in the matter. We write because it is an imperative.

In truth, learning to write—once you have mastered the basics of literacy—isn’t grim at all. The struggle is a good part of the fun, and if you stay with it—and that is the hard part—you will get better.

Now, you won’t feel that way if you have spent day after day staring at a blank screen—not knowing what to write—but if you have made the effort to write something (just about anything) this approach will work. It’s all about having something to say in the first place—a factor that is ignored more often than one might think—and then linking your brain to your fingers—a short distance physically, but a mental divide of Grand Canyon proportions.

Spanning it demands time, huge effort, and fortitude. Nothing less will do. 

But why am I writing about writing? Well, because I have recently had a letter from Dr. Gerald L. Kovacich—Jerry Kovacich—saying as follows:

I was going through old backup files and found the article you had written about writing that I thoroughly enjoyed. (copy attached, with my added thoughts for a talk I gave on writing many years ago, when I had hair and yours was not white! :-)) ).

I re-read it and found it as useful as when I first read it some decade-plus ago.

I sent it to my son-in-law who will be writing his first book soon - albeit one on education based on his PhD in Education but still your thoughts are very relevant.

As for me, moved on from information warfare-computer security books (15 total), retired to write more on life's philosophy with a Poems of Life: Thoughts of Human Experiences and now onto another book on our human experiences but in a more narrative form.

I guess mellowed out over the years and no longer care about protecting computers, instead using computers only as a writing tool and communications device. Writing now on "the meaning of life" thoughts.

Are you still in Ireland or have you moved on?  I lectured four times in the past but only in London and still have not made it to Ireland to buy you that beer. Spending travel time now in China, making fourth trip there this fall.

Anyway, just thought I would say Hello! from Whidbey Island, WA.

Hope all is well.


Dr. Gerald L. Kovacich

I have made a point of trying to answer each and every one of my 7,000 plus fan letters individually—a gesture that makes no commercial sense—and I feel particularly pleased when I learn I have helped with their writing in some way.

Simply put, I was helped in various ways when I was trying to learn to write—and now feel it is my turn to put something back into the pot. I doubt Jerry needed much help. He is the author of 15 books on information warfare and computer security—but I appreciate his kind thoughts.

So what has the eagle to do with all this? It’s a subtle reminder of my new book HOW EAGLE & CUCKOO SAVED THE WORLD: THE BEGINNING—and it looks good.


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Friday, January 25, 2013




Shortly before my much loved grandmother, Vida Lentaigne died, I was inspired to write to her to say how much she meant to me.

I say “inspired” because I didn’t expect her to die soon. She hadn’t yet had the fall that led to her rapid decline, and she was only 78 and still active.

Nonetheless, I had the strongest possible premonition to write the best letter I could—so I wrote it and mailed it; and she received it, and understood it; and made it clear how much she appreciated what I was trying to say.

She said my letter was so wonderful she thought she was dreaming. But the letter was very real, and the sentiments it expressed were as loving as I knew how. I had always had a very special relationship with my grandmother, and dreaded her passing. I knew my world would never be the same—and it hasn’t been. Vida Lentaigne was an exceptional human being—and a genuinely good person.

I have made many mistakes in life, but sometimes I have done absolutely the right thing—and this was one of them.

Frankly, I doubt that my letter was that good—I was less practiced as a writer then, and still find it hard to express my feelings adequately—but it made her happy, and that was the whole point of the exercise. Since then, I have devoted more more attention to letters because I have found that they communicate in a unique way—let me stress this—and can truly make somebody’s day, even if bad things are going on all around them. How do I know? Because that is what people tell me—and that is what I feel when I receive a good letter. 

What is a good letter? It is many things—but, above all, it is from the heart. It is empathetic, thoughtful, honest, and it has content (it really does help if you have something to say). It also helps if it is well written—though that is secondary. Getting spelling, grammar and punctuation right is fundamental for a published work, but less vital for a private letter.

This week I received the nicest letter I have ever read in my life—and probably ever will. It knocked my letter to my grandmother into a cocked hat, and was packed full of fascinating content into the bargain because it was about a fellow writer’s life—something I could truly relate to. In fact, I feel like telling the writer that he really should not write to me again, because he will find it impossible to top this week’s achievement. I just hope it is not a sign I am about to keel over. I have stories to write as yet.

