America: no cure in sight

Along with many other people, I looked on with relief as the US finally seemed ready to shake the three monkeys off its back, and set itself on the road to recovery. However, it seems that too large a part of the great American public and their representatives want to ignore the obvious, and close their eyes and ears and mouths to the evils of the man the slim majority removed from office.

Even the most superficial examination of Trump’s actions and behaviour since he was handed a few million dollars by his father, evidences a spectacularly awful spectrum of qualities that a large minority of Americans feel best represents them. When he was elected to office, I listened to the apologists say “we had no choice” (although there were other candidates). It was also clear that at the time, the ‘establishment’ was significantly divorced from the harsh realities of life for the average citizen (unlike Trump and his progeny, who obviously know what it is like to live on the street or struggle to make a mortgage repayment). If you ignored all your instincts and values, you could almost have been convinced that from the evils of Trumpism might come some good. Then he took office.

The man’s presidency uncovered qualities that left us aghast, even as he boasted he could do whatever he wanted and people would still love him. He was right. For onlookers, it was a simple matter to see, but a very difficult step to comprehend, the sheer scale of Trump’s nepotism, narcissism, dishonesty, misogyny, hypocrisy, despotism, immaturity, incompetency, bigotry, racism, fascism, ignorance and arrogance. It was just too much of a stretch to begin to understand how these qualities could endear him to 60,000,000 apparently sane people.

It does not end there. A few weeks ago, another 14,000,000 Americans came out to say

“these are the qualities we want in a leader.  We want all this, and we want more. We desire climate change denial and isolationism. We yearn for self-aggrandisement, greed, and cronyism. We want these qualities to inspire us, and be a model for our children. Yes, this is what we want – and if you don’t like it, well, we’ll soon see to you.”

No, not even four years of listening to illiterate nonsense spouted by an Oompa Loompa backed by obsequious acolytes and hilariously awful children, could shake the worshippers’ adoration.  And now, as Kevin McCarthy grovels to his commander, we see that millions of people and their representatives are tightening their blindfolds, plugging up their ears and bending to the task of kissing their master’s ring.

I have a dream, that the American people will soon wake up with the resolve to excise the malignant tumour that has grown in its breast.

But I’m afraid it’s just a dream.

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As ye sow

With the Democrats now in control of both Houses of Congress, and an increasing number of Americans accepting that Biden won a fair election, it would be tempting to say that the Trump chapter is over (or, as some have put it, that the pests have finally been eradicated from the White House).

Edvard Munch

On the other hand, would it not be deliciously fitting if the whole election really was rigged between the Russians, the Chinese and the rich ruling elite in America (or perhaps these are all the same thing).

I find the idea of Trump and his family being victims of a bizarre cocktail of mis- and dis-information, paranoia, tribalism, arrogance, ignorance, self-interest, conspiracy theories, and, as George Carlin would have put it, ‘stupid people in large groups’, absolutely wonderful.

No doubt the book and film will be out later this year.

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Ascent of the Amazon

Pete Casey’s Amazon Odyssey

I’m posting this on behalf of friend Pete Casey. He has been walking and swimming through the Amazon for an amazing 4 years, and has covered 4,500 km. He is now on the last leg of his odyssey, which will see him climb out of the Amazon Basin and ascend the Andes to the source of the Amazon.

After selling everything in the UK, Pete funded the expedition himself, but now needs some assistance to make it to the finish line. You can help by taking a quick look at the fundraising page and sharing it.

Visit Pete’s fundraising site on Fundrazr. or visit Pete’s blog Ascent of the Amazon

Thanks and have a great 2021!

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How not to Ignore the News

I have been trying so hard to ignore the news, but my students have ‘stuck it to me’ over the past few days. “Teacher, forget about the iGCSEs, let’s talk about the US Elections!” This, from Albanian secondary school students, was difficult to ignore.

So I finally had to peek under the stone, and see what’s crawling underneath. Unpleasant, to be sure, but it did help encourage some healthy debate at school, and this produced some highly articulate pronouncements on the subject – from my students, at least.

On the other hand, I am very keen for this thing to be over, so I can focus on things that are more important – like the meaning of life, the universe and everything… or the reason why I have so much hair growing out of my nose these days.

Because surely the USA was lost the day it elected someone who can barely string a sentence together. And surely the only way it might step up to the line again, is if it can find a hero to lead it out of the darkness. (Frankly I don’t see Biden as that hero, especially if he can name a son “hunter” with a straight face.)

Surely, indeed, to save the country, what is required is a population that recognizes the inadvisability of electing to office someone with the IQ of a Munchkin (with apologies to Munchkins) and who few people would trust to pick up litter in a park. What is needed is a population capable of decisively sweeping away a most horrific infestation of lower-order vermin, and getting back to business with a vertebrate worthy of the name.