The author of the letter was my son, Christian. He is an award-winning playwright who has also had the distinction of having one of his works made into an excellent, and very touching, movie:

OctagonFeature film – Story By Christian O’Reilly
*Edinburgh Film Festival – Audience Award
*Irish Film & TV Awards – Best Script
*Irish Film & TV Awards – AIB People’s Choice Award for Best Film

The movie was also marketed under a different title—RORY O’SHEA IS HERE.

Why do producers do this stuff? I am including the poster for that as well. Either way, the story was written by my son, Christian. I am as pleased as a fellow writer can be (We authors are always supposed to be madly jealous of each other. Whereas it is true, that can be the initial feeling for a micro-second—thereafter it is frequently not true.

Indeed, I doubt I would ever have sold a book but for the generosity of fellow writers like Niall Fallon, Anthony Summers, and others. Authors rock in my opinion. Others who I would like to praise include Sam Llewellyn, Peter Cunningham and Jim Webb (the senator).

In addition, Christian writes for the BBC—an achievement in itself. He is very happily married to Ailbhe and is proudest of all of his son, Coilin (whose name should have accents but I don’t know how to do them in this program). They live in Galway, in the West of Ireland—not to far away from where my fictional protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, lives (“supposed to live” just doesn’t sound right).

But I didn’t bring up this topic just to both praise and thank Christian—because the fact of his writing to me is scarcely a surprise (though the contents certainly were). Instead, I have been delighted, amused and pleased to hear from a whole bunch of other people who—mostly—I never knew existed. And most of this latest group have had some family connection.

This is great, though I wonder why they have all come at roughly the same time. Is telepathy at work? But, whatever be the reason, I am decidedly not complaining.


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Thursday, January 24, 2013



The idea of moving every year or two hovers somewhere between hopelessly impractical and insane to most people—though the U.S. military do it all the time. I guess that rather proves the point.

In fact I was once told by the Secretary of the Army—whom I was interviewing during my Pentagon assignment—that something like 10 percent of the force was in transit at any one time—and therefore unavailable to invade Iraq or do whatever the powers that be had in mind. I found that a mind-boggling figure, though perhaps not so surprising when you consider that the U.S. military maintain something like 1,000 bases throughout the world—and some extraordinary number of golf courses. All those foreign bases cost only $250 billion (or some such) and require only 200,000 plus troops to garrison them. It’s a positive steal.

But should the U.S. have a 1,000 foreign bases in the first place?

Why not if the locals and the U.S. taxpayers don’t mind (and the Chinese who lend us the money to fund all this—because we haven’t the money). Besides, it keeps the generals happy. And generals need to be kept happy because they have the guns.

You see each separate post or base has to have a commander—and that is a job that normally goes to a general. More bases means more jobs for generals, not to mention wanna-be generals—which means most senior officers. The lure of a star is like catnip to a cat. Fundamentally, it’s a form of unemployment relief which is packaged in such a way as to make it acceptable to Republicans. Works like a charm.

But I digress. What I was really working up to was to explain why I thought it would be a good idea for me—the writer. You see, I tend to be creatively stimulated by fresh surroundings so thought it would be a marvelous idea to move on after each book to yet another exotic location or other—get inspired afresh—and then write anew.

My ex was not keen (a common state). She wanted to buy a house and make some money out it (which she did) and then she wanted stability for the kids (she was less successful there).

Being a sweetheart of a man, I acquiesced—as most men do when faced with an intransigent woman—but I have always wondered what my writing life would have been like if I had moved every year or two, from place to place, and from country to country.

Barcelona today! Monte Carlo tomorrow! Sienna in a year or two! And then, perhaps, Buenos Aires! Or Algiers! A writer would need to be desperate not to be able to come up with a plot or two in Algeria. They tell me things happen there.

I guess I’ll never know—or will I?


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Wednesday, January 23, 2013



Insigne du 1° REP.jpg

While in Corte, I made friends with a Sergeant-Chef who had been in the First Foreign Regiment of Parachutists—the unit that had tried to overthrow De Gaulle after he decided the time had come for the French to leave Algeria.

Since the highly mobile paras, using innovative tactics—particularly helicopter assaults—had been highly successful against the Algerian freedom fighters, they objected to this decision and mounted an abortive putsch.

After the effort failed—the largely conscript French Army in Algeria wanted none of it--the 1REP Legionnaires were marched away to be disbanded. As they marched, they sang: “Je ne regrette rien—I regret nothing.” From their perspective—the purely military one--they had won in Algeria and felt betrayed. In contrast, De Gaulle felt it was inevitable that Algeria would become independent—the tide of history was against colonialism—and he wanted to end the drain on the French economy.

My legionnaire friend, who was actually a Hungarian, immediately enlisted in 2REP where he was soon restored to his former rank. The Legion looks after its own. NCOs, by the way, have considerable authority within the Legion. In effect, they run it.

I think the item that cemented our friendship was the copy of THE CENTURIONS I had with me. Together with its sequel, it told the whole story—and was still officially banned within the Legion. The events had happened in 1961 and this was only three years later in 1964.

After leaving Corte, Bunny and I journeyed on to Calvi where the 2REP—now the only remaining Legion parachute regiment left—was based. There, I got considerable access to the unit despite not having gone through channels. It was, quite simply, fascinating—and I can recall few more dramatic sights than watching one of their parachute drops one evening against a backdrop of mountains. Corsica is a very beautiful island—and fragrant. Wild herbs are everywhere.


Unlike Corte, which is in the center of Corsica, Calvi is a coastal port with a fabulous five mile beach of golden sand just next to it—and adjacent to the 2REP camp. The port and town are overlooked by a formidable citadel. Apparently, when the Allies landed on Corsica, the citadel was occupied by the Germans.

According to one old timer I talked to, the Corsican resistance were too impatient to wait for the Allied troops to reach Calvi, and stormed the fort. Quite how they succeeded, I’ll never know, but they did. Or so goes the story. And if I may quote from the movie, JUDGE ROY BEAN, “If it’s not the way it was, it is the way it should have been.”

File:Calvi Port1 JPG.jpg

This illustration was made by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Calvi Beach boasted a Club Mediterranean in my day, so 2REP, who jumped into the bay, as well as into the valley, had topless bathing beauties to gaze at as they floated down.

The French do these things differently.

As best I can gather, 2REP is still based in Calvi at nearby Camp Raffalli. These days it has become a highly specialized rapid response force with expertise in all kinds of arcane areas from mountain warfare to jungle combat.

The entire Legion consists of 7,700 men in eleven regiments and one sub-unit. REP stands for Régiment étranger de parachutistes, as in 2e REP.

File:FRF2 Afghanistan.JPG


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Tuesday, January 22, 2013



File:Corte citadelle.jpgThe full story of what happened in Corsica (rather a lot) will have to await my memoirs—but suffice to say that we did track down both the Legion and some bandits.

The bandits were something of an accident—and I wasn’t sure they really were bandits until I noticed that everyone in the room of an inn rather high up in the mountains was unshaven and armed. However, the leader of the group was charmed by Bunny, amused by our relationship, and left us entirely unscathed. Indeed, he bought us drinks and we chatted for some time in bad English and worse French.

Were they really bandits? I have really no idea. However, I have never come up with any other explanation for why the entire group of about twenty—all in rough civilian clothes—should be carrying weapons. But perhaps they were hunters? With handguns and automatic weapons? I rather think not.

They could, of course, have been freedom fighters trying to gain independence for Corsica. Either way, I’ll never forget that evening and a frisson of fear when I realized that perhaps we had got in too deep. 

We found the Legion by asking a policeman in Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital. These days I am familiar with Public Affairs departments, and the protocols of inquiry. Back in those days, at the tender age of twenty, I favored the direct route. It did get me arrested on a few occasions, but normally it worked—and fortune often favors the young and ignorant.

The policeman said that the bandits were now mostly in the towns because it was more convenient for both bandits and policemen (very droll) whereas the Legion was a bloody menace and was kept as far away from civilization as possible. He explained that if you tried to arrest one legionnaire for being drunk and disorderly, he would then call his comrades and the results would be ugly. Accordingly, if we wanted to find the Legion, we should head for Corte in the mountains where we would find a Legion barracks—hopefully full of troopers so tired from training that they wouldn't cause us any trouble. However, I’d be wise not to take anyone’s photo.