Instead, what do we have? We have a stand-off. No matter the final outcome now, and no matter how you cut it, almost half of the people of the US – that’s 160,000,000 so-called sentient beings – believe their interests are best represented by a lying, stealing, cheating, semi-literate, idiot. For me, that makes it as clear as crystal that the days of the US ascendancy are well and truly over. It will now simply be eaten up by its own internal divisions and edged out by more successful authoritarian regimes. A matter of time.

And so, dear America, the writing is (still) on the wall. It was your choice; your responsibility. Good bye and good luck to the 160,000,000 who have allowed themselves to be disenfranchised. Think of it – between you lot, a great British public who think it’s a smashing idea to drift away from the nearest significant landmass without having any visible means of sustenance or propulsion, a Brazilian nation led by a Trumpesque sociopath, and a Russian population driven by its own special brand of despotosky, thing’s aren’t looking too rosy, are they?

I’m off to learn Cantonese, I think.

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Autumn in Tirana

It is Halloween and we find ourselves in Albania. But more of that, later.

I have just finished posting a new blog for friend Pete Casey, who is still on his odyssey walking up the Amazon and across the South American continent.

Pete Casey helping construct a new roof. Loreto, Peru

Confronting a blanket lock-down in Peru, and with funds dwindling to almost nothing, he has survived the last six months by living and working with indigenous and local communities in one of the most remote areas of the country. Take a look at the latest blog post here, and if you have any cash lying around, spare a thought for what it might mean for Pete and his five year journey. Lesser mortals would have quit long ago, but Pete is still there – walking, swimming, working, and helping people. On every stage of his journey, he has joined in to help communities either by contributing much-need supplies, or by working with them on building and farming projects. He needs some help now to begin the last leg – the climb from the Amazon Basin to the high Andes and down the other side. A couple of quid or a few dollars from you could make all the difference.

Qumesht 🙂

I am, for my part, half way through the minor odyssey of my latest novel. It has been interrupted a few times, but I finally got round to re-writing the first 20,000 words to change it from third- to first-person, and am happy to be just past the midpoint now, and watching my characters start to take the initiative and finally take up arms against their sea of troubles. My aim is to have it finished by Christmas, although it’s an ambitious concept now that I am holding down a full-time job and trying to learn how to buy qumesht and other basic supplies with some degree of confidence in Albania.

It is delightful to have this view (left) from the living room window, feel the sun on my face, and see the temperature climb into the twenties at this time of year.

Last week we were able to climb into the hills by cable car for a round of crazy golf and a lazy lunch with Brazilian friends Chris and Silvia, and we later climbed on foot to the top of the hills behind us to get a slightly different view, taking in the larger artificial lake and the city of Tirana beyond (right). We are making the most of the freedom and the weather, resigned to the likelihood that at some point we may follow Europe into a second round of lock-downs and other draconian measures.

But now here I am getting side-tracked again, when I must get back to the plot!

Happy Halloween to one and all.

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The night was dry, yet it was raining…

I can’t get back into my writing. My son’s maths exam is in two days, and we’re exploring all the interesting things you can find out by dismembering innocent 3D shapes, and all the boring things you can find out by staring at exponents and exponents of exponents and being forced to determine the smallest prime divisors of a number (snore). On top of this, all his maths is in Portuguese, whereas all mine was in Double Dutch. The translation is not always simple…

Aside from this, we find ourselves on the move again, and our tiny wee studio flat (read ‘bedsit’, or possibly ‘tautology’) is overflowing with boxes and bags. How is a writer supposed to write in this hostile environment? Oh I know – “A writer writes, always.” But then, I am writing – I’m writing this. Hmm. Maybe I can turn this into a book. Maybe someone will pay me money for this… Maybe I can solve all my problems by just writing lots of stuff in no particular order about different things, in between filling suitcases and discovering how to calculate the área do superficie lateral de um cilindro. Yeah…

No, no! I have a story. I have characters – characters that come to life in my head and need my help to patch up their tortured character arcs so they can fulfill their dreams.

My poor cast have barely set out on their journey and are already beset by seemingly insurmountable challenges. What am I thinking? I must get back to them.

Talk l8r.

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Two weeks in the blink of an eye

Work and my son’s maths have invaded my private life and I find I have no time or energy for my writing at the moment… and suddenly two weeks have flown by. That’s okay – work brings us the money to pay the bills, and maths exercises my brain and keeps me close to my son.