Corte is a truly dramatic spot because it sits in a bowl of mountains and it is dominated by citadel built on a rocky outcrop. The town itself was small, in my day, and though the Legion occupied the citadel, the main barracks was outside the town. Training took place in the surrounding mountains and was, by all accounts, brutal. The Legion tries to keep its soldiers busy and astonishingly fit. The body fat of a typical legionnaire is in single figures.

Why am I going on about the Legion? Well, of two reasons: Firstly, they left an indelible impression on me. And secondly, because they keep on popping up whenever there is trouble. Currently, they are in Mali—which features broadly similar terrain to that which they used to be associated with in Algeria.

In a way, the Legion is returning to its roots. As to whether a few thousand can be successful in a country the size of France, against an enemy that is extremely hard to identify—because its fighters rarely wear uniforms—I have to wonder. However, where they do manage to close with the enemy, I have no doubt but that they will prevail.

To be continued…


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"Living by Chance, Loving by Choice,
Killing by Profession"

motto of La Lègion Etrangére
(French Foreign Legion)

Due to my mother’s quaint habit of enlisting me in boarding schools too young—a terrible thing to do to a kid no matter how bright—I entered university at sixteen to do a four year course, and graduated at the age of twenty.

Quite how I graduated I will never know, because I spent most of my last year immersed in university politics. In contrast, my son, Bruff, actually worked and has graduated with a First (very hard to get) and a Gold Medal for Academic excellence (but that is another story).

The university in both our cases was Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland—established by Queen Elizabeth I to educate the local savages. Actually, I think she wanted to educate the landed aristocracy who administered Ireland on her behalf so they could collect taxes with improved accuracy. Either way, there it is in all its splendor. It is actually a rather marvelous institution in a decidedly eccentric way.

Upon graduating, my mother threw a truly splendid black tie party for me—and I fell in love. The situation was broadly akin to the movie THE GRADUATE except that no daughter was involved. The woman concerned, from a good family in Connecticut, and—tragically now dead—was Elizabeth Bennett (though everyone called her Bunny). She was tall, slinky, talented, tender, and drop-dead gorgeous. She was also about fifteen years older than me.

Flag of legion.svgA little while later, Bunny and I were at a party when someone mentioned that the French Foreign Legion had been disbanded following the failed attempt to overthrow President De Gaulle.

I disagreed, and a vociferous debate followed. Shortly afterwards, Bunny and I set off to track down the French Foreign Legion which I had been reliably informed had left its famous quarters in Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria and was now in Corsica—or much of it was.

Corsica is an island and the birthplace of Napoleon. How hard could it be to track down the legion there? Indeed, I had heard there were bandits there—and thought it might be fun to meet a few.


To be continued…


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Monday, January 21, 2013



I first ran across the French Legion through the books of P.C. Wren.

If your life went adrift in one of a thousand ways—and you were relatively young and fit, you could always adopt a false name, enlist in the French Foreign Legion, and start life anew. You didn’t even have to speak French. The Legion would teach you. The Legion did not explain how it taught you—which was just as well.

The downside was that the Legion owned you for five years, discipline was incredibly tough—words are somewhat inadequate at this point—and, and your chances of being killed or injured were significantly higher than if you joined a more conventional military unit. In effect, the Legion becomes your country. It fights for France, but you fight for the Legion (and the Legion does not let you forget that fact).

P.C. Wren’s books were not particularly cheerful—and his stories rarely ended well—but they fascinated me. Frankly, at the time just about anything seemed preferable to boarding school; and the prospect of fighting Arabs in depths of the Sahara seemed quite exciting to me. After all, I’d have a Lebel rifle. I had no idea what a Lebel rifle was—except in a rather fuzzy sense—but it sounded cool. Since I know you are dying to know more, here are some details.

File:Model 1886 Lebel rifle.jpg

The Lebel Model 1886 rifle (French: Fusil Modèle 1886 dit "Fusil Lebel") is also known as the "Fusil Mle 1886 M93", after a bolt modification was added in 1893. It is an 8mm bolt action infantry rifle which entered service in the French Army in April 1887. It is a repeating rifle that can hold eight rounds in its forestock tube magazine plus one round in the transporter. The Lebel rifle had the distinction of being the first military firearm to use smokeless powder ammunition. In spite of outdated features, such as its tube magazine and the sharply tapered case of 8mm Lebel ammunition, the Lebel rifle remained the basic weapon of French infantry during World War I (1914–18). Altogether two million eight hundred and eighty thousand ( 2,880,000 ) Lebel rifles were produced by the three French State manufactures.

TheCenturions cover.jpgSince I was about eleven when I read P.C. Wren, I never did enlist in the Legion, and it might have remained buried in the recesses of my mind. However, some years later, a quite extraordinary book appeared—which had a profound effect on my thinking and, though I did not realize it at the time, on the rest of my life.

It was called THE CENTURIONS and told the story of Dien Bien Phu, the French war in Algeria, and—above all—of a rather special parachute regiment.

Originally, it was written in French, but it was beautifully translated by Xan Fielding. Subsequently, a sequel, THE PRAETORIANS, was written which brought the story up to the end of the Algerian war.

Later, it was made into a movie starring Anthony Quinn but the movie, though exciting enough, lacked the subtlety and complexity of the book. In essence, though the book was action packed enough, its great strength was that it featured marvelous characters—and was about ideas. It was also heavily inspired by actual events which resulted in the disbanding of one of the Legion’s parachute regiments.

To be continued…


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Sunday, January 20, 2013



File:Conamara, Ireland.jpg

I often wonder about the extent to which our thoughts are conditioned—in contrast to whether they are original. I have to say, based upon observation, that conditioning wins out by a wide margin.

If true, such a conclusion has all kinds of implications—mostly disturbing. And it also raises serious questions about free will? Religion makes a great feature of free will; but, if we are as manipulated to the extent I believe we are, then free will has, at best, a supporting role. So, in essence, we are being conditioned to believe we have free will.

Who says the gods don’t have a sense of humor!

These thoughts arose because I have been thinking about the view from this apartment. I’m leaving the place shortly; and, after hearing one of the new owners rave (to excess) about the view,  I have been wondering: Will I miss the view?

The apartment, itself, is another matter. It has been an excellent place to work from for the last couple of years—and, above all, quiet. As to the view, apart from the fact that it has been rather pleasant to be high up, it has left me unmoved.

In direct line of sight, it consists of some docks full of leisure craft. and a rather unattractive apartment building. True, Lake Washington is to my right, if I go out onto the balcony—chilly this time of year—but the wonders of Lake Washington leave me unmoved. It has none of the majesty and endless variety of the sea, nor the beauty of the small Irish lakes that dot Connemara in the West of Ireland. I first encountered them while on a walking tour during my early teems, and have returned many times to contemplate them—and I never cease to wonder. That part of the West is a wild land, and uniquely wonderful. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is magic.

Dun Aengus on Inishmore, Aran Islands Galway Bay IrelandMy late (and very special) friend, Niall Fallon, lived in that part of the world for some years—he was writing a book on the Spanish Armada amongst other things—and was less than flattering about the reality of day-to-day life in Connemara. Overall, he had a tough time making a living there. I seem to recall, he bred dogs there as well. We writers will try anything. Either way, it was not a successful time for him, though his book was excellent. He was not only a fine man, but an excellent writer.

Nonetheless, after I had fallen in love with the Aran Islands as well, I based the protagonist of my first three books, Hugo Fitzduane, in that part of the world—albeit just off the coast on his very own (entirely fictional) island—and gave him an old Norman keep to live in into the bargain. A plain keep is a rectangular stone tower—normally a statement of dominance over a given area of land, and preferably within signaling distance of a neighbor who could send help if needed. It was a simple, but extremely powerful, system of control, and it underpinned the feudal system.

In Fitzduane’s case, his keep has been somewhat expanded to a size many would refer to as a castle—but it remains relatively small. This entirely fictional place is now as real to me as if it actually exists. I based it on several castles; but, arguably, the nearest to my mental model is Dunguaire. However, there are a number of distinct differences. The keep of Duncleeve (Fitzduane’s castle) has a flat roof—or fighting platform. Secondly, it is taller. Thirdly, it has a larger bawn or walled courtyard. And fourthly, it has a larger gatehouse complete with a portcullis. Still, Dunguaire does convey the general idea.