Notwithstanding this – and here I must digress to say that I had lots of fun explaining where this word comes from to one of my students, who insisted it must be German, because Germans love stringing lots of words together. In fact, he was not that far off, as I discovered after a lot of poking around (non obstante being far too obvious) – I have completely re-written the first three chapters of The Book (wot I shall call TGU from now on, for reasons that will only be made clear to those who eventually read the story) in first person limited, and next I will re-write them again in third person limited. Having thus rendered it using three different viewpoints, I’ll decide what works best. I cannot quite believe I’m do this, nor that I am enjoying the task, but the feeling has been growing in me that I need to make more effort to put my readers in touch with my characters. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Talking of viewpoint, I bought a science fiction novel mainly because of its supposedly successful treatment of viewpoint changes, or ‘head-hopping’, and have found it – so far – very enjoyable and well-written. Any sci-fi fans should investigate Marko Kloos (click on the book cover). I also read that one story everyone insists one must read as a good example of third person objective viewpoint is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway. So I did – and I have to say I found that one of its best qualities is probably that it’s short. Lessons there, I feel…

The weather here is getting hotter, so it is probably as well to be inside working, but we have been whisked away on two weekends in a row by our Friends Jenny and Marcus – away, to swim in the cool (make that bloody freezing) streams in the mountains surrounding Coimbra. It was so nice, we forgot to take photographs – sorry.

I am on my way out now in this nice weather for a morning cycle along the byways of Aeminium (well that’s what the Romans called Coimbra… and by the way, did you know the city of Lisbon is older than that of Rome?), and across the Mondego. I was inspired to do so in part by Ailish Sinclair’s lovely post Finding Loudon Wood Stone Circle. My ride will not, on the face of it, be of quite the same rustic quality, but it is always good to get out and find some inner peace wherever you can. (Edit – a couple of pics below).

Footbridge over the Mondego, looking east, or upriver…
…and looking west towards the town.

Right – back to work.

Enjoy your week.

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Whose homework is this, anyway?

How many sides does a circle have?

My son is embroiled now in maths as he moves from year 5 to year 6, and we are at the point where things have started getting interesting, at least in the Chinese sense. Hitherto blessedly alien concepts like negative numbers, fractions, and three-dimensional shapes now confront us, while terminology like ‘irrational numbers‘ and ‘absolute value‘ seek to confuse us. Who was the joker who came up with ‘irrational numbers’ anyway? They’re all pretty irrational if you ask my son.

Homework has now become something to test the parents as much as educate the children. When a five year old throws a casual question at you like “why are birds?”, it is easy to smile, deflect, construct… and ultimately to enjoy the delightful conversation that ensues between you and your rapt pupil. Move on six years and the not-so-casual question “what’s a rational number?” becomes a gauntlet slap that leaves you red-faced as you attempt to parry, fall back and attack on foot, create a diversion, and then hide behind a screen as you head for Dr. Google – where you find gems like this:

“… irrational numbers are all the real numbers which are not rational numbers.”

Or this:

“When the ratio of lengths of two line segments is an irrational number, the line segments are also described as being incommensurable, meaning that they share no “measure” in common, that is, there is no length (“the measure”), no matter how short, that could be used to express the lengths of both of the two given segments as integer multiples of itself.”

Glad that’s clear, then.

I started out today determined to finish writing chapter six of The Book, but instead have ended up spending my afternoon explaining why minus four thirds is the same as minus one and two sixths, via brief forays into absolute values and improper fractions. It has been a long, slow, process, not helped by the fact that I never had much use for maths myself, when I was 11. I mean, I sucked big time. Thirds? Sixths? It was all one to me. Now, however – now that it’s of absolutely no use to me at all – now, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions as easy as kiss my hand. On a good day, I can even retain in my head the notion of rational numbers – at least until my first glass of wine.

So in the end, victory was ours, culminating in the grand discovery that from the elements of a given set, the sum of -4/3 and -2 gave us the largest possible absolute value.

Now, why is pi?

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No news is good news

Happiness – image angel1238812 at Pixabay

I am happily ignorant now of a lot of what’s happening out there in the wider world. Gone are those little moments of anger or frustration triggered by hearing what this or that idiot politician has said about something or other. I can’t believe it is a condition that can, or should, last long, but I will enjoy it while I can.

I am now onto chapter 4 of the book, and the (metaphorical) bomb is being dropped on the heroes. It is a scene I took a long time to get to, partly because of worries over viewpoint characters (as yet unresolved, but that’s okay), and partly because of the difficulties of finishing chapter 3. These were not the normal difficulties of angst and anguish about plot or character, nor of fingers not keeping pace with brain – nor any of the other issues I often find getting in my way – but simply because I was enjoying the scene so much I kept adding and changing and reviewing and smiling and adding and changing… Perhaps I’ve ruined it now by changing it from a spontaneous idea to an over-edited splurge, but it’s finished now (at least for the moment).