Was I conditioned to take to that wild, bleak, wind-and-rain swept, and stunningly beautiful part of the world—or did I react spontaneously?

My ego (which I try and regard with some skepticism, since it is scarcely unbiased) says I certainly was not conditioned—my parents, for instance, were not remotely interested in that part of the world, nor were any of my relations and mentors—but I guess I’ll never know. Certainly, I was impelled to visit the West on that first walking holiday for some reason.


These days, while Fitzduane and his island are forever in my mind, my own favorite locations are in South West France (Perigord Pourpre and Perigord Noir). The area was the scene of great contention between the English and the French back in the Middle Ages, and it is not hard to see why.

As best I can determine it, Perigord and Aquitaine overlap—which makes life very confusing. Aquitaine, which includes a whole chunk of the French Atlantic coast, was a kingdom in its day—and bordered on Spain.

I have thought of either living there—or at least spending some months there every year.

Much of my latest Fitzduane book, THE BLOOD OF GENERATIONS, is set there. It is the fourth in the series.

Will there be more Fitzduane books?  I like to think so. I have written four so far. Seven seems a nice round total because I want to write other books as well. Nonetheless, it has been put to me—many times—that  since Fitzduane hasn’t taken off like James Bond, I should abandon him.

Perhaps so, if money was my only goal. But it is not. The truth is that I am very fond of my fictional protagonist, have spent a great deal of time in his company, regard him as a fundamentally decent man (if somewhat prone to be dragged into adventures of some violence), and don’t regret growing old in his company. Beyond that, many of those readers who have discovered him, not only positively long for his return, but have said so in writing—and they tend to be impassioned.

Two  impossible dreams? In these cases, I look forward to finding out.

File:Aquitaine in France.svg

The Lion in WinterThe above is Aquitaine.

Think Eleanor of Aquitaine who had an impressively contentious marriage to Henry II of England.

See also that marvelous movie The Lion In Winter starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. The movie makes a great deal more sense if one knows the historical background. Eleanor was a major historical figure—and Aquitaine was worth fighting for. That, they certainly did.


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Saturday, January 19, 2013



Let me quote:

Tina Rosenberg was the first freelance journalist to receive a five-year MacArthur Fellowship "genius" award. Her writings have appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. She is the author of the acclaimed Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America, and The Haunted Land, Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism. Formerly a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Archive, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Though no one would describe me as a bubbling optimist, beneath my crusty exterior I hold the absolute belief that the answers to most of our problems are out there—and that our primary fault as human beings is that we don’t look hard enough (if we look at all).

To prove my point there exists Tina Rosenberg—who is not only attractive enough to die for (she seems very happily married)—but who, again and again, comes up with stories about people (and methodologies) who originate solutions to our travails; and which, mostly, are not conventionally commercial.

Her latest piece in the New York Times concerns a Doctor V. who gave up his regular job as an eye surgeon in order to do something about blindness in India—whether you could pay or not. The result was the Aravind Eye Care System System, which—to date—has treated more than 32 million patients and performed more than 4 million surgeries—and which is financially sustainable in itself.


Well, that is just one story, but Tina Rosenberg comes up with similar stories again and again to the extent that one has to wonder how well we are served by the conventional news media—and whether winner-take-all American-style capitalism is really the best possible answer to the human condition.


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Friday, January 18, 2013


SEEK—AND YOU WILL NOT BE SHOT AT SO OFTEN (you hope—arguably with good reason)

The above aircraft is THE SEEKER. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the Optica which featured in my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN. Both were designed for reconnaissance, to be significantly cheaper to operate than a helicopter, had bubble cockpits, were equipped with pusher propellers, and could take off and land on rough terrain in extremely short distances. Both were inexpensive to buy and to operate.

I thought such an aircraft was a superb idea, and flew all the Optica scenes that feature in my book in the Optica. The whole experience was such a rush I don’t think I came down to earth for several days. What I particularly recall was the astonishing visibility from the bubble cockpit—plus the interesting experience of flying so low, we had to climb to get over a hedge. At over 120 mph, that gets your attention. Since the propeller was behind the cabin—which is why it is called “a pusher—engine noise was minimized, and you could see everything below and ahead. Add the necessary electro-optical equipment, and you can do much the same at night, and under most weather conditions. Beyond that, you can transmit what you see to the ground.