Back to viewpoint. I still can’t decide who my main viewpoint character(s) is (are) going to be. I initially thought of having my narrator as the only viewpoint character, using 3rd person objective (so no-one gets to see inside the heads of the characters except by seeing their actions), but although I don’t find it too difficult to write (chapters 1 to 3 are written in this viewpoint), I recognise that it takes a very skilled writer to keep the reader with them in this way for a whole book. I decided I’m not that skilled at this point, so I need to see inside some heads… and of course that’s where it all gets problematic for me.

Image: analogicus by Pixabay

However, the purpose of this post is not really to share my own musings, but to document, for anyone interested (or for ‘future me’), where I did my research and where I found the most useful info. So here are some of the most relevant (re)sources I found (not in any particular order).

The first mention goes to Tracy Culleton’s site Fiction Writer’s Mentor and its clearly laid out and simple-but-not-simplistic overview under all the main categories of Point of View (and if you read her novel “Careful What you ask for” you will see some great writing.

Next on my list is Ellen Brock, who has a whole series of videos on Youtube grouped under novel writing advice. I include her here because I love most of the videos, although she is a little light on POV. There is, however, a nice short (3 minute) video on omniscient POV which does give the flavour of the problem of confusing omniscient POV (and the difference between narrator and author) with “third person limited plus head-hopping”, which is itself a wonderfully silly phrase that most readers – as opposed to writers – will not want to know anything about.

After Ms Brock’s dire warnings, I got worried about whether I really did understand the difference between narrator and author and character(s), so I found the site Novel Writing Help. There is a page buried in there on just this problem. While I found it a bit overwritten, the section that clinched it for me was the one headed “How to Bring a 3rd Person Narrative to Life.” Here’s the first bit (but I encourage you to head over to the site and read the rest of it – click the link below the image).

Extract from novel-writing-help.com

Writer’s Digest is always worth a look, too, and in this case has a nice piece written specifically on TPL, or third person limited (which was my choice after reading through the first sources, although it doesn’t help me with which specific character(s)). The page is nicely written by Peter Mountford.

There are lots of other sites out there, but these ones between them resolved most of my dilemmas. However, I would still like to be able to mentally refer to good examples of what I want to achieve while I’m writing, but am having difficulty drawing up a shortlist of books I can instantly call to mind with perfect examples in them. If anyone has any ideas, please don’t be shy…

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From bunk to funk

Henry Ford “..history is more or less bunk.”

Henry Ford said it, and although I don’t necessarily agree with it, I was keen to get my historical opening, er, closed. And I did. Unfortunately, for some reason or other it left me lacking the inspiration for chapter two – and what is effectively another opening chapter. In the end, after wrestling with it for a week, I finally figured out what was causing the problem.

While I was in my funk, I decided it would be a great idea to have a glass of wine and imagine fervently – not to say, hopefully – that I was a reader. It was probably on my third modest glass of Segredos de São Miguel Reserva 2017 that I had something of an epiphany. I had re-read (oh how many times!) the first chapter, and then sat looking at a page of scribbled chapter two notes thinking roughly ‘what do I know, how do I feel, and what do I expect to read now?’ It was probably the combination of this thinking, running more or less in parallel with my writer’s preoccupation with how I had handled viewpoint in the first chapter and how I was going to handle it in the rest of the book, that made me suddenly realise that no matter what I wrote next, my readers would know the whole plot. End of book. Aargh!

“I am your father.”

Momentary panic was followed by a hasty edit of some of the detail in chapter one – I mean, key detail that I, as the writer, knew about the characters and the story, but which the reader did not, could not, should not know. What I had done, I realised, was open my book with the equivalent of “Once upon a time, the evil Sith Lord Darth Vader was sitting on the toilet wondering how his innocent young son had grown up on that lonely little planet with his step-uncle and his step-uncle’s wife?”

After my edit, I read it again… and the right start for the next chapter presented itself immediately. Nothing was given away, endless possibilities stretching ahead on which the reader could ponder if they so wished. Or not, as the case may be.

As I said, it was partly because I was determinedly reading the story as the reader not as the writer, and partly because I was (still am) having a terrible time trying to decide on my viewpoint character(s), that inspiration struck – although I must give at least some credit to the Alentejano too (which, at the normal price of €7 is good, but at the local offer price of €2.49, is essential).

Segredos!

In any case, I am happy now. I am back in my 2021 story world and working hard to kick my characters out of their normal world and confront them with the wonderfully harsh realities of the adventure world (“we’re not in Kansas any more“).

Allow me to get back to it then, and more on viewpoint when I finally figure out how I’m going to do it!

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