ImageMy good friend, Lieutenant Colonel Greg Wilcox—now retired from the Army—served no less than three tours in Vietnam—he was seriously wounded during his second tour—and spent much time in the air in a light FAC (Forward Air Controller) aircraft.

While airborne he learned that if you flew relatively low and slow, you could get to know the terrain below, and its inhabitants and their patterns of behavior, intimately—and keep the unit on the ground that you were overwatching relatively safe. You could warn it about ambushes, advise about the terrain, detect almost any unusual enemy activity—and call in artillery and/or air support if needed. In short, he learned that the combination of eyes in the sky, a keen intellect to interpret what was observed—the human factor—and boots on the ground, was extremely powerful. It was also common sense.

During the Iraq War, Greg wrote a paper recommending an airborne carpet made up of inexpensive Cessnas. True, the Army had helicopters, and the Air Force had fixed wing aircraft, but both were such expensive assets, and so costly to operate, that the skies were frequently empty. Much the same restrictions applied to drones.

Greg’s paper was ignored.

In 2005—while the situation in Iraq was deteriorating—a series of experiments was carried out using Seeker aircraft in the air and Jordanian forces on the ground. The idea was to see if Greg’s “aerial carpet” would work. Greg was not the only proponent of this concept, and the resultant paper was written by Navy Captain Dan Moore and others. It’s findings, in brief, were that the concept of combining inexpensive light aircraft with ground forces was highly effective.

This was scarcely a new discovery. During the invasion of France in World War II, Army Air Force General Quesada encouraged close cooperation between air and ground forces—to the extent that he had Air Force radios placed in tanks so that air and ground could communicate. At the time the Air Force was fighting to become an independent service, and Quesada was described as a “traitor” by some of his Air Force colleagues for cooperating with the Army. Appalling as it may seem, inter-service rivalries have long blocked inter-service cooperation to a degree that still threatens National Security.

The paper describing this successful series of tests was written for the IDA—the highly regarded Institute for Defense Analysis.

It was buried.

The U.S. Army was once described to me as “a curious anthropological institution.” It is a marvelous phrase, though I have no idea what it really means. What I can say is that the Army, though a commendable institution in many ways, is authoritarian, dominated by the MICC (Military Industrial Congressional Complex), and quite remarkably resistant to innovative thinking. It’s a sad thing; and who knows how many lives have been lost because of it.

It is noteworthy that again and again, when a less expensive alternative is put forward, that the military almost always opt for the more expensive options—even when the less expensive item is operationally superior. The reason for this is that a great many senior officers have plans to retire into the MICC—and the MICC is powered by the money flow emanating from the Department of Defense. The money flow is based on expensive weapons systems—on programs that last for decades like the F-35 aircraft. In fact, some would argue that the best weapons procurement programs—as far as the generals are concerned—are decades long programs that never result in a usable weapons system. However they do make excellent retirement platforms. Recall the Crusader artillery system that never saw the light of day—and the Comanche helicopter.  They are far from unique, and kept the money flowing. And then there was the Future Combat System—a truly massive program that was supposed to transform the American Way of War; and which was given to Boeing to manage in a deal that neither reflected well on Boeing nor on the Army. Massive amounts of money have a disturbing tendency to corrupt.

It is informative to examine where generals go when they retire. Almost without exception they join the MICC. They join the corporations they have been buying from. The issue of conflicts of interest does not seem to occur to them. They rationalize that defense contractors need their expertise and experience. That is rarely true. Contractors hire retired generals for their influence and—above all—their access. Retired generals can almost always get to see, and influence, serving generals. Serving generals want to see gainfully employed retired generals so that they can negotiate the job offers they will receive upon retirement. Much is done through suggestion and implication to preserve a façade of probity. The results speak for themselves.

Do all generals behave this way? No. Some are men and women of true integrity. However, the majority “go along to get along,” pay their dues to the club of generals, and feather their nests. Such behavior has become part of their culture, and thus considered acceptable—and we are all the poorer for it.

And so sound military thinking gets buried—and soldiers die—and the American Way of War becomes the most expensive in the world. But resources are limited so tough choices have to be made. Economists refer to this decision as: “Guns or Butter?” Typically, “Guns” wins out. A consequence of that is the U.S. has the worst social support system in the developed world and the worst healthcare system. As a result, not only is there vast misery, but Americans die younger—and are sicker before they die.

It is often argued that the first duty of a government is National Security. Most would agree. However, the security of a population is not just about fighting wars and killing terrorists. The real threats—the mass killers—stem from poor health, industrial food, a polluted environment, and acute stress stemming from lack of economic opportunity.

By the way, below is a picture of the Edgley Optica. As you will note, the cockpit fuselage is remarkably similar to that of the Seeker, but instead of an exposed propeller, the Optica used a five bladed ducted fan. This made the Optica extremely quiet—but adds weight. Beyond that, the Optica has a twin tail boom.

Though the Optica’s history has been unhappy, I thought it was a great little aircraft and am glad to hear it is now back in the hands of its original designer.

Which aircraft is superior—The Seeker or The Optica? I have absolutely no idea. My flight experience—which was entirely positive—was confined to the Optica. Either way, I like the concept.

G-BGMW in flight


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Thursday, January 17, 2013



One of the things I have learned in life is that –where the opposite sex is concerned—the unattainable is not necessarily as unattainable as one might think. Here the SAS motto—He Who Dares Wins—is worth considering.

Mind you, holding on to one’s target is another matter. But better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. And I’m not sure ‘lost’ is the right word. Some relationships are innately transient, and none the worse for it. Others, of course, are just plain impossible. They happen nonetheless—sometimes for a considerable period.

I have never been too sure of the dividing line between “having a crush on” and “falling in love with.” I guess it is a matter of degree. Both states are painful, wonderful, and extremely distracting. Given the latter, writers—who need to focus with considerable intensity—arguably shouldn’t fall in love. But we do, nonetheless—sometimes regularly. We are a difficult and troublesome bunch. That elegant phrase “Illuminate the human condition” includes not just entertaining people through our written work—which I, personally, thoroughly enjoy doing—but raising issues which many people would prefer were never mentioned. We are stirers of the pot and fomenters of change. We are not really restful, reliable, good providers—and women tend to pick-up on such things and regard us with appropriate suspicion. Still, good sexual chemistry conquers all—at least for a while.

I was still a baby when I felt seriously attracted to a woman for the first time. I have been told I was far too young to have such thoughts, but I vividly remember that rather gorgeous young woman as she cuddled me against her breasts. In fact I remember more detail than might be appropriate to put into print. She was dark haired, and rather luscious, and moved on to South Africa—never to be heard from again. She was my temporary nurse and a friend of my mothers. She broke my heart at the age of about one.

Disillusioned with life after such a traumatic erotic experience, I waited four long years before falling in love with my neighbor when we lived in England for a while. Her name was Jean Clifford and, for a considerable time, it was assumed we would get married—well, assumed by us anyway. On the basis of that understanding, I persuaded her to take her clothes off when she came to stay at my grandmother’s farm several years later, but then rather ran out of ideas. Still, it was exciting. I was about eight at the time.

I was unfaithful to Jean—at least in my mind—in that, concurrently, I fell madly in love with a girl called Miriam who, with her parents, used to stay in a little holiday home on my grandmother’s farm most summers. Miriam had long blond hair, was about twelve to my six or seven, and I thought she was the most gorgeous creature who had ever walked the face of the earth. In fact she looked like the kind of princess who tends to be locked up in a tower for knights to rescue—but somehow that never happened. Or, if it did, I was never told. I find the thought that she might still be locked up—waiting for me to rescue her—mildly worrying.

I’m not quite sure how I lost touch with Jean, but I suspect our moving back to Ireland must have had something to do with it. Also, I was sent to boarding school—and that rather cramps one’s style where the opposite sex is concerned. In fact after a while, you long for the mere sight of a woman; and school matrons become the object of lust. Frankly most were not worth it, though I recall two who probably were. One had a severe face but a truly superb figure—and watching her walk could make one’s day. The other, who was chubby but pretty, fell in love with a monk. I never did learn how that particular relationship played out. They made a very sweet couple.

Well, I’m now getting to the interesting part—so I’m going to stop. The balance will be in my memoirs CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK-WRITING MAN.

I will say that I wrote this particular piece for a reason. I received an e-mail today that brought back some very special memories.


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